While 2016 was an absolute garbage year culturally, it was also an… interesting year for me personally. My career advanced which threw my lifestyle completely off-kilter. This lead to the majority of the back half of this year being lost to me gamewise, leaving a ton of upcoming or recent releases that in normal circumstances would be top contenders for going into my GotY considerations. Pokemon SunMoon, Final Fantasy 15, Dragon Quest Builders, World of Final Fantasy, Darkest Dungeon, TTG’s Batman, Battlefield 1, and The Last Guardian are all games I imagine will be high in my rankings next year once I have time to spend with them. Hell, Final Fantasy 15’s Episode Duscae demo alone was one of the most exciting things for me to play in 2015, and they’ve had over a year to polish the game since then. I’d be honestly shocked if it doesn’t take top nods from me next year. Both that and Persona 5 are expected to be high on this list for my 2017 wrap up. Oh yeah, then there’s also a little known obscure release called Mass Effect: Andromeda getting in on that as well. Next year is looking like RPG heaven to me.
Yet we’re not here to talk about the future. This here is a retrospective on what I’ve played through 2016. Staying consistent with 2015 and 2014’s rules – Games on my list do not have to be released in 2016 to be eligible. The games on my list are limited to titles that have been played for the first time during this year. As previously discussed it’s increasingly difficult to qualify what’s a release this year versus another. Perhaps something released on PC in 2014, but was just brought to PS4 in 2016? Perhaps it’s a game that released in Japan in the 90’s yet is just now hitting NA as part of a collection? Between remasters, ports, rereleases, localization, etc – Applying an arbitrary year requirement on a hobby that often has us going back into yesteryear to experience the wide breadth of gaming is just asinine. I’m always working a backlog, I’m always discovering old games I never knew existed or had a chance to play due to time constraints, and always checking out remastered or enhanced versions of games I loved years prior. So my criteria is simply one rule… 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. Hell, this year almost had both an original release from over two decades ago and it’s 2016 release on the list. After all if I’m making a list of the games I’ve enjoyed the most this year, why not?
Last year was a huge showing for episodic gaming for me. Prior to that in 2014 was a mixed bag of joyful experiences and endless play with games like Mario Kart 8 or Diablo 3. This year featured a lot more fantasy and escapism. Dragons seem to be a theme, with six out of nine games including some form of scaled beast. Science fiction even has a bit of a showing. More so than previous years I spent time digging back into older hallmarks of gaming. There was just some level of comfort going back to older games that I never find with new releases. Either way, let’s roll right in with my favorite games played in 2016.
Placing with a bronze this year is Final Fantasy Adventure. I know this seems like a stupid hipster “retro is so cool!” choice, but it genuinely was an incredibly well crafted game that still holds up. Originally I had no clue this game was the precursor to Secret of Mana on SNES, one of my favorite games of all time… This original Gameboy mistitled game released back in 1991 was skipped over after trying Final Fantasy Legend and assuming it was a similar unpleasant experience. Yet after reading a review suggesting it’s well worth the visit I picked up a copy online and proceeded to be dumbfounded by how good it still was after all these years. Always looking for an excuse to break out my GBA SP I dumped dozens of hours into exploring the world and running through the campaign blind. Some tricky puzzles, obscure hidden passages, simple yet satisfying combat, and extremely lite narrative delivered exactly what I wanted from this. Boundless space to play at my own pace without heavy narrative directing me around every corner. It was a huge open world to explore and it reminded me a lot of how I felt returning to the original Legend of Zelda a few years back. Discoveries left me in awe. Venturing into new areas felt invigorating. This ended up nabbing a spot as one of my favorite games this year because it is the full package of what you could ask from a video game. Addicting game play mechanics with the combat, huge world to explore, familiar art design, puzzles and secrets to be worked out, and a soundtrack composed by Kenji Ito – a man who has endeared me to his work since playing SaGa Frontier back in the late 90’s. Even if returning to the original GB title isn’t something that appeals to you, I’d recommend trying the incredibly competent Vita/Mobile remake Adventures of Mana for a jist of how good this game is.
