After much list-making and playing too many rounds of 'Survivor' in my head, I have come to a list of ten games that I played this year, across all of my available platforms. These ten are the games that I deemed to be the best of the year. While I wont exactly be arguing that they should be YOUR games of the year, the following paragraphs will help to explain my rigorously subjective approach to the assembly of the aforementioned list.
10. Monument Valley
"Now all that remains are our monuments."
While Raph may have suggested to me in passing one day to download this iOS release way back, it was my non-gamer cousin who pushed me to install it after he described the unique level design. The initial 10-level pack produced by USTWO is stylistically distinct. It features text art and Escher-esque level design that plays with depth and perception to create puzzles that are mostly satisfying to solve. I am impressed by the look of the game but in the end feel like the puzzles in the first release are largely too simple in solution. More recently, however, the second level pack came out and completely changed my position on the game. Monument Valley: The Forgotten Shores expands on the puzzles in much more compelling ways while maintaining the same beautiful aesthetic. Monument Valley is number ten on my list this year for its look, design, and ability to assign real characterization and personality to a stack of cubes.
9. Bravely Default
"Your village is gone."
Coming in at number nine is my favourite 3DS title of the year, Bravely Default. While I love the JRPG genre, I'll be the first to criticize their flaws: the endless grind, hours of inventory management, and paragraphs of text you would rather button through at times while watching Netflix. I'm here to tell you that Bravely Default has all of that good stuff but also allows players to tailor their experience to decide how much grinding they want to do at any given time. Players can turn encounter rates up when leveling, down when exploring new areas, or off when backtracking. Don't like where this story arc is headed? Don't worry about it! With Bravely Default's brilliant one-handed mode, you can play while doing other things. That being said, Bravely Default also happens to have interesting characters and a passable saving-the-world story. Some of the dungeon and level design is on-par with the Tales series and overall was an incredibly enjoyable handheld experience that was always as grindy or as passive as I wanted it to be at any given moment throughout its enormous 50-hour campaign.
8. The Wolf Among Us
"You like my ribbon?"
Much to Raph's constant disappointment, I can never bring myself to play through the entirety of the TellTale's The Walking Dead. When I heard that TellTale was making a new adventure game, I decided I'd at least try it out despite my inability to finish their last series. The Wolf Among us is a gripping story that once again presents interesting characters and dialog choices ultimately leading up to a somewhat tailored choose-your-own-adventure ending. Despite it's bizarre antagonist switcheroo halfway through the story, the series is a great adaptation of the Fables story and portrays the dark side of everyone's favourite Grimm bedtime stories. There isn't much else to say really; I enjoyed my experience with the mature story and bore wiith the accidental choices that sent my friends and loved ones into depressing situations and others to an untimely demise.
7. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
"I need at least twenty men to bring that beast down."
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is the best licensed game that I have played in a very long time. This open-world game borrows Arkham's combat system and an Assassin's Creed-style stealth system and brings them together in one incredibly well-polished universe. What sets Shadow of Mordor apart from all other games of this genre is it's new Nemesis system. While not terribly easy to describe in so few words, the Nemesis system is an enemy hierarchy where orcs have unique names and traits. Any time an event is resolved in the open world, whether by your direct influence or by the orcs resolving it amongst themselves, the hierarchy shifts and orcs level up, get promoted, or demoted (killed?) depending on the outcome. All of this results in an incredible open-world experience that not only feels unique and alive but also reflects changes made by the player. In addition to this dynamic gameplay system, the orcs have some hilarious dialog and can often stumble onto you in the open world in the worst possible situations. For example if I were hunting a certain orc —taking out guards and gathering intel— I would feel safe to engage the orc captain but lo and behold every single time a bounty hunter pops in and utters a one-liner right before ruining my day. There isn't always cause for abandoning your target and fleeing in such an occasion but another thing I absolutely love about this game is how it penalizes you for dying to an orc if you misjudge the situation and decide not to run. Any orc that can bring down the protagonist gets a hefty level increase and promotion that will make him a bigger threat in future encounters. Overall while a single new mechanic doesn't always make a game good, Middle-earth is a refined package of old and new that turned out to be one of the best of the year.
"How's my breath?"
