I have a lot of games on my plate right now, most of which have full reviews on the way (or recently published), but in the meantime, here are some quick thoughts about the games I’m currently playing or have played recently.
No Man’s Sky (PS4)
Ah, No Man’s Sky – if nothing else, it offers a fascinating insight into the seedy underbelly of gamer entitlement. It’s a game that’s both indie and AAA; built with an independent mindset for a very niche audience, but funded, marketed, and sold like a AAA title with that AAA expectation to be all things to all people. So when people bought it expecting it would be all things to all people, well… the wrath of gamers who feel wronged is an ugly thing. A colleague summed it up best when they said that people bought No Man’s Sky expecting Star Wars and got 2001: A Space Odyssey instead.
But for people who are in that niche audience that No Man’s Sky is aimed at, it’s a remarkable experience unlike any other. As many other people far smarter than I have pointed out, it’s an existential crisis wrapped in an open-ended first-person adventure game. It’s about being very, very small in a very, very big universe, about coming to terms with the your insignificance, about creating meaning in a meaningless wasteland.
People have criticised the mundanity of the moment-to-moment gameplay, but to reduce it to its basic building blocks is to miss the forest for the trees. The rote busywork of mining, finding points of interest, and scanning objects is something that grounds you in a universe that would otherwise be overwhelming. It helps instill a sense of loneliness, not unlike Robert Morgan’s daily grind in The Last Man on Earth (the excellent 1964 film adaptation of I Am Legend, not that garbage TV show that looks like Y: The Last Man if it was written by a frat boy).
No Man’s Sky is an introspective, meditative, even religious experience, and that’s a rare and special thing in a video game.
Alone With You (PS4)
Alone With You, oddly enough, explores very similar themes to No Man’s Sky, though it comes at them from a very different perspective. It’s a narrative-focused adventure game in which you play the last survivor of a failed terraforming project on a distant planet, trying to repair an escape rocket before the planet implodes. As the last survivor, you’re alone, but you’re also not – a friendly AI and some holographic simulations of deceased colonists are your company. No science fiction can go past the question of personhood with regard to AI, but thanks to some great writing, Alone With You does that better than most.
My full review will be published in the coming days at Digitally Downloaded.
We Happy Few (Xbox One – early access)
We Happy Few is a fascinating game. It’s a survival game in the vein of Don’t Starve, 7 Days to Die, Rust, and the like, but it trades the inhospitable wastelands of those games for a beautiful but very creepy retrofuturistic small town setting. The story goes that the Nazis won World War II and took over the UK, and the little British town of Wellington Wells played some sort of significant role. In an effort to keep the history buried, information is strictly censored and the locals are “encouraged” to take Joy, a drug that helps them forget the past and puts them in a state of blissful, naive euphoria. Those who don’t take their Joy are labelled Downers, and nonconformity is met with violence.
The early access build doesn’t have any narrative content beyond a brief introductory sequence, but even without that, it manages to explore things like mental illness, homelessness, conformity, and social ostracisation. It’s not flawless in its approach to these, but it’s nonetheless a very interesting game, and I’m looking forward to the full release.
I’ll have a full preview published soon.
Nioh (PS4 – beta test)
There’s a lot to like about Nioh, and I’m rather looking forward to it – which is a bit of a surprise, given I’ve hated every other Team Ninja game I’ve played. Nioh is a very obvious nod to Dark Souls in everything from tone to mechanics, but instead of the European fantasy settings of FromSoftware’s endeavours, this one’s set in 16th century Japan. Combat is somewhat faster-paced than Dark Souls, but it has the same focus on stamina management, closely watching enemies’ movements, and learning from failure.
Compared to the previous beta test earlier in the year, I had an easier time this time around, but it’s hard to say if this is due to any specific balance changes or if I was just better at the game. Enemies still hit like trucks, but I felt better able to go toe to toe with them and avoid their strikes. I haven’t been able to beat the Onryoki boss (who is, apparently, just the first of two bosses in the beta build), but last time I barely made any progress at all, so that’s still an improvement.
One thing I had been concerned about was the “Samurai Geralt” that you have to play as, but that was because I assumed this game had a character creator and that this was just a marketing gimmick. As RPG Site pointed out to me, though, that’s not the case – Nioh actually has you playing as a fictionalised William Adams, a historical British sailor who became an advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu and the first ever Western samurai. Knowing that, Nioh‘s protagonist is a lot more interesting to me, as is the game as a whole.
Bound is a moving, very personal tale told through a speedrun-focused 3D platformer. With the metaphor of a princess trying to save a crumbling kingdom, it explores family dysfunction, the confusion that comes with growing up with that baggage, and the effort to make peace with it.
To that end, Bound is both beautiful and ugly. Its visual style runs counter to all notions of what a “good looking” game should be; it’s jarring and confronting, ugly even, but it’s a deeply emotive kind of ugliness that’s beautiful in its way. In contrast, the princess moves with grace and elegance, using dance as a way of confronting the ugliness of the world. If that’s not a powerful metaphor for finding closure after a troubled upbringing, the I don’t know what is.
You can read my full review of Bound at NZGamer.com.
ABZÛ is the most beautiful game on PlayStation 4, I’m fairly certain of that. It’s a game about just enjoying the beauty of the ocean and everything in it, from tiny little fish to giant whales, as you travel through a series of different underwater environments. There’s a story laced through this journey, but it’s an intentionally vague one that’s all about subjective interpretation and the emotional response that comes with that.
It’s the rare kind of game that is content to just let you immerse yourself in its world without trying to force Things To Do down your throat, and that is a wonderful experience.
You can read my full review at Digitally Downloaded.
I’ve only just started Valley and I’m not very far in, but what I’ve played so far is just gorgeous. You play as an unnamed scientist in search of the fabled Seed of Life, a journey that takes you to a strange, unmapped valley in the Canadian Rockies. As it turns out, this place was a military testing ground during World War II for something called a L.E.A.F. Suit, an exoskeleton that allows its wearer to run and jump with superhuman speed and agility.
With this newfound technology (and a Metroid-like series of upgrades for it), you’re able to overcome the platforming obstacles to explore the valley, uncover its secrets, and try and find the Seed of Life. As I said, I’m not far in, but it’s been delightful so far, and the soundtrack is absolutely incredible.
I’ll have a full review soon.
Ninja Pizza Girl (PS4)
Ninja Pizza Girl is great. It’s mostly a simple parkour-based platformer, which is a really great thing when you have fluid movement and responsive controls, as Ninja Pizza Girl most certainly does. It’s also quite adorable and surprisingly moving, following a ninja pizza delivery girl’s adventures across the fire escapes and rooftops of the city, and her encounters with bullying – from both sides of the issue.
I tried to play this last year when it came out on PC, but my computer wasn’t really up to the task, so seeing it suddenly appear on the PlayStation 4 store was a very nice surprise!
The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse (PS4)
The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is a pretty good game based on an atrocious film. The title, setting, and a couple of character cameos are really the only connection it has to the source material; rather than a retelling of the film, Winter’s Curse presents an original story that’s quite good. It follows the efforts of the adventurer Elisabeth as she searches for her missing brothers, a quest that brings her into conflict with an evil enchantress. It’s a fairy tale that relishes being a fairy tale, while also engaging with the medium quite cleverly.
It’s also an RPG with a neat battle system reminiscent of Child of Light and Grandia, with a focus on manipulating the turn order to put yourself at an advantage. The only downside, really, is that it’s riddled with game-breaking bugs, to the point that I had to restart the game four times before I was able to see it through. Even so, I enjoyed my time with Winter’s Curse.
My full review will be published at NZGamer.com in the coming days.
Children of Morta (PC – early access)
Children of Morta is a roguelike hack-and-slash with a pixel-art aesthetic – a description that could be applied to so, so many games, few of which have been able to catch my interest. There’s something about Children of Morta, though, that just pulls me in, and I’m not even entirely sure what it is. The characters are interesting, combat is simple but compelling, the art is lovely – all factors of a great many similar games that haven’t been able to grab me the way Children of Morta has.
I’ll have a more detailed preview at Digitally Downloaded closer to the game’s Steam Early Access launch on 15 September. Hopefully by then, I’ll have figured out what makes this game tick.