2016 may not have been the best year, all things considered. It was a year of social upheaval, political frustration, and environmental catastrophe. Of unchecked corporate irresponsibility and the prospect of worse. Of loss.
But it was also undeniably an overwhelmingly good year for video games. Not only did we have a plethora of AAA surprises, we also had more cool indie games than most people could even conceivably play. That makes choosing a list of the year’s best a near impossible task.
Near impossible tasks, however, are also a theme of several of my favorite games this year, so perhaps it’s appropriate. Either way, here are some of the best new indie games you could play in 2016, each of them worth looking at if they passed you by. The list is generally in no particular order until you get to the contentious top 4 slots, and it only reflects my personal opinion of a handful of the hundreds of indie games released this year.
Slayaway Camp (PC)
A brilliant little traditional puzzle game with a weird combination of cuteness and gore. It’s got everything you want from a good puzzler with a nice surrounding package and a lot of flair, presenting itself as a 1980’s VHS horror movie collection. A modern take on what is too often a throwback genre, providing a ton of content at a bargain price. It’s also got a voice cast that includes … Mark Meer? What?
Brigador took me—and I suspect a lot of people—by surprise. While fairly limited in scope, Brigador is one of several games that grabbed me this year by being a distilled experience; lean, tight, and heavily skill-based. It’s got a great art style, a surprisingly involved fiction (including a nicely produced audiobook), and a stellar soundtrack by Makeup and Vanity Set, all layered smoothly on top of blow-up-literally-everything gameplay. Fans of mechs and dark cyberpunk futures need this one from Stellar Jockeys in their lives. Did I mention it’s got one of the best soundtracks of the year?
Superhot (PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One)
With one of the more unique gameplay conceits to come around in some time, Superhot was awesome, yet it didn’t quite manage to live up to its full potential. With a wicked cool menu system, storytelling method, and visual style, the game tasks you with shattering digital bad guys in a virtual first-person shooter. The twist is that time stands (almost) completely still unless you’re moving or shooting. The game is fairly short, but the unique mechanics put an almost puzzle-like spin on expected FPS gameplay, and the sparse, mysterious, and intriguing narrative which frames the whole thing is super cool. Superhot’s full asking price has for some been historically hard to swallow, but it’s a no-brainer if you catch it on sale.
Furi (PC and PS4)
Furi is an underrated gem that I suspect didn’t hook nearly the number of fans it deserved to. It’s got excellent style and gameplay chops, an interesting story setup, and a great synthwave soundtrack featuring the likes of Carpenter Brut, Danger, and Waveshaper. Essentially just one long boss rush, it’s the very definition of “no filler,” consisting of nothing more than awesome bosses and short walks (with some great environmental design and mysterious, intriguing narrative exposition) between them. With designs by Takashi Okazaki of Afro Samurai fame, the characters are all fantastic, and while there’s some transitional animation jank that occasionally gets in the way of the grandeur, Furi is otherwise beautiful to behold, fantastic to listen to, and a blast to play. It can be beaten in about 2 hours once you’re a veteran fighter—or if you just happen to be amazingly talented—but will take the average player 7 to 9 hours to get through on their first run.
It also happens to support several different languages, and allows independent selection of text and voice. The English and French audio tracks are fantastic, but do yourself a favor and switch to the Japanese track for a truly stunning set of performances.
One Night Stand (PC)
I confess that I fell in love with One Night Stand. It’s a very short visual novel-style story that encourages multiple playthroughs to get different endings, and has charm, personality, and a refreshingly different take on relationships and sex (at least as far as their presentation in games goes). It’s also got a really cool visual style and only costs a couple bucks. If you enjoy slice-of-life games and more laid back experiences, there’s really no going wrong here.
Crypt of the Necrodancer (PC, PS4, Vita, iOS)
If you’re a fan of roguelikes but have been looking for a different take on the genre, look no further. Crypt of the Necrodancer has everything you love to hate about permadeath dungeon crawling, and then adds in a rhythm game. It’s a simple idea that radically changes the formula, having you explore dungeons and fight monsters all while trying to do everything on a beat. Super catchy music, great art design, and a joyful sense of humor make this one of the goofiest games you’ll want to throw your controller at.
