I’ve realised that there’s been a lot of time since my last post about what I’ve been playing, games-wise.
Blame it on 2020, or blame it on my laziness. Either works.
Still, I should have a bit of a hack at what’s been getting in my eyeballs since I last wrote. Which was, er, for my what-I-liked-in-2019 post.
Let’s catch up on ten months of gaming, shall we?
According the the list I keep of things I finish, I’ve completed something like 30 games this year (if we include longer DLC expansions). That’s more than double last year’s effort, and we’re not yet at the end. Obviously, there’s some benefits in moving to the country, outside of getting the fuck away from Sydney.
Out of the gate, let’s talk about the two games I’ve played this year that’ve zipped into my best-of list with disturbing ease: Bloodborne and Ghost of Tsushima. Very different games but both ate up a lot of my time.
It’s probably a bit passé to be a Bloodborne fanboy these days. I mean, it’s pretty widely recognised as one of the best games of this generation – and, if the rumours of an increased FPS limit version on the PS5 are true, likely the next one as well – that the developers don’t need me to blow smoke up their collective arses.
But I’ll do it anyway.
The game is one of a series of so-called Soulsborne games – games of ridiculous (yet fair) difficulty from a house of digital pain known as From Software. You know: Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and so on. They’re games which are unforgiving in a very particular way: unless you learn how parts of the game work, and how enemies react to your advances, you’re going to have your arse handed to you. A lot.
Dying is a something you will not avoid, because the game forces you to learn on the job by repeatedly killing you. Try hitting that big dude behind the carriage before you’ve levelled up a bit? YOU DIED. What about moving off this ledge? YOU DIED. Hey, can that dog reach me? YOU DIED. Is that a dude with a gun? YOU DIED. I’m sure there’s nobody behind those crates. YOU DIED.
And so on. In the case of this game, each death is a challenge to do better, rather than the result of some sloppy programming. It’s frustrating as fuck, but that frustration comes from the knowledge that you fucked up. I didn’t once feel that I had been unfairly spifflicated, only that I hadn’t been in control enough to get past whatever it was that did me in.
The game is essentially a hunting trip inside an H.P. Lovecraft universe if that universe was set in some kind of cor blimey ‘ello guvnor version of Victorian London. Except you know, there’s hell-hounds and witches and the undead poking about.
There’s also a robotic doll that seems to be weirdly invested in your wellbeing, should you decide to visit her in the sanctuary the game provides for respite and upgrades outside the locales filled with YOU DIED action.
What kept me coming back was the inscrutable story – so much is shown, not told – and the frankly ridiculous amount of I-wish-I-could-wear-that-in-real-life bad-ass clothing you can place on your hunter. You know, olde world gear that looks super nifty, at least until it becomes covered in blood.
I spent a lot of this game having to work on my patience and timing, I spent a lot of time having to review my bad decisions and figure out how to move forward. I guess it’s a lot like therapy, only with the help of a fuck-off huge toothed razor-sword: you butt heads with the things slowing you down until you figure out how to deal with them. (Or until you die, I guess.)
Bloodborne is the sort of game which has absolutely fucking insufferable fans because they’re the same as free jazz connoisseurs, or people who’ve read Infinite Jest. They’re insufferable because they’ve tackled something so daunting at the outset that it appears impossible, and made it through to the other side. Beating the game – regardless of whether you hit a ‘good’ ending or not – is a great achievement, and it’s one that only becomes attainable as you chip away, as you learn what’s going on and why.
There’s no in-between feelings with Bloodborne. You either like it or you loathe it. Thankfully, I fuckin’ loved it, and suspect this will ensure that I carpal tunnel my way to frustrated oblivion through the rest of the company’s games, including the long-awaited Demon’s Souls remake for PS5, and Elden Ring should it ever progress beyond a fucking teaser trailer.
Ghost of Tsushima has quickly become one of my favourite games. It takes my unhealthy fixation with Japan and plays it like a shamisen. It’s essentially Assassin’s Creed: Japan (which, let’s face it, everyone has been asking for for fucking years, Ubisoft) but with hardly any of the shit bits.
(Well, OK, there’s a couple of escort/tailing missions, but I’m not holding that against the thing.)
The game tells the story of a samurai’s battle to save his island, his clan and his family from invading Mongols. It’s at once an us-and-them battle epic, a revenge story and a stealth playground. There’s shrines to discover, haiku to compose, mysteries to solve, hot springs to bathe in and a range of other open-world activities to help pad out your game time, but the sense of being in Japan is the thing that will draw you in, particularly if you’ve visited the country.
