Every December, instead of searching for a group consensus, Gameological looks back at the year in games through individual perspectives. These are the staffers’ personal takes on a few games that have stuck in their minds for whatever reason—big or small—and does not represent any sort of institutional expression. These are simply the Games We Liked.
Today, we’ll hear from Samantha Nelson, Derrick Sanskrit, Ryan Smith, John Teti, Drew Toal, and Nick Wanserski. If you missed part one or would like to revisit that font of unabashed positivity, you can find it by clicking right here. And just a reminder: Feel free to tell us about your favorite games of the year in the comments using the format we’ve laid out here. We’ll collect some of our favorite Games You Liked in a special edition of Keyboard Geniuses on December 30.
I liked World Of Warcraft: Warlords Of Draenor because the new looting system means I’ll never again fight another player over pants. Since World Of Warcraft launched, the game has used a “greed versus need” system. Players choose if they just want a piece of gear or need it as an upgrade. It seems simple, but I’ve seen so many permutations of how it can go wrong.
In the bad old days, when you needed to get 40 people together to beat the top bosses, I was in a guild that used a complicated system to awarded points based on how often players showed up to raid and how important their role was. The guild masters would only let you “roll”—i.e., put your name in the hat for a piece of loot—if you’d earned enough points. It was a way of stopping the worst tendencies of the game, where players would roll “need” on every item a boss dropped, even if they couldn’t use it, and then bolt. Even when people weren’t absolute dicks, fights would break out about whether people should have rolled “need” on items that were, for instance, a minor upgrade over their current kit. Warlords Of Draenor eliminated greed versus need. Instead, when you help kill a boss, you get a randomized chance at winning a piece of gear that your character can actually use. I’ll never have to deal with a “ninja raider” again.
I liked Persona Q because it feels like exploring a dungeon while reading cracked-out fan fiction. Atlus’ developers know how to do fan service. They have a rabid base that will play any game to spend more time with their beloved characters. And many of those players will also spend time writing or reading fan fiction to continue their relationship with those characters and ponder the games’ many unanswered questions. No wonder: Persona’s plots never reveal everything, and since the cast is always huge, anyone can find at least a few characters to love.
With its ridiculous crossover plotline, Persona Q delivered when it came to delving deeper into character development and also satisfying anyone who might have envisioned (or fictionalized) a get-together between the teenage ensembles of Persona 3 and Persona 4. It’s silly stuff, a sort of guilty pleasure that might be too much fluff if it weren’t served with the meat of Etrian Odyssey’s dungeon exploration system. Having the stress of creating a map and watching your resources gives you focus, and the bizarre story is like a sweet dessert to reward you for your efforts.
I liked Hearthstone because it brings back the joy of unwrapping new Magic cards while a timer keeps my neuroses in check. I started playing Magic: The Gathering in middle school and quickly became addicted. I couldn’t afford to buy cards often, so any new pack was thrilling, and I loved sorting them out and considering new deck combinations with my limited collection. That thrill faded by the time I got a job and could afford to buy more packs (or just purchase single cards). Random common cards were no longer a precious commodity, and I would only get excited to find a particularly valuable card in a pack.
Hearthstone rekindled the thrill. I’ve refused to put any actual money into the game, so every pack I receive comes from winning games, and thus a new acquisition feels as hard-earned as when I was saving up my allowance. I love seeing all my cards neatly laid out, and I’m even okay with duplicates since I can “disenchant” them and put their energy toward getting something new. The flashy animation you get from opening a pack and flipping a rare, epic or legendary card is an effective motivator.
Along with bringing me back to the simpler times of opening packs, Hearthstone also makes me feel like I’m still in the early days of playing Magic with my friends, before I was concerned about combos or the correct order of having effects resolve. The game’s short turn timer means I have to make my decisions quickly and live with them. Freed from the impatient glares of friends, I can relax and let the Magic unfold.
I liked Threes! because it was always there for me, no matter where I was, what I was doing, or how much time I had. The number-matching game works just as well if I’m intently focused on breaking my high score or just blindly moving tiles around during a phone call. Threes! wants you to keep playing, and it wants you to want to keep playing. That’s why you can pick up where you left off hours ago despite switching to a dozen other apps in the interim. That’s why starting a new game takes a matter of seconds. That’s why there’s a fanfare every time you unlock a new tile or break your own high score. It’s immediate. It’s now. Anytime could be now. Now could be now. This year, whenever I had one hand on a pole in a crowded subway car and some superfluous podcast on my headphones, there was only one thing my free thumb wanted to do, and that was keep playing Threes!
