Top 5 Games of 20222023/01/09
The last year in gaming was marked for me by two things - catching up on some excellent games from my backlog, and the release of the Playdate. Between those I still found time to play some new releases on Switch and PS5, so here are my top games of 2022!
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge (PC)
From Streets of Rage 4 to River City Girls, beat 'em ups have a habit of absolutely nailing the presentation. TMNT: Shredder's Revenge adds another example with its delectable pixel art and animation and top tier soundtrack. It helps of course that the game also plays brilliantly! Fans of the turtles will find it packed with plenty of references, foreground and back, but anyone can grab a couple of friends and while away a fun few hours in front of the TV. That itself seems a throwback to times gone, a natural fit for a game about a kid's cartoon best remembered by now grown adults. That target audience has been well chosen, and it's a game that seems to hit everything it was aiming for. I can't really ask for anything more than that!
4. Klonoa Phantasy Reverie Series (Switch)
Klonoa is a series close to my heart and one that seemed sadly all-but forgotten, so the most exciting thing about this remastering-come-remake of the original PS1 game and its PS2 sequel is that it exists at all. It's not a package without faults, be it the barebones presentation as a collection or the arguably worse changes in art style (and some weirdly awkward handling of subtitles), but those issues don't overshadow the excellence of the games within. These are great, heartfelt platformers with a 2.5D design that goes beyond just styling and still feels fresh today. For me the more exciting inclusion is the second game, Lunatea's Veil, as while the first game found a remaster on the Wii and a release on PSN that I played on my Vita, the second was lost on the PS2 (with a hefty second-hand asking price) which made this my first replay of the game in well over a decade. I am delighted to say that it holds up! Namco, if you're reading this, more Klonoa please..
3. Kirby and the Forgotten Land (Switch))
I like videogames, post-apocalyptic fiction and cute animals - that much is known. All I really need to tell you then is that Kirby and the Forgotten Land covers all three. This is Kirby's first proper 3D platforming outing, albeit with a very 2D design in the vein of Super Mario 3D World, and to call the game charming is an understatement. Balance breaking powerups trivialise any challenge even from the typically difficult secret boss, but it's an issue I am mostly happy to overlook when playing the game puts so much of a smile on my face. This is weird and wonderful Nintendo goodness.
2. Transiruby (Switch)
Skipmore is one of my favourite indie devs, always putting out intricately crafted games with a narrow focus and a strong, recognisable house style that I'm always drawn back to replaying. Like how Kamiko shared many elements with Fairune but was more action than adventure, Transiruby transitions into sidescrolling metroidvania (while as always finding time to throw in a bit of shoot 'em up). The result is a moderately scoped and well polished entry into the genre. If you're looking for a deep narrative or complex character combat abilities you won't find them here, but if you like your metroidvanias bright and cheerful, this is indie gaming comfort food.
1. Neon White (Switch)
Manga, anime and Japanese videogames are full of unusual purgatory premises, so when I draw comparisons between Neon White and Neo: The World Ends With You it's probably only because that is most recent in my mind. The comparison though is apt, as where that game vied with No More Heroes 3 for most stylish of the previous year, Neon White takes the crown in 2022 - perhaps seen to be combining the subculture spanning fashion of TWEWY with the irreverent pop culture references and toilet humour of No More Heroes. That latter aspect lends what could easily be a cringe element to the script if it wasn't for the superb Steve Blum led voice acting carrying it off with assured coolness, a confidence maintained by the game as a whole. You would be forgiven for ranking the localisation alongside the likes of Cowboy Bebop until you realise Neon White isn't Japanese at all - this is a Japanese videogame from a western developer able to ape the best of that country, innovation included. Undoubtedly stylish then, without really delving in to the excellent art and music, but how does it play? Neon White is a hybrid first person shooter platformer. That might immediately conjure thoughts of Mirror's Edge, and while certainly a touch of that can be seen in the bold white buildings and yachts and red highlights, the game plays much closer to Lovely Planet - cool rather than cute, but with the same super fast pace and precision aeronautics. In Neon White you jump and bounce around the courses, pirouetting mid-air to pick off enemies and clear the way, feeling out the fastest route to the exit. A card based weapon system adds a welcome layer of strategy and helps set the gameplay apart even more so, encouraging the player to think of the pickups as consumables to be played when best needed. Players disposed to speedrunning will find themselves right at home - this is a game played in 30 second bursts, but you'll feel compelled to repeat and refine each stage until you take the top record. Between each run of stages the game breaks things up with some much more sedate visual novel inspired downtime, letting you talk to the supporting cast and even gift them presents (found during the levels) to raise your relationship. It's another genre fusion in a game clearly unconcerned at pitching itself to a very specific audience, those who grew up watching anime on Toonami at the turn of the millennium. If you find yourself in that audience, like myself, there couldn't be an easier recommendation than Neon White.
From The Backlog
Outer Wilds (PS4 on PS5)
In Outer Wilds every new revelation is its own reward. Progression through player knowledge is paramount, the game a clockwork solar system of unparalleled craft and intelligence. It explores sci-fi concepts ranging from the visually striking to the philosophically interesting, simultaneously fantastical yet grounded in reality, a rare delight to myself as a physicist with a penchant for the astronomical. If it all sounds superlative, that's because it is. A game most deserving of not just recognition, but a lasting legacy and influence on game design. Anything less will be a universal loss.
