Electronic Arts/Larian Studios/DreadXP
A pixelated diving and sushi-slinging simulator. A survival horror game with haywire Sesame Street-style animatronics. A sprawling Dungeons & Dragons adaptation replete with brain-parasites and cultists.
That’s just a taste of this summer’s eclectic slate of video games. While the season opened with tentpole sequels like Diablo IV, Street Fighter 6, and Final Fantasy XVI, it delivered hits throughout July and August. NPR staff and contributors reviewed some of the best and weirdest games of the late summer.
Immortals of Aveum
Imagine the strategic combat of a single-player Halo campaign, with a dash of Bioshock’s powers and Half Life’s puzzles. That’s Immortals of Aveum, the brainchild of a longtime Call of Duty designer.
But while it’s a promising pitch, Aveum feels like the video game equivalent of a blockbuster that aspires to the heights of The Lord of the Rings but achieves the big budget shallowness of The Hobbit trilogy. It wants Harry Potter‘s success, but gets Crimes of Grindelwald‘s muddle. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed these movies, but they lack the polish and care that made their predecessors so acclaimed.
To its credit, Aveum’s story can be exciting, well-acted, and legitimately funny. It’s just weighed down by YA tropes. You play as Jak, a mouthy “chosen one” who commands all three main forms of magic in a world where even the lucky “Magni” can only control one. And of course everyone’s fighting for their lives in the “ever-war” against the armies of “Sandrakk.”
In practice, these three forms of magic function like familiar FPS weapons: Blue: precise single shots (rifle). Red: close-range (shotgun). Green: high rate of fire that seeks targets (machine gun). Throw in some cooldown-locked abilities and you’ve got a pleasantly challenging single-player campaign driven by an engaging, if predictable, story. Just don’t expect it to have the depth of the games it’s cribbed from.
— Ben Cart, senior marketing manager
Baldur’s Gate 3
I bought my own pet artist in Baldur’s Gate 3. I can’t quite place when, though. It definitely happened before a devil from the lowest depths of hell sang me a song, and maybe a little after I accidentally launched a gnome 300 feet into the air (we won’t talk about that). Whenever it was, I remember my cleric companion getting angry after I set him free with some pocket change for the road.
It’s around then I realized that Baldur’s Gate 3 is a remarkable storytelling achievement, the culmination of decades of RPG design. Every action you take in this exceptional Dungeons and Dragons adaptation reverberates through the world, gradually transforming it into an image of your making — regardless of how gruesome or glorious it may be. Whatever joys or regrets you have when the credits roll, they’re entirely unique to you.
The intricacy and quality of Baldur’s Gate 3’s overwhelming number of narrative strands is matched only by its challenging battles. Larian Studios adapted the formula remarkably well, giving you as much freedom to manipulate the physical environment as you are the story, with a broad range of abilities limited only by how you imagine they can work.
If you only play one video game this season — heck, even this year — it should be Baldur’s Gate 3.
— Josh Broadwell, contributor
Dave the Diver
Dave, a rotund diver in full scuba gear, readies himself for the plunge into the ever-changing Giant Blue Hole. He makes one final adjustment to his goggles and jumps in.
An iridescent wonderland awaits below the surface, filled with shimmering piscifauna like the Harlequin Hind or the Pacific Fanfish (just to name two out of over a hundred fish in the game). Dave, armed with his handy harpoon, must catch these colorful critters to support his growing sushi restaurant.
At first, the game comes across as repetitive. Diving into the Giant Blue Hole and serving delicious sushi is fun, but that’s it? Luckily, it doesn’t take to get a lot deeper. Soon, you’ll learn to tackle even the most skittish fish, face deadly sharks with a variety of weapons, and even explore the realms of an ancient society of sea-people.
A surprisingly well-conceived cast rounds out the diving and restaurant management. Bancho the stoic chef, Cobra the crafty investor, and Duff the anime-obsessed weapons dealer not only make for hilarious and stunning cutscenes, but add flavorful dialogue that chops up some of the repetition.
Dave the Diver will probably wind up being one of my favorite games of 2023. Dive in — the water’s fine!
— Keller Gordon, contributor
My Friendly Neighborhood
My Friendly Neighborhood wears its influences on its sleeves. Its premise, which finds a repairman fighting off animatronic mascots gone mad, fits into the “mascot horror” genre popularized by Five Nights at Freddy’s. Its story and presentation borrow from Bioshock, told by way of documents and artifacts littered about the environment. Its gameplay most resembles Resident Evil, with enemies that respawn when you re-enter a room, locked doors that encourage back-tracking, a limited inventory that requires constant management — it even has you save your game by spending an in-game resource!
But despite its many homages, My Friendly Neighborhood is remarkably fresh and fun. It’s rare for a video game world to not feel done to death, but the Sesame Street-style sets are genuinely interesting places to inspect and explore. It refuses to let its foot off the gas, constantly introducing new scenarios and mechanics. Currently priced at $30 USD, the game has more pound-for-pound panache than most big-budget games despite its short runtime. Since it lacks blood and gore, it’s also a great pick for the squeamish out there looking for a virtual horror fix.
— Vincent Acovino, assistant producer, All Things Considered
The Master’s Pupil
Developer Pat Naoum’s The Master’s Pupil is a love letter to a father of the Impressionist art movement, Claude Monet. As a lifelong fan of Monet’s work, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a game that uses puzzles to trace his accomplishments and his losses. Naoum shared that it took him seven years to hand-paint all of the backgrounds and assets in the game, and the care and love that he brings to his art shows. The Master’s Pupil is visually striking.
Still, it feels like The Master’s Pupil misses something, especially when compared to similar puzzle games with voiceless, faceless protagonists like Thomas Was Alone. The lack of narration makes navigating through the variety of color and physics-based challenges feel as empty as the world that your character inhabits.
The Master’s Pupil admittedly wasn’t fun to play, but I wonder if that’s because Naoum wanted to simulate the struggles of Monet’s life, from personal tragedy to going blind. However, unlike other games in this genre, there was little to balance out the frustrations. I often found myself staring at the silent screen (the game has very little ambient sound or music), struggling to complete a puzzle, questioning my will to continue because I had little emotional investment in the game beyond my appreciation for the subject matter.
In the end, The Master’s Pupil is a fascinating experience. While I’m impressed by the work Naoum’s put into the game, it’s sadly less rewarding to play than it is to admire from a distance.
— Rakiesha Chase-Jackson, project manager, Member Partnership
Remnant II builds on everything great about 2019 predecessor, Remnant: From the Ashes. Everything, that is, save for the story, which is just as muddled and beside-the-point as it’s ever been. That’s far from the proverbial end of the world for this otherwise fantastic apocalyptic third-person shooter from Gunfire Games.
Beyond iterating on its procedurally-generated world maps, Remnant II also dramatically expanded character classes. While the original game only gave you three, you start the sequel with your choice of five, and can eventually unlock a total of eleven. You can also select a primary and secondary class for more creative dual-archetype builds. This takes Remnant’s excellent co-op to a new level with more ways to balance party strengths, as well as deepening solo play.
Though Remnant borrows heavily from Dark Souls, players intimidated by that challenging design philosophy can opt for the lowest of four possible difficulty settings. Unique loot and new boss encounters also reward multiple playthroughs, and re-rolling the game to fully explore those variations is required if you hope to build a character powerful enough to take on the game’s most punishing “Nightmare” and “Apocalypse” tiers.
Whether you slept on Remnant: From the Ashes or were among its fans, Remnant II is well worth checking out.
— Justin Lucas, director, Communications
Hello Kitty Island Adventure
Hello Kitty Island Adventure might look like Animal Crossing, with its cute characters and idyllic setting, but it also resembles another Nintendo title — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Hear me out.
