Lastly, before we get to the awards proper tomorrow, we have our Editor-in-Chief’s top picks for the year. He does all the reviewing and video content around here and as such he had widest view of what 2014 had to offer. Delving into niches not always looked at and playing on systems that are not as well owned, he provides a well varied but concise list of hits, with something on here for almost every kind of gamer.
10. D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die (Season One)
If a year ago you had asked me what it would take for me to play and actively enjoy a Kinect game, the answer would probably have been “several litres of gin and a large pile of barbiturates”. Well much to my surprise it turns out that the only mind-warping substance I needed was Swery’s D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, a game that justifies the Kinect with its utter blinding absurdity. Much like his last game, Deadly Premonition, D4 does a fantastic job of engaging the player with bizarrely fascinating characters, catchy off-kilter music, and that charming America-by-way-of Japan vibe that Swery does so well. Unlike Deadly Premonition though, D4 manages to actually be a pretty decent ‘game’ in addition to being super weird, as it forgoes traditional action sequences in favour of a more adventure game style structure. That type of gameplay means that the Kinect generally needs to only act as a cursor, rather than have to attempt to replace a regular controller and control scheme, and in that more passive role it does quite well. Even so you can always opt to use a controller instead of (or alongside) the Kinect, making D4 a surprisingly comfortable and adaptive experience. As much as I liked Sunset Overdrive, I felt like this game was truly the reason to get an Xbox One this year; not only does it use the console’s unique features to their fullest but it brings with it such a unique sense of insanity that it’s worth experiencing even outside of those features.
9. Hyrule Warriors
Yes, I already know you all hate Dynasty Warriors and that you were disappointed this game was basically just more of that but wearing a green tunic. Unfortunately this is my list and when the mood strikes me, I fucking love some Musou. More important than that though is the fact that Hyrule Warriors was one of the best games the series has had in years. All of the dumb mindless anime fun of a Dynasty Warriors game but with the extremely high level of spit-and-polish that comes naturally with being a product overseen by Nintendo. A lot of the rougher edges that you expect from the Warriors games have been worn away here by keen eyes of Aonuma, Miyamoto, and Iwata, while still retaining the inherent fun that exists at the core of the Musou series. That’s not to say it doesn’t have any worth as a Legend of Zelda game either as Hyrule Warriors packs in reams of well-executed fan service and perfectly marries the mechanics and style of the Zelda franchise with the hordes of enemies and nonsense anime guitar that define any good Dynasty Warriors release. While I don’t think that it is the best game to come out for the Wii U this year (we’ll talk about that game in a little bit), if you can shed your preconceived notions about the franchises involved and just try to enjoy yourself, Hyrule Warriors is an absolute blast of mind-numbing, nostalgia-laced fun.
8. Bravely Default
Bravely Default is a game built for those who remember a time when it was “Squaresoft“, not “Square-Enix“, and in that way it is a game after my own heart. Built upon the foundations laid by the original Final Fantasy games, it returned me to a time long past, a time when JRPGs were more than anime folderol and good-hearted but limited titles by indie devs. Bravely Default brought me back to when JRPGs were truly epic; when they were blockbusters upon which publishers spared no expense and whose grandiosity filled multiple discs. It brings back the scale and the quality of writing those games used to have, while at the same innovating by letting you control the flow of battle with the Brave/Default system. While it may not be a revolution for the genre, it is a revival and remastering of all the things that used to make JRPGs great, taking the lessons learned from other game’s past mistakes and using that knowledge to polish the experience to a mirror sheen. It is the anti-thesis to modern Final Fantasy’s tendency towards the overdone and the obtuse; instead Bravely Default takes simple gameplay and a straightforward story then naturally builds a sense of understated complexity around that. It is what JRPGs used to be and hopefully will one day be again, a charmingly uncomplicated but subtle experience brought to life with the degree of scale and polish that a good publisher can help provide the resources to create.
7. South Park: The Stick of Truth
Making a good licensed game is tough, and making a game that is genuinely funny is even more so, but I’ll be damned if Obsidian and South Park Studios didn’t manage to knock it out of the park on both counts. Every aspect of the game from the combat to the quest structure feels deeply tied to the show in very natural ways with themes, characters, and items from South Park’s almost 20 year history not just gratuitously cropping up but appearing naturally and in a subtle fashion. It doesn’t feel like a tie-in made to promote the latest season or anything like that, instead it’s a true love letter to everyone’s favourite quiet little mountain town and a genuine South Park adventure in its own right. It also manages to be a pretty damn good game too, offering up a fast and surprisingly deep turn-based combat system and tons of customization and stat building. That level of RPG minutiae blends in wonderfully with the incredibly well fleshed out version of the town that’s on display, allowing the game to reward you for exploring it in ways that make sense both in terms of the gameplay and fan service. Playing through South Park: The Stick of Truth is just like watching a whole season of the show, and for die-hard South Park fans like myself, I can’t think of any higher praise I could give it.
6. Wasteland 2
I have a soft spot for Post-Apocalyptic fiction and Inxile’s return to the Arizona wasteland is some of the best I’ve seen in years. The stories this game has to tell-both in relation to its 26-year-old predecessor, and in regards to new happenings among the radioactive dunes-are fascinating, imaginative, but most importantly almost entirely up to you to resolve. Whether it’s mediating between two warring tribes of folk music worshiping nomads or quarantining a scientific community to stop an outbreak of giant mutant fruit-flies, the ultimate resolution to all issues lies squarely in your hands and solving these problems is rarely a matter of simply following the story-lines through to the end. The methods you employ will depend almost entirely upon the skills, party members, and inventory you’ve cultivated and the way you choose to use all of that, with the world itself being affected in a variety of ways depending on how you choose to deal with any given problem. It is the quintessential RPG, offering deep and almost unlimited variability both inside and out of combat. While Wasteland 2 is not a graphical powerhouse, it’s probably the most authentic the apocalypse has felt in years. Anyone pining for the age of old-school CRPGs, specifically the old Fallout games, would do well to check this game out.
