Strix's Reviews and Commentary

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Under Construction

This website is intended to be an easy way for me to write reviews, commentary and general opinions and post them without having to worry about losing them. I'll figure out a better layout soon, so it's not just a giant wall of text on the first page. I might even link images or show openers, but we'll see. I don't want this to become work, just something fun to do while I enjoy stuff.

For now, new sections will be added to this page at the bottom, and slowly sorted into their pages. If you're looking for new stuff, scroll down - I bold every new section.

To Do

Add separate pages, sorting by medium, add relevant images and screenshots to reviews. This isn't a job, just a side hobby, but I'd like some organization and flair.

Strix's GOTY 2023

This was written for SomethingAwful Forums' Games Games of the Year Thread 2023

10. Sherlock

This is my list, I get to write about the games I want to write about. I get to write about [url=]Sherlock[/url], a logic deduction puzzle game from 1991.

Everett Kaser made that, then like twenty more games in the same vein, and he's selling them on his website and for shall we say 1990 prices. 20$ for Sherlock, or you start buying his bundles - 44$ for about 10 games, and there are three of these packs. These are not easy to justify.

Like, don't get me wrong: these are incredible games. They all have demos, you can see for yourself: they're satisfying logic puzzles. Even the non-Sherlock games are all interesting - but I'm going to stay focused. I like Sherlock, Mrs. Hudson, Reichenbach Falls and the Queen's Gambit best. As every game in that series is basically a variant or evolution of the original Sherlock, I'll talk about it.

Confusing, sure. The weird boxes and icons on the top left are the puzzle. The columns and horizontal rows on the right and bottom are the clues. You're supposed to pick one item per box with no duplicates - sudoku! Use the clues, think it through, solve the puzzle.

This kind of puzzle isn't necessarily difficult, even on the highest settings, but it is satisfying. Just slowly untangle the puzzle and put everything right in place.

I love unwinding to a puzzle like this. It's my podcast puzzle, or just music. It's all calming and perfect and aaahh. Good stuff.

And the settings! Everything is customizable! The appearance, the size and complexity of the puzzle, everything. The same flexibility exists in all of Kaser's games, and I appreciate it. Here's the unplayable mess I have my Sherlock set to:

There are no games directly like these on steam. Lots of sudoku clones, or other logic deduction games, but nothing with the same kind of deduction, let alone the weird twists the sequels have. There are, in fact, no games like this anywhere else that I know of. Someone please, please clone these and put them on steam!

Anyways they're on my GOTY list because I've spent so much time unwinding with 'em, and they make me happy.

9. Avernum

I effectively reposted what I'd already written for it on this website! Avernum good.

8. Project Zomboid

Single-player, this game excels in being a hardcore, dark survival simulator. Bites are death, you will die, and the zombies are coming. Creeping around suburban Kentucky and scavenging supplies has never been more tense or interesting. For years I've happily called this game the best zombie game, tied with State of Decay 2 - pick the one you want based on if you want more action or tension. I've tried it and died and loved it and used it as an infrequent horror game to sate my urge for zombie survival. Would've been the same this year - fantastic, worthy of a spot on this list, but probably not going to make it because I've played other stuff that left stronger impressions.

Then, this year, I played Project Zomboid co-op. Two hundred hours later...

This game absolutely shines if you have a buddy, like, damn. I've heard of this phenomena before, where having friends livens up a game, but I've never seen it take effect this strongly before. Survival became easier, which meant that we could turn our attentions to the medium and long-term goals in the game, and then coordinating became an entire game in and of itself.

So we effectively broke the game into two halves: first, base management. The joy of picking a building (or picking a clearing and building from scratch) and turning it into a zombie-safe haven, then a storage warehouse, then decorating it and turning it into a home. Project Zomboid looks like the original Sims game, and well, playing it like that game's build mode is really satisfying? Especially if you get the mods that let you add all the furniture/wall styles/floor styles/etc... I turned into the living embodiment of HGTV as I happily created a perfect kitchen and reinforced the fence and carried corpses to the parking lot for a fire.

Heads up! Cement in this game can burn for some insane reason, so if you do a corpse bonfire, do it AWAY FROM THE BASE.

Second, leaving the base! Scavenging for supplies, killing zombies, car management...the rest of the game! Now I, in my full HGTV mode, basically turn into the furniture hunter. But there's stuff like bringing fresh food home, or bullets, or other supplies - and not to mention how neat it is to explore.

The map in this game is hand-made and full of little details, and on top of that, there's a lot of mods that seamlessly add in new areas, replacing unused areas with new stuff - or just straight expanding the map. I loved exploring these places, vanilla or mod, as it let me engage in another fantasy: just exploring normal places. I sometimes dream that I could temporarily make everyone in the world vanish so I could go into random houses and look around and just, y'know, look? I can fulfill this dream with stuff from photos from Zillow, but this game really lets you live out the ultimate breaking and entering fantasy, and there is such joy in the mundane. Fiddle with someone's kitchen, take the town library all for yourself, sprint naked around the mall's food court.

