Video games in 2023 -- five good ones

This is the 2023 edition of my now yearly series of reviews of video games I’ve played over the last year (2020-2021, 2022).

I’ve only played five games this year, to my slight surprise all of which were on the Switch. So this year’s post is a chronological list, and I’m going to start giving them ratings out of five. Definitely more great games this year than last.

Triangle Strategy (RPG, turn-based)

If you ever played Final Fantasy Tactics this type of game will be very familiar, and of course it has the same developer. Your character sprites sit on little tiles on an isometric battlefield and take turns in which they can make one move and one attack (an adjacent tile with a sword, or further with magic or arrows). Power for moves charges one point each turn.

The complexity of the battles builds quite slowly. At first the only real strategy is hitting enemies from behind, or surrounding them to get two hits – without letting them do the same to you. Mid-game you have to choose twelve characters out of a large potential pool for each battle, and although you have some useful special attacks and items, most of the strategy comes from your movement and squad selection. By the final battles, you have many options and strategies available to you, and some of the battles are quite difficult. Perhaps this progression could have happened a bit quicker, as some of the early battles are a bit samey.

Triangle Strategy screenshot
One of the battles (good).

There is a story. It isn’t very good. If I can remember anything about it salt is a precious resource, but otherwise it’s an extremely generic medival Europe setting with some betrayals. The bad part is that it’s really hard to relate to some of the characters, including the main character.

Triangle Strategy screenshot
One of the interminable text sequences between the battles (bad).

The story is told through text. So much text. It’s very hard to care, especially at the start of the game. You just want to get on with the battles, and also the menus and upgrades but are forced into scene after scene with various transient entities who you form no relationship with.

If you know you like this kind of game, I imagine you will enjoy Triangle Strategy. For the most part, I did. But the first few hours are a real slog with little to redeem it, until the battles start coming through more reliably.

There are some specific decisions you have to choose to get the best ending (the ‘golden route’). This is more fun and challenging at the end of the game, so I’d suggest looking these up. A shame that it removes some of the choice aspect, but I certainly didn’t want to play through a second time.

Ranking: 3/5 I really enjoyed the combat, particularly in the later stages. The voting and dialogue choices were an interesting mechanism. Spoiled by too much unskippable dialogue, a boring story, lack of choice/interaction as you play, and the main character being a melt with frankly questionable politics.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (RPG, action)

When I first got my Switch in 2018 the first two games I played were The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Oddyssey – still two of the best games I have ever played. In particular, I sunk a lot of time into Zelda, and even after two full playthroughs loved exploring every bit of the world. At the end I wanted more game and more challenging combat, ultimately finding it fizzled out a lot by the time you were getting money and dragon parts for the special clothes.

Although I knew a sequel was coming, I’d not been keeping track of when it was due to be released, so one day was surprised and excited to see this game had just come out.

You’re back, so back, in Hyrule. Some things have changed, but not that much. It is very good when you get the paraglider again, which I wasn’t sure was actually coming.

Zelda TOTK screenshot
The sudden appearance of giant glyphs which must be found across the map and tell the story through flashback work very well at slowly building the world and making you explore.

In a sense it’s a whole new game: the weapon system is different, there are two major additions to the map, there is a significant main storyline, your powers have changed. Much remains the same: the main map, the combat, many of the mechanics (food, horses, shrines). The open world is great, but lacks the impact of its introduction in its predecessor.

A major new addition is the ability to build vehicles. It took me a bit of getting into and made me feel like an un-creative person seeing what people on youtube were making, but I felt at some point I had a few new ways of getting around which I used more than the trusty horses.

My favourite part of BotW was exploring the map. It was nice to remember and rediscover the main map, but definitely less exciting. I liked the addition of the sky islands – they are very mysterious and inaccesible at first, and it feels good when you are able to conquer them.

Zelda TOTK screenshot
Of the new areas, the sky islands are the strongest: a challenge to find, varied in what you do find, and very peaceful.

It took longer to enjoy exploring the depths, the darkness is just annoying. I’m glad the game forces you to do this, as eventually it was satisfying to have mastered this difficult terrain too.

