42 Reviews liked by Xantha_Page

There's not much one can say on Half-Life that hasn't already been said, so I'll just get my few personal opinions and notes for anyone looking to get into it out the way. For people who've already played the game, I want answers: why is Xen hated? Even on my first playthrough I absolutely loved the nightmarish bizarro alien visuals and the platforming that shakes up the gameplay. Half-Life is all about changing little details about how you engage throughout, so why the Xen hate? Is this some kind of psyop? I should also state I otherwise love basically every chapter of this game, and I seriously don't think many other games appeal to me this much visually and musically either. Can't believe I overlooked it thanks to its sequel clouding my memory for so long.
As for new players, I have some advice: Half-Life may be an older shooter, which might put you in the mindset of DOOM where everything is in an overtly gameified environment - this is not the case. Treat Half-Life like every setting is a believable place, interact with things and obstacles like you would in a realistic scenario rather than treating it as some obtuse gamey puzzle. This will clear the way for what might be seen as confusing chapters for some, and also lead into the tactical core of the combat; which I suggest playing on the Hard difficulty for solely to boost the tactical element. It's not going to make the game too gruelling, it'll just boost the sense of immersion and tension. And don't savescum; Half-Life's chapters save when you reach them, this will be enough to carry you without ruining the pacing, trust me. Have fun, Freeman.

god, more games should have you buried in diegetic UI. smothered in it. absolutely fucking loaded with it. if I'm ever a juiced up hacker cranked with the best hardware and software money can buy I want my vision to look like I have 25 tabs open with half of them playing classic windows media player visualizers
you can get three cameras on the back of your skull. there are line graphs that convey... chi waves? your character functions like he's completely bogged down at 100% capacity and simply can't operate all this military grade technojunk simultaneously; his body and brain holding back his evolutionary potential. that the control scheme is so initially acidic to modern sensibilities only increases the potency of its crude integration -- fumbling the keys early on is how you know it's real
citadel station is a future dungeon, a space crypt, a raveyard. everything pulsing and whirring, angular and abstract. halls looping in and around eachother like a maze of knotted cables. mutants slinking around the derelict corridors, robots of all shapes and sizes out to eliminate the interloper while the chaotic midi soundtrack builds its strange alien tension
SHODAN's watching, insect, and even your slightest progression depends on crippling her security systems enough to get out from under her thumb. prepare for Small Hacker Humiliation while she taunts, teases, and e-mails you incessantly like you're on some kinda mailing list for perverts
believe it not this is what folks thought the internet looked like in the 90s and it scared them silly. cyberdogs still prowl your parents' nightmares to this day, go ask them and watch their faces turn white as memories of wireframes come rushing back
but who cares about that, you can switch on your rollerskates or jetboots and zoom over ramps with a laser rapier in hand to dice up some bots on the other side. you can lean your body in way contortionists could only dream of to smoke a cyborg with a magnum from behind cover. you can find enough plastic explosives to make stillman puke and blow up the big shell
before you know it you've merged with the machines, unable to remember how you ever struggled to get comfortable in your new skin
it's astonishing that this was released in 1994. in a catalog full of masterworks System Shock might be Looking Glass' opus; a vision of the future unbeholden to the present or past
p. s
no one ever brings up how Greg LoPiccolo (music, sfx) went on to be project lead on Thief, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band -- and that's fucked up

SHODAN is the best villain ever put into a video game. That alone wouldn't sound like much in proving it's a great game, given it just implies a tight narrative but nothing about how it plays, yet this is actually a huge deal because I'm talking about her in a gameplay sense. Looking Glass' design philosophy was always to simulate the balance between a player making active choices, and the game master responding adequately in tabletop games. SHODAN is a living representation of Citadel Station, and a pure evil game master on top of that, as the bridge between the concept and execution of this "simulated game master" idea bringing it into more literal territory with a computer trying to kill you. Everything that goes after you in the game and every trap that befalls you is SHODAN. She sometimes unfairly sweeps the rug from under you, locking you in game over scenarios or opening up monster closets, but this combined with her voicework only adds to realize her in a way no other villain has ever achieved. Each step you take in Citadel Station is a fight against SHODAN herself as she's always finding ways to one-up you. Standard action-adventure game progression is flipped on its head as you don't know what to predict and must carefully observe clues, manage resources and take notes to get further while expecting the worst, stooping into straight up dungeon crawler territory more with each level. This slow-paced approach to a fast-paced genre is what separated System Shock at first from contemporaries, but you could really argue this is just an extremely abstract form of adding in more "realistic" mechanics; it adds a lot of believability ducking behind cover as you desperately fiddle with the user interface to reload or consider opting for the specific position on the screen you'll throw a grenade from, just imagine a few animations instead of a user interface being fiddled with and it suddenly clicks. System Shock juggled tons of concepts modern games still struggle with relatively effortlessly; from the precision in combat only VR games seem to have given a shot, to genuinely tactical and intimidating firefights while exploring an immersive environment. It may seem sloppy at first, but taken as a whole, it's extremely elegant.
