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Some Favorite, Disappointing, and Interesting Games from 2012-2016 part 3

In this final part (part 1 here, part 2 here) of this series looking back at the years videolamer spent wrongfully imprisoned over a trumped up jaywalking charge, I look back at the many games that left an impression on me. Just not enough of an impression to have more than a few paragraphs to say about them.

Virtue’s Last Reward

Virtue’s Last Reward disappointed me on multiple fronts. The tone of the game is different from its predecessor 999’s because, according to an interview, the overt horror theme hampered sales in Japan. And so VLR tones it down. This is a big blow to the game; 999’s plot is stupid bullshit, yet it managed to be compelling because of the palpable tension. People could and did die in the game, including your character on most paths, and that made the game thrilling despite the paranormal pseudoscientific plotline and anime tropes. By stripping the horror and thus the tension from the game, Virtue’s Last Reward is just a mess of dumb plot contrivances, convoluted twists, and characters in questionable clothing.

The other critical issue I had with the game was something that appeared to be a quality of life feature and thus may deserve further study by smart game making type people – the timeline and all its branching paths, which are a central feature of the series, were clearly displayed and story chunks were easily selectable. 999’s system for trying out different paths was clumsy – if I recall, you just had to play the game again and choose different options, the quality of life concession being you could now hold down the button to skip text at high speed. The issue with the more accessible solution from VLR was that everything felt toothless at best and meaningless at worst. When you could immediately jump to any spot with no friction, the supposed life and death choices of the game are sapped of severity and impact.

Little Inferno

The first game by Tomorrow Corporation is suspiciously similar to 2D Boys World of Goo in tone and look – which is odd because Wikipedia says one Kyle wrote one game and the other Kyle of Tomorrow Corporation wrote the other. Whatever the case, Little Inferno is largely about its mood, tone, ambiance, and writing. I played it on the Wii U and think the tablet probably added to the proceedings, but even with the second screen the gameplay is almost a… second thought. Solving little word puzzles is fine, but you stay for the darkly comedic anti-consumerist prose you expect from a company called Tomorrow Corporation. Hopefully, someday soon they will make a new game not based on computer programming.

I’m still waiting for my Bag O’ Glass.

Guild 01 and 02

I did not play The Starship Damrey, Cunzy’s choice from the Guild series, but hope to one day get around to it. The games in the Guild collections I did play I really enjoyed, though. Crimson Shroud is a tiny but excellent D&D-like, complete with figurines and visible dice rolls. I loved the dark note it ended on and chalked it up to Matsuno’s talent, only to later learn that you need to play through the game twice to get the “don’t worry, everything is happy and you’re awesome,” ending.

Weapon Shop de Omasse was perhaps the second fun version of running an RPG store I’ve experienced, Recettear being the first (whereas Dragon Quest 4 and Moonlighter were unfun). It made use of the touch screen mostly successfully and was focused on making weapons, as opposed to buying low and selling high. The running comedy skits of the adventurers you were providing weapons to were pleasant enough, if not genre defining.

From the second Guild collection, I really enjoyed Attack of the Friday Monsters. It is one of those rarely localized, slice-of-life Japanese adventure games that offers the player a sense of place. I am a sucker even for bad adventure games that give you the sensation of being somewhere. Millennium Kitchen made Friday Monsters and is more well known for the My Summer Vacation series, which unfortunately has never made it westward. Boy, would I play those, though.

This game makes me nostalgic for my childhood of growing up in rural Japan as a Japanese child.

Diablo III

Diablo 2 was something of an event in my life. It took up a large chunk of my freshman year of college; even before it came out, my roommate and I pored over the guide book I bought, planning out potential builds and learning the prefixes and suffixes for gear. I even “created” a guild website with some edgelord name, possibly the Last Heathens or some bullshit. Apparently, you need to know more than one other person to create a successful guild.

Even if Diablo 3 had been good it likely couldn’t have lived up to the second game in my eyes, but it seemed like they didn’t try to appeal to Diablo 2 fans. Blizzard firing the team that made the first two games seemed like a bad sign. The tone of the game changing seemed a little odd. The demand you always be online seemed almost criminal. And then the real money auction made it clear this would not be a game for me.

Then I finally played it at a friend’s house. The original Jay “Fuck that loser” Wilson version of the game, not the newer one people claim is good. Really I just felt nothing. It was completely average and stirred nothing in me. I may have had more fun with whichever Torchlight I played, and I can’t even tell you which I played.

Not to be a “hardcore gamer” but the neon aesthetic still doesn’t sit right with me.

All indications are the game has become good. I’ve considered trying it on console, which would be fitting since I played through the original Diablo on the PS1 with the mouse (as well as X-Com and the Discworld (a series I read about 40 books from years later (it is excellent and Pratchett (RIP) was a man who knew how to use parentheses)) game). It’s not Diablo 3’s problem that I am no longer in a dorm playing games with a roommate who signed up to live with me sophomore year while knowing he had a 0.5 GPA and would not be returning, but it’s probably just no longer a series for me.

