Top games of 2023

by webmaster 2024-03-17 #games #review

I don't, as a rule, pay full price for any game (with some exceptions). Like many people spoiled by Steam sales and a huge Steam library, I am patient enough to wait until a game goes on sale before pulling the trigger. I've got plenty to play until then.

This is a chronicle of the games I liked the most in 2023. Some of them were released previously to 2023, I just bought and played them this year.

I've only finished two of these games.

Here they are, in no particular order. Note that the platform is whatever I own it on. Some of these games run on other platforms as well. Some I've bought on multiple platforms (desktop + Switch).

A word on Switch vs PC. These are the two gaming platforms I currently own. Before I buy a game I ask myself, where would I play it the most? The choice comes down to: is the game better suited for a small screen (visually and in terms of hardware), and does it work really well with a controller? If the answer is yes, then I'll most likely buy it on the Switch (also if the price is discounted). If the answer is no, then it's probably PC. I also play certain games on the Mac but only when I'm traveling for work and I don't already have it on the Switch.


Genre 1st/3rd person open world exploration, factory building and automation Platform Steam/PC

Take Factorio, add 3D and some unique mechanics, subtract a bunch of anxiety, and you get Satisfactory. The overarching story is also similar: you're stranded on an alien planet and need to survive and evolve the technology to the point where you can leave. I like it because I have a soft spot for sandbox games, especially ones that let you alter the environment permanently.

There's a lot to like here. There are multiple technology tiers (up to 9 at last count), each progressively harder to reach due to requiring increasingly complex materials and factories to produce said materials. There's a lot of open world exploration, first on foot, later with vehicles.

Exploration will take a lot of your time (something I enjoy), because you will be searching for various resources you'll need to progress. Along the way you'll discover crashed ships with scattered materials that you can pilfer and new technology that you can assimilate, but also alien denizens that'll get rather annoyed to have you around, not to mention toxic or radioactive areas that are off-limits until you can research appropriate PPE.

Then there are the factories, that start small much like Factorio only to escalate in complexity, until you end up with a veritable spaghetti of stacked assemblers, horizontal and vertical conveyor belts, gantries, and every industrial fixture you can imagine.

Automation is key here, and there'll be lots of it if you want to keep your sanity or evolve beyond the basics. There are also blueprints, which every respectable factory game has, allowing you to pre-define entire manufacturing flows and place them to be constructed in one click.

Vehicles are very important, but thankfully don't need a lot of investment to get started with. Eventually you'll have access to vacuum tubes (for quick travel), automated drones, trucks, trains, and more that I haven't yet unlocked.

I moved on to other games long before reaching the apex of the technology tree, but Satisfactory was... um... very satisfactory for the dozens of hours I played it. I'll very likely go back to it at some point. If you can catch a sale (or even without), it's a no-brainer. As I type this, it's $16.49 (45% off).

The good - Easier than Factorio, yet the 3D world makes it feel vast. The world is static (as in not procedurally generated) but huge, so there's a lot to explore before you get bored. Unlike Factorio, you can build vertically, meaning that you can stack related manufacturing facilities more efficiently. A lot of things to build. Combat is not generally dangerous if you keep up with the tech tree. Much fun at all levels. The bad - It can get rather grindy at later stages. Just like Factorio, if you don't plan correctly you'll end up with factory spaghetti. Might require searching online for advanced tips & tricks. The ugly - It's still in early access (but new content has been constantly released).

Last Epoch

Genre Action RPG Platform Steam/PC

Simply put, Last Epoch is a spiritual successor to both Diablo 2 (the best Diablo ever) and Path of Exile. As a big fan of both these games, this was a no-brainer.

LE is a fast-paced RPG that puts you in the middle of the action from the get-go. There are 5 classes with 3 specializations each, for a total of 15 combinations that all play uniquely. But more importantly, each skill in the game has its own tree, which means you can make the same skill act radically different from the base skill, without factoring in synergies with other skills and the equally expansive class skill tree.

