I review video games, novels, comics, and other stuff that catches my attention. I try to keep my reviews short but descriptive. If I really loved it, it earns a heart ♥; things I hate get a bomb 💣.
Reviews (click title to open/close)
The Talos Principle, a puzzle game by Croteam
Addictive puzzle game with a philosophical story. Badly paced; has more trivial starter puzzles than necessary to teach you the concepts you need for the harder puzzles. But those harder puzzles can be quite satisfying.
You find documents as you progress that contribute to the story and discuss philosophical ideas. Compare with The Swapper, a puzzle game which explores the mind-body problem: The Swapper has better pacing, more interesting puzzles, and a richer sense of atmosphere, but The Talos Principle engages more effectively with philosophy. For example, at one point the game interrogates you on your beliefs; it then proceeds to explain why you are wrong — no matter your answer. This neatly conveys the point that there are many philosophical questions with no easily defensible answers.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, an action-adventure-stealth game by Ubisoft
I've heard Deus Ex and games like it called “immersive sims”. I never really understood this until I played games, like Black Flag (and presumably the rest of the Assassin's Creed series, which I haven't played), that miss the crucial bits: that the setting should feel alive and not like a painted film backdrop that falls over as soon as you poke it the wrong way; that when you're given an ability — diving, say — you should be able to use it whenever it makes sense, not merely at times and places where the game designers thought to consider it; that setpieces should heighten the tension of regular gameplay, not deflate it into a CG film with quick-time events.
For all that whining, two of the three core gameplay pieces of Black Flag — #1, high seas piracy and #2, being a sneaky fuck — are solid enough you almost forget that #3 — bloody murder — is... well, it's just kinda okay. Combat is a twitchy, frenetic affair, which would be fine if controlling Edward Kenway's swashbuckling self felt twitchy and responsive.
Instead, one receives the feeling of being a choreographer giving directions interpreted, at liberty, by a skilled but imperfect stuntsman. If he fails to dodge or jumps to the wrong ledge, you don't feel that it's your fault, because you don't know what you could have done better; you pressed the right button, after all. Were you supposed to press it earlier? Later? Turn a degree counterclockwise first? Who can say?
I once claimed that Sleeping Dogs was the worst good game I'd played. Black Flag gives it stiff competition. It's enjoyable; you can read about its many virtues elsewhere; but it does not do its medium justice.
Thomas Was Alone, a puzzle platformer by Mike Bithell
This is a game about parallelograms with personalities. Rectangles with rambunction. Social squares. AIs with angles. Two-dimensional tetragons tenaciously triumphing over twisted trials and tribulations til at last they...
Sorry, I got carried away there. Anyway, Thomas Was Alone is a short, fun, mildly ingenious puzzle platformer where you get a group of jumping rectangles with unique abilities from point A to B. The story, told through a voiceover monologue describing the interior world of the AIs inhabiting these rectangles, is well done, if not particularly memorable, and slightly dated by references to 2010 internet culture.
Ghost Trick, a puzzle game for the Nintendo DS
Directed by Shu Takumi, the original creator of the Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick has similarly quirky characters and tight plotting, but is more puzzle-focused. The concept is unique: you are a ghost with the ability to possess objects; through this power, you set out to solve the mystery of your own murder! The animation is stylish and unbelievably fluid, really bringing the characters to life. Compared to Ace Attorney, the puzzle design is much more solid; the downside is that, because Ghost Trick has no sequels, there's less time to really get to know and care about the characters.
The Ace Attorney series (2001–), some adventure/puzzle visual novels for the Nintendo DS & 3DS
I got turned on to these by two excellent series of Let's Play videos featuring a delightful mix of voice acting and comedy riffing. The games themselves are strangely satisfying; it's easier to enumerate their weaknesses than their strengths. Gameplay alternates between investigating crime scenes to find evidence (an adventure game) and defending your client in court by discovering contradictions in witness testimony (a puzzle game). The puzzles veer unpredictably from “saw it coming a mile away” easy to “read the designer's mind” difficult, only rarely finding the happy medium. The saving grace is the narrative accompaniment: a cast of endearingly over-the-top characters, wonderfully expressive animation (especially later in the series), and tight plotting that slowly weaves each seemingly-unrelated case together into a grand finale. It may not be Great Art, but it's jolly good fun.
If you're not sure whether these are for you, try the Let's Play series I linked; if you're anything like me, liking those predicts enjoying the series. My only advice is to avoid Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, which has a slower, duller plot, and tries gameplay experiments that I don't think add much to the experience.
Mini Metro, a metro-building simulation by Dinosaur Polo Club
I hate this game. The premise is brilliant, the execution flawless, the minimalist design is beautiful and perfectly communicates the game's mechanics, and the gameplay is engaging and challenging.
But at the end of the day, it's an anxiety simulator. Failure is inevitable; as each game progresses a sense of impending doom creeps in, measured in the despondent pings and frustrated hums of passenger-blobs waiting in overcrowded stations. I have yet to discover more than basic strategy, although I don't know whether that's for lack of depth or lack of trying. What I had hoped would be a relaxing game about building a pretty, clean, bright-colored metro map decays to a frantic, blind rush to leave no passenger behind; all sense of control is lost.
