Phantasy Star Online 2 Puyo Puyo Outfit Running Up Stairs of Light Climbing The World Tree

My Favorite Video Games of 2020

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Unless you are reading this personal media blog website decades into the future, you… experienced the year 2020.

An ongoing worldwide global pandemic. Economic free-fall. The day by day nightmarish actions of the 45th President of the United States of America. To highlight a few.

To cut straight to the point: I did not have the physical or mental energy to enjoy most forms of “passive” entertainment this past year. As an Essential Worker, I have been grinding out mandatory overtime hours for months. I finished very, very few things like television shows or movies. To be frank, I would pass out from exhaustion well before the credits rolled.

I tried multiple times, I promise you.

Getting through Detroit Metal City for Anime Secret Santa was a whole endeavor.

A quirk of video games is how they require physical input. Button presses, computer mouse movement, or so on. Enough mechanical stimulation to keep me from passing out in a pile of throw pillows and blankets on the sofa. Because I do feel making sure I was still getting art and entertainment in was important to me this past year.

Video game releases are weird this year in their own ways of course. Some games I would have played in the past year (Guilty Gear Strive, for instance) hit delays. Others I am looking forward and did release are not yet available on my preferred platform (such as Yakuza 7: Like A Dragon). Then you have games like Disaster Report 4, which would be a neat release for me in any other year. But I left it alone because I can not bring myself to engage with the subject matter right now.

To say nothing of any financial or time costs of many games in general. I often read other Games of the Year lists finding things to throw on a wishlist for future sales. This year, it seems like I missed out on Spiritfarer and Kentucky Route Zero. I feel I would love them.

So I want to highlight some titles for you I can look back on as fond friends and stories during a no good very bad time.

 

 

Final Fantasy XIV Ala Mhigo Royal Palace Rooftop Flower Garden Sunset Bard

Phantasy Star Online 2 Tokyo Public Park With Flowser and Crosswalks Punk Girl Reclining On The Ground

12.) Final Fantasy XIV and Phantasy Star Online 2

 

When it comes to raw hours played in 2020, everything else on this list combined does not come close to the time I spent in Hydaelyn or the ARKS Fleet.

One of the biggest hurdles to a lot of folks looking to get into online roleplaying games is the concern of there being so much to do. A fear and intimidation of the mountainous climb to get to the “endgame” content. Or how they would “keep up” with releases of new adventures. The wondering of how it would all fit into their schedule. As a knock on effect of so many folks I know taking serious care of their pandemic distancing and staying home for all but the essentials though, several friends became open to exploring this genre space.

All of a sudden, my experiences from playing these games off and on for several years became very, very relevant. It was a joy this year to walk folks through everything from their first raids to going on sightseeing tours.

With each of these games having about a decade of history to them already, there is a whole lot to see and do. What were once ominous mountains of content were now runways for folks.

Final Fantasy XIV has had a heck of a journey over the years. Having gone from one of the most disastrous launches (back in 2010), to a complete rework (2013), through several well received expansions. It now sits as one of the most successful games in its genre. The overarching story-line, as well as various narratives for things like character classes and raids, is the main draw for millions of players. With most of the Final Fantasy series being single player games, the current production team has often answered in interviews how they welcome folks dropping in for new story content and taking breaks. The game has also received a much larger free trial. As of this writing, it contains the entire A Realm Reborn base game and the Heavensward expansion. Each of these is as long as any other Final Fantasy game to play through. So, one can test the waters with dozens of hours of story and two entire games before a paywall hits.

Phantasy Star Online 2 only had its big international release this year, but it has been going since 2012 in Japan. The next Phantasy Star Online game is bolting itself into the PSO2 game client and allowing players to travel between the two games. This presented a problem: much of the rest of the world never received the original PSO2. With Sega aiming for a big international release for the upcoming Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis, what has followed is something of a once in a lifetime event.

Sega released a modified older version of PSO2, and set a rapid release schedule. The goal was to get international players parity with Japan in less than one year.

