Mark Trapp

Eleven games I enjoyed playing in 2014

From a seemingly year-long string of botched AAA releases to the creation of one of the worst things to come out of the culture that surrounds video games since Jamie Kennedy at E3 2007, it's easy to say that 2014 was not kind to video games.

Even so, there was a lot to like this year. I didn't get to play all of the interesting releases this year, but I did come up with 11 games that I really enjoyed and wanted to give a mention to.

Before I get to that list, I should point out that these are not the games I think are the best ones to come out in 2014: I don't play nearly enough games to be able to make that call in any year. And these aren't games that are perfect by any stretch of the imagination: every one of the games on this list has recognizable flaws. But they are games that I came back to time and time again this year, and are at least worth checking out if you ever get the chance.

Now, without further ado and in no particular order, here are the games I really enjoyed playing in 2014:

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII logo

The original Final Fantasy XIII is a polarizing game, particularly among longtime followers of the Final Fantasy series. I could write an entire article about why I don't think it deserved the flak it received, but it's enough to say here that I found myself enjoying it and the entire Final Fantasy XIII trilogy as a whole. While I played (and enjoyed) the last entry in the series, Lightning Returns, this year, in a way this entry is a shout-out to not just to it but for the trilogy, too.

On its own, Lightning Returns was a deeply flawed game, for sure: its ending is probably the best example of Deus ex Machina in recent memory, its time mechanics punished exploration in the most open-world entry in the trilogy, and it sucks that they scrapped arguably the best part of the previous two entries: the paradigm system.

But the risks it took when compared to all the other Final Fantasy games—from the battle system that rewarded both quick thinking and pre-planning, to the introduction of a real-time clock to introduce urgency into the normal "end of the world" narrative omnipresent in Final Fantasy games, to the callbacks to mechanics that saw far too little play after debuting in other Final Fantasy entries,1 to the way it developed normally-throwaway NPCs—made it a game I really enjoyed playing in 2014.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls logo
  • Genre: action RPG
  • Platforms: Mac, Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One (I played the Mac version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

I loved the original Diablo. I found a CD copy for Mac at a local computer fair and played it for hours on end, in part because it was one of the only non-shareware games I had for my family's Quadra 640 AV, but also because it took the Roguelike formula I loved from playing games like Moria and Angband to a whole new level.

Yet I didn't take to Diablo II: it replaced the simple dungeon delving from Diablo with a sprawling, story-based epic. I played it once just to see the story, but couldn't bring myself to replay that story over and over like so many people did. When Diablo III was announced, I balked at what appeared to be What-I didn't-like- about-Diablo-II-on-steroids: the Game. I received it for free as part of a promotion, and like Diablo II, I played it for the story and dropped it.

As it happens, not very many people were thrilled with how Diablo III turned out either, and Blizzard went back to the drawing board and the end result after two major patches and an expansion was a game I couldn't stop playing for months on end. The reworked loot system introduced in the 2.0 content patch and the rift system introduced in the 2.1 content patch lead to a "one more turn" feeling I usually only get when playing 4X games. When a rift only takes 10–15 minutes to complete, there were several nights where I'd hop into Diablo III after a long day for a quick rift, only to say "oh, I just got this upgrade, I want to see how well I do now" and wind up running 10 more.

It's still not a perfect game for sure, but I think it's very close to everything I want out of a game like this and takes me back to all that fun I had playing Diablo almost 20 years ago.

Endless Legend

Endless Legend logo

When I think about what types of games I'd make in a world where I was a game designer, the stuff coming out of Amplitude Studios for the past couple of years is pretty close to the mark. Endless Space, their 4X space-based strategy game, was one of my favorite games of 2013, and they knocked it out of the park again this year with a fantasy-based 4X follow-up, Endless Legend.

Taking place in a world that's rapidly entering into an ice age, Endless Legend uses the familiar 4X formula from Civilization and Alpha Centauri (taking more from the latter), but makes it incredibly hard to out-pace the game—a common problem in the 4X genre—by adding an increasingly longer and more frequent periods of winter, where resource generation and movement speed is heavily impaired.

I loved its take on dealing with another recurring problem in 4X games: the "stack of doom" where you produce so many offensive units and create an army that can't be destroyed before being perpetually reinforced with new units. Instead of just eliminating stacking altogether like Civilization V did, Endless Legend "expands" stacks during battles into a mini-game reminiscent of tactical RPGs like Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, allowing for much more strategic play even with large armies.