The thing barring most people from enjoying this genuinely amazing game is that the user interface and controls are too clunky and dated... or are they? Really, I think it's just the visuals that date this game. We live in a post-Cruelty Squad post-Receiver world, it's not like these unorthodox approaches are out of place now, they're usually just prettied up... or slathered in shit in the case of Cruelty Squad. Either way, if those games can be enjoyed for what they are now, what's stopping someone from enjoying System Shock today too?

You're trying too hard, bro! More or less, the main reason as to why I'm generally disinterested in modern horror games, which tend to serve as vehicles for cryptic lore dumps for YouTube analysts to pore over rather than fright-enhanced decision making. I don't want mindfuckery, I want regular fuckery, something that I was hopeful would be present in this kind of return to form. This game was sold to me as the best of Resident Evil meets the best of Silent Hill, but, in reality, it's the worst of both: Resident Evil's cramped item management without any of the brilliant circular level design that makes Spencer Mansion thrilling to route through even after dozens of playthroughs, and Silent Hill's scary-because-it's-scary imagery without any of the dread that defines each and every one of Harry Mason's fog-enveloped footsteps. Instead, we've got jumpcuts to character closeups and spooky stanzas of poetry, pulsating masses of flesh on the ground, and handwritten notes conveniently censored at the most ominous places- surface-level stuff that makes horror games effective for people who don't understand what makes horror games effective. I'm not engaged enough to decipher your jumbled-up story, I'm not interested in your generic sci-fi setting, and I'm not even scared! But, maybe if I actually felt like the character I was playing as, I would be! Fast movement speed and wide hallways make enemies pitifully easy to juke, and thus not at all intimidating. Exploration isn't exciting or intriguing because of how straightforward it is on a grand scale. Plentiful items and infinite saves mean there's not any pressure on you even if you do wind up making a mistake somehow. I initially chalked this all up to misguided attempts at balance, but they get harder and harder to defend once you realize that all you're really doing is (often literally) opening up a locked door just to find a key for another locked door somewhere else on the map, which makes the experience feel more like a parody of classic survival horror games rather than an earnest attempt at recapturing the magic. I hardly took out any enemies, I didn't burn a single body, and, on several occasions, I killed myself on purpose because doing that was quicker than having to run back to the save room to retrieve the specific contextual item I needed, which is about as damning as you can get for this kind of game. The only strategy to pick up on is keeping nothing at all on your person in between storage box visits so that you can handle when the game inevitably dumps five key items on you in successive rooms. Mikami's rolling in his grave!
