As an erstwhile console gamer who now spends way too much quality time with his tablet, I don’t exactly have my Power Glove on the pulse of the modern video game scene–for that, you’ll have to read Eugene Lee’s Best Of list par excellence published earlier this month, which breaks down the most daring and memorable of both big releases (the Commonwealth welcomes you) and single-developer ventures (something new from the Stanley Parable guy!). Sure, I may have missed out on blockbuster titles like The Witcher III, but 2015 has nonetheless delivered some fantastic titles that don’t require a high-end graphics accelerator. Here are some of my top picks.
Darkest Dungeon (PC)
Designed and published by Red Hook Studios
“I beg you. Return home, claim your birthright, and deliver our family from the ravenous, clutching shadows…of the darkest dungeon.” Thus ends the monologue that, with gleeful deference to the flowery, macabre language of Poe and Lovecraft, sets the tone for Darkest Dungeon‘s 2014 trailer, which ran during the game’s February Kickstarter campaign last year. With virtual zero gameplay footage, the new developers at Red Hook had already wormed their bloody appendages into my brainpan, where it stuck like a festering fungus. From the first minutes of the Early Access release of the game (the official full launch is on January 19), I could immediately tell that, even in its then-unfinished state, this was one of the best games I’d play all year. Darkest Dungeon‘s core conceit is a simple one: it is a dungeon crawling RPG with side-scrolling exploration and turn-based, strategic combat, but one that brings to the forefront the psychological scarring that would realistically come from battling grotesque monsters and watching your allies fall dead around you. Sequestered in your ancestral estate, you don’t actually do any fighting yourself–instead, you hire hopeful adventurers to explore the various dungeons (randomly generated, in roguelike fashion) on your behalf. As they participate in combat and exploration, they will develop new personality quirks, both good and bad–coming back from a near-death experience might make a character paranoid and cowardly, or it might awaken their inner strength. When the psychological trauma becomes too great to bear, you will need to assign them to various stress-relieving activities in town, which may also lead to the discovery of new traits: you might send your paladin to the tavern for a few mugs of ale only to have her disappear on a 3-day binge of debauchery and violence. Thus, your best heroes become your worst liabilities, and you are sometimes forced to hire fresh-faced recruits and send them on mind-shattering suicide runs simply to scrounge up enough supplies to rehabilitate your higher-level party.
Her Story (mobile/PC)
Developed and published by Sam Barlow
This is the best mystery game I have ever played. The total lack of handholding is its biggest asset: presented with a vintage computer screen running a single program, you are able to watch various unlabeled video clips of a woman being interviewed by the police. These clips, you’re told via a README file on the desktop, were part of an early attempt by the police to digitize their archive. Because of the antiquated software you’re running, you can’t browse the files at will. However, every word the woman says has been transcribed, so if you type in a word you feel is relevant, the program will spit out the first 5 clips (another software limitation) in which the woman speaks that word. And that’s it: you aren’t given a specific task, there is no real way to gauge your progress, and what story there is plays out nonlinearly, completely driven by your search queries. Due to the brevity of the clips and the absence of any speaker other than the woman, this keyword-based detecting feels remarkably like you are in the room with the woman, questioning her yourself until you can piece together the truth.
Sunless Sea (PC)
Developed and published by Failbetter Games
From the creators of the text-dominated Victorian-Gothic browser game Fallen London, and sharing in its surreal setting, in which locations, characters, items and traditions often seem to exist solely for the tinkling sound their syllables make when they knock together (e.g. the Echo Bazaar, Ladybones Road, shards of glim, the Honey-Addled Detective, coiled in Quander). Like its predecessor, Sunless Sea is a seemingly endless mine of storylets that open and close like trapdoors with the changing tide of not-so-hidden attributes. (Be prepared to gain, lose or augment dozens of obscure qualities with every choice made.) Unlike Fallen London, this is a fully animated graphical game: instead of warping instantly to whatever location your next story snippet demands, you must steam your way across the titular subterranean sea, your poor vessel constantly threatened by pirates, sea monsters, and fuel or food shortages. You can actually die in Sunless Sea, and you will do so often as you chart the dark waters, passing on a small legacy to the next Captain in line. While I found the game overly challenging, the bizarrely beautiful story and atmosphere more than compensate, and it will only get better with new gameplay and content updates.
