Friday, December 24, 2021

My favorite games of 2021 that weren't actually released in 2021

Although I played and loved a lot of games this year that were actually released in the last 12 months, I also played and loved a lot of games that came out before 2021.

In particular, I played more Vita games in 2021 than I have in yearsthree of which are highlighted below. I also played a handful of DS games.

A Kappa’s Trail (DS)

This Nintendo DSiWare game is a breath of fresh air for several reasons, though the most noteworthy are that it makes full use of the DS system's touch screen (in fact, the machine's directional pad or face buttons are disabled during play) and it forces players to figure out what to do right from the word go.

Granted, I'd hardly call this digital release one of my favorite games of 2021 if all it offered were a lack of handholding and slick, stylus-centric controls. On that note, A Kappa's Trail is also quite a looker, no shock given the wizards at Brownie Brown (of Mother 3 and Magical Starsign fame) made it. Its lead-a-big-headed-kappa-to-the-end-of-each-winding-stage-while-avoiding-myriad-pitfalls-and-perils gameplay is unique, too, not to mention tense, thanks to the creepy disembodied hand that slowly stalks you and threatens to cut short your otherwise jaunty journey.

Don't worry, the latter isn't overly off-putting; instead, it injects the game with a welcome dose of drama that elevates the experience beyond "pleasant but boring."

Airship Q (PC/Vita)

When I imported my copy of this game many moons ago, all I knew about it was that it was supposed to be Terraria with cats. In reality, that description isn't entirely accurate. Airship Q is a far more straightforward title than Terraria, though this doesn't mean it's constricted. On the contrary, it's as open as you could hope for it to be; however, there are times you'll be forced in a particular direction to advance Airship Q's rather meager story.

Now to throw some cold water onto this little "review": Airship Q is a bit janky. In particular, its block- and physics-based world regularly does its best to spoil your progress and fun by trapping your craft or keeping you from reaching your intended destination. This usually induces laughs rather than rage, but don't be shocked if it causes the occasional fit. It shouldn't prompt you to huffily pull the plug on your playthrough, though, or at least it shouldn't if you do like I did and think of this aspect of the game as charming instead of irritating.

Gravity Rush (PS4/Vita)

Gravity Rush is one of those games that are filled with brazen, brilliant ideas that never fully gel. The characters (Kat, the protagonist, especially) and steampunk-ish setting fascinate, and its soundtrack alternatingly soothes and soars. Speaking of soaring, dashing and falling through the air as the aforementioned Kat is one of the more exhilarating experiences I've had in a game in eons.

Dashing and falling into one or more of Gravity Rush's low-key nightmarish enemies, on the other hand, tends to be tiresome rather than breathtaking, and it didn't take me long to both dread and even detest such tussles. Fulfilling the game's many missions gets old quickly, too, though not as completely as its battles.

Perhaps appropriately, the story in Gravity Rush veers wildly between riveting and ridiculousalmost like it exists to meld the game's positive and negative attributes. It leans toward the former more than the latter, though, and that was enough for me.

A ringing endorsement, right? Maybe not, but the fact is I'm still thinking of my time with Gravity Rush, and I'm also already contemplating taking another stab at it. In other words, its pros outweigh its cons, or at least they did for me. Considering how bold Gravity Rush is overall, putting up with its handful of quibbles isn't such a difficult task.  

Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk (PC/PS4/Switch)

I avoided starting Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk for ages because screenshots of it intimidated me. Specifically, the number of party members depicted in said screens got me thinking this dungeon-crawling RPG would be far too convoluted for my feeble brain. After finishing and putting more than 75 hours into it, I'm glad to report it's not. In fact, its multi-character battles are far more conventional than initial impressions suggest.

Which isn't to say Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk is traditional to a fault. It actually offers up several innovations that make it seem surprisingly fresh. Two standout examples: you can jump over pits while exploring its many maze-like dungeons, and you can break through walls to examine previously inaccessible areas.

Building and customizing your party, which can eventually include as many as 40 members (each of whom are puppets, not humans), provides a similarly unique thrill. Unfortunately, it's a bit too deep to delve into here. The game does a decent job of explaining it as you go along, thankfully.

Another area in which Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk excels is its story. Hell, a dungeon role-playing game having anything more than a barebones backstory is worth noting, but the one included here wouldn't be out of place in your typical JRPG. That it ends up being rather poignant only adds to the allure.

Ripened Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love (DS)

Ripened Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love is such a bizarre mashup of ideas that I'm frankly amazed the powers that be at Nintendo greenlit its development. It's a point-and-click game that stars everyone's favorite jumpsuit-wearing oddball, Tingle, and sports a story that parodies The Wizard of Oz.

Actually, there's more to Ripened Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love than just pointing and clicking. You solve puzzles, complete mini-games, and even woo some ladies, too.

Whether or not you tend to enjoy this genre, it's worth checking outin large part because it was developed by the talented crew at Vanpool, an offshoot of the renowned Love-de-Lic (known for cult classics Moon: Remix RPG Adventure and UFO: A Day in the Life).

Spelunky (PC/PS4/Switch/Vita)

Admittedly, my obsession with Spelunky began after I bought the Switch port that released this past autumn. I quickly moved over to the Vita version, though, and that's where I spent most of my time with this masochistic title.

That I enjoyed it enough to play it for more than 20 hours is a near-miracle, I must say. This type of platformer has never been my cup of tea for all sorts of reasons I won't bore you with now. What's different about Spelunky? For starters, I feel like I'm at least slightly more in control of my destiny while playing it than I do while attempting similar efforts. Also, dying in Spelunky rarely devastates me. And even when it approaches doing so, I still typically end up laughing at the comedic cruelty of it all before moving on to just one more run.

If you're wondering why I or anyone else would willingly go through such hell over and over again, well, my only answer is that I like the challenge of it. Success, at both the individual stage and overall game level, always seems within reachif only I could do this next time, or not do that. It's easy to blame yourself, rather than the game, for failing, though never so harshly you give up and move on to something less taxing.