5) 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (DS) – It's odd for me to put a digital novel here, as I've never been a huge proponent of the genre. I love adventure games, as their combination of puzzles and dialogue usually creates a great dynamic. Digital novels, however, never struck me as having the right kind of balance, but that's exactly what 999 has. Great writing, fun Crimson Room-like puzzles, and fantastic pacing make this a great read, plus the six endings with the branching paths make for great fun. Aksys did a great job localizing this, and I'm really glad we got to see it stateside. Go find yourself a copy if you haven't already!
4) Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (DS) – While I would strictly place Persona 3 Portable as the better Shin Megami Tensei game (only slightly), it's rehash. We've seen it all before, but Strange Journey is at least a little bit different. It hearkens back to the classic Shin Megami Tensei titles, with its first-person dungeon crawling and high difficulty. It's not nearly as punishing as, say, Nocturne, but you can get wiped out by random encounters if you're not careful. Combine that with a great demon fusion system, the return – and importance – of demon and character alignment, and a fantastic science fiction story makes for Atlus' best game this year.
3) Heavy Rain (PS3) – I loved Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit to any Europeans reading this) and I even liked Omikron: The Nomad Soul, so Quantic Dream's newest game was on my radar long before it was being hyped as the next best thing. I'm so very glad that they didn't disappoint in providing a fantastic adventure game with style, fun gameplay, and great dialogue. A gorgeous game, the only hitch is that the French-developed title has French-speaking voice actors for many of its roles mimicking American accents. Still, that tiny caveat in a game that gives you an ending that matches up with what you've done in the game, that gives you real choices, and a game that gets you emotionally engaged? I'd say that it might well be the best adventure title I've ever played.
2) Valkyria Chronicles II (PSP) – Valkyria Chronicles II doesn't seem to add much on the surface. It has a new branching class system and better weapon development. The combat hasn't changed at all, so aside from being portable, what's the big deal? Smaller maps provide a more cohesive experience and give players a reason to play more missions. Having missions that don't last hours make it so gamers won't lose their progress if their tank blows up. It's all of the greatness of the PS3 version shrunk down, and it's done with style.
1) Mass Effect 2 (360 / PC) – Shepard is a badass. He DIED and he still came back to fight the Collectors in Mass Effect 2. While some complained that the second title provided less in the way of RPG elements (a simplified item system and fewer skills per player), it didn't affect the game at all, as the greatly-enhanced combat, fantastic story, gorgeous graphics, and charismatic squadmates made this the best game of the year by far. If we're lucky, Mass Effect 3's "Holiday 2011" release might just mean we get the finale of the trilogy this year.
Biggest Disappointment: TIE: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3 / 360) and Final Fantasy XIV (PC) – Not the best year for Square Enix, when their flagship franchise saw not just one, but two subpar iterations. To be completely fair, Final Fantasy XIII was far from a bad game, it simply wasn't up to snuff compared to the rest of the series. Final Fantasy XIV, on the other hand, is still unplayable, as noted by the complete restructuring of the staff and indefinite free trial period. Still, Square Enix released quite a few gems this year, including Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals (published by Natsume in the US), Dragon Quest IX (Published by Nintendo in the US), and Non-RPGs Space Invaders Infinity Gene and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.
Gran Turismo 5 (PS3) – Haters will hate, but this is still the best racing simulation there is.
Pac Man Championship Edition DX (Xbox Live Arcade) – Who knew Pacman was so good?!
StarCraft II (PC) – No squads, no fancy stuff, just Zerg Rush.
Civilization V (PC) – You can blame this game for the fact that it took me forever to write my ZHP review.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (Multi) – Treyarch actually makes a game that rivals its Infinity Ward counterparts.