A disclaimer first and foremost: It has not technically been a year since I’ve started working at KeenGamer, as I was officially hired on the 22nd or 23rd of September, give or take. Though seeing as I don’t believe there will be any other games I may review in the next ten days that would find a place on this list I’ve compiled, I figured I may as well put it out there while it’s still fresh in my head… who am I kidding? I’ve planned this for months. I’m just impatient.
In my near-year job of reviewing video games, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing (and previewing) quite a few titles that span across a moderate amount of different genres and styles. How many games specifically? Thirty-one. That’s an average of two-to-three games per month, which is awesome. In that year, I’ve been able to play and appreciate various games, most developed by small indie studios, based on rapidly-changing merits dependent on what the game wanted to achieve. It’s taught me quite a bit about how to angle a specific review and what to provide for people who may read a review for a game they’re interested in learning more about. Needless to say, it’s been a great time; while not always 100% stress-free, I believe it’s made me into a better writer and more appreciative of the little things that are put into games that I would normally overlook from big AAA titles.
And so, this list is essentially a highlight list of the games that stood out the most to me, whether because they’re well-designed, offered me memorable experiences, or became unexpected time-sinks. This list will focus solely on games I’ve reviewed (not previewed, which brings the list down from thirty-one to twenty-seven) that I find the most personally enjoyable of the bunch, even if by the more objective qualifications of my critique aren’t totally comparable. With each number, I will link my review of the game via KeenGamer and the game’s Steam page (excluding one title not available for Steam), so that anyone interested in knowing more will have ample access to sating their curiosity.
We begin with what is the simplest game in terms of presentation of this list in Glo, which I reviewed fairly early on in my career at KeenGamer. One plays as a square in a “Point A to Point B” game of getting to the end goal of each stage. The catch? The stage is shrouded in near-complete darkness. One must use their square’s limited window of light to see their way through to the end of each stage, or use their shooting capability to light a straight path that will last as long as the pellet is on the screen (a capability I was not aware of until about thirty minutes in). Does this sound easy? It should. That’s how it gets you.
Perhaps more than anything, Glo is a testament of perseverance, memorization, and control. The darkness adds immense challenge to a game that would already prove difficult by level design alone. On that level design… it’s notably tough, especially in the last quarter of the game (it features 100 levels). One will be no stranger to death in this game, as I died over 1,500 times. Not 15, not 150—1,500. It tends to happen that way when it’s a one-hit-kill and the game emphasizes trial and error.
I’ll be honest when I say that one of the most eventful parts of reviewing this game came not from what it intended, but from what it didn’t. Upon booting up one level during my playtime, my square would instantly die the moment it materialized into the level—over and over and over and over, without warning. Lost with what to do, I contacted the developer of the game on Twitter and told him about the situation, only to find out that it was a minimal error that made the level impossible to clear! Since then, I’ve maintained a good relationship with the game’s creator, who’s a really cool dude! While that may not affect the game’s rating at all, it makes me appreciate the little instances that go a long way in establishing that player-creator relationship. Makes the business feel more personal, y’know? Here’s to you, Stavros!
[Also available on most major consoles.]
Y’know, my high school history class introduced me to one of my favorite movies of all time, Cinderella Man. Wulverblade may introduce me to an all new kind of niche game: Historical beat ’em up. All the wonderful things about the side-scrolling beat ’em ups of old combined with the inspired-by-true-events template of war between nations. This game literally shows videos of real life landmarks that were used as location points in this game! That level of detail is insane, and something that I wholly appreciated as a player… who just so happens to really like history (my college minor).
More than the real life details, the presentation and style of the game itself is definitely impressive. One of the few instances of one nation—painted as the “good guys”—face off against another nation—painted as the bad guys—that I wasn’t instantly bored by. To consider, a side-scrolling beat ’em up with an interesting and immersive story! That’s almost unheard of! Voice acting is solid (What?!?!?) and the cutscenes get the player pumped to push forward, even when times get tough (and the game can get pretty difficult playing solo).
By the way, the game’s pretty fun, too. All sorts of different combos and ways of defeating enemy combatants that keep the gameplay fresh for long spurts. The only thing is that some combos work better than others, so spamming things tends to be an easier way to go, which gets repetitive. Nevertheless, Wulverblade has enough gameplay merit combined with great presentation to make it an easy recommendation, especially for those who like the beat ’em up genre.
