This series of articles has been really good for me as a writer - with most of the rest of the days being spent at work, this series gives me some good incentive to try out new stuff in my free time. It’s been especially great this month - nearly everything I went through was fantastic, and I found another all-timer of an experience, like I had with Outer Wilds two months ago.
This was also a fun month because I subscribed to Xbox Game Pass, which has insane value for money. It’s basically a Netflix for games you can directly install and try, and it has a whole bunch of new and old games that keep coming and going. To give you an idea of the value, every new game on this list is from Xbox Game Pass, which I spent a hundred rupees on, and if I had bought them on Steam it would set me back by around three thousand.
(Xbox Game Pass is not sponsoring this article)
(but if they want to, I accept all currencies)
Before I start the ranking of all the stuff I went through, though, I want to mention some things I continued or went back to this month, in a new section I’ll title -
The podcast that ranked first in my last month’s list is the first repeat item in this series, since there’s a whole lot of episodes to go through and I haven’t finished up with it quite yet, and I wanted to write some updates on it.
For those unaware (or those who haven’t read the last entry in this series of articles) Critical Bits is an actual-play RPG podcast, where a bunch of people play Masks a superhero tabletop RPG (for the uninitiated, think Dungeons And Dragons, but with different dice rules and set in the modern world; for people who have played more than one TTRPG, this is a PbtA game) where they play teenage superheroes who have to face the dangers of mortal peril, looming adulthood and school.
There are a lot of episodes, and while I haven’t caught up on all of them, I’m pretty close. There are also a bunch of special episodes featuring a number of guests and focusing on stories set in the setting’s past, and the ones available to the public (most of them are Patreon-exclusive) are great, but a bit overlong and self-indulgent.
For example, it took me a week to go through a six-and-a-half-hour special episode titled Spider Day 2: The Real Story of Spider Day. It takes place across 10 groups over three different points in time, and while it’s really funny (and some of the recognizable guests are, as expected, pretty great), it also ends up feeling a bit unfocused and scattershot, because the disparate storylines are all over the place and feel unconnected, and the point of the whole thing comes in way too late.
Still, it’s just criticism for a bonus episode, and the series overall is really nice. Do check it out if you get a chance!
Dragon Age: Inquisition
One of my favourite games of all time, Dragon Age: Inquisition still works as great comfort food for me - whenever I’m stressed or depressed, I start up a new playthrough and see how far I want to go before giving up and trying something new.
This doesn’t work great with RPGs that are designed to take more than 100 hours for each playthrough, which is why there aren’t as many items on the ranked list as there were yesterday. Still, DA:I is always going to have a place on my laptop’s HDD, and with the recent teaser for Dragon Age 4, I’m cautiously excited about the future.
The New Stuff
Carrion is an indie pixel-art Metroidvania horror game that features a huge terrifying tentacled wormy monster slinking in the shadows, tearing through an underground facility and ripping human beings into chunks to eat them and grow even bigger.
And you play the monster.
To describe the gameplay, I’ll have to expand on the term “Metroidvania” above - for the uninitiated, the term refers to a loose genre of games which involve exploring a given series of large interconnected maps, most of which have sections blocked off by various types of obstacles, and finding new upgrades/powers/items that will help you overcome those obstacles and explore newer areas. The term is taken from two game series - Metroid and Castlevania, which have had their most iconic entries refine and codify this genre.
As the monster in Carrion, you’ll break out of a containment case and go through a series of labs, eating any human beings you encounter and finding split pieces of yourself in other containment cases, which will give you even more powers and help you get even larger. The more you eat, the more you grow, but certain powers can only be used if you’re smaller, which means you’ll occasionally have to break off parts of yourself, weakening yourself as a result, to use those powers.
It’s a great game overall, and it doesn’t take more than six hours to finish. Do try it out if any of the above sounds interesting to you.
This was a very fun surprise.
Spy is a 2015 film starring Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham and many others, and directed by Paul Feig.
