Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013 - art direction.

Not overall presentation, or even tech - just the artist's eye.  In a year that highlighted low-art visuals in the pixellated Hotline Miami and the blocky, grayscale (hugely affecting) Papers, Please, it's worth noting that art direction doesn't simply mean beautiful - but beauty sure doesn't hurt, either.  These are the most wondrous worlds of 2013.

Things are getting painfully close to the actual end of the year, so let's tighten things up a bit.


honorable mentions

runner up (tie)

I'm always a bit alarmed when Naughty Dog places so highly on these lists.  They're a bit like a first-year photography student showing off their oh-so-deep studies of a chair with light and shadow working in just such a way.  "Ooh, you can make the mundane beautiful, aren't you special?"

We've seen a million chairs and we've seen post-apocalyptic futures so many times, particularly in the video game space.  We've been inundated with interpretations of desperate slums and destroyed cities, but Naughty Dog - like that insufferable college student - manages to take light and shadow and color and composition and turn a decaying world into something so striking that here as there it's hard not to feel a bit envious of and attracted to them.

"In the two decades since humanity abandoned their cities and superhighways, nature has begun reclaiming the country. The Last of Us is a noble examination of the liquid flow of plant life and the irrepressible survival of fauna, both of which manage just fine without our interference.  Rats scurry from a room when you approach too close to where they cower, birds take to the skies (in gorgeous flock patterns) when disturbed, and these are the tamest examples of the comforting, striking, affecting views Naughty Dog sprinkles throughout the game. 

There's a scene in a sewer.  A car had long ago crashed through the ceiling, and is now washed entirely in a beautiful green moss, half-submerged in the water that's flooded the room, a young tree sprouting from its windshield with sunlight trickling in from the gaping hole above to feed the life below.

There's a hallway in an old office building that groans awkwardly at a fifty-story angle.  Rain patters down a nearby window, and grass grows there.  It's taken root in the carpet at the end of the hall - but only reaches as far as the nourishing sunlight filtering through the window will allow.

It's a world built on scientifically-supported suppositions of "what if," but it's also a series of very-intentional, gentle bends to lighting, weather and thus atmosphere.  An energetic mix of locales which come together with the game's action to support all the subtleties of the narrative and inform tone, reinforcing and amplifying the emotions that carry our heroes through their adventure.

Dense in detail, rich in character, gorgeous in motion, purposeful in execution. Such craft."-from the review-

runner up (tie)

I was this close to giving Muramasa the overall best nod until I started writing about our next game - but it is, at this point, worth noting that Muramasa and The Last of Us are both entirely worthy of receiving the prize.  In both the broad strokes and its detail work, Muramasa Rebirth is a twenty-hour orgasm of sublime, explosively colorful art.

"Take the above image, for example.  The paper lanterns sway ever-so-slightly, their lights flickering from within.  The cherry blossoms waft on the breeze.  The trees in the foreground rustle gently and, through the paper walls of the buildings, you can see the shadow silhouettes of citizens going on about their lives as Momohime dashes past.  You can slip in to an open window to speak with a sultry courtesan, absently smoking a pipe.  Cats stretch and yawn on rooftops as you fly by - and that's just one of dozens upon dozens of equally lushly-realized settings. Take into account the stunning work done on the bosses, enemies, NPCs and most of all the player-characters - where, once again, little touches and details elevate an already impressive showing - and Muramasa Rebirth is something very, very special.

When running through a scene, for example, your character's little legs will gently speed up until they're struck through with tiny, almost imperceptible blur lines.  After dashing for a bit, they will - just for a moment! - glance towards the player before putting their eyes back on the road ahead.

So subtle, you're not even sure you saw it."-from the review-

For anyone with an affection for Japan in general and the days of vicious swordplay with elegant, gently curved blades, Muramasa Rebirth is an absolute gem.  Its environments are more deeply detailed than our next game, its canvas much, much larger as it shuttles the player from snow-covered peaks to a literal stairway to Heaven to the bowels of Hell.  It is, essentially, flawlessly-presented, and as much as I absolutely love its art direction, I must relegate it to second place in the shadow of what Vanillaware followed it up with.

best art direction



I'm going to use a lot of screenshots, if you'll permit me.

