With my head down in production at work, I found myself spending 2022 in a lot more games than I’m used to. In the past, I’ve tried to stick through one game until then end before moving on. However, as a designer, it’s helpful to try a lot of games versus digging deep into a few, as you’ll have a deeper well to pull from when solving problems on your own projects. Sometimes I’d be researching a game for work, while other times I’d simply have been driven by nostalgia or a random YouTube video, but I found myself at the whim of my mood a lot more than ever before.
Even so, 2022 was full of unique releases. The indie scene continues to boom while a lot of the heavy hitters were delayed into 2022. The list of notable releases is long this year, and as such this piece covers more of them than I have in the past. It took me until February just to get my thoughts down for all of them! But I felt challenged to learn something from each of them, even as I abandoned some new releases and dug into older ones.
- Elden Ring
- Chinatown Detective Agency
- Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion
- This is the only game on the list I actually plan to get back to. I got pretty far into Tunic, but not far enough to see the big shift in the game’s focus I hear is coming. I loved the game’s cryptic design and game manual, which I loved exploring and uncovering throughout.
- Horizon: Forbidden West
- About 2/3rds through Horizon: Zero Dawn is when it finally clicked with it, but unfortunately I fell off of Forbidden West at about the same point. The world is beautiful and the lore behind the different tribes was really well-written. I especially loved the individual side quests with characters who would then join the team and hang out at home base. Shooting parts off of enemies was satisfying but I eventually got bored of the repetitive open-world formula and how similarly each encounter was turning out.
- Weird West
- This is the game I’m saddest about abandoning, as it is such an open and creative experience. I really love the idea of playing as multiple characters and allowing the game to react to anything I do, but I found that to be pretty overwhelming when I was set free. I also was not a fan of the controls, which I know have been updated since I put the game down. Nonetheless, I’m glad I supported the team trying something very different.
- Mario Strikers: Battle League
- I really enjoyed the new depth found in tilting the stick to aim shots, but the game lacks the charm and features of previous entries in the franchise that kept me engaged.
Multiversus – Character Perks
The Super Smash Bros. franchise has always been ahead of its time, whether you’re discussing major IP crossovers or making fighting games accessible. We’ve seen many attempts to replicate that magic from indies and AAA studios alike, but the changes they’d make to stand out would just make you miss Smash. Multiversus is the first game that I feel was able to find its niche, with a focus on free-to-play and 2v2s. The magic of a Smash Bros. character is in how the team translates a character’s source material into a moveset that feels unique but well-representative. Multiversus has the added challenge of pulling from non-gaming characters. The result is an interesting cast of characters that all bring something weird to the table, especially when considering multiplayer synergies. It’s a shame that new live service games struggled in 2022, but still had a lot of fun playing the game before I fell off.
Fighting games often struggle to offer a good sense of progression, as the mentality of these games focuses on improving player skill through repetition. For example, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U tried to mix things up by giving each character custom moves to equip. However, unlocking them was a headache, it was difficult to keep track of them for every character, and they were impractical to setup every time you played on a new system. Multiversus‘s character perk system is similar on the surface, but is much more successful for a few reasons. Perks are pushed to the player as a core feature, rather than an optional mode to play around with. Unlocking perks is also straightforward, tied to playing with a character and leveling them up. Lastly, the game is mostly built around each player having their own account and console, which makes setting and storing your perk loadout a lot simpler. These changes are small, but they’re a great showcase of why the way you frame an idea often matters more than the idea itself.
The Quarry – Tarot Cards
Ever since Until Dawn‘s surprise success, I have been hoping for Supermassive Games to knock it out of the park with another game like it. The Dark Pictures Anthology games have been extremely hit or miss, but The Quarry felt like it had the potential to be more thanks to a stellar cast and a runtime comparable to Until Dawn. While still a noticeable step down from their first venture, this is a really solid addition to Supermassive‘s niche. The characters are all exactly what you’d hope for from a B-movie horror flick, the atmosphere is properly built up, and I felt like I had a solid number of impactful choices to make. The character animations are a bit off-putting and the shooting segments were often far too quick to react to, but overall I had a lot of fun making decisions with my partner and trying to keep the cast alive.
