No Refunds: “Monster Sanctuary”

Consensus: After exactly two hours and one minute, it was hard for me to stop playing this game, midway through the second dungeon, the Blue Caves. I’ll be coming back to this one for sure.

Release Date: 12/8

Platform: PC* (*Available on XBOX Game Pass)

Developer: Moi Rai Games

Publisher: Team17 Digital

I might be biased because of my love of all things platformer, especially those with gorgeous pixel art, but combining turn-based RPG combat, Pokemon-like monster collecting, and the so-called Metroidvania style turns out to work exceedingly well.

The game essentially hooks you four different ways. First, there’s the exploration, with each monster type serving to give you new ways to cut or burn through vines, smash through walls, press down plates, activate elemental orbs, or otherwise navigate the environment. Second, there’s the monster taming, with each type having a robust skill tree with a variety of branches to level up depending on whether you’re using them to heal, support, or damage foes. Third, there’s the optional theorycrafting, where you can tweak a monster’s diet and its weapons and accessories to maximize the output on passives that work in conjunction with crits or maximum HP. And finally, there’s the combat itself, which ranks each battle based on how well you chain together combos, utilize debuffs and damage over time, and minimize incoming attacks.

It speaks to these strengths of Monster Sanctuary that the absence of a story–little more than an extended tutorial in these first two hours–isn’t bothersome. And it’s encouraging that each zone has enough variety of monsters to keep the constant battling for new eggs (i.e., hatchable recruits) from feeling like a grind. “Sanctuary” may be in the title, but this game doesn’t feel safe; here’s hoping it holds up.

One Life: Spider-Man: Miles Morales

I grew up in New York City, which is a blessing and curse when it comes to media. You always feel represented–New York is nothing if not ubiquitous–but you also never quite feel seen, because what you’re seeing reflected through the screen is a glossy, exaggerated mash-up of themes that are always in service to something else. We’re the perfectly anodyne city for Grand Theft Auto IV to dump every urban satire atop. In Spider-Man, we’re a perfectly compressed open world that’s the right height to web around in.

For the most part, Spider-Man: Miles Morales treats New York City as more of the same; a backdrop for big exciting chases. But by making Miles Morales such a creature of the city, and then having the decency to actually tell his story, Insomniac Games gets one thing truly right, and that’s the way it sounds. Miles is intimately, inextricably linked to music, and hearing things through his eyes allow us to better understand both him and the city. It’s one of those small, significant details that I wish more games, especially open-world ones, would invest in.

Here, the gameplay reflects Miles’s development in a series of Sound Sample side quests, where Miles is tasked with listening to a variety of objects in a small area–like a bustling Chinatown street, the slushing regularity of the harbor, or the industriousness of a local fire department. Beat by beat, you learn how to put the city together, until at last using a mix of all the city’s “melodies” to unlock a snazzy new suit. But make no mistake, the reward is in the way it gets you to slow down and actually consider the city and the people in it. It’s one of the most lived-in moments of 2020, and I can’t praise it enough.

No Refunds: “Unto the End”

A clangy cross between the gameplay of Dark Souls and the visual aesthetic of Flashback, the Viking-like Unto the End is a brooding, deliberate game that I have absolutely no interest in.

This isn’t a bad game, but it’s a sparse and derivative one, with no real way to distinguish itself or draw any but the most hardcore of players into its world. You are simply a red-headed warrior, sent off with a lock of your wife’s hair to . . . do something? Something that requires you to go into a series of dark caverns and slay monsters for keys?

It’s not as if I didn’t try to play by Unto the End‘s rules so much as I just didn’t understand them.

I’ve never really understood why impenetrability is deemed an asset for games, especially in a linear title like this one. I enjoyed, at first, realizing that not all creatures were hostile, and that you could, in fact trade your four key crafting components. Until, that is, I realized that I was just trading in a loop. My herbs became bones, my bones became leather, my leather became sticks, and back again. I had no idea how many I’d get, or what I’d need, which was more or less the theme of the entire game. As a result, I abandoned most of the game’s already limited mechanics, brute-forcing my way through encounters that were designed to be carefully studied and parried through but which were more often than not just frustratingly slow showdowns.

It’s not as if I didn’t try to play by Unto the End‘s rules so much as I just didn’t understand them. At first, I kept rolling around an angry Yeti’s feet, trying to figure out the right timing with which to stabby-stab him to death. A half-hour later, I simply fled his slightly larger cousin, a wendigo-like behemoth that kept trying to bludgeon me with a deer’s corpse. The game had failed to communicate whether there were unique items I was passing up, or if the struggle was just for generic crafting gear, irrelevant since if I wasn’t fighting, I had no need to upgrade my armor or brew health tonics.

It also didn’t help that the game kept repeating itself. Perhaps there’s some twist a bit later, but the first two hours I spent were spelunking through identically dark caverns and snowy fields, hacking away at the same blurry grey cryptids. The only adjustments necessary were based on how many of them swarmed me at once, or which weapons they used, none of which was relevant if I could just run along to the next objective.

Unto the End also suffers from a glaring dissonance: it demands that you pay close attention to enemies so that you can defend them appropriately by blocking up or down, rolling away, or ducking. But it plunges most of these encounters into poorly lit areas, and fills them with multiple foes at a time. I was already in search of a reason to keep pushing on in the first place; now I was also trying to find a reason to focus on the combat.

After two hours and one minute, exactly, I happily quit. Nothing beyond my own stubborn ego had compelled me this far, and nothing was going to lure me back.