Progress Report: The best and worst of 2012, part 2

September 3, 2012

While the industry divides the year into quarters, we realize that there are really three parts to the year: the barren early months, the gimmicky, convention-filled summer and the action-packed holiday season. This time, we look at May through August.

Biggest Surprise: The Amazing Spider-Man is a movie tie-in, and for that reason I didn’t really expect to like it. While it never surpasses the games that it emulates, you can certainly do worse than combat inspired by Batman: Arkham Asylum and free-roam challenges that would feel at home in Crackdown. The story takes place after the film so you’re not retreading content, and even though it’s not in my running for game of the year, I firmly believe that developers and publishers should stand up and pay attention. This is how you do a licensed game right.

Biggest Disappointment: I know, I know. Darksiders II is fun. And big. And a great sequel. What disappoints me about it, though, is the shop-exclusive preorder content. It’s true that plenty of games have shop-exclusive preorder content, and I’m not above buying it. When I played Firefight in Halo 3: ODST,I always took Sergeant Johnson who was only available via GameStop preorder. I also have Juggernaut playable in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. And last, but not least, I have the “I clearly cannot be trusted with money” edition of Borderlands 2 reserved that comes with an entire playable area and a replica BL1 gun chest big enough to put a dachshund in. What Vigil and THQ have done with Darksiders II is include an entire set of enemies that everybody can see but only those who preordered the game can do anything about. It’s frustrating to play, and it’s disappointing to see more and more core content being set aside to pump up retail preorder numbers.

Game of Part 2: Orcs Must Die! 2. I’m a sucker for simple concept games, and one of my favorite PC genres in tower defense. I like Defense Grid: The Awakening so much that I own it and all of the DLC on both 360 and Steam. I’m eagerly awaiting Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, as it combines one of my favorite franchises with tower defense, and when I picked Orcs Must Die! in the 2011 Steam winter sale I fell in love. It was tower defense as I’d never played it before. I was directly involved, and I was rearranging traps on the fly. And then the sequel came out and improved on everything. There are more orcs, more traps, more interesting levels, and cooperative play. I adore watching orcs get slaughtered by an efficient trap setup, and running through levels with a co-op buddy feels great.

Biggest Surprise: The very concept of Retro/Grade was enough to get me interested in it when it was first shown a few years back. A shoot-‘em-up played in reverse? That alone sounded intriguing. And then the game disappeared and I essentially forgot about it until a few weeks before its release. I was surprised when I found out that not only is the concept awesome, but the game’s music and rhythmic gameplay really add up to create something special. Even if you have no interest or desire to play a shmup, Retro/Grade’s rhythm game approach to the genre may surprise you as much as it surprised me.

Biggest Disappointment: And to think that one of the big reasons I bought a PlayStation Vita was Gravity Rush. What a waste of an amazing concept. The act of flying through this imaginative, colorful world seemed worth the asking price just on its own, and to be fair, the actual flying mechanics were quite good. Soaring through the skies became one of my favorite ways to traverse an open world.

And then you quickly see that despite its charming presentation and fantastic mechanics, there really isn’t much to Gravity Rush. The combat is tedious, the missions themselves lack variety, and there really isn’t much else to do in this seemingly exciting open world. And then there are that missions that remove or restrict your powers, the sole thing that kept me playing, and the final third of the game completely loses focus on everything that made Gravity Rush engaging to begin with. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a game squander its potential so relentlessly.

Game of Part 2: The Last Story may not be the best RPG of its kind, but it felt to me like a true return to the JRPG I know and love. Sure, Xenoblade Chronicles does a lot to move the genre forward, but The Last Story did some fantastic things to help me remember why I loved it in the first place. Outside of the battle system (which I thought was an exciting change of pace), the game’s story, characters, and world reminded me of a genre that at one point in time felt truly alive and well. People will argue with me until the end of time that the JRPG isn’t dead and, yeah, I agree, but for a while it was certainly on life support. I know it will never be as relevant or popular as it once was, but as long as we continue to get games like The Last Story, I will always be satisfied.

Biggest Surprise: The announcement that Nintendo Power will no longer continue after 2012. While something that I knew was all but inevitable given the way technology, and specifically the Internet, has made print media all but obsolete, I really thought that NP had completely dodged that bullet. They recognized that detailed walkthroughs, cheat codes, and things of that nature were no longer their purview (though they were the unchallenged gods of such things back in the pre-Internet era) and shifted to a more preview-rich and feature-oriented format a while ago (predating the outsourcing to Future US in 2007).

For me, an exclusive Nintendo gamer, it served as a sort of combination news filter and aggregator, but without NP continuing long after most gamers had thought it dead I never would have heard about obscure under-the-radar games like 999. I still use its “Download” section to get a general overview of what’s available (and worth the time) in the various eShops, but I guess I only get to do so for another few months. Nintendo Power is why a lot of today’s game journalists — including several on this very site — do what they do. After 24 years, it truly is the end of an era.

Biggest Disappointment: The 3DS library. Still. On August 19th, the day I had patiently awaited arrived and I picked up a 3DS XL. And… one retail release (a version of Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection). I know there are some good games available, but after all this time, the library still seems ridiculously thin. Titles I’m interested in are on the way (Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle and Virtue’s Last Reward in particular). There are some interesting releases in the nebulous future. But right now? After a year and a half? The games I’m looking for just aren’t there.

