Friday, January 15, 2016

Year in Review and Best of 2015 Part 2 - Games

Welcome to the video game section of the 2015 Year in Review! Click here for Part 1 - Movies. This year saw some solid games, including the long awaited release of Metal Gear Solid V and the much delayed English release of Yakuza 5. A few older games saw nice new re-releases and a milestone was met in gaming history, as Noby Noby Boy completed its six year mission. This summer also marked one of the saddest industry stories this year, as Nintendo's Satoru Iwata passed away from cancer at 55. Iwata served as both corporate president and as a creative force and his presence will be missed. Hideo Kojima finally departed from Konami following the release of MGS5 after years of conflict, and his Silent Hill reboot was quietly cancelled.

Rather than just list a few top picks, I'm going to do something different for this year's list and create tiered ranks for every film I watched and every video game I played. The top tier choices get a paragraph each, the rest get a sentence or two. Bear with me; this is a pretty long list.

As usual, this article is an evolving piece and will be updated if I see anything else from the past year that is good enough to warrant going back for. I'm listing the system I played each game on, but many of these are available elsewhere. I still haven't played, and want to play, Mad Max and Batman: Arkham Knight. I've been told I should play Undertale but haven't been in a rush to try it.

Games of 2015

Top Tier:

Bloodborne (PS4) - From Software's latest title doesn't bear the Souls name, but is a spiritual sequel to Demon's Souls and Dark Souls in every way. Bloodborne shifts focus from shields, armor, and magic, throwing players into a much more agile, action-packed world. Giant weapons swing with ease as players roll and flip their way around deadly bosses in a nightmare world inspired by Victorian architecture and the writing of H.P. Lovecraft in a subtle story that blends cosmic horror with the subtext of man's insecurities regarding childbirth and physical change. I found its world more interesting than the ones found in the earlier Souls games and love the new, faster pacing. The recently released Old Hunters DLC expands the game's story with extremely difficult new areas and grotesque monsters that really round out the fairly short (compared to a Souls game) main campaign. This one's tied with Metal Gear as my favorite game of the year.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4) - My number one game of the year, and one which I've written thousands of words about already. Featuring the best stealth/action game play of the year, the best soundtrack of the year, and a cast of extremely well realized characters, I absolutely love this game. For more on what I found so compelling, check out my full review/analysis, my critique of the game's online component, and some music videos. Hideo Kojima's final title at Konami is a fitting swan song.

Until Dawn (PS4) - Another interactive movie/story game in the vein of Walking Dead and Life is Strange, Until Dawn is a brilliant, satirical take on horror films. There's a lot of Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Thing, The Descent, Saw, and even Jurassic Park in here, as a basic "teenagers in the woods with a slasher" story evolves into a monster movie involving Native American mythology. It's written extremely well, and is able to win your sympathies for its cast even while going out of its way to introduce most of them as detestable jerks. This is satire done right; it doesn't just dumbly reference these films, but rather twists and plays with their themes while showing clear reverence for them. It's more Edgar Wright than the trash satire that rose out of the muck from the likes of Scary Movie. It's also the sort of game David Cage tried making with Heavy Rain before falling down a hole of bad writing; Until Dawn is loyal to its premise throughout and never disrespects the player's intelligence. With its mixture of story, exploration, psychoanalysis, and hiding from monsters, Until Dawn is a spiritual sequel to the excellent Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.


Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (PS4) - There's a lot of debate among Souls fans as to which game in the series is the best and which one is unplayably bad; lots of people who get into these games seem to really hate at least one of them, for one reason or another. I don't fall into that category: I've loved all four of them. The oft-maligned Dark Souls II doesn't have the same cohesive world design as its predecessor, but is nonetheless a very fun game with a ton of options and some wonderful boss fights. Scholar of the First Sin offers improved visuals, a great frame rate, some rebalanced and rearranged enemies, spells, and weapons, online play that works far easier than it did on the original PS3 version, and all of the original game's massive DLC areas have been integrated into the main game, along with a new ending and final boss. It's an improvement in every way on an already excellent title.

DmC: Devil May Cry: Definitive Edition (PS4) - Another re-release that fixes a game with lots of little issues, the Definitive Edition of Ninja Theory's Devil May Cry reboot is faster, harder, and prettier than the original version. DmC is still an easier game than Devil May Cry 1, 3, and 4 were, lacking their deep potential for extravagant combos and stylish complexity, but as a straight action game, it's extremely solid, and I found it more casually fun than any other installment of the series. There was backlash against this game from day one, but it's mostly overblown; the new, brattier Dante really isn't very different from the original incarnation, and the story is better than usual, even if it's told in a pretty (endearingly) stupid way. I enjoyed the original release, but Definitive Edition really is a huge improvement. Within its genre, this game is still weaker than last year's Bayonetta 2, but that's an incredibly high bar to set.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (PS4) - If there's a trend in this list, it's that I tend to like titles that make gamers mad. Dark Souls II, DmC, and even Metal Gear tend to cause angry explosions on internet forums, but nothing seems to set people off the way so called "walking simulators" do. That is, games where there's little to no action, merely set pieces for players to walk around while a story plays out. People love to debate whether these are even games, because if there's one thing gamers love more than fighting online, it's obsessive categorization. I don't care. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is the best of this genre that I've played, featuring lovely music, a pretty but desolate and sombre town in the English countryside, and a story of fear, paranoia, and rapture that feels heavily Twilight Zone. The only flaw is that even with the run button held down, you do still move too slowly.

