In the spirit of our Press X to Continue roundtable from last August, the intrepid writers from our Touching the Screen video game column have joined forces for Reverse Shot’s first-ever year-end games roundup. Rather than make lists, smaller groupings of writers teamed up for a series of dialogues, tackling the major titles and themes that defined their play in 2023. Featuring Juan Barquin, Sam Bodrojan, Kambole Campbell, Cole Kronman, Esther Rosenfield, and Dan Schindel. – MK & JR

In on the Action

Sam Bodrojan: I have no idea why Fromsoftware made Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon. Why follow up the massively successful Elden Ring with a return to a niche, ten-year dormant franchise? It felt bizarre, if not unwelcome. Despite a few minor adjustments and additions, the studio had released an authentic Armored Core entry. This was no sci-fi Soulslike; this was a fast-paced, level-based game about meticulously building a robot to run missions of variable difficulty and length.

Few games offer the kinetic embodiment of Fires of Rubicon, where the player must internalize the exact height of a jump, the reload speed of a chosen gun, the range of an equipped missile. No part you select can be incidental, and no build is universally optimal; the player will cycle through hundreds of iterations across the three playthroughs. The world of the game is one where disembodied voices become garbled with husks of industry, where the ash and mineral of the planet becomes indistinguishable from the parasitic metallic monoliths that populate its surface and sky. Its ersatz combination of bluntly operatic in-mission setpieces and intentionally obtuse audio logs provides a narrative that is easy to compartmentalize and impossible to fully ignore.

All these things—the emphasis on refining a chosen play style, the purgatorial setting, the obtuse dramaturgy—have become long-standing quirks of FromSoft auteurism. Yet Armored Core 6 marks, shockingly, the first time in the studio’s output that every creative design follows inherently from the central theme. Here is a power fantasy of depersonalization, where the player becomes a technofascist Ship of Theseus at the end of the world.

I don’t know why Fromsoft made Armored Core 6. The game was a critical and commercial hit upon release, yet quickly faded from discussion, with, as of this writing, the lowest concurrent player count on Steam of any of the studio’s games. Yet, when playing it, I felt like they had finally executed a perfectly cohesive, artistically galvanizing vision.

Juan Barquin: I’d like to contrast the perfection of Armored Core 6 with the endearing mess that is another of this year’s action games: Final Fantasy XVI. I find FFXVI rather blasé when it comes to combat; after the initial pleasure of learning how to weave a new ability into your chosen fight style, the game falls into a pattern that’s almost painfully repetitive. Players can, rather comfortably, settle for whatever build makes navigating the game easiest for them, rather than being challenged to not only discover something new but also to manipulate their entire sense of gameplay like Armored Core VI does.

Final Fantasy XVI offers major peaks and valleys torn as it is between the grandiose overarching narrative and the dullness of abundant fetch quests. But it rather miraculously shines in its approach to the typical melodrama of the fantasy genre. The game’s core story—of brotherhood, of navigating identity and guilt and purpose, of overcoming adversity in the face of world-ending peril—is where it actually manages to feel of a piece with its predecessors. While the developer’s claim that there “would be no optional dungeons” may sound like bullshit considering the amount of worthless fetch quests, many of these miniature narratives are necessary in fleshing out the game’s protagonists (though certainly not its underwritten and quickly disposed of villains), their motivations, and the ways they build a community.

But if I may raise a challenge: is that enough to declare something a great game? Plenty of other games within the genre this year did the same in half or even a quarter of the time that FFXVI did. Just look at the charming Small Saga, which feels closer in tone and gameplay to a classic JRPG than FFXVI’s action-focused knockoff. Even its politics are clearer than in FFXVI, actively positioning itself as anti-fascist without the mind-numbingly stupid slavery metaphors of the AAA game. Or look at Sea of Stars, another Kickstarted treasure that managed to mine new pleasure out of the realm of turn-based RPGs with a simple system that hews closer to Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga than FF itself.

For all the joy I got from FFXVI’s climaxes (of which there are many), I can’t argue for it as a particularly stellar action game or a particularly stellar RPG. It exists somewhere in between, never quite attaining the precision that Final Fantasy VII Rebirth did in both genres. It’s a game that dreams of breaking free of the series’ long history with turn-based systems and active time battles by declaring itself an action game, but settles for being a solid enough imitation of the past with some fun new flourishes thrown in.

Playing in the Sandbox

Dan Schindel: Even now, nine months after its release, it still feels like Tears of the Kingdom shouldn’t work. The developers literally just reused the world from Breath of the Wild. People have lived entire other lives in that previous game. How could such familiarity not breed contempt? It was another of Nintendo’s characteristic big swings that appeared counterintuitive yet ultimately paid off. I don’t think I’ve seen social media sentiment turn from skepticism to joyful crowdsourced experimentation so quickly. Rather than build a new sandbox, Tears of the Kingdom gave the player new toys to play with in it. Increasingly, I think that novelty of play might prove more alluring for developers and players than breadth of possible experience, as AAA game development becomes ever more unwieldy and costly. This game has both, of course. But the grind of rooting out every Korok sticks in my mind far less than magicking together some knicknacks into a dangerously underthought contraption and then gleefully making it soar over the rolling hills before it broke apart and I nearly died.

