In a lot of computer games, moral choices can be reduced to personality tests; they may be interesting dilemmas, but my enduring memory of games even as enjoyable as Mass Effect and Dragon Age is the choices still led you, eventually, to a fight or not a fight and a vaguely equivalent reward. This is not inherently a bad thing, the games still had memorable character moments, and generally hold up well as stories. Even something like The Witcher 3, which does not simply fall into good/bad decisions, generally has a lot of situations where the options are bad/worse and you as a player are not quite sure what will be worse (because the people the characters interact with are irrational, bigoted or stupid). But, nevertheless, it is not for no reason that moral decisions in video games became typecast as “do a good thing for a small reward, or a bad thing for a possibly bigger reward and a fight”; idea like Mass Effect‘s Renegade and Paragon points provided clear mechanical incentives for making choices that were often empathy versus utilitarianism. Bioshock was probably the weakest example of all; there, moral choice was “do you murder someone who looks innocent for immediate fiscal reward, or spare them for a larger reward later”. Hardly an interesting dilemma and almost a purely mechanical one.
Brent Spivey’s skirmish wargame Rogue Planet plays like the much-loved Games Workshop RPG/miniatures game hybrid Inquisitor; it has similar systems of random activation counts and a focus on interactions with terrain and inventive skill use. It is different in fundamental ways mechanically, but the intent – bringing together the freer mechanics of role-playing games and the structure and campaign advancement of a miniatures skirmish game. It will not stand as a direct competitor to something like Necromunda, as the focus is not on highly granular combat and strict rules (insofar as Necromunda’s rules were strict), but it offers an attempt to emulate, as any niche wargame should, a specific kind of skirmish combat.
Warlord Games’ Test of Honour is best described as a pseudo-historical or pop-history wargame, a kind of midpoint between “serious” historical wargaming (focused strongly on accuracy over balance, and often breaking rules of what is considered “fun” in traditional miniatures gaming senses) and pure fantasy or speculation. Its mission statement, according to a Wargames Illustrated article was to “evoke samurai movies rather than a slavishly historical view of feudal Japan” (Graham Davey, quoted in WI354) and in this respect it achieves its aim. The rulebook is wholly free of historical context, the painting guides are genericised and do not even provide a list of historical coats of arms to imitate for historically-minded players.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a game I was eagerly looking forward to playing for no reason other than the flawed original’s immensely enjoyable gameplay; the first game offered something interesting and different, a first-person acrobatic platforming game which offered minimal combat. It was not perfect, and felt underdeveloped, but the sequel seemed to offer a fuller and more developed experience. I am thoroughly enjoying Catalyst as a game; its mechanics are more polished, it has a large amount of missions to complete and its aesthetics are excellent (and Solar Fields’ soundtrack, readily available to purchase online, is well worth buying for any fans of ambient music). But it is a game I am enjoying despite a lot of flaws; while there is a well-made game there, it is dressed up in a lot of superfluous and questionable design decisions.
Note: This review discusses in some detail the plot of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
Having recently played both Dishonored games in succession, I have had the opportunity to compose my thoughts about the series; initially I was eager to discount it as not for me simply because stealth games are not my favourite type and the nonspecific steampunk-pseudo-British aesthetic of the first game, all whalers, fog and clunky technology, seemed overplayed and uninteresting. However, I came to quite enjoy the games as I played through them and even ended up playing the second in a mostly non-lethal fashion, with attempts at a much higher level of stealth and creativity than the first game (which ended up as a kind of farce as a masked assassin roamed the streets lobbing grenades and land-mines and shooting pistols at anything that moved).
Note: This review discusses a number of plot points from both Dishonored and Dishonored 2 and assumes some familiarity with the games’ stories.
Having now finished both halves of Trails in the Sky I feel it is a game that does very little new, but does almost everything incredibly well and with enough charm and character that it is consistently enjoyable to play and highly engaging. I have explained in previous articles how its escalation of scale from small personal problems to an ultimately nationwide threat is well-paced (over around 60-80 hours of gameplay across two games) and turned into a key piece of character development. What is more, the personal aspects (which are what make the game memorable) are very well-woven into the main plot; characters appear in sidequests and then become plot-significant, for example. In a game where a good amount of the story is about trying to work out from zero information what is going on, having the NPCs feel like they are people living lives and carrying out plans that intersect with the party’s travels is a good, immersive touch.
NB: This review touches on plot details from Trails in the Sky SC and FC, and discusses the game’s themes and storyline in some depth.
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.
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.