2014 was… Well, it was a lot of things. It was a period of transition, both for video games as well as for my own life. I finally graduated from college. I moved to Seattle. My son was born. When I look back on this year and what has happened to me in it, I’m surprised by the sheer volume of life events that took place.
2014 was also the a time for broken-ass games. It was a time of growing pains for an industry that’s desperately trying to grow up and be taken seriously, while at the same time being held back by a group that wants anything but. You know who I’m talking about — I won’t belabor the point further.
But even through a lot of the crap, both surrounding the industry and the games themselves, I’m amazed by the sheer volume of quality titles that we got to play. The breadth of options, the variety of genres, and the quality of games on offer are just as good as they’ve ever been — even if the broken ones try to make you feel otherwise.
These are my top ten games of 2014.
10. Far Cry 4
Yeah, Far Cry 4 is loud, dumb, at times quite obnoxious, and its story never quite comes together in a satisfying way. But this is quite possibly the closest that Ubisoft has come to replicating the magic of Far Cry 2. There are so many systems at work here, from the two warring factions, to the vast array of animals out to survive at all costs, and all of them mix together to create this bubbling vat of chaos.
One of my favorite moments: I was sneaking up on a hut, trying to rescue some villagers. I was about to line up a shot on one of the guards, when a pack of dhole came out of nowhere, attacked the guards, killed them, attacked the hostages, killed them, then attacked me. This entire sequence was completely random and unscripted, and moments like that happen all the time. It’s awesome.
This games means a lot to me, and I had to include it on my top ten. During the summer of this year, my fiancée (who was pregnant at the time) and I started our move up to Seattle. We made it to Boise before she had to be taken to a hospital to induce labor. Our son was born two months early, and we were scared out of our minds — not only was our son stuck in a hospital for nearly ten weeks, but we didn’t have a permanent place to stay or a stable job at the time.
In a time of great uncertainty, Hohokum was an anchor for me. Whether we were stuck in our temporary living space or sitting in the NICU while my son was attached to a bunch of tubes, Hohokum brought me a peace and clarity that few games were able to give me at the time. It was just such a pleasing little thing to move around in its space, play with its toys, and soak up all of its amazing tunes. It’s a game filled with mysteries that gives you some tools and asks you to figure them out on your own — and it’s charming as hell.
Nidhogg is a game of Street Fighter with all the bullshit ripped out — like what Divekick was supposed to be, but way better. It’s just you against an opponent, each of you with the same tool — namely, a pixelated fencing sword.
For a game that looks like it belongs on the Atari 2600, there’s a surprising amount of depth to Nidhogg. Maneuvering your sword between guard positions while trying to get in that critical strike plays out like an 8-bit ballet of death, and the thumping soundtrack by Daedalus keeps you engaged. You’ll never be more excited to be eaten by a giant world-ending worm.
7. Bayonetta 2
You don’t come to Bayonetta 2 for the story, because the story is mere context for whatever insane situation the developers at Platinum Games throw at you. In the first chapter, you’re fighting atop a Harrier jet while demons attack you, and by the time you’ve hit the halfway point, you’ve surfed through a tsunami and gone toe-to-toe with a powerful boss while two massive beasts (one of them being a dragon made out of hair) do battle in the background. There’s over-the-top, and there’s Bayonetta 2.
But behind all spectacle, there’s an incredibly technical and fascinatingly deep action game that requires expert timing if you plan on getting through its myriad stages intact. Slowing time down with proper dodges opens up Bayonetta’s combat to a whole new level. I’m so glad Nintendo saw something in this game, because Bayonetta 2 is awesome.
6. Wolfenstein: The New Order
Chalk this one up as my biggest surprise of the entire year. I played a demo of the opening chapter at PAX last year, and I walked away completely unenthused, wondering why Wolfenstein needed to take this absurdly gritty direction. It just felt so unnecessary.
Then I played the final game, and holy crap, talk about a 180. Sure, it’s a big, dumb, loud AAA shooter, but it has these amazing quiet moments where it actually tries to say something important about the nature of war and the connections we make with other people during times of duress. Get past the less-than-great opening chapter, and you’ll find a surprisingly emotional experience.
And honestly, can we get a proper World War II game again? I’m jonesing for one, bad.
5. Octodad: Dadliest Catch
Yes, I gave Octodad an 80 — not a bad score, but not one you’d typically associate with a game of the year candidate. Yes, Octodad has some major problems in its level design, namely its stealth sections (which have been made more palatable by recent updates). Yes, it’s over way too quickly. But God, I don’t think a single game put a smile on my face more than Octodad. But best of all, it was an experience that I got to share with my whole family.
