Looking Back On… the 2014 Year in Review Staff Commentaries

(Well, here we are, a year removed from the 2014 Year in Review, and aside from the fact that I’ve not had a lot of time or energy to update this site, and probably won’t until April or so, when I finally graduate, there are two things I can say definitively: first, that it turns out I went back to three of the games in my 2013 list in Terraria, Saints Row IV and XCOM, for personal fun, review of a rerelease and livestreaming respectively, and second, that holy shit was 2014 a wonderful year in gaming in comparison to 2015, at least for me personally. I can understand if you thought 2015 was a wonderful year in gaming, because indie gaming exploded for a lot of folks, but I was one of those people who was looking forward to a lot of sequels that didn’t deliver, so 2014 feels like a wistful remembrance in comparison. To each their own and whatnot.)

Mark B.’s Top Ten
Senior Editor

1.) Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth (3DS)
2.) Dangan Ronpa 1&2 (Vita)
3.) Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed (PS3)
4.) Valiant Hearts: The Great War (PS4)
5.) South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC/360)
6.) Demon Gaze (Vita)
7.) Goat Simulator (PC)
8.) Dragon Age: Inquisition (XBO)
9.) Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (360/PS3)
10.) Five Nights at Freddy’s (PC)

(I might shuffle the first and second spots around, but otherwise the top five games in the list are honestly more or less fine as is. Goat Simulator would probably move up a slot, and I’d probably slot in something else in place of Demon Gaze in retrospect… maybe If My Heart Had Wings, as weird as that sounds. Otherwise, though, it’s a fine list, and I’m mostly still happy with the majority of the games on it.)

Whenever a new console cycle starts, it can be weird at first for developers, as projects transition to the new current gen systems and audiences slowly leave behind their older consoles in favor of the hot new releases. This cycle in particular was brutal, though; the first year of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 has seen a bunch of flawed releases, overhyped disappointments and otherwise problematic games amidst a sea of “fine” games. It’s not that this was a BAD year; it was certainly fine enough, don’t get me wrong. It’s more that the current-gen releases were all underwhelming, and the last-gen releases were where all of the meat really was, meaning that a lot of early last-gen releases impressed until the projects started to taper off, and the current-gen projects were either quality rereleases (Diablo III), “fine” but nothing earth shattering (Sunset Overdrive) or simply not very good (Watch Dogs). (Watch Dogs in particular is a very sore spot with me for several reasons, not the least of which being that it was simultaneously a weak and uninspired GTA style experience and a poorly implemented discussion on information security and hacking, especially since the main character, Aiden Pearce, seems like more of a social engineer/script kiddie than an actual hacker per say. Oh, also he’s a horrible human being that the plot tries, very poorly, to lionize, and the fact that the plot seems unaware of how horrible he is as a person isn’t great.) In other words, my list has a lot of handheld and PC games on it, basically, as well as a couple of multi-platform games or last-gen games that were always going to come out for their respective consoles and weren’t impacted by the change to the current-gen… oh, and Dragon Age. I had a few other games I was considering slotting in here somewhere, like Dark Souls II (I know some people like Dark Souls II better than other games in the series, and that’s cool, but it’s just not for me, I think.) and the aforementioned Diablo III, (I love the newest expansion for the game, Reaper of Souls, and the next-gen package, Ultimate Evil, but probably not enough to put it into the list, even with a year’s reflection.) but in the end, the ten games in my list represent the games I had the most fun with this year or remembered most powerfully as experiences, and as such, they took the top spots in my list.

