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‘Until Dawn’: Analyzing PlayStation’s Familiar Yet Distinctive Horror Tribute

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Author’s note: Just a quick heads up, there are some pretty big spoilers ahead

A couple of years ago, survival horror/interactive teen drama Until Dawn released on PS4 to some surprisingly positive reviews.

Praised for its intelligent game design, well-written characters, intriguing plot, and wonderfully evocative environments, Until Dawn established itself as one of the year’s best PS4 releases.

Not least because, despite being in many ways a tongue-in-cheek homage to the genreUntil Dawn is, nevertheless, a pretty unique horror experience. The first half of the game, in particular, provides ample evidence for this fascinating contrast.

As soon as the group arrives at the Washington family’s remote mountainside cabin, there’s a strong sense of déjà vu; and not just because there’re plenty of nods to other well-known horror franchises such as Friday the 13th, The Descent, and even Saw.

The gang is comprised of the usual teen-slasher character stereotypes – Mike the jock, Emily the self-absorbed mean girl, Jessica the prom Queen, Chris the goofy nerd etc. etc. – old newspaper clippings, letters, and other such conveniently placed environmental clues litter the cabin, directing the player’s suspicion towards the local psychopath who just so happens to bear a personal grievance against the Washington’s, while even the setting itself, with its isolated homestead, disused mine, and defunct sanatorium, scream by-the-numbers horror flick.

But it doesn’t take long before we realise Until Dawn is actually far more than a simple tribute act, and the superficial similarities that characterise the first hour or so of the game are just that: they’re skin deep.

From a narrative perspective, the fact that developer Supermassive Games refrains from revealing the identity of the culprits until relatively late in the story, throwing in plenty of false starts and gloriously cheap jump scares early on to get the pulse racing and ramp up the tension, keeps the player in a constant state of uncertainty and suspense. True, the bait and switch isn’t exactly the most original of narrative devices, but the sense of mystery that permeates the entirety of the first half, perhaps even the first two-thirds of the game, keeps the player invested in the story from start to finish.

In fact, now that I think of it, the second half/third of the game doesn’t fall short simply because, once we discover a combination of protagonist Josh and a brood of bloodthirsy Wendigos are behind the strange events that have been plaguing the group since they arrived on the mountain, all sense of mystery has been stripped away, but because, after such an intriguing build-up, the big reveal fails to live up to our expectations; the Wendigos especially feeling somewhat contrived and out of place.

Be that as it may, Josh is still a very effective and well-written pseudo-villain and, more importantly, the wider cast of genre stereotypes and other, more nuanced characters, are truly excellent.

Ersatz jock Mike comes across as typically arrogant and inconsiderate at the start, especially during the prologue scene in which the gang plays an awful prank on Josh’s now missing sister: the demure Hannah. However, following an interrupted tryst with vacuous it-girl Jessica, over the course of the rest of the game, Mike gradually reveals himself to be brave and selfless. For example, he goes out of his way to scour the eerie and dilapidated ruins of the Blackwood asylum once Jessica goes missing, while towards the end of the game, instead of running away to save his own skin, he returns to the mansion in the hopes of finding and helping his remaining friends escape the insatiable Wendigos (assuming he’s still alive and kicking at this point, that is).

Ashley’s character arc similarly subverts the genre stereotype she’s assigned at the beginning. Initially portrayed as the kind, intelligent member of the group whose personality clashes awkwardly with the rest, making her close relationship with the others a little difficult to explain. By the time the end credits roll around, we discover she actually has a bit of a selfish streak and, when pushed, can even be vindictive. When Sam goes missing, for instance, she tries to convince Chris to abandon her and concentrate on saving themselves. However, far from harming Ashley’s character, it adds an additional layer of depth to her personality and, in a strange way, makes her more relatable.

To be fair, not all the cast display such originality. Both Jessica and Emily could slot neatly into any number of typical teen-slasher flicks; Chris, despite the odd moment of bravery, rarely deviates from the bumbling comic relief archetype; and Samantha remains squeaky clean throughout (though, if I’m being cynical, I’d say this is due mainly to the fact she’s played by actress Hayden Panettiere, thus Supermassive felt obliged to make sure she came across well).

Even so, over the course of the game, we can’t help but be drawn to this eclectic group of characters. We celebrate when they escape seemingly perilous situations and mourn when one of them dies; not just because, as gamers, we hate making irrevocable errors, but because we’re genuinely sorry to see our slightly obnoxious digital companions suffer as a direct consequence of our mistakes: yes, even Emily.

Now, it’s true, the player has a certain amount of control over the way each character developers through conversation trees and the choices they make during quick time events, which, consequently, affect the way the story progresses too. Yet, if anything, this increases the number of opportunities to fine-tune the experience and direct the narrative in our own, unique way.

For instance, although Mike’s generally not as much of a bastard as we’re led to believe at first, it’s for the player to decide exactly how courageous and selfless he acts during the game; the player doesn’t have a binary, black and white choice but can opt for something greyer in between. Likewise, it’s possible to dilute some of Emily’s innate bitchiness, alter Matt’s inborn sensitivity, and make Chris slightly less feckless.

Crucially, this intrinsic mutability heightens the sense of danger that permeates the story as, unlike Heavy Rain or indeed any of David Cage’s other narrative-driven games, the story doesn’t turn on one or two individual moments.

Rather, the experiences and fate of each individual character are determined by the sum total of every choice the player makes over the course of the game; Supermassive’s version of the ‘butterfly effect’. Consistently put Chris’s own safety above Ashley’s, for example, and she’ll refuse to save him; fail to find enough clues as to Hannah’s fate and Josh won’t survive.

