2022 started big for me. I finally, FINALLY finished my masters degree! The rest of the year was comparatively quiet as I’ve been deciding and researching on what to do next with myself. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do so.
Looking at the games I played this year, some common themes crop up. Most of them are about creating something, whether that’s a home or a piece of art. I was also blessed with three great tactics games!
2023 promises to be more active for me. I hope yours is a good year, too! Thanks for reading!
10) Citizen Sleeper
Citizen Sleeper’s atmosphere is like no other game this year. It has a dreamlike tone that’s frequently punctured by the realities of debt and hunger. The agony of Citizen Sleeper is that you can’t help everyone that you want to. I felt a kinship with most of the characters that I met, but Citizen Sleeper constantly reminds you that your own survival is always in question. Like a decompression chamber, Citizen Sleeper leaves you intensely aware of how thin the line between life and death is under capitalism.
You play as a sleeper, an inorganic worker-being born in a corporate warehouse whose memories belong to someone else. As a corporate product, sleepers are created with planned obsolescence in mind; they are designed to one day die so that room can be made for newer merchandise. Your character has escaped their life of servitude and found themselves on Earlin’s Eye, a formerly abandoned space station. You wake up alongside other piles of refuse, and then the game begins.
The pressure to survive permeates Citizen Sleeper. In my playthrough I got to know Lem, a dockworker who was trying to support his adopted daughter. Their story revolves around Lem trying to win a seat on a ship that was set to leave Earlin’s Eye, hoping for a better life for Mina. At every stage of their story I could decide how involved I wanted to be. I ended up dedicating my time to helping them, but that meant abandoning other characters I had grown fond of. Time is the most precious resource you have in Citizen Sleeper and it ensures that the choices you make are agonizing ones.
My one issue with the game is how my character’s class didn’t seem to measure up to the others that were offered. I chose the Extractor class, reasoning that the extra endurance would help me in a scrape. However, in the rare instances where I did come close to fighting someone, other options like hacking or negotiation would have served me far better. As a Machinist or Operator I would have had an easier time circumventing security on the space station or avoiding whoever was hunting me. The survival bonuses for the Extractor helped in the early game, but their usefulness fell off as I became more established.
Citizen Sleeper is a game that asks you to commit. The time you invest may not be rewarded. Choosing to depend on someone else is always a risk, and this game reminded me that there really is no other way to navigate one’s life.
Worst Cyberpunk Food: mushrooms
Favourite moment: Every time I got betrayed
Character I want the very best for: Mina
Favourite Song: “A Window to the Sun”
9) Triangle Strategy
There’s a lot about Triangle Strategy that I really like. The visuals are gorgeous; the “diorama pixel” style of Octopath Traveller is adapted beautifully to fit its isometric battlefields. The music is also wonderful. There’s the boisterous marches you’d expect, but the quieter, more melancholy tunes also stand on their own as well. My biggest complaint about this game is the pacing of its story and its limited character customization. The actual tactical gameplay is brilliant, but getting through the lengthy cutscenes left me too exhausted to see battle joined.
Triangle Strategy’s main narrative mechanic is the “Scales of Conviction”, a voting system that takes place during key moments in the story. The story itself is branched, and players weigh the opinions of their parties members to take the path that they think is the right one. Your party members come from the three kingdoms in Norzellia: Glennbrook, your typical chivalrous do-gooders, Aesfrost, an industrious and severe people living in Norzellia’s north, and Hyzante, a religious state who have a stranglehold on the production of salt. There is a realpolitik element to Triangle Strategy that I found refreshing. During votes I often considered how my decisions would affect citizens of each nature materially and politically. In a genre where your party members’ personal story arcs are the be-all end-all, I appreciated the injection of actual politics into the narrative.