So there's that neat aspect alongside the, y'know, scavenging - will this kitchen have canned food that hasn't spoiled? Will this library have that one book I'm looking for? Can we FINALLY find some shotgun bullets?

And oh right, zombies! They're here, they're great. The vanilla zombies are great, but we're mod-hungry and we gave them more variety of outfits and types... and since we were having fun, we put in the ultra-rare ones that carry the cure vaccine. Cheaty, but it really made some encounters incredibly high value: holy cow there's a cure guy in that building, but he has a crowd with him, is it worth the risk to kill him and get the cure?

We experimented with several variations of handling the zombie virus: fully infection proof is boring. Vanilla is too annoying, because if you're infected your character is on a timer and while the first few deaths are interesting to manage, having to restart with grinding stats gets old. (Especially if you had enough carpenter stats to build fancy stuff, and suddenly you need to saw a billion planks to get back there again...) We found our balance by adding these methods: 1) if you're really mad at the game, just cheat the stats back in. 2) Mod that adds a chance for you to recover from the virus by taking care of yourself. Lots of sleep, food, staying warm, etc. Fun RP chance as you get to be, well, sick? And this tests your resources and defenses, as you really can't be scavenging if you're sick. 3) The cure is out there!

So, the zombies: if you meet one or two, no problem. Combat is fun and once you're used to it, easy. As long as you're paying attention you can beat a zombie to death with a baseball bat no sweat. But - as appropriate for zombies - as soon as there's a group, you're fucked. It becomes a test of your ability to split them off from the pack, stay mobile, and keep your stamina up so you're not so tired you can't push them back.

Guns are fantastic: rare, powerful, and loud as hell. You may have killed that pack, but 500 zombies are approaching you now. But - oh yes - we modded this too. There's a modder out there who basically added every single gun he could think of to the game, to the point where we started playing gun pokemon in one run. Our armory at the base became a veritable museum of weird gun variants and ammo.

The trouble with this mod is that guns become so frequent it becomes a parody of modern America, but, well, I think you can tweak that in the mod config, and also we didn't care at this point. Having a lot of guns didn't solve the zombie summoning effect, and it let us explore more aggressively - clearing a building became easier, and added a new twist of "this is now clear, but we have a timer running before more descend" - and we never stopped using melee. Guns became the ultimate backup weapon, where if you realized you were going to get into trouble, time for the shotgun.

And so we come to the trinity: vehicles. Vanilla is good, modded adding even more is better, alongside adding a few new ways to access them. In the base game you basically have to find a vehicle's key, which is pure RNG. In modded, you can make keys yourself, or just hotwire the car. A little cheaty, but in a way that worked for our playstyle... and honestly, it takes a LONG time to walk anywhere. Like, a realistically long time to walk anywhere. Which is fine in towns, but I am never spending 30+ minutes walking down a highway again. So with cars we could actually get out and explore (how American!) and this also turned into - cars are noisy, and attract zombies. You can kill zombies by running them over, but it damages the car. Cars are fragile, and need repairs and fuel. Fuel is at gas stations, but are they safe to use? Ever been bitten while pumping gas? Yeah.

So - yeah, it's a super super fun experience with lots to do. Survive! Build! Collect stuff (guns, cars, garden gnomes, exercise equipment, books, etc... mods even let you add more stuff like tarot decks, ALL the clothing, even more movies, etc) and explore! And the risk is real - even with guns you'll still get swarmed and killed. You have to judge where and how you're going to approach a dangerous place like a mall. It's just a huge happy survival sandbox that I poured so much time into and will again.

The best, worst part? This isn't even all of the game. You can turn it into Stardew Valley with farming. There's fishing. Crafting gets elaborate. There's the Ten Years Later mod, and even more in the workshop. And the devs are still - still! - working on the game, with regular updates about the update. Slow, but they're still at it.

By god, this game is good. I'm so happy it exists.

7. Space Engineers

Here's a weird one! This should not be my game. I struggle with sandbox games, I struggle with games that have no plots, and I struggle with games that feature flying due to how easily I get motion sickness.

Space Engineers is a game defined by being, effectively, a physics engine with a bit of gameplay wrapped around it. You come to this game to build vehicles, fly them, get them wrecked, and build new vehicles.

If you enjoy this loop - there's a lot to do. There's mining, building weird fun structures, and combat. Okay I feel a little bit like I'm lying, the game is still - weirdly - barebones? After ten years, there's a lot to do, but the game still feels empty. There's no reason to explore because the terrain is proc-gen and not in the somewhat interesting way in No Man's Sky. There's no story to pursue, no weird stuff to find. Even when the devs added space stations and an economy, it's still lightweight, weird.

