Saturday, 31 December 2022

Games of the Year 2022

An entire year without posting eh? I'd like to say a lot of exciting things have been happening behind the scenes but actually the cost of living inflation bomb and a constant sequence of national political crises have required a bit more attention than I usually give to making sure my situation stays solvent. It does mean that I have wrapped up a few things and may actually get back into making games over the coming years, as the economic outlook is poor for most but relatively stable for how I have things now set up. At a certain point it would be highly desirable for a few games on Steam to start generating a trickle of income directly back to me, if I can set that up over the next decade.

Outside of wrapping up my old consulting business and managing daily life, I've had some time for games but very little for the more recent AAA productions. The big RPG series I (re)played this year was The Witcher, which I am still in the process of polishing off due to the December release of the latest patch for the third game in the series. Moving onto a (thin) laptop as my primary (low power) work machine due to exploding local electricity prices has also come with a focus on going back to a few recent titles that can do well out of a 3050 via DLSS (just patched into The Witcher 3) or digging into more legacy AAA games. Although you can actually get a surprising amount out of the lowest-end Ampere GPU you're allowed to call a Series 30, especially when using Tensor-accelerated upscaling to boost quality.

Meanwhile, the crypto nonsense around GPU prices has ended but we're still dealing with inflated prices over what you should expect two years after the SRPs were initially set for RDNA2 & Ampere, which shows no sign of being washed away with RDNA3 or Ada, at least in the near-term (and despite huge warehouses of GPUs that are not selling at current prices and are impacting the quarterly results of every GPU vendor). But it's not just GPUs that are in silly season, with the PS5 getting a Sony official price hike rather than a price cut going into the third year on sale. The die shrinks are no longer providing a major reduction in price per transistor and war instability in Europe plus the continued supply-chain issues from the pandemic - I would say we've got to wait for things to get better but at this point it seems like a never-ending chain of problems that are likely to be joined by ever-more-frequent climate shocks and other issues. This could start to feel like a new normal and the 3080 will be the last truly great GPU to wipe away the previous generation (a card that was near impossible to get at launch and almost immediately followed by silly-season street price spikes due to crypto demand). If Intel ever sort out their driver stack (including ensuring popular older games run their best) then maybe something interesting could happen from aggressive competition rather than AMD happy to sit back and merely price-match nVidia with their raster-first RDNA design.

Enough complaining about the world of gaming hardware. At least I recently picked up a 5800X3D for my AM4 desktop so, when I get back from my laptop gaming break, I'll be most likely to drive a new 120Hz 4K OLED display (which I hope someone will announce at CES in a big desk-friendly size but without white sub-pixels) at the maximum refresh rate in a wide range of titles (using VRR to hide any inconsistencies) and jump back into VR. I present, my games of the year 2022:

  Citizen Sleeper

This narrative game lives on the atmosphere it brings to a world that has already seen a major collapse but is now teetering on the edge of an actual fall, as everything that can no longer be advanced finally stops being able to be maintained anywhere near where it was during the golden years. You wake into this world as a cloned consciousness in a company-owned body, escaping the indentured servitude your donor placed you into. It's one of those scifi stories and is very happy to linger on classic questions while wrapping it all in just enough detail and character to feel like a lived-in reality. It's the execution that sells it: the characters you meet and the things they've done and want to achieve as much as your need to keep running and make the most of what time you have left.
The main gameplay system as you move around this large space station is a daily set of six-sided dice that are rolled each morning, depending on the condition of your body the night before, and give you energy to engage in activities during the next day. Maybe a 3 will unlock a specific digital lock you need to decode today or only a 5 or 6 can get you past a check unscathed. All the while, lots of counters are ticking over as the rest of the story progresses forward. You have a decent amount of control over what part of the story you focus on developing next, although all paths will ultimately either reach a natural conclusion point or the end of the road. I never found I was totally on-rails or trapped by the net closing around me, just sufficiently energised to slip through a few moments where it seemed like everything was popping off at once and I couldn't possibly respond with the actions I had allocated each day. Eventually a regression to the mean should mean your pace is rather predictable and so something the gameplay can be tuned around, even assuming the dice rolls are random rather than guided by an invisible narrative hand to keep you where the story wants you to feel you are.

All of the writing and choices you're making throughout this game are backed by some really detailed character portraits and such sleek flat shaded 3D elements that the brutalism seeps from the space station overview back into the story. And the music that underlies everything keeps you in the zone. I was extremely glad to spend a dozen hours in this world, seeing most of the paths the story takes (as when you come to a definitive ending, you can reload back into the game just before you make a pivotal choice about how you are going to try to leave).


What if Pikmin was a 3D platformer? No one had asked this question before and yet the answer is obviously joyous. Rather than only collect the little flower creatures to help blow stuff up and move stuff around your large open zones, what if they could help build you ladders to jump to new heights or build bridges or connect up electrical lines? What if your own mobility was far more exciting and your little helpers were just the boost to get you into the various perfectly crafted puzzle parts of this large vertically interesting world?
This is a world made up of several large connected areas, a tiny person in a very big house where you can collect a lot of different things (don't worry, there is a reasonable "you got most of them, you can move on" goal associated with the real collect-a-thon spam items in each level) as you would in any other 3D platformer but also slowly amass enough of the little critters to power yourself up to climb any gap and cross every barrier as you complete various tasks to ensure the NPCs of each area are happy and their objects have been moved to where they need to go.

The core traversal of this 3D platformer feels just right and all of the puzzles are just engaging enough to be fun to tick off while never leaving you totally stumped. It's good solid level design and movement fundamentals which has clearly been iterated on a lot. I loved early Pikmin games but was feeling like the announced fourth title needed to do more than just rehash that again to get me excited but here is clearly what I was actually waiting for. I'm more of an open world traversal game fan rather than strict inheritors to those early 3D platformers but this really drew me in and got me thinking through how to 100% the levels, despite collecting literally everything not being a requirement to progression or even the primary completion awards. And then it all wraps up with a very cute story and a gloriously animated visual style.


This is the Zelda I am talking about when I say I'm a fan of that series (a conversation I had recently where I realised that the other person had no idea about pre-3D or mobile Zelda and so did not understand what I was referring to) - top-down action RPGs with plenty of exploration. Perfectly recreated here with some pastel flourish and very clean 3D edges, which occasionally comes into the gameplay by allowing hidden paths obscured by the camera angle.
What really elevates this is a dash of Fez making the world slightly more than it appears and injecting some meta-narrative puzzling into the game world, binding you to uncover both the game's story as experienced by the protagonist and the game's story as you uncover the construction of the mythical release of the game you are playing. This mainly, although not exclusively, manifests in uncovering pages of the game manual as you explore the world. These pages are primarily in a made up language you do not ever need to decode (so not exactly like Fez - it is only a drop of essence used) with sparse localised text and plenty of diagrams. These will explain how you play, provide map outlines, and also implies an experience of getting an import RPG back in the day before you could look anything up online and so have to work out how to play and what to do using only the manual, which you could not read. It's a great gimmick for providing hints and letting most of the game tutorialize itself, slowly ensuring you know what's going on and allowing you to dive quite deeply into the game world they've constructed.

This game has been getting hype at conventions for years with early demos available but the final package is more than worth the wait. The clarity of the blooming visuals, the detailed and diverse level designs, the backing music, and the carefully paced progression: it all drives you towards a really nice conclusion. And it got me into the right mood to dive into last year's Death's Door, which shares a couple of mechanical choices and a soft contrast visual style with very clean 3D art.

  Hardspace: Shipbreaker

We're returning to space for this pick and another corporate nightmare where you don't even own your own body, will seemingly never climb out of the debt that has been thrust upon you, and there will be a lot of days of hard work in a spaceyard between you and the conclusion of the game. But unlike my top game this year, this is more of a simulation of a future job with the narrative acting as trimmings around the edge and justification for the gameplay loop, not the core of the game itself.
As the eponymous ship-breaker, your job is to use a cutting laser to either carve through plates or burn away components that make up derelict spaceships. Each of the ship templates that you slowly unlock as the complexity of the game advances can be reconfigured in a number of ways before you get to it and each of those can also have requirement changes depending on your current tasks. But no matter the details, the main task is always to work out how to safely cut the ship into pieces small enough to shove into one of three bins: the metal furnace, the material processor, or the component barge. Everything has a price so trash the least amount of stuff with the laser, don't let too much stuff blow up, and don't mix the three types of material when you yeet them towards one of the bins. Oh, and try not to die in a workplace accident; those clones you're using are expensive and they'll be added to your debt.

This is one of those zen games where you get into the zone and just start doing a fake job for half an hour to relax. "Ah, this is a Type 4. I know how to depressurize the inside of this without anything exploding and the extra airlocks they usually throw onto every side is going to make a lot of money once I've burned through all the locking blocks holding them together!" The use of air pressure and some slightly tricky fuel and computer systems that need to be drained in the right order and with a time pressure ensure that even when you're going zen, there is always a chance of that panic as things are not quite going as well as you expected or a tether didn't actually bind hard enough to pull a big block of metal out the way before you needed to dive through, meaning now you're on fire and no one wants that.

