Circuit Superstars (Original Fire Games/Square Enix, 2021, PC [future Switch/PS4/XB1])
Circuit Superstars is a top down game that looks like an arcade racer, but is actually a surprisingly serious simulation. Mistakes are punished heavily on higher difficulties, and going around a corner just a little too fast or trying to push your tires for one too many laps can easily send you from first to last. There's a good amount of variety with 12 different car classes that all play quite differently and 19 tracks covering both rally courses and GP circuits. I can imagine a more hardcore racing fan getting quite a lot of time out of trying to master every cup, but personally I was satisfied with winning them all on the lowest or second lowest of five difficulties. This game is hard.
Time to beat: 7 hours
Fossil Corner (Brady Soglin/Overfull Games, 2021, PC)
A game about getting boxes of fossils and then organizing them into family trees. The color of a fossil tells you which generation it is part of, and since only one trait can change between a parent and child, you can figure out the connections by looking for those differences. After you solve a box, you get to keep one fossil from it for display and can use those accumulated fossils to meet various challenges and progress the very basic story.
FC looks like a puzzle game, but it's really more of a gacha. Box contents are completely random and you need specific combinations of traits to complete challenges, so it's usually a matter of blind luck until you get the fossil combiner, which magically creates fossil offspring that will sometimes have the trait combination you actually wanted. The core loop of creating family trees is satisfying and there are no microtransactions to make the gacha elements predatory, but I still think I'd have enjoyed it more with less RNG.
Time to beat: 3 hours
Unpacking (Witch Beam/Humble Games, 2021, PC/Switch/XBO)
This is one of the most okay games I've ever played. The core mechanic of unpacking boxes to complete a move is fun and unique, but it never introduces any meaningful new mechanics and I was growing bored of placing things on shelves by the end despite the short run time. It never tells you what an object is or why it isn't valid in some locations, so if you're not familiar with one of the items that needs placing, finding a home for it is a tedious exercise in plopping it down on every surface until the game is happy. Some objects need to go on the floor, but you'll often find that the game won't accept a placement that is valid one pixel closer to the wall. Those tight conditions could've been the basis for a logic puzzle in another game, but here they're just arbitrary rules. Why is it okay to have a desk covered in items to the point that it's completely unusable but not okay to have a shoes next to the bed? We'll never know.
The story is another missed opportunity. Unpacking moving boxes could've been a cool way to tell a story without words if there was anything unusual happening in the background, but instead any nuance to the levels is immediately obvious and nothing particularly interesting happens in the main character's life. That's relatable, sure, but it's not memorable.
Which is a line that sums up the entire experience, honestly. You have probably lived a lot of what happens in Unpacking and will likely do so again. It's much more unique than Assault Android Cactus, the last game from Witch Beam, but even though I'm still recommending that game to people after six years, Unpacking will be lucky if I remember it at all after six weeks.
Time to beat: 3 hours
Haven Park (Fabian Weibel/Mooneye Studios, 2021, PC/Switch)
Haven Park looks a lot like A Short Hike, and as a game where you play as a bird and explore a campground, it also sounds a lot like ASH. But despite the obvious similarities, it really has more in common with Animal Crossing. You've inherited responsibility for a huge camping park from your grandma and you need to go around building amenities and fixing infrastructure since no one has been maintaining the park for years. Along the way, you'll meet silly characters with only a few lines of dialogue each and complete some simple quests.
It's a mostly relaxing game that can get frustrating when it gets a little too obtuse with its directions or when you have one thing left to repair and no idea where it is. Which brings me back to A Short Hike - these are both games that work because they're short, cute, and wholesome. That works for me where Unpacking largely failed because ASH and HP remember to occasionally shake up what you're doing, and also because HP costs less than half as much.
Time to beat: 3 hours
Potion Party (RPGames, 2021, PC/Switch)
This is an Overcooked-style game where you're running a potion shop. Customers will come in and ask for a specific potion, which you then brew by mashing up primary-colored ingredients and distilling them into magical mixes. More advanced orders might ask for big potions that take multiple ingredients, secondary colored potions that need mixes of colors, or white or black potions that need extra processing. Unlike most games in this genre, you only ever have one customer, so you're rewarded more for planning ahead and making use of downtime to prep potential future orders than for reacting quickly to known demands. Even more unlike other games, the whole game takes place in a simple room that gets decked out with upgrades and chapter modifiers as you advance instead of progressing through a more typical campaign of varied levels. That might sound strange, but it's really in keeping with the theme of advance preparation. If you barely pass chapter 5 because you were running out of table space, you can buy an extra table for chapter 6 to solve the problem.
Potion Party has the foundation of a great new entry in the co-op item-preparation genre, then, but unfortunately it doesn't have the ambition to fully deliver on it. You can finish its 10 chapters in a couple hours and won't be doing anything too different in chapter 10 than what you were doing in chapter 1. I'd like to see a sequel that takes these ideas further and adds a little more challenge. This is a fun diversion that just doesn't push itself or the players quite far enough.
Time to beat: 2 hours
Mario Party Superstars (NDCube/Nintendo, 2021, Switch)
Mario Party's second Switch outing is a remastering of 5 N64-era boards and about 100 minigames from the N64, GCN, and occasionally the Wii MP titles. Its intended audience is probably people nostalgic for those games, but I've only played the GCN games and even those were just last year. How does it stack up when almost everything is new?
In a vacuum, well enough. As you might expect from boards that are all at least 20 years old, there's rarely anything very interesting going on and there's a much greater potential to get completely and unrecoverably screwed by RNG than in later games. But while the boardgame randomness is as bad as it's ever been, they did at least remove almost all of the pure RNG minigames that plagued the GCN titles and, aside from some 3v1 games that are horribly unfair to one side or the other, you're usually in control of your own minigame fate. And, those 3v1 games once again aside, the minigames selected are generally high quality, so you don't have those groan-inducing ones that you're hoping to avoid after every spinner. MPS also deserves some credit for making online play easier than ever before.
But MPS doesn't exist in a vacuum. While online play is great, that only gives it parity with what Pummel Party, an indie game with a third of the pricetag, managed years ago. There are fewer game modes and characters than in Mario Party Deluxe, a game in the same series on the same console and with the same pricetag, and MPD's boards and generally more interesting. MPS's only real advantages over that game are its online play and the lack of ill-conceived motion controls. I don't really specifically dislike anything about MPS, but if I want online play and skill-based minigames, I'm going to play Pummel Party. If I want interesting boards, I'll boot up Mario Party 5 or 6. If I need to play on Switch, I'll go for the variety of Mario Party Deluxe. This is a fine party game that fails to stand out from the competition.
Time to beat: 5 hours to play every board once