Life is Strange (PS4) - Telltale Games' 2012 Walking Dead title started a trend in episodic, story driven games based around dialogue choices and light puzzles. The quality of these titles since has varied greatly, with Telltale's own Walking Dead Season 2 featuring a massive drop in writing quality from the original season. Life is Strange is Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix's attempt at the genre, and it's a big success. The story is a mixture of Stephen King and David Lynch (with some really blatant Twin Peaks references), a cosmically doomed love story featuring a young high school girl with the ability to rewind time, desperately trying to keep her best friend alive while trying to solve a murder mystery. There's no easy way out and the choices players make are often hard ones, with no clear right or wrong path. Aside from the over use of embarrassing slang in the first episode and some questionable acting direction, Life is Strange is a strong story that does the impossible in the video game world: It actually gets better with each episode.

Super Mario Maker (Wii U) - Nintendo's wonderful Mario Maker is half tool, half game; if you have no interest in designing your own levels based on Super Mario Bros 1, 3, Mario World, and New Super Mario, you might be let down. There are a few dozen short, Nintendo-made levels that are all quite good, but the appeal here is in making and sharing your own content. There's a lot of utter garbage out there; stages that are hard in completely unfun ways, stages where you don't do anything but run in a straight line, and way too many "press nothing" stages that are technically impressive but impossibly boring. Thankfully you can subscribe to users who make good stages, and sharing with these people is a ton of fun. Nintendo has also been uploading new levels, often giving new character costumes as a reward for completing them. There's some awkward product placement (say, an entire level designed by Mercedes) but it's not a big deal. It's worth it to be able to play a Mario game as Earthbound's Master Belch.

Mega Man Legacy Collection (PS4) - Is it unfair to include this one on here? It's a collection of the six NES Mega Man games, reproduced faithfully and sold at half the price of buying them individually on PS3/Wii/3DS. For $15, you get six classic titles that have aged well (I had never played Mega Man 6 before this, and now it's one of my favorites) as well as a series of challenge stages that remix room orders, throw you into boss rushes, and test your speed and willingness to use glitches to get high scores. This isn't a "new" title, but it's a collection made with such love and care (there are tons of art galleries to view and songs to listen to) and this is the sort of treatment other classic games deserve. I'd love a Contra or Castlevania collection done in this style.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows (PS4/Wii U) - The year's best DLC is completely free: A new, full length campaign for Yacht Club Games' excellent Shovel Knight. Plague of Shadows is a free update that adds hours of game play with completely new physics, skills, and combat styles. The stages are reused from the base game, but every bit of movement and combat is so new that it feels completely different. The story is also all new, a sweet "nerds in love" tale.

Yakuza 5 (PS3) - Yes, one of the best games of 2015 is a PS3 title originally released in 2012. It took three years to finally get an English release via Sony's new Third Party Productions team, after Sega passed on bringing any more games in the series out of Japan. Yakuza 5 is the biggest game in the series, featuring five protagonists across five cities, tons of side stories for each character, and a massive amount of dude fighting and dance fighting. A big part of the game is a rhythm game starring the foster daughter of series hero Kazuma Kiryu, the first time she's been playable in the series. There's also a loyal (but small) port of Namco's Taiko Drum Master rhythm game included, as well as the arcade version of Virtua Fighter 2. Overall #5 is a weaker game than Yakuza 4, with an especially weak second chapter, but it's still spectacularly fun and endearing.

Very Good:

Axiom Verge (PS4) - One man's journey to make a large, Metroid-inspired title on his own is largely a success. Axiom Verge is a fun, pretty game with a ton of exploration, but suffers from some sloppy boss design in the second half and an outright bad final area. Still, this is a very strong Metroid-type game.

Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition (PS4) - A remastered version of Capcom's 2008 Devil May Cry title looks nicer than ever and still fun today, but even when it was new, it was a repetitive game that rehashed half of its content, including making players fight every boss at least three times. The new edition adds some new playable characters, but they're all still fighting the same guys in the same levels, even if the story makes no sense for them to be doing this.

Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below (PS4) -  Dragon Quest meets Dynasty Warriors in a cute, silly brawler with a surprisingly fun strategic element that blends a tower defense game with a fast-paced action game. Filled with puns and goofy monsters, DQH has a Saturday morning cartoon story that's never interesting but usually at least a little funny. Featuring heroes from throughout the franchise, the combat is smooth and always fun, even if it's sometimes easy to lose track of your character when there's a lot of spells on screen at once.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (Wii U) - Nintendo's sequel to their DS title Kirby and the Canvas Curse sees a return to the ball rolling, path drawing game play of the original with a fresh new claymation art style. This is an easy and short game, as most Kirby titles are, but it's beautiful and always fun, with a pretty fun co-op mode.

