It has been an interesting year, for gaming and myself. Perhaps not the best for either. Having been plagued by health problems that began with my back, extended through my neck and extremities, resulting in some ongoing conditions, has left me with little time for gaming. I decided to take some time off and work on getting myself back to health. This resulted in a little hiatus from writing and gaming in general. But I still found some time to put in a little gaming. And with a love of year-end best of listicles, I had to put together a subjective best of gaming 2014 list together myself. In no particular order my best games of the year are as follows.
The Banner Saga
The Banner Saga is one of those games that takes you by surprise. It’s a Viking tale that is one part Oregon Trail, another part Final Fantasy Tactics, with some BioWare level rpg storytelling thrown in. However, this makes sense as Stoic studio is made up of a pedigree of former BioWare developers that had left to pursue their own endeavors. The art style, reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi, draws you in immediately. Although the characters aren’t animated, they feel as if they are living, breathing characters. Branching storylines make your choices feel meaningful, á la BioWare rpgs, and offer an incentive for multiple playthroughs. The soundtrack by Austin Wintory, composer of Journey, manages to capture a valorous tone while depicting the harshness of the Vikings’ journey and struggle survival of the elements. Sound design truly brings the story to life because The Banner Saga, for the most part, is not animated. But silences also speak volumes. Some the of the games most powerful scenes take place in silence, or with just the sound of the wind whistling in the background. The Banner Saga is not without its faults, but it’s one of those games that stays with you long after you put it down, and it is a fine first game from an independent studio that shows great promise for future installments.
A Dark Room
A Dark Room is a minimalist text-based adventure game harkening back to the days of MUDs and roguelikes, except that it’s not. A Dark Room is a mystery wrapped in basic lines of text. You begin in a dark room and the only option is to light a fire. As time goes on, the player slowly figures out how to play the game. There aren’t tutorials, but the game isn’t as unforgiving as a roguelike. The game is never over because of something you fail to do. When you mess up life just goes on, as life does. Is it the beginning of a civilization, the end of one, a high fantasy world? The game doesn’t answer any questions and the more you learn the more questions you will ask. The resource management junkie in me was hooked right away even though I hadn’t a clue of what was going on. The beauty of A Dark Room is the designers’ ability to create a satisfying mystery in an idle text game. Even though is was released in browser in 2013 I didn’t discover A Dark Room until this year and the iOS version was released in 2014 making it a valid ‘best of’ candidate. Whether in browser or on iOS check out A Dark Room.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game that took everyone by surprise. Although a long-time Tolkien geek myself, I had long given up on a substantial Lord of the Rings licensed game. (And let’s not even get started about the Hobbit films.) Keeping only one eye half-fixed on the game during production, I wasn’t even sure if it was an rpg or an action game. It turns out it’s an action game with light rpg elements. Story aside, Shadow of Mordor turned out to be a deeply engaging game. It was fun in the video-gamey for the sake of being video-gamey type of way. There is a lot of running, plotting, and killing. Don’t think too hard; just do it. Shadow of Mordor‘s art design is faithful to the Peter Jackson films’ representation of Middle Earth. Mordor is painted in a grimy palette of dark browns and grays, characteristic of the films’ representation. But where Shadow of Mordor really shines is in its dance of systems. In particular its ‘Nemesis System’, which incorporates procedurally generated elements, in the shape of orcs, that appear to be randomly catered to possibly be your next arch-enemy. In fact, each enemy in the nameless hordes of orcs that attack you, is procedurally generated, creating a complex web of system interactions. It works well in the confines of orcs of the Tolkien universe. There are only so many combinations that are necessary. Despite nemeses being limited to the orc race, there is a surprising amount of diversity. Plus, every time an orc ‘kills’ you he is promoted and grows stronger. The next time he will taunt you, referencing what he did to you or vice versa, creating a believable sense of false intimacy. Add in a sandbox anything goes approach to completing missions and you have dynamic storytelling. Each playthrough is unique and the enduring storytelling comes from the random interactions you encounter through exploration. As noted before by many reviewers, the ‘Nemesis System’ is the first promise of what next gen technology has to offer.