The story tracks a frumpy introverted CIA agent that provides support for a James Bond-esque spy. When the spy dies, she takes it upon herself to get revenge and enters the field herself. The main source of comedy comes from the fact that this isn’t really a poster woman for this kind of stereotypically glamorous field - she’s not thin, she lacks confidence, she’s a nerd - but she’s immensely talented and intelligent, and able to overcome her fears to pull off some ridiculous stunts. Melissa McCarthy is naturally funny, so her terrific performance isn’t surprising at all, but the other two actors I highlighted above - Rose Byrne and Jason Statham - are unexpectedly brilliant and hilarious as well. I really hope they choose more comedies in the future.
There are some weirdly unfunny scenes using sexual harassment as a punchline, though, and the film lingers on them a LOT - funnier scenes are finished up in half a minute, but we spend two whole minutes seeing someone sexually harass the protagonist while attempting to help her, which, even for people who are fine watching such scenes and find them funny, would end up being grating.
Even so, in the end, I really liked it. If you’re able to get past all of that unfunny stuff, the rest is fantastic. Do try it out if you haven’t already.
4. The Red Strings Club
The Red Strings Club is a futuristic cyberpunk adventure game released in 2018. Cyberpunk stories generally tend to be about social structures augmented by technology, as well as the effects capitalism and commercialization has on the general populace. In that regard, The Red Strings Club does have all the tropes you’d expect, but still manages to set itself apart with the characters and the unique framing.
You play as multiple characters in different parts of the story, and it’s essentially a puzzle game which uses all their different mechanics, coupled with a lot of dialogue choices, to craft a nice story.
This story revolves around a new cybernetic implant called Social Psyche Welfare, which human beings can install to have it remove all their extreme emotions, like rage, depression, anxiety, hatred and suicidal tendencies. The game does interrogate the concept well, making you wonder and answer what makes one human without the extremities of negative emotions, what aspects of humanity would you cut out entirely, and what benefit supercorporations would get from having such unprecedented control over human emotions.
There’s a nice diversity to the characters in the story as well, as befits a futuristic story such as this - for example, two of the characters are boyfriends with an extremely touching portrayal of a romantic relationship, and the third is an explicitly genderless robot. That being said, there are a few things to look out for, if you’re looking for a story with good LGBTQIA+ representation (disclaimer - I can’t comment on what counts as representation since I’m not part of the community, so I’ll link some pieces by people who are):-
- The only character designed outside the gender binary is a robot - which, while not bad by itself, represents a trend of non-binary characters in science fiction that are always shown as inhuman in some way.
- One of the puzzle solutions you need in the endgame involves discovering that a character you previously met is transgender, and using their deadname to solve a puzzle. Trans critics have documented the fact that deadnames (names they were born with and used prior to coming out) are inherently traumatizing for them, and even though trauma has a place to be explored in fiction, nearly all trans characters in fiction have their deadnames feature somewhere in their stories. This is a piece that goes more in depth (and features spoilers). For what it’s worth, one of the game’s developers is trans, and reached out to the writer of this article with her own thoughts and defense.
3. Dishonored 2
Dishonored 2 is a 2016 action-adventure game made by Arkane Studios, and it’s a sequel to Dishonored, which I talked about last month.
The sequel is more of a refinement and expansion than a reinvention, and that’s perfectly fine - the level design is massively improved, the difficulty is tuned well enough that I found Hard difficulty to be challenging but fair, and there are many additional options to nonlethally subdue guards in combat, which is a huge help.
Something new here is that while the earlier game gave you a fixed protagonist, the royal bodyguard Corvo Attano (who’s kind of a stereotypical silent fair-skinned dude protagonist), you have the option of choosing between him and his daughter, the empress Emily Kaldwin.
I had some criticisms of the first game and how it framed the conflict, which took place in a city devastated by the plague. It showed the commonfolk suffering from poverty and being especially vulnerable to the plague, and the rich decadent nobles taking advantage of the situation and siphoning up even more money for their parties and brothels - but the game’s provided solution to the situation was to restore the rightful heir to the throne and continue the autocratic system that lead to the class divide in the first place. With all that in mind, I wanted to see how it would handle having the new empress herself as a protagonist, especially a voiced one, so I chose her. I figured that having her see and grapple with the inequality between the ruling class and the common folk would be interesting.
And… it was there, but also kind of basically not?
