2013 Indie Picks, Pt. 2

For part one, click here.

Carrying on from before, here are four more indie games that didn't quite make my game of the year list but are still absolutely worth your time.

Gunpoint

Tom Francis' Gunpoint is an inventive stealth-based puzzle platformer: you link electronics and switches in the environment so that your spy can safely complete his objective. Trial and error is encouraged as upon death you're given the option to rewind to multiple prior moments. Thus, Gunpoint is a game that fosters creative thinking over an easy solution (there are seemingly endless ways to clear each level).

Gunpoint's story is also a treat thanks to Francis' writing background. I won't spoil the surprises but expect to have your funny bone tickled by spy cliches and inane physics. A deadpan reason for why your pants let you survive falls from any height? Yeah, Gunpoint has that.

The Swapper

The Swapper is not just yet another puzzle platformer-- it's one of the best. Based around creating clones of yourself that mimic your movements, The Swapper has it all: clever puzzle design, beautiful claymation-esque visuals, a chilling soundtrack and a story told through the environment that meshes well with the core mechanics. What's even more surprising is that this is (the unfortunately named) Facepalm Games' first release. Don't let this game or development team go unnoticed, folks.

Kentucky Route Zero

For all those who like to denounce certain games as being games, look away from Kentucky Route Zero right now.

And if you're still reading, go buy Kentucky Route Zero right away. This surrealist, almost Lynchian point-and-click story whisks you away to a countryside full of oddities and irregular angles. Only the first two acts have been released (purchasing the game once will get you both plus any released in the future) so many pieces of the story are yet to surface but even at the present it's worth experiencing for the atmosphere alone. Hopefully the new acts will find their way onto Steam soon as I'm dying to know more.

The Wolf Among Us

TellTale's latest episodic adventure takes the meaningful choices of The Walking Dead and applies them to a pseudo-fantasy world in which fables live out their lives in a gritty 80s Manhattan. Characters aren't what you'd expect, exemplified by protagonist Bigby Wolf, a sheriff who tries to keep the peace despite his inherent struggles with inner-anger. Only the first episode of five is available but I've got faith that TellTale will follow up the excellent introduction with a story worth telling.

An update on my 2013 blog series

After blogging fell by the wayside over the holidays I'm re-evaluating how to finish my "Tim's 13 Days of 2013" series.

My plan was as follows:

  • Day 8: Indie Games, Pt. 2
  • Day 9: iOS Games
  • Day 10: Indie Games, Pt. 3
  • Days 11-13: Game of the Year list with 5 games per day

Instead of needlessly drawing this series out, I'll be crunching these into three articles:

It won't necessarily be a daily rollout. Expect the iOS and indie pieces soon, with the Game of the Year list coming some time next week in order for me to get it just right. It's going to be quite long if last year's list is anything to go by.

I have two other articles planned as well. The first is about The Sopranos/James Gandolfini and their impact on my decision to become a screenwriter. I'm also going to have a long-form opinion piece on iOS game Oceanhorn.

As always, thanks for reading and I hope you've enjoyed my look back at 2013 thus far. I was happy that I tried the thematically novel 13 blog posts but I feel it would only hurt the last bits of content to arbitrarily break them up.

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 7 -- YouTubers

So, the holidays happened and I went AWOL for the past week. I'll be putting up an update on what will happen with this series shortly after posting this. Sorry for the delay.

YouTube content creators came into their own in 2013. Despite hardships such as intrusive Google+ integration and the viciously overzealous Content ID system, YouTubers settled into their voices and their content benefited from it.

I've been a dedicated viewer of my subscribed channels for the past few years so I figure it's time I gave them shout-outs for the thousands of hours of entertainment they've offered me. Hopefully this doesn't come across as smoke-blowing as that isn't the intent-- I genuinely enjoy these people and want to share the love.

TotalBiscuit

Let's get the obvious out of the way: John "TotalBiscuit" Bain has turned his one man show into a behemoth of gaming criticism. His "WTF is" series of PC game first impressions is what you most likely know him for, but my favorite series is "Content Patch," a somewhat-daily commentary on recent gaming news. His Hearthstone videos have also become a favorite of mine ever since I started playing the game, introducing many new strategies into my repertoire.

What I really like TotalBiscuit for is his passion. For all the flak he gets, this is a man who loves his fans and his job. He cares about the quality of all his content, no matter how small. On top of this he makes a big effort to give back to the community. People may call him an egotist and I'd agree on the basis that you must have an ego to make YouTube a full-time job in the first place. However, that ego has gotten him far and I couldn't be happier for him.

Angry Joe

Joe "Angry Joe" Vargas might be the only YouTuber I watch more passionate than TotalBiscuit about his content. Perhaps ironically, I feel 2013 has been Joe's best year yet because he was less angry, saving his passionate rants for the moments in which they were most effective. He's come into his own and I can't wait to see what he does going forward.

Dodger

Dodger's daily vlogs have been an important part of my day for the past few years. At times they've been comforting, at other times informative, and often (ok, always) just plain silly. It always brightens my day to listen to her talk about life.

Rev3Games

Adam Sessler's arrival at Revision3 in late 2012 made Rev3Games skyrocket in popularity and for good reason: he turned an already great channel into one of the best sources for game critique. Along with Tara Long and, prior to his departure, Max Scoville, Rev3Games has hosted a wide range of excellent gaming-related shows for adult audiences. It's wonderful to watch Sessler find happiness in his job through newfound creative freedom that wasn't possible back when he worked in network television.

Vsauce

Michael Stevens is YouTube's Bill Nye. Ever wondered why bad words are bad, where deleted files go or if we're ready for an alien invasion? Stevens will give you the nitty-gritty in easily digestible form. I've been addicted to learning from him ever since the first Vsauce video I watched.

Smooth McGroove

Holy hell, this man is talented. McGroove recreates gaming classics in acappella with an exacting level of detail. AND he has an awesome beard. And an awesome cat. He is Smooth McGroove. He is awesome.

Hot Pepper Gaming

Internet personalities eat hot peppers before attempting to review a game. Need I say more?

Disney Shorts

Disney has brought Mickey Mouse to a new generation by going back to his origins. The 3-minute shorts pull inspiration directly from classic Mickey cartoons, applying a modern gloss to the effect of master-class 2D animation rivaled only by Studio Ghibli. In my humble opinion this is Disney's best work in years.

JonTron

Did you see his Ghostbusters TV show videos? Or his Matt Smith murder video? DID YOU? They're amazing.

Edit: Completely forgot two shows that aren't on YouTube: Jim Sterling's Jimquisition and GameTrailers' Pop Fiction. Watch both of those, fools.

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 6 -- A Vita FPS and a 3DS RPG

The Vita screams "FPS on the go" but every airdrop falls far short of its target. The 3DS begs for a strong JRPG line-up akin to the DS. This year we got steps in both directions.

Killzone Mercenary

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I rarely play first person shooters, mostly because I'm horrible at them. However, something about Killzone Mercenary's open beta piqued my interest. I was.... topping the kill counts in multiplayer matches? Had I found an FPS for me (and on a handheld no less)?

What strikes me about Killzone Mercenary is how it compensates for the less precise controls of the Vita-- you barely notice them. The placement of buttons along the sides of the touchscreen are a proficient use of the technology, with the only "gimmicky" bit being the swipe controls for melee combat. I sunk at least a dozen hours into the game's multiplayer mode, a constant rush heightened by the lack of voice chat.

Shin Megami Tensei IV

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Persona 3 Portable introduced me to the Megami Tensei series last year and I've been trying to scratch that itch ever since, first with Persona 4 Golden and then with Shin Megami Tensei IV. All I can say is wow, this game is hard. But darn, collecting personas-- ahem, demons-- taps into my inner Pokemon nerd and after that it's all over.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is first-rate old school JRPG dungeon crawling, full of all the grinding and depth that fans of the series have come to expect. A solid release from my favorite RPG development house.

Soul Sacrifice

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Soul Sacrifice is a nifty spell-based spectacle fighter on the Vita that had one of the best demos of the year to its deficit. After spending two hours playing through just some of the content in the demo I decided to buy the game, only to realize I needed to replay those same sections again. Ultimately that didn't happen, but I did make it a habit to read a chapter of the game's extensive lore before bed each night. Let me tell you, there's some twisted shit in the minds of these writers.

 

Tomorrow: it's Christmas so I'll be taking a break. I'll be back on Thursday with my favorite YouTubers of the year. I spend enough time watching them that I owe them a mention.

Until then, all I want for Christmas is a simultaneous worldwide release of my most anticipated 2014 release, Atlus baby.

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 5 -- Backlog Highlights

It was hard to catch up on my gaming backlog in a year stacked with heavy hitters. Still, here are five "older" games I enjoyed playing.

Sleeping Dogs

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Sleeping Dogs is a mish-mash of all your favorite kung-fu movies. You speed through Hong Kong in fast cars, punch people with your fists and kick them with your feet, and bound over rooftops in kick-ass chase sequences. Guns play a minimal role in the game, only showing up in select missions. It's refreshing to have an open world game that isn't a giant pew-fest, especially when the melee combat is endlessly satisfying.

This is retroactively one of my favorite games from 2012. It's pure fun. I can't recommend it enough.

I Am Alive

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I went into I Am Alive expecting little more than the sad shadow of greatness marred by troubled development but the experience I found was quite special, one that I couldn't put down until I had seen it all. I Am Alive's bleak world and survival mechanics sold me on the moment-by-moment struggle, a feat few pieces of entertainment achieve. Ammo and other resources are scarce meaning you'll need to make the most out of what little you have. I felt genuinely terrible when refusing other survivors the resources they needed.

And it does all this without relying on zombies or mutated beasts. Your opposition is human. They can and will kill you with the same deftness as you can kill them. Much like Spec Ops: The Line, I Am Alive will have you questioning the price of your motives.

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages / Oracle of Seasons

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I've dabbled in nearly every Zelda game created but, outside of Ocarina of Time, Oracle of Ages/Seasons were the first I saw through to the credits. For 12-year-old games multiple handheld generations in the past, these adventures hold up far better than I expected. The puzzles and combat quirks still felt clever all these years later, and the antiquated item-swapping system has taken on new charms with age. And then there's the caveat which I'll pre-emptively call myself a shameless casual for using--

The 3DS virtual console's freeze state capability is a boon for those of us who don't have the patience for death. Don't want to walk through the entire dungeon again if you fail a boss battle? Freeze state in the room before. Need a reset in case you screw up a puzzle? Freeze state that shit. Sure, it's technically cheating but it made a game I was playing to relax more enjoyable and that's of higher value to me.

Pokemon White

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There is one game, one company and one franchise that I'll admit to being a fanboy of: Chrono Trigger, Blizzard and Pokemon. But when Pokemon X/Y were announced in January, I was struck with horror upon realizing that the only generation I hadn't played a game to completion in was Gen. 5. The next month consisted of catching and battling my way through Unova, the first continent since Kanto in the original games where you only encountered new Pokemon until beating the Elite Four. And the Pokemon "PETA" story remains the most compelling told in the series.

Upon finishing White I moved onto Black 2, although I didn't get past the second gym. Whereas White felt new, Black 2 didn't strike me as "mine." The younger player characters and blunter writing held me back from imprinting myself onto the world. Luckily, a few months later my appetite for training would once again be sated...

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Tomorrow: honorable mentions for two great handheld games, one for Vita and one for 3DS. The fact that these two games didn't make my Game of the Year list is a testament to how incredibly strong 2013's gaming lineup was. Until then, this baby goat is the best baby goat.

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 4 -- TV Picks

I watch more television than I should. I'm also overly critical of what I watch, sometimes at the deficit of my enjoyment of the stories. That said, I felt far less critical of what I watched in 2013. Part of that is a thing of growing older but I like to think it was also a strong year for the medium.

There's no way I could possibly write about all the shows I enjoyed in 2013, such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, Girls and so forth. Instead, I'll be giving special mention to four shows that challenged me as a viewer (note that this is not a statement of my favorite shows of the year, although all four would be right up there).

The Killing

In its third season, The Killing finally became the gritty neo-noir crime drama that it always wanted to be. Detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (one of my favorite characters ever, period, end of story, he is the best, omg tier, FREAKING ROBOCOP) end up in the midst of a dark underworld of teenage prostitution. The show holds no punches, taking characters and their arcs in directions that will leave you shocked long after the dust settles.

Of special note is the season's B story of a man living out his final days on death row before he's executed on charges (that may or may not be legitimate-- watch the series for yourself!) of murdering his wife. The episode concluding this arc is one of the most disturbing hours of television I've seen.

Even if the first two seasons of the show turned you off, season 3 is a must-watch. If you never watched the show before then it may be worth skipping straight to this season as it's almost entirely self-contained.

Masters of Sex

While I've yet to watch the last few episodes of the series due to life getting in my way, Masters of Sex is the best new show in the past few years-- possibly since Homeland. As the name cleverly implies, this is a dramatic recounting of the sex studies of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson erected in the 1950s. I can't vouch for historical accuracy but the show itself is an absolutely compelling look at the intricacies of intercourse as well as a rare instance of tasteful sex talk in mainstream media.

What made Masters of Sex such an enjoyable show to watch was that it made sure to inject a lighthearted, fun attitude into even its most dire episodes. TV shows have a tendency to take themselves too seriously and thus become far harder to swallow. When I needed to kick up my feet and tune out life's stresses, Masters of Sex was my go-to. I can't wait to see where this goes next.

Arrested Development

Fans of Arrested Development seem to be split on the fourth season: some abhor the non-linear format while others welcomed the creative leaps of faith. I understand the sentiments of both sides but personally fall into the latter camp.

Arrested Development is easily my favorite comedy show of all time but I knew to be wary of its rebirth from past experiences with revived classics. That was until I heard they were trying something new instead of attempting to recreate past glory, which I'm nearly positive would have resulted in a train wreck. I enjoyed the challenge of piecing the intertwining character-centric episodes together, each offering new context to jokes from prior episodes that made them all the funnier. As for the callbacks, I feel Mitchell Hurwitz and co. did a swell job of keeping their potential for abundance in check.

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire's fourth season was an unexpected high point for the series. It paid off a plodding start with a back half consisting of the best episodes the series has to offer. It brought to the forefront parallels between the race issues of the 1920s and modern day, particularly employment. Old characters were given new life, new characters shook up the scene in meaningful ways, and characters whose stories were momentarily of lesser importance were kept in the background, something the medium has a hard time handling due to obligations to keep cast members working.

I also watched through the entirety of Boardwalk's first three seasons earlier in the year. For those who got turned off by the show's initially slow pace, stick with it. It'll all pay off in big ways that you must see for yourself.

One show I didn't mention here is The Sopranos, which played a gargantuan role in sending me down a new life path (and I don't mean to joining a suburban mob). I'll be covering this masterpiece in a blog post about a week from now.

Tomorrow: honorable mentions for non-2013 games I played in 2013. Until then... in memoriam (warning: Boardwalk Empire spoilers).

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 3 -- Indie Picks, Pt. 1

Indie games caused an industry-wide eruption in 2013. Nowhere is this more evident than in Sony putting indies at the forefront of their PlayStation 4 conferences and marketing pushes. The attention being directed to the little guys who are breaking new ground in interactive experiences is proving to be just the reinvigoration that the games industry needed going into the new console generation.

The indie games I'm highlighting today don't fit the description of ground-breakers, though. These three games reached into gaming's past to craft games of the purest form: challenging with the ultimate reward upon achievement: self satisfaction.

Spelunky

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While it technically came out on Xbox in 2012, Spelunky's audience surged this year with its release on Steam and PSN. I'm admittedly no good at the game but that didn't stop me from pouring hours into my quest to traverse my way out of the jungle (yeah, I'm really not good at Spelunky).

It's a roguelike platformer with an incredible amount of detail and strategy. Knowing how to get the most out of each facet will take you far but isn't necessary to succeed in the early game, thus making it easy for players of all skills to swing into.

My Spelunky experience was heightened through watching Destructoid's Conrad Zimmerman and Jordan Devore tackle the randomly generated daily challenges with deft skill in their "Daily Spelunk" YouTube series. The nuance of this game shines through when people who understand the ins and outs play it.

Guacamelee

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Metroidvania games aren't a rarity but good ones are. Guacamelee is a great one.

Guacamelee screams charm from its angular Mexican art style to the enveloping mariachi music. Memes and pop culture jabs line the world with the light world/dark world mechanic giving each twice the comedic value but what kept me interested in Guacamelee was the tight, gratifying combat.

Drinkbox Studios nailed precision controls on the Vita. Every punch felt deliberate and pulling off combos was virtually error-free. The way in which these combos integrated into both the combat scenarios and level traversal were consistently clever, and new mechanics were introduced on just the right beats to keep the game fresh throughout.

Guacamelee is a model for great game design and an absolute romp. With this and Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack under its belt, I can't wait to see what Drinkbox does next.

Bit.Trip Runner 2

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Runners are a dime-a-dozen these days. This wasn't the case when the first Bit.Trip Runner launched in 2010 but with the changing times, Gaijin Games had a lot to prove if it wanted the series to remain relevant. Oh boy did it do just that.

Runner 2 is a perfect mesh of rhythm and platforming. Commander Video's kicks, punches, slides and jumps weave into the addictive soundtrack like butter. It's a feat best experienced yourself.

The multi-tiered level design and small details best discovered first-hand sell the package. Go play Bit.Trip Runner 2. Discover it for yourself (this'll be the theme for a few other games in future posts in the series).

Tomorrow: TV! I highlight my favorite shows that aired in 2013. Until then, I must ask...