Unfortunately, the framing of Triangle Strategy’s story became really cumbersome, especially in the latter half of the game. Like all JRPG’s you have a standard main plot; I didn’t find it more or less wordy than other tactical JRPGs. My issue comes with an additional layer of storytelling that is portrayed as “optional” but really isn’t if you want to learn anything about the story. During the aforementioned votes, you’re given a chance to do some fact finding to find ways to justify whichever argument that you’re going to make. This involves a lot of running around and speaking to NPCs until you find the right clues. You can go into votes without that information, but you’ll be flying totally blind, hoping you pick the right option. The most egregious offenders are the side stories. Additional characters join your party on pretty flimsy pre-texts, and what little we learn about them comes in these brief side stories. There are also descriptors for each side story, and I could never tell if I was in for a small scrap of background about a party member, or something more frivolous.
Triangle Strategy’s combat is far less controversial. The ways that you interact with the battlefield felt very organic and granular. Lightning became one of my favourite elemental spells to use because of how versatile it was: during thunderstorms, lightning attacks can hit all enemies on the field. If you use a lightning spell in a body of water, everyone standing in it has a chance to be stunned. All of the character classes in Triangle Strategy have this kind of versatility. While I would have liked to be able to deviate from the one set class that every character got, the utility of your character’s abilities made choosing who you brought to battle feel meaningful. It was nice to not have to depend on a handful of all-purpose powerhouses as is so often the case in tactical JRPGs.
With some streamlining of its narrative presentation, I think Triangle Strategy has a long future ahead of it as a great entry in the tactical JRPG space. Its combat has a uniquely granular feel to it, and I hope we more from this series in the future.
Best game title: Triangle Strategy
Best canesword user: Benedict
Not pronounced how you think: “demesne”
Favourite Song: “Destiny” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJwWN4wle_Q
I’ve seen Immortality called pretentious, and I think it is. I also think that’s a good thing. It’s a video game about what it means to be an artist and the kind of toll that art can take. Immortality is able to explore these ideas without being unwatchable, which for me, is a huge achievement in itself. Its creative (if sometimes obstructive) gameplay has you sifting through found footage to discover what happened to a missing actress, Marissa Marcel. It’s an absorbing experience that made any pretension part of the fun.
The footage players look at come from three fictional films: Ambrosio (1968), a story about a monk’s corruption by a demonic nun, Minsky (1970), a murder mystery centered around the victim’s muse and accused killer, and Two of Everything (1999), “a subversive thriller which explores the duality between a successful pop star and her body double”. All three films star the vanishing actress, Marissa Marcel. Manon Gage’s performance as Marissa is fantastic. She makes the idea that you’re looking through found footage of Marissa entirely believable, which is critical for a game so centered on one personality. I also appreciated the little glimpses of character personality you get in the process of piecing together the overarching story. Two characters might lock eyes, and based on what you know about Immortality, it can mean everything or nothing. The game’s other actors offer wonderful performances as well; one in particular will stay with me for a long time, but saying anymore would be giving too much away. If you know, you know.
Initially, the act of going through footage was frustrating. I began the game on mouse and keyboard, only to find out two hours in that on a controller, the game would indicate key points to closer examine footage by using the rumble feature. Organizational tools were lacking as well. The best I could do was to favourite specific pieces of film, anything I found noteworthy, and start again from the beginning until I found the point that piqued my interest.
To find out how pieces of footage are connected, you need to click something and see where you end up next. If you click on an apple in one scene, you’ll be taken to another scene where an apple is featured, at the specific time it appears. You can click on people, objects, words; the best moments in Immortality were when I figured out some new rabbithole to dive down in my hunt for what was really going on with Marissa’s story.
Immortality is worth looking at if you’re interested in how stories can be portrayed in games. I think it genuinely pushes the narrative envelope; not through technical prowess, but a unique consideration of how stories can be told in the medium. The best kinds of pretentious media are also the most exploratory, and Immortality is definitely breaking new ground.
Best Cat: Maria
Favourite Character: Carl Greenwood
Movie I Wish Was Full-Length: Minsky
Favourite Song: “Art” https://youtu.be/WoANJHTlnXc?t=111
Stray is extremely pleasant to play. While it’s not a mechanically complicated game, I loved pouncing around a subterranean cyberpunk city as a cute little kitty cat. The weakest parts of Stray are when it deviates away from slinking along ancient pipes are its weakest. There are stealth sections, chase sequences and, improbably, gun fights (the gun is basically a lamp, it’s not as violent as you might think). These interludes are few and far between though, and most of your time is spent exploring the city.
