The year was full of memorable game experiences for me, many of which are being counted down in our staff-wide top ten list. But when it came time to put digital ink to paper on my own list of favorites, I was surprised at how much love the 3DS received. The system may be waning, but this year was full of quirky, esoteric games that spoke directly to me. This list gives me an opportunity to highlight them, along with one big-budget PC and console game that didn't quite make the cut when it came time to cast votes.
Pocket Card Jockey
I'll admit, I was a skeptic of this bizarre Game Freak title from the very start. When Nintendo debuted it during a Nintendo Direct, it was with the kind of tossed-off, half-minute segment usually reserved for shovelware. Even Nintendo itself wasn't giving it much time or attention. When I tried it out for review, I was slow to catch the fever, but before long I couldn't stop. I would spend actual hours past my intended play session time, constantly trying just one more race. Since then it's become a mainstay in my 3DS, and a constant companion on long trips. I expect to continue playing it for some time to come.
Picross 3D: Round 2
Picross 3D was one of my favorite games on the original DS, and I had been anticipating another for some time. I was elated to hear of Picross 3D: Round 2, and naturally expected another few hundred brain-teaser logic puzzles. Slowly chipping away at a brick to expose the shape hidden inside is still some of the best puzzle design around, and Nintendo could have been forgiven for providing more of the same and calling it a day. Instead, it found a new twist that makes it feel familiar but with a new layer of depth and complexity. The two distinct paint types totally change the nature of the puzzle-solving, and allow for much more complex shapes to be revealed.
Bravely Second: End Layer
Bravely Default was an incredibly intriguing refresh of the classic J-RPG formula, with enough refinement and modernization to make it stand out as an immediate classic. But it suffered under the weight of its plot twist, which stuck the player in a Groundhog Day loop that frustrated many, including myself. Even those who loved the game enjoyed it despite that major flaw. Bravely Second isn't quite the revelation that the first one was, but it improves on the first in almost every way. The story is more digestible, the dialogue is still absurdist and funny, and the new jobs available are even more clever. On the whole this is a game that invites the player to break it, to find workarounds, and to use its own systems to cheat your way through tough boss battles. In that quality, it's a perfect representation of the best feeling in classic gaming: that we're getting one over on the developers.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Deus Ex isn't exactly artsy or widely overlooked–it is the next entry in a relatively popular game series, after all. And Mankind Divided didn't do anything terribly different than Human Revolution. It was very much building upon the success of its predecessor and telling a new story within the world. But it's also one of the games that got its hooks in me the most this year, thanks especially to an array of powers and abilities that constantly had me looking for how best to perfect my mechanical terror. I'm a sucker for a game with artistic vision or a clever hook, but there's something to be said for a sharply polished character progression system, and Mankind Divided nailed it.