Another year managed to fly by! I got another 9-5 for the first time in a few years. Nice to be able to know I can afford rent again, but definitely kept me away from playing as many of the games I would have liked. But hey! Got through another year without catching COVID so I must still be doing something right to stay safe and protected, right? Anyway, there were some HUGE games this year, but my favorites tended not to be those. In fact, I spent a lot of this year feeling like I was getting a bit too hung up on the negatives I saw in a lot of the games I played. Still found a lot to love in my top 5 though! So enjoy this weird list that is… not so purely video games this year.
My first experience with this franchise was about a year after the original game released. “The Ninja Gaiden people making a game with inspirations from the Souls series? Hell yeah!” Unfortunately I bounced off it, REALLY hard. I had bounced so hard that I completely wrote off the sequel until a friend got it for me while heaping praise on it. Turns out it is really good! Well, once you get over the big early game hump. Game is full of unique play-styles with all the weapons, a ton of levels to work through, and maybe a few too many loot drops everywhere.
In the last bunch of years I have gravitated away from the popular d20 systems of D&D and Pathfinder. What Lancer manages to do is make the war-game side of those systems simultaneously much more streamlined and much more tactically interesting. The most joy I found was with building out my Mechs. While each one is structured as a fairly straight forward short playbook, the freedom to mix and match using them grants a perfect level of customization without that 12 level plan to do my cool idea.
I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was a little kid, but the fact is a lot of it is mid at best. While I’ve consumed many of the kids shows, The Mandolorian, etc. I have found a particular frustration growing. With every new piece of media, Star Wars would feel smaller. Each planet boiled down to basically one city, every side story tied directly back into the same 7 characters, and more. What makes Andor so incredible isn’t just that it paints new places with enough care to give them culture, or that it slow burns each arc with enough time make the losses feel earned. What makes it so amazing is that for the first time in twenty years the Star Wars universe feels like it got bigger.
5 – Sonic Frontiers
Every time I talk about Sonic Frontiers I make it sound like a big mess. Frankly, it totally is! The cyberspace challenges acting as sort of mini-levels in the style of the last bunch of 3D sonic games are great, and also feel like they were afraid to alienate the core fans. The combat system is flashy, and includes an early upgrade to automatically perform the special moves for you trivializing it. The main quest system encourages exploring and engaging with the open zones, and means that the most direction you have most of the time is “speak with Amy.”
On paper all of this sounds like it should, at best, be another strange experiment in this franchise’s rocky history. The thing is, somehow it all manages to work. You still get the rush of learning to speed through time trials in the cyberspace levels. The combat system works in tandem with the mini-bosses throughout the world to act as a change of pace from the speed of exploration. Even the open-zones work to make Sonic’s speed feel meaningful while having so many platforming puzzles, and mini-games everywhere to avoid noticing how otherwise empty it all is.
Sonic Frontiers isn’t perfect by any stretch, but I went into it expecting a trash-fire and came out with a smile on my face and some fresh cooked marshmallows.
4 – Neon White
Neon White made it onto this list purely from its gameplay. Unfortunately the game really goes out of its way to highlight the narrative. It’s perfectly serviceable, but almost entirely predictable and written with a snark that I found grating extremely quickly. That isn’t to say there aren’t any good characters mind you (shout outs to Mikey), but rather that the jokes generally didn’t land, and everyone’s “playful” horniness was just too much. Ignore that stuff and you’re left with one of the best playing games in the last 5+ years though.
This is the first game since Dustforce that had me going back and actually grinding a 45-second level just to shave off a couple milliseconds. Though, it also brought into sharp focus why maybe I’m not really cut out to be a speedrunner – the thing I find the most satisfying is finding a big skip. Amazingly this game is built to help you find some in almost every level. It’s hint system really works to not just teach you how to get through the game, but teach you to look at the world in ways to see, “Oh shit, I can launch myself straight up this wall to skip half the level can’t I?” Then, when you finally do it, what a brilliant rush!
