Haven’t got time to preamble. Too many games to cover.
In no particular order:
Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves (2013)
I’ve never played anything quite like Sang-Froid before and I’m sure you haven’t either. If you took lumberjacks and werewolves and threw them in a blender with Rainbow Six‘s careful planning (and executing of said plans), the frenetic and intense last stand dynamics and overwhelming sense of impending doom of the movie Zulu, and a hearty glug of Canadian folklore, you’d be getting close to what Sang-Froid is all about. It’s unique, refreshing, clever, thrilling, gorgeous and has a fantastic folk soundtrack to boot. One of my games of the year without a doubt.
I’m hoping to write a full-blooded review of this once I’ve finished it with the second O’Carroll brother. In the meantime however, here’s the fantastic trailer for it:
The Swapper (2013)
Much like Vessel, The Swapper was a neat looking side-scrolling puzzler I’d had my eye on for a while. What’s more, it also disappeared off the face of the earth for what seemed like an age before re-appearing shortly before release with a brand-new (and gorgeous) look, just like Vessel. While employing similarly striking lighting and parallax, The Swapper has this wonderful but very subtle hand-made aesthetic to it, not unlike The Dream Machine but much heavier on the atmospheric space haze, noisy fuzz and soft gloom and bloom. It’s also accompanied by a suitably low-key and ambient soundtrack by Carlo Castellano. Here’s a track:
In The Swapper you control some kind of astronaut or space person. Not more than five or ten minutes in, you happen across a gun — ‘the swapper’ device — which can create clones of yourself and, providing you have line of sight, allow you to swap between them. Each clone echoes your movement, so if you jump, they jump; if you run left, they run left, and so on. You can only create up to four clones and if you make contact with them, they are individually absorbed, adding one back to your pool. Like yourself, clones can also die, and whether it’s you or your clones dying it’s really quite icky thanks to the sound design and ragdoll physics. And honestly, that’s pretty much the entire core mechanic right there. It’s simple, but put to devilishly good use.
It wasn’t uncommon for The Stumper — sorry, The Swapper — to flummox me for anything up to an hour on a single puzzle. But flummox me in a good way. I’d sit there motionless and silent, staring at the screen, brow furrowed, brain ticking, expletives caged in behind pursed lips. Then at random intervals: “HOW THE FUCK!?” would escape as my mind plan fell apart. I need a clone there but I also need to be here and what about that fall? How am I going to move this way without depressing that pressure plate? AND WHAT HAS THAT CRATE GOT TO DO WITH ANYTHING. The fact that you don’t have to do the puzzles sequentially means you rarely hit a brick wall either (unless you’re stubborn like me). And this is to mention nothing of the… befuddling narrative that, even after concluding, I still don’t fully understand, which is just as well because of the 10 enigmatic achievements labelled simply ‘I’, ‘II’, ‘III’, ‘IV’, ‘V’ and so on, I only found one, so I guess another playthrough is in order…
The Last of Us (2013)
- While I welcomed the skill upgrade system, it was a missed opportunity with skills being either no-brainers or almost entirely redundant. For instance, why would you want to increase your crafting speed? Or patch yourself up faster? Aren’t they things you’d usually do outside combat where you have all the time in the world? Not to mention, if you disable the silly superhuman x-ray vision ‘Listen Mode’, as I did, then that’s one more upgrade path to ignore.
- An unfortunate downfall of (understandably) making companions invisible and silent is that on numerous occasions they’d be running around or crouched in plain sight of enemies without arousing any suspicion. Given how engrossing and tense The Last of Us could be, this was more than a little jarring at times.
- Clickers seemed obnoxiously difficult to deal with early on until you were packing super-handy shivs — I’ll never forget that subway station, or the cemetery for that matter.
- It felt somewhat cheap for a game revolving around survival to not have enemies drop whatever they were carrying, and, having played Dishonored directly before The Last of Us, I was a little dismayed that I couldn’t move and hide bodies too.
