My Games of 2014: 20-5

GAMES OF 2014!

This is already running mightily late, so I’ll get straight on with it. This continues on from the first part of the list.

20 Roundabout (No Goblin; Linux)

Roundabout

Yeah, this was great. And it makes a strong argument that even the most ordinary ideas can be made into fantastic games if they’re executed properly. Roundabout’s core mechanic is reminiscent of the avoid-em-up games of the 8-bit micro era, and it was hardly Earth-shattering stuff even back then. But drop it in a GTA-style open world complete with story missions and side challenges, then hook that up to seamlessly integrated online leaderboards and you’ve got something a bit special.

And of course that’s all ignoring Roundabout’s big drawcard: the wonderfully directed full motion video sequences which introduce the missions, which might just singlehandedly atone for all the FMV crimes of the past. The whole ‘camp ironic low budget 70s’ thing might be a bit long in the tooth these days but it’s rarely done as well as it is here, with Kate Welch’s standout performance as Giorgio Manos giving us one of the most memorable videogame characters in recent years – all without speaking or moving from her seat.

19 Here And There Along The Echo (Cardboard Computer; Linux)

Here And There Along The Echo

I didn’t find the time to play through this year’s episode of Kentucky Route Zero, which I should really address at some point. But I did dedicate an afternoon to this, the third of the the series’ free offshoot games, in which you call an automated tourist helpline dispensing information about the Echo river – seemingly recorded by Owen Wilson in a 3AM haze. It’s all wide-eyed wonder (or is that paranoia?) as your mysterious guide waxes lyrical about the local fauna while you contemplate what it all might mean. Good for ASMR triggering, if you’re into that sort of thing. And as with 2:22 AM I found it unnervingly close to home given my small town upbringing.

(If you’re fresh to the series you can dive in and experience this as a standalone – you don’t need to have played any of the Kentucky Route Zero episodes to get a handle on it. Indeed, as is the way of Kentucky Route Zero, I don’t think having played any of the episodes – in any order – really helps with understanding any of the others. This is one of the many things which make Kentucky Route Zero great.)

18 Abyss Odyssey (Ace Team; Windows)

Abyss Odyssey

Super Smash Bros meets Street Fighter meets Spelunky in a nightmarish demonic underworld beneath last-century Chile. And oddly, given that I’m not a huge proponent of any of that stuff, one of my year’s highlights. In a lot of ways it’s a more fleshed-out Nidhogg, with the core 2D platformy sword-skewering bolstered by all the roguelike stuff. And like Nidhogg, the fighting is as deep as you want it to be – I was able to dispatch most opponents with a level of finesse barely above buttonmashing, but more talented souls have shown the fighting system to be a far more sophisticated beast than my limited talents would ever suggest.

It’s one of those games which struggled for attention amidst a deluge of higher-profile stuff (which is a bit of a recurring theme for Ace Team), but it’s well worth a belated look if you missed it at the time.

17 Luftrausers (Vlambeer; Linux)

Luftrausers

If only for the music. Oh, the music. That rousing section which kicks in about halfway through is distilled aural bliss. I want to figure out a way to make that one bit of the soundtrack kick in at appropriate points in my life. Like when I finally get a chance to overtake that bloke who’s been doing 40kph in front of me for the last twenty minutes. Or when I’m doing the ironing and I’ve only got a couple of shirts to go, I want the music would appear from out of nowhere as if to say “FUCK YEAH! YOU’RE TOTALLY ON TOP OF THIS SHIT, MAN.” Life would be grand, y’know?

Also the game itself is pretty rad, too.

16 Lost Constellation (Infinite Fall; Linux)

Lost Constellation

Well, what a welcome Christmas treat this was. Released to coincide with the silly season (and also to serve as a demo of sorts for the forthcoming Lost In The Woods), Lost Constellation is a gorgeous cartoon world that’s a pleasure to traipse ’round. Coupled with brilliant writing which does freewheeling absurdity as well as it does sombre sentiment, free games rarely come as good as this.

(It’s certainly much better than most of the rubbish I trawled through for my Xmas games roundup, which had me cursing that it wasn’t released a couple of weeks earlier.)

Suffice to say Night In The Woods has now shot right up my ‘must pay close attention to’ flagpole, because if it’s anywhere near the quality of this then it’s going to be ace as fuck.

15 Risk Of Rain (Hopoo Games; Linux, Windows)

Risk Of Rain

Cheatery! Fraud! Shenanigans! Risk Of Rain already appeared on last year’s list! Surely this is the telltale sign of an EVIL GAMES JOURNALISM CONSPIRACY.

