So there was a point in time in which I would write about video game music every Saturday. I liked that, I wanted to get back to it. However there will be changes made to the format. Last time I did this I would put up a single piece of music and write a little bit about that. This time I don’t want to be as rigid with it, if I have something on my mind to say about music, I’m writing it down. Anyway here goes.
Recently I started listening to the Pat Metheny Group, an old Jazz Fusion band, admittedly I became aware of them through a recent anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. At the end of their album Still Life (Talking) this piano track comes on and every time I hear it I think of some small village at night-time in a Japanese Role-Playing Game.
There are certain musical artists I’ve listened to and it’s been very clear how they’ve influenced game composers. Stick on Emerson, Lake and Palmer and you’ll hear where some of the battle music from Final Fantasy comes from. Stick on Yellow Magic Orchestra and you’ll hear where a lot of inspiration for NES music.
While I don’t have a lot to say about this, I thought it would be interesting to bring it up. Maybe I could dive deeper in the future.
I would really appreciate feedback on this because I’m trying something new here. Feel free to leave a comment or bug me on Twitter.
It’s been an odd year for gaming. Developers are still getting used to the new consoles, and I don’t feel that there’s enough games out there that ‘took advantage’ of them. I’m curious to see how that will change in 2015.
There were a few games that were going to make this list, but I cut because I wanted to show off ten, as I usually do. This list is also not ordered, because if I did that I will probably change that tomorrow. Games that almost made it here were: Jazzpunk, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, Hyrule Warriors and Broken Age. There’s also plenty of other games to catch up with, and I could regret not putting them here.
However as it currently stands, these are the games that I thought were the best to come out of 2014.
Transistor looks fantastic, in my opinion it’s the best looking game I’ve played all year. Accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack, here we have an action-RPG that leaves great room for experimentation. There are so many different permutations of abilities you can give yourself, and picking out the right one feels so good, and makes the combat feel completely unique. The story falls flat, but it’s easy to overlook when the game is brilliant.
Dark Souls II (PC/PS3/360)
The common repeated comment from fans is that this one doesn’t quite live up to the first game, and they’re right. It doesn’t, but the best parts of Dark Souls II almost reach up to be as fantastic as the original. It doesn’t feel as special or unique as the original, but it’s still much better than a lot of games out there. The first Dark Souls is an incredibly high standard for action games, and to only be just a bit worse means it’s still a great game.
Super Smash Bros. (3DS/Wii U)
I’ve always liked Smash Bros. ever since playing the original N64 game. With this one I think they’ve nailed it. There might not be the extra bells and whistles like Brawl’s story mode, but when focusing purely on the fighting itself, I couldn’t be happier with it. The chaotic nature of 8-Player Smash is also something wondrous to behold.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XONE)
Ground Zeroes is a game that ‘gets’ Stealth, it feels like a modern update without any compromise. It’s the most challenging Metal Gear has been in a while, because you can’t so easily turn to shooting everything. With that said, you’re still given room to experiment. People complain because you only have one small area to roam around in, but it’s not just a small map, it’s a stealth playground that really isn’t lacking in stuff to do. This one has me very excited for future games in the series. Be warned that it does deal with some uncomfortable subject matter in very poor taste however.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC/PS4/XONE)
From playing this game, I get the feeling that they don’t quite get the themes of Lord of the Rings. The books have been about how power can be a serious corrupting force. This game is all about becoming incredibly powerful as that will beat the bad guy and save the day because it’s a video game. Though if you consider the game on its own merits, it’s very strong. Sure on the surface it plays a bit like Batman, and the main missions by themselves are a little lacklustre, but the “Nemesis System” really elevates this game. The more powerful enemies can sometimes really be a challenge, and they can benefit and rank up from killing you. An orc captain could keep killing you over and over and he’ll taunt you about it every time he sees you. This could all even happen in the middle of another mission. It does make it much more satisfying when you do take them down however, and that’s what makes this game so fun.
Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XONE)
I’ll admit, I haven’t quite finished this game yet despite putting over 70 hours into it. I don’t feel like I’ll be finished right away, this game is going to take me a lot of time, not just because it’s big, but because I want to take my time, I don’t want to be done with it so quickly. Bioware have managed to create some real good characters for this one, The Iron Bull is a particular favourite of mine. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a wonderful glimpse into an incredibly well-realised high fantasy setting. Whether it’s playing politics with stuffy nobles or a tense showdown against massive dragons, there’s a great time to be had here.
Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)
The original Bayonetta is one of the strongest Character Action games I have played, it oozes tonnes of style and has plenty of combat substance too. There was a sense of playfulness and increasing scale that made it so exciting to play. With the sequel they knew exactly what worked and what didn’t in the first game, and have somehow managed to create something even better. While it doesn’t bring any innovation to the genre, it refines on what is already there to bring a fantastic thrill-ride.
Wolfenstein: The New Order (PC/PS3/PS4/360/XONE)
I don’t know how they managed it, but Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to both tell a serious story and also be a ridiculously fun shooter to play. Even though it is a game where you shoot Nazis into tiny pieces, it’s in the moments where you’re just able to walk around and appreciate the world-building that help make this a much stronger game. Characters in it feel like real people, they’re not ridiculous caricatures.
Crimzon Clover: World Ignition (PC)
Shoot-em-ups seem to be coming back in a great way thanks to small companies publishing Japanese Indie titles like this one. This one is top of the game, and overcoming the manic patterns of bullets are incredibly satisfying, but on top of that is the “Break Mode” in which this ship you fly is able to fire almost enough bullets to cover the screen. It doesn’t make you invincible, you basically become a glass cannon, and once you start understanding the game, what was an inescapable mess turns into a pattern which you know just how to dodge. Let me tell you, getting to the final boss without dying once felt like one of the most exciting things I had done in a game this year.
The Talos Principle (PC)
If The Talos Principle was only comprised of its clever puzzles and little else, it would have made this list for certain, but that’s not all it had to offer. There’s a fantastic story in there all about what it means to be human, and while it’s possible to completely ignore it over the course of the game, doing so would lessen the experience. It also helps that the puzzles are pretty well designed. With certain puzzles it feels like solving them is teaching you a new trick or strategy you can use in the future. In terms of first-person-puzzlers it’s up there with Portal.
Freebird games make video games that look and sound a lot like mid-90s Japanese role-playing games, it’s an aesthetic they have completely nailed down. But they’ve removed core elements from them to create something that feels a little more like a traditional adventure game. To The Moon completely eschewed with combat and focused on exploration of areas in order to tell its story, it involved a lot of characters talking to each other.
Their most recent game, A Bird Story, does away with even more. There’s no dialogue at all and it’s a much more scripted linear experience that would probably upset the same people that would say that Gone Home and Proteus are not video games. It uses so little traditional game mechanics in order to tell a story of a boy bonding with an injured bird. It also can be finished in an hour.
But let’s look past that really, it’s not like this game costs a lot, it’s short but really sweet. The thing that really grated me about To The Moon is that portions of it felt too ‘video gamey’ and somewhat diminished the emotional impact of certain sequences. A Birds Story takes a much more minimalistic approach like something you’d see in a Sylvain Chomet film, though not quite as tear-jerking. There was no point where I had to engage in annoying video game rubbish in order to progress.
It’s so simple, it only uses the arrow keys and spacebar for controls (a controller is also supported). I suppose because it’s using old fashioned sprite graphics, the mind does a lot to fill in what’s going on, the music helps a lot, especially since a lot of it feels completely tailored to fit each moment. A couple of times I noticed that the game and music felt really in sync with each other, which helped to elevate some of those moments.
Sure I only got an hour out of it, but during that hour I had a smile on my face.
If you’ve only seen some footage of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, you’d be a little forgiven for thinking it’s just like every other big-budget game out there. Its movement is lifted straight out of Assassin’s Creed and its combat is taken right from the Batman: Arkham games. The story is some generic revenge fantasy that video game writers seem really into these days. I don’t think that does a good job of selling this game, because as bog standard as I’ve made it sound, it’s actually great.
On top of the game’s risk-free open-world structure, is a system that has brought about equal amounts of frustration and satisfaction. Basically it’s what has been described as the “Nemesis System”. For those unfamiliar amongst the orc enemies around the game are named captains and war chiefs. They can pop up at any time, like when you’re just wandering around, or even during a main mission. They’re hard to take down, and if they kill you they will let you know about it the next time you come across them. They’re persistent too, if you take them down they could potentially come back to fight again.
Each time you die against an orc it’s annoying because they get more powerful because of that, but it was such a good system because I felt that fuelled my desire to fight back. The one guy who kept killing me would be my target, but there was always a small feeling of panic when they would turn up out of nowhere. It also made dying in the game a lot more meaningful, it was punishing as opposed to being just a temporary roadblock. Each of the orcs were likely randomly generated out of certain elements, but there was enough unique about each of the ones I encountered that I always recognised my worst enemies.
This system elevated the game to be much more exciting than similar ones out there. It’s great how one aspect can change how a game flows, but wait I’m not quite done yet.
About 2/3rds of the way through the game you get the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and make them fight for you. It’s thematically problematic (you basically enslave them) but mechanically satisfying. You could sneak up on orcs, brand a few and have them fight each other while watching from the shadows. I personally found it much more fun to charge in head first into a big battle, fill up my combo meter so that I could brand them mid-battle, and gradually turn a huge crowd that was all against me into my own army. And yes you can take over the minds of captains and war chiefs too, which you can command to take out other orcs in the hierarchy. At this point it has some light strategy elements as you pit captains against each other. It’s just a shame that you have to get through roughly 60% of the game to get to the best part.
These extra layers make Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor one of the most interesting games to come out this year. I couldn’t care any less about the story but just the act of playing it was really fun, and in a big-budget game like this one I really appreciated that.