Games of 2012: The Rest

Here’s a shocker: despite there only being 26 games in my blog post series, I played more than 26 games this year. A number of these games didn’t warrant a full blown post, but I did want to at least recommend them or give them their due. So here’s a big list of 30 games that didn’t make the list that might be worth a look (or a pass) – in three sentences or less per game.

Analogue: A Hate Story (Steam): A well-written interactive fiction game that has you digging through an abandoned space ship’s computer to figure out what happened to it. A lot to dig into, and the interactions with the AIs are well scripted. Originally on the list for this year, but left off because other games took its spot.

Chip Chain (iOS): A pretty recent title that sort of plays like a match-three game, but with some unique mechanics I hadn’t seen before. Good style and polish on it, although just slightly hampered by some IAP pushing. Worth a look for iOS gamers in need of a puzzle game fix.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Steam/PSN/XBLA): I’ve always felt I should’ve gotten into Counter-Strike, and this is the first one that felt accessible enough that I could. Plays really fast, runs well – perhaps this can finally bump CS 1.6 off the throne. Need to spend more time with this.

Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten (Steam): Puts some deep RPG elements on top of tower defense games, and tries to put a story on top of it as well. Tower defense lovers should give this a look.

Double Dragon: Neon (PSN/XBLA): I wanted to hate this game for coining the phrase “bro-op”, but it overcame that. Really amazing soundtrack by Jake Kaufman that serves as both an homage to the original series and to 80’s pop.

Dyad (PSN): Trippy as hell tube racer/shooter/puzzler/something. One of those games that just seems to fit on PSN. Really hard to describe, obviously.

FIFA Street (PS3/360): When I played soccer as a kid, I loved indoor, so a game that focuses on the smaller version of the game seemed like a great idea. But of course the execution was flawed and I forgot about it after two weeks. Left off the list because I already had enough soccer games and enough counter-example games.

Football Manager 2013 (Steam): It’s the first year for FM where they’ve actually tried to make the game more accessible to newcomers, and that’s a big deal – those looking for a robust sports sim should get in the door now. I should be happy I haven’t lost my soul to this game yet.

Gasketball (iOS): Good physics puzzler that has you making trick shots with a basketball. Frustrating at times given the game’s unforgiving nature, but nailing a shot feels really good.

Gotham City Impostors (Steam/PSN/XBLA): Got slogged in the press, but I actually liked what this was trying to do. Team based shooters have gotten pretty same-y, and GCI at least tried to change up the formula. It’s free to play now on the PC, so it can’t hurt to try.

Hell Yeah! (Steam/PSN/XBLA): A really bizarre Sega release that feels like they were trying just a little too hard to channel Disgaea into a platformer. Still, it’s not bad at what it does, and the humor isn’t unbearable. I like seeing Sega take a chance on a new franchise rather than rehashing Sonic again.

Iron Brigade (Steam/XBLA): Doublefine’s take on the Tower Defense genre, with a fun cross of early 20th century war and sci-fi trappings. Probably a ton of fun in co-op, but I barely spent any time with it beyond the tutorial levels (mostly for lack of friends with the game).

Karateka (iOS/PSN/XBLA): I adored Jordan Mechner’s original game, and I’m so glad to see it back on modern platforms. Feels right on iOS, although I haven’t tried the console versions. Just came out on December 19th, so it was a little too late-breaking to make it into the list.

Knights of Pen & Paper (iOS): This has become my renewed addiction over the past week: a mobile RPG that works in short bursts. The concept, which is that you’re a group of people playing a tabletop RPG, gives it a good sense of humor and place missing from a lot of RPGs. Had my addiction came weeks earlier, it would’ve been a lock for a post.

Legend of Grimrock (Steam): I am so glad someone finally did a modern take on Dungeon Master. I missed crawling around chunky grid-based dungeons. Cheap during the Steam sale this week, so if you have nostalgia for dungeon crawling 80’s style, get on it now.

