I went into 2022 thinking there wouldn’t be enough excellent games to fill the coming 12 months. Certainly, there would be no Rockstar game and no Legend of Zelda from Nintendo. In fact, many products were delayed, partly because of the residual effects of the pandemic, partly because they are complex to make. But when Elden Ring was first released, there were almost enough games to play the whole year. As the year comes to a close, our New York Videogame Critics Circle found so many games to add to our potential nominees for January’s New York Game Awards, it turned out to be a very healthy year for games, especially for independent offerings. In the end, it usually is.
Fire Ring: Both weird and surprising, From Software’s Elden Ring proved that a high-difficulty sword and sorcery game can be just as addictive as Candy Crush. For over 100 hours, I kept coming back because of the distinctive narrative that slowly unfolds as you try to find pieces of the Elden Ring, sometimes in surreal environments (like the Caelid, a Dali-like desert landscape with attacking giant crows). The potpourri of brilliantly created NPCs (non-playable characters) are as compelling as those in The Witcher 3, the best game of 2015. While there is constant dark beauty in the Elden Ring’s perilous setting, there is a hint of deep sadness in its inscrutability . Ultimately, no matter how weird this game can be, and no matter how many times you die, the key to Elden Ring is how it mimics the ups and downs of life. Just as it is an escape from real life, it is also about real life.
Immortality: Immortality is a grand, horror-oriented mystery with an interactive depth that only the mind of Sam Barlow could create. It introduces the brilliant Manon Gage as Marissa Marcel, a young, lost actress who left behind not one, but three genre films. As you go through clips, rehearsals, wrap parties, locations, you start to find answers to what happened and it’s scary. Crawling down this rabbit hole, I felt a haunting, engaging sense of belonging in this sad wonderland. Immortality celebrates the best of Hitchcock, Scorcese and Welles – by the end you feel like the lost Marissa Marcel movies should be released on their own and streamed on Netflix.
Wild flowers: Apple Arcade may well be the best value in gaming, and the games to play are plentiful. But it’s not so big that I couldn’t find the gem that is Wylde Flowers. Farming simulators like Harvest Moon have been around for decades. But in this one you farm during the day and play a witch at night. The story, beyond farming and fishing, is deftly written, and may actually be the first time the word “lesbian” appears in a game. You constantly want to hear what happens next, and although Tara Wylde is no Wednesday Addams/child filled with melancholy, she has returned to the farm heroically to help her sick grandmother. Within the magic, farming and bigotry against witches, you may find yourself shedding a tear.
God of War Ragnarök: This action-adventure game is a sequel to 2018’s father-and-son story set in varied lands with big gods with big egos. Yes, God of War Ragnarök is not quite as surprising or moving as its predecessor. But that doesn’t mean it won’t dazzle with a swinging, twisting tale of Norse gods that moves quickly from the get-go. When you leave the snowy land where the grizzled Kratos and young Atreus camp, you will be amazed by this wonderful world. The varied soundtrack is well-paced, as are the meticulously crafted levels that are full of puzzles and mythic surprises at almost every turn.
stray: Over the course of a summer week, playing Stray became a trend that extended beyond the gaming community. That’s because Stray had a generally realistic looking orange and white tabby in a strange sci-fi world. The eager cat, not a cute, humanized animal, deftly jumps onto windowsills and onto tin roofs, and rarely falls. It wanders the world avoiding fast mouse-like enemies called Zurks and comes across a helpful robot called B-12. This story of empathy and exploration hits the right chords of mystery and sweetness as the cat desperately tries to return to its home.
Cult of the Lamb: This eerie, fantastical offering begins with a wide-eyed lamb about to die in a sacrifice. Moments later, you are given a second chance at life by a chained being, The One Who Waits. But like Robert Johnson at the crossroads, there is a price to pay. You must start a cult to worship and then free The One Who Waits, who looks like a creepy soul. Not only do you hack and slash your way to assassinate four bishops to free the entity, you also have to properly manage your cult, feed hungry spiders, bury the dead and preach to your subjects. If it’s a dark game, there’s also something alluringly magical here in this colorful mashup that sold a million copies in its first week on sale. That’s incredible in itself, especially for an indie game.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land: “On the way, fill your stomach and nap for a while.” These lyrics follow Kirby, the roundest and rosiest of Nintendo characters, after he wakes up in a cheerful post-apocalyptic land and swallows a car to get around a sprawling 3D world. Nevertheless, this is not “the last of us”. There is no heavy gloom or doom here, just a delightful character in a land blooming with flowers and vines after it was abandoned. Still, it’s threatening: the pear-shaped, mouthless Waddle Dees have been kidnapped by the Beast Pack, a group of angry, humanized animals with superpowers. As Kirby fights to save Waddle Dees, ingenious puzzles and bright environments abound. Hands down, it’s the best children’s game of the year.