Now that 2012 is in our rear view mirror and the Game of the Year awards features are over and done with, I thought it might be nice to check in with some friends and freelancers in the gaming sphere to see which titles they felt didn't get their due.
I enlisted the help of Dan Crabtree, Ian Findlay, Justin Keverne, Kyle Mcintosh, Matt Paprocki, Michael Cunningham, Mike Mahardy, Nick Simberg, Roy Blakely, Scott Nichols, Steven Strom and @TheDarkWayne.
Everyone's heard of XCOM, Dishonored, Halo 4, Journey, and most of the other usual suspects. Heck, I bet most people interested in last year's best have even heard of Mark of the Ninja and Super Hexagon. However, there were still a ton of other games released last year, and not all of them were lucky enough to end up on a published list somewhere.
In an effort to shine a spotlight on those that didn't get it before, here are some nominations for "most overlooked" taken straight from my fellow games writers. In fact, I got so many from them that I'll be splitting this content into two separate posts. The first half is below, so take a look and if you haven't already checked them out, then... you're welcome!
Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo Wii)
The end of 2012 had me perusing a number of "best games of the year" posts—writers and gamers that I respect all weighed in on what games made this past year matter. To my dismay, one title didn't get the recognition I feel it deserves: Xenoblade Chronicles. It's time to set the record straight about this under-appreciated Japanese role-playing game (JRPG).
The story surrounds a world in which two massive gods once fought to the death. Their bodies, frozen in their final moments of combat eventually develop life—different races for each god and even across different body parts. How's that for an imaginative setting?
The main character, Shulk, grew up in a colony on one such god. The colonies live in constant fear of attacks from Mechon, robotic beings that developed on the opposing god. After no small amount of bloodshed, Shulk acquires a weapon capable of defeating these metal foes: the legendary and iconic Monado. He and his friends go on a quest to seek revenge for their fallen comrades.
The battle system borrows a number of massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) elements: all skills have cool down times, there is an extreme reliance on tanking, and each character has a different way they fight (think different job classes). But Xenoblade does its fair share of innovating as well. Team attacks, for instance, allow the player to temporarily control their AI followers to unleash devastating combos. Now, the AI isn't bad, but having direct control allows the player to chain together attacks that build off one another, inflicting increasingly debilitating statuses. Not only does this system feel fluid and stylish, but it can greatly turn the tide of a battle.
The Monado allows its wielder to see the future, and this ability carries over into battle as well: when an ally is in danger of receiving a mortal blow, the player will see a glimpse of the attack before it happens. There will then be a short amount of time for the player to prevent the doomed character's fate. This can be accomplished by controlling agro, increasing defenses, or inflicting status effects. All these elements make for some refreshingly tactical gameplay.
Like nearly any massive RPG, Xenoblade features an equally massive roster of non-player characters (NPCs). Most of them will ask you to run an errand for them. Things start to get incredible when, as you quest and speak with NPCs, a massive affinity map is compiled showing how each NPC knows another. Character A doesn't like Character B's cooking; Character Z thinks Character Y doesn't apply themselves, etc. Forming these connections increases your party's affinity in the relative town, unlocking higher level quests and more revealing dialog. These aren't one-dimensional NPCs spouting the same nonsense over and over—they grow, change, and have a purpose.
With the genre struggling for relevance these days, it's hard to recall the last time I enjoyed a JRPG on the level of Xenoblade Chronicles. This game shows key innovation to creating what I consider to be a modern classic
(Yeah, I made a video to go along with this post...)
—Roy Blakely (Kotowari)
The Darkness II (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
It's hard not to feel some sense of affection for a game that lets you launch a cockney demon in a union jack t-shirt at your enemies. The Darkness II is a game that manages to be at once both twice as stupid as it thinks it is and twice as smart as it has any right to be. A relentless procession of blood, bullets and tentacle arms it somehow managed to tell a story that—barring a sequel baiting misstep after the credits—is memorable and personal.
