The Ten Best Games I Played This Year Are...

...well, first off, note the wording on that. There are some 2013 games on here, but when making a top ten of 2013 list I found myself including entries that I kinda didn't think were GOTY material. Good, yes, but there were way better games I played this year that I wanted to give more attention, so some of these are games that I finished for the first time this year but did not come out this year. And some I haven't even actually finished, I've just enjoyed what I've played so much that they belong.

For the record, I did play The Last of Us, and I did enjoy the story and the writing and the cutscenes a whole lot. But I didn't enjoy significant portions of the gameplay, and I have a hard time putting a game on an awards list when its actual gameplay has problems. It's definitely well-worth playing for the visuals, the story, the environment, tone, setting, atmosphere, and pretty much everything except gameplay.

So... here we go!

10) Grand Theft Auto V

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This dude was seriously considered for character of the year. And he won. I hate this guy.

I haven’t played much of the GTA series before. I’ve played a few hours of the fourth game and about half an hour of one of the PS2 games on my cousin’s PS2 a long time ago. And about five minutes of one of the PSP ones. And I haven’t really finished GTA V yet. Hell, I haven’t even quite made my way to the second heist yet, so maybe I haven’t made my way to the best parts yet. I haven’t made it partly because college tends to get in the way of long-ass games like this, and partly because I spent a lot of my time simply admiring the game world. I rarely pay attention to the environments in open-world games and couldn’t picture much of their worlds in my head, but for GTA V I can think of several places. And not big places that you’re constantly visiting, either, just something as simple as a pool in a backyard or some places in the northern parts of the map or some bit of the highway that I ran off while policemen were chasing me or the sewers that I spent two hours doing loop-de-loops around. It’s hardly perfect (surely Rockstar can afford someone who can write better console aiming code so you don’t have to default to a lock-on? And why does controlling planes and helicopters fucking suck?), but then few games this massive are. And here, the world is both massive and finely detailed and full of crazy, strange, weird, and worthwhile things to do.

9) Shin Megami Tensei IV

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Spoiler Alert: This is Lucifer, which makes SMT IV the stealth most sexist game of this year.

My opinions on this game have fluctuated quite a bit. I think I suffered from hyping myself up too much. Its predecessor, Nocturne, is brilliant and I loved every inch of that game. This one... not so much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s number nine for a reason, but that comes with the caveat that the story falls apart at every seam and the first and last five hours of the game are weirdly unbalanced in that the former is very hard and the latter is very easy. The middle thirty five hours or so of that game, though, are pretty great in both mechanics and atmosphere. The game does a really good job of showing you the oh-so-perfect, idealistic (or so it appears) upper world of Mikado and the chaotic, post-apocalyptic literal underworld of Tokyo. And the game also does a great job of presenting you with interesting demons, bosses, dungeons, and treasures to find. I’m currently on my second playthrough of this game and I’m completely disregarding the story. There’s no payoff there, but there’s tons of payoff in filling out my Demonic Compendium and fighting bosses and other demons and doing a lot of the sidequests that I didn’t do before.

8) Fire Emblem Awakening

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If you're one of those people that's squeamish when feet are shown, then this game is for you. No feet, whatsoever. Except maybe in those animated cutscenes, in which case nevermind.

This was the first turn-based strategy game that I ever really liked. I’ve tried X-Com and Disgaea since then but, really, this is the one that I’ve come back to a few times. Like a few other games on this list, I haven’t finished this one, but it’s not for lack of playtime. My 3DS says I’ve got 60 hours of this game logged, about 15 of which were actually my brother’s. I’ve just been doing all of the random encounters and working on the paralogues and marrying people off. The only real issue it has, for me, is the way it sometimes tosses new enemies into the battlefield, which sometimes feels a little cheap. It’s also an issue because I like picking the battlefield clean of enemies. But, hey, that’s not a big deal, especially considering how great the rest of the game is. Every character is given a personality, a unique name, and some dialogue; even though the characterizations are usually pretty thin, it’s enough to make you feel bad when one of them goes down. I played on Casual because I don’t like restarting my 3DS whenever someone died, but I still felt bad when someone went down just because I knew it was my bad playing that killed them. I also felt great when one of them succeeded or got really lucky, especially against a powerful enemy.