So wait, you might ask. Where did the ten years of development go? Into the toolbox, I say! Do you want to build fully functioning vehicles - trucks, starships, more - all with working physics? Do you want to taunt KLANG HIMSELF as you install pistons to your ship? Do you want to build a fully working space elevator?

Yeah. It's a game for engineers who want a bigger, better lego set and they think Minecraft isn't complex enough.

I, unfortunately, am not an engineer. I never had many legos as a kid, and I don't think in 3D space. "visualize an apple, now rotate it" can't do it.

I found my fun anyways, because with the aid of a fan of the game and mods, this game turned into one of the neatest "chill and do busywork" games I've ever played, with a side of Satisfactory for good measure.

So here's how it works: first, we turn off voxel deformation. This effectively disables mining, but it makes driving and flying a lot safer: crashing into the ground doesn't do damage to vehicles. This helps solve my "I suck at flying" problems. We replace mining with static mining drills that with some tweaking turn electricity into raw resources.

Next, we use a big industry overhaul mod that adds a lot of intermediate components and asks you to build huge bases that can accommodate your now ludicrous factory. This gives me a bigger sense of progression as I can work towards expanding the base, and it takes a lot more work than slapping some structures down. And god help me if I want to make the base pretty. (I DO.)

Add in a mod that spawns in vehicles and structures at random times, and tweak it so it doesn't spawn in the "killbot 9000" type stuff that would just vaporize us. We definitely can't afford base defenses at all yet, let alone for stuff trying to kill us from orbit. (For protection, have at least one person with admin powers so they can delete anything that spawns in that slipped past our filters. Or if the RNG gives us 5 of the same wreck in a row and we're bored.)

Finally, add stargates! Make the admin put a working stargate on every planet (with its own power and admin safezone so they won't be destroyed) and you're all set to go.

Gameplay becomes - work on the base, realize that you want to build X but it needs Y, so to get Y you either need to mine it or scavenge it, and since you're not ready to go build another new mining outpost, time to scavenge.

Some wrecks are safe to approach and just start dismantling. Some are, uh, not. Some are armed and want to kill you. Either way, this becomes the heart of the game: building vehicles that can answer these challenges.

In Space Engineers, even modded, you have a small inventory and you are not durable. The game is all but begging you to build stuff, please, it has all of these cool mechanics engage with them! And so - you do! You build a shitty starter truck so you can drive to these wrecks instead of walking for 5-15 minutes to reach them. You build a new truck with armor and horrific grinding stuff on it so you can drive up to a wreck and just start grinding it down into materials with your truck, instead of your hand-grinder. You realize that driving, while fun, is really difficult on this planet full of trees. You put thrusters on it instead and make a hover-bike. You make an airplane built for cargo. You build a flying base. You build a flying base that can enter orbit.

You dream about doing these things as you fucked up and got your truck obliterated by a hostile Halo tank that the mod imported, and you sigh as you put the blueprint of your truck (that you saved before leaving the base, right) into the base so it will remake your truck for you. You realize, halfway through, that it's out of rotors. Again. The fuck. Who's been using the rotors? Your beloved friend used them all to make their own giant-ass grinder motorcycle that can fly? And there won't be more rotors until you fix the base's power supply because SOMEONE crashed into the giant windmill that was powering the whole thing? And while the solar panels could cover this, it's currently night and won't be day for another few hours because this planet sucks? You angrily sigh and build scaffolding and repair the windmill, but on your way back down, you accidentally fall off of said scaffolding, hit the ground and take 99999 damage. You were maybe 3 feet away from the ground, but, well


When it works, it's sublime. We've watched AI-controlled capital starships have fights in orbit that we could see from the ground, and then flown out to find their broken wrecks and harvest them. We've built ludicrous structures and made vehicles that Just Work. I'm extremely fond of my fold-out staircase ramp into my starship.

When it doesn't work, it's a janky piece of shit that has everyone running for the admin, begging them to fix it. And sometimes that means "aw shit, we have to reboot the server". And sometimes that means you break open the wrong cargo container and a giant mass of ALIEN LAKE ICE explodes into reality and sends your corpse into space.

SPACE ENGINEERS: someone should have admin powers. No, seriously. Even if they never use them and play the game like a regular player, they should have them in their back pocket for when something will break.

But - god. It's so goddamn satisfying to watch that windmill spin as I fly away on my stupid looking brick, heading for the stargate, because I built a working mining outpost on another planet and I want to see how much naquadah it's harvested for me. It's so cool to fly up on a starship you built yourself and leave the planet and fly out at warp speed to go see the space station your friends are building, or the base they're building [i]into[/i] an asteroid. It's so cool to listen to your railgun turrets hum to life and obliterate something you didn't know was a threat.