The lone bright spots are the traditional puzzles, which, although are few and far between, frequently nail the physical satisfaction of fiddling around with a piece of old, analog equipment that you're half familiar with and half in the dark on. If this game had understood its strengths better, it would've been a fully-fledged point-and-click or even a Myst-style free-roaming puzzler. The actual survivor horror feels tacked on, as though it's obligated to be this kind of game because it's attempting to tell a story in the same emotional vein as the Silent Hill series and the player needs to have something to do before being shown the next deep, thought-provoking cutscene. I can't even say that it understands the classics from a visual standpoint, forgoing the fixed-camera perspective that gives each of Resident Evil's individual rooms a distinct cinematographic personality and instead opting for a generic top-down approach that makes every location feel the same. Though, that's not to say the art direction itself is bad. In fact, it's phenomenal, and easily the standout of the game's features, but it doesn't make up for how bland everything else is. At some point, this one demoted itself in my eyes from 'mostly boring but worth playing just for the aesthetic' to 'downright painful.' Maybe it was after the game pretentiously transitioned into a first-person walking simulator one too many times. Or, more likely, it was when some of the small details- red-light save screens, items conveniently located right on top of their respective instruction manuals, and even the sound effect of equipping your pistol- started feeling less like homages and more like creative crutches, indicators of an entirely rudderless experience. I really feel terrible for ragging on something that's evidently a passion project and extremely competent from a technical standpoint, and I sincerely hope the devs keep at it. But, man. I wish I got anything at all out of this. The one game I've played that's managed get this done, I mean, spiritually succeeding an era/genre rather than a specific series by remixing several blatant inspirations so proficiently that it ends up feeling like something entirely new, is still Shovel Knight, but I'm not sure the world's ready for that conversation quite yet...

this is Ultima Underworld, but after a lobotomy. it plays as if a shareholder handed a programmer a 10th generation monochrome photocopy of a screenshot of ultima underworld, and the entire design was based on that 10th generation monochrome photocopy of an ultima underworld screenshot alone. it set the stage for all the elder scrolls games (and the radiation poisoned elder scrolls, as adapted from interplay) that would follow, vapid, sprawling expanses with maybe a story or something there. but unlike the (as of writing, and as of playing) most recent two instances of melatonin replacement therapy, you can't attempt to salvage this one with 3rd party enhancments, or 3rd party additions. those that may exist, honestly will not save you here.
so you have this exercise in vapidity, a sprawling procedurally constructed world (not generated, all who play tes: arena experience this same world, unfortunately) lightly (not to be misconstrued as sparesly) filled with like maybe 5 (a generous estimate) town variations. a world so big, with so little to explore, it's no wonder that fast travel is mandatory (recurring). too expansive for its own sake. the percieved expanse to the player, and purported expanse by the publisher ironically results in an experience that itself is lightly packed with content not worth any player's time, despite how it may initially seem, despite how it wishes to present itself. they, time and time again, claim to have been inspired by ultima underworld. at the absolute surface level, i suppose that statement makes sense. if i were handed deep-fried photocopies of something with the pinoint focus of underworld, without getting the chance to ever play it, and had to make an approximation of the experience i imagine that screenshot provides, The Elder Scrolls: Arena would be it.
the problems with the elder scrolls run deep, and they are ALL present here, from the jump, in arena. play daggerfall instead, and you can experience every single one of those problems, and possibly have fun doing so!
after a lobotomy, one might be able to adapt. but recovery? no one recovers from a lobotomy.

Post Note: This write up was made almost entirely with the purposes of promoting a discourse rather than saying something 'accurate' or 'convincing'. Only 1 day later and I mostly disagree with myself here, for instance swapping Chess out with Stratego instead and respecting input randomness far more. As such, this write up can be almost entirely skipped if you choose to do so, otherwise keep in mind that you're reading a process of understanding rather than a firm opinion as you will find in a majority of my other write ups. Thanks for understanding.
I thought about saying something overcomplicated here, but instead I'll just like to this excerpt from Richard Garfield's lecture first
The above clip illustrates the concept that Skill and Luck are almost entirely disconnected in theory. You can play chess well and win or lose regardless to the dice output. Obviously it wouldn't be fun, but there's still a skill being tested otherwise from the play experience. While I think this is an interesting illustration though, I don't quite think the full picture has been realized. For example Randochess would cause a player to focus on quick opening wins since there's still the secondary win condition of mating the King. The issue I have with this reasoning is that, even if we assume that the fun of an independent game isn't always predicated on winning or losing (experimentation being a large factor that randomness supports and keeps exciting), the matrix of overall play and retention is focused on the idea of rewarding mindful play. A bad player winning with a random die roll in Randochess is not going to be happy, they will feel their win as phyric and undeserved. A good player winning with a random die may get some relief in independent games but, the underlying stress of this emergent uncontrollable output probability never goes away.
