video games

Games I Played in 2017

I started 2017 with a 4 week old child. I took the first 3 months off to look after her, and the games I played were fever dreams, played at all hours with a child asleep on my chest or while my family slept in another room and I struggled with sleep deprivation. I played bits and pieces of lots of things. Here is a list.

Street Fighter V

I'm terrible at fighting games, but I did really enjoy learning how to play them with SFV. It's a good game for playing just a few minutes of, although the load times are rather long on the ps4. This version of street fighter is wonderful, a beautiful implementation, and I hope to play it more in future.

Hearthstone

I find Hearthstone to be a fairly weak card game compared to Magic and Netrunner, but it is simple, free to play, and plays well on a tablet. At night, with my tablet or phone resting on the bed, child asleep on my lap, I played many rounds of Hearthstone. I don't feel like I have a good understanding of the game, still, having played on low brain power, but it killed a lot of time.

Invisible Inc

I didn't play much of this but it's a perfect parent game! Plays well with no sound, lets you save anywhere, turn based, pause functionality - a textbook example of a game designed for a busy parent.

Super Meat Boy

My dip in, dip out game to feel like I can still play real games. A classic.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D

My 3DS absolutely shined during some months, but the loud click as it opened sometimes woke up my baby. This Donkey Kong is underrated and not talked about enough. It's also very hard, in places, but I'm happy to say that I did complete it this year.

Gone Home

My favourite game of the year. Gone Home is a wonderful story - it's well paced and it isn't too long. I love the way that it's told: each room reveals something new, sometimes in scene, sometimes in audio logs. Right up until the end, you're not really sure what genre it is.

Limbo

This popped up on PSPlus so I gave it a go. It's very pretty and the puzzles are nice. Haven't finished it yet.

Cities: Skylines

One day, my wife went out with our child and without me for the first time. I had the house to myself for the first time, and I had nothing to do. I bought a packet of chocolate digestives, loaded up Cities, and lost the morning. It was wonderful - Cities is a beautiful game for losing yourself in. It is slow and methodical. You can't really do the wrong thing - you just pick a thing, fix it up a bit, then pick something else. The soundtrack is gorgeous.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

I've written a longer piece about this. Horizon was my back to work present, and as such I played it very slowly, no longer having any free time to play. It was a good game for me - open world, full of big quests and small quests to suit the time I had. Shame it didn't have the ability to save anywhere, but at least it had a pause function.

Stellaris

I have a few friends who play Stellaris every week, and they bought me it with the hope that I would be able to join them, but sadly I haven't really got my evenings back yet. Stellaris feels a lot like Cities and occupies the same niche for me. I'm told that I'm playing it wrong, and I should never pause and play at top speed.

Factorio

Before I start work each morning, I try to have a little free time. I work from home, so this is my commute. For a while, it was Factorio - every morning I would put in a few minutes working on my factory. I listened to Welcome To Night Vale as I played.

And I put time into this game! 130 hours, last count. This game taught me that I do, in fact, put a lot of time into games, here and there, and if I want to, I really can get through long games.

Tooth and Tail

What a concept, what a game! Tooth and Tail reminds me of the old Amiga games I used to play, in both look and feel. It’s a wonderful take on the RTS genre and I really want to play a lot more of it. I hope that it gets a competitive scene together.

Spelunky

Another great game to pick up and put down, Spelunky makes very few demands on your time and every game of it is disposable. It also really values your time - it even has a quick start button to get you straight into the game without having to hit the menu. Genius! This became a game I’d play when I had a spare 5 minutes at my PC.

Nier Automata

No spoilers here because I’m only through 2 of the endings, but wow, what a game so far. After Factorio taught me how much time I had, Nier was the game I chose to spend it on, and so far, 23 hours in, I don’t regret it. Unfortunately, I can’t listen to any game of the year podcasts because I’m terrified of spoilers.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

I’ve had this for ages but never completed it, and I picked it up again after completing Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. Like the other games, it occupied tiny spaces of my life, 3DS sat beside my bed, until I started my new job which offered me my first ever chance at a train-based commute. Since then I’ve played a mission whenever I’m on a train and I’m really enjoying it. Portable consoles really allow you to live with a game, and that’s a unique feeling. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Switch fares in this field in 2018.

