Continuing our effort to spotlight worthwhile games that didn't manage to make it onto many 2012 Top 10 lists, here are the rest of the nominations for "most overlooked" as selected by friends and freelancers in the gaming sphere.
[Check out Part 1]
I Am Alive (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
The survival horror genre is in a bit of a schism right now, with the genre trending more and more toward action and heavy shooting. There are frightening moments, sure, but it's rare to feel like your character is in any real danger. I Am Alive seems to be a direct response to that movement, going in the exact opposite direction by putting the emphasis instead on survival. For example, ammo and healing supplies are incredibly rare. I think the most ammo I ever had at once was a total of three bullets, and I felt like a god carrying those around. One bullet is as many as you'll usually have, so you need to make it count.
In one scene, a survivor might come up to you and give you a little shove. Ok, so you try to walk around him only to see his friend to pop out holding a big knife. You pull your gun and they slowly raise their arms and back away. Do you actually have any ammo? Maybe, but they don't know. Unlike standard game A.I., they value their lives and don't want to find out. However, the longer you hold the gun on them without firing, the more suspicious they get. They'll eventually start to take steps forward again… It's these standoff moments that make I Am Alive such a rare and wonderful game, but there is so much more.
I met two friendly survivors in a subway tunnel cooking by a fire. They welcomed me and offered me something to eat. I thanked them for it, only to later discover the meat came from some cannibals further down the tunnel. Did the friendly survivors even know, or had they just gladly accepted any offered food as I did? I couldn't be sure. Another woman I met begged for food for her and her child. I had just used my last food to heal myself, but I decided I would come back later when I found more supplies. I returned a few hours later only to find the woman hanging from a home-made noose, and the child nowhere in sight. And don't even get me started on the hotel…
The game's atmosphere and attention to detail is simply impeccable, creating an oppressive and, more importantly, consistent tone. Yes, the melee combat is awful (I think purposefully so as to force players into using the gun bluff) and the ship segment is grade-A cheap b.s, but I can forgive those faults for everything it does right, and that's without even mentioning the Demon's Souls-inspired stamina bar which adds a thrilling sense of tension to the otherwise boring Uncharted/Assassin's Creed climbing mechanics.
I played I Am Alive early for a review, and was honestly shocked when it received so many negative critiques. I said it then and I will say again now, I Am Alive was easily one of the best games to come out of 2012.
—Scott Nichols (Scott Nichols)
Little Inferno (Nintendo Wii U, PC)
Despite still being one of only three indie games on the shiny new Wii U (and the sole game currently on sale), Little Inferno didn't really seem to… ahem… catch fire with the public. The average gamer has done a remarkable job ignoring the pedigree of its developers (World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure), the dark humor that's apparent even in the teaser trailer, and the interesting premise, hands-off learning style, and incredible music.
In Little Inferno, you are a young boy sitting in front of your "Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace," burning all your toys in a futile attempt to keep warm while what appears to be the next ice age descends on the world outside your front door. Burnt toys drop money, enabling you to order newer, better toys to burn next, while solving riddles and burning certain combinations of toys together lets you order toys faster and unlock more catalogs.
The beauty of Little Inferno is that it doesn't explain any of this to you. Like the original Super Mario Bros., it teaches you how to play the game by limiting your options to only what you need to do, but instead of running to the right and jumping, you toss objects into the fireplace then touch them to light them on fire. Despite the bittersweet atmosphere of the game, however, burning all your worldly possessions is rarely sad, even when it screams or cries as soon as the flames start to lick its skin. It's more… cathartic. Out with the old, in with the new.
As the flames dance across your screen, you picture a brighter world rebuilt from the ashes, a world free of death, and cold, and sadness. Little Inferno is a game of building a better future on the burnt remains of the old, and it is glorious.
Throughout the game, you'll start to get letters—letters from your neighbor, letters from the weatherman, letters from the CEO of Tomorrow Corporation (the in-game and real-world developers of the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace and Little Inferno, the game). They offer companionship, and lead you to answers, and give you weather reports. The storytelling is minimalist, but the dialogue is so endearing that you quickly come to care about this little world in the flames, and the little world outside, in the snow.
