Last year, the Pixelitis staff said that 2012 had its work cut out for it, as 2011 rocked hard. We knew big games were on the horizon, but no one could have expected some of this year’s top games. Ranging from indie darlings like Fez to major out-of-nowhere blockbuster releases like Dishonored, gamers everywhere were spoiled rotten.
With the year quickly winding down to a close, the entire Pixelitis staff picked their Game of the Year, as well as a runner up. It was the only way we could give proper recognition to some of the best gaming had to offer over the last 12 months.
So enthused were we with the discussion that we got (nearly) everyone together for a special podcast that chronicled the 2012 Game of the Year Spectacular. We’ve included that bit of awesome after the break, along with our written testimony for why our favorite titles deserve to be considered the Game(s) of the Year for 2012.
Oh, and 2013? The ball’s in your court.
I always feel that the games that come out later in the year tend to overshadow the gems that come before them. I blame this on the hype that is still fresh in our minds as the year comes to an end; an inundation of special-effect laden commercials and late night playthroughs over the holiday breaks.
But the one game that made a lasting impression not only on my feelings, but my very perception of what a videogame is meant to be, came in the form of Journey by thatgamecompany. Very few games have made consider my interactions with other people the way this game has.
A visual masterpiece that connected players in ways that I thought no one would have the patience for, it managed to bond players together without the gimmicks of gamer tags or chat capabilities. I thought that it would be cumbersome to get people to complete puzzles with me if I didn’t have that avenue of communication. Instead, I learned that the beauty of the experience came from putting complete trust in your companion and trudging your way to the end of your adventure one level at a time.
A mixture of simple and intuitive controls with a straightforward yet emotionally invigorating premise makes the game accessible to a wide audience, which in turn makes the potential for making this journey with people of all different gaming backgrounds even more exciting. I obviously don’t want to get into any spoilers here, but I will say that the end of this game is a transforming experience, and knowing you’ve managed to share that with another human being you don’t even know isn’t something you get to do everyday.
Runner-up: Final Fantasy XIII-2
I’ll be the first to admit it, this game does not quite meet up to my expectations of a game of the year. Why is it my runner-up then? It’s because the significance of this game transcends the trappings of mechanics, plot, character development and graphical capabilities.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an affirmation for me that game developers are listening to us, and despite some flubbed attempts, they really do want to deliver something that we want. We complained about linear plot development? They threw in time travel. We liked the combat? They tweaked it, refined it and took out that annoying Paradigm Shift animation. Of course there are things that fall short of the mark. The lack of Lightning appearances, the obscure focus on Serah, arbitrary plot progression and Snow forsaking his character development and regressing back to a chump all made Final Fantasy XIII-2 the game feel disjointed at times.
But I could really feel that this game was made with the intent of fixing what was wrong in Final Fantasy XIII. Improvements were made universally, and it still managed to retain that Final Fantasy charm that has helped the series survive for as long as it has. And in that charm I see the potential for the series to keep on going despite the harsh criticism it receives. XIII-2 gives me hope that Square Enix will keep with this trend of listening to its fan base, and that hope was enough to make me love the game the way I do now–its faults included.
So many games do little more than attempt to make you feel like a badass. And so many games don’t quite deliver. I loved ACIII, but it too often made me feel like an epileptic badass, at best. And that can be said of many other titles this year. Dishonored, however, left me with none of that disappointment. It felt fully fleshed out, well designed and most importantly, well executed.
I’m a sucker for good art design and aesthetics in pretty much anything. My comic book tastes are guided by artists rather than titles, and often times I’m most excited about games based on their concept art. Dishonored has an incredible aesthetic. Just the slightest hint of cel-shading gives the polygons that make up this world pop. The guys at Arkane Studios did a fantastic job of making steam punk seem refreshing, which is no small feat in 2012. And then they go even further, weaving the steam punk aesthetic into an all new interesting IP.
The past few years have seen endless sequels and reboots, and I think part of the reason I like Dishonored so much is the fact that somebody thought it’d be a great idea to actually create something new. Dunwall is varied and deep, and Corvo is arguably one of the more interesting main characters of any title I’ve played in recent memory. The gameplay is so complex but elegant at the same time. Every inch of the game is dripping with unbridled possibility. And the ability to stop time, possess a guy, unfreeze time and cause him to shoot himself is case and point why this is my pick for GOTY.
