Best Games of 2008

I feel pretty safe with this now that I’ve got some time into most everything I wanted to play that came out this past year. Did you see the BAFTA nominations come out? I thought I saw an earlier article that said Metal Gear Solid 4 was nominated for Best Writing or somesuch and I was about to pitch a fit, but I don’t see it now, so I’ll keep my yap shut. I thought overall, the list was top notch.

Anyway, as usual, the vast majority of the games I liked were titles I didn’t even know were coming until they got release buzz. But if I had to pick 3 (or 4), these are what I would pick:

The World Ends With You

The World Ends With You

Ballsy. Square-Enix is a Japanese company that makes primarily scripted role-playing games set in fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy worlds. You pick Attack, some flowery animation happens. You win. You level-up. Cutscene. End credits. Square cashes your check. While many of us sharpened our teeth on their Super NES era adventures, the company really came into prominence in the Playstation era with Final Fantasy VII when technology could allow them to create any hair-brained magical imagery they wanted. And they’ve exploited that formula in various ways since with bigger budgets and flashier screen-candy. Even their handheld episodes tended to follow this model. The stories rarely strayed from the Zelda meets LotR tropes and that was fine because you pretty much knew what you were getting into.

Then came The World Ends With You. From the title alone, you realize that this isn’t exactly going to be Dragon Action Menu Blaster XVII. The setting is a ghost world version of a place in metropolitan Tokyo that few Americans know about with a protagonist following a youth subculture that even fewer Americans understand. So that should sink the game here, right?

One can imagine sitting in a conference room at any major developer and having the designer say “We’re going to need a bigger and more expensive cartridge to store all the authentic songs we need for the game.” Or “We’re going to have battles on both screens at once that the player can control.” Or “We’re going to separate the game into three different stories.” And then I can imagine the executives saying “No, that isn’t necessary, go with the smaller cart.” Or “That sounds too complicated. Do one thing and do it well.” Or “Stick with one story. If the user can’t anticipate the beats, they will be frustrated.” Thankfully, either this game hid from those executives or the team found a way to ignore them.

What makes this game remarkable is that it features a collection of mechanics that are too familiar to many users: instanced battles, collectible powers, scavenger hunts, location-based battle effects, etc. yet these items are presented each in a way that reflects the game’s unique setting and milieu and suddenly all that was old and cliche is new and exciting again.

It all balances perfectly on a razor’s edge: the adjustable difficulty makes the grinding unnoticeable without being either too easy (because you will never get the drops you need) or too hard (because there is plenty to acquire on lower levels).

Despite the “Cross Battle” system being… well… unmanageable without the AI doing the hand-holding, and the admittedly dubious-at-times dialogue choices,  the game executes everything else flawlessly, providing a much more enjoyable holistic experience than pretty much anything else I played in calendar year 2008.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Here’s an interesting dilemma: Brain Age was incredibly popular, selling umpty-billion copies, yet all the Brain Age clones fell flat on their face. Why? It seems so sure fire: people love to feel smart, developers love to make games that can be done from scratch in ten weeks, why didn’t all the clones get the love of the original? Was it a case of brand loyalty?

My theory when Brain Age was released is the same that it is today: it was a fad. Simple enough. By time the clones came to market, the fad had passed. But the fad was not that people wanted games that make them feel smart, the fad was the design in which is was presented.

Enter Professor Layton and the Curious Village. It hits the same aesthetic reaction that Brain Age does, but achieves it in an entirely different manner. Instead of solving batteries of simple brain puzzles, you solve a hundred slower-paced but more challenging puzzles. But you can’t just box up puzzles and sell them alone or you will look like Brain Age, so you wrap them in a compelling story.

That’s exactly where Layton excels. You are put into the shoes of a Sherlock Holmes-type investigator figuring out a mystery that seemed straight out of a Scooby Doo or Hardy Boys adventure. Why are you answering puzzles in the kayfabe world? I don’t know, but it made for a funny Penny Arcade comic. The reason in the real world why you do it is to string along the story. The narrative is the carrot.

It wouldn’t have worked if the narrative wasn’t presented with excellence and it was. The turn-of-the-century motif was unique and the art direction of the characters and cutscenes constantly got compared to Miyazaki, which should be a measure of great success.

