2014 Is the Year of the New Old School

Each year in gaming culture has something that defines it. 2012 was the year of smart, low-budget surprises like Journey, Spec Ops: The Line and The Walking Dead, while 2013 brought us three generation-defining AAA titles in Bioshock Infinite, GTA V, and The Last of Us. People are painting 2014 as the year of overhyped disappointments, and Watch Dogs and Destiny certainly lend credence to that characterization, but I think 2014 will be remembered for something else: making the old-school new again.

Like the Point and Click Adventure, the JRPG’s demise is often greatly exaggerated. But while action-based games like the Tales of series and hybrid series like Persona have thrived in recent years, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen something in the style of classic Final Fantasy – a wholly turn-based game with a heavy emphasis on resource management. But then Bravely Default happened. It takes the sensibilities of the very best old Final Fantasy games – the job system, the menu-driven combat, and the classic, simple story of four heroes and four crystals – and presents them with unique, modern twists. The ability to combine jobs gives the game immense strategic depth, and the Brave/Default system allows you to execute some truly insane tactics by stacking actions together. The remarkable thing about Bravely Default is that it gets to the heart of what makes turn-based combat enjoyable without needing to add modern contrivances.

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It’s rare to see entirely campaign-driven first person shooters these days – especially ones with a focus on mechanics over narrative – but Wolfenstein: The New Order reminds us just how enjoyable such games can be. With huge mission maps packed with variety and an emphasis on tight gunplay, The New Order showed me the most fun I’ve had with an FPS campaign in a long time. The story might not be as compelling as the likes of Bioshock, but it’s entertaining as anything. What really sets Wolfenstein apart is its refusal to hold your hand. You can easily get lost in its cavernous levels, and a few slipups can quickly lead to your death. If you stay in the zone, though, it’s a blast to catch Nazis unaware with your knife or mow them down with an automatic shotgun. The game doesn’t make things easy, but that just makes it more satisfying when you earn your victories.

At the start of the year, stealth game fans were beyond hyped for the new Thief, but restrictive, overly linear design in the main campaign left them disappointed. Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes offered a more open-ended sneak-em-up experience, but it was short-lived and a little too action-oriented for some players’ palates. This month, though, Styx the goblin crept out of the shadows and deftly stole the hearts of stealth aficionados the world over. Cyanide’s Styx: Master of Shadows isn’t without issues (it’s worth noting that the developers have been addressing complaints with patches), but as hardcore stealth titles go, this is the best one in years. This game demands that you show care and precision in everything you do. Levels are massive and organically designed so that you must find your own path instead of following one that’s been laid out for you. If you get spotted, combat is treated as a failure state rather than a viable solution.

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The horror genre of late has taken a dramatic shift away from the underlying fundamentals of its forebears: survival mechanics. AAA atrocities like Resident Evil 6 and Silent Hill: Homecoming brought ruin upon their respective series with an increased focus on shoddy, linear action, and indie games like Amnesia and Outlast have abandoned survival entirely in favor of rudimentary stealth. But Shinji Mikami, the creator of resident evil, hasn’t forgotten the tension and fear that can be evoked with dwindling ammo and insufficient medical supplies. The Evil Within feels like a fusion between the tight gameplay of Resident Evil 4 and masterfully tense design of Resident Evil 2. Every combat encounter in the game could spell your doom, and creeping around the creeps isn’t always an option. The inevitability of costly faceoffs against monsters and zombies adds a layer of stress to every moment of play, which can be quite effective when coupled with the game’s unnerving atmosphere. It’s not a game that demands minute-to-minute perfection, but rather one designed to wear you down over time as your mistakes compound – and potentially leave you with no recourse but to restart.

For gamers who grew up on the classics, these titles feel like a return to form for the medium, but the reception they’ve gotten might hint at why these experiences are so scarce in the first place. Both The Evil Within and Styx have copped criticism for their unforgiving nature and some cumbersome design elements. Some players have complained about the combat in both titles – which seems odd to me, given that The Evil Within’s combat is intended to evoke feelings of life-or-death struggle against overwhelming odds, while in Styx it is an overt punishment for failure. Neither of these games is perfect, but it strikes me as odd to dress them down specifically for design elements that are functioning as intended. and Bravely Default and Wolfenstein were met with near universal praise, but even they have built up small contingents detractors for being too much like games of the past.

Obviously, not every game can be for everyone, but I think the problem is certain people perceiving themselves as the target audience for games not aimed at them. Players have been lead to believe that they enjoy the genres in question by games that hold their hands through those genres’ core experiences. Outlast and Amnesia are undeniably scary, but the greatest challenge they present is generally working up the guts to try in the first place. From there it’s really just a matter of evasion and possibly pattern memorization. Moving from games like that to a title where you can lose hours of progress to a few bad decisions can be understandably frustrating, but it’s disappointing to see players get fed up immediately and retreat to easier ground.  I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with enjoying these more accessible titles, but it’s troubling to see gamers frequently mislabel them as “Survival Horror” when they contain no survival elements to speak of.

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The Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham games make stealth a breeze, and should you fail that’s just an excuse to enjoy their combat systems. These “action stealth” games hardly qualify as stealth games at all, and while they provide a simulacrum of the thrill you get from a perfect run in Hitman or Styx, it feels muted to anyone who’s earned the real thing. On the other hand you have games built around “choosing your playstyle” like Dishonored and Deus Ex. Some might be tempted to equate these titles with true stealth games because of their multi-path levels, but rather than encouraging experimentation with various stealth mechanics, these branches are designed to provide a selection of more or less linear experiences for sneaky, violent, or mixed playstyles. While the variety can be nice, none of these games can really compare to something that focuses entirely on stealth mechanics and counts on you to explore every facet of them. That brand of gameplay demands a very specific kind of patience that players of lighter stealth games don’t seem to have.

This lack of receptiveness in certain parts of the gaming community goes a ways to explaining why this is being seen as the year of new-gen disappointments. But players who know what they’re looking for and where to look have found plenty to get excited about. For the first time in ages, we’re seeing classic-style games that manage to take on modern sensibilities without losing the elements that made the classics what they were. When gamers of the future look back on the true highlights of 2014, they’ll be treated to an old-school crash course.