I have had a rough year this year. To be frank, if I had known that pursuing a master’s thesis would take such a toll on my mental health (let alone my debt) I may have reconsidered going through with it. The stress from my work, on top of my more mundane mental health issues, alongside additional strife across the world, meant that I depended on games as an escape like never before. Thankfully, this has also been a great year for games, and so I figured that I would list my ten favourite games from this year and talk about what I liked about them and how they helped me out! I tended to write more for games which I liked the best, so be mindful of that if you need to! I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!
#10: SteamWorld Dig 2
I’ve never been much for building and crafting games, your Minecrafts and your Terrarias. I ignored the settlement building in Fallout 4 except when a quest required it. In general, I would rather keep moving in a game instead of staking out a spot to craft something. I guess “scrounging” is the best word to describe what I like about exploration games. I’ll dig through any irradiated vault you ask me to.
The loop in SteamWorld is very simple. You start off at a main base which acts as a jumping off (digging down?) point into a vast ocean of dirt, stone and hopefully, minerals. Once you get as many resources as you can carry, you do your best to make it home safely, sell your loot, upgrade your items if you can, and then plunge once more into the depths. There is a story that motivates you to explore new areas, but I think the items you get, and the ways that they upgrade, are what truly drove me through the game.
Dorothy, the main character, acquires items like grappling hooks, water cannons and rocket boots. While there is combat in the game, it is secondary to the exploration. The upgrades for Dorothy’s items are almost always dedicated to navigation. This is a blessing, but not because the initial pathfinding is difficult or boring. I found digging around with a regular pickaxe to be very relaxing, and it made me wish that the game didn’t have a hard finish point.
SteamWorld’s story is serviceable and has some interesting points to be made about the environment (it’s about time we got the robotic perspective on climate devastation). The characters are the strongest parts of the narrative as the writers crammed a lot of personality into these robots. The story’s end promises an interesting new setting for the next potential game as well. If there is a SteamWorld Dig 3, it will be the mechanics that draw me back, as I have never had a more relaxing time indiscriminately destroying the environment.
#9: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
In Hellblade’s opening credits, the developers list the doctors and mental health specialists that were consulted in trying to portray a character with mental illness, in this case psychosis. Hellblade is about a Pictish warrior, Senua, who is trying to save her lost love’s soul from the Norse goddess of the underworld, Hela. The premise itself is interesting enough, but what really intrigued me was the forthright way in which the developers were talking about their desire to present mental illness accurately. Mental illnesses in games are usually represented by insanity meters, insane asylums or “debuffs”, and so I was eager to see what the developers came up with. In the end I saw some positive steps, and some bad ones.
When I read that the developers term Senua’s mental illness as psychosis, I immediately grew suspicious. Suspicious of the lack of detail, as psychosis can come with a myriad of symptoms that are not always shared between sufferers. Suspicious because at some point that psychosis was going to be represented in gameplay, and as you may guess, I do not have positive feelings on the subject. Psychosis is often associated with derealization or a feeling that what you see and experience isn’t real; psychosis manifesting in someone who is literally going through hell has obvious narrative hooks built right into it.
Doubt follows Senua all throughout her journey. Sometimes Senua doubts her abilities to see her mission through, but most of the time she actually does treat everything she sees at face value, no matter how extraordinary it is. It’s us, the players, who are made to weigh our knowledge of her mental illness (which the developers insist on letting us know she has) with what we are seeing in the game, which again is surreal and grim. It felt like Senua’s mental illness was relegated to a plotline of “is it real? Is it not?” when I genuinely just wanted to see her succeed.
Hellblade offers another urgent message that the game is best experienced with headphones. This is so that the the two voices who are constantly speaking to Senua, sometimes goading her, sometimes reprimanding, can be fully heard. It’s never explained what the voices truly are, but without that explanation, I think that most players will just assume it has to be another manifestation of Senua’s mental illness. In having players guess what aspects of Senua’s struggle are due to her mental illness, and what aspects derive from Hellblade’s fantasy setting, I believe that a lot of players will only recognise psychosis from its most extreme symptoms.
The depiction of the voices in Senua’s head as severe and endlessly antagonising brings to mind how other mental illnesses and disabilities are depicted in media at their most extreme. Someone with autism must be a savant, and someone with an eating disorder will always have ribs that you can count. In video games, exploring the pain of mental illness never seems to be enough. There is always some crisis that absolves a mentally ill character by either showing their humanity or absolving them of their illness. Their mental illness must serve a utilitarian purpose for the sake of gameplay. There are some striking visuals and and solid sound design in Hellblade, but I can’t help but imagine what Senua’s journey would have looked like without the burning, twisted imagery.
