Welcome to The Matt Column, my little writing outlet on this here website. I can’t say how long this will go or how often I’ll write here, but you best bet I’ll be promoting any new posts in the near future.
I talk a lot about board games on the podcast, but I spend maybe only 20% of the podcast talking about videogames. I love videogames as much as I do tabletop games so I’ve been thinking of what I can do to share some thoughts on them. As we began reaching the end of 2018, the talk about games of the year (game of the years?) on various social media forums gave me an excuse to touch on a bunch of stuff.
So yeah, here’s some games I played this year.
Late 2017 and early 2018 saw not one, but two difficult platformers centered around rock climbing. Getting Over it with Bennett Foddy was an interesting take on the fumble simulator, difficult-to-control genre. I never played it myself, though I watched a lot of its gameplay. Celeste was somewhat the opposite - I saw the trailer, saw the developer, and decided to jump in blind.
I was already a fan of Matt Thorson’s works. An Untitled Story is one of my favorite exploration platformers, and I enjoyed the charm and difficulty of Runman and the Jumper series. The difficulty of Celeste wasn’t surprising when considering Jumper, and if anything the game’s mechanics and level design were more forgiving than the freeware offerings. It fit in the realm of needle game, being a platformer in which you navigate spike-filled rooms with tight controls. There weren’t too many areas that I felt required precise inputs. Usually when I started to rely on super-slight positioning changes the solution was to try a different route. Celeste also had airdash and double-jump mechanics common to the subgenre, given charm through graphical and sound effects.
I really liked the story. It’s sort of a simple story about overcoming challenges both physical and mental, but I found it very relatable and it lead to an extremely cathartic final few levels. Both Getting Over it and Celeste intertwine their setting and mechanics. Mountains are metaphors for seemingly impossible tasks, much like the difficult gameplay. In Celeste, the moment where Madeleine is the most confident is the moment where you gain multiple air dashes. You then speed through smaller versions of levels until you reach the peak. Madeline overcoming her personal challenges gives you more power and freedom, and even though the lower segments on the mountain are smaller than they were before they still give you this successful feeling.
Also the music is good.
I never played a Hitman game before this year, when I first tried out Hitman 2016. I immediately fell in love, so when I saw that the followup was releasing late this year I was excited.
I was not disappointed. Hitman 2 retained the same stealth/puzzle/social engineering gameplay I enjoyed. The core gameplay loop of scoping out a location, gathering intel, and donning disguises to reach a target is mostly unchanged. To be honest, though, I would have been fine with new maps and missions without engine changes. The additions in the game are however very welcome.
IOI added two ways to conceal yourself; crowds and foliage. Plants are pretty intuitive - crouch in high grass or bushes to hide. Crowds require simply standing in, but there are some complications. Running through and pushing people around might make you more suspicious and some NPCs can spot you if they get too close. In Hitman 2016, crowds had little benefit. You couldn’t hide, so they ended up as giant security cameras. The change in this gave them much-needed depth in, again, a pretty intuitive way. It also means that IOI integrated these mechanics often. Of the six levels, three featured heavy crowds and three featured heavy foliage. One aspect of the recent Hitman games I appreciate is their world design, for lack of a better term. Their levels feel like real locations with realized buildings and structures while retaining mechanical focus. The crowds and plants helped spice up the wide, open zones in levels without forcing them to be empty or automatically avoided. Levels like Colombia probably wouldn’t have been as interesting if not for the plants adding hiding spots.
Security cameras also got a slight upgrade. In 2016 they would see any crimes you commit nearby. You could destroy evidence if you wanted a better score, but often it was best to just leave them be. A big discouraging factor was that the cameras didn’t have a clear area in which they’d film. Often I wouldn’t even think to look for a camera in the first place. Granted, this could just be my fault, but it ended up being about as threatening as a mosquito. Now, cameras have an effect that shows the precise area in which they film, as well as a small camera feed that displays what exactly they can see. From what I can tell from playing casually, their effect is the same. I had a lot more fun trying to avoid them though. Trying to shoot down troublesome cameras or wait to pass through a blind spot felt fairer, and more worthwhile, now that I had a warning.
What’s also worth noting is the humor. Hitman 2 is a campy spy-fantasy assassination game, but IOI knows that and aren’t afraid to laugh at their own creation. Sometimes, waiting near NPCs might reward you with an ironic comment or dry joke from Agent 47. For every gritty scripted kill involving injecting poison there’s a comedic slapstick kill requiring shooting an antique cannon. It doesn’t feel clashing either. The AI NPCs use can often be silly enough due to exaggerated animations and reacting to every small noise. These consistent behaviors make manipulating the AI more reasonable, but it does add a silly feel.
