Monday, January 27, 2014

Metroid II: Return of Samus, on the other hand, has not aged well at all


I've had an appetite for Metroid recently ever since Guacamelee's rather unsubtle references and homages in design made me nostalgic for the series a month ago. My replay of Super Metroid a few days ago went swimmingly; the game's still brilliant. I was hoping to keep the ball rolling by revisiting Metroid II: Return of Samus - another one I haven't played in years and years - last night. This game is almost as old as me. I hope I haven't aged as poorly.

It's not dated in quite the same ways that the original NES Metroid now is. It plays well enough, there are no major hit detection quirks and the save system is actually usable, so that's all good. I think my problem is that while Metroid II does well in encouraging exploration, the game just feels... un-navigable to me. The lack of an in-game map combined with the camera being pulled in way too close means you'll constantly lose track of where you are unless you have a superhuman sense of direction. It isn't linear, either; your mission is to track down and kill 39 different Metroids, and making it so easy to get lost in this game really doesn't do that fetch quest of an objective any favors.

Also not doing the game any favors: being released on Game Boy, and thus with no color. All of these dull grey corridors start to run together very quickly, which is poison in a game that forces you to differentiate one room from another and have a constant sense of where one thing is in relation to another thing. I'm led to believe that playing it on Super Game Boy helped, but I never owned one of those, and the version being sold on the 3DS Virtual Console runs in regular old black-and-white.

One thing I do still love about Metroid II is the Spider Ball. This is, as far as I can recall, the only 2D game in the series to use it, and also the only time it can be used to scale literally any wall (compared to the version of the item used in the Prime trilogy, wherein players were limited to Spider Ball-specific tracks). I also love how quickly it's given to you here. Most designers would save something like this for the endgame. Not here. 20 minutes in and you can scale any wall. I think it'd have been better suited for a more easily navigable Metroid, though. It's already a confusing game; having to climb walls and hang from ceilings kinda exacerbates that.

On the positive side, the music that plays during the opening level is absolutely boss for an 8-bit game.

I think Metroid II would be a good fit for a Zero Mission-style remake that makes it more accessible, but we'll never get that, because there's really no widespread love for this game. It lacks the signification of its predecessor and the refinement of its sequel. In terms of lore, the only particularly important development to come out of Metroid II is a decision Samus makes at the very end that would eventually become the driving point for Super Metroid, and she recounts it during the opening narration of that game, anyway. Pretty skippable game in the grand scheme of things, sadly.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Super Metroid has still got it

It was just one of those things. I felt like replaying Super Metroid, so I replayed Super Metroid.

This was the first time I'd played it in over a decade, and the fact that I'd forgotten so many specifics really underscored the game's biggest strength: its sense of discovery. Nearly every new piece of equipment that you receive is accompanied by a dead end, and you're asked to think back to all of those doors you couldn't reach, all of those walls you couldn't break down, all of those obstacles you didn't know how to pass. The game never explicitly tells you where to go, but you always seem to wind up in the right place anyway. Whenever you retrace your steps, you do so with a fresh perspective. Maybe now you can open orange doors, or jump to higher places, or freely move through water. When we compare unrelated games to Metroid, this is what we're talking about.

Super Metroid was released when I was four years old. Many of the games that came out when I was four years old are crap by today's standards. This one has held up spectacularly well. It's certainly aided by the fact that only one Metroid game since (Prime) has really recaptured its spirit, while the rest have either robbed the series of its distinct rhythm in world design or mishandled Samus as a protagonist. (Corruption turned her into a silent protagonist even though she's spoken plenty in other games; Other M stole her stoicism, independence and dignity right out of her pockets.)

It's still genuinely terrific, though, and I will now convey my opinion by medium of bullet points, because I'm tired, and also because prettying up a blog entry such as this defeats the entire purpose of what is intended to be an outlet for casual writing.

• If you've somehow made it nearly two decades without having Super Metroid's ending spoiled, I won't be the one to end that streak. What I will say is that this game was made when video game storytelling was still quite simple, and having said that, it's amazing what Super Metroid accomplishes in its final minutes with no dialog and only the barest minimum of backstory and context.

• This game is hard. Very hard. I don't simply mean that the bosses will make you work a sweat - though they will - but that nearly everything that you do in Super Metroid takes patience, precision and skill. Take the Space Jump. In any other game, you could simply press the 'A' button in midair to launch your character into a double jump. In Super Metroid, you have to press the button at a very specific point in Samus's jump, and even then, she must be performing a spinning jump for it to work, and she'll keep moving in that direction. You don't have as much control as you would in other games and that gives you more to master.

Having said that, the one major issue that I have with this game is the Grapple Beam. The momentum with which Samus swings just doesn't abide by realistic rules of physics, the precision required to chain a couple of grapples together is at times inhuman, and the sections in which the player is called upon to scale walls with the thing are very close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best.

• I loved the handful of instances in which the players learns a valuable technique by observing local wildlife. There's a point in Brinstar in which you need to escape from a pit by performing a successful wall jump, when it's perfectly possible that you could have made it that far without even realizing that Samus can do a wall jump. You "learn" by noticing that a couple of green koala-like creatures are leaping about in such a manner and attempting to do it yourself. That is so clever. Modern games are so tutorialized, eh?

• Oh yeah: My other big complaint is that the wall jump itself is incredibly fidgety, but you almost never need to use it.

• The X-Ray Scope is such a great touch. This game is absolutely full of little hidden passages and concealed items that would be borderline impossible to find otherwise, so being able to scan environments for anomalies is a nice way of giving players with rigid schedules an optional edge. It's also notably a primitive version of the whole visor system in the Prime trilogy, which of course was a major component of those games.

Prime is still my favorite game of the series. It's the highest on atmosphere and converts the series' ideals to 3D as well as any other game franchise has done (and I'd argue that it's comparable to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in that regard). That said, Super Metroid is still a close second and easily the more important and influential of the two; after two practice rounds, this is the game that perfected the formula that's been copied by countless other games since. Some have done it well, too. Guacamelee, one of my favorite releases of 2013, owes its existence to this series. That's great in and of itself; the fact that I can return to it so many years later and still have a blast makes the timelessness of Super Metroid so much easier to appreciate.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Crimson Dragon (Xbox One) review

This was actually the first Xbox One game that I played, for the simple reason that Forza Motorsport 5 took longer to install. Not a good first impression, considering that Crimson Dragon was originally an Xbox 360 title and it shows. In fact, I'd say that the game looks average by last-gen standards. But you can't tell from the screenshots, can you? It's convenient from a marketing perspective that pretty much any current video game looks good in stills. Take that image up there. Looks killer, doesn't it? It's not. Also, Crimson Dragon is a dull, repetitive grind, so there's that. Read my review here.

