2014 kind of sucked, right? Okay, maybe “kind of” is an understatement. But if there was one silver lining to these dark days, it was the video games. I played more video games this year that just straight up made me happy than in any calendar year I can remember. Here are my ten favorites games of 2014; each one of these is a masterpiece in its own unique way, and each one brought a little bit of joy to a year that was sorely in need of it.
10. Professor Layton Vs. Phoenix Wright (3DS)
I should probably admit that I’ve only recently completed my first Professor Layton adventure (Miracle Mask.) Don’t get me wrong: I love the series, and I own all of the games… it’s just that I tend to play them when I’m in bed after a long day of work, and they’re just so pleasant and dreamy that it’s hard not to fall asleep while I’m playing them. But that isn’t a bad thing. Too few games are as gentle and just downright inviting as the Layton series. Layton vs. Wright introduces a bit of tension by mixing in the courtroom drama of Capcom’s Ace Attorney games, and though the two series’ signature art styles couldn’t be more different from one another, you’re not likely to find a more complementary crossover. The Layton-style puzzle solving is as tight as its ever been, while the high-stakes courtroom drama is surprisingly engaging, spinning a morally ambiguous yarn about small-town prejudice that, as trite as it might be to say, feels incredibly relevant to 2014. But more so than all that, it’s just a damn fine mystery, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing all the way up to its unforgettable conclusion.
9. Shantae & The Pirate’s Curse (3DS)
No developer outside of Nintendo or Konami has had more experience with open-ended platformers (Metroidvanias, as we nerd-types call ’em) than WayForward, and Shantae & The Pirate’s Curse is arguably their finest work yet. The third entry in the Shantae series finally gets the ‘vania blueprint down pat, with a huge world map that opens up progressively, greater variety in puzzle design, and more rewarding exploration, all thanks to a set of abilities that stack as players discover them. If it weren’t for the fact that WayFoward continues to treat its female characters like Victoria’s Secret models, this might very well be my favorite platformer of 2014. Alas that we can’t all be thirteen forever.
8. Grand Theft Auto V (PlayStation 4)
You know, I’ve made it plenty clear that I find GTA V to be a vastly inferior game to GTA IV, and I’m not going to bother going into the why of that again. Instead, I’m here to say that Grand Theft Auto V for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — GTA V New Gen, if you will — is such a vast improvement over 2013’s version thanks to its inclusion of a first-person mode that I don’t think I can ever play Grand Theft Auto in third person again. I’ve always treated these games as a kind of virtual tourism — GTA IV tided me over during the half-decade it took me to actually save enough money to move from California to New York — and with all the care Rockstar put into adapting their best-selling game to first person, playing it on PS4 now feels exactly like being back in my home state. With so much to do in the city of Los Santos and surrounding countryside, I could care less about the sloppy, sprawling narrative here… in fact, the only time I ever even bother with story missions is to unlock new modes of exploration (like the submarine), or to bankroll those trips to the E.R. that happen as a result of my frequent, over-enthusiastic dirt biking excursions out by Mount Chiliad. Seriously, those first-person ragdoll effects are the best.
7. Valiant Hearts: The Great War (PlayStation 4)
I’ve slaughtered so many virtual soldiers over the past two decades that I’ve long been disillusioned by game developers that pretend to have something profound to say about war. And yet Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a 2014 puzzle-platformer that follows a small cast of characters caught up on both sides of World War I, tells one of the most important war stories in all of gaming, and it does so while almost never putting players in combat situations. Ubisoft might be in a bit of a creative rut right now, but it deserves every bit of praise for delivering one of the most unexpected gems of 2014. Let’s just hope the developer doesn’t ruin it with a sequel.
6. Xeodrifter (3DS)
And here you have it, folks — the best Metroidvania of 2014, and it wasn’t even developed by Nintendo. Seriously, all you need to know about Xeodrifter is that it feels like a perfect little slice of Super Metroid — one that’s packed with secrets and speedrunning opportunities — and that developer Renegade Kid put the game together in just over five months. Seriously — five months! Nintendo has had eleven years to release a new classic-style Metroid adventure, and at this point, it feels like they might never do so again. But no matter — as long as we’ve got Renegade Kid developing for Nintendo platforms, I’m sure we’ll have something great to scratch that itch.
5. Bravely Default (3DS)
The best RPG on the 3DS almost never saw the light of day in the West, and wouldn’t have if Nintendo hadn’t stepped in to pull Square-Enix’s head out of its own ass. Bravely Default, as terrible as its name is, is the perfect mixture of PSX-era production values and SNES-era design, with a sprawling 100+ hour quest, a deeply satisfying job system akin to Final Fantasy V’s, and a clever new battle mechanic that rewards risk and experimentation. Its narrative loses a little bit of steam in the second half — okay, actually it runs out almost completely — when it unexpectedly starts recycling literally 100% of the content from the first half… but by that point, I’d already invested more than 70 hours into unlocking jobs, maxing stats, and tricking out my party to handle damn near any situation it encountered. I don’t usually get so heavily enmeshed in RPG systems, but Bravely Default made it fun in a way I hadn’t experienced since the late ’90s. Here’s hoping this is a sign of things to come from one of the (formerly) greatest developers in all of gaming.
4. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (3DS)
Speaking of the (formerly) greatest RPG developer, Square-Enix did manage to get another game in my top 10 list this year, despite the aforementioned head-in-ass. That game is Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, a much improved sequel to an already great rhythm game that celebrates the legacy of the most important role playing series of all time. Curtain Call is packed from the outset with over 200 tracks culled from pretty much every Final Fantasy game ever released, and if that isn’t enough, there’s plenty more music available as DLC — more than 60 tracks so far. What I love about Theatrhythm is that it lets me re-experience the best moments from many of my favorite RPGs without actually requiring the kind of time commitment that I’ve found it so difficult to make over the last decade. Relish those summer breaks, kids. Once you turn 18, you’ll never get them back.
3. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
I know everyone else is all about Super Smash Bros. 4 right now — and as someone who is not a fan of that series, I will gladly admit that both the 3DS and Wii U versions are excellent games that I’ve had a ton of fun with — but when it came time to choose between Mario Kart 8 and Smash as my favorite Nintendo game of 2014, it wasn’t tough to go with Mario Kart 8. This latest entry in one of Nintendo’s best multiplayer franchises is not only the most polished, most gorgeous Wii U game yet, it’s also the one game released last year that brought all kinds of people together in my apartment and let everyone have a blast, regardless of their level of gaming experience. Even more important: it’s the first Mario Kart game in ages that lets skilled players reclaim victory from those pesky Blue Shell-toting losers in the back, and as someone who prides himself on his virtual kart-racing skills, that’s something I’m incredibly thankful for.
2. Shovel Knight (3DS)
Developer Yacht Club Games’ homage to 8-bit Mega Man is a tremendous success story — one that validates not only the power of a unified vision, but also the determination to dive into the great unknown (a.k.a. Kickstarter) when that vision isn’t being supported by publishers. It’s challenging in a way that few games are anymore, yet accessible enough for less-experienced players enticed by its quirky take on swords, sorcery and medieval times. It’s also a feast for the eyes and ears that hearkens back to yesteryear while not being slavishly dedicated to preserving pointless design limitations for the sake of nostalgia. For fans of retro gaming, it doesn’t get any better than this… not even on the NES.
1. Alien: Isolation (PlayStation 4)
As evidenced by the fact that it’s nowhere to be found on Invisible Gamer’s upcoming “Official Best of 2014” list (whoops, spoiler alert!), Alien: Isolation is a prime example of a game that just isn’t for everyone… but if it is your kind of game, you’ll probably never forget it. Alien: Isolation blindsided me by just how good it was, despite the fact that I’ve rarely had less fun playing a video game. If that statement doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, it’d probably help to know that I’ve spent my entire life dreaming of being hunted by the Xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s landmark 1979 horror film. And that’s exactly the situation that Alien: Isolation puts you in: hunted by a demon that cannot be killed and that refuses to gives up until you’re dead, there’s very little you can do over Isolation’s 15-20 hour story besides run, hide, and hope for the best. Video games have largely been responsible for the de-fanging of one of film’s most iconic nightmare creatures, but developer The Creative Assembly puts it right back on top of the most terrifying things ever dreamed up by man. Alien: Isolation is the best game I played in 2014, but it’s also one of the most unforgettable interactive experiences I’ve ever had. Bravo, SEGA. You finally got it right.
But wait, there’s more!
Okay, so as I mentioned earlier, I played quite a few games in 2014. Some were great, some were good, and some just weren’t at all what I was hoping. Now that we’ve talked about the best, let’s take a quick look at some of the rest.
Biggest Disappointment: Persona Q
Persona 4 Golden is my second-favorite RPG of all time (behind Mother 3, natch), so it stands to reason that Persona Q should’ve been somewhere on my top 10 list for 2014. Unfortunately, the social sim elements that I loved so much in previous Persona games are nowhere to be found in Q; sure, there are fun, often fully-acted conversations between characters that break up the gameplay and hint at what might have been, but Persona Q feels much more like an Etrian Odyssey game than a Persona one, and unfortunately that’s just not my thing. I like dungeon crawling, but I need more incentive than what Q offers to keep me pushing through what is ultimately an incredibly tedious and frustrating experience. My biggest disappointment of 2014, by far.
The “Remember That?” Award: Watch Dogs
I remember sitting in the crowd at Ubisoft’s E3 2012 reveal of Watch Dogs, wondering along with everyone else, “what the heck is this?” What the developer ultimately released as Watch Dogs was certainly a fun game, and I liked its open-world cityscape more than most others (and certainly more than the PS3 version of GTA V), but in all other ways, it was just unremarkable. The multiplayer aspect — which promised to be a game-changer by letting other players wreak havoc on your single player game at any time — ended up being a repetitive, by-the-numbers affair, the vehicle handling was pretty bad, and the story dealt way too much in stereotypes to be anything but forgettable. And despite how highly anticipated Watch Dogs in the two years leading up to its release, that’s ultimately what it ended up being: forgettable.
The “That’s Not Tolkien” Award: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, at least they stay true (for the most part) to Tolkien’s spirit of friendship and adventure. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor does no such thing; instead, it actively encourages players to wield the kind of power that Tolkien detested to enact vengeance on its main characters’ tormentors. Shadow of Mordor does some pretty neat things with A.I., and I can see why so many players love its refined take on the fighting system of the Batman: Arkham games, but it’s certainly not Tolkien. For someone like me who’s been in love with Middle-earth for most of my life, it feels a bit like the One Ring: incredibly tempting, but ultimately just not worth it.
This article is part of Invisible Gamer’s ongoing 2014 Game of the Year coverage. Stay tuned over the coming days for more top 10 lists, leading up to Invisible Gamer’s Official Top 10 Games of 2014.