Year Walk

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Year Walk on Steam

MSRP: $5.99

Platforms: Windows, Mac

Release: 3/6/14

Steam rating: 94% positive


I couldn’t think of a more fitting end to a year-long project than to play Year Walk.  The concept is taken from the Swedish folk tradition of Årsgång (translated to English as Year Walking).  A person would perform a Year Walk on a specific significant night – New Year’s Eve being chief among these – in order to have a chance for a glimpse at their future.

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You take control of a nameless, faceless protagonist about to embark on his own Year Walk.  There is a woman whom he loves, who also seems to love him, but she is expected to marry someone else, and the time has come for her to make that decision, and this seems to be the impetus for the Year Walk, despite the fact that in one of the earliest scenes, she pleads with him not to do it.

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You are given very little to work with – a sparse encyclopedia gives you information about a few key topics, there’s a journal which is locked (yes, you should be able to figure out how to access it as you progress through the game), and a map which tells you very little except the location of the church where your Year Walk should end. There is however, a fantastic hint system that will point you in the right direction on demand without – in most cases – completely spoiling the puzzles.  Be aware that this game does have sound puzzles, so if you will need to have the sound on and audible if you hope to complete it.

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The art and the sound design are both fantastic, however, I found the puzzles a bit obtuse without using the hint system. The game is dark and creepy, and there are even a couple of jump scares. Depending on your use of the hint system, a playthrough can take anywhere from an hour to about three, which, honestly makes this not a great value for the asking price.  That said, I absolutely would love to see more from this developer, and I don’t feel like the price is completely out of proportion to the experience.

 

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Binding of Isaac

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The Binding of Isaac Collection on Steam

MSRP: $6.60 (base game only – $4.99)

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release date: 9/23/11

Steam rating: 96% positive


I think the fact that I chose to (attempt to) play The Binding of Isaac as my penultimate game for this blog says something about me.  Mostly, that I haven’t learned my lesson about top-down shooters, especially ones described as difficult by aficionados of the genre. There are certainly easier ones out there – Larva Mortus comes immediately to mind as one I felt at least semi-competent at – but it’s really hard to give a cohesive opinion on a game, or even a game-style, when you only get to play the very first level a whole lot of times.

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The premise of the game is … odd, to say the least.  Young Isaac has jumped through a trap door in his room to escape his mother, a religious zealot, who believes she must kill her son because God said so. This might sound more than a little familiar to anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the Bible, and one might argue that the game reached the level of success it did despite the story, although controversy in gaming is hardly a rare occurrence.

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After my first several dismal failures, I decided to dig up my controller and see if I had an easier time using that.  After all, the game couldn’t really INTEND for me to only be able to shoot in the four cardinal directions while the enemies could throw projectiles any way they goddamned pleased, could it?  Fact is, it could and does, and there is no native controller support – something that has been added to the remaster The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Sensing this wasn’t getting any easier for me, no matter how much energy I threw at it, I decided to admit defeat and close out the game. I didn’t even feel guilty when the exit text asked me if I was sure I wanted him to die. He wasn’t doing any better with me at the controls.

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There’s no question in my mind that this is a great game for veterans of the keyboard-controlled top-down shooter. There’s oodles of challenge and tons of replay value, and the music is absolutely fantastic.  But I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who still has their twin-stick training wheels on, or who is only comfortable with a controller for this type of game. If I ever get to the point where those newbie friendly top-down shooters start to feel too damn easy, I might come back to it, but I don’t see that happening for me anytime soon.

Out There Somewhere

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Out There Somewhere on Steam

MSRP: $1.99

Platforms: Win, Mac

Release: 3/14/16

Steam rating: 93% positive


If you’ve hit that point where you just can’t find anything to play, but you don’t want to spend a whole lot of money, well, then you haven’t been paying attention all year, but I’ll forgive you for that.   Instead, I’m going to direct you to Out There Somewhere, a short retro puzzle platformer that’s currently on sale for $0.49. That’s the kind of money that ends up kicking around in your Steam wallet from selling trading cards*.

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After fighting a brief, but unwinnable space battle, you crash land on a planet with one goal – fix up your spaceship so you can get back into the fight.  But Out There Somewhere isn’t about the fight – it’s about the search.  And the search will make you feel both clever and stupid, and it will likely be frustrating, but oh goodness, will it be satisfying when you get it all figured out.

