By frankxiv 1 Comments
2015 was an excellent year for games, so much so I think this was the first year I actually had to cut things and wasn't just struggling to add anything to fill out the last spots. That said, it introduced the new problem of actually trying to rank things and figure out what I really liked this year, and what's valuable to me in a game that makes it stand out above the rest. This led to a lot of thinking and contextualizing and reflecting, as you'll probably notice reading me rambling about my past in addition to telling you what I like about these games.
#10 - Dragon Ball Xenoverse
I pretty much grew up watching Dragon Ball Z, I was introduced to it in 6th grade by a friend who I had seen drawing Raditz in history class. I looked over and said to him "oh, you play a lot of rpgs?", since my young self's only exposure to the Toriyama art style was seeing ads for Chrono Trigger in game magazines. That Friday I slept over at his house, and Saturday morning we woke up bright and early to catch DBZ, and instantly I was hooked. At the time anime wasn't as widespread as it is now, the only way you got any exposure to it seemed to be through buying VHS tapes, usually from Manga Entertainment that all felt really shady for some reason and definitely looked like the kind of thing you shouldn't be watching in 6th grade. But DBZ sent me and my friends down this dark hole of watching those exact tapes like Fist of the North Star, Fatal Fury, Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll, etc.
Dragon Ball Xenoverse for me is a throwback to things I haven't thought of in such a long time, but it does more than just present the story to you as you remember it, it's the perfect way to make a DBZ game, since it gives you the story you know and love from watching it, but turns it into a game by having you change and interact with it in fun ways. It makes it feel like something more fun than just replaying those events would be, instead you are a time patrol agent doing your best to keep things going as they should, in almost a Back to the Future Part II kind of way, where after you've played it, you'll know it only went the way you thought it did originally because you were there preventing an outside force from tampering. It's a really fun idea, and it's only just the story mode, there's also side missions and versus battles, as well as fully customizing your character's moves and gear and stats. It's not the deepest game, but it's really fun and looks incredible, I look forward to finishing it, but it doesn't have it's hooks in me to keep me going for more than a mission at a time, which lands it in the 10th spot on my list.
#9 - Rocket League
Something about Rocket League just works for me. It's easy to look at it as a competitive sports game you need to be good at and use a lot of teamwork to have any fun, but it feels disconnected enough to where you aren't really in as fine of control as you would want for that to be possible, so you can just have fun driving around and trying to hit the ball. That's basically what it was for me, I'm not a very competitive person, I love fighting games even though I'm terrible at them because I can just have fun, but I'm always frustrated playing sports games because the controls are usually dense and require lots of teamwork between a lot of moving pieces on the field, I think I'm best at football because you throw it from one guy to another guy and you run, and it's almost like a strategy game, but things like soccer or hockey could never really click for me.
Rocket League takes those frustrations and does away with them completely. Dense controls are reduced to just driving, forward and reverse, a handbrake, a jump, and a boost. It's super simplistic and leaves a lot of room to use it's mechanics to get better, but at it's entry level, it's a fun driving game, the cars handle well, and you can customize them in cute ways without needing to sacrifice any performance or needing to worry about any kind of stats. Instead of needing to worry about controlling who has the ball, you are you, you interact with the ball and you can pass to teammates and set up shots, but you only ever control yourself, and you never feel like you are lost like I frequently do in other sports games. This is what Rocket League does well, this is why I enjoyed playing it, and still do. The only reason it hasn't rated higher on my list is everything else is just so good, but I can see myself playing it for a long time to come, and introducing new friends to it locally as well.
#8 - Ronin
I first saw Ronin being shown off on a stream by @babylonian pre-release, and within 5 minutes of explaining the mechanics, I was sold. It was everything I had hoped for when I started playing Mark of the Ninja, not to say that game is bad or anything, but I still haven't gone back to it because it wasn't what I expected. I love turn based strategy games, I love stealth games, and Ronin is a combination of two into something that feels incredibly cool and makes you feel perfectly in control, while also barely hanging on by a thread where one slight misstep could be fatal. The controls are easy enough, the left stick moves, the right stick shows a jump arc and when you let go, you jump to where the arc shows, every other button is context sensitive, but you never need to hit them in a hurry. You move around in real time as long as you aren't spotted, but as soon as an enemy is alerted to your presence, everything goes turn based, and your movement is restricted to your jump only.
Over time they take these simple mechanics and add layers to it in the forms of new enemies and new ability upgrades, pulling off stealthy kills fills a meter that lets you use special skills like a teleport, or throwing your sword at an enemy, which are super useful when you need to take care of someone quickly, but also are tactical decisions you will need to live with. You throw your sword at an enemy, but now all you can do is knock other enemies down until you retrieve it, while you're constantly being aimed at and dodging their fire, you can throw out a clone to distract them so you can get your sword back, but an alarm is counting down that will bring more enemies in just 7 more turns, so you need to conserve your movements, get your sword and get back to the guard counting the alarm down. It's this kind of high tension situation that make up the bulk of Ronin, especially the last mission which is just doesn't let up from start to finish. Ronin does some great things but doesn't overstay it's welcome, earning it the 8th spot on my list. I wouldn't go back it soon, but I'd definitely play a fleshed out sequel.
#7 - Dead or Alive 5 Last Round
Dead or Alive is a series I've always had a lot of love for, back on Playstation I was strangely enamored with 3D fighters, as a kid who grew up playing Street Fighter II, Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, and so on and so forth, seeing things like Tekken and Virtua Fighter were insane to me. Virtua Fighter was more of an arcade thing, and there was a Genesis version of Virtua Fighter 2 that was pretty terrible, so Dead or Alive was the first 3D fighter I played at home, renting it from Hollywood Video because they were out of copies of Tekken 3, which I had heard was the second coming from every game magazine I read at the time. DoA2 was one of my first Dreamcast games, then one of my first Playstation 2 games. DoA3 was my first Xbox game, only buying Halo because my friend did, DoA4 was the whole reason I bought an Xbox 360, and I played hundreds of hours of it.
By the time DoA5 came out, I was well out of the console market, my 360 had died out of warranty, and my time with Playstation 3 had come and I had gotten out while it was still worth something before Playstation 4 came out. So when I heard the newest version of DoA5, Last Round, was coming out on Steam, my gaming platform of choice, I was really excited. The launch was somewhat bungled in that it actually shipped without online multiplayer, and lacking new stages, effects, and physics from the new console versions, being a port of the arcade version of Last Round instead. But over time, they added an online ranked match mode, which is disappointing coming from DoA4's amazing lobby system, but still just as fun as ever. Unfortunately this came almost 5 months after the initial launch, when it was promised in 3, effectively killing off the playerbase (only 182 players total today, not even all at once), which is the only reason this hasn't ranked higher for me. I love the game, but I can rarely actually play it because I'm not searching at the right time of day. It's just really unfortunate.
#6 - Nuclear Throne
I'm kind of a sucker for roguelike-likes or rogue-lites or whatever you want to call them, for me they're the ultimate short time experience, you can just boot one up and try to get a run in or two, or three, or ten. When a run goes right it feels amazing and tense, you know the deeper you get the bigger the loss is going to be if you make a mistake, and when it goes wrong, it feels like it didn't count, you'll just do another, both just keep you coming back for more, knowing you can do better, get farther. In a way it reminds me closest of old school Nintendo games I played growing up, when you die there's no game save, you just start over, and you play again getting as far as you can. It's not 1:1, but it's definitely that kind of feeling for me, where you just spend time getting good at one game by bashing your head against it over and over and over again, it's not designed to be something you coast through once to see the story and that's it, it's something you keep coming back to.
Nuclear Throne is one of these kind of games, but unlike something like Spelunky or Binding of Isaac, the latter of which I've also dumped a ton of time into, it feels incredible and fast paced out of the gate. in other games, it's a slow build, you only feel the intensity as the run goes deeper, not wanting to lose your progress, enemies ramping up, and collecting more skills and upgrades. In Nuclear Throne, every run starts with an airhorn, and then the music kicks you in the chest and you're off to the races, which gets you flying out of the gate and feeling it immediately. The game plays like a dream, the controls are super tight and there doesn't seem like there's any luck to the actual gameplay, only what upgrades you get, and unlocking new characters with different abilities as you play only makes more runs more enticing. It's a combination of all these things that just makes me excited to come back to it again and again, just starting a run and getting that initial rush is more exciting than something like Spelunky, which in comparison, feels like playing a math problem.
