GOTY 2014

I guess it's time. After fourteen days of Go! Go! GOTY!, I think I'm finally prepared to render my verdict on the games released in the year of 2014 of the Common Era that I was fortunate enough to play.

This list will be a little lacking, alas. While it does have ten games, I had to scrape it together from the vast amount of underwhelming titles I saw this year, and the general lack of new game buying I've been doing (or not doing, I suppose) of late. I could probably put together a better top ten list of games from 2013 that I eventually got around to this year.

Still, I hope the unusual flavor of this list, absent the big names that'll be on everyone else's (Bayonetta 2, Call of Duty: AW, Sunset Overdrive, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, etc.), will give you a few new ideas for what to grab in the big post-Christmas Winter sales. Plus, I've been pondering the idea of going back and adding 2014 games to this list as I play them in the future, so maybe stay tuned for something a bit more comprehensive.

List items

  • This lofty placement might seem a little disingenuous to most, including myself. I'm not a fan of multiplayer games, generally speaking. I'm not a particular fan of sequels that don't make a whole lot of alterations to the franchise template either. Yet due to all the average-to-great games I played this year, none really reaching the superlative heights of "excellent" or "genre-redefining", the newest Smash Bros nonetheless found its way to the top.

    If I had to put into words why Super Smash Bros is one of my favorite recent Nintendo franchises, and I suppose I'd better if I placed this at number one, is that it's Nintendo nostalgia done right. It indulgently wallows in the shared history of its many memorable franchises, but throws its characters together in a forum with even footing and doesn't nickel-and-dime players to relive their fond memories. The gameplay is not what I'd call "fighter" gameplay per se, as it doesn't involve an endless period of memorization of tricky combos or keep track of a thousand different "Smash-ism" gauges. Rather, it's all situational and reactive, which feels like skipping the first few years of fighter game training to get the good stuff: messing with the opponent's mind, predicting their movements, pulling out something improvisational and devastating at the last second. In essence, it is to serious fighters what Mario Kart is to serious driving games.

    If I'm being brutally honest though, it's the collectibles that puts this at the zenith. I love all those shiny gewgaws, for unknown reasons that continue to concern me, and no one game series does collectibles better than Super Smash. Almost 700 trophies in the 3DS version, and a similarly large amount in its Wii U brother, kept me busy for what felt like a couple of months of on-again, off-again play sessions. Maybe I should knock SSB down a few positions for enabling an addict, but then I've never been a particularly strong-willed individual.

  • Shovel Knight was a wonderful surprise from a new developer I'll have to keep an eye on in future. Retro Indie throwbacks are a dime a dozen, but so rarely do any have the level of craft that Shovel Knight displays. The gameplay is an amalgamation of a handful of excellent NES games (Zelda II, Mega Man, DuckTales, Faxanadu, etc.), essentially becoming both a best of all worlds and a nostalgic homage to a generation of games that, while left behind in many technological respects, are still enjoyed today for their precision controls and challenge.

    Shovel Knight knows that it can't ape so many great NES games without resembling one itself, and the artists did a great job rendering its world in glorious 8-bit, with nuances and animations that belie the sort of attention to detail that was placed in its pixelly world of knights and more knights. The soundtrack, from Jake "virt" Kaufman, is perhaps my favorite this year. The collectibles (those again...), the boss fights, the oddly riveting story, the goofy humor and the branching and surprise-ridden overworld map are all above reproach as well. It's a little Indie game that doesn't put a single step wrong and, though it spends its runtime hearkening to the past of gaming, I suspect it'll end up meaning a lot to the future of gaming as well.

  • I do this every goddamn year. I write the GOTY list, get a Christmas present I can't wait to try out, and it ends up shoving almost every item down a space. Curtain Call is such a well-realised version of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy that I wish I had played it first. I'm sure others feel the same way about all these PS4/XB1 remastered editions of games that are getting significant gameplay tweaks in addition to looking nicer. Curtain Call greatly expands its library of music, adding tracks from my beloved Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (the first Final Fantasy Europe ever saw!); reorganizes its music to be more accessible and less focused on playing through a whole game's music in one shot; switches Dark Notes for a fun new Quest Medley mode that resembles Dissidia's Story mode; adds way more characters, ensuring the (usually milquetoast) protagonists aren't your only option; and adds a super appreciated control scheme that lets you use the buttons instead of the mercurial stylus, making the icons that require flick motions far easier to manage. It's a superb sequel in absolutely every respect and the definitive Final Fantasy rhythm game.

