GOTY 2016

I didn't get to play nearly as many of the big releases from 2016 as I wanted, so my list is sadly lacking a lot of major games. Despite my lack of funds, I did manage to acquire around 20 games from this year, and have refined them down into my Top 10. These are the games that left an impression on me, one way or another.

List items

  • DOOM is fucking incredible. It is the perfect return to a franchise that has laid dormant for years: staying true to the spirit of what made the original so great while smartly innovating the formula where it made sense to do so. Everything about it just feels so damn good. You move at a 90s-era breakneck pace, nimbly darting around combat arenas and skirting danger. Combat is tense and frenetic, forcing the player to balance the safety of range with the need to close in for melee Glory Kills that refill your health. Every level is superbly designed, giving you countless options to approach any combat scenario, and packed to the brim with secrets. Unlike the secrets in the original games, these secrets make you better at demon slaughtering, improving your weapons and abilities in satisfying new ways. The story manages to meld a ridiculous concept with a deathly serious tone and some clever dark humor in a way that is gleefully enjoyable despite being totally unessential. In total, this game has the best campaign in a shooter since Half-Life 2, without question. Despite the game’s forgettable multiplayer and merely vaguely interesting Snapmap modes, DOOM is without question my favorite overall game of the year. Pardon the pun, but it’s a hell of a ride.

  • The Witness is the best-designed puzzle game I’ve ever played. Everything about it was expertly tuned over the course of its nearly eight-year development cycle in order to naturally teach the player how to solve its hundreds of puzzles. This process was my favorite part of the game, slowly piecing together the logic of the various symbols and mechanics just by solving puzzles and intuiting what the solutions told me. Over my roughly 20 hours with the game, I refined my “cheat list” until it was perfect: a cipher that gave me the information I needed to solve any puzzle in the game but only if I could wrap my brain around it. Despite the sometimes overwhelming challenge of certain areas, I always seemed to figure it out just when I was about to give up--another element of the game’s stellar design. Even the world itself--which is absolutely gorgeous, by the way--felt like a puzzle, for both obvious and hidden reasons. No other game this year made me use my brain like this. No other game kept me awake as I lay in bed, trying to solve the last puzzle that had left me stumped before finally slinking off for the night. No other game made me feel like such a genius.

  • I’ve been in love with the Harvest Moon series for over a decade. Imagine my glee when I discovered Stardew Valley, an incredibly charming “clone” of Harvest Moon packed with creative new ideas AND on the PC, a platform bereft of this genre! Everything I love about these games is still here; even better, it all feels even more addicting than I remembered. The loop is so quick and enticing that I often found myself playing for several hours longer than I originally intended. There are countless things to do and secrets to discover. The artstyle clearly evokes the look and feel of the original Harvest Moon games while also adding a lot of its own personality, especially in the design of the characters. The soundtrack is also one of the best of the year, a peaceful and charming array of tracks that change to fit the various seasons. It even got a huge patch a few months back that added an insane amount of new content for absolutely no cost! All of this from a single developer who worked on it for years, a passion project honoring a game he loved that manages to surpass that game in every way.

  • I had thought I was done with multiplayer shooters, but Blizzard of all companies managed to pull me back in. Overwatch has the same lovingly crafted world and smartly accessible design that goes into all of their titles, but this one grabbed me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Mostly, I just adore the array of characters. Each of them has a striking visual design, a compelling set of abilities, and a unique personality. I’ve fallen in love with characters like Mei and D.Va solely through their mannerisms, despite these mannerisms only appearing in small chunks via voice lines and emotes. Getting to play as, and interact with, this cast is the main reason I keep playing. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the gameplay a great deal too. There aren’t any game modes or types of maps that you haven’t seen in other multiplayer shooters before, sure, but there’s a clever design to the flow of the game that makes it stand out. Stalemates and intense last-minute holdouts happen far more frequently than you might expect, keeping excitement high. The game also cleverly encourages teamwork via abilities that synergize well and varied team compositions. Furthermore, there’s a laid-back feel to the game that promotes experimentation and enjoyment while also packing a competitive edge (and gamemode) for those who want that. While I have put the game down for a few months recently, I still got enough fun out of it to place it highly on my list..