Tiny ferns shoot up from between the cracked cobblestones of a long-deserted plaza.  The walls of this lost city are intricately carved with figures, recalling the architecture and art of 450 B.C. Greece.  The ancient metropolis's ruins stretch out to the horizon, where waning sunlight bleeds through soft clouds - and this is one screen, of one zone, of a twenty-hour game (assuming you don't end up investing hundreds of hours in it, which you certainly can).



frame is something you may want to consider having up on your wall - and oddly enough, going back through the three (?!) reviews of Dragon's Crown I've written, I only ever grazed across its remarkable aesthetic.

Not merely absolutely gorgeous at every turn, Dragon's Crown is a master's thesis of art history. While adventuring, you'll come across the bones of fallen heroes.  If you pick them up and bring them to the temple in town, the Monk there can resurrect them - cherubs descending from above to breath life into a corpse oddly reminiscent of Giuseppe Sanmartinos's The Veiled Christ

The Princess, Duke and Count who rule Hydeland all look like the breathing portraits of Renaissance-era nobility (with huge, dewy eyes).

Its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, one of the game's bosses is a direct nod to the killer rabbit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

The Lost Woods - B route.

while another level sees you approaching and navigating a tower that bears a striking resemblance to The "Little" Tower of Babel by 14th century painter and printmaker Pieter Brugel (the Elder).

The Forgotten Sanctuary - B route.

Before venturing out into the world to adventure, a hero should always stop by the temple and pray before the statue of Althena (her name a reference to an old Sega CD RPG), which provides a variety of passive buffs like XP gain.  The parallels between the legendary 190 B.C. sculpture Nike of Samothrace - a piece said to commemorate a great victory (artist unknown) - and the Goddess Althena's statue are obvious.

The list goes on and on, and these example of the game's nods to classic and popular western fantasy are merely a handful of those spotted by a much sharper mind than mine in a single trailer for Dragon's Crown.  The game represents a bit of a leap for developer Vanillaware, whose previous efforts Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade both leaned heavily on an 'anime' style.

Odin Sphere and Muramasa : The Demon Blade.

Echoes of that aesthetic linger, here, in the "dewy eyes" of Dragon's Crown's female heroes and damsels, but more than in any of Vanillaware's past work, Dragon's Crown encourages the player to see the brushstrokes that went in to every character, every location.

The Mage's Tower - B route.

Instead of attempting to shock the player with the staggering detail of its backdrops (as in Muramasa), Dragon's Crown allows soft, almost-watercolor dabs to evoke worlds that feel like the classic paintings that inspired its locales - their colors muted and lightly dulled as if by centuries of exposure to sun and air.

The Fighting Man of Mars.

It dips yet further into the realm of western fantasy by directly recalling the work of legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Not simply in its (deservedly controversial) treatment of nearly all female characters as ultra-sexy, half naked warrior women or damsels to be rescued, but in its exquisite use of luminous skin and the warm, sensual flesh tones it employs across both genders.

Morgan the magic shop owner and Roland the Barbarian.

AI companions Tiki and Rannie.

The game pays equal homage to its genre's heritage with mechanics and art that recall our fondest memories of Golden Axe and the similar 2D, sidescrolling action RPGs of our childhoods, whether it's riding an awesome panther into battle,

The Old Capital.

throwing down with a rampaging wyvern

The Old Capital - Route A.

or just munching on fantastical foodstuffs - for Dragon's Crown wouldn't dare begin and end at pixellated turkeys.  When you and your party make camp after a long day of adventuring, it is over a warmly glowing fire, two frying pans, two pots and a smorgasbord of delicacies waiting for a chef's touch.

Vanillware invests its victuals with the same shameless, lustful eroticism as its cast, to the point that it offers what is perhaps best described as food porn.

Scan : Dragon's Crown Artworks

The game seems wholly dissatisfied with the idea of ever offering a scene that's less than sublime. In its calmer moments, when a shaft of light glows across a lone elf in a forgotten tomb, reliefs and sigils carved into the walls and floor:

Elysian Temple - A route.

  ...when a flock of white birds take wing across the ruins of a dead civilization...

Chaos Labyrinth/Tower of Mirages.

...it is never less than picturesque.

