Greg's Top Ten Games of 2013
10.) The Cave
The puzzles were a breeze to blow through, and the humor did not appeal to me in the least. Still, The Cave used its easy puzzles to tell a story that was ultimately engaging. It follows in the footsteps of Psychonauts in its use of allegory via level design, resulting in an experience that isn't so much fun to play as neat to think about.
Anodyne employed simple but effective exploration. You started with a giant, wide, and pleasant field to explore any way you like. This branched off into challenging roads riddled with side paths to traverse at your leisure. These roads then led to dungeons, where you'd need to wander a bit just to figure out how to make progress. It's a satisfying way of considering the general idea of exploration; at first an option, exploration becomes a key puzzle solving element in each dungeon. This was made even more satisfying by the finely tuned dungeon construction.
Rather than strike out at a variety of ideas, Anodyne's dungeons focused on one main idea: having to hit two side paths before going along the main path forward. They invest a good deal of deviation and progression in this idea, making each dungeon feel different from and a progression of the previous one. Add a soothing aesthetic (subtle color choices and understated music), and it's hard to go wrong with Anodyne.
8.) Super Mario 3D World
If only Super Mario 3D World could have been the Mario game at Wii U's launch. It was hard enough to get excited about Super Mario 3D Land, whose main idea was putting old 2D gameplay in a 3D context; it's even harder to get excited for that idea returning with but a few small deviations. That said, the idea bears a little more originality than New Super Mario Bros. U did. Plus, Mario games still have a good eye for pure fun, and there are tons of levels here. It's staggering how consistently enjoyable this experience is given its length.
7.) The Starship Damrey
I usually don't go for visual novels, but The Starship Damrey put its storytelling methods front and center and used a modest story. Stuck in a small chamber, your only connection to the outside world is a video link to a helper robot. You can move it through rooms and prompt it to interact with objects on your behalf. The experience is awkward, since you constantly have to keep in mind how the robot operates: it's the barrier between you and the world. Ultimately, it's a story about those barriers we hit between our minds and reality.
6.) Chain Blaster
This shooter had a novel enough gameplay concept to last a decent 30 minute game: you shoot bombs that destroy all enemies in a small radius, and destroyed enemies go on to kill the enemies around them. It's an effect called chain blasting, since one enemy explodes the one next to it, then that one explodes the next one, so on and so forth. Rather than go for a typical shooter campaign, this one instead opts for a sequence of stages that lasts a few minutes. After clearing it, you'll loop back to the beginning with faster enemies and more shots aimed at you, forcing you to demonstrate greater skill and adopt new strategies.
5.) New Super Luigi U
Super Mario 3D World restated everything I've come to expect from a Mario game, only with new enemies and new platforms. New Super Luigi U took the opposite approach; it had not a single original gameplay asset, but it used its assets in new and surprising ways unique to the series. Despite relying entirely on New Super Mario Bros. U's set of platforms and enemies, Luigi U evokes a new sense of chaos with them. It takes the normal pacing of a Mario stage--introducing one challenge at a time--and condenses it, putting one top over top of another over top of yet another. The result is an experience unique among Mario games and one worth having.
4.) Sonic Lost World (Wii U)
In a series that relentlessly changed from one title to the next, Sonic finally came to rest on boost-heavy race course-style gameplay in Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Generations. These three games show plenty of deviation and development within that style, and I can't complain about any one of them in terms of originality. Still, Sonic Lost World saw fit to step outside that comfort zone, introducing a wall running mechanic to let players explore levels.
At its best, this means the levels in Lost World have many paths and plenty of options for reaching them, all while maintaining forward momentum; you can get lost in exploration or rush forward at any point you choose. At its worst, and unfortunately, for a majority of the game, levels in Lost World focus on one-time gimmicks, such as disappearing blocks or chasing fruit around. Even in these cases, the new control scheme introduced in Lost World makes platforming easier, allowing Sonic to slow down when you need precision or run up a wall when you just barely miss a jump.
Combat was also spruced up with a reimagined homing attack and a cool kick move, so there's that, too.
3.) Pikmin 3
While no revolution over its past iterations, Pikmin 3 still introduced mechanics that deepened and differentiated it. The first Pikmin imposed a hard time limit, while Pikmin 2 lacked any limit; Pikmin 3 has a dynamic time limit. You'll fail your mission if you run out of food, and you use up one set of rations per day. Not only does this bring in flexibility by letting you extend the time limit, it also adds a layer of skill; unless you can squeeze food-hunting into your daily schedule, you'll quickly run out of time.
Also added was the ability to direct other captains to take pikmin soldiers to other locations while you play as one of the other captains. Playing effectively often means sending multiple captains to accomplish multiple goals at once, emphasizing the skill of multitasking that is so inherent to the RTS genre.
All told, Pikmin 3's additions allow for greater skill in playing, both in terms of action and planning.
2.) Pandora's Tower
Pandora's Tower focuses on the idea of chains, or more specifically, elements that are bound together. This game puts you through a series of dungeons, and in each one, you'll have to eliminate the chains that bind the boss door shut. To do this, you'll need to follow these massive chains to their sources through the maze-like dungeons. Figuring out how to follow a chain to its source becomes the central puzzle of each dungeon, making for a maze that's satisfying to unravel. Once you finish with the chains, you'll face a boss with multiple working parts, and it'll be your job to rip it apart. Or, maybe you'll have to tie it together and restrict it. Either way, both the dungeons and the bosses focus around the ties that bind--literally, rather than figuratively.
(Although, the figurative sense of that phrase does come to bear on the relationship between the hero and his infected girlfriend.)
The controls are stiff, and the combat is shallow, but ultimately, Pandora's Tower is a success because of how well it executes the idea of manipulating multiple parts to your advantage. This leads to some of the better mazes I've seen in recent years.
1.) The Wonderful 101
The action in The Wonderful 101 is fairly predictable, when you get down to it; some enemies have a particular weakness to one weapon, and each weapon has a normal moveset with stuff like a standard three-hit combo and a launcher. But then, there's such a large assortment of weapons that it's worthwhile to experiment with each one in each context. On top of that, you can spawn AI-controlled weapons to help you for a few moments; while using the high-powered close-quarters fist weapon, you can ask a giant sword to sweep the general area for you. Plus, you can adjust the power of your attack based on how much energy you put into it, which means carefully gauging how much energy you have left to spare--remember to leave some left over in case you need to block or dodge! In short, a number of tweaks go a long way to liven up what is, at its core, a standard combat system.
Not only that, but the main campaign features an intriguing sense of pacing. It starts with a hilarious amount of variety content; one memorable section had me direct an airship by standing on different keypads embedded in its cockpit. Over time, these sections focus more on rail shooting overall. Then, these rail shooter segments happen less and less frequently as the game progresses and combat grows more serious. It starts as frilly and fun, but in its final stages, the gameplay holds true to its core and makes the most of its combat.