2015 Roundup

I wanted to take some time to write about a few games I played this year that I have lots of feelings about. I’ve never liked having to arbitrarily assign numbers to these, so the games below aren’t presented in any particular order. Everything on the list below is based entirely on how much fun I had playing the games. Here goes…

Favorite Games (in no particular order)

 

The Talos Principle

So The Talos Principle came out on December 11th of 2014, and I didn’t get around to playing it until late into 2015, and I have no idea why. At a very basic level, The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game that incorporates the environments in the puzzles and solutions. As you get further into the game new puzzle elements are introduced, from the relatively simple fan that can launch you into the air or hold blocks in mid-air, to the mind bending playback tool, that allows you to record your actions and play them back, interacting with your recorded self in order to progress in a puzzle. While this game isn’t perfect, and certainly not as universally accessible as something like Super Mario Maker, solving some of the more devious puzzles in this game has been some of the most satisfying gameplay I’ve had all year long.

Sidenote: While the base game came out in December of 2014, there was some DLC released in the form of Road to Gehenna, which I have not yet played.


Infinifactory

Infinifactory is a hell of a thing. Quite unlike any game that I’ve ever played before, it’s a first-person puzzle game where the object of each level is to construct a functioning assembly line. You’re given raw materials and an end goal, and you’ve got to build a factory that brings these pieces together at a designated location. On paper it sounds simple, but the game requires an element of spacial awareness that no other game in recent memory (apart from The Talos Principle) has explored. The game begins simply enough, stacking and welding pieces together, but each chapter unlocks new toys to play with and introduces a new element of madness into the works. Getting your setup just right, and finally being able to sit back and watch your factory churn out exactly what it needs after tinkering away for what feels like hours is satisfying and rewarding in a way that is inexpressible except by a scream of delight.


Her Story

And now for something completely different… I’ve always been partial to FMV as a medium for storytelling in video games and I’m delighted to see that there are still some making FMV games in 2015. On the surface the game doesn’t seem to be anything special. You have access to a police database of recorded interview with Hannah Smith, who is being questioned regarding the murder of her husband. While there isn’t any direct line of progression in the game, everyone will hit a certain point at which the real mystery behind the interviews comes into light. This point may take some people longer to get to than others, but once I realized that there’s something more going on, I was hooked and playing out the rest of the game was a wild ride. Acting in an FMV is so important, and Her Story nails it, and it goes a long way to making the story feel real.


Undertale

Undertale is something special, and something that I think caught everyone off-guard this year. To me it’s an experience more than anything else, and something that can’t be conveyed except by playing it first-hand. The characters are incredible, the humor clicked perfectly with me, the “combat” keeps the game feeling new and exciting between the zones, the variety of enemy is astounding, and the story is a wild ride through the strangest places. The entire game is about the subversion of expectations, turning tropes on their heads, bashing through the fourth wall, and continuing on to reveal the grim darkness lurking underneath the innocent cutesy surface.

For all of the amazing things that Undertale does, it’s sad to see so many people put off because of a slow start. The game certainly doesn’t put it’s best foot forward, and I can understand the difficulty some would have pushing through the tutorial and into the exciting bits, and that really sucks. If somehow you’re reading this and still haven’t played Undertale, please do give it a chance!


Hand of Fate

Of all the games on this list, Hand of Fate is one that I’ve probably spent the least amount of time with, but I wanted to mention it simply because of how excited it made me. If I had to pick a single word to describe what I love about Hand of Fate, it’d be “atmosphere”. From the very beginning of the game, you’re introduced to the mysterious dealer, a dungeon master of sorts, who guides you through the game. While the dealer goes easy on you at first, you quickly find that he has no interest in being friends. The commentary by the dealer drew me into Hand of Fate more than I would have expected from a small indie title, and I found myself hooked after my first round.

