Xbox Gold Titles for January a Little Scary, Little Punchy
With the beginning of 2021, eyes are on Microsoft and how they’re going to handle their subscription services on the Xbox for year(s) to come. Sure, they’ve confirmed that the baseline Live Gold subscription will be an option for the foreseeable future, but it’s hard to deny the assertive shift that the company has enacted toward their pricier but more rewarding Game Pass option. From the choice for subscribers to “upgrade” their current pre-paid Gold service months into Game Pass Ultimate for $1, to the higher-profile games included with the premium service and the automatic inclusion of the Gold free downloads into the monthly Ultimate price, there seems to be a clear direction of where it’s headed.
For the time being, however, regular old Live Gold seems to be sticking around, and with it comes another lukewarm, yet still reputable list of freebies that simply aren’t keeping up with the competition. Let’s take a look, but before that, be sure to Grab a Prepaid 3-Month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate Card at Amazon.
Xbox One / Series
Little Nightmares (January 1-31)
It’s delightful to see that a niche subgenre like “horror platformer” can thrive in the current gaming environment. While there have been plenty of horror-themed action games released over the years – the Castlevania series being the big one that comes to mind – the ability to create genuinely scary and/or unsettling games that play like the most family-friendly platformers out there is a relatively new phenomenon. Confidence in the concept began to rise with the beautifully haunting Limbo and has spread throughout the indie circuit, becoming some of gaming’s most creative, emotional experiences.
Little Nightmares grabs the concept by the back of the neck and drags it further into the realm of the deranged and the macabre, while still retaining a sort of artfulness to what’s happening. Players gain control of a young girl wearing a bright yellow raincoat, who maneuvers through a maze of corridors and dimly-lit rooms within The Maw, the underwater living space for ghoulish, oversized humanoid dwellers. The 2.5 platformer design disappears into the tangible grotesquery and the ominous tone of what’s happening, though players and critics feel the clumsy controls occasionally yank them out of the illusion.
Dead Rising (January 16 – February 15)
In the early days of the 360, a handful of games were part of an unofficial exclusive “starter pack” when buying the console within the first calendar year of its release, which included Oblivion, Kameo, Gears of War, Geometry Wars … and Dead Rising. Dead Rising was particularly inviting because it flexed the power of that system in a unique way: it rendered tons and tons of zombies that the player could take out in an absurd number of ways, from wrestling moves to chainsaws and other weapons. Wrapped in a mall-shaped package that reminds one of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and you’ve got a winning experience.
Now fifteen years old and a few sequels deep, Dead Rising may not be the graphical powerhouse it once was, but there’s still something infectious about the concept and the freedom that it affords the player. That’s one of the reasons why Capcom went to bat and knocked out a remastered edition of the game, released in 2016 and the version available here. It’s a marginal upgrade that takes the original content and gives it a nice spit-polish in resolution and contrast.
Xbox / Xbox 360
King of Fighters XIII (January 1-15)
Amid the console wars in the mid-‘90s, another loomed in the background that boasted a wealth of content for fans of the fighting genre: the Neo Geo. On that platform, both in arcade cabinets and at home, the King of Fighters brawling franchise gradually built up a reputation for being “arguably better than Street Fighter” in both the briskness of the combat and the composition of the characters. Over the years as the other big names – and Neo Geo contemporaries like Samurai Shodown – have continued to thrive, King of Fighters has also been sticking around, reaching a high point with King of Fighters XIII.
Fighting franchises evolve with the development of consoles, and the 13th primary entry of this one hits its stride by improving on strengths introduced in the previous entry, at the end of the 360’s prime. KoF XII introduces hand-drawn characters, but the next one vastly improves on their appearance for a visually appealing upgrade, though that’s promptly abandoned in the next game. More importantly, SNK sees what fighting systems work and don’t, then smartly removes the excess and smartly adds features both old and new. This one’s well-regarded for continuing the brisk reputation of the franchise.
Breakdown (January 16-31)
There’s a fine line between capturing realism in a video game and making a game too realistic, a line that’s been continuously tested in recent years with the rising popularity of “walking simulator” games. Perhaps with today’s modern polish and niche audiences, a game like Breakdown would have been more warmly received than it was almost two days ago. On the heels of Halo, this game from Namco boasts a unique science-fiction story involving earthquakes, near-invincible aliens, and a super soldier serum injected into the main character, Derrick, that makes him able to fight against the alien forces. The shooting gameplay in Breakdown is frequently considered to be clunky and dull compared to its contemporaries, yet the first-person interactions with the environment – how Derrick refuels, reloads guns, opens doors and gets in fistfights – are now looked at fondly as ahead of their time.