Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 22 December 2012
My ten best games for 2012. This list is subjective!
Previous years: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011
Derek Yu / Xbox Live Arcade
Spelunky made me feel like a kid again. As a relatively normal middle class child of the 80's, my parents bought me a Nintendo Entertainment System and a couple of games a year for Christmas or my birthday. Maybe because I was eight, possibly because there were few other options, or conceivably because these games were some of the greatest games ever made, I wound up playing the same games over and over and over. My Saturday routine for at least a year was to wake up and beat Mega Man III. I didn't play games to beat them, I played games to see if I could beat them. These days I can't imagine waking up on a Saturday morning and finishing Darksiders top to bottom fifty two times a year. That's not fun, that's torture.
But what if a game could somehow be fun and torture? What would it take for white hot anticipation to appreciate rather than dissipate upon repeated failure? How in the world could I not only tolerate, but willfully submit to starting a game completely over every time? "Roguelikes," the objective genre to which Spelunky conforms, are nothing new, and I'd be damned if I would comply with their noble principles. Super Meat Boy was immensely punishing and vastly rewarding, but even it had enough sense to measure progress through traditional levels. Spelunky merely says "well kid, tough shit," and starts over again.
And it's awesome. Most of my goodwill toward Spelunky was earned through the manner in which it randomizes its levels. Each set of four levels carry the same theme, traps, and enemies, but their structure is randomized every time. Little bits of architecture become recognizable over time, filling some desperate need of familiarity, but generally the only part of Spelunky that remains consistent is its challenge. You need to figure out how to overcome any obstacle at any time, and then balance that with the genius risk of literally leaping into the unknown or opting for a safer, more time consuming, and costly path to the exit.
Spelunky is an incredible challenge, and it's flourished with an interesting set of variables. Bonus items like a shotgun or cape can help immensely, and even items as pedestrian as more bombs or rope can create a huge advantage. Note that these items also carry their own risks, as anyone who accidentally assaulted a shopkeeper will come to find out. On top of that Spelunky is packed with incredible Easter eggs and entire secret levels, of which the requirement for access will easily be beyond the skill of most everyone who attempts to enjoy it. Tough shit. Spelunky seems like it was created for a very narrow audience, and I was as surprised as anyone to find myself included. For me it's one the most difficult, rewarding, and (most importantly) repayable games of 2012
Signature Moment: Your mileage may vary, but for me it was carrying a key from world 1-2 to world 3-4 so the tunnel man could dig me a warp to 4-1. The precision, care, and testicular fortitude required to execute that insane task had me sweating buckets for hours on end. The satisfaction generated when I finally did it was one of my all time high points in gaming. I imagine I'll experience something similar when/if I finally manage to finish the damn game.
Shawn McGrath/ PlayStation Network
Dyad is the most videogame videogame on this list. That statement is inherently stupid because it doesn't make objective sense, but to understand what videogames are, to really process that alien sensation of controlling a virtual space through abstracted input all in the name of accomplishing pointless goals, well, it's hard to do it better than Dyad. Let's briefly cut to a gif of Polygon's Justin McElroy reacting to Dyad at E3 last year.
Ok, good. That's a typical first encounter with Dyad. It's also typical of every encounter with Dyad. The game is an all out audio/visual assault designed to overwhelm not only those unfamiliar with its medium, but especially those who have engaged and enjoyed it for years. Young or old, beginner or veteran, man or machine, whatever, Dyad's going to blow your brains out. The key is bridging the gap between apparent nonsense into agency and, much later, mastery of what's occurring on screen. What's occurring in Dyad is very much under the player's control, and wielding it, which might at first seem like a Jedi manipulating The Force, slowly becomes second nature. Becoming proficient is a completely different story, as all of Dyad's punishing Trophy Levels can attest, but coming to an understanding of what's going on is a surprisingly rewarding process. The beautiful visual display and diverse soundtrack help, of course, but Dyad's a great game with an interesting set of mechanics, too. My Review
Signature Moment: I'm breaking my own rules because Dyad boasted at least two defining instances. The first was on my initial play through on final level, Eye of the Duck. The closing minutes of that sequence (or whatever you want to call it) are an almost perfect epilogue to the entire experience. As it concluded I was prepared to run outside, find the nearest stranger, and demand to know the current year, President, and whether or not Taco Bell won the franchise wars. The other instance was after a two hour marathon of trying to beat the trophy level for Danger. I not only beat a score that was just one point short of the goal, I doubled it and in the process pushed Dyad so hard that it was basically a collage of light and colors with no distinguishing features. Basically, I felt like Neo looking at the code in the matrix - and for that Dyad gained my terrified praise.