  • Tomb Raider (2013) was a weird game for me. Despite really enjoying my initial playthrough, I find myself disliking the inconsistencies of Lara’s character/physical state and the Uncharted-esque setpieces where you barely feel like you’re playing. Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, only got better when I revisited it for the second time. Crystal Dynamics smartly improved on many of the previous game’s ideas and achieved something that feels much more like its own thing instead of an Uncharted clone. The plot is expertly paced and has some excellent character moments with Lara. The world feels more dense and fun to explore. Basic gunplay is much tighter, eliminating the weird looseness to aiming. There’s a greater focus on actually exploring ancient tombs, even allowing you to discover relics that give you noteworthy upgrades. Most importantly (to me at least), there are far fewer mindless setpieces that strip away your control. Finally, the game is absolutely gorgeous, especially on PC, and features some of the most lifelike animation I’ve ever seen in a main character.

  • Hitman: Absolution is maybe one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever played. It took everything fun and creative about the Hitman series and left it on the cutting room floor, instead opting for a more action-y style devoid of any charm. When the new Hitman was announced, I was obviously skeptical initially, especially amidst the confusion about the episodic structure it would follow. Somehow, Hitman managed to overcome all of these issues and turn out pretty damn well. The revamping of the control system allows for some ridiculous escapes/assassinations, and one of the maps from the first season is among the best in the series: an intricately designed setpiece with loads of ways to kill your targets. Sadly, I did still have some issues with it, namely very inconsistent performance on PC for months and the varying quality of the maps. I’m also not a big fan of the mastery system, as I feel it can easily make the game into a rote checklist of goals instead of the open sandbox it should be. Still, there is more than enough love and silliness here to keep me entertained.

  • As an undying fan of all things rhythm-based, I can’t have a top 10 list without including a rhythm game. This year, it’s the remake/homage Amplitude. The gameplay is just as solid as it was on PS2, with the balancing act of playing multiple distinct tracks that make up the song still being incredibly hectic yet rewarding. Despite the sparse presentation and lack of modes, there’s a good number of tracks and plenty of difficulties to overcome. The main highlight of the game, however, is the absolutely incredible soundtrack. While there are “bonus” songs from a variety of artists like Freezepop and Danny Baranowsky, the clear winner here is the 15 songs that make up the “story” mode. These tracks form a concept album, each revolving around the theme of a patient who is in a coma and whose brain is being treated by this process. Each of these tracks is better than last, using a variety of electronic styles and actually including some thoughtfully relevant lyrics. I was blown away the first time I heard it, and it’s an absolute joy to hear again and again as I keep going back to the game.

  • Dialogue is the hardest thing to nail, regardless of medium. Keeping dialogue natural while still relaying important information and building character relationships is something few pieces of fiction manage to pull off. Video games are often particularly bad at this, with many conversations feeling entirely disconnected from the characters and the situation. Oxenfree manages to subvert this expectation, delivering a tightly plotted story filled with authentic dialogue and character. The discourse between the game’s teenaged characters carefully treads that line between cringeworthy realism and absurdities no actual teen would ever dare speak, only rarely faltering. There’s also a great flow to every conversation, with lines coming out of characters in a manner that always feels conversational. Tying it all together is a creative sci-fi story with unexpected repercussions for your every dialogue choice, making it very enticing to go back for a second round.

  • The original Odin Sphere was an impenetrable game for me. As someone coming to it years after its release, the outdated gameplay was just too much to handle. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir, on the other hand, is an easily approachable reworking that vastly improves on the original’s systems while retaining the charming core. Nearly every system was overhauled, but the true winner is the combat: what was originally an unresponsive novelty by today’s standards is now fast and flashy without sacrificing depth. There is a relentlessly engaging pace that remains enjoyable throughout its 30-40 hour length, thanks to constantly finding new gear, unlocking new abilities, and steadily leveling your character to keep up with the challenge. The five different characters also have entirely unique playstyles, which helps overcome some of the repetition in enemies and environments. I enjoyed the story a great deal as well, a sharply voice-acted epic with a ton of great emotional moments and an unexpected ending.

  • At its core, Firewatch is a game about people. Campo Santo managed to create a pair of characters that feel remarkably believable solely through their conversations with one another. Since the game’s narrative unfolds over a course of a few months, there is a very real sense of a building relationship; as time passes, the two get to know each other and slowly become more open and comfortable with one another. The voice acting is a large part of this believability, as both Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones do a fantastic job delivering their lines, managing a human cadence that is often missing in games. When the strange and mysterious story picks up and things start going wrong, there is a clear sense of tension and fear in both performances. Even though the ending of this story doesn’t quite hit with the impact you’d think it should, the bittersweet final notes just feel more like real life.