Jazzpunk is one of those games that initially looked unappealing to me, but found its way onto my ‘play-before-goty-debate' list. When assembling a list of best games of the year it's hard not to recognize the ones that made you laugh hysterically or sob long into the night. While a little weak on the latter, Jazzpunk had gags that ranged consistently from ‘I-have-company-over giggles’ to ‘I'm-not-wearing-any-pants-anyways-who-cares' thunderous laughter. It's so rare that a game is so ridiculous and funny that the laughter persists throughout the entire story. Jazzpunk isn't a commentary on society, it doesn't examine important themes or even really look particularly impressive, but I'll be damned if it doesn't deserve it's number six spot on my list for the pure happiness it generated as I played it.
Now that I really think about it, I’m not sure why Destiny is so high on my list of games this year. The campaign is short and it lacks any really compelling story, the PvP is devoid of any sort of progression, and the material grinding at endgame is borderline offensive. Buried in a sea of problems however, Destiny still retains a reasonably high spot on my list for its magical ability to keep me playing until I had two level 30 characters. I may never have played a game with such engaging and tight fundamental shooting. Destiny is best played as a cooperative experience (despite Bungie's lack of social implementation) and the fact that I played over a hundred hours of this game with a buddy of mine truly speaks to it's great co-op gameplay. While the mission content itself gets stale, I didn't mind doing the same defense missions week after week with my friends, listening to Destiny's outstanding musical score. Lastly, Destiny has a single raid at the time of this writing and it is INCREDIBLE. I have cleared the raid well over a dozen times, and I’m still look forward to clearing it again. With the framework for the IP laid, and recognizing that Bungie CAN create tremendously entertaining raid mechanics, it goes without saying that I am excited for what a more polished sequel will bring.
4. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
"Ethan warned me about that."
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is another game that took me by surprise this year. Having heard about it from Olivier, I played it because I fondly recalled playing Dear Esther (2012) so long ago. Without giving away too much, the story revolves around a little boy and his family who live on a secluded island. His adventuring about one day triggers the start of something that the Carter family will not soon forget. The first thing I noticed about this game is just how incredible it looks. I could hardly believe that a small team could design a game that just looks so real. The island's environments are varied enough and each one could be an actual place. Finding out that the island IS in fact modelled after a real place didn't make the world any less impressive, as it was translated in to the game with impeccable care. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is so high up my list mostly for its outstanding environment and its imperfect but compelling plot.
3. Dragon Age: Inquisition
"This is not for you to decide."
My most surprising pick of the year, Bioware's latest entry in the franchise changes my position on the series. Instead of having to grit my teeth and bear with the tactical combat system I abhorred in order to enjoy the dialog and high fantasy questing, Inquisition allows for much faster combat action if that is how you wish to play – and I do. The story and world are enormous and I can’t help but be suckered into the detailed collectible-rich environments. I could write forever about the Inquisitor I've designed and the choices I have regretted, but suffice to say my number three game this year is an excellent blend of role playing fantasy and open world exploration. I'm sure it will keep me busy long into the new year.
"I want you to tell us where they are. Do you understand?"
Transistor is a really special game for me this year. Like Supergiant Games' Bastion (2011) before it, Transistor is a masterpiece of colours and sounds that come together to tell a really great story. The gameplay doesn't always flow perfectly with the plot but is nonetheless entertaining — although I preferably would have gone with a true turn-based system. By bringing back the difficulty modifiers —and including a new game+ mode— the game has a reasonable sense of re-playability and by the end I was ready to go at it all over again to see the game’s gorgeous imagery and metaphor through new eyes. I’m still not sure that I will replay Transistor to the extent that I did Bastion, but I do very much look forward to what Supergiant Games can produce in the future with their excellent game design choices and persistent disembodied narrator.
1. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
"Keep me in your prayers."
Contrary to most war games in recent memory, Valiant Hearts focuses on the lives of a handful of people and their struggles instead of the combat itself. The game is a collection of stories that illustrates the terrors of the war and its impact on the population without overtly spelling it out. The gameplay is also a pretty excellent blend of puzzles and adventure that somehow manages to make history into an engaging and relevant collectible. There are many games I have played that have make me emotional (a list far shorter than Raph's, I assure you) but far fewer earn every tear so well. These scenes are juxtaposed brilliantly by moments of ecstasy and excitement. I don't want to spoil any part of this brilliant tale so I'll end by simply urging you to play through it at some point as its finale is not to be missed.
- Valiant Hearts: The Great War
- Dragon Age: Inquisition
- The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
- Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
- The Wolf Among Us
- Bravely Default
- Monument Valley
Don't forget to check back on Friday to see Castle Couch's overall Game of the Year, and listen to our 5+ hour deliberation podcast. Tomorrow: Anna's Top 10 Games of Year 2014.
Visit our 'canon' page to see how 2014 looked compared to years past.