At the end of 2014, we can confidently state that the next gen is finally here. As much as we wanted to will the next gen into being by having two shiny new consoles on the market in 2013, the simple fact of the matter is that this is the first generation of games where we can no longer measure the advancement of gaming in scale and horsepower, but ideas. Not to say that the console power trip hasn’t been very good to our eyes this year, but watching tried-and-true ideas evolve into something better is a greater source of awe than how many pixels were rendered in the process.
In another year, the presence of so many sequels might have been a cause for alarm, a symptom of a bigger problem of recycling and watering down the impact of old properties to the point of rendering them utterly trivial. And yet, one looks over this list and sees every sequel, every reimagination, every established series swinging for the fences. This is even a year where Activision’s annual song and dance with Call of Duty resulted in a much more kinetically ambitious game than the series has shown us since the first Modern Warfare. We were given our first truly brilliant Alien title. Wolfenstein finally managed to reclaim its former glory with a measure of character/narrative polish. And Nintendo as a whole finally has the Wii U positioned as a full-time, reliable fun machine.
And so, the running theme of this year’s cream of the crop appears to be the advancement of ideas, games that evolve and toy around with the status quo of genres, use the new technology to do what was never possible, or use old technology to do something very different, and not necessarily let it be colored by nostalgia alone. The titles we voted for represent the shape of the future, a robust portent of things to come, and if this is the direction of the industry, this may be a slate we look back on as ground zero for something that transcends everything that came prior. Justin Clark
Child of Light
Child of Light was developed using the UbiArt framework development platform, the same engine that powers Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. That series’s pedigree can be felt in multiple places here, but the game has grander, more awe-inspiring ideas. Fairly simple, archetypical fantasy designs are married with a gentle, dream-world fluidity of motion, and a quirkiness that’s pretty much all its own. It’s a world somewhere between Yoshitaka Amano’s old-school Final Fantasy art and a Studio Ghibli film. It invites players to slow down and explore more of the vast, detailed tableau that Ubisoft Montreal has created here, instead of running circles in it to level grind. Child of Light is a living storybook, and if there’s another game with such ambitions, it’s a near-certainty it wasn’t executed with this much beauty, heart, and care. Clark
You could say that Shovel Knight came out of nowhere to become one of the year’s most memorable independent titles, but that would be doing it a bit of an injustice. Sure, this was relatively unknown company Yacht Club Games’ first project, but they needed a successful Kickstarter campaign in order to get it off the ground. After a brief preview, donors from all walks of life believed in the end goal enough to make ample contributions, reaching almost quintuple the initial $75,000 target. With the funds they required and then some, the creative team was able to put together an immaculate homage to NES groundbreakers like Mario Bros., Castlevania, DuckTales, and Mega Man. The core DNA of Shovel Knight is composed of vintage charisma, but the game still manages to feel stunningly contemporary. A sort of 8-bit Dark Souls, its numerous challenges will have your stress level skyrocketing, but it’s a beguiling tension you can’t help but return to time and time again. Mike LeChevallier
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
Diablo III’s first expansion, Reaper of Souls, was the video-game equivalent of the song of the summer. The new Adventure Mode allowed players to essentially play the most addictive chorus of each track on a loop, and the redefined lyrics went something like this: “Because you know I’m all about that loot, ’bout that loot, no trouble.” Earning new skills for preexisting characters or mastering those of the new Crusader class provided a ready-made hook in which to grind bosses and gear, while fresh environments and enemies and post-release balancing patches only reinforced this most diabolic gaming addiction. “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in,” indeed, and if these colorful, labyrinthine, monster-laden territories represent hell, then 2014 is to blame for a new generation of fallen angels. Aaron Riccio
Transistor is a bit of a throwback to the purity of early action games, in that you don’t need to understand a lick of the story. (It’s enough to simply admire the sleek, neon-noir presentation.) Instead, you need merely master the language of its weaponry, specifically the sword-shaped Transistor, which can be programmed with thousands of unique combination attacks. As in Hotline Miami, combat becomes a sort of puzzle, whereas its hybrid mechanics of turn-based and real-time action put AAA titles like Dragon Age to shame. Ultimately, even when the recursive, Matrix-like plotting turns out to be more substantial than it appears, it’s the ever-evolving combat (with opponents also learning new skills) that keeps the replays coming. Riccio
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Plainly put, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze does for the Wii U what Donkey Kong Country did for the SNES. If you don’t own a Wii U, and happen to see someone else playing Tropical Freeze in close proximity, you’ll be promptly digging under couch cushions and upending cup holders for spare change in order to procure Nintendo’s latest console and a copy of Retro Studios’ finest production to date. The game looks amazing and plays even better, enhancing everything the Wii’s Donkey Kong Country Returns did by taking advantage of the previously untapped powers of the Wii U. High-definition graphics serve Donkey Kong and his simian brethren extremely well, their furry pelts swaying in the wind, their vine-swinging made that much more fluid with the lag-less framerate at hand. The stage design is unadulterated platforming supremacy; there’s not a subpar selection in the bunch, making Tropical Freeze the go-to DK experience for both greenhorn gamers and those who still keep their Super Nintendo stowed away just in case a certain, otherwise insatiable urge kicks in. LeChevallier