Top Games of 2014: Staff Picks



Bravely Default
Submitted by George Pierce

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Japanese role-playing games are sadly becoming fewer and farther between now than they were in their SNES/PSX heyday. The amount of truly superb JRPGs from 2014 can probably be counted on one hand, and perhaps the best of these is Bravely Default on the 3DS. But it doesn’t simply win by default (pun not intended), because beyond being in the upper echelon of the genre, Bravely Default also proves itself to be one of the best games on the 3DS, despite some tough competition.

The most striking thing about the game is its presentation. Bravely Default is a fantastically gorgeous game, one of the most polished looking on the console. Hand-drawn backgrounds, detailed environments, and superb 3D effects combine to form a unique aesthetic that is elegant and instantly memorable. The characters, while falling into familiar archetypes, are nonetheless diverse and charming, and you really care about their individual stories and relationships. Battling is as unique and engaging as any game I’ve ever played—the mixing and matching of 24 different jobs to battle with lends itself to an immense amount of experimentation, and its signature Brave/Default system to control how many Battle Points a character has adds a strategic layer to an already deep system.

Bravely Default stumbles quite hard in its later chapters, which are repetitive and bring the pacing of the story to a crawl, but it can mercifully be cleared in a few short hours if one wishes. The majority of the game, however, is spent in nostalgic bliss, calling back to an age when JRPGs were consistently among the highest-quality games available. By taking pages out of the books of classics like Final Fantasy III, enhancing the battle system, and adding new-age options, such as being able to change the encounter rate and the speed of battle animations, Bravely Default comes away as one of the best JRPGs in recent memory.



The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Submitted by Joss Taylor Olson

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I stumble around a decrepit basement, blinded by rubber cement, a dead baby floating behind me and vomiting flies at grinning masses of poop. Oh, and I’m a sobbing naked child.

If you didn’t crack at least a smile at the absurdity of that situation, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth may not be the game for you. It’s one of those games that only makes sense in context. Five-year-old Isaac is placed in mortal danger after his mother receives a message from God commanding her to kill her son. He flees into the basement and beyond, armed only with his tears and whatever else he can find to protect himself from monsters, ghosts, demons, and—yes—living poop. Given Isaac’s intensely Christian household, the game is rife with Biblical imagery; the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, all seven of the Deadly Sins, and Satan himself stand in your way, and many of the weapons and items you find are right out of the Testaments. Juxtaposed with the scatological humor, the result is an insane and hilarious nightmare world filtered through the eyes of a confused child. It’s comedic in the blackest way possible, but there’s also a genuinely sad story lurking between the levels; a story of child abuse, divorce, identity crises, and other personal tragedies most games don’t touch.

It’s also intimately familiar to fans of the original Binding of Isaac, as this is the sort of updated rerelease most updated rereleases can only dream of being. The variety of bosses and monsters has at least doubled, and the creepy and creative design has only improved with the retro-flavored 16-bit graphics. You explore the levels room by randomly generated room, with literally millions more possible configurations than the last game. You use keys to open chests and doors, pennies to shop and to gamble, and bombs to break open secret rooms and stashes. The simplicity of the resource management is deceptive, as each room presents a massive variety of choices: do you bomb this rock and hope for a key to get into a treasure room? Do you save it to get into a secret room, gambling on finding enough money for that one shop item you need? Half the fun of the game is learning which items work best together and figuring out the secrets of each floor and item, because every single one has a secret that could potentially make or break a run.

I’ve put over 300 hours into this game since its November release, because there’s too much of it not to. There are eleven characters, each of whom plays completely differently and, with the abundance of challenges and hidden secrets, I’ve only now gotten around to unlocking absolutely everything. The original is apparently getting more DLC, but I don’t think I can go back to it. Rebirth adds co-op, more characters, more items, and feels like the game the Flash engine kept the original from being. About the only thing I still like better about the first one is the music, but we’ll see about that when the Rebirth piano collections album drops.



Far Cry 4
Submitted by Joey Chini

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Everything you loved about Far Cry 3, except bigger and better. Great as an FPS, great as an action/adventure but most importantly, great as a whole package. Far Cry 4 is certain to pull you into its very own island of Kyrat and is sure to tear you down, chew you up and toss you away as you learn what it means to survive. Ajay Ghale, the protagonist and main playable character is thrust into a struggle for the leadership of his home country, Kyrat. His mother’s last wish was for her ashes to be placed at Lakshmana, a mysterious location alluded to by many throughout the story. Join Ajay as he fights to bring his mother to peace, find the truth about his father and liberate the war-torn Kyrat from ruthless dictators, religious zealots and drug kingpins.

It would be wrong for me not to recommend Far Cry 4 to anyone, because it is such a universally fun time. Whether you are a fan of FPS games, survival games, open world games or just a plain old good story, Far Cry 4 is for you. The attention to detail is remarkable and the island is teeming with life, making Far Cry 4 a high contender for my pick for game of the year.



Mario Kart 8
Submitted by Pat Fenton

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Mario Kart 8tops the list for Wii-U games of 2014. It boasts a rich online game experience with tournaments, Vs. play and standard races. Offline mode has plenty to keep you busy too, with star ratings for completing circuits and the usual list of items to help you do so.  Anti-gravity wheels help keep things fresh, turning not only the track upside down, but racing mechanics. When the anti-gravity wheels deploy, smashing into your competition grants a small speed boost. With the addition of hang-gliders and turbines from Mario Kart 7, it is a race through land, air and water.