You'll progress quickly through a story-packed campaign to reach the real meat-and-potatoes which is the endgame. Here, you'll have the option of 3 or 4 different mechanics in the form of zones (called monoliths) and dungeons with progressive difficulty and random stats (in a similar fashion to PoE), and some endless mode thrown in.

Itemization is pretty good, certainly better than Diablo 4 and perhaps on par with Diablo 2, with some original twists thrown in there. I'm not an expert, but all I can say is that it felt good to me, compared to Diablo 4's items which seemed boring af.

Bottom line - if you're thinking about buying Diablo 4, save $35 and buy Last Epoch instead. There's a lot more bang for your buck here.

The good - A great spiritual successor to both Diablo 2 and Path of Exile. A lot of fun leveling up, and the end game is pretty damn good too. Good itemization with some original ideas. Powerful-feeling classes and specializations, each with distinct gameplay. Deeply customizable skills. Affordable and painless respecs. The bad - For min-maxing and a chance to push higher difficulty monoliths at the endgame you'll end up researching builds online. The ugly - The endgame grind. Missing specializations when I played it - now they're all in the game with v1 released.

Halls of Torment

Genre Survivors-like retro roguelike autobattler Platform Steam/PC

Remember Vampire Survivors? It's the autobattler roguelike with pixelated graphics that spawned a bazillion similar copycats. Halls of Torment is one of those clones, but stands out above most.

HoT brings a few unique ideas to the table. Chiefly among them are the items. You'll acquire items during runs, usually after defeating (mini)bosses and completing events. You'll then carry those items to a well that transports the item to the surface. Back at your camp, you'll be able to buy the item from a vendor. Once you've bought it, you can equip it on any of your characters.

If the previous paragraph didn't make much sense that's because item retrieval isn't very well explained and you'll have to figure it out for yourself. If you ask me, it's not the smartest way to extract an item from a dungeon, but at least it's a unique take.

Going back to the items themselves, each character has several slots (ya know, the usual head, chest, etc). Items confer mostly unique, class-specific, or skill-altering abilities rather than flat stat boosts, while others are agnostic and can benefit any class or skill. So that's good. Oh, once you've purchased an extracted item from the vendor, you can equip the same item on multiple classes.

You unlock different classes and skills as you progress. There are the classic melee, ranged, magic, summoner, beastmaster, etc types. Like any good Survivors clone, you are presented with 3 skill choices whenever you level up during a run.

But Halls of Torment brings a certain Diablo 1-like vibe to it that is hard to resist. The gritty but detailed pixelated graphics, combined with the scaled-up characters and monsters (again, compared to Survivors) and the itemization, make it feel like a veritable child of Diablo 1 and Vampire Survivors.

The fact that it I can play it on PC with an Xbox wireless controller is an added bonus.

If you like Vampire Survivors, get Halls of Torment.

The good - Unique take on the survivors genre. Very good art reminiscent of 90s RPGs. Solid and satisfying gameplay. Unbeatable price - only $5, often on sale for $4. The bad - You will die. Many times. Item retrieval is weird. Itemization is not really my cup of tea, though interesting nonetheless. The ugly - It's still in early access (but this only means a lot of content is yet to come).

Death Must Die

Genre Survivors-like retro roguelike autobattler Platform Steam/PC

Take what I said about Halls of Torment above and apply it to Death Must Die, but throw in some Hades vibes in there as well.

You see, much like Hades, in Death Must Die your ultimate goal is another head honcho - Death itself. Along the way, every time you level up a random god will give you a choice between 3 abilities based on their own alignment (the God of Fire will give you fire abilities, while the God of Thunder... well, you get it). There are synergies between the various elements and alignments, of course, and this makes for some powerful combos if you get lucky.

Once again, there are various classes that you unlock as you progress through the (somewhat) sparse storyline.

