Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Welcome back to Coffeecola!
As 2014 comes to a close, it’s now time for me to partake in the sacred videogame tradition of putting things into a ranked order and declaring a few ‘bests.’
Of course, it would have been impossible for anyone to play everything that deserved a critical examination, but I do what I can and go from there. As such, these were the ten (plus one!) best experiences I had over the last twelve months – I’m sure there were plenty of other great things that I just didn’t have time to get to, but hey, I'm only human.
Without further ado, here are my top ten (plus one!) games of 2014!
Plus One> Marvel Puzzle Quest, Demiurge Studios (PC, Mobile)
It may sound strange to hear, but I put more time into Marvel Puzzle Quest than any other game this year, and by quite a large margin. Although it’s a match-three at its core, the developers have been introducing new characters at a steady rate, and the game has seen constant improvements in terms of overall design and game mechanics. They’ve been very responsive to player feedback, and it’s just a better game every time an update comes along. This is pretty much the only mobile title I need, and it’s one of the very few ‘free-to-play’ efforts I’ve seen that holds up as a legitimate game with depth and nuance, rather than just another whale-squeezing scam.
10> Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Monolith Productions (Multi)
I have to admit, I'm mixed on Shadow of Mordor. The campaign’s pace is bizarre, the Nemesis system did nothing for me, the story isn’t great, and the endgame is a rushed mess. However, the developers get so much right when it comes to the gameplay that it was tough to put down. Although many games attempt an open-world formula, very few let the player accomplish important things when not on a mission. Not so here. The important characters the player must assassinate are always in the world, and being able to pounce on them whenever I felt like it was a breath of fresh air. The mobility and abilities of the character were admirably done, too. Combining a ranger and a wraith was brilliant, and maneuvering across the landscape and up castle walls felt natural and intuitive. Although this particular game wasn't everything it could've been, the developers are absolutely on the right track when it comes to empowering the player in a living, breathing world.
9> The Fall, Over The Moon Games (PC, WiiU)
It feels like it's been a long while since I've played a thought-provoking game with strong science-fiction themes, but The Fall scratches that itch. The story is quite intriguing, but what really makes it stand out is the impeccable way the narrative, characterization, and gameplay all work together in cleverly cohesive fashion -- the tasks the player performs actually reinforce the ideas in the story, and vice versa. That's an incredibly hard trick to pull off, but The Fall makes it look easy. Double points are awarded for the game coming to a totally satisfying conclusion despite the fact that it’s the first part of a planned trilogy.
8> Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Young Horses (PC, PS4)
Comedy is incredibly hard to do in games, but Octodad not only pulls it off with snappy writing and clever jokes, but also through its very play -- controlling a floppy octopus as he stumbles around urban environments is inherently humorous, and if there’s a game that makes the act of walking more fun than this one, I’ve yet to see it. I also appreciate that the player’s family was a healthy, loving one despite the fact that the father is a cephalopod. The messages delivered from start to finish are ones of positivity and love, and in the gaming landscape these days, that’s something quite rare. (Also, best theme song ever.)
7> Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus, Marvelous AQL (Vita)
Out of all the games on this list, this is the one that I absolutely never imagined would be something that stuck with me. Based on appearances, it was nothing more than a T&A fanservice piece, but once I sat down and started paying attention, I was quite impressed. Half visual novel and half musou action, this formula seems like it absolutely should not work, but it really, really does. The combat bits are excellent because they’re quite brief, and each character feels significantly different from the rest. The visual novel side was impressively done with interweaving storylines and a layer of complexity that shows the writers went above and beyond to make it a quality product. While it’s true that the fanservice is present in ample supply, there's also a legit game on offer for a title could have easily skated by on jiggle alone. Big respect to the developers for going the extra mile.
6> Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, MercurySteam (PC, 360, PS3)
I did not like the first Lords of Shadow, and the only reason I started playing the sequel was because no other writer at @Gamecritics would accept the assignment. However, once I sat down and gave it a chance, I was blown away. The combat is tight and entertaining, the art design is impeccable, it looks great, sounds great, the setpieces are amazing, and I have quickly become a huge fan of the way MercurySteam has rewritten the Castlevania lore as something somewhat familiar, yet altogether different. Despite my efforts to evangelize the title, it seemed destined to be ignored from the start, and that's a real shame -- it’s a fantastic (and fantastically overlooked) action-adventure any way you slice it.
