When a stack of releases lands on our desks every week, they can't all be winners, but that doesn't mean the rest have to be losers, either.
Prowl your local bargain bin, make some eBay searches, and keep your eyes out for a Steam sale, because the games below are worth it -- even if they didn't place in our game of the year awards. Consider them our honorable mentions or personal favorites that just didn't stand a chance, either due to being misunderstood or not played at all. Whatever the case may be, we feel a need to celebrate them in some fashion because they are worth giving a chance.
Next time you come across one of these on sale, refer back to this list and feel free to thanks us for a wise purchase.
Thomas Was Alone (PC, Mac)
It's really no surprise that Thomas Was Alone flew under the radar for most gamers. As an indie puzzle-platformer starring a bunch of single-colored rectangles, it isn't immediately apparent what makes Thomas Was Alone special. While the puzzles themselves aren't particularly difficult, the real element that shines is the narration and storytelling. The rectangles that make up the cast have more distinct personalities than some blockbuster game protagonists, and despite their minimalist representations, I found myself identifying with and even caring about each of the characters. Thomas Was Alone does more with its character development over its three-hour play time than other games do in 30 hours. The fact that the story itself is unique and interesting is just icing on the cake.
Sine Mora (PC, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade)
Sine Mora is one of the best games I've played all year and almost no one I know has heard of it. Simply put, it's a shoot 'em up that handles extremely well, looks great, and provides a solid challenge; if you let it. Akira Yamaoka's beautiful soundtrack augments the amazing gameplay which is mostly hinged on the concept of slowing down time.
Instead of a regular health bar, you'll take what I refer to as "time damage" which is tied to your time manipulation mechanic. The better you do, the more power you'll have to utilize -- which means relying on it can get extremely risky. All of this will play out in front of a fairly well done mature story that involves unique anthropomorphic creatures and heavy themes, such as genocide and sexual assault.
It's a shame so many people will miss out on it due to their preconceived notions of shoot 'em ups, but if you're just the least bit curious, I'd recommend giving it a shot during the next Steam, PSN, or XBLA sale.
Tribes: Ascend (PC)
"It looks like Halo," said a distinctly un-impressed Mikey Turvey, when I suggested he play Tribes: Ascend. Aesthetically, he was right; it's red vs. blue power-armoured dudes shooting each other with guns, but the other game that I though of whilst playing Tribes was Tiny Wings. Yes, the charming iOS title had the same sense of momentum and constant movement I got from Tribes. It's just so damm fast! You're constantly on the move, and the large arenas mean you're not simply spawning and getting killed within seconds. You've got some time to find the fight and swoop in for an immediate impact.
Tribes: Ascend even managed to redeem Capture The Flag for me which is usually my least favourite multiplayer mode. Matches turn into lunatic chases, especially when carrying the flag. Mid-air duels became frequent, flying in from seemingly out of nowhere to snatch victory. With short and frantic matches being the order of the day, Tribes: Ascend became my multiplayer quick fix game in 2012. Long may it continue into 2013 and beyond.
The Real Texas (PC, Mac)
The Real Texas is a game that constantly fills my mind. You know, like when you say "Gurl are yo' legs tired? Cuz you been runnin' through my mind ALL day!" The Real Texas' legs must be super tired at this point, is what I'm saying. I replay events from the game in my head, approaching them from different ways. Some things still remain a mystery to me.
The Real Texas is a criminally overlooked game, one that will make you smile, laugh, and best of all, think! It's a quirky journey through one of the best settings in video games. It also has one of the best boss fights of all time, towards the end of the game. You need to play it, sit back, and enjoy yourself.
Natural Selection 2 (PC)
I absolutely love competitive games. I grew up on Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Classic, and Day of Defeat. These days, I spend the majority of my time in Dota 2, TF2, SpyParty, and now Natural Selection 2. The combination of both real-time strategy and first-person shooting allows for such a degree of depth that necessitates teamwork and creates for some amazing gameplay moments.
The amount of teamwork that is required and performed consistently astounds me. The game's community, including the developers, is very nice and make what would otherwise be a daunting competitive game into a warm, welcoming experience. If you're at all interested in competitive games, whether they are FPS or RTS games, you owe it to yourself to jump into Natural Selection 2.
Sound Shapes (PlayStation Network)
Why is a game that's essentially a music sequencer in your pocket (or on your TV) presented through a simple platformer with a beautiful art style so criminally overlooked? Even Deadmau5 and Beck were intrigued with the game enough to sign on and provide exclusive new sounds/songs to Sound Shapes. The game's only goal is to pick up all the sound pieces, completing the sonic landscape until the player makes it to the end. It's a simple idea, but the way Sound Shapes presents the idea makes it like no other game out there. But, what really makes the game special is the level editor, and the community that supports it with creative and amazing levels that truly provide limitless entertainment.
Spec Ops: The Line (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
On the surface, Spec Ops: The Line looks like a typical military shooter where you're tasked with taking out the bad guys and saving the day -- and that is exactly what it wants you to think. As you progress through the the game, you slowly begin to realize that the inner workings of the main character's mental wellbeing clash with the reality he and his comrades face, or rather the reality they're led to believe. Spec Ops offers the most haunting and horrifying story of any military shooter of this generation. By emphasizing player's expectations for a hero experience, developer Yager tears it all down by forcing players to face the grim nature of war in the worst ways possible. In one of the game's many cryptic messages, the following question is presented to the player and helps to shed on light on what Spec Ops: The Line is all about: "Do you feel like a hero yet?"
La-Mulana (PC, WiiWare)
Just when we thought the WiiWare remake of La-Mulana would never leave Japan, it finally made the journey, first as an enhanced PC port then later in its WiiWare incarnation. I'm so glad it did, because this is a game that needs to be played by retro purists the world over.
And damn, is it ever retro! Typically, people hear "retro" and think super hard bosses and insta-kill death traps. While that is a very accurate representation of the game's enemies and platforming, La-Mulana also hearkens back to days when players were given next to no instruction on where to go and what to do. Think finding the hidden paths in the original Zelda and Metroid was tough? Try solving the myriad puzzles that La-Mulana's ruins toss your way with only the barest of clues. If you think you'll be able to beat this game without a pad and paper handy for note-taking and map-making, you are dead wrong!
But for all its challenges, La-Mulana is never outright unfair. The next move you need to make is right there if you are willing to invest the time and effort, and should you do so, you'll be rewarded with one of the richest Metroidvanias ever made, with an incredible pixel art style and an even more incredible soundtrack.
Akai Katana (Xbox 360)
Is it too early to call Akai Katana Cave’s greatest achievement since the ‘90s? Well, I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway: It's Cave's greatest achievement since the '90s! After supplying some of the greatest bullet hell shooters to reach arcades, Akai Katana refreshes the format with its innovative system that encourages players to consider bullets as possible lifesavers along with life-enders. The new Climax mode makes things even more exhilarating by providing superior weapon power and scores through controlling enemy bullets. Akai Katana is about so much more than dodging and firing. There is a metagame that surrounds the core mechanics of the genre, making for a thrilling arcade shooter that continues to excite me.
The Darkness II (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
I threw up a little in my mouth when I saw The Darkness II arrive in my mailbox. “Why did I want to play this?” From watching the private E3 demo to reading reviews, I couldn’t be less impressed by the game. I was shocked when I found myself legitimately drawn into the game’s story, charmed by the visuals, and addicted to its unique, brutal close-quarters combat. In contrast to Halo 4, the campaign has a great pace and made me genuinely interested in the mysteries that the narrative presented. In contrast to Black Ops 2, the combat gave me freedom and challenged me with new enemy types and scenarios. Ironic then that I once found the year’s most charismatic first-person shooter to be uninspired. Follow my lead and give it a chance.
Gotham City Impostors (PC, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade)
I haven’t had more fun with a game this year. Surely, that’s enough for GCI to earn my #1 spot and it did for some time. Even so, I must concede that I likely won’t have as much fun next year with it. This isn’t the game’s fault but its developer and publisher, who have left one of the most refreshing, joyful competitive shooters of 2012 out to die. With a limited map section, half-assed transformation to free-to-play, and very small community (on PC), I don’t see a bright future for Gotham. But, let’s remember the good days: The days of rappling across building tops like a madman, gliding down with bat wings, double jumping over enemies and unloading a shotgun into their back, and trampolining our way to victory. [Do add me on Steam if you’d like to play: Lonelyspacepanda]
Binary Domain (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Most people ignored Binary Domain, likely dismissing it as just another shooter. But under the skin of this absurd and entertaining action game, there's a fairly nuanced story that makes for one of the more interesting experiences of the year. Amidst some brief commentary on climate change and nationalism, Yakuza Studio poses a very poignant question regarding humanity: specifically, who is human and who is not? The crux of the story centers on Hollow Children, robots that are programmed to believe that they're people and for all intents and purposes appear as such. Set in a society that was built on the backs of robots and featuring characters that are disgusted by them, Binary Domain draws some pretty interesting parallels with societal roles surrounding oppression, specifically slavery in 19th century America. With the Hollow Children, a grey area exists. One that nobody is willing to recognize or accept. That is, until the issue hits too close to home and forces people to re-evaluate the prejudices they've lived with for a lifetime.
Gravity Rush (PlayStation Vita)
It's hard to contain my love for Gravity Rush in a paragraph. I was instantly smitten with its visual style, a masterful blend of cel shaded anime and French comics; it has some of the most stunning, inventive art direction I've ever seen. Deftly careening through a lively, full realized cityscape never loses its appeal. There's something strangely hypnotic, comforting, and invigorating about the gravity shifting mechanic, as you fall in every which direction at breakneck speeds. The level of detail and manner in which everything -- gameplay, narrative, aesthetics, music -- coalesces is nothing short of an artistic and stylistic triumph, and I particularly loved the shift from a whimsical, colorful narrative to a surreal, existential meditation that simultaneously, obliquely deals with some fascinating topics like fascist militarization and political upheaval. It's one of the best games I've ever played and alone reason enough to own a Vita.
Thirty Flights of Loving (PC)
15 minutes. In a pithy 15 minutes of gameplay, Thirty Flights of Loving, is more affective and effective in its story-telling than most bloated big releases are in 15 hours. Between abrupt French New Wave style jump cuts, Thirty Flights packs a thrilling heist and gunfire concerto, a surrealist dance party, a surprisingly developed relationship, and oranges. The non-linear editing style requires the player to piece things together, though there is plenty of ambiguity and intrigue left over. There’s a lot going on here despite the deceptively simple visual style and succinct narrative. At 15 minutes long, you don't have much reason not giving this indie gem a shot.
Papo & Yo (PlayStation Network)
E3 may be gaming's highest pantheon of pomp and circumstance, but my personal game of the show was Papo & Yo, an allegory for Minority Games' creative lead Vander Caballero’s childhood, during which he dealt with an alcoholic father he loved, but also feared. The surrogate players in the allegory are Quico, a young boy living in the favelas of Brazil, and his fearsome pal Monster. Papo & Yo, wearing its inspirations from games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus on its sleeve, is palpably personal -- a rare feat in the too-many-cooks-diluting-the-broth realm of video games -- and its final act hits hard. Caballero's goal was to make this world a little bit of a better place and provide a space of both escape and understanding for people dealing with similarly tough scenarios and he succeeded.