Here's a little rundown of the video games that VICE's video game writers have been playing and enjoying since September of this year. If you're looking for an escape from familial bonding over the next couple of days, these are the worlds you should immerse yourself in.
(Developed by Platinum Games, published by Nintendo)
Leggy witch with daddy issues punches heavenly opponents into chucks of bloody flesh and shattered metal, scattering halos all over the place—halos later used as currency to buy new combat techniques and lollipop power-ups from a bar somewhere between this realm of ours and hell itself. Between a beginning in the big city and an end atop some mythical mountain, she'll transform into a big cat and a sea serpent, as well as riding on the back of a fighter jet twice—first, fending off centaur-like assailants while dodging skyscrapers, and much later in a flashback to Sega's classic After Burner.
Nothing in Bayonetta 2 makes a whole lot of sense when you isolate its constituents, but when everything's squashed together in a style wholly identifiable as the manic work of Platinum Games, this Wii U exclusive sings a symphony of compulsive mayhem. It's the best action game of 2014.
(Developed by Bungie, published by Activision)
Destiny is a great online shooter struggling to free itself from a pile of guns with marginally differentiated stats and cute names. Its dependence on grind as a means of providing longevity undermines the architecture of what might otherwise be dizzying, Halo-esque firefights. Its plot, in which Tyrion Lannister voices an invisible loading bar, is a sad little skeleton of hints about a vivid wider fiction. In short, it's a game that's very much in love with its own bullshit.
And yet, I'm itching to go back to it. The gunplay is briskly executed, even allowing for level differences between player and enemy; the planets are gloriously unlikely sweeps of postcard views; and the mix of spontaneous occurring and planned co-op leads to plenty of memorable moments. Plus, when you zap a guy with a pulse rifle he evaporates.
THE EVIL WITHIN
(Developed by Tango Gameworks, published by Bethesda Softworks)
Or: Shinji Mikami Plays the Hits. The Evil Within is a grab-bag of elements from its director's back catalogue: ostensibly it's Resident Evil 4 with a torture-porn aesthetic, but supplies are sparse like the original Resi, encouraging you to dispatch enemies with a knife to the carotid artery rather than waste valuable rounds. Still, with the help of the brilliantly named Agony Crossbow and the most satisfying video game shotgun in years, you're soon blowing them into fleshy chunks. Gory, nasty and full of devious tricks and traps, it doesn't do much new, but it's relentlessly thrilling all the same.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: CRIMES & PUNISHMENTS
(Developed by Frogwares, published by Focus Home Interactive)
You know, I bet if Bandersnatch Cummerbund played the titular character in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments the game would get the recognition it deserves. How this series continues to fly under the radar is beyond me—and come every iteration it just gets better. With several possible solutions for each case (the majority of which being wrong), there's a real skill to your deductions. This, along with making a moral decision about your culprit at the end, means you can almost feel the deerstalker upon your head. Even though Holmes never wore one. That's how good it is.
THE BINDING OF ISAAC: REBIRTH
(Developed and published by Nicalis with Edmund McMillen)
Indecision blights me every day. A game like The Walking Dead—though I love it—is a nightmare. Making quick decisions with people's lives, leaving them for dead? NOPE. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, though—a wonderful remake of the 2011 original, now ported to PS4 and Vita—does almost everything for me.
A randomly generated, 2D Zelda-like shooter, progress is mostly based on chance. Upgrades (or downgrades) can be left behind, but there'll be more. You might become godlike, storming into hell all tears blazing. Or you could suffer being dealt terrible hands. But that's out of my own, so I scroll through each unique room hoping for easier enemies and better treasures, knowing the rest is all down to my (obviously vast) skill. Distilled gaming.
THE SAILOR'S DREAM
(Developed by Simogo)
Simogo's latest is a gentle, contemplative work that sees you sailing around a peaceful archipelago, pulling ashore to explore abandoned buildings: a lighthouse, a radio shack, a house on a cliff. Poking around their dark, mysterious rooms, you discover sound toys and mementoes, each of which adds color and texture to a touching narrative.
