The farming/life-sim genre is an increasingly crowded field these days. There is no shortage of games that offer the experience of building a small farm, raising crops and livestock, and making friends and relationships along the way. But every so often, a game in this genre comes along that really turns things on their head, taking well-worn tropes and expectations and making them feel fresh and new. Sakuna: of Rice and Ruin is such a game. It combines an in-depth rice-farming simulation with excellent 2D platforming action and a wonderful atmosphere to make a delightful, fulfilling experience.
Sakuna is a haughty, bratty harvest goddess of the old-timey Japan-inspired world of Yanato. She lives comfortably with her divine peers in the Lofty Realm away from the suffering of mortals below. When a group of hungry mortals stumble into the Lofty Realm looking for food on her watch, she discovers to her horror that they’ve destroyed the offering to the great deity Lady Kamuhitsuki. As punishment, she and the mortals are banished to the Isle of Demons, where she is tasked with cleansing the land of evil forces while eking out a meager subsistence living with her newfound companions. Now, the goddess Sakuna needs to get her hands dirty–and bond with the humans that have lived beneath her–in order to survive.
The base gameplay of Sakuna is split into two parts: exploration and simulation. The exploration sections have you traversing 2D environments to hunt enemies, collect materials needed for combat and survival, and discover new areas for gathering. The simulation sections task Sakuna with managing the day-to-day labor involved in harvesting a rice crop needed to sustain a family. Engaging in both of these activities is necessary for progress, but you need to decide how to best invest your time. A day-and-night cycle means there’s a constant march onwards through the quite truncated seasons, which affect many things, such as when collected materials spoil, enemies’ strength, which materials can be gathered, what farmwork can be done, and so on. The need to balance activities and manage both item and time resources makes for a gameplay loop that’s interesting and challenging without being too punishing. It also allows for the gradual introduction of new elements as you progress, like additional farming tools and more exploration abilities.
With Twin Mirror, Dontnod abandons the episodic model it has experimented with since 2015’s Life is Strange in favor of a six-hour standalone release. The result is a focused crime thriller with some great character work. However, Twin Mirror’s exploration of its story and mechanics suffers somewhat from its brevity, relative to Dontnod’s recent work. It’s longer than an episode of Dontnod’s serialized games but still shorter than what it needed to be to explore characters with depth and tackle the heavier subject matter and themes its narrative alludes to. Twin Mirror comes to a conclusion just as the plot and gameplay are really beginning to gain momentum.
In Twin Mirror, players take on the role of Sam Higgs, a tenacious investigative reporter returning to his hometown of Basswood, West Virginia, after a period of self-imposed exile. Two years prior, Sam published a damning investigative piece on unsafe practices at the Basswood mine, which employed a huge portion of the town. As a result, the mine closed, putting a huge swath of Basswood out of work and pushing the town into an economic depression. In the midst of this firestorm, Sam proposed to his girlfriend Anna, another writer at the paper. She turned him down and, struggling with the personal and professional devastation, Sam left town without a word. In the time since, Anna has started dating Sam’s longtime best friend, Nick.
The pain of all this is still fresh for Sam. But, when Nick dies in a car accident, he finally feels he must return to Basswood. Though the local police have ruled the death an accident, Nick’s preteen daughter, Bug, suspects foul play, and Sam agrees to investigate. In classic Dontnod fashion, that investigation mostly plays out via dialogue with the locals–some of whom hate Sam for the problems his reporting caused, and some of whom are old friends. You’ll investigate densely packed areas, read documents, and analyze objects to get to know the cast of characters and uncover clues to the cause of Nick’s death. Dontnod is great at this kind of environmental storytelling, and Twin Mirror is no exception. Discovering objects evoke memories of Sam’s past, and hearing his thoughts on the people that he once called neighbors is especially enjoyable. There’s even some fun Bandai Namco brand synergy in Sam recalling his and Nick’s childhood Pac Man competitions.
In 2018, Tetris Effect’s mesmerizing sounds and sights heightened the classic game’s aesthetically pleasing properties and its ability to consume our attention to almost therapeutic levels, reinvigorating our appreciation for one of gaming’s oldest obsessions. But even as former GameSpot editor Peter Brown proclaimed Tetris “” in Tetris Effect, he noted it “sadly” did not apply its wondrous approach to multiplayer. Two years later, Tetris Effect: Connected–an updated re-release for Xbox consoles and PC–fills that gap. Just as the original did for the classic version of the game, Connected reimagines Tetris multiplayer with flair and vision. It also loses a major component, VR support, which delivers the most intense version of the experience. While I’m of two minds on that tradeoff, the soothing intensity of Tetris Effect hasn’t lost any potency. On the contrary, it feels more vital than ever in 2020.
