Mini Game Reviews

Astro's Playroom

Screenshot of Astros Playroom

Astro's Playroom is a love letter to PlayStation history. The premise of the game is being a platformer where you collect artifacts of Sony's past, from all of the PlayStation consoles to accessories that featured both a global release or limited to just a few countries. It is an exhaustive look at everything PlayStation.

For the game itself, it is a simple platformer. It has both timing challenges as well as puzzles to be figured out. It is not a difficult game overall, and with unlimited lives, most people should complete it within a couple of hours. While the platforming is on the simple side, a fun aspect of the game is finding all of the references to previous games. Throughout the world, different robots will be re-enacting scenes from important and popular games in the past. These includes references to titles such as Demon's Souls, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy VII, ICO, Monster Hunter, and the originl T-Rex Demo from early PlayStation demo discs.

There is not much else to say on Astro's Playroom. Being a short easy game that comes with the PlayStation 5, it's worth checking out if you have the console. It is a fun trip of nostalgia, even if it veers pretty close to feeling like an ad at times.

Beautiful Desolation

Screenshot of Beautiful Desolation

Some of the earliest games that I played while growing up was the graphical adventure game series King's Quest. These games are top-down games where you control a single character as they adventure through the world, solving puzzles and advancing the story. King's Quest V and VI in particular were games that I played through multiple times, and greatly enjoyed back then for the challenge and wonderful stories they told. As time went on, these types of games became less popular, and my own habits moved on to other genres that had many of the same elements while still providing a completely different experience.

This game is one I did not even know about until after it's release, and I gave it a go because it looked interesting. While it had been a long time since I last played this style of game, I remembered my fondness for them and wanted to give it another shot. Sadly, the game did not stick for me. I have played it for a few hours, enough to get a sense of what it is like. To its credit, it feels a lot like the old adventure games of the 1990s. The presentation is a bit low-budget, but not out of place for a game harking back to previous entries in the genre. The voice acting is well done, and it plays well on the PC. Unfortunately, I realized that these types of games do not hold my attention for as long. While I love the idea of adventure games that involve puzzle-solving, doing so in a first-person format is more immersive for me. Playing top-down I can still enjoy for RPGs and strategy games, but for adventure games it has lost its appeal.

The one element of the game that I do enjoy is the music. In fact, Beautiful Desolation came to my attention because Mick Gordon composed the soundtrack. Upon first listen of it, I was in love, as it took a lot of the ambient elements of his Prey soundtrack but without the horror sounds. It's a peaceful album, and my favorite part of the game. I have listened to it multiple times, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys ambient soundtracks.

Black Mesa

Screenshot of Black Mesa

Black Mesa is a game that I waited 15 years for. When it was announced in 2005, I was excited to play it, due to Half-Life being one of my favorite first-person shooters. As time went on, it seemed like the game would never be released. When Crowbar Collective released a version of the game up to but not including the last act of the game (when you explore the planet Xen), I decided to wait until the final version. I wanted to experience the game whole, and not wait years more to finish it.

Half-Life is an important game to me. Not only was the singleplayer experience phenomenal, the multiplayer experience shaped my gaming habits for many years due to mods such as Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, Sven Co-op, and Team Fortress Classic. I had high expectations for anything that aimed to recreate the original Half-Life's story, as it is so ingrained in my memories. And Black Mesa surpassed even my high expectations.

What makes Black Mesa a brilliant remake is that it is faithful to what worked well in the game, but was not afraid to alter what did not work. There were many small changes to the Black Mesa facility portion of the game that helped improve the flow of the gameplay and injected lore that was introduced later in Half-Life 2. As an example, the characters of Dr. Kleiner and Eli Vance were central to the plot of Half-Life 2, but they were based on the generic scientist models in the original. Black Mesa made them specific characters that you run across, and altered the rest of the scientists to not look like them.

The largest change Black Mesa made to the original was with the planet of Xen. In the original Half-Life, this is a one hour excursion that felt out of place with the rest of the game. The design was simple, the platforming annoying, and the final boss not very fun. Black Mesa changed all of this, and for the better. Xen's scope is now increased, leading to a four hour experience now. Platforming and puzzles are improved, the history of the Vortigaunts is now integrated into the story, and the final boss, while still not perfect, is more fun to fight.

Overall, Black Mesa is a prime example of how to do a remake properly. It is so successful of a remake in my mind that whenever I feel like playing through the series again, I will play Black Mesa instead of the original Half-Life.

Bloodborne

Screenshot of Bloodborne

For too long, I have stayed away from the Souls-like genre. I had a passing familiarity with Demon's Souls when it came out in 2009. It was hard to avoid the discussion around Dark Souls after its release, and despite giving it a try back in 2013, it was as game that I did not get far in. Dark Souls 3 also failed to hook me when I tried it in 2018, although I only gave it a 15 minute shot before putting it down. But 2021 was the year where it all changed.

After acquiring a PlayStation 5, Bloodborne was recommended to me as a great entry-point for the series. Given who the recommendation was from, I decided to give it a few hours before deciding whether to continue. The beginning was challenging, as the Souls-like reputation demands. But it defied my expectation by not feeling unfairly punishing. The game rewarded you for learning, and gave you the tools to do so, along with a healthy dose of experimentation.

The aspect of the game that surprised me the most was how engrossing the world was. There was a lot of lore right on the surface, but never forced on you. The game rewarded you especially for deep exploration. The storytelling is on the minimal side, but all of the pieces are there for you to put together into a more coherent whole. This is my favorite aspect of the game, and it is skillfully done in a way that few other games have accomplished.

Bloodborne's soundtrack also helped suck me into the world. Music is one of the most important aspects of a game for me, and the composing team at FromSoftware have written one of my new favorite soundtracks. Visually, the game looks quite good for a PlayStation 4 game. The only frustrating aspect of it is the jittery frame-pacing. The game aims for 30 FPS, but rarely sits at it for long. This game is in dire need of a PlayStation 5 upgrade, or preferably a PC release.

Bloodborne was a great jumping in for the Souls-like games. It has kindled an obsession in all of FromSoftware's titles, and I hope to be able to revisit Bloodborne at some point when the performance has been fixed.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Screenshot of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The first beta of the original Counter-Strike was released back in 1999. I did not play this first version, instead hopping in a few betas later. The original Counter-Strike is a great game, and was a core game that I played throughout most of high school years and into college.

What impresses me the most about Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is that it is the 3rd major iteration of the game, and it sticks to the formula that made the beta versions of the original Half-Life mod so successful. The game has experienced technological upgrades, but the core gameplay loop is the same was it was 20 years ago. Unlike other game series, the technology around the game modernizes while the gameplay itself is still the same.

This is emphasized by looking at the game's most popular map: dedust2. The original dedust2 was released in 2001, and quickly became a mainstay on servers. It is a well-balanced map that has not needed any major gameplay tweaks since the original version. In Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source, there were servers dedicated to playing the map 24/7. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive honors this by having a map group dedicated to solely playing de_dust2, giving the same functionality.

Counter-Strike is a game that I still enjoy, although I am nowhere near as good as I was back in high school. But it is still fun to play, and something I see myself going back to every so often just to experience it again. Valve's stewardship of the Counter-Strike series is impressive, and I hope that they continue to not make any fundamental changes to the series as a whole. Counter-Strike could easily remain one of the main games that everyone will have played decades into the future, if Valve continues to treat it as it currently does.

Cyberpunk 2077

Screenshot of Cyberpunk 2077

There has been a lot of things said about Cyberpunk 2077 since its release. The reviews written at the time of release are still relevant, as the game still has many bugs, the gameplay mechanics are unbalanced, and the story feels either incomplete or only partially implemented. I won't relitigate these specific criticisms, as it has been done better elsewhere.

My main criticism against the game is that it has an identity crisis. Despite being in development for so long, the developers did not know what kind of game they wanted to make. Was the aim to be a sandbox action game like Grand Theft Auto, or an immersive simulation like Deus Ex, or an open-world RPG like the Elder Scrolls Series? Was the main story supposed to be the focus like in a traditional RPG, or was the simulated world and side quests equally important?

Cyberpunk 2077 feels like it is trying to be all of the above at the same time, but it fails at accomplishing any of it. The sandbox elements are barely functional, with the world simulation being non-existent and faked throughout the entire game. The immersive simulation elements are present, but the game constantly works around to ignore them, showing that it was not developed and written with them in mind originally. The open world elements are all unfinished, with quest lines not having any long-term world effects and NPCs ceasing contact with you or ignoring your past successes and failures.