  • People give a lot of kudos to The Stick of Truth for A) actually doing right by its source material, like no other South Park video game adaptation has ever managed before and B) nailing the look and humor of the TV show, to the point where it's often hard to tell it apart from the real thing. Those are important considerations, and ones that probably did well for its promotional campaign, but it doesn't really touch upon the RPG core.

    I found the Stick of Truth to be one of the most concise and well-constructed RPGs to come from the AAA industry in a very long time. Each encounter is meaningful. Each has been balanced for the player's level, and their equipment and companions. Each can be defeated with the right combination of abilities, items and tactics rather than hammering attack and hoping for the best. It feels like an implementation of the Zeboyd games on a grander scale, and how they ensure that each of their many encounters at least offers some degree of challenge, but not to the extent where you're frequently running into overly difficult battles that require the player waste their time grinding for a spell. It's a hard balance to nail, and very few RPGs can make the majority of its encounters feel neither pointlessly easy or stupidly difficult, or otherwise endless as you're trying to get from point A to B in a hurry. It's a RPG combat system that's been boiled down to its essentials in many respects, like how modern BioWare or the various Mario RPG franchises tend to handle things, but has clearly been devised by people who know what they're doing. It's easy to tell it's an Obsidian joint in that respect.

    So while Stick of Truth has plenty to offer fans of the TV show, the core game is still a superlative compact RPG with plenty of non-linear exploration and tricks up its sleeves.

  • I wasn't sure what to expect with The New Order. I never played the previous Wolfenstein game from 2009, but kind of got the impression that it was a serviceable if not particularly exciting attempt to reboot Wolfenstein 3D for the modern era of shooters. That unfortunately meant taking on many aspects that the FPS old guard don't care for, like protracted and unskippable NPC discussions right out of Half-Life 2, in lieu of wall-to-wall Nazi murderin'.

    The New Order not only re-attempts that balance of old and new, absolutely nailing it this time, but offers a surprisingly layered plot and imaginative setting usually beyond the ken of an FPS reboot, especially one that presumably has a whiteboard in some designer conference room somewhere with a bulletpoint list that reads:

    Guns

    Guns

    Guns that shoot lasers.

    More guns, maybe?

    It knows its audience too, both old and new. The player can advance in multiple skill trees, each benefiting a certain playstyle. Players can either intelligently take in their surroundings, devising strategies and removing key targets from the fight before they call in reinforcements; or they can run into each scenario guns blazing, shooting down hordes of Nazis with multiple weapons and a depleting health bar like the good old days. Or they can do a bit of both, which seems like the optimal path.

    The story is alternately emotionally affecting and ludicrous nonsense, the gameplay does that modern shooter thing (say, your BioShock Infinite) where each major gunplay-related set-piece takes place in a mini-arena of sorts filled with hiding places, turrets and other environmental quirks for the resourceful to exploit, it has stealth but doesn't do it horribly, a range of fun weapons and has some really imaginative level design in parts, like making one's way over a destroyed bridge precariously hanging over the ocean or through a Nazi lunar base or stealthily enacting a jailbreak in a Dachau-style Croatian worker camp. It might be a little too hammy or goofy for some (killjoys, mostly), but it has ideas and it has finesse, both of which have been in short supply with recent single-player-focused FPS games. Kinda felt like a spiritual sequel to Singularity too, which is a game I don't feel gets enough credit.

  • Jazzpunk might only be about two hours long, but it's a condensed amount of buffoonery, puns and other dumb humor with the gossamer-thin veneer of being a swarthy international person of mystery committing various acts of daring espionage. Its world is defined by Looney Tunes logic, however, which means either launching oneself right into the lunacy and poking at everything to find the many hidden jokes and non-sequiturs the game has to offer, or trying to figure out how that cartoon logic will help you solve whatever primary mission objective is demanding the spotlight. Even if one were to play the game as straight as possible, there's a few interesting puzzles to solve before you'll get to the end of the game's nonsensical conspiracy.

    Inveterate explorers, though, will find a lot more enjoyment in the game's many diversions. As well as little one-off jokes and side-quests which take almost as much time as the core assignment, there's a few additional game modes that riff on video game classics: a hacker variant of Frogger, say, or a wedding-themed Quake mod that has you gunning down bots (who insult you in real-time with the game's randomized "team chat") with multi-tiered wedding cakes and champagne corks. The game seems almost purpose-built for the ADD-addled, especially those who refuse to follow direction and just want to explore maps to their heart's content.

