The games taking home our golden Aggie statuettes are the true stars of the show, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only adventures worth taking some time to acknowledge. Each year there are other titles that surprised and impressed us, though they fell just short of Aggie consideration for one reason or another. So once again we want to stop and recognize a handful of games that didn’t claim a regular award but still deserve attention for their noteworthy accomplishments.
Black Mirror III
In a worthy capper to the dark, haunting Black Mirror series, Cranberry Production brought forth a solid “final chapter” in Black Mirror III. Solid… but unspectacular, earning the game plenty of consideration for an Aggie Award, and yet never excelling enough in any one area to win one. After the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor; the series finale resolves all of the Gordon family storylines in a disturbingly satisfying way, going back to the cult-hit original game for much of its inspiration. The ongoing saga of erstwhile American Darren Michaels featured a grim but richly detailed landscape to explore in and around the secluded English town of Willow Creek, with gorgeous art and eerie sounds providing a haunting backdrop to the dark storyline of a young man’s attempt to come to grips with his troubling identity and destiny. This reflection of tortured souls and ancient family curses may not have been able to been able to beat out its competitors, but it put up a bloody good fight, earning it 2011’s “Best of the Rest” honorary nod.
To The Moon
It’s not unusual for indie games to break a few rules, but Kan Gao’s To the Moon breaks more than most. It doesn’t look like a point-and-click adventure game, but rather a 16-bit RPG. It’s a time travel story that gives you the massive responsibility of changing a dying man’s fate, but there’s almost no gameplay. The story is told backward. The highly emotional tale is punctuated with frequent laugh-out-loud moments. Dialogue trees are sparse, and although you can look in your inventory, you never make use of it. Clearly it is not an adventure game like we’re used to, and that’s probably why so many players have passed it by, but it is nevertheless one of the most impressive releases of 2011. Its story is so captivating that you’ll hardly notice the lack of puzzles, and even without voice acting, the incredible piano soundtrack skillfully carries the mood from sad to bittersweet to suspenseful and back again. And the touching last fifteen minutes may well be the most fulfilling finale in years. It may only have won the dubious honour of this year’s “Best Game No One Has Played,” but for those of you who haven’t, it’s never too late to rectify the mistakes of your past.
Drawn: Trail of Shadows
It almost isn’t fair. Amidst a sea of derivative hidden object adventures emerged a third installment to Big Fish Games’ sublimely beautiful and inventive casual series that towers above the rest. In Drawn: Trail Of Shadows, players were invited to enter a new set of gorgeous but somewhat sinister worlds filled with impressive art and fantasy puzzles. This time around, a young boy with the power to bring paintings to life has been captured by an evil wizard intent on using this talent to re-imagine the world as a dark, desolate place. The pursuit of the boy propels a fun-filled exploration through lands of wonder and imagination filled with creative obstacles that require both wits and painterly skills to overcome. Despite its brevity, it’s a lovely game that raises casual adventures to new artistic heights and feels quite unlike any other game available (except its own predecessors). In the process, it wiped out all other competition for our “Best Casual Game” distinction in one bold stroke.
We’d never even heard of Walk Thru Walls' Metal Dead when it suddenly clawed to life like a zombie in a graveyard late last year, but the unheralded indie adventure spins a wild and funny (and unapologetically gory) tale of music, friendship, and desperation in the face of a sudden invasion of the undead. With no prior gamee-making experience, the developers got just about every element right on the first try, from puzzle design to the user interface, whimsical character models and fluid animation. And the writing is some of the best and funniest in recent years. The game boasts a variety of locations, a memorable cast of quirky characters, epic set pieces, and one of the strangest and funniest “boss” encounters around. Even from a veteran studio, Metal Dead would be an impressive game. The fact that it was done by just two guys with a dream makes it doubly so, and the winner of our “Most Unexpected Surprise” honour.
Load up Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell Deception and you might think you’re back in adventure gaming’s “golden age” due to its low-res graphics and earnest desire to tell a good story with gameplay to match. Putting new spins on old conventions with dialogue, inventory, and research puzzles just as clever as the ones that stumped us back then (but far less frustrating!), the fourth Blackwell adventure has already made it farther than most modern franchises, and the feeling of meeting up with old friends mimics the bygone tradition of digging into the latest Quest game. And much like those bygone classics, the series is getting better with age, with Deception’s design, interface, and storytelling benefiting from lessons designer Dave Gilbert has learned from the previous installments. Its ghost and spirit medium protagonists have an entirely unique partnership and its New York setting is grounded in the here-and-now, but playing Blackwell Deception feels just like the good old days, making it this year’s pick for “Most Nostalgic Adventure”.
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Next up: Best Independent Adventure... the envelope, please!