If this explanation illustrates anything, it probably explains why prolonged sessions of any CCG I play start to make me upset. For one, you never know how the other other player is feeling in these games online and even when you do have access to that communication they are usually just using the 'meta' of communication to taunt you. You can feel what you perceive as the random output unfairness as a 'phyrric' victory over you, but you can't substantiate that opinion onto the other player. Fairness in online gaming is isolated, often only found in solidarity through paratextual forums where people can commiserate with you about it at best. However, it's worth noting that I only play CCGs because my nervous system is crappy and I'm at a severe disadvantage in action games. At the end of his lecture Mr. Garfield shows how invisible randomness elements can keep players around in any game, through revealing that his studies caused the TF2 system of critical hits to happen. This new output randomness was sneaked into the system which he said needs to be done in order to make players not complain. If you add high variable output randomness into an existing game, skilled players will dislike it.
While I don't want to write the book on gaming by any means, I think its worth considering how good Chess is for a moment. Chess is a game with an almost infinite number of decisions to make open to the player, giving them room to test things out. Every decision made is maximally fair, and there's still room for experimentation for players that don't care about direct victory. In these cases, at least until a certain level of skill differential, chess as a meta game utilizes its own anti randomness to be more fun. When I play chess with my mom or my girlfriend, I'm not even that interested in 'beating' them, sometimes I'll sandbag pieces because I like the feeling of confusion and bemusement, along with the fact it often lets me experience new forking situations I wouldn't have learned about otherwise. There's an aspect from the lack of output randomness that makes the game better because it transforms the independent zero sum game into a cooperative experience. Chess and learning chess go hand in hand for any player past the 700 elo mark, and why not? Minimal phyrric victories, maxmimal learning opportunities, a resonance between skill and play, plenty of open experimentation. If I want to be so bold I would say that chess has about as much going in as any open world game in terms of guided exploration, but since its happening on the meta level, people dont view it that way.
Anyway the point of all this is to say that Pokemon Chess is just Randochess 2.0 on the one hand. You can miss attacks and get crits just like in pokemon, except here it causes the passing of turns instead of an outright loss, but for anybody even remotely competent at chess the results are the same. The output variables are moved from the dice into the pieces, but its really just automating a process that would have been done physically anyway irl. You have a choice over what to make each piece's type, and I'm sure pokemon experts know for instance, the exact type for instance that is strongest against any other type, and if you knew the typing charts in their entirety you'd have a leg up but after that point there can't be too much strategy to it. You would still be mapping on a system of strategic randomness checks onto an already existing system of non strategic randomness. This isn't stratego, you can still see all the types of the enemy pieces, so at the point it just becomes following a heuristic and hoping the output is on your side (and of course, trying to close out games asap).
Now Pokemon Chess is a miserable game, or at least not an interesting one to get good at for the majority of people primarily because Chess already exists. However, not every game is interested in making its influences clear. TF2 was likely inspired by Quake Arena but its not going to tell you that. Along with this there's a constant desire to redo engines and combat physics in order to add this novelty back in regardless. So my point is this: I think theres a formal point to be made here in what we do and don't desire in games. I think in the majority of cases that answer is actually in whether a game having random elements is in benefit of the game or not. For instance, all card games by design have randomness, but how much of it can be mitigated while keeping the skill intact? Card game players have known forever that in any game where you have control over the number of cards in your deck, the strongest and most reliable decks have the minimum number of possible cards, with the infamy of cards like Pot of Greed in Yugioh being a clear illustration of this fact. At some point though, digital CCGs realized that fixed card numbers for all players just made the game more enjoyable for everyone while also limiting randomness. In this case the input randomness of the entire genre was mitigated. We can imagine a world in which the toy game randochess was made first, and in that case we would have to imagine a world in which chess was not found from it a fucking tragedy. In what world would that happen you ask? In a world where either the copyrighting of fundamental game design is normalized, and/or a world in which people think random output is so entertaining that taking it out would make the game unfun rather than enhancing the enjoyability of the game.
