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Did you enjoy the original soundtrack for Final Fantasy X?  What if I told you that one of the 3 composers of that soundtrack just put out their first solo album on bandcamp for $9 a week ago?

And did I mention that you can listen to the entire thing for free as much as you want before buying?

Phantasm, released March 30th, 2015 is a 9 track electronic / ambient album worth checking out for fans of Nakano's unique style.

1) Signs (6:04)

2) Sampo (4:38)

3) Blue Cave (3:44)

4) Jungle (3:23)

5) Amagoi (6:26)

6) Missing Links (4:15)

7) Elfin Dance (3:52)

8) Niningi (4:58)

9) Phantasm (5:00)

Personally, I don't think this stands up to his very best work on Final Fantasy X, Threads of Fate, or Project Sylpheed, but it's still just amazing to have new music from such a talented composer who sadly has spent much of the last 13 years dormant since Final Fantasy X in 2002.  Few people embody that Final Fantasy "crystal" feeling as much as Nakano, and you can see that front and center in several songs on the album - most notably Elfin Dance.

This sounds like someone took the spirit of Christmas and managed to distil it down to its base essence.  I can't recall many composers that feel this comfortable toying around with high pitched melody for this long.  The slow build up to 2:00 then turns into a full breakdown.  By the time the climax hits at 2:25, I'm picturing Santa Claus doing barrel rolls in the sky with a huge smile on my face.

Jungle is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, with a very interesting second half.  Amagoi actually transitions to heavier distorted guitar in the 2nd half, and Niningi appears to be an album favorite for many of the people I've talked to.

If you're a fan of his past work, it's worth checking it out.  While I don't think it tops his past stuff, it feels like a smaller side project anyway, and is clearly a bit of an experiment with some mellower, more ambient songs.  Hopefully this is a sign that Nakano is going to return to full time composition.  This is my top pick for my dream composer list for Final Fantasy XVI.  After Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano blew out the era of Uematsu on Final Fantasy X, we got to see Hamauzu really develop fully into one of, if not the single best composer of game music out there.  His main peer, all along, was Nakano, and it would be great to finally get to hear him tackle a huge four disc, high production album again.  His remixes and arrangements on FFX HD show that he's certainly still up for it.

I have been dying to discuss some of the intricacies of this game ever since I started it last night.  Bloodborne is very much in the spirit of the past 3 Souls games, but some critical elements of the gameplay seem to have changed for the worse.  I've been skimming comments and forums, and I can't find much if any criticism, and everyone seems to be really enjoying the game so far.  Why is my experience with this game so far not in line with what everyone else seems to be experiencing?  Am I missing some critical elements of the strategy?  I'm hoping that this is the case, and I can learn how to play more effectively; because right now my experience has not been very enjoyable.

Just a quick disclaimer:  I have beaten the first 3 Souls games when they came out, and I love the series.  I have been looking forward to this game ever since it was announced, and it's one of the only PS4 titles I've been excited about coming out before September.

I'm going to focus on gameplay elements that I think severely impact the game design.  But since I've read virtually unanimous praise for this game, I'll throw in a few other brief observations about the aesthics as well that I found a little lacking.  I'm also still on the first level of the game, so whatever spoilers are included are extremely minimal.

1)  Backstab is worthless now:

They removed the ability to backstab enemies and get that satisfying finishing animation.  Now, you can only get the damage boost if you do a charged strong attack on someone's back, which is extremely slow, but also doesn't seem to trigger any kind of finishing animation.  It barely seems worth it to even attempt this after messing around with it briefly.  Circling enemies and getting into a flanked position is something that happens quickly.  Trying to immediately land a slow charge attack after that is not something you're likely to do, and that's just on the easiest enemies I'm facing in level 1.

2)  Jump has been removed:

Unless I'm missing how to do it now, there's no jump after you run.  The jump was so small anyway, that I don't know why they felt the need to remove it.

3)  Forward + R1 has been removed:

There is still a lunging strong attack that is Forward + R2, but the guard break (Forward + R1) is no longer there as far as I can tell.  It just does a normal attack.

4)  Losing the ability to block is crippling the game for me:

I was open to trying a new system, but so far I'm simply hating what they have come up with.  Instead of blocking, they added two new gameplay systems.  First, you now carry a pistol that can be used to interrupt enemy attacks instead of having a riposte.  This leaves enemies vulnerable so you can do what was a backstab finishing move in past games.  Second, now when you take damage, you have a small window of time where you can attack the enemy back and regain some of your life.

Losing the ability to block results in several changes to gameplay balance that are not exactly positive changes.  Any enemy with a projectile weapon is now 100x more threatening.  Your gun does so little damage, and ammunition is so limited, that it's literally only useful as a counter to interrupt enemies at near point blank range.  So you don't really have the option of using the gun to combat other projetile enemies with any kind of high success rate.  You have to close the distance without any ability to defend yourself.  This goes from mildly annoying to crippling when you face multiple enemies, because you often do not really have the option of closing the distance on a projectile enemy in a good shooting spot until you dispatch 3-5 other enemies first.  This usually results in the enemy repeatedly pelting you with annoying pot shots until you have the chance to mount an effective counter attack.

Losing the ability to block means that all sneak attacks that the series throws at you usually now result in you getting hit in the face with little options for defense.  Let's say you're playing Dark Souls and you're walking into a threatening area that you suspect has hidden enemies lying in wait for you just around the corner ... somewhere.  What you usually do in that situation is walk forward slowly with your shield up, tip-toeing forward until you see the tiniest hint of movement anywhere.  Even when doing this, the Souls games would often throw enemies at you that were entirely hidden and the first time you would see them is when they hit your shield.  Now, all of those moments result in you taking a hit to the face.

Losing the ability to block means that all those cheap hits the enemies have always done in this series are now actually cheap because you don't have a way to reliably defend yourself.  A brief example of what I mean is the zombie enemies you would face in the beginning of both Demon's and Dark Souls, armed with swords usually.  These enemies are largely slow and easy, but every once in a while they would rush forth with an unusually quick flurry and just get the drop on you unexpectedly.  Those moments, you have the ability to riposte, or block with the shield.  Now, you usually take a hit to the face.  Here's one example I encountered in Bloodborne so far that was particularly frustrating.  I saw one of these slow enemies facing a wall in the distance, and I slowly walked up to him so that I didn't make any noise.  I did my slow charged strong attack to hit back, which gives you the damage boost but no longer results in a finishing animation as I mentioned earlier.  Literally instantly after being hit in the back when he didn't even know I was there, he spins around before the recovery for my attack animation is even done, and does 3 super fast jabs with his torch resulting in all my life being gone.  And this was an enemy I got the drop on completely?  

Losing the ability to block feels particularly stupid when you constantly face enemies that carry shields and can block with their two handed weapons.  Nothing is more frustrating than trying to launch a "regain" attack after being hit so that you can recover some health only to have the enemies sit there and block it.  Not to mention, now you don't have your guard break attack (Forward + R1), so there isn't really an effective strategy for breaking the defense of anyone with a shield.  You basically have to just hit them with jabs until they do an attack and then hit them when they're open.  If they don't drop their guard, you're not really going to have a way to gracefully get past their shield.

Now onto the pistol.  Just think about the balance issues involved when assigning your only defensive maneuver to a limited resource (ammunition).  In past games, block is not tied to any kind of limited resource aside from fatigue.  Riposte is not tied to any kind of limited resource.  In this game, you not only lose block and riposte, but your only substitue is tied to limited ammunition.  You start with 20 shots, and you find ammo lying around on the ground as you play.  I haven't actually run out of ammo yet, but I got down to 8 shots left once when only attempting to do a counter shot once on every 5th enemy or so.  That means that the overwhelming majority of the time, you won't even attempt a counter shot because if you tried to counter shot at every available opportunity, you would surely run out of ammo.  This means that most of the time, you have basically no defensive options aside from the dodge.  

Setting that aside, let's talk about the times you do decide to use the countershot.  I'm still pretty damn early in the game, but it's been my experience so far that the gun basically does almost no damage and is useless at any kind of range.  If you use it while an enemy is attempting an attack, with precise timing you can interrupt their attack and leave them prone, open to a strong melee finisher.  This means that you have to basically be shooting at point blank range for the gun to have any kind of real value, because enemies won't be swinging to attack you until they're in melee range.  That just seems like extremely odd design to me.  

In addition to that, the gun is not as fast as a riposte in past games.  I've been hit more than once waiting for an enemy to initiate a counterattack, but simply eating the attack to the face before my shot can even go off.  That happens, and I'm still learning the timing for everything.  But even in early levels, enemies have melee weapons that provide them with quite a bit of range, and almost every enemy is able to quickly run at you.  This is especially true of the beasts and even the small dogs I've run into.  Remember how nice it was to have a shield when a fast dog is running at you, and does their fast bites and claw attacks?  I know what you're thinking, just dodge then.  Fair enough.  But what about if you face 3 fast dogs?  That takes me to my next point.

5)  There are a lot more enemies on screen at once:

This isn't actually a negative for me, as it shows that the PS4 can put more enemies on screen at once probably, and I like combat in games and facing tough odds.  But what about in this game makes it feel like a negative?

Well, you can't block obviously, and your only means of defense is a limited ammunition counter shot that can only hit one enemy at a time (unless you use the bigger gun, which I didn't start with).  This leads to a lot of enemies constantly running directly at you to gang up on you when you have nothing to do besides dodge or literally run away.  Even dodging is problematic, because it's not like this is DMC or Ninja Gaiden.  Dodging is tied to fatigue still.  I honestly have to ask myself ... why?  This seems like something they just decided to carry over from Souls without really thinking it through.  In Souls, fatigue was a constant reminder of the slow, measured pace you were supposed to take.  It was intimately tied to your ability to block.  In this game, you can't even block and you're supposedly supposed to play more aggressively, and dodging is literally your only defensive option when facing multiple opponents, and is your only defensive option the rest of the time when you want to conserve ammo.  So why tie it to a small fatigue meter?  You can do 2-3 dodges before you are tired.  You're even encouraged to dodge forward to close the distance for attacks now, or when closing the distance to do your finisher move after a countershot.  If they deleted fatigue entirely in Bloodborne, what element of the gameplay would players be losing?  I don't see the downside in letting people dash more in a game that forces you to dash as much as this game does.  Especially when enemies have no fatigue, and you'll often face multiple fast enemies that consistently dash and run after you.

6)  Regain (health restore) counter hits are not satisfying, and they don't look cool:

The other main gameplay element they added is the ability to attack an enemy right after getting hit and regain some of your health.  I haven't heard an explanation of what is going on with this storywise, but the effect is not very satisfying.  You take a hit from an enemy and it has a pretty crushing sound effect.  You hit them back and all you really see is your character glowing a light, pale red.  Are you absorbing blood?  Well ... I don't know, and I can't even tell.  You just glow.  There isn't a cool effect with blood coming from their wounds, flowing into you.  You just glow, and it's dumb looking.  This seems like your primary advantage as the player character over your enemies, and it doesn't even look cool, it doesn't feel satisfying, and it's not really explained in any way so far.

You know what else doesn't look cool?  Your one finishing move.  I believe it's the same for all weapons, unlike past games.  A lot of blood shoots out, and it's probably the neatest looking move,b it doesn't feel particularly tied to your character, or your playstyle since I don't think you're even using a weapon but instead punching inside an enemy's chest with your fist.

7)  All 3 of the starting weapons have been a disappointment:

You arrive at the game's lobby area (more on that in a second) and find random ghost kids bubbling up from the floor that offer you weapons.  It feels cheap honestly in how its presented.  No explanation of any kind.  So, you pick a weapon and a pistol from 3 weapon type options and 2 pistols.  You have the sword, axe or cane, and they can all transform into something else.

I restarted several times and tried all 3, and I found them all to be lacking.  The sword's original form is similar to a dagger, but not as fast or as satisfying, and with no stab move available.  It can transform into a one handed sword that has extremely slow start times when you launch your attack, often leaving me wide open.  And the increase in range you get doesn't feel that substantial so it barely felt worth it to me.  The axe is faster than I expected, does the most damage, and can transform into a two handed axe / halberd type weapon with no stab options available.  You gain some range, and some wide, sweeping circular attacks that aren't bad.  The cane is basically the new substitute for the rapier, so naturally I tried to master this one since I tend to like the DEX melee weapons from past games in the series.  The cane form feels weak and underwhelming.  You don't have much range, don't have any real stopping power, and only have access to one stabbing move.  When you charge up your stab move, it sparkles blue for no reason, and it looks pretty stupid.  Your biggest damage melee strike doesn't feel heavy or intimidating, it sparkles like something from Twilight.  The cane can transform into a whip sword which has greatly increased range, and a strong attack with wider range.  It's slightly slower than the cane form, but not by much, making it more useful to stay in whip form in almost all situations.  The range in this game seems a bit off as well, as enemies still can instantly close the distance on you even when attacking at the very edge of your whip's range.  You barely have time to fire a shot off for a countershot in time if an enemy decides to rush you for an attack from mid-range.

8) This looks like the worst nexus area yet:

I wasn't very impressed with "Hunter's Dream" as a level, with gravestone warp spots and a house with locked doors.  It's the same gothic architecture as the rest of the city, and doesn't really feel like a distinct place.  You have white flowers that sprouted up from the grass, and some fences also.  That's about it.  It doesn't feel like a rest area, or a reprieve from the horrors of the world, like past nexus areas in this series.  The music theme in that area is the weakest yet.  It's not a terrible theme, but doesn't live up to the past 3 (especially Demon's Souls). I don't like the vocals, and the song doesn't have that feeling of exhaustion and sorrow that all 3 past themes did.

9)  Is there really no substitute for sitting by the fire?

That was one of the most iconic elements of the Souls series, and as far I can tell it wasn't replaced by anything.  I'm literally so early in the game that I might not have even seen it yet.  I hope that's the case!

So far I touched a "demon lamp" and a bunch of little ghost kids scramble up to show you a lamp.  That's it.  You don't really sit down or rest.  I hope I'm missing it somewhere.  I'd often leave my game on for several minutes in the past to just see my character sit by the fire, especially in the nexus area.  After a particularly stressful level or boss, it was soothing to sit by the fire and meditate on the horrors you just overcame.  Where is that soothing, meditative feeling now?  Ghost kids?

10)  My game seems glitched when checking messages:

I always try to check the ghost kid tombstones to see the ghost images of other players, and 9/10 times the tombstone rises up, and I hit X, and nothing happens.  

11) Worst loading screens in the series:

I don't mind the loading time as much as I mind the lack of music while it's loading, or the lack of any text, and lore to read while it's loading.  You literally learned most of the story in past games from reading item and character bios while the game loads.  Now?  You read "Bloodborne."  That's it, just the game's logo.  Over and over and over again.

The game does look gorgeous most of the time (aside from the atrocious and glitchy, stuttering character creation section).  It has a gorgeous art style that I love, and very neat looking, dark designs for most of the enemies.  I'm going to stick with it and make it until the end.  Given how great the past 3 games were, I'm positive the game is going to get better and have lots of bosses and levels worth seeing.  

But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't extremely disappointed with the gameplay so far.  I haven't even encountered a boss yet and I'm utterly frustrated with the decisions they've made.  I am scared to see how frustrating it is to face an aggressive boss without any compelling options to defend yourself.

The Legend of Legacy just came out in Japan on 01/22/15, and was released with a small 10 track "mini-OST" previewing the game's full OST.  The full OST releases on 02/25/15 in Japan, and was composed by Masashi Hamauzu, famous for his work on Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning Returns, Final Fantasy X, Brave Fencer Musashi, and many other games.  I personally hold up the FFXIII OST as the best video game OST ever created, and Hamauzu as the single most talented individual involved in game music today.  This new OST sampler reveals without any room for doubt that this is his next full blown follow up to Final Fantasy XIII, and just these 10 tracks have some of the most breathtaking, and striking music I've ever heard in gaming.

I strongly urge all of you to listen to these tracks on nice headphones, and to keep coming back to them over and over in the coming days.  This is the best music you will hear in gaming in 2015.  The arrangements, the sheer quality of the recording, the layering of electronic drumming, and ambience with strings; it's literally unmatched.  Hamauzu's music requires a little more effort from the listener to truly appreciate; it's deeper, more sophisticated, more intricate, more subtle, more layered, with less obvious simplistic melody for people without a musical ear, and more deep, thoughtful layers of sound that are pushing music to it's progressive limits.  Challenge yourself to really listen and catch everything going on in these tracks.

Originally, I planned on writing several paragraphs explaining each song in detail, and elaborating about exactly which parts I loved and why I love them so much.  But in the end, I think it's best to just let the music speak for itself.  The mini-OST is only 10 partial tracks while the final one will have 35 tracks total.  

I know what I'll be importing in February.

