The Games Are Evil Games of the Year

GrE GOTY 2012

And so 2012 draws to a close, and once again all the game sites on the Web are putting together their Game of the Year features. There’s been a nice mix of different titles showing up around the place this year, with titles ranging from Thatgamecompany’s Journey to Telltale’s The Walking Dead netting various honors.

Here at Games Are Evil, we’ve decided to do something slightly different to the norm. Rather than simply picking our Game of the Year in the usual way, we’re picking our favorite game that we played this year. It doesn’t necessarily have to have been released this year, just that we came across it for the first time in 2012. This is in keeping with our “alternative gaming” ethos — just because a game is more than a year old certainly doesn’t make it any less worthy of note, particularly if it takes a while to come to any sort of prominence.

Each of the participants has picked a title they would like to single out as their Game of the Year, and a second title they would like to give an honorable mention to. Over the course of the rest of this article, they’ll do their best to convince you why their choices are worth checking out in the new year.

So without further ado, let’s get started.

Pete Davison

Pete is the Managing Editor of Games Are Evil, and responsible for our Swords & Zippers, FreePlay and READ.ME columns.

Game of the Year: School Days HQ

School Days HQ

Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised at all by this pick, but I stand firmly by it. School Days HQ is testament to the fact that interactive storytelling can do considerably better than binary morality systems and a limited sense of your actions having consequences. I extolled the virtues of it to a considerable degree in an early installment of our READ.ME column, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to revisit why this is such a remarkable game.

For those who are wondering what on earth I am blathering on about, let me explain. School Days HQ is a recent official English translation of a high-quality remake of a fully-animated visual novel/interactive movie from 2005. The newer “HQ” (“High Quality”) version features about 12GB of 720p HD video throughout and a bunch of new content that wasn’t in the original, plus carries the benefit of actually having an English translation for Western gamers to play, courtesy of genre specialists JAST. As with most of JAST’s other titles, it is an adults-only affair, with a mature narrative and explicit sexual scenes — though it’s worth noting that for the most part, these serve the story rather than existing for pure titillation.

The story revolves around the protagonist Makoto becoming embroiled in a love triangle between his “love at first sight” Kotonoha and the girl who sits next to him in class Sekai. After Sekai discovers that Makoto is interested in Kotonoha, she agrees to set him up with her, but it turns out that things are never quite that simple. Unfolding over six anime-style “episodes,” the game eventually makes its way to one of over twenty different conclusions, each of which has multiple paths by which it can be reached. Gameplay is limited to simply making choices (or remaining silent) when the game asks you to, but somehow this manages to provide a far more compelling experience than any “fully interactive” game I’ve played in recent memory.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the story, while mundane, is interesting, tense and exciting. There are no “easy answers” throughout, and it is very difficult to get through the entire six episodes without someone winding up hurt. In the case of the very “worst” endings, things get seriously, shockingly unpleasant, giving your decisions throughout an incredible feeling of weight and importance. The fact that all decision points are timed doesn’t help with the sense of tension and urgency throughout, either.

Secondly, the characters involved are deep, layered and complex, with none of them quite so simple as they first appear. Kotonoha in particular is far from the demure, shy, sweet girl she initially appears to be — but to say too much more would probably constitute spoilers, so I’ll just say that you should play it and find out what’s really up. It’s worth playing the game through several times, as only by doing this will you come to appreciate quite how complicated these characters are.

School Days HQ is an absolute masterpiece of interactive storytelling, in short. While its lack of traditional “gameplay” may put some off, and the rather graphic sex scenes may put others off, it’s a fine example of how a complex, branching story can be told using games as the medium.

Honorable Mention: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Trails in the Sky

Trails in the Sky (TitS to its friends, yes, very good, tee hee, how clever) is a wonderful JRPG. It pulls off being a wonderful JRPG in this day and age by conforming to very few of the genre’s clichéd conventions. The protagonists may be teenagers, but they’re not angsty, sullen loners; there may be a lot of fighting, but a lot of it can be avoided and grinding is kept to a minimum; this may be a Final Fantasy-style world of swords, sorcery and airships, but you’re not about to spend 40+ hours chasing a silver-haired pretty boy across the entire world.

