Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Counting down my ten favorite games of 2016, as one does

As we're all eager to shelve the year 2016, there are two important things to bear in mind: (a) Next year will be probably be worse because he hasn't even taken office yet, and (b) as we're recoiling from a bunch of major celebrity deaths and the realization that there are a lot more closet white nationalists in this country than we'd imagined, it's healthy to also reflect on the good things that happened in 2016, overshadowed as they may be.

It was a good year for games. Not an all-timer, not a 1998 or a 2007, but there were enough great releases this year that I filled my top ten with considerable spillover.

Let's discuss the honorable mentions, then. First is Reigns, a neat little kingdom-sim-meets-Tinder that revolves entirely around yes-or-no questions. It's funny and clever, though I discovered after the fact that the game takes an awful lot of cues from Sort the Court, hence its removal from my top ten. Dark Souls III offered little that we hadn't seen before but gave the series a fitting and nostalgic sendoff, and for those Souls fans looking to fill the gap, DarkMaus is my favorite of the wannabes. Darkest Dungeon also earns a mention almost by default given how much time I've spent with it, though I still haven't finished it, and given some of the late-game frustrations, there's a question mark over whether I ever will. Do play it, though.

Finally, I do want to mention Pokémon Go for being one of the most fascinating experiments in social gaming that I've ever seen. It's not "good" by the standards that we highfalutin critics hold, even after a number of patches have tightened the screws, but it's a use of technology to expand the definition of gaming beyond simply giving us prettier graphics every few years. Plus, it's probably the first game that my mother and I like, so that's noteworthy. She usually plays Bejeweled or whatever.

Before we kick off the list, I want to note that I was on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast this year, which conveniently went up right around the time I finished this article. Go ahead and listen to that for an exhaustively thorough look back at the highs and lows of 2016 in gaming.

Right. So here are the top ten.

10. Grim Dawn (PC)

I'm told from virtually every source that Diablo III eventually became a stellar game after its nightmarish launch. I don't doubt it; I could probably go play it right now, in its current state, and have a blast. But it's a matter of principle - I gave the game its time of day, and it was a broken mess, and I've moved on. Maybe it's just good timing that Grim Dawn finally rescued me from my starvation for a Diablo-style click-'em-up, but what do you want from me? With an outstanding dual-class character-building system and a setting that reminds me more than a little bit of Bloodborne (all blunderbusses and floppy hats and forbidden sciences), Grim Dawn hit exactly the right notes for me and, what do you know, actually worked properly out of the figurative box. If you're into this sort of game - you know who you are - you need Grim Dawn yesterday. (Review.)

9. Severed (Vita)

DrinkBox Studios' previous game, Guacamelee, was full of personality and light on excess. But it was also a Metroidvania, making it the easiest of easy sells for me. With Severed, they took on the task of winning me over with a grid-based dungeon crawler, a genre which (to put it politely) typically inspires extreme apathy from me. They succeeded by giving it the same lavish visuals and atmosphere, by pumping full of Metroid design philosophies where the world unravels as your inventory expands, and shifting the combat from grinding and number-crunching to Fruit Ninja. I enjoyed it enough to earn a Platinum trophy, one of only three games I've ever done that with. On a more personal note, I only found room on this list for one handheld game, so it may as well be the title that actually served me well on the road - Severed is partly to thank for getting me through a particularly grueling overnight stay on a sidewalk outside of Madison Square Garden. (Review.)

8. The Witness (PC)

Jonathan Blow pulled off a remarkable trick this year: He figured out how to turn Myst into something I actually want to play. My long-running problem with that game is its lack of a central, driving mechanic. The puzzles shared no relation to one another; you were effectively wiping your acquired skills off the slate every time you moved to a new challenge. The Witness takes the same premise - you're trapped on a beautiful island full of odd mechanisms with very little explanation as to why they're there - but ties it all together with line puzzles that introduce new twists at a perfectly accelerating rate. Every puzzle solved grants you skills that can be taken forward and applied to new situations. That's how all games should work, and certainly how Myst should have, all these years. The Witness never talks to you but constantly finds ways to teach you. Don't look for narrative weight where there is none; just get lost in a relaxing and perfectly paced exploro-puzzler. (Review.)

7. Overwatch (PC)

Now that Valve seems to have more or less retired from game development and spends its days maintaining Dota 2 and making every digital gaming storefront that isn't Steam look bad, perhaps Overwatch is the closest thing we'll ever get to a Team Fortress 3. While Blizzard has more experience fine-tuning large-scale multiplayer games than anyone (and should be commended here for one of the smoothest launches in recent memory), this is their first stab at a competitive shooter. For them to replace the formula this well, balancing nearly two dozen classes and consistently making every player feel important, is a titanic accomplishment even when the game has very few of its own ideas. The dry, witless writing means Overwatch likely won't linger after I've put it aside for good, but Blizzard can remedy that by simply giving me reasons to keep coming back, and their ongoing support, coupled with the game's overwhelming popularity, has left little to be desired. (Playcast.)

6. The Last Guardian (PS4)

By purely objective standards, there are plenty of 2016 releases more deserving of a spot on this list than The Last Guardian. They had better controls, smoother framerates, smarter AI, and less nausea-inducing cameras. But I don't think about those games as much as I think about The Last Guardian. I have a rocky relationship with Fumito Ueda's previous work, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think his long-awaited third game is his best. It preserves the gorgeous-yet-imposing environmental design and deep, dialog-free relationships that are a staple of his work, and while he's yet to produce a game that handles well, he's wise enough here to at least avoid putting you in situations where quick reflexes are required. I was watching, and the game was out for several weeks before a plot synopsis showed up on the game's Wikipedia page. It was like an unspoken agreement between fans: Don't spoil this for yourself. Develop this bond with Trico yourself and witness the pitch-perfect manner in which Ueda closes it. (Review.)

5. Redout (PC)

This is not simply a game that I enjoy. I've thought about it and I'm convinced that Redout is the absolute best of its genre, the new standard by which I will judge all anti-gravity racers. It mixes the slick audiovisual style of Wipeout with the until-now unparalleled sense of speed exhibited in the F-Zero series, and adds just enough subtle twists of its own - namely the need to pitch your craft up and down to match the contours of the track - to establish an identity of its own. Redout is still pretty obscure, no thanks to a lack of buzz and a somewhat hefty $35 price tag, so the multiplayer scene's been pretty dormant from the word go, but the game finds value in its surprisingly substantial single-player campaign. And, at the end of the day, it just feels so damn good to play and master this thing. I promise to only use the word "exhilarating" twice in this article, and this is one of those times. Using any other adjective would do a disservice to the interactive roller coaster that is Redout. (Review.)