Side note: Twitter colleague @passthemstickss, with whom I braved the glitch casserole that is Splinter Cell: Blacklist's cooperative mode, actually noted a couple of times how nigh-unbeatable my Crimson Dragon high scores were, which weirdly makes me feel significantly more justified in more or less tearing it apart in my review. I'm awesome at it! And I still hate it! So there!

By the way, shout-out to Brad Gallaway for hosting the article - this is the second review that I've written for GameCritics, and a third is in the pipeline. As much as I love HonestGamers (my usual critical outlet), it's awfully satisfying to broaden my reach a bit. I took a couple of important steps forward as a writer in 2013; here's to hoping I'll take a few more this year.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I'm not writing an Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD review because there's nothing interesting to say about it

I just finished Assassin's Creed: Liberation HD tonight, and with that, I think I've finally hit my breaking point.

You know how people like to rail on Assassin's Creed for being an annual cash cow even though it's got a rich sci-fi tapestry, explores beautiful historical settings not frequented in the industry and genuinely feels like nothing else on the market? It's releases like Liberation HD that perpetuate such notions. What a lazy, slipshod mess this game is.

It's a port of a Vita game, as if that should excuse it of anything. I've been playing my Vita nonstop over the past month or two. I love it. It has proven, through games like Tearaway and Killzone: Mercenary, that we're very nearly at the point of expecting console-level thrills from handheld systems. So I will not be giving Liberation HD any leeway here, partly because it's on a console now and thus has a new set of standards to live up to, and partly because it's a lousy product by any definition.

I say "product" because Liberation HD's problems extend beyond design and into outright technical infidelity. I had to restart the game on four separate occasions when the main character, Aveline, repeatedly clipped through environmental objects and couldn't be dislodged. Two long-running scourges of the series, the stealth and combat, are now made borderline unworkable, the former due to dodgier-than-ever AI and the latter due to certain basic commands frequently not working when you need them to. Cutscenes are static, poorly-acted and often unfold with no accompanying sound effects, or the wrong sound effects. There's a scene early on in which Aveline is playing a piano that is bewilderingly producing the music of a string instrument. How the hell did this get released by one of the biggest publishers in the world in 2014?

(And by the way, yes, I know that a piano is technically a string instrument. You know what I mean.)

Every Assassin's Creed game suffers from the same basic set of issues, and gamers' willingness to invest in this series each and every year - I won't pretend that I'm not guilty of that - is probably to blame for Ubisoft apparently believing that they don't need to fix or fine-tune anything. I might've lost my patience a few months ago had Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag not offered some of the series' best writing to date and a new approach to its open-world design that actually eclipsed its rather stale story missions and made the same old control quirks easier to swallow.

Liberation HD actually exacerbates everything that was already wrong with the series. The stealth has never been this broken, and the combat has never been this clumsy. The basic controls are looser and more fidgety than they've ever been before; getting Aveline to climb what you want her to climb or jump where you want her to jump is deal-breakingly imprecise at times. And what does Liberation HD do to counterbalance this? It consists of one small, generic city (New Orleans), a medium-sized wilderness area awash with collision detection issues and a brief interlude outside of a Mexican temple. The joy of exploring a new historical setting is dampened by this particular setting being so underwhelming, while the story missions follow the usual Assassin's Creed template, meaning that there are a lot of tailing missions, Ubisoft having not yet caught on to the fact that tailing missions are never, ever a good thing.

The only potential selling point here is Aveline, but while she could have been interesting, she's criminally underdeveloped. The game seems to skip past the most exciting and crucial moments of her life, and her motivations are incredibly murky. Worst of all, the fact that she's a black woman in the South during the late 18th century has almost no bearing on the plot, the way she acts, nor the way she's treated by other characters. The same can be said of the fact that so much of Liberation HD revolves around freeing slaves. It's such potentially fascinating material to work with, and yet for all of the weight that Ubisoft places on it, the game could've been about a white man freeing livestock and it would practically be the same thing.

I have two positive things to say about Liberation HD. Firstly, since I've grown so weary of subtitles being nonsense (what the hell is a "shadow fall"?), it's refreshing that this game actually has some liberating in it. Secondly, one of your ranged weapons is fast poison, and every time that the game referenced it, I misread it as "fart poison," which made me laugh, because I am childish.

Don't buy Liberation HD. I say this as someone who has purchased every mainline entry in the series since 2009 and actually gave Assassin's Creed III an undeservedly positive review. This game offers no new insight into the series' overarching plot and nothing that you haven't experienced before in better form, while it intensifies the defects that earned the series so many detractors in the first place. It's a dull and shamefully buggy disaster of a game.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) review

I've only had my Vita for a month or two, and I'm just gonna take everyone else's word for it that the two other instances of a major first-person shooter franchise hitting the system (Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified) were both lousy. It's not hard to imagine. What's significantly harder to imagine is that the series to ultimately sell me the idea of portable FPSs would be Killzone, of all things. Who the hell cares about Killzone? I do, now, apparently, enough to write a review for the excellent Mercenary even though no one asked me to. You can read it here.

One of the most important observations that I make here - that Mercenary is possibly the only multiplayer shooter in which I actually took advantage of multiple loadouts - probably sounds minute to someone who doesn't pay much attention to games like this. It's important for illustrating just how flexible Mercenary's combat is, though. It's not a game about picking up a gun and shooting people; it's a game about picking up this gun and shooting people. Anyway, play it. It's great.

By the way, I can't stop singing Vita's praises. I bought five new systems last year and I think I'm on track to spend more time with my Vita than I have with the other four combined. It's a magnificent little portable. Hardcore types who don't have one are missing out, I'm telling you.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Nidhogg (PC) review

I probably wouldn't have accepted this assignment if I'd known anything about Nidhogg ahead of time and surmised that it could loosely be described as a fighting game, as fighting games are one of those rare genres, like MMOs, that just flat-out aren't my thing. Turns out that I quite enjoyed the defensive footwork and tense mind games that drive Nidhogg's combat, which is a relief; had I hated the game, I'm not sure how qualified I'd feel in bashing it.

I don't know if I'd necessarily shell out $15 (the game's base price) for this one, given how skimpy the overall package is, but it's a hell of a competitive engine, should you ever get the chance to check it out. It'll probably turn up on a Steam sale for a couple of bucks somewhere down the line, and when it does, feel free to mine a few hours of sweaty-palmed entertainment from it. Read my review here.