On top of all that, Amplitude Studios nails interfaces, forgoing the traditional trappings of overly-designed game UIs for a clean, minimalistic experience that puts systems and mechanics information—key to playing a 4X game effectively—front and center. There were some nits and rough edges in Endless Space's UI that were all addressed in Endless Legend, showing a great attention to detail and willingness to learn from even the smallest misstep. I can't wait to see what they come up with in 2015.

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft logo

I have a love/hate relationship with Hearthstone. There are a lot of things to love about it: it's easily the most polished card game out there, individual matches generally have excellent pacing when compared to other card games, and its monetization scheme is beyond fair. But at the same time, there are design decisions that easily make Hearthstone more frustrating to play than any of the other games on this list:

  • The interface outside of matches is clunky and overly simplified, leading to routine actions taking 5 or 6 clicks or having to come up with out-of-game workarounds to obvious limitations (spreadsheets and log readers to track more than 9 decks or win/loss stats)
  • The greater Hearthstone community is toxic, prone to hero worship, and overly focused on trying to make an otherwise casual card game into an e-sport
  • The meta-game—how people determine what the best way to construct their decks based on their determination of how other people are playing—has been stale for months, and the slow pace at which Blizzard releases or changes cards to combat that doesn't have too much of an effect

Despite all that, I still find myself logging in at least once a day to play a few matches. It's precisely because it's so much better at what it does than the rest of the competition that the faults it has are more jarring: Hearthstone shows that card games can be awesome to play electronically, even if it's weighed down by some noticeable flaws, and it makes me hope other companies (coughWizards of the Coastcough) eventually learn from Blizzard and release products that build upon what Hearthstone achieved.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley logo

A few years back, there was a game called Echochrome released on the PSP. I thought the premise was great: what if you could navigate an MC Escher painting by manipulating the camera? Unfortunately, Echochrome's controls were not very good, and it seemed like this idea was more fun on paper than it was in practice. Then along comes Monument Valley with the same premise but utilizing the touchscreen, and it turns out that's all this type of game needed.

Monument Valley's puzzles are just hard enough to make you pause for a bit to figure out how to start, or to try different things in hopes of coming up with a plan of attack, but not so hard as to be inscrutable or frustrating. The sound, level, and character design are all top notch. The one knock to it is that it's pretty short: I was able to complete all three chapters within about 2 hours. It's an understandable limitation: all of the levels are perfectly designed by a small team, but it does make me hope they keep keep releasing more level packs.


Threes! logo
  • Genre: puzzle
  • Platforms: Android, iOS, Xbox One (I played the iPhone version)
  • Official website

On its face, Threes! is a simple matching game. So simple, in fact, that it spawned an entire cottage industry of knock-offs that were, for a time, way more popular than Threes! itself. But while its general mechanics are easy to ape, Threes! demonstrates an attention-to-detail and an understanding of what makes a mobile puzzle game effective that leads to a lot more staying power. It's a game designed for mobile that gives hope that—despite all the crap that the mobile game scene has to deal with—mobile games don't have to follow the conventional rules in mobile gaming to work. There are no annoying calls for in-app purchases. There are no "wait" or "energy" mechanics. The music and visual aesthetic are simple, but pleasant.2 And unlike its knockoffs, it's impossible to game Threes! by simply sliding down and to the right repeatedly.

Threes! isn't the only mobile game I really enjoyed this year: I've already mentioned Hearthstone and Monument Valley and there were others that came and went. But its for all these reasons that when I grew tired of the others, I kept coming back to Threes!

Crypt of the NecroDancer

Crypt of the NecroDancer logo

Crypt of the NecroDancer would be a bog-standard procedural death labyrinth/Roguelike-like, if it were not for one thing: it's also a rhythm game. Instead of being able to move at will, you—and the monsters that inhabit the crypt—can only move in time with the beat of the background music. On paper, it seems like such a gimmick, but it winds up adding a hectic pace to otherwise tactical nature of Roguelike combat.

Crypt of the NecroDancer is also a game that does Early Access really well: it came out as a complete game, and they've been adding substantial amounts of content every month. Even after I got my fill of playing it after its initial release, there's been enough to come back to and have fun with every few weeks.

And man, that soundtrack: between the soundtracks for Desktop Dungeons, Canabalt, the original Binding of Isaac, and now Crypt of the NecroDancer, it's like DannyB can do no wrong.