4. Titanfall 2 (PC)

I made a grave mistake in 2014 when I neglected to put the original Titanfall, one of my favorite multiplayer games in recent memory, on my top ten. In retrospect, the move seems outright prophetic. Though I absolutely got my money's worth out of the first game, its omission of a single-player campaign makes it look downright incomplete next to its sequel, which not only includes a story mode but knocks it out of the damn park. If not for Doom, this would be 2016's true antithesis to the modern military shooter, a blazing and large scale romp that's short enough on fat to never be dull but sensible enough to save its most exciting material for the final act - a true rising action. The multiplayer features only minor tweaks, but the dynamic between on-foot and mech combat is so strong that I've already put over 70 hours into this thing and have no intention of stopping. What a grim mistake it was for EA to release this game the week after Battlefield 1. It deserves an audience. (Review.)

3. Owlboy (PC)

I struggle to summarize Owlboy in a single paragraph because the game is just so full of wonder, every level shining for its own reason. Maybe there's an exciting set piece, maybe a neat new mechanic is introduced, maybe a quirky new character shows up, maybe the story takes a surprising turn, maybe that background art just looks particularly nice. D-Pad Studio began working on Owlboy - one of the most passionate tributes to classic 2D gaming I've seen in the modern era - all the way back in 2007, but when I play it, I don't see development hell. I see patience, the desire to make every moment playing Owlboy memorable, even if it takes nine years to finish the damn thing. I had no issue deciding on my top three for 2016 but agonized over the order; it's painful to me that a game as beautiful, charming and creative as Owlboy can only place third. (Review.)

2. Superhot (PC)

You think you've seen everything, and then every once in a while a game like Superhot comes along to remind you how much juice there's yet to be squeezed out of this medium. While bullet-time has been done to death in video games, Superhot's approach - to make time only move when you do - gives its combat a turn-based vibe the transforms goofy '80s action movie scenarios into outright puzzles. It is, refreshingly, a blood-pumping action yarn that requires all brains and zero reflexes. It is a game that gives you the power to do impossibly awesome things. Its surprisingly cool meta-narrative (which had an amusing impact on social media the week of its launch) is a bonus bit of window dressing, but even if Superhot had been presented as a series of static challenges with no connective tissue, it'd still be fresh enough - and, in an impressive show of restraint, lean enough - to make for one of the year's easiest recommendations, even for a relatively high entrance fee. Because it is, after all, the most innovative... yeah, surely you know the line by now. (Review.)

1. Doom (PC)

For years, the AAA shooter scene has subtly deteriorated into something murky and unpleasant, and not without good reason. I'd rank Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the original Gears of War among the best and most influential games of the last decade. At the time, the idea of an entire console generation's worth of shooter take their cues would've made me salivate. That happened, and look where it got us: overrun with creepy American nationalist fantasies. I have to assume that Call of Duty went to space this year because, as per series continuity, we've run out of people on Earth to murder.

And Gears? I used to buy those things on day one, yet a new one came out this year and I still haven't touched it. 2016 is the year when I finally hung up on Gears, when I officially lost my patience for spending the majority of a so-called action game with my face in the mud because my character's armor weighs as much as a tank but still can't protect him from more than a couple of shots before he needs a timeout. (I did wind up putting Gears 4 on my Christmas list, because if I'm gonna play it at all, I'd rather someone else paid for it.)

I could go on - about how Halo has collapsed under its own narrative weight, or how Destiny is a toy box with no toys in it, or how The Division is that very same toy box but painted grey - but the point is that Doom looked at the state of the AAA shooter and proclaimed, "I reject your bullshit." It's fast. It's gruesome. It's metal. It does everything in its power to keep you out of cover and in the action. And it features a silent protagonist who cares as little about the plot as we do. No sappy piano cover of "Mad World" as supporting characters die. No ruminations over the cost of war. These are demons from hell. Give us a goddamn shotgun.

I want to spend paragraphs talking about how intricate Doom's level design is, and how satisfying its weapons feel, and how perfectly it runs, and how much you're cheating yourself if you're not experiencing this baby with a mouse and keyboard. But what ultimately makes Doom my favorite game of the year is that it is precisely the game that I needed at this very moment. I can now signal the end of the era in which the best modern shooters are the ones like Spec Ops: The Line and Wolfenstein: The New Order primarily for pointing out how awful modern shooters are. We've gotten the postmodern stuff out of our systems, and now, hopefully, we can go back to basics, when shooters were breezy, exhilarating, fun. And leading that charge? Doom. (Review.)

And now on to the miscellaneous categories.

Most overrated: Inside
Most underrated: The Witness
Most overlooked: Redout
Most visually striking: Owlboy
All-out best-looking game: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Best story: The Last Guardian
Best writing: Reigns, I guess? Weak year
Best character: Geddy (Owlboy)
Best original soundtrack: Virginia
Best licensed soundtrack: Forza Horizon 3
Biggest surprise: Doom
Biggest disappointment: ReCore
Most enjoyable bad game: Furi
Least enjoyable good game: The Banner Saga 2
Best PC port: Titanfall 2
Game that I spent the most time with: Overwatch
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: We Are the Dwarves
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Fire Emblem Fates
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but didn't: 7th Dragon III: Code VFD
Best game that I still haven't finished: Darkest Dungeon
All-out worst game that I played: NightCry
Best non-2016 game that I first played in 2016: Elite Dangerous
Best remake/re-release: Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir
Most anticipated game this coming year: Yooka-Laylee

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review Shots: December 15, 2016

Hi there. We're rapidly approaching the end of the year, and I've got several blog entries in the works summarizing what I feel are the most remarkable gaming experiences of 2016. (I'll also be on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast for the first time, which I'm very excited about). With that said, I wanted to do some year-end cleanup and quickly talk about a handful of games that I never formally voiced my opinions on throughout the year. I've dubbed this "Review Shots," and I think it'll become a regular thing for me.

