I hated Final Fantasy XIII. Like, I hated it with an intensity that I don't usually hate things. It was linear in a bad way, I hated all the characters I met, and the battle system was like something out of a nightmare. Despite all this, I picked up Final Fantasy XIII-2 on the cheap at launch through a series of deals and Amazon credit. To my absolute and complete surprise, I quickly found myself completely enthralled with the game. The story structure allowed me a lot of freedom, I quickly grew attached to main characters Noel and Serah, and I deeply enjoyed the battle system.
I don't know that I can tell you exactly what the secret sauce was that flipped me. If I had to hazard a guess, and I know how this is going to sound, I think what really made XIII-2 so endearing to me is stupid anime bullshit. And boy, does it have that in spades. It wasn't just the completely nonsensical time travel story I loved, the game features a Pokemon-esque (in the absolute loosest of terms) monster capturing aspect. Raising monsters and swapping them in and out of battle added an almost personal connection to the battles. That Buccaboo Ace is doing awesome in battle because I made it awesome! This game should serve as a lesson to Square. Simple, fun gameplay mechanics mixed with likable characters and a story that doesn't take itself TOO seriously is a recipe for a game that will be accessible to a wider audience of people.
Super Mario World holds a special place in my heart. In fact, it might hold the most special place in my heart. Of anything. Ever. I made the decision earlier this year of "Fuck that console NSMB game that's coming out, I'm sticking with the portable one!" That changed basically the instant I heard the phrase "It's sort of like Super Mario World" uttered in reference to New Super Mario Bros U. While the final game was not exactly the love-letter to SMW I was hoping for, NSMBU retains enough of the trappings and charm of its ancestor to keep me hooked.
Super Mario Bros U has its faults, sure, but for me these were far outweighed by the things it did right. The levels are varied, they're difficult, and the hidden secrets are often devious bordering on the oh-come-on-how-was-I-supposed-to-find-that. This is what I want out of a Mario game. The place this game really shines though in what it does different from other Marios. The Miiverse integration is aces, missing only the ability to post whenever you want on a level. Oh man and the challenges. The challenges led to a hazy night of score warring with Imran scraping fractions of seconds off our speedrun time. If NSMBU had had better leaderboard integration and a way to more directly compete with friends in these challenges it would have easily made my top five. Nintendo's tragic refusal to go far enough keeps it at 9, but it's still the best Wii U game with a bullet.
Now I liked me some Borderlands, and Borderlands 2 is... well, more of that. Real talk here: on just about every metric Borderlands 2 is exactly the same game as Borderlands. It's the things Borderlands 2 does better, not different, than the original that really elevate it for me. Online multiplayer is absolutely spectacular. I barely played a minute of this game solo, and if you are any different than this then you made some bad decisions somewhere. I'm not one of those "single player is dead, long live co-op!" people normally. Infact, I'm the first to prefer a nice cozy quiet night playing games by myself. But there's something about Borderlands 2 where rolling four deep with my buddies every night transformed it from a carbon-copy sequel into something special.
Co-op magic or not, Borderlands 2 does have some problems. The story is... kind of nonexistant. The things they do to B-Lands' original crew hit a real sour note to me. I didn't even know I had nostalgia for Roland but here we are. There's also far less guns than the original game. This isn't such a bad thing. While there's fewer "pieces," the guns that are there are more varied. Despite these two things, it still takes you for-ev-er to get a gun worth a damn. Gearbox really needs a lesson in doling out things in drips, not droughts. Mechanical nitpicks aside, there are few games I've had more fun with this year. Seven, if you're counting.
ASURA IS SO GODAMN ANGRY. HOLY SHIT. I don't even really know what I should say about Asura's Wrath besides that. Whenever I think I about this game those two sentences are burned into my head like someone used a branding iron. I guess I need to say more about this game than "FUCK YOU GO PLAY ASURA'S WRATH WHY DO I NEED TO JUSTIFY MYSELF TO YOU WANNA FIGHT?!" Okay, let's give this a shot. Asura's Wrath is a game that shouldn't be good. It's a game made up entirely of quicktime events, broken up into episodes, and the ending was sold as DLC(for money!) months later. A trend so far in my games of the year seems to be games that from a distance seem like they should be bad, but the game ends up doing something so right it overpowers everything stacked against it. Asura's Wrath manages to do this in spades.
Asura's Wrath is a game that manages to be so balls-out crazy, so intense, so godamn (warning: incoming anime word) hot-blooded (I'm on a manga podcast, deal with it!) that even in spite of its mediocre third-person action segments you are clenching your teeth, pumping your fist, and screaming "FUCK YEAH" at that TV every time Asura punches a guy in a face. Did you see that punch?! IT WAS REALLY AWESOME!! Asura's Wrath captures everything I love about anime in a video game. It definitely has its faults gameplay wise and it manages to do a lot of really interesting things with QTEs, but all that is really beside the point. Asura's Wrath is just so completely committed to being what it is that you can't help but go along with it. It's essentially a season of face-punching, arm-smashing, world-poking, moon-cutting, blood-boiling anime action. It's a game I think anyone with any kind of interest in anime has to experience, and anyone without anime interest should strongly consider. And he's really angry.