Also involving itself in a delicate balance of system interaction was Transistor. Supergiant Games’ follow up to Bastion was no disappointment. Like Bastion, Transistor is an isometric action-rpg. In ways it is reminiscent of the isometric action-rpgs of the ’90s and on the other hand is highly sophisticated in its storytelling methods. Transistor speaks in the language of games, and the language of games is code. The player takes on the role of Red, a renown nightclub singer in the futuristic city of Cloudbank. A young woman without a voice is being chased and her only friend is a talking sword: the transistor. Transistor incorporates narration into gameplay in a similar fashion to Bastion. The narrator will both guide and comment on the players’ actions or inaction. The art deco inspired city of Cloudbank is a beauty to behold. And the hand painted character screens do a great deal of expressively conveying information to the player. It leaves the player wanting for more to do in its shiny world. The soundtrack is haunting (an overused term I know, but it is aptly applied in this case) and does a great deal of the atmosphere building. Composer Darren Korb returns from Bastion, dealing another enthralling soundtrack. This time he around he mixes drum’n’bass, futuristic bleeps, solemn piano accompaniment, electro-guitar, and old-timey instrumentation to create an ambient landscape that perfectly fits the game. Vocalist Ashley Lynn Barrett also returns from Bastion channeling chilling notes in her distinct vocal style. They also do a variant of all hummed versions. Transistor‘s combat system is also modifiable, allowing the player to combine different elements for experimentation until they find the desired result. Combating enemies can be done in real-time or in a frozen-time turn-based mode called the Turn(). Transistor presents many dualities: the organic and the digital, the future and the past, the voiced and the voiceless, but doesn’t over inundate you with heady themes. Instead, it weaves a web of melancholy intrigue. Its mysterious world will leave you wanting for more, and that is rare in the world of games that often feel bloated and artificially long. If you haven’t done so already, do yourself a favor and get the soundtrack.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Having never played World of Warcraft and very little experience with Magic: The Gathering I was skeptical to try Hearthstone. I should have been afraid. Easy to learn, difficult to master, has never been truer. Hearthstone manages to take a time-tested concept, the collectible card trading game, and somehow make it seem refreshingly new. Hearthstone is one of those games that will teach you by beating you over and over again, or opponents beating you over and over again. It’s a brutal teacher but the system always feels fair and winnable, if you play your cards right. One of the most interesting parts of Hearthstone is it’s free-to-play model. Anyone can play for free with a basic deck and cards can be awarded to you, or bought for in-game gold, or real money. Still, watching any number of Hearthstone plays online will show you no matter how rare and powerful one’s cards are they can still be beaten with enough experience and skill (and a little luck). Leveling up the class characters offers you the chance of getting rare cards, creating an incentive to learn each characters’ play style thoroughly. Blizzard successfully built a model that can be augmented through pay, but isn’t pay-to-win. And wisely the addictive nature of Hearthstone will have players happily shilling out for upgrades and expansions once they are hooked. Hearthstone isn’t as intimidating as other card collecting games. Playing with anonymous opponents of the same level, and limiting the type of communication, is a smart move and keeps everyone on the same page. Sound design and simple animations do a lot to spice up the simple game play nature of a card game. While Blizzard didn’t reinvent the wheel with Hearthstone, they did create a deeply satisfying strategic game, that is easily approachable by anyone. Did I mention it’s addicting?
Dragon Age: Inquisition
There is so much to say about Dragon Age: Inquisition, and at the same time does anything need to be said at all? The highly anticipated installment of the Dragon Age series didn’t fail to deliver on it’s promise of an expansive world clocking in at 80 hours of gameplay. It has easily been the biggest time suck of the year, I’m currently 100 hours in, and I have loved every second of it. BioWare took a lot of fan feedback to heart. Much like Mass Effect 3, BioWare married the exploration and classic roleplay elements of Dragon Age Origins with the action oriented and heavily cinematic style of Dragon Age 2 to create an amalgamation of the two. Dragon Age: Inquisition draws heavily on established Dragon Age lore and doesn’t feel the need to recap the story. New players will catch up as the story progresses. Like most fleshed out rpgs, Dragon Age: Inquisition allows the player to dive as deep or swim as shallow as they want and still enjoy the experience. Dragon Age still allows the player to customize the story to their will. This highly intricate decision tree spans decisions from the first two games through an interactive interface on the Origin server called Dragon Age Keep. But, Dragon Age is more than a highly polished choose your own adventure. Dragon Age: Inquisition addresses issues such as the effects of slavery, racism, the role of religion in governance, and more in its high fantasy setting. None of these are direct analogues to the real world of course, but BioWare doesn’t shy away from real world subjects that much high fantasy stays away from. BioWare proves itself to still be one of the most progressive triple-A studios by including not only gay characters, but also trans, and gasp, people of color in a fantasy setting. Instead of drawing directly from European history, Dragon Age: Inquisition explores alternatives for its fantasy environment. At its heart Dragon Age: Inquisition excels at presenting enriched, complex, and most importantly interesting characters. Character development is the franchise’s strongest suit and it delivers in spades this time around, with a cast of nine companions to choose from and four advisors at the start. You can’t always measure the quality of a game, or your enjoyment of it, by how long you play it, but in this case time spent in Thedas is time well spent.