This was a game that for whatever reason was off completely off my radar when it was announced. I never played the original back on PS2, and the first I had heard of the PS4 release was after the Kickstarter had ended. Amplitude was made by a studio I loved, in a genre I love, and in the end was a game I couldn’t put down for a solid three weeks. One of the only games released in 2016 on my list I’ve managed to spend dozens of hours on it already. Harmonix has a style of tap tracks for their games that works well for me, always managing to create a zen state of focus while trying to keep up. It’s not often that a game hooks me so much that I tune out the world around me yet Amplitude does just that. Wicked electronica tracks mixed with a rush of visual sensations leaves me fighting to keep up with the escalating difficulty as the aural intensity reaches it’s peak. There’s a rush to be felt that mirrors being neck and neck in a race or competition despite no other participants. Even apart from the gameplay the original track list built in is something that’s worth the price of admission in itself. The final campaign track Dalatecht remains one of my favorite songs in 2016 across the board with it’s aggressively meaty beats and frenetic energy makes for an epic finale that’s to scale with any boss encounter I can recall in a video game. It’s just so damn good. The only downside I can speak for with it is the lack of DLC, purely because I’m an obsessive that always wants more content for rhythm games.
Side note – Outside of the amazing original soundtrack they created for this, they also reached out to several other composers within the gamespace to contribute to the soundtrack, including offerings from C418, Danny Baranowsky, Jim Guthrie, and Darren Korb. Harmonix really knocked it out of the park when it came to music choices with PS4’s Amplitude.
A little more than a year late to the party on this one, I played Dragon Age: Inquisition after all the DLC had been released so had a mountain of content to climb through. I loved every damn minute of it. I’ve been in love with the Dragon Age series since I played Origins on PS3 and think they have me for life. The world is so alluring with it’s mix of feuding religions, blood magic, occultists, oppressive regimes, countries at war, deep historical misstruths, and espionage to create a truly dark fantasy… Add some spice with a cast of characters so distinct and memorable across each game, and then top it off with tactical roleplaying combat and it’s a miracle I don’t have tattoos celebrating my appreciation for this series. Inquisition in particular carried the torch quite well after the “misstep” with Dragon Age 2. Rebuilding their approach from the ground up, Inquisition provides a dozen or so sprawling settings with self-contained stories or quests to keep you busy for hours on end in each.
For the game itself you play as one who bears the curse of power as a whole new imperial faction forms around you at every choice you make, strengthening your cause in a war against an ancient mage who’s primary goal is to claw his way back into the heavens and claim his throne as the new ruler of all. The source of your power is a mystery that unravels with the campaign that carries weight all the way through to the final DLC, Trespasser. Inquisition manages to flip what was known about the world on it’s head by making a few choice decisions with the characters you party with to forever shape the timeline that continues to unfold with each game. Both friends and enemies in this game are ones you won’t soon forget, with iconic performances by the likes of Sera, Iron Bull, Dorian, and even Corypheus the mad mage himself hellbent on destroying you. There are very few things worth leaving behind in this game, but unfortunately one of those things is the infamous Hinterlands starting zone. Once you leave that generic, endless, borderline torturous zone, the game really opens up and becomes something special… and oh my god, when you first reach Skyhold? That scene will always make me stop what I’m doing to watch anyone play through that bit. Inquisition is filled with moments of awe from start to finish and I can not wait to see how Bioware follows up this entry in their Dragon Age series.
Originally something I loathed the very idea of – All I heard was about how difficult Demon’s Souls was and it was praised as such for the reason to play it. Well after Bloodborne took PS4 owners by storm, and the impending release of Dark Souls 3 I decided it was finally time to sit down and play it in spite of the difficulty hype. A few friends online couldn’t stop recommending it so I opted to include it in my #4iF (Four in February) challenge. I couldn’t believe how engrossing the world felt. It was such a dark, gritty, surreal RPG filled with implicit lore, complicated characters, and a morally ambiguous… well, everything. There was little I didn’t adore when I played through my 84 hour campaign run. With all the praise I had heard for the series over the years never did anyone outright tell me that it’s just a really obfuscated action RPG complete with NPC quest lines, world shaping, mysterious items, varied weapon selections and armor, elemental weaknesses, or forgotten kingdoms and conspiracies. Had I known any of these things about Demon’s Souls instead of just “plan to die” and “git gud” I would have been on board years ago. I elaborated on this in a previous blog post so I won’t retread too much here. What I will say is the best thing I could have done with this was just given it a try in the past without the internet direction and I would have enjoyed it a lot sooner.
