I’ve played so many stone-cold classics for Retro Encounter over the years (Mother 3, NieR: Automata, and even Disco Elysium) that it’s hard to pick a favorite. But I can confidently say that Bloodborne belongs in the same conversation.
It’s been a bit of an odd year for me with many life changes — some really excellent, some really not — and I think this led me to becoming enamored with overcoming challenges in video games. It started with Hollow Knight last January and ended with clearing the toughest bosses in Elden Ring just a few days before the year ended. Even when things weren’t going how I’d like, there was comfort in knowing I could do something right, and that my hard work and thoughtfulness paid off, at least in this fictional space. I’m not sure if that’s healthy, but it helped.
Bloodborne is about more than just that challenge, though. It’s about mood and mystery. I’m not original in saying this, but its ability to communicate its story through setting and feeling is unmatched. Add to that the sick trick weapons, the furiously satisfying combat, and just the right level of exploration, and it’s not only one of the best games I’ve played for Retro Encounter, but one of the best games I’ve played, period.
Take Something Good and Make It Great: Octopath Traveler II
Even if you weren’t the biggest fan of the original Octopath Traveler, I don’t think anyone could deny its potential. The combat was stellar, the look almost equally so. I still listen to the soundtrack nearly every day. It’s that good. Sure, some of the stories didn’t quite congeal, and it was odd to see people standing around in a cut scene while others pretended they weren’t there, but there was a lot to like.
But here comes Octopath Traveler II to fix or improve on the original in, quite literally, every single way. It took my favorite turn-based combat system and added a few wrinkles to make it even better. The music, somehow, is a slight improvement. The look is so much better than the original that comparing them side-by-side is almost funny. The storytelling is also notably improved, with a more distinctive voice for each character’s arc. The addition of paired quests and an overall finishing set of quests where all our heroes come together are nice improvements, too, even if they could have gone a bit further.
Needless to say, it seems many developers finally understand how to use retro aesthetics and ideas while also making a game decidedly its own, like the phenomenal Chained Echoes and the pretty good Sea of Stars. Nonetheless, for me, Octopath Traveler II is still the pinnacle of the style, and I sure hope we get to see how they refine it even further with a sequel.
I Played a Lot of DLC This Year and There’s Only One Choice: Xenoblade Chronicles 3: Future Redeemed
As the title indicates, I played a lot of DLC for big titles this year, ranging from the pretty good (Final Fantasy XVI: Echoes of the Fallen) to the deeply disappointing (Tales of Arise: Beyond the Dawn).
Part of the reason neither of those DLCs really did it for me is that the bar was set so high early in the year by Xenoblade Chronicles 3: Future Redeemed. Frankly, Monolith Soft puts nearly every other developer to shame for the sheer quality and quantity of their DLCs. Not only does Future Redeemed feature almost a full game’s worth of content, but it also adds and adjusts things from the base game to be entirely its own thing. Matthew is a fantastic protagonist and almost the antithesis of Noah. The new exploration rewards are satisfying and encourage you to experience the game as the developers intended without forcing your hand. The fact that Future Redeemed manages to thread all the previous titles (and many of its characters) together in a satisfying way is just a surprising bonus.
But I mostly love Future Redeemed because it helped everyone see how amazing Rex is. It’s about time.
2023 Game of the Year: Final Fantasy XVI
When I reviewed Final Fantasy XVI, I was honestly convinced that almost everyone (outside of turn-based obsessives) would love it every bit as much as I do.
That was foolish, of course: when was the last time a Final Fantasy game was released to anything but a cacophony of arguments about its quality, the direction of the series, and “Is this Final Fantasy enough?”
Nonetheless, after running through the game almost two whole times, I remained convinced that Final Fantasy XVI is an incredible experience. Sure, there are flaws, maybe most frustratingly the way it writes its main female cast, but there’s just so much going for it. The combat is incredibly flashy and fun, and allows for several different ways to approach it. The Eikon battles are over-the-top spectacles that continually one-up themselves. The story is thoughtful and epic, and the side quests, especially in the late game, allow for intimate moments to interact with a fantastic cast of characters and a fleshed-out world, helping to drive its themes home.
Really, it’s those characters that sell Final Fantasy XVI for me. While there are imperfections, as I noted, so many of them positively burst off the screen, from the suave Cid, to the determined Dion, to the kind, sassy Isabelle. The glue that holds all of it together, Clive, is easily my favorite Final Fantasy protagonist, too.
So, while I might be surprised that many people don’t like Final Fantasy XVI as much as I do, I don’t mind so much. For me, it does almost everything right, and I’ll be revisiting it for years to come.