Welcome back to Gaming IRL, a monthly segment where several editors talk about what they've been playing in their downtime.
Gaming IRL is part of a broader series in which you'll find stories from all of the areas we cover: gadgets we use every day, the apps and services we adore, what we're watching and the music and podcasts we can't live without.
Today is all about gaming. E3 is done and dusted for another year, but every year there are dozens of great games released, all of which are available right now. Fittingly, our picks this month range from a 1997 sim all the way up to a game that was released just today.
Nex Machina is Housemarque's latest twin-stick shooter. For some, that's enough to warrant an instant purchase -- for the rest of you, here's why you should care. The Finnish developer, best known for Resogun and Dead Nation, set out to create a spiritual sequel to Robotron: 2084, and it's nailed that brief. The controls are tight, the action is as frantic as you'd hope, and the difficulty scales to insane highs without ever feeling unfair.
I am neither a perfectionist nor a completist, but something about arcade games flips a switch in my brain that makes me need to chase that high score. As such, Housemarque's Resogun is the only game I have ever "100-percented" across my Steam and PlayStation libraries.
In my time with the game, I learned wave patterns, uncovered secret exits, and generally lost myself to the leaderboards. The search for perfection is aided massively by a replay function that lets you view other people's playthroughs via the leaderboards to see what they're doing differently than you. At one point in the closed beta, I (or, thanks to the Steam account I was playing on, "Engadget") was in the top ten of virtually every stage and challenge. Once I get the time, I'll be headed back to reclaim that spot.
Twenty-five hours in and I'm convinced Nex Machina is the best twin-stick shooter ever made. Out today at $20 (£15), I can't recommend it enough.
'Old Man's Journey'
Can a puzzle game make you cry? I didn't think that was possible, until I played Old Man's Journey. I was initially drawn to it because I'm generally a fan of pretty puzzle games like Two Dots and Monument Valley, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Just like the latter, the puzzles in Old Man's Journey are weaved into a larger overall story. But while Monument Valley is set in an abstract fantasyland of optical illusions, Old Man's Journey is set in our world (albeit with a slight suspension of disbelief). And it is this aspect that makes Old Man's Journey unusually emotional, touching me in a way that I didn't expect.
The game starts with a house on a sea cliff, waves crashing the shore beneath. Sitting by the house's stoop is an old man. A mailman comes by and gives a letter to him. He opens it and his eyes widen. He then goes into the house, rummages around, and emerges with a backpack and a walking stick. The old man is off on a journey, and it is your mission to guide him through all manner of obstacles to his mysterious destination.
As I hinted above, the physics in the game don't really make sense. To get the old man on his way, you have to elevate and lower mountains by dragging their horizon lines up and down like some kind of an omnipotent god. Get them in alignment and voilà, the old man can just hop across them. From there you can guide him through the next scene. The scenes get more complicated as he goes on; it starts with rolling hills, but you soon have to guide him through waterfalls, train tracks and even the dark ocean floor.
After each successful stage, the man sits down, either on a bench or a rock, and reminisces. This kicks into beautiful flashback cutscenes that often consist of nothing more than a slightly animated drawing, like hair blowing in the wind. It is these cutscenes that tell the story of the old man. As he continues on his journey into unfamiliar territory, his flashbacks get more intimate, more personal. At the very end of the game, as I fully learned the story of the old man, I couldn't help but feel emotional. This old man's story moved me, and I cried.
Old Man's Journey is more than just a game. It's a story, a deeply compelling one, that just happens to be told through a finger-dragging, finger-tapping puzzle game.
Senior Editor, Database
Theme Hospital was $1.49 on GOG.com last week, so of course I bought it. I intended just to play "a little bit," but found my entire evening gone in the blink of an eye. Good simulation games have a way of sucking you in, even when they're as ostensibly silly as a medical game where your patients suffer from comically inflated heads and extended tongues. However, returning to Theme Hospital was a different experience for me than when I played it as a teenager 20 years ago. Not just because the menu and loading-screen graphics are very much a product of their time -- trending toward roundness and silver everywhere, with visual references to the CD-ROMs the game was originally stored on. But also because I am now an adult in charge of her own medical care, and the choices I made as a hospital director were absolutely horrifying to someone who's spent time in doctor's offices and clinics.
Simulation titles like Theme Hospital focus on the things they can quantify: the number of patients who arrive at the hospital, how many doctors are available to see them, the number of seconds each virtual patient spends waiting and whether you have the proper treatment facility. There's a simple chain of programming logic there. What the game isn't as concerned about is whether this hallway is too cramped, or you've blocked the windows or if that room is too far a walk.
The game actually incentivizes placing treatment rooms far apart, as the long trip gives the virtual doctors time to finish up with the previous patient. It doesn't penalize you for the time patients spend traveling; that's their problem. Same with how you lay out the hallways or the bathroom. Larger offices and adequate break areas will keep your doctors happy, but Theme Hospital is not really concerned with how the patients feel, so long as they're not waiting too long and there are enough benches in the building. It also doesn't care about how anything looks. You can turn your hospital into a warren of twisty corridors and the only penalty is to your personal sense of aesthetics.
I'd say that Theme Hospital boils health care down to a game of numbers, but let's face it, that's a lot like how it works in the real world too. That's what makes it so scary, but also what drives me to keep playing, to prove that things can be better.
'The Flame in the Flood'
There's something serendipitously synchronous between video games and the great outdoors. You'd expect one to be anathema to the other, but both share elements of undaunted adventure -- of potential wonder unraveled by discovery. The Flame in the Flood was released back in January, a Don't Starve–esque wilderness survival indie game that ditches the supernatural to focus on the thrilling wonder of eking out life in the dangerous wilds. I picked the game up on sale and delayed playing until I needed it, which is something the game's scrappy survivalist bent would respect.
A little banjo, some folksy crooning and a loyal dog are all that accompany your heroine, Scout, as she rafts down a river filthy with mankind's detritus. In other words, it captures the lonely thrill I remember from camping as a kid, overwhelmed by a natural world indifferent to humanity. There's all manner of craft recipes and environmental metrics to wet any outdoorsperson's whistle, but it's the rush of skirting past dangerous rapids or sliding around a boar on a bone-breaking charge that best convey the game's conceit of self-reliance in the wild.
Other games have tighter crafting mechanics or a less constricted play area, but The Flame in the Flood is a gorgeous little vision, a Huck Finn journey forcing you to make do with the clothes on your back and the raw elements you find along the way. Even the pause menu is tonally spartan, listing the game's version of a Scout survival motto: Travel by raft, rest when possible, kindle fires to keep warm, keep your inventory stocked ... and survive, survive, survive. Sure, there are a million questions to answer about how the world got to be such an abandoned mess ... but I'm sure I'll find another scrap of revealing lore, and some supplies, on the next midriver stop.
I've been playing Minecraft since it first hit alpha status on the Mac back in 2010. For me it was an instant hit, with an open world that I could explore and extract resources from. Figuring out recipes on various internet forums was also part of the charm, and once Creative mode came out, I was building massive castles in the blocky mountains and re-creating huge battleships with friends on the high seas. There's something incredibly Zen about digging down deeper and deeper, or crafting bizarre architectural creations, that keeps my mind in a flow state like nothing else. My interest definitely waned in the intervening years, but I still dip a toe in now and again, inviting my younger cousins to play on my Realms server or trying out the PS4 version with the Skyrim texture pack.
It wasn't until the release of the Switch version of Minecraft, however, that I again became a full-on Minecraft addict. Suddenly I found myself grabbing Nintendo's new portable hardware to dig and build long into the evening. Minecraft, not Zelda, continues to hold my attention, both on the go and on my big TV. The extra set of Joy-Cons I bought helps more of my family play Mario Kart, sure, but I really just wanted to do some couch co-op in the worlds installed on my Switch. With the news of cross-platform play, I can't wait to drop into worlds my friends have created on Xbox One, PC and mobile -- it's like the first true unified gaming platform, enabled for this most wondrous of digital experiences.
'Dots & Co'
Deputy Managing Editor
The past few months of my life have been spent moving -- that means lots of packing, unpacking and general disorganization. A consequence of that is that my consoles were largely packed away for a good two months (not like I would have had much time to play them anyway).
To fill the void, I've been spending plenty of time playing mobile games instead, and one in particular has sucked up much of the little free time I've had: Dots & Co. I've tried all three of the Dots games, and for some reason I find this one the most entertaining. Part of it is the aesthetic -- it's a bit brighter and cheerier than Two Dots. Part of that is the addition of "companions" that boost your powers and help you get through various levels.
Those powers add enough variety to the gameplay that I've plowed through dozens of levels and not gotten tired of it. For the most part, the puzzles are challenging enough that they feel satisfying to complete but don't usually make me want to tear my hair out. The separate weekly "expeditions" provide a nice change of pace -- you have to beat five levels without losing to complete them.
Across the board, Dots & Co is simply a well-balanced free-to-play game. It has great music and design, offers fun gameplay and puzzles and doesn't bug you too much to spend real money. At some point, I'll probably put it aside and not play for weeks or months (as I do with most mobile games), but it's good to know it'll be there waiting when I'm in the mood for it again.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.