Ghosthouse's Game of the Year 2016 Awards

Game of the Year 2016

2016 was a hell of a year. In all meanings. Fortunately, 2016 was a hell of a good year for games. Possibly one of the best years ever in that department. I probably played more games this year than ever before and enjoyed almost all of them, making this list extremely difficult to narrow down. There were so many great, standout games this year and that's why I needed honorable mentions. They each deserve recognition but among a year of greats, painfully fall just short of my top 10 games of the year.

But first...

Best Old Game of 2016
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Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition

Technically a 2016 rerelease, I know. Ori and the Blind Forest may have taken the top spot in the "metroidvania" genre for me. I sadly missed out on this game last year and almost skipped on it this year if it wasn't for my cousin gifting it to me over the holidays.

What struck me first was the soundtrack. Its incredible. It matches perfectly with the beautiful hand-painted art of the environments, which are busy and dense with movement and enemies but manage to remain clear enough to be able navigate your surroundings with confidence. And navigating them feels so good. The controls are responsive and smartly designed, slowing building your loadout of abilities as the game goes on, allowing you to master the challenging platforming at an enjoyable pace.

Its just an amazing package with polish you don't see very often out of a company's first title. I can't wait to see what Moon Studios does next.

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Runner up: Dragons Dogma: Dark Arisen

A great and unexpected PC port of the 2012 last generation action-rpg. The game's impeccable combat feels better than ever thanks to the vastly improved framerate. Criminally underrated.

Honorable Mentions
5. Recore
4. Dark Souls 3
3. Firewatch
2. Gears of War 4
1. Watch Dogs 2
The Top 10

10. DOOM

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They modernized DOOM. Doom was always fast but the big difference is that DOOM 2016 takes it vertical. Mantling, double jumping and running at 90 MPH all while turning demons into bloody chunks with an arsenal fit for a small military is just awesome. This game is the most metal game ever made, even without the killer soundtrack. The level design is top notch as well, looping back on itself in clever ways to eliminate back-tracking and always introducing new twists on the demon slaying arenas.

The story is simple enough, "Demonic Invasion in Progress". It's well told and so over the top and self-aware that you end up feeling contagious glee, knowing the doom slayer is having so much fun doing what he truly loves: killing demons.

Admittedly it took me a long time to finish this game because I felt it dragged on too long in contrast with the fast pace of the gameplay. The two just didn't match up that well. That said, it makes it into the top 10 because every second of it is intense and fun and brutal and gory. It's DOOM.

9. Uncharted 4

"How can a game look this good?"

I played through all four main Uncharted games in a row for the first time this December. It was fascinating to watch Naughty Dog's ability grow and mature throughout the series. It's easy to see how their approach to story telling changed and evolved over the years. Uncharted 4 is undoubtedly the culmination of all their prior working knowledge and a high mark for the franchise.

Uncharted 4 takes character building notes from The Last of Us and applies them to a genre that really hasn't seen this kind of mature storytelling. Don't get me wrong, its still a silly and fun Indiana Jones-like adventure around the globe, but the writing and characters are an a whole other level compared to almost anything else in games. The facial animations and animations in general are what take it all the way home. Only L.A. Noire comes close in my opinion.

The climbing is improved (having direct control of your hands) and the puzzles are more involved and challenging, but I found the gunplay to actually be a step back from the previous titles, especially coming right off of the remastered Uncharted collection. According to the statistics menu my accuracy was almost 40 percentage points lower in 4 than the rest. The hand-to-hand combat is in that same boat. The rope swinging drop attacks and fluid animations are flashy but unpredictable. Uncharted 3 perfected it with a simple hit and counter combo, with a real feeling of weight behind the punches. The lack of a real counter button and having to awkwardly somersault away from people punching at you is just plain goofy.

It's still Uncharted though. For better or worse. The set pieces and environments are absolutely jaw-dropping at times. The graphics in general are some of the best I've ever seen. The lighting quality and object density they manage to acheive in some scenes on the PS4 hardware is simply amazing. Naughty Dog used its hardware witchcraft once again. We've followed Nathan Drake for almost a decade and he now approaches the point in his life where he's 'getting out of the game'. It feels about time that we should put it to rest too. A masterful ending to a masterful franchise.

8. Quantum Break

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I played Quantum Break differently than most people. I kind of roleplayed throughout the game, only using a pistol and never taking cover - relying on my time-bending powers and 9mm bullets to help me survive. It just felt weird to me seeing this mostly normal guy try to wield an assault rifle and murder these people in cold blood. He was more of a cop than a solider. A time-cop.

While the show was poorly done and sort of cheap-looking, the story in the actual game was engrossing. The characters were all memorable and believable and the time-traveling, timey-wimey, butterfly-effect stuff was done to great effect.

Like every other Remedy title, the controls are tight. Their trademark twist on typical third-person gunplay is fun to use and made me feel suitably heroic in chaotic situations. Visually, it looks incredible, turning an otherwise boring modern day setting into something weird and interesting when time literally starts to break down around you. It's visual style is fittingly cinematic and manages to look like nothing else out there. Quantum Break stuck in my brain throughout the year and I retain the hope to get to see more from the franchise in the future, however unlikely.

7. The Last Guardian

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Trico is the most believable and realistic video game character ever made. That's honestly what makes the game work. The relationship you naturally develop over the course of the game mostly makes up for the somewhat cumbersome controls, especially the abhorrent camera, but those do issues sadly keep it from achieving true greatness.

I adore the environments and the puzzle designs. Everything seems grounded and natural and solutions to the puzzles make real world sense which is something I always appreciate. And for a game studio that built their prowess on a game that involves literal hand-holding, this game has almost none. Great game design shouldn't way-points to tell the player what to do or where to go and The Last Guardian is a shining example.

6. Ratchet and Clank

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I felt nostalgic joy playing Ratchet and Clank this year. Not for the franchise, of which I've never played before, but for the time period of games that it came out of. Games were simpler then. You jump and swing from platform to platform and you shoot the enemies. The multitude of weapons you get are varied and fun in their own way, providing lots of choice in how you approach a given situation.

Its gorgeous as well. It comes close to Pixar level fidelity at times which can be breath taking to marvel at and manages to keep a very solid framerate even through excessively chaotic, particle filled action. There are more levels than I expected but it doesn't overstay its welcome. They're also each lengthy and well designed, with areas locked behind weapon-availability not unlike Metroid. It works well, encouraging return visits to explore and enough variety to return to planets multiple times in the story without it becoming rote.

I almost never replay games. Ratchet and Clank somehow held my attention for two back to back full playthroughs and I still have an appetite for more. I had never played a R&C game before this one, but I now consider myself a big fan and hope to see more Ratchet and Clank from Insomniac in the future.

5. Titanfall 2

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Titanfall 2 feels so damn good to play. Within the first five minutes of the tutorial I caught myself grinning like an idiot. The movement and gunplay just flow together beautifully and comes the closest to reaching the game design end goal of a control system feeling like a natural extension of the physical player.

The single player campaign feels like a "best of" gallery of awesome things you can do in video games. Each level has it's own unique gameplay twist that makes it feel fresh and bombastically exciting the entire time. These varied missions do feel like they were created in service of fun gameplay rather then meshing with their pretty decent sci-fi story, which is honestly fine, because it doesn't necessarily get in the way, its just clearly not the priority. The nicest thing I can say about it is what a lot of other people are saying about it: it reminded me of Half Life 2. Hey Valve! Maybe let Respawn take a shot at Half-Life 3 if you're too busy swimming in money. I'd let them.

The multiplayer is just as good. It feels great and the weapons are for the most part balanced to be equally effective in any situation. I would say that the multiplayer maps leave something to be desired, however. They're not bad, but Titanfall 1's maps were much more interesting and memorable. There are a few new takes on the loadout and level up systems that work well and I could even see Call of Duty taking some notes for the future. The merit system replaces typical class and weapon XP and works by rewarding you a merit for things like overall match performance, ranking up with certain weapons and ranking up a titan, etc. Once you reach 10 merits you level up and unlock new abilities and skins for your pilot. Its simple and it helps retain the player-base who, like me, get put off by seeing the experience bar get further and further out of reach the higher you get.

4. Inside

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Inside makes Limbo seem like a tech demo. And I LOVE Limbo. Everything about the design was respectively refined, expanded upon and polished to a shine. Even the look is reminiscent of Limbo, with its strong contrast and lighting. Color is important here though, its sporadic use creates the context for it to be used powerfully.

Inside holds many mysteries, most of which are never fully resolved, perhaps even raising more questions than answers. It stuck with me for months because of this. The ending in particular, which I won't spoil here, is so bizarre and wonderful and only promotes more whispered questioning among players who experienced it. The puzzles and platforming are simple and work well to move the game along, though, interestingly, you're never quite sure whether you're running away from something or towards an end goal. The boy's apparent will to survive is all I needed. I wanted to help in any way I could, to help him escape, or get home, or break into a twisted scientific laboratory.

Inside is an experience and I can't recommend it enough.

3. Stardew Valley

Too real.
Too real.

