Let’s get this started, shall we? This is, in order, my Games of the Year- the ten games that most impressed me, and seem most worthy of your attention in my eyes. Ben will offer up his own list later in the week, and we’re debating having some other GotY content as well… but for now, just enjoy!
10 – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
“Come all you young sailormen, listen to me/I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea…”
From the first shanty my crew sang as we sailed the high seas, Assassin’s Creed IV had me, and it knew it. I’d been getting tired of the series for a few games now, and hadn’t even planned to grab 4, but the reviews and the buzz suckered me in, and I’m glad they did. The story is still a bunch of nonsense, to be sure, the fever dream of an unimaginative conspiracy theorist, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the simple joy of the pirate life- let loose on the Caribbean, with a ship and a smile.
The combat is not exceptional, the story is special only in that it’s kinda dumb, and there are just too many collectables that barely have a purpose in the game. But the core gameplay of sailing the seas is such an unbridled joy that it surpasses all of that. Ubisoft is testing the waters on the concept of a pirate game with no Assassin’s Creed connections, and I think that’s absolutely the best move. Everything AC about this game is where it fails- and everything else is where it shines as bright as the sun.
9 – Gone Home
In truth, this game probably deserves to be a lot higher on this list… the Fullbright Company’s debut game is truly something special. From a design perspective, it does nothing that couldn’t be accomplished in a simple Quake mod, but the reality of Gone Home is so much more than some of the finest studios in the world could manage. The game’s urban exploration and detective work are enjoyable enough, with carefully crafted objects everywhere telling a dozen different stories. However, it’s the writing that really makes this game stand above and beyond, as it handles subject matter others won’t touch with elegance and grace.
More than just a love letter to the music and style of the 90s, Gone Home is about the struggles of a teenage girl discovering her sexuality, and issues don’t get much more delicate than that. It’s pretty astonishing how believable and empathizable Sam proves to be through the story, given that the game is written by a thirty-something male. I may be a guy myself, but I grew up with three older sisters, and got plenty of time to see them in their teenage years- Gone Home’s representation is as accurate and sympathetic a depiction as e’er I’ve seen.
The house in Gone Home feels like a real place, the letters you find like they’re written by real people, and Sam’s struggle feels incredibly real. And of course, that’s because it is- though Sam herself may not be real, LGBT people around the world are struggling with a society that rejects or even disbelieves their identity. For representing a real problem faced by real people in a way that feels fresh, inspiring, and touching, while still remaining a damn good game, Gone Home has earned a spot on this list and then some.
8 – Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Law of the West, Gun.Smoke, Red Dead Redemption… the American Old West is not the most common setting in gaming, but a number of true classics have come out of the land of tumbleweed and cordite. It will be a while before we know if Call of Juarez: Gunslinger joins this list of lasting gems, but it’s clear that it’s a damn good game. Presented as the life story of a famous bounty hunter known as Silas Greaves, Greaves himself fills us in as to his various adventures in first person, both in story structure and shooting perspective.
Along the way, the story twists into tall tale as other characters listening to the story chime in with things they heard about the gunslinger, and Silas exaggerates here and there for reasons all his own. The half-truths affect the game just as they do the story, with fresh enemies manifesting out of thin air as Silas decrees that they “just kept comin’.” This unique angle justifies a lot of the weird gaming troupes that show up, making it all feel natural and flow in a way that few games can manage. The shooting is damn good, the art style is satisfying, and it all concludes in a satisfying way. Not a bad way to spend fifteen dollars.
The pitch of this game is incredibly simple: Mario Kart as a platformer. There. Do I need to say more? Go get it.
…Okay, I guess it’s only fair that I elaborate. Released on Steam Early Access, SpeedRunners presents a group of superheroes racing to be the first to respond to a crime. Or it does ostensibly, but in reality it’s just a justification for the action. Any given race is you doing laps over and over around a set map, so clearly the story isn’t the point. You run, jump, slide, and grapple your way to victory, with items picked up along the way to help change up the rankings. Like in Mario Kart, better items are given to people lagging behind, leading to a lot of lead changing and jockeying for position. It’s a little less newbie-friendly than Mario Kart- it takes a little map memorization to start winning races- but it’s overall simple, fun, and engaging.
As an Early Access game, it’s still got a few bugs, and a shortage of good maps and characters, but it’s getting there slowly but surely, and what’s there is already enough that I’ve spent hours with it. Online with friends or on the couch, it’s a damn good time.
6 – DmC
Of all the games on this list, DmC was dealt perhaps the lousiest hand. A reboot in a series that fans insisted didn’t need a reboot even though it did, DmC had to weather a blitz of psychotic “fan” hate and the creator of the series publicly expressing his distaste for the game. After it came out to excellent reviews, it still undersold thanks to poor marketing and its publisher Capcom publicly stabbing it in the back with comments to press about its “poor quality.” Not a single piece of it was justified- DmC is an absolutely incredible game, and this is coming from a man who adored the previous DMC games.
One thing it is, though, is pretty different from the main series. On paper, it sounds nearly identical- half-devil fights demons with swords and guns in a combo-heavy action game with a penchant for one liners. To anyone who’s played the old games, though, the differences are more than apparently. DmC’s focus is more on level design, with surreal and jaw-dropping landscapes to platform your way through interspersed with stylish combat. It truly feels like an alternate reality of the Devil May Cry canon- so many touchstones in common, but all the details surrounding them are different. The visual design is miles ahead, the writing is compelling outside of the main series’s cheese, and the boss fights are just nuts. That we’ll probably never get a sequel to it is a true injustice.
5 – Pokemon X
Only Nintendo could make such obvious, desperately needed changes to a stagnant series and get showered in praise for it. Anyone else, and we’d say “Well yeah, that was obviously needed.” Grid-based movement? Experience only goes to one party member at a time? Sprite graphics, primitive online, no character customization? Yes, fix that. You’re not getting a pat on the head for it, you just need to do it.
And yet here I am, giving Pokemon X fifth on my Game of the Year list for it. Why? Well, because Pokemon is just that awesome. The core gameplay is addictive, the monster design is (mostly) exceptional, the depth is unreal, and it’s just a magical experience. Pokemon is something truly special, the one series that can reliably make me feel like a kid again. Running through fields in a spirited attempt to Catch Most of ‘Em (let’s be real, I’ll never Catch ‘Em All) gives me a sense of adventure that no other series can. It’s just pure discovery, and I love it.
Pokemon X is the best Pokemon ever. Yeah, I’m including Red and Blue, and even Silver, my personal favorite. Looking at it with nostalgic blinders aside, it’s the best this series has ever been, and it’s really damn exciting.
4 – Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
At long last, the promise of Metal Gear Solid 2’s High Frequency Blade is fulfilled and then some. MGR had a messy development cycle, and thank god for that- though the original title didn’t look bad, bringing in Platinum Games to salvage the project resulted in something truly incredible. Rising is a ludicrously over-the-top love letter to the sword with lightning fast action and an almost surreal conclusion. The game is equal parts reverent and jesting towards Kojima’s trademark style, mixed with Platinum’s unique brand of fast paced, exaggerated action. You start off cutting a giant mecha in half with a single slash, and only get more powerful than there. You’ll run up the side of a skyscraper, slice a hundred cyborgs in half and crush their robotic guts in your hands, and parry tank shells with your blade. And somehow, it will all make sense in the moment.
MGR’s true genius, other than a boss fight and ending that is simply too incredible to consider spoiling, is the unique way that it handles combat. Most prominently featured is the ability to slice almost any object freely- controlling the angle of the sword with the analog sticks, you can cut any enemy or object however you like. Whether you want the single, artful cut in half, or to just flip out and slice them into hundreds of pieces, the game (and your console) handles the technical feat with surprising grace. But more important to the gameplay is the defensive focus. There is no active “block” button in the game, there is only a parry you can do if you time it right. A perfectly timed parry allows you to retaliate with a powerful counter. This isn’t at all optional- foregoing parries will get you killed in short order. This focus on defense give the game a totally different feel and pace, and makes it unique in the genre.
The only mark against it is that it’s on the short side, but I’d rather a short game that’s fantastic all the way through than a longer one that overstays its welcome.
3 – Don’t Starve
Despite its title, starvation always proves the least of my worries in any given game of Don’t Starve. An empty stomach feels like a paltry problem when you also have lightning storms, tentacle monsters, killer hounds, and giant unstoppable tree monsters to contend with- and that’s just to start with. You’d think that with magic and technology at your disposal, the darkness would be no match for you. You would be dead wrong- quite literally. Death is never far away in Don’t Starve.
This genuine struggle for survival elevates it above a lot of its other Minecraft-esque brethren. Instead of survival being an early game concern that you quickly outgrow in favor of building castles and giant statues, it’s a constant battle that never lets up. As you grow more powerful, so do your foes, and soon you’re dealing with monsters that damage your sanity as quickly as your health. Fantastic art and presentation conveys the world perfectly- dashes of light-hearted whimsy amongst a rolling sea of darkness. Crouch by your campfire and fear the dark- for if the monsters you know are more than enough to destroy you, what lies unseen in the black?
2 – Fire Emblem: Awakening
I was converted to Fire Emblem fandom with the exceptional Sacred Stones on GBA, and boy, it’s been a rocky time since. Titles have ranged from good (Path of Radiance) to grueling (Shadow Dragon), with no excellent standouts since that high point I entered on. Despite that, I’ve maintained my optimism for the series, and it was with high hopes that I went in to Fire Emblem: Awakening on the 3DS. It turns out my faith was to be rewarded in ways I couldn’t have hoped. Awakening has everything I loved in Sacred Stones and more- enjoyable characters, great combat, tons of content, impressive visuals, and more.
My hat’s off to 8-4 for the best translation this series has seen yet, to Intelligent Systems for the best game this series has seen, and to Nintendo for giving the series another chance when the last two were pretty… questionable. One thing Nintendo has always had is faith in its creators, and it’s really something to see them trust that creativity and quality will prevail over focus groups and passionless design. Turn based RPG goodness, with exceptional polish and charm, in the palm of your hand. A winner.
1 – Gunpoint
Well, that’s one way to start a career in game development. Tom Francis worked as a game journalist for years before deciding to take a stab at development himself, gradually teaching himself to use Game Maker before finally releasing his first game, Gunpoint. His background in writing is abundantly clear- Gunpoint’s dialogue and story are incredibly clever. The banter between characters is both funny and effective, constantly amusing while quickly moving things forward. Like in the best RPGs, dialogue feels like a reward for a job well done. It’s probably the funniest game of the year.
That’s hardly all Gunpoint has going for it, though. A pixelated art style that is still detailed and modern enough that you can’t call it retro, and some fantastic stealth action with a dash of active puzzle solving makes for a game as engaging to play as it is to read. From the moment I finished the ending, I knew that this was a contender for Game of the Year in my book, and it’s no shame at all that it ended up on top. This wasn’t perhaps the greatest year for gaming, but even in better years a title like Gunpoint would reign supreme. Fun, charming, funny, and thoroughly satisfying, I don’t think it’s one any gamer should miss.