The frequent interludes in an asylum that seems out of place at first gradually begin to make you question exactly where the game is going. The patients and doctors that inhabit this sterile environment becoming more human and relatable even as the events in the "real world" spiral further out of control as cults and eternal wars between light and dark come between protagonist Jackie Estacado's and his search for redemption for his lost love.
Combat is straightforward and frequent, with enough variation in the types of enemies you encounter in its hectic and often prolonged fire fights to prevent fatigue. The need to devour the hearts of fallen enemies for health is a risk-reward tension at the heart of combat that is more engaging that it sounds and the Darkness tentacles—though reduced in capabilities compared to the original—and the need to stay out of the light give each encounter a twist toward the horrific and tactical.
The Darkness II should be utter comic book hokum, and with its "quad wielding" and tentacle arm executions for the most part manages to achieve that with aplomb and a sense of style. Yet when it tries for pathos it's largely successful. The Italian-American stereotypes that constitute the Franchetti crime family are larger than life and hard to believe, but at its core The Darkness II is about Jackie and his relationships, with his Aunt Sara, his lost love Jenny and the Darkness itself.
In its closing moment The Darkness II actually lets you decide which of its two realities you want to accept, do you take the hand of Jenny Romano the nurse and slow dance with her in the ward as the credits role to the beautifully apt "I Only Have Eyes for You," or do you leap from the asylum's roof to continue your search for the "real" Jenny Romano by descending into hell itself to retrieve her soul?
The Darkness II is at once exactly what it appears to be and something just that little bit smarter than anybody was expecting. It was hamstrung by a short campaign and comparisons to the Starbreeze developed original, and despite all that it's a rare video game where you actually grow to give a damn about the characters. For a game about demonic tentacle arms and Italian Mafioso that's a minor miracle.
—Justin Keverne (Groping the Elephant)
Ys Origin (PC)
In terms of gaming, I've heard many people say that 2012 was underwhelming. I can see where they are coming from, as a lot of the big AAA titles were not nearly as impressive as some of the smaller games and portable offerings. Thankfully for me, I love RPGs, which fit in both of those categories, so I didn't feel as empty.
One of my favorite games of the year is also one that very few people seemed to have played outside of a few in my circle of RPGamers. Ys Origin— a fantastic game, but not even one I would typically play, as I tend to eschew PC gaming and am not the biggest action RPG fan, but as a recent convert to the Ys series I felt compelled to try it out. I'm very glad I did.
Ys Origin was released in Japan in 2006, so it's far from being new, but it wasn't until 2012 that XSEED Games was able to officially license it and release it in North America via Steam. Since it has a bit of unintended mileage on it, Origin is not a graphical powerhouse, but it makes up for that in many other ways. An action RPG with platforming elements and exploration, Ys Origin is like a cross between The Legend of Zelda and Metroid with a dose of character progression added in. It offers a fast-paced, high action experience throughout, so even gamers who don't typically enjoy action RPGs should be at home here, as it lacks the repetitive nature of many of those. Oh, and I can't say enough about the rock inspired soundtrack from Falcom's JDK band. The music, especially boss themes, are truly outstanding.
There are a few caveats, though, as the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly, even on easy. If you start out and have trouble with the first boss, it's no shame to drop the challenge down to where you can enjoy it. Even on the lowest difficulty the game is far from a cakewalk, but it's always fair. There are also two characters to choose from at the start (with another added once you complete the game), Yunica and Hugo. Yunica is a young girl with a large axe and her playstyle is very similar to series standard Adol. She's all about getting in close and hacking things up. Hugo, however, is much different as he carries a wand and is surrounded by two magical orbs for ranged combat. I felt that his attacks were much faster and even more flexible than Yunica's and it made all the difference.
Ys Origin might not have made a big splash, but it should have. It's a frenetic, action-filled adventure with straightforward, yet not overly simplistic combat mechanics. The soundtrack is outstanding and more than makes up for the dated graphics. The plot might be pretty standard RPG fare, but the characters are likeable (except the villains you're supposed to hate) and it offers a few good twists, at least on Hugo's path. Best of all, it doesn't drag on too long, lasting only about eight hours. If you want an enjoyable and challenging action RPG, check out Ys Origin.
