Every Friday Paste’s editors, staffers and games contributors share what they’ve been playing that week. New games and old, TV and tabletop, major hits and wild obscurities, action-first knuckle-busters and slow-and-stately brain-stokers: you can expect it all, every week, in The Games We Play.
I woke up at 4 a.m. the other day. Wide fucking awake. I’d only been asleep for two hours, but after fighting it for 45 minutes I committed to being awake and logged into the island I share with my partner.
The little blobby personification of me, dressed like a Playmobil Kardashian, walked out the front door of my low-key alpine cottage and smack into Wisp.
He’s a ghost who comes out some nights. I went up to talk to him, and well, I scared the crap out of him.
When Wisp gets scared he jettisons his soul in chunks. Usually he asks me to find them. Usually I do.
But this time, the clock struck 5:01 a.m. right as I was preparing to go track down his missing soulstuff (his biggest fear is losing his soul forever, which is fair, he’s a ghost).
Isabelle interrupted with an announcement. It was a new day on the island of Delaware (really, it’s a peninsula). She talked about her television habits, wished us all a good day, and then I was walking back out of my front door again as the sun rose into the sky.
Wisp was nowhere to be found. I hadn’t gathered the bits of his soul.
Honestly, it’s fucking me up a bit more than I expected. There he was just minding his own anxious business and boom. Now I’ve made his worst fear come true, because I wasn’t paying attention to the time.
I’m really sick of “dark” Animal Crossing. I’m exhausted by the “villager trading is so edgy,” cult of Pietro, stalk market as emblem of capitalism with Tom Nook as its first-against-the-wall hegemon takes. They’re boring, no one really goes anywhere with these ideas or turns them on the players. And they’re just so fucking numerous—like creative writing major dudes who want you to blow them to the Garden State soundtrack.
But the darkness just under the hood of Animal Crossing is undeniable. The candy coating smooths it over and hides some of it, but I just traumatized a ghost.
There’s no real getting around that. Even when we want to.
Hope he gets his soul back one way or another. Sorry, buddy.—Dia Lacina
For some reason, many in the west look at Dragon Quest and think “not for me.” I was the same way—I remember buying Dragon Quest VIII just so I could get my hands on that Final Fantasy XII demo and struggling my way through the first five hours. I decided to retread the series when Dragon Quest XI released back in 2018 and remember thinking… wait, am I actually obsessed with this? From the corny, peasant-like voice acting to the deep character building and gorgeous graphics, Dragon Quest XI is an exercise in camp, tradition, and evolving in the tiniest ways, just enough to keep old diehards onboard and allow for new players to feel like they’re in on the joke. I was also shocked to find a surprisingly emotional storyline and a deft awareness of tropes and how to spin them on their head. It’s no Iliad, but I felt emotionally invested when I expected another grindy 40 hour JRPG.
I’m still not sure what Echoes of an Elusive Age, the game’s enhanced release available only on Switch, actually adds to the game. I’m only a few hours in and wading through a long, long (long) segment spent with Erik, the party’s thief, who for some time has one-sided dialogue with the game’s silent protagonist and therefore woodenly narrates the plot for a little over three hours. I’m eagerly awaiting obtaining Veronica and Serena, the game’s two mage sisters, and I’m even more desperate to reach Sylvando, a foppish circus performer with a buoyant Spanish accent who is perhaps my second favorite videogame character of all time. I’m very eager.
If you’re afraid to commit, Square-Enix very generously offers a 10-hour demo with ultimate freedom—the only content you’re not allowed to access in that time is the special 16-bit graphical mode, which is impressive but little more than a fun added treat. I’m as shocked as you are when I say Dragon Quest XI is one of the best JRPGs ever made.—Editorial Intern Austin Jones
Platforms: PC, Mac, PlayStation
Here’s a list of things I have typically not done throughout my life:
1. Play Star Wars games
2. Play games with a mouse and keyboard (unless it’s Civilization)
3. Play games in the year 1995
4. Play games on my computer (unless it’s Civilization)
My resolve on that last one has crumbled a bit over the last decade, and the first point was more just circumstance than anything else, but the middle two can’t really be changed. If I somehow could live in 1995 again, playing games wouldn’t be anywhere on my list of priorities. And if your computer game has the option of being played with a controller, I will always take it, without question.