Runner-up: Darksiders II
My runner-up this year has got to be Darksiders II. It really did come down to the wire between this and ACIII, but I can’t honestly give the pick to a title that…flawed. So Darksiders II slides into the runner-up spot with a far cleaner final product. Even though Dishonored wins top honors in my book for being truly a new IP, Darksiders II gets props for being an improvement upon the original game (which I love far more than I really have any right to) in every possible way. The combat is more varied and challenging, the customization options are infinitely more interesting and the game world itself is leaps and bounds larger than the original without ever feeling bloated or unnecessary.
Again, as with Dishonored, Darksiders II has an aesthetic I really enjoy. Joe Madureira is a favorite comic book artist of mine and his work as the head designer on these titles gives them a really interesting look that still seems complete and cohesive. The gameplay is fun and engaging (I’m a sucker for loot) with far more customization options than the original title. Truly choosing your style of play is new to the series, and executed well here with options for DPS, Tank, Mage and all the other classic RPG builds one expects. They’re all well thought out and enjoyable and you can change them up and mix and match with little trouble. It’s great just running around killing stuff with different stuff. And that sentence right there is what makes me a “writer.” These reasons and many more make Darksiders II a solid pick for runner-up in a very crowded field of GOTY contenders.
There were plenty of big name AAA games released this year, but I found that 2012 was overall another year of many rehashes and sequels. That’s why my game of the year choice goes to the very nice and surprising indie title, Fez. There’s just something about this throwback to the golden age of classic gaming that makes this videogame fruit oh so sweet.
Fez plays as a 2D platformer, but with the help of a magic fez hat, you get the ability to rotate the world in 90 degree increments to reveal the third dimension, which in turn lets you reveal secret paths as well as move platforms around closer and farther to traverse the land. Your goal is to solve puzzles through 2D platforming and outside the box thinking to collect all the pieces of the mysterious Hexahedron, which you accidentally break at the beginning of the game. These cubes are spread throughout a massive world that is split into various locales, each with its own unique feel and aesthetics. Polytron has done a really great job at bringing a beautiful artistic style that is simply bright, colorful and charming.
Besides collecting the cubes that are acquired by solving straightforward puzzles, there’s also the anti-cubes which requires outside the box thinking to collect, and that’s where the juice of the game really is. These puzzles ranges from reading QR codes to decoding languages and symbols, which in turn translates to a series of buttons presses.
Speaking of decoding languages, collecting these anti-cubes makes for a great training to become a “Junior Cryptographer.” While playing Fez, I had a notebook full of symbols and writings that one might think me insane if discovered.
The beautiful part is that these anti-cubes are totally optional. If you want to play Fez as a traditional puzzle game, simply play through and collect all the regular cubes. However, Fez can only be fully experienced by doing plenty of research and note collecting–or you can just check on the internet for the answers and translations. But that ruins all the fun.
Runner-up: Borderlands 2
Borderlands 2 for me was a delightful upgrade from the original in almost every aspect. I played through Borderlands 2 with my girlfriend and my two roommates on split-screen LAN, making this the funnest friendship bonding game I have played this year. Nothing says “friendship” like loot collecting, weapon trading and bandit murdering. The only reason Borderlands 2 isn’t GOTY in my book is because as fun and exciting as it was, it’s an upgrade from the original Borderlands while Fez was a unique experience that was unprecedented.
Really, for more on why Borderlands II deserves being a runner-up for GOTY, check out my review.
thatgamecompany’s PS3 exclusive Journey showed me a lot of incredible things in its short, two and a half-hour timespan. From its breathtaking level design to its touching score and ambiguous story, it’s one of the prettiest and most artistic games out on the market.
Journey proved to me that a game doesn’t have to take 20+ hours of gameplay and backstory for a player to forge a connection with a character. But this isn’t just some partner controlled by the AI: you’re playing with another anonymous human over the internet.
My partner and I stuck together through thick and thin, coming across some mysterious structures and harsh, frightening occurrences. We communicated via our robed figures’ little utterances, using that to tell each other to follow, or mash on it when we were feeling silly or freaking out.
And even though I know of what happens in the game in subsequent playthroughs, it’s still enjoyable to go back and replay things, helping others find all of those hidden collectibles and similarly being helped by fellow players.
The game’s ending touched me so deeply that I legitimately cried. It takes a special kind of game (I’m looking at you, Mother 3) to evoke that kind of a response from me. Although I didn’t get the chance to write down the usernames of the two different PSN users I played with when they showed up during the game’s credits, I still want to thank those two players for accompanying me on an incredibly thought-provoking and moving journey.