I don't know of any other game that can do that, let alone on this scale.


I suck at shooters. Can't aim worth shit, get motion sick easily, and my reflexes aren't what they once were. Yet somehow this is the perfect multiplayer FPS for me, because it's almost entirely based around tactics?

Yeah, who knew? PUBG is actually really good and still fun after all this time - even with the dumb F2P mechanics and billion battle royales that were made after it.

The premise: 100 people are parachuted onto an island and there's an advancing wall of death that will slowly shrink until there's only room in the middle of the island for one survivor. There are also guns and gear all over the island. Your job is survive!

What makes this work for me personally is that the wall shrinks slowly enough that a huge portion of this game is based around positioning. You see, movement is slow enough that you can't snap-shot people (assuming you have the reflexes), and players are durable enough to survive multiple shots, so a fight isn't determined by reflexes and getting the first shot off - it's about being able to sustainably pour fire into your target without being murdered by other players. There's a lot of ducking into and out of cover, there's a lot of straight up hiding from others...

I never appreciated how important it is to have the high ground until this game beat it into me.

As a single-player experience, it's a horror game. Noise is death. Being found is death. But getting a kill on someone feels incredible. And buildings are this weird/wonderful mixture of safety and death trap, as you can finally narrow your sightlines and know exactly where people are... but it's real easy to pin someone in a room and kill them, because jumping out a window takes time. Or they set up a grenade or C4 and yeah.

The game becomes even better with a team (voice chat mandatory) where it's less rocket tag and more an elaborate game of mental chess and bullets. You killed one guy, but where's his team? Shit, they're getting him back up, and they know where you are. Oh man, time to just leave and come back later. I'm dead, but my teammates got my revival chip and are uploading me so I can respawn in a few minutes.

I have played way too many hours of this with my partner and our friends, and we're honest about our ability: we suck. We get a fair amount of wins we don't deserve. But that's okay! We play and have fun and when we get mad we're losing we swap to casuals and kill robots and maybe a few people and end the evening happy.

I also confess I'm living out a teenage dream of mine: play a team based FPS with a team like one of the guys. I'm a shy autistic lady who always liked seeing people happy playing games together but never thought she'd be able to participate, and... here I am, finally living that dream, playing games and having fun and not just participating, but contributing! I suck at this game, sure, but I call out where enemies are, act as a decoy for the better players, and sometimes I actually get kills. It's SO much fun!

5. Silent Hill

I have seen multiple LPs of this game and the rest of the franchise, but never played it myself. And this year, I settled on the couch and played through it, getting the best possible ending.

Wow! What a good experience! I was shocked by how genuinely fun to play this game is, despite its age and somewhat archaic design. The tank controls, the limited resources, the weirdness of the puzzles... didn't matter!

The loop of exploring the overworld, then delving into "dungeons" for focused exploration, combat and puzzle-solving was really satisfying, and that's not even touching the actual joys of this game: the writing and atmosphere.

How much ink has been spilled on this game? How influential is it? Why am I asking rhetorical questions again?

I'll pretend that you, dear goon reading this, don't know what Silent Hill is for the next few paragraphs. Here's why it's great and why you should play it:

Silent Hill is a survival horror game for the Playstation that is about a man who gets into a car accident outside of a small town in America, stumbles out of the wreck, and discovers that his little girl woke up first and has gone ahead of him into the town. He proceeds to go after her, and walks into a horrific nightmare, full of blood and fog.

The core of the game is the quest of that dad to find his daughter, and it's an effective justification for why you're walking headfirst into hell. Or, in the slower parts of the game, why you're busily exploring this town.

Now, without spoilers: the town is haunted, there are skinless dogs everywhere trying to eat you, and there is something fucked up going on. It's also an American town, so there's fuckin' guns and bullets EVERYWHERE. I found a shotgun in an elementary school!

The game proceeds to be a weird mash-up of an old-school adventure game (i.e. explore everywhere, grab items, solve really obtuse puzzles) and Resident Evil (i.e. shoot monsters, but not all of them because your supplies are limited). Playing on normal I never felt strapped for ammo, but I also varied up what I was fighting with and ran if I didn't have to fight.

So - again, without spoilers - I think the game pulls off the horror. The fog is close and claustrophobic. (Hardware limitations turned into art, the ultimate example) The monsters look awful, even with the PS1 graphics. It feels like a waking nightmare - and with a really David Lynchian type dream atmosphere. Every conversation feels disjointed and strange in a good way. The plot never actually coalesces into something that makes sense, with different hints as to what's really going on.

You finish Silent Hill going "... what just happened?" and this encourages (in a good way!) replaying it, thinking about it, talking to your friends and theorizing. You lose some of that now as you can just hit up wikipedia to find out what happened, but the game standalone just works as a really tantalizing puzzle. The gameplay even encourages replaying it, with four endings and a secret joke ending. It's also short - no more than 15-20 hours, so it's easy to settle in and blow through it.

