2011 In Review

First off – 2011 was a banner year for video games.  I play a lot of old games – whether out of habit, desire for nostalgia, or the fact that they actually are good is debatable, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the best 2011 had to offer, despite the relative dearth of console JRPGs and strategy games.

However, some games in particular deserve mention for being especially outstanding.  I managed to only write three articles at www.videolamer.com last year, so I guess I’ll have to branch out from those.

Dark Souls (PS3/XBox 360)

I cannot possibly praise this game enough.  It presents a concept of utter simplicity: explore, fight, learn.  At the same time, it gradually reveals a heavily nuanced plot that, much like one of my favorite games, is revealed only gradually through NPCs and item descriptions.  Most NPCs can’t be fully trusted; there are only a few of them who seem actually interested in your well-being, while many pursue their own goals and (often) come to bad ends as a result.  The combat system has plenty of depth, so you will find that as your character increases in ability, so too will your knowledge of the art of combat.  Far too rarely does this happen in video games.

Dark Souls also features the interesting multiplayer system of its predecessor, Demon’s Souls: Although the core game is single player, you can find messages left by other players and summon others to aid you in most areas of the game.  You must be careful not to stay in human form all the time, though, as other players may invade your game as well!  Despite the relatively sparse multiplayer scene while I was playing (pre-1.05 patch), Every single multiplayer experience I had was memorable in its own way.  I will include here my ritual apology to one “Xmas33”, who guided me through much of Blighttown (by far the nastiest portion of the game) and then watched in horror as I ascended halfway up an elevator, mis-stepped, and fell to my doom, leaving him/her largely without reward.  I must assume Xmas33 is not an English speaker, though, as he/she has not yet responded to my profuse thanks/apology message.

Note that Dark Souls is not to be confused with Dark Souls, the somewhat sketchy RPGMaker game I commented on some years ago.

Radiant Historia (DS)

If I had to recommend one portable game, it would be this one.  It is Chrono Trigger, much reduced in scope of time, but much enhanced in terms of theme.  The primary character is a renowned warrior working for his country’s internal affairs department, and has a tendency towards paranoia.  He takes little nonsense and comes to conclusions quickly.  If that alone doesn’t sell it, it also has a decent location-based combat system.  The music was composed by Yoko Shimomora, who is known for her work on Legend of Mana.

As the story of Radiant Historia progresses, it does become considerably more cliched; on the other hand, some aspects of it display heavy amounts of nuance (a trait sorely lacking in the entire genre, which is obsessed with straightforward, feel-good stories).  I would go into more detail, but cannot without severe spoilers.  Suffice it to say, Radiant Historia has a good thing going for it 80% of the time, with some heavy politics, large-scale conflict, and several dubious NPCs.

Catherine (PS3/XBox 360)

The premise of Catherine may well be unique: Vincent, a man in his early thirties, on a slow path towards marriage, is seduced while intoxicated.  He starts to have second thoughts about his girlfriend while, at the same time, his new companion gets continually more aggressive.  After the first night with ‘Catherine’, his seducer-to-be, he begins to have dreams in which he, and others who appear to him as sheep, climb towers of blocks that collapse from the bottom up.

At its mechanical heart an action puzzle game, Catherine is nonetheless also an Atlus game (a point that becomes increasingly clear as one nears the end of the game).  Through interactions with friends and acquaintances at the local bar, it becomes clear that Vincent is not alone in his struggles against his demons.  How he reacts to his girlfriend and his new mistress is entirely up to the player.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor – Overclocked (3DS)

It may be cheating to have a remake in here, so I’ll keep it short: This is the best version of an already fantastic game.  The two “8th day” scenarios I played are vaguely similar to each other, but nonetheless showed the more nuanced view of the “good guys” while demonstrating a generally positive view of how humanity reacts when pushed into a corner.  The VA work grew on me despite initially being annoying.

Various Indie Games (PC)

I dislike not being able to have a ‘named’ header, but there were several indie games this year worthy of mention.  My favorite is SpaceChem, a Finite State Machine problem-solving game with chemistry.  It’s puzzle-like in nature, but also gradually reveals some very strange events in its between-stage story.

Atom Zombie Smasher is also worth a quick mention, as a zombie infection simulator is always good fun.

Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves The World are both very good JRPG-style games that make fun of the cliches of the genre while simultaneously following them.  The developers are clearly knowledgeable enough about the genre to be dangerous and are now developing the next Penny-Arcade game.

Sequence is to Stepmania or DDR what Puzzle Quest is to Bejeweled: A game that takes a simple mechanic and builds an RPG out of it.  What is most surprising about Sequence is the consistently entertaining and interesting writing: although I enjoyed the gameplay, I also wanted to advance the story.  I will be watching to see what Iridium Studios does next.

Finally, Terraria, clearly inspired by Minecraft, is a great clone of the system without losing its own identity.  It involves a good deal of exploration, but the combat is clearly the meat of the game and it shows.  It has seen some pretty substantial updates since release as well.

Some earlier games I did not get to play until 2011, but thoroughly enjoyed:

Fallout: New Vegas, 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, Rune Factory 3, The Last Remnant

Finally, a few disappointments (in italics to differentiate them):

Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny

Another console Rune Factory disappoints.  It has a quick-moving combat system, some additional exploration systems, and some really nice graphics, but they are all offset by the fact that advancement is slower than a molasses glacier and the crop-growing system was simplified, making it more “Action RPG with Crafting” than “Sim with Action RPG”.  This was especially difficult to play after Rune Factory 3, which improved upon every axis of the series.

Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls

I want to like this game’s premise very badly.  I enjoy Etrian Odyssey and even nearly finished Class of Heroes on the PSP – but the latter was only because Wizardry was so disappointing and I wanted a similar game.  Like Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny, it suffers from a poorly designed advancement system; in particular, advancement is brisk up until a certain point, at which enemies are bound to kill your party in two or three attacks.  Class of Heroes would be my recommendation for someone seeking an old-school turn based dungeon crawler; Wizardry is based upon the same engine, but CoH has more detail and more flavor.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon

I think this is a good game.  It really is.  But after EDF 2017 it was disappointing.  EDF:IA is simply lacking in the audacity that 2017 had.  It has neither the Monty Python caliber quotes nor the tight action of its predecessor.  It does significantly improve upon the co-op mechanics, but its short campaign and the attempt at a more “gritty” atmosphere make it not quite as fun.

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