What we played over the holidays

by the team

What we played over the holidays
January 30, 2020 sfbook

We love video games as much as our readers do, and though our schedules are quite busy, the holidays gave us a chance to take some time for the games we really enjoy. Here’s what a few of the team managed to play over the break.

Jane Clewett

The first thing I’ve been playing is Borderlands 3 (2019). This one, at least, is very easy to review — it’s more Borderlands. Gameplay is pretty much identical to the previous numbered installations and The Pre-Sequel (2014). The cell-shaded graphics still look great, there are still an infinite number of procedurally-generated guns to collect, things are still described as ‘badass’ so often that the word will begin to lose any meaning for you. It’s big, noisy, brightly coloured, and fun — if you like that sort of thing. I do. My biggest complaint is the tiny subtitles that can’t be resized. That’s a fairly major problem for accessibility, and AAA companies like Gearbox ought to be doing better at that by now.

Borderlands 3

The second thing I’ve put a lot of hours into is Slay the Spire (2017), a roguelike deck building game for PC. In it, you attempt to climb the titular Spire, plotting a route through a randomly generated series of encounters. In combat, you play cards from your deck to defend yourself and damage your opponent. Collecting, upgrading, and disposing of cards is the most significant part of the gameplay. As any player of tabletop deck builders will tell you, removing a weak card from your deck is often a better move than adding a strong one that can only be played infrequently. There are a wide variety of potentially effective playstyles, but the main boss of each area is extremely challenging and will demolish a badly built deck. The combination is addictive and makes for a high level of replayability; I’ve yet to beat the fourth and final boss, and I very much doubt I’ll tire of the game before I do.

Slay the Spire

I also completed Disco Elysium (2019) — look out for our full review in Issue 7. Beyond that, there are a number of games still on my list that I haven’t gotten to yet. I do most of my AAA gaming on PlayStation and since the start of 2019 I’ve been buying fewer games, because the new generation of consoles is out at the end of 2020 and I expect many things will be remastered. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019) is the biggest game from last year that I’m intrigued by but haven’t played yet. I’ll probably also pick up The Outer Worlds (2019) at some point — I’m a bit tired of the Fallout model of roleplaying games right now but I expect I’ll get a craving again in due course!

Christopher Jarvis

My holiday gaming was perhaps a little behind the times. I’d just got my own Nintendo Switch a few weeks before Christmas and so I’ve been overjoyed to finally play some of the games I’ve been admiring from afar for some time.

The first and most essential purchase was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017). It’s absolutely wonderful. While I think it lacks the moment to moment story punch and large-scale puzzle solving of previous titles in the series (at least so far) it manages that tricky balance of providing a huge open world where there are almost always interesting things to find and experience around every corner. I can’t even remember what the story is, I’ve had such fun roaming.

Breath of the Wild

The second game was Monster Boy (2018). I picked it up in the December sale, based only on the low price and having seen the trailer on Steam. If anything, it plays more like a classic Zelda title than Breath of the Wild, albeit in a side-scrolling fashion. It’s wonderfully animated, has intuitive puzzles and is full of great character and characters. Choosing which animal form to take to solve various environmental challenges definitely harks back to some of my favourite adventures from yesteryear.

Monster Boy

Last, I finally got my hands on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (2017). As a long-time fan of turn-based tactics games like the XCOM franchise, Phantom Doctrine (2018) and Phoenix Point (2019), I really wanted to try this Nintendo-themed take on the genre, especially with the surreal cross-over of IPs. In charm and originality it does not disappoint. It reminds me that there are certain gameplay risks that only Nintendo seem to try and they make perfect sense. A squad tactics game where you can jump on opponents’ heads to inflict damage, or destroying cover scatters gold coins? Of course, it’s Mario!

For me, the winner has to be the Switch console itself. I’m often impressed by Nintendo’s hardware, but the Switch is a masterpiece. It’s beautifully weighted as what is essentially a tablet with decent game controllers and a wonderful screen. But it’s the ease with which the controls can be detached to create a spontaneous shared-screen multiplayer game on the go which has won me over as well as the impressive number of titles which support multiplayer. Being able to share a game on-the-go with my young daughter, such as Overcooked 2 (2018), Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and even Urban Freestyle (2003) has been a wonderful holiday treat.

Ben Potts

I managed to get in some great gaming experiences over the holiday. A friend of mine lent me his PlayStation 4 (PS4), which let me play through Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) for the first time. The web slinger’s always been my favorite superhero, and although my girlfriend’s turned me into an Xbox loyalist, I have to say that Sony did a fantastic job with this game. It really captures the fun of zipping around New York city armed with web shooters that stick and jibes that sting. The PS4 controller did not endear itself to me, though; I can’t even count the number of times I was mashing the square button and hit that obnoxiously large pause button by mistake. Maybe the real innovation of the PlayStation 5 will be fixing that issue.

I also had a great time with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (2019). I don’t usually pick up Xbox games at full price, but I couldn’t help myself here. The Tomb Raider style adventuring is a perfect fit, and the Dark Souls inspired combat makes being a Jedi feel like a real challenge. Yeah, I thought it was hard; don’t judge me. Having a decent, if limited, story set in that beloved universe was a nice bonus. Let’s have more of this, EA? Besides the limited replay value, the only thing that bugs me about the game is that I can’t have my yellow lightsaber right from the off. I want to be a Sentinel, dang it!

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Another great game I’ve picked up and very much enjoyed is Control (2019). Story-intensive games are a delight for me, and a story-intensive game where I can wield psionic powers to crush monsters? Heck, yes. I struggle a bit with the low-key horror vibe, which isn’t really my preferred flavor, but it’s worth it to lift a vending machine with my mind and hurl it at a zombie carrying a flame thrower.

After years of sharing a Nintendo Switch with a friend, the girlfriend and I did pick up an updated model of our own, and with it the new Pokémon games, Sword and Shield (2019). I’ve managed to put together a halfway decent team starring my good good boy, Excadrill. I’m very excited for the season pass, which will bring back a personal favorite of mine: Volcarona.

Finally, we picked up Ring Fit Adventure (2019), which has become an excellent way for the both of us to stay fit as the winter chill has arrived. It’s adorable, and clearly a labor of love by Nintendo. I highly recommend it for anyone who struggles to balance their addiction to gaming with a basic need for exercise. 

Thomas Turnbull-Ross

While I try to keep up to date with the latest in gaming news, I’m noticeably slower when it comes to actually playing them. As such, the selection of games I’ve been playing lately are not quite as cutting edge as one might expect.

Chaos Reborn (2015), by Snapshot Games, is a particular favourite of mine. The spirit of XCOM lives on in this probability-based game of wizard combat, where everything can die to a single hit. This may sound scary at first, but the tactical nuances of the game come from understanding how to minimise the risk of death while capitalising on any advantages you gain. I play a few minutes of this game every day, taking my turns in a variety of asynchronous multiplayer battles. The community still playing is very small, but highly dedicated, often organising casual tournaments with twists such as randomised equipment.

Chaos Reborn

A couple of games I returned to over Christmas and New Year were Blizzard Entertainment’s virtual card game Hearthstone (2014) and Digital Extremes’ cyborg space-ninja shooter Warframe (2013). I had taken a two- or three-year break from Hearthstone before 2019, but some of the recent expansions, notably the Rise of Shadows, enticed me back, and it hasn’t taken long for me to start enjoying the game again. As for Warframe, this game took my breath away from the moment I started playing it, just over two years ago. The fast-paced, fluidly animated combat is exceptional, and every time I return to Warframe I find new avenues to explore, new frames (characters) and weapons to try out, and new heights to strive towards. The newest update here, Empyrean, allows for ship-to-ship combat, an area of gameplay I haven’t yet unlocked but am eager to try out.

I’ve also started playing a few games which, while not exactly recent, are new to me, foremost among which is Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s Subnautica (2018). I received this as a Christmas gift from a friend, and it’s a game I’ve loved the look of since its release in early 2018. Finally getting the chance to play it, it has lived up to my expectations, delivering a stunningly rendered ocean planet brimming with alien life both delightful and deadly. The simplicity of the character’s goal — survive and escape — blossoms wonderfully into a series of tangential objectives, starting with basic needs such as food and water and eventually growing to encompass creating better vehicles, diving deeper into the ocean, and shutting down an ancient alien defence system.


On a similarly exploratory note, I’ve also been trying out Sunless Sea (2015), by Failbetter Games. Set in an alternate Victorian London known as ‘Fallen London’, the player takes the role of a ‘zee captain’, sailing the Unterzee in a steam-powered ship, finding all manner of weird and wonderful people and places. Sunless Sea in rather reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure book, with most of the narrative told through text entries in a journal with options becoming available to the player as appropriate. Every island has its own unique story, practically oozing mystery and strangeness. Fantastical elements of the world are often mentioned in passing, giving the impression that crates of human souls and sentient, talking rats are commonplace in this world.

Finally, while I did play the original version of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2019), it’s only very recently that I’ve tried out the Special Edition, which has updated graphics and contains all the DLC added to the original release. So far it seems to be mostly the same, with my biggest observation being ‘the sky is very blue now’.

Richard Watson

Having recently started work as a secondary school teacher, the Christmas break was particularly welcome. While I poked at quite a few of the titles in my Steam library, the two headliners for me were definitely ARK: Survival Evolved (2015) and Fallout 4 (2015).

ARK in particular turned up the festive cheer with its Winter Wonderland 4 event. Night time heralded the arrival of Raptor Claus (yes, really), releasing festively styled airdrops with all sorts of goodies, from stockings to shotguns, and my personal favourite feature: Chibis! Over the break I managed, for the first time, to beat the game’s first map, The Island, and am continuing on to Scorched Earth as the new year progresses.

While Fallout 4 made much less of a song and dance about the season, with a few festive mods on its Creation Club, the Fallout series is one I always find myself coming back to. This time, doing a completionist run meant I had to do some quests in an unusual order — most notably having to complete the final DLC before even starting with one of the game’s most prominent factions, the Minutemen.

All in all, a break filled with some older titles, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.