Sunday 31 December 2023

Games of the Year 2023

For those of us who work in the tech / game dev sector, it's been a brutal year of layoffs and companies falling over (which possibly potends thousands more job losses to come soon). For those of us playing games, there has been something for just about everyone and a lot of huge AAA releases that missed their original dates arriving all at once. Not all of them great but we'll get into that in my round-up of the new games I found notable in 2023.

So without further ado, let's look at the twelfth annual rundown of games I wanted to talk about during award season.

Alan Wake 2

With a path-traced renderer on PC fed via a skinned meshlet geometry system that extends all the way to foliage sway, this is arguably the very state of the art in real-time rendering. Nothing matches the DLSS 3.5 ray-reconstructed version of Bright Falls and the less solidly existent locations you visit in Alan Wake 2. Before we even consider how the elements of filmed acted footage (which we once called FMV) are layered on top of the scene in a notable step up from the use of that technique in Control.
Remedy have grown a lot since the original Alan Wake was an attempt to make an open world action game riffing on horror elements you might find in the writing of Stephen King (in the same way the Max Payne games have a clear reference point; or even a game from Rockstar, who own the rights to Max Payne). A game long-delayed that ended up stripping the experience back to linear sections, including some rather long driving sequences that clearly would have felt somewhat different in a much more open game. They return thirteen years later as a far more confident studio, with Control DLC acting as a soft pilot for Alan Wake 2 and the establishment of a shared world for the games they still have the rights for (while Max Payne morphs somewhat to become Alex Casey).

The result is a game that iterates on the strengths of Control's narrative while moving away from a focus on combat and into the real survival horror genre. You will shoot things (after burning away their shield of darkness) here but that is not what you spend most of your time doing. A lot more time is spent between combat in puzzles and navigation. The themes of Alan Wake return, but covered as if that first game was only a rough draft and the scope of conversation grows from Twin Peaks to encompass a lot more modern prestige TV. Unfortunately it's a game where I think the less you know going in beyond basic genre convention, the better, so that's all you'll get from me. It's a gripping ride even outside of the world-leading technical and artistic talent on show, even if I'm one of the few people who doesn't love all of their facial animation work (I thought it was budget limitations but apparently this game was definitely AAA so maybe it's an artistic choice).

Baldur's Gate 3

Another studio who are on my list of recent big hitters built on a long relationship to their complete body of work. I remember going to a publisher's regional offices for some press event for Divine Divinity, the rather "we would also like to make some Infinity Engine WRPGs please" origin of Larian's own universe. That series really found their own in the Divinity: Original Sin games, with the first one being a very funny RPG that gets what fantasy can play with while the second game ramps up the emotional weight of the stories they tackled. Some of the best RPGing this decade, at least once patched up for their complete editions (which is why you've only seen them mentioned in passing in these GotY lists before - I was late to the party).

And, after asking the licence holder for a go at making their own DnD RPG, possibly even taking over one of the classic WRPG series, Larian finally used those Original Sin games to persuade Hasbro to lend them Baldur's Gate. Six years of development later, half of which included the public Early Access release of the first act, and it's finally here and winning GotY awards left and right. A digital version of 5th Edition rules where Larian have tried to account for a lot of player action permutations and respond, "yes, and…"

What results is one of the deepest RPG campaigns you can walk through without the assistance of an actual human GM able to spin out new content on the fly. You cannot do everything but the Original Sin penchant for letting you teleport or physics-sim your way through various encounters has been expanded in every way imaginable here. It's a 100 hour RPG that is more than enough to satisfy a craving for epic tales filled with interesting characters but it's also so varied that you will come back to this several times to feel out the variety of what might be, all backed by combat that is a tactical delight.

Lies of P

I went into this game (well, the demo of the first area they released early) not expecting much. How many FromSoft-like titles have we seen trying to be a new Bloodborne or Dark Souls without latching onto what makes some of those games special? And yet, despite the extremely stock Unreal Engine 4 technical construction, what has resulted is both a very accomplished game in that sub-genre with their own spin on lore combined with by far the most technically solid gameplay experience you could want.
While it may be doing nothing unusual beyond the stock UE4 toolkit, the game is competently put together so you will be able to enjoy a very high and stable framerate while the camera doesn't destroy itself on nearby geometry (so leading you to death - my great complaint about Bloodborne, even if you fixed the frankly unacceptable framerate). When available, I play FromSoft titles on PC and like them for the WRPG-inspired games they are but it's rare you get a particularly great PC port, but here we have a game that just works on every platform.

