I finished Outer Wilds last week. Finally.
As with its similarly named cousin, The Outer Worlds, I walked into this experience under the cloud of effusive praise. Polygon named Outer Wilds Game of the Year 2019 and added it to their Game of the Decade list (#25). Which… makes sense, I guess. It would be kind of awkward for a GOTY to not be good enough for the decade.
But if Outer Wilds is Game of the Year 2019, then 2019 must not have been a good year for games.
To be fair, there are a number of praise-worthy elements to Outer Wilds. The premise of a time-loop mystery is fairly unique (Majora’s Mask notwithstanding). The lack of any form of combat is similarly rare. The game does a really nice job of simply letting you jet around the solar system right from the get-go. The soundtrack is great and the visuals and setpieces can be breathtaking. In truth, there is a lot to like here. The fact all this novelty and ambition came from an indie dev with a dozen people is the commendable bow on top.
It’s just that… the game isn’t for me. Or possibly you.
Everything was great for about two-thirds of the experience. Once you get the controls down, you can wake up from the beginning of the time loop and be orbiting any planet in the solar system within minutes. The impending supernova did grate on my nerves a few times, as it always seemed to occur when I was 90% done exploring a specific location, requiring me to make a return trip to finish up and then suiciding so as not to limit exploration time somewhere else.
As with all videogames though, things escalated from there. Exploration started requiring some gnarly platforming, where failure often resulted in survival… but lost minutes, of which you only ever have 22. So it may as well have been death. Then the game required gnarly platforming AND specific timing. It wasn’t enough to discover where you needed to go for the next clue, you also had to be there at a specific timeframe.
Up to this point, I had been doing everything on my own. But when I encountered a particularly annoying timing puzzle I could not solve after repeated attempts, I was ready to abandon the game. As is often the case, when I broke down and looked up the solution, it was something that should have been obvious. But immediately following that one sequence were many more that would not have been obvious (to me) at all. Still later sequences require you to sit on your hands for 7+ minutes before getting the opportunity to finish navigating a hallway that becomes impossible to complete within 30 seconds of the window of opportunity opening. Who is this fun for?
And that’s the $25 question. Or in my case, $17.80. And the answer is: Not me.
This should not have been much of a surprise. I don’t actually like Adventure/Puzzle games. Or more specifically, I abhor games in which you can come to a hard stopping point and flounder around not even knowing what it is the game is asking you to do. Can’t beat a boss? Gain more levels, or memorize its attacks, or try a different strategy. Can’t get into a locked room? Well, unless there are some movable statues right outside or a monster with the key, then good luck. There could be any number of reasons why the door is locked, up to and including the fact you aren’t supposed to go through the door. And when the solution ends up being “attach a probe to it and then wait FIFTEEN MINUTES for the entire structure to be sucked into a black hole and ejected out into space and then go through a different opening altogether,” I’m not exactly happy at the designer’s cleverness.
Nevertheless, I am glad I played Outer Wilds, if for no other reason than to see for myself as to whether it is a transformative experience. Again: not for me. I can see how it could be for some people though. Maybe. I’m not really sure, actually, because I find it difficult to imagine the sort of person who is capable of working through the entire game without a guide and also receptive to its underlying message. The guides I used didn’t ruin any of the details, but the experience itself gets a bit disjointed when you’re Alt-Tabbing every few minutes.
But if you are a fan of timed, Adventure platforming roguelikes though, you are in for a treat.
There are few things that prime the pump more than hearing “from the creators of FTL.” That was one of those games that seemed to come out of nowhere with a simple-yet-actually-brutally-complex system wrapped up in a sweet indie game package and threw me for a loop. It was ultimately a good loop, but a loop nonetheless.
Despite all that, I had hitherto heard about, got excited for, and then completely forgot about Into the Breach. Until I realized it was on the Xbox Game Pass… and leaving shortly.
