Top 5 Games of 20232024/01/03
In 2023 I jumped with both feet into game dev, founding Orange Thief and releasing three games. The reception to the biggest, Resonant Tale, far surpassed my expectations, thanks in large part to the incredibly encouraging and supportive Playdate community. Outside of that I still found plenty of time for playing games, so here are my personal top picks from the last year!
5. Detective Pikachu Returns (Switch)
My favourite thing in Pokemon isn't the battling. It's not collecting gym badges, or filling out the Pokedex. For me Pokemon is at its best when I simply get to inhabit a world where Pokemon exist. Pokemon Snap and its sequel are two of my favourite games in the franchise for that reason, showing Pokemon as real, living creatures in a wider, connected ecosystem. The Detective Pikachu games are similar, but instead of Pokemon in the wild, they deal with people and Pokemon living side by side. As a fan of the original Detective Pikachu on 3DS, the Switch sequel essentially offers more of the same. At its core Detective Pikachu Returns is a simple adventure game, sedately paced, cheap and cheerful, and squarely aimed at a young audience. None of that is to the game's detriment, because this is gaming comfort food. It's relaxing, low stakes, and while there isn't any farming or life simulation in sight, exactly the kind of game I would describe as "cosy". Sometimes that's all I want!
4. Jusant (PS5)
Is Jusant an indie game? It certainly has the vibes. In the earnest Journey tradition this is a game that wants to be art, and while your mileage may vary in how affected you still are by vague wordless world building (which isn't done badly, might I add, awkwardly pace-breaking written notes aside), that isn't what makes Jusant great. Jusant is all about the climbing. It takes the ledge clambering style popularised by Uncharted and fully, properly gamifies it, facing the player with little gauntlets of gameplay that, while not overly challenging, still require a satisfying chain of inputs and execution following some careful deduction and plotting of your route. There's still another game out there yet to be made that I want, one that takes such platforming to the logical extreme in a sort of Neon White or Celeste-like challenge, and Jusant isn't that game, but it's the closest I've yet to play. One section in particular stands out in the memory that has the player climbing first up, then away from and back around to, a (as pointed out to me Ico-like) windmill, and in doing so it challenges the player on every different climbing mechanic they've learnt yet, mixed together in a unique and satisfying loop. I found the game's finale a little underwhelming in comparison, but for a game about climbing, every bit of progress upwards is its own reward. Sometimes it really is about the journey.
3. Dokapon Kingdom Connect (Switch)
I confess, Dokapon Kingdom Connect is not the best version of Dokapon Kingdom. Originally released on PlayStation 2 in 2007, it was the Wii version that attained near mythical status amongst myself and friends, a regular fixture of late night local multiplayer. While almost identical excepting the obvious high definition upscaling, it's the addition of online multiplayer that only slightly detracts from this modern port - not because the online itself is a problem (I wouldn't know, this is a local multiplayer game for me through-and-through) but because it mandated the removal of free text entry when changing the names of other players, one of the delightfully vindictive punishments you can dole out after a player versus player victory. That one complaint aside, this is still the Dokapon Kingdom I know and love, an insane marriage of Mario Party and JRPG with no respect for time nor fairness. Seeing a single game through to its end requires the patience and commitment demanded by the likes of Civilization, yet the depth of mechanics are those you might expect from a half an hour casual family board game. That's not a pitch that should excite anyone, yet somehow this combination not only works but excels, unfailing in its ability to create some of my favourite and funniest moments out of any game. Dokapon Kingdom is a niche within a niche, but for me it's experience like no other. As an opportunity to relive that experience this port more than delivers.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Switch)
How do you make a sequel to a game like Breath of the Wild? Like this. Every addition to Tears of the Kingdom is brilliant. As a creative toybox the crafting is joyous, turning the abuse of interacting systems into a core mechanic. The world too is stretched into another dimension, with new, literal depth at every turn, be that in the aptly-named depths, the sky, or more importantly to the fuller feel of the game in the wells and caves that now punctuate Hyrule. Look at almost any mechanic or feature in Tears of the Kingdom and it is Breath of the Wild refined and made better, with more side quests and characters and enemy variety and better dungeons and powers - and yet, this is the worse game. There's tension in Tears of the Kingdom. Objectives demand attention, things to do become chores to complete. The game becomes overwhelming and exhausting. You'll worry about where to go next, and what you've missed, and you'll realise none of these concerns ever crossed your mind when you were playing Breath of the Wild, where your path there meandered but your goal was always simple. As a game Tears of the Kingdom is caught between being a creative, free-form sandbox and a checklist of activities, something Breath of the Wild carefully and deliberately avoided. There's a recognisable formula here, of side quests and activities, and spending time just playing in the world sadly feels like time wasted. In Breath of the Wild the distractions were always momentary, new little discoveries to constantly delight as you picked your own path between shrines, towers and dungeons, in ascending order of importance. Tears of the Kingdom in contrast will constantly redirect you against your will. Three separate overworlds ensure at least one is always underexplored. Caves and wells contest on the same level of shrines for attention. Even koroks stop being little dopamine hits to be stumbled into and instead derail your progress, taking you off in unwanted directions. The narrative is perhaps where it most falls apart, not in the lack of a good story, but in the much poorer melding of scenario and game design. Breath of the Wild's ultimate objective was known from the beginning, its any order approach married to its open world design, where any and all distractions weren't at odds with the narrative but further preparation towards the final encounter. Everything built towards the finale, in an order and at a pace set by the player. Told primarily through memories, the story coalesced naturally regardless of the order said memories were relived, as naturally they were prompted by revisiting past locations. Tears of the Kingdom fails to replicate such serendipity. Its open world contains a mostly linear quest that has you second guessing where not to explore, while little justification can be found for disjointed visions best experienced in chronological order. None of which is to say the story is bad, on the contrary there are some fantastic moments, but taking a holistic view it isn't the story that best matches the game. That holistic view is really where Tears of the Kingdom ultimately disappoints compared to its predecessor. Yes you can improve on every individual mechanic and feature, and even address almost every complaint, but a game is more than the sum of its parts.
1. Resident Evil 4 (PS5)
Forget any comparisons to the original or debate over which is better, this new Resident Evil 4 stands alone. Like the original this must now be considered one of the greatest games of all time, but it earns that accolade independently, justified in gameplay and design not borrowed or inherited but created anew. It may sound hyperbolic, but any game that stands head and shoulders above the rest in a year as packed as 2023 is necessarily described in such terms. I played the demo alone for over four hours. On release I played the game through five times, back to back, before I felt satiated - not forgetting that my partner did much the same which I spectated a lot of and I even sought out others streaming the game, something I almost never do. Then later in the year Separate Ways launched and I was drawn back again, completing that DLC twice. Even writing this makes me want to start another playthrough - there's little higher praise a game can get. I'd be hard pressed to find a single flaw or anything I would change, except perhaps in increasing the difficulty of the on-the-side Mercenaries mode. Suffice to say I really like Resident Evil 4!
Hitman World of Assassination (PS5)
In 2023 Hitman 3 was rebranded as World of Assassination, with (almost) all of Hitman 1 and 2 now included by default. That alone makes it an incredibly package that would surely have topped my top five had it been a new release, but what really made it notable was the addition of a new mode called Freelancer. As a roguelite, Freelancer completely subverts the well established gameplay loop in the trilogy proper, where you are free to experiment and jump between saves. Yet it also feels like the natural endpoint of Hitman, like the vision the games have been building towards, finally realised in all its glory. In a word, it's superlative. Despite reusing all of the same maps there is enough content here to feel like a new release, enough that I was sorely tempted to place it into my top five regardless. I almost wish it had been released as a standalone game, if only because I feel it has been unfairly overlooked as-is. Of course Hitman isn't alone in adding a roguelite mode in an update, with similar updates coming in 2024 for God of War and The Last of Us Part II, the latter of which I am very excited for. If they can be half as good as Freelancer (and actually worthwhile in their own right, not just cynical attempts to increase the shelf life of otherwise story-driven singleplayer games), then we might look back on now as a golden age for the still evolving genre.
