Matthew: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m really envious of Yoku. He lives inside a giant pinball table, which means the world does all the hard work for him. Imagine just sitting there as flippers bat you towards your destination, or coasting on metal rails from one side of town to the other. Yes, you’d live in constant fear of The Abyss, but have you read the headlines recently? The threat of falling into an ambiguous pit can’t be any worse than [insert whatever shitshow you’re currently dealing with]. Regardless of whether Yoku’s Island Express is a great game, it’s a solid pitch for where we should be taking our infrastructure.
Luckily, it is a great game. One that makes a clever connection between pinball and exploration. What are pinball tables, after all, but landscapes dense with secrets that you unpick by squeezing the ball into crannies or opening new routes by exploiting obscure rules? Villa Gorilla’s magic touch is splitting the world into a network of smaller tables. It’s pinball for people too impatient for actual pinball, giving a constant rush of new challenges, while still channeling that core satisfaction of nailing the perfect shot. It also has lots of fruit pick-ups that plink and plonk happily – as any serious GOTY contender should.
On top of all of this there’s a layer of Metroid-y thinking, as new abilities open new routes and reinvent previous paths. I’m very fond of the slug hoover, which is not something I expected to write this year. One of my favourite things in this kind of exploration platformer is uncovering a map screen and seeing a vast world unfold in cross-section – that this map connects into one massive pinball table is doubly pleasing. Both Metroid clones and pinball games are hard to get right, for Yoku to tackle them both, and find so much interesting interplay between the two, made this the most pleasant surprise of the year.
Graham: I associate pinball tables with dank bars, dilapidated seafront arcades, and the crushing regret that comes after three balls have plummetted beween the paddles, taking your money with them. Yoku’s Island Express is the antithesis to all of these things, set as it is on a sun-kissed island of happy creatures, plentiful fruit, and playful rhythms. Here, pinball isn’t about grafitti art and skulls on fire, but about the fun and freedom of pinged, spun, and shooped along rails and around a colourful world.
I was convinced to play it by its trailers, so I’m going to put one here in case it does the same for you:
What I was grappling with in my Yoku’s Island Express review was that I thought Yoku was probably a very good game rather than a great one. I still think that’s probably true, but I found myself compelled to celebrate it at the end of the year anyway. There are few games that offer such easy access to joy, and I could use a few more of them.
Matt C: Would I want to visit The Red Strings Club? It’s a classy place, with gorgeous piano tinkling and and drinks that put you in touch with the roots of your soul. That’s no exaggeration – the bartender plays his patrons like an electric fiddle, nudging their mental states towards the answers he seeks. He’s an information broker, and most folks know something about the conspiracies that whirl outside his doors.
Those conspiracies involve brainwashing, AI and cybernetic implants. Shadowy figures are bent on rewiring humanity to eliminate prejudice, depression – and inevitably, freedom. Hang around the club for long enough, and you might start to think they’re onto something.
That’s largely because the Red Strings plays host to one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met. Akara is the world’s first ethical android, and she wants you to know about it. Maybe drugging your customers is an ironic necessity when unravelling a plot about neurological manipulation, but there’s no way that’s going to pass without comment.
It’s a game about questioning assumptions, and not just when you’re playing detective. It’s the most explicitly philosophical game I’ve played since the Talos Principle – and that mostly involved absorbing dialogue rather than participating in it. Akara quizzes you after every encounter, testing both your intuition and your moral compass.
Technology can set that compass spinning. Who’s to say that ridding the world of mental anguish is an evil act, and who’s to say that it isn’t? Should we change what it is to be human, or should we be left free to suffer? There’s more philosophical meat here than at one of Kant’s dinner parties.
I wrote my university dissertation on whether we should turn to AI for moral guidance, and struggle to convey the thrill of playing a game that asks the same question.
Alice Bee: Matt will definitely have written about philosophy this time. The Red Strings Club is fabulous. My favourite thing about it is that it’s all hands on. Normally when I play something that’s about the terrible advance of technology, it’s about how humanity becomes removed from actually doing the stuff that gets did. You just press a button and your computer does whatever the queued action is.
Because it was the sort of upbringing I had, we used to go to the RAF Fairford Air Tattoo most years, and one year we were talking to an American pilot, who flew one of those big transport planes. He said that the crew used to be bigger, but as technology got better you needed fewer people to fly a massive plane. And he didn’t mistrust the technology, he just felt a bit safer with more people on board in case the tech stopped working. Like when you enter a signal dead spot and can’t access Google Maps and really wish you had someone who knows the area because you have no idea where you are and you’re pretty sure you’re going to die.