After countless hours, I still find myself gushing at the beauty of the Lost Woods and little touches like the way your fairy companion, Tiki, will draw your attention to treasure chests by reclining across them like a tiny, demure lounge singer.

The Lost Woods - A route.

Dragon's Crown's representation of women is terribly one-sided, and via its damseled, hyper-sexualized, bombastically-proportioned ladies it problematically
"presents yet another voice among a roaring chorus that stretches back to antiquity." -FEATURE - On the women of Dragon's Crown-
It is, perhaps, to be expected that a title which focuses on and magnifies the art and tropes of Western culture and fantasy for the past two-plus millennia will, by its very nature, focus on and magnify the representation of women in a culture which has, for centuries, perceived one gender as less than equal participants in the human race.

(The Elf aside,) if there's a lady in Dragon's Crown (that's not a monster), she's not merely going to be lovely, but freakishly, supernaturally lovely, in line with stereotypical representations of her sex.  Blazing, overflowing manes of long, tousled hair, half-closed bedroom eyes, flawless skin, huge full bosoms and spines that contort via childhoods spent in the education and care of talented circus folk - and within that framework, within those rules, these ladies are lovely, invested with the same sublime artistry and care as every other aspect of their game.

The Goddess of Fertility quest art, the Sorceress's endgame story art and the Mermaid (Ghost Ship Cove). 

(The Wizard aside,) the men are barrel-chested, mustachioed proto-males, constructed entirely of glistening, densely knotted muscle, walking with great swings of their five-foot-wide shoulders.  Built as they are on the foundation of historical and modern fantasy, they are as gorgeous as vital as the ladies they fight alongside.

The Fighter, the Genie of the Lamp (Ghost Ship Cove - A route) and the Dwarf. 

The gender bias in Dragon's Crown is problematic - I'm first in line to agree to that - but that doesn't stop the game from being richly beautiful in every single frame.  Many games attempt to win favor as living paintings, but no title I've seen (since Muramasa, admittedly) can hold a candle to Dragon's Crown.

An education in classic art, an homage to centuries of Western fantasy, a knowing cheer for the nearly-forgotten sidescrolling action RPG, Dragon's Crown is a constant assault of beauty, from its lush backdrops to its writhing enemies and bombastic heroes.  It is a fantasy's fantasy - a luxuriant, feverish, lusty reverie, and a showcase of the best art direction of 2013.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Personal note.

I'm still not up to snuff, but I think I'm gettin' there.  I spent half of today working on the Best Art Direction post for GotY and the other half workin' on an application for a job... too much work for a day spent being sick.

This year, I find myself struggling with the same sort of GotY doubt I did last year, when I couldn't help but tell you Mark of the Ninja was the best game to come out in 2013. It felt weird to be going against the general consensus to such a degree, but honesty is the best policy, so they say.

This year, I'm feeling that way about Dragon's Crown (you're shocked, I know.  Gobsmacked.)  As I worked on the Art Direction post, I decided this one should be done super-fast, so I didn't even do write-ups for anything in the "Acknowledgments" or "Honorable Mention" categories.

I put Dragon's Crown in "Honorable Mention," at first.  But no, that was wrong, so I moved it to "Second Runner-up."  But no, that was wrong, so I changed it to "Runner-up (Tie)."

But no, that seems wrong.  Then I started trying to write about it, and instead spent the next few hours trying to find the right screenshots to explain why it's so bloody phenomenal.  But literally no one else is talking about Dragon's Crown in their GotY deliberations, so it feels a bit weird, again.

The other day, this poll from a Japanese site called 4gamer came out, in which 150 Japanese developers call out their favorite game of 2013.  In first place, with 14 votes, was The Last of Us - kinda' nice to see.  In second place, tied with Grand Theft Auto V with 12 votes, was Dragon's Crown.

So yeah, that's... validating.

Today, on the PA forums, I wrote
"This year I keep buying new games and not finishing them because I keep on going back to Dragon's Crown. In the past two months, Ys : Memories of Celceta, Spelunky, Malicious Rebirth, Sorcery Saga : Curse of the Great Curry God, BioShock Infinite : Burial at Sea, XCOM : Enemy Within... all sit unplayed while I push past 150 hours played on Dragon's Crown.  
Edit : oh, and Battlefield 4. And Contrast. God Dragon's Crown is awesome."
...and I kinda' find myself in the same situation I had with Dark Souls and inFamous 2 in 2011.  One of them is the "best" game to come out in a given year, and the other is the Game of the Year.

