Game enough: Best games of 2020

The last year gave us a lot of enforced downtime. Accordingly, one might be excused for thinking this blog, an all purpose consumer of thrillers, might have found time to partake in certain interactive video sports that were released in 2020: the Lovecraftian experiences “Call of the Sea” or “Transient”; quirky little titles like “Carrion,” “Pumpkin Jack” or “Citadel”; big budget names like “Cyberpunk 2077,” “Doom Eternal” or “Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope.

Why is every one of these roundups starting with a list of everything I didn’t see?

To all that I said a resounding negative. No way I spent my dwindling cash flow on that stuff. I didn’t even play indie “Risk of Rain 2,” although that has less to do with it being a sequel to a game I’ve never played and more to do with it being a co-op game to play with friends. Forget friends. We’re in this together, me and I.

Still, I did play a couple of titles, and I’ll relate them below. As always, the better experiences are first and the lesser experiences are the last. However, while this functions as this blog’s best of 2020 for video games, it’s also like a compound review, given how few games there are. Whatever. No one’s reading this anyway.

Maneater

The title of “Maneater” – man plus eater followed by a lil’ shark maw – is unexpectedly precise. You are a shark in this game, and you can consume the flesh of man. “Maneater” positions itself as a sort of predator simulator, “Jaws” with a sense of dark humor. Effectively it is a platformer without the platforms, a diving and swimming experience rather than a jumping one, with some mild RPG elements and a little bit of power fantasy thrown in for good measure.

It doesn’t feel that way at first, when you’re a baby shark paddling through murky shallows and fleeing from alligators. But the goal is to complete enough game appointed tasks, typically eat so many of this fish or that, until you earn the experience necessary to tackle the alligators. Once you’re big enough to do so, you can break out of the shallows and enter the ocean, where a buffet of exotic fish, aquatic predators and foolish humans awaits.

You might be expecting me to say that that’s the whole plot, but you’d be wrong. Believe it or not, there’s a little bit more to “Maneater.” Your nemesis is the Cajun fisherman Scaly Pete (effectively voiced by Carlo Mestroni), and his poor relationship with his son is on full display. There’s some hints about his own poor relationship with his dad, so there’s a bit of “sins of the father” in the subtext. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a more emotional core than one might expect.

Regardless, the developers aren’t expecting you to play “Maneater” for its story. The majority of the gameplay is focused on a rabid collect-them-all mentality. Go to location X on the map and eat 10 of target Y, or kill target Z, which is identical to all the other Z-creatures out there except it has more hit points.

In order to do so, you have a rapidly evolving number of tools at your disposal, from simple bites and dashes early on to…more complex bites and dashes later on. You might not feel your game style progressing as the game does. The shark handles well from the beginning, perhaps a little too well, with tight controls and aggressive cornering. I occasionally wished there was a targeting or lock-on system, but I always found a way to munch on whatever needed munching. If anything evolved, it was how fast the shark could swim, how high it could jump and how hard it could bite, indicated by the increasing amounts of blood, destruction and mayhem on screen.

The game’s atmosphere takes a backseat to its gameplay, but it does its job well enough. For one thing, the dark comedy is fine, even chuckle worthy from time to time. A great deal of that is due to narrator Chris Parnell’s deadpan delivery. The humor is dampened a little by repetition, and occasionally quips triggered by different environmental cues will pile on top of each other, but for the most part it effectively joins the background oceanic swirl.

The environments are well presented. There’s a decent amount of variety, considering you’ll spend most of your time underwater. Some settings – like cluttered sewers and decommissioned water parks – are surprisingly unimaginative, but the open seas and colorful coral reefs are detailed, appropriate and quite pretty.

“Maneater” is also delightfully gory. You have to invest a couple of hours in it, but you’ll go from a shy shark pup nibbling at passing fish to a sea monster, measured in the double digits, who can sink gun boats as easily as inner tubes. Make no mistake, “Maneater” is a more gamer friendly version of the time sinks available on phones. However, it’s a fun time sink, a pretty time sink and a blood-stained time sink, where you get to fling humans 20 feet in the air before biting the in half. I see nothing wrong with that.

Deliver Us the Moon

Why would anyone want to go to space? If the zero gravity controls of “Deliver Us the Moon” are to be trusted, the experience is absolute crap. All that “down and up are relative” and “you have to push off of something” physics can make puzzle solving more frustrating than the puzzles themselves.

“Deliver” is a sci fi flavored adventure game about the not too distant future, where a moon base has been able to provide cheap energy for a starving earth. When the base goes dark, the planet is plunged into a economic and environmental collapse. Humanity cobbles together enough of a space program to launch a single person – the player – into orbit. Their mission is to get to the moon and figure out what went wrong, or at least turn the power back on.

The plot of “Deliver” tries to lean more on the science than the fiction of its genre, and there’s a lot of psychological consideration for the strain of being a moon-person. However, the ensuing drama, while initially mysterious, probably won’t fool anyone who’s read Arthur C. Clarke. Likewise, the acting teeters somewhere between acceptable and community theater awful.

Regardless, the atmosphere is well presented and possibly the best part of the game. Your space explorer is apparently alone, and the empty rooms and flickering corridors of the moon base have a chilly and isolated feel. It’s not quite the too-late-to-the-party atmosphere of the first “Bioshock” or the something-terrible-is-about-to-happen of “Alien: Isolation,” but it feels right for a title that positions itself as a slow-paced and thoughtful mystery. It’s helped by an appropriate score, which is minimalist piano for the most part.

There’s also almost enough useless stuff in the abandoned lockers and board rooms to make it seem like this was a space station populated by people, and not just a set created by a game designer with everything put there for the player. It’s still a little sparse for a once bustling base, and I don’t believe someone living on the chalky surface of the moon would put pictures of said surface above their bed, but I’ll assume the team was working with a limited budget.

The puzzles are mostly smart. They feel part of their environment and seldom obtuse, accessible without being handed to you. That’s not entirely right, because the instructions are sometimes given to you, but it’s done in such a way that feels natural. They’re mostly put-the-things-in-the-right-order puzzles, so they might not please the chess masters out there, but they come across as something you’d find on a sci fi moon base. I won’t complain.

I will complain about the puzzles that take place in zero gravity. You’re typically tasked with figuring things out like an engineer. That’s fine. It feels right and proceeds logically. But then you have to do it with molasses controls and bizarre environmental hazards, like lasers and an esoteric game over I have to assume is the character succumbing to space madness. The game is fine as an atmospheric light puzzler. It is poor as a first-person platformer.

I’ll also complain about the artificial time limits imposed by running out of oxygen. What kind of astronaut goes into space without oxygen?

If you can get over these hurdles, “Deliver Us the Moon” is a cute and slow-paced sci fi mystery. Ultimatel, it’s as meditative as its title suggests, atmospheric, average but admirable.

Remothered: Broken Porcelain

Tell me, tonstant weader, have you noticed how a lot of giallo films start largely grounded in reality, like they’re going to be relatively normal mysteries, but by the time of the climax they’re throwing mutant dwarfs on unicycles popping out of swimming pools at you?

Survival horror game “Remothered: Broken Porcelain” is a sequel. And since both it and its predecessor were inspired by the Clock Tower games, themselves inspired by giallo films, it feels like we’re being seated halfway through the movie. Everything looks grounded, but the swimming pool is already bubbling and we’re expected to know what’s going on already. There is an effort at explanation courtesy of a wall of text at the beginning, which is about as subtle – and compassionate to the reader – as an atom bomb.

“Broken Porcelain” is about Jennifer, a young woman who has been kicked out of an all-girls boarding school for unexplained reasons that hint at psychological trauma. Except the school is really an inn, and she’s mysteriously the only patron, trying to figure out why the staff have gone nuts. Except the inn is really a…never mind. The story of “Broken Porcelain” is remarkably patchwork, thanks in no small part to some strange editing choices, with gamers stranded trying to figure out which parts are worthwhile. I suppose that gives everything a hallucinatory quality, but it also makes it hard to care about anything happening on screen.

As a hero, Jennifer can’t even use a phone properly. Her hobbies include stopping and reading everything OUT LOUD while various killers are chasing her, as well as trying to defend herself when caught through awkward quick time events. As far as slasher protagonists go, on a scale of one to 10, she gets a “I wouldn’t bet on this one.”

I’ll cut her a little slack since the puzzles are not great. They seem to hinge as much on manipulating the enemy AI as they do on looking for clues, collecting items and flipping elaborate switches. Which is fine, I guess. It’s not my preferred style of puzzle, I’ll admit, but in this case I’d like it more of the NPCs didn’t bug out on me to a noticeable degree. I found myself reaching for a walkthrough less to see how to proceed and more to see why I couldn’t proceed.

The strongest element of the game is its atmosphere. The design feels appropriately period – it’s set in the 1970s – and everything looks rundown, dirty and ominous. The score sounds like it would fit right into a retro horror flick. Dark and shadow are well used, and the glimpses of light are interesting too, since they only turn on when you get close to lamps… Unless they’re actaully only visible when you’re close to them, and it’s less like atmosphere and more like another bug. Hmm.

“Remothered: Broken Porcelain” might be best summed up by the message that appears when you want to load a game. “Do you confirm your action?” it asks. It sounds like its attached to something with great weight or terrible psychological baggage, but I think it’s just a bad translation.

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