As the story ramps up, there's some good space trucker unionisation talk and a fun conclusion. My only criticism I hope is fixed in a sequel is that there are only so many ship types and variants of those types in the game (and you quickly see everything before the story has time to conclude). As I understand it, the way they design everything into the puzzles that are the atmospheric and fuel systems on top of all the basic physics for making everything a surface you can either cut or blow up means it's impossible for modders to be allowed to make new ships or even just shuffle new variants. Steam Workshop support for a moddable ship builder would turn this from a really fun game you play to completion to one of those forever games where you can throw many hundreds of hours into everything the community have built for you to play around with and puzzle out.

  Against the Storm

This almost made my list last year (I was thinking about both it and Timberborn as my strategy early access picks to throw up before waiting for a 1.0 release). Back then it was in early access on Epic and was already a deeply engaging city builder with a unique twist. Now it is still not quite at 1.0 but has had a year more updates added to the foundations, tuning what was already there and significantly expanding the rest of the mechanics, factions, and art.

In the campaign structure of this game, you are not building a permanent city that will eventually tower over everything around it, slowly consuming all available space. You are just building some temporary settlements with which to extract resources from the local area, send some back to your home capital, and then get out before the conditions get too harsh and eventually the storm arrives and wipes everything away. Between each storm cycle you will usually get in half a dozen settlements of various difficulties, always starting out in a small glade and deciding when to explore into the surrounding glades by chopping down all the trees between you and them. In some of those glades will be hazards that require creature-power and resources to pacify, but if you don't expand then you'll also run through whatever resources you have available.

The way each run of the settlement building process is kept fresh is via a lot of randomisation. Each time your small band of settlers arrive (of several species with different affinities for work and needs to provide for), you only have access to a subset of buildings unlocked. As you complete goals (which are also randomised), you will get to choose between three options to unlock and so extend your construction horizons. Each area has a different subset of resources at play and each glade within the area will only have a couple of them on offer. Some of the Anno-style recipe chains will have alternative formulations that mean missing out on one resource is never the end of the road but if you can't find anything or a range of resources then you need to look at going in another direction.

When you complete your goals and return to the capital, you then use resources gathered in the settlement to permanently unlock new perks and create a meta-progression, ensuring that even if the conditions and randomisation repeat eventually, you'll be at a different stage in your campaign progression and so respond differently. If you play Anno games or any of the Banished-following indie settlement titles, this is very refreshing but also just similar enough that you know quite a bit of how the game needs to work so you're rarely lost.

  Two Point Campus

Two Point Hospital released in 2018 and, despite absolutely loving Theme Hospital back in 1997, something about the crash-prone experience I had and bits of the fit and finish of the game never quite let me love it. But the sequel, going to a series of campus maps to ask that you balance the books while building out huge institutions of learning, felt a lot more solid to me so I had a blast.
There is also some very useful cadence in the academic year, where a lot of the virtual people you need to satisfy are only going to be around for a few years. This contrasts with the patients in a hospital whose stay time should typically be rather shorter. Build out facilities, achieve goals, improve grades, and get ready for the next intake that you can probably make larger for a greater tuition and rent contribution as long as you're making sure to expand facilities so everyone can be housed and taught. It's a simple foundation (coming as a spiritual successor to games I was playing literally 25 years ago) but the formula still works.

  Opus: Echo of Starsong - Full Bloom Edition

This was a game I knew absolutely nothing about going into it. An RPG (advertised as a "visual novel style adventure game") out of Taiwan with a series that apparently goes back two previous games to 2015. Continuing a recurring theme, we are back in space and in a period of somewhat managed decline after a major war, where corporations are busy ensuring the exploitation of the resources available but with some of the more advanced technology being lost to the current inhabitants.
But rather than the influences of the previous games with this broad outline, this is a lot more like swashbuckling JRPGs like Skies of Arcadia. We have witches and mystical events and space pirates messing everything up for everyone involved. People fall in love, make mistakes, and have great battles as the game, played entirely in flashback, jumps through several pivotal moments for the core characters. The side-scrolling action sections mean there is more here than the very text-heavy choice prompts of Citizen Sleeper (which is most similar to the space exploration sections) but even in the more action-heavy moments it's certainly not going to get confused for a fully open exploration RPG or a mechanics-heavy simulation like Hardspace: Shipbreaker.