Survive! Mola Mola
Developed and published by Select Button Inc.
Mola mola, the majestic ocean sunfish. One of evolution’s finest creations, the mola is a saucer-shaped fish that can grow to legendary size (the heaviest of all bony fish). When it ventures close to the surface, its silvery scales catch the light, making it look like a second sun. But deep down, these ocean lights harbor a dark secret. Mola lay more eggs in a single clutch than any other known vertebrate, up to 300 million at a time. They have to, since mola are secretly as fragile as eggshells. Just about everything is a threat to the mola’s life; at least, that’s the premise of this simple “digital pet” game. Help your mola grow from a fry to an aquarium king and become the biggest mola ever…if you can keep it alive for longer than a minute. *Sudden Death* lurks around every corner. Mola’s favorite food, jellyfish, might turn out to be plastic bags, or the small fish and shrimp they like to eat might get lodged in their throats. They might fall asleep while sunbathing (an attempt to lure gulls to pick off their itchy parasites) and wash up on the beach. Or, while breaching to shake off parasites, they might jump way too high and die on impact with the water’s surface. Each cause of death you discover (and there are dozens) adds a multiplier to your mola’s growth rate, giving the game a morbid hook.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector
Developed and published by Hit-Point Co.
Another Japanese oddity is Neko Atsume, loosely translated as “Cat Catcher” or “Like Pokemon, but with stray cats.” This graphically simple simulation (there are only a few looped animations) might be as close as you’ll get to living on Japan’s famed Cat Island. If you leave out some food in your digital backyard, minimize the app, and re-open it a few minutes later, you might be lucky enough to catch a few cats enjoying themselves. There’s no interacting with these feral felines, but after testing your toys and victuals, they’ll leave you a thanks offering of fish, which works as currency to buy new cat furniture, toys and gadgets to decorate your yard (and eventually living room). Each cat has a name, a unique appearance, and its own personality and rarity, so you will need to swap out your playthings frequently if you hope to see them all. Neko Atsume blurs the distinction between “game” and “toy,” but the artists’ perfect depiction of the habits of cats (be prepared to stare at a lot of buttholes) gives it a winning charm.
Heavy Metal Thunder Sol Invictus
Written by Kyle B. Stiff
Published by Cubus Games
This sequel to the award-winning digital gamebook Heavy Metal Thunder brings more of what made the first game great: its weird blend of absurdism, sci-fi, metal, and badassery. In the first game, you awoke with no memories in the remains of a zero-gravity battlefield. The only clue to your identity was the dogtag you wore under your jet-black rocket armor, which simply read “MR. WIGGLES.” Sol Invictus carries on this tradition of giving silly names to serious people as it lets you get to know the members of your squad, a group of human fanatics (soldiers who believe that extermination is the only solution to the alien invasion) called the Venice Clovers. And one of the things you find out is that your squad’s pack rat, whose only job is to carry around all the weapons and gear you pilfer from the bodies of former enemies, is named Wolf Tits, an oblique reference to the mythical founding of Rome. As it bounces between genres like a stray electron, Sol Invictus never forgets to be entertaining.
Developed and published by Supergiant Games
I can’t wrap up without mentioning a really good action game, and this title from the creator of Bastion delivered some of the best aesthetics, strategy, and dynamism of the year’s releases. (Its mobile debut was June 2015.) The storyline is a little funky, beginning in the middle of things and taking far too long to start making sense. Fortunately, the game’s setting is interesting enough to hold your attention for the first couple of hours. It appears to take place inside of a computer program on debug mode. Every switch, terminal or interaction point openly displays its relevant Boolean or numeric data, the robot-like monsters wiping out the city are called “The Process,” and your customizable combat actions are referred to as Functions and displayed as snippets of code–e.g., Crash(), Breach(), and Ping(). The aesthetics of the game follow the publisher’s earlier title: isometric view, plenty of bright colors and floating rectangles, a jazzy soundtrack, and a context-sensitive voiceover (this time, delivered by your weapon, the Transistor). What really sets the gameplay apart is the malleability of your Functions, which each be assigned to a primary, support, or passive role, leading to over 3,000 potential actions and an unimaginable variety of movesets.