2012 was the year I decided to ramp up my game reviews significantly, aiming to get at least one done per week. I got pretty close to that goal managing to get through a grand total of 48 games last year, well over the double previous year’s tally. I have to say that I really enjoyed the whole experience as I often found myself going outside my comfort zone in order to find something to review and the number of indie games I’ve played this year is more than all the years prior put together. Now that 2012 is firmly in the rear view mirror it comes time for me to reflect on all the games that I’ve played and crown one of them Game of the Year 2012.
As always here’s a list in chronological order of the games I reviewed during 2012:
Now people who’ve been here a while (and have read my Guide to Game Reviews on The Refined Geek) will know that my review scores tend towards the infamous 7 to 10 scale rather than 0 to 10 but from time to time I’ll venture below that curve for games that really deserve it. Notable mentions that did this include Lone Survivor, I Am Alive and (drum roll please) this year’s winner of lowest score received: Dear Esther. My review of that game was probably one of the most controversial reviews I’ve ever written as I had people telling me I simply “didn’t get it” all the way up to saying that it wasn’t fair for me to judge it as a game because it wasn’t. Sadly nothing of what anyone sad to me could change the horrific experience I had with Dear Esther and it gives me an undue amount of pleasure to give it the Wooden Spoon as worst game of 2012.
Whilst 2011 saw me give a notable mention to Gemini Rue for being a stand out indie game of that year I can’t feel like I can do the same this year: there’s just so many deserving titles and unlike Gemini Rue nearly all of them got the praise they deserved. Indeed the reason I found out (and subsequently played) so many indie titles this year was because of the attention they were receiving in the larger video games press and if it wasn’t for a few kind words from some of my trusted sources many of these indie games might not have seen a review here. Whilst I’ll stop short of giving an award to the indie game scene (because that’s incredibly lame) I will say that I’m looking forward to what the indie scene brings forth in 2013 and beyond.
One game that I’d like to give an honourable mention to, since it is by far my most played game of 2012 by a long shot, is Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2). Whilst I starting playing it back towards the end of 2011 I really didn’t get that into it until just after I wrote my initial review of it but after then my play time in it snow balled considerably. This was helped a lot by the fact that a cadre of my competitive gaming friends joined along with me which fuelled my addiction to it to perilous heights. Today I’ve played over 600 games and ranked up well over the same amount of hours playing, watching and talking about DOTA 2 and Valve deserves an extraordinary amount of credit for making this game what it is today. It’s not my game of the year since it’s more like a meth addiction than anything else, but that doesn’t detract from its accomplishments.
I’ll be honest, choosing my game of the year (even with the beautiful hindsight granted by having a big list of games I’ve played right there to look over) was tough. Whilst there were a lot of good games there were no amazing stand outs like there was the year previous. Going by review scores the best game of last year for me was Journey and whilst I was very tempted to give it that honour, like IGN has done, I couldn’t shake this feeling in the back of my head that there was another game that was more deserving but I couldn’t figure out which one to pick. The answer came to me, funnily enough, in the middle of a New Years eve party in the early hours of the morning and I still agree with that decision today.
My Game of the Year for 2012 is To The Moon.
If for the simple fact that I’m fighting back tears right now isn’t proof enough that this game had a massive impact on me To The Moon is one of those games that eschewed game play in favour of telling a beautiful, gripping story. Sure the game play was flawed and the disjointed pacing was one of the reasons that it didn’t score better than Journey but if just thinking about it can cause that kind of reaction in me then I know it had an impact that few games have had. I could continue gushing about it for hours if I wanted to but you really need to experience it for yourself as it’s an incredibly personal experience, one that will stick with you for a long time.
I had debated whether or not to continue my 1 review per week deal this year as whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and opportunities it has granted me (2 games this year were sent to me for review, a 100% increase on last year!) it does take a fair bit of time to get through them. However considering the amount of DOTA 2 I’ve managed to fit in the past year I figure that cutting back on that in favour of more games will see more deadlines hit more frequently meaning more regular reviews for you, my readers. I won’t make any grandiose promises about reviewing more games this year than last but I’ll guarantee I’ll try my hardest to get one out a week and continue to pillage the vast reaches of all game genres and developers.
P.S. What was your game of the year? I’m really keen to know.
I’m not exactly known for going against the main stream view of a game but for what its worth my opinion is (mostly) formed based on the merits of the game itself rather than the popular opinion of the time. This became painfully apparent after my Dear Esther review and despite my assurances that I was able to put game play aside for a good story (like I’ve done several times before) I feel that many people who read that review don’t believe I’m capable of identifying a good story. Then I came across Journey, yet another game that tentatively pushed at the boundaries of the “game” definition and I thought this could be my redeeming grace. Of course Journey is nothing like Dear Esther as there’s no question as to its status as a game and what a game it is.