Now, that was all pretty negative. The reason this game is on my top ten is because while it’s not perfect in its depiction of mental health, the game itself plays well. The enemy designs are fantastic, and some of the levels are really clever. One in particular has you advancing after solving puzzles that involve line of sight and some eye trickery which I found to be very unique. Other puzzles, such as the oft repeated finding of runes to align with a gate in order to open it, did get to be boring by the end. And even though Senua’s movement speed was relatively slow, it did give me time to take in what are truly gorgeous visuals. Who knew the road to hell could have such lush variety?
I really think the game would not be half as good without Melina Jeurgen’s performance as Senua. For all the game’s faults, Senua is truly a great character. What I like about Senua is the way that she behaves. Like a lot of people with mental illnesses, Senua reacts to extraordinary events in ways other might not. Whereas most folks would react to the fantastical creatures and demons Senua encounters with terror, Jeurgen presents Senua as having a weary kind of courage. Even the extraordinary becomes mundane when you have seen it enough, and in Hellblade this comes through as a strength for Senua. I personally found this to be a heartening message this year. Getting up every day and living with a mental illness is a kind of strength that we often don’t speak of. The unique resiliencies that we develop in the face of horrifying, grating mental illness aren’t usually recognised. For all its faults, Hellblade provides an example of what that perseverance can look like. Take all the mythological trappings away, and Senua could be me, or your neighbour, or a classmate. I think Hellblade is a step in the right direction, but there’s a long road ahead before mental illness is depicted well in games media. For now, I’m just happy to have Senua.
#8: Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator 2
I fucking love the Guilty Gear series. My first foray into it was during the PS2 days, when I forced my cousin to rent Guilty Gear XX: The Midnight Carnival. After we had played each other for a while and went to bed, I woke up and kept playing until the next morning. The only other fighting games I had seen were Primal Rage, Street Fighter 2, one ill-fated evening with Clay Fighter 63 ⅓ and Super Smash Brothers 64. I was immediately blown away by the music and the character designs in Guilty Gear. Do I pick the 9ft tall doctor with a giant scalpel and a paper bag on his head? The latex clad guitar witch whose win-quotes were particularly salacious for my 15 year old brain? The body-contorting possessed Australian who summoned ghost dogs and spirit swords to attack? This shit was already crazy, but the movement and speed I thought was impossible in fighting games was suddenly possible through Guilty Gear. To say I have been a fan ever since is an understatement.
The Guilty Gear series is somewhat infamous for its almost yearly iterations of the original PS2 release. Each version largely acted as patches before patches came to consoles. One version, Guilty Gear Isuka, had a Final Fight brawler mode as well as a 4 player multiplayer mode, both of which weren’t great but were novel and fun to mess around with. Instead of creating a brand new game in the PS3/360 era, Arc System Works continued to iterate on the PS2 game, with the final version coming out for the Wii. Many people thought the series was dead (myself included), but when Xrd was announced, “excitement” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Revelator 2 is the second iteration on the initial release, after Revelator. It continues the tradition of mostly acting as a patch. Two new characters were included: Baiken, a half robotic samurai who has been in previous games, and Answer, a business ninja who loves to be online. While these two characters haven’t rocked the competitive scene, but they are continued examples of Guilty Gear’s traditionally great character design.
I think that Xrd is the best 2D fighter out there right now, and certainly the best looking. There are balance changes I’d like to see happen (Sol doesn’t need a Super Saiyan mode, and Raven needs to lose about a third of the tools at his disposal), and the online features could always be better. That being said, Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator 2 offers the same creative gameplay it always has while also being friendly to people who want to dip a toe in, particularly with its robust tutorial. Check it out!
#7: Horizon: Zero Dawn
I found the premise of Horizon to be immediately engaging. Horizon takes place on a post-post apocalyptic Earth. The dust has long since settled on the cataclysm that destroyed civilization on Earth (unlike other games of the genre, Horizon does explicitly lay out how the world became a ruin). You play as Aloy, an outcast of the Nora, one tribe among many who have developed in the wake of the apocalypse. The world of Horizon is immediately a mysterious one, and as the story progresses we slowly find answers, peeling back layer after layer. The world is both familiar and alien. Ruined cities and buildings are recognisable in their shape, but they are also aberrations, monuments to whatever foolishness caused their destruction in the first place. The robots that Aloy encounters are also aberrations, but rather than the inorganic beings subjugating organic ones, these robots mimic organic life. You will see no two-legged automatons in Horizon. Instead, these robots are approximations of all kinds of animal life: crocodiles, deer, rams, giraffes, crows, bears. They sound off clicks to signal danger, they move in herds and perform all sorts of behaviours that evokes the wildlife we are familiar with. The mysteries of Horizon’s world were the draw of the game for me, but the mysteries of the wider world were not the only riddles to be solved. The rest are more personal, specifically those mysteries having to do with Aloy.