We live in both of those worlds, so chew on that for a moment. If random input and output aspects can be mitigated, and those random elements don't have an explicit narrative application, they almost certainly should be removed, but given the opportunity that simplification of randomness should actually be expressed through a new game or a patched version. Along with that, I strongly believe criticizing these luck based elements and thinking about how they can be simplified away from should be a central struggle of game criticism and design. Let's stop worshipping luck and start focusing on incentivizing systems that give the players a large number of interesting decision making opportunities.

WHEN_ON_HIGH_THE_HEAVEN_HAD_NOT_BEEN_NAMED, reads the remote terminal prompt, beamed to you across the wastes of a forgotten earth. These radio waves, and the data carrying your scout bot's readings, struggle to reach you intact, hampered by signal interference and the irreproducible context of these ruins. Like uncovering the mounds and errata of ancient Sumeria, this process of scouring and understanding takes time and rigor—how much can you really glean or comprehend from this dustbin, flooded and mangled as it is? But a new history beckons deep within the underworld, where Tiamat again surfaces from Abzu and the answer to old apocalyptic riddles presents itself. The post-mortem of lost millennia can finally begin. You're just the first observer.
I've yet to try June Flower's previous games, exercises in minimalism and conjuration dabbling in archaeology and the unknown. Their pixel art and music, both just as mystifying yet inviting, got me interested while scanning Twitter for Itch.io shareware found off the beaten paths. (Plus Thyme's short blurb!) June describes Gunkprotocol as a way to learn coding with Godot, an experience they found vexing and of questionable utility in the end. Even if this didn't work out as hoped, the game itself confidently about the author's artistry and ability to coax fascinating stories from so little. What I've seen of Remnants and Washout Spire, two longer and more ambitious releases, still doesn't seem nearly this economic in size and design. This 15-minute romp through a walled-off world lasts much longer in the back of my mind than expected, and for only good reasons. Going from Samorost to this, a 20-year gap between either program, showed me how far the quote-unquote "walking sim" has evolved without losing sight of minimalism and prodding the imagination.
All you're obligated to do in Gunkprotocol is wander around, exploring and piecing together a simple data transaction between "blobot" and you, a far-off observer investigating these caves. Exactly what happened to this forsaken city, sitting abandoned among gardens and tunnels, becomes clear at the end in a cute moment of meta-fiction. As you sink into the pulsating trip-hop reverberations, June's inimitable pixelated artwork conveys the grit, murkiness, and alien atmosphere of each environment. Much of the visual style harkens back to eye-searing, captivating limited-palette graphics found in ZX Spectrum or Amstrad CPC games from the '80s like Go to Hell. (Given the use of Manic Miner-like room names in Remnants, I suspect this resemblance has precedent.) We're tantalized both by buried wonders and fear of what lies around the corner, though the only horrors here are existential. There's no one down in these depths left to greet us, just crusty legends and vestiges of the almighty.
What closure players get at the end of this very short explore-a-thon also dodges explication, almost like any "lore" here has become garbled beyond recognition. Is this all the work of divine intervention sometime in our near-future, or the result of an AI lashing out at human hubris? Can new life and new memories bubble into being from these grounds, or is our protagonist's belated tour merely an appraisal of what was and no longer can be? Gunkprotocol maybe spends more effort on obfuscation than I'd like, but I won't doubt it succeeds at that. It's a bit repetitive to actually play through due to non-persistent keyboard inputs, meaning you'll have to tap the cursor keys a lot to navigate around the map. Still, something this intriguing in bite-sized form has me excited to try June's other works, let alone what they've got in mind next. Entrancing presentation and a thought-provoking final report, tucked away in a password-locked .zip archive outside the game, has me sated and ready for more.

