Recently I have been playing two games from the Legend of Heroes series; Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel. Both have impressed me with their storytelling decisions; although their stories may not be those of the most novel characters, and their settings at first glance do not seem significantly original, a number of fine details make the games stand out as a quite different approach to well-worn ground. The games make use of their protagonists’ inexperience in a way that does not immediately suggest some world-changing destiny and thanks to more leisurely pacing provide a much stronger sense of a coming-of-age story. Any development into the resolution of a nationwide conspiracy thus becomes a political awakening as much as a heroic destiny.
One of the things I like most about the board game Archipelago is its hidden-identity mechanic; it feels distinct from other hidden-identity games in a way that only Dead of Winter comes close to. Each player has a unique game-end condition as well as a loyalty; one may or may not be a traitor, but each action must be weighed against the possibility that it will end the game. Each game-end condition is itself paired with a scoring condition – as the game is purely competitive, there is not purely a shared, known victory condition, but numerous ways to score of which only a few are known. Thus the uncertainty comes in knowing only a small proportion of the scoring conditions, and the remainder must be learned from reading how the other players act.
Red 7 is a compelling card game, a fast-playing skill-based numbers game that offers a number of variants in the box to bring it from a simple family game to something slightly more complex. It falls within the set of quick games that are not quite fillers or party games, but which nevertheless only take half an hour or so to play – games like Traders of Osaka, Splendor, The Game and Code of Nine which have enough complexity to satisfy experienced boardgamers, but simple enough rules and a short enough playtime to fit easily into an evening between games.
Traders of Osaka, a rethemed reissue of Traders of Carthage, is a comparatively light economic game with an enjoyable strategic depth behind concise and easily taught rules. It uses multiple purpose cards in several roles, minimising the array of components in a similar fashion to Glory to Rome, which is a design decision that can – as it does here – efficiently communicate a lot of information. If a card has multiple potential uses, any given draw will add that number of tactical options and so the market manipulation aspects of Traders are given complexity beyond chasing high value cards. The game also offers the potential for players to recover well from errors; unless a large number of mistakes are made in succession, a single setback is unlikely to completely put a player out of contention. Perhaps its greatest strength, though, is its use of open information to give players a lot of control over the game state and play strategically – while also making apparently hostile moves potentially profitable.
The final five of my Top 15 Games of 2015; again it is worth repeating that being in this final five does not reflect on relative quality, only timing.
OlliOlli 2 is an entertaining follow-up to the original OlliOlli, expanding on its straightforward skateboarding action and serving as another prime example of how the endless runner genre can be expanded into an in-depth game. Combining the simple jump-and-dodge action and challenge chasing of something like Punch Quest with the arcade skateboarding action of the classic Tony Hawk games, it is challenging yet still easy enough to learn. The plethora of such fun, retro-style action games which merge modern light game sensibilities with the finely-tuned ideas of retro gaming that can be bought on various download services is a pleasant thing; many of these games serve to remind the player of the good memories they have of retro games while including many of the changes to the medium that have improved it.
Mario Maker stuck with me far more easily than the comparable LittleBigPlanet mostly because Mario is iconic and something with which I was familiar. As a creation kit for 2D platform games it is not perfect – the gating of map components, while a sensible ease-of-use feature for new players, was too slowly undone – but as a recreation of Mario physics it is spot-on. As a result levels can be made that do not necessitate anything except experience of Mario to take part – one of the things I disliked about LBP was its idiosyncratic physics and mechanics that never seemed to gel with me. The virtues of Mario Marker are primarily ease-of-use and quality-of-life ones; the core game engine within is so timeworn and refined it is hard to fault. Players may not upload a level they cannot beat (removing some of the issues endemic to other user-creation engines of unplayable junk levels predominating), for example. In many ways a refined, user-experience focused Mario level maker is the best use of retro game nostalgia possible; the player may design their own play experience and be given the tools of classic game design with a user-friendly front-end.
Assault Android Cactus
Although this game was released via Steam Early Access some time ago, it was finally finished in 2015 and was very much worth the wait. A twin-stick shooter with a large library of unique characters, interesting multi-stage bosses and entertaining cheat codes unlocked by scoring well, it is – much like OlliOlli 2 – a modern user-experience gloss on retro gaming. Cheat codes range from deformed models and colour filters to adding AI players, super-difficulty modes and most interestingly of all a slightly erratic but interesting first-person mode – arguably unplayable on some levels but entertaining it how functional it is. Although it is mechanically a simple arena shooter there are enough level gimmicks, enemy variations and weapon options to make it highly replayable; there is a lot of fun to be found in taking a new character with a new moveset into old levels to set a high score. A real highlight of the level gimmicks is a very difficult late-game level which turns the basic timer mechanic (players must grab battery items to keep their timer going) on its head by adding an AI rival competing for the same power-ups.