Note: The game's score was composed by Daedelus, if Wikipedia is to be believed, which it always is. I'm unfamiliar with his material, but I'm always intrigued when a professional musician is called in to do soundtrack work, so there you go.

Monday, January 13, 2014

My ten favorite concerts of 2013

Okay. Just one more list and then I promise I'll shut up about how great 2013 was. (Sorry about the pictures looking terrible; it's a formatting issue and I'm frankly too tired to fuss with it right now.)

 10. Local Natives @ Electric Factory (9/28)

After being forced to miss Local Natives' GovBall set due to risk of hypothermia (no, really), I was treated to a lengthy performance in Philly that heartily showcased their new album but didn't neglect the old favorites from Gorilla Manor, either. In fact, I can't think of a single song that I wanted to hear and didn't. Their energy was off the roof (Taylor Rice is certainly a bit of a prancer), and the light setup prompted one band member to note how much their show looks like Dredd upon seeing it broadcast on monitors throughout the venue.

9. Sigur Rós @ Mann Center (9/20)

I'd already seen Sigur Rós twice, and I'd been in the front row both times, so having a seat behind the pit was a bit of a step back. Having said that, though, no live act that I've ever seen has ever really matched the ennobling audiovisual splendor of this band. Beautiful, haunting and devastating often at once, Sigur Rós sound brilliant with the additional eight musicians and vocalists that they tour with, and "Popplagið" still stands as the single most exhilarating live song I've ever seen, to the point that it literally left me quivering this time.

 8. The xx @ Electric Factory (1/27)

Probably the one show of 2013 that most transformed my perception of the band more than any other. The xx's absurdly popular music was always missing something for me on record, yet the interplay between Romy and Oliver on stage (simultaneously restrained and unbearably intense) lent their hush love songs an immediacy and intimacy that I'd never quite felt before. They were also backed by a hell of a light show, and Jamie's spectacular percussive/electronic work. I only took a chance on this band after Hurricane Sandy pushed their original show to a date on a weekend, but I couldn't be more glad that it worked out.

 7. Animal Collective @ Union Transfer (10/27)

I actually saw Animal Collective twice this year. The first time was at GovBall, in which their closing song, "The Purple Bottle," had to be awkwardly cut short due to technical difficulties. The band had just played "My Girls" and "Peacebone" back-to-back, and nothing was going to bring me down from that high... but after seeing Animal Collective in an intimate venue and experiencing the spectacular buildup and release of "The Purple Bottle" in full, I can't imagine how I ever walked away from their first set satisfied.

 6. Cut Copy @ Governors Ball 2013 (6/8)

As with Sigur Rós, the impact of this one was dampened a bit by me having seen Cut Copy before. This time, though, they were imbued with as much energy as ever following a touring hiatus, and the set had the added benefit of being full of Guns N' Roses fans who, shall we say, didn't exactly have the dancing feet for an Australian synth pop band. Cut Copy know how to work a crowd like no one's business, and even if only a couple of us were actually there to see them and not a has-been '80s rock band, it didn't stop us few hardcore fans from throwing our hands up in the air, jumping up and down and screaming along with "Lights and Music" regardless.

 5. Empire of the Sun @ 9:30 Club (9/1)

It'd be easy to dismiss Empire of the Sun's live show as being all about spectacle, what with the dancers and elaborate costumes and confetti cannons and enormous LED screen and so forth. But while I wouldn't describe most of Empire's music as ambitious or even particularly great, they certainly know how to sell it: with charisma, attitude and terrific musicmanship, transforming the fluffy synth lines of songs like "Old Flavours" into arena-ready guitar riffs. This show also marked the only time I've ever actually seen someone smash a guitar on stage.

 4. My Bloody Valentine @ Electric Factory (11/9)

They were giving out free earplugs upon entrance to this show, a terrifying omen for a legendarily loud band. I didn't actually need them, and I'm glad; My Bloody Valentine make the sort of music that you're supposed to envelope yourself in, and any barriers would have detracted from the experience. Kevin Shields isn't a great showman, but as they say, the music spoke for itself, particularly during the climactic feedback eruption during "You Made Me Realise," when I couldn't figure out if the band was having technical difficulties (as they were throughout the night) or if they were riding this particular segment out because, well, that's what they do. The vibrant projection reels left me eyes feeling just as my ears did: overwhelmed in the most satisfying way.

3. Atoms for Peace @ Liacouras Center (9/24)

It's some sort of evil genius to put the two most animated showmen that I've ever seen, Thom Yorke and Flea, together on one stage. For however different their musical backgrounds are, their sputtering vibes bounced perfectly off of one another and transformed Atoms for Peace's airtight studio sound into a rollicking 100-minute jam session accompanied by a terrific light setup and three other super-talented musicians (particularly Mauro Refosco, who instantly became one of my favorite percussionists). The unbelievably intense live rendition of the title track from Amok, capping off their first encore, was the easy standout. (Points for not pandering; only one Radiohead song was played, and it was a b-side.)

 2. Boris @ Le Poisson Rouge (5/7)

Boris could play anything from their absolutely massive backlog and I'd be happy, as demonstrated when I first saw them in 2011 while they were touring in support of three (!) new albums that they'd released that year and played only a couple of older songs. This set, though, gave me the rare opportunity to see them play Flood, a 70-minute longform aural depiction of the world being consumed by water, in near-full. It was one of the most spectacular performances I'd ever seen, made all the better by the selection of rarities that preceded it (including a cover of My Bloody Valentine's "Sometimes," before I'd have dreamed that I'd see the actual band play that later in the same year).

1. Iron & Wine @ Union Transfer (5/15)

Sam Beam, otherwise known as Iron & Wine, toured with a 13-person band in support of his most recent album. It lent an entirely new layer to a backlog of famously low-production music, much of which he recorded solo. It sounded magnificent, particularly when the band played a new arrangement of "Jezabel" that might stand as my single all-time favorite live reworking of a song. Even better, however, were the stretches in which Beam dismissed the band and played by himself, actively taking requests, engaging the audience in conversation and frequently messing up lyrics to songs he rarely played. The set lasted two hours and ranged from bright polish to down-and-dirty rawness, showcasing everything I possibly could have wanted from a show like this. Absolutely superb.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PC) review

This weekend, I was tasked with reviewing the recent PC port of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and with getting through an entire written article without ever misspelling the word "revengeance," which I'm still not entirely confident that I pulled off. You can read it here.

