Ahhh, it’s that time again.
This was a weird year for me, in terms of games. There was the release of something that I had been looking forward to for a long time, but it didn’t really hit for me. I spent the first half of the year paralyzed with fear and absorbed in old favorites, and the latter half too busy to get into anything new. So, there’s not a lot to go on here, really. But, I’ve still got Some Thoughts on a few things.
This might be my overall favorite, and it didn’t even come out this year, but rather the year before.
You probably don’t recall that I wrote a review on NIOH back in 2019, when I thought that game reviews would be a thing I did more regularly. I enjoyed that game, but had some issues with its itemization, and some of its other systems.
So did the sequel fix that awful itemization? Well… kind of, but not really. It’s definitely still a problem, enemies drop tons of useless loot all the time and the bonuses are weirdly specific and mostly not useful, but they did a few things to alleviate it. Weapons of the same basic type always are guaranteed to have the same affix, making it easier to plan. It’s even easier to change affixes and customize your equipment.
But mostly, it kind of doesn’t matter. You will vacuum up tons of random garbage, and then just dispense with it within a few seconds back at the shrine/save point. Much faster and easier than any traditional ARPG, that’s for sure. I would often finish several missions without changing a single piece out, especially in the later parts of the game when you get set bonuses going.
I should back up a little bit and explain what this game is and why I like it so much, though.
NIOH 2 is an action RPG that is like… half Dark Souls, half Diablo, half Ninja Gaiden, and half its own thing. If that sounds like four halves, that’s because this is a whole lot of game in one package. The perspective and basic controls are very Souls-y, you’re using shrines instead of bonfires, leveling your stats with something very similar to souls, you’re z-targeting enemies and dodging and parrying their attacks. The usual.
But it makes a few very significant changes, the main one being that it just has a ton of mechanics beyond the basic combat. There is a stamina system, and you can recover stamina by timing a button press that represents regulating your breathing to recover your internal ki. This effect can also clear out pools of the Other World, the realm of monsters encroaching on the mortal realm. Combined with swapping weapons it can also trigger attacks, or heal you, or do a bunch of other things.
The original game had a lot of systems. That one is straight from there, and this game adds in the ability to summon the power of yokai that you slay. Not only trasforming into a half-yokai form, but also launching one-off attacks that imitate the powers of enemies.
Combined with the returning system whereby you can learn advanced martial arts techniques for each weapon type, effectively giving them their own skill trees, it feels like a much more… complete experience, I suppose.
This is where I need to talk about why Elden Ring is not on this list. This was the From game that finally broke through to the mainstream, everyone and their uncle loved it! So why not me, well….
You see: in the Souls games developed by From Software, and their more ardent imitators, the player is given a very weak toolset by default. You are slow, you have bad dodges, awkward attacks. Your enemies are overwhelmingly powerful monsters, and the point is overcoming this great challenge before you, eventually becoming more powerful along the way.
But… you always still kind of suck. Your abilities are limited, you can let off a big fancy attack, but at great risk or only by using up precious resources. The player is always on the backfoot, always having to resort to tricks or repeated training to overcome challenges. It’s about getting away with a victory, scraping by with your purposefully defective tools.
What NIOH 2 offers, in contrast, is the ability to effectively become a From Software boss. You get access to all kinds of overpowered attacks that give you super armor, that overwhelm enemy defenses. You can effectively access all the same unfair bullshit that is being used against you, through martial arts skills and yokai abilities.
In some sense, it’s very similar, since you are starting from nothing and becoming very powerful over time, only through your own efforts. The difference is that NIOH 2 is still mostly an RPG. You are dealing with stats, spending points, choosing equipment, figuring out how to make yourself as strong as possible. From games, in the meanwhile, have shifted more towards being action games.