  • Dark Souls 2 should probably be higher, but I can't get over how much of a step down it is after Dark Souls. Dark Souls was the perfect balance of modifying, evolving and perfecting a formula without suffering too many diminishing returns from its similarities to Demon's Souls. In essence, it was the ideal video game sequel. It added far more than it merely repeated, and the resulting package was concise, imaginative and mechanically focused.

    Dark Souls 2 didn't make the same leap. Created by From Software's B-Team, essentially, the game was careful not to rock the boat and just didn't seem to have the confidence of its forebears when creating Dranglaic. There's numerous tweaks, of course, but nothing that felt like it was breaking new ground. If anything, the changes felt like an amalgamation of whatever worked in Demon's and Dark, which is sensible but not particularly exciting. Perhaps the worst part is that almost every boss played out the same way: clearly the Dark Souls 2 development team took to heart people's approbations about the Artorias fight of Dark, or the King Allant fight of Demon's. To reflect that, almost every boss was of the "large humanoid opponent" vein, either fast and brutal or slow and sturdy, and required the player to endlessly strafe around looking for an opening. Very few were of the immense hideous monster kind, or the clever (but divisive) "puzzle" bosses for which a winning strategy often meant thinking outside the box.

    It looks incredible, plays every bit as well as its forebears and has numerous feature additions that make the game both fairer and more challenging in turn. Hence its placement on this GOTY list. It just wasn't as exciting as the previous Souls games, and pretty creatively lacking.

  • I've really fallen off the Mario Kart track in recent years, and there's nothing Lakitu can do to get me back on it. I don't think it's entirely old man "SNES Super Mario Kart is the best one!" grousing either; I think something happened to the core of the series that doubled down (or Double-Dashed as it were) on the multiplayer "partytime familytime everyone can win time" aspect, creating more and more opportunities to ensure that the guy in front can be the guy in last in the blink of an eye. I don't mind this aspect when reserved strictly to the multiplayer - the Smash equivalent would be to turn off items and stick to the "Omega" stages, to ensure it's a matter of skill rather than, well, fun. It's when gross shit like the Blue Shell o' Death or Lightning makes its way to the single-player, where the player really just wants to focus on winning the race instead of having a convivial time with friends and family of varying skill levels, that it becomes a major (and, dare I say, dealbreaking) issue.

    Mario Kart 8 looks incredible, it's very fun to play and, were it not perhaps for Smash or that Jackbox bundle, would easily be the best console local multiplayer experience out this year. I can't fault its many fine points (though some of the weirder additions like Forza-style cart improvements feel a little incongruous to the series), but I can fault it for that aforementioned really big nuisance that has persisted between games for a while and will continue to render the single-player a frustrating, pointless affair. Ah well, there's still Diddy Kong Racing. That is, some ideal fantasy alternate universe where it has also has a HD Wii U sequel and Rare isn't a hollow shell of what it once was churning out Kinect games no-one buys. Why am I making myself sad this close to Christmas?

  • I really wish Broken Age had squeezed out its second half before the end of this year. I can appreciate how it might be suffering a few delays though, given that the project is in the unusual and enviable position of getting far MORE money than anticipated for its funding. Whenever the second half comes out, I hope it turns to be as just as delightful and enjoyable as its first half, just so that I'm not risking what little critical credibility I have by the lack of foresight.

    Broken Age, thus far at least, is a traditional point and click adventure game that plays well to Tim Schafer's strengths as a game designer: specifically, crafting adventure game puzzles, imaginative settings and an ear for dialogue and script. Voiced by a cast of mostly big-name actors, the game still manages to be a somber and reflective affair, albeit the sort with plenty of goofy humor and whimsical circumstances. The player is free to switch between two very different characters whenever they choose, but are never required to: rather, switching acts as a palette cleanser for when you find yourself stymied by a particular puzzle and need to change focus for a while to let your synapses and neurons continue to work on it subconsciously. Both plots have their ups and downs, both narratively- and critically-speaking, but are disparate enough to give the impression of having two games in one. Both halves exhibit a dreamlike watercolor look as well, which works well with their respective narratives: Vella is a girl in an arbitrary fairytale realm who is frustrated with how her life doesn't have a whole lot of logical consistency, and Shay is a boy who is trapped on a spaceship by an overprotective computer who is sleepwalking through his uneventful, routine life.