Therefore, because every action seems to matter, the player often finds themselves deliberating over seemingly innocuous decisions. So, when Emily has the opportunity to fire the flare gun in chapter 6, the player can’t help but wonder if doing so will actually summon help or if it will draw the attention of the group’s as yet unidentified assailants instead. Similarly, when Sam’s hiding from the psychopath in an old elevator shaft at the bottom of the mansion, the player doesn’t know if being caught here will result in her death or if this potentially fatal outcome is, ultimately, little more than another bump in the road; an optional hurdle that can be cleared if approached in the right way.

Knowing that the death or survival of each character, and thus the conclusion of Until Dawn itself, isn’t dependent on a single event that occurred hours before ensures the moment-to-moment gameplay is always tense and unpredictable, which, in turn, gives it a far higher replay value than any Quantic Dream title to date.

Before I finish my panegyric to Until Dawn, I’d be remiss if I didn’t dedicate a couple of paragraphs to the gorgeous setting and incredibly evocative environments I mentioned in passing earlier.

Featuring a cabin-in-the-woods-style mansion located well beyond outside assistance, a long-abandoned mine, and a disused asylum, each of Until Dawn’s locations pay tribute to one horror series or another. Yet, though familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre, much like the characters and the story, they’re presented in a highly original way.

Take the asylum. Far from being just another abandoned medical facility with a dark past, you know, a place that was once home to the kind of inhuman experiments and unimaginable suffering that, if ghosts existed (they don’t, obviously), would be prime real estate for a vengeful spirit. The asylum is presented as a perfectly legitimate hospital that, through no fault of the administration or its doctors, simply fell out of use not long after it was rather unfortunately lumbered with a bunch of cursed miners.

Similarly, the Washington family’s mountainside retreat manages to feel both fresh and familiar, never crossing the line between thoughtful tribute and hackneyed rip-off.

Of course, it helps that Until Dawn is rendered so beautifully in the Decima Engine. Everything from the filthy cells of the Blackwood sanatorium and the mansion’s romantic, cozy interior, to the snow drifts that blanket the mountainside and the atmospheric lighting that’s both magnificently oppressive and useful for concealing the occasionally awkward facial expressions of the characters are expertly crafted. In fact, in some ways, I wish it wasn’t quite so picturesque; then I might not feel so compelled to keep my eyes glued to the monitor and thus vulnerable to the horror that lurks around every dark corner.

In the two years following Until Dawn’s release, there’s been no word from Supermassive Games or publisher Sony Computer Entertainment of a direct sequel – unless you count on-rails virtual reality shooter Rush of Blood or forthcoming PSVR expansion The Inpatient.

Now, I can’t say I’m overly disappointed. The conclusion was pretty satisfactory after all and doesn’t really need expanding. That being said, I would love to see Supermassive return to the genre in future or another developer, realising the potential of this type of horror game, give it a go instead.

Being able to play out classic scenarios and essentially direct your very own horror movie is, as Until Dawn proved so successfully, extremely satisfying if a little bit terrifying. Anyway, we all enjoy wielding the power of life and death over a bunch of semi-obnoxious teens, right?

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Death Stranding’

What makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year is how it has managed to divide gamers and critics alike.

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Death Stranding

2019 has been a banner year for gaming. With some excellent original properties making their debuts and a ton of great sequels, there’s been something for everyone and a lot of it. Still, with all of these amazing games to play, only one of them stands out as the most important game of 2019, and that’s Death Stranding.

Now, please note, I said “most important” and not “best”. Death Stranding is far from a perfect game. As my own review pointed out, Death Stranding has a lot of problems, and some of them are so egregious that they could be described as anti-fun. However, what makes the game stand out from its peers is the sheer scale and awe-inspiring hubris of its creation.

For the first (and possibly last) time, Hideo Kojima has been given a total carte blanche of creative freedom and financial resources to make whatever game he wanted. With Sony footing the bill, Death Stranding is maybe the most Kojima game ever made. Unfortunately, like some prog rockers and experimental filmmakers, Kojima could have well done with some reigning in this time around.

Death Stranding

Still, what makes Death Stranding stand out so much from the competition is that it really is almost nothing like anything you’ve ever played. The game is basically a delivery sim where you must cross an apocalyptic wasteland of America and battle a bunch of ghosts along the way. What caused America to fall, and where these ghosts came from, is still relatively unclear even after all of the overwrought explanations that punctuate the end of the game.

Of course, Death Stranding isn’t so much concerned with why and how these events came to be as it is with the experience of living in, and dealing with, them. This is the one game you’ll play this year that will balance out self-serious moral and religious philosophy with chucking literal piss bombs at ghosts and chugging Monster energy drinks.

Yes, Death Stranding has all of the classic Kojima staples. From egregious product placement to a never-ending stream of increasingly tragic backstories, all the hits are here.

Death Stranding

However, what makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year isn’t so much its utter weirdness as a AAA title but how it has divided gamers and critics alike. While some have slathered it with never-ending praise and perfect scores, others have labeled it “a very lumpy game” or “damaged goods“.

Few games, especially in the AAA space, are able to elicit such divergent responses from their audience. Fewer still are peppered with major actors like Norman Reedus and Lea Seydoux in painstakingly rendered motion capture. For these reasons and more, Death Stranding will be debated in critical circles for years to come, and if that’s not the mark of a game that stands out, then nothing is.

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Let’s Drink to the Best Indie Games of 2019

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The Best Indie Games of 2019
The Best Indie Games of 2019

The Best Indie Games of the Year

Unlike triple-A studios, independent developers generally have more freedom to experiment and are less likely to sacrifice their pure artistic vision in order to please some corporate wig who has little to no understanding of the medium and only cares about dollars and cents. Indie game developers often take big risks, sometimes inventing new genres and/or innovating in ways that bigger studios could never dream. And despite not having the resources, money and manpower of larger companies, indie developers have proved time and time again that they can rival mainstream games in scope and ambition. Take 2019 for instance; it was arguably a weak year for AAA titles but there were plenty of great indie games released over the past twelve months that kept us busy, and in some cases, these games are far better products than their AAA counterparts.

The list is in alphabetical order since we love them all equally.

****

Afterparty

1: Afterparty

Afterparty, the new game from Night School Studio boasts a clever premise: You play as bashful and skittish Milo and the more assertive and sarcastic Lola who are armed with cynical but funny one-liners and ambidextrous wit. They are best friends and recent college graduates ready to enter the next chapter of their lives, only to their surprise, Milo and Lola have found themselves dead and dispatched to hell. With no recollection of how they got there, they are convinced it was a huge mistake and venture off looking for a way out. As they make their way through the underworld meeting demons and other humans sentenced to live their afterlife in Satan’s backyard, they discover a loophole that can send them back home. As it turns out, the devil is a raging alcoholic, and if they can outdrink the Prince of Darkness, they will get a first-class ticket back to Earth. It might seem easy, but as Milo and Lola quickly learn, nothing comes easy in Hell.

Created in the same vein as Oxenfree, fans of Night School Studio will be happy to find their signature brand of comedy, colorful characters and witty dialogue return in Afterparty. As with OxenfreeAfterparty is a single-player, point and click, dialog-driven experience in which you alternate between Milo and Lola, shifting between their perspectives as they react to various situations that unfold around them. What begins as a frequently funny story about two best friends making it through a night of extensive drinking and awkward conversations with numerous strangers slowly shifts gears to darker territory.

Afterparty serves up a wild plot, a boisterously engaging ensemble, and a sincere exploration of what friendship is.  Night School’s neon-colored vision of Hell is especially great; the game has five main environments, each bursting with imagination and an impressive score by scntfc, the same artist who composed Oxenfree’s soundtrack. All in all, Afterparty is a good time, boasting a terrific plot twist, laugh-out-loud gags, and clever set-pieces. With its punchy dialog and sharp writing, Afterparty comes highly recommended (Ricky D)

Ape Out

2: Ape Out

In Ape Out, Gabe Cuzzillo and his small team have crafted something unique that comes highly recommended. This game is equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, exhilarating, and fun. The sum of its parts is a creation that is all-too-rare in games — something fresh and unlike anything else. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it, and unable to put the controller down in order to give each board ‘just one more try.’ To have that gameplay experience put together with so much artistic flair makes for the kind of experience that is worth killing for. Again and again and again.

Ape Out is a rhythmic pulse of thrust-push-kill fun. Ape Out is the kick drum rolling right into to the snare and a crash just as you crush that guard a hair before he pulls the trigger. Ape Out is blood trailing behind you when you can’t take another shot, then crossing through the green door of freedom and into the jungle beyond at the last moment. (Marty Allen)

Baba Is You

3: Baba Is You

Baba Is You, is a wonderful little puzzle game where the physical rules of the game are the puzzle pieces themselves. In a graphically-simple little world, you push and pull words into phrases, like a miniature programming language, but you’re a weird bunny creature doing the heavy lifting. It’s sort of like The Adventures of Lolo meets Scribblenauts, if you’ll mind the deep-nerd references. The conceit and gameplay are novel, well-executed, and well worth a look for any fan of puzzle games. The mechanic gets a bit less satisfying when the puzzles become more unforgiving about 3/4 into the game, but Baba remains fun and interesting for long enough to be one of the highlights of 2019 thus far. (Marty Allen)

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

4: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Former Castlevania veteran Koji Igarashi returned to his gothic roots this year in order to put the ‘vania’ back into Metroidvania with round two of his phantasmagoric spiritual successor Kickstarter franchise developed by ArtPlay and published by 505 Games, Bloodstained. Rather than following in the vein of classic linear Castlevania like the retro throwback prequel Curse of the Moon had last year, the focus of Ritual of the Night spotlights the exploration and backtracking aspects that the legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had revolutionized during the era of the original PlayStation- only this time in a two and a half dimensional art style reminiscent of the two Castlevania handheld games developed by Igarashi, The Dracula X Chronicles and Mirror of Fate.

Ritual of the Night takes everything audiences loved about the most critically acclaimed Castlevania games and unearths them in a haunting fantasy interpretation of Victorian England during the Industrial Revolution. From a story packed to the brim with vampires, alchemy, and horror to gameplay focused on short-range defensive and offensive positions mixed into room hopping around a massive labyrinth, there is no denying that Ritual of the Night is undebatably the definitive successor to both Symphony of the Night and Order of Ecclesia.

With the slew of fantastic modern-day Metroidvania type games available on the market that seemingly has no production end in sight, Ritual of the Night is a needed addition to a lineup that never seems to give up on originality and is easily one of the most worthwhile games to play right now in the genre on current hardware. The Shardbinder Miriam may not be a member of the Belmont clan or a descendant of Vlad Dracula Ţepeş, but she is without a doubt a hunter worthy of the namesakes. It is definitely the closest thing we will get to Castlevania at this point in time. (Marc Kaliroff)

Cadence of Hyrule

5: Cadence of Hyrule

Cadence of Hyrule feels like it shouldn’t exist. It’s an all-new Zelda game, yet it is fully developed by an indie studio. On top of that, it also serves as a sequel to the 2015 indie hit Crypt of the Necrodancer, featuring all of that game’s signature rhythmic roguelike gameplay combined with elements of a traditional Zelda game like overworld exploration, puzzle-solving, and plenty of items and treasure to discover. Such a combination sounds strange, if not completely bizarre on paper – yet in practice, it’s a toe-tappingly intoxicating mix that can be impossible to put down.