Then as you continue to burn away your childhood memories, things start happening. Things you wouldn't suspect. And lo, you are treated to one of the finest endings of any game in recent memory, a resolution that will stick with you long after the screen goes dark and the flames die out.
New consoles are a chance for new developers to try new things, and Little Inferno sits pretty, not only as the best indie on the Wii U, but also as quite possibly the best game on the Wii U. Full stop. If you don't own a Wii U, pick it up on Steam before it's too late, and build your gaming future from the ashes of the past.
—Nick Simberg (Nick Simberg)
Binary Domain (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
They think they're alive: corporate controlled, red-eyed robots with a programmed death wish. Tokyo belongs to them in 2080, the Amada Corporation deploying their technological ingenuity in a search for power and created life.
Robots in Binary Domain do not die. They succumb to forced, physical devastation. With their legs blown away, bots crawl through their own scrambled fragments, still determined to carry out their mission against an appropriately named, militaristic Rust Crew. Bullets do not impact these creations called "Hollow Children," they shatter them. That's Binary Domain's immediate, enthralling hook.
Almost every AAA or AA video game shoots. We praise and adore what they do right in death, but Binary Domain is almost soothing. Fragmentation carries a twisted allure against an enemy that is too inhuman to feel sorry for. Particle effects are ingeniously employed to sell impact, and there is no loss of power as the robot death march proceeds. If anything, their resistance to the hail of gunfire is what sells the shots; taking any one of them down is an accomplishment, the entire horde a thrill.
Between the bombs, guns, and gruffly comedic English dubbing, Sega builds an intertwined story. The Rust Crew comes from all circles, female, male, English, British, and more. This is a world war fought on Asian soil, via a design that is strikingly Japanese featuring characters determined to be American. Bosses, inserted into the narrative as action highs, bring with them patterns and weak points. Binary Domain could pass as a reincarnated Contra at its peaks, an extensive campaign paced to perfection, and challenging as ego takes over.
Rust Squad is not an ingrained unit. There is a sense of distrust amongst their members. While Sega may do little to sell the concept of voice commands via headset, quick selections on the directional pad will issue responses to conversations. Responding to offensive calls for cover, taking the lead in combat, and ensuring fire never strays into a friendly will create trust. It becomes a vital system as the crew branches out into their own war torn territories. Who you choose on each mission will help create bonds that mend together a narrative, unique to the structure of this overlooked gem.
What's unique about Binary Domain in the midst of third-person, highly budgeted shooters is its heart. While the point-and-shoot mechanisms are the immediate draw, camaraderie expands within often wet, dilapidated environments. Tokyo feels completely under siege, failed government sanctions allowing a mad man to experiment with new—if wholly artificial—life. The loose fabric that forms Rust Crew is challenged by mechanical warriors, and tested by how they behave.
Binary Domain asks questions, and maybe its metaphors are lost through some quirky, defiantly Japanese plot devices. This is not a macho, American shooter where guns solve everything, nor is it remotely plausible. The game is comfortable within its own skin, even if that skin can be unnervingly weird.
Sega packs in some multiplayer options that should not exist outside of cooperative play, but it is easy to forgive that sin. Almost no one will remember their online conflicts in Binary Domain. They will almost certainly question what it is to be human. In an era where shooters are often little more than pockets of meat exploding into blood marshes, Binary Domain wants to be more. It succeeds, and deserves a look for being daring.
—Matt Paprocki (Matt Paprocki)
The Sea Will Claim Everything (PC)
I can think of a handful of games released this year that didn't gain the audience they deserved, but there is only one that I failed to fully appreciate within my initial review. That game is The Sea Will Claim Everything by Jonas and Verena Kyrates, and here's why it deserves your attention:
The more time you take to explore the fantastical "Lands of Dream" the more poignant your adventure becomes. Even a cursory playthrough will impress with some novel puzzles, memorable characters and an incredible soundtrack courtesy of Chris Christodoulou, but click on everything you see, read every line of dialogue and take the time to truly reflect upon the experience and you will be rewarded with something intellectually challenging and emotionally affecting.
