Two thousand and twelve is officially in the books, which means it can be time for only one thing: this year's installment of Bracken's Best Games of the Year.
If you've already listened to our year-end awards extravaganza podcast, then you're well aware of what my top four games of 2012 were—but don't bail yet! There are six other games that made my top 10 of the past year, and you'll want to stick around to see what they are. Plus, if you haven't heard the podcast, the entire list is a mystery to you at this point!
Before we jump in, a bit of explanation is in order. I completed 50 games in the past 12 months, the majority being releases from 2012. Despite completing roughly one game per week, there were still things I missed—so an apology in advance to games like Journey, FTL, Mark of the Ninja, and about a hundred other games that got serious buzz this year, but won't be on the list because I didn't get to play them. I'm only human—and there are only so many hours to play games in the day. Consider them this year's version of Bastion—a game I didn't get to in its calendar year, but also one that would have made the end-of-year list if I had.
With that clarified, let's dive right in. Without further ado, here are my top 10 games of 2012 in descending order.
Lollipop Chainsaw (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
The always-controversial Suda 51 returns to my top ten list for the second year in a row (he turned up last year with the divisive Shadows of the Damned), and this year's choice is probably even more likely to stir up emotions than the one from 2011.
Like all Suda 51 games, Lollipop Chainsaw is not without problems—and like all Suda 51 games, Lollipop Chainsaw does just enough right to make fans overlook the flaws. This goofy tale finds a Valley Girl cheerleader taking on the undead (with her boyfriend's talking severed head attached to her hip) in her small town. As the title suggests, her weapon of choice is a chainsaw, which allows for a number of gory combos for dispatching the zombies. The gameplay is serviceable, but the story and characters (which were polished to a satirical glow by Hollywood filmmaker James Gunn) are so absurd that I found myself willing to overlook some of the game's minor flaws. Plus, the whole thing is crafted like a love letter to horror geeks—name dropping Lucio Fulci, George Romero, and Dan O'Bannon amongst others.
Lollipop Chainsaw won't change your life—and it probably won't change your perception of Suda 51—but I had a good time with it and suspect that Suda's legions of loyal fans will as well. If you're not into his previous work, you can safely skip this one.
Binary Domain (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Sega gets the gas face for releasing one of the coolest third person shooters of 2012 and doing absolutely nothing to promote it. Binary Domain deserved a better fate than the one it got at retail—so maybe we can start to rectify that here.
The game is basically an Eastern take on the squad-based pop-and-drop mechanics of Gears of War, featuring a story that borrows liberally from Blade Runner and Terminator (amongst countless other inspirations). The narrative is kooky and features some lunkheaded characters, but the gameplay is sublime—popping up from cover to shoot menacing robots who continue to crawl after you if you shoot off their legs is one of 2012's greatest visuals. Featuring multiple endings, solid shooting mechanics, and the work of Sega's Yakuza team, Binary Domain should have been a bigger deal than it was. Instead, this is 2012's version of Nier—another great game that got zero marketing push and was ignored by the masses. Remedy that now.
Prior to playing Blue Hole Studio's 2012 massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Tera, my experience with Korean MMOs was less than stellar. The games are generally beautiful to look at, but they're also notoriously "grindy" in order to get anywhere. Tera changed that—for the most part—while also changing the way we play these sorts of games.
Tera's biggest achievement was the implementation of an active, controller-based combat system. The days of tab targetting and pushing a button on a keyboard are gone in this world, where combat is fast, frenetic, and requires actual skill and positioning to succeed. Blue Hole deserves tons of credit for pulling this off—because the experience is seamless, satisfying, and most importantly, largely lag-free.
Traversing Tera's worlds, taking on the enormous "Bad Ass Monsters" who tower above the players, and grinding for new gear and skills provided me with over 300 hours of entertainment this summer. Unfortunately, the game was overshadowed by larger MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, but Blue Hole's game is a solid option in an overcrowded market. Beautiful to play and look at, Tera will scratch your MMO itch. As an added bonus, it's also going free to play next month.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition (Xbox 360, PC)
Geralt of Rivia jumped from the PC to the Xbox 360 in this updated port of one of last year's greatest PC games, and I'm glad he did.
We spent a lot of time this year talking about how The Walking Dead is pushing game narrative forward, but The Witcher 2 deserves acknowledgment in this regard too. The game's storyline can be a bit hard to follow at first (the opening dumps a lot of lore onto players), but once things get rolling, this title features choices that are every bit as challenging as those found in Telltale's games. I spent upwards of 15 minutes pondering some of them—even though there's no legitimately right or wrong answer.
The rest of the game is equally impressive—if you're willing to deal with the challenge. The Witcher 2 is not easy, even on the console, which offers up tutorials and other things to help players manage the game—but it is an ultimately rewarding and entertaining experience for those who stick with it and follow Geralt on his latest adventure.
Dishonored (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
The absolute biggest surprise of 2012 for me was just how much I wound up liking Dishonored. I had this stealth/action hybrid from Arkane Studios pegged as a cross between Skyrim and Assassin's Creed (two things I absolutely despise), but found that the actual experience trumps both of those titles.