Into the Breach is essentially a puzzle game. You command three time-traveling pilots who are trying to protect the remnants of humanity from the Vek by piloting giant mechs. Each turn, the Vek (e.g. aliens) will move around the grid-based map and telegraph the actions they are about to take. During your turn, each mech can make one move and one action to try and foil the Vek’s plans before it occurs. While killing the Vek will cancel their action, the primary mechanism is typically “pushing” the Vek out of place on the grid.
As a general example, the default mech can perform a punch that deals 2 damage and pushes the target back 1 square. Many Vek have 3 or more HP, so this attack by itself will not kill a Vek that is about to attack a skyscraper full of people. But instead of attacking the skyscraper in front of it, that punched Vek will move 1 square away and instead attack whatever is in front of it in that new square. If it’s another skyscraper… well, oops. It could be empty air though. Or even another Vek, if you are clever enough. Or if the Vek was standing next to water/a giant pit/the telegraphed impact location of deadly lightning or whatever, it will die instantly. If the square is blocked, the pushed Vek will take an extra 1 damage and deal 1 damage to whatever blocked its path.
The default squad is the punching mech, a tank that deals 1 damage from range in cardinal directions, and artillery that deals one damage at a location and pushes everyone in cardinal directions 1 square away from the impact. If you successfully clear islands, you can spend reputation points to purchase additional items that can be equipped to give your mechs different abilities. For example, the punching mech can get a shield that makes the Vek turn around instead of pushing them, the artillery unit can get shells that light squares on fire, and so on.
If you cannot tell already, the gameplay ends up both simple and complex at the same time. Victory occurs when X number of turns complete, so you don’t really need to kill every Vek on the screen. Missions always have bonus objections which can complicate things. Incoming Vek reinforcements are telegraphed, and they can be prevented from spawning if their square is blocked – it will deal 1 damage to your mechs, or another Vek if one is pushed there.
Having said all that, this game can also be brutal. The Power Grid represents your life total of the run and it carries over through every mission. Vek destroying 1 building results in 1 less Power Grid for every mission thereafter. While you can take on missions that grant replacement power, that comes at the opportunity cost of missions that reward more reputation, which you spend on buying gear to enhance your team. Your own mechs have HP that is repaired between battles, but losing your HP in a battle will kill the pilot, which results in all their unlocked abilities going away.
I got super frustrated at one point until I realized… this is a puzzle roguelike. Some situations will go south fast with nothing you could reasonably do. Sometimes the Vek will “waste” all of their attacks on your mechs, which you can simply walk away from. Other times the Vek will spread out and attack buildings everywhere. In a worst case scenario, you can abandon the timeline you are in and take one pilot with you into a fresh game.
Ultimately, Into the Breach is a decently fun puzzle game. It’s no FTL, but it’s in the same quadrant. I just wish they would port this game to mobile, where it would be a perfect fit IMO. Between this and a mobile Slay the Spire, I might never be productive again.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.
I knew from prior reporting that this game was different than standard games. I had heard of tales of fancy solutions to seemingly impossible situations. That “cheesing” encounters might even be necessary to survive. What I had not considered though, is how tunnel-visioned I had become on rote, formulaic solutions to cliched problems such that I had not even considered the possibility of trying something else.
The very first weapon you pick up is a wrench, which is about as tropy as you get. Then you get the GLOO gun. This is a weapon that deals no damage, but spits out expanding foam balls that can immobilize enemies, put out fires, seal flaming pipes, temporarily block arcing electrical panels, and become climbable platforms when it dries. The silenced pistol comes an hour or two later, and by then you will have encountered quite a few of the stronger enemy types with just a wrench and GLOO gun. The designers were very clearly trying to educate the player on all the myriad solutions to the problems they want you to solve.
Trouble is, I’ve been “trained” too well over the years.
It’s only well after the fact that I realize a better solution existed. For example, I walked into a room, and saw the windows sealed with GLOO foam. A note on the counter read “I sealed two Mimics in there, but there are casualties, so as many as eight.” I wrenched the foam out of the way, and used a combination of Wrench, Silenced Pistol, bullet-time, and panic to kill the half-dozen or so Mimics that popped out of the window.
After searching the now enemy-less room, I realized a few things. First, there was a broken turret in the hallway before this room. I could have repaired it, then set up the turret to cover the window. Second, there was a flammable oxygen pipe that run just under the window – which could have been shot to spray a jet of flame across the opening, catching the Mimics on fire. Third, I have Recycler Grenades, and could have just blown them all up. Instead, I chose the dumbest, most caveman solution possible and wasn’t overly punished for it.
Speaking of Recycler Grenades, these are items that basically convert everything within a certain radius into blocks of materials. And I do mean everything, furniture and enemies included. You can spend a lot of Neuromods (e.g. skill points) unlocking the ability to to lift ever-heavier items out of the way – and there are quite a few early rooms barricaded with heavy objects – or you can… just toss a Recycler Grenade at the obstruction and clear it instantly plus get some materials to make more grenades. This was not my own discovery, I had to read about it. It’s entirely possibly that I would not have even ever tried. That’s some goddamn 1984 doublethink shit, where you lack the language to even acknowledge your oppression.
To be clearer in my own language here, I am praising Prey. It’s just blowing my mind a bit that years of other, less clever games could essentially atrophy any out-of-the-box thinking. I even played Deus Ex back in the day, and I enjoyed all the sequels too. Part of me feels like Prey should punish more mundane gunplay more, or just forgo guns altogether.
At that point though, perhaps forced cleverness isn’t really cleverness at all.
Anyway, six hours in, Prey is an exceedingly unique experience with some really inventive scenarios. The existence of Mimic enemies cause you to really examine all the debris in a room, which can sometimes (and sometimes not, apparently) lead you to realize alternative solutions to an otherwise straight-forward enemy situation. The GLOO gun is pretty much the closest thing to the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2 that I have seen a game introduce in a decade. And damn near everything else is similarly polished and grokkable in surprising ways.
Pick this game up when you can. On sale, of course, but on the next one.
Game: Ori and the Blind Forest
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Journey, Metroidvania, Action Platformers
The simplest summary of Ori and the Blind Forest would be “Journey Metroidvania.”
After playing through the equivalent of the opening scene from the movie Up, you are thrust into the controls of Ori, a sort of cat creature as she (?) begins a quest to return life to the Spirit Tree. While the gameplay can be described as Metroidvania, I consider it more along the Action Platformer scale – certainly the majority of the challenge of the game comes from the platforming elements rather than defeating enemies. As you explore the map and solve various platforming puzzles, you eventually unlock additional movement abilities such as Wall Jumping, Double Jumps, Floating, etc, which allows you both access to brand new areas, and new corners of old spaces.
One thing that shocked me while playing was the difficulty. For as lush and beautiful as the game looks, Ori spares no punches with insta-kill mechanics. While the player can create save locations practically anywhere (at the cost of a renewable resource), the onus is on the player to remember to do so. Spend 15 minutes backtracking to grab that HP power-up, only to get squished by a falling stone trap? Well… I hope that power-up is now worth 30 minutes of your time. Indeed, later stages of the game become absurdly difficult with 2-3 minute (or longer) “chase” sequences in which any mistake is punished with death, forcing you to redo the entire sequence. Reminded me of Super Meatboy in that respect.
All that being said, though? I absolutely loved my time spent in Ori. The game is a visual feast, the soundtrack amazing, the animation fluid, and the gameplay interesting. Indeed, one of the movement unlocks later in the game – called “Bash,” which was a complete misnomer – single-handedly took the game from good to great in my eyes; the move allows you to grab enemies or projectiles, pause time, and then rocket yourself one direction and the grabbed object in the other. You end up needing to use Bash a lot by the endgame, but it was fun enough that I would play an entire game based around just that mechanic in the way Ori used it.
Highly recommend picking the game up next time a Steam sale or Humble Bundle comes along.
Game: The Swapper
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 87
Completion Time: 5 hours
Buy If You Like: Puzzle Games, Unique Premises, Questioning the Nature of the Soul
The Swapper is one of the more innovative puzzle games I have ever played. Not so much exactly for its puzzle mechanic – you create clones that mimic your actions, like that level in Braid – but the way in which the mechanic is intertwined with the narrative is unparalleled.
Things are mysterious and surreal and dark from the very start, as you make your way from being stranded on a mining colony to back on a seemingly derelict spaceship. In such a setting, finding a gun that creates clones of yourself doesn’t seem that big a deal. Which then leads you to start being a little cavalier with your clones, as you leap off ledges, slow time down to create a clone already standing on the rapidly approaching floor, then “swapping” your soul between the two as your now-empty original self smashes itself to pieces on the bulkhead below. You can do the same thing in reverse, creating a vertical body of soul bridges, each clone creating one more at the height of its vision, with all but the last falling to his/her death, their last moments spent walking in the void, just as you do, towards a door they shall never reach.
The Swapper is precisely the type of game that inspires sentences like the previous one.
The puzzles themselves straddle closely the “too clever for their own good” side of the scale, and a few require more reflexes than I thought entirely necessary. The primary impediments are the different colored lights, which impede clone creation, soul swapping, or both. Beyond that, the majority of the time you are creating, killing, and scratching your head over how to arrange clones on the correct floor switches. While it might sound monotonous, again, the overall mood and narrative absolutely sells the entirety of the five-hour game.
Given the above, I must both recommend that The Swapper gets played, but at a discount. It’s worth a spot on your wishlist in time for the next sale.
Game: Tomb Raider
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 86
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: 3D puzzle platformers, slick Deus Ex-like visuals
When it finally came time to play Tomb Raider, the reboot of a 1997 game, it had been sitting in my Steam library untouched for over a year. I delayed playing this version because I felt as though I might get more out of the experience if I played through some of the original games; I think I got as far as the underwater portion of the very first one, back in the day. Once it became clear that that was not likely to ever happen, I sat down and booted up Tomb Raider.
Holy shit, you guys. This game is slick.
Although the Eidos Montreal team seems to have only worked on the multiplayer portion, the very first thing I thought of while playing Tomb Raider was “this feels like Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” My gaming rig is starting to get long in the tooth (GTX 560ti), but this is easily the best-looking computer game to ever grace my screen. The whole thing may as well have been an extended cutscene for how good it looks. And not just visually, but conceptually as well – even the UI when camping seems downright cinematic.
After some early exposition, you take control of an inexperienced Lara Croft who very quickly faces some life-and-death situations. While there were some early news articles alleging the game is torture-porn, I felt it did a rather brilliant job at portraying a more “realistic” sense of action. Lara is not the invincible action hero she eventually becomes in the older games – she gets smacked around, thrown by explosions, impaled by rebar, covered in cuts, dirt, and blood. “I hate tombs,” she quips in an early section of the game. While some later scenes clearly get pretty fantastical, I nevertheless remained fully immersed by the utterly reasonable way Lara walked around, hid behind waist-high obstructions, and later became the hardered tomb raider of destiny.
I will say though, that the brutality of failing the numerous quick-time events almost makes you want to fail them on purpose just to see how awful a death the designers scripted in. Spoiler: they’re harsh.
In terms of what you actually do while playing, the game is essentially a 3D puzzle platformer with some extended shooting sequences. The game is divided into discrete areas to explore and solve, but the edges are pretty seamlessly integrated into the whole. Indeed, it wasn’t until about the 5th or so cave before I realized that Lara squeezing through a narrow gap and slowing walking with a torch outstretched was basically a playable loading screen. Sure beats all those elevators in Mass Effect. In any case, the puzzles themselves aren’t particularly difficult and Lara will generally talk her way through them the longer you stay stumped in the same area.
It is sort of difficult to coming up with more words to describe what the experience of playing this game is like. I suppose it is exactly that: an experience. Tomb Raider is a 15-hour movie that could have easily been a satisfying 7 or 10 hour one, but goes that little extra mile and I am glad for it. You will not likely be blown away by the dialog or particularly innovative gameplay experience, but you will be having too much fun looking around and doing things to care.
I definitely recommend playing Tomb Raider if you get the chance.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzlers, Hilarious but too short games
Gunpoint is a short, 2D indie puzzler with some of the most hilarious writing I have ever seen in a videogame. You take control of Richard Conway, a freelance spy whose latest customer was murdered before he could get the details. From that classic film noir story hook, you get a classic film noir plot broken up by bouts of mildly interesting puzzles.
At their simplest level, the puzzles in Gunpoint revolve around interacting with a computer and then exiting the map via subway station. The central conceit is Conway’s ability to rewire a building’s electronic systems, such that getting caught on a surveillance camera actually opens the locked door instead of triggering the alarm. Some of a building’s circuitry is “hardened” (it has a different color), which means you have to reach a certain (color) breaker box before being able to reroute that circuit’s wires. Completing maps will give you currency to purchase more gizmos, including the ability to electrify certain devices or even the ability to (temporarily) reroute a guard’s gun – causing them to either open a door when they pull the trigger, or forcing them fire the weapon at a buddy when you flip a light switch.
The puzzles are fun, but… well, they end up being only mildly interesting. Rewiring electronics turns out to be fairly powerful as a sort of default ability, which is reflected by the fact that the latter half of the game basically features only 2-3 things you can actually interact with (one light switch, maybe a camera). There are some mechanics that prevent you from simply pouncing/shooting your way through all the guards (the subway gets locked down after any gunshots), and as a result the game becomes incredibly abstract by the end. Normally, that might not matter for, you know, a puzzle game, but I actually enjoyed the early gameplay over what it ends up “evolving” into.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, Gunpoint is extremely short, clocking in around ~2 hours of gameplay. Given that, and given my ambivalence towards the later gameplay, I would suggest waiting until Gunpoint hits $5 or a bundle. It is a game definitely worth your time to play at some point – trust me, the dialog alone is almost worth it – but that time doesn’t have to be now.
Game: Rogue Legacy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Harsh action platformers, RPG-esque indie games
Rogue Legacy is a sort of indie hybrid RPG roguelike action platformer. The developers describe the game as “Rogue-Lite,” as the central premise is that while the game features permadeath, your children will take up the family mantle and invade the procedurally-generated castle to avenge you. This design is actually pretty compelling, especially considering that while purchased equipment/abilities cary over from one character to the next, the gold used to purchase these things do not. So what ends up happening is failed runs (usually!) end up leaving you with enough gold to be stronger for the next one, while not encouraging you to hoard gold in the meantime.
The castle itself is divided into four main areas, each with a boss at the end. While the general location of the areas are stable, all of the individual rooms and transitions are randomly determined. I say “random,” but the vast majority of rooms have a high level of coherence, as opposed to the truly random nonsense of games like A Valley Without Wind. You do not technically need to clear a room of enemies to move on, but it is generally a good idea considering getting better equipment and stats requires gold. That being said, there is an entire class (Miner) that encourages you to avoid combat as much as possible while quickly snagging as many treasure chests as you can.
The gameplay itself is pretty unforgiving. While you can equip a bunch of Vampiric gear later on, and occasionally find a piece of health-restoring food when destroying furniture, for the most part damage you take is permanent. This can lead to frustrating scenarios in which an otherwise solid-looking boss attempt is stymied on the way to the door because you landed on some spikes in the prior room. Or misjudged a screen full of projectiles. Or faced one of those goddamn wolves that seem to charge half a second earlier than you’re prepared for.
And by “solid-looking boss attempt” I mean that at least one of the three children you can select for your next castle run had a good class/characteristic/ability combination. For you see, sometimes your favorite class might be Farsighted (makes the center screen fuzzy), or the screen is upside down, or they have an enormous character model (increased weapon reach, but increased hitbox too), or maybe everything is good except they have a weak magic ability.
I am not attempting to dissuade you from purchasing Rogue Legacy, but I do want to point out that while the devs say “Rogue-Lite,” the game is still pretty roguelike. I had a pretty solid 9 hours of fun, and a less fun 4 hours of being stuck grinding gold and new abilities to give me the hope of downing some of the bosses. Admittedly, being better at the game might have reduced that time, but then again, being worse would have increased it exponentially. So in your game purchase decision, be sure to take into consideration how good you are at semi-twitch platformers.
Game: Elven Legacy
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 71
Completion Time: ~21 hours
Buy If You Like: Hex-based strategy games, old games
Elven Legacy is a somewhat more traditional hex-based strategy game featuring PS1 graphics, a somewhat abbreviated plot, and an incredibly brutal single-player campaign.
What I recognized early on was that I had not actually played many “strategy” games before, as opposed to more tactical affairs. The underlying mechanics were fairly simple: units can move and attack each turn, all units have 10 HP, sometimes there are special abilities or perks that can come into play, units gain XP and levels, and you can move your entire team each turn. When all the moving pieces come together however, you begin to realize how much the odds are against you on each and every map.
Allow me to present an example. During your turn, you move your spearman up to attack an enemy unit. Before committing to the attack, you see that you will deal 5 damage and take 2 damage in return. During the attack, the damage numbers were actually 4 and 3 – the projected numbers are simply the average range. The damage a unit takes is counted as either wounded or dead, with the spread being determined by perks and… well, I’m not actually sure how its counted. I noticed higher level units take more wounds than deaths, so I’m sure stats are somehow involved. Regardless, your now-7 HP unit will deal less damage than that same unit at full health. On your next turn, you can choose to order that unit to Camp, which will heal all wounded (not dead) units, at the cost losing both its attack and move phase.
Another wrinkle is morale. Units attacked below a certain baseline will Break, reducing their attack and defense scores by 4 until they Camp, while also retreating a hex away. Even units that do not Break will retreat a hex back when low on HP. This can wreck havoc with your plans should you attempt to attack with two units, only to have the first attack send the enemy out of range of your follow-up. This can lead to some odd behavior, like attacking with your weakest units first, probing for the breaking point, before sending in the big guns to hopefully annihilate the unit.
Then you have the hero/monster units, which can heal to full all the time. Then you have magic spells, which have unlimited ranges by only 1-2 charges per spell. Then you have terrain bonuses/penalties. Then you are picking one of three Perks for each level a unit gains. Then you are sending units around the map looking for artifacts that you can equip to give certain units more abilities/stats. Then you realize you often have a time limit to complete the map. And so on.
While the game was surprisingly strategic and all, literally everything else was forgettable. I have not dabbled much in the strategy game genre, but I know enough to know that there are likely better titles out there to buy. I purchased Elven Legacy at some ridiculous discount a year or so ago, and it is probably only worth that much (or less). It was fun while it lasted, but it really only succeeded in me wanting to look at other strategy games.
Note: I purchased the DLC along with the normal game, but was unable to get any of said DLC to actually work. The new campaigns showed up and were selectable, but none of the dialog or win conditions or any text was visible.
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Portal-lite, FPS puzzle games
QUBE is a first-person puzzle game in the Portal tradition. In fact, basically all you need to know is that QUBE is Portal-lite. Throughout the game you can manipulate the behavior of a series of colored cubes that have standard behavior: red ones extend out one square at a time to a three-square distance, yellow ones make a step-ladder patterns, blue squares act as spring-boards, etc. Actually, why stop describing them now? Purple cubes rotate a section of the wall/floor, and green create either a block or ball, depending on the puzzle. Oh, and there are magnet walls. There, that is 100% of the set pieces.
While all this sounds simple, QUBE veers into some ridiculously fiendish puzzles before the end of its ~4 hours of gameplay. At one point, you have to solve a puzzle in the dark, with only one element at time being lit up. Another requires the fine manipulation of otherwise inert cubes of differing sizes by using magnetic walls. Yet another requires the navigation of a sort of Wheatley-esque robot that only makes right turns through a maze.
Overall, QUBE provides a lot more depth than I originally thought it could, but it did not provide enough to overcome the otherwise deserved “Portal-lite” title. Just image Portal minus GLaDOS, minus the threat of death, minus the ability to move blocks manually, and minus the ability to put portals almost anywhere. Oh, and minus about ~10 extra hours of gameplay.
Grab QUBE as part of a bundle if you can.