For me, 2012 wasn’t the year of the breakout all-time favorites, but rather one when it got super-tough to judge games’ relative quality. In this year like none before, game experiences are so apples-to-oranges. How do you compare Journey to Rhythm Heaven Fever? Or Sound Shapes to Mass Effect 3? Here’s my best attempt, but these games are all brilliant, as are a few that didn’t make the cut.
10. LittleBigPlanet Vita
Portable versions of console games. Sony’s gotten into some trouble in the past with this sort of approach, but with the Vita edition of LittleBigPlanet, it took the right approach. Touch controls are elegantly-implemented in most levels, and the App Store-like approach to community levels (save states and all) is very nice. It’s the type of game that’s best downloaded, as it’s a great palette cleanser after any other title.
9. Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time
A PSP port of a PS2 game in 2012 has to have some serious selling points. Wayfarer of Time does. The tactics are legitimately interesting, and even the grind-heavy battles are fun because you can work on your special abilities (and focusing more on those does lead to making pedestrian encounters more challenging). The game got me to go back to the PS2 releases to try those. They’re not quite as good, and they’re not Vita-compatible. This is the one you want.
8. The Last Story
Xenoblade Chronicles got the most attention (and we’re no exception around here), but I found much more satisfying experiences in Mistwalker’s tale that will likely forever play Luigi to Xenoblade‘s Mario in the zeitgeist. The tactical elements are great, the combat is wonderful (if you turn off auto-attack) and the world is one of the most gorgeous we saw this year, HD or otherwise.
7. Sound Shapes
There is nothing like Queasy Games’ Sound Shapes, a creative platformer drenched in music but not entirely bound by rhythm trappings. It kept building on its initial premise with big-name composers and cool aesthetics, and with more content still being released, it will continue to bear fruit. It’s not a game to obsess over playing for hours, but it’s one of the most pleasant things to dip into every once in a while.
6. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Tactics with accessibility has always been a challenge for game developers. Most have simply given up, releasing PC-only, small-market wargames that aren’t without merit but have trouble attracting a following. Enemy Unknown can be just as hard as the original, but interface changes and an aesthetic overhaul let players join the tactical party. That it manages to do so with a controller is doubly impressive.
5. Pokemon Conquest
It’s what I always wanted: a Pokemon tactics game. My dream version had overarching progression, but the campaign-based nature of Conquest ends up being better than my ideas, as it sets it apart from the blur of other tactical games and forces you to find and try new teams and abilities. It’s a magnificent first effort, and I hope beyond all hope that Tecmo Koei gets a second shot.
4. Rhythm Heaven Fever
Rhythm Heaven is just fun. High-fiving monkeys? Dancing board-room pigs? Luchador interviews? It’s off-the-wall in the best way. Fever made the decision to eschew motion control, and it’s much better for it; the one thing holding the DS version back was a reliance on stylus gestures.
3. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
I’m a big fan of the action racing genre. Bizarre Creations’ penultimate release, Blur, was the top of the heap, managing to take that super-solid Mario Kart formula and add just enough balance and driving skill to make it the mature, deep experience I wanted. Transformed takes those lessons back to a mascot-racer aesthetic, polishes the driving controls even more, keeps things fresh with equally-refined boat and plane segments and even matches the one Mario Kart staple that Blur (and recent Mario Karts, for that matter) didn’t: a battle mode. Play it on Wii U for five-player local through virtually any event. (360 and PS3 are okay, too, with four. But Wii U is one better!)
2. Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 isn’t as good of a game as Mass Effect 2, but it’s a silly comparison to make. If you win a million dollars, then you win $750,000, it’s not as good. But it’s still very good. I dreaded the multiplayer mode; it was very solid. I feared the new characters and mechanics; they were at best enjoyable and at worst avoidable. I saw the end of the story of Graham Shepard, my Shepard, and as far as I’m concerned the only Shepard. The game ended in a way that made things very over, and yes, it was a bit painful, but only because BioWare Edmonton did such an impressive job at making me care. Mass Effect 3 is three-fourths as good as what was arguably the best game in a decade. That’s enough for me.
I can’t adequately put my feelings about Journey into text. It’s meticulous in its aesthetic, and incredible to see in motion. It’s a tale without words, a game without overt mechanics, a world with boundaries but boundless in nature. Yes, it’s quite short. But I’ll remember every moment, something I can hardly say about any interactive experience I’ve ever had.