I did this last year and had a pretty good time doing a write-up for each game I finished. I have a huge backlog, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger as time goes on. Last summer I wanted to try to weed out that list as much as possible. I had games that I’d left half unfinished, games I knew I would be buying and beating ASAP, multiple platforms to manage, and of course Humble Bundle and Steam Sales don’t help keep my list short. This year, I just kinda played games and ended up with a lot of them in the done pile. Surprisingly, I think I did a good job of staying focused and finishing as many games as I could. I finished a number of games that I had been playing for awhile, and started and finished a number of games that I bought and beat in a matter of days and weeks. Hopefully, you’ll find something in here you didn’t know about so I can make your list a little bit longer. Let’s take a look at this year’s entries:
Half Life 2: Episode 2 (PC)
I hadn’t played Half-Life 2 until a few years ago and had an absolute blast with the level design and gameplay. The story execution wasn’t quite up to snuff, and there were some mechanics that haven’t aged very well, but it’s a game from 2004 so I won’t be that harsh. Episode 2 had more HL2 in a nice concise little package while it continued to introduce new mechanics to keep things fresh. The strider invasion while difficult, was actually really fun and intense. Story stuff happened, it was just a good time. Now I want HL3 as much as everyone else. “Don’t Stop, Believing!!!!!”
Cave Story (3DS)
I started this game right before a trip to Florida last year and played a good portion on the plane before I got stuc. I got the vanilla version on 3DS and had a blast playing it. It’s an action based metroidvania with a heavy emphasis on story. In particular, the story was interesting and different from what I expected. The gameplay was extremely unique (Jetpack Joyride probably stole their whole game idea from this for their endless runner) and the weapon system was super cool. Basically as you kill enemies they drop points you use to temporarily upgrade your weapons. You lose those points when you take damage though, so it’s a good combination of avoiding and entering combat based on the current risk reward ratio. What’s more, just one guy did this all by himself which is just the coolest thing ever. I’m sad that I didn’t do all the stuff for the secret ending, but I’m sure one day I’ll come back and play it again. I’ll say this for a lot of games on this list, but if you’ve never played this one before then give it a shot. It’s even free on PC.
Affordable Space Adventures (Wii U)
I found this game in the latest Nindie Humble Bundle. It’s one of the most inventive uses of the gamepad i’ve seen. You try to navigate a space ship through an uncharted dangerous Alien planet with the gamepad screen as your control panel for the ship. It’s mostly a puzzle game, but it manages to mix it up with tight controls, gorgeous lighting and a really fun teamwork system. In order to make the game more intersting, you can split off the steering and the ‘weapons’ to two other player. I had a blast playing it with my brother and my best friend over the course of a few evenings. We beat it pretty quick, but we had so much fun working together, coordinating different actions and roles. I’d love to try and beat it again with a different set of people and try a different role for myself. While I’m sure you could play it by yourself, it’s supremely more fun with other people. Since it’s not that long, you could even do it over the course of one or two evenings if you had the right group.
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood (PC)
Did you like Wolfenstein: The New Order? Then you’ll like this. If you haven’t played TNO, then go do that instead. This on the other had is basically just more Wolfenstein but in WWII instead of the alternate future. They shooting still works great, and they encourage you to use stealth where you can. Also, they added zombies. Also, when you kill the Nazis they come back as zombies. That was annoying. And the last boss was super dumb too. But the pipe is AWESOME!!!! Using it to climb walls just felt so visceral and tactile. I liked Wolfenstein TNO (like... a lot), so this was pretty fun too.
The Wolf Among Us (PC)
Two wolves in one summer? I like me some danger. If you’re looking at this picture and wondering what the heck you’re looking at, then let me explain. Wolf Among Us is a Telltale adventure game based on the ‘Fable’ comic book line. I’ve never read the Fable comics, but this game made me want to. The Wolf Among Us is the story of Bigby Wolf’s (Big Bad Wolf) investigation into the murder of local fairy tales. The dirty, grimy New York City crossed with Fairy Tales was a perfect contrast and a great setting for a detective game like this. I love Telltale Adventure games and they always manage to deliver a fantastic story experience. It really felt like a pulp detective novel and the purple neon lighting everywhere really added to the stylistic ambiance of the world around you. The Fables world itself is incredibly unique and inventive, but it’s not exactly original to the game itself. Like all telltale games, your choices don’t really seem to matter that much in the end, and the combat is just a series of quicktime events. I kinda wonder if they’ll ever do a sequel, but I have a feeling that you can only cram in so much story as a prequel to the comics before it gets derivative and predictable.
