ATTENTION: The year 2014 has concluded its temporal self-destruct sequence. If you are among the escapees, please join us in salvaging and preserving the best games from the irradiated chrono-debris.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The best thing about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might be that it tells its story in a way that only a video game can. Other games aspire to emulate other forms of media, to be more like movies or books. Ethan Carter, on the other hand, embraces the interactivity of the medium in a wonderful way, with an awareness of a video game's ability to let you live through a moment, rather than just witnessing it.
At first, Ethan Carter feels like a typical paranormal mystery, and its investigation mechanics are cleverly implemented, asking you to put the events of the past in the correct order to reveal the truth behind a series of murders. The mystery elements turn out to be just a small part of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, though, and you soon find yourself pulled into some of the greatest moments of pure fantasy that I've ever seen in a video game.
I won't say another word, for fear of spoiling anything. If you appreciate a good mystery, and you believe in the transportational power of games, do yourself a favor and pick it up.
In mid-December, I sat down at my PC with the intention of playing through some of the independent games I had missed in 2014. Instead, I played Hearthstone for 6 hours. I had played plenty of Hearthstone in the spring, but I had put it down for one reason or another. I fired it up to give it one more go before diving into some Game of the Year candidates – and then its hooks went deep.
Blizzard has crafted a brilliant but simple card game in Hearthstone, but never forgets that it's a video game first, turning the boring stats and numbers of other card games into engaging and rewarding action, complete with fun visuals and a surprisingly ample soundscape. The thrill of playing the perfect hand is bolstered by punchy effects, from the threatening roar of a Core Hound to the hefty smash of a Boulderfist Ogre.
It's tough to put down, and it's free. If you have anything productive that you're trying to accomplish, stay far, far away.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
Whoever would have thought that drawing maps was so much fun? I've tried to get into Etrian Odyssey before, but somehow it felt too dense and unapproachable. This year, Atlus mixed Etrian Odyssey's first-person dungeon crawling and map drawing with the lovable characters of the Persona series, and it made a believer out of me.
Persona Q has me addicted to penciling in dungeon maps on the 3DS's touch screen, which is something I can't even believe I'm typing. And yet, labeling obstacles, defining walls and noting secret passages is weirdly entertaining and, more importantly, vital to success. Being able to explore Persona Q's labyrinths with my good pal Teddie is a welcome bonus. Throw in the always enthralling Persona fusion system and you've got the perfect portable RPG. Make a little progress, complete some of the map, fuse a few Personas, and then feel free to snap your 3DS shut until you're ready to dive back in.
Dark Souls 2
I can't say that I've enjoyed Dark Souls 2 as much as the original Dark Souls, but that didn't stop it from gobbling up dozens of hours of my time this year (and I still haven't finished it). Like Dark Souls and Demon's Souls before it, Dark Souls 2's best trick is imparting its players with a sense of bleak, nearly hopeless solitude, and then breaking it up with brilliant bits of human cooperation (or antagonism, as the case may be).
The world is yours alone to explore, and it is full of horrors that will kill you as soon as they look at you, but just when things seem the darkest, when you positively can't slay a monster on your own, you can enlist the aid of other players and take it down together. All of this is done in silence, though. There is no voice chat, no matchmaking, only a few in-game gestures of greeting and the hope that the players you've joined know what they're doing. It's just enough positive energy to help you keep pressing on – right until a different kind of human player invades your world and kills you, of course.
There were plenty of better games than Destiny this year – our own list will attest to that – but it had a gravity that I can't deny. The story was poorly delivered, the missions fairly one-note, and the bosses are all bullet sponges – I recognize all those flaws. But I still couldn't stop playing, which is a testament to Bungie's grasp of entertaining shooting mechanics. Here's hoping the next Destiny has a little more substance to go with its abundance of style.
Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale's latest episodic series hasn't finished its first season yet, so it can't be considered for Joystiq's best of 2014, but even the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands ranks as one of my favorite gaming experiences this year.
I'm not even a huge Borderlands fan, but I'm in love with Telltale's take on the universe. It turns out that a planet full of bloodthirsty bandits is a great backdrop for a comedy adventure game, as is the unexpected mundanity of the day-to-day operations of an evil corporation.
The characters are well-drawn, the story is well-told and Loader Bot ... well, Loader Bot is my favorite video game character of 2014, easy.
[Images: Telltale Games, Activision, Bandai Namco, Atlus, The Astronauts]