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(12-21-2013, 04:01 AM)

1. Shin Megami Tensei 4 ; It is the game I put the most time into this year. Even though this is my first entry into mainline SMT, I was introduced to the general mechanics and feel of the series through Persona 3, 4, and SMT: Devil Survivor, but SMT4 is my favorite game in the series so far.

I was immediately captured by the game’s odd opening hours. The contrast between the medieval setting the game opens in and the strange hints of modern technology had me intrigued, even more so when you enter Naraku and are introduced to your AI companion Burroughs. Apart from the strange premise, SMT4’s opening hours were reminiscent of the Etrian Odyssey series. All traversal and interaction with the city is done through menus, the only time you are given direct control of your character is in the dungeon Naraku. It’s not until you crawl deeper through Naraku and find a post apocalyptic Tokyo buried beneath the ground that the game truly starts.

A massive and detailed world map opens up and the traversal through menus is completely gone, replaced with detailed environments for you to explore. SMT4 does an amazing job at making its world feel real. The atmosphere set by the environment, music, and characters is amazing. I also really enjoyed the game’s narrative, as per series tradition your choices have effects on the story. They change your moral alignment and determine which of the three late game paths and endings (law, chaos, neutral) you get. While the characters are a bit more one dimensional than those you might find in other games in the SMT series like Persona, they do a good job of staying away from the good and evil stereotypes. The ideals of each character are influenced by their backgrounds and their desire to preserve or disrupt the class and power structure of the world. The narrative is much more subdued compared to more popular entries in the series like Persona, but SMT4’s world tells just as much of a story as the characters do. Each area usually has some little tidbit of info and world building that really make the events that transpired feel like they had a real effect on the citizens of Tokyo.

Presentation aside, SMT4 is one of the most fun RPGs I have played in a long time. The beginning of the game is difficult, but it does a very good job at teaching you the in and outs of the battle system and demon fusion. The “Press Turn” battle system rewards you with more turns in battle for striking an enemy’s weakness or getting a critical hit, but what can turn a battle into an overwhelming victory for your party can also end in crushing defeat. The tug of war between both sides of the fight is made extremely interesting by this mechanic. The battle for additional turns can get intense. You will want to cover all your team’s weaknesses, but some of the more challenging enemies will punish you if you null or repel everything by spamming almighty attacks and destroying your party. This forces you to intentionally expose yourself and play around your vulnerabilities while trying to maintain an advantageous position. I found myself playing in a more well rounded style than I normally do in RPGs. I usually tend to be aggressive offensively, but the harder fights in SMT4 forced me to play more thoughtfully, taking advantages of buffs, debuffs, and specials abilities.

Demon fusions also saw a huge upgrade in SMT4. The searching system is incredibly deep. You can filter by new demons, top 10, race, demon name, skill type, skill name, affinities, and more. Fusing demons was more fun in SMT4 than it has ever been in the past. I spent hours upon hours fusing to get the demons with my ideal skills. It can take a while, but is very rewarding to track a fusion history backwards to find a skill you want and fuse a chain of demons to get the one you want with the skills you want.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music. SMT4 has an incredible OST. The music really ties all the elements of the game together under a cohesive theme. The tracks featured in SMT4 range from faced pack rock to slower electro tracks yet they all feel like part of a whole. Some of my favorite tracks from the game include Tokyo Overworld, Camp Ichigaya, and the Boss Theme.

SMT4 was everything I wanted from an RPG and more. It has an amazing world, interesting characters, a killer soundtrack, a story that kept me interested the whole way through, and an absolutely fantastic battle system. I put over 100 hours into this game and I’m still not done.

2. The Wonderful 101 ; A strange looking game on the surface, but an incredibly deep and rewarding experience once you give it the attention it deserves. The Wonderful 101 opens slowly, but ramps up into over the top craziness that surpasses even Bayonetta.

The character action genre usually consists of the player character fighting hordes of enemies while trying to maximize their damage and combos while juggling fighting mechanics like weapon switching, parries, etc. “Crowd Control” is a common description of what these games are about. Platinum takes this core concept and flips it on its head. In the Wonderful 101 you are the crowd. The weapon drawing mechanic works very well. While the touch screen method works, the stick is a much more efficient way of weapon swapping and doesn’t force you to remove your hand from a key area of the controller. Each weapon has a unique symbol and the game does an excellent job of not mixing up what weapons you are trying to draw. Your team of 100 heroes make up each of the weapons (the player is member 101!). The longer you draw a sword, whip, fist, or any other weapon, the larger and more powerful that weapon becomes. You need to strike a balance between stun building team rush attacks, primary weapon switching, and meter management to smoothly dance your way through the fights. The games real depth comes in while trying to go for Pure Platinum rank in each mission.

Once you get a hang of the combat and you can start pulling off bigger and more extravagant combos. You won’t be good at first but when you put in the effort to learn the game you are rewarded handsomely. The game's systems let the player have a ton of creative control over their combos. Just take a look at this:

The story starts innocently enough, but the longer you play the crazier it gets. You can see clear references to a variety of sources the team at platinum are influenced by. I don’t want to spoil some of the best moments of the game but I will say this: The Wonderful 101 is the Gurren Lagann of video games.

The biggest complaint I can level against The Wonderful 101 is that it doesn’t explain almost any of its deeper mechanics to the player. The block and dodge moves, two absolutely key abilities to combat, are not given to the player. Instead, they are hidden away in the game's ability store with all the other upgradeable moves and powerups.

The Wonderful 101 is a pure video game. It may have its rough spots, but it knows what it wants to be and executes that extremely well. It is, by far, Platinum’s best game yet.

3. Super Mario 3D World ; I should have never doubted EAD Tokyo. 3D World was first announced with a pretty lackluster trailer and a lot of us wrote the game off after that. Looking back it was kind of foolish to dismiss this game after a trailer. After all, this is the studio that brought us two of the greatest games ever made. EAD’s first effort on the Wii U does not disappoint.

3DW takes what was started in 3D Land and perfects it. While the game starts out at a relatively simple difficulty, each world is expertly paced and ramps ups the challenge. Each level is a relatively straightforward path, but with the addition of three green stars and a stampl what was once a linear level turns into a puzzle waiting to be solved. The green stars and stamps are usually hidden from the player or take skilled platforming to get. Mechanically its a brilliant platformer. Each of the four characters add a unique style of gameplay. Toad ended up as my main character throughout the game. His running speed made him the go to despite not having a great jump. While some green stars throughout the game require a certain character to get, you never feel like you picked the “wrong” character. The second half of the game is almost perfect. Its just amazing level after amazing level, and after you finish the first 8 worlds, 4 extra challenging worlds (and a not-so-secret character) are unlocked.

Graphically it’s absolutely gorgeous. The Wii U may not be on the technical level as its next gen competition but EAD has shown that they can make truly amazing looking games on this hardware. The game being locked at 60 fps doesn’t hurt either. The music needs to be recognized as well. The orchestrated tracks from Galaxy have been traded out and replaced with a jazz big band. I think the change is excellent.

My one complaint is that the existence of a run button is completely useless. I get that they wanted to support Wii remotes as controllers but I think that decision negatively impacts the controls. The game is meant to be played with an analog stick so a run button not necessary whatsoever.

Despite those problem’s I truly think that Mario 3D world is easily on par with the excellence of the Galaxy series.

4. Guacamelee! ; Guacamelee! came out of nowhere for me. At the time of its release, I was really into speedrunning Super Metroid. That’s all I was playing at the time. So when I heard a new game in that style was on its way I was super hyped. I went into the game with the speedrunning mentality and I was rewarded with a super unique game with incredibly solid mechanics.

I never played Guacamelee as a metroidvania style game. I wanted to speedrun it from the beginning. Luckily I wasn’t alone. The small group of people that competed for the fastest times made running the game extremely fun. Chatting about route planning and combat strategies in the Speed Demos Archive forums was a blast, and watching other people run the game was a great way to see where you needed to improve. Probably one of my favorite moments of the year was when I got first place on the speedrun leaderboards. Although it did not last long I was very proud of the achievement (I did it again when the PC version came out too). Now with the rumors of the game being ported to PS4 and Xbox One I have regained my motivation to keep running this awesome game.

My current personal best is 1:08:46. (#2 on PSN, #5 on Steam)

5. Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies ; I played through the whole Ace Attorney series this year in anticipation of the fifth game in the series. Ace Attorney grabbed me in a way that I haven’t been grabbed in a long time. Essentially a visual novel with some light point and click elements, the AA series continues its tradition of interesting stories, fantastic characters, and incredible music.

