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.
The renaissance that pixel-art styled games are undergoing currently, mostly thanks to the indie development scene, has produced some pretty spectacular works. Just last year I was introduced to Gemini Rue, a game that captured my primarily because of the nostalgia aspect. Of course the game stood alone in terms of game play and story, enough so that playing it didn’t feel like I was simply taking a trip down memory lane. It seems Wadjet Eye has a thing for pixel art styled games and late last year I was sent an email with a trailer for an upcoming game, To The Moon, from one of their partner developers Freebird Games. I’ll be honest when I first saw it I wasn’t particularly interested in playing it but after a strong recommendation from a friend (and watching the trailer) I thought it was worth a shot, even if it was just for the review.
You play as Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts, two employees from a company simply called “The Agency” that specializes in memory altering technologies. This technology can be used to change events that happened in a person’s past which then allows them to alter the course of history within the patients mind. Due to the way this works it can only be performed on patients who a near death with the idea that they could have their memories altered to what they wanted and, upon awaking for the last time, enjoy that moment of fulfilment they longed for in life. Shortly after they would pass away. To The Moon follows a story of one patient named Johnny and his wish to journey to the moon.
To The Moon features some gorgeous pixel art scenes paying homage to the many games that used a similar style decades ago. Like Gemini Rue before it each of the scenes does an amazing job at evoking a certain atmosphere, something that plays a critical role in developing the characters. This goes hand in hand with the original sound track that was composed specifically for To The Moon and the combination elevates this simple pixel art adventure well above its expected station.
Like many games of its era To The Moon is primarily driven through character interactions that take place in the form of bite sized chunks of text that appear on screen. Initially the story works in reverse chronological order as you step back through Johnny’s memories in order to unlock his past and plant the idea of him going to the moon. It’s not a new plot mechanic but it was definitely an effective one, since all the characters can allude to the upcoming back story without it being hacky or cumbersome. Indeed the storytelling of To The Moon is what makes this game so compelling and every thing else in it is just ancillary to this purpose.
The game play of To The Moon is very simplistic, verging on the edge of being non-existent. This isn’t a bad thing, especially considering how good next-to-nothing game play games like Heavy Rain have been, just that if you’re the kind of person that enjoys the game play more than the story then To The Moon doesn’t have a lot to offer you. Indeed going into this I was worried that it was going to be another “combine this item with that item and use it there” kind of games, where most of the play time comes from constant iteration instead of enjoyable game play, but thankfully it’s nothing like that.
Between the dialogue scenes you’ll be put into control of one of the two doctors and it’s then your job to find a way back to another memory. This is done by finding a memento in the scene that links the current memory to one in the past. Once you’ve found that you then need to find memory links in order to unlock it. These usually take familiar forms, something which Dr. Watts remarks on during one of the scenes, but it’s basically a game of find the item on the screen. There are some puzzles that mix this up a little bit by throwing in dialogue options and asking you to type things but there’s not many of them, so the core game mechanic is pretty consistent throughout To The Moon.
After unlocking the memento you’ll have to prepare it in order to be able to jump back to another memory. This takes the form of a flip puzzle that you see above. If there’s anything of a game score to compare with your friends this is the only place you’ll find it as each puzzle has an “ideal” number of moves to solve it and there’s a running total of how you went at the bottom. Again these aren’t particularly hard with the most complicated puzzle still only requiring a single digits worth of moves so they’re more there to be a break from the motonity of the dialogue and the find the clue core game mechanics.
At the start I found it somewhat difficult to get into the story of To The Moon. The main characters, the two doctors, function as both the main protagonists in the story as well as being the comic relief. The comic relief sections felt boring and uninspired to me and at the start that’s what constitutes most of the story. After the first couple hours though its easy to put them aside in favour of the main story and on my second session I was instantly hooked back in. After a while though the story started to peter out a bit, with there being no solid plot developments for an hour or more. It was at this point that I got really worried and I got that horrible feeling in the back of my head that I was only playing this game all the way to the end for the review.
Indeed if there is one criticism I’ll level at To The Moon it is the disjointed pacing . There are some scenes that progress the story as much as 4 other scenes do which is what lead to me almost losing all interest in the game from about the half way to three quarters through mark. Whilst I don’t believe there are any excess scenes, indeed the story’s multiple plot lines do wrap up well, tying together some of the more dull scenes instead of having to go through the whole find the clues, unlocking the memento, do the puzzle routine could go a long way to ensure the balance between plot progression and player engagement is kept.
Having said that though it speaks volumes for a game that can turn from a boring slog to a heart arching drama almost at the drop of the hat. I can vividly remember sitting there, verging on the edge of giving up on the game when a couple key plot points were revealed to me. It was at that point that something happened to me that hadn’t happened with a game for a long time: I started crying. Not your typical single tear man cry, I lost it completely. I can’t say what it was that did it (to do so would ruin it and also render me an emotional wreck for the next hour, seriously) but suffice to say that once I had completed it I felt compelled to go and be manly for the next couple hours in order to recover. Working out the tears seemed to do the trick.
And that’s the reason why To The Moon is such an incredible story. Sure the game mechanics are simplistic and the pacing is troublesome but anything that can make me care about the characters deeply enough to bring me to tears at the end of it deserves every accolade that has been heaped on it. It shows that games as a story telling medium, no matter their game play or graphics, are joining the ranks of the traditional mediums. To The Moon is just another great example of a story transcending its medium, one that is a must play for anyone seeking a deep and engrossing drama.
To The Moon is available on PC right now for $12. Game was completed with around 5 hours total play time.