Perhaps nothing defines Aloy more, at least as presented in the game, than her status as a Nora. The Nora are a matriarchal tribe who are very protective of their territory, which they believe is sacred land. Their religious beliefs center around the All-Mother, a sort of all-in-one protector who provides for the Nora as long as they adhere to established traditions. If Aloy’s role in the story of Horizon can be described in one way, it is as a transgressor. She begins the game as an outcast, as already having transgressed against the sacred customs of her people due to the circumstances of her birth. In the beginning of the game, Aloy is quick to defer to authority in order to achieve even a sliver of acceptance. By the end of the game, after all her travels, Aloy is unafraid to voice her opinions, even if it is contrary to belief systems which she once upheld above all else. As she goes out into the world (and in doing so transgressing the Nora’s strongest beliefs), Aloy is constantly exceeding expectations, breaking long held boundaries and creating new realities which were never before thought possible.
Although Aloy becomes yet another video game protagonist on whose success the fate of the world depends on, what Horizon does well is threading the needle between Aloy’s personal need for answers and her desire to help the world. We learn that in this world prejudices still exist; Aloy is constantly underestimated because of her gender, because of her status as a Nora, because of her status as an outsider. Even when it becomes clear that she is the key to everything, Aloy is still subjected to assumptions and expectations that she never asked for. The other tribes Aloy meets were all well realized, although better writers than me have written about issues of appropriation. There is the Banuk, a tribe who lives up north that endeavors to bond with the machines, even going so far as to run machine wiring through their skin. The Carja are the closest to a “civilisation” that we see in the game; they worship the sun, speak in solar metaphors and are the quickest to be suspicious of outsiders. The other major tribe we see are the Oseram, materialist builders who aren’t all that remarkable but are a nice foil to the rest of the tribes. It’s through Aloy’s navigation of this unfamiliar world and the people that she meets that we learn about the world ourselves.
I found the actual gameplay of Horizon to be thrilling. Although you spend a lot of the time crafting in service of your various weapons, the resources are not difficult to find until the highest upgrade levels (my tip: never sell any animal bones or skins you find). I’ve seen several reviewers of Horizon say that the ability to call over machines in stealth from a bush was overpowered, and I would agree with that. However, the feeling of accomplishment you get from downing a gigantic fire-breathing robot crocodile in open combat is unparalleled. Horizon gives you lots of abilities to toy with, and I had the most fun when I was utilising every trick I had to take down an enemy. Taking your time and laying out traps before engaging an enemy was always satisfying and often critical. Horizon encourages you to use every part of its world that you can in order to get an edge, and while I would never suggest that it’s the only way to play, it’s the only way I did it. Fighting humans is not as fun simply due to the lack of variety, but it can be a nice palette cleanser after hours of strategically shooting off pressure servos.
Horizon is of a quality that I cannot wait to see what’s next. I haven’t even gotten into how great a performance Ashley Burch gives as Aloy, or what a brilliant character Sylens is (voiced by Lance Reddick). I truly think the only thing holding back Guerilla is a budget; there are more technically impressive open world games out there right now which are bigger and have more to do. But none of them have the heart that Horizon does, which is great to see in a triple A game.
Pyre is about a band of criminals who have been condemned to play Supergiant Game’s take on NBA Jam in order to be absolved of their crimes and return to common society. Pyre is about how we develop interpersonal relationships during times of strife and the reasons we do so. Pyre is about religion’s ability to help and to hurt, how it can both be embraced or weaponised. It’s about goals and the lengths we go to achieve them. It’s about scoring goals through sweet dunks with a mustachioed dog. Pyre is about a lot of things.
Many questions are brought up in Pyre. Is the personal good as valid as the greater good? How do our personal histories affect us? When should a rule be broken? Should your dog friend keep the mustache or not? The beauty of Pyre is that these questions and ideas are all given equal weight through an absorbing story that refused to let me go until I saw it to the end. Every issue brought up in Pyre, every story beat, is given room to breathe through a plot which is both well written and well paced. The story and character development even bleed into gameplay decisions.
