It's been a weird, weird year for games. My perspective has been particularly odd and hard to square, as I've now been full time staff here at RPS for nearly six months. Six months! That's ... oh my god, I still haven't extended my rent.
It's quite strange suddenly being able to talk about games in real life without having to apologise, but other than that it's nice. In that time I've played somewhere around 1,200 to 1,300 games (an exact count is impossible for boring reasons), almost all of them little known.
There have been many, many excellent games. There's a refrain you see around the internet sometimes that "this was a bad year for games", and I've honestly never understood it. I lived through the 2000s, people, I remember that wasteland. But this year, even after a solid 2018, has been so replete with interesting things to play that I cannot fathom how to be disappointed with the games. Sure, the industry, the culture, these are often garbage things for garbage people. But the games, man. The gaaames. Don't hold it against them.
So here it is then. It's time for the very best of Unknown Pleasures 2019. The finest of all that we've got through since last year, in a mostly random order.
To reiterate the rules: no.
£5.80 / €7.60 / $8
I tap my foot to the beat. "Christ!", I hiss every now and then. "Ahh ye bastard!", I say, "Et cetera!". I might bob my head and sway in my seat, too, I'm not sure. It's probably annoying as hell either way. Arsenal Demon is that kind of game.
"90s style" wave shooters are not uncommon, and many of them are... well, fine. A good blast for a little while, but I invariably get bored of them after a couple of goes. Where most are so derivative they sort of blend together, Arsenal Demon's weird style, novel enemies, and fantastic soundtrack light up the formula. Movement feels good immediately - you're very fast, even without the ridiculously fast sprint, but not difficult to control. The enemies that float in to stop you are very slow, too, so despite the speed, it doesn't demand extreme reflexes and consequently isn't exhausting even after a long run. Indeed, rapid movement is largely optional, but you absolutely will because how couldn't you?
The robotic angels that pour from the walls and ceiling are really quite sinister, and popping them feels right. Running up the walls is a bit under-utilised, as its randomised levels seldom have many platforms at high levels, but again, you'll do it anyway, to find a respite and because leaping off and plugging robots as you plummet 100 metres is why games were made.
Despite one game mode unlocking everything for you right away, I recommend the demon mode, which starts you out with the basics and has you earn more guns and multiple jumps by racking up high scores (cumulatively, so even if you struggle you'll get new toys after enough runs). It really does feel more valuable when you've deprived yourself for a while.
1001st Hyper Tower
£9.30 / €10 / $12
Speaking of leaping from heights.... 1001st Hyper Tower wasn't pick of the week for its episode, which I came to regret, as it's been a go-to lunchtime game for me all year. Easily one of the most vertical shooters I've ever played, it's also one of the most stylish. Stills really don't do it justice (not least because taking them during gunfights tends to get me killed).
You're a bandit who was betrayed and kicked off the Tower, then rescued by a stranger, who informs you that "your leg was broken, so I made you a new one". Now you have a triple-jumping rocket leg, a flare gun, a revolver, and a huge procedurally generated tower to climb full of swordsmen, giant silkworms, drones, cybernetic djinns, and all manner of Arabian-inspired monsters and villains. Helping you out are some very cool weapons, of which you can carry two, but using three pools of ammo so you'll swap back and forth fairly often as ammo can be precious. This makes the frequent shootouts a brilliant mix of frantic and measured, and leads to those panicky moments where you hit that ancient video game zone, dodging bullets, leaping over a gunmen and killing him with your crossbow, sprinting at the spider rider to kick it off ledge, clutching a ladder for a second while a bandit with a jetpack and laser takes aim, then boosting off before he fires, kicking a drone out of the sky and blasting that trio of shooters with your gasoline shotgun (gasoline shotgun), and finally dropping out of sight, hoping to land on solid ground as half the building above you is ripped apart by missed shots.
Occasional hidden rooms grant upgrade points, to spend at benches for roguelight style random bonuses like more health, extra jumps, super kicks, etc. One of them turns your leg into a shotgun. It's rarely as useful as it sounds, but come on. If you get a chance to turn your rocket leg into a shotgun and you don't take it, why even be alive?
£15.50 / €20.00 / $18
Stardrop is lovely. I've probably used that word too much this year, but games about clomping about in space so seldom feel this human, this... normal. You, Aryn, are asked to investigate and salvage an abandoned ship with your friend and pilot John, and even this setup is just another day. Aryn and John just get on. I couldn't point to any specific line, but the writing and outstanding voice acting quietly convey a sincere, everyday affection for each other that makes their very un-dramatic work feel grounded and relatable.
Their work, of course, becomes much more than just recovering another vessel when it turns out to be a famous lost ship. But even then, the drama doesn't come from the player's savviness about what horrible things happen in fiction when people step aboard a famous lost vessel. It comes from their excitement and wonder. When the plot does kick off, after a lot of walking about the derelict reactivating machines, opening doors, and dodging non-lethal security systems, it's a genuinely enticing mystery, and Aryn's decision to pursue it further by tracking down more ships instead of involving the authorities feels believable. She's not out for greed, she's not doing it because she's magically compelled or because the script says so. She's going because something about what happened on board just spoke to her, in that way things just do sometimes.
Stardrop also has some of the best graphics I've seen for the column, but more importantly, they carry over with the settings toned down too, because the design of the ships is, oh no, lovely. There's none of the drab, chunky militarism nor sterile corporate style, but instead lots of deep and vivid colours and shapes. The simplest corridors look like places meant to be lived in, not endured. I love the way doors slide and seal, and the way the big, bold control panels chime and animate.
Also they gave space kitten a hat for christmas.
Heart Of The Woods
£11.40 / €12.50 / $15
I feared that Heart Of The Woods wouldn't hold up as well as it did back in March. It's even better than I thought.
At its core it's about friendship. Lead characters Tara and Maddie have worked together for years, producing their own successful ghost hunter series on YouTube, but we join them on a long train ride out to a remote forest village, just after Maddie has revealed that this episode will be her last one. They're due to stay for a month, at the invitation of Morgan, a young woman who makes several outlandish claims about the local forest (among other things). It is tense as hell, and neither of them really wants to talk about it.
That feeling persists even after they do talk about it, as their feelings ferment and frustration over Morgan's behaviour grows. Games are mostly terrible at exploring this kind of situation, with weak, unlikely characters Being Dramatic and acting in contrived, juvenile ways to manufacture conflict. This story rings true because it's clearly painful for everyone involved. None of them are enjoying this at all, and even trying to make the best of the situation doesn't really work.
Friends who don't want to hurt each other, but can't really avoid it either because sometimes that's just how it goes. The communication problems they perhaps inevitably run afoul of feel natural, and the growing distance and resentment between them feels all too familiar. And this is before you even know the full story behind their old friendship - the further in you get, the clearer it becomes how important it is to them both. Each of them finds their own comforts, edged with sadness, and the central mystery of what exactly is happening in this town, and how many of Maddie's claims are accurate, is woven in with them wonderfully.
Heart Of The Woods is warm and comforting even when it's sad. It's well observed, carefully written, and gorgeous. It takes a lot to pull off any of the elements it gets right, and to do them all in tandem is very impressive indeed.
If the thought "ugh, anime girls" occurred to you, make an exception for this one.
£15.50 / €16.80 / $20
PION is stupendous. I cannot convey to you how spectacular it feels when you're doing well in this, the best top down shooter I've played for years. The urge to cry "yessss!" as you hit a new power threshold and your chaingun starts spewing bullets twice as fast. The thrilling tension as you try to spray enough micro missiles at a corner to keep a dogged rival back just enough to let you recharge a full plasma barrage. The lurching dread as you recognise that the rocket you just dodged is one that is meant to miss, because when it hits a wall behind you it will split into a cluster of deadly homing missiles aimed at your back. The pulse-doubling power of turning a desperate retreat through a group of hostiles into a devastating counter-attack that coats the screen in fire and spinning debris.
You pick a pilot and hovercraft. Pilots have two bonuses, usually damage boosts to a particular weapon type, but sometimes speed or maneouverability. Hovercraft have a range of health, weight, and motion, all of which can be enhanced further, or their weaknesses mitigated, if you find the right power-ups either in-level or as your randomised one-of-three picks each time you clear an arena. This dependence on luck is really my only complaint, as it can be just a little too hopeless now and then. But I will almost always try again anyway.