Just like Crypt of the Necrodancer before it, Cadence of Hyrule’s gameplay is fully choreographed according to the beat of its pulsating EDM soundtrack. Yet at the same time, its lush pixelated graphics and traditional world design call back to the most classic entries in the Zelda franchise like A Link to the Past. That’s what makes Cadence remarkable – it takes the unmistakable rhythmic gameplay that made Crypt of the Necrodancer so memorable in the first place and marries it to the very best aspects of classic Zelda. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this better than its soundtrack, which consists entirely of high-octane remixes of iconic Zelda tunes, breathing new life into these legendary melodies through Crypt of the Necrodancer’s signature high-energy electronic style. Cadence of Hyrule is a duet that nobody unexpected, but one that is absolutely worthy of applause. (Campbell Gill)

Creature in the Well

6: Creature in the Well

Creature in the Well is like if a bunch of programmers got together to attempt to mash both Hyper Light Drifter and Breakout together inside a sporadic pinball cabinet. The result is a ridiculously satisfying game that is not only engaging to play by yourself but amusing to just simply watch as every player discovers their own rhythmic beat that can be adapted to their own unique playstyles that will inevitably reach the same end goal. 

Flight School Studio’s newest attempt at mixing two different genres contains constant back and forth action that can either play out as a slow-paced grind or a fast on your feet game filled with bright ricocheting projectiles that are so shiny you will never be able to resist the urge to send them flying. It takes everything you love about the free casual feel-good emotions of playing a standard pinball cabinet and combines it with the satisfaction of completing a full-on adventure game slightly decorated with a coat of role-playing game mechanics.

Creature in the Well oversees the tale of a future distant dystopia where a sandstorm caused by an underground blackout has trapped the City of Mirage. As the final remaining BOT-C Unit, you are tasked with journeying into the depths of the planet to repower the machines that can save the city from its demise. A colossal creature, however, lies in your path and stands as a major threat to your mission. Back in November, I reviewed Creature in the Well calling it “a captivating case of a fresh experiment gone right” and an “absolute must-try for audiences of both the pinball and puzzle game genres.” It is seven sweet hours of pinball with swords masqueraded in a gorgeous dark toon shaded art-style that is incomparable to any other independent title released this year. You could not ask for more than that. (Marc Kaliroff)

Degrees of Separation

7: Degrees of Separation

Co-op puzzle games often leave the lone gamer spending more time swapping than solving, but that’s not the case with Degrees of Separation, a fantastic series of puzzle challenges so skillfully crafted and balanced that whether you opt for playing with a partner or flying solo, this journey through the beautiful lands of a fallen kingdom manages to mix equal parts fire and ice into a wonderfully satisfying experience.

Players take control of Rime and Ember, two star-crossed royals bound to dimensions cloaked in summer and winter; due to mysterious events, they can now see each other, but each occupies the opposing sides of a line that cannot be crossed — a line which separates their elementally different worlds, keeping them just out of arms’ reach. However, manipulating the location of this line allows players to change the environment in order to navigate it. For instance, Rime’s frigid setting allows him to walk atop frozen lakes, while the heat of Ember’s world means that ice turns to water as she approaches, letting her swim below the surface. The nature of the characters gives them access to different parts of each stage, and is crucial in solving puzzles and collecting scarves.

The developers keep things fresh by consistently introducing new wrinkles to this mechanic, and swapping between characters is surprisingly smooth, giving off a satisfying sense of orchestration and flow that rarely gets bogged down in repetition. Add to that some gorgeously colorful visuals, a serene soundtrack, and ongoing narration of the sweet tale by a soft-voiced (and highly perceptive) storyteller, and Degrees of Separation is one of the most addictive puzzle-platformers I’ve played in a while. (Patrick Murphy)

Disco Elysium

8: Disco Elysium

RPGs are a tried and true genre, one that appeals to almost every type of gamer you can imagine and covers a myriad of formats from old school top-down isometric games to full-on 3D action-adventure titles. It’s a genre that runs the gamut, and has become so entrenched that everyone knows exactly what to expect from an RPG these days. Using an absolutely uncanny combination of classical continental existential ennui and horrific Lovecraftian absurdity, Disco Elysium is a game that takes those expectations and dashes them quite expertly.

It features the kind of game world that rarely, if ever, comes to the fore in the modern market. Thanks to a narrative crafted by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, this is a title that presents players with a world that is simultaneously utterly fantastical and immediately recognizable. There’s a brutalist realism to its total aesthetic that is both off-putting and alluring. Players can never be certain whether they’re supposed to be charmed or offended by the game’s unflinchingly honest presentation of the human experience. The spectacularly grim art courtesy of Aleksander Rostov and the down-tempo score from British Sea Power results in a deft combination of savage nihilism and playful romanticism that exudes from every aspect of the game.

More than likely this is not a game that one plays for fun. Rather it’s a game you play for the sheer experience of having engaged with it. I wouldn’t suggest you play it if you’re looking for simple casual distraction, but if you’re looking for something to leave you changed as a gamer and perhaps as a person then I can recommend nothing over than Disco Elysium. (Christopher Underwood)

Far: Lone Sails

9: Far: Lone Sails

FAR: Lone Sails is a 2D side-scrolling adventure about an unnamed, ambiguous child who sets out on an unclear journey through a barren wasteland. It’s a slow, contemplative, and mysterious trek in which you are left to piece together subtle clues as to what has happened. After opening on a somber note with our unnamed avatar paying their respects at a grave, you set out on your adventure, traversing across a world that one can only assume was demolished by war.

