Welcome to Solon’s annual GOTY list. Every year, I play near-to a hundred games keeping up with the year’s releases along with old classics to find the best in Indie, RPG, and Adventure games. Maybe you’ve heard of these games over the year but haven’t gotten around to trying them, so I’m giving you one last chance; right here, right now, to reconsider your actions! Or perish?? Last year was the end of an era with massive sequels, leaving 2022 in the shadows of company mergers and a dearth of major game releases. You’ll notice that there are almost no sequels or franchise games on the list this year. Within the shadow of our previous year of epic AAA gamer-ness, interesting and strange new life springs forth; the mushrooms, the moss, and young heather all grow in the frost-kissed gamer peat supporting the soil from last year’s carnage to build upon anew. So as it was a light year for AAA releases, that meant there were quite a few months when we’d all look at each other like “what is next? Pokémon, I guess? Same ‘ol same ‘ol whatever. Let’s just play Fortnite again for the fifth year in a row” I mean, I respect it, but there’s so much more out there when you turn over the stones and examine the fresh tide pools from the receding ocean of 2021! So as it’s a time for new beginnings, I’ll introduce myself again too: Hi, I’m Solon, professional critic and games performer, and here is a list of the 10 best games of 2022!

 

Honorable Mention: Discord Poker

discord poker

Without hesitation, I can say I owe a lot of my life to Discord. It’s not a perfect app, but its range of functionality is so strong and it regularly reminds me how hard it was when all we had was Ventrilo, Teamspeak, or Skype. I’ve been able to stay so thankfully far from Twitter for about six years now. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is in place as they added a regular poker game where my near-nightly voice chats with friends can have a little more fun and flair. And it’s a little more than that, because other poker clients can range from being shady online joints or unwieldy apps like Tabletop Simulator, having poker in-app is so handy that it adds a ton to the ways we all hang out together again. It helps that the app has a lot of dramatic and explosive flair that makes drawing hands fun and breezy; I love giving friends the toilet paper emoji when they get a flush and customizing the table or card backs when it’s my turn to be dealer. That all said, the best part is how I always get straights or better pretty much every hand because I’m really good at poker and not because Discord Poker is loaded in some way. Anyways, web apps are not games SO LET’S MOVE ON TO REAL GAMES!

 

Dishonorable Mention: Neon White

Neon Purple Telling White He Made The Right Choice

If I were credited as a writer of Neon White, I’d be so incredibly embarrassed for ruining an otherwise perfect game. Inside of a game with high level art, incredible voice acting, a cool edgy style, a soundtrack that blows you a new asshole and most impressively, a revolutionary high-action game that reinvents the puzzle-FPS in a way we haven’t seen since Portal

They YIIK’d it.

But like if YIIK was voiced by Spike Spiegel. It has such a cringey, banal, pedestrian quality to the dialogue and plot that it is completely un-recommendable to anyone, especially the hardcore anime fans it is selling to in every other way. Swagless prose. Maidenless world-building. Who let them cook? Normally, it’d be very easy to HOLD F to SKIP all the dialogue and look past it, but since every part of the gameplay loop points back to earning more cutscenes (collectibles earn you dialogue, level completion earns you scenes with characters, etc.) and the high production quality and cloying cast of characters tease that something must exist beneath this veneer, you’re burdened with hope that it’ll get better. That the plot will lead somewhere -anywhere- interesting or novel. It doesn’t. The protagonist White and everyone associated with him is a loser where they are desperately trying to out-cool each other, out-flirt each other, and out-mystery each other. It’s not clever, it’s just stupid. Unlocking the amnesiatic protagonist’s memories does not reveal a complex past; it simply shows insecurity and stubborn unwillingness to actually dig into the forces that drive friendships apart. While it cooly bares sharp fangs, it’s plain to see from the opening crawl onwards that the story’s fangs are delusional plastic vampire teeth. I so desperately wish that I could recommend Neon White that I’m adding it to the top of this list, 10/10 in almost every aspect, yet one glaring inescapable flaw. Ben Esposito, one of the most creative game makers of all time, with an all-star team of designers and artists, scores a huge and unbelievable MISS with Neon White. The silver lining here is that they’ll all be back, though.  I’m sure they’ll get it next time – I firmly believe this was an inexplicable fluke.

 

AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative

AI: The Somnium Files Nirvana Initiative Artwork

Let’s start this list right! The first AI: The Somnium Files was a weird cult classic that slowly over the last three years has re-introduced western gaming at large to the mind of Kotaro Uchikoshi through an intense mystery with more twists and turns than a Bavarian pretzel factory. This Sophomore release takes on a different tact by removing the branching narrative paths that all of Uchikoshi’s works are known for, instead going on a direct, linear railroad of a story that you chug-chug-chug right through. The uncharacteristic linearity leads to some shortcomings around the pacing, but in spite of that, I still loved the tragedy and joy inside of this game. New protagonists, Ryuki and Tama, are desperately sad- fighting through mental and physical trauma as the game’s body count rises. Their struggle and failure in trying to solve the Half-Body Murders is so palpable by the time it becomes Mizuki and Aiba’s turn to take over the mystery in the second half of the game. The string of suspects throughout the game are all fascinating to learn about, especially the minecraft-headed, last-place father and comedian Komeji, the hyper-technologist milf Tokiko who would kill to reach nirvana, and even the original victim who is clearly much too wealthy to have been simply murdered…right?

It’s not all an easy victory though; Nirvana Initiative does have some rough spots that keep it from being much higher on the list. A few new key characters are obnoxiously useless to the plot and feel forced in, and since the game isn’t worried about the mystery until all the serial killings are done it makes investigating each individual murder along the way feel benign. And then there’s the huge twist™, which, while I’m still constantly thinking about the utter gall of it, is brazen, bizarre, and can be pretty alienating  20 hours into a story that you’re invested in. That all said, I still love it. This is a sophomore entry into a plucky underdog series that I can’t wait to see continue. It’s full of whimsy and heart and at least one Somnium where you capture Monokuma and Shiren the Wanderer in Poké Balls to fight a bunch of gangsters. Even if the mystery doesn’t quite land like the first, the ride was incredibly thought provoking and exciting for me. I’ll definitely be looking forward to the inevitable sequel to continue to dive into increasingly byzantine mind palaces for no more than 6-minutes at a time.

 

Live A Live

Live A Live artwork

This was the year of discovering remakes of JRPGs that you’ve probably never gotten to play but absolutely should: Crisis Core, Chrono Cross, Romancing SaGa. At the top of that list should absolutely be Live A Live, which in the last decade has rocketed from a relatively unknown RPG, completely drowned on the genre-rich SNES, to one of the most historically significant productions of the genre. You deserve to understand what inspired Undertale so thoroughly. You deserve to understand what put Yoko Shimomura on the map as a composer. And with this remaster being in the Octopath Traveler engine, you deserve to see what that engine is capable of. The Live A Live remake is a masterpiece that shows how the original classic still stands today stronger than ever. Its core design of seven different two to three hour long RPG-styled set pieces is so modern in the way it breaks down and explores the genre that there is still nothing else like it. One vignette tells a love story without any spoken dialogue, another story has no battle sequences and uses the dialogue system (and loading screens) to terrify the player, an even stranger story lets you nearly skip the entire main bossfight by arming an entire village to sabotage the fight in your favor. The diversity of styles and flavors are all balanced by how thoroughly they deconstruct every part of the genre. Undertale’s core mechanics are based on one story in the game, and every other scenario could be the impetus of another modern indie classic. There is even a strong claim to make that Demon King Odio, in his many incarnations and names throughout the game, stands as a villain alongside the genre’s greats like Lavos and Sephiroth. Live A Live has surprised me with its persistence and poise- it’s a story that deserves to be retold just as much than its contemporaries currently getting their remakes, if not more so.

 

Mushroom Musume

Mushroom Musume gameplay against a skeleton

THIS GAME IS FREE. It costs absolutely NOTHING to make a cute mushroom daughter grow big and strong. If you are familiar with the Princess Maker subgenre of raising sims then you know what’s going on in Mushroom Musume, but it has so much gorgeous style and a delightful swagger just for the mycophiles (whom’st are also girls). It’s only just begun development, but like a growing pile of oyster mushrooms it’s shown a ton of growth over itself this year in a way that will no doubt continue to blossom over this next year. 

What’s so fascinating to me is how perfectly the writing brings fantasy and nature together to create an atmosphere of care that works equally for taking care of a plant as well as roleplaying as a child. Chanterelles are much cooler than children, though. In a few of the rougher endings, my little daughter was ripped and shredded by wolves which would obviously be fatal for flesh and blood, but not her! She pulled herself together and moved on to the next day (at the sacrifice of her Robustness stat, of course). Mushroom Musume has a surprising amount of power underneath the hood and I started to realize it’s been a while since I’ve played much with Ren’Py – DDLC sure did a number on that engine and my relationship to it – but with all the ways Mushroom Musume is exploring the engine currently it’s exciting seeing that come through within this game. I got to go down a route where I taught my cute mushroom daughter what wrestling kayfabe was and she decided to become the wrestling champion of the town! Her trainer was a skeleton! Anyways, this game is free, so go play it! Mushroom Musume is such a chill afternoon.