Runner-up: Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami seemed to have completely slipped under my radar at the time of its release in late October, but once I actually got it a month later I was instantly enraptured by its insanity.
Dennaton Games described its psychedelic, 80s-inspired title as a “top down fuck’em-up,” and that fits the bill perfectly. The game disturbed me with its unreliable and psychotic narrator and trippy visuals, not to mention the ultra-violence you commit against your enemies. Its gameplay is inherently addicting thanks to how quickly the player can get back to retrying a level after multiple failures (read: shotgun wounds). Even with the often-times dim-witted AI, the player has to employ stealth and quick reflex to avoid a quick death.
The game’s incredible, 80s-inspired soundtrack and the uncertainty of where and what was going on in its surreal plot kept me on my toes. The game just loves to pull a fast one on you, like when a SWAT team raids the house where you just murdered several floors of gangsters or a car crashing into the lobby of the building that you had just massacred (that latter one made me jump in my seat).
Dishonored and The Witcher 2 (Xbox 360) also get honorable mentions from me. This was quite a difficult year to pick just two stand-out games.
If you would have told me a year ago that my Game of the Year pick for 2012 would be a point-and-click adventure game from Telltale Games, I would have said you were nuts. I’m not some die-hard Sam & Max fan, nor did I spend any time with Day of the Tentacle. It just wasn’t a genre that even registered on my radar.
Then along came a sweet, innocent little girl named Clementine.
Everything I did in that game was for her. I felt connected to her because she connected almost instantly with Lee. Clem was my little girl and no harm was coming to her–undead or living. To me, she was someone I wanted to protect.
Other members of the group, from the redneck-y Kenny to the short-tempered Larry, were fleshed out in such a way that I kept coming back. I wanted to know what was going on with the people in my group; I wanted to know how they were coping in a life where the dead come back to consume the living.
Though The Walking Dead has the luxury of drawing from Robert Kirkman’s fantastic comic series of the same name, I feel that in certain aspects, it surpasses both the comics and the TV show. I relate to these people. They’re not all perfect shots and they have deep, debilitating character flaws. They almost feel human.
In my playthrough, I experienced a game-breaking glitch that rendered my save file corrupted. Normally that type of thing ends my experience with the game right then and there.
Instead, I restarted. I soldiered on and made it through to the heart-wrenching, tear jerking end. And then, as if to twist the knife even more, the song that plays during the credits hits you like a weepy, soggy sack of bricks.
You see, that’s what puts The Walking Dead in a league of its own. The story and writing is so strong, so well done that I didn’t mind sitting through the game’s unskippable cutscenes. I didn’t mind hearing the same dialogue over and over.
To me, this story of survival, of a convict and a little girl that stands as the last beacon of innocence in a world gone wrong was more than just a game. It was an experience. Over the course of five episodes, my decisions weighed not only on the main character Lee, but also on the entire group. More importantly, they directly impacted Clem.
And that’s all that mattered.
Runner-up: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Much like I never would have seen an episodic point-and-click adventure take my top choice for Game of the Year, I never would have expected Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be as good as it was.
A ridiculously deep title, XCOM had me pretty much from the start. First off, it’s a tactical shooter not unlike Valkyria Chronicles that pits a multi-national special ops group against an invading alien horde. When a good plan comes together and your six squad members of varying nationalities make it back to base, it’s such a satisfying feeling.
And that’s because the AI is ruthless. One misstep and your ass is toast. Just another casualty in a war where mankind looks like it’s teetering on the brink of occupation at best – extinction at worst. Each loss stings in this game. Members of your squad can be personalized to represent your friends and family, but the moment they die, it stings. If they were high ranking officers, that’s even worse, as they’re sure to be replaced by rookies still wet behind their ears. Rookies that the aliens will surely chew up and spit out. That finality of death in XCOM also showed that Firaxis wanted players to think before they ran into battle.
Combine that with the game’s base management and its constant quest to maintain balance calm across a besieged planet, and you have a game that stands out above the rest.
With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis has made a title that proves that turn-based strategy is not dead. It shows that the bitter taste of defeat can be just as satisfying as a victory and it shows that content is king.
It seems like all of us are a bunch of emotional sissies with nothing but jello for guts. But hear me out on this one. The Pixelitis staff on the whole has been a fan of thatgamecompany since the days of Flower, when we were all wee (slightly wee-er?) youngins… or really back in 2009. But in all honesty, thatgamecompany through Journey made me cry–and with good reason.
