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Here's some warm, winter-y tunes for while ya read.
As with every year, I wanna go over all the new games I had a chance to play through. Now, this will not be a perfect set of reviews as the games are not all fresh in my mind. This will actually be my second time writing them.
Earlier this month, I was really discouraged because I had already written up nearly this entire page - paragraphs and paragraphs of reviews - and I lost them all through a mishap in moving files. I typically write these things out throughout the year, as I complete each game, so I lost an entire year's worth of work. I know these things are not really read by anyone, but I sometimes look back at them, and I enjoy reminiscing about the games I really like while I write about them. They are important to me, so it really hurt to lose so much work and immediate memories of how I reacted while playing. Still, after some time away from these write-ups, and after playing through one specific game that I'll mention later, I have some motivation to come back to my list and talk about why I enjoyed them so much.
Thanks, KittyKyomi for listening to me vent and helping to distract me from being so upset.
I'll start with Dishonored 2, a sequel I was very excited for after finally playing the first game.
I am rather poor at stealth games, but boy, can playing them be super fun. I love the intense nature of being nearly seen at all times, but knowing the consequences of being caught. You're able to escape after being seen, but it is always way more dangerous after that. I actually started playing Dishonored 2 in a Ghost run - no being seen and no killing - and I even turned down the Outsider's offer for the magic abilities. THIS WAS A MISTAKE. XD I got so frustrated early on, that I stopped playing for some time, and after about a month went by, I decided to start over, and played the fun way: with fancy-pants powers, and deciding to try and avoid killing and being seen, but if either occurred, it was OK. I'd continue. That way, I got to just have fun, and enjoy the finer points of this awesome title. It is incredibly atmospheric, making you truly feel the daily struggles of the people of Serkonos, and the corruption surrounding the main characters. Of course, my immediate choice of playable character was Emily, because girls are awesome. She proved to be a great protagonist, and the kingdom she travels through felt truly alive and out to get you. The new places to explore were detailed and intricate, with people going about their routines that you must carefully read to advance undetected. Again, I am impatient and poor at this type of thing, but I managed, and had a great time. Not as complex as, say, Metal Gear Solid, but more fantasy-like, with it's cool new powers, and I really like that sort of thing.
Next up, Sonic Mania Plus!
I must say, any reason to return to what is maybe my favorite Sonic game ever is welcome. The DLC's Encore versions of these already amazing levels were well-worth playing through again, and while I was not quite skilled enough to play through the harder Chaos Emerald stages, I knew the ending, and the levels themselves were reward enough. And playing through the game with the new no-lives system was neat. Shifting between characters rather than losing a life and returning to a checkpoint felt more proper, and of course, Mighty and Ray were a lot of fun to play as. Worthy additions to the group, and it's cool to see them return. Also, big shoutout to the guys that made those little Sonic Mania Adventures cartoons. When I first saw the animated intro to Mania, I lost it with excitement and nostalgia, but never did I expect a whole cartoon mini-series! We even got a Christmas special starring Amy and Metal Sonic this past month. Everything about Mania makes me really happy, and I'm glad this awesome DLC was released.
Let's get into some hard games, starting with Furi.
Man, this game is a grind. I first heard of it from Video Game Dunkey, and thought it would be a fun and intense challenge, and damn, dude. It was. The game's mechanics are easy to learn, but incredibly hard to master, and every time you think you have them perfected, a new twist on the combat system is presented in the next boss that forces you to expand your understanding of the gameplay and controls. Each boss is grueling, and while a few times I was quite frustrated, most bosses felt fair, but fun and challenging, especially with the clever health/life system in play. I eventually worked my way to the end, and while I, regrettably, had to concede to the true final boss - OMG SO HARD - I was satisfied with the previous fights. They were so flashy - seemingly chaotic, but sctually quite controlled - and along the way, the mystery of the protagonist's backstory keeps you fighting on to find out what or who you are. If you like a solid, challenging beat-em-up/shoot-em-up, with a light aspect of story that keeps you leaning into the mystery, give this a try.
Also, the soundtrack is inteeeeeeense. ^^
Another tough one: Hollow Knight.