I liked Transistor because it made me care about every single power-up. Getting new abilities in games has always been exciting. It’s cool to feel more powerful than you were before. Transistor could have just given us the combat powers and left it at that. Nobody would complain. The game goes all out, though, by granting each power different effects when used as support for the other powers in play. A bomb is pretty cool on its own, but what if the bomb’s spread effect could be applied to a laser? Or what if the laser’s bounce effect could be applied to the bomb? Every skill acts a bit differently when used in a support role, and the best way to learn what works for your style is to keep experimenting. The possibilities are too numerous to count. Transistor doesn’t just give you an arsenal; it gives you an ecosystem.
I liked Mountain because it leaves enough gaps for my imagination to fill in whatever story I wanted. This “mountain simulator” asks some brief open-ended personal questions at the beginning, but beyond that there is no interaction, only observation. Detritus will crash into your mountain: buses, missiles, guitars. Where does this stuff come from, and why does it keep coming specifically to your mountain, a tiny landmass floating in endless space? Occasionally, the mountain will narrate its inner thoughts: a calmness, a forgiveness, a rising sense of existential dread. And then there are the peculiar ways in which your mountain can die. The inaction of Mountain makes it one of the most soothing and meditative games of the year, which is why I’m filled with curiosity whenever anything does happen. There has to be a reason behind these strange occurrences and my mountain’s silent self-awareness. Alas, I’m tethered to my mountain and can’t explore past its immediate neighborhood in space. And so, much like the sailors of yore and the philosophers of ancient Greece, I look to the stars and try to imagine, as best I can, how this all came to pass. My mountain’s story is unique from any other’s because my mountain’s story is the story of my own mind.
I liked FRACT OSC because it made me feel like an architect with a sense of agency, uncovering a lost civilization while also making my own mark on their long-forgotten culture. Exploration feels so right in this game, thanks both to the world’s completely alien topography and its refusal to hold the player’s hand. Whispers of the land’s ancestry can be gleamed from FRACT’s musical puzzles and geometric markings. More importantly, though, those systems teach players how to use the world’s tools to open paths and express their own voices. Rebuilding broken remnants of an abandoned culture is satisfying enough—watching dead machines spring to life feels like an accomplishment, even if I don’t fully understand them. But the end game, where players must create something new, something that blends the rote mechanics of the past with their own personal improvisations, is exhilarating. On my playthrough, I only knew bits and pieces of the society that had once thrived here. One thing I knew for sure, however, was that I had become a part of that culture, and I would keep their spirit moving forward with my own voice.
I liked Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor because its inventive Nemesis system breathes life into otherwise faceless orcs. Villainous henchmen always get short shrift in the individuality department, so few would have blinked an eye if the creators at Monolith painted the murderous Uruks with the same boring brush in Shadow Of Mordor. Instead, the studio worked overtime to devise a system that randomly generates these beings from an endless combination of names, appearance, and corresponding combat style and personality—turning cardboard-cutout orcs into unique snowflakes. I encountered one Uruk captain named Pugrish The Amputator, for example, who favors a massive blade (presumably the tool that helped earn his name) and fears a particular species of wild beast. Kruk Grog-Burner speaks with a guttural Cockney accent and employs a heightened sense of smell to sniff out the opposition.
Part of what makes the Nemesis system so remarkable is that the orcs evolve on both an individual and organizational level over time. The hierarchical structure of the officer corps changes amid constant infighting and political assassinations, even without your violent interventions. Named Uruks also adapt to their interactions with you. An officer you tossed into a campfire during a battle may want revenge for his disfiguring burns during a later encounter. No, none of your green- and gray-skinned opponents are as full-bodied as your human hero Talion, but the Nemesis system helps Shadow Of Mordor’s version of Middle-Earth feel a bit more like a living, breathing place instead of simply an interactive Lord Of The Rings-branded theme park.
I liked The Wolf Among Us because it has a central relationship worth caring about. Telltale’s serial takes magical realism quite literally, plopping fantastical characters like Mr. Toad and The Little Mermaid together in a modern day New York City slum called Fabletown. The cast is borrowed from old fairy tales, but there’s nobody here is living happily ever after. The residents of Fabletown struggle with broken marriages, substance abuse and crushing debt—problems a bit more down-to-earth than witches’ curses and evil stepmothers.
It’s a bleak setting that might have proven suffocating without the ray of light provided by the relationship between Bigby Wolf and Snow White. As Fabletown’s sheriff and deputy mayor, respectively, Bigby and Snow share a camaraderie born in the heat of the moment. A mysterious killing has occurred, and they’re the only two public servants who care about solving the case. It proves to be a thankless job because few Fabletown residents trust them. With reason: Snow has been following the orders of a hopelessly corrupt mayor, and Bigby still hasn’t escaped the shadow of his violent Big Bad Wolf past. But Bigby and Snow quietly believe in each other’s inherent goodness even when no one else does. In a game full of pulpy violence and bizarre mystery, it’s the budding relationship between Bigby Wolf and Snow White that crackles with dramatic tension.
