Outer Wilds

I’m really disappointed in this game, but it’s my own fault for not looking into just what, exactly, the game even was before buying it. Part of the problem is that every positive comment for Outer Wilds says, “Don’t read anything about the game. Just go in blind!” It’s like everyone collectively agreed not to spoil the main gameplay mechanic that basically determines if you’re gonna like the game at all. I don’t even know why it’s a spoiler, because it’s essentially the inciting incident. (Insert spoiler tag, anyway.) So… there’s a time loop. Every 22 minutes, the universe explodes, and you start over. Your goal, then, is to figure out why by looking for clues on various planets. In theory, it’s a cool premise, but the execution makes the game feel more roguelike than I would have preferred. You might not even realize there’s a time loop at first because of how easy it is to die in general.

There’s no combat in Outer Wilds, but you can still run out of oxygen, fall to your death, get killed by ghost matter, etc. Several of my deaths were the result of me getting flung into space by a tornado or something similar, with no hope of getting back to my ship. That can get pretty frustrating when you’ve been trying to wait out the time loop, since key locations can’t be explored until near the end of the cycle. The constant threat of death is exacerbated by the controls. Whether you’re trying to land your ship on a planet’s surface or jetpack through underground caves, you’re always one bump or thrust away from completely messing up your current loop run. I get that these are supposed to be super realistic space physics, though, so maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate them. But I also don’t play video games for realistic physics and don’t have the patience to “git gud” at a game that doesn’t really respect the player’s time.

Sable

Ever since playing Yonder, I’ve been itching to find the next great “casual adventure.” Sable might just be the closest experience I’ve found to Yonder. It features a big-ish open world that’s broken up into distinctly mapped sections, lots of mountains and space wreckage to climb and explore, and small communities of people who dole out side quests. And, of course, there’s no combat or death. It’s the perfect chill game that only occasionally gets derailed by an obtuse puzzle. The majority of the time, you’re just cruising around the desert, soaking in the gorgeous visuals, and looking for the next obstacle to climb. There are some really great moments where you need to meticulously plan out how to reach certain heights. And there’s almost always a reward at the top, be it money, new clothes, or a “chum egg” that can later be exchanged for more stamina.

I also like how the story is framed. There’s no “darkness” or whatever you have to rid the world of. You’re just a girl who’s ready to find herself by going out and having adventures on her own. Who you choose to become at the end depends on which mask you don, so the main goal is to find more masks. Alas, it wasn’t clear to me how you get new masks until I was already nearly done with the game. Sure, some of them you just find, but most are only obtained by first collecting three badges and then handing those badges over to some sort of mask wizard. That’s fine and all; I just wish I had known that was the process sooner so I could have been swapping between more mask options. But the game is so good that, even after finishing the main quest, I still pressed on to find the remaining masks and fulfill all of the other achievements.

So, yes, I highly recommend Sable, but there’s something you should be aware of first. It’s pretty damn janky. Like, this is one of the buggier games I’ve played in a long time. My character would frequently get hung up on ledges, the hoverbike would flip around uncontrollably, button prompts would disappear, etc. Ten hours into the game, I completely borked my save file by doing a quest out of order. The game simply would not load afterwards. Fortunately, the gamesave is just a plain English JSON file, so I could go in there and delete the last few things I did to reset that quest. But the fact that I had to do that is a little unnerving. Oh, I know you’re thinking, “If a game is that buggy, is it really that good?” And the answer is still yes. If there was combat and death in Sable, I think the bugs would have killed the experience. But it’s so relaxing and rewarding otherwise that the jankiness is forgivable.

Salt and Sacrifice

Salt and Sacrifice is an indirect sequel to Salt and Sanctuary. A 2-D souls-like that came out in 2016. A game I played into the ground that was only missing one thing; online Co-Op. When I saw that Sacrifice had a fully supported Multiplayer system with summoning and invasions, I just bought the game. I didn’t look into any further. Salt and Sanctuary with Co-Op is all what I wanted. The Co-Op is glorious. It’s quick, saves progress between worlds, and was implemented beautifully. Ska studios really did a great job with this feature and should be commended. I just wish Salt and Sanctuary with Co-Op would have been the goal. It seems the team bit off more than they could chew, because there is a lot in this game by way of “improvements” that leave the game overall feeling rushed, half-baked, & not well tested.

For example; the “Monster Hunter-esque” mage hunting. You have to chase these mages through the levels and they are the only means of new gear. It is fun at first, but it’s like 2/3 of the game. Most of which is dealing with finding the mage for it to immediately teleport back to where you just came from or dealing with enemies that are worse than the mages. When you are looking for a specific item, you may or may not find the mage you need. Also, the inventory system is completely broken. I can put the gear I can’t use in a chest to clear my inventory, but then it appears in the menu to upgrade, crowding it so I can’t easily compare the items I can use. Adding the ability to sort items by type when crafting would be a massive improvement. Then the actual gameplay. The amount of deaths that are cheap, unavoidable, and juggle you so much you want to scream is too high. Having a friend laugh at the absurdity is the only way we got through it. I was hoping for a Co-Op Salt & Sanctuary. If that was released to day, I would buy it.  Unfortunately, other than the multiplayer, this game is worse in every way.