THE DARK SOULS IF SIDE-SCROLLERS, RIGHT? :3:3:3 OK, for real, this is the only game that actually deserves that to be said about it. This game is like a PG-rated, side-scrolling Dark Souls title. It shares the Souls games' method of story-telling, using mostly bits and pieces of legends and word-of-mouth from across the world. It also shares their high-tier difficulty. One of my favorite type of games, and the one I am likely most skilled at, is platformers, so I appreciated the challenges this game presented, with simple but challenging combat, awesome bosses, an intriguing, gloomy setting, and platforming mechanics reminiscent of some classic Nintendo games. That being said, I was not skilled - or patient - enough to make it all the way to the true final boss, or to try the DLC packs, but I know for a fact that the stories told throughout this game are grand, and worth digging into if you like the dark, melancholy style of this game.
Finally, the most important really hard game I've played in a long time: Celeste.
As I mentioned before, this is the game that convinced me to get back into these reviews. It's fair, motivating challenge made me feel a lot better about the idea of failure, and learning from and gaining vigor from mistakes. I was blown away at how this whole game played out. I got it on sale, but in hindsight I absolutely would have paid full price, knowing the quality of it. I guess I made up for that by buying the soundtrack on vinyl - my first ever LP I'm buying for a Victrola record player I got for Xmas. The look, the sound, the characters - everything works so well. The story stars Madeline, the inexperienced mountain climber with serious anxiety/depression, climbing Celeste mountain, a place with the power to rather literally bring out the deepest parts of your subconscious, and the way the story is told is amazing, and well-written. As I mentioned before, I LOVE a good platformer, and not only does this game's simple controls make it accessible and fun to get into, but the challenge almost never feels unfair. I got frustrated at it all of 2 times, due to parts of a level feeling a bit less about skill and more about dealing with some janky environmental hazards, but EVERYTHING else felt so fluid. Even when I was dying literally hundreds of times, I just felt more determined, because I knew that the deaths were not the game's fault, but also not a bad thing on my part. After all, like the game tells you early on: "Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you're learning." It really did feel that way. With every single failure I reached a tiny bit further, and learned over time. I felt really proud every time I reached the end of a B-Side level, and will continue to feel the same way in the coming C-Side levels. I also hear that the devs are making some final levels to say goodbye to the fans of this well-received, well-loved title. Can't wait, man.
I the mean time, behold, my fantastic death count for the hardest obstacle I've come across so far:
2822 deaths total, as of writing this.
Alright, how about an easier one? Like Deltarune!
This was a strange one. Literally a day before it released, I just heard word that Undertale's official Twitter account had been "blacked out" and was overtaken by what seemed to be W.D. Gaster, given the familiar phrases being used. It said that in 24 hours, something was coming. I was curious, to say the least. I thought maybe there was some sort of Undertale lore thing that was going to be revealed, but I guess that was not BONKERS enough for someone like Toby Fox. Instead, an entire new game was released. ...Or, I mean, the beginning of a whole new game, I suppose. I ended up staying up much too late that night playing through this strange new story. It asked me questions about making a custom character, then immediately told me to discard it, as my choices in this new world made no difference. Kind of reminded me of Flowey's ominous, out-of-nowhere viciousness at the start of Undertale. Anyway, playing through it had me very intrigued the whole way through. The music, the characters, the sort of upgraded version of Undertale's graphical style, and the strange new world itself all melded really well, and seem to have accomplished what Toby was going for. Yes, people still want to know it's connection with Undertale, but they recognize that this is not the world they remember, familiar as it may seem. It has it's own rules, it's own story, and it's own new mysteries to solve. I really can't wait for more. Hopefully, the next chapter will have a bit more notice before it releases that Chapter 1 did, eh Toby?
Another easy-ish one, Kirby: Star Allies!