FE Fates: Birthright (3DS)
Let’s get this straight, I LOVED FE: Conquest. I thought the story was pretty good, the gameplay was the most balanced in years and the level design was intelligent and exciting. See that here. Birthright gets rid of the intense level restrictions and add lots of waifus. The story is boring and predictable, though the bit of tragedy they added helped to alleviate some of my grievances with the otherwise happy-go-lucky nature of the game. It was just a slog to get through and made me sad that they hadn’t put more effort into it. If you like the more mindless, grindy aspects of Fire Emblem: Awakening or you’re new to the series then this game is perfectly fine. It just doesn’t feel very creative overall.
Mark of the Ninja (PC)
A side-scrolling stealth platformer that came out years ago. For whatever reason, I wasn’t really a fan of this game. It was a well-executed stealth game, but I could never play it for any long length of time. I quickly tired of seemingly repetitive encounters with very little variety and controls that felt imprecise. The story wasn’t particularly interesting, though the ending was pretty clever and solved a little ludo-narrative dissonance which was cool. The gadgets and devices never felt anymore effective than normal stealth mechanics, so I never bothered to try. I loved me some stealth normally, but this just didn’t work for me. Regardless, I’m glad I gave it a try. It’s not all bad, it just didn’t scratch my itch hard enough.
Xenoblade Chronicles (PC/Wii)
This is a phenomenal JRPG. I had been working on this one FOREVER and finally beating it was an absolute treat. In terms of gameplay, think of it as a single player MMO. You have your skill bar, different roles in your squad like tank and healer, and there are a lot of OPTIONAL fetch quests. I’m not normally a fan of this structure, but the emphasis on exploration and combat lets you finish many quests on accident just by looking around and filling out your map.
The plot starts a little slow but gets really ballsy and bucks the trends of traditional JRPG cliches early on. And then after you get to prison island, the plot twists and turns in all sorts of new directions up until the very last moments of the game. The art design is beautiful and looks great upscaled to HD in Dolphin with the HD texture pack to accompany it. The final boss gauntlet was really cool and very difficult. I was having trouble with the final boss, so I had to look up the ideal build since it was 3am and I just wanted to be done, but I didn’t have to do any grinding throughout my 70-80 hour save game.
Probably my favorite part of the game was the amount of customization it allowed. Any party member could be switched out as the leader (per Chrono Trigger late game), which allowed for some very intersting variations. Melia the DPS tank? Sharla the Healer? Dunban the dodge tank? Riki the Bard? Or Shulk the specialist? Any party member can be more or less ideal based on the encounter type. Playing with the skill trees and gems and equipment and support relationships. The mechanics are so deep and I loved seeing how they all intermingled. The whole game was absolutely phenomenal and I loved everything about it. It was long, but it felt like just the right length.
Papo & Yo (PC)
This was a surprise. I had heard how well this game was received, but what I hadn’t expected was how well it was constructed. Papo and Yo is an allegory for the relationship between a boy and his father. There are some platforming elements and some puzzle elements, but nothing in particular that’s ground breaking or innovative.
What really stands out is the art, sound and story. I understand it was wonky on release, but coming back to it years after all the bugs and glitches have been fixed certainly seems to have helped. The South American shanty-town setting combined with the mystical imagination machines of the child’s mind were incredible. I loved the weird mystic drawings that covered all the surfaces of the objects affected by the magic of his imagination. The music and environment also felt incredibly life-life and authentic. Not like photo-realistic, but they had that very personal touch, as though they came directly from the childhood memories of long ago. And finally (for those who know what i’m talking about) the finale with the rotating statues, that was incredibly cool. Leading the monster through the final gauntlet was a tear-jerker, but what a great message and a fantastic, sincere execution.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (PC)
I wrote a review on this here, but a little distance adds a little perspective. If I had to compare the first Mirror’s Edge and this one on a scoring basis, then the first one wins because it has fewer things that it does wrong. But Catalyst is the one i’ll play when I need a parkour fix because of the things it gets right. The open world is great, the parkour is smoother, the actual levels are a blast, and of course it looks way prettier. If you’re a Mirror’s Edge fan, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.
FE Fates: Revelations (3DS)
Part three in the Fire Emblem Fates challenge. Everything I’ve said about Fates before applies here: the class design and new weapon triangle are awesome and the gameplay itself is very balanced. I really enjoyed the unique levels and the balance between the harder Conquest and the easier Birthright. Overall, there should have been fewer characters for support relationships because it frankly got ridiculous. Of the new levels available, I really liked all the unique mechanics they managed to throw in. The only one that was weak was the stealth level since it didn’t explain the specifics of how the mechanics worked. It was cool when, at the end, I opened the wrong door at the end and almost lost but managed to squeeze a victory out anyways. Unfortunately, the very end of the game turned into a slog. After 200 hours of the same game (between all 3 titles), I just wanted to be done. Of the three games, this is one i’ll likely come back to if/when I want to play more Fates just because Conquest is to intense for anything but a first-playthrough despite liking it the most.
