When it comes to a list like this, it’s important to know why I enjoy gaming. Frankly, it’s the same reason I enjoy books, movies, TV, and anime: I love a well-told story. And though some of the games here may not be the pinnacle of gameplay, you're bound to get an awesome story, if nothing else.
While technically two games in one package, I feel confident including them both in one entry because both of them rank among the top visual novels I have ever played. Both Danganronpa games pit a group of high school students against each other in a death game with only one way out: kill one of their classmates and then get away with it. Then, taking the formula of the Ace Attorney series to the next level, each chapter ends with a courtroom battle with no judges or lawyers—where speed of thought is as important as finding contradictions. Add to this a voice cast that will make any anime fan swoon and you have a real gem of a game. If you liked 999, Virtue's Last Reward, or any of the Ace Attorney games, these two titles are a must play.
Final Fantasy XIII has had a rocky relationship with many gamers. I, however, am not one of them. I quite enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, and many of the complaints I hear about each seem like minor nitpicks at best. However, everyone should be happy with Lightning Returns. It has an open world, challenging battles, and fast-paced combat. With costume-centric gameplay and a time limit counting down to the end of the world, the game feels like Final Fantasy X-2 meets Majora's Mask—and that is a good thing. If you, like me, want to dive in one more time and see the fates of all the characters you've come to care about, or if you want to play a game that has heard all the criticisms leveled at XIII and XIII-2 and taken them to heart, Lightning Returns is definitely a game you should try.
Yes, flying through a city in the clouds excites childhood fantasies, and yes, running and gunning with a plethora of superpowers at my fingertips is tons of fun. However, the reason I really love Bioshock Infinite—so much so that I nominated it for Kotaku's game of the year—is due to three reasons: the setting, the story, and Elizabeth.
The world of Columbia is so vivid and imaginative, I couldn't help but be drawn in. Meanwhile, the plot is equal parts mystery and sci-fi adventure and, thanks to its character relationships, grabs you hard and never lets go. But none of that would be possible without Elizabeth, the most fleshed-out (and useful) AI partner I have ever encountered in a video game.
If you like parallel world adventures, strong female protagonists, imaginative worlds, and truly emotional tales, Bioshock Infinite is the game for you.
After years on the sidelines, Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney, is back in the courtroom and looking for justice. By this point in the series, you probably know what to expect: complex murders, crazy witnesses, and more over-the-top courtroom drama than you thought was possible. But on top of that, Dual Destinies does a good job of keeping the core of the series the same while streamlining gameplay and introducing new characters you can't help but care about. If you like logic puzzles, mysteries, and, most of all, fun, then Dual Destinies should spend some quality time in your 3DS.
So often these days when we use the term “fanservice,” we mean it as a negative—often referring to oversexualization of characters for no other reason than simple titillation. But Macross 30 is another kind of fanservice—the kind that comes from getting to know the characters of the Macross universe for 30 years, all the while dying to see just how they'd interact with each other. Macross 30 allows just that by creating a world outside of time where all the characters from across the series can exist alongside one another for an original, massive adventure. Moreover, the vast majority of the original vocal cast from across the various series return to their roles—sometimes for the first time in decades. Add to that massive amounts of transformable planes, immensely powerful space battleships, and more missile spam than you could possibly imagine and you have a game no fan should live without.
Before Madoka Magica, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Fate/Zero and Psycho Pass, there was Gen Urobuchi's first breakthrough work, Saya no Uta: Song of Saya. This horror genre visual novel follows a young man who, after a car accident, sees the entire world—people, buildings, trees, and animals—as fleshy, slime-covered eldritch abominations. He is driven to the point of suicide by the disgusting horror all around him until the day he meets a mysterious girl named Saya—the only thing in his world that looks normal. Dark and twisted, the best thing about this game is how it slowly but surely makes you care about the characters in such a way that, even as they do horrible, unforgivable things, you are firmly on their side. In other words, it makes you empathize with the villain in a way unlike any game I have played before.
I'm generally a fan of prequel reboots. Much of the time, a hero grows so strong over the course of sequel games that any sense of danger or mortality is stricken from the character. Prequel reboots, however, allow the character to be taken back to a level where true tension can once again exist. This is the reason that Tomb Raider is so enjoyable. With a Lara Croft new to both killing and tomb raiding, the game is much more suspenseful; and thus the action packs far more of a punch than in many iterations of the long-running series. More than that though, the game works hard to balance this potential mortality and still have Lara be a strong female character.
Oh and of course there is Lara's bow—my pick for the most satisfying game weapon of the generation. In my playthrough, I rarely used anything else.
On the story side, GTA V has three plot lines that play excellently against each other: One is about a criminal who got out of the game only to find that a life of luxury is a horrible existence; another follows a kid on the street looking to be something more than a thug; and one follows the personification of those of us who have turned on a GTA game and gone on a mass murder spree for no other reason than that we could. Watching these three stories intertwine through Rockstar's clever dialogue makes for a great—and often hilarious—experience.
Gameplay-wise GTA V is a lot of things: a driving game, a third-person shooter, a mini-game collection, and an MMO. But what made GTA V for me were the heist missions: choosing a plan, setting it up, and then watching it all turn to utter crap before making it out by the skin of my teeth in the end.
For people who value plot above all things, David Cage games are a real treat—and Beyond: Two Souls is no exception. Jumping back and forth through the life of a girl and her ghostly companion, this game tells a tale ranging from drama, to horror, to sci-fi, to action—and does it in a way that never seems out of place. But more than all that, it is a personal story about trying to come to terms with the person you are. It is a game that hits all the right emotional notes thanks to its stars Ellen Page and Willem Defoe. Their performances are excellent and show why interactive movies shouldn't be treated like the black sheep of gaming.
What can you say about The Stanley Parable without ruining it for those who haven't played it yet? It's a game about a lot of things: choice, philosophy, video games, stories, and a million other themes depending on how you play it. And make no mistake, this is a game you will play again and again as you explore every choice, every possibility the game has to offer.
But regardless of which path you set out on, The Stanley Parable is always an enjoyable experience—largely thanks to the omnipresent narrator who, like Portal 2's GLaDOS, serves as everything from villain to constant companion to comic relief. To put it another way, if you play one indie game this year, play The Stanley Parable.
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