Star Wars Battlefront
This may be a controversial choice; some people have argued this game too simple and lacking depth to have lasting enjoyment value. I would argue that in theory this is its virtue; it sells itself as offering a Star Wars experience and provides that without the in-depth customisation that adds busywork to Call of Duty. From the off players can be Star Wars characters, getting the iconic Rebel and Imperial blasters, X Wings and TIE Fighters without needing to unlock them. Powerups add some democracy to the Battlefield inspired vehicle action by limiting the opportunity to camp vehicle spawns, and also add the joy of getting to fly the Millennium Falcon or become Darth Vader. One can sit down and get as epic or as restrained an experience as one wants; it is a FPS for busy people and there is definitely a place for that. While, arguably, Call of Duty‘s 5-minute matches are perhaps more suitable for quick play the work of maintaining classes and the drip-feeding of unlocks via weapon XP, unlock tokens and so on adds a metagaming level to it that Star Wars does not have. Players can get new blasters, but that is as far as it goes and the iconic weapons – the classic Stormtrooper rifle, for example – are available from the start.
DanganRonpa Ultra Despair Girls
DanganRonpa and its sequel are fascinating, grotesque visual novels with logic puzzle elements. That this spinoff is a third-person shooter seems at first bizarre, but the result is something far weirder and more compelling than anyone could imagine. It redoubles the grotesque horror of DanganRonpa, with the loathsome Monokuma in many ways replaced as antagonist by a group of depraved children whose backstories – revealed in grim cutscenes – should be sympathetic but cannot easily be reconciled with the way they act. It is a game of ever-deeper depths of vileness and the only catharsis comes in its wearyingly peppy comedy between the dim protagonist and the erratic, lecherous Toko Fukawa (a returning character from the first game). Full of esoteric anime jokes, interesting and challenging collectible hunts and puzzle rooms and some strangely-designed shooter mechanics that work in a way that disorients veterans of the genre, Ultra Despair Girls feels like a meta-commentary on shooters and the expectations of misunderstood villains.
These are the next five games in my Top 15 of 2015; again, there is no weighted or ranked order given, these are merely the games which I most enjoyed playing and would most recommend.
Black Closet is an unusual game; it is a dice-based investigation game with a heavy resource management aspect and a hidden traitor mechanic that give it the overall feel of a board game like Dark Moon or Battlestar Galactica. The joy of those board games is the way in which hidden information and personal agendas turn routine resource-management in the face of an increasingly punishing deck of crises into an experience of memorable personal stories of betrayal and deception. Simulating this with an AI on its own would be dull, as there is no capacity to “read” people or utilise social aspects. What Black Closet does is add the aspects of game design that a computer game excels at – narrative. Each crisis in Black Closet is framed with flavour text and different “actions” met with in-character responses. In one case, the suspect may break at the first sign of pressure while in another they may remain defiant to the end. Similarly, the ways in which the player must find the traitor include moments of character interaction, inviting suspects for interviews under social guises. Although it is largely randomly generated, Black Closet has a lot of character to it and an engaging mixture of gamist elements (in the assignment of “workers” to “actions”) and narrativist elements (choosing friends, pursuing relationships, acting thematically). One could convert it easily to a board game – it wears its mechanics plainly on its sleeve, and one could generate a deck of crises the size of Battlestar‘s, and a deck of social challenges to rival Dead of Winter‘s Crossroads deck, but in many ways the substitution of social interaction with visual novel narrative makes it unique.
What sets Splatoon apart from almost every other multiplayer arena shooter is its ability to follow through on inoffensiveness. It is worth noting that for the longest time the defence of shooter games against accusations of normalising violence was they they were clearly simulated and distanced from real conflict, their lack of realism and their competitive, sporting nature what made them incomparable with real war. This is not easy to rationalise with a movement in gaming towards ever more realistic weaponry, locales and political focus. The stories being told and the medium of the telling were unrealistic, but the visual trappings were realistic which, in my mind, undermines the claims that it is fantastical. And, indeed, if one is to believe that playing a game of war is harmless sporting competition, and that sporting competition wears the visuals of real conflict, there is an alarming association. By contrast, Splatoon offered nothing but play and sport. It at no point framed itself in real weaponry, or real violence, or even the real world. It was creatures playing with toys in friendly, pain-free rivalry. Its settings were sporting arenas and civilian places not bombed out and wartorn but put aside for sport. It did not need technobabble to explain why real bullets and missiles could be fired and the people respawn, it simply said that its focus was on paintballing. One may still argue that the very act of combat games is the product of a militarised society, but everything else about Splatoon suggests that it is prepared to follow through on the claims that shooter games do not depict real war.
N++ is an abstract, pure game of geometric shapes, basic hazards and reflex tests. It is entirely skill-based, predictable and based on the mastery of its systems. As a result it is best described as the distillation of the platform game genre, and possibly even an ur-video game. What, I feel, these archetypal, pared-down games do is offer one extreme of why video games excel as a form of entertainment. Something like Steins;Gate is pure story, something to be immersed in. Something like N++ is pure skill, a reaction test and patience test. In some ways playing it is like work – it does not even have the theme and character of top-tier skill test Bloodborne, it is purely minimalist action. But at the same time it is rewarding in its abstraction. Card games are abstract – they are purely numerical and statistical exercises that do not try to tell a story. Perhaps titles like N++ – which are pure games yet not efforts to recreate physical games or sport-like activities in digital forms – fill that same niche as something like cribbage or whist do for board games?
Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Games’ library of licensed adventure games, which offer limited interaction yet a strong focus on characters and choices which gives the illusion of far greater choice, can be seen perhaps as a Western analogue to the more popularly Japanese visual novel. They add aspects of first- and third-person action games as well as traditional point-and-click adventures, with reflex-based combat sequences and more freeform exploration, and the whole package is highly entertaining. Tales from the Borderlands is a good example – a spinoff of the comedy shooter series Borderlands, which takes what is arguably its most interesting aspect (the comedy and setting) and puts it into a form that needs a different skill-set to a loot-based FPS. Such reinventions are interesting – there is something of a tension between the heavily skill-based genres of game and the narrativist movement of the medium, and something that expands a series across boundaries is to be praised. What is particularly to Tales‘ credit is how funny it is, and how it does something interesting with the setting; by removing the shooting aspect, it is able to have a protagonist who is ill-suited to the violence inherent to the setting and so much of the comedy is about him trying to avoid conflict.
Yoshi’s Woolly World
Yoshi’s Woolly World is an excellent update of the classic Yoshi’s Island, an entertaining platform game which in its time was notable for its unique hand-drawn art style. Woolly World goes one further, with a hand-crafted aesthetic of everything knitted or sewn, and puzzles and mechanics based around this. Secrets are hidden by loose threads or knots to be untied, the trademark egg is replaced by a ball of wool, and secret items include more balls of wool which allow new characters to be woven. As a platform game it is not necessarily the most innovative, for even its methods of combining aesthetics and mechanics generally fall back on genre staples, but it is exceptionally well-crafted and enjoyable to play – surely enough of an asset. It is one of those games which tightly combines looks, sound and level design to make something which is consistently entertaining and high-quality. If anything, it makes clear the importance of aesthetics in making a game something more than a mere test of pressing buttons with good reflexes; N++ may be the epitome of skill tests, but Yoshi is a very nice piece of visual art.
As 2015 reaches its end, it is time for the annual list feature; fifteen video games I enjoyed playing. These are not in any particular order, because it is impossible to objectively say which I liked more than any other – these are simply the fifteen games I played that were released this year that I would without hesitation recommend. There are several probably conspicuous absences – I have not played high-profile titles like Undertale, Fallout 4, Witcher 3 or Her Story. I am sure if I had played them they may have placed.
The first part of this review of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar explained in some detail the game’s setup, army composition and terrain rules; this second article will explain the full turn sequence (accounting for two of the four pages of game rules). As a system it aims to be simple, efficient and quick to play; it achieves all of these aims inconsistently, although there are a number of good ideas to be found within it. Conceptually the shift in focus from ranked troops and formation movement to a freer, less regimented system is not unreasonable; a number of good alternative rule sets for blocks of troops in this fashion exist, considered to be of a generally higher quality than Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle eighth edition. However, even when considered as its own thing, not as a follow-up to a previous system it does not aim to emulate, I am unconvinced that Age of Sigmar is a particularly good streamlined fantasy game.
Warhammer: Age of Sigmar is effectively the ninth edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles ruleset by Games Workshop, one of their two flagship products (the other being Warhammer 40,000, released in its seventh edition in 2014. Released in July 2015, it marks a significant change in focus both for the game compared to other editions (dispensing with the hallmark emphasis on ranked formation and unit maneuver in favour of an open formation, skirmish-like system more comparable to GW’s previous Lord of the Rings miniatures game, or Privateer Press’ Warmachine system) and Games Workshop as a company; rather than releasing a premium-priced hardback rulebook and supplementary premium-priced army lists, Age of Sigmar offers a free online rulebook, a full ruleset printed in the weekly White Dwarf magazine and full online army lists for all factions at no cost. The entire focus of army lists has changed from these books to unit cards with vital statistics and special rules listed – a design used to great effect in Warmachine, Malifaux and numerous other games.
The idea of making a “family-friendly” arena shooting game in the mold of Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 seems counterintuitive; the draw of such games is fast-paced, “elite” gaming experiences, over-the-top explosive gore and a very macho, tournament-minded attitude. The genre itself embodies the popular perception of e-sports – spectacle, competition and a self-conscious striving for “maturity”, a world of announcers shouting “HEAD SHOT” and “KILLING SPREE” and lightning-reactions to score sniper kills while flying across the map jumping constantly. That, anyway, is the perception of the competitive arena shooter, and a perception that really clouds the wider genre. Nintendo’s Splatoon is, nevertheless, an arena shooter, which has a thriving ranked playlist, and is resolutely family-friendly and positive in its entire presentation. It is, in itself, an excellent game; on a technical level its basic shooting mechanics and movement gimmicks are superbly executed, it has a continually-updated armoury and map list (which is provided via free patches, rather than paid DLC – ensuring no fragmentation of the player base) and a solidly-made single-player campaign.