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Goomba Stomp’s Top 20 Indie Games of 2017

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2017 was a fantastic year to be an indie gamer. It seems like there was something for every kind of gamer out there, from gamers who are really into the RTS genre to those who just want to chill and play the worries of the world away. The year was also a huge boost to indie developers with the release of the Nintendo Switch which brought a new breath of life into indie gaming with the consoles concepts of either on the go gaming or hooking up your system to a bigger screen.

This year, in particular, it’s worth noting that the smaller games managed to leave as strong of an impression as some AAA titles and were created by small teams who just so happened to capture the attention of a large audience.

Below, Goomba Stomps indie fanatics put together a top 20 list of worthwhile games from 2017.

20: Tooth and Tail:

Developer(s) Pocketwatch Games
Publisher(s) Pocketwatch Games
Release: September 12th, 2017
Genre(s) Casual, Strategy

It goes without saying the RTS genre has hit somewhat of a dry spell in the past few years. While Spellforce 3 is a notable new entry to the RTS library, Pocketwatch Games’ Tooth and Tail is more akin to the classics like Age of Empires and Rise of Nations.  Set during the Russian revolution, the player must take control of the animal versions of the proletariat, bourgeois, religiously fanatical, and government obsessed factions of the highly toxic period in human history.  Squirrels are Bandelier sporting drunks, skunks deliver deadly doses of chemical weapons, and owls bombard the battlefield with their decaying remains of their enemies.  It all sounds very disturbing and grotesque, but the beautiful 16-bit art style and humorous dialogue make it an enjoyable experience.  

Tooth and Tail isn’t like a traditional RTS.  Bases are built on pre-existing structures and can be won and lost in an instant.  A match between two players can take as little as five minutes, or drag on for two hours, depending on the opponent’s playstyle.  This makes Tooth and Tail an addictive experience that, while challenging, offers an immense amount of satisfaction.  Multiplayer is where the game truly shines, as the single player has little to offer.  The story is there but doesn’t really endear the player to any of the characters.  Each faction is decidedly unique, which is a positive, but none of them are easy to get attached to.  The choice to portray the Russian Revolution with animals is superb though, as they fight not for a new form of government but rather the right to eat each other.  It’s this morbid sense of humor, along with easy to learn controls and rapid gameplay, that tie all of Tooth and Tail together, making it a memorable experience and a damn solid RTS. (Carston Carasella)     

19: Code 7

Developer(s) Goodwolf Studio
Publisher(s) Goodwolf Studio
Release: August 11th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

If you are part of the younger generation, you might not remember what it’s like to play a video game without a mouse or a controller. For those who grew up in the MS-DOS days, many remember keyboard-only games quite vividly. Code 7 is not a game that is nostalgic for the 80s and 90s, but this indie hacking adventure does rely on the full use of a keyboard, bringing the old-school feel to a next-gen text adventure.

Code 7, developed by published by German-based studio Good Wolf Games, started as a one-week prototype during the Master Studies at the Cologne Game Lab in 2015. Since then, the game has grown into an episodic adventure that saw the release of its first official episode in August 2017. Players take on the role of Alex and, with the help of hacking partner-in-crime, Sam, will attempt to escape a space station while uncovering all the sinister secrets it hides within.

The basic mechanics involve typing commands directly into the computer screen or selecting dialogue options through a numbering system. A complete lack of use of the mouse makes the hacking moments quite immersive. Code 7 is also fully-voiced with super realistic dialogue delivered by a cast of incredible actors—one of the smaller indie games to fly somewhat under the radar this year, but by no means is it one that should be overlooked. With a few episodes yet to be released, Code 7 will have plenty more excitement to offer in the New Year. (Joanna Nelius)

18: Hob

Developer(s) Runic Games
Publisher(s) Runic Games
Release: September 26th, 2017
Genre(s) Action, Adventure

It’s not an easy thing to tell a compelling story completely through visuals. Game developers must be on-point with what and how they communicate, trusting players to connect the dots. In a world that can be described as a futuristic ancient civilization, Hob does just that with interesting characters, personified landscapes, and an ethereal soundtrack to create one of the most memorable gaming experiences of 2017.

From the get-go, Runic Games wanted Hob to be about exploration, not collection and upgrades. They fully accomplished what they set out to do by utilizing subtleties in their visuals, whether world-related or camera angle-related. Along with a stripped UI, camera angles communicated objectives: where to travel next. Other tiny visual elements quietly inserted familiar characters related to the main character, which made a big impact on the story. The combat was simple, featuring unlockable skills that grew in complexity, but nothing to overshadow the exploratory, open-world focus.

Hob also marked a bittersweet end to Runic Games as, not too long after its release, the studio announced they were shutting their doors. While there won’t be any more games from Runic as a company, we’ll continue to see more great work from the sound designers, artists, and others who turned Hob into the amazing game that it is—and if any company is going to go out with a bang, Runic went out with a loud one. (Joanna Nelius)

17: Last Day of June

Developer(s) Ovosonico
Publisher(s) 505 Games
Release: August 31st, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

Over the last several years, many game developers have shifted toward creating emotional and enriching narrative experiences that hold their own against long-standing, traditional media. Last Day of June from Ovosonico is one of those games. An interactive, puzzle-adventure about love and loss, the game reaches into the very depths of the human soul, trudging up our own pain and healing journeys along with it.

Playing as Carl, Last Day of June gives players the ability to travel back in time in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past to create a better present. It’s a strong, philosophical take on the stages of grief that requires the player to abandon a classic video game strategy mindset and learn to understand the story. It’s in the story where answers to puzzles are found, the how to the why—the meaning of life. The juxtaposing, soothing visuals are June’s paintings, which are also environmental puzzles in which players reenact actions of June’s last day on this mortal coil. It’s Carl’s job to re-order the past to prevent June’s death.

And if the story feels repetitive with traveling back in time to find the perfect sequence of events, it’s because that is what grieving individuals often do: repeat the same or different scenarios over and over again as if to help alleviate their guilt or change what happened. Bring your Kleenex; Last Day of June wants you to feel what it means to be human. (Joanna Nelius)

16: Cosmic Star Heroine

Developer(s) Zeboyd Games
Publisher(s) Zeboyd Games
Release: April 11th, 2017
Genre(s) RPG

Despite contrary belief, there is not a shortage of JRPGs on the market. Type any word into the search bar on steam and there a guaranteed to be three or four cheap RPGmaker games that pop up in the results. These tend to range from quietly decent to offensively terrible. The JRPG market isn’t gone, it’s just oversaturated with garbage. Cosmic Star Heroine puts up quite a few of these telltale red flags. American made – just means you’re taking the J out of JRPG. “Inspired by Chrono Trigger”? Sure, honey, they all are. Against all odds though, the game just works. The developer, Zeyboyd Games, has been quietly making great games that subvert and celebrate JRPG tropes since the days of the Xbox Live Arcade. They’ve mostly stuck with crafting comedic games, with titles like “Cthulhu Saves the World” and “Breath of Death VII: The Beginning” (Note that Breath of Death one through six do not exist), but this time they’ve tried to make something on a bigger scale, listing inspiration from not just the classics, but from modern giants like Mass Effect.

So what sets this apart? It doesn’t waste your time.

The biggest JRPG flaw, one no one can ever seem to get right, is that sometimes you just get bored. The game flow usually goes like “enter dungeon, random encounter, press A until you win, walk a bit, random encounter” on and on for 40 hours. Cosmic Star Heroine takes about 15 hours. It doesn’t feel unnecessarily padded, and the battle system focuses more on strategy and less on hoping your numbers are bigger than the bad guy’s numbers. Every battle makes you think, and every town on each of the planets is visually distinct. It shakes up a genre that can sometimes feel lackadaisical and plodding and gives it a shot of adrenaline in the arm. It’s not perfect – no JRPG outside of Chrono Trigger itself is – but it manages to do the unthinkable and shake up a genre that everyone likes to say is dead. Cosmic Star Heroine is living breathing proof that there may never be a shortage of new ideas, especially when inspired by ideas of the past. (Katrina Lind)

15: TACOMA

Developer(s) Fullbright
Publisher(s) Fullbright
Release: August 1st, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

Tacoma is the follow up to Gone Home, a game developed by the Portland, Oregon based company Fulbright, hence all the Pacific Northwest allusions in both games. Gone Home was considered a breakthrough in narrative-based indie games, by having the player piece together the plot by exploring their surroundings. Tacoma follows this same narrative structure, by dropping the player on the station Tacoma and having them explore and watch their surroundings to figure out the story at their own pace.