Little Inferno (Steam/WiiWare): I burned through this (hur hur) in one afternoon, and while I loved what it was trying to do, I didn’t really like how it did it. Not quite enough of a game to warrant the $10 asking price.

Lost Cities (iOS): From the same team that did Carcasonne comes a great port of a modern card game. As fully featured and well polished as one can want in a card game. Exemplary stuff for other iOS developers.

Mark of the Ninja (Steam/XBLA): Got a ton of love from XBLA enthusiasts, and I have not gotten enough time with the Steam version. Definitely seems to have the stealth gameplay down cold, though.

Orcs Must Die! 2 (Steam): Loved the first one, and the second seems like a good refinement on the formula. Half over-the-person shooter, half tower defense. Also, co-op!

Puzzle Craft (iOS): Draw-to-match tile puzzle mixed with town building and upgrading? Would have been pure digital crack were it not for performance problems and bugs. Should be safe now, though.

Retro City Rampage (Steam/PSN): Suffers from “references overpower the gameplay” syndrome – too many jokes, not enough original ideas. Wanted to like this but ended up just feeling let down. May give it another shot since the PSN/Vita version was recently free.

Sleeping Dogs (Steam/PS3/360): Impressed by Squeenix’s take on the GTA formula. World seems pretty nicely realized, enough so that I’m looking forward to getting back to it. If you’re waiting on pins and needles for GTAV, give this a look.

Sound Shapes (PSN): Such a cute, smart, well built platformer. Great art, great music. Just felt way too short in exchange for a level editor – community can’t replace solid game design.

Spaceteam (iOS): Absolutely love the concept: all your networked iOS devices show controls and instructions, which need to be shouted so someone else can fidget with the dial to avoid your ship exploding. Always a big fan of interactive group games. My only issue: I haven’t played this with anyone yet.

Spec Ops: The Line (Steam/PS3/360): I’ve been told there’s an amazing twist and writing waiting beneath the surface of this. But the couple of hours I spent with it just felt like a really janky third-person shooter. Will return to it in the future.

SSX (PS3/360): I need to stop getting my hopes up for SSX games, as EA has broken my heart more times than they’ve won it over. The endless array of equipment and stats tinkering here lost me. A shame, because the snowboarding itself was pretty fun in the right circumstances.

Tokyo Jungle (PSN): Again, a quirky title that feels like you would only find it on PSN. I enjoyed running around the abandoned streets of Tokyo as a pomeranian – until I was attacked by a rhino. Lovers of quirky titles should not pass this up.

The Walking Dead (Steam/XBLA/PSN/iOS): Has won so many damned end of the year awards, I felt like re-iterating that I hadn’t had a chance to play it yet. Have just dipped my toe into chapter 1, and I can tell there’s quality here. Probably a safe bet if you like point-and-click adventure games.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Steam): If there’s any game I regret not spending more time with, it’s XCOM. Loved the demo, but the ongoing issues with my Windows install took me away from it and I desperately want to play it again. Expect to see me logging series time on this on Steam the minute I can install Boot Camp again.

Zookeeper Battle (iOS): Competitive Match 3, with cute blocky Japanese style. Gets surprisingly tense when you can’t make matches or when you wait to see how the rounds resolve. Online live play only, but it’s free, so give it a try.

Games of 2011: Sleep No More

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. This is the last post in the series. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Surprise: my Game Of The Year isn’t a video game. (I never said they were all going to be electronic.) And yes, it’s Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, which I’ve talked about on this blog twice before, and is perhaps the closest thing to a real life video game I’ve ever found, and perhaps ever will.

Those of you who follow me on social networks have probably missed out on the incessent gushing about the show I tend to do in person. It has become an all-consuming experience; I have made a somewhat absurd four visits to the McKittrick Hotel for performances, including one just over a week ago. Some might feel this is three times too many. (Others might argue it’s four times too many.) I am fully and well hooked on this thing, and I won’t be surprised if I notch a fifth trip sometime in 2012. The friends who have been tend to be understanding and share a desire to go back. Here’s why:

People who have played games for a significant length of time have certain behaviors become hard wired into their play style. If you grew up with Wolfenstein and Doom, you become accustomed to pressing on every wall, hoping for a secret passage to open. RPG addicts know to search every container in the hopes of finding something useful or interesting. Stealth-action gamers are used to slinking along behind characters, hoping to figure out their secrets. And so on.

