I liked a lot of games in 2013, but only truly loved a few. I had a nine game pile-up contending for the final spot in my Top 10. The games that missed the cut, in alphabetical order: Antichamber, Kentucky Route Zero (episodes 1 and 2), Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Shadowrun Returns, Shin Megami Tensei IV, SteamWorld Dig, The Stanley Parable, and Tomb Raider.
There was a distinct lack of great RPGs in 2013, which I’m sure contributed to the short list of games that I really loved. Depending on what genre you put Zelda in, there isn’t a single RPG on this list - a highly unusual situation for me.
2014, on the other hand, has a chance to be a killer RPG year. Even with The Witcher 3 delayed to early 2015, we should still have Dark Souls 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Bravely Default, Child of Light, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Divinity: Original Sin, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and The Banner Saga. Hopefully my 2014 list will be filled with RPGs!
10. Saints Row IV
With Saints Row IV, Volition is now fully out of the shadow of Grand Theft Auto. Any remnants of its initial incarnation as a crime simulator that remained in Saints Row: The Third have been fully swept away in Saints Row IV. This game has more in common with Crackdown and inFAMOUS now than GTA. Although it starts a bit slow, once you are immersed in the alien Matrix simulation of Stillwater (complete with super jumps, magic powers, and purposefully T-posing enemy factions), it’s full steam ahead to crazy town. Added bonus: the customization options on your hero remain the best in the business, giving you full control over your look, sound, and style as you play.
9. The Last of Us
The Last of Us has a fantastic story, amazing visuals, great characters, an interesting world, and a brilliant ending. The gameplay was fun, but towards the end of the game (especially in the last level) I was ready for it to be over sooner than it was. But, looking back, Last of Us has so many memorable moments (that ending!), that I couldn’t help but really enjoy Ellie and Joel’s story.
8. Bioshock Infinite
A lot of ink has been spilled (metaphorically) in analysis of Bioshock Infinite’s themes, story, and problems. Looking back on it, I like it slightly less now than I did immediately after finishing it. I think it could have really used some more exploration (and a Bioshock 1 style map), and a little less constant collection (you have to see Mega64’s video on this topic shown at GDC, but not yet available online – so funny). But the art direction and beauty of the world went a long way for me, and I think I found the combat to be better than the general consensus. The vigors are fun to use and experiment with, the guns are fun to shoot, the skylines are a great way to get around a battle arena, and there are some great combat setups throughout the game.
7. DmC Devil May Cry
DmC is Ninja Theory’s best game to date, and a terrific reboot of the Devil May Cry series. I hope they get a chance to do more in the series, because I thought that they absolutely nailed the fighting engine in this game. The six different weapons are all unique, with slightly different button combos, and very different attacks. DmC also has one of the best boss fights in recent memory (Bob Barbas). Unfortunately the last boss of the game doesn’t reach these same heights, but every individual fight on the way is great fun due to the huge variety of combos and moves you can apply to any given situation.
6. The Wolf Among Us (episode 1), The Walking Dead: 400 Days, The Walking Dead Season 2 (episode 1)
Since each episode is so short, I figured the best thing to do would be to combine all of Telltale’s work in 2013 into one entry. 400 Days was a great self-contained episode, and The Walking Dead Season 2 started off with a predictably brutal episode following the further adventures of Clementine. But The Wolf Among Us surprised me the most. On the surface, the concept of fairy tale creatures living in New York City seems a little silly. But the execution is so great that it doesn’t even matter. With a surprise ending and some great characterization, the first episode of The Wong Among Us was my favorite of the bunch. Looking forward to the rest!
I love a good Metroidvania, and Guacamelee! is one of the best new games in the genre in some time. The visual style is superb, the combat is fast, responsive and exciting, and the world is fun to explore. The game has a great progression curve, with new abilities coming online at a nice pace. In a nice piece of design, these abilities are used for both traversal and combat. Difficulty does spike in a few boss fights, but the satisfaction of putting together what you’ve learned to finally win these bouts is worth the effort.
4. The Swapper
The Swapper is the first game from Facepalm Games, but it has the self-assurance of a game from a much more mature studio. An exploration / puzzle game, it produces a feeling of isolation and mystery without descending into the creepiness of a horror game. The striking visuals enhance the entire game, while the puzzles ramp up in difficulty appropriately as you explore the game’s derelict space station. Add on an intriguing minimalist story and ending, and The Swapper remains one of my favorite games of the year.
Full review is here.
3. Gone Home
Gone Home is the video game equivalent of a short story. Disparagingly called a “first person walking simulator”, Gone Home is all about discovery, not gameplay. You play as a 90s college-age girl returning home after a year abroad. Upon reaching your house, you find that it is empty. What happened? You explore the house, slowly uncovering the events that led up to the start of the game. Along with the moving story, you’ll get a nostalgic blast from the 90s past as you examine VHS tapes, boomboxes, and other detritus of the decade. I hope we see more games in this vein, as I found Gone Home to be both novel and affecting.
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
A Link Between Worlds is my favorite Zelda game since Wind Waker. With a world and style modeled on A Link to the Past, it could have been a mere retread. But instead of just serving up the same formula that’s been worked over so many times, A Link Between Worlds instead delivers something fresh, with echoes of the wide-open world of the very first Legend of Zelda. After a few introductory dungeons, the rest of the game opens up wide, allowing you to take it in any order you like. All of the gadgets and items that were found inside the dungeons in past games are now given out up front. This allows the designers to really customize dungeons for a given item. Instead of finding the hookshot halfway through a dungeon and getting a couple rooms of hookshot specific puzzles, the designers can dedicate an entire dungeon to hookshot puzzles. This really lets the game differentiate between its areas. Something about the top-down 2D view also really agrees with the game, and the new wall traveling mechanic is a great addition. But A Link Between Worlds also showcases a conciseness and unwillingness to waste the player’s time that had previously gone missing from the Zelda series for some time. This is a great game that should be played by any fan of action-adventure games.
1. XCOM: Enemy Within
Yes, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my game of the year last year. Yes, Enemy Within is an expansion pack. But yes, it served up so many new experiences and tweaks to the existing game that I played another 35 hours of this new campaign. The new mech units are game changers, the new psi powers are great, and the new unique missions sprinkled throughout are fantastic. One of my few complaints with the original game was seeing the same maps over and over again. I don’t think I saw the same map twice this time through. Unlike Enemy Unknown, I played Enemy Within in Ironman mode, which offered a whole new level of challenge. With my best soldier on the bench, my next best team of 6 were all killed in a particularly tough unique mission. I spent the next 15 hours digging out of that hole, but my success in doing so was incredibly sweet. It’s a rare feeling in video games to play something that feels so perfectly designed. XCOM: Enemy Within delivers that feeling.