2013 had its fair share of disappointments, but overall it’s been a great year for games, no matter where you look. While we had two major console launches, and long awaited games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us finally released, I once again found myself most impressed and excited by the games I wasn’t expecting. It seemed like interesting titles were coming out of nowhere, to the point where (despite my best efforts) I just couldn’t keep up at all. However, the games I did play offered a great amount of variety, ranging from endlessly replayable strategy games, to short and succinct indie experiences.
Favorite Game Released Before 2013, Played in 2013: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
Dark Souls is kind of fascinating when you take a step back and look at it. It isn’t the most mindblowing game in terms of high budget production values, so From Software has made sure every aspect of it is expertly crafted and methodically placed. Whether it’s executing a last second roll dodge away from a giant axe by mere centimeters, or beating a boss right before he finishes a brutal attack animation, Dark Souls is sometimes incredibly beautiful in motion, not only graphically but in how brilliantly things play out.
The Souls franchise earned its reputation with its unflinching difficulty, but what always brings me back to Dark Souls is the sense of punishment and risk that it earns. I don’t trust From Software to go easy on me for one second, and it subsequently keeps me in simultaneous fear, concentration, dread, and anticipation all at once. All of that shines even more with the transition to PC, and 60 FPS makes Dark Souls one of the best games to watch in motion.
5. Europa Universalis IV
I’ve never played a grand strategy game before, so diving into Europa Universalis IV’s multiple systems of war, trade, and diplomacy (among others) was incredibly daunting and terrifying. Luckily, EU4 does a good job of introducing new players like me to how the game works thanks to a focus on simple early game goals to build from. EU4 is a game with a ton of moving parts, not only from a systems perspective, but in the amount of nations all working at the same time. It’s thrilling to rewrite history and maneuver your way to conquering nations, or defend myself from the ridiculous amount of possible rivals and enemies abound. Every game feels like it offers new possibilities and scenarios, since the vast variety of factors can heavily change the way things play out. EU4 is a brilliant strategy game, but it's also a nation role playing game at it's core. Realizing that total world domination isn't exactly the main goal, and steering your nation to a viable position where it can prosper is a huge part of the initial learning experience.
EU4 would be an easy top of the list contender if I had more time to get further into it, but what I’ve played is a fantastic and uncompromising strategy experience which exemplifies the emergent gameplay that makes the genre a personal favorite of mine.
4. Fire Emblem Awakening
I consider Fire Emblem 7 for the GBA one of my favorite games of all time, so I wasn’t surprised with how easily Fire Emblem Awakening grabbed me from start to finish. While I’m not a big fan of the more open ended overworld structure of Awakening, the emphasis on character relationships and class variety makes it the most replayable and varied title in the series. It’s heartbreaking to see characters that I’ve built up for so long die to a critical hit or a tactical mistake that I made. I always found myself resetting the game on each character death because I couldn’t stand to lose a single one.
Awakening does an excellent job of getting you attached to every character, with features like support conversations and pairing up as a strong way of adding a touch of personality to relationships. Intelligent Systems’ formula remains as great as ever, but the few tweaks they've made to make things more personal, as well as a nice update to the series’ art style, and an amazing soundtrack, make it a strong contender for my series favorite.
3. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
I've always had a soft sport for the Assassin's Creed series, but last year's Assassin’s Creed 3 ended up exemplifying everything wrong with the massive multi-studio approach by Ubisoft. Like many, I was incredibly disappointed upon playing the game, which featured a boring protagonist, tedious and inconsistent mission design, horrific "real world" missions, and an overall dull and empty open world. Assassin’s Creed 4 somehow avoids most of those, with an overall design that's much more consistent and just plain fun all around, and a multitude of features far more compelling and worthwhile than most in AC3. Whether it’s exploring the seas on the Jackdaw, or completing assassinations around cities like Havana and Kingston, AC4 captures the sense of a memorable historical setting filled with fun adventures that’s been missing since Brotherhood.
The story eschews the world ending apocalypse approach from the previous game and focuses on a more lighthearted and enjoyable plot. Similarly, Edward is a likeable and fun protagonist that you can empathize with and not absolutely loathe for 30 hours (*ahem* Connor). The game doesn’t spend 10 hours doling out mechanics and pointless set up; instead it gets started fairly quickly and is enjoyable from the opening moments. On paper, Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that I probably shouldn’t enjoy, but when it gets things right, there are few games that capture adventure quite as well. AC4 to my delightful surprise, despite all odds, somehow nails all of that once again.
2. Path of Exile
I’ve probably played more Path of Exile than any other game this year. On the surface it looks like just another gritty hack-n-slash action RPG in the vein of Torchlight 2 or Diablo 3, but where POE separates itself is the sheer amount of depth and strict adherence to preparation and smart character building. It's a punishing game, not in the sense of difficulty, but in how little room for error is available when building a character on the game’s enormous passive skill grid. Because of this, builds work best when planned out before playing, making things relatively daunting to dive into. However, it’s exactly this reason that I love POE. There’s a sense of endless possibility and variation that this system brings, and seeing the amazing and unique builds players devise is almost as fun as playing the game itself.
While PoE’s combat starts out fairly clunky and slow, the sense of character progression is unmatched. Watching your character become a powerhouse over time is an immensely gratifying experience. It can be dull to see your character slowly whittling down enemies early on, but coming back as an insanely fast powerhouse tossing out multiple projectiles hours later is incredibly rewarding. Grinding Gear Games have proven themselves with constant additions to the game, all backed by a fantastic free-to-play model rivaled only by TF2 and DOTA 2. Something as little as patching a new skill gem into the game opens up many new possibilities for character building, and if GGG’s support continues to be as good as it's been, it's going to be a joy to watch the game evolve in the months to come. POE earns its spot on this list for being a game that I can see myself playing and finding something new for months, possibly even years to come.
1. The Swapper
The Swapper is simply one of the best pieces of science fiction in the medium. So often we think about sprawling and vast galactic universes when it comes to this genre, but great science fiction reshapes and challenges our understanding of the world around us through it's central conceit. The Swapper is one of the few games to actually do this in a way that is so heavily reliant on gameplay. The game’s core mechanic – creating up to four clones of yourself and swapping between them – is brilliant, and taken to its limit with great puzzle designs that are both mentally challenging and precision focused. It doesn’t hurt to have a nonlinear Metroidvania structure as well, allowing for ample exploration of the game's hauntingly lonely space station.
However, what initially seemed like a fun puzzle exercise becomes a thought provoking process. What happens to consciousness when it’s transferred to another body? Does the concept of a soul even exist? Is consciousness just a physical thing, or is there a certain je ne sais quoi to it? The Swapper explores these ideas subtly and thoughtfully through its unobtrusive narrative and brutally challenging and mindbending puzzles. Complemented by a haunting atmosphere, incredibly moody soundtrack, and a unique claymation-esque art style, The Swapper is nearly perfect in the sense that it achieves exactly what it wants to. There’s no fat to this game; it escalates to a deviously hard level of challenge, before hitting you with a poignant and surreal ending. It’s a shame that more people haven’t played this game, because it’s easily one of the most thought provoking and memorable titles I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
Honorable Mentions: The Last of Us, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Bioshock Infinite, Papers Please, Gone Home