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The Best Games of 10 Years Ago: 2012

2012's Best Games

I started a new tradition last year of looking at my top 10 lists from 10 and 5 years ago and seeing how they've changed. That said, I only started saving my top 10s in 2015 and making them at all in 2013, so this is another round where I'm actually doing it for the first time.

2012 wasn't a year I'd have said was particularly good if you'd asked me before I started typing up this list, but now that I'm seeing all of its best games together, I'm realizing it was actually pretty remarkable. It had two games in my all-time top 10, plus a handful more that weren't far outside of it. It's not quite as absurd as 2017, but it's definitely up there.

10. Dragon's Dogma

Dragon's Dogma is one of the best-known cult classics of the PS3 era. It's an open world action RPG with an awful story, one dimensional characters, questionable graphics, and the most repetitive voiced lines you'll ever hear. But like any good cult classic, it makes up for all that jank with unique systems you just can't get anywhere else. This has combat against massive monsters that all have their own unique behaviors and weaknesses, a class system with branches that radically change how you play, and, of course, the pawn system that let you design your own custom AI party member as well as recruit other player's characters to help you fight. Your pawn could complete a boss fight for another player while you were offline, and then they'd have helpful advice about the boss and secrets in the area around it the next time you played. It also had loads of optional content to find in its sprawling world and some fantastic set piece moments in the campaign. And on top of all that, you can climb the biggest enemies like you're playing Shadow of the Colossus. There's still nothing quite like it after 10 years, although it is, finally, getting a sequel. Here's hoping it's even better.

9. FTL: Faster than Light

FTL didn't invent the roguelite genre, but it is more responsible for popularizing it than just about any other game, and you can still clearly see its influences in the vast majority of roguelite titles released today. At its core, FTL is a space combat game in which you have to optimize your equipment and crew movements to blow the crap out of enemy ships before they do the same to you. It's simple enough that you can understand exactly what's going on just from looking at it, but thanks to loads of unique equipment and the ability to damage individual systems of each ship, also remarkably deep. There's real tactical depth to the combat and it stays interesting even after you've blown up hundreds of enemy ships.

Its lasting influence, though, comes from the overworld design. Each encounter - which is not always combat - is a node on a map. You can explore as many or as few of the nodes as you like, but moving too slowly will result in the unstoppable rebel fleet catching up to you, and examining too few will leave you too weak to defeat the sector bosses. You also don't know exactly what you'll find at any given node, so every step requires balancing the risks and benefits to decide if you can afford to explore just a little bit more or if you're letting the fleet get too close. FTL only comes in at #9 because unlike Dragon's Dogma, there are now dozens if not hundreds of games that are at least somewhat like it. I don't find myself coming back to it now that there are so many games that have had more time to refine its ideas. Still, it's arguably the most important game on this list.

8. Crusader Kings II

Crusader Kings II is a game that you almost have to respect even if it's not something you'd ever play. This is a game that allows you to start playing as a baron of a minor castle in 1066 AD (or even earlier with DLC) and finish hundreds of years later playing as your distant descendant, now emperor of the known world. Along the way you'll manage your kingdom's infrastructure, fight wars, get married, and, of course, become hopelessly involved in the court politics of succession. It's a scale that can only be matched by other Paradox games like Europa Universalis, but because of its focus on individual characters and families rather than nations, it’s also much more of a role-playing experience.

It comes in only at 8 for two reasons: My single full playthrough of this game took over 60 hours, which makes it very difficult to build up the will for a second run. Second, while the court politics are fascinating, it can also be incredibly frustrating to have your kingdom divided because of arcane succession laws you couldn't change or because your child is an irresponsible moron who can only handle owning a couple provinces.

7. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Many people prefer XCOM 2 for its greater mission variety and deeper character customization, but I like the focus of the first remake. This is a game in two parts: tactical combat against aliens and base building to make your combat squads stronger. The two halves are very distinct, but build on each other at every opportunity. Going out of your way to capture aliens or preserve resources gives you more to work with when base building, and carefully planning what to build will eventually give you better equipment, more soldiers, and other advantages when it's time to fight again. Either half could easily have stood as a game on its own, but combined they make an incredibly well integrated strategy game in which every decision you make triggers a whole chain of consequences in different systems. It can be frustratingly difficult at times and the RPG-length campaign is a commitment to start, but that aside it's just about perfect.

6. Dishonored

Unlike XCOM, this is a game where I greatly prefer the sequel. But that's entirely down to what a masterwork Dishonored 2 is rather than any knock against the base game. The story here is comparatively basic and the level design isn't quite as sprawling, but this is still a stealth game that offers an incredible amount of freedom to find your own way through the levels. It's entirely possible and extremely satisfying to play it without ever even being noticed by enemies, but it's equally possible to fly through it killing everything that stands in your way. Though the characters themselves are not particularly memorable, the city of Dunwall absolutely is, and the painstaking worldbuilding detail built into it really makes it feel like a place with history and real citizens.

5. Pokémon Black and White 2

I played most of the games on this list reasonably close to their original release, but this took me a whopping seven years to get to. I fell off the Pokémon train after Emerald and didn't get back on until X for the 3DS, and I only got around to the missing DS games years later thanks to the low price of used Japanese copies. This spent a few years as my favorite Pokémon game - since surpassed by Arceus - thanks to its surprisingly good story, deep optional content, and wise decision to put Unova's cast of new Pokémon front and center instead of filling every cave with Zubat for the umpteenth time. Unlike Arceus, this isn't a radical departure from past games and won't convince anyone who didn't already enjoy the series, but it refines that formula to a purity that's impossible not to love if you're already a fan. This is the best badge collector that Game Freak ever made.

4. Total War Shogun II: Fall of the Samurai

I don't usually consider expansions for top 10 lists. Fall of the Samurai is an exception because it really is that different from the game it expands, so much so that it has since been made into a standalone title. FotS brings the Shogun II experience forward almost 300 years to the Boshin War, when modernizing forces backing the emperor battled the traditionalist armies of the shogun to determine Japan's future. It's an almost entirely unique historical setting where you can have elite sword and spear units battling battalions of commoners with rifles, all while ironclads and cannons bring down artillery bombardments from half the map away. The game's tech tree captures the incredibly rapid progress this era represents, and you really feel the game change as you develop rail networks, recruit foreign veterans, and generally enter the industrial age at a breakneck pace.

3. Persona 4 Golden

If there was an argument that FotS shouldn't be eligible for this list, there's an even stronger one for Persona 4 Golden, a remake of an earlier PS2 game. But P4G is much more than the original game. Partly that's down to the remarkable achievement of getting a game as large as Persona 4 to run on a handheld without compromising the experience at all. Persona 3 Portable needed to make major sacrifices to the graphics and remove 3D overworld navigation entirely, but P4G contains everything from the original game and, thanks to the Vita's wonderful screen, even looks better. Even more impressively, P4G also crams in loads of new content to fill out P4's calendar of events, including a new city area, new social links, and an entire extra six weeks of gameplay with a bonus dungeon and eleventh social link events for every main character. Persona 5 may have taken the crown as my favorite game in the series, but Golden is a far better version 2 than Royal. I'm still not sure anything has come close to topping it in that regard.

2. Mass Effect 3

Few games have ever been as anticipated or as controversial as Mass Effect 3. It had the weight of finishing off one of the most iconic trilogies in gaming history on its shoulders, and, as far as the final moments are concerned, it failed about as hard as it possibly could have. ME3's ending is everything it wasn't supposed to be, delivers hardly any closure at all, and seemingly builds up to a sequel that never materialized. It's a mess, and it took me a good while to get past how hard it faceplants at the very end.

But if ME3's final sequence is a travesty, nearly everything before that moment is perfect. This was a game that needed to resolve dozens of choices players had made in two prior RPGs, conclude galaxy-scale conflicts between several sets of species, and still have time to continue building the player's relationships with beloved returning characters. My expectations for each of these tasks were incredibly high, and many games would struggle to devote enough time to each of them without being 100 hours long, but ME3 manages. The Rannoch missions may still be my favorite chapter of any game ever, but even the brief jaunts to single-mission planets manage to deliver satisfying conclusions to less important characters and side stories. In the years since, I've learned to treat the wonderful Citadel DLC as the game's true ending. It doesn't answer any questions about the Reapers, but then neither does the real ending, and its heartfelt sendoffs for Mass Effect's cast was all I ever really wanted.

1. Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors was a revelation for me. I'd played games with good stories before, but none that did so much with the fact that they were a game, nor that had mysteries that went so deep while still being possible to solve. It instantly became my favorite game ever, and when a sequel was announced in the form of Virtue's Last Reward, my expectations were set impossibly, irresponsibly high. Disappointment was the only possible result.

...Is what I should be saying. In reality, they were somehow still not set high enough. VLR builds on 999's foundations to take its ideas even further, and in doing so it creates an experience that can only be had here. Practically every moment and object in it is somehow relevant to or foreshadowing the overall mystery, yet the hints are subtle enough and the plot thick enough that it still manages to be constantly surprising. The escape room puzzles are clever and smoothly introduce you to scientific and philosophical concepts that will be relevant later without feeling like a lecture. The nonlinear plot gives you a sense of exploration in what is ultimately a visual novel, and the use of the prisoner's dilemma as a plot mechanism gives everything a sense of tension despite the outcome being preordained. And all this before you even begin to realize the real genius of how the plot works in the background. This became my favorite game as soon as the credits rolled, and there's obviously no question that it was the best game of 2012.

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