Alex Van Aken’s Top Ten Games Of 2017

Hey! I’m Alex Van Aken, Managing Editor of OK Beast. This year sure was great for interactive play, eh? Since there were so many releases, I figured I should share my top ten games of 2017. These are the games that I couldn’t get out of my head. 

10. LawBreakers

LawBreakers was one of the most mechanically interesting games to release in 2017, and I was saddened by the fact that hardly anyone played it. Despite existing as a critical success, LawBreakers just didn’t grab people. Perhaps its aesthetic was a bit tired, or maybe it was because the game launched in a heavily saturated market. Costing half the price of its competition, I was convinced Cliff Bleszinski’s return to the arena-based FPS genre would be one of commercial success. However, that didn’t happen; and as sad as that may be, LawBreakers doesn’t need my pity.

In fact, it’s the freshest a first person shooter has felt since, well, last year. For the uninitiated, LawBreakers sets its gaze on anti-gravitational combat, which weaves its way into almost every facet of the game; as each map features a large zero gravity field, usually in a prominent location.

The real fun lies in how the various characters and classes interact with the play space. Every character can shoot their weapon behind their back to create a makeshift jet pack to propel them through the environment. It feels even cooler when the backwards blindfire grants you an elimination. The assassin class utilizes a grappling hook that allows them to swing around the map, slicing through their opponents with Katanas on a whim. When swinging through one of the many anti-gravitational zones, LawBreakers suddenly transforms into a first person Spider-Man game.

In short, LawBreakers is one of the most underrated releases from 2017; and previous futuristic shooters feel like they’re missing a key part of the puzzle. If you’d like to see my bias fleshed out further, you can watch this video, which focuses on LawBreakers’ locomotion and the family of games that came before it.

9. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

If I’m being honest with you, and with myself, I didn’t enjoy playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It’s focused on a journey through the Nordic Land of the Dead, and is defined by a hellish realization of mental illness and spiritual hardship that was painful to watch and experience. Regardless, Hellblade is an incredible blending of genres, and its aural and visual presentations are essential to its interactive storytelling.

I hope you’ll give the game a shot, even if It doesn’t look like your cup of tea. Senua is my favorite character that’s emerged from this medium all year, and her story was personally impactful.

8. Golf Story

Golf Story is what happens when you combine Earthbound with an activity-rich golf game, and the mixture is simply incredible. Anytime I’ve found myself on the couch over the past few months, the game has been in my hands, as its hilarious writing and challenging golf matches make it incredibly difficult to put down. Play Golf Story if you: own a Switch, love golf, or have a pulse.

7. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

I wish my experience with Wolfenstein II had gone differently. I certainly enjoyed just about every aspect of the game and loved exploring the title’s alternative version of the United States. Wolfenstein II hosts some of 2017’s strongest characters, and the way they interact with one another in the game’s main hub was hilarious.

Unfortunately, I had the most significant plot thread spoiled for me before I even started the first mission. While it certainly took a lot of the wind out of my sails, I can’t fault the game for what happened to me. Wolfenstein II’s cinematic presentation is unmatched, however I only wish the transition from the gameplay portions was smoother. For reference, many missions end with the player inputting a button prompt to trigger the scene transition; which seems counterintuitive to the game’s obvious desire to craft a dynamic and fluid story.

Regardless, I really enjoyed my time with Wolfenstein II, and can’t wait to go back and play the first game now. Yup, I still have yet to play Wolfenstein: The New Order!

6. What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch, one of the year’s many “walking simulators,” quickly climbed my list when I played it at the beginning of December. Set in a family estate, which is in the possession of its seventeen year old heir, named Edith, I quickly found myself connecting with its characters by way of its interesting vignettes; which served as an incredible narrative tool.

Throughout the story, players will follow Edith along as she explores the many rooms that make up her family’s house, as she tries to uncover the truth behind the mystery of an apparent family curse. While the main focus is certainly on the game’s visual storytelling, What Remains of Edith Finch is home to some of 2017’s best level design. While other “walking simulators” use it for context, Giant Sparrow allows its environment to play a more active role in its storytelling. In my opinion, it’s the absolute best of its kind, and raises the bar for
its competition.

5. Destiny 2

Just as its predecessor, Destiny 2 feels incredible. Every single shot, no matter the weapon, feels perfectly tuned; and each bullet consistently penetrates the armor of its intended target. The audio only enhances the combat experience, with several weapons emitting faint synth tones with every trigger pull. Every second spent in Bungie’s social shooter reminds that they operate well within their pedigree.

Since adequate power leveling requires multiple characters and the story of the first game felt so barebones, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the narrative of Destiny 2 was intriguing enough to pull me through the game several times over. There are certain moments, like walking next to the surface of the sun, that are remembered more fondly than others; but overall the missions in the game’s base campaign seem to have a sense of purpose. It prevents the leveling process from devolving into a mundane grind.

