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The Christmas Leftovers - Part Three

Emptying The Fridge

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Ohh gawd, there are still so many games left in the fridge. Our poor, aching fingers. Come on – we can get through this. A pot luck? Stew? I’ve got it! Let’s invite other people over to dinner, and get them to eat all our games! Perfect. Here’s the final bumper collection of our favourite games of 2013 that didn’t make it into the Calendar. Part one is here, and part two is here.

LEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROES

Adam: I love comic books and I love Lego. Admittedly, you’re more likely to find me with a hardback copy of some early Segar Popeye strips or the ever-wonderful Calvin and Hobbes than the latest Superbiff volume in hand, but I enjoy the heroic worlds of Marvel, DC and Invincible as well. As for Lego, I occasionally desire an architectural box of bricks but haven’t played with the plastic for many years now.

The Lego games have been successfully scratching my cooperative toybox itch for several years now, even if I still occasionally lament the lack of actual construction and creative thinking that makes light of the license. It seems churlish to complain when the expanse and sheer silliness of the series has expanded at such a splendid rate, however, and every new instalment is a joy to play.

Is this the best of the Lego games? I think it is. When Scribblenauts Unmasked was announced, I expected it to be my favourite superhero themed game of the year and there’s a possible argument to be made that the word-building world-building of THAT series is in some ways more Lego-like than the clobbering action of the Lego Major Character or Franchise games. But Lego and Marvel make for a wonderful pairing and this is one of the largest, most entertaining and broadest games I’ve played over the last twelve months.

If it hadn’t been for the tower-bounding excess of Saints Row IV it might just be the best superhero game as well. Even if Saints Row isn’t really a superhero game. But it absolutely sort of is.

John: Of all the games in the Leftovers, this is the one I think should have been on the Calendar. I wasn’t outvoted – we just messed up, I think. (But then again, everything on there deserved its space too.) This is the best the Lego series has ever been, beating the Lego Harry Potter games for the top slot (and as ever, I say this as someone who finds Harry Potter as entertaining as tuberculosis). Not only does it present the usual fantastic levels to plunder for tokens, but a worthwhile, living city to explore. In the absence of a PC release, this was my GTA for the year.

The flying controls are abysmal, and sadly this is indicative of the undermining arrogance that comes with all of Traveller’s Tales’ games. They’ll ship enough to turn a good profit, so they appear to just not give a shit about fixing the series’ most common flaws. So yes, if you find any of the problems with previous games to be an obstacle to your enjoyment, you’ll find them an obstacle here too. If, like me, you find that the love and joy that goes into creating the game itself overcomes that, then Marvel Super Heroes will likely be your favourite yet.

CAPSULE

Alec: Another game I’m surprised and disappointed didn’t seem to earn itself more of a following. Space/underwater/who knows? survival and exploration odyssey of deathliness Capsule was to my mind this year’s best example of Less Is More. I suppose I’d hesitate to say I enjoyed an experience that is essentially psychological torture, but by God I’d admired what it did. So much atmosphere, claustrophobia and terror wrung from so little, from sound and blackness, from solitude and from starkness. All the time I played Capsule, I felt as though I was slowly dying. What an awful thing to want to simulate, but simulate it powerfully and chillingly it did. “Capsule feels just like dying! – Rock, Paper, Shotgun.” Stick that on the back of yer box.

RAYMAN LEMONS

Adam: Lemons is just as delectable an audio and visual treat as its predecessor. It presents an astonishing cartoon world to jump, bounce and swing through. Forget the Fancy Dan motion captured faces of Beyond: Two Souls – Rayman is the game that most resembles a cinematic feature to me. Every movement is so fluid that if I spend a few days away from the controls, I expect them to be horribly unresponsive, the characters anchored to the needs of the animators.

That’s not the case though. Lemons contains precision platforming as challenging and smooth as anything that I’ve played from Nintendo in recent years and there’s an fantastic variety in the levels and mini-games. Lemons is a stronger game than Oranges, stuffed with content, and it only lacked the element of surprise that came with Rayman’s first reincarnation.

Alec: If Rayman Oranges was WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE then Rayman Legumes was WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

Oh come on, you don’t really expect me to demean a game that’s basically Happiness Incarnate by trying to describe it, do you? Might as well ask me why cold beer on a hot day is so wonderful.

SAVE THE DATE

Nathan: Save The Date might actually be my game of the year. It’s definitely in the top three, along with Stanley Parable and Papers Please. Like the former, it toys with the nature of narrative and player choice, initially lulling you into a false sense of security with dark yet whimsical date comedy. Why won’t this poor girl stop getting diced to ribbons by ninjas or made into fish food (while eating at a seafood restaurant, no less) by a giant kraken? Oh ho ho ho, wait until I tell Tom and the boys at work about this one. But the rabbit hole runs deeper. The game and story keep resetting, but you don’t.

