At any given point, the top 10 biggest selling games in the country will be dominated by shooters, racing games and sports games. If we're lucky, we get a solid, substantial RPG every few months, and what seem to be the biggest games at the start of a year generally end up being the biggest games by its conclusion. However, simply because the vast majority of publicity clusters around the same small handful of games doesn't mean that the fringes of the industry have nothing to offer.
Every year, dozens of great games are released only to quickly fade away, beloved by the few impassioned gamers dedicated enough to follow them, ignored by everyone else. Of this group, there are a rare few that are so idiosyncratic they strike you as like nothing you've ever seen before - it might be the art style, a particular game mechanic, or the whole damn game, but there are games that go against every received idea about commercial appeal.
And every year a few of them break away, striking a nerve and becoming word-of-mouth success stories. Deadly premonition did it last year, so this year we'd like your help in making it one of these.
El Shaddai: The Ascension Of The Metatron
Developer: Ignition Entertainment
You may not know the name Takeyasu Sawaki, but as one of Capcom’s leading character designers you’ve almost certainly played the games he helped shape – including Okami and Devil May Cry. El Shaddai: The Ascension Of The Metatron is his first game as project lead: unsurprisingly, it looks incredible; somewhat more surprisingly, it’s essentially a beat-em up adaptation of the Book Of Enoch, a relatively obscure ancient religious document. Throw in the vocal talent of Jason Isaacs and this is shaping up to be one of the most distinctive releases of the year.
The Atlus RPG franchise Persona is one of gaming’s best kept secrets, and Catherine is its development team’s first game for the current generation of consoles. An intense psychological and erotic drama, the game flits between the protagonist Vincent struggling through a relationship with two different women, and his nightmares, where he dreams of being chased by demonic sheep. You heard me: sheep. There are shades of David Lynch to the narrative, but the gameplay is split between controlling the flow of the story and puzzle levels where Vincent has to escape his night terrors.
Rock Of Ages
Developer: Ace Team
Chilean studio Ace Team made quite an impression with its debut game. A surreal first-person brawler called Zeno Clash, it signalled the arrival of a truly distinctive voice while heralding the prospect of even greater things to come. Enter Rock Of Ages, an inspired fusion of Desktop Tower Defence and Marble Madness where one player sets out obstacles, and the other tries to roll a ball through them. But there’s a twist: the ball if the boulder from the Myth of Sisyphus, and each of Rock Ages levels is based around a different period of art history, from Ancient Greece to Romanticism, by way of Rococo.
Developer: Ubsioft Montpellier
Eric Chahi is one of the gaming’s great enigmas. He’s the guy who developed the 1991 classic Another World almost single-handed, from design document to box-art. He made another game in 1998 - the disappointing Heart Of Darkness - and then left the industry, disillusioned, to travel the world. Standing on the lip of an active volcano in 2004, he felt the overwhelming desire to create a game that expressed the power and majesty of nature, and the result is From Dust: a cutting-edge God game where you have to manipulate a remarkably well simulated island to help its inhabitants to survive.
Developer: Chris Hecker
Shooting people has become so essential to game design that the best one can hope for is a game that makes shooting someone feel novel again. Portal did it. Spy Party could do it, too. The idea is simple: one player is a sniper looking through the windows of a grand party; the other player is a spy with a series of objectives to accomplish without being shot. The spy essentially has to act like an AI, using a series of special tricks and distractions to avoid the sniper’s attention.
Patience, observation, pattern recognition, palm-sweating tension; to say that Spy Party is a very different online shooter would be an understatement, and the space is in dire need of some refreshment. If you tried the multiplayer component of the excellent Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood you'll have some idea of what Hecker is attempting, but it doesn't quite capture the exquisite tension of that red dot searching the room, landing on your head for a beat too long, and the torturous wait for death or reprieve. In concept alone Spy Party is brilliant, and Hecker is certainly taking his time over the execution.
Developer Jonathan Blow
Games like Call Of Duty: Black Ops might dominate sales, but they don’t prompt dozens of game writers to produce sprawling blog posts proclaiming it “art”. That dubious honour has been bestowed on very few games. Jonathan Blow’s Braid is one of them. A story about guilt and letting go of the past was expressed through game mechanics built around time manipulation – gameplay and narrative reinforcing one another. Blow’s new game, The Witness, is more free-form, with no obvious story elements, a substantial open play-space, and nearly 300 puzzles scattered across the landscape. Mysterious, but very possibly brilliant.
Developer: The Chinese Room
Originally built as an academic exercise at Portsmouth University, Dear Esther quickly spread throughout the mod community for Valve’s Source engine and onto the pages of prestigious websites and magazines. The player controls a man arriving at a craggy island. The reason why isn’t clear, but neither is his identity, or the identity of the woman he’s looking for. Passages of narration play randomly as you explore the island, and before long things start to get very weird indeed. Dear Esther is haunting and completely unique, and an enhanced version of the mod is scheduled for release this year. You need a very good reason not to play it.
Developer: Ice Pick Lodge
If anyone ever tells you that games are too simple these days, lock them in a room with copies of the first two games from Ice Pick Lodge:Pathologic and The Void. The first is strange, brutally unforgiving and broken; the second is strange, brutally unforgiving and, well, strange. Both are unforgettable in their own way, but neither can really be called “fun”. With Cargo!, Ice Pick Lodge seems to be poking fun at its own reputation, creating a game of exploration and vehicle construction in a surreal and garishly colourful landscape, where the most valuable substance is called - wait for it - “FUN”.