I liked Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare because it lightens the shooter mood. Competitive multiplayer shooters aren’t the most whimsical affairs, which makes sense considering the thematic material. It’s called the “deathmatch” for a reason, after all. So I was skeptical when Electronic Arts first announced that Plants Vs. Zombies was graduating to the console world. I didn’t believe that this charming handheld puzzle game, which pits flowers and veggies against the plant-munching undead, could morph into a Call Of Duty-style shooter. The plan felt like a miscalculation, like if Wes Anderson were tabbed to direct the next Saw sequel.
But Garden Warfare takes the school of thought ushered in Team Fortress 2—Valve’s first-person shooter that subverted the genre with cartoonish visuals and sensibilities—and ups the ante by lowering the stakes. You’re not some grim soldier murdering an enemy combatant in cold blood, you’re a grinning sunflower shooting seeds at a zombie in a football uniform. The napalm exploding on the battlefield? That’s popcorn. The absurdly lighthearted nature of Garden Warfare has rubbed off on its player community, which is less hostile than in most first-person shooters I’ve played. Typically, the most prickly insult you’ll encounter an online match is the cactus launching spines at you.
I liked South Park: The Stick Of Truth because it feels like playing South Park. Given that every installment of the South Park TV show is produced in less than a week, it’s impressive that Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and their team of animators find time to sprinkle blink-and-you-miss-it details throughout each episode. When the wheelchair-user character Timmy falls asleep with his teddy bear, the artists give the bear a wheelchair, too. Touches like that don’t just add moments of delight to South Park, they also deepen its world and make the town of South Park feel like a habitable place.
That sense of depth and livability is harder to maintain when you actually invite the audience to wander through your world rather than restricting them to carefully framed shots. Yet Stick Of Truth achieves a level of detail that follows through on the promise of the TV show. (That’s partly because Stick Of Truth had a development far longer than an average episode of the show—its gestation period was even mocked in a Black Friday-themed trilogy of South Park episodes last year.) Stick’s open world is packed with props, minor characters, and diversionary side quests that make South Park bustle the way a fan of the TV show would expect. The fighting can be monotonous, and the quest never presents a strenuous challenge, but those are minor nuisances. Stick Of Truth doesn’t need to redefine the art of fighting goblins and demons. It accomplishes the more formidable task of immersing players in Stone and Parker’s particular space and sensibility for an enjoyable 15-hour adventure. “I’m goin’ down to South Park,” says the fellow in the TV show theme song, and now you can finally join him.
I liked Fibbage because it’s the perfect party guest: witty but not overbearing. Fibbage is a game of creative lying. You and your friends are presented with an odd piece of trivia from which has one essential piece of information missing. Then all the players fill in the blank with their own fabrication in the hope of duping everyone else. If you’re a convincing liar (and if you can pick out the truth amid a flurry of falsehoods), you’ll be good at Fibbage. It’s an experience that reaches hilarious heights of broad comedy and psychological trickery.
That’s the witty part, but just as importantly, Fibbage is the rare party game that doesn’t grind your party to a halt. That’s because the developers at Jackbox Games—more famous for You Don’t Know Jack—created an ingenious control scheme in which players simply use their smartphones rather than gamepads. That’s a minor change with major impact. There are few activities that kill a celebration faster than scrounging together a bunch of controllers (Do they work? Are they charged? Is everybody logged in?) to play a video game. Fibbage eliminates the Great Gamepad Harvest entirely. Instead, everyone pulls out their phone and types a “room code” into a browser. After a 15-second rules explanation, you’re off and running. Where other party games insist on making a grand entrance, this game just shows up, so I’ve never regretted extending an invitation to Fibbage.
I liked NES Remix 2 because it’s inventive nostalgia. Nintendo continually makes attempts to bring new players into the fold. NES Remix 2 is not one of those attempts. This collection of miniature challenges—based on Kid Icarus, Metroid, and other classics of Nintendo’s yesteryear—is for people who lived through the original NES era or acquired a passion for it after the fact. It isn’t just lazy nostalgia, though, and even experienced players may appreciate new strategies that Remix 2 reveals.
A challenge might ask you to, say, collect five cherries in a Super Mario Bros. 2 level as fast as possible. You’d finish in 40 seconds or so, pretty proud of your time, and then notice that you only got two stars out of a possible three. That’s when the true game begins, as you seek out new tactics and refinements that can shave seconds off your time. Even better, Remix offers video replays of record-setting runs (through Nintendo’s no-sharp-edges social network, Miiverse), so you can cadge tips from other, superior players. It’s a stirring testament to the NES canon that its games can still, decades after they were released, test players in new ways.
I liked Wolfenstein: The New Order because killing space Nazis never gets old. If there’s one thing I hate worse than Nazis, it’s hyper-advanced space Nazis using my dead friend’s brain to power a Nazi death robot that attempts to smear my innards all over the Nazi credenzas. I hate that shit! Maybe that’s why I find it so pleasurable to wade through Hitler’s mecha-legions in Wolfenstein: The New Order, wielding nothing but a machine gun in each hand and that American can-do spirit.
In this reboot, the basics of Wolfenstein’s original World War II revenge fantasy have remained in place. Nazis have won the war, and the ragged forces of good are all scattered and in hiding. You still play as B.J. Blazkowicz, an army guy looking to kick ass and chew bubble gum. (Or was that Duke Nukem?) In that respect, the game is remarkably similar to its storied antecedent. The New Order makes a real effort, though, to add some depth beyond simply aerating as many SS officers as possible, and I appreciate that. You see, I’m a man who enjoys the finer things during the holidays: newly fallen snow, a nice port, Proust in the original French, and repeat viewings of Die Hard. I like to think of myself, like this game, as falling somewhere on the Frasier Crane-Marion Cobretti axis.
I liked Dragon Age: Inquisition because it satisfies my inner messiah. Have you guys ever read Dune? You’ve probably read Dune. I have a dog-eared copy of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi masterpiece that I’ve read half a dozen times. The story of Paul Atreides, a rich white dude who develops drug-induced superpowers and leads a band of desert warriors in a galaxy-spanning jihad is timeless. That’s partly because it fuels my own fantasies of an army populated by my own unstoppable and utterly devoted followers, a notion that is never far from my thoughts as I read (and probably toes the line of socially acceptable megalomania).
That book was very much on my mind as I began the latest Dragon Age. The third game in the series has you leading an inquisition, uniting the people under your banner in a fight against an ancient evil. Your followers hold you in awe, and your character is rumored to be touched by the game’s Joan Of Arc/Christ figure, a woman known as Andraste. You can either deny or embrace your messianic legend, and I’m enjoying my character’s gradual transformation from skeptical humanist to full-blown cult figure. I think I’m about halfway through as I write this appreciation, and the guy we’re trying to stop is himself trying to kill the old gods and supplant them. I hope that when the inquisition inevitably destroys this pretender, I’ll get the option to fulfill his mission for myself and lead an inquisition without end from my heavenly throne. Yep, totally acceptable level of megalomania, right here.
I liked Bravely Default because it’s an art gallery with fireballs. I don’t know if I’ve ever viewed Bruegel’s painting “Tower Of Babel” and thought, “I’d like to buy a magical sword from that place.” But that’s the kind of experience Bravely Default provides. Four heroes undertake that timeless task—saving the planet—and in the process, visit some of the most richly designed locations I’ve ever had the pleasure of killing goblins at. Those lavish venues include the aforementioned city built up on itself into a densely inhabited tower, or a desert town made to look like an imperial Russian castle made of whirling and twitching clock gears.
It’s a pleasure to explore this world through Akihiko Yoshida’s creative, spritely characters. Yoshida’s aesthetic is the personality that glues Bravely Default’s esoteric locations together. His style is both high fantasy and earthy; strange mixed with just the right amount of historical and cultural influence to make the look cohesive. Of course, no game has art direction so good it will render a bad game playable. Bravely Default is fun. Combat is breezy and rhythmic, and you have a welcome amount of control over the frequency and difficulty of the enemy encounters—as though the game knows it’s a visual treat and doesn’t want anything to prevent you from enjoying the flavor.
I liked Shovel Knight because it looks forward and not back. There is a type of kung fu entertainment, seen in the manga Ranma ½ and in Stephen Chow movies, where combatants use common domestic objects for battle instead of the standard spear or broadsword. Part of this is because the incongruity is funny. Seeing someone get whacked upside the face with a giant pancake spatula is good times. But the shift in perspective also demonstrates a deeper reason kung fu is fun to watch: It’s a celebration of mastery. “Kung fu,” after all, simply means “practice.” When the usual arsenal is stripped away, you can see that it doesn’t matter what the person you watch is doing, as long as they’re really good at doing it.
In that regard, Shovel Knight is kung fu. The knight looks pretty damn cute in his full plate armor, replete with a humble shovel, but it’s not long before that cuteness develops into knit-brow seriousness as you try to use said shovel to hop across a chasm of unstable puffer platforms for the 10th time. Shovel Knight strives to be a new 8-bit experience, not an homage or a throwback, although its influences are obvious (Mega Man and DuckTales among them). The creators at Yacht Club Games were smart about which artifacts of 8-bit games they chose to carry over. Shovel Knight is a challenging platformer that demands patience, but it isn’t needlessly punitive like those old Nintendo games could be as they tried to stretch a thin premise into hours of enjoyment—or at least hours of activity.