The assumed premise of Pyre is to earn freedom for as many of your teammates as possible by playing a sacred fantasy basketball game, but this straightforward premise is soon made complicated. Pyre’s cast have different perspectives on their incarceration; some cannot wait to leave, some think they are better off where they are, and others exist somewhere in the middle. Do you keep your best scorer even though he desperately misses his family? Do you keep someone who says they want to stay but you know would have a better life on the other side? I found myself weighing the wellbeing of a character ahead of their athletic abilities most of the time. Pyre asking these decisions of you would be meaningless if the characters involved did not matter to the player, but I found myself caring a great deal about most everyone in the game, even those who were ostensibly my rivals. For those who have the patience for a lot of reading and character development, I can’t recommend this game enough. It’s a weird combination of gameplay: half visual novel, half arcadey sports game. But for those who take the leap, I think they will find Pyre to be an immensely rewarding experience.
#5: Torment: Tides of Numenara
Torment: Tides of Numenara is impossible for me to think of as a traditional story, a story with a beginning, middle and end. It took me six months to complete, partially due to computer troubles, but mostly because my brain was exhausted pretty quickly after each play session. Tides of Numenara is dense. A lot of this density derives from the setting itself. While in theory the game is set on Earth, the locations you visit in Torment exist in what is called the “Ninth World”. This is because Tides of Numenara exists in a post-apocalyptic world (I’m starting to see a pattern here). Unlike other games, the denizens of the Ninth World occupy a space with layers and layers of civilisations literally underneath their feet. Entire civilisations have risen and fallen over epochs, reaching unimaginable heights and being destroyed through disasters which are just as incomprehensible. And you’re standing on it all, baby!
The player character is known as The Last Castoff, the last of a small group automatons that an entity called the Changing God used for his own purposes, then discarded. By constantly creating and discarding theses castoffs, the Changing God angered another being called The Sorrow. The Sorrow sees the Changing God and his children as abominations, and it is the player’s eventual confrontations with The Sorrow and the Changing God which drive the main plot. This plotline is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Torment has to offer narratively, however. Torment is so rich with amazing characters, events and world building that I played it more as a tourist than as someone trying to see the game through.
One of my favourite things about Torment is its version of a karma system, the Tides. In the game, the Tides are manifestations of morality. Apart from real world consequences, many decisions a player makes correspond to a different colour of Tide: Red represents emotion and passion and choosing it usually results in the player taking abrupt actions. The Blue Tide corresponds to knowledge, reason and enlightenment. The Silver Tide represents fame, power, and the desire to be remembered and to leave a legacy. The Gold Tide represents empathy, kindness and the desire to help those around you. Counter to that is the Indigo Tide, which represents justice, the greater good and a desire to help society as a whole. As you can see, there is no “evil” Tide represented here. This leads to fascinating encounters that almost never boil down to one-sided portrayals of morality. Instead players must weigh a lot of different factors in their decision making, which, at least for me, lead to me caring a great deal about the characters I met.
True to Numenara’s spiritual predecessor, Planescape: Torment, the characters you meet are the best part of the game. In Numenara, I helped a robot have children, I exorcised two demons who were causing my companion to be heroic to a suicidal degree, befriended a gelatinous mass that could read the Tides, brought a man a child whose feelings he could feed on so that I could go through the portal in his stomach, and bought potions from a merchant who was slowly turning into an insect. The locations do not disappoint either; my companions and I travelled to the intestines of an interdimensional being, a pub full of veterans of an interplanar war and a tomb complex which held the remains and memories of trillions of beings. Through the memories of others, I snorted brain worms so that I could read an alien monolith, and I decided who would get my inheritance as thousands of nanorobots ate me alive. Tides of Numenara is not a conventional game, and I love it for it.
If you have played Planescape: Torment, much will feel familiar here. Tropes reappear in Tides of Numenara that Planescape veterans will recognise. Portals once again are ever present in this world, and living tattoos make an appearance as well. You will run into a death cult at one point, and the Last Castoff is deathless just as Planescape’s main character was. One departure from Planescape is the combat, which is much better in Numenara. It shares more in common with contemporary games like Pillars of Eternity than the hitchy, unresponsive point and click combat of Planescape. Also like Planescape, combat is relatively easy to avoid through decisions and dialogue choices. Skill checks can often let you gain the edge in an oncoming battle, or avoid it entirely. I found avoiding combat to almost always be the more interesting option, but there’s something to be said for ripping through a game that affords so many ways to avoid combat.
Torment: Tides of Numenara is a game to be experienced. While the main story did not really stick with me, many of the sidequests, and the characters met along the way, are going to be with me for a very long time. If you can stand lots of exposition with sometimes overly wordy language, I really can’t recommend this game enough.
