Despite a few quiet periods, 2014 has done a good job of providing enough AAA fodder to keep gamers busy all year round - from sprawling fantasy RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor to big action titles like Far Cry 4 and Titanfall. With so many games crowding around for attention however, there were a few very interesting games this year that largely flew under the radar - whether because of misjudged releases, lack of coverage, or simply because they were produced by small indie studios with equally small marketing budgets.
With a lull in the release schedule coming up, now is a good time to line up some of the excellent games that released off the beaten track in 2014, games that are really good but didn't necessarily earn awards and top 'game of the year' lists. With the month or so looking pretty quiet when it comes to new releases, now is a good time to play catch-up and these are the games to catch up with.
This War of Mine
There isn't exactly a shortage of war games out there, but 11 Bit Studios' grueling title This War of Mine upends the status quo by putting players in control of a group of civilians, rather than soldiers. Based predominantly on the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from 1992-1996 and remains the longest ever siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, This War of Mine plays out like an extremely dark and depressing version of The Sims infused with choices that force the player to decide what they value more: morality or survival.
While watching a group of shivering civilians grow hungrier and more depressed with each passing day might not sound like fun, This War of Mine is actually surprisingly addictive. Death is permanent and there are no save points, but it's possible to start over again with a new mix of characters and a different city landscape each time, meaning that there are always new scenarios and challenges to be discovered.
D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die
The brainchild of madcap Deadly Premonition director Hidetako Suehiro AKA Swery, D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die suffered from poor sales due to the fact that it was stealthily released in September, exclusively on Xbox One with Kinect controls. Swery's style is an acquired taste and those who didn't enjoy Deadly Premonition might be better off avoiding D4, which features a similar brand of insanity and another impressionistic view of American culture - though this time instead of a Twin Peaks-esque logging town, it's Boston that's put under the Swery lens. Clam chowder references abound.
Like Deadly Premonition, D4 is based around a murder investigation; specifically, the mysterious death of protagonist David Young's wife, Little Peggy. David possesses psychic abilities that allow him to travel through time by touching certain objects, and he must investigate a cast of increasingly bizarre characters to try and find the enigmatic "D" who is connected to Little Peggy's murder. Hilarious and weird in equal measure, D4 is well worth checking out, even if the episodic nature means that the story might never be completed.
Kentucky Route Zero
Act III of Cardboard Computers' strange but beautiful road trip Kentucky Route Zero finally released in May 2014, a full year after Act II, so expect a bit more of a wait before Act IV comes out. That at least leaves time to catch up on the first three installments of this theatrically-inspired indie title, in which delivery man Conway's journey to find the elusive 5 Dogwood Drive takes him to the most unexpected of places.
Kentucky Route Zero is particularly noteworthy for the way in which it challenges the player's expectations of what a game is supposed to be. The atmosphere is meditative rather than fast-paced, and straying from the path of the main goal turns up nuggets of narrative rather than clearly defined sidequests. In a time when so many games are trying to be more like movies, it's refreshing to play a game that's trying to be a stage play instead.
The Banner Saga
Before Telltale Games came along and kicked off its new episodic Game of Thrones series, crowd-funded labor of love The Banner Saga was easily the best low-budget-narrative-heavy-historical-fantasy-tale-with-moral-choice-elements of 2014. Admittedly that's quite a specific category, but it's a category that The Banner Saga excelled in, with its frequently brutal portrayal of humans and giants struggling to survive alongside one another in the face of an oncoming war.
Released way back in January, The Banner Saga marked a strong starting point for the year. For those who love turn-based combat, intriguing stories and likable characters with a good measure of Norse myth thrown in, this is one game that's definitely worth picking up before 2014 ends. And a sequel is already underway!
Though the original game is a few years old now, the English remake of pigeon dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend is well worth mentioning for its timeless appeal. Set in a not-too-distant future where avian flu has wiped out most of the human population and a society of intelligent birds has emerged, the player takes on the role of Hiyoko Tosaka, a cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer and the sole human student of the prestigious St. PigeoNation's Institute.
Navigating a year at St PigeoNation's and finding romance along the way is a challenging yet rewarding experience for any pigeon dating sim enthusiast. The school has more than a few secrets and mysteries, and it will take a few playthroughs to discover them all and to date each one of St. PigeoNation's cute feathered bachelors. At the risk of being hyperbolic, this might be one of the finest pigeon dating sims ever created.
Other highlights of the year include The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts and Ubisoft Montréal's love letter to fairy tales and JRPGs, Child of Light (these two though did well on awards recognition and GOTY lists), and fun fantasy puzzle platformer Escape Goat 2, whose release was somewhat overshadowed by another major goat-related video game. According to the Chinese zodiac 2015 is the Year of the Goat, so perhaps we'll have even more goat games to look forward to.
Is there a forgotten 2014 gem that we missed? Share your favorite games from under the radar in the comments.