Yeah.  I think I just made up my mind.  Spoilers.

In the mean time, here - enjoy a screenshot of a skeletal soldier shooting at me with a crossbow, and me deflecting the shot back into his bony sternum with a perfectly-timed slash of my axe.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sorry about yesterday.

I was dealin' with some mad food poisoning/stomach flu/no idea but I seem to be on the mend, now.  So here's some cool stuff by way of apology.  First up - a proper trailer for Persona Q : Shadow of the Labyrinth.

Here's a new good-lookin' trailer for Capcom's Deep Down.

And here's the trailer for Kung Fury, which looks like someone played Blood Dragon and decided they really should make a movie like that.  I can dig it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

MiniREVIEW - Telltale's The Walking Dead - S2 E1 : All That Remains.

A year later, I still love Melissa Hutchinson's Clementine. The ultra-endearing orphan stole our collective hearts with Telltale's traumatizing Season 1 - the first really effective and important adventure game in years - and in Season 2, we thumb the analog sticks to guide Clem herself through the horrors of post-undead-outbreak America.

I was practically giddy to get to spend more time with her when I first booted it up - a feeling that's multiplied by the even-greater attachment we now enjoy, as she becomes the instrument of our expression.  The story picks up a year and a half after the previous series.  Clem is a bit taller, a bit harder, but still a little girl, not nearly as capable and confident as the legendary Lee - she must survive on her wits and sometimes, intentionally, on the puppy dog look in those big pale-gold eyes.

This is still Telltale's The Walking Dead - still a game and world built on relationships, deceit, honesty and occasional punctuations of horrific violence - and Clem's latest adventure, at a mere hour, has wound around my heart in the way that only The Walking Dead (or The Last of Us) can.

As it was last year, this isn't the be-all end-all of the adventure genre - I'd suggest disregarding those 10/10 scores you might see across the 'net, as the game's tech remains mediocre at best, with this graphically-decent title regularly shuddering to a near-halt under major framerate hitches, but it's hard to mind when the world, the story, the characters are so involving.

Clem's first solo adventure isn't as immediately arresting as Season 1, Episode 1 - it relies quite a bit on our knowledge of and love for its heroine - but even here, it's delightful to watch the girl grow and become something that approaches badass.  Under our direction, she does some shady shit in this episode.  She's desperate to live and smart enough to figure out how, and I can't wait to see where Telltale will take her and how far she's willing to go.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best of 2013 - gameplay.

Games are designed to suck up the hours, but some do it better than others.  2013 saw an excellent crop of titles that managed to be utterly sublime in their play - games that seduce with the simple ability to  keep dashing through enchanted forests, cruise up oceanside highways, fool around with a blade or leap from cliffs.

Not every - or even many games - can manage gameplay that's so consistently inviting.  Games that are just really, really hard to put down because of how inviting, involving, expressive and fun their mechanics are.  This year offered a lot of them, and I refuse to whittle this list down to less than 11 titles.  These are the best-playing games of 2013.


Dashing through Genroku-era Japan just never gets old - particularly when it's as attractive as Muramasa Rebirth.  A game of running through fields, through trees, across mountaintops and ancient temples, Muramasa's exquisite peace is regularly broken by random battles as samurai, ninja, oni and wild turkeys ambush you on your journey, not to mention the spectacular boss fights - and when the action begins, it's a fast, slick, ultra-stylish and satisfying affair with snappy, responsive controls.

Very hard to put down.

The best strategy game in years gets even deeper with Enemy Within, a massive expansion to 2012's Enemy Unknown.  The impeccable turn-based, nerve-wracking gameplay remains largely identical, save for a far wider array of options and passive buffs at your disposal, and new ultra-powerful options to risk your cash and time on back at base.  XCOM remains one of the most addictive games of the year.