Sneaking around the steampunk city of Dunwall was one of the genuine highlights of 2012 for me—the aesthetic design of the city is excellent, and the multiple gameplay paths to every objective made me feel as though I were in a living, breathing world where I called the shots. The inclusion of the blink ability—which allows main character Corvo to teleport short distances—never becomes as game-breaking as it could have been, and instead adds an extra layer to the standard sneaking and killing.
Great gameplay, a well-realized world, and a mostly interesting story make Dishonored the best new IP of 2012.
Persona 4: Golden (PlayStation Vita)
Atlus continued the trend of remixing their Persona games for Sony handhelds and gave the Vita a much needed killer app with the release of Persona 4: Golden.
This updating of the popular PlayStation RPG reminded me of why I loved the original version so much—while improving upon it in the process. The story—about a group of teens balancing school and life while hunting down a supernatural serial killer—is just as awesome as ever. The gameplay, which mixes dungeon exploration, social link management, and countless side-quests, still satisfies in 2012. Put all of this together on the Vita's sexy hardware and Persona 4: Golden provides the most compelling reason in 2012 to plunk down the cash for Sony's newest portable.
Torchlight II (PC)
Runic Games blew me away a few years back when they released the original Torchlight. When they promised to add online multiplayer to an even more expansive sequel, Torchlight II hopped to the top of my most anticipated list. After several delays, the game finally released this year—and was totally worth the wait.
Torchlight II expands upon the original game in a number of ways, allowing cooperative play, giving players a larger world to explore, and offering up gobs of loot to upgrade your character. With a lengthy campaign, new game + modes, and a "die once and your character is gone forever" hardcore setting, Torchlight II brings a lot to the table for a measly $20. If you've been yearning for an updated take on Diablo II and find Diablo III's annoying always online requirement and real money auction house aren't your cup of tea, Torchlight II could very easily serve as a replacement.
Borderlands 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Guns and loot might be two of my favorite things in the video game world—which probably explains why I love the Borderlands franchise so much.
The sequel to one of 2009's biggest hits doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, but is instead content to tweak what already worked the first time around. Borderlands 2 adds more enemies, new classes, and lots of new regions to explore while keeping the loot, endless array of weaponry, and humorous tone of the first game completely intact. It's easy to bag on a developer for not pushing the envelope sometimes, but there's a lot to be said for realizing you've got something that works and resisting the urge to mess it up solely in the name of trying something different. Borderlands 2 succeeds in this regard.
With a satisfying mixture of laughs (I've missed you, Claptrap..), treasure, and gunplay, Borderlands 2 is one of those rare instances where "more of the same" is actually a good thing.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo Wii)
It's really unfortunate that Xenoblade Chronicles was A.) stuck on the Wii, and B.) almost not released in America at all, because this Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) proved there's still life in the genre.
Blending the narrative-driven tales of countless JRPGs with a westernized MMO approach to questing and battle, Xenoblade proved that the JRPG is capable of not only surviving, but adapting in the modern gaming landscape. Marrying gorgeous (but unfortunately, not HD) visuals, lovely music, an engaging combat system, and an interesting setting and story, Xenoblade is arguably the best console JRPG of this entire generation—and most people missed it because it was on the Wii…
Given that the Wii's install base is huge, there's no reason for you not to check out Xenoblade today—well, except that since it was only released in limited amounts through GameStop it's now becoming pricey and hard to find. Get your copy of Xenoblade before it reaches Suikoden II levels of collectability.
The Walking Dead (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, iPhone, iPad)
Telltale's point-and-click zombie adventure has no business being game of the year in a practical sense—it's a point-and-click adventure for starters, and everyone will tell you those things are dead. It's about zombies, and zombies have oversaturated the market. On top of that, it's got an African-American convict and a little girl as the main characters—where are the badass space marines with huge guns?
Yet, somehow, Telltale managed to overcome all of these potential hurdles and craft one of the most touching and unforgettable game experiences of this generation. Lee and Clementine's adventure resonates with us on a deeply emotional level—so deep that we weigh every decision with an eye toward not only surviving, but also making sure this little girl learns what's right in a strange new world where the old rules may no longer even apply. In other games, players would go out of their way to get a character like Clementine killed—she's baggage, a detriment to our desire to hack our way through the zombie hordes in search of blood and glory. In Telltale's hands, though, Clementine is the opposite—she's a character to be protected. She forces us—the solitary gamer masses—to think about someone other than ourselves. We come through the experience better for it.
While there's currently a bit of a Walking Dead backlash happening in some circles of the gaming world (the argument being that the choices weren't really choices at all and that the experience is more a story than a game…), we'd be well advised to acknowledge those potential problems with the title—because there's a grain of truth to them—and then tell those complaining that they're partially correct, but it really doesn't matter anyway. If games are ever going to become art, experiences like The Walking Dead are necessary—if only because they make us reconsider what games that are art look like while showing us how far current titles are from the mark. This is not to say The Walking Dead is art, but rather that it's a required step on a path that may eventually lead to the medium being taken seriously in artistic circles. There's lots of room for growth.
Of course, if you don't care about any of that (and I don't blame you if you don't—the games as art debate gets very old, very quickly), there's still joy to be found in this experience. The story telling is excellent, the gameplay never gets in the way of the narrative, and the decisions you'll be forced to make will linger with your for days after you finish. When a game works this well, you have no choice other than to make it your Game of the Year. Congratulations, Telltale—we're all excited to see what you do with Season 2.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.