Shortly after Rockstar Games’ open-world crime spree GRAND THEFT AUTO 3 took the world by storm, there were a lot of copycats. Volition Studio’s SAINTS ROW 1 & SAINTS ROW 2 certainly were two of them. The two games were grim and gritty crime-centric open-world games and I personally had no interest in playing them.
SAINTS ROW 3 changed all of that. While it retained the open-world driving-and-shooting staples, it dispensed with the grime and replaced it with levity and silliness and genuine camaraderie between characters. Additionally, it injected brightness and vivd colors, including the Saint’s signature purple.
It took me a while to get around to playing it simply because, well, it looked juvenile. I didn’t believe I wanted anything to do with a game that allowed you to bash thugs with giant dildos.
I admit: I was wrong. SAINTS ROW 3 was a genuine joy to play. It’s centered around a gang of misbehaving misfits as they try to make their mark on the world while having fun doing so, and each member has their own very distinct and expressive, vivid personalities. (They also swear a lot, which I can’t help but fucking relate to.)
There’s nothing more emblematic of this oddly heartfelt approach than — I shit you not — a sing-a-long to SUBLIME’s What I Got between yourself and Saint member Pierce as they drive towards a mission.
They’re terrible singers! (I’ll note: I imagine those behind the game directed them to do so because all of the voice actors here are amazing.) However they laugh and riff and are clearly having fun and it’s one of the few extremely joyful moments I’ve experienced in a video game. It is an effortless depiction of friendship, which is so goddamn rare in video games, and it comes out of left field, deep into the game and you do not expect it. It’s worth playing solely for that moment.
“I don’t get angry when my mom smokes pot Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock Fucking and fighting; it’s all the same Living with Louie Dog’s the only way to stay sane Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me.”
SAINTS ROW 4 takes the irreverence and bonding to a whole other level. The opening is one of the greatest in gaming history. It’s a gigantic silly spectacle that heavily leans on Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON, even down to weaving in AEROSMITHS’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing. Oh, and then you become the President of the United States and motherfucking Keith David is your VP.
It is absolutely bonkers and I love it.
“More fun. Less mercy killing.”
The entire sequence is worth watching, but if you want to skip to the extravagance, jump to 9:50.
If you’re wondering why you don’t see your character’s face or hear them speak in that scene, it’s because Volition wanted to launch you into the game without having to create your character first. It is worth noting that the SAINTS ROW games are exceptional about character creation, and still are one of the few games that allow you to define practically every representation you can think of, including trans and non-binary characters.
(Also, I love how svelte the undefined character is.)
It helps that at this point, SAINTS ROW 4 felt quite polished, instead of the somewhat rickety gameplay nature of the prior games. (Again, I’ll note: I did not play the first two and I have absolutely no interest in doing so, but they did have a reputation of feeling rather slapdash.)
Unfortunately, those two are the peak of the series. There was a SAINTS ROW 4 expansion — GAT OUT OF HELL — that took the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel approach of throwing everyone into Hell, which felt like a bridge too far but it is still entertaining and if you enjoyed SAINTS ROW 4, well, why the fuck not.
What followed was a hard reboot of the franchise with SAINTS ROW (2022), which sadly was not well-accepted by fans or critics and resulted in Volition being dissolved after 30 years of game development.
Despite Volition’s dissolution, SAINTS ROW 3 & 4 exemplifies the fucking sort of trashfire of a person I am, and I absolutely embrace that and love them for those experiences.
If you only have modern consoles, it’s pretty difficult to play SAINTS ROW 3, but SAINTS ROW 4 is readily available. If you can seek either of them out, they are worth your time.
(iOS/PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) I previously castigated games that want to be films and, by the standards I set in that write-up, SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE hits every note. Sure, you can navigate your character around, explore a bit from here and there, choose an emotional response to someone’s remark, but it’s first-and-foremost a linear experience to tell a single story, to imbue a specific sort of emotional hurt.
However, I did note that — if done correctly — those grievances could be forgiven, and SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE is one of those works.
SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE opens with a pilot (Floyd) and a British climatologist (Peter) in the cockpit of a plane that’s crashed in the middle of nowhere Antartica. Floyd is immobile, as one of his legs were crushed in the crash. Peter sets out to find help at one of the few neighboring research stations, following a pulsing beacon that pierces through the snow. As he goes from station to station, he intermittently recalls the events that brought him here: his initial struggles with his research, in finding a like-minded fellow scientist who helps inspire him with his work that is meant to help Britain which is in the midst of the Cold War, in falling in love with said fellow scientist, then faced with the dilemma that the school overseeing his research doesn’t want to give the fellow scientists co-credit for the research because she’s a woman.
Notably, said partner is not onboard the crashed plane.
While SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE dabbles with thriller and espionage elements — Peter’s higher-ups are constantly fretting about the Soviet menace — it’s first and foremost about two people bonding over their scientific curiosity, how they inspire each other, how they trust each other, and how institutions can cause someone to betray a loved one.
It’s an extremely potent and effective tale, bolstered by the sparse but simplistically dazzling presentation. While the game consists of flat colors and simple shapes, it all comes together in a brilliantly evocative way. It’s a series of gorgeously austere set pieces that alone make it worth playing.
As previously noted, the game does feature some emotion-based interactivity. Occasionally, when Peter has to contribute to a conversation, you get an ‘emotion prompt’ that allegedly can affect how the game progresses. (I’ll note that they do often mirror the beacon that is clearly visible in the opening of the game.)
As I’ve only played it once, I can’t attest to the efficacy of that, but I do have a hard time imagining that the game significantly plays out much differently in the end, regardless of your emotional choices and that’s fine by me! It is telling the story it wants to tell. As with most stories, it’s not about the conclusion, but the journey.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox) There’s a thin line between cozy, fun puzzle games and cozy, frustrating puzzle games. Some video games look cute, swear that they’re a breezy affair, but then a few hours in you’re searching for walkthroughs and then shouting out to no one: “How the hell was I supposed to know to do that?!”
CARTO is from Taiwan developers Sunhead Games, and the central conceit is basically: “What if we had a Zelda game with no combat, and you could move and rotate the tiles that make up world maps?”
It’s a fantastic idea that they endless exploit, and it has more than a few other facets going for it: the art design is cartoonishly spectacular; it has a great score that I have accidentally fallen asleep to more than once; and the writing is an appropriate amount of whimsy and melancholy for all ages.
You play as Carto, a young girl who gets lost during a storm and is thrust onto islands where, when someone comes of age, they are forced to leave their family behind. Carto helps heal a lot of these people as she pushes forward to be reunited with her grandmother.
Like I said: whimsical, but also melancholy.
However, some of the puzzle design felt lacking to me. I rarely try to lean on walkthroughs and while I love logic and lateral thinking puzzles, I found some of the puzzles simply maddening and, when I found out the solution, I knew I would have never have solved them on my own.
(It doesn’t help that every fucking site that features walkthroughs now is just an endless array of modals, pop-ups, auto-refreshing and ads.)
That said, I do not regret my time with it, or my cheating. If you use walkthroughs when you realize you need them, it’s a very cozy and very cute experience. At first blush, you might think that it’s an adorable mobile game ported to consoles, but no — it’s far more substantive than that.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox) Modern video game creators love space, especially abandoned space stations. Take TACOMA (which I recently wrote about). If you want a deeper dive? Sierra’s adventure game SPACE QUEST, which has five-and-counting sequels. SYSTEM SHOCK of course. PREY, the one specifically developed by Arkane (because I never played the predecessor).
Why is that? I think part of the reason is that you can get away with more rigid geometry with space games — organic matters require more complexity — and space outposts and vehicles are very specifically angular. Also, you rarely have to render other humanoids. Overall, the development experience for such games can be perceived as less-taxing in financial and technical ways.
That said: I’m not complaining. I love a good haunted space station tale or game. It’s perfect for feeling isolated but also slightly in touch with humanity, as well as imbuing the awe of the cosmos on you. Consequently, I was surprised to see that — via my PS+ Extra plan — I could play the Dutch game DELIVER US THE MOON.
I’ll admit, I partially wanted to play it because that is one amazing title. It unconventionally tells you everything without telling you anything.
DELIVER US THE MOON is a high-concept sci-fi justified rant against the short-sightedness of our use of Earth’s resources. In the near future, all energy resources have been depleted, but they discover a new one on the Moon, Helium-3, which they can then beam down to Earth.
Of course, it took them a good decade to build the tallest man-made structure ever, but they did and, for a while, all was good. Then it all goes terribly wrong and the Helium-3 station goes dark, effectively causing the same to happen on Earth.
After a number of years, a shuttle is cobbled together so they can send a scientist up to investigate and get the station back up and running. Matters escalate.
While DELIVER US THE MOON might look like an exploration simulator or — to use what far too many consider a pejorative — a walking simulator, it’s far more like a less-intense PORTAL. A lot of puzzles — sadly, many of them feel rather familiar to me — and even a few first-person platforming bits. They also mix in some timed action events, which are not my favorite things, as well as moment that evokes Alfonso Caruso’s GRAVITY.
I’ll note that TACOMA was released after DELIVER US THE MOON, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities: both feature an abandoned space station, both are hardly action-centric, both are first-person, and both tell their narrative mostly through found spectral, abstract holographic records. In my opinion, TACOMA pulls it off better; it has puzzles, but no platforming, no time-limited scenarios, no quick-time events, and the holographic storytelling is far more interactive and inventive. (See my write-up for more.)
Yes, both games set out to do different things, but they dovetail quite well together. If you like one, you’ll probably enjoy the other and vice versa. Either way, if you are a sucker for slightly-creepy jaunts in the isolation of space, it’s worth your time, although you might find one more frustrating than the other.
(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5/Xboxes) Every gamer has encountered a game that desperately wants to be a film instead. (I’m looking at you, METAL GEAR SOLID 2.) You know the type: long-winded cut-scenes, overly flamboyant camerawork that often gets in the way of interactivity, shamelessly cribbing from other films — usually Tarantino — all with the intent to make the player feel something.
LAST STOP, from VIRGINIA developers Variable State, is one such game.
LAST STOP consists of an intertwined story of three primary characters: John Smith, an aging father who has a precocious eight (excuse me, eight-and-a-half) year-old daughter named Molly; Donna, a teen girl who sneaks out at night to be a bit rebellious with her friends; and Meena, an agent with a nebulous intelligence agency that deals with the supernatural or aliens — that isn’t quite clear out of the gate — but it also leads to some body switching and other high-concept notes.
While ostensibly it’s interactive fiction by way of Telltale’s games (THE WALKING DEAD), the dialogue choices really don’t matter, and most of the interactivity consists of walking to a door or clumsy item finagling, a la David Cage (the ‘auteur’ behind HEAVY RAIN, DETROIT: BEHIND HUMAN, who also desperately wants to create ‘cinematic experiences’ and they often ring false).
When you get to the third chapter of LAST STOP, which nakedly indulges in the trope where a camera circles around a table during what is ostensibly heist planning, well, yeah, it becomes crystal clear that this should just be a film rather than a hackneyed patchwork of filmic gaming experience.
That may sound harsh, but I couldn’t scrub that feeling from my mind and it’s a shame, as their prior game VIRGINIA managed to navigate those interactive narrative waters far more smoothly, partially because it felt more thoughtful and thought-out.
So why am I grousing about it in this blog that’s all about recommending works? It’s because I’m still a sucker for these sort of games; they’re perfect fodder for tucking into on a lazy Sunday. Also, Meena? (See above.) She is one hell of an ice queen and one of the best modern video game characters of our time. However, it’s a far cry from the silent meditative and askew nature of VIRGINIA.
