Team Joystiq is barging into 2014 with a celebration of last year's best games. Keep reading throughout the week to see our assembly of ingenious indies and triple-A triumphs.
Come one, come all, to hear the remarkable tale of Kutaro and the magical scissors, Calibrus! Come, see the evil Moon Bear King as he tries to cast the world into nonstop darkness! Come, see his 12 generals steal the power of the Moon Goddess! And see young Kutaro ... basically get mixed up in the whole thing by accident. Wrong place, wrong time, delicious-looking head. You know how it goes.
Puppeteer commits to its puppet show aesthetic with gusto, crafting every character, object and bit of scenery out of paper, wood, string, or fabric. The narrator provides the exposition with the nuanced delivery of someone who's attended one too many acting classes, and the cast does their best to remember their lines while the audience murmurs in appreciation. The entire setup is bonkers, keeping its tongue placed firmly in its cheek as you cut down the Moon Stone-hoarding generals one by one and eventually square off against the rotund MBK himself.
With sly writing, a spectacular soundtrack and gorgeously detailed locations that include neatly manicured gardens, a Halloweentown, a swamp and outer space, Puppeteer is a gaming experience to savor, rather than rush. Of course, it will take multiple run-throughs to find all of the collectible puppet heads, so you'll have more than enough opportunity to catch every joke and notice every secret.
As a PS3 exclusive at the end of that console's cycle, Puppeteer didn't get nearly as much attention as it deserved, but this is a real gem. Hunt it down and play it. Your audience awaits.
An incomplete episodic series isn't eligible for our Best of the Year list, but there was no way I was going to let 2013 close out without honoring Telltale's brilliant foray into the world of Fables. The first episode, "Faith," sets up an intriguing mystery that should provide good fodder for the rest of the season, but more importantly, it established the game's utter commitment to its absurd setting. The characters of Wolf Among Us are refugees from fairy tales, myths, and fables, hiding out in our mundane world and trying to keep their otherness a secret. With a less agile presentation, they would feel like cartoons, but in Wolf Among Us, we learn that they're really not so different from us, even if they are 4-ft toads wearing cardigan sweaters or flying monkeys with a fondness for booze.
For all the magic that surrounds them, they're awfully ordinary - they worry about their marriage, they hate their boss, they drink too much, they try to do right by their kids, they feel butterflies when a special someone walks in the room. (Of course in their case, it might actually be butterflies, but the feeling's the same.) As Sheriff Bigby Wolf, we want to protect this bizarre assortment of storybook cast members, a task made enjoyable by Telltale's excellent writing and storytelling. The residents of Fabletown may have wings and tails, but their humanity is what makes you care.
And then there was that final scene. Holy WOW, what is going on?
About 20 minutes or so into the first episode of The Walking Dead's second season, I stopped and stared at the screen, angry. So very angry. I'd been forced to make a choice that was repugnant to me in every way, and I was so, so angry at Telltale for putting me in that position. I thought about turning the game off and not coming back to it, but then I realized that the incident, brutal as it was, was necessary. I'd become too comfortable with The Walking Dead's version of uncomfortable. After playing through the previous season, one fraught with hard choices, cruelty and loss, I figured there was more coming in Season 2, and of course there is. But Telltale needed to reset my meter, so to speak. This is how the world is now. You think you're used to the death. You think you've seen the worst, but you haven't. There's always worse. There's always more death. More despair. More hopelessness.
It was a harsh, but ingenious reminder that The Walking Dead needs you to tell its story, but that doesn't mean you can take the story to some happy place where Clem is safe and there's a water slide and clean clothes and candy. No, Clem's story is what it is, and all we can do is help her as best we can.
"But what do you do?"
That's the question I face most often when I try to explain the appeal of Animal Crossing: New Leaf to someone who hasn't tried it yet. The answer I provide is typically unsatisfying: Whatever you want. You decorate a house. You fish. You visit the museum. You design some clothes, you go swimming, you water flowers, you attend a birthday party, you dig up fossils. You live in a small town.
Animal Crossing changes every day - new items get stocked in the shops, new visitors stop by - but it's really the routine of simple life that keeps people plugged in day in and day out. I work part time in the coffee shop and am learning the coffee preferences of my townsfolk. They only mention one ingredient at a time, so I have to guess the rest - my service to them involves a lot of trial and error. I hand them a cup of swill and they cheerfully scold me, and when I finally get it right, they're delighted. My reward for making a perfect cup of coffee for my neighbor? I've made a perfect cup of coffee for my neighbor.
So many of our videogame adventures are about sound and fury, but Animal Crossing: New Leaf is about the moments of quiet in between. It's a friendly companion who always leaves the light on for you, happily awaiting your return.
"Save the last humans.": The core directive lying at the heart of Resogun, the silky-smooth shooter for PS4. The controls for your side-scrolling ship are elegantly sparse, allowing you to focus on threading your ship through all manner of lethal hazards so that you can scoop up a little green human and usher him to safety. Except the little bastard keeps walking off the edge right into the lava. Do you not SEE THE LAVA? Am I morally obligated to save the last humans if they're stupid?
Resogun's fast-paced twitch gameplay is immediately addictive, easing you into a false sense of mastery before throwing all the bullets in the universe at your face and exploding you into tiny pieces of regret. And then you start again because as brutal as it can be, it is also fair, repeating the same patterns time and again, letting you hone your techniques, change your strategies, and stop wasting your grenades every time more than three enemies show up on the screen.
Saving the humans requires more than just speed, however; Resogun cleverly also demands restraint, at times only releasing its trapped people when you destroy targets in a certain order. It is not enough to destroy everything on the screen - choices must be made, strategies enacted. The mental acuity necessary to rescue all 10 humans per level, maintain the maximum bonus count and not die is astonishing; I'm fairly certain that Resogun is the modern recruiting method the Star League is using to find the best Starfighters.
Oh, and man, is it pretty.
Joystiq is highlighting its 10 favorite games of 2013 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups.