What I Liked About the Games I Played in January & February[2019]

This year I decided to do something a little bit differently. I decided that for every game I played, I would write a little bit about what I liked about it — even if I otherwise didn’t enjoy the game at all. The challenge was to find what worked and what I enjoyed in every title, and to, hopefully, bring a little extra positivity. Every month I’ll talk a bit about each game that I played that month, what I thought worked, and any other little details about my experience playing it. I’m only going to be focusing on new titles I played that month (which is to say, if I end up playing a title in both January and February, it’ll only be talked about the first time I played it.)

Games included are based on having put a significant amount of time into playing them, and giving them a real shot and consideration. This is, of course, rather subjective. Some games I’ll play all the way to the end, others I’ll only play for a few hours before moving on. I decided it was best not to force myself to see each and every game to its conclusion if it just really isn’t gripping me, but that I had to be fair and give each one a real chance to win me over.

This will be a learning process for me, but as I hope to get more into game development this year, I really want to try and focus on finding the good qualities of everything I play instead of just focusing on what wasn’t great. I think the flaws are easier to see and find than positive qualities might and I don’t know. Maybe it’s me, but at this point in my life, I’m good on negativity and cynicism. It’s everywhere. Sometimes deserved, sometimes not. But I want to try and make my blog a bit different in that sense. While not everything I write here will be glowing positive or anything like that, I do want to try and trend positive.

Anyway, here are the games I played in January and February and what I liked about them.

(Listed in Chronological Order)

MARIO KART 8 DELUXE

I’ve always been a fan of the Mario Kart series — hardly a controversial statement as it’s a very beloved franchise — but I wasn’t as impressed with the last few entries in the system as usual. I was very pleased with Mario Kart 8 when it first released on the WiiU, and when I got a Switch I knew that it would be a must have for multiplayer sessions (especially now on the go!). The changes and additions with the Switch version make a good game even better. This is probably Mario Kart at it’s most polished.

I think the thing I like most about it though is how alive it all feels. The stage/jazz band music tracks. The graphics. The controls. But most of all, I just love the worlds of the tracks. Each one is just brimming with details and life that make the tracks feel like actual places you want to spend time in. Frequently I wished I could get out of the kart and explore. Everything had a really evocative nature to it that made the worlds feel real. I really appreciated it that and I think there is a lot to learn from it design wise.

I hadn’t played much of the Switch version since I got it. I had played a lot of the Wii U version and didn’t feel any real pull to replay the cups over again or anything like that — I mostly reserved it as a multiplayer title (the new battle mode is a particular favourite). It ended up being the first game I played this year because of a hangout with my friend. We get together about once a week to play games and watch a couple episodes of a TV show together. One thing I really appreciated about playing with her, aside from just the general enjoyment of it, was I actually learned new things about the game that I hadn’t before. One of her jobs is working at a youth centre where they had a Switch and so she had become very familiar with the ins and outs of the game, showing me that there were ways to customize the way races played and more that I hadn’t even known about it. It helped give me a better appreciation of the game, showing new wrinkles to it even now, years after I had first played it. We had a blast racing together in our first game of 2019 and I’m sure this is a title we will pick up and play more throughout the year.

STARDEW VALLEY MULTIPLAYER

That same friend and I also started a farm together on Stardew Valley Multiplayer for the first time. I had known about the multiplayer update being live for a few months, but I didn’t really have anyone to play with at the time. My friend’s boyfriend gifted her an old desktop computer that could run it and thus began a months-long (likely all year-long) love affair with the game and playing together. I was very familiar with Stardew Valley before this and quite enjoyed it, but I wasn’t expecting multiplayer to feel as good as it does. It just brought a total new energy to playing the game that I absolutely adored. Being able to work together, to chat and hang out while we grew crops, went through the mines, partook in festivals, worked together to rebuild the community center — it was just an absolute delight and treasured gaming memory for the year.

Even now Stardew Valley stands out as an absolute joy. The amount of care and love put into this game is ridiculous and it just oozes charm from every corner. I was really thankful that I was given the opportunity to rekindle that love through the multiplayer (it also inspired me to start my own new single player file for when we couldn’t play together that I have already logged an obscene amount of hours on). It’s just an absolute delight of a game. A really soft and tender respite that is much needed these days. I know without a doubt this will be a title I’ll be playing constantly as 2019 goes on and I can’t wait to see what our farm is going to look like by December!

