GOTY 2012

A list of games that are good. They are not bad. Phew, check out this super technical vernacular I'm swinging around like a deadly weapon. Hoo boy.

The list is now finalized. I don't think any of these remaining Indie games I'm sitting on are likely to break into this top ten. Or top twenty as the case appears to be.

List items

  • It's a hell of a thing to look at this list of 20 games and declare Sleeping Dogs to be the best one. It's a GTA clone (and I mean through-and-through plot and content-wise, not just its superficial similarity as a city-based sandbox game) with an eastern flair that at certain points feels incomplete due to the necessity of curtailing an already overlong development period. However, few games provided the level of entertainment Sleeping Dogs did, and sustained that level for a considerable number of playing hours. Many of the games on this list were "important" rather than endlessly entertaining, or were fun but way too short (as is always the unfortunate case with the downloadable/Indie set). That the game continues to show its true strength with its imaginative DLC, some memorably hilarious Quick Look moments courtesy of the incorrigible Vinny Caravella and perhaps the year's best combat system in lieu of a Rocksteady Batman game to trump it, I'm pretty content with my decision to make this my top dog.

  • Dust's very existence is a significant accomplishment that cannot and should not be understated or ignored when discussing the game. However, it did not require this additional meritorious meta tidbit to elevate it to its position on this list. As an Indie Metroidvania, it had plenty of antecedents to surpass yet nevertheless did so with aplomb, with its fantastic soundtrack, animation, combat system and story. It got absolutely everything right; no other video game that I can think of has benefited this much from having a singular creative source. It hits number two because I legitimately cannot find a single fault with it. (Which might make one wonder why it isn't number one, but I tend to be a capricious sort.)

  • The Last Story I appreciate for many reasons, and I'm aware many of which are not shared by my contemporaries on this site. I appreciate how it attempted to take a very old model of RPG and hybridize it with a (relatively) new model of third-person action game. I appreciate how half its mechanics are entirely new - they originated with this game and may well persist in those to follow, should it ever inspire imitations. I appreciate Sakaguchi's obstinate adherence to his fairytale-esque storytelling, as trite and predictable as the worst Disney movies, but also as charming and palatable as their best. I appreciate... well, The Last Story, in so many words. I'm just a big ol' apologist fan of the whole shebang.

  • Binary Domain wins my "best surprise" award, just edging out Sleeping Dogs and Asura's Wrath in that particular regard. I generally have no truck with third-person shooters, aspiring as they often do to being nothing more than generic Gears copycats with a fraction of that series' overwrought gravitas and spectacle. Binary Domain instead feels more like last year's Vanquish - almost a parody of the macho 80s action movie conventions that Gears takes oh so seriously. The fast-paced, cover-based shooting gameplay is what it is (though I loved the variation in the robot designs and how their very nature changed the rules of how these games tend to operate: head shots are still useful, but so are leg shots and arm shots in specific circumstances) but the game shone through with its sense of wry, occasionally-deadpan humor, its crazy twists and its characters - even in spite of how stereotypical they initially appear - are some of the more endearing team members I've had the pleasure of gunning down robots side-by-side with.

  • I wasn't ever going to not like Theatrhythm. As a huge fan of Square's erstwhile composers Nobuo Uematsu and Hitoshi Sakimoto (and Masashi Hamauzu too, to a lesser extent) and of DS rhythm games in general (I broke my last one's touchscreen playing Ouendan 2), the game is everything I wanted from a Final Fantasy rhythm game. From its frivolous RPG facade to its dedication to its 25 years of source material, it's the game anyone could've reasonably hoped for upon hearing the premise for the first time. It might well win the anti-award for "least surprising", but when that means getting everything you wanted from a product you'd been anticipating with some fervor, it's an entirely acceptable conferral to receive.

  • I wasn't prepared to like Dishonored too much. It underwhelmed me at E3, seeming as it was the first of what might well have been a wave of stealth action games to follow in Deus Ex HR's wake. Dishonored is surprisingly novel, however, with how it sets up its individual missions and how it has a wealth of powers for stealth and combat: the former providing all sorts of novel approaches to a target and the latter allowing for a rare example of a stealth game that's just as satisfying should you elect to brute force your way through. I also liked the weird focus on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, from its more overt whale oil references to its mature cautionary tale of just how hollow and self-destructive a quest for vengeance invariably becomes.

