The last time I published one of these was just before Covid-19 hit and it was a lumbering monstrosity of a list. I didn’t have it in me to do one in 2020 nor 2021, but 2022 felt different. Joel and I even started Side by Side again, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed with the recent flurry of posts…
Over the last few years, gaming has kept me buoyant in a way that I perhaps previously took for granted. Offline it was still a space to delight, confound, and, perhaps most importantly, distract me from… *gestures vaguely at everything*. But online it provided a virtual space to hang out with friends when physically meeting up was very difficult or just plain illegal. The video call boom felt quaint after years of getting together with friends online on a weekly, sometimes daily basis to socialise, catch up and do whatever crazy virtual thing we had lined up next. We played crazy (and not-so-crazy) golf, we skulked around in the 1890s Louisiana bayou in Hunt: Showdown, sailed across the Sea of Thieves, struck rock and stone in Deep Rock Galactic, got mauled by nature in Grounded. Metaverse schmetaverse.
But we’re talking about 2022 now, and, god, there were a lot of great games weren’t there? Too many, even. Developers, take some time off; you’ve earned it. Remarkably I’ve played enough from 2022 to warrant a list dedicated to that alone which is probably a first. Of course, I’ll add some of my favourite games from previous years to the end as well. I’ll keep it short this time.
Discovered in a Crashbook, I really clicked with Gunlocked, a vertical shoot ‘em up that was just the right balance of ‘relaxing’ auto-shooter power fantasy snowballin’ (like Vampire Survivors) but with more active bullet hell ballet to keep me on my toes. Confession: I have not played Vampire Survivors yet.
GigaBash is like Power Stone but with kaijus and heroes, ranging from a snail that can launch its shell like a mortar to an abominable snow-Kirby that sucks opponents in. I kicked off a games night with this and nothing else got a look in. We all had a GigaBlast. It feels like a game from the Dreamcast days and I’m here for it.
Disconnects, frustrating matchmaking and progression bloat aside, it’s still one of the smartest, most creative and distinctive multiplayer shooters out there.
If you liked The Witness then you should play The Looker. If you didn’t like The Witness then you should play The Looker. It’s short and free and made me laugh more than anything else in 2022.
I’m kind of cheating here because this only really clicked with us in the last month or so after a dangerously long hiatus over the Christmas period. The concept and presentation instantly won us over but the crafting, survival and logistics loop (typical of these kinds of games) quickly sapped a lot of our enthusiasm. For a while it felt more like Honey I Shrunk the Workbench. However, once our makeshift camp slowly became an actual base, once we got to grips with the game’s systems, once we made some real progress (hello Hedge Ascent) we got a second wind which I’m sure will carry us the rest of the way. It’s an amazing space to inhabit and explore, especially for someone like me who’s a sucker for life under a macro lens.
At once beautiful and disgusting, Scorn is a weird mix. It frontloads the game with this big opaque multi-room puzzle sequence–that I absolutely adored and many players hated–and then peppers the rest of the experience with much lighter and familiar puzzling, slow and quiet wandering, a little exploration and all the components of a shooter without actually requiring you to shoot a great deal. In fact, if you’re patient, observant and resistant to blasting everything that moves, Scorn is much more tranquil and… eerily still. ‘They’re coming out of the walls! …oh wait, now they’re going back into the walls. Huh.’ The trigger-happy will have to deal with deliberately cumbersome gunplay, scant resources and more pushback from antagonised creatures. And I love that, especially without the usual moralising. It’s a shame then that the artbook reveals more about the game’s world, its inhabitants and what part you play in it than the game itself. Nevertheless, my girlfriend and I couldn’t resist Scorn’s deliciously dark and unpredictable journey.
Betrayal at Club Low
Ever since The Norwood Suite I’ve been looking forward to every new Off-Peak game. In 2020 there was the excellent Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 and in 2022 we got Betrayal at Club Low, Cosmo D’s most mechanically ambitious game to date. Instead of the usual first-person adventuring, this time we’re third-person pointing and clicking and tabletop dice roll playing.
An agent has gone missing inside Club Low and, disguised as a pizza delivery guy, it’s your job to get inside and get him out. Cue shenanigans. At one point I managed to break into the surveillance room, jump the security guard, get the stuffing kicked out of me, then convince him I was IT.
As is often the case with Cosmo D’s games, it’s bizarre in the most intoxicating way but grounded by down-to-earth characters trapped in the crossfire between art, consumption and making money. It’s also got one of the best soundtracks I heard all year. It wasn’t uncommon for me to just stop playing and have a dance. Four-to-the-floor baby!
Kirby and the Forgotten Land
After dropping Elden Ring and playing through Doom Eternal again (with the excellent Ancient Gods DLC) Kirby and the Forgotten Land felt like an oasis. Glittering, refreshing, bright and breezy, with all the charm and creative design of a Nintendo game, only without the annoying moustachioed one. Recline… ahhh. Even Kirby’s bombs have cute little rubber rings so they float in the water.
Anyway, this is the exact moment the demo won me over:
There are things in Kirby and The Forgotten Land that I absolutely did not expect to see in something this warm and inviting. It gets weird, it gets dark and it can get difficult, but it was always a delight.
I can’t believe I snagged this for free on Epic. Just look at the trailer. Listen to it.
