Faster Than Light
Were furious that we werent born into an era where space travel was more common. Seriously, in 300 years our great grandchildren will be zipping around the stars, high-fiving aliens and blowing up spaceships for fun. Our only consolation is the existence of games like Faster Than Light, which allow us to teleport our minds into a time where such adventures are possible. They also remind us that we wouldnt last five minutes in space.
FTL is the Star Trek game we always wanted. Its a roguelike (see: randomized levels and permanent death) where were the captain of our very own customizable spaceship. The upgrade system is complex and fulfilling, and being able to swap out weapons and abilities makes each journey through the stars unique. But its really the tactical battles, mixed with the brutal difficulty, that makes FTL so memorable. Well never forget the first time we took out a massive ship thanks to a few split-second decisions--or the first time our crew (named after our friends and family) suffocated, burned alive, or got blown apart by space pirates.
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Super Metroid with a sword-wielding cat. Thats a starting point for imagining what this awesome XBLA game plays like, for those who have yet to experience it. Combining the Eastern hack-n-slash gameplay of Odin Sphere with a cast of animal-people styled after Western cartoons, its an achievement in combat-focused platforming, managing to capture the thrill and satisfaction of a classic Metroid or Castlevania game with the low budget of an indie developer.
Everything you encounter in Elysian Tail feels just right: The combat is phenomenal, the characters are endearing, and the vast world is ripe for secret-seeking exploration. Wielding the sturdy Blade of Ahrah as samurai cat Dust, youll get a rush of adrenaline every time a pack of enemies shows up--because that means its time to slice and dice them with a bevy of flashy combos and magic attacks. Its like a mash-up of your favorite childhood storybook and the battles of the 16-bit era, easily making it one of the years best.
Mark of the Ninja
Most "ninja" games have you running around in cool clothes and lopping off the heads of bad guys en masse. But Mark of the Ninja might just be the best actual ninja game we've ever played. Not that we really know what it's like to be one--but we'd wager it involved a lot more sneaking than head-on skirmishes.
Planning your every move in this 2D sidescroller is essential, as it prioritizes stealth over being a gung-ho hero. You'll have to operate from the shadows while dodging traps and taking down bad guys before they ever had a chance to know you were there. And, should you fail, your score will suffer, resulting in great shame for your clan. Mark of the Ninja is a lesson in masterful, minimalist stealth design--and it's one of those addictingly difficult games that will send you spiraling toward obsession.
Some might argue that the pixelated puzzle platformer approach to indie game design is the safest path to take, but Fez is more than its pixelated parts let on. While it starts off as a funny, cutesy retro homage with a neat, world-spinning gimmick, it quickly evolves into something grander. Something more impressive. Before long, your eyes will be glazed over, your brains will be leaking out of your ears, and youll be neck deep in one of the most enigmatic games released in a long time.
Fezs brilliance is in its depth. Its simple platforming is fun, but it eventually takes a backseat to delving tombs and deciphering codes. Cracking said codes will unlock new in-game languages, leading to new areas that reward you with more cubes to collect and even more puzzles to solve. The sense of satisfaction after uncovering one of the encoded languages is immense, and the feeling of reward is incredible. Its not a game for everyone, but if it hooks you, good luck escaping with your sanity.
Legend of Grimrock
Legend of Grimrocks presentation made ancient gameplay feel new again, introducing a new generation of adventurers to the wonders of first-person, tile-based dungeon crawling circa early 90s PCs. Instead of tasking you with mundane fetch quests, a clich fight against evil, or blabbermouth party members, Grimrock takes a simpler approach: Your four-creature group is trapped in a labyrinthine prison-tower, and the only way out is down. Rather than bash you over the head with its story like one of its many monsters, the game lets the arcane mysteries of its sinister dungeon unfold through ethereal dialogue and hidden messages.