As an example, the genre staple of item collection is given a somewhat unsettling undertone due to the financial crisis that has befallen "The Fortunate Isles." The leaders of each island may be manipulating the situation in slightly different ways, but all of them have enacted isolationist policies that have crippled trade.
Market stall owners will ask you to locate items that, whilst as peculiar as the rest of the game, were common mere months ago. Intellectual discourse has undergone a similar fate, with libraries being threatened with foreclosure and once great philosophers retiring to sell melons. The current financial crisis in Europe is the game's most prominent satirical target, but cultural allusions are everywhere—be that upon the spine of the many books or within the thoughts of the many mushrooms—and almost every click is edifying.
The game isn't stifled in any way in order to portray its message, you meet the most extraordinary characters and Jonas' turn of phrase is often even more whimsical than Verena's illustrations, but there is an unspoken dissonance between certain elements that places you in a rather contemplative mood. This would be impressive if rather irksome if the game attempted to force an ideology upon the player, but it doesn't. It is instead confident enough to simply frame the events within the context of philosophy, mythology, politics and literary theory in order to promote introspection and discussion.
You are never truly an inhabitant of the wondrous "Fortunate Isles." You will interact with its characters, explore its depths and ultimately become engrossed by it, but even within the fiction of the game you aren't physically there. Instead, you are viewing it through a "magical window" created by a druid in need of your help. Initially this seems more of a novelty than anything else, but once the tone is established it becomes clear that it is because the game doesn't want to fully remove you from reality. It doesn't want to tie your fate to that of the impossible world you are striving to save, it wants you to pay closer attention to the one we all share.
The sea may or may not claim everything in the end, but this remarkable game will almost certainly claim your heart.
—Ian Findlay (Ian Findlay)
They Bleed Pixels (PC)
Masochism at its finest, They Bleed Pixels delivers intense combat within a moody, Gothic world. Dark colours dominate the Lovecraftian world, but spend any amount of time with the game and you'll soon find yourself painting the town red. Add in nail-biting platforming, rocking chiptunes, and guest and bonus levels, and They Bleed Pixels is the can't miss package of 2012 that far too many did, in fact, miss.
They Bleed Pixels' greatest strength comes from tearing up enemies and throwing them into the myriad environmental obstacles. Having experimented with one button design prior, Spooky Squid have competently mapped all combat moves to a single button, making them sensitive to the context they're enacted in (say running forward or jumping down). These enemies fit perfectly into the world: Not only are they inspired by Lovecraft's creations and horror tropes, they're smart.
Coming at enemies while button-mashing is often a fruitless endeavour. Each has a specific set of ways it needs to be defeated (if not thrown to its demise), meaning They Bleed Pixels is more about precision than simply brawling. Precision, too, is key to the platforming elements of the game, and it's an area players may struggle with. Many of the game's eleven areas are more about platforming than combat, and tough as nails to boot. Unless one is willing to commit to learning everything there is about the unnamed protagonist—especially how to best utilize her dash, double jump, and mid-air combat—he or she won't find the platforming "clicks" like games of a similar vein.
This is mostly forgivable given They Bleed Pixels' creative checkpoint system. Instead of having checkpoints set in stone or forcing players to restart the level, They Bleed Pixels allows players to set their own. In order to do so, players fill a meter by collecting the spilled blood of enemies. Stand still and the checkpoint is placed for player convenience. Racking up more kills and combos means more checkpoints, creating something of a coping mechanism for dealing with a challenging game.
