I said that during my hiatus I was going to take some time to reconnect with the fun of the hobby. Well, I did – assuming you take the hobby to be ‘gaming’ and not ‘board gaming’. When a reduction in Meeple Like Us duties created vast swathes of free time that I could harvest for relaxation, mostly what I did was turn to my excessive video game backlog and begin carving into it in an attempt to make it more manageable. I also set myself a ‘video game completion challenge’ where I aimed to complete fifty-two of them in the year – an average of one a week. And I coupled this to a ‘three out, one in’ rule that means I can’t buy a new game until I have completed three of the ones I already own.
That latter rule got a bit of a caveat – if I play a game for a few hours and decide it’s not for me I can abandon it and get basically a ‘quarter out’ as a result.
What this means is that I spent a lot of time over the past few months, happy co-inciding with the first phase of the Coronavirus lockdowns, playing some exceptional video games. In this month’s special feature I wanted to pass the benefits of that on to you. If you’re looking for a superb video game to pick up safe in the knowledge that it is Meeple Like Us Approved, then you’ve come to the right place. None of this will be news to Patrons of course – they’ve been getting regular reviews of the games I play as part of the newsletter. Everyone else though may consider this the abridgement – a set of absolutely smashing games that I had a great time playing.
So here are the five absolute best video games I played during the coronavirus lockdown period. I’ll provide affiliate links to the Humble Store or Amazon where they are available – if you are interested in anything I say here and you purchase the games through those links you’ll get an excellent game and I’ll get a few pennies in return. Otherwise I’ll link to the Steam page.
#5 – Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
People will tell you that AC:O is a nightmare of monetization. That it’s basically a microtransaction factory designed to keep poor schlubs like you working away in the money mines for Ubisoft. And yeah, I can see why people say that – the store associated with the game is some Hot Nonsense.
I though never spent a penny on microtransactions and I loved the bejeesus out of this game. It’s the first Assassin’s Creed game I have ever played, and I enjoyed it so much I then went on to play Origins, Black Flag, Syndicate and Unity. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a marvellous game that has truly captured what I really want to do with my life – wander ancient Greece kicking Athenians off of mountains.
To be fair, the story is padded out to Hades and back, filled with boring busywork that you need to do before you unlock the next proper piece of content. The sidequests offer you little new once you’ve done a few of them. The combat becomes trivial once you’ve upgraded a few abilities and can carve through a fortress like the demigod your character is designed to be. It’s not flawless.
But the level grind to open up new areas is enjoyable precisely because the game is so satisfying in its gleeful excesses and the main game narrative of uncovering sinister cultists hidden amongst the normal population of the Greek city-states is incredibly cathartic. Interwoven through the violence is a kind of detective minigame where you hunt down clues to uncover identities and then deliver some extrajudicial justice through the point of a magical spear. Plus, you get a boat.
It’s a vast and enjoyable epic with likeable characters, expressive violence, and gleeful piracy. It’s an amazingly fun game, and that’s why it’s the Fifth Best Video Game I Played During My Cornavirus Lockdown Period
#4 – Hitman 2
I say Hitman 2 because if you own Hitman it incorporates the earlier game while giving it a new mechanical overhaul and that’s one of the most consumer-friendly approaches to episodic gaming I’ve seen in a long time.
If Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a beat ‘em up with some stealth and assassination missions, Hitman takes that formula and inverts it. It’s a hardcore stealth and assassination game with some hilariously ineffectual combat when you screw up and get caught. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is notable for the vast expanses of its open world and the relative shallowness of its individual locations. Hitman is geographically very confined, setting each mission in its own specific and constrained location. And then it layers in such depth and intricacy into those locations that they feel like living, breathing microcosms of the real world. The levels in Hitman are dense with nuance, humour, and opportunities for mayhem.
Hitman is less an action game than it is a puzzle game where you work out the best approach to your target through a gradual refinement of assumed identity. Knock out one of the porter staff to take his clothes, which gives you access to the kitchen where they keep the emetic rat poisons. Grab a bottle of that, and then sneak into the locker room to change into a waiter outfit so you can poison the drink of your target’s bodyguard. When he’s in the toilet throwing up, strangle him and throw him in a towel cupboard because now you look like you’re one of the security staff and that gives you access to restricted areas and some spectacular sniper nests. It’s all made more challenging by the fact that specific NPCs know who is employed in other capacities so on top of all this you’re working out patrol routes, paths of approach, and eyeing up the exits for when things inevitably go wrong.
It’s all very satisfying even if the main lesson I took away from it was that I would be the worst precision assassin in the world. Largely my brand seems to have taken a few lessons from the Humble Choice model. ‘Yeah, I’ll kill this guy for you and I’ll also kill a good twenty other people to do it’
‘We only want that one guy killed thou…’
‘Look, there’s a reason I only cost you $100 for a high profile assassination and it’s because I deal in volume’.
The locations are so rich with possibilities, and so expansive in their detail, that Hitman is one of the most replayable games I’ve ever seen – provided you’re interested in the joy of the kill and not the progression of what we would charitably call ‘the plot’. Each target has a whole host of unique deaths you can arrange, and once you’ve done that you can always just grab a sniper rifle and do things the Old School way.
Hitman 2, especially if you can get it bundled with Hitman 1, is excellent. That’s why it’s the Fourth Best Game I Played During my Cornavirus Lockdown Period.
#3 – Ori and the Will of the Wisps
[ buy on Amazon ]
I’d also say ‘Ori and the Blind Forest’ since I had just as much fun with the original but I’m listing Will of the Wisps here primarily because it gets excellent much quicker than Blind Forest. I was almost ready to quit the first game because I wasn’t having any fun at all. And then I got a few of the movement abilities and Ori went from a fleshly lump of imprecise jumping to a glowing ballet dancer. If that had happened a mere five minutes later Ori would have ended up on the ‘I had no fun with this’ list. Instead it went on this list, which is a much better list to be on. Will of the Wisps doesn’t make that same mistake. It shows you early why you should love it and then it keeps giving you reasons to remember.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is beautiful in a way screenshots never capture. The animation is so lush and gorgeous, and overlaid with so many different levels of intricate details that it’s like looking into a haunted painting from a fairy tale. It’s like looking at a landscape they’d hang up in the headmaster’s office in Hogwarts.
The environments are gorgeous and so full of secrets and opportunities for satisfying platforming that I found myself simply bounding around the areas with no other goal in mind than ‘enjoy the sense of movement’. The story is lovely, the characters immensely expressive, and the game itself a wonderful blend of combat, precision platforming and puzzle solving that is genuinely challenging without ever being unfair.
Well. Almost. There is one section of the game so frustrating that I almost rage-quit forever, but it’s notable exactly for how much of a misstep it is in the otherwise sure-footed perfection of the rest of the design. If you play Ori and need to vent about the encounter – you’ll know it when you see it – drop me a mail. I will be a sympathetic ear.
Otherwise it’s an exceptionally enjoyable adventure of picking up collectibles, finding new and exciting abilities, and unlocking ever more intricate exploration systems that permit you a real sense of achievement simply through being able to use them. Before too long you’re triple jumping, dashing in the air, grabbing hold of walls that permit you to reach enemy projectiles you can bounce off to reach flowing air currents that you can catch and ride with the magical feather you keep with you at all times. All to reach a seemingly completely inaccessible part of the map that contains a permanent upgrade to your health.
With all of that, simply being a part of the experience is enough to make it an amazing game. That you get all this plus a story that is dark and pure and wholesome in equal measures. We do not live in an ideal world, but games like Ori can certainly go a long way to convincing you that you might. That’s why it’s the Third Best Video Game I Played During My Cornavirus Lockdown Period.
Which should tell you pretty convincingly the remaining two are especially amazing.
#2 – Disco Elysium
[ buy it on Steam ]
Not just the second best game I played during my Coronavirus lockdown but according to a little personal Top 100 I put together it’s the second best game I’ve ever played. While reviewers and award committees continue to heap plaudits on games like the Outer World for their design and storytelling, I honestly think that it’s because Disco Elysium is too good to fit neatly into that form of laudatory process. It is so unashamedly itself that it defies categorisation in anything other than the shallowest terms. If I had to describe it to you, and I sort of do since I brought it up, I’d say it was maybe a kind of ‘internal monologue puzzler with heavy RPG elements’.
Let me try to explain it with an example. Let’s say you’re an amnesiac detective who has woken up in the middle of solving a crime. And let’s say that in the absence of any evidence other than the fact you have been on the most legendary of benders, you decide that it probably means you’re some kind of maverick cop. A cop so good they can’t control you. A superstar cop. I mean, why not? And then imagine the game suggests to you that ‘Hey, if you like – you can make that deduction, which is totally sane, into a core part of your identity’.
Got it so far? Good.
Now imagine you have a whole set of skills, including things like your ability to command attention, to be dramatic and charismatic, and to be introspective and focused on your own sense of empathy and observation. And you get better, and worse, at those as you progress and as you adopt new identities and clothes. The detective outfit increases your authority, but a sparkly disco shirt means you’re far more dramatic and likeable.
Now imagine that as soon as you begin a conversation with an NPC all of these skills, personalities and items start having a massive argument every time you’re presented with a dialog choice. And imagine, sometimes, they override your choices to ensure that you behave in a way consistent with the weird cacophony of mental influences you have constructed for your character.
And now imagine all of this is happening in an alternate reality world full of political disagreements, sinister conspiracies, a magical force that separates lands from other lands, and the spectre of communism, nationalism and a cold war.
That’s Disco Elysium and it is absolutely amazing.
To top it all off, you get all this phenomenally interesting and well designed mechanical intricacy, in a weird and wonderful setting of perpetual mystery… and it’s funny. Like… really funny. And despite the fact it’s one of the grimmest and most intellectually austere game settings I’ve seen in a long time, the funny bits are completely tonally consistent with everything that is happening. I have never laughed out loud at a game more than I have at Disco Elysium. Sometimes the funny is just integral to the conversations, and sometimes it’s when it presents you with the consequences of your actions at exactly the time it is most inconvenient. Sometimes being held accountable for your previous actions, taken innocently and without awareness they’d come back to haunt you, comes round again at the most perfectly comic moments
It’s an absolute genuine masterpiece that will likely never get the praise it deserves simply because it is so unabashedly weird and doesn’t give a damn what you think of it.
That’s why it’s the Second Best Video Game I Played During My Cornavirus Lockdown Period, and the second best game I’ve ever played.
Which, sire – your Logic attribute after a consultation with your Perception, will tell you suggests that the last game on the list is my favourite game ever. And by Jove, you superstar, you are entirely correct.
Say hello to…
#1 – Sayonara Wild Hearts
[ buy on Steam ]
I have never fallen in love with a game so hard, and so quickly, as I did with Sayonara Wild Hearts.
It’s not a complex game by any stretch of the imagination. Not even necessarily a particularly original game. What it is though is the perfect blend of music, action, aesthetics and implied storytelling. It made me feel things so purely and intensely that honestly at times I had tears welling my eyes. If you can play through the second half of the final level – after having bested all the challenges that came before – without your heart feeling like it’s going to explode from happiness I honestly think something important inside you might have broken.
It’s a very short game, lasting perhaps only two hours if you accept ‘getting through a level’ as giving you permission to proceed to the next. It’s remarkably forgiving of ability. Those two hours though are filled with ideal minutes made up of perfect seconds. Such wonderful music, such vibrant colours and images, and such an adorable story of revenge and redemption. And nobody is talking about it! It’s an absolute god-damned travesty that this game isn’t dominating video game discourse. There are very few games that I would class as being genuinely ideal representations of games as art. Portal is one. Disco Elysium is another. And Sayonara Wild Hearts is maybe the purest of them all – something that shows video games can make you feel things in a way that no other medium can accomplish, and it doesn’t even require anything absurdly innovative.
Legend has it that in the thirteenth century, a Pope wanted to commission some paintings for St Peter’s and so he sent his agents around the country to find the greatest painter in the land to do the work. Those agents would go to the great names of the time and ask them to send one of their most wonderful pieces of art so the Pope could judge style and skill.
Giotto di Bondone met the agent, took a piece of parchment, and drew with a single sweep of his brush a perfect circle upon it. He handed it to the agent who became angry, thinking it a slight against the Church. ‘Am I to have only this?’, he asked.
‘Take it to your master’, replied Giotto. ‘If he knows anything of art, it will be more than sufficient’
When the agent handed the parchment to the Pope, telling of how it was off-handedly scrawled by hand by a dismissive heretic. The Pope though understood the skill required to produce such a thing freehand without a compass. Giotto was awarded the commission, and the endless admiration of the clergy, because sometimes the purest and hardest expression of mastery is also the simplest.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is the Giotto’s Circle of video games, and that’s why it’s the Best Video Game I Played During My Cornavirus Lockdown Period and the best video game I have ever played.
These aren’t the only great games I played during my hiatus / Coronavirus lockdown, but they’re the absolute best. On the standard Meeple Like Us rating scale you’d see Odyssey, Hitman and Ori getting glowing four and a half star reviews. Disco Elysium and Sayonara Wild Hearts on the other hand would get five full stars. We’re pretty famously stingy with our stars here on the site, so you can probably tell what that means in terms of just how much we think they’re worth your time.
In terms of games that were in the regions of four stars, I’d probably direct you towards:
- The Walking Dead: The Final Season
- Finding Paradise
- Doki Doki Literature Club (this is even free!)
- Graveyard Keeper
- Assassin’s Creed Origins / Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
- Persona 4 Golden
If my hiatus period had lasted just a week longer, I’d also have included The Talos Principle and made this a ‘Six Best Video Games I Played During My Cornavirus Lockdown Period’ feature. One further week and I’ve have included Horizon: Zero Dawn and went for an awkward ‘Seven Best Video Games’ list. Video games are pretty good y’all, and these are some of the best I can suggest your way without going Whole Hog and publishing my Top 100.