What a year for games. While we'll be counting down our collective staff top ten starting on Monday--with your Chatty votes included--we wanted to take some time first to talk about our own personal favorites. These games were among the most special to me, for a variety of reasons, and I highly recommend each of them.
Bravely Default: Flying Fairy
Bravely Default was almost everything I've wanted out of an RPG. As a long-time fan of the Final Fantasy series, I've wanted a game that could recapture the magic of those glory days. I'm not sure why Square abandoned the name for a game that's so clearly a twist on the series, but this is the update I've been looking for.
It brought back elements I loved, like a rich and robust class system, and wry writing with a small cast of lovable characters. Better yet, it modernized key aspects of the classic J-RPG experience with smart tools, letting you tune the frequency of battles, or even fast-forward with an auto-battle mechanic. Grinding is a part of the charm, but Bravely Default found a clever way to cut out the fat. I do wish it had gone easy on the repetition, but that mark against it wasn't nearly severe enough to keep me from loving it and looking back at it fondly.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
What an adorable little gem of a game. Captain Toad came too late in the year to catch much attention from the public for Game of the Year, but it was absolutely a contender for me. Nintendo regularly shows a purity of design that you simply don't see from other studios, and Captain Toad is no exception. It took the nicely polished puzzles from Super Mario 3D World and blew them out with new concepts, making for more than a few brain-teasers.
All of this is wrapped in a syrupy sweet presentation that lets gamers play without worrying about their kids or younger siblings seeing. The story is simple but frequently funny, and Toad finally gets to shine in his own unique game type. I hope this is just a taste of more Captain Toad games to come.
I loved Bastion to pieces, and so Transistor was among my most anticipated for this year. The studio didn't disappoint, but it succeeded without lazily recreating its smash success. Despite its isometric view, Transistor is a very different game. While Bastion was fast and frenetic, Transistor is slow and thoughtful. Supergiant Games made a strategy RPG with a feel all its own, blending action and pause-and-play mechanics beautifully. The strategy is accented by the Function system, which lets you create an absolutely staggering number of combination effects.
The story is sometimes hazy and dreamlike, and doesn't always explain its world very well. The relationship between the two lead characters is at the heart, though, and it's delivered with subtle poignancy that still hits me when I think about it.
The Walking Dead: Season Two
To address the elephant in the room, the second season of Telltale's The Walking Dead isn't as good as the first. The debut, starring Lee as a surrogate father to the orphaned Clementine, has a special place in my heart. It wasn't just my favorite game of the year, it's one of my favorite games of all time. Holding those expectations against Season Two is an easy trap to fall into, but I don't think it would be particularly fair.
All that said, the second season was one of my favorite experiences this year. From the bold choice of allowing you to play as Clementine herself, to moral choices that tested even the boundaries set by the first, this was a dark and cold story about growing up. The player is allowed to guide Clementine as she enters adolescence, at a crucial time when people decide the kind of person they want to be. Set against this extreme backdrop, the decisions carry even more weight than usual.
She's forced to face a dark reflection of her own budding leadership skills, and to realize that even her most trusted friends can turn into the kind of dishonest, desperate survivors she's trying not to become. More than once she explained the lessons taught by Lee, and I got chills. Most games never achieve that level of emotion even once, much less constantly, and it made me strive to make Lee--my version of Lee--proud of my Clementine.