Argh! is what I think when I look back on new game releases in 2012. What have I played? Why haven't I played all these other games? I could make a far more encompassing list of all the new games I was meant to play, should have played, and was this close to playing, than that of the meagre number I did actually play enough to say, however arbitrarily, 'I have played this and I liked it very much.' New games be damned, is what I think, before hunching over and feeling like I've missed out on everything. Well, anyway, out of that meagre crew of games I really, really, actually played this year I've pulled together a list of 5 which were my favourite - in a very specific order of magnificence! [And all imfho of course] Here they are:
5. Legend of Grimrock
I am terrified of dungeons. Not real dungeons of course (which in my experience have only ever housed wax figures), but those dungeons which, in their gaming form, represent all that makes me feel inept, small and pathetically crap. Dungeon Master I most certainly amn't. And then Legend of Grimrock appears and, possibly thanks to having a few more years under my belt, I've gained access to all those dark crevices which my dullish child brain kept me from exploring.
Grimrock is a dark, winding, morbid labyrinth. Claustrophobic not only in space but movement; beguiling in its stringency as well as its freshness. Enemies are terrifying, but it's the puzzles which make this game so exciting and atmospheric. What is Grimrock? It is a deep dark puzzle. It is also appropriately describable as a survival RPG. And in this respect Legend of Grimrock gives you a feeling of character development which no other RPG this year has.
Starting with nothing (you are a group of prisoners flung into the labyrinth) you use sparingly all that you find along the way. Health is a constant worry while scrounging around a room looking for that last rock you threw really gives you an impression of the rag-tag band that you are. And then, when you've pulled all your resources and brain power together; when you've managed to descend further than this dark maze had you believe you ever could, a murmur from the darkness... a Goromorg emerges.
4. FTL: Faster Than Light
What can I say about FTL which hasn't already been said a thousand times? RPS pretty much hit the nail on the head with their series of articles on the game, but that won't stop me from prattling on, Oh no!
FTL is superb! A kind of short-form RPG which - like Grimrock - serves to recall some of the exhilaration which comes from difficulty and stress. Perpetually called a rogue-like-like, FTL is a series of rooms, events and battles in the guise of a sci-fi quest (you know, it's like a rogue-like). Randomly generated baddies, shops and events mean that, though success is sometimes down to luck, you are always trying to make the best of what you are given.
Crew fatalities are likely, victory is far from an inevitability - this is like The Wrath of Kahn as RPG! And what's really great is that this calamitous space epic takes place in one sitting. And so it is, in fact, only one of many mini-epics. The next has you struggling with a single crew member due to an early mishap. In the next encounter with pirates she perishes in a fire. Next time, victory, thanks in part to the help of an insectoid race. FTL allows for numerous narratives; each one unique and each one born from struggle.
Wait, this order of magnificence thing is all over the place. Anyway, where were we? Dunwall is the place and murder the game. Or not. Perhaps only a little bit of murder. Perhaps none at all. Either way Dunwall is full of violence. This somewhat cartoonish world of industrious politics is all about death. It wafts down the dripping alleyways and shrouds the city's rooftops even as the sun blanches them a magnificent white.
Wealth founded on aggressive and cruel resource gathering; aristocrats bathing in brothels as miscellaneous corpses are slung into dried river beds; decadent parties thrown while the poor struggle to hold back the encroachment of a shambling plague. The imagery of Dishonored is strong and sometimes remarkably shocking. And for this reason I found the game outstanding.
That said there is much criticism which could be levelled at Dishonored. Most notably, and much like Bioshock before it, the narrative suggests freedom only to end in a disappointingly weak summation of your actions. But in spite of the weak narrative the game does offer real freedom in the form of level to level gameplay. Here the player is given a remarkable breadth of choice in dealing with a given assassination. It may be a short game but Dishonored makes up for this in the depth of level design. Oh, and Blink. Possibly the best game mechanic this year.
2. Hotline Miami
Sheesh! I'm fucking sweating and buzzing and its 2:30 am and how am I supposed to get to sleep like this. Ok. Click. Fuck. That one guy that one guy! Ok.
'Hotline Miami is one hell of a drug', is what I would say if I was all cool and into drugs and so forth. It's not like drugs - it's like an amazing game. Or, actually, it is an amazing game! But one which makes you buzz your bloody tits off. Its infuriating and addictive and confusing and restless and horrible and intriguing and has fucking amazing music!
Hotline Miami is minuet actions and hair's breadth decision and its drenched in a rotten neon light. It is a bit like drugs. Or it would be if those drugs were engineered by Gasper Noé and if he had a fixation on Alien Breed.
Hotline Miami is by quite a margin the most physically engrossing game I've played this year.
1. Dark Scavenger
Ok ok, so... I know what you're thinking, Dark Scavenger is not the best game released this year. And of course you're partly right (you always are, damn you!), but there's something it has on its side. There's a magic here, not of nostalgia per se, but of childish fun - of unbridled imagination. It's telling that one reason I love this game is that I like the pictures.
Dark Scavenger is an amazing conglomeration of ideas which slowly, over the course of its narrative, develop into a game of surprising depth and sensitivity - evoking themes of violence, power, friendship and drunkenness. And yet the story is never rigidly trained towards such evocations. If anything it remains playful throughout and, compared to a game such as the heavy handed Spec Ops: The Line - which, I should say, is also one of the most admirable releases this year -, manages to suggest ideas above and beyond the supposed station of an indie sci-fi RPG while still being both genuinely fun and funny - and with nary a hint heavy-handedness.
And so, even when I'm reading the last words of a dying friend; even when I realise the inevitable corruptive nature of power; even then I can still say, without cynicism, that I like the pictures. I like the way when a character falls over their image is turned on its side. It can be utterly silly, crude, absurd and surreal; its combat mechanic is exciting and addictive - also giving the game opportunity for numerous playthroughs - and the dialogue is almost perfect. But gushing is of course not much fun to read, so I'll just say I love it. I absolutely love it.