Lastly, beating The Leviathan Raid was one of my favorite video game moments of 2017. The immense challenge presented by the raid allowed my friends and me to spend a lot of time together. Even though most of our time was spent banging our heads against the wall (in hopes of stimulating the esports segment of our brains), Destiny 2’s most challenging moments were accompanied by laughter and friendly banter. I still feel guilty for the scream I emitted at 3:00am when we finally took Emperor Calus down. That session will go down as a night to remember.

4. Super Mario Odyssey

In a year that’s been mired by a few personal struggles, Super Mario Odyssey has brought so much joy into my life. Having been a dormant fan of the series since the Nintendo 64, the game’s release was a welcome arrival. Cappy, who serves as the game’s feature mechanic, was integrated so well into Mario’s base movement set; and I was constantly discovering new ways to traverse the many different kingdoms I visited.

For the first time in a very long time, I found myself adopting the tendencies of a completionist, looking inside every nook and cranny in pursuit of the next Power Moon. Honestly, I think it’s a huge testament to the game’s environmental design, because the only reason I even chased after collectibles was because the levels were so fun to move within.

With New Donk City possessing one of my favorite gameplay sequences of 2017, the Festival, Super Mario Odyssey has secured itself as one of my favorite games of the year.

3. Divinity: Original Sin 2

I should start by saying that I haven’t finished Divinity: Original Sin 2. In all actuality, I’m not even close. Usually an eighty hour role-playing game would be off-putting, as my schedule normally doesn’t allow for long play sessions. However, Divinity’s writing is clever and its world is memorable, so I haven’t really had an issue keeping up with the narrative.

I believe the game actually outpaces most other 2017 releases due to the fact that I’ve been able to fully experience its dense story with friends by my side. By having a party comprised of other human-controlled characters, every decision possesses a weightiness to it that’s not present in many other games. Similarly to older tabletop RPG’s, sometimes the party makes a choice I don’t agree with, and often the subsequent consequences aren’t necessarily fair.

However, it’s been the game’s wealth of interactive systems that have really pushed the experience over the edge for me. Similarly to this year’s Zelda title, Divinity does its best to always say “yes” to its players. The result is a near perfect melding of serious decision making and hilarious antics. Go ahead and name another game that’ll let me disguise myself as a bush, steal a bunch of meat from some lady’s hut, subsequently kill her innocent child, and then deflect all of the aggro onto another party member while I move on to loot a group of teleporting crocodiles. I’LL WAIT.

In all seriousness, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is one of my favorite multiplayer experiences of the past decade; and it’s a major step forward for both singular and cooperative storytelling. I can’t wait to dive in even deeper over the course of the next few years.

2. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

What can I say about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? It’s a competitive experience unlike many of us have ever participated in, and it’s been heralded as such. Even with all of its technical flaws and frustrations – which I understand is a major hindrance for some – PUBG’s gameplay formula resulted in literally hundreds of hours of absolute fun.

Borrowing from one of my previous video essays, “Battlegrounds is a game of luck and happenstance, one by which players surrender control upon entering. It’s a lottery, which doesn’t deal in absolutes, and it’s the gambling of one’s most precious asset: time. What do you fear the most? What haunts you? For many of us, it’s the unknown – which is exactly where PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds plants itself. From the onset, the coincidental nature of PUBG breeds fear into new players; and while seasoned competitors eventually adopt a more aggressive play-style, the inherent trepidation associated with the game never truly dissipates.”

As a longtime competitive multiplayer fan, the game’s one versus ninety-nine Battle Royale structure was incredibly addicting. It was my “one more match” game this year, as it so perfectly fulfilled my desire to compete and win. Also, I’m pretty sure my peers are sick of me, as I’ve followed-up every podcast appointment with an invitation to play Battlegrounds.

I could get into why PUBG’s minute design decisions elevate it above its Battle Royale competition, but that’s a conversation for another time (perhaps next week’s Game of the Year podcasts). For now, I’ll just say that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was responsible for the most fun that I’ve had with a video game this year; and it connected me with friends in a way that I really needed in order to get through some of this year’s tougher circumstances. 

1. Zelda: Breath of the Wild

There’s always been a part of me that wanted to be a Zelda fan. Despite owning a Nintendo 64 at my Mom’s house as a kid, I was never able to sink a significant amount of time into Ocarina of Time like my friends did. If I’m being honest, we just didn’t have the money to purchase video games; instead, Mom would do her best to gather a few bucks throughout the week to afford us a game rental for the weekend. Sometimes it was Super Smash Bros., but most of the time it was Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve watched Link awaken to Navi’s voice in Kokiri Forest. For the longest time, my experience with the Zelda series was one of frustration; and perhaps that’s why I’ve latched onto Breath of the Wild in such an unrelenting manner.

In a word, this year’s installment of the Zelda series has been freeing; as Breath of the Wild grants its users total agency over their journey through Hyrule. From the onset, players can leave the Great Plateau to directly confront Ganon, hunt down the titanic war machines known as Divine Beasts, or find a wild horse, tame it, and ride along the Eastern Shore like I did. The game successfully predicted and satisfied my explorative desires nigh constantly; and as a player, I felt the freedom to do anything.

It’s kind of ironic, though, as Zelda: Breath of the Wild is actually an experience defined by restraint – a word I think I’ve personally failed to mention in all of my previous discussions of the game. The game’s play space is characterized by limitations, which the player is informed of within the first hour of the game; and it’s the consistency of Breath of the Wild’s systems and mechanics that actually breeds creativity, in my opinion. As a player, I understand how weather behaves in the world. I’m aware of the temporary nature of weapons and stamina bar. Furthermore, I know the in and outs of my avatar’s toolset and am able to interact with the environment in creative and meaningful ways.

My time spent roaming Hyrule wasn’t segmented by linear content or narrative, rather it was hindered only by personal skill or wit. By coupling Breath of the Wild’s free-flowing exploration with challenging combat, gorgeous art direction, and a spacious soundtrack, Nintendo has yielded one of the most memorable video game experiences of my life. I now count myself as a Zelda fan, and it feels damn satisfying to say so.

Source: https://www.okbeast.com/2017/12/22/van-aken-top-ten-games-2017/

Best Mobile Games of 2017

When I mention mobile gaming in conversation with friends and colleagues, I’m usually met with skeptical looks, apathetic shrugs, or confusion. For the uninitiated, references to mobile games usually conjure flashbacks to pay-to-win games like Clash of Clans, endless runners, or Hearthstone; and while that’s an accurate reflection of what resides in the app store, there are so many interesting and thought-provoking experiences that are worthy of people’s time – they just need a push in the right direction. So, I compiled a list of my favorite mobile games from 2017, and I hope you’ll give a few of them a shot. Let’s get started.

This list just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t start by highlighting Monument Valley 2, the sequel to an ethereal puzzle game that was largely responsible for opening my eyes to the potential of touch-based gaming. The experience is nothing short of cerebral, weaving ambient sounds, thoughtful color palettes, and alien architecture to create an ethereal playspace which attracts attention. Monument Valley 2 is an absolute gem, and it’s out-of-the-box puzzle design deems it worthy of your time.

Old Man’s Journey released on Steam & mobile platforms earlier this year, and it’s an absolute standout.. I was completely awestruck by Broken Rules’ art direction throughout the entirety of this 2 hour experience. Old Man’s Journey is equipped with an aesthetic that lies somewhere between watercolor and acrylic pastel, often utilizing softer palettes that give off a dreamlike glow.

At its core, Old Man’s Journey is a relaxing puzzler set in what seems to be a world largely inspired by naval exploration. You’ll guide the Old Man through pastures, towns, empty country roads, and a seaside that’s teeming with Mediterranean influence. While the narrative is somewhat predictable, all of the cutscenes are presented as old vintage paintings, with subtle animations that push each scene forward. All of this culminates into an incredibly memorable experience – one that’s only enhanced by the touch-based platform it resides on.

To briefly spare all of you from my pretentiousness and to help diversify this list, I asked OK Beast’s editor-at-large, Ian Preschel, to talk about Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links, a free-to-play card game that released earlier this year:

This year has been great for mobile games and especially those with very popular IP behind them. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links released November 17th of last year and was a major hit with over 9 million downloads and counting. Fans of the series fell in love with the homages to the earlier seasons of the anime while also being able to play the game on the go.  

It’s obvious that this title was trying to learn from Hearthstone and I think that made the game better overall. This game features Deck Captains that feature popular characters from the show that you use that have special abilities and advantages that you can use in battle. This created a special  experience that I have never encountered in a previous Yu-Gi-Oh game. Also, the game had a significant amount of content to invest in. Duel Links featured various challenges that rewarded the player for using different cards and deck leaders. This was a great incentive for me to come back daily and compete and earn new cards. As a fan of online card games and the original anime, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links quickly became one of my favorite mobile game experiences of 2017.  

While they’re two totally different games, Miracle Merchant and Card Thief are two standout titles that released in 2017, and both were developed and released by TinyTouchTales, the team that created 2015’s Card Crawl. The pair initially pulls inspiration from Solitaire, but subsequently branch off in two completely different directions.

Miracle Merchant takes the classic card game formula and brings it inside the walls of a potion master’s storefront; wherein players have to satisfy customers’ alchemic orders by mixing and matching cards from four different piles. After successfully managing their card counts and winning a game, users are rewarded with new potion recipes that will help bolster their future highscores.

Card Thief on the other hand sets its gaze on the stealth genre, and I’m of the opinion that it nails the interpretation. Playing as the titular Card Thief, you’ll need to manage your stealth points and discover the correct movement path to properly dispose of enemy guards, extinguish torches, and eventually steal the castle’s treasure.

Originally released on Steam a few years ago, Chromasquad is a tile-based combat RPG in which you’ll play as 5 stunt actors who – after quitting their day jobs as the titular Super Rangers – decide to start their own television & broadcasting studio. Right off the bat you’ll notice an uncanny resemblance between the Chromasquad and a certain group of 90’s action television heroes. Fortunately, Behold Studios manages to do Saban’s Power Rangers justice through fun writing, satisfying combat, & hearty offerings in regards to customization & progression. You’ll complete contracts to level up your studio, compete in challenging combat scenarios, & customize a team of rangers worthy of your studio’s name.

