Hello to you all! I hope you have been enjoying the new year so far. There’s plenty to look forward to, from major AAA titles like Starfall and Alan Wake 2, to indie titles like Hollow Knight: Silksong, and hopefully some surprises along the way! It’s going to be a fun year. But as we look ahead to all that 2023 promises to offer, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at the gaming highlights of last year. Here are a few of these highlights, as submitted by our staff. Enjoy!
While Stray has plenty of things going for it, such as its gorgeous visuals and its mysterious sci-fi world, the one thing that truly makes it stand out from other games is its gameplay premise: you play as a cat! It’s a remarkably simple idea, one that I would think other developers would have tried ad infinitum by now, but that just isn’t the case. Stray breaks new ground in this regard, delivering a unique platforming and puzzle-solving experience because of this. The cat’s movement and other animations are superb, and the game offers plenty of opportunities for you to perform typical cat-tivities, like knocking small objects off of ledges.
A Plague Tale: Requiem
As the second entry in the Plague Tale series, A Plague Tale: Requiem takes everything that was good in the first game and makes it better. The audio/visual presentation is astounding, the tweaks made to the stealth-action gameplay provide a smoother experience, and the characters are brilliantly voice-acted once again. Asobo studio also made substantial improvements to the facial animations, which was one of the few sore spots of the original game. All told, Requiem is a highly polished game with great gameplay, well-realized characters, and a gripping story. Anyone who enjoys narrative-driven single-player games should give this series a shot; Asobo has something special here.
After a long, long wait, I finally got to play the long-awaited fox-Zelda game Tunic this year. Honestly, I was a little apprehensive going into it. After playing several of the demos, I wasn’t quite sure what the final game would be like. The world was beautiful and mysterious and I was looking forward to exploring it, but the combat in the demos felt a little too challenging for my liking. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the final result. And then the surprises kept on coming. By now most people know about the in-game “manual” mechanic that is a vital part of the gameplay, but there are layers and layers of secrets and mechanics that can be explored. The challenges came not only from the combat but also from the puzzles and the twists and turns of the story. I love games that have little hand-holding, expecting the players to figure out things for themselves and be richly rewarded for it. It feels like around every corner there was a new thing to be discovered and a new secret to puzzle out. I loved every minute I spent in the game and am looking forward to continuing to explore and deciphering all the puzzles and secrets.
This year was truly a year of surprises in gaming for me. I’ve heard people singing the praises of Vampire Survivors when it first released on Steam, but didn’t pay it much mind as, from what I saw from the screenshots and marketing, I thought the game to be a pixel art, rogue-like, bullet hell game. No thanks, not my thing. But when it came to Gamepass and everyone was once again in an uproar over it, I figured why not, it was free anyway. Six hours later I purchased the game and was starting to agree with the “crazy” internet people calling it the game of the year. Yes, it is a pixelated, bullet hell-ish game with rogue-like elements, but at its heart, it’s really an action idle game. And like every idle game, the draw is the endorphin hit every time the numbers go up and you unlock the next tier of power. It boasts tons of secrets to unlock, and it pulls on your desire for “one more go” to get the perfect build to reach that elusive 30-minute time limit on the various stages. Once you get that perfect run and it turns into a true idle game where you only need to sit back and enjoy the colorful flashes and mess of numbers filling your screen, there is truly no feeling like it. I’m still a handful of unlocks from achieving everything in the base game, and I will definitely be jumping back in whenever I get a half hour of free time.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land
I’ll be honest, Kirby and the Forgotten Land kind of snuck up on me. I’ve always been a Kirby fan, but in the way you’re a fan of a well-written kids’ cartoon. You’re not expecting the world from it, but it’s a fun romp when you boot it up. So when I got the chance to review it for GUG, I was expecting just that: a fun romp through Dream Land that would be entertaining, colorful, and probably end with some Eldrich horror of a final boss. You know, typical Kirby stuff.
What I ended up getting was the deepest and most involved Kirby game I’ve ever played. I covered most of what I loved about the game in my review, but I wanted to delve more into a couple of aspects I didn’t get to touch on. First off, the music is absolutely phenomenal. The soundtrack feels like it came straight from my golden gaming era: the GameCube/PS2 days, and pairs wonderfully with the variety of themes found in the game. And, because each area has differently-themed levels within the overall aesthetic, the soundtrack never gets old (special shout out to the music that plays in the haunted house levels in Wondaria, which sounds straight out of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door). Most tracks include the main musical motif of the game in unique ways, recontextualizing it in a variety of styles. It makes the whole soundtrack feel like a scavenger hunt, and I honestly was surprised nearly every time I heard the main theme crop up again.
Another thing that surprised me about this game was the worldbuilding. When the game was first revealed, I joked around by calling it “The Legend of Kirby: Poyo of the Wild,” but the Breath of the Wild comparison held surprisingly firm when I got my hands on the game. While it may not be as technically impressive as its Zelda predecessor, this game absolutely does for Kirby what BOTW did for Link. You start out on a beach, with nothing but the waves and sand to accompany you. As you venture into the jungle, mysterious animals call out to you from the darkness (and, fun fact, the birds actually CHIRP THE MAIN THEME OF THE GAME. I missed that little detail my first time through, but it goes to show how much love is in this game). But once you emerge from the dense canopy of the forest, the first level glitters at you in the noonday sun: a gigantic, dilapidated cityscape. From the get-go, this game tells you that this world is vast, developed, and has a huge amount of history. It makes you wonder just what happened to this seemingly prospering society to make them all vanish. Once you reach the end of that level, you get a ridiculously fun J-pop cover of the main theme to hype you up for the adventure, but hearing it as Kirby ventures through a broken city leaves you with just enough tonal dissonance to make you wonder what’s coming next.