I loved it. I loved the whole experience. I see why it left such a huge legacy, and I'm happy I finally played it myself. I really recommend it to anyone who hasn't!

ps I will be playing Silent Hill 2 in 2024. I've seen LPs of it but, well, same thing! No idea how it feels to play! I'm excited for it!

4. Age of Fear: Undead King

Okay, a little prelude before I get to why this game is on this list, let alone why it's as high as it is. I live with my partner, have ADHD, have a dog, and while I've got a surprising amount of time to play video games, it's nowhere near what it was when I lived on my own. I divide my games between stuff I play directly with him, stuff I play around him, and stuff I play on my own, and there's less crossover than you'd think. This also makes stuff I play on my own tough to finish, as there's no outside incentive pushing me to see the final credits, and I can hop around games as much as I want as it won't disorient me. My ADHD tendencies are in full force on my own, and it shows.

Age of Fear is a game I play on my own... and most significantly to me, it is a game that I beat entirely on my own. I didn't get distracted away from it, I didn't get intimidated by its difficulty, I actually played it from beginning to end and I had a damn good time.

Now, specifically: Age of Fear Total is the version of the game I played, and specifically it was the Undead campaign featuring our necromancer Krill.

It is a tactical turn-based strategy game featuring a top-down perspective and free movement. Think Phantom Brave or Makai Kingdom and you're there - but with a European fantasy aesthetic instead of anime. It's a game made by one man named Leslaw Sliwko, and he turned it into a series with multiple sequels, DLC, and plans for more. I like small-scale squad tactics, building my army and leveling them up and figuring out how to distribute my resources (equipment, potions, etc) and then the puzzle-solving element of trying to figure out how to defeat levels - so yeah, this game is for me. The necromancer campaign is straightforward evil: you're Krill, an ambitious young necromancer who wants to kill people and raise their corpses. Story missions are basically Krill trying to do that, being stopped by fantasy cops, killing them, killing their reinforcements, and so on. Krill is finally slain by a paladin, but is raised by The Undead King (woo!) as a Lich, and well it takes all of one minute before Krill decides to usurp him and become the new Undead King!

Yeah you're not here for the plot. It's straightforward and fun to be bad (mwahaha) but yeah. Yeah.

What you are here for is the combat and rpg mechanics and boy o boy is it fun! Given the free movement, you're asked to form cover out of your own units - and thus build units that can be capable tanks. Especially since any ranged units (mages especially) can't cast/shoot/etc if an enemy unit is standing directly next to them. It's an interesting set of rules to play with, very tabletop wargame type of thing, but it works...

...and the AI is really clever! I never felt like I was winning because they were dumb. You can tell the dev has spent a lot of time working on making the AI smart and interesting to fight against.

Now, well, I still have gripes: undead armies versus undead armies suck to fight, the final set of fights in the campaign were bullshit hard (on normal difficulty), you can savescum to win a fight if you need to cheat (I could've disabled this but I am not always a good gamer), and there are some other quirks about undead armies that are frustrating, but ssh this is my goty list and none of these complaints prevented me from having an amazing time or from wanting to play more.

And there's a lot more to play! There's like ten more campaigns (all with stories!) and the open world/proc gen battles are extremely fun. There are oodles of factions and it's just, this game was made for me. Especially the TOTAL edition, which has all of the stuff in the franchise plus the promise of all his future stuff. I am so happy I picked this up, I'm having so much fun with it, and it's an easy GOTY candidate.

And honestly it might not quite deserve to be this high, given the caliber of game lower in the list, but I really, really want to emphasize how important it is to me that this game was so compelling I played and beat it on my own without any outside pressure.

3. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

I suck at 4Xes. They're too complicated, too difficult, I never understand what I've done wrong to explain why I'm losing, and they never have a real incentive to try again, as they lack plots. They have cool settings, sure - Endless Legend I see you - but like, why bother? Why try another 4X when I know I will enjoy learning it, and then leave disappointed as after the tutorial I lose?

Because my partner made me try this anyways, and oh. Oh I get it now.

Who would think a game I picked up for a dollar and two quarters from GOG would be the best 4X out there? Why hasn't anyone made a better game in the decades since it released? I don't know, I'm no game dev. Doesn't matter. I made SMAX work on my modern computer and played it and fell in love.

Now, full disclosure: I did this back in the first half of this year. I don't remember details at this point. 4X are extremely granular games that demand attention to details and I wish I could describe them to you, but I can't.

Anyways, what is this old game? Fiddly details: it's SMAC, aka SMAX. The X means I played with the expansion pack installed (but deactivated so I could focus on the core game/factions). It is a Civilization clone (if I have to explain what Civ is, I'm logging off) with a sci-fi skin and a lot of tweaks.

