2023: My gaming year in review

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy New Year!

2023 was a “quality over quantity” year for me, dominated by a Big Three — Elden Ring (a 2022 release) in the first few months of the year; Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom after its release in May; and then Jagged Alliance 3 from July to November. All three were Game of the Year material.

Apart from the Big Three, 2023 saw:

  • My usual fare of PC strategy releases: Rule the Waves 3, Age of Wonders 4, and Dwarf Fortress.
  • Odds and ends: a deck builder (Cobalt Core), a homage to 16-bit JRPGs (Octopath Traveller II), Bayonetta Origins: Cereza & the Lost Demon, Vampire Survivors, and Venba.
  • Old favourites such as Shadow Empire, Humankind, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Expeditions: Rome.

Finally, at the end of this post, I’ll touch on upcoming games in 2024 that look interesting.

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The big three: Zelda, Elden Ring, and JA3

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Switch, 2023) — My Game of the Year for 2023. The beautiful, ambitious successor to one of my favourite games of all time didn’t disappoint; according to Nintendo’s Year in Review, I have spent 170 hours with it. And I’m still not done! TOTK offered:

  • Spectacular set-pieces such as the Lightning Temple;
  • Moment-to-moment wonder and delight, such as exploring the Depths, peacefully resting on a sky island, outwitting would-be Yiga ambushers, or riding a dragon;
  • A satisfying worldbuilding follow-up to BOTW, as we got to see how Hyrule and its inhabitants had moved on and rebuilt.

Elden Ring (Xbox Series X, 2022) — 2023 saw my return to returned to Soulsborne and From Software games after taking a break since the original Dark Souls. Elden Ring took the Souls games’ traditional strengths (combat, “tough but fair” challenge, localisation, drop-in multiplayer) and added a vast, often beautiful, and occasionally horrifying open world to discover and explore. While rather stressful to play, it was worth every minute. I made it as far as Leyndell, the Royal Capital, and still have further to go.

Jagged Alliance 3 (PC, 2023) — 2023 finally saw a worthy sequel to one of the classics of the 1990s. JA3 combined great turn-based tactics, a cast of lovable rogues, and surprisingly good (and often laugh-out-loud funny) writing & worldbuilding. I picked it up on launch day and the risk paid off. Also the only one of the Big Three that I finished.

Other PC strategy games

Rule the Waves 3 (PC, 2023) — A “more of a good thing” sequel. This is one of the few series that looks at defence from a policy and force structure perspective (given my country’s geography, objectives, and budget, what is the appropriate navy for my circumstances?). RTW3 extends the timeline to 1890-1970, allowing more time with pre-dreadnoughts in the early game and adding missiles to the late game. Good enough to distract me from Zelda: TOTK!

Age of Wonders 4 (PC, 2023) — My favourite AoW game. It sells the illusion of being a wizard (or in my case, a dragon lord), discovering and taming a beautiful, intriguing, and dangerous world, and fighting off rival armies. The aesthetics and production values help sell the experience. A final bonus is that the game plays very well on a Steam Deck.

Dwarf Fortress (PC, 2023 for the Steam version) — My first time with the legendary — and legendarily intricate — colony management game, which turned out to be much more approachable than its reputation suggested. I think it’s also ruined similar titles such as Rimworld for me — I prefer DF’s simulationism and greater focus on building.

Odds and ends

Octopath Traveller II (Switch, 2023) — A tribute to classic SNES JRPGs, with beautiful pixel art, good music, and some pretty decent turn-based battles. Unfortunately, in some ways it was too faithful to its inspirations — I could have done without random battles in 2023.

Cobalt Core (PC, 2023) — A charming deck-builder that became my go-to game when I need something short, or when I’m tired and I just want to relax. Love its colourful characters.

Bayonetta Origins: Cereza & the Lost Demon (Switch, 2023) — A beautiful fairy-tale experience, seemingly inspired by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Cheshire the soft toy turned demon is an adorable co-protagonist. Slightly repetitive.

Venba (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2023) — A clever game with a unique premise: using cooking minigames to tell the story of an immigrant family. Unfortunately, that story being rather cliched held it back.

Vampire Survivors (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2022) — Another notable short-form game, an arcade palate-cleanser that went back to the roots of gaming and added a modern progression system.

Revisiting old favourites

I revisited Shadow Empire after the launch of its “Oceania” DLC and wrote up my adventures here. Still a great game, and it still receives plenty of support.

I also revisited Humankind — I still like it, but I’m a little disappointed by the lack of progress in its design since it launched a few years ago. While it still has the same strengths that endeared it to me at launch, it also has the same weaknesses, un-addressed by its DLCs. Contrast, say, Civilization V, which benefited from Gods and Kings, or the various Paradox games over the last decade.

In December, I dusted off two tactical RPGs: Fire Emblem: Three Houses on Switch and Expeditions: Rome on PC. In the case of FE:3H, I started the game in 2019, back before the COVID-19 pandemic! I am so close to the end of Edelgard’s route in FE:3H now — just a little further to go…

Finally, around the same time, I got back into Crusader Kings III via its total conversion mods. The highlight has been The Fallen Eagle, a mod that transports the game back in time to late antiquity and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Fighting for survival as the Romano-British descendants of Ambrosius Aurelianus has been an exciting challenge, albeit one that has required patience, persistence, and a tolerance for “fun” in the sense of the Dwarf Fortress meme.

Upcoming 2024 releases

The beauty of writing this in January is that I have a better sense of what’s coming up and what will interest me.

Playing Suzerain, the politics-themed interactive fiction game, this year brought the upcoming Suzerain: Kingdom of Rizia DLC onto my radar. I loved the base game and look forward to more content in the setting.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024 is an obvious pick: I liked its predecessor and it will be on Game Pass.

I’m intrigued by The Brew Barons, a Porco Rosso-inspired game about flying a seaplane, gathering resources, brewing beer, and fighting villainous air pirates. It will be nice to have more arcade-style games for my HOTAS.

Finally, Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes, a Kickstarted spiritual successor to Suikoden, remains on my watch list. Again, it will be on Game Pass.

Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom first impressions: flying high

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
An early flight in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was a day 1 purchase for me — its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, might be my favourite game ever. So far, I’m having a great time.

I think the running theme so far has been the balance between the familiar, the changed, and the new. Tears of the Kingdom contains many echoes of, and homages to, the original — but the details are very different, giving it a distinct identity.

A good example is the role of verticality. In both games, gliding from a height makes it possible to travel farther, faster, and more safely than travelling at ground level. But the details differ.

  • In Breath of the Wild, reaching those heights required a difficult, time-consuming climb.
  • In Tears of the Kingdom, while climbing is still needed, in many places Link can teleport upwards, launch himself from giant towers, or reverse time to ride a falling rock back up to the sky.

Using these techniques, I was able to cover a large amount of ground (and fly over difficult terrain) — although I still had a panicky moment when I had to escape a lynel. Thankfully it was unaware…

Another example is narrative. Old friends are still around, but they’re in different locations and in different stages of their lives. The story takes us to familiar places, but in a different order and different circumstances. It’s still Hyrule, but it’s changed over the intervening years.

Returning to an old home-away-from-home in Tears of the Kingdom.

Other differences, I think, come from me rather than the game. I’m dying less in TOTK than I did at this stage of BOTW. Is that because the game is easier? I’m not sure. Link is fragile — many of the early enemies can kill him in two hits — and even near the starting area, I had to run from a couple of bosses. Or is it because I’m more skilful and experienced? Coming from Elden Ring has made me confident and aggressive in combat, even when I have nothing better than a stick.

My plan is to go broad before I go deep. In other words, I want to explore, map out the early areas (either on horse or by glider), and maybe travel to the various hub towns before I attempt major quests. Hyrule is still a beautiful world, and I want to see more of it. And more experienced or not, I want better equipment and more health before I fancy my odds in tougher areas!

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2022: my gaming year in review

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy new year, everyone!

2022 was an excellent year for new games. Unlike previous years, where I spent more time on older games, my favourite games of 2022 were almost entirely new releases. I had a clear #1 — Terra Invicta — followed by a string of titles that all did at least one thing well. In site news, I interviewed Vic Reijkersz, the developer of Shadow Empire.

The year’s releases fell into several major categories for me:

  • Vast strategy epics
  • Short, delightful indies
  • Turn-based tactics
  • Others

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The grandest of strategies: Terra Invicta, Old World, and Total War: Warhammer 3

2022 was a great year for new strategy games. Most notably, Terra Invicta was unique and brilliant. Old World marked a master’s return to the 4X genre. And Total War: Warhammer 3’s Immortal Empires campaign felt like a return to form for me after the disappointment of the Eye of the Vortex campaign in Warhammer 2.

Terra Invicta (PC, early access, 2022) – Sprawling, ambitious, and slow-burning, Terra Invicta is the game I’d looked forward to for years. It’s a hard science fiction strategy game that presents a more grounded take on XCOM and Stargate: SG-1 – what if humanity made first contact with a hostile alien species, mastered their technology, and clawed our way into space? The game unfolds across Earth, where different factions rally countries to their causes, wage shadow wars with agents, and eventually fight overt wars with armies; and in space, where humans progress from the Moon, to Mars, Mercury, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond.

There has never been anything like this, and I feared the developers might be unable to execute on their vision. They exceeded my wildest dreams. Even in Early Access, it is playable and extremely fun. With the necessary polish, this could become one of the greatest strategy games of all time.

This was also the game that made me break my rule about “no Early Access games for GOTY”.

The battle of Oliver Hazard Perry Station, in Earth orbit, was the pivotal moment in my Terra Invicta game. This was when my technology and ship design (zeta boron fusion drive battleships with coilguns) proved their decisive superiority over the aliens.

Old World (PC, 2022 on Steam) – Nearly 20 years after Civ 4, Soren Johnson revisited the 4X genre with Old World. Set in the ancient Mediterranean, Old World moves the historical 4X genre forward with a plethora of interesting ideas, such as limited moves per turn; using different production resources for soldiers, buildings, and city workers; and adding a character-driven touch in the form of the player’s dynasty. Its cut-throat AI is leaps and bounds ahead of the recent Civ games.

Several negatives held me back from playing more when it released on Steam: the learning curve was steep (I think exacerbated by the game’s novelty), the aesthetic and UI were somewhat dated, and the game was surprisingly system-intensive.

Since then, Old World has grown on me, and a new PC alleviated the system issues. I look forward to playing more.

Old World has a plethora of … interesting events.

I started Total War: Warhammer 3 (PC, 2022) in the last few days of the year. I loved Warhammer 1 (and the historical Total Wars), and after being disappointed by Warhammer 2’s campaign, I’m enjoying the freeform Immortal Empires campaign in Warhammer 3. Cathay — WH3’s fantasy interpretation of China — is an interesting mix of human soldiers and artillerymen; immortal dragon monarchs; giant terracotta warriors; and intrepid caravaneers. I’ve hit the “short” victory conditions, but still feel like playing more. And I’d love a spin-off game about the caravans!

Short and sweet: Tinykin and Li’l Gator Game

At the opposite end of the spectrum, two short, delightful indie games stood out for me in 2022: Tinykin and Lil Gator Game.

Tinykin (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2022) – A charming game about solving puzzles as a miniature person in a full-sized house, with the help of the titular tiny creatures. I loved its focus on exploration, its quirky insect characters, and its whimsical world design.

Tinykin carrying corn.

Lil Gator Game (Switch, 2022) – Heavily inspired by Breath of the Wild and A Short Hike, both of which I loved, Lil Gator Game is about the joy of being a kid and the inevitability of growing up. No combat, no death, and a focus on verticality and exploration made it a great low-stress experience.

The protagonist’s relationship with Big Sis is at the heart of Lil Gator Game.

Turn-based tactics: Triangle Strategy, Expeditions: Rome, and Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope

During 2022, I played three newly released turn-based tactical RPGs. They excel at different things: Expeditions: Rome has my favourite characters, narrative, and atmosphere. I found Triangle Strategy the best at presenting information to the player (certainly better than Expeditions: Rome), and requiring the player to convince party members added a unique twist to the branching story. Finally, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a solid evolutionary sequel.

Expeditions: Rome (PC, 2022) – Third (and, it seems, last) in a series of historically inspired tactical RPGs. It commits a couple of major sins in terms of UI and player-friendliness — it’s very hard to tell which tiles enemies can reach, and I can’t find a way to tell what enemies can do with their special abilities. But it is extremely atmospheric — great art and voice acting made this a case of “love at first sight” — and despite the UI failings, the battles became very satisfying once I got the hang of things. For bonus points, it gives a prominent role to Lucullus, my favourite under-appreciated Ancient Roman. I’ve finished (most of) the first act and I’d like to finish the rest.

A boss battle in Expeditions: Rome. This guy hit like a Carthaginian war elephant, but was susceptible to knockdowns.

Triangle Strategy (Switch, 2022) — I see this as a spiritual successor to one of my favourite games of all time, Tactics Ogre. Like TO, Triangle Strategy is a turn-based tactical RPG with a branching story, set in a grounded, low fantasy world. I don’t think the writing quite rises to the level of Tactics Ogre, but it has a great art and aesthetic, and it gave me some fantastic battles.

A unique map in Triangle Strategy involves boarding an enemy ship.

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope (Switch, 2022) — I liked the first Mario + Rabbids (one of the first two games I bought for Switch), and Sparks of Hope refines the series formula by making the characters and their abilities more distinct, and adopting a “free movement” system. As with the first game, the setting, tone, story, and characters are so silly that there’s no narrative tension. Still, a mechanically solid game, recommended for fans of the first.

A boss battle in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. Rabbid Rosalina’s weapon is terrifying at close range, Luigi is long-ranged, and Rabbid Peach can ignore low cover.

The elegant tribute act: Regiments

In a category of its own is Regiments (PC, 2022) — a tightly designed, elegant “Cold War gone hot” real-time tactics game. Inspired by Eugen’s Wargame series, Regiments adds its own twist to the formula. It offers a good single-player campaign, which starts small with the East German army fighting pro-democracy mutineers, before building to a “clash of titans” between the US and Soviet armies. In December, it received a free content update, and I expect more to come.

A Bradley platoon poised to ambush the Soviets in Regiments.

Odds and ends

I thought Victoria 3 (PC, 2022) had promising foundations — and I enjoyed it more than Victoria 2 — but after a bad design decision ended my practice game, I shelved it. This will be one to revisit later; I’ve always liked the idea of the Victoria series, and I’d like to explore several countries in this era.

Two Point Campus (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2022) was as charming as its predecessor, Two Point Hospital, but I found it a bit easy and simple.

What older games did I first play in 2022?

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One (Xbox Series X, 2021) – A game that was clearly developed on a budget, but with a lot of heart. I loved Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments; Chapter One moves from discrete cases to an open-world format. I’m not quite sure the change of format works, but I like the writing, the developers’ interpretation of Holmes, and the work that has gone into the setting. Another one I’d like to finish.

Cold Waters (PC, 2017) – An elegant and quick-to-learn Cold War submarine sim. I didn’t play much, but enjoyed my time. As with other milsims, I also found it educational.

Rimworld (PC, 2013) – A well-known colony management game. I enjoyed the rhythm of pre-industrial life – preparing for winter, storing a surplus, and planning the next season’s harvest. Quite engaging and challenging, even with enemies turned off.

What older games did I revisit in 2022?

I revisited Humankind (2021), as well as my two perennials, Anno 1800 (2019) and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe (2017), after they all received new DLC in 2022.

I finished the Donkey Kong DLC for the original Mario + Rabbids, in the lead-up to Sparks of Hope.

Finally, I reached the credits on Hades (Switch, 2020) — finding the “right” build for my play style made all the difference.

The Adamant Rail is hands down my favourite weapon in Hades.

Looking forward to 2023 releases

After how much I loved Breath of the Wild, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is my most anticipated game of 2023. Details are scanty, so let’s wait and see.

I also loved the Suikoden games, so am curious whether Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes, a Kickstarted spiritual successor, will measure up.

Rule the Waves 3 slid from 2022, and should be a fairly safe bet given that I liked the first two games.

Finally, I’m interested in upcoming expansions and DLC for existing titles, such as Shadow Empire’s “Oceania” DLC and X4: Foundations’ next expansion, “Kingdom End”.

Triangle Strategy: off to a promising start

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Triangle Strategy

Over a decade ago, Tactics Ogre for the PSP combined a branching story, a serious, low fantasy setting, beautiful art, and engaging battles to become one of my favourite games.

Triangle Strategy, I think it’s fair to say, aspires to succeed Tactics Ogre and the genre’s other classic, Final Fantasy Tactics. It takes many of the same elements and adds its own twists, such as a morality system and more intricate rules for positioning, while simplifying others, such as character classes. So far, it’s very good; after 12-13 hours, I’m up to chapter 7, the sequence featured in the game’s first demo, last year. Whether it achieves greatness will depend on how the story plays out.

Here’s what I like, and here’s where I see room to improve:

The pros:

Art, aesthetic, atmosphere — The beautiful, moody art of Triangle Strategy is integral to the experience. Character portraits are striking and evocative. The sprites and the overall “look and feel” call to mind Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, and make the implicit promise that this will tell a similar story.

The backgrounds are sumptuous and even the little sprites are detailed enough to convey mood and personality.

Tactics matter — This includes positioning and using character abilities to support one another. For instance, one fairly tight map channelled combatants down three paths, with a group of enemies along each path. I held one flank using an ice mage and a durable melee fighter: I ran the melee fighter at them, used his special ability to draw the enemies’ ire, and had the mage retreat while lobbing ice at enemy soldiers who had bunched up to attack his friend.

The pathways broke this map into several sections. Two characters held down the left oath, but I found myself bottlenecked in the middle, and an archer shooting from the platform on the right was a royal pain.

Difficulty feels about right — Playing on Normal, I’ve never been stuck. I did lose a couple of battles as a result of becoming careless; afterwards, it was obvious what I did wrong (rushing a mission-critical character into positions where he could be swarmed). I may even turn up the difficulty to Hard, and see what happens…

Frederica’s fire magic is devastating against bunched-up groups.

Not grindy! — There is hardly any grinding in Triangle Strategy — a big change from the very grindy Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Enemies’ levels are fixed, under-levelled characters are very quick to gain experience, and conversely, over-levelled characters gain very little experience. Thus, there’s no need to spend too much time in practice battles.

