Another year of gaming has come and gone. 2015 was a helluva year for releases too. As per usual I was mostly behind the times catching up with all the big releases of last year so some of the bigger titles escaped me for now… Fallout 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Bloodborne at the top of that list. Most of those will make plenty of other’s Game of the Year lists I’m sure so I’ll likely be playing them next year anyways. This year for me was a lot more about reclaiming that feeling that makes gaming so appealing for me. Just enjoying fun experiences, adventuring, falling in love with a world and it’s characters, and having joyous feelings in the process. With the mood I’ve been vibing with all year not many GrimDark titles really caught my eye enough to spend some time on them. I opted to focus on playing what was speaking to me, not necessarily what I was told I needed to be playing because it’s a GotY contender. For the most part it’s been an awesome year of games for me because of it.
Now: The criteria for my list. I’m staying consistent with last year’s requirements but appending them a bit. Games DO NOT have to be released in 2015, they only have to be first played that year. With the rate games release, the way they release, and ports work this day and age it’s silly to discount a game I missed in 2013 because it was PC only if it only became available in 2015 on PS4. Keeping with that spirit I feel my favorite experiences of the year shouldn’t be tied down to the period they were commercially available. I’m sure I’m not alone with only playing a handful of current releases each year either. So for example in 2014 I wasn’t able to get around to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. This ended up being a game I played in Spring 2015 for the first time. Simply stated – If the first time I’ve played it falls between January 1st and December 31st of this year, it’s fair game. This includes remakes/remasters as their own entry. After all if I’m making a list of the games I’ve enjoyed the most this year, why not?
Huge shock to me as this year was dominated by episodic series, as three of my top 10 were story-driven series. I think they’re slowly becoming my modern equivalent of RPGs by offering a competent story with characters I’m invested in, but in digestible bites during my adult life. Anyways with 44 games completed this year, here are my favorites of 2015.
Kicking off this list for the bronze is the ultra-polished indie hit, Rocket League. Getting a huge boost of players by being offered as a PS+ freebie and allowing cross-play with PC users really helped getting the conversation going around Rocket League. For me it really became the perfect “pick-up and play for 15 minutes” game amidst whatever heavy open-world games I may have been wrapped in at the time. In a nutshell RL has you playing soccer with a team of 1-4 RC cars equipped with nitro boosters and excessively fun physics. As usual with physics driven games the joy really comes from learning exactly how the world’s objects plays against each other. Figuring that out and working with transferring momentum, flying off of the walls, or using a rocket-fueled rush to crush a shot into the back of the net just feels amazing. I got so captivated during my time with this that I ended up writing a guide as I pieced together how to approach it, translating the techniques that worked for me so others would be willing to jump up and have fun. If there was ever a game that really embraced the ridiculous heights you can explore with the medium this would be it. Also a nice rarity these days is it offers the ability to play split-screen so you can couch co-op with a buddy. It’s already available on PC/PS4 and is soon coming to X1 so really you have no excuse not to try this out at some point if you’ve somehow eluded the elated euphoria from this exciting experience.
Sadly for this next one, accessibility is not something working in it’s favor. Persona 4: Dancing All Night comes in for the silver this year for me. Exclusively on the PSTV and Vita we continue the journey with the crew of Persona 4 while expanding their social links to the Japanese idol group, Kanamin Kitchen. The campaign of this carries with it the soul of Persona 4 by exploring the idea of pursuing your true self as your inner-circle helps Rise find her place back into the world of being an idol. Usually for stories like this it irks me to twist the relationships of established characters or retreading old ground. They come off as a shallow fanservice release in most cases. Somehow they managed to pull it off perfectly though while even endearing me to their newest member, Kanami Mashita (pictured above). From a gameplay standpoint P4DAN hosts a deceptively challenging rhythm game set to remixes from Persona 4 Golden’s already wonderful soundtrack. It ranges greatly within the realms of electronica to match each dancer’s character: Kanji gets powerfully rhythmic and aggressive beats, Rise handles the bubblegum pop, and Naoto moves to jazzy tunes. From gameplay to story to unlockables and customization I thoroughly enjoyed my time revisiting the world of Persona 4 one last time before the release of Persona 5 in 2016. Plus once again it’s great to spend some time with a feel-good story among the sea of dark narratives available in modern video games.