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 2 -- Yeezus

2013 has been an exciting year for music. There have been no shortage of jams from returning high-profile acts (Daft Punk, My Bloody Valentine, Justin Timberlake, Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie) to exciting upstarts (Haim, Savages, Lorde) and bands that seem to linger around (The National, Electric Six-- my favorite band). But only one album struck me as a timeless classic-to-be, a record that will be remembered as a defining cultural artifact of this decade:

Yeezus.

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Kanye West is an outspoken egotist, a celebrity who has no qualms about pushing his uncensored message come hell or high water. He's a fountain of a reality we prefer to ignore. One sip can and will turn away the weary.

But Kanye is also a creative genius without boundaries, a perfectionist whose struggle to achieve perfection only heightens his perceived ego. And on Yeezus, he knows it.

My first listen of Yeezus was, to say the least, jarring. It's primal and rough, a product of intentional design but nonetheless a far cry from the clean-cut production of his previous work. I'd never heard anything sounded quite like it. It wasn't until my second listen that I was clued into Kanye's intent--

"He'll give us what we need. It may not be what we want," preaches a choir of heavenly maidens on "On Sight," the album's opening track. Kanye is the anti-Batman, a hero we need but not one we necessarily deserve.

On Yeezus, Kanye rants about being a slave to the commercialism and excess of celebrity life, sexual tension in society, and an inability to express genuine love in the eyes of outsiders. Underneath the abrasive grit of his beats are themes that are glaringly apparent in modern society. Plus he throws in the touches of comedy that have been a staple of his style ever since The College Dropout; Kanye may be serious but he can't help tapping into his inner playful adolescent.

Yeezus is an album that everyone should hear or, at the very least, read the lyrics of. It's one of the most honest pieces of expression in 2013 and one that transcends the stereotyped labels of rap or mainstream.

Tomorrow: we return to games with my first round of indie picks. Until then, I gotta bring it back to the 'nolia.

Tim's 13 Days of 2013, Day 1 -- Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm

So ... hey. It's been nearly a year since I've posted on this thing. Don't worry, I haven't been cheating on you. I've just been busy finding my future. Nothing huge. I'll be here in 2014, though! You can count on that for better or (probably) worse.

With that formality out of the way, welcome to my end-of-year blog series which I'm (not-so) cleverly calling "Tim's 13 Days of 2013." Through the end of the year I'll be posting one blog post a day about the games (mostly), music, television, movies and events that made 2013 so pivotal for me. It all concludes with my lengthy Game of the Year list.

Today, an honorary game of 2013...

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The mythologies of Blizzard universes are all dear to my heart. Chris Metzen and crew always drum up tales that achieve overarching grandeur underlain by intimately charming characters. Experiencing a Blizzard story is like a warm, familiar blanket after weeks of traveling.

Heart of the Swarm reeled me back into its embrace from the opening moments. In many ways the story of this expansion was the culmination of everything the Starcraft series has been working toward: Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan's final showdown with the back-stabbing Arcturus Mengsk. It brought a fitting closure to a story 15 years with all the emotional beats you'd expect and then some.

Without delving into spoiler territory, Kerrigan's choice midway through the campaign is one of the most emotionally charged moments in the series yet — a moment where she put everything on the line for others at the detriment of her personal desires. It's a choice that only a strong-willed female protagonist could make. Anyone interested in the depiction of empowered women in gaming should experience Kerrigan's plight-ridden arc.

But Blizzard is a games company and Starcraft is a game, so how was the expansion itself? I can honestly say that I've never had a more engrossing solo real-time strategy experience.

I'm not all too good at RTS games, especially when the skill ceiling for baseline competitive play is as high as it is with the Starcraft franchise. That's why I appreciate the lengths Blizzard goes to in order to make their story-driven content accessible to the masses. Difficulty too high or just want to experience the story? Drop the difficulty down on a level-by-level basis. Don't know how to build a base? No worries, we'll ease you into the mechanics organically.

Playing through Heart of the Swarm's campaign was an incredibly fulfilling experience with each level providing a genuinely fun gameplay twist and each unit upgrade altering the gameplay in ways I can only describe as "epic." It captured the essence of the Zerg with overwhelming swarms and shifty genetic modification. Blizzard once again redefined what an RTS campaign can be.

Finally, a nod to the eSports scene. I'm a casual viewer of competitive Starcraft, but it's incredibly impressive and engaging to watch. Much of the credit goes to the shoutcasters who give the scene its welcoming personality. I can't wait to see the scene continue to grow in 2014 and beyond.

So that's my take on Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. I'll be back on Friday with the music that defined 2013 for me. Until then, remember that some things... are just worth fighting for.