December is a time of reflection for many, looking back at pleasant or not so pleasant memories that have been made over the course of another 12 months on this planet.  It's also a time of making a ton of "Top Ten Best  (Insert Noun Here) of (Insert Year Here)" lists.  2014 may not go down as one of the strongest years in gaming history, but the fact remains it was not devoid of fantastic gaming experiences.  The lower number of big releases this year also gave me time to catch up on some great games from prior years that I never had the time to experience until now.

To join the end of year GIO celebration, I've decided to look back at some fantastic video games that I've only played for the first time this year.  Naturally, the list will be full of new releases, but I've decided to also include games that haven't come out this year, but I haven't played until 2014 as well.  Every one of these games is stellar, and comes highly recommended, so I hope you'll try out at least one of these titles for the first time if you haven't already.  So grab some eggnog and party streamers and take a look back on one fantastic year of gaming with me!

Bravely Default

Compared to 2013, which was bursting at the seams with fantastic new 3DS games, 2014 was a little quieter for the little handheld that could.  However, to say that this year was devoid of must-have 3DS games would be a gross overgeneralization.  This February, the bizarrely titled Bravely Default finally made its way Westward after Nintendo decided to localize it.  Prior to this, the 3DS was slightly lacking in the traditional RPG area, but thankfully Square Enix gave us this lovely reminder of why they were once king of the genre.

Bravely Default is a beautiful return to form.  While it admittingly suffers from some predictable RPG tropes like late game grinding and a handful of bland characters, it also adds very welcome additions to the stagnating Japanese genre.  The enemy encounter rate can be adjusted at will for example, which allows players to increase it to make grinding go by faster, or decreased to make the trip to the next town that much quicker.  The speed of battle can be sped up, cutscenes can be skipped for those not interested in the story, and most importantly, the game boasts a beautifully adaptive Job system, that allows players to choose a primary and secondary Job/class for each of the four main protagonists.  Mixing and matching the abilities of these various jobs is an absolute treat, as it allows every player to develop their own unique battle strategy.

Throw in the ability to summon your 3DS Friends to aid you in battle and an incredible soundtrack, and you're left with one of the finest games the 3DS has to offer.  Simply put, if you've a soft spot for traditional RPGs, this is one game that can't be missed.  It's not too late to add it to your Christmas List....

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy

February was a pretty busy month for 3DS owners, as shortly after the release of Bravely Default, everyone's favorite top hat wearing Professor also graced the platform one last time.  Professor Layton and his trusty apprentice Luke have been entertaining fans of Nintendo handhelds since 2008, their adventures full of whimsy, clever storytelling, endearing characters, and hundreds of delightful brainteasers to solve.

However, all good things must come to an end, and Level 5 realized this had to be the case with the Professor Layton series.  Rather than drag the series on until the quality of the releases declined, the Japanese developer pulled out all stops with Layton's final and dramatic outing.  The Azran Legacy contains every aspect of the games fans have come to love over the years - it contains hundreds of riddles and puzzles to solve, and tells an intriguing story that will give you motivation to keep playing no matter how mentally taxing the adventure proves to be.  But being the last game in the series, the Azran Legacy goes all out, with late game plot twists that change the lore of the entire series, and even a non-linear structure that allows you to travel the globe and tackle several mysteries in whatever order you please.

It was admittingly sad to say good-bye to the world of Professor Layton upon clearing the Azran Legacy, but I closed my 3DS with a smile, as the series ended with what is without a doubt its highest note.  If you've any fondness for puzzle games or Professor Hershel Layton's puzzling adventures, this is a trip across the world you'll want to embark on. 

Catherine

Most games fit neatly into their own niche.  There's your run-of-the-mill 2D platformers, first person shooters, horror titles... while the industry is full of diverse and invigorating gameplay experiences there are admittingly times where it seems most of the big name titles are somewhat similar in nature.  And then you play a game like Catherine and realize the industry can still be bonkers when it wants to be.

I'm going to go on on a limb and assume if you haven't played Catherine already, you've experienced nothing like it.  At its core, it's a puzzle game that involves you pushing and pulling blocks to scale an immense tower full of traps created by someone who desperately wants you dead.  If it were nothing more than that though, Catherine would not be on this list.  Catherine tells the bizarre and captivating tale of Vincent Brooks, a man torn between his fiance and his lover.  His cheating behavior has cursed him to climb the aforementioned tower in his dreams every night, and should he die in this surreal world, he'll die in real life.

While a clever puzzle game at heart, Catherine is truly a memorable experience because it goes places few video games are willing to.  It explores themes of love, marriage, and faith, and often questions the player's established beliefs regarding all three.  The game (literally) asks players tough questions without giving them answers, letting them form their own views on romance and the symbolic story the game tells.  I'd recommend the game to anyone who can keep an open mind regarding their gameplay experiences.  It's certainly strange and surreal, but in a good way, as this allows the game to stand out amongst the sea of triple A titles, and stay on your mind long after the credits roll. 

Dead Space

Prior to this year, I never had much interest in the horror genre.  To be brutally honest, I'm a wuss.  I get scared easily.  But after trying out a few horror titles this year, I realize that actually works in my favor, as it allows me to get more engrossed in horror games than most people do.  I've played a few duds in my first foray into the genre, but it was all worthwhile when I got the chance to play Dead Space.

Every now and then, you find a game than enraptures you, and sucks you in from the moment you start playing.  Ten minutes into Dead Space, I knew for a fact I would enjoy the game until the end.  Dead Space is a traditional horror game in that very early on, you're abandoned and forced to fend for your own as you figure out how to make use of your limited inventory and survive.  As engineer Isaac Clarke, you must make use of makeshift weapons such as a Plasma Cutter to "strategically dismember" necromorphs - horrific space zombies that have taken over a space vessel you were sent to for repairs.

Dead Space succeeds as a game because it stays true to what makes the horror genre great - the atmosphere is genuinely tense, the enemy design is horrifying, and while the odds are always stacked against the player, it never feels unfair.  However, Dead Space also advances the genre to new heights.  All the information that would be displayed on the HUD is relocated to Isaac's suit, cleaning up the screen and increasing the immersion.  The space setting allows for zero gravity and vacuum settings that change the way you approach exploration and combat.  And the waypoint system ensures you're never wandering too far from your next objective, streamlining the experience and preventing the need for maps intruding on the gameplay.  

Dead Space may be six years old, but playing it for the first time in 2014 was still a treat.  Any fan of horror video games who hasn't yet played this gem should seriously reconsider, especially with used copies of the game being quite inexpensive. 

Telltale's The Walking Dead:  Season Two

In 2012, Telltale told a story set in the Walking Dead universe starring a separate band of survivors from the ones focused on in the TV show and comic.  While many argue its merits as a "game," often comparing it to an interactive movie instead, no one can deny that the story not only lived up to that of the comic, but even surpassed it in some areas.  It was a journey full of hardship, loss, and lots and lots of death, and every bad thing that occurred made you question your own actions, as the player could make decisions that altered the narrative and who survives.

Fast forward to 2014, and Telltale decides to tell the next chapter of its post-apocalyptic story, this one starring Clementine, an eight year old girl from the first game.  I will admit to groaning when I heard Clementine would be the star of Season Two.  She's a little girl?  How is a grown man supposed to connect to her in the same way I did with Lee Everett in the first Season?  Thankfully, Telltale managed to blow me away a second time.  Not only did Clementine manage to resonate with me in a way she didn't in the first season, they didn't hold back on the hardships she'd have to face just because she's little.

Season Two of Telltale's The Walking Dead takes place years after the original game.  Clementine is older now, but the world has become infinitely harsher, as supplies continue to grow more and more rare, and the number of survivors continues to dwindle.  Those who are left are mostly awful people that wouldn't think twice about harming a child if it meant guaranteeing the safety of their own group.  Dozens of games before have thrust us into a zombie apocalypse, and quite a few have explored how the survivors are often a bigger threat than the undead.  However, Season Two of the Walking Dead is the first video game to put us in such a scenario through the eyes of a child.  It makes for a wholly unique video game experience, and coupled with the fact your decisions have a much larger impact on the story than they did in the first season, this makes Season Two of the Walking Dead a game(?) that begs to be played by anyone looking for a captivating story that puts a unique twist on a familiar scenario.

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright:  Ace Attorney

I said earlier that Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy was the last game to be released starring the tea loving archaeologist.  That...isn't quite true.  It's correct that the Azran Legacy was the last main series game starring the Professor, but a crossover game between the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney series that originally came out BEFORE the Azran Legacy in Japan got localized and made its way Westward AFTER the same game here.  Confused?  Don't sweat the details.  All that matters is Layton vs. Wright is a fantastic crossover that succeeds on multiple levels.

For starters, the game's core adventure is strong because it doesn't mar the gameplay of either series by trying to combine them in awkward ways.  Rather, the game is divided into "Adventure" and "Trial" segments, the former playing exactly like your typical Layton game, with NPCs to chat up, clues to uncover, and puzzles to solve.  The latter plays like the beloved Ace Attorney games, with players assuming the role of defense attorney Phoenix Wright, and carefully listening to witness testimonies, exposing contradictions and lies within them to convince the judge of his client's innocence.

While it almost feels like a Layton and Ace Attorney game stitched together, you'll never forget it's a crossover, as the two main characters from both series are paired together in interesting ways.  Fans of both series get to enjoy see Phoenix Wright try his hand at puzzle solving, Layton shout "OBJECTION!" Ace Attorney style, and even get to see the duo combine their wits to take down devious murderers in court.  The game ultimately stays true to both series, while including character interactions that will delight anyone who enjoys both universes.  At the end of the day, if you're only a fan of the Professor Layton OR Ace Attorney franchise, I can't wholly recommend this game to you, but if you've fond memories of playing both series, this is an adventure that you simply can't miss. 


Lone Survivor

It simply cannot be denied that the popularity of zombie apocalypse stories has supersaturated the market with generic post-apocalyptic games full of the undead.  While quite a few of these games are actually excellent (like the aforementioned Walking Dead), many of them fail to stand out and offer and experience involving zombies that differs greatly from its peers.  Enter Lone Survivor.

Created by a one man team led, supervised, and consisting solely of Jasper Bryne, Lone Survivor is a 2D survival horror game that boasts a unique aesthetic.  Lone Survivor looks akin to a Super Nintendo game with modern day lighting and particle effects.  It's a jarring look that fits the game's bleak world and story nicely, but it's not the only aspect of the game that is unique.  Lone Survivor puts you in the shoes of a nameless man, the last one alive on a planet that has been overrun by an undead plague.  The protagonist has lived the life of a hermit in his apartment for months, but his necessity for supplies and desire for human contact has led him to brave the horrors of his overrun apartment and the devastated world beyond.

On a gameplay level, Lone Survivor is an engrossing experience.  Armed with only a flashlight and pistol, the player has very limited means of fighting back against the undead menace, and is encouraged to avoid confrontations whenever possible.  It's also a good idea to do so, as avoiding enemies rather than fighting them is a good way to keep your mental health high.  Y'see, the game secretly watches your every move, and any irrational or reckless behaviors lower your mental health, which could potentially lead to alternate endings.  The story of Lone Survivor explores the need for human companionship, and contains a lot of symbolism in its allegorical tale.  Staying on top of your mental health is doubly important, as all of the endings are thought-provoking and will stay on your mind long after you finish the game.  If you're looking for a unique indie experience that puts several welcome twists on a familiar genre, look no further than Lone Survivor. 

The Last of Us

The Last of Us is one of the more polarizing games in recent history.  Many journalists and bloggers alike labeled it their favorite game of 2013, and possibly out of spite, many others turned around and labeled it "overrated."  Regardless your views on the Last of Us deserving as many awards as it did, there's no denying that it's a quite an excellent gameplay experience.

Naughty Dog once again delivers the action gameplay it is beloved and revered for in spades.  The Last of Us takes place 20 years after a fungal infection has spread across the U.S., turning all those that have breathed it in into mutated and demented mushroom like monsters.  It's a horrific spin on the zombie infection trope, and one that horrifyingly enough, has a basis in real science.  Players are put in the shoes of hardened survivor Joel, a 50 something man who has lost almost everything dear to him and has become set in his ways - used to committing horrible deeds on a regular basis just to survive.  After an overwhelming series of events, players are paired up with Ellie, a fourteen year old girl somehow immune to the virus.  The two begin a journey across the wastelands of the U.S. in the hopes Ellie's immunity can lead to a cure.  Along the way, players will encounter other survivors, most of which aren't too keen to meet you, as well as a wide variety of run down real life cities, like Boston and Salt Like City.  The attention to detail in these ruined metropolises is stunning, and this is one of the few post apocalyptic games that captures the feel of the United States very well.

To be fair, all of this has been done many times before, but it's never been done so well as it is in The Last of Us.  The relationship between Joel and Ellie is both complicated and interesting, and they've gone down in gaming history as one of the best pairs for a reason.  The combat is invigorating and tense, as players are welcome to confront or avoid confrontation by using a wide variety of items that can be easily be crafted from a limited amount of supplies.  Whether you choose to engage a horde of zombies by sneaking through them with a well timed smoke bomb, or blasting your way through with molotov cocktails is up to the player.  On both a gameplay and story front, The Last of Us succeeds tremendously, and it's an experience well worth your time on either PS3 or PS4.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

The latest pair of installments in Nintendo's crossover fighting game series, Super Smash Bros., were quite possibly two of the most hyped up video games of all time.  This is largely due to how the game's head developer, Masahiro Sakurai, revealed new tidbits about the game - be it characters, stages, modes, items, or more - almost every day for about a year prior to the games' release.  Did the games ultimately live up to our lofty expectations?  Absolutely.

The 3DS version of Smash proved to be a streamlined portable installment of the franchise perfect for quick play sessions, and not poor by any means.  However, it had to take a step back after the true star arrived on the scene - Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.  Boasting roughly 50 playable characters, over 40 stages, robust single player modes, a competent online matchmaking system, and most importantly 8 player multplayer, the Wii U installment of Smash is the finest game in the series to date, and the Wii U's "killer app."

To put it bluntly, Smash is exactly the kind of game the Wii U needed.  After months of twiddling thumbs in between high quality campaign orientated games, Smash Bros. arrived and it contains hundreds of hours of content that'll keep players occupied for weeks, if not months on end.  I could go on and on about the variety of varied and exciting game modes, and how the online makes it easy to hop in a match with friends, but where this particular Smash Bros. game truly shines is in its 8 player muliplayer.  It's definitely irksome to get 8 people together to play at once, especially since each one needs a compatible controller.  But it's quite possibly the most fun that can be had with the series to date.  8 player multiplayer is absolutely ridiculous and chaotic, which since its inception has always been what Smash is really about.  It's oftentimes staggering to keep track of everything going on in the screen at once, but this is precisely what makes this mode so fun and infinitely replayable.  If you've a Wii U, and are looking for an experience to finally encourage your friends once and for all they need this console in their life, this is the game that will win them over. 


Pokemon Omega Ruby

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting to like the Ruby and Sapphire Pokemon remakes at all, let alone put them up on a Game of the Year blog.  I'm generally not too keen of remastered or remade video games, as I'd rather enjoy new and innovative gameplay experiences than updated versions of games I already own.  Not to mention the original Ruby and Sapphire games were two of my least favorite installments in the series, largely due to how "watered down" the experience was (yes, that was a Hoenn joke).

However, Pokemon Omega Ruby not only exceeded my expectations.  It managed to become my favorite game in the series to a date.  This is because the enhancements made to the original Ruby and Sapphire are far from cosmetic.  It's true the most notable change from the originals is that the Hoenn region and the battles that take place within it are both displayed in detailed and impressive 3D polygonal graphics that exude far more charm than the original 16 bit spirtes.  However, Omega Ruby also streamlines the adventure of the original, and adds a wealth of side content that will keep you busy for a while.  Battles are quicker than they were in the originals, and minor touches like the improved exp. share (which spreads experience points to your whole party, eliminating the need to grind), and the diminished wild Pokemon encounter rate when traversing water help eliminate the headaches involved with the original games.

Unlike last year's Pokemon X and Y, which contained little to do outside of the main quest, and almost nothing to do after you complete the game, Omega Ruby (and Alpha Sapphire) contain an absurd amount of things to do.  Contests return and are easier to prepare for than in the originals, giving players an optional goal to pursue outside of becoming Pokemon Champion.  The game contains hundreds of Pokemon from other regions, and if between X/Y and Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, it's possible to capture every Pokemon in existence.  No need to  transfer 'mon from your the original DS games anymore!  Throw in other pursuits like customizing a secret base and building a Pokemon party for competitive battles, and you've got enough content to keep you busy until they inevitably come out with another Pokemon game next year.  Pokemon may have quietly become an annualized franchise, but if future games are half as good as Omega Ruby, I won't be able to complain much. 

At the end of the day, 2014 may not have been as busy a year in terms of new game releases as 2013 was.  But to say it wasn't a great year to be a gamer simply isn't true.  On top of stellar new releases, we were treated to some down time to clean up our gaming backlogues and enjoy classics we may have missed out on before (we ARE always complaining about how we never have time to finish our backlogue after all).  At any rate, the ten games on this list all come highly recommended from me, and I hope I helped introduce you to at least one game you'll enjoy playing in the near future.


What was your favorite game you played this year?  Did it release in 2014, or was it a gem you never got to experience until recently?  Sound off in the comments below, and have a Merry Christmas!