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Demon’s Souls

“No interest, eh? Can tell you’re not going to last long here.”

I really hated these guys.

Above: I really hated these guys … and then I learned how to beat them.

“Tough but fair” became my mantra in this game while storming terrifying boss battles and diving deep into darkened dungeons. From Software’s challenging dungeon-crawler from 2009 seemed like a repudiation of the casual and audience-friendly moves made by other developers, making it both appealing and frustrating to a surprising large number of players who wanted more.

A grim, black shroud of subtle storytelling pushed the player toward an inevitable end and lack of safeguards, which left many NPCs vulnerable to a sword or spell that irrevocably removed them from Demon’s Souls’ cruel fantasy. Messages left by other players shared online could even appear in your game, warning or tricking you of danger that might lay ahead and could kill you in seconds. At the same time, the worst harbingers would always leave a sliver of hope that these threats could be defeated. And for many players, that was a challenge that kept them fighting on through to the end.

Or a temptation to invade other players’ games and take their souls instead.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

“Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”

Players were free to sneak to their objective or go in like the Terminator.

Above: Players were free to sneak to their objective or go in like a squishier version of the Terminator.

More than a decade after the first Deus Ex, quite a few fans were worried about whether 2011’s Human Revolution would be worthy enough to follow in the original’s customizable nanotech shoes, including me.

But Eidos Montreal had managed to do the impossible with a prequel that took players to locales around the world, ranging from the high-tech, ivory towers of Shanghai to Detroit. Despite a bit of awkwardness, such as the boss fights, Human Revolution left the possibilities open as its predecessor had, letting players upgrade, sneak, snipe, and choose how to play their way across a narrative woven with nanotech fibers and consequences that made it a surprise hits among fans and publisher Square Enix’s accountants. And like Dragon Age: Origins, time was actually spent on making the PC version stand on its own.

Fallout: New Vegas

“We shall see how brave you are when nailed to the walls of the Hoover Dam, your body facing west so you may watch your world die.”

If you're bored with power armor, you get to wear this later.

Above: If you’re bored with the blocky look of power armor, you can wear this later.

Fallout: New Vegas was something of a homecoming for Obsidian Entertainment, whose membership included a number of seasoned veterans responsible for the original Fallout and Fallout 2 titles on PCs back in the late ’90s. While not a direct sequel to the events in Fallout 3, the atmosphere of post-apocalyptic dystopia, desperation, and tattered dreams overshadowed the bugs in 2010’s New Vegas. Coupled with a deep character development system, a vast mix of low and high-tech loot, and creatures both mundane and man-made, the Wasteland had become more dangerous than ever. If that wasn’t enough, PC players could craft their own gear using the included construction set.

The ravaged city of New Vegas and its surroundings, the factions fighting for control of what was left of the Old World beneath the shadow of a high-tech Howard Hughes, the secrets buried in the radioactive sand, and one monkey wrench in the form of a betrayed messenger stumbling through decisions that determined the future of it all — that fused together to craft one of the best entries in the Fallout series.

Valkyria Chronicles

“I’m talking about Gallia’s future! How else are we supposed to survive, Welkin? Caught on either side by giants!”

Despite the charming visuals, the gameplay provided plenty of crunchy odds and ends to test your tactical genius.

Above: The gameplay beneath the charming visuals provided plenty of crunchy odds and ends to flex your tactical genius with.

Although a PS3 exclusive, Valkyria Chronicles was one of those titles whose quality made it one of the best on any system and only made me wish that it could have been a multiplatform release.

Sega’s tactical RPG, released in 2008, blended in class growth and upgrade options for doing well in combat. But it was the strategic engine that demonstrated that as charming as its watercolor visuals were, Valkyria Chronicles wasn’t above giving out a tough drubbing, with permadeath hanging over every mistake.

Its story drew an unprepared cadre of young fighters together within an alternate world set in the 1930s, prior to the outbreak of war. The charming appearance and lighthearted personalities of the characters were countered by serious themes such as discrimination and genocide while the technology of the day revolved around a miracle mineral called ragnite — and the legend of the Valkyrians.

A stable of minor characters to pick from and assign on combat missions, each with their own mini bio that added in just enough personality to make you care, boosted the challenge of trying not to let them die.

Dragon’s Dogma

“Take up arms, Arisen … for my kind do not heed the toothless.”

Magic, steel, or bow -- it's up to you on how you want to tackle monsters like this one. And if you want to jump onto their back to make things personal, you can do that, too.

Above: Magic, steel, or bow — it’s up to you to determine how you want to turn this giant griffin into fried chicken. And if you want to jump onto its back with dual-wielded daggers to make things personal, you can do that, too.

Dragon’s Dogma — Capcom’s gritty sandbox RPG set in a dark, medieval world — was a big surprise from the company that leveraged bits and pieces of its expertise with Monster Hunter in with traditional RPG elements and a world grounded in Western trappings. It combined arcade action with an extensive character development system crammed with skills, equipment upgrades, and plenty of loot and set it within a huge, open world ripe for exploration by a lone hero. In this game, curiosity could and often did kill the careless early on.

Players were also accompanied by a “pawn” that they could also customize with gear and skills, change professions as easily as talking to an NPC, and who would literally die to defend as a constant companion. Pawns could even be shared out, enabling other players to use them and leave rewards that can be brought back.

Dragon’s Dogma also boasts a unique community boss battle as an endgame challenge that can be revisited as often as you want. Though players aren’t actually in the game together, whatever damage they inflict is shared online in an effort to bring the beast down for valuable loot, which plants a suitably epic cherry on top of an old-school dungeon crawl populated with the kind of action that Capcom is known for.