Just a little guy.
Boy, was this a year to play video games that may or may not have come out this year. That being said, I really did get a chance to delve deeper into the niches I already enjoyed while also getting to check some cool stuff out I definitely wouldn’t have before. Here’s to all the geeks and gamers out there.
You make a rhythm game with in-house tunes inspired by garage rock and power pop, with an anime aesthetic that skews super close to Studio TRIGGER’s line of work, and you’ve basically got me at the door. UNBEATABLE is studio D-cell Games’s first project and the dedication is apparent from the get-go. So far the game is limited to an early access demo but it was more than enough to get me onboard for their Kickstarter. The tunes whip, the gameplay feels fantastic in a way that makes me consider going back to Muse Dash, and here’s hoping that I can make the case for it in future deliberations once it fully releases in the near future.
6. Yakuza: Like A Dragon
2020 had a lot of me starting and stopping games since, you know, focusing on stuff was kinda hard. That being said, 2021 was a great time for my JRPG laundry list to get sorted and a prime example was actually being able to finish Like A Dragon. Let the record show I’m not the kindest to Dragon Quest in presentation or gameplay, but Like A Dragon manages to make its homage to that tried and true RPG format engaging and worthwhile. It says a lot when what was supposed to be an April Fools’ Day gag ends up being the new mission statement for games in the series going forward. It also helps that Ichiban Kasuga is such a fun character and completely different in attitude from the long standing face of the franchise Kazuma Kiryu. Making a character whose demeanor is as out there and upbeat as the lighter sections of fan favorite Yakuza 0 but with the same level of pluck as an anime protagonist makes the more serious nature of the narrative poignant for newcomers to the series to experience. Job switches and a notable section devoted to level grinding definitely show the age of the game mechanically in its attempt to be a Dragon Quest homage, but overall I’m so glad I found the time to explore Yokohama, and got to see just how unyielding the Yakuza can be.
5. Hot Wheels Unleashed
So I bought this game in the middle of a podcast after hearing about its gameplay and wow what a fantastic impulse buy. Hot Wheels Unleashed is a capital A Arcade racer, and is unabashed in letting you know that. You do time trials, CPU races, and explore all sorts of tracks created by other users online. Boosts are good, drifts are good, and your little plastic speed machine can fly off the track from whipping too much ass so you might have to use a heftier clunker with multiple boosts to compensate. You don’t always see kid logic applied to video games in a way that feels authentic, which is the key reason it ends up being a mainstay in my rotation of games whenever I need something to unwind with.
4. Tales of Berseria
What if Guts Berserk was a hot lady? Tales of Berseria takes that pitch and then runs with it to accidentally create one of the more biting JRPGs with a cast that is so undeniably queer. Velvet Crowe is a fantastic main character for a story not just about revenge but about refuting the complacency of neoliberalism. Yes you attack and dethrone God, but you do it so you can remind people that the protection the church buys for them is finite. You gotta reach out and bolster that community so you can achieve an actual sense of strength and power. Also all the spells are just combos that you can chain together to proc a move that extends your combo, which is just batshit as you get deeper into the game. This ultimately became blueprint for Arise’s also good, if not better, gameplay, although that unfortunately trades in the nuance and readable representation of the plot for a baseball bat that reads “HEY SLAVERY IS BAD ALSO THE MEN IN THE PARTY LOVE THE WOMEN IN THE PARTY” that the game hits you over the head with a few times. Regardless, Berseria was a fun ride and I definitely recommend others to seek it out if you’re curious about a JRPG that has a little more kinetics to its gameplay.
3. Psychonauts 2
I really liked the writing of Psychonauts and was really excited to keep playing more in the form of this sequel. I didn’t expect to get kicked in the head with themes of generational trauma, processing guilt and regret, and figuring out what it means to heal and move forward. Now does this mean Psychonauts 2 is an overall serious game? No, it just means that it recognizes what it wants to talk about while also knowing how to have fun with its ideas. Richard Horvitz delivers such a great performance as Raz who feels so alive not just as a character, but as a real personification of someone so young getting a front row exposure to the way being human is equal parts amazing and so much hard work. The platforming is solid and the new powers add to both the combat and maneuverability of each world you navigate. Above all else the game just continues to be funny, which helps so much with balancing the depths that it reaches, really driving a positive message about how your circle of communication helps to weather even the worst ways we can view ourselves.
2. NEO: The World Ends With You
I love this game.
I can’t think of any other way I can talk about this game at this point without just praising it outright. An OST of bangers, characters that feel so vibrant in a way that shows how being a teen has changed from the original game’s time back in 2005, gameplay that’s equal parts frantic and focused… I literally can’t think of what I haven’t talked about when it comes to this game. It’s cool that Tetsuya Nomura included his friend’s actual fashion line as a store in one section of Shibuya. When you go through all the restaurants it’s fun to pick on the little nuances of everyone’s food preferences; if you order at Justice Burger Nagi is all in on the multi-pattied Cheesy Champion while Fret opts for the Fearless Fishwich and Rindo’s all set with an order of fries. The pin affinities lend themselves to a lot of fun with the game mechanics as you figure out what combination of ailments and effects lead to optimal game flow, and make the number go up for your ultimate group attack. It’s not a perfect game by all means but holy hell they did the thing and did the damn thing well.
1. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
So back in 2020 I started playing The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It took me about the whole year to power through the game and immediately started the sequel motivated by a game doing familiar things in a way I just hadn’t seen in a modern JRPG at that time. That momentum got me all the way to the third installment of the series which ended up as another playthrough spent scrambling to hit end credits just hours before the new year. The gameplay is refreshing as a turn based JRPG system that focuses on map placement and turn order advantage while never feeling too much in terms of all the mechanics that follow suit. Cold Steel 3 ushers in a new cast of characters alongside our protagonist Rean, and they handled this the best way possible by making each new member of Class VII a foil to some aspect of him, be it his own views in regard to his swordsmanship, his loyalty to the country he works for, or the bubbling anger that results from being a weapon of the state. It’s a bit unfair to call this my number one since I’m kind of considering the series as a whole, but also this is my list so I make the rules.
I think the best part of this year was the fact I was able to collaborate with folks on Chooch between writing and being on the podcast. I’ll be the first to admit I usually spring for single player experiences, but half the fun is telling someone else about every encounter or boss fight that made you care just a little more about the characters and world you were inhabiting. I’m stoked for what’s coming out of the woodwork soon and to continue doing something that I’ve genuinely come to love with a group of people I respect and am so grateful to work alongside.