As usual, the Ani-Gamers team isn't quite punctual enough to get our end-of-year posts out by the end of the year, but just because 2014 is over doesn't mean we can't celebrate some of the great titles that came out last year! This year we're switching up the format of our loose "Staff Picks" posts to give them a bit more structure.
Here's how it works: I asked our staff writers and some of the guests who have contributed pieces this year to list their top 1-3 titles in each of three categories: anime, manga, and video games. We tallied the votes in each, and if there were clear winners, we created a collective Top 3. Whether or not a collective choice emerged, though, we had everybody write up their thoughts on all the staff picks.
We'll be lumping those writeups together by category in the next few days, starting with this video games post. Since we had very little agreement on our favorite video games this year, nothing emerged as a clear winner, so if you're looking for our Game of the Year, well ... we don't have one. What we do have is a number of exceptional titles, including perennial franchises, massively popular multiplayer games, and educational experiments. Enjoy!
– Evan Minto, Editor-in-Chief
Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto
I actually never bought Nidhogg, but a few nights at SF Game Night (a video game event at a local San Francisco bar) were enough for me to fall in love with it. The game is simple: two monochromatic, pixelated fencers face off, each attempting to reach the goal on the opposite side of their opponent. The twist is that only one player can be on the offensive at a time, which means one must hunt the other down and kill them before they can start their own side-scrolling mad dash toward the goal. Tight, twitchy controls and creative map design (with doors, tall grass to hide in, and more) make the experience surprisingly rich, and invite lots of rowdy matches, especially when players are so closely matched that each one continually snatches victory away from the other. I was so impressed by Nidhogg's ability to create a competitive atmosphere among people watching it (let alone playing it) that I wrote a whole column about it!
#1: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS/Wii U
Sure, it's probably an indicator that I didn't play enough games in 2014 that Smash Bros. gets my top spot, but let's give credit where credit is due. The fourth iteration of Super Smash Bros., released on 3DS and Wii U* this year, is ridiculously fun. Not only is there the usual roster of new characters (including my new favorite, Duck Hunt), but the games also introduce a number of new wrinkles to the formula. The ability to create Mii Fighters and custom movesets means I can create the entire Earthbound party and have them fight each other, which is possibly the only thing you need to get my Game of the Year spot. Wi-Fi play between 3DS's means I can start up a game of Smash Bros. anywhere, and support for up to eight players broadens the game's appeal as a true party game. Sure, there have been connectivity issues with both local and internet wireless play, and the custom movesets barely get used, but if the past few months have been any indication, my friends and I will be playing a lot of Smash in 2015 and beyond.
*OK, I'm kind of cheating by giving the spot to BOTH games, but I love them both and they're so closely related it's tough to rank them separately.
#1: Persona Q
While I spent most of 2014 screaming at the masses about how awesome Kill la Kill was, that series actually had to share my “fandom spotlight” with an already established franchise I have a deep-seated love for: Persona. I’ve played the latter two installments multiple times, attempted a tackling of the second one, and defused cerebral battles between my two “waifuz”, P4’s Chie and KLK’s Satsuki.
Like the games that spawned it, Persona Q is part dungeon crawler, part school simulation. But in this case the dungeons are longer, harder, and require far more planning, thanks in part to Atlus’ use of its already brutal (and popular) Etrian Odyssey engine. Stat balancing and careful monitoring of enemies movements are required this time around, as blazing through the carefully designed labyrinth stages can result in one slaughtered party. Each one of them is also its own, self-contained environment, from the airy Group Date Cafe to the creepy Evil Spirits Club. Creatively, Persona Q shows the series at its best.
But the real joy of Persona Q is that it’s canon fanservice, plain and simple. By blending the already popular characters of Personas 3 and 4 in the same “room,” it acknowledges the fandom's need for “shipping” and throws them multiple bones as the stories move on. Interactions between the blended parties answer a lot of “what-ifs” the fans have, and lead to plenty of humorous interactions over the course of the 90 hours of gameplay. Mysteries might be revealed here, but its the fact that Atlus was willing to go along with its rabid fanbase that really stands out.
#3: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor
WoW is a 10-year-old game but you wouldn’t know it from its latest expansion, "Warlords of Draenor." This expansion has you revisit an alternate timeline 30 years in the past, around the time of the first Warcraft RTS game. WoW’s graphical overhaul, primarily in the form of updated character models, gives it the look of a new MMO despite its age. I have to admit, when I saw my Paladin’s new model after returning to the game, I was hit by a sudden and acute burst of nostalgia for the game’s glory days.
