Let’s be honest, when it comes to gaming, 2014 has seen its fair share of disappointment. There were blockbuster titles, such as Watch Dogs and Destiny, that promised to revolutionise the “next generation” of gaming (…and didn’t). As well as countless games that launched with day-one patches and game crippling bugs. Sure, it’s easy to frown at these stumbling blocks now, but for me, I can’t help but recall the mediocre launch of the Xbox 360 and PS3, and be impressed at the same time. In fact, if you look back on the initial release calendars of any console launch, you’ll see that 2014 has been, without a doubt, the most successful first year of any gaming generation; in spite of its problems.
While notable exclusives such as Titanfall and inFAMOUS Second Son highlighted the beginning of the year, they’re not quite the caliber of games I feel define a generation. If anything, they’re enjoyable, well-made games that represent the build quality we should expect from “AAA” developers. Personally, however, I find that the most memorable games come from those developers who are willing to experiment with unconventional ideas, or, alternatively, work toward perfecting a proven formula; a fundamental balance needed between establishing new IP and creating sequels. Basically, these are the sort of qualities I look for when I pick the best games of the year, and I am confident there should be at least one title that fits into most “best of” 2014 lists, as well as a few you might not have played before.
Developed by a team of just eight people (based in Warsaw, Poland), The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most visually stunning and compelling adventure games of 2014. “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” is how players are introduced to the world of Red Creek Valley, and it summarises the game perfectly.
Building upon the narrative-focused approach of games such as Dear Esther and Gone Home, the small, talented team at The Astronauts have taken the genre one definitive step forward with this game. Telling the tale of an occult-minded detective investigating the disturbing claims of a young fan, Ethan Carter, its an experience filled with compelling mysteries, characters, and a lot of fascinating metaphors to reflect on. Furthermore, it’s also one of the most convincing open-worlds I’ve encountered; filled with breathtaking landscapes built from actual real-world assets.
As is common with this developing genre, it might not be for everyone, but there is no denying that it is a testament to the potential of independent talent. As a fan, however, I found it so engrossing that I was unable to stop playing until the credits rolled. If you enjoy exploration, open-worlds and compelling narratives, you should definitely try this game.
“Clementine will remember that,” four unusually powerful words that likely haunted anyone who played The Walking Dead: Season 1. In many ways, it was a groundbreaking venture for the genre; holding players emotionally hostage for months as it forced us all to make some of the most uncomfortable and traumatic decisions of any game to date.
Despite the critical success of the first season, though, I couldn’t help be concerned with how Telltale planned to continue the series. Basically, the protagonist role was shifting over to Clementine, which, to me, felt like a risky move given our pre-existing role as her protector. It was one of those ideas which had the potential to make or break the series, and while the initial transition was as awkward as expected, I was impressed with how quickly the writers had me emotionally in-tune with the perspective of a child. Overall, it was very different to the first season, but what made things so brilliantly complicated was reintroducing season one characters to force players to re-evaluate their loyalties.
What I learned from Season 2 is that it can sometimes be easier to play the role of “protector.” While Clementine has grown alarmingly hard-skinned, she’s still a child, and that often plays against her. It’s clear not everyone takes her seriously, and yet she is almost always held accountable whenever anything goes wrong (even when it’s not really her fault). It’s a deliberately frustrating exercise at times, and the writers pull it off remarkably well. Sadly, I do think all the quick-time-events are limiting the experience, and hope they can further improve the interactive components, but in terms of storytelling, Telltale proved they’re not a one-trick pony. I’m still haunted by my decisions in the final episode!
I had a lot of fun with Far Cry 3. In fact, it was one of the first games I ever reviewed. I especially liked how the writers acknowledged the effect of all the in-game killing on the main character; a refreshing change from the ludonarrative dissonance seen in many games. However, despite critical acclaim, I wasn’t too interested in its follow-up, Far Cry 4.
I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it was because the previews made it look like more of the same? Regardless, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy for free when I built my new gaming rig, and let me tell you, what an awesome choice it was for putting a new graphics card to the test. (1080P/60FPS on Ultra looks remarkable!) Sure, the narrative isn’t really very good; albeit with the exception of my favourite antagonist of the year. But that’s not what this game is about. It’s about riding elephants while shooting people with machine guns. Well, that, and an incredible variety of fun and ludicrous activities. It’s the ultimate toy box, set in a living open-world, and supported by well-polished gameplay.
In fact, I would go as far as to claim that Far Cry 4 is the definitive example of “fun” in gaming for 2014. It’s visually incredible, totally ridiculous, and quickly managed to obliterate all my preconceptions. If you’re looking for solid, mindless entertainment, this is a game that absolutely demands your purchase. I honestly can’t recommend it enough!