 

We Are OFK

Screenshot of We Are OFK with band memebrs in a room

Now this is something special… For four weeks through 2022 I got a new episode of the interactive TV Show/Visual Novel/Actual Music Band hybrid We Are OFK. Each Thursday, I got around 60 minutes of interactive joy. I got to savor the drama that is a band of queer musicians and artists in LA trying to survive while they make their dreams come true. All the while, the dreams of the real-life creators of We Are OFK are completely tangible through their Gorillaz-like transmedia extension. As the in-game singer/songwriter Luca collapses or flourishes, so too does his creator Teddy Dief, and it is such a palpable connection that you can’t help but cheer for it from both sides. At PAX West this year, I got to see Playstation’s Shuhei Yoshida speak about all the indie creators he is currently working with and the way he lit up when We Are OFK came to be the topic of focus, it felt like the exact same way I lit up while playing through it. I wasn’t expecting that for such an explicitly queer game? But that’s just the kind of project We Are OFK is; even the corporate folks at Sony get how large a swing this game is taking, and they respect it! The voice acting performances are raw, the dialogue is fresh and relatable, the characters grow through varied dramatic arcs, and the music is not just good – it’s also sometimes kinda bad; it’s imperfect in a way that is so frustratingly appropriate for the kind of band that We Are OFK currently is (btw the non-diegetic soundtrack for OFK is incredible. Support Omniboi, cuz holy shit those tracks make this game such a pleasure and delight) The band OFK is made up of four individually talented artists who, in their freshman outing, do not have their act fully together. But the bones are there! The music and lyrics to each song are full of heart that carry players through each interactive music video. And then on top of all that I can follow them on Twitch, and listen to their tracks on Bandcamp, and follow them around like an actual band which is just such a fun cherry on top. We Are OFK is an incredibly fun project that is trying to push at the boundaries of media, but specifically through the lens of games, and that’s what makes me scream O, FK!

 

HYPER DEMON

Hyper Demon Logo

Nothing I could possibly write here will do justice explaining how important HYPER DEMON is to the FPS genre. I can’t link to a video that walks you through what is going on. I can’t stream it and create a performance that lets you vicariously understand how the game works. I can’t send you a two-hour explainer video about the game’s lore. There is absolutely no substitute to playing HYPER DEMON with your own hands, because it is such a distinctly kinesthetic joy that comes from a lifetime of knowledge of the genre. Sublime mastercraft within a 20 second package. The game’s only level isn’t longer than 3 minutes, but even after hours of play I still haven’t gotten past the first minute and a half. I have only seen other high-scoring runs get to the dragon. Maybe someday I will get there… I talked earlier about Neon White reinventing a new type of puzzle-FPS, well, HYPER DEMON changes arena shooters into just a single, perfect, uncut gem. And most importantly of all, HYPER DEMON finally solves the FPS problem of monsters showing up behind you by giving perfect information of all monsters 360deg around you in a 3-ft radius. The red-flashing outline of monsters behind you is a mechanic that needs to be explored more throughout the genre. It’s pure cocaine… I need to play it until I go dizzy again. It hurts so bad.

 

Tunic

Tunic Gameplay Player Character is inside of Library

I built a language just to play this game. And I’m not talking about the cute glyph script that is in the game, I can’t read that stuff at all– never needed to. I’m talking about the language of play. When my parents’ generation talk about how important adventure games like the original Zelda were to them, it’s because they had the opportunity to build their language of play from the rudimentary tools the game offered. With the modern era of games literacy and abundance of online knowledge, you’d think that kind of spark would be impossible to reignite, yet Tunic comes out with a cute little fox and demands that you unlearn your ways while inviting you along a journey to rebuild a lot of that very specific adventure game language. Tunic is masterful work. From top to bottom, there are so many parts of this that shouldn’t work, and yet the love and care put into this game is palpable. The systems of play are thoroughly explored and every new little secret you uncover seems to endlessly unravel to tons of other secrets throughout the game, until you ultimately get to a door where you have to input 100 secrets in a row. There are other puzzle-adventure games like Fez or The Witness, games that revel in keeping secrets from you, Tunic manages to walk the line the other way and continually invites you to find out everything you possibly can. Its ways of rewarding you are by helping you learn more of that language of play with which to keep playing the game. 

