So We Ride Again...To Another End...
I got my first taste of Chooch during E3 of this year, knee-deep in the blood-spilling business of writing news updates for the biggest game event of the year. A month later, I joined staff officially, and jeez, has time flown. Sixty articles, four podcasts, thirteen videos, twelve straight hours of streaming, and innumerable Skype calls later, we’re at the end of the year. It’s been fun!
If I had known I would end up writing for a games publication, I might have, you know, actually played more games this year. But hey, there’s always 2016. Here’s ten games I really liked out of the ones I played. They’re good! At least I think so.
It’s cheap, simple, fast, fun, and addicting. What else could I ask for? Downwell is a literal free-fall of a game that moves as fast as you can drop, and I love it. For a game that just relies on moving right to left, jumping, and shooting, Downwell feels surprisingly good to play. Like other fast-paced streamlined roguelikes, you immediately want to jump back in, even after dying for the twentieth time in a row. All this combined with a slick retro aesthetic adds up to a game that’s hard to turn off and easy to sink a lot of time into. Talk about getting bang for your (literal) buck.
9. Environmental Station Alpha
If its accidental cousin Axiom Verge is beauty through complex pixel graphics, Environmental Station Alpha is beauty through simplicity. Despite being so minimally rendered, the world of ESA feels dense and alive in a way not many games of its kind do. ESA plays like any other “metroidvania” title, but the setting is what really sells it. That isn’t to say the gameplay isn’t fun, because it is- even when the game gets unnecessarily more difficult, I was still having a good time. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences as a little robot traversing Environmental Station Alpha and its unique and deadly (uniquely deadly?) biomes.
8. Sonic Dreams Collection
For me, Sonic Dreams Collection wasn’t just the ship that accidentally launched a series, but one of the singular strangest gaming experiences of my entire life. The short time I spent with SDC on that one August afternoon is still burned into my mind which such clarity that I could probably exactly quote every word I said while we recorded that playthrough. SDC serves as both a jarring parody and a surreal reflection of a limping game franchise and its infamous fandom, and of course, it’s also just weird as hell. As far as unforgettable games go, SDC is pretty high on the list. I still see Big the Cat when I close my eyes sometimes.
7. Prison Architect
The best prison game since Hard Time, and certainly one of the best strategy games in recent memory, Prison Architect‘s 1.0 release is a practically perfect experience. And it’s fun, too! Having a blast building your sadistic human containment unit is only the first step of a management juggle that’s every bit as punishing as rewarding based on the occasionally questionable decisions you have to make. Like other strategy games, it’s easy to sink a lot of hours into Prison Architect, especially with the extra Escape Mode. Prison Architect is sure to satisfy anyone hungry for a management sim, and if nothing else, it’s proof that we all live in our own prisons.
6. Grim Fandango (Remastered)
Confession time. I would lay my life on the line for Psychonauts, but I had never played that other big game Tim Schafer was known for (Broken Age, right?). Thankfully, Grim Fandango was remastered this year, and I finally got to experience the world of Manny and company. Also thankfully, it was as good as I had hoped. Sure, some of the puzzles remain a bit obtuse, and some of the mechanics feel outdated, but overall, the story, writing, and art design of Grim Fandango is fantastic enough to irrevocably win me over. The humor hits all the right places, and I struggle to think of any part of the narrative I didn’t enjoy. And who knows? Maybe in ten years we’ll see another three million dollar (adjusted for inflation, of course) crowdfunding campaign for Grim Fandango 2: The VR Experience?
5. Nuclear Throne
Nuclear Throne, like Prison Architect, languished in Steam early access limbo for quite some time while the developers made constant tweaks and updates. Thankfully, it’s finally out in full release, and I couldn’t be happier with the final result. I didn’t start playing it until this year (so it would’ve been on this list regardless), meaning I can’t speak for how much it’s changed. But as it stands now, Nuclear Throne is a masterful addition to the roguelike/shmup genres that benefits from a stripped-down, purely gameplay-focused experience. It’s colorful, fast, brutal, and fun as hell. Much like Downwell, it’s easy to sink a lot of time and a lot of deaths into Nuclear Throne without regretting a single second.
4. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
I deliberated for a very long time on the placement of this and Bloodborne for #4/3, but since I’ve actually finished Bloodborne at the time of writing this, I’m putting it ahead of Witcher 3. Anyway, Witcher 3 is a wonderful example of a full-blown fantasy RPG that manages to pull you in with a solid narrative, a rich world, and (generally) enjoyable characters, and then keep you hooked with excellent gameplay. I was skeptical at first, but having made my way further into the game, I’m addicted. Witcher 3 does almost everything right, and the fact that I can place it this high on the list without having finished says a lot about it. I also love the black comedy and snarky dry humor that seems to pepper the otherwise serious world – did anyone else get Deadly Premonition vibes from the quest where you have to find the old woman’s pan?
My window of comparison is probably a little narrower than some, considering the only FromSoftware game I played prior to Bloodborne was the first Dark Souls. I loved that game to death and still haven’t touched the sequel (although I’ll definitely be playing 3 in 2016), but Bloodborne is a major improvement to the Souls formula that makes for a faster-paced and generally more enjoyable gameplay experience. Gone is the endless “shield shuffle,” replaced instead by a system that rewards you for getting in close and cleaving everything to pieces. It feels so much better, and that’s not even to mention the plot and incredible art direction that manage to seamlessly blend dark Victorian architecture with bizarre Lovecraftian (in the truest sense of the word) sentiments. I totally understand why not everyone enjoys these games, but personally, I had a blast with Bloodborne.
2. Tales From The Borderlands
“I cannot hold back your tide of bad decisions.” At first, Tales From the Borderlands was just a nice thought for me; an small addendum to the Borderlands universe. By the time I finished it, Tales was more of a godsend. It didn’t just add on to those previous games I had enjoyed, it blew them out of the water. My expectations were low thanks to the non-narratives of the first two games, but Tales has the kind of writing that stacks up to the best of them, much less to the bottom-of-the-barrel standards set by Borderlands. If I had time to gush about all my favorite parts of Tales, it would take a whole other article, and since it’s my first (and possibly only) TellTale game, I can’t critique the apparent non-evolution of the game mechanics. In the end, Tales takes an established universe and uses it to spin a unique, incredible story that’s just as stone-faced somber and gut-bustingly funny as anything else.
Okay, look. If we’re being honest, there are games on this list that are probably “objectively better” than Undertale, and there are games with more actual “game.” But that doesn’t count for diddly-squat, because I had more fun playing Undertale for the first time than anything else on this list. Maybe I only enjoyed it so much because I got in on that first wave before the proliferation of a fandom, but again, it doesn’t matter, and I frankly couldn’t give a damn. All the elements of Undertale came together managed to inspire such a genuine reaction within me that giving it anything less than my personal Game of the Year award would be a major disservice to the game and to myself.
And that’s the thing about Undertale – it’s such a genuine game, such a labor of love, that playing it was an honestly refreshing experience. That isn’t even mentioning the strong writing, the unique spin on turn-based combat (and the accompanying visuals), and the massive, iconic soundtrack that’s equal parts quantity and quality- the kind I can’t listen to without feeling those emotions again. I could go on for a very long time about this game, but here’s what it comes down to: Undertale cost me the same price as a fast-food meal, and for whatever reason, managed to hit me with more emotional responses than most other games I’ve ever played. I beat it (with the true ending, which I totally didn’t get very teary during) in two settings of about five and a half hours each. And I might never touch it again, because there’s no way it could live up to that first playthrough. Undertale was such a flawless experience for me on a personal level there’s no way anything else even stood a chance for my Game of the Year. Sorry, Witcher 3. Maybe next time?