No, instead in Trails in the Sky you’ll find yourself enjoying a rather intimate story of the relationship between two foster siblings as they travel around their home country in an attempt to become fully-fledged freelance adventurers known as “bracers.” Each town you stop off at becomes a base of operations for a considerable number of hours as you take on a wealth of sidequests, all of which are as well-realized and interesting to follow through on as the game’s main plotline.

Not only that, but it has great music, attractive presentation, a brilliant localization and some truly memorable characters. It’s one of the best JRPGs I’ve had the pleasure of playing recently, and a fine title to put on your PSP or Vita if you have one. Now let’s have that second chapter localized, please!

Blake Grundman

Blake is a veteran of Games Are Evil, a regular cast member on the EvilCast and a pinball nut.

Game of the Year: The Unfinished Swan

The Unfinished Swan

The PlayStation Network has long been the home of the truly creative, independent game and this year was no exception. Though this year saw Journey gain widespread critical acclaim and success, the audience seemed to miss out on easily the most creatively liberating title to come around since Portal – The Unfinished Swan. As disappointing as it may be that this gem was lost in the sandstorm of Thatgamecompany’s magnum opus, the title still easily stands out in my eyes as one of the highlights of the year.

Just imagine being dropped onto an empty canvas, enveloped in nothing but a void of white. This is not the backdrop of a painting, mind you, but rather, the entire world. It is the player’s job to throw black paint, which in turn helps expose the world around them. Through striking items in the environment, the paint then splatters in a way that helps reveal that this is not just some random prison, devoid of color, but in fact, a outdoor park. Moments of wonderment and discovery like this are transformative in a way that can forever shape one’s perceptions about gaming environments. Never will you look at an empty sheet the same again, because who knows what really lies beneath?

Even the mechanic of splashing watercolors to define the world is an amazing experience to take part in. It almost feels like the player is creating the playscape themselves, despite the obvious rigidity of the all-encompassing universe. Then the curtain is pulled back even further to reveal that this painting mechanic is far more powerful than it may seem and that there is far more to be uncovered than could ever be imagined.

Though the game may be heavily directed, once other colors begin to flesh out each page in the storybook, it becomes more obvious that a story is actually being told through the setting itself. As the player begins to understand their role and how to best interact with the surroundings, the setpieces then become even more elaborate and perform slight permutations to the mechanics, further helping to keep things fresh. Every step of the way seems like a tentative stride into an increasingly more vibrant galaxy of gameplay.

With the pathfinding in The Unfinished Swan comes the need for players to think outside of the box. While it was probably not necessarily conceived as a puzzle game per se, it requires the use of muscles in the brain that one may not be used to flexing on a regular basis. The game designers over at Giant Sparrow seem to have considered this every step of the way, ensuring they don’t overwhelm the player with too much information. That said, they still manage to provide enough wonderment around every turn to compel players onward, if for no other reason than to see what will happens next.

The Unfinished Swan should be considered the new face of emergent gameplay. The game never feels the need to smack the player across the head with a solution, while at the same time carefully guides them down the path to discovery. It is impossible not to immerse oneself into the universe of The Unfinished Swan without emerging a slightly transformed gamer. For this reason, it is far and away my game of the year.

Honorable Mention: The Pinball Arcade

The Pinball Arcade

It would be remiss of me to reflect back on a year’s worth of gaming without mentioning the resurgence in the popularity of virtual pinball. At the forefront of this push was FarSight Studios’ title The Pinball Arcade. Where titles like Zen Studios’ Zen Pinball 2 and Pinball FX 2 were busy providing gamers with original, fantastic pinball tables, The Pinball Arcade was striving to digitally preserve classic pinball tables of old for generations to come.
This noble effort consisted of a tediously precise process of acquiring and dismantling these physical tables into their component pieces for scanning and 3D sculpting into the game’s engine. FarSight even went as far as to emulate the actual table’s internal computer system to interact with the on-screen digital HUD display. The result was any pinball nut’s dream, two new tables being added to the budding platform each month.

