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D.J.’s Top Games in 2012

Soulcalibur V

#5: Soulcalibur V

It’s been an auspicious year for fighting games–can you imagine the reaction just a few years ago if someone predicted that in one year, we’d see new iterations of nearly every major fighting franchise? That’s exactly what happened in 2012, and I’ve got to give credit to the latest in my favorite fighting series: Soulcalibur. Despite some skepticism over new gameplay mechanics and a dramatically different character roster, SCV emerged as one of the series’ strongest entries and even appeared to gain back some respect from the arcade circuit. Best of all: No Star Wars characters in sight.

Borderlands 2

#4: Borderlands 2

I preordered Borderlands 2 weeks in advance, figuring I knew exactly what I’d be getting–thousands of guns, plus hordes of zany enemies to shoot with said guns. That’s Borderlands in a nutshell, and I would have been fine with just that, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much effort developer Gearbox spent improving on nearly every aspect of the original game. They took the wafer-thin storyline of the original and layered on a hilarious and, at times, emotional, narrative. New environments like ice floes and acid-drenched caves provided refreshing new stages for many a shootout. And the bazillion guns are back with more unique flavor and appeal than I ever expected. Add in tons of sidequests and a season pass’s worth of downloadable missions and Borderlands 2 might even fulfill my FPS fix through 2013.

Crimson Shroud

#3: Crimson Shroud

Yasumi Matsuno’s latest might not be quite as sprawling as his usual fare, but that’s why it’s so fascinating. Essentially a short form RPG, Crimson Shroud quickly sweeps the player up with its mysterious, albeit minimal, cast and setting, a solid combat system that you can tweak by rolling multi-sided dice, and a unique tabletop aesthetic. It hits all the usual Matsuno notes: a storyline filled with ancient intrigue, equipment tinkering, and one of the finest scores to come out of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Basiscape group in some time. It’s a bit short at six or seven hours for the first playthrough (There’s a New Game+ mode available.), but this way it mercifully avoids the common RPG pitfall of stumbling on far longer than it needs. The mechanics, the presentation, and even the ending are far gutsier than a typical, 40+ hour RPG could get away with, and it’s this sensibility that has me hoping other genre veterans might follow their next epic with a Crimson Shroud of their own.

FTL: Faster Than Light

#2: FTL: Faster Than Light

It looks harmless and unassuming at a glance–tiny, 2D crewmembers patrolling a spaceship, manning the various systems, firing the occasional burst laser or operating a teleporter here and there–but scored for its ruthlessness, FTL is second only to venting an airlock into space while an enemy boarding party’s still in it. It’s ruthless in the way it sinks its claws into you, egging you into navigating just one more system, and ruthless in that your mission can go bad very quickly if you’re not captaining your ship to the utmost. It’s hard not to feel crushed when you see your trusty ship come apart at the seams after one unlucky missile hit too many, but it’s harder still not to immediately jump into a fresh, new cruiser, vowing to do better this time.

Rhythm Heaven

#1: Rhythm Heaven / Rhythm Heaven Fever

It’s a strange time for gaming. As developers strives towards experiences featuring darker, more Oscar-worthy plots and Tough Moral Decisions for the player to make, the whimsical Rhythm Heaven series reminded me of all I need games to be: fun! I’ve always had a thing for music games that featured note charts or similar methods of abstracting popular songs into something playable, but Rhythm Heaven sets off in its own direction by teaching the player cues so that they can intuitively play along with the music–almost like playing an instrument. Before you know it, you’re in the groove, tapping and flicking along with the rhythm, without even having to look at the screen. Just like performing in a band, it’s gleeful, emotional, and a triumphant example of what games can do.

I only began playing the DS Rhythm Heaven last January, weeks before Rhythm Heaven Fever’s release on the Wii. After spending countless hours with each version, I’m proud to name the series my favorite gaming experience of 2012.

Honorable Mention

(in no particular order)

DJMAX Technika Tune – The touch-based branching of my favorite PSP music series lands on the Vita. While I still prefer pushing physical buttons, Technika‘s different style of gameplay is still hours and hours of frantic fun–often more than I plan for.

Journey – The most genre-defying game this year. Not satisfied with just flipping multiplayer conventions upside-down, it rewards patience and compassion with unexpected emotions for an unforgettable experience.

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy – I can’t believe it took so long for this to happen: Decades of classic Final Fantasy songs combine with frantic stylus action to make a pretty exceptional rhythm game. Musically inclined fans of the series can’t go wrong.

Tokyo Jungle – A post-apocalyptic roguelike starring feral house pets and plenty of insane Japanese humor. Challenging but also silly fun, plain and simple.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward – A worthy follow-up to 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. It has some of, if not the best puzzles I’ve encountered in a game–I actually enjoyed having to sketch out possible solutions on paper.

Special “Came Out in 2011” Prize

Battlefield 3 – Yes, BF3 already placed in my 2011 top 5. But the way DICE has supported the game throughout 2012 via patches, quality expansion packs, and community involvement deserves another round of recognition.