- And finally, in an email I joked about Joel’s aim reminding me of playing Jockey Wilson’s Compendium of Darts on the Amiga (a point later made moot by the weapon sway skill — still, I thought it was funny).
Anyway, whatever — these things didn’t diminish my experience with The Last of Us. To be honest, I was wary of the hype, primarily because of the hoohah over Bioshock Infinite, but The Last of Us had such heart and focus that I couldn’t help but be drawn in and swept along by its stellar production, the dialogue, characters and story, the beautiful and melancholic score, and yes, the surprisingly solid gameplay. Everyone’s quick to underplay the familiar mechanics but in The Last of Us they meshed perfectly with the brutal setting, the characters’ circumstances and ultimately the bleak narrative. There’s no Drake’s Genocide or Binfinite’s infinite bin looting disconnect here: scavenging for supplies and crafting ad-hoc weapons, stoving someone’s head in with a brick, killing an entire gang of looters (or sneaking past most of them) makes sense within the fiction of the game. Even when the game forces your hand it still holds together because this just isn’t your story. There’s no cliched commentary on player agency or the lack thereof, it’s just there, naked and doing its thing. It’s past that sort of showy self-awareness. If The Last Guardian never makes it to PS3, then The Last of Us is one hell of a game to go out on. Spoiler paragraph ahead.
In the closing minutes of The Last of Us there’s this incredible moment where the game puts you in Ellie’s shoes after you rescue her from the hospital and you’re making your way towards Tommy’s Settlement in Jackson County. This perspective change is so important to me because for the first time in the game you’re watching Joel as somebody else. You’re not him anymore. Has he changed, or have you? There’s an uneasy distance between Ellie (and you as the player) and Joel as you watch him move through the forest ahead. You see a broken man who’s possibly condemned the human race for another shot at playing dad, but you understand why. Naughty Dog could have merged this section into the cutscenes on either side of it — it’s literally less than a minute or two long and all you really do is walk — but they clearly wanted this distance, this momentary shift, this pause to allow some reflection on Joel before the final lie. It’s heartbreaking, and even now it’s making me well up.
Totally unexpected, and masterfully and beautifully handled. While we’re at it, AAA developers take note: this is how you do a soundtrack. Step away from the orchestra and forget Hollywood.
The surprise of the year that keeps on surprising. Wazhack is an unusual roguelike (like, a real roguelike, not a roguelike-like) because not only does it feature full 3D animated visuals, lighting and physics, it’s also a side-scroller. Granted, the art direction is very… particular, and certainly not for everyone, but because everything is in 3D, you can see what gear enemies are wearing and wielding at a glance, while your own character’s appearance changes depending on what you equip; when you sell stuff, you see it populating the shopkeeper’s shelves, racks, pots and busts. And of course the physics, as well as the lighting, work on these 3D items too: loot explodes and tumbles from enemies, their limp bodies slump and slide, amulets around your neck jostle about, arrows ricochet off surfaces, capes flap and fall (yes, there are capes in Wazhack). Wazhack isn’t on this list for its unusually muscular technical qualities for a roguelike though, it’s here because it’s been the source of many an unexpected and grim tale over the last year, as roguelikes often are.
Here are a few choice screenshots from my time with the Android version, complete with anecdotal captions.
Oddly charming, solidly designed, accessible, deceptively deep, surprising, challenging and extremely replayable, Wazhack is a bit of a desert island game for me now and one of the genre’s best kept secrets. It was recently Greenlit on Steam so hopefully that won’t be the case for much longer. The game is available on Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, iOS and can even be played in your browser. There’s also a demo to give you a taste of its particular brand of roguelike that you can unlock for less than $5 or so depending on the platform. Absolutely worth a look if you’re wanting something meaty that you can play in short bursts, particularly on a handheld device.
