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Friday, November 23, 2012

18 Great Games You Might Not Have Played in 2012

It's finally getting to the time of year where all the big games are out and I can sit down and think for more than five minutes, so my thoughts are naturally turning from 2012's huge releases to the other stuff - the smaller, often more interesting games that have stuck in my mind as the months have gone by. For me it's often these games that give the year personality; where the schedule of big releases is pretty much the same every year (a few in January, a few in April/May, maybe one in summer, and an avalanche from September onwards), these games pop up unexpectedly, brightening a weekend or a lunch break or a cold February afternoon. The evolving nature of game narrative, particularly, has been a theme for me this year - games from The Walking Dead to Dear Esther have been ignoring the conventions of interactive storytelling, often with huge success.

If you’ve got hours to fill as the year putters out, these are 18 games well worth your attention that you might not have heard of before, ranging from 15-minute indie experiments to console games that perhaps came out at the wrong time or slipped by under the radar. Got any more suggestions? Leave them in the comments, and we might have enough for a follow-up.

Thirty Flights of Loving:
Thirty Flights of Loving is about 15 minutes long, as minimalist in its visuals as it is in its storytelling, and drops you straight into a linear, first-person narrative about love, betrayal and grand heists. It progresses at breakneck pace, bombarding you with imagery and incidental detail that might fly straight over your head the first time through. It tells a story almost entirely without words, written or spoken; this is the videogame equivalent of punchy, avant-garde short fiction. You can buy it for $5 on Steam, or direct from creator Brendan Chung. You won't regret it.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward:
This one came out right in the middle of big-game frenzy in the US and is out this week in Europe, and so almost nobody has played it yet - which is madness, as it's apparently very good indeed. It's a visual novel (an interactive story with puzzles, excellent voice work and lovely 3D animation) about a prisoner's dilemma: give up your accomplice and reduce your own time, or keep quiet and risk betrayal. It's a complex maze of intersecting timelines, actions and consequences. It's a hell of an interesting alternative to a holiday novel.

Dear Esther:
Yet another fascinating experiment in interactive storytelling, Dear Esther is a stunningly beautiful four-hour tale told through a combination of desolate, Scottish-island imagery and florid, ambiguous prose read out by an invisible narrator. It is exactly as pretentious as it sounds, but also really very good if you like this sort of thing, and even if you don't, you should give it a try. It's usually about $10/£7 on Steam, but it's in the sale until November 26th.

Slender properly messed up my mind (and my sleep pattern) for a good few weeks earlier this year. It's the most deeply frightening game I've ever played. You' are alone in a very creepy, dark forest full of mysterious, abandoned structures with just a torch for company, and as you walk around and find increasingly disturbed pages of scribbled notes lying around, you become aware of a menacing presence following you. Sometimes you'll see him out of the corner of your eye, sometimes you won't be able to shake the feeling that he's right behind you. It's perfect example of economy in game design. Winter's drawing in, so now it's dark enough outside to play it at its scariest. It's free, and you can download it from

Hotline Miami:
Hotline Miami is a stylish, subtly disturbing neon murderfest that assaults your eyes with extreme pixellated violence and your ears with mind-scrambling, fantastic 8-bit tunes. The premise: you turn up at a building and kill everything in it whilst wearing an animal mask. It's one of the most challenging twitch-games of recent times; you succeed or fail in an instant. But it's challenging in other ways, too - its story is dense and cynical, and as well as being an arrestingly excellent video game, it's also a brutal parody of the nature of games and what they express. It's pretty stunning. It's $10 from Steam or Good Old Games.

Okami HD:
The only game ever to out-Zelda the Zelda series - in my estimation, anyway - Okami is a gorgeous artefact steeped in rich, intricate Japanese mythology. It is one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful games ever made, and where the original PS2 game employed an the ink-on-papyrus filter that was both a visual signature and a way to compensate for the console's limitations, in HD the game's art is crisp and gorgeous. It's not a great time for the Japanese games industry, but this extraordinary game reminds us of what the country's best developers have achieved.

Tokyo Jungle:
Tokyo Jungle is superbly bonkers. You can, if you're good, kill a raptor with a Pomeranian. You can breed a litter of beagles and attack a lion with them. There are several different types of cat. The most surprising thing about this PSN game isn't how unexpectedly original it is, though, or how comfortingly, Japanese-ly mad it is, but how much depth it offers; unlocking all the animals and completing the story isn't the work of an afternoon.