This is all to say: after playing 200 hours of NIOH 2 over the previous year, I could not Get Into Elden Ring. I was very excited, and I tried, played for a couple dozen hours, but in the end it was just too frustrating. Watching videos of people fighting late game bosses, it just looked miserable. They were already trending towards this kind of design in Dark Souls 3, and it looks way worse now.
But, more importantly: I just didn’t like the aesthetics of Elden Ring. There was nothing that appealed to me in the endgame gear, the best stuff you could get. It just struck me as an ugly, gaudy world, with nothing that looked cool. This is in stark contract to Dark Souls 3, which was absolutely gorgeous, and thus I finished it even though I didn’t like the combat.
Anyway this game rules, you should play it, and I can’t wait for Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty to come out next month, which is a game from the same developers but set in the Three Kingdoms period of China.
This one is a case of a perfect match of author and audience. Well, almost perfect.
You’ve probably never heard of this game, though it has been steadily gaining in popularity. It’s a traditional 2D sidescroller RPG, based on old PC-98 and Famicom games. Think more Ys than Metroid or Castlevania.
But it’s heavily modernized, and, more importantly, has a shitload of content. This is a game that just keeps going in a way I’ve never seen a sidescroller RPG do before. It’s truly more similar to a traditional JRPG in terms of scale and length. There are a bunch of wild twists involving time travel that I will not spoil, it’s best to experience them yourself.
There are a couple aspects of this game that I really loved.
First, the combat. It’s punchy, has that nice hit-stop effect that Sakurai talked about. You can do wild combos totally up to hundreds of hits, and use magic powers that always feel really cool and impactful. It definitely hits my Cool Shit quota, and it also reaches the same heights as the old IGA-directed Castlevania games: it’s fun to grind.
Just running around screens, killing the same enemies, is really fun. It starts off very easy, but adds in a nice dash of challenge, especially towards the end, once you’ve mastered the systems. It never feels too pushy, it’s mostly about just getting in there and wrecking enemies in a very stylish way. Characters in the game even comment on how weirdly strong the protagonist is.
Second of ly, the writing. It’s translated, obviously, and the translation is… a bit dodgy, at times. To the point that the developer is still soliciting fixes on the steam message boards. But I found it extremely charming in how blunt it is.
It reminds me of both the Pokemon series and Super Mario RPG, in how characters just sort of talk in modern slang. They’ll just say things like “wow, that was crazy”, or what-have-you, it’s great. Definitely helps the tone, which is not something that should be taken too seriously at any point.
The plot is also… kind of a downside though, as well as the art. While most of it is also very charming, sort of a mish-mash of photos helped along with character art added by a more professional artist for this Revision release, it has some… issues.
Look, I’m no prude, but this game really crosses the line in terms of Annoying Horniness at a few points, one of which is unfortunately the final boss. It really left a bad taste in my mouth at the end, but I enjoyed the rest of the game so much that I still think it’s worth recommending.
There are also a couple of plots points involving the specific mechanics of time travel and sci-fi concepts that are hopelessly confusing because of the translation. Again, this only really becomes a problem close to the end, but still, it’s something to be aware of.
Just kinda lumping these together, because I spent a lot of time playing them but didn’t finish either one, but I still want to write about them.
First, Soul Hackers 2!
I played the original game when it was inexplicably ported to the 3DS back in 2013. It was actually the first Shin Megami Tensei game I finished! It was a fun, if somewhat obtuse, dungeon crawler with a pokemon-style demon raising mechanic. However, there was much more emphasis on combining demons to make stronger ones.
Ultimately, in that game, you could kinda throw together a team of whatever, as long as you had some heavy hitters and a healer. You had so little control over the fusion process, you would just tend towards making “better” demons as you went and it all worked out in the wash. With two core party members, the protagonist with physical attacks and your demon-possessed girlfriend with magic, you could always get by even with some bad rolls at the demon gacha.
Now, the sequel follows a much more modern style of game, more along the lines of the Persona series. Or, more accurately, bringing together the design of Persona and the mainline SMT games, like SMTV, IV, and Nocturne.