Valiant Hearts (PC)
This was another surprise of my summer. A small little WWI game that walked me through some of the major battles and gave me some perspective on this horrible war. A side-scrolling adventure game with gorgeous hand-drawn artwork using the same tech as Rayman Legends. In my opinion, WWI isn’t usually covered very extensively (video games or otherwise) due to the much more dramatic conflict of WWII. Valiant Hearts made the war surprisingly interesting by focusing it down into one tiny little family. As the war progressed I was able to interpret it through their eyes and their struggles. As they faced various injustices and problems, I sympathized with them more and more. There were a few moments that really got me right in the feels, and I managed to learn a little bit of history too. The puzzles were pretty intuitive most of the time, though there were a few that were just to obtuse for their own good. The healing rhythm game was a little off, but the bombing sequences in the car were an absolute blast to play.
Are you older than 15 years old? Then you should play this game. It’s a combination of mish-mashed nostalgia based gameplay as you work your way through gaming history and all of it’s different graphical and mechanical evolutions. In the opening sections of the game, you unlock new mechanics like there’s no tomorrow and it’s a fantastic 20 minutes or so as you blast through all the old archaic game design.
Later on, progress slows down and the newness wears off. There’s a Zelda dungeon, a Diablo dungeon, a FF overworld with turn-based battles. It crams a lot in there. The back half isn’t as fun, but anyone who loves old game should at least play the first 20-30 minutes. In addition, the names and references are also pretty hilarious most of the time. Clink (Cloud + Link) is your protagonist and the rest of the game does stuff like that all the time. Unfortunately, the last boss was really dumb which left a sour taste in my mouth. And once you get past all the glitter and sparkle of nostalgia, the gameplay itself isn’t that fun or inventive. The beginning was definitely worth it, but don’t stick around if you’re getting bored. Trust me, it’s not worth it.
Zero Time Dilemma (PC)
ZTD is a visual novel/puzzle game that is the third entry in a trilogy. There are a combination of ‘Escape the room’ puzzles, where you have to find various objects and figure how they work together to ‘escape the room’, and the VN sections where you make life or death decisions that affect the mortality of the characters in the game as well as receive exposition on the unfolding narrative of the game. In ZTD there are a number of these ‘escape the room’ segments, but you play them out of order, so you never know what the status quo is going in as far as who’s alive and who’s not.
Last year I picked up 999 and played that for the first time. Finishing the trilogy has been a thrill ride from beginning to end. While I don’t think either VLR or ZTD ever hit the same heights that 999 did, they both managed to at least live up to the expectations put there by the original. The puzzles were fun, the time paradoxes were cool and we got some really good closure while potentially leaving the door open for a fourth game. I hope if they do make another one that they improve the overall quality of the game. Many of the animations and textures were janky and I think a bit more polish and content would have gone a long way towards improving the overall quality. At one point it feels the game suddenly and quickly builds towards the climax without feeling earned, but it’s a minor quibble.
If you’re interested, then I recommend finding a copy of 999 on the DS. You can technically play this one stand-alone, but the experience is greatly deepened by play 999 and VLR first. Fortunately, both 999 and VLR are rumored to come to Steam soon, pray for a release. Also the steam release is awesome, it looks great and I never missed the second screen. You will need a notebook though, it’s been ages since I used one of those for a video game. It helps tremendously with the puzzles, and I had so many notes by the end. Makes me want to go replay some Myst.
Another game I started a while ago and only just now got around to finishing. It’s a Zelda game in all but name, and it’s one of the best ones that I’ve played too. The primary mechanic is your ability to pause time and draw on the world with your paint brush. Slash your opponents in half, leap to a faraway flower, create a water geyser to lift yourself up, bring a tree back into blossom, you can do all this and more by learning the 13 Celestial Brush techniques. All the while, you are accompanied by a tiny, perverted little minish/pixie-like companion named Issun. Issun, the wandering artist, is always a blast and I love his spunky attitude. He adds a lot of flavor and personality to the game where you play as a wolf which limits narrative exposition. The game also pulls heavily from traditional japanese folklore, including legends like Orochi or Nine-Tails Fox, though they aren’t necessary to enjoy the story itself. The entire game felt fun and tight, and just different enough from the normal Zelda formula to find its own niche. My favorite part, aside from the drawing system, was probably the bosses who each felt unique and challenging unlike most bosses in Zelda games. In general the difficult felt a little low, considering I never died over the course of the entire game, but it is what it is.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS3)
I’m not quite sure why this game got as much flak as it did, because everything I played was awesome. When I played MGS1, I opted to go the twin snakes route and ended up having an absolutely horrible time. The controls were off, the camera never felt right, the whole thing was just a mess. I loved the bosses and the story was incredibly iconic, but the levels just felt incredibly poorly designed for the controls, and that’s because they were. Playing MGS2, with levels that took advantage of all these new controls and systems made an awesome stealth experience unlike anything i’ve ever played. Were there still frustrations? YES, namely guards being able to see you through doorways when the camera doesn’t let you see them. Other minor issues like try to be in just the right spot to strangle the guy on the central pillar for the retinal scanner was a pain. Being unable to pause cutscenes and codec conversations that take 30 minutes a piece. Even the controls weren’t perfect at times, but overall everything worked better than it had previously. The bosses also weren’t quite as iconic as the ones from MGS1. And of course, Kojima’s trademark commentary on the horror of war with absolutely no subtlety whatsoever. That doesn’t mean the execution was poor, just that it lacked any and all subtlety. I really liked the game and I’m looking forwards to MGS3 which everyone claims is the best. I started it and didn’t immediately warm to it, but I think I just had too much MGS in my system so i’ll start over later on.
