2014 - A Year in Games

3:11 PM

I'll be honest and say that I'd be hard pressed to even come up with a list of 10 games that I've actually played this year. A combination of multiple electronic failures, and being a cash-strapped student resulted in a more than a few reasons as to why this list is so much smaller than usual.

I'd try categorizing games into their genres to make choices easier for me, but the list this year is probably small enough to fit into a nice Top 5. Here's the TL;DR list based on enjoyment. I enjoy games, but I wouldn't trust myself in arguing over which game is better made or whatnot.

1. Dark Souls 2
2. Fantasy Life
3. Bravely Default
4. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse
5. Shovel Knight

Strap in for the real list, grab some popcorn and a drink, 'cuz this one's going long. Also, spoilers abound, so don't say I didn't warn you.

Top 5 Games of the Year

1. Dark Souls 2 (March) From Software / Bandai-Namco [Action/Adventure-RPG]

Despite not living up to the expectations of fans after the first Dark Souls, the sequel secures the spot as my favourite game of 2014. It's an odd mix of new material, the first game, and oddly, a bit of Demon's Soul - From Software's first "Souls" offering.

- Character respecs: Improves replayability, as you can go into NG+ with a "new" character, as well as helping newer players reroll their stats once they've learnt the systems

- Improved Dual-Wielding: A minor improvement, but it adds a new way of playing, especially with role-play characters.

- Expansions: Much like Dark Souls' expansion, Artorias of the Abyss, the sequel's expansion, the Crowns trilogy is a well crafted, brand new experience for the game. Each of the 3 episodes introduces new ways of tackling the environment, and each introducing it's own challenges. It's easily one of the strongest points of the game. I strongly recommend playing the expansion if you haven't yet as the experience is quite different from the main game.

-Post Game Content: The true Dark Souls 2 doesn't being until you've beaten it once. NG (New Game) is where the brunt of the game's full story is fleshed out. The second playthrough adds enemies and items, such as the four souls that drop from certain bosses that link the game to the first Dark Souls.

- Poor World Design: The areasand landscape are gorgeous, but it's the disjointed feeling of how one area goes to another that is this games weakness. Like Dark Souls, this game has a wide open connected world, allowing you to, generally, walk from one area to another. However, not all of those "walks" make a lot of sense. Prime example being the transition from the Harvest Valley to the Iron Keep. You go up an elevator, and find lava at the top of the elevator, despite not seeing any evidence of it seemingly under the Keep.

-Even Sparser Story: Dark Souls is known for it's environmental and flavour text story telling. You piece together a story from the item descriptions as well as the NPCs that are littered throughout the world. Dark Souls 2 carries on that tradition, however the flavour text is less reliable, with some spotty translations, and there being even less of an NPC presence to help build that story. The game is still filled with some compelling stories, but there's a significant lack of NPCs that the first game had. Characters like Solaire, the Witches of Izalith and the Sisters of Chaos had some truly wonderful stories to them, but all that seems to be lacking in this game.

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2. Fantasy Life (October) Level 5 / Nintendo [RPG]

Fantasy Life has been compared to as the lovechild of Animal Crossing and Skyrim. An odd comparison, but it begins to make more sense after playing it. It has all the charm and more of the former, as well as all the sidequests and the "play how you want" approach of the latter.

The strengths of Fantasy Life are how it uses the tricks and tropes of it's genre. It's an open world JRPG where you can save the world from destruction as a Cook or a tailor. Rarely in the main story line does the game force you to fight anything. Leveling as the non-combat classes is a breeze, though it does require fighting monsters to get all the quest and recipe related items, "leveling" the playing field for the combat classes and those wanting a more peaceful Life.

Those same strengths shine through in the characters and story. The story rarely dips down into the dumps, and is almost always telling a silly and happy story. A war between two kingdoms, with the Dark Sultan being turned into a statue? Nothing more than a prank war between two friendly rivals. A God abandoning his people, leaving an ominous prophecy? Turns out to be a bit of a divine couple spat. Fantasy Life can does "touching feelsy" stories just as well as it does silly ones. The story in Port Puerto, with the Governor's identity, as well as the overarching story of the Goddess of Life, Celestia and her two daughters being some of the strongest story points in the game.

The "Queens" of each of the kingdoms are wonderfully written, from strong Ophelia, to the overbearing and equally strong, Desdemona. One might say that Fantasy Life is the most "equal" game to come out this year.

It's not a perfect game, however. Game mechanics are simple at best, with basic combat, and one template used for all 5 of the crafting classes. The overall theme to the game's short comings is "inconvenience". Not being able to view recipes outside of a crafting station  is hugely inconvenient for the crafting classes, who's leveling and job progression rely on crafting. Not being able to look up what items drop from what monsters also proves frustrating for the crafting classes. Having the mounts only work in a few locations, and not being able to call the mounts makes getting around certain locations a massive pain. Case and point: getting from Mount Snowpeak to Castelle.