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Like in most platformer games, you can jump to get around, and lava hurts. Out There Somewhere also gives you a teleport gun that can only be aimed in a straight line, and it’s up to you to figure out how and when the teleport gun is your best (or only) option for getting around.

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If you’re very skilled or very good at thinking fast, you can probably complete the entire game in about an hour.  I’m fairly sure it’ll take me at least twice that, not even taking into account the ragequits that are bound to happen.  Out There Somewhere isn’t going to hold your hand past the first few screens – you’re going to have to puzzle this one out on your own. There are achievements that add some replayability, but seriously, how much replay value do you need for less than a dollar? That’s what I thought. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

Impossible Creatures

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Impossible Creatures on Steam

MSRP: $9.99

Platform: Windows

Release: 1/7/03

Steam rating: 97% positive


Before I start even talking about the game here, can I just say how utterly impressed I’ve been with THQNordic recently? They’ve acquired a lot of quality games & series over the last several years, and rather than just letting them languish, they rework and remaster and make readily available some really excellent games.  The version of Impossible Creatures available for purchase on both Steam and GOG.com have been fixed up to place nice with modern operating systems. For me, it was a no brainer to just rebuy the game, rather than continuing to tinker with decade old CD-ROMs.

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I can’t say that Impossible Creatures has held up all that well graphically, but I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s easy to play a dated-looking strategy game than it is to play one of pretty much any other genre. Once you get past the visual roughness (and truly, I didn’t find it was that bad), the game underneath is absolutely fantastic.

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I love that most of the resource-gathering and base building elements are somewhat simplified here so players can focus on the unique mechanic of creating their own creatures for battle by combining two more common creatures.  There are only two resources to worry about – coal and electricity – and one type of henchman to do all your gathering, building and repairing.

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The army builder will let you combine two animals to create a super-soldier type of creature – your finished creature will draw pieces from both base creatures as you indicate.  These choices determine what abilities your finished creature will have, and how powerful its attacks will be, as well as other stats like defense and speed. Early on in the single player campaign, you’ll have access to a very limited amount of creatures, opening up more and more options as you progress through the 15 scenarios.

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I haven’t gotten the chance to replay the campaign – I only just went through the tutorial, and then lost myself playing in the army builder – but I remember it being fiendishly difficult.  Since I’m not so great at RTS games overall, that probably means it’s a comfortable difficulty for most people.  The re-released on Steam reactivated the long shut-down multiplayer aspect of the game, and if you choose to play multiplayer, you have access to all available creatures right off the bat.  There’s a small but dedicated modding community (to up the number of useable creatures, you’ll want to check out Tellurian.

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This game is absolutely still worth the $10 asking price.  It’s currently on sale for 75%, and for $2.49, if you’ve ever enjoyed an RTS and you don’t have a copy of this, I can promise you, you’ll get your money’s worth out of the Army Builder even if you never actually play the game. I mean, look. I made a coyote porcupine that looks like a damn wolf-corgi. How cool is that?

Half-Life 2

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Half-Life 2 on Steam

MSRP: $9.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, XBox, XBox 360, PS3, Android

Release: 11/16/04

Steam rating: 97% positive


Every time I hear or read anything about the Half-Life franchise, Half-Life 2 is always described as the must play game.  I get it – after all, it holds up pretty damn well for a twelve year old game.  However, I found myself almost immediately dealing with a bad case of sequelitis – I had absolutely no idea what was going on,.  Let this serve as a warning: either make sure you know about the events of the first game, or prepare to be very very lost.

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I gave it about an hour, and still really had no idea what I was doing.  Which is a shame, because it was really an enjoyable experience despite that.  At this point, most people have played a game – or many games – that was built upon the foundations that Half-Life 2 pioneered, so it feels less impressive than it once did.  That said – it holds up well. Really well.  It still looks pretty good in spite of it’s age, and it plays beautifully.

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I had no nostalgia goggles here, and I went in as blind as was possible.  I’m fascinated by the world, impressed by how real the friendly NPCs felt.  Although you’ll encounter load screens, there are absolutely no cut-scenes. Most of the deaths I experienced were results of either (a) having no idea that something was hostile or dangerous or (b) being so damn lost – I would have given just about anything for a map or directional arrow during several points in the game’s first hour.  The longer I played, the easier time I had getting around, however.

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I absolutely get why people are still talking about Half-Life 2 (and bemoaning the lack of a Half-Life 3) twelve years later.  For story purposes, I’d recommend playing the developer updated version of the first Half-Life (or you can play the original if you’re a purist) before diving into Half-Life 2.  Valve also offers the Half-Life Complete Bundle if you really want to immerse yourself – it’s currently on sale for only $7.25, which is less than the retail price of Half-Life 2. At that price, there’s no reason not to make your first foray into the shoes of Gordon Freeman.

The Swapper

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The Swapper on Steam

MSRP: $14.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, XBox One, Wii U

Release: 5/30/13

Steam rating: 97% positive


The Swapper is a 2D story-driven puzzle game, and while I’m usually a fan of getting a lot of play time out of each and every game, I’m glad this one caps out at a relatively brief 5 hours.  The reason is simple – I want to play this game in a single sitting.  I want to absorb all the tiny bits of story all at once.  I desperately want to know what’s going on here.

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I am perfectly comfortable with a story-driven game letting the mechanics take a back seat to the narrative, but the gameplay here is pretty damn good.  You are in possession of a cloning gun, which allows you to make create clones, and swap your consciousness (in other words, take control of) any clone you create.  It is this tool that will allow you to unlock doors, flip switches, and collect orbs to power up transporters, unlocking more of the map and more of the story.

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You are limited to four clones at a time, and clones will disappear if they fall offscreen, or if you walk into the clone or out of a particular scene.  The ability to use clones can be effected by environmental factors, which are explained as you proceed through the game.

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The Swapper is lovely to look at, it sounds fantastic, and it feels really good to play.  It draws you in with scraps of a story, and pushes you to find out more and more. Despite the short play time, it really is the complete package, and for the next week or so, it’s on sale for under $3.  If you’ve ever enjoyed a puzzle game, and you haven’t discovered The Swapper yet, there is no better time to pick it up.

Mark of the Ninja

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Mark of the Ninja on Steam

MSRP: $14.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, XBox 360

Release: 10/16/12

Steam rating: 97% positive


I tend to like the idea of stealth games better than the reality.  I tend be a little clumsy with my controls – whether it be keyboard and mouse or a controller – and clumsiness is the fastest path to death in a stealth game.  So what I’m saying here is, for me, Mark of the Ninja is goddamn hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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After a couple of short play sessions, I feel pretty confident in my assessment that the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles games took a little bit of inspiration from Mark of the Ninja, and personally, I prefer the look of Klei Entertainment’s version.  The UI manages to be both very clean and fully informative.  Keyboard and mouse control is actually reasonably solid; there is full controller support, but a controller doesn’t feel as mandatory as it does in other games with platforming elements.  There are multiple checkpoints per level, which is great, but there is no save anywhere functionality.

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Although the main story will only take about 8 hours to complete, there’s considerable replay value built in with score challenges and support for different playstyles.  There is also new game plus functionality upon completing the main game.  I definitely can see myself getting my money’s worth here at full price. It’s currently on sale for only $3.74, and Mark of the Ninja is probably the best 2d stealth game available, so if it’s not already part of your Steam library, this would be a fantastic time to pick it up.

Overlord

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Overlord on Steam (demo available)

MSRP: $4.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, PS3, XBox 360

Release: 6/26/07

Steam rating: 93% positive


Sometimes, you just want to be naughty.  In Overlord, you play the newly awakened Evil Overlord, who, with the help of your painfully adorable minions, needs to rebuild the Evil Stronghold after the death of your predecessor. Yes, it’s absolutely as campy as it sounds, and it’s still absolutely enjoyable despite being almost 10 years old now.

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As an Overlord, of course, you’re not going to want to get your hands too dirty – at least not too often.  After an optional brief tutorial, you’re sent out into the world to recover items pillaged from your stronghold by pesky heroes.  Under your direction, your minions will do most of the work, up to and including looting fallen enemies. You might find yourself giggling and saying “FOR THE MASTER” at random times after playing.

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Although the game is quest driven, that’s about all it seems to have in common with traditional RPGs. As the game progresses, you will learn new magic spells, and discover more powerful minions that you can summon.  It’s an amusing, if mostly linear, romp where you’ll need to light halflings on fire, and kill sheep (early and often) for their life energy to replenish your supply of minions who are always willing to do your dirty work.

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For the $5 asking price, you’ll likely get about 20 hours of game play.  That’s one hell of a deal on a rather unusual game.  However, it’s currently on sale on Steam for only $1.24 – that price makes it a complete and utter no brainer. Treat yourself to some chaos and comedy; you won’t regret it.

The Escapists

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The Escapists on Steam

MSRP: $17.99

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux, XBox One, PS4

Release: 2/13/15

Steam rating: 91% positive


Ever wondered how you’d fare in prison? The Escapists isn’t – as the title might imply – simply a prison-escape puzzler, but also a life-on-the-inside simulator.  Although your ultimate goal is escape, you’ll need to take your time learning how things work in each prison, following the rules and showing up on time for things like meals and showers, to figure out when and how you have the best chance of obtaining your freedom.

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The tutorial level is very bare-bones – it exists only to show you the basic mechanics, and you might feel a bit overwhelmed when entering your first actual prison.  Movement is WASD, with mouse clicks for interaction.  While it seems like breaking out of the big house is a task best attempted alone, while you’re learning you way around, you might want to do favors for some of the other inmates in order to stay on their good side.

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You’ll also have to figure out crafting on your own – putting a bar of soap in a sock, as above, will give you a rudimentary weapon, but you will have to figure out what other items might work well together – you may find a crafting note occasionally, but for the most part, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own.  You have a very limited inventory, with the option to store additional items in your desk in your cell, but some items are naturally going to be against the rules, and guards will perform random cell checks that could ruin the most careful plans.

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There are a few DLCs for purchase, and the free holiday bonus levels as well.  The base game comes with 10 different levels, each with their own layout, routine, and level of difficulty, as well as a prison editor to allow you to create your own prisons.  There’s no question the play time value is immense – there is no one right way to escape, so levels are absolutely replayable, and there are also achievements and leaderboards for those players who are motivated by high scores and achievement unlocks.

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The Escapists isn’t a game with a deep, engaging story, but there’s a decent amount of complexity here.  It feels like a game that, despite the simple concept, will take a lot of time and practice to really become proficient, and that kind of learning curve, when combined with the simplistic graphics and somewhat crude humor might turn some players off.

Goetia

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Goetia on Steam

MSRP: $14.99 (demo available here)

Platforms: Win, Mac, Linux

Release: 4/14/16

Steam rating: 92% positive


I’m going to show my linguistic geekiness here for a second: I love when video games have titles that I don’t understand, so I look them up, and learn something new.  Goetia is a point-n-click adventure game where you play as the ghost of Abigail Blackwood, who has returned to her home to try to solve the mystery of what happened to her family in the 40 years since her death.

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I’m always down for a spooky story, and when it also looks this good, and features some innovative and interesting mechanics, there is no way I can’t take it for a spin.  Given that you’re an incorporeal being, a lot of your classic point-n-click mechanics are out the window from the get go.  No need to hunt for keys when you can just float through walls.

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The puzzling that remains is tough. Very tough. You’ll need to do a lot of reading, check your journal and the codex frequently, and you’ll probably still yearn for a walkthrough from time to time. The first few puzzles are fairly simple to get you used to some core ideas, such as possessing objects.  But it probably won’t be long before you’re not sure what you need to do next – for example, I had no trouble adjusting to the idea of floating through walls, but I had a mental block of sorts when it came to floating through ceilings or floors.

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Goetia is stunningly beautiful, and the writing thus far is pretty impressive. Due to the nature of moving items via possession, the physics needed to be far better than most games in the genre, and so far, I haven’t been disappointed by the way things move. I chose not to delve too deeply in, approximating the experience of the one-hour trial, but I am really looking forward to buckling down to play through the 10+ hour story over a couple of days.  It’s not a game I want to take too much time with – the storyline feels dense, and I get the sense that I’m going to want it to be as fresh in my mind as possible as I proceed.

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Goetia falls a little short of my preferred cost per entertainment hour, however, during Steam’s Winter Sale (going through January 2nd), it’s on sale for 66% off, putting the price at just over $5.  If you enjoy mysteries, and have a moderately high frustration threshold – or no qualms about playing adventure games with a walkthrough – Goetia promises to be a memorable experience and absolutely worth picking up at the sale price.

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