I adored opening up the in-game manual where each page holds layers of mysteries while also on the surface teaching you the core mechanics of the game and the nuances there within. Then you’d take that knowledge into play, find through play another way of looking at the manual, and then return again with new ways to play the game! It’s a beautiful loop that had me screaming the designer, Andrew Shouldice’s, name in joy and frustration at how easy he made molding the plastic synapses in my head. The only tragic part about Tunic is that I can’t play it for the first time ever again, because I 100%d the game, I’m going to know this game deeply forever.

 

Sonic Frontiers

Sonic Frontiers Sonic Grinding on A Rail

They did it… Every time I think about Sonic Frontiers, I think about getting high with my best friend and being like: “bro you gotta check out this game it’s so stupid.” Smash-cut to us an hour later watching a video of the first boss fight and scream-laughing along with the Super Saiyan hedgehog blasting at the Shadow of the Colossus boss while post-hardcore music rings through the house at maximum volume. I’ve shared that moment with so many people at this point, but the game is so much more than that. They found the compromise between open-world gaming in the modern era and the quixotic dragon that is Sonic Adventure 3. Not only does Sonic Frontiers achieve in that hokey ‘What If Sonic Unreal Engine??’ way but it also builds Sonic and his world in fun new ways. We play as Sonic, trapped in a computer simulation. All his friends (and Eggman) are there too, along with an unknown eldritch force who is using the simulation to trap an entire ancient civilization (who look a lot like Chaos in its myriad forms??) There are contextless rails floating through the skies like computer detritus that you can lose hours to while you explore what is otherwise a frighteningly sparse world (which, itself, is accidental commentary on open world games). It’s bleak yet playful in the way these open world games always are, but there’s an intention here to it that is unmistakably Sonic-like. It embraces those video game aesthetics that have always been present in the franchise. This is especially present in the on-rails levels scattered throughout the open world (Sonic Generations style). Each of these levels are incredible because they are so organically nostalgic: the signifiers and aesthetics of old sonic levels are largely absent or if they are there they are perverted in some alien way; but when you play through them and hear the incredible music offering small hints, you can /Feel/ exactly what level it is. It’s so hard to explain that a level that doesn’t look anything like SA2’s Metal Harbor is making me do all the exact same Metal Harbor moves, and that I know where the shortcut is because it’s the same shortcut in the original level.

They did it… They pulled it off… They made the Sonic Boom characters, the Sonic Forces tone, these distorted creatures that folks were originally repulsed by because they weren’t like what they knew– they made them likable and fun! Sonic is a big goofy hero, Tails and Knuckles both explore their weaknesses being second to Sonic all the time, Amy helps introduce the world they are trapped in, and Eggman gets to create a daughter who plays foil to Sonic better than any of his creations ever have. Sage is probably the most important part of this game (next to the bossfight presentations and fishing ofc). You don’t need to see Sage’s cutscenes for any kind of completion of the game, but I went out to find every one that I could because the way Sage and Sonic’s relationship grows throughout the game is fascinating. Sage as a computer simulation knows escape is impossible and illogical, but every time she explains this to Sonic and Sonic doubles-down, she re-evaluates all of her simulations and finds new hope from previously unrecognizable places. To watch Sage grow from someone who refused to interact with Sonic because he was a speck inside the mainframe to finding a new strength within herself from working with him is this wonderful and beautiful transformation. And it even builds into a perfect ending when the final scene shows her returning back to Eggman with renewed vigor for taking down Sonic with her dad. It’s so good, and I can’t wait for more of this bizarre post-apocalyptic hopepunk-ass style to continue in future games.

 

Signalis

 

Girls Rock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Lesbian Animal RPG

Super Lesbian Animal RPG Key Art

I NEED TO REITERATE (from our Live A Live discussion): This was the year of discovering JRPGs that you’ve probably never gotten to play but absolutely should: The Crystal Project, Chained Echoes, Purgatory Dungeoneer – all of which are absolutely important for anybody who wants to see what modern western JRPG design is like. Modern western-made JRPGs have been unbelievably on fire this year, and this sub-genre represents the dream of almost every game developer. For many, making the JRPG is the magnum opus, as it blends storytelling and mechanical expression in a timeless package that extends forward through time. As we saw with Live A Live, a good JRPG is timeless, it lives forever. It’s so spiritually important that developers like Bobby Schroeder will spend eight years working on a single title in the hopes that it touches someone’s heart. They are all fantastic games, but this one that stands out just above the others is Super Lesbian Animal RPG – yeah it’s a helluva name – but I demand trans liberation and trans futures and this game delivers that in a way that challenges and inspires hope. 