Hitman 2 might look lacking in content at first, but as many would say the levels are designed to be replayable. Each target has a number of mission stories to visit. Each of these is more in-depth into the stories behind the targets and the overall plot, while being a bit more scripted in execution. Even after those, the game’s structure allows you to play wildly different self-imposed styles. There’s rewards for playing Silent Assassin, where you only kill the target and without witnesses, and Suit Only, where you do not don any disguises. You can choose to heavily use quicksaves in order to perform an essentially perfect run, or you can never load a save and think on your feet if you make a mistake. You don’t even have to be sneaky - you can go john wick-style, no survivors. Pretty much, even if there’s only 6 or so maps there’s so many options and so much freedom it doesn’t feel small.
Honestly I’ve only done a few maps more than once but there’s still so much I want to do. In my book, a game that makes me think about creative solutions even when I’m not playing is worthwhile.
One of the major dividing factors of this game is the always-online connection that, in turn, leads to the elusive targets. Elusive targets weren’t something I cared a lot about in the first and still kinda don’t. They’re fun, but I wouldn’t say they’re worth booting up the game all the time to catch them. As much as I love the game I’d hate for it to feel like a chore. The always-online required for unlock progression isn’t personally a problem, though I can see that for many it is. To me it was worth buying the game in spite of it.
I played a few notable RPGs this year. CrossCode is the first of them. I actually streamed my playthrough of this game. Technically I have not yet finished it so I won’t spend a lot of time here on it. I will say that in the time I’ve played I’ve enjoyed every second. The game has a very .hack concept, an RPG framed as an MMORPG. I never played .hack so I can’t compare the games, but in a vacuum I like how CrossCode uses MMORPG systems and concepts. NPCs that are “other players” can be messaged to talk to them at most times, and adding party members is literally sending a party invite. The main character joins a guild and goes on a raid. Party members don’t always join you in dungeons, explained as the dungeons being instanced. The game’s setup explains a lot of design choices and props up the story.
The story features a girl waking up in the MMORPG CrossWorlds, not knowing who she is or why she can’t log out. With the help of a man named Sergey, she goes through the game’s story and tries to find out who she is. I can’t say much else between not having finished the game and extreme spoilers, but it ramps up in emotional and physical stakes.
The dungeons have some crazy puzzles utilizing elemental attacks. The overworld on the other hand is almost a platforming puzzle. To reach some of the chests and items you have to analyse the environment and find an appropriate series of jumps and doors. It ends up feeling like every screen is busy and filled with interesting challenges.
Also the boss battles are pretty fun.
Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass
This is the other big rpg of the year I played, and oh boy. I haven’t found a game that captivated and stuck with me so much since maybe The Witness. It’s a story about a boy and his family as they struggle against a seemingly lovecraftian entity, the Pulsating Mass. As an RPG, the mechanics are very tight. As party members and abilities are added and removed I found myself switching up my strategy. Defensive tools are strong but limited, so boss battles often require carefully understanding their attack patterns to wisely spend resources. The startle mechanic alone is well thought-out. When you startle an enemy they get stunned for the round, but they gain a buff that renders them un-startleable. The buff last 1 round at first but grows by 1 each time they’re startled. Another great mechanic is the stealing attacks. You can grift items from some enemies, but many enemies have unique effects gained by stealing from them. For instance, there are vending machine enemies that, when pickpocketed, can give MP and HP refills. The more dynamic moves are backed by damaging moves that require careful MP management as the game progresses, all combining in fights that feel balanced and challenging.
There’s a lot of optional dungeons, bosses, quests, and items. Some can get pretty creepy, and even the main storyline has body horror elements pretty early. In my opinion the body horror gets less intense as the game continues, up until a specific late game point. There’s at least one side dungeon preceded by a format/metagame screw.
The game is pretty heavy-handed with some of its symbolism, which isn’t a bad thing. I think the obvious symbolism acts as a beacon that tells you there’s subtext worth digging into while being rewarding if you don’t want to dig that deep. As I play the game more becomes clear and more clues are subtle. At some point I’ll go into a longer analysis.
It’s an RPGmaker game, which I think can get a bad rep from some people, and I think a lot of people are done with the earthbound-like aesthetic. However this is honestly one of the best games I played this year (hence its inclusion) and if you haven’t checked it out I sincerely recommend it to RPG fans.
It’s hard for me to remember every game I’ve played this year, even among those that released in 2018. It’s felt like a long time since January. Even then, there’s a lot worth mentioning that would easily extend this article by many pages (in Google Docs). I hope I can dive into more topics as the new year progresses.
If you liked this or had any comments, I would appreciate feedback! There’s my twitters, @bgbroscast and @MattCraigGaming, and my stream and associated discord at twitch.tv/twak. Keep an eye here for more in the future!