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: Pok√©mon 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

2 comments:

  1. Fun to see you still making posts here, Suskie (where it all began?). Your writing continues to captivate, even someone like me who (because of a pending marriage and a budding but time consuming career) has mostly left behind modern gaming. I'm playing Xenoblade X and FFIV (because I can do so now on my iPad) but your list makes me want to play all of these immediately.

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  2. (a) I don't like Undertale and (b) that's a viewpoint that the vast majority of gamers cannot relate to! Haha, I love how Undertale gets the least enjoyable good game as well. I really hated it, but mostly because of that combat system. I do think it's a great game though, and deserves its many accolades.

    SOMA and Rocket League I still haven't got around to playing (nor The WItcher III, but that's another story...)

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