What *is* a Wheaties shell?
This was a weird year for videogames. I feel like the industry as a whole says that every year, but this year in particular earned that description. If you had shown me a list of upcoming games at the beginning of 2014 and told me to guess what my Top 10 would be, I honestly could not have predicted this list — partially because some of these games weren’t publically revealed at the top of the year, but also because this is perhaps my most esoteric selection to date.
It’s also been a weird year personally. I went to my first E3, got hired and laid off in under a month, and I’m leaving Choo-Choo. I’m going to seriously miss this place, but what better way to leave than with a list of 10 awesome videogames?
It’s hard to not think about Bastion when you think about Transistor. Supergiant Games’ second full release feels like the next episode in a video game anthology series. Both games play with the idea of literal world building and deconstruction, all from an isometric perspective, featuring the smooth voice of Logan Cunningham and the rad tunes of Darren Korb. And even though I’m not sure if I want this motif to continue into the next Supergiant release, it’s done extremely well in Transistor.
Between its visuals, its writing, and its music, Transistor is an uncommonly beautiful game, but its combat mechanics catapult it into a whole new strata. The idea of Turn() is not a new concept by any means, but adding special powers mapped to certain buttons adds an engaging wrinkle. The game also encourages players to experiment with different Functions by providing character-based flavor text, depending on how you use the Function. This marriage of gameplay and writing is emblematic of what Transistor does so well, and why it more than earns a spot on this list.
Look, I haven’t stopped playing Threes since I reviewed it back in the spring. I don’t know that I can say that about any other game on this list. But few other games have the level of endless replayability that you can find in Threes. It’s just a brilliantly designed little puzzler, and for some, that’s not enough. But I’ve dumped several dozen hours into what is arguably the cleverest game released this year. That alone is worth a solid mention.
8. Valiant Hearts
I played Valiant Hearts over the course of two major sittings. That’s what happens when you’ve finished all your finals early and your friends are off cramming for a ridiculous gauntlet of tests; you end up with a lot of time on your hands. So perhaps my affinity for this game comes from having ingested all the Valiant Hearts there was to ingest as quickly as possible. Moment-to-moment, it doesn’t hit particularly hard. You spend a lot of your time swapping between characters pushing through various parts of a gorgeously rendered Europe, solving clever puzzles and hunting for many historically accurate collectibles.
But this is all part of Valiant Hearts’ master plan. When the game hits the brakes and forces a particularly unpleasant sequence down your throat, it pushes the darker aspects of war to the forefront. Valiant Hearts, at its core, is a deconstruction of the popular perception of war. Some of the broader aspects, like the mustache-twirling Baron, exist to craft a false sense of complacency. But once the Baron is out of the picture, the game keeps on trudging. Civilians are mustard gassed to death, and soldiers are sent like pigs to the slaughter. Valiant Hearts knows how to properly utilize juxtaposition better than just about any other game on the market.
7. Murdered: Soul Suspect
Minutes after I finished Murdered: Soul Suspect, I knew two things for certain: this game would easily make an appearance on my Top 10 at the end of the year, and I would be utterly alone in this decision. I’ve joked for months about this esoteric Ghost adptation being one of the best games of the year, so let me finally put a pin in this. Murdered: Soul Suspect is maybe not one of the best games of 2014, but it was certainly one of the most personally resonant. Yes, the stealth isn’t particularly exciting, and it’s easy to mess with once you figure out how the vision cones work. The mechanic that comprises a sizable amount of the “game” part of this video game could use some work.
But what it lacks in basic mechanical conflict, Murdered easily makes up for in rock-solid atmosphere. Finding other ghosts who either refuse to head towards the light — or simply can’t — never got old for me, and I would actively explore some of the puzzle-heavy environments so I wouldn’t miss anything. The smaller cases were fun, and the overarching story pays off in a major way at the end, with a boss fight comprised of the game’s previous adventure game mechanics. It was fun and helped to highlight the insanity of Murdered’s final reveal. Plus, the game’s version of Salem feels just as dour and historically rich as you would hope. Murdered: Soul Suspect is a tourism ad for Salem, MA that just happens to have a super fun story. I can dig that.
6. The Last Door: Season One
In my book, The Last Door is scarier than P.T. It’s also clever, unique, and a fantastic example of a brilliantly realized supernatural universe. The rules of The Last Door are clear, but the uncertainties in between really sell the scope of the Eldritch horrors influencing the events of this pixelated horror-adventure title. For all the perfectly executed jump scares, there was a moment of deep, bone-chilling unease. For all the tension, there were moments of brain-tickling intrigue. There may have been frustrating moments in The Last Door — it is an adventure game, after all — but they cannot hold a candle to what makes that game special. It’s easily one of the most compelling titles I’ve played all year.