Halo gets a lot of shit now for being a bland, uninspired cover shooter, but this assessment really only comes because it's hard to recognize its qualities from a retroactive perspective when everyone else tried to effectively copy what it did for years since its release. Booting the game up on heroic and just giving yourself a chance to experiment gives true insight into the depth of its design; it both offers freedom to play however you want while still being punishing with its two weapon-limit that not only suggests you cater to your own personal play style or current situation, but actively pushes you to, which can lead to some incredibly creative decision making. One of my favorite examples was when on my legendary playthrough, I went back through a segment I recalled having an Elite get inside a Banshee and, due to his placement, he would without fail always get in the Banshee. But I figured out a trick, I could throw a grenade right underneath the Banshee to stop him getting in, and try to jump in it! However as I walked up to rush in, it ended up falling off a cliff and, within mid-air, I found myself able to time my press just right to get in the Banshee, swoooop back up and deal with the rest of the Covenant bastards lurking above.
The beauty of Halo is that all of its design choices that may be seen as appealing to casuals by fans of bygone shooters, can double as sources of creativity and difficulty on their own merit, with things like the shield system existing only to give you a brief window to prevent softlocking and use quick thinking to get back on your toes, and quick thinking is what Halo is all about. It is, without question, one of my favorite shooters ever made not only for its unmatched dynamism and extremely tight balance, but for its surprisingly quiet, mysterious and downright melancholy tone and (at times) story. Please give it a chance, even if you're not usually a fan of modern shooters; I'm not either, but Combat Evolved is wholly unique, all I tell you is to play it on Heroic, because, as the third installment puts it, "this is the way Halo is meant to be played."

The chad Jakub Dvorsky and the virgin Doug TenNapel—not that I actually have anything against The Neverhood so much as its asshole director, but it's nice to know the "funny guys on forested rocks in space" sub-genre found life elsewhere. Amanita Design's first entry in the "self rust" trilogy promised, and delivered, a smaller-scale successor to the bizarre scenes and ambling of a certain mid'-90s cult classic. And unlike that bust, Samorost led to tangible influence and prestige for the bourgeoning indie games scene. This was exactly the kind of Flash-era, outsider art game happy to just invite you into its odd little world, where every screen our gnome reaches has miniature delights and obstacles to overcome. Right as the very notion of "indie game" was coming into being—a reaction against a decline in shareware and rise of industry consolidation—this became an unlikely herald for things to come.
Actually playing the original 2003 game is a bit of a task. Internet Archive's in-browser version breaks after the intro, meaning I had to run the game in Ruffle offline via command line! Otherwise it's as simple as clicking around the screen, presented first to players as a beguiling, fantastic planetoid defying physics and graphical consistency. As I watched our protagonist scope around the void before panicking at the sight of an oncoming world just like theirs, I couldn't help but notice the odd juxtaposition of, well, everything here. Low-res nature photos blown up into scenery; flat-colored munchkins living in and out of more shaded structures; very short music loops, seemingly pulled from anonymous sources and libraries like junk in orbit! Many multimedia CD-based adventures from years before this used far more space to achieve this kind of uncanny valley, yet Dvorsky triumphs in a far stricter filesize.
Our white-frocked fellow's journey from home to hell and back hardly lasts longer than 15 or 20 minutes. Patience, observing the environment, and learning each inhabitants' patterns makes for an engaging time despite its simplicity. An itinerant laborer smokes the herb before throwing away the pipe-key needed to activate a ski lift. The fisherman tosses out a skeleton which the hawk snatches, proudly exhibiting it long enough for us to climb aboard and reach the badlands. What few scenarios Samorost offers feel like forgotten or mangled tall tales, making it fun to solve each puzzle in hopes of something cool. I'll admit that the last couple of screens are less interesting, though. Dvorsky and co-creator Tomas Dvorak wring most of the potential possible from this simple click-action paradigm a bit before the game ends. I hope the sequels introduce just enough verbs and structural changes to freshen things up. Still, this remains as elegant and intuitive as it must have been back in the early-2000s, a pared-down gallery installation in LucasArts form. (Compared to The Neverhood's often overdone riddles and backtracking, something this linear isn't too unwelcome.)
