iconoclasts

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018

by Jed Pressgrove

2018 could be the worst year ever for big-budget hits. A couple of months ago, Spider-Man would have made this list. After playing dozens of games since that time, I can’t give it a spot. The list now lacks any of the obvious choices that the gaming hype machine would endorse.

Fortunately, the state of mainstream gaming doesn’t have to be impressive in order for it to be a good year for games. The following titles hold their own against last year’s best.

1. Iconoclasts

In Iconoclasts, an intersection of faith and government keeps a population in check, and it’s up to Robin, a silent Christ-like figure, to upend the system. Featuring the most striking pixel art of the year, this game never lets you forget that its world is full of human beings with competing beliefs and experiences. The narrative, reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI’s theatrics, emphasizes how perspectives and goals clash to awaken a new world. Armed with a wrench that is even more versatile than Kratos’ axe, Robin solves mechanical puzzles as the melodrama of the story intensifies. Developer Joakim Sandberg articulates politics with a level of maturity that is rare in both games and our current mainstream dialogue.

(See full review of Iconoclasts here.)

2. Octahedron

No other release evolves like Demimonde’s Octahedron, which takes the platform-creating premise of all-time classic Solomon’s Key in an intoxicating direction. Level by level, the game suggests a yearning for personal and artistic change. Its constant mysteries, silky-smooth controls, heart-pounding soundtrack, and neon colors are entrancing. Sexiest game of 2018 by far and true platforming genius.

(See full review of Octahedron here.)

3. Legendary Gary

Notwithstanding its sarcastic title, Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary is a revelation for having a non-snarky metatextual approach alone. Sensitivity abounds in this strange RPG in which a lazy young man must stop ignoring what’s important in life. Like many gamers (including game journalists who are supposed to have higher standards), the titular protagonist uses video games to retreat from reality, but Gary learns that the real world needs him more than he needs the virtual world. In the middle of this humanistic story is an innovative and comical combat system that subverts the notion of taking separate turns.

(See full review of Legendary Gary here.)

4. Subnautica

Subnautica is everything the overrated Abzû should have been and more. Its alien ocean suggests a paradoxical masterpiece: few settings in video games are as inviting, yet no other open world is as frightening. As a result, crafting has rarely seemed as essential in a game, as new technology gives you the privilege to survive the depths of the sea. And 3D game creators, take note: there’s no excuse for clunky underwater mechanics when developer Unknown Worlds nails them so well here.

(See more thoughts on Subnautica here.)

5. Guacamelee! 2

This game is a certified barn burner. It can be wild, as when you learn how to duke it out with bad guys as a small chicken. It can be avant-garde, as when you can only see enemies and splatter against a white background while you move on invisible platforms. It can be cathartic and shocking, as when you finally get your hands on a pesky, elusive wizard who, after getting caught, transforms into a large animal and swallows you whole like Jonah. Forget Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Yakuza 6, Dragon Quest XI, Monster Hunter World, Attack on Titan 2, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Guacamelee! 2 is the 2018 sequel that flexes real creative muscle.

(See full review of Guacamelee! 2 here.)

6. Into the Breach

Into the Breach’s turn-based battles carry a distinct kind of urgency and drama. Hit points are low, so every move could be your last. Defense matters more than offense, as the game ends when the buildings you’re supposed to protect sustain too much damage. And the large, pixelated sprites have a rough sort of menace to them (this game has the best B-movie vibe since 2013’s Gaurodan). No moment in Into the Breach lacks dire stakes, as suggested by this line of in-game dialogue that evokes the cynicism of war hawks: “We can postpone the discussion on where you got the weaponry until after you use it.”

(See more thoughts on Into the Breach here.)

7. Dandara

Multiple games on this list (Octahedron, Guacamelee! 2, Yoku’s Island Express) provide fascinating ways for the player to travel across and between platforms. Yet Dandara still seems strange because of its fundamental awkwardness — with no option to walk or run, you can only land on white surfaces by zipping to them in a straight line. We’re simply not accustomed to a game that places such a significant constraint on movement while demanding pinpoint accuracy. More so than any game in 2018, Dandara rewards patience with a unique and blistering form of kineticism.

(See more thoughts on Dandara here.)

8. A Way Out

With a nimble camera and a bizarre dedication to cooperative gaming (A Way Out is always two-player split-screen), director Josef Fares continues to push the boundaries of duo-centric play. But while his previous game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons delves into the difficulties of coming of age, A Way Out flips friendship on its head after hours of bonding between two hard-boiled protagonists. The emotional aftermath of the game’s competitive twist cements A Way Out as one of the finest examples of pulpy storytelling in video games.