Rhythm Heaven Fever

I dabbled a little with the DS entry to this series but gave up quickly. The touch screen didn’t feel accurate enough or I sucked, hard to remember which. So in my revisionist memory, Rhythm Heaven Fever is the first game of the series I played. And it’s great.

The music and art are almost universally excellent and bizarre. Off the top of my head, after a decade, I can recall really loving the metal song with guys jumping on seesaws, the spider free candy company stage, the ninja slicing demons track, flock step, the monkey clock, and the wrestler interview song. Pose for the fans!

It’s apparent there is some overlap between the Wario Ware team and the Rhythm Heaven series. Each track has an odd, often funny setup that would feel at home in a Wario microgame. That series got another chance on the Switch and I really hope Rhythm Heaven does, too. The glut of copies of Fever sold on clearance (though it has since skyrocketed in price) makes me think maybe not.

A good intersection between cute and stupid.

The Banner Saga

This one came out of nowhere for me. It combines so many things I like: turn-based tactical RPG battles, adventure game decision making, branching well written storylines, and a harsh, cruel world with meaningful character deaths, desertions, and betrayals. Throw in a little survival stuff and you’ve got a great game. Pat and I made different but fully justifiable final decisions in the game and the second game significantly changed as a result.

The sequel shifted focus to another faction for much of the game but was still a pleasure. What is not, however, is the constant crashing of game three on my PC. After months of going back and forth with Stoic’s tech support (it seems like it’s one person and she got back to me every 50 or so days), we reached consensus that the game didn’t work on my computer and gave up. So I loved the first two games and can’t play the conclusion. A harsh outcome worthy of The Banner Saga.

Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice

I really like this series even when it’s not at its best. As I mentioned earlier, I am a sucker for adventure games, games with a real sense of place, and adventure games with a real sense of place. Ace Attorney games always check the first box and often the third. But this 6th entry in the series bored me. I actually never finished it, and I finished the inferior Edgeworth spin-off game.

It’s a good sign when official promo art looks like parody.

Mild spoilers – the game hits all the cliches that were mildly interesting when they happened in earlier games. Your assistant is accused of murder, Maya is accused of murder, Phoenix is accused of murder. Add in the heavy theme of spirits and a Tibet-stand-in’s political intrigue and the game lost me. Oh and Phoenix or Apollo’s dad is in the game?

The spirit mumbo jumbo worked in the third game because rival prosecutor Godot was cool, Maya was a novice and not a master, and the Dahlia plot line was compelling. Spirit of Justice doesn’t come close to having such a strong setup for all the magic you have to suffer through.

Divinity: Original Sin

This may be a controversial opinion, but Divinity Original Sin is legitimately great. What I can say that isn’t obvious is I may wish it were less user friendly. There is something about how people work that drives us to shortcut any and everything. When a game will guide us, we let it even if that saps some of the fun out of the affair. This is all a preemptive defense for my position that quest markers kind of suck and ruin a lot of modern games. Make me figure it out and I’ll be much more invested. Even good writing and interesting plotting get pushed aside when my brain can just run from glowing dot to glowing dot on the map.

Despite the title, there is shockingly little about Jesus’ death in this game.

I may also like the lighter tone of the first game. And a random gripe – Original Sin 2 seems to offer a potential third solution to the overall plotline (1. Do thing, 2. Don’t do thing, 3. Change the shape of everything, thus making the first two choices no longer meaningful) but attempting to get there just defaulted to a shitty ending (2). Maybe I missed something.

Dark Souls III

What a good but not great game. I’m a Souls hipster who likes Demons best but you can’t hold the way time works against me. If you play exceedingly iterative games chronologically, there’s a chance the first will leave the biggest mark. Still, I think the first Dark Souls and Bloodborne are also great games. Dark Souls 2 and 3 just don’t excite me as much. These games are just bloodstain reenactments of Dark Souls.

The second opens on a sour note of people laughing about how you will die a lot and then continues hitting the same note in the hub town when you see the shrine counting the number of global player deaths. I suppose embracing the dumb marketing bullshit shouldn’t have surprised me after the “Prepare to Die” edition of the first game came out. Dark Souls 2 would be lucky if annoying marketing rearing its head in the game were its sole shortcoming; its deficiencies have been discussed to death by people with taste and then defended by bizarre people who love the game but hate level design.

This crab guest stars in many From games.

Then there is the third game. The plot, which fans love to construct for From, is a big mess. The first entries into these series work because there is just enough to make you speculate and wonder. Explaining more with each game just leads to Twin-Peaks-itis – vague metaphors work better than literal explanations of supernatural shit. By Dark Souls 3 it seemed every concept had two to three distinct meanings (Dark, Chaos, Fire were all symbolic of multiple things). If you want more details and to waste your time listening to Dark Soul 2 lovers, try the Bonfireside Chat podcast.

Dark Souls 3 is mechanically an improvement on the earlier games. The level design was mostly good even if there were too many open areas that would foreshadow Elden Ring’s enormous horse-jumping fields and mountains. The combat was faster and more fluid, and some of the bosses that I can remember were cool. But it’s just more. More dragons, more knights, more Artorias fights. More castles, more poison swamps, more skeletons in crypts. The final boss is just From shrugging and playing the Gwyn music from the first game.