Virtue's Last Reward is a really hard game to write about. There just isn't much to talk about. Like its predecessor 9 Hours 9 Doors 9 Persons, VLR is a fantastic story of murder, betrayal and bizarre pseudo sciences set against the backdrop of an amnesiac race to escape a game created by a masked madman. If you haven't played 999 and own a DS you absolutely must play it before VLR for story reasons, and you should probably play it anyway because it is also very good (GOTY '10!). The basic gameplay flow of VLR doesn't deviate much from 999, which consists of story sequences followed by escape-room point and click puzzles followed by story rinse-repeat. What VLR does to change this up is to streamline just about everything. Text moves faster, the puzzles are more intuitive and interesting, and best of all on replays you can skip to any point in the story you want. If you haven't played 999 that last one doesn't seem like a big deal, but if you have you know that it is a freaking godsend.
Technical problems raging from slowdowns to game crashes to SAVE ERASING plague the 3DS version of Virtue's Last Reward, which is the one I played. These problems are not present on the more feature complete Vita version of the game. The mere fact that a known save erasing bug survived the localization process is inexcusable. This may sound harsh, but it's only because I loved this game so much that these easily fixable things stood out to me. Fact is, I loved basically everything else about it. I don't know if I'd say Virtue's Last Reward has better characters and story than 999, but it's up there. Technical problems aside, this game would have easily been in my top three. Even with these (admittedly avoidable, whether by not saving in puzzles or playing on Vita) problems, Virtue's Last Reward is fantastic. Play it, and know what getting your mind blown is.
I had The Last Story sitting on my shelf for months. I just never got around to playing it. Then, about mid-December, I was kind of in a lull and plugged it in. Man. MAN. Last Story made a good impression and it made it fast and hard. Final Fantasy father Hironobu Sakaguchi's latest (last?) console JRPG does not disappoint. I went in to The Last Story expecting "JRPG Gears of War" and what I found was a cast of fascinating characters, a great story, and a fantastic setting. Okay, try and follow me here. It's a mission-based cover-based third person active JRPG. Confused? So was I! But you pick it up pretty quickly. The gameplay was fun for me, but the real draw was the world and characters. The Last Story has a very linear story structure. There's no overworld, per se, you're just kind of transported into "missions" and then back to town when you're done.
There's a lot about this game I should hate. In fact, it has a lot in common with FFXIII and you guys are well versed on me feelings on that piece of hot garbage. In the end there's very little I didn't like about The Last Story. Bosses can get super frustrating in a "well you didn't go into this knowing exactly what to do so you lose" kind of way but I never had to fight a single boss more than twice. And that guy was a real mother-fucker! But, geeze, I'm having trouble emphasising how completely off-guard I was caught by how much I was enamored with this game. I was completely gripped by the story and grew to adore each and every member of the main and supporting cast. The entire game just gives off this vibe of being charming as hell. I wasn't even expecting to get around to this game this year but I'm sure glad I did.
There is no better playing game than Mark of the Ninja this year. For all its systems and button combinations, doing exactly what you want feels about as easy as touching your nose. I wasn't exactly a fan of Shank or Shank 2. You could actually say I disliked those games! But developer Klei really brought it with Mark of the Ninja. It's hard to explain, but everything about how this game plays just feels right. It's like the ninja is an extension of your body. Through a nice combination of tight controls and complete situational awareness, you really feel in total control the entire time. There's nothing like running full speed at a dude, jumping as he hears your footsteps, sailing over his cone of vision, landing behind him, and slitting his throat before he he even knows what's going on. Not to say the game's super easy, it gets pretty Metroid Fusion towards the end, but it really does fill that power fantasy itch that you don't usually get out of stealth games.
On top of playing well, Mark of the Ninja is also incredibly beautiful. Klei is always aces in the art department, but their hand drawn animation really accentuates an already fluid game. It's an absolute joy to watch guards die in horrible, painful ways. I guess that's something this game does really well. It's both really fun to play and really fun to watch. What more could I ask for? The story is kind of paper thin through most of the game, only really getting interesting right at the end. But really, the main draw here is the gameplay. Mark of the Ninja deserves applause not only for the game controlling just about perfect, but it's also managed to perfect stealth gameplay. They managed to take a gameplay mechanic that I usually hate and make it into a game that's one of my favorite platformers ever. Can't wait to see what they do with escort missions.
