The Top 15 Games of 2013 series continues with entries 10-6; the final part will come tomorrow, in which my personal favourite game of the year will be revealed.
No.10 – Ni no Kuni (PS3)
2013 was a strong year for RPGs, and perhaps the most high-profile release was Ni no Kuni; the “Studio Ghibli game” as it was called. The JRPG is among the more cinematic of game genres, defined by a very clearly distinguished space between uninteractive storytelling and interactive game sections – and thus taking a properly filmic approach to the whole package paid dividends. Taking design and aesthetic cues from the entire Ghibli back catalogue, with sequences evoking The Cat Returns, Spirited Away and a modern-day plot that could have been from Kiki’s Delivery Service, it was a game which had a good sense of exploration rather than linear progression. Although much of the choice would prove illusive, it had the same sense of scale that classic RPGs and action-adventures (Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy 7) managed to capture. This was combined with a strong mechanical basis – an RPG is defined as much by its combat mechanics as its story and setting, and Ni no Kuni combined Persona and Star Ocean to create a very rewarding system. Yet for all its strengths and ambitious scale it still felt a little empty; a strong opening chapter promising in-depth sidequests using the mechanic of taking spells out of combat into the game-world gave way to more straightforward fetch quests dressed up with the soul restoration central to the plot – if anything the expansion of the game-world via the ship and airship proved too great for the designers’ ambitions and the exploration was somewhat devalued by repetition.
No.9 – Bravely Default (3DS)
Another of 2013’s crop of very strong JRPGs, Bravely Default cleaves so closely to the formula that made early Final Fantasy games so popular that it is almost indistinguishable down to the terminology used. Four heroes attempt to save elemental crystals from enemies including a dark knight – it is the same premise as 4 and 5, and the job mechanics are a slightly more developed version of Final Fantasy 5’s. One could almost accuse gaming of becoming too introspective based on 2013’s love of looking back over past games, but it is more a case of finally learning from what made those past games successful. Bravely Default is resolutely a modern game despite how old-fashioned it seems – it has, for better or worse, drawn on the social mechanics that have been added to gaming. The core village rebuilding sidequest is now tied to timers and Streetpass contacts rather than landmarks of game progress, while there is the potential for microtransactions to unlock more uses of the time-freeze mechanic. These changes are, however, quite inconspicuous in actual game terms; simply logging on each day provides the player with “fake” Streetpass hits provided by the game itself, more than enough to allow full participation in the quest, while the time-freeze is both emphasised as purely a panic button for boss fights and recharged overnight without paying. Yet at the same time they do feel like a thematic compromise; one of the joys of JRPGs is that they endeavour to be immersive single-player experiences without the need for multiplayer or social elements.
No.8 – Rogue Legacy (PC)
Rogue Legacy was another kind of platform game revival; while Runner 2 married Sonic-style reflex platforming with endless-runner mechanics, Rogue took the classic exploration-adventure genre as seen in Metroid and Castlevania, and the punishingly difficult action-platforming of PC staples Commander Keen or Crystal Caves, and on top of that added the die-and-retry aspect and random level design of “roguelike” games. The result was an unpredictable yet still learnable platform game – while the layout of each playthrough was different, the theming of the levels remained the same and the enemy types remained the same. Much like Spelunky, which applied similar ideas in a different setting, it was a game about learning the capabilities of each possible trap over repeated play and then on any individual instance trying to deal with them placed in unpredictable combinations. Where it was differentiated from Spelunky, however, was in its generational mechanic; each playthrough was done with a slightly different character with some handicap or bonus such as playing with the screen inverted, in black-and-white, in total darkness or with a larger or smaller character. This was a hugely enjoyable point of difference – it provided an obstacle to the simple pattern-memorisation that would have obviated much of the challenge, and combined well with an incremental upgrade system which offered in some ways more control over any given character’s capabilities.
No.7 – Long Live the Queen (PC)
The success of titles like Crusader Kings 2 can in part be attributed to the way in which its combination of AI interactions in a hugely complex simulated world created bizarre situations to resolve that came together into a compelling and personal story. Rather than trying to tell one specific story via video sequences, it let random and AI-controlled events create a story out of what would have been a dry strategy game. Long Live the Queen is, on the surface, the total opposite; a visual novel with one story to tell, rather than an indepth strategy game. Yet it has the same sense of uncontrollability; one does not, as one would in a pure visual novel like Muv-Luv, directly control the character. Instead, all that can be done is choose which skills the character learns and how the player wants them to act – without it being known if this is even possible. The result is something far more like the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of old – a trial-and-error story that seems uncontrollable. Each failed choice offers the potential of a different story to tell, and each different combination of successes and failures makes each playthrough unique much like any given game of Crusader Kings will create its own chaotic world of events happening around the fixed point that is the player. Long Live the Queen seems an easy game – its choices at first seem inconsequential – but in order to truly succeed the “right” choices need to be made in order to avoid a spiralling chaos of failures meeting unavoidable events.
No.6 – Ridiculous Fishing (iOS)
Ridiculous Fishing is a reaction-test skill game par excellence, which uses the tilt and touch controls frequently seen in mobile games to create a highly amusing and compelling game. Mechanically it is simple; the player tilts their device left and right to avoid hitting fish on the way down, and then on the way back up must catch as many as possible. After each round of fishing is completed, a shooting-gallery minigame converts the fish into points which can then be spent on more “upgrades” to the different game aspects – bigger guns to more efficiently convert fish into points, extra lives to allow the player to make more mistakes on the downward stretch and so on. It is a pure abstract reaction-test dressed completely straight-lacedly in very sincere theming, creating an amusing end product. All the bizarre mechanics are presented as an entirely ordinary practice in the Ridiculous Fishing world, poking fun perhaps at how many games claim verisimilitude and accuracy while being distinctly abstract or fantastical. For a simple game of reactions, Ridiculous Fishing is thus exceptionally well-crafted; there are large numbers of different fish to find with various strange conditions needing to be met, all of which contribute to the player’s high score. As with Crush reviewed above, games like this show the real potential of mobile gaming – amusing, accessible games of skill and chance sold at low prices and perfect as a temporary distraction.