The Games I Loved in 2017

Okay, let’s get one thing strait before I start: this is not a “best of” list. I haven’t played nearly enough of the big games that came out this year to feel truly comfortable making that kind of list. This is just a few games I played this year I either missed the chance to talk about or want to remind people about because they left an impression upon me like few other games did this year.

1) Nioh

If you know me then you probably know that I fucking LOVE Dark Souls. The original game still ranks among my all time favorite games and I even wrote my first editorial for this site crediting it with my current school success, and now that I’m interning a real university, I still feel the same way about it. But even with all the acclaim I heap upon it, after four games (yes, including Demons Souls too) of medieval fantasy, I was hoping someone would take the formula in another direction. Take the core game play that I loved so much and move it somewhere new, like what From Software ended up doing with Bloodborne. Thankfully for me Team Ninja did just that with Nioh.

Nioh is everything I could have wanted and more. The game is every bit as challenging and rewarding as Dark Souls, but with a faster and overall smoother combat feel that felt almost more akin to Bloodborne but with more defensive options that made Dark Souls battles so tense. On top of that, the game is simply layered with complexities that you can ignore, but added so much more depth than anything any of the Souls games ever had. Three Stances for each weapons, seven types of hand to hand weapons, elemental damage, magic and ninjutsu skills, and on top of that, something like 20 different guardian spirits offering different bonuses. Add to that the beautiful Japanese setting that mixed real life historical events with Japanese mythology, and you have the first non-From Software game to truly equal the Souls games. Nioh truly feels like Team Ninja studied everything From did, then made a game using the best parts from every game, yet they still managed to give the game it’s own personality.

2) Persona 5

I wanted Persona 5 since before I knew there was going to be a Persona 5. I jumped on the Persona bandwagon with P4 on the PS2, then went back and played 3. Those two also near the top of my all time favorite games list. But each one has a pretty major flaw. P4 has a great story, but it takes forever to get going and a lot of the dept was lost in the years since P3. Persona 3, on the other hand, had the dept I wanted, but you could only control one party member which I hated and the real story didn’t even begin until you were ¾ done with the game. And Tartarus was a simply boring dungeon.

Persona 5 feels like the best of both worlds. The story is fantastic, and while it is still slow the game opens with a bang and keeps things at a much more reasonable pace. Like with Persona 4 each dungeon is a representation of it’s master/boss, but the fact they were all hand made make each one infinity more interesting and memorable than they were in the previous game. The game wasn’t perfect; I like everyone else didn’t appreciate Morgana constantly telling me to go to bed, but in the end the best thing I can say about the game was that it was 100 hours long and it never felt its length to me. And that opening theme was a jam.

3) Dusk Episode One

I haven’t gotten to episode 2 just yet, which may be the only reason it’s not here. But as far as Episode One is concerned, I cannot recommend this enough. It’s as old school as it can get yet never feels dated, which is a true triumph of game design. And yes, if you red my review you know a large part of my love of the game is that it gave me the chance to take pot shots at the kinds of backwards-thinking renecks I grew up around, and I do like taking potshots and backward-thinking redneck troglodytes.

4) Bear With Me

I think Episode One of this came out last year, but Episodes 2 and 3 were released in 2017 and….god damn do I love this game. I don’t want to say too much because I still have a review for Episode 3 coming out, but if you like point and click games, I highly recommend Bear With Me. This is the game I could nit-pick the easiest, but for all the issues I had with it I never once fell out of love with the game.

5) 20XX

At first mention, a roguelike tribute to Mega-Man doesn’t sound like the best idea. But since getting the game it i’ve found 20XX nearly impossible to put down. What makes it so good is that the game does two things i’ve never seen another roguelike do: 1) It actually manages to tutorialize new concepts. When a new trap or platforming mechanic was introduced, it was always introduced in a way that made it feel like there was some genuine level design at play instead of having the typical roguelike issue of simply having to try your luck when something new is brought in.
The second thing it does is have a consistent difficulty curve. In most other roguelikes a really good or really bad run near the start can make the best of the game either too easy or too hard. While 20XX only has three level types, new enemies types are introduced as you go and bosses have new challenges as you put the off. So a boss that might be super easy if you fight them first can become a pain in the ass if you wait too long to fight them. If nothing else, I home more roguelike devs take note of this and try incorporating some of it’s ideas into their games.

