When the end of the year rolls around, I'm usually agonizing over a handful of games. I may have enjoyed all of 'em, but the list can only contain ten games. A few simply can't make the cut. We can't all be winners.
It was a weird year, right?
It's not to say I didn't have a tremendous time with video games in 2014, though. In fact, at the start of the year, as things were just getting rolling, I spent lots of time with Spelunky and Dark Souls. If this were a list featuring our favorite games of all-time, both would be represented! Each of those games introduced me to new types of experiences, and those games will pay dividends down the road. If not for Dark Souls, I wouldn't be psyched for Bloodborne.
There's tremendous stuff that didn't make my list. Were there really two Danganronpa games in the same year? Yep, and both were incredible. I'm reasonably sure Dragon Age: Inquisition could be one of my favorite games, but it's premature to say too much about a story-based game where I'm not halfway through its story. Tesla Effect? Valiant Hearts? Jazzpunk? D4? Sunset Overdrive? Sorry, everyone, but like I said, there can only be 10 games on the list. Onto 2015, my friends. Who knows what's in store?
If this were 2012, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth would be replaced with Spelunky, and it would be much higher on this list. While Spelunky was released on new platforms in 2014, it's been kicking around for a while. My bad. 2014 is when I joined the party, a vicious one-two combo of Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. I've traditionally been a story-focused player, preferring games with a defined beginning, middle, and end, games which reward skillful play but don't not outright demand it. These games helped me understand what one gains from practicing for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours. Practice is, of course, the nice way of saying failure. To succeed in either game, one must accept failure as the most probable outcome, and success to be the outlier. You can't have one without the other, but the one time it works out, the one time luck and skill combine with physical and mental memorization, it's an amazing feeling. Defeating Yama and Satan rank as some of my favorite achievements in games, 2014 be damned.
Depending on the day, I'll say Deus Ex or Mega Man 2 is my favorite game of all-time. They're both pretty damn good, you know? There's no loser in that contest. But Shovel Knight helped remind me why, perhaps in my heart of hearts, it's Mega Man 2. I don't blame anyone for writing off Shovel Knight. Ever since retro became cool, we've been treated to an endless parade of games cashing in on our nostalgia, with precious few picking up where those games left off. Shovel Knight looks and feels like a hardcore 2D platformer from the NES era, but, importantly, Shovel Knight actually contributes to the genre it's pulling from. It's modernized, self-aware nostalgia. The difficulty has been fine-tuned to provide challenge without frustration. Is the game too easy? Smack the checkpoints with a shovel, and be rewarded for turning the game up a notch. Everyone wins. The only bummer is when there are no more bosses to overcome, and the credits start to roll. Shovel Knight 2!
This game probably shouldn't exist, yet it does. Alien: Isolation is a big-budget take on Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Both games dismantle the traditional power fantasy, leaving players mostly helpless. There have been enemies in games since the medium's inception, and we've always been able to destroy them. This tension forms the core of so many game genres, past and present, and we're only beginning to tweak the formula. Alien: Isolation doesn't get everything right. It's too long; the creature's behavior can be erratic and illogical; the save points are poorly implemented; and it never, ever seems to end. But I also can't forget how Alien: Isolation constantly, consistently terrified me. I've seen the xenomorph is countless movies, comics, and video games over the years, but Alien: Isolation gave me the same feeling as the 1979 film. I wanted to hide, close my eyes, and pretend it won't find me. Unfortunately, it usually did.
While I expected to like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, I didn't expect to fall head over heels in love. Toad's stages from Super Mario 3D World were a lovely distraction, but a whole game? These days, there are very few restraints placed on designers. The roadblocks are creativity and budgets. There's untapped potential in working within rules and limitations, however, and Treasure Tracker constantly finds new ways to surprise. From top to bottom, whether we're talking about the player or the level designer, Treasure Tracker is about restraints. It's a Mario spin-off where the character cannot jump! The levels are impossibly small, but EAD Tokyo delights in hiding things in unexpected places. Tweak the camera just a littttle bit--voila! A treasure you're sure couldn't be in the level pops into view, and a smile hits your face.
Games can be tremendous vehicles for building and experiencing worlds, a combination of our imagination and what's put in front of us. I'd love to visit many of these places, but the world promised in The Banner Saga was not among them. The gods have abandoned their people, an overwhelming menace threatens to wipe out all life, and nobody wants to work together to fight back. Lord of the Rings this is not. Players always had to be moving forward in The Banner Saga--town-to-town, settlement-to-settlement. On the way, the game asked you to make difficult decisions about who to help. There was almost never a "good" decision. People always died, perhaps the only constant in this dreariness. The weakest part of The Banner Saga was combat, an overly simplistic strategy game without much variety. But every fight--even the crappy boss battles--were worth seeing through to the end, as it promised another glimpse into this seemingly hopeless fight for survival. There's no promise of a happy ending in The Banner Saga, but I'm eager to see where it goes from here.