I totally get why Chamberlain and anyone else would suggest that Grand Theft Auto's gameplay sucks, but I'm not in that camp.  It's simplified and streamlined mercilessly, with the ambition that anyone, anywhere - regardless of their familiarity with games or gaming - can slip right in, tear around in hot cars and get into beautiful, badass gunfights. In this, it succeeds entirely - dozens upon dozens of hours can be lost to the single-player campaign alone, and then it takes those slick, comfortable mechanics into GTA Online for potentially-infinite play time - and a game's ability to let the player express themselves is always tops, in my book.

Killzone Mercenary is an excellent first person shooter.  On a handheld.  The mind boggles.

Most people were quite suspicious at the thought of mediocre-brawler developer Ninja Theory taking on the genre-defining Devil May Cry franchise - but things worked out great.  The game's combat system is simultaneously the broadest and most accessible the series has ever had, maintaining DMC's, classic feel while permitting the player far more freedom and expression.  Lovely.

honorable mentions

"Dead Island: Riptide is a beautiful game, but its beauty isn't in the voice work or the writing or the menus or the game's budget.  It is entirely in the playing of it.  It's in the moment you turn a corner and see the Infected.  The way your gut hitches.

If the point and purpose of video games is to have an adventure - to become engaged and lost in another world, breathing foreign air and experiencing all the tension, fear, excitement, pride and desperation of your player-character, Dead Island: Riptide is the best game 2013 has seen yet."
-from the review-

Excellent zombie first-person brawling - a gift from the gaming gods.

"You'll dash into rooms to find the exits sealed off, skeletal vaqueros, armadillos and chupacabras pouring in from otherworldly portals and set into them with clean, tactile brawling. Some are in your current dimension, others are darkened silhouettes - impossible to hit, but able to strike you from the land of the dead.

Squaresquaresquare softens one in your current dimension up, and the final blow will send him flying - but at that precise moment, you tap triangle to snatch him out of the air and aim your throw with the analog stick.  Once you've aimed, you tap R1 to swap dimensions from the land of the living to the land of the dead - the silhouettes become tangible, and potential targets - and the body goes sailing across the screen, crashing into his buddies and sending them sprawling like spicy bowling pins."
-best of 2013 - psn game-
An impossible-to-put-down gem, Guacamelee's near-complete lack of load screens and comfortable, responsive everything make it one of the best-playing games of the year by a long shot.  Just as cozy on PS3 or Vita, its sharp platforming and carefully balanced, solid brawling - each so easy to slip into, each so satisfying - ensure its 'play is just as enchanting as the game's music and style.

"Resogun now feels like less a video game than a martial art.  This is a game - like a good fighting game, a good first-person shooter - that sees the controller bleeding in to nothingness as you begin to react, play, do without thinking.  A exhilarating meditation." 
-from the review-
In terms of the pure sharpness of its design, Resogun arguably posesses the best gameplay of the year.  Deeply challenging, supremely satisfying, perfectly-playing, Resogun offers an obscene amount of replay value across its mere five levels as you chase a dragon you may never catch - a flawless score.

second runner-up

This is a vote of love, to be sure - but it would be dishonest of me to put it anywhere else.  Certainly, Dragon's Crown plays beautifully:
"Once, during a boss fight, I was throwing down with two gigantic cyclopes.  On the far-right of the screen was a slowly-closing gate, and - occasionally - a massive cyclops hand would reach out to hold the gate up to prevent its closing (potentially allowing another beast into the fray). 

On the left-hand side of the screen, the cyclops I was working on drew back its giant fist, preparing for a major attack that would toss me against the walls and spoil the vicious momentum I'd built up.  I held square and tapped the analog stick up, in a rising attack, and tapped R1 to air-evade off his shoulder to the left as he let loose with his swing.

At that point, I noticed the hand had appeared under the gate on the other side of the screen.  I air-jumped, tapped evade, tapped attack to pinwheel, air-evaded again and was then at the hand.  I tapped square and pinwheeled the hand, tapped up and square to perform a mid-air rising attack, pinwheeled again, jumped vertically one last time and hit down and attack to slam into the ground, through the hand with Neck Splitter - my single most powerful attack - destroying it. 

It wasn't until after I'd done this crazy thing - evading on one side of the screen, zipping to the other side and destroying the hand without touching the ground - that I realized it had all been unconscious expression.

