Some games I played in 2022
Posted at 23:15 on 31st December 2022 - permalink

Previously: 2018201920202021

Once again the year draws to a close and it’s time to do my homework for the internet.

I realise I managed to avoid playing nearly all the big releases this year. This isn’t a boast. I’m not really a Dark Souls guy so didn’t bother with Elden Ring, and most of the medium-sized indie hits that came out this year I didn’t have the time or motivation to play, when weighed up against the gaming comfort food and new-to-me titles into which I ended up putting the most hours (below).

Yakuza: Like a Dragon / Like a Dragon 7

I spend a good few weeks this year exclusively playing Like a Dragon 7, a Playstation Plus freebie and my first experience of the franchise.

The game’s art direction (there’s a whole other essay in discussing how the Yakuza games find and celebrate beauty in the mundane) and execution of it’s story content is top notch. The story is driven along through frequent and lengthy cutscenes that mix together in-engine and prerendered scenes fairly seamlessly. While I’m sure I missed out on a lot of nuance by not having played all the previous installments of the series, the game spends lots of time fleshing out the main characters and explaining in broad strokes where people, places and events tie into the established story. It’s very funny as well, relentlessly undercutting itself and RPG conventions.

LaD 7 is designed to be an entry point for new players, introducing a new protagonist (Kasuga Ichiban) and turn-based JRPG style combat. Unfortunately it doesn’t feel quite as clean a break from established series conventions as Breath of the Wild did. There are lots of poorly integrated minigames dotted around the game world that mostly feel like they’re there out of obligation. While one or two feel like they have enough content to hold the player’s interest in their own right (such as the Dragon Kart racing game, the business management sim, and I suppose the emulated Sega coin-ops if you’ve not already played them to death), most are tucked out of the way and given such a needlessly cumbersome UI (the golf, baseball and UFO catcher games being particularly bad offenders) they almost feel like they’re discouraging the player from wasting too much time on them.

Aside from the minigames, the game itself is very obviously a patchwork of a few siloed-off systems (battle, world exploration, story) that rarely need to interact in a meaningful way. The game world is pretty enough to look at, but is pokey in open world game terms and lacking in interaction beyond random battles, shops and a very thin smattering of side missions. The game’s economy is a bit of a mess. You earn a trickle of currency from random battles and some moderately sized rewards from story and side missions, but the only practical way to afford the high end weapons and items in the game is to grind through a static battle arena that seems to have been stuffed with easy loot as a last minute kludge.

Aside from pivotal boss battles and a few ambushes from high level mobs to keep you from getting complacent, most of the combat can be steamrollered through without much strategic thought, in typical JRPG fashion. The game’s artists (and localisation staff) have had a lot of fun reskinning each of the game’s basic enemies (of which there are loads, even if they mostly boil down to different variants of ‘dude with specific melee weapon’) with progressively wackier themes, which the game explains away as Ichiban daydreaming about being a Dragon Quest hero whenever a fight kicks off.

Completing certain characters’ quests adds them as a contact in Ichiban’s phone, allowing them to be summoned in combat for a fee. At normal difficulty the game is balanced to make these gig economy summons rarely needed, but they’re worth using at least once as the elaborate cutscenes they trigger are in many cases hilarious.

The modest budget and creaky tech sometimes distracts. The main characters other than Ichiban tend to not change their appearance or costumes throughout the course of the game. Long exposition scenes sometimes take place in fairly generic rooms, suggesting a more ambitious or expensive scene was cut (the story arc involving the Korean mafia feels particularly short on on-screen action).

There’s an obvious difference between the appearance of characters modelled after their voice actors, and some of the later antagonists who have a much more stylised look – an intentional choice but one that looks much more incongruous given the game’s general level of fidelity than it presumably would have in the PS2 era. The animations whenever the script calls for a character to laugh are also very peculiar.

