Top 5 Games of 2016…and a couple of let downs.

Look, everyone does a game of the year thing these days.  And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you should totally jump on the bandwagon.  There wouldn’t be a bandwagon if it wasn’t worth it!  So here’s me, joining the party this year with 5 games that I totally think are worth your time this year.

Usual rules apply.  One game per series (which is pretty easy to stick to here), and games that I’ve played.  My opinion and my opinion only and all that.  Before starting though, here’s a couple of disappointments.  Games that I would have thought a little while ago would have been a shoe-in for this list until I actually played them.  Gears of War 4 is something I was looking forward to being a fan of the series, but it just didn’t hit the mark for me.  I think its time has passed, and other games have very much surpassed it.  Virginia was the other disappointment.  It looked like a Twin Peaks inspired Firewatch, but I couldn’t have been more let down.  A story line I couldn’t begin to follow (even more so than Twin Peaks itself!), next to no interaction, and silent characters who made the plot even harder to understand.  I can’t abide it in games when a character has worked something out that’s relevant to the plot, but what they worked out isn’t communicated to the player.  Anyway, enough moaning, on with the cream of the crop!

Layers of Fear

Layers of Fear Logo

Starting off with something nice and festive here.  Layers of Fear was a really interesting horror game released fully in February.  Rather than being full of jump scares and “scary” monsters, this one plays with your perception of reality.  As a troubled artist, you return to your family home to complete your masterpiece and in doing so travel through a nightmare fueled memory of your past to gather what you need to complete it.

Layers of Fear Art Work
Weird artwork obviously plays into the game quite often.

The story is quite engaging as the bizarre images hint at the madness that happened here in the past.  The house changes when you aren’t looking which leads to some interesting puzzles as doors appear where there was a fireplace before, and disturbing child-like sketches appear on walls behind you.  Whilst there is some light puzzle solving, this would come under “walking simulator”, so if that sort of thing puts you off then this isn’t for you.  But if you’re looking for a unique horror experience, give it a shot.  Don’t bother with the DLC though, it really didn’t add anything of value.

DOOM

Doom logo

I was torn between this game and one that will crop up later on for my favourite game of the year.  I was rather apprehensive for a DOOM remake, as I’m sure many other were.  But id knocked it out of the park with this one, it took what made the original game fun and modernised it without giving into the temptation of applying modern FPS tropes.  No regenerating health here.  Only being allowed to carry 2 weapons?  No, sir!  Press F to pay respects can stay where you left it.We’ve got fast paced, gorgeous looking one man warfare against the forces of hell.

Doom shotgun
I can’t think of anything to write here. I feel this speaks for itself.

Pretty much the only nod to modern gaming sensibilities is the glory kill system for executing weakened enemies, but even that serves a purpose in terms of gameplay.  The story, whilst simplistic, is told well.  This is an example of a game that does the silent protagonist well; everything the Doom marine does presents him as someone who doesn’t care what is going on.  He exists to kill hellspawn, and nothing is going to slow him down.  Crucially, the game is mechanically excellent.  Everything feels sharp and fun to use with a movement system that makes traversal and combat fun but also lets you use glory kills in different ways.  Typing this makes me want to play it again.

XCOM 2

XCOM 2 Logo

If you’ve seen my Facebook profile before, you may be aware that I love XCOM.  From the original game way back when, to the remakes in recent years.  I even liked XCOM: Interceptor, the space combat/base management fusion game.  The 2012 remake was fantastic and I poured a lot of hours into it, so it should be no surprise that I was very happy to see a follow up.  Interestingly, this game assumed you failed to finish the original (which was pretty hard) and the aliens took over the world.  You now lead a guerilla fighting force, developing weapons to take the fight to the aliens and reclaim Earth.

XCOM 2 Faceless
Obviously the best thing to do is rename your soldiers after your friends. And then fail miserably to keep any of them alive.

