The gift-giving holidays are over and we’ve made it past the end of the calendar year. Surely 2021 will be nothing but blue skies and ambrosia! At the very least, it should (hopefully) include a patched up version of Cyberpunk 2077 for last gen consoles (because I wanted to play that, and I’m not getting a PS5 for at least another year).
Before we completely turn the page though, let’s look back on our personal favorites for the year that was 2020 before we bid it bon voyage (and don’t come back).
Johnny Malloy – Hades (Switch)
I did it. I escaped Hades. I made it to Greece. I found Persephone. And it only took me seventy-two tries.
I suppose that isn’t something to be proud of, but I am. Look, the first thing I ever wrote about here was The Binding of Isaac, another dense, difficult roguelike (and also one that I’ve proudly Platinum-trophied). So I don’t stink at these types of games, and I don’t quit on them either—but this one was about to get backburnered right before I finally broke on through to the other side last night around midnight.
Hades is a wonderful game, and I’ve talked about it before, but after 65 hours (according to my Switch play activity) of trying and failing to defeat dear old dad, I was thinking I’d moving on to the Super Mario 3D Collection my mother-in-law got me from Christmas.
Side note regarding SM3DC, I had no intention of purchasing it myself as I still own all three games and possess working consoles they can be played on, but I’m loving the trip down memory lane (although I will probably write about the technical limitations I forgot about). Plus, I forgot how much certain Nintendo 64 games gave me motion sickness. Yikes.
I tried different weapons, different charms, different boons, and different play styles; I could not get over the hump. I eventually started watching YouTube videos, those “Hades for Dummies” style ones, where people would explain how Duo boons worked, and how you can upgrade your weapons with Titan’s blood to become more powerful. People would talk about how you can often become OP (overpowered, for the lay-nerds) and “break the game.” That never happened to me. I almost always struggled in every boss battle (except for the Hydra, ol’ Lernie).
Even when I would make it to the end of the game, with all three Death Defiances still in tact, I’d fall just short of victory. And it happened a lot. If I check the archives, I’m sure it has me on record as dying to [Redacted] a soul-crushing amount of times.
Now, when I say I “beat” Hades, that’s kind of like saying you “beat” The Binding of Isaac the first time you defeated Mom’s Heart. I didn’t actually beat it. You don’t even get a credit roll. You get an ending (of sorts) and then the game spits you right back to the House of Hades. I don’t consider this to be a spoiler because rogue-likes are structured this way. At least in Hades, it makes narrative sense why you (at this point) are stuck in something akin to your pal Sisyphus’ fate.
And can we talk about Sisyphus, and some of the wonderful characters in this game? In order to fully appreciate the game, you have to invest in the story. Dialogue isn’t something to blow past. It’s not like a Zelda game where you just need to read the bold words that characters say. The dialogue in Hades means something. The game gives you the agency to form bonds with whomever you want.
Early on I bonded with Achilles, because he seemed like a good bloke. I gave Dusa, the duty-bound Gorgon, several gifts because she was just so socially awkward, and it seemed like a nice thing to do. I gave Meg gifts because she’s a smokey-voiced vixen whose dismissiveness towards me only made me seek her attention even more.
Meanwhile, I can barely bring myself to talk to Hypnos every time I re-enter the House of Hades. He’s so annoying, whether he’s mocking how I died in the last run, or begging me to get a certain bullish figure’s autograph (“To my biggest fan, Asterius”), I just don’t like the guy. Same goes for Orpheus, the court musician. I’m not sure why, but I’m still on the fence about him. I love Eurydice though, his carefree muse. I even like some of the villains, such as the boastful, prideful Theseus, who is always quick to talk himself up before a battle.
Other characters such as Patroclus are still a bit of a mystery to me, although he seems rather fond of Achilles, and I suspect they may have been—perhaps—romantically involved at some point. His connection to Achilles makes me trust him, as I have grown fond of the great warrior, and therefore am more inclined to trust someone he cares for.