Swoon. There’s the odd bug and a bit of camera jank but beyond its gorgeous and arresting sketchy giallo-infused visuals (and an absolute banger of a theme), Saturnalia is a unique, compact, intimate, mechanically mysterious, narratively intriguing and oppressive (bordering on hostile) investigative mystery horror game. It’s so investigative, in fact, that you get a clue board that records all your discoveries. I love a good clue board. It took me a while to get into its peculiar rhythm and even then I rarely felt safe or truly got my bearings. You see, while there might be something stalking the Sardinian town of Gravoi, it’s Gravoi’s dark, match-lit and strangling passages that are the real monster. I don’t want to say any more because a large part of the game’s appeal for me was working out how it worked, but I loved Saturnalia.
While everyone was auto-shooting in Vampire Survivors I was introducing myself to Punkcake’s repertoire with mecha-spider shoot’em up Ecstatic. I never expected this to get its fangs into me so deep but hoo boy. Ecstatic combines the tight arcade arena action of Robotron, the lock-on-fire-and-forget missile salvos of Rez, and the musical structure, difficulty and ‘in the zone’ quality of Super Hexagon, but with a wild almost gestural mouse control scheme that made me feel like a bullet hell wizard. I’m glad a simple pleasure like this can nearly top my list.
The Case of the Golden Idol
I absolutely adored Return of the Obra Dinn so I was thrilled to be diving back into some dithered detective work with The Case of the Golden Idol. Each of the game’s chapters presents you with these bewildering but tantalisingly compelling moments frozen in time. Poke about, gather all the clues and piece them together to discover whodunwot. My favourite thing is how the story reveals itself as you snap things into place. Sometimes I’d narrow things down to a single possibility and the penny would drop ‘oh’… ‘OHHHH!’. The way the developers have calibrated the game so that these epiphanies come at just the right moment to deliver punchy story reveals is pure magic. I finished the game thinking ‘This is why I play videogames’ and what’s better than that? The music and visuals are just perfect too.
Time to deploy a dividing dinkus:
Okay, let’s do some quick-fire standout games that I played over the last few years:
- Echoes of the Eye – Mobius did the unthinkable and somehow made Outer Wilds, my GOAT, even better. Staggering and beautiful.
- The Longing – You’re a lonely shade deep underground tasked with waking the king in 400 (real-time) days. Will you wait or will exploration and curiosity kill the proverbial cat? An all-time favourite with a haunting dungeon synth soundtrack.
- Doom: Eternal + The Ancient Gods DLC – Harder, better, faster, dafter. Probably my favourite FPS despite the bloat.
- Wreckfest – As fun for wreckers as it is for serious racers. Shame there’s no split-screen MP but the online is fantastic.
- Inscryption – Unpredictable, some may say uneven, but I was under its dark spell from start to finish.
- Yugo Puzzle – An exquisitely designed puzzler which is so simple, nuanced and difficult but never intimidating while somehow rarely being susceptible to brute force or accidental solutions. One of my favourites.
- Wildermyth – There’s more emergent drama, tragedy, comedy, humanity and adventure in Wildermyth’s first chapter than there is in other much longer authored experiences. Brilliant and gorgeous.
- SOLAS 128 – An immensely satisfying, sprawling and intricately designed clockwork puzzler and musical laser light show.
- Going Under – Fight your way through the depths of failed tech start-ups in this witty, charming and chaotic room-wrecking action roguelike. This sustained my interest more than Hades. The soundtrack is fire, as the kids say.
- Islanders – A cerebral but relaxing strategy puzzle score-chaser where building synergies are key.
- Tales from Off-Peak City Vol. 1 – I loved exploring this weird neighbourhood delivering weird pizzas. After Club Low, I can’t wait to see what Vol. 2 has in store. That opening bassline tho.
- Deep Rock Galactic – Muscular action, tough and varied procedurally generated cave systems with wonderfully balanced and synergetic classes make this a satisfying and tense co-op favourite.
- Unrailed! – Unrailed! is what you get if you make a co-operative game out of the best action sequence in movie history. I might prefer this to Overcooked.
- Sagebrush – A short, unsettling and slow-burn horror/thriller. Watch the first 60 seconds of the trailer, turn it off then play the game.
- Commune Corvidae – Described as a ‘proto-Sable’ I found the tighter focus and quest and collectible-free exploration here so much more liberating. Quietly beautiful, melancholic and uplifting.
- Wide Ocean Big Jacket – Super short but effortlessly lovely, funny and earnest.
- Atomicrops – Don’t be fooled by its whimsical appearance: Atomicrops will furrow your face. One of my favourite action roguelikes alongside Going Under and Hades. Another soundtrack that I loved.
- Primordia – I played this concurrently with my mum in lockdown and we adored it. The visuals, the world and its atmosphere, the dialogue and story, the puzzles. A rare treat.
- Creaks – Amanita do a proper mechanical puzzler with their typical flair for beautiful visuals, sound and music. Oh the music.
- Inside – Small in size but big on mood. I didn’t like Limbo but this was such an unpredictable and evocative trip.
- The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches – At long last I returned to these expansions and they were both excellent. Onwards to Dishonored 2 and Stephen Russell!
- Hades – Impeccably designed and dangerously addictive, let down only by the drawn-out finale.
- Tanknarok – I wish we’d covered this for Side by Side because it’s such an immediate, enthusiastic and polished party game with the chonkiest lil tanks. I mean, just look at it.
- Northern Journey – Incredibly ambitious, weird and evocative solo dev first-person adventure shooter. I was spellbound by this, jank and all.
- Dungeon Deathball – Into The Breach goes into the pit as a deadly blood sport. Bloody brilliant.
- Phoenix Point – Dark, crunchy and closer to old-school X-COM than XCOM. I loved it before eventually petering out during the end-game.
And I think that’s your lot this time! All the best for 2023 folks.
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