Every Friday, several A.V. Club staffers will kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I’ve been a fan of pretty much everything—Escape Goat 2, Mountain, Gang Beasts—that’s come out of Double Fine’s indie-game publishing program, Double Fine Presents, so when our editor Matt offered me an early copy of its latest entry, Gnog, I snapped it up fast. Developed by Ko_Op, Gnog is a sort of psychedelic puzzle game—think The Room series of iOS puzzle games, crossed with the colorful, “anything goes” vibe of a Katamari Damacy—that asks its players to chill out while they prod and poke their way through a series of Day-Glo lunch boxes full of buttons, sliders, and adorable animated creatures. With its floating, rotatable objects, and big, round backgrounds, Gnog is pretty clearly tuned for VR, although it’s still playable without it. And, since I don’t have a spare $400 hanging around for PSVR, I just jerry-rigged up one of my own: I moved my chair a few feet from my stupidly big TV, plugged my headphones into my controller, and let the rest of the world fade away. (A brief tangent: I don’t know who it was that recently taught me that you can feed a game’s audio into a PS4 controller via the headphone jack, but that person is a saint.) The end result was ridiculously soothing (and I didn’t even have to worry about people sneaking up on me while I had a pair of goggles strapped to my face).
Once you get into it, Gnog is genius in a couple of different ways—for instance, the synesthesiac way the rhythms of its music build as you get closer to a solution, driving you forward and rewarding success—but its biggest benefit is how intuitive its “puzzles” are. More often than not, you’ll stumble into the next step simply by trying things; pulling buttons, prodding people, poking at frogs. Even the more taxing solutions can often be stumbled into, and the game is great at signaling when you’re on the right track with bursts of colors and sound. If it was billing itself as a hardcore puzzler, that would be a problem; instead, it’s perfectly meditative, letting your brain zone out as your fingers push things along and you slowly learn the rules of each scenario. (My mind keeps returning to that old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Game,” the one where you just “relax” and “let it go,” albeit without the addictive, ship-stealing side effects.) Gnog’s not a long game; there are only 10 or so boxes and most of them take 10 minutes at most to solve. But it is the most thoroughly relaxing game I’ve played all year, DIY VR setup or no.
Puyo Puyo Tetris is literally just what it says right there in the title: two classic puzzle games, placed next to each other to form one new-ish puzzle game. That might not sound particularly revolutionary, but in practice, it’s kind of like walking while also riding a bike. Both games are built on similar concepts—arranging falling pieces just right to eliminate them and keep your screen from getting cluttered—but much like walking while also riding a bike, both Tetris and Puyo Puyo become something bigger and weirder than themselves when mashed together. This comes through the clearest in the game’s great Swap mode, which alternates between Tetris and Puyo Puyo every few seconds, forcing you to keep track of what you’re doing on two boards at once. There’s also standard battle modes, a campaign that I haven’t touched, a ridiculous mode called Big Bang that makes you complete very simple Tetris or Puyo Puyo lines as fast as possible, and a mode that literally combines the two games into one hideous monstrosity that is even more ridiculous than the other ridiculous mode. It’s probably not the best version of either Puyo Puyo or Tetris, but it is a very good version of those two games getting smashed together.
Another week, another roguelike that I’m dipping my toe into. This time it’s Strafe, which applies the standard randomized run-based formula to the look and simplicity of mid-’90s first-person shooters. The speed is really the thing here. Your character zips around at a pace that’s unheard of in modern shooters, and, in the earliest levels, enemies are constantly swarming your way in an attempt to overwhelm you. It’s all very frantic and made wilder by ToyTree’s crunchy, pulsating soundtrack.
Where Strafe goes wrong is the details of its design. There’s a simple economy—kill stuff, get scrap, spend scrap on ammo and armor—but everything feels too expensive. You’ll find randomized upgrades and vending machines doling out free “blessings,” but as far as I can tell, none of their functionality or iconography is ever clearly explained, making each choice as befuddling as it is vital. But there is a certain visceral pleasure to the simple things Strafe does well, like giving you bursts of speedy, brainless shooter goodness on which to burn a few free minutes. It’s actually been an amazing game to play alongside Prey, which has a similar derelict spaceship setting as Strafe’s first levels but proceeds at the polar opposite pace and tone.