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The Spirit of ‘Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’ Lives On In Canadian-Developed ‘Children of Zodiarcs’

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My tank is surrounded.

Two knights flank him, and a spellcaster is perched on a nearby roof. I play out the next few turns in my head. Based on possible enemy attacks with this specific arrangement of hostile units, I assess the risks behind staying in place. A sniper is close; they’ll have my tank in their sights after the next turn.

I settle on using my tank as bait to keep enemy placement concentrated. Instead of running, he’ll buff himself, top off his health, and hunker down.

Now to calculate damage. My rogue can stealth in closer. Ideally the tank will hold their attention. But, in the likely scenario that the one knight my rogue is in range of decides to attack her, she can shrug it off.

My mage, on the other hand is a glass cannon. She plays a dangerous balancing act of dealing out high bursts of damage and trying to not get knocked out in two hits. This is a setup turn for her; get her in closer, but out of range, and prep ahead. Or should I risk it and try and get in range to debuff the enemies? Could the tank block movement well enough where she isn’t at risk? Will that help the tank survive?

Thirty minutes and dozens of imagined scenarios later, I end my turn. My plan unfolds over the next few turns in a glorious symphony of prediction, combos, and a smattering of luck. Ten-year-old me grins ecstatically.

A frazzled 10 year old boy explains his video game strategy, ca. 2003

For a child like myself who was either frequently on the move or busy coming up with different ways to sprawl himself along the length of the couch, the Gameboy Advance existed as an extension of my body. My library consisted of staples like Mario, Zelda, and even more esoteric ones like Boktai. But as time went on, only Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had the staying power and replayability to consistently find itself in my GBA.

Gorgeous painted aesthetic, ornate armor, and ridiculous hair. Yep, this is a Square game.

FFTA was my gateway into the wonderfully frustrating world of SRPGs and Tactics games. Shining Force, Fire Emblem, and Western titles like XCOM scratch this itch of chess-like strategizing blended with video game mechanics like items, skills, and leveling up. Tactics and SRPG games tend to be turn-based and utilize a grid/hex-based movement system with specialized units or classes that can move and act in discrete increments. Combat takes place on maps where the objective (or one of them) is usually to eliminate the enemy units. The genre focuses on strategy and planning ahead, so players spending inordinate amounts of time mulling over every possible situation is a common occurrence (as is the player turning into a frothing, raving mess when they see their plan fall apart during the enemy’s turn).

This makes sense in context, I swear.

FFTA is by no means the best or most nuanced the SRPG genre has to offer. Its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1, can claim greater depth, customization, and arguably a more fleshed out narrative. Disgaea, pictured above, is notorious for its complex gameplay. But it is precisely because FFTA was a more streamlined experience that it continues to hold a special place in my heart.

There is something to be said for stylized simplicity, a design notion that functions as a unifying thread tying together all aspects of FFTA. The story is a charming fantasy adventure, the mechanics are straightforward but deep enough to offer a hefty amount of strategy and replayability, and the pixel sprites, isometric environments, and GBA soundfont mix together in a gorgeously simplistic blend.

Simple and clean.

So where did the genre go from there? There were other SRPGs along the way, like Luminous Arc, Disgaea, and Stella Glow but they were all more or less repeats of the same formula. Western devs would carve out their own niche with games like XCOM and Banner Saga, but it was in 2016 a certain Kickstarter campaign caught my eye. It touted itself as a game that aspired to follow in the footsteps of well established Japanese Tactics games. The devs drew distinct lines to beloved titles that many gamers have clear thoughts and opinions about. I was intrigued enough to back the project and the very next year Children of Zodiarcs released to the world at large.

There are a lot of Kickstarter horror stories out there. Thankfully, Children of Zodiarcs is not one of them.

CoZ, developed by Montreal-based team ‘Cardboard Utopia’, does exactly what it advertised: offers a game inspired by Japanese Tactics and SRPG classics. To what effect is up for debate, but what is interesting is how it approaches this concept of player agency and how it does so differently from the games it draws inspiration from. CoZ is a unique blend of Japanese gameplay retooled with Western sensibilities.

SRPGs: now with 30% less numbers!

Before we delve in further, it is important to establish what exactly I mean by “player agency”. It is this idea of how much control player has over the flow of the game and, to an extent, its narrative. In a game like Fallout or Mass Effect, the player has the freedom to make choices and they must deal with the consequences, good or bad. This can manifest in a number of different ways, from picking a hostile dialogue option with an NPC to specializing a character’s skills and abilities.

Player agency is an incredibly important aspect of good game design. Think about some of your favorite games. How did they allow you to make choices? Were they small choices like how your character moved or large ones like choosing factions to align with? Chances are, your favorite games gave you the opportunity to directly influence the world and how you engage with it, with the game responding in turn.

Imperial tax septims at work.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance offers player agency by creating freedom of choice in a multitude of different aspects, ranging from job/class development, item builds, missions, and even placing narrative landmarks. It does a wonderful job of giving the player a wide variety of small choices that add up to a surprisingly personal experience.

While the game does have a central narrative and cast, the bulk of the player’s fighting units will be random recruits with equally random names. By giving the player free reign over their classes, skills, items, and how they fit into the team, a personalized narrative forms organically. These recruits are far more than gussied up Mad-Libs. They live and die in battle. They score crits and misses. They clinch victories or sometimes bring you defeat. They’re your guildmates. Your comrades. Your friends.

Clan Nutsy rules, Clan Borzoi drools.

Children of Zodiarcs reworks the concept of player agency to create a more visceral immersion, as opposed to a narrative one. I had an interesting conversation at PAX with Jason Kim, the Creative Director for CoZ. He described how one of the team’s key design philosophies was capturing the highs and lows of playing a board game. CoZ replicates, to surprising effect, the feeling of immeasurable dread growing into glorious triumph (and vice-versa).

Pray to the gods of RNG.

I did some research on board games in Japan and curiously came up short. Unlike the West, which is experiencing a tabletop renaissance, Japan’s board game scene is limited. The benefit the developers of Children of Zodiarcs had in their design process was access to a culture heavily entrenched in this unique notion of experimenting with mechanics and rules. Nowhere is this more apparent than in tabletop games.

Board games have come a long way from Monopoly and Battleship. Games like Settlers of Catan and Pandemic herald a new generation of tabletop gaming where depth, experimentation, and innovation are the norm. Replayability and customization typically come into play through decks of cards and sets of dice; these game pieces can dictate units, abilities, or any number of game mechanics. The luck of the draw or roll can greatly affect future decisions, so strategic planning will usually involve mitigating randomness (RNG). Manipulating risk mitigation and RNG is equal parts tactical foresight and dangerous gambling. It is a core tenet of tabletop games that allows for intense gameplay experiences across a wide range of situations.

My friend, Michael, carefully considers his increasingly limited options (spoilers: I won).

Where FFTA allowed for comparatively deep customization, CoZ only gives the player two avenues for customization: the aforementioned dice and cards. Customization, while present, is not nearly as fleshed out as in other titles within the SRPG genre. The game limits the roster to a select group of individuals, and stats are practically non-existent in the game. There are no talents, classes, or passive skills. It’s as if someone took FFTA, an already streamlined SRPG, and streamlined it further.

On the flipside, what CoZ does brilliantly is replicating the feel and excitement of playing a board game. You have some leeway in choosing deck composition and crafting sides for your dice, two mechanics that play into this idea of mitigating risk and RNG. There’s something deeply satisfying about drawing a series of cards and rolling through a combo or hearing the clack of the dice as a wonderful mix of symbols signify that you are about to absolutely destroy your enemy, especially when it was the result of strategic foresight and planning. The elation in drawing a high-damage ability in the exact situation you need it or the seething rage from a stray die messing up your perfect roll are sentiments that CoZ expertly draws from tabletop gaming.  

Not pictured: the player fist pumping.

This is what I mean when I refer to Children of Zodiarcs shifting the player agency from narrative immersion to visceral immersion. Your decisions in-combat as the player consist of choosing which dice and cards to use and which two dice from any given roll you’d like to reroll. That’s it. By placing greater emphasis on how the player engages with the game, the CoZ devs succeed at capturing the emotional highs and lows that tabletop gaming offers. The genius at work here is the depth and time you can still spend parsing out the optimal strategies for you to take. Deck composition and dice crafting are relatively small adjustments that can greatly affect the likelihood of what you draw or roll. Risk and RNG mitigation is a simple game design concept that allows for a surprising amount of depth. Not to say that a game like FFTA didn’t have this, far from it. What I’m instead suggesting is that by presenting the player with a modular set of limited tools, their sense of play, strategy, and imagination are given free reign within relatively simple confines.

This is one sub-menu for one character in FFTA…

…and this is your whole party in CoZ. The menu doesn’t get much more in-depth than this, even after you progress.

To offer a similar analogy, compare and contrast the experiences of playing Hearthstone vs. playing Magic: The Gathering. MTG features a deep, faction-based library of cards that can result in exceedingly hefty and intricate decks and combos. Meanwhile, Hearthstone offers a streamlined collectible card game experience with fewer moving parts and more limits. By allowing the player to focus on fewer things, they can more quickly jump into a game and experience “Fun”.

The concept of “Fun” is an amorphous one, for which there is no right or wrong answer. “Fun” in a lot of these older Japanese SRPGs (and JRPGs to a greater extent) involves heavy micromanagement. Like playing MTG, there is most definitely fun to be found in these robust and complex game systems. But what Cardboard Utopia sought to accomplish in Children of Zodiarcs was to achieve this sense of fun that didn’t require excessive amounts of effort, while still capturing a sense of strategy and planning.

Do I wish I could see statistics and have greater control on the numbers? Sure. Is that what CoZ aims to do? Not at all. And that’s okay. I used the phrase “stylized simplicity” to describe FFTA in relation to its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics, and I’ll use it again to describe CoZ as it relates to FFTA.

“Arcadey” and “simple” are terms that may seem negative at first, but really all they are are different words to describe “fun”.

Edit: Because I was a dingus and forgot to post relevant links, here are relevant links.

Cardboard Utopia’s Website

CoZ’s Steam Page

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Kevin Foster

    September 25, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Check out Arcadian Atlas – http://store.steampowered.com/app/691790/Arcadian_Atlas/

    Also, would have been nice to have a link to the game’s website, Steam store page, etc in the article somewhere, unless I completely missed it somehow.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      September 25, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Yesssss I’ve been following the AA devs on twitter!

      And I will totally add those links. Was thinking about it but thanks for bring it to my attention.

    • Akesycu

      September 25, 2017 at 11:49 pm

      hah nice one! I need that on mobile tho.

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Indie Games Spotlight – Looking Ahead to 2020

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Indie Game Spotlight

The year is coming to an end. The holidays are just around the corner. We’ve already published our list of the best indie games of 2019 and now it is time to start looking forward to 2020. In what is sure to be our last Indie Games Spotlight of 2019, we take a look at some of the indies set for release next year. This issue includes a student project that led to the creation of an indie studio; a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game; and a comedic occult adventure game that takes place during World War II. All this and more!

Lightmatter

Imagine, “if Limbo and Portal had a weird baby.”

Aspyr and Tunnel Vision Games announced that their long-awaited, award-winning puzzle game, Lightmatter, arrives on Steam on January 15, 2020.

Lightmatter is an atmospheric, first-person puzzle game set inside a mysterious experimental facility where the shadows will kill you. The game tells a sci-fi story about a maniac inventor who has created the ultimate power source called Lightmatter. Players must explore the facility in an attempt to discover the hidden plot while facing challenging puzzles that require mastering different light sources to survive.

Not only does the game look great but what’s even more impressive is that Lightmatter originally started out as a university project where a group of Medialogy students wanted to explore lights and shadows as the primary gameplay mechanic in a puzzle game. After creating a 15-minute prototype, the team offered it as a free download on Reddit. To their surprise, the game became an overnight success with thousands of downloads and multiple accolades from game conferences around the world. It didn’t take long before they created Tunnel Vision Games with the mission to take the light/shadow concept further and turn it into a fully-fledged game. The rest, as they say, is history.