#4 Nier: Automata
I played Nier back in March, about a month after its initial release. I have played a lot of games between then and now, and with time as a buffer I had forgotten a lot of my feelings about this game. I was uncertain about where I would place Nier, but knew it would place somewhere in the top 10. After revisiting the story and the music, however, I am getting flashbacks as moment after moment comes flooding back, and I have to admit that it’s a pretty affecting experience. Nier deals in the kind of existential questions that keep me up at night and often consume my days. No other piece of media has made me think about what defines humanity than Nier. That it tells its story in ways that only a video game could makes it that much more of an achievement.
Much about Nier is muted. Earth, having been taken over by robots and thus forcing the remaining humans to establish a life on the moon, is full of grey and brown palettes. The grass has a dim edge to it, and the animals only stand out as organic outsiders to a planet now ruled by machines. The machines themselves are also tepid in their design; simple bipeds with round heads and blank eyes. The characters you play as have the most striking aesthetics; chokers, skirts, tight fitting blouses with 9 foot katanas strapped to them, all in stark black white. This muted world belies an ocean of unseen changes that are churning underneath the world of Nier, and the glimpses that we get of these developments are thrilling, evocative and horrifying.
When games like Wolfenstein: The New Colossus are talked about, top of mind for most commentators are the moments. The moments in Wolfenstein are bombastic and are sure to elicit a reaction from the player. I would argue that Nier’s best moments have a weight to them that Wolfenstein’s don’t. The most memorable moments in Nier are often quiet ones; as opposed to Wolfenstein’s explosive crescendos, Nier give you time to contemplate what you just witnessed. You have plenty of opportunities to miss scenes or interactions between characters if, say, you don’t play through chapters A-E, or if you ignore a certain sidequest. Wolfenstein demands you see everything, and while it’s a thrilling ride, there is a definite peak in which, at least for me, diminishing returns began to set in. Nier also has a core story, but so many conditions exist to see it through that the process begins to feel like a commentary itself. This is what I love most about Nier: the gameplay is not only how a player interacts with the world, it’s also how the developers speak with the player.
While I haven’t played any other games developed by Platinum, my understanding is that combat in those games is generally over the top, bizarre and just plain fun. In comparison to what I’ve seen from Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Nier’s combat is just as subdued as its setting. I had some fun with unlocking the stories of weapons and experimenting with different loadouts, but I can see why some would be disappointed that Nier does not match up to its predecessors combat wise. I believe that while the combat may be lacking, Nier makes up for it with the ways that players engage with the rest of the game.
Gameplay changes are used to reveal more about the world. When one of the chapters has your main character hacking robots instead of slicing them to bits, players gain new insights into their targets, often times finding something inside where they once might have thought nothing existed. Just like in Horizon, the player learns with the characters, and witnesses the characters grow as the player comes to their own conclusions. The process is a more harrowing experience in Nier. No matter what happens in Horizon, Aloy is always assured of her humanity and while she has to find a purpose, Aloy understands that ultimately it is her will that will decide what that purpose is. Not so with the characters in Nier. Nier’s characters almost uniformly struggle with ideas of existence, mortality and what it means to emulate humanity. The answers they find, if any are to be found at all, either destroy or revitalise the questioners, just as so many humans before them.
While Nier is absolutely about the mechanical life that inhabits its world, its intended audience is obviously real, living human beings. At the end of playing through Nier, players are likely to give words like real, living, human and being secondary looks. Nier posits many questions but offers possibilities instead of answers. It’s a game that’s often called nihilistic, but I think it purports that there is a great deal to be hopeful about. This is a game that celebrates life and the ability to live it above all else. Nier reaches pits of gut-wrenching despair, but it also conveys quiet joy like no other game I’ve played. I’ve had more fun playing games other than Nier this year, and I’ve related to other games more than Nier this year. Nier, however, is the only game with which I’ve had a conversation.
#3: Assassin’s Creed: Origins
As is requisite whenever discussing Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed: Origins is an Assassin’s Creed game, and if that is not your thing, you will likely not enjoy this version either. The climbing, the stealth mechanics, hay bales, eagle vision, wrist blades; they’re all back. And yet, Origins refines its mechanics in such a way that it’s often described as a reboot, even though it was never officially billed as such. The premise of the game, the founding of the Assassin’s in Classical Egypt, likely has something to do with that. The injection of new mechanics fit so seamlessly in Origins that you wonder why they weren’t in there before.