Though it adds and removes modes whole cloth, the core of Tetris Effect remains unchanged. Despite the fact that Journey mode hasn’t been touched, its shifting, syncopated themes enraptured me level by level, even on my second time through. Tetris Effect is a significant challenge to average Tetris players like myself. Each level revs the speed up to push you just up to the edge of what you can handle. Even as you improve–and you are getting better, whether you see it or not–the levels scale to demand your full focus. It sounds unapproachable, but there’s something about the combination of the way your brain looks for patterns, combined with the rhythmic sensory elements and this challenge, that lets you give yourself over to the game, almost trance-like, without even trying.
You’ll need that focus in multiplayer. Whether you’re playing cooperatively with other players or competing against them, the multiplayer modes in Connected ratchet up the intensity found in the original. Connected features four multiplayer modes–three competitive, one co-op. As in most games, other players will push you in ways a single-player campaign will not.
Immortals Fenyx Rising knows perfect is the enemy of good. Typhon, its big bad, is obsessed with perfection; as he overthrows the gods of Mount Olympus and strands them on the Golden Isle, he strips them of their essences, and with those essences, the flaws that made them legend. Aphrodite loses her passion, pettiness, and jealousy; Ares his rage; Hephaistos his suffering; Athena her self-righteousness. In their quest to reclaim those essences, Fenyx, a lowly soldier in search of their brother Ligryon, argues those flaws should be celebrated, not forgotten. Their tale doesn’t always impart that lesson, but it’s able to deftly take its own flaws in stride and, while not reaching the highs of the gods it worships, earn its own praise.
Fenyx Rising sets the bar high for itself by borrowing heavily from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You can climb your way up just about any solid surface if you have enough stamina; one of your four major abilities lets you magically float objects above your head and move them around to solve puzzles; the Golden Isle is littered with vaults, one-off puzzles that take place in self-contained parts of Tartaros. The list runs deep.
Despite all the borrowed elements, Fenyx Rising hews closely to Ubisoft’s flavor of open world. At first, it was hard not to treat every similarity I spotted as a point of comparison. Fenyx Rising, for example, lacks a real sense of exploration. You’re rarely lost, since the first thing you do in every region is head to the nearest vantage point, scout the area to reveal it on your map, then mark a bevy of collectibles and activities to chase. I never got the sense I was “exploring” the Golden Isle so much as I was beelining it to all the icons I’d already marked, which told me exactly what I would find when I reached them. I wasn’t paying much attention to the world around me because nothing is really “hidden,” which is disappointing only because in its early hours, Fenyx Rising did remind me of the spacious Hyrule of Breath of the Wild, where every rock formation or tree stump hinted at some surprise worth telling someone else about.
My six-player Destiny 2 fireteam fired away as the Deep Stone Crypt raid boss, the toughest enemy of the Beyond Light expansion, teleported around the arena and roared with rage. We threw everything we had left at the flying monster in a desperate attempt to stave off defeat. Bullets and grenades filled the air as chunks of orbital debris slammed down onto the landscape, threatening to crush us as we scrambled for cover. It was now or never–if we didn’t manage to kill this thing immediately, it would kill us, and we’d be back to the start of the lengthy fight. And we’d sunk more than 12 hours into the raid over the past two days already.
But then: an explosion. The boss twisted in pain and a cheer went up from our crew. Finally, we’d bested the greatest challenge of the new expansion, after hours of struggling to work out the mechanics and suffering death after death to its powerful enemies. It’s moments like this one that keep me coming back to Destiny 2. There’s nothing quite like powering through a Destiny raid, relying on teammates to handle complex roles and cooperate through some of the game’s most creative designs.
Beyond Light provides more of what Destiny 2 is good at: satisfying first-person shooting, a great raid, fascinating places to explore, and a whole lot of punchy guns to try out. It also maintains some of the game’s lingering problems though, like a reliance on repetitive content and time-sucking grinds to arbitrarily raise numbers. To put it simply, Beyond Light is largely more Destiny–if that’s a thing you like, you’ll enjoy it, and if it’s a thing you complain about, you probably won’t.