Nine Witches: Family Disruption

Nine Witches: Family Disruption

Investigate the Occult

Nine Witches: Family Disruption is the comedic occult adventure game you’ve been waiting for. From Blowfish Studios and Indiesruption, the game takes place in a rustic Norwegian village on the fringe of World War II, where a supernatural scholar investigates the Nazi’s plan to conjure a dark ancient power and strike a devastating blow to the Allied powers. Players must investigate their plots by communing with a variety of eccentric characters from the realms of both the living and the dead. It’s your job to unravel a mystical mystery and put a stop to the Okkulte-SS’s evil schemes before it’s too late.

Nine Witches: Family Disruption was born from my desire to blend world history with magic and my personal sense of humor,” said Diego Cánepa, designer, Indiesruption. “I’m grateful Blowfish Studios are using their powers to help me bring the game to consoles and PC so this story can be enjoyed by players across the world.” If you like indie games with beautiful, retro-inspired pixel art and a comical story dripping with gleefully absurd, dark humor, you’ll want to check this out. Nine Witches: Family Disruption summons supernatural hi-jinks to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam for Windows PC in Q2 2020.


Filament

Explore a mysterious ship.

Ahead of next year’s anticipated release of Filament, Kasedo Games & Beard Envy have revealed an exclusive look into the making of the upcoming puzzle game with the first in a series of short dev featurettes. Developed by three friends in the front room of their shared house, Filament is a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game centered around solving sets of cable-based puzzles whilst exploring a seemingly abandoned spaceship. According to the press release, Filament lets you freely explore the mysterious ship, solving over 300 challenging and varied puzzles in (almost) any order you like.

If you’d like to learn more, we recommend checking out the short episode series which explains the complexity and variety of puzzles and offers an insight into how the game was made. Filament will release for PC and consoles next year.


West of the Dead

The Wild West has never been this dark.

Announced at X019 in London, West of Dead is a fast-paced twin-stick shooter developed by UK-based studio Upstream Arcade. The game stars Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy) as the voice of the main protagonist William Mason, a dead man awakened with only the memory of a figure in black. His existence sets into motion a chain of events that have truly mythic consequences.

Thrown into the unknown procedurally generated hunting grounds of Purgatory, your skills will be put to the test as you shoot and dodge your way through the grime and grit of the underworld. No one said dying would be easy and West of the Dead will surely test your skills. The battle for your soul will take place on Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2020.


The Red Lantern

Survive the Alaskan wilderness in this dog sledding, story-driven, rogue-lite game

We first took notice of The Red Lantern during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year and ever since we’ve been impatiently awaiting its release. The Red Lantern is a resource management game where you and your team of five sled dogs must survive the wilderness and find your way home. Set in Nome, Alaska, you play as The Musher, voiced by Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Life is Strange), as she sets out to train for the grueling Iditarod race.

The game combines rogue-lite elements into this story-driven adventure game, where hundreds of different events can occur—like fending off bears, resisting frostbite, attending your dogs, or receiving a signature moose-licking. This might be the first and last dog-sledding survival game we will ever play but that’s fine by us because judging by the screenshots and trailer, the game looks terrific. The Red Lantern is Timberline Studio’s debut game and is funded by Kowloon Nights. The game will be releasing on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2020.

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The Best Games of the 2010s

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Best Games of the 2010s Best Games of the Decade

The 2010s have spoiled us with an abundance of amazing games released year after year, and with the decade quickly drawing to a close, some would argue it is the best decade for video games yet. The choice of AAA titles, MMOs, indies and even mobile games is simply overwhelming. In no other decade have we had so much variety and so much to choose from making it extremely hard to pinpoint what our favourites are. Truth be told, many of us still have some catching up to do. Not everyone has played every game nominated below, and how could we considering some of these games require hundreds of hours of our time to complete? Thankfully we have enough writers on staff to be able to cover it all, and as expected, none of us seem to agree on every winner. It wasn’t easy to choose from our many favourites but we narrowed it down to one winner and five special mentions for each year. At last, here are the best games released in the 2010s.