6) Little Red Lie

Like I said in my review “Little Red Lie isn’t a fun game. Hell, it’s not even a pleasant one. But it is gripping, engaging, and honest.” It’s a game that took me way too long to get through as it was so damn heartbreaking that I couldn’t stand to play it for more than an hour at a time. If you’re into interactive fiction, go get Little Red Lie.

7) Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment

The only thing holding me back from saying that Yacht Club Games are the best indie developers currently working is the fact that they have technically only made one game. However, both peaces of Shovel Knight DLC are full games in their own right and change things up so drastically that to call them merely DLC feels like an insult. Here the team took a platformer and made it feel almost like a rhythm game and continued their tradition of wordlessly conveying a relationship using the same core mechanics are the rest of the game. I cannot wait for the last expansion but i’m even more excited to see what this team does next.

8) SuperHot

It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years. It’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years.

(I Played on PS4, so it counts)

9) Cosmic Star Heroine

As it is with many of us, I love me some Chrono Trigger. It’s one of my all time favorite RPG’s, and as an RPG guy, that makes it one of my all time favorite games. Cosmic Star Heroine reminded me of Chrono Trigger in the best of ways. My biggest complaint with the game was that it felt like it was made for a mobile platform and I was playing it on PC.

10) Hollow Knight

I’m not going to lie, in a year where I was more productive this would have been relegated to an “honorable mention”. I took me a while to warm up to the game, and it never quite resonated with me the way it did with other people. The early hours had too much grinding and it is obviously trying to get by on the admittedly beautiful artwork and music. But after a while, around the time you get the dash I did start to see enjoy myself. I’m sure this is going to end up on a few “best of” lists, and I don’t fault anyone for that, but personally I don’t think it ever got to be that good, but i’m not upset that I put time into Hollow Knight either.

The Games I’m Thankful For 2017

I wasn’t sure if I was going to do another article like this one, but last years did pretty well and I’ve finally got enough time to do some writing, so I figured “why not”. So here are a few more games that either had a profound impact on me or were the catalyst for something great in my life.

Kingdom Hearts

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Kinda sucks i didn’t talk about this one last year so i could make an easy “when is KH3 coming out” joke. Meh, fuck it: WHERE THE FUCK IS KINGDOM HEARTS 3

I moved in with my mother the summer before I started high school. I wasn’t expecting too, I thought it was just going to be a visit, but that turned out not too be the case. Because she had to work I had decided to bring my PlayStation 2 with me, and since I knew I’d probably be spending a lot of time with the sister I hardly knew, I decided to pick up a game for her. Something she could play if she wanted, and something I wouldn’t go nuts having to sit though. I remember hearing good things about this odd little Disney/Final Fantasy cross over and it seemed like the perfect game for a young girl. At the time, I’ll admit to my great shame, Disney meant “princesses” and “princess” mean “boring girl stuff”. I figured the Final Fantasy stuff would balance out the Disney stuff so maybe it would be tolerable.

The game was….not quite what I was expecting. For one it was good. Like, really good. Secondly, it was way more difficult than it had any right to be. I’m not sure how I beat the final boss the first time and my sister….well, I ended up playing most of it for her. But the game did it’s job. We and her bonded a lot over it, and when Kingdom Hearts 2 came out we spent a lot of time playing that one together too. Along with the band Coheed and Cambria, Kingdom Hearts may be the reason me and my sister got along so well.