Never doubt Sakurai. This is a lesson I've repeatedly had to learn over and over. After a poor expo demo experience I had mostly written off Kid Icarus: Uprising, but then the classic Sakurai info creep began to happen. I ended up getting the game (obviously) and was blown away. A lot of the games on my list this year are ones that I initially thought would be bad but surprised me by being great. I assumed Kid Icarus would be good based on pedigree, but I was still completely blown away by the sheer amount of stuff in the game. The single player is a couple dozen hour long romp filled with very, very well written entertaining characters. The writing in the game is just so full of charisma, it absolutely oozes it. The cast isn't the only draw of story mode, the actual multi-arc story itself is wonderful. It really gives off the feeling of multiple seasons of a television show. On top of the extremely lengthy story mode, there was several other modes, item collecting, fusing, street passing... just so much stuff to do! Sakurai definitely left his trademark touch on the game.
Now, the controls, the big point of contention on this game. I feel that the controls are perfect once you are actually able to get used to it, which takes anywhere from ten minutes to a couple hours of playtime. A lot of places panned the game for not supporting a two stick play style, but that would have simply been too slow and too inaccurate. At high level Kid Icarus play you need to be on your game 100% of the time or you will get torn apart. However, I have to admit the option to have a camera stick in the ground sections would have been helpful, the globe camera controls got a little wonky. All in all, Kid Icarus is the whole package. Fun, long, stuffed with content perfect for bite sized play. What more can you ask for from a portable game?
Telltale's The Walking Dead is something special. No other game this year has affected me on such a personal and emotional level. The Walking Dead is dark, it's affecting, and it is (with one exception) absolutely brilliantly written front to back. TWD is, at it's core, the story of a man's struggle to redeem himself by becoming the guardian of a small child and helping her survive the dangers of a zombie apocalypse. This is not a game you come to for the gameplay. Actually, I would barely call TWD a game, it skirts the line even closer than Asura's Wrath, but what's there is something unlike anything I've ever experienced in a game before. Normally in a game your decisions are "Do I punch that or whip that or punchwhip that", in TWD you are constantly managing personal interactions between characters and weighing your choices both against your conscience and the situation at hand. The Walking Dead challenges you not as a gamer, but as a human being.
This isn't Telltale's first rodeo when it comes to episodic content. It's a signature of their adventure games, and the structure of TWD and the pacing really lent itself well to the format.Every month or so, when a new Walking Dead episode was on the horizon, I would start to feel dread. Oh christ what is going to happen this episode. What horrible, no-win situation am I going to be forced into. Oh god oh god oh god no. This is the beauty of The Walking Dead as a game and a franchise. Nothing is going to go right. The idea of a happy ending is non-existent. It's just going to get worse and worse, and this is why the episodic format fit it so well. You were left with natural break points to reflect on and a sense of impending dread as the next horrible wave quickly approached.
I loved just about every character interaction in The Walking Dead. More than that, I love Lee Everett. Lee, as a character, is mostly what you make him. TWD has an appearance of free choice, but really all you're doing is fudging the details a bit. And, I mean, that works totally fine. I never felt like a decision I made didn't play out like it should have. I played Lee as I felt I would act in the situation, and grew really attached to him over the course of the season. The personal growth both Lee and Clementine go through is of a caliber I've never seen before in a videogame. I do have misgivings with the game, such as the shooting sequences or basically the entirety of episode 4. But the things TWD does right, the things it excels at, they far outweigh any minor downsides and give me hope for the future of storytelling in videogames.
Xenoblade Chronicles is an absolute master class of a JRPG. I just wan't to dwell on this for a second. I absolutely adored Xenoblade. It was just fantastic, beginning to end. Compelling characters, interesting story with twists, lots of character customization, a great battle system. When it came time to pick a game of the year there was no hesitation in my mind for number 1. Xenoblade Chronicles is, simply put, absolutely everything I want out of a videogame. For one, Xenoblade is absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous; especially for a Wii game. It's not going to win any awards for pushing polygons, but from an art direction and execution standpoint I was completely blown away. I found myself just standing and staring off into vistas for minutes at a time. The world of Xenoblade takes place on a giant long-dead being known as the Bionis, which died in its battle with the also long-dead Mechonis. These two giant beings filling virtually all your field of view is a sight to behold. Monolithsoft makes the most but of a little, I've never been left so struck by a videogame environment, Wii or otherwise. The characters themselves were all really well done too. I enjoyed most of them right off the bat, but one in particular had to grow on me over time (you'll know him when you see him). They're fun to interact with, interesting to learn more about, and a blast ot play as.
