Not overall presentation, or even tech - just the artist's eye. In a year that highlighted low-art visuals in the pixellated Hotline Miami and the blocky, grayscale (hugely affecting) Papers, Please, it's worth noting that art direction doesn't simply mean beautiful - but beauty sure doesn't hurt, either. These are the most wondrous worlds of 2013.
Things are getting painfully close to the actual end of the year, so let's tighten things up a bit.
runner up (tie)
I'm always a bit alarmed when Naughty Dog places so highly on these lists. They're a bit like a first-year photography student showing off their oh-so-deep studies of a chair with light and shadow working in just such a way. "Ooh, you can make the mundane beautiful, aren't you special?"
We've seen a million chairs and we've seen post-apocalyptic futures so many times, particularly in the video game space. We've been inundated with interpretations of desperate slums and destroyed cities, but Naughty Dog - like that insufferable college student - manages to take light and shadow and color and composition and turn a decaying world into something so striking that here as there it's hard not to feel a bit envious of and attracted to them.
"In the two decades since humanity abandoned their cities and superhighways, nature has begun reclaiming the country. The Last of Us is a noble examination of the liquid flow of plant life and the irrepressible survival of fauna, both of which manage just fine without our interference. Rats scurry from a room when you approach too close to where they cower, birds take to the skies (in gorgeous flock patterns) when disturbed, and these are the tamest examples of the comforting, striking, affecting views Naughty Dog sprinkles throughout the game.
There's a scene in a sewer. A car had long ago crashed through the ceiling, and is now washed entirely in a beautiful green moss, half-submerged in the water that's flooded the room, a young tree sprouting from its windshield with sunlight trickling in from the gaping hole above to feed the life below.
There's a hallway in an old office building that groans awkwardly at a fifty-story angle. Rain patters down a nearby window, and grass grows there. It's taken root in the carpet at the end of the hall - but only reaches as far as the nourishing sunlight filtering through the window will allow.
It's a world built on scientifically-supported suppositions of "what if," but it's also a series of very-intentional, gentle bends to lighting, weather and thus atmosphere. An energetic mix of locales which come together with the game's action to support all the subtleties of the narrative and inform tone, reinforcing and amplifying the emotions that carry our heroes through their adventure.
Dense in detail, rich in character, gorgeous in motion, purposeful in execution. Such craft."-from the review-
runner up (tie)
I was this close to giving Muramasa the overall best nod until I started writing about our next game - but it is, at this point, worth noting that Muramasa and The Last of Us are both entirely worthy of receiving the prize. In both the broad strokes and its detail work, Muramasa Rebirth is a twenty-hour orgasm of sublime, explosively colorful art.
"Take the above image, for example. The paper lanterns sway ever-so-slightly, their lights flickering from within. The cherry blossoms waft on the breeze. The trees in the foreground rustle gently and, through the paper walls of the buildings, you can see the shadow silhouettes of citizens going on about their lives as Momohime dashes past. You can slip in to an open window to speak with a sultry courtesan, absently smoking a pipe. Cats stretch and yawn on rooftops as you fly by - and that's just one of dozens upon dozens of equally lushly-realized settings. Take into account the stunning work done on the bosses, enemies, NPCs and most of all the player-characters - where, once again, little touches and details elevate an already impressive showing - and Muramasa Rebirth is something very, very special.
When running through a scene, for example, your character's little legs will gently speed up until they're struck through with tiny, almost imperceptible blur lines. After dashing for a bit, they will - just for a moment! - glance towards the player before putting their eyes back on the road ahead.
So subtle, you're not even sure you saw it."-from the review-
For anyone with an affection for Japan in general and the days of vicious swordplay with elegant, gently curved blades, Muramasa Rebirth is an absolute gem. Its environments are more deeply detailed than our next game, its canvas much, much larger as it shuttles the player from snow-covered peaks to a literal stairway to Heaven to the bowels of Hell. It is, essentially, flawlessly-presented, and as much as I absolutely love its art direction, I must relegate it to second place in the shadow of what Vanillaware followed it up with.
best art direction
I'm going to use a lot of screenshots, if you'll permit me.
Tiny ferns shoot up from between the cracked cobblestones of a long-deserted plaza. The walls of this lost city are intricately carved with figures, recalling the architecture and art of 450 B.C. Greece. The ancient metropolis's ruins stretch out to the horizon, where waning sunlight bleeds through soft clouds - and this is one screen, of one zone, of a twenty-hour game (assuming you don't end up investing hundreds of hours in it, which you certainly can).
frame is something you may want to consider having up on your wall - and oddly enough, going back through the three (?!) reviews of Dragon's Crown I've written, I only ever grazed across its remarkable aesthetic.
Not merely absolutely gorgeous at every turn, Dragon's Crown is a master's thesis of art history. While adventuring, you'll come across the bones of fallen heroes. If you pick them up and bring them to the temple in town, the Monk there can resurrect them - cherubs descending from above to breath life into a corpse oddly reminiscent of Giuseppe Sanmartinos's The Veiled Christ.
The Princess, Duke and Count who rule Hydeland all look like the breathing portraits of Renaissance-era nobility (with huge, dewy eyes).