The entire thing lives or dies on your tolerance for the rather heightened emotional storytelling of typical JRPGs, which it clearly derives a lot from (even some of the sparse visuals can often feel like they're pointing back towards a previous style of simplistic shapes evoking detail that couldn't be rendered at the time - although looking through how many games are using a similar style on my list this year, it is clearly a production style favoured by indies in the now). This 2022 definitive edition with additional content is helped by the new voice work that provides a lot of dialogue with the emotional notes that a text-only version would lack. I suspect it won't be for everyone but I really appreciated the brisk 10 hours and hope the studio continue to grow their budget and production values for future releases.

  Dwarf Fortress

The original colony sim. Well, at least the template on which everything has built in the last 20 years it has been around. If you like RimWorld or games of that sort, you should at least try the original. This new Steam release is still not as forgiving as the imitations but you do at least get an official readable tile-set (not ASCII art), a tutorial, and some menu updates. If this game is for you, you probably already know.

  Last Call BBS

Zachtronics' swansong (although it sounds like the band might be getting back together anyway as Zach Barth didn't take to an alternative career in education so may be starting a new team) wrapped around themes played with in several previous titles (you dial into a retro server to download some illicit software titles - they are actually a set of games that explore the sorts of things previous games have, so expect lots of iterating on designs then looking at histograms telling you that actually you could have achieved that result with one less component or in two cycles less per iteration).
It might be a good grab-bag to get introduced to a lot of the gameplay mechanics seen in previous games but maybe the light introduction text to each title and short tutorial onramp of puzzle difficulty means this is more for existing fans to play around with (despite only appearing on my GotY list once before, I generally hold the majority of Zachtronics titles in high regard) while previous titles are the best place to start off?

  Ghost Song

An indie Metroid-style game that's certainly hewing closer to that model than Ori did while simultaneously walking towards the same emotional notes that that series is adding, along with more NPC engagement. The early parts of the game, as I explored the non-linear map and felt out the various hard gates on progress every Metroid-style game uses to direct progress, seemed rather punishing and lacked a difficulty change option. But as I unlocked better mobility options and new tools in my arsenal, I found the game had a lot to offer. I just wish it was better signposted early on which ways you may want to explore to find the upgrades that would mean most to your play style.

As I said upon completion, I really wish the boss battles integrated the weapon unlock soft-requirements better into the narrative of the game and also boosted the rest of the story-telling the game clearly wants to get involved in. This is a game that could do great things with some added content and a final pass on the good stuff that is here. It was teetering on the edge of my GotY vs coming in the listings below but looking back after a month, I think it hangs with the rest of these titles in my personal estimation, even if the critical consensus did seem a bit mixed in the few outlets which actually considered it notable enough to review at all.

  Not Making the Top List 2022:

Signalis - This is a retro tech-horror game going hard on that theme but without forcing horrible tank controls (I cannot embrace that retro convention - it's just a frustration; if the character should be slow to turn/move then encode that into their maximum turning speed to create delay between me pointing where I want to go and them executing it, don't force me to use tank controls). And it had some really great atmosphere in that opening couple of hours, richly mining influences beyond just gaming. As soon as it released, some friends were talking about it as their top game of the year (I think Citizen Sleeper would be hard to push off my list, especially given the common scifi themes). They know I'm into a lot of these games.

But I can't get past that aliased flickering mess every time the camera moves. I'm not "looking between the pixels to craft a horror unseen", I'm just getting depressed that the vibes don't match the technical execution. And this is clearly intentional. They wanted this low res retro aesthetic that evokes early games, not quite PlayStation 1 but maybe a PC a year earlier with software rendering doing the absolute most. There is a scene early on where you're at the top of a large hole into the earth and around the snow-white scene there is a dark pattern denoting the edge of the hole. Only the pixel aliasing is so bad that when the camera pans over the hole, it resembles a pure random noise pattern rather than an authored texture implying consistent defined shape. Almost immediately after this, during a more significant cut-scene, the game uses a (full output resolution) perfectly clean depth of field blur effect (on top of this pixelated aliased 360p rendering) so they're not even actually sticking to the limitations of the low res pixel grid.

I find it a shame that the CRT filter is not enabled by default, because that clearly improves things a bit (especially if you're running it on a nice small 4K monitor so that Trinitron emulation can run some very fine R G B vertical lines through the final result). Unfortunately even this is marred with a flaw I found almost fatal while trying to play in the classic horror settings - night, alone, lights off, sound up, enjoying the perfect inky blacks of an OLED. Some of the noise added in the CRT filter squashes the blacks and whites, destroying pure black OLED output (adding noise compresses the dynamic range unless you carefully account for it, because you can only add noise in one direction to pure white or black - pushing them towards mid-grey).