Be warned: Super Meat Boy this is not, and comparisons here have been annoying since they've started. Yes, They Bleed Pixels is masochistic. Yes, it was made by two guys. And yes, there's platforming to be had. The comparisons largely stop there. Where Super Meat Boy is about great platforming, They Bleed Pixels is about rewarding combat; where Super Meat Boy has an almost polished aesthetic, They Bleed Pixels's is, well, pixelated; and whereas blood is shed in each, the former comes from the game's protagonists, and in the latter, from the enemies.
There is one other commonality: Both Super Meat Boy and They Bleed Pixels revere and showcase the work of fellow indies. In the case of They Bleed Pixels, these are in the form of guest levels with mixed up aesthetics. Taking inspiration from Seraph and Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure, each is an additional goodie for players to enjoy, as well as a welcome change of scenery. With one more of these levels slated to be available for free, as well as a free Halloween update from Spooky Squid, it's not hard to see They Bleed Pixels is a love letter to fans. Yes, sometimes it's a little rough around the edges, but it's hard to deny the allure it has for gamers of a certain persuasion. Don't miss out.
The Darkness II (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
(Brad: Yes, I know this was already covered in the previous post, but clearly the game has a lot of fans out there. This was the only title that was chosen multiple times, and I had to cut it off at two entries.)
The Darkness II is a game that lets you eviscerate enemies in incredibly gruesome ways. You can slice them in half, rip their hearts out, and run them through in all manner of visceral and violent ways. As Jackie Estacado, a powerful mob boss with the unholy power of the ancient Darkness, you can perform an incredible array of extreme and exciting violence. The back of the box even proudly touts the feature of "quad-wielding," something that sounds like something out of the most radical ‘90s arcade game. As much as the game and its marketing focus on this, it was completely secondary to what made me enjoy the game. Far and above anything else about it, I was playing The Darkness II for the world and its characters.
The Darkness II has, with the possible exception of more role-playing game-like games like the Deus Ex series, the most enjoyable and lively world of any first-person shooter I've ever played. The first Darkness is famous for letting players sit down with Jackie's girlfriend Jenny and watch the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird on an in-game TV. It was one of the most personal and intimate moment in a game this, or any, generation, and The Darkness II blows past that with the wonderful things it does.
In between missions, players are free to explore Jackie's swanky mob boss-penthouse and interact with all the characters within. Some are typical mob movie clichés, like old mafia veteran Jimmy the Grape, while others like Johnny, a historian of The Darkness, are more unique. All of them are impeccably voice acted and an absolute joy to talk to. Even the clichéd characters, the psychopathic goon who loves killing for example, or the aforementioned mentor Jimmy the Grape, are unique and excellently written characters that are so much fun to share a world with, and oftentimes do a lot to interestingly subvert their conventions.
Going a step further, my absolute favorite parts of The Darkness II were the missions completely devoid of violence. Without spoiling some great moments, Jackie finds himself in a mental hospital à la One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and it provides some of the game's best moments. There's no combat, no ripping people's hearts out with your evil snake-arms, but I enjoyed pressing X to exhaust half an hour's worth of conversation about fruit from one hospital inmate more than just about anything else in games this year. That's not to say the bread and butter of the game's combat is bad either, far from it! Doing all kinds of awful, violent things to equally awful and violent bad guys manages to feel excitingly empowering while also providing a challenge.
The Darkness II was my favorite first-person shooter (FPS) of the year, in a year filled with heavy-hitters like Halo 4 and Far Cry 3. Heck, it was probably my plain favorite game. It provides a wonderfully unique and inventive twist to many FPS genre conventions, from gameplay to narrative. It managed at times to be stupidly funny in both its jokes and gameplay, and at others genuinely heartfelt and touching. Finally, if for no other reason, The Darkness II should be on anyone's Game of the Year list for having the funniest FPS calibration tutorial ever.
…And there you have it, two posts' worth of overlooked games hand-picked by the people who know.
Hopefully you've already played a few of these or have heard about them, but if not, then do yourself a favor and track a couple of these down. Everyone knows about the "big" games of 2012, but as you can see, there were a whole lot of quality experiences to be had that didn't generate as much buzz as the ones currently topping most of the critics' lists.
Don't miss out!