Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Best Video Games of 2016.

Fuck you, 2016.  You were the worst fucking year of my life, but you had some awesome video game releases.  It's worth noting - if you've missed seeing reviews on this blog - this is the closest thing we've got in 2016.

Let's break it down.

- 11 -

The only thing I dislike about Hyper Light Drifter – and it’s an absolute, violent and sickening hatred – is the fact that developer Heart Machine and studio head Alyx Preston held up a middle finger to their fans and Kickstarter supporters and announced that the game would not be coming to Vita on account of Alyx’s failing health… just a few weeks before announcing they were hiring and gearing up for a big new project!  Fuck that and fuck them.  Fuck them right in the fucking ear, because Hyper Light Drifter is absolutely sublime and easily one of my favorite games of 2016 and I want it on my fucking Vita.

It’s beautiful.  It’s unerringly beautiful, in all ways.  Its lively pixel-art animation is kinetic and expressive (I love the way the Drifter’s cape billows this way and that as s/he swings a hard-light sword), its environments are these gorgeously detailed exercises in minimalism, and its world is rich and deep and fascinating – all without the benefit of a spoken or written word existing anywhere in the game (unless you want to collect all ancient tablets and get a brief explanation of the overall plot, which I’ve never managed).  Its action is, for lack of a better word, perfect.  Maybe “flawless” is a better word, as each of its three (colossal) starting zones can be tackled in any order, and technically can be completed without any of the abilities or upgrades you’ll be enjoying after a few hours of some of the most challenging combat of the year, and it doesn’t get all that much easier when you’ve unlocked the blade deflection and triple-dash.


It is at its core very much, to my palette, the spiritual sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  Not a spiritual sequel.  The.  Nothing that Nintendo or any other developer has done since has inspired the same sense of wholesome adventure that LttP did back in the 90s(?)… until this beautiful, mournful, vicious little action-adventure.

I was hoping to keep this list a top ten, but I’m sorry, Hyper Light Drifter must be given its due - and given how much I've returned to it and continued to adore it, if it weren't for The Vita Betrayal, it would honestly be #3 for the year.


- 10 -

Drinkbox Studios’ follow-up to smash hit and critical darling Guacamelee (one of the best Metroidvanias I’ve ever played) is Severed, and absolutely the weirdest (that is to say, original and unique) game on this list.  It’s a first-person dungeon crawler but not really.  It’s a Metroidvania but unlike any you’ve ever played.  It’s a touchscreen action game in which the combat actually feels really, really good – violent and strategic and immensely satisfying, when you clear a room of the weirdest enemy designs this side of a peyote bender, shearing off their limbs (see: precious resources!) with brutal swipes of your finger across the screen.


Like Guacamelee, it’s hard to point to anything in Severed as less-than-perfect.  Its art direction is up there with other luminaries of 2016 – Darkest Dungeon, Odin Sphere, Dark Souls III and Hyper Light Drifter – drawing you into a world of unbridled creativity and creeping dread, its music is an eerie, thumping tribal beast, and its story is a touching tale of grief and loss.  The fact that the game is so successful in terms of design, execution and presentation while also being the weirdest fucking thing you’ve played all year is a testament to the level of skill at this humble little studio.  Like Canada’s other indie powerhouse Klei Entertainment, Drinkbox, it seems, can do no wrong.

Can’t wait for whatever they do next.


- 9 -

As games continue to push at the currently-understood boundaries of culture, storytelling, immersion and game design, it’s perhaps too easy to remember that the point and purpose of this pastime is to chill out and have some fun.  Senran Kagura: Estival Versus doesn’t want to push any boundaries, save those the censors may wish to impose – it’s just here to make you laugh, show off some bouncing chests (and buns) and let you go crazy with some smashy-crashy button-mashy 3D brawling.


Its production values – particularly on Vita, which rarely hosts games approaching the triple-A standard – are kind of astounding, the first time you see it in action, or when returning to it after playing anything else on the platform.  It’s like seeing Killzone: Mercenary running on the thing for the first time, and getting to faff around in a silly 3D brawler that looks and plays beautifully is too rare a treat, on Sony’s handheld.  To call the game “fanservice” does a disservice to the term – the game is a flat-out sex comedy in a climate of hyper-sensitivity to sexuality in games, and is eminently guilty of exploiting the damaging ways women are presented in gaming to deeply uncomfortable levels, but it’s also hilarious.  And fun.  And light-hearted.  Every character is a character, given time and space and room to grow, to earn your affections as far more than a two-dimensional sex object, and every girl in the (colossal) roster has her own unique playstyle and rhythm to her combat.  It’s a fun, optimistic, beautiful, frothy, absolutely indulgent game.

