Lots of games look great. The amount of power in modern PCs is unbelievable compared to even five years ago. Even modern consoles can throw around some realistic-looking environments (sometimes at the expense of frame rate). The Forza series is well0known for looking beautiful, Battlefield has often had exceptional environments, and just look at The Witcher 3. Look at it!
The thing is, there’s a difference between great graphics and a great art style. The Battlefield series often looks great, but it looks like any other military shooter, only a little prettier. The same with racing games, which seem to have hit something of a peak, where the only thing they can do now is make slight graphical improvements for each new iteration. To my mind, a great art style is something different. It’s taking your game in a brave graphical direction, altering the game that was going to look photorealistic and changing it to something outlandish and exciting. Here are my thoughts on fie games with great art styles. As ever, these are my opinions only. And I’m not really known for my art appreciation, so approach with that in mind!
1. The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker
I’m going to start with a less-than-popular art style. Coming off the back of the darker, moodier style of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker was quite a departure, with its bright colors and cartoonish style. I can fully understand people coming from the N64 games into this one and finding the change quite jarring. I, on the other hand, find it utterly gorgeous.
The almost cel-shaded style makes the whole world look inviting. From the crisp waves on the ocean to islands covered in forests, everything begs to be explored. The colors being so strong means that unexplored lands in the distance will stand out, drawing you to them. Characters look fantastic, too, with simplistic facial expressions giving you everything you need to know about the tone of the scene. I feel the art style has something of a childlike quality to it, which is somewhat fitting with the tone of the game: A young boy out on an adventure, still with a belief that the world is full of excitement and wonder. I adore the look of this game, which is part of the reason that it's my second-favorite Zelda game. But more on that another time!
This is a very recent one. So recent in fact that I wrote about it here a couple of months ago. Superhot has one hell of a unique look, with stark-white backgrounds punctuated by bright-red enemies. Your focus is never anywhere apart from exactly where it needs to be. Your targets stand out clearly and their bullets and weapons are clear against the environment. Which makes failures even more infuriating, because “I didn’t notice it” is no longer a valid excuse.
The fact that your opponents and their gunfire only moves when you do makes everything even more arresting. Seeing a bullet gradually glide past your head, alerting you to an enemy to your right, is quite a moment, one that probably wouldn’t be nearly as impressive in Generic Military Shooter 2017. Superhot’s action-meets-puzzle-gameplay style is brilliant, and its stark art style complements it to perfection.
3. Thomas Was Alone
From one brave art style to another: A puzzle platform game (you know, that genre that I hate?) with genuine heart. The style of this game could not be more straightforward, with every character just a slightly different rectangle. The object of the game is to get each rectangle to their respective exit portal by using their abilities in combination. In the hands of a less-talented designer, this game could have been a bland PC puzzle game, but Mike Bithell, and later the team at Bossa Studios, created something genuinely beautiful.
The narrator, voiced by Danny Wallace, imbues each shape with so much personality, which is also thanks in part to the writing. The fact that you can feel empathy for a rectangle is a testament to how well-written this game is, and I don’t think the impact would be nearly as powerful if you were in control of a humanoid character. The environments are very clean — just black lines, a stretch of water or a white button — which helps to keep your attention on the narration and the characters you will doubtless be invested in. Thomas Was Alone is a difficult one to write about in terms of how it looks and why it works (more fool me for trying!), but it is a genuinely beautiful game when it’s in motion. If you haven’t given it a try, I would encourage you to check it out.
A Metroidvania game based on the Mexican Day of the Dead. To be honest, when I first heard the premise for this game, I had no idea what to expect beyond it being a comedy game (and I only based that on the title). But I looked into it and found a gorgeous game featuring an undead luchador punching his way through the forces of the underworld, brawler style. Solid mechanics, amusing characters, and a great art direction.
I’m not too familiar with the Day of the Dead celebration. I know that it has some cool-looking skulls, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge. This game seems to base its whole art style around cartoon versions of those skulls. This is probably the closest a game has come, in my mind, to looking like a Saturday-morning cartoon without making it obvious that that’s what it’s going for (I’m looking at you, Awesomenauts). Everything looks absolutely fantastic, with bright colors punctuating every strike your Mexican wrestler hero lands. As you switch between the world of the living and the land of the dead, the colors take a stark turn, going from yellows and reds and purples and greens to highlight the changes between the realms. A fantastic-looking game with fun combat. Lucky for me I picked it up for free on Games with Gold!
Right, so this gameplay is alright at best. A fairly solid 3D brawler that does get stale after a while. If it looked like a standard game, I suspect no one would really remember it, let alone allow it a semi-sequel in the same universe (Anarchy Reigns). What makes this a memorable game is almost certainly its art style.
The whole game is in black and white, making it look somewhat like a stylized comic book, with bright splashes of crimson to highlight blood when you dispatch an enemy. Sound effects appear on the screen as words and bodies are thrown against spikes to really emphasize the violence. It really looks like nothing I’ve seen before; the comic book style really works. Unfortunately this game isn't perfect, as the monochrome style means that sometimes it's difficult to see what is happening. This can be a bit of a problem in a 3D brawler, where awareness of enemy placement can be a matter of success or failure. Still, it’s definitely a brave style.
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Some Honorable Mentions!
Limbo is extremely appealing, with its use of light and shadow to highlight your character and the world around you. It looks great, but I decided against listing it as I wrote about the equally gorgeous Inside by the same developer recently. The same is true of Oxenfree, which also has a good look to it, with its muted color palette across the whole island. Valiant Hearts also springs to mind, with its hand-drawn, almost cardboard-cutout animation style conveying a huge amount of emotion with what could be argued is a crude art direction. I had a lot of others in mind, but I think that’s quite enough for one post!
How about you?
Are there any games that you think look especially good and stand out from the crowd? Let me know, I’ll even tell you if they were one of my shortlisted games! Happy gaming!