Sunday, December 15, 2013

Best of 2013 - PSN Game.

(You could just say best downloadable game, but nothing on XBLA really grabbed me this year.)

Downloadable titles have been on consoles for a the better part of a decade, and each year has been stamped by one outlet or another as the year indies became truly relevant or the year XBLA become genuinely important.  I've been buying the smaller downloadable games for years, but this year's a bit different, for me.  In 2013, I probably spent more on PSN than I have in the past four years combined, entirely driven by the quality of the content we've seen in the past twelve months.  

A lot of this rests squarely on the Vita's shoulders and Sony's successful outreach to indie developers, as luminaries of the indie space have come to roost on the PS3, PS4 and Vita.  2013 was also a year that further blurred the lines between what's a PSN game and what's not.  Atelier Tortori and Meruru are on Vita carts in Japan, but in North America they're PSN-only.  I don't think there's a single Vita game that can't be purchased digitally, but it's the games that you'll never find on store shelves that we celebrate here today.  These are the best PSN games of 2013. 


Games like Spelunky, Thomas Was Alone and Lone Survivor all received excellent Vita ports this year, and I tried them all - but the only one that really captured my imagination was Hotline Miami.  
"Its oft-frustrating difficulty is tempered by the siren's call of instantaneous retries, and a practiced gradient to its challenge - this is a game you will sit down with to "just try out," and the next time you glance at the clock you'll find three hours have passed. By the time you reach the final encounter, your repeated and near-instant deaths are comforted by the solid belief that this can be done - you just have to figure it out."
-from the review-
A seductively lurid, pulpy experience, Hotline Miami is all pixellated gore and throbbing synth - a game of quiet, deeply tense moments of planning before lightning-strike-fast explosions of ultra-violence.  We talk a lot about moving games towards more serious, respectable subjects.  Hotline Miami reverses the discussion.  It doesn't try to preach or judge - it simply asks if "you like hurting other people," and then lets your answer be the hours you spend pacing its tilting halls, a stained baseball bat in your tiny, sixteen-bit fist. 

Like indies and downloadable fare in general, I played more shoot-em-ups in 2013 than I have in any year since my birth.  Having never really enjoyed the genre, I gave Sine Mora a shot and liked what I found right up until the infamous laser garbage chute, and was prepared to take a chance on Velocity Ultra - an HD up-port of a PlayStation Mobile title and a game (Sony indie guru) Shahid Ahmad had been excitedly hyping for months.  

Shahid was right.  Less of a bullet-hell shoot-em-up than a straight action game where movement (see: instant teleportation) is your most powerful weapon, Velocity Ultra successfully re-introduced me to a genre I've ignored for the lion's share of my life - a kindness I may never be able to repay.  Oh, and it's super-cheap. 
"Appearing in a flash within a swooping formation of enemy ships and holding down the fire button to take them out from the inside, apparating between a cluster of laser turrets, flinging bombs this way and that in a quick dance of movement before disappearing just as their projectiles would hit you... it works really well."
-from the review-

honorable mention

Resogun and the following two titles are all, as far as I'm concerned "the best PSN games of 2013."  Any of these three could be handed the top spot and I would nod and deem it fair - and of all the games on this list, Resogun is easily the wisest, the most perfect in terms of raw game design, mechanics and thoughtful execution.  

I place it here, as an honorable mention, perhaps merely due to its scant five levels - but even there, I feel its tight focus is more of an asset than anything.  Within those five levels, Resogun finds its perfection.  It doesn't need to concern itself with pacing or narrative or anything beyond the perfection of its moment-to-moment play - and once you find yourself seduced by its delirious challenge, once the game leeches its way around your brain, Resogun... 
"...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-
Resogun is currently the only PS4 game - PSN or not - that I can recommend wholeheartedly.  It's very short.  It's incredibly challenging but practice approaches perfect.  It's wonderful.  

runner up

Bless the crazy heart that thought up Far Cry 3 : Blood Dragon.  Bless its writers, bless Biehn for agreeing to be a part of it and bless the Money People at Ubisoft who actually greenit this mad monstrosity of a downloadable game. 

A completely stand-alone title, Blood Dragon is the video game wet dream of anyone who grew up in the 80s.  In the hazy, neon-soaked, radioactive jungles of 2007, after "the apocalypse has had an apocalypse", as a Mk IV Cybercommando voiced by eighties action standard Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens, Navy SEALS), the player indulges in gameplay that's markedly similar to (the ultra-fun, super-slick) Far Cry 3 proper in 2012.   You explore a wide-open swath of map, drive vehicles, discover side-missions, attack and take over bases and generally have an incredibly-polished good time.  

It's a gleeful, indulgent, guilty pleasure, a remarkably detailed love letter to the action films of the 80s, and a game that's impossible to play without regularly grinning like an idiot

"After a sixteen-bit animatic, the game opens with a helicopter flight over the jungle to the tune of Long Tall Sally by Little Richard. How could I not fall in love with it? The sparks when you shoot an object are eighties action movie sparks. The explosions are eighties action movie explosions."
-from the review-
Yes, there is a big difference between an "eighties action movie" explosion and regular ones. 

...and it's one thing for a game to give us the pistol from Robocop, the shotgun from Terminator 2 and the minigun from Predator and set us loose in a wide-open world to shoot up a bunch of neon-glowing robo-goons, it's quite another for a game to do it with the polish and already-fantastic emergent gameplay Far Cry 3 offers.  

It's huge, about a third of Far Cry 3's total size and duration and it's only $14.99, the price of any number of tiny little retro indies that couldn't approach Blood Dragon's scope or level of polish.  Which is really saying something, for a game that is incredibly good at nailing the look of a cheap movie.  

Mmm.  Just writing this makes me want to replay it.  I think I will. 

best PSN game



Of all the downloadable fare to appear in 2013, Guacamelee! by Drinkbox Studios is the most joyous.  The most purely pleasurable.  

It's a modern classic and a game that, in the playing, feels as comfortable and comforting as stretching out in bed after a long day and snuggling up under the covers.  It feels so wholesome and correct in everything it does.  Like your favorite meal, your favorite song - like a cup of hot chocolate at the perfect moment - Guacamelee is chicken tortilla soup for the gamer's soul.  

An excellent platformer, a sharp, snappy brawler, a sprawling Metroidvania, I don't think I really appreciated how wonderful the game is when I reviewed it at the beginning of the year.  I called it "flat-out spectacular," but I also harped on it for its lack of the type of options you'd see in a full-release game.  That seems churlish to me, now. 

Throughout the year, after playing any number of other games, I have repeatedly returned to Guacamelee, and each time I can feel my inner child going "ahhh, that's the stuff."  Each time I hear the laid-back guitars and horns of Pueblucho upon starting up the game, I'm filled with nothing but love. Everything about this game is... happy.  And cheerful.  And beautiful.  

Here's Temple of Rain by Rom Di Prisco from the OST. 

This is the music you groove to as you explore the game's first proper dungeon, earning your wall jump and ping-ponging your way through its first real challenges.  You'll discover passages you can't access yet, guarding succulent treasures needed to power yourself up.  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.  

You may stroll into a room to find yourself confounded by a platforming challenge that appears utterly impossible until you begin experimenting with the tools at your disposal - so you dodge-roll off a ledge to maintain some height before transitioning into a red-flaming rooster uppercut which givers you just enough lift to grab a patch of wall and spring towards your objective. 

The brawling and the platforming - comfortable and expressive, and the baseline that carries you through the game - are each given moments to shine in challenge rooms like this, pushing the player's understanding of what's possible with the game's mechanics towards its zenith.  

Before long, you're flinging yourself into the air, tapping R1 to swap into a dimension where a wall exists to spring off of, swapping back to the land of the living to wall-jump again, sailing through the first wall, which is no longer corporeal, to land one the safety of a ledge, and make your way forward. 

You earn new fighting abilities that almost always double as platforming skills at an efficient clip, always opening up new areas to explore, always dashing through a game world that's nothing less than lovely. 

The entire game looks like concept art in motion.  It taps directly in to a gamer's desire to explore, to sniff out secrets, to gain strength and be rewarded for our efforts and climb ever-higher.  Everything about Guacamelee is lovely.  It is, in every moment, a pleasure - one of the most purely fun games I played in the past year - and the best PSN game of 2013.  

(Also available on Steam, now!)

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