Splatoon (Wii U) - One of the most successful titles on the Wii U being an entirely new IP is a surprise; it being a third-person shooter, a genre Nintendo has little experience with, is even more surprising. Splatoon is a candy-colored paintball experience featuring kids that turn into squids, a family friendly shooting game with none of the gross viscera often associated with the genre. The single player campaign is fairly unimpressive, but if you're into online battles, there's a lot to love here.

Soma (PS4) - Another title focused largely on walking from place to place, Soma is really close to being one of this year's best titles; the only problem comes from scenes where you have to run away from enemies, which can effectively ruin the horror by forcing you to go through too much repetition. A sci-fi story set under the sea, Soma smartly reveals its big twists early on, leaving the player and the lead character to ponder and come to peace with its consequences, rather than dumb info on you at the very end.

Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PS4) - I hadn't played the previous Witcher games or read the novels, so I was a little lost here regarding who was who, but in spite of that I really enjoyed this game's world and its residents. This is a rare RPG where the choices you make are absolutely not a good/evil dichotomy, and it's not about winning points with various factions; players have to make genuine, difficult choices that can totally screw over the game's supporting characters inadvertently. A huge world with tons to do, Witcher 3's only flaw is a repetitive combat system that feels weightless and dull.

Yoshi Wooly World (Wii U) - Finally, a good sequel to 1995's Yoshi's Island. It only took 20 years and  handful of bad sequels to get here, but Wooly World is a great game with an awesome wool-knit art style. It's a nice co-op title and great for chilling out.


Fallout 4 (PS4) - A wonderful world with a couple of fun characters is brought down by endless swaths of boring combat and a story that I never felt I had any influence on. When I'm given four dialogue choices and three of them are essentially the same thing, something has gone wrong.

Hatoful Boyfriend (PS4) - What if a Japanese dating game/visual novel was about weird birds instead of anime girls? Hatoful Boyfriend is funny satire, but very limited as a game and wears thin if you replay it multiple times to unlock the game's secret second half.

Rock Band 4 (PS4) - Harmonix's return to the world of music games is, somehow, the most feature-bare of any Rock Band title, featuring a truly poor character creator, an in-game store that crashes more often than not, and the removal of Rock Band 3's keyboard and pro guitar instruments. You've still got drums, vocals, and standard guitars, so if you just want more Rock Band, this is still a fun experience. The best new feature is having vocal harmonies added to all previous content, and thankfully, most DLC from last generation's consoles works in the new game. It's just poor when you look at the features that were lost form the last game and when you look at how sloppy and ugly the user interface is.

Rocket League (PS4) - A fun, goofy game that combines RC cars and soccer. I enjoyed it for a few hours but it didn't really capture me the way it has for so many other players.

Spelunker World (PS4) - Spelunker HD was one of my favorite PS3 titles. Its sequel is an uglier game that's free to play, but thankfully you never need to spend money to advance. Real money is used for extra lives and chances to win new costumes, but you never need the costumes and can earn more than enough lives if you play well. Stage design is a big step down from Spelunker HD, the game's biggest problem. There's far less fear of death here.

Below Average:

Chibi-Robo Zip Lash (3DS) - Why can't Nintendo just make another open adventure title like the original GameCube Chibi-Robo? The latest game is a bland platformer with obscene amounts of product placement (characters spend paragraphs talking about how exciting various real brands of potato chips are) and an awful stage progression system, where a spinning wheel is used to select your next destination, leading to forced replays of long stages you've already fully cleared.

Earthbound Beginnings (Wii U) - Originally released in Japan on the Famicom as Mother in 1989, Earthbound Beginnings' Wii U port is the first time this title has been available commercially in English. It's essentially a prototype for 1994's excellent Earthbound/Mother 2, hitting many of the same story beats and visual styles. The random battle rate is so high that it kills the game, but it's still worth looking at as a curiosity to see where Earthbound came from.

Titan Souls (PS4) - A good concept that never really worked for me, Titan Souls is an all boss fight game with puzzle-based fights and overly twitchy action that feels more dependent on luck than anything else.


Apotheon (PS4) - An attempt to blend the art style of Grecian urns with the gameplay of a modern Castlevania title should be good. Unfortunately, this game's controls, combat, and dialogue are all so atrociously bad that I felt my time was wasted even when I got my copy for free via Playstation Plus.

Q*Bert Rebooted (PS4) - How do you screw up Q*Bert? By remaking it and adding a grind to unlock stages, a hideous free-to-play style unlock system within a fully paid for game, and a port of the arcade original that can't even save high scores.

Super Exploding Zoo (PS4) - A dull puzzle game with idiot art where cute things burst into blood. Another PS Plus game that I regret playing for free, possibly the worst of them this year. At least Apotheon got me to finish the game.

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