5> Persona Q: Shadows of the Labyrinth, Atlus (3DS)
Take the excellent cast of characters from Persona and combine it with the incredibly polished dungeon-crawl mechanics of the Etrian Odyssey series, and the result is a match made in videogame heaven. While it was initially difficult to conceive how these two franchises would come together, it turns out that they are a natural, complementary fit, and the game delivers on every level. It’s clever, it’s well-balanced, the writing and voices are fab, and it’s polished to absolute perfection… The developers have thought of everything. It's a near-perfect 3DS game, and a wonderful new entry into the Persona canon.
4> 1001 Spikes, Nicalis (Multi)
I've always said that a high level of difficulty doesn't bother me as long as the developers implement it fairly. Tune the mechanics to 'Swiss watch' precision, and I will happily accept any stiff challenge that someone nudges my way. Enter 1001 Spikes. No joke, the game is one of the most difficult I've played all year, but it's honed so perfectly and everything is so spot-on that all of its adversity is surmountable given enough practice and dedication. Fully completing this game from start to finish felt like an incredibly satisfying achievement, and it just goes to show how important craftsmanship is to a final product. If the developer had come up short in even one aspect, I probably would've tossed it aside in anger and given it the finger as it sailed away. Instead, it's a true masterpiece.
3> Dark Souls II, FromSoft (PC, 360, PS3)
Speaking of polish, the developers at FromSoft clearly heard the criticisms of the first Dark Souls and created a new entry which addresses them while still delivering an epic, satisfying adventure truly worthy of the Souls name. Beautiful vistas, sweat-inducing fights, and a huge world to explore kept me occupied for a hundred hours this year, and I can honestly say that I was not bored for a single minute of it. Even better, it's more approachable and more welcoming to new players while not removing the challenge and intrigue that series fans have come to love. FromSoft is at the top of their game here, and if you've never played a Souls before, this is the one to get into. (And in my humble opinion, it's arguably the best of the series!)
2> The Last of Us: Left Behind, Naughty Dog (PS3, PS4)
I don't think I've ever given end-of-year awards to a piece of DLC before, but Left Behind is a stunning, stellar work that genuinely advances videogames as a medium in terms of characterization and narrative, and deserves to be recognized as such. The relationship on display between Ellie and Riley was one of the most believable, natural, touching, and utterly human relationships I've ever seen in a game despite the fact that it was about survivors in a fungal-zombie wasteland. The time spent with these two was profoundly nuanced and real, and should be seen as a lesson to anyone who attempts to craft a story that aims to do more than shuttle a player from level to level.
1> Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc &
Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair,
Spike Chunsoft (Vita)
Yep, this year’s top dog is a twofer.
These visual novels starring groups of high school kids killing each other for survival kicked its sometimes-snoozy genre into high gear, and was proof that games about reading text could be just as thrilling and engaging as anything else out there. The writing was funny, smart, dark, and absolutely perfect for the tone it was trying to deliver. The mysteries to be solved were engaging and satisfying, and the way the two games connect didn't seem to make a lot of sense at first, but the developers absolutely knew what they were doing – between the two titles, they’ve crafted a single narrative that comes together in a perfectly brilliant, perfectly surprising way.
Danganronpa leaves other visual novels in the dust thanks to the tightness of the scripting, the extra care and attention given to the visual presentation, the great voice actors, and a hardcore dedication to its concept. It was a fantastic experience from start to finish and set a new standard for what a visual novel could be. I'm absolutely ravenous for more in this series, and until then, I'll be hugging my Monokuma plushie while waiting for the next installment or spin-off to arrive.
…And there you have it, my top ten games (plus one!) of 2014.
If there are some games on this list you haven’t tried, I encourage you to give them a shot. You might just find a new favorite! And if you have tried these, let me know if you agree with my assessment… or if even you don’t!
And now, bring on 2015!