The intriguing:

How will the story develop? — One of Triangle Strategy’s headline features is the branching story, with decisions settled by a vote among the party members. The player can try to persuade other characters to change their minds, but may not succeed. It’s even possible for persuasion attempts to backfire — I once saw a previously “undecided” party member do the opposite of what I wanted, after my dialogue choices fell flat. I’m interested in what the game will do with this system — can its narrative live up to the classics?

This unanimous vote came early in the story. A later one was much closer.

The mixed:

Voice acting — This isn’t a blanket case of English vs Japanese voices (I’ve listened to both):

  • In both languages, the heroes sound pretty good.
  • I think the female characters generally sound better in English — a couple of the Japanese VAs sound a bit too girlish. Conversely, some of the male characters sound too hammy in English and better in Japanese.
  • I am not a fan of the exaggerated voice acting for the villains, who range from “cartoon supervillain” to “oleaginous, obvious traitor”.

The gripes:

Save game slots Triangle Strategy has 10 save game slots. I’d like more, especially so I can explore different dialogue choices while preserving old saves.

Did the otherwise good English localisation have to owe such an obvious debt to ASOIAF? — I am heartily sick of “sers”.

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2021: my gaming year in review

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy New Year, everyone!

My gaming resolutions for 2021 were to try new things, and write more for this site. I wrote about several games — notably Humankind, Highfleet, Sable, Stars in Shadow, Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, and assorted flight sims — and interviewed the developers of Stars in Shadow. I delved into deck-builders, sampled various indie games (mostly on Game Pass), and tried unique experiences such as Highfleet and Subnautica. I also kept playing one of my mainstay genres, the 4X strategy game, and revisited a genre from which I’ve lapsed, the narrative RPG.

Build deck, fail, try again

In 2021, I played three deck-building, card-battling roguelites:  Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and Fights in Tight Spaces.

At the time I would have called Nowhere Prophet my pick of the three, based on its emphasis on worldbuilding and (emergent) narrative. You lead your tribe across a post-apocalyptic colony planet in search of a promised land, managing supplies and battling rival factions along the way. Managing a desperate turnaround to win the final battle was one of my coolest gaming moments all year; and I loved that the ending reflected my choices along the way.

Right now, my favourite would be the more replayable Slay the Spire — I liked it enough to pick up the Switch version after first beating it on Game Pass for PC. It’s quick, satisfying, and never leaves me frustrated — even when I frequently die. And the game’s art style and quirky charm have grown on me.

I love Slay the Spire’s sense of whimsy. Where else would you fight a final boss shaped like a giant, dancing doughnut?

An honourable mention goes to Fights in Tight Spaces, a stylish Bond/Bourne/action movie-themed game where, with full visibility over the enemy’s upcoming turn, you use cards to manoeuvre your agent around the battlefield and strike back.

Discovering new worlds

Subnautica is one of the best science-fiction experiences in game form. It captures what it must be like to explore a new world: marvel, mixed with terror. Over time, as I build bases, upgrade my equipment, and learn more about the surrounding seas, the terror abates — but it never quite goes away, not for voyages into the unknown. If I have a complaint, it would be the “needle in a haystack” progression. I estimate I’m in the late midgame, so there should be plenty left to discover.

Challenging myself

Highfleet deserves special mention for its approach to difficulty. This is a game that demands the player learn how it works, understand systems such as detection, and learn the tools available, such as how to strike from long range. Then it throws the player in the deep end against superior enemy fleets, and early on, before I learnt, those fleets pounded me to bits. That made it all the sweeter when I turned the tables.

Flight simulators — and in particular DCS World, the modern military flight sim — might also belong here. I don’t think I will ever master the intricacies of a modern fighter in DCS. At the same time, DCS at its best is a flow experience: flying, working the radar, manoeuvring and shooting, and once, seeing a glorious sunrise as my reward.

Revisiting the 4X genre

In 2021, I played two 4X games that shine at the clash of empires: Humankind and Stars in Shadow. Humankind is at its best when I’m fighting for my life against army after enemy army, desperately buying breathing space, and then grimly preparing for the next war. Meanwhile, Stars in Shadow strips away the bloat from the 4X formula with a focused design, an emphasis on ship design & tactical combat, an AI that knows how to challenge the human, and an overall sense of charm.

Defending my capital against an early predator in Humankind.

Replaying Civ VI (this time on Switch) shortly before the release of Humankind let me compare them side-by-side. I think they’re very different, with Civ VI being better for tile and city optimisation, enlivened by great music, whereas Humankind is better with conflict and the threat of conflict. Overall, I like both, with a preference for Humankind.

I’m proud of building the Opera House in its correct city in Civ VI!

Last but not least, I had a great time replaying Shadow Empire, via a co-op succession game with a friend.

Returning to narrative RPGs

I used to be a big fan of RPGs, both Japanese and Western, before drifting away over the last decade. In 2021, I powered through Dragon Quest XI and finished the main game, after playing on and off for several years. At its best, it tells a story about character growth and resilience, wrapped up in a charming, whimsical world.

I love the localisation in the Dragon Quest games.

I also started on the Yakuza series with Like a Dragon, and replayed a decent chunk of Final Fantasy XII.

What were my favourite new games of 2021?

Out of the few new releases I played in 2021, Humankind is my pick for Game of the Year. Other notable releases included:

  • Highfleet, with its combination of imagination and uncompromising difficulty.
  • The cheerful, charming Sable.
  • Unpacking, a satisfying puzzle game that traces a person’s life over the decades by unpacking her belongings after each move.
I love the details in Unpacking, such as the boxy beige CRT monitor in the early years, and the faithful pink toy pig.

I’d like to spend more time with two games whose fluid combat and striking graphics made a good first impression on me:

  • Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth — a retro Metroidvania.
  • Death’s Door — an isometric action game.

What were my favourite discoveries from previous years?

