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.Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved
I love listening to music alone. When no one's looking, I'm free to tap out drum beats, put on emotional lip-synchs and flail in synch with a song's swelling heights. Playing Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved is a lot like those solo jam sessions in the way it grants a free pass to completely lose myself in a song's components. Sure, I look ridiculous, but I have to! Matching notes with halfhearted swipes and restrained punches just leads to broken combos, as if the Kinect is the all-knowing gaze of an instructor ready to belittle a cold, tired performance.
Substituting instruments and creating remixes adds a welcome element of experimentation to Fantasia, but it's the core focus of moving with music that brings me back each week. It's increasingly difficult to ignore life's noise while playing a game as I grow older, but Fantasia's peak moments tune out every distraction, leaving me with an uninhibited excuse to enjoy twisted, endearing remixes of songs that I love.
I love puzzle games that build brain-frying obstacles out of simplistic concepts, and Pushmo World is an extensive, creative dose of that style of brain teaser. Each stage quizzes players on how to best ascend a mass of blocks, and while those shapes are locked into place, they can be pulled toward the foreground by up to three spaces. "This will be manageable," I thought in my initial hours, slowly realizing my error as I was introduced to warp pipes, color-coordinated switches and multi-block pulls.
Complex stages have stamped out the blazing pace I first established in Pushmo World, but the game's remainder has become a satisfying, slow-burn trial that I approach whenever I'm feeling particularly crafty. I don't always get anywhere, but utter confusion only drives me away for a few days at a time.
If gaming genres can be hometowns, I grew up in Platformerville. Side-scrolling, item-supplemented sprints have been my favorite since I learned to play games by hurling Italian brothers down pits in Super Mario Bros. 3, and the introduction of 3D platformers never really changed that. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a sublime blend of my favorite gaming mechanics and a near-perfect evolution of what I loved about Rare's Super Nintendo trilogy.
Charming landscapes, a lush soundtrack, loads of hidden treasure and a fun use of Kong-specific abilities are Tropical Freeze's standout strengths. Its banana-hoarding romp feels like the ideal balance of old and new, and I have no doubt that I'll return to the Kong family's latest outing just as often as the adventures I grew up on.
Fibbage is my new go-to suggestion when guests say they don't like video games. An 8-player quiz show that uses phones as controllers, Fibbage presents facts with missing words and encourages groups to fill the space with a convincing lie. Rounds can get ridiculous quickly, and they're short enough to allow contestants to jump in or out according to their party itinerary.
Most important of all though, Fibbage makes strangers and cliques laugh at jokes together. In social atmospheres where conversations increasingly feel like invitation-only spaces, this is a quirky, lighthearted way to bring a room together, and it's even better when you know how to play to the humor of your best friends.
I usually lack the battle tactics or persevering attention span to stick with RPGs, but I made an easy exception for South Park: The Stick of Truth. My interest was more focused on a funny, well-made tribute to the show than anything concerning gameplay, and sharp-tongued dialogue and unsafe jokes gave me the gist of what I was looking for.
Additionally, the South Park universe is integrated so well into Stick of Truth's battle, quest and inventory elements that it was easy to focus on the writing when I got stuck on a difficult battle or bored with a chore-like quest. Stick of Truth felt like an interactive marathon episode of South Park, complete with eyebrow-raising moments and muttered "oh my god"s laced with disbelief. A chance to share a few laughs with friends was what I wanted most from this venture, and it delivered in crude spades.
Dynasty Warriors games are weird for me. I don't like the repetitive nature of a single space's combat, but I love the overarching push to conquer bases and dominate the battlefield with an army on a larger scale. Hyrule Warriors didn't change that take-it-and-leave-it dynamic for me, but it did drape extensive, playful fan service to one of my favorite series over Dynasty Warriors' play style, and that crossover helped to keep me around.