3 – Tunic
What makes Tunic so amazing is its layers. From the start you’re tossed into a cute game that is obviously finding inspiration from the 16-bit era of The Legend of Zelda. Not just from your character’s green tunic, but from the way swordplay feels and the limited number of tools that can be equipped at once. It diverges pretty quickly when you start finding the instruction manual pages, mostly written in another language, that start revealing things you always had access to without realizing it. Turns out this game is more like Fez than anything else.
Each time the game peels away a layer is amazing. As these discoveries get deeper you soon realize that the game is playing with more than just whats inside though. The Holy Cross isn’t just something IN the game, but out in the real world with you. Not to mention the Golden Path which might be the most intricate, yet somehow still approachable, and satisfying puzzle every put into a video game.
That said, there are a couple small hiccups. Deciphering the written language could probably use one or two more bits to help you get started on it. It is truly fascinating and fun once you get really going, but it is very easy to mess up the first bit to start your key. And unfortunately the classic Zelda inspired combat ends up being some of the least interesting bits, but there is a section of the game that leans VERY heavily into making you master it while all I really wanted to do was keep working on the masterful puzzles.
2 – Citizen Sleeper
Visual novel games are generally something I steer clear of. Not so much because of the tropes often associated with them, but because their mode of interaction is just too minimal to hold my interest. Citizen Sleeper gets around this by drawing the focus away from a linear narrative with some key branch points and replaces it with a bunch of stories, big and small, taking place all over the space station and making you choose where to invest your time and energy to progress them.
Time and energy being key components to the friction of the game. Each cycle progresses time and depletes your resources which, as they get lower, reduce the number of actions you can take during each one. Then you throw in some stories have timers associated with them and you find yourself often torn between trying to finish a ship salvaging job to help your friend or hacking a gang member’s phone for intel you can sell to afford the medicine you need.
What really makes Citizen Sleeper shine is the writing though. Making friends with the street cook and telling stories manages to flesh out your character’s situation, an escaped a human mind emulated in a robot body owned so completely by a corporation. Working the shipyard and finding out about a co-worker’s dream to get entered into the lottery to ride that ship somewhere else, hopefully to get a better life for their daughter. Even exploring the cyberspace mesh grants insight to what happened to this station and the AI that ran it after the collapse of the power structures that originally ran the colony. It’s all written with a care that allowed every off-ramp to an ending feel earned and understandable, but every time I chose not to take it feel just as meaningful.
1 – Sifu
Sometimes a game comes out that embodies a certain style just perfectly. This year Sifu took years of martial arts cinema and crafted an incredible love letter it. From the prologue giving setup to an all too familiar revenge story, to the sequence emulating everything about the Oldboy hallway sans having a hammer. To be clear, the game isn’t anything amazing with it’s narrative. In fact, the bit of mysticism surrounding your character’s ability to get back up after defeat and each of the elemental themes of the bosses never goes beyond surface level, which left something to be desired. But what it does do is feed into the wildly polished gameplay.
The fighting in this game is fast, fluid, and satisfying in a way that truly feels like it brings the old arcade beat-em’ ups of the arcade into a modern context. No longer are you feeding quarters in with each death, but instead they build the aging system out to give failure a consequence without it ever feeling like a huge punishment. You lose a couple years and stand right back up to keep fighting. As you progress through the game unlocking more permanent skills you are also just getting better at the game, creating a great parallel with the themes of the martial arts and practice to become a master.
While the game only has 5 levels, each one is big enough the first time through to make you earn getting through them, and the way shortcuts are given for future attempts means the game always feels like it is respecting your time. Frankly the biggest misstep was how the final boss completely negates the subset of focus bar moves you can gain through the game. While you are still mastering the core of the combat for the final challenge, it feels a bit discordant as a culmination of how you’ve learned to fight.
All in all it was a wildly fun game to work through, and granted the best sense of accomplishment when overcoming a tough battle all year.