Mass Effect 3
Bioware / PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
Mass Effect 3’s backlash took me completely by surprise. I had finished the game and awarded it a high score before it fell into the hands of the masses, and couldn't believe a vocal majority rejected the game so harshly that Bioware folded and edited the game's ending. Baring a few issues with pacing and storytelling I considered Mass Effect 3 as close to perfect as we were going to get with this generation's role playing games.
Some say the universe was oddly constricted around the messianic Shepard, but I viewed it as a personal story of a type of superhero exclusively possible through interactive entertainment. I wanted to run into my old friends from the previous game, and I expected to resolve storyline's as minor as Kasumi's lost partner to as significant as the species eradicating-genophage. The entirety of Mass Effect 3 placed a bow on a myriad of storylines, and reducing its grand narrative to binary choices in the closing scene sells the game (and the series) well short of its accomplishments.
Disappointment only arrives because of how much we appreciate the establishment and are subsequently disheartened by where it takes us. Preserving the importance of a personal story against the backdrop of a galactic catastrophe, Mass Effect 3 respects its foundation as much as it understands and indulges in the player's choices, and it does it better than anything else. I can't speak for new players, but my investment in Mass Effect 3 and the series as a whole was ultimately fulfilling and free from the pangs of disappointment. My Review
Signature Moment: (minor spoiler) Smarter players probably saw it coming, but EDI’s transformation from ship AI to a physical crew member took me completely by surprise. It also foreshadowed the choice of my ending some forty hours later, and emerged as a metaphor for the world as Shepherd (or rather any survivors) would come to know.
thatgamecompany / PlayStation Network
Journey feels like it was constructed in a vacuum where videogames didn’t have to be anything. A statement like that is usually constructed to rationalize the bullshit notion of “art games” or otherworldly concepts in search of a meaningful experience (Unfinished Swan, I’m looking at you), but in Journey’s case I got the feeling that it was constructed by masters of the medium with careful consideration for essential (and non-essential) elements of game design. In doing so thatgamecompany created one of the most altogether distinctive, attractive, and most importantly playable adventures in interactive entertainment. My Review
Signature Moment: (heavy spoilers) All of Journey’s strengths converge in its climactic accent. My anonymous friend-buddy and I, moments after presumably collapsing and dying the snow, were revived with a renewed sense of purpose. Set to the tone of Austin Wintory’s absolutely perfect score, we worked our way up the mountain and triumphantly reach our destination. “Well, we finally got to the top of that mountain,” can sound like an empty accomplishment, but the degree to which Journey nailed that sensation, in the mutual satisfaction of getting there with a like-minded stranger, it created a sensation unique to its medium. It was a moment of pure celebration, one that begs other developers to take notice and recognize that it’s still possible to create a wholly unique experience no matter the hardware.
Arkane Studios / PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Dishonored allows a perfect sense of creative freedom in what’s ultimately a controlled environment. It respects its audience by not only trusting them with a myriad of options, but also having the courtesy not to stand in their way. Its gameplay systems are open and intuitive, and reaching their potential feels special in a manner unrealized by any of its contemporaries. In a world where multiplayer suites didn’t pollute game design Dishonored would be the latest in a long line of great, dedicated single player games. Instead it’s an anomaly, a game almost too good for its time. It has problems, namely the free fall that is the final act, but it’s an experience that, at least until BioShock Infinite, remains unrivaled among its peers. My Review
Signature Moment: The masquerade ball. Up until that point Dishonored had been fairly content with plopping Corvo in familiar, for lack of a better term, videogame spaces. Factories and alleyways were consistent with Dishonored’s steampunk-ish theme and wholly interesting with regard to its fiction, but still not too far out of the norm. Arriving at an area where Corvo’s mask was the norm, and engaging all the neat instances that came with it, was simultaneously unexpected and welcomed. (Oddly that was also the only mark for which I wasn’t able to find a non-lethal means of disposal, adding further incentive for another run through the game).