So it’s a little weird that I’ve been playing Star Wars: Dark Forces over the last week.
This 1995 Stars Wars shooter won’t work with the controller I have for my PC. It’s a game that I have no nostalgia for, in a genre that I avoided until the late ‘00s, from a series that I’ve never cared about outside of the movies. And yet I’m playing and greatly enjoying this silly old thing.
Forget all the parts where people talk—I couldn’t care less about this Kyle dude—but Dark Forces has some of the twistiest and most inventive level design of its time. It’s a clear bridge between the flat, single-level spaces of Doom and the sprawling, vertically spacious maps that shooters would be build around by the late ‘90s, which makes it fun to explore in ways that most early first-person shooters weren’t. The Star Wars dressing is fine—the sounds of Star Wars will always trigger something positive in my brain, even if the mid ‘90s graphics are too rudimentary to faithfully recreate the look of Lucas’s world—but the levels of Dark Forces are so well-crafted that any kind of setting would work just as well. Given the game’s quality and popularity, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a modern remaster or remake.—Senior Editor Garrett Martin
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, Mac
While AAA titles keep pushing out the same grayscale shooter with different skins, I appreciate the independent scene’s experimentation with interactive stories that tackle dark but important subjects with unbridled artistic bravery. Mosaic is a hauntingly solemn yet beautiful game that visualizes what it feels like to live with chronic depression, as a cog in a soulless society that crushes individual thought. You are an unnamed worker drone who struggles to get through your mundane day, made up of going to work, coming home, and going to sleep. Each chapter is about a specific part of your morning commute.
The bleak and lifeless world that surrounds you provides an aesthetically stark mirror into depression. Hordes of people slithering hopelessly to work alongside you all look the same. The bustling city, full of buildings and cars that also look identical suffocate you, sometimes literally. The smartphone apps that are meant to connect you to the outside world just suck out any dopamine they can by addicting you to repetitive games and hopeless online dating. Your “job” consists of a minimalist puzzle game where you’re supposed to move unidentified “resources” from one end to another. These puzzle sections are frustrating and soul crushing, and might make you want to quit the game. But the point is to instill the sense of monotony that the protagonist is going through, so it’s worth it for an emotionally immersive experience. Mosaic is gorgeous and precious in its sadness, and surprisingly hopeful in its overall outlook.—Oktay Ege Kozak
WarioWare: Smooth Moves
You might be an avid fan of the Super Mario series, but still have no idea that Wario has his own line of games. Wario might not be as beloved as the other famous mustachioed, overalled characters, but he’s an amusing dude, and his WarioWare games are seriously underrated. I was recently gifted a used copy of WarioWare: Smooth Moves for the Wii, which I used to play relentlessly when friends came over. Sure, Mario Party is great for any crowd, but no Super Mario game is anywhere near as funny as WarioWare: Smooth Moves. It’s nothing but mini games that only last a few seconds, but they include some of the most random and goofy tasks, making it endlessly entertaining and exhilarating. Since these tasks flash at you quickly without much warning, the game also encourages relaxation by slowing things down every once in a while and instructing you to perform some weird, full-body pose, which is accompanied by a slow, calming narration that always ends in a dumb joke that’s funny more often than not. You’ll find yourself giggling and wildly pacing around the room, even with its single-player mode. —Associate Music Editor Lizzie Manno
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Call of Duty: Warzone is a fun battle royale shooter, full of all the things that make those kinds of games enjoyable. Gun variety, squad tactics, great graphics and customization options—the works. But playing with a full squad, be it in the three- or four-player varieties, has the added multiplayer benefit of forced communication. I’m sitting around all day talking to exactly zero people at work, so chatting through a headset for a few hours is actually a nice change of pace for me. You and your teammates have a lot of downtime while running around Verdansk, so it often becomes a silly Linklater hangout punctuated by anxious firefights and Saving Private Ryan drama. The amount of screwing around that’s possible in that self-serious game—still given some direction and urgency thanks to the enclosing circle of safety present in the subgenre—is a nostalgic blast bringing to mind midnight LAN parties where the videogames themselves were simply the excuse put forth to see friends and act a fool. Plus, the only price of entry to Warzone’s well-constructed jam sesh of a videogame is its intense download size.—Jacob Oller