#8: Graveyard Keeper
My second-most recent topic of review may also be the most controversial placement on this list. If one checks its Steam page, they will see that the ratings for this game are “Mixed,” which is a far cry from the “Mostly Positive” or “Very Positive” that many game creators would want to strive for. Its top reviews are “Not Recommended,” a very bad sign for potential buyers. This is one of those games where you either love it or hate it. I ended up in the middle—a typical contrarian.
I actually liked this game a lot for what many hated it for. I liked it because it wasn’t convenient, because it adhered to a style of gameplay that expected the player to fend for themselves; to be creative, organized, and time conscious. Graveyard Keeper, especially around launch, was fairly buggy in its implementation, so that obviously deserved some negative criticism, but the aspects of the game that kept the player moving along, constantly reaching for the end goal that promised to take a long time to achieve… I didn’t mind it. I spent more time on this game prior to writing a review for it than any other, putting in over twenty-one hours over the span of roughly four days.
For me, this game perfectly exemplified the meaning of life: slowly working towards the things one feels they need to achieve. Of course, we’re not in a strange dimension that defies many laws of reality, but I find it more metaphorical. Everything about this game is a slow grind, as the player becomes more and more comfortable with what the game expects of the player in any given situation. Yes, it’s a gargantuan task, but until I got to the point where I said to myself, “Okay, I’ve played enough. I need to review this now,” I never really got the urge to stop. Had I simply picked this up without the context of a review, I’d probably still be playing it, with my total time with it tripled or even quadrupled. This is a big, time-consuming game that has very steep hills to climb. But that’s life, and life in the game. I appreciate that from a Stardew Valley-esque life simulator game.
There are absolutely chinks in the armor, but it’s a game I would recommend for people who love to organize and grind… and have lots of patience. Like Harvest Moon on “Insane” difficulty.
#7: Hellmut: The Badass from Hell
One of the first things I saw attributed to this game was a simple insult: “This is just a lesser Enter the Gungeon.” Now, I’ve never played Enter the Gungeon, but if it’s anything like Hellmut, I should play it.
A top-down shoot ’em up with nefariously demonic style, Hellmut is a game that’s simple to its core, but oh-so fun to master. In some ways roguelike, it’s a game that requires some experimentation/trial and error. With a number of different transformation, all with different weapons, abilities, and statistics, there’s all sorts of ways to go about playing through the perilous trek to the demon overlord. Of course, there are transformations I find easier to play with than others, but I was always willing to go and try and do things a little differently each run.
A lot of my fascination with this game comes from its pixel animation, which is immensely vivid and spirited. I adore the vibrant colors that this game exudes with its palate—such a great-looking game with whimsically apathetic writing. It’s almost appealing to my former, colder self. The control of the game is fluid and it has a level of polish that only the most cared-for games have; it’s a gut instinct as a gamer.
To be frank, I was a little turned off by this game from its title alone at first. Something about it exhibited an arrogance that made me think it would be juvenile and uneventful, kind of like those meme games you find on the Upcoming tab on Steam. Thankfully, Hellmut proved to me that even with a title including “Badass,” a game can end up being a really good time.
#6: The Spiral Scouts
Now we’re getting to the part of the list where the games presented aren’t just games I really like, but games I think many will really like. This game does not fit this criteria.
The Spiral Scouts is a game made in part by the dude who made HuniePop. If you don’t know what that is, you probably don’t need to. With that in mind, my expectations of the game were definitely altered in some way—what way that was, I’m unsure. I just had… sillier expectations, I guess? Trailers alone showed people shouldn’t take this game too seriously, as its sense of humor is unabashedly crude and dark. I guess what I assumed would be a short and silly puzzle game became something a little more. It ended up being a little more.
Story time: In this game, there are puzzles one must solve. Many of these puzzles are pretty hard. There was one puzzle in particular, involving a giant safe, that I spent TWO FUCKING HOURS trying to solve, only to cave and look for anyone, anyone, who may have solved it through the Steam forums. Someone was found. They explained how to solve it. I figured it out. I told them I loved them. I finished the game (relatively) without a hitch. That puzzle broke me, broke me in a way I haven’t experienced in all of my years. I hate this game for that one puzzle. And yet, I adore this game for it.