Firewatch

Following on from Cibelle in my reviews, here's another game that doesn't offer much of a challenge and chooses to focus on story. It seems unfair to put the two together though: while Cibelle offers almost no gameplay, Firewatch is built on it. Campo Santo use the first person view coupled with some chunky animations to put you into the headspace of the character in a way that few games achieve. I’ve been a huge fan of Idle Thumbs, the podcast produced by Campo Santo members, for a long time, so I’m quite biased towards them, and it’s no surprise that I loved this game.

On recommendation from various sources, I played with the in-game navigation aid turned off. That leaves you with a map but no pointer to where you are, forcing you to learn the forest and navigate by landmarks. While not to everyone's taste, this feature made the game for me: I knew my way around some parts of the forest perfectly, a little like a ranger might. When I went into unfamiliar places, I got lost, and when I found my way out I felt relief. At one point the story pushed me to run in a new direction and I barrelled headfirst into a completely new bit of woodland. As the adrenaline wore off i found myself utterly confused and unable to find a landmark. This kind of experience is impossible to find in any game that includes the classic map that we've come to expect. This collision of gameplay and story was wonderful.

The story is told through radio contact with another ranger. That alone could be a boring twist on audio logs, but the developers have managed to make the conversations interactive and interesting. Overall, the story pieces are a pleasantly light touch: a significant portion of the game is spent playing on your isolation. It's not the isolation you find in System Shock 2, however - this time it's your choice to be out in the forest, and that puts a whole new spin on it. As the plot thickens, the fire rages across the forest, marking time with a blackening sky.

I'm hard pressed to find bad things to say about Firewatch. It is short, and I wanted more, but I don't think it's a bad thing to be left hungry by art. This game demonstrates that gameplay is not directly tied to challenge and difficulty, but is instead a function of player controls and art. It's a must for anyone who cares about games as a medium.

Cibele

Hello folks. I wrote half of this review a year ago and never finished it. Finding it now, I don't really like my writing in it, but I'm fed up editing it, so here it is.

The negative reviews on Cibele’s Steam page seem to come largely from people who had different expectations, so I think it’s best that we address them first: I don’t think that it’s accurate to call Cibele a video game. While there are game-like elements, it doesn’t really contain any challenges and I wouldn’t really say that it’s something that you “play”.

Cibele is an interactive story about a teenage girl named Nina who falls in love with a boy online while playing an MMORPG called Valtameri. It’s only a few hours long and takes place across 3 acts. Each act is a combination of playing Valtameri, FMV of Nina in real life, and exploring Nina’s computer as if it was your own desktop. The Valtameri gameplay exists only as a vehicle for Nina and Blake’s conversations - it isn’t really a game in itself.

We join Nina in the middle of her story. She has been playing Valtameri for a long time and she already has some sort of relationship with Blake. We are made to feel deeply voyeuristic here: we have access to Nina’s computer and we see her world through camera angles that hint at some kind of hidden camera setup. Everything feels deeply personal. Here, Cibele does a great job of showing us how an interactive story can be more than a film and more than a game. If this was a game, you’d be hunting for a clue or a solution to a puzzle, but in Cibele, you’re just in the moment, looking in on someone else’s life. It’s a powerful setup. Each act is another window into the relationship, further along the timeline, and as you work through the scenes you experience the changes in their lives as they grow closer.

Cibele excels in its multimedia storytelling. You learn about Nina’s thoughts through file names on her desktop and the files she hides away, while you learn about Blake through stilted push-to-talk voice communications in Valtameri. The voice conversations have a certain cadence that I find so familiar as an ex MMO player - they’re put together beautifully and really hit the mark for me.

Cibele definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you spent your youth in an MMO or you like multimedia storytelling and interactive stories it might be worth a shot.

Steaming: Braid

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow, I forgot to talk about Braid. I played through it after Binding of Isaac, I suppose - that’s where it’d be in alphabetical order, so that must be when it was.

I’d heard a lot about Braid. One of the true original indie stars, it catapulted its author, Jonathan Blow, into the headlines and did the same for indie games development. Suddenly, anyone could make a game. It was an interesting time to be into games and the industry. I read a lot about it, but I didn’t actually play Braid. It was released in 2008 and I was catching up on games I’d missed while I’d been away travelling. I think I was knee-deep in Bioshock. Well, it’s time to fix that. This is a puzzle game based around time travel, and the manipulation of time: throughout the various worlds, you gain various powers over the passage of time and the world reacts to them in unusual ways. You must collect puzzle pieces in each world to complete a series of jigsaw puzzles.

