This year in gaming for me is chategorized by a few things 1. Self-sabotaging games takes the "games at war with themselves" I kept running into in recent years to a disturbing new height. 2. I picked up a much higher percentage of Japanese games than I've had since the PS2 glory days, and I've found a number of new developers that have gotten into my good graces with interesting titles. Onto the awards!
1. Xanadu Next
; Xanadu Next is one of those games that is almost built to be overlooked. It's got low-poly models, the story is more a whispered accompaniment than anything resembling a motivation, the zen-heavy self-motivated play is heavily dependant on the player, and everything has this seemingly methodical melancholy to it. Too cerebral and calm to be a console ARPG, too shallow to be a crunchy numbers-heavy CRPG. It has "flies under the radar" tattooed on its forehead.
And. It. Works.
XN is a very particularly assembled and very cleverly balanced game. The systems work together, the combat will fly by, and the puzzles click into place once you give yourself into how this game thinks. This is always the sign of a well-made game - give it your attention, your respect and it'll take you places. Hit from behind. Herd the herd of foes. Prioritize targets. Move boxes before hitting them. XP boost card for exploring, HP boost for bosses. You can never have enough bone keys. Etc, etc. Follow these parameters and you just fly thru this game.
The things I loved most about it were the music
that often had on the one hand had no business being in an action game paced even this moderately, yet worked so well at setting the setting, one of natural almost soothing ambience. The level layout is divine, Falcom for all their strengths have never really been more than solid at level design but this one is fantastic. I wonder why this one is so much better than what else I've played from them on that front. The final strength was the game's makers clearly studied some real classics, not just in the Falcom heritage of OG Xanadu, Ys, and Brandish but underloved classic Vagrant Story (hint: this is the Vagrant Story 2 yall keep incorrectly bugging SE for).
The only real problem I found was the targetting would rarely switch to a destroyable object other than enemies upon an enemy's demise in close quarters. That's literally it.
2. Gotta Protectors
; Cute, addictive, incredible tunes, wacky as hell, and some solid mechanics, Ancient found a great recipe for another ressurection of an 8-bit age Japanese Famicom aesthetic with a goofy sense of humor and never overreaches on what it is. Was a great "watching football/basketball" game that I came back to again and again, and this was in a genre I usually dislike!
Can't wait for what the Koshiro Siblings come up with next in this series.
3. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II
; Cold Steel II fixes most of the problems that drug 1 down - there's almost no creeper-bait stuff, the pop up and slowdown is much rarer, and the animations are noticably better. This goes a long way towards getting the game up to Trails snuff of outstanding music
, an armada of plot, characterization and theming (they do something interesting with the metaplot in this that is amazing for expectations), witty conversation, outstanding scenes, and such. Duvalie is a goddamn treasure that stole every scene she's in with amazing VA. The game also kinda feels like a "best of" throwback to the PS2 era JRPG in all the right ways. There's an alarming amount of mini-games, there's an airship (yes, at-will backtracking in a Trails game!), build-a-base, mecha battles, and much more. You don't really see this all that much any more and it's great.
There are still legacy problems. I don't knock the popular-with-JRPG-players academy setting at all, but the adherance to Persona's Slinking system shunts a ton of great scenes and character development for a very large cast behind precious time points during down times. And this is a HUGE cast, and alot of the less larger-than-life characters desperately need that limelight to shine, Gaius most of all. It also causes several characterizations to exist in a "quantum state" where events and character development both existed (if you did their whole side arc) and also didnt (if you didnt bother). This hits the techhead twintails Alisa especially hard as her focus goes from remnants of her seeming leading lady status in early production to just another possible romance slink and it just causes sloppy, unnecessary problems. The game also has a problem with theming around jobbers on the antagonist side, and pulled punches too hard in a civil war setting (risking the turning of a series known to be on the light and optimistic side to sanctified and contrived). Rean himself also seems to just...take a vacation becoming an ego-less doll during the middle third of the game endangering a characterization arc that was really starting to go some really interesting places early and definately ended up in some at the end.
Still, this was an excellent game despite these unnecessary, inexplicable few problems and is still better than 95% of RPGs.
