Howdy y’all, remember when I used to moan about video games all the time, instead of video games journalism? Let’s do that again.
2014 was a pretty bare bones year for me in terms of new releases, so I really struggled to pull this list together. There either weren’t enough new games coming out that I was interested in or I was too busy working through the massive backlog I’ve accrued ever since the best second-hand store ever opened up the road from me, so what you see here will not only comprise the best and worst of new games I played this year, but pretty much all the new games I played, period.
Anyway, let’s get this show on the road, I’ll start with the good because that’s nicer, I guess, but also because I’m still trying to think of a third new game I played and hated in 2014.
Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
I’ve never been able to write about a visual novel game in one of these lists before because I always find out about them about three years after the fact, but since the internet has been abuzz with this game -courtesy of several fan translations before it was officially localised outside of Japan- I managed to only be slightly behind the curve this time around, which is about the best you can ever hope for, when you’re me (in 2015 I’m finally planning to check out that Game of Thrones thing.)
Anyway, my schedule aside, I can’t decide if Dangan Ronpa is a really easy or really difficult game to review, because the genre it belongs to will throw up an instant barrier to most normal people, straight out the gate. Basically, if you’re not familiar with visual novel style games, you spend approximately seventy to eighty percent of your time in them reading conversations between various characters with little to no player interaction bar hitting a button to advance the text on screen.
It’s a pretty hard concept to make sound appealing, I’ve always found, since you’re essentially just describing reading a manga with a CD on in the background, or watching an anime with no animation budget, if you prefer, but if you can get into the swing of it visual novel games can become as engrossing as, well, an actual novel. In all honesty, I’ve only played three so far, but with each one I’ve found myself sitting up until 6am because I had to see what would happen next; something that’s extremely rare in terms of story for any other genre of game I play.
Speaking of story, I should probably actually discuss that, since it’s what we’re here for: without giving too much away, Dangan Ronpa’s plot revolves around students who become trapped inside a high school and are coerced into murdering each other in order to secure their freedom as well as various different prizes. If you’re familiar with the short story And Then There Were None or the surprisingly brilliant movie adaptation of Clue, it’s extremely similar, and the fact I love both of those probably goes a long way toward why I enjoyed Dangan Ronpa so much.
The only catch, aside from the whole murdering another human being thing, is that the murderer must evade capture by the other students in order to win, which is where the gameplay elements come in.
After a murder is committed, you can investigate the crime scene for evidence, as well as interrogate other students, looking for inconsistencies in their alibis or for clues that might hint at who the real culprit is, all of which gets added into a file for the class trial, where all of the students face off against each other; hurling and refuting allegations in order to try and reveal the murderer.
The class trial section is the most gameplay-intensive portion of the game, and the only part where it’s actually possible to fail, (the trial won’t commence until you’ve discovered all possible evidence, as far as I can tell,) but even then your input is limited and you have to really go out of your way to fuck it up.
Gameplay during the trial stage is split into three basic modes. In one stage, you use ‘Truth Bullets’, which are made of the evidence you’ve acquired during your investigation, to destroy any statements being said which you believe contradict the facts. This is the only area I had a real problem with in the game, because there were one or two occasions when I knew why one character was full of shit, but I couldn’t figure out the combination of bullets and statements the game wanted me to use to arrive at the conclusion. This only happened once or twice, though, so it was hardly a deal-breaker and pretty much a problem that’s inevitable if you don’t want players trying to brute-force the game.
Another stage of the trial has you essentially play a shooter version of hangman to deduce a keyword that is relevant to the case, that can then be used to challenge another student’s statement. It’s pretty straightforward, although it took me until the final trial to realise you have to shoot the missing letters in the order that they occur in the word. So…PROTIP, I guess.
Once you catch another student in the midst of a lie, you enter into the third gameplay stage where you have to swat down their excuses via a little rhythm game which involves hitting one button to reload your Truth Bullets and another to fire at all the lies appearing on screen. The rhythm gradually picks up pace and your opponent can occasionally blind you, but I don’t think I ever lost one of these encounters so they’re really nothing too taxing. It is kind of a strange gameplay mechanic in contrast to the rest of the game, I guess, but it works well and is fun enough to never become a pain.
The final part of the trial simply involves all students selecting who they believe to be the murderer and if they’re correct you’re rewarded with a short cutscene where that student is killed in a ridiculously elaborate fashion by Monokuma, the robot bear who’s holding you all hostage (I mentioned the robot bear, before, right?)
As I said, I find it difficult to make Dangan Ronpa sound appealing in writing, because so much of what makes it brilliant is the story and the characters who, despite looking like the most cliched anime tropes imaginable, are all surprisingly well written, to the point that I actually found myself empathising with the majority of them and being genuinely gutted when some of them turned out to be the murderer, especially because the game goes to great lengths to make their motives believable without falling back on deus ex machina; although the fact that it’s all there in front of you meant I did occasionally figure out the murderer before the trial had even started. Or maybe that’s just all those years of watching Jonathan Creek and Poirot finally paying off, who knows.
Anyhoo, if visual novel games aren’t your thing, then I really can’t recommend Dangan Ronpa as an ambassador, because the gameplay, while enjoyable, isn’t even remotely challenging and really only serves to break up the story sections because otherwise it would literally just be a visual novel. If you are into this genre, though, Dangan Ronpa definitely does enough different to stand out from the crowd and is well worth your time.
As an aside, if you are interested in getting into visual novels, and more specifically murder mystery types, then I’d recommend Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors as a more suitable point of entry; it’s almost identical in concept to Dangan Ronpa, but a lot lighter on the dialogue and even more basic in terms of gameplay. Plus it’s pretty old now so you can probably pick it up for super cheap.
Super Mario 3D World
The main problem I always had with the Wii -stay with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this- was that I felt the Wiimote never naturally integrated into normal games in a way that made leisurely play feasible. I know people like to make jokes about gamers being fat and lazy but fuck you: I work out three times a week because I want to stay in shape; when I play video games it’s because I want to relax and enjoy myself.
I’m not just talking about stuff like WiiFit, either: even though I made fun of it at the time I can get why people would want/benefit from it, but I never once felt that stuff like Super Mario Galaxy or Metroid Prime: Corruption were improved by forcing me to swing my controller around, and in fact, even though Corruption had some neat motion control functions, overall I felt it hampered my enjoyment of those games because I couldn’t just get comfy and enjoy my journey; I was constantly having to shake my arms about or hold the controller out in front of me and twist it in awkward ways.
I’ve beat this horse to death a million times, I know, but the reason I bring it up is because the thing I love about the WiiU is that its gimmicks, even in flagship titles, are largely optional, but even when I choose to use them, blowing into a controller or tapping a touch screen is a lot more seamless than doing my best impression of an epileptic fit.
Which brings me to Super Mario 3D World (seamless transition.)
3D World is probably the first Mario game I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed since Super Mario 64. Although I have a soft spot for Sunshine, it came out around the time I was beginning to burn out on Nintendo and their penchant for rehashing their big name IPs, and on repeat playthroughs I only ever make it past the first few worlds before getting bored.
On the other hand, I don’t know if I’m just softening with age, but Super Mario 3D World has been the most fun I’ve had with a video game in a long time. Actually that’s not quite right, it would be more accurate to say that 3D World has made me happier than any other game in recent memory. I don’t know if it’s the colourful worlds, which look indescribably beautiful in HD, the amazing music or the gleeful energy that Mario and his gang display as the scamper about the stages, but I seriously couldn’t stop smiling while I was playing.
The game effortlessly exudes charm in a way that all the snarky, bootleg Joss Whedon dialogue popularised in most AAA games couldn’t even dream of matching, though the gameplay itself is fairly standard fare for more recent Mario games: there are no star objectives but there are green stars to collect in every level, as well as stickers and the goal of hitting the top of the flagpole at the end of every level, for the particularly OCD completionists.
One of the things that impressed me most with 3D World is the variety in the levels. Even though, in the grand scheme of the Mario universe, there isn’t much new here in terms of enemies and locations, the methods of getting through each level vary wildly: The traditional platforming is frequently broken up with time trial levels, auto-scrollers, environment manipulation and riding on the back of the Loch Ness Monster.
Even if all of the ideas aren’t necessarily new, in and of themselves, the game mixes things up frequently enough that you feel compelled to keep playing just to see what you’ll get to do next, and the aforementioned collectibles means there’s also adequate reason to go back and play previous levels so all in all, I can’t recommend this game enough. If you’re a WiiU owner and you somehow haven’t yet picked this up, go and do it. Or I’ll hit you. Maybe not that last part, but I do think you’d like the game.
Oh, and of course there are the Captain Toad levels, which despite being a gimmick on par with an iPhone game, I found so enjoyable that I played through entire worlds as fast as I could just so I could get to my next encounter with the greedy little treasure-hunting bastard. I love him so much.
Far Cry 4
I can’t remember why I never wrote a best & worst list the year Far Cry 3 came out, but I always regretted it because it is easily one of my favourite games of all time. As well as being the best unofficial Rambo game ever made, (and also incidentally infinitely better than the official Rambo game which was also shat out in 2014,) the thing I really loved about Far Cry 3 was that everything you did served a functional purpose.
I mentioned this as well in my review for The Darkness II, where every skill you can unlock is actually useful, but Far Cry 3 goes much, much further in that many of the skills you unlock are actually essential, depending on how you choose to play the game. Far Cry further expands on this with hunting, which allows you to craft various pouches to carry more ammo, weapons etc, and capturing radio towers and enemy bases, which allow for further exploration and fast travel, respectively.
As opposed to most games which would only reward you with a trophy/achievement, for these things, Far Cry gives you actual gameplay incentives to complete them, which certainly made scrabbling around in the dirt trying to remember what the fuck a tapir looks like feel a lot more worthwhile.
The thing I really admired about the game, and it’s successor, is that all of this is left up to the player, for the most part: you’re taught how to hunt, hijack radio signals and capture outposts, but after that the game essentially pats you on the arse and sends you off on your way to do more at your leisure, if you want to and, more importantly, how you want to.