In a very broad retelling of Pinocchio in a future late-Victorian setting (it's not steampunk but the automatons are there you might associate with that), you must carve your way through a hub and spokes world where shortcuts inside each spoke are regularly unlocked as you progress and xp is not permanently lost when you die (as happens in games that force you back to an earlier save) but rather is dropped for you to chase back to (yes, it's very one of those games). The story keeps you going (with a light smattering of side content and barely explained quest chains), the level design really knows what it's doing, and all the upgrades and equipment unlocks feed into a nice character progression. A very satisfying experience.

Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name

Finally, we got a Like a Dragon / Yakuza game onto the main list again. Of all the game I've played, going all the way back to my Japanese import copies of the first two games on PS2, this is the most condensed. An action DLC to the turn-based game of Like a Dragon (7) that grew out into a standalone product. This tells the story of how Kiryu got from the end of 6, into that section in 7, and is set up for how he will return in 8 (releasing early 2024).
If you're remembering how this series works (releasing something new most years ever since 2005), you will be unsurprised to hear that we have a lot of reuse of the city block areas already established (as this happens broadly simultaneously with 7) with a brand new set of mechanics to keep you playing through a new story filled with characters old and new. Your new best friend, Akame, almost steals the show but there's a lot of good stuff to go around (nod to Hanawa as another great new character).

With everything being slightly more compact than in previous entries (even the previous entries that were relatively shorter and avoided multiple protagonists), it's easy to run through this and get a feel for the sort of humour and story-telling this series is known for. It's possibly not an easy point to jump into the story compared to Zero but I do wonder if someone could muddle through here and then dive back into the archive. There isn't anything radically different if you haven't enjoyed the series before but if you want more Like a Dragon, this is great.


From the very first trailer, the hook was obvious: each marble is an entire world you can enter and move around in. Find the suitable pool and put a marble on the platform and you can jump inside. Or just use a marble as a weight to activate a switch or use the color-coded ability it has, like revealing hidden platforms. While you're inside a world, another type of jump-pad will help you get back out to that pool. But with every world being a complete area in itself, you can likely also find another pool within the marble world, and if you still have another marble on you, you can keep jumping deeper.
The striking visuals, economical while avoiding falling into the "pastel indie" aesthetic that it would seem close to, carve out very different worlds inside each type or marble, ensuring you don't get too lost. Although some of the fun is unwrapping exactly what you need to do next to progress - like many puzzle games you can look at what is available to you and understand why every single element is where it is and so what you are intended to do next. It's all very clear with an incremental pace of introducing new elements that slowly build up. Between various sections you also have to fight slightly more action-focused boss battles, although they are still within the puzzle limits and so will not be overly demanding on precision movement.

Short, well paced, visually interesting, and always ready to give praise for solving the puzzles.

Resident Evil 4 (2023)

I actually prepared for this remake by doing another deep dive into this series (I just didn't blog about it, unlike some previous series replays). From Zero to RE6 (my first time playing that last game - it's far too long rather than actually being so much worse than RE5), using HD or REmake editions along the way and including both Revelations games. Most of the games being rather short (when you know what you're doing) makes it easily doable, and my appreciation for RE3make has grown with time, even if I stand by my original position that it could have been great with more direction in updating it. The second port (by QLOC) of Resident Evil 4 to PC (with community mods to bring it further into line with the GC original while retaining "HD" textures) is my preferred way to play the original, a game I didn't think looked good on the PS2 port or played well until the Wii controls.
With Resident Evil 4 fresh in my memory, static lighting (if any, in some scenes; which can feel like it's nothing but a flat ambient component and maybe the vertex lighting of your flashlight) and all, I dived into RE4make to find another excellent update of a classic. The visuals, once patched, are going past what RE3make did with only a few areas where I wish they'd go further (RE Engine doesn't really make good use of ray-tracing, and SSR is, when used, about as bad as it can look to create detailed glossy reflections). This is a retelling of the classic campaign and DLC Ada journey, done somewhat less overtly campy and yet still very much not playing it straight.