My opinion on the game itself is (I would hope) adequately discussed there, but I wanted to take a second to brush upon the technical aspects of the PC version. My own build consists of an i5-2500K and a GTX 570. Sounds pretty middle-of-the-road, considering that the 760 is now roughly the price that I spent on my own video card a couple of years ago, but I play games at 1920x1080, and pretty much every recent, top-shelf PC title that I've played on the thing (this would include BioShock Infinite, Remember Me and Saints Row IV) has been able to run on max settings at a steady 60fps. The only game to really put it to work was Metro: Last Light, which still looked pretty stunning on my build.

With all of that in mind, I had no trouble whatsoever playing Revengeance. The game was locked at 50fps for me, which I find totally acceptable. More importantly, I had the Fraps counter running in the corner for the entire campaign and the game never once dropped a single frame. That's pretty vital when you're dealing with a game like Revengeance that's designed to be fast, smooth and clean. Framerate drops would kill an experience like this and Platinum seems to have dodged that bullet.

Some of the pickier PC enthusiasts are getting upset because the framerate can't exceed 60 or because the resolution doesn't go any higher than 1080p or whatever. I get where this is coming from; you dump a lot of money into something like a Titan or a 120Hz-capable monitor, you want to take advantage of it. But assuming that the horror stories surrounding the Steam version of Dark Souls are to be believed, this audience has already seen just how difficult PC porting can be, how out-of-touch developers are with what players here is looking for, and how horrendously this process can go wrong.

Considering all of that, for a first go, I thought Platinum did a perfectly decent job with this transition. And even if you're having more issues playing Revengeance on Steam than I did (and I've heard reports of it happening), bear in mind that PC game development is a notoriously inexact science. That we're even getting a relatively high-quality Japanese character action game on this platform is something of a minor miracle, and that Platinum avoided so many pitfalls on their first try, and that they responded so quickly to the always-online requirement that turned out to be an innocent bug, gives me promise for their future on PC. So be patient, and in the meantime, enjoy this solid port of an altogether solid game.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My 50 favorite songs of 2013

Let me get this out of the way before people forget that 2013 was even a thing. I didn't actually listen to as much music last year as is my usual standard, with time-devouring hurdles like writing and hospitalization getting in the way, so I'd never be able to match the list of 500 awesome songs that I put together for the end of 2012.

This time, I'm limiting it to 50, but with a special condition: only one track per artist. So, these are my favorite songs of last year. My original plan was to include YouTube links for all of these, but honestly, it's 4:30 in the morning and that would take a lot of effort. And frankly, if you and I have similar taste in music, you've probably heard a good number of these already. This is not what you'd call an adventurous selection.

50. "Baby Center Stage" - Iron & Wine
49. "Video" - IS TROPICAL
48. "Maw Maw Song" - The Joy Formidable
47. "Prodigy" - No Joy
46. "Until the Colours Run" - Lanterns on the Lake
45. "Sea of Love" - Silver Swans
44. "Confidence" - The Dodos
43. "Siren's Song" - Rogue Wave
42. "Brainfreeze" - Fuck Buttons
41. "San Francisco" - Foxygen
40. "Cough" - Everything Everything
39. "Come a Little Closer" - Cage the Elephant
38. "Golden Light" - Starfucker
37. "Bourgeois" - Phoenix
36. "Landscape" - Glasser
35. "White Seal (Shell & Spine)" - Candy Claws
34. "Say That" - Toro y Moi
33. "Various Methods of Escape" - Nine Inch Nails
32. "Dark Matter" - Feathers
31. "Storm King" - Widowspeak
30. "Ice on the Dune" - Empire of the Sun
29. "The Wire" - Haim
28. "Ocean Repeating (Big-Eyed Girl)" - Wild Nothing
27. "Almost Home" - Moby
26. "We Sink" - CHVRCHES
25. "1x1x1" - Cloud Cult
24. "It Is What It Is" - Blood Orange
23. "Method of Error" - Boris
22. "Painful Like" - Austra
21. "The Trip" - Still Corners
20. "Future Warrior" - Palms
19. "You Lust" - The Flaming Lips
18. "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)" - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
17. "Ironworks" - Baths
16. "In My Fears" - Nosound
15. "Full of Fire" - The Knife
14. "New You" - My Bloody Valentine
13. "Ingenue" - Atoms for Peace
12. "One Girl/One Boy" - !!!
11. "Georgio by Moroder" - Daft Punk
10. "Step" - Vampire Weekend
9. "Bambi" - Suuns
8. "It Must Be the Weather" - Holy Ghost!
7. "Fall for You" - Young Galaxy
6. 'We Are Explorers" - Cut Copy
5. "Wedding Song" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
4. "White Noise" - Disclosure
3. "Reflektor" - Arcade Fire
2. "Brennisteinn" - Sigur Rós

1. "Weightless" - Washed Out

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I've spent more time with the Bravely Default demo than I ever will with Knack

Oh, this is lovely. See, I have this rule that I always like to finish a game before I review it. It adheres to the understanding that a review is a formal piece of writing representing an informed opinion, and you have a fuller perspective of a game if you've seen the entire thing. You don't need to follow this rule; review however you want. It just makes me feel better about myself as a critic. Ah, but I've just started a blog! One that nobody reads, probably! I have no one's standards to live up to here except for my own, meaning that I'm totally within my boundaries to play a small fraction of a game, dismiss it as a waste of time, and then criticize it!

I've only played a few hours of Knack, and I do not like it, and I am not going to play the rest of it. Wow, that was freeing. I don't even proofread this stuff.

I don't hate Knack because it's bad. I hate it because it's nothing. It has no wit, no personality, no creativity, nothing to indicative that it was made by humans as opposed to, say, a computer program that knows what a video game is but doesn't understand why people enjoy them. (I've used that analogy to describe Silicon Knights' two most recent games, which should tell you everything you need to know.) It's essentially a brawler with one-button combat, and it doesn't even make an attempt at mining depth from that setup the way El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron did. There's some "platforming," in the sense that occasionally the player is called upon to jump. There's a "visual style," in the sense that the characters all have large heads. Whoever voices the protagonist delivers lines like "Sorry!" and "I can't wait!" with cool-guy one-liner affectation. It's miserable.

It's also hard. Most enemy attacks will kill you in two hits, while most ranged attacks, in a bewildering display of poor balancing, kill you in one hit. You have a generic punch, as well as a jump attack that has zero range and does around half the damage of your standard blow, so I'm confused as to why it's there. You have a couple of (essentially) screen-clearing special moves that you rarely ever have a chance to use since your energy accumulates so slowly. The game blends a sluggish, unresponsive dodge with enemies that move swiftly and without warning. The platforming suffers from terrible collision and offers zero camera control whatsoever. Knack has the aesthetic of a kids' game, but if I'd played this as a kid, I'd be throwing a temper tantrum.

