2014, a year awash in a sea of AAA titles full of explosions, robots, and sci-fi concepts. I should have loved it; a year that seemed to cater to things I typically love in video games. But I didn’t love it. Oh, I certainly liked the robots in Titanfall. I enjoyed Destiny’s gunplay. A Call of Duty with Kevin Spacey came out. Tens of millions of development and advertising dollars were thrown squarely at gamers like me. Despite all of that money and effort, the games that most appealed to me the most were generally the smaller indie titles and AAA the exception rather than the rule.
Jack Gardner's Top Ten Games of 2014
Oh, Nidhogg. How can anyone find it in themselves to dislike a brutally competitive, 8-bit fencing game where players duel to the death for the honor of being horribly devoured by a flying dragon monster? It takes a bit of time to get accustomed to the learning curve and the controls, but overcoming that difficulty rewards players with a game that leaves you on the edge of your seat. Every bout is a tense exercise in reflexes and snap judgments. It makes for a rollercoaster of an experience that can be enjoyed alone, but is even better with friends.
9. The Banner Saga
One of the first games I played this year, The Banner Saga managed to fix itself in my mind as one of my favorite experiences in 2014. Many people had mixed feelings about the gameplay’s pacing, but I’m a sucker for turn-based combat with a heavy narrative bent. The Banner Saga manages to deliver a deep combat system while weaving a tale of humans and hulking Varl working together to survive the impending apocalypse. Players lead groups of soldiers and refugees and are forced to make decisions that often have no clear right or wrong, but each choice might lead to either good fortune or disaster. The journey constantly feels balanced on the edge of a knife, where the consequences for slipping are often the death of family and friends. It works as a great introduction to the grim fantasy world Stoic wants to create and explore in future installments.
Imagine my surprise when the second Grimrock adventure left me floored. Sure, I enjoyed the original Legend of Grimrock, but I had gripes with its repetitive halls, monsters, and somewhat unintuitive combat. I just didn’t expect developer Almost Human to absolutely nail the sequel. Almost every problem that I had with the first game was fixed in the second. Exploring the diverse areas of Grimrock really feels like discovering a long lost civilization. Monsters rarely feel overly used and often present a fresh challenge. The combat remains a bit oblique, but the introduction makes for a smoother tutorial. Almost Human has really shown what life there can still be in the older styles of game design.
I closed out my review of Inquisition by saying, “Do yourself a favor and play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Any missteps it makes pale in comparison to the enjoyable experience it can offer.” I stand by that statement. It is an amazing adventure through a fantasy world struggling with global, societal, and personal problems. Every nook and cranny begs to be investigated and explored. A completionist could easily spend hundreds of hours in Inquisition before reaching the conclusion. Progressive and entertaining writing embody some of the finest I’ve come across in video games. Several of the characters will be remembered for their originality and for breaking new ground. It is huge, gorgeous, and you can practically feel Bioware’s creative freedom down to the game’s bones.
One of the high points of 2014 was experiencing Child of Light. It was like hearing one of your favorite fairytales for the very first time. An air of ethereal reality permeates everything from the incredible soundtrack by Coeur de pirate right down to the lightness of environment traversal. The ensemble cast are simple characters, but I mean that in a complimentary way. They are simple in the same way the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are simple characters in the Wizard of Oz. They might be simple, but they’ve still got personality and they’ll stick in your memory. The baddies are scary and bad and the characters are straightforward, which is exactly what all the design decisions call for in the narrative. All the different parts work together to create something bigger than what almost anyone expected from such a small game.
5. Sunset Overdrive
It seems like it has been ages since I’ve seen a game that so fully embraces the concept of play. Everything about Sunset Overdrive is focused on being fun and playful. Moving around its open world feels like an awesome co-opting of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 while the gunplay and the guns themselves were stolen from Ratchet and Clank and then pumped full of cocaine. Sunset Overdrive feels like a continuous explosion set to a punk rock soundtrack (how is that for a pull quote?). It’s breathtaking. The top notch humor had me laugh out loud more than a few times. The story and characters are barely more than functional, but the gameplay refuses to be anything other than a loud, obnoxious, and glorious ride into the sunset that leaves nothing but awesome moments and good vibes in its wake.
One of the most satisfying things to me as a video game critic is when a developer clearly understands how to tell a story in an interactive medium. From the way they gently lead the player through a world both real and illusory, carefully hiding the confines of their game’s structure, to the final, revelatory gut punch it is clear to me that The Astronauts know their business. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter plays with how we perceive game worlds as both player and protagonist. Many might be quick to dismiss it as “just another walking simulator,” but that would be a mistake. I will say that it’s certainly a slow burn. However, those with patience, curiosity, and a spark of creativity will be able to see the value in Ethan Carter and understand why it placed so highly on my list.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this game seems like a strange pick for the first of my top three games of 2014. For starters, it is a mobile game. There was a trend not too long ago where many gamers decided that mobile games were somehow “lesser” games because… phones? Or because they tended to be easier and presented a lower barrier to entry than, say, Gears of War or Super Mario Galaxy. The fact is that mobile games can be as deep and engaging as video games of the stationary variety. Threes proves that fact beyond any doubt. The concept is simple: Make the number three and then match similar numbers together on a sliding grid. What initially seems simple becomes more and more complicated as larger numbers are reached. I think the simplest way to convey the idea is to say that Threes is like someone mixed Tetris with a Sudoku puzzle. I’ve lost many hours to Threes and I’m likely to lose more. Its simplicity is ingenious. Threes is absolutely perfect for what it is and what it tries to do.
While I found the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead to be one heck of a narrative ride, I don’t think I really clicked with it until their second season. The second season focuses on a young girl struggling to grow up in a world overrun with zombies and collapsing social structures. Characters enter and exit the story, sometimes in a heart-achingly abrupt fashion. Almost everyone manage to make an impression, and by the time the final episode rolls around, both the young girl and the player have seen some really bad things go down. Then an awful, awful choice is presented to the player; a choice that pulls no punches. With only a handful of seconds in which we can make our choice, loyalties, affection, everything that has been built over the course of five or six hours is put to the test. It’s an agonizing moment, but the dramatic payoff of the time spent in this game world is an amazing achievement. Even remembering that choice makes me tense up all over. Regardless of what the player decides, each of the endings is an amazing conclusion for the storyline that began in Season One. Just writing about Telltale’s narrative prowess make me want to play The Walking Dead: Season Two again.
One of the finest soundtracks of the year created by Darren Korb. Incredibly beautiful art direction by Jen Zee. Fantastic design and writing by Greg Kasavin. Transistor has all of this and more. It is a true masterpiece of video game design and artistry. It takes a certain kind of boldness to release a game that is completely and unabashedly itself. Transistor doesn’t fear being misunderstood or that it might be found confusing. It jut is what it is and leaves players on their own to try and piece the story together. Experimenting with the ever growing number of abilities, playing the game, unlocks pieces of the narrative that inform character motivations and tell us about Cloudbank, the world in which they all live. It is a world that shares many similarities with our own world, a place where technology is beginning to infuse every aspect of daily life. Its silent protagonist exists not for convention’s sake, but to make a larger point when paired with the Transistor, a voice without a body. That speechlessness deepens the mystery. Why does she do what she does? I’m a big proponent of having a reason behind ever design decision in a game. There should be a reason characters act a certain way; there should be a reason that the aesthetic looks this way; there should be a reason that the narrative turn comes at the beginning rather than the end. Transistor has meaning. It has weight. It is an astoundingly beautiful accomplishment.
What about you? What were your top games of 2014? Let us know in the comments!