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3. Bravely Default: Flying Fairy (February) Silicon Studio / Square Enix [RPG]

Bravely Default is, simply stated, the most Final Fantasy-like game of the recent Final Fantasy entries... despite not being an actual Final Fantasy game. Bravely Default has it's beginnings as a "spiritual successor" to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, before evolving into the game it is today. As such, it shares a lot in common with the FF series. It essentially has FFV's sprawling job system (24 jobs!), most of which would fit right in with the classic jobs of Final Fantasy. There's the Valkyrie, which is in every way the Dragoon, and the Mages, which are almost exactly the same as FF's mages (Black, White, Red, Time). It's also brought many of the familiar magicks, like the "ara"s (blizzara), the "aga"s (curaga), and others like Esuna, Shell and Stop. Heck, there's even four crystals in the game.

The single greatest thing about this game is the option to increase and decrease encounter rates. Random encounters are a staple of the classic JRPGs, from Final Fantasy to Pokemon. However, it's a real pain to have to sit through low level fodder when you're just trying to get from point A to B. Even more so when you're scouring dungeons for their hidden treasure. It also helps when you want to grind out levels: just crank the slider to 200%, and you've got a constant stream of battles, netting you quicker EXP and gold.

The main characters are all very likable, from the sitcom-esque relationship they share, to the story each one comes to the table with. Tiz and Anges' adorable romance compliments the slapstick-ish relationship Ringabel and Edea share. Individually, they all hold up as well, being fleshed out in the many character development converations throughout the game.

Story wise, the game holds up really well up until the second half, where things really start to slow down. The second half of Bravely Default is a time loop scenario, and for those interested, Bravely Default and Steins;Gate share the same scenario writer, Naotaka Hayashi. The time loop itself isn't bad, as the world changes enough each time to be different, and eventually you're able to change events, such as preventing a character from dying, or having a very different conversation with a boss enemy. The real grind is the party's slow realization of events. Unless you've somehow avoided paying attention to the story, you'll likely know what's happening a loop or two before the characters mention anything about the actual time loop. It can get really grating and frustrating when you watch a character dismiss an idea that's actually right...for the third or fourth time.

The music. Cheezus, the music in this game is great. Penned by Revo, who's really been making some big moves as of late, the music is wonderfully diverse. From the electric guitar-orchestral battle theme, to the individual character's special move themes (Edea's Baby Bird is cheesily delightful), REVO's music really sets the tone for the moment, and capture's the character's personalities quite beautifully.

Also would just like to mention that the character designs done by Akihiko Yoshida, of the Ivalice Alliance games fame (FFT, FFXII, Vagrant Story, Tactics Ogre), are absolutely gorgeous.

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4. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse (October) Wayforward Technologies - Inti Creates [Platformer]

Shantae beats Shovel Knight by a hair as a platformer based purely on enjoyment. As great as Shovel Knight was, I found Shantae to be a much more enjoyable experience. Perhaps it's because I didn't grow up on any of the old SNES platformers and have little nostalgia for those kind of games, and maybe I'm a simple person, and maybe the vibrant colour palette of Shantae is more pleasing to my uncultured technology spoiled eyes. Don't get me wrong, as frustrating as Shovel Knight got for me (turns out I'm terrible at it), I really enjoyed the experience. It really does feel like a game that fell out of that era, and I do go back to it for it's challenge. Through and through, it's a top notch game, and quite possibly one of the strongest possible first showings for an indie developer like Yacht Club Games. But before this becomes a comparison of the two, we come to Shantae.

Shantae is the third game in the Shantae series, but the previous games aren't necessary from a story perspective. Pretty much all you need to know is that Shantae is half Genie, and loses her Genie powers at the end of the previous game. And that Risky Boots is Shantae's nemesis-turned pirate ally for this game. It's a metroidvania (you might see it referred to as "bouncyvania") styled platformer, which gives you a large map that has multiple paths, gated by abilities and equipment.

As I wrote earlier, the colour palette is bright and vibrant, paired with an spunky character art style courtesy of Inti Creates (Mighty No. 9, Azure Strike Gunvolt, Megaman Zero, etc.). The pixel art is gorgeous and detailed, with each area having it's own unique look and set of enemies. It's animated beautifully, moving fluidly in all sprites.

The gameplay is simple and very enjoyable. Levels were ranged from the easy to the frustrating, usually settling at a low moderate to moderate level of difficulty. Levels typically get more complicated as you unlock more abilities, with a big jump in the final stage, which puts all of your skills to the test with difficult platforming jumps utilizing a combination of Shantae's pirate gear. Boss fights were generally easy, with the most difficult parts being how to fight the boss.

