One of life's nicest pleasures is stumbling on a wonderful gaming experience by accident. One minute you couldn't care less about some title's existence, and the next you're helpless to put it down. Maybe you even cry a little as the credits scroll.
What game did you pick up with zero expectations, only to find yourself utterly enthralled within minutes?
Shovel Knight and Demon's Souls spring immediately to mind, but I'm going to stay slightly from the beaten path and share one of my absolute favorites from 2016: Pocket Card Jockey, the horse-racing/solitaire hybrid from the developer of Pokemon.
This was a game I didn't even know existed until Nadia started singing its praises on our podcast. I picked it up on a whim and almost immediately fell completely in love. This game has everything: great art, an amazing sense of humor, and an addictive gameplay loop, all of which is topped off by a surprisingly faithful depiction of horse racing.
I've fallen deep into Pocket Card Jockey more than once, raising up new studs with names like "Horsin' Around" and pushing for the equivalent of the Triple Crown. It can be quite the tense game, especially when you're rushing down the stretch in a crucial race and you know that you're not going to get another chance for quite a while. That it's all experienced through solitaire only makes it that much more memorable.
Honestly, I can't sing the praises of Pocket Card Jockey enough. If you have a 3DS, it's a definite must-own. Go buy it as soon as you can.
"Last week, I sat down to play my first Yakuza game. I skipped the first because marketing pointed to it being an odd Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto. Since then, I haven't been avoiding the series on purpose, I've just always had something else to play. Even once I started doing this professionally, there was always someone chomping at the bit to play the game for review. Best to let them have it."
"This is my first Yakuza game, but I found myself completely in love with everything the game had to offer. Perhaps if you're a Yakuza veteran, you'll feel limited with such a small area and only a single character to play, but for me Yakuza Kiwami was a wonderful entry into the franchise. It's a solid brawler, a fun Japanese crime story, and a great time-waster. Yakuza Kiwami is the kind of game where I'd load it up on my PlayStation 4 and just putz around for a bit. Maybe I'd complete more of the main plot, but more often than not, I'd just live in the world for awhile. Any game that can make you want to do that is winner."
Yeah, I'm in love with the series. No longer shall I let others review those delectable, delicious Yakuza games. They are mine. All mine. If Sega wants to keep letting me wander the seedy streets of Kamurocho, I'll keep picking them up. Yakuza is a class act.
My heart has two contenders for this title: Bastion and Steamworld Dig. Bastion was probably the biggest surprise, since the game was already several years old by the time I played it, and I forgot whatever praise people lavished on it at launch. I saw the game was on sale ("PROTIP: Steam has sales once in a while! Keep an eye out for hot new titles!!"), and I picked it up. I was intrigued when a bodiless voice started narrating my every move, and totally hooked by the time I found the titular Bastion. Now I need to get started on Pyre.
Steamworld Dig likewise smacked me out of left field. I happened to have a download code, so I parked it on my 3DS. Then a massive ice storm hit Toronto, and the power went out for ages. Luckily, my 3DS was fully charged, so I decided to dig in to Steamworld Dig, so to speak. I lost my heat that day, but I gained a great gameplay experience that was well-suited for the dim, cold environment outside. Poetic!
(Oh, and I have to echo Kat's adoration for Pocket Card Jockey, that game is nuuuuuts.)
I'm not a big fantasy fan. I mean fantasy in the vanilla, medieval-esque way. The most I've dipped into the genre was Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and even those were a struggle for me.
So when the world fell in love with The Witcher 3, I didn't think I would be into it. "Fantasy is really not my thing," I told myself. I shrugged off the game for months, even as it dominated Game of the Year awards. Finally though, I decided to give it a shot. I picked it up on sale for like $25 (which almost feels like a crime, honestly), and fell in love with it entirely. I was so enamored by Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and everyone else. Its quests—even the most mundane ones—were always memorable. I remember the heartache through the Bloody Baron quest line, just as I remember breaking into a shack to get a bitter woman's frying pan, only to find its resident dead inside. I remember Geralt whipping out an apple to eat as he cheekily dictated an autopsy, just as I remember (seemingly) throwing a baby into an oven, a quest that leads into Geralt himself being surprisingly fooled.
What makes The Witcher 3's world so special is that it teems with life. No character is perfect, just about everyone is flawed, and they're hard to forget. Arguably, the first DLC expansion Hearts of Stone is somehow even better than the sprawling campaign, with a tight 10-or-so hour journey that makes you laugh and a tad misty eyed throughout it. I haven't properly dove into its second expansion yet (despite the beautiful area of Toussaint, its story hasn't grabbed me yet), but I'm looking forward to spending more time with my favorite white wolf, Geralt. After years of playing I'm nearly 150 hours deep, and The Witcher 3 still surprisingly has my heart. Probably always.
Thankfully, there have been plenty of games that have surprised me over the years. Discovering your new favorite game is what makes the medium so exciting. Off the top of my head, 2016's exceptional crop of shooters were all very surprising. I'm not usually one for first-person shooters but Doom and Battlefield 1 were both exceptional games that overcame whatever cynicism I might have had about either game.
Another big surprise for me was Telltale Games' Tales from the Borderlands. I'm actually not a huge fan of Gearbox's punk-y western FPS, but under Telltale's exceptional writing, the world of Borderlands took on new layers and resonated with me for the first time.
However, the biggest surprise for me in gaming is probably From Software's Souls series, starting with Demon's Souls. I jumped onto the Souls bandwagon a bit late, having begun my playthrough of Demon's Souls maybe a few months after the first Dark Souls came out. While I knew the series had a reputation for being difficult, what I didn't realize was that I'd fall in love with From Software's entire design philosophy for their Souls series (and Bloodborne). Everything from the way the designers handle mythology, to the multiple game systems swept me up and never let me go. I came into Demon's Souls expecting a challenge, but I left with a revelation that has stuck with me ever since.
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