Yes, it’s a guilty pleasure – but more importantly, it’s very pleasurable.


- 8 -

Give it up for Klei Entertainment, the Canadian indie powerhouse behind instant classics Shank 2, (2012 GotY winner) Mark of the Ninja and (2014 GotY winner) Don’t Starve. With Invisible, Inc, Klei took the mastery of stealth they established with the genre-defining Mark of the Ninja and the procedural generation and Roguelike nature of Don’t Starve and combined it with an isometric, race-against-the-clock turn-based RPG.   Like Severed, there’s never been anything quite like Invisible, Inc, and one’s first thought might be that the strange combination of stealth, turn-based gameplay and procedural generation could never form a game that’s actually good or fun.

One would be wrong.


It’s deeply different, that’s for sure, but as a fairly old-school stealth enthusiast, it scratches the stealth itch while it strums deep chords of tactical satisfaction.  You feel exceedingly clever, when you dominate its devious traps and thickly-populated levels, and that trembling stealthy nervousness is always with you, quivering in the background.  It’s a game of careful planning, desperate improvisation and mad dashes to the exit as your pursuers close in – a masterwork of game design, and that’s without talking about its striking presentation, gorgeous animation, ultra-stylish world and snappy, supercool sound design.

It’s just excellent across every facet – infinitely replayable – and I would kill to have this thing on Vita.


- 7 -

Like my #6 pick, Dishonored 2 is just more of the same.  It’s one of those sequels that refuses to disappoint by veering too far away from its predecessor (the spectacular Clockwork Mansion level notwithstanding), and it delivers the heady brew that only two franchises in gaming have ever offered – Dishonored and its spiritual ancestor, the legendary Thief: The Dark Project.

The immersion, here – the tactile physicality of the world, the density of its detail, the intuitive, natural layout of its buildings – is at odds with most any modern first-person adventure outside of BioShock.  Like 2016’s other standout single-player first-person exercise, Doom, its levels are colossal, sprawling and surprisingly vertical things, cooing a siren’s song of exploration that draws the player ever further from their actual stated objective and deeper into the game’s mysterious hidden corners.  This isn’t a game to blast through and toss aside – this is an experience that invites the player to snuggle in, get comfy and live for a bit in its rough, rotten, beautiful, magical world.


Sneak across forgotten alleys, discover forgotten secrets many or most will never see – and this is supported by the most tactical, expressive first-person action combat this side of BioShock, where the fantastic supernatural abilities at your disposal are only part of a toolkit that includes comfortable, snappy platforming and an environment bursting with options to eliminate or escape your enemies.

It’s not a Gears or even Uncharted where a game hands you a gun and some grenades and says “kill these things.”  It’s a toybox of curious exploration, discovery, self-expression and violent creativity, wrapped up in a filthy-gorgeous setting and a smooth, comfortably feminist narrative of an Empress who will retake her throne, whatever the cost – or, if you choose, without a whiff of moral compromise.


- 6 -

Dark Souls III didn’t even place on my hype list for 2016 because it was such a known quantity.  There was little curiosity, there.  I didn’t need to see any trailers, I didn’t need to hype it up – it was quite clear and unworthy of discussion that it would be yet another masterpiece from a developer that seems unable to deliver anything less, and one of the best games of the year.  And it is.


It’s gorgeous and gritty and a soaring romance of desperate, dark fantasy, where monstrous, beautiful things long dead but still quite alive wait patiently in grand, crumbling cathedrals as aeons roll into epochs, until a huge door opens and in walks… you.  With a dear, trusted weapon in one hand and a sturdy shield in the other, you’ve met and killed the unkillable countless times before, and in Dark Souls III, as with Dark Souls II, Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, overcoming what at first seems impossible is some of the awesomest gaming you’ve ever had.  Maddening challenge.  Incomparable satisfaction.  Dark Souls.  Again.


- 5 -

As phenomenal and beautiful and pretty-darned-perfect as Dark Souls III is, though, it’s not new.  Enter Salt and Sanctuary from indie dev Ska Studios (Charlie Murder, The Dishwasher), who’ve taken the core combat feel of Dark Souls (the stamina bar, a slew of impeccably balanced weapons and absolutely vicious enemies), and squeezed it into two dimensions.


The game has the structure of a Metroidvania (delicious!), with all that satisfying exploration and platforming, but combining that with all the core pleasures of Souls turns both of those familiar joys into something that’s so damned gratifying it’s almost shocking.   I wanted Salt to be awesome.  I had no idea it would or could be this awesome.  For Ska to nail open-world design, Metroidvania design, 2D platforming and the supremely satisfying feel of Souls combat is… well, it’s ridiculous – but here we are.


- 4 -

Let it be said, let it be known that I believed in id's reboot of the venerable DOOM back before DOOM turned out to be this.  id had never let me down, I insisted - that I loved the much-maligned Doom 3 and had a real soft spot for Rage - principally because id reliably nail the feel a shooter needs to be fun, to me.  The shogun(s) in Rage feel amazing.  The shotgun in Doom 3 is a great video game shotgun.

Well, the shotgun(s) in DOOM (2016) are orgasmic, and the superfast gunplay is just the tip of the iceberg.  DOOM isn't just an FPS where the shooting feels right, but those open-world driving sections aren't really necessary (Rage), or a solid FPS with an intro sequence that wears out its welcome (Doom 3), it's just fun and then fun and then fun again.  It's just adrenaline and asskicking, pressed on a disc.

Its opening is probably the best beginning of any video game in 2016.  It breathes life into this unwritten fantasy we all kind of share for the Doom Marine, but failed to acknowledge until this game declared it canon.  It's weirdly generous, for a modern single-player pursuit.  Its levels don't represent a linear hallway, marked by checkpoints - they're these great, vertical, sprawling things with secret vents and collectibles and major powerups tantalizing you from behind an unbreakable window in a room that's got to have an entrance somewhere.

Found you!

When you're not engaged in DOOM's insane, never-stop-to-take-a-breath action, you're scouring these colossal levels for the precious runes and collectibles and challenges that will buff out your Marine ever further, and puzzling over its (brilliant) labyrinthian layout.  Its AI are beautifully bouncy, mobile things, swarming and crawling all over the world as they come for you, its story is a good story that's wise enough to chill out in the background, because DOOM knows that we're here to see some awesome graphics and games tech (check) and shoot demons (check check check!).

The design of its levels - harkening back, as they do, to the original game's open-yet-intricate architecture - really is the standout, here, but DOOM succeeds on every facet.  It's the only game all three of us on the podcast agree with as a strong Game of the Year contender, and yeah, it is the funnest single-player triple-A I played in 2016.


...when you fall and die in lava the Marine gives the thumbs-up as he sinks into the lava just like Arnold in Terminator 2!!!


- 3 -

I have a sort of rule that remakes, remasters and HD up-ports are, in fact, in consideration for Game of the Year nominations.  If that BioShock remaster had done enough to feel like an important addition to one's library, it could've very well been on this list - much like how heavily Muramasa: Rebirth featured in the 2013 deliberations - but Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir is a somewhat different beast.

If you loved the original game on the PS2 in 2007, all its pleasures and comforts are here.  The most sumptuously gorgeous art and animation, transcendent music from Basiscape, a glorious. romantic, operatic, magnum opus story and weird worldbuilding and depth by way of anthropomorphic root vegetables that can be fed into potions or foodstuffs, and a crazy cooking system.

If you hated the original game for its ankle-deep combat, unreliable framerate and limited assortment of bosses... hooo baby.


Leifthrasir answers all of the criticisms of the original release and goes so much further than any remake or up-port I've ever seen with all the confidence and generosity I've come to expect of Vanillaware (who, incidentally, also won GotY in 2013 for Dragon's Crown).  It's such a different and drastically improved game that it feels more a sequel than an up-port.

The levels themselves have been completely remade from the ground up, making traversal and exploration far more interesting and rewarding.  New animations have been produced for every player-character in the game, along with many supporting characters.  There are new enemies, environments, new bosses - the slowdown so present on the PS2 is nowhere to be seen - and every player-character's combat abilities have absolutely exploded in scope.