The point of that story is that in The Red Strings Club technology is super advanced but still made by hand. In the first section of the game you’re an android, inserting implants into people to change their lives. One of them can somehow give them more followers on social media. The people come through on a production line, hanging on a conveyor and totally naked. It’s very impersonally personal. But the implants themselves, that have the power to change a person’s core beliefs and personality, are crafted on a lathe, like pottery. Your job is to make them into the right shape. As if we figured out the secret to life-altering technology, and it is: this specific angle combined with this curve will make you not care about the opinion of others.
This sort of thing runs through The Red Strings Club like some kind of long thread. The actions of people are tied up in technology because, obvs, it’s what we do with technology that makes it good or bad. Unfortunately a lot of people are shitheads.
Katharine: Those cyberpunk pottery sections Alice mention above are my favourite parts of The Red Strings Club. You’ve just hacked an android responsible for sculpting personality modules out of clay to fix the problems of would-be clients. Or at least it looks like clay. Whatever futuristic material you’re actually dealing with, you sit down at a crafting wheel and slowly ease different shaped tools in and out of chunks of biomatter stuff with your mouse to create the desired template.
Now I know nothing about pottery and have never ‘thrown’ an actual pot, as they apparently say in the pottery biz. But it’s also something I’ve never done in a video game before either. It’s oddly therapeutic, clicking your mouse real fast to whirr up the wheel while moving it from side to side to mould it into the correct shape, and I don’t think it would feel nearly as satisfying or tactile to perform using a controller, for example.
It’s a shame there isn’t more of it, really, especially when the entire act is so fundamentally tied to your mouse, and therefore your PC as a whole. In fact, I’d happily play a game that was just cyberpunk pottery, perhaps against the clock or with even more tools at my disposal to make even more outlandish sculptures. Alas, what I thought was going to be a tutorial for something more complicated later on in the game like the bartending sections ended up being just that: a one-off module-making session.
Still, despite its brevity, this is anything but a throwaway mini-game. Your actions here and the modules you choose to install do in fact have a lasting impact on what happens later in the game, and it’s just another thing that makes The Red Strings Club stand out as far as I’m concerned – although if anyone does know of a good pottery-making game, please do point me in its general direction. I promise I won’t use it to hack your personality in the process.
Katharine: Not content to send up one genre of gaming, The Hex takes aim at practically every type of game going, from platformers to RPGs, top-down shooters to turn-based strategy and everything in between. It’s a both a celebration and gentle probing of what makes games tick, and the best thing about The Hex is that it lets you break and hack every single one of them in order to solve the mystery of why its extensive cast of characters have all been called to a spooky bar in the middle of nowhere, and who will be the one to commit a horrible murder that same evening.
It’s a brilliant conceit – I particularly love the idea of a fighting game character ‘breaking free’ from their eternal face-mashing to become ‘OP’ as the kids say and get banned from play – but one of The Hex’s greatest moments is when it appropriates your own Steam friends list in order to make fake user reviews for its opening platformer sequence.
You play as Super Weasel Kid, a mash-up of Mario and Sonic that appropriates the former’s jumping antics and newly spiked goomba enemies and charts the latter’s descent into ‘too cool for school’ territory until he fades into irrelevance. You can see his demise play out in the ‘games’ themselves, each sequel getting further away from what made it good in the first place, but there’s also something inherently cheeky and hilarious watching other real people you know react to Super Weasel Kid at the same time, especially when it’s fellow RPS-ers Brendy and John singing his praises before tearing him a new one moments later.
It also gave me pause, though, reminding me what terrible monsters we can be when reviewing games, both as critics and consumers alike, and how difficult it must be for devs to please the unrelenting tide of the masses who demand this that and the other ALL THE TIME. Few other games have made me take stock of how we interact with this most favourite pastime of ours this year, and that alone deserves to be praised and absorbed by as many people as possible.
John: I love the idea of The Hex having its official ending in another game more than I like the idea of actually having to go find it. But I still love that it did it. And I love that having finished the great game, I’ve still got so many questions. It’s a game where you just want to find someone else who’s played it, and then ask them everything they’re bursting to ask you.