Moving into the gold we have Life is Strange. An episodic series focusing on choice and the ability to control time. LiS has you bearing the weight of your actions as the butterfly effect constantly pushes back on them. The developers at Dontnod manage to make you question every decision immediately after making it. Mechanically it feels similar to Telltale Games recent offerings, yet adding in time reversal allows the conversations to become puzzles. For example talking with someone to an end of a conversation will have them mock you for not knowing skateboard trick names, then lets you return to the start of that conversation and slipping in the trick names you just learned to impress them and gain favor. I’ve written about it before but there’s a slightly manipulative or sleazy feeling while charting the course through your social interactions akin to Bill Murray’s character trying to hook up with Andy MacDowell in Groundhog Day. By the end of series that didn’t change but you come to understand the cost of this. For me the real value in LiS comes from the richness of the characters in the world. Spending a week as an academy art student in a small town really presents you with the chance to really know everyone. Somehow they manage to make you sympathetic to every one of them if you care to unravel their stories and learn who they are. It reminds me a lot of the TV show Lost in that no one is inherently bad, but they all feel like they’re just responding to a horrible situation they’re victims of. This lead to a bit in the final episode for a somber moment when someone you’ve loathed for a while has some final words for the heroine, Max, and it managed to cut right through all that hate as my heart poured out for them. I realize we were all caught up in the same horrible storm. The only reason this didn’t take top honors this year is unfortunately the final hour for the series was it’s weakest, softly concluding an otherwise brilliant story. I’d still highly recommend it to anyone even slightly interested.
So much love for this year’s platinum winner, Tales from the Borderlands. This was a pretty late addition for me as I didn’t even start the series until it concluded late October. Through out the year I often read how hilarious and well written it was. I was hesitant as the normal Borderlands tone is too erratic for me. It would bounce between scat humor to Hollywood action to melodramatic sacrifices. Normally that variety is great, but Borderlands 2 managed to poorly transition through all those notes within a 5 minute window bearing no real rhythm. This was different as by the end of the first episode of TftB I was in all in. Telltale Games managed to find a good balance of story to fit the ridiculously misanthropic world while creating characters that felt like a B-Team of heroes you cared about. They even managed to highlight in the first episode how inconsequential the characters you play, Rhys and Fiona, are in the tale of Handsome Jack or the vault hunters from Borderlands proper. It was entirely refreshing to find yourself as a pair of background nobodies getting by in the ludicrous lands of Pandora. Every episode in the series stood on it’s own while playing into the set nicely while staying true to core identity they established from the outset… Which when I was explaining it to a friend I described it as if Guy Ritchie (director of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch“) were to pen a story set in Firefly’s universe. A collection of inept criminals stepping up to be big damn heroes while flailing through the occasional success. The entire time you’re rooting for the underdogs and by the end you’ll have had plenty of laughs, possibly tears, and won’t be ready to leave the circle of friends you’ve found yourself with.
I just can’t stress enough how much personality oozes out of this game. One of my favorite parts of starting each episode was the opening credits and song. In a minute or three it’d set the pace for the upcoming episode while giving the characters their moment of triumph.
Other notable games played in 2015 for me…
Dragon Age Origins: Awakening is easily the oldest release on this list for me. I adored DA:O when I got my hands on it and for whatever reason just never revisited the series since. I’ve been sitting on Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition for years now so when I hooked my PS3 back up this was the first thing I played. Having finished Awakening I can’t believe I’ve left the series for so long. It’s completely revitalized my love of the series as it lead me to push aside any other games on my plate to jump directly into DA2 at this point. Deep worlds and fleshed out characters will do me in every time.
Game of Thrones is the third episodic series on the list for me despite not finishing the last episode still. When the weakest part of a game is the inclusion of moments from HBO’s Game of Thrones you know you’re doing something right. Following the downfall of house Forrester through the series has been agonizing but powerful for me. The climax of episode 5 had me completely divided on my choices because I just cared too much to make the sacrifices they were asking. Any other year this would have been in the top three right about now, but good stories all around made it a cramped year in the genre with the windfall of quality options to pick from.
Rogue Legacy caught me completely off guard. I hate roguelikes normally as the idea of losing most of my progress every play through doesn’t appeal to me. I wanted to like games like FTL and can appreciate them from afar… You’ll never see me spending much time on them though. I’m a fan of RPGs and being able to grind up into a powerhouse tank or godlike wizard. Clever design and tight controls made this a standout experience for me. The heir system combined with overall progression you could accumulate for your house though made it enjoyable every time I adventured back into the castle to end the traitor’s reign and eventually reclaiming my family’s keep.
Splatoon was the light-hearted, colorful escape I needed earlier this year. Low-investment splatfests let you spend a half hour gooping the environment with your painting tool of choice in an online 4v4, but I also really enjoyed the pseudo-campaign that created a more puzzle-platformer like experience. Not quite to the extent of Portal, yet it was diverse enough from what you’d expect from shooters to endear you to this Wii U exclusive. The ease of access is both blessing and a curse as it doesn’t feel substantial enough to keep me around for the long run despite really enjoying what time I did spend with it.
Tales of Hearts R is a remake of a Japanese-only DS title that is basically an entirely new game. It falls in line with the Tales of Symphonia/Abyss/Vesperia line of entries so it had that wonderful “welcome home” feel to it. It was good to return to the warmth of corny puns, physical comedy, and a noble cause by a naive optimistic youth. An adventurous high-fantasy tale with colorful characters that also sends you to other planets and into people’s hearts (hence the title), ToHR was a treat on the Vita and it’s constantly expanding list of quality JRPGs. I loved it so much I played it twice in a row thanks to the New Game+ Grade Shop and even wrote a review for it.