With years of content to pull from, there was always something “new” coming week after week if you were keeping up. If you took some time off or were getting started, there would be plenty to hack away at.

I aim to give a more dedicated post to Phantasy Star Online 2 when we do cross those final few patches to get caught up. But as someone with a lot of affinity and memories of the Dreamcast, Gamecube, and PC releases of the previous game, seeing this particular variety of colorful science fiction fantasy was a welcome sight.

 

Final Fantasy XIV is available on Playstation 4 / Playstation 5, Steam, and Square-Enix’s independent PC client

Phantasy Star Online 2 is available on the Xbox console series and Steam

 

FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE_20200419022521

11.) Final Fantasy VII Remake

 

From about the moment it released in 1997, various fans were dreaming about a remake to Final Fantasy VII.

The game was a commercial juggernaut, selling millions of copies worldwide. It featured remarkable 3D graphics cinematics, a colossal soundtrack, and to many it felt like it packed a whole world into its multiple compact disks. Game developers in the 90’s were fast in leapfrogging each other in what graphical tricks they could squeeze out of consumer hardware though. Bolstered by the success of Final Fantasy VII, the next game in the series had even more lavish production values. A big technical demo for Sony’s upcoming Playstation 2 featured a famous ballroom dance cinematic from that later Final Fantasy VIII. The new game console was powerful enough to run what was once a prerendered cutscene video file as interactive gameplay. What could this mean for bringing the older 3D world of Final Fantasy VII new life and detail? A remake was never announced, though there was clear fan fervor for one.

But fans do not always know what they want.

Some side games, a movie, some technical demonstrations for the Playstation 3, and many years later, and here we are.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is tasked with fulfilling a near impossible order. The weight of years of fans daydreaming about it. The inherent expectation that such a project would live up to the original legacy of pushing technical boundaries. And, of course, what to do about delivering folks a story they have already heard.

While the game lacks a “Volume 1” or similar title, the approach here was to remake what approximates the first disk of the original release. An environmental liberation front taking action against a megacorporation city-state nation sucking the life force out of the planet for electric power production. Every aspect of that first disk has been bulked up in gameplay and narrative content, to both flesh out this world and to give enough hours to justify the release price.

Sometimes this results in what should be a short walk turning into an hour long dungeon. But in other cases the opportunity to redefine what came before is so natural it feels like it should have been there all along. Giving whole sequences of character development and family background to folks like Jessie just were not there before. Places like Wall Market, a seedy pleasure district, holds a gigantic place in the memories folks have of Final Fantasy VII despite being a rather short series of events in the original game. Here, its sprawl and goings on have a much larger presence. There is more meat on the bones, even though the same things are happening.

Which is the metanarrative struggle of a project like this. This has happened before. You know what is coming. How would one even begin to try and capture any magic or wonder you may have once felt literal decades ago.

Something I appreciate about Final Fantasy VII Remake is how its title is both a noun and a verb.

If there was a famous and beloved scene in that first Midgar section of the original game, by all means it is here. About as shot by shot one could imagine, with all the technical graphics wizardry millions of dollars can buy. But the whole time, the shadow which looms over the entire project is, well, Final Fantasy VII itself. And maybe not everyone wants things to happen the way they did before.

As certain things change, the story will not be the same anymore. There will be new opportunities, but also new huge risks.

As for me, I am excited for the potential of those risks, of the unexplored doors of what comes next.

The next game could lose its careful footing and turn out as a complete mess. But, I enjoyed the density of this game. Plus, I still have my old PC release of Final Fantasy VII. It came in a fold out cardboard sleeve disk case.

Those memories will endure regardless of what happens in the future.

 

Final Fantasy VII Remake is available on Playstation 4 / Playstation 5

 

Kokoro Clover Part 1 Spirit Summoner Treffy Victory Dance Seaside Beach With Palm Trees and Pirate Ship

10.) Kokoro Clover Part 1 and Kokoro Clover Part 2

 

The opening cinematic to Kokoro Clover may well be one of the most honed sales pitches one could ever deliver. You can watch it on the Steam store page for the first entry.