SPLATOON 2

I had my eye on Splatoon since the series first launched but I was always uncertain about actually trying it. I knew it primarily was an online multiplayer game, something that I didn’t really enjoy or felt like I was good enough for. On top of that it was also a shooter, something else I wasn’t particularly adept at, especially on consoles. The series stuck with me though as something I was really interested in. The colours, the characters, the style. I kept debating giving it a shot but it was too expensive for me to try if I really did end up not liking actually playing it. So I held off.

Luckily a few months ago Splatoon 2 got the rare Nintendo sale and I decided it was now or never, really. And I’m so glad I took that chance. I absolutely adore Splatoon. It’s such a fun game and so full of personality and style and life. One of the things I love most in games is customizable outfits/appearance and good lord does Splatoon have an amazing emphasis on this and fashion. I absolutely love it.

I think the mark of a really enjoyable game is when you have fun even when you lose. When I was first learning the game I got splatted a fair bit, but it never bothered me, never set me back or upset me. Whenever you’re splatted by someone the game shows you the outfit and gear the player has on and I actually found myself liking when I got killed because it showed me all of these new clothes I could get for myself (you can order clothes that your opponents have by interacting with their avatar in the lobby). It was just an absolute blast playing and I found the game totally consuming my gaming time for months. It was just a really positive fun space bursting to the seams with character. I really enjoyed it.

Nowadays I don’t play it as much just because I have so many other games to play and check out, but I try to play the Splatfests when they come up for a few hours. What got me to play the game this year was a special splatfest called the Frosty Fest that brought with it new gear and visuals for the theme. It was a lot of fun getting back into the game for the weekend and seeing all the new things they had added since I last played. I’m already looking forward to the next time I’ll get to pop back in for the Spring Fest coming up soon.

STEEP [PS+]

This year I decided I wanted to try something a little different. At the start of the year I bought myself a year-long subscription to PlayStation Plus and I made it my goal that I would give every PS+ free game a serious try. I was hoping that this would help get me out of my gaming shell a bit and get me to play games and genres that I might not normally try and maybe find some real gems in the process. The first game I tried this with was Steep, an open-world snowboarding game.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of it when I first started to boot it up. The concept of an open world snowboarding game was kind of weird to me but I was really curious to see how they pulled it off and how I’d feel about it. It was definitely interesting. I felt the visuals of the game were really strong and the controls, while at times a little unclear, were tight and responsive. I didn’t play for very long as I found I wasn’t really getting engrossed into the game. I couldn’t help but feel that it needed a bit more story and character for me personally to get invested. You have like six preset avatars you can choose between, but they don’t really have their own stories or personalities from what I gleamed, which, at that point, just made me curious why there wasn’t a character creator. The variety in missions was more than I expected. One of the ones I played personified the mountain peak in an other-worldly voice over as I shredded down the mountain. This was… unique, and I appreciated the attempt at something to help give the location a bit more character, but I don’t know how well it really succeeds. Overall, I enjoyed what I did play of it, but it didn’t have enough to grip me personally. Still, it was an interesting concept and I could see why people would get into it.

Mostly it made me really nostalgic for Snowboarding Kids 2 on N64, haha.

PORTAL KNIGHTS [PS+]

I’ll be honest, I didn’t play too much of this one. Portal Knights is Minecraft-like with chibi characters and classes. I played as a Mage. From what I could tell, it very much was a reskinned Minecraft and personally Minecraft just isn’t a game I enjoy so Portal Knights really bounced off of me. I will say though that the visuals were pretty with nice vibrant colours and the characters were cute and charming. I could really see this one being popular with younger kids especially and from what I played it was pretty solidly made. Unfortunately, just not my thing.

THE WALKING DEAD FINAL SEASON: BROKEN TOYS

I almost gave up on this series entirely. I had enjoyed the first two seasons of The Walking Dead well enough, although I was definitely starting to feel the fatigue of the series constant misery by the end of the second season. Season Three however I didn’t enjoy, not even a little bit. It starred a new cast of (unlikable) characters, focused primarily on family and blood relations (a least favourite theme) and continued the endless misery with little to care about or characters to root for. For a series that became known for creating what some considered the best and most likable child character in video games, it was wild to play the third season and have a big focus of the game be on the most insufferable child character I had ever seen. Tied in to this I also experienced many game breaking glitches forcing me to replay large portions of the episode over and over again and needless to say, by the end of the season I was ready to be done with TellTale’s The Walking Dead for good. Nothing could convince me to continue on. Well, aside from one thing.

