Gaming Bus’s Games of the Year for 2013!

Welcome to our – OK, my – picks for the best games of 2013! This was Gaming Bus’s first year as a simple blog instead of a semi-serious journalism site, and while I wrote much, MUCH less, I played a lot more than I had been. Therefore, I had a lot of great games to choose from this year.

Before I begin, I feel the need to lay the ground rules:

1) These are for games released between December of ’12 and November of ’13.
2) These are my personal favourite games, and that’s it. No other metric went into this, and this is far from scientific. If I were to review these as objective reviews, #4 might score lower than #9.
3) These are games I’ve played, for systems I own. That eliminates some games that I’m sure would be great if I’d gotten to them yet (Sorry, Zelda: A Link Between Worlds) or owned their system (sorry, Ys).

We’re also going to spice it up a bit compared to last year, as I have some other awards, non-awards, and notes.

First, we will go into an award I started years ago and have occasionally awarded out:

2013 MOUNT & BLADE GOOD-BAD GAME AWARD: This award goes to the game that is enjoyable to play despite having either killer bugs, banal and repetitive gameplay or a combination of the two. This was debuted in 2008 with the original release of Mount & Blade, a game I gave a negative review to despite the fact that I really enjoyed playing it1. I would give the award again in 2009 to Muramasa: The Demon Blade, which at the time was just a Wii game and hadn’t seen its amazing Vita re-release, and in 2010 to Record of Agarest War, which has definitely not aged as well. The award took a couple of years off at that point – 2011 was a year of transition, and I couldn’t think of one for 2012 – but this year, we have a “winner”:

Knights of Pen and Paper: On the surface, I should hate Knights of Pen and Paper (KoPP from here on); it’s a game you have to pay for, and yet still uses freemium tactics to try to get players to buy disposable trinkets. It’s not quite “paymium” level – this isn’t an Xbox One game, or a Square Enix game – but it’s kind of crappy, almost by necessity being a mobile game at first, but it’s a process that transferred itself to the PC as well, where the price is significantly higher.

So imagine my surprise when I played the game for hours and had to make a conscious decision to put it down. KoPP is really good at hitting that “just one more” part of your brain that makes you want to keep playing. The game is, by all accounts, banal, with “ironic” storytelling and constant winks-and-nudges as if the game is trying to tell inside jokes while blatantly explaining why they’re funny and all the while laughing at its own jokes. The gameplay is also a particular brand of simplistic, where you have few options available to you. With that said, it’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s a great time-waster, despite its myriad number of flaws. That’s why KoPP wins my most bittersweet award.

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s start getting into the good stuff. Before our top 10, we’ll work on the games that were good, but not good enough:

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Ridiculous Fishing – Ridiculous Fishing was the first game I got with my iPad, and I don’t regret it for a second. The gameplay is ridiculously simple – miss fish on the way down, catch them on the way up, and then blow them out of the damn sky because fuck yeah – but also highly addictive, making for both short game sessions (a session can last a minute) and for longer gameplay sessions for the purposes of buying one of the many tools. Probably the most enjoyable part is “Byrdr”, a Twitter-like diversion that doubles as a marketing tool allowing for real-life RTs. There’s a lot of fun to be had here for $3, and it’s now on Android to boot.

Runner 2: Future Runner of Rhythm Alien – The initial BIT.TRIP Runner was intentionally simple: play an Atari 2600-like game that gets more complex as you advance. Runner 2 took that to the extreme, making the graphics modern, adding elements, and adding a load of personality to the experience to take it beyond its obvious retro leanings, making Runner 2 feel more like a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon than a thirty year old game. It’s outstanding, there’s tons of content, even the CommanderVideo side game is awesome (though the browser version now redirects to the main game’s site), and it’s just a blast to experience. Runner 2 is the kind of game that’s fun for friends to watch as well as for the player to play.

Path of Exile – “Chris… isn’t Path of Exile free to play? How did it make it into this list? You hate free to play.”

Simply put, Path of Exile is here because it’s a better Diablo than Diablo is. This isn’t the first time I’ve said this; I said it last year, when I made Torchlight II my #8 game of 2012. Therefore, even with what I understand to be a decent console version, that just proves there’s a market who can do Blizzard’s games in a way that removed Blizzard from the equation. It seems to be an easy equation: make a Diablo clone, don’t add bullshit like what Diablo III went through, and you will succeed.

