Games I played in 2021 where I, like, got it, but also, tripped over my own feet a lot:
Night in the Woods (2017)
I loved the characters and the writing. Unfortunately the premise of “struggling at college teendult returns to economically depressed hometown and hangs out with high school friends” did too much psychic damage to me, due to Circumstances, and I will likely be unable to continue
What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)
At the end of the day I was moved, and that's more than I can say most of the time.
But there's some weird tonal stuff here. Some of the deaths are very pulpy, from the buck knocking Sam off a cliff (complete with a camera taking a timed picture of his descent!) to a guy busting out of his bunker only to immediately get run over by a train. But then there was a baby literally drowning in the bathtub????? I actually looked away from the screen for that one. So I experienced a little bit of whiplash there and I'm not sure if that was wholly intentional.
Maybe this is more about my personal feelings on, say, infant children dying unattended in the tub rather than anything strictly in the text of the game. Maybe the authors are playing with shit they don't fully understand for shock value.
So, look. It's an experience. I would recommend this experience with some qualifiers.
Endless Space 2 (2017)
I really loved Endless Space 1 for sweeping Galactic Civilization's confusing and unnecessary clutter away. ES was a bold, beautiful, clear 4x where almost every element was clearly defined in the interface.
I don't know if, like, I changed or ES2 did. It seems to have added systems which aren't bad on their face, but are more confusing and less explained. I found myself feeling more restricted in my strategic options and listlessly clicking End Turn through the midgame waiting for a strategy to pan out.
Maybe it's the game. Maybe it's the space4x genre. Maybe it's me. I think this game is beautiful, still, even if you have to turn off a lot of the zoomy cutscenes to make it playable. But I'm more interested in what the devs are doing next than I am interested in thoroughly mining the corners of this game, for whatever reason.
Sunless Sea (2015)
Definitely nails the Fallen London vibe, sometimes to its own detriment. Creeping horror is a great vibe, but I'm tired of creeping out of port and creeping towards the far edges of a map and creeping back home. Am I tense? Yeah, totally, mission accomplished. Is that the vibe I want right now? No.
Divinity: Original Sin - Enhanced Edition (2015)
How much jank can you tolerate in service of a genuinely goofy and self-aware RPG campaign where, let's face it, a little bit of jank is part of the appeal?
Yeah, accidentally fireballing the entire room because pigs bleed poison which combusts when hit with your flare is funny. Is it still funny when you are inching your characters through the room post-battle and they still insist on collecting every possible status ailment, and they die because the character with a poison treatment won't move into casting range automatically and there's no pause time button?
How about quests that kinda, sorta tell you where to go, but whoops, there was a translation error, and whoops, the wiki hasn't been updated in six years, and oh yeah, there was a bug for about two years where the intended way to do this quest doesn't quite work, so maybe cheese it?
How about the ever-present lack of easy healing post-battle, juggling a thousand inventory items with no functional interface to do so, slider-only entry for gold values, absolutely glacial battle animations you will see a thousand times, and a hundred other straws on the camel's back?
I'm not a stranger to jank. I like Larian's games, and I've even played some of the previous Divinity games. But the speed at which I went from "Hm, this is kinda weird but I think I can take it" to "are you FUCKING kidding me" suggests maybe I'm a little less patient these days. Or maybe the multiplayer - which seems genuinely cool and genre-defining - was too big of a bite and they didn't ever go back and polish off the smaller things. Either way, I'm sad I won't finish this but I just can't take it.
There’s some cool stuff here - the architecture, the SCP lore, the story, the hilarious live-action science skits. Unfortunately it’s got to contend with a lot of cheap combat deaths, rare checkpoints, poor signposting, puzzles that drove me to guides frequently, and graphics bugs which left it looking like a PS2 game at times. Fortunately a patch added in some difficulty modifiers including a blessed Invulnerability option. Unfortunately I think the plot - which I loved! - ended very weakly, cutting away from the actual conflict resolution in favor of a voiceover summarizing what happened.
I would watch a let’s play of this game. I would play it for the maxed out Launch and Levitate abilities. The lore is fun. It’s just kind of ….suboptimal. Designed for someone who isn’t me.
I would recommend The Secret World for “urban fantasy conspiracy puzzle games which are a mechanical trash fire” and Prey for “paranormal ability immersive sim” as great partners to this game.
You know, I think there's actually a lot of space for a really chill platformer that isn't super in your face with an overwhelming number of unlockables and enemies. I was even kind of enjoying myself. Then I got to the memory puzzles, and I said "huh", but it wasn't overwhelming. Then I got to the timed jumping puzzles and I said "You know what, this is no longer chill for me". I think the lesson here is to know your vibe and stick with it.
