While I'm not even remotely approaching the skill ceiling of this game, I do have to say that as I've gotten better and more deliberate about my playing style, I've garnered a deeper and deeper respect for the game's aesthetic and design work.

There are so many layers of strategy that emerge as you grasp the basic scoring mechanics, and can start thinking about things like joker lineups and deck manipulation. The experience of winning runs is immensely satisfying and addicting, but the game is unique in that it actually seems to be giving back to you in equal measure. You are improving your mental calculation skills, risk management abilities, intuition for numbers et.c.. I've had it feed directly into real-life assessments on a number of occasions. It's like the game is making me more cautious, smarter about my decisions – in essence, more like its creator.

Real classic and GOTY material. I can't stop thinking about it. I'm increasingly convinced this has the chance to become a new kind of Solitaire, something which is ported to everything and enjoyed by players for years to come.

Competent and enjoyable in stretches, but overall unambitious and held back by its archaic point-and-click design sensibility. Lost count of how many times I basically knew the solution to a puzzle, and then had to fiddle around for what felt like ages just to hit the specific order of events that the designers intended.

The writing and music hold the same standard as the first three titles, but there are too many familiar faces and disappointingly little contemporary energy to be found. Monkey Island was very of its time and cultural moment. It's a quintessentially Gen X/90s franchise. What was once so refreshing about that – the self-awareness, the postmodern signifier juggling, the slacker energy channeled in the underhanded puzzle solutions – somehow I can't help but feel we're past that. It's all been absorbed and sent through the slipstream of pop culture. You can't just throw it at the audience again expecting the same result.

I loved these games growing up and would never really mind getting more of the same if I'm being honest with myself. It's comfort food, pure and simple. Slots right into the grooves. The music is a bop. But it's a relic of the past that never tries to push its frame of reference. Another artifact of stuck culture. Two and a half stars.

Like Myst or The Witness if they didn’t have any gameplay whatsoever. The vague, lumbering prose and cryptic imagery littered throughout may be super profound for all I know, my problem is that I'm just too comfortable not expending any energy to understand it beyond the surface level. To put it simply, it's a problem of trust. How am I supposed to know if all this obscure verbosity carries some deeper, rewarding intent? Apparently I'm not alone in not being all that engaged by this: according to Steam, only a third of players completed this one-hour game, and only around half made it past the first chapter.

Arguably, this may have been the first real walking sim, predating both Gone Home and Stanley Parable by a year or so. To be fair, it deserves some credit for this, and does stand out visually with some exceptional texturing and shader work. I was impressed by how looking back and to the side would often reveal some breathtaking, painterly compositions that must have required quite a bit of intent to integrate. However, this is still a game, and as a game it feels just a few steps removed from the sensibilities of a 90s multimedia product: just so archaic, so fundamentally deficient and crippled in its design, I can't really bring myself to embrace it for what it is. Two stars.

Never seems to decide whether it wants to be a chill game about sorting and organizing, or a shape rotator with a cozy skin on top. Sometimes it strikes a nice balance but often it veers too much in either direction, either becoming tedious busy work (reminiscent of Unpacking) or an exercise in unnecessary obfuscation where the aesthetic makes it hard to work out what you are supposed to do.

Considering the game had a whopping NINE programmers working on it, it's striking how it never manages to get the feel right. It always has this tiny bit of awkwardness to it, like it's suffering from input lag and/or missing important layers of feedback. There's always some amount of friction present which adds up cumulatively during the play session and can really get in the way of your enjoyment.

Maybe I'm too harsh on this. I got it in a Humble Bundle for a song and can't say I regret the time I spent with it. And when the game comes together I do think it does things with the premise that are pretty sublime and memorable. Worth playing, if a bit inconsistent. Three stars.

I have to say, the sheer number of pixel art assets in this game, the quality of them, the support for rotations and pinning... they did such a great job with it. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of work that must have gone into this. Amazing attention to detail. Some of the best pixel art I have ever seen.

This game really is Exhibit A that having a good premise makes all the difference for an indie title. The core conceit here is novel and relatable, creating all kinds of interesting possibilities for emergent narratives. I was struck by how the journey through adulthood, as told through living spaces, created a natural narrative and level progression. The whole idea feels very pure, very Miyamoto-esque, in how it translates the mundane experiences of everyday life into gameplay.