A major departure is making the combat almost feel modern. Rather than having to plant your feet to aim, giving the game a very measured cautious movement, the RE4make pushes you to be nimble on your feet and really switch up from melee to range to avoidance. This is divisive but I maintain that Resident Evil 4 was always more of an action game than pure survival horror so given how far they went making RE3make into an action game, this change was to be expected. It just means we get a brand new game that feels totally different to play than the original - more games is betterer. And this game is excellent on its own terms.

  Honourable mentions:


Interesting choice to push UE5's very high geometric density (with amazing LoD transitions) and advanced global illumination in a world almost devoid of textures, outside of some artistic flourishes and broad gradients. This climbing game is a great vertical exploration journey; a real mood.

Atomic Heart

Soviet Bioshock. It's been a long time since we last saw an actual Bioshock game and I'm happy for others to give it a new spin while we wait for 2K to reboot the series under new hands and also wait forever for whatever Levine is up to. We are talking all the way to a lighthouse appearing towards the end of the game so the references cannot get much more direct.

What I really like about this spin is they pushed for an open-world approach to the overworld hub in a way that goes beyond the connected spaces seen in the Bioshock games. Then you have the mix of puzzles, superpowers, and guns to keep you moving forward and exploring every inch of the constrained mission sections and overworld. Apparently the English voice tracks aren't great, but I recommend you play in the original language as you'll be reading a lot of soviet style posters with subtitles anyway.

System Shock (2023)

It's been a good decade for remakes and they're not slowing down. This rebuilding of the very hard to play System Shock 1 manages to update what absolutely needs it while also not touching a lot that could have been sanded away by a more thorough remake. At worst, this makes it interesting and at best it elevates the source material to a new level. Going through development Hell, this project has taken a very long time to finally find where it wants to land on remaking vs replacing and, just like the retro-future visuals, it decides that actually it wants to both be very modern (with every UE4 effect you have come to expect) while also being a pixelated blocky world with lower texel density than most games and a very clear style to that choice. Luckily, it all works and makes a System Shock you can play in 2023 without hating the interface, something no mod or update before has totally managed.

Planet of Lana

Referencing Another World, this is a side-scrolling setting where nothing quite makes sense but you're going to unravel some mysteries and do it via a lot of puzzling in a brisk and quite visually pleasing little puzzle platformer. We've had a lot of that in the last 15 years (did this current push start with Limbo or is Braid a better start date?) but this one knows how to run an evocative text-less story without looking like a copy of a copy.

RoboCop: Rogue City

This came out of nowhere. A licensed game from a developer who does that kind of work, only this time someone has clearly been playing some of those first-person RPGs before detailing out the semi-open gameplay they wanted to build into each hub area. I'm actually going to reference back to Deus Ex here as a grimy world where you get a main mission but are also expected to walk through a lot of hub areas and discover a lot more to keep you occupied between finding somewhat more linear mission sections. On top of the very solid gameplay, the world they've built in Unreal Engine 5 uses all the new tricks in the toolbox to lavish destructible detail into every corner, just don't look too closely at the animating faces as the budget only goes so far.


What a lovely little game about immigrant families, cooking, and finding how to belong. There is a bit of freeform cooking, where you are not under any real time pressure but just have to play with the ingredients to work out the correct recipe (if you're not already familiar with these dishes) but most of this game is about enjoying where the story goes as a young family grow up and deal with the challenges of moving half way around the world.

Persona 5 Tactica

I finally played the Royal expansion to Persona 5 this year (given the original game was 90 hours and the expansion requires a full replay of all that content and a new conclusion, it was always going to be some years before I got to this) so the story was fresh in my mind as I dived into this tactics spin-off, sorta set towards the later parts of that main game (but really, they don't do a lot to justify how this would actually have all crammed into that time period so it would almost be better to think of it as an alternative fork for those characters you know so well).