Its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, one of the game's bosses is a direct nod to the killer rabbit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail,
|The Lost Woods - B route.|
while another level sees you approaching and navigating a tower that bears a striking resemblance to The "Little" Tower of Babel by 14th century painter and printmaker Pieter Brugel (the Elder).
|The Forgotten Sanctuary - B route.|
Before venturing out into the world to adventure, a hero should always stop by the temple and pray before the statue of Althena (her name a reference to an old Sega CD RPG), which provides a variety of passive buffs like XP gain. The parallels between the legendary 190 B.C. sculpture Nike of Samothrace - a piece said to commemorate a great victory (artist unknown) - and the Goddess Althena's statue are obvious.
The list goes on and on, and these example of the game's nods to classic and popular western fantasy are merely a handful of those spotted by a much sharper mind than mine in a single trailer for Dragon's Crown. The game represents a bit of a leap for developer Vanillaware, whose previous efforts Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade both leaned heavily on an 'anime' style.
|Odin Sphere and Muramasa : The Demon Blade.|
Echoes of that aesthetic linger, here, in the "dewy eyes" of Dragon's Crown's female heroes and damsels, but more than in any of Vanillaware's past work, Dragon's Crown encourages the player to see the brushstrokes that went in to every character, every location.
|The Mage's Tower - B route.|
Instead of attempting to shock the player with the staggering detail of its backdrops (as in Muramasa), Dragon's Crown allows soft, almost-watercolor dabs to evoke worlds that feel like the classic paintings that inspired its locales - their colors muted and lightly dulled as if by centuries of exposure to sun and air.
|The Fighting Man of Mars.|
It dips yet further into the realm of western fantasy by directly recalling the work of legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. Not simply in its (deservedly controversial) treatment of nearly all female characters as ultra-sexy, half naked warrior women or damsels to be rescued, but in its exquisite use of luminous skin and the warm, sensual flesh tones it employs across both genders.
|Morgan the magic shop owner and Roland the Barbarian.|
|AI companions Tiki and Rannie.|
The game pays equal homage to its genre's heritage with mechanics and art that recall our fondest memories of Golden Axe and the similar 2D, sidescrolling action RPGs of our childhoods, whether it's riding an awesome panther into battle,
|The Old Capital.|
throwing down with a rampaging wyvern
|The Old Capital - Route A.|
or just munching on fantastical foodstuffs - for Dragon's Crown wouldn't dare begin and end at pixellated turkeys. When you and your party make camp after a long day of adventuring, it is over a warmly glowing fire, two frying pans, two pots and a smorgasbord of delicacies waiting for a chef's touch.
Vanillware invests its victuals with the same shameless, lustful eroticism as its cast, to the point that it offers what is perhaps best described as food porn.
|Scan : Dragon's Crown Artworks|
The game seems wholly dissatisfied with the idea of ever offering a scene that's less than sublime. In its calmer moments, when a shaft of light glows across a lone elf in a forgotten tomb, reliefs and sigils carved into the walls and floor:
|Elysian Temple - A route.|
...when a flock of white birds take wing across the ruins of a dead civilization...
|Chaos Labyrinth/Tower of Mirages.|
...it is never less than picturesque.
After countless hours, I still find myself gushing at the beauty of the Lost Woods and little touches like the way your fairy companion, Tiki, will draw your attention to treasure chests by reclining across them like a tiny, demure lounge singer.
|The Lost Woods - A route.|
Dragon's Crown's representation of women is terribly one-sided, and via its damseled, hyper-sexualized, bombastically-proportioned ladies it problematically
"presents yet another voice among a roaring chorus that stretches back to antiquity." -FEATURE - On the women of Dragon's Crown-It is, perhaps, to be expected that a title which focuses on and magnifies the art and tropes of Western culture and fantasy for the past two-plus millennia will, by its very nature, focus on and magnify the representation of women in a culture which has, for centuries, perceived one gender as less than equal participants in the human race.
(The Elf aside,) if there's a lady in Dragon's Crown (that's not a monster), she's not merely going to be lovely, but freakishly, supernaturally lovely, in line with stereotypical representations of her sex. Blazing, overflowing manes of long, tousled hair, half-closed bedroom eyes, flawless skin, huge full bosoms and spines that contort via childhoods spent in the education and care of talented circus folk - and within that framework, within those rules, these ladies are lovely, invested with the same sublime artistry and care as every other aspect of their game.
|The Goddess of Fertility quest art, the Sorceress's endgame story art and the Mermaid (Ghost Ship Cove).|
(The Wizard aside,) the men are barrel-chested, mustachioed proto-males, constructed entirely of glistening, densely knotted muscle, walking with great swings of their five-foot-wide shoulders. Built as they are on the foundation of historical and modern fantasy, they are as gorgeous as vital as the ladies they fight alongside.
|The Fighter, the Genie of the Lamp (Ghost Ship Cove - A route) and the Dwarf.|
The gender bias in Dragon's Crown is problematic - I'm first in line to agree to that - but that doesn't stop the game from being richly beautiful in every single frame. Many games attempt to win favor as living paintings, but no title I've seen (since Muramasa, admittedly) can hold a candle to Dragon's Crown.
An education in classic art, an homage to centuries of Western fantasy, a knowing cheer for the nearly-forgotten sidescrolling action RPG, Dragon's Crown is a constant assault of beauty, from its lush backdrops to its writhing enemies and bombastic heroes. It is a fantasy's fantasy - a luxuriant, feverish, lusty reverie, and a showcase of the best art direction of 2013.