Biomutant

I’ve put a lot of hours into this game and did look forward to playing it every day, but I would also grow tired of it quickly during each play session. Design-wise, it feels similar to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game I absolutely loved. But in Biomutant, everything feels like a step down. The world just isn’t very interesting to explore. The environments all look the same. The camps and abandoned buildings that promise loot seldom deliver anything good. Side quests are repetitive and rely on gimmicky “rotation puzzles” or quick time events. And the combat is a total mess at times. Your character, and the camera, flop around so much during fights that you feel like you don’t have any control. I also hated how you enter “combat mode” anytime an enemy is nearby, thus interrupting your journey to the next waypoint.

Oh man, I didn’t think I was gonna rag on this game so much. The thing is, Biomutant still has moments of goodness. The creature and weapon designs are interesting. Even though the world is rather dry (literally and figuratively), I had fun running around and finding upgrade points. Your magic-like abilities are pretty weak compared to your melee and ranged attacks, but I still enjoyed unlocking and trying them out. Likewise when it came to tracking down the different tribes’ special weapons. And while most side quests feel rather pointless, there are a handful that involve you meeting and helping one of the game’s 23 special characters. These characters usually reward you with special items and can also be invited onto the endgame’s Ark, so there’s some incentive to seek them out.

The story at large, however, is pretty terrible. Well, it’s not so much the story itself that’s bad. Mutant animals surviving the post-apocalypse is a decent setup. It’s the way it’s told that ruins it. The whole game is narrated by one person. Characters speak gibberish, and the narrator translates for you. This takes away any personality these characters might have had. It doesn’t help that the narrator mostly speaks in sentence fragments like, “Thinks you should be careful.” He also refers to every in-game item by an obnoxious, Dr. Seussian name like, “Go to the Cloggy Jingowap and turn on the Lecto Fusenburpin.” Ugh, it’s exhausting to listen to and creates this weird tone where you have silly dialogue mixed with grim stakes. Cleaning up the story’s presentation alone would have made the game’s other shortcomings easier to digest.

Elden Ring

This review is coming from a big FromSoftware fan who really likes the sense of achievement from a really good boss fight. If you dislike boss fights, FromSoftware games are not for you. If you dislike boss fights and still want to play one of the biggest and most interesting games I’ve played in years, Elden Ring is for you! The reason I bring this up is that there are more ways to get through this game than just throwing your corpse at a boss for hours. You can spend an hour or two, quite early in the game, grinding for some levels and items and just exploring. I lost track of the number of times I was astonished by the scope and size of the game and was continually surprised by all the content and how varied it was.

The thing about Elden Ring is that you can customize your play style better than most RPGs I’ve found. You can be a wizard, a brute, an archer, Sonic the Hedgehog (google it), whatever your imagination can come up with. I watched a video of someone beating the entire game as a pacifist. He beat the entire game without ever doing direct damage to anything in game! You can make Elden Ring your own in ways other RPGs only dream. FromSoftware gives you more tools than ever to be successful and “getting gud” is entirely optional. The most inaccessible part of Elden Ring is the lore. It’s buried in the item descriptions and in the world building. Some of my favorite parts of experiencing this game was watching explanations of why things were a certain way after playing it. There is a much deeper meaning than, “That guy is a snake” if you want to look for it. That being said, I spent hundreds of hours beating the 160+ bosses blissfully unaware of what any of it meant, then I watched a couple videos explaining things and the richness of it all helps me enjoy it more. Story is optional. I can’t recommend it highly enough, that is, if it’s your thing.

Scarf

Scarf is a 3D adventure game that favors platforming and puzzle solving over combat. That’s usually right up my alley, but Scarf takes too many missteps for me to give it a recommendation. It’s a shame, too, because I don’t think it would take much to fix this game. Simply making the hero run a little faster and jump a little higher would already help tremendously. I was holding the run button down for the entire game, and it still didn’t feel like I was moving very fast. You do get a double jump early on, too, but that just means you end up over relying on it for even the smallest of steps and gaps. They also need to break the levels up. There are only three levels in the game, and they are loooooong. This kills any incentive I have to backtrack and find missed collectibles, because you have to play the entire level again with all skills reset.

Despite not liking the controls and level structure, I was still tempted to replay levels for those elusive collectibles, though. These items mostly boil down to art and cutscenes, but they complement the story at large. Sure, Scarf isn’t that heavy on story, but the bits of lore you do get are interesting. I appreciate the world that they’ve built here. It looks amazing, after all. But that’s the third issue with Scarf: it’s graphically not optimized. I have a decent gaming rig and was playing on the lowest settings, and the game still chugged and stuttered at times. I won’t even pretend to know how to fix that, and maybe it can’t be fixed. But if the controls and scope of the levels were ironed out, I’d feel much better about giving this a thumbs up, even if it continues to run a little janky.