I've asked around. That Knack is difficult seems to be the general consensus. What I'm also hearing, though, is that it's excruciatingly long, and that the combat doesn't particularly change or evolve as you progress. I can't confirm whether or not that's true. But if the game is this intimidating, what exactly does it do to earn such a commitment from me? What I'm playing is dull, mechanical and completely lacking in charisma, in addition to being unreasonably demanding. Knack himself is a decent character design, but that's the only mark of creative input that I've witnessed in the first several chapters. Knack feels like a hodgepodge of industry staples cobbled together to create a nondescript "action game," one designed to move units at the launch of a hot new console that, unfortunately, doesn't have much else to offer.

It seems to have worked, because this thing apparently outsold Super Mario 3D World. I haven't played that yet, but I've already established that I'm making no attempt at professionalism here. I have no obligation to complete Knack, so I'm not going to.

So Knack is the worst thing I've played in the past week, which puts it squarely opposite the Bravely Default demo. The full version of that is already available in Japan, Europe and Australia. I am jealous of the people living in those places.

The title sounds like it graduated from the Infinite Undiscovery school of incomprehensible nonsense, but it's actually a reference to the battle system, which has characters alternating between defensive and unleash-all-hell stances (called "default" and "brave," respectively). It takes a relatively familiar job system and forces players to manage a constantly-shifting resource: time. Characters gain one BP per turn. They lose one BP whenever they do anything of importance, preserve their BP whenever they default, and can use accumulated BP to perform multiple actions in a single turn. So every turn counts; every move must be carefully considered. It's a far cry from JRPGs like (to name a frequently-cited example by me) Blue Dragon, which you can beat by essentially spamming the "attack" option while reading a magazine. Indeed, if the demo's difficulty is any indication, you'll be paying very close attention to this one.

I'll admit that the demo doesn't do a very good job of contextualizing the story, which is intention; they didn't want this to feel redundant, and thus they specifically designed the demo to be a side quest of sorts, one in which you run missions for random villagers and actually earn rewards to be used once the full game is released. So I don't have a good sense of how well-developed the plot and characters are. I'm hearing, from people lucky enough to already own this thing, and they're great.

That'd be icing on the cake, but the issue that I have with many JRPGs is that very, very few games have the breadth to hold my attention for 60-plus hours, regardless of how emotionally engaging they are. There's belief among JRPG developers (and Bravely Default reportedly doesn't buck this trend) that a game can only be classified as "epic" if it spans dozens and dozens of hours, and man, that is tough to pull off. One of my all-time favorites in the genre, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, couldn't have been more phoned-in from a storytelling standpoint (and beats you over the head with it, to be sure), but it offered one of the deepest and most expansive battle systems I've ever used in an RPG, and once I'd invested 50 hours in it, I could've gone on for 50 more.

That's the sort of thing that a game like Bravely Default needs, and it's the sort of thing that the full game is set to deliver, if early reviews and the demo itself are any mark. That its job system mercilessly milks my nostalgia for Final Fantasy V and Tactics doesn't hurt. Hopefully it doesn't let me down, and I'll find out as soon as possible, because this thing just jumped to the top of the list of my most anticipated games of 2014.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A ranked list of every game that I played in 2013

...It's not actually very long.

I guess this stems from the fact that I'm just not a professional games journalist, at least not yet. (The plan is to be one eventually, of course.) But assuming that I didn't forget anything, and I don't believe that I did, I only played 63 games in 2013. I am, of course, excluding everything I played last year which wasn't actually released last year, which ranges from some 2012 catch-up (XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series) and a few old favorites that I only just got around to checking out (Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2, the Witcher games). Still, a Destructoid writer that I follow on Twitter posted a list of the 2013 releases that he'd played and it numbered in the 200s. I only hit 63. And if we were to rule out games that I didn't play to completion, the number would be even lower.

But nevertheless, having finally written up my Game of the Year article over the weekend, I thought it'd be fun to inventory my progress over 2013. Bear in mind that the ranking here is relative; a game being low on the list doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad, but merely that I didn't enjoy it as much as what placed higher. In fact, the vast majority of the games on this list are at least decent. I tend to avoid bad games unless I have a writerly obligation or flat-out interest.

Re-releases, namely The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut, would rank higher if I hadn't already played them earlier.

* indicates games that I admittedly didn't spend much time with
^ indicates games that just aren't my thing

63. Aliens: Colonial Marines (Xbox 360)
62. LocoCycle (Xbox One)
61. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (Xbox 360)
60. Halo: Spartan Assault (Xbox One)*
59. Crimson Dragon (Xbox One)
58. Full Bore (PC)
57. Dark (PC)
56. Soul Sacrifice (Vita)*
55. Rise of the Triad (PC)
54. Jak and Daxter Collection (Vita)*
53. Contrast (PS4)*
52. Gears of War: Judgment (Xbox 360)
51. Dead Space 3 (Xbox 360)
50. Killer Instinct (Xbox One)*^
49. Batman: Arkham Origins (Xbox 360)*
48. Blacklight: Retribution (PC)*
47. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)^
46. Lego Marvel Super Heroes (Xbox 360)
45. Cloudberry Kingdom (PC)
44. Warframe (PS4)
43. Shadow Warrior (PC)*
42. 9.03m (PC)
41. Killzone: Shadow Fall (PS4)
40. DuckTales Remastered (PC)
39. Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360)
38. Sonic: Lost World (Wii U)
37. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (Xbox 360)
36. Crysis 3 (Xbox 360)
35. Anarchy Reigns (Xbox 360)
34. Resident Evil: Revelations (Xbox 360)
33. Peggle 2 (Xbox One)
32. XCOM: Enemy Within (PC)
31. Ryse: Son of Rome (Xbox One)
30. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Xbox 360)
29. Forza Motorsport 5 (Xbox One)
28. Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Xbox 360)
27. Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine (PC)*
26. Remember Be (PC)
25. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
24. Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut (PC)*
23. Rymdkapsel (Vita)
22. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Wii U)
21. Total War: Rome II (PC)
20. Metro: Last Light (PC)
19. Pikmin 3 (Wii U)
18. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (Xbox 360)
17. Gunpoint (PC)
16. Tomb Raider (Xbox 360)
15. The Stanley Parable (PC)
14. DmC: Devil May Cry (Xbox 360)
13. Resogun (PS4)
12. Dragon's Crown (Vita)
11. Gone Home (PC)
10. Rayman Legends (Xbox 360)
9. Cubetractor (PC)
8. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
7. Saints Row IV (PC)
6. Guacamelee! (Vita)
5. Papers, Please (PC)
4. Outlast (PC)
3. BioShock Infinite (PC)
2. Tearaway (Vita)
1. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Xbox 360)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 roundup: My ten favorite video games of the year, some honorable mentions, and other awards

Give me a second to catch my breath.

