It's Christmas Eve and 2013 draws to a close! Team USG is casting a collective beady eye back over the last 12 months. Their mission: to each reveal the game that they think represents the best that 2013 had to offer. And if you're expecting Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty: Ghosts to be mentioned repeatedly, you can expect to be very disappointed.
I struggled with this one for a little while but Media Molecule's endearing little papercraft-platformer-sandbox-thing won over the competition. Mostly, because it was the first game to really make me burst into tears in, well, as long as I can remember.
While I'm a big fan of serious games, of thoughtful projects like That Dragon, Cancer or Papers, Please, I've come to realize that I've missed simply being happy. Adulthood has a way of disconnecting us from silly, jovial experiences. Remember how a balloon animal or a new plushie was enough to turn you into a giggly, human-shaped champagne flute, one filled with fizz and excitement? Yeah. Me neither. Happiness of such level is such a rarity these days. Which is why I didn't expect being sucked into Tearaway's beautiful, squishy world.
To be fair, you need to allow Tearaway to take you away. Being actively communicated with and told that you're a nigh mythological figure in this world, the sun around which everything revolves, can feel jarring and slightly camp. I had trouble adjusting to that at first. I giggled, I made funny faces at the world and pretended this was all a little below me. But somewhere between inadvertently grinning back at the tiny, envelope-headed crerature peering worshipfully up at me and deciding I wanted to have a pet gopher on me at all time, I learned to give into its child-like fantasies.
And it got to me in the best possible way.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
When I finished The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I felt deflated. Not because it was bad, but because I was done. My doldrums didn't set in all at once, either. It built gradually with each dungeon I tucked away, each Maiamai I brought back home to Mother Maiamai. However, it never crowded the happiness I felt while playing the game. Like the song says, I was simply having a wonderful time.
A Link Between Worlds has faced some criticism for being too familiar. While the game's dungeons were all-new, its overworld cloned the locales made famous by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES. Personally, it's that familiarity that helped make Link Between Worlds my Game of the Year. Wandering the "new" Hyrule feels like coming home after a long absence.
Thankfully, there's no sign of broken windows, empty houses, or shuttered factories that typically spoil real-world homecomings. Hyrule continues to be the thriving, vibrant place you remember from 1992. If you've yet to play A Link Between Worlds for the first time, I envy you.
Because it was released a couple of months before we launched USgamer, I never had the chance to review Bioshock: Infinite. Had I done so, I'd have dished out a five-star rating without doubt, but written tomes about its strengths and weaknesses.
As an experience, it's terrific. An intriguing, phenomenal-looking world packed with wonderful details, bolstered by one of the most compelling and enthralling video gaming narratives I've encountered in years. Yet the means to usher you through this awe-inspiring alternative reality is a series of shooting galleries. There are certainly some exciting moments in amongst these set-pieces, but they're offset by periods that are predictable and tedious. Almost feeling like filler designed to make you bide your time between stunning and spectacular plot revelations.
But while its game mechanics sometimes feel uninspired, and some of its extended courtyard shooting battles drag indeterminately, Bioshock: Infinite's story arc and conclusion are ample enough reward to endure them. I can't think of many video game storylines that have made me think for days about them, but this one did. And its final scene? Mind. Blown. Not only one of my gaming highlights of the year - but one of my favorite game endings of all time.
I'm going to go with the numbers on this one. There's only one game I gave a full five-star rating to this year (yes, I'm the stingy one on USgamer's staff; you probably don't want to stop by my place on Halloween), and that was Shin Megami Tensei IV. But I'm writing a whole lot of words about that game for an upcoming end-of-year analysis of that game going up soon, so instead let me tell you about the other game I sank way too much time into this year: Animal Crossing New Leaf.
When I first started writing about New Leaf for USgamer, it was with a sort of obligatory apathy. I was a little burned out on the series and didn't see anything particularly compelling about it. Yet by the time I completed my review, I was smitten -- enough so that I did something I never do (if only because I lack the luxury of time). Namely I kept playing even after I'd finished my review.
New Leaf has a truly rare gift: The more you play of it, the better it gets. The proper way to experience New Leaf is daily (or roughly so) throughout the year to experience the little changes each new season and each month brings. Unfortunately, the realities of being a person who plays video games as a matter of business and not simply pleasure means that I had to abandon New Leaf eventually, but not before getting a taste of how profoundly its stress-free, objective-less slice-of-life style can affect you with something so simple as a change in ambient sound.
The great thing about Animal Crossing, though, is that there's no "wrong" time to start playing. You may have missed the change into summer season for 2013, but come next year it'll happen all over again. Despite being a time-sensitive game, it's oddly timeless.