Best Games of the Decade

Mass-Effect-2-Best-Games-of-the-Decade

2010) Mass Effect 2

Bioware’s Mass Effect announced itself as a different kind of game. The natural evolution of games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old RepublicMass Effect offered gamers a whole universe of possibilities. Depending on their choices, their protagonist could be a cocksure rogue or an unrepentant optimist, a cold pragmatist or a warm confidante. Regardless of your choices though, what Mass Effect really offered was the chance to enter a world and experience it in your own individual manner.

Mass Effect 2 doubled down on this prospect in a way that was almost inconceivable. Giving players a bigger galaxy to explore, more characters to journey through it with, and more refined gameplay with which to devour it, Mass Effect 2 arrived as the sequel that fans never even dreamed was possible. A game with so many different possibilities for outcomes that there was an ending designed as if the player had died in his quest, there was literally no wrong way to play Mass Effect 2.

While the sequel ended up having to pull back on these ambitions, Mass Effect 2 still remains a game that made players believe that literally anything was possible, and for that reason alone, it remains a one of a kind, unforgettable experience. (Mike Worby)

Runners-Up: Call of Duty: Black Ops, God of War III, Red Dead Redemption, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Super Meat Boy

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

2011) Dark Souls

Like Mass Effect 2Dark Souls is less an original prospect in and of itself, and more the perfectly refined version of a very good idea. Hidetaka Miyazaki may have hit upon a gold rush with his experimental action-RPG Demon’s Souls, but it was Dark Souls that really hit paydirt. Transporting the hybrid single-player/multiplayer experience into an ever-growing open world that devoured itself like an ouroborosDark Souls didn’t just perfect the experience that its predecessor had plotted out, it laid the groundwork for an entire genre.

Players still relentlessly speed run, troll, experiment with and redefine what Dark Souls is, and what it means to them, nearly a decade after its initial release. Check Twitch or YouTube on any given day, and you’re likely to find dozens of gamers re-exploring the world of Lordran, and seeing what it might offer them in this reincarnation of its virtues and faults, concepts and confines. Such is the result of a game so endlessly replayable that it doesn’t even ask before plonking you back at the beginning after those end credits. After all, why not spend a little more time in this world? (Mike Worby)

Runners-Up: Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Minecraft, Portal 2, Rayman Origins

Xeonblade-1024x576

2012) Xenoblade Chronicles

It’s hard to find a game as niche as Xenoblade Chronicles. A JRPG, published in North America two years after its initial 2010 release on the already-sunsetting Wii, it seemed an unlikely prospect for success. After all, the Wii was perhaps Nintendo’s most family-friendly console, a system designed around casual audiences and motion controls; its successor, the Wii U, was just around the corner. It made little sense to release a JRPG, of all things, when the system was on its last legs.

Despite launching at the tail end of one generation and the beginning of the other,  Xenoblade Chronicles delivered one of the best JRPG experiences in decades. Xenoblade creator Tetsuya Takahashi, with a checkered history of ambitious games that failed to fully deliver on their promises, finally perfected his craft.  A gripping narrative, a spectacular score, and an innovative focus on blending the best of both Western and Japanese RPGs made Xenoblade Chronicles a stunning achievement and the best JRPG to ever come from Nintendo.

Seven years, and two critically praised sequels, later, and Takahashi has yet to recapture the magic in the original Xenoblade and rekindle the pure, unadulterated sense of exploration and adventure that made it such an enjoyable experience, a testament to how unique and incredible this JRPG truly is. (Iszak Barnette)

Runners-Up: Diablo III, Far Cry 3, Hotline Miami, Journey, The Walking Dead

The Best Games of the 2010s

2013) The Last of Us

With The Last of Us, the cinematic-loving geniuses at Naughty Dog proved themselves once again as one of the most accomplished development teams in the world. The confident and handsome survival thriller was instantly hailed as the new bar for what gaming could and should be moving forward. The Last of Us is Hollywood stuff, of course, and it borrows from dozens of carefully chosen inspirations, among them George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. While the game’s cynical portrayal of survivors turning on each other is a very familiar premise – The Last of Us is also the rare video game that follows a traditional storyline and then improves upon it. Set twenty years after a pandemic radically transformed civilization – The Last of Us follows Joel, a salty survivor, who is hired to smuggle a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a rough military quarantine. What begins as a straightforward, albeit risky job, quickly turns into a highly emotional, palm-sweating journey that you won’t ever forget.