The weapons are diverse and satisfying as hell to use. A wide array of bombs, mines, devastating cannons, energy beams, black hole generators, and bouncy crescent laser things makes the decision to swap your guns around genuinely agonising at times, as you can only carry one primary and secondary (although certain loadouts and bonus combinations make leading with your secondary very effective). The hovercraft you face are easy to recognise on sight, and their behaviour and weapons vary enough to drastically change a fight if just one or two unexpected types warp in at the wrong moment (eg the weak and slow prawns will, if allowed to take aim, unleash a harrowing torrent of missiles). And my god, blowing them up feels good. Most of them get slightly scrambled by damage, so you'll be making kneejerk decisions to blow up faster, smaller ones in between whittling down the chunky suckers while you jet out of their sights. And when you land that fatal blow they spin out beautifully, often burning for several seconds before finally shattering all over the place.
Play PION. If you have any interest at all in shooty games, give yourself this most deliciously explosive of christmas presents.
Free / Frei / Free, y'all
Ach, I am pained by how much I'll have to qualify this one. Supraball is wonderful, and easily one of my most played games this year. But it seems to be suffering the slow death through a lack of players, and that's a terrible shame. Its bot support works unusually well alongside other players, even when they drop in and out mid-match, and they can be quite surprising now and then. I've even seen them score an occasional own goal. But there's no question that it needs at least a handful of real people to really work.
Supraball is a team-based first person sport, in which two teams try to get the ball into their opponents' goal by hoovering it up with their little gun things, and firing it. You can also bounce it off a shield by clicking the middle mouse button, but that's a technique beginners might want to put aside for now. I'm honestly a bit baffled that it's not more recognised, because it has that balance between accessible and difficulty that any good multiplayer game, or indeed any good sport needs. Controls are simple and the rules are clear, and you can do well even with the basics (indeed, I outright eschew the showboating some extremely high level players indulge in, and take great joy in shutting them down with a well-timed tackle or interception), but getting a bit good feels great.
Firing the ball sounds and feels rewarding, and little supportive pop ups acknowledge your passes and efforts even when they don't work out. Like the best competitive games, it's enjoyable at most skill levels, and is as much about situational awareness and anticipating your opponents as it is about being quick and accurate. The playerbase were mostly positive too, although I played almost exclusively in unranked matches, so who knows.
Keep Supraball alive, everyone. It's free and everything.
£15.50 / €16.80 / $20, early access
Play Wildermyth, you cowards.
You've probably already guessed what the overall winner is, but let me tell you this: Wildermyth was denied the pick of the year spot by a distance measured in protons. If this game doesn't take off like it deserves to in 2020 I will eat my own face.
Lots of games are pushed (often by us) as "story generators", and some as "like a tabletop game". These overused phrases would cheapen what Worldwalker Games have done here. This is a turn-based RPG in which you create (name and appearance, plus one of three simple classes) a handful of characters, who then go out into the world to fight some monstrous threat. The paper cutout style battles are small scale, over in a few minutes, and uncommonly deadly. Its cute look and simple rules belie the ease with which characters can die, and this is where it really stands out.
Every fight is for something. You're freeing an area from corruption, you're defending your friend from an ambush, you're fighting a troupe of extortionists. Short cartoons tell stories that bookend most fights, each one developing one or more of your characters, and sometimes contributing items or resources for use in later chapters of your story. Those characters are the heart and soul of the game, as they'll trigger subplots and decisions based on their personalities and your decisions. They'll form relationships with each other that affect their fighting - they'll do bonus damage to monsters that have hurt their lover, and if their rival does something impressive they'll get a special bonus chance to doing something impressive of their own. They'll talk and argue and joke in cut scenes that are perfectly written, with a look and tone clearly inspired by The Order Of The Stick (though without the fourth wall and pop culture humour). They'll lose limbs, they'll make mistakes, they'll have kids who grow up to join the fight, and finally retire when they're just too old to go on. They'll become real to you in a way I simply wouldn't have thought possible with so many random elements until I took a week off work and played nothing else the entire time.
I have no hesitation in recommending Wildermyth with all my heart. It is an astonishing, brilliant game that deserves to sweep up all the awards next year.
Onwards to the pick of the year...
£11.39 / €12.49 / $15
Which means, of course, that Eliza is the official Unknown Pleasures pick of the year 2019.
Eliza opened me up like a packet of pasta. I hadn’t bought a game for two years until I played this and just had to get a copy for my friend, who isn’t even particularly into games, let alone visual novels. When she'd finished with it we talked about it for hours. “I didn’t want it to end”, she said.
