Hollow Knight

Balanced against so much outstanding quality, though, it is easy to see how minimal – not to say completely negligible – those problems are. Hollow Knight blasts by them, and it constructs an adventure of all-time greatness. By giving its starring knight a set of skills that is absolutely common and presenting a progression that is not too different from that of other classic Metroidvania titles, it muscles its way towards excellence by achieving unforeseen performance in other areas. The size of its world is stunning; the level of freedom players have at any point in the game is mesmerizing; the tsunami of content, both mandatory and extra, it carries is flooring; the design of its levels – which have a fine-tuned balance between platforming, environmental puzzles, and exploration – is masterful; the optional challenges that protect its most valuable collectibles are as brutal as they are fun; and the way it completely puts all elements of its exploration into the hands of players (including figuring out where to go, opening shortcuts, and putting effort into mapping the terrain) is daring. All of those pieces come together to form, in the depths of the gorgeous haunting Hallownest, a quest that gloriously walks through the halls of gaming history that are reserved for the industry’s finest productions ever.

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Little Nightmares

Little Nightmares, then, manages to be, simultaneously, absolutely engaging and infuriating. If, on one hand, it succeeds, like few games have, in constructing a grotesque world that is as irresistible as it is repulsive; on the other, it tends to fill it up with gameplay that is either merely decent or downright frustrating. The Maw is an absolutely stunning setting in which horror, immersion, and disturbing imagery are always present. And amidst that darkness the journey of Six, a character who – like the game she stars – speaks a lot without saying anything at all, is an incredibly compelling act to follow. It is, however, a disappointing shame that a masterful achievement on silent storytelling and atmospheric architecture is hampered by irregular game design. Nonetheless, the lack of a truly great gameplay facet is, in the end, overcome by artistic excellence. Little Nightmares may not be thoroughly enjoyable, but it is certainly a remarkable game.

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole

As a good representation of the South Park franchise, The Fractured But Whole does nothing to please an audience that is disgusted or unmoved by the show’s humor, as it obviously prefers to make use of its precious time to either ignore those folks or keep on making them sick. To everyone else, though, The Fractured But Whole is the ultimate South Park gaming experience, for it dresses up the kids they have grown to love in a fantastic theme, catapults the children onto bizarre situations that go out of their way to point the finger at or bother as many people as possible, and throws them into delightful battles against the madness of society, drunk parents, and satanic creatures alike. Nobody escapes a good beating, and absolutely no one is free from the alluring tastelessness of the South Park canon of offenses and criticisms.

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Celeste

Madeline’s choice to answer her inexplicable urge to climb Celeste Mountain, then, amounts to a massive and unexpected classic of the platformer genre. Her journey is one that matches simple yet effectively charming pixel art visuals with a spectacular soundtrack, and that pulses life into them by creating challenging levels with the precision of a craftsman and writing a storyline arch with the certainty that the message contained within will be valuable to a significant amount of people. Like all sensible lunatics that follow their wishes regardless of whether or not they can explain the reason behind those cravings, Madeline ends up unearthing joys that are both temporary and long-lasting. In the former category, there are the numerous instances when players will sit in awe at the unlikely platforming tricks they succeeded in performing; and, in the latter, there will be the everlasting knowledge, which will probably come right after the summit is touched, that they have just experienced a game for the ages.

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Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge, therefore, could have certainly benefited from additional, and more specialized, help in some of its supporting elements. Nonetheless, when judged in terms of gameplay, by far the most important component of the medium it belongs to, it amounts to a title that is downright stunning, especially when one considers it was entirely built by a pair of hands. The eight-hour adventure that takes place in its dark caves and shafts, which can last for far more in case players look to achieve full completion, easily stands side-by-side with the installments from the classic saga that inspired it. While Nintendo infinitely delays the release of the next sidescrolling Metroid, Axiom Verge rises as an excellent option to anyone craving for an adventure of the sort; and, truth be told, when that long-awaited game does arrive, Thomas Happ’s creation will not be too far behind in terms of level design intricacy.

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Yooka-Laylee

The just act of rebellion executed by Yooka-Laylee is, then, partially successful. When its cylinders are clicking in place, it shows the world of gaming that collectathons still have their place in a contemporary scenario and it loudly states the talent that made Rare’s historic run of excellence possible is now sitting outside its walls, far from the conniving environment of a company that has to bend to the will of its owner; and it does so by surfing on a wave of blatant influences coming straight from the Banjo-Kazooie saga. When it falls, though, it shows a smoother development cycle and the backing of a publisher or studio with deeper pockets and that could afford to delay the product in search for more polish would have done wonders to the game. As a whole, then, it is a title that must be played by those craving for a true successor to Banjo-Kazooie and that should be approached with caution by anyone that is new to the genre. Hopefully, the support attained by the brave folks of Playtonic will be enough to give Yooka and Laylee another shot at pure greatness. The chameleon and the bat sure have the potential, and they – alongside their gameplay style – are, after all this time, in the right hands; the ones that created them, albeit covered by a different layer of paint.

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2

It is glorious, it is huge, it is sometimes overwhelming, and it is bound to make many players spend more than one hundred hours in Alrest uncovering all the world’s secrets. Whether one has played the original game or not, anyone willing ignore a few flaws and to devote their brains and energy to figure out and slowly grasp the sheer magnificence of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will be rewarded. They will be greeted with visuals that could be shown at a surrealistic exhibition; they will be accompanied by a masterful soundtrack that could enchant a packed and traditional concert hall if played by an orchestra; and they will be sucked into a universe whose angst and driving forces mirror our own in more ways than one would expect. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may not be a shining gem of invariably sober tone and immaculate design, but its grandeur and ambitions are quite a wonder.

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Super Mario Odyssey

Thanks to the impressive quantity of items to acquire in each kingdom (the dozens of moons and regional coins), Super Mario Odyssey often feels like a collectathon, but one that merges the exploration aspect that reigned over Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine with the linear goodness found in the most recent 3-D outings of the plumber. The meticulous design of its kingdoms, the cleverness of the capture mechanic and the doors of gameplay possibility that are blasted open due to it, and the fact secrets and new objectives are uncovered with every passing minute make Super Mario Odyssey an utter joy to play through, whether it is to those who will just clear its fifteen-hour adventure or to the daring gamers that will sink more than fifty hours into the experience to seek full completion. Super Mario Odyssey’s ridiculous abundance of ideas more than justifies the spectacular size of the quest Nintendo has put together.

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SteamWorld Dig 2

SteamWorld Dig 2 is everything fans could have wanted from a sequel. It looks fantastic, features a soundtrack that makes the mystery and danger of the mines resonate, and fixes the punctual issues of its predecessor while polishing the rough gameplay edges that existed. By combining the usual Metroidvania quest for new gear with tighter sections of puzzle-solving and platforming, it builds its own character and shows that indie ventures into that established genre can be more than simple homages to Metroid and Castlevania. There is still room for new discoveries out there, and if developers are able to find them and make them their own, it is possible to create adventures that, instead of being seen as minor diversions to pass the time while the big franchises do not deliver the goods, can comfortably stand side by side with those juggernauts.

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