by Jed Pressgrove
Welcome to this year’s list, which continues a feature introduced in last year’s round-up — the play-instead recommendations. For every entry in this list, I name a superior title. The catch is that a lot of these alternatives don’t approach greatness; they’re just competent enough to further highlight the ineptitude of the following titles.
1. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (PS4)
This RPG might be stripped down (no monsters, no spells) and might aim for a sense of realism (you must eat), but it plays like a college project gone wrong. The PS4 version (which I played at launch) is a technical travesty characterized by unresponsive button input, laughably repetitious townspeople dialogue, inconsistent visuals, bizarre bugs — I will generously stop the list there. Going by the “finished” product, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was made by people who have no respect for themselves, audiences, the notion of realism, or the art of video games.
Play Instead: Shadow of the Tomb Raider
While this sequel frequently scans as the work of depraved Resident Evil 4 and Uncharted fans who like to see dirt and blood on women, and while Lara Croft and her neck-beard-sporting friend Jonah are insufferable dullards, at least the game has the decency to function like it’s supposed to.
2. Red Dead Redemption 2
Go ahead, game industry whore. Excuse the lack of combat innovation, the unresponsiveness of basic functions, the numerous glitches, the contradiction between the focus on minute details and the overall lack of realism. Keep kneeling before the Rockstar executives and telling them that their game stuffing is different and competent. But if you’re going to take the extra step and claim that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a meaningful story about a gang of mythological outlaws being left behind by society, get off the game’s fake cinematic camera and sit down and watch the work of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch superbly depicts the gradual destruction of a nomad group of cowboys. In contrast to Red Dead Redemption 2, the film doesn’t pass off its tale as a kind of half-assed morality lesson. Instead, Peckinpah stares into the heart of violence and sees much of humanity. The gaming world’s ignorance of The Wild Bunch (and other great philosophical westerns) allows it to worship developer Rockstar one more time with zero self-reflection.
Play Instead: Milanoir
Milanoir has much in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. It controls like crap, its cover-based gunfights are inferior to those of Gears of War, and it was developed by people who might very well believe a juvenile lens of the world is mature. Yet Milanoir doesn’t have a preposterous and outdated bounty system to bail you out. It actually sends the player to prison at one point, and you can almost taste the potential for a profound statement before Milanoir goes right back to its poorly constructed shooter sequences.
It’s clear that developer Jaromír Plachý wants to make a cartoon of sorts with Chuchel, but neither the subject matter (a chase after a cherry) nor the puzzle design is intriguing. Most of the time you just keep clicking on things until something happens, and the allusions to classics like Pac-Man are insultingly dull. Oddly, the protagonist resembles the golliwog racial caricature. If this artistic choice doesn’t point to any ill will, it definitely underlines the lack of intelligence in the overall design of the game.
Play Instead: The Gardens Between
Like Chuchel, The Gardens Between is not a mechanically complex game, but its puzzles, while simple, are much more engaging; the solution involving a suspended water drop ranks among the cleverest ideas in 2018 games. The Gardens Between is also a visual masterwork in how it links two characters’ childhood memories to level design. Every stage is an island that rotates as you move time forward and backward, resembling a hypnotic spell.
4. Donut County
It doesn’t matter that the apparent goal of Donut County is to make you smirk and giggle as you consume animals, bricks, chairs, cars, and more by moving a hole in the ground that grows every time it is fed. The game’s failure lies in its immediate loss of novelty. Developer Ben Esposito’s levels are largely the same exercise, requiring little imagination from the player and confining the action to extremely limited boundaries. Donut County’s redundant, brainless style recalls the numbing idiocy of Chuchel. The best thing you can say about either game is that they have the potential to reduce us to unthinking but amused participants. Just as eating certain foods can make you unhealthier, playing certain games can make you stupider.
Play Instead: Way of the Passive Fist
If you’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, the least you can do is have rhythm. Way of the Passive Fist turns the overdone beat-’em-up genre into a defensive exercise where timing is paramount for both survival and high scores. It’s very true this game should have been shorter to stave off a sense of monotony, but given that its challenges require great attention to detail from the player, Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t turn you into an easily amused automaton.
