Hey, look! It’s an arbitrary list! Let’s all be angry about it, okay?
#10 – Halo 4
You could probably chalk this one up as a surprise for me. I went into Halo 4 with little to no expectations, but the guys over at 343 Industries towed a remarkable line between a game that captures the essence of old Halo, while still making a lot of subtle changes that keep it feeling fresh. The new multiplayer modes and tweaks are the real highlight for me (hell, I haven’t even really tooled around with the campaign yet), where nice twists on objective modes, like the frenzied Dominion, are the best of the bunch. Halo is a series with a well-defined rhythm, and one I’m more willing to come back to than any other competitive FPS on the market.
#9 – Persona 4 Arena
Anyone who has read my reviews, editorials, or listened to our podcast probably knows about my infatuation with Atlus’ Persona series. Persona 4 Arena is on my list for more than just its pedigree, though. The game blends a really fun fighting game system with a shockingly well-integrated visual novel, and in the process makes sure that both fighting game fans and RPG fans have a ton of content to dive into and appreciate. It all takes place two months after the events of Persona 4, and everyone’s reason for fighting is perfectly justified and contextualized. The game also ends on a kind of cliffhanger, which makes me even more curious about where the series will be going in its fifth entry. As someone uninterested in fighting games, Atlus and Arc System Works actually made me give a damn about one, which more than earns its spot on this list.
#8 – Dishonored
Dishonored is an interesting game because it manages to be both very systems-driven and game-y, while still incredibly involving and immersive. The range of abilities at your disposal is a key selling point, but perhaps the best thing about the game is how it handles traversal and exploration. By using your Blink power, you can get around with an ease and fluidity that’s really quite exhilarating. Dishonored recalls games like Deus Ex, but it also made first-person platforming fun. Imagine that.
#7 – Dust: An Elysian Tail
Dust feels born out of impracticality. “Hey, what if someone made a Metroidvania game with a well-written story and lavish 2D art and RPG mechanics and Devil May Cry-style combo driven combat mechanics?” That on its own is a design document that seems too lopsided and big to ever work. Not only does Dust work, but it works because of the effort of one man. In what is surely one of the most inspiring stories in game development, artist Dean Dodrill wanted to make an independent game with bits and pieces pulled from some of his favorites. So, he just… learned how to program. Any game would impressive coming from one guy, but the fact that Dust is so good makes his victory even sweeter; and harder to explain.
#6 – Journey
thatgamecompany has been experimenting with short, affecting downloadable titles for a while now, but Journey is the first one to hit its mark fully. It’s a game that’s satisfying in any way you really want it to be; some view it as a meditation on the road to death, while others find little to no meaning in the game’s vast array of swirling colors and landscapes. Either way, Journey is a truly remarkable and beautiful game, one that deserves all the praise coming to it. And the co-op is a revelation.
I’ve come to this point with Mass Effect 3 where I never want to talk about it again. To bring up the game is to commit some sort of horrendous faux pas, where someone somewhere will always jump on you to argue about it, no matter what it is your saying. I have some minor problems with BioWare’s wrap-up (including their means-to-an-end deus ex machina, which seems infuriatingly explained in post-release DLC), but they never managed to overshadow a game that was big, bold, and impactful. Mass Effect 3 is about me and my choices, and I’ve never felt so in control of a game’s pathos. This is a defining trilogy, and a worthy ending.
Max Payne is such a lovable and fascinating piece of shit, isn’t he? In Max Payne 1 and 2 he had some extraordinarily awful luck, and in Max Payne 3, he’s not handling it well. For my money, this is Rockstar’s best game yet, largely because of the focused nature of its gameplay and level design. Shooting guys is rarely as fun as it is here, and when you couple that with a new, modern noir take on the hard-boiled detective fiction of Remedy’s entries, you get a perilously attractive and addicting brew.
The Walking Dead reminds me a lot of Heavy Rain, and the two have some comparable strengths and weaknesses. Heavy Rain was a much better game to actually play, where its contextual button presses were all very important to the game’s effectiveness. At times, though, that game’s plot felt comprised of loose ends in a way that I didn’t find too damaging; but compared to Telltale’s masterpiece of interactive storytelling, it can’t hold a candle. The Walking Dead is very much as good as everyone’s saying, even if the parts where you play it are often clunky and lackluster. Your agency in deciding character relationships and building trust is the true thrust of this experience, and it does it better than any game I can recall.
I really don’t know where to start with Hotline Miami. It’s a game about games, mainly, and the rising and falling sensations of player bloodlust. Every level is a kind of action-puzzle, where you have to graphically kill everyone on screen in a hazy, neon-lit hellscape. The game’s so brutally difficult that your vendetta against these nameless goons becomes really personal. The thudding, off-kilter electronica escorts you from one corpse to the next. That is, until you finish everyone off. The music cuts out, replaced with an eerie static. You walk back through your carnage in silence, get into your car, and drive away. There’s more to unpack in Hotline Miami (including a blunt, brilliant ending and an impeccable sense of dread through routine), but that moment exemplifies the greatness of this game’s message. It takes you to the top, and shatters the ground on which you stand.
Leaving Persona 4 Golden off my list is an unBEARably tough decision (that bear pun is for P4 fans only). There’s a ton of new content, and all of it is just so good. But there’s no way I can justify having what is still basically a PS2 game as my game of the year. I just want it to be known that my heart lies with Golden, even if my technically-minded brain tells me it’s not to be. Seriously, go play this game.
And now, for my super important and official choice for the best game ever to be released this year ever…
Fez destroyed me. It looked me square in face and dared me to go forward. I spent about a week of my life doing nothing but playing Fez, scribbling notes about Fez, or half-assedly doing important things because I was too busy thinking about Fez. It might just be the best puzzle game I’ve ever played, and it’s certainly the most original. It feels like a game from another time, before strategy guides and internet walkthroughs, where discovering a game’s intricacies and mysteries was communal. The infamous “black monolith” puzzle actually beat the internet. No one has figured out the rhyme or reason behind that puzzle. But there is one, and it’s somewhere. That fact alone, that feeling of working tirelessly to solve puzzle upon puzzle not for a reward, but because you just need to know? Indie platformers don’t do that often. Hell, games don’t do that often. But Fez manages to carry itself in a wholly original way. This is a game that breathes. Its prophecies are all self-fulfilling, and the fun lies in discovery and exploration. It’s my game of the year, and one of the most unique and inventive games I’ve ever played.