December 29, 2012 by Daniel
Sammy Birnbaum, the writer/artist of Memory Comic is my greatest nemesis – but he is also a very good friend of mine. He recently lamented to me the fact that he had no outlet for his top 10 list, so I told him that he could write one up for Bomb the Stacks. Consider this a second opinion from somebody who played a lot of the games from 2012 that I didn’t.
Hello friends. The thread behind my top games this year would probably be a mix of total immersion and obsession. I dove into these carefully crafted worlds, explored every inch of them, and came out satisfied. There were a lot of big titles released this year that I didn’t get to yet, and others I have played, yet barely scratched the surface of. So here’s that disclaimer for you: I gladly chose to sink fifty or so hours into 2011 releases like Radiant Historia or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together instead of trying out Asura’s Wrath or Diablo III. But the games on this list either triggered an insatiable escapist itch in my brain, or reminded me why I love the video game medium and what it can do.
Honourable Mentions (Or Other Games I Obsessed Over From Start To Finish): Fez, Pokemon Conquest, Mario Tennis Open, Tales of Graces f, Super Hexagon.
10. New Little King’s Story
For all intents and purposes, New Little King’s Story is a power fantasy, draped in the mask of a cartoonish kingdom simulator. I rescued princesses who all inexplicably fell in love with me. I built a kingdom from the ground up with citizens that worshiped me. I commanded an army of several dozen loyal soldiers who, unless given direction in life, decidedly laze about the kingdom in their underpants. You can rename and dress every citizen how you like, so I ended up leading an army of soldiers, farmers and woodsmen as ninjas, robbers and mummies. While it may have helped New Little King’s Story that my Vita was starved for content at the time, its appeal managed to push through the unreliable frame rate and poor equipment menus. Despite falling short in some areas, it certainly helped that the game was bursting with so much charm and cuteness. Yet, there’s a layer of strategy and resource management buried under the myriad of customization options given to the player. Also, there’s a boss battle with the obese king of the candy kingdom where the game forgoes the familiar combat and it becomes a gigantic game of pinball, with your soldiers as the paddles. It’s weird.
9. Mass Effect 3
I tend to have a certain restraint for buying games. No, wait, don’t laugh. I mean that I wait until months after release to buy a bunch of games at twenty dollars apiece. I didn’t do this with Mass Effect 3, I bought it day one. I was so damn eager to jump into this world Bioware had created. So damn eager to reunite with Garrus, Liara and the rest of my crew. Returning to play as Samuel Shepard and to end the trilogy felt like coming home to an old friend. The combat felt good; I was blasting enemies in the air with biotics and sniping them before they hit the ground. Characters got their due, and storylines I had invested dozens of hours in had wrapped up nicely. The Mass Effect trilogy was one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had with gaming. I’m sad to see it done.
8. Far Cry 3
There’s this inexplicable appeal to the world of Far Cry 3. On the outset, it may simply look like a first person shooter with some checkboxes to fill: climb all of these towers, take over all these bases, and kill all these creatures. But it’s the active completion of these tasks that made the game memorable and engaging. The towers creak and groan as I climb, as I balance my way to the top, and one misstep means I tumble all the way to the bottom. Each enemy base can be approached differently. Do I attack them head-on? Take out enemies one by one? But wait, there’s a tiger prowling near the base, and I could lure it in there to attack the guards! I can get lost in the wilderness of this game, and I’ve done so a couple times. I would walk through the tall grass, and hear a growl from somewhere, I can’t pinpoint it. A cougar pounces at me out of nowhere, killing me instantly. I almost jumped out of my chair! Sure, the story is kind of kooky, and tries to reach heights it just can’t quite manage, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from getting lost in this world. Far Cry 3 is a rush of adrenaline.
7. Trials Evolution
When I was a kid, I’d play flash games on my mother’s computer where you have a fragile bike, and you have to race through bumpy hills, and balance across obstacles, and try not to crash. I’d like to think Trials Evolution is the older, more mature cousin of those games. You can’t help but take him seriously. To say that this game is a challenge would be an understatement. I attacked it with a compulsion which I haven’t seen myself express in years. When I finished a difficult stage that took a half hour, euphoria would wash over me. The difficulty ramps in such a smooth and natural way; you learn from your own mistakes and really grow and improve as the game gets harder. The only downside about this game, for me personally, is that I didn’t have any friends playing it. There was no rival, no score to beat besides my own. Normally, that would slightly diminish the replay value, but there’s a thriving online community in Trials, where thousands of people have created ingenious levels. One of my favourites started off on an airship, and then finished with the player riding atop the spine of a dragon. Trials Evolution is a delight; it makes me feel good about games.
6. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
I got excited when I heard R. A. Salvatore would be writing a story, and crafting a world for a big budget fantasy game. After all, I had read a dozen of his books. The guy really knows how to write. So I sat down and enjoyed a tale about a man who can change his fate in a world where destiny is predetermined. The premise really hooked me in, and made me feel like my actions in each quest had meaning. The vibrant colours and sprawling environments made Amalur seem like a living, breathing fantasy world. There was just so much to do; it felt like pulp fiction in the truest sense, a mass of fantasy tropes easily digestible for an afternoon romp. Every plot twist was predictable, every reveal I could see a mile away. Yet, I’m not condoning the game for this one bit. Instead, it was like comfort food, and Amalur gave me the dose of over-the-top high fantasy that I craved. I reveled in it.
5. Sleeping Dogs
It’s tough to explain why I got so attached to Sleeping Dogs, and how I winded up playing it for six hours straight, four days in a row until I saw the ending. Nothing really stood out in particular; it was just that each part of the game was really solid. The story was emotionally stirring, and I felt myself sympathizing with the undercover cop trying to bring down a Triad organization. It sounds like a cliché gangster movie, I know, but it was told with such style that it really shone in terms of quality. The tone was just right, balancing comedy and drama effectively. What also helped give credibility to the story were the phenomenal voice actors; the characters felt like they had souls. The gameplay took the free flow combat system from the Batman: Arkham games and added interactive set pieces, and had gunplay reminiscent of Saints Row: The Third. It takes these elements from other games and refines them; it feels great. The driving felt tight, better than any other open world game I’ve played before. I was really satisfied with Sleeping Dogs, in that it basically delivered an interactive Hong Kong action movie.
4. Hotline Miami
This game makes me feel uncomfortable. You’re tasked to go on murderous rampages, and orders are given through voicemail messages. Each room is in itself a puzzle – how do you kill all these people without dying yourself? But the presentation is so disorienting, the pulsating music, the creepy masks, and the squelching sounds when someone dies. The scary realization is that I derived pleasure from playing this game. It’s challenging, rewarding scoring system forces you to be on your toes as you kill people. I sat for hours playing this game, to the point where my legs went numb. The soundtrack works perfectly in tandem with the unflinching carnage. It’s gruesome, sickening, and addictively fun.
3. Mark of the Ninja
I sat playing Mark of the Ninja with a compulsion to finish in a very short period of time. That’s probably because it’s the most accessible stealth game I’ve ever played. Every action in your arsenal is given a visual cue on screen, and the game allows you to pause at any time to aim and prepare your next move. It uses circles of sound to indicate alertness, and bathes your character in colour or monochromatic black to indicate being out or in cover. This helps creates a brilliant straightforward explanation for your own whereabouts, enemy actions and objectives. If all of that sounded too confusing, just go play it for a couple minutes and you’ll understand. There’s a calculation behind each of your movements, and with such a variety of options to incapacitate or sneak by foes, the game makes you feel like a powerful ninja. As it should.
2. X-Com: Enemy Unknown
When I play this game, I get a gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach, that everything is about to go horribly wrong. While you could make the argument that many other games on my list could be seen as pure power fantasy, X-Com: Enemy Unknown makes me feel weak. Despite all the preparation in the world, I could walk into an enemy base and get completely slaughtered in a matter of minutes. At its core, the game is a tactical strategy game akin to Final Fantasy Tactics but in a futuristic science fiction setting, where you’re in command of an elite team hoping to prevent aliens from taking over Earth. Half the game is grid based combat, and the other half involves some tough resource management back at home base. However, permadeath is not a concept that I’m familiar with in games; it was definitely something I had to get used to. After creating soldiers like James ‘007’ Bond and Bobby’ Iceman’ Drake, it’s tough to see them fall in the line of duty. X-Com: Enemy Unknown rewards patience and punishes brash tactics. Not only is it one of my favourite games of this year, X-Com: Enemy Unknown is one of the best tactical strategy games I’ve ever played.
1. Persona 4: The Golden
Persona 4: The Golden practically has everything I could ever want in a video game. An outstanding cast of characters tasked with solving a series of murders by… jumping into the television to rescue people from their own id? It’s a roleplaying game where you spend half your time dungeon crawling and half your time building relationships with friends and family across town to strengthen your character. The relationships are called social links, and they’re representative of various tarot card major arcana. For example, the Justice arcana represent your younger cousin who’s mourning the loss of her mother and coming to terms with the strained relationship with her father. The social links gain experience and level up, and you fuse powerful creatures called Personas based on the various relationships throughout the game. Still with me? The writing is fantastic; the teenagers come off as a strong mix of awkward and well-intended, and the mystery plot throughout the game keeps you guessing at every turn. These are the kind of characters you’d want to go get drinks with in real life. The music is so incredibly catchy, I found myself singing it in the shower, in the car, even humming it at dinner with my family. The combat becomes a big payoff after all the social links you’ve filled, as you get to summon these powerful creatures in battle. This isn’t like Pokémon where the monsters are made up especially for the game; Personas are adapted from various real-world religions, cultures and sometimes even longstanding fiction. You go into battle with the Norse god Loki, or the Mesopotamian worshipped Ishtar. The game left an incredible impression on me, escapist roleplaying at its finest. Play Persona 4: The Golden, it’s my favourite game of 2012.