The story is stronger than the previous game, and it’s nice to be in a world in ascendancy rather than sad decline. It’s a long main quest, and one which I very much enjoyed. It’s told through multiple mechanisms which aren’t forced on you, which works really well.

There are an absurd amount of side-quests: the shrines, the armour, the koroks, minibosses, horses, side adventures, side quests.

Zelda TOTK screenshot
More challenging combat is certainly available for those who seek it. I did not manage to defeat a King Gleeok in my run.

I think I had done about 75% of the shrines and side-quests by the time I finished the main quest. But then when I had, I just didn’t find I wanted to go back for more. I’ve definitely had my fill of this iteration of Hyrule now.

Ranking: 5/5 Realistically a great game which fixes some of the annoyances in its predecessor. I just felt like I’d played it before and found I didn’t want to come back after I’d finished the main story – I was sated. If it had come out just after the previous one I would have devoured it

Vampire Survivors (Shoot-em-up)

You are a little guy set upon by thousands of enemies, brittle at first but increasingly dangerous. You have a crappy weapon, which slowly gets better and you get more of them. Getting the drops and upgrades definitely feels good. It’s a lot like SNKRX.

Doing another run of this earlier to get a screenshot I really did question whether you actually ‘play’ this game or just kind of watch it. All the shooting is automatic. You do need to move around a bit, but it’s not complicated. I think what I realised is that most of the game is in the menus beforehand (which you unlock more of the more you play) and in the choices you make for your upgrades.

Vampire Survivors screenshot
Pleasure/reward centres: activate.

You have to survive 30 minutes and the first few times I barely managed ten. But then you work out what you need to do and it’s a lot more fun. I do question the replay value, as I didn’t enjoy playing the start over and over. I recently saw a guy playing it on his phone on a plane and was actually very jealous: I think that’s the right platform for it.

The difficulty really ramps up and the last few minutes you need to survive are insane. There is so much on the screen. Hundreds of enemies. Hundreds of your own projectiles. Thousands of drops. It runs great without any lag or dropped frames, and I would love to see how they optimised the code to make it work so well.

Vampire Survivors screenshot
The levels get silly at the end.

Ranking: 3.5/5 Very fun and addictive for a few goes, but then loses its appeal. This game costs about £3 and you should probably buy it.

Chants of Sennar (Puzzle)

You awake at the bottom of a colourful tower, unable to read or understand any of what is being said to you. You have to learn the language by the context in which it’s used, thinking about linguistic devices such as plurals, and making educated guesses. You keep track of the meaning of glyphs, and every set you get right are confirmed.

Chants of Sennar screenshot
I love a game menu, and never have I used a menu as much as the codex in Chants of Sennar.

The tower (of Babel, essentially) is bright and fun to explore. You quickly find there is not just a single language to translate, and each one has its own unique mechanisms. Although I think they are supposed to get harder as they go, for whatever reason, I found the third one really hard to work out and didn’t properly understand it until the very end. I probably enjoyed the fourth language and level the most (the alchemists).

Chants of Sennar screenshot
The cowardly scientists, sorry alchemists, with their newfound chad friends the warriors.

This is an amazing game. It’s a clever puzzle like no other I’ve played before, with fun exploration and an uplifting story. I think it takes about ten hours, which fly by.

Ranking: 5/5 Favourite game this year. Charming, different and an all-round very satisfying experience. You should play this game.

Super Mario Wonder (Platformer)

I don’t have too much to say about this game. It’s a 2D Mario Platformer. It’s pretty good but not amazing – Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is still the best recent 2D platformer. I thought 3D World was a bit better (especially as it came with Bowser’s Fury).

Each level is pretty unique and the mechanism where the level changes is always worth finding. I enjoyed playing it, but it’s too easy. That’s what I get for playing a children’s game I suppose.

There’s an online multiplayer which is pushed quite a lot but I didn’t try it because I don’t have a Nintendo Online subscription/any friends.

Super Mario Wonder screenshot
You can become an elephant in this one, but the powerups haven’t properly changed since Super Mario 3. Maybe apart from the fuzzy bee in Super Mario Galaxy.

Ranking: 4/5 A very solid 2D Mario platformer, but not much new since Mario 3D World, and without the challenge or joined up level design of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze.