Dragon Age: Inquisition, Alien: Isolation, and Super Smash Bros. have gotten plenty of coverage, but what about the games that came out in January and February? What about the games that flew under the radar? Here are some of our favorite games from the past year that we feel are criminally underrated.
My pick wasn't exactly underrated in the review score sense, but it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact on gaming in general. The game I'm talking about is Never Alone, which on the face of it, looks like a fairly simple platform game along the lines of Limbo or Ico. And to be fair, it is a fairly simple platform game. But what it also has is character. Bags of it.
The result of a collaboration between educational concern E-Line Media, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and emergent developer Upper One Games, Never Alone explores the story of Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl whose village is starving because of a particularly protracted blizzard. To try to save her people, she ventures forth into the storm to try to find the source of the blizzard, so she can bring an end to it.
The result is a platform game in which Nuna and her companion snow fox brave the elements, and, with the help of spirit animals, eventually reach their goal. More importantly, they find human meaning in the world – the reason that this fable is told. While the action is largely platforming (and is occasionally overly-challenging), the story proper is told through a series of cutscenes that are narrated in native Iñupiaq. Additionally, mini documentaries are unlocked that add depth and color to the game's background. It all comes together to make a game that is hauntingly endearing. Its story is beautifully told, and you end up feeling emotionally connected to the characters and their plight - something that happens rarely in games.
Ultimately, Never Alone is a beautiful game that delivers a message that makes you think. A game like that is a rare beast, and deserves to be played - which is why I'm nominating it as my most underrated game of the year.
I've already spilled plenty of virtual ink about my pick for 2014's most underrated game, Lightning Returns, so let me instead focus on something a little more arcane but also dearer to my heart: Yumi's Odd Odyssey.
I've talked about this game a lot over the years (or at least its predecessors), because it's one of those little weird oddities from Japan I wish everyone knew about. Yumi taps deep into the part of the classic gaming fan's soul who loves the grappling mechanics of games like Bionic Commando, but instead of using swinging in the service of telling a story about blowing up Hitler or whatever, Yumi is about play mechanics for their own sake.
The game consists of dozens upon dozens of small, self-contained stages that exist as pure platforming challenges. The appeal here is entirely technical, a simple test of skill. Can you control the complexities of the elastic grappling wire that underlies what appears to be a super-cute bit of fluff? Yes, you're put in control of chubby, cartoonish school girls swinging through oddball daydreams of fish and school books, but that's a disarming deception; despite the unthreatening appearance, Yumi's Odd Odyssey is one of the most wickedly difficult 2D platformers you will ever encounter. It's crazy hard, and it holds together thanks to the strength of its design and the fundamental brilliance of its mechanics and physics.
While the 3DS entry isn't actually my favorite in the series — if you can find it, I highly recommend importing the DS game — it's still great, and I'm happy that everyone has a chance to experience the game for themselves in English. The initial asking price was admittedly a bit steep for a digital release, but it's since come down in price and often goes on sale on the eShop, so I really recommend everyone check it out. And while you're at it, you can read the interview I conducted last year with creator Kiyoshi Sakai, which I'm proud to say is quite likely the most informative conversation about the game published to date in English.
Lightning Returns is still my most underrated game of 2014. But since, like Jeremy, I've already written about it at length, I'll instead take a moment to highlight one of the secret best platforms of the year: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
Victim of an odd release window—February—and a comparative lack of press, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze did not benefit from the goodwill generated by Nintendo's incredibly strong year. But make no mistake, Tropical Freeze is an excellent game, and it deserves to stand with Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 as one of the best Nintendo games of the year.
Tropical Freeze even managed to warm Bob's heart, and this is a guy who evidently hated Donkey Kong Country up until playing it for review. He compares it favorably with Super Mario Bros. U, even going so far as to call it one of the best platformers of the generation. High praise for a game that is unlikely to crack a single Top 10 list this year.
I'm not going to go so far as to call Tropical Freeze one of the best games of the year, but it does deserve more attention than it's gotten. It is a thoroughly entertaining, and extremely difficult, little platformer that looks simply fantastic in high-definition. Retro Studios isn't well-known for making platformers, but they show their chops with Tropical Freeze's intricate stages and challenging boss battles, all of which put the original Donkey Kong Country to shame.
