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Danny Baranowsky's Top 10 Games of 2015

Incredible Soundtrack Maker and All-Around Nice Person Danny Baranowsky expounds upon his favorite gaming experiences of the year.

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Danny Baranowsky is a composer best known for his work on games like Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, and 2015 Best Music nominee Crypt of the Necrodancer. You can find his various compositions on Bandcamp, and follow his adventures on Twitter.

Hello Giant Bombadiers! Every year seems like a more insane year for games. A top ten list seems woefully short for 2015, and the nebulous nature of game releases these days means i’m not even sure some of my favorite games this year even came out this year! One game I worked on, Crypt of the Necrodancer, came out this year, but since it came out last year in early access, which year does it count for? Desktop Dungeons, a game I wrote the music for alongside legendary game composer and belligerent old man in training, Grant Kirkhope, also came out on iPad this year, even though the game itself came out a long time ago! Time is meaningless and life is pain is my point.

So these are my picks for the games that gave me the biggest funs in 2015, in no particular order!

ARK: Survival Evolved

If the prospect of running a dinosaur caravan through a hostile jungle doesn’t fill you with childlike wonderment, you’re a soulless husk of a person.
If the prospect of running a dinosaur caravan through a hostile jungle doesn’t fill you with childlike wonderment, you’re a soulless husk of a person.

This is probably my GOTY. After the heartbreak that was The Stomping Land, I was super skeptical about this game. But it turns out it’s probably the best the survival genre has to offer right now, which depending on your perspective could be high praise or mad shit-talkins.

The sheer scale and interdependence of all the systems in ARK hit my buildy-crafty-survive spot super hard. On multiple occasions the group I play with has decided for one reason or another to migrate our bases, full of hard-earned dinosaurs, to a far corner of the (huge) map. This has led to several instances of massive dinosaur caravans, with each player assuming an ad-hoc role such as animal wrangler, air recon (aka someone on a giant bird looking out for trouble), flank/rear guard, and the tip of the spear--a well-trained Tyrannosaurus Rex savagely consuming any threat in the way.

During these sojourns, the weather effects and day/night cycle have thrown our plans into disarray, such as fog that limits visibility so drastically that you can’t see the wild pack of rexes out for blood until they’re right on top of you. Given that taming takes so much time to finish, the risk of losing your gang of pack animals to errant T-Rexes or Spinosauruses is genuinely terrifying and nerve-wracking in a way that no game has really given me, except maybe DayZ. But while DayZ seems to have been spinning its wheels for about a year, Ark consistently comes out with new content and fixes at a terrifying pace. You can build houses on top of boats, Brontosauruses, and giant birds called Quetzals now. And it all just works.

Just need Gareth Coker to make a sea shanty version of the Ark theme for when I’m sailing and it would be perfect.

Fallout 4

Not really surprising to me, since I was a huge fan of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, and to a lesser extent the original Fallout. Yeah, I’m one of those dickwads who doesn’t place Fallout 1 and 2 on a magical mystical pedestal. They were great at the time, but the actual game parts of them don’t hold up.

Making the most hideous survivor couple possible is a new video game rite of passage.
Making the most hideous survivor couple possible is a new video game rite of passage.

I’m also one of those dickwads who enjoys the Bethesda Jank® in spite of itself. Yeah, the animations are still terrible, the cows end up on rooftops like clockwork, and the lack of choice in choosing your darkside/lightside is disappointing.

HOWEVER!

I don’t think every game needs to be revolutionary. I think it’s perfectly fine for Fallout 4 to be Fallout 3 with better, prettier stuff. I did find myself more worn out on the Fallout thing after 4 than I did 3, and I’m essentially waiting for the mod scene to grow to maturity before I inevitably dive back in as Miku Hatsune with a lightsaber riding a Dodongo.

I’d like to see more innovative-y stuff in the next iteration, which if they follow the tick-tock cadence of FO3/FONV, I think it’d be pretty great.

DiRT Rally

I like to car. I love the DiRT series’ sim-kinda-but-hey-here’s-some-assistance feel that toes the line right between Gran Turismo and Ridge Racer. DiRT 2 is on my shortlist of best games ever, and DiRT 3 would be too if it didn’t fucking ask me in unskippable bro lingo, after every fucking race, to HEY AMIGO UPLOAD THAT SWEET CLIP TO YOUTUBE BRO YOLO.

With DiRT Rally, it feels like Codemasters is returning to a more purified racing experience with less of the weird Gymkhana shit and monster trucks slammajamming each other in wet dirt circles (I don’t know your fancy racetrack terms).

It’s more punishing, and more sim, but there’s a very fine granularity in the options for car setups and assistance, and nobody makes racing games feel better on controllers than Codemasters. Initially I was disappointed that it seems to completely eschew the idea of cars racing NEXT to each other, but I’ve been having a great time learning the feels of each type of car and tuning it to fit whatever track type I’m up against. Leveling up your engineers and crew is a nice meta distraction but not annoying or overwrought, and gives a little bit of that leveling up experience without being all, “Hey bro race this shit 20 times before your car is actually not garbage."

PULSAR: Lost Colony

In which I regret that time I named our ship after a joke presidential candidate, before it got all real and depressing and scary.
In which I regret that time I named our ship after a joke presidential candidate, before it got all real and depressing and scary.

Artemis meets FTL meets Guns of Icarus.

This should be all that needs to be said. But for the uninitiated, PULSAR is kind of like a super simplified Star Citizen for just 5 people. You fly a spaceship across the galaxy with 4 other people, each filling roles like Captain, Weapons Expert, Science Officer, etc. The entire game, except for the pilot and weapons turrets, are in first person, so you’re actually Picarding when you Picard and Worfing when you Worf. If you don’t understand anything I’ve said in this paragraph, this game is not for you.

It is basically Star Trek/Firefly: The Game® and you’ll know right away if it’s the thing for you.

The interface is pretty atrocious and needs a ton of work, the graphics are only slightly above “Minecraft mod with new geometry and some shaders”, and working out the arcane nature of some of the systems is pretty frustrating. But it’s also part of the fun, getting on TeamSpeak with some buddies and learning how to spaceship.

That feeling, after countless brutal deaths, when your crew finally congeals into an actual military operation, scores your first hard-fought kill and everyone lets loose the victory cry over TS--that’s the stuff of GOTYs, IMHO.

Long live Captain Bagface!
Long live Captain Bagface!

Until Dawn

I actually had no interest whatsoever in this game until my girlfriend told me about it. It sounded like a Telltale/Choose Your Own Adventure game version of a slasher flick, which put my game boner-meter at precisely 0%.

Here we see Chris. I was totally sober when I took this picture. I swear.
Here we see Chris. I was totally sober when I took this picture. I swear.

But it turns out, it’s awesome! It’s got a pretty good cast, some people you’d recognize like Hayden Panettiere and that guy from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. No not Coulson, the other guy. Yeah, the guy you hate then love then hate then, yeah... just watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. okay? It’s pretty dope.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, Until Dawn. So, funny story. A friend of mine--I’ll change the names of the innocent here--we’ll call him “Blathan”, we got pretty, uh, “hopped up on goofballs” and I made him play through it blind after I had played through most of it. What followed was a night of watching my inebriated friend immersed in sheer terror for hours, refusing to even touch the controller on many occasions.

It’s not as butterfly effect-y as it leads on; I was hoping for more paths and distinctions between different choices, but the choices that do matter are done really well, and the story actually did surprise me.

Oh, and fuck Emily.

Warhammer: End Times -- Vermintide

It’s Left 4 Dead but with Rat People and Diablo Loot. 11/10.

Unrelated to game or screenshot, but seriously: fuck Emily!!!
Unrelated to game or screenshot, but seriously: fuck Emily!!!

Dying Light

It’s got weighty, visceral (one of the few games that actually deserves that word, IMO) combat that gives you a great feeling of melee weapon connection, parkour that feels similarly connected to the world, and a grappling hook that shows up early enough to be exciting but late enough to feel like you earned it. The RPG trappings work well enough to provide that grindin’ feeling, and the world is a lot bigger than it seems at first. The guns feel like whatever but who gives a shit? I’m gonna light this pipe-axe on fire and cut off this dude’s face.

The story is god-awful and painfully acted, and the only time I notice it is when I want to skip it but can’t. But zombies.

Also, I even played it solo, and you can do 4 player co-op! I’m looking forward to co-opping the expansion but even solo, it was the most pleasurable walking-corpse-murder-fest this year.

Quiplash

Any game where the winning answer 95% of the time is Hitler, Boobs, or Dicks is GOTY material.

Distance

Crazy neon TRON-esque racer. Dunno if it came out this year or what. I think it’s still in Early Access. Are game releases even a thing anymore? Or are games just slowly dripped into our collective consciousness until we accept that they are real?

Distance on an 80” projector with bigass surround sound. A puny “screen’s shot” couldn’t capture the majesty.
Distance on an 80” projector with bigass surround sound. A puny “screen’s shot” couldn’t capture the majesty.

I was wary of the TRON-look until I got into it more. It distinguishes itself nicely and carves out its own aesthetic. And the soundtrack, HOLY SHIT. If you like the EDM thing you are in for something tasty.

I’ve played enough racers to know what I like, and the simmish DiRT-style thing is kind of what I’ve settled into. The more slidey, weirdo stuff like Ridge Racer and Need for Speed usually isn’t my jam, but Distance has an actual honest-to-goodness campaign, and progression. It isn’t so much concerned with cornering and optimizing your race lines as it is DON’T DRIVE INTO THAT FUCKING SAW OH SHIT NOW JUMP AND FLIP UPSIDE DOWN ONTO THE ROOF AND HOLY SHIT THE FLOOR IS GONE NOW FLY THROUGH THESE RINGS AND THEN THROUGH THIS PORTAL. Refract, you have permission to use that as a blurb for the game. You’re welcome.

Downwell

Sometimes it’s all about the feel. Downwell doesn’t have a particularly innovative goal, storyline, upgrade path, any of that. What Downwell has is a perfectly distilled aesthetic and perfectly tuned controls.

The enemies read so well, you instantly know what you’re supposed to do to them. You know what you can jump on, you know what you can’t. The controls feel so good, I even enjoy playing it on my iPhone. I firmly believe it to be the best-controlling game on iOS. Perhaps due to its simplicity, but I’m more inclined to believe that the developer obsessively tuned the movement until it could be tuned no more. It’s got a nicely balanced progression curve, with a weapon-type and ammo count system that seamlessly blends with the whole “your jump is also your shoot” thing. Downwell does not include any mechanics that it does not need to, and every mechanic included is polished to a perfect shine. I don’t know if it’s the greatest game ever, but it’s one of the most pristine.

The soundtrack by Eirik Surhke (Spelunky, Ridiculous Fishing) is typical Eirik Surhke, and by that I mean otherworldly alien jazz that sounds bizarre at first until it comes into auditory focus hours later, almost in concert with the development of your skills in the game. Eirik’s music is consistently some of the most creative stuff out there, and it’s unique in its tendency to challenge the listener. As someone who writes silly poppy shit on a pretty consistent basis, this style of music is very foreign to me, but is sorely lacking in games and I hope more people emulate/are inspired by Eirik.

Other Great Games That May Or May Not Be From 2015 I Ain’t What Got No Time To Check Facts