Stardew Valley became my second home for a few weeks this year. I was obsessed. The "five more minutes" addiction I felt was unshakable, even playing into the early morning. Its a wonderful place, Stardew Valley, it exudes happiness and humor and is overflowing with heart. The passion put into this game by its lone designer, ConcernedApe, is felt in every aspect. The music, the art style and daily gameplay loop are all exceptional.

I love waking up every morning in Stardew Valley and deciding what to do with the day. Is it raining? Cool, don't have to water my plants. Better go to the mines. Sunny? Gotta fill the bucket and water the crops before I head down to the beach for a day full of fishing. Time moves when you do in Stardew Valley and you are pushed to do as much as you can before the sun sets on the town. Though that time limit is always there, it never feels oppressive because of the relaxed nature of the game.

Its baffling to me that this game was all made by a single person, because its all made so well. I couldn't single out a single aspect that sinks below another. It's cohesive singular vision helped it feel like one of the most complete packages of the year.

Stardew Valley was the best vacation I took this year and I can't wait to go back soon.

2. Overwatch

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Blizzard did it again. They took a well trodden genre and figured how to make it feel fresh, approachable and polished. The 20+ heroes all manage to feel balanced while retaining their own competitive strengths which is so hard to do. And most importantly they're all fun to play. I went into the game after playing the beta, thinking I would to play and practice until I felt comfortable playing one hero from each class. I wanted to feel useful in any given situation. But what I discovered was that I wanted to play every hero.

The best thing that Overwatch does is reward the player. I'm not a competitive person - but Overwatch makes you feel so good after every match that you can't help but try your best in every game. By only showing you the cool things you did, you feel compelled to put in your all at the chance of getting featured in the play of the game or in the end of match accolades. But its all based in pure positivity. The play of the game feature alone is a technical marvel and genius game design. Its all so brilliant and simple in its ideas, its amazing how no other competitive game has done the same.

I'm super excited for the future of Overwatch, because as incredible as it is in its current state, there is still so much room to grow. The monthly events have shown that the devs are capable of expanding it into almost any genre and I can't wait to see what they do next.

1. The Witness

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Playing through The Witness was an almost spiritual experience for me. All of the stuff that many people just glanced over or totally ignored in the game like the audio logs and unlockable videos in the theater, really, really clicked with me. That, and the unmatched attention to detail to the puzzle and architectural design create something truly profound. From my experience, The Witness is a game about truth-seeking, the desire to learn and how that feeds into the joy of discovery and epiphany. Early on, people had described the game as a “walking-simulator” about exploring an island and bashing your head against simplistic line puzzles until you did them all. After playing Jonathan Blow’s last game, Braid, and absorbing the following 8 years of deconstruction on its plot, I knew there had to be more to The Witness.

There is, for sure, but it doesn’t necessarily place that stuff in front of you. Though I guess you could argue that it does, masterfully hiding things in plain sight. The rest you have to work for. You have to learn the language of the island. I played through the game just as much with a small notebook and pencil as I did with a controller, wracking my brain attempting to decipher each puzzle panel, using all previous knowledge and notes to help solve the next one.

The game is almost completely open ended, you are free to explore in any direction, right from the get go. The beautiful thing about it, is that it is the individual player that creates a personal linear experience from the knowledge they’ve attained so far. Discovering new areas of the island and coming up against a figurative brick wall, lets you know that you have more to learn. This can be frustrating at first, but stick with it and you slowly collect the all the knowledge you need. The process accelerates as you go and it all builds to unlocking the monumental challenge of the mountain descent and it’s final challenge, testing everything that you have learned and flipping much of it on its head.

There are about 4 puzzles visible in this image alone.
There are about 4 puzzles visible in this image alone.

I was in constant amazement of the meticulously crafted island that it takes place on for the entire 40 or so hours I spent there. Everything was placed with purpose and perfection and that’s totally not hyperbole. Seriously, absolutely everything; every rock, every blade of grass, every brick in the wall, needed to be placed perfectly and purposefully for the game to work as a whole. The island is filled with hundreds and hundreds of puzzles to solve, all of which manage to feel unique despite being founded in a very simple mechanic.

The first time I realized the mystery behind the black obelisks strewn throughout the landscape, I was floored and overjoyed. I had found what the game was hiding the whole time. I knew Jonathan Blow had something up his sleeve. The gameplay window that it suddenly opens wide for the player is the moment that I look back on, even a year later and get goosebumps about. Its brilliant and raises questions about cognitive theory and the infamous “Tetris effect” that I find absolutely fascinating. It simultaneously amazes me and crushes me that it is entirely possible for someone to never even notice them or their meaning.