You play as Bayek, a medjay (sort of an Egyptian sheriff) whose son was killed because of a shadowy organisation. Alongside Bayek’s wife, Aya, players are whisked away on a path of bloody revenge as is apropos of most Assassin’s Creed games. But, as you realize as you set off across Egypt, this game is not simply about your posse hitting town after town, hunting down those who wronged them. I mean, that happens, but it’s not even a third of what goes on in the game. Origins borrows a great deal of mechanics from other games: a Destiny based loot system, the ability to tag enemies from above like in Ghost Recon and an RPG-like levelling system show the cues that Ubisoft Montreal took during their unprecedented 2 year development cycle. I think that most all-encompassing influence comes from the Witcher 3, as it defines Bayek’s interaction with the world. It’s this navigation that makes Origins the best entrant in the series.
While playing Origins, several questline archetypes which were mainstays in older Assassin’s Creed games did not show up even once. I did not have to tail a suspicious person, ensuring that I was always close enough to hear their whispered schemes while also ensuring to never get so close as to have my cover blown. I was never kicked out of a mission because I had stepped out of some mandated boundary sight unseen. Instead, as in the Witcher, I could start a quest and stop if something else demanded my attention, able to resume the quest at the same exact point as before. The real value in approaching Witcher-style quest design is that players get to know the world they’re playing in far better than in any Assassin’s Creed game before it.
Ubisoft picked a compelling moment in history for the setting of Assassin’s Creed Origins. The game begins in the mid-40’s BC. This is the time of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and the last days of the Roman Republic were approaching. Egypt was in the process of being colonised by the Greeks and Romans, and eighty or so years before the appearance of Christianity, old ways of living in Egypt are dying out on all fronts. Bayek’s transformation from a caring, religious but vengeful medjay into an Assassin is a fascinating journey to watch, and it is made all the more powerful as players see the small permutations Egypt is undergoing. There is a Roman aqueduct being built to the north, and Roman gladiator arenas are gaining popularity. Temples to Greek and Roman gods are appearing, while indigenous Egyptian religion is diminished. Romans police ancient Egyptian cities like Memphis and Alexandria, and the monarch who Bayek and Aya are trying to put on the throne, Cleopatra, is Greek herself. Origins is about a way of life dying, and what those afflicted can do in the wake of such a death.
Players witness local Egyptian’s reacting to their changing world through the many sidequests, all of which I loved for one reason or another. What I loved most was that like in the Witcher, the quests often did not ask of you what you would expect. One quest that stuck in my mind is when Bayek finds a group of massacred workers laying dead in a marsh, with some locals nearby tending to some bodies. The workers had disturbed a pod of hippos and had died when the hippos attacked them. Most games would then instruct Bayek to go and kill the offending hippos, so that the mourners could make mourning wallets or something out of hippo leather. Instead, Bayek is tasked with simply retrieving the dead so that they can be properly interred. There are many other quests like this which turn into quiet moments, a brief reprieve from all the violence, and in the case of this quest, a chance to heal from it.
As I mentioned before, much of the side stories in Origins deal with regular Egyptians trying to cope with mundane miseries or with wider political realities. This is most commonly done through religious practises, and I really have never seen religion taken so seriously in a game before (I can’t speak to the authenticity of everything I saw, but I have to imagine any divergences were for gameplay’s sake). Religion is everywhere in Origins; you run into it during quests as well as in the scenery. Shrines to different gods are abundant, and some towns revere one particular deity. One town whose major export is natron, a material used in the mummification process, has a particular affinity for Anubis, the jackal headed Egyptian god of death and the underworld. There are smaller examples too: religious processions in the middle of a street, prayers echoing off temple walls, gigantic monuments to religious figures.
Religion is central in quests as well. One quest has Bayek hunting down Egyptians who are planting snakes in Greek homes and declaring it a sign that Wadjet, who is represented by snakes, is unhappy with Greek colonisation and that the Greeks should leave. Another quest has you investigate the room where a holy Apis Bull is kept to try and figure out why it’s become ill. Bayek himself is a rare presence in video games in that while he is a very devout man, he is not blind to what goes on around him, and he does not lose his kindness and good humour in the process. Religion is ever present in Origins, and for me it made the world that much more believable and that much more alive.
Origins is the direction that the Assassin’s Creed series needs to keep heading in. I hope that Ubisoft keeps fine tuning the series; Origins is by no means perfect. The combat, while fun and a step up from previous entrants, could be deeper. The pacing of the main story is a bit off, and I wish I had had more time with certain characters. I also wonder how Assassin’s Creed games going forward will implement their versions of an eagle with x-ray vision. Nonetheless, Origins is a fantastic game in its own right. I didn’t even get a chance to talk about how fun it is to explore the ancient legacy of Old Kingdom Egypt, which Ubisoft uses to great effect. Bay-it today!