When I heard this game had “dating sim” elements in it, I was uninterested. It’s not my thing, and it was the one part of Stardew Valley I hated having to do. Here though, the term is more angled towards forming bonds with people (although Achilles did subtly let me know, after one gift, that he just likes me as a friend).
I really can’t say enough about the writing in this game. The fact I don’t recall one single instance of repeated dialogue from the denizens of the House of Hades (or pretty much anywhere else for that matter) after 65 hours of playtime is amazing. I would’ve thought I’d hit reruns by now, especially since most people say it takes half the number of attempts it took me to complete the game.
Sure, Achilles and Nyx are saying only one or two lines to me per run now, but having completed one run through Hades now, I suspect a whole new batch of dialogue options will spring forth.
I’m reinvigorated finally completing a run, and I’m ready to find those few missing keepsakes (and find out what those locks at the bottom of the screen hold), power up my weapons, knock off a few more tasks on The Fated List, upgrade and enhance the underworld, learn how to play the lyre, and see what else the underworld has to offer.
Lor Gislason – Grindstone (Switch)
When I found out Capy Games had a new puzzle game coming out, I knew I had to get it no matter what. I was a huge fan of one of their previous titles, Critter Crunch. Not too brag too much but at one point I was in the top 100 CC players, a feat in gaming I will never achieve again.
Their newest game is Grindstone. You play as a huge hulking Viking named Jorj, who is just trying to earn some extra cash to take his family on vacation. He wanders off to Mt. Grindstone to farm loot. Something that happens in the intro I think is quite cute is that he’s so cold (he’s just wearing a helmet and loincloth really) his skin turns blue. It’s a nice touch.
The Main goal of Grindstone is to chain enemies called creeps into getting huge combos. 10 or more earns you a Grindstone, which then calls on the map for you to collect it. By picking it up you also open up continuing your combo, by being able to change the colour of creep you’re going after. Using this and other things to bounce off of, you can get a combo that takes over the whole level sometimes. It’s super satisfying and Jorj picks up speed the longer the combo, going into a full berserker frenzy.
The levels obviously get more challenging as you go, but you’ll unlock blueprints for items such as swords, shields, arrows and potions to help balance the increased difficulty. One of my most used potions allows you teleport to any position on the map. Each item either recharges after a level, or will need to be refilled by paying material costs at the shop. Creeps and other enemies all drop materials, like bat wings and such.
There’s also cute outfits for Jorj to wear, each with a bonus effect. A Santa Claus suit, for example, has a chance to spawn a gift. I’m wearing some armor that sometimes blocks a hit which I’ve found quite useful, as you only have 3 hit points. I’ve found myself quite addicted to Grindstone, enjoying the simple act of chaining combos and splattering creeps to and fro. It’s also a bit longer than I expected, and I’m not complaining. Bang for your buck as they say. I can highly recommend it for puzzle fans.
Collin Henderson – Persona 5 Royal (PS4) / Murder House (Steam)
This week I took advantage of online sales and spent about 7 and a half hours playing through 2020’s Resident Evil 3 remake. 25YL’s own Johnny Malloy has written extensively on the game, and I will echo many of his sentiments. Despite the game’s brevity, which is admittedly a flaw, something about that short length makes replays a tantalizing prospect. It’s constantly moving forward, giving it a really nice sense of momentum, and even though the story is as awkward and silly as anything the series has ever put out, it’s entertaining enough to keep me curious about what stupid line comes out of Jill’s mouth next. It’s far from the best Resident Evil title, and in some ways pales in comparison to 2019’s remake of the second game, but I can see myself playing through it a few more times thanks to its brisk pace, host of unlockables, and gratifyingly splat-acular combat.
I also played through the first few levels of 2019’s smash hit Fire Emblem: Three Houses on the Switch, which I received as a gift from one of my siblings. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bandwagon fan, with 2013’s Awakening being my first entry in the long running strategy series. I’ve also played through the somewhat-maligned Fates, and enjoyed that almost as much as the previous entry. At this point, I haven’t played Three Houses for too long, but I’ve enjoyed the top notch presentation and classic turn-based battles. There’s something very cathartic about seeing enemy icons disappear as you wipe out the enemy army, and the idea of playing through three different paths is intriguing to me. It’s still early for me, but I can see how this game can become someone’s most played Switch title.