In other Supermassive titles, the player is able to find collectibles around the game that give short visual hints at a possible future outcome. These allow the player to think about potential consequences for their upcoming choices, which adds to the fun of trying to get through the night unharmed. Because you don’t know which choice will lead to that outcome, it isn’t too overpowered to get these hints. However, this led to me seeing a lot of the game ahead of time in Until Dawn, causing the pacing to feel all out of whack The Quarry attempts to fix this. The player collects multiple Tarot Cards in each chapter, just like the totems in Until Dawn. At the end of the chapter, The Hag of Hackett’s Quarry will give a cryptic description of what each Tarot will show, but the player can only choose to view one. This solves the overabundance of hints while giving players a really interesting choice to make that could aid in their survival. It’s a simple change, but I enjoyed the limitations and what they brought to our playthrough.
Splatoon 3 – Quality of Life Improvements
Splatoon is a franchise that I bounced off of multiple times before it got its hooks into me, but once you look at it closely, it’s clear how much heart and clever design is packed into it. It’s my go-to game when taking Game Design tests because of how well all of its mechanics weave into each other. So when a third entry was announced, I was beyond excited. While I didn’t end up playing the game as much as Splatoon 2, the third entry has everything I love about the series on full display. The art direction and music continue to set a unique tone, only aided by an expanded set of stylish clothing and profile customization. The new weapons, specials, and maps offer a much more balanced experience without shaking things up too much for older players. In addition, the story mode builds upon the great level design and freedom found in Splatoon 2‘s Octo Expansion, delivering an experience that should be remembered alongside the single-player Nintendo classics.
While I could dig into the additional structure found in the Salmon Run horde mode, I really feel like Splatoon 3‘s design shines in its quality of life improvements. While the gameplay of 1 and 2 are a blast, everything outside of playing included some level of frustration. Gear was time consuming to grind, matchmaking was done in a restrictive menu, and players had to sit through an announcement every two hours when they logged in. Luckily, all of that is smoothed out with this latest addition, meaning I can get right into the action without much worrying. The game gets a lot of criticism for how little is changed or added to the gameplay, but this is easily the best iteration of the franchise so far simply because it gets out of the player’s way.
Fortnite – Zero Build Mode
As easy as it is to ignore the successes of juggernauts, Fortnite remains one of the most popular games out today for a reason. I wrote about the game’s Battle Pass and content cadence in this blog post, but needless to say that the game is well-designed and fun, which led to an insane number of licensed crossovers, which only further cemented its success. Fortnite has stayed alive because it is constantly evolving both inside and out of the Battle Royale mode, with something new to interact with every few weeks. My personal favorite was the Dragon Ball event, which added the powerful Kamehameha weapon and speedy Nimbus Cloud item for jumping in and out of fights. Luckily, as of editing this piece, these have returned for a short time.
I had tried the game around its launch and initial hype cycle, and I found it to be difficult to keep up as someone bad at shooters. There was a heavy emphasis on collecting resources and quickly building forts to duke it out in. While that offers a unique play experience, I just wasn’t good enough to even have fun. What brought my friends, and ultimately me, back in was the addition of Zero Build Mode. While removing building makes the game blend in a bit more with the rest of the battle royale genre, it allows you to kick back with friends and find fun as you hunt for other groups to fight. You can knock your friends off a cliff with the hammer, go in as an all-sniper team, or get serious to pull out a close victory. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a while playing multiplayer, and I’m glad that one simple change like this can open the game up to an entirely different audience.
Snatcher – Character Portraits
I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard Hideo Kojima fan, but as a designer, it’s hard to deny his influence and creative vision. Death Stranding was a game with weird ideas that I found myself enjoying a lot, but my attempts to start the Metal Gear Solid franchise fell by the wayside due to what felt like clunky controls. Last year, I became fascinated by the style and impact of Snatcher, one of Kojima’s earliest projects, so I gave it a go. It’s an old school point-and-click adventure game that takes a lot of inspiration from Blade Runner, depicting a cyberpunk future where misunderstood androids evade corrupt cops. I played the Sega CD port, which included surprisingly-solid voice acting. The dialogue was engaging and I liked being set loose in various location to poke around and investigate. While the plot doesn’t break new ground, it was huge at the time and shows clear inklings of what Kojima would get up to in the future. There’s even a few surprise shooting sections that break up the pace of things.