If you enjoy losing repeatedly and without any sense of what you could have done better, Mini Metro is the game for you.
Circa Infinity, a puzzle platformer by Kenny Sun
In the video game equivalent of an M. C. Escher drawing, Circa Infinity's levels progress not left to right or bottom to top, but outside in: you jump your way to the center of an ever-deepening nested set of concentric (and often rotating) circles. The art and music reinforce this trippiness: the pixel graphics wouldn't look out of place in an early arcade game, but the bold use of contrasting colors and repeating patterns gives the game a hypnotic feel, and the techno soundtrack meshes excellently with the game's style and pace. Its strange geometry is a big part of Circa Infinity's appeal for me, but it's also a genuinely challenging puzzle platformer. The levels grow increasingly complex in a satisfying, smooth, but quite rapid difficulty curve. I haven't managed to finish it, and I'm not sure I will, but it's definitely worth a try.
Butterfly Soup, a visual novel by Brianna Lei
This is a short, cute, funny story about queer asian girls playing baseball and falling in love. It touches on some dark issues (parental abuse), but the tone is ultimately uplifting. It's sappy, romantic, and a comedy, yet somehow avoids feeling like a sappy rom-com. The characters are exaggerated, but fundamentally believable; the comedy feels unforced and genuine, if slightly meme-y. The story's weak point is the romance, which doesn't have a lot of depth to it; its strong point is the subtle observations it weaves in on how teens cope with difficult situations.
It's name-your-own-price, so give it a try!
Transistor, an action rpg by Supergiant Games
If you liked Bastion, you'll like this. If you haven't played Bastion, I slightly recommend it over Transistor. Both feature a combination of engaging combat mechanics, beautiful art, and a terrifically voice-acted story. My main complaint with Transistor is that the gameplay got repetitive near the end, because I found a small combination of moves that basically always worked and I couldn't improve on, which took away the fun of experimenting with move combinations.
Dust: An Elysian Tail, an action rpg by Humble Hearts
The story on this one is a cookie-cutter piece of crap. It's so bad I can barely bring myself to play it; which is a shame, because the core combat gameplay is actually really fun, and the animation is beautifully fluid. Apart from combat, though, the game is pretty cookie-cutter itself.
FTL: Faster Than Light, a rogue-lite spaceship sim by Subset Games
This is not so much a review as a note that I have spent hundreds of hours in this game and I am still playing it. Few games have been worth what I paid for them as many times over as FTL.
Three Moments of an Explosion, a short story collection by China Miéville
Surprisingly, Miéville is not all that good at writing short stories. There are a few really good ones here (Dreaded Outcome in particular), and some cool ideas with the author's signature stamp of weirdness (the title story & The Condition of New Death), but overall, don't get this unless you're a Miéville aficionado.
A Bride's Story, a historical romance manga by Kaoru Mori
A Bride's Story is a slice-of-life manga about marriage customs in 19th century central Asia. If that sounds interesting to you, go read it! The strong points here are the setting, which the author has clearly meticulously researched, even if she takes an occasional liberty, and the artwork, which is gorgeously detailed. The characters are endearingly quirky without overly stretching suspension of disbelief. The weak point is the plot, which is clearly being made up on the fly.
Y: The Last Man (up to Vol 5) and Saga (Vol 1), some scifi/fantasy comics by Brian K Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Pia Guerra & co
Unlike apparently everyone else who reads comics, I really can't stand Brian K Vaughan's writing. It's entertaining, for sure. But after about the sixteenth cliffhanger you realize that there is no grand overarching plan; there is no coherent world being built; it's just a bunch of wild off-the-cuff ideas thrown into a genre blender and drip-fed to keep you addicted. For a more solidly constructed science-fantasy comic, try Gunnerkrigg Court.
The Female Man (1975), a science fiction novel by Joanna Russ
The Female Man may be the angriest book I've ever read. Russ is a powerful writer; strong recommend if you like feminist scifi, but you're in for a rough ride emotionally. The book's style is deliberately disjointed; chronological order is unclear; the point of view shifts without warning among three different protagonists; at other times narration is third-person omniscient or imitates an interview transcript. Christine Love helps you get into her characters' heads; Russ throws you in, and expects you to put in the effort to understand them, to figure out their particular idioms, their reference points and core beliefs.
Content note: Toward the end there are plot elements that seem from a modern perspective like a cruel parody of transgender identity. I suspect Russ was aiming for a different effect and it's been lost in cultural translation, but there it is.
Analogue: A Hate Story, a visual novel by Christine Love
So I decided to try out visual novels again, and I'm glad I did! This was fascinating stuff. In brief I guess I'd call it an "epistolary scifi mystery visual novel".
The first cool thing about Analogue is its premise: you piece together the story of the tragedy that befell a derelict generation ship by reading the diary entries, letters, & other logs of its deceased inhabitants. You learn about the people who lived on the ship through their own eyes: their culture, their interactions, their love lives. It's a really effective way of doing the scifi worldbuilding schtick!
