Thursday, January 6, 2022

Year in Review 2021 - Games

Click here to view Year in Review 2021 - Movies

2021 was a solid year for movies, but what about games? This year I replayed a lot of games, including the three Game Boy Advance Castlevanias (my first time playing them on a TV instead of an unlighted GBA; being able to see the graphics so much clearer was amazing) and half of the Souls series (and I finally finished Sekiro after being stuck on the final boss for ages). For new games, I tried out the Atelier series for the first time, starting with Atelier Ryza, and was pleasantly impressed. On that note, let's look at my top ten!

Top Ten Games of 2021

 

Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy - Whether it's action movies or video games, I'm tired of "We've got to stop the bad guy from blowing up the world" plots. Atelier Ryza goes in a completely different direction, with its threats local and its focus on uncovering the past and becoming better people by recognizing the sins of our ancestors. 

The first Ryza game is a coming of age story with a climate change backdrop and the second focuses on drifting around trying to find your place in the world once your friends have graduated and moved on to new jobs/lives. The biggest shock to me is that it's a series focused on gather items and brewing potions that's actually fun! Both the RPG fighting and the alchemy scenes are more refined this time around, which makes sense as our heroes have grown smarter and stronger in the years between these two stories.

The atmosphere is so laid back and delightful, even when covering serious topics, that Ryza's world is just an incredibly comfortable place to live in. 


Chicory: A Colorful Tale - A combination Zelda-style adventure and paint program, players color their black and white world to complete puzzles, fight enemies, and bounce from platform to platform. It's a game that celebrates creativity and it's genuinely funny, whether you're laughing at the jokes or your own miserably messy attempts to paint portraits. There's the expected plot about depression, but the far more interesting aspect of the story is a movement to take ownership of art away from the elite and give its power to all people.



Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights - This is a Castlevania-type game that never wastes the player's time: Huge respect for giving players a double jump in the first 10 minutes instead of holding it back. Travel is easy, figuring out where to go next is simple even with all of the possible branches, and combat is challenging without being punishing. The entire game, from story to music, has a fairytale/lullaby mood, and players move from feeling defenseless to empowered as they take control of their world. Ender Lilies is the best indie Castlevania-type I've played in a long time!

Life is Strange 3 - The fourth Life is Strange installment is called Life is Strange 3 and it moves from episodic releases to a single, long form story focused on a character who has the ability to observe, manipulate, and absorb the emotions of others. This story could easily be written as a horror tale, but instead follows a troubled but genuinely good person who just wants to live a normal life. Smaller than the road-trip story of Life is Strange 2, #3 is set entirely in and around a small mountain town that players get to know intimately. I've got a ton of respect for this series focusing not only on different characters but on entirely different story structures each time, and #3 is a mature refinement of the series' signatures.

 


Lost Judgment - The second installment of Sega's Yakuza spinoff, Lost Judgment is a refinement of the first game's combat and world exploration. While Yakuza moved from its classic brawling gameplay to turn-based mechanics in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the Judgment series continues where the series tradition of solving mysteries and making friends by actively punching people in the brain.

This time, detective Takayuki Yagami goes undercover as a teacher at a local high school in order to make sense of an extremely convoluted series of crimes. When he's not playing detective or lawyer, Yagami gets to teach kids how to dance, build robots, and play Virtua Fighter. Some of these minigames are great, others (the motorcycle races) are exhausting, but overall it's a great time even if the story isn't quite as impactful as the previous game's.


Metroid Dread - Nintendo's long-awaited follow-up to 2002's Metroid Fusion, Dread is an incredible experience that shows why this series is still so special even after decades of tributes, imitators, and knockoffs. The map feels large but straightforward, exploration feels organic, and, most importantly in an action game, movement feels wonderful. It's the most challenging game Nintendo's released in ages, but you usually restart very close to where you failed so every loss feels like a learning experience instead of a punishment. It's on the shorter side compared to some games in the genre, but I'm fine with that; I immediately wanted to replay a second time once I finished it.


Nier: Replicant - A remake of 2010's Nier, made in the wake of the popularity of its 2017 sequel Nier: Automata. While Automata struck a chord with audiences worldwide, its character left me feeling cold, with a story more focused on the greater world rather than individuals. While there's nothing wrong with that, I always preferred the character-focused original, and this remake just reinforced how much I love these characters. The art is updated, combat is refined and there's an additional (excellent) ending, but everything that made the original Nier so special to me is still here, just as great as ever.

