I didn't play Bloodborne this year. You can skip my post now.
More important to me, let's get the shame out of the way now - despite being a cheerleader for the "CRPG renaissance", I didn't find time to finish Pillars of Eternity
this year either. I'm enjoying it, but I simply haven't played enough to judge it properly. Also on my wall of shame for not getting to them this year: Mario Maker
, Atelier Shallie
, and Splatoon
, to name a few.
But it is what it is, so without further ado...
Best Game That I Played for Some Reason with No Intention of Enjoying:
I don't think much of David Cage. His attitude and the output from his company have left a bad taste in my mouth for what feels like an eternity now, although in retrospect I realize now Heavy Rain was hilarious if you actively tried to fail every single QTE. Still, I always aim to have an open mind for a choose your own adventure game to catch and hold my interest, and thankfully along came Until Dawn. A well-crafted and delightfully self-aware satire of teen slasher flicks and PG-13 supernatural horror tropes, UD keeps your interest with just enough agency and control to make situations work (holding the DS4 still to simulate trying to be quiet and not get spotted by the killer sounds so silly but becomes hilarious within seconds). Proof a game like this can work with decent writing and characters and not trying too hard to be something it's not.
Best Disc Art:
I'm trying to figure if this is even up for debate.
Most Inscrutable Disappointment of the Year:
A bizarre example of how making a technically superior remaster with a ton of new content can still go wrong barely deviating from the source material, Tearaway Unfolded is actually a very enjoyable 1/3 of a game trapped behind soporific, lumbering bloat. For all the claims that the original Vita version was a gimmicky mess, the root hardware inspiration behind this title proves crucial to making the connection so central to Tearaway's narrative and gameplay actually work. The DS4 never feels at place in this rework of the original, but that's hardly the main problem.
The original game is a slow burn, and starts with some barely entertaining levels until an hour or two in when things pick up and the many different mechanics at play start to be utilized together. The same happens here, except for a game with 50% new content, about 45% is wasted extending the slowest part of the game. You're left with a game frontloaded with such terrible pacing issues that by the time you reach the part where things get interesting, you feel vastly less invested than you did in the Vita version. And then, suddenly, it's over.
You're left with a greater package than the original which feels like the lesser exercise. I'm left more appreciative of the flawed but unarguably less boring original by comparison, and probably as confused as the other 5 people who bought the game. A poster child for the importance of pacing.
Best Worst Metagame to Play as an Electrical Designer with OCD:
Packrat Simulator 2015 Fallout 4
I didn't expect the only part of the worldbuilding in this title to make a whole lot of sense to be gathering junk and building shit out of it, but here we are. Finally an excuse to dumpster dive until you're encumbered in a Fallout game aside from littering in front of asshole NPCs or trading 7000 empty bottles for 5 bottlecaps. I spent more time than I care to admit putting together my little shithole shantytown, with turrets on top of everything it would let me. About all I didn't manage to do was put Conan O'Brien in a harness on top of a truck with a flamethrowing guitar. But as soon as I started needing a 50KW generator to light up 6 incandescent light bulbs, the illusion sort of wore off.
That's why I stuck to obsessively laying out 30 rows of taters and melons next to my water purification business instead.
The Other 8:
8. Lara Croft GO ;
I'm pleased to say that there was a great new Tomb Raider game released this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed having some semblance of puzzles again as I played on my Microsoft... Windows tablet. Lara Croft GO is a slowly escalating romp with some foresight and planning required and its spirit is in the right place. Possibly the best $2 I've spent on a game that wasn't 5+ years old.
7. Stretchmo ;
I unapologetically like puzzle games. I especially like really basic 3D puzzle games, which is probably why Captain Todd was near the top of my list last year. Stretchmo is a game about pulling out the edges of shapes 1 or 2 times to make platforms for climbing them. That's pretty much it. Of course, you can probably imagine the places something like that can go - which is good news, because you can make your own puzzles too.
The game starts slow with 100 basic puzzles, many of which become real head scratchers, but the real fun starts in the subsequent courses (unlockable special course as well) where rideable enemies arrive and special tiles become more frequent. There's a lot of variety on tap, from abstract shapes to familiar NES pixel art designs, to pixel art critters that take working from every side to solve. My go-to pick up and put down game this year.
6. Heroes of the Storm ;
I don't care for MOBAs, nor am I good at them. I'm also a pitiful scrub in online competitive play. This probably says all that needs to be said about the kind of person who enjoys HotS, a MOBA with a future as bright as a back alley in Detroit.
There's little I can really say to encapsulate why I enjoy the game beyond the fact that its objective focus and shared experience makes for a very different kind of flow than other MOBAs. For me, as neither a Blizzard nor MOBA fanboy, the game brings back happier times of Vanilla WoW Battlegrounds, and I think that's all I need.
With a couple of thousand games under my belt and participating since early Alpha, the weaknesses are obvious and plentiful to me, and I'm not going to defend the gold grind or the pricing for cosmetics, but the always present possibility of swinging a game 180 degrees and the beauty of squeaking out last minute heroics in team fights has kept me coming back to the game for more than a year now, and that's gotta count for something.
