2017 was a fantastic year to be an indie gamer. It seems like there was something for every kind of gamer out there, from gamers who are really into the RTS genre to those who just want to chill and play the worries of the world away. The year was also a huge boost to indie developers with the release of the Nintendo Switch which brought a new breath of life into indie gaming with the consoles concepts of either on the go gaming or hooking up your system to a bigger screen.
This year, in particular, it’s worth noting that the smaller games managed to leave as strong of an impression as some AAA titles and were created by small teams who just so happened to capture the attention of a large audience.
Below, Goomba Stomps indie fanatics put together a top 20 list of worthwhile games from 2017.
20: Tooth and Tail:
Developer(s) Pocketwatch Games
Publisher(s) Pocketwatch Games
Release: September 12th, 2017
Genre(s) Casual, Strategy
It goes without saying the RTS genre has hit somewhat of a dry spell in the past few years. While Spellforce 3 is a notable new entry to the RTS library, Pocketwatch Games’ Tooth and Tail is more akin to the classics like Age of Empires and Rise of Nations. Set during the Russian revolution, the player must take control of the animal versions of the proletariat, bourgeois, religiously fanatical, and government obsessed factions of the highly toxic period in human history. Squirrels are Bandelier sporting drunks, skunks deliver deadly doses of chemical weapons, and owls bombard the battlefield with their decaying remains of their enemies. It all sounds very disturbing and grotesque, but the beautiful 16-bit art style and humorous dialogue make it an enjoyable experience.
Tooth and Tail isn’t like a traditional RTS. Bases are built on pre-existing structures and can be won and lost in an instant. A match between two players can take as little as five minutes, or drag on for two hours, depending on the opponent’s playstyle. This makes Tooth and Tail an addictive experience that, while challenging, offers an immense amount of satisfaction. Multiplayer is where the game truly shines, as the single player has little to offer. The story is there but doesn’t really endear the player to any of the characters. Each faction is decidedly unique, which is a positive, but none of them are easy to get attached to. The choice to portray the Russian Revolution with animals is superb though, as they fight not for a new form of government but rather the right to eat each other. It’s this morbid sense of humor, along with easy to learn controls and rapid gameplay, that tie all of Tooth and Tail together, making it a memorable experience and a damn solid RTS. (Carston Carasella)
19: Code 7
Developer(s) Goodwolf Studio
Publisher(s) Goodwolf Studio
Release: August 11th, 2017
If you are part of the younger generation, you might not remember what it’s like to play a video game without a mouse or a controller. For those who grew up in the MS-DOS days, many remember keyboard-only games quite vividly. Code 7 is not a game that is nostalgic for the 80s and 90s, but this indie hacking adventure does rely on the full use of a keyboard, bringing the old-school feel to a next-gen text adventure.
Code 7, developed by published by German-based studio Good Wolf Games, started as a one-week prototype during the Master Studies at the Cologne Game Lab in 2015. Since then, the game has grown into an episodic adventure that saw the release of its first official episode in August 2017. Players take on the role of Alex and, with the help of hacking partner-in-crime, Sam, will attempt to escape a space station while uncovering all the sinister secrets it hides within.
The basic mechanics involve typing commands directly into the computer screen or selecting dialogue options through a numbering system. A complete lack of use of the mouse makes the hacking moments quite immersive. Code 7 is also fully-voiced with super realistic dialogue delivered by a cast of incredible actors—one of the smaller indie games to fly somewhat under the radar this year, but by no means is it one that should be overlooked. With a few episodes yet to be released, Code 7 will have plenty more excitement to offer in the New Year. (Joanna Nelius)
Developer(s) Runic Games
Publisher(s) Runic Games
Release: September 26th, 2017
Genre(s) Action, Adventure
It’s not an easy thing to tell a compelling story completely through visuals. Game developers must be on-point with what and how they communicate, trusting players to connect the dots. In a world that can be described as a futuristic ancient civilization, Hob does just that with interesting characters, personified landscapes, and an ethereal soundtrack to create one of the most memorable gaming experiences of 2017.
From the get-go, Runic Games wanted Hob to be about exploration, not collection and upgrades. They fully accomplished what they set out to do by utilizing subtleties in their visuals, whether world-related or camera angle-related. Along with a stripped UI, camera angles communicated objectives: where to travel next. Other tiny visual elements quietly inserted familiar characters related to the main character, which made a big impact on the story. The combat was simple, featuring unlockable skills that grew in complexity, but nothing to overshadow the exploratory, open-world focus.
Hob also marked a bittersweet end to Runic Games as, not too long after its release, the studio announced they were shutting their doors. While there won’t be any more games from Runic as a company, we’ll continue to see more great work from the sound designers, artists, and others who turned Hob into the amazing game that it is—and if any company is going to go out with a bang, Runic went out with a loud one. (Joanna Nelius)
17: Last Day of June
Publisher(s) 505 Games
Release: August 31st, 2017
Over the last several years, many game developers have shifted toward creating emotional and enriching narrative experiences that hold their own against long-standing, traditional media. Last Day of June from Ovosonico is one of those games. An interactive, puzzle-adventure about love and loss, the game reaches into the very depths of the human soul, trudging up our own pain and healing journeys along with it.
Playing as Carl, Last Day of June gives players the ability to travel back in time in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past to create a better present. It’s a strong, philosophical take on the stages of grief that requires the player to abandon a classic video game strategy mindset and learn to understand the story. It’s in the story where answers to puzzles are found, the how to the why—the meaning of life. The juxtaposing, soothing visuals are June’s paintings, which are also environmental puzzles in which players reenact actions of June’s last day on this mortal coil. It’s Carl’s job to re-order the past to prevent June’s death.
And if the story feels repetitive with traveling back in time to find the perfect sequence of events, it’s because that is what grieving individuals often do: repeat the same or different scenarios over and over again as if to help alleviate their guilt or change what happened. Bring your Kleenex; Last Day of June wants you to feel what it means to be human. (Joanna Nelius)
16: Cosmic Star Heroine
Developer(s) Zeboyd Games
Publisher(s) Zeboyd Games
Release: April 11th, 2017
Despite contrary belief, there is not a shortage of JRPGs on the market. Type any word into the search bar on steam and there a guaranteed to be three or four cheap RPGmaker games that pop up in the results. These tend to range from quietly decent to offensively terrible. The JRPG market isn’t gone, it’s just oversaturated with garbage. Cosmic Star Heroine puts up quite a few of these telltale red flags. American made – just means you’re taking the J out of JRPG. “Inspired by Chrono Trigger”? Sure, honey, they all are. Against all odds though, the game just works. The developer, Zeyboyd Games, has been quietly making great games that subvert and celebrate JRPG tropes since the days of the Xbox Live Arcade. They’ve mostly stuck with crafting comedic games, with titles like “Cthulhu Saves the World” and “Breath of Death VII: The Beginning” (Note that Breath of Death one through six do not exist), but this time they’ve tried to make something on a bigger scale, listing inspiration from not just the classics, but from modern giants like Mass Effect.
So what sets this apart? It doesn’t waste your time.
The biggest JRPG flaw, one no one can ever seem to get right, is that sometimes you just get bored. The game flow usually goes like “enter dungeon, random encounter, press A until you win, walk a bit, random encounter” on and on for 40 hours. Cosmic Star Heroine takes about 15 hours. It doesn’t feel unnecessarily padded, and the battle system focuses more on strategy and less on hoping your numbers are bigger than the bad guy’s numbers. Every battle makes you think, and every town on each of the planets is visually distinct. It shakes up a genre that can sometimes feel lackadaisical and plodding and gives it a shot of adrenaline in the arm. It’s not perfect – no JRPG outside of Chrono Trigger itself is – but it manages to do the unthinkable and shake up a genre that everyone likes to say is dead. Cosmic Star Heroine is living breathing proof that there may never be a shortage of new ideas, especially when inspired by ideas of the past. (Katrina Lind)
Release: August 1st, 2017
Tacoma is the follow up to Gone Home, a game developed by the Portland, Oregon based company Fulbright, hence all the Pacific Northwest allusions in both games. Gone Home was considered a breakthrough in narrative-based indie games, by having the player piece together the plot by exploring their surroundings. Tacoma follows this same narrative structure, by dropping the player on the station Tacoma and having them explore and watch their surroundings to figure out the story at their own pace.
It’s hard not to think of Tacoma as a game or even a narrative piece, but the truth is that Tacoma is an interactive experience. It might not reward you in the same ways as other games, or books, or even plays. It’s a different kind of medium, where you get out of it what you put into it. I say play Tacoma, it might not tickle you in the same way it does me, but if you enjoy Sci-Fi and digging through people’s personal lives, you’ll dig ‘Tacoma’. (Katrina Lind)
14: Little Nightmares
Developer(s) Tarsier Studios
Publisher(s) Bandai Namco
Release: April 27th, 2017
Alone in the spotlight of a darkened stage, you are never far from the reach of a puppet’s grasp or the salivating mouths of monsters. Following the story of a child named Six, Little Nightmares stood out this year as a horror puzzle game with a setting that drips with the dark and unexplained, yet even more tantalizing is how Tarsier Studios tease their horror from the untrodden theme of gluttony. Whether fleeing the edge of a butcher’s knife, the sausage-swollen hands of The Maw’s gargantuan clientele or suppressing the groans of your own shrunken stomach, Tarsier Studios are playing with original ideas supported by brilliant execution from the game’s tense atmosphere and Tim Burton-esque art style. If it is let down by anything it is in the refinement of Little Nightmares’ platforming and stealth sequences, yet with more stories to come from The Maw and more gruesome tales to explore it feels like Tarsier Studios are just getting started with this series, and on the merit of its story alone the game falls amongst the most interesting narratives of the year. Little Nightmares is a short game, yet so disturbingly sweet. (Helen Jones)
13: The Long Dark
Developer(s) Hinterland Studio Inc
Publisher(s) Hinterland Studio Inc
Release: August 1st, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, Simulation, Strategy
One of the common approaches to the “survival” genre is to develop different systems and mechanics that simulate reality. While not a bad approach by any means, it’s not the only one. The Long Dark opts instead for a metaphorical representation of survival. While you still have to manage resources and defend yourself from the harsh wilderness, the game doesn’t require a huge amount of multi-tasking or micromanagement.
The arcadey nature of the survival gameplay allows for the player to take in the environment. A lot of open survival games treat the environment as your enemy. While your surroundings are still a threat in The Long Dark‘, they’re also hauntingly gorgeous. The chill wind breezing past you, the crack of a branch in the distance, the sweeping mountaintop vistas: ‘The Long Dark’ emphasizes a sensory experience that captures nature’s duality. (Kyle Rogacion)
Publisher(s) Head Up Games
Release: April 7th, 2017
Genre(s) Casual, Strategy
With today’s focus on high fidelity graphics, it can be easy to forget that strong gameplay is what separates a decent game from a stellar one. Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is easily one of the best platformers this year. The game’s striking 3-color art style isn’t just unique—it’s also ingrained into the mechanics. White surfaces are neutral, green surfaces can be phased through, and red surfaces mean instant death. Though this may seem simple enough at first, each of the game’s 400 rooms (800 for the New Game+ masochists) find new ways to switch up the mechanics and give players a consistent challenge. Just like any great platformer, Slime-San manages to masterfully tread the line between tough and unfair; each level is designed so well that deaths are never a question of unfairness.
In terms of story, the game follows a little slime and his bird pal as they randomly get swallowed whole by a giant worm. Separated from their families and friends, the duo spends the game traversing their way back through the worm to its mouth to escape. Though the premise is inconsequential, it’s the way that it’s told that makes players care about the two friends. Fabraz has taken the time to create an interesting world both inside and outside of the worm, complete with a colorful cast of characters and a few extra environments that go a long way in adding personality to an otherwise straightforward experience. If you like challenging platformers that constantly introduce new mechanics (and manage to have a bit of heart along the way), you can’t go wrong with Slime-San. (Brent Middleton)
11: A Hat in Time
Developer(s) Gears for Breakfast
Publisher(s) Gears for Breakfast
Release: October 5th, 2017
A Hat in Time is the Kickstarter darling of Gears for Breakfast. It’s a modern 3D platformer with retro vibes that pulls and refines ideas from across all genres. There’s an island stage that feels like it’s straight out of Wind Waker, a survival horror stage that pulls concepts from classics like Resident Evil, and even a stage that turns into a ridiculous Metal Gear inspired parody, complete with avoiding soldiers watching slideshow presentations and sneaking sections. A Hat in Time makes all of these stages cohesive thought, there’s never a sense of genre whiplash, and each level feels like a shiny new toy box to explore. (Taylor Smith)
Developer(s) Bloober Team USA
Release: September 12th, 2017
With cyberpunk re-entering the mainstream, Bloober Team did their homework and captured the signature grittiness of William Gibson, the twisted futurism of Philip K. Kick and, of course, paid homage to one of the most iconic tech-noir films with casting Rutger Hauer as the lead character in Observer. (That film is Blade Runner in case the name slipped your memory.)
