It may still be 2010, but the holiday rush for video game retail releases is already over. You’ve beaten Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, explored every inch of Fallout: New Vegas, ascended to the throne in Fable III, and dominated the multiplayer matches of Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo: Reach. So now what do you do? Sit back and wait around for the first big games of 2011? Well, that would be silly. May I suggest some terrific but under-the-radar titles from earlier this year that you probably missed? These underappreciated gems are definitely worth your time and money, and there might be no better time to give them a try.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey – DS
Yes, it’s a Shin Megami Tensei game. If you’re not familiar with the long-running Atlus franchise, that typically means it’s a very Japanese, very strange, very unique role-playing game. Strange Journey fulfills all three requirements, taking the action out of Japan (where most SMT titles reside) and into the frigid South Pole. The first-person dungeon crawls are a great throwback to older RPGs (including Shin Megami Tensei: Persona), as is the ability to recruit demons and use them to help you. The SMT series has provided some of the best RPGs of the last ten years, and the interesting plot offers a great Mature-rated experience on the family friendly DS.
Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse (entire season) – PSN, PC, Mac, iPad
In the first two seasons of Telltale’s Sam & Max series, the titular freelance police duo saved the world from an evil psychic mastermind and bent the laws of time and space, all with a hilarious disregard for the well-being of others. Four years after successfully reviving the nearly dead point-and-click adventure genre, Telltale has changed up the classic gameplay formula, optimizing the Sam & Max series for a new generation. The controls are much more console-friendly in the third season of the hilarious series, but even PC gamers previously turned off by the slow “click here to move” gameplay should find The Devil’s Playhouse refreshing. Additionally, Max’s ever-changing psychic powers add a ton of variety to each episode, and The Devil’s Playhouse is full of Telltale’s trademark hilarious writing, excellent voice acting, and the return of some fantastic characters from previous seasons. Each of the five episodes has a self-contained plotline, but the entire thing is tied together with more skill and attention to continuity than many television shows currently on the air. Best of all, in a month marked by overindulgence, you can get the entire season for about half the price of a new retail game, and it’s worth every penny.
Valkyria Chronicles II – PSP
Valkyria Chronicles was one of the most critically acclaimed PS3 titles of 2008—and one of the most ignored, sadly. Set in an alternate reality, the first game brought together elements of strategy, role-playing, and third-person shooters in a pseudo-World War II setting, and the results were innovative and amazing. With the war over, Valkyria Chronicles II picks up two years later and takes place mostly at a military academy, with a new cast of characters making it easy for those who haven’t played the first game to jump right in. With 80-150 hours of some of the most addictive strategy-RPG-shooter gameplay you’ve never experienced, you’ll totally forget that you’re playing VCII on a less graphically impressive system; in fact, you’ll probably be happy to be able to take it with you anywhere, because you’ll never want to stop. Please buy this game so that Sega will bring future installments of the series to the U.S. Don’t be selfish.
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom – XBLA, PC
It’s been another fantastic year for the Xbox Live Arcade, with high-profile games like Limbo and Super Meat Boy getting praise from reviewers and a lot of well-deserved attention. Somehow, though, 2K Play’s excellent puzzle-platformer from early 2010 (which has since also made the jump to Steam) snuck by largely unnoticed. Maybe the time-manipulation gameplay made it too easy for gamers to dismiss Winterbottom as some sort of Braid clone, but the mischievous Mr. Winterbottom’s quest to collect pies (even if it meant breaking the laws of physics) was the perfect blend of charm and intrigue. Despite the seemingly similar premise, Winterbottom was more about using various mechanics to create clones than turning back the clock, and there was definitely something funny about seeing dozens of Winterbottoms on screen desperately grabbing pies.
Trauma Team – Wii
“But I played the Trauma Center games on the Wii and they were so frustrating!” you might protest. It’s true, the last couple of games in Atlus’ medical drama series were unfairly difficult at times, but Trauma Team is much more approachable—and enjoyable. With six different specialties, each featuring a unique character with his or her own storyline, the game breathed fresh life into the stale Trauma Center series. Being able to complete each doctor’s missions in the order you choose keeps the game from getting repetitive, and means there’s more variety than Trauma Center’s typical mix of tumor extraction, skin grafts, and disease elimination. It’s still full of quirky humor and totally unbelievable medical practices, and Trauma Team definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously, though it does have a fairly compelling (if a bit over-the-top) plot. Come on, it’s about time you gave your Wii some love.
You might be prone to respond “I didn’t care about these games when they came out, why should I buy them now?” As a gamer, it’s good to support the industry, good to broaden your horizons, and good to give more positive attention to the developers who have truly earned it. Besides, what the hell else are you doing? Stop counting the days until Portal 2 and pick up any of these games.