Despite holding a completely different tone, Chromasquad should find success in the hands of Banner Saga & FF Tactics fans. While it doesn’t hold a candle to those classics, Chromasquad DOES provide hours of entertainment through its quirky story, satisfying gameplay, and nostalgic homages. They even have a giant brain.

So those are my favorite picks of the games that released this year. I think all of them effectively utilize the touch-based platform which they reside on, and stand out among the droves of surface level free-to-play games that surround them. For the sake of time, I couldn’t mention every interesting game that I enjoyed, such as I Love Hue or TypeShift, but I think if you give any of the aforementioned games a shot, you’ll certainly enjoy your time with them.

Source: https://www.okbeast.com/2017/12/14/best-mobile-games-of-2017/

How MMORPG’s Facilitate Wonder

I can still remember my first moments in Atlas Park, standing among the shadows cast down by a statue of the city’s namesake hero. Situated on the front steps of the City Hall building, I watched in awe as heroes and heroines of all sizes and color ran through the streets of Paragon City, thwarting efforts of evil one super power at a time. Above me, paragons swirled in the air, flying and super jumping to out of reach places. In another corner of the city, a controller was suppressing the minds of his enemies while a neighboring fire blaster summoned ashes from the sky. It was all so overwhelming, in the best way possible; as there was so much opportunity to be had in this game world. I was in awe.

You see, these feelings weren’t actually exclusive to City of Heroes; in fact, I can remember my first moments in almost every massively multiplayer game that I’ve played. It’s because, by nature, MMORPG’s facilitate wonder; and that’s the very thing that makes them so special. They activate our imaginations, capitalize on our desires, and materialize the make believe.

Perceived Progression is the active display - shown through other players - of what’s achievable in a game; and it’s unavoidable in an MMO due to the social nature of the genre. It’s the very reason I used to waste hours and hours of my week walking through the halls of Ironforge in World of Warcraft. The city was the busiest social space in the game, as players from across Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms would gather to make raid preparations, train in new professions, or sell their rare treasure at the Auction House. Weathered adventurers walked the halls of the city, showing off their new armor or sword for all to see. As a beginner, this informed my imagination and added to the game’s sense of grandeur. Naturally, I would follow them around, ask questions, inspect their rare gear, and perhaps even beg for gold on occasion. Yes, I was that kid.

The point is, in single player games, the playable avatar is the highest display of power; as they have every tool they could possibly need to tackle any given scenario. They’re the hero of the story, after all. In social play, however, there’s always going to be someone better than you. Someone who can show you the ropes and act as an avatar to project your personal fantasy onto. What made that opening moment in City of Heroes so wonderful for me was the fact I knew one day that could be me. If I invested enough blood, sweat, and time, I could be the hero flying over the denizens of Atlas Park and discovering those once out of reach places.

Incentivized Exploration is certainly not unique to MMORPG’s, but nonetheless masterfully utilized by them; and works hand in hand with perceived progression to cultivate awe and amazement. It provides participants the motivation to fully observe every inch of the game world; as they’re are constantly rewarded for doing so. Climbing an oddly placed waterfall and following the riverbank upstream could lead to a secret treasure chest; just as returning to a previously discovered location at a specific time of day could trigger a special enemy encounter.

You see, when the act of adventure results in achievement, experience, and treasure, we as players are inclined to unearth the secrets of a playspace; and when we successfully do so, we then share our stories with others. Are you starting to understand, now? The genre is just one big beautiful, amazing, gross, heartfelt, and cynical loop that never ends. This is the curse of the MMORPG, and Wonderment is simply the drug that keeps us playing - and paying.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTOzL1XPTJw

Why is Cuphead So Hard?

Cloaking itself beneath the mask of 1930’s American animation, It’s been a long while since I’ve encountered a game as brutally inconsiderate of my time as Cuphead is. In some ways, it reminds me of a stripped down version of Shadow of the Colossus, a PS2 game wherein heavy priority was placed upon boss design & the brilliant gameplay encounters that followed. These bosses are more akin to puzzles, which require multiple playthrough attempts to solve. Where Cuphead differs, however, is in its unforgiving difficulty.

Why is Cuphead so hard, though? Well, on top of the game’s use of informational overload to make things more difficult for our brains, many of Cuphead’s fights can’t be memorized due to the game’s employment of pattern variance. Pattern variance is the technique that the creators of Cuphead use to randomize in-game sequences during replays of the game. While each boss has several progression triggers throughout their fight that are reached by dealing damage, each sequence (or each segment of the boss fight) can be manipulated by the game’s engine. To better understand this idea, let’s take a quick look at one of the game’s early boss fights.

