Welcome back to Engadget's Gaming IRL, a monthly segment where we run down what our editors are playing. For the most part, we spent the slow month of December catching up on the great games of the year, including Life is Strange 2, Astrologaster, Hypnospace Outlaw, and Wattam. And thanks to Netflix's new Witcher series, one Engadget writer was inspired to catch up on 2018's Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales.
What games have you been catching up on? Shout out in the comments below!
Life is Strange 2
Life is Strange 2 isn't just a worthy followup to the original, it shows what's possible when a major game publisher isn't afraid to let a developer tackle a distinctly political story. The game openly confronts racism, police violence, and immigration, all the while weaving a compelling story about brotherhood and family. While we've seen huge franchises like Far Cry blunder their attempts at dealing with modern politics, Dontnod's small game about two brothers on the run from the law ends up being far braver.
Mostly, that's due to the game's genuine empathy for its characters. Sean and Daniel Diaz are just normal American kids living mostly carefree lives. They have issues -- they fight too much, and they're dealing with the absence of their mother -- but otherwise, they've carved out a peaceful life with their father. But after an incident with a racist neighbor, their father is gunned down by a cop, and everything goes to hell. There's a massive explosion. The cop is dead. And the brothers Diaz have no choice but to run. (Who would they go to, the same police force that shot their father in cold blood?)
It turns out, Daniel is a bit special. The trauma of seeing his father killed in front of him unlocked a latent telekinetic ability (which also inadvertently caused an explosion that killed the police officer). Your job, as the big bro, is to make sure you can survive in the wilds, far from the comfort of your home, and make sure Daniel grows up properly. He not only needs to learn how to use his powers, as a nine year old kid, he also needs to come to terms with the responsibility of having them in the first place. Dontnod was certainly inspired by Katsuhiro Otomo's tales of other troubled kids with pyschic powers, Domu and Akira. Across Life is Strange 2's five episodes, you've got plenty of chances to shape Daniel as a person, which lead to seven potential endings. Will he lead a peaceful life, or go all Tetsuo?
Throughout the journey with these two brothers, seeing them beg for food, fight off racist shopkeeps, take on a religious cult and ultimately attempt to cross the border into Mexico, I couldn't help but feel for them. More so than any game I've played in 2019, Life is Strange 2 is an empathy bomb that accurately reflects the America that many people of color are living through today. You never know when someone could be a bigot, you can't trust the police, and you're constantly asked to justify your existence. But there's a degree of hopefulness in the story too. Sean and Daniel encounter good people. They have a chance to reconcile with their mother. And all the while, they form a stronger bond as brothers.
Deputy Managing Editor
A few weeks ago, I saw a handful of publications all publish positive takes on the Apple Arcade title Grindstone, a battle puzzle game that arrived when the service launched in September. My colleague Mat Smith dismissed it as yet another game in a pretty well-trodden genre, but the fact it was on Apple Arcade intrigued me for one specific reason: no in-app purchases.
Without having to worry about spending more money to play the game for more than a few minutes, I dug into Grindstone and have put far more time into it than I would have expected possible. The core gameplay is simple: you're a warrior amidst a battlefield of various different-colored baddies. The goal is to string together as long a combo as you can of the same color; if you manage a combo of 10 or more, you'll get a grindstone that lets you switch colors mid-combo. Longer and longer combos matter more as you go, because there are more powerful creeps that you can only take down if you first mow down five or 10 baddies.
That gameplay mechanic can be very satisfying, the kind of thing that I keep seeing behind my eyes when it's time to go to sleep. But the whole experience is quality -- the catchy music, the color and character design brimming with life, the variety of weapons you can craft and variety of bad guys you encounter, it's all quite delightful.
There is some in-game economy, of course, but the game is well-balanced and doesn't require you to re-grind earlier levels very much. The difficulty level feels appropriate, as well — levels can be challenging, but not unfair. If you're an Apple Arcade subscriber, give it a shot and you'll probably lose a lot of hours to it.
Hypnospace Outlaw and Astrologaster
Buyer's Guide Editor
Last week the Engadget staff published a list of our favorite games of 2019, for which I wrote up Untitled Goose Game. Because it's delightful. But it wasn't an easy choice; you see, I was hoping someone else would pick up the slack so I could write about my number two and three choices for favorite game: Hypnospace Outlaw and Astrologaster.
As someone who was in college at the turn of the century, I have a lot of fond memories of staying up late browsing the internet. Those days when everything was kind of ugly and slow and you couldn't find anything easily since Google hadn't been invented yet. This year, I also played the AIM-based period piece Emily is Away and it nailed the drama of those teen years well, but it was the "internet moderation simulator" Hypnospace Outlaw that ultimately captured my imagination.