Every beat and transition, each sight gag or pose, is a precision guided love letter to lighthearted action adventure weekend morning kids anime. Right down to the minute and a half timing.

This is the guiding principle of the entire game: an episodic action platformer series where each individual release will feel like a playable television show. A prominent visual is the Japanese television styled clock. Regardless of if the player is in a story cutscene or playing a level, it never leaves the corner. You are not racing the clock though. Rather, all it does it tick up as you progress. Each step you take or dialogue scene watched brings you ever closer to the end of the “episode.”

This is the obvious end result of playing and advancing just about any video game ever made, sure.

But there is that specific kind of feeling which comes from waiting for a new episode of a show, and before you know it the commercial breaks are happening. It is a jarring kind of interrupt most video games never even try to deliver. But as a kid watching weekend cartoons, you want to make the time before the end credits count. They are looming large and coming in fast.

The story of Kokoro Clover’s first outing feels like a pilot of a show you almost swear you saw. A bumbling pair of comedic villains with big laughs and terrible puns. An empire. A young girl living with her grandpa, and she wants to adventure out on her own. Spirits only she can see. A tchotchke treasure tied to the heroine by an unknown fate.

I know this kind of simple adventure story. As a kid, I saw a lot of things like it. But, that never means I never want to hear it again.

And I know if the version I am hearing feels too underwhelming.

If this was the first few episodes of a television show, I would tune in next week for more Kokoro Clover. As a small indie video game, the wait will be a little longer.

But, I do plan to be there for the next entries. Managing the anticipation cycles is a key part of having ever loved a weekend cartoon.

 

Kokoro Clover Part 1 is available on Steam

Kokoro Clover Part 2 is available on Steam. English language support for Part 2 coming soon.

 

 

Helltaker Lucifer CEO of Hell Really Is That It You Come Here To Buy Me Over With Pancakes

9.) Helltaker

 

Helltaker is a single screen puzzle game with light visual novel elements, consisting of less than a dozen stages. It is also free.

It may take me longer to draft, edit, proofread, browse and select screenshots, and so on for this blurb than it may for you to download and play the entire game to completion. But, it was a video game highlight of my year, so it deserves to go on the list.

The player controls a massive parody of dated action dude media cliches. A huge muscular man of few words in a pressed white suit and black sunglasses, like he fell out of a whole thrift store of old action movie posters. He is descending into Hell itself to build a personal demon harem. With it comes the privilege to cook and serve these ladies his personal pancake recipe.

Of course.

As a puzzle game, your character moves on a four directional grid, and you often have a limited number of moves to reach your goal. Go even a single step over, and you die. Movement and restarts are fast however, and again, the small mazes are a single screen. You can trial and error something, chart a new approach in your head, die and try again quite fast. It keeps the momentum of wanting to solve that one final grid space you died on.

For a game about diving deep into Hell, it also features an incredible mercy: a skip function.

If you can not wrap your head around the maze in front of you, at any time you may choose to skip the puzzle, and the game will advance. This can be done an unlimited number of times, and applies to every stage except for the final boss. For something less extreme, the visual novel parts are small dialogue scenes you can choose to engage with each level. These often contain hints for the stage, as well as their own amusing trap doors for a bad ending. Characters will even remind you the skip function exists.

There are no penalties for using this help.

I have a lot of respect for games which do not overstay their welcome. Helltaker takes that a step further by not only being short, but still giving you powerful functions to help you get to the final encounter. There are fun characters, art, and dialogue it wants you to see. It would be a waste for that to find itself locked away because you got stuck on a particular midgame maze.

Keeping with the razor sharp and focused puzzles and level count, the characters are also striking and memorable in their own ways. This vision of hell is a professional corporate business operation, with a uniform color scheme to match. Red and black dress shirts, suits, vests, and so on. Having a variety of characters expressing themselves within these strict lines without feeling repetitive or indistinguishable is a big challenge. The end result was a real success, with the artbook showcasing the multiple character draft iterations this took.