Something small that I thought stood out was the game’s top-notch art. Snatcher is meant to be cinematic while including the typical freedom of adventure games, so there had to be a ton of expressive character portraits that display a wide range of emotions. This was super uncommon for the time, so it adds a sense of character to the game that can still be felt today. While not as detailed or reactive as the characters seen in modern AAA games, I still felt pretty immersed in the experience because the variety of actions each yielded a believable verbal and visual response. Maybe I’m just nostalgic for a time where this was really cool, but I think it’s impressive that I was able to get into it nearly 35 years after release.
Resident Evil: Village – Greatest Hits of Horror Zones
I’m still a relative newbie to the Resident Evil franchise, but I’m glad I finally get to appreciate the meeting of creativity and camp that this series has to offer. While 7 and the remake of 2 remained mostly grounded in their horror with a little bit of absurdity, Village unabashedly turns it up to 11. Too much crazy and dumb stuff happens in this game for me to take it seriously, but that just led to a more exciting experience overall. Combat is tense and evolves well, allowing for fear to creep into a game that could easily turn into a power fantasy. I really liked that the game always brings you back to the village as a space to expand and explore akin to a Metroidvania. This may also be one of the most beautiful games in recent years thanks to an ornate and bold art direction. I personally prefer the pacing and setting of Resident Evil 7 for a survival horror game, but an Eastern European village was a really unique choice that paid off.
However, I still want to call Village‘s structure out for how well it leans into its campy, gamey vibe. While the player constantly comes back to the village to open new paths and find all of its secrets, a large part of the game is spent in four different areas. Outside of the village, each area is self-contained and offers different moods, goals, and gameplay. Lady Dimitrescu and her daughters stalk and fight the player as they explore the castle, reminiscent of Jack and Mr. X from the previous entries in the series I played. Donna Beneviento’s dollhouse plays more akin to a modern survival horror game because the player can only run and hide from a terrifying creature. The reservoir is a chase sequence with puzzles and progressively rising tension. Finally, the factory applies pressure and dread through a combat gauntlet. Fear dissipating as the game goes on is common in the genre, so I appreciated that the framing of each area allowed me to enjoy the ride more for what it was. I certainly preferred the first two, but crafting the levels this way feels like exploring a theme park and had me laughing and screaming throughout my playtime.
Final Fantasy IX – Active Time Event
Last year, I was able to finally crack into a legendary series in the form of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Now that I’d found my way in, I was determined to dig into the best the franchise had to offer. Since I have a certain nostalgia for the PS1 and reviews for Final Fantasy IX were stellar, I took the plunge via the PS4 remaster. It’s interesting seeing how mysterious a game like this was thanks to the older hardware and game design, leading me to fill the blanks in for myself. I wanted to experience the story and get a feeling for the combat without the typical grind of JRPGs, so I made good use of the remasters built-in cheats. The characters have a lot of nuance to them, and I loved how they each felt like they got to develop on their own terms, even as they traveled together with a common goal. The world feels unique and grand, even by typical high fantasy standards, But while there were a lot of fun encounters that required some strategic thinking, it didn’t grab me, which is common for turn-based RPGs.
As you can tell, I was most interested in the story and setting of the game, so my favorite unique piece of design was the game’s Active Time Events. These are short cutscenes that show what another member of the team is doing while away from the party. For example, Zidane may be in one part of a town, and an Active Time Event will show what Vivi is doing across town. While some ATEs are mandatory, a majority of them are optionally started with a button press. They become unavailable after leaving the area, so the player has to decide in the moment if they’re interested in the extra scenes. This is a really fun way of adding additional narrative to flesh out the world and characters; the option is front and center for all, but is easily avoided if the player doesn’t care.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn – Duty Support
I must admit that while I love to try new things outside of my comfort zone, MMOs have always been a huge blindspot in my catalog. The last one I played was Pirates of the Caribbean Online when I was a kid, which I really enjoyed for the pirate world and the active combat. The cooldown-based systems and reliance on other players in most MMOs turned me off, but the prospect of a fully digital, evolving world is one that has always intrigued me. So when I was hearing nothing but praise for Final Fantasy XIV after its Endwalker expansion, I decided to give the free trial a go. Maybe I had nothing else to play or maybe the classic retention hooks got me, but something kept me coming back to finish the base content in just one month across 70 hours of playtime. The base A Realm Reborn content is a slog, even with improvements made right before I started playing. In addition, I chose the Summoner class which is notorious for just having you cycle through abilities with little thought. But something about its cheesy voice acting, slightly-dated visuals, and random side activities really sold me on the world and the care being put into it. I’ve taken a break since finishing A Realm Reborn, but I hope to get back and continue the story eventually.
