A pair of the best games of 2013 have just gotten some extra lives. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us gets a stunning downloadable expansion subtitled Left Behind, and Ubisoft’s Rayman Legends makes the jump to the new generation with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 ports. Another blast from the more distant past has also come along in the form of a giant monkey with Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze is out on Wii U.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
(Vita, $40, Mature)
Bolstering the Vita’s thin but successful RPG roster, this murder mystery blends the sensibilities of Persona and Virtue’s Last Reward. It makes for a fascinating visual novel/adventure game, set at a Japanese private school for elite students. There’s an Agatha Christie-style vibe, with students vanishing as you try to piece together clues and solve light puzzles to hunt down the responsible culprit, then try to bring potential criminals to justice via interrogations.
The writing, much of it capably voice acted, is the real draw here, managing to overcome clunky gameplay. Maps and navigation are a struggle, and if you find yourself hopelessly stuck there’s no shame in resorting to online walkthroughs to keep things moving along. While not for all tastes, those who savor this kind of thing — and are looking for a reason to pull out their software-poor Vita — will be in heaven here.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
(Wii U, $50, Everyone)
If you crave more of the platforming mayhem that Donkey Kong Country has been executing to perfection for the past two decades, Tropical Freeze has just what you desire. The antics of Donkey, Diddy, Cranky and the various other members of the Kong family pop in HD, blending with creative level design littered with countless, just-out-of-reach collectibles. When the Kongs’ island is frozen by bad guys, it’s up to Donkey Kong to hop, swing and mass-slaughter his way to justice.
The game plays just as well with each of its myriad control options, which let you play with the GamePad, Pro Controller or traditional Wiimote/nunchuk combo. Cooperative multiplayer makes an already strong solo experience considerably more entertaining. While not the most daring reinvention of one of Nintendo’s hallmark franchises for its struggling system, Tropical Freeze is some savory comfort food for those who dig its old-school sensibilities.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
(PS3, $15, Mature)
The near-unanimous 2013 game of the year, a dark, brooding tale of survival set in a post-apocalyptic world, gets a long-distance follow-up. Developer Naughty Dog, which proved its genius in the Uncharted trilogy, took its time to add to the rich tapestry it created when the original game came out in June. This download focuses on Ellie, the tough sidekick from the main game, as she struggles to rescue people in a besieged mall. The narrative intercuts between that story and events several weeks before, when Ellie and her school friend Riley struggle to escape from the mall.
Tremendous voice acting and cinematic storytelling with stirring plot twists maintain the quality of the main game. The story is robust enough to satisfy, clocking in at about four hours, and provides some fascinating insights into the game’s characters and mysteries. It’s conceivable that Naughty Dog could continue to stretch out the story in this manner for years to come. Here’s hoping for more downloadable content along these lines.
The Lego Movie Videogame
(PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii u, $50, Everyone 10+)
Developer TT Games is almost too good at executing its chosen formula, adapting pop culture phenomena into breezy puzzle-and-combat levels interspersed with funny little cutscenes. Drawing from some impressive source material in the form of the blockbuster movie, the game blends stop-motion film footage with in-game brick animations. The game looks solid on the Xbox 360, but even better on the Xbox One, matching the glimmering achievement of launch title Lego Marvel Super Heroes.
Generous checkpoints and generally easy puzzles avoid a pair of the series’ previous pitfalls, and the unlicensed characters in the game are bright and distinct enough to make up for the lack of major starpower in other Lego games. As is always the case with Lego games, it’s co-op that’s the main draw, providing just as much brick-obliterating fun for college pals as it does for parents and children.
(360, PS3, $50, Everyone)
After a bit of uncertainty, NASCAR scoots back to the racetrack for last-gen consoles. There is a new developer (Eutechnyx) and publisher (Deep Silver), but similar problems persist as when EA and Activision were at the wheel. Playing strictly for gearheads obsessed with the sport, the dry presentation has you go through the maddening pre-event necessities, including tuning laps, practice and qualifying, before finally getting to race for real on NASCAR’s rather dull courses.
At least the driving is forgiving. Ample assists help newcomers adapt to the scene without much trouble. Turning, pitting and drifting are easy to pick up and master without the nagging needs to shift gears or keep an eye on other technical matters. Annoyingly lengthy loading times are mitigated by trivia questions, and the roster of stars and vehicles is impressive. Those who can stand the monotony of the NASCAR racing style will find their fix here.
(PS4, Xbox One, $40, Everyone 10+)
Ubisoft’s incredible 2013 platformer, which somehow topped the amazing 2011 reboot Rayman Origins, looks and plays even more beautifully on the new set of consoles. A bold, beautiful art style and tense and nerve-racking — yet amply rewarding — gameplay keep you giddily moving your limbless hero through the game’s stages. Charming music also sets the tone well, making the need to replay tougher levels less of a chore.
If you own both new systems, you’ll have to base your choice on the distribution of exclusives for each. The Xbox One version comes with 10 new, time-oriented challenges, while the PS4 version, which I played, makes use of the system’s touchpad controller for a few in-game gimmicks. Both systems come with sets of exclusive playable character skins.