I have watched my fair share of anime harem love polygon works over the years. I have forgotten entire casts I can no longer name, if I ever could at all.

But I will remember the talks about turn-based strategy games, coffee, and chocolate pancakes in the pits of Hell.

 

Helltaker is available on Steam

 

 

Depanneur Nocturne Convenience Store Night Bodega Cat Neon Signs

8.) Depanneur Nocturne

 

It is late at night, times have been tough, and you want to buy your girlfriend a gift on the way home from work. But in the dark and the rain, only one little shop happens to be open, with a quirky owner and some occult trappings and decor…

As this sounds like the setup to a spooky television episode or horror movie, I want to say upfront: there are no jump scares or anything of the sort in Depanneur Nocturne. I would gain nothing from lying to you about that sort of thing.

Rather, I find this to be a rather comfortable little shopping trip. As a small space, the combination convenience and divination store feels well realized. You can chat with the owner. Notice the ever changing movements of the bodega cat. Fix yourself some complementary coffee while you browse. And so on. There are a variety of items you can bring to the register to ask about buying, and hear small stories and background details. The game takes place in a urban magical version of Montréal with anthropomorphic animal people citizens, so it has many qualities to our own world with enough differences to give things a unique flavor.

The entire time, the rain keeps pouring outside. The clock ticks away on the wall. The quiet strings of the background music on the shop radio plays away. You look back to the shopkeeper having their tea or nodding off or whatnot. You are rummaging around shelves of milk or flour and wondering if a turnip you found in the back freezer would be a good gift. You ask about the bathroom. Dust or magical particles drift in the low light. You ask about the bathroom again.

The game is designed to be played in a single sitting. It features a half dozen different ending modifiers depending on what your final gift choices are.

I enjoy this particular kind of mundane magical story, where divination practice exists side by side with buying a jug of milk at the corner store.

Also, as it has to be said, I just have not been out much in the past year. So the combination of exploring such a space as an unfamiliar little local shop was perhaps extra effective. I kept the game on while cleaning at least once.

I do like seeing how larger games try and make their shopkeepers memorable characters though. On a computer coding level they may just be a body shaped terminal to access goods. But, folks remember characters like Tom Nook and his family members from Animal Crossing for a reason. In making the focus of the entire game your experience exploring the few aisles of a small business, I enjoyed how Depanneur Nocturne leveraged the opportunities for characterization and environmental storytelling.

The game also has a Halloween decoration and shop update. Regardless of if any other holiday themes are coming, coming back to a favorite store to see the decor was also an excellent treat.

And no tricks, I promise.

 

Depanneur Nocturne is available on Steam and Itch.io 

 

Maiden and Spell Character Select Screen Dreadwyrm Heir Hero of Frost

7.) Maiden and Spell

 

Head to head competitive fighting games are rather niche in the overall sea of video games. Arcade bullet hell shooters hole themselves up in a small alcove. Combinations of the two are rare enough to be like when a science submarine finds a deep sea creature folks need to verify has been named yet.

But it has a place in the ecosystem all the same.

Maiden and Spell follows the gameplay of the small selection of titles like Senko no Ronde. Imagine if you were a boss character in an arcade bullet hell shooter, and were only fighting other boss characters in an arena. Each character has their own unique bullet patterns, special attacks, and so on. You throw endless ammo curtains at each other, while navigating the shot mazes your opponent is firing back in retaliation.

You are sewing and playing laser tag.

Maiden and Spell features a soft and cute fantasy art style and character stories. Perhaps you want to be the Hero of Frost from the key art, or maybe the Lich surrounded by butterflies. The single player campaign for each character takes advantage of the opportunities to showcase their dialogue and personalities. Every encounter helped me build a better picture of who the characters are, including the tutorial. You have the narrative spread from treasure spelunking escapades to dives into found family. All of this may sound simple. But, this is a lot of touches of love and production polish in a genre space which often wants more no-nonsense mechanical design.