It’s hard not to think of Tacoma as a game or even a narrative piece, but the truth is that Tacoma is an interactive experience. It might not reward you in the same ways as other games, or books, or even plays. It’s a different kind of medium, where you get out of it what you put into it. I say play Tacoma, it might not tickle you in the same way it does me, but if you enjoy Sci-Fi and digging through people’s personal lives, you’ll dig ‘Tacoma’.  (Katrina Lind)


14: Little Nightmares

Developer(s) Tarsier Studios
Publisher(s) Bandai Namco
Release: April 27th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

Alone in the spotlight of a darkened stage, you are never far from the reach of a puppet’s grasp or the salivating mouths of monsters. Following the story of a child named Six, Little Nightmares stood out this year as a horror puzzle game with a setting that drips with the dark and unexplained, yet even more tantalizing is how Tarsier Studios tease their horror from the untrodden theme of gluttony. Whether fleeing the edge of a butcher’s knife, the sausage-swollen hands of The Maw’s gargantuan clientele or suppressing the groans of your own shrunken stomach, Tarsier Studios are playing with original ideas supported by brilliant execution from the game’s tense atmosphere and Tim Burton-esque art style. If it is let down by anything it is in the refinement of Little Nightmares’ platforming and stealth sequences, yet with more stories to come from The Maw and more gruesome tales to explore it feels like Tarsier Studios are just getting started with this series, and on the merit of its story alone the game falls amongst the most interesting narratives of the year. Little Nightmares is a short game, yet so disturbingly sweet. (Helen Jones)


13: The Long Dark

Developer(s) Hinterland Studio Inc
Publisher(s) Hinterland Studio Inc
Release: August 1st, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, Simulation, Strategy

One of the common approaches to the “survival” genre is to develop different systems and mechanics that simulate reality. While not a bad approach by any means, it’s not the only one. The Long Dark opts instead for a metaphorical representation of survival. While you still have to manage resources and defend yourself from the harsh wilderness, the game doesn’t require a huge amount of multi-tasking or micromanagement.

The arcadey nature of the survival gameplay allows for the player to take in the environment. A lot of open survival games treat the environment as your enemy. While your surroundings are still a threat in The Long Dark‘, they’re also hauntingly gorgeous. The chill wind breezing past you, the crack of a branch in the distance, the sweeping mountaintop vistas: ‘The Long Dark’ emphasizes a sensory experience that captures nature’s duality. (Kyle Rogacion)

12: Slime-San

Developer(s) Fabraz
Publisher(s) Head Up Games
Release: April 7th, 2017
Genre(s) Casual, Strategy

With today’s focus on high fidelity graphics, it can be easy to forget that strong gameplay is what separates a decent game from a stellar one. Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is easily one of the best platformers this year. The game’s striking 3-color art style isn’t just unique—it’s also ingrained into the mechanics. White surfaces are neutral, green surfaces can be phased through, and red surfaces mean instant death. Though this may seem simple enough at first, each of the game’s 400 rooms (800 for the New Game+ masochists) find new ways to switch up the mechanics and give players a consistent challenge. Just like any great platformer, Slime-San manages to masterfully tread the line between tough and unfair; each level is designed so well that deaths are never a question of unfairness.

In terms of story, the game follows a little slime and his bird pal as they randomly get swallowed whole by a giant worm. Separated from their families and friends, the duo spends the game traversing their way back through the worm to its mouth to escape. Though the premise is inconsequential, it’s the way that it’s told that makes players care about the two friends. Fabraz has taken the time to create an interesting world both inside and outside of the worm, complete with a colorful cast of characters and a few extra environments that go a long way in adding personality to an otherwise straightforward experience. If you like challenging platformers that constantly introduce new mechanics (and manage to have a bit of heart along the way), you can’t go wrong with Slime-San. (Brent Middleton)

11: A Hat in Time

Developer(s) Gears for Breakfast
Publisher(s) Gears for Breakfast
Release: October 5th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

A Hat in Time is the Kickstarter darling of Gears for Breakfast. It’s a modern 3D platformer with retro vibes that pulls and refines ideas from across all genres. There’s an island stage that feels like it’s straight out of Wind Waker, a survival horror stage that pulls concepts from classics like Resident Evil, and even a stage that turns into a ridiculous Metal Gear inspired parody, complete with avoiding soldiers watching slideshow presentations and sneaking sections. A Hat in Time makes all of these stages cohesive thought, there’s never a sense of genre whiplash, and each level feels like a shiny new toy box to explore. (Taylor Smith)

10: Observer

Developer(s) Bloober Team USA
Publisher(s) Aspyr
Release: September 12th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

With cyberpunk re-entering the mainstream, Bloober Team did their homework and captured the signature grittiness of William Gibson, the twisted futurism of Philip K. Kick and, of course, paid homage to one of the most iconic tech-noir films with casting Rutger Hauer as the lead character in Observer. (That film is Blade Runner in case the name slipped your memory.)

The year is 2084. Poland. Those not killed off by the lethal Nanophage virus have turned to drugs, virtual reality, and cybernetic implants—anything to distract them from life in The Stacks. And then there’s Dan Lazarski, an elite neural detective known as an Observer who can literally hack into people’s minds and sort through their memories to gather evidence. He’s also enhanced to the brim with other cybernetic devices, like Electromagnetic Vision, which scans for electronic devices, and Bio Vision, which scans biological evidence such as blood and can read DNA in seconds.

The crux of the story sends players on a long, nail-biting mission to find clues to the whereabouts of Lazarski’s son, whom he has been estranged from for many years. Observer is particularly masterful at creating an immersive environment. Each character players can interact with behind their locked, apartment doors are crucial to building the wonderfully decrepit, future world. Each computer holds information the Stacks’ tenants and reveals a world where people are classified into categories by the mega-corporation that controls their lives.

Packing in a couple of Layers of Fear-reminiscent scares, Observer is much more than a game; it’s a modern gateway to the greatest cyberpunk authors to come out of the 80s and holds its own next to them. (Joanna Nelius)

9: Pyre

Developer(s) Supergiant Games
Publisher(s) Supergiant Games
Release: July 25th, 2017
Genre(s) Action, RPG

From the makers of Bastion and Transistor, Pyre pushed the boundaries of gaming genres this year by mixing two totally alien styles into a shockingly cohesive whole. Sports gameplay and visual novel style storytelling are thrust together in Pyre in a wildly experimental move: one which is not only distinctly different from Supergiant’s previous games, yet which also dismantles sports gaming’s traditional focus on min-maxing stats and micromanaging your way to the top.

Pyre‘s lore-heavy world at first seems like a contradiction to its sports teams and roster-run gameplay, yet both the slow storytelling and the fast-paced matches beautifully tie together with Supergiant’s talents for world-building and quick, strategic gameplay which demands you to mix and match your approach. Coupled with a breath-taking art-style and yet another outstanding soundtrack from Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett, Pyre feels incredibly natural despite its unlikely origins.The wild highs and cruel consequences of sport come together with Pyre‘s compelling cast of characters to make each decision a torment. As outcasts, teammates, and heroes, the bonds you forge with Pyre’s characters make the game come alive and force you to play each match with heart in hand. The speed and challenge of Pyre’s ritual sport feel satisfying, but the game’s best move is that it forces you to change your playstyle and switch up your roster as an integral part of its story.