In spite of the series having now broken through in the West, it’s still fairly obvious that teenage Japanese boys are the primary audience. All that minigame content is geared towards players with vast amounts of free time to fill and a completionist streak. Women don’t factor into Ichiban’s world in a very significant way. More positively, the game does try to challenge lazy adolescent conservative attitudes, showing Ichiban the error of his boneheaded opinions, and accurately framing a cultish right wing protest group as cowardly misguided rubes.

My understanding is that the Like a Dragon games stories are intended to follow the conventions of pulpy yakuza genre films. With this in mind, the story works well (as should be expected given how many chances they’ve had to perfect the formula at this point).

There are a few unsatisfying bits. The melodramatic late-story revelation is a bit far fetched, but it’s kept ambiguous enough (hinted at through an unreliable narrator) that the story still resolves satisfactorily even if you don’t buy it.

Character motivations are monkeyed around with for story or gameplay convenience – most of Ichiban’s companions have reasons for joining (and sticking with) the party that really don’t bear a lot of scrutiny.

Midway through the story a minor character is murdered which turns out to be important to the overarching plot, but the level of determination Ichiban shows in avenging/investigating this murder seems wildly incongruous – this being a character who he has only recently met and who up until that point has been presented as not being very sympathetic or worthy of their loyalty at all.

In spite of all this, the opening and closing few hours are a tour de force of cinematic storytelling (by video game standards) and there are lots of high points in the intervening chapters as well. Like the best gangster flicks, Like a Dragon is a game that has something to say about the futility of the underworld lifestyle. It’s also a game where you fight a runaway chimp who has comandeered a JCB. Truly, something for everyone.

Slay the Spire

The problem with most deck building games is that they’re essentially a very convoluted way to play Hungry Hungry Hippos.

There’s an optimum strategy that players are required to gravitate towards. Individual playing style and improvisation are fed into the mincing machine to be replaced with card counting and spreadsheets. Board game nerds consider this to be a positive, a game requiring a ‘hobby grade’ time commitment to master being seen as a validation of their leisure choices. It’s this mentality that holds StS back in several regards.

The game’s onboarding doesn’t go nearly far enough to emphasise the importance of carefully limiting the size of your deck or seeking out duplicates of strong cards to further improve your odds of drawing them. While obviously a lot of the fun in the game is in building a mental model of the comparative values of cards and their synergies, one could end up struggling for a long time if they don’t realise the way that the game suggests playing it (with each new square landed on / battle won offering cards as a generally positive additive reward) isn’t the ‘correct’ way.

The game’s solution to extending it’s playing time and increasing variety is to have four characters, each with their own unique extra rules and unique cards. This is successful to an extent (and it is very cool that all the cards are compatible with all the characters), but by the time I’d unlocked the fourth character (having spent a lot of time playing the third one), I just didn’t want to scale the mountain yet again. I put the game aside for a few weeks, then sat down and consciously applied the rules in the previous paragraph with the third character and completed it on my first go. I’ve never felt compelled to go back since.

Finally, it’s safe to say that the game has been a significant commercial hit at this point. Why haven’t the developers ever gone back and fixed the frankly amateurish artwork? The card illustrations are for the most part passably good and readable, but the Spine animation of the battle scenes (as always) looks very ropey, and some of the event illustrations (the ‘campfire’ scenes in particular) are so crude you have to assume they’re placeholders that never got finished.

The fact that the deluxe physical edition of the game also uses some of this artwork suggests they’re scared of changing anything because the game has been successful. Please, don’t be so precious about it! You don’t need Valve/Blizzard-level production values, but if you want people to spend a large number of hours with your game at least you can make it pleasant to look at.

I played a ton of StS this year and enjoyed it a lot. I don’t want to sound like I’m diminishing it’s achievements – it’s a very well designed game. But at the end of the day, Slay the Spire, while powerfully addictive, doesn’t quite secure it’s place in the all-timer tier alongside Card Fighters Clash, Android: Netrunner and Marvel Snap.

Return to Monkey Island

It’s still too early for me to have any definitive opinion about Return to Monkey Island. I’ve played through the first two games several times over many, many years and thought about them a lot. (I last chewed over Monkey 2 when the Special Edition was released, which you can read here.)

It’s strange how something that’s seemed like an impossible pipe dream for so long feels like a bit of an anticlimax now it’s out. With the original cycle of SCUMM games in the 1990s, both the developers and players were stepping into the unknown. Monkey Island 2 and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (and the later ones, with diminishing returns) were the state of the art for point and click adventure games at the time, as long and complex and visually cinematic as they could possibly be achieved with the technology available.

Return to Monkey Island is… another one, at approximately the same scale. Even if we accept that it was never going to do anything mindblowing (we’ve already seen cel-animated and 3D takes on Monkey Island, and point and click adventure games are still prohibitively expensive to make), it still feels a bit conservative: a handful of characters, a few dozen rooms, a few hours of gentle puzzles. There are no big changes to the formula, not a lot of character development – we’re firmly in the ‘weekly reset sitcom’ version of the Monkey Island world rather than the ‘real life if disappointing and messy, you naive idiot’ Monkey Island 2 version.

Coming from Ron Gilbert and most of the same team who made Thimbleweed Park, I was fairly confident that this was going to feel like a legitimate Monkey Island game. I didn’t expect it to carry on directly from the ending of Monkey Island 2 and convincingly segue from that into a new story.

For someone who played the original Monkey Island 2 on PC at release, the whole prologue sequence feels like an amazing magic trick. It feels like the part that Gilbert has been thinking about the longest. It provoked the same response as some of the stuff in Blade Runner 2049 (“Oh shit, they can do that? They can in fact do ANYTHING with these characters who have, for us, been trapped in amber for years? Because they invented them and know them?”) that Hampton Fancher had clearly been waiting to share for a looong while.

The writing, vocal performances, character design and of course the puzzles themselves stay commendably faithful to the earlier games. Rex Crowle’s art has about as much ‘information’ in a given scene as the VGA originals and isn’t distracting as some had feared. There are lots of little close up shots (at least, early on) that allow the characters to be more expressive.

Outside of the prologue, the chapter of the game where the action is confined to Le Chuck’s galleon feels the most fleshed out. Most of the game is structured in such a way that each main location is usually a self contained mini-episode of puzzles, without too much hopping back and forth until the final act.

Unfortunately not all of these sections come up to the same standard. Some have lots of elaborate backgrounds but a minimal amount of puzzling and character conversations. There are rather too many of those LucasArts ‘mazes’ built of mixing and matching background chunks (as in, more than one). There are cameos by series regulars (Stan, Herman, Carla, etc.) that go nowhere, and a cute subplot about scurvy (riffing on real world conspiracy chumps) that comes across as a faint imprint of a longer and funnier conversation that didn’t make it into the game.

I was a bit disappointed that Le Chuck was a non-threatening Saturday morning bumbler again rather than the being of pure malevolence he was in Monkey 2. I thought the ending was okay. It leaves the door open for anyone to make more Monkey Island games in future, but also works as a good coda if this really is the last one. (I was more annoyed about the last puzzle, which seems to go against all Gilbert’s complaints about bad puzzle design, as well as objectively having accessibility issues particularly if you were to try to solve it on the Switch’s screen.)

I hope this isn’t the last point and click adventure that this team makes, Monkey Island or otherwise – I kind of hope they’ll revisit the Thimbleweed Park characters one day. (The cool ones like Delores and Ransome anyway, not that hotel manager guy.)

Marvel Snap

See everything critical I said about deck building games in Slay the Spire above? None of that is true here.

Marvel Snap is one of the best new mobile games I’ve played in several years. It’s a competitive card battling game that has been streamlined (over a 4+ year development cycle) to the point of near-perfection. You and your opponent each have twelve cards and six turns to play them in three lanes. Most cards (and locations) introduce a new rule that either happens once or keeps happening each turn unless something else happens that removes it from play.

