There were videogames in 2014. Who knew?
It seems like the least interesting thing about videogames in 2014 were the games themselves. Or, if not “least interesting”, at least the least discussed. All of the oxygen got sucked up by new console wars, troubled launches, almost constant technical issues, and, oh yeah, a massive culture war that let everybody know exactly who to never pay attention to. It was a busy, newsworthy year, but probably not in the way the industry had hoped.
But yes, there were games, and some of them were excellent. From a streak of excellent Nintendo games for the Wii U and 3DS, to a refreshing spate of Japanese imports, to the continued strength of independent developers around the world, 2014 did not want for fun times or good vibes or insightful explorations of the human condition. Here are our favorite games of the year, as reviewed by our top-notch team of critics, and as determined by me, Paste’s games editor. Hello!
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a beautiful interactive mystery set a small, empty town with a twisted history. It’s tempting to compare it to Twin Peaks, because every mystery set in a small town with a twisted history has to be compared to Twin Peaks, and although it lacks the eye and voice of a David Lynch, it’s an arresting story that infuses the mundane realities of life with the thrill of the supernatural.—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
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
Fantasy Life made me realize just how parched I was for another truly kind game world: a world where hard work is rewarded, where progress is tangible, where people care and conflicts can be resolved with a bushel of freshly-picked apples as often as with a blade. It’s an engrossing and joy-filled way to unwind, and easily one of the most charming games I’ve played this fall.—Janine Hawkins
Dragon Age is always about characters; the game’s creators have done excellent work, once again, at making this band of weirdoes as real and relatable as in every other previous Dragon Age. [It] impresses with twisting conversation trees, tricky choices, and a refreshing level of believability and realism for a “fantasy” game. I love when Dragon Age subverts my expectations.—Maddy Myers
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
Etrian Odyssey was always a punishingly difficult game, but it was also fundamentally lovely. Persona Q doesn’t really have any of that. But it does have Persona’s signature music and cute and silly conversations between the characters, so in a lot of ways it actually does capture that same sort of charming low-stakes feeling between the exacting dungeons. It’s an energetic game, but it’s a game that’s about having fun, and the characters are clearly having a lot of it. It’s infectious!—AB
There’s a desire to see Mountain as profound. It wants to cultivate that, with its poetry, with its random objects, with its sometimes-soaring spouts of music. I’ll come out and say it: There’s nothing special about this mountain. It is like every other mountain, and if we wanted, we could try to mine that normality for profundity. That flips the relationship onto the player. The mountain becomes about how I relate to that mountain and what it does to me, and most importantly, how long I can stand to witness it. It becomes a game of endurance. How much Mountain can you take before you close it in boredom?—Cameron Kunzelman
In the same way that the title of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair appears to be a hodgepodge of words, the game is a hodgepodge of mechanics and themes. Part visual novel, part dating sim, and part something else entirely, Danganronpa 2 revels in every odd nook and cranny it can. The weirder Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair gets, the better it is.—Rollin Bishop
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
Nintendo excels with puzzle games built around three-dimensional space. Think Picross 3D and Crashmo, two fantastic 3DS games that you should be familiar with. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker isn’t as laser-focused on puzzle-solving as those two, but by dressing it up in the guise of a platformer Nintendo has created a deeper and more inviting game that also happens to be incredibly adorable. Almost thirty years after Mario first rescued him, Toad finally has a game that perfectly fits his friendly everyman persona.—GM
OlliOlli is a skateboarding game, but it shouldn’t be viewed in the same light as a Tony Hawk or Skate. Roll7’s game 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 basically a skateboard-themed mobile game that gives your left thumb a thorough workout.—GM
Based on Iñupiat oral tradition, Never Alone;s environment may be alien, but the smallest of us summoning the bravery and wisdom to dance with and around nature never stops being humanity’s most inspiring, timeless narrative. The myth behind Never Alone shows a completely alien tongue and a burgeoning medium speaking the same language as everyone on Earth: A language of hope and courage. There’s nothing like discovering for yourself just how close that makes all of us.—Justin Clark
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.—Luke Winkie
Too many games take themselves too seriously, but This War of Mine’s unrelenting tone is absolutely necessary. This tale of civilians struggling to exist in a city riven by civil war is a very real take on survival horror. It’s darker and more frightening than any so-called horror game and thankfully isn’t as maudlin as it could’ve been.—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.—CK
Fantasia: Music Evolved isn’t about turning music into a sequence of buttons to mash, or about the nostalgia of a classic movie. It’s about exploring music and the possibilities of sound, letting me literally reshape them with my hands. The end result is one of the most exhilarating games I’ve ever played. I’m bouncing around, working up my heart rate, hurling my arms in every direction, pulling in keyboards and clarinets, muting guitars and drum machines, sculpting solos with my hands, and feeling a connection to music and to a game that I’ve never felt before. It’s not like dancing, and it’s not like playing in a band or DJing at a bar. It’s something entirely different, something special and weird.—GM
Nidhogg has existed for years, but wasn’t commercially released until the second week of 2014. The one-on-one dueling match is like tug of war played with swords in a world that’s part Atari and part expressionist painting. It’s a game, and a fun one, and one of the best things you’ll play on a Vita or PC or anything else this year.—GM
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
Despite its beautiful cartoon aesthetic, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a serious game that explores the horrors of war more directly than almost any first-person shooter. It focuses on World War I, the first truly modern war, and how it dehumanized both civilians and soldiers. And it does this within the context of a delightful puzzle game. It’s a great example of how to approach a grim subject in a way that’s respectful and illuminating but still entertaining.—GM
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
The sense of hugeness, of discovery, of never fully understanding what’s going on but knowing that eventually you’ll figure it out if you just keep trying? That sentiment has been thoroughly packed into Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U, which feels more deliciously expansive than any iteration before it. It feels like a version of Smash that has achieved a higher plane of self-awareness. This game has leaned even further into its own wackiness, and it’s up to you whether you want to come along for the ride.—MM
Who is Bayonetta for? It’s never been entirely clear, and the question remained at the back of my mind throughout Bayonetta 2. Is she a raunchy male-gaze-panderer, or a woman reclaiming her own sexuality? Is her story an ill-thought mish-mash, or is it a hilarious, self-aware send-up of videogame clichés? I posit that Bayonetta 2 is intentionally leaning into the concept of “male gaze” for the sake of comedy and reclamation. I don’t particularly care whether that’s intentional or not, because either way, I’m entertained. It’s rare that a game actually offers me a compelling story, a nuanced heroine, jokes that are funny and never cringe-worthy, plus combat mechanics that I can sink hours into perfecting again and again.—MM
[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
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