2015 was a great year for video games, but personally bittersweet. Snackbar-Games.com, my first official foray into game writing, ceased production. I learned a hell of a lot in my three years. I loved the debates and experiences shared by the editors. It cranked out more quality content than most million dollar budget gaming news juggernauts.

Snackbar also taught me that I’m a sucker for lists and rankings. January 1st may mean resolutions for some, but for me it’s the starter gun going off for a different kind of race.  Although this will be my first solo effort, it won’t be too difficult putting together ten incredible games I beat last year. Editing this content, on the other hand…well, there’s always a first foray for everything.

10) Undertale

Undertale

Toby Fox received a lot of justified acclaim for  Undertale. He was nearly everything on this project, including creating the stunning soundtrack. It’s filled with new melodies that are a love letter to the very games that inspired it. “Another Medium” reminded me of the Forest Theme from Threads of Fate. “Hopes and Dreams” is cut from the same cloth as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. “Waterfall” is a darker Golden Sun tune. It’s a true homage.

What is the most impressive part about Undertale is that it will be a completely different experience for everybody. An individual’s history with games will ultimately shape their adventure. Whether you’re a naive, hopeful beginner or a cynical, experienced veteran, Undertale will take any and all conceptions you have about progress, goals and expectations and twist them like a wet towel. It goes beyond whether you’ll be good or evil; how will you feel about doing it? Did you do the right thing? Aside from dodging the bullet-hell style enemy attacks, or killing every single creature you come across…you’ll have no choice but to question your decisions.

The game has some of the best 4th wall breaks I’ve ever seen, although they did little more than make me smirk. I didn’t appreciate it as much as others, but I’m certainly somewhere in the crowd.

9) Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

Plague of Shadows

I’ve grown more comfortable with Downloadable Content because I don’t have a choice. I can’t say “I don’t believe in DLC” as much as I can’t say “I don’t believe in buying organic broccoli.” Reality dictates their presence; either I hop on board and buy certified, healthy vegetables or I continue justifying why green M&Ms are close enough.

If “close enough” means missing out on an expansion like Plague of Shadows, then it’s not close enough. Shovel Knight showed that at least one great products can be birthed from crowdfunding and Plague of Shadows shows that a great idea can be extended, if not improved upon. You play as Plague Knight, one of the enemy bosses from Shovel Knight. He’s physically weaker, but has a devious personality and is more of an underdog than Shovel ever was. It truly is strange calling a character “Shovel”, but I feel we’re on good terms and know each other on a first name basis.

Gameplay largely revolves around mixing and matching a large amount of jump types and bomb explosions. The beautiful mix of NES nuances inspired by Duck Tales, Mega Man and Zelda 2 continue to impress. The graphics fit perfectly and never disappoint on any kind of technical level. The soundtrack choice continues to be stellar, much like its predecessor.

I’d rank it slightly below Shovel Knight, only because you’re forced to pause the action too frequently in order to the craft the perfect bomb. The initial surprise of the Shovel Knight world is gone, but that’s hardly a valid complaint. Not everything has to be new and fresh to be fun. Doubly true for Plague of Shadows, considering the series itself has a backbone originally crafted in the 80s.

8) Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid 5 Phantom Pain

To call Phantom Pain a mixed bag would be accurate, but nowhere near sufficient. It is, at times, miles ahead of what we’ve seen before. Any open world stealth game (are there any others?) should hand over the keys to Konami. Well, no. Nobody should hand anything to Konami at the moment except a badge of shame.

I feel bad giving them more press (assuming anybody but me will read this) but how you go about treating Hideo Kojima like a fringe employee, insulting their audiences time after time and taking their franchises (Suikoden, Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid, among others) and going home is beyond me.

My god, the third paragraph and I haven’t even mentioned ANY details about the fifth canonical Metal Gear Solid. It’s ridiculous; I never understood the series’ insistence that it obeys real world rules, real world laws, real world politics, FMV of news footage and anchoring their meta in our own world. Then, in a few hours time, lay in front of the player psychic soldiers, flaming horses, vampires and enough contemporary fantasy to make your head spin.

Here’s why Phantom Pain is on the top ten – it has some of the most thrilling sequences I’ve ever played through. The first escape in the hospital. The sniper battle against Quiet. The HoneyBee mission. How much freedom you have approaching each mission. How stealth is an advantage, but not mandatory. How awesome D-Dog is. How technically great it looks. I could go on and on.

I could also go on and on about how much stupid is jammed in here. It’s hard to believe; monotonous missions, a bizarre story structure and those spoiler filled opening credits, played at the start of EVERY MISSION that spoil any potential surprise. There’s more: how boring your base turns out to be, how more does not mean better, how lame it was to get rid of David Hayter, hire Keifer Sutherland, and barely give him any lines. Huey. The wasted potential on the language plot. Managing your army. Having to go into the helicopter an uncountable number of times. The nonsensical philosophy that every characters spews in every cutscene. For a series that is dedicated to realism, I feel like they’ve never heard another human being talk to each other.

If Phantom Pain cut all the crap I just mentioned, added in a few more levels, had more mission variety and erased all the fat, it would have been my number one. Number eight will have to do.

7) Cities: Skylines

Cities Skylines

Not every game needs an end goal, although I tend to approach sandboxes with a small amount of hesitation. I worry that I won’t be able to enjoy the majority of the experience without dedicating hundreds, if not thousands of hours. This trepidation evaporates when it comes to city building games.

I have a gargantuan fondness for city-sims. SimCity 2000 was one of the few games my father and I played together religiously. “Fish Hooks” was our crowning masterpiece, and I tend to dub any city I’m playing some variation of that. “New Fish Hooks” doesn’t quite have the same ring, but Cities: Skylines gave me the nostalgic feeling I’d been looking for.

Bliss. Calm. I don’t have to put down a road yet. I can, or maybe I’ll just zoom the map out and admire my small population of 312 as they drive to work, play in the park or complain about my lack of schools. It’s one of the few games I insist that I cheat to get the full experience. Oh, don’t give me that look. I don’t have time to wait for tens of thousands of dollars, and that’s IF my budget is in the black, which it never is.

No, I want my uphill tunnel created now, so I can make a wealthy community on the mountainside with a breathtaking view, fountains galore and non of the crime that seems to plague the rest of my city. I want my bastion, my sanctuary. I don’t care for adjusting taxes, I want an impossible city. It has its downfalls, such as trying to unclog any traffic jam, but those responsible for the game are constantly updating with DLC and cultivating numerous mods that improve the experience. This will only get better with time.

6) Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide

Beyond Earth Smaller

Moments of responsibility strike me at the oddest times. Whether it’s putting a percentage of my paycheck towards savings, preparing my morning meal the night before or, in this case, stopping myself from playing Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide before I became hopelessly addicted. This was after a single game, after about four or five hours.

There’s a very good reason why this series continues to triumph in the face of increased competition, most of which look better and go faster. It is insanely addicting; infinite combinations of scientific, social and military builds await your command. If you’re a perfectionist, I would stay far away from this (or any Civilization game, really) without parental supervision.

I’m sure fans of the series would be happy to tell me why Beyond Earth doesn’t work as well as Civilization V and I’d likely agree with them. Early exploration is stifled thanks to the strength of the aliens and the presence of the miasma clouds and I still can’t figure out why the enemy AI hates me so much.

But that all fails in comparison to the delightful worker improvements, the added ability to build cities on the ocean, the multiple ways to win, the fantastic FMV intro, worker improvements and such variety of upgrades, technologies and units to be rewarded with, it embarrasses the competition. Civilization games should come with a Surgeon General’s warning.

5) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Witcher 3(1)

Witcher 2 was a complete bore to me. I felt like one of the few who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid; I found the combat unsatisfying, I found the world limited in scope despite everybody telling me otherwise and I couldn’t care about the story. I also played Witcher 2 at a time when I lost my job of nearly six years; my mindset wasn’t excatly positive at the time.

Witcher 3: Wild Hunt arrived when I was happily employed again and did everything better. The story was tighter, the characters were more memorable and all the graphic violence, nudity and language seemed to fit better. A story about a fantastical mercenary seems to come alive in an open world style game, rather than the confines of linearity. Geralt is as badass as ever here, the enemies are as brutal as ever, the levels and landscapes are truly intimidating. Some are breathtaking. The music is unforgettable. The lack of loading screens erased any immersion-breaking moments.

I really can’t write about Witcher 3 without mention the Bloody Baron and the Crones of Crookback Bog. It is a testament to true immersion. What starts out as a request from a seemingly pathetic drunk evolves into one of the most intriguing, gleefully disgusting stories I’ve ever seen. It’s a struggle not to think of Robert Baratheon when looking at the bloody baron, and indeed the final results truly are of the same quality as A Song of Ice and Fire. Tragedy, anger, sympathy and horror all wrapped up in a few hours.

And the Crones. My word, the Crones.

Seemingly straight out of a Jim Henson nightmare (or Labyrinth…), these three unearthed a sense of earnest horror in me that I haven’t seen in a long time. As a young boy, all the old myths and fairy tales that spoke of witches eating children entertained me beyond reason. Now, at 31, I was instilled with the same urges to see more. Their theme music sounds like an old musician being forced to play a broken violin under extreme duress. They have an unnaturally large hands. Their speech sounds like they’ve just eaten a handful of rusty nails. They’re nasty when they’re negotiating, but even worse when they’re pleased.

The pacing drops near the end of the game and I’m not 100% wild about the combat, but there’s very few blemishes on this product. If the entire game had the genius of the Bloody Baron and the Crones of Crookbag Bog, it would’ve been another level of masterful.

4) Tales from the Borderlands

Tales from the Borderlands

The initial shock of TellTale’s style has worn off, there’s no denying that. Now we’re seeing the impact of their breakout hit Walking Dead spread across other developers, and now it’s harder to impress. The creativity displayed from TellTale isn’t exactly original to begin with, as the core gameplay consists of Quick Time Events and listening to voice acting. There’s very little action and no RPG elements. What the games do accomplish, that so few games do, is provide an emotional impact. A real, true connection to the characters and their outcomes.

Since then, TellTale has produced games at a frantic pace but they haven’t reached that peak they did with Walking Dead. Until now.

Tales from the Borderlands is a tricky license since it’s already a successful video game series and it’s about the furthest thing from a point and click dialogue selection simulator as you can get. The series is filled with personality, that much is true, but TellTale saw the potential and ran with it.

It’s hard discussing this type of game because spoilers would be beyond cruel and also pointless. I can’t get you to realize how snappy the conversations are, how fun it is to see the world of Borderlands from a different point of view where you are FAR weaker and there’s almost no gunplay for you to rely on. Rhys and Fiona are likable protagonists, albeit ones I’ve probably seen before. I got a strong Firefly vibe, scoundrels who don’t see stealing or conning others as a crime, but as a necessary rite of survival. They’re loyal, funny and, unfortunately for them, have a strong moral conscious when it comes to harming others.

So what the hell? Why did I enjoy this more than the others on the list so far? Simple. It’s a stress free experience. I don’t have to worry about endless game overs, I see it as a digital novel, where my actions are as easily done as turning the page and my reward is believable characters, motivations and better writing than almost any game out there. Good enough for me.

3) Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void

Legacy of the Void2

Part of me is still stuck in the mindset that Starcraft is the best thing ever, and my skills are unworthy to play it. The original game and the Brood War expansion were considered the complete refinement of Real Time Strategy; three races, with different units, strengths and weaknesses perfectly balanced in a death dance that had a feel of Starship Troopers, Alien and Predator. Larger than life personalities, heartbreaking betrayal and endless battles in the multiplayer are but a small part of this mammoth franchise.

Starcaft 2: Legacy of the Void is the final part of the Starcraft 2…trilogy? Sure. The quality of the story is nowhere near what it was in 1998, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment at all. The gameplay is air tight and nearly flawless. Due to the constant variance of the campaign missions and the different upgrades to unit types, I was enticed to replay mission after mission. Going for higher difficulties and achievements felt like a treat, not a chore.

The additional powers you gain as the Protoss are so satisfying. Warping in a pylon and four warriors at once is something I thought I’d only see in a cutscene, but I saw it time and time again. I never got tired of it, or Legacy of the Void, or anything Starcraft for that matter. No chance Blizzard is done here, although Raynor, Kerrigan and the rest might be.

2) Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and The Blind Forest2

I really thought this would be my number one upon completion, and I’m not entirely convinced it shouldn’t be still. This is one of the most complete 2d adventures I’ve ever beaten. Everything connected with me; the tragic, Disney-like intro. The soundtrack that is instantly lovable. The graphics…, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a more serene looking game in my life. Even the menus are a cut above.

It helps that it’s a Metroidvania-style game, and yes, I’m going to keep using that term because it’s a good one and because it’s an accurate one. I’ve always liked backtracking in these types of games. If the world is interesting enough and the controls are hassle free…hell yes, why wouldn’t I want to go back to the first area with a new jump equipped? The progression of growing stronger, earning additional abilities and getting through the monumentally difficult escape sections were more than just satisfying. They were empowering.

Overall there’s probably very little that experienced gamers would see here that they haven’t seen already. But the duality of the difficulty and beauty that exists here is so completely rare that I had no choice but to be astonished. I adored Ori and the Blind Forest and look forward to any future iterations, no matter what form they take.

1) Xenoblade Chronicles X

Xeno3

This game was created for a very specific type of video game enthusiast. One that can put up with an elephant sized load of bullshit. Somebody who doesn’t mind looking up strategies, builds, locations, item uses, level caps, money tricks and a slew of other information online that should be made available in the game. Xenoblade Chronicles X isn’t interested in what you think it should be. It’s only interested in being frustratingly fucking fantastic.

XCX (sans Charli) is a pseudo-sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles, the RPG for the Wii that wasn’t played by enough that took a ton of risks, reaped some rewards and immediately advertised that it deserved bigger hardware to do more.

The Wii U, shockingly enough, is that hardware and Monolith Soft deserves some kind of award for fitting XCX on an inferior system. It’s one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen…if you ignore character models. Its soundtrack is brilliant…if you ignore the ridiculous pop songs that litter more than a few areas. Its combat is deep and challenging…if you ignore that you have to grind, grind, grind. The appeal of having your own giant robots you can travel in and fight monsters with is awesome…if you ignore that it takes an interminable amount of time to get it.

I ignored all the nonsense. The world itself showed me what a true next generation open world game should be; a planet I’ve never seen before, a scale that isn’t possible on previous hardware, little to no loading screens and an unforgettable experience. XCX gave it all to me.

Naysayers will point to the fact that the menu text is too small, the characters are cookie cutter boring, the writing is juvenile,  the onion-like Tatsu is beyond irritating and there’s a lack of a good villain. Again, still all true. But nobody can deny how incredible the planet looks. How each of the five continents are littered with a delicious buffet of enemies to fight, items to gather and landmarks to scale. How when you return to the only city in the game after a long pilgrimage to a new area, you feel true relief. But, above all, how insanely cool it is to take a giant robot and gain the ability to fly and soar over the landscapes that gave you so much peril in the previous 40 hours. With so few limits on where I could go, it was the only time I’ve played an open world game and appreciated the word “open.” This was a true evolution on the “getting an airship” trope. The moment where I first lifted off from the Streets of New Los Angeles to the skies above is one of the most incredible moments in my history of gaming.

This game was created for a very specific type of video game enthusiast. A hardcore fan of Japanese Role Playing Games, mechanized robot suits and incremental annoyances that can be tolerated only by a select few. I’m one of them. Xenoblade Chronicles X is my game of the year.

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