AfterStory’s Top 10 Games of 2017

2017 was a meteoric year for gaming, arguably dishing out some of the best titles the medium has seen in decades. Release upon release of exceptionally crafted works of art, 2017 flipped preconceived notions of established franchises, while pushing boundaries of creativity with precariously novel IPs. While 2017 had its fair share of shade –  it further cemented the toxic implementation of loot boxes and microtransactions – 2017 managed to maintain a pristine shine of quality, despite the ever growing culture of filth that has surrounded this beloved medium. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is an unpolished, yet addictive multiplayer experience that rightfully took the world by storm with its heart pounding action and unpredictable encounters. Nier: Automata, while not the underrated masterpiece fans claim it to be, is an exuberant experience with the foundation of a masterpiece, as technical and design limitations hold it back from further greatness. What Remains of Edith Finch is arguably the most diverse and entertaining walking simulator to date, with a sense of gameplay variance that is unprecedented for the notorious genre. ARMS is a surprising gem of local multiplayer goodness, crafting one of the best motion-controlled experiences to date. Seeing the release of two games that effortlessly entered my “favourite games of all-time list” and the copious amount of diversity and quality released throughout this illustrious year, 2017 will forever be remembered as  the best year of the current generation, a personal favourite of mine that continuously exceeded my expectations. Without further ado, below are my favourite games of 2017.

Continue reading “AfterStory’s Top 10 Games of 2017”

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Top 10 Video Games of 2017 (Game of the Year)

Here we are. The big one. Game of the Year.

Naming the best video game to be released in almost any given year is a pretty challenging endeavor – I say ‘almost’ because some years, like 2012, kinda suck in the video game department (I’m sorry, how else can you explain Journey winning so many GotY awards for 2012?). This difficulty is doubled, maybe tripled for a year like 2017. Despite some questionable directions the video game industry went into during the year (I’m looking your way, Battlefront II), when was the last time a year had so many stellar releases beginning right out the gate all the way to the tail end of the year?

Seriously, 2017 was a hell of a year for video games! It was like BOOM! Awesome game! BOOM! Awesome game! BOOM! Awesome game! It was murder on the wallet, but worth every penny.

With such a high watermark of a year now in the history books, the year’s best game must be named. Traditionally, I have acknowledged my top 5 games of the year. But for a year as exceptional to the medium as 2017, I had to up the ante to a full-blown top 10!

The following are the ten games that I feel stood out the most among the many greats of 2017. A number of notable titles barely missed making it on here (PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, for example, snagged my “Best Online Multiplayer” award for its intensity, but it lacks the polish of the ten games I’m listing here). I haven’t reviewed all of the games I’m about to list just yet, but I hope to get around to it. Also, as I always state when making such a list, these are my feelings for the moment, so if I later appear to change preferences to what I list here, that’s not necessarily a contradiction. Opinions change. The only things set in stone here are the top two.

Also of note is that, despite being one of the best games of this (or any other) year, I have exempted Mario Kart 8 Deluxe from this top 10 for the obvious reason that it’s a re-release. Same goes for Crash Bandicoot.

Now with that out of the way, my top 10 favorite video games of 2017!

Continue reading “Top 10 Video Games of 2017 (Game of the Year)”

Video Game Awards 2018: Best Indie Game

Indie video games have come a long way. The late 2000s saw independent developers really start booming, with many a critical darling being released. That trend continues today, though I personally would argue the difference between then and now is that the indie games of today warrant the praise they receive. Abandoning the forced “arthouse” attempts of the late 2000s, indie games have more readily embraced themselves as video games, and have begun to really flourish because of it.

Though 2017 wasn’t quite the highpoint for indie gaming as some other recent years (not every year can boast a Shovel Knight or Undertale), it still provided some stellar indie experiences.

 

Winner: Cuphead

In all honesty, this award was a toss up between Cuphead and Hollow Knight. But in the case of the latter, I have been unable to finish the game, due to my computer crapping out and slowing down whenever I get to a boss fight, so it looks like I need to wait for a new computer or the Switch version to be released before I can play it to its fullest. So it looks like Cuphead wins by default.

With that said, it doesn’t take anything away from Cuphead’s quality. Sure, Cuphead is far from perfect (some of the bosses feel a little cheap, and the run-n-gun platforming stages are non-entities), but what Cuphead does well, it does very well.

Of course, the hand-drawn, 1930s cartoon visuals are what immediately gets your attention and, my god, are they beautiful. But the gameplay is also fine-tuned and addictive, and as difficult as it can get, Cuphead keeps drawing you back in.

It may not be perfect, but Cuphead is a charmer all its own.

 

Runner-up: Hollow Knight

Video Game Awards 2018: Best Visuals

“Wow! Look at that graphic!”

Since the early days of gaming, people have always clamored for the visuals. This has proven to have its drawbacks – as is evidenced by the “Bit Wars” of the 1990s, or the “PC master race” crowd – but there is something to be said about a game that’s just pleasing to look at.

Now, that doesn’t mean “realistic graphics = good graphics” (yet another blinded mindset many gamers follow on the subject), there are plenty of games that we once thought looked realistic that now look laughable. But if a game’s visuals can go above and beyond what they set out to do – whether it’s realism or a fanciful art direction – it can help a game standout and (usually in the case of the latter category) help it hold up over time. It should be a surprise what 2017’s best game to look at was.

 

Winner: Cuphead

I was tempted to simply write “It’s Cuphead lol” and leave it at that, but I suppose I can’t always be the jokester. Some additional description can go a long way.

In all honesty, how much do I really need to say? Just look at any screenshot or (better still) watch some footage of Cuphead, and it’s an utter delight for the eyes. Cuphead sought to replicate the look of 1930s cartoons, and it got the look down pat. The hand-drawn characters and environments are stunning to behold, and watching it all in action showcases a fine attention to detail and visual polish that few games can compete with.

Amidst all of its chaos and mayhem, Cuphead proves to be something beautiful. A testament to the timeless quality of hand-drawn animation, and a reminder that even the most silly and surreal concept can be a work of art.

 

Runner-up: Super Mario Odyssey

Runner-up: Persona 5

The Difficulty Dilemma

Not every game needs to be difficult. I say this because it seems there’s an ever-increasing trend among the video game community that states a game isn’t good unless it kicks the player’s ass, and that any game that doesn’t prove to be crushingly difficult is automatically bad. But frankly, that mentality seems like little more than gamers (once again) putting on an air of pretentiousness based on their skill at a particular game.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good challenge. A high difficulty curve means that there’s a rewarding sense of accomplishment for overcoming it. I’m an immense fan of the Dark Souls/Bloodborne series, largely because of the huge sense of satisfaction you get when you finally manage to find success after various, crushing defeats. But not every game needs to be that challenging in order to be good.

“Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a game where you can’t even die. But it’s also an utter joy.”

To use perhaps the most prominent example of a game not needing to be difficult in order to be good, let’s take a look at Kirby. Kirby games are easy. It’s titular hero is gloriously overpowered – being able to steal a wide array of powers from enemies and being capable of flying over most pits – but Kirby is also a character who’s fun to control, the different abilities make for some varied gameplay, and there are fun little ideas scattered throughout Kirby’s adventures that keep things feeling fresh. I can breeze through most Kirby games, but I also don’t think I’ve ever played a bad one. Sure, not every Kirby game is great, but there’s not a Kirby game that exists that I would describe as a bad game.

The ideas that Kirby manages to pull off work so well because they’re well thought out and executed. Rarely are they ever trying to be difficult, but it doesn’t stop them from being fun or creative.

Now, to go to the other end of the spectrum, being difficult doesn’t always benefit a game. Battletoads on NES – while I ultimately think it’s a fun game – often pulls cheap stunts to make the game more difficult (both players can hurt each other), which only end up detracting from the experience. Simply put, if you have to resort to cheap tricks to make things challenging, well, you’re still resorting to cheap tricks.

“The bee boss in Cuphead has fist missiles that can track you even when they’re off-screen, which is more cumbersome than challenging with everything else going on on the screen.”

I know I’ll get some flak for this, but I think a more recent example of a game that would have benefited from toning down the difficulty just a little bit is Cuphead. Don’t get me wrong, overall I thought Cuphead was a great game (I scored it an 8.0 out of 10), but there were a handful of instances where it just felt like the screen was getting bombarded by distractions. This wasn’t much of a problem with the more “bullet hell” bosses, since your character is on a scrolling stage during those fights. With everything moving at a similar pace, it made the onslaught of on-screen objects less of a problem. But in Cuphead’s more traditional run-and-gun platforming bosses, you could often lose track of your character amidst all the hullaballoo. The boss characters on their own were challenging enough, did Cuphead really need to throw in a bunch of bells and whistles on top of them? It just feels like unnecessary padding.

Still though, it seems many people will still cry foul at a game unless it’s excruciatingly difficult. Some are even trying to write Super Mario Odyssey off as being “too easy” (I take it these people haven’t attempted the post-game content). Sure, Odyssey isn’t the most difficult game out there, but its consistently creative and surprising, and always rewarding the player’s curiosity in ways few games can match. No, Odyssey isn’t all that difficult until the post-game, but it’s brilliant in everything it does attempt.

Compare that to Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (or the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2). It’s a decent game, but it’s arguably the only Mario platformer that doesn’t hold up very well, largely because much of its difficulty consists of challenges that are out of the player’s control. The poisonous mushroom, for example, looks strikingly similar to the super mushroom in the game’s original NES release, so anyone who played the original Super Mario Bros. would of course assume it’s a super mushroom. But nope. It kills you. And that’s just the first level! Later levels have gusts of winds taking Mario off-screen, so players have to focus on the momentum of said wind without seeing Mario on the screen in order to make long-distance jumps.

The Lost Levels isn’t a bad game, but there’s a reason Nintendo hasn’t attempted to replicate its difficulty since then. They learned from it, and realized which elements were difficult but fair, and which ones were just kind of BS.

“Ah, Dark Souls. Difficulty done right!”

Again, I’m not trying to knock difficult games. I adore Dark Souls and Mega Man, and plenty of other games that stomped all over me before I managed to make a dent in them. But I too often hear people complaining that a game isn’t any good because it didn’t throw them around like the Hulk did to Loki at the end of The Avengers. High difficulty doesn’t mean good, and easy doesn’t mean bad. It’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s the execution of a game’s ideas that count. A game could be difficult for all the wrong reasons, while another game could be easy for all the right ones.

Cuphead Review

Cuphead certainly looks unlike any game that came before it, replicating the distinct look of a 1930s cartoon down pat, right down to the grainy picture quality and surrealistic character designs. The music and sounds also have that muffled, “in a tunnel” quality of the slapstick cartoons of the era. Cuphead is brought to life through completely hand-drawn visuals. From its shockingly fluid character sprites to its cel animated backgrounds, Cuphead is a wonder to see in action. It may not be the first game to use hand-drawn visuals, but no video game has earned the right to be called an interactive cartoon quite like Cuphead.

Simply put, Cuphead is on an aesthetic level that’s all its own, and it may be a good number of years before another game showcases a similar level of visual inventiveness.

Of course, all the aesthetic pleasures in the world wouldn’t mean much if the game they contained couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Thankfully, Cuphead is a more than capable gameplay experience, even if its action can’t quite capture the same magic as its eye-popping visuals.

Players take control of Cuphead, an old-timey cartoon figure who – as his name implies – has a cup for a head; while a second player can take control of his brother, Mugman. These two characters live on Inkwell Isle, under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. One day, while Elder Kettle is asleep, the two mischievous brothers sneak into a casino. After at first securing a winning streak, the casino’s owner is revealed to be the Devil, who raises the stakes on Cuphead’s gambling. After Cuphead makes a bad roll, the Devil demands their souls as payment. The brothers plea for another way out of the mess, and the Devil promises he’ll let them go, if they can secure the souls of others who owe the Devil a debt. So Cuphead and Mugman set out to defeat the debtors, and find a way to get out of their contract with the Devil.