My only problem with Unpacking is that the gameplay loop doesn't evolve from level to level. It scales linearly, giving you more rooms and more packages to open, but never really mixes things up or introduces any challenge besides handling a few misplaced items. Despite taking only three hours and change for me to complete, it still managed to get extremely tedious towards the end.

On the whole, though, a very enjoyable and different experience. Good for zoning out to while listening to a podcast. Three and a half stars.

Very short but charming game that has you moving a hole around to swallow objects.

The hole enlarges as more objects fall into it, which seems like a setup for something more systemic, but disappointingly it's more like a puzzler where you just hit a sequence of specific events to progress. There is little rhyme or reason to how the hole enlarges, and most levels don't require you to do much besides tracking the size order of objects on screen. Even as short as this game is (a playthrough took me 90 minutes), a lot of it ends up feeling like busy work.

The game stands out with its sunny low-poly art style, and lolrandom humor, delivered by way of JRPG-esque dialogue cutscenes. All of this is very of its time, reminiscent of something like A Short Hike, and while the vibe is immaculate, the humor and story unfortunately feels very low effort compared to ASH, like it's just throwing random stuff at you and going "tee hee isn't this wacky and silly?! @_@".

There's a lot of potential here. I think with a more deliberate narrative and gameplay progression, this could have been a really interesting game. As it is, it's a charming diversion but not much more. Perfect game to get on deep sale or in a Humble Bundle. Two and a half stars.

Extremely addictive game, but addictive in a genuinely enjoyable, constructive way that actually seems to be imparting useful lessons about math and risk management as you play. Winning a run is tremendously satisfying. The game's outcomes are so nail-biting and close to the metal at times, you wonder how much it puts its thumb on the scale and how much is simply emergent from well-chosen RNG patterns. Just such a masterclass in design and game feel. Five stars.

Initially wrote a long, cynical take on this as a kind of exercise in verbose post-left signifier juggling, but I have to say reading the BTS book made me do a complete one-eighty on it and pretty much thoroughly convinced me of its merits as a piece of art. This is a sincere project driven by talented writers and artists that truly care about the artform in a way that you simply don't see a lot in the industry. Its highs are sublime. Whatever rough edges it has (mainly in the writing) can be forgiven in light of the ambition and inexperience of the team. Speaking of which, what happened to the development team is a real tragedy, even if the financial double dealings that lead to its downfall are ironically emblematic of the capitalist excesses critiqued in the game. Pretty much a must-play, and the artbook is a must-read. Four and a half stars.

For the love of GOD: do not get this at full price or anything less than a 50% discount, you will almost certainly regret it. Having gotten it at half price I'm still torn on whether the game represented any real value for money, even in its current state.

The core gameplay loop is tedious busy work and quest marker hell. Knowing about the game's development was a clear detriment in this respect, as I quickly became painfully aware of how I was spending precious hours of my life on what is essentially a visual skin over a noise function. At least when you're grinding away in a Far Cry game, you're interacting with hand-crafted content that hundreds of people labored on for years. Here you are doing the exact same thing you do between missions in those games, only what you see on screen is all generated at run-time using some nerd's fancy Perlin noise algorithm. The more you think about it the more disconcerting it becomes.

The sheer idiocy that the game's systems generates and expect you take at face value is staggering. We're talking swimmable liquid oceans on planets with 130 degree or deep sub-zero temperatures, vibrant plant life and mammalian fauna on planets with little to no water... the list goes on and on. Every space station and point of interest is not just very similar, but completely identical, up to and including the placement of chests and other interactable items. The repeating patterns become obvious quickly, contributing immensely to the overall sense of tedium and despair that sinks in after a few hours with the game.

Yet, as I've progressed through the story I have to concede that it has kept introducing new systems and switching things up, enough for me to be compelled to continue as a sort of ambient activity when I'm too tired to do other things. At around twenty hours, I'm still getting new hooks introduced around the core loop, and have started seeing new varieties of alien life pop up that are significantly different from the mammal analogues that have populated the game until this point.