There are no good run/bad run options in Pyre, and just as the game gives you permission to fail it also puts the pressure on each decision you make in the heat of a match or as you say your last farewell to a close friend. Your future may be written in the stars, but Pyre reminds you at every turn that you’ll never know which path will give your friends their best chance at happiness, or to give the home you once knew a second chance at salvation. This is exactly how interactive narratives ought to be. Pyre is a powerful, stunning game that challenges assumptions about game difficulty and the price of failure. It’s one you need to experience first-hand. (Helen Jones)

8: Sundered

Developer(s) Thunder Lotus Games
Publisher(s) Thunder Lotus Games
Release: July 28th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, Action

Sundered came to me at a time when I needed it most.  Fed up with games that followed a similar pattern and the monotony of games coming out in mid-2017, Sundered was a bright light in the darkness.  I’ve always been a fan of both metroidvanias and difficult games, and this title from Thunder Lotus scratches both inches perfectly.  It combines Lovecraftian elements with classic sci-fi to amazing effect, telling a tale that’s both dazzling and terrifying at the same time.  The story of Ashe and her desperate quest to save her tribe from extinction is compelling, and the lengths she’ll go to secure their safety at the cost of her humanity are engaging to partake in.  While there is no understandable spoken dialogue, the in-game text given by the demonic spirit that assists Ashe helps provide depth and understanding to the world they live in.  It’s a game that made me reevaluate just how far indie games have come in the last decade and made me appreciate the hard work a small studio can put into a game like this.       

What makes Sundered so special is not simply one thing, but rather a myriad of enjoyable mechanics that meld together into a fantastic game.  Movement and combat are precise and fluid, and the leveling system is rewarding and addictive at the same time.  Enemies can appear seemingly out of thin air, swarming over an absent-minded player with ease, and the variety put into each of the three main areas in breathtaking to behold.  This is further heightened by the random environments generated after each death, making no two run-throughs the same.  There are enough secrets and additional objectives to keep any completionist busy for weeks on end, and the three vastly different endings that can be acquired demand subsequent playthroughs.  Sundered got everything right for me and just might be my favorite game of 2017. (Carston Carasella)

7: Golf Story

Developer(s) Sidebar Games
Publisher(s) Sidebar Games
Release: September 28th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, RPG, Sports

Australian developer Sidebar Games gave us one of the most enjoyable indie games released this year. The Nintendo Switch exclusive Golf Story quietly crept out on the eShop with barely any marketing push behind it and yet it managed to capture the hearts of almost the entire Goomba Stomp team who spent countless hours not only playing the game but explaining the rules of golf to those of us who have never played the sport in real life. In all honesty, this adorable RPG disguised as a golf game continually surprised us with the odd situations we were thrown into, whether it was solving a murder mystery, chasing a werewolf, battling zombies, digging up dinosaur bones, stealing from bandits and even playing a Pac-Man-like mini-game. Golf Story features solid mechanics, consistently sharp writing, expressive and lively characters and a touching story about a boy desperately trying to fulfill a lifetime dream in memory of his father. Here’s a game that has successfully captured the trappings of yesteryear’s RPGs, yet it ends up feeling fresh, and one of a kind. As sports games go (regardless of the sport), this one turns in a respectable showing, injecting some intelligence and witty humour into a story that easily could have succumbed to a flood of ‘struggling underdog’ clichés. As for its RPG roots, Golf Story is an eminently likable game, full of eminently likable characters and a leveling system that works for gamers of any handicap. Golf Story is well worth the addition to every Switch owner’s library. Its zany cast, catchy tunes, gorgeous sprites, inside jokes and easy-to-grasp gameplay make for an incredibly enjoyable time. (Rick Da Conceicao)

6: Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice

Developer(s) Ninja Theory
Publisher(s) Ninja Theory
Release: August 8th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure, Action

If nothing else, Hellblade has changed the way we discuss the difference between independent games and AAA titles. The developer, Ninja Theory, has themselves stated that it is a cross between the two; an “independent AAA”, and released the title in a middle ground pricing to match.

To simply discuss the industry effects of Hellblade, however, is to do the game itself a disservice.  It deals with themes not often seen in other works – grief, loss and mental illness. It does so not only through narrative and classic storytelling techniques but through how it plays as well. Ninja Theory manages to capture something that video games need to more fully embrace – immersing the player in a character different than them. The player experiences the horrific, frightening world through someone else’s eyes, and then processes that information as though it was someone else’s brain. This immersion is further improved by the lack of HUD or pop-style tutorials. This further blurs the separation between game and gamer, further engulfing you into the mind of a tortured young woman. What this develops is empathy for your character, a bond unlike most seen in games. Hellblade may be the best current example of video games as art, and while it might not always be fun in the classic sense, it’s importance to the medium of gaming cannot be overstated. (Katrina Lind)

5: Night in the Woods

Developer(s) Infinite fall
Publisher(s) Finji
Release: February 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

Night in the Woods is the new great American novel as told by an anthropomorphic cat. You should know after reading that sentence whether or not it’s something you would enjoy.

The fundamental irony of the game – one that probably every review points out – is how human it is. While the game goes to some deep and sometimes frightening places, most of your time is just spent figuring out if you want to hang out with your alligator friend or your Fox friend. It’s also quintessentially a game about millennials, thematically rich with the angst that comes from growing up in small-town America. In many ways, that’s all you can say about Night in the Woods without spoiling it too much. The game is about simply inhabiting this town that is both fantastical, beautifully animated, and depressingly familiar. For some people, this will amount to boredom as they wander aimlessly and wonder when the game will “pick up.” But for others, this quiet and quirky experience will be one they’ll never forget. (Katrina Lind)

4: Doki Doki Literature Club!

Developer(s) Team Salvato
Publisher(s) Team Salvato
Release: September 22nd, 2017
Genre(s) Casual

Doki Doki Literature Club is one of those rare pieces of meta-media where it stands firmly on its own merits. At first glance, DDLC seems like any other cutesy anime game. But still, waters run deep. Dan Salvato, the lead developer behind the game, has a love-hate relationship with the anime world. DDLC manifests that dichotomy as a slow descent into madness, wrapped in a cleverly deceptive cover.

The game is fairly standard visual novel fare: you meet characters, you click through dialogue, and you make choices that affect how the narrative progresses. Where DDLC sets itself apart is how it presents its story and mechanics. The game starts out innocuous enough: typical high-school slice-of-life romcom.

To say anything further would ruin the experience. Whether or not you like anime, this game is worth playing.  (Kyle Ragocion)

3: Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Developer(s) Deck Nine
Publisher(s) Square Enix
Release: August 31st, 2017
Genre(s) Action, Adventure

Before the Storm is a prequel, taking place a couple of years before the story of the hit “indie” darling Life is Strange. This time around you play as Chloe Price, who was the rebellious sidekick to the protagonist, Max, in the first game. The central plot of this short series is mainly about Chloe growing into her skin two years after her father’s death while exploring her budding relationship with the most popular girl in school, Rachel Amber. On the surface, it’s a tale about teenage angst, punk rock, and rampant vandalism, but the deeper you delve into the story, it’s a treasure trove of literary and pop culture allusions that are so carefully chosen that it ends up plunging the teenage drama into a fully realized work about depression and loneliness. (Katrina Lind)

2: Cuphead

Developer(s) Studio HDMR Entertainment Inc.
Publisher(s) Studio HDMR Entertainment Inc.
Release: September 29th, 2017
Genre(s) Action

You’ve seen Cuphead. It’s been an E3 staple for years, generating buzz based on the art alone – styled after a Max Fleischer cartoon from the 1930s. Everyone else got excited by how pretty it was, but you knew better. “It’s gonna be all flash and no substance” you said, sneering, “no game stuck in development hell for that long could end up being good.” Years passed, Cuphead continued not to be released, and you chuckled to yourself, proud that you didn’t get on board the hype train. Then, against all odds, the game finally came out and proved you wrong.

Cuphead is an amazing achievement on so many aesthetic levels, which makes it easy to forget there’s a great game buried in there. Just as the art direction borrows elements from bygone works, the gameplay borrows from a fading genre – the run n’ gun. Cuphead explicitly recalls Contra, Mega Man and Gunstar Heroes in its gameplay, and makes subtle nods to everything from Street Fighter during the Ribby and Croak Boss, to a musical reference to the athletic theme from Super Mario World. The game riffs on classic animation and classic games to make something familiar – and this warmth is essential to keep you from feeling too beaten down by its brutal difficulty. All this adds up to make something you can never quite get tired of playing – It’s always a pleasure to look at, and there’s nothing quite saying “one more try” over and over until you hear the most beautiful thing in the game: “A KNOCKOUT!”

