Aside from reading, I spend a lot of my downtime playing videogames. I always have, I suspect I always will. Here’s a list of my favourite videogames published this year, a few I missed out on and one that’s so special that I had to include it, even though it came out in 2010.

Honourable Mentions

Ghost Trick: Phantom DetectiveGhost Trick: Phantom Detective, published by Nintendo

It’s stylish and funny, has a labyrinthine storyline that never peters out even as it gets more and more twisty, more and more zany, and the animations are some of the best in the genre despite being on hardware that’s almost seven years old. It does everything right and deserves more attention.

Super Mario 3D LandSuper Mario 3D Land, published by Nintendo

Clever bite-size levels make this the best 3D Mario game since Super Mario 64. What more needs to be said?

Dragon Quest VI: Realms of RevelationDragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation, published by Square Enix

Coming off of the charming, multi-tiered story of Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen and the generational epic of Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (which topped my list in 2009), this remake of the sixth instalment in the long-running series could be considered something of a disappointment. The characters aren’t quite as memorable as DQIV, the story’s not nearly as interesting as DQV, but even on an off-iteration, the Dragon Quest series shines.

BastionBastion, published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

A beautiful, hand-drawn Diablo-like dungeon crawler. Framed by a dynamic narrator who tells the story of The Kid as he tears through enemies and explores a lush post-apocalyptic world.

SkyrimThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, published by Bethesda Softworks

In terms of pure gaming hours spent in 2011, Skyrim is top dog. Back in highschool, my friends and I would routinely dump 80+ hours into RPGs. No problem. We wouldn’t even bat an eye. As I’ve grown older and become a (semi-)responsible adult, I’ve lost the ability/time to do so. Somehow, though, Skyrim has 130+ hours on the clock. I don’t even know how. The world’s lush and feels refreshing compared to the typical faux-England setting of so many RPGs (*coughdragonagecough*), the sidequests are interesting (if lacking in variety) and the main conflicts — the civil war and the return of the dragons — was well-written (by videogame standards, a caveat I hate to use, but necessary) and kept me engaged throughout. I just wish that the decisions you made had more of an impact on the world around you. What, you mean I can be the leader of the Thieves Guild, The Companions, the Mages College and The Dark Brotherhood? And none of them seem to care despite being clearly at moral odds with one another? Okay. Still, 130+ hours ain’t no joke.

How’d I Miss That?

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, published by Nintendo
Sadly, lost amongst the holiday shuffle. Unlike if I had missed Skyrim, I know that I’ll make room for Skyward Sword in the future. Can’t wait to get to this one.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, published by Square Enix
I own it. I love similar games in the genre and have wanted to play Tactics Ogre since it was first released on the SNES however many years ago… and yet it sits on my shelf, unplayed. Alas.

Rayman Origins, published by Ubisoft
It’s beautiful, runs at 60 FPS and throws back to classic platformers. It’s exactly my type of game. Definitely at the top of my 2012 backlog, but became lost in the holiday rush (and Skyrim time).

My Favourite Videogame Published in 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, published by Square Enix

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, published by Square Enix

I’ve been aware of the Deus Ex series since the first game was released all the way back in 2001. At that time, though, PC gaming was low on my priority list (gotta finish Chrono Cross, you know!) and the series continually slipped off my radar. Even when this sequel was announced, published by Square Enix of all companies, I wasn’t all that interested. It had some sort of weird piss-filter than turned the world yellow, and what the hell is with the main character’s sunglasses? Could a sequel, developed by a small, unknown team in Montreal really do justice to the legendary original?

But, surprising many, Deus Ex: Human Revolution was released to heavy praise from both critics and fans alike. All of a sudden, it was back on my radar and one day I bought it on a whim. Having not played the series, I wasn’t quite sure of what I was getting myself into, but the Blade Runner aesthetic was appealing.

Even with low-to-null expectations, Deus Ex: Human Revolution astounded me with its nuance, mature story and a nice mix between established RPG gameplay and satisfying gunplay that never overstays its welcome.

