As 2015 reaches its end, it is time for the annual list feature; fifteen video games I enjoyed playing. These are not in any particular order, because it is impossible to objectively say which I liked more than any other – these are simply the fifteen games I played that were released this year that I would without hesitation recommend. There are several probably conspicuous absences – I have not played high-profile titles like Undertale, Fallout 4, Witcher 3 or Her Story. I am sure if I had played them they may have placed.
Steins;Gate is a game with little in the way of interactivity and a system of replaying the game in fast-forward to reach decision points that feels unusual at first to someone not used to the traditions of visual novels. Yet this is a thematic decision; it is a game about arrogance, and blindly making decisions, and wishing one could undo past mistakes. So playing through for the first time and encountering a likely horrifying ending – for make no mistake Steins;Gate is a game that horrifies, although not through bloody violence or weird creatures – feels entirely right. It is a story about an appalling person finding that there is little redemption without pain, that all actions have consequences and yet at the same time there comes a point where his punishment becomes so severe that it is no longer funny, no longer appropriate. It leaves the player wanting simply an ending, something to grab onto. That it does all this with very limited resources and interactivity – achieving far more, thematically, than more ambitious games – is its absolute strength. On top of this it is a story about the destructive ways in which sociopathy creates toxic friendships, about the casual misogyny of the embittered single loner, and about so much more. For pure story there is little to top it.
Xenoblade Chronicles X
From the moment this game begins it seems to offer something interesting in the incredibly overdone fields of JRPG and open-world exploration game. It is about exploration and exploitation, capturing both the optimism of space conquest and the undertones of human superiority that underpin space opera. It does this by offering a world that is hostile in the incidental ways nature is hostile; its setting is not some deathworld of aggressive beasts, but a lush, biodiverse planet of creatures that have their own natural order which may, at times, bring them into conflict with human colonists. Mankind arrives, with starships and giant robots and high technology, and wants to tame the land and make it suitable for habitation. Early missions are simple survival – helping explorers get home, placing beacons for mapping the land, fighting off wild beasts that have got too close to a settlement – and it is this that appeals. In a way, the player is “saving the world” but only in a subsistence fashion. What it also offers is a brash, colourful spin on the classic tropes of the Western sci-fi epic game – its architecture and uniforms are pure Mass Effect or Halo but then it places these straight-laced officers and space marines into a setting with war robots and geography from the world of Eureka Seven.
After three games the Souls formula seemed well-established, with its visceral, weighty combat of rolling and blocking and managing weight. It was the ne plus ultra of weird medieval fantasy, of giant knights and strange monsters that defeated the player in grotesque ways. Yet Bloodborne showed what it, arguably, lacked – two simple things. A stronger human factor, and the opportunities for new technology to mix up the combat. While the Souls games focused on cavernous long-abandoned cities and low technology, Bloodborne takes a 19th century world where the population of a city are driven into hiding by a plague of strange creatures, and all who stray outside seem to in time go mad. It is a game that takes the iconic imagery of the witch hunter with pistol, sword and hat, of the teetering Eastern European city and the rugged, wolf-infested forest, and makes it horrific rather than camp. Its setpieces are straight, at first, from the Hammer Horror library – but the use of an aesthetic borrowing more from Claymore or Garo turn well-worn creatures like werewolves and killer crows into fresh, terrifying encounters. In the same way, the terrified citizens the player runs into, and sends to the doctor or church for sanctuary, add a level of humanity to the world that feels stronger-defined than Souls wandering NPCs. On a mechanical level the addition of firearms and multi-function “trick weapons” (and the removal of shields) means combat is entirely about pushing your luck, evading and duelling. It works well with faster, harder-hitting enemies – the game still feels Souls-like, but plays like something new and exciting.
This is an interesting game – a punishingly difficult procedurally generated twin-stick style top-down shooter based on the aesthetics of 70s space opera anime through the lens of American dubs. Thus characters have improbable names, over-the-top voice acting and the whole game has a feel of syndicated, monster-of-the-week adventure. As a way of thematically justifying a limited mission pool which keeps repeating, the repetitive nature of a long-running super-robot show is perfect. Perhaps much of its humour would be lost on an audience who are not aware what Starblazers, Robotech or Tranzor Z are (or indeed what Space Battleship Yamato, Macross or Mazinger Z are), but behind the innovative theme there is a strong game engine, with Asteroids-esque inertia, a useful transformation system which genuinely gets the feel of Macross right in how it can be used to devise improvised strategies and a mechanic of throwing debris and enemies about that adds real tactical depth (and feels like a homage to the stretchy physical combat of the original Mobile Suit Gundam.) The developers have clearly understood what made old anime appealing, and found ways to translate that into fun game mechanics.
Rocket League is a simple game that anyone can play and enjoy, with an amusing theme. It is a basic sports game, about a hybrid of football and volleyball played with Micro Machines style remote control cars and a beach ball. Yet this simple theme and mechanic has proved immensely popular because it can be taught in seconds to new players, plays quickly over a few minutes and can be played multiplayer. There are some computer games that are archetypal games; simple to learn, skill-based with enough of a luck element to add variance, and almost themeless (and so appealing to a wide audience). After playing large numbers of highly thematic, engaging story-driven games, or games where the theme is integral to the mechanics, the childish abstractness of Rocket League is refreshing; one does not need to understand what it is doing to take part, one only has to understand how to play.