(See full review of A Way Out here.)

9. Yoku’s Island Express

Imagine Sonic Spinball as a semi-open world. That’s a simple way to describe how Yoku’s Island Express, developed by Villa Gorilla, stands apart in a year of groundbreaking 2D platformers. Navigating the game’s paddle-laden setting is intuitive enough to be relaxing and challenging enough to prevent boredom. It also helps that Yoku’s Island Express is an audiovisual feast: viewing the map is like appreciating a tapestry, and the sharp sound effects can linger in your mind long after playing.

10. Onrush

Onrush takes cues from several games (Burnout and Overwatch among them), but developer Codemasters’ commitment to structured chaos is undeniably distinguished. Whether convenient or not, Onrush ensures that you will be near vehicle-based war at all times. Completing laps ironically serves no purpose as you power up your automobile like a junkie. In an industry where fighting games refuse to move forward, Onrush is a refreshing and electrifying take on competitive combat.

(See full review of Onrush here.)

Honorable Mentions

Return of the Obra Dinn
The Gardens Between
Florence
Spider-Man
Plug Me

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Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

In video games, jumping is as ubiquitous as shooting, and it’s often considered an essential part of the 2D platformer genre. But that’s not exactly the case from my view. Although the overwhelmingly majority of platformers involve jumping, there are historically significant games where you must move from platform to platform without jumping at all. This list will include entries that fit this description.

Some might wonder why I have chosen to focus on 2D platformers. The short answer is I don’t think 3D platformers have been that impressive on the whole over their roughly two-decade lifespan. I will consider putting together a list of the greatest 3D platformers, but it would be shorter than this one.

The honorable mentions below show that 2D platformers remain vibrant and fascinating. But before I reveal these selections, I do want to say that the 2D platformer, more so than any other video-game genre, is heavily associated with blind nostalgia. Fez, Shovel Knight, Celeste, and others bring shame to the art form by referencing or utilizing aspects of classics without surpassing or interrogating what came before them (see Fez’s Tetris, Mario, and Zelda allusions; Shovel Knight’s easygoing nods to Mega Man, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Super Mario Bros. 3; and Celeste’s pixelated sprites, which look like god-awful mush during the game’s precious zoom-ins). We must look beyond what reminds us so much of the past.

As for why the following five games weren’t simply included as part of a 20 greatest 2D platformers list, I echo what I said in the intro to my 15 greatest shooters list: there are other honorable mentions I could name, but I want to highlight these choices for their unique appeal.

Platformance: Castle Pain (2010)

Unfortunately, this game might be forever lost after Microsoft abandoned support of Xbox Live Indie Games for the Xbox 360, but in case a port pops up somewhere, I must mention Platformance: Castle Pain by Magiko Gaming. This gem is simple: you can walk left or right, jump, or zoom in or out so that you can better detect and avoid obstacles on your way to rescuing a damsel (yeah, that trope is more worn out than a pair of 1980s blue jeans). The zooming mechanic is brilliantly executed. Let’s say you’re at the section where you need to traverse a long platform while jumping over arrows that are being shot at your back. You may want to attempt this trek with the default zoomed-in camera, reacting to the sudden appearance of a projectile behind you, or more cleverly, you can zoom all the way out so that you can see the game’s entire single stage — it resembles an elaborate living picture that one would hang on a wall — and thus the release of the arrows from their origin. Unlike Celeste’s phoned-in visuals, the pixel art here is superb whether it’s in your face or in the distance. The experience is brief like a children’s storybook and accompanied by an uplifting medieval-themed soundtrack, but Platformance: Castle Pain requires perfect timing and spacing to conquer its challenges as you move from checkpoint to checkpoint.

Rock Bottom (2014)

Amy Dentata’s Rock Bottom is a fantasy in which levels that represent a state of depression can be completed by counterintuitive means. The goal of Rock Bottom is to jump to higher platforms, but the only way to increase the power of your jump is to fall to your death. To further strengthen your legs, you must extend your fatal plunge by avoiding platforms as you fall from greater heights. If viewed cynically, Rock Bottom’s concept could be linked to suicide ideation, but I interpret its madness as wry hope for convenient change. Ultimately, the game is an affirmation of life after struggle, as suggested by the ending that celebrates the fact that the protagonist can finally jump without having to worry about escaping a hole.

