With all three new consoles finally out on the market, previous gen machines still going strong and both portable and mobile gaming rolling full steam ahead, 2014 was a pretty big year for video games. But for every big AAA hit we could see coming from a mile away, there were an equal number of unexpected gems popping up all over the place.
Whether an indie darling, a big-budget success that nobody saw coming, or even a game that literally nobody knew about until the day it was released, the past 12 months have been good to gamers who like to root for the underdog or try out something brand new and unexpected. Here are 10 of our favorites from 2014.
Bravely DefaultBravely Default is another underdog of early 2014, coming to the market when RPG fans weren't too keen on anything “classic style” that Square Enix had to offer. Developed by SE and Silicon Studios, we knew that Bravely Default both looked and sounded excellent, but something about the game's promise to return to the roots of RPGs had many gamers going in with their shields held high. Square Enix hasn't exactly been batting a thousand in the RPG department as of late. Then the game actually launched and, not only did it deliver on its promise of old-school RPG goodness, but it managed to plug in a huge number of new tweaks that pulled the genre into the new generation. It got a bit repetitive, sure, but that hasn't stopped a legion of new fans who are eagerly clamoring for Bravely Second to finally drop.
HearthstoneReleasing for iOS and PC in early January of this year, it may be hard to remember that, before it went on to become the mega-hit that it is today, Hearthstone was a major question mark for gamers. We knew it was a card game coming from Blizzard and that it would be built around a free-to-play model. That premise caused a lot of folks to go into Hearthstone expecting the norm for the genre, which is to say a questionably made cash grab. What we got, however, is one of the best f2p games available, combining loads of content and an addictive battle system that took the gaming world by storm.
TowerFall: AscensionI can't say enough about how good TowerFall: Ascension is. Originally launched exclusively for Ouya, this upgraded version of TowerFall is party game heaven, boasting classic graphics and a kicking chiptune soundtrack, as well as fast and frantic arena combat that shouldn't be missed.
P.T.The biggest unknown of 2014, nobody even knew that P.T. existed until it was revealed midway through the year and eventually proven to be a teaser for the upcoming Silent Hills. One of my favorite gaming experiences of the year, P.T. is a two-hour romp into the world of terror and insanity, forcing players to search for clues and solve light environmental puzzles while having the crap scared out of them by all manner of ghosts and clever tricks.
Steam World DigCombining elements of Terraria and Spelunky, Steam World Dig tasks players with exploring a massive underground labyrinth as an adorable ubgradable steambot with a thirst for water and gems. Steamworld Dig is a shorter romp, but a delightful one, overflowing with cute character, tricky enemies and addictive gameplay that has you constantly wanting to dig just a little bit further.
Shovel KnightMany had high hopes for Shovel Knight when it originally launched this fall, but I don't think anyone expected the game to be quite as pitch-perfect as it turned out to be. More of an homage to classic gaming than a clever wink at fans of the genre, Shovel Knight takes place in its own world, with its own characters and its own brand of fantastic side-scrolling action and adventure. It looks great, it sounds amazing, and it manages to flex all of the nostalgia muscles without a single sly reference to genre greats.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Consoles)After the abysmal launch of the original Final Fantasy XIV, I don't think that anyone expected A Realm Reborn to manage to fix practically every single problem suffered by the original game. And yes, ARR originally launched for PC in 2013, but the console version didn't drop until the spring of 2014, which is the version of the game I'm guessing many of us went on to play. Even after a successful PC launch, I don't think anyone expected the console version to run so smoothly from the get-go, making you wonder how annual shooters can manage to get online gameplay so very, very wrong on a regular basis. It's a beautiful game set in a vast and varied world, with fun gameplay and a growing number of reasons to keep coming back for more.
Fantasy LifeWhen I saw the trailer for Fantasy Life at E3 2014, my first thought was “how am I only just now hearing about this game.” Mixing some old-school RPG conventions with loads of new elements inspired by MMOs, this is a delightfully charming romp into a world where the player can choose their own life and path through the game. It can be repetitive as hell, sure, but it's the kind of reward loop that, for me at least, kept the hooks sunk in for many, many hours.
Velocity 2XLikely to appear on many “Game of the Year” lists, I wouldn't be surprised if the vast majority of gamers still don't know a thing about Velocity 2X, and that's a damn shame. Sequel to one of the best vertically scrolling shooters of all time and given away on launch day as a PlayStation Plus title, Velocity 2X takes the brilliant shooting and teleportation mechanics of the original and plugs in new boss fights that shift the action to a clever and exciting side-scrolling perspective. It's laser-focused action, plain and simple.
Middle-earth: Shadow of MordorBefore screaming foul, remember that, leading up to the launch of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, few people knew what to expect out of this new action title set in the world of The Lord of the Rings. Tons of gamers and journalists went into the E3 screening for Mordor expecting nothing and came out calling it one of their most anticipated titles of the show. Then the team at Monolith Productions goes and delivers on their promise of insane action and a living world of enemies where alliances and decisions actually matter. Shadow of Mordor is an unquestionable hit, but it's one that most of us never saw coming until it was practically in our hands.