A lot, and I mean a lot, of games boast about the freedom they afford the player to do things their way, Peter Molyneux in particular loves beating that drum to everyone’s amusement, but in action adventure games, you almost always find that freedom boils down to approaching things in one of two ways: either stealth or action, and each choice will have an pre-determined, optimised path tailor-made for that strategy.
Far Cry 3 & 4 have none of this.
If you want to take over an outpost without getting caught or raising any alarms, then you do it however you want. Find a vantage point and use a sniper rifle to take out targets, sneak inside the base from any direction, disable the alarms, and use a bow, throwing knives and stealth takedowns to silently dispatch every enemy or, in the case of Far Cry 4, just throw bait inside the base and wait for a bear to run in and wipe out everyone for you.
That’s still only a fraction of the options at your disposal, I’m really not exaggerating when I say you can use almost any strategy you can think of with the weapons and tools provided, although it does admittedly get a bit preposterous because enemies will only become alerted to your presence if they can directly see you, which can lead to ridiculous situations where you are blowing up soldiers left right and centre with explosive arrows, right in front of their allies, and they still won’t raise an alarm to call for backup unless they actually see you.
Occasional silliness aside, the freedom afforded, in Far Cry 4 especially, makes it a fantastic water cooler game, where everyone you speak to will have a different story about how they achieved certain goals, or just random shit that happened to them while they were playing. For example, at one point I ambushed an enemy convoy by using my map to determine what route they’d take, taking a shortcut through the mountains to get ahead of them, then laying C4 out on the road and just waiting for them to pass.
I didn’t have to do anything to trigger the event, there was no objective marker saying I had to be at the spot I chose and I didn’t fail the event if I didn’t specifically use C4. In fact, later in the game I opted for the brute force option and instead blew up the first truck, hijacked the second and used it to chase down and blow up the final truck. Whatever method you prefer, the fact I was allowed to choose my own strategy honestly felt amazing; there’s an indescribable satisfaction in watching a plan you’ve put together entirely by yourself reap rewards, as opposed to having the game railroad you into a pre-determined outcome, which is where Far Cry 4’s story falls flat, for me.
While I appreciate that by it’s very nature, a pre-written story can’t have the same fluidity as the rest of an open-world game, Far Cry 4’s story has a moral choice system that’s about on par with Fable III, where no matter what choice you make you’ll be told you’re a horrible person, no matter how stupid one, or both of the choices are.
One particularly egregious example occurs when you’re given the choice to either destroy or seize an opium plantation, and if you go with the option of not turning into the next Pablo Escobar, your supposedly progressive ally flies off the handle saying the money from trafficking drugs could have built schools or hospitals. Now, throughout the game, I was able to find enough treasure hidden around Kryat to completely refurbish my house, including installing a bloody helicopter pad, yet you’re telling me they couldn’t hock this shit to museums or the black market and make their fortune that way? This was the same woman telling me she didn’t give a shit about tradition, so she should have no scruples about selling historical artifacts, right?
This is really the crux of my issue with the story: your two main allies, Sabal and Amita are far less likeable or relatable than any of the villains; in fact I’d go so far as to call them a pair of pricks. I’m not sure if this was intentional to try and make some statement about the nature of justice or the ends justifying the means, but I found it incredibly frustrating as the player to be constantly getting shit on by my allies because they were forcing me to make their horrible decisions on their behalf.
Pagan Min on the other hand, the charismatic villain of the game, was actually by and far the most likeable and relatable character in the entire game, for me, and not even in the way that Heath Ledger’s Joker was endearing, as you might expect at the outset of the story.
Without spoiling anything, once Min’s character arc comes full circle, you finally understand why he is the way he is and does what he does, a moment that also comes for his generals, Noore and Depleur, (the latter to an lesser extent, I admit,) but it never comes for the people you’re actually supposed to be helping win the war. It wound me up to the point that, if there had been an option at any point after the opium fields to join Pagan Min and crush the rebels I’d have jumped at the opportunity, but as it was, all I could do was let him leave Kryat alive.
That’s one point of credit I will give the game’s story: you’re occasionally given the choice to spare a character you’ve been ordered to kill, which is good because I had no desire to kill any of them, but for a game that affords so much freedom in every other aspect even this option still feels extremely restricted in ways that it wouldn’t have taken great pains to fix.
The game technically has six endings, by my count, but they all result in the exact same open-ended final scene where, rather than showing you any distinctive repercussions of your choices, like the Infamous series, you’re instead presented with a slightly different conversation and then plonked back into the game world, post-credits, to finish off whatever activities you hadn’t completed.
This is by no means a deal breaker, by any stretch of the imagination, but for a series that previously set a precedent in video game storytelling, the plot is probably the weakest aspect of Far Cry 4, although I will grant that Pagan Min is much more my kind of antagonist. All in all though, the game is definitely worth the hype and whether you played 3 or not, there is a huge amount here to enjoy.