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2021 Dream of Waking Video Game Awards

2020 Part 2 is over and Part 3 is well on its way. It’s time to look back Ln the year that was, at least as far as video games I played go. I apparently didn’t call it quits. I even fixed my WordPress and maybe blogged more in this year than I have in the last decade. What I didn’t do was finish a lot of video games.

I touched a lot of games, maybe even made significant progress in them, and then, for whatever reason, stopped playing. I can’t say I’m going to dedicate more time to finishing games in 2022, and my selected winners this year prove that I should finish some games, but life is too short to force yourself to play something you’re not into. This year I’m dipping my toes back into the negative award waters, not because I want to crap on games, but to crap on myself. Heed my warnings to avoid regrets.

2021 Game of the Year

Metroid Dread

I can’t say I saw this coming. I’ve been a huge Metroid fan since Fusion, but I underestimated Metroid Dread. I thought that it wasn’t going to be the same since it was developed outside of Nintendo proper. I was wrong. Metroid Dread is amazing.

My runner-up, Devotion, technically didn’t release in 2021, but publisher problems caused it to be yanked from digital storefronts soon after its original release. 2021 is the year it came back for the rest of us, and it’s amazing.

Runner up: Devotion

2021’s 2020 Game of the Year

Prey (2017)

I didn’t give Prey my full attention when it was first released, and that’s my fault. Prey is an excellent successor to the System Shock/Bioshock formula. If you didn’t finish it this year, go back and get it.

My runner up, Dishonored 2, is a lot of the same. I guess what I’m saying is that Arkane makes great games, I’ve known that for a while, and I should give them more attention.

Runner up: Dishonored 2

The Most Pleasant Surprise Award

Marvel’s Spider-Man

I knew Spider-Man was good. Everyone said Spider-Man was good. But when I got a PS5 and finally got an opportunity to play it, I was still surprised by how good it was. On another note, I had no idea where Cruelty Squad came from, it looks like ass, and it’s still fun.

Runner up: Cruelty Squad

The “I’m Never Going to Finish This” Award

Inscryption

This one hurts a little to admit. Not the part that I don’t enjoy card games. That’s easy to admit. No, it’s admitting that I’m unlikely to finish a Daniel Mullins game. I like the trappings surrounding Inscryption and never is a long time. I might go back and finish it. But I left off on a good run and if I get stopped by the next boss and have to start all over, I might just uninstall.

My runner up here is a game I wanted to enjoy, and I’ve heard enough praise for to give it a couple shots, but I have no artistic skill. I’m just playing a no-violence FPS where everything is stationary.

Runner up: Umurangi Generation

The “Why Did I Play So Much Of This?” Award

Marvel’s Avengers

I completed Avengers. I played it from beginning to end. It’s just a mediocre beat-em-up. Nothing about the gameplay or gear collecting or any part of the video game kept me going. I was playing to see the story, and the story wasn’t good. I’m mad about the amount of time I spent playing it. Likewise, Resident Evil 6 is a big, expensive waste of time. It’s so long, and I didn’t even finish the first act/chapter/story arc.

Runner up: Resident Evil 6

Other Awards

Movie of the Year – Bo Burnham: INSIDE
Runner Up: Arrival

Album of the Year – INSIDE (The Songs) by Bo Burnham
Runner Up: N/A

Book of the Year – Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Runner Up: Truth of the Divine by Lindsay Ellis

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Game Reviews

JETT: The Far Shore

JETT: The Far Shore is the followup to Superbrothers first game, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. That game came out more than a decade ago, and I only played it once, but it impressed me to the point that I got excited for JETT just from hearing it was a Superbrothers game. That excitement wasn’t misplaced, because I ultimately enjoyed JETT, but this game isn’t going to be the hit that Sword and Sworcery was.

JETT is a third-person action/exploration game. You are Mei. Your community has undertaken a 1000-year journey from your homeworld to an alien planet. As a scout, you have to explore this new world and plant the seeds of future colonization. This is all wrapped in a bit of religious or cult symbology.

