By thenesta 0 Comments
It seems like plenty of people walked away from 2014 with a sour taste in their mouths about games. I can kind of see it too, what with games like Shadow of Mordor, and Dragon Age: Inquisition walking away with the big wins. However I generally felt pretty positive about my list last year, particularly the front half of the list.
That said, I think you'd have to be pretty jaded to feel that way this year. 2015 seemed to have a little something for everyone, and I think you can tell just by checking the pulse of the gaming community that most people would agree. That's certainly been the case for me, as I arrived at the end of the year staring down a text document with at least 25 games I played that could potentially make my list.
However, staying true to the nature of my annual list, I'll once again be narrowing it down to the ten best games that I thought were my favorites this year. That was no small feat this year, as I scrambled to keep up with the heavy tail end of the year, and play as many games as I could.
A few things to note about my list before we began: First off, I'll once again be doing an ordered list this year. I'm forgoing the suspense of a countdown style of list in favor of something that reads more coherently. So yes, as soon as you scroll down you'll see my favorite game of the year, followed by 9 others ranked from top to bottom. Hopefully there will still be some surprises for you though.
Secondly, I'll be continuing what I started last year, and hand out a number of accolades to games that went above and beyond. So this will be things like “Best Soundtrack” and “Best Looking Game”. It's just a little thing that let's me award a game for some aspects I really enjoyed about them, aside from general enjoyment of the game.
Lastly. This year I'll be doing something a bit different. I will start each game with a short(ish) blurb about why it's on my list. Then there will be a huge spoiler block for each game that will contain my long-winded ramblings. The reason for this is twofold. One I'll be talking openly about spoilers, so if you want to avoid those for a particular game, please feel free. Secondly I feel like there's a case to be made for people who just want to look at a condensed list of games without having to dive deep into my rantings. But if you see something on here you'd like a more thorough explanation of, again feel free to give it a read! That's where the meat of this list is after all!
So for the next several thousand words, I hope you'll enjoy my ramblings about what stood out to me this year. As I said, I thought this was a real memorable year for games. 2016 is looking like it will be even better, so I can't wait to come back next December and do this all again. And once again, thank you to anyone that takes the time to read these things. For whatever reason I put a lot of time and effort into them. Not only do I spend hours writing them at the end of the year, but I also spend the entire year playing as much as I can to get a good sense of what's out there. It's a silly little thing I like to do, it gives me joy. So I hope at least someone is getting something out of it took. Thank you!
**NOTE**: I'll warn you once again, but if you choose to click the spoilerblock to read my full opinions on a game expect to see SPOILERS. I'll try to mark really big ones if you want to turn back at the last minute, but I'm going to speak freely. You've been warned.
Undertale is the culmination of one man's passion and talent for telling an engrossing story, with innovative gameplay that puts a new spin on the genre. The cast of characters are instant classics, and the game's soundtrack is the one that stood out to me the most this year. You'll laugh, you'll cry. You'll probably even get scared at some point. But no matter what you're feeling, Undertale is a game that has captured the hearts of many players this year. Mine included.
Let's talk about Undertale. As you can probably tell, it's my game of the year. So that must mean I really liked it. I do. But there's so much I've wanted to say about this game since it hit the scene back in September. So I hope you'll indulge me in what is sure to be an exercise in frustration as I attempt to piece together my thoughts on this game.
Surprise of The Year 2015: Undertale is a game that kind of came out of no where for a lot of people. Sure, it had a successful Kickstarter campaign. Whether the pitch was enough for people to get a hint at something special, or maybe riding on the coattails of the success and popularity of the webcomic Homestuck, it's hard to say exactly how Undertale got up and running. But I think the fervor around the game will show that this indie darling took the world by storm, in a year with massive titans of games as competition, somehow Undertale manages to come out on top.
For my part, my first exposure to Undertale, initially, was someone I follow on tumblr posting about Toriel from the Kickstarter demo. People were already affectionately calling her “Goat Mom”, but I guess the appeal was a little lost on me. Fast forward to September of 2015 when Undertale was released. It didn't take long for word to start spreading about this game. At first it was just kind of hushed whispers about this little indie gem that was starting to charm people into a frenzied fandom.
All it took was a few comparisons to classic JRPGs like Earthbound, and learning about the game's hook that you could play the entire game without killing anyone, and it shot up to the number one spot on my radar. I picked the game up for the low price of $10 USD on Steam, and started my journey through the Underground.
It didn't take long to see what all the fuss was about. By the end of the first night I had cleared the Ruins and had witnessed the heartbreaking encounter between Frisk and Toriel. On the second night I was introduced to the 'Bone Bros' Sans and Papyrus. And from there I ended each night with a feeling of wanting to keep going and see what would happen next.
By the end of my first playthrough, which was a neutral route (I killed some random monsters, but left all the bosses alive) and seeing that insane ending I knew that this game was going to be a favorite of mine. I immediately started a new playthrough, going for a full Pacifist run this time. And by the time I had finished that I was absolutely in love with the game. And finally watching the Genocide route on YouTube, determined that this was in fact going to be my game of the year.
But then something happened. Undertale became a massive force that threatened to overwhelm me. And ever since mid-Octrober I've been struggling to hold onto my feelings for the game, while balancing the exhausting nature of a fandom in overdrive.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know about Undertale. You've probably even played it at this point and have come to your own conclusions about it. There's no shortage of people out there to champion this game. It's very apparent that it strongly resonated with a ton of people over the past few months. And that passion for the game has had the inverse effect of turning some people away.
Trust me, I get it. It can be frustrating watching the internet collectively implode on itself over the same thing all at once. It's hard not to to feel fatigued when everywhere you look people are all talking about something. And the very picturesque nature of Undertale makes it very easy for people to share every aspect of the game. The feelings it stirs in people has caused no shortage of fanart, and tributes. There's countless memes, screenshots, remixes, quotes, and a general overwhelming presence on just about every corner of the internet for Undertale.
I think it's in people's nature to resist something they either don't understand, or aren't ready to commit to. You can look at the case of Undertale's popularity and see that very clearly. I've seen a lot of people on social media sites who have said they're “tired of Undertale”, usually without even playing it. I get that. I also get that the fervent nature of the community has made it next to impossible to avoid being spoiled by some aspect of the game. And that's a real shame, because going in as blind as possible probably has the highest turn out of “Holy shit, that was incredible!”. I've said it before, but I feel like there's a real weight, a real power to something that manages to surprise you, and Undertale was no different to me.
All I can say, is that I hope if you're one of those people sitting on the fence, or have written off the game completely because of overexposure – please reconsider. This game is a real treasure, and your stubbornness could very well cause you to miss out on a game that will be remembered fondly in the years to come.
And even saying that makes me feel a bit grimy. Because as much as I love Undertale, even I have grown tried of it in many respects. I look at that recent GameFAQs “Best. Game. Ever.” poll, and I see that the hype of Undertale has somehow earned it the title of best game of all time in some people's eyes. I look at that and I just sigh. Partly because even though I think this is an incredible game, I don't think that's true. And also partly because I think people are too in the moment. You need to let these things digest. You need time to reflect before jumping to your knee jerk conclusion.
I fell in love with Chrono Trigger the first time I played it, but I think it took years for me to realize that this was, and probably will always be my favorite game of all time. Undertale has been out for less than four months. It's too early to say, if you ask me.
And there's other aspects about its popularity that personally bother me too. Even though I pretty much got in on the ground floor, and fell in love with this game from start to finish before it became the tidal wave that it is now – I just started to get tired of it.
In October I convinced my best friend to play Undertale. For those two weeks it was the only thing I wanted. I wanted to share this amazing experience with my closest friend, so that the two of us could talk about it, and share our passion for it. It's happened many times before with Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Super Smash Bros. 4. as examples. Two games that not surprisingly topped my list because I shared a bond with the person I love the most over them.
That was no different with Undertale, and as I excitedly listened to every moment of her playthrough over Skype. Both of us sharing our feelings and genuine reactions to stuff that happens in the game, that just furthered my love for it.
But it was around that time things started to turn. Not only was Undertale starting to pop up all over the internet, everywhere you looked, but my friend was completely obsessed. Every day she talked about it. Every day she showed me fanart of it. She even had me write a series of fanfics for it. Needless to say, Undertale hype was intense.
And somewhere along the way I started to question it all. Was the game I played really worth all of this? Did I still feel the same way about it even though it was shoved in my face constantly? It was hard to hold onto my pure feelings of my time spent with that game. As each moment of it became an all too familiar sight. Like Groundhogs Day, I was reliving Undertale over, and over, and over again.
So what did I do? I basically gave it some space. It helped that my friend eventually started to cool down on it a bit. And slowly, but steadily I was able to enjoy Undertale again. I would see some cute fanart, or a funny joke related to the game, and then I would in turn share that with her. And suddenly I was just able to appreciate the game again.
Like I said, you look at that GameFAQs poll, and it's hard not to roll your eyes. But looking beyond that, I think you have to realize that this was a special event, and naturally people were going to be excited and passionate about it.
That's about all I have to say about Undertale as it pertains to an event that took place this year. Believe it or not, I do actually have some thoughts about the game itself.
Undertale is the right kind of game, at the right time. It's essentially in the spirit of an old school JRPG like Earthbound or The Mother series. It came to me in a time where I was really starting to wonder about that genre. For years now we've seen a pretty sub-par selection of traditional JRPGs, while some people have been able to enjoy the branching paths of that genre. I'll talk more about this as we go, but I think we're at a key point with the JRPG genre going forward into the next year, and I hope to see the genre continue to flourish in interesting ways.
Best Story of 2015: Part of the reason Undertale is such a return to form for JRPGs (or at least RPGs akin to the Japanese sub-genre) is that Undertale has a heavy focus on story. All told, you could probably see everything Undertale has to offer in 15 hours or less. But it uses that time wisely to tell an engaging story that isn't afraid to walk the line between silly and serious. Most people will come into the game, and fall for the hijinks between Sans and Papyrus early on. But by the time you're fighting the game's “true last boss” on the Pacifist route, you'll probably be reduced to a soggy sobbing mess.
It's not just Undertale's story that is so appealing, but also the way it isn't afraid to shake the genre up from a gameplay perspective. Undertale's combat is a mash-up of Shin Megami Tensei's negotiation system, a timing based combat system that's similar to something like Shadow Hearts, and more importantly the marriage of a bullet hell type shooter to that mix. The game's fresh take on combat allows every battle to feel like a fun little game as you dodge projectiles and try to appease your opponent peacefully.