The second cool thing is the core mechanic: interacting with the ship's AI(s). To get new logs you show logs you're interested in to the AI, which lets them comment on it, and means you see only what the AI shows you. So you're not just seeing the ship through its people's eyes; you're seeing them through the AI's eyes.
There's a sequel, Hate Plus, which is also great so far, with similar mechanics (discovering a culture through reading logs of it) - only this time, in an inversion of control, you choose the logs & the AI(s) read(s) them for the first time with you.
VVVVVV, a puzzle platformer by Terry Cavanagh
A simple idea (a puzzle platformer where instead of jumping, you flip gravity), executed perfectly. Great music, too. I still haven't beaten "Doing things the hard way", yet, but while trying I realized something: prior to this, in video games my approach when I get stuck is just to try, try, try again. I've never deliberately practiced at a video game, as I have at (say) playing an instrument, or programming. It's obvious in retrospect, but for some reason it just never occurred to me that a video games might be the kind of thing you practice.
Lady of the Shard, a space romance webcomic by gigi d.g.
This is a mini-webcomic (short story length). It's hard to describe the plot without spoilers, but it's really short; go read it! It has a particularly cool pixelated art style, and makes effective use of the freedom the web provides from page size or panel constraints. The author also makes the webcomic Cucumber Quest, a really great subversion of standard fantasy save-the-world stories/games.
Ancillary Sword, a science fiction novel by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice, to which this is the sequel, is an amazing book and if you like science fiction you should read it. On finishing it, I thought it was strange that it was the first in the series, because it didn't feel like it needed a sequel. I was right: it didn't. This isn't a bad novel, but it's not a great one either. Ann Leckie is a really promising author, though, and I look forward to reading more of her! If you want a taste of her writing, try She Commands Me and I Obey.
This Census Taker, a fantasy novella by China Miéville
This is a strange and sombre novella. If you like Miéville, you might like it. If you haven't read Miéville yet, don't start here: read The City & the City or Perdido Street Station (or one of his other books, the guy is prolific) instead. That said, he sure can convey an atmosphere!
Undertale, an rpg by Toby Fox
This is a good game and you should play it.
It's really hard to talk about Undertale without spoilers, since a significant part of the game is about screwing with your expectations. Which makes me wonder: in ten or twenty years, will the same expectations be around to screw with? Sometimes great works suffer exceedingly from the passage of time, precisely because they effect a change in the environment that they succeeded by contrasting themselves against. Punk, for example. Undertale feels a lot like punk to me.
Knights of the Old Republic (2003), an rpg by BioWare
(initial review) I'm about 40 hours into this and it's one of the best games I've ever played. The gameplay is merely good, but the story and characters are fantastic. Strongest recommendation.
(final review, spoiler-ish) So I finally finished this. It was good! ... but. The last third of the game was pretty boring. The combat, which was never the game's strong point, got repetitive (the Star Forge, in particular); and the story became bland and generic save-the-universe-y.
On that note, have I mentioned how much I dislike Manichean morality plays? I went into KOTOR expecting to be totally turned off by the light-side/dark-side thing; halfway through, I was pleasantly surprised how nuanced the actual moral questions posed were. Nothing revolutionary, but at least not "EVIL POWER-HUNGRY NARCISSIST, OR SELF-SACRIFICING SERVANT OF THE LIGHT?: YOU CHOOSE!". The ending, though, is pretty much that. Could see it coming a mile off, but that doesn't make it better.
Great game, disappointing climax. Still gonna play the next one.
Super Meat Boy, a platformer by Team Meat
This... was too hard for me. Functioning as intended, I suppose.
Ori and the Blind Forest, a metroidvania game by Moon Studios
Okay, this one isn't old, but it's good. It's a fresh take on platforming, and it's beautiful, visually and musically. The plot is a little cliché, but well-executed.
The Swapper, a puzzle game by Facepalm Games
An atmospheric puzzle game with a damn fine story, including shout-outs to philosophers of mind(!) Daniel Dennet and David Chalmers, which is pretty cool. Strong recommend if you like head-scratchers.
Life is Strange, an adventure game by Dontnod Entertainment
This is basically interactive fiction that happens to run on the Unreal engine. It has a fun time-manipulation gimmick, but the puzzles are trivial. It's a good story, though, and I'm happy to see more games pushing at the boundary between narrative and mechanics. (Content note, if you play: suicidal ideation.)
We Know the Devil, a visual novel by Aevee Bee, Mia Schwartz, & co
This is a visual novel. It's interesting, with a unique religious/horror/modern-day setting, but I'm not sure visual novels are my thing. That said, I've really only scratched the surface of the genre. I'm open to recommendations.
Mass Effect, an rpg by BioWare
This was fun, and addictive in the way rpgs are for me, and well-acted. I'm not sure if it was good enough for me to play the rest of the series.
Fez, a puzzle game by Polytron Corporation
I think that's the trippiest thing I've seen since the second half of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A very good game! Probably the most beautiful video game I've played. (I'm not sure beautiful is the right word, but I don't know a better one.) My only complaint is that the main puzzles were a bit easy. I don't enjoy 100%ing, so I'm probably missing all the really hard puzzles.