The year 2013 has come and gone, and you know what that means: XBLA Fans dropped the ball on getting our Game of the Year awards out during the same calendar year the games released. Apologies for our tardiness, but we’re here today to make it up to you with our awards for the very best XBLA games to release in 2013.
After eight long and (mostly) wonderful years on the market, the Xbox 360 saw the beginning of its end in 2013 when its successor, the Xbox One, launched in November. Of course, Microsoft’s last-gen console and Xbox Live Arcade platform weren’t about to go quietly into that good night. No, major releases continued throughout the year for Xbox 360 XBLA, and that trend looks to continue well into 2014 and possibly even beyond. That meant that picking out the best of the best XBLA games released last year was every bit as difficult for us as it’s been any other year. Games like Charlie Murder and Skulls of the Shogun were strong competitors that just missed landing on our list of 2013’s best.
But enough about the games that didn’t make the cut. Let’s get down to what you came here for: the best XBLA games of 2013. Read on for XBLA Fans’ picks and let us know what your favorites were and which 2014 game you think will be worthy of being named Game of the Year at the end of next December.
The Western-themed Call of Juarez franchise was born into the seventh console generation with a pair of first-person shooters that were stylish and interesting enough to be respectable, if unspectacular. But developer Techland’s third installment was the low point of the series, eschewing the Old West motif in favor of a modern-day story based on real-life issues surrounding drug cartels and human trafficking, handling it with borderline insensitivity. In many respects the series could have died right there, but as news of yet another entry in the Call of Juarez saga broke, there was more than a little skepticism. Fortunately, Techland went back to its Wild West ways, producing through Call of Juarez: Gunslinger not only the best game in the series to date, but one of the most creative and imaginative first-person shooters ever to hit the digital marketplace.
Gunslinger followed Silas Greaves, a withered bounty hunter recounting his days amongst larger-than-life legends of the Old West. Gameplay mirrored his story, and when he talked himself into an impossible jam, his tall tale changed and so too did the environment, as mountains shifted to reveal an escape path or a fatal encounter was retold as a narrow victory. The creative storytelling and game design merged, elevated by a stunning visual style, soulful voice acting and impeccable audio design. In spite of the series’ lineage and the still-lingering taste of earlier missteps, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger managed to excel beyond what anyone could have expected, becoming our biggest surprise of the year by being one of the best examples of imagination and presentation in a genre that sorely needs it.
Check out the official XBLA Fans Review of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.
Brandin Tyrrel — News Editor
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows attempted to bring the masked amphibians into a 3D world of cities and sewers. Redfly Studios developed a combat system similar to the Arkham series, added depth to each individual turtle’s fighting style and hired great voice actors. The ingredients were all in place for delicious turtle soup — and the execution was botched terribly. The game was heavily criticized as “unplayable” due to multiple issues and shortcomings.
The most apparent downfall of Turtles is the bare and plain environments. The sewers and city streets are extremely bland, the textures and environments are hardly diverse and the game was plagued with clipping and framerate issues. XBLA Fans contributor Alex Esten shared his thoughts on the game’s artwork in his review: “The art direction and character models are the stuff of nightmares. It’s aggravating when the Eastman/Laird comics better convey speed and agility in static panels than this [game] does with fully animated models.” The graphics were not the only staggering issue. The combat system became repetitive, and very often an input of commands would not be registered. Redfly’s game could have been a favorite among TMNT fans had it been executed properly, but it just didn’t shell out.
Check out the official XBLA Fans Review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
Marshall Britt — Contributor
Bit.Trip Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien easily wins the award for most exhausting title of 2013. But don’t let the name fool you: the game is simple, sleek and a ton of fun to play. What makes the game great is the way in which it blends music and gameplay to create something unique. It’s a true feast for the senses; the graphics are cartoony and colorful, the controls feel great and above all the soundtrack is amazing.
You begin each level with a simple beat playing, but as you progress more and more layers are added to the music, until you ultimately have a beautiful grand orchestra cheering you on. You reach the finish, ending the song with a satisfying chime. With every well-timed button press, you add a note to the composition. You’re not only listening to the wonderful music in this game, you’re feeling as if you’re a part of it. There’s just never a moment when the game sounds bad. The music brings vitality and vigor to the Runner 2, making a great platformer amazing and making your 100th attempt on a difficult level painless.
Nathan Bowring — Reporter
Last year was chock full of high-profile remakes and reboots. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams might have gotten drowned out by the two higher-profile Disney re-releases this year, but the game presented more original content than either Ducktales HD or Castle of Illusion. Giana’s Kickstarter-powered return to gaming featured some killer platforming worthy of her 1980s legacy. Switching back and forth between characters multiple times per jump is a complex task that rewards inventive use of what at first appear to be simple mechanics.
The game’s greatest success, though, is imbuing players with a sense of freedom to explore the environments. And since everything is drawn twice, that freedom pays off in spades when players replay levels with the opposite character active. A few stumbling blocks — such as the difficultly in reading the opacity of certain red and yellow walls that signal a solid state for only one of the two transformations — don’t prevent the game from being a thoroughly entertaining experience. Twisted Dreams is light on plot and heavy on gameplay and fun, giving players a game not stuck in the 1980s, but one that draws upon the best parts of eras long past.
Check out the official XBLA Fans Review of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.
Ryan Thompson — Contributor
Everyone loves a good heist, and Monaco is packed to the gills with ’em. The basic idea is fairly straightforward: grab a few friends who share your love of virtual crime, then lock-pick, sneak, steal and (if you get caught) fight your way through a bunch of stylistically cool stages. The levels are designed to look like maps, and the only exposed areas are the ones your characters are actively looking at. To make things even more interesting, each of the eight playable characters has a unique set of skills. From the Locksmith’s speedy edge while opening doors and safes to the Cleaner’s secret knockout punch, every character’s abilities are useful in different ways and allow for a range of different play styles.
The challenge lies in using these characters to navigate through stages filled to the brim with cameras, guards, dogs and all manner of other barriers to your success. Taking the time to assess the level, plot out tactical paths and plan strategies around the characters your team is using is some of the most fun to be had playing games with friends this year. Seeing your plans come to fruition is a dream. Watching them fall apart at the most critical moment can be even more fun. Unlike many stealth games, getting spotted doesn’t mean a game over – it kicks off a period of screaming, adrenaline-pumping mayhem that many games strive for and few achieve. Besides, what other game lets you play as the Mole? Monaco may not be perfect, but the design keeps me coming back for more.
Nick DePetris — Reporter
BattleBlock Theater is a complete side-scrolling puzzle package: fun single-player, a frenzied co-op campaign that can be played either on Xbox Live or locally, tons of arena game modes and no shortage typical Behemoth charm. The game really shines in its multiplayer offerings, although the story campaign is limited to two players, the gameplay is fast and frenetic and a lot of fun to play with a co-op partner.
The arena game modes are the real reason BattleBlock Theater wins XBLA Fans’ best multiplayer award for 2013. With a multitude of fun co-op and versus game types that range from 4 vs. 4 online beat-em-ups reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. to 2 vs. 2 basketball, the varied and incredibly fun gameplay keeps BattleBlock Theater fresh and interesting. If that wasn’t enough, the community can create its own levels to ensure that the multiplayer stages don’t get stale and adds more reasons for players to keep coming back.
Check out the official XBLA Fans Review of BattleBlock Theater.
Vasu Chetty — Contributor
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon has the technical advantage of sharing the graphical guts of one of 2012’s biggest releases, but that’s not why we chose it for Best Visuals. From the moment it was revealed on April Fool’s Day, Blood Dragon became one of 2013’s most-talked-about jokes. Other comedic games like Saint’s Row IV and BattleBlock Theatre bring the laughs with over-the-top ridiculousness, but Blood Dragon reminds us of what passed for premium entertainment hardly a generation ago. It’s funny because it’s true.
If you played the game yourself, did you notice that the evil cyber-army you’re fighting is just a bunch of dudes in leather suits and motorcycle helmets? Or that your super-powered sniper rifle looks about as modern as an Apple II? When you fought your first blood dragon and witnessed its terrifying magnificence, did you expect it to shoot ballistic lasers from its eyes? Or did you pick up on the fact that your entire game was running from a decrepit VCR furiously finding the right tracking levels? With all its meticulously hidden details, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon could pass as a virtual museum of our ’80s fantasies. More importantly, Blood Dragon presents a pivotal challenge to game creators — what other completely different backdrops could be used to re-imagine the gameplay of other AAA releases?
Check out the official XBLA Fans Review of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.
Scott Baker — Contributor
State of Decay surprised a lot of us when it hit XBLA back in June 2013. We had a basic sense of what to expect in that developer Undead Labs was positioning it as a zombie apocalypse survival simulator, but we couldn’t have predicted how captivating it would turn out to be. The smaller hands-on previews came nowhere close to doing the game justice. The final product was loud and bombastic, punctuated by terse quiet moments and strangely serene vistas high atop radio towers. It was both a celebration and critique of zombie games. Mixed in with all the blood, guts, sweat and tears was savvy genre awareness, a hardcore-yet-well-rounded approach to survival gameplay, a permadeath system that could be absolutely gut-punching-ly brutal and a phenomenal blend of outright cruelty and macabre sincerity.
Early on, most might have mistaken State of Decay for Grand Theft Auto with zombies, but Undead Labs achieved something truly remarkable with its debut effort. For me, State of Decay is probably the purest representation of what XBLA has always strived for: risk, experimentation, creativity and the establishment of a platform where smaller development studios could achieve greatness. Sadly, the XBLA moniker is being phased out, but if that means State of Decay ends up being the very last XBLA Fans GotY recipient ever, then XBLA is going out in a blaze of fiery zombie glory, and we’re OK with that.
Alex Esten — Contributor