As I said, I don’t really like the idea of relying on other players to complete my main quests. The biggest reason I was able to get through the base game content so easily was likely due to the Duty Support system. While I have the option to join real players and the community has been nurturing when I’ve needed to, a majority of the dungeons were updated to allow solo players to team up with AI party members. Since I’m mostly interested in getting through the story and unlocking new abilities, this has been extremely helpful with cutting down on wait times and letting me get to the action. The story is one of the major reasons people are interested in the game, so I think it’s incredibly smart to future-proof your early-game content to make sure that even if player populations fall, new players can still get in and have a good time.
The Unexpected Highlights
Marvel Snap – Locations
Though I care very little about Marvel, I was extremely glad to see that Marvel Snap focused on being a fun game above all else. Yes, a deeper appreciation of the blockbuster franchise gives you more buy-in to each character and variants you come across. And yes, maybe the sound design is too reminiscent of Monday Night Football or Inception. But I think there is a complete and fair experience here, even for someone averse to today’s most inescapable franchise. The game manages to take the often-complicated meta of deck building and boil it down into short, dynamic matches that almost always feel close. There are a ton of different viable decks and strategies, and even some bad ones can succeed thanks to the poker-like mindgames that come when Snapping to bet on a win. I also find the art of the cards and their evolution as you level them up to be an extremely compelling motivator to keep playing. Even if it isn’t in my top-top games of the year, it’s one of 2022’s most well-designed games. It proves that mobile games shouldn’t be totally written off.
The secret sauce to Marvel Snap‘s fun, in my opinion, is the randomness. Cards are unlocked in a random order to encourage curiosity, many cards rely on randomness to succeed, and you’re not going to be able to draw every card in your deck during a match. However, the most influential source of randomness comes from the Locations. Each match has three Locations that are revealed over the course of the first three turns, each with its own effects. While some may only add a rock to your deck for playing a card there, others will add a 7th turn to the match or have an AI play your cards for you. These effects are varied and impactful, meaning you can’t just build one deck and dominate forever. To mix things up even further, every so often a specific location will become more likely to appear, allowing for players to build a temporary deck that benefits from it. All of this plays very well into the win condition being based on controlling 2 out of 3 Locations rather than total power, allowing for so many more cards and decks to succeed. Each match feels fresh, which is probably why I’m still playing the game months later.
Pokemon Scarlet and Violet – Nonlinear Objectives
Listen, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are messy and there’s no getting around that. Releasing the game as is, with terrible frame rate and a ton of bugs, is not something that should be ignored or glanced over. But as is the case with all art (and people), there is nuance that allows for the game to sit somewhere between the worst product in existence and a game that makes up for all of the world’s sins. I have been critical of almost all mainline 3D Pokemon games because of the frustrating UX, uninteresting narrative, incremental design changes, and stripping of key tenets like exploration. These games are designed for kids and rose-tinted glasses are hard to take off, but becoming a game designer has led me to a better understanding of how the games have moved away from why I initially enjoyed them. With that said, though, I can’t deny that playing Scarlet and Violet is the most fun I’ve had since Black and White. I think the character and Pokemon designs are the best they’ve been in years, the soundtrack is memorable, and I found myself enjoying the narrative more than I expected. Stumbling upon a new type of Pokemon in the wild never stopped being exciting. Battles feel fast and lively in the open world, though not much has really changed. I still find the region itself and side content to be lacking, but sitting in a Discord call with friends as we all played through was a memory that will stick with me for a long time.
All of this excitement comes down to the shift to nonlinear objectives. The game offers the player 3 questlines with a set of objectives for each that can technically be completed in any order. Granted, there’s no way I could rush over to the Ice-type Gym and beat their level 48 team with just my starter. However, every person I’ve talked to has taken a different path between all of these objectives, showing that the game is effective at letting players follow their heart. If you’re tired of Gym battles, why not take on a Team Star camp? If you want to go over to the desert early and get your butt kicked, the only thing stopping you is your imagination. You’re still expected to complete these objectives at a set pace (you still can’t catch Pokemon past a certain level until you defeat a certain number of Gyms), but that little bit of freedom, in the moment, feels wide open.
Stray – Perspective
When I saw Stray had been nominated for so many awards (including Game of the Year) at The Game Awards, I was as shocked as most people. But when I thought about my time playing the game and how well it delivers on its mission, I began to understand. Stray places the player in the body of a cat who is trying to make their way home through a civilization of robots long after humans have gone extinct. It’s extremely polished, with a well-crafted art style and writing that was both humorous and heartwarming. It doesn’t try to do anything crazy, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I didn’t want to put the game down, which I think is more than enough justification for my investment. My most memorable parts playing Stray were the two city areas that allowed me to just run around and find cool interactions.
So why do I think this game was such a hit with critics? While I suspect the general public’s love of cats had a hand in it, the truth is that it executes well on something we rarely see in games: a non-human, non-bipedal playable character. Sure, you’ve got games like Okami, but I didn’t get the sense like I was non-human like I did with Stray. Spyro is maybe the closest comparison I can make. Utilizing a low camera perspective and a lot of vertical level design, I was surprised how satisfying it was to look for the path forward. All of the animations and interactions helped to reinforce the feeling that you’re a just a little cat. There’s a reason studios hire 3Cs designers, and it’s because these are the core systems a player will use to get into the game’s world. Stray succeeds at immersing the player in a mindset they might not otherwise get, and for that it should be commended.
The Case of the Golden Idol – Thinking Screen
Return of the Obra Dinn was my Game of the Year in 2018 because of its smart and creative take on being a detective. It tasked the player with uncovering the mysteries of a ship by investigating a vignette of the moment each crew member died. Fans of that game will feel right at home with The Case of the Golden Idol‘s similar themes and gameplay systems. The player explores a moment in time, using dialogue and items around the scene to piece together who is present and what is happening. As the complexity of each scene and puzzle increases, the narrative unfolds into a classic story of control and greed that remained pretty mysterious until the very end. The Georgian English era comes to life with the game’s distinctive and often grotesque art style, reminiscent of ’90s point-and-click adventure games.
In each scene, the player clicks around to try and find everything from names to what’s in a person’s pockets. The game stores important keywords from their findings on the Thinking screen, a Mad Lib-style document used to piece together what happened. Golden Idol and Obra Dinn both give the player a lot of freedom to explore each vignette with little direction, but that makes it difficult to confirm if the player has solved it. Obra Dinn has it easy because the information you’re searching for is the same between every character and scene. Because each chapter in Golden Idol is an entirely different puzzle from the last, that adds an extra layer of potential confusion between players and the solution. To help bridge that gap, the game offers optional extra panels that also make use of the keywords,. These help the player work through one part of the larger puzzle. One panel might only help track who is who in a scene, while another keeps track of who sat where at dinner. Each panel will tell the player when they’ve got everything right, so they can break down the puzzle into smaller chunks if they need to.
Wordle – Easy Sharing
Whether you still play every morning or immediately grew tired of seeing green squares on your social media feed, it’s impossible to deny that Wordle was the biggest game of 2022. Stories like those of Josh Wardle are what make the games industry such an exciting place to inhabit, where a fun project for your partner can explode into a seven-figure deal played across the globe. There’s not much to discuss with Wordle that hasn’t already been said; at least Pokemon GO had a set of mechanics to dig into when it became a phenomenon. World just has good starting words. However, I think Wordle is a great example of how players will naturally form the habitual login that publishers so desperately crave if they feel the game respects their time.
Even though this type of game has existed for a while, fun grows exponentially when you share it with friends. It was impossible to navigate Twitter or Facebook in January 2022 without being hit by an onslaught of colored boxes. After seeing some friends post their scores using simple emojis, Wardle built in the functionality to easily copy-paste your scores in the same format. Anyone could see how well you played the day’s puzzle at a glance, while simultaneously creating a unique visual identity that helped it become viral. I have never seen a game utilize social media so integrally yet so naturally. Even though the days of seeing my timeline flooded with Wordle posts are over, I still find fun and connection every morning when I exchange scores with family.