It's going to be kind of hard to describe the gameplay here. It's sort of like a single player MMORPG NO WAIT DON'T RUN AWAY COME BACK! What intially sounds terrible ends up working out really well. You directly control a single character in a three person party, and are given opportunity to command what your party members do. I loved fiddling with the characters' skills and equipment. Xenoblade does the thing I love and has your equipment actually change the character's appearance. It's great! There's so many armor and weapons that I would spend a bunch of time just playing Barbie dressup. Combat is fast paced and fun. Getting completely healed after every battle is a big plus, as it makes each encounter more of a life and death matter. Enemies are varied and require unique strategy to defeat. The AI is never much of a bother as it always seems to do more or less what you'd want. In the event it doesn't, you are introduced to maybe my favorite aspect of Xenoblade. If you die, hey, no problem! Absolutely no punishment except a minor setback.
This is Xenoblade's design philosophy of streamlining the experience. Dying is barely a setback. You can fast travel just about anywhere. You can take quests, instantly fast travel to the town you need to go to, and back within seconds and complete the quest. The Last Story had shades of this kind of streamlining, but Xenoblade really takes it to a new level. The game cooks because of this, and it really benefits the overall package. Gone are the days of spending hours backtracking, and the game is infinitely better for it. It left me with such a relaxed feel to the whole game. To balance out the ease at which you can take on quests the game makes up for it with hundreds of sidequests of varying difficulty. Most of these sidequests follow specific characters throughout the game, giving it kind of a Majora's Mask feel. You really get to know a handful of the faceless town people.
The story of Xenoblade is exciting and fast paced. You're always on the way to the next town or hot on the heels of the evil mechon. The globe-trotting (body-trotting?) adventure leads you to many interesting locations. There really was never a lull in the story, which is long. Really, really really long. Sitting here writing this I can't think of a single thing I didn't like about Xenoblade Chronicles. I was gripped the entire time, and couldn't put it down. I was coming home from work every night and sinking several hours into it. It's been a while since a game has grabbed me as hard and for as long as Xenoblade. To me personally, there was no better game released this year. Xenoblade Chronicles is a fantastic game up and down. It's truly beautiful and unquestionably fun. In a year filled with games surprising me, pushing the boundaries of what I thought a videogame could be, and refining tried and true methods of entertainment, it was exciting to play a game like Xenoblade Chronicles. I was twelve years old again, and I loved it.
Now that the hard part is out of the way, let's talk about the broader picture of 2012. 2012, to me, will be remembered as the year of surprises and disappointment. Most of my favorite games this year came out of nowhere, and the ones I thought I was going to love ended up being mediocre to garbage. Other people have noticed this and theorized why, those reasons mostly blaming an overly long generation for developer fatigue. I mostly agree with this, but I also think the major developers have gotten some complacent and fearful of trying something new. We just had a year that contained an anime game about punching God in the nuts in the same year that we had three, THREE, videogames have the exact same plot. But never fear, even in a year where just about every game ending in "3" or "4" was a major disappointment, we also hit highs I don't think the industry has ever seen before. There were so many good games this year I struggled with what to cut.
I guess this is the time for honorable mentions, huh? First of all, I'd like to point to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This was the hardest game for me not to include in my top 10. I know I just went on about new experiences, but XCOM kind of does just the opposite. I absolutely loved the complete devotion to being old-school that XCOM had. It was also so incredibly well designed that I died a little inside any time one of my units would die. If I had ended up playing more of this game than I did it could have easily cracked my top 10. It's a wonderful game and anyone with an interest in turn based strategy should absolutely play it. Another game I loved, and among the first released this year, was Dustforce. Dustforce is an indie platformer based around precision jumping and momentum. It's the kind of game you have to get into a zen state and become numb to the outside world to get good at. I finished nearly every single level in the game and enjoyed every second of it. Dustforce is only a couple bucks on Steam. Don't be stupid, buy it! Lastly, I want to shout out to Tokyo Jungle. At only fifteen dollars on PSN, this is another budget digital game that you really have no excuse not to play. With maybe the exception of Asura's Wrath, I can't remember this much Japanese weirdness packed into a single game. It's just the kind of thing nobody does anymore. A game based around being random animals and eating other animals so you can mate and live on? Also there's robots? Are you fucking kidding me, somebody made this in 2012? Tokyo Jungle is arcadey, weird, and just a total blast. Check it out.
Now I'd like to talk about some games I wish I'd been able to play. Binary Domain seems like a ton of fun, but I just never got around to it. I've barely scratched the surface of Zombi U but from what I've played so far it's really something I'll enjoy (and hate). Finally, I wish I'd played more of Sleeping Dogs. I'll get around to it this year but I was disappointed to not be able to give what so far seems like an amazing game its dues. Thank you for reading my stupid ramblings about what games I liked in 2012. I hope you also had an enjoyable year of gaming and I hope I convinced you to maybe try a couple things you may have missed. Gaming is a wonderful hobby and I'm so glad we all still have so much fun doing it.