One of my criticisms levelled towards Skyrim, and perhaps why it doesn’t occupy this top spot, is the lack of consequence for the players, and area where Deus Ex: Human Revolution really shines. Nearly every quest, whether part of the main story or a simple sidequest, affords the player several options, ranging from diplomatically talking their way through troublesome characters to sneaking in through conveniently placed air ducts to blowing everything (and everybody) to pieces, and requires that the player pay for these actions. Coerce a guard into you into the building? He might hunt you down later after he’s been caught and fired. Run-and-gun your way through the police station? Well, they ain’t coming back to save your ass later on when you might need it. Like no other game this year, Deus Ex: Human Revolution asks players to commit to their choices and live with the outcome.

To care about these consequences, though, the player has to first believe in the story. That story is Adam Jensen’s, the character who so repelled me when the game was first announced. He’s a half-cyborg cop who wears a long leather jacket, speaks with the voice of a chronic smoker and wears sunglasses even when he’s inside. There’s not much there to like… yet by the end of the game, Jensen solidified himself as one of my favourite characters of this generation, and, maybe, in RPGs period. Under his gruff exterior, Jensen is a damaged man trying desperately to make sense of the strange world that’s exploding and evolving around him. He’s tough, but he also has a sly sense of humour and a subtle kindness to him that helps endear players to his emotional struggles. Coupled with Malik, the likeable pilot and semi-sidekick (but not a love interest) who acts as a great foil to the greedy despots who make up most of Detriot’s population in 2027, Jensen has a depth rarely seen in videogames. I cared for him by the end, it’s rare that a videogame can achieve that.

Is it perfect? No, of course not — the world’s too advanced and alien to be only 25 years in the future; the boss fights are a frustrating joke; and the skilltree doesn’t ask the player to make any difficult choices — but Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the tightest, most well-polished gaming experience I’ve had all year and for that it deserves all the credit in the world.

My Favourite Videogame Not Published in 2011

Nier, published by Square Enix

Nier, published by Square Enix

It’s weird. The gameplay is shaky. The graphics look like a PS2 game. The world is colourless. The story is depressing. The character designs are terrible. Yet I love Nier with all my heart. Because it’s sweet and heart-wrenching, touching and has music that’ll make your soul shiver. It’s the type of game that you’ll have to play on word alone, because it’s special, but I can never articulate why. Even more than Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Skyrim, this is my favourite game I’ve played this year.

Looking back at the list, it’s funny to see two Square Enix titles topping the list (and several others making the list). I’ve been a longtime fan of the company, since the days when their RPGs were bar-none the most impressive and immersive videogames, but feel that they’ve fallen off in recent years, especially where their major releases are concerned. Where they succeed, however, is in those titles that fall off the beaten track. When they allow their developers and creative minds to run free, great things happen and both Nier and Deus Ex: Human Revolution are proof of that. Thank god for them or I’d still be lef with the sour taste of Final Fantasy XIII fouling my mouth.

And, for the record, my previous year’s lists:

  • Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) January 4, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Ahh Skyrim, single handedly responsible for taking away most of my pre-Christmas time. I’ve deliberately not gone back to it since New Year because I know it’ll suck me in again.

  • Rob January 5, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Bastion and Skyrim are amazing. I’m still working my way through Skyrim and probably will be for some time. You should check out Bastion’s soundtrack if you haven’t already.

    I like Deus Ex, but I did lose interest halfway through. I might still return to it, though.

  • Angelo January 5, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Go. Play. Tactics Ogre. NOW!

  • aidan January 5, 2012 at 7:15 am

    @Angelo — You’re not the first person who’s responded that way. I’ve got to finish Trails in the Sky first!

  • Carl V. January 5, 2012 at 7:22 am

    I can certainly relate to your and Jamie’s Skyrim joys/whoas. I have logged nearly 150 hours into the game and have a myriad of quests still to do, mostly because I’ve been really taking my time, building up my character, building up funds and buying houses, etc. while also exploring and doing quests here and there. It is a HUGE time suck. I usually get a ton of reading done during my Christmas vacation. Got very little done this year because it was just too hard not to play “just a little bit more” Skyrim.

    Back in the day before XBox360, most of the gaming I did was on PC, and the Deus Ex games were among my favorites. That said I had pretty much decided I didn’t want to bother with the latest game. Until you talked me into it! I’ll wait for awhile until I get more done in Skyrim and finish Rage, the game that got sat aside for Skyrim, but I’ll be watching the price on it and snagging it at some point.

    Thanks, I guess, for the good reviews. ;)

  • Elaine January 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I’m not really into videogames. Oh, wait … Does Yoville count? (Just teasing.)

    Elaine Sangiolo
    Book Marketing Manager: Cathedral of Dreams, A Kingdom’s Possession
    Booktrope Publishing

  • ethelred January 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Interesting list, and it also shares a lot of similarities with my own.

    Nice to see Ghost Trick, a fantastically underrated adventure game with a wonderful and touching story. I think it’s Shu Takumi’s (the writer, director, and designer behind the Phoenix Wright games) best work and it’s one of my favorites in the genre.

    I haven’t played Bastion. I just tried the demo and found it interesting, but also a bit boring, and I never felt compelled to move on to the full game. I might do so at some point when it goes on sale.

    Dragon Quest VI… well, I agree that (almost!) every game in the series is special, but this one didn’t make my list this year and I found it a bit disappointing. In terms of its narrative approach of vignette storytelling, I just found it too similar, but ultimately much weaker, than its successor, Dragon Quest VII (which also had the benefit of the incredibly cool time travel hook, put to much better use than the barely interesting dual worlds theme of VI). I liked it well enough, but I kept wishing I was playing VII instead. Is it fair to compare a game in such a way to a sequel? Maybe not, but life’s not fair.

    I don’t think I am as enthusiastic over Skyrim as a lot of people, though I undoubtedly had a LOT of fun playing it (and for what it’s worth, consider it a much better game than Oblivion, which I hated, or Fallout 3, which I merely mostly disliked). There are lots of major and minor flaws in this game that drive me nuts. The writing, in both the main plot and most side stories, is completely mediocre and I wouldn’t even put it near the top of the class in terms of just video game storytelling; there is not a single memorable character in the entire game, and companions are flat cardboard cutouts with nothing interesting to add to the game except, in the case of “key” “storyline” companions such as Mjoll, bland one-liners that get repeated waaaaaay too many times over the course of the adventure. Quest design is similarly poor: virtually every quest in the game is either a fetch quest or a “go here and kill X” assignment. In a game with this many quests, spread out over so long a playtime, I’d like a lot more variety. I compare Skyrim’s quest design with the variety and interesting encounters in, say, New Vegas, and it isn’t a flattering comparison. Worst are the “sorry Dragonborn but our princess is in another castle” hamster wheel quest chains where you’re sent to fetch one item, only upon retrieving it to be sent off to fetch another, and then another, and then another. The Winterhold College questline was particularly bad in this regard.

    The awful level-scaling approach to RPG mechanics, which is one of the things that helped ruin Oblivion for me, is better this time around but still in no way ideal; the game’s balance is totally out of whack.

    Bethesda still, just like with Oblivion, has a serious problem in terms of its voice acting roster. Now, one can say that this isn’t their fault, there just aren’t enough good voice actors out there to fill the number of roles in the game. But that’s a poor counter, for two reasons. First, even granting that limitation, it beggars belief how many times I would be in a quest and have the same actor voicing multiple characters (at one point TWO DIFFERENT CHARACTERS in the same quest had a conversation with each other, both with the same voice); this stuff is unacceptable regardless of outside constraints. I have multiple companions voiced by the same actors. Second, it isn’t just a problem with the number of actors so much as the shoddy direction. A great voice director can take talented voice actors (and there’s no question there are very good ones in this game) and get at least some decent variance out of them (look at the number of totally different voices Nathan North is capable of). There is not even an effort toward that end in Skyrim. Every actor uses the same flat tone for each character they voice.

    All that being said, Skyrim still made my game of the year list, and that’s mainly because the world it created is so rich and beautiful and fun to explore. It’s a great setting, nice cultural change from the norm in RPGs, and is engrossing to wander around in, full of wonderful little touches. The cities were personable (moreso than all the characters in the game!) and the architectural style lovely. Is that enough for an RPG to be truly great? No… probably not. But I had so much fun with it anyway.
    (I also loved the game’s creation systems and found them a lot more usable and useful than most RPGs, but shhhh, don’t tell anyone)

  • Bibliotropic January 5, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    I wish I had more time to play video games. I’m trying to make the time by starting to do Let’s Play videos on YouTube, which will at least get me back into playing something even if I won’t end up playing it very often. I spent most of 2011 not playing video games, and I kind of miss all-night gaming sessions and ranting at the screen. :-D