Friday, January 11, 2013

Top Twelve of the 12 in '12

Oh man, that post title is confusing.  I love it.

In late 2011, I set aside twelve games that I wanted to get to in 2012.  I only finished eleven of them.  One of those was technically finished on January 1st, but I'm counting it.  Eleven and twelve are still pretty good numbers for a ranked list, so here it is.  In my order of preference, here is a ranked list of the twelve "target" video games I intended to play in the last year. 

Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3

The first Mass Effect is on the list below.  Its two sequels aren't, but only because they weren't on my 2012 backlog; I bought ME2 in January of last year because I found ME1 so intriguing (and fucking EVERYONE was raving about it); I bought ME3 on its release date because ME2 was awesome.  If Mass Effect 2 were allowed on the list below, it would've been in the top 3 (maybe first overall, not sure).  If I were rating the entire trilogy as a whole in one entry, it would be occupying spot #1.  But these two can't count, so they're stuck here. 

Unranked: Demon's Souls

Yeah, I know.  Not really fair to call this a list of twelve when I only finished eleven of the games. Demon's Souls is on my 2013 list, and I will give it another chance this year.  I ran out of time and decided to try and end with Valkyria Chronicles instead of Demon's Souls.  Such is gaming life.  But I can't rank it, because I only played about 3 hours of it (...barely beat the first stage....). 

11. Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana

Look, Atelier Iris isn't bad, but I felt it was too generic-RPG most of the time, hit or miss when it tried something new, and too anime-moe just in general.  AIEM has decent combat, a lively soundtrack, and item creation systems well above par, but it wasn't one of my favorites this year.  By the final few dungeons I was playing to check it off my list and not because I really loved it.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  

10. Grandia II

A very, very good game that's held back by a few technical issues.  EXCELLENT combat, pretty good skill system, and a few really interesting characters.  With that said, its visuals have aged poorly (I blame shoddy PS2 porting a little), its storyline seems unremarkable at times and nonsensical at others, and its audio was really uneven.  Not a bad RPG, and I guess its weaknesses are balanced out by its strengths. 

9. Final Fantasy XII

Damn.  Where to begin.  For awhile FF XII looked to be one of my favorite games I played in 2012.  Then, all around the same time, its plot went haywire, its poor balance was made evident, and the bad parts of the endgame optional quests reared their ugly heads.  After I removed my rose-colored glasses, I started to see more flaws than highs in my Final Fantasy XII experience.  Still, the combat is excellent, the visuals are stunning, and I'd be lying if I said I hated everything about the characters, dialog, and storyline.  I really do believe that FF XII would be one of the all-time greats if it just had another eight months of development time and a budget to match its creators' vision.  But those are big 'if's. 

8. Rogue Galaxy

When I was ranking these games, I had three clear favorites, three clear least-favorites, and five games that I really enjoyed and thought were great, but definitely behind those three favorites.  Rogue Galaxy finishes number 8 on this list, but in earlier drafts was up as high as #5.  So while I definitely liked Rogue Galaxy, I felt that its strengths (great item customization, good characters and dialog, entertaining action RPG gameplay) didn't hit all the apexes of certain others on this list.  It was also held back by boring dungeons and a lack of lore (making the Rogue Galaxy world very confusing indeed and lacking compared to the game at #7).  But it's awesome, and I'm glad I played it. 

7. Mass Effect

I wasn't sure where Mass Effect was going on this list.  I liked it, but not as much as its sequels.  I quite enjoyed the first Mass Effect's lore, setting, dialog, characters, and designs, but its class/skill system was good, not great (very imbalanced at times), its environments were often empty, boring, or repetitive (probably the intention, but I thought it was too much), the shooting was great at times but limited by class choice, the powers were another mixed bag, and (most of all) the loot system was alternately excessive, tedious, and broken.  I really liked Mass Effect, but I was more affected by other games this year and it isn't as good as its sequels.  So ME1 finishes near the middle in this silly list. 

6. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker and Twilight Princess were the hardest to rank of any games on this list.  Spots #4 through #8 were in flux for all of my writing this (as I alluded to earlier), and I couldn't for the life of me decide which of the two Zelda games I played this year was better. Wind Waker gets points for its stunning visuals, bold changes to the Zelda formula, and smoothness of its gameplay, but then loses points for tedious treasure hunting and lack of dungeons.  The empty vastness of the ocean was way cool at times, and a little frustrating at others.  Bottom line - I wish more console Zelda games looked as good as Wind Waker, but it's not one of my all-time favorite Zeldas. 

5. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Twilight Princess is more traditional and more similar to Ocarina of Time than Wind Waker, but that's not why I liked it better than Wind Waker.  Twilight Princess's combat is as good as I've ever played in Zelda (even though it still suffers from "items might as well be keys" syndrome), its fetch quests and item collection was exceptionally good, and it has the best dungeons in any 3D Zelda game I've ever played.  Sure, that only includes OoT and WW, but dungeons are my favorite part of most Zelda games, and TP had the best dungeons.  Wolf Link and the greater emphasis on NPCs was interesting, but not always awesome.  But when a Zelda title meets expectations in most areas and then has PHENOMENAL dungeons?  That's my kind of Zelda.  

4. Okami

It's probably a little unfair of me to rank the three Zelda-esque games right next to each other, but each one was excellent, each one was similar in formula, and each one has different highlights.  What Okami does better than just about every Zelda title ever is thrive on its singular gimmick for the entire game's length, and make every action and ability useful from when you learn it to game's end.  Okami's dungeons and world map aren't as interesting as the aforementioned Zelda games, but its combat and boss battles are very good, its Celestial Brush abilities and powers are superb, and its quirky writing shows off an impressive sense of humor.  I wish the Zelda games I've played the last two years were as good as Okami. 

3. Valkyria Chronicles

I started writing this list in early December, organizing my thoughts and getting a draft going.  I had assumed right from the beginning that it was going to be a two-horse race for my favorite game I played this year, but then Valkyria Chronicles happened.  I loved just about every aspect of VC from its strategy-shooting gameplay to its large cast of characters to its smooth anime designs to its excellent musical score.  It's the total package for fans of strategy RPGs, and I am extremely glad I decided to play it in 2012.  I'm ranking it third because the top two games in this list affected me just as much and I'm suspicious that I might be still caught in Valkyria's zeitgeist.  Still, VC is hitting all-time-favorites territory for me and that should indicate how much I enjoyed these next two. 

2. Persona 3: FES

I probably (re: definitely) spent more time on Persona 3 than any other game in 2012.  Its two key gameplay phases - a dungeon grind with turn-based combat and a social grind with conversations reminiscent of a dating-sim - were a little disparate, but individually entertaining and still connected via EXP bonuses from Social Links.  And those two half-games were backed up by alternately colorful and twisted visuals, a quirky, varied soundtrack, and dialog and characters that were consistently great.  The entire experience, while definitely weird and not for everyone, was my 2012 winner for Obsession of the Year.  Of any game I played in 2012, Persona 3: FES is the one that I want to replay the most.  And that might happen soon. 

1. Red Dead Redemption

...But as much as I loved Persona 3, I don't think it was the best game I played last year.  Red Dead Redemption is the best open-world game I've ever played.  "Open-world" is a recent genre trend whose massive popularity traces back to the overwhelming success of Grand Theft Auto III, GTA: Vice City, and GTA: San Andreas.  RockStar struck gold with those three and spawned a bevy of imitators.  Still, with GTA IV in 2008 and RDR in 2010, RockStar proved themselves to be the masters of the genre.  Red Dead Redemption has a gorgeous map that's a wonder to take in, a compelling core narrative with characters that the player cares about, and gameplay basics (running, riding, shooting, collecting, minigames, etc.) that start out solid and get bigger and better as the game presses on.  

But what really did it for me when I was playing Red Dead Redemption was the protagonist, John Marston.  Marston, better than any game character ever, voices the frustrations and joys of playing the game as you're playing it.  He accuses NPCs of wasting his time.  He's alternately polite or brutish based on player actions.  He has a certain single-mindedness to his quest that justifies his (often horrible) actions and uses it like a crutch, but I won't hold it against him.  Even when you get deeper into his backstory and watch RDR's ending and epilogue sequences, you like Marston even more.  For delivering the best experience of its kind I've ever played and featuring one of my favorite video game protagonists ever, Red Dead Redemption is my favorite game I played in 2012. 


If you want to hear additional thoughts on any of the above games (...except Demon's Souls....) check my blog posts with the "12 in '12" tag and read some reviews!  So that's that.  Back to videogames. Currently I'm rolling through the mid-games of both Persona 4 and Pokemon White 2.  Hopefully I'll have reviews for both of those up and running before January ends.  I gotta go to work. 

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