Later stories by the Amanita team(s) would delve into less enigmatic, more overt themes and messaging. Here, the focus is squarely on how one can both explore and interact with alien environments without corrupting or exploiting them in the process. This little world has no prince, yet bears the burden of its own ecosystem and hierarchies which we must acknowledge and work around to save our own land. Yes, one could say it's just a whimsical avoid-the-collision plot with lots of oddities and sight gags, but there's an optimism hiding in plain sight too. Accidents will happen, but a courageous and respectful response to natural disasters like this can work out in the end. As an invisible hand of fate guiding the gnome, we play the most important part in continuing the circle of life, perpetuating predation, survival, and creation in turn.
That's a lot of words to say that I had a good laugh watching the disgruntled man-squirrel finally getting peace of mind after the worms burrowing around him fall prey to a blobby bird. Or how about spooking the goats into the chasm, over and over again, waiting for the angler and some lizards to finish their meal? Samorost indulges maybe a bit too much in these clickpoints at the expense of a meatier adventure, but the commitment to displaying this world's arch antics and irreverence is very endearing. Coupled with unsettling yet comforting library music, the lounge jazz you'd hope to hear in any Eastern European animated film, this clash of styles makes the experience unforgettable. I was sad to leave the suddenly eventful lives of this lil' fella, and everything and everything they chanced upon, but this was one surreal trip I'll think back on fondly.
Seeing as this was one of his college projects, Dvorsky likely had no reason to expect Samorost would win a Webby Award. This led to Internet advertising work, the start of a career making similarly weird but wholly considered interactive media. Amanita Design would eventually ride the wave of indie games popularity via storefronts like Steam and the Wii Shop, plus enthusiastic press coverage, driving this kind of entertainment onto peoples' screens. Machinarium and later point-and-click odysseys shared the limelight with oh so many other author-driven darlings up through the turn of the 2010s, and the rest is history. It's fun to revisit the origins of these big cultural movements, back when games like this, Seiklus, and Strange Adventures in Infinite Space were innovators and standouts in an age of crowded big-box gaming. The era of bedroom coders never truly died, transitioning into browser games and then the digital distribution market we know today. Whether we call it "homebrew", "indie", "doujin", or whatever makes more sense in context, that ineffable David vs. Goliath effort of making one's own interactive art shines through in Samorost. Labor of love indeed.

Note: this review will be written in the hypothetical scenario that, this was 2009, and the rest of the series does not exist yet. Why? Because I think I can indicate why I feel so strongly about it, and why I feel the opposite about later entries only with a certain context. With that said...
It's rare to see a game this solid just out there without much appreciation, and the appreciation it does get doesn't go the full mile for what makes it so good. It's an unconventional action-RPG, pretty much anyone could recognize that, but Demon's Souls isn't the best action game, nor the best RPG, yet I prefer it to anything I've played of those genres other than itself. Weighty, slower combat, methodical exploration and an extreme variation in landscapes characterize a sensation of exploring its world in a way that isn't something you frequently see these days. Ranging from a vast sea of blood in a murky green haze filled with Lovecraftian monstrosities, to a stormy landscape populated by flying stingrays which blast you from above, I never got tired of the landscapes. But what really makes it great is the way they tie into the gameplay at hand, thanks to the unique systems the game has that are very experimental on the whole.