There’s a feeling I used to get when I read a book that really spoke to me. That last page moment of “... wow” where you just hold the book for a while and let its contents settle in you. Eliza is the only game to ever do that to me. It has lived in my head these last few months and even after writing about it three times I still struggle to say everything I want to about it.
You play as Evelyn, an initially unexplained woman who's starting a new job as a proxy for Eliza. That's a counselling service run by algorithm, in which clients talk to a human proxy, while their words and biometric data are recorded and analysed, and a primitive AI generates a response, which the proxy must read back to the client. The story explores this idea, but this isn't really science fiction. It's a complex and nuanced story about mental health on both the personal and social level, and about society at large, and in particular our current fixation on algorithms and the tech industry as the answer to all manner of problems.
It's clearly made by people who know what the tech industry is like. What harm that overindulged egos and too little empathy and self-awareness can wreak on the world, while all the consequences are borne by the people who are already suffering. How so much of our mental health crisis isn't directly about mental illness, but by how much mental illness is caused and exacerbated by the way we're forced to live. Sometimes it's not you. Sometimes it's the world. And only those who've been powerless know how full of shit the people who deny this are. It touches, but doesn't tokenise or proselytise on poverty, global capitalism, social pressure to be neurotypical and engage in specific types of relationships and behaviours because You're Supposed To, isolation, grief, just... so much. It is a game about people and about individuals, and it has made me feel things no work of fiction ever has.
I have over 400 screenshots of this visual novel. That is ridiculous. I want to quote half the game, even though I know that so much of it resonates precisely because it will only resonate to people with specific experiences. Some of Evelyn's thoughts in particular have been my own, almost word for word. "I guess I did it then, I went out and did a thing", she says after a social event. "Rae's too perceptive for me to continue avoiding this conversation". "He's just not built in a way that's suited for this world", says Rae of her brother, whose exact story is a mystery, but my god that line. That line is what is wrong for so many of us.
Eliza engages with an unsolvable problem with deep reserves of insight and empathy. This is the world we live in, it says. This is what it is doing to us.
We have to try, don't we?
There are some closing thoughts on the page ahead...
This was not easy. Really. The longlist was full of fierce contenders, and my multiple lists of "play this more Sin you dolt, you entire root" and "give this a second chance Sin you poltroon, you bowl" are absurdly long. But that kinda proves my point, no? It's been a good year in some respects.
It's become a tradition (if you do something twice it becomes a tradition) to indulge myself even more than usual at the end of this process with some personal thoughts and experiences of the year. That's another, less jolly reason this has been a difficult post to write. You might have gathered that it's been a very rough week for me, not least because it's also been a rough one for pretty much everyone I love. We are facing a frightening future when we needed comfort and support most, and I wish I could say something profound that would lift it away. But while I may not have it in me, that's precisely why games, like books and films and music, exist. To help us endure, to help us enjoy. I don't have the words, but I found some in my favourite book:
“The state of a mind oppressed with a sudden calamity,” said Imlac, “is like that of the fabulous inhabitants of the new-created earth, who, when the first night came upon them, supposed that day would never return. When the clouds of sorrow gather over us, we see nothing beyond them, nor can imagine how they will be dispelled; yet a new day succeeded to the night, and sorrow is never long without a dawn of ease. But they who restrain themselves from receiving comfort do as the savages would have done had they put out their eyes when it was dark. Our minds, like our bodies, are in continual flux; something is hourly lost, and something acquired. To lose much at once is inconvenient to either, but while the vital power remains uninjured, nature will find the means of reparation. Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye; and while we glide along the stream of time, whatever we leave behind us is always lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude. Do not suffer life to stagnate: it will grow muddy for want of motion; commit yourself again to the current of the world."
For all my worries, I've been extraordinarily lucky this year, to work for my favourite website (yeah yeah, shut up), with all these excellent people, writing about my favourite subjects, for a wonderful audience, playing lots of great things made by real people who are trying to make things a little better in whatever humble way they can. It might be hard to show it right now, but I'm so grateful to all of you. You've made everything better.
I'll be taking a break from Unknown Pleasures for a little while. It really is fun and I've learned a lot, but after two years and literally thousands of games, it's time I stepped away for a while, and let the dark forces beneath the Pleasuredome choose their overseer once more. Don't worry, it's not going anywhere. But the game-sluice demands fresh blood from time to time.
Take comfort where you can find it in 2020, friends. Be bold, and be kind.