Braid is gorgeous: it looks like a moving painting, and that’s exactly the aesthetic it was going for. It is, however, a little dated by today’s standards, and I don’t mean to sound like one of those people who talk about framerates when I say that: I just mean that it somehow looks as old as it is, which I wouldn’t have expected from this kind of game. Perhaps it’s more down to how character movement in 2D gaming has changed. Spelunky, for example, has made the platformer look so much more refined than Braid. It’s not exactly a criticism, but it certainly struck me.

Braid’s not about movement, though. Not like Spelunky is. And it’s not about looks, although they must have been a part of it’s success. It’s about the puzzles, and Braid is a brain teaser for sure. Where Antichamber felt like it was trying to be clever, Braid actually is, and the solution to almost every level in this game is reached with experimentation and lateral thinking that makes you feel genuinely clever. You often find yourself moving in the right direction, close to reaching the jigsaw piece that you’re trying to grab, but not quite making it. You try again, and again, getting closer each time. Eventually, you crack it, and it all fits together. Where Antichamber failed in this was that the solutions often felt a little too organic: I felt like I’d cheated my way through rather than solving the room in the intended fashion. With Braid, there are a few moments like that (in one puzzle I think I glitched a key through the floor) but overall the balance feels right. It felt like I was coming up with the solution myself, but the solution wasn’t painful to execute each time.

Braid is on the short-but-sweet side of gaming, clocking in at 5.9 hours for me according to Steam, and none of that time is wasted. There’s no filler here - barely even any story, in fact - and I was left feeling happy that I’d bought it and played it. I was a little disappointed by the difficulty, though: I’d heard so much about what a hard game it was and went in hoping for a real challenge, but I never really found myself stuck for long. I suspect that feeling is down to the hype surrounding the game rather than my ability to solve puzzles.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne is the other game that I absolutely had to buy a PS4 for. The latest in the Souls series of games, it throws out shields, replaces them with guns, and goes all Lovecraftian. I’m all over it.

The first thing you notice, coming from Dark Souls to Bloodborne, is that the game moves a lot faster. It’s smoother, too: I was initially pretty sceptical about the worth of quick-stepping when locked onto a target instead of rolling, but it allows for a rather neat fine-tuning of your position in fights versus the rather long and unwieldy Dark Souls roll. Bloodborne wants you to dance lightly around your opponents and avoid hits, rather than survive the pummelling or get well clear every time an enemy swings their sword. It does away with any kind of encumbrance too, opening up the entire wardrobe of armour to every character. It’s hard to argue with these changes. Sure, they reduce the number of fighting styles available to you in the game, but Dark Souls’ heavy-set warrior build’s slowness was a punishment, not a boon: if you could have had the fast rolling with the heavy armour, you’d have taken it in a second. In Bloodborne, that’s what you get. Sort of.

You get no shield, and you get no armour. Not really, anyway. There are armour sets, and they do help you out, a bit, but to be honest, not one of them is going to save you. The emphasis in Bloodborne is definitely on not getting hit at all, ever. If you do get hit (and you will), you have a chance to claim back your lost hit points by successfully attacking an enemy in return for a short time after you receive the damage. This means that the best defence is a good offence and keeps the game focused on attacking. You find yourself running towards the next enemy, diving straight in, trying to get back the health you lost on the last bad guy. Each attack sprays blood into the air, coating your character, and very quickly you feel rather similar to the beasts that you’re fighting.

So yeah, you’re fighting beasts and stuff. The plot is, as you’d expect from a Souls game, quite subtle, but runs deep and invites plenty of theories and discussion. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say that it manages to be reasonably unpredictable and manages to be rather more complex than you initially expect. The “Who’s the real monster” trope implied by the brutality of the combat and the blood splattered across your armour never really manifests beyond the vibe introduced by Dark Souls (Probably Demon Souls, actually, but I haven’t played that, so we’ll stick with comparing to Dark souls for now): the monsters and people you destroy feel like important characters, parts of a world. Killing them feels like a negative action, like you’re ending a story too early or writing them out of a book.