Tinkering with equipment and upgrades helped ease Hyrule Warriors' grind, and having hidden, character-specific rewards was a smart incentive to keep me experimenting with the entire playable roster. Hyrule Warriors is the addition I'm most surprised by on this list – not because it's necessarily worse than my other highlights, but because I never saw myself enjoying a Dynasty Warriors-style hack-n-slash again until I tried this.
I don't care about the Warcraft series at all, but thanks to a useful tutorial and the ability to face AI opponents while figuring out what I was doing, I learned to care about Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. I'd rather not estimate the amount of money I put into the Pokemon Trading Card Game growing up, but it wasn't until a Game Boy counterpart arrived that I actually learned the rules of the game. Hearthstone is a mercifully-affordable reminder of how much I enjoy trading card games, especially ones without a loaded, PIkachu-branded coin.
I've yet to play a single match against a real opponent, and regardless of the quality of Hearthstone's community, I love that I'm allowed to play the game the way I prefer to: As a test of my aptitude with the deck strategies rather than a tireless fight for a glorious reputation.
Up until the summer of 2014, Perfect Dark was the last first-person shooter I immediately restarted as soon as I saw credits. Wolfenstein: The New Order was nearly a resisted impulse purchase, but I'm glad my desperation to use my PS4 led me to developer MachineGames' stellar craftsmanship.
Clearing The New Order's inspired designs never felt like a case of emptying monster closets, and I was caught off guard by its insistence on telling me a story. "Doesn't it know it's a first-person shooter about Nazis?," I thought. "Why is it developing worthwhile characters and making me feel sympathy for my hulking, death-dealing avatar?"
The New Order proved me wrong in a lot of ways. I'm not only interested in third-person shooters, I do still enjoy replaying well-made campaigns, and a FPS doesn't need a multiplayer component to be worth my time. I would love to play a successor to The New Order, but regardless of the odds, I'm just glad I took the chance and accidentally found a new personal classic.
Rogue Legacy (PS4 port)
Thank you, rainy summer evening plagued with canceled plans, for giving me the time to try Rogue Legacy. Also, [REDACTED] you – I said "Last one" two hours ago, yet here I am, still trying to kill the Neo version of a giant, bullet-spewing eyeball. I didn't even eat dinner!
Rogue Legacy was the most unhealthy relationship I had with a game this year, due to the agony of always getting so close to victory and my inability to set a hard time limit for a play session. As exasperated as I was to lose entire evenings raiding its randomly-generated castle however, I never felt like Rogue Legacy was wasting my time. Attempts vacant of glorious victory stories still awarded plenty of gold for gear and upgrades, supplying persistent, minute boosts to my hopes of eventually chalking up a win.
The worst/best part is, I can't really fault Rogue Legacy for being unfair. My ancestors met their demise because they were frail, clumsy and unskilled in battle. I'll be sure to honor their sacrifices with their stronger, better-equipped descendants – right after I inevitably guide a hundred more of them to their graves.
I'm a fickle mobile gamer. I don't like the "feel" of most phone games, but I won't buy a tablet to give my thumbs a little more space to work with. Freemium pay models also typically hang an omnipresent sense of future payments over my fun, dampening games long before a microtransaction prompt even shows up.
Thankfully, Terra Battle is a definite exception on both fronts. With turn-based, tile-spaced RPG combat that allows time to plan moves, battles feels interesting and distinct without sacrificing on-the-go-friendly gameplay. Character stats, an inventory and unit placement tactics encourage me to think about more than just swiping at my phone, but the swift pace of battles is never bogged down with extraneous details.
Terra Battle respects my time when I only have a few minutes of it, but it's also capable of pulling my attention away from the TV. Best of all, I've yet to be bothered with a suggestion that I buy energy or powerful new gear with real money, and that restraint has made me far more open to putting a few dollars into the game as I progress. Terra Battle is the first game that doesn't feel like a waste of my home page space, and I hope Mistwalker keeps the game alive well into the next year.
[Images: Harmonix, Nintendo, Jackbox Games, Obsidian Entertainment, Blizzard Entertainment, MachineGames, Cellar Door Games, Mistwalker]