Since Odin Sphere's original launch, the developer had gone on to flex and expand their 2D brawling combat with the lightning-fast Muramasa (and its HD up-port Rebirth) and the far broader Dragon's Crown.  All the depth and expressiveness that Vanillaware mastered in the decade after Odin Sphere have been poured back into Leifthrasir, and what you get is the closest thing we've had to a 2D Devil May Cry since Shank 2.

So, Leifthrasir offers the most luxurious, beautiful presentation of the year.  Its animation, music, art direction, environments and voice work are second to none.  It is a colossal game, spanning fifty hours across five vastly different player characters, its combat is lightning fast, razor sharp and superfun, and you can plant a seed that consumes the souls of your defeated foes, and that seed will grow until it produces two fully-grown sheep, and then you chase down those sheep and whack them with your weapon to turn them into a nice leg of lamb, and then you give that leg of lamb to the travelling Pooka chef who roams these magical lands, and he makes you a delicious meal that will increase the XP bar that is specific to your hit points.

Soooo gooood.



And, at this point, I'm going to alter the list I presented in the Best of 2016 podcast slightly.



- 2 -
Game of the Year

Overwatch is my Game of the Year for 2016.  It is.  It's one of two, but it's definitely, spectacularly, stratospherically up there, and I've never really written about why.

The first and most obvious reason is that it's a multiplayer game that I actually enjoy.  I've not seen its kind since World of Warcraft turned into a dangerous addiction, and consumed literal years of my life.  Since then, I have actively avoided multiplayer titles and the stresses they are heir to.  I would buy Battlefield 4 and never touch its legendary multiplayer.  I'd try the co-op portions of Uncharted 2 (literally five times), and never so much as dipped a toe into the (hugely successful and unique) player-versus-player combat of The Last of Us.

I hated that shit.  You walk out of spawn and get instagibbed by someone who threw a grenade from across the map.  That's not fun.  That's fucking awful.

But Overwatch seduced with its crazy-unique characters.

Zenyatta is a robotic Buddhist monk who floats around the battlefield, buffing allies, debuffing enemies and throwing prayer balls as projectiles.  That's crazy!

But Overwatch called to me with the gameplay demo of Tracer, and I reminded myself that I hate this shit.  I had to acknowledge that if anyone was going to get a modern hero shooter right, it was going to be Blizzard with Overwatch, and not Gearbox's Battleborn or Boss Key's Lawbreakers.  I mean, it's Blizzard - they tend to get things pretty right - not that it was any concern of mine because I certainly wouldn't be touching any multiplayer FPS with a fifty foot pole.

Then my Dad died, and I was in that dark, selfish place that mostly just wants to drink alone and eat chocolate cake.  And this Overwatch game was getting so many awesome reviews.  And that Tracer gameplay looked so fucking fun (if also completely intimidating).  I gave it a shot.

As a result, it's hard for me to speak to how what Overwatch does differently from other team-based hero shooters.  I can't really explain why Star Wars Battlefront held no appeal for me, but Overwatch is fun as all get-out.  I can't tell you why it's popping up as The Game of the Year on so many sites', peoples' and publications' lists, but I can tell you why it's spectacular, to me.

Same artist as that T.Racer poster I love so much!

First of all, Blizzard has produced some awesome characters, here.  I think it's worthy to point out  that almost all of the ladies in Overwatch are slender, traditionally-attractive Disney Princess-esque creatures, with large eyes, straight noses and sharp jawlines - but at least Mei, Zarya and (conventionally-attractive grandma) Ana feel a bit different.  That said, they're not a bunch of cookie cutout characters, like the supporting cast of an Archie comic.  Pharah is a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails military kid through and through.  D.Va is an arrogant, impetuous child.  Symmetra is a cold, indifferent calculating machine and Mercy's endless kindness feels like it may hide a lot of guilt - or at least a lot of sins.  And they all look kind of crazy-awesome.

So awesome, in fact, that the fan community that has sprung up around this game - often just from seeing the characters and never touching the game - has created a landslide of content that is still going almost eight months after the game's release.  (I make highlight videos, myself.)


