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Yours Truly's 2014 Game of the Year Awards

This has said to have been by others to be a "down" year. A "disappointing" year. I don't myself think this, but there has been a few clouds obscuring new-for-2014 games for me. One, that much of my game time has been eaten up clearing out my backlog (Raidou 2, La Mulana 1), adding oldie and goodies to it (Valkyria Chronicles, Toki Tori 2), or replaying beloved games of yesteryear (Digital Devil Saga 1, TitS: First Chapter), skewing just what "2014" means for me more than any year I can think of. It's a good thing! Just that it can obscure one's mind when it comes down to charting how the year for debut titles shook out, but a good thing nonetheless.

Two, and far less positive, it was to me The Year of Games at War With Themselves. A large chunk of the titles below on this list have features or aims that simply fight another feature or aim to the detriment of the game as a whole. They could have each been truly outstanding, but had these meaningless flaws obscuring the wonderful games within.

But don't worry! This list isn't a bitter rant-fest, but do note I will toss harsh criticism at every game but the #1. Not because I hate it, but it needs to be said, and that I care and want to see them improve. Beyond #3, the games are really, really tight and it did come between "which game is less compromised?"

List items

  • You know those games that come out and feel good, feel right, and play right, but they juuuuuuuuuuuuuust don't have the scope, polish, or the design in a few facets quite right to really work, but so damn enjoyable and honest and true in their aim that you like the game and wish the devs the best on the next adventure? That was Grimrock 1.

    And you know that NEXT game, that takes the scope, polish, and design critiques and sends that sequel thru the roof with some of the best-thought out gaming you've experienced and an all-time classic? THAT'S Grimrock 2.

    They did so much so right in this game.

    A grander scale with a whole island full of smaller dungeons to explore. More puzzles. More secrets. More variety. More ambience. More choice. More monsters. More loot. More boss fights. More MORE.

    It's a much more stabler adventure, with fewer bugs and those were squashed within two weeks of launch. And on top of that, Almost Human fixed the skill system with a PROPERLY simpler one. No more meaningless maxed Spellcraft bonus; everything having 5 tiers and everyone having access to every school makes for some crazy min-maxing and "sure, why not?" class ideas like Fighters who have high INT and spam magical special weapon attacks to complement 1's single example of dual tomahawkin' Mino Rogues. It's fun!

  • There's been a steady trickle of CRPGs into my library since I discovered the wonders of fair, honest download services like GoG and Steam and a litany of beloved JRPGs from designers learnéd in the hows and whys of CRPG possibility to their own heritage before that (tri-Ace, Ikahara, Megaten, Lord Miyazaki, Lord Matsuno), but this year that rivulet turned into a deluge and riding along with this wave of gaming goodness is the CRPG talk of 2014:

    Divinity: Original Sin.

    Larian's infamous forced march into gamestyles they had no business dabbling with and away from their strengths are gone here; the AP-utilizing combat is sublime, a beautiful toolbox of shit to play with, and constantly throws you nasty new curveballs to force your mastery of said toolbox. Excellent quest design that has you thinkin' and searchin' instead of the Honey Do list grind that most RPGs got fascinated in. Fun loot system that ain't afraid to toss you powerful but narrowing playthings to build a character towards. A classy, table-top looking art direction that is stylish and distinct, a magnificent dreamlike and daring OST by one Kirill Pokrovsky, and alot of neat dialogue between the two Guardians and major NPCs that doesn't get enough love due to its cheeky nature. Co-op play in a narrative-heavy game that pulls it off! There is so much STUFF in this game to do and earn.

    There are a few problems with this gem, befitting a talented developer just now getting to stretch their legs; outside of that conversation listed above, some of it is drab and mechanical, almost as if the character themselves weren't speaking, but the writer themselves dropping that information (if that makes any sense). There are bugs that crash to desktop months in. You can also tell the KS cash didn't go far enough and got stretched thin (noticable but not necessarily bad since it means more of that sweet, sweet fightin').

  • Two great tastes that taste great together! What could've been an also ran fluff title thrown out till we get Etrian Odyssey V and Persona 5: Cart Racer in 2016 (put down the pitchforks, it's good for your blood pressure), PQ is better than it has any right to be.

    The dungeon design is packed with great ideas for the layout, the theming, the FOE tricks, and fully realizing the "puzzle-based" methodology that EO had been migrating to since III. The high mana cost being balanced around the Boost and sub-persona system is really neat. Just the very idea that Chie has a spell she can't even cast until 53 unaided is crazy great. It even puts controls the slovenly Choose Fusion that Golden infected the series with by forcing exploiting as many weaknesses as possible vs. less defensive skills! The only real issue I have is the more restricted P4G system eventually does break wide open by stratum 4 making it less about the right Sub, teammates, and strategy and more about farming Power Spots and cashing in for skill cards and sacrifice fusion Compendium raiding.

    The chibi look is usually great, as is the characterization (with Naoto, Mitsuru, Kanji, Ken, and Margaret stealing the show constantly), but they just had to do what they did to Chie, Akihiko, and Lord God what did the writers have against this character Teddie. It got to the point where I'd literally skip any time these 3 were on here (though Chie got better).

    The devs also really need to stop themselves from Skyward Swording (demonstrating or having characters frame the puzzle's form in natural conversation, then have a dummy box exasperatingly explaining it in lurid detail).

    Has Marie. That's a half point off on anyone's grading scale.

