7th of January, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time, the end-of-the-year break delivered: Postal rounds, a magical hat, nasty consequences and a genuinely classic series.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.
Lake is a rough-round-the-edges mix of a postal delivery sim and small-town storytelling, and now is the perfect time to give it a go.
You play as Meredith Weiss, a big city professional working during the computing boom of the late 1980s. You have a tiring desk job, a boss who bothers you on holidays, and a sense that despite holding the fort for everyone around you, your work remains unappreciated. But then your father calls, and asks if you can cover his mail shift for two weeks in his sleepy lake town in rural Oregon. It's time for a working holiday!
I first discovered Lake last summer, when its demo popped up on Xbox. Now released and recently added to Xbox Game Pass, I persevered with the full thing over the holidays. It felt a bit like I'd taken a working holiday myself, to the game's relaxing country roads, gentle storytelling, and deliberately repetitious gameplay.
I liked how Lake did not outstay its welcome - your fortnight in Providence Oaks is laid out in diary form from the beginning, and totals around five real-world hours. I also felt it provided a pretty accurate depiction of small-town life - with friendly faces to get to know, oddballs and the occasional arsehole.
When all's said and done, I felt like I did at the end of a lot of my holidays - in some ways refreshed, in others missing some of my usual routines (and yes, even work). There's a long-telegraphed choice to make at the end of it all. I'd be interested to hear what everyone else picked!
Super Mario Odyssey, Switch
I'm from the generation of gamers that was first introduced to the world's favourite plumber when New Super Mario Bros. released on the DS. As an eight year old, I was absolutely hooked. The simple yet well thought out gameplay caught the hearts of children and nostalgia-fevered adults alike. But like many of those new gamers, I became burnt out after the countless 2D side-scrolling Mario releases of the 2010s, so much so that I completely shunned all new Mario releases.
So when Super Mario Odyssey released in 2017 to critical acclaim, I was sceptical. I threw it on my list of games I'll eventually get round to, which I have four years later. What I experienced was an absolute delight.
Super Mario Odyssey shakes up the platforming formula just as Super Mario 64 did in 1996. Nintendo had the courage to push the boundaries while retaining just enough elements from the series so it still feels familiar. There's so much to explore and collect, none of which feels forced or meaningless as one has come to expect with a modern open-world title. Movement and combat feels crisp and smooth, while throwing Cappy with a gesture using my Joy-Cons feels effortless. Most of all, Nintendo proves that having cutting-edge graphics is not the be-all and end-all to the success of a game.
Little Misfortune, PC
I killed a dog. I know, I know, dogs aren't meant to die in games. I promise it was an accident.
But Little Misfortune is a game all about accidents. This delightful, darkly comic game from Swedish developer Killmonday Games was released back in 2019 and has largely flown under the radar. It's a point-and-click adventure that follows the titular Misfortune on a quest to gain eternal happiness for her alcoholic mother who suffers at the hand of an abusive father.
With tough subjects seen through the eyes of a child, Little Misfortune touches on incredibly serious topics but often with a comic edge. Suicide, substance abuse and more rub shoulders with slapstick humour in a macabre concoction that swings wildly between extremes. Hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, it doesn't always land but still has plenty of heart.
Along the way, there are tonnes of accidents. Choice and consequence are at the core of gameplay and it's never quite clear what the effects will be. That makes it wonderfully random and often shocking.
Which brings us back to that pup. I threw a ball, desperate to play. But after cackling as the ball bounced back and smacked Misfortune in the face, that schadenfreude soon turned to horror as a tree branch swiftly fell on the poor doggo. I'm sorry puppy, I'll never forget you.
A Zelda Marathon, Wii U, Game and Watch
Zelda games have always felt Christmassy to me. I have very fond memories of playing Ocarina of Time during the Christmas holidays in 1998 and because of that I always try to find something 'Zelda-like' to play during the winter break.
Last year, for instance, it was Ubisoft's decent but terribly titled Breath of the Wild clone, Immortals Fenyx Rising. This year however, I decided to play through some Zelda games from the past that had previously escaped my attention.
This quest was sparked off by my brother who gave me a Zelda Game & Watch for Christmas. It's a brilliant little machine that looks like the Game & Watches of old, but instead of one jittery LCD game, it contains Zelda's 1 and 2 for the NES and the GameBoy version of Link's Awakening. By following a guide, I was able to finally complete Zelda 1 for the very first time (it's super hard and I've tried many times in the past to do it without one so don't judge me) after a solid day's worth of playing.
That left me with a taste for retro Zelda action so, after having a little look at which ones I'd missed, I climbed up into my loft to rescue my Wii U. It turns out the Wii U is the perfect Zelda machine because its online store holds a host of hard-to-find Zelda titles. First I played Wind Waker HD which I loved, despite an unfortunate power cut that caused me to lose hours of progress. To buy that game physically for the GameCube will cost you an arm and a leg, but digitally on the Wii U? Twenty notes - bargain!
Then, thanks to the Wii U's dual screen, I was able to download and play Wind Waker's DS based sequel, Phantom Hourglass, which cost less than a tenner. Initially it felt strange controlling Link with a stylus but I soon got the hang of it and ended up really enjoying the way the stylus and built-in Wii U microphone played into the puzzles.
There are still plenty of past Zelda games that I need to play through - I'm very much looking forward to Spirit Tracks and the Oracle games - but to be honest with you, after all of that, I think I need a bit of a break from Zelda for a while... Still at least I've got something to look forward to playing next Christmas!