The Last of Us mixes traditional adventure, survival, action, stealth, and constant exploration. Amidst the action, the horror and the many layers of modern mythology at work here (all quintessentially American), the game succeeds simply as a parable of what it means to live versus surviving. By the time you get to the last act, you understand why The Last of Us is the stuff of legends. The ending is simply amazing and not because it ends with a bang, but instead, because it ends with a simple line of dialogue. It’s intense and, yes, depressing – and it earns every minute of it.

Exhausting to play but oddly exhilarating to experience, The Last of Us works its way under our skin to unnerve, reside and haunt us. From the rich, complex combat system to the sublime sound design, this game immerses the player from start to finish. The Last of Us proves how far the craftsmanship of making video games has come from the outstanding engineering and art and sound design to the fine direction and performances, and the touching relationship of the two leads. It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Last of Us is our favourite game of 2013 because it works on every level: as a violent chase thriller, a fantastic cautionary tale, a coming of age story, and a sophisticated drama about the best and worst qualities of humanity. There’s something for everyone here to appreciate! (Ricky D)

Runners-Up: Bioshock Infinite, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, DOTA 2, Gone Home, Grand Theft Auto V

2014) Mario Kart 8

Nintendo was so confident about Mario Kart 8 that they implied it could turn the tides of both sales and public consciousness on the Wii U. Of course, Mario Kart 8 didn’t end up doing that, but it did handily exceed the expectations of its legion of naysayers, such as the infamous Polygon pie charts. Five years later and it has not only gone down in the record books as the highest-selling game on that fateful console, but is also the highest-selling game on Nintendo’s renaissance console, the Switch.

While the appeal of Mario Kart remains perennial, Mario Kart 8 is an especially special Mario Kart. Its controls are the most fluid and refined, its visuals the most lush and detailed, and its courses the most vibrant and fully-realized. Moreover, its breakneck 200cc mode, wealth of fantastic DLC courses, and Deluxe-specific battle mode have given Mario Kart 8 incredible replay value, depth, and variety despite lacking an adventure mode. At launch, Mario Kart 8 was the peak of the series, the best modern kart racer, and a game of the year contender. Now, with tons of extra content, over thirty million copies sold, and the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mario Kart 8 may become known as the greatest and most popular racing game of all time, kart or otherwise. (Kyle Rentschler)

Runners-Up: Bayonetta 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Hearthstone, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Valiant Hearts: The Great War

bloodborne-the-old-hunters-1920x1080

2015) Bloodborne

FromSoftware pioneered a new genre and difficulty standard with their Souls series, but Bloodborne’s their magnum opus. The sordid streets of Yharnam teem with monsters, and hacking through the bloody lot of them is a visceral (and challenging) delight.

I made it through Bloodborne with minimal trouble, felling most bosses in two or three tries. But the last boss, the dude whose name starts with G (no spoilers), kicked my ass to the moon and back. I fought him for a whole weekend, dying upwards of fifty times. I thought I couldn’t do it, that I’d have to throw in the towel, for this was a mountain I couldn’t scale. But then something unexpected happened: I won! I flawlessly dodged his attacks, steadily chipping away at his lofty life bar until he kicked the bucket. The sensation of elation I experienced upon victory was a high that lasted for hours, and that’s when it clicked for me “This is why there’s no easy mode”. (Harry Morris)

Runners-Up: Life is Strange, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Rocket League, Undertale, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Persona5-1-1024x576

2016) Persona 5

When it comes to JRPGs, there’s no shortage of turn-based level grind-y time sinkers on offer, but Persona 5 is something different. It’s both unabashedly inspired by its genre brethren, yet wholly unique. Where countless JRPG stories crumble under the weight of “That’s flippin’ nonsense”, Persona 5 serves up a rewarding narrative driven by a wildly loveable band of misfits. Its relationship-building mechanics (that inspired Fire Emblem: Three Houses) are addictive, and its user interface is award-worthy. Every facet of this genre masterpiece is meticulously honed to perfection, and its bigger and better iteration (Persona 5 Royal) can’t come soon enough. (Harry Morris)