Against all odds, Cuphead is finally here – proclaiming itself to be a knockout loudly and correctly. (Katrina Lind)

1: What Remains of Edith Finch

Developer(s) Giant Sparrow
Publisher(s) Annapurna Interactive
Release: April 24th, 2017
Genre(s) Adventure

While the initial trailer for What Remains of Edith Finch certainly stirred up some buzz, gamers could be forgiven for wondering what would set this walking simulator apart from the pile of them which had been released over the past few years.

As it turned out though, what set it apart was quite a lot. You see What Remains of Edith Finch isn’t just a walking simulator, it’s the next stage of evolution for the genre itself. It’s a flying simulator, a swinging simulator and an honest to god sea monster-writhing simulator.

It’s a game that asks you to do a mundane task with one hand while focusing on a much more interesting one with the other hand. It’s a game that sends you through a dozen interconnected slices of life in a house too magical to ever really exist. And ultimately, it’s a tragic tale of a family that seems to be cursed by the fates themselves to face one unfortunate mishap after another.

More than any other game on this list, What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that I would recommend to absolutely everyone. With its low asking price, short running time, and lasting emotional impact, this is a game that deserves to be experienced by any gamer who is at all serious about this medium as a means for artistic expression. (Mike Worby)


If 2017 taught us anything about the video games market, it’s that indie games have moved on from being a niche genre for a few gamers to compete with AAA titles. It’s probably the reason why we’re seeing a shift in the landscape, with gamers flocking to the PlayStation Store, Xbox Live Marketplace, and Steam Early Access to purchase these hidden gems. If next year follows these trends, then we are looking a bright and over-stocked future for indie gamers.

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Game Reviews

‘Blasphemous’ Review: For God’s Sake

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I’m not a religious man, but have often found the gruesome and twisted fiction it can give rise to utterly fascinating. As such, Blasphemous instantly barged its way onto my radar with its gloriously macabre Kickstarter trailer back in 2017. Brooding and grisly, it evoked almost exactly what was eventually delivered in the final product, and — despite a number of technical flaws — the wait was definitely worth it.

Rather than putting it off until later in the review, the Dark Souls comparisons might as well be nipped in the bud at this early juncture. From its visual theme, narrative techniques, and gameplay bullet points, Blasphemous sets out its stall to be a mysterious and challenging affair of swords and monsters. It takes those familiar Souls facets and combines them into a non-linear Metroidvania platformer, and it’s a formula that has rarely been done with as much flair as it is here.

Defeating a boss feels suitably epic

Those familiar with FromSoftware’s narrative leanings will know what to expect from the story in Blasphemous — that being not a whole lot of surface-level understanding. The opening is mainly utter nonsense, comprised of your typical oldey-timey English and dogmatic scripture, and it doesn’t get an awful lot clearer as players fight through the campaign. However, nearly all the collectible items and powerups have readable lore at the press of a button, and piecing together these scraps of information will gradually reveal a greater comprehension of the story.

Players take control of The Penitent One — a masked man who seems to be permanently crying tears of blood — in a quest to reverse the effects of ‘The Great Miracle.’ This cataclysmic event devastated mankind as punishment for ‘The Age of Corruption,’ where everyone was basically really bad at religion and…blasphemed a lot? As a result, everyone in the world is a malevolent, murderous zealot intent on turning The Penitent One into The Pulverized One.

The abhorrent imagery, imposing scenery, and melancholy world of Orthodoxia really is a morbidly fascinating one. Featuring fully hand-painted, pixel-art cutscenes, its visual style is akin to an old Amiga game like Prince of Persia or Another World. Rarely have 16-bit graphics been used to paint such a grotesque scene, and as such, it’s an astounding game to look at. The excellent sprite work comes to life (or perhaps that should be death) with gory combat and executions, while enemies — particularly the bosses — are a thing of depraved, disgusting beauty.

Just what the hell is going on here? Horrific…

The combat, however, is perhaps a little too simplistic, relying heavily on the executions (usually triggered after performing a perfect parry and counter) to do the heavy lifting for a single basic sword weapon and a handful of extra powers. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities of Blasphemous. Keeping players engaged in labyrinthine, often confusing Metroidvania titles is key, and without an enticing loop of unlocks it can be a little difficult to maintain interest in exploring the world. Not every game has to be Dead Cells, but using the same sword that cannot even be enhanced (yet seems to power up by itself, despite you not leveling up in any way) denies players an important level of tangible progression.

However, simplistic combat doesn’t mean the game is simple — oh no, sir — as it can be extremely punishing — especially the bosses. What Blasphemous has to help players instead of new weapons or stat building is a litany of other sundries. Rosary Beads add various passive buffs like shorter cooldowns, damage and elemental resistance, and higher defense or HP. Relics enable environmental assistance to access new areas through platforms or vines, and Mea Culpa Hearts provide buffs at a price — higher strength at the cost of defense, etc. Prayers, which are essentially magic attacks that use up your expandable Fervor meter, can also be unlocked. They’re largely disappointing, as are the small number of abilities that can be unlocked using Tears of Atonement (souls, basically), which amount to only a handful; those movesets are then upgraded rather than expanded upon.  

Miyazaki, you bastar… oh, wait

What was unashamedly billed as a Metroidvania crossed with Dark Souls then feels more like the former than the latter in its gameplay, but a key element Blasphemous takes from Miyazaki’s masterpieces is that enemies only respawn when you rest at a Prie Dieu (which also refills your health flasks). It’s one of the most needed adaptations to the Metroidvania formula; nobody likes accidentally going the wrong way and having to kill all the same enemies again just to get back to where they started.

And go the wrong way players will, as Blasphemous breaks Metroidvania rule 101: don’t get the map wrong. The map isn’t terrible per se, but it is just slightly lacking in certain facets, which can make the journey through Orthodoxia needlessly annoying. By far the most egregious issue is that you can’t exit the map by pressing the map button again. Instead the jump button is used to exit, which will also make your character jump upon returning to the gameplay. It sounds pedantic, but with as many pitfalls and death traps as Blasphemous has, I certainly didn’t appreciate constantly jumping without intention, and died more than once because of it.

It might have taken an hour, but man was this satisfying

When players do die in Blasphemous, a marker will be placed on the map showing where they fell in order to help guide them back to reclaim lost Tears of Atonement and regain the portion of their Fervor bar, which gets gradually reduced with each death. This is helpful until realizing that the map can’t be zoomed in; having markers and a legend is all well and good, but when all you can do is view the map from a very zoomed-out angle, they might as well not be there. It makes finding those potential secrets — or even normal room dividers — much more difficult to pinpoint than they should be.

Unfortunately, Blasphemous is not only sprinkled with little design niggles, but it’s also quite buggy, and at times feels a little unfinished. At one stage I had the game soft lock so that I couldn’t use any of the trigger buttons (to heal or dodge), while another incident saw a boss glitch off the screen, initially attacking nothing before righting itself and appearing from thin air to kill me. Frame drops are also pretty constant — especially when playing in handheld mode — creeping down to single digits in busier areas, and when combined with the buggy camera, can lead to more than a few pitfall deaths.

I couldn’t move the camera that fast even if I wanted to (and I never would)

None of these issues truly spoil the experience, however, and so Blasphemous ends up as an intriguing and challenging title that easily holds a place in the upper echelons of its genre. As cynical as putting Dark Souls mechanics in a Metroidvania seems on paper, the execution here is largely successful, and ensures that the game can be regarded as more than just a pretty thing to look at. Its difficulty may put some people off, as might its vague story or numerous bugs, but the rewards of seeing the gorgeous new areas while brutally executing new enemies will keep hardcore purists going until the immense satisfaction of the final victory.

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What’s love got to do with it? Link’s 5 Best Almost Romances in ‘Zelda’

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 14th, 2016. 