The bulk of the game is flying your jett around the world. You can scan alien life, pick it up with a grapple and toss it, bother it with your jett’s engines, or flash it with your headlight. Different lifeforms react to this stimulus, and you use a combination of these things to solve some simple puzzles.

My enthusiasm for JETT hit a bit of a plateau at what I now know as the halfway point. My task was to grapple a glob a stuff, take it to one pool of liquid to energize it, and then throw it at a rock to blow it up. Simple. But the glob explodes before you can get it to the rock unless you drop it into a different pool of liquid that resets the explode cooldown. Still with me? Grapple glob, take it to the charge pool, carry it to the nearest cooldown pool, and then the next cooldown pool, until you get to the rock, and throw it at the rock. The throw even gives you an arc indicator.

The problem is that the arc indicator is not accurate and I constantly overshot the pools. I did this over and over as I learned the true arc of the throw. All the while, jett movement when you have the glob is very slow. I spent way too much time slowly carrying a glob and throwing it sloppily and missing the pools or missing the rock. This was the first time the mechanic game up, and it essentially never came up again. I don’t know why this sequence was in the game.

This led me to my other frustration. The basic plot of the game is fairly simple. The world around it is confusing. It’s wrapped in the mysticism of a fictional civilization that isn’t particularly well explained. To make matters worse, everyone speaks a made-up language with English subtitles. An awful lot of dialog comes from your co-pilot mid-flight. This is fine when you’re just cruising around, but he’s telling me what’s going on and what to do while I’m being attacked. I can focus on not-dying or I can read subtitles.

If I sound down on JETT, it’s because it’s close to a good game. When I was cruising around in the jett, exploring and taking in the atmosphere, I loved it. It was beautiful and alien and wonderful. But the little annoyances added up and ultimately detracted from that fun. I finished JETT and I’m no closer to understanding it than I was from the start. I just happened to have some fun along the way.

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Game Reviews

Solar Ash

I loved Hyper Light Drifter but I had a problem with the lack of narrative. Heart Machine obviously took that feedback to heart (ha) because Solar Ash has a lot of narrative. But they also reduced a lot of the complexity of gameplay between Drifter and Solar Ash, and the trade-off is where we start getting critical.

Solar Ash is a combination of Shadow of the Colossus and extreme sports. Instead of laboriously climbing enormous monsters to slowly stab them in their weak spots, Solar Ash makes you race from weak point to weak point, or else you’re immediately tossed off and forced to start over. Between giant monster slaying, you also get to explore some really creative and beautiful environments, doing mini versions of the weak point stabbing and collecting the voice logs of the people who came before you.

The weak point runs are part platform puzzle, and part speedrun. It’s either about taking the correct path to hit the weak points or taking the fast path. Even if you know which path to take, you then have to execute on getting there. The good news is that game is fairly forgiving. I rarely felt cheated out of run.

Solar Ash also gives you everything you’re going to use to play the game upfront. There are no mechanical upgrades. If you see something that looks out of reach, it’s not. You can reach it one way or another. This was something that wasn’t entirely clear to me, and I kept expecting a new ability that I never got. I found that revelation, when it came, fairly refreshing. Instead of waffling back and forth on whether I was an idiot or just not far enough along, I knew I had the tools to get something done and I just had to figure it out.

But how about that narrative? It’s got voice acting! It’s got a story! And the core plot is pretty coherent. But it’s also super heavy on in-game jargon that I can’t repeat without sounding like I’m doing Star Trek style technobabble. Your world is going to be consumed by a black hole, you have a tool to stop this, and you need to activate the tool to do that. To go any further than that, I’d have to explain the Ultravoid, the Starseed, the Remnants, the Voidrunners, and that’s ignoring the side stories. I was 90% of the way through the game and I was still questioning where this story was going, but it became rather clear at the end.

Solar Ash is a simpler game than Hyper Light Drifter, with a narrative that’s far more obtuse than it needs to be. The gameplay was plenty to motivate me to get through it, but if you’re here for the story and don’t enjoy the core gameplay, you might feel pushed away before it wraps up.