Best Moment of 2015:The Sans Boss Fight – There was no other moment this year that shook me to the core like the Sans boss fight did. If you're unfamiliar, the only way to fight Sans is to be doing the completely awful (in a cruel way, not a quality way) Genocide run where you kill absolutely everything you come across. This playthrough of the game reaches its climax once you run into Sans in the hallway at the end of the game. Throughout the game we're teased with a little bit of Sans's true nature. He likes to play himself off as the fun loving, lazy jokester, but at several points you realize “Hey, this guy might be kind of creepy.”
That all comes to ahead when he challenges you to the final battle of the Genocide run. What follows is not only the most harrowing part of the entire game, but what has to be one of my favorite boss fights of all time. Make no mistake about it, this battle is tough as nails. The Sans fight will push you to your limit. It asks you to master all the aspects of dodging and dealing with mechanics that you have for the entire game up to this point. Even though your character has been an unstoppable killing machine in this route, Sans is one of two people who are going to put up a decent fight.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the entire battle is accompanied by one of the best songs in the game. And honestly I feel like even though the graphical fidelity of the game leaves much to the imagination, the battle unfolding around you paints a vivid picture of one of the coolest action sequences all year.
Aside from an amazing story, and really innovative gameplay. Undertale offers up even more reasons to fall in love. The game plays to its strength of relying on its inspirations to not only spark a sense of nostalgia for older gamers, but make those moments totally unique and fun on their own. The first time I got to the Opera scene with Mettaton I was blown away by how faithful an homage it was to Final Fantasy VI's famous Opera scene. It's moments like that really put a smile on my face.
And let's not forget the game's stellar cast of characters. There's plenty of NPCs to talk to, and they all have something humorous or interesting to say. Though the game's main cast is a little on the short side, each character is insanely memorable. It helps that most of these characters are boss battles after spending some time with them. When it ultimately comes time to face-off with them, I think most people would have a hard time pulling the trigger.
Best New Character of 2015:Papyrus – It's a real toss up between the 'bone bros' for me. But since I gave so much of a spotlight to Sans with my best moment, I guess I'll take the time to honor Papyrus as one of the best, most lovable new characters of 2015. From moment one you can see why he's a fan favorite. He's oblivious to a fault, but has a heart of gold. Papyrus is so innocent that I would argue that killing him in the Genocide run is harder to do then fighting Undyne The Undying, or Sans.
The early hours of the game, when you're going through Snowfall are a joy thanks in no small part to Papyrus. And by the end of that section of the game you have the option to date him. This hilarious mash-up of a dating sim and the Ace Attorney games offers up one of the purest moments of unadulterated joy you could find this year. It's also what finally convinced my friend to play the game (and later become obsessed with it).
All of that, and saying nothing about the game's soundtrack which is another amazing feat creator Toby Fox accomplished with this game. I was familiar with Toby's work from Homestuck, and I'm happy to say one of the strongest aspects of that property is readily apparent within Undertale from minute one.
Soundtrack of The Year 2015: It's really saying something when I'll buy a game, then immediately turn around and shell out the same amount of money I paid for the game to buy the soundtrack. Undertale's soundtrack is a wonderful collection of chiptunes that harken back to the glory days of the SNES, but with a modern twist. Toby Fox managed to produce a 101 track soundtrack that runs from charming and whimsical to downright exciting hype music.
Some of my favorite tracks include Spider Dance, which is the perfect companion piece to how adorable Muffet is. Also ASGORE, which is the theme to the game's initial final boss. It evokes the feeling of finally completing your long journey, while also setting the stage for a sad, unavoidable battle. And finally there's MEGALOVANIA which is the real star of the show. It's really telling that this seems to be Toby's calling card in all the work he's done, and it also serves as the most blood pumping adrenalin track you could hope for with the Sans fight.
Lastly, the one final element of Undertale that really seals the deal for me. It's Toby's creative use of manipulating the files and executable that make up Undertale. It can be something as simple as the fact that the name of the process actually changes when you're doing the Mettaton Opera scene. Or it can be something as sufficiently 'mind-fucky' as closing the game on you during your confrontation with Omega Flowey. The fact that the game will actually appear to crash, but it's all a part of the process is not only terrifying, but brilliant. It reminds me of an indie horror game that was played on Unprofessional Friday's a few years back. I think it's awesome that someone put that trick to good use.
Undertale doesn't just use these techniques as a way to shock you, but it also plays into the actual lore and story. Each time you finish playing the game, a character will remind you that you the player are ultimately in control of what happens. So if you get the happy ending where everyone can finally live in peace, but decide you want to reset everything and kill everyone – well that's on you. I think that is such a powerful mechanic, and it's ultimately the main reason I never wanted to try the Genocide run. I want to keep my save file safe and secure. I don't want anything to happen to Frisk and the gang.
Even crazier is some of the stuff you can see if you monkey around with some of the game's files. There's a mysterious character named W.D. Gaster that seemingly plays no role in the actual game, but this hasn't stopped fans from digging around to uncover surprise appearances and have endlessly speculation about how he relates to the other characters.
All in all, Undertale really is a special game. I went through some turbulent times with it, but in the end I'm able to look back on it and think “That's a damn good game.” I don't know what Toby Fox will do next, he has made comments suggesting that he wishes for Undertale to run its course, then quietly die off in the night. I think that would probably be for the best, and I will always cling to my memories of playing this game fresh. I just hope we get to see another project that is half as meaningful as Undertale, whether it be from Toby himself, or someone else.
Heavensward is a fantastic expansion to a game I showed interest in a couple years ago. Over the course of those two years, I fell in love with this MMORPG that captures the essence of what makes a good Final Fantasy game. And I'm glad that I had my best friend along with me for the ride.
"In my time with XIV, as I've said, I got to level 26 fairly easily just playing alone. I made a Pugilist named Argilla Prihtivi, a staple name I use in a lot of games where you create a character. During my short time in Eorzea I got a feel for the major starting cities, explored a lot of the beginning to intermediate areas. I got a feel for all aspects of the game, from it's combat which is fast paced and fun, to the game's unique crafting system which is strangely action oriented. I ran dungeons with random players on my server using the easy to use “Duty Finder” utility, and even made a few acquaintances along the way. All in all it was a very pleasant experience that reminds me why I can still invest hundreds of hours into this genre of game. I only wish that I had my friends there to enjoy it with me."
This is what I said in my Game of The Year list for 2013. At the time I was pleasantly surprised with the revamped Final Fantasy XIV, but I was lacking the key component of diving in deep with it: my best friend. At the time we were waiting on getting her a new computer that could actually run the game, and even after the fact it still took a few months to convince her to give it a shot. But finally in the summer of 2014 I started over in A Realm Reborn, and well…
Like I said, even at the time I thought FFXIV would be something special. I had a lot of nice things to say about it, despite the fact that it was at the very end of my list that year. And when me and my friend got heavily invested in the game last year, I knew I wanted to give the game its proper due. Thankfully the release of this year's expansion to the game, Heavensward, gave me just the opportunity.
I guess it's not entirely fair to say that Heavensward by itself is that much of an amazing game that it's holding the number 2 spot on this list. Though it's no slouch. It's a fantastic expansion that further improved the game's strengths and kept us hooked for half of the year. But I guess it's the overall experience I've had with this game as a whole that it resonates so strongly with me.
First of all, my friend, Zara, and I have our single character we play in this game. It makes sense, because one character can be, and do everything in the game. And with the ability to use items called Fantasias, you can even completely change how your character looks. And if you're willing to shell out some money you can even change the name. So really, it makes sense to stick to one character and be a master of everything.
But it goes a little deeper than that for us. My character is a male Elezen named Ariyon Cyranuce, and her character is a female Miqo'te named Veola Lumginyo. But this isn't where these characters first popped up. No, with a few alterations to modify ever so slightly how they look in FFXIV, these two characters are the same ones we used in Square Enix's first MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI. I'm going to talk more about FFXI in a bit, so just keep that in mind.
Anyway, to say that we're serious about our characters would be a bit of an understatement. Because we're both sad nerds, we have developed rich backstories, and personality for our characters. Our characters have a relationship, they're actually married in game. I won't go into detail about the personal aspects of my relationship with my friend, but in a way Ariyon and Veola are an extension of our relationship. I think out of any of our original characters, we identify with these two the most. To the point of having legitimate feelings for one another's character.
You can laugh at that if you want, I don't blame you. But I think it helps to explain why this game means so much to us. Separated from the core gameplay loop of FFXIV, which is essentially a pretty standard MMORPG. We value things about the game that other players might not. Veola, for example, has a huge collection of cute outfits she likes to wear, as well as dozens upon dozens of minions. We also have been bunking in our Free Company house all year, but are anxiously waiting to see if we can buy a house of our own as soon as tonight, the night that I'm writing this.
To us, Eorzea is a world to live in. It's a social hub, where even if we aren't doing core progression, we can usually jump on and just have some sort of fun. Again, many of these things are aspects of the game that many players don't even think twice about. But more often than not, I'm digging through patch notes to sniff out new cosmetics, and fun side activities to do.
But, you know, it doesn't hurt that FFXIV is actually a pretty good game on top of all that. Much like my impressions two years ago, I think FFXIV is a solid MMORPG. It has most of the modern conveniences you could want. It's accessible in a way that a lot of these games are not. And it's a polished experience that just keeps getting better over time.
I used to play every big MMO that came out. Most of the time I'd buy the game, dick around with it for a couple hours, then never touch it again. But FFXIV is the first one in a long time where I actually care about my investment in the game. All the progress I've made on my character feels good. And when I'm not enjoying the social aspects of the game, I'm usually enjoying the core mechanics. Usually, at least.
My biggest problem with FFXIV actually stems from my social anxiety, and awkwardness. It is extremely stressful for me to jump into groups with other players who are counting on you. I don't think I'm a slouch at the game, my Dragoon does what a Dragoon is supposed to do, and I usually avoid dying stupidly. But I wouldn't say I'm great either. I don't have the reflexes, or the attention span to be on the ball at all times. And sometimes that can make all the difference in the world. Zara and I have had some real shitty experiences on this game. Whether it be our fault for not being top tier players or not, it was always a source of anxiety.
And the worst part about it is when people start getting impatient with you. Overall I think the community in the game isn't too bad, but there's still going to be those players that expect pro-play every time they step into an instance. Even when it isn't end game content. I spent my first year of the game as a Paladin. A tank class that is responsible for taking the brunt of the damage for the team. I did alright at it, especially at first. But as I got closer to the end of the game, it became apparent I just wasn't cut out for it. And that made some people really angry. And as a result it made us really miserable.