I hadn't bothered to think of how to do it - I only realized that it needed to be done - and so, I did."  
-from the review-

As in Resogun, the controller in Dragon's Crown fades into nothingness - it becomes just you, the game, and the awesome shit you're pulling off.

If this category simply went to the game that sucked up the most of my life in the past year, Dragon's Crown would win by a landslide - over one hundred and fifty hours, so far, and I'm nowhere near done with it.  Its luxurious presentation is always a bit shocking, each time I boot the game up, but it's Dragon's Crown's neverending playground of classic 2D brawling charm, combined with the modern sensibilities of tight, challenging, empowering play and a limitless, Diablo-esque loot system that refuses to set me free.

My Amazon languished at level 99 until the most recent patch arrived this month, pushing the level cap to 255, and I instantly dived back in on the promise of yet more power for my chainmail bikini'd powerhouse.  Even then, I still feel the plaintive calls of my Elf, yearning for the skills she'll unlock as I get her past level 35 and deepen her abilities with that ridiculous, six-foot bow she carries.

I've long loved Vanillaware games - Odin Sphere and Muramasa - for their touching, epic narratives and lush presentation.  Dragon's Crown (mostly) skips the story, and focuses entirely on its 'play.  In doing so, George Kamitani and team have crafted an entirely modern brawler with classic notes that I may well be playing for the rest of my natural life.


If anyone had told me Tomb Raider would be this high on this list a year ago, I'd've given them a salty smack right in their ridiculous little mouth - but here we are.
"It was around when I'd completed my time in the shanty town, that it struck me.  Standing on the edge of a scrap tower, I looked down to a horizontal pole thirty feet below and fifteen feet away.

I flung myself into space, Lara cartwheeling her arms gently before she touched comfortably down, right on target, and cautiously balanced herself on the log.  I darted forward along the pole and sprung from that to a wall with a ledge that was too high to reach - and as I hit the wall, I tapped X, and she kicked off the wall to grab the ledge.

I hadn't been on this rooftop before, so I snooped around and found a couple boxes of scrap parts I could use to improve my weapons.

Then, satisfied that I had exhausted the spoils of this area, I panned the camera around and surveyed the conquered shanty town, Lara's ponytail blowing in the wind.  There were the rusted, corrugated rooftops, the corpse of the rescue helicopter, the mountain to the south that so... energetically carried me here, and the setting sun beyond - and I reflected on the sweet, sweet platforming the game demanded and exploration it allowed through all those sequences and I asked myself "why can't Uncharted's platforming be like this?"

And it's like oh.  Oh my." 
-from Tomb Raider's platforming-

Tomb Raider just nails it.  It's flush with wide-open levels that beg to be explored through comfortable, thrilling platforming (!) in search of crates to open (+materials for upgrading weapons! +XP!), collectibles to find (+XP!), challenges to discover (+XP!), native creatures to hunt (+XP!) and hidden puzzle-tombs to overcome (+ tons of XP!).  Hours will be lost to a single area, and it never gets boring - it never gets old.

You're always panning the camera around in search of some rooftop you've not yet reached, some cliffside you've not yet scaled and the reward it surely guards. It smoothly slips right in to brutal, tight combat that leans largely on third-person shooting - Lara's silent, headshot-happy (+XP!) bow is one of the best weapons of the year - that sees you ducking low and doing a little monkey-scamper between cover points (bullets are less likely to hit Lara while scampering).  You can hit triangle to come out of your scamper with a handful of dirt to toss in your enemies' eyes, blinding them for a moment and leaving them open to the bludgeoning of your climbing axe, finishing them off with a brutally-animated final strike (+XP!).

It flows into huge, grand set pieces that lean on the combat and platforming simultaneously, flinging yourself from rooftops into cover points, popping up to deliver a flaming arrow to an ammo dump before scampering away and into a crazy-awesome escape sequence that sees Lara dashing through an apocalypse of self-destructing platforming pieces...