However, there were a couple of snags that prevented this dream from fully coming to fruition. For one, it could be expected that each table would probably take a couple of months after its initial availability before it would be bug-free. Really, these guys needed to raise a larger quality assurance department, because when you are catering to an audience of hardcore pinball fans that have been playing these tables for decades, they are more than happy to point out your flaws, and LOUDLY. The other main misgiving was their loss of publisher on Xbox 360 midway through the year, leaving all of the poor folks who bought the game on the platform out in the cold for any updates or new tables.

What makes the updates even more remarkable is that they are managing to release new content on iOS, Android, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita and Mac OS virtually every single month. This is an undertaking that deserves to be applauded. I look forward to seeing what they have planned in the upcoming months.

Lucas DeWoody

Lucas is a longtime regular contributor to Games Are Evil. His current project is our weekly arcade culture column Insert Coin.

Game of the Year: Nintendo Land

Nintendo Land

Okay, we get it. Online gaming is a thing. It’s a pretty popular thing, too. Yet I have this persistent problem with it that’s nagged me since the early days of Xbox Live: it lacks that personal touch. It lacks that physical bond. I’ve played endless hours of Halo through the internet’s glorious pipelines, yet to this day I never have as much fun as I do when splattering my friends via local split-screen. The call-outs, the curse words, the evil laughter, shoving, pillow throwing… it’s just fun. As publishers continue to find excuses to pull split-screen from their multiplayer games and jerk out LAN support to encourage online subscriptions, I’ve been waiting for a game to come along and remind people just how much the offline experience can build relationships and make people smile like no other form of gameplay. Nintendo Land has done that better than any game this year, or any other game in recent memory.

It’s like a playdate in a way. Imagine, if you will, a group of friends getting together and laughing hysterically while playing games together. It’s getting harder and harder to find this in the online era. The last wave of “event” gaming came with Rock Band. Who really wanted to play Rock Band online? It was a party game that commanded the scene when a group of friends came together to play. Party gaming is when video games truly shine at their brightest, so Nintendo went and built a console around it. The variety, depth, and quality of the mini-games in Nintendo Land is astounding. My favorite experience in the game is probably Metroid: Blast. The teamwork required in Metroid: Blast makes for such a fun experience. “Analysts” keep arguing that Wii Sports was a better showcase for explaining a new piece of hardware. Perhaps that’s true, but I’ve never had as much fun playing a launch title with friends, and I’ve never seen my group of friends enjoy a launch title so much either.

Maybe Nintendo Land will keep getting squashed by the cynical press for not being as big a deal as Wii Sports was years ago with the mainstream crowd, but who cares what they think? All I know is the smiles I see on the faces of my friends when we’re getting trolled by the spook in Luigi’s Ghost Hunt and keep laughing away.

Honorable Mention: Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

Back in 2008, Mario Kart Wii dropped the ball in just about every way you could except pandering to the mainstream. Nintendo dumbed the experience down for the casuals. Thankfully, that very same year we had Sonic All-Stars Racing to fall back on. It did everything right. Maybe it wasn’t perfect. Maybe it could have used more track variety, and more depth in its battle modes, but it was refreshing to have a superior alternative in the place of a stagnant franchise. Mario Kart 7 may have fixed the franchise’s issues, but Sonic Racing Transformed has managed to become, at least in my eyes, the best kart-racing game ever. Planes, boats, karts, and a track selection so deep that it may help to even reawaken some forgotten Sega franchises help boost this kart-racer into a world of it’s own. Ignore the cynical reviews. There’s nothing wrong with a challenge. Give this masterpiece a try if you can.

Michael Migliacio

Mike is our resident Japan specialist, and you can check out his thoughts on the state of Japanese gaming every other week in Evil.JP.

