Mark of the Ninja
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Release Dates: September 7, 2012 (Xbox 360) and October 16, 2012 (PC)
Stealth is a difficult element to get right, and maybe that’s because developers frequently sprinkle it into games where it doesn’t belong. Mark of the Ninja finds the solution to this problem, marrying stealth with gameplay mechanics that complement each other rather than work in opposition.
Like with any good game in the genre, you can approach a situation any number of ways. The environments, obstacles, and resources at your disposal fit together like a puzzle, laying out the information and tools you need to execute a successful assassination, create a necessary diversion, or vanish into the shadows. The system is meant to be flexible. It’s almost like the developers were cunning ninjas themselves.
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The sights and sounds around you — beams of light or echoes of footsteps approaching, for example — are vital clues of how you can move invisibly through your surroundings uncaught. But the stylish visuals and polished gameplay will lure you in like a carefully placed trap.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: March 13, 2012
This no-dialogue exploration game was one of the earliest hits of 2012. People knew the next title from the creator of Flow and Flower was going to be good, but few were prepared for the emotional impact it would have on them.
Journey communicates with its players — and in turn, they connect with others — through breathtaking visuals and pleasant sounds. You can take your time, soaking in the atmosphere and sights of the game, and you can travel either alone or in someone else’s company. The way you choose to play Journey represents only one type of possible experience, and you may learn something new on your second or third time around. But each trek through the desert and up the great mountain is ultimately the same, and that realization evokes a strong sense of destiny.
For that reason, the game is partially about faith — the hope that one day, your fate will change because of your actions and perseverance. Journey also teaches us to interact with other human beings without words, using only gestures and behavior as the game removes the normal obstacles of language and culture. In Journey, your goal is shared, and unlike many games, the meaning of your adventure changes dramatically when you have a companion.
Papo & Yo
Developer: Minority Media
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: August 14, 2012
Whereas The Unfinished Swan is a young boy’s reaction to a parent’s untimely death, Papo & Yo deals with child abuse and the power of escapism. This Sony Pub Fund game takes the terrors of a boy named Quico and manifests them in a fantasy world where he can face them on his terms.
It’s certainly not a game without its share of problems, namely glitches, but for putting players in the middle of such a dark story, Papo & Yo is full of playfulness and life. You can admire the colorful expressions of the graffiti decorating buildings that grow and sink as you manipulate the city landscape or it crumbles of its own accord. You can sling fat frogs against walls and save them from becoming the Monster’s lunch, a poisonous snack for the metaphoric embodiment of the boy’s father who turns into a violent beast when he consumes them.
The message Papo & Yo sends is a powerful one, and you’ll need to play the game to appreciate its nuances. But no matter how horrible Monster can be, Quico also sees the good side and takes care of the creature when he’s able. That unrequited kindness shows a maturity beyond his years, and it’s part of what makes the game so remarkable.
FTL: Faster Than Light
Developer: Subset Games
Publisher: Subset Games
Platforms: PC, Mac
Release Date: September 14, 2012
Space is a vast and dangerous place. FTL: Faster Than Light challenges you to survive in it. But staying alive in this space flight simulator game involves much more than maintaining a trajectory from one planet to the next.
The intensity and unpredictability of the gameplay is rewarding — and difficult. You jump from one spot in space to the next, and in every new area, you can choose how to react to a unique scenario. Maybe some stragglers have sent out a distress beacon, but they could be deceiving you, so they can ransack your ship. Will you save others, make a preemptive attack, strike a deal, or flee?
The options seem limitless, but most of that variety comes from the attention to detail. You must manage precious resources, divert power to where you need it most, oversee your crew, repair your ship during battle, and upgrade it wisely — all while eluding the Rebel fleet constantly closing in on your location.
The first time you play, you’ll probably be a little cocky about your abilities. You won’t last long. The allure of dominating galaxies, mastering offensive and defensive strategies, and outsmarting your enemies is what keeps you coming back for more.
Orcs Must Die! 2
Developer: Robot Entertainment
Publisher: Robot Entertainment
Release Date: July 30, 2012
After releasing one of the best tower-defense games of 2011, developer Robot Entertainment returned with an even greater improvement on the formula.
Orcs Must Die! 2 lets you choose between two controllable characters: the antagonist from the previous game, the Sorceress, and the War Mage. The setup is addictive and simple enough to pick up and play. You place clever traps and use your own powers to destroy waves of enemy orcs before they escape through the mines. It’s quite the workout for your trigger finger and strategic mind (particularly on single-player), but Robot Entertainment has filled the game with plenty of fun gear, trinkets, weapons, and more so that you feel powerful and overwhelmed in equal turns.
The sequel supports co-op play in the campaign or Endless mode, so you”ll never run out of ugly hordes to kill. The banter between the two characters at the start of each level is entertaining and natural, lending even more personality to a game that’s already bursting with color and creativity.
Let’s move on to our final five.