Annoyingly it didn’t have the best initial release, with there being framerate issues, but a few updates later and it became a lot more stable.  The game itself is as good as before, with some new features including new units, weapons and mission types.  The enemies are smarter and more varied (the terror mission shapeshifting creatures are evil!) demanding new strategies to defeat.  A great addition is the concealment and ambush feature.  Being as you are a secretive rebel force, you start most missions in hiding which allows you to set up the perfect ambush for enemy patrols.  This makes the missions have a better balance than the previous game’s gradually inching forward, as you need to scout the area and plan your attack rather than try to trigger a group of enemies then hide and pick them off.  I’ll probably do a fresh run of this game in the new year.

Firewatch

Firewatch Logo

Another walking simulator I hear you cry?  Yes, yes it is.  Walking simulator has been used as an insult for this genre for various reasons.  Normally that there isn’t much in the way of interaction.  I agree with this in games such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Virginia, in which the story happens to you and you just move the camera.  Limited interactivity in a medium built on interactivity almost defeats the object of what you’re doing.  Firewatch gets around that pretty well by allowing you to interact in a number of ways.

Firewatch tower
Your safe(?) haven.

The story is gripping (although some felt the ending was a bit of a let down) as far as I’m concerned.  Your relationship with your fellow ranger, who you communicate with through radio, is the real centre piece of the story.  You will often be given options of what to say to her, which will change your relationship for better or worse.  The way you approach certain situations will alter future moments in the game, and whilst those differences are only in the dialogue, the characters are so well written and acted that you will find yourself caring about how you are seen by others in the game world.  It’s not a terribly long experience, but it’s one that has stuck with me since its release over 10 months ago.

Inside

playdead-inside-screenshot-logo

The other game in the running for my favourite game of the year, and with damn good reason.  I described this as near perfect a gaming experience.  Everything in this game is expertly crafted, from the art style and animations, to the puzzles and overall atmosphere.

Tue_Jul_12_18-15-50_UTC%2B0100_2016
The entire story is told through details you observe for yourself.  A silent protagonist (and near silent world) done well.

Playdead, who previously made Limbo, have outdone themselves here.  Not only is it gorgeous, it’s also mechanically excellent.  New ways of interacting with the world are introduced to you, but you won’t find any of them used over and over again to pad out the puzzles and game length.  Mind controlling other characters happens a number of times, but never in the same way keeping the game fresh throughout its play length.  The story is intriguing and open to interpretation, with a secret ending that makes you question everything you’ve experienced so far.  I can’t overstate how excellent this game is.  Go and play it.

Some other games I enjoyed this year.  Pony Island was an interesting game about a satanic arcade game.  Finishing it was certainly not the end of the story, and there are a lot of secrets to be found in this deceptively simplistic world.  Oxenfree was fantastic as far as I’m concerned.  Another walking simulator, but done in a different style with a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and great story about coming to terms with loss.  Dark Souls 3 was an excellent final entry in an excellent series.  Horrifying bosses, exhilarating combat, and high challenge make this a satisfying experience for those willing to face its brutal world.

Oh, and Superhot is the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years.

Not a bad year for games all in all.  Are there any from 2016 that you particularly enjoyed?  Or am I flat out wrong?  Let me know!  And here’s to 2017!  I’ll be taking a break for the Christmas holidays, so don’t expect much from me in the coming weeks.  I’ll be back in the new year though, with plenty of words about games for your eyes to consume!  See you then!

 

 

 

 

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Thumper – Because “Space beetle horror musical” is a genre now.

It has long been established that I like a good rhythm action game; a genre that hasn’t had many good releases recently.  I think most people know that I also like horror games, especially those that delve in the madness tinged Lovecraftian styles of terror.  I never once thought someone would consider making a horror themed rhythm action game though.  But here we are with Thumper, a game in which a space beetle flies through some sort of wormhole towards a giant head thing, whilst terrifyingly intense industrial orchestral music (at least that’s how I’d describe it) pounds in your ears.

I would describe this game as staring into Satan’s kaleidoscope during a bad acid trip whilst listening to a black metal version of Stomp.  Think of that what you will.

Thumper boss fight
One of many colourful explosions that happen during boss fights.

In its simplest form, the game plays like a very basic Amplitude clone.  The is one lane (sometimes more) that you fly along, and you press X when you fly over a note.  There are gates that you pass through by holding X, and corners that must be navigated by holding X and pressing a direction.  The whole game is played with the X button and the analogue stick.  So far, so simple.  But good god does this get difficult.  It wouldn’t be unfair to call this the Dark Souls of rhythm action.  You learn or you die.

Thumper Corner
This is what a power sliding space beetle looks like.

Each level introduces a new layer of gameplay.  Leaping up and slamming down on alternating notes, multiple lanes, and killer snakes.  This game is weird.  Anyway, by the end of the game, you’ll have to make use of all the maneuvers in rapid succession, without missing a single note whilst going absurdly fast.  Mechanically this game is near perfect in that regard.  It teaches you each new skill and than forces you learn how to use it flawlessly before you confront the boss.  And forces is the right word here; you either learn to use your skills perfectly or you will not progress.  This is not a simple undertaking.

Just to give you an idea of just how fast this game can be.  This is a pretty tame level too…

A level is broken up into about 20 sections, each of which taking between 30 seconds and a couple of minutes.  A whole level would probably take about 20 minutes to complete, but spending over an hour on one was closer to my experience.  The stages are extremely difficult, throwing corners, notes, walls and lane changes at you at ludicrous speeds testing first your reactions, and then your memory as you inevitably die.  All this whilst the pounding, intimidating soundtracks assaults your ears.  It’s an incredibly intense experience, made even more so when a boss appears.

Thumper boss
One of the bosses. You need to play a section flawlessly to damage them.

Bosses can only be defeated by playing a section perfectly, allowing you to fire a shot at the target.  Do this 4 times and it’s job done.  That’s easier said than done though, there’s a lot to memorise (and I mean memorise, you will die) coupled with the music and the boss taking up huge swathes of your view to confuse you and throw you off.  It never felt cheap though, as everything is in time to the music, meaning that mistakes are because you weren’t focused enough, or you forgot what was coming next.  The boss designs are interesting too, ranging from tentacle triangles to the recurring Crakhed who becomes more and more deformed and horrifying from level to level.  Oh, and in case it wasn’t hard enough, there’s a Hardcore mode where death is permanent.

Thumper Colourful
It can get pretty colourful at times.

Now, this game can be playing in VR.  In fact I assumed it could only be laying in VR until I did a little research.  I get the feeling that the game was pushed as a VR product to try and sell more units (especially on the PS4), but I don’t see what VR would really add to this.  Considering this is playing in 3rd person, I’d have though VR would be a rather odd experience.  As I understand it, it allows you to look around the environment as you’re traveling, but considering how focused you need to be I would think looking around would be a mistake.  Anyway, it works without VR very well.

Thumper
That tentacle monster is one of the bosses my space beetle needs to defeat. Yes, that is a real sentence.

Thumper looks gorgeous, with lots of interesting effects around the track and the aforementioned detailed bosses.  You probably won’t have a lot of time to enjoy the graphics as you’ll be concentrating on the rhythm, but it does look great.  It runs excellently as well, with no frame rate drops that I could notice.  The sound is fantastic as well (which makes sense considering the genre), but it isn’t just the music.  The sound effects work very well too.  The clang as you swing around a corner, the blast as you slam down onto a note to attack a boss, and the snakes hissing their was past you all sound great.  And the sound of drums heralding the arrival of one of the enemies constantly filled me with dread.  Seriously, that guy was a jerk.

Thumper Tunnel
Moments of calm like this far few and far between.

Thumper was developed by Drool, a two man team!  I played the game on Playstation 4 and would strongly recommend you at least check this out.  It’s a totally different gaming experience, just be prepared that you may not finish it due to its high difficulty.  An absolute treat!