I never had the opportunity to play Maiden and Spell with friends this past year. But I do think it would go over at parties and such rather well.

Unlike a traditional 2D fighting game like Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, the arcade bullet hell genes of Maiden and Spell means it does not have pretzel motions or similar commands. You have a button to shoot with, a button for a special move, and the like. The skill floor for someone to wrap their head around the controls and make their character Do The Cool Moves is much lower. The skill ceiling remains high for more dedicated players, but there is a great pick up and play quality to this kind of game. It feels good to hurl bullet hell boss moves around the screen.

As every fight is an arcade shooter boss encounter in its own way, Maiden and Spell also sidesteps a particular quirk some folks have with that larger genre. You do not end up in a scenario of seeing Stage 1 time and again. That can feel demoralizing and punishing in ways that are different from a more head to head fighting game.

As someone who plays a lot of fighting games and arcade shooters, this gameplay mix and these characters have been fun to hang out with.

It  always felt like a game which prioritized welcoming new players first. I will always feel more comfortable spending my time in such an environment for any kind of competitive game.

 

Maiden and Spell is available on Steam and Itch.io

 

Unreal Life Hal Phantom Train Memory Penguin Conductor We Just All Do What We Can When We Can

6.) Unreal Life

 

“Look forward to tomorrow’s story.”

This is a line repeated several times over the course of Unreal Life as part of the narrative. But the page turning “I can not wait to see what happens next” aspect of such a line also hits a huge mechanical part of how I was able to give myself over to exploring its world.

Unreal Life is an adventure game, in the more traditional side scrolling “use X item on Y object” style. The game features little backtracking however, and is nowhere near as punishing as the genre became back in the 1990’s. Each puzzle sequence is small, and you are almost never more than a screen away from what you need to solve it. The result is a constant flow of progress, of seeing the story unfold, and taking in new sights.

Hal, a young girl, has found herself unconscious at the side of a road. She can no longer read, or remember where she was going or what she was doing. But, she has gained the ability to view the past by touching inanimate objects. The nearest traffic light artificial intelligence, named 195 after the intersection, will try to assist her in getting her home. Or at least to the safety of someone she remembers.

The game features an array of memorable environments along the way. Underwater trains driven by penguins. A floating ball of sentient moss serving up the fanciest hotel breakfasts. I was reminded a lot of the work of folks like Shigeru Tamura, and their use of gentle storybook surrealism.

Much of the game, from the visuals to the story scenario, were handled by one person: hako life.

The result is the kind of idiosyncratic game which is so difficult to achieve at any time, but seems more and more like it is slipping away.

It always feels like something of a backhanded compliment to say “the journey is more important than the destination.” And indeed, wrapping a clean narrative bow on the whole story gets to be something of a reach. But I always wanted to see what was behind the next puzzle or door, and I could open them without enough hiccups to break that motivation.

The spell held for about as long as it needed to.

Unreal Life feels like reading an anthology of love letters delivered to worlds you used to know.

 

Unreal Life is available on Steam and Nintendo Switch

 

Paradise Killer Marble Statue Beach Of Gods and Goddesses Sunset

5.) Paradise Killer

 

Several of my friends got into watching the 1970’s television series Columbo in 2020. A mystery and detective show with likable central characterization was a helpful rock to hold on to in this past year.

Paradise Killer is an open world closed room murder mystery investigation game, with a colorful world and blasting saxophone music.

The starting point is how several otherwise immortal government officials were slaughtered during a joint ritual meeting, the murderer bypassing several layers of guards, other dimensions, blood decoders, and so on to do the deed. This is an island world reinvented and abandoned time and again, and it was in the process of shipping folks over to its twenty fifth form. With most of the present twenty fourth island empty, you can explore and chat with those who remain to uncover who is responsible for the murders.