Obviously these feelings are probably pretty common nowadays. The MMO genre might be waning, but stuff like MOBAs are bigger than ever. And we know how toxic those communities can be. It's a real bummer that your enjoyment of the game is so closely tied to how willing to cooperate a third party is. But it has its upsides too…
Best Multiplayer of 2015: Social aspects aside, when stuff clicks in FFXIV it really clicks. For every bad experience I've had with asshole players, I've had an amazing one that I shared with complete strangers. There's very little that is quite as thrilling and as rewarding as finally killing the final boss in the dungeon on your 8th attempt, when everyone is about to be kicked out of the instance because of the time limit. Or dreading that big important story battle with a giant sky whale, only to go in there and kick its ass on the first try. The highs of this game are only paralleled by a scant few other games I can think of. Like I said, when it works, it works.
Mirroring my sentiment of the original A Realm Reborn, Heavensward continues to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing games out there. Everything in the game is held together by stellar art design the combines new and fascinating things, with classic elements of the celebrated series. And the new music for the expansion is as beautiful and as inspiring as ever.
Heavensward itself offers up plenty of new things for players to sink their teeth into. Whether it be the new dragon people race, the Au Ra. Or the three new classes; Dark Knight, Machinist, and Astrologian. The new region of Ishgard is full of excitement.
And headlining that is, surprisingly, one of the best stories that any Final Fantasy game has ever had, let alone any MMORPG. For years I've been disappointed with Square Enix's output of Final Fantasy games. I'm willing to admit Final Fantasy XII is probably better than I give it credit for. But the repugnant trilogy of Final Fantasy XIII games all but ruined me on a series I loved growing up.
So imagine my surprise when XIV turned out to be the true Final Fantasy successor I'd been waintg a decade for. Sure, you might take some issues with the game itself. After all it certainly doesn't play like what you think of as traditional Final Fantasy. It is an MMORPG after all, warts and all. And the fact that it's mandatory to rely on other players to progress in the game might turn some off. But if you stick around, you'll find an amazing story.
Though it's evident that when A Realm Reborn first came out, Square Enix hasn't found their footing yet. Throughout the game's main story you get a few points of intrigue, and are introduced to somewhat interesting characters. But by the time those original credits roll, it leaves something to be desired.
However, Square got much better with this with each content update they put out following the game's launch. It just so happens that my friend and I took an extended break from the game once we had reached max level and finished the game's story. We needed to wind down after all that, and I was unsure of what I wanted to do since tanking wasn't working out for me. When we rejoined the game in February of this year, we got married, and then started playing catch-up.
See, we were excited about Heavensward, but the catch was that you had to finish the main scenario up through the end of A Realm Reborn in order to even step into the new expansion zone. So if we wanted to keep playing the game, we'd have to apply ourselves to catching up.
At times this was an arduous process. Even though I had changed to a DPS class, and things were ultimately a lot less stressful, we still had problems. We'd frequently run into gear checks, a built in wall in the game that forces you to improve your gear to proceed. There were times that even though we meant the minimum requirement, it still wasn't good enough because as the only two damage dealers in the party we just weren't up to par.
But we worked at it, and worked at it. And finally we were able to succeed. But I digress. Along the way the both of us started to notice something about the game. The story suddenly got a whole hell of a lot better. Suddenly we were hanging on every bit of dialogue, and being endeared by our favorite characters. The XIV development team must have found the sweet spot, because by the time it was ready for us to play Heavensward, we were an emotional husk after the final events of A Realm Reborn.
...and Heavensward only cranks it up even more. The story in Heavensward is just as engrossing as any single player RPG you might imagine. Maybe even more so if you're as attached to your own original character being a part of it as we were. There's plenty of lovable characters, and exciting moments to keep pushing you through some challenging content.
And also Heavensward is the first MMO that has ever made either of us cry. It's a ridiculous statement, but there's a character death about halfway through the story that comes out of no where and hits you like a ton of bricks. It just so happened to be one of our favorite characters in the game too.
If that isn't enough praise, I don't know what else I can tell you. I said that I'd talk about Final Fantasy XI a bit, so I guess I'll get that out of the way. I have a bit of a dodgy past with that game. I played it religiously for the first two years it was out. Even at the time XI was considered a really archaic game that was probably more trouble than it was worth. But it had a charm to it that almost made it worth enduring. Unfortunately my career in XI got cut a little short when real life drama with friends I played the game with got in the way of my enjoyment of the game. So I stepped away for about a decade.
A few years ago, in 2012, Zara and I rejoined FFXI and I started a new character, Ariyon. I was still conflicted about my feelings for the game, but it became pretty evident that Square Enix had changed the game for the better over the past 8 years. We played around with it for a month or two, got to a point where we'd have to start relying on other players, and stepped away from it.
But that was enough time to establish our characters as important to us. So when we played XIV it was just a natural extension of that.
Now fast forward to last month when a crossover event happened between Final Fantasy XI and XIV. After over a decade, Final Fantasy XI's story has concluded. And to celebrate that event, there was a limited time event in XIV where players got a good deal of fanservice if they had been XI players. This event was enough to kick start my nostalgia, and by the end of the month Zara and I had started playing XI again.
I know there's not much I should say about it, because it's a really old game, and doesn't have anything to do with game of the year. But it's still nice going back to that world, and seeing where everything started. Not just for our characters, but how far Square Enix has come in terms of developing these kinds of massively multiplayer worlds. Ironically, XI has since nearly eliminated the need to rely on other players. Despite the fact that the two of us are duo'ing the game, you could easily solo most of it's content now. And it's only taken us a month to get close to max level.
In the end. I just feel like Heavensward, or just Final Fantasy XIV in general is a celebration of that series I loved so much growing up. Not only is it heavily influenced by Square's first outing into an MMO, but it also conjures up all the feelings of nostalgia any fan of this series might have. And it's a damn good game.
Bloodborne might be a little too oppressive for me, but it's the best god damn playing game I've played this year. From Software made a bunch of smart design decisions that not only helped make this kind of game more fun than it's ever been, but also made it accessible to a whole new audience of people.
To be honest. I went through the majority of the year with the belief that Bloodborne was going to be my game of the year. But with the advent of Undertale, and me sorting out my feelings about Final Fantasy XIV, it fell to the wayside. I mean, the third spot on the list is nothing to scoff at to be sure, but it bears mentioning.
It might also bear mentioning that my opinion about Bloodborne shifted as time went on too. See it all comes back around to being caught in the moment, and given time to reflect. Bloodborne came out in March of this year, so I've had a pretty long time to consider how I felt about it. So here's my take.
Last year I gave my number 2 spot to Dark Souls II. I used that as an opportunity. to explain my history with the series, and how after many years I was finally able to get into Dark Souls. And I loved it. In fact Dark Souls (the first one) now ranks pretty highly on my Top 25 Games of All Time list now. Discovering a way to appreciate the Souls series has been a real highlight for me, and my experience with Bloodborne is no different.
I think one of my favorite things about Bloodborne, on a personal level, is that for the first time I streamed my entire playthrough of a video game online. Even though I don't think many people watched it, or even cared about it (much like this list you're probably not reading right now, heh) it still made the experience that much more enjoyable for me. Constantly being in the spotlight drove me to preform to the best of my ability. And I think it really shows, considering that I died less than 30 times throughout my entire playthrough. It was just a real fun thing to do. Recording that gameplay, and still being able to go back and relive it if I want to. Maybe it's some latent voyeuristic trait of mine, but I really liked it.
Best Gameplay Design & Mechanics 2015: Yep. From wins this award from me two years in a row. Remember how I talked about how very few games give the raw thrill you get when successfully completing a hard fight in FFXIV? Well Bloodborne, and the Souls games are number one on that list. It's impressive that even when you don't have to worry about preforming for a group of people, that the stress, and overwhelming sense of relief you get after beating a boss in Bloodborne is on that same level.
There's still plenty of people that will tell you the Souls/Borne games are too hard. It wasn't that long ago that I was one of those people. But I think From has really nailed the risk vs. reward aspect of these games. Every fight is a battle for your life. Valuable resources are always at stake. And the biggest fear of all is losing time to repeating something over and over again. But this tips the scales in such a way that when you finally do succeed, the rush you get is satisfying, not to mention addictive.
Speaking of the game being hard, that's always an interesting question about these games. It seems everyone has a different answer for which game is the hardest. I've seen the majority of people say that Dark Souls is the hardest, but for me it wasn't all that bad. But then I've seen people claim that Dark Souls 2 was 'baby mode', but then I died 300 times in that game, so… And at the end of the day I still can't crack Demon's Souls.
But honestly, I really do think that Bloodborne is probably the easiest, or at least the most accessible in the series. The changes they made to the combat go a long way. When we first heard that you wouldn't be able to use a shield in the game, it seemed like an impossible feat. But after a few hours with the game you quickly start to realize that the sped up combat, combined with the regenerating health mechanic make this game a lot more approachable than some of the previous games.
There's also the fact that things are a lot more streamlined. People will argue about this, but in my opinion Dark Souls II kind of suffers for having too many options available to you. Aside from needing to manage complex character builds (though thankfully there is an option to re-spec in that game) you also have a bunch of weapons that are just wasted potential.
In Bloodborne, you can't re-spec your character. But it's a lot harder to fuck up. And each weapon has value. There are less weapons, but when you take into account that almost every one has a second mode then you see that you still have a lot of variety. You also look at the Blood Vial system, and while I generally prefer the limited quantity of an Estsus Flask, you can easily farm Blood Vials and pop them off real quick.
If you're fast, and aggressive, it's a lot easier to stay alive in this game. And in the end I think all of those things make Bloodborne the best playing game in the series. It's encouraging then, to hear that they're taking some of those ideals into next year's Dark Souls III because I have a few gripes about Bloodborne.
The long and short of it is, I just don't like this world as much as the ones we've seen in the Souls series. Bloodborne trades its dark fantasy roots for Gothic Lovecraftian horror. At first I just didn't find these as aesthetically pleasing. After all, I'm a very dyed in the wool fantasy fan. I love the look of swords, and armor. In most cases I'll look at a design in one of the Souls games and vastly prefer it to something in Bloodborne.
But over the course of the year, every time I went back to Bloodborne I realized it was something a little deeper than just what I thought looked good. I'll be honest, Bloodborne is an oppressive, miserable game to spend time in. Not that the Souls games were ever bright and cheery, but there are degrees of separations between the fanciful world of Lordran, and Bloodborne's bleak and dreary as fuck Yharnam.
Last month I was playing the game in an attempt to get a character ready for the DLC, when suddenly I started to feel sick. I had been on a roll with my new character, stomping through the early parts of the game with relative ease. I had even been laid back, and relaxed, going as far as to sing along to 80's pop music. But then something just snapped.
Without warning I was feeling very anxious. Even though Flock of Seagulls was playing at full blast, I could only manage to mutter the lyrics as I controlled my character on screen. I quickly got to a good stopping point, and then turned the game off.