The Duck Game (2013)

This quirky title from James Earl Cox III, one of the most fascinating and prolific developers of the decade, might not fit the traditional definition of a 2D platformer, but it effectively utilizes platforms in its depiction of a downward spiral of addiction and obsession. Absurdly, the protagonist is preoccupied with the idea of holding the legs of a duck as the bird flies. Unless you elect to hit “Escape” on your keyboard, you get to see what happens when the hero indulges in this practice. In addition to the trippy premise, visuals, and audio, the amusing part of The Duck Game is that the platforms don’t matter. When you’re flying high with the duck, the platforms are unnecessary for vertical advancement, and when flying with the duck becomes a problem (the protagonist stops caring about hygiene and everyday chores as the duck’s strength wanes), you can’t leap well enough to reach your previous high. The implication is that if the duck weren’t in the picture, you could go from platform to platform like a normal video-game character.

Iconoclasts (2018)

Because I played Joakim Sandberg’s Iconoclasts for the first time only a few months ago, and because it’s practically new, I don’t have the critical distance to state that it deserves to be on the main list. That’s what my head says. My heart says the game should go down as an all-time great. Iconoclasts’ combination of combat and puzzle-solving makes for some wonderful platforming moments, but it’s the storytelling I want to focus on here. Not only does this game have the most complex plot of any platformer I can recall, but it has the most conflicted depiction of faith and religion that I’ve seen in any video game, period. With a theatricality that recalls the interweaving dramas of Final Fantasy VI, Iconoclasts never lets you forget that it involves human beings with worldviews shaped by their individual experiences and convictions. This is the most ambitious 2D platformer ever made, and in almost every respect, it succeeds. (See my full review here.)

Octahedron (2018)

Yet another 2018 game that I will continue to keep in mind as I evaluate the history of 2D platformers, Octahedron’s ever-changing mechanics share center stage with a beyond-thirsty electronica soundtrack and neon-infused graphics that recall wild night clubs. The smooth and slippery movements of the platform-creating protagonist complement the pulsing beats and blanket-like textures of the music. A sensual powerhouse from developer Demimonde, this game is so sexy that one can feel dirty exploring every last part of its tunnel-like stages. (See my full review here.)

Loaded Questions Vol. 2

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Taylor Vaughn: What games handle religion/religious belief (either real or fictional) in an interesting way as part of the gameplay (rather than just a theme)?

Jed Pressgrove: There are three main examples that come to mind (from weakest to strongest): The Shivah, Proteus, and Earthbound.

The Shivah is a 2006 point-and-click adventure in which you play as Russell Stone, a Jewish Rabbi who has lost hope and made questionable decisions regarding his congregation. He becomes a detective of sorts when he learns that a former member of his synagogue has been murdered. As in many other point-and-click adventures, you engage in dialogue as the protagonist, and when it’s your turn to respond to a character, the game gives you a few optional lines, one of which is always labeled a “Rabbinical response.” Although I like what developer Dave Gilbert was going for here, this element, which results in a rhetorical question from Stone if I recall correctly, often comes off as contrived or merely amusing. Do note, however, that many critics went ga-ga over Mass Effect’s stilted dialogue choices, as if they were innovative rather than reductive, when it was released in 2007. The Shivah’s handling of this approach was superior to Mass Effect’s.

Many critics see Proteus as a “walking simulator” or “first-person walker” or “non-game.” These are childish labels that trivialize the spiritual daringness of the game, which uses walking and flying to situate the idea of being a Christian disciple and lover of creation in a mythical context (Proteus was the name of a Greek sea god). People frequently recall the main section of Proteus in which you interact with different forms of life on an island. But at the beginning of Proteus, you’re literally walking on water, just as Peter wanted to do with Jesus in the Gospels, before you get to the island. After you start traversing the island, you can eventually move time forward and experience all four major seasons. During the final season, you ascend to the heavens, which, in terms of play, is a major departure from the walking and running you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s an ending of joy that evokes the concept of eternal salvation.

Last but not least, Earthbound’s climax involves a worldwide prayer to defeat an enemy who seems unbeatable. As Paula, the lone female hero of the main party, you could always pray during battle for a random effect, in the game’s joking way. Thus, I never prayed as Paula because of the unpredictability. But when you reach the final battle, you throw everything you can at Giygas, the final boss, and he just keeps surviving and growing more dangerous. The first few times I fought Giygas, I failed because I assumed I could beat him through normal attacks. Then, during one session, it hit me: why not try praying with Paula? It was the only thing I hadn’t tried in previous attempts.