Monaco is the game I wish I’d had more friends playing this year, not just for co-op but for score-chasing too. At its heart, Monaco is about efficiently casing joints as fast as possible by any means possible using any of the unique and vastly different characters at your disposal. Every level has its own leaderboard for single, two, three and four players, each listing all-time, daily and friend times and which characters were used to achieve said times. From my experience with the early game, completing levels isn’t too difficult but trying to carve your name into the leaderboards certainly is. For me that’s ultimately where the real magic is; experimenting with characters, routes, equipment and tactics, and trying to steal that edge. If you’re not much of a score-chaser or too bothered about co-op then don’t worry, Monaco is still as slapstick and effervescent a heist game as you’re likely to get, and with the recent Architect’s Patch that streamlined the campaign, as well as various alternative modes (including ‘Zonaco’, a humourous zombie apocalypse spin on the main campaign) and user created levels, there’s an awful lot to get your filthy hands on here.
Rayman Legends (2013)
More generous, somehow more beautiful, just as whacky and often as exhilarating as its predecessor, Legends adds and changes a few too many things for my liking to trump Origins. If you want to know why I prefer Origins then take a look at Tom Chick’s excellent review of Legends over at Quarter to Three where I raise some of my issues with it in the comments. If you can though, try and play it on the Wii U with a friend, or on the Vita where the mechanics designed for touchscreen can shine.
I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of it, but my only real (and recent) experience with Minecraft was a revelation. For a long time, I thought that whenever I got round to playing Minecraft it would be with enemies on and the survival aspects turned right up, to give the game a kind of backbone or arc or purpose. Stay alive. I didn’t get all the building for building’s sake, and that realisation made me sad because I remember a time many years ago when I could lose hours upon hours making stuff with Lego. What happened to me in 20+ years? Where did that spark go? If there was ever any indication that I’d (reluctantly) grown up, that was it.
Or so I thought. A recent succession game with folks from all over the world, set-up and organised by Armand Kossayan, saw me set the difficulty to peaceful (no enemies or hunger) and rise to the challenge of making my mark on the land, somewhere and somehow, after all, my only prior experience with Minecraft was walking around aimlessly and punching things. I spent a good two or three sessions simply exploring and wondering what I should do, occasionally coming across other people’s creations. Before I knew it, I had three more evenings at the most to do something and I just couldn’t be bothered to make the first step, so I logged out.
The next day, realising I’d signed up to this thing and that it was my duty to build something, anything, I logged back in. It was morning and the square sun was coming up.
I was on a peak overlooking a big pond (or small lake) surrounded by a ridge in the shape of a horseshoe. Across from me, just within jumping distance, was another peak. It was easily the highest rise in the area and… it came to me. I’ll bridge the peaks, create a plateau and build a hut on it. I made the hut from the dirt in my pockets. Yeah, I know, it looked crap, so I made a discreet entrance into the side of a nearby hill and quarried it for cobblestone. Over the next couple of evenings my structure took shape; I added a sloped roof, some arched windows looking out across the valley, a path and steps, I put up some fencing, planted some flowers and a few trees outside, I replaced the interior floor with wood (the stone before felt cold), I put torches in, wooden beams, a bed, a furnace, some workbenches, I even sheared some sheep to make some nice woolly rugs. I let my imagination run away with itself and tore down the centre of the building to erect a tower containing a spiral staircase — I love spiral staircases. I could hollow the mountain out! And make a flume out of the waterfall! And– is that the time? I’d better go to bed.
The next day I sent the save back to Armand. Here are some pics of my project.
I’m not sure whether I’ll return to Minecraft but I’m glad I had the chance to finally give it some quality time. It put me back in touch with the child Gregg that used to get carried away with Lego and for that alone it earns a spot on this list.
I nearly didn’t play FORCED because I was expecting it to be another dungeon crawling hacking and slashing loot ‘em up yawn-fest, but thankfully I did, and crucially, I couldn’t have been more wrong. A late addition to the list but a worthy one. Here’s what I wrote about it last month.