Disco Elysium (Switch)
While Outer Wilds somewhow surpassed my expectations, Disco Elysium only met them. My expectations were however for it to be one of the best written games I have ever played, with a revolutionary approach to character builds and stat progression - higher not always better, but each aspect of your character's personality vying for control and affecting the way in which your character is capable of behaving and reacting to the events around them. The only substantial let down for me was the game's surprisingly antiquated use of dice rolls for skill checks, steering outcomes not by my choices but by random chance, frustrating and un-fun when they fail against the odds and immersion breaking when taking action in game only to influence those odds or to earn a new re-roll. To focus on the negatives though is a mistake - this is a game that will stick long in the mind, a new inner voice always tempting me to return for a new playthrough.
Prey (PS4 on PS5)
I love Dishonored and Deathloop, but having now played it Prey (the 2017 game) is possibly the pinnacle of Arkane's output. An immersive sim in the studio's house style, it's elevated above those other games by the freedom of approach and range of abilities offered to the player, more often than not usable in inventive ways and with lateral thinking to find alternate solutions to the game's many and varied environmental puzzles and gated traversal. It's a game that rewards experimentation like few others and I am incredibly glad I got round to playing it despite it flying mostly under my radar.
Death Stranding Director's Cut (PS5)
I played Death Stranding on release but never quite finished it, timing out frustratingly close to the end on a completionist bent that got waylaid by newer games. The Director's Cut gave me opportunity to rectify that, helping me actually finish a game I purport to be one of the best of the last decade. The Director's Cut is happily only an improvement and without caveat the definitive version of the game. The new content offers both more to experiment with and more scenarios to experiment in. It does make an easy game even easier, but given the lack of challenge to begin with it doesn't feel like a shift in balance, only a resignation to not addressing it. Having now finished the game my assessment is only more certain.
Fuga: Melodies of Steel (Switch)
One I didn't have time to play at release due to an overabundance of JRPGs in my life, Fuga is the latest in the loosely connected Little Tail Bronx series (of which I have previously played Solarotobo). A tactical RPG with a fantastical WW2-like setting, the game is not dissimilar in feel to Valkyria Chronicles with anthropomorphic animals. The cast of children thrust into the horrors of war makes for a compelling narrative, especially when coupled with the central mechanic of being able to sacrifice characters to power your tank's super weapon if you need help defeating a boss (unfortunately underused and easily avoided). I enjoyed seeing the game through and am looking forward to the sequel!
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Switch)
I've always heard (and been told) that Black Flag is one of the best entries in the Assassin's Creed series and well worth playing. I'm a fan of Assassin's Creed II and not many others, but it turns out people were right about the allure of piracy! That might be in no small part down to the Assassin's Creed connection taking second place to being a pirate simulator, but that's fine - I found one often made welcome reprieve from the other.
Syphon Filter (PS1 on Vita)
Back in the day I loved Syphon Filter on my PSP. I played both singleplayer entries on the handheld through multiple times, the stealth-action gameplay for me on par with the likes of Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, and also wasted many hours on the multiplayer with schoolmates. In 2022 I finally decided to dig out my Vita and give the original PS1 game a try. My verdict - it's a good game! Sure it is dated, but get used to the controls and the specificity of multiple level objectives with little handholding makes for an action game that is rewarding like a puzzle when learning a level and figuring out how to progress, a satisfaction that has all-but disappeared from modern shooters. It might not match up to the PSP titles but its great to see the game that laid a lot of the groundwork. Here's hoping the series will one day make a comeback!
Blossom Tales II: The Minotaur Prince (Switch)
I was a big fan of 2017's Blossom Tales, a lighthearted 2D Zelda-like with a combat focus and a neat The Princess Bride style framing device. The sequel retains all of those elements but fails to match up, perhaps in part due to the high expectations set by the original. For me the sprawling overworld felt without justification, doing in half a dozen screens what could have been achieved in one, and I left the game unfinished with the prevailing thought that bigger is not always better.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Switch)
Could it be anything else? 2023 seems set to be the year the long-awaited sequel to Breath of the Wild will finally arrive (although this being Zelda, you should never bet on it). With so little known about the game it's very much trust in the pedigree, but you couldn't ask for better pedigree to trust in. That said I have yet to play my most anticipated title from last year, River City Girls 2, due to its late December launch!
If I were to pick one game from the Playdate's first season that I loved it would be Zipper by Bennett Foddy. A deterministic tactics-puzzle game with a semi-procedural design, it's fun to learn, challenging to beat, and simply satisfying to slice through waves of enemies as a lone samurai.
There's more to Playdate than just the packaged games though, and amongst all the other games appearing in its first year was EYELAND, a small and unassuming walk-and-talk adventure from artist and first time game developer Ron Lent. Made with the console's web-based game editor Pulp, every little detail has been painstakingly crafted, from individual animations through to subtly shifting screen perspectives, and the result is a little piece of art - exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to stumble upon when getting into the scene.
Monster Hunter Rise Sunbreak (Switch)
The Sunbreak DLC makes an already all-time great even better, with a wealth of new content and welcome adjustments. I don't have much to say that wouldn't be repeating my thoughts on the base game from 2021, but suffice to say it comes highly recommended!
Mysteries Under Lake Ophelia (Switch)
A 32-bit styled horror-adjacent fishing game with lots of vibes. To say much more would be to spoil the short experience. Don't go into it expecting much, just enjoy soaking up the atmosphere - I definitely did!
Save Room (Switch)
It's the Resident Evil 4 attache case made into a puzzle game. Make of that what you will!