As for this iteration, this is free to play done right. “Hey, y’all! Here’s a game. You get the full game for free. Do you want trinkets? You can buy them, but it won’t affect gameplay. No energy systems. We don’t have you like they do. Have fun! Oh, by the way, it’s a gritty, edgy game with polish, but updates are a pain in the ass, and that’s about the only problem. Have fun!” I would spend money for Path of Exile, but I won’t spend a coin on Angry Birds Go.

Dragon’s Crown – While it got attention for all the wrong reasons – namely, breasts – Dragon’s Crown is really the evolutionary perfection of Golden Axe, Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons games and other beat ’em ups. It’s gorgeous, polished, and deep, providing a boatload of content for anyone willing to dig in for the long haul. Things can get a bit hectic for my liking – once four players get involved, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on – but once online play is unlocked, things get fun, and stay that way. Get some friends who also have the game, and enjoy.

Tomb Raider – I’ve never been a huge Tomb Raider fan; I never cared for the overexposed bimbo that early Eidos put out, and the controls killed the experience. Even when they tried getting their act together on the PS2, it wasn’t enough for me. But put a reboot in the hands of Rhianna Pratchett2, and let her humanize the titular character in a way that can make one involuntarily yelp in shared pain, and you have a winner. The gameplay could have used more tweaking – too many quick time events for my liking – but this was a great game that told a decent story, and revived a brand if Square Enix has a brain in its head.

Now, with all of that out of the way, our Games of the Year for 2013, in descending order.

specops#10: NHL ’14
Systems: XBox 360, PlayStation 3
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Original Release Date: September 10th, 2013

In a way, NHL ’14 is infuriating. There are minor reasons for this – increased pressure to play (and therefore spend money in) Hockey’s Ultimate Team, menu design choices meant to de-emphasize less lucrative modes, and other corporate decisions that must be lucrative or they’d stop doing them – but what makes me the most frustrated about NHL ’14 is this: it’s basically what NHL ’13 should have been.

There was no excuse for last year’s game, which played like bumper cars on ice. Simple jostles in front turned into yard sale-like hits where players went flying like Charlie Brown taking a shot up the middle in a baseball game. The skating engine was broken almost any time someone tried to do something as simple as starting a stride, and to top it off, there were so many ways to cheaply score goals that playing online became farcical.

All of that is gone now. NHL ’14 is sublime hockey; I haven’t played a game this natural since NHL ’10, and before that, NHL 2004. Getting these games right is a balancing act, and EA nailed it this year. Finding seams in the defence, getting the puck in front, fluky goals, hitting, everything that should happen in a hockey game happens here with a reasonable amount of play. Penalties are also finally fixed; no more getting away with slamming people in the numbers while bumping someone at the wrong time causes interference penalties. I can finally, FINALLY play a game of hockey in the same way that I’d actually play a real game. We finally have a game for the intelligent fan.

The additions such as Live The Life, NHL 94 Anniversary Mode and HUT changes, none of those things impress me. All I care about is how good the franchise mode is, and how the game plays. Finally, EA got things right, in about 90% of each case. That’s good enough for me. It’s somewhat ironic that the reasons I loved this year’s NHL franchise are not on the back of the box. This is very likely the series’ swan song on this generation of consoles while EA moves onto the PS4 and One, and if this is indeed it on the PS3, this is the way to go out.

specops#9: Bioshock Infinite
Systems: Microsoft Windows, OS X, PlayStation 3, XBox 360
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Original Release Date: March 26, 2013

Bioshock Infinite was an accomplishment of interactive, real-time storytelling, in the sense that it’s hastening the death of the cutscene. I wrote about the game back in May, and noted the story’s excellence, but also noted that it was somewhat held back by being simply an average shooter. It’s possible that being on a console hurt my enjoyment of the game a bit, instead of the whole PC Gaming Master Race issue, but the shooting parts of the game actually held back what was an incredible story and some amazing characterization.

I would advise people to go back and read my prior thoughts about the game itself, as they haven’t really changed much, and were heightened by my being high on morphine while I played it, which turned Comstock into a cartoon villain version of John Galt mixed with Pat Buchanan. Thinking back, I’m not sure I need to go through the game again, but I definitely thought it was mind blowing the first time through. Bioshock Infinite was one of the games of 2013 that simply must be experienced, even for those who don’t like first person shooters, because it’s a narrative masterclass.

specops#8: Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan
System: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Original Release Date: February 26th, 2013 (NA)

It’s impressive that a series that was envisioned as a return to the oldest of role playing tropes – the first person RPG, complete with actually having to graph out maps – has managed to keep itself fresh into what is now its fifth iteration, but Etrian Odyssey IV pulls it off. EOIV is by far the most accessible and best balanced yet, offering an “easy” mode for newcomers to the genre (and which is still no joke), improved overworld exploration, more varied quests, and arguably the best DLC system on a handheld to date, all of this was added into a system that is already set up for hours upon hours of intense gameplay.

Etrian Odyssey IV has the unique ability to both pull back the curtain on its depths – “hey, here’s what you can see! Look what you can explore…” – while simultaneously making those depths seem inaccessible (“… but you’re leagues away from being able to make it there, let alone out, alive!”), and just when one puts in the hours of grinding and working to get there, it pulls back even more, to show off depths previously unimaginable. It does this time after time after time, teasing, bullying, satisfying, and then saying “now here’s more!”. It’s the magic of the series, and the number one reason why this is as good as it gets in this sub-genre.

Newcomers will appreciate the efforts made to bring them into the fold, and series veterans will adore the increased depth, gameplay and balance changes, and arguably the best soundtrack of the year. Etrian Odyssey is still a game aimed at a hardcore niche, but it hits that niche hard, and with more loving care than anyone else ever could.

specops#7: Tales of Xillia
System: PlayStation 3
Developer: Namco Tales Studio
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Original Release Date: August 6, 2013

I’m on record as not being a huge fan of the Tales series in general, having once called them “Call of Duty for Weeaboos”. For years, they tended to be paint-by-numbers stories with bad characters that were written by the crew of TV Tropes.

Don’t get me wrong: Tales of Xillia still revels in its tropes. It displays them proudly, like a trophy of sorts. But they’ve been surrounded by a good story and likable characters now. The package surrounding the standard issue, paint-by-numbers design is much more attractive, and not just because of the outstanding production values, something that couldn’t save Tales of Vesperia.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Japanese Role Playing Game fans typically don’t actually want too much in the way of innovation. We played whatever was the popular JRPG du jour when we were kids, fell in love, and want that very experience, all over again. For my generation, it was Dragon Warrior, Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy games. After that, it was FFVII and Suikoden II. Younger gamers grew up on FFX and the SMT games. They’re largely similar, and we don’t want anything that rocks the boat too much. Just provide us our set pieces, make those set pieces entertaining, make the game balanced well to minimize grinding, and we’re all set.

Tales of Xillia, probably the best in the series since the original Symphonia, does that in spades. Good battles, good writing, some tasteful fanservice and the usually exemplary Tales battle system make this one of the best Tales games we’ve seen in a long time.

specops6: Rogue Legacy
Systems: Microsoft Windows, OS/X, Linux
Developer: Cellar Door Games
Publisher: Cellar Door Games
Original Release Date: June 27th, 2013

Roguelikes are coming back into vogue nowadays because they’re easy to make and and can be replayed almost infinitely. They also have been around for a long time, so they carry some sort of retro credibility for those who desire that.

So Cellar Door Games, who have made other, less received games in the past that they actually showcase in random spots of their latest game, made a roguelike beat-em-up with progressive stats, a tough difficulty curve, and a punishing system that makes the game progressively harder to get anywhere in. That’s a potent concoction for retro freaks, and Rogue Legacy adds onto that by giving future heroes, the children of those that die in the tower, random skills or traits that either help or hinder the quest.

Rogue Galaxy accomplished both a meld of tried-and-true game elements with its own, original ideas, and pulled it off with a load of personality. Their accomplishment can’t be understated. This is proof that in the video game landscape, even old dogs can learn new tricks.

specops#5: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Systems: Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3
Developers: Level-5, Studio Ghibli
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Original Release Date: January 22nd, 2013

I believe that Ni no Kuni might be the game I’ve anticipated the most coming out of Japan in my life. A classic JRPG totaling 100 hours, developed by Level-5, in concert with Studio Fucking Ghibli!? I couldn’t imagine a better partnership, except maybe the one that already happened. This was supposed to be a mesmerizing quest that made players feel like they were twelve again, and in my case, they succeeded.

The main thing that stuck out to me is the relentless optimism of the game. Per standard Ghibli policy, the characters are warm, with a positive attitude, and find a way to do the impossible while remaining almost idyllically happy and positive. For a long time, JRPGs decided to follow the Cloud Strife/Squall Leonheart method of character development, which was to make the most angsty protagonists possible, stick them in the crappiest situations, and have them basically turn off everyone – characters, players, just about everybody outside of emo 15 year old girls – by being larger-than-life dicks. Ni no Kuni turns that around by putting a little boy as the protagonist and giving him the simple goal of saving his mother’s life from that of the White Witch, who is clearly identified as the villain early in the story. There are no real turns, or swerves, to be found here: it’s simple good vs. evil, grind it out, save the day storytelling, with nothing but smiles to be had.

