Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sometimes I like things: My ten favorite games of 2014

Dark Souls II actually isn't even on my list, but I took that screenshot a few hours ago, decided it was exactly the greatest thing in the world and chose to display it here for all who, for whatever reason, wonder what my favorite games of the last twelve months are. It puts an appropriate cap on 2014, too. After a year like this, surely what we'd all love to be doing right now is waving goodbye as we all hideously die in a fire.

Like many, I was not a fan of 2014. Though it wasn't terrible for me on a personal level (which makes it something of a unique year), it was absolute hell for this industry as a whole, partly due to that one big thing that we are not even going to mention by name, and partly due to the games as a whole just not being particularly great. But here's me putting a positive spin on things: Maybe we needed a year such as this one. It's like when your favorite sports team has a terrible season that results in the firing of the head coach who's been pulling the franchise down – yeah, it hurts, but now we can make some progress. Maybe the reaction to all of 2014's botched launches and overhyped misfires results, at long last, in some actual quality control from AAA publishers. Because surely Ubisoft doesn't need another Assassin's Creed: Unity on their record.

Speaking of that, it's customary (by which I mean that I did it for last year's list) for me to rattle off a handful of honorable mentions in this space before moving on to the formal list, but this time I'm just going to issue my honorable mention to every Nintendo-published game released in 2014. No single title made my top ten, but Nintendo's impressively consistent dedication to the polish, stability and purity of their products is refreshing, even heroic. It's rare for their games to bring anything genuinely new to the table, but this year more than any other year, we needed a publisher who's comfortably reliable. And hell, there are far more reasons to own a Wii U now than there are to invest in the other two consoles, if you ask me.

With that said, here's my top ten for 2014. For whatever wrongs the industry suffered this year, let these ten titles be remembered as instances when, for a period of time, video games were pretty damn great.

10. The Wolf Among Us (PC)

For the longest time, I hated point-and-click adventures. To me, they almost always feel like the products of people who would much rather be telling stories than making games, and it's rare for me to play one that benefits in any way from being limited to this medium, the endless string of insert-square-shaped-rod-into-square-shaped-hole puzzles bogging down narratives that would be better told in movies or books.

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead changed that for me, largely by virtue of simply being the first video game ever to make me cry. Indeed, one of the long-running hurdles for story-centric games is that for ages, storytelling in this medium just wasn't reliably good enough. That's improving, and Telltale Games is leading the charge, but even The Walking Dead's pace was frequently hindered by what I've simply started referring to as "adventure game logic."

They've got such a familiar template now that The Wolf Among Us, based on a comic series called Fables that I'd never heard of until now, is unmistakably their work even when it was only the second release of theirs that I played. But they're continuing to refine their formula, even as their art style carries from one series to their next, even as their engine ages, even as characters continue to remember that. By nature of this series being a murder mystery starring fairy tale caricatures, it probably could never hit the emotional highs of The Walking Dead, but it's a shorter, leaner run that knocks out the fat and focuses on what Telltale does best: slick narrative driven by tough decisions which force players to meditate on the necessity of violence. For a company to spark my interest in adventure games is extraordinary. For them to hold my interest in the genre for more than one game is nothing short of surreal. (Review.)

9. Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One)

Let me get political for a moment and brush upon a subject that I'm sure is near and dear to everyone's hearts: the console wars! There is no bigger dead horse to be beaten than the subject of Xbox One getting off to a lousy start, and even after all of the steps that Microsoft has taken to narrow the gap between its own platform and the PS4 – dropping the Kinect requirement and lowering the price were the two big remaining boxes on their checklist – it wasn't until October that Microsoft finally did the one thing that I've been insisting could make or break this battle: release some great exclusive software.

Of course, this year, two of Xbox One's biggest exclusives – Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 – both made their way to the PC market, so it doesn't seem far fetched that Insomniac's latest will find new audiences at some point in the near future. Still, you have to admire the craftiness on display here: recruit a team commonly associated with the PlayStation brand to develop the best console exclusive of the generation so far, but for the opposing platform. Not only that, but the game's most prominent inspiration is a Sony franchise, and it's being released the same year that the latest installment of said franchise (Infamous: Second Son) failed to deliver.

It's not like the trick to making a good sandbox game is sealed away in some Aztec temple or something. Just make the sandbox matter. That's it. At any point in Sunset Overdrive, you can set a five-foot radius around yourself and find an environmental object that takes you to your next objective quicker than running along the ground would. Grind on something. Bounce from something. Swing across something. The platforming controls are phenomenal, and the game's colorful, manic energy is felt in every second spent navigating. That's energy, sadly, not devoted to the game's awful sense of humor, but I guess we can't have everything. (Review.)

8. Velocibox (PC)

I appreciate the straightforwardness of this game's title. Velocibox. It's about a box that moves at a high velocity.