The story is a silly romp, a far cry from the surprisingly touching story of Shovel Knight, or the silly, but endearing tale that Fantasy Life told. It's nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done, and does so being coherent, consistent and, of course, silly.

Without chasing the collectibles (most of which can be nabbed on the first run through of a stage), you can easily finish the game in a sitting. My only gripe is not having a whole lot of post game content for replayability. If you've gotten 100% in the first run through (perfectly possible), the second playthrough in Pirate Mode opens the speed running route, though not much else is offered.

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5. Shovel Knight (June) Yacht Club Games [Platformer]

Lastly, we have Shovel Knight, a game feels like it fell out of the 80's SNES era. I didn't grow up on the SNES or any platformers, but I've seen enough gameplay of them to understand where the love for them comes from. The fair, but occasionally challenging difficulty, the snappy and responsive controls and the dynamic gameplay contribute to the joy this genre gives. Shovel Knight hits all of those highs, and then some.

The game isn't just a nostalgia one trick pony. The game is really, really good on every front. The 8-bit aesthetic works well, bringing a more "modern" look to the dated, but extremely popular style. The game controls stupendously well. It feels very much like the old Mario games in control, which had some of the tightest controls I can think of. And then there's the music. John Kaufman's tracks are a delight to listen to. In fact, I've got the Shovel Knight theme on my 3DS that changes the home screen's music to the menu theme of the game.

The difficulty of the game is at that sweet spot where it's tough to get through stages, but each victory feels really good. It's at a similar level to that of Dark Souls' level of difficulty. Being able to map custom controls makes it a lot easier, as you're able to tailor the control scheme to something you're more used to, or in my case, to work around a broken L button.

If you haven't played it yet, I strongly recommend at least trying it out. It's out on the 3DS, WiiU, PC (Steam) and is coming out on PSN soon, so you'll be able to play it on one of the systems you own (assuming you're not exclusively on the XBox).

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Honouraaaaabluh Mentions

1. Pokemon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire (ORAS)

Last years Pokemon X & Y was akin to the switch from the 2D Zelda to the 3D Zelda in Ocarina of Time. A huge step in modernizing the look of the game, as well as smart additions to demystify the arcane black magic of IV and EVs through NPCs and Super Training. ORAS adds more, with the PokeNav, sidestepping long, complicated breeding chains and letting you catch Pokemon with moves they wouldn't normally learn. Also, the Eon Flute is my favourite addition to ORAS. I can't see them going back on it in the next game, as it was one of the biggest departures from past games.

While all this sounds great, the biggest short coming of ORAS is it's nature as a remake. Ruby and Sapphire weren't the strongest games of Pokemon's long history, but has a lot of fond memories from players due to it's timing. Coming out on the GBA, it would have hit people my age at just the right time where they've developed enough of a game sense to be able to enjoy Pokemon much more than the previous Reds and Golds, which they would've been fairly young at the release of (7ish?).

I'd like to see Game Freak continue to iterate upon the game. They've updated the look and simplified the more complicated systems of IVs/EVs, but I think it's time they start iterating on the story and gameplay. Maybe change up the 8 gym - Elite 4 template? Make HMs like Surf and Strength innate to certain Pokemon? I've got a lot of ideas to pitch at Pokemon, but that's for another time.

2. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS

While being a well crafted game, the WiiU version is the one to get. Packing more content, a crisper look and more (and better) controller options, it really just beats out the 3DS version. It's a great game to play with other people while you're out and about, but the circle pad isn't exactly ideal for the input heavy game. It's packed with content, but does still come off a bit... bare compared to previous iterations of the game. In terms of enjoyment, it's really only at it's best when you've got a few other people to play against.

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Unhonourable Mentions

Harvest Moon: The Lost Valley

The first Harvest Moon game produced by Natsume Inc., the former localization company of Marvelous's 牧場物語 (Bokujo Monogatari), the "original" Harvest Moon, after losing the rights to the games to XSEED, but keeping the Harvest Moon name.

There are welcome changes to the game, like stamina going down slower, having the ability to shape your farm's land. However, that comes with poor controls coupled with a stream lined context-based control scheme which leads to frustration on the farm front. Odd game decisions, like not having a town, and not having a lot of control over how and when you graze your animals is a real pain. From the good 10 hours or so I played of the game, I didn't find any character that was particularly likable, and the lack of an actual town really takes away from the charm that the previous Harvest Moon games brought with them.

If you're a fan of the Harvest Moon series, I suggest skipping this one and waiting a few months for XSEED's Story of Seasons, which is the actual next Harvest Moon game. 

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