Now granted, that could have just been some random mood disorder or something, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized “Man, I just do not like being in that world.”. It's a shame really, because I think they've done some great stuff with establishing that world. And that isn't to say there aren't things in that game I find appealing. The Plain Doll for example is gorgeous. But yeah… I dunno.
It's been fun to see people get excited about Bloodborne. I think this game has single-handedly brought on more fans for this series, and these kinds of games. And that's a great thing, obviously. But in my mind, I'm hoping that Dark Souls III delivers what this game didn't, and am kind of dreading the eventual Bloodborne sequel because I know I'll have to play it.
So that's kind of a bummer for a game that's so high on my list. But aside from that personal, glaring flaw with the game, I really think it's one of the best in the series. From a gameplay perspective it just does so much right that it's hard to argue with. In fact the stuff I've learned in this game has already paid off in the older games. I recently played through the opening hours of Dark Souls again, and was playing a much more agile character that was usually forgoing the use of a shield. And you know what? I was kicking ass.
Bloodborne's take on horrific London might have left me feeling a little queasy. But It's also the most fun I've had playing a game this year. Get a feeling so complicated…
The Witcher 3 was the game that restored my faith in open-world games. Exploring its massive world for 300+ hours was a treat when you're rewarded with a new piece of gear, or an important story thread at every point. The game is also no slouch when it comes to audio/visual design, and the game boasts a fantastic cast of characters. This is probably my favorite western RPG I've ever played.
You know it's been a good years for games when you're on the fourth game on the list, and could see making a case for it also being game of the year. The Witcher 3 came at just the right time for me, and not a moment too soon.
I've brushed up against Andrzej Sapkowski'sThe Witcher series a number of times in the past. The first game was certainly a weird one, but not without its own merit. The second game is outstanding in its own right, but maybe fell a little short of CD Projekt Red's ambitions for the series. I've even read a few of the books! And actually I'm a really big Geralt fanboy. I think he's awesome (and sexy, but don't tell anyone!).
With that said, I feel like CDPR finally nailed it with The Witcher 3. It's a triumph in western role playing game design, and succeeded with its open-world in a time where I doubted very much if I was capable of enjoying such a thing ever again.
As an aside. At the very beginning of the year I played through Dragon Age: Inquisition. I was a big Dragon Age fan. I thought the first game was fantastic, and I'm one of the people who actually likes Dragon Age II (I liked it more than The Witcher 2 in fact!) But man, oh man, Inquisition is a pile of shit.
Without going into too much detail, I basically forced myself to hate-play my way through that entire game. I was tired of it at about 50 hours in. Let alone the 200 hours it finally took me to finish the game. There were a lot of things I didn't like about that game compared to previous Dragon Age games. The characters were awful, the story was middling, and most damning of all, the game just wasn't fun. One of the biggest problems I had with it was its sprawling open-world that felt like a chore to explore. I never had fun in that game after a point, it was just go from point a to b in an attempt to finish it as quickly as possible.
So you might imagine my hesitation to jump right into The Witcher 3. Another game in an established RPG series that was looking to go big with a giant open-world. I really wasn't looking forward to another 200 hour slog so close on the heels of my Inquisition playthrough.
Thankfully I was worried about nothing, because I enjoyed every second of my 300 (!) hours with the game, and then even paid $10 so I could play more of it.
The Witcher 3 succeeds in every way that Inquisition failed. The story is engaging from the word go. There were times when it was a struggle on how I wanted to play the game, if only for the fact that I was torn between advancing the main story, and doing more side quests.
Because not only is the main story fantastic, but most of the side quests in the game also provide a nice little story for you to sink your teeth into. Whereas in most games like this, I'm content with talking to an NPC, jamming the button to get through the dialogue, and go complete the quest. I actually took time to listen to, and pay attention to what was going on. Sometimes it was really funny! But it was usually always interesting in some way.
It's hard to have a really good story without good characters though, but again, The Witcher 3 delivers on that with spades. Geralt's love interests are all great in their own right. Whether you think Geralt X Yenn is the OTP. Or you just wanna get a little fiery with Triss. There's an argument to be made for any of them. Not just as objects of your affection, but as badass Sorceresses who usually give Geralt a run for his money. On the subject of love interests, my personal favorite is Shanni from the Hearts of Stone DLC. She's a returning character from the first game, but her performance here is magical. Even if she herself doesn't wield and magical arts herself.
In fact one of my favorite parts of the game comes from the DLC, and that's when Geralt is possessed by the spirit of Vlodimir von Everec. During this time Geralt (as von Everec) is attending a wedding with Shanni. The reason I love this part so much is a) that I legitimately think it's the best piece of content they've made for the game so far. And b) I felt like it helped me understand aspects I really liked about this game better.
For one, its Shanni's time to shine. As you go around this podunk wedding competing in the rural rituals you really get a sense for her character as she interacts with Vlodimir. By the end of the evening you've witnessed a bittersweet date between two people in a peculiar situation. Similarly I think Geralt's voice actor Doug Cockle sells these scenes with his performance as Vlodimir by way of Geralt's body and voice. You can really tell that it's a different character behind the wheel, and it makes for some really amusing moments.
The reason this is important is that I think it helped me understand what I like in an RPG protagonist. I like the fact that Geralt is an established character, with his own personality and backstory. I think it's still important that you have player agency. Being able to make decisions along the way helps you get engaged in this world and story. But I feel like I enjoy it far more than the blank slate approach a lot of games take.
I realize that leaves me with more than a few contradictions. Chrono Trigger, Persona 3 & 4 are some of my favorite games of all time. But the protagonist. in those games are basically an avatar for your character, not really any different than your standard Bethesda 'create-a-character'. I also talked at length about how my Final Fantasy XIV character is important to me, but only because I spent so long making up a story for him.
So I don't think it's impossible to do the blank, silent hero thing right. It works in some cases. But the fact that Geralt is both a character I really adore, and also my presence in that game just feels right to me.
There's more to love about The Witcher 3 though. There's even more characters I could talk about. Like Ciri who is one of the best new characters of the year. The fact that she's more of a badass than Geralt is scary. There's also the game's incredible soundtrack. It's not typically my jam, but there are some great instrumental pieces in the score that really sell this as a grim fantasy world. There's even a couple pieces of music that legitimately make me uncomfortable with how eerie they are. Any time your dealing with the Bogwitches it's an audio/visual… uh… treat.
I'm even one of those people that actually enjoy the combat in this game. I know it's no Bloodborne (but what is, really?) but I feel like this is the best a western RPG's combat has been. Oddly enough I think some of the boss fights in the game have a very Dark Souls vibe to them, and that can only be a good thing.
Hell, I even enjoy the Alchemy and Crafting mechanics. These tend to suffer from the game's admittedly poor interface (though it has gotten significantly better over time) but I dunno, there's just a simple joy to them. Crafting armor and weapons is one thing. Not only does it satisfy that loot lust, but it appeals to the fashionable side of me. But the Alchemy… I really can't explain that one. I mean, I enjoy the whole potions, tonics, and oils system of the game. Even if I tended to stick to the same ones for large stretches of time. But there's just… something about collecting those recipes and scratching them off the list that I found fascinating.
About the only thing I can really complain about with The Witcher 3 comes down to technical stuff. In a disappointing trend, even my newly acquired PS4 wasn't up to the task of running this game nearly as well as its PC counterpart. In addition to that, things got really… weird with the post release updates to the game. It seemed like CD Projekt Red was always taking one step forward, and two steps back with the updates they released throughout the year.
Though I am happy to report that as of a few months ago when I played Hearts of Stone, the game seemed pretty on point. With the exception of some long load times during a boss encounter that had a nearly instant death mechanic.
The Witcher 3 proved to me that open-world games can still be enjoyable. But it's not something I expect to happen a lot. The only way this game kept me occupied in this world for over 300 hours was because every part of it felt rewarding. If it wasn't a cool new piece of loot, it was a juicy story bit. And that to me made all the difference.
5. Yakuza 5
Yakuza 5 marks the return of the crazy JRPG/Brawler hybrid in the west. It's been four years since the last proper Yakuza game was localized, but Yakuza 5 makes an incredible first impression. If you like any of the following: JRPGs, Brawlers, Anime, Crime drama, or… Shenmue…? You owe it to yourself to check out this game.
Kazuma is back, baby!
I've been a fan of the wacky Yakuza series for a while now (is this series really 10 years old now? Christ). It's a crazy action JRPG disguised as a realistic looking Japanese crime drama / brawler. But make no mistake about it, these games are anime as fuck.
And that's not a bad thing, if you either like anime, or are just capable of having some fun. The Yakuza series always delivers (Dead Souls never happened, alright?) with frantic action, and ridiculous drama that leaves you on the edge of your seat. And Yakuza 5 is no different.
I guess it should be noted that things were looking pretty grim for Yakuza for a while there. Believe it or not, it's actually been four years since Yakuza 4 was released here. So we haven't seen a Yakuza game in the west in a while (Dead Souls didn't happen.) At the same time, Sega continued to pump the series out in Japan, and I think many fans were starting to wonder if we'd ever see those games.
While I think we'll still be missing the spin-off games (Dead Souls didn't happen), it's looking promising that we might see the rest of the main-line games. We're even getting Yakuza 0 next year, so let's hope sales are good and we don't end up in another drought!
Anyway, Yakuza 5 is the first of three games on my list that I sadly could not complete before the end of the year. Believe me, I tried. But trying to balance three massive games like spinning plates just didn't work out. With that said, I'll tell you that I got to the end of Part 1, so the opening segment of the game where you play as Kazuma (think of it as the first 10 hours, if that's easier for you.) But from what I saw I don't have any reason to believe this game is going to disappoint me. And so far it has been awesome.
It's hard to say what my favorite thing about this series is. Because I genuinely think the combat is amazing. In terms of mechanics, it's a pretty basic brawler setup. But thanks to an RPG progression system it feels a little more weighty than it might otherwise. In addition to that the animations on these fights are just insanely satisfying. I'll never get tired of Kazuma leaning down, grabbing a guy on the ground by his head, and then proceeded to rub and mash his face across the asphalt. I get excited every time, every time.
But then there's the story, and that might be even better! I'm a big fan of shonen manga/anime, and the Yakuza series plays heavily on tropes found in that genre. You have the badass with a heart of gold. You have a sense of comradery, which is usually established after beating the crap out of your new friend. You have these ridiculously dramatic moments where people are constantly betraying one another, or someone more powerful shows up.
