What’s up folks, it’s that time of the year again. The time where everybody indulges in a vast bout of navel-gazing over the past year of video games. Last year, I presented to you the games I thought were totally alright that year, so naturally it’s time to do that again. Like last year, these are in absolutely no particular order and need only have been released in 2013 (and played and enjoyed by me) to be listed here.

BioShock Infinite

Might as well get some of the big hitters out of the way first. Crazy to think that it was all the back in March that Irrational’s most recent masterpiece hit the shelves. While a lot of people, for a multitude of reasons haven’t been particularly kind to the game in hindsight, I maintain the same opinion of Infinite that I held when I first played it: A greatly atmospheric, well-paced game, with combat that was as fun as ever (albeit, a little streamlined), with among the best characterisation I’ve seen in a video game. A worthy successor to ’07’s BioShock, I just prey we don’t have to wait as long for the next major offering from Ken Levine and company.

Diablo III (Console Version)

I’ll admit, this one is a little bit of a cop-out, since Diablo III originally came to us on PC back in 2012. But the shiny new console versions only released a couple of months ago, back in September, and a 2013 release is the only qualification a game needs to be here, dammit! The consolised version of the premier clicking-stuff-until-it-dies simulator actually surprised me by how well it played. Having direct control of your character on an analogue stick is fantastic, and even aiming the more precise spells the game offers you works pretty well with a loose lock-on type system. Add on to that a revamped loot system that made it so you got better gear, more tailored to your character, more often, made the sections of the game that would otherwise be a bit of a grind a lot more compelling to play. The moment I managed to find 3 seperate legendary items within 30 seconds of one another will stick with me for a while.

Persona 4 Arena

We got it here in Europe in May, so that’s all the excuse I need to put it here! A fighting game I picked up mostly because the original Persona 4 sits among my favourite games ever, so the opportunity to enjoy some new content in that world with those characters was absolutely something I couldn’t pass up. It just happened that because of that love of the source material, P4A ended up being the first fighter I ever made any real attempt to not play by simply mashing buttons. I’ve sinced moved on to Street Fighter 4, but I like to think it was Persona 4 Arena that sparked my now greater interest in fighting games as a whole.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

So, I’ve never really been into strategy RPGs. Back in the day, I played (and fucking loved) Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but that game didn’t spur me on to try others in the genre, and I’d certainly never played a Fire Emblem game before. But something about FE:A’s blend of somewhat loose, but still deep and rewarding gameplay and good storytelling intrigued me. And while I’ll admit it’s a game I need to get back to at some point (I never said I had to have completed the games featured here!), I’ve played enough of it to know that yes, I would like some more, please.

Grand Theft Auto V

I think at this point it would be impossible for a Grand Theft Auto game to release and not be featured in some sort of end-of-year best of. Every major title in the series since 2001’s GTA3 has been fantastic and Rockstar’s latest offering certainly doesn’t buck that trend. The decision to include three seperate protagonists that can be switched between (almost) at will was nothing short of genius. The grey and serious tone that defined GTA4 was toned down significantly (though not to levels of the PS2 games’ silliness) with the result being I almost couldn’t put the game down until I reached its conclusion. Shame the online component turned out to be a bit shit.

Tomb Raider

I was never a fan of Tomb Raider. Gunning down a t-rex with pistols akimbo and locking your butler in the freezer was cool, sure, but the games were mostly awkward platforming, with awkward combat and a bunch of awkward puzzles, and a main character who had less depth than a couple of watermelons glued to a broomstick. So when Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot the franchise and make a game that didn’t control like arse and had a sympathetic and (mostly) believable character, I was down like a clown. Sure, the roughly 5 minute transition from unarmed, badly wounded, innocent young woman to shooting a bunch of dudes in their faces can be a little hard to swallow, the result is a cinematic experience that rivals Uncharted, with a larger world that is actually enjoyable to explore. Not sure how Lara’s boobs manage to stay so perfectly in place with just a tanktop throughout all the beatings the game just loves to give her though.

Broken Sword 5: The Serpents Curse (Episode 1)

Although the final part isn’t out until early next year, The Serpents Curse, the latest, kickstarted entry into one of my most beloved series is a return to the more classic point-and-click style of the first two games, rather than the 3D ones that put a bit of a stain on the franchise. While it ends just as the story really starts to get going, everything up to that is filled with the funny, well written (and acted) dialogue that made me so fond of the original games. With a perhaps over-reliance of returning characters that don’t hit home as well as they should due to different voice actors, George and Nico are, however as great as they’ve ever been. Just a shame it won’t be till 2014 until we see how the plot is really going to shape up.

The Last of Us

I struggle to think of any game that was so anticipated before release, and then actually lived up to all the hype, but if there’s any developer that can do that, it’s Naughty Dog. 2013 was a fucking great year for video game storytelling, and Joel and Ellie’s story is up there with the best of them. Great plot, great pacing, great cast of characters, one of the most memorable openings to a game I can think of and a satisfying ending. As well as that, the gameplay wasn’t just another Uncharted, but a more methodical game that required you to slow down and plan ahead. Even the multiplayer was really fun. Hell, the only gripe I really had with the game was that the achievements sucked.

BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

Challenging, yet completely rewarding gameplay, great music, and a fantastically goofy sense of style. Not bad for £12.

Pokémon X/Y

There’s something that always gets me giddy at the thought of a new generation of Pokémon games, yet I always play less and less of them as they go on. Not because they’re getting worse, but because I have less time to play single games, and more money to buy other games. Spending a couple hundred hours filling up my pokédex in Silver was feasible, because I was just a kid, with a lot more free time, but no dosh to buy all those other rad games I wanted. X and Y had me particularly excited, because it’s the first set of mainline Pokémon games to be released on new hardware in what seems like forever. It was only 2007 that Diamond and Pearl released, but it still feels like they dwelled too long on the same hardware. Just something about having two seperate generations of Pokémon on the same system didn’t sit well with me. You could argue that Gold and Silver were still Gameboy games, but c’mon: Those games were designed for the Gameboy Color. X and Y to me feels like the first major step up in quality in a long, long time, especially so since these are the first ones to transition to full 3D, as opposed to using character sprites. Almost everything about it just feels super well made. The new region is awesome to explore for the first time, the new Pokémon are well designed for the most part, and the soundtrack contains some of the best pieces in the entire series, in my opinion. And there’s also a bunch of changes to the battle system that should affect the metagame in interesting ways, you know, if you’re into that. They added a new pokémon type! They haven’t done that in over a decade!

Honourable Mention: Persona 4 Golden

Because we didn’t get it here until February lol. Some day, I will spend a few thousand words here gushing about that game like I did Final Fantasy X.

So there you have it: the 10 games from this year that I deem to be totally okay. I’ll be honest, I struggled towards the end there. Not because there weren’t that many good games that came out this year, but simply because I just didn’t play a lot of them. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Gone Home are the two that stick out most in my mind, and I didn’t play enough of Papers, Please to formulate much of an opinion on it. I always have a huge backlog of games, and this certainly wasn’t the year where I made strides to try and improve that. Maybe next year? Probably not.

As for future content, I have a fairly big idea swirling about in my head, and should it come to fruition, you’ll likely find it over at GAEMZnet. If that does happen, that site will be reborn with a name that isn’t GAEMZnet because that name is totally dumb and I hate it now. This content idea will likely require the co-operation of a few mates and by putting it here in writing, maybe I can inspire some motivation into a few of them, since I’m not sure I could do it alone. So watch this space. Or that space. Whatever. VAGUE ALLUSIONS TO FUTURE CONTENT THAT PROBABLY WON’T HAPPEN YEAH.

So, I’ve been playing some Persona 4 Arena the past couple of weeks. It finally released over here in the UK and the rest of Europe after a fairly agonising nine-month wait. That in itself is something that may or may not be worthy as a separate little ranty post on its own. Atlus are somewhat… incompetent when it comes to getting their games released in Europe. I sort of understand the logistical problems they face, but having virtually ALL of their games releasing in Europe so late after the rest of the world in this day and age is… well, a little annoying to say the least. In P4A’s case, it was also region-locked, so importing a copy wasn’t even an option.

But alas, Persona 4 Arena is out now. And it’s a video game-ass video game, so I’m going to attempt to articulate how I feel about it, as well as just fighting games in general.

Persona 4 Arena is a rather… interesting package. It’s a sequel to Persona 4. That game, however, was a PS2 JRPG that released in 2008 (’09 in Europe). I’m not sure anyone was quite expecting a sequel to one of the most beloved JRPGs in recent memory to be a… fighting game. And it’s a fighting game-ass fighting game. It’s basically BlazBlue, but with characters from Persona 4 and 3. Hell, it’s even developed for the most part by the same people.

So what you have is a game that appeals to two very specific audiences: people who enjoyed Persona 4 and want more from those characters and that world, and those who enjoy ArcSys’s specific brand of somewhat mechanically-complex fighting games, two groups where you would think there wouldn’t be a whole lot of overlap. At least that’s how I see it. And while I can’t speak with much authority on the latter, there’s more than enough Persona in here to satisfy those who fall into that corner.

The bulk of my 36 hours in the game thus far (according to Raptr) has been spent with the story mode. Of the two groups mentioned above, I fall into the Persona 4 group. There was a time where I was (and arguably still am) borderline-obsessed with that game. As you should know by now, I love a game that tells a good story, and Persona 4 tells a pretty damn good story. So, I’ll happily take more of that in any form I can get it, even if that form happens to be a reasonably complex fighter that I will never be particularly great at playing.