Since release, employees of CD Projekt Red have confirmed that development on the game was rebooted multiple times and that the technical foundation for their engine was always playing catchup to what the game developers wanted to implement. Ultimately, this game is a prime example of what happens when a game is rushed to meet deadlines at the expensive of the final product's quality. The lack of overall vision, keeping developers in silos without a good way to talk to other teams, and forcing a release when many of those working on the game thought it needed at least two more year of work led to this being a game that is not worth playing. Whether the company can eventually turn that around is yet to be seen, but the patches introduced so far have done little to make me think they can make Cyberpunk 2077 into anything like what they originally envisioned.

Dark Souls

Screenshot of Dark Souls

After playing Bloodborne, the completionist in me wanted to play the rest of the Soulsborne games in as close to order of release as possible. I went into the game knowing it would be a step back in many ways, but I did not expect how much of a mixed bag it would be overall.

The biggest gameplay regression is in the cobmat. It being slower than Bloodborne is not surprising, but I was not expecting how chunky the hitboxes and physics in the game would be. Much of the challenge came from fighting against the physics and what little the game would let me do, and not the actual encounters. Most actions in the game bring your character to a complete halt. The latter half of the game turned into a slog with these elements combined with so many levels being designed around ambushes and traps that are hard or impossible to react to without their knowledge. For a game that is supposed to be challenging but fair, it felt tedious and unfair.

There are some elements of the game that I did enjoy immensely. The music and overall sound design is top notch. The customization of classes and weapons is a welcome introduction from Bloodborne, as well as the added elements of movement speed being different if you wear heavier armor. The world of Dark Souls is much more non-linear than Bloodborne's, especially in the beginning, which was a pleasant surprise.

Overall, Dark Souls was disappointing. It's the first game in a long time where I forced myself to complete it, but the last part was not that much fun at all. After my first attempt through the game, I gave myself a few months off and tried again, just to see if my feelings had changed. I played for a few hours, and decided that the game is one that I enjoy many elements of, other than actually playing it. I do not foresee myself installing it again.

Dark Souls II

Screenshot of Dark Souls II

Due to its reputation, Dark Souls II is the last of the Souls games that I decided to play. The reputation of the game is of being the worst game in the series, something divisive due to how far it strayed from the setup of the rest of the games. Hearing all of this made me hesitant to try it. But when I am glad that I decided to give the game a go, as to me, it almost meets the greatness of Dark Souls III.

Visually, the game is an interesting midpoint between Dark Souls I and III. The world skews closer to Dark Souls 1 in look, although with some of the post-processing effects that are used heavily in III (i.e. depth-of-field to blur far away objects). The characters are much more detailed, with a character creator that allowed me to create a character I was happy with. Animations as a whole are much smoother, closer to what was shown in Bloodborne. Hitboxes also line up better with the animations, allowing for more realistic movement between objects and with weapons connecting. The music to the game is an interesting mix between the more somber feel of Dark Souls I, while the boss tracks are epic but not quite as the Dark Souls III soundtrack. This game does have my favorite town song in Majula, which helps sell the desolateness of your main base.

Overall, the gameplay does a lot of things well. Weapon variety continues to remain strong like in the previous game, with some new options available that were not before. The lack of invasions on a normal new game makes a nice change for those still trying to learn the world. The game is not as non-linear as Dark Souls 1, but much more so than Dark Souls III. Combat feels great, and the increase in summons that can be used for boss fights is good for those who do not want to play online.

That said, there are some elements that are larger steps back from the previous games. The combination healing system of healing gems and Estus flasks is unfortunate, as the flask system is superior for this type of game. Consumable healing items all too often require you to start farming items for repeated boss attempts, and it takes half of the game before the Estus flask is capable of keeping up with boss attempts. The Soul Memory system, where you are matched to other players based on how many total souls you've earned, not what level you are, could lead to players getting stuck and falling behind, unable to summon help if needed. The bosses were a step up, in that none felt horrible to fight the way a number did in Dark Souls I. But there were few that were as memorable as some of the fights from Bloodborne or Dark Souls III, and the final bosses are forgettable in every manner.

Dark Souls II was quite a wonderful surprise after hearing all of negativity surrounding it. It is a game that I look forward to doing a New Game + run through. It is in my current top 3 Souls games, close to Bloodborne and Dark Souls III in that regard.

Dark Souls III

Screenshot of Dark Souls III

The old saying goes "third time is the charm", and this is true both for the Dark Souls series and Soulsborne games for me. Dark Souls III is the third game I played, after initially skipping Dark Souls II, but it is my favorite of the Soulsborne genre up to this point.

The most important aspect of Dark Souls III that differentiates it from the rest of the games is that there are no parts of the game that I felt were weak. All of the areas felt great (even the fabled poison swamp), and most of the bosses were memorable fights. The game is a distinct callback to the world of the original Dark Souls. Since the world of the first game was my favorite aspect, seeing the world as time has progressed and cycles of rebirth have possibly occurred was intriguing. In particular, seeing Anor Londo decaying was a powerful moment, as was coming across the ruins of the original Firelink Shrine.

As great as the callbacks to the first game were, what really puts this game up there among the best is its quests. Soulsborne games all have minimalist quests that are easy to miss. Dark Souls III puts the start of them more front and center, and as I worked through them, I grew invested in the stories of the characters. In particular, the quests of Anri of Astora, Siegward of Catarina, and Sirris of the Sunless Realms were quite touching. The stories of these characters is more hopeful than previous games, with the quests all involving last quests to complete before the world's end. Despite the bittersweetness of this aspect to their stories, all of their goals can be accomplished, providing them some peace in their death.

Most games that I play are one and done. Dark Souls III is the first game in a long time where I not only know I will be playing it again, but am anticipating further playthroughs. Before writing this mini review, I have already beaten the game twice, and am planning a third playthrough very soon. Bloodborne introduced me to these games, but Dark Souls III has surpassed the loftiest expectations I could set for a game.

Dear Esther

Screenshot of Dear Esther

Dear Esther is one of the first "walking simulators", and still one of the best. Everything about it is beautifully done, with a wonderful art design, somber haunting music, and a perfect narrator throughout. The underground caves that appear midway through the game are an especially memorable section of the game, with a wonderful dance between the music and the visuals creating an experience unlike most games.

For those who do not like ambiguous artsy stories, Dear Esther might be found lacking. The narrator is both unreliable and appears to be jumping between multiple viewpoints, making it difficult to realize the nature of the story in one playthrough. I have played the game multiple times now, and have learned new details each time that were not presented in my previous playthroughs. The game is short, taking about an hour to complete.

Death Stranding

Screenshot of Death Stranding

Due to the success of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the 2010s saw a glut of open world games. Old series transitioned to the Skyrim formula, and new ones were created to try and be the next Skyrim. Most of these games miss the mark though, not understanding what an open world game should be. Thankfully, Kojima Productions did understand what makes a great open world game, and created Death Stranding as a result.

The design of Death Stranding's open world is what makes the game work. Unlike many modern open world games, it is a sparse world for you to explore. The core gameplay loop is making deliveries from one location to another, with even short routes not being quick affairs. Without a mini-map constantly displaying and pointing you in the right direction, the world is full of visual landmarks and unique vistas to get your bearings right. This review is being written 2 years after I played the game, and I still remember the layout and locations of the world in vivid detail. This is something that very few games can accomplish.

Death Stranding is billed as a singleplayer game, but is actually built around an asynchronous multiplayer system. Within the game, the world has crumbled, leaving important infrastructure destroyed and disconnected. The player is able to devote resources to rebuilding these, but additionally, you will get paired with other players randomly and can contribute to rebuilding in each others world. Once basic things are built, you are then able to share buildings and tools around the rest of the world that can be used. None of these will provide a complete solution for a player, but they cna then fill in the gaps as they desire, or dismantle it within their world. This system was integral to my enjoyment of the game. I tried to help as many other players as possible. By the end of my time with the game, there were two players in particular that contributed greatly to my world and I back at them. These are people I have never talked to before or since, but they are now indelibly tied to my experience and my memories of the game.

As with any Hideo Kojima game, there are some costs to the great gameplay. His stories are well written, but come with many cutscenes that can be overly long. Death Stranding ups the ante in this area by having an ending sequence that is around 2 hours long. And despite improvements, his writing of women still needs some work, although this is one of the less offensive games in that regard from him. The good vastly outweighs the bad for Death Stranding, but these two things in particular are important to keep in mind before playing.

Despite these couple of issues, the game is phenomenal. It is one of the best open world games out there, and provides an experience unlike anything else.