Volchaos

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Volchaos isn’t really a good game. But it is the game that proved to me that I was doing something right with this site, and it cemented the best friendship I’ve ever had. I had been following and talking via twitter to Cathy from IndieGamerChick.Com for a while. The day after her birthday last year (I remember this because a happy birthday post I made was the catalyst for event), she had decided that I was cool enough to be actual friends with. She friended me on Facebook, and we started talking more on their. When I told her I also did game reviews and stuff, she asked me to send her some of my work. I did, and about 15 minuets latter she messaged me saying “yeah, look, I’m going to be your editor now”. I know that sounds harsh but, it was much nicer that that. She had helped me with a few things I was writing at the time, then asked me if I was getting review codes. I told her I wasn’t and that I didn’t really know where too start with that. A few minuets latter she came back with a code for Volchaos. A friend of her’s developed it, and she went to bat for me to get a code. It was the first game I had gotten a review code for, and I had only gotten it because someone saw something of worth in my writing. Someone saw value in me succeeding in the field I wanted to be in. That was the moment any and all doubt evaporated: I had met my best friend for life. But for fucks sake Cathy, you couldn’t have gotten me a good game? God, friendship over. :p

(On a related note, you can read that review HERE)

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

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Guys, look, i know. I’m supposed to be better than this, you expect more form me. I know. It’s embarrassing to admit, Let’s just get though this like that awful political speech your drunk uncle is going to give. We can do it together, we just have to push on and persevere.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry i’m sorry i’m sorry i’m sorry. But, I do have to be honest here. If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you know I freaking love Overwatch. Even though I haven’t played it in a while (god, this quarter fucking sucks.) I’ve been keeping up with the news and it’s one of the things I’ve missed the most since school started up again. Well, truth be told I wasn’t always the kind of guy that would have liked it. See, once upon a time, I didn’t really care about multiplayer. At all. But when I got my PS4, the only one in stock came bundled with Black Ops 3. I never imagined I would play it, but I wanted that PS4 so damn bad. That was i’d be able to start this site and focus on more topic games, where as with my last site it was pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. Well, being that I was (and still am) poor as shit, I ended up running out of games to play pretty fast. So, one day I decided to just bite the bullet and try Black Ops 3. And to my great surprise, I had a lot of fun with the multiplayer. I was even pretty good too. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be in the top three for my team, or even for me to be #1. That ended up turning me from a “multi-player is a wast of time” kind of guy to a “if I dont get at least one good game of Overwatch in during this break i’m going to FUCKING KILL SOMEONE” kind of guy. I’m not 100% sure that’s a positive change, but it is a change nonetheless.

Well, that’s it for this year folk. Have a happy (and safe, I need you fuckers for the page views) Thanksgiving.

The Challenge of Difficulty

Recently I had a “lovely” conversation with a “gentleman” regarding one of my reviews. This “gentleman” had an issue with the fact that I didn’t complete the game due to finding it needlessly frustrating. To them, the game’s difficulty was a feature and my criticism with it showed a misunderstanding of the game. Obviously I disagree, but the conversation did make me think about difficulty in games and what separates an enjoyable challenge as opposed to rage inducing frustration. In the end it all boiled down to good design, much like everything else when it comes to good games.

I’ve made it pretty clear on my cite that I am a “SoulsSlut”. I love From Software’s Souls series, and the easiest way to get me interested in a game is to tell me “it’s like Dark Souls but….”. Salt and Sanctuary was like Dark Souls meets Castlevania and I loved it, Nioh was like Dark Souls with Samurai and it’s a forerunner for my game of the year. The Serge is like Dark Souls but Sci-fi and it’s the last game for this year I’m truly excited for, even though it’s made by the same people behind Lords of the Fallen, which was like Dark Souls but Crap. And in each and every case, the thing that drew me in to each game, the reason “it’s like Dark Souls” works for me, was the expectation of overcoming the games challenges. Even back in the PS2 era I was a big Devil May Cry fan, which were known for their difficulty back in the day. The funny thing about all of this is: the original Dark Souls, my personal favorite of the bunch, proves my point for both good and ill.