I don't know if the devs really believe their pablum about the game somehow being about the "joy of discovery" or whatever. In any case the game is not about that at all. It is certainly an interesting exercise in... something, but that something seems more like a variation of the dumbed-down gambler/collector loop that powers most of today's open-world time sinks. Like these games, it consumes a lot of your time and gives almost nothing in return. And unlike those games, you don't get to absorb the energy of intent and artistic flair from all the effort that goes into their production. One and half stars. May update if I ever manage to complete it.

The scope of BG2 with the production values of the later Bioware games. Insane to think that a game like this is even possible: I completed the game, something only 1 in 5 players have done based on Steam achievements, invested close to 120 hours in it and may yet have seen only 70-80% of what it has to offer.

The decision to move from RTwP to turn-based made me hesitant at first, but you quickly get used to it and other than making certain fights drag on too long, was clearly the right choice. Each action feels meaningful in a way that it didn't with RTwP. It enables a kind of deliberate encounter design that gets you out of the buffing and cloudkill/fireball cheese that was so effective in the originals.

The game empowers you in such a profound way, I struggle to put it into words. You have enormous freedom in planning your approach to each encounter. It spoils you with its action verbs. I think as gamers we were nearly ruined by the 7th gen and its war on systems. Our brains have been shaped by decades of dedication to streamlining and smoothing things out. Appreciating this game fully conversely means unlearning decades-old habits of guessing designer intent, and instead embracing improvisation and out-of-the-box thinking. Many of the most memorable moments in the game come from how quickly challenging encounters can give in to galaxy-brained schemes enabled by the game's systemic richness.

My only hesitation for the full five stars is how the game tends to sprawl in all cardinal directions (a problem that becomes very acute in the third act), and how inconsistent the tone and voice of the writing can be from moment to moment. Revisiting the BG2 party banter, it still feels superior to what was achieved here. Bioware Magic wasn't just a meme, they really had the sauce in a way that hasn't been fully replicated since. In this game, the voice acting is doing a lot of the heavy lifting of making the dialog sound natural. Often it will break the immersion with lines that are too flippant, too horny – or more commonly – just fall flat, only intermittently achieving the flow and narrative immersion that came so naturally in the Bioware games.

It looks like we won't get any follow-up or expansion to this, and that's a pity. The Forgotten Realms lore is doing a lot of lifting in making the main narrative compelling. I've really struggled to get into Larian's other games and it remains to be seen whether the qualities of this production will survive going into the Divinity universe or a new, original IP. This feels like a once-in-a-decade thing, and judging by how utterly addicted and compelled I was to finish the game, maybe that's for the best. Four and a half stars.

2018

Pretty but systemically unambitious puzzle-platformer continuing the lineage of "serious" mainstream games like Journey and Monument Valley. Accordingly, the game provides lengthy stretches of holding the left analog stick to progress while cryptic, pathos-laden imagery scrolls by.

As someone who has dealt with the death of a partner, I was disappointed to see how little I vibed with the game and how little meaningful it seemed to communicate about loss and grief – the things it's ostensibly about. As far as I can gather from reading about the development of the game, no personal experience seems to have informed the use of these themes. Instead, the game's designers interviewed a psychologist and anchor the game's progression to the five stages of grief, an old model with little to no empirical backing, based on interviews with a small sample of terminally ill patients in the 1960s.

Games in general struggle to get serious themes right, and when they do it is typically when the creators draw from their own lives instead of mining the themes second-hand. One point of comparison is Hyper Light Drifter, which was designed by someone with a congenital, life-threatening heart condition. HLD communicates this subtly and effectively through the gameplay, the ambience and the visual design. The vibe is of walls closing in, of physical decay and imminent death. It is based on lived experience and you can feel it.

The themes in Gris, along with the overall audio-visual presentation, are more or less treated like a pretentious skin on what would otherwise be an unremarkable and repetitive metroidvania-lite platformer. It would be insulting if it wasn't so par for the course for this period in time, where the dominating heuristic was for media to be considered good as long as it was about "important" things.