Nah, not really. The reason it’s here again is because the Linux port arrived this year, meaning that a) it technically counts as a 2014 release, and b) I started playing it all over again. Both sound reasons to give it a second mention, I reckon, as it’s one of the finest games of recent years.

14 Creatures Such As We (Lynnea Glasser; Web)

Creatures Such As We

I’m always interested in anything that does the gaming-that’s-about-gaming thing, even allowing for the inherent risk of disappearing up one’s own arse. Thankfully that’s not the case with Creatures Such As We, which explores almost every aspect of videogaming – from the philosophical choices which inform their development to the relationship between the creators and their audience – without ever being pompous about it (I refuse to use that other p-word, which at this point has been perverted beyond all use). If anything the opposite is true, with the real heart of the game lying in the characters and the nicely understated sci-fi setting. Basically it’s the exact opposite of everything I feared it might be, which from a hoary old cynic like me is the highest praise you can get.

13 The Talos Principle (Croteam; Linux)

The Talos Principle

Countryside Portal. Truth be told I’ve only played the short free version of this so far (as well as the the more-compulsive-than-you’d-think block-bothering companion game Sigils Of Elohim), so the full game might well deserve a higher placing. A beautiful world with rewarding puzzles which ramp up nicely in terms of complexity, plus the wonderful writing of Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes – I’ll be eagerly returning to explore more of this when I get the chance.

12 Missive (Joey Fu; Web)

Missive

Captain Brunch and Major Hangover.

It’s not often that a videogame throws up characters that are as believable as they are likable, so when I find two of them in the same game my Hodgey-senses go all tingly. Missive’s two leads – the slobby, unmotivated protagonist and their very funny ex-valentine – very quickly became two of my favourite videogame characters. It was a delight to observe them slinging zingers at each other as they warily danced around the idea of maybe getting back together, all the while investigating a might-be murder by way of deciphering a bunch of cryptic letters.

That’s not to say that I was any good at playing the thing. I struggled to solve the cryptic puzzles and keep the relationship together, and instead ended up most nights passed out on the couch in an alcoholic haze. AND IN THE GAME (*sigh*).

11 Nuclear Throne (Vlambeer; Linux, Windows)

Nuclear Throne

And again! Another freshly-minted Linux port of a game from last year’s list. This one’s still under heavy development, with Vlambeer turning out updates on a weekly basis. The changes between builds are slight but always for the better, and the recently added daily challenges give this brilliant roguelike shooter a fairly good chance of making next year’s list as well.

10 Jazzpunk (Necrophone Games; Linux)

Jazzpunk

Last year when I made a list of my most anticipated games of 2014, here’s what I had to say about Jazzpunk:

“It’s like it’s from some alternate reality where the Scary Movie franchise never happened and we’re still basking in the glory days of early-Zucker-brothers-era spoofery. Christ I hope they can pull it off.”

Sometimes it can be the best thing to have a game turn out to be exactly what you wanted.

9 Bernband (Tom Van Den Boogaart; Linux)

Bernband

Bernband is being in a city at night. Inviting but suspicious, noisy yet reflective, lonely though you’re surrounded by others. Bernband is bars, clubs, night schools, museums, empty streets, underpasses and courtyards. Near misses with speeding cars. Resolving to explore just one more street even though you should have been home hours ago. Bernband is the sounds of a thousand different lives rising and fading as you pass. Running out of phone battery and wondering where your friends are. The beguiling stranger you know better than to talk to.

Bernband might be the future but it’s one we’ve all experienced and know intimately.

8 Return Of The Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope; Linux)

Return Of The Obra Dinn

This is an early devbuild which, at just a few minutes in length, is arguably too short to even qualify as a demo. It’s also one of the best things I played all year.

Detective tales and mystery-solving are areas which have historically been poorly served by video games. Sure, there have been some great games about sleuthing characters (an especially good one appears later on in this list). But in terms of actually giving the player the active role in an investigation – and with it the procession of grand eureka! moments as you uncover clues and edge ever closer to the truth, not so much.

Obra Dinn might be the game which finally cracks it. The central conceit of investigating a mystery by exploring a series flashback scenes didn’t grab me at first, but it’s been executed superbly. It’s basically an exercise in non-linear storytelling, each flashback providing a tiny impression the story without context. It avoids the usual pitfall of dumping exposition on the player (for this dev build at least, there is no dialogue and very little text in general) instead relying almost solely on environmental storytelling. Trying to stitch the narrative together in your mind is both engaging and rewarding, and despite the unorthodox delivery there’s still plenty of scope for narrative twists like double-crosses and villain reveals.

Best of all, the real detective work of actually piecing the clues together happens outside the game – which is exactly where it should be. Ignore the eyecatching MacPaint-styled graphics – they’re beautiful but they’re the least of what Obra Dinn has to offer.