Kirby never presents a bad gameplay experience. I think that's fair to say. The usual criticisms are that the games are too easy, or too short. I can understand that view. This one, though, really manages to come through. AFTER the 3 free DLC updates, at least. The main game was relatively easy, and not the longest, and that was not unexpected, but the added content really makes it worth it. The Dream Friends and extra modes like Guest Star ???? and Heroes in Another Dimension are SO good. Playing through changed-up levels designed for each of the characters in Guest Star ???? gives a lot of replay value, and the different play styles of these old familiar faces feels fresh and varied. Heroes in Another Dimension is a noticeably harder mode, meant to get the most out of all the different abilities of each Dream Friend, and lets you unlock a secret boss, and a hidden extra character to play as. And of course, The Ultimate Choice - this game's boss rush - is a fantastic challenge. The initial max difficulty is decent, but beating it once, along with Guest Star ????, lets you play with higher difficulties, and completing one of those opens Soul Melter difficulty. Beating Soul Melter AND Heroes in Another Dimension unlocks what may be the single hardest challenge in any Kirby Game. Soul Melter EX has limited healing items, pits you against the OP versions of most of the bosses, and ends with the ridiculously strong alternate version of the final boss - yet another finale boss in a Kirby game to give me an existential crisis. Anyway. Everything that was added along the way added up to a really satisfying game. Kirby is still my favorite series in terms of artistic style, and Star Allies is no exception. It's possibly the best Kirby game I've ever played, honestly. It feels like a real love letter to the rest of the series, and does a lot of new things to make the series feel fresh. If you see it on sale, grab it for you and your kids to play together. It'll be a lot of fun.
OK. It's about that time. Time for The Life is Strange games, starting with Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
I was not expecting a prequel for Life is Strange after finishing the first game. There was all this word of a potential sequel, but I never felt that Max and Chloe's story had anywhere really important to go after the end of the game. It had ended rather conclusively. And I never even thought that a prequel would be considered. That being said, I was definitely curious about the enigmatic story of Chloe Price and Rachael Amber, before Rachael's inevitable death. Rachael was such an important point of the plot in Life is Strange, so I was excited to learn more about her duel life of being the straight-A daughter of the town D.A., and the anarchistic bad-girl alongside Chloe. There is no doubt that we are meant to see her as a bad influence on Chloe along the way, but I don't think we are meant to dislike her, or by any means blame her for all that Chloe became down the line. Chloe was already prone to being misbehaved and detached from the rules many people in Arcadia Bay were happy living by. Rachael just fueled that, and honestly, is it so wrong if they were both so happy together in the end? Chloe - and the player - could even try going the slightly less chaotic route when interacting with her, and it could still go rather well. Rachael may have had some real issues to work out, but she just wanted a more exciting and self-controlled life than she had, and wanted to leave the Bay by the end of the story, but the corrupt and pressuring parts of her life, those that she brought on herself or otherwise, pushed her to extremes sometimes, and that led to some rather dangerous situations. And of course, the entire issue of her mother was a serious drama. In the end, no matter how one feels about her particular life choices, no one can say she deserved what finally happened to her. The final scenes of Chloe and Rachael together - dying Chloe's hair, getting tattoos and sitting by the lighthouse - make for a happy end, and then all of that is ripped away with that post-credits shot of the familiar red binder and the missed calls on Rachael's phone. Chilling for those that played the first game, especially with the tell-tale camera flashes in the background.
The parts I most appreciated about this game were definitely the D&D games that gave you a fun, interactive break from everything, and the confrontation with Eliot. The entire scene was so tense, knowing that any wrong statement could set him off. It really felt like you were interacting with a genuine stalker - someone almost too disturbed to reason with. Overall, I think the best part of Before the Storm was what makes all the Life is Strange titles so good: the discomfort and uncertainty I felt with going back and trying certain alternate choices, and finding out how things changed depending on what hard truths you faced. No matter how hard a game-changing choice was, in the end, the outcome was worth seeing, whether due to heart-warming reunions, or just knowing that the truth is out, and that the worst has passed. I was really happy with how all of it came out, and I am really happy for Deck Nine and Feral Interactive, for managing to take up the reigns and make a game worthy of the Life is Strange name. You made Dontnod and all the fans so proud, guys. Well done.
Oh, and honestly, the Bonus Episode, to me, is the best one. Seeing young Max and Chloe going about their younger days, playing pirate and stirring up mischief, was a really great time, and it felt good to play as Max one last time. Even though the ending could not help but end on a heart-wrenching note, that is the way of things. Life is, after all, rather strange like that.
Some time after finishing that game, a sort of teaser for the actual sequel to the first game was shown off at E3, called The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. It was actually a game all it's own, albeit not a long one. The cool thing, though, was that they gave it to us for FREE.
This was a strange one, as I actually played through most of it early in the year, then took a break to focus on drawing for about a month and a half. When I came back to it, I only had about a half-hour of gameplay left. I thought it was going to be longer. XD But in hindsight, it was free, and was a mere teaser for the characters of Life is Strange 2, so such a length was more than enough. It felt great being back in the art style, gameplay, and atmosphere of the world of Life is Strange, especially when I got to control the actions of the mighty CAPTAIN SPIRIT! Chris is fun kid to play as, and seeing the small home of him and his dad through his eyes was something special. Nothing ground-breaking overall, but specific moments were worth it all. Seeing him go through pictures of him and his late mom, and the comics his mom made with him, was really heartwarming. In contrast, the interactions with Chris' dad are so real, especially in the moments where he goes overboard and says some really harsh stuff to Chris. Once again, the realism and genuine dread you are made to feel in the simplest moments of decision-making show the kind of impact that this series is capable of. There is one specific part of the game - I won't mention which for reasons of privacy - that really brought me back to some stuff I dealt with when I was about Chris' age. It made me really uncomfortable, and emotional, and yet I needed to continue, because it can only get better once you are through the worst of it, and man, that moment was really powerful. Despite how hard it was feeling those things all over again, I am happy to have played something impactful enough to have made me feel something like that. Bravo, devs, bravo.
And finally, the time came. The sequel many of the fans thought would never come: Life is Strange 2.
Here we are! The sequel so many fans were waiting for. Even though I was really excited for Captain Spirit, I was mostly just hyped up knowing that Life is Strange was actually continuing as a series. Dontnod's team was back, with Square Enix behind them as publisher, supporting a series they believed in, and now that I've played it, I can honestly say that I think it will have a lasting impact. As I noted on Twitter after finishing Episode 1, Sean and Daniel Diaz are a relateable and entertaining duo to lead the story, and they are portrayed extremely well through more and more trials, as they travel south towards the Mexican border, running from the law after a misunderstanding involving a racist neighbor, and the police shooting down their father. There are repeated references to very current topics of immigration and systemic racism, to varying degrees, and while it is clearly trying to pass on a message of tolerance to the player, that mostly takes a back seat to the relationship between the Diaz boys. Along the way, you meet a couple of friendly faces, like Sean's best friend that they were forced to leave behind, and one of my absolute favorites, YA BIG BOI BRODY. XD Brody is such a nice dude, and I appreciate his chill character design. Most of all, I appreciate the message I think Dontnod was trying to put through about the events of the last game. Again, as noted on Twitter, I think they were trying to get us to let go of any real expectations of Max or Chloe in Life is Strange 2. As Brody puts it, looking out over what's left of Arcadia Bay, "What is sure is... that's the past. But you can't look back now." That broken, lifeless town (as it was for me, because I sacrificed the town), is not what matters now. It needs to be let go of, to make room for new decision-making. Sean and Daniel are the ones that need our attention, not Max and Chloe. Their story is over, and it's time to try and solve a new conflict. We couldn't hold onto those girls forever, hard as it is to accept for many of us. In the end, we can only hope that in coming episodes, the Diaz duo will find their way to freedom, and things will not be TOO hard on them.
And then, there's the big one. The game I was pretty much most looking forward to releasing this year. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is here, BROOOOOOOOOO!
EVERYONE IS HERE!!!!! OH MAN, I'm so happy that this game is as good as it is! The fighters are PLEEEENTIFUL, balanced, flashy, and accessible at any skill level! The stages look better than ever, and ALL have Final Destination and Battlefield modes! There's OVER 1000 FREAKIN' SONGS IN THE MUSIC SELECTION! The adventure mode, World of Light, is LONG, and crazy fun to grind through! The bosses are tough, visually amazing, and loads of fun to fight! Classic Mode is different for every single character! The Spirit system is a worthy replacement for trophies, and are lots of fun to collect! Man, I haven't even tried online mode yet, and while I hear it is not the best, I'm not broken up about it. I bet I'll have fun anyway! And I can't wait for more fighters, stages and music in the DLC packs! BRING IT ON! The lead up to this game was so hyped, and it was all worth it! More smash, all the time!
