Well, it’s getting close to 2013 and, since we’ve already given our Top Games of the Year and talked about our disappointments, I suppose it’s only fair to talk about the games that surprised us (in a good way, not the Fowl Space way) this year. For this list, the selections didn’t have to be the best games that got released this year, there just had to be a huge gap between what our expectations were for the game vs. what we got. This list is, of course, VERY subjective, so feel free to give your own picks.
Normally this is where I would put a spoiler warning… but there are no spoilers on this list. So, I guess this part is rather pointless. Uhhh, get your pets spade and neutered, drink your Ovaltine, buy low and sell high, and dance like you’ve never danced before! Start the list.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “What the heck does a beautiful 3D PSN exclusive that has no combat have to do with a blood-soaked 2D stealth game that started as an exclusive on the Xbox 360 (though it was luckily brought to other platforms later)? Well first, remember, the theme of the week is surprises, and these were both games that had a similar amount of surprise come out of them. Both of them came from developers that created highly praised games in the past (Thatgamecompany with Flower and Flow, and Klei Entertainment, who created the Eets and Shank series) so it wasn’t like we expected either of these games to be bad, but they were also departures from what the teams had done previously. Journey actually had a plot and allowed for co-op, while Mark of the Ninja traded in ultra-violent combos and a health bar for stealth and planning. Yet, despite the risks inherent to these changes, both of them struck gold.
Journey succeeded by telling a wonderful story, full of symbolism and wonder, while an award-winning soundtrack plays over the beautiful, lonely environment. Mark of the Ninja, on the other hand, succeeded by finding creative ways to put a spin on the stealth mechanics gamers have learned over the years while having you traverse gorgeous, non-linear levels. The two games look great, play great, and both have ending scenes that will stay with you long after you finish either game. In any case, both of these games went above beyond expectations and are a great place to start this list.
Oh joy, a Sonic game? Oh and it’s a kart/arcade racer? Well, this’ll be underwhelming. To be fair, players who played Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing knew that the game could be fun, but to the uninitiated this looked like a weak cash grab that would just be another forgettable game in Sega’s library. Yep, this would be something that some die hard fans would enjoy, but that would be about it. At least, that was my thought process when I went into reviewing the game.
Never have I enjoyed being wrong as much as I did when I played this game. For one thing, EFFORT was written all over every virtual inch of this game. The characters they selected appealed to every fan’s taste and even all the games that didn’t have a racer representing it were covered in a cameo or one of the lovingly crafted courses (the Nights course is AMAZING). Then there’s some tense gameplay that makes you race at ridiculous speeds through courses that transform along with your vehicle. Finally, there is the great single-player mode, which give you tons to do and some genuinely fun mini-games as you unlock characters from Sega’s past. In addition to making me surprised with its quality, this game made me excited about unlocking characters.
This year was also the year of KickStarter Spring and so far, we’ve only seen a few games get finished. So, naturally, after reports of scams and watching as some projects stopped updating, we greeted FTL with some skepticism. However, what we found was one of the better and more popular indie titles to come out this year. The game not only had tons of customization and a great soundtrack but its random events gave it a massive amount of replay value while its low system requirements meant that everyone could enjoy the tense combat and ship management system.
Now, the game wasn’t for everybody. It definitely played close with its Rogue-like nature and had a learning curve that scared off some players, as well as a currency/experience system that wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. However, we needed a game that showed how a KickStarter project should and could be done, and FTL excelled on both counts.
If I told myself a year ago that I would be putting a freeware visual novel on this list that was made by a development team whose members’ first project, Scarred, was based on a 4chan thread where a guy jokes about having sex with a seven year-old, I would have sworn off video games and moved home because the end-times were surely upon us and I would want to spend my last days with my family. However, Katawa Shoujo is actually another game, much like Journey and my number 1 pick, that succeeds in being a surprisingly emotional trip.
Let’s be honest: a lot of times, the internet can let us down when it comes to people. Trolls, ragers, corrupt game developers having no class and committing fraud… it’s enough to wear you down. So seeing a group come together from around the world to work on a game that they were passionate about and released for free is pretty dang inspiring. Not to mention, this was a quality game, with cutscenes by Mike Inel and a great soundtrack that was worked on by a number of skilled indie composers. The game was even translated into seven languages, which is no small feat and allowed even more players to experience the game. It’s pretty safe to say that it all worked out, since over 1 million downloads occurred in the first two months and the game has only grown in popularity since then.
While it’s surprising enough that this little project was able to gain such notoriety, the real reason this is on its list is the emotional power of its narrative. While the girls in this game may seem like they are the usual characters you’d encounter in a visual novel or anime, they develop to become very endearing characters, even Hisao, the character you play as, who develops different outlooks based on the friends he makes and has to really mature as he learns to live with his heart condition and develops a relationship with one of the girls. The overall message of the game tugs on the heart strings and the end of all of the paths (even most of the bad endings) are powerful. However, there was one game that really rocked the house when it came to emotional investment and broke people’s expectations….
Telltale Games does make good stuff, I’m not denying that. However, last year was not particularly impressive when it came to their output and knowing they were doing a game set in The Walking Dead franchise–which itself had come off of a (in my opinion) lesser second season and a dragging feeling when it came to the comics–didn’t seem like a surefire success. It wasn’t like anyone thought it would be bad, perhaps just okay. Maybe Telltale could bring its magic and make something that was pretty good, but nothing that would be making any top ten lists.
Well, with a multiple awards from Destructoid, the VGAs, Yahoo! Games, and the praise of our own Shaun K., anyone who thought that back in April would be stunned… but it’s not like the game didn’t deserve every single award. This year was big on emotional journeys, but The Walking Dead trumped them all by sticking to what Telltale excels at and then taking it to the next level: storytelling. Sometimes you don’t need amazing gameplay to be a great game, you just need to make players connect with your characters and the setting to draw them in. By the end of the game, you will have been on an emotional ride with memorable characters who will stay with you long after the game ends.
To demonstrate the power of this game, let me end with a small anecdote. One day I was at Gamestop, trading in a certain other zombie game I won’t mention here, and after hearing how surprised the clerk was that I didn’t like the game I was returning, he suddenly changed topics to The Walking Dead. At first, I was confused. Whenever we talked games, this guy would go straight to Battlefield, Call of Duty, or Max Payne 3, not an adventure game. Yet, as he was running my card through the system, he was talking about Lee and Clementine, his eyes beginning to glow as he remembered his time with the game and he started to smile and shake his head when he realized how close he had come to spoiling parts of the game and his co-worker was nodding right next to him. Seeing an impact like that on someone who was almost a complete stranger was amazing and the reason why I had to put this game in the number 1 spot.
Well, that was the list. As always, if you disagree or agree, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. On behalf of myself and Blistered Thumbs, I hope you all have a great holiday season and that the next year brings us many more pleasant surprises.