The Dishonored series still thinks that the “right” kind of political system is an autocracy, except that the ruler should mingle with the commonfolk and spend time on the streets to see where they’re coming from, which is extremely idealistic and incredibly naive, as all the depictions of the lower classes in this game series can confirm - they’re always poor and downtrodden, their homes are always in a state of near-destruction, and they’re always suffering from some sort of deadly plague or infestation, and they lament on the streets about their misfortune while the ruling classes drink themselves into a frenzy in their cushy mansions, and the “good” ruling class members either don’t know or turn a blind eye to all this inequality. This sort of half-hearted social commentary also extends to the antagonist of the story, who is framed as having a valid hatred of the royal family based on their treatment of her and the trauma she inherited in her own deeply tragic life - but because that would be too relatable, she also ends up being a bloodthirsty psychopathic witch who wants to use her powers to reshape reality.
So in the “good” ending, where Emily asserts that the “right” kind of ruler shouldn’t be chosen by blood, but be chosen by their ability to rule the disenfranchised, her words end up feeling even more hollow - she’s still fighting to reclaim her inheritance over her kingdom.
Ah well. Still, it’s a fantastic game that feels great to play, and I’d still recommend it.
2. Slay The Spire
Slay The Spire is a 2019 roguelike deck-builder videogame, and from a purely gameplay-based perspective, it might be my favourite game of the year so far.
As I talked about last month, a roguelike is essentially a game where you have a semi-randomized series of events, enemies and powerups you receive, and the focus is more on having a given game focus on going as far as you can. A deck-builder game, on the other hand, is a game where you receive a bunch of cards that you can use for some positive effect, obtain more cards over time, and build a deck of cards that is perfectly tuned to your own playstyle and helps you get through the levels even more quickly.
Slay The Spire combines the two - you battle using cards for attacking, defending, inflicting effects or buffing yourself, and you go through a randomized set of dungeons and enemies, with the goal of ascending a giant spire and defeating the evil at the top.
There’s really no criticism I can come up with - it’s basically perfect. It’s incredibly addictive, and it’s easily the most fun I’ve had with any game this year. This one comes very highly recommended.
1. Pathologic 2
Before I say anything else, a note - Pathologic 2 is a must-play, if not a must-love, and I want you to go buy this game (or try it on Game Pass) and experience it. It’s not a skill-based game where you learn to master its mechanics and win it - the game is designed to make you feel powerless and hopeless, and as you continue on, victory will mean scraping by and surviving.
It has also, like Outer Wilds (which I played two months ago), immediately become one of my favourite games of all time.
Pathologic 2 is a 2019 game that’s less of a sequel and more of a reimagining of the original Pathologic. Made and based in Russia, both games put you in the shoes of a protagonist, a relative newcomer to a small town, who has to deal with their relationships with the other people in the town, many of whom have lives and ideologies and agendas of their own, and face a plague that is set to destroy the town altogether, trying desperately to save the city in 12 days.
Time passes without you, and events will occur whether you’re there to witness them or not. You always have a bunch of things to do each day, but you also have to take care of your own hunger, thirst and exhaustion all the while, sometimes having to choose taking care of yourself over saving someone else as a result. It’s intensely stressful and sometimes near-unbearable as an experience, but the writing and setting is so captivating that you’ll keep wanting to continue and see your journey to its end.
The setting involves magical realism by way of rural mythology - the town has strained relations with the rural folk that live in its slums and still work with the traditions of the past, and their traditions are based in some sort of reality. You meet strange inhuman creatures that live alongside the rural folk. Tree roots groan and offer herbs when you pour blood on them. Your dreams echo with the voice of the land - and the oncoming plague.
Pathologic 2 is an uncompromising work of art that is a must-play, and if you’re worried about the difficulty, it offers a whole bunch of sliders to customize the experience and make it easier for you - or harder, if that’s what you prefer.
For people who want to view games as art, but feel that art can’t be constrained by having to satisfy and reward the person experiencing it (like nearly every other game), play Pathologic 2.
For people who want a different kind of experience from all the games they usually play, play Pathologic 2.
For everyone else, still, please try it out. Don’t go in expecting something like Dark Souls or Skyrim - this is a wholly unique experience, and I really want you to try it for yourself.
There are a lot of themes explored in the game that are incredibly interesting, and I’ll actually write an article on it sometime in the future. This has been one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences I’ve ever been through, and I want to keep writing more about it.