The cult gaming articles are some of the most popular I’ve written, so I thought I would add a few that you can get for your current systems.
Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360, PS3)
If you like Twin Peaks and/or the first Silent Hill, this game is for you. Gameplay wise, this one takes you back to a Japanese dominated era of Survival Horror where controls were clunky and interfaces were over-encumbered. In fact no part of the gameplay is of a level of quality that I would normally recommend this game. This one sells itself purely on heart.
While just controlling your character and navigating the environment can often be crude, every moment of playing it is pure pleasure, even when that pleasure is pain. There was an era that was very brief between the first Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4, when Survival Horror was this quirky genre that was more cult than mainstream. Not only were there many great games in the core genre, but some of my favorite genre-benders like Parasite Eve, Koudelka and Tecmo’s Deception come from this era as well. The way those games made me feel is a thing I haven’t felt for almost a decade until playing this game. That creeping curiosity only barely covering morbid fascination and horror. To this day I think of it as the Silent Hill 1 feeling because that game captured it best. There are also many parts of the game that are downright silly, but rather than ruin the quality plot, these elements just complete the B-horror vibe. As any B-horror fan can tell you, a movie can definitely be absurd and terrifying on the same reel.
That would actually be my main words of advice for anyone picking up this game: Don’t be fooled by the seemingly cheesy veneer. The first couple hours of this game will fool you into thinking it lacks the ability to disturb you, which actually makes the last half of the game even better. Much like the show Twin Peaks from which the plot draws most of it’s inspiration, many characters who seem completely harmless at first will show you sides you can’t imagine. There is an excellent story here and if at first you don’t think that Agent Francis “York” Morgan is the best protagonist for it, you will find yourself mistaken. For example, if you assumed that “Zach” was just a cheesy way for the game to break the fourth wall and address the player, you would be wrong. There’s a reason we don’t talk about Zach.
Venetica (PC/Xbox 360)
The first thing you should not do is read any professional reviews for this game. It is true that the opening cutscene looks like a PS2 game and there is no autosave feature. If no other merits of the game could make these two things bearable for you, you will agree with most reviews and not like this game. If you are a fan of Soul Reaver, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and the original Fable, you may find a lot to like. Venetica combines some of the best elements of those games and builds them on a solid Action/RPG base. You have skill trees, you can craft items and upgrade armor and there are 4 classes of weapons and 2 classes of magic.
One of my favorite elements in any great adventure game is a lot of environment exploration. I love to search for hidden passages and loot and I sure as hell love to break barrels. I can’t stand the trend in gaming to move away from this, especially in the Fable series where one of the hints specifically tells you there is nothing in barrels and mocks you for wanting to look. Way to alienate me as a consumer. Venetica rewards you for every minute you spend in every area. There are useful crafting items scattered in every area, you can loot every enemy and harvest parts from beasts and plants. If you buy enough lamp oil to thoroughly scout every dark corner, you will often find hidden passages that are difficult to see even on the map. The fetch and A to B quests are fantastic in this game as they also encourage exploration and you can complete the quest objectives before you find the original quest-giver.
Where this game lacks, besides an auto-save feature, is in the puzzles. Almost every puzzle in this game is a variation of “do 4 things in the right order.” Although there are some good ones later in the game that use the abilities you unlock, the obsession with combinations of 4 things continues throughout the game. The graphics are definitely below average, but mostly in the level of effects applied and the polygon count of objects. Unlike Deadly Premonition, you will find modern effects like Normal Mapping, HDR lighting and proper shadows, so it’s not by any means unbearable. After a few hours the rough graphics are not at all distracting.
One of the best elements of this game is that you are a female character that isn’t stupid. Besides Heavy Rain, I am sorely disappointed in gaming for forgetting how to write female characters. While I enjoy being Beardly McViolence in 9/10 games, it just doesn’t seem right to never play a game with a believable female protagonist. While much of the dialogue is extremely trite, there is always one dialogue option that would make even Hillary Clinton flinch.
Demon’s Souls (PS3)
OMG Demon’s Souls. I have dreams about this game and I haven’t played it in almost a year. In an age of soft RPGs with no teeth and adventure games that don’t even allow you to die, Demon’s Souls is here to test your mettle. Every screenshot of the game makes it look similar to Oblivion. The Elder Scrolls games incorporate every modern convention and give you every freedom and chance to save yourself. Demon’s Souls tricks you, traps you and steals your hope by dropping you into overwhelming odds. There really isn’t much similarity besides the fantasy imagery.
In this game you collect souls from enemies like XP and use them to increase abilities as well as currency to buy items. The catch is when you die, you lose them all. So every inch farther you press into uncharted territory is a risk to every unspent resource point you have. Consider if you will an experience Brice had while playing: After racking up a decent bounty of souls, he fell off a ledge, landing on a lower level. He found himself in a pit lined with scaffolding, on an upper level with no way back to the top. He first had to jump from scaffold to scaffold to make his way down, being careful not to fall farther than he can survive (a distance which is not clearly defined in the game). After carefully descending to the bottom, he had to try to find his way back to the exit and safety. The only other way to leave the dungeon is by defeating a boss, opening a new exit portal (unless you have an expensive escape item, which he didn’t). He was in no way prepared for a boss and didn’t even know what weapons he needed for the new enemies of the lowest level. His escape was legend, and a legend it remains to this day. Nothing like that ever happens in an Elder Scrolls game, or if it did, I already forgot about it.
The other thing Demon’s Souls pulls off that is truly rare, is that sense of constant wonder and fear of what’s around every corner. Every second is an inner struggle of: How good could the loot be vs. How bad could the monsters be? Of monsters there be many, of all sizes. There’s a standard assortment of orcs, blobs and skeletons, but there are also dragons. Huge dragons that can incinerate you in an instant for most of the game. They aren’t even bosses, they just live there. Most of the game is like this, every thing in it’s proper place. Skeletons and slimes in the dungeons, dragons roosting on the mountainside and warlocks in the crypts. It’s all familiar in theme, but it never bothers to explain or describe, if anything your knowledge of typical fantasy worlds is your only primer for what’s coming in Demon’s Souls. If you automatically assume you need fire for undead and magic for gelatinous cubes, you will have some small advantage against the horrors that await you.
There are a number of games that tried to bring back the PS2 JRPG scene with offbeat hardcore offerings. Most of them are boring at best, offensive at worst. In an age where even Final Fantasy can’t be counted on for a traditional roleplaying experience, there aren’t many games like this around. Folklore is one that really pulls it off well. The combat system is fresh enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to be nostalgic (and a lot of fun). The visuals are detailed, bright and creative and the music is pretty darn good, even compared to newer Final Fantasies.
Usually I can’t stand it when any product tries to be ‘super-hip’ by combining popular trends. It usually results in things like iBeanies and camo capri pants. If the combination of JRPG, hipster clothing styles and ‘anything Gaelic’ wasn’t so outlandish, I might be offended. For some reason even though I’m not some patched-bell-bottom wearing emo kid with Celtic knots tattooed on me, I dug this game’s vibe. The characters follow a very standard, Tim Burton-esque formula of funny/cute/creepy that actually works somehow and the plot is an oldie but a goodie.
The masterstroke that makes this one a Cult Classic, rather than just another B-game is how the Celtic faerie tale vibe is maintained throughout. The fey folk are true to their legend and are never truly good or evil by human standards. Since most of the people you encounter in the game are either supernatural or controlled by supernatural forces, this makes for a fresh experience. Especially compared to the traditional “this is the pope, he’s the bad guy, this is the resistance, they’re the good guys” approach.