This year in video games has been a turbulent one to say the least, for both the creators and the community surrounding them. Major studios have closed without warning, game after game has been rushed out in buggy and sometimes nearly unplayable states, and a certain “movement” has made many developers and journalists’ lives a waking nightmare. On top of all of these much more serious issues, it hasn’t even been a particularly prolific year for new releases, as many publishers are still scrambling to push out games that can actually take advantage of the new consoles that have popped up over the last year. Even still, 2014 has seen a number of gems spring up, some quickly forgotten and some sure to appear on nearly every “best of” list. While times may seem bleak for one of our favorite forms of entertainment, these fresh takes on tired conventions and nostalgic callbacks to our childhoods are shimmering beacons of what we hope to see in the industry in the coming year.
– Kyle Herr, Video Games Editor
1. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC/PS4/Xbox One)
After the lackluster Dragon Age 2, few people were expecting the latest installment in Bioware’s gritty fantasy series to be a powerful contender for game of the year, but the Edmonton-based studio showed us all that they can learn from their mistakes and still create the enthralling and expansive RPGs that they’re famous for.
Now, when I say that this game is long, I mean it. I have definitely sunk 60+ hours into a single playthrough, without finishing the campaign, and I still have had way more fun with this game than any other of 2014. This is not only due to the sheer amount of stuff to do in this game, but from the writing, which is some of Bioware’s strongest to date. The main cast alone is composed of humans, elves, dwarves, a plain-spoken horned giant (voiced by actor Freddie Prinze Jr.), a kindly spirit that works in mysterious (and sometimes violent) ways, and many other diverse characters. Plus, when it comes to diversity, this may be the first Bioware game where the romancible characters actually feel like they have their own distinct sexual preferences and believable gender identities, something few games released by AAA publishers can claim.
Without a doubt, if you enjoy games with a lot of interesting dialog, memorable characters, and tons of choices on how to go about your adventure, Dragon Age: Inqusition is the only game of 2014 that you really need.
– Kyle Herr
Bonus Tips and Opinions
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a daunting game to just dive into, so if you decide to give it a shot, Rule #1 is leave the Hinterlands. The second rule (aesthetically speaking) is don’t turn lip shine up too high. I make no secret that I was not the biggest fan of Dragon Age 2 (it felt rushed to me), but while I haven’t extensively played DAI yet (25 hours in), I have been very much enjoying my time back in the Dragon Age setting so far. The sense of adventure and possibility that so absorbed me in Dragon Age: Origins is back!
2. Diablo III: Reaper of Souls (PC/Mac)
This one is kind of a cheat because it’s actually an expansion to a game that came out in 2012, but it is the game I have had the most fun with this year. Reaper lets you jump easily into and out of multiplayer games in the newly added Adventure Mode, allowing you to help friends without playing the same story chapters over and over again, which has been great addition.
I have leveled at least four regular characters and two seasonal characters to the level cap, and I have plans for more. I have built infernal machines and looked for sets, ventured into secret realms and hoarded treasure. I love Diablo.
To really appreciate Diablo‘s post on the list, I think it’s especially important to note the turnaround that this game experienced. When it launched, I had no interest whatsoever in the real money auction house or the loot system, and neither did a lot of other people from the backlash that it received. Now that all of this has been fixed, D3 is finally the sequel that D2 deserved.
Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4/Xbox One)
This next-gen re-release of Blizzard’s Diablo III, complete with the expansion content, which includes rebalances, a new class, tons of new loot, and a brand new story chapter, is an excellent way to get into the dungeon-crawling franchise if you’ve never played it before. The new class, Crusader, is a blast to play, and all of the returning classes have been revamped with new abilities to freshen up the experience and enhance the feeling of crafting your character into an unstoppable maelstrom. It’s shockingly easy to be drawn into the addictive hunt for better gear; thanks to couch co-op, nine hellish difficulty levels, and a willing roommate, I probably sunk more time into playing Diablo III than any other game this year.
– Sam Paxton
3. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS (Wii U/3DS)
Super Smash Brothers for Wii U & 3DS, the fourth entry in the console-spanning Nintendo franchise, is a near-perfect distillation of the core Smash Bros. gameplay, finally back on your television screen in glorious 1080p (and for the first time on your handheld). Nintendo and Namco have refined the game to be speedier, less floaty, and more responsive than Melee or Brawl, and the result is that every smash, jump, and dodge feels sticky and satisfying. The game is stuffed with an insane amount of activities and fan service that pays tribute to Nintendo’s rich thirty-year history. With more fan-favorite characters, wacky items, and unpredictable stages than ever before, this newest iteration of Smash is a must-play.
– Sam Paxton
4. Hatoful Boyfriend (PC/Mac)
Dating sims—popular in Japan and barely understood in the US, but often designed for a female audience and not necessarily ‘adult’ of content—are already a fringe genre in US gaming. Now Hatoful Boyfriend has an official English release, offering an avian parody of dating sims, and enough conversation fodder to truly mystify your friends.
A lone hunter-gatherer in a society of birds, the player of Hatoful is offered a unique high school experience as the sole human representative in a veritable amorous buffet of interspecies-romance-inclined pigeonfolk. The gameplay is repetitive and options are limited, but this is an interactive choose-your-own-adventure book worth the judicial use of the fast-forward button. Stories range from commonplace anime romance tropes (in bird form) to comical surrealist adventures (in bird form) to mysteries of intrigue and danger (in bird form) and more.
With little, unexpected pieces of interest inserted into the repetitive scroll of the game, where you might even miss them if you’re going too fast, Hatoful unfolds into an entirely different ridiculous parody of the ridiculous parody it advertises itself to be. Stick with the game for the long haul, because it gets weird, and it is worth it.
– Jen Overstreet
5. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC/PS4/Xbox One)
Don’t get me wrong, I like the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Peter Jackson film adaptations as much as the next person, but many of the games based on the books and the films have been lacking. Sometimes severely lacking. Because of this checkered past, the newest installment of the storied franchise, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, was an incredible breath of fresh air.
With a not-so-important story about Middle Earth Batman (seriously, the game is thought to have begun development as a Batman game and actually plays a lot like an Arkham game), Mordor really shines thanks to an innovative mechanic called “The Nemesis System.” What this entails is a hierarchy of captains in Sauron’s orc armies, each led by a warchief. These captains and warchiefs all have unique personalities, ambitions which can result in power struggles and coups, fears which you can exploit, and best of all, when one kills you (which isn’t the end for you, as you rise from your grave every time) he becomes stronger and may usurp his superiors given enough in-game time.
This system is incredible in that it really builds custom narratives unlike any that I’ve ever experienced in an open-world game. Few moments in any game that I’ve played in 2014 can top the thrill of hatching a carefully planned attack against your nemesis and finally putting him down after the fifteen or so times that he’s already killed you. It may not seem like a fair trade, but it is. It really, really is.
– Kyle Herr
6. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)
Platinum Games knows how to make an action game, perhaps better than any other studio in the business. I honestly didn’t think the amazing Bayonetta could be topped as their magnum opus, but lo and behold, along comes Bayonetta 2, a game that wouldn’t have even been made if not for Nintendo’s direct intervention, to prove me wrong. This game really has anything you could ask for in a wacky, anime-inspired romp. A catchy theme (including a great cover of “Moon River”), enormous boss battles that stretch from a crowded city, to a realm beyond time, to Hell itself, and a sassy heroine that will ride a centaur in an overtly sexual manner before kicking it face first into an unholy woodchipper.
While the story may not make much sense, the constant feeling of “how can they possibly top this?” will compel you to play Bayonetta 2 for hours at a time without wanting to put the controller down for even a second. If that’s still not enough reason for you to check this game out, Platinum even includes a port of the original game with every new copy of Bayonetta 2! Plus as a fun bonus, Platinum designed multiple unlockable costumes for the titular heroine inspired by some of Nintendo’s most famous characters including Link, Samus Aran, and Princess Peach.
– Kyle Herr
7. Among the Sleep (PC/Mac/PS4)
This first-person horror adventure game innovates suspenseful gameplay experience by limiting players to the perspective of a toddler. Players can walk slowly or crawl rapidly, must climb on boxes to reach doorknobs, and are constantly dwarfed by their surroundings. The threat is unclear: has your mother been kidnapped by mysterious forces, or have you been spooked by a lightning storm in a dark house and allowed an active imagination and vaguely sinister talking teddy bear to gaslight you into pursuing a treacherous journey into surreal memory?
By increasing the scale and potential threat of everyday landscapes and objects, Among the Sleep provides true terror by transporting players back to an age before reason taught us how to cope with darkness and strange creaks in the night.
– Jen Overstreet
8. Monument Valley (iOS/Android)
As the mysterious Princess Ida, players travel across haunting monuments of impossible architecture. This game requires players to alter their understanding of perspective and geometry to traverse puzzle courses inspired by the brain-bending artwork of MC Escher.
Monument Valley features breathtaking design, acknowledging its own artistry with in-game screenshot options. Melodic sound effects triggered by gameplay supplement an ambient soundtrack. Gameplay itself is intuitive and communicated with sparse directions, saving most of what few words the game uses to unveil, stage by stage, a poignant storyline with a folktale aesthetic. An original ten stages are joined by eight new stages in expansion pack Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores, featuring all new challenges of perception.
– Jen Overstreet
9. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
As I pointed out in my full-length review earlier this year, each installment of Mario Kart is less of a new experience and more of a refinement. This time around, Nintendo takes some of the best ideas from previous Karts (underwater tracks, gliding segments, customizable karts) and combines them all together with a surprisingly innovative new mechanic. By adding twisting antigravity sections, Nintendo delivered a much-needed breath of fresh air into the franchise. Plus, the high-def graphics look absolutely gorgeous and the game runs at a silky-smooth 60 fps. If you’re looking for an accessible, beautiful, edge-of-your seat competitive experience, look no further than the exhilarating fun of Mario Kart 8.
– Sam Paxton
10. Fantasy Life (3DS)
If you’ve ever wanted to be a magic-slinging, food-cooking, tree-cutting, web-slinging, dress-making adventurer, this is the game for you (and me). Though the quest-system can be a bit dry, the opportunities to change and combine classes more than make up for this shortcoming. The world is expansive and there are many fun companions to meet, care for, and travel with—you can even have a herd of cats. However, the best part is the loot. There are rare items out in the world just waiting for you to find, if you have the right profession.
Check back every day this week for more of the Best of 2014!