Cole Kronman: The reuse of the same sandbox affirms for me that the core appeal of both recent Zelda games is the same: a densely assembled open world that, via a complex lattice of interlocking systems, reacts to player input exactly as one would expect it to. The main difference in Tears of the Kingdom is that these systems have expanded to encompass nearly every possible permutation of traversal. Each supposedly familiar environment can be approached from many new and exciting angles.

The game’s greatest, quietest strength is its Z-axis. Just under the hood is some of the most constructive use of 3D volume and space I’ve ever seen in a video game. Players are repeatedly encouraged to consider the shape, weight, function, and physical properties of various materials working in tandem, and the ability to teleport through ceilings necessitates constant awareness of level geometry beyond what’s immediately visible. Tears of the Kingdom’s tool kit is gargantuan but precisely defined, conducive to radical player experimentation without ever feeling overwrought. On every level, it's about connection.

There’s an interesting complement/counterpoint to Tears of the Kingdom in Baldur’s Gate 3, which has also received significant attention for its focus on player freedom. I find that, after a point, Baldur’s Gate 3 begins swallowing its own tail: the further it goes in its efforts to evoke the infinite possibilities of Dungeons & Dragons, the more its own limitations—and those of its source material—are exposed. The game is certainly sprawling, with a breadth of choice in both combat and roleplay, but the lack of any genuine human response from behind the dungeon master screen reminds me that I don’t play D&D for its (often persnickety and oblique) core mechanics. I play it to create worlds with my friends. Baldur’s Gate 3 is great, but it’s only a video game.

Kambole Campbell: Speaking as someone who has no real D&D experience, I didn’t feel all that limited by the mechanics of Baldur’s Gate 3. Rather than the medium being an anchor around the neck of Dungeons & Dragons storytelling, it simply made it accessible to me. I did have a laugh at a meta-joke in the epilogue where a character laments about how hard it is to get people together in the same place on a regular basis. The appeal of the tabletop game is contained (relatively speaking), but BG3’s (very robust!) character creator also means that I have a route into playing with character building and role-play along with a (virtual) guiding hand, even if, as ever, the visual options for black characters are lacking. (And, in place of an actual DM, the narrator is a wonderful factor in shaping your character, like on the “Dark Urge” route, where she sells evil compulsions with a sensual purr.)

But I don’t think we should undersell that there’s a lot of fun just in mechanical experimentation and build-crafting as well. There are enough interlocking systems that you can make some bananas shit happen—hitting bosses with a party member transformed into one of the game’s owlbears, lugging hundreds of explosive barrels into places where they shouldn’t be. Outside of combat there are some wild interactions, like how the “Speak with Dead” spell mechanic went a lot further than I ever expected. There may be a ceiling on what your imagination can accomplish, but it still feels like an incredibly high one, even when considered alongside Tears of the Kingdom. While I have no familiarity working with pen-and-paper character sheets, it feels more in reach now thanks to BG3—I’m not sure I’ve had a video game experience where I’ve both enjoyed the work itself and felt enabled by it to try out a new medium of play.

It’s not a Remake, It’s a Resurrection

SB: Look, I had a great time playing Alan Wake II. Even as a Remedy agnostic, I was won over by its multimedia panache and disarming bifurcation. Still, I find myself befuddled by all the effusive praise for the game. It’s certainly complicated, and it employs multimedia technical wizardry to evocative, breath-taking ends. Yet it dully misinterprets concepts like postmodernism and autofiction with reckless abandon, and it cannot envision a type of thematic device beyond literalized metaphor. AW2 is an oddball epic about running out of ideas that unfortunately falls into the same spiral as its protagonist. I found it charming but unilluminating.

More than just their shared genre, Alan Wake II and the Resident Evil 4 remake feel conjoined in my brain as 2023’s two great spectacles of iconography. If Alan Wake II is a perverse spectacle of metatext, RE4R is a near-religious act of devotion to a pre-existing work. The former’s constant references to previous Remedy games, complete with uncanny renditions of recurring characters and motifs, are all in service of what could best be described as ecstatic desecration, whereas the latter’s attempts at modern translations of such a singular and irreplicable phenomenon are, on their face, more sincere. RE4R is a perfectly calibrated revision, a gloriously stupid bit of pageantry. There is something near-alchemical about its rhythms and frictions, as has been true in the two intervening decades since the original was released.

Yet it’s Capcom’s departures from the 2004 classic that have stuck with me. There are two major mechanical deviations from the original game: the ability to move and shoot simultaneously, and the addition of a parry system. RE4R takes the archaic, distinctive elements of its source material, which served as the foundation of modern action games, and anonymizes them. With the remake, Capcom has transformed RE4 into an indistinguishable facsimile of its older self. It is disquieting that every other part of the package has been so dogmatically maintained. Unlike the original’s fan-made restoration mod or radical VR port, RE4R sits in an uncanny middle ground of purpose, a $70 exercise in déjà vu. Yet this epistemological quandary that hangs over the Resident Evil 4 remake (a game that, similar to AW2, is about nothing but itself) made it one of the more meaningful artistic works of 2023.