Aside from puzzles, one can expect lots of jokes that one laughs at, then immediately regrets laughing at. A noteworthy favorite of mine involves a king with erectile dysfunction. The resolution to that puzzle threw me through a loop, I tell ya. It was a hoot. This game’s funnier than many games I’ve played in my life. I don’t know if it’d be funny for normal people, but I can tell you this: one will definitely react to it. And that’s half the fun.
#5: Card Quest
Speaking of a single puzzle in The Spiral Scouts taking me TWO FUCKING HOURS to solve, Card Quest features a TUTORIAL that took me TWO FUCKING HOURS to beat! No joke, the tutorial to this game does not fuck around! It teaches you just about everything you need to know about every playable class. Everything. That tutorial wore me out right from the get-go… good thing the game’s awesome.
It looks so simple from the outside, I know. A random D&D-inspired card game with simple graphics and very little in-game content. But what lies inside is a game that, like Hellmut, is simple, but really fun to master. The rules are solid and fair—albeit difficult, the enemies are plentiful and offer a variety of challenges to overcome, and the classes seem suited to specific types of enemies, so choices matter. Different decks, collected throughout a solo campaign, can upgrade and differentiate one’s strategy, motivating one to keep trying after death. More than anything, it feels so splendidly retro, yet with all the graphical and technical capabilities of the modern age.
This game is a bigger plus for fantasy fanatics, as the collection of mythical baddies to pummel is wonderfully packed. Even if one doesn’t care about card games—I, for one, don’t—it’s really easy to
have the tutorial destroy you go through quick tutorials and venture onto the game’s main course, emphasizing replayability for better results in the future. One will inevitably hover towards a certain class as the most comfortable playing style (I personally like the Fighter), but every class has their own unique characteristics, full of benefits and drawbacks.
Such detail is so delicate with a game as simple as this. The small sample size actually benefits the end result, causing a difficult game to feel difficult and rewarding because it plays itself straight. The immense amount of stuff to worry about, watch out for, exploit, and otherwise is enormous, with no battle feeling quite like the last. Card’s Quest‘s cherry-on-top is the super-retro presentation of enemies against a black backdrop, with a big header showcasing all the necessary info to the player. Like I’m playing the game on the NES. It’s a real treat.
#4: Rising Dusk
Not only did I directly compare this game to the Donkey Kong Country series, I made the proclamation that it would be among the best of the Donkey Kong Country games. That’s how much confidence I have in this game. Looking at the trailer for this game on Steam, I figured it’d be decent fun, but little did I know it would turn out to be among the best games I’d review up to this point. It’s always great when you give a game you think will be alright a shot, and it turns out to be way better than you gave it credit for.
What of the biggest distinguishing qualities this game has that few other games on this list can replicate is its phenomenal soundtrack. Most games I review either have fine soundtracks, that stick with me while playing but not outside it, or completely forgettable ones. Rising Dusk has some upbeat, somber, and immensely catchy tunes to accompany each stage. It matches the tone perfectly; it also matches my taste in 16-bit video game music.
Of course, if the gameplay wasn’t adequate, this game would be a far cry from this list. What I loved most about Rising Dusk was that it stuck to a specific theme and played with all the different ways one could go about it. It genuinely does feel like a Donkey Kong Country title in the way each stage has a specific shtick, whether it be running from a ghostly pirate ship, traveling in a dark mine as the level auto-scrolls, or progressing using the player’s shadow along the wall. There’s so many zany things this game does with its premise that it makes replayability inevitable—hell, I replayed levels quite a few times in my first sitting.
Though I must stress: This is a game with somewhat limited appeal. I think most people would like this game in general, but it works better for those who enjoy the Donkey Kong Country format. There are so many similarities between the games that I have no doubt it was an inspiration of some sort, if not a direct inspiration. People who loved the Donkey Kong Country series will likely find better enjoyment out of this. I certainly did.
#3: Metroid: Samus Returns
The first game I ever reviewed. And the only AAA title I’ve ever reviewed. Metroid: Samus Returns was not given to me for free (some games on this list I didn’t get for free), but at the time of my hiring, I just so happened to have it (probably because I adore the Metroid franchise). I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have my first review be on something I was very, very familiar with, and was relatively new at the time.