Darkest Dungeon (PC)

This is one of my most-played games of 2016, clocking at well over a hundred hours (albeit often while listening to podcasts or binging TV shows with one eye, because that's the kind of game this is), and I've actually bought it twice, on PC after the PS4/Vita versions turned out less than ideal. You'd think I unabashedly love it and that it's a lock for my top ten, yet I've hit an unfortunate roadblock. This is a roguelike, turn-based dungeon crawler with Lovecraftian setting and a focus on your characters' mental well-being. It's deep, it's stylish, and it gets its hooks in you. But it's also damn brutal, and once the later dungeons are unlocked, getting a party wipe can be utter hell, since raising a new party for prime-level questing takes hours of questing. It's discouraging, and a way to bypass more of that early-level grinding would make the endgame stuff more enticing. I've had a great time with the game and highly recommend it, but I can't say for certain that I'll ever see all of it. 8/10

Furi (PC)

Here's an odd one. Furi is basically a feature-length boss rush, a character action game that divides its time between frantic swordplay and bullet-hell schmupping, and consists of nothing but boss battles as the lead character kills the prison guards holding him captive. It's actually full of design choices that I would loathe in games where bosses comprised only a fraction of the playtime, like multiple phases (as in, say, five or six per battle) and pattern memorization. Plus, the dodge function, key to survival in many cases, has an infuriating delay that forced me into many restarts. I didn't enjoy Furi. Yet there's something about its style, openly inspired by the very strange works of Grasshopper and Platinum, that kept me going. It's got a great eye for empowering moment (even when you'll be restarting a lot), and the amazing soundtrack, by a collecting of house artists, almost gives Furi the pulse of a rhythm game. Plus, the story actually goes somewhere interesting! Honest! 6/10

Song of the Deep (PC)

Why the hell does this game exist? It was developed by Insomniac, the AAA development team responsible for franchises like Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. They have the kinds of resources most smaller developers would kill for, and here they are, making the sort of vaguely quaint Metroid knockoff that'd barely inspire attention if a first-time dev churned it out (minus the production values, which are admittedly lovely). Even the novelty of setting a game like this underwater, with players in control of a submarine, was already done earlier this year in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (which I also didn't like, though that one at least took some chances). Even as someone who's always on the lookout for a solid Metroidvania, this one's been too generic to keep me interested. I hope Insomniac got this all out of their system and goes back to using the tremendous power they have more productively. 4/10

Severed (Vita)

Dungeon crawlers are typically the sort of thing I can only play with one eye while marathoning a TV show, but developer DrinkBox Studios pulled all of the right tricks in making Severed more accessible to me: removing unnecessary grinding, shaving the campaign length to a lean eight hours, giving the combat a more interactive and frenetic nature (thanks to the Vita's touch screen), basing the whole thing around a Metroid-like upgrade-based progression system, and infusing the whole package with the sharp visual style that was a hallmark of the studio's previous release, Guacamelee. That game made my Game of the Year list, and I suspect Severed will, too. It's one of the few games for which I've bothered to earn a platinum trophy, and a perfect fit for the Vita, given its smooth combination of tradition and touch screen controls. Terrific release; DrinkBox Studios is officially on my "check out everything these folks make" list. 9/10

Reigns (PC/Android)

Another game I liked so much that I purchased it twice, after realizing that the game would be a much better fit on my fit. It controls, after all, like Tinder, as the players are simply tasked with swiping left or right as they're confronted with yes-or-no questions while reigning as a medieval monarch. It's simple and delightful, boosted by both its strong (yet also concise) writing and the surprising amount of depth involved as players are forced to balance the four pillars of the state (church, population, military, and treasury) without any of them either collapsing or becoming too powerful. Also, the game actually has an overarching story! I love Reigns, though it admittedly lost a few points when I learned that an game called Sort the Court did something awfully similar first but never quite caught on the way this one did. 8/10

Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC)

I actually kind of hate the original Mirror's Edge. The controls never once felt comfortable to me (first-person parkour platforming is a very tricky thing to pull off), and the game's ultra-linear structure never gave the mechanics room to breathe. Moving the franchise to a sandbox setting makes total sense to me, and Catalyst actually feels a lot more responsive this time; I'm wondering if playing on mouse and keyboard helps, as being able to easily control where you're looking is a big advantage in these free-running scenarios. So the parkour's actually something of a thrill for once, but EA DICE is struggling to give this series a backbone. The story, characters and world are all still pretty much negligible, and the campaign pretty much just amount to a series of fetch quests and time trials while the important stuff is handled by people who can do more than just run really fast. It's a step in the right direction, but Catalyst is still little more than a very pretty, slightly above-average sandbox release. 6/10

Let It Die (PS4)

Grasshopper Manufacture, that weirdo studio headed by Suda51, recently surprised us with the late-year release of a free-to-play title called Let It Die. It's a roguelike dungeon-crawler with Souls-esque combat, set in a post-apocalyptic world where people wear traffic cones on their heads and murder each other with improvised weaponry. Pretty basic stuff, though injected with trademark Grasshopper strangeness; your guide, for instance, is a skateboarding Mexican grim reaper who calls you "Senpai." I kinda wish the combat was deeper, though Let It Die deserves kudos for being perhaps the first game in history to actually handle weapon degradation well -- most weapons only last for a handful of fights, but drops are so frequent that one of the game's hooks is constantly having to experiment with new arms combinations. Not one of Grasshopper's best games, and certainly not one of their most unique, but it's an addictive enough game, and you can't argue with free. 7/10

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review Shots: November 20, 2016

You can't formally review everything, especially when it's fall release season and there are too many games to write about and you don't want to write about them anyway because you're too depressed about the election results and also you're lonely so you spend what could be productive time flipping through Tinder but no one's to your taste because oh my god is there anyone in my area who isn't into country music?

So yeah, video games. I'd rather not have my opinions on some of the year's biggest releases not be documented for future historians, so here are some quickie one-paragraph reviews for various 2016 titles that I've deemed worthy of discussion. I mean, hey, a couple of these will almost certainly wind up on my year-end top-ten list, so pay attention.

Grow Up (PC)

When I reviewed the delightful Grow Home, I commented on how awestruck I was that such a charming, uncynical product could come from Ubisoft. That is not the case with its sequel, an open-world sandbox game full of tower-climbing and optional race challenges. Yep, this is the Ubisoft formula to a T. While expanding the scale to an entire miniature planet sounds neat, it dilutes your accomplishments, none of them feeling as satisfying or (ahem) towering as the single massive beanstalk that took center stage in the original. Its ideas aren't new anymore, so it took the only approach Ubisoft Reflections could come up with, which was to simply add more, and it's a wasted opportunity. All of these goofy physics and mechanics, and racing challenges are the best you've got? 6/10

Titanfall 2 (PC)

The original Titanfall had one of my favorite multiplayer components in recent memory, and its sequel retreads that formula with minimal changes. That's fine. It's what I wanted, in fact, and Titanfall 2 has been my cathartic release for the last few weeks, the game I come to when I want immediate, big-scale thrills. But where the sequel vastly improves upon its predecessor is in the addition of a legitimate single-player campaign that's actually fantastic. I'd rather not spoil the game's countless memorable moments, so I'll simply say that it wastes no time, features far more original ideas than you'd expect, and doesn't bombard you with wall-to-wall explosive set pieces (so when the game does finally crank it up in its final few missions, it's all the more potent). Probably the closest thing we'll ever get to a Vanquish sequel: fast, huge, exciting, and... blandly written, but hey, save some for Titanfall 3. That is, if enough of you buy this game to warrant a third entry. Please do. 9/10

Battlefield 1 (PS4)

This is strictly a review of the game's single-player campaign, since Battlefield's multiplayer isn't really my thing. Set during World War I (under-explored in this medium), the solo content is split into five individual stories chronicling the various fronts, beginning in France and then moving east into the Ottoman Empire. You can play the stories out of order, which I'd recommend, since they get worse as they go. Battlefield 1 opens with its two longest and strongest sequences (featuring a tank and a biplane), but as the campaigns get briefer, we spend so little time with these characters that the emotional impact is unearned. Although visually ravishing at times, this is actually one of the rare AAA shooter campaigns that could benefit from being longer. Final mission is a chore, too - a stealth section set in the open desert that plays like the poor man's Metal Gear Solid V. 6/10

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PS4)

Again, this is solely my take on the game's solo campaign, since this is the first Call of Duty game I've touched since the first Black Ops and I'm sure as hell not reentering this arena when it's full of people who have been keeping up with this series on an annual basis. Both major shooter franchises took diversions this year, and Call of Duty came up with the less interesting one, because space marines have already been done a thousand times. To my surprise, though, this campaign is pretty excellent. There's great variety in the scenery, and the game's full of actual space shenanigans - zero-gravity bits where you're slinging yourself about with a grappling hook and a number of full-blown dogfights that put to shame the actual Star Fox game we got this year. I don't care that much for the story (particularly when the villains are so one-dimensionally evil), but the cast pulls its weight convincingly, and your robot buddy Ethan is honestly one of my favorite new characters to come out of a game this year. This one's worth a rental at least. 8/10

Dishonored 2 (PS4)

The first Dishonored had some of the best stealth mechanics in the business, and the sprawling and very three-dimensional level design offered players such a wealth of options that I was honestly reminded of Deus Ex. Gameplay-wise, there isn't much to improve, so Dishonored 2 being more of the same is largely just fine. But would it kill them to make just one of these characters likable? Just one? Just for me? So much detail is poured into this world and its history that I feel guilty for not caring at all over the course of two whole games, but it's Arkane's fault for not getting me emotionally invested in any of this. The dialog's so static and perfunctory that not even A-grade Hollywood talent like Rosario Dawson can inject any life into it. This one's a missed opportunity, but play it for the Clockwork Mansion, a steampunk wonderland that will rank as one of 2016's most memorable levels. 7/10

Doom (PC)

I just bought a new SSD and am in the process of reinstalling my games on it. I thought I was done with Doom, having played the hell out of it back in May and ultimately scored all of the single-player achievements. Since then, though, id Software added a score attack mode to the campaign, which is the only excuse I needed to jump back into this masterpiece. It's honestly the purest fun I've had playing a game this year, and while I recommend it under any circumstance, play it on PC if you can - its handful of launch issues seem to have been ironed out, and I can't overstate how good this thing feels with a mouse and keyboard. I can't imagine myself spending a lot of time with the multiplayer while Titanfall 2 and Overwatch are in my library, but this is the best single-player twitch shooter I've played in years... or possibly ever. 10/10

Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel (PC)

The expansions for the previous Souls games rank among the very best of the series' content, and with Dark Souls III's plot leaving so many unanswered questions, Ashes of Ariandel should have been a knockout. Instead, it's an overly murky side-story that plays like a directionless homage to the Painted World of Ariamis from the first game, marking the point where Dark Souls III's constant callbacks officially became insufferable to me. If this expansion feels light on bosses at first, that's because From Software crams three of them together for the finale and forces players to defeat all three consecutively. I've mastered everything else the Souls series has thrown at me, but this encounter felt pointlessly cruel, and it's the only instance in the history of the franchise in which found myself unable to win without summoning help. Despite a few creepy moments (that fly pit is gross) and some typically lavish visuals, this is one of the series' low points, unrewarding and unsatisfying. 4/10

So that's that, but why not have a look at some of the recent releases I did formally review?

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
Seasons After Fall
Divinity: Original Sin II (preview)

Also, why not have a listen to the two-man podcast I recently did with Richard Naik, in which we pretend-drunkenly complain about ReCore?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

My favorite Souls boss themes, in the form of a top ten list (spoilers)

I'm still working on my review for Dark Souls III (there's a lot to process and I want to make sure I get my analysis right), so in the meantime, here are what I consider to be the ten best boss themes across the entire series. Souls games don't tend to have a lot of music, which gives it that much more impact when the music actually does kick in.

Honorable Mention: Soul of Cinder (Dark Souls III)

Dark Souls boss themes like to go awfully high on wailing choirs, particularly in the first and third games of the Dark Souls series. This track seems to fit that descriptor until the 2:15 mark, when an unexpected shift suddenly turns this battle into a throwback to the Gwyn battle in the original Dark Souls, the theme of which will be referenced later in this list. This theme isn't altogether one of my favorites but that's a clever way of telling a story without words.

10. Ruin Sentinels (Dark Souls II)

Not a whole lot to say about this one - it's a rollicking theme that gives its brass section center stage to great effect. This is one of the first memorable encounters in Dark Souls II, because I don't believe From Software has thus far had the guts to pit you against three of the same boss at once. An intense track for an intense situation.

9. Maiden Astraea (Demon's Souls)

This won't be the last time I say this, but the Astraea theme is incongruously pretty. We've been battling pretty much nothing but scary monsters up until this point, and we certainly didn't expect the pattern to be broken at the end of the repulsive Valley of Defilement. But here we are, battling two polite, seemingly un-corrupted individuals who are begging to simply be left alone. As one of the series' first "puzzle" bosses, the discomfitingly beautiful music is your first indication that this battle will not play out like the others.

8. Bell Gargoyles (Dark Souls)

The Gargoyles are among the most notorious dick moves in Souls history, and the music that plays alongside them move the battle from intimidating to outright scary. Those spindly stairstep strings are just a masterclass in maintaining tension, as if a mortal battle is being fought while teetering over the edge of a cliff. Which, in a way, it kind of is.

7. Executioner's Chariot (Dark Souls II)

I actually don't like this boss at all ("puzzle bosses" in Souls games rarely go over well with me), but the setting and atmosphere are perfect. So much of this level is spent with the coliseum towering over you that when you finally get in, it's enthralling to be accompanied by a theme that wouldn't feel out of place in a historical epic. The bit at 1:30 in particular strongly reminds me of the horns being sounded at the beginning of a match in Gladiator.

6. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower (Bloodborne)

This theme has the dual task of preparing players for one of the toughest hand-to-hand battles in the series and reminding us that this is one of the few sympathetic figures in this universe, and that having to fight her is kind of a shame. The music gets to have its cake and eat it, opening with ominous bells and fluttering strings before moving to a gorgeous, melancholy single-violin piece at the twelve-second mark (by which point, let's face it, we're deep into the battle).

