10. The Jackbox Party Pack

You know how no matter whose house you visit, there always seems to be a Yahtzee game tucked away somewhere? Even if the host has no recollection of purchasing it? The Jackbox Party Pack ought to be a universal constant, too.

The Jackbox Party Pack comes with a number of games, but there’s two that make the whole package worthwhile; Fibbage and Drawful. Fibbage involves answering trivia questions, but includes an added layer where the players provide the fake answers. Drawful is like a virtual pictionary, but also includes a dose of deception as players enter fake titles for your drawing. If someone chooses your bogus answer, it nets you points instead of the artist, so it incentivises the artist to try and eliminate all doubt.

Both of these games support up to eight players via computers, tablets, or smart phones. In a day where smart phones and tablets rule the telecommunication roost, it’s a smart way to design a game for quick, accessible entertainment.

The Jackbox Party Pack is a must-have for any frequent party hosts.

9. The Wolf Among Us

For the unfamiliar, The Wolf Among Us is an episodic noir detective story featuring fairy tale characters in Fabletown. This may have conjured up images of a lush, green, fertile field with all sorts of cute, winged creatures flapping about. If that’s the case, you’re pretty close. Just replace the green fields with The Bronx and the flapping creatures with… bums, I guess? As the player, you’ll control Bigby Wolf, detective of fabletown, and attempt to solve a recent series of murders.

Telltale has established a reputation lately for episodic games with difficult choices and branching stories, but I often felt slighted by The Walking Dead: Season 2. The choices I made in the story seemed to have little to no effect on the actual events, and only the final moments of the final chapter allowed for wild deviations.

In The Wolf Among Us, all the major choices echo back throughout the game, their effects felt in the world from chapter to chapter. Characters remember what I’ve done at every turn, and more importantly, The Wolf Among Us managed to make me care about how those characters feel about my choices. There were people I wanted to impress, to anger, or to hurt, and at many points throughout the game I got my wish.

The Wolf Among Us left a huge impression with its ending. In the final scenes your past choices come back, as the entire cast of Fabletown discusses Bigby’s methods as detective. In many ways, the game ends up being less about the case and more about how the people of Fabletown perceive the player’s actions. I found myself caught by surprise, unprepared for the town to focus their attention on me at the conclusion of the case. And yet, it made perfect sense; in the course of the investigation, I’d bludgeoned and beat my way through many of them, my sights set squarely on the outcome of the case.

There are few games that succeed so well at diverting the player’s attention until the final moments and still delivering a satisfying conclusion, and The Wolf Among Us is one of the rare ones.

8. Super Time Force

Sometimes you just need a big ol’ shot of stupid right to the face. Super Time Force is the recommended dosage of stupid.

Super Time Force borrows heavily from old 8-bit shooters like Contra for its aesthetic and style, but simultaneously provides its own flair with a self-ascribed “single player co-op”. When you die in S.T.F., the level doesn’t start over. Instead you rewind time back to a point of your choosing and continue the stage as a new character, picking up from that exact moment. All the characters you’ve played as so far continue their actions right up until their deaths, meaning you can eventually turn the tide of bullets in your favor.

The end result is a game that is still challenging without being punishing. The amount of chaos flying your way seems almost insurmountable at times. I found I started shedding lives at the start of almost every stage, my poor S.T.F. members flying left and right around me. With 30 rewinds available every stage, though, I had plenty of lives to waste on experimentation in a stage without ever seeing a game over screen.

The nail-biting 8-bit bullet hell stages coupled with wonderfully dumb cutscenes left me with a major dose of adrenaline and a severe case of the giggles.

7. Transistor

Transistor had an impossible task this year. Can you imagine trying to follow up Bastion? It’s insurmountable. It’s like a film major setting out to make Citizen Kane 2: Citizen Harder. I didn’t fall in love with Transistor the same way I did with Bastion, but in all fairness, my expectations were unreasonably high.

Transistor may be the only game I’ve ever played where unlocking a new move means you’ve actually unlocked thirty. Any unlocked techniques can be equipped to modify other techniques, creating an intricate array of options. Found a move where Red can summon a dog helper? why not attach the spark() function and get two dog helpers? While you’re at it, go ahead and attach crash() so you can have two electric dogs that stun enemies with every bite!

Transistor plays to its strengths by encouraging experimentation; first, it provides a sandbox area where the player can try out combinations of functions against dummies. Second, each function is tied to a character in the world of the game. Using the function in all three possible equipped slots — active, supporting, and attached directly to Red — will unlock a comprehensive biography about the character.

It’s with these biographies that I arrive at the main complaint I have with Transistor: its narrative.

