When I think back on my time with Armored Core VI, I can’t help but think about my fondness for the voices over the radio. The way Rusty was so cool when he showed up to help bail my ass out. Or the progression of Carla calling me a tourist. Then all the arguments and shared triumphs with real world friends over which bosses were too hard and which weapons were too cheesy. The way we share this game with one another. From Software manages to make connections in small, delicate internal ways, and also big messy explosive ones that I don’t think they can possibly plan for.
Before I decided it was time to break from playing and settle in for the long process of writing my chronicle of the Auriga Vault, I sent a signal to my Carpathia, far away in another ocean entirely. It read: I was wrong. It’s not the men having a bad time. It’s me. And I’m loving every horrible minute of it.
I even kind of care about "the True Ending" that's tucked away behind social links. Soul Hackers 2 is graceful and breezy enough, while still being a meaty monster-collecting dungeon crawler that I've been thinking about my return to Amami City the entire time I've been writing this review. Maybe this is the game I actually make good on that impulse.
Or just chill out on the couch managing your party member's furniture at the Dragon Princess with the Switch docked on your TV, then slap the joy cons on and watch a terrible Netflix docu-series while you hang out with your epic anime friends, fight monsters, and pay rent to a horrible moe landlord. It's either that or doomscroll on Twitter, and this is a more productive use of your time. I promise.
I get asked a lot which game I recommend for people wanting to get into Wizardry-likes. And until now I didn't have a good answer; everything was a series of compromises and required me to lay out caveats or provide upfront guidance. What Experience, Inc has done with Undernauts is finally make a satisfying DRPG that looks good, plays well, and I can unequivocally say is where people new to the genre can get a taste of the richer, weirder treasures below.
Initially I thought that was a flaw. Where Total Wars let me become Agamemnon, or Liu Bei of the Perpetual Vibe Check, and Civ V bid me to become Theodora, Hottie Empress of Byzantium, and spread Sapphism across the globe to achieve my glorious Cultural Victory, here there's none of that. I'm simply an amorphous hand guiding the imperial machinery. But honestly, that's okay. There's no distraction in Age of Empires IV. It's a return to a purity of build base, make dudes, obliterate enemies. And I came to love it so much I want to force my dad to spend his weekend playing it with me while he shouts what bits he remembers of the St. Crispin's Day speech over voice chat, as our massive blobs of 15th century dudes collide at our own virtual Agincourt.
Tying Judgment to a combat system that even the original franchise has left behind feels like a decision to hobble the imagination this studio has demonstrated time and time again. We've spent over a decade and seven games learning what a Yakuza game feels like, and 2019's first step into the spinoff series Judgment impressed the hell out of me, but now it's time for the franchise to figure out what it wants to be. And I hope it can do that by standing on its own.
What it does, it does well, and it leaves open a path forward where complex narrative structures are explored (The Vale has some branching, but like early D&D adventure modules, it's fairly on the rails), or the simple puzzle forms are complicated and expanded. There's plenty of overhead to play with new forms of audio puzzles entirely. And while I wished some of that was in this game itself, perhaps leaving space for the next game is crucial-experimentation should never be final or definitive. But for now, Falling Squirrel has crafted a brilliant next step with The Vale.
There's a joy to knowing that if you take a photograph of the flamingo on the right side of the car, you won't have time to get a photograph of the rhino on the left projectile shitting against a concrete restraining wall. Even if you advance the film, and knock your grandfather back into the club car's bench seat as you clamber over him as fast as your little limbs can. There's joy in begging your family to go on the ride just one more time while you've still got film and daylight left.
I'm cynical because the assumption that Housemarque has made here is that AAA games are a genre unto themselves, one whose form is based on cinematic regurgitation, excess, and the speed of disposability. And what sucks is they're slowly being proven right. Prestige television came early to this console generation, and I'm sure for many it will happily pass the time and then it will pass away into memory because memories are short, and there's always a next big thing, and then a bigger next big thing.
Maybe in a few months there'll be patches, course corrections, and I'll get an update and try it again. I came to Mordheim late and I have no idea what the base game was like. XCOM 2 needed War of the Chosen to really become the game I wanted to play. Maybe Rogue Factor just needs time to make Necromunda become the badass squad-skirmish game that I wanted it to be.
Will you like Shenmue III? I can't say. This is likely the last new game I'll play before the year ends, and it's a sure win for my Game of the Year. Shenmue III spoke to me on a level few games have. I thought about giving it a 10/10, even began gearing myself up to argue that with my editor. But Shenmue isn't perfect. It defies real perfection, because life is imperfect. Shenmue III is knobby and requires tremendous, repetitive effort before it gives up the special, unique warmth.
I do wish there were more to Luigi's Mansion 3, that the controls were tighter and more precise, but I also find myself wanting to play it more despite these problems. I don't know that I'll pick it back up when my partner and I finally collect every last gem, and suck out every last coin from every possible hiding place. But the liveliness and charm of its world, the bizarre questions it doesn't ask but gestures to, and the happiness I've had playing it with my partner on the couch will likely stick with me for quite some time.
Sea of Solitude gives us a boat. And a light. And it accepts that we must sometimes think of ourselves as a contradiction of insignificance and grotesquery, as we wind our way through the path of recovery. That, monstrous though we may feel, we can still affect change in our lives, and the lives of others. Healing is possible, if complicated, non-linear, and often contradictory. Sea of Solitude wants us to see ourselves better than we do, but won't abandon us when we can't.
But how do you review the experience of a city? I still don't think I know. Perhaps, as Judgment understands, our experiences are too precious, too deeply personal to do more than hint at suggestions of experience. To anecdote and extrapolate. To let slip the micro moments of intimate connection to a person or space, to leave others with only the wordless emotion of a snapshot.
Pathologic 2 is a deeply weird game, with a Mayakovskian cast of characters, plopped into an apocalyptic Bertolt Brecht play set deep in the Russian Steppe. And while the actual gameplay maybe disappointing or frustrating to some (it was to me), I can't help but be compelled by a game so enthusiastically bizarre.