There's a grimdark emo guy with a skull mask, a long black coat and shotguns.  There's a huge fat guy with a hook on a chain, a dwarf that builds turrets, a cyborg ninja - the game's roster feels like it was custom-bred for a Saturday morning cartoon show or a series of cheap plastic action figures from Playmates.  There are so many characters - and they all play and feel drastically different from each other - that it would be downright difficult to explore Overwatch's roster and not end up with a half-dozen heroes that you find you adore.

For me, that's Tracer, Mercy, Mei, Zenyatta, Reinhardt and Zarya.  And of course Pharah and Symmetra and Reaper and D.Va and a little bit of Ana and Hanzo, in the right situation - and the more time I spend with the game, the longer that list grows.  Every hero is brilliant, in their own way, and every hero can produce moments of explosive joy when they click with the player.

I'd love to be good with Genji.  I'm not good with Genji.

Overwatch was designed, from the ground up, as a co-op squad-based shooter, where playing as a lone wolf who's just trying to get kills will generally sound the death knell for your team, and the match.  Each principal game type (King of the Hill, Defense/Attack, Payload Delivery/Defense and Hybrid) has a static win/loss condition, and it has very little to do with how many of the enemy team have been killed - your team needs to control a space or escort an object.  There is no deathmatch.  It's great that the Reaper on your team has gold medals for elims and damage, but if the payload didn't get to its destination, who gives a shit?

Unless you're writing down everything that pops up in the kill feed, there's no way to know which of your teammates are pulling their weight - which works as a way of focusing the player's attention not on kills or damage blocked or healed, but on the actual objective of the match.  Reinhardt's shield is a game-changer, but only exists to protect teammates behind him, firing through it at the enemy.  Every character is powerful.  Every character becomes an order of magnitude more threatening when they are supporting or being supported by an ally.

A good life lesson, actually.  Anyway...


It's a multiplayer game that I'm actually able to enjoy.  Not just able - I can't stop with it.  And I've tried, man.  I loved my time with Thumper and Dragon Quest Builders and Dishonored 2 and I wanna' replay DOOM and I'd kill to just start playing XCOM 2, but man... Overwatch.

In Overwatch, I land among a group of strangers and I can push them all towards success.  My Soldier is fighting an enemy Reaper, and I can nudge that fight in our favor with a discord orb here and a harmony orb there.  My Sombra is frozen, about to be headshot by a Mei, and I can save her life by edging my Rein shield just so to block the shot.  Nobody's getting shit done, and I can draw my Tracer from her shealth and cut the reds to ribbons.

There have been thousands of tiny moments, like this, where I felt like I helped someone and like I really made a positive impact on my team's ability to win the day.  Perhaps my love for Overwatch is simply an indictment of my day job - or my life - but the joys of blasting away a McCree who thinks he's gonna' own my Tracer, the grit of saving a tank who would've died without my heals, the grim smile one gets when they freeze an enemy on Mei... it's intoxicating.

I hope you'll excuse me, I'm not at my best, I've been gone for eight months, playing Overwatch since I left.

It gets so much right, and so little wrong.


Its cast is huge, colorful, entertaining, charming and most crucially fun to play.  There is a Gorilla who was raised by a scientist on the moon, and he's very intellectual.  His best friend is a fighter pilot whose experimental warp jet disappeared and was lost in time until he designed a chronal accelerator to anchor her in present day.

Its maps are these beautiful,intricate playgrounds that give different characters different opportunities for navigation and strategy.  I'm still learning shortcuts that Tracer can access with just a single blink.

Its balance is a constantly-shifting meta, as Blizzard adjusts this character's damage and that character's abilities, and never grows stale - but also never feels really unfair, because there is always a rock to break these scissors (see: Bastion).

Its community is an obscenely prolific beast, producing everything from pop tunes to porn, in celebration and adoration of Blizzard's creations.

It's a multiplayer shooter that I actually enjoy, which makes it... singular. Even at my mid-low-tier skill level, I can log on every night and have an amazing time.  I can do what I never imagined I could.  I can blink, backwards, through a Reinhardt's shield to soften him up with a spray from my pulse pistols, stick a bomb to his back before he can turn around and shatter the entire defensive strategy of the enemy team in about three seconds.

God, I love it.


Finally,


- 1 -
Game of the Year

Darkest Dungeon is my Game of the Year.  Like Overwatch, it is pretty much the reason the only game I've seen the credits roll on since June was Hyper Light Drifter.  It has denied me the ability to enjoy anything else, because nothing else is as enjoyable.  I've not written about Darkest Dungeon as much in the past year as I've... well, video'd about Overwatch, but it's been a more constant companion for the past two years.  A love story, a long time coming.

In games, as with people, it's easy to fall in love at first blush.  We see impressive screens for the next Assassin's Creed,  and we want to believe it'll be the game of our dreams, but then you actually play it and it turns out to be Unity and it's like augh.  This is a cycle that repeats, over and over.  I wanted to love Grand Kingdom, lord knows I did, but it just wasn't the tactical RPG I needed.  Exist Archive, No Man's Sky, Uncharted 4 - and that's just 2016!

So rare.  So rare, for the game you end up playing to be as good as the one your imagination imagines, when you see those first screens or that first trailer.  With games, as with people, our fantasies are impossible to live up to...

But then again, there's Darkest Dungeon.  And Bloodborne.  Obviously.



The above trailer - the first bit of media ever produced for the game, well ahead of its Kickstarter campaign - doesn't even imagine the depth of Darkest Dungeon's combat, doesn't suggest the broader mechanics and accoutrements that surround its dungeon dives.  But it gives the flavor of Darkest Dungeon, perfectly.  It is entirely about the romance the game is trying to sell - this infinitely bleak low-fantasy world, these bold, striking, dark characters, and the concept of stress as a game mechanic - and it sold me so well that I kept my fingers glued to this game's pulse ever since.

The end result - the game that Darkest Dungeon actually is, on my Vita - is a game that keeps not only the promises of that trailer (and its entire Kickstarter campaign), but lives up to the impossible expectations that bloomed in me, when I saw it.


The phrase "emergent narrative" gets thrown around a lot, but Darkest Dungeon really manages to produce one with every trek into its morbid depths.  Every hero is both a spreadsheet of numeric attributes and an organic, evolving creature of fears, strengths, phobias and uncontrollable impulses.  They love to let you down - they're spectacular at it, in fact - and they love to surprise you when you least expect it.

You can learn your heroes' listed strengths and weaknesses, but you can never predict their impact, in Darkest Dungeon, because they're always changing.  The most self-absorbed kleptomania-suffering low-down-dirty gem thief in your team can blow your mind and save the day, dodging a point-blank shot from a Brigand Bloodletter and replying with a crit that shakes the earth, and the Leper who carried his last three quests may suddenly snap under the pressure, drive everything to the edge... and find himself saved by a twenty-point heal from the occultist that you didn't really want to bring on this quest in the first place.

Or not.  It's not like XCOM, where one of your heroes can seriously distinguish themselves and just never drop the ball (I still remember you, Wildchild) - it's like life, where when given enough time, everyone will let you down.


It's combat is never-endingly entertaining.  The PlayStation versions of the game don't count time invested (unlike Steam), but I've probably broken 300 hours between the two platforms - largely because the act of playing this game is always sublime.   I have quite-consciously not used the (over-used) term engaging in describing any of the above titles, but it's the right term for Darkest Dungeon's combat (not to mention the game as a whole), which feels something like the crunchy tactics and brutally honest dicerolls of XCOM, but set among a procedurally-generated grimy-horror labyrinth of tricks, traps and double-edged swords.

Beautiful synergies are discovered, again and again, between the various classes and often the foes they face. I’ve been puttering around with a blight-heavy party – an Abomination in the second row, an Occultist in the third (as the righteous Vestal will refuse to be in a group with an Abomination) and a Plague Doctor in the back – but I could never land on the right tank for the setup until I decided to roll a Hellion with heavy emphasis on a skill I never use. Her Barbaric Yawp – with which she literally shouts at the enemy frontline so fiercely that they find themselves stunned, and unable to take their next turn – is ideal for a team that relies on being able to take things slowly and create spaces where damage-over-time can do serious work. I’ve been playing this game for two years and I’m still discovering new ways its puzzle pieces can nuzzle in to each other.