The atmosphere really drives home the feeling of being trapped in a dank, claustrophobic stone prison--which is absolutely a good thing, in a gaming landscape filled with bloom lighting abuse and heroes that look like action figures. And taking on the mythical creatures in Grimrock actually feels like a test of your resolve, instead of a means of accruing XP. Its terrifying when a raptor gets the jump on you while youre resting, and youll bellow a victory shout after downing your first Tunnel Ogre.
A lot of games these days, indie and otherwise, make a big song and dance about bringing back the spirit of "retro" games. Most of them do so simply by being harder than a concrete rhino, irrespective of any other design sensibilities.
Mutant Mudds, however, is the real deal. Its basically a NES game, polished up to within an inch of its life. Other than an endlessly coo-worthy 3D depth of field effect, theres barely a concession made to anything created after 1987. The result? An utterly pure platforming design, lean of frills and tighter than drum-skin. Its demanding, requiring nothing less than utter discipline, precise timing, and a keen eye for pixel-perfect spatial navigation. But its also bright, breezy, funny, and endlessly likeable. And the DLC is centred around a granny with a jetpack. Enough said.
Far more than the simple tribute to old-school GTA that it might first appear to be, Hotline Miami is smarter, sharper, and more exhilarating than Albert Einstein on a knifing spree. Essentially an ultra-tactical, high-speed stealth game, Hotlines pacing and brutally precise demands are less a case of blink and youll miss it, and more a case of blink and youre almost guaranteed to find your innards spread over a very wide area.
Its a game that looks effortless--mindless, even--in successful execution, but in which a single level can take more than an hour of second-to-second pre-planning to complete. Not that youll mind. That feverish loop of plotting, failing, restarting, and eventually succeeding is one of the most satisfying and compulsive experiences provided by a game all year.
And the winner is... Fez
While Faster Than Light, Hotline Miami, and Legend of Grimrock reminded us of the enjoyment in punishing difficulty, and Dust: An Elysian Tale, Mutant Mudds, and Mark of the Ninja presented us with some of the sleekest 2D gameplay weve seen in a long while, their successes were in reminding us what we love about gaming. Fez, on the other hand, gave us something wholly new to love, which is why weve decided to award it our Indie Game of the Year award for 2012.
Its adorable graphics and retro style might have been what brought us in originally, but the cryptography-style code breaking is what kept us interested for dozens of hours. The world is whimsical and imaginative, and the game is so multifaceted, so imaginative, and so complex that its hard not to become obsessed.
Action Adventure of the Year
The year is coming to a close. We've played through the year's best games and now it's time to choose the one that rules them all. But with so many that fall under the umbrella of Action Adventure, how in the world do you pick the best one? Well, you don't need to worry, because we've played them all and selected our favorites from the 2012 lineup.
Our nominees for 2012 are the best of what the Action Adventure genre has to offer. Darksiders II adopted it's own identity, veering away from the Zelda formula and creating a thrilling, loot-mongering quest. Dishonored introduced the dilapidated city of Dunwall, giving you free reign over it's fate. And games like Gravity Rush took gameplay to new heights, giving you awesome ways to play with...well gravity. Check out our seven picks for the year's best. But which one takes the title of Action Adventure game of Year?
What would happen if you took every major AAA game in recent memory, got them drunk, and threw them into Hong Kong with shotguns and meat cleavers? Sleeping Dogs, apparently. Drawing inspiration from the best shooters, brawlers, and racers in the industry, United Front Games open-world action game is a hodgepodge of ideas and concepts that work together to create one of the most action-packed experiences of the last few years.
Climbing up the ranks of the criminal underworld as an undercover cop isnt the most unique premise of all time--in fact, little in Sleeping Dogs is truly original--but odds are you wont complain about originality when youre jumping between cars in slow motion, or beating down dozens of enemies at a time, or getting in thrilling shootouts, or chasing foes through crowded streets, or... doing any of the other fantastic things that make Sleeping Dogs so incredibly, irrefutably fun.