The game plays like an old choose your own adventure book, brought to life by the dealer. Nearly everything in the game is represented by a card, be it an adventure, a piece of equipment, or monster, or any number of other things good or bad that may befall you. You move across a board of face-down adventure cards, flipping them over as you pass to reveal a story. You could encounter a band of travelling minstrels, come upon a den of monsters, or bump into a goblin in a pub. The dealer doesn’t read the text of the various adventure cards for you, but will comment on the situations and and the outcomes of your decisions, mocking you at times, or suggesting that he’s going easy on you. This makes you feel like you’re not just playing against the computer, but that you’re facing off against the stranger on the other side of the table, fighting against an enemy that would dearly love to see you fail.

Combat moves you from the board of cards into a Batman-style third person brawler, which seems like an odd transition to make, but it works. There ins’t a ton of depth to the combat, although there are some rare weapons and artifacts that grant you special abilities that make it more than a straightforward dodge and counterattack affair. While it isn’t anything impressive, it doesn’t detract from the overall feel of the game. The variety of enemies you encounter is nice and they all have combat abilities that you’d expect. The four basic enemy types are: Bandits, Skeletons, Ratmen, and Lizardmen, each represented in card form by a suit (Dust, Skulls, Plague, and Scales respectively).

Part of the beauty of the game is in now it tell stories. There are several of the adventure cards that are simply one-off events, but there are other adventure cards with tokens on them that indicate a new card can be unlocked upon a successful outcome. In one adventure, you meet a man serenading a woman in a window and learn that the woman’s father is forcing them apart. If you choose to help the two lovers escape the town, you earn the card’s token. This unlocks an adventure where you run into the woman’s father, a wealthy guild master, from whom you can attempt to steal. Successfully stealing from the guild master unlocks a third adventure, where you meet the man you helped escape town. You find him lonely and reeking of ale, having been ditched by the woman he escaped with. At the end of all of this, giving the man a few pieces of gold to play you a song wins you the card’s token, giving you a powerful shield to add to your deck.

I’d love to go on explaining the game more in-depth, but this section is already about four times as long as I was expecting it to be. There are so many things going on in this game that it’s difficult to be concise, but there’s just something about it that has to be experienced first-hand. Hand of Fate is something that fascinated me from the very beginning, and always seems to have new and interesting secrets for me to find every time I play.


Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

This one is going to be hard. I loved the first Hotline Miami. Steam shows I have 28 hours played, with 100% of the achievements earned. I fucking love Hotline Miami. It’s always been hard for me to explain exactly why that is, though. It’s got an amazing soundtrack and a visual aesthetic that I really dig. I love the twitch action, the split-second decision making, and the precision required to deal with some of the trickier sections in the game. I love the ultra-violence. The controls are so solid that I feel totally in control of my character. The story in the first game wasn’t anything that I took much notice of, even as I replayed the game, collecting secrets to unlock the true ending. It never seemed like anything impactful on the game, more an excuse rather than a reason. Maybe if I took the time to understand it a bit more, I’d be able to appreciate the story, but here we are.

Going into Hotline Miami 2, I was pumped. All I wanted was to go on another bloodsoaked neon killing spree.  I knew that Hotline Miami 2 was focusing more on the story, trying to fill in some gaps and wrap things up nicely, but even from the beginning of the game I have to admit I took little notice of it. I played through story mode for the first time in two sittings, clocking in at around 10 hours, if I recall correctly. For the most part, the sequel stayed true to the original, and I wasn’t disappointed with some of the things it did differently. The levels where you played as a soldier, fighting through the jungles of Hawaii were the furthest departure from the game, and yet they still felt very rooted in the things that made the first game great.

Because this game is a sequel, it had a baseline of difficulty to work from. I’ve seen most people who review this game say that the difficulty of the sequel picks up roughly where the first one leaves off, and I tend to agree with that sentiment. Hotline Miami 2 pushes the difficulty up even further, using the new mask system to present challenges to you that weren’t possible in the first game. In the first game, you were usually able to get by in a level without thinking too critically about your actions, but playing some of the later levels in 2 force you to understand the AI and manipulate them in order to succeed. One of my favorite aspects of Hotline Miami has always been manipulation of the AI. Understanding how enemies would react to certain situations and being able to play that was integral to finishing a level with a high score.

All of the skills you pick up along the way are put to the ultimate test when you unlock Hard Mode after beating the normal story mode. This is the mode of Hotline Miami that I was craving all those years ago after I beat the original game. Maps are flipped horizontally, max ammo in each gun is reduced by half, and throwing a gun causes it to lose half of its ammo. Playing through the hard mode in Hotline Miami 2 is some of the most satisfying difficult I’ve experienced in a game, and it’s exactly what I wanted out of the sequel to one of my favorites games of all time.


Super Mario Maker

I’ve spent the majority of my time with Super Mario Maker in the level editor, and it’s where I’ve found the most enjoyment. Mario is such a universal language that the level editor just makes sense on a kind of primal level. You almost immediately understand the basics, and with a bit of tinkering you’re able to uncover the more advanced features. Even with something so simple as Mario, given pieces that you’ve played with for years and years, you’re able to interact with them in a way that you’ve never seen before. New combinations are being discovered every day and leading to gameplay never before see in a Mario game. While it might seems like the majority of user created levels are either garbage or some sort of auto-scroller, all the parts are there to make some incredible things, and as time goes on people will keep finding new ways to stretch the limits of the language of Mario. The continued support from Nintendo has been a huge help to the game as well, added much needed features like checkpoints in a recent patch. While some curation tools would be nice, the game still has a lot to offer if you’re willing to do a bit of digging to find those crazy levels.


Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is a tricky beast to tackle. As of writing this I’ve put 48 hours into the PC version of the game, with one storyline completed (The Institute), and progress made towards the Minutemen and Brotherhood of Steel endings. Without embarking upon a long and winding road assessing the state of the industry, I’ll simply say that Fallout 4, for better or worse, is more of the same. I enjoyed my time in the wasteland, exploring the ruins of post-apocalyptic Boston, and meeting the people who make up the Commonwealth but I found myself almost immediately disinterested in the story of the game, only continuing with the main storyline quests as a means of moving forward, not caring about the outcome of my actions. Fallout 4 wasn’t “great”, and I’d go as far as to say that it wasn’t even “pretty good”. It was OK. It did some cool things with the lineup of partners available to you, but for all of the new things it introduced to the series, there were glaring issues left unaddressed. I wish I could say that I was surprised by this, but at the end of the day I’m just not. The game is still a janky mess, which at this point is nothing less than what I’ve come to expect from Bethesda. Fallout 4 is more Fallout content to be consumed, but by no means does it advance the series in a meaningful way. I was able to enjoy myself because I set out to create my own fun, but I hope dearly that future iterations in the series take larger steps towards something more than just another sequel.


Kerbal Space Program

I wasn’t initially planning on saying anything about KSP, but I kinda feel like I have to. I’m not good at this game, and I don’t think that I ever will be, and that’s fine. I currently have 8 hours recorded on Steam with this game, and I doubt that in 2016 I’ll put many more in, and that’s fine too. I’m just happy that Kerbal Space Program is a game that exists, and is so good at what it does that it seems to me as impenetrable to me as Dwarf Fortress once was. Dwarf Fortress was something that immediately clicked with me, and I felt like I had to learn how to play it, but KSP never evoked that feeling from me. KSP just isn’t a game for me, but I’m still so happy that it’s out there because I know that there are people who love playing this game in the same crazy way that I love playing Dwarf Fortress, and that’s awesome.


For the games below, I’ve purchased and played them for at least a little while, but for whatever reason never continued far past the beginning. Here’s my list of games I’ll hopefully get back to in 2016

2016 To-Do List (ordered by title length)

  • Dropsy
  • Swindle
  • Downwell
  • Not a Hero
  • Sunless Sea
  • Neon Struct
  • Rocket League
  • Darkest Dungeon
  • Kerbal Space Program
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer
  • Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Things I haven’t gotten around to playing:

  • The Witcher 3
  • Just Cause 3
  • Assassins Creed: Whatever
  • SOMA
  • Ori and the Blind Forest
  • Metal Gear Solid V
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider