5) Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PSP) – Square-Enix shows that the PSP still has life in it yet. With some of the best graphics and music ever seen on the PSP and an interesting story of betrayal, revenge, hubris, and greed seen from the eyes of three different characters, it's no surprise that Birth by Sleep was well-received by fans and critics alike.
The star of the game, however, is its battle system. With a variety of attacks, abilities, and characters that control and fight differently, there is no way players can get bored unless they suffer from ADD. One can only hope that future Kingdom Hearts games will keep the same level of quality we've seen so far.
4) Golden Sun: Dark Dawn (DS) – At first glance, Dark Dawn seems to be a mismatch for a game of the year list, as it's pretty vanilla as far as RPGs go. Dark Dawn, however, is a tribute to a bygone era, one of immensely entertaining turn-based RPGs with excellent dungeon designs that aren't just a maze of corridors to run around in. The labyrinths that must be traversed require a keen mind and problem solving skills to get through, making for a rewarding experience. Camelot plays to their strengths, and without worrying about crafting a contrived and senseless narrative, have offered a fun and lighthearted adventure with likable characters (except for Tyrell and Ryu Kou, those bastards) and gameplay that is engaging and fun.
The only disappointment I had with the game is the lack of connection to the previous entries outside of seeing two of the previous main characters at the beginning of the game. In that respect though, the ending sets up a sequel, so I wait with bated breath to see the next chapter in this series – it can't come soon enough.
3) Tales of Graces F (import) (PS3) – Tales games (and, by extension, Namco Bandai) have a tepid relationship with fans, with many criticizing the franchise for being the RPG equivalent of Call of Duty or Madden (yearly releases with few improvements and identical stories with some terms changed), while stalwart fans demand that more of the series' iterations be released in the U.S. Graces F, the most recent installment, is by no means a powerhouse in graphics or gameplay, but still does what a Tales game does best: be fun.
The characters are derivative, the story is drivel, and the aesthetics are passable, at best, but taken as a whole they are compelling enough to keep players interested enough to proceed. The battle system plays no small part in this; the CC system introduced in the Tales of Destiny remake makes its debut in a 3D Tales, making for an incredibly fast and rewarding battle system.
Some may laugh off Tales of Graces F as a second-rate anime game, but doing so would be a disservice to the enjoyment to be had. Tales games have all but dried up in terms of U.S. releases, but it seems the series still has life; it would be a mistake – and a damn shame – for Namco Bandai to ignore it further. However, for future Tales games, Namco Bandai, do me one favor: bench Motoi Sakuraba!
2) Fallout: New Vegas (360 / PS3 / PC) – Fallout 3 did an excellent job of bringing the unique setting of the Fallout mythos into the current generation. The Capital Wasteland was chock full of people to meet, monsters to kill, and things to see. Series veterans can naysay all they want, but Fallout 3 was a worthy addition to Fallout canon. The only hiccup was the story, which was pedestrian and offered obviously good/evil choices.
This is fixed in Fallout: New Vegas. Choices are now much more morally ambiguous, with multiple factions vying for control of a strategic location in the Mojave Desert. Each faction believes itself to be the best and most worthy group or individual to govern the area, and its close proximity to the setting of the first two Fallout games means that there are quite a few references to events from that game, not the least of which is the New California Republic, which plays a major role in the narrative.
The gameplay has been retooled so that it's more balanced that Fallout 3, and the player is no longer an engine of death that can bulldoze through everything in his or her way. Perks and traits must be carefully considered and companions now add perks that affect the whole party, which makes for a much more enjoyable and well-rounded game. There are a huge number of quests and events not related to the main story, such that I've spent 70 hours on the game and still haven't found everything yet. The map is smaller than that of Fallout 3, but makes up for this by being denser.
The only thing hampering the game is the presence of a large number of bugs/glitches (many of which have since been patched), but it's a small speed bump in an otherwise fantastic game. Can the next Fallout game do even better? We can only hope.
1) Mass Effect 2 (360 / PC) – This should come as no surprise. Mass Effect 2 was one of the highest rated games on the site this year, with good reason; it's one of the most well-crafted games this generation. While other companies are content in tossing out games with minor or inconsequential upgrades every year, Bioware consistently impresses with their dedication to improvement and new methods of storytelling. Mass Effect 2 improves on nearly everything wrong with the first game, and spins an excellent and engrossing story in the process.
Characters in the game are believable and well-written, and it's easy to be convinced of their humanity despite the majority of them being aliens – no small feat considering the large cast. The multitude of different planets and environments show the contrasting nature of each world's ecosystem and showcases the insidious criminal undercurrent beneath the glistening and clean appearance of interstellar society established in the first game. The plot remains engaging and well-written throughout, never venturing into non-sequiturs or deus ex machinas to serve the narrative. The myriad character classes, character importing, and expansive dialogue trees ensures that no two individuals have the same experience playing the game.
Some may claim that the praise Mass Effect 2 has been getting is unwarranted, but they are wrong. That the game is heading to PlayStation 3 is news to be celebrated; more people should be able to experience this masterpiece. Mass Effect 3 has a lot to live up to when it's released this time next year, but considering the pedigree of its creators, there should be nothing to worry about.
Top 5 Disappointments of the Year
5) Dragon Age Origins: Awakening (360 / PS3 / PC) – Dragon Age: Origins offered an incredible amount of content for its price; it was one of the best games of 2009. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of its add-ons, and while its DLC (such as Witch Hunt and Return to Ostagar) are cheaply made cash-ins, nothing exemplifies this more than Awakening, which asks $40 for an expansion that doesn't add even a fourth of the original game's content. Let's hope Dragon Age 2 doesn't fall to the same fate.
4) Alpha Protocol (PS3 / 360 / PC) – Obsidian did a great job with Fallout: New Vegas, which is why its failure in making Alpha Protocol... well, good, is such a disappointment, especially considering the game had so much potential. But the broken gameplay (where the player almost requires certain skills to progress through parts of the game) coupled with terrible aesthetics and a complete lack of a proper ending makes the experience feel incomplete, which is probably what actually happened.
The fact that there is no patch or any sort of downloadables to fix the game is even more exasperating, as what could have been an instant classic has instead been punished to flounder in obscurity and bargain bins at GameStop. For shame, Obsidian and Sega, for shame.
3) Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals (DS) – A cynical cash grab if I ever saw one, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals swaps the perfectly crafted turn-based battle system of its predecessor and replaces it with mediocre action/platforming trappings instead. I could get on board with these changes, if not for the fact that the previously mature and (mostly) intelligent main characters have been transformed into clichéd and boring anime abortions. Watching Maxim push a block off a platform and exclaiming "I didn't know that would happen!" when it fell down just to get some yuks out of the peanut gallery accompanying the party is about as close to a character assassination you can get to in a video game.
I am honestly aghast. This is one of those times when I would scream "damn youuuuu" in my most dramatic pose and shake my fist at the sky, but I'm afraid they'll use it for the next Lufia game and destroy any dignity the series has left.
2) Heavy Rain (PS3) – I had really high hopes for Heavy Rain, but its story, chock full of unbelievable leaps of logic, plotholes you can drive a train through, and characters that fail to make much emotional impact (and have a tendency to overact their lines at times) means that this is a huge let down for me. As an experiment in a new type of game, it succeeds, and I hope the developers improve it further in the future, but as a game, it's neither engaging, nor is it fun.
Nothing breaks my heart more than a game with a great deal of potential that ends up being a disappointment, and sadly, Heavy Rain fits the bill.
1) Final Fantasy XIII (PS3 / 360) – Here's the joke: we waited five years and endured Square Enix's absurd hype machine, and what we got was an immensely unlikable cast of half-assed, poorly written characters, a sophomoric story that makes even less sense than most anime, and endless straight paths that lead to boring battles that are all flash and no substance.
You know what? It's not funny.
Non-RPG game of the year: Super Street Fighter IV