5. Transformers: Devastation ;
What, a Platinum title not at the top of my list? Transformers: Devastation was actually the second best surprise for me this year. Not since the NES probably have I been more pleased to jump into a budget license title. I went in expecting a slightly crappy lark and instead got a slightly incredible Bayonetta-lite. Chock full of customizable weapons and stats, different combos for different weapons, multiple difficulties, a predictably insane challenge mode, and a few really incredible music tracks, what's great in this package more than makes up for a half-baked loot/synthesis system and some easily abused moves that can render some encounters trivial.
4. Xenoblade Chronicles X ;
UH UH YEEAUH
YEAH YEAH YEAH
I kinda didn't expect to enjoy this game after the import impressions and hearing snippets of the soundtrack, but here we are. The plotline and characters (especially the aliens) vary from the mundane to the ridiculous (see squid woman booty above), but really I went in expecting a single-player pseudo-MMO with mechs, and by god that's what I got. The game world lacks a sense of authenticity but it more than makes up for it as a varied and complex amusement park, and I found the combat engaging and addictive.
Biggest surprise? Lin somehow isn't the worst character.
3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt ;
Not really sure what else needs to be said that hasn't already, so I'm going to force myself to be brief. The Witcher's third entry is an incredibly realized open world game that is the poster child for an experience being more than the sum of it's parts, and TW3 is a game where the gestalt creates a believable world I actually cared to be a filthy content tourist in. TW3 stands to me as proof that an open world game can be paced properly and filled with places and moments that make exploring feel organic and even addictive.
I will use this as a soapbox to bring up a subject that's come up a few times this year, which is the game's combat being so bad it deserves to be removed from the game, something modders actually accomplished by way of making every encounter be Gwent.
Completely removing the combat from this is silly. It's contextually relevant, and even if it doesn't often enough punish straight up mashing vs certain encounters, it nearly always rewards putting some effort into it, mostly in terms of planning and understanding the enemy types - you know, the kind of stuff you might expect in an action RPG. I'm not the biggest fan of many of the game's encounters, but I think it's somewhat disingenuous for any action game fan to not be just as heavily critical of this kind of mashing-isn't-always-punished-but-effort-is-rewarded philosophy considering the reality is it's common in many (certainly not all) more popular action games, albeit usually they have better designed combat. Its real failure to me is that it just doesn't feel that great in most encounters.
2. Yoshi's Woolly World ;
I consider Yoshi's Island to be one of my top 10 games of all time. I went into this not sure what to expect other than a lot of (imo) mildly unappealing fuzziness, but while not anywhere near as good as YI, this is certainly the best Yoshi game since.
The game starts off somewhat slow with mostly tutorial level stages - a trend the entire industry could stand to abandon as quickly as possible - but rapidly begins to introduce creative new concepts nearly every stage. The variety and cleverness never really subsides, and trying to 100% every stage is - appropriately enough - an exercise in patience and creativity.
Truly hooks you with some hilariously obnoxious stuff if you're a completionist, and honestly even if you aren't, you should try to be when playing this.
1. Yakuza 5 ;
First SMT4 and now Yakuza 5, I seem to be having good luck with my first entries into long-running series I've shamefully neglected.
In many ways, Yakuza 5 feels like an extremely Japanese budget GTA clone with an even heavier focus on mini-games, but upon closer inspection it differs from Rockstar's flagship outings in several significant ways - the binding thread is an actual plotline rather than just a bunch of stuff happening, the characters are better realized archetypes and less sarcastic caricatures, the dialog and humor don't feel generated by an algorithm fed nothing but SNL routines, Family Guy jokes, and Buzzfeed ads, and every different element packed into this package actually controls like it was designed by a human being who's touched a controller before.
At its heart a self-aware gaming smorgasbord, a mix of pop culture gaming references, satire, and legitimate emulation, I knew I'd come to the right place the instant my poor dude in hiding turned taxi driver gets into some dirty street racing and I'm welcomed with fucking eurobeat a la Initial-D. Did I mention you get the option to change this music to DAAAYYYTOOONNNAAAA?
Yakuza 5 above all else feels like a concentrated dose of SEGA. There's something so identifiable about the arcadey flavor and gamey perspective in this title. Superficially, Yakuza 5 might appear to be some mid-budget AAA open world wanna-be, but in practice it's a game that's only about what it wants to be about and only includes what it thinks it needs to include, with doing things instead of wandering being the biggest portion of your play time. The game's pacing, variety, and energy are addictive, and in a broader sense give the impression of imagining the real world as a game. As cheesy as that sounds, that cheese is embraced, and the game avoids taking itself too seriously or trying too hard. This is less a game about mini-games as filler, but gameplay variety as central worldbuilding, and it just works. I simply can't wait to dig into the rest of the series now.
Amongst everything I played this year, this simply felt like the brightest surprise for me. It's quite hard to pick this above some of the other games I enjoyed this year when trying to dig into specifics, and there are some weak spots and plots that drag, but when all was said and done, Yakuza 5 just felt like a subtle distillation of all the elements I loved this year, from combat to content tourism, small stories to wacky setpieces, planning to free-form randomness, mini-games to unusual mechanics, and so it's the cherry on top of my 2015.