#5 - Mortal Kombat X
Mortal Kombat has always been a series that is just cool as hell to me, seeing the arcade machine at the local Circle K and playing it for the first time, I felt like, this is illegal, I shouldn't be playing this, these are real people and there's so much blood. Over the years this feeling faded, despite MK getting more violent and gross and gory and extreme, getting away from real actors and going to polygonal models, along with well, growing up, made it feel a lot less like watching a crime in progress, and more like just a silly over the top gross-out callback to those old games, with increasingly better tech. Underneath that layer of shocking gore, is actually one of the most fun to play fighting games, feeling like the old games to the point where my friend can still pull off the same combos with Scorpion he's been doing since MKII in every new game, but also feeling so modern and tight and introducing all kinds of new characters and mechanics.
I loved MK9, but I thought it covered everything I had wanted from a new MK, the story covered the first 3 games, which were the best to me, and it felt like, anything they did from there was just going to get into the terrible 4-8 zone again. Preview coverage of MKX only cemented this, showing off new characters that looked terrible to me early on like D'Vorah, Ferra/Torr, and Kotal Kahn, I was fully prepared for this to just be those 3D MK games all over again where they add a bunch of stupid generic characters to fill out the roster when they had a ton of characters that were cool and fun to play already. Full disclosure, I can barely run MKX on my pc, in game it runs ok, almost 30fps most of the time, but it takes a minute or 3 to actually load matches, making playing online impossible as the connection times out before the game loads, and making me want to wait til I get a new pc to play the story. Still, I've played 26 hours of MKX just completing the living towers, because it's so much goddamn fun to play. I see myself coming back to this game a lot in the future, even though the second season pass looks really dumb. MKX far surpassed my expectations and made me feel like MK9 was garbage in comparison, which is no small feat, considering how much I liked that game.
#4 - The Legend of Dark Witch
This is one that really surprised me, I had never heard of it at all, even though it came out a year ago on 3DS, there was no buzz around it, and it just wasn't a name I was familiar with. Coming up on the pc release, I noticed a tweet in my twitter timeline from the NeoGAF New Threads account titled "SteamGAF, don't sleep out on Legend of Dark Witch, releasing Dec. 2nd!", which for some reason I clicked on. When I read it, I saw them mention that it was a "2D action game similar to the Megaman series". As someone who grew up playing the heck out of Megaman 2 and having a lasting fondness for it to this day, I was instantly intrigued. I looked up the steam page and saw in screenshots, a Gradius/Cobra Triangle style upgrade system, which is one of my favorite styles of character upgrade system, where the better you do the stronger you get, but mess up once and it's back to square one, making the game tougher on you.
On top of this per-level xp/upgrade system, finding Syega to give you permanent passive upgrades, and beating bosses to get new weapons, there's also a meta-progression. Any Tres (xp) you earn in a level saves to a total, so if you earn 500 Tres in one stage and then die, you might have to start over without those per-stage upgrades, but you can try again and get say 500 more. Then assume you continue along this path and get a game over, before you select a stage to try again, you can spend your 1000 banked Tres on permanent upgrades to your shot power, health, lives, and the amount of Tres you get overall. It's something that eases up that system of Gradius style upgrades, and while still important, doesn't just feel like "well I lost my upgrades I can't finish this stage now", you never feel stuck, but rather like your current attempt will still build you up even if you don't finish the stage, and I love that loop. I'm looking forward to finishing it and hopefully the recently released sequel also comes to steam.
#3 - Nom Nom Galaxy
PixelJunk games are always hit or miss for me, for everything charming and fun like Monsters and Shooter, there's a Racers and Eden right there making me go "ugh". I never played Shooter 2, SideScroller, or 4am, but I'd also heard nothing about them, while the previous games at least had a buzz about them where people were excited and talking about them. This made me think that PixelJunk games had fallen off after Shooter and probably weren't worth paying any attention to. Along came the quick look on this very site for Nom Nom Galaxy, which looked cute at first glance, and I had honestly never heard of, so I didn't know the PixelJunk lineage where it had started as PixelJunk Inc. The quick look was for Playstation 4, but I was really intrigued, and happy to find out it was coming out on steam as well, even though it was in early access and the online multiplayer hadn't been implemented yet.
Nom Nom Galaxy is a silly name, but it's kind of appropriate. You play as a tiny spaceman landing on a new planet, trying to build up your own soup company. You set up a headquarters and soup machines, harvest ingredients from around the planet, put them into the machines, and then load those cans of soup into rockets to ship them out across the galaxy to your alien customers. These customers will have different tastes depending on the day and the planet you are on, so you can't just rely on the same things to get by, and you are also competing for market share against another soup company on the same planet. So your goal is to efficiently make more, better soup from ingredients your customers like, faster than your competition, who will send hired thugs to come and attack your operation. All the while you are building and expanding and exploring and managing your resources. You need to ship soup before the day ends so you keep your market lead, but you also need to get a power core to expand your base, which will take time away from harvesting ingredients. You need to build robots to automate the soup making and shipment process as much as possible, but you also need to build turrets to defend your base and repair it from the last attack.
