Five Games Josh Liked in 2014: Part 2

By Josh
on Jan 23, 2015
Filed under:
Video Games

This is the second and final part of my 2014 retrospective. And you thought it was never coming.

Last time I said I thought 2014 wasn’t such a bad year, and then spent most of the post raking two games over the coals for their collective bad design decisions. I think it’s only fair I start talking about the games I really liked in 2014. These games would be on this list regardless of how well the AAA market was doing.

3. The Last of Us Remastered

Well the version *I* played came out in 2014.

In a market that is increasingly dominated by games that seem more interested in being movies, The Last of Us is the most movie-like game I’ve ever encountered. This is not a compliment. It’s not a straight “movie” like Heavy Rain or even the more recent Telltale titles, but the entirety of the narrative, almost all of the character development, and even much of the most important action sequences take place in cutscenes.

I’ve always been enamored by the potential of the interactivity of video games. “What unique stories,” I thought, “could be told by taking advantage of the player’s input to influence the way the narrative unfolds?” Instead, at least when it comes to big budget AAA titles, everyone’s more interested in making a Hollywood blockbuster with the action scenes replaced by poorly justified shooty segments. These often go together about as well as oil and water, and the player ultimately has no more control over the character they’re playing or the way the story unfolds than a viewer watching a movie. One almost wonders if it would have been better for them to make a movie from the start. And while I’m not presumptuous enough to say that this is an invalid way to make a game, I’m still a bit bitter that anyone with enough money to actually explore this potential is instead wasting it on vapid action movies with by-the-numbers revenge plots.

But perhaps the other reason I dislike these “games as movies” is that I never once got the impression that they’d make very good movies. That is, if you were to strip out all of the gameplay segments and replace them with typical movie action scenes and then release them in theaters as movies, I doubt they’d be very well received. I think film critics would generally pan them, and they’d be relegated to “this summer’s bombastic-yet-vapid popcorn film,” equally inoffensive and insubstantial. It kind of makes the whole exercise seem a bit pointless, doesn’t it? Not only are they often not very good games, with action segments that too often clash with the story they’re ostensibly trying to tell, but they can’t even manage to be very good movies, either.

And yet, The Last of Us is an exception. Indeed, it is exceptional: Joel and Ellie are wonderfully realized characters, and the performances of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson bring them to life in a way you rarely see in either games or movies. It’s a moving, tragic story about a man who would sacrifice the world because he doesn’t want to be hurt again. It’s not absolutely perfect, but I have no doubt that were you to release it as a movie, it would be to just as much acclaim as it’s garnered as a game. In fact I think it might be even better received as a movie. And the Left Behind DLC only elevated the qualities that made the story so exceptional, and had one of most skillfully understated, naturally developed inclusions of a homosexual relationship I’ve seen in either medium.

God bless whoever greenlit this DLC.

The gameplay is… significantly less enjoyable, and falls far short of what was originally promised. But, perhaps for the first time, that doesn’t really bother me. It would have been better if it played tighter, but that’s not really the focus. Because it’s a movie. A really good one.

Does that also make it a good video game? I don’t know. I want to say no. But I had a lot of fun with it. I really, really liked The Last of Us.

2. Transistor

I lied, this is the pretty one.

You know you’ve stumbled upon a gem when a game can give you goosebumps. Transistor absolutely oozes style, and would warrant inclusion in this list based on its soundtrack alone. I really cannot overstate how good this game looks, both still and in motion. And it was developed on an indie budget; it’s not even fully 3D. Breathtaking, hand painted backgrounds of vibrant colors combined with a unique art-deco flair makes Transistor undoubtedly the best looking game of 2014. A game like Far Cry or Dragon Age might be more technically impressive, but Transistor’s sheer style beats them all.

It also helps that the game plays well and has an intriguing story to boot. Cloudbank is a wonderfully unique setting, a virtual world in which every decision–from whether it should rain tomorrow to where the new bridge should be built–is made through popular vote. Not everyone in Cloudbank is happy with this system, however, and a shadowy group of powerful individuals calling themselves the Camerata seek to wrest control of the city, bringing a guiding hand to the often inscrutable will of an unrestricted democracy.

They begin quietly taking out other influential or famous figures, and the story kicks off when they go after Red, Cloudbank’s most prolific singer. The plan backfires when a bystander jumps in the way of the attack, thwarting the assassination attempt and handing Red the Camerata’s own secret weapon: the Transistor, a sword that has the power to absorb and assimilate other programs. The bystander that saved Red is now trapped in the Transistor himself, which creates an interesting twist on Bastion’s narration dynamic. Red’s voice was taken in the attack, rendering her a silent protagonist, but the Transistor can talk, and he spends most of the game pontificating on the events that surround them. Unlike Bastion’s narrator however, he’s very much a part of the world the whole way through. He doesn’t know much more than Red or the player does, and in some situations he even knows less. The result is a narrator that feels like a more natural part of the story. It would be nice seeing more games with non-player characters that were so talkative.

The Camerata have another weapon at their disposal: the virus-like Process that quickly begins rewriting the structure of the city, replacing the colorful, smooth, round lines of Couldbank’s art-deco architecture with hard lines and sharp cubes. With the Transistor at her side, Red is uniquely equipped to fight the Process, and her task quickly becomes clear: stop the Camerata before their ambition to control the city destroys it.

