3 Post-Apocalyptic Games I Played in 2017

As my final farewell to 2017, I’m writing up some game reviews. The year had a very definite mood for me, and I found that the commonality within the three games I played the most of (besides Pokemon) was being post-apocalyptic. So here I want to compare and contrast them a little bit: what kind of outlook do these games present? What can we learn from them?

My first horse in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

My first horse in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This game is amazing. I don’t know what I can say about it that hasn’t already been said about a million times before, but seriously, it’s incredible. Before this game came out, I thought it was probably over-hyped by an extremely dedicated fanbase. I had never played any Zelda games and never been especially interested in them, so I thought it might not be as great as people were making it out to be.

Then I played the game.

Probably my favorite part is just riding around on a horse through the open wilderness. I also really enjoy climbing around and paragliding, looking for every little secret I can find. The game is so filled with little details, like enemies dancing or following you if you wear a mask that looks like them, and just the sheer amount of creative things you can do is staggering. The game really rewards just experimenting and messing around, seeing what kind of absurd stunts you can actually pull off—it lets you do so many things that other games don’t. It’s also beautiful, relaxing, and fun to watch someone else play too.

The atmosphere building in this game is extremely well-done. The subdued piano music, the small fragments of melody, characterize the world as a place where much has been lost. It’s been 100 years since this game’s apocalypse, and the cyclical history of the battles with Ganon go back far longer than that. The world is still vibrant and filled with life, even though so much of it is in ruins. People are still carrying on in small villages, trying (mostly) to stay out of danger. Despite the world literally being filled with monsters, it has a peaceful feel to it—I mean, as long as you haven’t just been spotted by a Guardian, at least. The game can be quite challenging and it doesn’t really hold your hand—you have to figure things out for yourself.

The few gripes I have with this game are pretty minor:

  • The rain feels overly punishing, especially when you start slipping before you even know it’s raining because the animation hasn’t started yet. Some areas are worse than others about this (I’m looking at you, Akkala!)
  • I could do without some of the Great Fairy animations.
  • The horse name limit is 9 characters and that sucks.
  • The game is so open that choice paralysis can be a real problem, especially late game when you’ve done most of what’s immediately obvious to do already. That’s not really a fault of the game though, it’s more of an inevitable problem of playing for hundreds of hours.
  • Zelda’s voice actress is not my favorite. She’s not too bad, but…

Other than that, I have no complaints. This game is perfect for taking my mind off things when I need a break from thinking about harsh realities. It helps me remember to value silliness and humor even when times are tough. In this game, hope suffuses every blade of grass, and sometimes, that’s just what I need.

My rating: 10/10

Screenshot of Grim Dawn.

Screenshot of Grim Dawn. (From the game’s Steam page.)

Grim Dawn

Grim Dawn is an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, so if you like that sort of game you might like it, but if you don’t, then just skip it. I find it pretty fun when I’m in the mood for that sort of game, but it’s admittedly super unnecessarily complicated, and so at first I had a really hard time getting into it because it was just a massive information overload. I still often don’t know what I should be doing in this game, with regard to my skill points and devotions.

The devotion system is interesting—it’s basically an extra set of skills that you attach to your main abilities, which grants you another set of skills that proc either from your attacks or from your health getting low, things like that. It’s really fun when you’ve managed to get your build figured out, but actually doing that kinda sucks. The usual advice people give for this is just “search the internet for a build you’re interested in and copy that.”

The game also has a multi-class system. Every character gets to choose two classes, which means there are so many combinations of things you can do in this game, especially when you factor in devotions. This is pretty cool, but has the drawback that the different classes don’t feel as unique, and it can be very hard to decide on your second class. I find that I keep using the same secondary classes over and over.