The game isn’t finished yet either; with one DLC pack released, another is due out this May. Included in the Legend of Zelda DLC was the Hyrule circuit, Excitebike Arena and, of course, Link and a bike for him to ride and glide. While Link’s course went all out with the Hyrule theme, you’d think that would be the highlight for DLC one, but the Excitebike Arena and F-Zero circuit have random features that will switch positions each time you race setting them apart from the standard tracks which levels the playing field a bit for those that don’t play enough to memorize where every patch of mud or boosters are placed.

With the older fans appeased with the Zelda DLC, the younglings will have their chance to get excited this May when the Animal Crossing DLC gets released. While I have sworn an oath against Animal Crossing,  I am all about getting eight new courses for my favourite racer.



Jazzpunk
Submitted by Hunter ‘Haunter’ Samford

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I can try my best to summarize what you’re in for when you boot up a copy of my personal game of the year candidate, Jazzpunk, but no words that I could ever produce with a keyboard would capture the  pure insanity this game provides. Jazzpunk is somewhere between the adventure game wet dream of Adult Swim’s most crazed employees and Conker’s Bad Fur Day’s spiritual successor that swaps out beer for pure acid.

For a game that’s so strange and obviously lacks the budget of any of your typical AAA publishers, Jazzpunk does something so truly original that it begs to be seen, nay, experienced. How many games are simply on shelves to provide nothing but pure comedy? ((Sure, games like Sam & Max, Deadpool and Tales from the Borderlands deliver a few laughs, but there are puzzles to solve and stories to experience, few games have given this sort of dedication to comedy (like Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties) but, no other game has succeeded like the way that developer Necrophone has with Jazzpunk. For example, what do you get when you complete a side objective in a normal game? Some sort of helmet or maybe the main objective becomes a little easier? In Jazzpuink?  Your reward is often just a punchline, no more no less, but why is that so great? Because it’s a punchline that always made me laugh often enough to irritate my roommates.

So why is it my game of the year? Is it because it made me laugh? Is it because it’s the first title from a budding indie game developer? Is it because I’m a fan of Adult Swim? Not exactly. Honestly, my reason is because Jazzpunk let me experience what no other game has this – or any other – year. No other game lets meb eat up a car in first person turn the classic first person shooter franchise Quake into Wedding Qake, or reward me for capturing a dozen pigeons with rolling them up into a pie and baking them alive in front of me.



Transistor
Submitted by Joey Chini

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It’s not often an indie title catches my eye, or at least that used to be the case before I played Transistor. I used to write off indie titles as the product of lazy developers who were either not talented enough or too poor to make a AAA game, but my experience with Transistor completely turned me around. Beautiful art direction, elegant sound design and endless gameplay possibilities make Transistor a worthy addition to any gamers library be it on PC or PS4.

You play as an exquisite singer named Red, who happens to be silent throughout the entire game— her voice tragically stolen. The story is instead told through the narrator, who also happens to be Red’s dead boyfriend reincarnated into a sword, he functions as your weapon, titularly named the Transistor. Armed with her lover and with the ability to integrate other inhabitants of the city she once called home–Cloudbank–into her arsenal, Red sets out to reclaim her voice. Also, developer Supergiant’s success with Transistor now paved the way for their first smash hit Bastion to make its way to the PS4 as a part of the Playstation Network’s Spring Fever Sale. It’s safe to say I will never overlook a game just because it can be classified as indie ever again.


South Park: The Stick of Truth
Submitted by Sam Henry Miller

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What’s the saying? Once you re-abort a killer, Nazi-zombie fetusaurus you never go back?

South Park: The Stick of Truth reaps this innocence from you, because what it does, by reducing to comical absurdity just about every mindless mechanic classically endemic to stop-action, turn-based RPGs, is make you painfully aware how contextually arbitrary these mechanics are… and always were.

Whether it be evoking your heart’s crystal-power, granted to you by the kidnapped princess—whom you love—to solve that overworld puzzle to get that super rare item (hypothetical) or evoking telekinetically guided farts to elude obstacles and burst at just the appropriate time to get that super rare item (Stick of Truth), the difference is negligible—except one was much funnier. Ultimately, it never mattered how you got the item, just that you got the item, applying skills you earned through “grinding”, with the promise that said item would enable you to grind at higher levels for better rewards.

Generally, though to each his own justification, we play stop-action, turn-based RPGs for “the grind”. “The grind” is an insidious mechanic designed to inhibit dopamine reuptake in our noggins at the perception of progression (albeit digital), and all the banal RPG tropes to which we’ve become accustomed, we shamelessly abide, so long as ‘progression’ plays-out  its promise.  The content here (the narrative/overworld) is only complementary to its form (combat/gameplay), despite how substantial and impressive we may (and often do) proclaim the content to be. Content simply cannot stand alone in this genre, yet “the grind” is fundamental and can. Conversely, if deprived too much of its complement, “the grind” surrenders subtlety, devolving into something shamelessly (ab)usable, such as an MMORPG or, even worse, gambling. They work best together. Yet they need not be remotely mutually relevant.    

So why not imbue our complementary tropes with fart gags? Why not make a joke of what’s essentially arbitrary? Quick! Press X rapidly to perform a tactful abortion! You killed that fetus with finesse: 500 experience points! Stuff like that.

The Stick of Truth’s developers knew exactly what they were doing very early on: instill the tedium progression demands with reflexive humor and allusions to a well-established source. All this renders Stick a real treat, a joy on all levels, complementary or fundamental. You’ll abide the monotonous mechanics because they’ll have you ROFLing, and you’ll ROFL as well during the fundamentals, such as strategic, turn-based combat and class customization.

Just make sure to kill Al Gore ASAP. Make sure to kill him in the the game as well.

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