I know these captions are supposed to be silly, but Transistor is really a masterpiece of audio and visual design.

Transistor is an RPG of sorts, and it has a remarkably complex skill system. Each ability can be used directly, but it can also be attached to another ability. This removes the first ability from direct play, but enhances the second ability with some of its properties. Each ability can eventually be upgraded in this fashion by two other abilities, meaning the number of combinations available is staggering. Everyone seems to come up with their own special method of breaking the game with some overpowered combo of skills, and it speaks to the depth of Transistor’s system that these combos are rarely the same.

The game is not entirely without rough spots, mind you. In particular, Transistor’s combat is an unusual hybrid of real time and turn based systems. In essence, it’s a turn based system where only you get a turn. Time pauses, and you plan out your moves and skills, and then they play out at normal speed while everything else moves in slow motion. Then the game returns to real time, and you wait for your “turn” to cooldown. You can still fire abilities during real time play, although using them in the turn based system puts them on cooldown as well. You could potentially play the game entirely in real time, though it would be very difficult, as things move comparatively quickly at normal speed, and much of the complex combos require planning and precise timing. The whole system works a lot better than it sounds from this description, but it’s still a little jarring to experience at first. It almost feels like the game was originally going to be a real time action RPG, a la Bastion, but somewhere along the line, the idea was scrapped in favor of this hybrid system.

It’s not the only issue I have with the game. Cloudbank is such a cool setting, but most of it is quickly destroyed in the course of the story. You never run into any third party, bystander NPCs either, as they’re implied to have all fled or, more morbidly, been consumed by the Process. It’s difficult to get a feel for what the world was like before it was all ruined, and it would have perhaps made for stronger motivation had there been an introductory chapter set before the Process was unleashed and Red was attacked.

But these all seem like such minor quibbles when the game does so many things right. Supergiant Games absolutely outdid themselves with this one. Fantastic.

1. The Banner Saga

Always gotta keep moving.

You know how I said that 2014 was “a year without instant classics”? Well I’ve been kind of miffed about that, because I feel like The Banner Saga really should have been one. Of course I feel the same way about Transistor, but at least people are talking about it. I’ve had to strain myself to find an end of the year post that even mentions this game. Maybe it’s because it was released in mid January; it’s already been out for over a year as of this piece. Or maybe turn-based tactics doesn’t really have a wide appeal. Either way, I don’t feel this game really got a fair shake. A shame, because it’s such a beautiful work.

Ragnarok has been done before, and apocalypses have have been done to death, and yet, I don’t feel as if any of them quite nailed the feeling of what living through an apocalypse would really be like. There are a lot of games set after the apocalypse, and a few set immediately before, usually with some task to stop it. But the Banner Saga does something different, by placing you in the position of a group of characters who really don’t know what’s going on and don’t know how to stop it. They’re just caught up in the mess, and they’re trying to survive.

Sure, you start the game as an escort for royalty and nobility, hanging around the big players, but the perspective quickly changes to the game’s principal character: Rook, a hunter and woodsman from a small village on the outskirts of civilization. There’s nothing particularly special about Rook, he’s no chosen one and he’s not some prodigious warrior. But he’s thrust into a position of leadership when his small village is overrun by the Dredge, and he has no choice but to flee with the survivors.

Using a woodsman and hunter as the protagonist highlights the thing The Banner Saga does best. It is a master work of atmosphere and world building. It manages to carve out a unique lore and backstory that is still distinctly Viking. But unlike a game like Skyrim, which somehow manages to take that sort of setting and make it as generic as possible, The Banner Saga is able to weave a complex mythology through clever hints and dialogue. Because you see the world principally through the eyes of character that doesn’t have a formal education, the game speaks far less about its lore than Skyrim does, and yet it says more. It’s just enough to tantalize you, to invoke a sense of mystery, wonder, and dread.

The Dredge–the creatures Rook and his band are trying to escape–are violent golems of stone and iron. After centuries of uneasy peace, the Dredge have suddenly exploded out of their remote northern settlements, sweeping south across the continent, overwhelming the cities of humans and the Varl, an immortal race of giants. What’s more disturbing is that it seems as if the Dredge themselves are fleeing from something even worse. The game communicates this all indirectly, and primarily through dialogue. Never once in the entire game do you get the sense that your caravan has found a safe haven where you can stop running. Even the strongest walls are insufficient against the horde. Rook and his caravan don’t have a choice, they just have to keep moving. It doesn’t beat you over the head with melancholy and hopeless, rather, it’s the implications that are horrifying. It’s often difficult to manage the needs of your caravan and keep everyone in good spirits and well fed. And there’s no end in sight. Can you imagine anything more horrifying than slowly starving to death, always on the run, watching as your friends are slowly picked off by disease, starvation, or your tireless pursuers?

Fire Emblem with Vikings!

Of special mention is the game’s visual style, and it’s remarkable I’ve somehow gone six paragraphs without mentioning it yet. It doesn’t have quite the snazz and flair of Transistor,
but it’s still a fantastic game to look at. The centerpiece of game is of course it’s wonderfully hand-painted landscapes, which serve as the backdrop for much of the gameplay. But of special mention is the game’s animation style. Every animation in the game was done by rotoscoping; they actually filmed the animations of the game live and then traced over them digitally. This was done intentionally, to invoke the visual style of those old animated movies from the 70s and 80s, and the game absolutely nails it. It’s a delight to watch, and there are even several fully animated movie-style cutscenes that put a cap on the effect that you’re playing an old Disney film.

The actual gameplay is a mix of Fire Emblem-style turn based tactical combat, The Walking Dead’s dialogue trees, and an Oregon Trail-esque caravan management meta game. You traverse from one location to the next in these Oregon Trail caravan segments, progressing through days as those wonderful landscapes I mentioned slowly scroll by. As you travel, you may happen upon events either randomly or through triggers. They may offer certain dialogue options that can change the way the story plays out, and they may also trigger combat. You’ll eventually come across cities or villages, where much of the main story events that begin and conclude each chapter take place. The dialogue system allows players a good deal of freedom to influence the storyline, and different choices can have significant consequences, up to and including killing off multiple major characters. I’d say it’s at least as responsive to player choice as The Walking Dead is.

The combat is not perhaps as good as it could be, but it’s still quite well executed. In particular, the system manages to strike a very good balance of simple mechanics that are easy to understand, but work together to create a system that is much deeper than it first appears. The only real complaint I have about it is also my primary complaint about the game as a whole. The Banner Saga has a curious way of determining turn order. As long as there’s more than one character on either your team or the enemy’s, all turns are sequential. In essence, one of your characters gets a turn, and then one of theirs does. This works fine with equal team sizes, but it creates some really odd and unintuitive situations when those numbers are unequal.

For example, if you try to play the game using the typical turn-based strategy of focusing all of your fire on one enemy to kill him quickly and reduce their numbers, every other enemy will get proportionally more turns. As long as both sides have more than one enemy, you can’t have two of your characters take a turn back to back, it always has to be sequential. In effect, as you kill off the enemy team, the remaining enemies get faster. This leads to the unsatisfying optimal strategy of weakening most of the enemy team and then killing lots of enemies all at once. It can make the fights drag on longer than they feel like they should, and really diminishes that lovely feeling you get playing these games when you pop a really dangerous enemy before he can do anything to hurt you.

It would have also probably been nice if Stoic had better advertised that the game was episodic and this was only the first episode. I knew of this going in, but I also know of a lot of people who didn’t, and were thus disappointed when the ending didn’t resolve much of the overarching story. It’s still a great game though, and definitely worthy of your time if any of the past thousand words or so resonate with you. The fantastic world building and atmosphere overshadow the sometimes frustrating combat system, and the art style is just really cool. It’s my game of the year for 2014, if indeed such a term has any real meaning.

In Closing

So that’s 2014. It was certainly a very strange year. But I just can’t get behind the notion that it was a bad one. The AAA market was undeniably a trainwreck, and even the best games that came out of it didn’t seem to live up to hype. The two AAA games that people disliked the least were remakes. I even put one of them on this list! I hope that doesn’t count as cheating.

But with the ailing AAA market came a thriving indie one. I said in the first part that there weren’t any instant classics this year, and I meant that in the sense that no game so so dominated the conversation for the year that they overshadowed everything else. There were no Papers Please and Gone Homes this year. But instead we had a huge, fantastic, and often overwhelming lineup of very good indie games. Games like Transistor, and The Banner Saga, but also Unrest, Shovel Knight, Never Alone, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Child of Light and Valiant Hearts (if you want to count them as indie), The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, This War of Mine, Divinity: Original Sin, and The Fall, just to name a few. Just about everyone I’ve talked to has a favorite from this list, or a few, and none of them seem to agree with each other. There aren’t more on my list because, frankly, I haven’t had the time to play them all.

If 2013 was “The Year of the Indies”, then surely 2014 was “The Year AAA Surrendered to the Indies.” What I took from 2014 wasn’t a melancholic disillusionment with video games. What I took from it was a sense of hope. There are ever more varying and interesting games out there. The market is diversifying with unbelievable speed and gusto. AAA isn’t going away, and I honestly don’t think it ever really will, even if the current way we make big games becomes unsustainable. But what 2014 showed us is that the era of the “garage band game developer,” the era where a small group of friends can get together and not only make a successful, profitable game, but do something with it that nobody else is doing and carve out a unique niche in the market? That era’s not just back, it’s here to stay.

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From the Archives:

  1. Jarenth says:

    I knew the old Reserve Psychology trick would work on you.

    It always does.

    I ‘like’ that you say that 2014 is the year indies kicked ass and whatnot (something I’m inclined to agree with, mind) when a) three of your five top games are AAA and b) the two indie games you did pick were both high-profile Kickstarters. I never really felt comfortable calling Transistor an Indie game, even though I did review it in my column of that name, when it was really ‘the guys who made Bastion now make Bastion 2: Bastion In Space. Compared to some of the other games I’ve played, some of which were developed by one- or two-man teams, it almost feels as if a new term is needed for this category of development.

    • Winfield says:

      It’s spelled “Reverse Physiology”, dork. Learn to idiom.

    • Josh says:

      Indie’s always had the problem of being a catch all term for “not AAA.” It’s just a bit more magnified when the AAA lineup jumps off a cliff for twelve consecutive months.

      The Transistor core team was only like a dozen people though, maybe less, so I think it still fits pretty solidly under the “small indie” banner, if not the “smallest.” Same thing with The Banner Saga. And I don’t think indies need necessarily be consigned to super low budget titles either. There’s definitely a difference between Transistor and Papers Please, but I think it’s a lot smaller than the difference between Transistor and Call of Duty.

      • Eruanno says:

        Even worse, there’s the smallish games from big publishers, such as Child of Light or Valiant Hearts. They’re definitely not indies seeing as they’re being made and published by Ubisoft but at the same time they definitely don’t have the budget or marketing push of Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry. What do we call them? Half-indies? Semi-AAAs? Triple-A minis?

        • Dirigible says:

          Single As!

        • Felblood says:

          Traditionally, the alternatives to AAA production values would be A (big budget tiles, but not the real heavy hitters like Final Fantasy and God of War. We live in an era where nobody shoots for this particular mark, and it’s killing us.), B (Licensed titles or games produced for a niche audience that don’t command serious financial backing), and D list (A and B grade games that you personally didn’t like. Gaming culture has always had a weird relationship with hyperbole).

          • Eruanno says:

            Huh, really? What other denominations are there that I don’t know about? :D

            • Felblood says:

              Do people still say crippleware (in modern terms, a program that is useless without the stuff cut for DLC) or shovelware (D list games made on a shoestring budget, by companies that obviously knew these games were bound for the Christmas trees of disappointed children with well meaning parents)?

              Even if we call them something else now, these are definitely not things that have gone away.

        • Bubble181 says:

          So how about Might & Magic X: Legacy? Indie budget and team, Ubisoft released, with a huge name and following but no marketing whatsoever in a, frankly, otherwie unexistent genre these days?

      • What’s worse is the baggage coming with these names. For the most part, “AAA games” is starting to mean games that are unoriginal rehashes with new coats of paint, often shipped broken, and/or have limitations placed on them thanks to multi-platform release.

        Of course, nothing hurts both AAA and Indie like the phrase “early access.” :(

        Still, anything remotely resembling new or different mechanics in games appears to be coming from the Indie camp more often than not, which isn’t unexpected.

    • WWWebb says:

      Not terribly long ago, these “not controlled by a major publisher” studios were referred to as “independent”. Then Twitter happened and all the names got twee.

      • Felblood says:

        Whenever I see the word “Twee” I have to fight down a rant about how it is the way that people younger than me complain about the way people younger than them talk or dress.

        I would elaborate, but I’m afraid it would create an old-man-yelling-at-a-cloud fractal, and the resulting recursion would consume the universe.

    • Dragomok says:

      I can’t find anything about Transistor’s Kickstarter. Are you sure it had one?

  2. Merlin says:

    For example, if you try to play the game using the typical turn-based strategy of focusing all of your fire on one enemy to kill him quickly and reduce their numbers, every other enemy will get proportionally more turns.

    I kind of took that to be the point of the system. Dang near every turn-based strategy eschews death spirals and celebrates focus-firing enemies down one at a time; Banner Saga’s system exists explicitly to flip those assumptions on their heads. It’s a remarkably well-crafted system, even if it feels like it’s from an alternate timeline where different games inspired the genre. I’ve found it refreshing to have to actually adopt a totally different approach from FFT/XCOM/Fire Emblem/etc.

    I still screw up Banner Saga combats regularly, and I’d hate for it to be the industry standard. But it’s a cool take that can definitely work as a sometimes food, and I think it’s ultimately a good tonal fit for Banner’s Saga story.

    • Josh says:

      Oh I totally get that. But it really isn’t very intuitive. It definitely makes the game play differently, and really shakes up your strategy wheelhouse. But I’m not sure it actually makes the game play better. I wish they’d been able to come up with a more elegant system.

      • Sorites says:

        I liked it. It made the fights more like story fights, where everyone stays up right until the last moment when the losing side loses suddenly.

        Say Beast, Mystique and Havok fight Azazel, Riptide, and Angel. Team Good doesn’t all spread out to catch Azazel, then all come at Riptide from different angles, then all beat up Angel. They fight separate duels, and all win kind of at the same time.

        It’s decidedly sub-optimal, failing to divide and conquer. It’s not Zileas’s Doom Drop with Slaw. But I certainly find it more satisfying.

        • Rack says:

          It doesn’t really pan out that way though. Team good here attacks Azazel till he’s battered and on the brink, then stops, moves over to do the same to riptide, stop again before choreographing a final attack on Angel. It’s so restrictive and artificial it killed the whole game for me.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          There has to be a better way of achieving this, though.
          Following the Banner Saga system, if you have one extremely good fighter, it’ll always be better to send him into battle alone than with second-grade wingmen.

          …and I think you could achieve a system where focussing on just one enemy carries a penalty by, e.g., giving characters who are not being opposed by an enemy character a bonus, such as a free attack. So in a 3v3 battle, you’d have to pair the opponents, until one manages to beat his opposite, and could then help his mates to finish the fight quickly.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Or have a certain damage threshold for every enemy,depending on their size,and once its reached,have the damage they receive reduced.Shields in sins of the solar empire work something like that:the more you are under attack,the more your shields reduce incoming damage.Once the attacks stop,they slowly return back to normal.

            • Zak McKracken says:

              Hmm…wouldn’t that rather encourage the player to focus on one enemy, because not only would you need to give them a certain amount of damage, but you’d also give it to them quickly or they’ll regenerate.

              What about a system where opponents have a certain energy production rate which they can use to either regenerate or attack quicker … so you’d have an incentive to keep everyone covered.