When I learned that Shinji Mikami, the father of Resident Evil, was making a grand return to the survival horror genre (with the support of Bethesda, no less), it figuratively blew my mind. In truth, I only got a chance to play Resident Evil 4 for the very first time earlier this year (which was incredible, by the way!), but I did also have a fantastically awkward experience with his previous game, Shadows of the Damned. While I’ve never found his games “scary,” per se, I’ve always enjoyed the pacing and scenario writing, and was very excited to see what style & approach he would go with.
Basically, The Evil Within is about exploring the anxiety of disempowerment, and understanding that you need to play smart if you’re going to survive. What makes it work especially well, however, is a plot device that provides the creative freedom to take you to the very darkest corners of the writers’ imagination. It’s artistically insane, providing a level of variety you’d seldom experience anywhere. Admittedly, it’s not without its share of technical shortcomings, but make no mistake, this is still an excellent survival horror game. Shinji Mikami has, in my opinion, captured the essence of the genre by combining many fundamental design principles with his own distinct approach to combat & puzzle-solving.
If you’re looking for conventional “horror” themes, you’ll only find that in a few of the chapters in the game; which, to me, isn’t a bad thing, but it could be disappointing for some. However, If you can look past a few blemishes and accept it for what it is, you will quickly discover what is arguably one of the most unique and surreal games of 2014!
Set in the futuristic metropolis of Cloudbank, Red, a famous singer, is attacked by The Process; a robotic force seemingly controlled by a radical group called the Camerata. As a result, she is transported across the city where she encounters a seemingly familiar, albeit, unnamed man, who appears to be slumped over dead with the Transistor (a greatsword-like weapon) impaled through his chest. What’s strange, however, is that the man’s consciousness and voice appears to have been embodied within the weapon, along with Red’s voice. Now, as a fugitive, she must make her way back across the city, with the assistance of the mysterious Transistor, in order to figure out what is happening.
I think it’s almost impossible not to get caught up with just how “cool” this surreal cyber-world is; in fact, it absolutely oozes style. For me, the presentation is easily the biggest draw of the game, with lots of incredibly vivid artwork that works so well in conjunction with the ever captivating monologuing of the Transistor, and, irrefutably, the best game soundtrack of the year. Style over substance isn’t the case here, though, as the game is an RPG at its core. Furthermore, the game employs a unique strategic battle system, which also ties into a rather compelling upgrade/loadout system. There is a lot of room for experimentation too, given the flexibility of the various mechanics.
As the highly anticipated follow-up to Supergiant Games’ smash hit, Bastion, it goes without saying that fans had massive expectations for the game. In turn, much like it’s predecessor, Transistor is a highly stylised experience that burns quick and bright (around 6 hours), but never feels as if you’ve been cheated for content. With superb pacing, players will be consistently caught up with uncovering the mysteries of Cloudbank, or what new ability they’ll next be able to unleash on The Process. It’d be hard for fans to be disappointed. It’s worth trying for the spectacle alone, but even if you don’t enjoy everything about it, there is no way you won’t walk away humming its addictive soundtrack.
The Souls’ series is that one franchise I can’t help but love to hate. I’ve been playing since the Asian-release of Demons’ Souls, and confidently call Dark Souls as my game of the last generation. It’s a pretty big deal to me, so I bet you can appreciate my skepticism when Jessica Alba (of all people) announced a direct sequel at the 2012 VGAs.
Fortunately, Dark Souls II turned out to be a paragon example for all action-RPGs. In many ways, it was more refined than its predecessors; even if the structure is a little less congruent. However, in saying that, the variety in design also exceeded anything that came before it too. If you were worried about the game being more “casual” than previous entries, don’t be, it’s really not! Although, the special thing about the Souls’ series is you never have to struggle alone if you connect online. In fact, I would argue that Dark Souls II is the best experience I’ve had with any online game, period. It’s a journey that requires commitment, but the sense of accomplishment it provides can seldom be matched.
You should absolutely be prepared to die, but with a flawless execution in gameplay, it will keep you crawling back for more; no matter how many times you falter. It’s so good, and with an upgraded version releasing with all the DLC on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on April 3rd next year, I highly recommend anyone who is interested look to pick it up then.
Admittedly, this ranking is a little sneaky as it technically released in late-2013 in Australia, but as it was reviewed in January and released worldwide in February, I just had to squeeze it in! Bravely Default is the newest JRPG franchise from Square Enix, which also turned out to be a surprise hit for the 3DS. Although the title actually refers to the unique features of the battle system, it also describes the game perfectly. Bravely Default confidently embraces the roots of the JRPG genre, and, for all intents and purposes, is a purest Final Fantasy experience without the name in the title.
With features such as an addictive turn-based battle system, a compelling take on the jobs system, awesome special abilities, meta-game mechanics and pseudo-multiplayer integration, an over-world in which you can actually fly an airship around, charismatic characters you grow to care about… Okay, you probably get the picture! It has just about everything you would want from a great JRPG, but with a few unique twists added in too. The special feature of the battle system is that you can both “Brave” and “Default”, allowing the player to save up turns to use at once, or take turns in advance. However, what’s most exciting about the Western release is that the developers actually collected player feedback and supposedly implemented more than 80% of what they received. In turn, we were treated to genre-rocking ideas such as controlling the battle rate encounter and being able to speed up battle with the touch of the D-Pad. Last, but not least, however, Bravely Default also has a compelling and well-written narrative to support it!
