Best Visuals: Psychonauts 2
Runners-up: TOEM, Labyrinth City: Pierre the Maze Detective
If I had to describe my aesthetic interests outside of just “anime,” I would have to pinpoint the vibrant and kinetic comic look of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and the caricatured-to-all-hell designs from Ed Edd n Eddy. Suffice to say, Psychonauts overall scratches a lot of itches for what I find visually baller in a video game. The 2021 sequel manages to upscale the Muppet-adjacent cast for next-gen hardware, but also goes above and beyond when it comes to representing the new minds you explore throughout the game. Levels like the PSI King’s Sensorium oversaturate colors to evoke not just 60s psychedelia but also the intensity of sensation PSI King’s panic attacks have on him, which you help him overcome throughout the level. Cassie’s Collection represents one of the former Psychonauts founders through the archetypes she had developed throughout her life; each one a paper sketch representative of these points that try and cohabitate the grand library that is her psyche.
The cinematography also works hard to highlight the ways brain logic might not lend itself to the rules we consider physical space, seamlessly transitioning between main character Raz standing at a doorway, to only then fall through and end up in nightmarish geometry or a gauntlet against the mind’s internal censors. Psychonauts 2 does a lot to clean up the presentation of its core mechanics to better suit game flow in the current age, but that doesn’t stop the team at Double Fine from pushing the boundary to create something still visually fascinating and emblematic of an aesthetic so many people had been waiting to make a comeback.
Best Presentation: Inscryption
Runners-up: NEO: The World Ends With You, No More Heroes 3
From the very first time you see a trailer for Inscryption, you’re most likely either immediately hooked or, at the very least, a little bit intrigued. It boasts a unique visual style paired with really exceptional audio design and a score that sets a tone fitting of a game where you’re trapped in a cabin with a madman who’s forcing you to play a card game he made up. It’s not just one element of this Inscryption’s aesthetic that stands out so well, all of it comes together effortlessly to draw you into the mystery and, if you’re an absolute freak (like me), eventually into a strange multiple century spanning ARG.
Almost every little element of Inscryption feels considered. From the large, hard to ignore text backed by the unnaturally synthesized mumblings of each character, the individual tokens carved out of bone dropping next to your playboard, to the velcro-y sounds of hides slowly being ripped off the bodies of animals in the music for The Trapper’s bossfight, every detail helps fit you into this world. Not only is Inscryption successful at employing sound so well, it’s also great in its utilization of a lack of sound. There are so many moments where you’re sitting there quietly, the only sounds being the shuffling of cards on your board, and you’re left with your thoughts, considering your next move. The twang of a folksy guitar in a minor key will kick in and you’re simply left there in the moment, absorbing the space as it’s laid out so carefully in front of you.
Inscryption doesn’t just have a unique visual style, however, it has three. Inscryption’s different acts shift into almost entirely different games tethered together by the same well constructed card game, and each one is a treat to absorb. While its middle chapter is certainly derivative of a lot of similar trading card game… games, it still sticks out with a really solid soundtrack of it’s own including some great remixes of songs you may have already heard, on top of top notch audio cues (the one that plays when you sacrifice a monster is burned into my brain). Even if you don’t play Inscryption, which you absolutely should, I highly recommend at the very least watching some gameplay. You just gotta see this thing.
Best Writing: Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
Runners-up: Psychonauts 2, Milk outside a bag of milk outside a bag of milk
When Natsuko Ishikawa took over writing duties for the main story of Final Fantasy XIV, there was an immediate and incredible increase in quality. While the narratives of Heavensward and Stormblood had been well-received and acclaimed, Shadowbringers took things to an entirely different level that represented not only a push past the surface-level political aesthetics that the game drowned itself in, but also an incredible attention to detail and character work that made a game of various threads and ideas into a grand tapestry where each thread feeds into the next.
Endwalker uses a narrative approach heavily reliant on retroactive foreshadowing, a technique that utilizes the bedrock of what’s come before as set-up for new stories to be built from. New characters are built out of the ideas and inklings established years and years ago in some off-handed comment or tertiary world-building. Old characters are refined and improved to become an ideal version of themselves, with one-note characters like Estinien, the moody dragoon from Heavensward, becoming a crucial and stalwart friend who’s really bad at managing money, and leaves your room by jumping out the window because he’s a freak. The story of Final Fantasy XIV has always been disconnected and patchworked because of its unfortunate conception, but to see it not only be molded into an interesting story, but a rare testament to what long-running games can actually meaningfully do with their overall experiences, is nothing short of incredible.