So far my favorite moment in Yakuza 5 has been at the end of Part 1 where Kazuma fights an entire gang of armed Yakuza by himself. They are literally firing rockets at him at one point, and he just deftly dodges to the side. It's the crazy setpiece moments like that (or punching a fucking tiger in the face in Yakuza 2) that make this series so appealing to me.
If that's not all, the Yakuza games are chock full of side activities you can do. Yes, there are side missions that you can do too, but then there are just some… things you can do outside of the game's progression. This has always been the case with this series, but I think Yakuza 5 cranks it up to eleven.
In Kazuma's part of the story he's working incognito as a taxi driver. So of course there's taxi events you can do. One of them is like a really cautious version of Crazy Taxi where you ferry your passenger to their destination while following traffic laws. And then the other event you can do with your taxi is crazy Initial D styled races. For those unfamiliar, just think of Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift.
Not only can you do these ridiculous races (which are surprisingly fun!) but you can customize your taxi with decals, tune it up, exchange parts, and select which music you want to listen to. (And yes, in case you were wondering, Daytona USA's “Let's Go Away” is one of the songs you can play). There's a certain twisted satisfaction I got out of tricking out Kazuma's cab with pictures of his adopted daughter who is now a pop idol. Yeah, this game is crazy.
But I think the moment where I was really like “Oh shit, really?” was when I went to play Darts, and you could actually customize your darts. Like, what the fuck? Are you for real with this? Well, okay then! I know that the other parts of the game take place in different cities with you playing as different characters, so I hope there's even more zany shit to do in the game.
Aside from all that, you've got the hostess clubs (with authentic Japanese women!), Karaoke, you can go play Virtua Fighter 2 in Club Sega, and you can even play some pachinko, though god knows why you'd want to.
I saw someone say it before, but I've just started to realize the truth of the matter. Sega fans have been upset for so many years that Shenmue went away. And while we do have Shenmue 3 finally coming in some form… Yo, Shenmue never went away. It was just rebranded as Yakuza. These games scratch all the same itches that those Shenmue games did, but the difference is that the combat is actually good, and the story and dialogue isn't a stilted mess. And believe me when I say this, because I'm also a big Shenmue fan. I think those games are special and important in a way that people don't like to give them credit for anymore. But, yeah… you all should have been playing Yakuza this whole time if you haven't already.
Yakuza 5 made a really strong impression on me in the early hours of the game. I cannot wait to get back to it and see where this crazy story goes. I also hear that one of the chapters consists of you playing out Haruka's idol career. So that could either be amazing, or awful. Or both. Also just for the record, Kazuma Kiryu is a hot old Japanese dude. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Trails in The Sky SC is the highly sought after sequel to Trails in The Sky that fans in the west have been clamoring four years for. If you ever loved a classic JRPG series, but felt that games got too technical, and less story focused then this is the game for you. And if early impressions are anything to go by, then this game is going to be a keeper.
Man, how about that Trails in The Sky ending? I'm sure glad I only had to wait two weeks to find out what happens next! Oh… uh… yeah, sorry about that. I got to this series a little late.
Back in 2011 a little game called Trails in The Sky came out. It was the first in a series of games known as Kiseki in Japan. At the time the game built up a nice little audience, because here was a little gem on the PSP that called back to the days of classic traditional JRPGs. But there was one little problem. The game ended on a massive cliffhanger. So when did the next game, Trails in The Sky SC come out in the west? Um… two months ago. Yeah…
So if you're one of those people that played that game four years ago, and have been waiting for the resolution to that story. I'm sorry. I really am. That must have been terrible. Not only did it take so long, but there was that constant nagging doubt that it might never happen.
Another thing you should know about Trails in The Sky, is that the localization process was a massive undertaking for XSEED. Now there's a bunch of good resources you could go read about the localization process, and the drama surrounding it. But here's what you need to know: Trails in The Sky SC (just the second game)'s script is longer than War and Peace, by about 120,000 words. That's… a lot if you didn't know. Also the localization ran into some major hurdles during the years that it was being worked on, and at one point some very dedicated people at XSEED had to basically go over and rewrite large portions of that translated script.
All of that on top of the fact that the first game didn't sell particularly well on account of it being… well on the PSP. Thankfully there's a light at the end of the tunnel though. XSEED has since moved onto putting a lot of their games on Steam, where I understand they do quite well for themselves. SC was finally released at the end of October. And XSEED is bringing out more games from the Kiseki series, with the newest one being Trails of Cold Steel which released on the Tuesday of the time I'm writing this.
So with that history lesson out of the way. What's my story with Trails in The Sky? Well, basically I played the game when it came out in 2011 for PSP, but I never got terribly far in it. I tried restarting several times, and each time was met with an abrupt end. In 2014 XSEED announced that it would finally be bringing SC out in the west, and in addition to that I picked up Trails in The Sky when it was released on Steam later that year.
However, I once again didn't make it too far. And please understand, I tried for years to like this game. Why? Because the writing on the wall. People I knew and respected talked about this game series alongside classics like Suikoden. So I knew deep down that there had to be something there. Plus you look at the series legacy in Japan. It was apparent that there was a new long running JRPG series that was just waiting for it's chance to make a splash in the west. It's just unfortunate that the first attempt with the PSP wasn't so hot.
It's also unfortunate that Trails in The Sky is the definition of a “slow burn.” Part of the reason it took me so long to finally get invested in it, is because the front half of FC (First Chapter) kind of meanders a little. FC as a whole is kind of the setup to SC (Second Chapter)'s story, but the first 20 or so hours of FC are even more sluggish than the latter half which eventually picks up with its own contained story.
I've seen people who are Kiseki fanatics who have said they had problems getting into FC, and I even know some people who say FC is one of the weakest entries in the series. Which is kind of crazy, because… about half way through that game it finally clicked, and I thought it was awesome.
But that's FC. That was a 2014 game at best. So instead I'm telling you that SC is my sixth favorite game of the year. And now's also the time where I have to tell you that I haven't finished SC. As of last night I'm about halfway through Chapter 3, which is where I hear the game really starts to pick up.
Now unlike Yakuza 5, which just made a really strong impression on its own. I'm kind of winging it with SC. I'll say that I have enjoyed what I've played of SC so far, but it has yet to reach the heights of the late game parts of FC. So it's kind of in good faith that apparently shit starts popping off shortly after the part that I'm at, that I'm putting SC on this list. If anything though, I imagine I'll want to have ranked it higher by the time I'm done with it.
Anyway, what is there to say about SC? Or just Trails in The Sky in general? It certainly fits the bill of “classic style JRPG”. The turn based battle system has a few unique mechanics to it, but it isn't anything we haven't seen done better somewhere else. That said, I've had some pretty amazing boss battles over the course of the two games that really came down to the wire and required me to pull out all the stops to win. As long as those are boss battles, I'm always down to party like that.
The problem lies more so in that the normal encounters of the games act more as speed bumps than actually anything entertaining. A lot of them boil down to the same strategy, and there's a lot of them! I think the game already has a mechanic to offset this, but unfortunately you don't always have the tools for it. For one, similar to the Suikoden series, there's kind of a “soft cap” on exp. Once you reach a certain level that character will stop earning much exp per battle. Similarly it's an easy way to catch up other party members because they will receive a lot of exp until they're caught up.
There are also means of avoiding so many battles, and seeing as how it becomes kind of pointless to fight them all after a point it would be nice if these methods were more readily available. I hate to say it, but I'm starting to feel like this traditional style of combat has started to lose its luster when it's so basic, and frequent. It makes me wonder if I would rethink some of my favorite games.
On the other side of things, I think the biggest reason the normal battles are a problem is because you want to get to the next story beat. And here's where these games really shine. You remember how the main Suikoden series had this one big world that all the games took place in? And even though each game was self contained, you could usually find a lot of connections to other games in the series? You know how they were able to create a world that had rich lore and characters, locations, and organizations that you could actually care about? Yeah, Trails in The Sky does all that.
And it's not just Trails in The Sky, but all the Kiseki games take place in this same world, and feature returning elements from the other games. Obviously I can't speak to this too much yet, but it's another thing that kept me coming back to try and connect with this series.
I told you that SC's script is longer than one of the longest novels in the world, right? Well it really shows, because there is so much dialogue in this game. It can be overwhelming at times. But it's almost always worth it. Over the years I've developed a few problems with JRPGs. One was taking the time to talk to random town's folk. They just never had anything interesting to say. Another was when games got too wordy. (I'm looking straight at you Golden Sun).
However Trails in The Sky sidesteps all of that. How, you ask? Simple. It's just really good writing, and localization on XSEED's part. Almost every NPC in these two games have names, and a life, and their own story going on. If you pay attention you'll notice them popping up again and again during your travels. This is especially effective when you're playing SC and catching up with people from the first game.
And also, while the game certainly contains a lot of dialogue, none of it feels bad. Again, you look at a game like Golden Sun, and you basically have two characters echoing each other and reiterating the same dialogue over and over ad nauseam. Trails in The Sky uses that time to offer character development. So even though there's a long conversation going on, it's written in such a way that you're getting to know the characters better. It's almost akin to a Visual Novel in a way, where it's actually really enjoyable to read the story and see the events unfold before you.
Speaking of character development. These characters really start to grow on you. The game's main heroine Estelle is easy to like. She's a tough, spunky young girl who's a bit of a tomboy, but has a really cute, endearing side. You combine that with her counterpart Joshua who is the calm, quiet, cool type and you get some really good interactions. I've found that over the course of these two games my opinions on certain characters changed drastically. At first I didn't like Agate, but now I think he's a real sweetheart.
There's other highlights like everyone's favorite Olivier who can usually get a chuckle out of me ranging from a grin to laugh out loud moments. There's Kloe, who, honestly I don't know what it is about her, but I have the biggest crush on her right now. Then in SC you have newcomers like Kevin who make a strong first impression. And fucking total hotties like Campanella who I can't wait to see more of.
At the end of the day, I have high expectations for SC. I can only imagine it will meet them, as I've grown quite fond of what some people consider the weaker of the two games. And I'm excited about the Kiseki series going forward. My Collector's Edition of Trails of Cold Steel is in the mail, and I can't wait to crack into that next year. And all I can hope for is that the series continues to flourish over here, and we see some of the other games make their way over too.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is the true, refined version of what Xenoblade Chronicles set out to do. It may be lackluster in the story and character department, which is a bit sad to a longtime Monolith Soft fan, but it more than makes up for it with a game that is genuinely a blast to play, not to mention addictive as hell.
I feel like every game on my list deserves a little explanation about where I'm coming from it at. Xenoblade Chronicles X is no exception. Back in 2011 I imported a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles from Europe for the Wii. I had specifically gone through the process of putting custom firmware on the console so that I could play this one import game. And could you blame me? Xenoblade Chronicles was kind of a hot topic back then. It was part of the whole Operation Rainfall movement to get it, and two other games localized in the west and released in North Amercia (as the case was for Xenoblade Chronicles). Out of those three games, the biggest one was undoubtedly Xenoblade.