As a side note, I... HAD... to get the full character art banner as a framed poster. I managed to get a really solid print of it (the earliest version of the banner, at least), and made my own frame, and now it sits here in my room, as a reminder of how rad so many of Nintendo's IP's can really look. This things is seriously like a meter and a half long. O.o Crazy.
HERE WE ARE.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
OK, so, I've written about this game... numerous times now. Not only because of my lost write-up of this journal entry, but also from when I came back to gush about it after playing it's final DLC pack. For the record, I did actually get this game last year, and it was the first game I played from start to finish in 2018, but I kept it for last here because of the effect it had on me.
This is officially my favorite game I've ever played. Sorry, Wind Waker HD.
Where do I even start? I have played through the game once - and watched the cutscenes over again like 4 times - and really, I was kind of rushing a bit, as I had other games I also wanted to play through in decent time, and life stuff takes president. This made for some... difficulties from time to time, as I was either under-leveled, or under-equipped for the task in front of me, leaving me a tad frustrated. This is why Xenoblade is meant to be played at a reasonable pace, and in a manner that has you exploring all there is to see, from the characters to the world to the side quests to the main plot. I will be playing it this way in New Game + when I get around to it. I can't wait!
Everything about the game tugs at my heartstrings as a gamer. First off, the story. This game is LOOONG. Even in the rushed way I played through it, it still took 80+ hours. I can only imagine how long New Game + will take when I take my time. Anyway, I think that this game easily surpasses the first Xenoblade for me. Rex and Pyra are an adorable and lovable pair, and their whole party of colorful characters are all so memorable. Even the characters like Zeke and Mythra, who I thought I would not like quite as much in the long run, turned out to be so amazing. The way they are portrayed and the way they all interact with eachother is just beautiful. ...and quite often hysterical. Like, Zeka and Morag are the greatest not-friends-but-friends ever. Also, on the note of the voice acting, the English voices have really grown on me. They are far from perfect, but honetly could be far worse, for a dub, and the voices chosen for each character actually suit them quite well. I went over my favorite lines over on Reddit, so check out that long post if you want.
As is the usual fair with all Xeno titles - all the way back to Xenogears, even - the story goes from relatively small, to completely universe-bending. First I think I am out to bring mah girl to Elysium and save the people of Alrest, and I somehow end up in space, learning about the end of a previous civilization from half the body of the man that destroyed it, and going on to fight a massive robot, change the world, and cry my way through the credits, only to have one more happy-tears-worthy twist right at the last second. THAT, MY FRIENDS, IS XENOBLADE. That's what makes the whole series so amazing. Also, with regard to the connection to the first game, having played Xenoblade 1 before this was not technically necessary, but only made everything so much more impactful. The devs said that it would sort of connect to the first game, but not in any meaningful way. THEY LIED. XD They caught us with our guard down, and when the time came to head into Spirit Crucible Elpys, and we all saw that split-second vision of the Earth being engulfed in light due to Klaus' experiment, every fan of the series FREAKED RIGHT OUT. And the intro to Chapter 10 on sent us further over the edge (Etika's reaction kind of encompass my reactions perfectly lol). All along the way, the story was executed so well, and I would play it all again in a heartbeat. If I had the time lol. I'm an adult. Too much to do.
