XCOM has become a really really involving affair, and time for sequential, prolonged sessions has been become hard to come by in the last week. I’ll be continuing that game when my holidays start. I beat another game (yay!), though it’s one I’ve beaten before (uh, ok?) – Portal 2. It felt best to keep things light, so it’s been back to Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Also, for some light RPG gaming I finally took the plunge into Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall in anticipation for the third campaign Hongkong, which I’ll be only really playing at the weekends. Finally, I also jumped back into one of the greatest games of recent years, Mark of the Ninja.
Thinking with portals again
I guess the release of Portal Stories: Mel prompted me to revisit Portal 2 again. I loved it when I first played it (my review), even though the novelty of the core gameplay had worn off, it was a great title. Playing it a second time, I found myself enjoying the first half a lot, then liking the middle (where you explore Aperture’s past) and not having much fun at all towards the end when Wheatley keeps making you do more puzzles. The pacing was off and it felt like a slog at times. Still though, it’s got some great moments, Portal 2. The ironic thing is that I’m tired of Portal right now and I’ll probably get to Portal Stories: Mel well far in the future.
Spelunky and Isaac are two perfect games to play when you just want to relax and space out. Get your earphones, play your favorite audiobook/podcast or simply music playlist, and start up either of the two and say goodbye to the next 1 – 9 hours. There’s something to be said for games that engage your brain on a purely gameplay level. No story to follow, no dialog to read, no cutscenes to watch. These games are about the here and now, and that leaves a whole lane in your broadband connection of attention that you can dedicate to listening to engaging audio content. The two go so well together, it’s like whipped cream and jam, like fries and burgers. They’re made for each other.
I ❤ Spelunky 4ever
Spelunky is probably my favorite game of my post-childhood age. It’s pretty much a perfect game. It’s infinitely replayable, always challenging and always entertaining. If I were to write a review (which I won’t until I actually beat the game) it wouldn’t be a critique but a love letter. It deserves a 10/10, an A+ with a smiley a 5 star rating. And jumping back into it now, I’m wondering why I stopped in the first place. While it’s unforgiving by nature, I do love that Derek Yu, the creator, has granted players the option of learning the different worlds separately. But in a wonderful twist, these shortcuts are unlocks themselves. So for example in order to get a shortcut to the jungle (the second world) you need to complete the previous world, the mines, with a rope, a bomb and 10,000 gold in your inventory. The later shortcuts are harder to accomplish. I’m currently trying to open a shortcut to the temple, the fourth world. I need to bring a golden key from the mines all the way through the mines, the jungle and the ice caverns. It’s fucking hard and it means that I have to approach the game in a different way. Carrying a key while also trying to rescue damsels can become a tricky endeavor. I love how Spelunky mixes things up constantly, giving you these short term and long term goals to achieve, so it’s never really as frustratingly punishing as people think it is.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was a revelation when it released late last year. Isaac was already a fun game, but it was totally held back by it’s flash game nature. Rebirth is an amazing evolution. It runs butter smooth and the additions to the game really fleshed things out. I finally have proper gameplay support and I love the GBA aesthetic as well. There are some deliberate quirks that I don’t enjoy though. The vague to completely non-existent item explanations mean that you can’t make real decisions on your loadout if you don’t know everything by heart. So regular trips to the wiki are in order, and I hate hate hate alt-tabbing in Isaac. It totally breaks the flow. You could just suck it up and run with it to eventually figure out what an item does, but many times the effect isn’t clearly noticeable. Ugh. That’s the extent of my criticism though. The rest is pure joy. Isaac’s controls are tight as hell and that allows for a very high skill ceiling. I love how the different upgrades stack and I get a sick pleasure watching Isaac grow ever more grotesque in appearance. I recently beat Mother for the first time, though that is just the start of the real game. There are multiple forms of Mother you need to defeat to get the real ending, and it’s been a great challenge so far. The fear grips me every time I make it into the womb.
Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall
I’ll try to keep this one short. Dragonfall is better than Dead Man’s Switch in every way. DMS was a good first campaign (my review). It felt limited of course, which is understandable if you consider that this wouldn’t even have been made in the first place if not for Kickstarter. DMS had some core strengths: the writing, the setting and an engine that was built to support UGC (user generated content). What Dragonfall does so much better though is in the breadth and structure of the campaign. Much like in Mass Effect 2, I have a core group of team members who have their own backstory and personality that reveals itself to me the further I go. This is great because it plays to the strength of Harebrained Studios. The dialog is actually interesting to read and avoids many of the pitfalls that bigger RPG companies fall into in their writing. So far all the self-contained missions have been actual shadowruns and that really pulls you into the fiction more than DMS ever did. So you have multiple jobs available at any time which really gives you a sense of agency. You actually start your terminal, scour the underground message boards for shadowrunners and look for jobs to do. It’s immersive. The runs themselves have good variety and playing it on hard difficulty (as opposed to when I played DMS on normal) makes the fights more engaging too. Combat is still hamstrung by the limited AI, but the sheer numbers you face pose a good challenge. Coming into this after playing some XCOM, it feels very familiar and comfortable. Another positive is how they set up the campaign’s story to mesh with the more open format. Like in Baldur’s Gate 2, early in the game you are required to raise a significant sum of money to progress the main plot, which gives you this great window where doing jobs doesn’t detract from the main plot but actually has an in-game raison d’etre. It’s a small thing but I always love it when games manage to find such elegant solutions to such common gripes.
Mark of the Ninja
Dragonfall has been a time consuming game so it’s become my weekend fling, but Mark of the Ninja is the more pressing matter for me. I’m on a quest to beat my backlog, and this one has been there long enough. I love stealth games and Ninja has been the best in years. Possibly even ever. I’m trying to beat all the stages with perfect scores, and once I’m done I’ll do it all again in New Game+. I’m not the kind of gamer who stick with a game once the story is finished, but Ninja is a joy moment to moment and the urge to play it as perfectly as possible is overwhelming. There are few games where I take such pride in reaching all the optional objectives like in this one. Never kill anyone, never be seen, get all the secret statues and beat all the challenge rooms. All this could only be possible thanks to the perfect stealth gameplay. It’s so good that I dread the day that I finish the game 100%, because a sequel isn’t in sight yet. It’s another game where I wouldn’t write a review so much as it would be a love letter.