During 2021, I discovered a lot of games that had originally released in previous years, from a wide array of genres. The highlights included:

  • Subnautica — survival and exploration
  • The digital version of Wingspan — a relaxing, delightful board game about attracting birds to a sanctuary.
  • Stars in Shadow — space 4X
  • DCS World — military flight sim
  • Slay the Spire — deck-building roguelite
  • Nowhere Prophet — deck-building roguelite
  • Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia — console strategy-RPG
  • Good Job — an often hilarious physics puzzler
  • Northgard — a clever variation on the RTS, with a greater focus on building and manning a settlement. If only the font on the Switch version were larger…
  • Carto — a puzzle game with a unique mechanic: rearranging pieces of a map to change the world around you
  • Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children — an indie squad-based tactics game with some interesting twists on the XCOM formula, such as a greater focus on melee combat
  • PGA Tour 2K21 — my first ever “realistic” sports game, after I previously enjoyed Golf Story

Honourable indie mentions include:

  • River City Girls — a beat-em-up
  • Silence: The Whispered World 2 — an adventure game, short on narrative coherence but with some striking “scary fairy-tale” moments

The perennials

I revisited some games due to new DLC (Anno 1800, X4: Foundations, Total War: Three Kingdoms), updates (Shadow Empire), or buying on a new platform (Civ VI). Majesty was a childhood favourite whose HD version I replayed on Steam — after two decades, I finally beat the campaign. And Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is an evergreen favourite.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 should be exciting for 4X lovers: Distant Worlds 2 is scheduled for March, while Soren Johnson’s Old World will come to Steam in Q2.

Two of Old World’s stablemates from Hooded Horse Games, Terra Invicta and Falling Frontiers, are also scheduled to release in 2022. Both are space combat strategy games, with Terra Invicta also adding an element of “XCOM: Council Simulator” as players compete for influence and resources on Earth.

Two upcoming Early Access titles look interesting: Eugen’s WARNO, a spiritual successor to the Wargame franchise; and Nebulous: Fleet Command, another space combat strategy game. Both are due to enter Early Access in early 2022 (January and February, respectively).

And finally, Slime Rancher 2 was the highlight of E3 for me. The original game was colourful, cheerful, and by virtue of being first-person and 3D, satisfyingly tactile to explore. I look forward to the sequel bouncing onto my screen in 2022!

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Project Triangle Strategy – Demo impressions

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Triangle Strategy

The newly-revealed Project Triangle Strategy is a clear homage to two of my favourite games of all time — Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics. After playing the demo, I’m cautiously interested.

The debt to FFT and Tactics Ogre is clearest in the aesthetics. The sprites look just like those in the classic games, right down to the way mages raise their arms over their heads when casting spells, and the character portraits are also gorgeous.

Based on the two levels in the demo, the gameplay seems solid. Positioning, elemental vulnerabilities, and terrain all matter. I cleared the second level by the skin of my teeth, with only one melee character and a few casters left standing. Using terrain, and a spell that created temporary ice walls on the ground, I was able to channel the second level’s boss into a chokepoint where my last melee fighter could stall her long enough for the mages to bring her down. Disappointingly, mounts seem cosmetic — a horseman can climb ladders (?!) and a bird rider doesn’t seem able to fly over obstacles — but that issue is fairly minor.

My biggest concern is the writing. What made the narratives of FFT and Tactics Ogre so great wasn’t convoluted plots or warring lords. What made them great was the themes and character arcs revealed by those plots — what happens when youthful idealists find themselves betrayed by reality, and how those idealists respond afterwards. In the short demo, I saw nothing comparable, although conclusions will have to wait for the full game.

Overall, I liked the demo enough to keep an eye on this game. Release is set for 2022 — hopefully it will fulfil its promise.

What I played in 2020

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you’re all safe and well.

This year I played the usual new and new-ish strategy games. XCOM: Chimera Squad, Shadow Empire, and Crusader Kings III were all strong releases. Amongst 2019 games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall was a solid combat-focused 4X and Planet Zoo was a charming and pleasant management game.

My great discovery was the Anno series: I’ve put almost 150 hours into Anno 1800 alone, a game that combines gorgeous production values, engrossing city management, and Paradox-like depth and replayability. On some evenings, I tinkered with coffee production chains or proudly set up new tractors. At other times, I found myself plunged into a city-building version of the Empire: Total War successor I’ve always wanted, as my trading empire fought for its life across multiple continents. Whether trying to inaugurate a World’s Fair, or ensuring that the chocolate must flow, there is always something more to do. And I think the Anno series’ central idea — that society depends on long, elaborate production chains — felt especially relevant this year.

I also replayed many classic strategy games, ranging from the 1990s to the 2010s. These included Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance  Jagged Alliance 2, and a raft of 4X titles: Imperialism 2, Master of Magic, Age of Wonders III, Civilization IV, and Alpha Centauri.

The standout was Alpha Centauri, which I would argue is still the best 4X game ever made: it has some of the best science fiction worldbuilding in any game, while also shining on a mechanical level. With Alpha Centauri, 1990s strategy game design reached its peak: it offered the player a dazzling range of toys without falling into the pitfalls that afflict modern games, such as bloat or an over-emphasis on “balance”. And it could teach the modern Civilization series how to handle warfare: armies, navies, and air forces are punchy and interesting to use, without either the problems of Civilization IV‘s stacks of doom or the subsequent one-unit-per-tile rule.

Transcendence victory in Alpha Centauri! I achieved this via a science/economic boom as the Peacekeepers, backed by a powerful air force and navy, and an alliance with the Gaians.

Finally, this was the year in which I tried new and different types of games, both on PC and on Switch:

X4: Foundations and the early access version of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord made me realise how much I love dynamic worlds, where I can set my own objectives and carve out a niche alongside a map full of NPC factions trying to do the same.

I returned to flight sims for the first time since childhood with the beautiful, accessible Flight Simulator. Within a few hours, I was confidently taking off, flying, and landing Cessnas; now I’m sightseeing around the world. Flight Simulator proved to be my gateway back into the genre: I went on to test the waters of combat sims with War Thunder. In the last week, I bought Star Wars: Squadrons and IL-2, and I’m currently eyeing DCS World’s modern aircraft.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is my first real experience with Metroidvanias (I played Symphony of the Night many years ago but didn’t get far). Now that I’m nearing the end, I see why people love this genre! The blend of combat and exploration reminds me of a much easier, 2D version of Dark Souls — I love working out where to go next, based on the latest ability I’ve unlocked — and its goofy, over-the-top cast and setting are far from what the ominous title suggests.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was my first Assassin’s Creed game since AC4: Black Flag. Its much better, more mobile combat and gorgeous depiction of Classical Greece won my heart. I just need to play more…

The cheerful, colourful Slime Rancher benefits from being in first person and in 3D. This gave it a satisfying physicality when puttering around the ranch or exploring the wilderness — something I found missing in top-down games such as Stardew Valley. It’s also very, very cute.

