Last week, the Gameological staffers talked about their favorite games of the year (you can find those discussions in part one and part two of Games We Liked 2014), and we also asked to hear about yours. Lots of commenters shared their pick, and we collected a handful of those responses and compiled them here. These are the Games You Liked.
duwease—Valiant Hearts: The Great War
I liked Valiant Hearts because it had an uncommon take on a common story. The World Wars (and war in general) are well-trodden territory in gaming, yet with all those games, very little subject matter is covered—bullets, explosions, where they happened, who won, and a couple nods to the “horrors of war.” Valiant Hearts was interesting not only for being a war-set puzzler instead of a shooter, but also for tackling so many fascinating subjects in the margins: The introduction of chlorine gas, and Canadian soldiers struggling to MacGyver a counter; the lives of civilian farmers in occupied towns; how taxi drivers contributed to the front. Hell, just the fact that the story isn’t focused on American participation is a breath of fresh air. (It’s over before they even show up!) It’s unique and educational, which I never would have guessed from the subject matter.
I liked Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright because it played the respective series’ conventions against each other. In each of his six main adventures, Professor Layton has faced a problem that appears supernatural but actually has a “rational” explanation (albeit a ridiculous and improbable one). Meanwhile, in Shu Takumi’s Phoenix Wright games, ghosts, and spirits are a fact of life.
So when Shu Takumi presents a scenario in which Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton are in a village that is apparently being terrorized by witches, we know this could go either way. Both series are full of tragedy and plot twists, but we don’t know until the very end whether magic is real or not.
I also like that, rather than recycling old mechanics in the most obvious way, the game experiments with a new trial system resists the temptation to overindulge in fan-service (except for the uber-meta bonus chapters).
Andy Tuttle—Hyrule Warriors
I liked Hyrule Warriors because it was the first time I felt like I was playing on a Nintendo system that was a natural successor to the GameCube. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the Wii. There were great games on it (Super Mario Galaxy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Metroid Prime 3), but I never really felt like it was a system that was an improvement over the GameCube or even a “sequel,” if systems can be classified in that way. The motion controls and gimmicks wore themselves out very quickly. At the end of the day, I’d rather just sit down and hold a controller in my hand and push buttons, not wave my arms around and try in vain to point at my screen to shoot some bad guys.
When I sat down to play Hyrule Warriors, I was instantly transported back to my college years. I was finally playing a Nintendo game again. No gimmicks, no clunky controls that require hand waving, just good old thumbsticks and buttons to do everything (aside from the occasional screen tap when I wanted to quickly change items). I spent hours at a time playing that game—something I hadn’t done with any game on the Wii—and it was just so exciting to once again feel like Nintendo knew what they were doing. It pains me that the Wii U is so maligned and unpopular. Here’s to hoping that next year is just as good, or better, than this year was.
I liked Monument Valley because it surprised me. I’ve always taken mobile games with a grain of a salt. Fun to pick up for a few minutes, but nothing that lasts. Monument Valley changed my mind, though. It’s a simple but beautiful game in which you play a lost princess in a lost land, making your way through by solving puzzles that warp the landscape and your perception. There’s nothing that makes you think for too long, and most puzzles can be solved by moving things without any real plan—just seeing what works. Without giving anything away for those who haven’t played it (it would really lose its impact if you knew what happened and when), a moment in the game suddenly and unexpectedly made me feel something. I remember just staring at the screen with my mouth open, and watching the princess float away to the next level while all I wanted her to do was turn around and go back. It was a moment that has stayed with me.
Spoilers for those who’ve played it or haven’t and like things to be ruined. Reminiscent of Portal’s companion cube, level six gives you a “friend,” and then, without any warning, takes it away. The totem crashes through the wall and follows you out to the ocean. At first, I thought how cute it was that it wanted to stay with me. But then it started sinking. And even though it sank deeper the further into the ocean it swam, its desire to keep helping didn’t let it turn around. When it disappeared under the waves, I felt a stab of pain for a rectangular block in a tiny game.
