I’m once again late to the party with my monthly update but December was fairly productive for me, I managed to play a few more 2022 releases as well as some shorter titles to close out the year. The month started strong with Sam Barlow’s latest opus, Immortality - I had intended to play it on my Android tablet but had a couple of false starts, when I first fired it up, hoping to jump right into playing, the app needed to download another 12gb so I had to postpone starting it until the next night but even on the second attempt things weren’t going my way. My tablet isn’t exactly top of the line but it’s recent so I thought it would be able to handle a game about scrubbing through video clips but it was stuttering a tonne, making the video seem like it was more of a slideshow, so I knew it wouldn’t be doing the game justice to persevere with playing on tablet (and taking a glance at the reviews it seemed like the Android port wasn’t exactly stellar to begin with) so I borrowed my Mum’s Windows laptop and picked it up on Steam instead. It actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise that I couldn’t play it on my tablet, the touch interface seemed pretty unwieldy, I felt much more comfortable using my Switch pro-controller, scrubbing through the clips was easier and more organic, allowing me to focus on searching for clues and getting me more immersed in the narrative. For those unaware, the story concerns the mystery of what happened to an actress called Marisa Marcel who made 3 films before disappearing but it is presented in a non-linear fashion, tasking you with trawling through footage from her films in order to uncover the truth. Like Sam Barlow’s previous efforts Her Story and Telling Lies you can only access short, nonsequential, snippets which obfuscate the truth but rather than typing in prompts like Barlow’s past games you can access new clips by focusing on people or objects within a given scene, zooming in an transitioning to a related clip featuring the same actor or item. It makes for a much more tactile and immersive experience, seamlessly match cutting to another scene, dropping you in mid-sentence and keeping you on your toes - I felt engaged from the very start, constantly teasing out little tidbits of information about Marisa and her co-stars whilst also piecing together the plot of each film. There were some truly captivating moments throughout the 10 hours that I spent following the various threads, even if the illusion isn’t as convincing as it could be at times, it is clear that a lot of effort has gone into making the film feel like genuine artefacts, accurate to the period that they were purported to be produced in. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, I did get stuck once or twice and wasn’t really sure what I had missed so I just started selecting things at random, hoping that I would happen upon a clip that I hadn’t seen before but that is to be expected with such an unconventional narrative structure - for the most part I was utterly captivated by the intricate story Barlow and his team have crafted, it really feels like a natural evolution of their particular brand of interactive storytelling. The real star of the show is Manon Gage though, her performance as Marisa Marcel is incredibly convincing, she feels like a genuine film starlet, but there are so many levels for her to navigate - she is essentially playing four parts, Marisa herself of course, but also each of the characters that Marisa inhabits, it’s really impressive and I’m happy to see that she’s getting the recognition she deserves from critics and awards shows. I can’t recommend it highly enough, it’s a fantastic advert for the unique capabilities of the medium, it really wouldn’t work as anything other than a video game, so if any of you are interested in trying it out I’d advise you not to read up on it, its best to just dive in and uncover the secrets yourself, definitely a landmark achievement that deserves all the plaudits its received.
As many others were, I was enamoured by A Little to the Left after seeing it in an indie presentation last summer so I was looking forward to picking it up when it released on Switch in December. It's of the same ilk as games like Unpacking, tasking you with organising household items in a variety of situations, things start out simply enough with objectives like putting pencils in height or colour order or neatening up loose papers on a desk, but as the game progresses the puzzles take on more abstract and outlandish set ups. At times I found it quite hypnotic, sucked into a trance of sorts as I worked my way through the puzzles but occasionally the flow was broken when I became frustrated by obtuse solutions, there is a hint system available to help you if you're stuck on a puzzle but it didn't really help with ones that I found the most irritating (the eyepiece one was particularly annoying). Visually it has quite a simple, hand drawn style but it really suits the gameplay and adds a lot of charm to proceedings, the music is also relatively simple, relaxing and slow paced tracks that change up at the beginning of every chapter but I found some of the audio design a little irritating at times, the sound of things sliding against the surface and the little click every time you pick something up could get really grating and somewhat diminished the otherwise relaxing rhythm of the game. All in all I think I enjoyed it more than Unpacking but it still wasn't quite what I had hoped it would be, at times proving a lot more challenging than I had expected, but I'm glad I checked it out and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys quirky, indie puzzle games.