Let’s cut straight to it. Until recently, Dragon Age II was one of two big thorns stuck in the side of Bioware’s reputation. While there were some fantastic narrative ideas to set up a promising premise for the sequel, the game itself was rushed to release in just 18 months, and launched with a scaled back tactical system, one primary location, and a disgusting number of repeated environments. It was the first Bioware game that I simply couldn’t finish; which was shocking given my frequent praise for both DA: Origins and the Awakening expansion. I think, for me, and many fans, Inquisition was the last chance for Bioware to reclaim its “glory” – doubly so given the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle.
In saying all that, let me tell you, it gives me great joy to confirm that this is the return to form that Bioware desperately needed. In fact, Dragon Age: Inquisition successfully improves upon its predecessors in almost every way; both combining and innovating upon the series best qualities. Thedas is a massive, beautiful world that begs to be explored; with enough quality content included that could keep most players engaged for months. Not only is it approachable in its mechanics, but it also offers more complex options for fans who intend to play hard. Above all else, however, it’s the story and characters which make this game so special, with an incredible amount of fan service and meaningful callbacks throughout. It’s not perfect as its got a few bugs and inconsistencies, but it’s a big step in the right direction. It’s also some of the studio’s best writing to date; essentially recapturing that good ol’ Bioware feel.
The Talos Principle is the game that we’ve all been waiting for since Portal. Or, at least when it comes to first-person puzzle adventure games. Let’s be clear right away, though. Apart from sharing a similar framework in terms of having to complete a series of challenges, the game is entirely different in theme, and man does it get heavy with its themes.
Essentially, the player takes control of an unnamed Android who wakes to the sound of an omnipotent voice; an entity named Elohim (Hebrew for God). The voice explains that he has created several worlds for the player to explore and collect “sigils,” in order to pursue a path of enlightenment. In the centre of this artificial creation, however, is a tower that you are told you must never climb; the only “restriction” bestowed upon you. In the game, players are challenged with more than 120 puzzles that progressively grow more difficult as you unlock various tools. Many of the puzzles are quick in nature, as well as highly addictive; delivering some of the most mind-warping ideas I’ve seen in a long time. It goes without saying that the puzzles are well designed when you even dream about them after a long night of playing!
What makes this game genuinely superb, however, is the way it steps into the realm of philosophy. In the game world, there are archive terminals which contain information and correspondence that belonged to the people of Earth just prior to what appears to have been a catastrophe. In addition to data, however, there exists an AI called Milton who players can choose to engage with. Basically, it plays the devil’s advocate to Elohim, by challenging the player in everything they say, while posing heavily philosophical questions such as defining what it means to be a person and how we can decide what’s moral. Pretty much, Milton exists to torment and contradict everything you say, and it’s frustratingly remarkable. I’ve seldom been so provoked by a game, and the way its ideas are delivered is utter genius.
If you’ve had a chance to experience P.T, you’ll likely understand why it’s sitting at the top of this list. For those who haven’t, however, P.T is a playable teaser for Silent Hills; an upcoming project from Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro. Although, when it released as free download on PS Store earlier this year, nobody actually knew what it was.
Basically, it’s a game that takes place within a single looping corridor. It sounds limiting, but the way it works is that every time you solve a puzzle and loop back to the beginning, something about the environment will have changed. Being both first-person and a horror game, it focuses on the smaller details of the environment; encouraging players to examine every square inch of their surroundings. As you progress, the puzzles will escalate in difficulty as the hauntings become much more intense. We’re not talking about the occasional “boo scare,” either. It’s a perfect blend of scaring players with what they can’t see, while still being willing to show its teeth on occasion. Without a doubt, it is the most terrifying interactive experience I’ve ever engaged, and I’d go as far as to say the design is near-flawless.
As it was meant to be a surprise announcement for Silent Hills, Kojima also did his best to make the puzzles so obtuse that it would take weeks to figure it out. Fortunately, someone managed to get to the ending within 24 hours, but the incredible thing was nobody understood how. I quickly became addicted as I joined NeoGaf in the hunt for a solution, and even had members of the GC staff come to my home to try different ideas. It was a phenomenon that I don’t think I’ve seen since the ’90s, and it was absolutely thrilling to be a part of it. Despite being a “teaser,” however, P.T is still its own experience. Not only does it look remarkable in its visuals and lighting, but the way it approaches interactive horror is totally original. Basically, It doesn’t follow a clear set of rules, and that’s what makes it so terrifying.
P.T is not only the best game to release in 2014, it is a revolution for the genre, and a big milestone in game design.