  • I honestly find this slice of stark, intentionally-retro jaunt in Lovecraftian hellholes surprisingly fun. It's still held back by an overreliance upon bad circa-1992-level UI ergonomics and I swear to god the man who manufactures doors must be the fucking Warren Buffet of the kingdom.

    The class system is also one of those really neat systems that looks generic on the surface but holds a ton of nuance that just shines. "Do I go with big boom-boom offense? Perhaps 4 casters to have every spell for every event ASAP?" and all the give and take inherent in that.

  • If you look past the generic aspects of the start (yes, there's a rat cave that went as far as to being NAMED that, and yes your party is shockingly undergeared for a quest on this scale), you'll find a well-made, harsh, laissez-faire adventure where the team's modest, well-understood goals were met with flying colors.

    Still, those battle screens. Why do they move like marionettes? Why do the rats look like something out of that episode of MST3K?

    Oh well, my Bard just picked up some new songs, on to the next dungeon!

  • Xillia 2 looks really good at the same type of places and the same type of way that X1 did last year, towns and characters look just as strong and inspired, but the zones and dungeons still look and play like grungy escapees from a nearly forgotten 2nd year PS2 game. The "reused" line often used on this game has the wrong target; it's a direct sequel, of COURSE much will carry over, but I almost never hear people pointing out the dimensional jaunts reusing areas you had recently cleaned out. It's strange.

    What wasn't excusable was the grouping mechanic; most main Chapters forced a set 4-person party on you, restricting your options in a bad way from playing a favorite other than Ludger (and often put you in real danger when Elise, Leia, or Muzet ain't one of them; the bosses have a nasty habit of spamming PBAoEs when more than 2 player characters are in range meaning those PBAoE heals they gave characters is a deathtrap.)

    But what really got this a higher nod in my mind then the last outing was the much darker tale; not only was this a much more robust narrative that didn't buckle under old chestnuts of saving spirits, team betrayltons, or well-intentioned extremists, it went to some real ugly places exploring fatherhood, sacrifice, the cost of heroism, and how the guilty can go unpunished and often never are.

    The gameplay got a great dose of Tatsuro Udo's golden touch that X1's lacked. It flows much faster, has much more openness about movement and Link partners, and allows more controlling of the match via Weaknesses and Charge that circumvents much of the unpleasent boss fight problems it inherited from Xillia 1's Game At War With Itself legacy.

    There's also this really great sense of styyyyyyyyyyyyyyle in the game. Everyone comes back dressed tastefully to the absolute nines and it's great.

  • "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." Or was it "Right place, wrong time"? At any rate, Wildstar was never going to hold people in this post-player bribery, post F2P, post-MOBA world, but past the gruesome slip-ups was some incredible brilliance, almost as if they're sides of the same coin.

    The combat is my vote for the best action MMO combat in the biz right now. Much less context-sensitive and open. The downside to this it's VERY tiring on the mind, like a Tales game and not the usual rotation-heavy behavior most get from MMOs. This also makes PvE more deliciously dangerous and involved, but those raid GUILDS are really big enough to field 25, much less 40 any more regularly, week in, week out.

    Great art direction, but there's a noticable lack of silhouette understanding. The world is colorful and full of neat touches thru to the end, but the road to 50 is hitched to a tale that goes far, far too close to Thou Art The Chosen One territory (a death knell for MMOs). There was a robust PvP metagame and check-and-balance system...that was completely compromised by a "first come, first served" exclusionary factor revolving around PvP gear.

    And yet, I really enjoyed my time with it. Met some real nice folks you just don't run into much any more (I love the Circle function). Relying on specific others, being relied upon by these specific others. Fighting those attunement runs, visiting each others' houses, crafting for each other to avoid the scalping at the AH, just chatting as we go about business in-group. I miss that, and the W* team did a flawed but quality set of goals and scaffolding for that socializing I need in my MMO.

  • I really feel bad for SGG on this. Several things that worked so right on Bastion just didn't work in this one. The music was several steps down from Korb's masterwork, relying far too much on turgid 4/4 downbeats and bare arpeggios and without the excellent tone and mixing of the previous. Logan Cunningham's dulcet tones goes off-aim with him talking endlessly to a mute PC who couldn't even respond via body language most of the time due to the camera being panned very far out instead of to us in a naturally one-way conversation. The story (and this isn't the last you'll hear of this critique), is nearly severed from the gameplay, almost as if it was to another game.

    That out of the way, it is a BEAUTIFUL looking and playing title. The Function system is a revolutionarily brilliant little toolbox; whoever got that idea to allow skills be modifications on other skills is a goddamn genius. It's also very beautiful, with a lovingly utilized early Art Deco motif that feels and looks like part of a real place; a Bioshock without the negative connotations to the movement.

  • A fine attempt at Souls game, but it shows just how much of those games are in their execution (note: easy games also can and do fail at this too, but the stakes are lower), but it's clear they were learning as they went in this and the legacy from the lighting debacle and early taint of accesibility had still dug their claws deep into the functionality of this game, from Soul Memory to completely uncoupled lore to a number of bosses that treat the battle like a heavily structured dance-off (you strike when you're SUPPOSED to, not when you can get away with it) that negated positioning to the point of the enemies using the binocular trick against you, and those are scars that won't heal easily. They "had" to be more accessible. They "had" to make it interconnected like DS1 was. "Had" to.

    Oh well, it's a good use of $60, and I hear the DLC is much better. Good on them.