I can't quite believe the luck that 2013 ends on a Tuesday - what better time than on the twilight eve of the year than to take a break from the usual format and discuss our favourite video games of the past 12 months? For one last time in 2013, join me for a special edition of Tuesday Game Room!
Unlike normal weeks, I thought I'd change it up a little and do something more in the format of a typical Game of the Year list-type thingy. So first we have my personal Top 10 games of the year - followed by reveal of the first ever community-voted Observation Deck Game of the Year. Feel free to shout out your own picks for each in the comments below, but without further ado here are...
10. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Okay, this one's a bit of a cheat as it's a beta, but even with that caveat, Hearthstone was fun and exciting enough to warrant a spot on my list. I've always been a card game fan, from getting into Magic The Gathering as a wee lad, to countless games of Pokémon or Yugi-Oh or even a few dabbles into WoW's very own TCG series. But Hearthstone represents perhaps the very best elements of countless TCGs - a dash of Magic, a snifter of simplicity, a whiff of depth - wrapped up in a love for Blizzard's fantasy universe and gleaming with their trademark polish. It's a thrill to pit your decks against other people and simply watch a game unfold, either as you dominate on your path to victory or watch well laid plans crumble in a flash. It's even heading into Open beta, so if you're a fan of card games, it's a must try.
9. Tomb Raider
I've never been a huge Tomb Raider fan, but from the moment Crystal Dynamics revealed their fresh take on the adventures of Ms. Croft, I was intrigued. Although the final product faltered a bit with its compromises between gameplay and story, this year's Tomb Raider reboot dazzled with its explosive setpieces, its gorgeous island vistas, and yes, a new Lara Croft who evolved beyond her sex-goddess stereotype of yesteryear and into an interesting character. Rhianna Pratchett set up the foundations for a great series and a great character here - lets hope Lara's next outing can build on it.
8. Fire Emblem: Awakening
It's rare that playing a game fills me with as much dread as it does joy, but Fire Emblem: Awakening is one of those games. Its rigid adherence to the series trademark of permadeath lead to many frustrated resets of my 3DS, but the reward of the intense bonds it created with its ragtag cast of characters was more than worth it. A great story, fantastic battles, some gorgeously animated cel-shaded cutscenes and a lovely step into 3D, Awakening represents the very best that this venerable SRPG series has to offer.
7. Pokémon X
Likewise, Pokémon is another franchise that leapt into 3D for the first time this year, and did so with aplomb. The Kalos region is a sight to behold, as is its vast array of wonderful Pokémon for you to capture and train, which all come to life in an impossibly cute manner. Sure it's still a bit simple and the story's as throwaway as ever, but the joy of Pokémon has always come from its masterful mechanics, a combat system that straddles the fine line between casual simplicity and extreme depth like no other RPG. Plus, it gave us the delightful Skiddo, so Pokémon's latest generation is a hit in my books.
6. Persona 4 Arena
Once again a bit of a cheat as it did come out last year in the US, but after an agonising 10 month wait for a European release, I finally got to play this sublime fighter this year, and it did not disappoint. Dishing out fanservice laden fun, Persona 4 Arena brought everything I loved about the franchise and its wonderful characters into an exciting and vibrant 2D Fighting system that represents perhaps the best that Arc System Works has crafted yet. It's also the first ever fighting game to have made me wail like a baby during its story so... that's certainly something.
5. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
A Final Fantasy MMO? Nay, a reboot of a terrible game that almost destroyed Square-Enix singlehandedly? This high in my list? Yes! Final Fantasy XIV received a Phoenix Down this year with A Realm Reborn, which scrapped the widely-maligned elements of the original's release (i.e, pretty much all of it) and started afresh with a new engine, a new world and new systems. Whilst it's arguably A Realm Reborn is a much less ambitious MMO than its predecessor, and much closer to the traditions of World of Warcraft, it's a solid, engaging MMO experience that is teeming with love for classic Final Fantasy (an aesthetic the series simply must return to in my books, after years of quasi-sci-fi shenanigans with Lightning and pals) that elevates it to one of the most interesting games of this year.