Sound advice there, from Akihiko-san,

Sound advice there, from Akihiko-san,

Fortunately, for those that are only here because of the Persona hook, you don’t need to be good at (or even like) fighting games to get everything the game’s story mode has to offer. It’s essentially a visual novel, with a few very easy, single-round fights strewn throughout, which you play from the perspective of each character separately. So, lots of voiced dialogue, a whole lot of reading, and not much actual gameplay. But for people that really enjoyed the original game, that’s not really a detriment. Initially, you only start out with a couple of characters as options, but as you play through more character’s stories, other characters are opened up. As I said, you play each story from a particular character’s perspective, as if that character was the main protagonist, which left me wondering how they’ll treat the canonicity of the story come the next time we eventually hear from these characters again. The plot of the game plays out the same regardless of what character you play as, with only some minor differences throughout, so it’ll be interesting (though not a particularly wild guess) who’s story will be canon. Or maybe if they make Persona 4 Arena 2, and structure it the same way, they won’t have to deal with that. As you could expect from a fighting game, the scope of the story obviously isn’t quite on par with it’s 60+ hour RPG big brother, but there’s more than enough here to keep fans satisfied for the time being.

I won’t say much else about the story, since I feel you can’t really do much justice talking about it in depth without talking about some of the details of Persona 4’s story. And Persona 4’s story is one well worth experiencing, in my opinion. Not your typical JRPG fare, but for the most part plays out like something more akin to a Scooby-Doo adventure. It’s a nice change of pace from the sort of stuff you’d find from the likes of Final Fantasy and its ilk.

The rest of the modes featured in the game are the standard affair you’d expect to find in a fighting game. Arcade mode, all fighting with a (heavily) condensed version of each character’s story; Score attack mode, where you’re pitted up against ridiculously hard, souped-up versions of the characters: score attack’s difficulty is one higher than the highest selectable difficulty in the options menu and the AI fighters have some insane buffs applied to them; Challenge mode, where you have to pull off a bunch of combos for each character; Practice mode, which is exactly that, and some fairly standard modes for online play. Everything that a fighting game fan would reasonably expect, it’s in there. I’m not great at fighting games, but the Persona hook is enough to keep me wanting to play and try and get a little bit better, even if I’ll never be at any real competitive level. And if nothing else, it’s that much more satisfying on the rare occasions where I actually do manage to come out on top against another human being.

If nothing else, it's certainly a flash game.

If nothing else, it’s certainly a flashy game.

And that sort of leads me nicely into the part where I wanted to talk a bit about fighting games in general. More specifically, the one major issue that I have with the genre in general. I’m not good at fighting games. In fact, I’m downright terrible at them. And while I haven’t played every fighting game ever made, I think I’ve played enough to get to the point where I feel comfortable enough to say what I’m about to say.

Fighting games do an awful job of teaching new players. A godawful job. No fighting game that I have played has made any reasonable attempt to help a new player get better at the game outside of teaching them the very basics. They are inherently inaccessible games.

Persona 4 Arena has a lesson mode, wherein it teaches you all of the mechanics of the game. This is all well and good, except it only gives you a brief description of each mechanic, shows you how to do it (the button combo) and then has you perform it a couple of times, before swiftly moving on to the next one. For someone who’s well versed in fighting games, yeah, that’s more than enough. But for new players? Almost useless if you ever want to compete at anything above the most basic level. Simply giving examples of the sort of scenarios and situations in which you should or should not use these mechanics would go a very long way in helping new players actually understand them.

There’s also a challenge mode, similar to Street Fighter 4, or most other modern fighting games, where the game presents you with a list of different combos to pull off. The game will give you a practice dummy, show the moves (and their commands) you need to perform on the left of the screen, and you have to bust out that combo. Persona 4 Arena goes further (I believe, might be wrong here) than other games that share this mode, in that it’ll highlight each part of the combo as you’re performing it, and should you mess up, it’ll tell you which part of the combo you messed up on. But for me, that’s not enough, I want to know HOW I messed up. Did I try the next move two early, too late? Hell, even if I fumbled button presses or stick movements, tell me that as well! This is the sort of information that actually TEACHES the player and helps them to improve. Just saying “nope, try again” doesn’t do that.

Timing is everything with combos in a fighting game, anyone who’s ever played one can tell you that. And especially in the very fast-paced fighters ArcSys is known for making, those timings can be particularly brutal. There’s a particular combo challenge that I can’t quite get down. I can perform all the moves that make up the combo, one after another, but my timing on the very last move isn’t quite right. And by that, I mean I’m mere milliseconds too early or too late. Which? I’ll never know. And because I don’t know that, I’m not able to adjust what I’m doing, meaning I’m just floundering about hoping I’ll maybe get lucky and pull it off by accident, rather than actually LEARNING how to achieve it.

And sure, to play devil’s advocate, all that sort of information is out there on the internet, provided by fans and other players who know the game inside out. But therein lies my issues: the game itself doesn’t provide that information. I’m all for a game teaching you how to play through its gameplay: you gain knowledge of the maps and weapons by simply playing a first-person shooter, you gain knowledge of strategies, build-orders and the like through playing online in an RTS, but for intricate, yet absolutely integral things such as combo timings in a fighting game? You’re for the most part not going to learn that through simply playing the game. A game should never require you to access external resources in order to learn anything above the absolute basics of the game.

And of course, the fighting game community is often seen as a harsh, toxic environment that doesn’t welcome newcomers and while that is far from the truth, it can still be daunting as someone with no fighting game experience who wants in on the fun.