Looking back now, this entire year seems like such a blur. DmC dazzled me early on, and I was swept away by Papers, Please and its bizarre mixture of Carmen Sandiego-like algorithms, but there's one unassuming game I kept crawling back to. I staggered back in, pumped and ready, even after feeling thoroughly discouraged by my utter failure to conquer it: Rogue Legacy. Laugh if you must, but I've yet to complete it, and even though each sojourn back into its several dungeon maps brings me only what feels like millimeters close to my goal, I'm content to jump in again and again. Dying doesn't deter me in Rogue Legacy -- it fuels me, and that's a difficult feat to accomplish.
This austere roguelike asks you to take up the mantle of an entirely new person each time you fail, whether it's an offspring of the original barbarian queen you started out as or a brand new child of original adventurers. I went from surviving for ten seconds in the bowels of the castle to spending hours spelunking and collecting gold and runes from every corner of each map. Even though my deaths were swift and plentiful, there was a true sense of progression with every resurrection. It wasn't as though I was "chipping away" at a door I couldn't open. I was growing and learning with each new adventurer. It playfully mocked my failures, but it never made me feel as though I was attempting something impossible, nor was it hard for the sake of being hard.
Roguelikes aren't my forte, and I'm not even especially fantastic at platformers, but Rogue Legacy got me to toss aside my preconceived notions of what both genres should and shouldn't do, and kept me at its beck and call for months. In fact, all this talk is getting me excited to play more -- and at a time when it's tough to get excited about shooters and sequels on the horizon, that's extremely rare. Cellar Door Games, you done good, chaps.
This is a real toughie, since I've played so many great games this year. If I had to pick one, though, I really do feel I need to give some love to Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn purely for being one of the most surprising comeback stories of all time -- not to mention a great game in its own right.
Final Fantasy XIV successfully got me interested in MMOs again thanks to solid gameplay, an interesting, authentically Final Fantasy-esque story, tons of series fanservice and the promise of more and more enjoyable content over time.
As an MMO, your experience with Final Fantasy XIV will vary significantly according to the company you keep, and I'm thankful for the fact that I've been playing with a dedicated (but not obsessive) Free Company who always have a kind word to share, and who are always up for playing together to have fun, not to make regimented runs through endgame content.
Even if you spend most of your time solo, though, Final Fantasy XIV is an enjoyable experience that brings some fresh ideas to the MMO genre while keeping things that are proven to work well. The ability for one character to switch to any class at will is a particularly good addition, for example, and the treatment of crafting and gathering professions as full-on classes rather than just skills tucked away in your menu is also something I like very much.
If you've never played an MMO -- or perhaps if you're burnt out on them like I was -- you should give Final Fantasy XIV a fair shot. You might just be very pleasantly surprised.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
There was a time when Fire Emblem was my favorite strategy series ever. But after a long string of exceptionally boring sequels, culminating in the execrable Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, I had lost faith. Thankfully, Fire Emblem: Awakening has made me a believer again.
Fire Emblem: Awakening packs everything I've ever loved about the series: great music, multiple generations of characters, and the enjoyment of building up an army (then trying to keep them alive). Even better, it was the first Fire Emblem that I could reasonably share with other people. Thanks to casual mode, I no longer had to worry about people freaking out about permanent death (not that Fire Emblem: Awakening is that hard to begin with... until the final mission, anyway). It really is a stunning return to form for a series that was moribund to the point that the release of Awakening in the U.S. was actually in doubt for a time.
In making this decision, it was actually hard to choose between Fire Emblem: Awakening and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Both do an amazing job of reaching back into their respective histories to refresh what had honestly become stale experiences. Truthfully, I never thought that I could enjoy another Zelda game as much as I've enjoyed A Link Between Worlds. But Fire Emblem is just a little bit nearer and dearer to my heart, making its return to prominence one of the biggest and happiest surprises of 2013.
Is there any question? Yeah, there's always a question. My favorite game this year after some soul-searching, a good run, and a cup of coffee is Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. There were some close contenders this year, including surprising contender Grand Theft Auto V, but nothing came close to dethroning Black Flag.
Ubisoft had to do a lot to get back into my good graces after the disappointing Assassin's Creed III, but they delivered. I'm still deep into full-clearing the game on PlayStation 4 after beating it on PlayStation 3, because it's that good. It's a great Assassin's Creed game on land and one of the best pirate games ever on sea. Hell, the game got even better with the release of Freedom Cry, the DLC campaign focusing on Edward's quartermaster Adewale 15 years after the end of Black Flag. The jump from ACIII to ACIV is amazing, so I'm hoping Ubisoft can build on the greatness they have on display here for next year.
You can listen to everyone else's choices, but is the real deal right here.