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Game Reviews

Axiom Verge 2

Axiom Verge 2 (AV2) does a lot of what I loved about Axiom Verge. If you think you’re going traverse the level one way, and you just need to find that upgrade, you’re wrong and you’ll be doing it in a different way, sometimes subverting tropes of the genre.

Here are one and a half examples. Early on, I was dropped into a large underwater section. Like all underwater sections in games, my movement was limited. I couldn’t jump as high. I couldn’t run as fast. In most games, this is used to gate progress until later in the game. In AV2, I almost immediately found an upgrade that not just made movement underwater the same as movement on land, but better because I could jump higher underwater. I also came across the common Metroidvania obstacle, the platform just a bit too high. All I need is a double-jump to get up there. You do not get a double-jump in AV2. You get something else that is both more limited and more useful. I loved this as I loved exploring the map.

Where AV2 falls a bit short is in the narrative. It plugs along just fine, but it ends abruptly and in a manner that obviously sets up a sequel. Since this game isn’t really a continuation of the first, it’s more like the first part of a two part series. It’s awkward for a game called Axiom Verge 2. Axiom Verge 3 is all but guaranteed by the narrative, but I would’ve rather had more closure at the end here.

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Game Reviews

Too Human

Ten years ago, I apologized to Deus Ex. It took me a decade to finish Deus Ex, and I regret taking that long to do so. Last night, I finished Too Human, which took me longer than a decade to finish. There will be no apology to Too Human.

Too Human asks what if Norse mythology but cyborgs? Too Human also asks what if Diablo but made for a controller? The problem is that neither of these are particularly inventive, and they’re badly executed.

I won’t pretend to have a comprehensive list of grievances, because I spent less than 2 hours playing it since the last time I fired it up many years ago. Instead, here’s what I hated about those two hours in bullet form.

  • Every visual in this game wobbles and jitters all over the place, and not in a way that looks deliberate or stylish
  • Combat and abilities are confusing and unintuitive
  • Every level is a series of giant, mostly featureless rooms that sometimes spawn enemies
  • Baldur moves way too slowly through these giant, mostly featureless rooms with no run button
  • Camera controls suck way too much for a Xbox 360 game
  • Inventory management is a hell of identical sounding items, making the only informed decision “is The Number going up?”
  • Every death is followed by an unskippable cutscene as the valkyrie comes to retrieve your corpse – it takes 30 seconds
  • You will die a lot because of the painful combat and lack of healing items
  • The game ends on a cliffhanger for sequels that are obviously never coming

I don’t hate Too Human. This is a game that could be salvaged with a sequel. But that sequel is never coming, so we’re left with what Silicon Knights and Microsoft shoved out the door. It’s free on Xbox marketplace, and that’s a good price. Play it for free. Stop when you get frustrated. Maybe pick it back up in a decade and finish it. You can skip that last suggestion, though, and be no worse for it.

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Game Reviews

Tattletail

Tattletail is a jump-scare horror game, with a shocking amount of charm. It’s a fairly simple and short Unity game, and it’s not without some bugs, but I enjoyed it.

The plot is the story of a kid who wants to open their presents before Christmas. They find a Tattletail, which is a Furby. But Tattletail needs to be fed, groomed, battery charged, and hates the dark. If any of Tattletail’s needs are not met, Tattletail makes noise, which attracts Mama. Mama eats you.

What results is a fun game of hide-and-seek, while also trying to avoid Mama and keep Tattletail happy. It’s not very long, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Mama is a bit frustrating to deal with until you figure out the quirks.

I also ran into a showstopping bug when the game refused to recognize my inputs outside of the opening menus. It turns out that it just didn’t like the Steam overlay. Once I disabled that, it worked just fine.

Tattletail’s a fun little Christmas game.

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Game Reviews

Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water

Fatal Frame is a series of Japanese survival horror games where you fight ghosts with a camera. It’s a special camera, but the action is the same. You snap pictures of ghosts. Maiden of the Black Water isn’t a new game; it was first released on the Wii U. It’s recently been re-released for modern consoles. I chose to play it on the Nintendo Switch.