The environment of Paradise Killer reminds me of a lot of older 1990’s games, like Myst or even Lego Island. There is a starkness and a quiet sterile quality to a lot of it, in conjunction with buckets of polish and varnish. Black onyx and gold temples, marble statues on the shore. Vaporwave as a visual throwback style may be something of a cliche at this point, but it is also a very easy thing to mess up. As a matter of visual feel, the game threads the needle for me on capturing a lot of the memory of what older PC game environment renders or rudimentary polygon worlds looked like in my imagination.

As an investigation game, you are by and large talking to various characters and gaining new insights to ask other characters about. I appreciate how the games inventory management system, taking the form of a pocket computer, files away everything you know or want to know. Activating the Augmented Reality toggle to see where characters are, and see if they have something new to say before you even begin to head over to them, was a welcome choice. This is in addition to a whole slate of accessibility options the game has, receiving its own menu option containing all the adjustments you can make.

Paradise Killer has a lot of downtime. There is, no way around it, a whole lot of getting around the island. A least half of my gametime must be attributed to raw traveling. Walking, sprinting, jumping, even air dashing once you unlock it.

A lot of this comes down to how nice I found the meditative quality of getting around the island this year.

The game has no failure states. You can not run out of time, and you can not die. Take as huge a fall off a tower as you can manage, and you will just keep going. If it came right down to it: as the game tells you from the start, you can go to the courthouse and start the murder trial whenever you want. Even from the start of the game.

Your job is to find enough evidence to prosecute someone.

Which is not the same thing as needing to uncover the truth.

But having unlimited time to take a walk and think it through in an impossible fever dream reality sure helps.

 

Paradise Killer is available on Steam and Nintendo Switch

 

Umurangi Generation Adult and Child Wearing Mouth and Nose Covering Masks

4.) Umurangi Generation and Umurangi Generation Macro

 

Capturing the feeling of the present moment is hard in any medium. By the time your work sees release, it may be too late.

The next moment is here.

Umurangi Generation is a photography game. Each level, you have a set of objectives you need to clear in order to complete the stage. Perhaps a picture of a certain number of birds, a picture of a particular word or sign, that sort of thing. How you stage those shots is up to you. If you can justify it, like combining some actual birds with a sign featuring a bird to increase the total number of birds in a bird photo goal, it will tend to work. The game gives you immediate feedback on if the shot met a goal or not.

You have far more camera film than you need to complete the objectives though. Over the course of play, you will tend to see other things you want to take a photo of and keep in your screenshot gallery. With each stage containing several additional rolls of film, exploring more will net you even more film, for even more shots to take with you.

The entire world of Umurangi Generation is environmental storytelling. Posters, graffiti, television news, and so on. The game never has a narrator or a story cinematic. You have friends which travel with you to each level, but they never speak any dialogue. But a lot of things happened to and in this version of the world, and piecing it together in your head is all driven by the player. Maybe your realizations change what you want to capture. What you want to show others. Nobody would have the same collection of shots, even if they played the same stage.

The soundtrack to Umurangi Generation and the Umurangi Generation Macro expansion levels clock in at eighty two and fifty one songs. An overwhelming amount of music on the surface for a game which does not have anywhere close to that many stages. In practice, this creates incredible encouragement to keep exploring these spaces. If you were to end up spending twenty minutes in a location listening to the same song, you may drive yourself up a wall. This is a subtle way to keep you looking and engaged, and helped a lot in motivating how many additional photos I took along the way.

“Umurangi” is a Te Reo word for “Red Sky,” and the developer Naphtali “Veselekov” Faulkner is Maori. Developed in less than a year, the game was born from a deep frustration at the response of the Australian government to its recent wildfire disasters and the COVID-19 viral pandemic. As well the the failures of cyberpunk as an ongoing media genre to tackle any of this, among other things.

The world and its people are beautiful. Yet they are also trying their best to endure and fight through ever compounding levels of damage and pain.

There is an ongoing lack of commitment among leadership circles to improve anything.

This can not continue.

 

Umurangi Generation and Umurangi Generation Macro are available on Steam.

Future releases on Nintendo Switch have been announced.