A lot of my complaints about this game are more about the type of game it is than anything else, because it’s the sort I only like some of the time, but I’ll try to keep it fair:

  • I find the base game’s setting to be super bland. However, the expansion content improves on this and is actually visually interesting.
  • Look, there are just too many damage types and it’s kind of ridiculous. Why do we need both Lightning and Electrocute, Acid and Poison, etc.?
  • The UI needs some work. For example, it’s hard to tell NPCs apart from players on the minimap because the colors are so similar.
  • There’s not really a way to expedite the leveling process, and you can’t respec your classes, so experimenting with a different secondary class is a huge time investment. Honestly, I get around this by just cheating new characters to level 65+.
  • I am not a fan of going through the same content 3-4 times on different difficulty settings to level all the way up to 100 (so I have yet to make it there). The Crucible DLC helps with this sort of, but the game could really, really use some kind of randomly generated dungeon map content like Diablo 3’s rifts.
  • The armor system is pretty bad. It’s another example of unsuccessful overly complicated design choices. (Effectively, this system means that armor is worth very little unless you are a soldier with significant investment in passives increasing it. Resistances are MUCH more important.)

What I really like about this game is that it’s controller-compatible. The controller implementation was pretty sloppy and tacked-on until this past fall, when they drastically improved things. Compare that to Diablo 3’s PC version, which has no controller support whatsoever. For some reason, Blizzard adamantly refuses to consider making the PC version of their games accessible. So Grim Dawn is the game I play now when I’m in the mood to play this sort of game instead.

Also, I’m a big fan of the newly-added Necromancer class, along with the Occultist class. I like pet classes and this game satisfies on that front.

As far as the apocalyptic setting goes, well, this is a land with a 19th-century level of technology that suffered a massive invasion of magical glowing green undead and eldritch demonic horrors. This was a recent thing, though I don’t know exactly how recent, probably less than 10 years before the game starts. I didn’t really pay attention to the story though, because generally, you don’t really play this sort of game for the story. But the people in this world are hardened and tough, and doing the best they can to survive. Destruction is everywhere, but they haven’t given up. Once one major threat is down, the expansion content immediately introduces another. The world is constantly under siege.

My rating: 7/10

Action shot of 2B fighting a group of machines in NieR: Automata.

Action shot of 2B fighting a group of machines in NieR: Automata. (From the game’s Steam page.)

NieR: Automata

THIS GAME IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. Please do not play it if suicide is a major trigger for you or something you’re working through right now. I am not kidding about this. I am really not kidding okay? Don’t do it if you’re not in a good place. I will include additional warnings at the bottom of this review.

That said, I actually really like this game. Like, a lot. This, not Zelda, is my personal Game of the Year.

This game is strange and difficult to talk about. The premise is that you are a android soldier fighting on behalf of the small contingent of humanity hiding out on the moon. Earth has been taken over by machines controlled by alien forces. The game takes place in the year 11,945. This war has been going on for hundreds of years already, in cycles. This game is all about cycles, including gameplay cycles. It takes multiple playthroughs to finish the game—if you haven’t played through ending E, you haven’t finished yet. I won’t spoil anything, but by the time you see the game’s title screen in the third route, it’s basically like you are playing a sequel to the game you were playing before.

This game is more of a post-post(-post?) apocalyptic game which builds on the outcome of the original NieR (which was itself a result of an alternate ending of Drakengard), and it has by far the bleakest outlook of all. Humanity is not even in the picture anymore, except as distant masters blasting out propaganda, or “inspirational” figures that both sides try to copy. Everything is about the androids and the machines, how they make meaning of their existence, and the endless cycle of violence they are programmed to unwillingly participate in. All of the bosses are named after philosophers (or in the case of a few, Biblical figures), and each has an ironic twist. Some machines cut themselves off from the network and try to form their own societies in interesting ways. Breaking free of oppressive structures and internal programming is a major theme of the game. Early on, it should be obvious to players that the machines have gained sentience too—the question is not whether they are self-aware, but rather, why won’t the protagonists accept that?

The game is all about the story, and it tells the story in a way that only a game can tell a story. If this was presented in any other medium, I think it would be drastically less effective (although there is a companion concert, a translation of which was recorded by the English VAs here—but don’t watch this unless you’ve finished the whole game, because it’s full of spoilers). This has to do with the repetitive nature of video games, which is perfect for exploring cycles of violence and tragedy.

And make no mistake, this game is routinely tragic. If you’re going into this game, you should expect it to be very emotionally difficult. This is the only game that has ever had me full-on sobbing through parts of the story. The tragedy is broken up with sweet moments and little bits of comic relief—when a certain shopkeeper rolls around, it breaks tension. These moments are woven into the game in a way that takes it beyond tragedy and into something profound (if you want to read more about what I’m getting at here, and you don’t care about spoilers, you can check out this article).

Still, there is much pain and deterioration here. I want to say that you could maybe classify this game as a psychological horror story, and it has elements from the horror genre, but the game bends genre in a way that most games don’t.

Gameplay-wise, it’s mostly a hack-and-slash style action RPG with bullet hell elements… but then they go and switch it up on you. Suddenly, you’re playing a 2D platformer, or a fighting game, or a twin stick shooter, or a text adventure. This game is very self-aware that it’s a game, and it doesn’t limit itself to a single style. Each of these elements is chosen carefully and intentionally—the game doesn’t have an autosave feature because you, the player, must choose when to back up your characters’ consciousness data. And I’m trying to be vague to avoid spoilers here, but one of the most difficult and intentionally frustrating sections of the game happens when a character loses important functions. It will make sense when you see it.

The music for this game is incredible, and even if you aren’t interested in actually playing it, I still recommend that you check it out. The English localization and voice acting is also extremely well done.

My rating: 10/10

Side note: You will get more out of this game if you’ve played or watched a Let’s Play of the original NieR. This is not required, but there are some references that are gut-punches to those familiar with the first game that you would otherwise miss. I watched a playthrough myself after starting this game. I find OG NieR to actually be much more difficult to watch on several levels though. If anyone is interested, I can provide some content warnings for that in the comments.

Content Warnings for NieR: Automata

  • Suicide, as mentioned above. Basically every character is going through an existential crisis and so this comes up A LOT.
  • Violence: the game does not technically have any blood, since none of the characters fighting are human, but it does have a substance that looks just like blood that you will see only in the cutscenes. Some of these cutscenes are pretty vicious and harrowing.
  • Nudity: not anatomically accurate. There is some full nudity, and there is more partial nudity. You will see a lot of flashes of butt, but you can let 2B keep her skirt on if you want. I found this relatively mild. It is nothing like Kainé’s outfit from the original NieR, unless you buy the DLC and choose to make it so.
  • Sexualization: Again, I found this pretty mild in comparison to other games like this. 2B’s outfit is very sexualized, sure, but the camera doesn’t linger and apparently, she will actually move the camera away if the player tries to look up her skirt (or so I have been told). A2’s outfit is a lot skimpier.
  • Sexual violence: there is some in the weapon stories, which are all universally horrible (and I believe this one was inherited from Drakengard? which from what I understand is way way worse on every level and I’m not touching that), and maaaaaybe something implied in a censored four-letter word in one of the text adventure sections. I am inclined to read the censored word as “kill” or “hack” but it’s left intentionally vague and if you’re at all familiar with NieR 1, you will know that it is definitely not a result of squeamishness about curse words. In any case, both of these references (or potential references) to sexual violence are short and only in the form of text. The first one is completely avoidable by just not reading the weapon stories in the game’s menu. You could go through the whole game without even realizing it’s there.
  • General abuse: the side-quests are often disturbing in a way that I find difficult to classify without spoilers. So just… be aware of that.
  • Religious cults: it’s a thing that comes up. Also, I should mention that there is some background crucifixion in some parts of the game.
  • Cannibalism: I mean, they’re all robots, but somehow this is still a thing that comes up??? Like I said, this game has ELEMENTS OF HORROR.

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