There's a little bit of sci-fi snuck in there with the whole "browse the internet while you sleep" but everything else is all too real: The terrible web design, the frontier feel that had people staking out their own corner of the net and heck, even the start of illegal music sharing. But it isn't just a 1999 simulator; Hypnospace Outlaw is at its heart a puzzle game, albeit one that requires you use skills honed back in the day searching for obscure fan pages and stalking your ex on the web.
While Untitled Goose Game was delightful and Hypnospace Outlaw was interesting, the game that made me laugh the most was Astrologaster. You're cast into the role of Simon Forman, an astrologer in the Elizabethan era who is oft called upon to guide his querents in matters both medical and practical by consulting the patterns in the stars. No bones about it: Simon is a quack. But the readings you're called on to make are based on real astrology and humourism, so there is some method to the madness. Which reading is the most likely? Do you just tell them what will make them happiest? Or just tell them they're pregnant? Regardless of what you choose, pay attention, because it will be on the quiz. (Yes, there is a quiz. Also songs, because this game is bonkers.)
My gosh, it's been a long year. Here in Old Blighty, I've spent the last 12 months listening to politicians bicker about Brexit and create one of the deepest and most embarrassing societal squabbles the supposedly 'United' Kingdom has ever seen. It's exhausting, but I've found some festive solace in Wattam, the latest game by Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy creator Keita Takahashi. Last year, I played a short demo and discovered "a wonderfully weird game about friendship." The final version, I'm pleased to say, extends that concept with some light puzzle solving and a simple but heartwarming finale about family and forgiveness.
You start as the Mayor, a green cube with a mustachioed face and bowler hat. The floating field is empty save for a cheery stone character buried in the dirt. They jump up and invite you to play a game of chase using the Circle (right hand) and Square (left hand) buttons. Completing this adorable sequence gives you the ability to switch characters and revive a larger Rock playmate. Then, with the Mayor, you can press Triangle to lift your hat and greet them both with a harmless but initially terrifying bomb.
Before long, you'll have some flower friends, a waddling nose and a tiny acorn that can sprout into a giant tree provided everyone else holds hands and dances around in a circle. To progress further, you'll need to frequently switch characters and use their unique abilities to make other people happy. The aforementioned tree, for instance, can gobble characters up and turn them into strawberries, pork chops and broccoli. The mouth, meanwhile, can turn food into poop and the balloon can float higher than anybody else. Every interaction is utterly bizarre but, through Takahashi's trademark art direction, logical and endearing.
Completing tasks will eventually unlock larger objects -- tables, chairs and giant inflatable ducks -- that can ferry smaller characters between biomes. The floating pasture, it turns out, is called Spring and you'll need to work through Summer, Fall and Winter before the end credits roll. Along the way, you'll discover the origins of this strange but merry world and why the characters were scattered about in the first place. It's a simple tale with a timeless message that players young and old should be able to appreciate.
"We are human beings living on the same planet," Takahasi told me at E3 earlier this year. "Why do we have to fight each other? I just wanted to try making something that somehow means we can get over our differences. In a funny way, though, which is colorful explosions for me." A perfect antidote, in short, to the madness of 2019.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
Like a lot of people, I decided to revisit The Witcher games after watching Netflix's adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's fantasy novel series. But rather than starting a new playthrough of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I instead opted to check out Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales.
Chances are, even if you're a fan of The Witcher universe, you may not be familiar with Thronebreaker. Despite its ties to CD Projekt Red's masterpiece, it wasn't a financial success, failing to meet the studio's sales expectations when it came out last year. That's a shame since it's almost every good as The Witcher 3.
The simplest way to describe Thronebreaker is that it's a combination of Gwent, the collectible card game (CCG) CD Projekt Red introduced in The Witcher 3, and a visual novel. You play as Meve, the queen of one of the kingdoms that makes up the world of The Witcher. While technically a prequel, as the player you have a lot of control over how the story takes shape thanks to the decisions you make as events unfold. What makes those choices difficult and compelling is that the characters they involve are often messy. For example, partway through the game, you have to decide the fate of a general who ordered the massacre of a village. That choice is made more complicated when you learn he did so out grief for a murdered son.
Gameplay is also fun thanks to the ways in which CD Projekt Red found to keep the Gwent formula fresh. To get some of the best cards in Thronebreaker, you'll need to solve clever challenges that give you a limited set of cards and a specific win condition. These puzzle challenges do a lot to break up the usual battles. Even if you're not a fan of CCGs, Thronebreaker is well worth checking out for its compelling story and characters.