I didn’t actually get to play through most of 2013’s acclaimed games (Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, Gone Home), but I do own them (except for The Last of Us, since I don’t own a PS3) and I intend to play them all eventually. I did start on Bioshock Infinite and GTA V, but didn’t get very far until other things pulled me away. I did do a bit of travelling this year, both for vacations and for work, so most of the games I played were either fairly short, didn’t require a lot of resources to run on my old laptop, or were handheld/mobile titles. Of the games that I did play in 2013 (not necessarily released in 2013), the following were my favourites, in alphabetical order:
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Although the list is alphabetical, Brothers is also my personal pick for best game (maybe even best media experience) of 2013, as I mentioned on our podcast episode on the game. It’s a very short game (about 3 hours max), but is incredibly effective in blending the mechanics of the game with the story it tells to come up with a truly unique experience. The experience of Brothers is so intricately tied into its core mechanic that I couldn’t imagine it in any other medium than a video game. Even the tactile experience of controlling them with the two thumbsticks seems to add a non-negligible improvement to the experience. The game trains you to become accustomed to its control scheme through all its puzzles, which at first appears to be a strange conceit but eventually reveals itself in the finale to be the whole damn point of the whole experience. The environment and sound design are heart-achingly beautiful, and they manage to convey so much wonder and emotion through them and the made-up language used in the world. There are no books to read, no audio recordings to pick up and listen to; the mystery of the world that the brothers inhabit is presented without comment or explanation, and it is a joy to savour. What are the trolls mining in the mountains? Who built the contraptions and structures inside? Who or why were the giants fighting? Who were the bodies hanging from the trees in the mist? What froze all the inhabitants and attackers of the fortified town? I don’t know the answers and truthfully I don’t need to know, and I’m fine with it. It’s an amazing game, and one that really reminded me of the potential of videogames as a unique medium.
- Divekick – This weird little gem is my favourite fighting game of the past year. It could even be my favourite fighting game of all time. I’m not a fighting game aficionado at all. My experience with fighting games is limited to button mashing and writing slash fiction about Dhalsim’s various stretchy body parts, Iori Yagami’s ridiculous hair and Sol Badguy’s last name. However, Divekick stole my heart by using only two buttons so I can only blame my brain and not my digital dexterity for my various losses. It really only uses two buttons for its whole UI and gameplay. The only moves you have are to “Dive” (actually to jump) and to “Kick”, but each character has different jump heights and kick distance that it is actually really interesting to play. There are also characters with ridiculous gimmicks, like Jefailey whose head grows with every win thus increasing your hitbox, and Kenny who randomly has another character’s moves every game. Coupled with truly absurd humour and voice acting, and it’s a real hit for couch gaming.
- Fables: The Wolf Among Us – Telltale (and the whole point-and-click adventure genre, really) has experienced a great resurgence to relevance in recent years with the success of Walking Dead adventure game. It did this by paring down the gameplay elements to focus on the narrative and character development. The core gameplay elements are just character choices, with the all important time pressure and substantial consequences for those actions. When I heard they were going to take on the Fables franchise with the same approach, I was incredibly excited and they did not disappoint. Bigby Wolf comes alive in every interaction with the colourful residents of Fabletown. It’s a noir-ish mystery that highlights the idiosyncrasies of Willingham’s literary denizens. The art direction is also fantastic and heightens the mood of the series. The one issue that I have noticed is the horrible performance of the console version compared to the PC version (yes, I bought both). Episode 2 is set to be released in February 2014, and I cannot wait to delve back into that world and see the succulent fruit of my actions in Episode 1.
- Fire Emblem: Awakening – I play on Casual (don’t judge me!) because I knew I would restart every battle where I lost a character and their incredibly valuable genetic material. I’ve always loved tactical RPGs, and Fire Emblem: Awakening is a great addition to the genre. In most other games, developing the interpersonal relationships in your party would just yield combat bonuses and maybe some additional character options or sidequests. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, you are also rewarded with sweet babies from the future with incredible stats. You also get lots of cute/weird/borderline creepy interactions between your current day party and their children from the future that are around the same age. The gameplay is solid and there are numerous nods to previous Fire Emblem series, especially in downloadable content. My favourite dating sim/fantasy RPG since Thousand Arms and Harvest Moon.
- Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft – Blizzard jumped into the online card game market this past year with the Beta for Hearthsone, which is kind of a very basic version of the World of Warcraft TCG.(It gave me all kinds of nostalgia kicks as it reuses a lot of art assets from the WoW TCG as well) Hearthstone distinguished itself by being incredibly polished, with nice art, UI design, sounds and animations. It also looks to be deliberately designed to appeal to a very wide player base. The gameplay is simple enough to grasp for casual players, but still holds some depth for the more experienced. They learned from the other online card games and implemented many little things to improve the game experience, which I might examine in more detail at a later time. Sure, there are countless other online card games out there that also offer rewarding gameplay, but so far Hearthstone has impressed me with its refinement and polish. At the very least, it’s a great gateway into other online card games. It’s just entered into its Open Beta phase, and it’s not too difficult to “go infinite” in Arena Mode (Limited Draft/Sealed) and not pay any real money to play. My only gripe is that I would like an option for a more robust draft system (Arena serves its purpose pretty well at the moment, but more options is always nice) and I’d love for them to capitalise on the unique Raid experience presented in the WoW TCG.
- Lords of Waterdeep iOS – Playdek has made some really nice conversions of board games to the iOS platform. In fact, their Ascension and Penny Arcade Deck Building Game apps have supplanted the physical games for me. They had another big hit for me in 2013 with the Lords of Waterdeep app. The game is translated very well and the UI elements are all arranged very neatly. The asynchronous multiplayer is implemented pretty well, with lessons learned from the Ascension implementation. The AI is also challenging enough that I don’t have to rely on having real people to play a good game with. Games go really quickly since all the upkeep is done automatically, but is still very satisfying. I’ve logged about 50 offline games already so far, and that number is still rising (at least until I can get my overall win rate above 50%…).
- Pokemon Y – Ahhh Pokemon. The basic formula has not changed that much over the years. You stuff a weird animal/plant/ghost/deity into a tiny ball and use it in pitfights with other creatures for money and badges. I admit that a huge part of it for me is the nostalgia, since I haven’t played a Pokemon game since Emerald. However it’s not just running on the fumes of my unreliable memories; Pokemon X&Y has done a great job at doing away with a lot of the extraneous grindy bullshit from the previous games which results in once of the most accessible and fun Pokemon games to date. Rollerskates at the first town? Free Bike? EXP SHARE FOR MY ENTIRE PARTY? That’s a deal I just can’t pass up.
- Saints Row IV – I’ve never played any other Saints Row game, except for the first mission of Saints Row the Third, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed this edition of the franchise. In fact, I think it’s a great game by itself even without the various nods to the history of the franchise. You start off the game by saving the world from a nuclear threat and becoming the President of the USA. You can then choose to either end poverty or cure cancer with once easy press of a button. Then, aliens led by a pompous English-accented asshat attack the world and enslave its population in a simulation a la The Matrix just for kicks. Your Trusty Hacker Sidekick then messes with the simulation to give you superpowers and you do your darndest to make the simulation as weird and dangerous as possible to piss off your captors. Also dubstep gun. In retaliation, they blow up the Earth, you kick their butts anyways and you then travel around the universe with Jane Austen. It’s mostly crass and juvenile, but it’s also very self aware and makes various clever nods to pop culture and video games. One of the boss fights is a text adventure and another turns the game into a Streets of Rage pastiche. Running around with super speed and super jumps was also incredibly satisfying. It’s just an unabashed joy to play.
Card Hunter – A splendid mix of tactical RPG and card game mechanics with cute art direction. The game is set up like a traditional tabletop RPG with paper cutouts for characters, snacks in the background, and a bumbling Dungeon Master complete with overbearing older brother. Playable in browser and comes with campaign and multiplayer modes.
Horse Master – One of the weirdest text adventure games I had the pleasure to play last year. You play as a drug-addled “Horse Master” hopeful with dreams of winning the illustrious title and leaving your paltry existence behind. A tale of hardship, desperation, emptiness and electroshock therapy ensues.
Magic 2014 – Duels of the Planeswalkers – I’ve been playing along with Duels of the Planeswalkers since its first instalment. It scratches my Magic itch when I can’t get a group to play IRL. This instalment introduced the opportunity to actually build your own decks out of a sealed pool, which is a feature that is worth the whole price of admission. As fun as Magic ever was.
Mark of the Ninja – Not a 2013 game, but possibly my favourite platformer. The stealth gameplay was challenging and rewarding, and I enjoyed being able to have different approaches to most of the scenarios in the game. While a completely non-lethal run was always possible, the assassinations were so satisfying that I rarely made it through a level without stringing one guy up on a post to send a message.
Nintendo Streetpass Plaza Games – PAX AUS 2013 introduced me to the wonders of the Streetpass Plaza games. Initially only a very basic dungeon crawler was available, but Nintendo released a bunch of new minigames this year that all integrated with Streetpass. When 3DSes with Streetpass turned on pass near each other, the little Mii avatars are exchanged and can be used in the various Streetpass games. Streetpass Squad in particular is a very entertaining take on the old school shmup. Very addictive, and it actually motivated me to bring my 3DS out and about with me.
Papers, Please – I really wanted to put this on the main list. However, I realised that I hadn’t played nearly enough to give it a good assessment. I’ve played it briefly twice, losing very quickly in my first game due to my own stupidity, and I stopped midway through my second run and haven’t returned to it in a while. It’s just so… bleak and stressful. However, I can’t stop thinking about it. Even the little I played made a big impression on me. Like Brothers, it’s another game that embraces and utilises the features of its medium so effectively that you can’t easily emulate the experience any other way (unless someone set up a booth and actors and made you “play the game” in real life).
Plants vs Zombies 2 – The other mobile game that took up a substantial amount of my time last year. PvZ2 expands on its original winning formula with more plants, more zombies and more puns. The IAP did not bother me at all as it wasn’t necessary to advance in the game, and I actually really enjoyed all the challenges.
Shadowrun Returns – Pretty oldschool tactical RPG. I really enjoy the setting and the mechanics are solid enough. The base campaign is pretty satisfying so far, and I’m curious to see what the user-generated campaigns are like.
Solforge – Another digital card game. Solforge uses the lane mechanic that I enjoyed in Spectromancer and Duel of Champions. It adds a cool “level-up” mechanic where the cards you play enable more powerful versions further in the game, and having the option of when to battle and play cards is a great addition. Looking forward to trying the draft mode.
Spaceteam – One of the most fun apps to pull out with a group off friends. It’s not so much a game app than a group shouting activity facilitator. It received a substantial update this year, which really increased its appeal (now Adroid and iOS cross-platform enabled!) Each player needs their own smartphone which shows them some buttons/knobs/levers and displays instructions that could be applicable to any player. It’s like a bridge simulator, only louder and sillier. I like the humorous button labels that lead to people shouting “Someone needs to Blame Society right now or we’re going to lose!”
Torchlight 2 – Diablo 3 kinda overshadowed Torchlight 2 for me in 2012, mainly because more people I knew played Diablo 3 and it was easier to get a multiplayer game going. I finally got more time in with Torchlight 2 last year and it’s been a real blast to play. The classes are fun to play, the art style is gorgeous, and I love having my pets take care of my commercial interests in town.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown – I only finished the bulk of the game in early 2013 so I’m counting it. Great progression, environments and tactical gameplay. It’s fun and atmospheric and even though they’re randomly generated, I’ve gotten quite attached to my squad of alien-killers. I’ve just started a second playthrough with Enemy Within, and I miss having Velasquez, Martine and Cheng around to clean up the alien scum.