The year is 2084. Poland. Those not killed off by the lethal Nanophage virus have turned to drugs, virtual reality, and cybernetic implants—anything to distract them from life in The Stacks. And then there’s Dan Lazarski, an elite neural detective known as an Observer who can literally hack into people’s minds and sort through their memories to gather evidence. He’s also enhanced to the brim with other cybernetic devices, like Electromagnetic Vision, which scans for electronic devices, and Bio Vision, which scans biological evidence such as blood and can read DNA in seconds.
The crux of the story sends players on a long, nail-biting mission to find clues to the whereabouts of Lazarski’s son, whom he has been estranged from for many years. Observer is particularly masterful at creating an immersive environment. Each character players can interact with behind their locked, apartment doors are crucial to building the wonderfully decrepit, future world. Each computer holds information the Stacks’ tenants and reveals a world where people are classified into categories by the mega-corporation that controls their lives.
Packing in a couple of Layers of Fear-reminiscent scares, Observer is much more than a game; it’s a modern gateway to the greatest cyberpunk authors to come out of the 80s and holds its own next to them. (Joanna Nelius)
Developer(s) Supergiant Games
Publisher(s) Supergiant Games
Release: July 25th, 2017
Genre(s) Action, RPG
From the makers of Bastion and Transistor, Pyre pushed the boundaries of gaming genres this year by mixing two totally alien styles into a shockingly cohesive whole. Sports gameplay and visual novel style storytelling are thrust together in Pyre in a wildly experimental move: one which is not only distinctly different from Supergiant’s previous games, yet which also dismantles sports gaming’s traditional focus on min-maxing stats and micromanaging your way to the top.
Pyre‘s lore-heavy world at first seems like a contradiction to its sports teams and roster-run gameplay, yet both the slow storytelling and the fast-paced matches beautifully tie together with Supergiant’s talents for world-building and quick, strategic gameplay which demands you to mix and match your approach. Coupled with a breath-taking art-style and yet another outstanding soundtrack from Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett, Pyre feels incredibly natural despite its unlikely origins.The wild highs and cruel consequences of sport come together with Pyre‘s compelling cast of characters to make each decision a torment. As outcasts, teammates, and heroes, the bonds you forge with Pyre’s characters make the game come alive and force you to play each match with heart in hand. The speed and challenge of Pyre’s ritual sport feel satisfying, but the game’s best move is that it forces you to change your playstyle and switch up your roster as an integral part of its story.
There are no good run/bad run options in Pyre, and just as the game gives you permission to fail it also puts the pressure on each decision you make in the heat of a match or as you say your last farewell to a close friend. Your future may be written in the stars, but Pyre reminds you at every turn that you’ll never know which path will give your friends their best chance at happiness, or to give the home you once knew a second chance at salvation. This is exactly how interactive narratives ought to be. Pyre is a powerful, stunning game that challenges assumptions about game difficulty and the price of failure. It’s one you need to experience first-hand. (Helen Jones)
Developer(s) Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher(s) Thunder Lotus Games
Release: July 28th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, Action
Sundered came to me at a time when I needed it most. Fed up with games that followed a similar pattern and the monotony of games coming out in mid-2017, Sundered was a bright light in the darkness. I’ve always been a fan of both metroidvanias and difficult games, and this title from Thunder Lotus scratches both inches perfectly. It combines Lovecraftian elements with classic sci-fi to amazing effect, telling a tale that’s both dazzling and terrifying at the same time. The story of Ashe and her desperate quest to save her tribe from extinction is compelling, and the lengths she’ll go to secure their safety at the cost of her humanity are engaging to partake in. While there is no understandable spoken dialogue, the in-game text given by the demonic spirit that assists Ashe helps provide depth and understanding to the world they live in. It’s a game that made me reevaluate just how far indie games have come in the last decade and made me appreciate the hard work a small studio can put into a game like this.