Persona 5 Strikers - An excellent sequel and a very fun brawler, Persona 5 Strikers is a nice, relaxing summer vacation mystery. This is one that you can't really follow without playing Persona 5 first, but for those who have, it feels great to return to its world and characters in a more low-key story where the cast gets to party and solve mysteries on a road trip across Japan. I enjoyed the turn-based combat of Persona 5, but had even more fun with the massive brawls in Strikers. More so than the previous game, the cast of Strikers feels like a genuine group of friends and in a year where everyone was locked down, a virtual vacation helped make things a little less dreary.

Resident Evil 8: Village - Which genre of horror is this one? All of them. It rules. Funny, spooky, great atmosphere. The first-person exploration of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard returns, but with more emphasis on combat and a campier cast of villains that feels more like the wonderful weirdos of Resident Evil 4. You fight werewolves, gillmen, borgs, vampires, Transformers, and a very tall lady. Similar to the underappreciated The Evil Within, the experience here is reminiscent of a real nightmare that shifts often and violently, defying logic and reality at every turn. It's hard to pull this sort of thing off, but Village does so spectacularly. 

Returnal - The best sound design of the year, this is a game that I'm very happy I played with decent headphones. A timeloop robot-alien adventure with randomly shifting arenas, Returnal has some of the best feeling action of the year, and is my favorite shooter since Doom 2016. The random shuffling of rooms and items isn't the most interesting (the game would honestly work better as a singularly designed world) but movement and fighting is so spectacular that I was able to overlook that. Some of the year's best boss fights! This is a classic arcade experience combined with modern, cinematic game design philosophy.

Honorable Mentions

 

Actraiser Renaissance - A surprise remake of Quintet's 1990 SNES classic, Actraiser Renaissance takes the platforming/city-building hybrid cult classic and refines its combat, adds a new, almost claymation visual style, remixed music (the original is here as an option), an entirely new zone, and a tower-defense/real time strategy element. The original is one of my favorite 16-bit titles and the remake is an absolute great time as long as you aren't interested in 100%ing it. If you are: Prepare for a grind. Don't do that to yourself!

Deathloop - Another sci-fi timeloop shooter, Deathloop feels completely different from Returnal, with its focus on learning patterns and solving puzzles within the same repeating areas time after time. It's more linear than it first appears, but figuring out everything that makes Deathloop tick is extremely satisfying. There's a lot of style here and a cool world design, but then it just ends abruptly with what can barely be called an ending.

Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth - Another excellent Castlevania-type action game, this one is based on a classic anime that I watched in the 90's and remember next to nothing about. That's fine; the story isn't important here at all. Combat focuses on hitting elemental weaknesses and quickly switching between Fire and Wind modes to negate damage, giving this game's combat a unique feel from the dozens of similar games released each year. Its pixel art is also top-notch.

Super Mario 3D World & Bowser's Fury - A minor update of Nintendo's 2013 Super Mario 3D World, one of my all-time favorite Mario titles, packaged together with Bowser's Fury, a brand new, open world Mario adventure. Two very different Mario games, both are a ton of fun, but I am a little surprised to see the amount of slowdown and performance issues that pop up in Bowser's Fury. Still, it's worth it to see a Godzilla fight between a giant Bowser and a gigantic kaiju Cat Mario.

Tales of Arise - The latest installment in the long-running Tales series, Arise follows a group of rebels fighting against space fascism, only unlike Star Wars it's the rebel leader that gets to wear the cool mask. Combat is fun (but can get a little hard to follow at times), the world looks great, and the story is genuinely compelling, but it loses a lot of steam towards the end, when the game's open structure becomes a series of hallways and extremely long exposition scenes. Still, at least 75% of the game is excellent, and there are lots of goofy owl buddies to collect.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Year in Review 2021 - Movies

 


 Click here to view Year in Review 2021 - Games

This year I'm doing things a little differently, focusing on my top ten movies and games (plus honorable mentions) rather than summarizing everything I watched and played. I watched a total of 100 movies this year, 50 of them new releases, and still didn't see everything I wanted to! That's an all-time record for me in yet another deeply weird year spent mostly at home. Work continues steadily on Walthros: Renewal, which I'm hoping to release later this year, and we adopted a second cat!