There's also itemization, but a lot closer to a standard RPG this time. Each character has a paperdoll with equipment slots, as well as an inventory where they store excess items. There's also a shared stash back at the base. The items themselves are a lot more stat-based than Halls of Torment, but they are also color-coded white-blue-purple-etc. Some of the more special ones have skill-altering stats.

Thankfully you can equip items as soon as you find them, but certain items are class-specific.

This one's also playable with a wireless Xbox controller on a PC.

All in all, Death Must Die is a great addition to your Survivors portfolio.

The good - It takes the good parts from several games and combines them into an engaging survivors-like experience. Very satisfying combat with a variety of distinct builds, not just from the different classes, but also from the random gods you'll encounter. Pretty good itemization. The bad - Items can feel generic after a while. Difficulty ramps up quickly. The ugly - It's still in early access.

ΔV: Rings of Saturn

Genre Physics-based space mining/exploration sim Platform Steam/PC

I'm a sucker for space mining games. I haven't played a lot because I'm still searching for the perfect one. Rings of Saturn comes close. Umm, ignore the Δ (pronounced "Delta") because it's a weird character that has no place in the English language outside of a lab or a physics lesson.

But there's the rub - the physics aspect. Rings of Saturn is heavily physics based. There's mass, momentum, inertia, acceleration, and a lot more of that sciency mumbo-jumbo. Fret not - it's presented in an easily digestible manner. Oh and this is a 2D game, which makes it all the more interesting to me. Screw that 3rd dimension, it's only there to cause trouble.

There's a short but concise tutorial when you get thrown into a new game, and it serves well to explain how to control your ship. Thankfully the starter ship is very maneuverable, though small, but this is exactly what you want initially. Eventually you'll get comfortable enough with the controls that you'll want to spring for bigger, but more sluggish ships.

The point of the game is to mine rare minerals in the rings of Saturn (ya know, that cool planet in our Solar system). You accomplish this in various ways, but the starting ship has only a mass driver (fancy term for a railgun) and an excavator-like scoop. You fly around and maneuver using your thrusters until you find a promising rock (read "big enough"), then you aim and blast it with your mass driver. After one or more shots the rock will shatter and sometimes reveal a mineral nugget. Because a mass driver fires a projectile, there's recoil, and the mineral kernel might also spin away from you at increasing velocity. Hence the delta-V (the difference in velocity between bodies - I hope I'm not butchering the concept).

So now you're faced with a hard decision: should you power up your engines to full burn and chase after the nugget, risking smashing into other rocks, or just let it go and find one that sticks around after being cracked open? Choices, choices. Oh, btw, smashing into hard objects in this game can quickly evolve from bad to fatal. Ships have many modules that will get damaged by impacts, so you want to be extra careful when navigating. A common disaster scenario as a noob (or even later with bad luck) is losing maneuvering and braking thrusters and spinning out of control. Of course, the deeper you go into Saturn's rings (you start at the outer edges) the denser the floaty rocks, so you want to get those controls down to a science before you blunder your way in deeper.

Don't worry though. Once your cargo hold is full you can head back to the station for a repair and a refuel, and to sell your load. Early on, it only takes a couple of trips before you can start upgrading equipment. Eventually you'll have access to mining lasers, microwaves, mechanical arms, automatic collectors, sophisticated radar, powerful engines, and of course big ships. There are even floating refineries that are sluggish as hell but can carry and refine huge loads.

One piece of essential equipment that you'll want as soon as you can afford it is the scanner, combined with a geologist crew member. This will identify each mineral chunk as it's ejected from its rocky cocoon, showing a readout of the chemical symbol and the value. The chief benefit is that it will allow you to focus on the most valuable nuggets, while ignoring cheap ones.

You can (and should) hire crew for your ship. Crew members must be paid a regular salary, and skilled ones don't come cheap, but they'll make a huge difference in how a ship operates, and ultimately will greatly improve your mining yield. As I mentioned above, a geologist will earn their salary on the first trip.

There's more to the game than just mining. I haven't got very far, but there are various stations that you'll discover, pirates and odd characters you'll run into, and space races you can participate in if you feel inclined (just don't bring your refinery ship to the race).

If I'm not mistaken, this is one of those indie games that was made by a single person, or at least a tiny team. Some of that is reflected in the grittiness, but it's also why this game is so amazing and special.

If you like space (mining) sims, this game is a must, especially for the measly $10 it costs. Oh and it also runs on a Mac, so there.

The good - Very unique take on the space mining genre. Solid physics engine that will literally throw you for a loop. Wide variety of ships and mining gear. Different ways to enjoy it (miner, pirate, racer, etc). Vast (though repetitive, but it's space duh) area to explore. The bad - A lot of things aren't explained very well beyond the initial brief tutorial, leaving the player to figure it out (though some people like this). The ugly - Time consuming if you want to discover all it has to offer.

Slay the Spire

Genre Deck-builder roguelike Platform Nintendo/Switch

You must have been living under a rock if you haven't heard of Slay the Spire. It's been quite a sensation over the last couple of years. I'll admit that I'm not big into deck-builder games, and this is actually my first one.

I spent quite a significant time playing it on the Switch, and I still haven't managed to get very far. This is a game of skill and strategy, that will take hundreds or thousands of attempts to master.

The controls work great on the Switch and the graphics are perfect for it, so it's a great little complex and portable game. You can easily kill a 10 hour flight engrossed in it.

Anyway, I won't go into much detail describing Slay the Spire because a lot of ink has already been spilled over it. Suffice to say that if you're into deck-builders, this one's a must.

The good - Seriously fun and engaging gameplay. Cute art. Solid controls. The bad - 2 of the 4 character classes are not that appealing to me (but that's because I suck). The ugly - I'm not that good at it and have barely made it halfway through the campaign.

Loop Hero

Genre Retro-inspired retro strategy roguelike autobattler Platform Steam/Mac & Nintendo/Switch

This game is honestly hard to put in any box, as I've never quite played anything like it. Hence the weird genre amalgamation I made up. It has a little bit from each, with a sliver of idle clicker thrown in.

You start with a hero of a particular class (more classes unlocked as you progress) who moves around a randomly generated circular track. Monsters spawn periodically; every time your hero encounters them there's quick auto-combat. If you die, it's game over. But that happens later. In the early stages your hero won't have much trouble quickly vanquishing any foe they encounter, especially since monsters drop loot that you can equip to enhance your fighting and survival abilities.

Every time you complete a loop, monster levels go up but so does the loot. So next time around you'll get a chance to upgrade your gear when something better drops. There's a day cycle as well, causing monsters to respawn.

Monsters also drop two other kinds of resources. There are materials that you use for meta progression in between runs (after you ded) to expand your base, hence giving you various bonuses. Then there's the meat-and-potatoes of this game: building and terrain cards that go into a deck and can be placed on the map strategically. Beware though: older cards that overflow the deck will be automatically discarded, so you should use the best ones soon.

The terrain cards fall in several categories.

For starters, there are map tiles that will give you resources when you place them on your map. When similar tiles are adjacent, they reinforce each other, giving you survivability bonuses (like more HP, or regen after each loop). At the same time, if a "mini-biome" becomes too large it will spawn additional enemy types. For example the mountain biome will spawn harpies when it reaches a certain size.

Then there are enemy structures that you can place either on the path itself, or next to it. They will spawn new enemies roughly every day cycle. Juggling how many buildings you add before you are overwhelmed with spawns is a key part of the strategy.

Finally there are buff tiles that can be placed near the loop path. You'll get specific buffs while traveling in their radius. So you might want to use these buffs strategically around bigger pockets of enemies or enemy structures.

There are several hero classes themed around the standard melee, rogue, magic, etc. One of my favorite is the necromancer who auto-summons skeletons to fight for them. With this class your equipment is focused around skeleton survivability and damage. With other classes you can play defensive, offensive, vampiric, or evasion builds. Evasion is particularly satisfying, as you will take very few hits when you have a ton of evasion, with the downside that your defense will suffer hence making even small hits feel painful.