While it’s far from perfect, it is quite playable — for as little that you actually can play it — and while I played, I was quite invested to see where all of the high-concept facets would lead to. Additionally, the visual design and artistry is quite compelling in a LIFE IS STRANGE simple, but effective, way. When the story hits, it lands well; these are complex people living different but vastly similar lives to the way most live.
I’ll note that it is extraordinarily British. One chapter practically feels torn from a Mike Leigh film.
Again, it’s a bit of a misfire and isn’t for everyone, but it is a fun lark and we all need that sometimes.
One nice touch: one of the lead characters has a very visible caesarean scar, perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen that in a video game.
(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5) VIRGINIA was the first game from Variable State, and it made quite the mark. Not only is it 100% dialogue-less but it frequently quits scenes, leaping forward in time and to different locations, even if you aren’t done interacting with them.
I’ll note that Variable State was inspired by the experimental indie game 30 FLIGHTS OF LOVING — they even included a special note in the credits to underscore what they owed to 30 FLIGHTS — which also jumps around in time and locations a lot.
While 30 FLIGHTS OF LOVING felt thrillingly chaotic, VIRGINIA is the other side of the coin.
VIRGINIA is a slow burn of a thriller. You play as Anne Tarver, a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent whose partner is seasoned special agent Maria Halperin. The two of you are in Kingdom, Virginia, investigating the disappearance of a young boy named Lucas. Tarver then gets drawn deeper into FBI schemes, and matters escalate in a dreamline way.
(Unsurprisingly, the game also takes a few notes from TWIN PEAKS, as one location practically recreates the Roadhouse, even down to a Julee Cruise-ish backing band.)
I’ll note: this is essentially an experimental point-and-click adventure game, albeit first-person. While it is a ramshackle indie game, Terry Kenny’s simple but evocative art styling does a lot to imbue the spirit of the game, but the silence is what I find most intriguing. Occasionally, the game even lacks room tone — it’s dead silent. Everyone speaks with gestures and motions and physicality. It’s a glorious limitation to place on a modern narrative-forward game, one that makes VIRGINIA so memorable.
And when the game isn’t silent? When the score swells? It resonates volumes.
This isn’t a game for everyone. If you’re impatient, if you expect proper answers, if you want fire off a gun, this is not the game for you. However, if you’re looking for a surreal, atmospheric, story-driven mystery that isn’t the most interactive game ever, but looks and sounds great and can hit where it hurts, it’s a great Sunday experience.
(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) If you’ve played any video games released in the past twenty years, you’ve probably encountered a feature that allows you to rotate and zoom inventory items around to scrutinize the fine detailing the art department put into the work. Usually it feels like a bit of fluff, and I rarely take part in exploring the items because I waste enough time on games as it is.
Indie developers Hollow Games — and quality publisher Annapurna — took that conceit and built an entire game around it, and the result is an amazingly poignant and melancholy narrative puzzler experience.
I AM DEAD plainly lays out its narrative conceit: you play as recently deceased Morris Lupton, a longtime denizen of the fishing island of Shelmerston, New Zealand. He’s reunited with his long-lost dog Sparky, who somehow can talk now because it’s initially hand-waved because of the afterlife.
The island has a volcano that’s been dormant for years and years, but has started roiling and rumbling again, and Morris is tasked with finding a ghost who would like to placate it by minding it, replacing the current volcano minder. Sparky helps to guide Morris through finding a suitable replacement through seeking out memories from the living to help sniff out and materialize the ghosts of the past. Even better, the game sidesteps what could easily be a journey of grief and sadness, and instead celebrates a life well-lived.
The cartoonish art design is colorful and pops — it feels like COSTUME QUEST meets THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: WIND WAKER, but don’t let the aesthetics fool you. The game is properly mature and — while there’s no gore or even swearing — it’s about complex folks that may have had a rocky life, and have had their lives taken from them. Yes, you’ll be spending most of your time rotating and zooming items, but I AM DEAD breaks up the flow with an ingenious bit of storytelling that requires you to bring a memory into focus, and not in the usual lens-like focusing that most games attempt.
