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The 20 Best Games of 2016 (20-11)

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Let’s just have it said and done: 2016 was a shit year in almost every conceivable way. Divisive political stances have never been at a higher slant, the right and left are more split than ever, every news link has lead to more and more bad news, and a laundry list of our favorite celebrities have bit the dust in a ridiculous procession of what amounts to some of our favorite humans being snatched away by a very sadistic reaper.

With that said, it’s no surprise that 2016 has been a banner year for gaming. I think we all needed to escape from the harsh truths of reality just a little bit more this year, and we were not wanting for options in that regard. So, without further (depressing) ado, here are the 20 games that most kept us distracted from the encroaching apocalypse in 2016.

May 2017 offer brighter days. (Mike Worby)

Salt and Sanctuary

20) Salt and Sanctuary

In an era where we haven’t seen a truly great Castlevania game in nearly 20 years, who would have thought that the best Castlevania game to arrive in two decades wouldn’t be a Castlevania game at all, but an entirely new IP.

Marrying the dense dungeon-crawling and 2D exploration of Castlevania with the intense challenge and pitch black lore of the Dark Souls series was certainly a gamble for Ska Studios. Luckily, this was one roll of the dice that paid off in spades. Salt and Sanctuary is not just a great game, but a marvel of game design in and of itself. Any studio that can so carefully merge the worlds of two disparate series like this into an entirely new entity, one that manages to mirror its source materials while still feeling like its own beast, is certainly worthy of commendation. (Mike Worby)

19) Fire Emblem Fates

The brutality to the battlefield returns and the side you choose determines your fate. Your soldiers are ready, your swords sharpened, and your arrows are plenty. All that awaits is the decision of defense or conquest. Whatever you decide, the kingdoms of Hoshido and Nohr will change forever.

Fire Emblem: Fates brings some of the most compelling stories to the franchise, boasting three different games with three different scenarios. Birthright is seen as the best of the three for a beginner, with a much easier play through. Conquest is the most challenging, and the DLC Revelations lies somewhere in between.

The complex moralities surrounding the three games leave you with more questions than answers, participating in a tale of clashing bloodlines where the uncomfortable middle is your unfortunate situation. Conquest remains the better of the three games, with its darker shade of gray tone that uncomfortably leads you to follow the bloodthirsty King Garon, whose missions seem to punish rather than test you.

The turn-based style of battle remains its biggest strength. The game of chess absorbs you into a perfectionist’s nightmare, with one wrong move able to cost you the entire battle. This endearing style of strategy game has kept Fire Emblem alive and well for over three decades, and the intricacy of the battle leaves a devastating beauty to each critical moment. There’s no right or wrong adventure; each journey will leave you wanting more. (James Baker)

Firewatch

18) Firewatch

Firewatch distinguishes itself by immersing the player in an unlikely role. You are not put in the shoes of a powerful warrior, mystical chosen one, or space cop, but in those of a lonely, vulnerable and flawed man named Henry.

The first person adventure takes place in a National Park, far from civilization, in the 1980s. The terrain is mountainous with caves, lakes, and other natural elements peppering the landscape. The opening sequence is a character creation of sorts, where the player gets to decide, not what Henry looks like, but what kind of person he is, through a series of text-based decisions. Solitude and self-discovery are major themes throughout Firewatch, and Henry rarely comes into contact with people other than his supervisor Delilah, who Henry communicates with via radio. Conversations with Delilah push the story forward and allow for the player to make more choices that develop Henry as a character.

Moment to moment gameplay involves moving Henry from one location to another, using a map and compass, while communicating with Delilah. As a failed boy scout, I did get lost on a few occasions when trying to find my way around the small map while using the compass. By the end, the playable area will be pretty well traveled as quests have you re-treading ground.

Clocking in at around 4 hours, Firewatch is a short game, best played in a single sitting. The real core of the game is its story. The unraveling mystery kept me hooked throughout, as a Lost type mystery unfolded. Like Lost, however, Firewatch is more about the ride than the reveal as the last few moments of the game are ultimately unsatisfying and leave one too many questions unanswered.

Firewatch is for anyone who is looking for a good story to play through in an evening with little dexterity, quick timing or puzzle solving skills needed. Sit back, relax and release your inner outdoors person. (Justinas Staskevicius)

17) XCOM 2

The biggest and most immediate change from 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that XCOM, as an organization, is now on the offensive. After the alien invasion was successful, XCOM has dedicated themselves to liberating the human race – at any cost.

Battles now begin in “concealment”, with the aliens unaware of XCOM’s presence, allowing clever players to mastermind devastating opening gambits. Each of the character classes was reworked to be more interesting – the Ranger class replaces the old Assault but comes with a sword and some extra stealth capabilities. The former Support class has been reworked into the drone piloting Specialist, who can deliver health or harm from anywhere on the map.