    It's the oft-mentioned but unelaborated-for-the-sake-of-spoilers conclusion to part one that makes me the most eager to see what part two will be like, though I also dread that this long delay might have unforeseen consequences to us early adopters. It's hard enough keeping track of the many characters and decisions one's made from one chapter of a new Telltale serial to the next, and that's usually only after a delay of a few months at most.

  • When I originally reviewed Shadowrun Returns, I made special note of how it was a game filled with potential. It had the foundations of a great game: both the rich and unusual cyberpunk-meets-fantasy setting of the Shadowrun table-top RPG campaign and the XCOM-lite strategy shooter/RPG gameplay were solid bases to build upon. The initial scenario that was delivered with the game, and was at one point the only developer-created material for the game, was under-baked and was far too eager to simply stop at every station in the world of Shadowrun without settling anywhere or making too much of an effort to flesh out characters and other important story considerations.

    Dragonfall, while it doesn't fix all the problems with Shadowrun Returns's lack of substance, is a far more confident, far bigger and far more detailed campaign that really ought to have been the default from the beginning. It's longer, it has a persistent team of PCs that you grow to understand as they slowly loosen up around "the new guy" as well as begin to appreciate from a strategic perspective, it still does the whirlwind tour of the Shadowrun setting switching from street warfare to corporate espionage to supernatural mystery but far more competently, and is a far better introduction to Shadowrun Returns on the whole. Hopefully Harebrained Schemes can continue to build from this momentum, and add a few more weapons, items, features and depth to the systems it has in place.

  • Due to my capricious nature, Tesla Effect has unfortunately dropped to eleventh. It's certainly no mark against it, but that's just Murphy's Law for you. As is customary whenever I do this, I shall now fill out the list into a top 20. Since I only played around 24 games from 2014, this ought to get interesting.

    Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure narrowly beats the likes of Murdered: Soul Suspect, NES Remix 2 and Sayonara Umihara Kawase because it's just so earnest. One of many retro adventure game franchises to try its luck at the old Kickstarter game after Double Fine's success, Tesla Effect brings back most of the original actors of the Tex Murphy FMV adventures of the 90s, invents a time skip that would account for the age of the cast and sets up what may well be the first of a batch of new adventures for the 2050CE gumshoe who is still stuck in 1950CE in terms of temperament, script and fashion sense. The welcome addition of Kevin Murphy as the wisecracking PDA who keeps Tex focused, as well as a few new castmembers who gamely attempt the same mix of noirish gravitas and goofiness of the originals and lots of opportunities for newcomers like myself to get a feel for the Tex Murphy setting with references and clips taken directly from the previous games, makes the Tesla Effect a game that happily engages both newcomers and series veterans.

    Tesla Effect does have a few flaws though, most of which were carried over from the FMV era it hails from, presumably because the developers figured there was no way to extricate the fun part of FMV games (the silly greenscreen performances) from the less fun (an overabundance of Professor Layton-style puzzles and some stylistically incongruous first-person action sequences involving stealth and avoiding lasers). It's not exactly sterling from a sheer mechanical perspective, but the game does have a lot of charm and a lot of enthusiasm for what it's doing, and is clearly happy to have been given another shot at life by its magnanimous, diehard fanbase. There's a feel-good story behind its creation that makes me feel all tingly inside, and we had precious few of those in the miasma of hate and apathy that tended to permeate any industry news story from 2014.

  • Soul Suspect wasn't quite the trainwreck most were anticipating. It's certainly not an incredible game, and its shoehorned in stealth sequences felt entirely incongruous and the sort of thing producer higher-ups always insist on, but the game's central supernatural whodunnit mystery is quite a lot of fun. As a ghost, the player is free to follow clues and leads at their own pace, ignoring most barriers that prevent the full examination of a crime scene. You see spectral remains of culprits, get flashbacks from objects and even converse with the deceased in many situations: it's a neat idea that perhaps needed more fleshing out, as it were. At least, it'd be impressive if Ghost Trick hadn't done it better years before. A big budget game about being a detective involving very little combat (and I imagine zero combat at all if the developers had their druthers) is a hard sell, though, and I'm glad Murdered is out there to provide an alternative to all the open-world games and shooters. Kind of a shame it "murdered" its development studio in the end, alas.