I actually had to hold off on a formal best-of-2013 list until now because, truth be told, there has been too much to play within the last year and I needed to use my extensive holiday break to catch up on a few favorites that I missed (at least two of which made my top ten, so hey, it was a worthwhile delay). Even then, I somehow managed to get through the last twelve months without touching The Last of Us, Super Mario 3D World, or any JRPGs whatsoever. The year that I finally push myself as a freelancer, buy five new systems and make every effort to bolt myself into place as an expert of the video game industry is the year that I honestly, truly can't keep up.

That would happen.

I'm gonna jump into my top ten in a moment, but first, I'd like to get a couple of honorable mentions out of the way, since, as has been stated, 2013 was kind of incredible, and narrowing the year down to ten games alone feels criminal. One painful exclusion would be DmC: Devil May Cry (review), Ninja Theory's fan-angering (but Mike Suskie-appeasing) reboot of the notoriously newcomer-unfriendly character action series. Complaints that the new developers have made DmC too easy aren't unfounded, but the truth of the matter is that I finished the game six times, on every difficulty. I was finally able to experience the thrill of truly mastering one of these things, so if the franchise's newfound accessibility means that it's lost some fans, well, it's also gained at least one.

The most humbling game of the year for me would have to be Dragon's Crown, which I initially dismissed due to its somewhat sexist art style (which, for the record, I still dislike) and my general apathy toward beat-'em-ups in general. Once I finally gave it a shot over Christmas break, however, I found that it offered a revelatory approach to loot-a-thon dungeon crawlers. It's one of the year's best time sinks, to be sure; I finished it in 17 hours and wished I'd had 100 more to spend with it.

And while I don't think it's quite substantial enough to land in the top ten, Resogun (review) deserves credit for doing in 2013 what Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved did in 2005. It's a simple, stylized twin-stick shooter (sort of) that was released as a would-be throwaway downloadable title at the launch of a new console and manages to completely steal the show from what should have been the heavy hitters. And this was free, for Christ's sake. It's a very short game, and I'd never in a million years suggest that anyone buy a PS4 specifically to check it out, but I've played nearly every new-gen console game yet, and this is by far the most fun I've had with one.

Finally, special mention should be made of both Gone Home (review) and The Stanley Parable, two experiments in interactive storytelling that aren't really "games" in the traditional sense (they offer no real obstacles to overcome or anything in the way of challenge) but nonetheless have important points to make, and use the strengths of the medium to make them. Gone Home is a rather touching epistolary that tackles a subject rarely brushed upon in the industry and misdirects players along the way, while The Stanley Parable is a clever and often hilarious statement on the role of the player in a narrative told through a first-person game. Both are short, both are surprising, and both are worth your time.

Now then.

10. Rayman Legends (Xbox 360)

This is almost a weird choice. My goal with an article like this is to assemble a list of 2013's most defining games, and as such, kicking it off with a sequel that blatantly recycles mechanics and assets from its predecessor seems a bit curious. Understand, though, that I was never an enormous fan of Rayman Origins. It absolutely exuded whimsy, but too much of its charm was undone by infuriating hyper-reflex platforming that I believe I've described as "quick-time events without the button prompts." It seemed like every level forced me through strenuous tests of endurance just to learn a specific set of skills that I'd never need again. I don't enjoyed being frustrated, particularly when it's so unjustified.

Helpfully, its follow-up, Rayman Legends, actually includes dozens of remastered levels from Origins, which means that I was able to revisit the 2011 title, make direct comparisons and confirm that, yeah, Legends is exactly the sort of platformer I was looking for where the first game wasn't. It's slow-paced and meticulous, and places a far greater emphasis on exploration than memorization. And on the few occasions in which it does lean in the direction of precise-timing-to-the-millisecond deathtrap hopping, it creatively synchronizes the player's movements with goofy remixes of classic songs like Ram Jam's "Black Betty." And that detail alone makes it a thousand times less tedious. A little context can go a long way.

So Legends is great in and of itself, but it's also an important release for the simple matter that it pulls back the curtain. Origins was, as far as I'm concerned, the most beautiful 2D game ever made. That Legends spins it into something I can finally, heartily enjoy means that I can appreciate the magnificent audiovisual experience unfettered at long last.

9. Cubetractor (PC)

The trouble with being a low-ranking and generally unsuccessful freelance video game critic is that outlets tend to dump the throwaway stuff on you. Their most trusted writers tend to handle the biggest and most exciting games. That makes sense and is totally fair, but it means that the up-and-comers tend to get stuck with the stuff that no one else wants. Typically, there's a reason that no one else wants it, but occasionally, you get an assignment that really, really jumps out and surprises you.

That's what happened to me with Cubetractor, an adorable 16-bit indie release that was developed by a two-man team in Singapore and occupies the slot for my most obscure pick of the year. It's a game in which you take control of a robot called Endroi that can pull cubes toward itself from any distance and must take care not to clobber itself while doing so. Ah, so it's a block-arranging puzzler, eh? Actually, no: It's a tower defense game, and one that manages to breathe new life into tower defense games despite the genre's over-saturation. The premise is that Endroi can build structures by pulling two different blocks into one another, which often requires ludicrously slick movement and timing. Half of the challenge comes from figuring out solutions, and the other half comes from the extreme coordination it takes to put said solutions into practice.

File this one under "easy to learn, but difficult to master." It could have been released on the original Game Boy for how simply it controls, yet it's one of the most brutal games that I've played this year. It also nearly doubles its weight in optional challenges, meaning that if you're hooked (and I suspect that you will be), you'll get a lot of value out of this one. Check it out; these talented guys deserve the support. (Review.)

8. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

You know, it's not like Fire Emblem is the only series to do the permadeath thing. The reason that this one gets all of the attention, though, is because it spends so much time developing these characters behind the scenes. These aren't just faceless avatars for video game violence. They're people. They have well-defined personalities and countless unique lines of dialog. They react to one another organically and fight in ways that reflect upon their identities. When you lose one by your own error, you're not just losing a tool. You're losing a fascinating individual, a comic relief, or a blossoming relationship. You're losing something that matters.