4. Dark Souls 3
; DS3 feels like a best-of combatwise of the 4 predecessors, inheriting none of the few mistakes of them as well. I liked the Weapon Skill system and its trade offs, and alot of the bosses were aces with neat twists on old formulas for most of them (Dancer! Watchers!) that had me workin' and sweatin' till they died. Special nod goes to the PvP situation which FINALLY gave whiners the summon at will option but did it The Right Way, The Souls Way which invited a ton of brilliant Stupid Things from creative players worldwide to make some good unsafe and insane PvP the Souls Way.
I wish the same could be said of the level design situation which betrays a bit of a self-aware familiarity with the pace and flow of Souls games' exploration. There's going to be a bonfire riiiiight about...now. And oh look, there's one when I kill a boss and one at the end of the bridge? Wait... The references to Demon's, 1, and to a lesser extent 2 feel the same way, like, hey! It's Those Guys! It's That Weapon! It's That Place! Like you were to be expecting them there or something.
One of the things that lodged Demon's Souls so deep in my heart was how wild it was. Things happened for intricate, unfeeling reasons that could amaze as easily as kill you yet held exploitable, logical reasons behind it once you understood and tamed the beast that was that game. Dark Souls 3 still has much of that proud DNA in its cells, but that wildness and proudness is now known. It's inevitable I know, but it's so much like the lands crumbling into ruin within the games, right? It's almost like it had to be really. We know Souls now, and that's OK.
5. Stranger of Sword City
; SoSC is a very modern blobber that does not forget its roots: CYOA in everything, making tension a delight.
I was almost not sold on it for a bit - there's a stretch about 5-10 hours in where your characters are rather one-dimensional still, and the zones get too tough to go many floors in so the Ambush system becomes an off-visited activity.
Rather boring. But then, it's a good time to do a class change and the WHOLE GAME opens up. Characters get more robust and more powerful (love that sub-class system), new levels open up, new bosses are defeatable, better loot winnable.
The Divinity system especially starts to shine here, providing one of those great "Fighting for control of the fight" that categorizes actually good turn-based combat. This exhilirating quality maintains itself on into the endgame like a champ.
The audio-visual combo is a delight - the oil painting characters are full of life, the monsters look down to fuck up your shit freakily, and the music (by Jimbo Naoaki who is rapidly becoming a fave) is operatic and short-looped without ever being bombastic and droll.
I do wish the endgame wasn't a "greatest hits" of earlier dungeons' tricks, and the action automation and the 1-10 button designation on PC is clunky. But these are minor. Great blobber, this one.
6. Darkest Dungeon
; Darkest Dungeon was a whirlwind during its first 30-40 hours. Harsh but rule-focused. Real RNG not "R"NG. Team make up and cleverness was the best way to ease the way to and to the end of a boss. Slick presentation of what are essentially Mignola-painted shadow puppets doing the vicious Turn-Based battle system justice: brutal and swift. Nasty mechanics. A glib, bitter narrator and glibber and more bitter treatment of your personel you send into their dooms. It's like Tony Jay had a long-lost twin brother and he's great.
Then it just...completely overstays its welcome, and due to that, the delicate balancing act of Rogue-Like and Dungeon Crawler start to clash with itself, prompting you to send rookies into the lowbie dungeons over and over to funnel incredible ammounts of cash into a couple A teams to take on copy-pasta bosses with resistance numbers going thru the roof forcing said expensive specialization.
The wild goal swings of the developers was odd as well - each patch's aim swings between nerfing advantages discovered by the players when they're found to patching in characters that basically print money and max level adventurers. It's just so unsteady.
; This is a fun light CRPG fun romp with bits and pieces from Diablo, Neverwinter Nights, Xanadu Next, and others forged into a cohesive, enjoyable whole. Solid story, solid visuals, solid music, solid writing, solid crafting...nothing spectacular mind you, but solid. I really like fact skills are heavily restricted by equipped equipment and the available slots, as was the surprisingly swift RTwP-light combat. It's surprisingly competant (and I mean that in the best way).
About the only problems I ran into was some strangely occasional 30 second load from saves, some fastravel crashes, and odd, clunky hotkey assigning. Still, $4 for this is definately $4 well-spent.
8. Ray Gigant
; Unlike the above, RG didn't tie together tried-and-true bits from previous games into a a whole, but struck out in about 3 or 4 directions at once that didn't quite make that satisfying whole. Collecting crystals that made up the entirety of the character building was odd and boring, the dungeon design is very thin, too.
Still, the story and characters were workmanlike but not garbo, the music is a wonderous delight (Jimbo there is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine), and they did try new things, that's still commendable even if it didn't turn out all that hot.
