Well, 2014 is over, and it’s been kind of a weird year for games. There hasn’t been any big “standout” game to receive universal acclaim like there has been in years past, but I’m quite all right with that – usually, said game doesn’t wind up as my Game of the Year anyway, and I’m kind of known for my against-the-mainstream choices (The Last of Us? Pfft, no thanks.).
With all the delays into 2015, I figured from early on that I would have trouble picking a top five list, much less a top ten. Games such as Destiny and Watch Dogs being disappointments only served to heighten those feelings. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and I even found myself having to make some tough cuts as I was coming up with this list, like Threes and Danganronpa. That said, here are my top ten games of 2014 – a year that surprisingly didn’t turn out to be half-bad after all, unless you’re a AAA game developer.
Honorable Mention – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
This was a tough cut, since this interactive visual novel (a genre I’m not normally a fan of) kept me on the edge of my seat constantly and elicited more than a few gasps during the 20+ hours it took to finish it. Monokuma gets a nod as one of the best villains ever and one of the best new characters of 2014, and the surprisingly gruesome murders and subsequent executions of those that carried them out never failed to shock me. However, some of the gameplay elements just fall flat, and the disappointing climax and endgame made me want to hurl my Vita out the window. I didn’t get around to picking up Danganronpa 2, but I’m definitely interested enough in the world of Hope’s Peak to jump into another adventure – maybe not quite so soon though.
10. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
I freaking called it. When I played Super Mario 3D World last year, I said all along that the Captain Toad levels were some of the most creative game design I’d seen in a long time and Nintendo would be idiots not to expand upon them in a full game. So when Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was announced at E3 this year, I could hardly contain my excitement. And when the game came out, I got the same freakishly creative level design, ratcheted up to the tenth power.
If there was a Most Adorable Game award, Toad would win it. The bite-sized levels are all stunningly detailed, and Toad and Toadette themselves are adorably expressive. Later levels especially are real head-scratchers, and you’ll likely have to play through them multiple times to collect all three gems and meet the optional objectives. I could do with more bosses rather than the same two being recycled over and over, and $40 might be a bit steep for the amount of content the game offers, but those are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.
9. Shovel Knight
If you’d told me that Shovel Knight would be on this list a month or two ago, I would have laughed in your face. It’s made up of so many things that I can’t stand. Retro-style aesthetic? Check. Punishing difficulty? Check. Trial-and error platforming? Yeeeah, that’s there in spades too (pun not intended…okay, maybe a little bit).
But Shovel Knight has an undeniable charm and incredible level of polish that are rare in games of this type. It pays homage to its predecessors, like DuckTales and Mega Man, while still feeling fresh in its own right. The tight controls and level design are backed up by charming characters and a difficulty curve that ramps up quickly, but rarely ever feels NES-levels of unfair. While I spent nearly the entire second half of the game swearing at my screen, I never felt like giving up, and I always felt like I could conquer the challenges placed before me – and I did. It goes far beyond being a simple love letter to the NES era and stands on its own as an exceptionally designed 2D side-scroller – one of the few of those that I have thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.
8. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
I’ll admit it up-front: I suck at this game. Sure, I can use my basic Mage deck to beat my friends that are just as amateur as I am, but put me up against someone with the most basic deck-building experience and I go down within a few turns.
Part of that is that I am still relatively new to the game – I only started playing it a month or two ago, and I haven’t exactly played it religiously. Another part is that I just find CCGs in general to be impenetrable – building decks, crafting cards, and facing the Arena all scare and confuse the crap out of me. But I am learning, slowly but surely, and hopefully in time I’ll get better.
That said, Hearthstone is fairly forgiving. Its incredible complexity and depth are friendly to even the newest of newbies to the genre, and it has that “just one more game” addictiveness that can cause you to lose three hours in one sitting before you know it, even though a single match might only take 5-10 minutes. Sure, it’s a free-to-play game, and we all know my feelings on those, but the F2P aspects are fairly unintrusive and can be gotten around with some patience.
There are so many mechanics, strategies, and a myriad of options for deck-building, that I can see myself spending plenty of hours with Hearthstone even into 2015, and that’s saying a lot.
7. Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire
I put Pokémon X & Y as #6 on my list last year. A subsequent replay has soured me on this generation of Pokémon games, but I was still excited for Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. I have some pretty decent feelings of nostalgia for the original Gen 3 games, and to see them in full 3D, with all the bells and whistles that come along with a remake, made me look forward to ORAS.
And for the most part, they did a great job of remaining faithful to the original games while still implementing the new goodies that have come to the series in the past ten years. The postgame is almost as abysmal as the X/Y postgame, even with the Delta Episode, and the Battle Frontier should have been brought over from Emerald. The engine still chugs and sputters along in battle, and there’s no 3D effect in the overworld. The games also suffer from the dumbed-down difficulty that has become the trend in recent series entries, though it was good to see Gym Leaders and Elite Four members use more than 3 and 4 Pokémon, respectively, even if I wish they had based their teams on their Emerald teams for more challenge. The plot was given an overhaul and is overall much better than the original Gen 3 plot, which isn’t going far, but it was nice for the evil teams to get more screen time, and the inclusion of Mega Evolutions was more seamless than I was expecting. Plus DexNav is one of the coolest additions to the franchise yet – so of course it will likely never be seen again.
ORAS are better games than X/Y, but I still wish they were even more. Granted, a lot of my complaints are nitpicks from being a lifelong Pokémon fan, and despite my gripes, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the games (they wouldn’t have made this list otherwise). It’s nice to see the Pokémon universe getting some depth and connectivity – the endgame plot revelations are definitely thought-provoking – and I really hope they hit the ball out of the park and tie everything together with the next game, which I’m guessing will be Z.
6. Infamous: Second Son
I’ve owned the first Infamous for a few years and have never been able to bring myself to play it for more than a few hours before giving up on it. Empire City is a poster child for the “gray, gray, and more gray” school of modern game design, the gameplay is repetitive, Cole is an entirely unlikable protagonist, and Zeke is one of the most annoying characters I have ever come across in a game.
So it was with some hesitance that I picked up Second Son with my PS4. But as soon as I started playing it, I was hooked. The powers were so much more fun to use (especially neon and video), traversing the city was a blast, and the characters were some of my favorites all year. Delsin was exponentially better than Cole as a protagonist, and his journey from delinquent to hero was something I became emotionally invested in. On the opposing side, you’ll learn to hate Augustine, the game’s main antagonist, during her very first appearance, and you’ll spend the entire game wanting to end her reign of tyranny in Seattle. Speaking of Seattle, it’s a much more vibrant setting than Empire City, full of color and life, and traversing the city is an absolute joy.
It’s a short journey, but a memorable one, and there’s not much side content, but in a way, the lack of traditional open-world fluff is a welcome change for me. Second Son has actually made me want to go back and give the first two Infamous games another shot, and playing it made me glad that I took the plunge and bought a PS4.