The translation of the turn-based RPG into a grid-based tactics title works well, with a lot of movement freedom and move chains to build puzzles out of (the campaign mixes more standard missions with side puzzle encounters). But what you're all really here for is teens being put through the emotional wringer while asking questions about how we deserve to be governed and how those in charge are all trash. And, like many other Persona side-story content, this one really hits the mark. So if you want to go back to the Phantom Thieves and spend a few more hours with them, you can't do better than this.

The Expanse: A Telltale Series

I love the show, the books, the cast, and I'm pretty happy with what Deck Nine have been putting out in recent years (Life is Strange stories where the queer subtext is text). So I was really happy to see this manage to tell a decent short back-story using enough of the original cast to get you into the mood (I assume Jared Harris, after Chernobyl, Foundation, etc is a rather expensive casting and so why they had to use a different actor).

Steamworld Build

Above the ground you're playing a quite simple Anno-like, building up production chains from raw material to designer goods to keep your population happy and allow you to upgrade their buildings and access new tiers of workers and products. Under the ground, this game offers a mining game (not totally unlike a Dungeon Keeper) with all the combat with critters reserved for subterranean levels (rather than the open seas of Anno). There's not a lot here but if you want an indie Anno without the multiplayer, then this will satisfy your urges.

Beacon Pines (2022)

If I'd played this last year when it came out, it would have ranked highly on my top list. I managed to hoover it up this year and what an absolutely delightful tale, told via a branching path in which you eventually explore all paths to fill in the full story.

Chained Echoes (2022)

As with the above, this would have ranked highly if I'd played it in the launch year so I'm making sure to give it some credit with the honourable mentions. This is a large 16-bit style JRPG with just as much to say about what people should be worrying about in the fake middle ages filled with magic and war. The combat system (on foot and in flying mechs) and levelling systems are quite fresh, to hold it all together.

  Not making my top lists (despite personal anticipation or being a big hit with others):

Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom - I said what I said. Adding 2015's Besiege (or a dozen other indie games that have been doing this for years) to BotW hasn't improved my views on the new series significantly.

Any of the big Microsoft titles for 2023 - The Forza Motorsport (2023) reboot really tested my patience in working out what was up with the settings menu and why I was getting such an inconsistent result from the in-game benchmark run-to-run, and this is before we discuss the broken progression system that locked car tweaking behind several hours of play despite some cars needing upgrades in a very different order to others; Starfield has basically nothing to get me going, from a settings menu missing basic options like calibrating the brightness from the broken mess it shipped with (unable, in most scenes, to generate values under 1 nit) to a thousand fractured open zones with nothing to do in them and so mandatory fast-travel for most movement around the universe; and Redfall… well, what a mess. Studios whose work I have very much enjoyed in the past but even looking past technical issues galore, these do not seem like solid foundations on which to build experiences for me.

Metroid Prime: Remastered - Somehow the new assets didn't hit as hard with me after all these years because I've been playing all the community updated versions of my original copies with proper mouse-look and so on. Contrast this to how RE4make reinvents the entire game. Maybe this is a me problem, but the community have shepherded this series far better than Nintendo have and this remastering of the game with new assets doesn't quite rank putting into a list above.

Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty - It just didn't hit with me; negative enthusiasm from hour one. I might go back round to this in 2024 and give it another go but it didn't immediately grab me (I'll pencil it in on one of my lists at the end of these articles).
Dead Space (2023) - This remake almost made it to the list above, despite some very funky technical issues (Vanishing keycards? Broken textures?) and lack of ongoing support for PC but in the end, I didn't play enough of it to put it on the list above because I kept stopping with the thought that maybe everything would be fixed in subsequent patches. This is an issue I've had with quite a few major games this year on PC (which is becoming my only current gaming platform as I have neither current-gen consoles [expected to outlast a new console launch in 2024] nor a current phone [Snapdragon 845 was great in 2018 but it's been some years now]). The atmosphere of this remake almost overcomes all of the above and yet… what if they'd used RT (or a SDF fallback, a la Lumen in UE5) for the reflections to remove all the grainy noise on metal surfaces or did some GI to get a touch of bounce lighting into those dark crevices rather than rendering them in Doom 3 black?

