Games follow a seasonal rhythm, and perhaps because I have spent my entire adult life writing about them for a living (take that, school careers advisor!), I’m especially attuned to it. Absolutely nothing happens in winter, ever. Spring is often when the most interesting games appear – the slightly offbeat big releases or ambitious indie games that want to make a splash after the Christmas rush. In summer, E3 and Gamescom and all of the other showcases look ahead to the future.
Autumn is truly the season of games, when the Fifas and Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds come out, and everything else either competes with them for attention, or scrambles to get away.
The world’s biggest games convention, Gamescom, marks the shift between summer and autumn. I didn’t play anything at Gamescom last month that set me alight with anticipation; the pandemic has blown holes in the industry’s established schedules and changed the way that it operates, and gaming giants are suddenly absent from the summer promotional frenzy. I did, however, play plenty of titles that I enjoyed – and I want to tell you about them before I’m overtaken by the autumn rush.
You’re a fisherman in a new town, heading out on your refurbished boat, trying to fit whatever you catch into your tiny hold each day. But the townspeople are guarded and ominous, and warn you to return before dark. Before long, weird stuff starts happening and you start to wonder if your poor fisherman is going mad. (He is.) This is a creeping horror game disguised as a chill fishing experience, from New Zealand’s Black Salt Games.
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch
I expected to hate this: it’s a comedy alien shooter from the co-creator of Rick and Morty, and judging by the trailer, it looked as if it was trying very hard to be funny. But it actually is pretty funny, if you can accept that it will be as juvenile and gross as possible in any given moment. High on Life is not unlike Rick and Morty, a barrage of sensory and comedic shocks. Your talking weapons rarely shut up, but when they do, jokes are delivered through dialogue with disgusting aliens or a blaring TV in the corner or adverts plastered across a space station. In a scene that unearthed forgotten memories of the film Labyrinth, I had to argue with a pair of sentient alien doors about which one of them was more attractive. Some of it lands, some of it doesn’t, but the overall effect is of being taken on a ride through someone else’s wildly misfiring comedic imagination.
Available on: Xbox, PC
Remember that manuscript-influenced game I mentioned a few months ago where you play a monk solving a murder mystery in the 16th century, Pentiment? Well! Unbelievably, there’s another game influenced by medieval art coming out later this year. You draw beasts and demons on to the virtual manuscript pages, inspired by the often rude doodles in the margins of real books from that time, and then battle them with each other, via such niche historical faves as Dante and St Hildegard. It’s funny and absorbing.
Available on: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PC, Mac
A simple yet lushly illustrated and lovingly made game whose premise is explained by the title. You bounce around, alone or in multiplayer mode, trying to either shove each other off the trampoline or work together to bounce on the bonces of enemies, while axes and hammers drift down attached to balloons and giant whales pass across the screen. You only need one thumbstick to play this, too, making it very approachable and fun.
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox, PC
There’s something about the juxtaposition of Sonic’s speed and platforming challenge with the wide-open space and natural environments of Sonic Frontiers’ open world that is unexpectedly calming. I’m used to Sonic games as a bombardment of colour, noise and disappointing controls, but this is the first game in the series that I’ve had the urge to keep playing beyond the first 20 minutes in about a decade.
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox, PC
This Japanese-influenced cat-themed indie game has been in production for years, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it at Gamescom. You spend your days exploring a run-down island and rescuing cats, then playing cat-themed mini-games with them. At night, you sell whatever you find to other humans at the market. I need more time with this one to determine if the appeal is more than skin-deep, but it looks sumptuous.
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
A watercolour-styled graphic novel in the form of a game, in which French woman Mimi revists the site of her childhood holidays to reconnect with her memories (and mourn her late grandmother). Switching between grownup and child Mimi, you capture the sights and sounds of your surroundings with photos and recordings. A weird game to play at a crowded conference – I’m looking forward to exploring it somewhere more tranquil.
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox, PC
You know you’re getting older when one of the games you most enjoyed at a games convention is from 1994. This long-delayed remake has evidently had a troubled development and I can’t say it looks as modern as Cyberpunk 2077, but the material they’re working with is so much better. It is a superbly tense and gory space-station hacker story that pulled me right back to the beloved Matrix era of science fiction. I was too young for this game when it first came out and could never get over the dated controls and visuals when I tried to play it later, so I’m convinced that this will introduce a standout game to new generations who will love it.
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox, Mac, PC
What to play
Little Orpheus, the madcap Soviet-inspired adventure from British studio the Chinese Room (of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture fame), is out on consoles this week, having previously been only available to play on iPhones and iPads through Apple Arcade. It’s a snack-sized, charming, beautifully produced game about a hapless cosmonaut telling his superiors about his possibly made-up adventures at the centre of the Earth. No chapter is longer than 20 minutes and the challenge never really ramps up, so it’s best played as an episodic lunchtime diversion, a snack for the senses. And the music especially is divine.
Available on: Apple Arcade, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, PC
Approximate playtime: 4-5 hours
What to read
In a two-hour livestream, Ubisoft revealed the future for its series of historical action games, Assassin’s Creed. There will be a new game set in feudal Japan released in 2023; one set during the European witch hunts after that; and a mobile game set in China that Ubisoft says is coming soon.
Pokémon Go developer Niantic has announced a Marvel game for smartphones. Given that its Harry Potter game never took off, it will be interesting to see if it can replicate the magic with yet another giant pop-culture property.
In Japan, Nintendo’s joyously stylish shooter Splatoon 3 – which I recommended here last week – has sold more than 3m copies in three days. That makes it bigger than Animal Crossing, bigger than Mario Kart and bigger than Pokémon. Never underestimate Nintendo.
Tyler Blevins, AKA Ninja, a famous Fortnite player and once the biggest streamer in the world, lost his cool on-stream last week, deleted his social profiles and disappeared from the internet. Then he reappeared a week later, coincidentally just after his exclusivity deal with Twitch had expired. He is being accused of using mental health and burnout – huge, real issues in streaming – as a marketing strategy.
What to click
Two Point Campus review – relive your student days in this university challenge
Naiad: a game about wild swimming that’s to dive for
“My rediscovered Game Boy Advance is a time machine I don’t want to get out of” – Dominik Diamond
Childhood dreams come true: what its like to be a real-life Pokémon trainer
Another great question from regular Pushing Buttons correspondent Iain Noble this week:
I was interested to read your extensive take on The Last of Us. I believe in Part 2, Ellie comes out. This got me thinking about the way sexuality is treated in games. I’ve been playing the Mass Effect trilogy yet again and the “romance” sections are cringe-making. The Witcher strikes me as the best portrayal, with unbridled lust, a sense of humour and, of course, a unicorn! Are there other games that do a good job of portraying this essential human activity?
It is true that video games are terrible at sex. They’ve long gone by the old American media standards: have as many guns and as much violence as you want in a video game, but heaven forbid you show two humans touching each other. The Last of Us Part 2 is an exception, with genuine human moments amid the overall very depressing story beats about vengeance and man’s inhumanity to man. Then there is Nina Freeman’s brief, comedic game How Do You Do It?, in which you play a tween girl smooshing her dolls together trying to figure out how sex works. Other than those suggestions, the pickings are truly slim – this is an area of human experience that games have still hardly portrayed or explored.
Hit reply on this newsletter if you’ve got your own query for a future Question block. They don’t even have to be serious questions. I will apply journalistic rigour to even the trolliest inquiry about, for example, the backstory of Sonic the Hedgehog.