  • NES Remix 2 is a better realised game than its forebear, though one can't help but think, cynically, that both games were developed in tandem and then split apart for maximum profit not unlike the Hobbit movies. Also, like the Hobbit movies, it perhaps does too much with too little, creating a lot of challenges out of its handful of NES games that perhaps tread familiar ground once too often. The game's trademark "remix" stages, where elements from the various featured games begin to cross over in odd ways, are perhaps not crazy enough.

    Still, if one were to go into this game with an interest in the NES era but no experience, then it's a good Bluffer's guide to the games featured. You get a sense of how they play, the tricks that those playing back in the day would learn from magazines or friends and, occasionally, a glimpse at the end game. Indieszero, the developers, had produced something similar with their GameCenter CX games, and it's clear that the game's focus is on revisiting these games as historical exhibitions for younger generations than trying to throw them into a blender for some non-sequitur madness for the established fans in their 30s.

  • Perhaps one of the best surprises came about during the end of year Go! Go! GOTY! feature, where I blasted through a lot of unassuming Steam Indies I'd picked up in bundles over the year without really looking too closely at the games included.

    A SpaceWhipper, like so many Indie games, Magicians & Looters is at least keenly aware of its genre trappings and does right by the formula. The gameplay's sharp and responsive; the accessories are all of the min/max variety, usually taking as much as they give; the three protagonists give you a distinct range of playstyles to choose from, as well as keeping the game interesting by ensuring you're always cycling through them; the maps are well checkpointed and can be revisited for a nominal fee (or free once you get far enough into the game) and nowhere gets locked off forever (beat that, Valdis and Shadow Complex). The humor and graphics might not be to everyone's taste, but it's a surprisingly solid game for its untested pedigree.

  • It was great that the West finally saw a Umihara Kawase game, truly. The odd grapple hook physics platformer that began life 20 years ago for the Super Famicom has been one of those unusual series that people bring up all the time in "isn't Japan weird?" type articles. A Japanese schoolgirl navigating a world built out of school supplies and patrolled by hostile fish was considered far too niche for us. Yumi's Odd Odyssey (a.k.a. Sayonara Umihara Kawase) is our first real taste of the madness.

    Turns out the game's far too awkward for its own good at times, and gets absurdly difficult in its later levels. The hook can catch onto a great many number of objects, but the requisite reeling in and throwing oneself around with the momentum takes some getting used to. It's perhaps less the case that the subject matter is entirely incomprehensible for a western audience than the entire game's control scheme is. Still, though, it's certainly worth a look if you've been waiting for a chance to play one of these games for years.

  • A Picross variant, where the numerical guides are built into the puzzle instead of placed around the periphery. It's as hard to describe how it works as regular Picross is, at least without a visual guide, but works it does and offers something a little different to Picross fans who have perhaps burned out on one too many Picross e games on the eShop. It's cheap as heck, too, and already has a sequel.

  • Groove City is less an Electronic Super Joy sequel than a minor standalone expansion, roughly a third of the size of its originator. It's also far less punishing, so perhaps given its lower price point and silly self-contained plot about an enormous robot stripper, it might work as an introduction to Electronic Super Joy proper and its thumping soundtracks and over-stimulated checkpoints. This masocore platformer may not play as well as a Super Meat Boy, but it certainly has a personality to it.

  • Like Murdered, Whispering Willows is a game dedicated to solving a supernatural mystery with a few powers that make traversing dilapidated environments a doddle. Even better, it does so without squeezing in combat and stealth for the sake of it. There's a few action-y sequences (the game's filled with bug-like "demons" that need to be avoided, and there's some chase sequences) but the majority is spent solving environment puzzles and looking for hints on where to go next and solving the greater mystery surrounding the titular property. It's not a bad Indie take on this sort of ghost detective genre we're beginning to see emerge, though it's pretty short and not particularly exciting.

  • Likewise, Master Reboot is another spooky mystery game, albeit with more of a "ghost in the machine" vibe. Trapped in a virtual landscape meant to contextualize a deceased family member's memories, the player must not only revisit snapshots in the life of a dead computer programmer, but must discover who and what has trapped them in there and escape. It has some interesting ideas for set-pieces, and often has a great surreal Tron-style look to its environments, but the level design and overall quality is far too uneven. The puzzles aren't all that great either, and it really didn't need to end on a timed first-person jumping puzzle sequence. Yuckers.

  • I resent putting this on my GOTY list. I should've just stopped at 19. I at least had fun ripping this game a new one on the site, anyway, and I'm sure it'll be followed with more like it in the future. Steam's not hurting for visual novels these days, that's for sure.