Full disclosure.  I haven't completed all of these games, because I found them so disappointing.

1) Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

I decided to give this a try because of all the high praise I keep seeing for this title everywhere I read about games.  I'm a huge fan of 999, and Virtue's Last Reward.  I love Ace Attorney as well - the small amount of it that I've played.  So I wasn't particularly skeptical about this game, but I still wasn't rushing out to buy it because it just looked low budget, and low quality.  After it dropped to $20, I decided to give it a try.

I'm actually currently playing through this title right now, and I'm still pretty early on in the game, so it is theoretically possible that I could have a seismic shift in opinion and change my mind at some point.  But let's just say that I seriously doubt it.

I'm struggling to come up with anything to compliment in this game.  The writing isn't good.  The main villain so far is not clever, and is not even close to as well done as the similar villain in Virtue's Last Reward.  

The cast is really not compelling to me either right now, and seem like an annoying collection of cliche's and bad art.  Ultimate fanfic creator?  Ultimate swimmer?  I mean ... this is pretty much the bottom of the barrel in terms of casting.  Ultimate gothic lolita gambler?  (okay, that ones' a little more interesting).  Ultimate .... what was it, clairvoyant with stupid hair?  Ultimate class president guy that yells and is annoying every single time he speaks about anything?  Ultimate fashonista that doesn't even do anything in the story or speak about a single thing related to fashion ever?  Even Ultimate martial artist, which sounds cool on paper, is basically turned into a joke instead of daring to take any aspect of the design seriously.

Next up, the music.  It sucks.  And the thing is, I actually love this composer.  He did most of the best tracks on Vanquish, which is one of my favorite OSTs of all time.  How does he come up with drivel like this?

What a boring, low quality song.  

.... ugh.  

Then there's the fact that - as far as I can tell from my early hours playing - the entire game takes place in only a handful of hallways and rooms that you are cursed to perpetually wander around scouring for clues with an awkward camera system.  Characters are portrayed as literal cardboard cutouts.  And painfully, you are encouraged to repeatedly search the same camera and monitor in every single room, over and over with the same text description in the hopes you might get a random coin for the shop.  

I'm not going to comment on the trial systems yet, since I want to see more of it, but this represents basically the only gameplay in the game.

I'm going to play this one until the end so that I'm more qualified to trash it as the disappointing, overrated garbage that it appears to be.  The popularity of this title is baffling to me.  It appears that all that one has to do to wind up on GOTY lists these days if you're a Japanese developer not named Nintendo, is fill your game full of trendy high school hipsters, fill it full of ultra cheesy dating sim elements, and get it released from a publisher not named SQEX, and you're well on your way.  I'm shocked Mind Zero wasn't on people's GOTY lists if people are pumping up low quality stuff like this.  Ignore the actual quality of any aspect of a game's design as long as it reminds you a bit of Persona and has a story you like.  If the story somehow manages to salvage this trainwreck, I'll recommend people watch the anime instead at this point.    

999 and VLR are about 1000x better, in every category.  We'll see if I change my mind when I get further in.

2) Drive Club PS+ Edition

I have been waiting for this since it was announced in 2013.


I decided to pick up this game on Wii U two nights ago, and I seriously cannot stop playing it.  DK King of Swing was originally released on GBA in 2005, but now it's available on the virtual console for $6.99 in NA (released 11/20/14).

At first glance, the game is pretty ugly looking, but everything that makes this a special experience is part of the gameplay anyway.  You can play the entire game with just the L and R buttons, and the d-pad.  L controls your left hand, and R controls your right hand.  If you hit both buttons together, you jump.  You progress through the game by grabbing the colored pegs and swinging around each level in a truly unique combination of platforming and puzzling.  Holding with your left hand makes you spin counter-clockwise, and holding with your right hand makes you spin clockwise.  

That's really all you need to know to jump into this game.  It's almost like Nintendo's "Angry Birds," in that it takes an extremely simple and accessible concept and makes a game around it.  But they take it so, so much farther.  The platforming feels fantastic as you really get a unique feel when traversing through the levels only with your hands.  The grabbing feels extremely precise.  You have to grab each peg at the correct time.

What continued to impress me is how they take such a simple concept and then manage to build on it with creative puzzles.  There are valves that only open when you swing the correct direction, so you need to grab it with the correct hand.  You can grab rocks and throw them mid-swing.  There are jack pegs that have to be cranked repeatedly to open various aspects of the levels (see this video below).  There are boss fights, and various enemies, secret collectibles in the levels, and more.

