Sephonie’s thematic scope is admirably wide-ranging, but its wordiness only crowds a game whose mechanics are tenuously connected. For a game that concerns the interconnectedness of all things, it’s unfortunate how awkwardly some of its pieces are glued together.
Playing Weird West, it’s hard to shake how much more gracefully other games of this type avoid similar pitfalls, with the abbreviated scavenging of Void Bastards and the easy-to-read interface of Desperados III, another western with a top-down perspective, immediately coming to mind. The latter game also supports far more complex maneuvers despite lacking the sort of pointless granularity that has the player comb through indistinguishable shelves for a handful of ammunition. By contrast, Weird West is a slog dying for an extensive streamline.
Where other isometric games of this sort heavily telegraph areas and objects that you should return to later, the levels here subtly fold in on themselves in ways that are both slyly hidden and obvious in hindsight. Tunic appears unassuming and even a little routine on the surface, but it constantly reveals how clever it is every time it encourages us to take a closer look.
Details like the cause of the disease and how it spreads are unclear, though it doesn’t appear to be fatal. Much of the game involves simply existing in the midst of this incident, experiencing the story while trying to hold certain relationships together as things grow more grave. The slow progression of the disease lends itself to tear-jerking melodrama, but the characters’ horror is quiet and largely internal. Occasionally, they verbalize their fears, but mostly their memories just gradually and inevitably falls away, like leaves in autumn.
Though Sifu features a few dialogue choices and scenes throughout its campaign where you don’t have to fight anyone, its surface-level engagement with martial arts film iconography betrays a lack of humanity that feels typical of works created well outside of the culture that they intend to depict. The game’s story grouses about the downsides of seeking vengeance, but this is plainly the work of people who like to fast forward to the fight scenes.
That emptiness only becomes harder to ignore when the story foregrounds itself, pulling you back for chats with your AI partner or scattering insipid post-apocalyptic lore documents all over the levels. For all of Solar Ash’s sense of genuine, thrilling speed in its mechanics, the game fails to muster any sense of accompanying narrative momentum, content to warm over imagery and ideas from Anno Hideaki’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shadow of the Colossus, and countless media inspired by each. Solar Ash reaches for awe and splendor somewhere beyond its overall poverty of imagination, succeeding occasionally yet also suggesting that the wordless storytelling of Hyper Light Drifter had been the right way to go.
And because the atmosphere encompasses so much of Sable’s appeal, the technical issues can be absolutely ruinous. When the bike disappears into the ground, when the menus break, or when Sable passes straight through an object that she should be able to land on, the illusion collapses and we’re left not with a vivid sense of place, but with a video game where the mechanics are all a bit of a chore. With its restrained approach toward collectibles and its rudimentary traversal, Sable attempts to depict exploration for the sake of exploration, but in doing so it only clarifies that such a concept is not necessarily as enticing as it sounds.
Psychonauts 2 in particular is a game of surprising psychological insight, full of rich, flawed characters at the end of their ropes. If so much of this game is a reiteration of what worked about its predecessor, it functions as a reminder for just how much of the medium is still catching up to Psychonauts.
Further glimpses into this breathtaking universe are often reward enough for exploring the game’s multitude of alternate paths, but even GRIME’s level design is surprising for featuring a world much larger and more complex than it appears as you discover involved platforming challenges and optional bosses. Though GRIME emerges into an almost comically overcrowded genre, its initial familiarity and rigidity belie a world of intricate and formidable imagination.
The Forgotten City certainly doesn’t need to answer the philosophical questions that it poses before it’s allowed to examine them in a narrative context, but the ludicrously tidy conclusions to the main story and most side quests feel like substitutes for any deep engagement. The game handily transcends its mod origins and tells an ambitious and thought-provoking story, but it eventually reaches a point where it doesn’t seem sure how to end.
Eventually, each story hurriedly resolves itself, foregoing tidy lessons or ironic endings but still lacking that crucial, elusive sense of lived-in authenticity. For as much effort has clearly gone into voicing and animating these characters within their 3D environments, we never spend enough time to seem like we really know them; quirks of the game’s strict linearity ensure we remain at a distance, observing relationships that are otherwise too thinly sketched to sustain the game’s emotional ambitions. Last Stop eventually arrives at an all-too-familiar game-design destination, hamstrung by its attempts at verisimilitude.
Where other games tend to have a greater purpose and complexity behind more granular mechanics that demand closer attention from the player, Biomutant remains a rather simplified, if overstuffed, game of loot-hoovering. In practice, you’re still chasing objective markers and wandering salvageable areas in hopes of spotting the “interact with object” indicator. But while Biomutant’s breadth of options does indeed make that familiar process more rewarding than the norm, it never quite offsets the accompanying increase in tedium.
While these limitations have the potential for forcing nail-biting compromises, the irritating micromanagement clashes with other elements that otherwise suggest a breezier game experience, like the rudimentary combat and the way the environment practically overflows with currency and crafting material. So much of The Wild at Heart elegantly sidesteps the usual pitfalls of a resource grind that it’s disheartening whenever it devolves into busywork.