Sammy the Seal

Let's start things with my movie picks! I watched a lot of horror this year, both old and new, obscure and mainstream; I rewatched all of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies and then went on a deep dive into folk horror on the basis of recommendations in the excellent documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. Of my top ten new films this year, seven out of ten were horror with six more filling out my Honorable Mentions section! It was, to say the least, a very spooky year.

Top Ten Films of 2021


Candyman (Nia DaCosta) - I like stories about the intersection of fiction and reality and this movie answers the question, "What if Velvet Buzzsaw was actually good?" This is a great sequel to the 1992 original of the same name that both recontextualizes the original story and stands on its own as something new, with its most powerful moments being the fantastic finale. It's rare for a horror movie to have a great ending, let alone have the ending actually be the best part! The atmosphere throughout is great, but it's the shadow puppetry that absolutely steals the show.


 
Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond) - Another one that blurs the line of reality and fiction, Censor is my favorite horror film of 2021. Niamh Algar's lead role as Enid Baines is one of my favorite performances of the year; watching her world slowly unravel and mutate into a cinematic nightmare is both unnerving and compelling, a loss of self-identity that's easily relatable even as it crosses into horrifying. 


Come True (Anthony Scott Burns) - This is a movie that really made me miss theaters. An incredibly effective mood piece about dreams with outstanding art design in its nightmare realm, I'd have loved to see this in a dark room just completely consumed by its sights and sounds. The ending is a bit iffy, but otherwise this is a film with an incredible sense of unease throughout every scene.


 
Encanto (Byron Howard, Jared Bush) - Encanto includes some of my favorite things: Capybaras, tapirs, and exploration of generational traumas. Disney musicals still stand out way, way ahead in quality over anything else the company makes. Gorgeous color with some nicely surreal sets and a fantastic soundtrack! Features Diane Guerrero in a "super powered misfits living in isolation trying to overcome an overbearing parent figure" story with a living house and a desperate need to break hetero-normative expectations so it's basically a PG version of Doom Patrol.



The Green Knight (David Lowery) - One of the few movies I actually did see in a theater this year (with a grand total of four people present) and I'm thankful I did; this is a moody audio-visual masterpiece from the director of A Ghost Story, one of my all-time favorites. It's a spooky, funny, and appropriately weird adaptation of a 14th century story that never feels dry or dated. In spite of its distance in time and setting from modern life, The Green Knight's themes of guilt and responsibility feel absolutely relevant today.


Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright) - The perfect film for anyone who's ever walked by a mirror and thought, "I really wish Anya Taylor-Joy was on the other side." I loved the fashion, the music, every bit of colorful lighting, and the sheer drunkenness of the film's atmosphere. Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomson McKenzie are both fantastic and I'm always a sucker for Psychic Trauma Lives On In A House stories.


The Paper Tigers (Daniel L.K. Caldwell) - I love stories that walk the line between genuine drama and abrupt silliness and this one balances that perfectly. It's sweet, moving, funny, and has really solid fight choreography. Our bumbling, past-their-prime heroes do their best and are all fleshed out, human characters, never just the butt of the joke. 


Pig (Michael Sarnoski) - What could have been a revenge story is instead a quiet meditation on grief, mortality, and remembrance. Robin (Nicholas Cage in my favorite performance of the year) is both subdued and powerful as a reclusive gatherer whose companion hog has been stolen and the time we spend with the pig itself is delightful; anyone can appreciate a pet like this. 

We follow Robin on an odyssey through Portland, seeing the hopes, pains, and dreams of the people he encounters as he moves from the wilderness through the underworld and into the light of truth. It's a celebration of cooking as an expression of the soul while simultaneously condemning the artifice of Fine Dining.

Robin possesses a perfect memory, a gift that both brings comfort and pain; he can open the hearts of those who suffer, but at the same time cannot move beyond his own loss. Sad but compassionate, this is a film that asks its audience to see and respect the pain of those around them, rather than box everyone into cartoonish "good guy, bad guy" columns.



Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell) - An incredibly grounded horror/revenge movie driven by a remarkable performance by Carrie Mulligan, this is Fennell's directorial debut and I can't wait to see what she does next! A crushing condemnation of a society and legal system that looks the other way when the accused is too big to fail. The revenge scenes are uncomfortably satisfying and the finale is both triumphant and tragic.



Saint Maud (Rose Glass) - A slow-burn Satanic Catholic-guilt psycho drama looking at the thin border between life and death, epiphany and delusion, love and hate; Morfydd Clark is a fantastic lead and this movie felt 100% designed to give me, personally, an absolute deepest dread. Obligation, trauma, and regret are bundled together into an existential timebomb that there's no good way to diffuse.

Honorable Mentions

Bloodthirsty (Amelia Moses) - A gothic-musical-horror film with werewolfism as a metaphor for both primal creativity and repressed trauma, following a singer-songwriter invited to the manor of a literally predatory record producer. Gets campy and weird and the music rules. Absolutely made for me.


 
The Columnist (Ivo van Aart) - A satisfying revenge-horror film about manners, free speech, and online weirdos, The Columnist/De Kuthoer plays well paired with Promising Young Woman. This one leans further into the comedy side of horror-comedy, but the absurdities of the online world it presents are sadly completely true to life.


Detention (John Hsu) - There sure are a lot of movies and TV shows with this title! I'm not well-versed with the historical setting (Taiwan under martial law in the 60's) but the paranoid hopelessness is certainly universal. I always like movies where dreams are just as real and important as the waking world. The desperate need for any kind of comfort leading you into a nightmare world where even your dreams aren't a safe place to be is always powerful horror. I didn't know this was based on an indie game but that's pretty cool!


The Feast (Lee Haven Jones) - A Witch vs. Rich movie about nature bringing vengeance on people spoiling the earth for their own material gain. A combination of Parasite and Under the Skin if that's a selling point for you (it was for me)!


Lapsis (Noah Hutton) - An incredibly real look at automation and the exploitative nature of the Gig Economy told through the eyes of a grumpy, ordinary dude just trying to pay his brother's medical bills. Noah Hutton creates an incredibly natural scifi world just barely ahead of our own, and Lapsis Beeftech has got to be the best character name in ages.


The Matrix: Resurrections (Lana Wachowski) - This is the only one of the four Matrix movies where I really bought into the love story, which is the core of the film this time around. It also goes so much further into issues of fluid identity than the rest of the series, it's indulgent and over the top and great! Much funnier than expected too. I'm always up for both writing and watching self-referential art about art where life and fiction collide. Yeah, New Nightmare is one of my favorite horror movies, of course I liked this Matrix.


The Night House (David Bruckner) - A quiet horror film about trying to find something, anything, that can explain the unexplainable as a woman tries to find a way to make sense of her husband's suicide while surviving her own nightmares. Rebecca Hall is excellent, as always, and her supporting cast shows more warmth than usual for the genre.


The Power (Corinna Faith) - One of those great double meaning titles, here talking about both electricity and patriarchal power. A classical Ghosts n' Trauma film that evolves into a modern feminist revenge story that goes beyond a story of conquering fear as our heroine learns to weaponize that fear. Fantastic atmosphere and an excellent performance by Rose Williams. Another horror film with a great ending!

 


Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts) - The best of the Marvel Studios Spider-Man films, a series I've otherwise been very lukewarm on. Tom Holland finally gets to show some real range, the Tony Stark and SHIELD stuff I hated in the other two movies is reduced to almost nothing, and we're given a reminder of how good the previous two Spider-Man film series were (Yes, I like Spider-Man 3, yes, I like both of the Amazing Spider-Men.) While it hits a lot of similar themes, it's no Into The Spider-Verse, but it stands above anything else Marvel has released.


Zack Snyder's Justice League (Zack Snyder) -  A really fun movie on its own plus a damning look at studio meddling, Zack Snyder's director's cut of Justice League is immeasurably better than Joss Whedon's ghastly 2017 reshoot. Ray Fisher's Cyborg/Vic Stone, reduced to a supporting cameo in the theatrical film, is a centerpiece of Snyder's version and the lost heart of the film. There are some missteps (The Martian Manhunter scenes derail some emotional impact and I will never care about a "Bad Guy Needs X Doodads to Win" plot) but otherwise this is far better than the average comic book film and an excellent sequel to the unfairly misjudged Batman v. Superman.




Thursday, July 1, 2021

Mid Year Favorites 2021

 

First half of the year's up, here's my favorite things of the year so far! Expect a more in-depth write up on each of these at the end of the year.

Games:

Persona 5 Strikers - Excellent sequel and a very fun brawler, a nice relaxing summer vacation mystery.