Binary Domain:
It didn't exactly rocket up the charts, but listen to Binary Domain's proponents and they'll tell you it's one of the most interesting games of the year. It's a cover shooter, yeah, but one with unconventional enemies and characters who slowly develop from generic soldierdudes into actually quite interesting sorts. This isn't one I've played myself, but because so many people have told me there's more to it than first appears, it's in my holiday game pile.

Spelunky, released in HD this year on Xbox Live Arcade and available for free on PC, stole entire weekends of my life this year. Playing a brave little explorer, you descend through progressively deadlier caves to uncover their secrets below-ground. It's randomly generated, so no two games are the same, and it's also *incredibly* difficult. Many players won't even see more than the first few caves, never mind its more obscure secrets. You don't get many games like this any more, with this kind of figurative and literal depth and so many hidden secrets; you genuinely feel like an explorer. It's even better in co-op.

Frog Fractions:
I'm not giving you a video of Frog Fractions because I don't want to spoil it for you, but I will say this: you will do many things in Frog Fractions, but you will almost certainly not learn anything about fractions. It is hilarious, deranged and totally unexpected, takes about 30-45 minutes to play through, and will leave you a subtly changed person. It’s completely free and you can play it on creators Twinbeard Studios’ website. One tip to unlock its secrets: go down.

Spec Ops: The Line:
It's not necessarily an amazing shooter, but Spec Ops: The Line is a fantastic game nonetheless, because it does what no other military shooter with lofty ambitions has ever actually pulled off: it makes you think about war, and about how it's treated in games, and why we approach them the way we do. It's interesting enough for someone to have written a book-length close reading of the game and its themes called "Killing is Harmless". It's a game you can finish in one Sunday if you play straight through, but it remains in the mind for much longer. I very much hope it turns out to be an inspiration for the genre rather than a flash in the pan.

Sine Mora:
This is one I've missed, and it looks amazing. A "dieselpunk" old-school arcade shooter with shades of The Matrix's grim cybernetic future and the ability to control time? And animal pilots? Sign me up, I'm there.

Sleeping Dogs:
If you're really looking forward to GTA V, Sleeping Dogs is especially worth playing over the holidays. It's a very violent, very polished, very enjoyable open-world crime game whose central kung-fu crime movie story is, for once, as interesting as all the optional chaos you can take part in. It's quite directed for an open-world game, but it's also very slick and consistent, with very little superfluous fluff. And it's got lots of achingly cool costumes, which is always a plus.

Velocity is a combination of puzzler and vertical shooter, out on the PlayStation Store - it's a Mini, so it's only £4. It's a wonderful homage to retro score-attack shooters, but one that's bursting with original ideas as well. It appropriates the aesthetic and cheerful, futuristic chiptune of the past and grafts it onto sprawling, inventive levels that are more reminiscent of Metroid than Ikaruga. It's especially well-suited to Vita, but can be played on PSP and PS3 too.

Super Hexagon:
Terry Cavanagh's brain-melting twitch-puzzler is gaming at its most elemental. Rotating a tiny triangle around a central point as flashing, deadly patterns come rushing towards the centre of the screen, you become one with your primal gaming nature, responding with nano-second precision to incoming hazards. Awesome music pulls you further into the zone. Last more than five seconds on your first try and you're quite possibly a prodigy. It's $3 on the App Store. I'm still waiting on an Android version.

Project Zero 2/Fatal Frame 2:
Re-released on Wii this year, bizarrely, Project Zero 2 (or Fatal Frame in America) is "an enduring classic that every horror fan should have in their collection", according to our reviewer. Wii controls enhance rather than ruin the experience, and the lack of progress and innovation in the horror genre becomes disappointingly apparent as you play through and realise that nobody's really done anything as ambitious as this in the nine years since it came out on PS2.

Mark of the Ninja:
We've had two great stealth games this year: Dishonored, which is really only a stealth game if you're enormously restrained, and Mark of the Ninja, which is what Shinobi would be if it were 2D and made by the guys who did Shank. Its art and animation draw you in, but you stay for the hardcore stealth.

The Last Story:
I think we can safely say now that this was the Wii's last great game. It's not the JRPG revolution that Xenoblade Chronicles was, but it's a heartfelt story that moves along at a compelling pace, and the combat system is a great innovation. Great characterisation and localisation work together with Nobuo Uematsu's musical score to elevate the presentation, too.