Storywise, it’s pretty involved, with a bunch of effort put into fleshing out the major characters. The protagonist’s struggle between doing things with honour and throat-stabbing motherfuckers in the dark is palpable, and feels like something more than a choice of play styles. Supporting characters propel the narrative along, and I found myself interested in what would happen with them. There’s not that sense that the main character is the only one of importance here: the dramas of others are equally of interest.
In terms of play, this is essentially a sword fight simulator that broadens into a stealth/assassination game. There’s a wide range of skills to master, and there’s a real feeling of achievement as your abilities grow – even though they can make you incredibly overpowered if you pour all your effort into levelling up early on. Challenge remains consistent throughout, though. The game features mechanics that would be at home in both AC and Uncharted games (assassination, climbing) but they don’t feel ripped off. They just work.
This is easily the best looking game I’ve seen on the PS4. It’s a delight. Yes, they do have a tendency to have a whole lot of shit blowing around the screen at all times, but the art direction is completely on point. And bugger me, but the game has a Kurosawa mode, approved by the director’s estate. Ghost of Tsushima takes so many cues from samurai cinema in general (and Kurosawa’s films in particular) that it’s a no-brainer. Turned on, it reduces some audio to mono, and provides a black-and-white film roughness to the proceedings. It’s pretty enchanting, and when I play the game through again – an update has just added a lot of free content, including co-op gameplay – I’ll be tempted to use it.
With so many good things to say, I should mention the thing that bugged me the most. It’s likely Peak Me, but I couldn’t help but notice that when you play the game with Japanese audio (ie: the best way) it becomes apparent that the characters’ mouth movements are for English dialogue.
Yeah, I know. Other than that, though, this thing is likely game of the year for me. Just a fucking flawless piece of work; a thorough delight. The only game I’ve ever specifically worked to get all the trophies on, I didn’t want it to end.
Another game of note I played was The Norwood Suite. It’s best if you don’t know too much about it before diving in – it’s cheap enough on Steam that you can probably take a punt – but suffice it to say that I suspect drugs were involved.
I haven’t played something quite this bent in quite a while. It’s a bit like an explosion in an Unreal demo factory. It’s both genius and cack-handed. It’s about a genius pianist who discovers something wild. It’s about a hotel. It’s about making sandwiches. It’s not a long game – a couple of hours will see you through it – but it’s very much worth the trip, because it’s got that same sense of a creator behind it that some of David Lynch’s more esoteric works do. You know, where you’d like to know what the fuck is going on and yet ahhhh no thanks at the same time.
A couple of times this year I’ve done that thing I seem prone to: playing a series from beginning to end. February/March saw me replaying the F.E.A.R. games on PC for… reasons? June had me hammering the two Prototype games, and August was taken up with the rest of the Saints Row franchise, barring the first game. These were experiments of variable returns: F.E.A.R. is still pretty good in a BOO GOTCHA! way, Prototype is dumb city-destroying fun, and Saints Row is fine, assuming I’d stopped after the second game.
Which I didn’t, so more fool me.
You’ve probably read enough at this point, so here’s some potted reviews of more stuff I ploughed through.
- Life is Strange 2: teenage angst with less photography, more telekinesis.
- Bulletstorm: Being punched in the dick on a very scripted ride.
- Black Mesa: It took HOW LONG to make?
- Blair Witch: It’s terrifying that I upgraded to Game Pass to play this.
- Danganronpa Trigger Happy Havoc: Japanese schools are, as suspected, weird as shit.
- Borderlands 3: I probably should’ve stopped with the second game.
- Domina: I AM A WOMAN WHO RUNS GLADIATORS AND I FUCKING RULE.
- Stories Untold: I’ve seen this movie before.
- SUPERHOT Mind Control Delete: More of the infuriating same.
- Call of Cthulhu Dark Corners of the Earth: FINALLY! Also, fuck those fish guys.
- Off-Peak: Fucked up and free.
- Moons of Madness: Eldritch gardening in space seems problematic.
- Shadow Warrior: I guess Duke Nukem needed more casual racism.
I expect there to be a couple more added by year’s end, as sequestering myself and chipping away at my pile of unplayed games is a great way to decompress. I’ve got a bunch to get through – and with new consoles around the corner, I can only see the number increasing.
Better get to it, hey.