Throughout the third season the only character I cared about and was invested in was Clementine, the character we had grown to love over the series. The end of the third season promised her story to continue, finally, as she reentered the main role once more. When that season was later announced to be the final season of the series, they had convinced me to give it one final shot.

And I’m so glad I did.

The Walking Dead Final Season is nothing short of amazing. Like, I can’t believe how strong it is after the series waned and crashed with seasons two and three. It has the strongest emotional core since the first game, and heart rendering themes and choices to make. The series comes full circle as now Clementine is in her original caretaker’s role with a young kid to raise in a harsh world. This realignment of the series provides immense depth to the characters and their relationships and provides much needed weight and stakes to everything.

Coupled with that, the game is the most breathtakingly gorgeous the series has ever been with everything feeling like a living comic book page. In addition, actual strong cinematography, lighting and visuals make this a real treat that gives much needed gravitas to everything. From the first episode until now, the penultimate episode, this final season has been nothing short of breathtaking, in visuals, in story, in themes, in characters. I went from having next to no one to care about in the past season to caring about virtually every characters in Clementine’s world. They were fleshed out, believable, and I wanted nothing more than for them to be able to carve out a home together.

Time will tell if the last episode sticks the landing that has been beautifully and amazingly set up in the past three episodes, but if it does, I can honestly say this is the series’ best, and a true high note to end on.

KINGDOM HEARTS: FINAL MIX

With Kingdom Hearts III finally coming out, I knew I wanted to revisit the first title in the series beforehand. I first played Kingdom Hearts when it first came out back in 2002. It was the reason that I bought a PlayStation 2 and it was the first time my family had ever gotten into gaming outside of Nintendo. I had seen KH talked about in a gaming magazine prior to its release and I always remembered the commercial it had that totally transfixed me with its tagline “You never know who you’ll run into next”. I love the series that Kingdom Hearts has become, but none of the titles in it feel quite the same as the first game. There is just something unique to its tone, it’s atmosphere that it creates. It weaves in the seemingly disparate pieces of Disney, Square, RPG, platformers, animated films, simple good versus evil child parables and complex dark overtone mythology into something that just works. And it works so well. It leaves such a lasting impression once the credits has rolled and to this day inspires me.

I think the thing I love most about it is just how evocative it all is. They did wonders with very little, but everything breathes a certain life to it. The worlds while small, feel lived in, feel like they could be real places, that the waterfall in the distance could easily be explorable. Everything just evokes thought and imagination; the missing pieces don’t feel like cut corners or limitations, but places to pour your own imagination into it, to fill out. It’s hard to describe without playing it for yourself, but there’s just honestly something downright magical about this game, this title in particular. Everything feels larger than it is, feels more alive than it is, more mysterious and deep and it draws you into it through amazing visuals, music, level design, environmental art, characters and lore. It isn’t perfect, of course, but that’s almost to its benefit. The imperfections bring character, bring uniqueness and style and charm to it. It feels like an impossible thing, a labour of love that could only be brought forth in its specific time.

Replaying it before Kingdom Hearts III, the beginning of this long 17 year saga, I was reminded of just what hooked me into this franchise in the first place. The potential of its ideas. The mysteries of its settings. And the poignant story and relationships of its characters. To this day I can still remember how I felt when I first reached the ending all those years ago, the way the bittersweet feeling seemed to reverberate inside me. It truly is something else.

KINGDOM HEARTS 0.2: A FRAGMENTARY PASSAGE

On the flipside to replaying KH1, I also wanted to revisit the latest title in the series before Kingdom Hearts III, too. KH0.2 is a short playable episode (roughly 2–3 hours long) that released as part of the compilation KH2.8. It was the first title made in the new engine that KH3 was being made in and as such it was meant to be a little taste of Kingdom Hearts III for fans, as well as showcasing some of the kinds of things we could expect with KH3. I had some mixed feelings about what the episode did narratively and the changes it made to established canon, but gameplay wise, it was very enjoyable.

I think one of the biggest things I appreciated was the level design. After the first Kingdom Hearts game, the games level design became flat. It was closer to painted corridors or hallways than the expansive or interesting levels of the past. Dream Drop Distance, due to the addition of mechanics that vastly expanded your traversal options, expanded the worlds out to be very wide areas with some with great verticality, but not often. KH0.2 the levels are both big and vertical, with alternate paths and twists and turns and a return to some platforming elements. It was a welcome change from the worlds of KH2 and it’s like. The twisted nature of the setting also led to the environment design feeling very unique in comparison to the way worlds are usually depicted in the series. In the first area the world is fragmented and twisting in on itself and spiraling into the sky. In the second, the worlds are broken up with puzzle elements. In the third, a dark thorny forest with secret paths, big vertical areas and rail grinding to traverse. Some very enjoyable advancements in level design to be sure, making each area feel unique and surprising even when they are depicting worlds already seen in the series.