It's the Roguelike nature of the game that allows it to grow on the player so insidiously.  In your early time with the game, you poke and prod at every strange artifact you find in its cobbled depths, earning your heroes all kinds of vicious diseases, quirks, injuries and illnesses in the exploration.  You want to just avoid it all, but enough experimentation reveals that (almost) everything here - every religious icon, every table of food, every treasure chest you come across - may harm your ability to complete this quest... but almost everything can also be a boon, once you understand how to handle it (and if your heroes don't go screwing with it first).

It aggressively denies the game the ability to feel or become stale, because while you may have explored the Cove and faced off against the good people of Innsmouth a hundred times before, the game's procedural generation ensure this adventure is still surprising, still threatening, still thrilling, still engaging.



Your heroes are untrustworthy, unpredictable – vaguely heroic, mostly quite wounded – but the game’s camping mechanic renders them sweetly, bleakly human.  When the creeping horror of the Warrens’ music fades to the gentle relief of the camping tune, no matter how dire your circumstance, there is a light flavor of hope on the air.  Huddled together, furtive and vulnerable, it’s downright touching to see one comfort another with charismatic one-liners that burn off some of that dangerous stress.  A tactical necessity that permits you the opportunity to heal and buff your heroes with powerful stat increases or purge off troubling diseases, the camping offers brief glimmers of shared human weakness, and the strength we find in each other – in companionship – that is all the more tragic for the horrors we know they must face next, and the understood ephemerality of such relationships and lives.

The music!  Somewhere south of Industrial but comprised mostly of acoustic, percussion and wind instruments, the soundtrack from (The Tea Party’s) Stuart Chatwood – at times orchestral, tribal, lonely, but in combat always rockin’ – is one of those lovely musical experiences that dynamically swells and withdraws in concert with your party’s mood, and the action.  Try this, next time you’re in a dungeon.  Pay attention to the music, then start snuffing the torch – listen to how it changes.  It goes from “this is a bleak and dangerous place” to “we are going to die.”


The torches!  There is a direct relationship between the torch light and the stress of your heroes and the risk-reward of the riches you’ll find in the darker corners of Darkest’s dungeons – there’s so much detail and affection for the madness that goes on down there (and back above ground), on the part of developer Red Hook, that it breathes life into what is essentially a series of mostly-static images and words.  The amount of depth and the resulting infinite gameplay are on par with Klei’s most noble additions to the Roguelike genre, but – for me, at least – it all started with that trailer, with Wayne June’s sublime voice work (he narrates your entire adventure, as your late Ancestor), and with Chris Bourassa’s sharp, detailed, infinitely stylish artwork.

The simplest comparison is to the incomparable Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, where every outline and detail is rendered in thick, chunky black, and everyone’s eyes are hidden in thick, chunky shadow.  Bourassa’s art – striking on its own – glides into the music and effects and voice work like a key into a lock, and becomes inseparable from the whole.  Wayne June feels like he was born to play the Ancestor, Chatwood’s soundtrack is impeccable, but Bourassa’s bold art is what holds the whole thing together, and forces it to work.


For the most part, instead of animating anything, actions are shown via a single keyframe – the blow of a weapon, the deke of a dodge, the despair of a hero who’s lost their way, and gone mad – putting the art and the feelings it evokes front-and-center, and eliciting complete, edge-of-your-seat involvement from the player.


It’s a game that does a lot with very, very little.  Humble, but perfect – which is why I put it here, beyond the reach of the spectacular (and spectacularly successful) Overwatch.  In Overwatch, there are cracks.  Imperfections.  One (see: Chamberlain) could argue that Overwatch has myriad flaws – one for every human player you have on your team who doesn’t understand what “group up” means.  I don’t entirely disagree – and the fact that the game requires constant tinkering from Blizzard to nudge it towards balanced every two or three months says, fairly clearly, that the game is not (and perhaps never will be) balanced.

I can’t say that, about Darkest Dungeon.  I can’t point to any single flaw that harms the experience – and the experience is singular.  There’s nothing else like it, and it does all its dark work with so much thought and consideration and a dashing sense of style.  It is the game I imagined it could be – the game of my dreams – and the best video game to drop in 2016.

2 comments:

  1. Lovely. Thank you for sharing. Hope 2017 is so much better for you, friend. Let's play OW one of these nights.

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    1. That'd be awesome! If I'm not on, send me a PSN message and I should get an alert on my phone. (If I don't respond, the PS Messaging app is being a douche.)

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