I actually did a write-up of Proteus in April last year but I wasn’t satisfied with it so it remained in my drafts. However, on reading it back last week, I must have been out of my mind because it looked ready to publish so expect to see it on Tap over the next week or so.
Update: here it is!
Isn’t that just wonderful? A little bit of digging revealed that an earlier version of Micron (called Pulse) had won 2nd place at Kongregate’s Project Eden: Experience the Music contest which featured Tetsuya Mizaguchi amongst the judges as well as other industry professionals. If this got 2nd place, I need to check out what won 1st because Micron has been one of the most surprising and delightfully satisfying games I’ve played this year. It’s satisfying not just because of the cleverly and elegantly designed puzzles but the sound and music that alters as you play and feel your way around for a solution. It’s the only game I’ve hooked up to the speakers in our kitchen and got my girlfriend to play while cooking supper, it’s that interesting sonically. Another reason why I fell in love with it, is that it doesn’t feature that insipid three-star grading system that seems to blight practically every handheld/casual puzzler out there. In Micron, finding the solution and generating various rhythms, grooves and soundscapes is reward enough. Like Wazhack, Micron is available on practically everything for less than a few quid and even has a demo, so check it out. Be sure to listen to it through headphones or some decent speakers mind.
Guns of Icarus Online (2012)
I can only echo what Max said in his list: Guns of Icarus Online has continued to get better and better thanks to Muse Games’ tenacity and generosity with the community. It’s come a long way. More maps, more modes, balance tweaks, bug fixes, added functionality like selectable spawn points and auto-team balancing, voice commands, new class tools, a new ship, two new guns, an in-game store and unlock system for cosmetic items for your character, and a lot more besides. Last year it was Natural Selection 2 that had me clocking in the hours, but this year it was easily Guns of Icarus Online. I even joined a couple of clans and played a few competitive games, some of which were streamed on Twitch TV with a running commentary. Heart-in-mouth stuff but incredible to be a part of. Without doubt the multiplayer highlight of the year for me, and with a dedicated co-op mode in the works as well as their kickstarted adventure mode underway, there’s plenty more in store.
I finally got round to Dishonored after the straightjacket that was Bioshock Infinite and it was the perfect antidote. Sure, the main story might not have been much cop, but God is in the details, and (in Dishonored’s case) the decisions. Details and decisions like the Admiral’s audio phone in Samuel’s riverside den, Anton’s painting of Campbell in his secret hideaway, the reward for sparing the weepers in the sewer, the valuable ring inside one of the Overseer urns, the ‘Darren + Gwen’ graffiti, Campbell wandering around in the Flooded District, Granny Rag’s son, the Bottle Street gang’s elixir supply, disposing of Lady Boyle and the twins, signing the party ledger, Arkane trolling you with escorting Emily and her ‘you can deal with the guards!’ before running off. It’s full of these moments and I’m sure I missed loads too. I was particularly impressed by the art direction, the customisable HUD, the loading times, the fluidity of Corvo’s movement, the sense of place at the Hound Pits Pub and its shifting personality at different times of the day, and how well Arkane managed to nail the feel of Thief without totally aping it. If I have any reservations about Dishonored beyond the story and mute protagonist, it’s that playing non-lethally relegated you to a handful of abilities, sleeper holds and sleep darts — almost all the other toys were off limits. Boo sob. It’s a good job I intend to play it again then, this time as a psychopath. And let’s not forget the DLC which from all accounts is fantastic.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2013)
The thing that separates Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed from Mario Kart — aside from its fucking ridiculous name and the ability to transform into a kart, boat and plane — is the boost mechanics. The longer you hold a drift, the greater the boost. The more stunts you do in the air, the greater the boost. The more times you synchronise your revs with the countdown at the beginning of a race, the greater the boost. If you fluff up any of these then you lose your boost entirely so there’s this lovely risk/reward friction throughout races, from the grid position, around every corner and over every bump. It’s one of the many things that puts it ahead of Nintendo’s flagship racer for me.
