19th of February, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to a new regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few weeks. This time: cards, Final Fantasy, and art galleries.
Ancient Enemy, PC
The disappointment of last year's The Solitaire Conspiracy drove me back into the arms of Grey Alien's Jake Birkett, undisputed master of my favourite ultra-niche genre, the solitaire campaign game. For one reason and another I had never given his most recent release, Ancient Enemy, that much time - and its pensive, soothing rhythm has been a perfect way to take quick mental breaks during wintry lockdown work days.
Honestly, I think Birkett's earlier games in this genre - casual gaming masterpiece Regency Solitaire and its prequel Shadowhand, which prototyped Ancient Enemy's more involved solitaire-RPG gameplay - have more character. Their bodice-ripping historical whimsy, slightly gauche art and strong local flavour of southwestern England (Birkett is based in Dorset) make for more distinctive video games than Ancient Enemy's doomy apocalyptic fantasy setting.
But Ancient Enemy is a crisp and beautifully polished design - a more refined version of what Birkett attempted in Shadowhand. The indication of the enemy's next move is an inspired lift from Slay the Spire that makes fights more predictable and fair, and enables more strategic play. Strategic, that is, within the confines of cruel fate, because this is still a solitaire game where luck can make or break you, where the fall of the cards stands in for the roll of the dice. It's just that Ancient Enemy gives you just enough tools to be able to bend fate to your will. We could all use a bit of that now, right?
Final Fantasy 14, PC, PS4
It happened - I'm finally playing Final Fantasy 14. I have the Endwalker expansion to blame, with its reveal seeing my Twitter feed light up with people excited to go to the moon, and for me it was a now-or-never moment - to get round to the Final Fantasy game I've been purposely ignoring all these years, or let it forever pass me by because it's never the 'right moment' to start something which could soak up my free time.
To my surprise and some relief, Final Fantasy 14 has neither taken over my life or put me off MMOs for good, but is holding my interest somewhere in-between. It's low-key stuff in the opening hours - I'm still at the fetch quests and killing x number of monsters stage - but it feels slick, polished and pretty relaxing. It also works pleasingly well with a controller, with hotbars replacing the series' traditional command window to help me chain together attacks with my lance as I bash yet another squirrel to smithereens.
I'm taking my time with it, but the thing that's clear from the outset is it's a love letter to Final Fantasy through and through; the boss music using motifs from the series theme to amp up the drama, fellow players running around with pets from niche references to other games, and that fact it all looks and sounds an awful lot like Final Fantasy 12. I've also just picked up some armour which has materia slots, and if someone told me that was a thing, I would have done less deliberating and more playing years ago.
It's early days (and from what I gather, it will take me literal days of playtime to get to the best stuff in the later expansions) and progress is gradual, I'm glad to have at least finally made a start - even if I won't be caught up with Endwalker until at least 2023.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Switch
It is 5pm on a winter's day and Keaton is in the Animal Crossing art gallery. He pauses before Las Meninas, Velazquez's huge canvas depicting the family of Philip the 4th with attendants and a sleeping dog. "There's a lot going on in this one," says Keaton. "Who's the-- And where's the--?"
He steps back and tilts his head to one side, and then the other. "I feel like I'm there," he says, and wanders on.