Multiplayer: (Some More of) Our Favourite Hidden Gems
Those weird, cool or outright incredible games you might have missed
In our latest Multiplayer piece, we wanted to highlight a(nother) bunch of games that rarely get the recognition or attention that they deserve. Whether it’s because they’re far better than people realise, or they’ve been lost to time and a lack of availability, or they’re just so unique and weird that they deserve a spotlight for that individuality alone – cough Wrestling Empire cough – these are games you should know about!
Good depictions of mental health within video games are hard to come by at the best of times, but finding the restraint and empathy to craft a great representation of mental anguish within the horror genre is a near-Herculean task: Layers of Fear gave it a go but didn’t quite land its punches; the Silent Hill franchise buried its interpretation under mountains of symbolism; and Outlast didn’t even try to be considerate or even a little bit accurate. However, Harvester Games’ The Cat Lady managed to quietly blow all of these options completely out of the water.
Framed as a point-and-click game, The Cat Lady sees you take control of Susan right after she’s attempted suicide. She navigates a drab, hellish purgatory before its ruler, the Queen of Maggots, grants her immortality… the very last thing she wants. Sent back to Earth, Susan is tasked with eliminating five people who the Queen of Maggots considers to be “parasites”: murderers, mutilators and all-around terrible people. Blending nightmarish visuals with a delicate morality system, The Cat Lady explores the experience of someone overwhelmed by the many burdens life has thrown at her. Susan isn’t perfect and, at times, unlikeable but her characterisation makes her utterly believable in her trauma, habits and fears. Mental illness, bar from a curse, is simply something she is forced to live with and just like the rest of us, Susan copes as imperfectly as any real person might.
RagnarRox has an amazing video on the game if you need more convincing, but I promise you that although everyone I know is determined to overlook this game, it certainly will not waste your time.
Ruby: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
In Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective you play as Sissel, a very anime-looking protagonist complete with gravity-defying hair who has just found himself in the unfortunate position of being dead. Throughout this point-and-click game, you use Sissel’s ghostly ability to possess objects to manipulate the world around you. The end goal is to find out just how exactly Sissel died, but along the way you can also use an additional ability to rewind time and save various quirky characters from their own grisly demise — including his ally, a young female detective called Lynne. This is more complicated than it sounds because danger unfolds in real time, meaning you’ll have to jump between objects and actions quickly and in the right order to save the day.
Ghost Trick’s over-the-top and immensely memorable cast includes Cabenala, a detective who enters every scene with an elaborate dance, Missile, a ghostly Pomeranian, and Ray, a possessed lamp who acts as a mentor for Sissel. They’re each as ridiculous as each other, and yet they’re all completely charming. I also love the visual style, which pairs cartoony character portraits with characters modelled in 3D and then hand-drawn into 2D sprites, giving them deliciously smooth animation. Combined with the atmospheric background art and the red filter applied over scenes when you’re using Sissel’s possession powers, the whole thing is as stylish as Sissel’s suit and tie.
While the gameplay does sometimes rely a bit too much on trial and error, Ghost Trick’s outstanding characters and genuinely moving ending makes this a puzzle title worth playing — and you don’t even need a DS to do it, since the first two chapters are free on the iOS App Store, with more available via purchase.
Oh, and did I mention it was created, written and directed by Shu Takumi, creator of the Ace Attorney series?
Callum: Phantom Doctrine
I love Phantom Doctrine. It’s an XCOM-style dive into cold war paranoia, spy thrillers and that fun moment in period films when the characters see modern technology and freak out. There’s just enough fact in it to hook a history buff like me, and enough fiction to keep me hooked. The story twists round and round with betrayal, death and mind control. Then there’s the variety. There’s three campaigns, all built around the same conspiracy but from different angles: a CIA group investigating nuclear weapon smuggling, a KGB group investigating a high-level space program leak, and a Nazi hunter. The only downside is that Phantom Doctrine suffers the same problem as XCOM in that after a while every building starts to look similar.
