Terraforming Mars (Asmodee Digital, 2018, PC/Mobile)
A digital implementation of the classic board game. It has single player challenges and online modes that I'm not particularly interested in, but the standard game against AI opposition is fun. I don't consider myself particularly amazing at TM, however, so while I'm proud of having absolutely massacred the AI in the game above, it probably says more about the aptitude of the medium difficulty AI than it does about my own skill. Experienced players might not get much out of games against even the hard AI, which is unfortunate given that other board game apps like Race for the Galaxy have had very good computer opponents.
My other complaint about the game is that there's so much animation that it ends up barely being faster than playing a real game even with the AI taking its turns quickly. I'd be okay with that if the animations were at least interesting, but most of them are a weirdly simultaneously super basic and super slow. Still, TM is considered a masterpiece of design for a reason, and these faults can only do so much to drag it down. Will I ever chose to play this way over the physical game against a human? Probably not. But it's a solid way to spend an hour playing against a computer, and dedicated players can at least use it to practice new strategies.
MSRP $19.99 (half the price of the real game, so hard to justify buying unless on sale)
Time to beat: About 90 minutes per game
Horizon Chase Turbo: Senna Forever (Aquiris, 2021, PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox/Mobile)
The base HCT is an Outrun-style racing game where you drive three laps around circuits themed after exaggerated neon versions of famous places around the world and try to make it from 18th to 1st. You also need to pick up all of the coins scattered on the the track and avoid running out of fuel, which can be replenished from drops that respawn near the start line every lap. It was a bit repetitive, but had great music and worked well as a podcast game.
Senna Forever is an expansion based on the career of the famous F1 driver, who is still seen as a hero in the developer's native Brazil. It's cool to see the devs get a chance to create a tribute to someone who was clearly inspirational to them, and it's also nice that some of the proceeds apparently go to an educational charity. The DLC itself remixes the gameplay by adding in three objectives to complete on each race and replacing the original game's tracks with less fantastic (but more complex) circuits based on real-world F1 events. The shorter length and bonus objectives go a long way towards reducing the repetitiveness, but I still think it could've used another track or two.
That said, it's a $6 DLC and what you get is definitely worth that if you liked the core game. Give it a shot if you want more after a regular playthrough or, like me, are curious to see how the game developed since release.
Time to beat: 3 hours
Cleo - A Pirate's Tale (Christoph Schultz, 2021, PC)
Cleo is a point-and-click adventure that, in defiance of the genre name, is actually controlled with WASD and does not have a visible mouse pointer. It describes itself as also being inspired by old Zelda games, but I'm honestly not seeing it outside of a combat section in the prologue that is never relevant again. This is a LucasArts or Humongous-style adventure through and through.
I have a weird relationship with this genre in that I usually like the storytelling, but get sick of the puzzle design after about 5 minutes and end up using a guide the whole way through. Cleo is different only in that I made it an hour before remembering that I don't like adventure puzzles, but I honestly don't think my approach hurt it much. It's a story largely about storytelling, so it's fitting that it's well written and that there are some genuinely cool ideas at the end. I hope Schultz keeps going and expands on the lore this game sets up.
My only real complaint about it is that it has a made up card game called Krakken Fodder that achieves the impossible feat of making War more random and less fun. It is mercifully short, at least, but the two times you're forced to play it are still miserable. As long as you can look past that crime against cards, there's a great little game here.
Time to beat: 3 hours, but completionists could probably get a lot more time since I only managed 3/20 achievements.
Minute of Islands (Studio Fizbin/Mixtvision, 2021, PC/Switch/PS4/XBO)
A game that looks like it'd be a point and click, but which is actually a 2D quasi-platformer with climbing straight out of Uncharted. I say quasi-platformer because it's impossible to die and, aside from an ill-conceived section near the end of the game, there's practically no challenge. It's a linear story that happens to be driven by some platforming and optional bits of exploration should you choose to collect the "lost memories."
Thankfully, the game is very well written and the narrator is excellent at conveying the right emotions for each scene. I expected to be saying that this would've had a place on last year's top 10 if I'd played it in time but, while the first half of the game certainly would have deserved a spot, the second half is unfortunately not as strong. The last two chapters feel a bit drawn out for the message they're sending, and it's also at this point that the more repetitive gameplay elements start to be a drag. The second half isn't particularly bad, mind you, but it's disappointing that a game with an excellent first half ends with a mediocre second.
It's also worth calling out the great sound and visual work, which absolutely nail the dying world atmosphere throughout. The game is beautiful in a disgusting sort of way, and while the more graphic visuals may be too much for some players, the game wisely frontloads a lot of what it's going to show. There's really nothing more gross than what you'll see in the first 30 minutes, so you'll be well within Steam's refund window if any of it is more than what you want to deal with. If you're playing on console, just know that you're in for organic machinery and animal corpses in various stages of decay.
Time to beat: 5 hours. 100% completion would maybe take another hour.
1080 Avalanche (Nintendo, 2003, GCN)
I just did a writeup about this game here. In short: it's fun, but a severe lack of content and some wildly unfair higher difficulty levels prevent it from being a game I'd recommend anyone go buy. It's worth playing for a bit if you find it in front of you, though.
Time to beat: 2-3 hours
MSRP: Decades out of print, $70-ish used.