The game is a graphical showcase, reminding me of how I felt about Dragon Quest VIII when it came out, but ultimately, it’s proof that outstanding JRPGs can still be made in 2013. In a year where classic franchises are being strip-mined into the worst business models possible, Ni no Kuni was old-fashioned in all the right ways.

specops#4: Pokemon X & Y
System: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokemon Company
Original Release Date: October 12th, 2013

I’m basically the target demographic for Pokemon X & Y outside of children: an older gamer, who played the original in my youth, but “grew out” of the franchise as it became more of the same over time. This was supposed to be the one that got me back into the series, I heard. I was skeptical to say the least – Black and White was also “the one”, as were Diamond and Pearl before it, to get older gamers back into the Pokemon fold – but decided to get into it if only because the superior online options would help me keep up with friends around the world who have the game as well.

As I write this, I’m 70 hours into the game. I am going back and forth between the day care centre, my berry farm, and the Battle Chateau, where I get to beat up on “nobility” to train my Pokemon and make ridiculous amounts of money. I also sync my game with Pokemon’s website – no, seriously, I just bought an item with whatever PokeMiles are – while using Wonder Trades to take everyone else’s unwanted Pokemon into my waiting arms, where I will train them from Lv. 1 to be killers. I’ve spent maybe 10% of my time actually trying to complete the quest, and the rest of it in Super Training and Pokemon Amie, trying to make my little pocket monsters the best they can be, statistically speaking.

Pokemon X & Y is the OCD’s worst nightmare, and it has me completely enraptured.

It’s true that the latest Pokemon game doesn’t really bring anything revolutionary, or even wholly new, to the table. The set pieces of the series have been in place since 1996, and no one is going to start digging around in a golden goose that keeps shitting eggs now. But don’t tell my 3DS that, which is literally in my pocket, sitting there, as my Pokemon wait to gather more energy to put into their Super Training. Don’t tell some of the other games I’ve recently bought, and subsequently ignored, because I just had to promote my Charmeleon – staying up at night to promote Charmeleon! All of a sudden, it’s 1997 again, and I apparently have school tomorrow! – and get through one more battle. Don’t tell that to me, who is 33 going on 17 again, and completely absorbed in Pokemon for the first time in over a decade.

specops#3: Valdis Story: Abyssal City
System: Microsoft Windows
Developer: Endless Fluff Games
Publisher: Endless Fluff Games
Original Release Date: September 8th, 2013

For anyone looking for a definitive success story in both indie gaming and the new, crowd-driven era of gaming, this is it. Funded by Kickstarter, and on Steam because of a successful Greenlight campaign, Valdis Story: Abyssal City – another in what seems to be a golden age of Metroidvania games3 – came out with high accolades to the few who played it, as well as strong word of mouth. It deserved everything it got.

Tight controls, outstanding stage and enemy design, and a great combat system will get a game far, but only so far as there are so many other games that have the set pieces of a strong Metroidvania title. What makes this stand out is the ambiance. It’s easy to get lost in the storybook-like world of the holy city and the interesting characters that make up the story, but best of all is Zach Parrish’s absolutely sublime soundtrack. A top notch soundtrack can make a decent game very good – just ask Chrono Cross – and can send a good one over the top. The soundtrack to this game is probably the difference between Valdis Story being a really good game, and being what it is: legitimately one of the best games of 2013, with a soundtrack that rivals the best of Falcom.

If this is the result of our new Kickstarter overlords, then I will welcome them with open arms. Valdis Story: Abyssal City proudly stands with Cave Story as the best evolution of the Metroidvania standard known.

specops#2: The Last of Us
System: PlayStation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Original Release Date: June 14th, 2013

It’s very easy to make fun of AAA development nowadays, mainly because a lot of the criticisms are legitimate. There really aren’t a lot of new ideas coming from the AAA marketplace, just a lot of big budget games that all play and look alike, and usually have increasingly large numbers after the title showing that it’s yet another in a series of other similar games. In short, it’s an expensive clusterfuck that is increasingly becoming a fool’s game for developers as well as consumers.

But we still have to take AAA seriously, and not just because of business inertia making it a bigger deal than it is. Occasionally, we get past all of the crappy first person shooters and scruffy white guys with a five days’ growth to get some real magic. Occasionally, we get The Last of Us.

Zombie games are the latest fad, with seemingly everything either being about killing lots of zombies in a fun way, or trying desperately to either recreate The Walking Dead’s dramatic moments or just being The Walking Dead. The Last of Us, on the surface, falls neatly into the latter category, but it’s so much more than that. The game begins with an unthinkable tragedy and only goes from there, hitting emotional levers inside the player that other games cannot hope to find. The actual act of playing the game – good gameplay, a naturally progressing difficulty curve, and strong immersion – is outstanding as well, as is the way interaction is done. There are no cutscenes, just naturally occurring dialogue in the context of the game.

If this was an award for overall game of the year instead of just the games that I thought were the best for me, The Last of Us would easily have won, and it wouldn’t be close – maybe GTA V comes in a distant second4 – because this is AAA development at its best. This is why we put up with online pass, and paymium, and all of the other made-up words that show just how badly we’ve been getting screwed over the past few years. If AAA is roughage, this is the a 24 carat diamond shining in it.

specopsGAME OF THE YEAR: Fire Emblem: Awakening
System: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: February 4th, 2013 (NA)

For being such a big name Fire Emblem fan – even to this day, despite not being involved in that fandom for years – I’ve never really given the Fire Emblem games any real critical hype. I reviewed a couple of them, and the reviews showed they were decent games, but nothing otherworldly. As an objective reviewer, I know full well that Fire Emblem isn’t for everyone.

That changed with Awakening. Nintendo’s first real attempt to cross what had been a hardcore, niche series into the mainstream couldn’t have gone any better. Easier difficulty levels, the elimination of permadeath (done with Shin Monshou no Nazo, but that never made it over to America), and perpetual “trainer” battles against enemies in the overworld ensured that both casual and hardcore gamers would be pleased; easy difficulty is a great introduction, but the harder difficulty settings are legitimately tough for anyone, including the type of series veterans that used to go on FESS and crunch HM RNG growth numbers with a voracity usually reserved for cultists.5

Awakening was an outstanding introduction to Fire Emblem for newcomers, but it’s veterans that the game really shone with, combining the dual-generation characterization that Seisen no Keifu made famous with the supports that the Game Boy Advance games made popular, all with an open-ended world that the much-maligned Sacred Stones featured. Awakening also added in the fun of playing alongside the children of the main characters, which not only gave statistical rewards – the children are far stronger – but made the game fun to play on multiple playthroughs. Not that that’s necessary, of course; via DLC packs, calendar-based perks and a standard but enjoyable story buttressed by some of the best characters written into an RPG this year. Characters make the story, and Chrom, “Marth” and the rest of the gang are amazing.

Being who I am in the fandom, it’s always hard to be objective with Fire Emblem. Is my rewarding a game in the series that largely made me who and what I am as a games writer a game of the year award “fair”? I think so, in this case. Fire Emblem: Awakening did more than just give gamers a solid strategy role-playing game. It literally saved a franchise that was dead in America, killed by niche-induced indifference and piracy. It began the 3DS’s return to relevance after a rough start. And it gave strategy gamers another outstanding choice for those that weren’t into RTS games. For the series that effectively spawned the strategy RPG genre in Japan just before Shining Force hit, Fire Emblem: Awakening is its greatest contribution, and a worthy recipient of our Game of the Year award.

1 – I was much more positive about Warband, still my favourite in the series.

2 – Chauvinists around the world bitched about this. To them, I remind them that her father did Discworld. Shut the fuck up, you mindless idiots.

3 – I haven’t had a chance to get into it, but I’ve also heard that SteamWorld Dig is sublime.

4 – I know I’ll be asked where GTA V is, so I figure I’ll address my thoughts on it in this footnote. From a technical standpoint – getting all sorts of pieces to fit together in the largest game world we’ve seen yet, incorporating a story in it, and giving players so many things to do while putting out a solid, polished product – Grand Theft Auto V is probably the best made, most impressive technological achievement this year. However, I don’t think it’s a fun game. Every person in the game – every single one – is a reprehensible human being. There is no fun playing such horrible, terrible people. Further, the story, environments, everything about the game is… depressing. From a technical standpoint, it’s an awesome game. From the standpoint of enjoying myself, GTA V was depressing, and if I wanted to feel depressed, I’d play Depression Quest.

5 – If you understood anything in that sentence, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.