Deathloop

Screenshot of Deathloop

My love for immersive sims began in 2000 with the release of the demo for Deus Ex. In the years since its release, Arkane Studios has come out as the modern masters of the genre, with their titles ranking up with the best of Looking Glass Studios. Deathloop is the new immersive sim game from Arkane, but it takes a decidedly different approach, trading in RPG elements for tighter gunplay, while keeping all of the typical level design and story elements that they have perfected over the years.

More than any previous Arkane game, Deathloop exudes style. The set pieces in the game, both large and small, all paint the picture of a surreal world where there are no consequences. This has caused the participants to become more eccentric, as they know that even death will not stop them from waking up the next morning. These elements shine through in the little details especially, notes strewn across the levels and dialogue between guards. The setting being built around a 1970s design helps extend the world into a timeless bubble, one that would never be broken.

The dialogue of the main characters, Colt and Julianna, is some of the best writing that Arkane has ever done. At the beginning of each level, the two verbally spar. Julianna often has the upper hand, but Colt holds his own. These dialogue sessions are not just well written, but they give great insight into the two main characters of the game, as well as the world they inhabit. Their past is hinted at regularly, more of which can be found out in the levels.

Unlike other Arkane games, the pre-determined story takes the reins for how the game plays out. There is one solution to the puzzle of the game, and the freedom you are given is how you want to approach arranging the pieces for it. Arkane's previous work provided for vastly different experiences in new playthroughs. The biggest mark against Deathloop is that once the game is solved, there is not much to do but to just run through it and finish it. There is no other mystery to solve, which leads it to being a phenomenal game the first time through, but just average on any follow-up attempts.

Demon's Souls (2020)

Screenshot of Demon's Souls

The PlayStation 5 remake of Demon's Souls is the fourth Soulsborne game on my adventure through FromSoftware's catalog. The original PlayStation 3 game completely passed under my radar back in 2009. In retrospect, I don't think I would have enjoyed it as much back then, as my gaming priorities were very different. But due to the original being on a console I don't play anymore and the original multiplayer servers being shut down, I am glad that this PlayStation 5 version exists.

The aspect of the game most improved from the original is the graphics. BluePoint created a beautiful world to explore, the highlight of the PlayStation 5's launch titles. There is a lot of detail to see in every aspect of the world, and I was never bored while just looking at all of the sights. The soundtrack in the remake is controversial. I personally loved what they did with the music, but it is understandable why fans of the original are not as keen to it. The epic orchestration fits with what I like, and I think makes the game mesh well with the later entries. The track for Maiden Astraea is a particular highlight of the soundtrack.

Demon's Souls is in some ways a more complex game than the later entries, but simplified in other ways. The equipment system as a whole is more complex and limiting, as armor is gender-locked. The remake has changed this for some armor sets, but others are still limited by gender just as in the original. Upgrading equipment requires more components, requiring more farming for either items or the souls to by the items with. The combat itself is greatly simplified, with most weapons having only a few attacks and no special moves. Weapon selection as a whole is much more limited than latter entries, leading to less variety of builds than you can accomplish in Dark Souls 3.

The one aspect of the game that bothered me the most was the healing. Instead of automatically replenishable flasks that give you health, you have to use grass that drops from enemies. Unfortunately, they are not the most common of drops, so you have to spend time farming them on occasion. This was particularly noticeable when you run low during a boss fight, as it requires you to spend some time farming to be able and give the boss another try. Bloodborne had a similar system of healing, but it had some areas that allowed you to get as many as you needed in a short amount of time, allowing you to not slow down that much in your attempts at progression.

Going back to the original Soulsborne game was quite an enjoyable experience. The world and character design is well done, with only a few individual levels being annoying or less memorable. In particular, the Maiden Astraea sequence is one of my favorites in all of FromSoftware's games. The low point of the game was how much time I had to spend farming health items and upgrade materials, significantly outpacing how much time I had to spend doing the same in the other games. I am glad I had an opportunity to play through this, although my enjoyment of it was much less than in Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3.

Diablo

Screenshot of Diablo

When I was younger, most of the RPGs that I played were Japanese in origin. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, and other series on consoles dominated what I played. Despite being a heavy PC gamer, it wasn't until the late 1990's that I began to dive into PC RPGs. Diablo was one of the first, and it permanently changed the games that I am interested in.

The best aspect of Diablo is its simplicity. There are 3 classes that the player can select from, but they just give you a starting point. Unlike many other class-based RPGs, Diablo lets every class use every weapon and spell, as long as they have the character stats to do so. This allowed a lot of freedom that I later found other games did not have, and helped cement my love of games with broader class systems or skill systems in palce of classes. Combing this with the random loot system created a game where each playthrough could be approached in different ways. It's possible to play through and alter your character based on the equipment you come across, instead of having to search for specific items for your class. Repeated playthroughs were promoted by randomized quest selection and enemy types, making followup playthroughs worthwhile to complete.

Multiplayer in Diablo was a hit or miss experience, but did show the potential for what an online RPG could be. Since the game lacked anti-cheating methods or character verification, many characters found online had items that were more powerful than anything attainable in the normal course of the game. Thankfully, future titles improved on this, as even the broken state of Diablo's multiplayer was a lot of fun to experience.

Diablo is a classic game that has aged well due to the simplicity of the core game systems. Despite some user interface and control systems that are dated, the rest of the game is still fun to play to this day. And as much fun as Diablo still is, it pales in comparison to its sequel...

Diablo 2

Screenshot of Diablo 2

Diablo 2 was released during the time where my gaming tastes were going through the large change of being focused on first-person shooters and strategy games and moving towards online RPGs. Asheron's Call, Diablo 2, EverQuest, and the modding scene for Warcraft III changed what I consider my primary gaming focus, smething that has remained to this day. One game sticks out from that group in that more than 20 years after its initial release in that I still regullarly go back and play through the game. That game is Diablo 2.

Diablo 2 builds expertly on what worked well in the original game. It takes the action-RPG designs of Diablo and perfects it into an experience that has not been surpassed since. RPG elements are enhanced, movement is modernized, and the world is fleshed out more with a proper backstory that is told through cinematic cutscenes. Multiplayer was integrated better into the game, with "closed Battle.net" being separate from singleplayer, reducing the cheating that plagued the origina's multiplayer experience.

It's hard to understate how important this game was to the RPG genre. Random loot had already been present in RPGs for decades, but the particular method Diablo 2 used for randomization has become the prominent way to handle loot in RPGs, especially ones of a multiplayer nature. Rarity levels, prefixes, and suffixes are now common. Many RPGs have tried to replicate the tone of Diablo 2, although most fail to do it quite as well. Online-only action-RPGs are now mainstream, after the success of Battle.net on Diablo 2.

Diablo 2's gameplay has aged well, but unfortunately, the graphics have not. The original game was limited to a resolution of 800x600, which was already on the low side at the time of release, and does not look great on modern displays. Thankfully, Vicarious Visions was brought on to remaster the game, and in doing so have set my gold standard for how a remastered game should be. The graphics now look modern at high resolutions while retaining a perfect recreation of the original game's art style. The original recordings of the music and sound effects were used to create new higher quality versions of both, matching the quality of the graphics. Controls have also been modernized, with greater customization of keyboard and mouse commands, and adding the controller as a viable way to play for those who prefer that method or suffer from RSI commonly caused by the original game.

For 20 years, I played through Diablo 2 at least once every year. With the release of Diablo 2 Resurrected, I expect this to remain the case for the next 20 years.

Diablo III

Screenshot of Diablo 3

Diablo 2 is the quintessential action RPG. Many other games are modeled after what Diablo 2 did well. Of Blizzard's catalog of games, Diablo 2 is the one that I think holds up the best and has few weak points to it. So naturally, Blizzard approached creating a sequel to the game by changing the gameplay, music, and visual style that Diablo 2 had perfected.

There is a lot I dislike about Diablo 3, but there are two main points that create the core of my problems with the game. The first point is that random drops have been replaced by random everything. Not only are items pulled from a list of unique and static items, but now even the unique items have randomized stats. In Diablo 1 and 2, if you wanted a particular piece of equipment to drop, your journey was over for that item. In Diablo 3, it is possible to get a specific item to drop with random stats that are horrible, or to get the proper stats but always know that another drop with another random roll might make the stats a little better. The second point is that Diablo 3 scaled everything up: damage, item values, health pools, etc. Damage is now shown in numbers that pop up on the screen, showing how well you are hitting. As you progress through the game, the numbers continue to grow larger, reaching ridiculous levels like thousands of points of health and millions of points of damage. Both of these points combine to make the game feel like a digital slot machine, where you move your character around, click your mouse, and see how big the numbers are that show up on the screen.

Despite improvements and new content that Blizzard has added to the game since launch, they have been unable to turn it around into a game that I can enjoy. It is one of the few games in my life that has put me to sleep before due to how boring it was. This is such a stark contrast to the excitement that Diablo 2 was. Given Blizzard's business moves in recent years, Diablo 3 is the last chance I'll be giving the studio on a game in the Diablo franchise.

Doom (2016)

Screenshot of Doom (2016)

Very few games surprise me to the extent that this reboot of Doom has. The last id Software game that I would consider great all the way through was Quake III Arena, and that was released in 1999. Doom 3 was a decent shooter, although such a departure from the original series that it felt like another series, and Rage had great technology and good action, but average everything else. Doom's development history did not help with expectations, as it had been in development since 2007 and had gone through a few reboots before release.

Doom is a back to basics game for the series. The gameplay is straightforward running around and shooting at a very quick pace, just like the original Doom games. There are some new mechanics added on top, but they do not alter the flow of gameplay. The story is present, but self-aware in that while the story presents itself seriously, Doomguy does not care for whats going on and just rushes past it. This is a Doom game afterall, not a series expected to have a deep story. The music also returns to the former metal glory of the original, with a new industrial metal soundtrack by Mick Gordon. The interplay between gameplay and music is something more games should aspire to, with the music always perfectly matching what is going on in the game and pumping you up even more.

Doom is the first id game built without John Carmack's software expertise. Despite the change in leadership in this area, Doom excels in ways most game engines don't. It is one of the first to use Vulkan heavily for rendering, and shows how Vulkan can be a performance improvement over DirectX11 and OpenGL.

This game is one of the finest first-person shooters I've played in a long time. I have already played through it multiple times and expect to give it more playthroughs in the future.

Doom Eternal

Screenshot of Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal is a game where I have two opinions of it. The first is grading it as a general first-person shooter, in which case it plays well. The combat is fast-paced and tight, the controls are responsive, and there is a lot to do from level to level that it makes for a fun ride. But my second opinion is that it is not a good Doom game, as it deviates from most things that made the previous games so timeless.

When I think of Doom, I think of a game that gives you lots of weapons and expects you to blow your way through the level in whatever manner you please. The levels have a lot of exploration, as you need to find keys to open up the way to the end, which leads to a lot of slower periods of gameplay and backtracking through the worlds. The story is minimal, just enough to give you a reason to do all of this. And there is a rockin' metal soundtrack blasting the entire time.

Doom Eternal skips all this. Encounters are now designed around using a bunch of extra abilities in addition to weapons. These abilities are on timers, which makes it feel more like Destiny than Doom. Level exploration is no longer required, as completing a mission is just a straight corridor through, one fight arena after the other. The only exploration is for finding easter eggs and bonuses, and even these typically do not require much exploration, just looking in the right place at the right time. The story also takes itself seriously now, unlike Doom 2016 which present the story but showed that Doomguy did not care about the shenanigans of humans. Long cutscenes are out of place in a Doom game, yet they are here regularly.

At least Mick Gordon's soundtrack for this game is just as good as the previous entry's, even if the official soundtrack has a less than stellar audio mix.

Edge of Eternity

Screenshot of Edge of Eternity

Tactical roleplaying games are an underplayed genre for me. Edge of Eternity is the first one I have played in many decades.

The world of Edge of Eternity is a visual treat. The environmental artists did an excellent job of creating a stunning area to explore that did not break down at all. Likewise, the audio and music fit the rest of the game well. The voice acting was decent, although none of the characters stood out as being memorable in this regard. The story was cohesive and provided a reason to move forward, but it also did not break any boundaries and there are lots of details that did not stick in my head.

Despite the okay to great job with the art-side of the game, the gameplay did not hold up as well. The world looked great, but there was no room for exploration. There were not many secrets to discover, and what few existed were hidden behind puzzles that were not fun to play. The world was also not open until the very end. Previous to this, there were artificial roadblocks that made me feel like there was no point in trying to push against the game's boundaries until the very end. The combat itself was a lot of fun, but the progression systems around it were less fun. Gear progression and weapon leveling felt pointless and required grinding, and the difficulty progression was very uneven. The two main characters of the game were fine and well acted, but none of the side characters added much. This was made worse by the side characters regularly leaving the party, making it feel like there was no point in investing in anyone but the main two.

Edge of Eternity is not a bad game, but it is not a great game either. The artists at Midgar Studios did an excellent job, but the gameplay systems needed more time to be developed. There are a lot of great ideas present in the game, but they were not fleshed out enough to turn into a great game.

Elden Ring

Screenshot of Elden Ring

What started as a journey that began with Bloodborne, weaved through all 3 Dark Souls and Demon's Souls, has now come to Elden Ring. The previous games were all some of the most fun I have had with games in years, introducing me to something so new and exciting that it reminded me of the initial months after discovering EverQuest. Elden Ring managed to shatter my expectations, turning it into only the second singleplayer game I have dedicated over 100 hours to, with no end in sight.

The world of the Lands Between is incredibly well designed, belying the fact that this is FromSoftware's first open world game. The world harkens back to older open-world games that did not place markers to point you in the right direction, instead relying on dialogue and texts to guide you. All throughout the world is the typical storytelling that FromSoftware does best, with characters that do not share their intentions openly. The world itself is a mystery to unwrap, the stories of its inhabitants something to puzzle about with multiple playthroughs of the game. Despite uncovering most of the main plot-points of the game, I continue to find new ways that they are connected.

Elden Ring's gameplay takes the best elements of the previous games and combines them together. The tight combat system of Dark Souls III is melded with the non-linear journey of Dark Souls, then takes the character customizability from Dark Souls II, and adds a heaping dose of an improved dungeon system from Bloodborne. Just about element is done better than the previous games, with the moment-to-moment gameplay being the best that FromSoftware has done.

In an attempt to not only gush about the game, the one element that FromSoftware took a step back on was boss design. Most of the bosses in the dungeons are acceptable, if a bit simplified from what From has done before. The real problem comes from the demi-gods and other major bosses, many of which break the traditional designs of previous games. Combat in Bloodborne and Dark Souls III especially felt like a dance, a give and take with the boss, where reading the opponent and learning its patterns was a requirement for success. In Elden Ring, the same strategies apply, but there is no rhythm to the fights. Many of the bosses are overly aggressive with long relenting combo attacks, and moves that are clearly designed just to counter player tactics, instead of providing a fun experience.

Unlike many players, the challenging bosses have never been the main appeal of FromSoftware's catalog. The elements I enjoy most is their world design and storytelling, both of which are perfect in this game. There are many more NPCs in Elden Ring than there are in previous games, allowing a lot of insight into the world. I have not had this much fun with a game in such a long time, and do not see my playtime with the game waning for many more months, if not years.

Florence

Screenshot of Florence

Florence is a very different game from most of what else is written on this page. It is a game with little gameplay, instead being focused on the story. It can be completed in about half an hour, with little reason to replay it. Even the story is about a normal relationship that many people will have experienced in their own lives. No epic tale, no huge moral to the story.

But even as a "bite-size game-like experience", it is worth checking out. What Florence does, it does well. The story is told in a minimal style through a hand-drawn storybook aesthetic. The soundtrack fits the light-hearted nature of the visuals. It is not the most memorable soundtrack, but it isn't bad either.

Beyond that, there is not much to say about the game. A short review for a short game, but a positive one.

God of War (2018)

Screenshot of God of War

The 2018 entry into the God of War series, simply titled God of War, is the 8th game in the seris, and the first one that I have played through entirely. The previous entries in the series are a style of action game that I am not fond of, with the blatant sexism present in the games making the decision to pass on them an easy decision. After a few friends recommended this newest entry and said that it fixed a lot of the problems of the previous games, I picked it up and started playing.

The first impression of the game was incredible. The visuals of the game are top notch, with great sound design complementing the action on the screen. The characters are all modeled after their voice actors to varying degrees, and motion captured, giving them all a very life-like feel. This game is a good example of how actors can do more than just provide their voice to a game. One of the interesting aspects of the game was its attempt at being a single long shot from the beginning of the game until the end. This works for the most part, as all exploration in the main world keeps the consistency of the single cut, but some of the later passages through portals to other worlds include a complete fade to white, ruining the illusion.

For as good as the artistic elements of the game are, God of War felt like a 10 hour game stretched into 20 hours. A few parts of the story felt padded, including scenes that ended up not adding a lot to the final story. The combat system also had many elements that would have been better if it was condensed. The skill system opens up a lot of new abilities in the beginning of the game, but it starts to slow down and not add anything unique for the latter half of the game. Finally, the equipment system in the game felt tacked on, as if it was put in to be something else to upgrade over time. None of the upgrades from this system felt substantial though, with weapon upgrades occurring at set points in the game and armor upgrades making only a small difference in performance.

At launch, the also had many performance issues that brought even the most top-of-the-line machine down. The biggest offender was severe framerate stuttering whenever the game needed to load any new assets. On my system, this brought the framerate down into the 40s and occasionally the 30s. Thankfully, when it was not loading, I was able to run at max settings with AMD's FSR enabled to keep it nearly locked at 60 FPS.

Despite the issues with the game, I enjoyed my time with it. Even when the gameplay started to wane in quality, turning the difficulty down to enjoy the story kept the experience interesting. The direction this game has taken the series means I will give future titles some consideration. I just hope that they will do a better job of designing around their intended game length.

Gris

Screenshot of Gris

When I was playing through Gris, I was reminded of my first playthrough of Journey. The sense of wonder that the world had combined with the emotional experience of the game to create an unforgettable experience. The game's theme is presented in an abstract manner, but my take on it is dealing with the loss of a loved one. As the main character progresses through the game, she explores the depths of her own depression. Hints of this are seen in the game's achievements, which are named after various stages of grief.

The most memorable part of Gris is its visuals. Ever since the old platformers of the 1990s, there has been a hope of having games that look like a piece of hand-drawn art brought to life. Gris accomplishes this goal beautifully. All of the art is hand-drawn, with the characters having a pencil-drawn look, and the world being created through splashes of watercolor. Environmental effects look like paint spreading across the screen, creating a very otherworldly effect.

The gameplay of Gris is satisfying, albeit not the highlight of the game. The platform mechanics are lacking compared to other platformers. But since this game is more about the emotional and visual journey, the lack of strong platforming is not something I hold against the game.

Half-Life: Alyx

Compilation of Half-Life: Alyx screenshots

This game breaks the 13 years of waiting since the last Half-Life game, and 9 years since the last game to take place in the same universe with Portal 2. The summation of the game is that the wait was worth it. Half-Life: Alyx is a phenomenal game, one any Half-Life fan should play.

Since this is the first virtual-reality game that I played, I will focus on that aspect of things. There are many aspects of virtual reality that I understood on an abstract level, but experiencing them first-hand has made virtual reality the manner in which I want to play all future games. Full-body virtual reality especially creates an experience that nothing else has matched. Being able to duck beneath enemies or objects flying at you is incredible. When your character is talking to others up close and having to look up or down to match their gaze, which is tracking back at you, gives the game a realistic element that nothing else has matched. In fact, this is the one element of virtual reality that I love. Even if the characters are not photorealistic, their feeling like human-sized persons gives conversations and battles a whole new feel. This extends to true height and depth of the environments. Buildings can feel tall, and being on elevated ledges gives a stronger sense that falling will have catastrophic results.

The whiskey factory portion of the game shows how different a game can be in virtual reality. So many of the elements, from using both hands for different actions, to constant ducking, catching objects as they fall, and using the increased head mobility to be aware of your surroundings. Much as how Ravenholm is remembered from Half-Life 2 for its ambiance and level-design, the whiskey factory should be remembered for how different it is from any other gaming experience that was previously released.

Half-Life: Alyx is the first virtual reality game I have played, and already I have experience how its control scheme is superior to many other titles. Valve went through the effort of allowing complete customizationm in how the game is played, with support for both finger-tracked controls and typical buttons for interactions, to different settings for standing vs. sitting gameplay. The player is allowed to play with as much or as little body motion as they would like, which is great not only for personal preference but for accessibility resonse as well.

This game is a landmark game. Every aspect of it was great, and particular elements will stick with me for a while. It has sold me on the concept of virtual reality as a gaming platform, and I hope that more developers develop with this format in mind.

Heroes of the Storm

Screenshot of Heroes of the Storm

The MOBA genre is one that I have always liked more in theory than in practice. The original Defense of the Ancients was a regular entry on my list of custom Warcraft 3 maps, and Heroes of Newerth was a favorite at some old-school LAN parties I went to, but the genre has a number of gameplay mechanics that I find more tedious than fun. Last-hitting is the worst of these, but also the concept of carry characters that require protection early in the game to turn around and act as uber strong destroyers late in the game.

Where Heroes of the Storm's strength lies is in doing away with the MOBA mechanics that I dislike. There is no last-hitting mechanic, and all characters on a team level equally. Characters are not perfectly balanced against each other at all levels of play, but none need to be protected while they bloom into something that can hold their own. With mechanics that promote faster gameplay, Heroes of the Storm has a heavy emphasis on group fights. While I am not an expert on Dota 2, the matches I have watched had nowhere near the amounts of up-close fighting as when I play Heroes of the Storm.

In typical Blizzard fashion, Heroes of the Storm is a visual and aural treat. The graphics are in the typical art-style of Blizzard games, but with a higher level of detail than any of their other games. It looks beautiful in action, and native support for 21:9 and higher framerates allows it to feel more modern than some of their other games. The music includes orchestral rock versions of songs from all of their games. They're great remixes, and all fit together cohesively.

One of the negative aspects of development that Blizzard has with World of Warcraft also applies to Heroes of the Storm: endless and needles changes to balance. World of Warcraft famously revamps most classes every expansion, and Heroes of the Storm does the same with its characters. Every patch makes fundamental changes to how one or two characters play, changing their abilities and altering their skills. This included a larger change to the game by the introduction of lootboxes, the addictive gambling mechanic that Blizzard has been in love with since Overwatch's launch.

Out of all of the MOBA games available, Heroes of the Storm resonated with me the most. I enjoyed my time playing it, but with Blizzard wrapping down support for the game, as well as major overhauls to some of my favorite characters, I have little desire to ever play the game again. With the MOBA genre starting to lose favor to the battle royale genre, I do not see myself investing heavily in any other MOBA games after having played Heroes of the Storm.

Journey

Screenshot of Journey

I originally played this game back in 2012, when it launched near the end of the PlayStation 3's life. What made the game unique at the time was how the player was paired up with another random player. The only communication between the two players were through songs that you could sing using the controller. The identity of your partner(s) were not revealed until after the game was complete.

On my only playthrough on the PlayStation 3, I was partnered with a single person for the whole game. There are plenty of opportunities to lose your partner throughout the game, but we managed to stay close together and completed it together. We both messaged each other afterwards, and it was a pleasant experience with a person. I never played the game again because the game was complete for me, and while that partner did not turn into any sort of friendship, it was an experience I wanted to let sit on its own. That one partner went by the PSN name XXFairyTalesXX, and despite not knowing the person, I look back on the experience fondly.

When the game was released on PC, I concluded that I wanted to do a single playthrough again, and see how the experience matched the original playthrough 8 years prior. The game is just as engaging and gorgeous as I remembered, but there was one distinct difference: instead of completing the game with a single partner, I completed it with 5 different players. I did not realize how many there were at the time, although I knew there were at least 3. The first player I was connected with ran off without me at one point, and another was disconnected, with him crouching down and just disappearing before my eyes.

While unintentioned, the difference in playthroughs represented well where I was at each of those stages of my life. My first playthrough was back during my college years, where my connections to people I had known most of my life were strong. My circle of friends was expanding, but they were all long-lasting connections. The second playthrough summed up the changes that have come from further adulthood, with having multiple people for just parts of the journey of life, relying on more and more people to help get me through all of the challenges presented.

This difference has solidified my decision to not play through Journey again, despite my love for everything about it. The experience is truly complete now, and anything further would just muddy it down.

Kentucky Route Zero

Screenshot of Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game that follows the last journey of Conway, a delivery truck driver who has been tasked with the final delivery for the shop Lysette's Antiques. His journey to 5 Dogwood Drive to make his final delivery takes him on a journey first through Kentucky and then Route Zero, a surreal highway that bends space and time. Along the way, he meets many people who become his companions on his journey.

One of the key elements that makes Kentucky Route Zero such a memorable experience is the overall style of the game. Everything in the game feels out-of-time, with graphics that have both modern and retro elements. The world and its characters are all flat and textureless, bringing back memories of early 3d graphics from the 80s and 90s.

The music for the game, composed by Ben Babbitt, adds to the timeless feel of the game. Most of the music is atmospheric electronica, but there are interludes of folk songs befitting the locales visited. The highlight of the soundtrack is the Too Late To Love You, performed by the in-game characters of Junebug and Johnny. The sequence of their performance at the Lower Depths bar is the most memorable scene in all of the 5 acts of the game.