And what about my personal stake in wanting to play that game? I've been a huge fan of the “Xeno” series of games for a long time. (Yes, I realize that they're not really part of the same series. But a lot of the creative staff at Monolith Soft was responsible for the original Xenogears, and moved onto the spiritual successor Xenosaga. And then Xenoblade has nothing to do with those games, but they slapped the “Xeno” name on their for good measure. Just so you know, I know.)
Xenogears is still in my top 5 games of all time, and Xenosaga Episode I and III aren't far behind. There was a lot to love about those games. They were ambitious anime styled sci-fi JRPGs with heavy religious and human nature undertones. Not only were they stylish and fun to play, but they boasted this epic story that was going to be told across like seven games. It didn't work out like that, and in some cases it's just bad (I'll make no excuses for the second disc of Xenogears) but it still worked in a way. I've replayed those games so many times, and the prospect of a new game from that studio was too tempting.
Unfortunately the reality of the situation was that I was kind of disappointed with Xenoblade Chronicles. My friend likes to say that a large part of my distaste from it comes from the fact that I watched him play a large portion of it when we were roommates. So the story beats didn't hit me the same way, or I was just burnt out on it by the time I was trying to play through it. While I think there's some truth in that, I think it goes a little deeper than that.
For one, gone was the epic sci-fi story that we got with Xenogears and Xenosaga. The game has a much different tone to it, and its story is kind of its own thing. I will say that in light of Xenoblade X (more on this later) the story was actually there in Xenoblade, whether you liked it or not was another matter.
But no, I acknowledge the things that game did right. Which might even include some of the story beats they were going for. It's hard not to appreciate the first time you step out onto The Guar Plains and that music kicks in as you survey this giant lush environment. And the game had its own ambitions. It was trying to do something with its combat that had been attempted with Final Fantasy XII. Neither of those are bad system per say, but they could have used a little bit more work (*hint hint*)
I'll even admit that I warmed up to the extremely British voice cast of the game. The first time around it was all I could do to keep my sanity from the sheer amount of calls during combat, but now we have “I'm Really Feeling It” and “It's Reyn Time!” and all those fun samples that just make me laugh.
Still, the game never clicked with me. I bought another copy for Wii when it came out in the states. But didn't get much further than I had before. And earlier this year I, for some reason, bought the 3DS version of the game. I will say that I did at least make some decent progress that time, but still nowhere near done with the game. And I still don't feel particularly fond of it.
So, finally we get to Xenoblade Chronicles X. I thought the game looked cool ever since it was announced, but I could never shake the suspicion that it was just going to be Xenoblade Chronicles all over again. So I watched, and I waited, and I wondered. Impressions of the Japanese release, as well as reviews of the western release made me question it even more, but I was determined to try it all the same.
So does Xenoblade X fix everything that was wrong with Xenoblade Chronicles? No, it doesn't And in fact it actually makes some things worse. But that isn't to say it doesn't fix some stuff, and I'm here to tell you that those improvements have not only kept this game from being a disappointment, but earned it a spot on my game of the year list.
For a change of pace, let's get the negative stuff out of the way first. Any problems I might have had with Xenoblade Chronicles pales in comparison to the utter disappointment that is X's story. Yes, this is the third and final game I wasn't able to complete before game of the year, and yes, I'm still early on in the story (I've cleared up to Chapter 5). But I really don't get the impression that the game is going to turn things around anytime soon.
Unlike Trails in The Sky, each time I'm forced to watch a cutscenes, or talk to the characters in this world, it's a chore. There are a few quirky NPCs here and there, but so far I haven't seen anything remotely interesting enough to care about. The story just seems to be there to help guide you along your exploration of Mira, but in some ways I wish it wasn't even there.
And the characters? Boy… they sure are… characters, I guess? Your main character is a mute hero or heroine who has no personality whatsoever (maybe on account of being mute I guess.). That leaves the two other main characters. Elma who might as well be a piece of cardboard. And Lin who is admittedly the best of the bunch, but she's not much more than a walking anime trope (which isn't always a bad thing, mind you). The rest of your crew is filled out by side characters who seem even blander and play even less of a role in the overall story. And Tatsu, who is a piece of shit.
So, uh… why exactly is this game on my game of the year list? Well, it's everything else about the game that has improved dramatically over Xenoblade Chronicles in my opinion.
I compared X to Trails earlier and said that the story was a chore. Well on the flip side of that, where the combat can be kind of a slog in Trails, the combat in Xenoblade X is actually a hell of a lot of fun. When I played Final Fantasy XII, and Xenoblade Chronicles, I didn't outright hate the combat system. I thought there was something to it, something that scratched the same itch MMO combat does. So as it turns out, if you refine those systems and have them reach their full potential, you actually get something pretty outstanding.
Every moment out in the wilderness of Mira has been a joy. Whether I'm wandering around Primordia hunting for items like a scavenger's hunt. Or fighting horn bird monsters in Noctilum. Or even just running around trying to figure out where the next probe location is – it's all been a blast. There's also something addictive to it, as I've had a hard time putting the game down at times. I'm about 30 hours in, and as you can probably tell from my story progress I've just dumped a ton of time into exploring and doing side quests.
I think there are some comparisons to be made here with other games I really like. The most obvious is, as I said, the game has a general sense of MMO combat to it. But there's something snappy and frantic about it that makes it more entertaining than simply clicking hotkeys… even though that's essentially what you're doing. In a stress-free situation where I can afford to spend time worrying about attacking the enemy from the back or the side, it adds a little spice. And even the short QTE prompts help keep you on your toes during an extended fight.
But maybe more striking to me is how the game reminds me a lot of Phantasy Star Online. PSO was a game that I played obsessively for like two years. It was the first time I remember pulling an all nighter, and running through the same maps over and over again with the friends I made on there. While Xenoblade X has multiplayer elements (which I'd like to hopefully try at some point) it's really more of the feel of the game that gets me all warm and nostalgic.
It helps that the setting is similar in a way. You're on an alien planet with a bunch of indigenous monsters to slay. The general aesthetic design of the characters and equipment strike a similarity to PSO as well. But maybe most importantly is just the fact that I don't mind going out, running around these areas, and completing menial tasks over and over again.
Best Looking Game of 2015: There were some good looking games this year. I feel like Bloodborne and The Witcher 3 both brought a level of technical prowess and good art design together to make an impressive showing. But nothing hit me in quite the same way Xenoblade X has. You can debate about the character models (I can usually be found in the middle regarding them fondly in the way I did with Xenosaga, but also thinking they look more like a doll then The Plain Doll) but what you can't argue with is the game's world and all the creatures that inhabit it. The first time you're up high and looking over the rolling vista of Primordia is one of this year's best moments. Then you jump down, and it's so authentic looking that you immedtiatley develop a pit in your stomach, as your butthole puckers up and you brace for impact. And of course all the crazy fauna on Mira are some of the most impressive looking monsters in any game. All of this and it's running buttery smooth on the Wii U. But I guess Nicalis can't get The Binding of Isaac to run properly on Wii U hardware. So I must be dreaming, right?
That's the kind of treadmill many developers wish they could reproduce in their games. But unfortunately nowadays the signals get crossed and published try to incentivise longevity through microtransactions and other shady bullshit that acts as a time sink. Xenoblade X doesn't need to do that, it doesn't need to try and create some sort of purposely placed time sink. It just is one. If you play the game, you'll probably just end up playing it for a really long time, because… get this… it's fun.
In addition to the core gameplay just being an enjoyable way to spend your time, the game also dangles multiple carrots in front of you. The easiest way is by putting in loot and a progression system. But much like PSO did in the past, it works. When you're out in the field doing your thang' you're constantly working towards the next reward. You'll eventually get better loot that either looks cool, or is just a really good piece of equipment. And the way the class system is, you're always working towards ranking up so you can acquire new attacks, and traits.
All of this comes across as extremely well designed in a way that's almost shocking. As I've said, PSO did a lot of this 15 years ago, but to think that current Monolith Soft (hell, let's not kid ourselves, even old school Monolith Soft) was capable of making a genuinely awesome playing game that marries western open-world design with I guess “hunting” games? It's really impressive.
I would also be remiss not to mention the soundtrack, which is done by Hiroyuki Sawano, who has done incredible work in recent years with anime like Kill la Kill, Attack on Titan, and Aldnoah;Zero. In particular the Kill la Kill influences can be felt heavily on this soundtrack. There's a lot of amazing tracks on the OST ranging from majestic pieces that play as you run across rolling fields, or Sawano's perchance for funky hip-hop mixed with pretty vocals. The only downside to the soundtrack are both the daytime, and the nighttime theme in New LA. Maybe just because everything about the game has to be terrible when you're in the city. (Though, don't tell anyone, but I'm kind of warming up to both songs in the same way I did with Xenoblade Chronicle's voice actors.)
Oddly enough, there's one last point I'd like to make about Xenoblade X. And that its localization was handled by 8-4 Ltd. Now if you've read any of my lists before, you'll know that I've talked these guys up big time. I think that their work on games like NieR and Fire Emblem: Awakening help make those games what they are. So, it's odd, not to mention a bit distressing that even though they've been hyping up this project for a while (I've no doubt it was a massive undertaking), that I'm ultimately left feeling… disappointed? I realize they had to work with what they had there, but aside from menu translations and the like, I'm getting absolutely nothing out of their work if I just mash through dialogue as fast as I can, right? And on a recent podcast, it sounded like they were throwing projects like their work on the Tales series under the bus in favor of this game. And I just… no…
Regardless, Xenoblade X is certainly a surprise for me. It's a bummer that Monolith Soft still hasn't been able to rekindle my interest in their storytelling, but if you ask me the realization of the mechanics laid out in Xenoblade Chronicles is more than enough to make up for that. I look forward to spending many more hours with X going forward.
Life is Strange looked like an embarrassingly written teen melodrama at first blush, but upon given it a chance I realized that there was a real craft being applied to the story telling here. If you like time travel stories then Life is Strange makes a case for these kinds of adventure games and a reasonable episodic release schedule.
It seems like every year there's a game that comes out, that is initially really off-putting to me, but eventually wins me over. While Life is Strange might not have made as big of an impact as something like NieR, it did prove to be the best adventure game I played this year. Which is a good thing, because I've been in kind of a drought after last's year wealth of visual novels dried up.
Life is Strange is kind of an unlikely game of the year for me, because its setting is just so outside my comfort zone. And indeed, the first time I watched the Quick Look, and even when I first started playing the game myself, I couldn't help but gag a little bit and roll my eyes into the back of my head from all the… teen-isms.