It’s a silly plot, but perfectly in tune with the 1930s cartoons that inspired it. People often seem to misremember old cartoons as being more innocent than they actually were. Many old cartoons, even those starring the “squeaky clean” Mickey Mouse, often saw their cute characters go through some extreme circumstances before they learned a lesson, and it’s great to see how Cuphead manages to capture the tone of its inspirations, and that the 1930s cartoon feel doesn’t stop at the visuals.

In regards to gameplay, Cuphead is a run and gun platformer, with a particular emphasis on its boss fights. Cuphead and Mugman can shoot magic from their fingers, and can perform a “parry” action by pressing the jump button against pink objects while in midair. The more damage the heroes do to enemies, the more a special meter builds up in the form of playing cards, with a successful parry automatically achieving a full card. Cuphead can use stronger attacks by using a single card, but if you wait until you have a full five cards, you can unleash a super attack.

Along the adventure, Cuphead can purchase new types of guns (or magic blasts, whatever you want to call them). You can equip two such guns at a time, and can swap between those equipped by the press of a button. Additionally, you can also buy items that provide other benefits, such as additional hitpoints (the standard is three, but you can up it to four or five), or the ability to hit an automatic parry during a jump. To prevent the heroes from becoming overpowered, however, you can only equip one such item at a time.

There are three types of levels in Cuphead: the standard run and gun platforming stages, boss stages, and bullet hell boss stages (differentiated by Cuphead and Mugman piloting an airplane in an autoscrolling level).

The boss fights are the meat of the game, with most stages being gauntlets of either multiple bosses, or individual boss enemies who go through multiple phases. Perhaps most notable is how creative many of these boss fights are. Despite Cuphead’s simplistic gameplay mechanics, the creativity on display with every boss fight makes them constantly surprising, and every last boss is distinct from the others.

On the downside of things, the platforming stages aren’t remotely as fun, and it seems that the developers were well aware of that, seeing as there are only six of them in the entire game. I wouldn’t say these stages are flat-out bad, but they fail to replicate the quality and creativity found in the boss battles, and feel really bland by comparison.

In terms of challenge, Cuphead is as deceptively sinister as the cartoons that inspired it. Its opening tutorial is perhaps the easiest I’ve ever played, but once you step into the actual game, it can get incredibly punishing. Cuphead’s steep difficulty curve means it certainly isn’t a game for everyone. You won’t find any checkpoints in the boss fights or the levels, so if you die, it’s back to the starting line. And some of the bosses are unrelenting in the amount of alternate forms they take and how many projectiles they throw at you at once. Thankfully, as challenging as it is, the difficulty is mostly fair (I only felt there were two boss fights where it seemed like there were a distracting amount of going-on on screen).

The bosses do include a “simple” option where you’ll only face off against their first few phases at the expense of not getting their soul contract and, subsequently, being unable to progress until you try the actual thing (making the simple mode more of a practice mode than anything).

With how painstakingly long it takes to create hand-drawn animation, Cuphead is an understandably short game, with only three “proper” worlds and a fourth world that consists of one particularly lengthy gauntlet and a battle with the Devil himself. But for the most part, Cuphead is a blast while it lasts. The standard stages may be a little bland, but the boss encounters are one delight after another. And in terms of style, Cuphead is second to none.

 

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My Top 5 Games from E3 2015

E3 has come and gone once again. Amidst all the big announcements, awesome games, and presentations that aren’t nearly as bad as people are making them out to be, the event itself, while not without its highlights, was ultimately one of the lesser E3s of recent years. But, even if the show didn’t quite reach greatness, it still gave us a glimpse of some great games. Here are my top 5 games presented at the show…but first, some runners-up! Continue reading “My Top 5 Games from E3 2015”