Game of Part 2: There’s a heavy element of “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” at work here, but fortunately The Last Story is more than earning its throne despite the kingdom’s barrenness. An interesting take on RPGs in general and RPG combat specifically, TLS is a worthy swan song for the outgoing Wii. Runner-up (and let’s be honest, the only other new title worth mentioning for me this stretch): Pokémon Conquest.

Biggest Surprise: We weren’t even sure if North American audiences were going to get The Last Story, but I’m glad we did. Its localization is stellar; the British voice acting, much like Xenoblade Chronicles’ (but a little less grating), is very strong and, much like Xenoblade again, it really pushes the Wii’s hardware in some places. Unfortunately, the Wii isn’t 100% up to the task. Put this game next to Perfect Dark and Shadow of the Colossus for being too much for the hardware on which it was released.

Biggest Disappointment: Diablo III. It had to happen eventually. Pixar finally ruined its perfect record with Cars 2, and Blizzard finally disappointed me with Diablo III. I read somewhere that it wasn’t a bad game, but it lacked a soul. That was exactly it for me. I didn’t find it poorly-designed necessarily, but just nowhere near as fun as World of Warcraft or StarCraft II. Not even in the same league.

Game of Part 2: I have rarely played a game that made me feel as much as Spec Ops: The Line. Don’t let the banal title fool you: this is an excellent game. There’s solid gameplay and graphics, but nothing spectacular. But the nuances of the storytelling, the progression of character, the uncertainty of their fate and the simmering-but-evident knot in your stomach that grows and grows throughout the game is hugely surprising. Were games meant to make us feel this way? Should we feel bad about shooting fictional enemies? It’s the main strength of the game that it does just that, and more.

Biggest Surprise: I love strategy and tactics games, so it’s not often I’m surprised that I like one. Hero Academy though, was unexpected. I never expected a strategy game ported from iOS would turn out to be as balanced and enjoyable as this is. If you enjoy strategy games, grab this one on Steam and challenge me to a match! I’ll take on all challengers.

Biggest Disappointment: Lack of post-launch Vita games. Most gamers are fairly used to post-launch droughts, but they never cease to be frustrating and disappointing. The worst part of this one? It looks like there’s still over a month left in it before any games I’m interested in will be released. The good news is that Sony seems to have realized how big the problem is, and is working to make sure next year is better.

Game of Part 2: Ys Origin. Given my penchant for buying any well-respected RPG series I can get my hands on, I’m sure many would be surprised to hear that this was my first Ys game. I’ve already made sure it won’t be my last. The action was so polished and fun that it convinced me to go out and purchase the PSP games in the series.

Biggest Surprise: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. When I first heard of the game, I was shocked that Square Enix even considered making a rhythm game. While it made sense since they had a large selection of music coming from each game, it questioned me how it would translate into a 3DS game. We ended up getting something unique in the game itself while still making it a very Final Fantasy game. I’m still playing it to this day, crying each time I miss out on getting a shard to get a new character.

Biggest Disappointment: I’m not quite sure what about PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale doesn’t sit with me properly. Maybe it’s the odd ragtag of characters, or maybe after watching battle gameplay that doesn’t seem to make much sense. I can’t even really say that all the characters they’re including in are even “PlayStation” exclusive. The big selling point with Super Smash Bros. Brawl was that most of them came from Nintendo games and only Nintendo games. As for this game, some characters have debuted on other systems and it leaves me confused on their inclusion. Who knows; maybe if someone I know gets this game in the future it might change my mind. So far, it’s just been a jumbled mess in my eyes to cash in on what made the Smash Bros. series so good.

Game of Part 2: As much as I love fighters and all, I’m surprised at how much I actually like Persona 4 Arena. As I mentioned in my review, the mechanics of the game are simple, but there’s a lot of complexity to how the game plays. On top of that, the game’s music and story are pretty stellar. I could definitely see myself playing this a couple of months down the road. Also, I can’t give Kanji’s story enough love in this game.

Biggest Surprise: As much as I like the genre, I admit I wasn’t expecting much from Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time. The PSP port of a PS2 game in a series I’d tried before and found lacking, I was hoping this would be the time I’d get what others saw in it. I did, and much more than that, I found a love for the series beyond its surface-level flaws and even-then-dated visuals. There’s a subtlety to it, and some moments that you can see inspired later elements in games like The Last Story and Valkyria Chronicles.

Biggest Disappointment: I’m fairly sure I was the target audience for Dungeon Fighter Live: Fall of Hendon Myre. It’s a console adaptation of a PC game, designed for local co-op and full of quests and upgrades. Unfortunately, the experience is largely broken by a quest system that makes you start over when you add a new player, somewhat-awkward-feeling controls that take you out of the action and fairly horrible UI design. There’s still a decent game here, but you have to dig and you have to play together with the same people the whole way through, which is just not practical.

Game of Part 2: There’s something about Sound Shapes. The game’s aesthetics are just so slick and pleasant, the levels work both mechanically and aurally and (while there really should be a better in-game curation) the team’s doing a great job of spotlighting great work by the community on various social media. It’s not challenging and it’s not particularly deep, but Sound Shapes is a calm, centering experience that oozes creativity.

What are your thoughts on the year so far? Let us know in the comments!