The Register's 2023 in gaming had one final boss: Baldur's Gate 3
But we also have a bit to say about Dark Souls, Starfield, Foxhole, and more
The RPG Greetings, traveler, and welcome back to our occasional gaming column The Register Plays Games.
Games are big these days, and this was keenly felt during the creation of our last entry on Elden Ring. At that point, I had plowed some 70 hours into The Lands Between. Another 60 hours later, I was finally done, but so was the opportunity to start work on the following edition. There aren't enough hours in the month, not when you are gainfully employed and have two young children.
Those hours, stolen away for late nights in front of a monitor, translate to several weeks in functioning adult time, and I simply did not want to move on without beating Elden Ring to half-ass something else. The game sunk its claws deep. So deep, in fact, that I spent the rest of 2022 and into 2023 conquering what I had once deemed an insurmountable challenge – FromSoftware's watershed Dark Souls series, the foundation on which Elden Ring was built.
This being a year in review kind of deal, we'll talk about that a bit. But note that I did not play a huge amount of games released in 2023. There are a few reasons for that, like wanting to complete an old flame for the first time or needing random palate cleansers, but also because, like Elden Ring for 2022, there was only one game that mattered in this past year – Baldur's Gate 3 – and it too was extremely large, absorbing four months of my life. However, I did also manage to snag some more bite-sized fresh titles that may or may not be worth checking out, depending on tastes, drive capacity, and platform.
So come with us now on a multimedia journey through, not "the best games of 2023," but "games that The Register played in the year of our lord 2023" – various clips included.
As stated in our piece on Elden Ring, the Dark Souls action RPG series had long been known to me, but I had never been able to enjoy it largely due to the dated nature of the first game and its poorly made PC port. All the same, it stood out as something of a nemesis to me. Could I truly be a "gamer" without having beaten what many believe to be among the best (and most difficult) games ever made?
My heart said no. Fortunately, Elden Ring gave me the bravado to tackle the infamous trilogy. The fact that Dark Souls had been remastered in 2018 also helped immeasurably. The original "Souls" game (not counting Demon's Souls) is a genuine work of art that I am now very happy to have experienced. The level design, on which you can find countless video essays waxing lyrical, is peerless in how it communicates with the player and links different areas in surprising ways.
I am still haunted by memories of the meat grinder that is Sen's Fortress, but also vividly recall the emotional highs of figuring out certain regions and toppling iconic bosses like Ornstein and Smough on the third try, as well as the relief of parrying the final boss to victory. I also managed to conquer the Artorias of the Abyss expansion, where it took more than 10 attempts to slay Manus.
As a 12-year-old game, it stands up remarkably well today but lacks the refinement of Elden Ring and Dark Souls 3. If you want to talk clunk, though, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin could be safely skipped over. It was not directed by studio boss Hidetaka Miyazaki, who at the time was working on Bloodborne, and as a result feels more Souls-like than a canonical entry. It did, however, introduce a hub zone, Majula, which became iconic in its own right. The motif would return in Dark Souls 3 as Firelink Shrine and Elden Ring as Roundtable Hold. Unfortunately, I was determined to power through and can't say I enjoyed the experience, but remain proud of this run at the Pursuer. Just be sure to stuff enough points into "adaptability" – a stat exclusive to Dark Souls II – if you ever fancy slogging through.
The best of the bunch is the third (and final?) installment and the one I opened 2023 with, battling through November until May, defeating every boss except Darkeater Midir (the real boss is the camera) and completing the base game and both expansions in about 60 hours. Dark Souls 3 was Dark Souls perfected, until Elden Ring came along, with combat mechanics polished to a sheen and detailed graphics that look as good now as they did in 2016.
In Dark Souls, I was getting frustrated when boss attempts would reach double digits, but Dark Souls 3 taught me great patience and perseverance. I'll never forget the elation of felling Slave Knight Gael after 70-plus tries, nor that I managed to beat the Abyss Watchers, a particularly difficult mid-game fight, on my first go by applying tactics I learned from Knight Artorias in the first game. Interestingly enough, lore suggests that the Abyss Walkers were devotees of the legendary hero and honored his fighting style. Little touches like this, tying the universe together, are what make Dark Souls so compelling.