#2: Persona 5
I have had a rough year. My mental health continued to take a dive as I’ve been struggling through a master’s thesis. My world was very small this year, and while I was never totally isolated it’s taken a lot of effort to maintain a foot in the door of society. That I was able to do so I partly attribute to Persona 5, a game about taking on the worst of society with Jungian manifestations of what we perceive our true selves to be. In a year in which our collective traumas are more and more communicated through screams than words, Persona 5 was a balm for my soul. It left me feeling hopeful. While Persona 5’s proposed plan of action (the aforementioned Jung ghosts) isn’t really tenable, the principle of resistance behind it is sound and in fact, much needed.
As with other Persona games, you play a transfer student who arrives at their new school at just the right time to get into trouble. Whereas Persona 4 took place in a sleepy rural town, Persona 5 takes place in the heart of Tokyo, and it utilises that setting thoroughly. After stumbling into an alternate world where people’s dark desires exist unto themselves, the protagonist and a plucky group of friends, all equipped with their own Personas, form a quasi-superhero group called the Phantom Thieves and begin infiltrating Palaces in order to “steal the hearts” of their villainous targets. Palaces are mental embodiments of someone’s desire. For example, in the game one counterfeiting art teacher’s palace is a gaudy art gallery whose exhibits are paintings of all the students whose ideas he plundered. Inside a Palace is a Treasure; these Treasures are usually items that represent the motivations behind a particular person’s dark turn and, once stolen by the cast, what were once horrible people feel compelled to repent their sins. This in turn leads to the end of the abuses and wrongdoings, and the cast can go home assuming a job well done.
Of course, this process is never so simple. For one, the Palaces are cognitive creations. Early on, the ethics of invading people’s mind, even evil ones, is touched on but never fully developed. A further complication is that the main cast is not the only who knows about this cognitive world, and so the Phantom Thieves are eventually pulled into, in true JRPG style, events of a caliber that they never expected when they first begun their heists. On the topic of JRPGs, Persona 5 is a good one. Combat is genuinely fun. Like other entries in the Shin Megami Tensei series, combat revolves finding weaknesses of monsters (in this case, Shadows) and exploiting them in order to do All-Out attacks which are extremely damaging. A talking mechanic, where you can convince Shadows to give you money, items, or even join you is re-introduced from other SMT games as well. It’s not a very deep system, but it’s a welcome addition that provides a lot of flavour to your enemies, which I enjoyed.
As this is a Persona game, the life simulation aspect that the series is known for makes a welcome return as well. On top of what I described above, the player needs to navigate high school, his social life and a number of smaller quests that will supplement his Shadow fighting extracurriculars. I grew to love all the main cast members, although the pacing at which they are introduced could be better. One important mechanic that players ought to pay attention to is the S-Link system. The S-Link system improves your Personas, but it also improves your relationships with some characters. Some of these characters are better than others, but on the whole they are enjoyable sequences. There are some confusing and problematic aspects to Persona 5 in this regard. One is that your underage protagonist can date a few adult women, which left me feeling a bit weird to say the least! There’s also a pair of NPC’s who seem to only exist as vectors for transphobic gags, which is puzzling since another character, Layla Escargot, is treated with the same kind of respect most NPC’s receive even though she shares many of the same traits as the aforementioned pair. That all being said, the S-Links and dating are fun breaks from a main plot in which you take on the world.
Which brings me back to how Persona 5 helped me this year. Persona 5, at its core, says that if you can find help you can take on anything. Persona 5 particularly resonates in late 2017, where we have seen (at least in my lifetime) a sudden publicmovement to no longer excuse the sexual abuse doled out by people in power. This pushback is not all encompassing, but in many respects it is remarkable that it exists at all. There were many times when I felt alone this year, and while Persona 5 was never a substitute for real friendships, it was a healthy reminder of what good relationships could look like. I’ve made positive steps in my life since finishing Persona 5 in February, and while I wouldn’t trace all of those changes back to playing Persona 5, I can accept that if nothing else Persona 5 showed me another way to think about what I was going through, and for that I’ll always be thankful.
#1: Yakuza 0
Unlike most of the other games on this list, I did not take away a message upon finishing my time with Yakuza 0. I don’t think it really helped me grow as a person, or give me new insights into myself. What it did offer was a kaleidoscopic, hyper-violent playground for me to tear through, and I jumped in eagerly. Yakuza 0 was there when I needed it most, almost as if it knew that my real life issues prevented me from working out my frustrations, at least to the extent that I wanted. Yakuza 0 presented me with thirty bancho toughs and a motorcycle to hit them with. “Try this, and see if that helps”, Yakuza 0 said. And it did.
