Ok look, I know, I said I’d try and do this earlier than I’ve done it the last couple years. Maybe one day I’ll make good on that promise but, for now, you’ll just have to take my sincere apologies.
I was all prepped to talk about how my busy work schedule had prevented me from hitting my goal yet again last year, fully expecting that the list of games I’d be putting down here would be near the lowest it has been. However I’m pleasantly surprised to report I managed to get through an impressive 48 (even if 3 of those are technically the same game, Destiny 2) my highest total in 2 years. The number of AAA titles has definitely declined with many last year demanding a lot more time than I was able to give to them. Still I played nearly all of the games I wanted to, the only glaring omission being God of War.
As I sat down to write this no title came front of mind which, in the past, has meant that I haven’t really found anything to crown the victor. However as I was putting together the list of games I realised it wasn’t because of a lack of titles, far from it, indeed 2 of them shared the highest score (9.5) last year with a further 4 coming in second (9.25). Adding into that there are 2 honourable mentions that I want to throw into the mix as they both gave me something I wasn’t fully expecting. Suffice to say 2018 delivered solid gaming experiences in troves and I’m honestly beside myself in not getting around to doing this sooner.
As always here’s the list of games I played last year in chronological order:
In the slightly devious tradition of awarding the wooden spoon to a game this year I have the oh-so-delicious pleasure of awarding it to not one, but two games that shared last year’s lowest rating: Elementium and The Quiet Man with a score of a mere 3. Elementium was a game I should probably have never played, something that was made and put out into the world without even a basic level of care and attention to what a game should be. The Quiet Man was bad for many other reasons, not least of which was doing a game like that in a completely ass about way that ended up ruining it completely. Whereas Elementium can be pushed aside as a dev’s first attempt at trying to make something The Quiet Man is from an established developer and large publishing company: both of whom have the resources and the motive to make it not suck horrendously. But they didn’t and so they thrust that mess onto the world to torture anyone who’d dare spend the cash.
As this year’s honourable mentions list is long I’ll blast through them with a quick list of why I wanted to point them out:
With that out the way my game of the year, which if you know me as a gamer is likely blindingly obvious by now, is:
Yes, I know, it’s another David Cage game who’s story is about as deep as any Twilight fanfiction might be but I fell for it yet again. I’ll argue that what makes these games strong isn’t the narrative but the performances that the actors give to it. Further to that the fact that the best part of the game, I feel, isn’t really even the game itself made seriously think about how we can define new player interactions with the medium. Whilst I haven’t had many good conversations about it yet it’s definitely a title I’ll refer back to when thinking about the numerous gaming traditions and how changing, augmenting or even straight usurping them can add a whole new dimensionality to our video game experiences. All things said and done if you haven’t played it I strongly encourage you do, even if you don’t play it strictly for the game itself.
The two runners up are Monument Valley 2 and Gris.
I’d been hanging out for Monument Valley 2 ever since I saw it released on iOS and instantly devoured it in one sitting when I finally saw it come out. It may not have done anything particularly revolutionary with its implementation but the story they told, mostly through the use of visuals with small bits of dialogue here and there, captured my heart straight away. Reading through my review again brings all those emotions back tenfold, not least of which because I’m now the father of a daughter myself.
Gris came into my sights just before it was released and honestly if there’s anything that I’d call reviewer bait (at least for me) it’d be this game. Beautiful visuals, amazing soundtrack and a story told eloquently without the use of dialogue are all things I look for and the short game trailers were enough to convince me it was worth my time. What makes this all the more impressive is that it’s the first title from Nomada Studio. With a debut like that I am so excited to see what they deliver in the future.
2019 has already brought with it some amazing titles and some amazing upsets in expectations. My list is, as always, brimming with big names and at least one previous Game of the Year winner. Whilst my expectations are high my time is likely going to be a little limited, new baby and all, but I love gaming too much to leave them all at the door.
I’ll just have to teach her how to hold a controller.
A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.
Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.
Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.
At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.
Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.
The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.
Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.
There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.
The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.
Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.
Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.