              If I had to guess, I’d say the system in Banner Saga was developed to give someone who’s already lost one character a chance of still winning the game. I still think that there must be a better way of doing that than by effectively increasing the attack speed inversely proportional to the number of people still standing on each side… Reports about this very thing are what’s kept me from trying the game so far because I think I might get very frustrated.

              Would love to hear the developers’ rationale on this.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                “but you’d also give it to them quickly or they’ll regenerate.”

                Well no,because the shields thing Ive mentioned is only an example.If you have non regenerating health and a damage threshold,its better to spread your damage over multiple creatures than to waste it all on one.

          • Merlin says:

            The Banner Saga’s system already accounts for that, though. For one, units will generally be either good at dealing Armor damage or good at dealing Strength damage, and you need to be able to reliably do both. More importantly though, is that the initiative system changes when one side is down to a single unit. So sending out 1 is basically suicide, and sending out 2 or 3 means you’re playing without a net. One bad move can have dire consequences – say Gunnulf takes a bad hit early on and he can no longer pump out damage – and losing any puts you that much closer to being Pillaged.

            You’re right to worry about the system incentivizing a small team, but I think it’s already been amply taken into account. Playing the game on both Normal and Hard, I never felt handicapped by bringing 6 units to battle, especially since abilities and armor breaking leave weaker units valuable ways to contribute. Did you actually experience 2-manning being successful in the campaign or multiplayer, or is your problem just conceptual? As is, there’s a risk-reward factor to fielding a small team, but I don’t think it’s a broken system by any stretch.

      • Kdansky says:

        I think this is the real issue:

        If the optimal play revolves around weakening your enemies, then you spend the majority of your time playing with weakened characters yourself. Basically the better you play, the more time your opponent has to waste doing nothing, both in-game turns, but also real-life time, and the same is true for you too.

        Instead of two capable sword-fighters battling to the death, you have lame ducks hitting cripples, and waiting until someone finally falls over.

        And that’s just not enjoyable.

        I really want to like it, but I feel the turn order system they used was a novel, but really bad design, to the point where I can’t stand the game at all.

    • Alex says:

      I can think of circumstances where this system would make sense. This is not one of them.

      If you played as a necromancer whose mindless thralls were useless without your leadership, and whose ability to control your thralls is limited by the strain of keeping dozens of constructs animated simultaneously, this would be a thematically appropriate system. As your undead died you would be free to focus your will on the remaining few, making them individually more and more effective as their numbers waned.

      It does not make sense for a game where you are controlling people. At most you’d want a half-and-half system where your soldiers have a limited capacity to act on their own initiative every turn, but you can focus your attention on one unit which will perform more substantial orders.

      • Adam says:

        Can’t characters die permanently, though? Could this system be designed as a sort of soft assist to players who lose too many characters and don’t have a full party to bring into battle?

        • Josh says:

          Not outside of one specific in-combat event. I think every other permanent death is an out-of-combat thing. It doesn’t quite hit that Fire Emblem level.

          • Merlin says:

            If I can continue gushing, this was another interesting decision that I think really works, for a couple reasons.

            Fire Emblem, like a lot of games, is heavily asymmetrical in terms of risk. Battles are over when you kill all 40 bad guys, and none of your 10 units die along the way because you’d rather reset than lose them. Casualties leading to temporary injuries rather than perma-death cuts out a lot of the incentive to get caught in save-reload cycles. FE in particular can be frustrating because of crits or effective damage – for you, they’re a small time-saver, but for the enemy, they’re instant resets.

            The other piece is the simple fact that combat is a controllable, predictable system. (Especially since accuracy & evade basically don’t exist in TBS.) It’s a unintuitive sometimes, but looking at the initiative and knowing everyone’s stats means that, on a certain level, everything that happens deserves to happen. Perma-death happening outside of combat, and sometimes because of decisions you made long ago, helps make the journey and world feel deadly and capricious in a way other than “Man this boss is some bullshit.”

            • Ivan says:

              I realize there isn’t much hope of a response with this post being just past it’s prime, but I want to respond anyway.

              Having recently played Fire Emblem: Awakening, the first FE game with casual mode, I have to say that while perma-death of a unit is an interesting concept, it is executed very poorly in the context of the FE series.

              Like you said, a random critical hit can take an hour long run of a level and end it right there. Playing on casual makes the game a whole lot less stressful and grindy and despite this I haven’t completed it yet and this is my 3rd playthrough. I’ve insisted on playing through on Hard the first time and as I master all the new systems they’ve added I realize that “casual” is a crutch that you shouldn’t really need.

              Now I think that casual is actually a good feature and should show up in every FE game after this, but when playing the same stages through 3 separate times I realized that most of my deaths occurred from sub-optimal play. As I mastered the various systems I was able to build a much stronger party and avoid a lot of the situations where I would louse people before. That said, now that i’m getting to later levels the game is starting to throw more and more enemies at me that specialize on critical hits, has a nasty habit of randomly giving enemies very dangerous skills that have to be planned around whenever you reset a level (so you’re better off starting and then saving on turn 1) and unpredictably (the first time around) spawning enemies within striking distance of your units and attacking before you can respond. So as I enter act III I’ll probably be abusing the new in level save feature as much as possible.