These skills are generally not acceptable to use in real life; most of us don’t spend our days exploring strange spaces, investigating someone’s bedroom, or following strange people about their business. This is where Sleep No More fits in perfectly – it’s a meticulously designed playground where you can make use of these habits and skills. This is a space where you want to be looking, touching, feeling, and exploring at every turn.

There’s no way to win this game, of course – the show ends after three hours, and you are gently ushered out of the hotel space. There’s also no way to see every last thing that happens during the show in a single visit. But you may have pieced together how some characters interact, or found a secret passage, or even helped run messages between characters.

Punchdrunk has designed the show to allow the audience the freedom to indulge in anonymity and voyeurism – the masks, the mandate that there is no talking inside the space, the use of light and shadow. The experience makes it easy to detach from yourself and become your own avatar, so long as you can break down some of the psychological barriers that tend to prevent people from doing the things you should do in this world. (More on these later.) The cast has a trick up their sleeves, of course: they are fully allowed to interact with you, and will choose to do so with those that are clearly engaged and unafraid. As you are told in the elevator, fortune favors the bold.

This is not a world for the faint of heart. The company now warns that the audience may experience “intense psychological experiences”. There is violence (multiple murders), nudity (both genders), and absinthe served at the bar. There are strobe lights, smoke machines, and in one scene, some incredibly loud drum and bass music. There is running up and down flights of stairs, and the slight-but-ever-present danger of being hit by one of the staff as they perform their dances (as Katie learned when she was kicked in the arm during our last visit). The show lasts at most three hours, which may be more than those with low stamina can withstand.

But no matter how much my feet hurt when I exit back into the streets of Chelsea, there is nothing else like it I’ve ever experienced in my life. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to go as much as I have, and yet I always want to go back as soon as I can. Everyone who enjoys games as a hobby should make a point of going before the show ends its run, whenever that may be.

The remainder of this post, as some sort of twisted holiday present, are essentially my complete set of notes about the show – how it’s structured, how to plan your visits, and even a set of imaginary achievements. The information in that section is extremely spoilery, and I agree with the common wisdom that you should take in your first visit to the show essentially blind – it’s more fun that way. So save the details in the rest of this post until you’ve gone once.

Sleep No More is currently extended through February, and may continue to extend as Punchdrunk sees fit.

Continue reading “Games of 2011: Sleep No More”

Games of 2011: Bastion

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether or not you’re going to love a game. Ain’t so hard with this one. I knew within five minutes.

Supergiant Games’ debut title, Bastion, is extraordinary by every measure.

The art style: lush and meticulously drawn watercolors gives the many worlds of Caelondia a unique feel and personality. It’s not just the art, but also the animation, as many of the worlds within Bastion are either forming or disintegrating before your eyes.

The gameplay: Bastion is a well refined twin-stick action RPG. Multiple weapons, skills, and abilities allow you to adapt to your play style. The combat is not quite twitch combat, but certainly not slow by any stretch – it feels real and substantive.

The voicework: Logan Cunningham’s voice work as Rucks, the narrator, is unforgettable. Not just his voice, or the style in which he tells the story as you play through it, but the multiple versions of each line recorded, ensuring that even the slightest change in attack plans is accompanied by an appropriate monologue.

The music: Darren Korb’s beautiful, haunting soundtrack rounds out the performance, and is easily the most memorable soundtrack I’ve come across in years. I’ve embedded two tracks below to show the range of what Darren called “acoustic frontier trip-hop”:

This is a game that oozes love from every pore, and yet they chose to release it at a $15 price point via digital channels. If youve been reluctant to download games – if you’re the sort of person who only shops at Gamestop – Bastion is the game that will change your mind.

Do not miss this game, under any circumstances.

Bastion is available on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, and somehow also through Chrome.