By GrantHeaslip 2 Comments
Did not play
I have yet to make the leap into the Souls games – if I had, I might have been extolling the virtues of Dark Souls II. Shovel Knight looks like a game I’d love, but I just didn’t get around to it. While I made an abortive run at Dragon Age: Origins earlier this year, I see indications that Dragon Age: Inquisition might be the game to hook me on the series. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor doesn’t sound very exciting to me on paper, but I’m intrigued enough by the positive reception that I’ll probably snap it up on sale at some point. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call seems like it would be up my alley, but I have an irrational belief in music spoilers that has me not wanting to play it until I’ve cleared out my Final Fantasy backlog. I had it in my head that I’d make a run at Ultra Street Fighter IV and finally learn how to fighting game, but I never committed to it. As someone who hasn’t played a Call of Duty game since 4, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is oddly appealing. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. Wolfenstein: The New Order strikes me as a game that could scratch the same unapologetic, mechanically-solid shooter itch that Rage did. I don’t know all that much about Freedom Wars, but several people I share taste in games with have been trying to push it on me. I never pulled the trigger on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, but I’m looking forward to playing it.
Did not qualify
I wish I’d stuck with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. I was starting to get over the learning curve, but got distracted by other games and didn’t come back to it. While I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, I just haven’t put enough time into it to justify including it on this list. I’ve played a fair amount of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, but not enough to fairly judge it relative to other games (or to make the case for the PS4 version qualifying as a 2014 release). I really enjoyed Final Fantasy X HD Remaster, but it’s essentially a port, and I don’t think I’d have bumped anything on my list for it.
My favourite games of 2014
5. Super Smash Bros. (Wii U)
As it turns out, there’s a recurring theme in this list: I find the core gameplay of each game to be very satisfying. There’s a lot of stuff about Smash that I don’t particularly like – in fact, I’m somewhere between ambivalent and hostile towards almost every mode and feature in this game besides Smash, For Glory, and For Glory 1v1. Even the online play isn’t as good as it should be – matches often get stuttery, and the way For Glory forces everyone to play on Final Destination variants unnecessarily advantages certain characters. Even with those massive caveats, Smash makes this list because I just plain really enjoy playing Smash. I like experimenting with different characters, techniques, and strategies. I’m not even particularly good at it – while I have residual skill from my hundreds of hours with Melee, I get blown up in 1v1s more often than not, and most of my best moments are the result of flukes and scumbag tactics.
I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm for Smash that I do for the rest of this list, but I have a feeling I’ll be popping it in for years to come. It also helps that Smash is a treasure trove of Nintendo memorabilia and fanservice – the trophy gallery is essentially a Nintendo encyclopedia, and I’d have paid way more than $60 for the 437(!) music tracks alone.
4. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)
Bayonetta 2 is, if nothing else, the hypest game on this list. At one point while playing Bayonetta 2, I was gripping the controller so hard that the skin on one of my fingers split open and started bleeding (winter with dry skin, y’all!) and I didn’t realize because I was too busy slow-mo dodging lasers and punching a dragon in the face with a giant hair fist.
Bayonetta 2 makes every button press satisfying – it’s one of those games for which my inner monologue is just a series of “UHH!”s. It’s the epitome of video game power fantasy – the heroine meets every challenge with an over-the-top cocksuredness that the combat mechanics give you the ability to back up. As ridiculous as the choreographed cutscenes are, the game gives you the tools with which to do some pretty fucking badass stuff yourself as well.
I played the packed-in(!) copy of Bayonetta 1 for the first time directly before playing Bayonetta 2, and it’s worth noting how much of a step up Bayonetta 2 is from the already-great original. It looks better, it’s paced better, and it (for lack of a more articulate explanation) feels better. The set pieces are ludicrous in all of the right ways, and while the game still drags a little in the midsection, it would be pretty difficult for just about any game to keep up the breakneck pace at which Bayonetta 2 opens. I would have liked a bit more boss variety (in the sense that few force you to meaningfully vary your strategy), better story and characters, more visual clarity in certain sequences, and better audio mixing (on my speakers, some of the voices sounded hollow and clippy), but the fact is that I’m raring to replay Bayonetta 2 on its hard difficulty.
3. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
With the exception of Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart Arcade GP, I’ve put tons of time into each entry in the Mario Kart series. My nostalgic heart wants to say that Mario Kart 64 is the best, but my head says that Mario Kart 8 is the pinnacle of the series. I’ve put north of 30 hours into this game, and I expect to play at least as much over the next year. Some of that was spent 3-starring each of the Grand Prix cups and playing some occasional local multiplayer, but the lion’s share has been spent playing online.
Mario Kart 8’s online play is incredibly (especially considering we’re talking about Nintendo) smooth and well-implemented. Mario Kart has always shone in multiplayer, and Mario Kart 8’s implementation is nearly flawless. The 12 player races can lead to some ridiculous swings, and while those swings aren’t always my favour, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mario Kart’s about controlled chaos – it’s not entirely skill-based, but the better players generally come out ahead. It’s a game in which I don’t mind losing because I know that last-minute cheap shot was a thrilling moment for some dude in Spain that I was just communicating with via the universal language of “I’m using tilt controls!” (a language that rivals Journey’s chirps in its unexpected versatility). And hey, I just bodied that lady from Hokkaido in the past match – hopefully she didn’t take my “That was fun!” badly.
Mario Kart 8 controls nearly perfectly – I felt like I had been playing it for years after a few hours of play. Its extreme polish (and notably, flawless online reliability) puts this year’s plethora of insultingly-unfinished releases to shame. It’s one of the best-looking games ever made, and it runs at a solid 60 FPS. Its soundtrack is superb. I pre-ordered the $12, 16-track DLC bundle sight-unseen because I knew I could trust Nintendo to deliver. I didn’t mind that half of it won’t be out until May 2015 because I know I’ll want to jump right back in.
2. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva f (PS Vita)
A year ago, I wouldn’t have excepted to be extolling the virtues of Project Diva f. Around the time of the PS3 version’s release in August 2013, Giant Bomb user Hailinel penned a couple of blog posts about it that put it on my radar by drawing attention to the strength of its rhythm game mechanics and the endearing qualities of its music and presentation. When Giant Bomb and USgamer followed up a couple weeks later with some laughably insulting and misrepresentative coverage that was largely at the expense of the game and its fans, they only reinforced my intention to give the game a shot myself. In March of this year, I heard Greg Sewart favourably mention the Vita release of the game on the Player One Podcast, downloaded the demo, and had bought the full version of the game before I put my Vita down.
Yeah, the game has a social simulator mode in which you rub Vocaloid characters’ heads and play patty-cake with them or something, but I played it once, said “not for me,” and went back to obsessively playing the rhythm game mode. I’ve only just recently started messing with the game’s plethora of costumes because my attitude up to that point was “I’m too busy following the note charts and pressing buttons to worry about this costume stuff.”
To quote from my April blog post: “Project Diva f is a great rhythm game. The music is charming and varied, the rhythm tracks are well-composed, the difficulty curve is rewarding, and the production values are great.” I wrote that last sentence the better part of an hour ago because I saw the videos in the aforementioned blog post, thought “hey, I really feel like playing Senbonzakura,” and ended up spending an hour going through my Project Diva f favourites. Similar scenarios have played out throughout this year, and often at the expense of things far more important than a list of video games. I’ve put close to 40 hours into a rhythm game with 38 (32 + 6 DLC) tracks and I’m nowhere near sick of it.
1. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F 2nd (PS Vita)
In all honesty, I’d be comfortable with either of the Project Diva games at the top of this list. I’m giving Project Diva F 2nd the edge here, but I might also recommend the first game to a newcomer because of its smoother learning curve. Project Diva F 2nd addresses perhaps my biggest problem with Project Diva f by allowing the previously-touch-screen-exclusive “scratch” notes to be played with the Vita’s analog sticks, looks noticeably better than its predecessor, and comes with 40 tracks (with over 10 on the way as DLC). The game pads out its roster with some returning songs from the Japan-exclusive PSP games, but I only know that because I set up a Japanese PSN account, bought Japanese store credit from Play-Asia, went through the annoying Vita region switching procedure, and learned a bit of katakana in order to play Project Diva 2nd (PSP) on my Vita. And hey, Project Diva F 2nd brought forward a few of the best songs from that game, so it’s tough to complain.
I find playing the Project Diva games immensely satisfying at a more fundamental level than almost anything else. They’re all about pressing buttons to catchy music while colourful videos play in the background. Whereas Persona 4 might tax my frontal lobe, I feel like the Project Diva games mostly hammer my temporal lobe (forgive my Psych 101 horseshit, people with actual neuropsychology backgrounds). They feel good in the same way that playing actual music feels good; getting Extreme Perfects on songs I remember struggling with on Normal difficulty feels good in the same way that perfecting a piano piece or nailing my parts in high school bands felt.