5. Abyss Watchers (Dark Souls III)

One of the flat-out saddest boss themes in Souls history. If you fought Artorias in the first game's DLC, you know what happens when the Abyss corrupts you. These guys are clearly modeled after that encounter, and they're so far lost that they're battling each other, cursed to rise, kill, die, and repeat perpetually. A vocal-heavy track that keeps the number of singers to a minimum, making this track intimate, poignant and tragic.

4. Ludwig, the Holy Blade (Bloodborne)

This one places so high on the list specifically for the transition that begins at 3:40 and unleashes an all-out assault at 4:18 as the boss, presumed to be just another tragic figure lost to the beast plague, suddenly begins speaking in a calm voice, picks up the Moonlight Greatsword, and carries out the remainder of the battle on two legs. It's an unforgettable transition made largely possible by this music.

3. King Vendrick (Dark Souls II)

To be honest, I kind of wish this wasn't a boss theme at all. It's such a powerful moment - King Vendrick has been hyped as some sort of otherworldly figure for the entire game, and when we finally see him, he's a broken man, wordlessly wandering his tomb in circles while you casually take what you need and buzz off without issue. Making Vendrick a secret boss, and in fact one of the most powerful in the game, spoils that a bit, but I'll never forget the chill that went down my back the first time I came across this scene and heard that piano sting.

2. Gehrman, the First Hunter (Bloodborne)

Probably the most singularly accomplished piece of music ever to come out of a Souls game, it's almost too good for the battle, which is (a) functionally not all that different from many other bosses you've fought until this point and (b) against a character I think I'm supposed to be sadder about fighting than I am. Whatever the case, this is one of the most stunning boss themes I've ever heard.

1. Gwyn, Lord of Cinder (Dark Souls)

I'd argue that this is the most iconic piece of music to come out of a Souls game, evident in the way both sequels' finales return to it like a motif. Most boss themes in Dark Souls are meant to get you riled up, on the edge of your seat, and there'd be no reason to think that the epic final encounter against the antagonist the entire campaign has been hyping up would follow suit. But then we hear this simple piano piece and see Gwyn instead as a tragic figure, one who brought about his own destruction to prolong the Age of Fire. Knowing that your character is likely to follow in his footsteps only makes it more poignant.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


I recently wrote a Superhot review that you can read by clicking on this hyperlink. It just went up the other day, but I want to note that I actually wrote it last week, before the embargo was lifted and the game landed in public hands. This is important because Superhot's release has morphed my opinion of the game. Not substantially, though, and certainly not for the worse. Let me explain.

See, we knew what Superhot purported to be: a shooter in which time only moves when you do. It fulfills that standard, and it is, to my mind, about as much fun as a game centering on this idea can realistically be (i.e. very). Hopefully my review explains that, so I won't waste much time reiterating anything.

But what I also mentioned in my review is how wonderful Superhot is in ways we weren't expecting. Namely, it's a cracking good sci-fi story. More accurately, it's a relatively bog-standard sci-fi story presented in a manner that I've never seen before. Here's a product in which viral marketing actually plays a tangible role in the game's plot. Superhot's developers were depending on their fans to make this narrative whole, and the gamble has paid off.

The most immediate characteristic of Superhot's story is that it's meta as hell. It tells you, point-blank, that you're playing a video game. The menu is designed to look like a DOS interface, many of the "cutscenes" are stylistically filtered to resemble ASCII art, and the campaign opens with someone inviting you, via an unassuming chat program, to open some "superhot.exe" file. When action gets heated, you're assured, frequently, that it's all just a game. None of this even looks real; the plainly visible polygons highlight the artificiality of these scenarios.

And that sells the underlying thrust of Superhot's narrative, which is that you're being manipulated into performing nasty deeds for some very powerful people. We never learn who exactly they are (unless this information is buried deep within the game, which wouldn't surprise me), but we're going along with it because, hey, it's good fun and none of this is real, right? Superhot so transparently and unambiguously being a video game is what makes this plot work so well. If this were real, these corporate overlords would want us to think this is just pure escapism.

But Superhot unveils its' villains nefariousness in increasingly unsubtle ways, namely when the "protagonist" develops doubts over the perceived innocuousness of his or her actions. That's when the bad guys make it clear that we're not in control. Video games like to present us with the illusion of choice when there's so little true emergent design in this medium; every decision that we make is ultimately something that someone on the development team planned for. Superhot pokes fun at that in amusing ways, particularly when the stranger on the other end of the line tells you to quit and you cannot continue the campaign until you've exited and restarted the game.

In a medium oversaturated with Chosen Ones, Superhot makes it clear that you're not special. You're just another drone. You can't fight the system. You're going to do bad things for bad people, and you'll go along with it because you're having too much fun, and you don't have a choice anyway. And you won't be rewarded for it. After everything you've done for your bosses, they'll thank you by forcing you to put a bullet in your own head, because you're just as disposable to them as the legions of people you've gunned down for them.

Where it gets cool is the way the developers of Superhot have deployed the game's actual, real, not-fictional fans to get this message out by relaying the game's deliberately cheesy marketing schlock. For one thing, the campaign ends with a canned word of recommendation ("the most innovative shooter I've played in years," etc.) that players willingly repeat on social media because they enjoyed the story and want to play along. The message even includes a link for a discount - an effective incentive, since if you're going along with all of this, you obviously enjoyed the game enough to want other people to try it, as well.

Even better, though, you've surely noticed that it's impossible for people to praise Superhot without at some point slavishly repeating its title. "SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT." They're always sure to put the period between the "super" and the "hot." Obviously, it's a reference to the fact that each level ends with a disembodied voice chanting the title while the words flash across the screen.

So what was the point of that, and why are we reiterating it? Well, remember that one Seinfeld episode when George keeps randomly singing his last name around a women he's dating with the hope that the annoying will become the infectious, much as a commercial jingle seems irritating but gets into your head? Same thing here. For a bit, you wonder why the game keeps shouting its title at you. Then you get used to it. Then you stop paying attention to it. Then it becomes an integral component of that experience, so central that you can't talk about the game on Twitter without joining in.

The best part is that I didn't even get to see this before I did my write-up. Superhot already earned one of my most positive reviews in recent memory, and now I like it even more, in this exact moment, at the peak of its popularity.

Of course, if Superhot hadn't been both good and high-profile, this gamble wouldn't have worked. But since the game has impressed so many people, the ultra-meta corporate marketing angle of its plot is taking full form within those of us who are just trying to spread the word about how much we enjoy this thing. We're all the slaves, and we're perpetuating the cycle. We know the truth, but we're too comfortable to care, and we don't have a choice, anyway.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A ranked list of every 2015 release that I played

Fun fact: I do actually keep an active log of the games I play in a given year (as well as a constantly-changing to-do list), so I thought it'd be fun, as I've done before, to rank every 2015 release that I've played. First note is that I generally try to occupy my time with good games, which is why there are few outright bad titles on this list; most of what's here is at least passable. Secondly, bear in mind that remasters of games released prior to 2015 weren't in the running for my GOTY list, hence why stuff like Majora's Mask 3D and Rare Replay weren't on my top ten despite placing higher than some of the games that were.