My daughter is six, and she doesn’t always get to enjoy games in the same way that I do. Games are complex systems with different sets of controls and rules, and success isn’t always guaranteed — which can be incredibly frustrating for a kid. But the best part about Octodad is that even failure — which is inevitable — will provide you with an ear-to-ear grin, as you watch this dumb octopus flop around and knock over everything in sight. Whether I was playing or watching her play, I had a smile on my face. And that’s worth a whole lot in my book.
4. The Banner Saga
I’m a sucker for anything related to the Golden Age of animation, specifically anything from Walt Disney Studios from the 1940s to the 1960s. So when I heard that a group of ex-Bioware devs got together to make a fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game inspired by the art of Eyvind Earle, well, of course I had to play it.
But The Banner Saga is so much more than just a pretty face. It’s like Oregon Trail meets Game of Thrones, where every decision you make weighs heavily on you, your crew of soldiers, and the people who expect you to lead them through great hardship. The turn-based combat is deep yet accessible, your decisions feel like they matter, and the rotoscoped animation is gorgeous. I cannot wait for part two.
3. Danganronpa (both) (yeah, I know it’s cheating, but still)
Visual novels are a hard sell. How do you tell someone that pressing the X button while reading reams of text is anything but a snooze-fest? “If I wanted to read, I’d pick up a book,” you’d say (if you’re one to say things like that — I don’t know your tastes). But believe me when I say that Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (and its sequel, Goodbye Despair) are two of the best games of the year, and both are absolutely essential.
The premise is simple: you’re a highschool student, kidnapped along with a bunch of other highschool students, and the only way out is to kill someone and get away with it. Since your character isn’t a murderer, you have to try to solve a bunch of murder mysteries and challenge your fellow classmates to a debate (a la Phoenix Wright) to find who the killer really is. Oh, and a maniacal stuffed teddy bear is the villain. Ok, maybe the premise isn’t that simple. Still, each game is filled with twists and turns that will keep you glued to your Vita until the thrilling conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the silly name — Danganronpa is darkly comic and exciting to the last.
2. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
If anyone is an expert at iteration, it’s Nintendo, as they proved twice this year with both Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros for Wii U. But where Mario Kart 8 felt particularly sterile and sparse, Super Smash Bros. is filled to the gills with so much awesome stuff to do that it can feel overwhelming. But somehow, when you throw over 50 different Nintendo characters into a pot together, something magical comes out.
To the outsider, it doesn’t look like much has changed. Sure, you can pit Mario against Link, but what else is new? Well, for one, a total refinement of the core Smash gameplay. It’s less technical than Melee, but much quicker and deeper than Brawl, which means you have a game that easier to get into than ever, but more rewarding for those who decide to master its complexities. Plus, you can customize every single character in the game with additional moves and abilities. The fact that, somehow, the game still feels balanced despite its huge roster and customizability options is a testament to developer Masahiro Sakurai and his team.
If that weren’t enough, eight-player Smash is a thing of chaotic beauty, as each match is more frenetic than ever before. And if you have even a passing interest in Nintendo’s vast roster, you’ll find no small amount of joy in discovering its unlockable characters, stages, trophies, music, and more. It’s a game I want to learn more about and to get better at. It’s a game that I can’t stop thinking about when I’m not playing it, and it’s a game that I can’t get enough of when I am playing it. It’s more than just the most Super Smash Bros. — it’s also the best Super Smash Bros.
1. The Talos Principle
If any game is proof that you shouldn’t start deliberating on Game of the Year awards until after the year is actually over, it’s The Talos Principle. Sure, it might have released at near the middle of December, but you would be a fool if you missed out on it, because the developers over at Croteam have come up with the most brilliant puzzler since Portal. Yeah, that Croteam. Yeah, I know.
But it’s not just the intelligent puzzle design that makes The Talos Principle a winner. The story, written by Tom Jubert (FTL, The Swapper) and Jonas Kyratzes (The Infinite Ocean), asks so much more of you than your typical video game by forcing you to ask. Using human history, art, and philosophy as a starting point, The Talos Principle wants you to reflect on your ideas and thoughts. It forces you to look at things we take for granted, like the story of the Garden of Eden, and examine your assumptions about them. But most of all, it wants you to examine one of the most fundamental questions: what is a person, and what makes being a person special?
It sounds incredibly pretentious, like it came from a first-year philosophy student who just got his hands on a bunch of new books and wants to talk at you using the big words they’ve just learned. But there’s a restraint to its story telling, and a humanity to its writing that makes it relatable, that makes it so much more than just a philosophical Cliffs Notes. Games like The Talos Principle don’t come along very often. Make sure you take time to explore all it has to offer.
For more of the Gaming Trend staff’s favorite games of the year, check out our GOTY coverage hub.