“Don’t you understand? No one wishes to go on.”

This War of Mine

I am not sure the actual survival mechanics of this game are anything special. There is some crafting, collecting, and stealth, but it’s the theme and tone of the game that stand out. The crew of people you manage, as you can surmise, is eking out some existence during an ongoing war. The day time is dangerous so you send people out at night to explore local surroundings, hoping to find resources to keep you alive and safe. This inevitably leads to moral quandaries – do you steal supplies from the elderly man alone in his home?

Jokes about war are the funniest.

The interactions and behaviors of the people you control is also something special. After returning home from a mission, I learned someone I had at my base for a long time decided they’d had enough of living through the hell they found themselves in. I have never played something that has characters autonomously commit suicide and it really affected me. This is a powerful game.

80 Days

Inkle beat Chris Crawford to the interactive fiction punch. And the way they got there is exactly what I, famed and respected game designer, would have suggested – instead of attempting to recreate the human brain and language in code or whatever the fuck Crawford was doing, Inkle seems to have hand written a zillion story snippets that can then be mixed and matched to create compelling narratives.

This is one of those games that made me want to make games. My mind raced with possibilities after playing it for many, many hours and led me to outline my forever unrealized, never mentioned before and never to be mentioned again game concept, Doorman. I haven’t developed a unified theory on inspirational games or if the best ones need to fill your head with ideas as you play, but if you enjoy thinking about narrative design this is an excellent title to enjoy and dream of cloning with slight alterations.

Darkest Dungeon

I think I like this game. I put in over 200 hours, the battles are really well designed and consistently fun, but holy shit is it a treadmill. The design decision that disallowed your powerful characters from going on missions they felt were below them was clever because it kept all battles engaging but also guaranteed the game would take forever. The basic flow of the game compounded this glacial pace. Your top guys need to rest after a run, so you’d need a separate team of top guys. And then there would be lower level stuff left to be done, like resource farming or a boss to kill, so you’d probably need one or two teams to do the first and then also the second tier of dungeons.

This list has a lot of downers on it.

The economy in Darkest Dungeon was kind of shitty and it cost way too much (another pacing issue) to remove randomly occurring but potentially permanent bad traits from your characters, which would apply debuffs that could be debilitating. But the presentation really came together to be something special. The art, voice acting, sound design, and music are top notch and all complement each other fabulously. I have mixed feelings on the sanity mechanic but it did allow the game to be quite hard, which I appreciated. Combine the music, creepy art and writing, and brutal difficulty and you got some legitimately scary and stressful boss fights. A scary turn based RPG? Into the pot!

After beating a very early build of the sequel, I am left thinking that Red Hook doesn’t quite know what to do with the sim portion of these games. It’s the weaker half of both and I hope they eventually figure out some systems worthy of housing their excellent battle system.

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pat
pat
1 month ago

what a coincidence, we seem to play a lot of the same games.

we mentioned the concept of our assignments in our resolutions, and that is how you got me to play banner saga. the game is great, and i would argue its a better a song of ice and fire/game of thrones game than the games that have the license. you are a band of humans and allies half fighting and half running from an implacable, inhuman foe, and trying to wrangle alliances in a distrustful world at the same time. i started the second game but i feel like the seems were more obvious to me on some of the events either because i had already played the first or because the second isnt as well designed.

im probably a little easier on spirit of justice than you are. the story beats are contrived, but the characters were enough for me to make it through the game.

i think dark souls 3 is an improvement mechanically from the previous games because it learned some lessons from bloodborne about speed, fluidity, and aggression. i agree it felt a bit stale by the third time through, but at least it was better than 2.

i should finish crimson shroud one of these days. it isnt even that long.

chris
Admin
1 month ago

I played the first Banner Saga and enjoyed it, but if I recall right the food/supplies mechanic seemed almost completely pointless (there was virtually no way to stay supplied unless you made perfect choices, or possibly abandoned people? it has been several years…). Hopefully the sequel integrated it better. It also felt like there were a lot of “gotcha” story choices. I actually don’t even recall for sure what choice I made in the finale. I liked the atmosphere and story, but not so much the gameplay.

I think I managed to be on the same wavelength regarding Diablo III. When I played it “near release”, I felt like I had played more compelling clicker games and have no real desire to try it again. It actually turned me off buying any Blizzard games since.

pat
pat
1 month ago

chris – i think the supplies mechanic and the tension it creates is sort of the point of banner saga. it forces hard choices: let your fighters heal from battle at the expense of supplies? allow people to join even though they will require supplies? take on someone you might not trust because they bring arms and supplies? send scouts to look for food at risk they get killed or come back empty handed?

my personal experience was that i had enough supplies to keep my people alive until very late in the game. i think it basically becomes impossible because you are on an increasingly desperate march to your destination. of course, you dont have to enjoy it, but i think it reinforces the despairing, desperate tone of the game.

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