Tomb Raider is just impossible to put down.  As soon as you clear one of its wide-open areas it funnels you into a white-knuckle heavy-action sequence.  As soon as you clear that, another open area begs for your attention, and once that's done it always has another delicious, inviting place to explore, master and overcome.

best gameplay



"This is a stealth game.  This is a survival game.  This is an action game.  It's a stealth-survival-strategic-action game, almost entirely at odds with the easy-breezy, liquid flow of Uncharted 3.  It's heavy.  Weighty.  Desperate. ...meaningful.

Built on basic controls any gamer would be familiar with - L1 to aim, R1 to shoot, square to melee, X to vault objects, circle to crouch - The Last of Us takes a comfortable foundation and spins it out into gameplay that's not quite like anything else.  It feels deeply inaccurate to suggest that The Last of Us is a shooter or a brawler or even a straight-up survival game - it feels only like itself.

Which, alone, is... precious - built though it may be on the familiar.

. . . 

The weight of action and movement, the life-like (read: slow) animations, the pace of the play is very unique.  It flows along at what is practically a crawl compared to most action games, and here those extra beats communicate the vulnerability and, well, humanity of our heroes and those who would do them harm while providing the player more time for snap decisions and on-the-fly strategies.  It massively heightens the game's tension, and grounds this fungus-zombie-plague post-apocalyptic world in a believable reality."  
-from the review-

The Last of Us's insane originality - built though it is of familiar blocks - should deny it success.  So few games attempt something new and get it right, but here, not only is it right, it feels flawless.  It feels like a play style that's been honed and focused over a decade, not something that just popped up out of nowhere.

There is something very special about the first time you find yourself in a tight spot and your fourteen-year-old AI companion saves your ass as a Hunter closes in on your position, a shotgun in trembling hands.  She pops out of cover on the far side of the room, pipes "eat it, motherfucker!" and hucks a brick into his head, stunning him for a moment, buying you the time to rush forward and end this.  The game's intuitive, manipulable AI - vicious, just as desperate as its heroes and as thoughtful of self-preservation - plays a major role in its success.

"Whipping a bottle (which could have doubled as a one-time melee upgrade, for smashing over an enemy's head) into a far corner will result in a short discussion between two hunters:

"I'll check it out - you watch my back."

So you watch the back of the man watching the back.  You pop up from the other side of the room, taking a few precious seconds to level your revolver at his head, holding down the aim button until the reticle tightens and focuses and steadies and BOOM!

There goes your last round - but it was worth it.

Get out of there - move - they know where you are.  ...know where you were

Take your time.  Take a breath.  Study the environment.  Pick up that brick.  Use cover to flank him.  He's coming around the corner you're hiding behind - no time for hesitation - you tear around the corner as he starts with surprise and mash square to chtok clock him in the head with the brick.  And again - whukk - beat him down until he's trembling, holding up a hand to shield himself.

"Don't, don't do it man - we can work somethin' out!"" 
-from the review-

The Last of Us grants an experience unlike any other in gaming.  Each and every stealth or combat sequence is ridiculously stressful - the line between success and failure so small - that even in the game's demo, the impact is nothing less than profound.

"After every single fight, I find myself releasing a huge breath I didn't realize was caught in my throat, until the last enemy fell. " 
-from The Last of Us - demo impressions-

I haven't experienced gameplay that even approaches what The Last of Us pulls off since Dark Souls - and even then, The Last of Us manages something... profound.

Naughty Dog have long employed the use of "negative space" in their games (moments of calm exploration to provide a counterpoint to the breathless action), and The Last of Us is "a master's thesis on pacing, and nearly impossible to put down" - the kiss of life, for a linear title.

When I first cracked open the game, I played through it three times in quick succession - and no, it never gets boring.  It never feels old or less than vital.  Like 2012's Mass Effect 3, The Last of Us is a more-pronounced example of a game that posits a future where genre lines - stealth, shooter, brawler, action - are erased, and proves a single title can master everything.

Not merely a stealth came, a shooter, a brawler, a horror game, an adventure, The Last of Us is all of those games at once.  In its combination and mastery of a half-dozen genres, it provides something wholly original and entirely unique - something we've never had before.  Incredibly immersive, constantly thrilling, this is a game that plays like you hope it will.

Not only is it, in its own dark twist on Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way" as it flawlessly courts such organic, involving play, what's most impressive is that there's never been anything quite like this.

The Last of Us feels only like itself - the best gameplay of 2013.