The Twinkle Slime wishes you a Merry Christmas, too.

After casually playing Mario Kart games for years, and never doing well on anything faster than 100cc, this was the year in which I set out to master Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Along the way, my admiration grew for how well-designed MK8 is — its balance of skill and luck, its charm and character, how well it eases the player into a state of flow. MK8 also became the first game to get me back into online multiplayer since Eugen’s Wargame series, years ago. Just don’t ask me to do well on Rainbow Road…

First place in every race in this 150cc cup in Mario Kart! I managed this after playing 200cc races and gaining experience online.

Nintendo has the knack of making me try even genres I don’t normally play: Mario Galaxy is delightful, although I’m still at the button-mashing stage in Mario Tennis Aces. Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a pleasant experience that easily fit into my Switch routine.

My most notable Switch release of the year was a third-party game. Hades combines fast-paced action with good writing: the more I played, the more I realised how cleverly it blends a modern interpretation of Greek myth with the original themes. I cleared it for the first time on my 17th attempt, and narratively this is just the end of the beginning.

Hard-earned victory in Hades.

Amongst other third-party games, Two Point Hospital was an excellent port and a good game, albeit one that dragged on slightly too long. I enjoyed improving my virtual swing in Golf Story — while practicing for the final course, I revisited every previous course and consciously made an effort to use every tool the game placed at my disposal. Finally, the delightful A Short Hike was my favourite short-form game in years.

Best wishes to all of you for 2021, and I’ll see you next year.

A short, sweet Hike

Puttering around in A Short Hike.

A Short Hike is a brief, delightful experience: what you would get if you took Breath of the Wild’s emphasis on verticality and exploration, and channelled them into a rather different story about exploring a park, having fun, and making friends. The objective is to climb to the top of a mountain; the joy is in exploring branches off the trail, stumbling upon hidden sights, and discovering what else there is to do. The world is warm and inviting; the NPCs are friendly and kind; and the mechanics are solid, whether climbing a cliff-face, gliding down, or trying to hit a ball. And it can be completed quickly: I finished in a couple of hours, although I seem to have missed a fair bit of side content. It left me smiling, laughing, and at the end, wanting more.

Risk, reward, and mission design in Fire Emblem: Three Houses

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Juggling knives — In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have split my forces. But faced with multiple objectives — rescue civilians, spread around the perimeter of the map; recover treasure chests; go after the boss —  I’ve had little choice. My party is split across the entire map: some straggling through a thicket towards the boss, others flying on pegasus- or wyvern-back towards the civilians, one man on horseback battling his way up a narrow lane. And now, a powerful optional boss has thundered onto the field, trailed by several lackeys. Fortunately, my strongest character is close enough to intercept. Unfortunately, her best backup – the two people who can hard-counter the new arrival – are on the wrong side of the map.

It’s time to improvise.

I really like Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ mission design.  The game’s rules are fairly basic: most battles are won by defeating all enemies or the boss; and enemies usually activate when someone gets too close. By itself, this produces an optimal way to play: be cautious, cruise across the map in a giant blob, and pick off enemies a few at a time. What the game does well is adding extra layers of complexity, such as mission-specific twists and optional objectives. Here are a few examples:

  • Three-way battles offering a reward if you can defeat more characters than the other two factions, or a race to defeat a specific character to claim a treasure.
  • Optional bosses with rare drops.
  • A reward for keeping waves of spawning pirates out of a village, even as your main force presses on to defeat the boss.
  • A map populated by fast, powerful roving enemies … and a treasure chest in the middle.

This pushes me to vary my tactics, and adds challenge even when my party is over-levelled. It has also delivered memorable set-pieces, such as the one at the top of this post.

Firaxis’ XCOM makes an interesting contrast — I think giving the player a risk/reward decision in Three Houses works better to shake up playstyles, compared to a hard cut-off such as XCOM 2’s controversial mission timer. The XCOM series itself has been through several approaches — Three Houses is closer to picking up MELD in XCOM: Enemy Within, although with greater variety (granted, Three Houses has the advantage of hand-crafted missions, whereas the XCOM games rely on random generation). Comparing these three games, I would argue that carrots work better than sticks.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses impressions — The best of all worlds

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Uh oh. I’ve overcommitted. This map has enemies positioned in a “U” shape, with the party starting on one map edge and the enemy lining the other three, and I’ve gone for the aggressive approach — charging straight down the middle. Now I’ve pushed several of my characters too far ahead — and I’m playing with permadeath on! The mighty Princess Edelgard, so capable in a clash of arms, has met her match in an enemy mage. Then Petra the swordswoman goes down, targeted by multiple enemies. Argh.

Rewind one turn. Try again. The advantage of going down the middle is that I’m fighting along interior lines, and now I rush characters from one flank to shore up the other with their healing magic. I pull back my most exposed party members, weather the storm. And lesson learned, I push onto victory.

An early battle in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The togglable purple overlay marks squares that are in range of enemies. And by selecting an enemy, I can see (bottom left) their target.

Excellent tactical RPG so far. I’m 10-15 hours into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or up to the start of the game’s fifth chapter. As a lapsed series fan who walked away in frustration from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii, I was cautious about Three Houses. Instead, it’s exceeded my expectations. I am having a great time with Three Houses’ turn-based battles, the bedrock of the Fire Emblem series; I appreciate the new, anti-frustration features; and I like the new Persona-style explorable hub.

Tense, intelligent turn-based combat Fire Emblem veterans (and XCOM players) will be familiar with the basic rhythm of each turn: a patient, methodical exercise in determining where to move each character, who should attack whom, and in what order. The trick is to minimise incoming damage, both from counterattacks and on the enemy’s turn. This might include:

  • Using a ranged character to soften up a melee enemy so a melee character can safely finish them off.
  • Eliminating enemies before they get the chance to move and attack.
  • Sending forward one character as bait to lure enemies into range.
  • Positioning characters where the fewest number of enemies can reach them.

And because this is an RPG, individual characters’ strengths and weaknesses matter. If there are three magic-users ahead, then it’s best to bait them using someone with high magic resistance. Conversely, magic may be the best option when attacking a heavily armoured knight. Attention to detail is important!