Initially, prayer only does a little damage to Giygas, but as you perform the action round after round, the game cuts to other places of the world where characters you had met sense that they need to pray as well, and the damage steadily increases. By the final time you pray, you’re inflicting massive damage to Giygas, who fades away. Through this unique take on turn-based combat, Earthbound suggests that spiritual unity can help humanity overcome its worst fears and obstacles.

Question 2

Jim Bevan: Has your opinion changed on any games that you were initially very positive or negative towards?

Jed Pressgrove: Yes. The best example of either case was my experience with Final Fantasy Tactics many years ago before I left home for college (I’m 33, for those keeping score). I remember trying to get into it twice and quitting out of frustration both times. Although I started playing turn-based RPGs at around the age of 7, I wasn’t as familiar with the turn-based tactical genre, and Tactics is unrelenting if you don’t think more defensively. I thought it was a miserable excuse for a Final Fantasy game. Thankfully, I tried it a third time and was blown away by everything you could do. I liked it so much that despite getting stuck at the save point right before you face Wiegraf/Belias (I didn’t have the right party to win the fight), I started the entire game over (a loss of 20+ hours) just to properly prepare myself for the Wiegraf/Belias fight. Beating that boss was a great feeling when it finally happened.

Question 3

Ian Mossner: What do you think about the timing of your reviews? For example, Kingdom Come: Deliverance recently got a patch. What if you had reviewed the game after the patch? Your review would have been entirely different.

Another example: upon release, Dragon Ball FighterZ was unfinished, but now that certain elements have been added, if you were to review it, the criticism of it being unfinished could not be repeated by you.

Another example: in your review of Iconoclasts, you mention a dialogue segment where soldiers engage in “locker room” talk, but that segment has been entirely changed based on my recent playthrough. So people who play it now will not experience what you did.

So I guess my question is how important is timing in your reviews?

Jed Pressgrove: It can be important because it can give me the opportunity to show my values as a critic and human being. One of my beliefs is that if you’re going to sell a physical or digital thing, it should be finished. Bottom line, end of story. I don’t care if you’re talking about a car, a song, a shirt, whatever. I grew up in a poor working-class family, so I know how precious money can be. People should finish their work before selling it to anyone. Otherwise, it’s a ripoff, and it shows me that you, as a creator, have little respect for yourself, other people, and the state of the working class.

Here’s one tricky part: what is “finished”? With video games, if the game is in an alpha or beta stage, it’s unfinished. I’m against playing and reviewing early-access titles for this reason. I don’t want to pay for or play anything unfinished, and I don’t want to encourage other people to do it, either, because early access is a bullshit trend that needs to stop.

Although Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t an early-access game on the day of its release, it might as well have been. I can forgive a glitch here and there. I can forgive some imperfections (though I can and will criticize those imperfections). But if just about every part of your game suggests that you didn’t put in the work to release the game in a state that wouldn’t rip off someone, you’re just as bad as the early-access grifters, and your game more than likely looks and plays like crap. And honestly, even though you mention a new patch in your question, I’m still not convinced my review would be that different. There was a patch for the PS4 version before my review was published, and the game still suffered from everything I mentioned in the review. That team of developers is so inept that I have no faith in the game.

But let’s assume Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t the biggest technical failure that I played since last year’s abominable Troll and I. My review would have focused more on the game’s story and attention to realism. Based on what I could gather through my glitch- and bug-ridden experience, the game was still nothing to write home about on any front. From this angle, timing may not matter as far as whether I like the overall game or not, but it would certainly affect the thrust of my essay. Perhaps my review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance would have been more cultural or political in nature.

I haven’t played Dragon Ball FighterZ, so I can’t comment on it specifically. I will say that the trend for fighting games to be “live services” is annoying. The fighting game community never shuts up about tiers and unfairness, so as long as the cycle of player whining and patching continues, who knows what fighting games will look like. At the same time, I have played well more than 100 fighting games, so I can often spot a substandard example of the genre when I play it, even when it receives frequent patches, like Street Fighter V. With this in mind, timing of reviews might be less important for certain genres.

Your example of Iconoclasts is interesting and presents a different kind of potential dilemma. Changed dialogue can change one’s interpretation of a game’s theme or message. So timing in such a case could be extremely critical. Fortunately, that scene you’re referring to in Iconoclasts, if it is indeed different (I haven’t been able to confirm it yet due to my busy schedule), doesn’t play a significant role in my overall interpretation of the game. I just thought it was a fascinating scene that deserved to be mentioned in a largely descriptive sentence.