Although the third game is more linear than the first, the grand environments – from Lothric Castle to Archdragon Peak and the Painted World of Ariendel – more than make up for it. Afterward, I tussled briefly with From's ninja entry, Sekiro, but found the learning curve too great. I'll go back to it eventually.
If skill-based combat and precise timing sounds like hell to you, Below Zero, the sequel to 2018's underwater survival game Subnautica, might be more your pace. I wrote about the open beta back in 2021 and returned in July to put the finished release to bed.
Below Zero returns to the mostly ocean planet of 4546B, but a polar region, meaning new biomes and alien creatures to discover. I praised the original game's structure and how it is able to tell a story within a sandbox open world. Below Zero also triumphs in this respect, but with fuller voice acting, a range of characters, and more gadgets to play with.
Again, the aim of the game is to gather resources to build an underwater base, gradually developing your printable technology to explore ever deeper and uncover the mysteries of the advanced species that once used the planet as a laboratory before wiping themselves out. If the ending is anything to go by, we could very well see a third game coming soon – and I'll be there for it.
Part II of Naughty Dog's landmark survival horror series came out in the thick of the pandemic, and I wrote about it back then, but in 2023 the studio warmed over the original to bring the graphics up to date, plus a PC release, which I duly hopped on.
Yeah, I already played one remaster on the PlayStation 4 years back, but it was a pleasure to revisit with keyboard and mouse. If you're unfamiliar, a mutant cordyceps fungus has ravaged Earth, turning anyone who breathes its spores into a mindless host driven to attack others, thereby spreading the infection. Humanity survives by living in walled-off enclaves under brutal regimes, but protagonist Joel is forced out into the apocalyptic world when his path crosses a teenager, Ellie, who is immune to the parasite.
Though it has a fantastic story and acting, it's the solid gameplay that makes The Last of Us such a blast, blending third-person shooting with stealth mechanics. It is also terribly violent (NSFW). The PC port was pretty rough on arrival, with many complaining of performance issues. Fortunately, my rig was able to brute-force it. Subsequent updates have improved the experience so if you've never checked it out before and have powerful enough hardware, it could be worth a look. It is the winner of over 200 Game of the Year awards, after all. And the HBO TV adaptation wasn't bad either!
I mentioned how I was waiting patiently for Belgian developer Larian's Baldur's Gate 3 when I wrote about Solasta: Crown of the Magister, an indie take on turn-based Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs, in 2021. Two years later, it finally landed and proceeded to flip the industry on its head.
How this happened exactly is hard to say. It could be that there were a lot of people who, like me, so fondly looked back on their time as tweenagers with Bioware's original games of the late '90s and early '00s, but back then D&D didn't have the same cultural cachet that it does now. Even Larian's previous work, Divinity: Original Sin 2, seemed to fly under the radar when it came out in 2017.
So I don't know why Baldur's Gate 3 is estimated to have sold nearly 30 million copies, but I'm glad it has. It is the best game I have ever played, a title formerly held by Divinity: Original Sin 2, and many would probably say the same.
From August to November, my waking hours were completely devoted to this game. If I wasn't playing it, I was thinking about it. Baldur's Gate 3 effectively distills the tabletop D&D experience – one of freedom and imagination – and turns it into a video game. If you can conceive of it, you can in all likelihood do it thanks to the vast range of actions, abilities, and magical spells available to your characters.
This exploitation of the environment best revealed itself to me when I was trying to figure out how to assassinate a group of powerful goblin ringleaders. Tucked in the back of one's throne room were some explosive barrels, so I directed my rogue to steal some and stuff them in his hammerspace pantaloons. I then got him to rig the throne to blow. The goblins think I'm on their side so they're not concerned. I then had my wizard up in the rafters cast a fire bolt at the explosives, and the target was pushed into a chasm, leaving me free to methodically mop up the remaining enemies without him beating my characters on the ground senseless. For another assassination target, I waited for her to step on a rickety bridge, then broke a supporting beam with a bow and arrow. The drow general then made a fatal return to the Underdark.
You can tell Baldur's Gate 3 is a labor of love. Aside from the pitch-perfect tactical and turn-based combat, every character, playable or otherwise, is fully voiced with hundreds of thousands of dialog lines – many of which you wouldn't hear in a single playthrough. By virtue of each playable character's story arc and development, those actors have become household names among gamers and now command formidable fan bases.
There are so many ways to play. You could create a custom character to your taste or play from the perspective of a ready-made "origin" character who would have joined your party anyway, though not all D&D's plethora of races and classes are represented by this small group. I wanted to create my own – a human paladin like the one I completed Baldur's Gate II as – but I also wanted him to have a backstory that had been woven into the game's broader plot. So I took the "Dark Urge" origin – a deviant psychopath with a predilection for murder.
Despite the odd "mishap" (NSFW) or two along the way, I'm so glad I did. The choices and freedoms afforded by Baldur's Gate 3 mean you can be an ostensibly evil character but still redeem yourself by the time the credits roll. 155 hours of pure gold, exhilarating writing, and not one playthrough will be like another. Like I said, games are big.
Talking of big, Starfield is probably the reason Microsoft bought ZeniMax, owner of Bethesda (The Elder Scrolls) and id Software (Doom), in 2021. Bethesda titles tend to wield a great deal of respect – everyone remembers their own magical moments from Oblivion or Skyrim, and the studio has also done a fairly good job of reviving the Fallout series. But has Microsoft's $7.5 billion gamble paid off?
I'm not sure it has. The problem is that Bethesda-style RPGs feel so dated now, especially in light of Cyberpunk 2077 overcoming its teething issues to get much closer to what it promised (I revisited that in 2023 too). So what happens if we take Skyrim or Fallout 4 and implant them into a space game?
- The Souls noob's guide to Elden Ring
- Lost Ark: A pulpy Korean MMO-lite for idle hands
- God of War: How do you improve on perfection? You port it to PC, obviously
- Halo Infinite ups the nostalgia factor for fans of the originals, but it's not without limits
The results are painfully underwhelming. While I was constantly looking forward to my next chance to play Baldur's Gate, I've only managed a paltry 37 hours in "No Man's Skyrim" since it came out in September and seem no closer to the end, although 22 hours are supposedly all that's required to focus down the main story. There just isn't a lot tempting me to pick it back up.
Much of its issues boil down to this: Where every point of interest in Skyrim's open world was a lovingly handcrafted dungeon, Starfield casts the illusion of scale through procedural generation. Yes, you travel to a variety of planets on your adventure, but you cannot circumnavigate any of them, with the playable area limited to a few kilometers squared. Any points of interest that come up if you land randomly are all procedural sludge. It's just so bland, there is nothing waiting for you if you follow your compass to a cave or settlement, there's no reward. In Skyrim, each random location would have its own theme, plus useful treasure and gear.
Where a mission or story line takes you, the environments are OK, but the fact that they are all separated by the gulf of space instead of being part of one huge map makes gameplay feel disjointed, constantly broken up by loading screens. There are some things to like, such as the ship combat, which feels like a sufficiently dumbed-down version of Elite or Wing Commander, but NPCs that aren't main characters have stupid googly eyes and the voice acting is stilted and robotic. And I didn't even mention the clunky, bullet-spongey ground combat that, although played from a first-person perspective, can only be described as "FPS-esque." Average, forgettable, and not nearly close to a "next-gen" Bethesda effort.
From two games that gobble up 150 GB apiece to one that slides into a svelte 601 MB, Chants of Sennaar was a chance pickup for me, my interest piqued by the concept of a point-and-click adventure where decoding different languages forms the basis for the puzzles.
Taking cues from the Babel myth, the game starts you at the bottom of a tower where you'll find characters speaking a runic language that makes no sense. However, by careful examination of context and your surroundings, you can gradually infer the meaning of symbols and begin to learn your purpose.
There is sometimes a degree of guesswork involved, and you can jot down what you think a rune might mean in the in-game journal. However, you're able to change this at any time, and it's advisable not to put too much stock in a theory without enough evidence or you'll start barking up completely wrong trees. Once you've encountered enough runes, you will be given opportunities to state what a few mean at a time. If you get them right, their meanings are locked in and can be translated in the world. Get them wrong, though, and more investigation is needed.
Moving up a level introduces an entirely new language with varying rules and word order. These are not always trivial to figure out, making Chants of Sennaar an enchanting and unique puzzle game. Eventually, you can translate the languages of each level on behalf of their denizens and get the different groups talking again.