It's a tough lesson that we're forced to learn again and again every time Nintendo releases another of these games, and Awakening scores bonus points by being the toughest Fire Emblem I've played yet. I was particularly scarred by the sequence in which Chrom and company take to the sea and attack three rival ships at once, surrounded and terrifyingly outnumbered. First you get your ass kicked. Then you hang back, play defensively, and pray that you can stall while the enemy continues to overexert itself. And then the Pegasus Knight reinforcements just... keep... coming. And you reach the stinging realization that as hard as you try, there is just no way you're getting through this without taking heavy losses. It's a massive eff-you to anyone who thought that they could beat the system.

Awakening is the least-surprising entry on this list. I bought a 3DS specifically for this game and it delivered precisely what I wanted out of it. There's value in that. As much as I admire risk-taking, there's no shame in sticking to what you know works when your turn-based strategy infrastructure is as consistently solid as Fire Emblem's. Just throw in some new team dynamics, deeper conversational mechanics and the best writing of the series yet (which is saying quite a bit), and you're set.

7. Saints Row IV (PC)

First and foremost, Saints Row IV earns its spot on this list mainly by being the Crackdown game that I always wanted but never got. Orb-collecting was great fun; you'll hear no argument from me on that subject. What Crackdown lacked, however, was context, humor and personality. It was a vacuous experience for me, too sexless to be anything more than a forgettable diversion.

Saints Row IV is the funniest game that I played this year. It's one of the funniest games that I've played any year. Maybe I could have seen that coming. What I didn't expect, however, was for it to be so damn heartfelt. I went into this game with very little experience with this series and zero attachment to its cast. I left feeling like I'd known them my entire life. It's the product of great writing, faultless voice acting (if you're playing as Nolan North, at least) and some unconventional attempts to delve into its characters' psyches. So it's a memorable game in addition to being a big, ambitious toy box of gravity-defying dubstep gun wackiness.

I wouldn't call this the best sandbox game of the generation. Just Cause 2 still takes that award in my book. But Saints Row IV is an appropriate statement on just what I've come to expect from the genre. It's nutty, it's expansive and it sees the value in letting players simply derail themselves. But it also realizes that freedom doesn't need to come at the cost of structure or weight. Aside from its endgame stretching itself a bit thin, Saints Row IV is a pure delight. Compare this to Grand Theft Auto V and I'd say that Volition has a better understanding of what makes sandbox games tick than the people who more or less invented it do. (Review.)

6. Guacamelee! (Vita)

As if to prove a point, Guacamelee! issues its upgrades via effigies that look an awful lot like Chozo statues, only they're called "Choozo statues."

So Guacamelee! is a bit shameless in its influences. That's fine, because I've always had an affinity for the sort of level design that the Metroid series, at its best, offers, in which I can return to an area that I "completed" hours ago and uncover things I didn't notice when my understanding of the world was so limited. I do wish that Guacamelee! had been more creative in masking its secrets, since most of the game is simply spent hunting down new attacks for smashing through various multicolored blocks, but it's an organic, constantly-expanding game nonetheless.

However, where Guacamelee! could have settled for simply having a unique and well-executed idea – a luchador-themed Metroid clone with deep hand-to-hand combat – it instead goes the extra mile by offering some of the most creative and, frankly, intimidating platforming challenges I've ever seen. Mechanics like triple jumps, wall-running, mid-air dodges and freaking dimension-hopping are cobbled together into terrifying tests of laser precision that all lead into one another and never feel like wastes of time. The game isn't arbitrary; it's too inventive for that.

Guacamelee! will make you scream, and I'll confess that the last couple of damage-sponge bosses might just be a bit too frustrating for their own good. But the intense platforming that takes center stage is rewarding in the best way. The game constantly has you second-guessing your own abilities but sends you off feeling like you could accomplish anything.

5. Papers, Please (PC)

If I'd done an article like this for 2012, my Game of the Year would've been Spec Ops: The Line, a game that, as I'm sure you're sick of hearing by now, was designed not to be "entertaining," but to make you feel disgusted with yourself. More importantly, it applied unsettling rationalization to the role of the "bad guy," a sensation inherited by this year's Papers, Please, in which you must support your family under a harsh (and fictional) regime by working as an immigration officer, rejecting or even detaining anyone who doesn't meet the qualifications for entry.

Both of these games ask you to do horrific things, and both of them justify your actions by applying the consequences for saying "no" into video game terms. Papers, Please can't threaten the well-being of your actual family, so instead, if you don't do what the government tell you to do, you "lose." Your progress is brought to an end and you're taken back to the title screen. You do terrible things to survive, to "win." Because it's a video game, and if you're not playing to win, why are you playing at all? Why did you even spend your money on this?

You wouldn't think that an 8-bit game centered on rooting through immigration paperwork would be very exciting or powerful, and aside from a few bursts of on-screen violence, the consequences of your actions happen off-screen, either implied or depicted via newspaper headlines. But just like how the white phosphorous sequence in Spec Ops was all the more disturbing because it was presented as an unassuming shoot-the-white-blips mini-game comparable to the AC-130 level in the original Modern Warfare, the minimalist presentation of the people lined up outside of your booth in Papers, Please makes it all the easier to condemn them to terrible fates when the risk of a dreaded Game Over screen rears its head. And that's the disquieting part. What a chilling game.

4. Outlast (PC)

The first trick to creating a good horror game is that it's not about making a big, ugly monster jump out of the darkness and yell "boo"; it's about making players think that a big, ugly monster is going to jump out of the darkness and yell "boo." The second trick to making a good horror game is that, yeah, you still do need to make a big, ugly monster jump out of the darkness and yell "boo" every once in a while, just to remind everyone that you're not all talk.

Outlast actually borrows quite a bit from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I was never overly fond of; the atmosphere was wonderful, but the puzzle design was so obtuse that I'd typically be stuck in areas until they stopped being scary. I love Outlast because it pulls the most effective ingredients of the formula (namely, the complete inability of the main character to actually defend himself) and sands it down to a smooth, lean, unpretentious experience that rarely gives you a chance to pause. The setting, a mental hospital, is time-tested, and forcing players to complete large chunks of the game through their camera's rather limiting night vision mode is a stroke of claustrophobic genius.

I'm slightly annoyed that Outlast's writing isn't actually very good, and the game being set in a sanitarium means most of the villains can get away with having no better motivation than that they're just goddamn nuts. But Outlast is a horror game, and via some combination of limiting controls, perfectly-timed jump shocks and slow-creeping terror everywhere else, it's the scariest horror game that I've ever played, to the point that I was only able to inch myself through it for small chunks at a time. To buy this game is to subject yourself to constant, overwhelming discomfort. To quote the title card, please enjoy.