The end goal is to survive enough loops in order to trigger an arch-boss. There's probably more to it, but that's all I can say as I haven't got to that part yet.

The good - Unique gameplay. Can be left to run in the background and do its thing, with sporadic interaction to place tiles or equip better gear. This reviewer finds the retro art very pleasing. The bad - Long grind to beat it. The ugly - There doesn't seem to be an actual endgame, just attempting increasingly harder loops.

Dave the Diver

Genre Story-driven adventure/fishing/shop management sim Platform Steam/Mac

Dave the Diver was one of the most highly regarded games of 2023, and for good reason. Starting with the pixelated but cute and intricate graphics, following up with the likable characters, and rounding off with a simple but solid game loop, Dave can easily swallow hours of your time. It has strong East Asian vibes (I believe it's made by a Korean team), but the NPCs are multinational, each with its own quirky lovable personality.

I played my copy on a Mac with a wireless gamepad, but it runs just as well on the Switch.

You play the role of Dave, a meek fellow who finds himself in an exotic lagoon with a deep trench and a sushi restaurant nearby. Right off the bat, Dave is sucked into helping the local community.

There are two main game modes. During the day, Dave will dive in the trench (or hole as it's called in the game) and catch fish using various harpoons and other tools. At night, Dave helps to run the sushi restaurant by serving the customers with dishes cooked from the fish he caught previously.

I'm not much into shop management sims, but Dave's restaurant mode captured me right away. The gamepad controls are very intuitive and I get a kick from doing my best to serve customers efficiently. At the end of the shift there's a satisfying tally screen that shows what profits you've made.

The earnings are used for a variety of upgrades, including fishing weapons and gear, improvements to the restaurant (furniture and decorations that will bring in more customers), and hiring helpers (thus serving more customers per shift).

Fish are used for various dishes that initially sell for a couple of bucks. You can use excess fish to upgrade a dish, but you'll also discover more expensive dishes as you progress. Ingredient requirements will also increase. Eventually, elaborate dishes will be selling for hundreds of dollars.

The fishing game is equally satisfying. You are limited by your equipment (chiefly the air supply) in how far down you can swim. Depth also affects how quickly your air depletes. However this can be increased by upgrading your equipment. Most fish are passive (but they'll run away if you don't one-shot them), but there are plenty of aggressive ones too. Sharks anyone? There are several types of shark btw. You catch fish by aiming your speargun and pulling the trigger. If you hook the fish you can reel it in. It takes some practice but the learning curve is shallow. Later you'll evolve to sniper rifles and grenade launchers among other things.

In the water you'll find various powerups, materials, and ingredients in chests and on the ocean floor.

I would probably be happy enough with the two modes, but there's much more. For one thing, there's the over-arching narrative. It's a pretty compelling story, that involves some mystery which you'll work towards uncovering. You will, of course, go much deeper. There are boss sea monsters that you'll fight. There are at least 4-5 minigames that you can play if you get bored. There are 3 types of farms that you can manage later on. And Dave gets a smartphone with a lot of apps used to buy and upgrade equipment, manage various systems remotely, play some of the minigames, communicate with the NPCs, and so on. There's even an encyclopedia of all the discovered fish.

Dave the Diver is a lot of fun. I moved on to other things before finishing it. Without spoilers, I wasn't exactly fond of the later story, and the boss battles were getting more and more stressful, requiring careful timing and multiple deaths before succeeding.

The good - Very enjoyable, good vibes, A+ art and graphics. The main fishing + restaurant management gameplay loop is very solid and satisfying. The bad - There's a bunch of stuff (like most of the minigames) that could have been left out. I don't think they contribute much to the game, and they're mostly just fluff. The ugly - Boss battles got too hard for the amount of effort I was willing to put in. I empathized a lot more with the initial set of characters, and the second part of the story left me disconnected.

Hardspace Shipbreaker

Genre Physics-based 3rd person 3D space salvage Platform Steam/PC

People like breaking things. That's why there's a plethora of disassembly-themed games. After all, it's a lot easier to take something apart than it is to put it together. This is what Hardspace Shipbreaker is - a scratch-your-itch game for the disassembly crowd, in space.

You are a shipbreaker, a space dock worker tasked with breaking old ships apart for recycling. When the story begins you are in crippling debt to the corporation for which you're slaving.

The first 3rd or so of the game is a massive tutorial that doesn't feel tedious like most game tutorials. It does a great job to gradually introduce you to movement and controls, the various tools, and the increasingly complex ship systems and hazards that you have to contend with.

Each ship floats in space in proximity to 3 recycling areas: a systems barge, a furnace, and a materials recycler. You must put each of the 3 types of parts in the corresponding area to get proper credit. If you put a part in the wrong place you'll be penalized instead. You do that with a grappler tool that uses a sort of traction beam to grab hold of a part, then you drag it to where you want it to go while imparting momentum, and release. The physics (zero gravity and atmosphere) will take care of the rest. It's a very satisfying process and it works with heavy items as well, but beware: the heavier the item the more momentum it has, so you need to account for that.

While the grappler can also be used to get around by grappling onto a distant surface and reeling it in, there are other tools in your arsenal. Chiefly among them is the laser cutter. This tool has several modes. It can heat a spot, or can switch to a horizontal or vertical slicer. Use your judgement to determine which. Cutting near hazardous areas such as cryo or fuel tanks can be fatal if you're not careful.

The tether tool deserves special mention. This is a consumable "energy thread" that you attach one end of to a salvage item, and the other end to a recycling area intake. The tether will then pull the item in that direction, freeing you to do other things. The cool thing is that you can attach multiple tethers for extra pulling force, or you can chain multiple items together, or you can tie items to each other, or you can tie items to buttresses in the dock to peel off large sections of a ship while preventing it from drifting in the wrong direction. Tethers are paid consumables, and the max you can carry is low at the beginning, but you can upgrade the capacity later. It's an incredibly versatile tool that can be used strategically in many scenarios.

Your EVA suit has a jetpack (using fuel) and an air supply. If you run out of either you'll get stranded, or die. You can replenish both (as well as other consumables) at a vending booth outside the main station airlock. Due to the nature of the credit/debit system, and perhaps because you start in massive debt, it doesn't really matter how much the consumables cost. It doesn't really matter if you die either. A clone is ready to replace you, at a cost. It only plunges you farther into debt, but that won't matter at later stages of the game.

Just about the only downside of dying is that your shift is cut short and you wake up back in your cabin. Btw, you work in 15-minute shifts, so the idea is to recycle enough materials before the shift ends to turn a profit. Again, the game is laid back enough that this isn't an issue. Between shifts you'll spend some time in your cabin. It's a cozy little space that you can customize to a small extent with posters that you find on ships. It's also where you can buy upgrades (not with money but with XP that you gain by hitting salvage milestones), and where some of the narrative unfolds.

Speaking of narrative, a compelling story is weaved into the game loop. There's a series of NPCs that you will interact with, namely your coworkers, superiors, and corporation executives. Without spoiling anything, it involves drama, some tense moments, sabotage, union action, but ultimately a happy ending. The characters are relatable and likable. They chime in as you progress, as portraits that you can't interact with. The voice acting is top-notch and chisels the personality of every NPC to perfection. It made me actively root for the downtrodden and hate the bastards.

This is one of just two games I finished in 2023, partly because I played it obsessively for a couple of weeks, partly because the progression is brisk, and partly because there's not a ton of content. I played about 43 hours, but I'm sure a second playthrough would be quicker since I'm so familiar with it.

