As 2016 comes to a close and I look back on the last twelve months of gaming, it’s time to reflect on what I’ve played and separate the electronic wheat from the virtual chaff.
It’s time to decide what was best in 2016.
Of course, it would be impossible for anyone to play everything that deserved a critical examination, but I do what I can and go from there. However, this year was a little different… By the time I had compiled a rough list and had taken stock of what I’d played, I honestly couldn’t come up with a clear winner.
In the sixteen years I’ve been writing about games, this has never happened to me before. Never. But, I suppose there’s a first time for everything.
So, instead of choosing one single game that was the shining star of 2016, I’m going to do something different and pick a top three that share the honor equally. Any one of this trio could have taken the crown, but there’s just no clear front runner.
Now, as of the time I’m writing this, the @Gamecritics GOTY podcast has not been published. I’m not going to ruin the ending to that show, but I will say that when we recorded, we still had two weeks left in December and I was playing things all the way down to the wire. That last bit of time was key, and if we would have recorded in the first week of January instead of when we did, my final answer might have been different. While I still stand by what I said on the show, you can consider this list to be my final, definitive word.
So! Without further ado, these were the ten (plus one!) best experiences I had over the last twelve months, and a little extra commentary besides!
11>Marvel Puzzle Quest, iOS/Android (console versions are different than mobile.)
If you’ve read any of my recent year-end lists, this tagalong comes as no surprise. What can I say? I love it, and as of this December MPQ is now the game I’ve spent the most time with, ever. As in, ever. Although it’s free-to-play, the developers are generous with rewards and don’t aggressively push microtransactions. The core gameplay is rock-solid, and the content and systems have continued to grow, evolve and improve on a continuous basis. I play it daily, I talk about it often and it pops up in my tweetstream frequently. Heck, I even ranked every character in the game for @PasteGames! It would feel wrong not to include it in a year-end roundup, so once again, it’s here at honorary #11.
10>Factotum 90, XBO/PC
I am not a fan of the Xbox One. This is a well-known fact. However, I have had a few standout experiences with it, and Factotum 90 is one. Coming from out of nowhere as a totally random release I spotted on the Xbox store, I took a risk and was supremely glad I did. Although it’s small in scope, this puzzler shows clear-headed design, player-friendly choices, an interesting premise, a fresh hook and two adorable (and slightly creepy) robots who won me over immediately. I enjoyed every minute that I spent with it, and applaud the spot-on sensibilities on display here.
09>The Final Station, PS4/XBO/PC
A stark take on post-apocalyptic survival and what it means to carry on in the face of hopelessness, this title from a small Russian team really stuck with me thanks to moments both small and large. On a micro scale, some of the personal stories and events shown painted a wonderfully rich world without falling back on overwrought cutscenes or a library’s worth of text logs. On the macro, its world’s response to impending death was fascinatingly pragmatic, and the ending was just right.
I started out hating Tharsis. Absolutely hating it. The tutorial didn’t cover the finer points of play, the difficulty curve was more like a vertical spike, and I lost game after game after game. It was frustration central brought on by a title that was aggressive in its distaste for me. And yet, I was determined to crack it. I hung in there, and once I had unlocked a few characters with better abilities and died enough times to learn some tricks, it all fell into place and I began to appreciate what a finely-tuned machine it was. I finally won a handful of times, and we parted on much better terms than when we met.
I came late to the party on this once since I was waiting for a console release, but this tiny little arcade-style gem is pure elegance. Combining jumping and attacking was an ace design move, and the simplicity of it only helps to build its intensity. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve been dipping into it here and there all year long, and I adore it.
I like visual novels, or at least the ones that do something more than the most basic attempt at them. This title goes above and beyond by combining Choose Your Own Adventure-style text with RPG systems and turn-based combat. The story moved right along, building up my character gave a sense of ownership rare for the genre, and the combat had just the right amount of meat to it. An unusual (and unusually good) experience.
I’m not the biggest fan of first-person shooters unless they have some sort of hook, and boy, does this one have a hook. Turning simple shooting galleries into something more akin to bullet-ridden puzzles was a stunningly original take on the genre, and the narrative dovetailed neatly into the gameplay. There’s nothing else to say except that Superhot is the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years!
4>Shiren the Wanderer: Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate, Vita
I love a well-done roguelike, and this one is one of the best I’ve ever laid hands on. While the core experience of being tough and unforgiving is still present, there are tons of amenities that take some of the sting out of failed runs, and there’s always a sense of forward progression even when things go south. While it’s an iteration on past work, there are tons and tons of smart decisions on display here, implemented by vets who’ve mastered this form.
3>Darkest Dungeon, PS4/Vita/PC
I waited a long time for this one to come to console, but it was worth the wait. This 2D dungeon crawl RPG has incredibly interesting systems based on character positioning and the artwork is stellar. Mixing and matching classes to find optimal party builds is ridiculously deep, and the game is no slouch when it comes to challenge. The only reason it didn’t rank higher is that grinding for cash becomes too much of a factor in the late game, but that doesn’t take away from everything that it gets right. Plus, big points for Lovecraft influences done right.
2>7th Dragon III: Code VFD, 3DS
I don’t know many people besides myself who played this one, but WOW, y’all are missing out. Coming from a team partially made up of former Etrian Odyssey developers, this JRPG absolutely nails its mechanics and makes so many amazing quality-of-life decisions that it was sheer joy to play. Add in fantastic combat mechanics, varied character types and builds, and awesome artistic style, and this one is win from every angle.
…So those were my top seven games of 2016 in ranked order. Before I get to the three that I just can’t decide between, let me quickly address the ones that didn’t make this list at all.
>Titanfall 2. The multiplayer didn’t click with me as much as the original’s did, and while the campaign was great to play through for its action, the writing and characters were so, so dull. Superb level design, but I felt no emotional investment in any of it, at any point.
>Firewatch. I loved the premise and the voicework and the dialogue, but the ending fell flat for me. Not the relationship aspect, but the central mystery and how it resolved. Something went really wrong with how that game’s plot wrapped, and it didn’t satisfy.
>Doom. Come on folks, it’s just a shooter.
>Pokemon Go. It was an unquestionable cultural phenomenon and one of the rare times when a huge portion of the world’s eyes were all pointed in the same direction, but the game part just sucked. It was busted, it was buggy, and it was often broken. And in terms of design? The pits. I’ve heard it’s undergone some recent changes, but it’s far too late for that now.
>Hitman. I strongly suspect this one would have been on my list — and probably pretty high – but I just couldn’t find the time to play it. Simple as that. Hopefully soon.
…So with those out of the way, let’s get to what did end up at the top of the heap. The following three titles are listed in alphabetical order, and as far this list is concerned, it’s a three-way tie.
1>Let It Die, PS4
This title is a perfect example of fantastic gameplay trumping the need for flashy graphics or triple-A budgets. Running through floor after floor of a decrepit tower while scrounging for broken weapons and battling for your life against raging psychopaths is tense stuff, heightened by the moment-to-moment management of resources and the possibility of not making it back to home base before being overcome by enemies. The supporting systems give players a reason to keep coming back by awarding ever-increasing options, and it can be satisfying to play in bite-sized chunks as well as extended sessions. And the style! It’s crazy, hilarious, and brutal, all in equal measure. I haven’t been able to put it down since I started.
As I said earlier, I’m not a fan of first-person shooters and I’m even less a fan of online multiplayer titles in the same genre, yet Overwatch is different. Blizzard has done the impossible and gotten me hooked on a style of game that I generally detest thanks to the strategic interplay between characters, by emphasizing positive aspects of play instead of the usual stat-based dick-measuring, and the top-class charm and personality of the cast. This game quickly embedded itself into my family’s regular rotation and it shows no signs of slowing down.
1>The Last Guardian, PS4
By any measure, this game should have been a failure. After switching platforms and spending nearly a decade in development, no one would have been surprised if it flopped. But it’s not a flop at all…It’s brilliant. Not only is it absolutely dripping with Fumito Ueda’s signature style, the creature he’s created is almost chillingly real. The way the griffin-like Trico moves and reacts is utterly convincing, and by making the game about building a relationship with this animal, it delivers a new, challenging experience of the kind that I can honestly say I’ve never had before. It requires patience and understanding, so in that sense I see it as a truly mature game that’s the opposite of what generally falls under an M rating.
…And there you have it, my top ten of 2016. Agree? I’d love to hear it. Disagree? I’d love to hear about that too. Leave me a comment below if you’d like, and if I’ve highlighted some titles you haven’t tried yet, please give them a shot!
Let’s do this again next year, shall we?