SART features an extensive and challenging World Tour (that can be played single-player and co-op) comprising of standard races, boost runs, drift challenges, traffic time trials, head-to-heads, boss battles, eliminator rounds and more. There’s online, local and mixed multiplayer which has worked absolutely flawlessly when my girlfriend and I have played with friends across the Atlantic and elsewhere in the UK. The tracks themselves are dynamite too, dramatically altering from lap to lap. Take this Panzer Dragoon track for instance:
The game features a veritable treasure trove of Sega characters and environments (if you’re into that kind of thing), from NiGHTS, Golden Axe and Skies of Arcadia through to Crazy Taxi, Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio. The PC version even features characters from Team Fortress, Company of Heroes, Total War and Football Manager. It’s bonkers. All this and the graphics are just… wow. Seriously, every time I load it up I have a moment just marvelling at how solid, bright, crisp and clean they are. Mat C called this the greatest kart racer ever and I have to agree with him. Interesting fact: it was made by Sumo Digital in Sheffield which is less than a thirty minute drive away.
Solium Infernum (2009)
2013 was the year I stopped playing Solium Infernum, the game Steerpike gifted me back in April 2010 for winning the Tap header banner contest. Money well spent I say Steerpike. I stopped playing it because three years in hell is hard work. Over the course of those three years however, I was enthralled by it. It was a game that slotted so perfectly around my daily activities, it being play-by-email and turn-based, I almost forgot that it had never featured on any of my Games of the Year lists.
Solium Infernum is a multiplayer game about deceptive projection and sly prediction; it’s about planning with the agility to adapt if things go awry; it’s about measured opportunism and fearful restraint but ultimately it’s about well and truly stuffing your peers. Hell needs a new ruler and, just like you, there are other megalomaniacal archfiends vying for the throne of darkness. Solium Infernum features a tightly bound and intricate lattice of varied and connecting systems that take some time to get your head around, so much so that I had the manual printed and bound at work for quick reference. All these systems however, grant you numerous tantalising ways to carve your path to the top. Do you take the traditional route of accumulating the most prestige by claiming places of power, waging war, refusing demands, insulting your peers and winning in the gladiatorial arena with your praetors? Something that other archfiends will surely notice and try to curb? Do you overthrow the Infernal Conclave and try and take Pandemonium, the capital city of the underworld, and hold it for five turns knowing that if you fail you’ll have to destroy every other archfiend to win? This sort of brute force is almost always a one way ticket, so you better be ready. Do you secretly complete objectives that can be banked for prestige at game’s end to sneakily bag a victory? Or do you play a totally different game where you roll with the risky King Maker perk that hands over the infernal throne should your chosen archfiend win? Three years playing it and there’s still so much I didn’t get the opportunity to try. How many times did I win? Once, but it was totally worth it just for this screen:
It was also worth it because I got to play with some really cool people from all over the world so thanks Walter, Henry, Brett, Jeff, Thomas, Joe, Pierce and lady_karania for some absolutely brilliant games.
Of course, Solium Infernum is way too deep and complex to try and explain fully here but there have been some tremendous write-ups across the internet about it. The hilarious Gameboys From Hell over at RPS got me into it, while Bill Harris’ Beginners Guide was a great primer on most of the game’s systems. For a more singular and snappy piece take a look at Quintin Smith’s Battle Klaxon column over at GameSetWatch where he deemed it his second favourite game of the year behind Demon’s Souls. Blimey, has it really been four years?
What I love about Miasmata is how simple it is. Granted, it’s a staggering achievement for a two man outfit given how beautiful and lush it often is (visually as well as aurally), but the number of stories that have emerged from the few simple systems it employs is remarkable. Though it remains unfinished (partly because I have to psyche myself up to play it) Miasmata has resonated with me since the moment I washed up on its shores back in November.