Immortality - Her Story was a runner-up in my list for 2015 and since then, I don't think any of these games have managed to recapture the same novelty and focus of that game. It has started to feel like the only trick they've got to put forward and while this isn't literally repeating the same mechanic of database searches that was reused in Telling Lies, the ability to click on objects in frozen frames of the footage is a step back in my opinion. The search process for uncovering new snippets of footage is now more random (especially how the linking between frames has been chosen here, with more adventure game "logic" binding between some of them than the well-crafted database keyword lists of previous titles).

I got a couple of hours into unlocking footage and so I did not uncover all secrets and know when I'm satisfied but a lot of the themes it seemed to be touching on didn't draw me. While the productions of era content may have been well processed to give archival quality, I think they reached too far with the FMV production itself in trying to make hours of footage from three theoretical movies plus auxiliary content to the point where stuff looked kinda bad in ways that did not seem to be in-line with the intentional aesthetic of cheap old movies. I think a better gameplay hook would have helped push me through that to unlock the actual meaning behind the clips but it would still have been hard for me to love this threequel that some clearly absolutely love.

Weird West - I need to give this game more time but this was not what I expected from the team who moved on after making Arkane (Dishonored) games. The world seems like something it could be fun to learn more about but the top down gameplay did not have anything about the kinetic focus of the stealth from Arkane games which I find so compelling.

A Memoir Blue - I liked this well enough but in a year with a lot of indie titles doing a lot, this didn't quite do enough for me. A biographical exploration story with some quite clear budgetary limitations on the fidelity of the rendering, I feel like this has become a very saturated genre with lots of titles published by this new tier of prestige indie publishers (who do a lot of deals to get these games onto subscription services like PS+, GamePass, etc).

Chorus/Chorvs - Really glad that space combat sim games from the original Wing Commander to Descent: Freespace 2 happened during my childhood, where I absolutely loved every second of them. From the freeform movement and combat to the amazing space nebula vistas, from the hammy sci-fi acting to the rather more interesting underlying narratives being strung together to create reasons for several mission archetypes. Because trying to get into this game, I was completely lost to if this was just a bad game or if I'd lost my tastes for the entire genre. Given how friends have reacted to this and how I've not found a space sim to get my teeth into for literally years and years, I suspect it is simply a genre I can no longer get enthused about (insert pithy comment about how I'll likely feel about the eventual Star Citizen: Squadron 42 solo campaign that I paid for back in 2012).

As Dusk Falls - Not sure if the unusual visual style of mixing static animation frames from FMV into 3D rendered scenes, which is what caused everyone to take notice the second a trailer for this arrived, actually does a lot for me. It's certainly a way of conveying emotion from the actors in a fast effective method over the top of the audio performances but when we have stuff like The Callisto Protocol and The Quarry showing what digitising actors can do in current engines, I'm not sure about this throwback with clearly high production values. Didn't get far enough into the story to know if it goes anywhere interesting.

Norco - Maybe I come back to this in a few years and love it but nothing about that first hour or two hooked me visually or narratively. Another game some are very much loving so worth trying for yourself.

Trek to Yomi - This game seemed fun for the few hours I played it and has a lot of style. The budget limits come through in some of the animations but the post-processing is excellent from a team who have been really able to do stuff with their tech for years (Hard Reset from 2011 still sticks with me as interesting indie rendering choices).

I missed them last year but really enjoyed this year - Death's Door; Boyfriend Dungeon; Omno; Life Is Strange: True Colors; Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy; Road 96.

List of 'Best on PS5' [Coming to PC Later?] games when PS5 is more expensive than last year so definitely not hardware I'm buying yet - Horizon 2: Forbidden West; God of War: Ragnarok; Gran Turismo 7.

To play, hopefully with a new well-priced GPU, in 2023 - Pentiment; A Plague Tale: Requiem; Terra Invicta; Syberia: The World Before; Total Warhammer III; Return to Monkey Island; Somerville; Expeditions: Rome; Scorn; Elden Ring; Stray; Marvel's Midnight Suns; The Callisto Protocol; Dying Light 2; Evil West; The Last of Us Part I; The Quarry & The Devil In Me; Hard West II; CoD: MWII (the second, not the remake or the first MW2).