I worry that Transistor’s veiled approach to storytelling is to its detriment. The narrative establishes five characters as antagonists, but the player only gets to know two of them with any depth. The others have their backstories relegated to biography pages, and some are incredibly complex considering how little of them we see in the course of the game. Sybil Reize’s motivations are fascinatingly complicated, and it saddens me I could only discover her complexity through reading a biography page. (Her short outbursts during the first boss fight make a lot more sense after reading her bio, though.)

Even if Transistor couldn’t live up to my unrealistic standards, it still stood out this year as a memorable game with no comparable equal. (Supergiant Games is also one of the few studios where I anticipate a new soundtrack almost as much as the game.)

6. Valkyria Chronicles

Holy shit. This is what I missed out on by not owning a PS3?

Valkyria Chronicles finally came to PC this year after four years as a PS3 exclusive, and it’s an impressive display of what happens when strategy and 3rd person action mechanics are brought together.

Valkyria Chronicles is a thinly-veiled World War 2 allegory with anime window dressing. As Squad Leader Welkin Gunther, it’s your responsibility to manage troops and issue orders on the battlefield. Each soldier fulfills a different role; shocktroopers can mow down other soldiers with ease, lancers fire anti-tank rounds, scouts can march across the entire map, and tanks… well, what can’t a tank do?

When you issue these orders though, it’s not as simple as just watching a unit march across a map. Instead, you take direct control over the unit, moving them into position and taking aim on your own. Each unit has their own personality and character quirks, as well as a list of friends who will boost their stats while in close company. Valkyria Chronicles also features permanent death as a primary mechanic. These troops may not be booming with personality, but they do have just enough of an identity to make their deaths felt. (It’s worth mentioning that Valkyria Chronicles is not as unforgiving as the Fire Emblem series in this regard; players have an opportunity to call a medic for wounded soldiers before they bleed out, meaning you won’t need to restart a battle just because your favorite unit goes down.)

The presence of permanent death would be enough to make any player proceed cautiously, but Valkyria Chronicles goes a step further by constantly throwing out new mechanics to test the player. In one mission, a massive super tank appeared on the battlefield. Whenever its main gun fired, giant radiators popped out to dissipate heat from the interior. The tank itself is impenetrable from the outside, but the radiators became exposed weak points my squad could exploit. The resulting battle became a tense and engrossing affair, as I was forced to put my units at risk in order to do damage to my primary target.

If anything could possibly hamper Valkyria Chronicles’ overall package, it’s the robust anime influences. While not personally off-putting, I received a few judgemental eye rolls from visitors over the cartoony aesthetic and occasionally ham-fisted vocal deliveries. There are a few soldiers with incredibly shrill voices I simply couldn’t bring myself to use on the battlefield. I relegated any soldier with a 200 dB scream to permanent exile in the reserves.

For those like myself who aren’t turned off by anime stylings, Valkyria Chronicles is one of the most compelling strategy games to date. The PC version also includes a 1080p resolution option and all DLC missions, making it the definitive Valkyria experience.

5. Valiant Hearts

Ubisoft made amazing games this year, but they weren’t the ones people paid attention to.

Imagine a reality where a developer says, “we’d like to make a game about World War 1 without first person mechanics, 3D graphics, or really much shooting at all. Instead we’d like it to be an adventure game about how The Great War pulled friends and family apart, destroyed an entire generation, and was generally a time the world went mad. Oh, and we want to hand draw all the artwork and go for a more cartoony, comic book aesthetic”.

And the producers say “yes”.

Valiant Hearts may be the only piece of fiction about The Great War we lacked as a society. There are plenty of films and books on the subject but remarkably few games, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s difficult to make concepts like trench warfare and machine gun nests enjoyable to experience. Now we finally have an interactive media representation of World War I, and it manages to do it while still being enjoyable to play.

Valiant Hearts wisely acts as a puzzle game instead of an action adventure game, placing the player in harrowing situations with easily discernible solutions. The game never places an unfair obstacle in your path; bombs take forever to hit the ground, giving you ample time to evade. Enemy soldiers are often walking either above or below your initial position, so you’re unlikely to wander into view and be shot. If there was ever a time to get away with unfair game design it would be in a game about World War 1, but Ubisoft Montpellier chose a harder route.

The real achievement of Valiant Hearts is the way it manages to portray so many harsh realities from World War 1 without bludgeoning the player over the head with a massive “war-is-bad”-sized club. As the game goes on, you’ll experience small scenes of life from the war. You’ll live in the trenches, live as a medic, live as a prisoner of war, and experience life as a soldier from all sides of the conflict. While this all sounds woefully dreary, there’s beautiful moments of brevity throughout. There’s several comedic car chases set to classical music pieces, and far more optimism, brightness and humor than you might expect from a game about World War 1.