  • Asura's Wrath just blew me away. It's rare that I become enamoured with a game for its sheer spectacle alone, as I've often been a proponent of the idea that video games ought to focus on their interactivity as a cornerstone in order to become its own unique medium independent from movies and cartoons, rather than meekly kowtow to their older brothers by aping them in such scarcely-interactive fare as Asura's Wrath here. Instead, I found the way it managed to combine context-appropriate video game commands with an utterly insane "Dragon Ball Z But Somehow Even Crazier" setting very rewarding. Not the first time one of these GOTY list entries has rendered me a hypocrite, and probably not the last.

  • Borderlands 2 didn't really take a sufficient number of steps to improve itself over its progenitor, but this becomes a sticky issue when you consider how difficult a prospect it is to follow a game as sublime as the original Borderlands. If you can tread water without rocking the boat (which is a terrible mixed analogy) when developing a sequel to a game that got so much right the first time, you're at least achieving something. Truth is, I probably spent more time playing this game than any other game on this list, and that's a rather substantial point in its favor.

  • Like Dust, you kind of have to look past the interesting backstory behind the game's development and appreciate Fez on its own merits. And that's an easy thing to do, because the game's packed with them. Like Dust, it has an incredible soundtrack, great graphics that do the pixel thing but takes it way larger with its immense environments, and a very subtle hidden core that quickly overrides what is superficially another Indie platformer with a neat gimmick. Make no mistake (though it would be hard to at this point, given the amount of attention and acclaim its received): the puzzle elements ARE the game, the platforming merely the icing.

  • Mass Effect 3 had some ugly business towards the end, there's no mistaking it. That a game that would've otherwise been a very satisfying conclusion to a noteworthy trilogy falls at the last hurdle is almost inexcusable. But it's nothing to diminish the dozen or so hours leading up to you-know-what, nor the polished veneer of its core tenets of exploration, storytelling and frantic combat. It's 95% of a fantastic game, let's say.

  • It was painful to knock Journey off my top ten. Like Dust and Fez, it is much more than a basic Indie adventure. It's nothing short of stunning, from its visuals to its moody soundtrack to its sense of kinship with complete strangers. Walking through the final goal side-by-side with some anonymous internet person, our eventful pilgrimages ending at the exact same moment, really lends an unexpected emotional core to what is really a very short, very ephemeral platformer. It is this aspect, that as a game it is elevated by every part of it that isn't a game, that I feel puts it just short of a meaningful position on this list.

  • I loved the original Risen, almost in spite of its budget quality feel and old fashioned CRPG approach. The sequel doesn't fare much better in those regards, but turning what was an uninspired RPG into a ribald pirate-y adventure reminiscent of (but certainly not reliant on) those Johnny Depp movies, was an inspired direction for the series to take. It ends up becoming something akin to Secret of Monkey Island mixed with an earlier Elder Scrolls game, maybe Morrowind. It's certainly better than initial impressions would have you believe.

  • Oddly, my chief concern with Far Cry 3 isn't how the plot peters out towards the mid-point (though that is one of many minor ones), but rather how its best feature - the emergent environmental oddities that occur - makes it seem a little disingenuous to reward the game for what is by all accounts an accidental quirk of its engine. It'd be like praising San Andreas for its goofy glitches, rather than by its many fine and completely intentional qualities. That's how I feel about Far Cry 3: It's a good sandbox game, one that is filled with well-designed incidental mayhem that you can go involve yourself in of your own accord, but it's not as transcendent as the many "I was looking at a pirate outpost and a tiger walked in and wiped it out and oh my god, greatest game ever" accounts would suggest. It's certainly no Just Cause 2, and you can quote me on that. I mean, if you wanted to.