The Secret World (PC)
A Native American woman nervously jokes about the local New England townies "hiding their mouthwash" whenever she leaves the reservation. She says it as if to reassure herself, rather than you, that their reactions don't hurt. It's a small line said out-of-hand to try and sell the paper-thin camouflage of humor. It's a line that feels real, like something someone has actually said at one point or another. Her words hang there for a split-second before everyone realizes there are more pressing issues at hand. Issues like an apocalypse at the hands of alien gods, and the Illuminati and Templar agents swarming around the globe trying to waylay it.
It's some of the best video game writing of 2012, and it's a lesser example of thousands of such lines. It didn't come from an art house indie game or a blockbuster shooter, either. It came from, of all things, an MMO called The Secret World.
The universe presented in The Secret World is so twisted around its ugly, mundane, fascinating counterpart known as The Real World it's hard not to develop a sympathy for its inhabitants. Maturely-handled sex, existing bigotry, tolerated mental illness and pop culture references all provide a context for the high concept fantasy. The interwoven tales of conspiracies and faceless, Lovecraftian monsters are great, but it's The Secret World's grounding in reality and likable, believable characters that continues to keep me arrested from mechanically superior fare like Guild Wars 2.
So when that same woman asks you to put down a band of zombies that's been eating its way through her friends, you're able to put aside the indifference bred by a thousand scif-fi/fantasy tropes and genuinely want to help her. Not just because doing so will net you your next bump in experience, but because she feels real enough for you to want to help. It's a shame a lot of people didn't bother looking hard enough to see that reality, and dismissed it the moment they saw the telltale hotbar. It's a shame those same people will never realize that this MMO doesn't always play like an MMO.
Just like everyone else, the developers of The Secret World saw the problem with repetitive MMO quest structure. "Kill [X number of] boars" has become the de facto joke when referring to the massively mutliplayer games, and their rebuttal was to pour out every play-style in the book and see what rose to the top of the mess.
Pig slaying hasn't been supplanted completely (though the swine has been replaced with demonically possessed CDC agents, which is interesting in its own way) but it has been woven between dives into survival-horror, stealth missions, puzzle-based investigations and even augmented reality games requiring research outside of the game proper. Not all of these experiments hit the mark 100% of the time, but when they do it's a revelation amongst a stagnant genre.
But those revelations—both the ones you play and the ones you have to see and feel—will be lost on a crowd that gave up on massively multiplayer game. They saw what happened to The Old Republic and 38 Studios, and they decided that 2012 was the year that the genre died.
I'm happier to believe that 2012 was the year that MMOs finally made me feel something more.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was talked about this year, but for all of the wrong reasons. Between 38 Studios' financial woes, bankruptcy filings, and loan disagreements with the state of Rhode Island, it seems that everyone forgot just how many things the actual game does so well.
Eschewing the number-based combat of so many RPGs, Reckoning delves into the timing mechanics of action-oriented games. This doesn't downgrade the game into a mere button-masher though; every spent skill point shows tangible results. This means that hard-earned experience provides new combat maneuvers for any one of the unique weapons. Instead of just increasing the chance for a critical hit while using Faeblades, a new improvement permits a dizzying spin attack with the Elven weapons. The gameplay loop between the enticing combat and subsequent rewards means that combat is a centralized mechanic instead of a distracting filler.
The fighting elements of Reckoning are amplified once you spend a few thousand gold on an easy respec. Getting tired of your dagger-wielding thief? Switch to a brawler build and beat on a few trolls with a gigantic hammer. The ease with which Reckoning allows you to try each and every skill means experimentation is just as important as execution when it comes to character-building.
When you're not exploring for the sole purpose of finding more things to fight, you'll be taken aback by the gorgeous world of Amalur. Lush forests, arid deserts, and rolling plains are nothing you haven't seen before. The vibrant colors and cartoony vibe of it all are what set Reckoning's aesthetic apart: greens are more pleasant, browns more desolate, and everything in between more alive.
The Faelands—and the quests therein—are more reminiscent of an MMO than anything else. Each gigantic zone contains myriad ways to distract you on the way to the next. Although many of the environments are self-contained, many missions will encourage exploration of uncharted territories. Completionists will have it especially rough—every yellow exclamation point on the mini-map is a mark of shame pulling you back into each fantastical environment.
None of this is to say that Reckoning doesn't function smoothly on a minute level as well. In fact, so many tedious aspects of RPGs are improved that it's a wonder more games haven't done the same. Sneaking is effective and—dare I say it—fun, inventory management allows the marking of items for quick sale, and mid-combo weapon swapping exponentially increases combat potential.
The story of Reckoning isn't exceptional—characters, events, and places are all muddled together and forgotten within a few of hours of completion. The amalgamation of RPG and action elements is what makes your journey through the Faelands memorable. Everything flows together in the most fluid way: Exploration leads to quests, which lead to combat, which leads to experimentation, which recreates the whole process. It's hard to feel as if you've made a dent in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning without dozens of hours logged, but these are hours very well spent.
—Mike Mahardy (Mike's Portfolio)
Don't Starve (PC)
In a genre predating survival horror, survival shooters, and survival real-time strategy (RTS), Don't Starve carves a bleak new direction for subsistence gaming. Klei Entertainment (Shank, Mark of the Ninja) has taken the Harvest Moon formula and stripped away any optimism, replacing it with a dark, pen-drawn visual style and a single, negative command.
The player wakes up as Victorian gentleboy Wilson, stranded on a muted, brown patch of dirt dotted with tufts of grass, rabbit holes, a tree or two, the errant flint, spider nests, berries, seeds, ravens, rocks, pig kings, poop, gravestones, twigs, and an invisible night predator. The player's goal is as trivial as it is consuming—don't starve. An inventory at the base of the screen reveals Wilson's relative poverty, and a build list on the left hints at his survival potential. At the right, flashing heart and stomach meters guide him towards the first order of business.
The first night, Wilson invariably dies. How should the player know that he would need that much grass to keep a fire going through the night? But that first death is critical, because it sets the tone for the rest of the game, the tone that only permadeath can conjure. It's more akin to roguelikes, and evinces a dire aura similar to Dark Souls' soul-crushing enterprise. Don't Starve is a bit cheekier than that.
Don't Starve thrives on its dark humor, not unlike Limbo, but stands in gaunt contrast with Limbo's playful forgiveness. By attacking too many spiders, forgetting to gather materials for a campfire, or staying in one place too long, the player learns the hard way (that is, by starting all over) that this simulation won't award personality. Survival suddenly matters.
Don't Starve is the first game in several years that Klei Entertainment self-published and it squeaks with an independent, experimental verve. That ingenuity extends to the player's toolkit, which includes, among other oddities, a life-saving meat effigy, more or less an olive branch to dedicated players. Also roaming the sparse island are regenerating pig-men who, when killed and fed to the pig king (of course), turn into gold nuggets for experience.
In the interest of science (generated by the Science Machine), players can dig up graves to release ghosts, who attack Wilson and his arachnid enemies, or they can set fire to a tree to burn down all flora on the map. None of that's explicitly communicated to the player. Like in the moment of that first death in the pitch black night, these tough lessons encapsulate the pioneering backbone of Don't Starve.
The game is, however, an unforgiving frustration at times, and the exploration starts to wear thin after ten or so hours. Even then, there are still combinations of resources, pan flutes, and top hats that could take twice as long to see into completion. Since Don't Starve runs a light, fast client on PC, popping in and out of this gentleman scientist's survival nightmare is easy, bizarre, and briefly gripping.
—Dan Crabtree (Games on a Stick)
[Continued in Part 2]