The punches to the gut are there, lying in wait, and these moments of brevity make them hit so much harder.

We live in a time where there are no more remaining veterans of World War 1, no voices to be heard who experienced the brutality and senselessness first-hand. Valiant Hearts is a timeless effigy of remembrance; an honor to the memory of our lost generation.

4. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

I’ve got a small lawyer’s-office-sized space in my heart for the original three Phoenix Wright games. The Ace Attorney series has always had a cast of unorthodox but entirely relatable characters, and it’s hard not to admire the soap opera shenanigans they get up to.

There’s a problem with Ace Attorney’s pacing, however. There are long sections of the game where instead of debating logic in a courtroom, your time is spent pixel hunting for items across various static screens, then showing the items you’ve found to different people until the plot moves forward. Some of the conversations that occur in this interim period are appropriately zany, but the majority of these scenes exist only to guide you to the next day in court.

The inclusion of Layton’s puzzles in these interim periods compliments the aimless wandering exceptionally well, turning what used to be an uneventful half hour of gameplay into a series of new challenges. The Layton games and their equivocally crazy casts means the gamut of eccentric characters never feels out of place when juxtaposed between Layton and Wright, and I think it was a rather brilliant move to place the game in a new setting unfamiliar to both protagonists. There are a few small noticeable aesthetic changes to Wright and Layton as well — such as Layton’s increased height and altered proportions — which help make the two seem less at odds visually.

Only the extremely lengthy final chapter harms the full package, a chapter which goes on and on for an almost Kojima-esque length of time without player interaction. Still, Wright and Layton has the merit of being the best single player 3DS game I played all year, and in some ways the most faithful successor to the Ace Attorney series since the conclusion of the original trilogy.

3. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

I must confess, I made much fun of Shadow of Mordor before its release. Between the questionable embargo date and the broody box art, I assumed Monolith would release yet another sub-par Lord of the Rings game into the wild, and then sit back while it got devoured by critics.

Sometimes being wrong is a wonderful gift.

I spent countless hours killing orcs and countless more hunting down warchiefs. Mechanically, Shadow of Mordor pulled the best tools out of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman series and used them to craft an adventure in LOTR’s darkest location. There’s a story in Shadow of Mordor, sure, but the narrative arc isn’t the story I focused on. What did keep me playing was the organic way the battlefield tailored itself to my actions. Every time I came across an Orc or Uruk-Hai leader, my exploits and failures were laid out before me, our previous clashes accounted for by the scars on his face. These were narratives I’d crafted through my own actions.

Put thirty people in a room and give them the task of killing the first War Chief, and I’ll bet they all have a different story on how they accomplished it. Some will be similar, yes, but there will be a number of unique details along the way. One of them will have charged in and nearly died, then had to retreat while dodging spears and arrows. The other will have unleashed caragors into the camp, and danced around the bodyguards now stuck in their mid-mauling to get to their real target.

I remember many of my unique rivals in Shadow of Mordor, rivals who simply existed in the world without being part of the overall narrative. When the commander who was the biggest problem to me ever showed up at the conclusion of the game as the leader of a massive army, I knew Shadow of Mordor would have a place on my Game of the Year list.

2. Bayonetta 2

For some, this is no surprise at all. Others who know me personally will be shocked this didn’t take #1.

I’ve spent hours talking (and writing) about the brilliance of Bayonetta. Now I’ll spend hours writing and talking about Bayonetta 2, because it’s just as good, if not better, than its predecessor.

Bayonetta showed up on the Wii U this year with more than a different haircut. She also showed up with different weapons, different enemies, and the same penchant for kicking ass. Every single time I thought Bayonetta 2 couldn’t possibly top the previous set piece, the next event escalated to crazy new heights. I saw the most insane thing I’ve ever seen every twenty seconds.

For the first time in the series, Bayonetta 2 also introduces co-op. It’s not as fleshed out as the single player levels, but it makes for a fun distraction with friends and also yields rewards that translate over to the main game. It’s also possible to play as different characters in both single player and co-op modes, characters who modify your controls beyond a simple cosmetic change.

Do you feel like you can’t play Bayonetta 2 because you haven’t played the original yet? Well no problem, because it comes with the first game also! With the exception of a flashback chapter in Bayonetta 2, many of the locations and weapons remain unique to the original, making it worthy of a playthrough four years after its initial release.

