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Weekend Hot Topic, part 2: the best art design in video games

Readers discuss the games with the most distinctive and interesting graphics, from Cuphead to Jet Set Radio.

The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was suggested by reader Purple Ranger, and asked how important a game’s art style is to you and whether it alone is enough to get you interested in a game – or put you off one.

Despite a high number of entries some familiar names came up again and again, with Dishonored, Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Ōkami all lauded for their timeless visuals.

Integrated design
I was reminded of Dishonored after watching the Noclip documentary on Arkane Studios.

It made me realise what a fantastic looking game Dishonored was, and indeed still is. Despite being released around 10 years ago the visuals still hold up astonishingly well, and that is in part due to the tremendous art style. Its slightly characterised look probably also aids it in not dating particularly, but it feels colourful and cartoony while also seeming realistic.

The world itself is a steampunk marvel, with worlds loosely inspired by English and European histories and cities – and that basis in reality really helps to sell them as real places. The attention to detail is also impressive, from the world building down to the level design.

A game’s art design isn’t everything. It can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but with Dishonored (and particularly its sequel) you can see how the care and attention taken in designing the way the game world looks has also been applied to the way the game plays.
Matt (he_who_runs_away – PSN ID)

Shin minimalism
A timely hot topic considering Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne just got re-released. Can’t say I know anything about art, but I really liked the simple bold graphics of this game. It’s very minimal compared to other games that try to cram as much detail as possible.

And the way the protagonist’s tattoos glow and stand out against the dreary works he now finds himself in I always felt was a nice touch. Just like to say I’m really enjoying replaying this game, something almost comforting playing an old-fashioned role-playing games now days.

Boring realism
Good art design is so important and yet so few games, even really good ones seem to realise it and just go for boring realism. I guess it’s because so many developers are just trying to replicate reality but to me it’s much more interesting to create your own.

Yoshi’s Island, Mirror’s Edge, Gravity Rush, Octopath Traveler… four great games but they all look compeltely different, yet perfect for the style they’re going for.

If I can just be negative for a moment though the one I really don’t like is Borderlands. It’s such a lazy, boring implantation of cel-shading. Instead of amazing games like Zelda: The Wind Waker or Jet Set Radio it just sticks a black outline around everything and thinks it’s being clever. That’s mainstream gaming for you though I guess.

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Jet Set Radio Past
I feel like Soulsborne games get mentioned in almost every Hot Topic, no matter the subject, which only goes to show what amazing games they are. What I’ll choose instead though is my favourite Sega game: Jet Set Radio. I know there were a few games that came up with cel-shaded graphics around the same time but this was the first time I saw it and I thought it looked amazing.

The game has aged now, in terms of controls, but I would love to Sega return to the world and see how the graphics could be updated with modern technology. There is indie homage Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, which looks great but also a bit too much like the original. I want to see someone push the idea further, including the graphics.

Too much of games (and everything else) is just about repeating something that was successful rather than using it as a jumping off point to create something even better.

Indie beauty
It’s got to be Cuphead for me. That game looks amazing and not like anything else. Obviously, it’s based on old 30 cartoons but who would’ve imagined using that for a video game, least of all a fast-paced shooter! And I remember when GC interviewed the developer they said they didn’t know how to animate when they started and they just looked it up from a book!

I find a lot of the best-looking games are indie titles, from Hollow Knight to Limbo and Hyper Light Drifter. One of my other favourites though is Below, a really punishingly hard game that is a bit of a chore to play but by god the graphics are amazing. The top down view is from a weird angle but the use of lighting and the gloomy, atmospheric effect of having the camera zoomed out is amazing.

Oh and a nod to the two Ori games as well, which are pretty much indie even though they’re published by Microsoft. Really amazing looking games that are probably the best exclusive the Xbox One ever had. And while that does say a lot it’s not to take away from the games at all.

Getting a clue
I only played this game because I saw a recommendation in a YouTube video (thanks PushingUpRoses) having never heard of it before, I’m so glad I did though: Jenny LeClue – Detectivu.

A point-and-click adventure in the vein of the Monkey Island series, the ‘storybook’ art style is beautiful (think Night In The Woods) – really hope the sequel shows up soon to continue the story.

Authentic art
I’d have to vote for Ōkami for one of my favourite art styles, as not only is it rather beautiful to look at from a visual perspective but also in terms of gaming mechanics.

The distinct watercolour style of art makes for some fantastic gameplay also and lends itself perfectly to a traditional ancient storyline which should be seen as a very old woodblock style of paint work.

The PlayStation 2 controller actually works well with the swift swish celestial brush strokes to pull off some basic quick moves and then more complicated actions later on in the game. The closest game I played with a similar cel-shaded style of graphics was The Wind Waker, of which I certainly enjoyed from The Legend Of Zelda series.

I love Japanese artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, and Ōkami has done a good job to respect the heritage of master artists from the past. It fully creates a great unique style of gameplay with visuals that have the atmosphere of what a great East Asian landscape should look like.

Ōkami is such a long and jam-packed game, covering so many different locations with villages, towns, forests, mysterious islands, nautical locations, mountains, hills, fields, and rivers that the art team really worked overtime to get all of their ideas on the screen. There are also all the traditional characters with the clothing, weapons, and animation for them all on top of it. Elemental effects, with lighting dynamics so cleverly weaved throughout the game, makes the game seem like a living breathing world to explore.

It was such a shame that originally the game didn’t sell more than it did. A perfectly made game with many, many hours of fun adventures, with an always progressive storyline within one of the best designed and artistically crafted worlds I have ever seen in the video game business.

Now that we have a load of amazing indie games in this modern era of gaming, showing off more new ideas in art design, we are now spoilt for choice and I could have given a long list of more recent awe-inspiring games.

But Ōkami was the first game, even more than The Wind Waker, that introduced me to a new take on video game graphics, made by some very talented people exceeding in their task to push the boat out with these gorgeous designs of gaming art.

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The small print
New Inbox updates appear every weekday morning, with special Hot Topic Inboxes at the weekend. Readers’ letters are used on merit and may be edited for length and content.

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