7 Dungeon Of The Endless (Amplitude Studios; Windows)

Dungeon Of The Endless

This was one of my last-minute catch up games, where I spent the last week of the year going through a bunch of stuff I’d missed earlier on. It’s the first game I played from that group, which proved to be a grevious tactical error as I proceeded to spend that entire week playing this and not getting to the other games I’d put aside (sorry, Alien Isolation. We can still hang out, right?).

The genius of Dungeon Of The Endless is in the doomed balancing act it forces you to enact with each game. You’re never given enough resources to maintain everything you need to survive so you’re constantly choosing which things to neglect. That might be a room left unpowered, a weapon upgrade skipped over or a potential ally left behind. Each of these decisions will have repercussions later – you’re effectively deciding the form of your eventual doom. That’s ruthless but it’s oddly empowering as well and this, along with its short-ish playtime, makes Dungeon Of The Endless one of those terminal ‘just one more go’ games which will run roughshod all over your schedule and completely decimate your productivity. Pretty great, in other words.

6 Glitchhikers (Silverstring Media; Windows)

Glitchhikers

Among other things, 2014 was my year of the ‘slice of life sim’, for want of a better term – games which are solely about recreating a specific real-life (or not) experience. Games like 2:22 AM, Cooking For Lovers and Bernband… and Glitchhikers. Oh, how this one worked its magic on me.

I’m not sure how much the script varies between playthroughs, but in my game the dialogue referenced both David Lynch and Carl Sagan. That’s as good an indicator as any of the world Glitchikers creates (along with the inevitable comparison with Kerouac’s On The Road). Meditative, contempative, existential, it might be about everything and nothing all at once.

The game consists almost completely of dialogue, and yet much of the magic comes from the evocative audio and visuals. In the same way that a lot of Twine games would lose their charm if presented in a more visual way, Glitchhikers wouldn’t work nearly as well as a straight up text game – it’s the combination of writing and the hypnotic aesthetics which make it work so well.

It’s like the baffling, wonderful dream you wake up from and immediately attempt to interpret. I wish I had more of them.

5 The Blackwell Epiphany (Wadget Eye, Linux)

The Blackwell Epiphany

I’ve loved this series ever since I discovered it back in the Blackwell Unbound days, so it wasn’t a surprise to find myself enjoying this one. What was surprising was how much better this was than the games which preceded it. In short, it’s everything a swansong should be.

Each character is given a suitable sense of closure and all the loose ends are tied up nicely, drawing a satisfying line under the story. Playing it was a bittersweet experience, with mesmerising quality of the game itself being tempered by the knowledge that this was the last time I’d spend with these characters. And they’re fantastic characters. The schizophrenic effect of constantly changing graphic styles and voice actors which dogged the early games is well behind the series at this point, and Rosa and Joey share the easy rapport of old friends. I’ll miss the sterling voice work of Rebecca Whittaker and Abe Goldfarb as much as anything else.

And that ending! As I noted earlier, it’s straight-up perfect (and of course I can’t say anything about it). I’m entirely sincere when I say that I hope Dave Gilbert never picks up this series again – no more sequels, no Twin Peaks styled ‘twenty-five years later’ pickups or spin-offs. Rarely has a series ended this satisfyingly, with a conclusion so good that it actively strengthens the episodes which preceded it.

The Blackwell Epiphany

Put simply, Epiphany cemented the Blackwell games as my favourite adventure series, ever. That might scan as hyperbole, but what other adventure series might contest the title? Maniac Mansion? Only two games and the first hasn’t aged greatly. Monkey Island? Took a nosedive after Ron Gilbert left. Broken Sword? Lost its way after the first one. Space Quest? Truth be told, most of them weren’t much good in the first place. Chzo Mythos? Now we’re getting closer, but each of the games had such a different feel that the series lacks cohesion as a whole. Kentucky Route Zero? Brilliant, but technically all the one game (I think). Seriously, try to think of another adventure series which kept it together for five separate games without losing direction or dropping in quality. The only one I can think of which comes close is the Quest For Glory series, and even then we’re spilling over into RPG crossover territory.

So there it is: Blackwell is (for me) the best adventure game series ever. I envy you if you haven’t played them – because you can experience them all in one go and this stunning final episode will be all the more powerful for it.

In fact, for a long while I thought The Blackwell Epiphany was going to be my favourite game of the year. But being a graphic adventure has its drawbacks, the most notable being a lack of replayability – and by years end I’d found four games which mercilessly exploited that weakness to keep Blackwell off the top spot.

But that’s for another post.

Part three of my Top 40 list is coming soon.