Missions are selected from a world map, though now XCOM is operating solely out of their starting continent. They can slowly expand by undermining the aliens’ plans, but each mission takes time, and the Advent – the new name for our antagonists – are developing a plan that will ensure the extinction of the human race. Desperately trying to balance the flow of resources and expansion while staying on top of the Advent’s plans is a trying, stressful thing, though it’s so packed with addictive turn-based strategy combat that it’s hard to not enjoy yourself.

The combat is back in form, utilising procedurally-generated maps to great effect. Gone is repetitive map design and predictable enemy placement; now, each mission is truly unique, meaning that no two battles play out the same way. Training a recruit from the ground-up, equipping them with the finest technology you can develop and weapon mods you’ve found and then having them brutally – and permanently – die in battle is a trying experience, though it only inspires players to try harder on their next attempt. After all, no two are ever the same. (Rowan McDonald-Nyland)

16) Furi

Furi – the boss rush game that transcends boss rush games.

Furi is so well fleshed-out as a game that calling it a ‘boss-rush’ feels almost like a criticism. Often with such games, the experience is very stripped down and focused – not so with Furi. Each new attack phase a boss goes through is akin to a new level to pass, and each boss is akin to a new zone within a game world. Add to this room for players to find their own play style and discover little tricks and techniques that trade risk for reward and you’ve got a solid, condensed experience. Add to that a polished difficulty curve as later bosses expand upon mechanics laid out by earlier ones, the range of bosses ultimately demanding a player masters the fundamentals of the combat so as to prep a player for new play-throughs, and a game length long enough to be fulfilling, yet short enough for new play-throughs not to be daunting, and you’ve got a fully-fledged game. Furi is so well made it doesn’t have to sacrifice breadth for depth as many games do, boss-rush or otherwise.

It’s worth mentioning since no one else seemed to; the game had solid visuals too. Admittedly, purely in terms of aesthetics, the boss design was horrendously inconsistent, with noh masks, the biomechanical art style, and Zen Buddhism being just a few of the influences in the melting pot. However, this isn’t a flaw of Furi’s – when you’ve got the player and their opponent hurtling at each other at Furi’s furious pace, detailed aesthetic is lost. What Furi does do amazingly well is pick its colour palettes. The player and the bosses all have clear, flat, contrasting colours that mean everything remains as visually clear as it can be amongst the chaos. The music score is also very agreeable (Liam Hevey)

titanfall2_screen_03_Origin

15) Titanfall 2

Titanfall 2 has a trope filled plot. Titanfall 2’s writing is often cringeworthy. Almost all of Titanfall 2’s characters are forgettable. This begs the question of why the game is on this list? Fortunately, the answer is simple: it recaptures the awe that came with the release of Modern Warfare back in 2007. The argument could be made that military shooters have grown stagnant over the last few years but 2016 was the year of the FPS, with Doom, Infinite Warfare and most importantly TitanFall 2 providing single player campaigns that felt fresh and imaginative. This game deserves to be here purely for its level design, offering a short and sweet tight set of levels that throw new mechanics and ideas at you every half hour. Highlights include a conveyor belt tour of a factory creating small simulation towns and a section that introduces time mechanics in one of the most satisfying levels in a shooter seen this generation.

People may lament that the game is only a lean 6 hours long but it uses every minute of that running time to show you something exciting, there’s no fat, it’s the perfect length to match the game’s strengths. The game took elements from Mirror’s Edge (parkour), Call of Duty (gunplay) and even sprinkled in a little Portal style magic at points. When people ask if Titanfall needed a campaign this game proved unquestionably that it indeed did, it’s surprisingly the game’s biggest selling point and no one saw that coming. Now it just needs to sell well, so what are you waiting for? (Oliver Rebbeck)

Abzu-752x430

14) Abzu

Games continue to grow bigger, more intense, more immersive, and more beautiful by the day, and ABZÛ exemplifies the last of these qualities better than most. While it may not be quite as groundbreaking as its predecessors Flower and Journey, two games from which it draws obvious and immediate inspiration, it takes the meditative non-game to new heights. It asks little more of the player than to languish in its world awhile, and as it turns out, it’s one of the best undersea game worlds ever developed. Though it is perhaps less weighty and tactile than the beautiful and oppressive ocean of Subnautica, its lightness is itself a strength, allowing players to swim (often in awe) through a largely peaceful space of abundant color and sound.

The player uses fun, fluid swimming controls to propel the diver through waters blooming with huge schools of gorgeously animated fish that swim to and fro, along with a host of other sea creatures both familiar and fascinating, and these form a simple digital ecosystem that interacts with itself and the player. Mechanically speaking, it’s really just a backdrop for the basic exploration-focused gameplay, but that does nothing to diminish its raw audiovisual power. So too with Austin Wintory’s impeccable soundtrack, which stands as one of the very best gaming has to offer.