9. Clockwork Empires
; Gaslamp's second go at making a CASUL version of famously intimidating genres has all the makings of a great "My First Colony Survival Game", it's just not really actually baked yet.
Buggy behaving AI. Pathing for units, especially soldiers is random to the point of letting enemies in past walls. There's a huge problem with priority algorithms - what materials you have on-hand and when you set it determines when big projects begin and end. It's hard to click on several items and units requiring you to change the perspective and click just off to one side to actually interact with them. Several tasks can only be done from one type of menu. Etc, etc. It's clear that this is a good ways off from being 110% feature complete and humming along well.
Still, that's how Dungeons of Dredmor started off and it got stupid feature-complete over time. And like DoD, CE has a snarky sense of humor, full of Important Capitalized Terms and wacky stuffy Victorian aesthetics and dialogue to lighten up this Lovecraftian jaunt into the forests and deserts. Matthew "Zath" Steele brought a more of a "jazz player's jazz" feel to this OST, providing a less eclectic but more focused accompaniment than what DoD had (still great!)
I'll give this more time once they put in some big updates that are inevitably going to come, and I look forward to it a ton.
10. Street Fighter V
; SF V is a great fix to the problems that plagued IV such as characters hamstrung by nostalgia, option selects, just frame links, FADC, and the Ultra/Super utilizations with smart additions such as the V gauge being a less dominating Ultra gauge, a faster pace, Crush Counters, and other changes that stretched IV's skill wall out to be an actual slope again. Cross-platform and a robust replay and upload system are amazingly powerful and useful. I also appreciate the changes to characters, especially Dhalsim, and the new characters are interesting and full of personality. The music is largely an energetic delight that I never tire of. The updates have been rather timely as well. Buying characters and other such stuff via Fight Money is a great idea, especially once the Daily/Weekly system hit (which encourages on-line play which is smart). It just plays like a dream...
So why's it #10? Capcpom. It was launched early, yet obvious flaws present at launch persist till today. Switching from modes to modes and just logging in is sluggish. Match-ups on-line on certain days can be up to two minutes. There were embarrassingly easy exploits on PSN store and modding past the detestable Survival mode on PC. No rage quit protection, then it was player-driven (onus on the quit upon), then finally some teeth to it, PR gaffes up to and including divisions of Capcpom arguing on social media, etc. And the crown jewel: installing a goddamn rootkit to stop accessing of beta characters. In 2016. After Sony Music's debacle with such.
And that last one completely neutralized my desire to actually go back in to the game, Sim buffs and all. I think that sums it up rather concisely: just no desire to actually engauge with it again after something like that. Hell, that stunt probably dropped it from 4th or 5th on this list alone. It is THE self-sabotaging game of this year.
X. Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
; Zero Time Dilemma is one of the very, very few times in the past decade of wizened realism that has categorized my recent gaming past that I have been caught flatfooted by disappointment.
For starters, ZTD is a game that was the closing of a trilogy, a game that was done planning-wise and just needed an opportunity to be made and yet, it feels rushed as if some of its major details were hammered out weeks before gold.
Characters' moods shift and change to be convenient to the plot (including one scene where a distraught character shifted mood from violent to pliant I shit-you-not 4 times so the scene would play out as planned), the info dumps feel like triage, characterization seems an afterthought for many characters (Akane!), there's plotholes out the yin-yang, the ending is exhaustingly forced and opens up some the biggest plotholes, ties with other games were forgotten or marginalized...the list goes on and on.
And the safety video levels of gore was completely overdone, missing the point and pacing of 999s violence. And they are less "oh man, what did that mean", "HOLY FUCKING SHIT", and "oh, this is a mystery I must solve to get past here" of 999 or VLR than "Oh look, a deadly weapon. I suuuuuure would be awful shocked if a character uses it on another character..." It's just boring.
Still, some of the scenes were really good, especially most of those in Team D. Phi (and Karen Strassman's performance) remains a highlight, as well as Q's experiences. It's just such a shame about all the rest of this though.
X. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen
; Putting it here as it's a 2013 remake of a 2012 game but this title's odd ways born from being highly focused on combat and one Gen 7-ass Gen 7 gray 'n brown generimedieval world won me over. It's one of those console J-games from that generation like Valkyria Chronicles and Catherine that got ignored by the mainstream but sold well enough to be cult hits and I'm glad that I now know why.