This past year was quite a time for me; when I wasn’t leading raid groups in Final Fantasy XIV, I spent more time scouring through older games than newer ones. Out of all the games I played, I have the most to say about the following three titles. I enjoyed all three of them for multiple hours, though I offer them up to the Game of the Year tomb with noted caveats you’ll soon read for yourself. None of these games are perfect, but nothing ever is, after all. Without any further ado, here are my three Games of the Year.
A game that oozes style, Deathloop is a fun ‘60’s action/spy game which draws heavy inspiration from artistic and media movements from that era. It is also, in major respects, something of a disappointment, despite my many hours of playtime. In the areas Deathloop excels at, it does so with aplomb and finesse, but in the areas where it wavers, it does so disgracefully and pitifully.
The primary manner in which Deathloop fails is in its lack of a thematic throughline for its narrative. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was a game solely dedicated to the core conceits of its gameplay; you have one day, split across four different districts, in which you must murder 8 targets, in order to break the time loop engulfing the arctic island of Blackreef. Failure to kill even one of them resets the loop, and you must start anew. However, as has been a trend in the AAA game space for what feels like two decades now, Deathloop injects mystery and intrigue into its narrative, replete with stellar voice acting and the signature stylistic writing Arkane Studios has become known for, while simultaneously failing to understand that style is not a substitute for substance. The game is very interested in the veneer of 1960’s action and spy films, as well as artistic movements like Minimalism and Pop Art, and this reverberates through the game’s setting, sound design, music, script, weapon design, and even its UI, but it has nothing substantial to say about those films, or those movements, or even that time period. Even the central concept of looping time has no thematic connection to its narrative. It is a catalyst for the events of the game, and the context in which the game’s systems and environments are explained, but nothing more.
Again, all of this would be forgivable if the game was focused exclusively on its gameplay, but Deathloop teases the pretense of its narrative being grander than it is. There are several plot threads that either must be followed by Colt, the player character, to complete the game, or they can be happened upon via thorough exploration of each district over the course of several loops and during different times of day. However, none of these discoveries offer any thematic satisfaction or resolution – at best, you will get some background lore about the history of Blackreef or the characters who reside within it, and usually a trinket or fancy gun; narrative rewards aren’t treated as satisfying enough on their own and uncovering mysteries must yield gameplay benefits to prop them up. Deathloop is simply more interested in its setting as a space for immersive gameplay, rather than as a narrative space to tell a story about the dangers and pitfalls of looping time. There are many moments in Deathloop where characters, major and minor, experience great misfortune and suffering, even without player intervention, but there are also many moments of joy, cathartic release, tenderness, and humanity: the game doesn’t outright condemn the existence of the loop and the escapism it provides, despite Colt’s goal being to break the loop. A juxtaposition is then formed which causes one to question Colt’s motives and ask whether or not his aim is really the right course of action, but the game flirts with narrative interpretation as a smoke & mirrors trick to avoid saying anything concrete one way or another. It doesn’t want to say anything substantial about its narrative, for fear of ruining the atmosphere and mystique of its immersive world.
The good parts of Deathloop are squarely located in its gameplay, aesthetic design, and exploratory elements. Walking around districts of Blackreef is a sight to behold, and the guns are punchy and bombastic in ways which make Prey’s & Dishonored’s gunplay feel tepid and auxiliary. The metallic slabs which provide Colt with supernatural powers are taken almost whole cloth from Dishonored 2, however their integration is expanded and more compelling in Deathloop. Colt can only commit to using up to two for every outing, and the powers themselves have augmentations which are further limited to two per power. Colt also can amass an arsenal of various different weapons which have randomly rolled perks and bonuses, and can be slotted with trinkets to further expand their usefulness. This allows for the player to make a stealthy, stabby Colt, or a run-and-gun Colt, and both approaches feel equally effective.
The best thing I have to say about Deathloop is that it solves the primary issue of every stealth game – being detected is undesirable. I replayed Dishonored earlier in the year, reacquainting myself with the quicksave button in an effort to play through missions as stealthily as possible. While compulsory quicksaving & quickloading allows for fast remedies to stealth misplays and accidents, it never feels satisfying in the moment. In Deathloop, quicksaving isn’t on the table; instead, the game does a phenomenal job of encouraging engagement once the jig is up. The music swells, its tempo increases, and combining the pulsing, groovy beats with the snappy guns, various tools, and powers one has at their disposal, getting caught in Deathloop never feels like a failure state. It’s where a whole new kind of fun begins. I just wish the writing could keep pace with everything else.
I’m vehemently against trading card games. Conceptually, their allure of building up a powerful deck themed around mechanical cohesion is enticing, but in practice my efforts have been less successful due to the lack of disposal money to pour into the hobby, and inexperience with a given system’s more intricate aspects. I can tell you why two cards have synergy in a vacuum, but I can’t tell you how to balance a deck such that your hand doesn’t fill with resources cards and nothing to spend them on. Not that a simple rule of thumb would matter, since even well-balanced decks will be subjected the inherent randomness of shuffled cards, which has always been the most enticing (and frustrating) aspect of trading card games to me, because it’s the one component analogous to traditional card games. It is exciting to draw the exact card you need in a clutch moment, or for your opening hand to contain all the pieces of the engine needed to ramp up your playing field. But every trading card game currently on the market has a growing entry fee to reliably achieve these moments, and the sensation has never been worth the price for me.