People have criticized the mechanics, saying it’s not as complex or interesting as SMT’s usual press-turn system, but honestly I think it works great, and offers some complexities that are not initially apparent. Your party members are pre-determined, but instead of having a set persona like in… well, Persona, you can swap all of their demons around.
I love the aesthetics, though I wish they went further with the ’20s part of the ’20s-cyberpunk fusion. As always, the menus are great, Atlus really does the best UI in the business.
Where it falls down, sadly, is the dungeons. It’s still a dungeon crawler, but instead of a first-person tile-by-tile affair, it’s more of the traditional behind-the-back camera, like recent SMTs and Personae. Most of your time in the game is spent running around dungeons, and there are some neat mechanics involved there, but the environments are all very bland and same-y. You go to some warehouses by the docks, then a weird cyberscape, then a subway tunnel… then another subway tunnel… then somehow a third, different subway tunnel.
It’s a real bummer! You can tell this game didn’t have a very large budget. I was really hoping it would be better, and an indication that Atlus would start trying out new, weirder spinoffs again. There’s been a real drought of SMT spinoffs ever since the 3DS died.
Anyway, Persona 5! That famous game from like… 6 years ago? I never played it back then, because it was not released on PC or on switch. I never really learned anything about the game either, I saw the characters but I knew nothing about them or the plot.
It was… fine. Better than I expected. The plot is very slow and meandering, and has some frustrating aspects. But the gameplay is incredible, it’s all so… smooth.
Every little roadblock in the old SMT formula has been sanded down. Battles are quick and generally very easy. Recruiting demons is easy. Fusion is easy. Finding and completing social links is easy.
My frustration with this game, besides some aspects of the plot that I can’t really speak to because I didn’t finish it, is that the life-sim elements always make me feel a bit suffocated. It’s a bit too similar to real life, I guess, except much more on rails.
I had the same problem with Persona 4 towards the end, it just becomes very monotonous doing these same things, day in and day out. They finish introducing new mechanics, and then that’s pretty much it for the rest of the game, at least as far as I can tell.
It’s certainly an aesthetic achievement, some of the coolest menus I’ve seen in any game ever, but overall it left me a bit cold. I’ll probably get back to it eventually, since it is so smooth and fun to experience, but in the end I hope the series can regain some vitality with a shift in gameplay.
Still can’t believe you can’t date Yusuke in that game….
I feel like I should include something here that isn’t a Japanese RPG, so here’s Peglin.
It’s just a lovely little roguelike that combines turn-based battles with Peggle (or pachinko, really). There’s a whole subgenre of roguelikes that combine the usually Roguelike Stuff with some other random puzzle type or gameplay mechanic, much in the same way that gacha games do.
After all, the central thing is just what form the randomness takes. Is it a roll of the dice? The draw of a hand of cards? Or the bouncing of a little ball among some pegs? They can all drive the sort of interesting decision-making for this type of game.
This is, simply put, a good One Of Those. It’s got a charming art style and a nice variety of enemies and ball types and upgrades to try. There’s a very vague sense of being able to put together an effective “build”, but it’s not very developed yet. It’s still in early access, after all. There are character classes coming, I’m sure that will add a lot.
It is the first game in a long time to fill the same niche as Spelunky for me. I will just load it up and take it for a spin, not really placing any expectations on this particular run. Maybe I’ll die in all of ten minutes, maybe I’ll make it to the end, it all depends on the luck of the bounce.
Well, there ya have it. My Games of the Year. Pretty thin crop this time, but like I say: I was very busy, or concerned with other things and kind of losing my mind.
If I have one regret, it’s not putting more time into Pentiment, which is 1000% My Shit. I will endeavour to finish it and post something about it here in the near future. If I don’t do that before the end of February, when both Octopath Traveler 2 and Wo Long come out, it will never be done….