I’m going to do this a lot more informal than previously, still trying to find just the right format. A full ‘best of the year’ awards list is awful pretentious for such a small site, especially since I have pretty specific tastes. And, it implies a level of comparison I’m not comfortable with. I don’t really feel that directly comparing games based off of ‘factual’ categories is fair to the games or shows themselves. There’s a reason I don’t use scores on any of my reviews… it just feels disingenuous. This year, it’s not going to be a categorical list, but rather a general list of favourites and a brief description of why. What was it about that title that made me feel it was exceptional or otherwise worthy of note? Did that title come out of nowhere and shock me? Did it do something truly new or unique?
This year’s best of the year will include a few entries from the very end of last year – things that didn’t quite make it into my hands before I did my last year’s Best of the Year post but that still deserve recognition. If it came out in November or December of 2012, it might well qualify for the 2013 Best of the Year – likewise, a lot of games from this year’s November have only just gotten into my hands and I can’t properly judge so they may be taken into the next year listings. This, sadly, does include both the PS4 and XBO which are not going to be included in this list. And, for those of you who were disappointed I didn’t include any anime content last year – this year (and going forward) anime will be a part of this list.
Sword Art Online
First and foremost I want to highlight Sword Art Online. It came out last year, but it’s final episodes ran in December and it had one truly noteworthy aspect. The story was good, the characters were interesting, and the imagery and art style were amazing… but what was most notable about it?
Aincrad. The first VRMMO world that was present within Sword Art Online was so perfectly realized. Digital worlds have been done before, but Aincrad was unique… it became a living, breathing world. It had an economy, it had people living, making their life off all aspects of the game. There were craftspeople, fences, hunters, etc. They didn’t show as much of this as I would have liked, but they did a fantastic job of exploring the psychological and sociological impacts of trapping people in an MMORPG like this – moreso than anything I’ve seen before it.
The Last of Us
Everyone knew that The Last of Us would be a game to be remembered, but I don’t think anyone quite expected exactly what we got. This is a game that didn’t care if you enjoyed it, it didn’t care if you liked the characters, it didn’t care about making ultra-slick streamlined gameplay. What The Last of Us cared about was making a truly unique horror story that felt coherent and provided you with the story they wanted to tell. And it was refreshing amid a year absolutely dominated by first person and open world games to see this completely closed ended and linear third person game.
Joel was not a likeable character. He was a sociopath, selfish, egotistical, a bit psychotic… and desperately lonely. He was a character designed for you to develop an affinity for over the course of the early game, and then come to really know him during the rest of the game and wonder how you didn’t see it. The final scene is orchestrated perfectly. They manage to somehow make you feel powerless, while at the same time making the character you’re ostensibly controlling more powerful than at any other moment. This is Joel’s victory, his success, and it is in that exact moment that you feel the most disconnected from him. It takes away your sense of control, your power as a player and it does it so masterfully that the game has been a source of much controversy over just this one scene.
For being willing to do that, and for being willing to create an entire game that is just designed to beat you up – never to give you any sort of power or satisfaction, but most importantly for being able to execute that in a way that makes you actually glad you played it, despite an almost complete lack of joy in the game… The Last of Us is a game that you simply cannot miss. It is a masterpiece.
I had mixed expectations regarding Tomb Raider. On the one hand, I had never been much of a fan of the franchise but on the other hand, the previews they’d shown looked stellar. So going in, while my hopes were high, I was also prepared to not like it…
Expectations and hopes aside, the end product was fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, the graphics were great, and Lara’s character was, for the most part, exceptionally done. But what really got me was the gameplay – the ‘shooting’, so to speak. This is one of the few games that has done archery in a way that was truly satisfying. Archery is something that turns into either a necessary annoyance, or something you graduate from when you get a gun in most games… but Tomb Raider created a fantastic dichotomy between the guns and the bow.
The other truly fantastic part of this game is the way it creates a character that is strong without being cold. This is something these action games have never really managed to do before. Not to take anything away from the other great action game heroes – sometimes you want a character like Drake, Snake, or Fisher – but it was truly refreshing to see a character able to display emotion without feeling like it made her weak.
StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Like Brood Wars or Frozen Throne before them, Blizzard’s RTS games really come into their own when the first expansion comes out, Heart of the Swarm featured a fascinating but not entirely unexpected new chapter to the story, and the campaign was fantastic but the real heart and soul of a Blizzard RTS are always outside the campaign.
Heart of the Swarm dramatically improved the Battle.Net interface for StarCraft 2, implementing necessary social features as well as redesigning the arcade. Additionally, it refined the competitive balance and added some new interface options to allow for StarCraft 2 to continue to be a prominent player in the E-Sports scene.
Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan is an incredibly gorey and somewhat unpleasant experience. But similar to The Last of Us, not everything is meant to be enjoyed. Attack on Titan is a show that kept me watching through a fascinating cast of characters and a truly intricate plot.
Never quite certain what to expect next or how things were going to fall out, especially given the show’s propensity for killing people off on a whim. The suspense during the show’s fight scenes is practically tangible, and it leads to some of the best action pacing around.
Attack on Titan is a mystery masked behind a slasher film, but with some of the most interesting characters either genre has seen.
Persona 4: The Golden
When I played P4G at the beginning of this year, I was blown away by the fact that this developer knows their fan base so well, understands their audience so acutely that they can make decisions that sound utterly insane in general. But when these same decisions are made and tailored perfectly to a very specific audience… you get a game that is crafted to perfection for that audience. And until this year, I didn’t know that I was a part of that audience.
There is so much that is good about this game that it’s hard for me to not rewrite my review here for you, so I’ll in stead focus on two key standouts for me. The characters and the music.
Persona 4 features a cast that is diverse, dynamic, and works very well together. Each character fits into the story and offers something truly unique to it, and the voice crew for this game did a great job. And best of all, the game rewards you in an interesting and game-altering way for pursuing the relationships with these characters – without making these relationships sexual or obscene at all. The game is built on friendship, and while you can court someone, it never becomes really obscene.
P4G also features what is easily the best soundtrack of the past year, and one of the best I’ve ever heard. Each song is perfect for what it is intended to do, and few even feel out of place when just listening to them in general. The entire soundtrack has found its way onto my playlists in one form or another. The English game even features Laura Bailey actually singing her character’s song during one of the cutscenes and this is one of those rare and hard to find cases where the English version of a song in a Japanese game is actually better than the original. Sadly, the Laura Bailey version of True Story was never released on any of the soundtracks.
Persona 4: The Golden is the best game I played this year, and if you have a Vita you are making a mistake by not owning it – it really is that good. And even if you don’t think you’re a part of the audience I mentioned above…. give the game a try. Afterall, I didn’t think I was until I did.
There are two things I discovered during this year that I wanted to call attention to, despite the fact that they didn’t come out this year.
Angel Beats Soundtrack
Angel Beats was an enjoyable anime, with one truly standout quality. It’s soundtrack was among the best you can find anywhere. Upon discovering this soundtrack, several of the show’s prominent tracks immediately made their way onto my playlists. It really is that good.
The more time that passes since I watched Asura Cryin’, the more I realized just how much I enjoyed it. And I would be truly remiss in not at least giving it a mention.
So here we have it, my highlights of the year. Next week I’m planning to touch on some of the low points. I’ll be listing off some of the biggest disappointments so check back. Also next Tuesday you can check back for my second last edition of ‘Most Anticipated of 2014’.