Torna ~ The Golden Country released as the final DLC, and while I was not interested in the rest of the DLC updates at the time, I was REALLY hyped for a prequel story to the main game. Following Lora, Jin, and the rest of the group was awesome! The changes and improvements to the gameplay were welcome to me, and for whatever reason, I got much more into grinding out the Affinity Charts for each Blade and Driver, and finishing sidequests around the Titans. Those travels were what motivated me to start getting into New Game + for the main game, and to do it the right way. The story was also really special. It was not as crazy-large-scale as the main plot, but man, Jin and Lora's trials were really emotional, and the ending was so sad. You know a story is well-done when you go in knowing the tragic fate of an entire kingdom, but when it happens, it still feels like a punch to the gut. Mythra's hand in the destruction of Torna, and her guilt after seeing Milton's dead body, sent her into what can be compared to a psychotic break, leading to a personality split. That's what brought about Pyra, and just seeing her genuinely horrified face, hearing her horrified screams; it was just heartbreaking. Even Addam, who was usually so contagiously hopeful and positive, was so forlorn, and seeing his face as he parts ways with Jin and Lora was hard to bear. I imagine that seeing all that happened to them all back then will make experiencing the main game again that much more impressive and emotional.
The final point I want to discuss is the soundtrack. The music was the really big sticking point for me, I think. So much of what made the story hit me so hard was heavily amplified by the music. 100+ tracks in the soundtrack, and after listening to the whole thing over and over, I remember pretty well all of them. And so many are some of my favorites songs I've heard in any video game. "You Will Recall Our Names", "Elysium, In The Blue Sky", "Argentum", "Fonsa Myma", "Gramps (Night)", and "Tantal" are among my absolute favorites, but nothing quite compares to the songs from the ending. "After Despair and Hope", the final boss theme, starts off with a rad lead-up with a horn section, then a violin section joins in, and right as the final fight starts, it calls back to the introductory riff in "Counterattack", and goes on to play an absolutely INTENSE theme for the fight at hand. "Walking With You", a more tragic and sweeping version of "Desolation" from earlier in the game, plays just as a beautiful character is fighting through their last moments, and all the way through, you can feel the emotion put into the song. And right at the tail end, it comes to a slow close, as that character disappears, and the main cast says their bittersweet goodbyes to someone you, as a player, learned to love, despite all they had done.
And finally, possibly my favorite song ever - period - "The Tomorrow With You". I can't tell you how many times I've listened to this, as I've lost count. It is such a gorgeous piece, and fits the scene it is in so well - god, it made me cry so fast. It's introduction of flute and piano subtly leads the violin section in, and just as they reach a peak, the drums and bass guitar come in to play a motif from the repeatedly remixed theme for Elysium. And as the motif comes to a close, it repeats once more with the entire orchestra in toe, and every note feels so powerful, and I'm reminded of every heartwrenching line delivered in the scene the song is tied to. That's the power of soundtracks, man. The song empowers the scene and the scene empowers the song.
An orchestra paired with rock band instruments. That is my favorite type of sound, and this whole soundtrack did every possible thing with it. I love it so much, and I'll keep listening to it, over and over, until I play New Game +, and that reinvigorates my love for it. Best soundtrack ever. Of all time.
This game is so amazing, and deserves to be called my favorite. I bought the main game, and after starting in on it, ended up seeking out the limited edition box, meaning I got both the Sound Selection CD, and the beautiful art book. Later, after finishing the game and listening to the soundtrack a couple dozen times, the complete soundtrack set that released in Japan was calling my name, and is now mounted on my wall.
Thank you, Monolith, for making this. You are one of the single greatest developers in the industry. Please give us more Xenoblade in the future, if you have more of these kinds of stories in mind. They deserve to be told, and bought by the fans.
And THAT, my friends, is just about it. That's all that I played through this past year. Sure, I happened upon some other stuff, but I did not go in depth with them. I played some of Ocarina of Time in Super Mario 64, a mod by Kaze Emanuar, but just did not get super into it. With my friends, I played 1-2-Switch!. At Anime North, we played a few rounds and had fun looking like fucking fools. XD And of course, I had a chance to try out Super Mario Party. Honestly, while I do not own it, I am happy that it is a good game. Unlike the last few. My friends and I hated eachother for a bit after playing it, but THAT'S HOW IT GOES.
That is one packed year. More packed than I expected, concidering it was a tad slow at the start of the year, with me playing mostly just Xenoblade 2. But man, I'm just here trying to keep up with this never-ending string of amazing games that keep releasing.
And on that note, thanks for read, to anyone that may be interested in ACTUALLY reading this massive-ass thing. Either way, Happy holidays, and Happy New Year. Have a great day.