Five Nights at Freddy’s was one of those games that snuck up on me; one day everything was normal, and the next, Youtube was absolutely FILLED with videos of people playing the damn thing. (Seriously, say whatever you want about Scott Cawthon, but after seven years of toiling in the gaming industry’s bottom layers, he turned out what has become one of the most influential, for better or worse, games in recent memory and turned it into a four game series on top of an upcoming RPG spinoff, and that’s an amazing accomplishment for a game made up almost entirely of animated GIFs.) Turns out there was a pretty good reason for it: the game is ambient as all hell, calling back to games like Night Trap in execution, while also going in a vastly different direction with its execution that gaming hasn’t really seen yet. The game is hardly a technical marvel; it uses a framework that uses animated GIFs rather than actual graphics in the strictest sense, but at a five dollar asking price it doesn’t really need to do anything else. It’s creepy as hell, does just the right things to get the correct reaction out of the player, and is honestly one of the scariest experiences I can recall having in years. While I’m not on board with the sequel yet (too soon of a release date for my tastes, and it seems needlessly complicated), the first game is definitely well worth its asking price and then some, and you’re missing out if you haven’t tried it yet. (I should also note that this was before the explosion of first person horror games on Steam, as between this and Amnesia, EVERYONE decided they needed to jump on the bandwagon with that particular genre, and for every SOMA, you’ve got ten games that are either directly cribbing from this or Amnesia, of which only one or two are anything approaching “good.”)

The fighting game market has… kind of gone into a stagnant state in the last few years, to be blunt about it. While 2015 looks to be a killer year (har har) with the pending releases of Mortal Kombat X, (Enjoyable, but not a personal favorite.) Tekken 7, (Outside of some limited runs in the arcade, this hasn’t come out yet, and is expected to make its debut sometime in 2016, as it happens.) Street Fighter V (Also aiming for a 2016 launch.) and (most interestingly to me) Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late (a French Bread fighter, AKA the developers of Melty Blood), (Enjoyable, but doesn’t quite do what I wanted just yet.) 2014 was kind of slow. Outside of Smash Bros or Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax for importers (also French Bread), (Which hit the US this year and was fine, if a bit of a fanservice game more than a competitive experience.) this year was a lot of expansions, with variable amounts of actual “new” content to be found… oh, and more Killer Instinct, I guess. One fighting game that impressed beyond its station, though, was Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Arc System Works doesn’t have the greatest reputation when it comes to sequels, but they absolutely delivered here: aside from adding in a whole lot of new characters, there’s also a whole new mechanic system in choosing normal or “Shadow” characters, a new storyline, a lot of held over content from the first game for those who missed out, free DLC, and modes that make the game a must have for fans of the genre or Persona 4 alike. Hell, you can even set the game to play itself if you just want to see the storyline, which is great for the more visual novel inclined players out there. There are still some issues, of course (ASW loves their DLC, the balance needs some tweaking), but the game is basically awesome otherwise, and was one of the few I spent a LOT of time with this year, which makes it an easy inclusion to the list. (This might not make my short list of best fighting games ever, per say, but it’s still a solid game a year and change later, and it’s still a game I love quite a bit. I’d honestly be on board for a third game in this series, though I feel like anything more than that would be overkill at this point.)

Let it be known right now, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a broken game. I have at least one quest I cannot complete in my current playthrough, at least one collectible that’s missing a piece visually that the game says I collected, I’ve gotten stuck in the environment twice and had the game crash once, none of which has been fixed with the December 9th patch, since eighty percent of the above happened after the fact. (The quest, Trouble With Darkspawn, is a particularly vexing one for me, because it was a known issue at the time I wrote this, and upon reviewing the Bethesda patch logs, it still isn’t fixed a year later. Based on that alone I’m honestly inclined to say that the game probably shouldn’t be in my Top Ten after all, especially after reviewing some of the things that were patched, but the game was mostly enjoyable outside of that, so, call it a wash.) That said, for a broken game, it’s a damn amazing one, and if it’d actually shipped in something approaching a “final build” condition it probably would have won a bunch of awards from us. (As an aside, while I’m well aware that Fallout 4 is also not without its bugs, the only two notable bugs I’ve seen so far are with save deletion, which is an issue most Bethesda games have at launch for God knows what reason, and one quest that can still be completed, just not in the ideal fashion, so it’s… less buggy than DA:I, and probably Bethesda’s least buggy game launch to date. I’d like no bugs, of course, but here we are and there it is.) Even with the bugs, it’s still the kind of game that just invites you to play it; it’s incredibly involved, quite lengthy, and does a lot of good with its plot and character interactions that make the game easy to lose hours at a time playing. A lot of people were disappointed with Mass Effect 3 (of which I was one) and Dragon Age 2 (of which I was not one), so you’d be forgiven for being concerned about this release given that track record, but worry not: Dragon Age: Inquisition is presently one of the better games to come out this year in general, and once it’s patched up a bit more, it’ll certainly be one of the best. (Eh. Some of the patching choices are… questionable, but it’s better than it was, so we’ll say, sure, why not?)