Playing as a cat really is a blast. You aren’t afforded as much freedom as a real cat might have (this is a video game, after all). However, what you can do as a cat is charming and novel enough that I still had fun. There’s a dedicated meow button. You can get your head stuck in boxes. My favourite part of Stray was knocking paint cans off of the ledges that they had been precariously placed. It’s just…fun to play as a cat!
This is the plot of Stray: you are a cat who get separated from their friends and you try to reunite with them. Along the way you find out that you’re in an abandoned cyberpunk city inhabited by robots. I loved the design of these robots; most of them started wearing clothes they found after their human masters died, and eventually they developed a culture of their own. Sisi Jiang wrote a thoughtful article about how Stray utilizes some well-worn orientalist tropes, especially regarding Kowloon Walled City. It’s something to keep in mind while taking in the otherwise sumptuous visuals and music in Stray. This game is definitely worth a look if you’ve been hankering for a comfy but aesthetically flawed game about being a cute, adorable little kitty cat.
Does the Cat Die?: No.
You Play As: A Cat
Paint Cans Knocked Over: Too many to count
Comfiest Robots: These guys
Favourite song: Whatever this is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOpH7_cZ6OQ
Another cyberpunk game? While technically true, NORCO has much more to say about the natural world than the other titles on this list. The game takes place in a future Norco, Louisiana. Norco is literally an oil town; people’s careers revolve around the industry, and so many pipes intersect Norco that cancer is an inevitability for its citizens. You play as Kay, a young woman who returned to Norco after her own mother died of cancer. She’s also searching for her brother Blake, who, having always been erratic, has been missing for longer than usual. At the risk of being too vague, the events that follow the opening hour of NORCO are profound and surreal.
NORCO plays like a standard adventure game with some fun mini-games thrown in. The game’s quiet humour shines through in these mini-games, but it’s also reflected in the unforgettable characters you’ll meet. I sometimes had trouble finding my way; there’s a particular mini-game that I had to look up in order to understand how to move at all. I never found myself too confused except for that one instance, though.
Much of what I saw in NORCO was familiar. Although I grew up in western Canada, far away from the Gulf of Mexico, I know what it’s like for people to become subservient to a natural resource. Growing up I’d see ads for oil companies before a movie, or listen to a politician justify further tax breaks to oil companies on the back of public infrastructure. Friends and co-workers driving ten hours away to destroy their bodies in isolated work camps in oilfields, making six figures right out of high school. I’ve seen those pipe filled landscapes all my life, and they really don’t leave you.
More than any other game on this list, NORCO is the one that I’m most likely to go on long monologues about. It feels completely of our time despite its cyberpunk credentials. It’s easy to see our lives in the bizarre, unmoored world of NORCO, and that’s why I think it needs to be seen to be believed.
Favourite Character: LeBlanc
Best Party Member: Stuffed monkey
Phone Case of Choice: Frog
Favourite song: “Goo in a Burning City (fmGew Remix)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9ClCdMSuHA
5) Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga
Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga demonstrates how far engrossing mechanics can carry a game. Symphony’s fusion of Fire Emblem style character management with Ogre Battle’s stress on character positioning during battle is done beautifully. The end product was a system that rewarded planning and good decision making in the heat of battle, and I genuinely prefer this style of combat over the newest iterations of the Fire Emblem series.
You’re allotted a grip of hero characters, all of which excel in certain areas. In Fire Emblem, these heroes are who you focus on. You level them up, upgrade their classes and watch them bulldoze through enemy infantry. In Symphony of War, however, you can also assign solder units to accompany your hero characters. Fire Emblem implemented squads in Three Houses, but they’re basically spells that you can equip to your character. In Symphony of War you assign each individual soldier to a squad. These soldiers have their own stats, levels, abilities, classes and equipment. This is where the greatness of the system shines through. The customizable nature of squads meant that I could allocate soldiers as needed to beat a certain mission, in whatever configuration I wanted.