With no real puzzles to solve beyond piecing together the strands of the story, the pleasure comes from simply lingering inside this gorgeously rendered little dream world, enjoying Jonathan Eng's wonderfully wistful soundtrack.
MONUMENT VALLEY: FORGOTTEN SHORES
(Developed and published by ustwo)
An eight-level add-on—costing a little over $2 per month, much to the disgust of some mobile gamers expecting developers to give away their content after several months of hard work—to ustwo's beautiful original, Monument Valley's Forgotten Shores, places finger-prompted protagonist Ida in some wonderfully creative environments, still taking aesthetic cues from the work of artist MC Escher.
This time pathways can be twisted, so as to move from one surface to another, and there's a fiddly end stage, "Nocturne," where each of (Ida's companion) Totem's quarters comes into essential play. There's plenty of the wet stuff this time around, including a gorgeous level set against a mammoth waterfall, and a rather more compact one, "The Oubliette," which is comparable to the original's "The Box" puzzle.
You'll likely cruise through these challenges in under 40 minutes, but just being in these places is enough—the sound and visuals are completely otherworldly, and a great escape during any commute.
(Developed by The Creative Assembly, published by Sega)
While game developers have traditionally looked to James Cameron's action-packed sequel for inspiration, The Creative Assembly used Ridley Scott's original 1979 Alien film as the foundation for this superb horror game. You aren't blasting waves of xenomorphs with a pulse rifle in Isolation. Instead, as the name suggests, you're alone, being stalked by a single, fearsome alien.
Giger's creature is devilishly intelligent, with dynamic artificial intelligence that reacts, and adapts, to your play style. The retro-future setting, with its chunky 1970s technology, is dark, claustrophobic and oppressive, which only adds to the game's feeling of constant, gnawing tension. This is the atmospheric, slow-burning horror game the Alien series has always been crying out for.
DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION
(Developed by BioWare, published by Electronic Arts)
Dragon Age! Where being the leader of a fearsome shadow-empire doesn't stop people from asking me to fetch herbs or help them track down the plagiarist behind a tedious fantasy novel! Dragon Age! Where I get to reinvent myself as Helga, goat-lady and closet elf lover! Dragon Age! Where I can whisk up icicle caltrops to hold off acid-puking spiders while my rogue hurls sleeping powder at a legionnaire who's corner-trapping my warrior! Dragon Age!
MIDDLE EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR
(Developed by Monolith Productions, published by Warner Bros.)
This had no right being good. It's a thoroughly dumb use of Tolkien's world, and is derivative of a dozen other games. But, man, it's brilliant. Every idea it steals it makes its own, like a really good cover version that you can control with your thumbs.
But then you dig deeper and discover the nemesis system, in which orcs who kill you grow stronger. Rivalries form, and you genuinely grow to hate, and sometimes respect, your adversaries—a rarity in games, where enemies are usually no more than faceless drones. This is a confident, fun, and challenging open world brawler that shamelessly pilfers from the likes of Assassin's Creed and the Arkham series, but throws in that inspired nemesis system to mix things up.
I will beat you, Tûgog Man-Breaker. One day.
SUPER SMASH BROS
(Developed by Sora Ltd/Bandai Namco Games, published by Nintendo)
Nintendo's biggest-hitter of 2014 delivers on both its home version—shinier visuals, compatible with the company's funny little Amiibo toys—and its equally slick portable counterpart. On the move, it's easy to jump into a four-character free-for-all between tube stops, and while newcomers to the series will likely find their first few hours a mix of entertainingly random victories mixed with colorfully excruciating failures, once you lock down a character that suits you (unlocking more as you progress), the precisely engineered gameplay of this simple-concept experience emerges.
There's a shitload of different game modes, solo and shared, but many will simply focus on the multiplayer fracases (up to eight, on Wii U), which have never played better.