              With all that said, I think it’s very strange that the FE games have never allowed for a “downed” state. Your dudes just suddenly die at 0 hp, and it might be more interesting to allow for units to become incapacitated and only die if they are not rescued soon after, possibly even allowing for combat revival with potentially some stat penalty and injured units being unavailable for the next story mission. I mention all this because FE is a game where death is part of the game, but it can be so random and punishing so as to be avoided at all cost by the player. I think they need to work on more mechanics that allow for this randomness to exist, but for it to only result in death if you really screw up.

              • Merlin says:

                I haven’t played Awakening (beat 7-9 and read LPs of some of the SNES games & 10), but you’re definitely right that good, strategic play will generally keep you safe. Still, there’s plenty of room for bullshit deaths: Killer weapons, non-obvious “gotcha” skills & items (e.g. 7’s Reaver weapons, which reverse the weapon triangle and apply double the bonus), and fog of war maps come to mind. And a few of the games allow enemy reinforcements to act immediately when they appear, which is the height of need-to-know-it’s-coming Nintendo-hard gameplay.

                I don’t think they need to eliminate perma-death by any stretch, but even just giving each unit 1 “extra life” over the course of the campaign would go a long way towards cutting save-reload cycles.

    • Purple Library Guy says:

      Are there times when it’s still worth it to nail a particularly offensively potent foe to the wall early? Cause, sure, the number of enemy actions will still be the same, but “That *$#! guy attacking you” no longer being one of those actions might still make things better?

  3. Henson says:

    You definitely nailed it in saying that The Banner Saga evokes a strong sense of atmosphere, which just happens to be the Number One Thing that I look for in a game. I guess that makes me an explorer-type.

    Personally, I was slightly disappointed with game’s visual style and animation. It tries to go for a painter-ly feel in its backgrounds (which work great), but the character drawings look much more like hand-sketches than anything made with a brush. It’s a weird mix, and I’m not sure they pulled it off as well as they could have.

    • Felblood says:

      It’s not that they didn’t pull off what they were shooting for, it’s just that what they were shooting for was the look of an old Ralph Bakshi epic, which they completely nailed.

      Whether or not that is a noble goal is a more subjective question, and nostalgia is going to have a big impact on how well this works for you.

      I’m reminded of a story wherein Tolkien submitted a series of short stories for publication, and included a series of illustrations that lovingly re-created the look and feel of a medieval woodcut. The publisher took one look at them, assumed the writer could not draw, and ordered new illustrations from one of his staff artists.

  4. Really glad you liked the Banner Saga! I worked on it during the early stages of its development, when it was just 5 of us in a goat shack with no running water. (Yes, really.)

    • Benjamin Hilton says:

      Were these helpful goats, or Goat Simulator goats? If it was the latter it’s amazing the game ever got done.

      But seriously that’s pretty cool.

      • Sadly, the shack did not have any goats in it, live or otherwise, at the time we were there. Although it did have its share of dead cats and sort of dead roaches.

        We also lost power once when a drunk driver leaving the bar located in front of the shack backed into our building and knocked out our circuit breaker.

        • Galad says:

          Ah, the joys(?!) of game development! :>

          I knew I’d want Transistor, even if I knew much less about the game during the winter sale, I was also down to my last monies for the already-strained financial month though. Oh well, I’ll wait till it’s on sale. Probably. I guess I’ll add the banner saga to my rapidly growing wishlist as well.

        • Shamus says:

          And yet it was probably still more fun than your time working on The Old Republic.

          (I kid. I don’t actually know which was worse.)

    • Merlin says:

      This is one of those things that makes me wish people wouldn’t get up in arms whenever someone tries to be an indie dev in major Western city. There are some wonderful games waiting to be made, and it’d be really nice if folks didn’t have to be sweatshop workers to make them.

      Great job on a lovely product!

  5. Ithilanor says:

    I’m playing through Transistor at the moment and enjoying it greatly. I love the customizability of the skills and the semi-turn-based system, even if it doesn’t flow quite as well as it could. The aesthetics are absolutely amazing, both visuals and sound.

  6. somniorum says:

    Very enthusiastic The Banner Saga was in there – and equally surprised, as when I recall you talking about it in the past I always had the feeling that you felt kind of underwhelmed by the game… that is, that you thought it had lots of neat ideas and presentation but it ultimately failed. Then there it is at the top of your list!

    Choices and consequences, you mentioned it having at least as much effect as The Walking Dead… I’m pretty sure this game goes far beyond The Walking Dead, in fact (and I do love TWD). I’ve looked over a list of characters who can die (or, from another perspective, characters who can live) – or who may otherwise leave your party – depending on what you do in the game… it’s virtually the whole cast. I exaggerate a little bit, but not much…

    Of course, the main story will still tell itself, but the possibility of losing so many important (and often well-written and endearing) people has significant emotional punch, and ultimately *most* of it goes down to your choices.

    I love this game in so many ways (though I can understand when people aren’t so enthusiastic about the combat – I actually rather enjoyed it, but I can get why others wouldn’t)… *ahem* minus the final boss fight, which annoyed the hell out of me and really helped to emphasize the awkwardness/difficulty you mentioned about how they handle turns (though that’s not *all* that’s wrong about that fight, imo).

    • Merlin says:

      I think the branching of the story (or lack thereof) is well addressed by Ubin in the game. At one point, you (as Hakon) can ask him why he bothers to keep a journal, given that the Long Banner in Arberrang is some kind of magical banner that automatically documents history. His response is basically “Who knows and who cares what it thinks is important?” It may tell the general story of the world, but not necessarily of the individual people that live it.

      It’s a nice encapsulation of the game. Sure, the Capital-P Plot may not make huge twists, but your characters’ experiences can be shaped pretty dramatically by the choices you make.

  7. Steve C says:

    It feels like I’m the only person who did not like Banner Saga’s art and mechanics. It looks really boring and bland to me, same with the combat.

  8. Sleeping Dragon says:

    It would have also probably been nice if Stoic had better advertised that the game was episodic

    Ahh, of course. Every now and then I stumble upon some mention of the game and I wonder why I haven’t played it yet then I start to research it more and this comes up. I know there is this whole support the devs argument but stories without closure really annoy me and if a series has a strictly episodic character I try to get it once it’s over.

    • WWWebb says:

      This is why, even though I’ve bought them, I still haven’t played Broken Age or Dreamfall Chapters. My gaming comes in binges these days and I just don’t bother with anything that has the word “cliffhanger” or “first part” in a review.

      That reminds me…didn’t Shamus have a discussion (or two) of a Telltale game where he complained about not knowing what “year” to count the game in and whether or not to bother reviewing it before it was finished?

      • Sorites says:

        I agree with the view that you should only review a game when it’s finished.

        Imagine if the Mass Effect trilogy had been “episodic”, with each release being a next episode. How would you review The Mass Effect Trilogy, given that the last third ruins the first two-thirds (and the middle wasn’t that good anyway)?

        • Sleeping Dragon says:

          Personally I even avoid reading books if a series is unfinished and I know it’s going to tell a single story over multiple volumes. With games I do make exceptions for some of the big titles but I am getting annoyed with developers dragging certain franchises what should probably be the expiry date, say Assassin’s Creed or Dragon Age. Plus there is a difference between having an overarching plot for the series but with each “episode” having a more or less self-contained story of it’s own and a strictly episodic format (I honestly don’t know which category Banner Saga belongs to), compare Mass Effect or Dragon Age to Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us.

      • Merlin says:

        I don’t know that I’d call it a cliffhanger. The closest comparison I can come up with is Star Wars. At the end of the movie, the Death Star gets blown up, which is cool and represents the complete resolution of Today’s Problem. But the whole Empire and Darth Vader situations still need to be dealt with and are very clear issues for tomorrow. Likewise, Banner Saga isn’t a game where Big Damn Heroes stop the End Of The World. It’s where a bunch of desperate refugees put out the immediate fire and take a breath before the next one starts.

        That said I can’t really blame you for the feeling – I still haven’t started Walking Dead or Kentucky Route Zero for the same reason.

        • Henson says:

          I’d compare it more to The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s clearly more adventuring to do, since they haven’t gotten to Mordor, but the movie still has a clear narrative arc, and still feels like it came to a conclusion, if not an ending. But yeah, I agree with you here.

          • Purple Library Guy says:

            It still weirds me out when people start talking about The Lord of the Rings and then partway through say something that makes it clear they’re referring to the movies.
            Not that I don’t like the movies–I do like ’em, I like many parts quite a lot. But my base default mental state is “book” and something like this makes me go “Urk–croggle–wha?!” for a second as my train of thought jumps to the other track and I remember “Oh yeah, the movies were a thing”.

  9. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “Transistor absolutely oozes style, and would warrant inclusion in this list based on its soundtrack alone.”

    Its also incredible how such a simple thing as just humming can improve the already amazing soundtrack.The first time I got the hum button,I was just sitting there,listening to red hum along the sound for quite a while.And every new song I had to listen to her humming along for at least a minute.Such a small,simple thing,and yet so beautiful.

    The only problem is that you have to keep a key pressed in order to listen to the humming.

    “and has an intriguing story to boot.”

    Eeeeehhh…Its told in an intriguing fashion,and the back story of the city is somewhat neat,but the core of the story is….lame.

    “You could potentially play the game entirely in real time, though it would be very difficult, as things move comparatively quickly at normal speed, and much of the complex combos require planning and precise timing.”

    There are some combos that make this a breeze.Theres one that lets you lay down bombs,while being invisible when doing so(load+jaunt+mask),so you can end up just spamming a single attack over and over and over until everything dies.There are some enemies that screw you over if you attempt this,but this will only be a problem in new game plus,and only if you use some of the nastier limiters.But its essentially a win button for your first playthrough.

    • Chauzuvoy says:

      Fun fact: They released an extended version of the OST that includes the humming over all the instrumental tracks. And the instrumental version of the lyrical tracks. And a couple of the distorted ones from that one boss fight. If you bought the soundtrack edition on steam it should have automatically downloaded into the soundtrack folder.

      Also, Youtube Link

  10. Benjamin Hilton says:

    I don’t know why but every year I expect Josh’s list to end with ” The best game was Star Wars Galaxies, until SOE screwed it up.(Eight more paragraphs of ranting)”

  11. evileeyore says:

    “This is the second and final part of my 2014 retrospective. And you thought it was never coming.”

    To be fair we actually expected it next year… there is precedence.

  12. Ayegill says:

    “overwhelming the humans of humans and the Varl”

    Not sure what it’s supposed to be, but this looks like an error.

  13. Tychoxi says:

    Glad to see Banner Saga getting some love. I has its problems, mostly due to its tight budget, but it delivers an amazing experience.

  14. Cinebeast says:

    I’m not big on indies — there’s a sentence that’s just asking for trouble — so I haven’t played many of these, but Josh has a surprisingly eloquent way of talking about them. He’s really got me interested in some of them, particularly Transistor and The Banner Saga.

  15. Chris Davies says:

    It seems very weird to me that one of your games of the year skates by on having terrible gameplay on the ground that the story was good and well delivered. I’ve never played TLOU, being a PC only gamer, but I did watch the whole spoiler warning season. It seemed like there was exactly zero player involvement in the story, and whenever you had to actually play the game it was terrible.

    Surely the reason we play games as opposed to reading books or watching movies is for the quality of their interactivity? I’m getting ever less tolerant of telltale games for exactly that reason, they seem to be in the process of dumping all the interactivity and never replacing it with newer, more interesting mechanics.

    Attaching a decent-ish movie to a terrible game shouldn’t excuse the terrible game

    • Cinebeast says:

      To be fair, TLOU does not have terrible gameplay. It doesn’t have exceptional gameplay, but it’s more than workable, and aids the atmosphere, which is more than can be said for many AAA games.

      • Felblood says:

        It’s that Uncanny Valley Effect.

        It came closer than we’ve seen in a long time to re-enforcing the themes and mood of the story, that it hit’s you like a train whenever it fails.

        That’s still better than failing all the time.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          I dont think thats the whole of it.Even if you were to ignore all the cutscenes and dialogue and every bit of exposition,so many mooks would become grating fast.And the stealth that gets so easily broken,yet so hard to get back into is not fun stealth.

  16. Phantos says:

    The dialogue system allows players a good deal of freedom to influence the storyline, and different choices can have significant consequences, up to and including killing off multiple major characters. I’d say it’s at least as responsive to player choice as The Walking Dead is.

    If it were as responsive to player choice as The Walking Dead was, there would be nothing to compliment or even describe.

    That said, you’re the first person to make me even the slightest bit interested in The Banner Saga. Kind of sad that the people who made and advertised it failed to do that, even a year after its’ release.

    Also, Transistor sounds like it would have appealed to me if I didn’t know it was by the guys who did Bastion. But that game left such a bad taste that I actively ignored Transistor, and hoped it would just go away. Considering how little I see anyone talk about it in comparison to the hype Bastion got, I’m not sure what to think.

    If everyone loved the game I hate, does that mean I’ll love the game everyone else hates?

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “If everyone loved the game I hate, does that mean I’ll love the game everyone else hates?”

      Yes.It also means you are worse than hitler.

      Anyway,as far as transistor,theres really very little to compare with bastion.Especially in terms of gameplay.So if you disliked bastion for its gameplay,give transistor a try.

  17. Phantos says:

    Man, I wish game reviews read like your articles, Josh. Not just because there wouldn’t be so much spoon-feeding of hype and BS, but because your opinions are actually interesting to read and you try to back them up.

    It’s baffling how many people who are paid to do that, while having absolutely no concept of how to do it.

  18. poiumty says:

    Transistor and Banner Saga, eh? Good choices, Josh. Definitely in my top 5 for 2014 as well.

    The one part where Banner Saga isn’t as good as it could be (as in, an actual design flaw rather than an interesting design decision that may not appeal to everyone) is where they made the combat system so balanced for multiplayer that they forgot to make it interesting for single player. It really seemed like most of the superspecial awesome abilities were rather pointless and you strained to find situations where you could make them work, like they had some well-thought out niche but were so toned down that they didn’t really feel like special abilities at all. That, combined with the unpredictable story development (seriously, why even have choices when I can’t possibly predict what effect they’ll have and the game actively discourages reloading if I’m not happy with them – felt more like a choice roulette than making meaningful decisions) ensured it wasn’t the one most enjoyable game of 2014 for me.

    I absolutely loved Transistor – but when I look at Bastion’s tight gameplay mechanics and compare the two, Bastion comes out on top. I loved the turn-based style and I liked the idea of mixing and matching as much as you want – but Transistor felt very… loose, in a way. The game wants you to keep experimenting in the same way Bulletstorm wanted you to keep doing crazy things – by putting its intended gameplay as a requirement for a meaningful part of the game. Problem is, Transistor hates the idea of you getting comfortable. I just wanted to find a cool combo I could use, and use it until I’m bored of it, but throughout the entire game, the necessity to use every program in every possible slot in order to get the lore actively disincentivized me from it. And when NG+ came along and I didn’t need to do that anymore I was already tired of it. The game does feel like it had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to make every playstyle viable, and as a result it’s less satisfying.

    This is just critique though. These games are still amazing no matter what.

  19. Zak McKracken says:

    Is there a way of buying a DRM-free version of Transistor? Because I think I’d go for it but I really don’t want Steam on my computer…

    Supergiant Games is offering Bastion as DRM-free download from their own website, but not Transistor … this makes me sad :(

  20. Blackbird71 says:

    “I really cannot understate how good this game looks, both still and in motion.”

    So, it looks really bad? Or did you mean that you can’t overstate how good it looks?

    This is one of those could/couldn’t care less phrases, where the right word makes all the difference in meaning. Sorry to nitpick, it’s just a pet peeve of mine.

    • Josh says:

      Huh. You know, I have no idea how I didn’t catch that until you pointed it out. I must’ve been over it half a dozen times and it never even occurred to me. But you’re right, that’s completely the opposite of what I wanted to say. Fixed.

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