The game is survival horror excellence, though it’s a bit easy. On “normal” difficulty, I never saw a game over screen from combat. If it weren’t for one particular escape sequence, I would’ve never seen the game over screen at all. Despite this, the game maintained suspense throughout by the nature of fighting ghosts. They can travel through walls. They can appear out of nowhere. Ghosts aren’t bound by even video game rules.

While most ghosts could be beat just by snapping pictures over and over, the process of fighting ghosts offers a lot more than just pictures. The timing of your shot, the contents of the picture, what lens you use, all impact the ghost busting. When you time a shot just right and get to blast a group of ghosts with your camera with a shot combo, it feels awesome.

I had a ton of fun being spooked by ghosts and blasting ghosts with my camera. I don’t think I fully grasped the folklore of the plot, but that’s okay. This game is awesome and it’s motivating me to go back and play the earlier titles.

It’s going to be hard to do that, though, because I’ve been playing my Switch a lot lately and it’s exposing one of the factors the lowers my interest in playing some games. I only own the older Fatal Frame games in digital form on Playstation 3. When I want to play them, I have to boot up my PS3, navigate to the game, load the game, navigate the menus to load my save game, and then I can play. It’s a few minutes from “I want to play game” to “I am playing game”.

What I’ve gotten used to is the instant suspend/resume features of the Nintendo Switch. Once I’ve gotten into the game once, if I want to stop playing, I simply put the console to sleep. When I want to resume playing, I turn it on and I’m instantly back where I left off. It’s the same whether I want to play for an hour or just a few minutes between meetings. If I have to go away for a bit to deal with IRL things, I suspend the game and go do it.

I don’t have to turn off my PS3. I suppose I could pause the game and simply turn my TV off. That seems fairly wasteful though, and now I realize why PS5/XSX focused so hard on instant resume. Pick up and play on the Switch, whether docked or portable, is pretty awesome.

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Game Reviews

Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread is Metroid 5, and the end of the Metroid series as we know it. We haven’t seen a new Metroid in the mainline series since Metroid Fusion in 2002. Zero Mission remade Metroid and Samus Returns remade Metroid 2, but this is the first original 2D entry in the Metroid series since 2002.

Metroid Dread was worth the 19 year wait.

I love this game. I was always going to love this game. I’m going to gush about it for a bit before I get a little critical.

All of the movement in this game feels so good. Samus is mobile, fast, and infinitely maneuverable. This is even before getting the morph ball. At first, I was a bit frustrated with how long it took to get to the morph ball, but, in its place, Samus can slide. Sliding works to get through most of the same gates a morph ball would. You slide through small gaps. It requires no build up, just move in the direction and hit the slide button. Always feels good.

Since Super Metroid, Samus has been able to shoot in eight directions. In Metroid Dread, she can shoot in any direction. It comes at a bit of a cost; you have to stand still to shoot at odd angles. You can still shoot at a 45 degree angle while running, but it’s a bit inaccurate because you’re moving while doing it. But the trade off is worth it. No more positioning Samus to hit something with a 45 degree angle shot that a 50 degree angle would hit without moving.

The game has a lot of short cutscenes, and Samus is awesome in all of them. She’s doing flips, she’s shooting things in the face, she’s action posing. Even though a lot of boss fights start with a cutscene, which means you see them every time you die and start the fight over, they’re all skippable after the first watch.

The headline enemy in Dread is EMMI. There are seven of them, they hunt Samus in patrolled areas, and they cannot be killed with normal weapons. This leads to a lot of cat-and-mouse gameplay in EMMI areas, and it’s a lot of fun. EMMI has a huge hearing radius, which is attracted to movement. Once it comes to investigate, it’ll try to find you with a vision cone. Samus can run or hide. I found running to be more of my style, and the chases were genuinely exciting. Getting caught means near certain death, but the checkpoint is always right outside the door to an EMMI zone. If you’re bad at escaping, this might get really frustrating. I loved it.

The map flows really, really well. There are obvious gates in every area, and lots of one-way doors to keep you from getting too off track. It’s just enough to get a little lost sometimes and not feel completely railroaded. It’s also huge. There are several areas connected by trains and teleporters. Secret items are hidden everywhere and it’s a joy to explore and find them.

Okay, now my minor gripes. The music isn’t what I expected. I can still recall some previous Metroid themes, and I couldn’t even hum a single tune from Dread. It’s almost nonexistent. Also, as the game goes on, the default arm cannon feels more and more useless, even when it’s getting more powerful. Missiles and screw attack are basically all I used near the end. Thankfully, missile replenishment was generous throughout the game.

I loved this game from beginning to end. It fell straight into it from the start and couldn’t play anything else until I finished it.

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Game Reviews

Prey

Prey has nothing to do with Prey. That is to say that the game named Prey released in 2017 is completely unrelated to the game named Prey released in 2006. The only connecting tissue between these two games is their name, being played from a first-person perspective, and involving aliens. I don’t think I even noticed a single cheeky callback or reference to the previous Prey.

Prey is excellent. As an immersive sim in the vein of System Shock, Deus Ex, and Bioshock, it’s a worthy addition to this genre. One of my favorite additions to the game is the recycler. Everything you pick up can be recycled, which breaks it down into material you can use to synthesize new things, like ammo and weapons. One of the weapons is a recycler grenade, which can be tossed into a group of enemies to suck them up and spit out materials. It’s awesome.

So why did it take me four years to finish Prey? One reason is that I can be easily distracted by other games. If I don’t buckle down to play something, if it’s just occupying my time, then I’ll bounce off to the next thing that interests me.

Prey also has bugs. Even four years later, I ran into bugs. In ~15 hours of play (since I picked it back up, that is), I hit two crash-to-desktop bugs. One of them forced my video driver to restart entirely. A side quest bugged on me by failing to give me the next step after I completed one. Another quest directed me to listen to something on my computer. The thing I was supposed to listen to wasn’t there. If I ran into bugs when I wasn’t committed to playing Prey, that would prompt me to drop it for something else.

There were other things that were slightly annoying, but not significant detractors. Prey doesn’t have the sense of bodily movement that Arkane games usually do. The hacking minigame is slightly annoying, as most hacking minigames are. There’s no fast travel between levels, so some of the navigation is a bit of a pain.

This is a game I should’ve finished the first time I played it. I love what it does and how it does it. The bugs and annoyances aren’t enough to cast a shadow on the gameplay and story of Prey.

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Game Reviews

Ion Fury

I love a good neo-retro shooter, and Ion Fury is a good neo-retro shooter. It yanks the BUILD engine into 2019 and made some great levels with it. Detailed, interesting environments, weapons that feel great, and lots of enemies to blow up. I’m fairly annoyed by the fact most weapons need to be reloaded and there’s no indication of how much ammo is in your magazine, but the bulk of the game is fun.

The rest of this review will be looking at some of the atmospheric humor. Shelly doesn’t really cut one-liners throughout the game like Duke Nukem does so this is sort of the only humor to it.

I took three screenshots of stuff on walls, and this is easily the best. A little mashup of two of my favorite things, Doom and Taco Bell. It’s not really that funny, just referencing things I recognize.

Here’s another reference to a thing I recognize but don’t like. The Room is a terrible movie and it’s got a notorious reputation as such, and so this is really not going to hit with a lot of people. It’s still just referencing thing I recognize. Zero humor.

This one is really missing the mark. Beyond the main character, this game has no women, much less android girls. This is posted up in a room that turns zombies into piles of meat. This is just here for the player to say “ha ha, finger stuck in mechanical pussy.” It’s original Shadow Warrior levels of bad humor.

I pulled these out because some other less funny things were removed from the game, and then 3D Realms made some statement about not censoring games. I’m not a fan of censoring games just as I’m not a fan of bad attempts at humor. Whether these posters are funny is up to the player, but I hope their next attempts are punched up a lot. These are, at best, non-jokes that apparently could’ve gone way worse.