Game of the Year: Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles

For North American fans, Nintendo of Europe’s decision to take up the localization effort for the Monolithsoft-developed Xenoblade Chronicles was a bittersweet victory. While Wii owners in Europe would get to experience the title in full English, fans in North America would not be getting that same privilege. When gaming media at E3 2011 asked Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime about the title when it failed to make an appearance at the show, he replied that he had “nothing to announce” concerning Xenoblade Chronicles. A few weeks later, an executive at Nintendo of Europe spilled the beans on the situation, and the truth wasn’t pretty: “[NoA] wasn’t interested in showcasing [Xenoblade Chronicles] at E3 because they didn’t want to show products they didn’t plan to sell.”

Enter Operation Rainfall.

A group of passionate fans dedicated to the genre emerged from the troll-infested message boards of the internet and began to organize an effort to raise fan awareness of the situation and attempt to get the game (and two other Japanese exclusives being localized for Europe) released in American markets. Their cause was picked up by many mainstream gaming outlets, and while their campaigns were successful at bombarding Nintendo of America’s public-facing channels with truckloads of requests for Xenoblade Chronicles, it would be nearly a year before the game would finally reach North American shores courtesy of a limited partnership with GameStop. While the game’s critical reception was stellar at launch, its late release coupled with its exclusivity on the Wii platform meant that many players missed out on one of the generation’s most well-crafted Japanese RPG experiences.

While the game’s art direction and sense of scale is astounding, particularly for a game on the Wii console, the real genius in Xenoblade Chronicles is in the gameplay details. In order to provide the player with a more pleasurable experience, the game tweaks traditional JRPG conventions — and, in some cases, removes them altogether.  Gone are the hours of searching for a save point or crossing large expanses of land that exist for no other reason than padding game time. The gameplay, which can be described as part open world action RPG, part strategic turn-based battler, and part sidequest-lover’s paradise, provides plenty of variety to keep players coming back.

While the Wii lacks support for an integrated achievement system, the game’s rewards are balanced such that performing any significant action grants some sort of tangiable reward or character growth. In contrast to many examples of the genre, players can sit down with Xenoblade Chronicles for very short periods of time and still make meaningful progress.

There is so much to do in Xenoblade Chronicles that it will take the average player easily around 60 hours to complete — and far more for those wishing to see everything the game has to offer. For fans of Japanese RPGs, it’s an experience that should not be missed.

Honorable Mention:  New Super Mario Bros. U

New Super Mario Bros. U

Call it Nintendo fanboyism, call it “new console goggles”, but having played three Mario games (not including spinoffs) in the past year, I can say with confidence that none of them came close to providing the same amount of sweet, sweet Miyamoto magic for me as New Super Mario Bros. U.

When reviewing the game, many have noted similarities in the game’s map structure to that of Super Mario World. Like the SNES classic, the course map is cohesive, packed to the brim with secret exits, warps, and hidden courses. Players are often given a choice of different courses to tackle at any point in the game (often spanning multiple game worlds). The creative array of new power-ups (the pink balloon baby Yoshi being one of the most useful), clever level design, and some of the most memorable and challenging Koopaling and Bowser Jr. battles in recent memory certainly evoke memories of classic Mario titles — definitely a good thing.

Besides the obvious visual upgrades provided by the WiiU hardware itself, the new console’s features are also integrated into New Super Mario Bros. U in subtle ways. In addition to Miiverse integration (which allows players to view comments from others during gameplay), the GamePad also provides a quirky new twist to the Mario formula in the form of Boost Mode. No mechanic in recent memory can be both so cooperative and so competitive at once.  While the touch screen can be used to assist with acquisition of difficult-to-reach power-ups or rescues from certain doom, your platform-producing partner can kill you with an ill-timed tap to the screen just as easily.

Though traditional at heart, New Super Mario Bros. U remains one of the year’s best titles, and one of the few games in recent memory to remind me why Nintendo marching to the beat of its own drum isn’t always a bad thing.

Alex Connolly

Alex is our resident strategic specialist, in charge of our bi-monthly Tactical Tuesday column and occasional interviews with developers from around the world.