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor - Is this going to get fixed (on PC, where animations do not play back correctly)? How did they release the second game with as many bugs and issues as the first game (which was only really fixed by a next-gen port to what are now the current consoles)? I feel like if you, months after release, have to rip the entire RT rendering system out of your 60fps mode on current gen consoles to try to recover a stable framerate, something went very wrong in the management of this software project. And the first game was all about loving what was being offered here despite the technical issues so why was this game so much more ambitious when they clearly couldn't manage that jump within the budget. I'd love to hear the story of who meddled in this to cause this outcome (which really is tarring the reputation of Respawn as a more reliable pair of hands within EA - who within EA is left because you'll notice it's been a very very long time since I could mention BioWare on these year-end roundups).
Wild Hearts - Another EA published title that didn't seem to launch well on PC. Show me a sixty second stretch of gameplay and I'll show you 100ms stutters. At least the Dead Space traversal stutter as it loads new areas is somewhat predictable (now they patched out several other launch issues). This is apparently a fun Monster Hunter like and yet I'm unlikely to ever find out for myself if they don't patch this on PC.

The Lamplighters League - Oooft! Didn't launch well so look again in 2024? But it doesn't sound great given that HBS was put up for sale by the publisher immediately after launch. Paradox have somehow squandered the FASA Interactive linenage and a team hot off a trilogy of great Shadowrun RPGs and the amazing Battletech game. Apparently they slashed up to 80% of the staff months before this game was released so it went through final polish on a skeleton crew.

Cities: Skylines 2 - A trash fire launch again courtesy of Paradox publishing. My experience was a totally busted settings menu where you had to fight to get anything close to a playable game, despite quite poor visuals. Once you got into the actual simulation, major sections seemed totally broken, like garbage not working at all, an infinite thirst just for low density housing (that would instantly fill to create endless sprawl yet no demand for jobs or shopping opportunities), and some ratios that seemed to mean I would need about 5% of my total city areas dedicated to primary schools. And this was telegraphed by them saying it was releasing rather hot in the run up to launch yet not flagging this release with the Early Access badge (that normally means you're not going to charge for DLC for a while).

Forspoken - I don't think anyone was really going to bat for this in GotY lists (and the demo deflated what enthusiasm I'd previously had) but I wanted to round out the list of games where the dev's previous work was something I enjoyed greatly and was a total flop. Given the studio has been dismantled and now does support work for other teams, I assume they're never going to give it a more fundamental rework to try and find the fun inside.

  Didn't play enough of to comment:

I made it through most of my to-play list from last year, but wanted to note one title that I managed to fail miserably to actually follow-through with and didn't even get far enough to put it on the list above as a pencilled in "miss"...

Return to Monkey Island (2022) - I replayed through both (1 and 2) special editions in this series, which hold up quite well and look good, and 3 (Curse), which isn't as to my tastes but is still by far the most visually striking the series has ever been. Then I played the opening scene of this (6; Return), that starts the second after the ending I don't really care for in Monkey Island 2 and failed to go back. I should fix that in 2024 and give it a real chance rather than leaving my replay hanging [I really can't stand the visuals of 4 (Escape) and could never get into Tales - better to just pretend they don't exist; so it was a smart move to not set the new game at the very end of the series].

Seas of Stars - I played Chained Echoes for my 16-bit RPG fix in the later part of this year so didn't get round to playing much of this. But I am looking forward to diving into this in 2024, if it's half as good as Chained Echoes at mining what's timeless about those old games.
Need to play more of in 2024: Deliver Us Mars; Hi-Fi Rush; Amnesia: the Bunker; Pikmin 4; Terra Nil; Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon; The Crew: Motorfest; Dredge; Remnant II; Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus and Butterfly; The Last Case of Benedict Fox; The Talos Principle 2; Viewfinder; Dune: Spice Wars; Thirsty Suitors; Phantom Brigade; Humanity; Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty; Like a Dragon: Ishin!