 

Tales From Off Peak City Volume 1 July Avenue and Yam Street Sunset Twilight Line

3.) Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1

 

If you read my personal Favorite Video Games of the 2010’s post, you are familiar with how enjoyable I find the games made by Cosmo D.

Every new project is a new opportunity to miss the mark. But I am once again reporting on how they did it again.

With Off-Peak focused on a train station and The Norwood Suite expanding to a hotel sized space, Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 takes things a few steps further. For one, as the title goes, we are in more defined anthology series territory now. But in terms of the physical footprint of the game world, we have the city blocks of July Avenue and Yam Street. The little pizza shop on the corner, and the apartments and other buildings around it.

Like other games in this series, the game is juggling a lot of modern day social and economic concerns within its urban surrealism. Urban decay and flooding. Older townies and businesses getting muscled out of the neighborhood by larger conglomerates gobbling up cheap zoning. People who find comfort in the reliable local pizzeria, and how they also trash talk it. Spaces like this can foster community identities and memories.

As the player, you make and deliver pizza orders. The orders are never specific about what toppings you should be using. Your customer order read as rather ethereal concepts or abstract feelings. Make the pizza you think fits the mood, what you think they could use right now. The game takes the position that pizza is like free-form jazz or the like. Every topping you add changes the background music with new notes. You are playing and writing music. You can not mess up pizza. Throw a gummy worm on there, whatever.

Your customers will comment on anything and everything you did.

Did you add a whole lot of sauce? They may remark on how their doctor had been egging them on to have more vegetables. Did you skimp on the sauce? The same customer would muse on the economic and climate environment we find ourselves in. They will also open up about themselves, where they see things around town going, and what keeps them here.

The game also features an optional but very forefront photography system. You are never required to use it, but various collectibles and tips come in the form of new camera film roll stock. As you are going around town making your deliveries, maybe a sight strikes your fancy. You see if it looks good with one type of film over another. Come back to your pizzeria, and you can decorate the walls with your local photos. A “meaningless” gameplay system, insofar that nothing unlocks for you doing any of this. There is instead a kind of poetry to it, of how you use and see the space around you. How you see yourself as a part of it or not.

After all: the first thing you are told is how you are undercover here as part of a plot to steal a saxophone.

 

Tales From Off-Peak City Vol. 1 is available on Steam and Itch.io

 

Necrobarista Maddy Cleaning Late At Night Coffee Shop Bar Bookshelves Open Air Hanging Lightbulbs

2.) Necrobarista

 

For as stressful and morbid as the previous year has been, perhaps a game about dealing with death seems surprising to see on this list.

But, it has a kindness and warmth I could only hope death would have.

Necrobarista takes place in a single space, The Terminal. A coffee shop and bar in a fantasy Melbourne, it services people who are very much alive. But, for those who have passed away, it is also one of the last possible stops before whatever comes next. The dead have about twenty four hours to hang around. Make peace with their situation, have a drink, that sort of thing.

The game is a visual novel, but it has no decision tree points or dialogue choices. The core story chapters will play out as they are written. As you read along, you can collect insight on various key words along the way. At the end of the chapter, you can choose a few words to take with you. These grant you concept tokens of various kinds to carry around The Terminal and unlock additional side stories.

As a visual novel leveraging 3D environment and character models, Necrobarista squeezes immense value from its shot compositions and overall cinematography. My screenshot folder rang up with dozens and dozens of striking images. The developers found ways to wring new meaning from large and small actions in the same environment with different camera positions all the way to the end. They also revel in the ability to play with where text could go on the screen. How the physical form of words can impart their own additional weight and meaning.

Like reading a printed poetry book, where words are can be just as important to the narrative process.

Necrobarista Ned Kelly You Own The Cafe So You Own The Debt

The cast is small and focused.

Without needing to decide dialogue for alternate routes, I imagine this kept the core narrative design as tuned as it is. Having side stories I could unlock and read between each of the heavier chapters kept the pace and subjects varied. Also, getting chances to explore The Terminal at my leisure, and take a look around every corner, bookshelf, table, etc, is rather novel in visual novels.