5. Bayonetta 2
Regardless of any controversy the character’s design and mannerisms may have sparked, it’s impossible to deny just how fun and enjoyable Bayonetta 2 happens to be. The gameplay is Platinum’s design sensibilities at their very best; it focuses on frenetic but skilled movement, gracefully dodging enemy blows as you slip in and out of witch-time, all while delivering hit after punishing hit to your angelic yet monstrous foes. As the action ramps up with each ensuing fight, the grandiosity of the enemy design and the insanity of the set-pieces grows as well, until the game hits a crescendo of beautiful noise and power all ensconced in some of the best graphics the Wii U has to offer. Bayonetta 2 is a game drenched in irreverent joyous fun with no maudlin messages or preachy philosophy to be found. The characters are all clearly enjoying themselves as they chew up the scenery, the art design screams stylistic ecstasy as fighter jets and renaissance monsters both fly by at mach 7, and the music’s blending of lounge and J-pop gives the whole game a smooth but upbeat tempo. It’s just plain fun, and that’s more than good enough for me.
4. Dragon Age: Inquisition
Where Wasteland 2 is the culmination of all those beloved classic RPG tropes, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the peak in evolution of the modern RPG and all that represents. It has the seemingly endless amounts of emergent exploratory fun found in Skyrim, the personable and well-developed characters of Mass Effect, and the tactical yet action packed gameplay of stuff like the Witcher and of course the prior Dragon Age games. It has that massive sense of scale that truly makes games like these feel special while still offering an incredibly deep story that focuses as much on individual characters as it does on the larger world-threatening conflict. Inquisition is a game that understands people care as much about the nitty-gritty as they do the broad strokes and as such it allows you to spend as much time worrying about the pommel on your sword as you do the politics of your army. Many felt that Bioware had a lot to make up for after Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, but I think it’s fair to say that Dragon Age: Inquisition pays back that perceived debt in spades.
3. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc & Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
While technically these are two different games, I’m counting them as one because they’re very similar, inter-dependent, and both came out here in North America within the same year. Considering how niche the Danganronpa games are, I’m sure many of you are surprised to see them on my list at all, let alone in the top three, but to be absolutely honest these games together made up the most engaging narrative experience I had all year. Combining the investigation and courtroom mechanics of Phoenix Wright, the relationship building of Persona, and the dark inhumanity of the Saw films, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and its sequel Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair simultaneously manage to make you care about and utterly distrust every single one of their characters. Probably the most interesting thing about these games though is their creative use of many of the standard anime archetypes and tropes. Almost every character comes off as nothing but a massive cliché at first but each has a depth that is slowly revealed over the course of their respective games, stripping away those stereotypical facades and exposing the broken and flawed people underneath. Similarly the games also manage to repeatedly buck expectations when it comes to their plots, setting up seemingly obviously tropes and then going the other way with things when you least expect it. The series even manages to subvert itself in the sequel, playing upon the instincts learned from the first game and then forcing the player to put those aside. As a result, both games managed to draw me in completely and had me playing all through the night, on multiple nights, only stopping when my VITA’s battery gave out.
2. Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order is the game that made me fall in love with first person shooters all over again. Sure the genre has seen plenty of interesting games over the last decade or so, but let’s be honest, almost all of them fall into the same few basic molds. Wolfenstein resists that trend and instead takes the best parts of its predecessors and combines that with the better parts of modern shooters. It has the nice flexible perk system, degree of choice, and tactical shooting elements that serve to make today’s FPS romps feel more textured than their sprite based predecessors, while at the same time letting you dual-wield any weapon in the game and run into a Nazi compound unloading more lead than a coked up Rambo. It even has some pretty decent stealth elements which pay homage to the original Wolfenstein games back on the Apple II and Commodore 64. While some found the game’s somewhat inconsistent tone (in terms of both story and gameplay) jarring, I personally really enjoyed that aspect of it. Somehow the game manages to be both a thoughtful tale about the horrors of war and the fate of old soldiers while also featuring Nazi super robots on the moon and ancient Hebrew science-mages; I can’t think of a better way to have your cake and eat it too.
1. Shovel Knight
I talked a lot about games evoking ages past on this list and I’d go so far as to say that nostalgia (or more accurately respect for the way games used be) was the defining philosophy of 2014, and no game did that better than Shovel Knight. Much like Wolfenstein but for the side-scroller genre, it takes the best of what modern games have to offer and combines that with the aspects that made some older games so iconic. Its pixel precise platforming, oodles of secrets, and high but fair level of challenge makes Shovel Knight feel just the way you remember those old games feeling. At the same time, it does away with the chaff of those games and replaces it modern ideas such as ditching lives in favour of Dark Souls style corpse running. Add onto that an absolutely stellar presentation that perfectly emulates the colour palette and sprite design of the NES/GBC while removing the limitations of those systems. Similarly it has an utterly beautiful soundtrack made by a collaboration of HBHUD favourite composer Jake Kaufman and original Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, which does a fantastic job at driving the player forward and bringing each stage to life. Even the story manages to bring out the best of both worlds, it’s light and simple but still offers just the right degree of humor and intrigue to make it feel unabashedly charming. Shovel Knight is pure fun, plain and simple, and it is without a doubt my favourite game of 2014.