The goal of Miasmata is to explore the island you’ve been exiled on to gather and analyse flora in order to formulate a cure for your fatal disease. Your character, Robert Hughes, being deathly ill, is particularly fragile and ungainly. Run down a slope too fast and he’ll tumble. Fall in some water and he may become feverish. Run for too long and he’ll tire and pant with exhaustion. Buffington McManmuscle he is not.
Miasmata features a cartography system that involves triangulating your position in relation to known points of interest to map out the island, which is mostly uncharted save for a few notes scattered about that reveal certain key locations and areas to visit. Visibility is key though; lose that and mapping is nigh on impossible. Early on I decided I would stick to the coast in order to get a better idea of the shape of the island. This was a good call because as I ventured further afield, I realised that it was huge and, sooner or later, I would have to trek inland where visibility dramatically reduces and the chances of getting lost increase substantially. With day and night cycles as well as dynamic weather and lighting to further decrease visibility, getting lost will probably ruin your day, not least because you need to stay hydrated with fresh water, but because somewhere out there is a beast stalking you and the last thing you want is to get caught out in the dark with it.
Now, I knew about the beast before playing Miasmata so pretty much from the get-go I felt its presence. At all times I felt as if I was being watched. This quality can’t be overstated when you’re so isolated and alone. I explored with caution, pausing frequently and looking and listening carefully. Sometimes it was too quiet, other times I couldn’t hear a thing over the rustle of trees, the singing of birds, the patter of rain, or the roar of the ocean beside me. It wouldn’t be for six agonisingly tense in-game days before my first encounter, but the beast’s appearance was so sudden and so shocking that even now, almost 20 days later, exploring still terrifies me. I’m always on edge playing Miasmata so I find it exhausting over longer sessions but, nevertheless, it’s such a special, understated and uniquely seductive game. If you’re a fan of nature, quiet exploration and discovery with elements of survival and, to some degree, horror, this game might be as perfect for you as it was for me and Steerpike, and particularly HM over at Electron Dance who recently wrote two evocative pieces about it: The Beast and The Island.
Minerva’s Den (2011). Played between Bioshock Infinite and Dishonored, Minerva’s Den reminded me why I loved Bioshock 2 so much more than Irrational’s latest instalment in the series. Minerva’s Den added a new weapon and plasmid (which was ridiculously good fun to use) while telling its own surprisingly heartfelt story. Absolutely worth your time if you’re wanting to pay another visit to Rapture.
Teleglitch: Die More Edition (2013). Teleglitch: Die More Edition, a brutal top-down roguelike-like in the vein of Doom and System Shock, was pencilled into the body of this list for a spell before I cut it at the last minute because, honestly, it’s too hard. It’s a nasty, nasty, nasty mean game. Dark Souls would have no choice but to pick up the soap if it was sharing a shower with Teleglitch. I’m serious. It’s survival horror of the highest order.
Risk of Rain (2013). Risk of Rain on the other hand offers a similar, albeit more forgiving, side-scrolling experience (not unlike Star Guard). What I love and hate about Risk of Rain is that the randomised pick-ups can make or break your run. I love it because you can hit a tipping point where you become monstrously powerful and it’s happy days till the credits roll. At the same time however, I hate it because the strategic and tactical play that makes the initial stages so compelling kind of goes out the window. Great fun solo or co-op, boasting some surprisingly amusing writing, sharp pixel art and an excellent soundtrack by Chris Christodoulou, Risk of Rain just pips Teleglitch: Die More Edition for roguelike-like shoot ’em up of 2013.
Super Hexagon (2012): Devilishly difficult and addictive, but pure elegance and simplicity itself. Not unlike Cavanagh’s previous VVVVVV. By far my favourite review of it was by ShaunCG over at Arcadian Rhythms.
And with that: phew, I’m done. If you got this far then bless your cotten socks and thanks for reading.
To contact the author of this unending pap, email firstname.lastname@example.org
*I couldn’t find a genuinely representative screenshot of the PS3 version of Aliens: Colonial Marines so had to resort to a bullshit instead. Sorry, I mean, bullshot.