It's tough to talk about a year's worth of video games without being reductive, but overall 2013 felt like an appropriate closing ceremony to the last generation of hardware. Releases were focused on perfecting the design thesis laid out years prior. With the PS3 and 360's technical foundations unable to be pushed any further, familiar genres and series' were transformed through design and polish. I thought that more subtle, iterative process would make parsing out spots on this list tough this year, but it was remarkably easy. These five games dominated my time and my thoughts this year and got me thinking about what's next.
Favorite Game Released Before 2013, Played in 2013: Tokyo Jungle
How many games let you viciously claw, kill and eat a pig as a Pomeranian? What about a game that lets you play as a crocodile with a hat that boosts his defence? Or perpetuate animal mating as a dog howling sound effect (regardless of what animal you play!) resonates over a black screen? Tokyo Jungle appears a little rough on the outside, but it's a lot more than just a unique premise. It's an exceptionally clever survival game that puts some heavy demands on your time management and rationing strategies. Humans have been wiped from the face of the Earth. As nature reclaims the ruins of what was once Tokyo, animals still thrive and vie for a place in the food chain. Staying fed, well-equipped and out of the jaws of other animals in its single huge map is thrilling. Dietary needs and stats between the many available animals fluctuate wildly, and even a year later I'm regularly surprised by how many ways you can approach its post-apocalyptic hurdles. If you haven't played it yet, it's absolutely still a good idea to do so.
5. Dota 2
Drilling into its community isn't an easy task. Sometimes it's not even enviable. Try I did, and after playing Dota 2 more than any other game this year I'm still not sure I succeeded. After 100 hours invested, I feel reasonably comfortable with a small handful of heroes. I can get through an average match without totally screwing the pooch. But there are over seventy heroes to master, and exponentially more possible strategies. It's not without imbalance, but Dota 2 is built upon a decade of tweaks both radical and small to its genre-defining team-based formula. The central malleability Valve has been able to incorporate can be something else, provided you are a patient person with a lot of time to devote to your ongoing Dota-cation. Slow net code and desire to have time for other games meant I eventually stopped playing Dota 2, but something tells me I'll be back for more some day.
4. DmC: Devil May Cry
Some vocal fans wanted a traditional sequel, but Ninja Theory's riff on Capcom's classic action series turned out to be something way more interesting than that. It's still loud, impressive-looking and packed with wild action sequences and boss fights. It's got a bunch of great difficulty settings that do a lot more than just make you weaker and your enemies stronger. It has a lengthy challenge mode and loads of reasons to pick up its flashy but involved combat over again. But it forges a completely new path to these check boxes, one that renewed a classic but recently directionless series. The new story angle, a tale of the devil sucking our souls dry with everyday pillars of sin, is awesome. Strip clubs, gluttony and obnoxious fear-mongering newscasters all play a part. Its metaphors aren't so much thinly-veiled as they are written in gasoline and set aflame, but it's impossible not to root for that approach. Devil May Cry's singular focus is to be a riotous and renovated character action game, and it wisely lets its superb action drive that vision forward.
3. Shin Megami Tensei IV
You never know what to expect from a mainline Shin Megami Tensei release, and this fourth entry is no less surrounded in mystery. Take the setting, an anachronistic land where European Medieval and Kamakura-era Japan histories collide head-on. When the futuristic gauntlet of your Samurai order awakens in response to demons roaming that land, well...things go in stranger and more fascinating directions than you could imagine.
It's hard to say even a little about SMT IV without giving a lot away, but suffice it to say that Atlus manages some intensely gripping twists and turns with grace and respect. The fluid presentation sucks you in further, as does the central action of talking with demons during battle. Recruiting them to your party is essential, but so is bullying them out of their money and supplies (or asking for mercy to avoid an unpleasant demise). Learning how to properly juggle its harsh battles and grim story fully seats you into the experience. It takes patience and experimentation, but it's all part of the fun of scratching and surviving in its fantastically realized dystopia. Often mechanically complex games can skimp on plot, while story-driven games may reduce your input to virtual tourism. This is a one-of-a-kind journey that proves you needn't sacrifice either aspect.
This is exactly the kind of thought experiment I'd like to see more of as the industry settles into a new round of game development. It's a platformer with a stunning look, and the game's extensive and smart use of the Vita's technology furthers its appeal where so many others fumble. Instead of building the whole experience on static mechanics, Tearaway constantly spring new controls on you in a way that brilliantly supports the story's focus on the essence of creativity. This game is filled with excellent messages for young players to learn and more experienced ones to reflect on. The way you create props and pipe into the story through the system's camera isn't just for show. There's a poignancy to the meta-narrative that's all brought to a close with a more introspective and touching ending than I'd anticipated.
Tearaway isn't a long and complex game in the most mechanical sense, but its richly creative platforming and tremendous heart won't soon leave you.
1. Fire Emblem: Awakening
The instant my path to Grima was said and done back in February, I had a feeling that Awakening wouldn't be topped for me. The turn-based battles are terrific in their own right, honed and balanced over decades of releases by one of Nintendo's most talented internal teams. The fluency with which those deep systems now tie to the story and keep you engaged is staggering. Relationships develop on and off the battlefield, and the walls between the parts you watch and the parts you play are convincingly unified in the process. The nuts and bolts are traditional Fire Emblem, but the fresh approach makes a dramatic difference. It makes a great game stellar.
In the hours spent assembling and shifting this list around, Awakening's spot was never in doubt. I cleared the campaign twice this year and still think aboutit all the time. In the process of writing this list, I started a third campaign to chip away at. This is a special game, a modern classic I intend to play and talk about for ages.
Honorable Mentions: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Path of Exile, Gone Home, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Animal Crossing: New Leaf.