I’m one of those people who hate the idea of Dark Souls having an “easy mode”. Not because I don’t want more people to enjoy the game, but because I don’t think it’s possible. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, but their wind up and cool-downs compensate for it. If you change the amount of damage enemies do, the time it takes them to prep and unleash an attack is too unbalanced. If you change the animation times to compensate, then the enemies are doing proportionately the same amount of damage, they’re just faster. The same goes for the player character. If you boost the damage or attack speed you end up breaking the games balance. None of that was to say that there aren’t accessibility issues that From could work on, but for 90% of Dark Souls, the games difficulty proves my point: good design leads to good difficulty. The games systems are connected and balanced in such a way that the easiest way to overcome the game is to have a thorough understanding of these mechanics and systems.

And then there’s Blight Town.

Most fans of the game will tell you this is the worst part, and I am in that camp. (However, Hamish Black from Writing on Games did an excellent video countering this point. But this isn’t about him, fuck off Hamish.) So, why does Blight Town not work: it lags. By this point in the game you should more or less have a firm understanding of the combat. Attack animations are long, and you can’t back out of them, so you have to time your hits. Due to the lag in Blight Town, getting that timing right is much harder than it should be. In fact, I’d even wager that without that lag Blight Town wouldn’t be an issue. The enemies aren’t hard to beat and there’s enough land to avoid getting poisoned. Even the boss is one of the easier ones in the game. The hardest part is navigation, but so long as you keep moving down you’ll be okay. So, here’s the million dollar question: why is Blight Town so lagy? Because some stupid fuck thought it would be a good idea to render the entire area all at once. From the very top, if you look down you can see a clear outline of the poisonous mire down beneath. Rendering all of that takes a toll, and that toll was playing havoc with the games frame rate. As one of the Dan’s from Extra Cridits mentioned in his Lets Play of the game, a Silent Hill like layer of fog to hide some of Blight Town from the player so that not everything had to be rendered at once could have easily fixed this. The one part of the game that was poorly designed lead to the one part of a game that was no longer challenging, but frustrating.

For another example, lets look at the game I’m most in love with right now: Persona 5. I have very few issues with Persona 5 overall, and for the most part the difficulty isn’t one of them. Sure a boss or two have given me a few issues, but in the end I think the game is a little too easy. However, there is one exception to this. In the latter game safe rooms become more and more rare while enemies increasingly have attacks that can instantly kill members of your party. And if that happens to the player character, it’s game over. Where I am now the game even through me into a scenario where I had to fight three mini-bosses back to back with no ability to save between them. The second of which had two separate one hit kill attacks. If I had not been slightly under leveled to create a new persona and not been forced to stick with my main (who could block both attacks) this battle could have lasted hours. Speaking just for myself, out of the 70 hours I put into the game, I think there has been at least one hour per dungeon extra just for the amount of times I got instakilled in the level and had to redo long stretches of it. Thankfully in bigger fights the game gives you the ability to start over from the beginning of that fight, but this doesn’t ease the frustration of losing large amounts of progress when you did nothing wrong.

And yet again, almost all of that was also true for Darkest Dungeon, a game I loved and in which these same things didn’t bother me. Why? Because everything in Darkest Dungeon, from story to tone to game play mechanics, reinforced the idea that the world is a cruel place that does not care about you or your goals.

Good difficulty stems from good design. Good difficulty requires work and dedication by the player in order to overcome, but it does not get in the players way. Good difficulty does not ask a player to brute force their way past the games challenges, but to make smarter use of the games systems. Good difficulty does not laugh at a players failures, but revels in their successes. Good difficulty may ask for a players dedication, but it does not waste the players time.

