It’s hard to believe just one year ago I was huddled in our basement suite on Joan Crescent, in my clamshell chair, engulfed by the world of Xenoblade Chronicles X. It was my own quiet Sunday battlestation, complete with my phone for checking guides, the Wii U gamepad for map travelling, the pro controller for pro controlling, the TV remote in case I wanted to switch over to the hockey game, and the doors closed. Didn’t want to wake up Kyla.
It seems like decades have past since. Enduring a year like 2016 will do that to one’s perception of time. With so many insanities, it’s easy to forget the incredible and wonderful times. I’m relieved to say I experienced more than a few; we moved to Pine St, enjoyed the best vacation of my life in Scotland, moved to a much upgraded office at RingPartner, saw some inspiring movies, read some incredible books and stayed 100% healthy throughout. Not too shabby.
But the games! Onto the games. I will admit, not quite as strong as 2015 but that seems to be personal preference only. The industry was full of quality titles as developers got far more comfortable with the PS4 and XBOXONE hardware, pushing them to new heights. I certainly wish I had more time to play more, but that’s always the case. So much to do, so little time. My own personal list of shame includes Demon Soul’s 3, The Witness, Dishonored 2, Overwatch, Titanfall 2 and XCOM 2. As eager as I was to play them, constraints determined otherwise. Hardly a lamentation, as the below ten titles gave me all that I asked for, and more. Here’s to a great 2017!
To start off the list, I’ve chosen Oxenfree. Take the movie Poltergeist, mix in a little Life is Strange and sprinkle some Freaks and Geeks and you’ve got an adventure consisting of teenagers stuck on an island with potentially murderous ghosts. The animation benefits from a zoomed out camera, giving the characters ample space to explore the remote location, and even more to explore their own emotions. As Alex, I was desperate to learn all I could about my half-brother, my dorky friend and the bitchy girl thanks to the very clever dialogue mechanic. Conversations were free flowing, complete with proper inflections, interruptions and dialogue. I definitely appreciated that I was able to walk and talk at the same time, as the sparse environments wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to traverse without idle chit-chat.
I was creeped out more than a few times, but I easily succumb to scares. It’s hardly a horror game, but benefits greatly from the overall somber tone. Survival may not be an option, regardless of how well Alex can rally Ren, Clarissa, Nona and Jonas to keep their cool and work together. Time hiccups, eerie radio messages and a well paced story awaited me and I was on board from the first minute to the end credits.
9) Ratchet & Clank (PS4)
I always roll my eyes when I hear about some HD remake, re-release, redux, recycled, reused, refresh, remix, or re-announcement of a previous game. It seems straight up unnecessary in a lot of cases, but that’s largely due to my inability to empathize with those who didn’t play the game on its first go. Since I personally struggle with finding time to play all the games I want, this baffles me. Upon reflection, I was totally fine with HD remakes, re-releases etc. as long as it was a game that was convenient for me to play, and one I hadn’t played previously. Nice, Henry.
Thankfully my eyes have been opened and I have Ratchet & Clank to thank. Initially annoyed to find out it was a remake of the very first game, I was surprised to find out how quickly I was charmed. This wasn’t just another re-skin of the original PS2 game (which really did need a face lift). The game looks absolutely gorgeous, but Insomniac put a lot of love into the fresh coat of paint. Weapons from other games were inserted, and I can’t thank them enough for doing so. I am now a fully fledged, card-carrying member of the Mr. Zurchon fan club. I spent every single bolt I could to upgrade this little murderous robot and his family. His hilariously direct quotes was my favorite source of comedy, frequently telling enemies that he was back, and he was going to kill them.
“YOU USED TO BE ALIVE……THEN YOU MET MR. ZURCHON”.
Lovely. Now I’m converted; bring on every HD remake you can throw at me, gaming industry. There’s a ton I missed and I can’t wait to catch up with modern standards, graphics and gameplay. If you could throw in a Mr. Zurchon, that would be appreciated.
Do you like games that foster an environment of teamwork, positivity and camaraderie?Perfect. Stay the hell away from Overcooked. This satanically addictive, local multiplayer hellspawn will ensure you spew profanities at lightning speed, ruin thousands of meal orders and will make you fail to procure some kind of order in madness. It’s also amazingly fun.
Overcooked is a marvelous co-operative game that allows up to four players to chop, dice, boil, cook, serve and wash in various kitchens of increasing difficulty. Controls are simple and you only have three moves, move being one of them. Pick up and chop round out your arsenal of attacks, but the simplicity works to the game’s benefit. The real challenge comes from improvisation in moments of difficulty, communication with your fellow chefs and a whole lot of trial and error. It’s fun when you succeed, but also in failure. Levels load quickly and it’s easy to come up with a new strategies . Each level’s time limit forces everybody to specialize in certain areas, and completely throw out the game plan when an ice flow gets in the way, or if the soup catches fire.
When you do beat the level, or in our case obtain the three star rating, it is immensely satisfying. Even more so when enjoying Pecan Whiskey as your upstairs landlord’s dogs bark in approval.
7) Sid Meier’s Civilization 6
It’s a pretty safe bet that if a Civilization game is released, it will end up in my top ten. While Kyla has invigorated my love for board games with Settlers of Catan, Innovation and Castles of Burgundy, Civilization 6 is the greatest board game ever made. It retains nearly everything that’s made previous Civ games successful, but added a ton of new features and ideas makes the entire experience feel fresh as a map at 4000 BC.
I’m awful at it. Playing at any difficulty harder than the default “Chieftain” setting gives me a panic attack. It’s tempo is incredible; games feel both slow and fast at the same time. You may think you have all the time in the world to explore the continent, but what are you going to do about your French neighbors to the east? India just built the Oracle and are now ahead of you in religious score. Barbarians just took out your scout. What’s your next move, Chief?
It’s not uncommon to see ardent Civ fans put thousands of hours into each game, nor is it hard to see why. Different Civs have unique units, abilities and technologies. Single matches can last anywhere from a few hours to hundreds depending on the type of victory you go for, or how the landscape influences alliances and betrayals. There’s never anything stopping you from restarting and there are few things in life as satisfying as founding a new city on the water, or building a Wonder of the World, or crushing an enemy with your military might.
One more turn, one more hour, one more Civilization game to add to the list of incredible tactical, hex-based games. The only reason it’s not higher is that I self imposed an hourly limit on myself, so I could get the rest of this list done. Needless to say, I’ll be playing Civilization 6 well into 2017.
I skipped Doom 3. I am really, REALLY glad I didn’t skip Doom (4?)
Doom cares about one thing; You Killing Demons. It succeeds, monstrously. I absolutely loved this game. I loved it’s unabashed, no apologies attitude to violence. I loved how fast you move and how the frame rate never dropped, even in a room with scores of enemies. I loved how good the game looked, truly a world class, modern update for a beloved classic. I loved how gory it was. I loved the melee kills. I loved the weapons, from the classic shotgun to the infamous BFG.
There was very little not to like. The levels were really fun to traverse, if a little bland. I suppose it got a bit repetitive near the end, but it hardly mattered. The controls were so empowering, that I relished every single fight I got into. Never was I frustrated enough not to keep going. No worries about reloads, no frets about feeling weak going into a skirmish. There’s ammo everywhere, you have your chainsaw, you learn your hellish enemies’ patterns, now it’s all up to you to kill while head banging to a soundtrack straight out of Metal hell (or heaven?)
5) Gears of War 4
Having beaten every other Gears of War game with a buddy, it was with certain sadness I booted up Gears of War 4 on my PC…solo. Luckily, the game held my hand with appropriate consolation and eased me into the first proper Gears sequel in nearly five years. The game knows it’s been a long time, but there’s so much to see. I dived in.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but I’m an even bigger sucker for properly numbered sequels. And finally, I’m the biggest sucker of all for franchises and stories that don’t forget their past, trust their audience to have paid attention and take advantage of that.
Listening to old man Marcus Fenix was a delight. Every time I heard John DiMaggio’s cigarette coated voice scream some order, or lament how the robots were destroying his tomatoes, my heart soared. It’s akin to hearing Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprise their roles as the Joker and Batman in the Arkham games. Weight is lent to characters over time, and I felt fulfilled going in knowing that the new developer, The Coalition, was well aware of this. I was in good hands.
Impossible biceps, cheesy action lines, insane scenarios, hordes of enemies, active reloading, stop/pop and the insanely gratifying chainsaw gun were all here. Highlights included motorcycling through a burning forest, zip-lining up a collapsing mine shaft, and controlling a giant robot at the end. Will I ever tire of mechs? No, no I won’t. How the hell did I miss out on Titanfall 2?
Note: I received a free copy of Gears of War 4 for non-promotional purposes.
4) Stardew Valley
The last four on the list were brutally hard to rank. On any given day, any one of them could be number one and that’s the first time I’ve ever felt that when collaborating my top ten. It speaks to the overall quality of games I enjoyed this year and I really do have to thank all the podcasts I listen to, Twitter friends giving me recommendations and reviews I’ve read. Without them, I may not have enjoyed half of the games on this list, starting with Stardew Valley.
I had no interest in trying it. I heard it was a Harvest Moon clone, or an Animal Crossing rip-off. I held no affinity for either. Whether it’s a lack of personal history, or that socializing and farming stresses me out, I wasn’t into it.
Then I heard Dan Ryckert gush about it on the Giant Bombcast. Then I read posts on Reddit about how amazing it was. Reviews agreed. Well…I mean, it looks like an awesome Super NES game. Henry, you adored the Super NES, didn’t you?
….Yes. I did.
It’s perfectly relaxing. You play as a bored office worker who suddenly inherits your Grandfather’s farm. Your job is to make it your own. It starts out as an overrun disaster of trees, rocks and branches with no farm-able land in sight. You’re a loner in a town of colorful, yet suspicious characters. All this will change and I had no choice but to be hooked at the addictive cycle of trying to run a farm, be profitable while doing it, make friends, go fishing, explore the mines, find artifacts for the town’s museum, upgrade my tools, partake in dances, watching luminescent jellyfish migrate, buy a horse, get chickens, raise pigs, fix up a community center and harvest every crop I could find.
Even writing about it makes me want to dive back in. I still cannot fathom how Stardew Valley was made by ONE PERSON, Eric Barone, who has more than delivered on every promise he’s made. Free updates to the game are being constantly added. Not that the game needs any refinement; it’s ridiculously deep with hundreds of hours required to do absolutely everything. The soundtrack, the animation, the wish to own a farm in real life is all here. Magnificent.
3) Final Fantasy 15
I’m a Final Fantasy nutjob. I’ve played and beaten 18 games with the name in the title and was feverishly awaiting Final Fantasy 15 like I have no other game. Did it live up to the hype? It did, but not without footnotes. It’s an incredible, beautiful mess. Somebody said it was the Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain of the series and I couldn’t think of a more perfect description.
Let’s start with the bad, before we move onto the weird and the good. The story structure is bizarre. My friend Andrew wrote a good piece on it, but the story is not just sparse in places, it’s downright missing. Gorgeous landscapes are barely glossed over, major events aren’t even seen by the player and characters seem to appear and vanish without any resolution. It’s disappointing, but in hindsight not really a surprise considering the ten year development cycle that it endured. Few games get out of that kind of time frame unscathed and Final Fantasy 15 is no different. The fact that Square-Enix is looking to add DLC to improve the main story line speaks volumes on what the current state of the game is. One year from now, we may see an entirely different outlook on the story and I’d be perfectly fine with an excuse to replay it.
Onto the weird.
It’s an odd game. I have no idea what it’s trying to be. It has a mix of fantasy, futuristic and modern elements. It has magic. It has flying cars. It has mobile phones. Huh? Well, it also has ostrich sized chickens, robotic assassins and diners straight out of Midwest America. Whaa? How about bloodthirsty monsters the size of mountains, giant mechs to fight and lots of camping, complete with Coleman and Cup Noodle branding. I am so confused…
But it has a lot of good. So many times I caught myself smiling. Just absolutely thrilled and engaged. I couldn’t believe how many hours I was wasting away by fishing, driving the landscape, listening to old Final Fantasy soundtracks and reveling in the main menu’s version of the crystal theme. I’m about as big a Florence and the Machine fan as I am Final Fantasy, so to hear Florence Welch belt out “Stand By Me” while Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto pushed their broken down car through the desert was immensely pleasing.
There’s too much to talk about here. Prompto taking photos of your journey is a mechanic I’m outright jealous I didn’t think of. The banter between the four main characters is natural and engaging. The real time combat, a first for a main Final Fantasy game, feels incredible, despite a sometimes wonky camera. It’s a true road trip, complete with boy band look, anime tropes and an ending that really resonated with me. The dust is still settling in my mind, but it’s a game I’ll never forget and will cherish for a long time.
I think it’s about time to admit to myself that I enjoy being scared. I’ll never watch horror movies outright, but that won’t stop me from watching clips on Youtube of famous scary scenes. I admire how truly terrifying pieces of fiction (non-fiction is less fun) can rise my blood pressure and shock me like few other genres can. Serotonin, indeed.
I’ve long since remembered my drama teacher, Judy, telling me that less is more. Leave them wanting, rather than overstaying your welcome. If you come in 100%, you’ll have nowhere to go. Loud can only be loud for so long before it gets boring.
Inside is the perfect video game example. It never overstays its welcome. It teases and tempts. It avoids telling you anything. As a result, I played it through in one session. I had my mouth agape nearly the entire time.
It’s macabre style works to its benefit. It’s meant to be disturbing. It looks so goddamn good, every frame could belong in some deranged children’s fairy tale book. There’s no dialogue. There’s no prologue, or exposition explaining who, or what you are. The mystery hugged me like a wet stranger, and I didn’t want them to let go.
There’s some light puzzles and platforming, but that was more of a distraction than anything. The game played just fine, but with each new area I saw, I grew more uneasy and intrigued. The seeping feeling that something was wrong. People aren’t supposed to walk like that. Is this a factory? Why does that person have a child with them? Why is everybody trying to kill me? Who am I?
The final 20 minutes are unforgettable. I wish more games took risks like this, even if they don’t fully work. I was disgusted, but in a good way. Much like how I found the Crones from Witcher 3 utterly revolting, but fascinating at the same time. I hold true admiration of Inside’s design. It was only a four hour experience, but one of the best I’ve ever had. Inside is a masterpiece.
1) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
All four Uncharted games feel special. The first was a glimpse into what the Playstation 3 could do. It was one part Indiana Jones, two parts Tomb Raider and I was quickly persuaded that I needed to get into the shoes of Nathan Drake, and fast. The voice acting was no less than flawless; the characters were far more likable than any other video game protagonists and it truly felt like I was part of a swashbuckling adventure, rather than a game that I just shot enemies in.
The sequel was a landmark, with its truly unbelievable set pieces. The opening train car hanging off a snowy cliff and the train sequence were both technological leaps that were disruptively good. Nobody could ignore Uncharted now, and many sites gave Uncharted 2: Among Thieves their game of the year. Uncharted 3 didn’t have as big a jump, but was still critically acclaimed and beloved by me.
If Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End really is the last main Uncharted game, then it is the perfect swansong to a franchise that I’ve been privileged enough to enjoy for nearly ten years. The Playstation 4 hardware is the perfect home for it and I couldn’t help but be shocked at how real the conversations felt between the characters. The writing, direction, facial captures and action are the best in the business. It’s hard to go back once we’ve come this far. It might as well be a movie.
The landscapes are so beautiful, they’ll force you to stop figuring things out and just watch. The ocean crashing against a hidden cove. A lost city and its accompanying skeletal remnants. Pirate ships. Drug lords. A fancy auction. Hidden temples. The remains of a last supper. Uncharted 4 has everything and I thought I’d already seen it all in the first three. The chase through a Madagascar village ranks up there with any of the best action sequences I’ve ever been witness to.
I felt a true sense of completion upon beating the last chapter, and watching the epilogue was like dipping into a family photo album. I felt true sorrow upon realizing I wouldn’t be hearing any sarcastic quips from Sullivan again, or scrambling my way out of a historical landmark collapsing over my head. It’s the total package. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is my game of the year.