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.

Rule the Waves 3: Still rules

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Rule the Waves
The strategic map screen at the end of my French campaign in RTW 3. The yellow column in the top-right indicates high tension (and a high risk of war) with the UK. The coloured bars in each region show the strength of each country’s fleet there.

The highest praise I can give Rule the Waves 3 is that, for two weeks, it was the one game that I played alongside Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

The second-highest praise I can give is that it’s a brilliant depiction of strategy. Like its predecessors, Rule the Waves 3 puts the player in command of a navy — designing ships, building fleets, and commanding them in battle. This involves several trade-offs:

  1. Objectives vs resources — It’s the player’s job to design a fleet that can bridge the gap between the nation’s requirements and its available resources. These are very different for each country in the RTW series. For instance, the UK and France have to patrol large empires while fending off powerful enemies in Europe. Japan starts with a smaller industrial base but benefits from isolation. The US has a huge economy and is an ocean away from major threats. What force structure and doctrine are suitable for each?
  2. Current vs future capabilities — There is never enough money to go around. Building new ships takes time & money. Maintaining existing ships also costs money. When is it best to upgrade old ships? And when is it best to bite the bullet, scrap old ships, and put the money into new ships that won’t be ready for a few years?

Adding to this is the player’s position. While in-game events allow us to give advice, the government makes the big decisions: war & peace, naval funding, and naval treaties. Sometimes the government will also intervene in the details, by demanding X number of new battleships or destroyers. Regardless, when a war breaks out, the player has to get the job done.

This makes the RTW series almost unique in its focus on policy and force structure — an area I’d like to see more games explore.

The ships list – the companion screen to the strategic map. I spent most of my time looking at this screen. With my battleships undergoing modernisation, the carriers and cruisers were the largest ships in service when the game ended in 1970. A larger force of destroyers and ASW corvettes supplemented them.

Whereas the previous RTW games covered shorter periods, Rule the Waves 3 extends the timeline to 1890-1970. Over this time, naval technology evolves through:

  • The pre-dreadnought age (1890s-1900s)
  • The age of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers (1900s-1930s or 1940s)
  • The carrier age (roughly 1930s-1950s)
  • The jet & missile age (newly added, 1950s-1970)
A game-changing technology. SAMs are much, much effective than AA guns.

Over the course of a successful French campaign, I fought against, alongside, or sometimes both (at different times) the navies of Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the UK, and the US.

Some wars were one-sided — on two occasions, Il Duce sued for peace almost as soon as the war began. Others were less so — I lost a two-ocean war in the North Sea & Mediterranean against Germany and Italy in 1914-1915. The “final boss” of the campaign was a Franco-US war against Italy and the UK in the early 1960s — I hung on by the skin of my teeth before the diplomats managed to negotiate peace on the status quo ante bellum.

Some of my ships became legends. The four Aquitaine-class battleships entered service in the early 1930s as battlecruisers, were redesignated as fast battleships in the 1940s, and periodically received the latest radar and fire control. They were murderously effective against German heavy cruisers as late as the 1950s, before finally meeting their match in the form of modern Anglo-Italian missiles and torpedoes in the 1960s. Two survived to the end of the game in 1970.

The game ended before the final incarnation of the Aquitaines came online. This would have complemented the 16″ guns by adding surface-to-air missiles and CIWS missile defences.

Other designs were less successful. At the other extreme, the guided missile age made my last big gun cruiser, the Gloire, obsolete while under construction. I hastily refitted her to incorporate surface-to-air missiles, only for the Italians to sink her in her first battle.

The ill-fated Gloire.

Like its predecessors, RTW3 won’t be for everyone. The interface is a little fiddly, the graphics are rudimentary, and there is no music. Players need to come armed with their imagination.

The tactical battle view. I think this was the Gloire’s first and last battle.

For players who don’t mind this, RTW3 offers rich rewards. I plan to try another campaign some time. After France, perhaps Japan might be an interesting change of pace…

Further reading

I wrote about Rule the Waves 2 in 2019 and Rule the Waves 1 all the way back in 2015.

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