Ludophile Lab is having an Identity Crisis

I haven’t been posting as much as i would like. Hell, i haven’t been posting much at all. Part of that is just life. School takes up a lot of time and there isn’t always something interesting to talk about. Recently, however, I’ve come up against a new issue. I’ve always been more interested in doing reviews more than anything else, and with my review now being mainly hosted over at IndieGamerTeam.Com, i’m having kind of a hard time coming up with what exactly i want Ludophile Lab to be. Part of me thinks it would be a good idea to try and make this more editorial based, and reviewing Non-Indie Games (like Persona 5 which i am loving and putting way too much time into). However, by the time a topic reaches me bigger and better voices have probably already wrote or made a video on it. I mean really, between Jim Sterling, Writing on Games and Noclip there really isn’t much i can add to most conversations.

So now that you know what’s been going on and where my head is at most of the time, i’d like to ask: what would you like to see? Stuff like the trailer reactions and stuff probably aren’t going away becuase they give me an excuse to talk about games. But other than that, what kind of stuff would you all like to see? Editorials? More personal game related stories? Fucking Top 10 lists? Please, feel free to leave a comment and give some ideas, i’d appreciate it.

An Open Letter to Atlus in Regards to their Streaming Policy for Persona 5

To Whom it May Concern,
Persona 5 has been one of my most anticipated games since before you announced it. I jumped on bored with Persona 4, played 3 soon after and even bough a copy of the PSP re-release of the original game. I regularly find myself hoping you will release a Persona 2 collection in the US with both parts of the adventure. I love this series, I love these games. And so far, I am loveing this one just as much as I hoped I would. Because of this, let me say right off the bat that I understand your reasoning behind your position on streaming Persona 5. Even though I’m only about 6 or 7 hours in, I’ve already experienced events that make me glad I went in cold. Understanding is not agreement, however, and like almost everyone else I disagree with this decision.
Given your track record and my love for these games, I am going to assume you’re being earnest about wanting to avoid spoilers. Here’s my issue: you are showing a profound lack of faith in a game that doesn’t deserve it. The message you are sending is that once people know what happens, there’s nothing else worth experiencing. That isn’t true. I still have my PlayStation 3 hooked up to my TV because I have Persona’s 3 and 4 downloaded on to it. I have done damn near everything there is to do in both games, but I know at some point I am going to go back to them. So far I have no doubt that Persona 5 is going to end up along side those. If you make a good game, people will want to play it. Even know the story, people will still want to play a good game. And again, all you are saying here with these restrictions is “this game is not worth your time”. That isn’t true, stop acting like it.

The Good Ol’ Days are Still Ahead of Us

With 2016 being as dead as everyone it took from us, and us facing down the barrel of some really bad choices made over the last 12 months, I think right now we could all use a good dose of positivity. With that in mind, allow me to posit something of a controversial opinion: we have not entered into the golden age of gaming yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I love retro-games and I really fucking love the retro-revisionism going on in the indie scene. In terms of pure hit and miss ratio of good to bad games I still think the PS2 was the best console ever made. I would even say that with a few notable exceptions, the last generation was filled with mostly forgettable crap. So forgettable in fact that even I found it hard not to look to the past with a since of longing.

And yet, I still think gaming’s better days lay in our future.

More interestingly, I think the reason the future of games is so bright is in large part do to the same factor that made last gen so overwhelmingly dull: those filthy casuals. Most of the people I know don’t want to say this in fear of driving away new members of the gaming community, but the fact is most of last generation was centered around teaching new comers how to game. At beast games were streamlined for accessibility to this new audience and at worst they were stripped of their “gameyness”. The best games from the era managed to make that work (hell, even I’m hoping that the System Shock remake takes a few queues from the Bioshock series) but overall gaming last gen very much felt like an introductory course to the medium.

And in almost every way it could have, it paid off. Not only are video games out selling their media rivals, but a slew of quality games that have reached that mass audience over the last year has show that the “Gaming 101” generation has started moving into 200 level classes. Those filthy casuals who weren’t ready for the depths and complexities of old school CRPGs or arena shooters, they’ve learned, and learned very well.