There’s a line in the song “Answers”, written by the writer of Final Fantasy XIV’s disastrous 1.0 launch and the English localization lead who’s only become more involved over time: “Look to those who walked before, to lead those who walk after.” While “Answers” was initially used as a cool thing to play in the background of a cinematic, and a cool thing to fight series regular Bahamut to, Endwalker actually managed to utilize this song nearly ten years later to reflect the core thesis of its narrative, while representing exactly the path the development team has taken over and over again. They don’t just forget the past, they learn from it, they build off it, and they remember.
Best Mechanic: Metroid Dread
Runners-up: Monster Hunter RIse, Chicory
Samus Aran is not known for doing normal things. Most of her power comes from a mix of technological, terrestrial, and chemical mishaps, like if a sentient 8th grade science volcano was asked to save the galaxy on a regular basis. While it’s been a cool trick, the routine has become stale leaving casual players still asking normal questions like, “Why does Samus always start without any powers? Isn’t she supposed to be a legendary fighter? Why is Samus always so powerless before pillaging the ruins of some long-dead planet looking for ancient algae to shove into her arm cannon?” Nintendo has finally allowed the Metroid series to progress forward by letting Samus start with a tool that builds her as a character as well as helps modernize the conservatively-designed series as a whole.
The parry mechanic in Metroid Dread is not only an extremely powerful tool that helps quickly dispose of enemies, but also the special visuals and sounds that go with it are hype as hell, and its use as a ‘bonus life’ against the one-hit-kill EMMI robots make Samus look like a total never-say-die badass. It’s the last piece of Metroid Dread’s puzzle that keeps Samus looking so fluid and strong through her myriad movement options. The parry has grown from something that was a chore to use in Samus Returns for the 3DS to becoming an inextricable part of the Metroid formula! Metroid games are not known for being normal; the most common way to play them is abnormally, by breaking the game’s mechanics and sequencing to some extent. With this parry mechanic, however, there is now a side-scrolling Metroid game that is just as fun to play the normal way as it is with all the skips and breaks the series is known for. It’s such a normal thing, you’d think Samus always had this power inside her!
Worst Mechanic: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl
Runners-up: Balan Wonderworld, Emily is Away <3
The Underground in the original Pokemon Diamond and Pearl was already not much of a feature. You could dig up extra evolution stones, fossils, and other assorted knick-knacks, but the best aspect, to me at least, was getting Spiritomb through interactions you had there. Sure, it wasn’t particularly compelling, making you speak to 32 people in the underground before the Pokemon would appear elsewhere, but it was pretty easily cheesed by exiting and entering the Underground over and over, as each visit was considered a separate person. With online connectivity becoming the norm instead of a luxury, you’d think these connections would be made easier, and Spiritomb made a simpler get.
That’s not the case.
Instead, you must now track down 32 separate NPCs in the underground, who spawn at random rates and in even more random locations. There isn’t even an option to speak to other players online, even though you can watch them rush all around you. As the Underground expands while you progress in the overworld, you cannot get Spiritomb until the postgame unless you’re willing to spend hours upon hours resetting spawn points for these NPCs, and even then it’s all up to luck no matter how much of the area is available. The Spiritomb unlocking mechanic is a snapshot of how frustrating Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are, where a simple fix with more modern hindsight is ignored in favor of a baffling “new” concept that makes the game worse to play.
Best Surprise: NEO: The World Ends With You
Runners-up: Hot Wheels Unleashed, Wildermyth
I fail to come up with a word to describe NEO: The World Ends With You that doesn’t just bring me back to “surprising.” Given Square Enix’s recent track record, this game shouldn’t exist, it feels like we should’ve just accepted that tiny bit of representation back in Dream Drop Distance as “good enough.” However, that’s not the only surprise when it comes to the sequel of a fairly beloved DS game from 14 years ago. Gameplay has been revamped to better suit current gen consoles while still maintaining an energy as kinetic as flicking your DS stylus on the bottom screen while fat-thumbing the face buttons to keep a combo up. The music maintains the energy of the original, while also delivering so many new bangers that drive the themes of the series home effortlessly. New protagonists Rindo and Fret do a lot in terms of giving a voice to a new generation of teens who, while constantly online, still echo the loneliness that made Neku equal parts frustrating to witness, but understandable in terms of where that rage came from.
That’s also putting aside the rest of the cast, who bring so much life to the streets of Shibuya! I can go on about each individual aspect of this game but it all serves to highlight the fact I couldn’t have expected a sequel to The World Ends With You. I couldn’t have expected a sequel that happily makes its audience fall in love with new characters, mechanics, visuals, and sounds. I couldn’t have expected this game to leave such an impact on me months after my initial playthrough. NEO: The World Ends With You could have easily been a throwaway sequel that made me look for a new DS and pay more money than I’d like to replay the original. Instead it’s easily one of the best games I’ve played this year and has managed to reignite the series in a way I could never have thought of first listening to Twister all those years ago.