New features mitigate against frustration — There are two: the ability to rewind to an earlier turn (similar to Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system), and the ability to see which characters will be targeted by which enemies when previewing a move (a little like Into the Breach). They serve different functions:

  • Rewinding time is a safety net. I play with perma-death on, so being able to rewind a turn or two is much, much better than having to replay a battle from scratch.
  • Seeing enemy attacks in advance is a planning tool, making it easier to take calculated risks.
Talking to party members between battles in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Taking a leaf from Persona was inspiredThree Houses benefits from adding a hub area, where the player can explore and interact with NPCs between battles. Like Persona, this runs on a calendar system, with a finite number of actions available each week. I like this for a couple of reasons:

  • First, it adds another layer of decision-making — I have to prioritise which characters to recruit and which skills to train.
  • Second, a large part of my enjoyment of games comes from puttering around well-designed worlds.

Hybrid vigour. So far, I appreciate both Three Houses’ execution and its new features. The game has breathed new life into the series for me — I look forward to playing more.

What I’ve been reading and playing — from the Three Kingdoms to the Alliance-Union Universe

Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread an old favourite, Lord of the Rings, and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.

Games

Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.

Against stronger opponents, ambushes are the great equaliser. The computer knows how to use them, too…

The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.

Sturdy shielded infantry make a good anvil on which to break enemy attacks…

The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties.  Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)

… while cavalry is a devastating hammer.

And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.

Flaming shot from trebuchets lights up the night sky.

At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.

An early town in Dragon Quest Builders 2. Note the crops and perimeter wall.

It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.

Completing a building in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Books

A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings, accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational text of the fantasy genre.

I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense. Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven, desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just picked up another of her series (The Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.

What I’ve been playing

A mission in Wargroove’s campaign

Hello! Since it’s been a while since I wrote about games, I wanted to cover off the notable titles that I’ve played in the last few months. Some of these are new releases — Wargroove, Steamworld Quest. Others are old favourites — Firaxis or Paradox games, benefiting from recent DLC. With much of my gaming moving to Nintendo Switch, I’ve broken out Switch and PC games — in general the PC games have focused on strategy, while the Switch games have been more varied.

Nintendo Switch

Wargroove was probably my standout game for the first few months of the year, with its combination of elegant mechanics, a charming aesthetic, and a generally well-designed campaign. A map can be finished in an hour; but that hour can see quick land-grabbing dashes, a meticulous dance as you yield ground or search for weaknesses in the enemy line, and the final decisive moment when your dragons swoop on the enemy stronghold, or you manage to trundle your trebuchets in range. The game is held back by poor skirmish AI – which limits replayability and makes one of the three gameplay modes, a series of linked skirmish maps, rather pointless – and I do wish the last couple of campaign maps offered depth instead of artificial challenge. Overall, though, it succeeds both as an Advance Wars spiritual successor and as its own game – I will be very interested in any DLC or sequels.

Meanwhile, Steamworld Quest has turned out to be very good. It’s built around one of the best turn-based RPG combat systems I’ve come across, both well-designed and well-executed. I think I’m about two-thirds through, and I have a longer blog post half-written, so stay tuned….

Steamworld Quest in action

Temporarily on the back burner is the Donkey Kong DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (I finished the base game last year). It’s more of a good thing, and often laugh-out-loud funny; presumably I’ll return after playing more Steamworld Quest.

I have mixed feelings about Bomber Crew, a game sometimes compared to FTL. Individual missions are very good: enjoyable, often frantic, in the same way as FTL’s encounters. The problem is the overall structure. FTL playthroughs were short: if you died, it was back to square one, but you didn’t lose much time. Bomber Crew is more like XCOM, and not in a good way. There is an ongoing campaign and if you are shot down, you continue with a new plane and crew – the problem is that they will not have their predecessors’ upgrades. I don’t like grinding to re-upgrade the plane and re-level the crew, and I don’t think it makes for a good loop.

Finally, Worms: WMD is a solid franchise game – while the basics remain similar to previous 2D Worms games, I like the additions — vehicles and crafting. The vehicles’ destructive power is classic madcap Worms, while crafting gives the player extra options during a match.

PC

Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts of Iron IV: first the Man the Guns expansion, then a brief return to the Kaiserreich mod, before moving onto a Fallout: New Vegas total conversion mod, Old World Blues. In general, HOI4 becomes steadily better with each version — Man the Guns and its accompanying patch are solid, without the AI problems that dog the most recent version of Stellaris, and while the new naval system takes a bit of work to set up, I like the power and flexibility that it allows. I doubt any expansion can address several problems with HOI4’s underlying design – the flawed transition between peace and war, the lagging and grindy late game – but for all that, this is a game that’s provided me with significant enjoyment over the last three years.

Old World Blues deserves a highlight for several reasons. First, there’s its sheer ambition: a whole new map, tech trees, and custom factions. Second, I love New Vegas’ setting. And third, it’s functioned as something of an expert-level class in HOI4. For instance:

  • I’ve usually found supply to be trivial in HOI4, except when fighting in remote areas such as the Andes or Central Asia. It is not trivial in Old World Blues. The awful infrastructure of the post-apocalyptic West Coast, unless upgraded, imposes severe attrition on massed troops – a problem when playing as the NCR, a “quantity over quality” faction.
  • Similarly, playing this mod made me realise that historical hindsight let me paper over the gaps in my knowledge of HOI4 mechanics. Yes, a long-ranged escort fighter is a good idea. Yes, armoured divisions should be built around combined arms. Yes, there’s something to these newfangled aircraft carriers. Without this advantage, I’ve struggled. I know the difference between a P-51 and a B-17, but should I build NCR salvaged power armour or Protectron robots? How important is the “Breakthrough” stat? How are supply lines calculated? I think I need to pay more attention to the underlying numbers – and that will make me a better base-game player as well.

Meanwhile, I’m currently nearing the end of my first Civilization VI: Gathering Storm run – it’s been enjoyable, even without making much use of the new features. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to win! I also made several unsuccessful attempts as Dai Viet in Europa Universalis IV – I think I’m out of practice after not having played for several expansions.

A few non-strategy games stare at me from my Steam library. Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, both picked up on sale last year; the former unplayed, the latter barely scratched. Heaven’s Vault has beautiful art, and I love its premise – you play a science-fiction archaeologist and the gameplay seems built around dialogue and deciphering alien languages – but I haven’t quite been able to get into it. Next time…

Further reading

Write-up of Old World Blues

Jumping for joy: the delightful world of Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.

Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.

I can pinpoint the moment when Mario Odyssey won my heart. In the first hour of the game, I came across a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex lying on a small hill in the Cascade Kingdom, a colourful island of waterfalls and soaring cliffs. By now, I’d encountered the island’s hostile creatures — spiky little swarming monsters; big, snarling Chain Chomps — and down the hill from the T-Rex, there were more Chain Chomps up ahead. The game’s “capture” mechanic had already been introduced — Mario can transform into other characters by throwing his hat at them. So I took control of the T-Rex.

Mario’s hat and moustache appeared on its face.

The T-rex roared.

This was going to be good.

A T-rex under Mario’s control

A vivid and varied cast. Each level of Mario Odyssey is full of weird and wonderful inhabitants such as the snoozing dinosaur; while some are hold-overs from previous Mario games, many are new. For example:

  • A stronghold modelled after Japanese castles is defended by jingasa-hatted warrior birds – you need to capture the birds, jab their sharp beaks into walls, and vault upwards to climb the walls.
  • The fastest way around a desert temple complex is to ride a galloping jaguar statue summoned from bus stops.
  • At one point you need to compete against rotund racers who bounce up and down along the course.

Little touches seal the deal. There are the local outfits Mario can acquire as he travels from level to level, ranging from samurai armour (pictured below) to a pin-striped suit:

One of the many costumes Mario can unlock

There’s the conceit behind the level maps — they’re not just a convenience for the player, they’re taken from in-universe tourist brochures. And there are the tourists themselves — check out the screenshot below, featuring a group of visitors to the desert level.

A group of tourists in Super Mario Odyssey’s post-game

A treat for all ages. While Mario Odyssey is mechanically satisfying, what kept me coming back was how much I enjoyed its world. I enjoyed exploring each level; I enjoyed dressing Mario up in new costumes; I enjoyed wandering around in the post-game, seeing what had changed. Here’s to Nintendo, and its sense of joy.

The joys of Picross

The perfect game to unwind. In the last few weeks, Picross S2, the latest in a long-running family of puzzle games, has become a regular part of my gaming. It is relaxing and at the same time, challenging enough to keep me entertained. Each puzzle is an iterative process, beginning with a few clues. The numbers on the sides tell me how many squares should be filled in each row or column. At the start, there’s enough information to identify the first few squares that I should (or shouldn’t) fill in:

Near the start of a Picross S2 puzzle.

After marking the relevant squares, I can use this new knowledge to identify the next set of squares, and repeat. This is the same puzzle, almost complete:

The same puzzle, nearly complete.

Manageable, and manageably bite-sized. Most of the puzzles I’ve played take around five minutes to solve. There are several ways to increase the challenge: turning hints off (as I did in the screenshots), trying different game modes, and playing larger, more complex puzzles. So far, I’ve been content to gradually work my way up — I prefer my puzzles on the soothing side!

And it is soothing. There is logic to this game, and routine, and the knowledge that those routines will ultimately solve the puzzle. I expect this to be my “quick break” game for some time to come.

Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played

Soaring over Lake Hylia in Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A magical experience. Here is what I accomplished in a little over an hour with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I soared over a desert, and swam a lake. I explored a desolate mesa, and followed the path of a shooting star. I plucked a scale from a dragon, and battled past monsters to offer it up at a shrine. And I did all this in one session.

Easily in my top-ten list. After playing Breath of the Wild for the last five months, my appreciation is undimmed. The game sets overall goals and leaves it up to the player how to achieve them. It encourages exploration, whether to gather resources, find the next objective, or simply marvel at the game’s world. And it backs up its design with strong execution, from game mechanics to worldbuilding and story.

Continue reading “Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played”

Nintendo Switch: all I wished for, and more

A much-anticipated treat. The Nintendo Switch is a technological marvel: docked and connected to a TV, it offers the power of a traditional console; unplugged, it offers the flexibility of a portable device. I’ve kept an eye on the Switch since before launch, and when I saw a good Boxing Day deal from Amazon Australia, I pounced. So far, I am delighted, both with the Switch and the two games I’ve bought: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Impressions below:

Sizing up the field in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Source: Author

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a colourful, charming tactical RPG. The game is an odd beast — developed by Ubisoft using the Mario IP — and at first glance, the influence of Firaxis’s XCOM is clear, as Mario peers from behind cover and runs up to take flanking shots. Two things distinguish Mario + Rabbids. First is the importance and ease of movement: characters can dash into enemies, extend their movement range by trampolining off allies, and traverse large distances by diving into pipes. Second is the sense of joy, as pronounced as in any Nintendo first-party game: the world is bright and vibrant, and the animations are delightful — right down to Mario’s exaggerated, panicky body language when an enemy flanks him. So far the game has been easy; I understand that it becomes much harder later on. I look forward to playing more!

The splendours of Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Source: Author

Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the majesty of exploration — and the danger. Unlike other open-world games I’ve played, which revolved around combat, Breath of the Wild is about exploration for its own sake. Combat, quests, and NPCs do exist, but so far, in limited quantities. Instead, my time has been mostly spent roaming the wilderness, solving the odd puzzle, and using my wits to survive. I’ve used my powers to cross a lethal, fast-flowing river; cooked up (literally – there is a crafting/cooking system) dishes to protect against the cold — and ran from monsters until I found a decent weapon. I’ve also marvelled at sunsets, climbed up trees to pluck apples, and stood at a campfire experimenting with recipes. As a child, I loved Zelda: Link to the Past; over 20 years later, Breath of the Wild has brought that magic back.

Some interesting releases set for 2018. I’m particularly interested in tactical RPGs, of which at least two are due out this year: Valkyria Chronicles 4 and an unnamed Fire Emblem game. I’ll also keep an eye on RPGs (including 16-bit JRPG homage Project Octopath Traveller and Shin Megami Tensei 5) and a turn-based strategy game (Wargroove). Between these and the games already out, I expect my Switch to get plenty of use this year.

Further reading

Wikipedia offers a comprehensive list of Switch games (sort by release date to see upcoming releases)