I was not expecting Inscryption to overcome this latent animosity, but I’m glad that it did. It’s a phenomenally good game with stellar presentation, expertly crafted aesthetics, and a delightfully engaging card game system. It’s a game about a video game version of a card game, akin to the likes of Pokémon Trading Card Game for the Game Boy Color, and it plays with that concept in compelling and often surprising ways. It contextualizes its mechanics with cleverness and humor alike, and it utilizes an intuitive library of sigils to convey them, bypassing card games’ penchant for glossaries of keywords. Cards with the Airborne sigil, for example, hover over the playing field, bending slightly to emulate the flapping of wings (whether the picture on the card has wings or not). Inscryption walks a perfect line between having compelling game design in its card systems, without making them overly complicated and obtuse. If I can overcome my resentment toward deckbuilding and have a blast with Inscryption in spite of myself, then surely anyone else looking to give it a try will have an arguably easier time coming to grips with its gameplay.
What really pulled me into Inscryption, though, was its storytelling. In many respects it’s simple and straightforward, but it leaves enough gaps here and there to get you pondering about implications of what’s going on, things left unspoken, and events which transpired beforehand. I think it’s a story worth leaving unspoiled for those looking to play it themselves, however it is also within its storytelling that I found Inscryption’s main flaw. The game itself has a short, self-contained story in and of itself, but understanding the broader picture requires delving into an alternate reality game that cheapens some of Inscryption’s narrative elements. It’s like adding too much salt to a dish, except in this case it’s adding too many elements to try and actualize the experience. I think ARGs are best employed when they are telling their own story, or are a means of conveying hidden or otherwise exclusive information pertaining to an upcoming event or release. Pinning an ARG to a game or work, one which is already employing transmedia storytelling techniques, comes across as overkill.
While the ARG didn’t detract from my playthrough of Inscryption, learning about it after I had finished the game left me feeling disappointed – as if there was no faith that the game’s narrative would hold up on its own. It’s not a huge mark against the game by my measure, but it’s a mark nonetheless. It cannot be overstated how happy I am that, for once, a game’s deckbuilding mechanics weren’t what bounced me off, and that’s a glowing recommendation from me to try out Inscryption as far as I’m concerned.
Final Fantasy XIV Endwalker
Too many times in the history of fiction, there have been build-ups to big, climactic finales. I promise you that you can name a trilogy of movies or games or novels where the first one was all right, the second one was phenomenal, and the third one completely fell flat. It is not an inevitability of fictional works, and there are many times where narrative finales are successful and satisfying, but that satisfaction is never promised. Endwalker delivered unto me such a degree of satisfaction that it has become the benchmark by which I will judge all future narratives which aspire to wrap up their monolithic plots. Not only does Endwalker‘s main scenario writer, Natsuko Ishikawa, capitalize on years-long plot threads featuring characters from across the whole breadth of the game’s storyline, she does so while introducing new concepts, new characters, and recontextualizing its entire narrative universe. It’s a landmark expansion that delivers so much payoff and closure, it is easily one of the best video games of all time.
It’s not enough that the narrative succeeds, though. Final Fantasy XIV’s systems have been vastly improved, with cleaner UI elements, more focused gear progression with cheaper upgrades and the removal of belts, and the truncating of damage and health values down to more reasonable, less ostentatious numbers which are more readable. The game’s soundtrack is full of hype, foreboding, despair, tension, and grandeur as we’ve come to expect from Masayoshi Soken and his team, taking leitmotifs from throughout the game’s entire musical history. The new Reaper and Sage jobs are everything I could ever want out of a DPS and Healer respectively, and they fit thematically into the game’s narrative and setting in interesting ways. The new locations are sights to behold, which invoke feelings of nostalgia and anticipation for the future of the game and where the story will go from here.
I have but one criticism of Endwalker, and it is that its narrative scales up with investment. For someone like myself, who is tuned into the lore of its narrative; who is interested in its characters and worlds; who has accomplished nearly all of the side content in the game; and who has played it for years, Endwalker excels by all accounts. However, the less investment one has in that side content, or those characters, or its worlds, the less exciting and impactful individual sections of its narrative will be. As a self-contained story, Endwalker tells of an apocalypse, and how we as people deal with inevitability, and it tells that story reasonably well. But to experience the full weight of each narrative beat, you have to walk through much of what the game had to offer before, and that walk won’t always feel worth it for everyone. As far as flaws go, it’s arguably one of the best ones to have, and it is simply intrinsic to the story that Endwalker finishes.
I cannot wait to see what the future of Final Fantasy XIV holds, but as for now, Endwalker cements it as one of the greatest Final Fantasy games, and indeed one of the best video games, of all time.