Didn't even get to start in 2023: The Exit 8; Assassin's Creed: Mirage; Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader; Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty; Goodbye Volcano High; Atlas Fallen; Slime Rancher 2; Dead Island 2; Immortals of Aveum; Chants Of Sennaar; Lords of the Fallen (2023 rather than same title in 2014); Company of Heroes 3; Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew; Bomb Rush Cyberfunk; Super Mario RPG (releasing for the first time in Europe); El Paso, Elsewhere; Total War: Pharaoh; dotAGE; and Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.

No PS5 list (and at this point in the perf vs upgrading my PC scale, I can't see it happening until they really slash the price - a $550 4070 made a lot more sense this year to let me play games looking their best vs a PS5 or Series X, which is exactly the upgrade I made): Final Fantasy XVI; Spiders-Man 2; and anything PS VR2 related. [At least outside VR, these should be coming to PC sooner or later.]

Thursday 30 November 2023

The Long 2017 with Zelda (TotK reviewed)

2017 was a big year for games and next month I'll give you my GotY rundown on another year that included a huge open-world Zelda game and the next entry in the Forza Motorsport series (games: they can take a while to bake nowadays). But, given it took quite a space to dig into why Zelda: Breath of the Wild wasn't going to come close to making my list of top games, despite being at the very top of so many best-of lists in 2017, I thought I'd break out the Tears of the Kingdom talk into another post entirely.

You can play as a girl?

And here we start with the great calamity: while BotW was disappointing in how it becomes the solo story of Link the Twink, we come back six years later to find that the intro does a great job of setting up the new big bad and a pair of plucky adventurers. But that's it, sorry. Zelda is now a pre-rendered cut-scene character (excluding some illusions/misdirection) for the rest of the game. And the real killer to my enthusiasm was the narrative payload of 18 pre-rendered videos pointed towards a much better story than is in any of these open world Zelda games. I want to play that game! I want those scenes to be part of my deep RPG progression. Half of the cast of characters you "meet" in this game are in a totally different game you get to see in a handful of video files from that other game about Zelda fighting the original big bad in his origin story or in ghostly form, to explain the plot to you.

I was repeatedly reminded of The Witcher 3 (which I replayed recently) where you do get to play as Ciri, because this is her story even if anchored to the conclusion of Geralt's trilogy. That we see so little engaging story in TotK, despite some clear effort to make areas of the world evolve as the story progresses (as the sequel reforms the world anew), is disappointing. And not just a single moment of crushing realisation. I went through the tutorial and expected to find Zelda at some point, which then becomes the entire central thrust of the mainline quests. "Surely it's more than just some unlockable video files? Surely this isn't a 100 hour RPG constantly saying the princess is in another castle?" Then, by about the midpoint of the main quest, you realise the full extent of the plot design and realise that Zelda is gone and will just be some videos from long ago. Barring the obvious very last scene, where the narrative weight of decisions in that other game (you only see in videos or text entries) is undone by the magic of storytelling for children.

A game written for children

Because this game is written for children, old enough to read (as very little of it is voiced dialogue, feeling like a throwback to earlier times, especially given how well BotW sold and so the unlimited budget they should have had to make this game) but certainly not written for a teen audience. Nothing makes it into the script that will be too much for a twelve year old. Nintendo knows who they're making these games for, even if many critics who obsess over these titles are in their 30s to 40s and love to reference classic games much older than most of the primary audience when making comparisons.

Every time I read over another line, I couldn't help but notice the word choice, the repetition, and the focus on guidance. For a game all about the freedom to explore anything, it sure is worried you're not going to understand any concept that a dozen other titles have taught anyone who has been playing games for a while. That you need the most plain, simple language and cartoon comedy to keep you clapping. I'm quite old at this point, but I can at least enjoy some good all-ages (especially queer-friendly, which we didn't get much of when I was that age) content into the teen angst (who doesn't like to look back on a misspent youth?) of "young-adult" fiction. But I get almost nothing from this - I'm chasing after ghosts (of a better story with better writing).