Hyper Light Drifter (PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One)
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the deadly serious Hyper Light Drifter. With some of the most gorgeous pixel art design and implementation you’re likely to see, including some absolutely brilliant cutscenes, Drifter takes the 16-bit Zelda formula and turns it into a top-notch character action game. It’s got an entirely wordless story that’s surprisingly compelling, and its world simply begs to be explored. With fantastic and difficult bosses, a bunch of interesting upgrades to acquire, and a metric ton of secrets to find, developer Heart Machine knocked this one out of the park.
The Witness (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Jonathan Blow’s latest opus is as intriguing as it is polarizing. It’s got some of the same narrative tone that irritated some people about Braid, but the gameplay is the real star. A puzzle game through and through, The Witness tasks players with exploring a beautiful, surreal, and seemingly abandoned island, solving 2D maze puzzles to progress through its various locales. If that sounds weird, it is; but even weirder is the fact that it works without being a quarter as lame as it sounds. The game explains so much about itself using interesting environmental cues and difficulty progressions that curiosity, exploration, learning, and progress all feel like equal parts of the whole. It’s a hard game to explain, and one better experienced than talked about. If you’re at all a fan of puzzle games, The Witness is one to make time for.
Project Highrise (PC)
Project Highrise, the second game from SomaSim, is a building and management loveletter to fans of Sim Tower. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of heart, a lovely art style, and offers a lot of design freedom. I spent more time than I expected trying out new strategies and learning the ropes, and while some balance issues continue to exist in the long game, most people will find it to be an accessible and fun creative sim, certainly one of the best released this year.
Prison Architect (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Prison Architect has been around for a good while. An early access game with a long and illustrious development, its final release is one of the best building and management simulation combos you could possibly hope to find. It’s got a wealth of content, tons of options, and more than a little personality for being so artistically simple. Introversion has made many great games, all worth looking at, but Prison Architect is one of the best. The scale of the prisons can get immense, and the thought one can put into their design makes building and modifying them constantly engaging no matter how many times you start over.
ABZÛ (PC, PS4)
There are two undersea-world indie games on the market right now (well, two that I’ve played, anyway), and Subnautica is still in early access. Its counterpart, ABZÛ, is also its antithesis. Where Subnautica is scary, oppressive, complex, and huge, ABZÛ is quiet, introspective, simple, and focused. It’s less a game and more an experience, and whether it appeals to you personally or not is anyone’s guess, but it absolutely stands as one of the most finely crafted indie experiences of the year, one that enraptured and moved me to a startling degree. It lives up to its pedigree (Flower and Journey) and then some, providing one of the most beautiful environments I’ve ever explored—in artistry if not raw tech—and one of the most memorable soundtracks in years. It can be finished in a handful of hours, but those hours are likely to stick with you a long, long time.
Thumper (PC, SteamVR, Oculus, PS4, PSVR)
Thumper is undoubtedly one of my favorite indies this year. Dubbed a “rhythm violence” game by developer Drool, this description doesn’t seem inaccurate. It’s ostensibly a rhythm game, but instead of using instruments or abstract button presses to keep rhythm with pop or rock tunes, you control a space beetle racing along a relentless track in a surreal, drug-trip environment while using timed button presses and stick movements to navigate the track, avoid damage, and score points. The game’s music is dark, atmospheric, and percussive in an unusual way, eschewing the usual melodic fare of most rhythm games, and it fits the tone perfectly. This is a difficult game that requires quick reflexes and good memorization skills, especially in its latter half.
But getting through it is only half the battle. Each section of each level is ranked according to score, and multipliers go up if you progress without missing a beat. You can pass turns unmolested by simply holding the primary button and the appropriate direction, but pressing the direction at exactly the right moment gives you extra points at the end of a section, and there are several other functions that perform similarly. Doing a long, complex section of track without dying feels great, but doing it perfectly is on a whole different level. There’s a “plus” mode as well, which tasks you with doing a level continuously, without failing, dropping the section-by-section methodology of the normal mode.
What sets Thumper apart from most games is that nothing is wasted. It’s lean, but it doesn’t merely work to avoid excess, it includes only what’s absolutely necessary and uses it to full effect. It’s one of the most focused experiences out there, leveraging its simple strengths to build slowly into complexity that feels almost overwhelming. If it sounds intriguing to you, do yourself a favor and dive in. Even without VR, it’s incredibly immersive and intense, and will deeply satisfy adrenaline and score junkies.
Darkest Dungeon (PC, PS4, Vita)
Similarly intense and oppressive, but lacking any particular need for rhythm, is Darkest Dungeon, a tactical, squad-based dungeon crawler with team management mechanics. It features permadeath, so your many heroes are always at risk, and there’s no savescumming to pull them back from death, making it especially devastating to lose a high-level hero you’ve been with for some time. But not only is mortality an issue, so is sanity. A heavily Lovecraftian game, Darkest Dungeon inflicts all kinds of mental and emotional strain on your heroes, leaving you to manage who risks going back into the dungeon and who sits the next one out.
With awesome Mignola-esque artwork, the actual best narration ever by Wayne June, and brutally tactical combat, Darkest Dungeon is not only one of the best indies this year, but one of the best games, period. With a new expansion set to drop in the near future, the madness has only just begun.
Devil Daggers (PC)
Topping the list is what almost, almost was my game of the year, bested only by Overwatch and DOOM. I wrote one of the first handful of reviews for it, and was shocked at how good it was both then and dozens upon dozens of hours later, when I’d seen and discovered so much more.
If Thumper is the intense, distilled essence of the rhythm game, Devil Daggers is the pure, unadulterated adrenaline rush of the first-person shooter. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more perfect, finely tuned game. This is not subjective, although the value will certainly not be apparent to everyone, as Devil Daggers is built with a very particular audience in mind. It’s a hardcore, skill-based shooter masquerading as a simple score-attack arcade arena. Survive as long as you can, shooting as many enemies as you can, until you’re killed yourself. One hit spells the end of the game, and the average run lasts only about a minute or so, depending on player skill (my own record time is a little over five minutes). The progression of enemies never changes, though it’s chaotic enough that it never quite plays the same, and for people who can’t last very long, even the meager $5 asking price might seem like too much.
Yet what many of these people will miss is one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship I’ve ever seen. This isn’t just the purposely lo-fi graphical presentation, the impeccable sound (which is extremely important to player positioning), or the specific enemies and their behaviors, but is also the nature of the player’s weapon, the enemy spawns and their timing, and the way players can gradually peel back an astonishing number of layers to the deep gameplay. I’ve personally put more than 105 hours into it, and despite this investment have still not been able to reach the game’s penultimate encounter. (The game never ends, but there is a point where the progression stops and finally begins repeating.) My high score puts me at rank 901, which is in the top 1.08% of the 83,150 people on the leaderboard currently. That should be all you need to know about how high the skill ceiling is in Devil Daggers.
This is a game that won’t be for everyone, but it’s made waves through the industry, with 3-man Australian developer Sorath earning the respect and admiration of those who appreciate exacting design. I absolutely can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. Not everyone will appreciate Devil Daggers to the degree that I do, but the barrier to entry is only $5 at full price. Come meet me on the leaderboards—if you’ve got the guts!
Okay, so I know there are some obvious choices missing from this list, and most of you are saying, “But what about [xyz]?” Some games I simply didn’t get to play long enough to form an editorial-worthy opinion, others I had spoiled for me because I had to edit reviews and features on them prior to playing, which killed their impact, and still others were popular but didn’t resonate with me as much as they did for most. That said, the consensus between critics, players, and myself is that all of the following games are fantastic in some way or another and are worth your time. A few of them we hope to offer full reviews for in the near future.
Owlboy – a long-anticipated platformer that finally saw release in 2016 to much fanfare.
INSIDE – a puzzle-platformer in the vein of LIMBO. From, well, the developers of LIMBO.
Salt and Sanctuary – Dark Souls the Metroidvania. Tastes great, less filling.
Stardew Valley – “I can’t believe it’s not Harvest Moon!”
Tumblestone – Non-Tetris in a really solid package.
Tricky Towers – Like, actually non-Tetris with a unique twist. With online and local play.
Clustertruck – Defies description. Just watch a trailer.
House of the Dying Sun – Space-dogfight your way to vengeance for the Emperor.