Runners-Up: Final Fantasy XV, Inside, Overwatch, Pokemon Sun and Moon, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

2017) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Breath of the Wild is just how familiar yet simultaneously refreshing it feels. Breath of the Wild may be the biggest Zelda game to date, but it still feels like a Zelda adventure — in spirit, story, tone and in gameplay. You play as the young courageous Link, the hero of Hyrule, who awakens from a cryogenic sleep chamber inside of a small cave and teams up with the eponymous princess (so to speak) and sets out on an adventure to destroy the horrible fanged, boar-faced Calamity Ganon, a megalomaniac holding Princess Zelda hostage and bent on destroying Hyrule. The narrative setup is more or less standard for a Zelda game, but Breath of the Wild has something that was missing from the series for far too long — perhaps since the original title was released back in 1986.

Much like that original, Breath of the Wild is a game that begs you to keep exploring and it does this right from the start, immediately instilling a real sense of mystery, no matter how familiar you are with the series. As soon as you emerge from that opening cave, you’ll find yourself on a vista, looking out at the beautiful mountains and ruins of a post-apocalyptic, techno-plagued world. And from that moment on, the world is your oyster.

Since its arrival in 1986, the Zelda series has always pushed the technical boundaries of whatever console it has graced and Breath of the Wild continues this tradition (times two). Epic, mythic, simply terrific, Breath of the Wild brought a new kind of experience to fans across the globe. In return, it demands your attention. It’s such a landmark in video games that labeling it a masterpiece almost seems inevitable. Though in the end, most of what makes Breath of the Wild so beloved is Nintendo’s determination to constantly challenge themselves while crafting an unforgettable experience that also doubles as a commentary on the freedom of playing on the Switch. That a game of this magnitude can be playable anywhere you go, is a remarkable feat. (Ricky D)

Runners-Up: Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Horizon Zero Dawn, Resident Evil VII, Super Mario Odyssey

2018) God of War

To take their beloved franchise, turn it on its head, and deliver an experience that surpasses its acclaimed predecessors was no easy task for Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, yet they smashed it! God of War pays homage to its roots, whilst simultaneously bounding headlong into uncharted waters. It embraces modern conventions but utilizes them in a way that feels fantastically fresh.

Kratos’s journey with Atreus through the universe of Norse mythology is a masterclass in both character study and organic world-building, and a far cry from the one dimensional “Kratos angry, Kratos kill things” fare of old. Combat strikes a balance between strategic nuance and gory glee, and the Leviathan Axe feels badass to swing around. Discussing this game is more often than not an exercise in rattling off cool qualities, because there’s just that many things to dig about it. (Harry Morris)

Runners-Up: Celeste, Monster Hunter World, Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Best Games of the Decade

2019 ) Fire Emblem: Three Houses

With three stories that can change depending on the choices taken, Fire Emblem: Three Houses really does allow the player to choose the path they wish. Much like previous Fire Emblem games, what the player does and chooses is at the heart of the game, with benefits and consequences for each action taken. With three different houses to discover, Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be replayed countless times while never feeling like the same game.

It’s easy to get enchanted by all the personality, charisma, and cheesiness the game has outside of battles, that it’s even easier to miss the tactical ingenuity within battles. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has shaken up much of the battle formula from previous Fire Emblem games, creating a much more fragile web, requiring a balancing of personalities and classes that can develop constructively for the rest of the game. This means every brick you place from the start of the game will affect how well your house stands by the end of the game. It’s a clever design that can catch even the most ardent Fire Emblem veterans out there.

But most importantly of all, each story doesn’t feel rushed or out of place. That isn’t just the three main stories but every characters’ own personal story. Some of the characters are a little overly cloy for my personal tastes, but that isn’t to say they didn’t fit the narrative. Their story was woven into the main story without a slip or a bump. It is that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is more than just how the player develops, but how each character develops around them. (James Baker)

Runner-Up: The Outer Wilds, Disco Elysium, Control, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Resident Evil 2

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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