This release from the indie trash pile never comes close to matching its obvious ancestors (Silent Hill, Thirty Flights of Loving, Glitchhikers). Not scary, barely coherent, and unimaginatively surreal, Paratopic is all tone and no brain or heart.
Play Instead: Return of the Obra Dinn
In Papers, Please, Lucas Pope pretends he has a handle on politics, suffering, and humanity. He drops that act with Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that better communicates Pope’s pure interest in mystery. Unlike the case with Paratopic, superb audiovisuals allow Return of the Obra Dinn to tap deep into our fear of and fascination with the inevitability of disaster.
Those who think this game has something interesting or important to say about mental illness are sadly mistaken. Celeste is the work of a manipulative artist (Matt Thorson) who thinks it’s insightful to reduce psychological difficulty to, say, an evil apparition that follows you around like Cosmic Mario. Ever notice how the praise directed at Celeste’s trendy narrative rarely mentions the historical accomplishments of other games that deal with similar subject matter? There’s also little novelty in the game’s approach to platforming. Dashing mechanics are a dime a dozen these days, and the reason players die so many times in Celeste is that the platforming is rigid and unimaginative. This title is just another superficial ode to climbing the literal and metaphorical mountain.
Play Instead: Plug Me
The solutions to Plug Me’s platforming trials are admittedly as set in stone as those in Celeste. But the suggestively titled Plug Me doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game is a race against time, as each level’s primary platform burns out like a fuse. If this disintegrating platform reaches the end of the level before you do, you’re dead — an inventive premise that isn’t weighed down by offensively cliched metaphors about struggle.
7. The Banner Saga 3
Tolkien’s precious hope and George R.R. Martin’s enthusiasm for destruction collide in this slog of a turn-based tactical game. The previous two Banner Saga games were far from intelligent or daring, but developer Stoic reaches a new low with this concluding chapter. Hopefully, we will never see another confused, nihilistic march like this again.
Play Instead: Octopath Traveler
It’s dull watching your lumbering army break through the defenses of your opponents in The Banner Saga 3. Octopath Traveler, on the other hand, effectively fetishizes the shattering of enemy armor with beyond-crisp audio. For all its flaws, Octopath Traveler knows how to utilize sound to help tell stories and immerse you in a variety of activities and settings.
Minit might be considered an independent title, but it smells like part of a larger marketing scheme to dumb down classic game ideas and package them as loving tributes designed to elate the common person, who would be better off playing Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man. A facile Zelda wannabe that really should have lasted 60 seconds.
Play Instead: The Messenger
The Messenger sure looks like a Ninja Gaiden clone, but the comparison doesn’t hold up as you learn how to sail around like a flying squirrel. This game is not always good (the metatextual humor is beyond irritating), but its unusual kookiness separates it from the crowd of indie darlings that simply bank on tradition and nostalgia.
9. Mario Tennis Aces
A lazy effort from developer Camelot, Mario Tennis Aces can’t even sniff the sweaty shorts of Mario’s Tennis on the Virtual Boy or the 2000 N64 classic, Mario Tennis. Not only does this pathetic sequel lack basic tennis options, but its new mechanics are for people who don’t value skill or perseverance. A grave insult to the sport of tennis.
Play Instead: Laser League
Although this game isn’t based on a traditional sport, its use of short sets is similar to the truncated experience of Mario Tennis Aces. The notion of only needing a few points to win a set makes sense here, though, as each point of Laser League can go on for a good while as team members revive each other amid an onslaught of moving laser beams. The game betrays its own simplicity by giving certain characters cheap special moves, but I’ll take the negative aspects of this fictional sport over the head-scratching design of a once-entertaining series.
10. Mega Man 11
This latest entry in the decades-old series suggests it might be time for Capcom to give up. Mega Man controls like a gummed-up, outdated piece of junk in this sequel, and all you have to do to survive the levels is save up credits and buy lives and energy tanks. That this embarrassing chapter largely received a pass demonstrates the power of a brand.
Play Instead: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
As unnecessary as Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is (it’s like a poor remake of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), it does handle as well as the NES games it emulates. Can’t say the same thing for Mega Man 11, which botches the smoothness of the slide from Mega Man 3.