Straightforwardness, as it happens, is the key strength of Velocibox, probably the first and last runner ever to be featured on a year-end list by me. There are nine stages, and if you're good, you can reach the end in something like a minute and a half. But you are not good. This is a lightning-fast and procedurally-generated arcade game, one in which memorizing the obstacle patterns takes ages and developing the reflexes to actually surpass them takes even longer. I've only ever made it to the fifth stage. Velocibox first came to my attention when I heard two colleagues swapping stories about the game, one reporting that he'd recorded thousands of attempts. Thousands.

That sounds like absolute hell for me, because I'm easily frustrated, a quality tested this year with two of the most difficult games I've ever played: Cloudbuilt and 1001 Spikes. Both games ultimately drove me over the edge for complications relating to an arbitrary lives system; in both cases, the frustration wasn't necessarily in dying, but in what I'd often lose when I died.

I love Velocibox because it's so instantaneous. While basic level patterns are reused, layouts themselves are always randomly generated, and they're thrown at you too quickly for you to patiently recall exactly what's going to happen next. It's a constantly-evolving game of adaptation, but it's immediate. When you do well, a stage is over in moments. When you don't do well, you're thrown back into it in less than a second, no questions asked. It's tight, intuitive and gloriously simple, pulling off the admirable trait of turning frustration into something relaxing, even therapeutic.

7. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4)

To put it crudely, because the subject matter deserves no better, this was the year that Assassin's Creed officially sullied the bed. Ubisoft bought themselves an extra year of goodwill with 2013's surprisingly innovative Black Flag, but then Unity came along twelve months later and unspooled all of that goodwill with the enthusiasm of a toddler who's just come upon a cassette tape. But even if Unity had been technically sound upon release, it still would've been hopelessly outclassed by Monolith's outstanding Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a popular entry on best-of articles, and not without good reason.

While this game does have one extremely unique feature, which I'll get to in a moment, Shadow of Mordor is notable less for what it does new and more for what it improves. It emblazons the Assassin's Creed formula with the controls of the superior Batman Arkham series and somehow comes out with something smoother than either franchise, and it all boils down to one important trait: flow. Even the Arkham games tended to present combat and stealth as separate entities, the manner in which you take down enemies entirely reliant on the sort of weaponry they're wielding. In Shadow of Mordor, any of your abilities are equally valid at any time, provided you've got the skill to use them.

And you don't always; Monolith isn't afraid to overwhelm you if you overexert yourself. But the skill tree manages to constantly change the way you approach combat. You'll get swarm by literally a couple dozen orcs at a time early on and think the game is being unfair, and then you'll face the same odds after you've gained short-range teleportation, area-of-effect attacks and exploding arrows accompanied by momentary bullet-time, and it's nothing, and the evolution is palpable. That rise to power is only rivaled by the steady progression of the Nemesis system, which has you manipulating Uruk ranks to the point of raising literal armies by the end of the campaign. It's a brilliant bit of emergent personal investment to nullify the sting of the game's somewhat dull central story. Aside from the narrative, this game does pretty much everything right. (Review.)

6. P.T. (PS4)

Let me just present my case for this one right up front. Had P.T. been developed by a no-name studio and released as a short, standalone title at a modest price, with no attachment to any major franchises, it'd still have been one of the most talked-about horror releases of the year. Yes, in the end, P.T. is one of the most innovative marketing stunts the industry has seen in recent times, but it's also an hour of some of the most masterfully crafted interactive horror I've ever experienced. And no, this isn't a demo in the usual sense; it's not intended to be representative of what Silent Hills will actually be. It's simply Hideo Kojima informing a skeptical Earth that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he can do horror.

I've been scared by video games before – I believe that the horror genre has far more potential in an interactive medium than elsewhere, in fact – but I believe P.T. is the first video game to prompt an audible reaction from me. I screamed. I screamed loudly. Had anyone else at my residence been sleeping, I most assuredly would have woken them up. Kojima sets the stakes early and hard, and then, for the remainder of the experience, he strikes a delicate balance between jump scares and making you think there are going to be jump scares. The setup alone (having to walk through a continuous loop of the same hallway, over and over again, with something changing on every reset) is maddening, and the "game" constantly toys with players' perception of where they're supposed to be going, what they can interact with, and what they should be paying attention to. It does tenfold what most horror games can't even do once. It's outstanding.

But beyond that, yeah, it is an awfully intriguing marketing experiment. Bear in mind that it's not even revealed that this is a Silent Hills teaser until after the player bypasses the game's final, deliberately obtuse puzzle. It took over a week for the collective minds of the internet to nail down a method for successfully triggering the ending, and the solution is mind-bogglingly complicated. But that's what's cool about it. It's the social experience of gaming being used to everyone's benefit. You entice us with a free game, blow us away, and then get us working together. The success of P.T. isn't that we were talking about it; it's that we wanted to talk about it.

5. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC)

Another popular choice among year-end best-of articles (a fact that EA's marketing team won't be letting us forget anytime soon), Dragon Age: Inquisition is probably the safest entry on here, but no less deserving of its placement for hitting all of the right notes with me. It's an open-air Western RPG with outstanding world-building, exciting combat, great character work and an overwhelming amount of content. See you in 75 hours.

I seem to be one of the few longtime BioWare fans who hadn't already given up on the company, having excused Dragon Age II as a fluke and still generally loving Mass Effect 3 in spite of whatever happens in its last ten minutes. Having said that, I never in a million years expected to come out of Inquisition hailing it as the best of the series, yet it is. It benefits from two prior games' worth of lore establishment, recapturing the epic-scope formula of Origins but fitting it with a vastly superior cast of characters and further exploring the thematic issues that distinguish this particular universe from the billion or so other existing Tolkien riffs.

I'm a sucker for massive time sink WRPGs like this, but you can't truly engross me in a world such as this without getting me involved. I found myself actually walking around my hub between missions and striking conversations with my party members, actively looking for excuses to open new dialog with them. That's a quality that this game shares with the Mass Effect series, and by golly is that ever a favorable comparison. I had tremendous fun with the game, and I think nearly anyone who played it unearthed at least one of their favorite gaming moments of 2014 within (for me, it was the first time I took down a high dragon), but in the end, Inquisition's true triumph is making me care so deeply about this world and the conflicts that drive it. Which means its truer triumph is getting Freddie Prinze, Jr. to throw an emotional punch. (Review.)

4. The Talos Principle (PC)

This is exactly why outlets need to stop handing out their GOTY awards a month before the year is even over: because, out of nowhere, the developer and publisher of the rebooted Serious Sam franchise might get together to release a downplayed, philosophically-minded indie scene puzzler in mid-December that happens to eclipse most of the high-profile titles that have no thirst for further year-end coverage anyway. (I say this as I've just given Shadow of Mordor and Dragon Age two of the top honors, naturally.)

The Talos Principle draws an unsubtle but effective parallel to the Garden of Eden, this time featuring an android being introduced into a new world and guided through maturity, all the way to lost innocence, by an ethereal voice. Much dreaming of electric sheep ensues, and Talos waxes philosophical plenty on the definition of life, emotion, free will, and all that jazz. But it's only ever as thought-provoking as the player wants it to be. You could double your play time investigating the remnants of the fallen civilization that this world seems to be built upon, and you could spend just as much time leading conversations with a mysterious AI who issues Voight-Kampf-esque empathy tests and aids your android in forging its (his? her?) identity. You could also just disregard all of that and simply dive into one of the most satisfying puzzle games in years.

The narrative material on display here is the sort of thing we'd commonly see in what some circles refer to as a "walking simulator," something like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (to name a 2014 release that attempted such minimalist storytelling in a manner that didn't work for me). But beyond being thought-provoking, Talos is just clever and fun. Its puzzles are beautifully designed, all revolving around using recurring devices to manipulate and bypass security systems. It trains players well for what winds up being properly mind-straining material, and its flow and narrative involvement make it impossible not to compare to Portal, and, surprisingly, in a good way. The only hitch is that its visual style is a bit cluttered and indistinct, but hey, if it were that easy to make a game as tight and perfectly constructed as Portal, everyone would be doing it.

3. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita)

There are about a thousand reasons that I adore my Vita – seriously, if you love video games, you should own a Vita – but one of the handheld's biggest strengths at the moment is its continuing role as a fount of niche Japanese imports. There was a massive influx of that this year, ranging from great (yay Monster Monpiece) to not-so-great (boo Demon Gaze). All of them seem to be pretty heavy on fan service, too, but never mind.

Leading that charge was the Danganronpa series, a particular critical darling. It's about a group of high school students in a confined environment who are forced to kill one another – and get away with it, via an investigative process and trial – in order to "graduate." It's a visual novel, essentially a manga with only the barest minimum level of interactivity for it to be labeled a "game," and in fact, its occasional attempts to involve the player beyond simply reading text are the few moments when developer Spike Chunsoft comes up short. But it's stylish, heartbreaking, colorful, grim, swift, patient, and everything in between. The murder mysteries themselves are brilliant. while the overarching plot that holds it all together teases new details at just the appropriate rate to keep you personally invested.

We actually got two localized Danganronpa games this year, and I've seen numerous people bundle them both together on year-end lists. Unfortunately, the sequel, Goodbye Despair, was a bit of a disappointment for me – while the murder cases themselves were still top-notch, the central driving story was presented in an excruciatingly slow manner and then trips over itself trying to tie all of its loose ends, all at once, in the final chapter. (The mini-games were more obnoxious, too.) But whereas the second title strained the formula a bit, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc stands as one of 2014's freshest pleasures, and features the most memorable villain of the year in Monokuma (who may soon be joining my residence in plushie form). It's not much of a game, but it's a thing that I put into my Vita and enjoyed, so what do you want from me? (Review.)

2. The Banner Saga (PC)

And now we come to 2014's token miserable game. I love The Banner Saga to death, but it is absolutely brutal. Not in terms of difficulty, mind – the game actually has no fail state until its final boss, and that's weirdly part of its bleak genius. This is a game about war, and a game about loss. We're conditioned to believe that "loss" in this medium translates to a game over screen, but in The Banner Saga, when you lose a battle, you're expected to pick yourself up and carry on regardless. The campaign is wildly (and deliberately) unpredictable, sometimes going for over an hour with no conflict and then throwing you into two difficult battles back-to-back. No time to recover? Too bad. War doesn't wait for you to be ready.

Developer Stoic is apparently comprised of ex-BioWare employees, and as we've already discussed, BioWare can do world-building like no one's business. That's critical here, because The Banner Saga would have been nowhere near as effective without the oppressive bleakness of its Viking-themed fantasy universe. It's a cold place, the gods are dead, and the sun has literally disappeared. The hordes of invading golems that threaten your land have no immediately apparent motive, and their leader is immortal. I'm not exaggerating – he cannot be killed. When a someone finally formulates a plan for defeating him, she emphasizes the fact that he'll never be gone for good, and that this is only a temporary solution. The Banner Saga is smart, mature and never self-serious, but people don't joke around much in this mythos. There's very little reason to smile here.

It's painful, and it's wonderful. This is a turn-based strategy game at heart, and while that particular element is fine, it's the Oregon Trail-esque convoy mechanic tying it all together than gives Banner its uniquely grim edge. Random events are a constant menace and deaths are as many as they are unavoidable. "Beating" the game barely even feels like a victory, even disregarding the knowledge that this is only part one of an ongoing series. I doubt that the recently-announced Banner Saga 2 will be any less miserable and I can't wait. (Review.)

1. Divinity: Original Sin (PC)

Despite it being far and away the best game that I played in 2014 (it's seriously not even a contest), I somehow managed to get through the year without publishing a review for Divinity: Original Sin. I will assume that its lack of an official blessing from me is the sole reason that this magnificent title has been absent from so many year-end lists.

That's not it, of course. The issue is that Original Sin is unwelcoming. I applaud it for the lack of hand-holding, of course, but anyone who's not a CRPG enthusiast will stumble through the first few hours lost, confused, and overwhelmed. How do I recruit more party members? How do I repair weapons? How do I even know where to go? Original Sin doesn't even have quest markers. Players are simply expected to listen to what they're told and surmise on their own where they're supposed to be going. They're expected to poke hot surfaces to figure out what they can handle and what they still can't. And if they're stuck, players are expected to put their current objective on hold and engage in one of the countless other activities available in what must be one of 2014's largest games.

If you put in the effort, what do you get out of it? Well, for one thing, you get, bar none, the best turn-based combat I've ever experienced in a game. It's acutely balanced, unique (get a load of what this game does with environmental effects) and, most critically, never breaks its own rules. But on top of that, you get an imaginative high fantasy universe that is funny and charming without sacrificing depth. I did not expect this game to have the sense of humor that it does, and I was doubly surprised that I still found myself engaged in the particular workings of this universe and the struggles of the two protagonists, despite them both essentially being player-made blank slates. (You can get them to argue with each other. You can get them to play rock-paper-scissors with each other.)

This is an incredible game. Huge, colorful, deep, and never anything less than the most outright fun I've ever had with a CRPG. It sets the bar high for upcoming releases like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, but even if this is the best we've got, I couldn't be happier to have it. (Update: I finally got around to writing that review.)

And now the obligatory miscellaneous awards.

Best DLC: The Last of Us: Left Behind
Most overrated: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Most underrated: The Evil Within
Most overlooked: Monster Monpiece
Most visually striking: Metrico
All-out best-looking game: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Best original soundtrack: Transistor
Best licensed soundtrack: Forza Horizon 2
Biggest surprise: Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f
Biggest disappointment: Destiny
Most enjoyable bad game: Entwined
Least enjoyable good game: Cloudbuilt
Game that I spent the most time with: Dark Souls II
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Worms Battlegrounds
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: This War of Mine
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Circuits
Best game that I still haven't finished: Bayonetta 2
Best game that I received a review key/copy for: Velocity 2X
Worst game that I received a review key/copy for: Natural Doctrine
All-out worst game that I played: Z-Run
Best non-2014 release that I first played in 2014: Silent Hill 2
Best remake/re-release: The Last of Us Remastered