Paradoxically, as developers have been given broader and more expansive canvases to develop games, they've instituted stricter rules for the players. Do this but not this. Try this but not that. While Divinity: Original Sin has plenty of structure, one which results in an incredibly satisfying (and dynamic) combat-focused role-playing adventure, it's willing to give players tons of leeway. When I discovered it was possible to attack enemies ahead of entering "combat" mode, I did it every time. When I realized you could kill just about anyone in the game, I created a separate save where I went on a spree. The game bends, not breaks, and values experimentation. The game's "rules" result in wonderful, serendipitous moments of improvisation, too. During one encounter with a set of orcs, a nearby cat was accidentally conscripted into battle. This was not a magical cat with powers, but it was assigned a turn, and courageously fought for me. Recognizing its bravery, I surrounded the cat, and protected it at all costs.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor plucked the best elements of a bunch of different video games--Assassin's Creed's climbing, Batman's fighting, etc.--and threw them into a blender. If that were easy to pull off, though, more people would do it. Shadow of Mordor isn't a very good Lord of the Rings video game (remind me why Gollum was there?), but that's hardly the point. It's just really fun to play, and while the Nemesis system has been appropriately lauded for personalizing the often trivial nature of death in video games, it's the little touches that stand out. Whenever an open world game lets me fast travel, it's all I use, since it's way more efficient. Don't slow me down! But the sign of a good open world game is when you don't want to leave the world, and I didn't want to do that in Shadow of Mordor. Monolith made exploring a joy, whether it was letting you get around super fast by hopping over rocks, providing a heads up when a collectible was nearby, or being able to quickly scamper up everything and anything. I'm not a completist, but except for the neverending prisoner missions, I did damn near everything I could.
Ever have the sense another world is around the corner? How, on a lonely night, if you took a right turn at the next stop sign, there might be something completely unexpected? Kentucky Route Zero, a little more than halfway through its episodic run, is spinning magic with every new act. Every new scene is a surprise, and though the Zero is a strange place, it feels remarkably familiar--a waking dream. Any screen shot from Kentucky Route Zero could be framed on a wall and no one would bat an eye, but it's not only the aesthetic, it's the composition. Everything is meticulous, everything is framed--all creating this surreal place. It's an interactive piece of art that's telling a story on several different levels. The main plot, about a man named Conway making a final delivery, takes a backseat to the player's own storytelling. Lots of games talk about "player choice," but it usually means being a good guy or a bad guy, choosing who lives or dives. In Kentucky Route Zero, you control the shades of gray, the finer details, via dialogue. These don't have an impact on the plot but define who these people are. Are you a dick? Do you care for others? What do you talk to a dog about? Though Kentucky Route Zero isn't "finished" yet--two acts to go--it just means I have more to look forward to.
It's unclear what Silent Hills will look or play like when it arrives a few years from now, but it hardly matters, since we have P.T. It's not only the most terrifying experience I've had in front of a monitor all year, it might be one of the scariest games ever made. All this for something called Playable Teaser, an interactive viral marketing tool for a video game! WHAT?! Some of the best horror arrives in the short stories, whether written, filmed, or programmed. P.T. eeks all it can out of a hallway in which the player, assuming they don't turn the game off after the first major scare, will walk dozens of times before seeing the end. There's comfort in the familiar, and it's what P.T. preys upon over and over again. We've all walked down a barely lit, wallpaper-laden hallway like the one in P.T., a slight bounce in our step, as we refuse to look over our shoulder, fearing a thing may be lurking behind us. In P.T., that thing might actually be there. But P.T. doesn't rush to scare you. The experience slowly unravels, carefully choosing its moments. Sure, some of the "gameplay" in the latter half of P.T. is an exercise in frustration--heck, I've never even seen it all the way through to the end--but the extreme highs outrank the lows. I'll never tire of booting up P.T. and watching someone play through the first 20 minutes, and suspect P.T. will, like Trick 'r Treat or Nightmare on Elm St., become part of my regular rotation on Halloween for many years to come.
1. Bayonetta 2
The winner for Least Likely to Become Patrick's Favorite Game of Any Year is...! Character action games have, generally, never grabbed me. The genre shares too much in common with fighting games, and memorization has never been a personal strength. I'm a button mashin' kind of player. The way people talked about Bayonetta 2, though, had me curious. It only took a single stage, in which Bayonetta fights demonic angel monsters on a jet, to realize this was for me. I've got some serious issues with how the camera creepily lingers on certain sections of Bayonetta's top and bottom, but as soon as it began to bother me, it was onto the next wild moment. Most impressively, it's incredibly accessible. You're going to have more success by properly executing combos and making use of certain weapons in specific situations, but if you simply focus on dodging enemies, the Matrix-like witch time lets you slam buttons to your hearts content and make progress. It's a game rewarding for newcomers and experts alike, which is no small feat. The playing of Bayonetta 2 is incredibly intimate, too, as the game slams you into tiny arenas, but what's around you is tremendous. I'm not sure a game has managed scale on this level since Asura's Wrath a few years back, and all you barely did anything in that game! There's probably not a better playing game than Bayonetta 2 this year, and truly, few games were better looking, either. To achieve all of this on "old" hardware is a triumph, and there's no game that prompted me to shout "holy shit" more often. Hell, I wanted to finish this game so bad, I smuggled an entire Wii U onto a flight to make sure I was able to see it all through.