The game is defined, naturally, by building out your island. You’ll create your own character in the style of Hello Kitty and join her to restore the abandoned Big Adventures Park on Friendship Island. When you arrive, your first quest is to find all your friends — if you can solve puzzles and complete mini-quests along the way to unlock the map! As you explore, you soon find mysterious items and characters that only appear at certain times — working with your allies to uncover what led to Big Adventures Park’s abandonment.
It’s not called Friendship Island without reason. Much of the game is spent learning about each character’s likes so you can level up your relationship with them, which in return gives you resources and, at higher friendship levels, companion abilities. For example, Badtz-Maru will give you a 75% chance of catching a rare fish when you fish with him.
It’s a potent combination of cozy life simulator with open-world exploration and puzzles, and best of all, you can carry it around with you on your iPhone. So if you want to feel like you’re in a gentle, Sanrio wonderland, look no further than Hello Kitty Island Adventure.
— Nina Fill, project Coordinator, training
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical is a Telltale-style adventure game teeming with interactive songs. It’s like The Wolf Among Us, except with modern-day Greek gods instead of fairy-tale characters, and choose-your-own musical numbers instead of investigative interviews.
The game opens with a chance encounter between a literal muse and protagonist Grace, an adrift urbanite. After the muse’s untimely death, Grace suddenly inherits her essence and gets thrust before a secretive pantheon that suspects her of the muse’s murder. So begins Grace’s quest to clear her name using her newfound power to get these gods to sing about their true feelings, shifting between three musical approaches to elicit different responses in duets and jam sessions that slowly uncover a sprawling mystery.
Written by Dragon Age veteran David Gaider, the resulting game is undeniably ambitious. Composer Austin Wintory claimed there are hundreds of significantly different playthroughs, which required around 90 recording sessions with a star-studded cast that includes Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson and Merle Dandridge of The Last of Us fame.
But while its songs succeed on a technical level, none of them stuck in my head like a true Broadway anthem. The game’s seasoned voice cast gives laudable spoken performances, but few of them inspire as singers. Weirdest of all, it’s not fully animated — adopting an animatic style with static images that must have been born from budget constraints.
I still enjoyed playing Stray Gods with my wife. It shines as a coach co-op experience, with participants debating its many forking paths. But if you’re looking for a soundtrack truly worthy of Greek mythology’s depth and scope, try Hadestown, or, hell, even Hades. That 2020 game may not be a musical, but it really rocks.
— James Mastromarino, NPR gaming lead and Here & Now producer
I’ve played many a City Builder and many a Real-Time Strategy game, but I’ve rarely played a game that fuses both genres so well.
While it suffers from a slightly cumbersome interface, Gord is haunting, spectacular and horrendously difficult. Its artwork and style are reminiscent of The Witcher 3 and make me want to slay monsters all day long in its Lovecraftian, Slavic swamps.
Throughout the course of the game, you’ll guide your fortified village (your “Gord”) to victory or terrifying defeat. Near the beginning, you’re confronted with a dilemma: feed the giant swamp horror a child to keep it from cursing you, or take up arms and attack. When I say my experienced RTS brain went for the latter and regretted it, I mean it.
Gord is unforgiving in the best way. Each villager can and will slowly (or quickly) lose their minds from the horrors they experience if you don’t do something about it. This game keeps you on your toes at every turn. But hard as the decisions may be, every regret-filled choice is worth experiencing, again and again.
— Allen Walden, production operations specialist
En Garde! reminded me of just how much I miss fencing, even though I was never any good at the sport. The high-speed ebb and flow tends to last only a few seconds (or at least it did at my level), but turning those matches into an Erroll Flynn-style swashbuckling video game extends the thrill with witty panache.
Gone are the lines of tape, buzzers, metal jackets, and — most importantly — strict rules. Suddenly my once-dull saber’s as sharp as my tongue as I hurl taunts and projectiles from my surroundings — like lutes, jars and lanterns — at opponents between dodges, parries, attacks, and ripostes. While it’s certainly a bit rough around the edges, this short and sweet romp through a fictionalized Renaissance-era Spain will charms with its clever writing, spectacular protagonist and energizing music.
— Charlie Wacholz, contributor