The good - Performant 3D engine, slick UI. Satisfying mechanics aided by solid-feeling tools. Controls are easy to master. Tangible rewards and visible progress. The tether system is brilliant; I want that in real life. Great voice acting, engaging story, and relatable characters. The bad - It will become obvious that ships are put together in predictable ways, even if increasingly complex, removing some of the joy of discovery. Death is not a huge deal, making you careless and sloppy after a while. The ugly - There's no endgame, per se. Sure, you can continue disassembling ships, but at this point you've already gone through the highest level ones, so it's just more of the same.


Genre Eldritch adventure, sea exploration, and fishing sim Platform Steam/PC

I've had this game on my radar for a while, and bought it during a Steam sale. It works well with keyboard and mouse, but it's also available on the Switch. The controls are simple enough, though.

Dredge is a narrative-driven fishing and exploration game with a side of occult and eldritch terrors thrown in. I love the sleepy but terror-under-the-surface atmosphere that starts wearing on your psyche during the first few day-night cycles.

You play as a little boat (captain) who finds themselves in a chain of tiny islands in a vast sea. Some of these islands have tiny hamlets populated with the NPCs who drive the story. The hamlets usually have additional facilities like vendors and a shipyard. You'll also encounter solitary NPCs tucked away on various islands.

The main game loop involves fishing. Putt-putt your little boat until you find a fishing spot (indicated by a bubbly pool) and cast your rod. There's a minigame to reel the fish in, combined with some inventory Tetris. Your boat has limited inventory in the form of an irregular-shaped grid. Ideally you'll want to fill in the hold entirely before returning back to town. Fish and other items can be rotated for optimum use of available space. The bigger the fish, the more space it'll take. Fish are also irregularly-shaped, so this is an additional challenge. Boat equipment such as reels, engines, nets, etc also take up available space. Later you'll upgrade the space but it won't ever feel enough.

Once you have enough fish, return to town. Typically this will coincide with nightfall, when you definitely don't want to be caught out at sea. This is when the night terrors emerge. I won't spoil much, but it involves hallucinations and half-materialized apparitions and can be mildly unsettling. Unlike real life, nightmares can kill you in this game. So do your best to be back in town before darkness falls, or be prepared to dodge phantoms and run for your life.

As you talk to the townspeople the narrative unfolds. You can follow the main story but there are various side quests that are lucrative, as they'll provide you with useful items, equipment, and extra materials.

You'll use money and materials to upgrade your ship as you go along. This is a very important progression mechanism, as it allows you to fish in more advanced spots (for example there are oceanic, shallow, swamp, volcanic, etc spots that each require the appropriate type of rod), move faster, and adds the ability to dredge, among other things. Dredging (apropos the game title) is done in a special bubbly spot that you'll encounter as randomly as a fishing spot, and it involves yet another type of reeling minigame. Instead of fish you'll pull out materials (used for upgrades) and items (either for quests or that you can sell).

I enjoyed the fish-explore-upgrade-venture loop quite a bit. I wish the developers leaned even more into it, but ultimately this is a grand adventure wrapped around a satisfying resource gathering experience.

The game imparts a sense of ominous quiet. Peaceful at the surface, there's an impending hint of something lurking underneath, or at the very edges of your perception. The uneasiness grows as you untangle more of the story. At the same time, the nighttime feeling of helplessness diminishes somewhat as you upgrade your ship and your character, as this confers various pieces of equipment and skills that reduce the eldritch encounter risk.

The quests involve finding various items (through fishing or exploring), discovering new areas and NPCs, and solving various puzzles. The puzzles aren't especially tricky. While some are clever, making me feel like a real Sherlock when I figured them out, others are less obvious causing me to search for a solution online. Granted, I was also pressed for time as I needed to travel soon and I wanted to get through as much of the game as possible.

And that I did. To my surprise, I finished it in just over 16h. It ended quite abruptly after an incongruous dialogue with the main questgiver. A message warned there was no going back after that point, but I assumed it might be some sort of final boss battle. Instead, it played a cutscene and then cue the credits. It kinda felt like all my efforts thus far had been in vain.