The Walking Dead
Telltale Games / PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, PC, iOS
The Walking Dead probably had the most disproportionate expectation to satisfaction ratio of any game on this list. After Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, not many people, myself included, expected much from Telltale's licensed endeavors. The end product wound up being a four month point of praise and debate on our podcast, Flap Jaw Space, cranked out five fever dream reviews at Digital Chumps, and merited a place alongside or above titles with budgets and legions of fans far outside of Telltale's typical reach.
In an age when zombie games have been done to hell and back Telltale went and created a zombie game that had almost nothing to do with zombies. Strengths included an effective use of violence and player agency, unusually accessible adventure game puzzles, and some of the most believable character dialogue around, but The Walking Dead's trump card, what it's going to be remembered and reproduced years down the line, is how well it allowed the player to define Lee Everett. It's hard to care about videogame characters, especially when some of the best stories in gaming are about as good as a bad episode of Battlestar Galactica - but through Lee's choices and his relentless desire to protect and prepare Clementine Telltale forged a bond between player and character unlike anything I had ever seen before. Lee's relationship with Clementine was a bond rather than a burden
When you step back and look at it the story really wasn't very much under your control and the choices Lee made didn't exactly reward the player in a traditional videogame manner, but that's precisely were The Walking Dead succeeded. It asked of me as a person with genuine thoughts and feelings and not like a guy sitting on the couch reading a FAQ to see how to get obscure achievement. It prayed on my soul and not my dopamine distribution system, and for that it's earned the praise of the critical community ranging from the ridiculous VGA's to individual awards from sites both large and (ahem) small. Reviews: Episode 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Signature Moment: (spoilers) It's funny, Episode 5 is probably the weakest of the series, but it contained most of my favorite moments of the entire game. It's pure payoff; the opening sequence dealing with Lee's "solution" had my fiancé and I screaming, the one-on-one dialogue with the supposed antagonist had us utterly transfixed, and the penultimate scene where Lee and Clementine said goodbye left us both openly weeping. That's a stacked deck of human response generated by a medium traditionally used to make players feel powerful and little else, and for that Episode 5, and The Walking Dead as a whole, realizes and understands the power of a proper narrative and characters.
Polytron / Xbox Live Arcade
You'll never play another game like Fez. It's a selective blend of madness and terror designed specifically to reproduce the forgotten sensation of being trapped in your mother's womb. This impression is subjective (and also lifted wholesale from a statement made by Steve Schardein on Flap Jaw Space), but it's not completely unfounded. Fez is a bonkers head trip that has more depth and obscure secrets packed into every pore of its visage than practically any other game in existence, and it's a fine credit to Polytron's rigorous attention to detail and utter indifference to deadlines that it was even possible. No normal person should have enabled Phil Fish to do make this, but I thank Jesus Christ and all of his Superstars that they did.
Oh, right, Fez is also a fairly inventive 2D/3D platformer. Its mechanics involve rotating Gomez' 2D world 90 degrees horizontally, thereby combining fundamentally different areas of the foreground and background into different surfaces ripe for platforming. It's a bit like Echochrome, I suppose, but with incredible faux-nostalgia inducing art and (probably) the best soundtrack of the year delivering sweet aural lullabies the whole way through. For a lot of people, that's all Fez is ever going to be, and they won't even worry about pulling back the ridiculous veil necessary to reveal anti-cubes. For others, obviously myself included, it's a one way ticket to prodigious insanity
Signature Moment: When you figure it out. This is an incredibly vague way to describe the revelation experienced when finally uncovering one of Fez's gifts, but when you figure it out, when you actually see what the hell Fez was trying to do the whole time, it's crazy. Nothing exactly like Fez will ever happen again, and it's an event worthy of celebration.
Red Lynx / Xbox Live Arcade
If at first you don't succeed, try again. And again. And again. And 500 more times because, yes, you will hit that absurdly high number in some of Trials Evolution's later stages. Having never played any other iteration of Trials, Evolution was my first dive in the Red Lynx's deceptively simple series. On one hand it's really not much more complicated than Excitebike, all you have to worry about is the angle in which your bike makes contact with the ground and how much gas you're willing to give it before takeoff. Somehow this translates to a tormenting and endearing process where you'll try and fail at something literally a hundred times before finally nailing it and making it to the next checkpoint. Such a payoff feels amazing, and Evolution is packed with opportunities to earn those stripes.