* re-releases or remasters of older games
^ games that I admittedly didn't spend much time with

74. Godzilla
73. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5
72. #IDARB
71. Tower of Guns ^
70. Submerged
69. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash ^
68. Drizzlepath
67. Evolve
66. The Order: 1886
65. Star Wars Battlefront
64. Until Dawn
63. Just Cause 3 ^
62. Apotheon ^
61. 404Sight ^
60. Dying Light ^
59. La-Mulana EX *
58. Spectra ^
57. Kick & Fennick ^
56. Xeodrifter *
55. Batman: Arkham Knight ^
54. Cosmophony ^
53. The Static Speaks My Name
52. Halo 5: Guardians
51. Oblitus
50. Mushroom 11
49. Pokémon Shuffle
48. God of War III Remastered *
47. Broken Age ^
46. The Old Tree
45. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD *
44. Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin *^
43. Project CARS
42. MonsterBag ^
41. Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series
40. Rise of the Tomb Raider
39. Castle in the Darkness
38. Disorder
37. Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX *
36. Zero Punctuation: Hatfall - Hatters Gonna Hat Edition
34. Her Story
33. Yoshi's Woolly World
32. Rebel Galaxy
31. Pillars of Eternity
30. The Mammoth: A Cave Painting
29. Cubot *
28. King's Quest
27. Hook
26. Mad Max
25. I Am Bread
24. Fallout 4
23. Titan Souls
22. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse
21. Splatoon
20. Transformers: Devastation
19. Helldivers
18. Downwell
17. Tales from the Borderlands
16. Axiom Verge
15. Undertale
14. Environmental Station Alpha
13. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
12. Jotun
11. Rare Replay *
10. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
9. Hand of Fate
8. The Beginner's Guide
7. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
6. Ori and the Blind Forest
5. Grow Home
4. Rocket League
3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D *
1. Bloodborne

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

These are the ten best games of 2015 and I'm not wrong unless I am

Before you ask, yes, that's Mad Max, and no, that's not on my list. That just happens to be the game that I've been playing lately (acting as my Just Cause 3 refugee camp of sorts) and I like that particular screenshot. Perhaps there'd be some iconography in a burning wasteland had this been a worse year for games, but eh, 2015 wasn't bad. Unless we're talking about endings, in which case, yeah, 2015 sucked.

This abundance of games unable to stick their landings has ultimately made me too paranoid to award top ten honors to two particular standout titles that, for one reason or another, I haven't finished yet. So I'll just hand out a couple of honorable mentions and then dive into the best releases of the year that I actually played all the way through.

The first is Undertale, which might just be the best-written video game in years, and I'm certainly not alone in that sentiment; as I write this, it's one of the two finalists for GameFAQs' Best Game Ever poll, the other being freaking Ocarina of Time. And it's winning... by about two to one. It'd be a funny, delightful game even without the hook wherein players are encouraged to find nonviolent solutions to combat situations, but even the subversive humor couldn't quite pull this thing out of the random-encounter, turn-based JRPG fire pit without a few burns. It's absolutely worth playing, but I can't back that up with a complete image of the game yet.

The other is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which I haven't finished because it's so goddamn enormous. This is the rare instance of a game perhaps providing too much worthwhile content, with a world virtually unrivaled in scope for a single-player RPG, and in which even the throwaway missions have purpose and context both mechanically and within the story. I stopped not because I got sick of it, but because even after dumping a hundred hours into this monster, I'm intimidated by how much more of it I still have to see.

I can't personally say where this ranks among 2015's best until I've seen the whole thing myself, but against near-unanimous praise and a seemingly endless bombardment of awards, I'm sure CD Projekt won't lose much sleep over one no-name critic omitting it from his top ten. Besides, I have no issue with this being the GOTY favorite across the board, not when The Witcher 3 so clearly raises the bar for the attention to detail we should be expecting from open-world RPGs.

So with that out of the way, here are my ten favorite games of 2015. In a rare showing of efficiency, I've actually reviewed all of them, so links aplenty.

10. Jotun (PC)

Comparing a game to Shadow of the Colossus is a slippery slope for anyone. Usually, it sets up unrealistic expectations against a wall that can never be scaled. It's an even trickier comparison for me to make, though, because (a) I don't like Shadow of the Colossus and (b) that's a viewpoint that the vast majority of gamers cannot relate to. When I compare something to Shadow, I'm referring to the hole that it left wide open.

So when I say that Jotun is a lot like Shadow of the Colossus, try not to read into that as a statement on the game's quality (though I do actually think it's better). It's more a matter of attitude and structure. This is a slow-paced, melancholy trek through a beautiful but threatening world, and yeah, maybe there are some boss battles against screen-filling monsters, but if that's all there was to the game, they'd just turn into white noise. (Speaking of 2015 releases, this is the crucial mistake that Titan Souls made.)

Instead, these grandiose run-ins with gods are merely the climactic components of a more downplayed audiovisual showcase. Jotun employs Norse mythology out of some noble desire to actually respect and adequately explore the subject material, going so far as to hire Icelandic voice actors for authenticity. The hand-drawn visuals are impossible not to compare to The Banner Saga (high praise), and the soundtrack is one of the year's best. This all underlines that Jotun is the rare god-killing game in which killing gods is a little beside the point. (Review.)

9. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (3DS)

I'd made a prior attempt to get into the notoriously impenetrable Monster Hunter series, and truth be told, it may be a matter of circumstance that the fourth entry was finally the one to pull me over. I'd requested a review key just for the hell of it, and this just so happened to be the first game Capcom sent us in years, I'm told. So I was forced to finally figure Monster Hunter out under pressure of work ethic.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is full of numbers, and the only real assurance that I can give new players now that I've stepped over is that, in time, the game will explain what all of these numbers mean. But don't worry about the numbers. Worry about the game's central and universal appeal: the satisfaction in slaying big, ugly monsters. I don't mean to undersell the game's astonishing depth, because people wouldn't be spending thousands of hours on these things if there wasn't some meat on the bone, but MH4U's largely story-free structure means that it's a game that lasts until you're satisfied with it. That could mean mastering one weapon or all of them.

In the couple of weeks I spent with MH4U leading up to the review embargo, I devoted nearly as much time to this game as I did my job, and it wasn't a struggle; the game is that engrossing, that rewarding, that high on content. The only reason it ranks so low on the list is the hardware limitations. An action-heavy game such as this is borderline unplayable without a second analog stick, which the 3DS inconveniently doesn't have. That means either importing a clunky peripheral or caving for the New 3DS, an upgrade that Nintendo has justified about as well as Game Boy Micro. Not an easy sell, but MH4U knows what it owes you and pays you back with interest. (Review.)