7) Tomb Raider

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You'll want to protect her, probably because it's the easiest job you'll ever have to do.

So the story is competent at best and there’s some dissonance between the way they want to portray Laura and yadda yadda yadda. Did you see the arrow that just went through that motherfucker’s head and caused him to do a backflip? Awesome! Oh, yeah, and solving tomb puzzles and whatnot to make a WW2-era shotgun upgrade into a modern shotgun is pretty goddamn game-y but then everything in this game is pretty game-y when you think about it. And that’s one of the things I loved about this game – it didn’t try to hide game-y parts in service of a narrative that I didn’t care about. It was proud to have campfires that you can fucking teleport between, specifically climbable walls, curiously hidden tombs, loads of collectibles, etc. And on top of that it was one of the best third person shooters I’ve played this generation. I like it because its gameplay was solid and it then built interesting set pieces on top of that, not because its gameplay merely worked well enough to get through all of the impressive set pieces. It’s Uncharted done right, and it’s damn good.

6) Final Fantasy XII

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Yes, it's true. This man has no dick.

Never thought I’d put this on an awards list. Neither the mechanics nor the world open up for about 8 hours. I played it off an on for an hour or two once or twice a year, for two years. And then, suddenly, the game becomes pretty big and you’re going places and you’re doing things and you’re progressing the story and, before you know it, you’ve got 30 hours invested into this game and you’re ready for more. I only started playing this in November and haven’t managed to quite finish it yet, but I’ve found myself very interested in the story and most of the characters and the gameplay. Sure, it plays itself some, but you’re really just setting up parameters that do what you would have done anyway. I can totally see why you wouldn’t like this game, but I really enjoy it.

Also, you have to roam around towns as Vaan, which becomes far more bearable when you just think of him as the go-getter while everyone else stops at the local Bar and Grill.

5) Persona 4 Golden

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Truly a masterpiece in writing.

You guys know. C’mon. I don’t even need to describe this game. I’ve seen all of the Endurance Run but haven’t finished the game myself, I’m about 25 hours in and in Rise’s dungeon. One thing I’ve noticed while playing this and P3FES is the super quick gameplay loop in which this game runs. You can pick it up and play it for fifteen minutes and get something done and it just feels a little satisfying every time. You’re not going to play it for an hour and not make any headway against a tough area of a game or feel like a level is too long. If you’re tired of the dungeon you’re in, Goho out of there and do a social link or two, then come back.

4) Persona 3 FES

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I don't know if Persona 3 wins the "most emo art online" award, but it must certainly be in the top ten, what with the main character looking like he puts Fall Out Boy on repeat, kids shooting themselves in the head, and an emotionless robot-girl who is in a vulnerable, helpless-looking position plastered all over approximately 3/4 of the official art for the game.

Well, I like this game for largely the same reasons that I like Persona 4, except I actually think the writing and story here is better. Not tons better, but I think it holds up a little better under scrutiny and doesn’t immediately make you question motivations and such in the last few hours of the game like P4 does. Persona 4’s dungeon crawling mechanics are better, but there are some really great fights in Persona 3 FES and the final boss was one of the most memorable in a long time.

3) Bioshock Infinite

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Pictured: Six month's salary of your average working class person.

This is, no joke, the only game that I finished twice this year. I can point out some problems with its gameplay, and many people have pointed out the issues with its story, but I don’t care. I was quite wrapped-up in its finale and was pretty satisfied by its ending, even after giving it some thought. It was something of a brain-bender and it’s got plenty of holes, but I don’t think that Ken Levine was looking to “plug the holes”. I think he was trying to give the story’s ideas and characters some conclusion to this whole thing, and in that I think he succeeded. Besides, like Jeff Gerstmann has said, anytime you deal with either time travel or dimension hopping you get logic holes and issues. Here, there are both.

I also get to slide on skyhooks in a city above the clouds and jump off and bash someone off the other side of the ledge with a skyhook, then send a flock of crows to take out a few dudes coming after me, then shoot any other dudes that are coming after me. So how is this game not fun again?

2) Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan

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Matt Rorie's anime alter-ego

OK, look. Wizardry-inspired dungeon crawlers aren’t very popular. But something about this particular game really struck me. It started out with a devilish grin derived from the stupidly hard (but very balanced) difficulty. Then it grew to a certain satisfaction from finding treasure boxes in the dungeon. Then I found that I’d finished drawing my first map and I felt even more satisfied with my amateur cartography skills. And then the game drew me even more in when I found that I had to lead gigantic, pissed-off bears to equally gigantic piles of logs so they would clear them out in their blind, ferocious, one-shot-my-entire-party anger (and then there’s something to be said for the satisfaction that comes from beating them using only auto-battle forty hours later). And then I managed to kill one of those FOE’s, incredibly over-leveled enemies that you often have to navigate around. Finally, I got to the first stratum’s boss, a massive red bear, and managed to take him down. And then I started to realize the crazy number of class and skill combinations I could have used to do that entire thing. The sheer number of skills you can mix and match to form tactics and strategies is pretty staggering, and that it’s all quite balanced makes the whole thing a very impressive mechanical achievement.

Make no mistake, though. This game is all mechanics, through and through. There’s no voiced dialogue, and not really a ton of dialogue considering the game’s length. There’s context given for why you’re doing what you’re doing, but just barely enough. The world is made up of square tiles that look the same. Sure, the game has an aesthetic and an art style, but that’s hardly relevant. I would play this game if its art consisted of nothing more than lines, because it would largely be the same game (though I’d rather keep the aesthetic, it’s not entirely pointless). And all of these mechanics are just extremely well-balanced. Difficult and brutal, but always fair. I don’t think I’ve ever been one-shotted, and I somehow almost always manage to escape from encounters with FOE’s if I accidentally fell into a fight with one. I do wish that the game’s leveling moved faster so that I could unlock more skills, and I do wish it didn’t take as much time to develop new party members, but those are pretty minor nitpicks. Etrian Odyssey is the best game I’ve played this year from a pure mechanics perspective.

Also the music is just plain awesome. All of it. I can't name any songs that I don't like hearing.

1) Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne

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I bet this game makes for some... ah... "interesting" cosplays.

So where do I start with this one? It’s pretty much the game that got me into dungeon crawlers in the first place. It’s not first person but it might as well be, with clearly marked tiles all over the place, damage floors, floors with holes in them, random encounters, insanely hard bosses, and not really a ton of story. Actually, more on story later.

I did claim that Etrian Odyssey had better mechanics, but I’d tell you that this was the better overall package. The press-turn system in Nocturne sounds like something that wouldn’t lend much depth, but in reality it’s what makes this game’s battle system. Essentially, when you hit an enemy’s weakness or get a critical hit, you get an extra turn. If you miss or hit something it deflects, then you lose a turn. The enemy is also under the same rules. It’s also a game of buffs – like the press-turns, this sounds like a trivial difference but in reality, learning and knowing the buffs and debuffs is absolutely crucial to every boss fight past Matador. Weaknesses, strengths, buffs, and press-turns all play into everything you do and it’s such a brilliant combination. It’s also more difficult than Etrian Odyssey, and sometimes unfairly so. And it has a far fewer number of skills, which is why I said that it’s slightly less impressive mechanically.

It has everything else in spades, though. Did you ever think that a JRPG could have a lonely, oppressive atmosphere in a post-apocalypse where only five humans are left alive? No? Well, this is it. It’s one of the darkest apocalypses I’ve ever seen and it’s chock full of tragedies and a lack of hope. Forget The Last of Us, that world is going to get back on its feet. This world? It’s dead. And that’s pretty much the point. You exist for the purpose of choosing a direction for a new world, or destroying the world altogether and leaving only a blank wasteland. The story is pretty minimalist. You’re only given what you need to know, and nothing more. But the way it’s presented, and the world you’re placed into, is so original and unique and weird and striking and downright awesome, from top to bottom. It quickly became one of my favorite games of all time and I’d say that you should give it a try if you ever wanted a new spin on the post-apocalypse.