5. Forza Horizon 2
Consider this a sort of mea culpa — I didn’t play the original Forza Horizon in time for 2012’s Game of the Year awards, back when I was running Velocity Gamer. It’s the source of my deepest shame, considering my deep love for that particular title. So, yeah, this spot kind of goes to a game that was released two years ago. But let me be frank: Forza Horizon 2, although not as fun as its predecessor, is still a blast. The mix of rip-roaring car culture and Cochella-esque musical adoration is nothing short of intoxicating. When you’re speeding through Italian vineyards, Chromeo blasting through your speakers, looking for the next race full of future losers, you can’t help but get swept up in Forza Horizon 2’s world. It speaks to the game’s 100% genuine adoration of the culture it seeks to idolize; a single moment of insincerity and the whole thing comes tumbling down.
But that moment never comes, much to Horizon 2’s benefit. It seems odd that a spin-off racing franchise would be one of the best examples of immersive atmosphere done right, but I’m certainly not complaining. Take note, Driveclub.
4. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
There was a good chunk of time where I saw Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc as yet another vein in the John Michonski Goof Mine. A murder mystery visual novel exclusive to PS Vita? C’mon, son. But, if you’ll pardon this clichéd anecdote, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Danganronpa’s series of crazy mysteries were a real pleasure to solve, with an overarching story that held my attention until long after the credits rolled. It certainly helps that it subverted its own genre almost immediately, taking apart the idea of the childhood friend turned love interest that we saw in so many visual novels. And it doesn’t stop there, but I’ll leave those surprises for you to discover.
I even enjoyed the ‘game’ part of this video game. The trials perfectly summed up what it’s like to be in a rapid-fire argument, and the almost mandatory final boss subversion of its mechanics (both in-world and in the context of the game) was sublime. Yeah, Danganronpa 2 is probably a better whole, but I appreciate Danganronpa for its uniqueness.
3. Sunset Overdrive
Sunset Overdrive lives on the edge. And I’m not referring to its sense of style or humor. I’m talking about the very slim edge between ‘Stanley Parable self-awareness’ and ‘Duke Nukem Forever self-awareness’. The former makes for an enjoyable, if occasionally eye-rolling experience; the latter would be a black hole of quality from which no light can escape.
I cannot begin to express how thankful I am that Sunset Overdrive is not only genuinely entertaining, but also has an extremely robust and enjoyable movement system. It’s so much fun that an objective marker on the other side of the map elicited a positive reaction. That usually never happens in open-world games without cars, you know? I only used the fast-travel when I was under real-world time pressure. Plus, the game looks great and the weapons are exceptionally satisfying to use. Sunset Overdrive is one hell of a ride from start to finish.
2. Danganronpa 2
Like I said earlier, Danganronpa 2 is a better whole than its predecessor. It’s not quite as unique, especially when both games hit American shores within months of each other, but it’s clearly a refinement of the concept. The individual mysteries are, for the most part, a massive step up — especially the fifth trial, which you’ve assuredly heard about in our Game of the Year podcasts. Even though I didn’t find the last trial as compelling as the Danganronpa finale, there’s no denying it goes hard. Danganronpa 2 aims high, and nails the bullseye right in the goddamn center every single time. I couldn’t put it down from the second I started playing. It’s the best full game released in 2014…
1. Kentucky Route Zero: Act III
…but it’s not the best experience I had in 2014. That honor belongs to the (site-wide GOTY ineligible) stellar third act of Kentucky Route Zero. At the pace these episodes are released, it’ll be 2016 by the time this game is up for proper award consideration. I am an impatient man, so let me just put this out there: the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero are individually better than just about anything released in their respective years. Of course, this includes Act III; another slice of The Phantom Tollbooth filtered through the deep amber of Kentucky bourbon that Kentucky Route Zero has become known for.
It’s beautifully crafted from start to finish, with the boundless imagination, world building, and haunting unease you would expect from a child trapped in the decaying body of his nursing-home ridden grandfather. Kentucky Route Zero grabs you like quicksand mixed with molasses, burrowing down into your brain and claiming a spot for itself. If you can stop thinking about Kentucky Route Zero after you’ve played it, yours is the iron will, for I have been unable to forget the best game of 2014 ever since I first played it. And that’s no bad thing. I hope I’m thinking about the Zero and its endlessly memorable inhabitants for many years to come.