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations – as Mr. Spock used to say – is the key to why this works so well. There’s no perfect deck that can beat any strategy or the luck of the draw every time. Almost every time I play I’ll come up against a player who has figured out a new and unexpected synergy between certain cards, rewriting my mental model of their relative value again.

This is given a whole extra psychological dimension with the ‘snap’ mechanic – basically at any time, either player can hit a button to double the ‘XP’ stakes for the game, announcing they’re confident of their hand (or are bluffing). You start to be able to better predict what players are going to do from their early actions and frustrate them. I’m currently finding that the Beast card (particularly in concert with the Cloning Vats location) gives almost endless scope to be a dick, shifting the goalposts on which lanes my opponent needs to defend and cheekily neutralising lots of final turn ambushes.

I think I might have to concede that Card Fighters Clash has finally been bettered? Bearing in mind I’m currently addicted to this game, so that might be like proclaiming that cigarettes are inarguably great. (Maybe check back with me in a few months on this.)

Also, Disney/Marvel/Second Dinner if you’re reading this, I do hope (semi-seriously) that Biz Markie’s people are getting some appreciation for tens of millions of people hearing his catchphrase every day.

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk saw some major patches this year which further improved performance, fixed the driving and added a sprinking of new content (apartments to buy, a couple of new gigs and weapons, plus greatly improved options for customising your character’s appearance and outfits on the fly). Between this and the (surprisingly excellent) Edgerunners anime, I was tempted back to spend more time exploring Night City.

I wrote at length about the game when it came out, but in spite of it ticking so many of the boxes for my personal tastes in games, I was still somewhat hesitant to put it on too high a pedestal. At this point though, I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of my top ten games of all time. I think it’s probably time we bit the bullet and started calling it an immersive sim as well.

The many hours I’ve spent in the game this year haven’t been re-doing the main story and side missions. I’ve just loaded up my old all-missions-complete, meet-Hanako-at-Embers save and explored the city. There are no more mission markers on the map, but there’s still a lot left to see and do. The amount of secrets and tiny unique details hidden in the world continues to be completely astonishing.

CDPR’s level designers have taken snap-together architecture and props, and judiciously placed corpses with loot and written notes in their pockets, and used these as art materials to pile up seemingly thousands and thousands of micro-doses of worldbuilding. There are whole areas of the game (containing specifically crafted platforming, trap-avoiding and combat capsule challenges) that you might not stumble across until hundreds of hours into the game.

There is so much to find. The survivalist bunkers under buildings in the desert. The water purification plant on the river whose hacked security system has killed the engineers sent to investigate. The crime scene of a political assassination near the oil fields to the North where you can snag a sweet machine gun. The Easter Egg hunt for a unique weapon prototype in the Arasaka complex, seeded in an email on a laptop you could easily miss. Plus all those corpses halfway up fire escapes, stuffed in lockers, on rooftops, washed up on the beaches with their own little stories.

I think my favourite recent find was “Scraps”. A short way down the road from a mission location in the desert (a Wraith-occupied motel), there’s an unassuming junk yard of this name. It’s fully enclosed by razorwire fences, leading the player to an entryway that (if they’re observant) they’ll notice is strewn with corpses of attempted looters. You have to pick your way through a minefield and deactivate turrets, cameras and laser tripmines to get into the main building. Once you’re inside, you find a body face down on the floor in front of a number pad locked door. The game uses maybe five small epistolary texts (emails, a journal, etc.) to let the player piece together what happened.

There’s no achievement for doing this. It’s a quick twenty minute detour that feels like a one-shot short comic set in the world. The game is chock full of stuff like this, and it’s alarming to think that many players, trained on Ubisoft open world trash to make a beeline to the next mission marker until the credits roll, will have missed loads of it. It certainly proves that the established model of mainstream game reviewing (speeding through games before an embargo lifts), that led to some reviewers astonishingly complaining that Night City “felt empty”, is irrevocably broken at this point.

The upcoming Phantom Liberty expansion is one of my most anticipated games for 2023. Until then there’s always another storage locker to jimmy open, rooftop to scale, conversation to overhear, or unique clothing, weapon or vehicle variant to snag in Night City.

No Man’s Sky

Yes, I’m still playing it, but not anywhere as near as much as the last few years. NMS has reached the point where it’s starting to get very creaky on older systems (the most recent round of optimisation coinciding with the Switch release giving image quality a severe kicking), and after so many updates it’s difficult to keep track of what exactly was added to the game in the last 12 months. I think the freighter base overhaul, solar sail ships and pirate systems, and revamped, now at least somewhat challenging/interesting, sentinel combat were all this year, right?

Probably the biggest single improvement from my point of view was the new custom difficultly menu. Among lots of other options, you can now completely disable ship to ship combat which is a godsend. Dogfighting in NMS has always just been there because it was expected to be – it has no depth and no stakes (compared to Elite Dangerous for example where it’s an integral part of the game), and just ends up being a time-wasting annoyance when you’re trying to fly between planets.

There were also some good community expeditions (timed events) this year, although it’s getting to the point where the game chugs too much with real-time multiplayer enabled which spoils things a little bit. I won’t embed a selection of my screenshots this year, but you can find them all (assuming Twitter is still functional when you read this) here.

Everything else

I spent a pleasant few evenings playing Codies’ Dirt5. I enjoyed the casual, arcadey structure of the metagame. I was a bit less keen on how “how do you do, fellow kids?” the whole presentation was (I had to instantly mute the terrible ‘podcaster’ commentary that constantly burbles away) and the sporadic ‘novelty’ races with cars that handle like bricks. It was also amusing to see how the visual quality on console has gradually been whittled away (compared to the still amazing looking Dirt Rally) as they try to shoehorn more content onto the old hardware – the amount of pop-in and liberal use of billboard imposters sometimes made the game look like a remaster of Power Drift rather than a modern racing game. In spite of all that the driving model still feels ultra-responsive and satisfying.

I also played a bit of Beatstar. Which is basically Tap Tap Revenge (if anyone remembers that) with a proper modern F2P metagame and a ‘blanket’ music streaming license (a tie-up with Apple Music I think?) ensuring there’s a decent selection of old and new tracks in lots of genres to collect. It’s apparently Space Ape’s most successful game to date and it’s easy to see why. I don’t think I’ll get into the routine of playing it every day but I can see myself dipping back into it to kill time.

I tried to get into Deep Rock Galactic. It’s a very odd game, based around a quite unconventional game loop of mining out procedurally generated caves in first person. It’s very reminiscent of the sort of limited appeal ‘B-game’ that you used to find on the 3 for £10 rack for PC in the early 2000s. It seems heavily geared to being played as a hobby, and I guess it has found an audience that will sink a lot of time into it week in week out. Personally I bounced off the annoyingly fiddly controls after a couple of sessions. Sorry!

I also played a bit of Into the Breach, a game I’ve held off on playing for a long time based on the screenshots. The turn-based tactical genre has seen so many games with really beautiful 2D art over the years, and Into the Breach looked like it had a ‘Newgrounds fan game trying it’s best’ aesthetic by comparison. I was pleased to discover it looks a bit better in motion. But sadly again it didn’t hold my interest.

I have a sneaking suspicion (which is completely unfair and might well be dispelled if I went back to play the game for longer) that a lot of the gushing praise that the game enjoyed was down to a lot of indie PC game developers and critics having not played many games in the genre before, and the whole ‘randomly generated skirmishes’ thing is a crutch to get out of having to make well balanced, playtested static levels (which in fairness is massively difficult to do – a big part of the reason there are so few new entries into the genre these days). It seems more of a ‘Chess Puzzle’ game than an SRPG anyway, so perhaps it’s unfair to view it in those terms.

Oh, and the best games-related thing that I watched on YouTube this year was hands down Tim Rogers’s Boku No Natsuyasume review. (It’s split into chapters, you don’t need to watch it all in one sitting.)

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