Let It Die – The latest from Grasshopper Manufacture. Non-abusive F2P third-person action RPG.
Quadrilateral Cowboy – Hacking puzzle-capers with a fantastic sense of style.
VA-11 HALL-A – Waifu bartending—no, really. And way, way better (and less dismissive) than that sounds. A stunning release from Sukeban Games.
Grim Dawn – While it didn’t quite make the cut for one of the best of the very best, it’s an awesome Diablo 2-style action RPG that anyone can love.
Starbound – Finally out of early access, with some unfortunate release decisions that hold it back somewhat.
The Final Station – For train and zombie apocalypse enthusiasts.
The Silver Case – A remaster release of Suda51’s seminal classic. You already know if you want this.
Cursed Castilla – A high-grade retro masterpiece in the vein of Ghosts n’ Goblins.
Subnautica – Technically still in early access, so it doesn’t qualify for a 2016 list, but this is (for me) hands down the best survival game on the market, and one I spent a ton of time playing, admiring, and reading about in 2016. It’s more than earned a mention here, especially since you can get it for only $10 on sale until the end of the year. Has some significant bugs and engine troubles that need addressing, but still an indie game like no other.
Before I close here, please bear in mind that there are many, many other games that deserve recognition but we simply can’t include due to time and space constraints. There are also undoubtedly other amazing experiences that have flown entirely under our radar. If there’s something you think we’ve missed that you want people to know about, please post your experience in the comments! We’d love to hear about everything we didn’t get the chance to play this year.
From ‘dnd’ to ‘Death Stranding’: Good Old Fashioned Boss Fights
If Death Stranding proves anything, and it does, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.
There’s nothing quite like a good boss fight. With the creation of dnd in 1975– a Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG for the PLATO system– video games would be introduced to bosses. It’s hard to imagine the medium without bosses, those perpetual protectors of progress. For dnd, an incredibly primitive RPG, a boss allowed the game to feature these miniature climaxes — memorable events independent of the core gameplay loop. Bosses demand players pay attention or die, and beating one is a triumph in and of itself. Looking back, dnd’s concept of what a boss is amounts to little more than the average random battle, but video games could now build towards emotional highs like any other medium.
A good boss can make or break a game, but they’re almost always a given. dnd essentially set an inherent basic of game design: video games have bosses. As the seventh generation of gaming ushered in more narrative driven and “cinematic” titles, however, boss design fundamentally changed. Where bosses had evolved from dnd to often serve as explicit rewards or a means to thoughtfully challenge a player’s grasp of the core mechanics, developers started to primarily embrace the “spectacle” of fighting a boss.
Spectacle and boss fights naturally go hand in hand, though. After all, a boss is spectacle in nature. dnd’s spectacle is comparatively primitive, but it’s there and bosses do feel like events. Boss fights have always demanded our attention as an audience, isolating the world of a game into a singular objective. Some of the best bosses in gaming are almost pure spectacle: Baby Bowser in Yoshi’s Island, Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time, and Metal Gear REX in Metal Gear Solid. None of these bosses are particularly hard, but they make up for their lack of challenge with scale, scope, and gravitas. Spectacle.
At the same time, they engage with the mechanics of the game even if they don’t outright challenge them. Of course, it would be disingenuous to go on without mentioning that all of these bosses appear near the end of their respective games. They’re easier and focus on spectacle as a means of rewarding the audience for coming so far. Anyone who’s played A Link to the Past in full will likely remember Moldorm as vividly as Ganon, but it’s the latter who fans will remember. Ganon is a spectacular duel to the death inside of a pyramid where the environment changes over the course of the fight. The former is just a good old fashioned boss fight. Who wants that?
As it turns out, a good chunk of AAA developers. BioWare director Casey Hudson infamously spoke out about boss fights after the release of Mass Effect 3, criticizing them for being “too video gamey.” While, contextually, Hudson’s comment refers to narratively convenient bosses specifically, it’s a sentiment that clearly rang true with developers throughout the late oughts & teens. This isn’t to say games with amazing bosses didn’t release over the course of the decade -– very far from it -– but boss design has changed, to the point where the Iggy Koopas and Revolver Ocelots of the world seem almost out of place.
That’s just a consequence of consuming only AAA content, though. The indie scene has been thriving, and Japanese game development is the best it’s been in quite a while. In a generation where gaming is more mature and grounded than it’s ever been, the medium needed to end the decade with a reminder of video games in their purest form. Death Stranding is anything but, but its core philosophies play to the strengths of the medium with an evident passion. Death Stranding demands that audiences slow down and play by the game’s rules.
In a generation where holding a player’s hand is the norm, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. It’s not only appropriately old-school, it’s a step back in the right direction. Like any facet of game design, bosses need to be thoughtfully considered. Being “too video gamey” can indeed be a bad thing depending on a titles tone, but swinging in the wrong direction and playing it too safe is never a good idea. Especially since Death Stranding proves mature, grounded AAA titles can absolutely still have the same over the top, pattern-based boss fights of yore — and comfortably, at that.
“No BTs. No Voidouts. No bullshit. Just a good-old fashioned boss fight.”
– Higgs, Death Stranding (2019)
What’s interesting to note about Death Stranding’s boss fights is that they all play up the spectacle. Now, given the context that’s been established, that might seem like a step in the wrong direction, but any medium has to evolve with time. AAA developers haven’t historically used spectacle well, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Not every boss should be Ganon, but they should always be memorable. The problem with modern spectacle is that it doesn’t go beyond the surface level. It often carries little to no weight or context. Players are expected to care for the spectacle of the spectacle, but that’s simply not where the medium shines. Games are inherently about interconnectivity, and nothing demands more interconnection than a boss fight.
From the moment players formally meet Higgs and he floods Port Knot City, it’s clear that Death Stranding’s boss fights are more Snake Eater than they are Peace Walker. They’re all incredibly meaty with tons of health, typical of a modern Hideo Kojima boss, but they’re not bullet sponges, and Sam’s limited inventory means that players will constantly be cycling through different weapons over the course of a fight. Couple this with bosses having identifiable patterns and Death Stranding’s boss loops end up being real highlights.
As expected of a first boss, the Squid BT is on the simple side. At this point in the game, Sam really only has hematic grenades to fight back with. Anyone who hasn’t taken the time to learn how to use the grenades are now forced to do so as it becomes the only means of making progress. Since Higgs also ambushes Sam, players won’t be prepared for a fight on their first playthrough, forced to scavenge the flooded environment for gear. Most bosses strip Sam of his gear, but this approach only results in tense, well crafted battles that offer plenty of variety. Should Sam already have grenades on him, players can rush in to fight the Squid. Should they not, however, they’re going to have to search while staying alive.
Starting with the next boss, the first fight against Cliff, Death Stranding begins allowing players to choose exactly how they approach a fight. Much like in Metal Gear, there’s no right or wrong way to tackle a boss. Where bosses in MGS2 onwards could be tackled lethally or non-lethally, Death Stranding’s bosses are more about action versus stealth. Both approaches are totally viable, and they lead into their own isolated boss loops. As Cliff Unger hunts Sam through World War I era trenches, players can stealth their way around him or just dive in guns blazing.
It’s an incredibly tense battle, but it doesn’t let the spectacle of the situation outdo the actual fight. Cliff isn’t a set piece even if he looks it. He’s a genuine boss and players have to play well to beat him. Stealthing around to hit him from behind is safer, but it means players will be fighting Cliff for much longer, requiring more mental stamina. On the flip side, cutting to the chase and unloading the moment he rears his head will end the fight sooner, but only for players who know how to get in & out of combat fast. Otherwise, Cliff’s personal army will slaughter Sam.
Cliff is fought twice more over the course of Death Stranding, and each encounter builds off the last. The World War I trenches provided plenty of cover for players regardless of which approach they chose, so naturally the second fight takes place in a World War II city. There’s still plenty of hiding spots, but Sam is now out in the open. Just as easily as Sam can see Cliff, so can he be seen. Getting to Cliff is harder in general. Stealthing towards him means taking advantage of any and all blind spots, no matter how brief. Starting a gunfight either requires some pre-established course of action or quick reflexes.
By the third and final fight, Sam is taking on Cliff in an open Vietnamese jungle. Stealthing through and fighting back are both harder, but players will have built up the proper skills over their past two fights to adequately stand a chance. The fights against Cliff are the most video gamey Death Stranding ever gets, with each one sharing the same definable patterns, but they’re ultimately a net positive for the game. Having to learn a pattern, finding a way to fight back, and reveling in the scope of a great boss fight makes Death Stranding better on a whole.
Honestly, the final fight against Cliff isn’t going to be a challenge for most players, but it’ll still stand out as a highlight. Each boss fight is a playground in and of itself. If Sam’s not being transported to a secluded battlefield, areas will be flooded with tar so that they can be molded into proper boss arenas. Even Dark Souls, a modern series that rightfully prides itself on its bosses, often won’t give the same level of care toward boss arenas. Good bosses need good level design just as much as they need good patterns.
Perhaps more important than anything else, Death Stranding’s boss fights are long. Even if players know what they’re doing, they still have to endure an endurance match of sorts. Boss fights aren’t just about overcoming a challenge, they’re about surviving and making progress. Cliff’s not particularly difficult, but one mistake can result in Sam getting torn into. The majority of BT boss fights will try to overwhelm the player in the second half, the final one even featuring a nasty one-hit-kill that can easily sneak up on players wading through tar. Bosses should feel like events, from how players can engage mechanically, to how they’re presented narratively.
No discussion of Death Stranding’s good old fashioned boss fights would be complete without mentioning the boss fight: Higgs. After serving as the game’s main villain for dozens upon dozens of hours, Sam finally gets his chance to fight back in a three phase boss fight that could have (very) prematurely ended the game on a high. Unlike the fights against Cliff, Sam really does have nothinghere, no matter what. He’s stripped of his gear, his weapons, and even BB. “Stick versus rope. Gun versus strand.” It’s a great way not only to wrap up Higgs’ arc, but it also challenges a player’s mastery of the most basic mechanics.
Phase 1 of the fight requires players understand not only Sam’s hand to hand combat capabilities, but his ability to throw packages. Throw a package at Higgs, beat him up, rinse, repeat. All the while he’s hunting Sam in one of the most constricted boss arenas in the game. Popping up too early means taking a few shots courtesy of Higgs. Popping up too late means needing to find him all over again.
Phase 2 puts Sam on the offensive, and expects players to fight back with his strand. Higgs needs to be countered, hog-tied, and then kicked into oblivion. On-screen button prompts make the ordeal easier than it would otherwise be, but it’s thrilling to fight a boss who requires players to pull off reflex-based inputs that go beyond the typical QTE flare. Players need to set themselves up accordingly to counter Higgs, actively taking him head on.
By the time fighting game health bars pop up for the third phase, it’s fairly obvious Higgs’ boss fight is a love letter to the very concept of the boss fight. It’s over the top, almost nonsensical, but it has the right narrative and emotional context to stand out as one of the best moments in an already spectacular game. The fight against Higgs is a miniature climax in a massive story that spans half a hundred hours, and is about to keep on keeping on for half a dozen more.
When it really comes down to it, there’s no right or wrong way to conceive a boss fight. Those spectacle bosses have their place, and this generation has seen a lot of amazing ones. What’s important is that developers build and contextualize spectacle accordingly. Boss fights aren’t just an inherent part of gaming, they’re a tool that can make a title better. Opportunities to shine light on the core mechanics, or an interesting aspect of game design. Death Stranding’s penultimate mission essentially pits Sam against a boss gauntlet across the entire UCA, a last chance for players to really indulge in everything at their disposal before the grand finale.
Death Stranding would still be good without its boss fights, but it certainly wouldn’t be great. Each one elevates the game, not only by presenting a visually memorable and mechanically engaging challenge, but by existing as natural consequences of the story. Each boss is contextualized properly with enough weight where each victory has a considerable amount of impact. Boss fights have come a long way since dnd, but they’re recognizable for what they are: a reminder that games are games, and the medium should be embracing those video gamey elements. It’s through this “video gameyness” that the most memorable titles are made. If Death Stranding proves anything, it’s that there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned boss fight.
‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off
The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.
Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.
Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.
The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.
To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.
In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.
On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.
By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.
Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.
Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.
‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale
Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?
From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.
“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”
The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.
Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.
However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.
At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.
“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”
The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.
On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.
Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.
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