Matthew Sawrey

a portfolio of videogame writings

2011’s Unsung Hero’s

A selection of great titles from 2011 that many end of year lists forget.

2011 has undoubtedly been a prolific year for top quality big budget triple A releases and with the advent of 2012 comes the usual onslaught of top 10 of 2011 lists. We all know the big guns: SkyrimDark SoulsUncharted 3Skyward SwordArkham CityDeus Ex: Human RevolutionDead Space 2Gears 3, RageLA NoireMinecraftLittle Big Planet 2Portal 2Fifa 12Crysis 2, Modern Warfare 3Battlefield 3Assassins Creed RevelationsForza 4Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land and Rayman Origins amongst others.

But what of all the great smaller titles released this year? lesser known but by no means of any less quality, there have been many fabulous gaming experiences other than those mega-budget blockbusters. So here’s a little piece to the ones that may have slipped by unnoticed in 2011.

Always on the periphery of the videogame market, 2011 saw many original and creative releases for Apple’s iOS devices. None more so than Hemisphere Games puzzler Osmos (iOS, PC, Mac and Linux),in which players control a single celled organism consuming smaller organisms to increase in size whilst avoiding absorption into larger ones. A simple premise playing similarly to the early sections of Spore or Flow, Osmos is at once challenging, addictive and a wonderfully relaxing experience.


A streamlined take on Angry Birds slingshot gameplay mixed with Puzzle Bobble, Amazing Breaker (iOS) tasked players with destroying colourful crystal sculptures of everyday objects using explosive projectiles. Finding a sweet spot between the simplicity of its premise and providing a challenge, the 80 levels of Amazing Breaker are perfect iOS time drainers.


A descriptor that perfectly summarizes FDG Entertainment’s Blueprint 3D (iOS). An original puzzler taking full advantage of each iOS device’s touch screen ability; requiring players to rotate a random 3 dimensional jostle of white lines until they find the correct perspective to assemble the image of a blueprint in the fastest possible time. Another of those “just one more….” iOS wonders Blueprint 3D has a unique and distinctive charm to its simplicity.

What many critics have lauded as a modern puzzler classic, Spacechem (iPad, PC, Linux and Mac OS X) places you in the role of a Chemical Engineer and tasks the player with designing a “reactor” to refine and combine atoms and molecules into new compounds. Not for the light hearted puzzler, Spacechem quickly evolves in complexity with a dizzying array of variables and factors equating to an assortment of paths to success as well as failure. Completing a Spacechem puzzle will make you feel even more of a pseudo-scientific genius than besting one of GlaDos’s brain teasers.


Taking a more straightforward approach to puzzling Disney’s Where’s My Water (iOS) tasks players with carving out sections of earth to re-route water to a showering crocodile. Simple, quirky and addictive, this is a must have for fans of Cut the Rope. Equally addictive was iOS maestro Halfbrick Studio’s raucous, machine gun fuelled Jetpack Joyride (iOS). Itchingly compelling, this one touch distance platformer provided a burst of highly polished iOS quick fix gameplay (Gamewhelk review).


For a more substantial experience iOS devices were hardly lacking in the adventure genre this year. Point and click meandering, mytho-poetic adventurer Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP (iOS) proved to be one of the most unique; with strikingly beautiful 8-bit stylisation and serene, gentle pacing. In stark contrast Chair Entertainment and Epic Games’s action RPG Infinity Blade 2 (iOS) was rich in touch screen combat and pushed the Iphone to its graphical limits, whilst improving on almost every aspect of the critically lauded original.


Freebird Games PC RPG adventure To the Moon (PC)proved that no amount of celebrity voice acting or realistic facial animation is a substitute for an emotionally relatable and engaging narrative.With a beautiful aesthetic design reminiscent of Chrono TriggerTo the Moon may be a brief encounter but it is an affecting one that you will most certainly remember.

Desktop Dungeons (PC) is a randomly generated dungeon puzzle adventurer, currently in a completely free beta release (Available-here). It straddles the line between a casual, accessible experience and a hardcore punisher in which death is as frequent as a jaunt through one of Dark Souls oppressive dungeons. This quirky indie title is most defiantly worth a few minutes of any gamer’s time.