I could gush for another page or two on this game, but to wrap up, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, to me, is a masterclass on doing a lot with very little. The controls are simple, the gameplay is fairly basic, and the game never info-dumps a ton of lore onto you. But despite that, it’s one of the most satisfying games to play for me, because the little it does have is polished to nigh perfection. The jumps feel snappy and kinetic; the Copy abilities are powerful, and each upgrade to them adds even more movement options to keep you guessing; and the world is revealed to you little by little with this subtle hint of tragedy that follows you to the very end. If you’re a Kirby fan, or even if you’re not, seriously consider picking this one up. It’s one of the few games that I can truly say brings me pure joy.
The life of a Sonic fan is one fraught with disappointment, which can make you a little jaded after a while. When I first saw Sonic Frontiers’s first trailer, my first thought was “That looks amazing!”, followed immediately by “I wonder how they’re going to screw this one up.”
Suffice it to say, Sonic Team did NOT screw this one up. There was so much to cover in this game that I ended up having to cut a lot of it out of my review, but now that we’re looking back on the year, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite things about this game: its cohesion.
I’m a little over the open world trope at this point, but it was so nice to have for Sonic since he can finally actually go fast. And Sonic Team littered these levels with so much stuff that I was constantly tripping over something new. But while that could have easily made the game feel chaotic and unplanned, everything fit for me. Each of the platforming challenges felt like mini versions of classic Sonic levels, and they all lasted just about a minute to give you a quick hit of platforming before you were back to exploring. The mini-bosses were always a fun romp—except for Strider; it can die in a hole—mainly because each boss had a unique way to take it down, so you were constantly having to think on your feet as you sped along. And the main bosses, while not my favorite part of the game, were still a blast. They called back to the final bosses in the Sonic Adventure games, but with ten times more control and fluidity than those games combined.
And all of this would have been enough if the story didn’t tie it all together well, but, despite all odds, Sonic Team managed to knock this out of the park as well. And while it’s easy to laud Ian Flynn, longtime writer for the Sonic comic, for the success of the story, it turns out, he only worked on the dialogue. To be clear: this game needed good dialogue, and Flynn’s writing is absolutely brilliant. He took Amy Rose, one of the most infamously irritating characters in the franchise, and made her not just palatable, but relatable and lovable. For the first time, I was invested in these characters, and they didn’t come across like shallow imitations of anime protagonists like they did in Sonic X. They felt relatable and interesting, and they had real motivations and values that made sense, without ever crossing the line into corny.
The fact that Sega came up with this story themselves tells me that they’re finally figuring out how to bridge the gap between the younger generations of gamers who only know the post-Lost World games, and their older demographic who have fond memories of the Adventure games. Sonic Frontiers ties its gameplay into its story like no other Sonic game, and actually gives its characters a chance to make you feel something, and get invested in their stories. Sonic Frontiers isn’t perfect, but it’s a brilliant look at what’s to come for the Blue Blur.
Horizon: Forbidden West
There were a lot of amazing things about Forbidden West that did not surprise me at all: graphics that seem to push the boundaries of gaming, precise and enjoyable gameplay, and just the right amount of sass from Ashley Burch as Aloy. But two things did really strike me. The first is that they blended the PS5’s haptic feedback and audio capabilities in ways that almost felt like virtual reality. When you are near an explosion, I truly felt like I had briefly lost my hearing in real life. How they made that possible, I don’t know.
Secondly, the story beats surprised me in interesting ways and made me feel like this game exemplifies GUG’s mission. I firmly believe Romans 1:20 is a missional verse for us, that we understand that secular artists understand God’s truth deep down, and therefore we should be unsurprised when it appears in secular art. Many times we identify this as a redemption arc in a story, but here we see the truth of total depravity that happens when humans are as gods. Seen through this lens, the aspects of the plot some may find objectionable suddenly make more sense.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3
I’m not sure what a bigger fear is for an artist: the sophomore slump after a great initial performance, or the recovery after the sophomore slump. In either case, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 proved itself capable of surpassing the middling Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and even its original well-loved predecessor. First, the game’s visuals are probably the best I have seen of any game on the Switch, and the music may be one of the best RPG soundtracks of all time.
But part of the reason the music works is how it ties so well into story beats. I have frustrations with the overarching plot of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but they are assuaged by the characterization of the game. The six-person main cast is together through almost the entire story, and it truly feels like one big group of protagonists. The individual moments they share together, their individual stories being weaved together as a cohesive whole, the voice acting—it all comes together beautifully. No spoilers, but there are some truly emotional scenes that I know still stick in my memory long after I forget who the bad guy was and why anything else mattered. I play RPGs mostly for the story, and I enjoy those stories mostly for the characters. So while it wasn’t a perfect ride storywise, it was really dang close.