2012 was a year of surprises. Games I was expecting to love, I was disappointed by. Games I wrote off or didn't ever pay attention to turned out to be my favorite experiences of the year. As I look back on 2012, it may not have been the strongest year on the whole, but it has some very high high points.
Honorable Mentions: There are a few games this year that missed my list for one reason or another that I feel the need to call out. There are a lot of amazing games that still deserve some recognition.
HM1: Persona 4 The Golden:
It's Persona 4. Even after all these years, it's still one of the greatest gaming experiences I've had. Golden gave me an excuse to go back and play it again, and for that I'm grateful. The additions Golden makes aren't all amazing, unfortunately. The tweaks to the battle and fusion systems are needed and feel like a good step forward for the series. Some of them can make the game a bit too easy, though. The story additions are less amazing. They range from insubstantial fun to almost offensive. There's one scene in particular that really betrays the spirit of the story (I'm thinking of a particular bathhouse scene). The game is still the wonderful, heartwarming experience as the original. It's certainly my "real" game of the year, but it's the stuff that's from the original that makes that so. Given that, I feel it has to be disqualified from this year's list.
HM2: FTL:Faster than Light:
FTL is a game I just got off the latest steam sale, and it seems pretty amazing. The problem is, I don't feel I've spent enough time to really justify it on my list. If it keeps being this good, I imagine it'll show up for Game of the Year next year in some capacity.
HM3: Halo 4:
I've been coming less and less impressed with the first-person shooter genre as the years go on. It's just stopped being fun for me. I don't like the super fast, death filled pace of most Call of Duty style games. That's why my love of Halo 4 really surprised me. It's got one of the most expertly crafted campaigns I've seen in quite some time. The plot as a whole may not be so amazing, but I really enjoyed the way 343 humanized Chief and Cortana. 343 made a very Halo game, and that's just what I needed/
HM4: Xenoblade Chronicles:
It's a crime it took as much work to bring Xenoblade to the west as it did. It was one of the most refreshing JRPG experiences I've had in quite some time. The world and gameplay are fresh and fun. It delivered the new style of experience that I used to expect from Final Fantasy games. Sadly, the game has a number of small problems that drag down the overall experience. The armor designs are mostly awful. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't carry over into the cutscenes as well. I had to judge armor more on aesthetics than stats. It's sad since the game is pretty stunning overall. It's amazing since it's running on such dated hardware. The game's offline-MMO style also hurts more than it helps. It's easier to tolerate boring, tedious sidequests when you're with your friends. Here they severely disturb the game's pace. Overall, despite the flaws, it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Real List
Number 10: Pokemon White 2:
Going into the year, I could not be less excited about Pokemon Black and White 2. While I enjoyed the original, they still didn't capture the love of the series I had that peeked with Ruby and Sapphire. The fact that appeared to be just another refinement game didn't bode well for it either. Emerald, Platinum and Crystal all didn't really do anything for me. Luckily, the game is much more than just a minor refinement. The things Game Freak did in Black and White 2 are significant and really aid the overall experience. The pacing is much improved over the original. You are given a greater variety of Pokemon to catch right from the get go and XP is much more readily available. They make the deeper systems like EV training and breeding much quicker and less tedious as well. I don't go to the Pokemon games for story, but the fact that it's a real sequel makes the story here a ton of fun. The fusion forms of Kyurem is one of the most interesting ideas Pokemon has had in some times. If Game Freak learns from all the things they did right here, Pokemon's future is much brighter than I expected.
Number 9: Analogue:A Hate Story:
Calling Analogue a visual novel isn't exactly a correct characterization. It's much closer to an old school text adventure. The way you interact with the game world as if through a computer terminal actually adds to the experience. As you sleuth through files and learn the game's history, it becomes one of the most interesting stories I've seen this year. Without any dialogue, the game still manages to be absolutely riveting. It's not a game I would exactly call fun, but it's one of the most interesting experiences I've had this year. That alone gave it a spot on this list.
Number 8: Spec Ops:The Line:
Spec Ops doesn't exactly make a wonderful first impression. It seems generic and, frankly, a bit boring. As it goes deeper the game slowly reveals its true colors. At around the half way point, the game really gets crazy. The game gives you just enough choice to make the insanity really feel like your fault. It mixes gameplay and story in a really interesting way. Sure, the game isn't perfect. The gunplay is a bit weak and some of the story twists don't really work. What it has going for it is ambition. It's something the genre really lacks, and that makes it a great experience.