Super Lesbian Animal RPG, or SLARPG for short, is a silly name for a silly game where you kiss your girlfriends for a four-turn 15% stat boost and every time you do a counter goes up that shows up on the save screen. It’s also a serious game about reinventing yourself, navigating trauma with your partners, and still having faith in each other after best-laid plans blow up in your face. Sisterhood standing strong. This is a conventional RPG in mostly every sense (it’s an RPG Maker game for gay heaven’s sake) and the ways it works within those conventions are comfortable and at the highest levels possible. And because of SLARPG working so firmly within the conventions, it is able to set the bar for this kind of design. And oh girl does it set the bar high. The story is engaging and the world leaves plenty of open-endedness for future expansion. Every character and NPC has varied personality-driven dialogue that compels you towards talking with everyone all the time, the battle mechanics are simple but give you ample opportunities to explore different sub-strategies and they fill the space comfortably over the 30 levels you gain, and while monster encounters are often pretty optional in the field and dungeon maps, the monsters are fun and full of hilarious surprises, completing the game’s bestiary is a rewarding task just to hear the party bicker about adventuring with the overworked librarian mouse trying to record their adventure in pained awe. The moment you fight a wild Nothing is so important. I mean, it had a health bar! If I had more space here I could obsess about how much I love Melody, Allison, Claire, and Jodie together or how this stands alongside its RPG inspirations like the Mother series. Ultimately, it’s a big beautiful fish in a reasonably contained pond and within that conventional structure it is Perfect. 8 years of development and every second worth it to get to this point, SLARPG can be immortalized with the greats, it will be just as fun today as it will be in 30 years. Super Lesbian Animal RPG is exactly why I love RPGs so much.

 

Norco

scene from Norco

Sometimes something is funny and I have a feeling to laugh about it. Sometimes something is painful and I have a feeling to laugh about it. Sometimes something is so abysmally bleak with no possible way out and I have that feeling. I laugh. It hurts so much, it’s just cosmically funny. I just have to put my hands up in the air and scream, “GOD. HOW?” People sometimes have asked me how I can be so warm and chipper and happy all the time? It’s nihilism. It’s not that nothing matters, it’s just that everything matters so much and the world is so beautiful that the machinations that try to interfere with or control the world are infinitesimal on a cosmic scale: A religious zealot screams at a woman with cancer about salvation while standing knee-deep in a swamp. Will God save her from cancer? Well, she’s in remission, maybe God already has, but to pay for the cancer treatments she does gig-work over her cellphone with a god-deity named Uberduck who wants her to find a techno-religious artifact in Lake Pontchartrain. She does. She’s paid in cryptocurrency. It will never be enough to pay for the medical debts that are more than enough to destroy her, but she’s a fighter and so she accepts to upload her consciousness to test an experimental device for a corporation’s search for eternal life. She gets paid enough crypto to get out of medical debt. What she finds in the lake overloads Uberduck, her cryptocurrency is destroyed, the uploaded sentience screams in horror without being attached to a body, however the experimental gig-app is found to leak radiation resulting in the final nail in the coffin for the woman who now, once again, has cancer. Ain’t that a kick in the head? The zealot in the swampwater will later meet her daughter who has arrived in Norco to pick up the pieces of a world she never wanted. None of this matters. Nothing has ever been more important. The zealot in the swamp will scream about righteousness at the daughter of a woman who died of late-capitalism. Life’s just funny like that.

The power of Norco comes from subverting expectations. You expect simplicity from a small town but you are immediately met with a Virgin Mary statue hiding an advanced bioscanner behind its face. You expect a simple point & click game but there are plenty of mini games and setpieces. You expect a dry folksy theme but there are equal parts sci-fi, mystery, comedy, and drama throughout. For me personally, I expected something high quality but familiar, and the thing I didn’t expect was a completely new mechanic I’ve never seen before. Within Norco, your phone can add a recording feature where you can use lines of dialogue out of context to mess with other characters. It sounds simple yet it’s incredibly novel! You could make a whole game out of just that! I could probably talk forever about each little part of this game that blew my mind (they trapped a Garrett in a decorative vase! What the hell?) but I’ll instead wrap this up talking about how this leads to the future. Norco won the first ever Tribeca Games Award from an institution known for its film festival, and it also took home Playstation’s Indie Fund. This proves the power of widening the window for awards and accolades within video games. Without E3 and other in-person events strangling how games are represented while in development the door is opened to so many diverse and inspired experiences to be explored in games. Every part of Norco inside and outside of the game has me so excited about the future of interactive media and is why it’s so important to uphold the games that were similarly produced like Glitchhikers and Untitled Goose Game. Good labor, well cared for and strongly funded by its community, has a strong chance of making good art. Bad labor rarely makes good art. Norco is some really fuckin’ good art, and we can make more of it from its blueprint.

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