5 Games That Almost Made Me Rage Quit – Hand me that strategy guide.

I’ve been playing games for a pretty long time.  I remember playing a lot of games on our BBC micro, using the old 5 1/4″ disc drive.  I remember The Philosopher’s Quest (although never getting very far due to being so young when I tried it) and Galaxians being loaded up more than a few times.  I received a NES for my 7th birthday which still works to this day.  I think my point is that I’ve, for better or worse, played a lot of games.  I feel I’m fairly good at them and can pick up the rules and do fairly well in most pretty quickly.  Some though…some are just a little too much.  This week I’m listing 5 games that were I found so difficult that I almost gave up.  I made it through eventually, but it was a slog at times.

Broken Controller
I’ve never quite gone this far, but it’s come pretty close.

Usual rules!  Games I’ve played, one game per series.  I must have had a problem finishing it, wanted to give up but eventually came back to it to finish, even if I had to use a guide to help!  On with the list.  A list of failure and redemption if you will!

Metal Gear Rising

Metal Gear Rising Logo
Metal Gear Rising (2013)

Starting with, to my recollection, the most recent game I wanted to give up on thanks to its difficulty.  The thing is, it wasn’t even that hard really.  At its heart, this is a third person brawler/character action game.  You would use your sword as cyborg Raiden to cut your way through enemies, using your ability to slow down time to slice up enemy robots, stealing taking their energy to restore your health.  There was also, for defence, a parrying system…

Metal Gear Rising Blade Wolf
That’s him! That’s the guy! On the right! Screw that guy.

Good god that parrying.  You could deflect an enemy attack with a well timed move to the analogue stick along with a button press.  There was even a prompt on the screen to hint at the direction you should move the analogue stick.  I reached one of the earliest bosses, Blade Wolf; a robot dog with a chainsaw on its tail (which is pretty cool all things considered).  Put simply, if you couldn’t parry you wouldn’t have a hope.  I tried this boss repeatedly for several hours before giving up and walking away.  A few days later I decided I would give it one more go before retiring it completely.  It took a few more goes, but somehow the timing for parrying came to me.  Maybe it was practice, maybe it was going away and coming back later.  Whatever it was, I’m glad I didn’t give up on this, it turned into a hell of a game, full of thrilling moments and absurd bosses.  That’s Metal Gear for you though.  NANOMACHINES, SON!

UFO: Enemy Unknown

UFO Enemy Unknown
UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994)

Don’t know this one?  You might do, but by a different name being as this was the European title for the game.  Elsewhere it was known as X-COM: UFO Defense and I bet you recognise that name.  The return of the XCOM series is well known in gaming as something of a major success.  I count the remakes among my favourite games, and I regularly return to them for fresh playthroughs.  The original game was a different story though.  It was so hard.  Ridiculously so.  The fact that I hadn’t even reached teenager status when I first played it may suggest that I wasn’t ready for it, but I disagree.  It was just plain difficult.

UFO Enemy Unknown
Mmmm, look at those classic graphics. And that heap of buttons for controlling the game…

This was the first game of its type that I had played, but i had enough of an idea of how to play it.  The turn based missions anyway.  I would normally do reasonably well at those, but on the global level I didn’t know what I was doing, what to research, what to build, where to build bases.  Most of the time it ended up a mess.  But I played games of it over and over for a long time.  I’m pretty sure I gave up and came back time and time again.  Maybe it was through dumb luck, maybe through enough experience but one day I managed to make it to Mars and finish the game…on easy mode.  I never went back to try anything harder than that.  Thankfully I seem to be much better at the remakes.  Either that or they’re easier.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (1990)

Yes you read that right.  In the UK it was called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.  The TV show too.  There was a time in which anything related to ninjas was considered to be a risk of corrupting the youth of the country.  Anyway, this game was one part side scrolling brawler, one part top down exploration game.  You could travel about the over world, fight enemies, then go into a building or sewer where the screen would switch to side scrolling.  All 4 turtles could be played, each with their own advantages.  These also doubled as your lives, and when a turtle was defeated, you couldn’t play as him again unless you found them in a level and rescued them.  It was a rather good game for its time, with plenty of variety, although the enemies were a bizarre mish mash of different creations that seemed unrelated to the Turtles series as a whole.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Sewer April
One of the earliest levels, featuring Beebop and Rocksteady capturing April.

If you ever played this game, you know where I’m going with this.  That damn dam level (see what I did there?) was near impossible.  The idea was there were 8 bombs underwater, and you had to swim around and disarm them all within a time limit.  A very, very strict time limit.  That time limit, combined with floaty swimming controls and it being very easy to die meant that this was the end of my journey one more than one occasion.  I was fairly young at the time, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t finish this game until well over a year of starting it.  I don’t remember the specific point at which I somehow managed to get through it, but it happened.  I remember the next tricky point being fighting the Technodrome, which wasn’t all that difficult by comparison simply by virtue of the fact that you could take your time.  Underwater levels are regularly some of the worst in any game.  Please don’t stack dime limits and instant deaths on top developers.

Dark Souls

Dark Souls
Dark Souls (2011)

Well obviously at least one of these games would be in here.  This was the first game in the series I played, I had been looking forward to it for a while and was excited to have a go at it thinking “This era of ‘hard’ game won’t be that tough for me”.  How wrong I was.  This was punishing to say the least.  I like a good hack and slash game, which I suppose this technically is, but I wasn’t prepared for just how slow and methodical you had to be.

Ornstein and Smough
No. NO! I’m not doing it again. Absolutely not!

Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough.  If you’ve played this you know exactly what I mean.  Taking on one boss in this series is often tough enough, but two at a time was near impossible.  Couple that with the fact that once one is defeated, the other becomes considerably tougher and you end up with a recipe for rage quit.  I hammered away at these two constantly over the course of several days before vowing to never go back.  That didn’t last though, this game has a way of drawing you back for another suicidal run.  I decided to swallow my pride and summon a player to help me and managed to just eke out the victory about a week after first meeting these two beasts.  By comparison, everything after here was pretty simple!  Although Bloodborne certainly had its moments…

Ikaruga

Ikaruga
Ikaruga (2001)

This is a bullet hell shooter.  If you aren’t familiar with that term, it means a top down/side scrolling game in which you fly a ship along, shooting down enemy ships.  Think Gradius, R-Type or 1942.  Then add a thousand bullets on the screen all at once.  Ikaruga does something to give you a form of defence other than shooting enemies down.  You can change the colour of your ship between blue and red.  When blue you are immune to blue bullets (in fact, they charge up your super weapon when collected) but vulnerable to red, and vice versa.  An excellent form of protection, but…

Ikaruga Bullet Hell
This is what you have to deal with during a boss fight!

This is absolutely bananas.  There are so many bullets on screen at once!  Just so many!  Look again!  Have another look!  Switching between colours at exactly the right moment, weaving between shots, and managing to hit the target is near impossible at times.  I recall getting through the first 3 stages before getting utterly destroyed on the fourth over and over before giving up.  Months later I came back, wanting to play a shooter of this style.  After a few false starts I managed to make a full run through, from start to finish.  I’m not sure if it was luck, or some sort of moment of Zen, but I managed to make it through.  As it turned out, the bosses will retreat after a while, meaning you didn’t have to actually destroy them.  With that pressure off, this suddenly became a lot more manageable.

Some honourable mentions as ever!  FTL was very difficult, but being short meant having a couple of failures meant that having another couple of games was no huge time commitment.  Still though, after I started seeing the same events crop up I decided to leave it for a while.  I had another go at it one day and managed to get through after a couple of goes.  I feel that having a lucky run of events is a big part of winning this game.  Ninja Gaiden 2 is a bit of a cheat for me, as I technically didn’t finish it.  I put it to one side after finding it just far too hard to manage, but came back to it one day.  I managed to get a fair way through before the game kept crashing at the same point.  I think the disc was damaged and it was far too late to take the game back.  I think I might have been able to beat this if not for that!

And that’s the list!  Do you have any to add that you managed to beat after constant failure?  Let me know about your successes!