What’s going on here, and how can you save this girl you’re getting to know really well (by, um, experiencing her final moments again and again and again) from her grisly fate? Save The Date grabs meta commentary by its 1-and-0-shaped short and curlies, and it never lets go. For all that, however, it’s refreshingly un-cheeky about acknowledging you as Somebody Playing A Videogame. Instead of constantly turning toward the screen to wink at you, Save The Date watches your every move with purpose and clarity. It begs you to ask and answer troubling questions, and it makes the prospect of doing so utterly irresistable. By the end of its hour-and-a-half duration, I cared. I cared a stunning amount for a character whose face I hadn’t even seen in a very short, simplistic game. And then I quit out of the game, and it broke my heart. But I had to. I’ll say nothing more about that part. Just go play it. Save The Date is a wonderful, heartfelt piece of art that deserves every bit of attention it receives.

THE WOLF AMONG US

Alec: All these months, and I’ve only just got Nathan’s WOLFAMONGUS gag. Truly, Wolf Among Us is wolfamongous. Anyway, I really liked this, and I’m right narked that part two is taking so long to arrive. I think it’s Telltale’s best-realised effort yet – The Walking Dead can be a little too mawkish and heel-dragging for me on occasion, and the action scenes are jarringly unreal due to the (self-imposed) limitations of interaction. But because Wolf Among Us’ fairy-tales-are-real setting is much more consciously outlandish, its characters can be that much more crazily-behaved and exaggerated, and anything odd can be explained away by the sure sense that you’re somewhere Other. Also the noir theme and tone is forever a great one for adventure games, and Wolfamongous pretty much nails it in that respect.
(Less happily, it left me with a hunger for more of its world, so I started reading the Fables comics it’s based on. I do wish I hadn’t – nasty, mean, exploitative things, I thought.)

Adam: It didn’t have the immediate impact of The Walking Dead, perhaps because Telltale had raised the bar when it came to their own work, but Wolfamongous shows a great deal of promise. I haven’t found time for the first episode of The Walking Dead Season Two yet but I’d play Bigby’s next chapter straight away if it was released later today.

I was surprised by how efficiently the Fables setting was communicated – there are lots of big ideas and a mish-mash of potentially confusing genre-work thrown at the player, but the plot is anchored by simple mysteries and enjoyable characters.

And, blimey, they nailed the art style.

STARSEED PILGRIM

Adam: When its machinations are understood, Starseed Pilgrim can become a chore to complete, but unlocking its mysteries gave me a much pleasure as anything else I’ve played this year. In some ways it’s the polar opposite to many of our picks, including our top choice. Starseed Pilgrim is driven by systems rather than narrative (although it tells a fine story), but the impulse that keeps the player involved is directly tied to an understanding of those systems. You can walk, you can jump, you can plant seeds. Everything else is part of the game’s invisible force, awaiting discovery. Going through that process, across a series of late nights, was one of my favourite experiences of the year.

John: I still don’t get it.

TRIALS EVOLUTION: GOLD EDITION

John: Beginning as a PC game, and then VERY RUDELY buggering off into some stupidfaced console exclusivity, the prodigal gaming son finally came home. I welcomed it with robes, put rings on its fingers, and offered it the finest feast.

This is the best platform game of the year, which awkwardly pretends it’s about motorbikes. It’s not – it’s about a bouncy wheeled monster who has to clamber over ridiculous obstacle courses without falling over. It’s Trackmania’s wondrous platform levels refined, tightened, made 2D, and set on fire. And best of all, it’s just so damned accessible. You can complete most courses – you just can’t complete them well, and for some idiotic reason I start caring incredibly deeply that I be able to.

The catch? It was abysmally ported. A giant, fuzzy mess, of stupid menus and crapped up graphics. The fun remains, and is entirely accessible, but what a mistake. It may well be fixed by now – I really need to go back to check.

SID MEIER’S ACE PATROL

Adam: This goes for the sequel/standalone as well. I didn’t play Ace Patrol until the beginning of December and it didn’t take long to work its way under my skin. It’s a simple but inventive game of turn-based tactics, and the dapper and jolly wings of war. The presentation is light-hearted but I still get a wobble in my upper lip when one of my boys or girls goes down in flames.

Accessible and yet increasingly tricky as its mildly randomised campaigns progress, Ace Patrol is one of the standout turn-based games of the year. I don’t remember any indication that it was due for release, let alone that it would be such a smart piece of work, and wish I’d paid far more attention to it closer to its engine-rattling, bone-shaking launch.

STEAMWORLD DIG

John: If I were compiling a list of 2013’s best 3DS games (and what a splendid list that would be, at last, for the system), this would be at the top. By the time it came out on PC, I was playing it for a second time, and there’s no way to avoid that losing some impact. But wow, this is still such a stellar game, and perhaps one that would have been on the Calendar if it had been out earlier in the year, giving other RPSers a chance to have played it in time. Instead it came out when the Calendar was already running. It is such a wonderful piece of platforming/drilling/puzzle solving/Metroidvania/Spelunky-lite, and I want everyone to play it.

It’s so refined, the pacing of the addition of abilities perfect, the sense of progress spot on. It’s also immensely charming, and importantly, pleasantly under-written. There’s very little garble to get through, letting you focus on just playing. I think I preferred it as a handheld game, but it looks so lovely on PC. Definitely one not to miss this year.

ELDRITCH

Adam: I adore Eldritch. It’s a weirdly atmospheric take on Lovecraftian ideas that owes as much to Thief’s stranger moments as to any first-person roguelike precursor. The mumbles, gurgles and screams of its enemies unnerve and occasionally horrify me, and if it hadn’t been such a slight experience, I reckon I might have fought tooth and tentacle to slot it into our calendar.

Despite its brevity and the relative ease with which its worlds can be mantled and mauled through, I reckon I’ll still be returning to these dungeonous books of mystery and madness throughout 2014. It’s the perfect game for a late night plunge into peril and feels, to me, like an eternally changing trip back into the Bonehoard, Thief’s most claustrophobic and choking level.

The apparent simplicity and cartoonish nature of the graphics hides a sinister skeletal structure, and well-tuned mechanics of peril. Is it worth looting that corpse knowing that doing so will return something horrible to life in the abominable depths? Probably not, but if there’s one thing we all love, it’s loot.

Along with Knock Knock’s muffled creaks and brain-juddering thuds, Eldritch has some of the year’s best sound design. A deceptively chilling treat that deserves more attention from seekers of dark delights.

DRIFTMOON

John: It is with thanks to reader ‘caff’ that I at the last moment remember to include Driftmoon in the Leftovers. I could have sworn it was a 2012 game, despite first playing and reviewing it in March 2013. I am unstuck in time.

Driftmoon is special for a number of reasons. First, it’s a short RPG. That’s a very rare thing, a game that allows you to sink into an RPG story without having to lose 50+ hours to it. It’s about 15 hours long – long enough to care about what’s going on, but short enough to consume without taking a holiday. Secondly, it has a very charming story, which takes a rather traditional setting – your village has been turned to stone, your father is missing, and there’s an evil wizard on the loose – and approaches it in a far more personal way. This is very much about the life of your central character, and his connection to the world.

There’s a very homemade feel to the game. And that’s likely because it was created by a husband and wife team, in their home. It’s crude-looking, ugly even, but it quickly doesn’t matter. This feels like a very personal project, and never more so than how the game deals with faith.

And by now, there is a lot more of it too. The game comes with its own modding kit, and you can download other people’s adventures made with the engine. I’ve not done that, because I’m far too easily distracted. But … ooh, a bee.

SONIC & ALL-STARS RACING TRANSFORMED

Graham: There are some people who’ll love it for its nostalgic revival of classic Sega environments and characters, but as a Nintendo kid, I don’t even have that excuse. I’m as surprised as anyone that a Sonic kart racing game was one of my favourite PC games of 2013.

There are two ways I try to sell this game to people.

The first is pure novelty. This is a game that mixes together characters from Sega’s arcade past with their PC-focused, strategy gaming present. Do you want to play as Knuckles, or as General Winter, a tank-driving World War 2 metaphor inspired by Company of Heroes? Do you want to race as Ulala from Space Channel 5, or the eyeless, open-mouthed football manager from the Football Manager box art? Or the Heavy from Team Fortress 2? Or Ralph from Wreck-It-Ralph? Or a Shotgun from Total War? All are possible.

The second is its boundless, childlike sense of creativity and invention, in the transformation sequences that twist your vehicle from car to boat to plane, and in every inch of the gloriously colourful track design. The latter includes a House of the Dead track set inside an enormous mansion which has you power-sliding around the legs of a giant spider; a Sonic track set inside a neon space casino where roullette balls criss-cross the track; another Sonic track where flying robots try to laser you to death as you steer through an asteroid field; and a Samba de Amigo track where every building bounces gleefully to the music.

I was a Nintendo kid, but Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed makes me feel warm towards a cast of characters to whom I previously held no real affection.

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