Posted January 6th 2012 by Jordan Mammo.
Last year we tried to highlight a few original projects to keep an eye on amidst 2011's sea of trilogies and franchises. Rockstar was throwing out the much-hyped, gritty L.A. Noire, Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami were re-teaming for the first time since 2005, and Fumito Ueda was supposed to finally unleash his first project in six years.
Unfortunately, some of our predictions were flat-out misfires as certain games didn't even come out! Ueda left Sony to strike out on his own, and The Last Guardian was pushed into 2012. He's still working on the title in a freelance capacity, but no new information has been revealed, and no new date has been set. Meanwhile, thatgamecompany's Journey was also pushed into 2012, as well as the Studio Ghibli–inspired Ni No Kuni (for non-Japanese audiences, at least). Similarly, despite a passionate attempt by North American fans to get their hands on Xenoblade, they were denied by Nintendo the entire year before finally being thrown an April 2012 release.
Not every title is going to meet its originally scheduled date, especially in an industry moving as fast as this one, but plenty of others managed to push through. Now that everyone is taking stock of their most memorable experiences, we thought it time to take a look back and see how the games we were originally excited for turned out.
Finally, we'll also leave you with a few surprises in our Bonus Round: games that didn't make the cut the first time but ended up wowing us anyway.
GHOST TRICK: PHANTOM DETECTIVE
The runaway success of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series helped define the DS as a home for the untested. The Japanese-only series made its way to Western hands during the same breakout year as similarly eyebrow-raising titles like Trauma Center: Under the Knife. These titles represented an odd third wing of the DS library—the first belonging to straightforward titles like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, and the second to touchscreen-focused reinventions like Kirby Canvas Curse—that fostered the promise that there were still new experiences that gaming could deliver.
It's fitting that the Ace Attorney spiritual sequel Ghost Trick would be among the major notes in the DS' swansong, because what makes Ghost Trick exciting is that it is a game based around new ideas—new rules that we haven't dealt with before.
Falling into the familiar niche of character-driven adventure, Ghost Trick's innovative puzzle element has players mystically inhabit the objects in a scene, and tasks them with finding a way to manipulate those objects as a substitute for corporeal ambulation. Using a time-rewinding mechanic inherent to ghosts (apparently), players have to watch and re-watch these scenes to find chances to hitch a ride on a diner-bound plate of food, or inhabit a stack of papers that are about to be blown across the room by a fan. All of this is done in the hopes of figuring out a way to use the surrounding objects to keep people from getting murdered at the end of the scene.
The tricky gameplay makes for a much more compelling meat in a sandwich that, in the Ace Attorney games, was defined by the stellar dialog and characters surrounding the gameplay rather than the gameplay itself. The absurd story, engaging characters, and charming dialog are all there, too, making this a win-win situation.
With a great foundation and a strong sequel hook, Ghost Trick could turn into a Top Recurring IP for whatever year delivers a sophomore entry. My only regret is that I did not campaign heavily enough to foster the nickname Ghost Dick for the game. I mean, a "ghost dick" would mean the exact same thing as "phantom detective," right? So clever. So much wasted potential.
- J. Edison
I was pretty excited when Bulletstorm was announced. Ridiculous, over-the-top, explosive action is something I love in just about any entertainment medium. Bulletstorm knows it's a videogame and it does a great job of creating an experience that can be just as fun for the viewer as the player. A big draw to Bulletstorm was, for me, the fact that the game was advertised as the most brutal, ruthless, and downright hysterical game you will ever play.
Basically, Bulletstorm is a first-person shooter where players have to string together combos for points. The more unique the kill, the more points you attain. Points buy upgrades for weapons, so the more upgrades you get, the more fun you have. It's a basic formula that has worked for decades, but Bulletstorm is probably the only game that has rewarded me for kicking an opponent into an electric fence after shooting him in the balls.
Accompanying the hysterical gameplay, Bulletstorm has dialog that is both cheesy and remarkably clever. I appreciate excellent writing in all its forms, and Bulletstorm certainly delivers in that respect. Many moments in the game have caused me to laugh out loud, including a chapter in which players control a giant toy dinosaur named Waggleton P. Tally-licker and are introduced to a female character who threatens to "kill your dick." While the campaign is rather short, there is a multiplayer component which allows players to team up and kick ass together. This is fun at first, but ultimately it is short lived.
By now you should be able to grab Bulletstorm at a relatively low price. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys ridiculous, over-the-top action with great graphics, hilarious dialogue, and surprisingly deep gameplay. Amid a wave of sequels and big blockbuster titles, Bulletstorm showed that new IPs can kick the same amount of ass as the rest of the competition. Although it has been confirmed that a sequel for Bulletstorm is not even being planned right now, I'm still looking to see what the folks at Epic and People Can Fly will deliver in the future.
Microsoft's Xbox Summer of Arcade is an event I look forward to every year. I feel that the company consistently chooses to spotlight titles that are so vastly different or are of such high quality that gamers are doing themselves a disservice by not at least trying the demos that are available for every game. This year's lot was no exception, as was evident when we all sat down and ranked our favorites during a NerdMentality podcast. Although From Dust ranked last on my list of the five games that made up the event, it's undeniable to see that creator Eric Chahi created an experience unlike anything available on the Xbox 360.
In From Dust, players are tasked with leading villagers to safety in the midst of islands besieged by the worst disasters nature can conjure up: tidal waves, volcanoes and more. You play the role of what essentially amounts to a god as you shape the ground, reroute rivers and lava flows, and perform other feats as you race the clock. I played through the demo of the game twice and came away with mixed impressions.
My thoughts on From Dust fall into two polar opposite categories: disappointment and wonder. When I first heard about the game, I assumed it would be more along the lines of a true god game like Black & White or, to a more realistic degree, any Sim City game. I wanted to not only save these people from disasters, I wanted to build them up into a society. That's not what this game ended up being about at all, and because of that it felt a bit shallow. For a $15 XBLA title, my expectations were set way too high.
On the flip slide, few things are more fun than your in-game ability to literally reshape the world around the villagers. Diverting a river by sucking up a hill and depositing it in the middle of the stream is classic sandbox fun. The ability to solve the game's puzzles and problems are (mostly) limited only by your problem-solving imagination. From Dust was not the epic all-powerful experience I thought it would be, but it was still an entertaining one.
SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED
Shadows of the Damned represented, to many, another step for radical designer Goichi Suda towards the mainstream. It's always initially exciting for a designer with huge, sand-dragging balls to succeed in an industry that is oftentimes too timid about breaking from the mold. The promise that he can engineer beasts with a punk sensibility and big-industry muscle is enticing, as is the idea of a halo effect luring other designers out of their shells to try wild new ideas. But there is always the fear that the price of admission to the Big League could be those very same avant-garde balls that make him interesting in the first place.
For all its production gloss, this creature that walks like Resident Evil 4 and is skinned in Epic's Unreal Engine beats with the heart of a madman, and it's welcome to see. Suda's demented eye, when paired with Shinji Mikami's pedigree in the survival horror realm, makes for a kind of post-modern retelling of Dante's Inferno, as the bombastic Garcia Hotspur descends into Hell to rescue his angel Paula. In fact, I would have fully embraced Visceral Games' regrettable attempt at an Inferno retelling if they had shown half this much nerve.
I'm going to wager that "not as weird as Killer7" will be applicable to all of Suda's projects going forward, and it's certainly the case here. But the game world is certainly bizarre throughout, often startlingly so; it would be oppressively alien if it weren't so funny. And Garcia—something of a cross between No More Heroes' Travis Touchdown and a blend of Killer7's Dan, Coyote, and Mask de Smith—is as likable a hero as in any game I've played this generation. The gameplay, though creaky, reinvents often enough to avoid becoming rote, and Akira Yamaoka's score subverts the entire experience by blurring the line between the gleefully absurd and the genuinely unsettling.
Through all the braying goat heads, eyeball-scarfing babies, and mascara-stained succubi, it can be difficult to tell whether you are playing a Robert Rodriguez–inspired shoot-em-up romp or a David Lynch nightmare.
- J. Edison
Like most games that are ratcheted up by huge pre-release hype machines, L.A. Noire fell victim to not living up to baseless, preconceived notions. Before its release, we were bludgeoned with information about the amazing new graphics engine that was suppossed to bring us incredibly lifelike animations and visuals. Sadly, in action it came up short, but only in reference to the incredible visuals. The facial scan technology used to map expressions and emotions to in-game characters is astounding; it's just a shame that this tech was pasted over the top of Rockstar's consistently muddy graphics.
L.A. Noire, however, was a triumph in a lot of ways, not counting the "graphical letdown." In terms of storytelling and ambiance, I can't remember a game integrating the two more successfully. There are aspects so brilliantly subtle in this game that go beyond engaging just your fast twitch muscles and hand-eye coordination, truly immersing you in your role through sound and touch. And not enough can be said about the painstaking re-creation of the 1947 Los Angeles that Team Bondi of Rockstar went through. When coupled with the detective work—investigating crime scenes and questioning suspects based entirely upon the clues you've found—it makes for amazing gameplay.
What a lot of people were expecting from L.A. Noire was Grand Theft Auto: Retro, so if you were waiting for that, then your disappointment is valid. But to miss out on one of the most immersive storylines in recent gaming history would be to do yourself a disservice. While the action sequences can be repetitive, and the majority of the side missions and free exploration is more work than fun, the main storyline is engrossing enough to warrant a straight play-through. It'll be interesting to see if this series goes forward, maybe heading to other big cities around the country.
Last year I hoped that El Shaddai's execution would match its ambition. In some important ways, it does. It remains one of few the games you could play from last year and be completely blind-sided by regardless of prior knowledge. Radical art direction. Religious narrative. No HUD. Fierce androgyny. What it does best is force you to question—its character, its design choices, God.
El Shaddai is a game about the unknown. Enoch is tasked with a mission of defeating seven fallen angels, but he doesn't know why exactly and neither do you. Supposedly the word came from God, but you never actually speak to Him in this game. Nor do you always know what's happening as the story unfolds. Thanks to the abstract visuals, you may not know the pit in front of you is a pit until you walk unassumingly to your death. And by the end of your quest, you're not even sure you defeated seven angels!
Mechanically, it is familiar. You run, jump, and fight. Then you run some more as the landscape twists, turns, and swirls by you. Combat is deceptively simple, but its rock-paper-scissors gameplay is always engaging, even though its climactic boss battles fall flat. But this familiarity is wrapped in a coat of paint so thick it changes the experience altogether. Thematically, El Shaddai is wonderfully constructed. Its plot could've used some fine tuning, so the game doesn't quite pull everything together the way I hoped it would. But before you can get to these issues, I guess the real question is whether or not the game is worth playing. That's an answer I know for sure, though: El Shaddai was one of the most memorable experiences I had last year.
CHILD OF EDEN
This was supposed to be the Year of Kinect for the Xbox 360. The promise of innovative titles like Child of Eden, The Gunstringer, and more were finally supposed to justify the Kinect in the minds of those who purchased the system on promise alone. Microsoft themselves even spent about 95% of their E3 press conference its capabilities. No title, however, had me more interested in how the tech could transform the experience than Child of Eden from Ubisoft.
The spiritual successor to rhythm games like Rez focuses on you, the player, trying to rid a futuristic version of the Internet from viruses. As with Rez, the game is all about the experience of playing. Shapes form from sparkling lights and dazzling colors combine with techno and new age music tracks to suck you into a veritable feast for the senses.
The real draw to this game was the advertised Kinect capabilities for controlling your targeting and shooting. In the end, though, I felt like the promise was much more than what was delivered. I will argue until I'm blue in the face that the game draws you in that much more due to using your body to control the gameplay. However, I still struggled with the tech problems we've seen with other Kinect games. That, namely, being the sensor sometimes loses track of you or doesn't respond in the way you feel it should. This results in a game that's much more difficult than it needs to be. It's still fun playing with a standard controller, and I recommend doing so to gain an understanding of the dangers you'll face in each level, but it's a little disheartening that there's such a disconnect between the accuracy of the two control systems. Child of Eden takes steps in the Kinect's march towards viability, but it doesn't quite lift it up to the heights that I'd imagined it would at the start of the year.
I left Catherine out of the original list for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I wasn't sure it qualified as an original work considering its tenuous connections to the Persona series. At this point I find the distinction to be pretty inconsequential. More importantly, though, I thought it was going to be a pandering, poorly-written piece of crap.
Well, turns out it was the biggest surprise of the year.
Not only does it manage to intertwine/alternate between the story's love triangle and block-puzzle segments in a thematically convincing way, it also has me longing for each at exactly the right time. As soon as I climbed up the last block tower inhabiting Vincent's dreams, I was ready for the next chapter's story-oriented conversations, choices, and characters.
Catherine's not the most realistic tale about relationships, but it is an honest one. Sometimes sexy, sometimes off-putting, it peers into Vincent's inability to choose a direction in life. This isn't a dating simulation, as those hoping to control every one of Vincent's actions discovered, but a conversation between the player and the main character. I'm not entirely pleased with the twist near the end, but overall Catherine is a bold piece of work, and a worthy reminder that there's a whole lot of space left for videogames to explore.
SUPERBROTHERS: SWORD AND SWORCERY EP
In my mind, there exist two periods in the iOS' life. There was the time before Sword and Sworcery, when I didn't care to play anything on the platform, and the time after, when I was finally convinced it was worthwhile to actively seek out games on the thing.
And what a way to kick things off. Sword and Sworcery spins the tale of a female wanderer unraveling the secrets of the world around her. The touch controls, amazing art style, and superb music blend together to create an experience more affecting than any of the last few Zelda titles, and all in less than an eighth of the time. Sometimes it thinks itself too clever by half, but this isn't just a great iOS game; it's a great game, period. And one I'll be ruminating on for some time to come.
Who'da thought that Reisuki Ishida, creator of Space Invaders Infinity Gene, would end up making the best rhythm game yet? And on iOS, to boot? Under the hood, Groove Coaster isn't too different than other rhythm titles; in fact, it may be even simpler. You follow a small icon as it runs along a wireframe, tapping the screen to the beat of a song. The line shifts as the song progresses, while the abstract graphics and shifting perspectives combine to subvert expectations and trick the mind. In addition, hidden beats can be ad-libbed for those paying extra attention, leaving the impression of endless possibility. Oh yeah, and the music is fantastic.
Generally speaking, I tend to drop rhythm games after a few rounds. Something about them feels a little too rote. Groove Coaster, though, has had me in its clutches from its opening moments. Give it a listen.
Few games took me by surprise like Bastion from Supergiant Games. As part of Microsoft's 2011 Summer of Arcade, Bastion became a smash hit in large part for its storytelling mechanic—that of a narrator describing your actions in real time. The gritty, noir-style voiceover lends a dramatic tone to both your feats and missteps, while also giving you glimpses into the tragic history of two societies embroiled first in war, then in an uneasy peace.
The action RPG is more than just its story though. A variety of melee and ranged weapons with quirky behaviors combined with skill trees makes fighting your way through the game an experience unique to your personal choices. The presentation of the game is an absolute artistic masterpiece as the visuals resembled oil paintings, and the music is an eclectic mix of instrumentation from around the world. Supergiant has even been selling the soundtrack at conventions and trade shows due to popular demand. It should be pretty evident by my glowing praise that Bastion ended up being one of my favorite games to come out in 2011.
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