Number 7: Asura's Wrath:
No other game gave me the "just one more" feeling this year like Asura's Wrath did. The game takes full advantage of its episodic structure. Like a good TV show, after an episode ends you want to dive right into the next. Every time you think the game can't get any more insane, it takes its story in a completely different direction. It even makes QTEs somehow fun. The use of "From the New World" in the moon battle is the best use of any pre-exisiting music track this year. Bar none. Even with the shady business of selling the True Ending as DLC, Asura's Wrath is some of the purest fun I've had with a game this year. Given its low sales, it's unlikely to get a real sequel. Still, I'd love to see CyberConnect 2 or another developer tackle another game with this format. It has a lot of potential.
Number 6: The Walking Dead:
The Walking Dead is a game I expected to put much higher. It's one of the most amazing, emotional stories told this year. Still, far too many things bother me about it to put it in my top 5. While I don't mind the fact that choice in the game is an illusion, the fact the developers continually rub the "your choices matter" idea in your face really bothers me. You can't have it both ways. The action scenes are down right bad most of the time. The game is rife with technical issues that needed up making me replay the first 2 episodes something like 3 times. Even with all that, The Walking Dead is an amazing experiences. It manipulates your emotions in a way most games could never dream of doing. It has characters that behave like real people for the most part. I love The Walking Dead, I really do. It's too bad it just has far too many problems that hold it back from perfection.
Number 5: Mark of the Ninja:
No game has such a mastery of its mechanics this year like Mark of the Ninja. Everything feels so finally tuned to squeeze the maximum amount of fun possible. I don't love Klei's character art and I think the cutscenes look really cheap. The actual environments,though, are great looking and just fun to run around. The game gives you an astounding amount of options on how to tackle any situation. Klei has gone from a boring, B-tiered developer to one of the most interesting downloadable game makers over the course of a single year. It's quite a rise and I hope they can make good on it.
Number 4: XCOM: Enemy Unknown:
The best turn-based strategy game maker making a game in one of the most renowned series of the genre. How could this go wrong at all? What's most surprising, is just how right it went. XCOM is the perfect mix of tactics and the larger metagame. Every piece feels expertly crafted. The way the game plays with a controller is a real feat as well. Firaxis knew just what they were doing here, and it really shows.
Number 3: The Last Story:
I wasn't expecting much going into The Last Story. Sakaguchi's recent games have all been pretty flawed experiences. The trailers painted it as just another generic fantasy JRPG. What a pleasant surprise when I found out it was so much more than that. Don't get me wrong, the base story is still fairly generic fantasy, but it's got a bit of a twist. The Last Story deals with some pretty dark themes of war and genocide. It makes your characters do some pretty awful stuff. Where The Last Story really shines, though, is pacing and gameplay. The battle system is fun and really quite innovative. The mix and match system really makes feel battles tactical. Yet it's still just frantic enough to feel fun. My favorite aspect is the pacing. The Last Story clocks in at just over 20 hours. Every aspect of the game feels tight and chopped to perfection. There's little unnecessary padding you associate with a JRPG. You level after virtually every battle. You might think that would make it feel a bit cheap, but it actually works. The tight pacing is something I'd love to see more JRPGs adapt. Not every one needs to be a sprawling 100 hour experience. It's OK to have a smaller game, and it just works so well here. Not to mention it has the best music this year.
Number 2: Journey:
I liked Flower. I did not love Flower. Journey looked like more typical That Game Company fare. Still, I was excited to check it out. Even more when a bud of mine got it for me as a gift. I'm so glad he did. Journey turned out to be one of the most amazing, different experiences I've had this year. The world does just enough to feel huge and expansive. The art is beautiful. The part thats really special is the non-verbal multiplayer. You really become attached to the people you play with, even if they're not the typical person you imagine liking online. It's a bit surreal when you see the usernames of your buddies at the very end. None of this would work if the game wasn't mechanically sound, and it is. The game is simple, but it does a lot with it. That whole package makes Journey worth checking out for anyone remotely open to it.
Game of the Year 2012: Virtue's Last Reward:
When I first sat down to write this list, I had only 2 games I was certain of. I knew Pokemon White 2 would be number 10 and Virtue's Last Reward would be my Game of the Year. No other game surprised me more. Coming off of 999, I was doubtful lightning could strike twice. I didn't know where you could go with that series. There was no clear path. It seemed almost impossible to top the insanity that is the final twist in that game. Yet, here we are. They did it. They didn't just top it once, either. They did it over and over again. Virtue's Last Reward is an amazing refinement on 999's core formula. The puzzles are better, it's easier to get through different story paths, the text scrolls faster. All of the mechanical improvements you'd want are there. What's so amazing is how they top 999 from a story standpoint. There is twist after twist in Virtue's Last Reward, yet they are all earned. They use obvious twists, say the identity of a certain character, to distract you from more important ones It's all expertly crafted. It's an amazing experience I won't soon forget and cannot wait to see where they go from here.