It makes full use of the opportunities and advantages it has, and I was able to walk away with such a clear mental map of the entire space. I had spent several hours with characters in this fictional coffee shop bar by the end. I know its cracks and curves as well as any actual real world favorite of my own.

Being sent off to the greatest unknown with hot and cold drinks while hanging around new and old friends is hopeful and comfortable. I never wanted to leave.

But I suppose no one ever does.

 

Necrobarista is available on Apple Arcade and Steam.

Future releases for Playstation 4 / Playstation 5 and Nintendo Switch have been announced.

 

13 Sentinels Aegis Rim Nenji Ogata Tomi Kisaragi Overlooking Destroyed City Street

1.) 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

 

As the story goes, Vanillaware founder George Kamitani wanted to work on a much smaller science fiction project after Dragon’s Crown. What followed took six years of development, almost missing an entire video game console generation.

Development sprawl and feature creep has massacred countless games over the years. So even the idea this shipped at all, in any kind of unbroken state, is a minor workflow miracle.

Inside the beating heart of 13 Sentinels is a deep love of science fiction media and its history. Where we once thought we were going, where we ended up, and how those benchmarks keep changing. The various ways we used to envision the end of the world, what we used to be afraid of, and how that has also shifted with the times. From Terminator to The War of the Worlds to everything between, the game is embracing and chewing on the whole buffet.

After an initial prologue following a few characters, the game opens up and splits itself into two main modes: an adventure game and a tower defense strategy game. The former is akin to older PC adventure games, where you navigate a character through 2D environments, talk to people, and examine your environment. Your inventory is a “thought cloud,” containing everything your character has on their mind. This is helpful in several ways. For one thing, the game will drop old thoughts out as the story progresses and the situation evolves. So, you never have to worry about things like inventory space management. It is also handy in a way very particular to this game: you can select any thought, and your character will remark and recall what is going on regarding it.

13 Sentinels has, as the name suggests, thirteen playable character stories. Because of its open ended story progression, every player will be drawn to different character stories at different paces. Once you unlock a few, you can swap between protagonists to see what is going on in any open story. For a game spinning numerous time travel and sequence of event plates, having a built-in “Last Time On…” reminder mechanism as part of your normal inventory for each character is a huge player consideration.

Character story chapters are also timed out rather well, with digestible lengths which give events a page-turning quality. These frequent hopping off points provide ample opportunity to pop around to other characters. Go and see what got someone to the point you just saw them at somewhere else.

Likewise, the tower defense strategy mode can be played on any difficulty, with no punishment towards the story. You are also often provided multiple victory options, such as either destroying all incoming kaiju forces or holding out for two minutes.

For as open ended your story and character options are, on paper the game can seem intimidating. But there are no alternate endings or the like piled on top of this. Everything is working in concert together towards one large process of getting to the overall end credits. Each story chapter you read or tower defense battle won moves you ahead. The order is irrelevant. Your path just will be different than any I or anyone else took.

While playing 13 Sentinels, I thought a lot about love.

Not just because there are love stories between the cast of characters. Not only because Kamitani tried to weave together a big love letter to so many genre stories they have loved over the years. But even down to this design for the game. How it decouples itself from making you do anything in any specific order after the prologue.

For as super rigid as adventure games or tower defense strategy games have been for decades, here I could pursue whatever I wanted. Be the characters I wanted to be in the moment. Use the mechanical advantages a video game has, to leverage my interactivity to see the parts of the story I most wanted to know right now. Encourage and compel me to move forward, and yet trust me to figure things out.

In time, I would want to play as everyone. But I doubt that would have been the case were I forced to do things in a hyper specific reading order.

The experience was considerate and open and I came to meet it in the same fashion.

It was love all the way.

 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is available on Playstation 4 / Playstation 5.

 

13 Sentinels Aegis Rim Yuki Takemiya Sukeban Japanese School Uniform Erika Aiba Roadside Sunset Factory Smoke

 

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