Ace Attorney: DD removes some of the more “gamey” parts unfortunately, but that’s the only real negative about the game to me. One thing I really enjoyed was the more interconnected nature of each case. The cases in the 4 previous games were more standalone, but AA:DD does a good job at carrying an overarching narrative through a variety of scenarios. The new characters are all super memorable, especially Athena who proves to be one of the best new characters of 2013. I also want to mention the DLC case which is one of the better cases in the game. Probably one of the best pieces of DLC this year. The music is out of control. New versions of old themes return and the new music composed for Dual Destinies is amazing. It’s my favorite soundtrack of the year by far.

While it’s not the best game in the series, it comes pretty damn close. I can’t wait for AA6!

6. Fire Emblem Awakening ; Fire Emblem is one of my favorite franchises of all time. Awakening is a solid installment but I think it made too many concessions in its design in order to attract new players.

One of my favorite aspects of the previous games in the series was their tight balance. The games progressed from chapter to chapter with no overworld. That meant there was only a limited amount of experience points available in the game, forcing the player to outthink the enemy. Awakening gets rid of that, adding an overworld with random enemy encounters giving the player the availability to grind their way out of a tough spot. No longer are you forced to play smart. You can just overpower your opponents by grinding. The core Fire Emblem gameplay is still there, figuring out how to approach a scenario and making your way through each map is fantastic. The tension brought by permadeath is a great motivating factor. Your choices a have a real weight to them and you will be punished for making mistakes. The new pair up mechanic works well for the most part, but often times the pair system just creates a god unit that can sweep the battlefield.

Apart from the issues I had, the game is still a fantastic SRPG and a good entry in the series.

7. Pokémon X/Y ; I’m happy to say that Pokémon has made the jump to 3D successfully. The changes to the game’s structure might not be there, but like the rest of the series, the smaller changes are so numerous that it has a dramatic effect on the game overall. I’m most impressed with the way Game Freak was able to transition to 3D while still capturing a lot of the classic visual elements that are so loved. The overworld and characters look great and you can finally customize your trainer’s appearance, but the most impressive change is the battles. Game Freak has done a fantastic job at making the battles look more dynamic while retaining the fast pace of play.

The introduction of the Fairy type was a much needed change for the series. The balance changes overall have rejuvenated the excitement of battling for me. For the first time in a Pokémon game I actually like double battles. X and Y are the best games in the series yet, and I look forward to seeing how Game Freak progresses Pokémon in the future.

8. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance ; Despite being extremely short, MGR was a great game. Platinum did a fantastic job at blending Kojima’s craziness with their own. The cutting mechanic was pulled off very well alongside the standard character action. You can see the rough edges and it’s clear that Platinum had to rush a game in development hell, but the end result is pretty fantastic. It’s just another testament to Platinum’s uncanny ability to make amazing action games.

Also the soundtrack… that’s some good shit.

9. The Last of Us ; I’m probably one of the few people putting TLOU this low on the list. As someone who really did not like the Uncharted series I wasn’t expecting TLOU to set my world on fire. I was pleasantly surprised once I tried it for myself. With a story leagues better than anything seen in Uncharted and with actually good third person shooting gameplay I was quite pleased.

I don’t really need to go in to all the details about why this game is good. But I will say that I think that the climax is the weakest part of the game. While the shooting mechanics are much better than Uncharted they don’t really do much for me.

The Last of Us is a good game with an excellent story.

10. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds ; A good game, but the biggest disappointment of the year for me. ALBW does what everything people want from Zelda yet those changes didn’t work for me. The individual pieces of the game, gameplay, world, music, etc. are all super high quality. However, the big changes to the structure of the game all negatively impact the experience.

The item rental concept and open dungeon order are meant to do a lot to help exploration, but they end up being the biggest flaw. Every dungeon is built around the sword, the wall merging mechanic, and occasionally one of Ravio’s items. Because you can tackle the dungeons in any order there is no difficulty curve. Its like every dungeon is the first. The dungeon designs just aren’t very challenging because of this. There was not one puzzle in the game that I had to stop and think about. This is worse to me than low combat difficulty because at least you can choose to get heart pieces or not. Some dungeons are so short that I was able to finish them within 10 minutes.

Despite the new structure not working for me, the game plays perfectly. The music is phenomenal, the world is nostalgic yet has new elements, the artstyle is great and the 60fps makes the game a joy to play. I criticized the game so much because Zelda is my favorite series in gaming and I’m disappointed that the new twist on what had become a series formula did not work for me. It really is a great game, even with these problems.