Esther Rosenfield: While my review of Alan Wake II dug into its story, presentation, and unique gameplay mechanics, its use of survival horror tropes went mostly uncommented on. I wanted to focus on what felt distinctly new, which meant leaving out those aspects that didn’t. Indeed, Alan Wake II hangs all of its innovations on a familiar skeleton. Its combat rips wholesale from early Resident Evil games (requiring careful attention to ammo depletion and well-aimed headshots against unpredictable foes) and inventory management (which sees Alan and Saga rearrange items Tetris-style to fit into a limited grid). It’s a formula which has stuck around for a reason; the gameplay loop of finding bullets and healing items, scrapping through encounters while using as few of each as possible, and finally uncovering a resupply is no less thrilling here than it was when it was created decades ago. Alan Wake II incorporates Resident Evil–style level design as well, mostly abandoning the wide-open creepy forests of the first game for maps that are enclosed and labyrinthian, designed around loops and finding keys to unlock new paths. It’s a design sensibility that feels natural when applied to both a real-world retirement home and a haunted hotel in an alternate dimension. Alan Wake II does plenty to distinguish itself from the games it takes inspiration from, but what it does take fits it like a glove. Those first few Resident Evil games refined the formula. Why not steal from the best?

That I love those early games so much has made it a consistent source of frustration that I have never clicked with Resident Evil 4. I’ve tried three different versions of the game, from the original to the first HD remaster to now 2023’s remake, and never gotten far past the opening. Controls that felt functional and natural in the fixed-camera setups of the original felt impossibly clunky with 4’s behind-the-back perspective. For the latest version, I gave up again, frustrated with how bad it felt to play. This is one classic game I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to get on board for, no matter how many times they re-release it.

Solving It

KC: It feels strange to praise a puzzle game for its lack of friction, but I think a thing that’s stuck with me about Cocoon is how smoothly it plays. I already wrote about this in my review, but considering how the game’s tone and look builds itself around the feeling of being alien and opaque, it’s very easy to understand. “Intuitive” was and is the operative word: all of its interlocking mechanisms almost immediately make sense—when I hit a wall, it never felt this was because something was inadequately explained. The game continually adds fun and creative wrinkles to each system—the way the world-within-a-world conceit gradually complicates is legitimately mind-boggling. It almost made me feel like I was cheating as I discovered how to use it to circumvent different roadblocks. Using entire levels as puzzle solutions is pretty wild.

ER: I think a good puzzle game should do exactly what you’re describing: iterate on its initial premise in surprising yet intuitive ways. Viewfinder’s premise is particularly enticing. After finding Polaroids scattered around each level, the player can hold them up in front of their face and “place” them into reality. Finding a photo of a tunnel will allow you to put that tunnel into the real world and walk through it. It’s a concept that immediately commands attention, but what makes Viewfinder special is the many ways it complicates its own design. Maybe you need to turn a photo sideways so that the wall it shows can become a bridge. Later on you’ll be able to take your own photos of the existing environment and place them as duplicates of your surroundings. Eventually you’ll be taking photos of yourself, which you can use to place yourself in out-of-reach areas. I was reminded of Portal in the many different ways the game came up with to use the mechanic. Can you really offer a puzzle game higher praise than that?

Jusant does this to a much lesser degree. The core mechanic is fantastic. The game is about climbing a sheer cliff face, and the character’s hands are operated by the right and left triggers on the controller. You squeeze a trigger to get a handhold while searching for the next one with your other hand. It feels wonderful, and I was quickly blazing my way up the mountain. If I have one complaint, it’s that the game doesn’t do enough to make the climbing more challenging as it goes on. It throws in new wrinkles in every chapter, but when the game ended I was left hungry for a way to show off how well I’d mastered it. Even Viewfinder ends with a section requiring a degree of expertise. Do you think puzzle and platformer games need high skill ceilings?

KC: Cocoon suggests that with a strong concept and good logical problems, you don’t need to insist on mechanical skill: there are maybe three buttons that you pay attention to. It can be complex, but it never feels like you’re getting skill-checked when you hit a trickier puzzle—it’s like the platonic ideal of the genre. It’s different with platformers though, where movement is the puzzle, so it’s more complicated. I suppose something like Super Mario Wonder exists in the sweet spot, where there’s really intense challenges available but without shutting out less adept players. (Also, on paper, Viewfinder’s photo mechanic sounds almost of a kind with Alan Wake II’s writer’s board.)

ER: Polaroids really had a moment in 2023, it seems! I like your connection between platformers and puzzlers; both are fundamentally about understanding your ability as a player to impact a problem, whether it’s by arranging puzzle pieces, or timing a jump just right.