With this being the end of the year, I reflected on my favorite games 2020 had to offer. The year may have been an awful one, but there were some really good games released, and I now have to cheat a little bit, because I think I have a two-way tie for my personal GOTY.
The first and most obvious entry is Persona 5 Royal, an absolute monster of a JRPG that won me over, which came around at the very beginning of the pandemic. As it turns out, this was the ideal release for me, as I transitioned to overnights for several months for health related reasons. It was lonely, and waking up every night to news of increasing social unrest and violence was extremely bad for my mental health, and the social isolation I experienced just piled on top of all that baggage. Persona 5 Royal gave me a unique kind of wish fulfillment of being able to go outside, spend time with friends I cared about, and change the hearts of people who need it. It’s an already awesome game, but the fact that it arrived when it did puts it that much higher for me. It’s a wonderful game, and I loved every second of its 116 hour run time.
Another contender for me is Puppet Combo’s Murder House, which dropped a little while back on Steam. Whereas P5R offered wish fulfillment, Murder House allowed me to vicariously live out a really scary horror movie, a genre I absolutely adore. It uses its lo-fi aesthetics to create this strange feeling of unreality, almost an uncanny valley effect for your senses. It’s not super long, with my first playthrough taking just under 3 hours, but it’s stuck with me since beating it thanks to its messed up story and frightening atmosphere. Despite the dated aesthetics, it feels fresh and is worth looking into for anyone who loves old school survival horror.
Here’s hoping 2021 is a better year. Stay safe, friends.
Sean Coughlan – Lonely Mountains: Downhill (Switch)
This week I’ve been playing Lonely Mountains: Downhill on Nintendo Switch—an isometric, downhill mountain-biking indie that released earlier in the year. The game sees you navigating your way down remote trails, avoiding obstacles such as rocks and trees, and generally trying to stay rubber side down. With super simple controls (steer, pedal, brake, and sprint being all that’s required) and solid physics, the game is as intuitive and easy to pick up as they come. In good old ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ fashion however, there’re near endless ways to improve your runs and plenty of encouragement for doing so.
When you tackle each trail for the first time however, your only goal is to find your way through all the checkpoints and reach the finish line. There is no time pressure, and any crashes will immediately return you to your most recent checkpoint. This is when Lonely Mountains: Downhill feels most relaxing. The game uses a simple, but strikingly beautiful, low-poly art style that emphasises bright colours and organic shapes. It’s designed to distil the beauty and serenity of nature and it certainly succeeds. To compliment the mood, the only soundtrack to the action is the tweeting of birds, the flow of water, the gentle breeze and the quiet rumble of the bike’s tyres. It’s really quite peaceful.
Of course, this being a video-game, it’s not long before you’re encouraged to abandon your leisurely jaunt in favour of a more brisk pace. The game feeds you challenges in the form of target times, and a crash counter. What’s more, there is an online leaderboard to see how your run compares with the rest of the player base. All of sudden, you’re ignoring the tweeting of the birds and beautiful brooks and sending your character off of a 30ft drop in the hope of him catching the right rock at the right angle to break his fall (but which kills him nine out of ten times). Trying to beat the expert challenge times will have you feeling like you’re playing a ‘splatformer’.
They say that golf is a good walk spoiled, and I can’t help but think that something similar applies here. But much like in golf, the endless pursuit of perfection in Lonely Mountains: Downhill is utterly addictive and wonderfully satisfying when it all comes together. And besides, when you feel like it you can just opt to enjoy the beautiful sights and sounds, and the joyous feeling of rolling along. (There’s even an unlockable night mode for an even more serene run, where a handlebar mounted lamp lights the path ahead.) So far I’m having a great time dipping in and out of the game—I just have to stop myself from getting too competitive for fear of spoiling the ride.