Game of the Year: Krater

Krater

I was not even in the market for an action-RPG before trying out Krater. Truth be told, I’d played the game in alpha state as a tester, but it was only after nabbing it on a whim upon release that it blew me away with a strange and wonderful take on post-apocalyptica. An unashamed Fatshark fan – something about their studio artists tickles my fancy – I clicked away with hints of trepidation, but found myself washed down a roaring, roiling river of great writing, incredible visual design and solid mechanics. It had been a long journey to being invested in the genre, and I’d never really taken to games of Krater’s ilk since the original Diablo. The fantasy motif in these mouse button burners was always a put-off, so to be finally able to enjoy the same gameplay mechanics as the Diablos and Torchlights of this world without having to descend into the stiffening cheese fondue of swords and sorcery made it instantly appealing.

And it was the detail. This strange world constructed in an atomic crater, the characters within and the whimsy of the shanty towns. This bevelled punk-rock aesthetic meshing with a sometimes-grotesque, sometimes-quaint caricature of existing in an irradiated world. Interestingly, an irradiated world that was rendered in anything BUT the usual drab palette of browns and greys. Here, my squad stalked Frankensteinian bears in lush, green pine forests. We fended for ourselves in the shade of looming conifers. Subterranean lairs were plundered; their strange bioluminescent hues of purples and aquamarines inviting deeper exploration irrespective of danger. My three-man party lumbered through old facilities now reclaimed by nature; nature not meagerly eking out an existence but thriving. Bright flowerbeds and vegetable gardens were tended atop stacks of containers-turned-domiciles in the delightfully junky townships and villages. Krater is one of the few games that make even the most disastrous of futures, despite hardship, a gorgeous one.

I should give a quiet adulation to Christian Gabel and company who wrote Krater’s score. It’s a fascinating soundtrack, and one I often catch myself listening to when commuting. Like some sort of Kraftwerk-meets-Brian Eno low-fidelity journey of warm, wobbling retro synthesizers and soft beats, it somehow matches the gregarious nature of this Swedish diorama. It would have been very easy to churn out some sort of techno-orchestration of some description, but the caramel-kitsch of Gabel and the remixes by Fatshark’s audio team – plus some terrific licensed rock used to great atmospheric effect – fits congruously with this endearing, awe-inspiring revivalist world.

Krater was not a perfect game at launch for many, and the reverberating scores did little to instil a reason to investigate the game by post-release punditry. However, since then, the game has been overhauled and upgraded, with co-op now in place and boasting a bevy of new and exciting features. As the game is part of a planned trilogy, I’m very much looking forward to seeing where we go from here. The world of Krater and its quirky, off-kilter inhabitants is one of the most endearing digital creations I’ve had the pleasure of exploring in years. From an artistic perspective, Krater is a treasure trove. From a gameplay perspective, it’s a rollicking, chunky globule of MOBA combat with ARPG trappings in crafting and upgrading. From a holistic point of view, Krater is the damn finest thing I’ve played in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Endless Space

Endless Space

Endless Space was not so much the surprise packet of interstellar awesomeness of 2012, more a reassuring coup by Matthieu Girard and his Parisian studio in regards to strategy game design. I could laud Endless Space for an eternity, but the title’s strongest aspect is information and interface – something the strategy circuit has been struggling with for years. Featuring crisp, accessible menus, tooltips aplenty, a beautiful aesthetic and, thankfully, as brisk a pace as you can get in games of this ilk, it was love at first sight and one where beauty was matched by brains.

We’ve certainly had deeper and more complex 4X space empire builders – the venerable Galactic Civilisations II and indie surprise Distant Worlds spring to mind – but Endless Space has it where it counts in balance and management. While the game certainly could do with a touch more in the way of personality and factional differentiation, Amplitude started out of the gate strongly and have continued to listen to and implement feedback. We’ve even had community-designed factions and heroes make it into the game. The game has received solid and consistent support since release, with the future looking very bright for updates and expansions.

One of the year’s best strategy experiences that just edged out Wargame: European Escalation for accessibility and fun factor in both solo and multiplayer, Endless Space is top-shelf material for those looking for something fun, fast and beautiful. I’ve drifted in the game’s brand of celestial imperialism for many an hour, and I hope many others do so, too.