The opening few minutes of FAR: Lone Sails feels all too familiar, but it doesn’t take long before the game sets itself apart when introducing your main mode of transport: a giant, jerry-built land yacht that’s driven by a massive engine and a collapsible sail. Climbing on board, you’re presented with the challenge of piloting the large contraption while also finding ways to fuel the machine in order to keep the engine running. What makes FAR: Lone Sails so unique is in how developer Okomotive centers the entire game on the method of travel itself. Said vehicle becomes your companion — a character of sorts — which is ever-growing, ever-changing and always in danger. In order to succeed, you’ll need to protect your vessel while controlling both your protagonist and the land yacht in order to get from point A to point B. Neither you nor the ship could make this journey alone. The journey itself is relentless but beautiful, harrowing but tender. It’s slow to unravel and just as slow to maneuver, but FAR: Lone Sails is also a game full of intrigue since you never know what lies ahead as you travel across the desolate wasteland. The destination remains a mystery, and while it isn’t really important where you’re going, an overwhelming sense of curiosity fuels your desire to keep pushing forward.

FAR: Lone Sails is a masterwork of quiet poetry. It culminates with one of the best endings in all indie games and features stunning landscapes, a brilliant orchestral soundtrack, and just enough downtime to allow players to appreciate the beauty. What at first appeared to be just another indie game riding on the heels of the success of Playdead Studios soon emerged with its own unique voice and identity. (Ricky D)

Horace

10: Horace

Indie games often struggle to straddle the line between homage and rip-off. It’s only natural to want to pay tribute to the greats– those, one-of-a-kind titles that inspire us– but too often games fail to develop an identity as a result. Great games aren’t made in the shadows of what came before. They may look back, either out of respect or seeking guidance, but a great game always goes beyond showing where its inspiration comes from. Horace is a love letter to all things video games, but it never gets lost in homage.

Horace never allows itself to spiral in a sea of references devoid of substance. It tastefully acknowledges that other games exist, all while marching on at its own pace. Horace’s personal center of gravity allows him to platform by walking up or down walls, adding a creative spin on a genre that’s covered quite a bit of ground.

More than just a platformer, however, Horace is an examination of how we connect with video games, laced through one of the most emotionally mature plots in a game this year. Horace plays to its medium, telling a story that could only be told in a video game. One that grabs players by the hands and beckons them to connect with the titular Horace. Horace is a must-play. (Renan Fontes)

Katana Zero

11: Katana Zero

Equally drenched in blood and neon, Katana Zero is a striking action game that thrives on pushing boundaries. Its breathless combat offers intense high-speed action that tests players’ endurance and reflexes without ever feeling unfair. Its pixelated graphics and throwback 80’s aesthetics are crafted with such lush detail that nearly every moment of the game is a stylish treat to behold. But perhaps most importantly, it challenges the idea of what a videogame story can be by offering a level of emotion and interaction that not many other titles have achieved.

Katana Zero puts players in control of a drug-addicted, amnesiac mercenary who attempts to piece together his past while executing assassination missions in a broken post-war world. Told from the mercenary’s distorted, drug-induced point of view, the story straddles the line between hallucination and reality. This gives its story of self-discovery a constant twinge of uncertainty – it forces the player to ask whether each moment is really happening, or whether it’s only the drugs. On top of that, its innovative dialogue system allows for impressive control over the direction of each story beat, letting players choose what to say and when to say it in each interaction. This level of agency and atmosphere unite to create a beguilingly immersive narrative experience, offering possibilities that other games have yet to achieve.

Of course, an action game is nothing without a solid gameplay loop, and Katana Zero fully delivers in this regard with its hectic and hardcore combat. Its one-hit-kill system may feel unnecessarily cruel at first, but instead, it promotes a degree of speed and intensity that makes each room of enemies a thrill to clear out. The combat is extremely polished, with a constantly escalating difficulty curve that maintains the perfect degree of challenge. Take this thrilling gameplay and unforgettable storytelling together, and Katana Zero is easily among the year’s most remarkable independent releases. (Campbell Gill)

Killer Queen Black

12: Killer Queen Black

There is nothing that can truly compare to the bar-room-rattling fun of ten people playing Killer Queen Black in the back of a weird arcade. But short of the real thing, the slightly watered-down version on the Nintendo Switch still does the trick extremely well. In Killer Queen, you are one member of a team of four who is trying to take down the oppositions hive, you play as either a worker, a warrior, or a queen. There are three ways to win at Killer Queen – you can score a military victory and kill the opposing queen three times, an economic victory and fill your hive with berries, or a snail victory by riding the snail into the goal. It’s the latter of the three that somehow sums up Killer Queen’s weird charm. Any path to victory is viable, and you must be on the lookout for all of it, hopefully by yelling at one another and stomping.

Killer Queen’s presentation is excellent and exactly what it needs to be, and the gameplay is perfectly tuned to get a room full of folks on their feet and screaming. Killer Queen is still best played as couch co-op, ideally with the unlikely scenario of seven friends, but the online multiplayer works admirably well. Killer Queen Black is a true gem, and well worth putting together a crew to play it, marking it as one of the best co-op games on a platform that has many wonderful options in that department. Plus, you get to ride a giant snail. (Marty Allen)

Kind Words

13: Kind Words

Kind Words is one of the more unique experiences of 2019. The entirety of it consists of sitting in a small bedroom and either encouraging or venting to strangers on the internet. People write letters detailing their issues, struggles, worries and fears, and these short letters are then shipped out by a quirky deer acting as Kind Words’ postman. Players can then show appreciation for the advice by sending back stickers that can be turned into physical decorations for the room.

On paper this sounds like a disaster waiting to happen; sharing personal and damaging thoughts in a public online forum would typically never be advisable. In execution, however, Popcannibal has been incredibly diligent in moderating hateful/harmful messages and implementing simple user reporting features across the board. What results is a remarkable online space where it actually feels comfortable sharing one’s thoughts. Every problem you can imagine is represented by those seeking, appropriately enough, kind words.

