2008 in Review Part 1

I like to pretend that my favorite games will always be the classics, but this year has been quite a trial for that facade. Every year more and more games come out, and I have no chance to play just the ones that people recommend to me, much less all of them. The games I have played are good enough that I know 2008 was a good year for games, not just in terms of volume but in terms of quality. The DS has gotten a bunch more good games (even if it still has only a few great ones), the PC, XBox360, and PS3 have been receiving a host of games with a few standouts each, and even the Wii has gotten a game or two I’ll at least be keeping on my shelf if not playing again.

Naturally, my three favorites from this past year are outstanding members of the RPG genre:

Fallout 3 – My relationship with Western RPGs has been a bit erratic lately. I couldn’t get into Morrowind, and that was enough to convince me not to try Oblivion. My love of the first two Fallout games led me to try this one, and it’s the best PC RPG I’ve played in a good while. The voicing, the variety of quests, and the empty feel of the wasteland create the great atmosphere that sucked me in. It has the replayability and variety of the first two games, but I find it has a greater breadth as well – trying to find everything in one playthrough would be a near-impossible task. It is as bleak in theme as the second game, but with a little less grittiness, making it a bit more approachable. The story and open feel of the game kept me interested through the end. I’ll be playing this one again for sure, whenever a gap opens up in my continually-stacked schedule.

The Spirit Engine 2 – I found this PC game entirely by chance; a stroke of luck that I am grateful for. A game with so much polish developed by one person is a rare sight, and such an RPG is unprecedented. The music is great, the characters are unconventional, believable, and entertaining, and the combat requires thought but is not overly complicated. I’ve played it through twice and still feel like I’ve seen less than half of what’s there. Mark Pay has created a detailed Renaissance-Fantasy world that I hope he will expand upon later. It’s an example of how an RPG can have the story-driven aspects of JRPGs without losing the choices involved in WRPGs – though the only big choices are made in the beginning, they have a sizable impact on how your characters interact.

Persona 4 – Though I didn’t start it until this year, it’s still going to be a standout of 2008. The PS2 surely isn’t done for yet, if a game of this caliber was released just a month ago. It has all of its predecessor’s personality, including the social link system and strategic combat, but it fixes the most glaring problems and adds more features on top. Persona 3 just feels like a prototype compared to its sequel – nearly everything has been improved, and the game feels not only more natural but also more accessible and forgiving. P4 keeps the series’ hallmark story themes, with high school students reacting in a realistic fashion to mysterious murders in their rural town. I have not yet finished the game, but at this point it would have to really screw up to lose this status.

Though this year had a lot of great games, it certainly had its disappointments.

The Tales of Symphonia sequel for Wii, though not terrible, was still my most disappointing game of the year. It took nearly each thing its predecessor did well, and somehow managed to do it a little bit worse. The few added features, though briefly entertaining, were mostly too simple to bother worrying about much. The plot was entertaining, but was poorly paced and in the end there wasn’t a whole lot to it compared to the sheer amount of subplots in the first Tales of Symphonia.

Civilization Revolution (DS), though it has good replayability, was still not half the game I had hoped for. It could have had more depth by being just a touch slower, and the Army system was a little bit too unbalanced. Add to this the fact that any difficulty under King is far too easy, but any above gives the computer incredible advantages, and you have a game that just feels half-baked. The advisers are far too eager to interrupt your game to remind you that you’re 1/10 of the way to a victory of each type, with no way to turn them off.

Overall though, I’ve been really impressed by this past year of games. Hopefully we see as many great ones in 2009! Of course, I predict every game this year will be a terrible movie knockoff, so that there’s no way I can be disappointed… right?

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