Black Mesa (PC)
This remake of Half Life 1 has come a long way since it’s announcement in 2004. Since then it found a release in 2012, a follow-up release on the steam marketplace in 2015, and will receive it’s final expansion sometime in the future with the release of Xen. The team has worked really hard to bring this game into the modern era and by jove they’ve done a good job. The facility feels dark and creepy, but never stops feeling like the giant mega science complex that it’s supposed to be. It’s all a bit surreal, but I always bought the illusion they were selling and each level felt like a part of a facility rather than a level in a video game. There were a number of times were I was quietly dreading what new surprise was hiding around the corner, and then running away as fast as I could. Though most of the guns don’t feel quite as powerful as they should, and the encounters aren’t quite as balanced to my liking as they could be, I had a fantastic time playing through the game with the gorgeous new coat of paint. People who’ve never played the first Half Life game, or maybe just wanted to play the game that they remembered from way back when, this is a worthy remake. Surface Tension was REALLLY long though, that level took forever.
Punch Out (Wii/Wii U)
Nintendo’s only non-mario sports game in years, it’s almost all boss battles against boxers in the federation. This game was hard, like...really hard. I really liked the style of the gameplay, with just a few major boxing matches that were boss battles, with each one being extremely unique. The main problem I had was the control scheme. The motion controls with the wiimote and nunchuck were shoddy and holding the wiimote sideways hurt my hand since I was pressing the d-pad so furiously. Additionally the d-pad on the wiimote isn’t even that good, so there were a number of times after my hands got more tired, where I wouldn’t be able to hit the right input and would miss an opportunity to dodge or punch. When the controller and not you, is the cause for your failure, that makes a punishing game like Punch Out all the more frustrating. I managed to beat Mr. Sandman, but it was a brutal experience. Regardless, I enjoyed the game immensely, I just wish it had been under different circumstances. This would have been the perfect game to emulate with a really good controller. Even keyboard would have been fine.
Talos Principle (PC)
Imagine Portal mixed with a 2nd year philosophy college class, and that’s basically what this game is. I can’t really say anything about the story, because discovering it for yourself is half the fun. The puzzles are well-thought out, clever and unique, but never too difficult for you to solve. Despite being in the same vein as Portal, it never felt like a straight imitator. Instead of sterile testing chambers, you find yourself in wide open spaces like deserts, gardens and snowy castles. These aesthetics never do anymore than set the tone, but they’re beautiful nonetheless. You spend the whole game isolated, but interact with people in a variety of ways regardless. I really liked the game and thought it did a good job with it’s premise. Unfortunately it overstays its welcome just a bit too long, to the point where I was more concerned with finishing than enjoying the ending. Additionally, the pre-written responses for your interactions and postulations in philosophy often limit your ability to accurately describe your own thoughts. I felt like I was really arguing ideals with someone, until these limitations made themselves visible and immediately broke the illusion. Despite these minor quibbles, I’d recommend it to anyone who likes Portal and waxing poetic philosophy. And if you just like puzzles, then you can skip all the story stuff and still find a pretty good puzzle game underneath.
I’ll probably finish Ace Attorney 1, and Uncharted 4 before the summer’s over, but I can leave those off of the list for now.
I didn’t really expect to beat as many games as I did. Working 40 hours a week is tough, so I don’t know how I managed to make it through this many games. I don’t think I’ll ever really get rid of my backlog as long as I can keep finding excellent games, but maybe that’s for the best. There are so many good games out there that it seems a shame you’d get to a point where you literally have nothing good to play. I asked you last year and I’ll ask you again: what about you guys? Did you finish any games on your backlog this summer? Some you just started? Any games in my list you had never heard of before or are going to give a second chance? Pretty much everything on this list was absolutely worth my time, so if it’s been sitting in your Steam library because of Humble Bundle you bought ages ago, maybe you give it a try.
P.S. If some of you think this is familiar, I did poach a few sentences of my work from the last time I did this. Sue me.