Venerable Monk—Mario Kart 8
I liked Mario Kart 8 because it showcases the expertly written soundtrack. From the energetic funk of the menu music to the screaming guitar and bombastic brass of “Bowser’s Castle,” it’s clear that Nintendo wanted the music to inform the player’s impression of the game just as much as the design of the racetracks. A close listen rewards with snippets of classic themes and inventive variations on some of the earliest melodies to grace a Nintendo console. I actually laughed out loud the first time I heard the cascading triplets from the underground theme in “Pirahna Plant Slide.” (The phrase starts at 0:56.) Rather than being satisfied with a simple retread of the iconic melody, the composers opted to repeat the last triplet in quick succession, adding horns and a more complex harmony with each repeat. It was my favorite surprise in a soundtrack full of them.
lokimotive—Hack ’N’ Slash
I liked Hack ’N’ Slash for just going there. It’s a weird, wooly game that feels unfinished and kind of wonky, but that’s kind of its appeal. And it doesn’t hold your hand. Indeed it hardly bothers to tell you what you’re doing, but from my little time in programming, that’s exactly the experience it’s going for. Your mistakes feel like they have real consequences: I’ve broken the game in strange and hilarious ways, like spawning a million turtles or shooting a platform irretrievably off the screen into infinity. And those are different from the instances where the game expects you to crash it, like when you redefine a variable name and the universe ends. When you eventually figure out a puzzle, you feel totally brilliant and also like a complete idiot for not seeing the solution sooner.
I liked Transistor because its punishments for failure forced you to acknowledge the depths of its combat. Instead of setting you back five to 10 minutes, when the main character’s health depletes, you lose one of your powers for the next two save points. In any other game, this would be frustrating, but there’s such incredible complexity to the way you can combine your active and passive abilities that each small failure is really just another opportunity to reassess the strategy you’ve relied on up to this point.
I also just can’t say enough good things about that soundtrack. It still holds a prominent spot on my regular playlist.
Leland Davis—The Banner Saga
I liked The Banner Saga because it put you in charge of a community. You were not just making decisions for yourself and your badass companions but for a band of poor, hungry, and desperate refugees. Sure, a player could step away from the fiction and look at everything as a set of abstract numbers that really don’t matter all that much. However, for the player willing to invest fully in the fiction and the experience, it was incredibly satisfying to lead those people to, if not safety, than at least a slightly safer place.
It also did a really good job of humanizing the “inhuman menacing presence,” and it did it through art alone. I felt really bad about killing the bad guy at the end. Not because I knew him in any way, but because the art and the story had managed to humanize him/it from a distance. It was us or them, in the end, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the right side won.
Merve—Twitch Plays Pokémon
I liked Twitch Plays Pokémon because it was a social phenomenon. My Facebook feed is usually an endless series of Instagrammed restaurant meals and excited engagement announcements (stupid happy couples). But for the few weeks when TPP was in its first cycle, my feed turned into a joyous collective of nerds cheering on the exploits of a anarchic, chaotic mob of total strangers. If nothing else, TPP stands as a testament to the ability of video games to bring us closer together in the digital age. [Photo: The Massacre Of Bloody Sunday by Aeuma]
Captain Internet—Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor
I liked Shadow Of Mordor because the heavy use of Estuary English and sheer number of stabbings confirmed that Mordor is just outside of Dagenham. Hopefully the sequel will take us to the slopes of Mount Doom (a.k.a. Streatham Hill), where everyone speaks like Tinchy Stryder and aspires to drive a 4x4 BMW so they can be dicks to cyclists.
It was also refreshing to play a big action game that wasn’t constantly sending me back to checkpoints for not doing things in exactly the way I was told to. Wolfenstein: The New Order was also really good at this, and very much Mordor’s equal in terms of quality characterization. Any game that makes screwing up as fun as succeeding is a winner in my book.
Wolfenstein didn’t have Ratbag, however.