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth logo

If I had to put it in writing, my favorite game of all time is probably Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. There are so many things that game did right by 4X games, especially at the time, and it helped demonstrate that video games can approach speculative philosophical and ideological issues in a way that used to be reserved to science fiction authors like Neal Stephenson and Frank Herbert.

So when Firaxis announced that they were going to release a new 4X game about colonizing an alien planet using the Civilization V engine, I was already in. Who could say "no" to a sequel to Alpha Centauri, even if for legal reasons3 they can't call it that? And Civilization V, especially after the Brave New World expansion, is one of the best 4X games ever made.

As it turns out, Beyond Earth is not Alpha Centauri II: while there are a lot of callbacks to Alpha Centauri, it lacks the tone of the original to even be considered a spiritual successor. But it's enough of a different take on Civilization V's mechanics to still be a game I had a lot of fun with.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth logo

In contrast to my feelings towards Beyond Earth's announcement, I knew that the Binding of Isaac was a game I never wanted to play. Everyone talked about how difficult it was, how much it tries to make you lose, and how much it rewarded twitch reflexes. These are all things that make me say, "I'll pass." And so I missed out on the initial discovery period of the Binding of Isaac and its expansion, Wrath of the Lamb.

But over the summer, I watched two people play Binding of Isaac: Patrick Klepek, now formerly of Giant Bomb, and Ryan "Northernlion" Letourneau. Their experiences with the game illustrated something a bit more subtle than "the Binding of Isaac hates you and wants you to fail." What I saw was a game that was no different than the classic, "Berlin interpretation" Roguelikes I love. There's a lot of randomized discovery and a lot of the game helping you figure out ways to cheese the mechanics—through overpowered combinations of items that drop—to eke out a win.

And when Binding of Isaac: Rebirth—a complete remake of the original—came out complete with Vita support, I decided to try it, and I've been hooked ever since. It's singlehandedly been the reason to use my Vita since Persona 4 Golden came out in 2012, and I find myself booting up and playing a run through Rebirth any time I want to clear my head.

Its aesthetic—a bizarre combination of religious iconography, latent mommy issues, and poop jokes—is definitely not for everyone, but if you can get past that (and the bugs that get introduced every time the game is updated), it feels almost perfectly designed, and I can't wait to see where Ed McMillen takes it for its first expansion.

FTL: Advanced Edition

FTL: Advanced Edition logo
  • Genre: real-time strategy / spaceship simulator hybrid
  • Platforms: iPad, Linux, Mac, Windows (I played the Mac version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

Like the Binding of Isaac, FTL was a game I avoided from the moment it was released. But I'm sad to say it was mostly out of spite than for more cogent reasons: it seemed like so many people were really into telling everyone about how great FTL was, how it was the only game they played, and how banal the rest of the games coming out were when compared to FTL. Not playing it felt like a statement against those people rather than anything about the game.

But when FTL: Advanced Edition–a combination expansion/remake of the original FTL—came out this year, I decided to give up the ghost on not playing it and try it out. I'm glad I did, because it's a great game. Not earth-shattering, not genre-defining, but great. Like many of the games on this list, I really got a lot of mileage out of playing a relatively quick run whenever I wanted to clear my mind, and it was probably the game I played the most throughout the spring.

Dungeon of the Endless

Dungeon of the Endless logo

Last, but not least, I come to Dungeon of the Endless. This game came out at probably the worst possible time for me: a month after Amplitude Studios's other game, Endless Legend and right when the Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Civilization: Beyond Earth dropped. But I managed to squeeze it in, and I can see it being a game I come back to a lot next year when the luster of Rebirth finally wears off.

A lot of the praise I gave Endless Legend also applies to Dungeon of the Endless: it has a great UI, and Amplitude Studios's knack for combining genres—in this case a procedural death labyrinth with 4X strategy—shines here. The hybrid gameplay has lead to a change in how I approach these types of games: a single, moderately-successful Dungeon of the Endless run takes about half as long as a 4X game, but about three times as long as a run in games like Binding of Isaac and FTL, making it very difficult to play in one session. The "forced" breaks helps prevent throwing a run due to fatigue, and I found myself taking breaks more often even in shorter games.

  1. Like the dressphere system from Final Fantasy X-2

  2. Who would've thought you could personify pieces in a sliding title game? 

  3. EA, the publisher of Alpha Centauri, still owns the rights to the name, precluding 2K Games—Firaxis's current publisher—from using it. 

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