We're coming down the home stretch, but before we get to the main event, we've got four more regular categories to highlight some of the best and worst aspects of 2015's video games. Did you know there's also a recap video and a deliberation podcast over on the GOTY hub that detail our selection process in way more detail? You do now!
Galak-Z’s pause screen flickers, bumps, and bends with the static of an old VHS tape. Each level begins with a procedurally generated title written by a procedurally named author. Finish a season and you’re treated to an end credits and a faux-production company logo bumper pulled straight from 1980s cartoons. Even if we were judging Galak-Z on its wrapper alone, it’s hard to say that any other game this year has as much styyyyyyyyyyyyyle.
But for Galak-Z, “style” is more than just “presentation.” Style permeates the handling of the game’s ship, changing utilitarian turns into acrobatic curves. The focus on style is why, when you transform your ship into its mecha mode, you gain a whole new set of abilities instead of just a simple boost to the ones you already have. Even the weapon upgrade system is about style: Is your anime starship the sort to issue gigantic, explosive bolts of plasma or to fill the screen with glowing, ricocheting blasts of hard light.
Galak-Z is not perfect, but it is easily the most stylish game of the year.
Real Money Card Packs/One-Time Use Items
We tend to be of the mind that games--well, games that are asking you to pay money for them, anyway--probably shouldn't resemble slot machines. Furthermore, games that do have a bit of the "give us some real money, we'll give you some random stuff, should probably limit said random stuff to cosmetic items. Halo 5: Guardians went and built a whole mode around card packs that spit out single-use items that you can use to spawn in with cooler weapons and vehicles in the otherwise-cool Warzone mode. To be fair, Halo 5 does let you earn these packs through playing the game, in case you're in the mood to grind out some free cards, but between this and similar systems popping up in a side mode of Rise of the Tomb Raider, we'd really appreciate it if this sort of stuff were to, you know, please stop?
Please stop putting free-to-play-style single-use blind pack systems into your full-priced products. It's kind of uncool.
Runners-up: Still Shipping Broke-Ass Games, Extremely Forced eSports
Worst Game of the Year
No one looks at the 2009 Afro Samurai game as a masterwork of game design, but it’s suddenly a technical and creative marvel when put up against this ill-conceived sequel. Originally planned to be released in several volumes, this schedule for Afro Samurai 2 was scrapped and refunds were offered once the public saw what an absolute mess Volume 1 is. In the rare occasions that it’s functioning like a finished video game, it’s an abysmal third-person action title. In most instances, it’s a genuinely unplayable mess of glitches. Your character will randomly disappear or fall to his death, enemies become invincible for no reason, the backgrounds and audio vanish and reappear at will, and a whole host of other game-breaking bugs permeate the entire experience. It’s rare that a game is so awful that it necessitates refunds, but Afro Samurai 2 is the most broken experience of 2015 by a large margin.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: At some point in the future, technological development will allow for the digitalization of human consciousness and the development of hyper-advanced artificial intelligences, resulting in a blurred line between the categories of “human" and "non-human." Enter the protagonist, with a backstory that foreshadows a cheap twist. Enter various supporting characters, each of which could be (maybe?) unreliable. Enter the trolley problem (again and again). If all this sounds familiar, maybe you’ve played a video game in the last year or two, because a lot of this applies to Fallout 4, Cradle, The Fall, The Swapper, and The Talos Principle… but it also applies to SOMA, and unlike (some of) those games, SOMA dodges all of the pitfalls of this formula to provide a satisfying and challenging story.
The majority of SOMA is set in a series of underwater installations, each of which is in some state of abandonment or disrepair. And that’s to say nothing of the biomechanical force that is slowly spreading (growing?) throughout the facility. By digging through personal lockers, reading old email chains, and tinkering with strange computer systems, you’ll slowly piece together an intriguing history of survival and ambition. Character motivations are complex, which means that surprising (even shocking) actions often have relatable motivations--and it helps that their performances are all so solid.
Lots of games offer the occasional ethical dilemma, but in most cases they're little more than pablum. Either there’s a clear “good” or “bad” answer, or the right choice is determinable through some quick calculus of mechanical benefit. But strong characterization, smart world building, and careful framing make SOMA’s questions thought provoking. Every decision is hard, not because you’re not sure which decision is correct, but because you’re not sure which decision is right.
In a year where multiple games use many of the same colors from SOMA’s thematic palette, it still manages to elevate itself above the pack. SOMA never retreats to unearned twists, it spends exactly the right amount of time explaining the “rules” of its sci-fi world, and it’s bold enough to take its premises to their most challenging conclusions. Like the best speculative fiction, SOMA is a game that confronts you.
But please, Frictional, less frustrating monsters next time?