The premise is, Earth in the future sucks so they sent a cool colony ship off to colonize a planet. But everything went wrong, and what arrives on the planet is effectively separate landing pods all over the place. Planet - it's deliberate that it's a proper noun now - has become a warzone as the colony ship is full of factions who think they should be the ones to colonize the place.

Cue Civilization! Build cities, expand your infrastructure, build units, find resources, fight your enemies, research, trade tech etc etc etc. You know the drill.

The twists are these:

1) Instead of Civilization's problematic barbarians acting as random unaffiliated enemies to fight, there are now worms. Masses and masses of psychic alien worms.

2) There are actually cutscenes. The whole screen is taken over by slides with text on them explaining some weirdness that's happening. There is an overarching plot that any faction can access and complete.

3) Research now ties into the plot. You can focus on expanding your own human science, or learning more about Planet, or the worms...

4) The writing - for everything - is really, legitimately good. They seriously thought out everything. Every faction has its own flavor and philosophy. Every technology has commentary - in-universe commentary from these factions. You could strip all the text from this game and enjoy it as a work of interesting sci-fi. You could play the text-less game and it'd be fun anyways but it would lose a lot of its magic.

5) You can alter the terrain. Like, literally you can terraform this planet and reshape it. OK this isn't a huge part of the game but it's still mind-blowing that if you want to pave the planet you can do that.

So here we go: with all of this cool stuff going on, I was compelled to play. And play. And then I won on easy mode, and I went "well that was super compelling but I want to do it again" and I did. I formed new alliances, learned new things, and discovered that this game's victory conditions are - imho - more interesting than regular civ, because instead of a military or economic victory, the real one is the research victory.

Why? Because it lets you finish the plot.

And yeah it has the late-game problem of all 4Xes: once you're winning you stay winning, so you kind of have to leave your angry rivals alone so you can research, but it doesn't change how tense and interesting the early and mid-game was.

The eternal question of expansion versus building military forces so you can defend your holdings - plus research, plus regular exploitation - it's a 4X. There's a lot of questions.

I wish I could explain how or why this was the one where I made the right decisions, most of the time. I won both on easy and normal, and I'll happily do it again when I'm in the mood to play again. I've never won a Civ game - none of them! - on normal difficulty.

But in this one it made sense what to do, what to focus on, and who to antagonize and who to befriend, and I can only thank my intuition.

Anyways - SMAX. Wow. I had an incredible time. I understood why people put so much time into this genre now. It unlocked doors of understanding to me, and I had a ton of fun exploring the genre afterwards. I still haven't won a Civ game, but I've now enjoyed a lot of time with Warlock 2, Masters of Orion 2, Shadow Empire and others.

So - yes! Yes, this game gets to be on my GOTY list! From 1999 here is the best 4X I've ever played, complete with the best writing. I love it. I love it so much. Y'all should play it!

2. Endless Dark

What's the opposite of a comfort game? What happens when you play a game so distressing that you quit it crying tears of stress? How the hell does that game make a GOTY list?

Endless Dark was my catharsis. It felt like I had bared my naked heart to someone and had them not just utterly understand, but offer me a supportive hug. The broken smile from your friend on the gallows, the shared laugh.

It is a silly looking little game. RPGMaker-esque in its graphics and UI. You run your little robot sprite around, navigate menus, and read.

Its premise is that you play as that silly robot, who is a maintenance robot. Their job is to keep this starship working: did a pipe spring a leak? Gotta fix it! Glitch in navigation? I'll fix it! Door jammed? We've got a crowbar!

That's it. That's the whole game. The ship is breaking and you are fixing it. Day after day after day you are fixing this ship. It is the most tedious task in the world. It is imperative that you do it. There are even human consequences for failure: there are human passengers in cryo who will die if you don't fix their pods.

I started playing this game all optimistic and cheerful and ready for whatever this horror game would give me.

I wasn't expecting it to understand how much it goddamn hurts to wake up and for the 100th day in a row, do dishes. Sort your meds. Do the laundry. Get the chores done. Walk the dog. Brush your teeth. Get dressed in the morning. These are important and valid tasks and doing them makes you feel better!

Your little robot is going insane. You are going insane. Another day, another broken pipe. Maybe there's a reason why it's like this, why things are breaking. You investigate, but you're just a cleaning robot, you don't have clearance to go into these restricted areas. You'll damage yourself if you try to get that clearance.

Fail to get the clearance, and everything still needs fixin'. Get the clearance, and oh there's another obstacle. It's possible to seek answers in this game, and I refuse to spoil them for you. It's built around roguelite progression, too - succeed or fail and you get to start all over from day 1! There are unlocks, and new secrets to find, and new storylines, and the same core of doing these tasks and understanding exactly why your little silly robot wants to kill the humans in the pods so they can stop fucking fixing them.

I, well, met this game at the right time. e/n bullshit, my partner away on a business trip so I'm alone in the big house full of chores, therapist on vacation, and all of my problems ready to make it impossible to get out of bed in the morning, let alone wash another fucking plate.

I got out of bed and washed that fucking plate and played this game and cried about it and it was everything I needed.

I don't know if this game is fun to play, but it is compelling, and dark, and has some of the most clever writing I've seen in a game. It was healing to play, and I know I'm not done with it... but in 2023, it helped me in a way few other games did.

1. Fate/Grand Order.

It is unethical for me to recommend this game. Its central mechanic is gambling with real world money, and it has multiple tools to encourage gambling, addiction, and giving into the desire it creates to spend money. It is, genuinely, dangerous for me to even mention this game here, as there's a real risk of infecting someone with gambling addiction.

I'm being extreme in my wording, but I genuinely cannot emphasize this enough: for all of the praise I am about to heap on this game and its influence on my life, do not spend money on this game.

Its central mechanic is the summoning system, where you feed 'saint quartz' tokens into it and receive either characters you can use in game or equipment for them, with the odds set that the chance of pulling the rate-up character is under 1%. Literally most of the gambling you will do will result in worthless trash that you sell for in-game money. The only way to guarantee that you get the character you want from a given summon is to save up over 900 SQ and roll 330 times. That's it. The only way, and I need to impress on you that a single SQ is a dollar.

Fate/Grand Order wants you to spend nearly a thousand dollars on a single character, unless you're obscenely lucky, and then it insults you by telling you that in order to fully power up your character, you need to obtain them four more times.

The perfect irony for all of that is that I started playing this game specifically to prevent myself from spending money. ... And it's worked! Is working! I swear to god I'm not saying this to boast, I just want to now step away from the big-ass warning to say that this game is fully enjoyable if you take only what it gives you and spend nothing. Treasure every single time you get lucky and never press for more, because that way lies debt and tears.

Alright, got all of that? Good. Here's the reason why this shitty ass gambling game is my game of the year.

It contains some of the finest writing I've ever seen in the medium. Multiple storylines in this game have moved me to tears, to better myself, to furious affection for their characters. I've been driven to insane conspiracy theories and speculation, entirely based on how an artist drew some accessories on Sherlock Holmes' coat. It's driven me to read even more nonfiction and learn more about history, because it's given me a (stupid, anime) personal connection to those periods.

(Yes, jesus christ, I am aware that I am the living embodiment of that stupid My Little Ponies in WW2 meme. It's embarrassing, but I've already put a goddamned gacha game in my goty. I take heart that I was already a huge fan of reading nonfiction for fun before this.)

The premise is, in a world where magic is real and the masquerade is mostly in place, a bunch of mages set up a cool hidden base in Antartica called Chaldea. Here, they use wacky magic to look into Earth's future and make sure it's still there. The day you, a shitty replacement mage who can barely do magic, transfers to Antartica to join up, their magic says "whoops humanity stops existing in about 5 minutes".

Minutes later, a bomb goes off and kills all of the other mages, leaving only you and some side characters alive. Humanity itself is also gone! Whoops! You proceed to be given the welcoming tour really, REALLY quickly: as the only mage left, in order to save humanity, you need to use magical coffins to time travel to random points in history, find out what's breaking history there, and fix it, hopefully before it deletes the Antartic base.

No pressure, y'know. I appreciate that you're explicitly a shit mage. While the game has a rotating crew of writers and they try not to give "you" any personality traits so you can self-insert easily, I still love that the base premise is that you're a lucky idiot.

So you team up with Mash, a purple-haired girl who is a homunculus, who has spent her entire life here. Due to mage bullshit she is fused with a powerful ghost and your first Servant.

You can feel the gambling approaching, at speed. I swear to god I'm trying to keep the proper nouns from taking over - but this is mandatory for understanding, and I'm so sorry.

In this universe, magic is real and Earth itself has a kind of magical immune system. It records the lives of famous heroes and saves them to the 'Throne of Heroes' and deploys them as a kind of white blood cell system. Humans are counted as heroes because they're, well, famous and known for their deeds. The more famous the person, the more powerful the heroic spirit.

Mages are cruel, stupid, and ambitious, and they've tapped into this system to summon heroes for fun and profit. This side of things is mostly explored in other works in the Fate/ franchise, but here in Chaldea we're summoning heroes to help us save humanity. But we're still using that system, so - these heroes are summoned as 'Servants'. They're ghosts powered by magic and controlled with command spells, and you, the protagonist, are now a 'Master'.

(I appreciate this whole conceit as it's bullshit... and also exactly the kind of bullshit a bunch of mages would do. It works in and out of universe.)

So you - the protagonist you - are a shit mage, but you're REALLY good at summoning servants and powering them up. As you slide around history, you will summon more servants and hang with them and they stick around to hang out in Chaldea. The deeper you get into the game, the more Chaldea is basically a "famous person" hotel as they hang out inbetween missions and help out with the cooking.

While the game gives you some free servants, you can see the gambling arriving. Yeah.

So that's the premise! You, Mash and your crew of summoned heroes go on adventures through time.

Unfortunately, no matter how much you enjoyed the prologue, you're about to realize a series of problems:

1) The guy who wrote the prologue left and won't be back for a while. Welcome to the worst writing in the game. It's a combination of the writers not knowing how to write for this format (so many scenes end with "oh no we're being attacked by wyverns for some reason!") and just not being good at writing. Story Arcs 1-5 range from hot garbage to OK I guess. That's a lot of hours of reading really dire writing.

2) While the rpg gameplay is fun and engaging, you are in the worst part: low level, small roster, at the beginning of a really long grind. Characters have three skills, but only start with one unlocked. Leveling up takes EXP items and in-game money (QP). Leveling up skills takes specific materials and QP.

3) There is no way to speed any of this up. You cannot skip the story, because it will be called back and referenced later. You cannot skip the grind, because that's the game.

4) There is a stamina system that recharges in real time, so you can't rush anything without spending money.

welcome to hell! welcome! to hell! strix why the hell is this your goty again

Because I did exactly what this game wants: I committed to playing it daily and treating it like a marathon. I read my way through all the trash. I leveled Mash. I patiently gambled with the SQ the game gave me, and got lucky as it gave me characters. I asked goons to be friends with me, so I could borrow their servants.

500+ days later I am caught up on all main story content, most side stories, have a really big roster, and think the slow burn worked. I look back on specific story arcs with profound nostalgia and affection, and I'm still recovering from the emotional roller-coaster that was the latest one.

Because the writers got together and figured out how to tell a story with this silly rpg format and proceed to seriously think about what kind of stories they wanted to tell.

The writers even get wise to how time travel can be kind of boring if they do it too many times, and when they finish the first major story arc and you save humanity, an in-game year later there's a new arc and instead of time travel, you get to visit alternate realities. Welcome to a Russia where the Ice Age never ended, and Czar Ivan decided to save his people by turning them into furries. Welcome to a Britain ruled by Fae. Welcome to Mount Olympus, where the Greek Gods have established a cyberpunk utopia.

And because this is how it works: you are here to save humanity by putting things back to normal. The game looks you dead in the eye, shows you a cyberpunk utopia with people in it you care about, and tells you that you need to pull the trigger.

And because this is how Fate fucking rolls, you step out of the visual novel segments upset and shaken by what you the protagonist have been doing, but also it's October in real life and that means it's fucking Halloween Event time, so it's time to put your tears aside and find out how an anime jpop dragon idol has broken reality and put pumpkins everywhere and fix it with the power of your own jpop.

It is, effectively, a daily chore where I grind some levels I've already beaten to get more stuff, go "Oh I'm out of stamina", and close it for the day after 10-20 minutes. And then, when I'm ready for it, I go into the main plot and read... and read....and lose to incredibly hard boss fights...and complain on these forums and get advice...and win, so I can keep reading.

Fate/Grand Order has been a genuinely helpful companion for me through one hell of a shit year. Sick with COVID? I can play some levels in bed. Devastated by e/n bullshit? Finally leveling a beloved character to max can make me smile a little. It's a stupid little incentive for getting a chore done, and more importantly: instead of randomly browsing ebay or etsy on my phone, I'm instead opening FGO to play. I've hijacked my own ADHD and replaced it with anime wikipedia historical articles.

And so here I am, at the end of a shitload of words about this, still heartbroken over goddamn Morgan Le Fay, keenly aware that this is a mistake. It's unfair to make this my GOTY when it's a nightmare for new players, the best content is hidden behind hundreds of hours of play, and it has extremely problematic character designs. I hate this game. I love it so much and it's impossible to share. Fuck.

Fuckit. Please watch this animated video celebrating human history (anime edition) and maybe tear up at how goddamn meaningful it is that you reach out for help saving the world, and these long dead heroes are still willing to take your hand and step up and fight. All of human history, all of our legends and achievements are worth celebrating! And they deserve to be remembered!


Months later, looking over this list it took me back to last year, which was one hell of a hard year for me. This year has been better! Way fewer health issues, and everything is looking up. So - I'm happy I dusted this off and put it here on this website. I'm hoping it can spur me to do more reviews and write-ups, because I enjoy talking about what I love immensely. I hope, whoever you are, wherever you are, that you're having an equally good 2024. - 5/10/2024