It's been a while since I've been that age. I don't look back on myself at that time particularly fondly, And even then I was never like these kids are. A lot of tween/teen media is kind of repulsive to me, and I just don't like it in general. That said, Life is Strange overcomes that obstacle, for me in any case, by delivering an incredible time travel story, with excellent writing and characters. By the second episode I didn't even care if someone would say something like “Go Fuck Yourselfie.”.
The characters and the story transcend that setting in a way that I think few things can successfully do. Most of the time something like that would be the game's identity. But it really does just become the setting after the first few hours. Try as the soundtrack might to remind me that this isn't something I'm typically into.
I mean, real talk. The soundtrack is so awful. And I realize everyone has their own tastes in music, and it can be more divisive than games even in a lot of cases. But this soundtrack, at least the stuff with vocals is so nauseating to me. I felt that way about Gone Home too. Ultimately I don't think it detracts from the game too much, but just to give you an idea. I usually listen to each game on my list's soundtrack when I write about that game, that's not the case with Life is Strange.
But I digress. I'm sure I talked about my love for time travel stories with last year's Steins;Gate. Some people can't seem to stand that concept, but to me I always think it's interesting. While I feel that Life is Strange never comes through with explaining the whys and hows of Max's power (at least not to the extent that something like Steins;Gate does, cause yeah…) but I think the game makes damn good use of that story hook.
**SPOILERS**: It's that point at the end of Episode 3, and the beginning of Episode 4 that really sells the whole series. This is when Max uses her powers to go way back into the past and save Chloe's Dad from dying in the accident. However thanks to the butterfly effect there were consequences. This time in the form of Chloe being paralyzed from the neck down in this alternate timeline.
The stinger at the end of Episode 3 where you see Chloe in her wheelchair is powerful enough on its own. Luckily I was playing these games back-to-back (with the exclusion of the last episode which I had to wait for) so I was able to jump into the next episode the following night. But it's the beginning of Episode 4 that just kills me.
Max spends time with Chloe, who as a result of the accident, and her Father not being dead is a completely different person. It's a hard set of scenes to watch, because, well not only is it just sad as fuck, but you know you're directly responsible for this. And if you're quick on the uptake, you have a general idea of what's going to happen next. You're going to have to go back and undo your mistake, but that ultimately means sacrificing Chole's Dad to get things back the way they were.
And despite her current condition, you have to wonder if Chloe would want that. This is addressed later in the last episode, and I was pretty happy with the conclusion. That it basically seems like Chloe feels terrible for Max being in that situation, and realizes she had to do what she had to do.
Anyway, even if you see that coming. That doesn't prepare you for the moment when Chloe asks you to kill her and end her suffering, and the weight on her parent's shoulders. It's fucking ice-cold, bone chilling shit. It was hard enough dealing with that situation in a video game. I can't imagine having that responsibility in reality. I'd rather not even think about it.**END SPOILER**
There are other stellar parts of Life is Strange, but none of them hit me as hard as that. But if we've learned anything from time travel fiction, it's that it's usually more trouble than it's worth. Hell, even a dumb Ashton Kutcher movie painted a pretty horrifying picture of what could happen if you start messing with time.
It's hard to talk about a game like Life is Strange without just retelling moments from the game and offering my opinion on them. So I'll try to wrap things up here. In addition to the story, the characters, and the writing all being top notch – there's another important elements of Life is Strange that should be praised.
Much like the Telltale games of recent years, Life is Strange offers you player choice. However unlike those Telltale games, it really does feel like your decisions matter in Life is Strange. I know that's a real cliche thing to say, but thinking back on how my story played out, I can't even begin to imagine the consequences of some of those choices. I haven't looked into it either, because I feel like the game I played was the story I was supposed to see. So there's a possibility that the choices aren't as important as I've been lead to believe. But I've overheard some… things that make me think things could have gone very, very differently.
Life is Strange was certainly a surprise for me this year, and I'm glad I went along for the ride. In recent years I've said numerous times that I find myself putting more stock into narrative in games, than gameplay. And while there have been a few games this year that make me second guess that preference, I'm still a sucker for a good story. I really wouldn't mind playing more games like this, and visual novels all the time.
Tales From The Borderlands is Telltale's finest game to date, hands down. It takes the colorful, sometimes idiotic world of Borderlands and actually wraps a compelling story around it. There are a lot of laughs, and some tears along the way. And I walked away from the game excited for more Telltale games like this, and for more Borderlands. You gotta keep on, keepin' on.
First, and foremost. Let me say that my absolute favorite thing about this entire game, and in fact all of Borderlands is the extremely stylish opening cinematics that are usually backed up by impeccable song selection. Seriously, thinking about the opening to Episode 2 gets me so pumped up. Just, god damn. So good!
Tales From The Borderlands is similar to Life is Strange in a lot of ways. For one they're both similar adventure games. So that's comparison number one. Secondly I approached them both in much the same way: with mild disgusts.
I've had a bumpy past with The Borderlands series. It's not really important to talk about how they play as a shooter, but for the record I always seem to be into them for like 20 hours, then completely lose the thread because bullshit starts happening. But more importantly, let's talk about The Borderlands universe.
I like the way it looks. One could probably argue that putting that cel-shading on Borderlands was the smartest thing Gearbox ever did. I also actually really like the character designs in some cases. So from that perspective it all checks out. The writing and the humor though… that's another matter.
I've gone back and fourth with it over time. I think at the time I was enjoying the writing in Borderlands 2, but then it just got to a point where I realized how fucking dumb it was. (I'll always point to “butt stallion” as a low point in creative writing. Even if there's a really good bit with “butt stallion” in Tales). From that point you connect the dots and see that the writing staff was more concerned with putting in dumb internet memes and the whole thing kind of falls apart.
So, when Telltale made a proposition this past year. “Would you rather play this Borderlands adventure game, or this Game of Thrones adventure game?” I thought it was a no-brainer. Turns out I was wrong.
Not to get too sidetracked, but Game of Thrones was extremely disappointing. It wasn't terrible, but that almost makes it worse right? When Telltale talks about doing all these games for licensed properties (which is everything they do now) I guess it's a crap shoot. For my money though, Game of Thrones felt like your typical “licensed game” even if it is probably a cut above that.
On the other hand there's Tales From The Borderlands. Which just conceptually seemed like a really dumb idea. Did anyone honestly care enough about the Borderlands' fiction to want to play a story based game off of it? I certainly didn't. I dismissed it out of hand as soon as it was announced.
But then the game came out and you started hearing people say “Hey, it's actually pretty good.” So with that knowledge in hand, I bought the big Telltale bundle on PS4 early this year for a heavily discounted price thinking “What the hell? At least I'll get Game of Thrones with it.”
When I finally sat down with Tales From The Borderlands, it wasn't pretty. I was going in with the preconceived notion that this was going to be a waste of my time. And I think I was also in a bad mood, aside from not really being in the mood to play an adventure game. It was just a big mess.
So I spent half an hour with it, and got so disgusted with it that I just quit it. I posted angrily about it on Twitter, and expected that to be that. However a friend of mine assured me that the game was worth giving a second chance. So I waited a little while, until around the time Episode 2 was coming out, or maybe it was out. I can't remember. And I tried playing it again.
I'm glad I did, because it's fantastic.
Tales manages the herculean task of not only making a Borderlands story super interesting, but also making it really funny, and even emotional along the way. All the while keeping with the style of the series. I think if you ask around you'll hear people tell you the same, but this is Telltale being a master at their craft. They understood the property, took it, then made something even better out of it. It's no exaggeration to say that this is Telltale's best game. Because it is.
The story follows the travels of the two protagonist Rhys (Troy Baker), and Fiona (Laura Bailey). Oh, don't worry friends. You didn't think I was going to get through a game of the year list without praising Laura Bailey's stupendous talents, did you? Both of these characters, as well as the supporting cast are extremely well written. And the voice talent all bring their A-game to breath life into the characters, even when they have to say the dumbest shit. And again, I can't stress how impressive it is that they were able to make this all compelling while still feeling like a Borderlands game, in tone at least.
Tales forgoes all the shooting and loot (well, that's not entirely true) of the main Borderlands games in order to follow a pair of everymen. These two aren't legendary Vault Hunters, their attempts at combat are laughable at best half of the time. But the catch is they happen to be this underwhelmingly normal on Pandora of all places. A world where you can't go two feet without some wildlife trying to eat you, or a bandit trying to skin your face to make a “skin pizza”.
**SPOILERS**: As you might expect, the adventure is full of comic relief, and ridiculous action moments. But Tales From The Borderlands is always ready to surprise you when you least expect it. One moment you might be laughing out loud at the fact that Vaughn is totally fucking ripped underneath that tacky sweater-vest, to actually being choked up by the fact that a character like Scooter of all people just provided the most unexpected heart wrenching death of the year. **END SPOILERS**
The game accomplishes so much over the course of its five episodes. Not only do you build up an affinity for the new cast of characters, but seeing some returning figures in a new light is cool too. I haven't played Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, but I kind of want to because Athena is awesome. Hell, I even sort of liked Handsome Jack by the end there. Like, what? Seriously?
Tales From The Borderlands is Telltale at their best. The Walking Dead kind of took the world by storm, and I was a fan of The Wolf Among Us. But Tales upped the ante. I don't know if I'd want them to do another season of it or not, but I walked away from this thing not only hoping for more like that. But actually being excited about Borderlands again. Crazy.
Metal Gear Solid V might not be the best Metal Gear game out there, thanks in no small part to its dramatic shift in tone, and hang-ups such as a lackluster performance from the leading role. But the game is undoubtedly fun. It might be the best stealth game ever made, and the wealth of options at your disposal make it so that you can make up your own crazy Metal Gear stories about playing the game.
It's the last game on the list, and also the one I'm the most conflicted about. Let's see if I can sort my feelings about what might be the last Metal Gear game (that we care about in any case).
I'm so torn on Metal Gear Solid V. I kept thinking about if I wanted to put it on the list or not. But every time I took it off it felt wrong. So it makes the list, albeit at the end.
I'm a huge fan of Metal Gear Solid. Have been since Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation. To me that game just came out of nowhere and was doing stuff in a video game I couldn't even dream of at the time. It's still one of the all-time classics. I'm also quite fond of the rest of the main series of games, with Metal Gear Solid 2 probably being my favorite (that's a discussion for another time).
It's been a while since I've really enjoyed a Metal Gear game though. Metal Gear Solid 4 was my game of the year that year, so obviously I really loved it. But that was kind of the last time. (Unless you count Metal Gear Rising which we all know is the best character action game out there, right?) None of the PSP games did it for me. In fact I was violently turned off by the series with Peace Walker which was just such a departure from what I recognized that series as.
I'll also get this out of the way now. I'm not really a Big Boss fan. In recent years I've come to realize that Snake Eater is in fact a really amazing game, but I still feel like Big Boss isn't as endearing a character as Solid Snake. And you can make that argument about how Big Boss is the original badass, and Snake is just a cheap copy, but I ain't hearing it. Did you see Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2? That man's a legend!
So I guess I'm just not sure what to say now if someone asks me what the last Metal Gear game I liked was. Do I like Metal Gear Solid V….? Ehhhh…..
I think the short answer is that, yes, I do like Metal Gear Solid V. But I like the things about it that it does well, and am woefully disappointed in the things it does bad. Earlier in the year when I talked about Metal Gear Solid V, I kept saying “It's a great game, it's just not a good Metal Gear game.” And I think I stand by that.
The things that MGSV does right pretty much all revolve around the gameplay. I've never had a problem with Metal Gear Solid's gameplay though, but I do realize that V is definitely the best playing game in this series, by a country mile. The only real disappointment there is the same thing I found so offensive about Peace Walker, the lack of interesting boss fights. The boss fights in the earlier MGS games, even the bosses themselves in a lot of cases were all a big draw for the series. It's baffling to me that they replaced them exclusively with tanks and robots in Peace Walker, and then only having a few major boss battles in V.
The real bummer about MGSV is the story. Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate that the game has its own sense of weirdness, and I'm also someone who loves the big twist at the end of the game. But it still doesn't feel like Metal Gear to me. Previously Metal Gear Solid 4 was kind of the “serious” one in the series. Not as many (intentional) funny moments as previous games, and things got kind of dark there. But then you get to Peace Walker and they kind of lighten the mood again? So why then do you go and double down on the grimy nature of V.
This was a problem I saw coming after playing Ground Zeroes. That thing didn't strike me as being Metal Gear at all. And no I'm not really offended by vagina bombs, but it was still weird in a completely different way then what I'd come to expect from Metal Gear. There's another problem that was telegraphed by Ground Zeroes, and that was Kiefer Sutherland's extremely lackluster performance as Big Boss.
**REALLY BIG FUCKING SPOILERS**:But then that's the thing. It's not really Big Boss is it? Though that doesn't explain why actual Big Boss was voiced by Kiefer in Ground Zeroes or whenever he shows up in V. Why do Venom Snake and Big Boss have the same voice? Why isn't Big Boss just voiced by David Hayter? Wouldn't it have been cool if at the very end of the game you heard David Hayter as Solid Snake? Fuck!**END REALLY BIG FUCKING SPOILERS**
Trying to explain that aside, it's a bad performance. Kiefer barely says anything for the entire game. All the cutscnes are weird because the other characters are just talking to a brick fucking wall. Could you make the case that David Hayter wouldn't really fit the tone of this game? Sure. And I'm sure if they changed the voice to literally anyone, people (including myself) would be upset. But why Kiefer Sutherland? Why did you even bother? The Fuck!?
Anyway. I have other problems with the game's story too. And it all really comes down to tone. Because I think if handled differently this could have passed as a more regular Metal Gear Solid game. I'm not of the opinion that Quiet is this embarrassingly gross character that anyone should be ashamed of. But she's not even worth the commotion. The other main players are all more interesting, but that doesn't make them likable. Miller is a fucking asshole, wet blanket who second guesses you and patronizes you for the entire game. (I guess it makes sense given the circumstances, but it's not appealing though.) And Huey, what the fuck happened to Huey? I subscribe to Jeff's theory that they should have just put a bullet in him from the start.
Uhg. I'm just so worked up over it all over again. This game isn't Metal Gear to me. It's almost like some gritty re-imagining of the series where they suck all the fun out, but try to keep it weird still. And like I said, make no mistake, the game has its weird moments. And once again that twist at the end with Venom Snake is classic Kojima. But still… uhg.
So then, why is the game actually on my list? Well, just because it's not my ideal Metal Gear game, doesn't mean it's a bad game. It's really telling that three open-world games made my list this year. Especially after you consider the nightmare that was Dragon Age. And to its credit, Metal Gear Solid V is an insanely fun sandbox to play in as you go from mission to mission.
Almost every situation in the game can be handled in a different way, depending on how you want to do it. The game gives you an endless supply of tools, and options to go about your tasks. The game features a robust research & development system that allows you to get into a loop of playing the game, getting the required resources to construct new gear, then use that gear in new and exciting ways.
This isn't limited to guns and gadgets though, as the game's buddy system allows you another way to customize your playstyle. Honestly I thought some of the most interesting discussion coming out of this game was which buddy everyone liked the best. D-Horse, sadly isn't that exciting, but there are a few missions in that game where I can't imagine using someone else. Also you can make him shit on command.
D-Walker seems like the least practical one. It's expensive, and loud. I've heard you can do some pretty crazy stuff with it, and the idea of having your own personal Metal Gear Mini is a fun concept, but maybe not the best in execution. So that leaves most people debating between D-Dog and Quiet. They can do similar things, but they do it in different ways. Quiet can be quite overpowered if you use her right, but her detection skills and managing her can be a pain in the ass. Also she constantly hums Quiet's Theme, which is one of the few songs on the soundtrack I really don't like. D-Dog on the other hand is basically a walking Soliton Radar. He's also no slouch when it comes to carefully dispatching enemies. Bonus: He can actually think for himself.
That's the kind of stuff that I think really shines about MGSV. It's the kind of game where you can do something totally different than your friend, but then you can both share an interesting story about it. Metal Gear Solid V was also another game that I toyed around with recording video of this year, and I have a few good moments on my YouTube channel.
I'm really hit and miss with stealth gameplay these days. It was never something I really enjoyed, but there was a time when I would play and enjoy something like Thief 3 for example. That said, MGSV probably handles stealth better than any game out there. It makes sense, it works, and it can be generous at times when you need it. And if that still doesn't work out for you, there are many situations in the game where you can just blast your way through.
One of my personal favorite things about the game is the soundtrack. Not only is the original score really good and fits the mood (of this game at least), but I absolutely love the licensed tracks. Even though it isn't actually Bowie, the game opening with “The Man Who Sold The World” is incredible. But aside from Kojima's good tastes in music (have you seen the trailers he makes too?) the cassette tapes are a legitimate plus for me.
I love 80's pop. Like, a lot. I was pretty young when it was still relevant, but that's always been a decade of music that I go back to. So the fact that you can get collectible cassingles in Metal Gear Solid V is quite frankly one of the best parts of the game for me. It actually make me explore more than I might have otherwise. I'd bother infiltrating guard posts for the sole purpose of obtaining a tape.
And of course there's the fact that you can blare that music out of your helicopter whenever it comes to pick you up. I cannot tell you how big of a smile I had every time I'd call for the chopper and the opening strains of “Maneater” started, or rocking out to "Rebel Yell" after a mission well done. Though my personal favorite is how ridiculous “She Blinded Me With Science” is, and I think it adds some much needed lightheartedness to the game.
Well, before I wrap this up I guess I'll get this out of the way. The big secret is that I didn't actually finish Metal Gear Solid V. I got really far into the game, with only about 15 missions left to go, but things weren't working out. I enjoyed playing the game, but other stuff was starting to pop up. And as I got further and further away from when it released I felt an overwhelming sense to see the rest of the game's story before it was spoiled for me. So one night, in late September, I sat down and watched a YouTube playthrough of the rest of the game.
I feel kind of bad about it, because there's always the possibility that if I had pressed on and kept going with it myself, I would have enjoyed the game more. But at the same time, I was really at a point where playing the game became a chore. So instead of forcing myself to finish it, and perhaps irreversibly ruining any positive feelings I had about the game. I made the call. I was still able to watch the rest of the game, and see all the story had to offer. Needless to say, I wasn't thrilled with every aspect of it.
Overall, I feel like Metal Gear Solid V is a great playing game. In much the same way Xenoblade X is. I'll say it again, I'm firmly planted in the “narrative trumps all” camp, but I think sometimes it's a good thing to be reminded that video games can just be fun. MGSV might not be the Metal Gear game I was hoping for, but it's still one of this year's best games. Also, holy shit that “Sins of The Father” song is the best, and I love that the “whoooaaaahs” randomly play whenever Venom Snake takes a hit off his dank ass time cigar.
Honorable Mentions & Closing Thoughts
Before I leave you, I'd like to toss in a few honorable mentions. These games are all games that I feel could have made the actual list if I had the time to play them. Who knows if that's true or not? But at least these are some games that came out this year that I don't want to sleep on, and maybe you shouldn't either!
Trails of Cold Steel: I got the Kiseki bug this year finally, and I'm not gonna stop with Trails in The Sky SC. As I said, my copy of the Collector's Edition is on the way, and I look forward to digging into this next year. I heard that CSI is another slow burn, so I have my concerns about that. But I'm confident that it will payoff with the sequel which some say is the best in the series. Regardless I had to support XSEED and Falcom with bringing more of this series over.
Stella Glow: If I had more time I might have written about how Stella Glow gradually won me over after my mixed impressions of the demo. Unfortunately I just didn't have the time to check it out, but it's still true that the game grew on me. Thinking about what I played in the demo, and what people said about the game, I get the impression that it's a fun little SRPG, with shades of Ar tonelico thrown in there for good measure. I'll be checking this out as soon as I can.
SteamWorld Heist: This is a real last minute entry to this list, but SteamWorld Heist came out and it grabbed my attention immediately. I had some issues with the previous game, SteamWorld Dig. I didn't think it was bad, especially for the price, but maybe it had been a little too hyped up for me. That said Heist is totally different and looks like an awesome take on XCOM but on a 2D plane instead. Whenever I get a little cash I'm definitely going to give this a shot.
Well, that's a wrap. If you stuck with me that long and read all that, then thank you for your time. I write these lists for myself as much as anyone, but if anyone got any sort of enjoyment or helpful information out of all this then that's all the better. I actually probably put too much effort into these lists. It's one thing to sit down and write them for 10 hours straight, but that's kind of cathartic in a way, and I want to share my opinions. But really it's the fact that I go out of my way to play as many games as possible in a given year. It can be really taxing to try and afford all that, not just with money, but my time. The upside is that I get to play a bunch of stuff that I probably wouldn't have played otherwise. And you see what can happen with that, I end up playing stuff like Space Marine, NieR, and Metal Gear Rising, and they do quite well on my lists!
Once again, thanks for reading. It's been fun. I hope to see you all next year with another massive list. And looking at the release schedule for next year, I think it's safe to say it's going to be a dozy!