****

For all the fairy tale aspects and emphasis on collecting hearts, the Legend of Zelda games aren’t exactly known for getting overly lovey-dovey. Despite having two characters who are clearly meant for each other, Link and Zelda have been basically all about business over the last thirty years, putting work before pleasure. Sure, there have been the occasional sideways glances or insinuations in between killing the pig monster that’s trying to take over their world, but otherwise the relationship has mostly stayed strictly platonic, full of the kind of stiff mutual respect that leads to underpopulation.

Zelda, of course, is burdened with the many responsibilities that come with running a kingdom constantly under siege by the forces of darkness, as well as presumably having to consistently fight the urge to give in to Stockholm syndrome during each of her many kidnappings. So basically, she’s pretty busy, really focusing on her career right now. She’s also royalty, so that’s intimidating (and most likely requires a similarly noble suitor). And Link? Don’t mistake his oversleeping for laziness. This guy needs his rest so he can slay monsters and push boxes that should be way too large for him to push. The Chosen One just doesn’t have time to play the Hyrule Field, and frankly, just like with a superhero, it’s probably best he doesn’t get to close to anyone.

Still, there have been hints of love over the last few decades, with Link’s opportunities extending to relationships of tenderness and awkwardness alike that have offered hope of a Happy Ever After for the hero in green. Unfortunately, he’s killed fans’ hopes by blowing every one of them, whether by tragic twist of fate or simply running away in embarrassment. Oh well. Here are the best of the “almosts”:

saria-romance

Saria

Throughout all of the Zelda games, one thing has become apparent: Link doesn’t really do guy friends. This trait is on full display in Ocarina of Time, but while Link may never be bros with that jealous jerk Mido, that doesn’t mean he’s all by his lonesome. His companionship with an actual Kokiri is clearly a deep, meaningful one, and so Saria becomes one of the most endearing characters in the game. Sure, Malon is cute in that farmer’s daughter kind of way, but she seems more in love with horses than heroes, and besides, with a dad who can’t take care of himself, you know the honeymoon would be short. But Saria genuinely cares. She gives Link an ocarina, a pretty cool gift if you’re a forest person, and she teaches him a song so that they can always be in contact (hint, hint). Add to that the long, sad, lingering look on Saria’s face as she watches her “friend” cross the bridge to adventure, and you know there was something going on.

So after defeating Phantom Ganon in the Forest Temple and revealing Saria as the Sage of Forest, her resigned acceptance that their carefree days are behind them is a bittersweet acknowledgment (and reminder) that duty will always come before happiness. Mido’s revelation later that she had been waiting all this time for Link’s return doesn’t help with the melancholy, her unfulfilled pining just another casualty in the fight. But hey, at least she gets to hang out with a bunch of other misfits who are similarly trapped by their fated responsibility! Including…

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Princess Ruto

I’m not sure that anyone has thrown themselves at Link more than Princess Ruto. As a spoiled brat being carried around inside a giant fish that ate her, Ruto develops a one-way relationship that culminates in her believing the two to be engaged when she hands over Zora’s Sapphire, all while blushing profusely. These aggressive signals couldn’t be any more obvious, but Link does a great job of playing it cool and clueless. She really doesn’t pull too many punches though, and it’s hard to explain why he doesn’t bite. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their lives with someone who’s rude, entitled, and bossy? So what that she’s an entirely different species and any offspring would be freaks of nature?

Even when older Link meets her later, she finds time to bring up their love life amidst all the seriousness of being a very important Sage, scolding Link for making her wait so long, then explaining how she can’t be with him until her duties are over. It’s all hilarious until you think about what would happen if Princess Ruto ever really did get free. Sorry fish lady, but the princess for Link is in another castle.

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Marin

With its tropical setting, one would think that Link’s Awakening would be one of the best chances for Link to find true love, but alas, even though he meets the girl of his dreams (who even looks like Zelda!), yet again it’s not meant to be. It’s hard not to instantly relate to Marin and her fascination with the young lad who washed up on Koholint’s shore. She has been trapped on an island her whole life, imagining a big exciting world out there beyond the vast ocean’s horizon, and yearning to see it. What kid (and many adults) can’t identify with that feeling? Link represents discovery, adventure, and the enthusiasm and verve she displays because of this is infectious. She definitely likes him, but does she like him like him?

Though quick to chide Link for hitting a cucco or smashing a jar, she’s rather shy about her feelings, but a couple of things slip. Sitting side-by-side on a log at the beach, she reveals her deepest desires and asks to know everything about him (before awkwardly laughing the question off), and later on top of a mountain, nearly confesses something before being interrupted by her father. The game itself even seems to think Link has a shot, asking after the hero “acquires” her and holds her high above his head like a treasure he just found, “Is this your chance?”

Sadly, however, Marin’s story may be the most heartbreaking of all Link’s ladies. She knows that when the Wind Fish wakes up, all of Koholint, herself included, might vanish into memory. She pleads with Link that “some day you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart… …Don’t ever forget me… If you do, I’ll never forgive you!” Marin just wants to exist, to feel, and Link, the person who has awoken that inside her, is destined to be the one that takes that from her. Getting the best ending to the game reveals some hope that maybe these two will meet again one day, in a magical land far away.

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Midna

Has Link ever had a more fully-formed relationship with anyone than what he shares with the impish former ruler of the Twilight Realm? Following the classic Hollywood arc, the two start out bickering and irritated with each other, Midna constantly hounding her wolfish companion, with Link begrudgingly powering through the pain in order to get to the princess he actually likes. Naturally then, over the course of many trials and monster-shaped obstacles, the two slowly began to develop a mutual respect and liking for each other, as tragic backstories are revealed and codes of honor are put on full display. By the end, when sassy beast turns into great beauty (a nice twist on a classic fairy tale trope), Link is left speechless (big shocker), much to Midna’s delight. “What? Say something! Am I so beautiful that you have no words left?” This is called flirting, people. If I was Link’s wing man he would’ve received a nudge in the ribs right here.

In fact, most of their interactions over the entire game comprise of her playful teasing, the type of schoolyard antagonizing that is akin to pulling someone’s hair and running away. If Link’s the kind of guy I think he is, these insults will only add to the liking. On top of that, her mysterious nature and later trusting openness can only strengthen the interest. Of course, what it could easily boil down to is just that really, they’re the perfect match: she’s funny and talks a lot, while he’s well, Link.

Unfortunately, he stays true to silent form, and after a brief pause at the end where she clearly wants to admit her feelings but (I’m assuming) feels awkward with Zelda around, Midna departs back to her own dimension, never to be seen again, all because a certain green-clad idiot just stands there and lets her destroy the Mirror of Twilight (with a tear nonetheless) having never told her how he actually feels! Stupid Link! Rookie mistake, pal. Live and learn, plenty of fish in the sea, and all that crap.

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Zelda

Ah, but which Zelda? Well, in the entire franchise, there are really only two with whom Link had any real chemistry beyond teaming up to save the kingdom, but the best of those is the one that wasn’t even a princess. In Skyward Sword, Zelda is a happy youth, the kind of spirited person that everyone is drawn to, a force of positivity and happiness. She also has had a crush on Link for years, as the two have been particular friends since they were kids, much to the annoyance of a jealous Biff-type schoolmate of theirs. This really is the boy-next-door meets girl-next-door story that has less of a fantasy feel than the other games, feeling more grounded and accessible.

Much of this realistic feeling is owed to the amount of awkwardness between the two whenever they’re left alone in the beginning and things start to get real. Zelda often fishes for compliments on her choice of clothes or weirdly, her harp, while Link stammers his way through the several “aw, shucks” responses. This is all highly endearing in a puppy love sort of way, but throughout the game we are reminded as well of how deeply these two really care for each other, with Zelda risking her life without a moment’s hesitation to save Link from falling, or the goddess’ plot exploiting the fact that Link would “throw [himself] headfirst into any danger, without even a moment’s doubt” to save her.

Still, though there are many acts of bravery and sacrifice on both sides that outwardly prove love, the beating heart of Link and Zelda’s relationship in Skyward Sword lies in the small moments, glances, and gestures that have players rooting for these two crazy kids to come through in the end. Zelda nervously folding her hands in his presence, Link’s embarrassment at the implication of a kiss, the playful way she is constantly pushing him off the edge of high places and endangering his life, etc. While the end makes no guarantees, as one of only three people living on the surface, this is Link’s best chance to make a life for himself outside of killing things.

Ten bucks says his “be aloof” strategy drove her straight to Groose.

***

And that’s it! So, while romance has never been a main focus of the Zelda series, that doesn’t mean Hyrule doesn’t have a pulse. Link’s made a life out of collecting hearts, and despite all the misfires with the ladies and fish ladies, Link’s still young. He’s just got to get back on that horse and find someone that’s not his horse. After all, it’s dangerous to go alone.

Though you could always choose the bottle…

Link-romance

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Indie Games Spotlight: Apple Arcade (Almost) All the Way

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Apple Arcade Indie Game Spotlight

We love indie games here at Goomba Stomp – after all, they can offer some of the most groundbreaking, creative experiences out there. However, with so many coming out every single week, it can be hard to know which of them deserve your attention. That’s why we’ve started our new Indie Games Spotlight series, where we’ll highlight some of our favorite new independent games every other week.

Our inaugural issue is dominated by the recently released Apple Arcade. Apple’s ambitious new service has brought with it plenty of standout titles to discuss, including some from respected creators like Devolver Digital and WayForward.

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Devolver Digital Joins the Arcade

Apple Arcade is upon us, coming with a slew of stylish indies from a variety of developers new and old. One of the service’s most immediately prominent supporters is the boutique publisher Devolver Digital, which is supported Apple’s platform with some exclusive new titles, two of which we’ll highlight below.

First is Bleak Sword, a compact brawler that takes place entirely in stylish dioramas. Inflicted with a deadly curse, players must traverse through the isometric black, white, and red environments to right the wrongs of their world. The action has been streamlined to work equally well on both mobile devices and traditional gamepads, although it has also been spiced up with some RPG elements like spells to cast and stats to upgrade. It’s available to play now for Apple Arcade subscribers.

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The second release is Cricket Through the Ages, which features “inarguably accurate recollections” of the game of cricket throughout human history. Some of its true-to-life scenarios include one prehistoric match between cavemen and dinosaurs, another taking place during a medieval joust, and of course, one in outer space. Featuring simple one-button controls and support for both single- and multiplayer, this historic romp may not be exactly accurate, but it certainly does look ridiculous and fun. It can be played now on Apple Arcade.

Indie Games Spotlight

Mosaic Paints a Bleak Picture of the Daily Grind

Mosaic is all about one of the most mundane aspects of existence: the daily grind. It takes place in a seemingly pristine world where there’s little more to life than clocking in and out of work and whiling away the idle hours with mindless mobile games. As reality becomes gripped in a “harrowing technological autocracy,” it tasks the player with becoming the lone rebel to shatter the façade.

With its polygonal 3D visuals and subversive narrative, it easily draws plenty of comparisons to Playdead’s iconic Inside, as well as more recent experiences in the same vein such as the excellent FAR: Lone Sails. For those looking for a more introspective, provocative experience, Mosaic should be well worth checking out. It’s available on Apple Arcade now and will come to consoles and PC later this year.

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Get your Zelda Fix with A Knight’s Tale

Between the remake of Link’s Awakening and the upcoming sequel to Breath of the Wild, Zelda fans certainly aren’t starved for content. However, if you want even more Zelda-like action beyond what Nintendo is offering, then A Knight’s Tale looks like it could do the trick.

A Knight’s Tale ticks all the Zelda-like boxes: stylized cartoon graphics, a massive world to explore, puzzle-filled dungeons, and simple action-based combat, to name a few. Powered by Unreal Engine and boasting of more than 30 hours of content, it’s looking like a hefty serving of Triforce-inspired goodness. Unlike most other games on this list, no Apple Arcade subscription will be required to play this adventure when it launches across all consoles (yes, including Switch) and PC this fall.

Indie Games Spotlight

Spidersaurs: Contra Meets Cartoons

Remember being a kid and waking up every Saturday, eagerly anticipating a morning full of colorful, action-packed cartoons? That’s the feeling that Spidersaurs aims to capture from its very first trailer. It presents a post-apocalyptic world that’s being ravaged by mutant dinosaur-spider hybrid and pairs this with a run-and-gun gameplay style that’s reminiscent of classic Contra games.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Spidersaurs is the pedigree behind it. It’s being developed by WayForward, the creators of all-time indie classics like the Shantae series as well as more recent hits like River City Girls. It’s safe to say that whenever WayForward is involved, a quality product is more than likely to result. It should be well worth a look, especially since it’s available now exclusively on Apple Arcade.

Go on an Emotional Adventure with Mutazione

Mutazione offers a completely different type of cartoon experience than Spidersaurs. This narrative-focused adventure game is a slow, laid-back experience populated by otherworldly characters and presented with a delicate hand-drawn aesthetic.

It tackles the topic of growing up, putting players in the role of 15-year-old Kai as she leaves home to care for her ailing grandfather in a mysterious, forested world. It teases a mixture of relaxing slice-of-life activities – making friends, playing music, going to parties – while also alluding to a broader spiritual journey. Like so many other games on this list, it’s available to play now on Apple Arcade. It’s also available for purchase on PS4 and PC, for those who haven’t dived into Apple’s new service yet.

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‘Borderlands 3’ Looks to the Stars While Stuck on the Ground

After a long hiatus, Borderlands returns… pretty much the same as it always was, for better or worse.

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Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 is one of the most bizarre gaming experiences of this generation, a highly-anticipated, long-awaited sequel clearly feeling the pressure of living in its predecessor’s enormous shadow. Both beholden to its past and searching for its future, Borderlands 3 is a strange amalgamation of abundantly familiar elements and a few new ideas, most of which never truly find harmony with each other during the game’s lengthy campaign.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy.

In its attempts to look forward and backward at the same time, Borderlands 3 ends up feeling like a series of half-measures, a collection of systems and story beats that, in the few moments they’re able to take evolutionary steps for the franchise, feel like there’s still room for the now decade-old series to grow. Unfortunately, across the 50+ hours I’ve spent traversing, shooting, and constantly marking items for junk in my inventory, Borderlands 3 hasn’t offered those moments nearly enough, too often falling victim to its old habits, using its legacy as a crutch, rather than a device to propel the franchise into its (admittedly uncertain) future.

Borderlands 3

It doesn’t help Borderlands 3 front loads some of its worst writing; the opening act of the game is gratingly awful, hammering away at the same few punchlines for its characters as players embark on the series of fetch quests that comprise the game’s opening hours. Beginning some unidentified amount of time after Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 opens on a war-ravaged Pandora enraptured by its inhabitants latest obsession: the Calypso Twins, who have seemingly galvanized the majority of the Crimson Raiders in their quest to… well, we’ll talk more about the Calypso Twins, and their role in the story, a bit later.

Early on, Borderlands 3 is desperately trying to prove to the audience it is still the same ol’ Borderlands, interrupting its genitalia references to break the fourth wall and acknowledges that yes, we’re once again beginning with a series of annoyingly spread-out fetch quests to introduce characters and establish tone. But the delivery of the game’s typical blend of meta humor and pop culture references feels stale on arrival; the lengthy fetch quests just feel like simplistic mission design, and “big dick energy” jokes just don’t hit like they used to in 2019.

(There’s also an entire plot line built around Ice-T as a sentient teddy bear, who calls his in-game wife a bitch constantly, in between dick jokes. It’s as terrible as it sounds.)

Borderlands 3 quickly establishes these abundantly familiar rhythms – and then, surprisingly, doesn’t do much to expand upon them through the rest of the game’s main campaign. Though Gearbox has called this title “the big one” in the past, it doesn’t feel like a major step forward in any sense of the word – and at worst, Borderlands 3 occasionally feels like a regression of what it does best, a slow burn of slight disappointments which add up to a confounding experience.

Borderlands 3

There’s also Borderlands‘ absolute dismissal of Twitch culture; as the introductory chapters of the game catch players up on the Calypso Twins’ sudden accrual of power, Borderlands 3 has a strangely “old man yells at cloud” feeling to it (to myself borrow an overused meme for a moment), an odd feeling for a game that prides itself on its own (debatable) edginess and camp.

The Calypso Twins are built around the stereotypical cult of personality associated with the biggest streamers of the world – and boy, does Borderlands 3 not spare an ounce of vitriol for the admittedly complicated, often disturbingly regressive world of streamer culture (though they do have a weapon that is a direct Dr. Disrespect reference, and also feature some of the most elaborate Twitch integrations of any modern game). But Borderlands 3 admonishes creator and follower alike with an empty dismissal of the “influencer” – in a rather bleak application of its signature nihilism, it buries any kind of interesting exploration of the Twins- as either characters or societal critique – under a thick layer of cynicism.

It never really even contemplates their place as unifers in a galaxy full of corporations addicted to war profits, under a thin, cynical veneer of disregard for their place in any culture, Pandorian or human – its critique of streamer culture ultimately just feels empty. At times, it even feels hypocritical; unsurprisingly, Borderlands 3’s consistently been one of the most-watched games on Twitch since before its public release last week (plus again; there are multiple streamer-related references sprinkled through the game). It’s contradictory at best – and when considering how thin the public personas of Troy and Tyreen are actually defined outside of “shitty streamer people and their shitty followers”, it just feels weird.

Borderlands 3

Like the story, the shooting and looting of the game is immediately familiar, though it is a much more welcoming feeling: the single biggest improvement to Borderlands 3 is the shooting, which feels tighter and heavier than it has the previous three entries in the series. If there’s a truly transcendent evolution of the game’s formula, it’s found here: the shooting is simply magnificent from the word go, especially with the new traversal elements of mantling and power sliding, movement options that do wonders to bring life to the game’s many, many, many, many engagements with massive groups of enemies, hidden baddies, and massive (-ly lengthy, though mostly well-varied) boss encounters.

The class selection is also fantastic; there’s a distinct rejection of Borderlands 2‘s semi-linear class system, with each of the game’s four characters featuring multiple unique skill trees players can utilize to create an impressive diversity of builds with. There are hints of old characters in Fl4K, Zane, Amara, and Moze, but those elements are welcomely remixed and expanded upon, in creative ways I just wish the rest of Borderlands 3 would take a hint from; I’ve never had so much fun switching between characters in a previous game, experimenting with the intersections of their diverse ability sets, and seeing how the game’s Legendary and Anointed equipment rarities can further those builds is easily the most satisfying part of the game (though admittedly, all four classes take until about level 30 before they truly unlock their mechanical potential).

Borderlands 3

It is worth noting the game’s technical performance is as inconsistent as its narrative; for a game that’s been in development for so long, Borderlands 3 feels particularly unpolished for a finished product – hell, between writing and editing this review, I lost a collection of 50 legendary items out of my storage bank because of a widespread bug, kind of an unforgivable mistake for an entire game built around loot hunting.

Outside of the major performance issues widely-reported since the game’s release – including the virtually unplayable “Resolution mode” on Playstation 4 Pro – Borderlands 3 is ripe with the glitches of the past: broken mission objectives, inconsistent AI companion pathing – and, as an added bonus, the expected bevy of Unreal Engine quirks (like falling through the map multiple times). Though it seems like a small complaint, waiting 5-7 seconds for your in-game menu to load in every few minutes in a 2019 video game quickly becomes frustrating, one of many examples of Borderlands 3‘s many rough edges.

(Playing as Moze in multiplayer was a particular low light: from the gravitational physics of my character completely breaking, to glitches that rendered my player utterly unmovable, Borderlands 3‘s co-op modes are frustratingly janky, to the point split-screen co-op is almost unplayable in its current state.)

But the most frustrating part of Borderlands 3 is (outside of the character classes, of course) how risk-averse the entire affair is; in terms of mechanics and systems, it is mostly an integration of Borderlands 2 and the new elements of The Pre-Sequel, with a couple of light improvements around the edges. For example, there are now gear scores attached to every item a player picks up; there’s still no way to effectively manage an inventory, or even a consistency to how the scores are formulated, but hey, at least there’s kind of a way to compare gear (which one will do constantly, since inventory management is a still a hot mess).

Borderlands 3

For every tiny improvement, there’s a concession attached to it; a great example is the game’s map and mission tracking systems. While the map now shows the topography of each area, a useless mini-map and a thoroughly aggravating menu UI make juggling multiple missions an absolute chore (even though one can switch missions on the fly with a touch of the button, there’s no way to see multiple objectives on the map, or even switch between them while in the map menu).

This persists across the entire Borderlands 3 experience: and as the tale of the Calypso Twins and the Great Vault lurches through its interminably lengthy second and third acts, it begins to wear on the experience. For better or worse, Borderlands 3 further entrenches itself in the habits and rhythms of Borderlands 2 – which, after seven years, begins to feel stale in areas, frustratingly reluctant to change, or even reflect on its well-established sensibilities (or on itself; there are literal jokes made about CEO Randy Pitchford’s many controversies, which are… uncomfortable at best). And while the game certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of carefully refining its (rightfully celebrated) mechanics, its absolute reluctance to take creative risks begs the question of why it took so long to bring this game together (or, at the very least, begs the question of whether Gearbox really wanted to do a Borderlands 3 at all, and only green lit the project after the overwhelming failure of Battleborn).

As the game moves through its middle chapters, it just feels lacking in a way Borderlands 2 never did, even with its predecessors own inconsistent humor and pacing. Though ostensibly a journey spread across the galaxy, featuring a massive cast of familiar and new characters, so much of Borderlands 3 feels small and isolated. Every area of the game is broken up into tiny segments, covering small areas of these seemingly massive planets – an experience itself constantly broken up by lengthy loading screens and regular back tracking, which doesn’t exactly vibe with the game’s epic, world-hopping scope.

Borderlands 3

The absence of the player-characters in the central narrative is another head-scratching omission; despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, the four main personalities of Borderlands 3 feel underdeveloped – a problem that persists considering how little they’re seen during the most important moments of the game. They’re explicitly excluded from so many of the game’s cinematic moments, they almost feel absent from the game’s actual story (despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, an experiment that pays off to mixed results).

I think about the ending of Borderlands 2, and how much potential it held for the future of the series: the promise of exploring entire planets with friends, finding Vaults and hidden pop culture references was almost breath-taking in its ambition. With its series of linearly-designed, stunted “zones” and limited planet selection at launch, Borderlands 3 never really harnesses the long-gestating potential for growth; and as the story begins building towards its climactic moments, it only further highlights the creative dissonance that plagues so many aspects of the game.

The clearest distillation of Borderlands 3‘s identity crisis is found in the game’s story, which struggles to justify itself as something more than just “another” Borderlands game. It is torn between its desires to attempt something new (at least, at times), and the emotional attachment it knows the audience has with the characters, rhythms, and memorable moments from the first three games of the series. It leads to a story that often follows a template: travel to new area, meet familiar old character for a mission, fight through a series of gently-guiding corridors while constantly staring at the map, rinse, and repeat for thirty-five hours.

Borderlands 3

Save for the occasional interlude and amusing side story – though that often finds itself stuck in its own loop, with a collection of ancillary characters who either wants to remind you how funny poop is, or how much people in this world enjoy murder and death – to the point its cynical nihilism is no longer humorous, and eventually becomes exhausting.

Sure, there are a couple new characters introduced, but they’re left to the fringes of the main narrative, which is, for all intents and purposes, a retread of Borderlands 2‘s major beats. Yes, it occasionally attempts to subvert expectations, but mostly by presenting a mirrored version of the series’ previous events – where Borderlands 2 was about an evil father manipulating their disgruntled child and the Vault Hunters, Borderlands 3 is basically about mad children manipulating their father and the Vault Hunters – but it is satisfied to simply just be that story, and not much more (and at times, even becomes wholly illogical… remember The Watcher and their foreboding warnings? Neither does Borderlands 3, apparently).

There is one particularly strong section of story, however, and it comes in an unexpected place: after serving the role of enigmatic mission giver (and named member of the Borderlands 2‘s lamest DLC), Sir Hammerlock’s arc in the middle section of Borderlands 3, while disappointingly divorced from the central events of the game, is emotionally propulsive in ways none of the other story is, a moment where Borderlands 3‘s themes find their voice for a too-brief amount of time.

Part love story, and part exploration of the intersections of family and legacy, Borderlands 3‘s tale of Hammerlock and the Jakobs family is so satisfying,the one time Borderlands 3 stops screaming at the player in its desperation to be funny or surprising. For a few hours,the overwhelming nihilism of Borderlands‘ eternally cynical world view melts away, and the series truly offers something akin to hope and possibility in its world. It represents the beautiful essence of Borderlands expansive set of characters, companies, and legacies, and is the rare moment where Borderlands 3 finds harmonic brilliance between its shooting, looting, joking, and genuine attempts at emotional beats.

Borderlands 3

But like most of the other familiar faces in Borderlands 3, Hammerlock’s story is contained to his few chapters on his home planet; for a game that ultimately turns on a story of family and shared purpose, there’s so much of Borderlands 3 that just feels like it is missing the mark, or ignoring it altogether. Outside of Lilith and Claptrap (and for a brief time before her quickly-forgotten disposal, Maya) none of the game’s previously playable characters factor into the narrative in any way – hell, most of them, like Axton, Gaige, Salvatore and Krieg, don’t appear or are barely mentioned at all, which kind of takes away from the game’s attempts to be an all-encompassing adventure through the history (and theoretical future) of its surrogate family of bandits, adventurers, scientists, and adventure seekers.

Instead, there’s a lot of focus put on a handful of underwhelming new characters (including Ava, the game’s single biggest missed opportunity relegated to Whiny Teen tropes), only occasionally interjecting those sequences with familiar faces: multiple major characters of the series have precisely one mission dedicated to them through the story, which again feels like Borderlands 3 lacking confidence in its own identity, unable to commit to forging new paths, and instead peppering serotonin-laced doses of nostalgia across the story as a half-measure to cover up that Borderlands 3 really has nothing new to say about its world, its people, or the story it’s been telling now for a decade.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy. That doesn’t make it an abject failure, of course: it’s still a game I’m going to play for hundreds of hours with my friends, thanks to the sheer diversity of gun play and character builds (it is a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, after all) – but there’s a distinct feeling Borderlands 3 could’ve been so much more than… well, just more of the same Borderlands. Seven years after its last mainline entry (and five after its forgettable, under cooked “pre-sequel”), just being Borderlands one more time makes it feel like a series stuck in the past, retreating to safe waters by simply remixing the old game… with a strangely newfound (and ultimately, superficial) hatred of streamer culture layered on top to feel relevant in 2019.

Borderlands 3

That allegiance to the past ultimately comes at a cost; it makes the few moments Borderlands 3 tries to evolve stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the game, complete 180’s in emotional tenor that are never met by equal risks taken in gameplay design, or the construction of the main narrative. When the dick jokes and meme references subside, there is an emotionally satisfying core deep inside Borderlands 3, one that highlights the spaces in between the game’s consistently enjoyable shooting and looting gameplay loop (there’s a particular photo I discovered in the game’s later moments that literally brought me to tears, a quietly poignant and beautiful moment this game desperately needs more of).

But that version of Borderlands 3 only comes out in fits and starts, often hindered by the series’ allegiance to its old identity, one that time, and most of the gaming industry, has passed by (at least, during the main story; I’ll be back next week with thoughts on the post-credits/endgame experience). There is a great version of Borderlands 3 somewhere, a more driven action-RPG with a tighter campaign experience, a more ambitious, fully-formed story, and a true expansion of its celebrated mechanics to marry to the game’s wonderfully diverse class set and enhanced movement options. It’s just not this inflated, safe iteration of the series, one that drowns its few iterative innovations in a sea of repetitive familiarity.

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Games

Could Apple Arcade Be the Best Gaming Subscription Service Yet?

Gaming has its fair share of subscription services, but with its flexibility and clarity, Apple Arcade could be among the very best.

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Apple Arcade

Gaming has moved beyond consoles and physical storefronts. The past few years have seen the birth of ambitious new projects like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia, which aim to change the way you play your games. Apple has now entered the fray with a subscription service of its own, Apple Arcade. This might look like little more than yet another effort from a major company to capitalize on major trends, but in reality, this new project has the potential to be the best gaming subscription platform yet.

So…what is it?

Apple Arcade is a basic concept: for $5.00 per month, you gain access to an expanding library of games that can be played across all Apple devices, including Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad.

Compared to other subscription platforms out there, Apple Arcade is refreshingly simple. Unlike Xbox Game Pass, you don’t need to spend extra money to play your games on additional platforms; for that one monthly price, every game can be played across every one of your Apple devices. And unlike Google Stadia, a solid internet connection isn’t required to play your games. Every title on the Arcade can be natively downloaded onto the device of your choice and played regardless of the strength of your WiFi.

Apple Arcade

The mention of iPhone and iPad may have already set some readers on edge – after all, the gaming community can’t agree on much, but it has generally determined that mobile games aren’t always the best. They rarely provide the same caliber of experiences as console or PC games, so why would anyone want to spend a monthly fee to play a bunch of mediocre mobile games?

However, Apple Arcade is intensely curated to provide a high quantity of stylish, memorable games from some of the most respected creators in the field. For instance, famed indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Annapurna Interactive are fully on board, with multiple exclusive games planned to launch with the service. That’s not to mention the sheer number of highly anticipated indie games like Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens that will be included in the Arcade. Appple’s website promises that more than 100 different games will be available to play over the course of the launch period this fall, so if the game library can keep up this quality, then it could be promising indeed.

Image result for sayonara wild hearts gif
Sayonara Wild Hearts is just one of the many incredibly stylish indie games of Apple Arcade.

What makes Apple Arcade so special, anyway?

It seems like every company and their mother has a storefront nowadays. Ubisoft, Blizzard, Epic, and even Rockstar have all debuted platforms of their own, while Google Stadia is trying to remove traditional platforms entirely. In such a crowded environment, how can Apple Arcade possibly stand out? Simply put, Apple Arcade is already set to be the most flexible and easy-to-understand gaming subscription platform yet.

Every one of the many subscription platforms out there touts its “flexibility” in allowing you to choose what games to play and where to play them. Apple Arcade does the same thing but with one major difference: less limitations. As mentioned earlier, each game can be downloaded directly onto your device, and with save data being stored in the cloud, progress can be carried on between every one of your Apple products. Meanwhile, platforms like Google Stadia effectively shut down without constant WiFi access.

Apple Arcade
Apple Arcade offers a lot of games on a lot of platforms for a low price

In terms of price, Apple Arcade continues to stand out. For $5.00 a month, you can play over a hundred unique titles. Compare this with the $15.00/mo price of Xbox Game Pass or the $10.00 subscription price of Google Stadia Premium, and Apple Arcade easily comes out on top (that’s not to mention that you still have to pay for Stadia games individually on top of the monthly fee). For reference, a year of access to the more than 100 games in Apple Arcade costs the same as the retail price of a single triple-A retail title. You won’t need to invest in a new controller either, since PlayStation and Xbox gamepads are fully supported.

Even when it comes to the games included, Apple Arcade should stand out from the crowd. Stadia may already have some massive third party blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077 and DOOM Eternal, but they don’t offer much incentive to be played on Google’s streaming service instead of traditional consoles or PCs. On the other hand, Apple Arcade’s low price point and more practical flexibility offer a compelling reason to play games on Apple’s service instead of purchasing them individually on other platforms. That’s not to mention the handful of exclusives available at launch or coming soon after, from famous minds like SimCity creator Will Wright and the father of Final Fantasy himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

The world of gaming certainly has more than its fair share of subscription services. Yet Apple Arcade stands out for its clarity, its accessibility, and its remarkable library. With these factors combined, it could become the very best gaming subscription on the market.

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