Loop Hero (2021)
Much like the premise of this game, I too am occasionally wiped of my memory and thrust into a formless void of endless recurrence.
However, in my unstoppable cycle, I keep buying roguelikes. Surely, this time I will accumulate the knowledge I need. Instead, my true self is revealed - actually, i'm impatient, lazy, and bad with memorizing details - and I am instantly killed, losing all progress and sent back to the beginning of my cycle. Hey, this roguelike has citybuilding elements! This time this will work for me!
Zach, my dear self, let me contribute to your metagame progress. You hate roguelikes, dude. You hate the glacial sense of progression roguelites offer, you hate the frustration of starting over with a clean state after spending hours painstakingly eking out progress, and you definitely hate the wiki-first approach needed to make any serious attempt at victory. It doesn't matter how good the roguelike is. You bounced off of Hades, my guy. It's not the play mechanics, it's not the art style, it's the difficulty and repetition!!! Break free of the samsara!!! Take the materials with you from this run and make 1/19th of the progress needed towards this permanent building awarding +1 to your next decision making roll!
(This game is a work of art and worth the money you pay for it. I just have a difficult relationship with the genre)
Cloud Gardens (2020)
i wanted a relaxing game that wasn't totally thoughtless, and this game mostly filled that need.
but: i gotta say after finishing almost the entire thing, it's a little wacky in practice. i found it hard to read the seed in my hands (especially wheat vs ferns - both are kind of tan, i guess? - or pothos vs monster - both are green???). it's hard to tell when you start a stage the exact moves you need to make to clear it, especially since your upcoming items are hidden. and more than once i got to the end of a stage, ran out of items, sighed and busted out a water cloud for a few minutes to get to 100% because the clear conditions are just not easy to figure out. i'm almost done with the game and i'm still not super confident what it takes. also the music is wholly uninspiring, i was really hoping for chill beats to etc etc etc instead of generic synths.
on the one hand, i basically finished the game, all of this stuff is mostly optional because there's an "unlock everything" button, and there's a creative mode. i didn't suffer any penalties for restarting (besides some kind of drawn out animation times for transitions and seed recharges). i honestly did make some pretty landscapes and chilled out.
on the other hand, this stuff is part of the game, and the majority of what you actually do if you don't engage with it as a pure toybox. it intruded on my chill game vibes. my recommendation is not without its criticisms
PC Building Simulator (2019)
Work simulators are still weird, but it's also weird when you accidentally fall into the rhythm of one. "Ok let me just fix one last client's computer then I'll stop playing" bro?? (I probably would have gotten deeper into this if the interface didn't demand being so tactile - simulate screwing these screws in, simulate plugging these cords in, simulate unplugging these cords - over and over. it was a familiar rhythm, but a time-consuming one that the interface seemed to delight in drawing out rather than making easy for me)
One Step From Eden (2020)
yes mega man battle network had an extremely dope combat system. it also had a plot, and interplay between the physical world and the cyberworld, and neat little things like packing special abilities into a grid, and cameos from characters we still find reasons to care about somehow.
this is a by-the-numbers roguelike with an admittedly dope battle system that unfortunately invites comparisons to a greater game. choose your route on a map. hyper-optimize your deck. weigh every choice like it's the last one you're going to make. repeat x1000 to learn a boss pattern.
it was neat seeing some of the bosses join me after fighting them, but gosh, once again: nothing like pulling out a GUTSMAN card!
sorry bud! i was rooting for you! i just can't stand the roguelike run structure!
god, i wish i could finish this game. it seems like the dream! an urban exploration game about crumbling infrastructure tinged with conspiracy or maybe just urban politics and threaded with some light puzzling.
well, the puzzles weren't so light. i hit the PIPE ROOM and realized that, like, .... oh. this is one of those serious Logic Puzzle games, not one of those "pull this lever, haha you did it, good job" puzzle games. which is too bad, because as we have well established in Zach Lore by now i am tired and impatient all of the time.
The Wild Eternal (2017)
oh no!!! i genuinely wish i was able to connect with this gorgeous, original, thoughtful game. but i had a moment of dread when i missed a jump and lost my compass and spent 20 minutes totally lost. then another moment when i saw a hollow log and my character said "what a good place to hide from a big animal". finally i found a tiger lurking around a corner and he chased me and it turns out this chill atmospheric exploration game is actually very difficult to navigate, very slow, and has mandatory chase sequences. i can't do it, i'm sorry.