Of course, with the bias I have with the Metroid series, it’s very little surprise that this game is on this list, as well as this high on it. One of my favorite games of all time is Metroid Prime, and I’ve always been quick to defend many Metroid titles throughout the years. The first Metroid game in seven years (sans Federation Force) at that point, I was just overjoyed the franchise wasn’t dead. I expected to enjoy this game quite a bit, and I did. It was (almost) everything I wanted from a new 2.5D Metroid title and a tad more.
I loved the precise control the game allowed with the analog stick. Never in a Metroid game has aiming been so tight, combat so fluid and rewarding. This game, with atmosphere and ambiance included, is a more fight-oriented game. Action and cinematic flips and twists and what-have-you. This game goes all out in making you feel truly “badass.” And Samus doesn’t say a word. Thanks, Nintendo.
Even with combat as the focus, the puzzles and tone of the game are still relatively on point. This is probably one of the moodier games of the franchise, specifically denoting its more “natural” soundtrack. Some catchy tracks remain, but many are cut in favor of mysterious, ambiatic tracks made to evoke uneasiness. The little details of what one would expect from a Metroid game are all here, and the quality of experience definitely shows.
I just wish it sold better.
#2: Mortal Manor
Much like with Rising Dusk, I saw the trailer for this game on Steam and thought, “Eh, this could be fun.” The somewhat-shoddy pixel quality and (intentionally) incredibly archaic gameplay features made me think it would be a choppy, but interesting experience. It had all the warning signs of an amateur’s first work, so I went in hesitantly.
At first, I was right. The first hour or so of the game is a slog. This game is also pretty unforgiving, with save points being far and between, and death meaning one loses all their progress (remember those days?). With how slow and weak the player’s character is, it doesn’t surprise me that some were turned off by this game. However, perseverance is a trait I feel I own enough of to carry on past even insane difficulties. Mortal Manor becomes better and better as the game goes on.
There’s an interesting phenomenon with games I feel doesn’t get a lot of credit with the general gamer: the importance of stressors. To think back on a game and remember, “Oh, yeah! That part was awful! God, I hated it so much!” And yet, we look back on it fondly, as a memory of our experience with a certain game, filled with both the positives and the negatives. Of course, a completely negative experience shouldn’t have the same glamour, but I think the harder or more frustrating spots of a title only add to the impact a game can provide for a player. Mortal Manor does this in the form of every single enemy, because they can all go fuck themselves. I love them so.
What I explained prior is a lot of the magic I think Mortal Manor provides. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, but it isn’t unfair. It rewards progression by having the game become a little easier in the form of upgrades and major items. We’re slow as shit at first, but getting the hookshot allows the player to zip through areas at Spider-Man speeds—and then a second hookshot? You’re literally Spider-Man at that point! This game is a grinder’s dream. Weak and fragile in the beginning, a destroyer of worlds (slight exaggeration) by the end. Even the final boss was of little hassle to me. All of this in the style of ultra-retro game design and presentation. I love it. Great game.
#1: A Robot Named Fight!
[Also available on the Switch.]
Should one read my review of this game, which came out about a week after the game was released (and was my second-ever review), know that the game’s state then and the game’s state now is quite a bit different. I’d be willing to score this game closer to an eight in its current state than a seven.
And while I wouldn’t argue for this game being better than all others on this list by measure of my personal objective qualifications, it takes the top spot for one reason alone: time spent on it. Between the Steam version and Switch version (as I own both), I’ve put in over one hundred hours into A Robot Named Fight!, or as it is affectionately referred to within the family, “Freddie the Robot.”
The allure of this game has spread throughout my family. Upon getting the game for the Switch, I slowly enticed my two brothers of similar age into playing it, as well. Both are now avid fans of it. My youngest brother also tried it out, but wasn’t keen on it. This sort of impact is something that has never happened with any other game on this list or any game I’ve reviewed. A Robot Named Fight! has this special quality that makes it appealing to those who simply watch gameplay of it.
Although, this is a game with, as stated with other games on this list, limited appeal. It is a metroidvania roguelike, with strong Metroid aesthetics and multiple references to other games. A strange fusion of Super Metroid and The Binding of Isaac. If that sounds appealing to you, this game will be your crack—uh, thing. Its semi-regular updates give the game some freshness, as well, as the promise of newer, better things only adds to the game’s appeal. As it stands now, it’s still an immensely replayable game (see: one hundred hours spent on it) that gets by on its core goodies of upgrading and variety of items to collect. It’s a treasure trove of different ways to play. One of the best decisions in my KeenGamer career was reviewing this game.