Journey opens up with you, a nameless and near faceless individual, standing in front of a vast desert. Apart from some vague imagery of what appears to be a star falling to the ground there’s not much more of an introduction. You’re then given control and shown the basics of movement using the PS3’s motion controls as well as the tried and true dual joysticks. Journey then leverages off your past game experience to drive you to the next goal (a close by hill) upon which the ultimate goal is shown, a giant mountain from which a pillar of light is emanating. You will spend the rest of the game attempting to reach that point.
The art direction of Journey had me first thinking that most of it was cell shaded but it is in fact just heavily stylized. Whilst the characters and scenery are usually quite simple the environment which you play through is quite vibrant and dynamic, especially for a place like a vast desert. At the same time the foley and sound direction is magnificent as they compliment the visuals quite aptly. Indeed one of the best aspects of Journey is the seemingly perfect combination of visuals and sounds, timed perfectly to evoke your emotions in a certain way at specific times.
Whilst the game play of Journey is undeniably there, thus firmly separating it from other experimental titles, it’s quite simplistic yet thoroughly satisfying. If I’m honest I went into this expecting Dear Esther levels of game play: I.E. nothing much more than exploration. You’ll spend a great deal of time in Journey exploring the areas but that’s far from the main game play mechanic which centres heavily around the idea that you main character can fly, albeit for a limited time.
The little tassel on the back of your character is your flight timer. You can jump and then fly to great heights but as you do the symbols on your tail start to burn away. When they’re depleted you’ll fall back to the ground and you’ll have to look for places to recharge it. Thankfully these are plentiful, either taking the the form of stationary points or animated cloth animals that will follow you around, recharging you as you go. You can also increase the length of your flight time by finding glowing orbs that are scattered around the place and the end of each level will let you know how many of the potential orbs you collected before carrying on.
Where Journey really starts to shine however is when other people start accompanying you on your journey. I remember my first encounter clearly: after finishing a level and proceeding to walk through a long hallway to the next I spotted movement off in the distance. I was going to back track to look for more orbs but the way the figure moved seemed… different to everything else. Excited I followed after them and when I got to them it was clear that there was another person behind that controller. Where it really got interesting though was when we tried to communicate to each other, being limited to only short bursts of sound. This meant that cooperating had to be somewhat instinctive, but you’d be surprised how much you can say with only a simple means of communication at your hands.
The multiplayer aspect, whilst not an essential part of the game play, does lend itself to some awesome emergent game play. When your characters are close to each other you slowly recharge each other’s flight time and you can recover it fully with single communication ability you have. This means your flight time can be extended indefinitely if you and your partner work together allowing you to gather many of the glowing orbs thus increasing your flight time again. Towards the end I had an extremely long tassel that allowed me and my partner to reach unfathomably large heights with relative ease. This made many parts of the game much easier and also served as something of a bragging right when I was joined by someone with a shorter tassel.
Journey has not a single line of dialogue, instead relying on cut scenes that tell a story through a series of brilliantly done hieroglyphics. They didn’t make a terrible amount of sense for me at the start but as you progress a grand story of a society that rose from the desert only to fall down again. The pictures start off in retrospective, highlighting things that had happened in the past that lead up to the world as it exists today. About half way through the hieroglyphs start turning prophetic, telling a story that seems to be eerily close to yours as it is happening right now.
Ultimately the story that’s told without a whiff of dialogue or text is amazingly satisfying. Whilst its not a gripping emotional conclusion that I’ve felt for similar story based games in the past it’s definitely fulfilling and thankfully steered clear from any notion that there might be a Journey 2 (and however they’d follow up Journey is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader). Showing you the names of people you shared your journey with along the way is a really nice touch and I was devastated when I found out that my video capture software had crapped out halfway through and those names were lost to the ages.
Realistically the only fault I can level at Journey is the price as at $20 on a game that I can’t share with my friends that only lasts 2 hours seems a tad steep. I’m sure it will eventually come down a bit in price and there’ll be something of a renaissance of people playing Journey again but until then I wonder how many are willing to take the rather steep plunge to play through it.
There’s few games that have made me smile the way Journey did, both at the beginning with a child like wonder at the amazing world that was presented before me to the ultimate conclusion that was a beautiful metaphor for the grand cycle of life and death. Everything about Journey just seems to meld together so well, from the art to the music to the game play. I could go on but realistically Journey is something that you need to experience for yourself.
Journey is available on PS3 exclusively right now for $20. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.