In a year in which Wii U has been lauded for its hot run of exclusives, it feels wrong not to give Tropical Freeze some credit. Give it a shot. Either that, or pick up Lightning Returns. Both are fine choices.
Are we all cheating a bit on this answer? I spent our podcast talking about Divinity: Original Sin, Larian Studios' magnificent love poem to classic PC RPGs. Bob has long espoused the greatness my second choice, Danganronpa. I've only experienced the first title in the series, but it was pretty awesome.
So I'm going to bend the rules and choose a title that came out in 2013, but had a second release in 2014: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Square Enix has pulled off the impossible, reviving a title that should've died after its first disastrous launch. Not only was the company able to relaunch an improved Eorzea, but the result stands among the best in the business when it comes to MMORPGs.
A Realm Reborn's free-form Armory and Job systems allow players to have a ton of flexibility, letting you switch from Marauder, to Arcanist, to Weaver by simply switching gear. The revamped world features a number of amazing vistas, from massive crystal monuments to the shores of Limsa Lominsa. And that's before you get to the great boss fights with classic Final Fantasy characters like Ifrit, Behemoth, and Odin.
Square Enix and director Naoki Yoshida haven't rested on the relaunch. The game has continued to improve. 2.1 added housing to the game and 2.2 improved that with gardening. Earlier this month, they added in a marriage system for the cohabitating-inclined. Patch 2.4, the latest addition to the game, added a brand-new class (Rogue), a brand-new job (Ninja), a new Primal battle pitting players against Shiva, the Snowcloak dungeon, some hard modes, and some more story campaign quests. The game's first expansion, Heavensward, is coming in Spring 2015. So far, we'll be getting a new race (the lizardlike Au Ra), three new classes (Dark Knight, Astrologian, and Machinist), new Primals, new raids, and flying mounts. Exciting!
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is simply a great MMO. I may jump back to World of Warcraft as my MMO mainstay, but FFXIV is almost good enough to dethrone the king. At the very least, it's worth picking up the title if you've forgotten about it. If you happen to be a console-only player, no problems there either: the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 versions are perfectly playable with their own unique interfaces. Either way, I can't wait to see where this game is three or four years down the line.
Like Jeremy, I spent a lot of time singing the praises of what I feel are this 2014's most underappreciated games—Danganronpa and its sequel—so, for the sake of avoiding repetition, I'll instead go with my second choice: D4.
I really can't think of a more heartbreaking game release this year. For more than four years, we'd been eagerly awaiting what director Hidetaka Suehiro—also known as SWERY—would do after the flawed but nonetheless compelling Deadly Premonition. After so much anticipation, Microsoft goes and dumps the game into its store without warning (or promotion), forever ruining any chance of a sequel resolving the brutal cliffhanger seen at the end. Game developers usually don't speak so candidly about their troubles, but, on his Twitter account, SWERY didn't shy away from complaining about the raw deal he got from Microsoft.
And it's a shame, too, because D4 is the most technically competent game SWERY's made to date—mostly because it has a bigger budget and a much smaller scope than his last one. Essentially D4 is SWERY's version of a Telltale adventure game, but with those same bizarre quirks seen in 2010's Deadly Premonition: characters that are essentially walking collections of idiosyncrasies, a healthy obsession with food, and constant callbacks to real-world minutiae. As I said in my review, I spent my first hour with the game exploring protagonist David Young's apartment, simply because the game provided tons of items to pore over, and plenty of hilarious commentary, too. I've rarely had more fun rifling through a character's collection of junk.
It's strange: Deadly Premonition brought about a major cult phenomenon, but D4 barely registered a blip on anyone's radar, despite all of the glowing reviews. That said, the Xbox One feels like the worst possible home for D4, even though the game is built around Kinect. (I played with a controller and had a great time.) Perhaps on the PS4, D4 could have met with a much more receptive audience, but, as it stands, SWERY's latest creation is stranded on Microsoft Island, with no rescue boat in sight. If you have an Xbox One, consider dropping the $15 and letting the weird world of SWERY take over your living room. Maybe if enough people get on board, we can convince Microsoft this fledgling series deserves a lot more respect. (That's a big maybe.)