August might have kept you busy with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Control and Astral Chain--all great games that can suck your life away. But as the year ticks along, plenty of great, smaller games with stellar ideas and executions come out, especially on PC, and they won't eat up dozens of hours if you're looking for something fresh. But they're easy to miss.
There are a lot of games out there, and we sure do play a lot of them. We've picked three standout games from August that which really sparked our interest and really captured our attention. They're games that might usually fly under most people's radar, but still great experiences in their own right, so if any of them sound up your alley, know that they have our hearty recommendation.
A Short Hike (PC)
If A Short Hike has a central theme, it’s that kindness is rewarded. In other words, be nice to those you meet and nice things will also come your way. It’s a lovely little game that will either make you feel better about the world or provide you with a brief escape from these dark, chaotic times.
You play as Claire, a teen bird who is camping at a national park managed by her aunt while she awaits a very important phone call. Trouble is, reception is non-existent so Claire must hike to higher ground, all the way to the summit of the tallest mountain peak in the park. Though she may be a bird, Claire can’t ascend during flight; she can only glide in a gentle descent, making said hike somewhat more circuitous than you might expect. She can climb though, and so much of her time is spent exploring the woods, lakes, and beaches of the park in search of the golden feather collectibles that boost her stamina and allow her to scramble up ever higher surfaces.
On her trek, Claire meets a cast of adorable animals who are likewise visiting the park, many of whom ask her for a favor--to find something valuable to them or maybe to just hang out for a little bit. These cheerful encounters work hand in hand with Claire’s exploration, sometimes rewarding her with the items she needs to journey further afield, other times encouraging her to slow down and breathe in the clean mountain air.
Running, climbing, gliding--and occasionally digging, watering and fishing--through the park’s sprawling, looping network of obvious and not-so-obvious pathways is a heart-warming experience. Revealing new corners of the pleasingly chunky, vividly colored, lo-fi parkland is a constant delight matched by the satisfaction of having performed good deeds for good creatures every step of the way.
Finding phone reception is a MacGuffin that actually pays off in a sincere and touching conclusion, after which you’re free to continue wandering the park to your heart’s desire. A Short Hike is honestly a misnomer. It’s more like a day trip that you’ll want to never end.
It’s Like: Breath of the Wild’s climbing and gliding mechanics dropped into a walking simulator with the cast of Animal Crossing.
Anodyne 2: Return To Dust (PC)
In Anodyne 2, dust is a catch-all metaphor. For repressed grief, for ennui, for illness, for denial, for confusion. For whatever is dragging us down, holding us back, stopping us from moving on. Dust is depicted as a plague, its nano particles clogging up the internal thoroughfares--both mental and physical--of those it has infected. As Nova, a so-called nano cleaner, you are tasked with eradicating such dust and healing the afflicted, and perhaps yourself in the process.
The first Anodyne (released in 2013) told its tales of personal trauma via a reimagining of an NES-era action-RPG. In this far more ambitious sequel the nostalgic palette is broader, expanding its sources of inspiration to encompass not just The Legend of Zelda but late ‘80s PC RPGs like the Ultima series, SNES era JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, and even the early forays into 3D platforming on the N64 and PlayStation. One moment you’re driving across the lo-fi dunes of a bleak desert, later you’re in a top-down pixel-art Ren Fair castle while in between you’ve starred in a wrestling show and run the gauntlet of a survival horror chase through the isometric maze of your apartment building. To call Anodyne 2 eclectic is perhaps an understatement.
Genre mashups can often have a hard time holding it all together. They can suffer from too many incompatible parts pulling in different directions. But Anodyne 2 finds a throughline in Nova. It’s her slow journey of self-discovery, even more so than the myriad side stories she intersects in her dust-busting capacity, that brings every perspective shift or gameplay refresh into focus.
Things can get ugly at times--in a graphical fidelity sense and in terms of the raw emotions at stake--but despite the stylistic detours and tonal swings, Anodyne 2 retains an unfaltering commitment to exploring the very real, very relatable struggles of day to day human life. By turns dark, funny, confronting, empathetic and inexplicable, it’s a defiantly weird game that will keep surprising you until the end.
It’s Like: The Legend of Zelda and Banjo-Kazooie pay a visit to the Psychonauts.
Eliza, the new game from developer Zachtronics, best known for procedural puzzle games like Infinifactory and Opus Magnum, is a tight, thought-provoking visual novel that connects the dots of our disconnected world, tracing a path through the alienation of social media, big data, the gig economy, startup culture, privacy, gentrification and more.
Developed in the 1960s, ELIZA was a real-world, early attempt at programming a computer to speak with a user in what felt like natural language. It wasn’t an AI--it was more like a bot; it couldn’t learn, but rather called upon canned responses based on keywords and patterns entered by the user. ELIZA’s designer even wrote a script that mocked the popular conception of a psychotherapist, specifically the technique of reflecting a patient’s answer back at them in the form of a question. “And why do you think that you’re ripe for parody?”
Here, Eliza speculates a future version of the program that now operates as a therapist, harvesting data from its users in an effort to learn how to help them and make the world a better place, at least in theory, at least. Evelyn she isn’t so sure. She's the former chief engineer at Skandha, the company responsible for Eliza, who left her job three years ago and has spent the intervening years battling depression.
Evelyn has returned to Skandha, almost incognito, to work as a “proxy,” people employed to read Eliza’s words to clients in order to give the appearance of the human touch. Proxies can’t deviate from the Eliza script, much like the gameplay. Evelyn’s story is a series of conversations in which dialogue options, where there are any, mostly exist to give you a moment to reflect on the issues being examined. In the final chapter, Evelyn is faced with a few choices that affect the outcome, but until that point many of the things you can have her say are deliberately non-committal.
It works though, because the game’s writer, Matthew Seiji Burns, is genuinely interested in understanding not just where AI is taking us, but how and why it’s taking us there, and maybe whether we should pause to consider whether there are other destinations we--that’s “we” as in the human race, not the technocrat class--might prefer.
It’s Like: If the movie Her was a visual novel that really made you think.
You can find Eliza on Steam.