Thursday, January 12, 2017

Year in Review and Best of 2016 Part 2 - Games

The Year in Review continues! This time I'm looking at the games I played in 2016. I'm skipping straight ports of games I'd previously played (The PS4 ports of A Boy and His Blob and Dead Rising) but including titles such as Gone Home and Kholat, which hadn't seen console releases until this year.

2016 saw the release of two titles that had been long, long, long delayed: The Last Guardian, which began development in 2007, and Final Fantasy XV, whose troubled development started out as the confusingly named Final Fantasy Versus XIII in 2006. This year, Sony launched the PS4 Pro and Microsoft launched the Xbox One S, mid-generation upgrades to their current platforms, while Nintendo prepares to launch their new handheld-console hybrid the Nintendo Switch, set for release in March of 2017. A new Pokemon game was released on 3DS to high praise while the smartphone title Pokemon Go became a cultural phenomenon for a short while. Sony and Sega announced that Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, and Yakuza 6 would all be getting English releases, and the world was made a little brighter.

What games did I like this year? Surprisingly, my top three are all first-person games! I'm someone that usually gets a little motion sick from first-person cameras in games, but these three were so good that I was able to overlook that. Let's take a look at the rankings!

Top Tier - My favorite games of the year.

Doom - I certainly never expected a reboot of 1993's classic shooter Doom to be one of my favorite games this year! Like Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV, this game had a troubled development cycle, starting its life as Doom 4 in 2008. The new Doom is extremely fast, fluid, and unafraid to be completely silly without being smug about it. It's a rare modern first-person shooter that focuses on its single player campaign, though there is a tacked-on multiplayer mode here too. The monsters offer nice variety and are fun to fight, exploring its levels is smooth and rewarding, the music is over-the-top in just the right way, and the story takes itself just seriously enough. From collecting color-coded keys to shooting down giant demon bosses, Doom feels like a throwback to action games of the early 90's in all the right ways. There's a lot of nostalgia on display, but not at the expense of creating something new. The pace at which you encounter new weapons, enemies, and abilities is perfect.

Overwatch - In the exact opposite direction of Doom, Overwatch is a first person shooter that focuses exclusively on multiplayer, discarding a single-player campaign entirely. In a way, that's a shame, because Overwatch's goofy cartoon cast is charming enough to make for a good story mode. Still, the multiplayer, which focuses very heavily on teamwork, is extremely rewarding and I don't normally get into multiplayer shooters. Overwatch, which allows you to focus on healing, support, and defensive characters in addition to dudes that shoot, lets players of all skill levels get in on the fun and I never feel like I'm dragging my team down by having mediocre aim. There's enough character and stage variety here that you can switch things up when they start to get stale, and Blizzard has done a good job releasing new characters and stages free of charge. The only paid content beyond the game's initial cost is a system for unlocking cosmetics, which are easily unlocked by regular play anyway. This is the system Capcom should have used for Street Fighter V.

The Witness - Jonathan Blow's 2008 puzzle-platformer Braid made a splash in the indie gaming scene as one of the first big Xbox Live Arcade titles on the Xbox 360. Its mixture of clever time-rewinding platforming, painted landscapes, and obtuse story made it stand out among indie platformers. 12 years later, Blow followed up his design debut with The Witness, a first-person puzzler focused on exploration and line drawing puzzles. It's a deceptively simple concept that grows more and more complex and rewarding as players translate the game's puzzles into their own sort of language. See my in-depth look here for more on this wonderful title, easily one of the year's best.

Excellent - Great games worth your time.

Final Fantasy XV - No doubt, this game has some rough spots: Major story beats are interrupted by fetch quests, characters get more invested in the off-screen death of a minor NPC than a family member, and supporting characters wander into and out of the story at random. We're introduced to a variety of villains early on; few ever show up, and the ones that do are half-baked. In spite of all that, FF15 has managed to become one of my favorite Final Fantasies. While the global story is nonsense, the personal story is great; at its core, it's four friends on one last road trip before growing up, facing loss, finding themselves, and enjoying some tasty meals. It often feels like the story is happening TO you, rather than you being a part of the world's narrative, but that's appropriate to this coming of age story in its own way. Each of the four main dudes surprised me and rose above their archetypes, with everything coming together in a strong, satisfying ending. On top of all that: The combat's semi-automatic action is pleasant, driving around the world is relaxing, and sometimes the parts where you waste time wandering away from responsibilities are the most enjoyable.

Firewatch - A simple first-person puzzle game with an exploration narrative. Firewatch focuses on two isolated people who fled to the woods to escape personal demons, one controlled by the player and one that you communicate with entirely by radio. Players control the tone of the dialogue similar to Telltale Games titles (the director and lead writer was also in charge of Telltale's first Walking Dead game) while following a mostly set narrative. Figuring out where to go by following your map and compass is straightforward and comfortable, unlike this year's horror mess Kholat. The paranoia of isolation plays a big part in this game, along with the consequences of running away from responsibilities. Also, you can adopt a turtle.

Gone Home: Console Edition - A first-person narrative that's extremely small and personal in scale. Originally released on PC in 2013, a console version was developed in 2016 for PS4 and Xbox One. Gone Home is one of the most influential titles in its genre, where players simply explore an area and experience a narrative with no action to interrupt the mood. While this genre has become fairly common in indie games, Gone Home does something right that most others don't: There's a high volume of objects to explore and interact with, and the player character has something to say about most of them. Too often, exploration-narrative games only focus on the items that open up the next bit of story; Gone Home is more interested in creating an authentic, organic world.

The Last Guardian - Fumito Ueda is a man who knows how to take his time. With the launch of Ico on the PS2 in 2001 and its follow up Shadow of the Colossus in 2005, Ueda and Team ICO established themselves as a passionate, creative group focused on games where the action itself, whether puzzling, platforming, or fighting, directly connects to story and themes in a way few games try to. Then, they went silent. Years of announcements, trailers, and missed release dates turned the team's third title, The Last Guardian, into a phantom. Development lasted nearly a decade, missing its original PS3 platform entirely as it moved to the PS4 and slid back time and time again. Against all odds: It's a fantastic game. Feeling more Ico than Shadow of the Colossus, Last Guardian focuses on puzzles that must be solved cooperatively by a small, defenseless child and his giant cat-bird-monster companion, controlled by AI. It's a game that demands patience and care, as you treat your monster buddy well and gently guide him to where you need to go. There were only a few moments where I felt that the AI got confused, and a couple of puzzles more frustrating than interesting, but ultimately it's a wonderful game that absolutely deserves to be played by anyone with a PS4 and an understanding that sometimes, you've just got to move slow. One of the system's best exclusives.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - I wasn't a fan of Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot series on the PS1, and I only gave their PS3 debut Uncharted: Drake's Fortune a brief try before giving up. It wasn't until 2013 with The Last of Us that a Naughty Dog game really connected with me. More than that, it ended up being one of my favorites of the year, and remains one of the most well-executed cinematic action games I've played, taking a tired subject and imbuing it with strong characters and solid writing. Uncharted 4 follows the same path, though with a much more action-heavy bend. It takes a fairly stock story of treasure hunting, revenge, and redemption and makes it into something truly personal and special, all while showcasing some beautiful landscapes and set pieces. Combat is a decent mix of stealth and shooting supported by strong AI and a wide variety of options. It's a linear, story-driven experience, but is nonetheless a joy to explore every hidden bit of. Naughty Dog knows that making compelling story scenes in a game requires more than just sticking a camera to the wall and letting the characters talk; as in Last of Us, there is genuinely good cinematography here.

Very Good - Strong games with standout elements.

Chronicles of Teddy: Harmony of Exidus - What an awful name for a lovely, well-made tribute to Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link. Featuring a large world, gorgeous giant monster sprites, and combat straight out of Zelda 2, Chronicles of Teddy deserves to be played by anyone who's a fan of Nintendo's often maligned Zelda sequel. The story's largely world-building nonsense (and shockingly wordy early on) and some of the boss fights are too repetitive, but otherwise this is a very strong action title that's challenging but rarely unfair.

Dark Souls III - I feel it's a little unfair to rank this one in the Very Good section as opposed to Excellent, because this is an excellent game. The problem is that it feels too much like the previous Dark Souls titles, to the point that even a series this good is starting to feel worn out. Filled with references to the previous games, Dark Souls III rarely has a strong identity of its own, and it didn't hold my attention across multiple playthroughs the way Demon's Souls and the previous two Dark Souls did. It also comes on the heels of its 2015 cousin Bloodborne, which has grown to be my favorite of From Software's games. If this is someone's introduction to the Souls series, they'll find an excellent, punishing-but-fair game. For those of us who have invested hundreds of hours in these games, it's more of the same, even if it's still fantastic. It's on par with, maybe a little better than, Dark Souls II, but I already played that game to death.

Let it Die - Originally announced in early 2013 as Lily Bergamo, this collaboration between Grasshopper Manufacture and GungHo Online Entertainment dropped nearly everything about its original announcement when it turned into Let it Die more than a year later. In spite of its gory, grim reveal trailer, Let it Die is actually a pretty funny, stupid game that has a good time with itself. Playing like a rougher version of a Dark Souls game, Let it Die takes players on a journey through a post-apocalyptic world full of ludicrous fashion and cartoonishly brutal weapons. The standout character here is Uncle Death, a skateboarding embodiment of Death who the player plays with/against, turning Let it Die into a sort of cornball version of The Seventh Seal. It's a fun game with some great design ideas that runs into one major problem: It's a Free To Play game. The first half of the game is very fair, but the second half becomes a chore: Reviving characters becomes very expensive, and progress requires grinding for materials to upgrade weapons, both of which become faster and easier if you're willing to pay to play. If this game were as finely balanced as a Souls game, it would be a classic; as it stands, it's a strong game held back, hard, by its payment platform.

Pac-Man 256 - I love that in 2016, Namco is still willing to publish creative new takes on the classic Pac-Man design. Pac-Man 256 is an endless Pac-Man modeled after the arcade original, enhanced with simultaneous multiplayer and unlockable power ups. Players progress through a continuous Pac Maze while a stage-corrupting presence slowly creeps up, keeping the action moving forward. The unlocks take way too long to open up, but aren't essential anyway. Otherwise, this is a great five minute game to pick up every now and then.

Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 - Another 2016 Pac-Man! 256 is the stronger title. This is a follow up to the amazing Pac-Man Championship Edition DX and feels surprisingly fresh, but isn't as strong as its predecessor, due to irritating ghost mechanics, lesser stage design, and poorly-conceived boss fights. Good on Namco for not just rehashing CE DX, but the new style of play here just isn't as fun and the Adventure Mode gets exhausting.

Rise of the Tomb Raider - An Xbox One exclusive in 2015, Rise of the Tomb Raider was released on PS4 as a Complete Edition in 2016, including all of its DLC. This is the second game in the rebooted Tomb Raider series and it's a strong action/puzzle/collect the doodads game, but weaker than 2013 reboot. There are more puzzle tombs to explore here, but enemy encounters are dumber and less creative. Rise avoids some of the unnecessary gruesomeness of the previous game, but also dumps its more personal story. The plot of Tomb Raider 2013 was fairly dumb, but it had strong character relationships that helped me overlook that. Here, you've just got a very generic Indiana Jones knockoff with a less interesting hero and completely uninteresting villains. Still, it's a lot of fun to explore and goof around in, and the puzzles are good.

Severed -  Drinkbox Studios' 2013 brawler-platformer Guacamelee is one of my favorite indie games; it's wonderfully paced, with excellent puzzle platforming and fun combat that can get tough but never unfair. Their next game couldn't be more different in design: Severed is a first-person dungeon crawler that uses the Wii U/PS Vita touch screen for combat. Players block and slash in a game that feels like a combination of Fruit Ninja and an RPG, with Guacamelee's visual style splashed on top. While it's not as compelling as Guacamelee, Severed is a strong but small game (it took me around 4 hours to finish at 80% completion) that presents its story as a kind of afterlife myth, with the player character coming to terms with her family's deaths by ascending into a figure of divine revenge.

Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero - In spite of playing a whole lot of Wayforward games, I'd somehow never played any of their Shantae titles, a series which began on the Game Boy Color in 2002. 1/2 Genie Hero is the fourth game in the series and was funded by a very successful Kickstarter campaign. It's a very easy but very charming platformer with a strong, Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic. The bosses are extremely well-animated, there are plenty of secrets that make each stage worth replaying, and there are only a couple of moments that feel like bad ideas (both of the dull "sliding down a slope while jumping over barrels/cogs" stages.)

Stern Pinball Arcade - In spite of bugs and some truly questionable interface choices, I love Farsight's Pinball Arcade. It's a successful simulation of real pinball tables, with nicely detailed art, accurately crappy audio, and solid pinball physics that have continued to improve. Stern Pinball Arcade is a weird quasi-sequel, featuring a new, even worse interface and much more recent tables developed by Stern, including AC/DC, Star Trek, and an upcoming digital recreation of their recent Ghostbusters table. The tables still play great, but it's frustrating to have to switch between two games on the same system to play all of my tables, and Stern tables already owned in Pinball Arcade do not carry over into the new game (though this feature is promised to come in the future.) When this game launched, it also features some really busted lighting that made some tables incredibly hard to see. This has since been patched, but it makes the whole game feel like a work in progress and not a finished title. In a year or so, this should be an excellent pinball package, but I'd still rather just see the new tables in the base Pinball Arcade.

XCOM 2 - Firaxis' sequel to their XCOM reboot is another exceptionally well designed strategy game with shockingly poor coding. It suffers from graphical glitches, obscenely long load times, and complete freezes. Sometimes, the game forgets whose turn it is and enemies will begin moving in to attack even if you're not done with your turn. The ending cutscene played twice, with a five minute black screen in between where I just assumed the game had crashed. If I ever released something this error-prone, I'd be surprised if I had a job the next day. In spite of this, the game play is so good that I really want to overlook the terrible technical issues. It's tough to do, though! While this game is not as strong as XCOM: Enemy Unknown's expanded re-release Enemy Within, it's still a top tier strategy game, with a focus on desperate survival against the odds. A compelling game that would be excellent if Firaxis had ironed out the wrinkles.

Average - Some flawed, some decent games

Catlateral Damage - One of the only first-person cat simulators out there. Knock stuff over, meow, eat junk. There's not much to it, but it's fun nonsense for an hour or two, and there are a ton of quality cat pictures in it.

Hyper Light Drifter - A fast-paced Zelda style game with minimalist storytelling and overly obtuse secrets. I wanted to like this one more than I did; it's got a lot of style and it's certainly not a bad game, but it didn't stand out in the end.

Salt and Sanctuary - A 2D platformer Dark Souls/Bloodborne fan game. This should be right up my alley, but it never really clicked with me. Leveling up made no conceivable difference and bosses went from infuriatingly hard to pointlessly easy once I found the right spells to use. The misty art style is nice, but sometimes makes telling the background and foreground apart surprisingly hard. A game in desperate need of a rebalance and an internal map; Souls games have such strong design sense that a map is never needed. This game doesn't.

Street Fighter V - The new Street Fighter is my biggest let down of the year, even if it's not a terrible game in itself. It features far less variety than Street Fighter IV, compounded with obscenely expensive costumes and stages. New characters are rolled out regularly and Capcom argues that you can earn them with in-game currency, but this is a deception; it's true for one or two characters, and after that, it takes thousands of online wins in Ranked Mode to earn enough currency for more. This system was bad when the game launched (incomplete, missing several modes.) Now, in a post-Overwatch world, it looks even worse.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters - This is a nice, small brawler with decent exploration elements and lots of different weapons to choose from. There's a fun design to the world here: You're playing through a bad 50's scifi film, with the director looking back and providing a commentary track. It's just dumb enough to work well, and it's fun to skydive off of crazy heights while avoiding dinosaurs. It's inexplicable that a game like this doesn't have co-op though, especially when there are three playable characters. It also gets trippy, but not quite trippy enough, with the fake world-within-the-world stuff.

Tricky Towers - Four-player competitive Tetris with physical weight to the blocks. It's got an ugly aesthetic and annoying Elmo-like voice clips, but it's a fun time with friends.

Below Average - Games flawed in significant ways.

Push Me Pull You - The title's the best part of this weird little game, in which players ooze gross/cutesy Not Human Centipedes into each other in a bizarre sporting match. There's no music and every round is basically the same; this feels like a demo, but it's crazy enough to be worth playing a couple of times. It's certainly not good, but it's unique, and that counts for something. It's no Noby Noby Boy.

Virginia - If Gone Home is a prime example of a quality exploration-narrative game, Virginia is its exact opposite. Every environment is sterile, with nothing to explore but the points which trigger the next story moment. While Gone Home is richly personal, Virginia is fully detached, with characters who look like Xbox Avatars miming their way through the wordless story. It's a story of an FBI agent rising through the ranks of the Internal Affairs department with some explicit Twin Peaks/X-Files references that amount to little. On top of that, it's filled with extremely disorienting jump cuts from scene to scene and constant, sickeningly bobbing camera motion. The heart's in the right place, but it's hollow as both a video game and a movie. The soundtrack's great, at least.

Awful - Severely flawed games.

Furi - There are only two games in 2016 that I played and considered truly awful. The first is Furi, a boss-rush action game focused on pattern recognition and careful dodging. I was told it was a cross between Punch-Out and Dark Souls and that's not untrue, but it's a really bad take on both. Boss fights are painfully long, require very twitchy reflexes, and in between them you have to slowly walk through some exhausting, empty narration that aims for the weirdness of a Suda51 game but goes nowhere. If you turn down the difficulty level, the game becomes stupidly easy, but remains tedious. This is one I initially disliked, wrote about, and went back to after I was asked to give it a second chance. I liked it even less the second time. Another game with a great soundtrack, though!

Kholat - Another exploration-narrative game, this time with stealth sequences that are beyond awful and instant death traps that force you to repeat far too much slow walking in a bland environment. The checkpoint system that chooses where to restart the player after death feels very arbitrary and the game's length comes entirely from disorienting the player in a large, empty, snowy world as they work to solve the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident in which a group of Russian hikers mysteriously died. It tries to be spooky but the horror quickly fades each time you need to repeat a sequence. Also, I'm not someone who talks much about frame rates in games, but I can't excuse a game that sometimes drops to single-digit frames per second. It's a sloppy mess. Save your time and just read about Dyatlov Pass on Wikipedia and then watch YouTube videos where monsters yell in your face.


That's it for this year's batch! As usual, I'll add in more 2016 games if I go back and play ones I missed, so be sure to send me some recommendations.

How's 2017 looking? There are two Yakuza games getting English releases and a there's a new Nier coming out, so I'm pretty pumped. Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks great too. Lots to look forward to, but you never know how things are going to turn out. Will VR gaming die off or become the new normal? Will the Nintendo Switch revolutionize video games, ushering in a whole genre of cow milking games? Will Street Fighter V become a better game? Only time can tell!

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