Games are expected to challenge, impress with their technology or engross players in an interactive narrative.
Though we’re only halfway through 2013, there are already a slew of games going above and beyond those expectations. They’re exploring personalities in “The Last of Us,” greed in “The Cave” and love among dragons in “Fire Emblem: Awakening.”
Other must-play titles include the Swedish fairy-tale horror story “Year Walk” for the iPhone, the Wii U’s police parody “Lego City Undercover,” the charming “Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon” for the 3DS, the hilarious puppet-like platformer “BattleBlock Theater” for the Xbox 360, the Day of the Dead-themed “Guacamelee!” for the PlayStation Vita and the PS3, and the mobile choose-your-own adventure “Sorcery!”
Overwhelmed? In a few weeks, there will be an onslaught of new titles for Sony PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One to make it worse. Where to start? By catching up here on my top five games of 2013 so far.
1.“Fire Emblem: Awakening” (Nintendo 3DS)
There are plenty of intense, turn-by-turn battles in “Fire Emblem: Awakening,” many of them featuring creatures and characters familiar to any Dungeons & Dragons or “Game of Thrones” fan. I’ve logged more than 70 hours with this game this year, but it has nothing to do with its drama-packed time-traveling plot and epic fantasy battles. No, it’s hearing one of the characters say these four words: “Will you marry me?”
The most intoxicating battles here are between hearts and not among sorcerers and wraiths. The fireballs are neat, but more fun is marrying off a pair. And no magic spells, apparently, can stop guys from uttering awkward pickup lines.
This is the rare game with dragons that isn’t about dragons at all but is focused on personalities. “Fire Emblem: Awakening” even subverts gender roles in games. Many power positions are held by women, and while there’s sadly no gay marriage, the bromances here are loud and proud.
2.“The Last Of Us” (PS3)
Heading into 2013 I couldn’t have been less interested in “The Last of Us.” Mention the word “zombie” and I’m generally bored before the second syllable. So what a pleasant surprise it was to find that “The Last of Us” took cues not from countless sneak-and-shoot games before it and instead found inspiration in the more patient violence of the film work of the Coen brothers.
For much of the game, characters assume control of Joel, a down-on-his-luck smuggler given the task of escorting a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, who may or may not hold the key to ending the zombie apocalypse. Depending on how you play, one can go hours without a shot fired and focus rather on the telling conversations between the two.
Listen as Ellie pesters Joel with forlorn curiosity about what it was like to be alive before the zombie apocalypse. Did he frequent coffee shops? What kind of music did he listen to? The result is a game that gives us characters worth fighting for.
3.“The Cave” (Multi-platform download)
Seven characters, all of them despicable. They’re gathered to explore a cave — a talking cave, that is. The cave tempts those who venture inside of it with their lifelong dreams. For one gap-toothed guy, it’s a girl, but this high-society lady is obviously out of the league of the shoeless, rural weirdo. For a mad scientist, it’s the key to the world’s weapons. For an archaeological-minded heroine, it’s chasing not academic glories but newsreel fame.
In the pursuit of each of these goals, characters disregard any long-held morals they may have once had. But this head-first dive into the depths of greed is equally accessible and charming, as famed game designer Ron Gilbert (“The Secret of Monkey Island”) emphasizes humor, simple platform exploration and borderline wacky puzzles.
4.“Gunpoint” (PC download)
Spy-for-hire Richard Conway doesn’t have much use for guns. Instead, he has what are essentially magic pants.
The man can soar — onto rooftops, through windows and straight down on top of unsuspecting guards. In this tightly constructed game — expect to spend between five and 10 hours completing it — players are thrown into a noir-like world where guns in the U.S. are outlawed. If the game shies away from making a political statement, it’s clear how it feels about guns in games: They’re overused to the point of limiting innovation.
Players can’t blast their way through levels here, so Conway must use his wits (or borrow the players’ wits). The press of a button on the keyboard reveals an alternate view of each landscape, one in which electrical wires can be redirected to Conway’s advantage.
5.“Tomb Raider” (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
Men throughout this reboot of the famed Indiana Jones-inspired series are continually caught behaving badly. Though the plot ultimately dissolves into some silliness regarding a Sun Queen, much of “Tomb Raider” feels nothing short of brave.
Gone is the breast-first, weapons-later interpretation of Lara Croft, and in its place is a pants-wearing young woman who kills, yes, but only after her own life is threatened via sexual assault. Oh, she just happens to be trapped on an island with a male collective that routinely lusts after her, fears her and attempts to deceive her.
All parties involved in the game insist they weren’t making a “statement,” but the game makes quite a big one. As Lara fires an arrow into one bone-headed dude after another, one can’t help but feel she’s really taking aim at all the guns-and-boobs games of the last two decades.
– Todd Martens | @toddmartens
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