I've never been one to shy away from the elegant beauty of symmetry. Six months of 2011 have faded away, leaving exactly six games worth remembering. What are the odds of that? Very low, by my calculations. I've spend at least some time with every game that piqued my interest from the first half of the year, and came up with a tidy list of treasures that make me thankful that I got into playing games in the first place. There were some other games that were interesting or fun, but nothing stood out quite like the ones you're about to read about.
On with the show!
Outland – I've heard this game dismissed as "Ikaruga mixed with a platformer." As if such a thing could possibly be construed as bad. If Outland came in a box, it could slap that quote proudly on the cover and lure in people who have been craving a color-changing party but had no outlet for their hunger. Of course, Outland doesn't just flaunt this gimmick while the other elements crumble from neglect. Level design, boss fights, artistic style, soundtrack – everything is exceptionally well done. Heck, there's even a fantastic co-op mode once you've mopped the floor with that pesky end boss. What's not to love?
Child of Eden – And now I begin the "How does this game exist!?" portion of my list. Rez HD is one of my favorite games ever, and I just kind of assumed it would stand apart from its peers in its own uniquely awesome way. I never expected a spiritual successor. Thankfully, Eden lived up to my massive expectations. When you think of games like Eden (and Rez), it's easy to focus on their artistic splendor. The enchanting visuals, the way the soundtrack melds perfectly with the action, these are immediately recognized and devoured. But if you strip the aesthetic brilliance away, you're still left with a game that is incredibly fun to play. And really hard! Like Rez HD, I know I'll be going back to Child of Eden years down the road. It's not only mesmerizing, but it's timeless as well.
Alice: Madness Returns – Another game that I'm shocked exists. A sequel to a PC-exclusive platformer from last decade? Kind of a strange idea when you think of it. But Electronic Arts decided to fund this, and the results are incredible. Talk about artistic design. Every level is absolutely gorgeous, making it worth playing just to see what new area you'll visit next. And there are so many little touches that just make me giddy. I especially love the way Alice holds her Vorpal Blade when she runs. It stick out at a sharp angle from her side, which makes her look crazed, maniacal, and all those other happy terms that fit eerily well with this damned heroine. Oh yeah, and it's also really fun to play. I finished my first play through on PC last week, bought it on the Xbox 360, and started a new game tonight. It's just an amazing world that I don't want to leave.
Shadows of the Damned – Seriously, how does this game exist? A combined effort from Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami, two of my favorite developers in the world? With music by Akira Yamaoka, my new favorite composer? I am flabbergasted. If I could choose a hypothetical pairing, this would be it. And the game exceeded my dreams. It's not only hilarious and utterly bizarre like I expect from Suda, but it's also really darn fun to play. Imagine that. Crazy demons, hellacious boss fights, and some genuinely awesome light-based puzzles. Plus, this may be the best soundtrack I've heard in years. I have no idea why EA decided to fund this game that's clearly going to bomb at retail, but I'm giddy that they did. An amazing game that I'm thankful was somehow made.
Portal 2 – Valve is a special developer. As soon as I played through Portal 2, I had no choice but to replay Portal and Half-Life 2 because no one else in the world can design levels like they do. They have a knack for making everything flow in a natural way while still making you put serious thought into how you're going to move forward. It's organic and pure and I just love how they do it. Portal 2, of course, is more than just a series of test chambers like the first game. The writing is so smart and witty that I would just put the mouse down so I could listen to the random bits of dialogue from the characters. Everything about this game is just so well done, and it's one of the finest ending sequences I've seen in years. I love this game. Now bring on Half-Life 3!
Terraria – Believe me, I'm as shocked as you. Somehow, this tiny indie game trumped every other game from the beginning of the year. How is that possible? I spent the first few hours in this world-building game bumbling around like a fool with a pickaxe. This is an open-ended, directionless game, and it took me a while just to understand what I was supposed to do. And then, slowly but surely, it clicked. I found a cache of iron and began to craft new tools. I found an underground jungle and was promptly killed by a raving hornet. How could I be strong enough to survive? The same thing happened when I ventured into a purple place called The Corrupted Land. I died, but I wanted to know what secrets were buried there. A boss attacked my base out of the blue one night. What the heck? I was confused, but I couldn't pull away.
I constructed elaborate tunnels under my base. Built a strong home so I could recruit new members to help me. I found pockets of silver and gold. I found an island hidden in the sky. Heart pieces increased my life. A cloud in a bottle let me double jump. I was making progress. I killed a boss and forged powerful weapons from his remains. I dug an elevator to hell so I could plummet to the bottom of the earth whenever I wanted. I joined a multiplayer game and helped build a conservatory. I was in charge of plants.
Clearly, this is a difficult game to explain, but it's even harder to pull away from. Terraria gives you loose objectives (kill stuff, explore), and sets you lose. You control where you go and how you get there. It's empowering and punishing in all the right ways. I cannot recommend Terraria enough. The modern trend is for games to become easier, to hold a player's hand every second. It's to point you in the right direction so you don't miss anything. But that destroys the sense of discovery. Terraria is about being a kid and exploring your backyard for the first time. It's poking a dead frog with a stick or investigating a sound in the night. You die, you get lost, you fail. It's life. Because without those setbacks, there's no pleasure from succeeding.