Looking back on it feels less like a game, and more a collection of memories. Which is pretty apposite, I suppose, since so much is told as individual characters’ flashbacks. Jumping through a platformer made of negative Steam reviews, punching my way through a beat-em-up that slowly turns on itself, and best of all, those turn-based strategy sections where you use game cheats like magic spells. (I still so desperately want someone to realise that idea as a full game.)
It certainly had far too much of its rather saggy RPG section, but then I really didn’t mind when it was in the same game as one that had me laugh so loudly through a hand that had gone to my mouth in shock.
Daniel Mullins has such a smart approach to games-as-games-criticism, somehow managing to make something that avoids belly-hole introspection, yet so searingly and often scathingly presents both gaming, and the culture surrounding it, as a satisfying game itself. I still think he did this better with Pony Island, but The Hex is a wonderful companion. I really cannot wait to see what he creates next.
Alice L: How can a game be like so many games you’ve played but at the same time be nothing like any game you’ve ever played? I dunno, but The Hex nails it. There are a few moments that linger for a little too long, but mostly it’s snappy, intriguing, and just asking for you to play more. It enables you to reminisce over games you’ve played and loved, and be surprised by something new all at once.
The familiarity of it is enticing and keeps you hooked, but it was the initial chatter surrounding The Hex that pulled me in. It’s hard to say a lot about it without spoiling it, and the only reason I decided to dive in was because of the mystery surrounding it. I’m so glad I did.
Alec: Hey, 24th April 2018 Me, you won’t believe what just happened…
Battletech made a poor first impression on me. I said so, in public, because that’s my job’n’that. Enough people I respect (and a lot of other people with all the warmth of a spent, rained-filled can of Red Bull that spent the entirety of November lying in a gutter in Tromsø) had a more positive reaction to it; I’m old enough and ugly enough to know that refusing to hear other points of view – whether or not they adjusts my ultimate opinion – is Angry Young Man-ism, prioritising screeching righteousness over useful understanding. So I went back, I worked harder to understand what this turn-based strategy game had explained about as well as a Sherbet Dib-Dab-addled toddler teaching quantum physics, and, yeah, I got it.
And here we are today. Here I am today, having singlehandedly made the case that Battletech should be one of RPS’ bestest best games of the year. (No other rotter on staff has played it yet). Suck it, 24th April 2018 Me.
It’s a line I’ve used before, but the true meaning of Battletech is not a bunch of big robot suits firing lasers at each other until one of them falls over – it’s interplanetary Pokemon.
First time around, I was playing on the basis that I had to win, by hook or by massively self-destructive crook – essentially, trying to pummel the enemy into submission before they could do the same to me. Traditional, XCOMish tactics didn’t seem to get me very far; it seemed to be an endless war of hitpoint attrition, like two hippopotamus slapping each other with banana leaves until somebody decides to have a nap.
But then! No, don’t do that, you fool. Go for the legs, you fool. Not, not even the legs, not any more – go for the side torsos, the ammo stores, the difficult headshots. Rack up pilot injuries rather than reducing your 100-ton trophy to rubble. Kill the meat and spare the metal.
That’s how you build an army of steel. That’s how you play Battletech. It’s a slow game for sure, but the way I play it since The Revelation doesn’t feel slow, at least not now there are animation speed controls patched in too. Taking down (and then taking home) an enemy mech is a co-ordinated lightning strike on specific body parts, from specific angles, where once it was like pelting the side of a bus with Haribo.
There’s so much I’d change about Battletech if I could; the presentation, tone and storytelling is about as a lively as a night on the tiles with Iain Duncan Smith (even if it is olden tabletop source material appropriate), the tutorial as helpful as a cat trying to explain existentialism, and those headline-grabbing mechs themselves would struggle to give a VHS machine from the 1994 Littlewoods catalogue a run for its money in the ‘fabulously imaginative technology’ stakes.
I can’t stop playing, obviously. The core loop, the essential realisation of precision-subsystem-strike combat, is so well-realised, so compulsive and so satisfying, that I don’t even see the sea of brown’n’grey any more. I see my plan. I see my trophies. I see glory.
Better still, the recent Flashpoint DLC liberated Battletech from its bafflingly pro-monarchist, slow-motion shrug of a plot, transforming it into the long-term, delightfully endless game of freelance, iron-clad mercenary work it truly deserved to be. Battletech will be one of the longest-term residents of my hard drive in quite some time.