There is something to be said about amazing sweeping graphics and a storyline that you can completely immerse yourself in. thatgamecompany created a world devoted completely to your senses and honed in on the important parts: an expansive world to poke through and a journey you could share with a stranger with whom you forged an unforgettable bond–at least for a few hours. The sandscapes that you slid through and whirled with your scarf full of glyphs made for unforgettable gameplay that was both equally simplistic and innovative.
The other part of the winning formula in Journey was the music. The tense emotive atmosphere created by Austin Wintory really plucked at your heart strings. The high shrills and low bass tones of violins, harps and expository influences of flutes at key moments exposed my little gamer heart to the trials and tribulations of my little journeyer. The lack of dialogue enforces the music to carry you through the story. From the sincere joys of sandsliding through some dazzling ruins to the tense, cautious moves required to make it through the underground, the music guides you.
Whether chasing, exploring or leading, Journey provides a multitude of roles in its short lifespan. The emphasis of creating a bond based on intuition and heart is a unique part of this game. I have yet to encounter anyone who does not wish to help you on your journey, or someone you don’t wish to help.
In the end, it’s not only your character that emerges triumphant. I would venture to say my heart became a little bigger afterwards.
I find myself replaying certain scenes at the end of the game thanks to the unabashed joy it brings out of me. Journey is a cathartic experience. The sadness that leads to eventual joy is something that other games have not touched on… at least in my experience.
When art touches you that deeply, that’s when you know you’ve stumbled upon something worth experiencing.
Good job, Journey.
Runner-up: TheatRhythm Final Fantasy
This year felt like the infinite year of the portable for me. Yet one game I kept finding myself going back to over and over was the nostalgic joy of TheatRhythm Final Fantasy. As a ginormous fan of music rhythm games, this fun little ditty provides endless amounts of fun and irritation. The level grinding and challenges in the Chaos Shrine portion of this game was the source of much consternation from me–and my 3DS touch screen can attest to it. Despite that, songs like “Terra’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VI or even the densely composed “Blinded by Light” from Final Fantasy XIII brought me back over and over to keep on tapping and swirling on my 3DS.
Lightning, Cloud, Tidus and Squall made up my team of music protagonists, whose chibi attributes also awakened the squeeing little school girl in me. It’s a perfectly packaged game designed to take advantage of fans of the Final Fantasy series.
Sometimes you just need a little Mambo de Chocobo in your life.
I could spend a couple thousand words rambling on just Guild Wars 2 alone and still have room to gush over the game, but I’ll try to be succinct. ArenaNet’s MMO is a bit of a weird game of the year pick for me. Technically speaking, I’ve seen very little of what the game has to offer in terms of sheer content, but I’ve probably spent well over 100 hours playing the online MMO on and off since its release. The fact that the game features no subscription—and no major bonus for people who decide to pay for certain things—means it’s perfect for a full time student with two jobs and a Reviews Editor position at everyone’s favorite gaming blog to pick back up when he has time.
To put it simply, Guild Wars 2 is a beautiful and deep game, full of interesting choices and complex character progression. ArenaNet has done a wonderful job at making an MMO that isn’t a bore to play, breaking conventions such as parties and pre-defined roles within each class. My cloth armor wearing Mesmer is a beast to down, I’ll have you know.
I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the game—my highest level is 40 out of the 80 level cap—but I know it’s a game I will keep coming back to throughout 2013, and that’s really why it is my game of the year pick for this year.
Runner-up: Halo 4
Since I haven’t had the opportunity to review Guild Wars 2 yet, Halo 4 is the single highest reviewed game I’ve ever had the pleasure to score for Pixelitis. Not only did Halo 4 surpass almost everyone’s expectations, I’m of the opinion that 343 Industries made a Halo game better than Bungie ever did, and I quote from my own review:
343 Industries has done what I and many other Bungie fans thought was impossible. Not only have they lived up to the Halo name, they have surpassed and improved upon just about every aspect of the series. The campaign is more thought provoking and complex than it ever has been, and the online components have evolved to meet modern first-person shooting conventions.
Need I say more? If you told me I would be excited about the future of the Halo franchise at the end of 2012, I would have called you a crazy fanboy living in the past—Halo died when Bungie left it. But now I can’t wait to see what 343 Industries has in store for us Halo fans in the future.
(Featured image by JD Hancock)