Later Alligator (Switch Version) - Cute, funny, nice minigames, great writing.

Nier Replicant - A remake of one of my all-time favorites, now with better fightin' and a great new ending.

Resident Evil Village - What genre of horror is this one? All of them. It rules. Funny, spooky, great atmosphere.

Movies:

Promising Young Woman - An incredibly grounded horror/revenge movie driven by a remarkable performance by Carrie Mulligan

Come True - An incredibly effective mood piece about dreams with outstanding art design in its nightmare realm.

The Paper Tigers - I love stories that walk the line between genuine drama and abrupt silliness and this one balances that perfectly. It's sweet, moving, funny, and has really solid fight scenes.

Lapsis - A look at automation and the exploitative nature of the Gig Economy told through the eyes of a grumpy, ordinary dude just trying to pay his brother's medical bills.

Zack Snyder Justice League - A really fun movie on its own plus a damning look at studio meddling.

Music:

Marina - Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land - A refinement of and iteration on everything that came before, Marina's 5th album is her best work to date and probably my favorite new album of the last decade.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Persona 5 Strikers (PS4, 2021)

In the interest of getting myself back into writing reviews, here's a mini review of Persona 5 Strikers! I hope to be writing more of these in the future, but it's tough to balance free time between my day job, my game development work, and parenting. Let's see how it goes!

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A direct sequel to 2016's Persona 5 with a completely different style of game play, Strikers moves from turn-based RPG to brawler. Just as stylish as before, but with a more empathetic story and stronger writing; there's less cartoonish villainy here, and more exploration of how unconfronted trauma can cause us to lash out in unhealthy ways. The previous title's themes of "those in power abuse their power" is still present, but we're asked to understand what makes people this way, even if we are not asked to forgive them.

There's also an examination of toxic fandom, which is the first time I've seen it discussed in a mainstream game. Online radicalization, unhealthy levels of projection, and the rejection of people that don't share your passion are major themes here from start to finish. There are also shades of gray here; one of the game's most interesting supporting characters uses fandom to escape from her own trauma in a way that's completely sympathetic. 

Similarly, the game's look at police and police culture is realistically cynical; one of our new cast members is a police officer who directly tells the rest of the crew that it's a thankless job that grinds the goodness out of anyone with pure intentions. He got into the job to make a difference, but can't stand to look at himself in the mirror, acknowledging that the system is rotten from within and needs a dramatic overhaul.

 

When you're not fighting off trauma monsters and brainwashed projections, Strikers is surprisingly light and comfortable. It's a road trip story with a group of friends touring Japan and eating everything they can, one last big summer excursion before everyone goes their separate ways. Funny enough, following more than a year of Covid isolation, THIS is the fantasy element I desire more than the larger super heroics. A month on the road with buddies, checking out restaurants and landmarks, sounds divine. The social dynamics are far simpler than Persona 5's, but the character interactions are lovely.

This is a much smaller game in both scope and length compared to Persona 5, but it works perfectly as a summer memories side story. The combat's fine, the boss fights are fun, and the dungeon layouts are pretty straightforward, making it a breezy game to play through vs. the marathon that makes up the previous title.

My only big criticism is that too many of the dialogue choices you're given are practically identical; being able to choose between "Yes," "For sure," and "You got it" isn't interesting. I don't expect large, branching dialogue choices, but it's fun being able to shift the tone of a conversation when you get a good one. When given the right opportunities, I picked the "Be a complete dummy and give away your secret identities" options every time. I also meowed.



Friday, January 8, 2021

Year in Review 2020: Games

 

2020 was a great year for games big and small! In some ways, this was the year of the remakes of all sorts: A visual overhaul of Demon's Souls, a story-faithful remake of Resident Evil 3 with modern gameplay, and a radical, excellent reinvisioning of Final Fantasy 7 among others. It was also a year of wonderful indie games, including the latest from the always excellent Supergiant Games. We also saw the release of two new consoles from Sony and Microsoft; I was happy to pick up a PS5 to replace my PS4, which had been struggling to run for the last year and a half. It's great seeing my existing games run smoother and with way shorter load times, and the new controller feels wonderful in the tech demo pack-in title Astro's Playroom

In my own gaming world, I released a demo version of my upcoming RPG Walthros: Renewal, available on Steam and Itch.io. Please take a look and let me know what you think! The final version is planned for an early 2022 release.

Here's a look at everything I played this year, arranged in tiers in alphabetical order.

Top Tier - My five favorite games of the year:

 

13 Sentinels (PS4) - One of my biggest surprises of the year, 13 Sentinels is a story-driven title that asks, "What if every kind of sci-fi premise happened simultaneously?" And, shockingly, it works! Divided between light exploration scenes focused on dialogue and a strategic overhead war game, 13 Sentinels follows a large ensemble cast whose stories are told across short chapters that unfold in a nonlinear fashion. It's a complex story told with impressive clarity, and as crazy as the constant plot twists can seem, they all serve the growth of our heroes and villains. It's a coming of age story, an exploration of gender norms, a look at the trauma of war, and a study of how we correct the sins of our ancestors.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake (PS4) - One of the medium's most ambitious remakes, Final Fantasy 7 Remake abandons the original 1997 version's turn-based combat in favor of a phenomenally fun action system. It also makes dramatic changes to the original story, fleshing out side characters and expanding the early sections of the original game into a full-length title. I was worried that a remake would lose the original's oddball sense of humor, minigames, and surprises, but this new version hit all the right notes. It keeps the best parts of the original FF7's tone while making some really ambitious changes to the story. While the entire story of FF7 isn't told here (it will be continued in an upcoming sequel,) this remake nonetheless feels very complete and ends on a satisfying note.

Hades (Nintendo Switch) - I've loved everything Supergiant Games has released, but I'm not a fan of roguelikes. I wasn't very excited when I first heard about Hades, but they pulled off the impossible and made one that I not only enjoyed, but actually consider one of the year's best games. What makes Hades different is the way fighting, dying, and trying again complements the plot so well. You play as Zagreus, son of the underworld god Hades, as he tries repeatedly to escape from his father's domain. Each attempt adds more to the story and its characters, unlocking new options, conversations, and abilities regularly. A successful run is fairly short (by the end I was usually completing a run in around 30 minutes of game time), so very little time is wasted if you have a bad run. Even then, the game feels so fair, and gives you so many powerful options, that it never feels like you failed because of bad luck. While most roguelike games are out to get you, Hades instead welcomes you into its world with a constant flow of "Look at THIS cool thing!" moments.

Last of Us 2 (PS4) - A phenomenally good sequel that improves on the first game in nearly all ways, Last of Us 2 presents a story of revenge and acceptance from two different perspectives, both equally compelling. Both Ellie and Abby are strong leads dealing with trauma in very different ways, and it would have been very easy to write a story like this that boils down to "All violence is wrong." Instead, the game approaches the topic of violence with more nuance, showing it as a consuming force when used selfishly, but also something that can be used to fight for and protect the oppressed. While this is a gruesome story, it's not all violence; the game's best moments are quiet, peaceful scenes where we get to know our characters in "normal" situations. On top of that, it features some of the best stealth-driven gameplay I've experienced and an incredible range of accessibility options.

Yakuza: Like A Dragon (PS4) - This might be the only Japanese RPG I've played as an adult where almost the entire cast is my age or older! A tribute to the Dragon Quest series, the latest Yakuza title moves away from the series' traditional brawler gameplay and instead uses a turn-based system. It takes a little while to get going, but once you've unlocked a decent amount of abilities and characters, the battles become a ton of fun. This is also a fresh start for the series and a perfect starting place for new players; the series' longtime hero Kazuma Kiryu's story concluded in the wonderful Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, and now we follow newcomer Ichiban Kasuga, a man who hits rock bottom after being left for dead. 

One of the most human stories in the series, Like a Dragon focuses heavily on class issues, showing two men born in similar circumstances moving in opposite directions on the social ladder. Kasuga fights for the dignity of sex workers, the homeless, and other marginalized groups, opposing corrupt cops and politicians. In addition to the excellent main story, there's also a ton of minigames, including a very full-featured Mario Kart clone.

Excellent games worth your time:

 

A Short Hike (Nintendo Switch) - As the name implies, this is a short, delightful little game. A peaceful adventure where players explore an island full of animal buddies, A Short Hike's obstacles are conflict with the environment and conflict with self-doubts and worry. The writing is funny, the world is cute, and it's just a warm, relaxing experience.

Astro's Playroom (PS5) - A short platformer included with every PS5, Astro's Playroom is a tribute to Playstation history designed to show off the system's new controller, fast loading, and shiny graphics. It's a cute, fun follow up to 2018's Astro Bot Rescue Mission, one of the best VR titles on the PS4 console, and features excellent controls and level design. It's not very long, but it's a delight from start to finish and I'd love to see it expanded into a full-length title.

Bugsnax (PS5) - A delightful take on the monster catching genre from the creators of Octodad, Bugsnax is a puzzle game focused on tricks, traps, and photography. Snaktooth island is full of hilarious bug-food hybrids and a society of grumpy Muppets looking for a better life. Like Octodad, Bugsnax features a silly exterior while exploring poignant themes. While Octodad looked at issues of identity and disability, Bugsnax looks at addiction, isolation, and finding a new path in life. It's told in a way that's accessible to kids as well, even if the final act might be a little too spooky for the younger ones. My daughter enjoyed watching me play and now insists on "Playing Bugsnax in real life," which means leaving ketchup packets around the house and setting up laundry baskets to catch hamburgers.

 

Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics (Nintendo Switch) - A collection of board and card games both ancient and modern, featuring nice, easy-to-learn tutorials and in many cases online play. Each game features a variety of difficulty levels and playing repeatedly unlocks trivia about the game's history. I'm mostly here for Riichi Mahjong, and the version included is great!

Demon's Souls (PS5) - A gorgeous visual remake of 2009's phenomenal Demon's Souls, this title takes the opposite approach of the FF7 Remake and leaves the original gameplay largely untouched outside of some minor improvements. It felt great to once again enter the world of Boletaria with a lively online player base, one that will continue to grow as PS5s become more readily available. There are a couple of bad choices when it comes to updated character designs, but for the most part this is a faithful revival of the classic that launched the Souls series.

Kentucky Route Zero (Nintendo Switch) - A long-haul episodic adventure game whose first episode hit PCs back in 2013, the final episode of Kentucky Route Zero was released along with a complete edition of the game on Switch in 2020. A surreal odyssey that wavers between point-and-click adventure gameplay and interactive art piece (I absolutely love that some scenes have you call into a number on a real life phone to hear messages,) there's nothing quite like this one. I didn't love the final episode as much as I did the rest of the game, but that's fine, this is absolutely an experience that's more about the journey than the destination.

 

Resident Evil 3 (PS4) - A follow up to 2019's remake of Resident Evil 2, Capcom's latest REmake takes on one of my least favorite titles in the series and turns it into a wildly fun, if short, action-packed adventure. The puzzles aren't as interesting as RE2's and the maps aren't as inventive, but RE3 makes up for that by focusing on nutty action set pieces and refined combat that feels smoother than ever thanks to a helpful dodge button. It doesn't have the replayability of RE2, but aside from that, this remake is a great time.


Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS5) - Short and sweet, I'd be happy with this size game in more open world adventures! It took me about ten hours to run through the game and while that's far smaller than the previous Spider-Man title, I'm good with it. The previous game had a much more epic scale for sure, but I liked Miles here a lot more than I liked Peter there. It's nice to see a hero whose focus is on being a good neighbor rather than Peter Parker's bizarre love of cops that ran through the last game. The most unbelievable thing here isn't a kid getting magical spider-powers but rather that a billionaire would ever be held accountable for their crimes. 

Super Mario Bros 35 (Nintendo Switch) - Nintendo's follow up to the wonderful Tetris 99 uses a similar concept: What if 35 people played Super Mario Bros at the same time and just kept dumping trash all over each other? Released for the 35th anniversary of the original Super Mario Bros on NES, this frantic multiplayer platformer can get wonderfully chaotic, with players leaving dozens of Bowsers all over the place. You'll see a few stages repeat too many times, but otherwise this experience is golden.

 

The Pathless (PS5) - Like Spider-Man: Mile Morales, The Pathless is a short-form open world adventure focused on fluid, fantastic movement. Where Miles is full of action, The Pathless takes a different approach, giving players a world filled with puzzles big and small, leading up to puzzle-based boss fights. It feels influenced by Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Shadow of the Colossus in all the best ways and is highly recommended to fans of either.

When the Past was Around (Nintendo Switch) - Great puzzles and a well-built experience about loss and grief. Lovely art and music! Some of the later puzzles definitely need a pen and paper and that's cool, it's short enough that nothing can become frustrating. I played through a lot of the puzzles with my wife and that felt thematically perfect. Told without words, this is a story best experienced in one sitting.

Games with standout elements:

 

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (Nintendo Switch) - An iteration on Inti Creates' 2018 nostalgia platformer that's a lot of fun to play but doesn't offer much new. You'll use new characters and weapons, but it feels about as distinct from the previous games as the later Mega Man games do. I'm honestly fine with that here; both games are good times, and it can be nice to get more of a good thing. Solid level design and some big, spooky bosses.

Doom Eternal (PS4) - Doom Eternal, on the other hand, tries to do things a little too differently from its predecessor, the 2016 masterpiece that revived this series. While Doom 2016 offers minimal story, Doom Eternal buries you under mountains of world-building lore that don't amount to anything interesting. They're largely optional, but it's still bizarre to see. There's a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around, which I personally enjoyed but can see growing tiresome for other players. It feels like there's a game missing in between this one and 2016's; in spite of being so story-driven, you're launched into a plot that doesn't really make any sense given the conclusion of the last game. Still, it's exceptionally fun to fight hordes of gross monsters, even if it doesn't live up to 2016's high standards.

Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) - The absolute opposite of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Ghost is an enormous open world samurai adventure that could have been one of my favorites of the year if it had better pacing. Side stories often involve nine repetitive quests each, almost all overstaying their welcome by the time you're finally done. The story is built in three acts, all of which have the same basic structure. It's not as egregious as the repetition of Shenmue III, but it's still annoying when a tighter experience would benefit this story greatly. It's a visual masterpiece and the combat is a great Sekiro-lite, but it's just a little too much.

Mortal Shell (PS4) - A Dark Souls inspired title that could be great in a more refined sequel. Like most Souls-likes, the map design isn't particularly good, leading to players feeling lost in a frustrating way rather than an exciting one. Still, this game's got style and it's a nice attempt at building a smaller, more compact Souls adventure (it took me around 10 hours total.) It gets a lot better once you figure your way out of the opening area.

Sakura Wars (PS4) - Relationship drama mixed with giant robot fighting: At its core, this revival of Sega's long-running franchise isn't too different from the structure of 13 Sentinels, but Sentinels just completely blows it away when it comes to both writing and gameplay. Sakura is cute and silly, with its comedy working far more effectively than its drama, so if you want your smashy robot dramas a little more playful and a little less apocalyptic, this is an alternative to Sentinels. The combat's a decent enough button masher, but could have used a lot more depth.

All the rest:

 

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (PS4) - An online multiplayer Takeshi's Castle where dozens of players rush toward a goal while avoiding rubbery obstacles and clownish pratfalls. I had a lot of fun with it for a couple days, but I lost interest after that. There's been a decent flow of free, new content released since launch for players who are still into it, but this wasn't really a game for me.

 


Scourge Bringer (Nintendo Switch) - When I said roguelikes aren't usually for me? This is the kind of game I'm talking about. It's punishing in a tiresome way, hard for me to follow, and makes me feel like I'm wasting my time on each loss. It's a smooth game that will absolutely appeal to some players, but I got to the end and never felt any real connection. Regardless of difficulty: Every single encounter is exactly twice as long as it needs to be.

Streets of Rage 4 (PS4) - Another revival of an old-school classic, released 26 years after 1994's Streets of Rage 3. This is a good arcade beat em up with cool music, great art, and a nice variety of playable characters. The problem is it's a genre I only really enjoy when playing with other people in the room, online match ups just aren't the same. 2020 was probably the worst time for me to play a game like this, but I still had a good time on my couple of plays.

Space Invaders Forever (Nintendo Switch) - It's absolutely weird that a title sold as a Space Invaders collection includes only three games; one that's brand new, a 2017 phone game, and a redo of the excellent Space Invaders Extreme from 2008. Extreme is as good as ever, but it's the only decent game in this package. The mobile title Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders is a bare-bones port that's only playable on the touchscreen and features no controller support and has that obnoxious mobile game design where you spend just as much time selecting stages as you do playing them. The new title on display, Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE, is a four player version of Space Invaders that doesn't offer much excitement compared to something like Pac-Man Battle Royale

I'm one of those people who actually does still enjoy the original Space Invaders, but this collection doesn't work for me when it contains only one worthwhile title out of the many oddball sequels and spinoffs they could have packed in. Still, if you've never played Extreme, it's worth it just for that if you can pick up a cheap copy of the collection.