During my many attempts to defeat Ribby & Croaks, the two frogs that fuse into a slot machine, I learned that pattern variance was able to affect many aspects of Cuphead, including: the number & distance between hazards, duration of sequences, and characteristics of individual attacks. In the first phase of this fight, the frogs shoot high and low projectiles towards the player, who will have to jump, crouch, parry, and shoot to prevent themselves from taking damage. During this portion of the encounter, the order by which projectiles were launched changed nearly every time, sometimes favoring the high paths and other times being heavily focused on preventing low crouches.

Up next is the bomb phase, wherein Croaks turns into a high powered fan while Ribby throws bouncing bombs at the player, who has to prevent themselves from being pushed back too far while simultaneously dodging the incoming hazards. Initially, it was a struggle to find a rhythm, as Ribby would sometimes throw nine bombs instead of his usual six; and on occasion, Croaks’ fan transformation seemed a bit delayed and would turn on during the middle of the bomb dodging event.

Eventually the frogs transform into a slot machine, an aesthetic choice that I believe is most fitting, as it serves both form and function. After dodging a few coins and pulling the lever, Cuphead is able to finally begin the damage phase of this fight, wherein Ribby & Croaks open their mouth to release one of three different platforming segments, according to how the slots fell. Players will need to adopt multiple strategies because each of these platforming bits change the playspace in a distinct way. It’s entirely possible to get several of the same platform in a row, and if you haven’t mastered the particular segment of choice, well, then you’re out of luck.

Keep in mind, I’ve only talked about the survival aspects of this demanding performance. While platforming to save your life, you also have to damage the slot machine, as this is a player’s best chance to progress the boss’ invisible progress meter. Not to mention the summon order, directional damage, and speed of platforms change in every playthrough thanks to pattern variance.

I’m not quite sure what determines the frequency of these generated variances, but I know that every time I started to feel comfortable with Cuphead’s sequence characteristics, it adapted some small detail to throw me off of its scent. This constant building and breaking of patterns and rhythms requires reactionary decision-making, which prevents players from ever truly memorizing an encounter – a lesson learned from Contra 3 and Contra: Hard Corps.

I’m not exactly sure how we’ll all look back on the game in five or ten years, but as of right now, Cuphead’s challenge provides as incredible sense of reward that I’m not getting from many other games.

So i’m gonna continue playing and chasing after that sweet sweet Cuphead dopamine; and I hope you’ll keep watching. OK Beast releases video essays every Friday, and we also have podcasts, reviews, and other features on our website, OKBeast.com. If you liked this video, I’d love it if you would subscribe and share this video with your friends. Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next week!

Abstract Minimalism In Small Radios Big Televisions (Editor)

[Written by Jurge Cruz-Alvarez. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Growing up with games’ criticism, there was always the notion that “gameplay is king.” It was a belief that for the longest time I agreed with – and to a large extent I still do. Games are interactive, after all, so I do believe that the way we interact with them should be meaningful; but the problem with this way of thinking was that at times it  prevented many in-depth conversations about the games we played (and the ones we continue to play). It also lead and can lead to not fully representing games in the light that they may have earned due to a feeling that there was something “off” about the way they were designed. I can totally envision Fireface’s Small Radios Big Televisions being one of those games that gets the critical short end of the stick because of some its shortcomings. While the game’s shortcomings that should certainly be called out, there’s something within Small Radios Big Televisions that’s worth discussion and even praise.  

Small Radios Big Televisions is a short puzzle game wherein players interact with the innards of several dioramas that are based upon real world structures by way of a controlled cursor. Players interact with aforementioned dioramas and are tasked with solving puzzles to progress the collection of a group of magnetic cassette tapes. More on the latter in a bit. The solution to the game’s puzzles can be perplexing due to the dioramas’ design and the nature by which the cursor behaves. Specifically, the cursor always wants to re-center, regardless of whether or not the player is moving an object or interacting with the environment. This janky behavior really makes it difficult to have direct input control; and it often feels as if a malevolent force is pulling you away from the objective by hindering any sort of elegant movement. While this annoyance should be mentioned, it’s not why we’re discussing Small Radios Big Televisions today. The reason we’re talking about the game is because of those cassette tapes that I mentioned earlier.

The places you visit in Small Radios Big Televisions are empty, but it’s clear that someone inhabited them at one point in time. What remain are various cassette tapes that tell the story of the individuals who became obsessed with a retro futurist vision of virtual reality, one by which they implanted cassette players into their brains in order to depict assorted, colorful scenes. Many of these virtual scenes are quite simple, such as the sun setting over a golden wheat field, or another that displays a grand portrait of the world as seen from atop a snowy mountain.

The virtual scenes that Fireface has crafted are presented in a style that is closer to abstract geometry than photorealism. It’s sharp and minimal. These scenes are also not static, and similarly to real world cassette tapes, they can be damaged once introduced to magnetic interference. In Small Radios Big Televisions, this concept leads to the total abstraction of the playable vignettes. Structures deform and deconstruct into the basic shapes that they’re comprised of. Colors change in hue and meld with others; and the game’s wonderful synthetic soundtrack suddenly becomes distorted. This sort of event causes everything to become more dynamic. The once golden field of wheat transforms into a sharp, glowing white that contrasts strongly against the pitch black soil beneath it. Taking a ride on an innocuous mine cart through the cliffside of a mountain subsequently turned into a ride through the album art of an 80’s new wave band, with neon blues and soft pinks to boot.