There’s become something of a trend in PC gaming as of late, especially in the indie market, where releasing a well-crafted, polished game isn’t really necessary so long as your game is the stupidest thing ever conceived of by God and man. Games like Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread are key beneficiaries of this thought process, but perhaps the best possible example I’ve ever played is Goat Simulator, a game so messed up the developer basically promises that the game is broken in its advertising, and that’s part of the fun. (This is another game concept that turned into a memetic expansion in record time, as you can go on Steam or Steam Greenlight and see some of the most terrible ideas imaginable with “Simulator” attached to the title as an explanation for why they’re shit, because it’s FUNNY or… something. When I saw Yohjo Simulator and Gabe Newell Simulator as actual things people were creating, that was when I realized the concept was dead, after less than a year.) I mean, real talk here: Goat Simulator is not, in the traditional sense of the term, “good”. It’s visually poor, and broken technically, and hard to play effectively at times. It’s also the only game I’ve ever played where I headbutted a gas truck until it exploded, or turned into a whale and rolled around for an hour, or turned into a satanic goat by dragging people off to be sacrificed in the wilderness. (Which is the thing people never really “got” about Goat Simulator or Surgeon Simulator; they were certainly “bad” in some respects, but they were also 1.) playable, and 2.) stuffed so full of random and missable humor that they justified their weird problems by being hilarious. Meanwhile, Yohjo Simulator, a game that basically replaced a goat with a six year old girl, didn’t get that, and got so much negative flack for how poor it was that Steam took it down, which I feel speaks volumes.) Goat Simulator is stupid as hell, and it’s something I can absolutely assure you I’ll never forget, so, it makes the list.

I had absolutely no expectations going into Demon Gaze: while I love some dungeon-crawling goodness, the game was absolutely crammed full of pictures of ladies with their goodies hanging out all over the place, and the vast majority of games from Japan that feature this as a part of the art style tend to be… a raging disappointment, shall we say. (Well, that depends; I thought Criminal Girls was fine, for example, so perhaps it’s better to say that they’re often not the best in show in their respective genres.) Well, turns out Demon Gaze was mostly a good experience after all, as it stuck to the roots of the genre while adding in enough neat concepts and mechanics to make the game really feel like it was something different. Combine that with a plot that actually felt like it was more complex than “here’s a dungeon, kill everything in it,” and a difficulty curve that leaned toward being friendly to newcomers, and Demon Gaze mostly ended up being one of the better games to hit the Vita this year. The difficulty curve spiked a bit at the end, but even so it was still a fun time while it lasted, and it’s worth checking out if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, and don’t mind that there are a lot of half naked ladies everywhere. (NIS America opted to give another game developed by Experience Inc a shot, and released Operation Abyss to the US this year, which I was… far less enamored with; aside from its incredibly dated and obtuse mechanics, it was clearly a remake of an old game, and it felt like it. I’m still interested in Stranger of Sword City, though, if only because I’m hopeful it’ll have more of the modernized concepts Demon Gaze implemented than the archaic mechanics of Operation Abyss.)

