A look at five of the best (and most interestingly) designed games of 2013.
Path of Exile
First & foremost, Path of Exile deserves recognition as being one of the few examples of a game from a previously unknown developer that has managed to achieve great success through entirely non-manipulative form of freemium monetization. Whereas most successful freemium games have some sort of manipulation (like allowing the player to buy things with in-game currency but making it much more faster to use real money), Path of Exile avoids this problem entirely. All IAP are related to aesthetics (alternate equipment and ability visuals), guilds, or convenience (increasing the already high character slot & shared stash limits). Easy though it would be, there are no IAP relating directly to gameplay progression. You can get the full Path of Exile experience, devoid of any additional non-paying grind, for free.
But besides the exemplary monetization system, Path of Exile brings some other interesting systems to the table. There is no traditional money in-game - everything revolves around a barter system where forms of currency double as crafting tools. There are numerous forms of defense (HP, armor, evasion, energy shield, resist, endurance charges, and various special passives & abilities) making planning your character's defenses almost as interesting as planning their offense. And with a massive LV-Up tree (reminiscent of Final Fantasy X's sphere grid) and skill support gems (reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII's materia), the player has tremendous freedom to build a unique character.
Path of Exile is not perfect. Desynch & lag problems can ruin an otherwise fun session, the skill slot system makes finding high level upgrades for equipment more difficult than it should be, and despite all the various support gems, abilities just aren't as interesting as those that can be found in some other hack & slash RPGs. Still, the developer has been supporting Path of Exile with frequent content updates, so this is a game worth watching.
Lesson from Path of Exile: Non-manipulative freemium monetization can work with a game that respects the player, has frequent updates, and high levels of replayability.
Desktop Dungeons gained some recognition back in 2011 when it won the IGF Excellence in Design award, but sadly, its official release 2 years later has gone mostly unnoticed. This is a shame since Desktop Dungeons is easily one of the best games of the year.
Desktop Dungeons' genius is that it takes the traditional hardcore roguelike RPG experience and condenses it into a more accessible (but still difficult) bitesized puzzle game. There have been previous attempts at combining puzzle & RPGs - Puzzle Quest and Puzzle & Dragons being the two best known examples - but these combinations typically just take a traditional puzzle game and add RPG progression & story to the mix. In contrast, Desktop Dungeon turns the actual RPG experience into a puzzle. You need to figure out how best to defeat enemies with your various equipment & abilities so that you'll become powerful enough to defeat more difficult enemies and eventually defeat the boss (or bosses) of the dungeon. It's incredibly involving and a great example of how a turn-based game can be fast-paced and exciting.
Besides polishing up the mechanics and presentation values and adding a macro-game of improving your kingdom between runs (which in turn gives you more options & challenges), my favorite addition to the game since the original alpha are a collection of hand crafted puzzles (usually, the game just randomly generates a dungeon for you based on various criteria). Some of these puzzles can get to be devilishly difficult and the rush when you finally figure out the trick to beating them is incredible.
Lesson from Desktop Dungeons: Sometimes taking a traditional genre and then subverting those genre conventions can result in greatness.
Praised as being the best Playstation 4 launch exclusive from a number of reviewers, I'm afraid that Resogun's status as a launch game has discouraged many reviewers from really looking deeply into this game. Yes, it's a fun, fast-paced shmup with impressive visuals that showcases the PS4's new hardware well, but it's so much more.
Resogun's genius is how it takes common problems to past games in the genre and finds solutions to them. Take the well known classic, Defender. Most players find Defender to be a game that quickly becomes overwhelming. You need to shoot aliens while simultaneously defending your humans who are scattered across the stage from being abducted. If you fail to protect a human, they turn into a powerful enemy, frequently causing a chain reaction where one failure spirals into total failure.
Although outwardly similar to that classic game, Resogun takes a very different approach than Defender. Rather than having to defend all humans at all times, in Resogun, you only need to defend a handful of humans at once. And instead of having to defend those humans in perpetuity, you merely need to grab them and bring them to a rescue vessel before the enemy gets to them. Finally, failure results in missed opportunities for secondary power-ups rather than increased enemy difficulty. These various changes make Resogun much less overwhelming than Defender, but more importantly, it turns the game into an active one (defeat the jailors, grab the human, and deliver them to safety) rather than a passive one (prevent humans from being captured by enemies).
Even more interesting than Resogun's take on Defender, however, is how it evolves the twin-stick formula made popular in recent years with the Geometry Wars series. Geometry Wars is a fun, franctic shmup, but it lacks the clear sense of progression that you might find in a more traditional stage-based game like Gradius or R-Type. Resogun keeps the non-descript arena & spawning enemies of Geometry Wars, but it takes a note from classic stage-based shmups and instead of spawning new waves of enemies randomly, they spawn in set patterns. Essentially, Resogun manages to combine the best of both worlds - you get the chaos of a twin-stick shooter with the sense of progression of a traditional shmup.
Lesson from Resogun: Even classics have flaws. By figuring out those flaws and finding solutions to them, an even better game can be created.
Monaco: What's Yours is Mine
I wrote extensively on the genius of Monaco when it was new so rather than repeat myself, I'll refer you here.
Lesson from Monaco: Some classic ideas & games (in this case, Pac-Man) can still be evolved in exciting new ways.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
The Legend of Zelda series has long been in a rut. Go to a dungeon, find a special item that acts as a key to the puzzles in that dungeon & also doubles as the dungeon boss's bane, and repeat until you eventually beat the game. It's a fun formula, expertly done as is Nintendo's wont, but after many games, it's gotten old. A Link Between Worlds breaks that rut.
Although Link Between Worlds is heavily based on Link to the Past (where the Zelda formula found in later games was first mastered), it also takes heavy inspiration from the original Zelda as well. The original Zelda was low on puzzles but strong on exploration and combat. By allowing the player to tackle the worlds in Link Between Worlds as they choose (thanks to the game's new item rental system), that sense of exploration has been brought back to the series. Similarly, by increasing the usefulness of items in combat & removing the need for ammo (items now use a magic bar that recharges after a short delay), combat has become much more interesting as well.
As an aside, I find it disappointing that in a year where Nintendo has revitalized both the Zelda & Pokemon series with some of their best and most innovative titles in years, the Mario series is rapidly falling into the frequent sequel trap. There's no denying that Super Mario 3D World and New Super Mario U are fun, well designed games, but they lack the wild abandon and creativity that we found in other system launching (and near launch) Mario titles like Super Mario World, Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy.
Lesson from A Link Between Worlds: Too much of a good thing can grow tiresome. Even a quality series can use a shakeup every now and again.