Defeating a shadow version of a crow standing on a skull and finding a piece of broken stained glass where a church once stood is the most Dragon Quest thing that can happen. It's ecstatic and heavy, as well as completely video gamey and gnostic. Dragon Quest Builders 2 may not reflect on its ancestry (Dragon Quest II) with as much metaphor as its predecessor (which is based on the original Dragon Quest), but its mutable, Minecraftian outlook on the Akira Toriyama JRPG landscape is nevertheless almost perfect.
Another anecdote: toward the end of the game, the player drives a dune buggy around in an inverted shadow wasteland, picking up a dozen enemy-styled characters who become friends and allies. The dune buggy quickly fills up with giant, clipping 3D models, each one shouting something silly, while the player drives around like a maniac on a quest to save the world, one key item at a time. It's so silly, so dreamlike, and so completely Dragon Quest.
The most unprecedented thing I've seen in quite some time is building a fully 3D, AAA JRPG and then also including a fully playable 2D, 16-bit version of that same game for free. Why does it exist, I can't say. But the experience of traversing familiar spaces in a different, nostalgic dimension is practically brain breaking — a dream-walkers video game. Some of my favorite things include de-makes, sprite color palettes, the difficult rhythms of random battles, and that black void beyond the maps of games. With Dragon Quest XI S, we have all that, packaged not with the mysterious decisions of the 1990s but the quality assurance of the late 2010s. It's rare that a game feels so designed for me personally.
I played a bit of Salt and Sanctuary when it was new a few years ago but couldn't get into the "2D Dark Souls" formula. In 2019, I picked it back up on a whim and dug into its mechanics, eventually getting to its dark, salt-encrusted end. It's colored like a Souls game, but it plays closer to an old-school Castlevania game with additional rolling mechanics, or maybe even Zelda II with its careful combat. Its exploration is dizzying and at times not well thought out, but each area is satisfyingly demonic — the pyramid level, the Mega Man 2 platform forest, endless torture chambers, going so low into the bowels of the island. Every once in a while, this faint, brutal guitar strumming plays, giving the game an underground, mall goth feeling: angsty, dark, and deeply in the void. I dig its vibe, and honestly, I think I learned something about Dark Souls in the process.
I've admittedly only scratched the surface of this game, but its opening hours are killer — a real trip. Umbilical cord ghosts, carrying the bodies of dead mothers, the accruement of social media game values, and very difficult bodily controls make you play and see differently. Not since Final Fantasy XV have I played a game that feels so...contemporary, for better or worse — like a reaction to the current world, online and off.
It would be easy to throw the claim of "style over substance" or the more accurate "style as substance" (which is a totally fine mode of operation) in the face of Death Stranding's famed director, but Hideo Kojima doesn't operate in a simple matter. His poetry colors the gameplay so thoroughly that the game's metaphors are reflected even in the obtuse button mashing imposed upon the player. Don't let the AAA game development cash fool you; this is absolutely a work in the realm of the avant-garde.
The original Anodyne feels like the developers played through Link's Awakening and Yume Nikki and wanted to make a game with those spirits in mind. Anodyne 2 feels like developers played the culmination of all video games ever
Conveying something that is genuinely weird is difficult. Weird things don't mesh quite right; that's why they're weird. Anodyne 2 has a familiar, sort of Zelda rhythm, but it is so far away from the standards of all other video games to the point of being genuinely weird. Its rhythm of 3D overworld to 2D dungeon levels, its long-winded poetry dialogue, and its insistence on this uncannily nostalgic PS1/PS2 worldview...perhaps the best way to describe Anodyne 2 is this image: a Photoshop document of all these elements going through each of the software's blur filters, shifting in and out of focus, melting together, separating, and fusing.