What pushed Kind Words over the edge, though, was when I finally started writing letters myself. Within minutes I received responses offering a wide range of encouragement, descriptions of similar situations others were going through, and unique perspectives I hadn’t considered before. In a strange parallel to Death StrandingKind Words subtly reinforced the notion that we’re not all alone in this crazy, tumultuous world. If you need to vent or just need a spot of kindness in your life, I can’t recommend this game enough. (Brent Middleton)

Muse Dash

14: Muse Dash

Muse Dash doesn’t rely on gameplay innovation like 2018’s Just Shapes & Beats, nor does it attempt to violently shake up the rhythm genre like 2016’s Thumper. This is a comparatively simple two-button rhythm game that perfectly encapsulates the “easy to learn, hard to master” design philosophy. Players choose one of three girls and embark on mini side-scrolling adventures to fend off hordes of minions to the beat. The base game features an absolutely stellar medley of electropop, kawaii bass, drum and bass, and even a few Vocaloid tracks. Though some tunes are inherently more challenging, each song features difficulty options so those who aren’t particularly great at rhythm games can still play through every track and adjust the challenge as needed.

What made Muse Dash really stand out this year, however, was how perfectly it nailed its laser-focused “moe” aesthetic in every facet of its presentation. Its main draw is apparent from the moment it boots up: vibrant art, bursts of color, and oh-so-much anime. This anime aesthetic is everywhere from the animated character selection screen to the beautiful artwork for each song; every stage, enemy, and boss boasts a distinct visual flair. Leaning further into this strength, players can even unlock a wide variety of skins complete with unique animations and skill bonuses.

Muse Dash is what happens when a developer knows exactly what its target demographic is looking for and has the skill to deliver it to them. PeroPeroGames’ deep dedication to aesthetic design paid off in spades, and the result is one the best rhythm games of the year and the best value in games this year. (Brent Middleton)

My Friend Pedro

15: My Friend Pedro

My Friend Pedro is brutal, stylish, and beautifully basic. Beginning life as a flash game back in 2014, it has developed into a full-fledged experience that hearkens back to a simpler time for gaming with its ridiculous premise and ludicrous action. Putting players in control of a silent protagonist who goes on a murder spree at the behest of a sentient, levitating, talking banana named Pedro, it stands out for its outlandish setting and spectacularly over the top gameplay. It’s just as wacky as it’s always been, and best of all, its gameplay has been ripened just enough for it to feel fresher than ever before.

The core concept that made My Friend Pedro so bizarrely wonderful as a flash game is present in full force in this reimagining. Pedro is still the wisecracking potassium-packed partner he was in the first place, although the brutality has been dialed up to eleven thanks to the jump to full 2.5D graphics. Pedro equips you with incredible acrobatic grace, allowing you to pirouette through the air and spin across the floor, all while dishing out balletic death to your opponents. If things get too hectic between the constant lasers, bullets, and disembodied limbs flying across the screen at any moment, then thankfully you have the ability to slow down time to make sense of all this gory debris. Like any good action game or platformer, it constantly doles out new ways to wreak banana-based havoc on the world around you, ensuring that it never lets up on the chaos. There’s not much more to the game than the silliness of its premise and the insanity of its action, but these two facets unite to make My Friend Pedro one of the most notable indies of the year. It’s a refreshing break from the overwhelming complexity that can characterize many modern games – sometimes you just need to blow up some baddies while obeying a talking banana. (Campbell Gill)

New Super Lucky’s Tale

16: New Super Lucky’s Tale

Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire.

Lucky may not be the second coming of Mario, but he feels extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow underground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots and collect each of the four pages secreted about every level.

From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad playtime. The result is a polished, concise, joyful experience that lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero. (Patrick Murphy)

The Outer Wilds

17: The Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds is a very special game. It’s the sort of game or thing to do that you want to tell all of your friends to go and play, but you don’t want to tell them anything about it, because figuring it out is half the fun. Let’s start here: you are a rookie pilot of a rickety spaceship trying to solve a grand mystery. There is no combat, only survival, and survival is not exactly easy. The story unfolds organically, as you discover its pieces – the game is, in essence, an open-world 3-d adventure with platforming elements. It is also witty, strange, and if you can sort of lean into the awkwardness that feels intentionally cooked into piloting and planet traversal, it’s fun. And as you dig in, it is also deeply intriguing and emotionally rewarding. And all of that is vague on purpose.

If that is enough to pique your interest, stop reading and go launch yourself into space. The key spoiler that is revealed pretty quickly into the experience is that Outer Wilds is essentially Groundhog Day in space. The universe you are investigating is about to explode, and you pilot through a smattering of odd and charming locations trying to uncover evidence as to how and why. Every time you die (often not even making it until the final bell of the universe tolls), you come back moments before your first launch and try to discover just a little more. Your ship is rickety, and so are your chances, but you get better at piloting, surviving, and discovery, and the gameplay loop that reveals itself feels like one of the freshest games to be made in years. I implore you: go to space. (Marty Allen)

Pikuniku

18: Pikuniku

Pikuniku is joy. A strange joy, to be fair, but it is a joy, through and through. In Pikuniku, you are gangly little red blob-creature who must make its way through an aggressively colorful world to save the proverbial day. Loosely-speaking, it is a puzzle-platformer, but really it leans more heavily into simply being an adventure game with some light platforming, a few relatively nominal boss battles, and a sprinkling of puzzles. And every minute of it is fun.

What Pikuniku really cashes in on is its boundless charm – the world is colorful and cute-as-heck, but also subtly subversive. A sly conspiracy underpins a lot of shininess, and your little blob-friend is just the beast to rescue this bouncy dystopia from itself. Your journey through forests and mines and valleys, wear an array of silly magic hats, and kick everything that you can find along the way, and, unless you are a hollowed-out husk of sorrow, the unabashed silliness brings a smile to your face. There’s a fun bit of co-op on top that rounds out an altogether delightful adventure that is unlike anything else. (Marty Allen)

Sayonara Wild Hearts

19: Sayonara Wild Hearts

Sayonara Wild Hearts, the latest from the visionaries behind Year Walk, is easily a contender for the best indie game of 2019. What the small development team from Sweden achieved with Sayonara Wild Hearts is honestly, quite remarkable. Advertised as an interactive pop album, Sayonara Wild Hearts sure looks and sounds great but beyond the breathtaking visuals and catchy music, the game is wildly addictive thanks to its everchanging landscapes and simple controls.

I went in expecting a simple rhythm action game but what I didn’t expect is how Sayonara Wild Hearts effortlessly shifts between various genres. To play it feels like the developers took aspects of their favourite arcade games from the 80s and 90s and crammed in as many ideas as they possibly could without ever making the experience seem drawn-out or overwhelming. The end result is a simple sci-fi thrill ride, in terms of action, visuals, and unpretentious fun. It’s a musical arcade experience that combines music and aesthetic to such dizzying effect – and I just can’t get enough! (Ricky D)

Slay the Spire

20: Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire is not only one of the best Indies of the year, but it is also one of the best games of this generation. Don’t let the seemingly run-of-the-mill visuals turn you off, Slay the Spire is as addictive as it is satisfying, and belongs on every self-respecting Switch in the realm.

Slay the Spire is, at its core, a deck-building dungeon crawler with some rogue-like tendencies. You choose from one of three character classes, all of whom boast unique card sets and techniques to accumulate (and obsess over). You do your best to climb up three floors of a merciless tower, and you often die trying. The floors are essentially an assemblage of enemies and other small status-changing rooms, and while no two runs are the same, each floor contains similar monsters and bosses with each run. Within the battles, every move of every enemy is telegraphed completely – from the type of attack and how many hit points it will remove to the type of buff it has on deck. But rather than yielding boredom, this mechanic brings joy at the potential calculations and strategies that unfold. Like any rogue-like worth it’s salt, you do need a bit of luck to reach the top of the titular spire, but as you play more, you get better. Each battle yields the potential to add one of three new cards to your arsenal, all of which unfurl endless and deeper strategies. You will occasionally agonize over these decisions, you will sometimes be filled with regrets, and you will start again immediately, greeted by a sassy giant whale. Add on the accumulation of a litany of stat-altering artifacts, and what rises up is a game that is perfectly tuned for addictive fun. As that addiction sets in, even the seemingly humdrum visuals start to feel more and more charming.

Slay the Spire is clearly a game that was crafted by people who love games, for people who love games, and they nailed it. You will get better, you will make it to the top, and you will want to play again. (Marty Allen)

Untitled Goose Game

21: Untitled Goose Game

An iconic titled game that stemmed from a few inevitable delays- and of course a lack of a proper internal codename. When the goose was finally let loose in September, the internet quickly went quackers for all the right reasons. Untitled Goose Game is one of the most surprising independent successes of the year for all the right reasons. Developer House House’s newest animal craze shows audiences how even a domestic goose can rise up and become one of the most notoriously infamous gaming characters of the year. Playing as an adorable yet irritatingly stubborn bird has never been so questionable yet mesmerizing before then in this minimalistic simulation-type puzzle game.

Untitled Goose Game is a slapstick-stealth-sandbox game that will have you attempt to make the civilians of a local town miserable by carrying out various irritatingly humorous tasks- the only reason why being that it is the goose’s daily routine to retrieve one object being replaced by the townspeople. Whether it is collecting a bell, scaring children into phone booths, or even dropping a rake in the lake, the goose’s agenda is guaranteed to wreak havoc upon his habitat. As you make your way around a local town, you will flop feathers, trot, grab dozens of objects, retreat, and honk your way to victory. Trial and error quickly become a normal playstyle within the English village you reside in. Due to a lack of direction, puzzles require experimentation and creative thought processes in order to find solutions to a list of descriptively named tasks and bonus hidden activities. Messing around with the environment and its structures is heavily advised as there are tons of secrets to discover on your checklist. If you ever wanted to know what the true intentions and feelings of a rabid goose were through a boatload of comedic scenarios, Untitled Goose Game is the perfect dopamine that your brain is looking for. (Marc Kaliroff)

Wargroove

22: Wargroove

Developer Chucklefish Games’ WarGroove is a one to four-player online and local turn-based strategy game inspired by the stream of handheld entries in the genre that helped popularize itself in North America. Game Boy Advance cult classics such as the original Fire Emblem served as a basis to the core inspiration of WarGroove, but most notably the game attempts to live up to the subgenre that the Advance Wars series had created know as “Nintendo Wars”- a series of turn-based strategy games across multiple Nintendo systems that had never truly been replicated by any developer in years despite a strong demand by fans of the series still being present. WarGroove makes an attempt to further modernize the genre in a more streamlined welcoming form that is not only accessible to newcomers but profoundly customizable to longtime veterans.

Objectives and intense skirmishes take priority on the battlefield as you attempt to typically execute two different goals; eliminate all enemies on the horizon or obliterate some type of stronghold. Slowly new mechanics and niches are introduced to each level that will have your strategic moves in the midst of nerve-racking stakes. WarGroove never focuses on a complex or deeply compelling story as gameplay always remains in the spotlight, but that does not mean it can not still introduce notable characters and settings. On top of its gorgeous pixel art that oozes with inspiration from the titles it attempts to revitalize, the game still manages to craft an enthralling world that culturally mixes various different mythologies and historical time periods in its fifteen-hour campaign. To top it off, the ability for players to create their own maps and scenarios will leave you playing hours after the credits roll. It may not be a direct beat for beat adaptation, but WarGroove will easily spark your desire for an Advance Wars series binge after one playthrough. (Marc Kaliroff)

What the Golf?

23: What the Golf?

If you’re not interested in golf, you’ll be happy to learn that What the Golf? isn’t really a golf game. In fact, its Danish creators Triband have gone on record to claim they “know nothing about golf,” and set out to make a golf game “for people who hate golf.”

What at first seems to be a silly interpretation of an old-school videogame about the sport soon unveils itself to be one of the biggest indie surprises of 2019 and one of the most entertaining games of the year. Much like Untitled Goose Game, What the Golf? is all-out silly and it doesn’t take long before players will find themselves completely hooked thanks to the simple mechanics and strange world that often feels like a fever dream. What the Golf? is easily one of the best indie titles of 2019— a polished, enjoyable and hilarious game that was clearly made with a lot of love. (Ricky D)

Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair

24: Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is the redemption story of 2019. The original Yooka-Laylee wasn’t exactly the glorious return of Banjo-Kazooie-style gameplay that it had promised to be, so with this new entry in the fledgling series, the developers made the wise decision to cut back on ambition. Instead of touting fully 3D gameplay like Banjo-Kazooie, The Impossible Lair hearkens back to Rare’s other magnum opus: Donkey Kong Country. This change in direction truly paid off, resulting in a distinctly refined and unique platformer that Zack Rezac’s review for Goomba Stomp called “one of the year’s coolest surprises.”

True to the Donkey Kong Country tradition, Yooka-Laylee offers simple, linear 2D level design that perfectly introduces just enough new ideas to keep things interesting while consistently building upon existing ideas to create a constantly evolving and engaging experience. That doesn’t mean that it’s wholly derivative, however – strikingly enough for a linear 2D platformer, it sets itself apart with its nonlinearity. As the title suggests, the primary task is to infiltrate and overcome the Impossible Lair, and there’s nothing stopping you from infiltrating this lair at any moment in the game after the introduction. However, if you hope to survive, you’ll need to play through its 20 main levels and their alternate forms to gain strength and make the lair possible to complete after all. This dichotomy between linearity and nonlinearity represents the balance between traditional gameplay and subtle innovations that makes Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair such a charming title. Its ambitions aren’t quite as lofty as its predecessor, but its more focused approach allowed it to become one of the standout indie titles of the year. (Campbell Gill)

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Pokémon Go’

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Most important Games of the Decade Pokemon Go

Join us all month as our staff looks back at the most influential games of the past decade. This is not a list of our favourite games but rather a look back at the games that left the biggest impact in the last ten years on an artistic and cultural level. After careful consideration, we narrowed it down to ten games that have most defined, influenced and shaped the industry as we know it.

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Three years and over $3 billion on from its 2016 debut, Pokémon Go is still reigning champion for mobile games downloads and revenue. The world’s highest-grossing media franchise grafted onto a micro-transaction model cascades money? Shocking.

Becoming a behemoth wasn’t always guaranteed, however. Preceding attempts to break into the mobile market like Pokémon: Magikarp Jump or Shuffle had limited success. It was the 2014 April Fools’ Day collaboration between Google, The Pokémon Company, and primary developers Niantic, that proved there was a market for such a game.

Pokémon Go immediately struck a chord with players, and was the biggest boon to the franchise during its twentieth anniversary; Pokémon was popular again in a way it had not been since the late 90s. It was as close a manifestation of childhood dreams of capturing Pokémon in the real world as possible. Arriving a full generation on from those initial Pokémon fans, this was a pocket-sized experience perfect for reliving memories and sharing them with younger generations, even their own children.

But Pokémon Go consumed everyone. Famously, a Taiwanese grandfather had twenty-odd mobile phones simultaneously running the game he cycled around. There’s an argument to be made that Pokémon Go is one of the most constructive games to be released this decade, on the simple strength of how many people were and are encouraged to exercise and interact because of it.

Pokemon Go Grandpa Bike

In terms of game design, Pokémon Go actually has a mechanics that would make the franchise frankly better overall. For example, reducing the number of infernal hidden Individual Values that determine the genetic strength is simple but significant change to make the games more approachable, and people more likely to appreciate their imperfect partners. Go has also iterated from the limited state of its initial release, progressively adding more elements. Moreover, the genuine mystery surrounding the Meltan reveal via the application led to the sort of vague playground rumours that internet leaks and accessibility of information previously killed. In events like these, Pokémon Go brought back the social excitement that had long diminished for many people.

Every colossus casts a shadow, however, and Pokémon Go is no exception. In making a fortune, it has significantly redirected The Pokémon Company’s focus towards capitalising on the mobile market audience. Not so much Pokémon Let’s Go Eevee and Pikachu, which despite the initial uproar, are light nostalgic trips through Kanto made with care. Rather, Pokémon Go’s birth led to the death of interesting console spinoff games, which made a fraction of the income. Since Pokémon Go’s domination, the only significant spinoff game has been Pokémon Masters, another mobile game.

This doesn’t tarnish the overall positive impact of Pokémon Go, however, especially as a reflection of ethos of Satoru Iwata, former Nintendo president and chief executive officer, who helped lay the groundwork before he passed away. Satoru’s contributions to gaming in his rise to prominence are legendary, but especially his role in Pokémon: he was personally responsible for compressing Pokémon Gold and Silver’s data by half so that the Kanto region could be added in and singlehandedly implemented the battle system for the 3D Pokémon Stadium in a single week by studying the 2D games’ code.

Pokémon Go continues Iwata’s approach not dividing the gaming market into sects; his belief was that anyone could be a gamer. It’s a fitting sentiment for Pokémon—after all, anyone can become a trainer. With Pokémon Go, every trainer, young or all small, could share in a truly communal experience. They rediscovered the joy of training together.

– Declan Biswas-Hughes

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