What makes Sundered so special is not simply one thing, but rather a myriad of enjoyable mechanics that meld together into a fantastic game. Movement and combat are precise and fluid, and the leveling system is rewarding and addictive at the same time. Enemies can appear seemingly out of thin air, swarming over an absent-minded player with ease, and the variety put into each of the three main areas in breathtaking to behold. This is further heightened by the random environments generated after each death, making no two run-throughs the same. There are enough secrets and additional objectives to keep any completionist busy for weeks on end, and the three vastly different endings that can be acquired demand subsequent playthroughs. Sundered got everything right for me and just might be my favorite game of 2017. (Carston Carasella)
7: Golf Story
Developer(s) Sidebar Games
Publisher(s) Sidebar Games
Release: September 28th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, RPG, Sports
Australian developer Sidebar Games gave us one of the most enjoyable indie games released this year. The Nintendo Switch exclusive Golf Story quietly crept out on the eShop with barely any marketing push behind it and yet it managed to capture the hearts of almost the entire Goomba Stomp team who spent countless hours not only playing the game but explaining the rules of golf to those of us who have never played the sport in real life. In all honesty, this adorable RPG disguised as a golf game continually surprised us with the odd situations we were thrown into, whether it was solving a murder mystery, chasing a werewolf, battling zombies, digging up dinosaur bones, stealing from bandits and even playing a Pac-Man-like mini-game. Golf Story features solid mechanics, consistently sharp writing, expressive and lively characters and a touching story about a boy desperately trying to fulfill a lifetime dream in memory of his father. Here’s a game that has successfully captured the trappings of yesteryear’s RPGs, yet it ends up feeling fresh, and one of a kind. As sports games go (regardless of the sport), this one turns in a respectable showing, injecting some intelligence and witty humour into a story that easily could have succumbed to a flood of ‘struggling underdog’ clichés. As for its RPG roots, Golf Story is an eminently likable game, full of eminently likable characters and a leveling system that works for gamers of any handicap. Golf Story is well worth the addition to every Switch owner’s library. Its zany cast, catchy tunes, gorgeous sprites, inside jokes and easy-to-grasp gameplay make for an incredibly enjoyable time. (Rick Da Conceicao)
6: Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice
Developer(s) Ninja Theory
Publisher(s) Ninja Theory
Release: August 8th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, Action
If nothing else, Hellblade has changed the way we discuss the difference between independent games and AAA titles. The developer, Ninja Theory, has themselves stated that it is a cross between the two; an “independent AAA”, and released the title in a middle ground pricing to match.
To simply discuss the industry effects of Hellblade, however, is to do the game itself a disservice. It deals with themes not often seen in other works – grief, loss and mental illness. It does so not only through narrative and classic storytelling techniques but through how it plays as well. Ninja Theory manages to capture something that video games need to more fully embrace – immersing the player in a character different than them. The player experiences the horrific, frightening world through someone else’s eyes, and then processes that information as though it was someone else’s brain. This immersion is further improved by the lack of HUD or pop-style tutorials. This further blurs the separation between game and gamer, further engulfing you into the mind of a tortured young woman. What this develops is empathy for your character, a bond unlike most seen in games. Hellblade may be the best current example of video games as art, and while it might not always be fun in the classic sense, it’s importance to the medium of gaming cannot be overstated. (Katrina Lind)
5: Night in the Woods
Developer(s) Infinite fall
Release: February 2017
Night in the Woods is the new great American novel as told by an anthropomorphic cat. You should know after reading that sentence whether or not it’s something you would enjoy.
The fundamental irony of the game – one that probably every review points out – is how human it is. While the game goes to some deep and sometimes frightening places, most of your time is just spent figuring out if you want to hang out with your alligator friend or your Fox friend. It’s also quintessentially a game about millennials, thematically rich with the angst that comes from growing up in small-town America. In many ways, that’s all you can say about Night in the Woods without spoiling it too much. The game is about simply inhabiting this town that is both fantastical, beautifully animated, and depressingly familiar. For some people, this will amount to boredom as they wander aimlessly and wonder when the game will “pick up.” But for others, this quiet and quirky experience will be one they’ll never forget. (Katrina Lind)
4: Doki Doki Literature Club!
Developer(s) Team Salvato
Publisher(s) Team Salvato
Release: September 22nd, 2017
Doki Doki Literature Club is one of those rare pieces of meta-media where it stands firmly on its own merits. At first glance, DDLC seems like any other cutesy anime game. But still, waters run deep. Dan Salvato, the lead developer behind the game, has a love-hate relationship with the anime world. DDLC manifests that dichotomy as a slow descent into madness, wrapped in a cleverly deceptive cover.
The game is fairly standard visual novel fare: you meet characters, you click through dialogue, and you make choices that affect how the narrative progresses. Where DDLC sets itself apart is how it presents its story and mechanics. The game starts out innocuous enough: typical high-school slice-of-life romcom.
To say anything further would ruin the experience. Whether or not you like anime, this game is worth playing. (Kyle Ragocion)
3: Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Developer(s) Deck Nine
Publisher(s) Square Enix
Release: August 31st, 2017
Genre(s) Action, Adventure
Before the Storm is a prequel, taking place a couple of years before the story of the hit “indie” darling Life is Strange. This time around you play as Chloe Price, who was the rebellious sidekick to the protagonist, Max, in the first game. The central plot of this short series is mainly about Chloe growing into her skin two years after her father’s death while exploring her budding relationship with the most popular girl in school, Rachel Amber. On the surface, it’s a tale about teenage angst, punk rock, and rampant vandalism, but the deeper you delve into the story, it’s a treasure trove of literary and pop culture allusions that are so carefully chosen that it ends up plunging the teenage drama into a fully realized work about depression and loneliness. (Katrina Lind)
Developer(s) Studio HDMR Entertainment Inc.
Publisher(s) Studio HDMR Entertainment Inc.
Release: September 29th, 2017
You’ve seen Cuphead. It’s been an E3 staple for years, generating buzz based on the art alone – styled after a Max Fleischer cartoon from the 1930s. Everyone else got excited by how pretty it was, but you knew better. “It’s gonna be all flash and no substance” you said, sneering, “no game stuck in development hell for that long could end up being good.” Years passed, Cuphead continued not to be released, and you chuckled to yourself, proud that you didn’t get on board the hype train. Then, against all odds, the game finally came out and proved you wrong.
Cuphead is an amazing achievement on so many aesthetic levels, which makes it easy to forget there’s a great game buried in there. Just as the art direction borrows elements from bygone works, the gameplay borrows from a fading genre – the run n’ gun. Cuphead explicitly recalls Contra, Mega Man and Gunstar Heroes in its gameplay, and makes subtle nods to everything from Street Fighter during the Ribby and Croak Boss, to a musical reference to the athletic theme from Super Mario World. The game riffs on classic animation and classic games to make something familiar – and this warmth is essential to keep you from feeling too beaten down by its brutal difficulty. All this adds up to make something you can never quite get tired of playing – It’s always a pleasure to look at, and there’s nothing quite saying “one more try” over and over until you hear the most beautiful thing in the game: “A KNOCKOUT!”
Against all odds, Cuphead is finally here – proclaiming itself to be a knockout loudly and correctly. (Katrina Lind)
1: What Remains of Edith Finch
Developer(s) Giant Sparrow
Publisher(s) Annapurna Interactive
Release: April 24th, 2017
While the initial trailer for What Remains of Edith Finch certainly stirred up some buzz, gamers could be forgiven for wondering what would set this walking simulator apart from the pile of them which had been released over the past few years.
As it turned out though, what set it apart was quite a lot. You see What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t just a walking simulator, it’s the next stage of evolution for the genre itself. It’s a flying simulator, a swinging simulator and an honest to god sea monster-writhing simulator.
It’s a game that asks you to do a mundane task with one hand while focusing on a much more interesting one with the other hand. It’s a game that sends you through a dozen interconnected slices of life in a house too magical to ever really exist. And ultimately, it’s a tragic tale of a family that seems to be cursed by the fates themselves to face one unfortunate mishap after another.
More than any other game on this list, What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that I would recommend to absolutely everyone. With its low asking price, short running time, and lasting emotional impact, this is a game that deserves to be experienced by any gamer who is at all serious about this medium as a means for artistic expression. (Mike Worby)
If 2017 taught us anything about the video games market, it’s that indie games have moved on from being a niche genre for a few gamers to compete with AAA titles. It’s probably the reason why we’re seeing a shift in the landscape, with gamers flocking to the PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Steam Early Access to purchase these hidden gems. If next year follows these trends, then we are looking a bright and over-stocked future for indie gamers.
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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