Another year, another breakdown of the year's best games…according to me.
Before writing this list, I went back to my archive and looked over what I'd said in years past. The funny thing is that while plenty of folk were saying that the "big" games disappointed in 2012, I also found that to be true in 2011 and 2010. Perhaps the trend is becoming more noticeable now, but in hindsight, it definitely seems to be a trend that's been happening for a while.
However, even though the blockbusters might still be missing the mark, what was different about 2012 compared to years past was that I had my game of the year picked out quite a while ago. In my mind, there just wasn't any real competition—the gap between #1 and #2 was fairly vast.
My top choice will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter, but we'll get to that in a moment. In the meantime, please take a look at the nine very deserving games which precede it, and if there are some which don't look familiar or which you haven't tried yet, please give them some consideration—there were some choice experiences to be had this year, to be sure.
And now, with no further ado… my top ten games of 2012.
Tokyo Jungle (PlayStation 3)
Weird… Fringe… Unorthodox. These are words that appeal to me when referencing video games. I'm constantly in search of new and unusual ideas, or fresh takes on old formulas. Out of everything that was released in 2012, I would be very hard-pressed to name something more bizarre than the animals-gone-wild experience of Tokyo Jungle. The best part about it is that the premise of animals running through the streets of a major metropolis wasn't just bonkers, it actually had a great core of quasi-roguelike gameplay at its center. Further, the story campaign managed to be humorous, serious, and even poignant over the course of its running time. Toss in some impossible-to-resist characters (deinonychus! Japanese salaryman!) and the end result is a game built to deliver constant replay and constant absurdity at the same time.
Persona 4: Arena (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
I knew this title had been coming for a while, but I had no idea that rather than a simple bit of well-deserved fanservice, it was going to be an actual canon entry in the Persona role-playing game (RPG) series. As if that wasn't enough of a surprise, not only did it contain a legitimate, multi-faceted story worthy of a full-on role-player, it bridged the narratives and characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4, setting the stage for what should be an absolutely mindblowing experience in the sure-to-come Persona 5. Oh, did I forget to mention that it's a fighting game? And that it's not just any fighting game, but one with an approachable engine and enough depth to satisfy any aficionado of the genre? Strong combat and a strong story in the same title? You don't see that everyday.
Papo & Yo (PlayStation 3)
Video games have plenty of room to grow. They don't all need to adhere to the same sorts of ideas, and they don't all need to provide the same sort of experience. It's not required that players have fun, and they don't always need to be king of the world. Papo & Yo is what I would describe as an autobiographical project, and the adventure its main character takes is more about what the director was thinking and feeling as the child of an alcoholic father than it is about solving puzzles or having doodads to collect. The visuals were strongly imaginative and the themes were quite clear. The ending was an absolute revelation. Although not to everyone's taste, the tale resonated with me on a core level, and I have nothing but respect for the message that was imparted by the time credits rolled.
Dragon's Dogma (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Although I'm a big fan of Western-style RPGs, I've always been a little confused by the insistence of developers to focus on turn-based systems, or systems which rely heavily on standing in one place and waiting for cooldowns before spamming the next sword slash or magic attack. It's almost as though having quests and an epic story somehow exclude the ability to have fast-paced action. Dragon's Dogma rectified that by asking players to actually fight their battles, and it was an absolute breath of fresh air. The classic tones of Dungeons & Dragons were great, the asynchronous multiplayer Pawn system was ingenious, and although there were a few fairly sizable errors made along the way (get to the fast travel sooner!) the ending of the adventure was not only totally unexpected, but put much of the experience beforehand into a different light. It's certainly not perfect, but it's a great start. If Capcom listens to player feedback, the sequel should be absolutely amazing.
Mass Effect 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of all time. It was an incredible experience that has stayed with me ever since I rolled credits, and thinking about it eve now brings a smile to my face. No one was more excited than I was to begin Mass Effect 2, but in my eyes, it went off the rails and ended up as a bitter disappointment. I wasn't sure that BioWare could right their wrongs with Mass Effect 3, but I'd have to admit that they did, despite a few missteps. As someone invested in the characters and universe, I appreciated the time they took to wrap up so many connections and threads, and in essence, the third game is essentially one long epilogue to the series overall. There were many great moments and conversations which left me feeling quite satisfied about the state of affairs prior to the actual ending—and that ending itself? I'm one of the very few who thought it was just fine the first time, prior to the fan outcry and subsequent tinkering. Although it didn't quite reach the same heights with me that the first game did, Mass Effect 3 managed to bring the trilogy to a close in a great way, and I respect it for that.
Binary Domain (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
If there were one game to not judge by its cover this year, I think my vote would go to Binary Domain. On its surface, it seems like another bro-shooter that doesn't stand out in any way, and being developed by Sega didn't inspire confidence in a lot of people. However, not only do the shooting mechanics deliver the most satisfying robot-wrecking action of the year, the writers went above and beyond what anyone expected by crafting a science-fiction story that was legitimately interesting and thoughtful. On top of that, there were light RPG mechanics included which asked the player to maintain relationships with the members of their squad, the ramifications of which ran deeper than most players and reviewers were aware of. Overall, Binary Domain took what could easily have been a standard genre entry and hybridized it into something unexpectedly sophisticated.
Mark of the Ninja (Xbox 360)
I like ninjas and I like stealth games, and really, does anything go together better than these two things? It seems like a total no-brainer, yet the games industry has struggled time and time again to deliver something that fits the bill. However, Nels Anderson and his team managed to blend these elements together in a form that not only works, but works wonderfully. Surprisingly, the move to 2D felt natural and appropriate, and the brilliant way the game constantly gives the player feedback about their visibility and audio profile is one of those elegant solutions that makes you slap your forehead and wonder why no one thought of it sooner. Toss in fantastic animation and a number of in-game systems that encourage different playstyles, and it's easy to see why this one is on the list.
I Am Alive (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
After a prolonged development cycle and several near-disastrous twists and turns, it was a bit of surprise to see I Am Alive finally become available for download. It had been so long in coming that I had almost written it off as vaporware, but I'm incredibly glad it endured through its painful tribulations—what it brings to the table is a harsh, unflinching look at post-apocalyptic life with an intensity that few games have dared to attempt. The content is a bit shocking at times, perhaps even offensive, and that raw tone combined with a game design which keeps the player constantly underpowered and on the brink of death adds up to a very mature, bleak experience which is often more about the will to continue than it is about dominating the landscape.
Dokuro (PlayStation Vita)
What's that? You haven't even heard of this game? Have no idea what it is? No worries, you're not alone—this incredibly charming and clever puzzle/platformer is only available on the Vita, and arrived with very little fanfare and practically no PR. In fact, at the time I'm writing this, it's only been reviewed by thirteen outlets. Compare that to somewhere around 150 for Black Ops II, and it gives you an idea of how few reviewers were even aware of it. It's a real shame, though... Dokuro has a fantastic art style, truly brilliant puzzle design, just the right amount of action, and it's a perfect fit for the hardware it's on. In every respect, this small-scale tale of a hard-working skeleton in love is an absolute champ.
The Walking Dead (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, iPhone, iPad)
Like I said, not really a surprise.
Although plenty of people have made the joke that I picked two zombie-themed games for top honors in a row, I didn't pick The Walking Dead because I'm a horror game superfan. No, the truth of the matter is that Telltale took one of the strongest properties in entertainment today and turned out the best material they've ever created.
The story of Lee, Clementine, Kenny, and the rest of the survivors in a post-zombpocalyptic world isn't as engaging and gripping as it is because of the zombies, but because the characters are portrayed as believable, realistic human beings trapped in a nightmarish situation and it's far too easy to relate to the struggles they go through and the choices they make.
It's been a long time since I've felt a connection to characters as strong as the one I felt here, and it just goes to show that video games have plenty of room to grow. There is an entire world of emotion to explore and endless stories to tell which have nothing to do with photorealistic graphics or ever-more-massive online multiplayer. I am quite hopeful that the door opened by The Walking Dead will lead the entire medium in a rich, new direction.
…And there you have it, my top ten of 2012.
Agree? Disagree? Reply in the comments section below.