4. Grand Theft Auto V
Perhaps what is most exciting about GTA V is its remarkable sense of scope. Rockstar delivered a Los Santos that is vast and thriving with things to do, structured or otherwise, draining every last bit of power from the Xbox 360 and PS3 to give us a world that's almost baffling to comprehend considering the hardware limitations that constrain it. GTA V brought the series back a bit closer to the irreverent mayhem that it's infamous for after GTA IV went for a much more serious tone, and it was a welcome return. You have to wait a hell of a long time for a GTA game to show up, but when it does, it's an absolute belter.
3. Saints Row IV
GTA V might have offered a welcome return to the crazier aspects of the series, but Saints Row IV went even further after embracing the madness of its predecessor, throwing you into a world filled with superpowered antics and even more outlandish humour. Whilst the comedy was expected, what surprised me the most about Saints Row IV was its focus on giving its cast plenty of character. Each of the Saints' crew gets a moment to shine, and Volition delivered a cast that had much more depth, making them as interesting as they were hilarious. Sure, GTA V might be a better game, arguably much better, than Saints Row IV - but good lord, it's nowhere near as fun. And in the grand scheme of things, that's what really matters.
2. Bioshock Infinite
My first time round with a 'shock game, and man, they did not disappoint. Bioshock Infinite's awesomely timey-wimey tale was a delight to experience, full of twists and turns and packed with fantastic characters. Columbia was a much brighter world than the dank grime of Rapture, but with the same messed up horrors beneath its surface - just all the more beautiful, with some truly awe-inspiring vistas amongst the city in the clouds. Tying up with what has to be one of the greatest 'aha, so that's why it's called that' moments in gaming that blew my mind when I first saw it, and with Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper delivering tour de force performances as Booker and Elizabeth, Bioshock Infinite was the game this year that left me reeling and racking my brain trying to figure it all out. It was one of those games that was heightened even further by playing it upon release, allowing the discussion to percolate amongst friends and across the internet, and raise some really great debates as everyone offered their own interpretations. It's rare that a game captures the zeitgeist on that sort of level, but Infinite did it brilliantly.
1. Bravely Default: Flying Fairy
Well, this was unexpected. Three 3DS games in my list, and one of them my GOTY? It's been a monstrously successful year for Nintendo's handheld, but it wasn't until this month that it offered something that entranced me so much it strode past Bioshock to the very top of this list. Bravely Default represents to me the greatest entry in the JRPG genre since Persona 4 four years ago. As staunchly traditional as it is fresh and new, it's the very best of the genre's classic staples delivered in an excitingly modern manner - highly reverent of the past and yet mindful of how much the genre has evolved across decades. Compelling characters, a combat system so fun I actually wanted to grind, gorgeous visuals courtesy of the legendary Akihiko Yoshida, the best use of 3D on the handheld so far, and an instantly memorable soundtrack from the crazy mind of Revo and Sound Horizon, Bravely Default captured me so strongly that I ended up sinking almost a hundred hours into it over this last month, and yet it still left me wanting so much more. It performed something only the very best games can do - a sort of emotional time travel. Playing Bravely Default is like slipping back in time to my youth, discovering classic JRPGs like Wild ARMs or Final Fantasy with wide eyed wonder for the first time, my first true gaming loves, and to feel the same joys I felt back as a young child now, in 2013, is an effect few games are quite as capable of mustering. It's the jewel in the crown of the 3DS' dazzling line up, and my Game of the Year.
Over the last month I've been asking readers of Tuesday Game Room and the Observation Deck at large to cast a deciding vote for the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the Pièce de résistance of 2013's gaming output. The countdown's over, the votes have been tallied, and the moment has been prepared for - in a year of great successes and great failures, of highs and lows, the end of one generation and the start of another, the Observation Deck's inaugural Community Game of the Year is...
Bioshock Infinite! There was a nice bit of variety in the votes, from Zelda to Civ V, but when it comes down to it you all loved Irrational Game's brilliant, timey wimey return to the Bioshock universe.
And there you have it! We'll be back to normal (normal-ish) next week, but for now, it's goodbye to 2013 in gaming, and hello to a brand new year of games to look forward to. Happy New Year!