Happy Thanksgiving, Digital Blenders! This has been a tremendous year for games of all shapes and sizes, and an especially good one for the sort of digital-only full titles and DLC offerings that I cover here. Instead of running through the usual line-up of big news and releases for the week, I’m using today instead to look back over 2012 and zero in on the best of the best, the favorites that you might want to give a second look — or a first look! — as you cower in a corner and wait for the Black Friday hellstorm to pass.
Mark of the Ninja :: Xbox 360 / Windows :: 1,200 MS Points / $14.99
There were a lot of stealth games released in 2012 and many of them either flirted with excellence or flat-out embraced it. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja falls into the latter category, and it may well be the best genre release of the year. The 2D side-scroller features the same cartoon-inspired art style and over-the-top violence that marks Klei’s efforts on the two Shank games, only you’re employing stealth tactics and striking always from the shadows. With a perfectly laid out learning curve, a healthy mixture of abilities and tools to unlock, and a loose, free-thinking AI opposing you, Mark of the Ninja delivers one of the most exciting and dynamic stealth gaming experiences in this or any other year.
Borderlands 2 DLC :: PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 / PC :: $9.99 / 800 MS Points
Gearbox Software has released two or four promised DLC add-on packs for the September “looter shooter,” Borderlands 2. You can read our positive reviews of both Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty and Mister Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage at your leisure, but the takeaway is: YAY. Gearbox delivered healthy amounts of add-on content for the original Borderlands, but the DLC output for Borderlands 2 steps things up considerably. Both packs add new environments — complete with multiple fast-travel locations! — an assortment of new enemies to face and loot to collect, and a more developed approach to the endgame. Scarlett ranks as the better of the two by a wide margin, but both are solid efforts. You can also still nab yourself a Season Pass to pre-buy the full selection of four content packs with a $10 overall savings.
Journey :: PlayStation 3 :: $14.99
Some will argue that Journey isn’t worth the price of admission, with $14.99 being too step for what amounts to a two-hour game. Those people are idiots. It’s foolish to discount anything from Jenova Chen and Thatgamecompany, especially a stellar effort like Journey. The beautiful, minimalist design and unconventional approach to online play are noteworthy bullet points, but the real appeal of Journey is more intangible. Just check out Ryan’s own Journey review, which nabbed a near-perfect 9.5 / 10 score. If price really is an issue for you, there’s also the Journey Collector’s Edition package, a disc-based compilation that sweetens the deal with Thatgamecompany’s flOw and Flower for a total price of $29.99.
Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!! :: PlayStation Vita / PC :: $7.99 / $2.79
Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!! will cost you slightly more on the PlayStation Vita, but it also continues to be one of the best reasons to own Sony’s portable gaming system. The 2D platformers sees you guiding a tiny mutant blob from outer space through a series of environments, growing large as you absorb everyday items into your blobby form. It’s sort of a cross between Katamari Damacy and Super Mario Bros, only way more twisted and featuring one of the greatest final levels in video game history. Oh yeah: we’re getting hyperbolic up in here. Justifiably. Tales From Space is the real deal.
Papo & Yo :: PlayStation 3 :: $14.99
Few games impressed me more this year than Papo & Yo from newcomer from newcomer studio Minority. Conceived by Vander Caballero, a veteran of AAA game development, this puzzle-platformer tells the very personal story of its creator’s rough childhood as seen through the lens of magical realism. Caballero and his siblings grew up with an alcoholic father, realized in the game as a friendly, oversized monster that can turn nasty without warning whenever he munches on any frog that wanders across his path. It’s a relatively simple and straightforward game, but it’s also a stunningly beautiful one that will leave you lost in thought by the time its credits roll. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Go get it.
The Walking Dead :: PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 / PC / iOS :: price varies
What can really be said that hasn’t already about Telltale Games work on The Walking Dead? Having played through all five episodes as well as all of this year’s big releases (Far Cry 3 included; stay tuned for that review soon), I can safely say that this one is the absolute no-brainer for Game of the Year. It’s a perfect effort, top-to-bottom, an adventure game that completely reinvents genre conventions while pulling off the impossible: delivering a story that demands your wholehearted investment. It’s a difficult journey to take, especially by the time you reach the grim events of episode five, but the rewards earned for sticking it out can’t be quantified. This is video gaming at its very finest, and it’s an experience that can be enjoyed regardless of where you think you fall in the hardcore / casual gamer divide.