Like most people who play them, escapism is what I use video games for above all else. I do like studying them, how the medium is developing in terms of storytelling and gameplay. But when it comes down to it, nothing is better than a game when I need to just forget about the world for a while. Yakuza 0 served that purpose peerlessly. The game is set in a burrough of Tokyo called Kamurocho. In it you play as Kiryu Kazama, who in other Yakuza games is a living legend. In Yakuza 0, however, Kiryu is a fledgling trying to find his way through the criminal underworld. Kiryu’s story takes him through countless twists and turns, vacillating between the machinations of dozens of Yakuza schemes. In Yakuza 0 you also play as Goro Majima, another mainstay to the series. The Majima of Yakuza 0 is reserved, cautious and unsure of himself, which is a big departure from his inscrutable and violent behaviour in later entrants to the series. Players alternate between the two characters in what is a fantastically gripping story, especially considering that it’s told from two perspectives.
This year I also played Yakuza Kiwami, a remaster of the very first Yakuza game whose story takes place after the events of Yakuza 0. Playing through Kiwami actually heightened my appreciation for Zero as it made clear just how far the series had come in terms of writing. While the visuals were redone for Kiwami and the voices were re-recorded, camera shots and dialogue remained largely unchanged, except for some dialogue referencing events in Yakuza 0. Nothing about the Kiwami story stood above what I saw in Zero. Further, the additional scenes which were added to Kiwami were clearly superior in form to anything else in the game. This reaffirmed my love for Zero and cemented it as my number one favourite game this year.
While the setting of Yakuza 0 is bright, beautiful and easy to get lost in (players also spend time in Osaka when playing as Majima) it is the characters in Yakuza 0 that really put it over the top for me. Interestingly, Kiryu and Majima are not exactly foils of each other. Kiryu does want to leave the Yakuza eventually, while Majima wants to get back in after being disgraced. But they both occupy the role of protagonist very well, and witnessing their different motivations and seeing the paths they followed that would lead them to their future selves was fascinating. This only worked because their respective voice actors performed so well, and this is true of all of the cast.
The characters I met in this game are going to stick with me for a long time. The various Yakuza bosses you meet, Kuze, Shibusawa and Amano, are dripping with personality. Kuze especially is one of my favourite antagonists ever, occupying that space of a relentless foe that you just can’t help but respect for getting up every time you beat him down. I think the characters come off well because they are so emotive. They express themselves when they wish to, and it’s never just to further a plot point. It’s often the case that the most time a villain spends speaking in a movie or game is when they are laying out every detail behind their nefarious plans. The characters of Yakuza rarely bare their soul, but they engage with their emotions, often in a way that heightens the experience of beating the shit out of them.
The combat in Yakuza 0 is supremely satisfying, if a bit floaty. Landing hits can be difficult, and the targeting system isn’t as rock-solid as it should be. The goal in combat is to throw punches, build your “Heat” meter, and utilise “Heat actions” when the meter reaches the appropriate level. This leads to all sorts of great moves: powerbombing someone, stuffing their mouth with lit fireworks, clocking someone with a street pylon as well as a huge assortment of attacks that by all rights should end the lives of their victims. There area lot of heat moves which you will see repeatedly, but the rarer ones which depend on being in certain locations or having certain items are a joy to watch. Yakuza’s combat is frantic but fun. This goes doubly for boss fights, especially the more scripted ones, which have some of the best sequences I’ve seen in a game.
Like a deep tissue massage, I came away from Yakuza 0 thinking about how much I needed that. Its story was much better than it had any right to be. The multitude of minigames are all very distinct and worth checking out at least once. While I don’t think Yakuza 0 captures the era it is set in the same way as a game like Assassin’s Creed might, the mood it extrapolates from that setting, a frenetic, fast paced wonderland for those who could hang, made the whole thing a blast. At its core, I can only really endorse Yakuza 0 as a detailed, exhilarating, fucking fun game. The soundtrack is fantastic and varied, the cast gives universally great performances, and there’s stuff in this game that is totally unique to anything else you might play this year. I can’t think of a set of better accolades than that.
So that’s it! I know 2017 was hard for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. If you read this far, thank you very much! I’m thankful that I was able to find joy in the games I played this year, and I hope that trend continues. I also hope you have a great 2018 and again, thanks for reading! Here’s all the heat actions in Yakuza 0 to get you started right.