Greg Kasavin is a writer/designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Bastion, an action RPG where an old man talks to you the whole time. Prior to getting into game development, Kasavin worked in the gaming press, most notably at GameSpot, where he was editor-in-chief for a number of years.
I wish I could have done this thing in like February of next year because I’ve got some catching up to do, what with everything that’s come out this year. For example I still haven’t played Batman: Arkham City and Uncharted 3, sequels to two of my favorite games of 2009, which I’ve been saving for a quiet moment when I can make the most of them. I’m also just far enough into The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Saints Row: The Third right now to think they’re great, but not far enough along in for them to crack this list.
That aside, I’m a bit ashamed that this list is dominated by big AAA productions even though I think smaller downloadable games can go toe-to-toe with the big guys. I played a lot of fantastic independent games this year such as Frozen Synapse, Jamestown, Atom Zombie Smasher, and The Binding of Isaac, and if this was a top-20 list, you would have seen a lot more of these in here.
But! I’m limited to 10, so here they are:
Sworcery is one of the only iPhone/iPad games I've played that feels like it has a soul, and offers up some kind of meaningful experience beyond a sort of frivolous, vapid sense of fast-forwarding through life's uneventful moments. I love games with a strong and specific sense of atmosphere, and S&S EP is excellent in this regard. The soundtrack is phenomenal and the game is filled with cool little details all over the place. Sworcery didn't grab me at first but when I came back to it, it hit me hard.
9. To the Moon
Like a thought-provoking movie, this one got under my skin the more I thought about it in the days after I finished it. I think one of the greatest traits of games is their ability to deliver story in an interactive way, which at its best can get you feeling even more invested than in linear media. To the Moon is a very pure effort along these lines. It delivers a great, touching, meaningful story under the guise of a 16-bit role-playing game. The music is excellent and the story's payoff is great, too. Having finished I was just glad a game like this got made at a time like this.
The arcade classic Mortal Kombat II is one of my all-time favorite games and this new MK brought back many fond memories of playing it. I felt like it totally nails the essential tone of Mortal Kombat much more successfully than any MK in years, and just as important, it plays great too. It goes over the top not just in the expected ways (with gore) but as an all-around production, what with its surprisingly polished story mode and lots of depth. For example, every fighting game these days has to have a super meter of some kind but the choices around how to use the meter in MK are some of the most interesting I’ve seen in a while.
I love killing stuff in games as much as anyone and probably more, though I really appreciate when a game can be exciting and dramatic without being all about killing stuff. Ghost Trick is an excellent example of this, and also one of the most beautifully presented games I played all year in spite of its humble trappings as a portable game. The character animations are fantastic, and the writing and story are sharp and interesting. It’s a unique game.
6. Dead Space 2
Remember how I said I love killing stuff in games? I’m only just getting around to Dead Space 2 even though it released early in the year, but wow, what an incredibly high-quality production. That it’s a great horror game is almost beside the point, though it’s that as well. On the surface, the environments, animations, and audio are all outstanding--the atmosphere is awesome. Plus the game controls beautifully, and its levels are filled with big and small surprises and feel like they’re part of a deep world. In a year where I was feeling pretty burnt out on shooters, this one is my favorite. It’s not exactly a shooter, of course, and that’s part of the reason why I’m liking it so much.
True story: I played this game for 12 hours straight when I first got it, then came home and played it for like five more. Really the only thing that compares to Skyrim is Bethesda’s own previous games, and this one is even more impressive in a lot of ways. While I normally enjoy RPGs for their atmosphere, story, and game systems, Skyrim doesn’t draw me in for those reasons... it’s the sandbox side of it, like it’s this great big place I can go to relax for a while and do whatever I want. I love exploring the world and messing around in it, trying to break it and figure out how it works.
4. Portal 2
The original Portal is really an incredible game so I have to admit I was kind of nervous about the idea of a bigger, better sequel to something that was near perfect. But Portal 2 quickly won me over, thanks in no small part to Wheatley, a character every bit as strong and memorable as GLaDOS was in the original. There were just so many great little touches and genuinely smart, funny moments, and it’s rare to find a game that’s this exciting from a pure action perspective yet isn’t at all about combat. And man, what an ending...!
In my mind, The Witcher 2 is the best BioWare game since Mass Effect 2... and it’s not even a BioWare game! The Witcher 2 is a class act all the way. It’s one of the only games this year that wowed me with its visuals, and I loved the characters and the world. There are far too many generic, tame fantasy worlds out there. By comparison, The Witcher 2’s world feels fully realized and specific in a way that puts most other games to shame. Not only that, the narrative choices felt significant all the way through.
2. Dark Souls
Demon’s Souls was one of my favorite games of 2009 so I had high hopes for its successor. And the longer I played it, the more I realized I liked it even better. The world design was just amazing to me the more I saw of it, and no other game rewards patience, perseverance, and exploration quite like this one does. The experience can feel masochistic at times, but it hits me just right. In fact, some of the most notorious moments like the slog through Blighttown and those archer sons-of-a-bitches in Anor Londo are moments I’ll long remember in a good way. I lost myself in this game for hours at a time, and obsessed over it more than any other game this year.
This is an update to the spiritual predecessor of one of my all-time favorite games, Final Fantasy Tactics. Like that game, it offers an incredibly deep and complex tactical experience in addition to a rich fantasy world filled with life-and-death struggle and scores if interesting characters. As Bastion’s development was winding down and the days and nights were getting longer and longer, I still made time every night for this one game, and ended up playing it for months. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best game of the year but it’s the one I kept coming back to and the one that kept reminding me of all the reasons I love gaming.