The performances are all fine, when there is dialogue (I played with Japanese audio, which is how I play most narrative games from Japan except for some very Americanised releases like a Kojima joint or some Capcom output). But there's nothing behind it (and that becomes all the more obvious when you only get a few audio hoots while reading the text-only conversations). I'm not sure how to engage with a critical consensus that seems to claim that Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (especially in the final patched version with all that freeLC and two expansions) is not as well written as Tears of the Kingdom (or BotW before it). That anyone could put forward that the quest writing and narrated journey through those worlds is better in TotK boggles my mind - it seems openly contrarian in the way someone might push back against a Hollywood period epic (which can be a bit "cringe" in spots) by pointing at a basic children's movie and calling it the more substantial script.

A scattershot expansive open world, doubled

That the back-story (the better RPG we didn't even get) is told in a randomised order doesn't manage to actually drive my investigative desire. I don't know why it was designed like this rather than each time you find an ancient tablet or a dragon's tear it unlocks the next sequential bit of the back-story. Outer Wilds is one of the games of the decade for me and nothing here implies a familiarity with how deftly that game managed so much back-story that could be unlocked in an order depending on how the player wishes to investigate. I crave for a huge RPG that learns those lessons for this sort of thing.

If I randomised the shrines, you would not know. Outside of the initial tutorial shrines on the first island, they are not really intentionally placed. Lots of tutorial shrines are ones you might encounter in this go-anywhere game in hour 40 of your play. Oh, and of the over 100 shrines I completed, there were a couple dozen types with less than most actually interesting. Lots of very rote combat puzzles or straight up mechanics tutorials which you already had been doing for hours. Many teaching you (combat) controls could have been an on-screen prompt in the open world combat.

The shrines have the double burden of acting as fast-travel points and so being forced to exist in the density and distribution to help feed that system but also be content in their own right. I often found myself asking why this shrine existed, if it wasn't just because they needed a fast-travel point around here. And then we still have Korok seeds and so on. Just a random location with some thing dumped in it with no real connections to the surroundings. "I guess we need a pebble here, as there are no other pebbles around so this denotes a Korok hiding spot." "Look for this tree stump in the woods, because we could have just omitted it but then how would we restrict your carry capacity?" At least most good collectibles are to show you that you found a path less travelled and here is the consolation prize to tell you you have now completed down this dead end, but given how open the terrain is (even in the down below; the sky rarely had multiple paths worthy of calling something a side-path) then that doesn't really apply in TotK.

I played through most of the content I found, both above and below; rather enjoying the dark depths, until I realised how little there was to actually do there outside finding copy-pasted combat (tied into a very long quest chain) or mines. I sometimes got frustrated that it wasn't actually nearly as open as everyone said, with several systems or quest chains locked and no signposts to even note that this would be unlocked later or how to advance towards that.

Some quest lines that seemingly don't have to be finished before rushing to the end boss are locking vital upgrades and features. Some soft signposting that does exist is actually eventually required to be engaged with so how optional are they to the main quests? But also there's not a huge amount of content there (you can very quickly jump from the five cities to the temples without really exploring those areas and sometimes it even feels like the game is uncertain if some stuff is to return to later for collectathons or actual content you should do while there). I know I did the mazes relatively early on but my mind blanks on if they ever tied back into the wider plotlines because so much of the game feels like some stuff designed to chew through that's not even important inside its own internal lore (contrast to the weight of every bit of a Dark Souls game).

Coming apart at the seams

As I ended up doing a lot of collectathons and exploration, I got to the second tier of batteries, the blue ones. And promptly found out that most of the really cool vehicles, if they don't disappear via leaving them temporarily (once you step over an invisible area boundary) or a level load screen resetting the world (outside chests that are permanently removed and monsters that respawn on the blood moon timer), will blink out of existence before you even get to the chance to fully use them. No gliders going long distance, no balloons actually letting you get to the sky unless you pay for a lot of them so go much faster - it's not that this stuff prevents you sequence breaking, just makes you farm for mats to build larger machines that can go much faster. It removes the fun of Link being a little guy making fun little vehicles to cruise around in (that don't cost many resources). This may well be a technical limitation of an engine creaking at the seams.

