5) Crimson Shroud (3DS)
Inaccessible, punishing, esoteric table-top-esque JRPG. Could I ask for more? I could ask for a longer playtime certainly. I almost didn't even play this late-year release from Matsuno and Level-5, but when I did, I was treated to one of the most original RPGs of the year. The invisible Dungeon Master tells a complex, fill-in-the-blanks-yourself story as you explore a fallen palace full of classic monsters and other dungeon essentials. The heavily nuanced dice-based combat makes for... Look, all you really need to know is that the characters are painted miniatures with bases and you roll polyhedral dice. How cool is that?
4) Xenoblade Chronicles (the first half) (Wii)
Vast environments full of adventure. The promise of insane plot twists and baffling character revelations. Exciting, engaging combat with all manner of creatures. Layers of fun game systems and mechanics. New abilities, skills, characters, situations, and gameplay elements introduced at a persistent rate. A soundtrack worth hearing outside of the game. And a setting concept never before seen. The first half of Xenoblade Chronicles reminded me why I fell in love with JRPGs.
3) Lone Survivor (PC)
This 2D adventure version of Silent Hill gave me more to ponder than most other games released this year. Taking player choice to a new level of subtlety, Lone Survivor makes even the smallest decisions important. Choosing what to eat, how to kill or avoid monsters, and how to treat others might seem like easy decisions, but they're not without consequence. This eerie meditation on survival made me question morals and the fragility of the human mind.
2) The Walking Dead (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Having never read the graphic novels or watched the TV show and having long ago grown tired of the zombie craze, I never expected to enjoy The Walking Dead: The Game. But the story isn't about zombies at all. Indeed, they often seem like a mere afterthought, and desperate humans under the stress of an apocalypse are far more frightening than walkers. The story unites harrowing events with realistic characters that eventually occupy the same space in one's mind as real people. Player decisions add ownership to the story, even if they never make Witcher 2 levels of difference. My favorite moments are those in which the writers refused to go the Hollywood way; not everyone dies for a reason and not everyone dies happy. I didn't cry in the end, but I came damn close.
1) Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
This year, many of us carried to its end the story of a figure about which stories will be told until the end of time. At that end, we unpacked our story like a backpack at journey's end to find the remnants of fallen friends, trophies from our enemies, and souvenirs from our decisions. That figure is me, it is you, and that story is mine and yours. Mass Effect 3 is role-playing virtually manifest. As we shaped our Shepards — making of him or her an arrogant hero, an apathetic villain, a magnanimous heroine, or one of a thousand other faces — we created a story impossible in any other medium. The third and final Mass Effect featured the darkest visuals, the most brilliant soundtrack, the most sublime combat, and the most emotional scenes of the entire trilogy. We might normally wish to remember the Reaper War so that history might not repeat itself, but this time, we hope it does.
Gemini Rue (PC)
The graphic adventure has been resurrected with full hit points. With games like Chains of Satinav, Primordia, and those listed above, we've seen so many quality adventure games this year. Gemini Rue is among my favorites: a classy cyberpunk story with a fantastic atmosphere and killer conclusion.
Xenoblade Chronicles (the second half) (Wii)
The once-gorgeous areas become repetitious and linear, riddled with boring enemies and overly long fights. The combat devolves into repetition once new abilities stop coming. The characters reveal themselves as underdeveloped archetypes. The story, above average in itself, is told through embarrassingly awkward cutscenes that amount to little more than the characters shouting one another's names and crying "Monado!" at every turn of the villain's schemes. The second half of Xenoblade Chronicles reminded me why I fell out of love with JRPGs.
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward (3DS, Vita)
While overrated, 999 is a curiously addictive game. I predict its follow-up is no Game of the Year, but nevertheless just as addictive as its predecessor.
Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS)
Dark Souls II (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
I have absolute confidence in the first two, but I'm slightly afraid for (and of) the third.
Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Levine can do no wrong.
Dishonored (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Finally, a game that does the "multiple approaches to victory" thing correctly. A great stealth game once you learn a few tricks, and one that truly awards experimentation. A fantastic and surreal new setting too, even if the story never amounts to much.
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