The best games of 2014 so far are a testament to the freedom and opportunity available to videogame designers. From a hand-drawn recreation of a century old war, to an often-cloned puzzle game with an elegant sense of design, to the HD debut of a lifelong local multiplayer favorite, videogames offer a range of experiences and aesthetics more diverse than the medium’s public image might indicate. We’re only halfway through 2014 and we’ve already seen great games for all tastes and sensibilities. Here are our 20 favorites so far.
I fell in unabashed love with the world Murdered: Soul Suspect presented. I loved walking through dumpsters, doorways and even people. I even loved the unexpected powerlessness of having no gun and no functioning muscles. Above all, as a person who often can’t play horror games due to being a total softie, I took particular joy in finally getting to play as a ghost. Just as Ronan got to see “the other side” of law enforcement, I felt like I was switching teams too by playing as that which I most fear in games. I hate when ghosts jump out unexpectedly in at me in other games, but in this game, every time a ghost appeared I would feel excited because it meant I’d get to talk to them and, soon, get to solve the mystery of their backstory and send them on to a better place. Instead of getting spooked, I got to be a savior—and not necessarily in the typical power fantasy way.—Maddy Myers
Kero Blaster feels like Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya coming to terms with a kind of creative—and, given the semi-autobiographical nature of the comic that birthed these characters, maybe even personal—uncertainty. Cave Story was undoubtedly the product of a creator with a clear end-to-end vision. Kero Blaster might be Amaya proving to himself that you don’t need something so overwhelming in order to make something great; following your muse is equally valid, if a little scarier.—Joe Bernardi
Sportsfriends [is] a quartet of independent games all focused on the type of local, living-room multiplayer that’s made a surprisingly potent comeback in recent months. Subsisting on goodwill and Kickstarter money, Sportsfriends arrives with a whole lot of heart. It’s a grassroots party game, with designs so simple and efficient they could’ve been Mario Party obstacles. Its charm will overwhelm you, but sometimes a back-to-basics approach can inadvertently turn up the barrier of entry.—Luke Winkie
Drakengard 3 is wretched, trashy, and totally amazing, the pinnacle of a B movie of videogames from budget to dialogue to mechanics. It’s not Duke Nukem, wallowing in the worst of games without a second thought, nor is it Spec Ops: The Line, a critique of games that conveniently passes over its own complicity. Rather, Drakengard 3 is endearingly awful, with bizarre, out-of-place humor, extreme violence, and, when you least expect it, wrenching sincerity.—Aevee Bee
Schafer has given us a more-or-less faithful recreation of the point-and-click formula that made him famous. Click on people to talk to them. Click on items to pick them up or use them on other items. Any formula that simple is going to rely heavily on details, and any fans of Schafer’s previous work will understand how much love went into the craft of seemingly every aspect of Broken Age.—JB
Nintendo’s goofy life sim caused me legitimate mental and emotional duress on at least two occasions. No matter how hard I tried to make a match, my Mii would not accept the love or friendship of my wife’s Mii. It’s heartbreaking to watch a tiny version of myself that looks like a Charles Schulz drawing repeatedly reject the woman that I love. Tomodachi Life might look like a silly lark, with its cartoonish Miis and surreal dream sequences, but it hurt me in a way no game ever has before.—Garrett Martin
Luftrausers does what all great action games do: It becomes irreducible and vital. High-scores and completed objectives aside, the real thrill is in the primal strain to survive by chaining a series of small miracles to one another, until you can’t any longer.—Joseph Leray
The best thing about Titanfall is how little it cares for the laws of physics. Like every pilot in the game I wear some kind of rocket boot contraption that lets me jump obnoxiously high and far, and once I’m in the air I can jump again to get even higher/farther. (They call it a “double-jump”?) I can also wall-run like Mirror’s Edge, gliding along the sides of despoiled military buildings as if it’s my job. I can double-jump into a wall-run, leap across a gap and dance across another wall, and then double-jump again through a window into the opposing team’s command center, where I immediately get shot-gunned by two or three people at once. (Usually.) This commitment to fast, graceful, patently unrealistic movement is another factor that shreds whatever kind of verisimilitude might be expected from a modern-day shooter.—GM
OlliOlli is a skateboarding game, but it shouldn’t be viewed in the same light as a Tony Hawk or Skate. Roll7’s Vita exclusive (coming soon to PC and Playstation consoles) owes more to a variety of flash-fire mobile games, from the Ur-endless runner of Canabalt to the high score hijinks and level-specific goalposts of every other mobile game in existence. OlliOlli is a basically a skateboard-themed mobile game that gives your left thumb a thorough workout.—GM