Graphically, Chants of Sennaar has a minimal though elegant cel-shaded style and weird color scheme, with music and aesthetics reminiscent of Journey. Highly recommended since it's cerebral like Register readers and could run on a toaster. It took me about 12.5 hours to beat.
I continue to play Sea of Thieves (written about here) with some regularity but since it seems to be hurtling toward end of life, intended or not, I began to look around for other multiplayer options. One of those is Foxhole, which I've been hearing about for some time since its release in 2016.
Foxhole takes place on a fictional continent fought over by two factions, the Colonials and Wardens. The interesting thing about it is that every event in Foxhole is player-driven, and the war never stops – it is "persistent." This means that even if you've logged off for the day after a couple of hours being torn to shreds by artillery on the front line, the world will keep moving, territory will continue to change hands, and players will carry on dying in their millions.
There are no NPCs, no quests, no story, other than that you make for yourself naturally as the two sides fight for control. The war ends when one faction has conquered a certain proportion of territory, then a few days later the next war begins with the map reset and technology back to its most basic. Wars can last multiple weeks or even months.
Foxhole is unique in that you can take it as casually or seriously as you want. With gameplay from a top-down isometric perspective, you spawn at the base of your chosen faction (you will be locked in for the rest of the war), go through basic training (optional), then you can do whatever you feel like – head to the front line, grab a weapon, and die over and over and over again. Or at least until the local supplies run dry.
As in real life, wars require a significant logistical mobilization, and since everything in Foxhole is performed by players, that means the gun you're carrying is player made, the uniform you're wearing, the grenade you're throwing, the tank running you over … almost everything you see has been built by a player or players who devoted themselves to gathering scrap and resources, processed it, and crafted the resultant materials into items required for the war effort.
These crucial supplies also need to be transported to the front lines, which means a player has to drive it there on the back of a truck from a factory to drop it off at a stockpile, where soldiers killed in action can respawn, grab more equipment, then return to the battle. The real war is won by those who dedicate themselves to logistics. Because as much fun as it is to goof around on the front line, there will be little to no goofing when the soldiers there cannot arm themselves. Watching a forward operating base as it's overrun by the enemy is a terrifying sight to behold.
This player-centric design lends itself to all sorts of emergent gameplay, from squads of soldiers slipping behind enemy lines to target supply routes, to entire clans of people building their own dedicated facilities to produce the materials they need to perform their chosen focus in the war.
The technology in Foxhole is analogous to the First and Second World Wars, and I fell in with a bunch of veterans who specialized in producing and operating field guns. They had built their own factory connected to a railway so they could move supplies and weaponry around the world with speed. I found the amount of teamwork and organization astounding, but, being a total noob, there was little I understood about what was going on.
That's kind of the rub with Foxhole. It's easy to hop on and grasp basic combat, but it's the kind of game where you get out what you put in – and this absolutely requires teamwork. The developers have made it fairly simple to get properly involved, however. The official Foxhole Discord server has a channel where regiments (player clans) can advertise for new members, and it's very unlikely you'll be turned down. This isn't World of Warcraft – Foxhole players always seem delighted when someone new takes an interest in their favorite game.
In fact, I had a lot of fun just talking to people with the in-game VoIP. While trying to get a grip on the very basic solo logistics player loop, I met a lovely chap who taught me a lot about how the game works, and the regiment I joined was also patient and happy to explain things as we went. There's also no end of informative videos on YouTube aimed at novices.
Foxhole regularly releases free updates too, the latest of which brings more fleshed-out naval warfare. I recall fondly working on a large gunboat with my regiment to bomb enemy island outposts. Give it a go – it's an extremely nerdy game, which fits you lot to a tee.
So there you have it. More or less The Register's 2023 in gaming. There's a PC bias, hence Steam links, but most of the games are also available on console. I have some honorable mentions – like Vampire Survivors and Halls of Torment, two similar retro roguelites that are excellent for when you're waiting for the kids to get out of the bath – and some dishonorable (Diablo IV really didn't seem worth the time or money). Otherwise, tell us in the comments what you've been playing over the past year and what I've missed out on, whether it came out in 2003 or 2023.
I continue to stream select games on Twitch as ExcellentSword on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from around 20:30 UK time (15:00 Eastern, 12:00 Pacific). Follow me there for real-time impressions. ®