The Top Favorites
Pokemon Legends: Arceus – Agile/Strong Style
While I think Scarlet and Violet are probably better games overall, I was surprised by just how much I loved Pokemon Legends: Arceus when it released early in the year. I think it comes down to my love of smaller, denser experiences that focus heavily on a set of systems. Arceus sheds a lot of the traditions of the franchise to create something that feels not quite spin-off and not quite mainline. There’s a much heavier emphasis on catching and exploration while exploring the ancient Hisui region (Sinnoh from Pokemon Diamond and Pearl). It feels incredibly freeing to be able to just throw a Pokeball without entering battles, and the idea of repeatedly catching and battling Pokemon to research them fits the gameplay changes well. My favorite part of the game was building up the village and relationships with its inhabitants through side quests. I loved being able to give up my extra Pokemon for people who need them, which ties into the narrative of teaching humans to not be afraid of Pokemon. Given that Pokemon games haven’t prioritized compelling world building in a while, it was refreshing to see it so well executed on.
Outside of a few new types and the physical/special split, Pokemon‘s battle system has not received many major changes since the beginning. Pulling from games like Final Fantasy X, Arceus changes things in a minor way that feels major. Instead of direct back-and-forth turns, the speed of a Pokemon and their moves determine when everyone attacks. Using a move in Strong Style makes it more powerful, but it leaves your Pokemon open to multiple attacks. If you use an attack in Agile Style, it will be weaker but it may be fast enough to allow you to attack again. It becomes a game of trying to balance your move output with your number of turns, and it makes for a more strategic experience. Now consider the fact that wild Pokemon can join battles if they’re nearby, creating scenarios where your Pokemon has to endure more attacks before their next turn comes up. All of this creates a simple but smart evolution of the standard battle system that kept me on my toes throughout.
Citizen Sleeper – Time Management
One of my favorite aspects of game development is that you can play to your strengths and create a lot with a little. Citizen Sleeper is a game mostly composed of reading and dice rolls, but just like the great tabletop games it’s inspired by, that’s all you need to tell a personal and immersive story. Playing as a copy of someone’s brain, trapped in a mechanical body on a derelict space station, the player must find a way to survive and forge a new life. Each day, you have a limited number of dice rolls that you spend try to perform actions, and higher rolls lead to better outcomes. The player is encouraged to get into the role-play and tackle problems through hacking, hard labor, or smooth talking. The writing is eloquent and vivid, painting a diverse cast of characters that are all just trying to get by. I grew to care about a lot of the people I met, wanting to help them and sometimes failing to do so. With so much choice and chance, the team was able to maximize player investment into their world without animations or voice acting, which is a difficult feat for a narrative-focused game. Beyond the writing, distinct character art and an atmospheric score lead to a world that feels deep enough to leave me wanting more.
Though you’ll constantly be struggling to keep your health and hunger up, the hardest resource to manage here is time. As with most TTRPG-inspired games, your path ahead is pretty open, but Citizen Sleeper pushes you forward with its use of schedules and time-sensitive events. Beyond just trying to stay alive, you’ll be spending dice rolls to progress quests with characters. Some actions have to be finished within a few days, and others require waiting for a few days to pass. A few have to be done every week to avoid a negative outcome which adds pressure to keep working on other quests. I don’t know if it was just my luck, but I found the pacing of these questlines and time constraints to be perfect. I never felt completely overwhelmed by any one task, but running multiple quests at a time meant I had to choose which actions and characters to prioritize. Every success and failure from all this pressure led to a story that felt very personal and interactive to me.
Immortality – Match Cut
Continuing on with the discussion of stories only possible in interactive media, Sam Barlow and the team at Half Mermaid Productions have continued to champion the FMV game with their most ambitious title yet: Immortality. Players comb through film clips from 3 unreleased movies starring fictional actress Marissa Marcel, attempting to piece together the stories of the movies and Marissa herself. Players scrub through film footage, table reads, rehearsals, and behind-the-scenes recordings to get the full picture. Manon Gage is phenomenal as Marissa and all of her on-screen characters; it’s easy to get lost in what is real and what is film given how many narrative layers have to be peeled back. There’s a lot to dig into here, and I appreciate how hands-off the design feels to the player.