Tristan Damen

Tristan was responsible for our regular jaunts into The Vault earlier this year, uncovering a variety of forgotten treasures from the past.

Game of the Year: Journey

Journey

Ever since Pete asked me to write about the best game I’ve played this year, I had two frontrunners in mind. Following some issues at home and abroad, however, I began to reflect on those two picks and thought to myself “Will I be talking about these games five, ten or fifteen years down the line?” The answer, of course, was “No.” I’ve got enough virtual blood on my hands, and odds are that something that glorifies death to a more extreme degree will surface before I meet my maker.

My intention here is to talk about the game that I played this year that I’ll be talking about for decades to come, and that game is Journey. The reason why Journey had such an impact on me is intensely personal.

My Uncle Peter had been a mentor to me through my entire life until, in my 24th year, he lost his battle with throat cancer. He had tried to school me in various aspects of masculinity: be it playing cards, climbing mountains, or just being able to laugh in the face of adversity. More often than not, my wholesale lack of physical fitness coupled with an enthusiasm to remain indoors meant that he’d often become frustrated with me. Still, I knew that behind every jibe and every attempt to get me outside was nothing but love.

Over the course of a year I had seen both his condition deteriorate, and the tumor on his neck continue to grow. Before long, the pain had muted his usual exuberance and his laugh was not often heard. When he was admitted to hospital for what I knew was the last time, I couldn’t gather the courage to go and see him. I knew I would fall apart at his side, and all of his attempts to make a man out of me would ultimately prove fruitless. My brother on the other end of the line assured me that Uncle Pete wouldn’t mind, but I couldn’t bear the thought of failing him again. Two days later, Dad confirmed Uncle Pete’s inevitable demise.

To this day, there is nothing I regret more. I should’ve been there with him, but I opted out for fear of embarrassing both Uncle Peter and myself.
Journey allowed me to make peace with the past. Towards the end of the titular adventure, I scaled a brutally steep cliff face with a companion in tow. I didn’t know the person I was walking with personally, but we had shared so much across a short passage of time. We helped each other through various obstacles, and the oppressive conditions that characterised our climb would likely bring death.

Instead of falling next to a treasured companion in silence, we spoke. We exchanged pleasantries as our sojourn came to a close. This time I would pour out my heart, with the inevitable in plain sight. I’d let my partner know I appreciated their company, their care. I would say goodbye.

I could go on about the engrossing art direction, unforgettable soundtrack and a series of idiosyncratic actions — like sliding down a glimmering sand dune — to try and sell this game to you, but after much reflection, Journey is the one game from 2012 that I’ll be talking about for years.

Honorable mention: Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story

“What’s this?” I hear you ask. “Vagrant Story didn’t come out in 2012? The digital version is old hat too. Why bring it up now?”

Well, to be frank, Yasumi Matsuno’s action RPG classic is just as intoxicating now as it was at the dawn of the millennia. Even now, Ashley Riot’s investigation of the Müllenkamp cult feels brave: shrugging off tired genre conventions like random encounters while introducing rhythmic combat and weapon crafting systems that still feel ahead of their time.

You may find yourself intimidated by the litany of menus and plethora of stats that present themselves early on — particularly given that the game doesn’t go to any great length to explain its mechanics — but I urge you to persist. Before long you’ll be swinging swords (both short, long and broad), polearms, and staves for the fences, chaining attacks and accruing Risk while defeating soldiers, zombies and creatures of various sizes and statures. The combat system still proves rewarding after more than a decade, and to be honest, I still find it far more satisfying than that found in the universally-lauded Dark Souls.

All things considered, Vagrant Story looks better than most PlayStation Portable games (even topping some Vita releases in my humble opinion), features a compelling story brimming with double crosses and political intrigue, and still feels as deep as the waters surrounding Leà Monde. If you haven’t ever gone spelunking in an abandoned, magical city, now may be the time.

____

We hope you’ve enjoyed our picks. What about you? Be sure to let us know what your favorite games that you discovered this year were in the comments below. And in the meantime, have a wonderful New Year’s Eve and don’t drink too much tonight! We’ll see you in 2013!

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