South Park: The Stick of Truth, it can be plainly said, had virtually nothing going for it, save one critical element. The game was being developed by Obsidian, a company known for developing RPG’s that are broken at best and broken AND bad at worst, and its status after its parent company, THQ, went belly up was not so great at the time. (Man, if any company has had a huge turnaround in public opinion on them outside of Konami in the past couple years, it might have been Obsidian. From their first release, KOTOR 2, until about 2014, people were mostly down on them as a developer due to the fact that most of their games launched in broken condition and were of variable quality, often leaning downward. However, a lot of groundswell from a fan patch that revealed the original plot of KOTOR 2 was much better but was cut for time, the overall popular opinion that Fallout: New Vegas has a better plot than Fallout 3 or Fallout 4, and the fact that The Stick of Truth was surprisingly good got them a lot of hearts and minds. It also doesn’t hurt that they ran a Kickstarter for a spiritual successor to Plainscape: Torment, dubbed Pillars of Eternity, that came out and was beloved by just about everyone, of course. Here’s hoping that Obsidian is over the hump and everything they make is gold from here, but man, if you’d predicted this to me back in 2012, I’ve have never believed you.) Licensed games tend to be a whole lot of “meh” these days, and even when a good licensed title finds its way into the market, it’s few and far between, and rest assured someone will find a way to screw that up eventually. (See also Batman: Arkham Knight for the latter, and Mad Max for the former. Jerry Holkins bet the farm on spear fishing being the thing that justifies the game getting a higher score, but I played the game about five hours, spear-fished a ton of dudes out of towers, and still felt that Mad Max was, ahem, MEDIOCRE.) The Stick of Truth had one major positive in its favor, however: Trey Parker and Matt Stone were totally on-board for the development of the game, so if absolutely nothing else, as an RPG, it promised to have a good story at least. (“Good” turned out to be an extensive understatement.) Well, Obsidian managed to turn out an experience that was mechanically fine enough (if a bit too collectible heavy), and the game was just short enough to avoid overstaying its welcome but just long enough to give the player the feeling of getting their money’s worth. The star, though, was the plot: this game is, without question or exception, the flat-out funniest game released this year, and if you disagree you’re just wrong. (Or not into gross-out humor, which is fair I GUESS but man, I don’t know what you’re doing here.) Whether you’re fighting Khloe Kardashian’s gigantic Nazi aborted fetus, circumcising enemies to cause bleeding damage, or crawling inside Mister Slave’s asshole to stop a nuke from killing all of South Park, the game is complete and utter nonsense, and it’s a riot. Also, I swear I didn’t just make any of that up. (You might think, after that glowing recommendation for the game, that I’d be on-board for the upcoming sequel, The Fractured But Whole, but two things make me leery about this thing. The first is that The Stick of Truth is honestly kind of an experience that said everything we needed to say about this particular genre as far as South Park is concerned, and I don’t know how you’d even match it, let alone top it. The second is that, from what I’ve seen, the game isn’t being developed by Obsidian, who could probably push out a sequel with enough improvements to make it worthwhile, but Ubisoft San Francisco, who have developed, as near as I can tell, five games, of which two are Rocksmith, one is a Just Dance release, and the other two are… not well liked: The Smurfs 2 and Tetris Ultimate. Needless to say, this is either going to be a strong showing or a big failure for them, and I’m interested in seeing which it is, but not chomping at the bit to buy the resulting product right now.)

Valiant Hearts was one of those rare “games as art” experiences that actually managed to exist beyond its artistry and “point,” and was capable of getting its point across while also being a fun experience. People generally don’t make games based around World War I, for a lot of good reasons; World War II is the “memorable” war, and more importantly, it’s the one that lets us (generally) feel more “right” since, well, Hitler. (We also seem to like the idea of a fictional World War III a lot, if modern Call of Duty and Fallout are any indication.) World War I deserves some consideration, however, because it wasn’t an easily understood war, and it’s important for people to understand that. Telling the story from different sides, using different protagonists to show that war really is hell, was a big part of what made Valiant Hearts such a joy to play through, as was the method of play that was simple enough to follow along with but complicated enough to give anyone pause to think of how to best make progress. Also, the dog is adorable, and his existence, in a lot of ways, helps to work as an offset for a lot of the horrible stuff that goes on, as does the colorful presentation and visual style. It’s not a perfect game, but it is a complex, well designed one, and Valiant Hearts was, frankly, probably the best thing Ubisoft put out this year. (Errant Signal, AKA Chris Franklin, makes a good counterpoint that while the halves of the story focused on Emile and Karl are really powerful, the stories following Anna and Freddie are more campy and drag the whole down a bit, though I would argue as a counter-counterpoint that this doesn’t hurt the experience quite as much as Franklin felt it did. Part of this is because I felt that the Freddie/Anna/Baron Von Dorf storyline was a nice contrast to the ending of the game, in that there’s a positive end to that narrative, while the final ending of the game is anything but. It also helps to explain the fact that there are horrible people on both sides of the war; Germany has Baron Von Dorf, while Emile’s commanding officer during the Nivelle Offensive, and they’re both basically horrible people who are dedicated to the war above all else, though the fact that Von Dorf is an important villain while the CO is just a nameless Big Bad does hurt the comparison a bit. Also, and perhaps most notably, Anna and Freddie’s storylines also have enough weight and meat to them structurally that the goofy contrast pieces don’t hurt as much as he feels they did, and I’d say I felt the narrative was 75% effective, while he implies it’s about 50%. Though I do understand why France gets to appear as less of a villain in the war than Germany, since, well, Ubisoft is a French company.)

Akiba’s Trip is not the most technically proficient game in the market today, but it’s an assault on the senses that few games try to be, and hey, it’s fun to punch people until their underwear explodes into light. (No, really.) I feel like a lot of games try to be these overly technical masterpieces a lot of the time, rendering lush landscapes with high texture characters and monsters, and while that’s fine, sometimes some strong artistic direction will do more for your game than anything else. Akiba’s Trip is a good example of that thought process put into practice, as it’s not a game that does the most with its technology from an aesthetic standpoint, but instead uses it for technical purposes to ensure that the most people possible can be on screen at one time. (See also Dynasty Warriors.) Instead, it uses colorful landscapes, goofy enemies, ridiculous special attacks and absurd combat mechanics to sell the experience, and the end result is a game that’s memorable without being the biggest next-gen experience of a lifetime. Not every game has to be Mass Effect or Halo, and everyone needs a good Katamari Damacy sometimes to cleanse the palette; Akiba’s Trip might not be that game exactly, but it’s certainly as irreverent and memorable, and that helps a lot. (I still agree with all of this; the game is quirky, but it’s amazing from a conceptual perspective and has artistic joy to spare, and more often than not, that’s what I want from a game.)