I haven't gotten past the second main world yet (around level 10 at the moment) but the instructions say that you can also play as Diddy, Dixie and Funky Kong at some point, so I'm looking forward to that.  It's possible they're limited to just the mult-player levels, so I guess I'll find out as I progress.

I had never even heard of this game on GBA, and I had a ton of GBA games.  It doesn't have the best art style or graphics, so I imagine a lot of people probably skipped it even if they did hear about it.  That's why I felt so compelled to recommend it, because it truly is a fun, and extremely original game.  

Don't miss it.  This is the most fun I've had climbing in a video game since American Gladiators (NES).

2014 was an interesting year of gaming for me.  It was a year of transition, personally, and in gaming.  It was the first year I got a PS4 and tried out "next gen" gaming.  But instead of PS4 leading the way, many of the best experiences were seen on other systems.  

1) Rusty's Real Deal Baseball (3DS)

April 3rd, 2014

I feel like this is the most underrated title of 2014.  This is the "Wii Sports Resort" of the Nintendo 3DS system.  The game was built entirely to capitalize on 3D vision, and is structured in a bite sized format that is perfect for handheld gaming.  

Iwata pitched the game in Nintendo Direct by describing how hard the team at Nintendo worked on capturing the "real feel" of specific baseball actions.  When you see a game being pitched to the public not on story, graphics, or premise - but instead just on the quality of the controls and the feel of the gameplay, you know you have something special on your hands.

I logged probably 50 hours into this game and still didn't finish all the various trials, or tire of going for more high score challenges.  But in addition to the gameplay, the game is probably the funniest and most interesting depiction of a working class comedy I've seen in gaming in the last several years.  This is Nintendo at their weirdest - depicting a canine version of the 90s sitcom "Roseanne," with a litter of juvenile delincquint pups out to terrorize their over-worked and hopeless father as he runs his business on the razor's edge between staying open and bankruptcy.  It's silly, it's goofy, but it's got a feel all it's own, and it's not something you're likely to see in other games any time soon.

In addition to the phenomenally polished gameplay, and the quirky story, the game innovates even in the pricing model - with the whole game incorporating haggling to lower the real life / real money price of the mini-games you purchase by persuading the father to lower his store prices in the story.  It's pretty ingenious to see them set the story up with the ultimate loser underdog, but then encourage the player to haggle him down to the bone so he doesn't make any profit at all.  Almost every aspect of this game is fun.

2) inFamous: Second Son (PS4)

March 21st, 2014

This is pretty much the most gorgeous looking game of 2014, and the game that showed off what the PS4 is really capable of.  Not only is it visually stunning (I mean .... REALLY visually stunning), but it incorporates some of the most original and unique super powers I've seen in any comic setting in a long time.  It's more reminicent of the television show "Heroes" than it is a video game, and each power is gorgeously depicted and fun to use.

Another big surprise for me was just how likeable Delsin was as a main character.  I'm sick of Troy Baker, but this felt like the role he was born to play.  This felt like he was closest to playing a version of himself in real life.  It was charming, natural, believable, and engaging.  It was infinitely better voice acting than he did in The Last of Us with that awful fake accent, or in Shadows of Mordor, where he was good but largely monotone and forgettable (not to mention outclassed by the voice acting of his game co-star Celebrimbor).  Delsin wasn't a tortured anti-hero.  He wasn't raised by a pack of wolves and misunderstood by society, with a chip on his shoulder that justifies mass murder.  He was just a normal guy that suddenly got access to incredible power, and he had fun with it!  And he tried to do the right thing.  That simple premise was power, and believable, and more importantly, just fun to play as.

The story also had a great villain who had her own interesting motivations, and was one of the only middle-aged women I've seen in games.  It had interesting side characters like Eugene, Reggie, and Fetch (played by my favorite voice actress ever, Laura Bailey).  And it was set in a very cool city that we don't see enough of.

Speaking of Seattle, the game also had the second best OST of the year.

3) Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

February 11th, 2014

This, on the other hand, was the #1 OST of 2014. That's one track out of 80.  This could literally win a spot in the top 10 just from the music alone.  It outclasses everything else this year easily.  It's a mix of 3 top tier composers going for about 10 different styles.  You could spend 3 months just digesting the music alone.  There are single tracks that pack in more emotion than anything in The Last of Us.

I loved this game, despite some obvious imperfections that come with the package.  It has some graphical blemishes, and some side quests are trial and error, but it's easy for me to overlook flaws like that when the total package is so fearlessly original, creative, and full of fun and emotion.  

I actually loved the story.  I followed the story throughout all 3 games, and read all the datalogs, and debated about the mythology, and wondered and speculated and dreamed about where it might go.  And this game tackled that mythology head on and doesn't hold back.  It introduces wild new concepts and most importantly, it really makes Lightning a likeable character.  There were moments before the first boss fight where I was almost jumping out of my chair because the dialogue was so badass.  There were other moments where it was campy, silly, and totally cheesy.  But at no point was I bored.  At no point did I set the controller down or leave the game unplayed.  I was sucked into the world and it was unlike anything else I'd ever played.

The exploration is vast and provides a ton of space for discovery.  But at the same time, you have a clock ticking in your face and the urgency to push on where ever possible.  It's the odd feeling of having a vast open world, but at the same time - constantly timing your sprint button so you don't lose max fatigue, or jumping over railings on a staircase to shave a second off your traversal time as your round a corner around town.  That combination of opposites is unlike anything I'd played before.  Do I want that in every single game ever?  No.  I'm not someone who traditionally loves time limits.  But as a unique experience to play once in a while, it is definitely different.

The battle system pushes farther into action than the series ever has before.  And did I mention the game is diabolically difficult?  It's literally the only game besides Soul Calibur V that I needed a strategy guide for since 2006.  And I didn't use a guide for Demon's or Dark Souls.  

4) Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4)

August 19th, 2014

I have played several top-down view action games like this over the years, but actually never got into Diablo before.  I was way more into Hunter, Champions of Norrath, Dungeons and Dragons (Xbox), and X-Men.  That all changed with this game.

It's a 10/10 game.  There aren't really any flaws.  You put it in the system, and you're going to keep playing without downtown, with perfect pacing, until you hit the ending credits.  And you'll be shocked at just how long the game actually is.  Then when the credits are done, you'll keep playing for hours and hours more.  Then, you'll start all over and do it again with a new character.

The game is that good.

5) Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS4)

March 18th, 2014

This is the perfect example of the "year of transition" that was 2014.  This game is a demo.  But it still absolutely belongs on the top 10 list of anyone serious about gaming.  That's a statement about how weak the launches of PS4 and Xbox One have been this year, and also a statement about just how truly insane this game actually is.

Yes, you can run through it in 2 hours, or 10 minutes.  But I probably spent over 40 hours just playing this stage over and over and over again.  Each time I'd find some new, subtle detail that fascinated me.  The guards would react in a way I hadn't seen prior.  I'd find a new item.  I'd find a new pathway.  I'd find a new order of events.  I'd find something I knew I could do better next time if I played it just one once more.  The gameplay is insanely polished, and it all feels fair.  When you lose, you feel the urge to immediately try again.

Nothing else this year really compares to the feeling of pure wonder and excitement I had when I did my first extraction under heavy fire in this game.  I was playing for about an hour, doing a perfect stealth run throughout the whole base.  I rescued all the hostages - battered, and broken as they are.  I snuck into the heavily guarded base without killing or even alerting anyone - pure ghost run.  I got to the main target to extract, and saw how brutalized and tortured she was.  Then as I'm trying to extract her from the base, I get spotted and draw first blood.  Do I restart and try again?  No, I was sucked into the moment and pressed on.  This girl needed out of here, no matter what it took.  I was in the middle of an intense firefight while I was trying to call in a rescue chopper on my iDROID.  I tried to hold them off as they attempted to flank me and call for backup.  As I saw the chopper approaching I knew I had to make a move for it so I tossed out smoke grenades all over to cover my escape and grabbed the hostage and ran through a hail of bullets to get on the chopper.  They're firing on us as we fly off, and I'm firing back from the open doorway, all with no loading, all totally seamless.

And it's all 1080p, 60fps.  And MGS V will be 200x bigger.  

6) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U)

February 21st, 2014

Pretty much among the top 3 most polished 2D platformers in the history of video games.  What does this game actually do wrong?  I can't think of anything.  Running left to run is engaging, because it's so silky smooth, and the controls so perfectly weighted.  Just the simple act of jumping in and out of water as you transition between land and water blew my mind ... because it's just flawless.

That sums up this game.  It's just platforming P-E-R-F-E-C-T-I-O-N.  A 10/10 game.  There is really no weak link.  The graphics, the OST, the characters, the gameplay, the level design.  It's all there, and it's hard as hell too.  Probably still the most difficult Nintendo franchise out on Wii U.  There's no holding back for casual gamers here.  They can buy power-ups at the shop if they want which is nice for them.  But everything about this game's design is for serious players wanting to master the gameplay.

7) Velocity 2X (PS4, Vita)

September 2nd, 2014

This is the most shocking one on my list personally.  I hate indie games for the most part.  They're often over-hyped in the press, have shoddy gameplay, and almost always are a lesser version of something I played 25 years ago on NES, or SNES.  

This game is one of the rare exceptions to that rule.

As far as I can tell, Futurlab has managed to create the best and most creative shooter since Ikaruga.  Let that sink in, because I've thought about it a lot and it's absolutely 100% true.  

Everything about this game is pushing the boundaries, and it's pushing it where it counts - the gameplay.  You can warp in any direction, you can warp fast, you can warp slow over long distances.  You can even get out of your ship and run as the pilot in platforming levels and warp there, or throw warp grenades and go over longer distances.  Some of the levels are brilliant speed runs.  Some are elaborate PUZZLES.  Yes, a shooter with stages that are puzzles.  You won't even know what I mean until you play it for yourself.

It also has one of the best boss fights of 2014, without question.  There's a really satisifying gameplay gimmick they throw in the fight that is extremely neat when you first see it.  

Reading about this game won't do it any justice because everything good about it is in the actual feel of playing it, and the gameplay and controls.  It's in the intricacy of the level design, and how it's designed to help you creatively and smartly use your powers.  I didn't even feel like I had a handle on playing it well until level 30.  Then it "clicked" and I couldn't put it down until the game was beaten.  Then I went back and replayed everything and again and destroyed my old scores.  There is a legitimate learning curve to it, and it's so satisfying when you reach the top of that curve.  It's worth the effort.

8) Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)

October 24th, 2014

This one has been covered so much in the press and in GOTY lists that I don't feel the need to elaborate too much.  It's the most polished action game of the year. 

What most won't tell you though is that the story is actually fantastic.  It's a really interesting mythology, and a world rich with history and detail.  Every enemy has an interesting name and history.  Every location has a history.  Every character has a history.  You get to see more history of the Umbra Witches.  None of this is bad.  None of this is cheesy.  It's awesome, and Bayonetta remains one of my favorite characters ever.

Please make a Bayonetta Amiibo Nintendo ...

9) Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

May 30th, 2014

This doesn't need to get covered much either as you all know the drill.  It's just insanely polished, and fun to play.  It makes most PS4 games look ugly.  It's gorgeous.  It's fun.  It's a 10/10 game.

10) Strider (PS4)

February 18th, 2014

I almost didn't want to put this one on my list to be honest with you.  If I change my mind about any of them, I'd swap this one out for another one.  Regardless of that, I felt compelled to give it the last spot on the list because it deserves recognition.

Strider has the best 2D action combat and action platforming ..... ever?  Yes, ever.  

I remembrer when I first realized that I might be thinking that was the case.  I was alarmed.  Better than the old Striders?  Yeah.  Better than Ninja Gaiden on NES?  This is a tough one, but honestly, yeah it's significantly better.  Better than Symphony of the Night?  Yeah, it blows it away actually.  What 2D combat is better?  There isn't any.  It's silky smooth and extremely fun.  You have a ton of options and every action feels good to do.  

The game has it's limitations; lackluster story, environmental design that blends together a bit.  But how anyone can put other 2D games like Shovel Knight on their list over something like Strider - that is just massively more polished, I will never know.  The combat in this is just light years ahead - and it all feels responsive, snappy, fluid and fun.  And it's 1080p 60fps.


Honorable Mention:  

The Legend of Korra (PS4), Kirby Triple Deluxe (3DS), Geometry Wars 3 (PS4), Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Wii U), Super Smash Brothers (Wii U), Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (PS3), Hyrule Warriors (Wii U).