Next up was another 2022 release and one I didn't really know too much about, SIGNALIS, also on the Switch. All I really knew was that it was a retro style sci-fi survival horror title that had been well received upon release in October so I took a look at the eShop listing and was immediately won over by the visual style - a top down, pixelated, PS1 aesthetic, so I picked it up without looking into it any further. Starting out the game immediately draws you in with its strong atmosphere, the palpable feeling of loneliness that is reminiscent of Super Metroid as you wake up and explore the tight confines of your spacecraft. The prologue on the ship is relatively short, only a few minutes, where you discover that the ship has crash landed on a mysterious planet and your partner is missing, after searching the ship and finding a pressure suit you head out to explore the unknown environment, determined to track her down. The gameplay follows the typical early survival horror formula, movement controls are quite sluggish, with combat being similarly slow and limited, exacerbated by limited resources and inventory slots - throughout the entire game you only get 6 item slots to play with, forcing you to think creatively about what you pick up and what you leave behind as you explore the unnerving environments, ensuring that you always have room to pick up access cards and other key items. The story is told mostly through text logs and other environmental clues, gradually building up your understanding of the outbreak that ravaged the remote mining colony and its place within a war torn solar system that is ruled by a totalitarian regime. There is so much to admire about what the small team at rose-engine have achieved with SIGNALIS, it feels like it takes place in such a dense and convincing world, there are so many interesting threads to follow, hints at what is going on in the wider society mixed in with a compelling narrative hook, but for me it's the atmosphere that really won me over - the sheer tension and terror as you explore the environments is as palpable here as it is in something like Alien Isolation but to pull it off with low-res graphics from a top down perspective is just ridiculous. Yes, the combat is a bit clunky and there isn't exactly much nuance to encounters but other than that it's hard to pick fault with anything else, the plot is engrossing and emotionally affecting, the music and sound design enhances the tone and atmosphere perfectly and it all combines to create a genuinely enthralling experience - one of the best games I've played all year, a must play for anyone who enjoys sci-fi survival horror.
Wanting to pad out my numbers a bit at the end of the year I finished up by played through some shorter games, starting out with Wario Land II. I'm not sure if I played it when I was a kid, I definitely have fond memories of playing the original entry my brother's original Game Boy but I'm blanking on whether or not we owned the follow up so I was intrigued to see how it played. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to my expectations, one of the things I really loved about the original when I played it on the 3DS a few years ago was how enjoyable it was to use the power ups so I was dismayed to discover that Wario Land II practically does away with them entirely, replacing the traditional power ups with more environmental transformations. It's an interesting change but it makes the game much more frustrating than it otherwise could have been, meaning you're often left relying on random factors in order to progress within a level, there were multiple occasions when I knew what I needed to do to move forward but actually executing it proved quite challenging. Visually it's pretty impressive and there are a great deal of alternate routes and hidden levels to uncover but for me it felt like a step backwards in a lot of ways, I just didn't click with it in the same way I did with the original, sucking some of the fun out of the game. I'll still get through the rest of the series eventually but it's definitely dampened my enthusiasm for playing the next in line, hopefully it's more to my liking.
Finally I closed out 2022 by dusting off my Wii U to play Year Walk. I wasn't familiar with the work of Simogo until a few years ago when they released the wonderful Sayonara Wild Hearts so I was surprised to discover when reading up on their history that they released a game for Nintendo's failed experiment so I set up my Wii U and logged onto the eShop to download it while I still can. Ostensibly its an educational walking simulator, using as it's premise the Swedish tradition of a year walk - a sort of spiritual ceremony in which villagers would undertake a walk through the forest in order to discover what the year ahead had in store for them. Starting out at a log cabin you walk through several interconnected areas, presented in a side scroll first person view of 2D hand drawn art, solving cryptic puzzles in order to find a way into the locked church to conclude the ritual. The use of the Gamepad isn't particularly unique, it serves as a map but also as a crude notepad, allowing you to keep track of important clues such as the particular patterns on a series of stones, but my favourite implementation of the dual screen interface was the inclusion of an encyclopaedia that offers more in-depth information about the folklore that inspired the game - it was really interesting to learn about and definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the game significantly. It's hardly the most challenging or groundbreaking game, but it's the kind of short, sweet and eye opening experience I really enjoy, it is available on mobile, having released on iOS first, but for anyone looking to get more out of their Wii U before the servers shut down it's well worth checking out.
And that concludes my 2022 diary, I ended up playing 40 games in all, 13 of those were brand new releases, but when it comes down to picking the best of the bunch it’s hard to look past Xenoblade Chronicles 3 - even though I personally scored Poinpy and SIGNALIS a little higher - the sheer consistency over the 100+ hour journey means that Xenoblade takes top spot for me. Of the other new releases and older titles I played through in the last 12 months my favourites were Elden Ring, Kirby & The Forgotten Land, Pokemon Legends Arceus, Zelda II, Deadly Premonition 2 and Desert Child.
Alongside playing a few more games in 2023 I would also like to start making notes on games while I’m playing through them, the way I do it at the moment makes it a bit daunting to bundle them all together in one post at the end of the month, which I think goes some way to explain why it’s taken me to the middle of January to get around to writing the December update. Belated Happy New Year everyone, and sorry for dredging up an out of date thread!