I’ve completed Bloodborne, but in so many ways, I haven’t. I don’t understand it, not even after reading up on the plot and trying to piece things together from various wikis and videos. I haven’t finished the chalice dungeons, Bloodborne’s randomly generated attempt at some kind of procedural Souls game that, despite how it sounds, does have an end and a storyline, of sorts. For the first time, I feel like it might be worth getting all the achievements in a game, too. After the credits rolled and I caught my breath, I just started playing again. I don’t really feel done with this game at all. As if that all wasn’t enough, the expansion, The Old Hunters, was released last week, and I’m currently bashing my head against the first boss, who is absolutely incredible, and rock solid. I’m reminded, and not for the first time in a Souls game, of World of Warcraft’s raiding, where we would wipe over and over again on the same boss, each time shaving a little more of their health off, until eventually we mastered the strategy and defeated them. Souls games have the same vibe, and I love it.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Arkham Asylum is probably on my all-time top 10 games list. It features no filler, no nonsense, no missed opportunity for comic book brilliance. It set a trend for combat in games. It managed to feel like a complete world without being so open that you get lost, and it managed to maintain a sense of “levels” that made it feel somehow arcadey. It was a wonderful mix of everything that makes a game good. Arkham City threw a lot of that out the window, and, in spite of itself, managed to be a pretty good game, but it never managed to make me care about the side plots: there was absolutely no way I was collecting all those Riddler trophies. The central plot was outstanding in itself though, so I was willing to forgive the sprawling open world aspect that added nothing to the game and only detracted from the beautiful setup it was granted by Asylum. I skipped the next in the series, Arkham Origins, based on its poor reviews, but that didn’t stop me getting all excited for its sequel, Arkham Knight.

I don’t, as a general rule, pre-order games, mainly because I have too many old games to play to be excited about something new, but a new game in the Arkham series is one of very few things that will make me pay attention. I didn’t want to pre-order this either, as it happens, but the Amazon PS4 and Batman bundle was too cheap to ignore. Unfortunately, my console was damaged in transit and didn’t even arrive on my doorstep, so I had to get a refund and go and buy the same bundle at Argos for £20 more, meaning that I didn’t actually get it on release day. Oh well. I still got it more or less at release, which is a bit of a big deal for me. I think the last game I bought on release day was LA Noire.

The plot of Arkham Knight is movie-worthy, for sure: it could be a comic book movie, slightly cheesy, slightly more focused on the action than the characters, but it would hold up. It twists and turns like a comic movie should, characters do a reasonable job of developing over the course of the game, and a few slightly shocking things happen. They do brave things with the licence: I’m not sure if this is considered canon to the Batman franchise, but it plays like it is. It feels like some of the story beats here should be reserved for the big screen, and it’s refreshing to see them take place in a game.

Rocksteady have also managed to tie the side quests into the main story in a way that made sense and made me want to do them: I had done all but 3 or 4 before I reached the end of the main storyline without really going out of my way. It helps that there are only around 15: some are very short, some are long, but the low number of them and the big, friendly display of every available quest in the game made it very easy to get my head around them and somehow stopped me from suffering from the open world game ennui that means I’ve never played more than a few hours of any GTA.

There are, unfortunately, several side quests that are repetitive and empty. That said, they involve driving the Batmobile, which is mostly pretty fun, and hitting people in the face, which is what the Batman games have been doing best since the very start. Mastering the combat system is enjoyable in itself, and I was never too upset about the opportunity to fight some more bad guys. The quests that involved finding things in the open world were absolutely not my style, but the constant radio broadcasts picked up from thugs around you made the majority of them quite easy to find and I managed to get very close to the end before I sighed and looked up a map online. I hate cheating, but in my mind, virtual hide and seek with no clues is not an interesting way to spend my time. Putting over 200 Riddler trophies in the game and requiring their collection in order to see the “true” ending of the game seems like a total joke, too: I watched it on YouTube, and I’m glad I did - if I’d worked through 200 trophies just for that I’d have been furious.

The other thing that grates is how tightly this game holds your hand - it wouldn’t allow me to be stuck for even a second. I never got a chance to really think through a problem: one moment’s hesitation and I’d be told exactly what I should be doing. I was led through an experience rather than presented with a challenge. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by years of indie games and brutal Souls-style battles.

I may sound down on Arkham Knight, but I’m really just being critical of something I love and want to see reach the perfection of the start of the series. Arkham Knight was a joy from start to finish and I’m so, so happy to dip my toe into the AAA games world and see that it’s come so far while I’ve been mucking about with obscure stuff and esports. I look forward to the next one.