  • Crimson Shroud was - like so many of this year's games - a pleasant surprise. It's not the sort of thing I would imagine Matsuno or Level-5 putting together: An inherently western style of RPG, filled with dice rolls, tense strategic combat and oodles of descriptive text and optional backstory proffered to any player willing to delve into it. I liken it to a Fighting Fantasy book: A half-game, half-novel that is as often driven forward by circumstance and fortune than it is by wise decisions. Perhaps most vitally, it feels a lot like a lost portable game sequel to Vagrant Story, back when portable game developers knew they had less resources and found curious ways to acceptably downgrade the gameplay format while still being faithful to the original. Matsuno's all about gothic ruins and religious/aristocratic conspiracies, yo.

  • I really ought to play more adventure games. That one with all the zombies is no doubt gracing the lists of many of my peers as this year closes out. Resonance hearkens back to a specific age where these games were still in 2D and had just discovered voice acting, what was probably the peak of the point-and-click adventure game genre somewhere in the mid-90s. The multiple protagonist angle, allowing you to select between them at will at a certain point of the story, is nothing new either - it's yet another aspect that evokes that golden period. Resonance is simply an expertly told adventure game with a few surprises (both in terms of puzzle solutions and twists in the narrative) that could reasonably belong to the same pantheon of those older point-and-click paragons it venerates so much.

  • A game that is truer to its central conceit - the regret of a genius creative force never finding the resolve to complete anything it creates - than it perhaps realizes, the Unfinished Swan is a series of really cool concepts that are individually given little time to shine before the game invariably loses interest and moves onto its next idea. In a sense, it's the exact opposite of what is usually the issue with puzzle games, in that they too often reiterate the same concepts with their hundreds of puzzles. Like the one sour note of any Layton game, for example, where you're given one too many instances of the same interminable sliding block set-up. The Unfinished Swan should be commended for its innovations and imagination (and its stark aesthetic sense), but it's way too slight for its own good.

  • Hell Yeah! has a lot of things going for it. It's funny, it's imaginative, it's got a great sense of style both graphical and musical. It's also like a lost Twisted Pixel game, almost, with its fond irreverence towards clich√© gaming conventions as a whole. However, it will at times be a frustrating experience with its ubiquitous rookie design faults (the terrible checkpointing being the chief recipient of most of my doleful sighing) and as a result just isn't the same caliber of game most of the others on this list are. It's a shame the team behind it didn't have a little more experience under its belt, but then that's what sequels are for. I have no doubt their next game will be a keeper.

  • Darksiders II unfortunately felt like a slog throughout much of its inexplicably padded run, and makes the vital error of being nothing like as monumental as its predecessor in terms of moving its grand plot forward. Rather, it spends its time filling in more details of its "Todd McFarlane Presents: The Biblical Apocalypse" universe presumably in order to give future sequels more context when they inevitably return to that pivotal moment at the end of Darksiders I. It'd be a real shame if this was the final Darksiders, because it feels like the exposition-filled restrained middle chapter of an incredible saga.

  • I cannot in good conscience rate a Traveller's Tales LEGO game any higher than middling status, because of how little these games seem to evolve or improve. It gives the (probably false) impression that TT don't even feel they need to improve these games to sell a Batmobile-load every time. The only thing that really ever seems to change is the license, and even then this is a sequel to one that had been previously exploited. However, the core appeal of these games is just as prominent here as its ever been, presenting the DC Universe and its characters in its inimitable farcical LEGO style. Downplaying Superman and Batman's tentative yet distrustful friendship as simply "Superman is perfect and Batman is totally jelly" and playing it for laughs was a great idea.

  • Though it's in last place, this particular list is for games I considered decent and worthy of the time spent playing them - there's more than a few 2012 games I saw that I didn't include because they have no business being anywhere near a GOTY list. FFXIII-2, as incomprehensible and melodramatic as it can often be, has an infectious enthusiasm for exploration and adventure that is very much at odds with its dour and intensely linear antecedent. In addition, it's made the combat (the bright spark of FFXIII) even more polished, added plenty of much-needed levity and Caius isn't quite the nebulously-defined moustache-twirling villain Barthandelus was. If I had one major problem with it, it was how it concluded. But, hey, that seemed to be a theme this year.