8. Hand of Fate (PC)

This game has presented me with a bit of a challenge as a critic, because nothing about Hand of Fate actually sounds good. It's a roguelite. It's card-based. Presentation is minimal. Combat is pure Arkham worship. Every screenshot makes the game look more boring than the last. Even the title sucks. Had I been offered the chance to review this pre-release, I'd likely have Googled it and turned it down. Then I'd have heard wonderful things about it, bought it with money, and felt silly. But not too silly, because that money would encourage the indie scene to produce more deceptively clever games such as this.

I've no doubt that Hand of Fate was made on a tiny budget, but once you've played it, it's hard to dismiss the game's simplistic look as anything less than a deliberate stylistic choice. It's mainly because the one source of personality that we do get, the Dealer himself, is one of my favorite concoctions to come out of any game this year. Funny and sinister in equal proportion, his abundant dialog is a counterbalance to the crude illustrations and text boxes that comprise every actual "scene." Because those are irrelevant. They're just cards, and it's all just an illusion. But the Dealer? His powers are real, as he frequently reminds you. The game is just a game, but Hand of Fate is still rife with intrigue elsewhere.

Beyond its presentational charm, Hand of Fate is both fun and highly approachable; its rules and mechanics are easily grasped, and rounds are short. While there is a "campaign," there almost didn't need to be; Hand of Fate perfectly lends itself to controlled, easily-digestible bursts, the sort of thing a player can consume at a pace of their choosing. I take issue with the game's final level (which piles on the handicaps to the point that finishing it feels like a matter of blind luck), but Hand of Fate is otherwise one of 2015's most pleasant surprises. Play it. There's no game on this list that I'm more sure you'll enjoy. (Review.)

7. The Beginner's Guide (PC)

Of the five people who discussed The Beginner's Guide on the GameCritics podcast a couple of months ago, two hated the game so much that they filed for refunds, the third expressed regret that he hadn't filed for a refund, and the fourth voiced his disgust that the game was even being dissected to the degree that its creator wanted. I was the fifth, and here The Beginner's Guide sits among my favorite releases of the year. A divisive game, this one.

It's framed as a collection of unfinished design projects by a person named Coda, compiled and sold by his acquaintance, Davey Wreden, who stumbled upon the cursed blessing of success a couple of years ago with The Stanley Parable. It's a ruse, of course, and that's common knowledge by now, if only via the understanding that there'd be some severe legal ramifications of this guy releasing another person's work for profit, explicitly without said person's approval. But when I first played The Beginner's Guide knowing nothing about it, I had no reason, at least initially, to spot the bluff. I believed I was playing witness to nonfiction, which made me personally invested in the game's highly fictional story without even realizing it.

The Beginner's Guide is the sort of thing that always excites me in the video game medium: a narrative told in a manner that I've never seen before. Wreden's plea here is simply not to be a selfish friend, and while it's not a complicated message, it's conveyed here with one of the craftiest uses of the unreliable narrator device that I've yet seen in a game, as Wreden himself directly lies about what it is that we're even playing. And yeah, the power of something like that can only last so long in the spoiler-frenzy Twitter age, but while the window for experiencing The Beginner's Guide fresh has passed, I'll be in admiration of Wreden's push to expand the boundaries of interactive storytelling long after the shock isn't so shocking. (Review.)

6. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC)

Can a game be one of the year's biggest standouts and most volatile disappointments simultaneously? Konami certainly tested that theory, and yes, I'm putting the blame on them rather than Kojima himself. We may never know what the hell is going on between those two, but the abundant unresolved threads left dangling in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain's disaster of a plot paints an unmistakable image of an incomplete product. And now that Kojima has cut ties with the company and Konami has expressed intent to move on with the franchise without him, there's heartbreak in the likelihood that we will never get to see the auteur's complete vision of this saga. After three decades, it's an anticlimax.

But none of this stops The Phantom Pain from inevitably ruining every stealth game that releases after it. They'll all feel incomplete without Reflex Mode, and they'll all feel laughably behind the times without sprawling sandbox maps in which enemy alertness changes organically, convincingly and persistently. I'd have thought that we were largely past the point of technology being used to innovate, that new generations of hardware are more and more coming to mean prettier graphics and not much else. But The Phantom Pain's depth and scope are the sort of thing we wouldn't have seen five or ten years ago.

The Phantom Pain may be "about" vocal cord parasites and a woman who wears a skimpy bikini because she breathes through her skin (ugh), but really, it's about strapping hot air balloons to bears. It's about gold-plating your attack helicopter and calling in air raids soundtracked by "The Final Countdown." It's about bases with countless routes, full of enemies who become alerted to your presence and actually stay that way. I accidentally deleted my save file for The Phantom Pain, and while it was an anticlimax in a game full of them, it also proved that even with well over a hundred hours logged, the only way to pull myself away from this thing was to go cold turkey. (Review.) (Silly spoiler piece.)

5. Ori and the Blind Forest (PC)

This comparison may seem a little out of left field, but Ori and the Blind Forest reminds me just a hair of Pixar's Up. Not because the animation is incredible (though, by god, is it ever), but because, if you'll recall, Up had a brief introductory sequence that could very easily have functioned as a beautiful, devastating, self-contained story in its own right. That's how I feel about Ori's opening chapter. Before the game proper even begins, developer Moon Studios subjects us to more warmth, despair and heartbreak in ten minutes than most 50-hour games could match.

Of course, Ori is an excellent Metroidvania in and of itself, the standout in a subgenre that's not exactly had a sparse showing. Part of the reason I'm not terribly bummed out by the Metroid series being so missing-in-action lately is that my thirst for games like these is regularly quenched by the indie scene. We got some great Metroid lookalikes this year (Axiom Verge is the obvious example, and I've recently been getting furiously invested in the terrific Environmental Station Alpha), but I'll always lean slightly in favor of releases like Ori that complement the overlapping, constantly-expanding design principles with their own unique worlds and the mechanics that correspond. You do things in the titular blind forest that you'll certainly never do on Planet Zebes or its countless derivatives.

But while I don't want to discount how much fun Ori is, there's no escaping that its audiovisual splendor is its biggest and most immediate appeal. This is the most beautiful 2D game I've ever played, and it's got the music to match it. (If I do a blog entry on the year's best soundtracks, Gareth Coker's work here will be an easy #1. Nothing else even comes close.) Ori really feels in line with a Studio Ghibli production, and not just on a superficial level. It's cute, it's simple, and it's got very little dialog; anyone can follow this. But it's also dark, mature and deeply moving, tackling the complications of life that kid-friendly content such as this often forgets that it's still allowed to address. What a magnificent game. (Review.)