Platforms: PC, Mac
Blendo Games seems like one of those studios where all their works are united less by gameplay themes than they are by a certain lo-fi, DIY spirit and a puckish sense of humor. Atom Zombie Smasher, a 2011 release that received a fair amount of attention from gaming geeks at the time, is essentially a mission-based, real-time strategy game in which the player is attempting to rescue civilians from waves of zombies in various cities through the strategic use of military hardware such as artillery, strike teams and land mines. That makes it sound like some sort of Left 4 Dead experience, but the entire premise has been greatly simplified in the visual medium, with zombies and civilians represented as colored dots on a top-down city map. Rather, the addictive gameplay loop involves the player workshopping different methods of rescuing the greatest number of civilians by cleverly herding them in the direction of safety, while trying to put a dent in the oncoming zombie hordes. There’s an element of the “tower defense” genre here, but it’s elevated by the aura of absurdity that Blendo fuses into the production, via zany flavor text (and a groovy surf rock soundtrack) that recalls the undercurrent of “llama”-centric weirdness present in Will Wright’s SimCity 2000-era Maxis games. It suggests a fantastical storyline that is never really expounded upon, but each of its esoteric, writerly asides makes you hungry for more breadcrumbs.—Staff Writer Jim Vorel
Platforms: iOS, Android
Don’t tell me my new birding obsession isn’t gaming. I spent as many hours on Saturday (the “Global Big Day” for birders) walking through a couple of Atlanta’s many nature trails—not to mention laying on my backyard swing, binoculars in hand—as I might have spent a couple months ago playing Outer Worlds. I got just as excited spotting that Magnolia Warber as I would have two years ago encountering a new Pokemon playing Pokemon Go. Quarantine has turned me into a full-fledged bird nerd, as nothing has soothed my anxious pandemic soul like being out in nature. I’ve had to relocate my office from the Paste Studio in Atlanta to my bedroom, but one perk is watching through my window to see what neighborhood birds visit my birdfeeders outside. When the Northern Flicker was hopping around by our woodpile or the flock of Cedar Waxwings came by to visit our neighborhood serviceberry tree, it was like finding that super-rare weapon after a boss fight. When I recently crossed over 100 unique species, it was like unlocking that expert achievement. If you want to experience the full gamification of nature, download the eBird app to track your sightings and the Merlin Bird ID app to identify what you’ve seen. And buy a variety of treats for your feeders, including suet and bark butter. Let me know when you hit that century mark.—Editor-in-Chief Josh Jackson
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
I haven’t seen any of my friends (beyond my partner) in person in months, but we’ve definitely talked a whole lot! No, not over Zoom—video calls are anathema to anyone with body image issues (me). So, we have been playing a lot of videogames together. From Call of Duty: Warzone to watching one of us play Gears Tactics, videogames have become the new bar, the new movie theater, the new trip to the park, and more. The playing of the game takes second fiddle to us just hanging out and catching up via gaudy gamer headsets.
The videogame that has proved best for this has been Sea of Thieves. Interestingly, it affords players the ability to engage in two very different experiences—structured leveling semi-competitive play or just screwing around and sailing the high seas with friends, only occasionally stopping to take on a treasure hunting quest. Thankfully, my friends prefer the latter and the experience is an absolute riot. For example, a friend and I were playing the other night—just the two of us. Thus we were sailing the smallest ship in the game, a sloop, and just doing some mild treasure quests. For a good while, it was all fun and games, but that changed when we stumbled onto a real-world meme that was put into Sea of Thieves. We sighed and laughed at the lameness of it but it marked a turning point. From there on out, we were in the shit. My UI stopped showing up right when we got attacked by a skeleton ship, and as our ship’s hull was torn apart by cannon fire, I just bailed water out while my friend navigated us to safety. I could not pull out wood to fix the hull so I just ended up bailing water for 15 or 20 minutes. It was the most fun I’ve had in weeks.—Cole Henry