While ABZÛ’s quiet simplicity of play may not ultimately be to everyone’s taste, it remains an incredible artistic achievement that speaks sweet words to the soul. (Michael Riser)

13) Ratchet and Clank

While 2016 had a boatload of deep, emotionally enthralling games to play, let’s not forget about the truly brilliant and immeasurably fun game that Insomniac offered earlier in the year. Ratchet and Clank is what I like to call “hearty.” It does away with the complex story lines present in many PlayStation exclusive titles, and provides an experience rich with variety and pure enjoyment. There are dozens of options when approaching a situation; whether it be fighting an enemy or upgrading a weapon. This variety helps Ratchet and Clank feel utterly limitless. Not only does the player have an absolute mountain of weapons to test out and upgrade, they also have a startlingly beautiful landscape to explore.

Ratchet and Clank is the most gorgeous looking game ever created. Case closed. It balances realism and cartoonism brilliantly. Even though Ratchet looks like a cute, cartoony alien, he still meshes perfectly with the more life-like environment. He hops between platforms, decimating everything in his path with a beautifully steady frame rate. It’s strange that this game actually looks better than the movie that it’s based off of. Looking past its seemingly insurmountable appearance, Ratchet and Clank also masters the series’ formula. It goes back to its roots and oozes simple fun as a result. It’s the kind of game that rockets the player into a wonderland of pure joy; regardless of its story, themes, or any sort of fancy pants narrative, it’s just wholly enjoyable. (Ricardo Rodriguez)

12) The Witness

Revered game designer Jonathan Blow – lead creator of iconic indie hit Braid – kicked off 2016 in a big way with his experimental puzzle game The Witness. Displacing both dialogue and a traditional video game narrative, The Witness places your unnamed character on a mysterious, uninhabited Island filled with numerous environmental panel-based puzzles. What starts out as a simplistic exercise in tracing a line from a start dot to an end dot soon intensifies as the player is let loose on the mystifying Island.

What The Witness has achieved through its fundamental game design Is staggering; the lack of a tutorial and on-screen hints is a testament to Blow’s belief in his game’s philosophy. Only through practice, correct conditioning (and a lot of patience) will the player seek solutions to the Island’s bounteous cryptic puzzles. The answer’s may not appear straight away, but after painstakingly exploring every option you perceive to be possible, eventually the solution will come – you might even kick yourself for not noticing it in the first place.

The real star of this masterpiece is the Island itself. Divided by a rich and vibrant colour palette, the different areas are designed in such a way that it’s easy to see where different puzzle-types start and end. The desert’s beating hot sun might shed some light on the solution of the solar panels scattered around the pyramids, while the shadow of a thick branch in the dense, green forest might not be as obscuring as you first thought. You will feel frustrated, you may be tempted to give up, but this is the time to walk away to a different part of the Island, it’s a time of reflection and an opportunity to discover what else the Island is hiding.

The Witness takes the player through an array of conflicting emotions, but this is the cost/reward of the game gradually improving the player’s understanding of how The Witness actually functions. The feeling of successfully completing a puzzle after countless, fruitless attempts is immense – the insurmountable satisfaction of The Witness should be experienced by everyone. (Craig Sharpe)

pokken tournament

11) Pokken Tournament

Pokkén Tournament borrows from plenty of old fighting game favorites – most obviously Tekken – but the inspirations reach further than Bandai Namco’s hit series touching on Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and the Dragonball series, to name a few. This isn’t to say that Pokken Tournament is just a poor man’s Tekken and void of any new ideas; in fact, it introduces its own features and systems that give it plenty of depth and plenty of replayability. The most notable innovation is the shifting field of battle, which transitions back and forth between Field Phase (a three-dimensional range of motion that gives players access to the full scope of the arena, and an over-the-shoulder point of view), and the more traditional fighting game-style Duel Phase (taking place on a 2D plane and putting a focus on things like mid-range strategy or close combat).

Think Tekken meets SoulCalibur, only featuring iconic Pokémon from both early and current generations to choose from. Almost everything about it works so incredibly well that Pokken Tournament is the only game apart from NBA 2K17 that I put more hours into this year – a game that breathes new life into a notoriously stale genre, and more than exceeded my expectations. Like Super Smash Bros., it’s easy to pick up, easy to play, and provides players a chance to battle against their friends, both online and in the same room. What more can you ask for? (Ricky D)

Top 10 

Humans by birth. Gamers by choice. Goomba Stomp is a Canadian web publication that has been independently owned and operated since its inception in 2016.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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