My absolute favourite addition was the addition of the Wardrobe/Objective function (which, sadly, will not be returning in KH3, but hopefully will be added in future DLC). Basically, the Objectives give you little missions to complete and with each one, you unlock a new customization option for your character. These vary from new accessories or hats, to new material for your clothing like lace or fancy stitching. One of the things I love most in games is appearance customization and I was so happy to see it finally really hit this series. I also loved the Objectives as they encouraged different ways to play the game. Some added new challenges, others helped make the worlds feel a bit more alive. In the first area you were reward for watching a meteor shower or climbing to the highest point in the map. In the second, you found hidden gems throughout the environments. In the third, flowers amongst the twists and turns of the forest. These are all very little things of course, but they help make the world feel just that much more alive. It was a great system and I hope it appears in the future again as it adds a lot of replayability and joy.

In the end KH0.2, while short and limited in scope, was rather well made and provided a good little sneak peak as to what was to come when Kingdom Hearts III would release a couple years later.

KINGDOM HEARTS III

There was a lot on Kingdom Hearts III’s shoulders, an impossible amount, really. The expectations for this title is one of the highest for any game. In addition to that, the game also had to tie together and provide something of a resolution to the five titles that had released since Kingdom Hearts II. It had to face the amount of fan hype and expectations and imaginations built up in the 13 years since Kingdom Hearts II and the 6+ years since the last main title, all the while dealing with the realities of game development. I’ll say it now, Kingdom Hearts III is not a perfect game, there’s no way it ever could be. And the amount that it disappoints you or delights you will vary extremely from person to person. This is honestly the most divisive game in the series. I can only speak for myself and the experience that I had playing it when it first came out, but…

I can honestly say that I love Kingdom Hearts III with all my heart.

A week or so after the game came out, my friend and I were talking about our thoughts on the game. We ended up talking for hours, through the night and into the early morning, just listing and gushing over all the aspects of the game that we loved, that touched us, that made us laugh or made us giddy. And it just didn’t stop, every few minutes another thing would come to my mind that the game did that I loved or enjoyed immensely. The bombastic feeling of the game, the exploration, the humour (legitimately, this is the first Kingdom Hearts game that’s actually funny? I laughed out loud more in this game than in the entire series, haha), the callbacks, the themes, the emotions, the fun. Good lord, the Fun. This game is honestly so much fun. I’ve never had just so much pure fun in a KH game before. I was either laughing or smiling wide nearly my entire time playing the game, and the feeling never went away. I could honestly go on for pages about all the stuff I liked about Kingdom Hearts III (I suspect I’ll likely do a bunch of individual posts about sometime in the future).

There was a review for KH3 I saw around the time the game was coming out. I didn’t read it because I hadn’t beaten the game yet and I wanted to go in as blind as possible, but the reviews headline said something like, “Kingdom Hearts III is an Ode to Joy”. That’s honestly how the game feels for me. It’s so full of joy and life and fun and care and it seeps into every aspect of the game. I can find things I loved about every world in the title. There was never a time that I wasn’t enjoying it or filled with wide-eyed wonder at what I was doing now.

Even now, since finishing the game and stepping away from it, I’ve found that my fondness for it only grows and grows, my appreciation and affection for it ever expanding. To this day I keep finding new things to love about it, new details that surprise or delight. There is just so much good in this game and it’s only going to get better through DLC and updates in the months to come.

I know KH3 will disappoint some people. All of this is very subjective. Things that might be dealbreakers to some people are barely passing thoughts to others. I’m sorry for the people who found that KH3 wasn’t what they needed it to be, but for me, going in, I decided to do away with any preconceived notions on what the game would be and just try and approach the game on its own terms, to look at it for what it is instead of what it could have been.

And what I found was a beautiful, fun game full of life. A real ode to joy.

And so there you have it! The games I played in January and February and what I liked about them. Originally I was hoping to do a post like this every month instead of every two months but it kept getting away from me. I’m still feeling these out for how I want them to be written or what they will focus on. But I hoped you liked it! I’ll have a post about the games I played in March & April up hopefully within the first week of May and from that point on I intend to do them monthly.

So, see you then!

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aspiring game dev/writer. maker of twines.

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