Catherine has some of the most fun and unique gameplay I've ever played. It combines the appeal of solving puzzles with my love for the edgy and gruesome, and has one of my favorite soundtracks ever composed. Shoji Meguro's arrangement of Beethoven's 5th is literal perfection, and if there are two things I learned in undergrad, they are:
Who cares about the original composers' intention, music is ever evolving
...but, if rock guitar had existed in Beethoven's time, he absolutely would have put that sh*t in his work.
The soundtrack feels like a collaboration across the ages. It goes hard.
Really though, it is the gameplay that boosts Catherine into the top 10. I value aesthetics, obviously, I've made that clear again and again and again. And Catherine's aesthetics are S-tier. But this game's puzzles are so f*cking cool. You are climbing a nightmare stack and if you hesitate or screw up you die, and if you die in the dream, you die for real.
...You know, typing this, I actually came to realize something. My biggest frustration with AI: The Somnium Files stemmed from the fact that I love dream-logic-as-gameplay so much as a concept, so I felt doubly betrayed that the ending was mediocre.
But you know what? Whatever. Screw it. Catherine is right here, and Catherine absolutely nails dream-logic-as-gameplay. It's terrifying. It feels like a nightmare. And it is also a really damn cool puzzle. It's so fun, it's so interesting, it is so unlike anything else I've played.
I haven't played Full Body. I don't really intend to, because the original is fantastic, and didn't feel like it needed to be expanded upon. But I will say that the "Flight of the Valkyries" arrangement in it is sick as hell.
Super Paper Mario
I don't really care that Super Paper Mario deviated from the 64/TTYD formula. If I want to play the 64/TTYD formula, I have two great games right there I can go back to. Super Paper Mario instead decided to become the straight up coolest platformer ever, with A++ level design. It has a stellar soundtrack, an incredible cast of villains, an interesting story (I don't play Mario for the story, but it was a good one), and such a fantastic gameplay concept that is realized so excellently.
I didn't mind that the "partners" didn't come back, because I got to play alongside Peach, Bowser, and Luigi instead. I didn't mind the lack of turn-based combat because combining RPG elements like leveling with standard platforming elements made for a really special experience. If deviating from the Paper Mario formula is what it took to get the coolest Mario game ever, then so be it, man.
My one gripe is that the way it incentivizes staying in 2D the majority of the time is by limiting time in 3D. I think it would have been even better if there were no time limit and instead level design was ever-so-slightly tweaked to more evenly necessitate 2D in some cases and 3D in others. A Super Paper Mario gameplay sequel/spiritual successor, fully realizing the potential of this concept, would be an absolute treasure. I'm not holding my breath though, and I'm still so impressed by (and in love with) what we were given. This game is why I find it hard to go back to The Thousand-Year Door: if a game is going to have such linear left-right level design, then it might as well go all-in and be a platformer, and that is exactly what Super Paper Mario did. The result is brilliant.
It's not as cozy as 64. It's not what people were expecting after TTYD. But what it is, is my one of my all-time favorite games.
Tales of the Abyss
Tales of the Abyss has my favorite battle system in the series, introducing free run and the FoF mechanic. An elemental spell leaves elemental residue on the battlefield, which you can use to do super special awesome elemental-themed artes based on your attacks. FoF's aren't just super cool, they also give a sense of "immersion" in a silly combo-based battle system where you can cheese everything if you want to. It makes the magic feel a little more real.
But, again, it's also just rad, and enemies can take advantage just as much as you can. If you know Arietta absorbed the light FoF before she started casting, that means Negative Gate is actually going to be Crimson Riot and you should react accordingly. On the other hand, if you're about to take a fatal blow, initiating a FoF arte will allow you to tank it with 1hp and live to continue the fight. It's really clever and makes fights really interesting.
The battle system has failsafes against infinites, namely Overlimit and the fact that if your combo counter gets high enough they will pop out of it (similar to ToS's tech down, effectively ending your combo and leaving you open). It's still not the most balanced because agility is broken as hell, but boy, is it fun, and at least it's not Dawn of the New World where you can literally just infinite every single boss. ...Because why should we put an anti-infinite mechanic in our combo-based battle system, apparently. At any rate, we aren't talking about that game, and Abyss did implement some balancing measures. It's definitely still cheese-able, but challenging and fun nevertheless.
Abyss also has probably the best writing in the series. I will say it's extremely guilty of technobabble, but the worldbuilding is outstanding, and the main cast of protagonists and villains are just so compellingly written with fascinating links between them. Virtually everybody is a selfish prick with 700 secrets to hide and it makes for juicy dynamics. It also makes several very intentional decisions to sacrifice quality of life for narrative weight... and the payoff is that, damn, its narrative has weight. Luke fon Fabre's character development is acclaimed for a reason. Somehow, by the end of it, these douchebags have come to legitimately care for one another, with earnestly compelling relationships developing between them.
The biggest problem with this game is that for the first part of it you have to witness Luke's godawful lion's mane before he cuts it and starts actually looking presentable. ...By some definition. But it's such a compelling journey. I am always so moved by its climax every time I experience it.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux
Persona 2: Innocent Sin's starkly different vibe compared to the more recent Personas got me interested in trying a non-Persona Shin Megami Tensei game. I figured I would probably go with Nocturne because it looks neat and it's the one everyone loves and it came out between Persona 2 and Persona 3. It was something I was considering in the back of my mind, but I never got the urge to actually follow through.
Then, at some point, I watched one of the SMT speedrunners I follow on Twitch running Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, a game I had never heard of before. I had no context, and they were obviously skipping all the dialogue, but I was completely enamored with the game's atmosphere. The soundtrack was in stark contrast to what I would have expected from Shin Megami Tensei, with an almost operatic feel, and it appeared to be a first-person dungeon crawler starring... astronaut Doomguy...? The environments were visually captivating, and of course the demon designs are fantastic - some I recognized from Persona - and moreover, I loved the sprite-based art.
I decided that I wanted to play this game. So I impulse purchased it and started playing the day it came in.
It's so good. It's SO good. I am completely obsessed. I never saw myself as someone who would enjoy a turn-based first-person dungeon crawler, but turns out writing off whole styles of gameplay is a bad move cuz sometimes it rules. I don't mind encounters because there's an indicator that tells me when one is coming, if I'm a high enough level they won't spawn (thanks Redux), and also because encounters are necessary to get more demons to fuse and build a strong team. And that's necessary, because if you don't have a good team, you'll get murdered by all the bosses.
I love that this game forces me to strategize. You gotta go in blind and get your butt handed to you while testing out things and getting a feel for bosses' tricks and weaknesses, then you build a team to counter them and go back in, and sometimes they will just meme on you with some BS move at almost-death and you gotta react to that. It's fun. Game's cheeky as heck but it's a challenge and a really rewarding one.
My sole - and I do mean sole - complaint, is that because of the hidden doors mechanic, the game basically incentivizes you to walk sideways staring at the bottom screen, instead of walking forward and enjoying the exploration. It's the one thing that feels tedious for the sake of tedium rather than adventure. Everything else? Phenomenal. The story is so interesting and takes turns that I didn't expect into genuinely fascinating territory. I haven't actually finished beating the game yet (I'm very close, but not there), but I'm so excited to see how it ends, and then to try different routes and see how vastly it diverges. But I don't need to finish it to know that it's incredible, because every step of the journey so far has been captivating.
I could, and should eventually, write a whole Big Long Essay on this game. There is so much to talk about. The gameplay, the writing, the music, the messages. I knew this game's ending before I started it but it still tore my heart out and changed my entire view of what games can do as media to tell stories.
I love Mother 3. I'm so glad I played it. If I tried to do it justice in a rambly list entry I'd fail, so for now, I'll leave it at that.