Rather than moving on after these strange audiovisual experiences washed over me and subsequently fulfilled their purpose of progress, I allowed myself a brief moment of personal reflection. It’s moments like these that make Small Radios Big Televisions enjoyable to me; and it’s here that the game finds ways to evoke a sense of warmth and comfort, while also maintaining an eerie and lonely feeling.

Of course, while all of that might be at the heart of Small Radios Big Televisions, I’m still not very fond of what makes up the periphery. I’m not sure if most would enjoy what I found so interesting about the game, and I still hold on to my own thoughts that it doesn’t feel great to play; but perhaps others will enjoy its puzzles and won’t be put off by the game’s shortcomings. If you enjoy the idea of looking at amorphous shapes expand and contract while a vaporwave-esque soundtrack plays in parallel, then I think visiting the soft pink skies of Small Radios Big Televisions might just be worth your time.

The publisher supplied a digital press code of Small Radios Big Televisions to OK Beast. The game was played on retail PlayStation 4 Pro hardware.

Sonic Mania Review (Editor)

[Written by Blessing Adeoye Jr. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Sonic The Hedgehog is back. Refreshed and re-energized, Sonic Mania cracks its knuckles and reinvigorates 2-D platforming without ever stepping on its own tails. Through creative level design, satisfying callbacks, and excellent new additions, Sonic Mania is a wonderful return to form for everyone’s favorite hedgehog.

Sonic Mania is a best hits collection of Sonic the Hedgehog; it contains levels and references from the 2-D Sonic games along with some new levels and a brand new coat of polish. It is more vibrant and visually detailed than any of the Sega Genesis games yet it somehow keeps the spirit, feel, and tone of the originals. Sonic Mania feels pulled right out of the Genesis era and that’s where the charm of the game stems from. Most of the time while playing Sonic Mania, I forget I’m playing a game released in 2017. Minor tweaks to the feel of speed and jumping help make the gameplay feel modern along with prettier levels and updated music. The music from Studiopolis Zone highlights some of the best the game has to offer with varied instrumentation, upbeat melodies and a smooth piano section.

It would be an insult to call Sonic Mania a remaster. The game comes packed with an assortment of levels, most of which are from previous installments of the series. These classic Sonic levels are updated and rearranged just well enough so that they keep the feel and moments from the classic games but possess enough variety and difference to keep the player guessing. The new levels are where the game shines the most. The genius of the design shines most in these new stages as there are multiple paths, unexpected twists and turns, and a large amount of spectacle for the player to enjoy.

While Sonic Mania adopts many of the best aspects of Sonic, unfortunately some of the series’ weaknesses also come along for the ride. Sonic Mania can be difficult at times. The difficulty is reminiscent of the challenge of classic Sonic games and so it is to be expected. Though, there are cases where Sonic Mania can be unfair. Most notably, when Sonic gets caught in between two closing surfaces, the player receives an automatic loss no matter whether or not you have rings. I was okay with this the first and second time this happened to me but by my eighth “Game Over” after being caught by these closing surfaces, I’d had enough. Other cases such as being kicked back to the beginning of the first act after a “Game Over”, although heartbreaking at times, provided a welcomed challenge.

Sonic Mania is purely Sonic at its core. It’s a game with moments, complexity in level design, and accessibility in gameplay. Though at some parts in can be brutal, all in all the challenge is reminiscent of the Sega Genesis games we all loved. Sonic Mania has all of the style and flare that the classic Sonic games had and it is successful in being a true homage.

Hey 2017 Games, Chill Maybe? (Editor)

[Written by Moises Taveras. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Hello, hello, hello! What a year 2017 has been, huh? I mean for video games, let’s just ignore the world around us that’s currently caught on fire. At least for a few minutes. So, today I’m here to talk to you about how blessed gamers have been this year. Praise Lord Gaben, because he’s been making it rain all year!

More than a week ago, Greg Miller of Kinda Funny posted this tweet and upon reflection – which took all of ten seconds – I heartily concurred.

Greg Miller @GameOverGreggy

I believe 2017 is the best year of video games ever. Please Tweet me your piece of proof or your counter argument.

2017 has indeed been a stand out year for video games, even only considering the three titles I’ve played this year. In deciding to meticulously make my way through what I considered to be the big releases, while pursuing other passions and hobbies, I’ve lagged behind quite a bit! They’re all just launching right behind one another without any regard for my time or money! Games are continually falling right on top of each other; and if you look away for one moment, another ten throw themselves onto the heap.