The last few years have seen some truly great games released and become hits, while still feeling very much like video games. Dark Souls 3 found a nice middle ground between being an entry point for new players while not abandoning it’s trademark difficulty. Overwatch took the crown as king of the Online FPS, and not only is it surprisingly deep and complex, it also has a roster of colorful and diverse characters that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the “golden age”. The Doom remake very much was just a prettier version of its predecessors and look how well that did with audiences. Hell, even Call of Duty has started incorporating more traditional video game and geek culture iconography.

But even more impressive than that, this new flood of gamers has also brought with it new experiences. It is sadly true that big companies aren’t taking as many risks as they once did, but new voices are making up for it. Even in an age were Okami would have been green lit could you imagine games like Her Story or Gone Home getting the go ahead? I hate to say it, but I don’t.

Right now we are living in a time where the things that made games great are coming back while also having the freedom to question what exactly it is that makes a game. We live in a time where the line between “retro” and “modern” are beginning to blur. And most importantly, we live in a time were almost everyone is invested in seeing what comes next. The future is bright my friends, don’t let anyone tell you our best days are behind us.

Looking back at 2016

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2016 has been a year of cognitive dissonance and emotional whiplash for me. In almost every way that matters this has been an awful, awful year. It’s also been one of the best years of my life. If you read my last Lab Notes then you’ll know that the last few months have been hard for me, but for the most part the story of my 2016 has been one of my life coming together as the world tried it’s best to tear itself apart.

To illustrate what I mean: back in June I met one of the biggest goals I set for this year. I got Moviebob, one of my three big idols along side Laura Kate and Jim Sterling, to like and retweet an editorial I wrote. That was a huge moment for me. But then I had to deal with the fact that my first big “fuck yeah, I’m getting good at this” moment was riding on the coattails of one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks the US has ever seen. That piece I wrote was about the blowback Moviebob and others got for saying that E3 presenters should maybe think about what they were presenting as the Orlando shooting had happened the day before. While I’m not going to go into all the awful shit that happened as my life seemed to be getting better, I think it’s important to know for an honest assessment of my 2016.

This year also saw me finally getting review codes! Back in August I got my first code, for the game Bear With Me Episode One, and a little bit later I got my first pre-release code for The Final Station. While I haven’t done nearly as many reviews as I would have liked, this was another step in the right direction. Ever since then i’ve made enough contacts with developers and publishers that I honestly don’t always remember who I’m already on their press list and have to check before sending out emails. I mean, Nintendo probably won’t be sending me review codes any time soon, but I’m at least a little more sure that’s I’m making progress.

I also met one of the most important people in my life, my editor and best friend, Cathy of IndieGamerChick.Com. Cathy has done more for me than anyone I’ve ever known, both professionally and personally. When it felt like my life was falling apart she was the only person I could really talk too and she has helped me improve as a writer to an astonishing degree. Honestly, go read my old Poor Mans Geek reviews to my the last few I put up and it’s night and day. Hell, compare my ClusterTruck review to my Dark Souls 3 review (which I put out before working with her) and you can still see the improvement. But as great as all that is the best part is just having her as a friend. Literally almost every interaction I have with her makes my day better just by the fact that I got to have that interaction. I don’t know what else to say other than she has made me a better writer and a happier person. Cathy, if you’re reading this, I love you friend and I wish I could repay you for everything you’ve done for me.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Vikkie Blake followed me on twitter and I have semi-frequent conversations with Joe Parlock. So I’m getting noticed not only by really fucking cool people, but people I hope to someday work with. Vikkie even called me cool on the podcast they do, so that’s pretty neat. If either of you two are reading this, keep doing what you;re doing: your both amazing and I look forward to reading many more piece by each of you and suffering through as many bad jokes as the world can produce along side you both.

I am not where I want to be just yet, but this year has made given me the hope that I can get there one day. While I do kind of hate that I can say that in a year that’s been as awful as it’s been for pretty much everyone, I can’t lie: I will always look back at 2016 with some degree of fondness. I’m looking forward to the upcoming year, and I feel ready to take on whatever 2017 has to throw at me.