Early in my playthrough, although you may encounter this at any time, I was rebuilding a village and after dragging over a dozen tree logs over the hills (using the magic physics gun to stick all the trunks I'd chopped down into a single blob, as there seems to be no limit on what the physics hand can hold, then just sprint over the land because building a vehicle would have been no faster and used up resources for a vanishing vehicle) I had to help rebuild five houses. What fun physics puzzles would the creators of 150+ different shrines [spoilers: the shrines aren't that diverse] have thought up to show me helping rebuild this town?

Every single one of them had two rings and the puzzle was for me to cut down another tree (this time a longer one) and drop it into the rings vertically as a central pillar. Only it was high up enough you always had to climb up to the top to get the height to use the physics hand to drop it in cleanly. In an area where it rained far too often so you couldn't climb up without falling back down (because I'd not yet done the 12 side-quest chain to unlock the "sticky" suit to remove this annoyance) and even when I got half way up, the platforming control on thin geometry show this game is not nearly as polished as you'd want for doing that sort of precision movement. Link fall down (or goes off to get more materials to build ramps).

Again, fine to do once or twice but every single building required the same exact thing to be done. This took 6 years, while starting from an engine that seems to very much be similar to the BotW renderer with much of the interactions preserved, that reuses the basic underlying world shape from the last game (expanded here). Thousands of people worked on this. Because it'll sell tens of millions to make it one of the highest grossing games of the year (maybe the highest without online/microtransactions?) but we get this copy-paste everywhere, next to no VO, etc etc. It's just frustrating what this could have been. Sticking vehicles together isn't enough.

Wrapping it up

The game is systemic but in that systems are simulated rather than that they build puzzles actually expecting multiple paths (if you sequence break or find another path, that's due to systems complexity not consideration of the puzzle design). Immersive sims build several paths depending on your character and you get to pick a path or use the way systems interact to "break" the game and use none of the paths. Here you can break many puzzles but they are clearly designed for precisely one "correct" answer. Also some of the systemic stuff is very light: you don't have to use these metal blocks put next to the puzzle to connect the electricity source to the detector to open the gate, you can grab any random metal object or even the metal weapons you carry with you but if you use an electric arrow then absolutely not, you can't trivialise puzzles by thinking around the requirements (no cheating like that).

And talking of arrows, this is not the great hope for Far Cry crafting but even more varied and interesting with being able to craft a batch of enemy-seeking flaming arrows which can teleport to mirror jumping enemies. There are 500 items you can combine with your arrows and you will use precisely four of those items 1000 times (via a secondary menu, no crafting batches here or being prepared for combat) while every other item you will use once then ignore. It's not actually interesting or deep, there's just a lot more busywork and possibly even farming depending how committed you are to fully utilising the additional tools open to you (or giving up on a system because I'm not going to farm mats for that). Which is a lot of this game.

At least we can all agree that the fifth ally quest chain feels like it drags on (I'd even pre-completed a few parts of it many hours earlier, those which you are allowed to). That's not to give the game praise for being non-linear, because there are several hours of my life I'm never getting back, which I alluded to earlier in this piece, finding various things in the underworld that you cannot actually progress because they aren't activated until this very late game questline. And then you do a final dungeon run that I also didn't find at all interesting (even compared to the main temples, which are a solid three out of five if ever there was) and get to a damp finale anyone over the age of six sees coming, with meh writing throughout.

It has been a bit over a month since I completed TotK myself, a game I played through May, June, September, and finally October. I possibly liked it significantly more than BotW, especially those first dozen or so hours. And yet I still find it a far more frustrating game, full of half-baked ideas and pointless divergence from slowly established genre conventions (that also ends up replicating mistakes from a lot of earlier games in the open world genre) despite what many say about those issues actually being secret strengths (but to go over this would be to repeat my BotW comments). With an injection of a lot more reactivity (like Baldur's Gate 3 offers) or production values (like most AAA games do, especially after the last game sold well over 30 million copies; which Nintendo rarely discounts as deeply as other publishers) or building more narrative framework that embraces a slightly older audience, this could have wedded systems and story into something special. I can see the embers of what others love, but it's all turned to ash in my mouth!