Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Five 2015 Games I Enjoyed in 2015 - Opinion

This year in games was really tense for me—the games have been great but I've been desperately shoving everything I've been wanting to play into these last few months. So unlike last year, there's a whole lot of potential contenders that could've been on here if I had a little more time to play them this month rather than next (SOMA, Pillars of Eternity, Her Story, Ori and the Blind Forest, Downwell, Witcher 3... the list goes on). Yet just as with last year's list, know that the order is relatively loose and subject to change, and above all else, that numerical list-making is a largely fatuous pleasantry that shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of opinions. On with the show!

Axiom Verge may be easy to dismiss merely by judging it on face-value (another 8-bit Metroidvania?), but like with my #1 Game I Enjoyed, there's a lot more to it than that. Tom Happ's game revels in its foreign atmosphere, possibly being the best 2D game about an alien world since Super Metroid. Controls are smooth, the weapons are varied, and the locales are both eerie and inviting. Plus, the lab coat is the best power-up I've had the chance to fiddle with all year. It's not too often you get to play something this immaculately designed.

Wowsers! Who would've thought a game about two gal-pals hanging out and dealing with school drama would've been so fascinating? Of course Life is Strange is more than just he-said she-said hearsay—it's more about the nature of friendship and whether or not you can fix mistakes. There's more to the characters than you can glean at first glance and the gentle art style fits the game's highschool hipster theme like a glove. It's an evocative, colorful tale that's a must-play if you have a soft spot for nostalgia, mystery, and regret.

There's a reason the background for my blog comes from The Beginner's Guide—it's a stellar, deep, and ponderous game. It feels uncomfortably personal, like looking back through someone's Facebook posts and analyzing every argument they've had... without any of their consent. Despite its movie-length brevity there's a lot of material presented here that you can mull over, and even if you're not into the haughty intellectual commentary regarding author-player relationships, The Beginner's Guide remains an interesting (and troubling) game about video game development and validation.

There are a handful of franchises that could become yearly sequels that I'd never tire of, and the Souls games definitely fit in this category. While not strictly a Souls game, Miyazaki's indelible touch is nevertheless present in Bloodborne, soaking through its tattered cloth and into the beastly hide that lies below. Its world is bleak and the combat is fierce; there's really nothing more I could want out of this Lovecraftian nightmare (outside of build variety). And out of all the games on this list, Bloodborne is the one that's going to get the most playtime from me—the only reason it's not higher is that the franchise formula isn't entirely fresh, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun to play.

Undertale deserves all the LOVE love it gets. It's a truly remarkable, impactful tale that captures the whimsy of going on a silly adventure and making new friends. But it's not entirely innocent; Undertale asks you just how far you're willing to go to treat its charming characters as lines of code, forcing you to confront your willingness to empathize with something that's not entirely real. It's an extremely funny, sharp game that takes you on a roller coaster of emotions, utilizing some meta-concepts unique solely to gaming. Not only is it my favorite game this year, but it's also the most meaningful game I've played in a long time.


Deus Ex is kinda light-hearted and wacky, but it's pretty entertaining. I spent a lot of time talking about how wild the game is in my blog post (the Illuminati is in it for goodness sake), but I failed to mention just how reinvigorating it was to play an oldschool FPS that doesn't hold your hand and demands that you explore its world thoroughly. There's a multitude of ways to tackle each area and the pace of the game flows nicely from one set-piece to the next, providing plenty of playtime over a variety of different settings. I think it's a far cry from being the best PC game of all time, but it remains fun to play through even today.

Deus Ex obviously deserves a spot for its greatness, but Dracula X also needs to be recognized for being a really excellent Castlevania game. Pit against Rondo of Blood, it's nigh-unanimous that people prefer the original version of the game, but Dracula X remains competent and fun. While Rondo has better paths and sleeker presentation, I actually prefer Dracula X's level design, visuals, and final boss more. It feels more like the true sequel to Castlevania III instead of a strange offshoot of the formula (Super Castlevania IV, Bloodlines), retaining the classic level of punishing difficulty the franchise was known for. Like Dark Souls II, it gets disparaged too often amongst fans; it's likely my favorite fourth generation Castlevania game.

I would have loved to say I didn't finish a bad game this year and have this section turn into a discussion of whether I found Hotline Miami 2, The Evil Within, or Okami more disappointing (they're good!—just disappointing), but Imagine Me takes the cake for being my gameplay nadir. It feels like an early access game most of the time, being unfulfilling and imbalanced, except... ya know, this is the final product. I wouldn't exactly compare it to the travesty that was Fahrenheit (though being able to look back on it, that game is growing on me akin to Wiseau's The Room), but there's still plenty in Imagine Me that makes it contemptible. There's far worse on Steam, but Imagine Me remains a poor game through and through.

In theory, I adore Super Mario Maker. The game gives fans the job of being a level designer, learning the ins and outs of the mechanics and gameplay systems. It's one of those brilliant ideas where you wonder "why didn't they make this sooner?" However, it can be crushing to spend hours pouring over the layout and design of your stage, just to have it receive a 10% clear rating and one star. Even when I set about making more simple and friendly levels, the gate for being able to upload new levels is extremely low for someone with no designated followers, and I burned out on the game when I reached my limit. It's a shame, because I really like making 4-level "world" sets, but Super Mario Maker promotes brief ingenuity over a more classic-play experience. It's a fun game for sure, but unless you have the opportunity to watch someone run through your levels, it can be surprisingly lonesome.

Fallout 4 let me down. The spotty dialogue, general jank, and perforated story came together to create an experience that felt mostly like more Fallout 3. I enjoyed Fallout 3! But when I play the sequel to a 50 hour game, I expect those new 50 hours to offer something different. The addition of settlement building is super cool and the gunplay is worlds better, but there just weren't enough positives to outweigh the negatives. Honestly I walked away from it a bit drained, wondering why I didn't just play Wasteland 2 instead.

Other images obtained from:,,

Monday, December 7, 2015

Deus Ex - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

Every now and then you may hear this sentiment: "I wish I could forget all about [certain piece of media] so I could experience it all over again." In that sense, there's an ironic fortune than one cannot appreciate when touching a revered classic for the very first time. Deus Ex is one of those well-regarded masterpieces that I had played a bit of as a teen, but never completed: the game felt clunky and aimless, while the gunplay was lackluster and getting spotted meant instant-death. I mean sure, having branching power-ups is cool and all, but this was no Half-Life... were my thoughts at the time.

So that's why it was important for me to revisit it in 2015 and go beyond the first few NYC missions; I needed to understand what made Ion Storm's dystopian cyber-future special and why people would give their left arm just to play it all over again with a fresh set of eyes.

Alright, so Deus Ex is goofy. It has a really solid foundation that actively encourages you to play to your skills, meaning that you should pick a few traits and hone those. Whereas in my first playthrough as an adolescent I went into areas with guns blazing, I decided to go for the stealthy takedown approach this time, utilizing the police baton and dart gun. Since I wanted to bring down my foes with melee combat as fast as possible, I focused on upgrading my hand-to-hand training first, and then pumped points into other abilities to help me navigate around the world (lockpicking, electronics, hacking). I tried my best to commit to a non-lethal playstyle, but the game pushed back hard against me—how are you supposed to tranq a cyborg?! So, being a stealth-amateur, I had to abandon my pacifist ways at the ocean base and unleash the might of the Dragon Claw laser sword.

Where the game gets silly is mostly during the spontaneous little moments you don't expect. The first explosive LAM I used destroyed a door and the unconscious body of a guard through a solid wall, thus ending my no-kill run quite early. When you use gas grenades on enemies, any damage you do to them will break them out of their "wiping face" animation cycle and allow them to shoot at you for a split second, before they realize their eyes hurt and return to rubbing. At Versalife I (in plain sight mind you) freed a bum and some dinosaurs from their cages, and while everyone in the entire facility panicked I stole a handful of augmentation enhancements. In Paris I asked a hobo for directions, thinking I had dodged the nearby patrolling guards, but mid-conversation a cyborg ran up to me with his guns primed, forcing me to panic-click through the rest of the dialogue before dying swiftly thereafter. And I shall never forget the glorious duel I had with the game's major antagonist Walton Simons, where I paused the game, activated my augmentations, and... defeated him in a single attack. Whose augs are outdated now?!

Oh, and you end up joining the Illuminati and fighting Roswell-looking aliens (which may or may not be enhanced apes) in Area 51.

And the stun prod animation is hilarious.

This is not to undermine the game's accomplishments—rather, they compliment them. Deus Ex is hailed as a pioneer of player choice, and nothing makes that more evident than when you're brushing up against its systems in a unique way (like with my Versalife experience). And the non-emergent aspects of the game that are comical—like the Chinese & French voice acting—don't necessarily interrupt the flow of gameplay or break the immersion either. The game is wacky at times, but you can still approach it with a serious demeanor and easily get invested in its cyber-conspiracies. It was cool that the story revolved around a world already knee-deep in augmentations, and I thought its portrayal of how the shift to industry left multitudes of the poor behind to rot was brilliant. The dialogue was also great for the gamut of topics that get covered, though occasionally weird in its delivery and brevity.

If there is one thing I can grill the game for, it's that the augmentations are bound to the horrendous function keys. I know this is before the days of weapon wheels and the like, but having to reach for F3 to dampen damage in the heat of battle never worked out in my favor; the amount damage enemies can do to you in this game is pretty insane, so being nimble on your powers is a must. While you can pause and activate your upgrades independently, this slows the gameplay down considerably and makes what should be a central mechanic to the game a chore. On the flipside, I did enjoy how useful these powers were and that the game forces you to choose between two distinct abilities for each body part.

Something else that surprised me was that the game isn't as open as I thought it was—there's only about 2-3 "routes" for each area. It's not really a grievance per se, but I didn't have the inclination to try and run through the game with a different "build" when I finished, especially since I thoroughly explored every map during my playthrough. Thankfully, the staggering amount of missions and places you'll visit provide a great sense of variation, and even as a linearly-crafted story, it remains thoroughly engaging all the way to the end. My favorite moment was in the chapel, where I read about Gunther crying all alone in the basement and festering in his anger towards me for the murder of Agent Navarre (it was self-defense!)—I actually pitied the poor lug. I mean I still wound up killing him (it was self-defense!), but it served as an effective, emotional story beat that made me detest MJ12 that much more.

While debating philosophy with the bartender you see in the screen above, I came upon the realization that Deus Ex really was doing something really unique at the time. What I failed to appreciate as a teenager wasn't just how robust and customizable the mechanics were, but how adventurous the game's spirit was. Nowadays it's easy to get spoiled by the saturation of RPG systems in FPSs and stories about government conspiracies centered on technological advancement, but it was a novel combination back in 2000 before the likes of Morrowind or Metal Gear Solid 2 were known. In that sense, that's why the droll moments of the game only add to its charm and luster—few other games were brave enough to attempt something as wild as this. And not only did Deus Ex pull it off, but its legacy can still be appreciated (and enjoyed!) by today's standards as well.

... So now with the original under my belt, Invisible War has to naturally follow, right?