My journey along Route Zero was extraordinary, and one of the best adventure games I have played since the classics of the 90s. But it also feels like a one-time adventure, something that was incredible and memorable but would be lessened by playing through it again. I have experienced the story of Conway, and knowing the twists and turns of his trip would decrease the experience of a second playthrough. But like with most chapters in my own life, a great way to reminisce about my time spent with the game is by listening to the soundtrack, which I have done many times and will continue to long into the future.

Quake Champions

Screenshot of Quake Champions

The Quake series has always been one of my favorite series of games. Quake 1 and 2 are masterful singleplayer experiences, and Quake 3: Arena is the first PC game that I upgraded my graphics card for. With this background, I was looking forward to playing Quake Champions, despite some reticence over the decision for heroes to have timed special abilities.

The game hits the mark when it comes to fast-paced deathmatch. Quake 3 is one of the faster deathmatch games out there, and Quake Champions is close to it in speed. It feels like a proper Quake game with gorgeous gothic graphics and a wonderful industrial soundtrack by Chris Vrenna and Andrew Hulshult, while still modernizing with new mechanics such as character customization. Despite the hardcore competitive nature of the game, the overall community is positive. There was little trashtalk and immaturity during my time playing it.

Quake Champions is not without flaws. The game's art direction is perfect for a Quake game, but the engine does not hold up to the technical brilliance of previous entries. Performance slow downs and netcode hiccups are a regular occurrence. It is the first Quake game to not use an Id Tech engine, and it shows. Despite Doom having support for Vulkan, the developers have stated that Vulkan will not be coming to Quake Champions. It is also hard to get past the issue of lootboxes in the game. There is an option to purchase the game with all current and future characters unlocked, but all of the customization options come from loot boxes. These can be earned easily while playing, but between duplicates and the sheer amount of items available, it is likely specific looks for characters will need to be purchased for real cash. Unlock Overwatch and other similar games, individual items can not be unlocked with an in-game currency.

Unseating Quake 3: Arena as the king of arena shooters is a difficult task, and Quake Champions does not do that. Still, it is a solid entry into the Quake series and I am happy to have spent time playing it. As of this writing, the game is still in beta, and features are added regularly. The one feature that I miss from the game that will hopefully be added in the future is a Capture The Flag mode. This was my favorite mode to play in Quake 3, and I would love to play it again here.

Resident Evil 2 (2019)

Screenshot of Resident Evil 2 (2019)

Up until this game, the Resident Evil series is one that I have not given a serious try. I briefly played the original Resident Evil 2 back in high school, but I did not get very far with. The remake was not on my radar until I tried the demo due to the rave reviews it was receiving. I was hooked instantly. Since I do not have much experience with the original game, I can only judge it based on what I am experiencing as a new player.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is that the overall area to explore is small. Once all of the doors are unlocked, it takes about a minute to run from one spot to any other spot there, but the journey to unlock it all is fun. It's a maze of puzzles and locked doors to get through, while also avoiding the endless stream of enemies. It is also rich with small details that are a joy to find. Many other games being created these days include large expansive worlds that are not filled with details. It is expected that a person will just run as fast as possible to their destination and not worry about the journey there. Resident Evil 2 takes the opposite approach, with most of the maps have something to discover in every nook and cranny.

Resident Evil 2 does a great job of making the environment feel dangerous. Areas without lights are truly dark, with your flashlight being the only way you can see. Binaural sound plays a huge role in hinting at where danger is about to pop out at you. This is especially true when Mr. X is stalking you through the police station. Listening to the direction his footsteps are coming from helps to avoid him.

The best part about this remake is that a lot of care was given to every detail of the game. Everything about it felt great, and I had a blast playing through both playthroughs of the game. While I do not feel the need to try and get every unlock, I enjoyed my time immensely and recommend anyone into horror and/or survival to give it a go.

StarCraft & StarCraft: Brood War

Screenshot of StarCraft

StarCraft is a difficult game to talk about while completely ignoring its legacy. This is the game that showed that e-sports can be successful, that competitions and tournaments can have hundreds of thousands of people watching. But my relationship with the game exists outside of this area, as it is a game that I only played singleplayer or with my closest friends.

The story of the game is an average story, but it is made memorable by its execution. The way the story intertwines with the missions, and told through the voices of the amazing cast, puts the singleplayer up there with the all-time greats. All of the characters are unique and memorable, with a lot of nuance to the differing sides.

Multiplayer is fun, but due to the lack of customizable controls and my being left-handed, I could never be competitive. This led to most of my multiplayer time being spent playing against the AI, in what was called "comp stomps". The most commonly played map was Big Game Hunters, which is the most memorable RTS map I have ever played.

Going back to this game after so many years has been difficult. The lack of customizable controls makes it difficult for me to get back into, especially after what was allowed in Red Alert 3 and StarCraft II. But even 20 years later, I can see what I loved about it back then. Blizzard's 2017 remaster of the game did a great job of updating the visuals while leaving everything else the same, preserving what made the game so unique for its time.

StarCraft II

Screenshot of StarCraft II

Strategy and tactical games have remained a genre of games that I have long wished I was more dedicated to. Despite having many friends who played Command and Conquer, my first real introduction to the genre was Age of Empires. I played through a few other strategy games over the years, but it always fell out of favor quickly. It was not until StarCraft II was released that I found a strategy game that I both loved and felt like I could play well.

The singleplayer for StarCraft II is split into three campaigns, one for each race within the game. All three campaigns emphasize both the good and the bad of the original StarCraft. The story is trite just like the first, but the execution is even worse. Blizzard has certain story tropes that they repeat in every game, and this includes just about every one. Despite the lackluster story-telling, the gameplay was fun. It showcased what was new compared to the original game quite well, and gave a lot of customization that was not present previously.

Everything in StarCraft II was expanded compared to what was in StarCraft. More units were added, providing more options to an end-game strategy. Singleplayer had even more units and upgrades available compared to multiplayer, due to not needing to balance them all as tightly. Multiplayer was a sublime experience, with more options for ladder play and cooperative play. At launch, the game included built-in fights against AIs, and later it added a dedicated cooperative mode that placed two players together against a more difficult version of the campaign missions.

At the end of 2020, ten years after its initial release, Blizzard announced that future development for the game would cease and that the game would be entering maintenance mode. Outside of minor balance changes, Blizzard is treating the game as "complete". It is an expected but still unfortunate end for the game, as it felt like it was closing in on perfection in the last few years before this announcement.

Despite this announcement, StarCraft II is a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. It is partially free-to-play now, with the first campaign and multiplayer components available without purchase. The game took a few years to find itself, it is now as good of a strategy game as has every existed. It is one of the few games where it is hard to see how it could truly be topped in greatness. Maybe one day there will be a challenger to its throne, but the decline of the genre as a whole makes me doubt that.

Subnautica

Screenshot of Subnautica

This is a game that surpassed my expectations in every way possible. Before Subnautica, the closest thing to a survival game that I played was Metal Gear Solid 3, which was more stealth-action with some light survival elements. The idea of having to "waste time" gathering resources to eat and heal took away from the action, which was more to my liking. The main reason I decided to give Subnautica a chance at all was due to Unknown Worlds Entertainment creating it. They created Natural Selection, one of my all-time favorite online games, so knowing the quality they are capable of pushed me to purchase the game and give it a shot.

What is most striking about the game to me is the art direction of it. Subnautica is a gorgeous game. I often found myself just idling about, enjoying the scenery. Many times I would sit on the top of my escape pod and just watch the sun and then rise again. All of the underwater caves have a unique feel to them that reward exploration. The abandoned bases that you come across are eerie and really feel like something that was built by another person. Sounds plays an important part in the game. As would be expected for a game focused on underwater locales, there are many areas that are nearly pitch black, requiring the use of sound for successfully navigate or to warn of incoming danger. The music adds to the overall ambiance of the game, with a soundtrack that is enjoyable to listen to both in and out of the game.

Subnautica does a great job of giving hints of the way forward without ever forcing you to do so. The world is open to exploration at the player's leisure. The one catch to this is that resources in the game do no respawn. A part of the ocean can be over-fished, or mineral resources tapped completely. This pushes the player to try and live more sustainably, or to go to further depths to explore. There are a lot of options available, all equally right in how you want to approach accomplishing your goal.

Unknown Worlds Entertainment created an amazing experience in this game. By the end, I was happy to have explored the game so thoroughly, but sad that it was ending. I know it will be hard game to go back and play again, as much of the mystery will be gone. But the memories I gained through my first playthrough are still vivid in my mind, even months after playing. No other game has had exploration that felt as rewarding as this one, nor created a world that will stick in my mind for a long time to come.

Subnautica: Below Zero

Screenshot of Subnautica: Below Zero

As the sequel to one of the few survival games to click with me, Subnautica: Below Zero was instantly on my radar since the first announcement. Unknown Worlds is a developer that I trust to purchase everything from, as every work of theirs has been something that I enjoyed. The original Subnautica had a long Steam Early Access period that I missed out on, so I decided to jump in as soon as I could, making this game the first one that I played for an extended beta.

This is a brilliant sequel to Subnautica. While it is a stand-alone game, it works better playing it after having played the first game. The gameplay is the same, but with more tools to play around with. The world is smaller, but more focused on providing a more concrete story than the original game had. This does lead to them being difference experiences, with Below Zero being story-focused and the original being exploration focused. Playing them in release order helps with the flow, as the exploration and experimentation of the original is the focus of the game, whereas the story fills in for how an experienced player will progress quicker.

When the game originally launched into Early Access in January 2019, I dove in. The familiar gameplay let me get started quickly, and experience the new elements right away. The story of the game, while incomplete at the initial launch, was much more apparent than the story of the original. The game presents a direction for you to explore right away, with many more logs and communications with living people than the original had. Throughout Early Access, the world was expanded and areas completed, but there was no major changes to the landmasses. Near the end of 2019, Unknown Worlds announced that the story would be completely overhauled, with some elements moving forward but most of it changing. This was interesting, as I enjoyed the original story, but being able to experience the same world with a new story would be fun too. The final story that Unknown Worlds finished the game with is good, but I am glad I had the opportunity to experience the game twice: with the old story and with the final story.

Despite being a relatively short game, my journey with Subnautica: Below Zero was over a nearly 2.5 year period. I played multiple saves under the original storyline, and then once through with the new storyline near the end of Early Access. As said earlier, this is a worthy sequel to the original game, and every element of it is well-executed, but part of what made the original Subnautica so brilliant is the experience of the first playthrough. The world is intimidating and scary, especially as a new player, and while that wanes towards the end of the game, it is not like the complete comfortableness that you feel in Below Zero. There was never a time that I felt a sense of foreboding, wondering what was around the corner deep inside of a cave, as I already had all of the knowledge and tools to deal with any challenge that would be presented. I am glad Unknown Worlds did not try to recreate that experience, as the direction they went feels better for a sequel. But the original Subnautica will hold a special place for me that this sequel can not touch.

Super Mario Odyssey

Screenshot of Super Mario Odyssey

2017 was the year Nintendo transitioned their two biggest series into a more open world format. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took the world by storm, whereas Super Mario Odyssey, has been less influential. While the game has been critically acclaimed, Super Mario Odyssey is a game that does not take advantage of its open world design as well as games that came before it,

One of the most important aspects of an open world game is taking advantage of the wide open space that is being created. Super Mario Odyssey looks like an open world game at first, but it does not do anything to take advantage of its open world design. Most of the worlds feel like disparate levels that are placed next to each other. The most obvious example of this is the Sand Kingdom, which shows up early in the game. Every part of the world is a small puzzle, with lots of empty space in between. There were a few puzzles that could be bypassed by using a cannon in a neighboring section, removing the challenge of the puzzles that were meant to be passed. The only aspect of the open world that is used is the longer viewable distance than you would get with a more traditional Super Mario game.

Despite the issues with the open world, the individual levels and puzzles are well designed. Super Mario has been a strong platforming series since its inception, and that continues with Odyssey. The puzzles, both logical and timing, are fun to play through. Anyone looking for a competent platforming game will be happy with this. The distinctive new gameplay feature of the game is one area where it was fun to play, but also is unoriginal. In Odyssye, Mario is able to take over enemies and control as them, including using their special abilities. This is reminiscent of Nintendo's Kirby series of games, as Kirby is able to eat enemies and take on their abilities. This is partially made up for by how fun it is to play. But despite this, it still feels unoriginal in this game.

The one element that I can't excuse in the game is the continued use of the same sexist trope that has been central to the series since the very beginning. The premise of Super Mario Odyssey is Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, setting up her rescue by Mario. Most of the series uses this trope, but Odyssey manages to take it a step further: Bowser has not only kidnapped Princess Peach, but is forcing her to marry him. Throughout the game, he taunts Mario about this fact. At one point, he asks if Mario is jealous due to him having possession of Peach. The end of the game involves both Bowser and Mario presenting peach with flowers, asking her to not be with the other. At this point, the game attempts to subvert the trope, but after 10 hours of seeing it play out as it did, it was not enough to cancel out the horrible use of it.

All of these criticisms of the the game lead it to being my least favorite game in the Super Mario series. The fact that Nintendo is making no effort to move past the problematic story elements lessens the whole series. The Legend of Zelda is an example that shows Nintendo can make steps forward on the issue. But Odyssey manages to be a step backwards. All of the well done level design can not make up for this fact, nor can it cover up the missed mark of a boring open world design.

The Talos Principle

Screenshot of The Talos Principle

The development studio Croteam is known for the series of over-the-top first-person shooters that make up the Serious Sam series of games. When they announced The Talos Principle, a narrative puzzle game with a serious tone, it was a surprise change in direction from their typical style. I was unsure what to expect from the game, but after playing it, I can say that Croteam has achieved in unseating Portal as my favorite first-person puzzle game.

The best PC puzzle games have an element to them that goes beyond just having well-crafted puzzles. Whether it's a great story or a memorable artistic style, something additional is needed for it to be memorable. The Talos Principle goes a step further than most, by crafting a story around the philosophy of existence through the lens of an artificial intelligence. The player is an android taking part in a long-running test to create a machine intelligence that can match humans in exhibiting a "free will". Regular conversations about what it means to be alive, the nature of reality, and the philosophy of religious dogma are constant throughout the writing. The player is not the first artificial intelligence to be tested, as messages from previous androids show them exhibiting religious beliefs and creating their own history of how the world ended up as it is.

The world itself is designed to feel artificial, yet there is a deep history displayed throughout it. All of the areas that you solve puzzles in are rooted in the architecture of historical societies. Computer terminals are spread throughout the world that give insight into the creators of the player's android, as well as the reasoning that is slowly uncovered as to why the android is being tested. Inside these terminals is a chatbot that hides whether it is a true intelligence or just a simple bot that responds to preset inquiries. The world feels lived in and makes it apparent you are not the first one to be tested, as previous androids have left messages throughout the world, discussing their thoughts on the current tests, their beliefs, or leaving tiny hints as to why they are failing in hopes that a future android will make it further than them.

All of these elements combine in a way that should not work as well as it does. Few developers can pull off a game that starts out as a mere puzzle game and that slowly adds a philosophical workout on top, but Croteam has managed to do it, largely thanks to writers Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes. While the game ends with a strong conclusion, I am looking forward to further games from Croteam done in this same style.

Tyranny

Screenshot of Tyranny

Tyranny concludes a trilogy of CRPGs that for me started with the Pillar's of Eternity duet and continued through Torment: Tides of Numenera. I am glad to have played the game, but have come to the conclusion that I am ready to be done with this breed of CRPG for a while.

Where Tyranny shines is in its story and characterizations. The game does not cover as broad of a story as Pillars of Eternity, instead focusing on a smaller subset of the world. Sections of the world are confined to 4-5 areas, each being roughly the same size as an area in the original Baldur's Gate. These areas are used for one or two quests, and then you will move on.

As the world is smaller, so too is the selection of characters to act as party members. There are only 6 characters to choose from. These characters are written well, with excellent voice acting. The only problem is that much like the world does not offer many less-traveled areas to explore, the characters do not have additional depth that takes probing to learn about. For example, there is but one story for the character of Verse. Whether she is loyal to you or fearful of you matters little for how it plays out. Just an hour or so of questing and that is the additional depth to it. In fact, the lack of optional content that is present in the game is both a pro and a con. On the pro side, the game is short compared to other titles in the genre. I completed my first playthrough in 21 hours, and that included time exploring side quests. A future playthrough in under 15 hours sounds doable if I focus on the main story. The con to this is that having more to explore would have been great. Tyranny's world is unique compared to many others, and the characters have a solid base for future expansion. Unfortunately, this looks like it will never come to be.

While the world was enjoyable, the combat of the game is lacking. It is typical CRPG combat, but in such high volume that it detracts from the story as the game goes on. Certain segments of the game include longer dungeons full of fights, and by halfway through the game, I turned down the difficulty just to progress through them faster. The combat is not bad, as it was in Torment: Tides of Numenera, but it is not great either.

Tyranny feels like a budget Obsidian title. It has all the hallmarks of a great game, but everything is cut short or lacks polish. The expansion packs in particular offered the hope of being able to dive further into the world, but are unfortunately bug-ridden to the point where quests stopped progressing for me. Since patches ceased for the game at the end of 2016, it is unlikely to see any further refinement in this area. Tyranny is both a good game for what it was does, but disappointing in that I wanted more from it and was not able to have it.

Unreal

Screenshot of Unreal

There are three first-person shooters from the 1990s that I consider essential: Doom, Half-Life, and Unreal. All three influenced the genre in ways, while each being their own unique game.

Of the three, Unreal is my favorite to go back and revisit. Whereas the other two are more action-packed, Unreal is slower, with a stronger sense of isolation. Within the game, you are a prisoner stranded on a foreign planet. The sense of being out of place is strong, as local inhabitants react to your presence in both friendly and cautious ways. Some of the world's languages can be translated by your computer, but other parts of the world the player has to piece together to understand.

Unreal is one of the first games where lighting felt like an important facet of the world. The world has a realistic variance in lighting levels, including some sections where the only way to see is by using a hand-held torch. Unreal is not the first game to have multiple colors of lighting, but it uses it more effective than any before it. By modern standards, Unreal does have a soft quality to it, but the art direction still provides a strong sense of wonder to the whole world. Levels are large and open, with a lot of minor details present that help you feel like you are in a world, not just a game.

The music of Unreal stands in stark contrast to many other shooters. Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos created a more ambient soundtrack that melds into the world. It changes tempo to match the mood of the gameplay, but never distracts from what is going on. The soundtrack is great to listen to outside of the game, as there are a lot of interesting textures used to create the music.

Doom and Half-Life get a lot of the glory for 1990s first-person shooters, but Unreal is the one that I have put the most time into. Every year or two, I go back and play through it again, and enjoy it just as much as I always have. Few other games match the mood set by Unreal, which is why I do not think I will ever grow tired of it.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Screenshot of What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is the best narrative walking simulator that I have played.

The game is structured as a series of short stories. Each one is about the life and fate of a member of the Finch family. Some of the stories are told in a straight-forward manner, but some are told in a more unique manner. For example, Barbara Finches story is told like an old 1950s horror comic, with the camera moving between comic panes. This is fitting for her character, as she was renowned for screaming in a horror movie, and her death involved an unsolved home invasion, making it ripe for mimicking the style of a Tales from the Crypt-styled comic.

What separates this game from others is its visual acumen. The game is the most visually appealing walking simulator that I have played, with a wide range of graphical styles present. From the realistic visuals of the house, to the comic styles of Barbara's story, to the imaginary dream world of Lewis' story, there is much to enjoy in this department. Additionally, Jeff Russo does an amazing job with creating a soundtrack that fits the overall theme of the stories being told.

Like most games in this genre, it is short. The whole game can be experienced in about 2 hours total, and it is best played through in one sitting.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Screenshot of Wolfenstein: Youngblood

The Wolfenstein series of games have been very successful, with some of the latest entries being quite well regarded. Despite this, my time with the series has been minimal outside of playing Wolfenstein 3D back in the 1990s. Wolfenstein: Youngblood caught my eye due to being an FPS with RPG elements, two genres that go very well together. Unfortunately, the game did not live up to any expectations I had.

The FPS side of the game is a large step back from where other FPS games have gone in recent years. It is not the worst gunplay that I have experienced, but it is on the lower end of things. None of the weapons feel like they have any weight to them. This is made worse by enemies being bullet sponges that take too long to take down. Different categories of weapons are more effective against specific types of enemies, but the options are limited that you switch between two different weapons that do not feel that different in their useage.

The FPS game systems are lacking, but the RPG systems are bad. The skill tree system in the game does not feel consequential outside of the ability to use a few new types of weapons. Otherwise, most abilities can be earned through gameplay with enough time, meaning that there is little choice to be made. This all seems tacked on to the game without any thought being given to how it can improve on the overall experience.

The final nail in the coffin for the game is the narrative. The overall story is a nice flip with the main characters, Jessie and Zofia Blazkowicz, working to free their father, B.J. Blazkowicz, from Nazi capture. The characters are decently written, although their schtick is tiring by the end of the game. The main story is interesting, but most of the side quests in the game add little to the overall narrative. The game feels overly long as a result, with the main story not able to carry the weight of the 10-15 hour experience. By the time the ending credits rolled, I was happy to be done with it.

The 7th Guest

Screenshot of The 7th Guest

The 7th Guest was a technological marvel for its time. All of the games that I had played previously were simpler 2D sprites or basic 3D polygons with no textures. This game had full-motion video, pre-rendered 3D models that moved, fully voice-acted, and came on a CD-ROM instead of a collection of floppy discs. It was a unique game for its time, one of the first to require a CD-ROM. Being young and into huge technological leaps, the game interested me for this reason alone, but the rest of the game stuck with me for long after.

This was the first puzzle game of this nature that I played. The closest to this that I had played previously was entries in the King's Quest and Space Quest series. The puzzles in The 7th Guest are more logical in nature, involving word puzzles, chess-based puzzles, and other types of manipulations of devices to arrive at a specific solution. Most of the puzzles are fun to work through, and back during its release, I recall taking notes about different aspects to solve them.

The most lasting element of the game for me is the character of Henry Stauf. He is wonderfully portrayed by Robert Hirschboeck. From his introduction until the end of the game, he haunts you, taunting your failures as you work through his mansion and his puzzles. Hirschboeck plays him as an over-the-top lunatic. From his maniacle laugh to his constant riddles, the character has become one of my favorite game antagonists of this era.

I have played The 7th Guest many times over the years. Each time, I enjoy it thoroughly. Every element of it is great and holds up well. while I usually do not get into big horror binges during October, this game is loaded up most Halloweens for a quick jaunt into the creepy halls of Stauf's mansion.

The 11th Hour

Screenshot of The 11th Hour

As the sequel to The 7th Guest, The 11th Hour has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, it did a poor job of living up to its predecessor.

The best parts of the game are the puzzles that are well designed and challenging, and Robert Hirschboeck's portrayal of Stauf. His script size increased with this game, and his taunting of you throughout is a lot of fun. It's unfortunate the rest of the returning cast from The 7th Guest weren’t given the same level of care, relegated to short cameos with no impact on the plot.

The story is a huge letdown. The 7th Guest did not have the most original of plots, but it felt organic while you explored the mansion and, most importantly, it never overstayed its welcome. It was campy and over-the-top in a good way. The 11th Hour spent most of its story outside of the mansion. It was separate from the main game, and the two stories did not come together in any sort of satisfying way.

The scavenger hunt part of the game was a drag on it. Some of the clues are clever, but many are obtuse, and I did not have much fun with this part of it. It might have been better if there were less of them. There were around 4-5 hunts per puzzle to solve, which feels like they were padding the game length. The game at least makes it easy to skip past them if that’s your prerogative.

I’m glad I finally played it through to the end. It’s not a horrible game, but definitely a let down after the original.

The 13th Doll

Screenshot of The 13th Doll

This game was an absolute delight. As a huge fan of The 7th Guest since it was brand new, I was wary going into this, expecting it to very much feel like a fan project that was a let-down compared to what came before it. But what I found was a game that kept all of the elements that worked well in the original, polished the ones that didn't, and then took better versions of the new elements from The 11th Hour. All around, it feels like the sequel that The 11th Hour should have been from the beginning.

The biggest sin of The 11th Hour was having a story that had little to do with Stauf and his mansion. The 13th Doll fixes this by the entirety of the story being based around Stauf's mansion. The characters are being tormented by Stauf, and everything is experienced from the first-person perspective, just as it was in the original. It's all the same cheesy horror that The 7th Guest had, just in higher fidelity. The writing remixes a lot of bits from the original, but not to the detriment of it. It feels like a continuation, not a rip-off like I was fearing.

For the most part, the puzzles were a lot of fun. It's been a while since a new puzzle game made me want to sit down and work through these with notes. There were a few that I took my notes on them with me to work and continued to try and figure out a solution, or at least a strategy to try when I got home. Even the rare puzzle against the AI was fun, since the rules were simplified and you could more quickly focus on figuring out the AI's tactics and not deciphering the puzzle's rules.

It's not as technically groundbreaking as the original, but I would say this game matches The 7th Guest in every other way. It is an incredible game if you enjoyed The 7th Guest, and is a fitting end to the whole series. Since this is likely the last time Robert Hirschboeck will get to play the character of Stauf, I am happy that the game was a strong closer for the character and the series as a whole.