This is undeniably great because, you guys, there’s something for literally everyone. Nintendo fans got themselves a new console with a fantastic Zelda game, Playstation has a new leading lady and franchise in Aloy and Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Xbox freaking launched a remaster of Phantom Dust. MOBA players received reworks of Epic’s Paragonand the long-in-gestation Gigantic. RPG lovers were happy to play the mother of all JRPG’s, Persona 5, as well as the console debut of Undertale. Fighting people got ArmsTekken 7 and Injustice 2; as well as a million announcements at arguably the most lit EVO event in quite some time. Oh – and apparently Nier: Automata is the deepest game in the world. Yet, I get the feeling that come the end of the year, so much of this will be cast to the wayside with the exception of ZeldaPersona and Nier because Y’ALL, the fall rush of games is already starting and it’s only August. 

Last week alone we got Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Lawbreakers, two games we’re particularly fond of here at OK Beast; and this week we witnessed Undertale’s console debut and the release of Sonic Mania. 2017 is relentless and if you’ve ever hated the poor pacing of your typical year, this is the overcorrection. There’s a lot of developers and projects to celebrate, however we’re not being given nearly enough time to experience them all for ourselves. In a typical year, everyone would’ve played a vast majority of the Game of the Year contenders by now because there weren’t so many releases.

With so many games, there just isn’t enough time anymore.

Not only are most gamers not able to play many of these releases, but we’re not even being allowed to miss them. This thought came up in a podcast that Blessing and Ian (both are staff of OK Beast) recorded a few weeks back. When Ian asked Blessing whether or not he’d want a mechanical sequel to Breath of the Wild, he said yes, but also shared that he likes missing games. He enjoyed the time between games that would typically allow one to be overcome with nostalgia over what a great experience that game was. Not only does Blessing feel it built a love and admiration for the experience, but that yearning, he found, began the anticipation for the inevitable follow up. He cites Grand Theft Auto 6 as an example of a game that he knows is a long way out; but can’t wait for because he has been given the time to properly play, experience and – more importantly – remember Grand Theft Auto V. 

When I finished Persona 5 after my three month odyssey into it’s depths, I felt elated for all but a second. Knowing I had fallen behind, I pushed onward to the next game, which would then inform the next piece of writing for my site. It was all about the grind. I’ve not thought about Persona 5 once since I finished it, not because I don’t love the game but because the output of fantastic games and my growing role in even the smallest of games media endeavors demands I move on. It’s now regressed from being a cherished experience to being a product on my checklist.

This time that Blessing is talking about is also handy for folks like us who like engaging in conversations on games. As a fan of the discourse, I’ve not had enough time to properly digest a game and speak to its merit or flaws and I don’t know how many others have either. Friend of the site and contributor, Chase Williams, has been my sole partner in this regard considering I “counseled” him during his trudge through Persona 5, a that game I loved and he did not. Hence the discourse. 

I know my brain isn’t making life altering connections between philosophy, art and video games, but how can it when I don’t get to think about a game for more than five minutes until the next one is up to bat? Before you say it, yes I realize I’m complaining about having a lot of a good thing. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t realize how fortunate I am to be analyzing and writing about games in this field. Games are games and games are fun (Editor’s Note: duh). 

I’ve been playing games essentially my whole life and there has never, in my lifetime, been a finer year to be a gamer. Yet with every passing release that I fail to play, my identity as a person who enjoys the medium feels less and less relevant. As much as my role as a commentator within the industry demands a constant consumption of the newest latest best, I just can’t. 

PlayStation Greatest Hits & Affordable Content Curation (Editor)

[Written by Jurge Cruz-Alvarez. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Despite the fact that gaming has become a prevalent slice of our culture within the past two decades, the hobby has always had a barrier of entry that’s difficult to break. For years, its hefty price tag has served as a gargantuan barrier-to-entry; continuously pushing newcomers away as the video game industry chases after greater technological innovation. It’s an upsetting reality, and it appears that platform owners don’t have a vested interest in creating a path for players with low disposable income to enjoy the games they offer. This wasn’t always the case. 

However, there was a time when that path existed; and it was the only way that I, the son of two immigrants who didn’t speak english and sometimes couldn’t afford dinner, could afford to enjoy video games. That path, at least the one I’m most familiar with, was the Greatest Hits line-up of games published by Sony for the North American branch of their PlayStation platform. At the time of its creation, Sony’s Greatest Hits roster contained some of the best video games that were available on the PlayStation console. Any title that received this prestigious label would be sold to consumers for $19.99, a cost-friendly price that gave so many of us an opportunity to enjoy the hobby.

Sometimes you would wind up with a SpongeBob game, but for every licensed game released there would be at least two other solid titles – and those SpongeBob games weren’t half bad. Through the Greatest Hits program, I was able to get my hands on the games that I’d spent years coveting within the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly. I could finally play games like Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy or licensed oddities like Dragon Ball Z: Budokai. Sony’s program allowed me to take chances on games like Burnout 3: Takedown, a game that existed within a genre that I had very little experience in. Was this curation necessary to my enjoyment of these games? Would I have eventually played these games if their price had gradually decreased over time? Perhaps. Without the Greatest Hits program, I wouldn’t have taken so many risks, as many of the featured games were outside of my comfort zone. While it was merely a smart marketing tactic on Sony’s part, I likely would’ve never played NBA Street or enjoyed titles like SSX Tricky.