Symphony of War rewards smart use of class composition in your squads. One squad I depended on a lot was a group of paladins. Upgrading to paladins is expensive, but they are a very powerful class equipped with heavy armour that can heal themselves. I used them to cover my flank most of the time; since they could take care of themselves, I knew they would be able to run interference on surprise attacks on my side. In the late game I had a squad of just one powerful mage and two dragons. Since they all used magical attacks, I used them as shock troops when facing enemies that had low magic resistance. Assassin units have an ability to attack the back of the enemy line first, so I used them to annihilate enemy mages, as they could leapfrog behind the heavy armour units that the mages hid behind. It was very satisfying to execute on a strategy beyond number crunching or a weapons triangle.
There’s more I could talk about. There’s a whole ability system for your army that, while linear, demands you prioritize what you want your army to excel at. Equipment grants fun skills for your characters far beyond base stat bonuses. There’s a good variety to the level design, and the music in Symphony of War is appropriately grand and melodramatic. This game really punches above its weight and I hope that more people take a look at it.
2022 Banner of the Maid Award For Excellence in Mostly Not Horny Tactical Gameplay: Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga
Is There A Giant Lady: Yes
Favourite song: “Decisive Campaign” https://youtu.be/d8824I6v8bQ (I couldn’t find much of the music from this game on YouTube, but the main theme gives you a good idea of what you can expect!)
4) Dwarf Fortress
Given more time, Dwarf Fortress would be my top game of 2022. I’ve been playing it constantly since its release at the beginning of December, and as I learned more about how the game worked and what you could actually do, I could feel my oncoming obsession with it. It feels strange to rave about Dwarf Fortress. This is a game that’s existed for twenty years. It’s one of the most impactful titles in the medium, easily comparable with Mario or Final Fantasy. Dwarf Fortress is even on display in the Museum of Modern Art. I’ll instead focus on the Steam release, which is the reason I’ve finally been able to play this fabled series.
Years ago I tried to get into Dwarf Fortress, but I wasn’t able to parse the ASCII display. Like so many smoothed over stone walls, the Steam release allowed me to make sense of the obscure runes I had seen up until now. Gameplay suddenly made sense, and I began delving.
The stories that I’ve experienced have been pretty meager so far. One time a hunter of mine decided to make a legendary item but went insane before he could finish it. He killed another dwarf, a human, and a dog, and the dog’s corpse ended up spraying miasma everywhere in my tavern because I didn’t know that dogs can only be buried with my dwarves if they were someone’s pet. Also, all the kids in my fortress love to play in the bituminous coal stockpile.
It’s hard to discuss Dwarf Fortress without relying on geological terminology. Every time I learn how to do something new in this game, it feels like I’m taking one more step down a dark, cavernous path. I have no idea what’s waiting for me and my only equipment is the knowledge I’ve accrued along the way. It’s an exciting feeling that I haven’t had in a long, long time. Strike the earth!
Best Fort Name:
Best King Name:
Favourite Song: “Drink and Industry” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhU8VdELyTE (“Ilun Kinem” is Dwarvish for “Hail, beauties!”
If you know me at all, you’ll know that a game set in 16th century Bavaria where you play as an artist who paints illuminated manuscripts is right up my alley. While Immortality was a meditation on the relationship between an artist and their work, Pentiment considers what art can mean to the community that birthed it. Andreas, the character you play as, does not work in isolation. He’s shaped by what he experiences in Tassing, the fictional village that Pentiment is set in. The story revolves around the murder of a baron, but I was surprised to find myself treating this main plot as a secondary story. I became much more invested in the everyday lives of the villagers I met and how their interactions with Andreas played out. Maybe it’s cliché, but the goings on in the village took center stage for me, and Tassing became my favourite character in Pentiment.
The only way to describe the look of Pentiment is ‘rich’. The art replicates the murals, frescoes and stained glass art that medieval Europe is known for. Pentiment is absolutely gorgeous from beginning to end. Even the animations are a joy to watch; there was one instance where I was captivated by the detail of someone lighting a torch in a dark cave. A visitor to Tassing, Brother Sebhat, is depicted in the style of mural paintings from Ethiopia, his homeland. Artistic touches like this convey an amount of care that I rarely see in games.
I believe that the best works of historical fiction depict people as what they are: people. Bavarians in the 16th century experienced everything that we do today. I was genuinely bummed out when I heard news of someone’s passing, and was thrilled for those who had found some happiness in their lives. When games are described as “living, breathing worlds”, it’s usually in reference to their graphical fidelity or the vastness of the experiences they promise. I see my own life in Tassing. To me it’s a place that exists even when I don’t think about it, and it goes on without me. I’m thankful to have been able to visit.
Best Fit: The Landscknecht
Favourite Brother: Brother Florian
Favourite Sister: Sister Gertrude
Favourite Song: Sister Amalie’s First Vision https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g16QVXabRK4
2) Tactics Ogre: Reborn
Final Fantasy Tactics is my favourite game of all time. I still adore how it plays, and its story of a young noble turned class traitor and heretic is my wonderfully told. Over the years I had heard that FFT was considered to be a spiritual successor to a game called “Tactics Ogre”. Cool name aside, I had no idea about how big a deal Tactics Ogre really was. I was excited to finally get the chance to see what the fuss was about. Sixty hours later I can definitively say that Tactics Ogre Reborn is a fantastic remaster and one hell of a tactics game.
Tactics Ogre Reborn’s history is a bit fraught. It’s a remaster of a 2010 PSP remaster of the original SNES release, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (1995). Coming to this game with such reverence for Final Fantasy Tactics is a bit like look at a relative in old family photos; the similarities between you two instantly click into place, and the differences are heightened in turn. Yasumi Matsuno had a big influence on the development of both games, and so the fact that so many similarities exist is not surprising.
The biggest divergence between Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre is in their stories. Both games are tales about idealistic young men fighting to do what they think is right under an unjust, feudal system. Each story shares a lot thematically: father figures with dark secrets, complicated relationships with best friends, characters with a surprising heritage…I could go on. When you look at what each game talks about, though, there’s a surprising difference in focus. Final Fantasy Tactics focuses on the role that institutions play in oppressing the people they claim to protect. Systemic issues are front and center (alongside demonic pacts and evil magic, for good measure). Tactics Ogre, meanwhile, is concerned with studying “the people” and the hatreds that can split them apart.
The world of Tactics Ogre Reborn is one in which the history between peoples creates rifts that have huge political consequences. Resolutions in this game are not clean. This is further complicated by the branching story paths. The story of Tactics Ogre Reborn diverges at key points depending on what choices you make. These aren’t light choices either; someone you save in one route could end up betraying you on another one based on your actions. Your choices determine battle lines the safety of entire peoples. The most amazing part of all of this is that it works. My favourite part of this game has been watching the main character, Denam, struggle to maintain his ideals across the different paths. In some routes he has done unconscionable things, and in others he’s practically a saint. The path system lets me understand his character better since he’s tested in different ways in a manner that isn’t possible in a linear story.
I haven’t even talked about the gameplay, which is a blast. Parties are much larger than in Final Fantasy Tactics, twelve to FFT’s five. You can have dozens of allies as well, including non-human characters. Tactics Ogre even allows you change the classes of your monster friends and determine their ability loadouts, something you can’t do in Final Fantasy Tactics. Combat is deep and brisk thanks to the remaster, which allows you to speed up the pace if you want. There’s a pile of additions that came with the remaster edition, including projectile predictions, bonus objectives, training battles and improved AI. My favourite feature is what acts as the new game plus system. Instead of having to replay the game from the start, you get to teleport to different parts of the story and play from there. This makes catching up on characters and events that you missed a breeze; it’s rare that I feel like a game respects my time.
I can’t say enough good things about this game, it’s the total package. It should be the standard for remasters going forward. After almost two months I still have plenty of Tactics Ogre Reborn left. I feel genuinely lucky to be able to play this game whenever I sit down with it. Play this, and tell me that I didn’t “ogre” sell it!
Favourite Class: Terror Knight
Best Zatoichi Reference: Hobyrim
MVP: My gryphon, Petane
Favourite Song: “Fight it Out!” https://youtu.be/PHWNlzmvHRc
- Elden Ring
I loved Norse mythology growing up. Part of my interest lay in my frustration with being dragged to church every Sunday; my tiny act of rebellion was to read about Loki and Freja, Heimdall and Baldr. As I became more familiar with the stories, I realized that the Norse gods were far more fallible than anything I had heard during a Sunday sermon. These gods made mistakes. They gave in to petty feelings, feuded and schemed. Even the smartest of them couldn’t escape their doomed fates. When I began Elden Ring, I thought about those stories again.
There’s something different about Elden Ring, both as a game and in the Fromsoft canon. It’s an open world game, true, the first that Fromsoft has made. The magic system is more varied than it was in other Fromsoft titles. You even get a magic horse in this one! None of that is what I mean, though. Elden Ring feels mythical to me in a way that other Fromsoft games do not. Time had no meaning to me as I explored the world on my magic horse. There’s a cataclysmic disaster that occurs before the beginning of the game called The Shattering. In a fit of rage, Queen Marika destroys the Elden Ring, upending the natural order of the game’s setting: The Lands Between. Events like this didn’t come off as history to me, but myths; stories that people create to try and make sense of their world.
As I ventured around the map, I met NPCs who all had opinions about what should happen in the wake of the Shattering. Some people wanted to reform what was already there while others wanted to burn everything down. Still others wanted to leave everything behind or follow heretical paths to fight against the Golden Order (the de facto power in The Lands Between that supports Queen Marika). I was conflicted about who to side with over the 100+ hours that I spent with Elden Ring. I built my character according to what I learned about the world and who I met and I roleplayed to a degree that I never had in any other Fromsoft game. The success of Elden Ring lies in the room it gives you to cultivate the identity of your character. As engrossing as older Fromsoft games were, I never felt that way about my character.
The importance of the freeform nature of exploration and game progression in Elden Ring can’t be overstated. If you’re stuck somewhere in the game, you can just leave and explore elsewhere. As a mage character, I naturally gravitated towards an old mage’s college. I wanted to learn more about what it meant to use magic in this world. Little did I know that I would find answers to these questions everywhere thanks to the game’s amazing environmental storytelling. Sometimes I would run into an NPC and have my entire conception of a place or person flipped upside down. Seeing that a particular flower grew in a particular place could be as telling as any lengthy monologue. I was propelled to discover new things by the mystery of The Lands Between, whereas in other open-world games, I was just looking for another power up or item.
In my travels, I sometimes wouldn’t discover new information about a character or location twn or twenty hours later. Who are those horsemen draped in black cloth that only attack at night? Why are these gargoyles singing? Why does this blind woman keep asking for ‘grapes’? These enigmatic figures were already fascinating enough, but I wasn’t prepared for the outright awe that I felt in many of the boss encounters. The spectacle of these battles was simply incredible and they had an immense sense of scale and danger. That danger could be mitigated by summoning help, thankfully. At the risk of dipping into some tired discourse, I think that Elden Ring can be the easiest game in the Dark Souls tradition…if you want it to be. As the enormity of Elden Ring came into focus, I started to rely on summoning spells more often. I loved running around the Lands Between with a spectral jellyfish or a cool assassin ghost. It’s wonderful that players have real choice in if they seek out help or not. The summons themselves are a very fun mechanic, and I grew especially attached to some of them (hi, Aurelia!)
The success of Elden Ring speaks for itself, as does the fact that I played through it twice, something I never do nowadays. I loved every second of Elden Ring, even the diseased dogs and hell birds and awful, awful screaming priest men.
And for the record: I used summons for Malenia, and I don’t regret a damn thing.
Favourite Spell: Triple tie between Adula’s Mooblade, Rock Sling and Swift Glinstone Shard
Favourite Side-Quest: Hyetta’s
Favourite Boss Fight: Radahn
Favourite Boss Design: Rykard
Favourite NPC: Zoraya
Favourite Weapon: Giant-Crusher
Thanks again, and see you next year!