Only in the later stages are you made aware of just how much thought and detail was put into the controls for the game. The tiniest adjustment here or there matters, and thanks to a Super Meat Boy-like instant restart after a mistake, I rarely felt discouraged enough to throw in the towel. Super Meat Boy is actually a great comparison because Evolution generated eerily similar amounts of profanity and celebration over the course of its tracks. Oddly, the game rarely ends up replicated any of its challenges, and the vistas in which you undertake them are stylish, technically impressive, and in most cases, categorically insane. Evolution feels like more than a $15 title, and when you see what other games are trying to pass off as meaningful content for a similar (and even greater) price tag, Evolution feels like a tremendous value.
Signature Moment: The first time I completed an Expert/Flatline difficulty track. Profanity and failure that numbered into fifty-instances-per second punctuated each checkpoint before I was able to crank out a victory. Giving the bike just the right amount of gas and tilting it at just the right angle was a recipe for madness, and the rages of a thousand suns seemed to burn hotter with each failure. In the end I finished off three of the last seven tracks through some temporary, savant-like burst of skill that I will probably never be able to match again. For the rest of my life. Ever. That was as good as I’ll ever be at that game.
Queasy Games / PlayStation Network, PlayStation Vita
Sound Shapes boasts an effortless dedication to intoxicating the player's senses through its sights and sounds. Call it distilled bliss or displaced affection, but there's an explicit sense of euphoria acquired through absorbing Sound Shapes' rich presentation. It's great at being a platformer, but it's better understood as favorite song or album. It's something to be played and enjoyed if for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of repeating the process. My Review
Signature Moment - I'll admit, when I heard Beck was composing a set of levels, I thought it was a poor choice. So how wonderfully ironic is it that his three levels ended up being my favorite? Beck's prodigious and detached monotone falls right in line with Pyramid Attack's dystopian, comic-like artwork. "Cities" starts slow, but slowly incorporates vocals (some of which literally spill out onto the screen) that seem to encourage the player to rise and shine out of the urban pandemonium spilling out of the streets below. Hearing Beck's passive howl of "AAHHHHHHHHH," seeing those words appear on screen, and being able to physically traverse that word created a sympathetic admiration of ”Cities” tone and atmosphere. It really struck a chord with me, and ultimately stood out as my favorite part of the Sound Shapes.
IO Interactive / PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
If games were a line graph of highs and lows, Hitman: Absolution probably had higher peaks than any other game on this list. When it was good, it was really good and it when it leveled off it still wasn't that bad. Most of Absolution's levels could have been completed in ten minutes if you wanted to completely skip out on Absolution's challenge and interpret it as a kind of shitty third person shooter, but if you had to patience to poke around at its systems, to look in every corner of its artifice and examine its potential, Absolution was one of the more rewarding games of the year.
The 2012 landscape has left most games refined and accessible for a wider audience (and there's nothing wrong with that), but it's so refreshing to see Absolution go the extra mile to reward that vocal minority that craves planning and payoff and still leave it open enough for the casual player. It had its problems, specifically the flawed disguise system anytime it broke down into a pure stealth game, but they're easy to look past when indulging in the possibility of its set pieces. The courtroom, the gun range, Chinatown, and the dance club were all sequences that I immediately replayed and still want to go back and do again. Absolution is flawed, but absolutely essential for hungry segment of players. My Review
Signature Moment: Fight Night. My mark was a participant in a wrestling match. On my initial approach I managed to sneak behind the bar, ascend the catwalks above, and, after evading well armed security, dropped a light fixture onto the ring, killing both combatants. Hey, accidents happen. I replayed the mission and, after checking out Absolution's list of optional mission challenges, found one that strongly hinted I could become the other wrestler in the ring. Said wrestler was under such metaphorical lock and key that gaining access seemed impossible. An hour or so later I finally devised an insane method to take him out and steal his clothes, and then I participated in the same wrestling match that was death from above'd in a previous life. Absolution indulges in options like these, and the intended challenge is discovering how to engage them.
Twelve more titles that pained me not to include on my list…
Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, Wii) - Xenoblade Chronicles is a top ten game for sure, but I couldn't include it two years in a row. Having imported it from Europe, it was a part of my 2011 top ten. My Review
Persona 4 Golden (Atlus, Vita) - Persona 4 Golden is the best game on the Vita and one of my favorite games of all time. It's also a remake of a four year old PlayStation 2 game. That doesn't discount its quality, Persona 4 still does a lot of things other games aren't even interested in (and it does them well) but 95% of Golden was an experience I had before, and I couldn't manage a sheepish inclusion in this year's top 10. My Review
Kid Icarus: Uprising (Nintendo, 3DS) - Kid Icarus: Uprising is an incredible achievement. It's loot system and smart difficulty settings make it almost infinitely replayable, it's story is very self aware and legitimately entertaining, the characters are some of the most fun around, and the level design pays homage to everything from Star Fox to the original 1986 classic. Unfortunately more than half of the game controls like slippery dog shit, thus barring it from any reasonable top ten list. Greg's Review
Frog Fractions (Twinbeard Studios, Browser) - You really need to play Frog Fractions. Telling you why would completely ruin the fun, but I will say that if don't understand why I'm recommending it you're probably playing the game wrong.
Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal, PC – PS3 – 360) - The first seven or so hours of Far Cry 3 were awesome, but then my interest level dropped precipitously when the narrative didn't follow through with the alluring Fight Club like experience it seemed to be leading toward. I've rarely seen such a waste of potential. In the end Far Cry 3 is an amazing anecdote generator with a beautiful world, and eventually a disappointing experience.
Velocity ( Futurlab, PSMini) Velocity, a PlayStation Mini, got the most mileage out of my Vita for the first half of the year. It's not much to look at, but it's a smart vertical shooter with interesting, addictive mechanics and over fifty levels. At some point I became obsessed with earning a gold medal for every mission and I never actually finished it, but damn is it a great value for like $8. If you have a Vita or are still farting around with a PSP you owe it to yourself to check out Velocity.
TOKYO JUNGLE (SCEJ, PSN) - In Tokyo Jungle you play as a Pomeranian (among other creatures) struggling to survive amidst blood thirsty carnivores and environmental hazards occupying post-apocalyptic Tokyo. What sounds like a goofy joke or a classic example of inaccessible Japanese wankery is actually a respective, roguelike-ish survival game with solid mechanics and great couch co-op. I'm utterly terrible at it and wound up using real money to unlock different characters, but the concept is worth appreciating and the experience, almost by definition, is insane.
Asura’s Wrath (Capcom, PS3 – 360) – Because holy shit. Steven's Review
Papo & Yo (Minority, PSN) - Papo & Yo isn't an especially great game. It's got some interesting ideas and a few surreal concepts that really shine, but it's mostly workmanlike offering that isn't too terribly engaging. It's on the list because of its dramatic and powerful final sequence in which the metaphor of its monster is clearly defined, and the rotation and light effects involved in presenting it were both wonderful and haunting. The payoff alone is worth the three or four hours it might take to finish. My Review
Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Vancouver, PC – PS3 – 360) - Most of my time with Max Payne 3 was spent wondering how much money Rockstar Vancouver spent generating assets for such a pretty looking game. It was an ok shooter, I suppose, but its penultimate sequence in the airport terminal reached for the stars and actually got a pretty good grasp. The setting is oddly sterile, mostly white off-white with a few hints of red in the ceiling, but it was set against music ("Tears" by HEALTH, who did a fantastic job with the entire soundtrack) that created this surreal, otherworldly landscape unlike anything other environment in the game. It was a weird moment, and one that still stands out some six months later.
Twisted Metal (Eat Sleep Play, PS3) - Twisted Metal and its sequel were the reason I wanted a PlayStation, and the 2012 update didn't disappoint. EatSleepPlay made an earnest attempt at recreating a genre of game left for dead over a decade ago, and for fans of the series it’s hard to say they didn't succeed. Twisted Metal had a great lineup of cars, absolutely incredible arenas backed with secrets and detail, and fun and engaging multiplayer options. It was the only competitive game I played online for any length of time this year, and it makes me sad it never caught fire. My Review
Syndicate (Starbreeze, PC – PS3 – 360) - Syndicate was an above average shooter with some neat ideas and interesting set pieces. What set it apart, or at least what I remember some ten months after the fact, was the hell of a time I had with its cooperative multiplayer. In one particular instance fellow Digital Chumps editor Chris Stone and I were two-manning a mission intended for four players, and the ridiculous lengths that we had to go to in order to dispatch the four (or five?) bosses at the end was a tale for the ages. I never finished the multiplayer suite and, really, maybe that may have made me remember the game more fondly than I should. I went out on a high note with plenty left on the table, and there wasn't room for it to disappoint. My Review
Regrets? I didn't have time and/or money to play Spec Ops: The Line, Virtue’s Last Reward, XCom: Enemy Unknown, Hotline: Miami or The Last Story.