In Half Mermaid’s previous projects Her Story and Telling Lies, the player uses a search bar to look up clips and explore the story at their own pace. This much freedom meant players could see important clips early, but the fun then became trying to figure out how things got there. Immortality takes the crazy step to instead have the player click on objects or characters, which performs a match-cut to a different clip with the same object or character. This unorthodox navigation system leads the player all around the 3 movies, offering a lot of different interesting avenues to hook players in the first hour. Maybe a player wants to figure out the plot of a movie, while another is looking for what happens to a character between films. Half Mermaid is able to have more control over when players see certain clips, but I never felt an invisible hand guiding me. The match cut never stops feeling cool, and it’s clear a lot of work went into making it work consistently.
God of War: Ragnarök – Side Quests
“Oscar bait” is a term often thrown around to clarify that there is a divide between what’s popular and what critics see as the pinnacle of film. Interestingly, games are currently in a stage where these two views actually meet, with blockbusters usually regarded as the best by the general public. PlayStation found success toeing that line with third-person narrative action games, but having a formula and pumping endless money into it isn’t a guarantee. God of War: Ragnarök is a great game on its own that uses its resources to pack high-quality art, smart design, and two games’ worth of content into a tight package. While I prefer the small-scale narrative of the original (see a pattern?), the performances are top-notch and I was constantly surprised with where the story was headed. Combat feels refined and the number of enemies and boss fights blows God of War (2018) out of the water. My one complaint is that the RPG stats and gear feel overcomplicated to allow for rewards that are spread through all of the content. But regardless of that, I had a blast playing through the game and found surprises around every corner.
The standout system of the game is its abundance of side quests. Side quests are a great opportunity for a game to flesh out the world and characters further than the main story, and Ragnarök has that in spades. Unfortunately, they’re usually treated as cheap ways to pad a game out. If you dig into Ragnarök‘s, you can still see the reusable structure of objectives and content. However, there is so much variety in locales, enemies, weapons, narrative, and payoff that I never consciously felt the copy-paste nature of it. Each of the Nine Realms feels distinct in content and structure and the game is so full of enemies and activities that they can easily mix-and-match them into different side quests without feeling stale. In addition, performing side quests with different companion characters means that the dialogue and narratives surrounding them can change, lending different perspectives on the same topic. It’s a rare feat to make the side content feel as important as the golden path, but Sony Santa Monica nailed it.
Neon White – Insight System
If I had to choose a Game of the Year, this would be it. Neon White, top to bottom, kicks ass. Maybe I’m just all-in on the Y2K revival, but the game is covered in excess in an extremely appealing way. Its energetic soundtrack by Machine Girl was one of my favorite albums of 2022, as entertaining while working as it was running through the game. Everyone seems to hate the tropes and campiness of the characters, but the narrative isn’t meant to be taken seriously and isn’t meant to be the focus (Ben Esposito claims it was largely for pacing). I really appreciate its attempt at earnestness, and the player only gets access to some of the game’s best levels by hanging out with people and giving them gifts. But outside of the story, the first-person platforming feels tight. I love how arcadey it feels to use each weapon as a traversal ability, as well. Each level is almost puzzle-like in figuring how to solve it, especially once you get into speedrunning them.
I’ve seen a million YouTube videos discussing the brilliance of the Insight System already, but I still think it’s worth discussing. The game creates a natural progression for each level that encourages the player to replay and speedrun it. Each time the player levels up their Insight, they’re given a new way to interact with the mission. First, they’ll unlock a gift hidden in the level which encourages the player to slow down, look around, and learn where all of the weapon cards are. Then, the player is able to see a ghost of their previous best run in order to race them and see where they can improve. Next, a hint is placed in the level to point out a shortcut that gets the player thinking of which cards and paths can be skipped. Finally, reaching the Ace Medal unlocks the global leaderboards, proving you’re good enough to compete against others. Less-skilled players are gradually taught how to play the game while expert players aren’t bogged down. It’s an amazing example of making a game’s mechanics accessible.