Make no mistake, for the vast majority of the year, I was pretty much convinced that the Dangan Ronpa games released this year were pretty much always, always going to be my number one pick for favorite game this year, and if you’ve played them, it’s not hard to see why. It’s hard to pick which of the two is the “better” game; the first game is more impressive conceptually due to being “first” and has a stronger ending with stronger characters, while the second game is better paced for maximum chapter impact and has some better mechanics in various points, so they’re both great in their own ways. (I still mostly agree with this assessment, especially in light of playing Ultra Despair Girls this year. The first game had a stronger surprise-based narrative, overall, because it was more grounded in reality and its surprises weren’t really “done” yet, and it had more of an impact from a “memorable plot” perspective. While I since have reflected on the characters and come to the conclusion that both games had equally memorable characters, the first game has more memorable characters that live, as well, so the ending sequence feels better because of it. The second game, on the other hand, does do a better job of making its villains in each chapter feel human and relatable, pacing-wise, and it has more of a chapter-by-chapter impact and stronger mechanics, though its reuse of ideas from the first game combined with putting less emphasis on the final cast hurts it a little.) “Great” is easily the key point, there; the Vita had an absolutely killer year, relatively speaking, full of several titles that made the console worth owning for the first time in a while, and the Dangan Ronpa games easily, EASILY stood head and shoulders above all of them. (Though it probably bears noting that the Vita, at this point, has become home to a lot of Eastern anime-styled games, between VN’s, otome games, JRPG’s and more, which is great for that fanbase, but probably explains why the console isn’t raking in the dough in the Western market due to the fact that the anime market is still kind of a niche here. The Playstation TV’s low asking price should’ve offset that a bit more than it did, honestly, though Sony hasn’t really announced an installed user base for the PSTV or the Vita since… uh, 2013, holy shit. I think it almost has to be beyond the magical “ten million installed user base” metric, though how far beyond that is anyone’s guess… but I mean, I do know a lot more people who own one or the other than I did in 2013, so I’m assuming there has to be some success there.) The trial gameplay wasn’t always perfect and I won’t even try to pretend that some of the minigames weren’t crap, but both games hit constantly on all cylinders otherwise, and the end result was, frankly, a great experience all around.

That said, a game came out late this year and more or less took that top spot by combining a thing I love and two things I could care less about into one big thing I found I loved a lot, and that was Persona Q. Let’s get this out of the way up front: while it didn’t sell me on the other games in their respective franchises, Persona Q did more to make me like Etrian Odyssey AND Persona 3 than any entries in the respective franchises did, due entirely to the fact that it took the parts that worked, tossed out the parts that didn’t, and combined them all together into a game that’s fun to play where everyone generally seems to like being there. (Etrian Odyssey is, by and large, a franchise that takes the idea of a thing I like, in dungeon crawlers, and treats it in a way that’s both weirdly reductive and yet overly complicated, but Persona Q manages to work, probably because it feeks more fulfilling to grind in that game than in those that came before. Meanwhile, the core conceit of Persona 3, of characters who don’t entirely trust each other being put into a position where they have to work together, is tossed aside in favor of everyone more or less getting along pretty well, and that actually makes both casts a lot more agreeable in the long run. You almost get the impression that, if both teams had retained the memories of that game, they’d have both been much better off for it in their own stories as a result, and that’s actually kind of sad if you consider Persona 3 afterwards.) The game also does a lot to make itself all things for all people. For the player who just wants everyone to shut up and get into the dungeon, you’ve got nearly twenty characters to pick from with their own unique spell sets and skills, as well as the ability to avoid all that talking crap and just get into slaughtering dudes. For those who love the franchise and the stories it tells, you’ve got lots of points where interaction is key, as well as two separate side stories depending on which plot path you choose in the beginning of the game. (That’s another big selling point, honestly; even though the core storyline is more or less the same on both paths, a lot of the plot points change depending on which group you start the game with, which makes playing the game through twice even more rewarding than it might be for the core games the characters come from.) Everything is meticulously detailed and stuffed full of content, from the various dungeons you play through to the wide variety of gear you can craft for the party to the two different remixes of the battle theme depending on your story path, and I cannot stress enough how awesome that is, and it all generally works. (Say what you will about the expanded universe and spin-off games, but Persona Q was easily the one with the most love put into it from its creators. I like Persona 4: Dancing All Night, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t even come close to being as full of obvious love and care as Persona Q is.) Even little things, like being able to play through the plot a second time as the other team with a New Game Plus leveled party or the comments friendly party members will make to one another in battle, give the game far more personality than the Etrian Odyssey series ever had, and that helps make the experience something special. Basically, if you own a 3DS and you don’t own Persona Q you’re committing a hate crime against your 3DS, and you should probably buy it before the cops show up. Seriously, don’t take the chance.

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