Dredge was fun, though I strongly feel they should have allowed free play after the ending. I don't regret the purchase, but I would think twice before paying full price. Thankfully it goes on sale quite often on Steam and Switch.

The good - Tense, suspenseful atmosphere. Gripping story (minus the ending). Cute cartoony 3D art. Pretty good fishing & exploration experience. The bad - Some of the puzzles weren't forthcoming, making me search online for solutions (I'm not a fan of puzzles and brain teasers in games). The ugly - Too short. Very abrupt and unsatisfying ending. It should give you an option to continue playing.

Honorable mentions

Roboquest (Steam/PC) - a fast 3D FPS roguelike shooter. You're fighting hordes of robots across a series of biomes divided into smaller areas. Each biome culminates in a big bad boss that you have to defeat in order to progress. The main highlight is the random wacky guns that drop from events. You can carry only 3 at a time so you need to discard one when you find something better. You also get powerups that give permanent boosts to stats and abilities for the current run. Dying respawns you back at your camp where you can take advantage of the meta progression to improve skills permanently. There are several player classes as well, though none of them feel particularly appealing or special. While the game has very cute cel-shaded graphics (that I dig a lot), runs very smoothly, and has very satisfying combat, ultimately I gave up on it because I felt the combat difficulty ramped up too quickly. After endless attempts I was barely able to beat the first boss twice, only to get clobbered hard in the next biome.

Stacklands (Steam/PC/Mac) - roguelike deck builder strategy with a twist. This is another game that is hard to pin to a specific genre. The overall goal is to build a settlement with cards, but also expand it, and survive enemy attacks. You start with a random starter card pack containing an assortment of types. You then stack cards on top of each others to perform an action. For example you would stack a villager card on top of a berry bush card and the villager will start collecting berries (for food). Every day you need to feed your villagers. There are money cards that drop, but you can also sell a lot of the items you collect. Use the money to buy more packs. Get more villagers (I forget how). Stacklands has very original gameplay, but I stopped early because I am too dumb to make any sort of meaningful progress. For that reason I can't give any more details.

Strange Horticulture (Steam/PC) - dark mystery story-driven adventure shop management. I'll admit that I was deceived by the premise of this game. I thought there would be heavy shop management involved, but instead I discovered that it's mostly a linear story wrapped around inheriting a herbalist store where the main tasks revolve around identifying new plants and providing them to a rotating cast of NPC visitors, each with their own problems and dark secrets. There are various puzzles to solve which weren't very demanding. Ultimately I abandoned it because I get bored with story-heavy games, and the plant identifying aspect got tedious after a while. Good art though, and soothing music. Overall not a bad game to chill to.

Chillquarium (Steam/PC/Mac) - idle clicker aquarium management. A game with very cartoony pixelated art, you start with a basic aquarium and a handful of boring juvenile fish. You feed them by clicking in their vicinity, which drops fish pebbles (food). After a while they become adult, revealing their "true colors". You can sell these fish to buy fish card packs that can contain higher qualities (blue, yellow, purple, orange), kinda like items in an RPG game. The higher the fish tier, the longer it takes to evolve. Rarity is also determined by the color of the fish itself (gold being the highest). Raise them to adulthood, sell the ones you don't want to keep, rinse and repeat. The ultimate goal can be whatever you want, but in general it's collecting the rarest fish. There's a fish ledger that is fun to fill up as you collect 'em all. It's a pretty chill game for a pretty low price. It doesn't have a lot of replayability but it can be helpful for relaxing, if that's your thing.

GOTY 2023

My Game of the Year for 2023 is undoubtedly Last Epoch. I'm a sucker for ARPGs, and I played LE the most in 2023 (and rather obsessively). After Diablo 3 and 4 I became quite jaded about ARPGs, but Last Epoch revived that passion. It helped scratch that itch, and I would absolutely play it again.

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