This little indie darling came out of nowhere. You can get it for around one dollar, and that’s a steal. A send-up to 16-bit era JRPGs, this has the Lovecraftian “hero” break all convention and go on a quest to enslave the world’s minds. The writing is full of self-referential wry wit that really makes this worth your time.
9. Skyrim (XBOX, PS3, PC)
Most of the nerd world is going gaga over this game. I just barely started it, and even though I tend to lose interest in open-ended games like these very quickly, I can definitely see the appeal. The world is jaw-droppingly vast, and populated with tons of interesting and (often) unique characters, many of whom have a lot to say. I’m not yet sure where I come down on the quality of the wrting, the quantity is staggering. The game world is also littered with tons of books, which you can open and read–or collect on bookshelves in your home(s) if you can’t help yourself, even virtually.
8. Bastion (XBLA, Steam, Chrome in-browser)
This is a beautiful little game that’s a pleasure just to look at and listen to. The game’s biggest selling point is a constant narration that describes everything you do. It can get a little annoying at times (like when the guy says something about smashing barrels five times too many), but for the most part it does an excellent job of subtly delivering the story, which starts out somewhat clichéd and evolves into something more engrossing. It’s also great fun, especially if you’ve got itchy trigger fingers.
7. Ghost Trick (DS)
This quirky game is good example of a title blending play mechanics with story design. Basically you wake up as a ghost with no idea how you died, and find yourself in the middle of a whodunnit. Each stage is built like a Rube Goldberg machine with series of various inanimate objects you can possess and animate in order to advance the story–which happens to be about as weird and creative as you can get–by manipulating the world around the living characters through your results.
6. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (XBOX, PS3)
Usually when a game gives you a character you have to protect, it’s incredibly annoying and often very frustrating. The opposite is true here. While this is a fairly standard platformer/beat-em-up, the narrative stuff it does is pretty impressive. It’s an adaptation of an old Chinese novel, and the pains they take in the small cut scenes to emphasize characterization and emotional motivation pay off big time.
5. L.A. Noire (XBOX, PS3, PC)
This game has a ton of flaws, in large part because it’s a text-heavy adventure game crammed into a Grand Theft Auto-like engine, and never really feels like it’s comfortable in its skin. Still, L.A. Noire does some story and dialogue stuff I’ve not seen in other games, and the use of real life actors and advanced facial rendering tech makes the narrative and immersion in solving cases really shine.
4. Radiant Historia (DS)
With the DS being more or less phased out at this point, it’s a shame that this game (along with Ghost Trick) didn’t get much attention. Another throwback to 16-bit RPGs, Radiant Historia has a lot in common with Chrono Trigger (which I included on my last list) on the surface. But it’s a deeper, more serious game. It features multiple branching storylines, which players can eventually return to and revisit in order to alter the outcome of their game. If you have a DS or 3DS and can find this game, it’s worth getting.
3. Lost Odyssey (XBOX)
In the early days of the XBox 360, Microsoft threw a bunch of money at Japanese developers in order to try and gain a foothold in Japan. It didn’t really work out, but a few of the games were okay. Lost Odyssey, created by some of those behind the original Final Fantasy games, doesn’t bring all that much originality to the table, though it is a fun adventure and will please JRPG fans just fine. What sets it apart though, is “A Thousand Years of Dreams,” a collection of short stories penned by a Japanese author, and broken up into small episodes that the main character recalls via dreams. Not the best stories in the world, but some are pretty good, and the presentation is cool, so it’s an interesting gimmick all the same.
2. Costume Quest (XBLA, PS3, Steam)
This game, which was written by Tim Schafer and designed by a former Pixar artist, has charm coming out its ears. It’s also one of the funniest games I’ve played in a while. It’s an easy little jaunt–sort of an RPG light–but incredibly fun to play or watch. The basic conceit is you go trick-or-treating to earn candy with which you intend to barter goblins for your kidnapped sister. By assembling various costumes, you unlock different powers which allow you to explore new areas. When you get in a fight, imagination takes over and the whole world changes: crappy cardboard robot costumes become skyscraper sized armored mechs, etc. The game is rife with clever lines and amusing gags; I wish there were more games like it.
1. The Gunstringer (XBOX)
Hilarious. Gunstringer features a running narrative not unlike Bastion’s, though more scripted and less expansive. The whole conceit is very clever. It’s organized in small on-stage vignettes (complete with an audience that reacts to certain story points) and the main character is a skeleton caballero puppet; you traverse the various stages controlling the puppet by its cross and shooting targets and bad guys by pointing gun fingers at them (it’s a Kinect game). The scenarios and characters are ridiculous (for instance the burly lumberjack boss who’s entered an adult relationship with an alligator), but the tongue-in-cheek narration and unique presentation makes the silliness hit just the right pitch.
Bonus Retro Game Plug:
I put Earthbound’s sequel into my last list, and this game is every bit as strong. Earthbound is funny and clever, and also manages to hit some fairly emotional notes. It’s also got a ton of written content, most of it very witty, and penned by Shigesato Itoi. It’s easily one of my favorite games of all time, if not my #1. Even if you still have a Super Nintendo, this is a pretty tough game to find, as Nintendo has decided to lock it in Japan and hide it away from the West as if it were the illegitimate child of Lindsay Lohan and Emperor Akihito. But if there’s any game worth finding a ROM and emulator for and donating a long weekend to, it’s this one.