Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top 10 games of 2012

Not a whole lot of games from this year were played (as per usual), as I spent a good part of it chipping away at the ol’ backlog and roaming Skyrim. (What can I say – game’s good.) The stuff I played was nothing short of fantastic, however, which made compiling this list quite the challenge.

10. Dustforce
PC-based platformers are generally… middling. When played on a keyboard, they are exercises in frustration that make even the easiest platformers daunting and tedious as hell. Psychonauts and Super Meat Boy play surprisingly well, of course – played through the entirety of the former without a controller and have almost finished the latter doing the same.
Dustforce, however, is different. Though a controller is definitely a boon, the game generally plays better with a keyboard because of the precision demanded of you. Guiding your motley crew of acrobatic janitors through forests, cities, and laboratories requires the utmost care. It’s a difficult task to earn those coveted S-ranks, but it a run comes together flawlessly, it is nothing short of sublime.
9. Persona 4 Arena
Persona 4 Arena has the distinction of perfectly walking the fine line between accessibility and depth in fighting games. As someone who hasn’t touched a traditional fighting game since SoulCalibur 3 in 2005, Persona 4 Arena’s simple mechanics and systems were a godsend.
All too often it feels next to impossible to really learn the systems and execute those all-powerful supers. Arena avoids that by including an actually useful tutorial and by keeping the commands for unleashing heavier, stronger attacks simple. It’s the sort of game where a newcomer could easily hold their own against a seasoned pro. A true rarity for fighting games. Plus, it’s got a pretty good story, even if the visual novel delivery was less than ideal.
rhythm heaven fever screenshot
8. Rhythm Heaven Fever
I wasn’t able to play much of the original Rhythm Heaven due to the inaccuracy of the DS. Certain games felt impossible because they required a level of precision I just wasn’t capable of performing through the touch screen.
Rhythm Heaven Fever for the Wii fixed that. By avoiding any measure of motion control, relegating all actions to the A and B buttons, Fever became an infinitely better, much more enjoyable game. Its charming art styles, lovably ridiculous premises (the boxer interview minigame – shown above – is a prime example), and infectious tunes make it a fantastic follow-up. Really hoping Nintendo continues to iterate on this series. They’ve got something special here.
7. Legend of Grimrock
Never have been the biggest fan of dungeon crawlers, stuff like Torchlight a good example why. (Repetition, namely. Clicking about everywhere gets boring quickly when you’re crazy powerful.) Legend of Grimrock has managed to keep my interest because of two things: 1, puzzles that are genuinely challenging; and 2, fun, nerve-wracking combat.
The claustrophobic halls of the complex and foes who can slay you almost instantly create a constant sense of dread and fear. Can’t count the number of times I’ve turned only to be face-to-face with a skeleton soldier or spider, nearly jumping out of my chair in response. Any dungeon crawler that can cause me to tense up as soon as I load the game up is doing something right.
6. Splice
Cipher Prime is quickly becoming one of my favorite developers. Their expert use of minimalism and continuously intriguing premises for puzzle games are second to none. Plus, they compose some fantastic music to accompany their works, which is always a bonus.
Splice takes a while to flourish. Your first time through is but a simple one, solving strands as they arrive in the least direct ways possible. Strong, sound design presents itself throughout, but past its unusual premise, there’s nothing especially noteworthy. Its once you discover the “angelic” solutions – in which you solve a strand without using all your available moves – that its cleverness reveals itself. The standard solutions are creative enough already; these only further emphasize the strong puzzle design demonstrated throughout.
5. Okami HD
Okami HD is as pure a remaster you could ask for: the graphics are improved immensely, the gameplay kept entirely intact, former technical issues resolved. The idea behind these was to get games back onto the market in their original form while ensuring they aren’t marred by age, visually. A task that Okami  fulfills flawlessly.
I’m still disappointed that they removed the song that played over the original credits sequence (what can I say – I’m a purist), but the incredible amount of work put into this makes up for that small omission. Many kudos to Hexa Drive for the fantastic work on this.
the walking dead
4. The Walking Dead
I get depressed just thinking about this game.
The Walking Dead is a tough game to play. Not because it’s challenging in the usual game sense, but because you’re asked to make some hard calls and perform some gruesome tasks. Quick-time events and conversation trees makeup  the majority of the game’s interactivity, both of which the game nails flawlessly. Even though you watch The Walking Dead more than you do play it, it still manages to enthrall far better than any other game from any year can. The characters, the drama, the suspense, the tragedies – all of it culminates in the best, most emotionally devastating finale imaginable.
In one fell swoop, Telltale Games has perfected the episodic formula as well as how one involves player choice. Truly remarkable.
3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I said it before and I’ll say it again: XCOM is the hardest game to come out this year. It’s the most intense turn-based strategy game in years, where you’re scrutinizing every single action you’re performing. Whether it be moving your troops about the field or deciding what to research, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is constantly forcing you to make very hard, very calculated choices. The micromanagement meta-game is as enthralling as the combat, each providing its own sort of entertainment through the never-ending strain placed on you.
dark souls
2. Dark Souls
Putting this here because the game came out on PC this year. Far as I’m concerned, that makes it eligible. Also: It’s Dark Souls. How could I not add it?
Dark Souls is the most intense, frightening game I’ve played yet. I’m still working through it – just finished Anor Londo, as of this writing – but I’ve played enough to know this is a marvelous game.
The entire design is carefully and deliberately crafted, so expertly paced. Wonderfully elaborate level design and key enemy placement ensures each step is rife with tension. The fear of not knowing what lies ahead, of surprise ambushes from ghostly foes, of whether or not you can trust certain non-player characters – it’s brilliant. The story and lore are incredibly deep as well, constantly rewarding you for seeking out its many secrets.
1. Journey
Music is an oft-ignored element of games. Usually it serves more as background noise than something that’s really truly a profound, crucial component. Hotline Miami was a fantastic example for its wonderfully psychedelic soundtrack that, in perfect concert with the visuals, depicted the dark, twisted, and downright gruesome narrative the game wove. Journey does the same.
Austin Wintory’s enchanting score did what so few other games can by matching every single track to the scene to elicit the exact emotions the game attempted to draw. From the triumphant tune that plays as you slide down a massive hill of sand to the melancholic theme that echoes the profound sense of dread and futility as you begin to succumb to the harsh climate of the mountaintop – Journey manages to manipulate the emotions through music alone.
But it’s more than just the music: it’s the fantastical splendor of the desolate desert, the brilliant use of cooperative play, the beauty of its minimalist gameplay. It is a game distilled to its barest, purest form, where exploration is paramount above all else. Sure it may be linear, but that doesn’t make its gorgeous world any less fun to traverse.
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