I’ve done that damn wolf/sheep/grain puzzle to the left in probably a dozen different games or puzzle books in my life, yet when I do it in Layton, it is with joy because it is part of a collection that scratches an itch in my brain that few other video game challenges scratch and is coupled with a whimsical story that no other title imitates.

I think it would have sold twice as many units had the cover and title adequately explained what the game was about. When are the sequels coming stateside? Why does this game has no imitators when Brain Age had twenty? Laziness?

Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead

I have a thing for Zombie Apocalypses in games and stories. I’m not entirely sure why. It may be that zombies provide a safe and reliable antagonist that is both easily explained and surprisingly imaginable. Or it just may be that in these tales you are provided with the moral ambiguity of killing things (bad) that were once people (good) that still look like people (good) yet want to chew your face off (bad). And zombies play on that tinge of agoraphobia that I think more people have than will admit. A single zombie is disturbing, but a thousand zombies are scary.

But even with the wonderful, yet cliche setting, Turtle Rock (now part of the Valve homunculus) could have fallen flat on their face like so many others (Hunter: The Reckoning was the first that came to mind, but I am sure you can think of a dozen others). How did they avoid that?

They had an aesthetic they wanted and they stuck to it doggedly. That aesthetic is to stick to the zombie survivor movie formula like white on rice (The chick! The black guy! The combat vet! And… the other guy!). They do this by taking advantage of the vogue that co-operative based games are now a part of and the processing power that allows a true scary-level horde of zombies on screen at once.

Everything in this game is about providing the experience of going through this hell on Earth with your buddies. Where the co-op in Army of Two was a nice idea executed in the wrong way, Left 4 Dead nails it. Need health in the middle of the field? Have to ask your partner, but you will be vulnerable while you heal. Boomer attack? Best guard your buddy until the attack wears off or he is toast. Witch in the way? You better all be on the same page and have those lights turned off.

The game is the perfect example of sticking to an idea when feature creep could have sunk the battleship. How many people told them they needed to have a story mode? Where were the cutscenes? How did the outbreak happen? What happens to the survivors? How do they get to these four different areas? The much vaunted “AI director” sounds like marketing speak for a good complex way to ensure replayability and makes much more sense in a game based on fear than on skill. I imagine that was the retort they used when publishing wanted more more more – sorry, we’re working on this AI director and it’s a beast, but it will provide replayability so people won’t be selling this on eBay by the second day. Win!

The only way to play this game is with one or more human players that you know in co-op. To look at it any other way would be like saying umbrellas just aren’t that great on partly cloudy days.

Chocolatier 2: Secret Ingredients

Chocolatier 2: Secret Ingredients

Didn’t see this one coming, right? Well, that’s because I am cheating. This game didn’t get released until the tail end of 2007, but I only discovered it in January 2008. Unless you knew that before I said anything, you can’t criticize me.

Chocolatier 2 is a “casual game”. But wait, come back! It is a casual game that has you travelling around the world to find ingredients for exotic recipes that you learn over the course of an RPG-like adventure building wealth by succeeding in taking adventage of fluctuating market prices in different markets. Sound casual? Casual is such a misnomer. It is accessible.

What is particularly striking is the attention to detail. The game takes place over a number of years. If you go to New York City before the Empire State Building is erected, it will be absent from the skyline. If you go after, it will be there. New modes of transportation make themselves available throughout your travels through the 20th century as well. And don’t think you can min-max your way through this either. I tried flooding the market on a particularly exotic saffron-based confection since it yielded the best profit per week and watched the margins go from astounding to great to competitive to not worth it in a few months time. Your strategy will be constantly changing, especially when what you want is out of season. These bits separate the game from Tradewinds and other economic sims.

Moral: There is depth here. The word “hardcausal” has been thrown around to describe it, but the term is sort of meaningless. It is casual in that it has a theme that isn’t space marines, but is hardcore in the sense that it has depth. It is casual in that it has a little shooty minigame as part of the core mechanic, but it is hardcore in that one has to pay attention to the locations and seasons of ingredients to succeed. It’s casual in that my mom can play it and enjoy it, but it is hardcore in the sense that I did play and enjoy it.

I can’t recommend this game enough. I just saw that a sequel has just been released and I am keeping myself from playing it because I have a ton of things to get done.

Whoever makes the DS version of this will make some sweet money. Get it?

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