3. BioShock Infinite (PC)

Oh, don't look at me like that.

It's funny that BioShock Infinite would be the game to spawn seemingly never-ending debate about "ludonarrative dissonance," the notoriously pretentious term that refers to a disconnect between story and gameplay, because the first two BioShocks could have been set anywhere for how much it actually mattered that you were in an underwater city. They were, in my mind, corridor shooters that undersold their beautiful worlds. Too much detail was dumped into Rapture for the whole place to be trapped in a display case, for its most important characters to be tucked away off-screen. And now Irrational goes and makes a game that feels as it looks, that puts its most important figure front and center for the duration, that's actually fantastic, and you all hate it? What is wrong with you people?

I am getting emotional. I adore Infinite and I am not ashamed of that. It's a beautiful, exciting, lightning-paced first-person shooter. It lacks the wealth of iconic imagery that its predecessors had, yes, but it's also got the most potent combat of the series to date (thanks in part to the Sky-Line, which gives Infinite's movement a decidedly three-dimensional edge) and one of the best supporting characters in any video game, ever. Elizabeth is voiced and animated to perfection. She plays an important role in combat (thanks to her ability to summon objects out of thin air), and Irrational wisely avoids the trap of turning Infinite into a feature-length escort mission, mercifully allowing Elizabeth to take care of herself, and alerting you to this fact the moment she joins you.

Even more importantly, though, Infinite is daring science fiction that uses the bare basics of its established franchise as the jumping-off point for a story so demanding of the audience's intellect that I doubt it would ever have been greenlit if it didn't have the demonstrably bankable BioShock name attached to it. I still won't spoil what's revealed during the game's final 15 minutes, but whether you love or hate the ending, I can't imagine anyone not being lost in deep thought as the credits roll. It really shouldn't bother me that Infinite has inspired such a wide range of impassioned reactions, because that's what all great, challenging art does. (Review.)

2. Tearaway (Vita)

Immediately after spending more than a thousand dollars over the course of a week investing in two new next-gen consoles back-to-back, I did what any sensible person would do: I spent even more damn money on another damn gaming system, namely the PlayStation Vita, which everyone on my Twitter feed has been insisting is a spectacular handheld. They were correct. Vita is freaking amazing. But that's unimportant for the time being.

What's important is Tearaway, the tragically underselling vessel of condensed charm that I bought with the system. I'm hesitant to describe it in only a couple of paragraphs; there's almost too much here, too many terrific ideas. It was developed by Media Molecule, the people responsible for LittleBigPlanet, so you know that it'll be a platformer with a wry British narrator, a diverse world made of found materials (construction paper, in this case), and lots and lots of colors. But whereas LittleBigPlanet was a revival of familiar tropes for the customization age, Tearaway looks for every possible opportunity to try things that have never been done in mainstream platformers.

I don't like hardware gimmicks. Tearaway sidesteps this problem by not having hardware gimmicks. Its many unique uses of the Vita's camera, touch pad, motion controls and so forth are integrated as core mechanics rather than one-off novelties. You see a pattern on the ground that matches the one on the back of the Vita, and you know that you need to reach under the system, poke it, and watch your finger protrude through the floor on the screen. The game throws so many creative ideas at you that it's more or less spoiler-proof, even for running no longer than six hours. That, and it's the cutest and most visually striking game of 2013, never once breaking its papercraft rule. Tearaway instantly justified the purchase of the Vita for me. At the risk of sounding confrontational, if you don't like it, you are a kettle of inky black pitch. (Review.)

1. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Xbox 360)

I named this as my biggest Game of the Year hopeful back in August, after I spent three straight, emotionally exhausting hours punching through it. It's since become a considerably less unique choice now that nearly everyone who's played it is tossing it onto their own year-end lists, but it remains the only game of 2013 to which I awarded a perfect score, and in my mind, it couldn't be more deserving.

Time and time again, when discussing some of my favorite games of the last generation, I return to the same subject: interactive storytelling. With every year, we see developers mining more and more ways of engaging us on intellectual and emotional levels that wouldn't be possible in any other medium. The narrative presented in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of the year's best, and it's told without a single line of cohesive dialog, since all of its characters speak in a fictional language that isn't translated for us. There's a vague indication of what our objective is, a lot of frequent gesturing by the brothers to clue us in on how they're feeling at any given moment, and a Team Ico game's worth of atmosphere reminding us just how far from home they are, and continue to be with every step.

But all of these tools are dwarfed by the most important narrative ingredient of all: the mechanics. Brothers is not technically the first game to task players with using both analog sticks to guide two characters simultaneously, but it's a unique control scheme, and developer Starbreeze uses it to assemble some strikingly intuitive tests of multitasking and hand-eye coordination, such as an already-famous sequence in which the brothers must ascend a castle wall by tethering themselves together and swinging about on one another's weight. More importantly, though, is that it subliminally reinforces the bond that these two people share. They need one another and feel helpless, even incomplete, when they're separated. And since they're both controlled by the same player, they are, in a sense, literally one.

I don't believe that cutscenes are an absolute failure state; 100% immersion doesn't work for every game and there's still plenty of value in telling the players to put their controllers down for a few moments while we all get caught up to speed. Brothers, however, demonstrates a commitment to interactive storytelling that many other games could learn from. That it's also a beautiful and consistently clever little adventure-platformer with some of the year's most memorable (and haunting) imagery is worth noting, as well; it's the rare heavy game that's too colorful, too spectacular, too surprising to be oppressively bleak. Brothers is an extraordinary game, and my favorite of 2013. (Review.)

And now, just for fun, I'm gonna hand out some miscellaneous awards.

Most overrated: Grand Theft Auto V
Most underrated: Total War: Rome II
Most overlooked: Remember Me
Most visually striking: Tearaway
All-out best-looking game: Ryse: Son of Rome
Best soundtrack: Remember Me
Biggest surprise: Dragon's Crown
Biggest disappointment: Forza Motorsport 5
Most enjoyable bad game: Sonic: Lost World
Least enjoyable good game: Papers, Please
Game that I spent the most time with: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Soul Sacrifice
Shortest game that I played: 9.03m
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: The Last of Us
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Rogue Legacy
Best game that I never finished: Pikmin 3
Best game that I received a review key/copy for: Saints Row IV
Worst game that I received a review key/copy for: LocoCycle
All-out worst game that I played: Aliens: Colonial Marines
Best non-2013 release that I played in 2013: Final Fantasy X
Best remake/re-release: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD