2012 has been a fantastic year for video games in general, but the downloadable market has been especially remarkable. Digital distribution is reaching new heights, and what used to be considered small-scale, small budget distractions are now contenders for many GOTY awards.
To be clear, by “downloadable” we mean games that are exclusively (or at least launched exclusively) available on online stores. So while you now can go ahead and download almost any AAA title on Steam or Xbox 360’s Games on Demand service if you want, retail games are excluded here.
Because it’s been such a great year, ranking them in a mere top 5 was a difficult task. It would be a crime to not to at least mention the games that almost made the cut.
- Mark of the Ninja
- Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit
- Sound Shapes
- Lone Survivor
Thatgamecompany’s latest offering in the PS3 is the most spell-binding yet. On paper, Journey does little to provide thrilling experience; you just walk, and sometimes jump. But it’s far from your average, pretentious art game. Journey is an experience, an emotional thrill-ride and a beautiful sight – Journey truly does take you on a journey.
You’ll explore the unknown through the dessert, caves and even a snowstorm. Sometimes you’re alone, wandering the vast landscapes not knowing what lies ahead. Other times, though, you are accompanied by an online partner, who is the same, mysterious figure that you appear to be. You can only communicate through singing, and you never find out who the real player is until the end of the game, but it’s this limited interaction that makes you feel truly connected with each other, and working together through the journey forms a strong bond.
Describing Journey is a difficult task. Not only is avoiding spoilers crucial, but it’s something you have to experience yourself. Besides, the journey you take is your own, and everyone who plays has a different story.
4: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare
The sequel to 2010’s action-horror Alan Wake does not disappoint. Ramping up the number of enemies significantly and emphasising a more action-oriented approach, the game is more tense than ever has the Taken surround you. Fending them off with the flashlight before finishing them with your gun is as intuitive as ever, and just feels good.
Not only is American Nightmare a worthy sequel, it also hosts one of the greatest villains of this generation. Mr. Scratch is Alan’s evil doppelganger; a snappy-dressed, witty psychopath with a deceptively charming exterior who traps Alan in the Dark Place dimension with him. Using beguiling and seductive techniques, he fools his victims before torturing and killing them, unveiling his evil, greedy and horrifying intentions. This, of course, while recording for Alan to watch on TVs throughout the game, tormenting him and constantly boasting and threatening how how he will soon take the place of Alan Wake in the real world.
He is the literal embodiment of all of Alan’s darker memories and despair, claiming to be everything that Alan is too scared to be, and is better at living Alan’s life than even Alan himself is. Yet, despite how brilliantly evil he is, Mr. Scratch is a strangely lovable character at the same time. His hilarious and twisted lines of dialogue and that insidious grin is highly amusing.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare bridges the gap between downloadable and retail – it feels a lot closer to a fully realised retail game that many other games on the XBLA service. With the best antagonist gaming has seen for a long time, the ambitious scope and enthralling gameplay, this is a must-have for any 360 owner.
Pushmo (or Pullblox in Europe) is a unique puzzle-platformer that sees Mallo, a cute little sumo, pushing and pulling blocks to reach the top of a structure. Blocks in puzzle games are nothing new, but the execution in Pushmo is unlike anything seen before. Behind the adorable exterior lies a very challenging but rewarding game.
Not only is the game addictive, it is incredibly generous. The hundreds of levels offer hours and hours of content – and even after they’re over, the game is practically never-ending. The level editor means you can not only create your own puzzles, but download other users’ stages easily via the QR code scanner. The amount of gameplay at such a small price is staggering, and never gets stale.
Original, clever, cute and addictive, Pushmo is without a doubt the 3DS eShop’s killer app. As for the challenging sequel, Crashmo (review here), that’s would have almost made the cut on this list too – check out both games!
After a protracted development cycle of five years, the long-awaited Fez truly lives up to its anticipation. Like Pushmo, it is a cute and original puzzle-platformer – but one with a very interesting and innovative gimmick.
While Fez takes the form of a 2D platformer, allowing Gomez to move and jump left and right, the game becomes 3D as you can rotate the game world. You can rotate levels left and right, revealing four different planes of platform around the same structures. Suddenly, the game world appears much larger, both in terms of size and depth.
Using this power, you can adjust the position of platforms to advance, solve puzzles and find many, many secrets. One of the game’s redeeming qualities is the invitation of exploration – there are secrets lying everywhere, and while puzzles may appear impossible and cryptic at first, finally solving them provides the best feeling ever.
The soundtrack is undoubtedly a contender for the greatest of 2012, with amazing chiptune music and sound effects to accompany the gorgeous sprite visuals and colourful backdrops. Fez is simply a joy to play, an engaging experience and clever beyond comprehension.
1: The Walking Dead
What else could have been number one? Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead in video game format more than lives up to the quality of the brand established by the comics and TV series. The Walking Dead is not only the greatest downloadable game of 2012, but the greatest game in general of the year. In fact, it should be recognised as the greatest piece or entertainment across all media.
Using the point and click adventure format Telltale has proved to work with so well in the past, you play as Lee, a survivor in the zombie outbreak. Lee is a character that you create. Everything you say when interacting with characters, every decision you make and everything you do is down to you. You shape the story in ways that go beyond any simple and linear good/bad alternate paths established in many other game. You must make choices on impulse, you must act fast – and sometimes, pay the price.
The story is unbelievably absorbing, and I’ve never felt so attached to video game characters. It’s impossible not to develop a genuine bond with some characters, while absolutely detesting some of the more villainous and nasty pieces of work. This level of emotional investment means you will truly feel sympathy, sorrow and especially guilt after you are forced to take action. Your morals will be questioned, your loyalties will be tested, and even the coldest player can be brought to tears by the fifth and final episode.
If you’ve held off on playing it so far, you owe it to yourself to play through each and every episode of The Walking Dead. The game is a masterpiece, a milestone in the video game medium that I have no doubts will be considered a staple for story-telling for developers in the years to come.
You can catch Charles’ review of Episode 5 of The Walking Dead. Have a Happy New Year, folks!