Wild Hearts

Advent Calendar. Everyone on staff has picked a Selection Box of bonus games they want to give hon. menchies for 2023.

Greetings all! Hope you’re enjoying a Christmas with an appropriate degree of merriment. Me, I’m not. I’m angry. I’m fuming. Why? Because the RPS 2023 Advent Calendar is wrong. It’s wrong, I tell you!

If all were just and right in the world, then it wouldn’t have left out the following list of excellent games that came out this year! Plus a couple others that came out of early access in 2023 but which I sadly don’t have time to write about in full. Trust me, The Last Spell and Against The Storm are both phenomenal games as well.

Anyway: in this handsomely decorated selection box, you’ll find four of my honourable mentions for games I’ve enjoyed playing the most this year. If you have a hole in your Steam library, maybe these will help fill it over the Christmas break!

Wild Hearts image showing a Hunter in the Roller Karakuri vehicle.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Electronic Arts

Steam, Epic Games, EA App

Not since my childhood years spent clutching my PSP and whaling on Yian Kut-Ku in Monster Hunter Freedom have I had so much fun in a Monster Hunter-esque game. And it isn’t even Monster Hunter! Wild Hearts began a little falteringly, with some poor performance issues threatening to cut my time with the game short. Thankfully, I was able to get things into a workable state. After that, I was able to start appreciating what a great step forward the Karakuri system was for the entire genre of monster-hunting games.

Karakuri are buildable gadgets that you can place down at any moment while you’re out exploring or hunting in Wild Hearts, and in their own way, they’re as layered and complex a system as the weapons themselves. You could place down a hunting tower for detecting large monsters, or a zipline for fast traversal through Wild Hearts’ impressively vertical landscapes. They also play a huge part in combat. Place down a stack of boxes, and you can climb to the top and leap down upon the enemy for a powerful slam attack. Add another stack next to the first, and it transforms the boxes into a bulwark that can save you from otherwise deadly attacks. Springs can catapult you through the air, while bombs and traps can be conjured to give you the upper hand in a fight against a powerful predator. In most other aspects, Wild Hearts barely deviates at all from the standard Monster Hunter formula. But those Karakuri are a revelation, and I hope the recently announced Monster Hunter Wilds will create its own take on this wonderful building system.


A conversation with a character in Dredge's Pale Reach DLC

Image credit: Team 17

Steam, GOG

I absolutely adore shape-based inventory systems. Adore them. You might describe it nowadays as a “Tarkov inventory” system, but it’s been around a lot longer than Escape From Tarkov. It was one of my favourite things about Might And Magic VI back in the day. And when I saw a trailer for Dredge that showed off the player tetris-ing eels and fish into a boat-shaped inventory, I knew I had to play it.

And I’m so glad I did! Dredge is easily one of my favourite games of 2023 – an eldritch fishing sim with a wonderful art style and simple but oh-so-satisfying mechanics. I’ve written before about cosy games with a touch of menace being absolutely perfect for Christmas time, and Dredge arrived on my radar at just the right time for me. I couldn’t stop smiling through my playthrough. The discordant bubbling tones that notify you when you’ve caught a rare and grotesquely fish. The time I was shoved out of the fishmonger’s shop after he ate a mutated fish, and prevented from selling my catches to him for several days afterwards. The moment of horror when I realised that friendly-looking boat on the horizon at nighttime was actually a mirage conjured by an antediluvian anglerfish looking for a midnight gobble. Dredge is a wonderful game that deserves its place in everyone’s Steam library.


A pair of mechs face off against what looks like a huge, dark metal tank mech in Armored Core 6: Fires Of Rubicon

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

Steam

I’ve probably been spoiled by Armored Core 6: Fires Of Rubicon, because I’ve never played a mech game before now, and with my current sample size of one, I automatically assume all mech games are as fantastic as Armored Core 6. I daresay I’m in for a nasty surprise.

The sheer scale is what did it, I think. I mean, obviously the combat is terrific. Particularly once I’d perfected my build. No puny little automatic rifles or machine guns for me. Give me huge melee blades and some shoulder bazookas, please. Once I’d got the hang of the unusual three-dimensional movement of my mech, I was a one-man army carving up foes (and sometimes friends) like a mechanical Christmas turkey. But what really makes AC6 stick in my mind is the spectacle. Seeing a mech the size of a small town slowly crumple and explode behind you as you fly away towards your next mission. Gosh. Chills.


A Battle Flag placed in a bamboo forest at night in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty.

Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Koei Tecmo

Steam

It may not have had Elden Ring, but 2023 was a still a great year for soulslikes. Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty had its lunch stolen slightly by Lies Of P later on in the year, but it remains a triumph in my mind – and one which, like Lies Of P, puts forward some really excellent new ideas that I’d love to see copied by other entries in the genre going forward.

Set in a dark fantasy version of the Three Kingdoms period, Wo Long has extremely satisfying parry-based (and magic-based) combat, lovely landscapes and level designs, and some very imaginative bosses and enemies. But it also tries a couple of brand new things, like interweaving the existing Souls progression system with a leveling system where you must plant Battle Flags and Marking Flags to raise your power. This also feeds into an excellent Nemesis-style system whereby any enemy that kills you gains a level, making them more powerful for the next time you face them. It adds new depth to each repeat encounter, and elevates an already well-made game to the level where I can easily see myself returning to Wo Long in the new year.