My Favourite Games of the 8th Generation: 15-11

I'm writing a retrospective series about the end of the 8th Generation , which includes a Top Twenty Countdown of my favourite games.

The Countdown Rules.
15. Undertale
14. What Remains of Edith Finch
13. Ghost of Tsushima
12. Assassin's Creed Odyssey
11. Death Stranding

I'm not really sure what possessed me to play Undertale (2015/2017). You see, a low-fi RPG wouldn't usually be my sort of  thing. Just look at the company it keeps in my countdown, and you'll see that it sticks out like a sore thumb. I know I'd heard good things, from internet beings and real-life people, some of whom had worked on the console ports. But I'm a stubborn bastard, and that wouldn't usually be enough to convince me. 

I'm not sure why I finally relented and played Undertale, but I'm very glad that I did.

Some kid travels underground and meets a bunch of sociable monsters; no one has a gun. Sounds shite, but it wasn't though. It was both touching and funny, and I wasn't expecting to fall for these characters in the way I did. A skeleton, a goat-mother, a different skeleton - again, sounds shite, but it really wasn't.  Papyrus was of course my favourite, a constant source of comic relief and a character that I couldn't help but want to befriend. Quite how Toby Fox was able to infuse these retro-looking sprites with such distinct character, charm and life is beyond me.

Another thing I definitely wasn't expecting was the unique approach to combat, incorporating elements of bullet-hell shooters and giving you the option to get through each fight without killing anyone. Most battles feel different to the last, and I needed little encouragement to spare each of my foes and soon-to-be-friends. The option to take a pacifist approach to the entire game, or lead your own monster massacre, is a meaningful one that has a significant effect on how events unfold. 

This structure, alongside the memorable music, are the two aspects that have really stuck with me. I don't have an ear for game music, but this score grabbed my attention. Retro-tinged, yet like nothing else I've heard, it doesn't just match the atmosphere of Undertale, it defines it.

I took a flier on What Remains of Edith Finch (2017). I have played a few other so-called Walking Simulators, a derivative characterization but useful in that we all share a similar understanding of what it means. I'd enjoyed some of them, but I wouldn't say that any left a lasting impression. Edith Finch, on the other hand, is an experience that I'm still constantly replaying in mind two years later. 

Each member of the Finch family has perished in tragic and often unusual circumstances.  As a current-day Finch, you explore the now-abandoned familial home, gradually unlocking each bedroom and the secrets of the owner's life and death. Ultimately, you relive each of their final moments. Some of them are almost comic, some bizarre, and others truly heartbreaking. Each death scene is distinct in its style and presentation. One death sees you assume the form of a cat; another has you daydreaming at your monotonous job at the factory, decapitating salmon. The variety is staggering, and each feels unique and worthy of being relived, no matter how devastating the inevitable may be.

Every time you step foot into the shoes of a new character, you know that you are about to experience their untimely demise. Yet you are compelled to push forward. In some instances, this pre-knowledge of the inevitable breeds a morbid sense of curiosity. In others, you dread the unavoidable outcome, especially when you are cast as a child. None is more heartbreaking than that of baby Gregory, a moment that is handled as sensitively as it is beautifully. It is an emotionally draining scene that thoroughly destroyed me. 

Edith Finch succeeds in delivering a multi-faceted story in a truly unique way, while managing to tie each strand into a coherent and compelling whole. It never dwells on one story; each is over within a few minutes, yet I was completely captivated by each of them. So much so, that I finished it in one sitting, unable to put down the controller and walk away. A few hours of one evening, but an experience that'll stay with me for years to come.

Ghost of Tsushima (2020) is the newest game that'll feature on my list. It's one of those late-in-the-day gems that pushes the existing hardware to its limits. Think God of War 2, The Last of Us or GTA V. That was nice to think about, wasn't it?

Ghost of Tsushima features a lot of that sandbox bullshit that I'm rather fond of, when it's framed correctly. Clearing-out and dominating areas on a map, finding secrets, tracking down collectibles, stumbling upon and interrupting pre-scripted events etc. Some would consider it mindless and repetitive; others take comfort in the familiarity and instant gratification. What makes it most enjoyable here is the beauty of the sandbox and the pleasure of moving from A to B. The range of color and terrain you'll take in on a 5-minute journey is staggering, with each area of the map assuming a different season. A bit silly when you think about it, but considering the results, I'm not going to complain. It's so much fun galloping through fields of shimmering grass, trekking over mountains of brilliant white, strolling through orchards of soft pink and golden forests. It's an impossibly perfect realisation of an idealised, ancient Japan, as beautiful as it is unrealistic.

Despite it's serious tone, and very serious lead-man, Ghost of Tsushima leans unrelentingly and unapologetically into it's video game-y-ness 'isms. Know what I mean? It wants you to wear Sly-coloured armour, fuss over a cute fox, turn into a super-human for ten seconds, shoot turrets, abuse the often terrible enemy AI, and almost single-handedly repel a foreign invasion. Enemies congregate around explosive barrels because this is a video game and that's what video game enemies are supposed to do. It's an unashamedly fun action game, its depth limited to surface level, and that's what endears me to it the most.

This was a world and adventure that I didn't want to leave. Even after the credits rolled, I kept coming back for more. Just one more stroll through the meadow; just one more explosive barrel.

Series ennui had taken hold several years earlier. Although I stuck with Assassin's Creed a little longer, I hadn't truly enjoyed it since the Ezio trilogy. The first half of the 8the Generation wasn't a great stretch for the franchise, but Ubisoft stormed back in the latter part with the excellent Origins. A return to form, but one that would be bettered by Assassin's Creed Odyssey (2018).

I was delighted by the shift to the ancient world. Origins gave us a stunning recreation of Ptolemic Egypt, and Odyssey went one better, taking us even further back to Greece in the 5th century BC. The time of the Peloponnesian War, filled with fascinating historical figures, figures that Odyssey never shies away from featuring and molding to fit the narrative. Socrates questions your every decision, as the real-life philosopher was want to do; his pupil, Alcibiades fucks anything that moves. Herodotus follows us on crucial missions, bearing witness to the kinds of fanciful events that litter his Histories. Perikles, Leonidas, Aspasia - many of the biggest names of Ancient Greece appear in one form or another. I adore how AC intertwines its fanciful tales of super humans and pre-cursor races with very real history. Having long been fascinated by the world of the Greeks, I was bound to be wowed by Odyssey.

Odyssey's representation of the Greek Golden Age is massive and begs to be explored. If anything, the map is too big, and there are parts that I never reached in my sixty-hour playthrough. The changes to combat that were introduced in Origins are further polished, the dialogue more interesting, and the side missions more compelling. The whole package greatly resembles Witcher 3, and that is very much a compliment.

Assassin's Creed is enjoying a series renaissance as an expansive action-RPG. Valhalla, which I played on Xbox Series X, might be my favourite ever AC, and is likely to feature high up on a similar list to this in a few years time. The AAA landscape is a far more interesting space when AC has its shit together. 

There's nothing quite like Death Stranding (2019).

It was a strange decade for Hideo Kojima. The very public split with Konami led to a very unfinished and divisive end to Metal Gear Solid. A great deal of mystery surrounded Kojima's next move, which ended up being the founding of a new studio, a new financial enabler, and a brand new IP featuring the kinds of stars that Kojima has always openly coveted. Through all of that, Kojima never changed. He remained the pretentious visionary that he's always been, part cringe part genius. No one has the mix of artistic vision and clout to make the games that he makes, and I will always pay attention to whatever he's working on.

As expected, Death Stranding is incredibly indulgent. A fascinating and uncompromising singular vision made real. And at it's core, a very simple one. You are tasked with transporting parcels from A to B, across a desolate and incredibly dangerous landscape. Risk /reward is at the heart of DS' mechanics, and you'll stress over simple choices about how to move your precious cargo. Do I risk that short cut, knowing the horrors that might lurk there? Should I split this consignment into two, or do it put all my faith in my balancing skills and do it all in one go? These decisions become incredibly stressful and meaningful as the game progresses. I didn't tire of this balancing act, even when the other elements around it sometimes grew stale.

That's the gameplay, but here's the message: as a courier, you are delivering hope more than packages. Honestly, that message is delivered bluntly, the metaphors landing with a predictable thud. Yet there is something appealing about that message and how it's delivered. You rarely fight, and when you do it is about preservation of yourself and your valuable cargo, not wanton violence. Each package that disappears into the jet black sludge is another soul that will drift further from the communities you are trying to reconnect. Your mission is one worth dying for. It was nice to enjoy a game about bringing people together, that visually looks like the kind of game where you usually set people apart. Often with a machine gun or a very sharp sword.

Your existence is a fairly lonely one, but it is punctuated by fleeting moments of companionship, between you and NPC, and more crucially you and other players. You don't see your fellow couriers, but you hear their echoes. You see the effect they have on the world around you, on shared infrastructure started by you and completed by another kind soul, one with plenty of metal in their inventory. Roads and bridges spring up as players unknowingly band together to re-tame the wilderness. We are helping each other out, across the void. This all feels hugely satisfying and life-affirming, in a way that few asynchronous forms of multiplayer do. 

All the gobshite aside, I really liked Death Stranding. It is a good video game.


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