For whatever reason, I link a lot of memories and emotions to the aesthetics and architecture of a setting. It’s kind of an indescribable sixth-sense sort of feeling. The “feng-shui” if you will. There’s a simplicity in The Witness’s art design and mid-century postmodern and brutalist architecture that just speaks to me on a personal level more than any other game. Blow even hired two architectural firms to establish the unique yet cohesive look of each section of the island.

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Much like last year’s Life is Strange, The Witness feels like a game made for me. It’s got challenging puzzles, deep mysteries and open world exploration. Sprinkle in some postmodernism, buddhist philosophy and existential pondering and you’ve got my full attention. There’s so much I can say about The Witness and what it means to me. It is also worth noting, though, that there is also a lot to be said about pretentiousness in Jonathan Blow’s games. The Witness can certainly walk a fine line, even including an audio log found in the game of two artists discussing whether or not their work will be construed as being pretentious. Just including that in the game acknowledges the idea that maybe we should be less afraid to recognize genius, even if it’s our own.

This game can make you feel like a genius at times when you solve the puzzles. Its an indescribable experience, to realize your own puzzling prowess finally pay off after sometimes hours of squinting at a puzzle board. I even somehow actually solved a puzzle in my sleep. That's not a metaphor for its difficulty, I literally realized the solution to a puzzle that had been kept just out of reach that day, while I was sleeping. Its all by design. You are meant to be consumed by the island's mysteries and deceptively simplistic puzzles. Intellectual enlightenment has the potential to steer our lives and lift us as a species and we should never discourage it. Following this movement of growing of anti-intellectualism in the world and organized religion's bottomless pocket of scientific ignorance, it becomes even more poignant today.

The Witness is absolutely not for everybody, but it’s for me. It says so much without actually having to say much of anything at all. I want everyone to have those incredible experiences I got when unlocking the game’s many secrets. It’s a masterpiece. And in a year filled with great games, I can comfortably say that The Witness is not only my favorite game of 2016 but my favorite game of all time.

Also, please watch this video - but only if you have played the game! It is an incredible analysis of the various ideologies and themes featured in The Witness and helped me love the game even more.

Most Disappointing

Final Fantasy XV you win!

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This game was so disappointing because while I like so much about the huge and interesting world and the fact that it plays so well, the story and missions are a complete and utter disaster.

Minor Spoilers.

I really don't understand how anyone can defend this game's story. I'm talking about the story that is IN the game. Right now. Not Kingsglaive and not Brotherhood. The only consistent thing about it, is that its constantly trying way too hard to make you feel for the characters or emotional moments that are not even close to paying off. It doesn't earn any of its "payoffs" really. The game itself tells us just enough to understand who these characters are but no where near enough to care about them the things that are happening. A great example is that awkward cut at the end of chapter 2(?) to the Kingsglaive cutscene that was done so haphazardly. And its not the last time they try to do it. I suspect, but hope otherwise, that they will attempt to fix the story by just sprinkling in more scenes from that movie where they seem to fit best.

The three core party members I actually did like, mostly just in their ambient dialogue. But Noctis is mostly silent and stoic throughout the entire game and despite the entire plot revolving around him, he probably has the least amount of actual dialogue. That's including Luna, who is also of apparently huge importance but is in the game for a total of about 5 minutes or less. The game is just riddled with so many literal plot holes where they didn't even bother explaining the random disappearance or sudden changes of several characters who were built up to have future plot relevance (Cor, Iris, Aranea, Ravus etc.). And Gladio leaving in Chapter 8 with absolutely no explanation when he had ONE. JOB. Protect the King. Worst of all, some of the most important plot points are entirely missable, told over the in game radio that you have to manually find and listen to.

*Snaps fingers*
*Snaps fingers* "I've come up with a new recipe!"

Show. Don't tell.

Hell, put Kingsglaive in and make us watch the two hours if the story is so important to understanding anything about the game.

People talk about Chapter 13 being the worst, but for me the 3 minute power plant sequence was so insane, out-of-place and bafflingly stupid that that's where I lost all genuine interest in the story they were trying to force down our throats for the second half of the game. And when it came down to the end after more lengthy quick time events, it was so obviously reaching for peoples emotions, that it all just felt so forced and undeserved.

Maybe I held the genre to too high a standard and maybe Square Enix will fix the story through patches. I do think its possible. And to be clear, I like the gameplay and world of the game a whole lot and I am looking forward to digging more into the endgame content, but the story on the disc is just indefensible and not just to modern RPG standards.

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Runner up: Nintendo.

Come on guys you had almost nothing notable this year. The Switch lineup better knock it out of the park next year.

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