It's a constant balance of all these factors, which only ramps up as you unlock more robots and equipment, ingredients get rarer and harder to find, and the amount and severity of attacks from your competition only increase. It's really relaxing and fun to explore these worlds and automate a base and get your little business going, but at the same time it can be tense and dramatic as you're struggling to get your last soups shipped off before the day is over so you maintain your lead, being at 100% market share and losing 15% due to an emergency and needing to hustle to recover. It's one of the most fun and rewarding experiences finishing a planet, and then you unlock even more and move on to the next one with new tools and new things to consider. If this sounds like it would be super stressful, i'm sure it would be, if not for the ability to co-operate locally with 2 players, or online up to 4. Communicating with friends and having them focus on one thing while you do another is one of the most fun things i've done in a game in a long time. If you like games like Terraria or Starbound, but wish there was more of an immediate goal in mind on top of vaguely exploring planets for resources like I did, check out Nom Nom Galaxy with a friend or two.
#2 - Invisible, Inc.
Invisible, Inc. is like a combination of just about everything I love in games. Like I mentioned previously in this list stealth games, turn based strategy games, rogue-lite-like games, all extremely my jam, and Invisible, Inc. is a beautiful combination of all of them with a stylish, well animated cyberpunk finish over the top of it all. I think the most interesting thing about Invisible, Inc. is how little of the game revolves around combat. So many turn based games are part positioning and part combat, and to me, the combat is often where things can fall apart or feel unfair. Things like missing a 90% chance to hit in close range with a shotgun in XCOM, enemies just appearing in the exact right spot to screw you over. These things only seem included to make perma-death matter, it doesn't matter if you're careful and play well, you still just have a chance to lose no matter what, but while people seem to enjoy that part of the game, I feel like balancing a game to be unfair to put that aspect more into focus is still really not cool.
But in Invisible, Inc. everything feels more natural, things only go bad when you plan and execute poorly, when you're in a rush and make a mistake, a small oversight that you should know better than to slip on but it was just a lapse in judgment that cost you something. It feels that way because there is basically no real "combat" in the game, your entire time is spent hiding and avoiding encounters as much as you possibly can. You have a melee stun attack which recharges in 3 turns, and knocks guards out for 3 turns, that only counts down when you aren't pinning them down. There are ranged lethal attacks to permanently kill guards, but the ammunition on them is so limited, you only really want to use them as a very last resort, especially since all guards have a heartbeat monitor that will raise the alarm levels as soon as their heart stops. By stripping down the combat to basically nothing, and limiting your options to a last resort or a small stopgap, it really emphasizes the stealth, since resorting to combat can often complicate things and make you have a much tougher time than figuring out a way around it.
Each run in Invisible, Inc. feels like you are learning something about the game. A small trick to help deal with a new situation, a new way to approach and deal with another situation, a new use for your tools, a new way to leverage your agents abilities. This makes starting a new game feel good, because you come in with new knowledge that will help you in this run, slowly you build up these lessons in your head that even the odds against the enemies and help you deal with whatever they can throw at you. The more you play, the more agents you will have access to, which all have different play styles and uses, as well as starting programs, which can have some powerful and interesting combinations. For a game with no real "action", Invisible, Inc. can really make your heart pound and give you the biggest feeling of relief when you get your agents into an elevator and escape. As some one who loves sneaking around, Klei has taken sneaking turn based in the best possible way, and made one of the best games this year.
#1 - Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
If you know me, this top choice shouldn't surprise you at all, but honestly, it surprised me. Leading up to the release of MGSV, I was all aboard the hype train in a way I hadn't been in a long, long time. I remember reading previews of MGS in PSM magazine, EGM, Gamepro, etc. just drooling over screenshots and dying to get into this super cool looking world of espionage. I'd never really seen anything like it, and at the time it was really revolutionary to me, personally, regardless of it's impact on the industry at large. This made me so unbelievably hyped for MGS2, I was almost in tears when I bought Zone of the Enders to play the demo, spending hours just messing around, doing everything I'd heard about in previews, getting used to the game and being amazed by the graphics. I wasn't even mad when you actually played as Raiden for most of the game, I was just so in awe of everything happening. By the time MGS3 rolled around, I was actually able to go to E3 myself, I was actually at the Konami press conference where it was announced, along with Twin Snakes, but for some reason, being closer to it didn't make me more excited for it, and by the time 3 came out, I was without a Playstation 2 to play it on, so I missed the boat on playing it. MGS4 is what I bought a Playstation 3 for, a $599 60gb model with backwards compatibility, so I could finally get around to playing MGS3 as well. I was still just as in love with the series overall, but I felt like peak excitement for new installments was in the past.
Along came MGSV, looking so amazing, finally taking the game into an "open" world, instead of just being corridors. I had never really thought about that before, but when they released that map of Afghanistan in MGSV that showed all the previous games maps laid out over it, it really hit home, not how small those maps were or how big Afghanistan was going to be, but rather, how limited and linear those older games were. Watching the Metal Gear Scanlon series only cemented this, making these games that I thought of as infiltrating this huge complex, look like a series of arenas to sneak through. Enter this room, sneak through it to the next one, repeat. MGS3 even just felt like a boss rush with little rooms full of "trash mobs" in between. The story of the games really distracted you from how shallow the gameplay actually was, and seeing it in this new light was almost disappointing, but I had still enjoyed re-watching them, and I definitely enjoyed my time through them, and hey, on the bright side, this amazing new open world Metal Gear has been announced and should fix all of this. When Ground Zeroes was released on steam I bought it instantly and played through it that night, it felt like the promise of Metal Gear finally realized, but it was still just a small map, densely packed with ways to infiltrate and tackle objectives in the 7 missions included. But because it was so limited, to 100% the game, you sort of fell into the "one way" to complete it, to speedrun it for the S rank. Still, I was excited for The Phantom Pain.
When it finally came out, I poured over every inch of the world in MGSV. I took my sweet time with everything, completing side ops, redoing missions for better ranks or to complete more optional objectives or to try it a new way. By the time most of my friends who had rushed through the game were completely finished with it and hating it, having difficulty with the "boss" fights and complaining about it, I was on like the 10th mission, I hadn't even fought Quiet, but we had spent the same amount of time with the game. Reading all of that really made me appreciate how I was approaching it and convinced me it was the right way to go about things, since I hadn't really faced any of these difficulties or disappointments, and I was having a blast. It felt so amazing to play an MGS game where you really could approach anything from any way you wanted, with controls that were tighter and more polished than even in Ground Zeroes, giving you so many options in every aspect of the game, but also making each one easily accessible. I spent hours just roaming around the world, capturing small outposts and fultoning soldiers to fill out the staff on my Mother Base. The structure of the missions was great to me, I could just wander into one freely if I wanted, or select them from a list, get in, get out, and get back to my base.
After 209 hours of play, I finally completed 100% of everything in the game, I got all the achievements, I built a nuke, I had invaded FOBs, defended them, played their event missions, maxed out everything I could, and researched damn near every weapon and item. At that exact point, I felt great, but still wanting to play more, the next day I booted the game up again, and I kinda just... didn't want to play anymore? Amazing I know that after 200 hours of nothing but this, I was burnt out on it, but it felt really hollow, true to it's title, I felt like something was missing, and I was disappointed there wasn't more of it for me to go through. I started looking through the mission list and thinking about each mission, reflecting on them and just thinking, "nah, I don't want to play that again right now" and quicker than ever before realizing how not-actually-open MGSV really is. Every mission is the same stealth-arena as in previous games, only instead of connecting them via corridor, they're spread out across the same big map with tinier ones put between them to give the illusion of an open world. I felt more betrayed by this than any of the story revelations or lack thereof.
Based on this feeling, I was having second thoughts about giving it the top spot on my list this year. I know this a silly thing to feel about a game you put 200 hours into, but it made me really think about everything else I've played and put things into context. It's not about wanting to play a game forever, or there being enough of it to keep you coming back for more over and over. While those are nice things obviously, you can't really fault MGSV for only entertaining me for as long as it did, which is still more than most games I play, according to steam, the only games I've played more are Borderlands and Super MNC, and I'm not far behind Borderlands. Plus, there is some slight hope of getting more on the horizon, with Metal Gear Online supposedly launching in January of next year, I'll at least get another small burst of enjoyment out of MGSV, and even if I don't, it was a fine ride while it lasted, and there will likely never be anything like it again, so I can appreciate it for what it is, and feel good about it being my game of the year.