The Oh Yeah, That’s Right, Hurt Me More Award: Darkest Dungeon
A great man once said “Some people just gotta get fucked till they like it.” And boy, is my asshole loose and sated, all thanks to this indie gem that brings the perpetual cycle of RNG-based rimjobbing to your home entertainment systems! Now you too can despair as you lose a night’s worth of progress because that attack that SHOULD have saved you just refused to hit, while the enemy killed your healer and disabled your main damage dealer and BOY IS WATCHING HOURS OF WORK GO DOWN THE DRAIN FUN.
Darkest Dungeon, so named for the place its developers coagulated from, is an extremely, EXTREMELY bone-hard old-school western RPG that plays like a D&D game by the worst, most hateful sewermonkey of a DM imaginable. As the heir to a once-prominent family, you return to your homestead to reclaim the riches and reputation so thoroughly squandered by your mystically-curious, incredibly safety-averse and recently deceased relative. Being not of the “swords and adventure” type, you instead assemble parties of adventurers culled from the ranks of the desperate and the downtrodden, level them up, maintain their stats and send them through ever-increasing pools of shit and madness to purge your once-illustrious estate of the eldritch, extradimensional horrors that lurk in its abandoned depths.
Aside from your typical TBS/pen and paper trappings, DD employs a statistical conceit so obvious and effective that I’m surprised it hasn’t been a standard in these kinds of video games for years: the stress meter. Basically, as your party is bombarded by horrors both internal and external (mostly external), their psychological state will begin to suffer. Their sanity begins to fray as the stress of simply being in such a place, not to mention the horrors they fight, begins to drive them up the wall. Too much stress and they run the risk of, to put it poetically, going completely fucking snoopy and becoming at best functionally impaired and at worst a liability to the rest of your party. Maybe they’ll acquire some lovely new personality defect or anti-perk that renders them completely useless in your current dungeon. Maybe they’ll start fucking with the morale of your team, or refuse to fight certain enemies and just gibber like a loon. Or maybe they’ll just straight up die of a heart attack right then and there, which in some cases is the BEST RESULT YOU CAN ASK FOR. Oh, and in case you were wondering, of COURSE many enemies have attacks whose sole purpose is to add to the stress meter, because WHY WOULDN’T THEY.
Of course, one good gameplay idea does not a great game make, but luckily DD also boasts a fantastic art style so full of shading and muck that you may have to wipe your hands after a long session, some truly moody and impressively done music, the most perfectly tuned narrator this side of Tony Jay’s performance The Bard’s Tale and atmosphere so thick it’s like a fat, sweaty guy who leaks not perspiration but pure ambiance. All combine to make one of the most depressingly downbeat, but utterly enthralling gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory. The gameplay is rock-solid role-playing adventuring, which may dissuade some people when combined with the utterly ruthless RNG and constant setbacks. But damn if it isn’t an adventure worth taking, if only for the scars it leaves on your very soul.
Music Choice: The theme of the entrance to hell. It’s miraculous that a hub theme can somehow be soothing and pretty, decompressing you from the likely shitfest that was your last dungeon dive, and yet also be melancholy and foreboding, making you gear yourself up for the next trip into madness and despair.
The Hey, You Got Your Evangelion JRPG in my Childhood! Award: Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
Maturing a generally kid-skewed product is super hard, huh? Try too hard to be taken “totally seriously for the adults” and you end up with game disasters like Bomberman Zero or those weird anime dubs of the 90’s that saw fit to include copious American slang and cursing into the scripts for already-mature movies because “Cartoons won’t be taken seriously unless we say FUCK A LOT.” And so I was understandably a little…leery of this particular product when my friend Matty gave it a vehement recommendation. After all, Digimon may be a beloved artifact of my childhood with some good games under its belt, but I sure as hell never played them and the idea of making anything not Season 3 related (which if you haven’t seen it is still positively nightmare inducing) aimed toward older teens brought to mind those hip and happening game commercials of the Nintendo era. So imagine my shock when Cyber Sleuth proved itself to not only be a compulsively playable JRPG, with tons of monster breeding fun and near-perfect aesthetic sensibilities, but also spun a pretty decent end-o’-the-world EVA-lite tale, filled with questioning your identity, losing your physical body, the erosion of the human mind/soul and possible world-destruction by strange abominations from beyond the veil.
Your main character, a youngster who lost their physical body in EDEN (a sort of virtual reality-cum-instrumentality plot) and now exists as a partially digital being, must use his unique skills and his Digimon (in this universe initially portrayed as semi-sentient hacking programs) to try and get his body back while figuring out why users of said virtual reality keep ending up in comas, unraveling conspiracies and world-crossing plots by shady corporations on the side, and solving the occasional sidequest chain in the form of generally amusing “Detective Cases”, with the stern exception of the literally dozens of “Find this one item in a previous environment for me, k thnx” missions which can suck all of the dicks. The characters were fun and interesting, if a bit too archetypal for their own good (Nokia, please, I want to like you but could you please SHUT YOUR FACE HOLE) and the plot, while meandering on occasion, has enough twists and turns to satisfy your slightly more mature palate.
But really, the digital monsters are the draw here and the game’s solid combo of addictive monster leveling and rock-paper-scissors type balancing, all draped over a tried-and-true turn based JRPG skeleton means that getting to those plot points is just as satisfying as you would hope. Being able to keep upward of a dozen Mon’s on you at any given time, with near a hundred more in storage, means that constantly switching out your teams for a given situation is not only fun, but encouraged since typing is super rigid in this bitch. Fight a Data-type boss with a Vaccine-type party and you will be boned in ways too complex and imaginative to describe. Take on a Mega with a team of Champions and Ultimates, and you’re tempting fate. Fight an Eater, the local squiggly unknown monstrosity, and be prepared to eat your own hand in frustration if you don’t have proper damage dealers and stat buffers/debuffers. Raising your Digimon up from babies all the way to destroyers-of-worlds never gets tiring, and I spent unenviable amounts of time Digivolving, De-Digivolving and generally tweaking my little guys through stat-boosting items, the Digifarm and various side quests.
The fun is enhanced by a uniquely Japanese cyberpunk visual style, with brightly colored outfits and neon-hued environments, to say nothing of the always enjoyable designs of the Digimon themselves and their unique attacks, of which nearly every single Mon gets at least one. The music keeps pace, with a synth heavy techno flair that matches well with the cyberscapes you’ll be exploring. The game is also on the Vita, and necessary scale constraints do show on occasion (the oddly silent hub area, highly repetitious NPC models, some janky controls and a lack of animation on most characters who are not battling for their lives), but the sheer amount of personality on display makes up for any technical shortcomings. If you’re an oldschool Digifan like myself, then there is no reason you should not be playing this YESTERDAY. And if you like your RPGs with some monster raising and techie flavor, then you may just be shocked at how much you enjoy a trip to the Digital World.
Music Choice: The standard boss battle music, a strong wubbwubb-centric electric piece that gets you pumped yet wary for the challenge ahead. Those first notes tell you that shit just got serious, while that strong baseline almost seems to ebb and flow with your thoughts as you ponder your next move against your inevitably overpowered foe.