Baldur's Gate 3 (PS5)
One of the year's most talked about games (at least in the circles I move in), Baldur's Gate 3 is for me a game of two halves. The capacity for roleplaying and player choice, and the game's handling of branching questlines to match, is a wonder. Few games can compete with the scope of what Baldur's Gate 3 achieves and it is nothing short of remarkable. If that was the game in its entirety, just some richly layered narrative adventure, it'd probably be in my top five. Unfortunately to experience those things there's a lot more game to get through. It's not that the combat is bad, and I am generally a fan of tactics, but for a D&D newcomer it is aggressively opaque. There's a startling lack of tutorialising, something that would be more forgivable in the the third game in a series if it wasn't pitched as a jumping on point. The early game especially forces you through a frankly ridiculous amount of character building and levelling, with pages and pages of skills and abilities to read and learn, not only for your own character but for every character in your party (and I got on with the game much better in that respect playing co-op with friends as I had much less to worry about). You'll also likely learn abilities and skills at a faster rate than you can even try them out, and it's particularly frustrating when you have a new ability with very limited use that fails, leaving you still unsure of exactly what it does. Add to that the need to rest to replenish those ability uses, but a narrative that strongly dissuades you from resting if you're trying to roleplay (perhaps my criticism that is most universal, regardless of your familiarity with the mechanics). In fact I played a very long way through the opening section of the game without resting at all, such was the impression I got that resting would be a very bad idea, only to learn from talking with others that I really should have been resting not only for game balance and mechanics, but for experiencing much of the character development (which can easily queue up awkwardly if you aren't resting frequently enough to trigger various scenes). My problems with the combat don't end there as there is just so much of it, with even the smallest of dungeons being somewhat sprawling with multiple encounters that start to drag. I don't mind some combat to break up the gameplay and to offer some variety and challenge, but in Baldur's Gate it feels like combat takes up far too big a portion of the overall playtime. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I really dislike the dice. In combat it results in some very anti-fun patterns of not landing the more exciting and interesting abilities, but it is at its worst in dialogue. This is a roleplaying game ostensibly about player choice, yet player agency comes second to random chance. It makes multiple playthroughs with different characters an unreliable way of experiencing different outcomes, but the absolute worst aspect is when you are made to reload an earlier save but then can't guarantee the same outcomes you previously chose. That for me is a recipe for save scumming frustration.
Skew is a 3D into-the-screen endless runner. As a spin-off from The Last Worker, it falls into the "interesting side projects from notable developers" category of Playdate games, and it's one of the best. If you've played any endless runner before then of course you'll know what to expect, but the appeal of Skew is in the (optional) crank controls and in how polished an experience it offers on the handheld. It's now one of my most played games on the console and one of the few I keep coming back to!
Under the Castle (Playdate)
Talking of polish, Under the Castle has some of the best one bit visuals on the Playdate. A roguelike in three parts, each of the three dungeons comes with a different objective and set of rooms and enemies. It's relatively short and simple for the genre, but what is here is good fun and engaging, even once mastered, with some playstyle changing unlockables to mix things up. It's a game that wouldn't feel out of place released on any platform and subsequently is one of the best of the year on Playdate.
Hades II (Switch)
As time passes, the brilliance of Hades only cements itself further in my mind. A sequel is actually hard to imagine in how it could match the original's near perfect combination of narrative and roguelite design, but I have every faith in Supergiant to deliver. Everything we've seen so far at least is full of promise, which makes Hades II my most anticipated upcoming game by some margin!