A dystopian cyberpunk futuristic turn based strategy title presented in icy dark blue tones, Frozen Synapse (PC, Mac and Linux) is a game all about its core mechanics that just so happens to have an alluring and individual aesthetic. The player assumes command of a squad of mercenary soldiers aiding a resistance group in fighting a corporate government regime. Battles are presented from a top down perspective with an array of tactical options composed with such refinement that Frozen Synapse is at once approachable and complex.

Ever the preserve of inventive experimentation, the online services for the big consoles have provided some of the most unique and creative experiences of the year. Tim Schafer’s studio Double Fine lived up their name providing a double bill of inventiveness, starting with its third person Mech-shooter twist on the burgeoning tower defence genre, Iron Brigade (XBLA), with fun easily accessible multiplayer and addictive  looting gameplay. Its equally fine companion, Stacking (XBLA and PSN) couldn’t have been further away in premise. An adventure puzzler set during the Industrial age inhabited by Russian Stacking Dolls, the player controls a small doll named Charlie Blackmore attempting to reunite his family. Unique in premise, style and tone Stacking really is worth the investment as one of this year’s quirkiest titles.


Another title offering a unique spin on the tower defence genre, Orcs Must Die! (XBLA and PC)marked Robot Entertainments first original IP. Much like Iron Brigade the game eschews the usual top down tower defence perspective in favour of a third person viewpoint whilst players prepare to stop endless hordes of Orc armies before they reach their goal. Polished, finely tuned and lengthy Orcs Must Die! is a fantastic budget twist on the genre.

Taking an opposite spin upon tower defence genre tropes with a futuristic military twist, Anomaly Warzone Earth (iOS, PC and Mac) reversed the usual set up, placing you in the shoes of the creepers trying to reach a destination and melding tower defence with strategy. The player plans out vehicle pathways around turret laden city streets altering them on the fly through intuitive touch controls. The fact that it received an Apple design award in 2011 is fully indicative of its originality and quality.


The retro styled cell shaded action RPG Bastion (XBLA and PC) had the unique idea of having actions made by the player, as well as plot background described by a gravelly voiced narrator. Taking place after a catastrophic event referred to as the “calamity” in which the game world was shattered to pieces, land re-assembles itself in-front of you as you progress. Bastion’s original presentation and diverse RPG mechanics made it ones of this year’s best XBLA releases.

Eric Chahi’s From Dust (XBLA, PC and PSN) (Gamewhelk review –here) granted players the power over environmental elements to guide a tribe of nomadic humans safely through a volatile and primordial earth. The spiritual successor to Peter Molyneux’s Populous, From Dust’s impressively realistic and dynamic elemental physics (Land, Lava, Rock and Water) may have been overshadowed by its slightly overreaching ambition, but it definitely deserves a look in as one of the most original strategy releases of 2011.


As the spiritual successor to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s RezChild of Eden (XBLA and PSN)is a similar experiment in synesthia; integrating sound, vision and touch into a cohesive sensory experience. Playing like a Hunter. S. Thompson lucid dream, it proved to be one of this year’s more creative and successful employments of both the Kinect and Playstation Move peripherals and more than lived up to the quality of its inspiration.


Two games based around a similar block puzzle platforming mechanic that could not have had more juxtaposed premises were Atlus’s Catherine (Xbox 360 and PS3) and Southend Interactive’s Ilomilo (XBLA). Catherine is an adult tale of a man struggling with infidelity and commitment. It will certainly hold your attention for both its esoteric strangeness and challenging block platforming puzzles. At the opposite end of the spectrum dealing with a slightly more innocent relationship, but still in the form of a block based puzzle platformer Ilomilo tasked players with reuniting quilted friends Ilo and Milo. Charming material patchwork graphics and perspective shifting gameplay made this one of 2011’s most charming and endearingly cute releases.


Frozenbyte’s Trine 2 (XBLA, PC, Mac and PSN) improved upon its predecessor in almost every aspect: Visuals, puzzles, platforming and combat were all more refined and balanced, whilst it retained the mythological fantasy setting. Taking the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde premise to another level players interchange between 3 characters within one body; a Wizard, a Thief and a Knight, each bringing unique skills and abilities to gameplay.

More of an action orientated platformer, Housemarque’s Outland (XBLA and PSN) pilfers inspiration from Ikaruga’s two dimensional light and dark mechanic, with players switching between blue and red forms in order to absorb energies. With an outstanding visual design reflecting its premise and fluid yet challenging gameplay this is one for the old school platformers.


The pet project of just one designer, everything in The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile (XBLA) is straight from the mind of James Silva. A fact that makes the slick hack ‘n’ slash side scrolling gameplay, gore-soaked yet muted visuals, co-op mode and intelligent nod’s to the wider world of videogames all the more impressive. A great improvement over the previous Dishwasher, if you can deal with the copious lashings of crimson then this is definitely worth 800 Microsoft Points.

Full of Megaman style wall jumps and Super Meat Boy platforming League of Evil (iOS and PC) was hardly the most original release of 2011. What it was however, was 54 levels of slick, challenging and stylish bursts of platforming fun.


Top down twin stick vehicle based military shooter Renegade Ops (XBLA, PSN and PC) provides something to satiate fans of both the old Codemasters war classic Cannon Fodder and the bombastic carnage of Rambo. It may not have lofty ambitions toward high art, but it is loud proud and a shed load of fun. Likewise Sega’s Aliens: Infestation (DS) provided some invigoration for the twin stick shooter genre. Mixing Metroidvania style progression and the patented Alien series tension drenched horror atmosphere, Aliens: Infestation is a brilliantly fun arcade flash back.


The Binding of Isaac (PC, Mac and Linux) harkens back to the NES Legend of Zelda dungeon formula but with a far more bizarre premise: An allegory of the bible story of the same name, Isaac is a young child whose mother receives a message from god demanding she take Isaac’s sinful life as a demonstration of her faith. Isaac escapes through a trap door into a monster-filled basement delving deeper and deeper into both the dungeon and his past. Completely deranged and full of pitch black humour, The Binding of Isaac is a sadistically enjoyable experience.


Are you one of the many that thought The Dark Knight’s opening bank heist would have made for a great videogame? Well it turns out, you were right! Overkill Software’s Payday: The Heist (PSN and PC) is a randomly generated FPS bank heist simulator. A uniquely tense cooperative experience that feels a lot like a cops and robbers version of Left 4 Dead once things kick off, Payday: The Heist is a flash of originality in an otherwise creatively stifled modern FPS genre.


For the inquisitively minded Professor Layton and the Last Spectre (DS) finally graced European soil this year and proved to be another fine addition to this venerable puzzle series. Intriguing mysteries, plenty of plot twists and a well fleshed out RPG mini-game named “London Life” results in the most mesmerising Hershel Layton adventure yet.

A narratively unrelated but creatively influenced spin off from the Ace Attorney franchise Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS) features a ghostly protagonist with the ability to switch between the land of the living and of the dead. A fantastic combination of point and click mechanics, stunningly slick animation and oddball Japanese humour, this is a title brimming with charm and polish.


Atlus JRPG Radiant Historia (DS) combined the concepts of branching storyline paths, time travel and parallel universes in a nod to Chrono Trigger. Even in the crowded RPG market of the DS Radiant Historia stands out with a great amount of player freedom and is well worth an import to European markets.

The cell shaded watercolour PS2 adventure Okami was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful videogame adventures ever created. 5 years later the sequel Okamiden (DS) graces the DS with an equally sumptuous visual experience. With a plot centering on the children of the original game’s characters and paint brush gameplay a natural fit for the stylus and touch screen. Okamiden is a welcome addition to a commercially underachieving series that deserves far more attention.


Even in the 3DS’s relative adolescence the console has been graced with a puzzle title of originality, depth and alluring ingenuity in Pushmo (Pullbox outside of EU) (3DS), a game that really showcases the unique abilities of the console. Gameplay requires depth perception to pull block structures into the foreground creating new pathways of progression. With 250-plus levels and a level editor Pushmo is exactly the kind of title the 3DS required at this point in its lifecycle.


So there you have it! Indelible evidence that 2011 was as prolific as it was resplendent in quality for the videogame industry.

Whether a Bastion of beauty or a brain teasing Blueprint, these are some of the 2011 titles that proved a big budget isn’t always necessary for brilliance. And that some of gaming’s finest hours in 2011 were found in smaller, niche titles.

So if you find a drought in 2012’s release schedule (However unlikely that looks right now), check some of these fantastic titles out.


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This entry was posted on January 8, 2012 by in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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