With Warlords, Blizzard has finally succeeded in creating a single-player experience that’s every bit as rich as a standalone RPG. You really do feel like the main character in the story as you level through the questing storyline. The addition of the Garrison feature to the game lends it a bit of that old school Warcraft feel that so many of us cut our teeth on and keeps you coming back after the main questline has been completed.
#2: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Collectible card games (CCG's) are legion in the online space, but Hearthstone’s pedigree sets it head and shoulders above the rest, including Magic’s own Duels of the Planeswalkers. Like other Blizzard games, Hearthstone’s gameplay is easy to learn and fast (unless two warrior decks are going at it, in which case get comfortable). Being an online CCG, there’s never a “banned” list of cards since the developers can hotfix cards on the fly when balance issues present themselves. And while that’s not exactly revolutionary, for a former tabletop card gamer like myself, it makes me feel like I’m never going to have wasted money on cards I can never play (*cough* chaos orb).
Hearthstone sets itself even further apart from the pack by not only drawing on the lore of World Of Warcraft, but even feeling a bit like that game. In its first year, the game has released an “Adventure Mode” that mimics WoW’s Naxxrammas raid, as well as its first full expansion, Goblins and Gnomes, which added a heavily random element to the game, thereby making it even more distinct from other traditional and online CCGs.
#1: Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC)
Dragon Age: Inquisition marks a return to form for Bioware after a disappointing sophomore effort with Dragon Age II. Inquisition not only demonstrates that Bioware has learned from their own mistakes, but also from the success of their rivals. DAI is easily the most open-world fantasy game I’ve played since Skyrim, yet it still has the deep and immersive storytelling that Bioware became known for with hits like the Baldur’s Gate and the Mass Effect series. The gameplay feels quite a bit like Dragon Age II, with the ability point system being almost identical. An updated top-down tactical camera makes a welcome return for players who enjoyed that view, though I found myself using it much less than I did in Dragon Age: Origins.
And of course, there are the romances. With Inquisition, Bioware has attempted to set a new standard for inclusiveness in games; the range of in-game romance options available provide more choices for players interested in pursuing LGBT relationships. With all of the turmoil in gaming fandom last year, I found this to be a refreshing and welcome development in the evolution of the series and I hope it becomes a new standard for Bioware in future projects.
Influent was partly funded through Kickstarter and partly through a MEXT grant (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Technology in Japan). It's a language learning game that helps you learn everyday vocabulary: you collect items such as a poster, or laundry basket, and click on them to hear/see what the word is. The more items you collect, the more words you unlock, and you can unlock quizzes, achievements, and more.
When I bought the game, the game user interface was available in Japanese or English: that has since expanded to English, Japanese, Russian, German, Swedish, and French. Impressive indeed! When you buy the game for the first time you pick a target language to learn (for example, French or Japanese), but additional language packs are available for it, including the usual suspects of Spanish, French, and German but also languages like Mandarin Chinese (which comes with support for both simplified AND traditional writing!), Russian, Latin, and Bulgarian. Fun, playful, and helpful!
#2: Depression Quest
This one isn't so much a game as a piece of interactive fiction, and one whose goal is stated outright: to help portray what living with depression is like. This is a difficult game to review not only because of that, but because of what happened this year surrounding it: its producer, Zoe Quinn, is a targeted victim of a long running harrassment campaign. And yet, works such as Depression Quest exist and try to help people come to terms with the severity of a misunderstood condition.
This game can be frustrating. It has left me in tears, even, once or twice, simply because the simulation hits too close to home. But I recommend it to people because of those traits: depression is not easy. It's not “being sad”. And living with it, seeking treatment, can be difficult.
Depression Quest is pay what you want (including free), with proceeds going towards suicide prevention. More information can be found at the official site.
#1: Elegy for a Dead World
During the Kickstarter campaign for this game, it was billed as a tool to help people write: a sort of visual writing set of exercises, meant to encourage creativity and problem-solving. And the Kickstarter succeeded: thanks to a mixture of factors (Staff Pick choice, hype, LOTS of literacy/education folk mentioning it), which goes to show that there is interest in writing, even if people might not know how best to spark their creativity.
Now that Elegy is available on Steam, widening its audience, I think that this game is great for people who need a quick reminder about creativity. This is not a game you can sit down, min/max, and marathon: this is a game where you must wrestle with your own imagination and see if you can get some sort of blessing out of it. Can you write yourself something that fits what you find in the world? Can you write stories from large to small — and then go out and publish them for others to see? The game includes a publishing function as well, so I can see this being a wonderful gift game that encourages interaction. It's also a must if you are interested in making your own games, as this helps you take the first step into narrative building.
That's it for our video game staff picks for 2014! Keep your eyes on the blog in the coming days for our manga and anime picks.