Phantom Doctrine doesn’t just imitate XCOM, but alsorises above it. First, it gives us a self-insert character straight away. We’re not just a faceless commander, but a person with a material investment in our spy ring. It also ties the base actions even closer to the field operations. Agents are upgraded through chemical enhancements, enemy operatives can be captured, interrogated and even turned into sleeper agents, offering a wide array of strategies. Phantom Doctrine also uses stealth beyond literally the first shot. My favourite feature, however, is the intelligence analysis: intelligence gained through missions is collated on cork boards, with unredacted code-names matched between documents until one reveals the real name of the location, agent or organisation. It’s a simple feature, but it sets the tone for the whole game.
I could talk about Phantom Doctrine for a lot longer than this, but to cut it short, developer CreativeForge Games has created a game that fills an XCOM-shaped hole while having its own distinct style and tone.
Callum: The Red Strings Club
The Red Strings Club is one of those games that’s lingered in the back of my mind for more than a year. It hits another genre intersection for me, and being a cyberpunk bartender/information broker is a lot of fun, but that’s not the whole of it. The story started promisingly enough, and developer Deconstructeam is efficient with its writing, but I wasn’t a fan of the latter sections, which didn’t really deliver on the weight of the themes set up. I flat out stopped playing before the end, so miffed was I at The Red Strings Club’s disappointing ending. I’m calling it a hidden gem, though, so it stands to reason that there must be something else The Red Strings Club, a narrative game made with pixelated graphics, did that impressed the hell out of me: design.
The Red Strings Club’s design is the real hidden gem. Not just the art and cinematography, though both are brilliant. Most Western RPGs (Fallout, the Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, etc.) treat conversation as an interruption to gameplay, and questions as some sort of double interruption. Goals are achieved by skill checks or ending the conversation, and are always focused on your character’s wants and goals. While I like these games, they let a critical part of RPGs (social interaction) go largely unimproved since the earliest days of computer RPGs. In some cases, these systems have even been rolled back. Instead, The Red Strings Club approaches conversations from a different perspective, one that’s worth a whole essay.
For a four-hour game, The Red Strings Club has some very thought provoking, even experimental elements. While they never really come together as much as I’d like, it’s time I don’t regret spending.
John: Wrestling Empire
As someone who’s relatively new to wrestling and has no first-hand experience with literally any other wrestling game, MDickie’s Wrestling Empire not only succeeds at making the actual gameplay fun and satisfying, but — perhaps unintentionally — acknowledges the innate bleakness of the industry. The in-ring action might be exciting, but everything else is just barely-mitigated chaos and despair.
In Career Mode, your wrestler is stuck on a short fuse with almost no control over their career in any way. A near-total absence of agency. Starting out in the developmental Wrestling School, which costs money to attend every week, your goal is to improve in-ring and ultimately get hired by one of the major promotions. Getting noticed and hired by a promotion is pure chance; you have no decision in this at all, it just happens randomly. If you don’t get hired soon enough, you’re forced to retire and your campaign is over (refuse a contract just once and there’s a good chance this happens). You also have to manage your health between matches with no control over whether you actually wrestle any given match, forcing you to risk your wellbeing over and over.
Once you’re part of a company (usually signed to an unfavourable contract), the promotion’s booker (your boss) will constantly push or force you to change or improve yourself, and — yet again — it’s random. The booker wants to change your look, your moveset, your name, to mimic another wrestler from a separate company. They’ll also want you to win a title belt or improve a certain stat within a few weeks, neither of which you’ll have any control over. Getting a title match is random and the stat can be, too, like being asked to bring your “Attitude” up to a certain level. If it’s too low to start with or you’re just unlucky enough for this stat not to improve between matches, there’s literally no way to complete this task and you’re definitely getting fired next month.
There’s also the risk of injury, illness and death. That guy you had a match with last week? He’s dead and now you’re at his memorial show, and also you’re getting fired tomorrow. Get back to developmental, you jobber. Luck your way into a contract or we won’t even let you pay us to wrestle every week.
Just like real life, Wrestling Empire reminds us that the world is cruel and your anxiety is fully warranted. Despite all your hard work, you have no control over anything… But hey, at least wrestling is fun!