For a time, there was a part of me that resented the Greatest Hits label. I understood it to be a symbol of my family’s socio-economic standing, as if Sony was telling me, “You don’t deserve this game, Jurge. You have to wait until the market seems this title as affordable.” Today, however, I realize just how significant something like the Greatest Hits line-up was to my enjoyment of video games; and how the program directly affected my current knowledge of the medium. Presently, the PlayStation 4’s Greatest Hits catalog only exists in Asian territories, strangely enough; and its absence in the Western market puzzles me. Perhaps there aren’t enough physical releases to sustain such a program, so I’d love to see the program begin to spotlight digitally-distributed video games. An online marketplace like the PlayStation Store has plenty of great games – of all styles and sizes – that would fit right in with the spirit of the Greatest Hits brand. 

Despite hosting titles with varying price points, home consoles still lack a curated list of modestly priced, good video games which could serve as a bridge to players who aren’t able to afford full-priced games. Lastly, a program such as PlayStation Greatest Hits is incredibly important because great gaming experiences shouldn’t be walled off to a certain level of class or privilege.

Gilmore Girls: Escapism in Uncertain Times (Editor)

[Written by Jurge Cruz-Alvarez. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

If ever there was a time for using media as escapism, 2016 sure would be that time. Here at Pixel Pulse Radio, we talk about pop-culture. One of the key pillars of that discussion is video games. I know many friends who use video games as a means of escape when times get tough. I used to as well, but at some point it stopped helping me; perhaps because I’ve spent recent years trying to dissect video games critically. Regardless, I miss the ability to throw myself at a game like Dynasty Warriors to forget my troubles - even if only for a few minutes.

Another topic we cover here at Pixel Pulse Radio is Gilmore Girls. It’s a topic that’s often brought up by one of the podcast’s two hosts and is welcomed begrudgingly by the other. It’s a fun bit, but I often wonder how many visitors and listeners of Pixel Pulse Radio have ever given Gilmore Girls a shot. Because it’s not just a goof, Gilmore Girls is great, and it’s a comforting and sincere show. One that I recently have been able to turn to whenever I need something to bring my spirits up.

For those who are uninformed, Gilmore Girls is about the lives of single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter who shares the same name but goes by Rory. They reside in the small, fictional town of Stars Hollow, nestled in a postcard-perfect forested area of Connecticut.  And really, that pretty much sums up what the show is about. It’s a narrative that appears to be, and in many ways is, very simple. But it’s depiction of a tight, rural community and the relationship between a single-mother and her daughter turns out to be very human.

I’m new to Gilmore Girls. I actually completely forgot about the show until it re-appeared on Netflix. After getting the elevator pitch, the fact that the show is about a single-mother struck a chord with me. I myself was raised by a single-mother. Granted, I’m Latino, so my experiences are incredibly different from those of the Gilmores, but we share similarities that prove to be incredibly cathartic.

When we’re introduced to Lorelai she has a management job at the Independence Inn, a local inn in Stars Hollow, but we are told that she didn’t start there. She got her professional start as a maid when she was a teenager, pregnant with Rory. During this tumultuous time, Lorelai and her child-to-be resided in a spacious shed which was nestled in the backyard of the very inn that she now works at. While it's quite apparent that they've been through the ringer, the Gilmore girls possess a tenacity that continually pushes them forward towards better days.

The sentiment that good things happen to good people can easily come off as boring or trite when used in television or film; but the Gilmores really do seem like genuine good people who put out positive energy in their small town - and you know what? I think most people want  to believe that good things really do happen to good people, and while I can only speak for my experiences, as someone who grew up with a hardworking, single-mother, I would have loved to have had a show like Gilmore Girls when I was growing up.

The quaint, fictional community of Stars Hollow is a town made to evoke a sense of Americana. Independent shops can be found on each block, the local dinner is always busy with friendly faces, and its red oak trees shine bright-green in the Summer while maintaining a cozy orange glow in the Fall. It’s a town so perfect that it would appear to be eerie were it not for the kind characters who inhabit it.

Many sitcoms and dramas struggle to find the right balance between personal character quirks and that which can be discerned as recognizable humanity within their characters; but Gilmore Girls walks the line near perfectly. Characters like Sookie St. James, a cook at the Independence Inn, or Luke Danes, the owner of a local coffee shop, all have the usual supporting character eccentricities, but their kindness and goodness always shine through. It sounds sappy, I know, and I will admit that the show can come off as too clean and as lacking in diversity; but sometimes we need the comforting reminder that kindness does in fact exist within our world. Even though Gilmore Girls is entirely fiction, it really does carry a sense of genuine altruism.

While it’s easy and sometimes fair to dismiss it as a silly or inflated early 2000's television series, Gilmore Girls provides a comfort and warmth that’s hard to find elsewhere. This is my rallying cry. Give Gilmore Girls a chance, please. If you’re no stranger to Stars Hollow, then I encourage you to revisit the show before binge-watching the upcoming Netflix revival. You deserve it.