Bayonetta 2 is a complete package of awesome, and represents the apex of the character action genre to date.

1. Dark Souls 2

At the time of writing this, I’m still working my way through the original Dark Souls. Every time I pick up the controller to continue, I find myself tempted to play Dark Souls 2 instead.

I received Dark Souls as a gift during Christmas of 2012, and I started and stopped the thing every two months. It felt unapproachable in its depth and tedious in execution. Even after understanding my objectives, frustration quickly set in with the constant distance I traversed between locations (and losing hours of progress to a single hit didn’t feel great either). Sen’s Fortress is where everything came to an unforgivable halt. Traps on the ground, spellcasters above, lizardmen ahead, no bonfire in sight. Every death meant slogging through another wave of torture. I couldn’t do it. Even a masochist like myself has their limits.

Dark Souls 2 changed everything I found too obtrusive about Dark Souls, while still keeping the overall difficulty curve I enjoyed. Enemies will stop spawning into the world after being killed approximately 14 to 15 times, providing incentive to kill everything en route to a boss. If a normal enemy proved too difficult in the first Dark Souls, I often felt defeated, since I knew they’d continuously return to ruin my day. In Dark Souls 2, every time I felled an annoying enemy, I felt one step closer to bringing him to extinction.

The Dark Souls series has always excelled at presenting a bleak atmosphere, and Dark Souls 2 carries this torch well. Every location has a unique dreary aesthetic, as you trounce through hallowed halls and ruined ramparts. The moment you wander into Majula it feels like a safe haven; a brightly lit town, sequestered away from the encroaching darkness. The fact you can return to it from any bonfire in the world makes it very easy to prepare for coming battles, or in my case, recoup from lost ones.

Dark Souls 2 places its focus more on boss battles then its predecessor, filling the game with unique fights and massive enemies. While I’m sure others found this shift in focus disappointing, I found it to be a favorable change. The boss battles were what I found most enjoyable about the original Dark Souls. Even now, the only thing that keeps me playing through the frustrating slogs in the first game is the promise of a unique foe at the end of the road. Including the ability to clear the path to a boss fight meant I could shorten the boss battle loop, a fact that kept me pressing forward even when a foe appeared impossible on the first attempt (looking at you, Lost Sinner).

the real power Dark Souls 2 had over me was its ability to make me feel underclassed and underpowered without also demoralizing me. All the basic mechanics are at your disposal within an hour of gameplay. The only thing you have over every boss in the game is will, determination, and the ability to learn from death. Where Dark Souls leaned on death as a method for punishment, Dark Souls 2 instead modified its mechanics to make death more of a tool for learning instead of punishment — up to a point, anyway. Death is still a part of the natural cycle of Dark Souls suffering, but there’s evidence of growth and hope here now that never existed before.

As the year comes to close, there’s nowhere I’d rather return then Drangleic.

Honorable Mentions

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Reason for exclusion: released in 2013.

I started playing Fire Emblem: Awakening earlier this year, and I can now easily see why it made the number one spot on Alan’s list. I stand firmly behind my own choice for 2013, but Awakening could’ve easily knocked a few contenders off my list had I played it earlier.

Theatrhythm: Curtain Call

Reason for exclusion: best in small doses.

A must-have for any Final Fantasy fan! While I sing the praises of Theatrhythm to anyone who will hear it, I still removed it from my GOTY list because I never felt a burning need to return to it. It became the perfect game for waiting rooms and bus rides, but saw comparatively little play outside of those locations.

Dishonorable Mention

Final Fantasy 13 (PC)

You may not remember this, but the initial PC release of Resident Evil 4 in 2002 was an unplayable disaster. It had no mouse support at all, something I’d hoped would be an obvious inclusion in a game where shooting guns is a prominent action. All shooting had to be done with the keyboard only. At the time I thought it was the worst PC port I’d ever see.

Then Square Enix released FF13 on steam this year.

I took resolution settings for granted.

I took Steam’s “play” button for granted too, it turns out. Several times Final Fantasy 13 crashed on launch so hard, I had to re-validate its files on steam to fix whatever broke (and with a 60 gigabyte install, the process took almost 15 minutes each time). I realize difficulties arise when porting a game from platform to platform, but I also like to think four years is long enough to figure out how to implement resolution settings.

The good news is Resident Evil 4 relaunched with an HD update on steam that addressed every problem from the previous port. Final Fantasy 13, meanwhile, is still in the process of being fixed.

Even if all the performance issues were corrected, though, it wouldn’t fix an ultimately broken game… but I’ll save all my criticisms of Final Fantasy 13 for a future article.