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a beautiful game, in both appearance and demeanor. It is joyous in its joyousness, so happy to make us happy. Games should be beautiful and joyous. Games can be anything and can look like anything, and yet few games are beautiful or joyous—at least few games with the budget of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.—GM
The quality of the animations and vistas are almost Disney like, and the way the landscape shifts in layers behind you as your caravan rumbles through the tundra is utterly spellbinding. You’re made to look so small in this ancient, unforgiving world that it’s hard to not read the implied sense of history etched on the landscapes. You can’t play The Banner Saga without getting curious about the places you’re inhabiting. So many fantasy worlds fall by the wayside, but the transformative power of an iconic art style can never be underrated.—LW
Last year in the Atlantic Ian Bogost described Hundreds as “the haute couture” of videogames, important more as a “design object” than a “consumable media experience.” That could almost describe Threes. Its simple color palette—a soft grey rectangle on a white background, covered with tiles that are either white with small splashes of orange, or a muted blue and red—is almost as stark as Hundreds’. Threes is a more whimsical game, though—tiles have small faces and sometimes speak, saying hello to one another when they combine or muttering “bored” when the player takes too long between moves. Jimmy Hinson’s music has a strong Jon Brion influence, evoking the mannered but not quite icy early films of Paul Thomas Anderson. If Hundreds was a European art film, Threes would be its quirky American cousin. It’s worth getting obsessed over.—GM
Distance and closeness. Living and wanting to die. Sociality without wanting to be social. These are the not-quite dyads that flow through Actual Sunlight’s backstory delivered in the present, full of fleshed-out characterization, told through transcribed documents scattered and associated with different locations; it is, in a strange way, closer to Bioshock than most other contemporary narrative games. However, it shows us a way out of that paradigm as well—these are not tacked-on or extra, but instead they deliver the whole world to us, showing that narrative interludes in games might work better when they are not interludes at all, but rather complete and total embraces of pure narrative in an interactive space.—Cameron Kunzelman
Why do I willingly play a game that doesn’t just make me want to break things, but that exists almost exclusively to make me want to break things? With Dark Souls II it’s simply the return of something that I liked in the past. It doesn’t have that groundbreaking edge of the first two, but it recaptures everything else that I love about Dark Souls—the tension, the need for patience, the dependence upon skill, and the sublime satisfaction of completing something that provides deep and sustained frustration.—GM
If you introduce players to Nidhogg, they will play it and enjoy it.—Tim Rogers
Valiant Hearts: The Great War strives to be the antithesis in a sea of war shooters. Its purpose lies in the history of World War I and the people affected by it and anything else involved comes in as a second priority. It exists beyond a simple side scroller or puzzler and reaches right into real world events to provide an emotional tale of survival and family.—Carli Velocci
Mario Kart 8 brings back a type of game long absent from my living room. The core of Mario Kart 8 delivers exactly what I wanted—a return to the “friends screaming at each other, red-spark generating, mercilessly hitting-each-other-with-shells” action that made the series fun from the start.—Casey Malone
[This is] the essence of Transistor: In the face of power, unique human qualities become valuable, hand-picked functions that operate in the service of an agenda. To a degree, we all lose our voice. In the wreckage of a fallen world, the only choice left to make is whose side we’re on, and what we’re willing to give up for the sake of the cause.—Richard Clark
Monument Valley is a brief, wondrous piece of art about structure and perspective. Technically it’s a puzzle game, available now for iOS and coming soon to Android, but its puzzles serve less as brain-teasers than as a vehicle to explore Ustwo’s beautifully crafted environments. The game’s artwork, which unfolds across ten succinct chapters, borrows heavily from the works of M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist known for his “impossible constructions”—grand rooms filled with infinite staircases, balconies simultaneously above and below one another, spires at once in the foreground and background. Monument Valley isn’t entirely about optical illusion, but its pastel stages consistently channel this brand of imagination.—Matt Akers
Kentucky Route Zero has always seemed to be a game about rest. The experience of playing the game itself is noticeably muted, and while the pacing isn’t exactly slow, there’s a meandering quality to it. The game itself asks very little of the player, as if it was created with the weary and heavy-laden in mind.
By now I’m starting to view Kentucky Route Zero as a game about discovering how to rest. We all have a good idea of how to physically rest; just lay down, close your eyes, and fall asleep. The next day, we’re back to normal, given enough time in slumber. But how does a spiritually exhausted person rest? How do we recharge our tired souls?—RC
What’s your favorite game of 2014 so far? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter .