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.Skulls of the Shogun
I have a pre-existing penchant for human skulls as decoration, so maybe that's why Skulls of the Shogun still resonates so deeply with me, despite it launching way back at the beginning of the year – before GDC, before E3, before Gamescom, before the reveals and launches of two next-gen consoles, before the holiday madness. Through all of that, Skulls of the Shogun remains a purely joyful, fun strategy game, complete with morbid humor, accessible mechanics and a lovely Saturday-morning cartoon style. Developer 17-Bit has a precise hand, and the team's attention to detail and flow makes Skulls of the Shogun sing across platforms: Xbox 360, Windows 8, Windows Phone, Steam and iOS.
Skulls of the Shogun started the year off in the right way for me, so it's fitting to give it another nod at the end of 2013. Cheers, skull-chewers.
Driving down a dusty road past the backwaters of banjo country, a man and his dog encounter simple people leading deep and mysterious lives – it reads like the synopsis of a novel or play, not a game. Yet developer Cardboard Computer turns that tale into digital, interactive art, an adventure game with a distinctive polygonal, minimalistic style that doesn't intrude upon the story.
Kentucky Route Zero doesn't ask players to make choices quickly or act fast to stop some terrible, lethal action from occurring; its pace is steady and slow. You're allowed to think about your dialogue selections and puzzle over obstacles, and you have to read. If you do all of these things, the first two acts of Kentucky Route Zero are warp tunnels, transporting the player to an odd, paranormal countryside and its industrial backdrop, with Southern humidity pressing in on all sides. It's magical.
Don't Starve is one that I keep coming back to, to play around in Sandbox Mode and see how long I can survive, building up my courage to finally tackle the hairiest beast of them all, Adventure Mode. There are heaps of layers to Don't Starve – survival, crafting, characters to unlock, creatures to fight, a boss to defeat, science – all portrayed with a Tim Burton-esque vibe that makes me smile. Even as I die. Because, man, I die a lot in Don't Starve. And it's awesome.
Damn it, Behemoth. You've done it again, made another game that turns my living room into a zoo and my friends into hyenas, bawling from laughter as they yell at each other to ride that pig-horse over there – no, over there. Battleblock Theater isn't the brawler we needed nor was it the one we wanted. It's the cat-based, hat-heavy, frog-bombing run-around that we never knew we wanted. We never would have even guessed. But I'm certainly glad it found its way into my home.
Nothing says "brawler" like a punk-themed, scattershot indie game about demons and fast music called Charlie Murder. It all just seems to fit. Charlie Murder is a sidescrolling brawler infused with RPG elements and power-ups borne of brewing beer or chugging espresso – players embody the band members of Charlie Murder to power past the creatures spawned by a rival band on Satan's side.
The game is frantic and frenzied, with spots slow enough to enjoy those RPG flourishes and extra touches that Ska Studios throws in, such as taking pictures and answering messages with your cell phone. Charlie Murder's checkpoint system is unforgiving – so bring a friend and share in the awesome misery of the punk-band lifestyle.
Clementine. She's still trapped in a treacherous, wild world where the dead don't stay down and everyone is out for their own survival, and now we get to navigate this landscape as her, the girl we fought to protect and teach in season one. In the premiere of season two, Telltale doesn't hold back, having players make snap decisions in high-stress scenarios and pushing Clementine to her physical limits. It's beautifully distressing, but I can't stop playing now, no matter how bad it gets, because I have to know if she makes it. She has to make it, right?
I'm a fan of Dante's new look and his modern attitude, but that's not what sells me on Ninja Theory's reboot of the Devil May Cry series. DMC offers a fresh perspective on the world we fell in love with years ago, and it holds up well, offering weapon combinations that flow naturally from Dante's back pocket as he beats down piles and piles of vile demons. DMC is freeing in a way, asking players to take a step back and have fun with the idea behind a pair of half-angel, half-demon brothers with serious parental issues.
On the surface, BioShock Infinite is yet another serial first-person shooter. But man, it's so much more than that – the attention to characterization, story and a mind-melting twist of an ending turn it into a memorable game that happens to be in first-person. And the addition of magical abilities is always a plus. When I think back on BioShock Infinite, I recall Elizabeth, Comstock and the Lutece twins before I remember using a gatling gun on mechanical forefathers. It's a gorgeous game with a good story, plus the power to possess enemies and make them attack their comrades. Hell yeah.
Papers, Please flows in the same vein as Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life, a minimalistic food vendor sim that swept the IGF awards this year. The pixelated art of Papers, Please belies a rich commentary on emerging economies and immigration, and it supports the game's increasingly complex mechanics. Players not only have to examine each potential immigrant with a keen eye, but they have to be wary of new rules laid down with every day that demand checking more paperwork and using new tools to invade entrants' privacies, while also being fast enough to earn adequate money so that their extended families don't die of starvation, illness, cold or any other factor.
Papers, Please is an intense immigration simulation that has players face their own survival instincts in a new, mundane way – would you rather turn away a mother with incorrect paperwork who just wants to visit her son, or would you rather have extra money to feed your own son? No matter what you say now, play Papers, Please and find out.
I love being scared. I adore that tingle of terror that runs down my spine as I creep into a new doorway in a building infested with maniacal killers – in a game, of course. Not in real life. Outlast tickles me because it presents nigh endless (seriously, it's a long game) opportunities for me to scare myself: dark hallways lined with half-open doors, blood smearing the walls, dead bodies secreted around sharp corners, mindless killers to hide from and a series of exits that refuse to let me out.
A gentleman, a hacker, a locksmith, a redhead and someone with a giant sledgehammer walk into an art gallery. It's not the beginning of a great joke, but it is part of a great game. Monaco puts players in the quirky, yet efficient, shoes of a team of heist masters, within a colorful top-down world. The range of character-specific abilities and possible multiplayer combinations in Monaco are tantalizing, offering a new way to play the same levels at almost every restart. This one has been a long time coming from indie developer Pocketwatch Games, and the wait is most certainly worth it.
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.