I’m also way into – surprisingly into – the presentation and general vibe of the Project Diva games. There’s an infectious enthusiasm and earnestness to the Project Diva games that very few modern games attempt to capture. They feel like games people would have a deep reverence for if they’d come out in 2000 on the Dreamcast – I had a great time with Space Channel 5: Part 2 earlier this year, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. That’s not to say the songs are all cheery all the time – they can get quite dark and melancholic when they want to – but there’s a certain simplicity and sincerity to all of it that I find really endearing. The production values are through the roof – some of the videos in Project Diva F 2nd are so ambitious and slickly-rendered it’s hard to believe they’re running on a Vita.
That diversity extends to the music itself. There’s no accounting for taste, and this music is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you don’t like the more bubbly and poppier music, you might be surprised by the breadth of musical styles and influences. Melt is the kind of standard bubbly pop you might expect; Packaged and Roshin Yukai are light electro-pop; Doubleganger and Two Breaths Walking are essentially pop punk; Kagerou Daze oscillates between electro-pop and harder rock; Wintry Winds and Paradichlorobenzene are in the style of folk music; Clover♣Club is positively saccharine; Miracle Paint evokes vaudeville show tunes; Blackjack has an Ska-like quality to it; Knife has folk instrumentation but throws in a hot slap bass solo; Kokoro is an orchestral epic about a cybernetic girl who miraculously develops a “heart,” experiences the full range of human emotion at breakneck speed, then burns out from the exertion; This Is The Happiness & Peace Of Mind Committee lulls you with some sappiness then hits you over the head with some raw techno and lyrics that seem tailored to drive Japanese salarymen to existential crises.
I’m in love with this series. I’ve already played Project Diva 2nd (the PSP game), and I fully intend to play the other two Japan-only PSP games. I’ll be there on day one for the North American release of Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX. Persona 4: Dancing All Night – which is a dream collaboration between P Studio and original Project Diva developer Dingo – is quite possibly my most anticipated game of 2015. I can’t predict if or when I’ll burn out on pressing buttons to J-pop, but I’ll ride this high while it lasts.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII has a lot going for it. Its Majora’s Mask-like countdown setup is neat, and its combat is an engaging twist on FFXIII’s Command Synergy Battle system. While I managed to utterly break the game progression by exploiting a time-pausing mechanic and stun-locking a challenging boss, I think the freedom and systems dynamism that allowed me to pull that off are commendable in an age of hand-holdy single player experiences. Lightning Returns’ soundtrack is great – it builds on the foundations of the previous games, but evokes a very distinctive and diverse style and ambience: [Energetic main/battle theme], [Poignant main character theme], [Unsettling, jazzy nighttime theme], [Powerful exploration theme], [Relentless boss theme], [Elevator-esque Chocobo Theme arrangement], [Pounding festival theme], [Tense sneaking theme]. Lightning Returns’ low budget showed through in ways that played a part in bumping it off my top 5 list, but its soundtrack is one of the most ambitious series of compositions to ever to accompany a video game.
Infamous: Second Son is an great “here’s a map full of icons – go!”-style open world game, which means it does a great job of realizing a game design I pretty actively dislike. It plays well, runs well, looks great, and has a really effective primary antagonist. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the original Infamous, for whatever that’s worth.
Hyrule Warriors was surprisingly satisfying and enjoyable. I had a solid B+ time with it every time I booted it up, and I’ve been meaning to go back to it and pick away at the various side modes. Koei Tecmo and Nintendo did a great job of integrating Zelda characters, environments, items, events, and bosses. At one point, you summon the Moon to kill Argorok. Wrecking fools with Impa’s Great Sword felt great; beasting over the good guys as Ganondorf was super satisfying; even summoning Deku Trees as (controversial new character) Lana was a blast. They even added Sexy Midna as DLC!
Transistor’s interesting and polished, but I was lukewarm about the combat system and the ease with which I broke it. I spent most of the game not knowing enough about the world or characters to have any investment in what was happening, and the art style didn’t really speak to me. I’m a big fan of the game’s soundtrack – particularly the way it dynamically mixes in vocals while you’re planning moves.