4. Grow Home (PC)

When this released completely under everyone's radar early in the year, I expressed my bafflement that a game so charming, creative and innocuous could come from Ubisoft. Consider, though, how much lip we give Ubisoft games for always doing the tower-climbing routine. Then consider that Grow Home is essentially a game singularly about climbing a massive tower. The tower in question is actually a beanstalk, but you get my point. Maybe Grow Home isn't quite as out-of-character as we'd once assumed.

But I'm not down on climbing things in video games. I enjoy it, even. I enjoyed it in the original Assassin's Creed way back in 2007, and I still enjoy it today, however much that series has run the mechanic into the ground. If the immediate reward for slaying a massive boss is to watch an overelaborate death animation and then stand triumphantly over its corpse, then the immediate reward for a tricky platforming section should to be to gaze down on the land from which you were once looking up. Grow Home is all about that, set in one persistent level, where at any point the game's draw distance tells the full story of your journey up until that moment. By the time the game ends, you're miles into the sky and it shows.

The game certainly isn't light on smaller charms, either. There's the way your robot is procedurally animated, or the way climbing makes good use of the physics engine and actually takes work and focus. There's the low-poly-count simplicity of the game's visual style, or the delightful chirps and hums that comprise its audio component. There's the fact that Grow Home is rife with collectibles that are totally optional, only there if you're into that sort of thing, like I am. It all works so well, and with such a simple formula, that you have to wonder why it's so unique, or why it took Ubisoft to make it. A few more games and I might consider forgiving them for Assassin's Creed: Unity. Well, okay... a lot more games like this. (Review.)

3. Rocket League (PC)

If there's one game this year that's even more difficult to sell than Hand of Fate, it's probably Rocket League (though they're pretty evenly matched for bland, nondescript titles). In this case, though, it's less about the game being composed of unappealing elements and more about the setup being so simple. It really is just soccer with cars. It's really no more complicated than that.

Is it, though? I don't play sports games, nor do I play sports in real life, nor do I even really watch sports in real life aside from American football. So why does throwing RC cars into the mix make this so much more appealing? I think it's because it translates athleticism into a language I understand. I mean, let's not beat around the bush here: I don't play sports because I'm crap at them. I'm not fit, I'm not in shape, and I have poor reflexes. But driving a car with an Xbox 360 controller? That I can do. I've got plenty of experience with that.

It's rare for me to get terribly invested in multiplayer games, so it's probably not a coincidence that the one multiplayer game this year that I spent a lot of time with is one I'm actually kind of good at. Suddenly, all of the adrenaline rushes usually reserved for actual athletes I'm experiencing in my pajamas, at my desk, at three in the morning while snacking on Cheez-Its. Of the hundreds of Rocket League matches I've played, not a single one didn't, at least for a split second, make me feel like I belong on a varsity team. Credit to the game for also sticking to its strengths. There's no campaign, no story, no extraneous bonus modes, nothing beside the point. Just a terrific concept executed as perfectly as it can be. (Review.)

2. SOMA (PC)

Here's your proof that scores don't mean anything. I awarded SOMA four stars out of five, citing some disparity between its horror elements and overarching plot, and yet I honestly considered giving this the top spot, well above a number of higher-scoring releases. The plot really just got to me that much.

SOMA hasn't been getting much attention on year-end lists, and the optimist in me believes that this only means that more people need to play it (or finish it). If that's the case, I'm still staying quiet on where SOMA goes in its final act, and will simply say that this is the ballsiest, most affecting ending to a game that I've seen in years. Frictional Games' vision of the future is oppressively bleak, perhaps hopelessly so, and SOMA's conclusion inspires some very important questions about holding on when all is lost, and what we even define as "lost." Many sci-fi stories have pondered over whether or not machines can have souls, but few have so poignantly linked that question to humanity's own survival as a species.

This is the annual entry for games that I wouldn't call traditionally "entertaining" so much as depressing and introspectively exhausting (an honor previously bestowed to Spec Ops: The Line, Papers Please and The Banner Saga), but if you have a soft spot for imaginative, thought-provoking and ultimately uncompromising science fiction, I beg you to play SOMA while the statute of limitations on spoilers is still active. If you're at all like me, the ending will leave you staring at the credits with your mouth agape. (Review.) (Spoiler piece discussing the game's message.)

1. Bloodborne (PS4)

Some may call this choice a predictable one, but since I failed to recognize the brilliance of Dark Souls back when it was initially released (and since I wasn't doing GOTY articles back then anyway), this may be my first, last and only chance to acknowledge Hidetaka Miyazaki's work in such a manner. Even if From Software re-emerges from the rut of dark medieval fantasy after the release of Dark Souls III in a few months, it's unlikely that they'll even stumble upon a pairing as perfect as "Souls meets Lovecraft" again.

Seriously, how cool was it that they completely kept this angle out of the marketing? And how in keeping is it with the correlation between expanding knowledge and creeping dread found in the best works of cosmic horror? The Souls series' cryptic storytelling methods have become one of its defining characteristics; we enter one of these things anticipating a search for answers, and we know that From won't make it easy on us. But just as the characters at the heart of any great Lovecraftian tale come to realize that ignorance is bliss, the answers we find at the root of Bloodborne's mysteries prove infinitely more terrifying than a simple werewolf plague. It's a wondrous, dizzying downward spiral into madness.

In discussing where Bloodborne ranks among the other Souls games, I've heard plenty of arguments that I can't really disagree with -- that the RPG elements have been needlessly toned down, that farming for blood vials is a chore when you're stuck, that the visual style becomes a bit wearying after a while, that the Chalice Dungeons are awful, and so on. They're all valid points, but none of them can sully the fact that this is perhaps the best Lovecraftian story in a medium that also includes Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. It's a one-two punch that I never realized I even wanted until I had it. What a thrill it is to truly discover a Souls game again. Time will tell if Miyazaki and his team will ever be able to replicate this feeling, but it seems unlikely. Bloodborne is too perfect a formula. (Review.) (Post-script.) (DLC review.)

Now, here's the other stuff...

Most overrated: Her Story
Most underrated: I Am Bread
Most overlooked: Jotun
Most visually striking: Ori and the Blind Forest
All-out best-looking game: Mad Max
Best story: SOMA
Best writing: Undertale
Best character: Loader Bot (Tales from the Borderlands)
Best original soundtrack: Ori and the Blind Forest
Best licensed soundtrack: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Biggest surprise: Hand of Fate
Biggest disappointment: Halo 5: Guardians
Most enjoyable bad game: Pokémon Shuffle
Least enjoyable good game: Undertale
Game that I spent the most time with: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Tower of Guns
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Super Mario Maker
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Neoncube
Best game that I still haven't finished: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
All-out worst game that I played: Godzilla
Best non-2015 release that I first played in 2015: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Best remake/re-release: Rare Replay