I will say it redeems itself somewhat in the final stretch, which does introduce some interesting mechanics and occasional longer stretches of meaningful gameplay. But for the majority of the short time it takes to finish, it's just more "games as art" tripe that succeeds at neither being a game or being real art. Two stars.

Prime Ubislop. Gaming equivalent of a weighted blanket. The 2010s open-world action experience distilled, mashed up with failed Hollywood screenwriter tropes and early 2000s xXx-treme audiovisual sensibilities. Very dumb and kinda fun.

While there's amazing craft and attention to detail on display here, I ultimately don't think INSIDE is as successful as Limbo and must say I find it somewhat overrated.

The primary problem is the transition to a 3D representation of a 2D playfield, which inevitably ends up adding layers of unnecessary obfuscation to the puzzle-solving. The designers mitigate it through extensive effort, but they can only do so much and it ends up feeling awkward to play. Objects snap in and out of the player's zone of interaction. Making out what is and isn't an interactable object can often be challenging.

Many of the sequences in INSIDE harken back to the precision platforming of games like Flashback and Prince of Persia. Unfortunately, these sequences are a bad fit for the slippery Unity physics and collision system. Again, the designers mitigate it with brute force, adding all kinds of assists and triggers so the player can progress, but this has the side-effect that you never truly feel in control. At its worst the player character almost seems to respond arbitrarily to your input. It reminded me of playing the old Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, which would have "action sequences" that required you to hit certain timing windows, without really giving you meaningful control over the player character.

The game is meticulously polished, which has the side effect of making the incongrous design decisions stand out. At first, the game feels truly bespoke moment-to-moment, but eventually gameplay elements start repeating and combined with the physics this means it starts taking on a systemic feel. Unlike in Limbo, you never really get the chance to truly understand and master the game's mechanics. Towards the end, it increasingly retreats into its comfort zone: basically an adventure game scripted back-to-front, mashed up with a "hold left analog stick to progress while things happen in the background" game like the similarly overrated Journey. While the visual ideas are interesting, it's all just terribly uninteresting gameplay-wise, and once again, a big step back from its predecessor.

I don't want to downplay the game's artistic achievements. The team has held various talks throughout the years and it's simply stunning how much care was poured into things like the shader programming and interactive audio design. The sequences are stitched together intuitively rather than rationally, each leading to the next in an enjoyable dream-like fashion. I liked how ambiguous and open-to-interpretation everything was, even if the ending smacked of a Hail Mary pass due to running out of time or money. It's just such a shame that they couldn't make it truly cohere as a game in the same way that Limbo did.

The original Diablo was a formative experience for me and a game I admire tremendously from a design perspective. I remember getting very excited when the sequel came out, but got stuck with a bad character build in Act II and subsequently gave it up. Seeing as it remains very popular I wanted to check it off on my bucket list of classic games, but unfortunately I was really disillusioned by the experience and kind of wish I hadn't gone to the trouble to revisit it.

Maybe it's sacrilege to say this, but I think this is a terrible sequel and almost like a Eurojank knock-off of Diablo. Like in the first game, you zip through procedural levels going through a mindnumbing repetitive loop of killing/looting a series of monsters and then town portaling back to the base. Sell, restock, repeat. But things get cranked up several notches too many. Everything is super smooth and zoned in on this core loop to the exclusion of anything else. Nothing leads to discomfort for the player. Vendors are strategically placed for minimum travel distance after the town portal. Hirelings smash enemies without you needing to lift a finger. If they die they can be resurrected within seconds at a negligible gold cost.

The game is dark and bloody, but the ambience of the first Diablo seems almost completely gone. NPCs are not fleshed out or humanized in any meaningful way. Quests are threadbare and often nonsensical, somehow becoming worse the more you progress in the game. The dialogue is basic madlib with the various triggers and game objects the player must interact with to progress ("This {Darkness} must be the work of {Claw Vipers}! Go to their {Nest} and kill them").

What seems to have preoccupied the designers are two equally odious pillars constituting the core gameplay loop: 1) a nested system of slot machines for random gear and upgrades that the player can collect, 2) a ridiculously over-engineered skill tree promising gameplay variety, but in reality offering only a few combinations that give the player a viable chance of completing the game.

The success of your character is defined almost exclusively by your build and your gear. As the gear is randomly generated through the aforementioned slot machines, the only skill involved lies in properly setting up your character. This is where the design runs into trouble. As I discovered in my first outing with the game, there is no real way for the player to predict what kind of abilities they will need later on. What works very well in one part of the game can suddenly drop off in usefulness without warning. Respeccing opportunities are exceedingly rare - only once per twenty-hour plus run - but the game does not inform you of this beforehand. Worse still, this chance is provided at the very start of the run, when you are the least likely to make good use of it. Spreading your skill points out to experiment with the various abilities does nothing but hurt you, the path to success is instead to cram almost all points into one thing.

This time I decided I didn't have time to screw around with a bad build and followed an online guide instead. As I followed the guide, I was disappointed by the sheer number of immersion-breaking things I had to do, things that would have been close to impossible for me to discover organically as a player taking the game's fiction and premise in good faith. The distribution of points was exceedingly lopsided and non-intuitive. I had to reload constantly to reset vendor stocks, farmed an early game boss for runes, had to make extensive use of the Horadric Cube (another slot machine) for item transmutations, the list goes on and on. Almost all skill points were fed into a single aura that was almost game-breakingly powerful - that is, until the final act, where it became almost useless.

The more I played, the more I came to hate the core systems of this game. Players are severely punished for experimentation and more or less forced to min-max with the aid of guides. Following the intuition you build up through normal gameplay never seems to lead you organically to good choices.

As I played through the game, the slot machine analogy stuck with me more and more. The soundscape is dominated by mid-range boosted sounds of rushing coins and gemstones. Minor dungeons end in seas of gold and purple sparkling chests. Bosses explode into fireworks of gold-colored loot. What I'm trying to say is that this game just feels like an online gambling app with a grimdark fantasy skin. As players mindlessly click-click-click their way through this procedural slop, are they really appreciably different from the rows of decrepit boomers in Vegas awaiting their final descent into oblivion?

In a world with the Soulsborne games and modern action rogue-likes, there is absolutely no need to play this. It's a bad sequel with nothing of what made the original Diablo good. It's more like the spiritual precursor to something like Raid: Shadow Legends - a hollow, insincere Skinner box that's just there to soak up your time without investing your actions with meaning or a vector for mental growth. Absolute detestable dreck. A cancer and a blight upon the history of games development. One star.

2012

Some notes after replaying this for the first time in what feels like at least a decade:

- I wasn't prepared for how tedious it was. Tons of backtracking, checking the map, trial and error jumping sequences et.c. The tilesets quickly become repetitive. The core mechanics are very simple and never really evolve, which is fine at first but then becomes grating.
- The depth and the sheer obscurity of the optional puzzles is absolutely ridiculous. A full completion without looking things up would be worth putting on your resume.
- The pixel art and music are the attention-grabbers, but the sound design is what impressed me most this time. Like much about this game, there's a charming level of texture and detail to it that becomes apparent when you really sit down and listen to it. One thing I noticed was the frequent clever application of in-engine effects like filter cutoff and bitcrush, which brings me to the next part...
- Another underappreciated part of Fez, and core to its artistry, is the Trixel engine, by which I mean how insanely bespoke and artisinal it is. The feature set is completely particular and arguably of no use for any game other than Fez. Nevermind the rotation effect, who really knows what went into simulating all the various glitchy Vectrex and Apple II aesthetics on display here? The ending especially is a real tour-de-force for what this engine can do.

For the first two reasons, I feel this is only partly successful as a game. I think it's more notable for having the gumption and irrationality to succeed as art. It's not a utilitarian product, of course, but it's not a weepy, bashful plea for recognition like most "games-as-art" contenders either. What's great about it is how playful it is, how comfortable it is in its own skin and with the roots of its artform.

This was really a lightning in a bottle thing, a lucky convergence of energies. I've searched in vain for something similar: I don't think there's been anything quite like it before or since (though Tunic and Hyper Light Drifter do get close, as does Monument Valley). None of the people involved have really lived up to what they did here, aside from maybe Rich Vreeland with HLD. Still worth a playthrough, will be revisiting some time in the future.