It is an emotional game, and a fantastical one that features fish people and an assortment of creatures (and even some robots) that wouldn’t be out-of-place in the game NIGHT IN THE WOODS (2017) — but in a way that pulls at your heartstrings instead of pulling your heart out. Also, for an indie game, it’s not your standard four-hours-then-you’re-done affair; it’s extremely substantial — about 10-15 hours, depending on how patient you are — allowing Hollow Games to serve up a multi-faceted world.
I admit, I did balk at playing it for some time, solely because of the potential dread of the title, but it’s a charming item of a game, and one that deserves more attention. (I’ll note that I had a hard time finding many fans of it, much less videos. There’s one folk song that they insert that I really wanted to embed because I love it when a game inserts a folk song as part of the adventure, but alas, it was nowhere to be found.)
(Linux/Mac/PC/PS4/PS5/Xboxes) TACOMA was the second game from GONE HOME creators Fullbright Studios. It’s worth noting that Fullbright barely exists at this time due to founder Steve Gaynor’s toxic behavior. In fact, all fifteen employees decided to quit — leaving only Gaynor — which uh, says quite a lot.
TACOMA is a narrative-forward atmospheric exploration game that takes place on an abandoned space station. It consists solely of walking around and immersing yourself in the story of just how the station fell apart. (Spoiler alert: it mostly has to do with AI.)
It’s saddening to hear of Gaynor’s behavior, especially since both TACOMA and GONE HOME are very inclusive and features complex women, but so it goes. Either way, TACOMA is a gripping ride if you have the patience for it, can willfully ignore the bad working conditions that led to the game’s creation, and especially if you have a penchant for thoughtful sci-fi narratives and striking approaches to interactive storytelling. Plus it has a very inventive rewind/fast-forward mechanic to help you scrutinize matters.
It’s also worth noting that, while I played the game without issue on my PS4, playing it on my PS5 gave me nothing but problems. It’d repeatedly lock up, would lose progress, and just in general felt pretty janky. It’s still worth the trouble and, if you’re playing on other platforms, you may not encounter the same issues, but buyer beware.
I just saw that TACOMA will be added to the PS+ Extra lineup next month, so if you have a PS4 or PS5, wait a bit and you can play it for free!
(PC/PS4/PS5/Xboxes) Pacific Northwest. Character-forward. Narrative-based decisions. A middle-aged woman computer programmer trying to navigate her life in 1986.
This game couldn’t fit more squarely into my wheelhouse.
While a lot of the game does remind me of LIFE IS STRANGE, this is far cozier than LIFE IS STRANGE’s teenage drama. (Except for WAVELENGTHS, naturally.)
It is absolutely worth noting that this game is little more than a small-scale tale of said woman taking a break from her normal life, temporarily running her father’s mail job in their hometown while finding a more permanent solution. In the meantime, you get to re-familiarize yourself with the locals and, if you’re so brazen, can even attempt to romance them.
(I’ll note that I tried so hard to romance the twenty-years-younger woman running the video store, but that didn’t work out. The dude lumberjack was super into me, though. Not my type so I gently let him down.)
This is a quintessential cozy game. You just drive around, you deliver mail, you drop off packages, you listen to townies grouse, you try to help them out, and at the end of the day you talk to your parents on the phone. Roll credits.
I love it. The town is well-drawn, it involves a frickin’ BBS and ASCII graphics, but that nerdiness isn’t meant to alienate folks; it simply serves to show the prior world that the protagonist — Miss Meredith Weiss — existed in.
I’ll note that, at least the PS4/PS5 version, is buggier than I’d like. For a game that relies on dialog trees, highlighting your responses can be very unpredictable, and there were a few spots where I had to restart the game, and there are a lot of visual hiccups. Heck, even just watching the final credits proved to be a problem as I had to pause them partially through, then had to replay a good chunk of the game to get back to them.
Nonetheless, it’s worth the effort, as this is one of those rare games that feel like a memory without being nostalgia-bait. It’s sweet and earnest and low-key, and so few games provide that comfort.