3rd of December, 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: alien worlds, strange ruins, and a proper classic.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.
Exo One, Xbox Series S (Game Pass)
I don't know if you ever do this but sometimes when I pick up a game, usually for the first time, all I want to do is move. I don't care about missions or objectives or anything like that, I just want to see and feel it in motion. And rarely has a game been so squarely aimed at me than Exo One.
The game is movement - that's all you really do. You're a piece of alien technology (I think) capable of rolling as a ball and then flattening into a pancake shape and gliding through the sky. When you pull the right trigger, you pull on gravity, and you can thunder down hills to pick up momentum. When you pull the right trigger, you soar up into the air and glide. That's all you know.
That's all you really need to know. Your sense of play does the rest. How fast can you make this craft go? How high can you make it go? How smoothly can you fly it without any falling-down downtimes? This is all you'll care about to begin with. It's only after a bit of time that you'll start wondering where you are (Jupiter?) and what you're actually doing, and the game drips clues in about this at around the same time.
It's just so freeing to be able to pick up and go in a game like this, and to be able to go so fast, without having to worry about question marks. Just to be, just to play, just to move. It's almost mesmerising. It's actually a bit of a shame when a sort of game structure begins to emerge.
Hyper Light Drifter, Switch
Solar Ash is a very different game to Hyper Light Drifter, but a week with Heart Machine's latest sent me back to the team's debut just to get a refresher on what it's actually like. And it's wonderful, of course, a pixel art dream: ancient ruins, strange technology, delicate wildlife and a hero who looks a bit like an owl.
It's one of those magical games where the world tells you so much as you move through it. Not in heavy-handed ways, with emails to read and voice logs and all that jazz. Just in the little details. A secret area will have a skeleton slumped in a corner. An underground complex will have rooms whose precise purpose it's a pleasure to wonder about.
And the combat is a dream. In Solar Ash, combat's really there to give you something more to think about as you move around - it's an element of movement, almost, like part of a dance routine. In Hyper Light Drifter you can get into real trouble if you don't control the space around you, and your arsenal ties together in simple, satisfying ways - melee recharges your ranged weapon, your ranged weapon gives you a bit of space and a bit of time.
It's a delight to come back, to see that before Heart Machine mastered 3D space, the team did a pretty good job with 2D space. Incredible.
How long does it take to really get your head around a game? I've had G-Darius sitting on my Switch ever since its release on the Japanese eShop some months ago, returning to this polygonal take on Taito's stately shmup series in fits and bursts before bedtime over the past year. It's a curious thing, with ideas picked generously from Darius games past but served up in a new aesthetic, and I'll admit it left me cold for a while - it's not as quick to get its hooks into you as the brilliant Darius Gaiden, and its soundtrack doesn't quite have the same eerie edge.
And yet! After months and countless bite-sizes sessions with G-Darius, I'm really beginning to love it - its energy and abundance of ideas makes it feel like this own series' Gradius 5, a grandee that may well prove to be a personal favourite Darius game. It's a funny thing - I'd have quite happily turned my back on G-Darius after the first playthrough of it, but all these months later it's quite possibly become one of my favourite games of the year.