Recognizing that it's a weird game is one thing, but Demon's Souls best strength isn't actually its combat or complexity as a choice-driven RPG, because it'll continue to beat you down no matter what path you pick. In-fact, it's not even an action game in my eyes - it's a game of preparation. The moments of high thrill and intense action have their fates usually already decided before they begin, by the environment, by the number of enemies, by the items you have on hand and the items you have directly equipped at this moment. All this means a lot since you can't pause, an utterly bold choice, yet a meaningful one. Before several boss fights, I found myself having to choose between weight and fast movement, between high magic defense or slow regeneration, between landing lots of hits or maintaining range, knowing I wouldn't be able to pause and change anything in the heat of the moment. My in-game stats didn't define me, it was my wits, and managing to outthink a world clearly out for my blood. The games most experimental edges all have a purpose which is to add a preparative element to adventure, it's not just a matter of trial-and-error, it's a matter of figuring out what to do just as much, if not more, than execution. Some bosses I'd find would just be near impossible to damage, or would revive after I killed them, always throwing new hurdles at me I had to factor in. I remember when I was around the Leechmonger Archstone, I found myself consistently getting pushed down no matter what I did, so I found myself going to other areas (which you can access in a nonlinear fashion) and exploring there instead. After conquering those worlds and accumulating rings, I managed to get enough poison resistance to muster my way through the poison swamp, utilizing my Soul Remains to lure enemies away as even with my best gear I could never take out that many, but I had another challenge on hand which was that thanks to my own failures of dying here after entering my human form, the world had changed. The landscapes of Demon's Souls often change ever so slightly in regards to things like enemy placement tied to your own direct failures, and while I think more could have been done with it, it's such an ambitious idea that I can't help but praise it anyways and love how it feeds into that notion of being methodical and careful every step of the way. Other games may put you on scripted adventures, but Demon's Souls nonlinear exploration and gruelling difficulty saw me taking things at my own pace, yet simultaneously going with the flow of how much the game would punish me for failures. Learning and discovery are necessary to overcome the greatest challenges, because a fight means nothing if the outcome is predetermined by what you know.
Demon's Souls true greatest quality is that most games punish exploits and trickery, but Demon's Souls fully expects you to utilize them to overcome how much it exploits and tricks you, the player, in an act of unfair-fairness where both sides play dirty. What you gain on your adventure and what you learn is what carries it, you go at the order that suits you yet it'll always have something in store to clobber you down with even if you're finding one area more comfy than another. Checkpoints are far from where you need to go? If you get far enough, you can mitigate the trials of the map via using interconnected level design to create shortcuts. Enemies are damaging you too much? Distract them, or alternatively, use long-range to immediately kill them without them standing a chance. Everything that would be disincentivized in another game under some idea of the game designers valuing honor amongst their own systems is thrown out the window here. You play in a cruel world, and you will play cruel to the world. Everything you find on your journey benefits you and balance is wishy-washy in a way that somehow only serves to make the game better rather than worse, as I was constantly weighing out what I needed, especially thanks to the system of Souls being both money and experience points, leaving even my ability to level up in the air. It's not a flawless game but it's an enchanting one to get lost in. I just hope for a sequel that utilizes some of the mechanics more, perhaps less focus on the RPG elements and more focus on the scavenging for tools and exploits side of the game given builds don't mean much? Some of the bosses were a bit too straightforward too, I'd kill for more bosses that make me think outside the box almost like they're puzzles. World Tendency could effect the world even more when you die, perhaps having entire environments warp. Hell, given the existence of the Thief's Ring, maybe just a full-blown ability to sneak around enemies and more variation in the quality of the AI could be good; with some enemies being smart and snooping you out, while others are equally as mindless as is. All just ideas, but for a game brimming so full of possibilities, who knows what one could expect from a sequel?
So, there's the "rest of the Souls games don't exist" hypothetical review out the way, how do I feel about the following titles? Fun at times, but too straightforward and mindless. Demon's Souls never was good for just its combat or level design alone, it's the fact it verges on almost puzzle or survival elements at times with how you need to constantly reason out every situation and utilize every tool you have. Tools matter more than skill a lot of the time here, and scavenging giant areas for those tools to go back to master places that stumped you before is part of the fun. This is something that none of the Souls games fully captured for me thanks to both a more linear focus, and a bigger focus on making builds/just straight up taking down gauntlets of bosses. I love Demon's Souls not just because it's experimental or immersive, but because it keeps me on my toes as a hero in a crumbling world, using anything I can to keep myself alive, and I don't love Dark Souls because it doesn't really capture this in the slightest for me, even if I wish it would.