Since then I’ve found the charm of the Soulsborne games and look forward to playing through the rest. I went from Demon’s Souls straight into Dark Souls 3 and was amazed at how many callbacks there were to it’s spiritual predecessor. I look forward to playing Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, and Bloodborne sometime in 2017 thanks to Demon’s Souls. Still I don’t think any of them will ever top this for me. It made a lasting impression on me with the unnerving feeling I felt creeping around The Tower of Latria, a dilapidated prison where cells were watched by robed Cthulian wardens not too far removed from the Dementors of Harry Potter… Or the honest disgust from crawling through the grimy insect-infested mudswamps known as the Valley of Defilement. Which oh yeah, that area concludes with an encounter that feel just awful about as you have to murder an virtuous priestess that had become tainted trying to heal the inhabitants of the cursed mucklands. She doesn’t fight back at all as she pleads with you not to kill her. It’s emotionally brutal and by no means the only instance like this in the series. Rough around the edges but chock full of curious designs and vivid locations, there was little question that this was going to be one of my favorite games this year.
As with the previous two years, here’s a collection of other notable games played in 2016 that made an impact but didn’t make the cut…
Adventures of Mana was the original reason that made me pick up Final Fantasy Adventure. An updated port for Vita of a game I thought I might love and felt as a fan of Secret of Mana I had to play, I saved this until after I played the GameBoy original for comparative sake. At first taste it was bitter for me, feeling sluggish, too polished, and lacking the charm the original. By the end of the experience I found joy in some of the modern tweaks like the ability to toggle between the OG chiptune and remastered tracks, embellished dialog, having a mini-map, and refined inventory management. It was the perfect example of how to rebuild a classic game without ruining it… unlike it’s previous GBA remake, the cumbersome and loosely connected Brownie Brown developed Sword of Mana.
Lifeline is one that in a million years I never would have anticipated catching my attention. I normally don’t dig mobile games, but Lifeline utilizes the novelty of being on a device you carry with you always to simulate a connection to a marooned student on a hostile planet in space. Only able to connect and send messages after real time has passed, it creates a sensation of actually being the hope for our androgynously named friend Taylor as s/he tries to hold it together in an escalating tale of sci-fi survival horror told through essentially a series text messages.
PSVR Worlds: The Heist is probably the dream of PSVR that I hope future games can nail. Dropped into the middle of an English mobster flick ala Guy Ritchie after something’s gone south for you, you’re taken through a series of scenes flashing back to how you got tied up to a chair ready to be tortured. Cool simulations like holding then lighting a cigar or riding shotgun in a van on the freeway shooting at your pursuers lead to The Heist being a genuine VR experience worth having.
Super Metroid… Yes, somehow I’ve managed to make it to 2016 having never played this. My love for this style of game didn’t start until Shadow Complex a few years back when I was old enough to appreciate what exactly good level design was, but since then I usually play 2 or 3 Metroidvania’s per year. The unofficial release of Metroid 2 on PC and the surrounding excitement lead me back to finally try what is heralded as one of the best games of all time. Needless to say it didn’t disappoint. I always felt like there was more world to explore, excited to get a new power-up so I could go out just a bit further in an area that stymied my progression previously, and discovering solutions to moments where I was stumped. Sure the ending was well known by the time I got there, but it was a helluva ride to get to that point. Like the moment where you use a superbomb to shatter the underwater tube you’re in? Epic.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. In 2014 I discovered Persona 4 Golden and fell in love with the themes explored in the Persona series. That lead me to Dancing All Night in 2015, and now into TMS#FE in 2016. A pit stop on the road to Persona 5 I loved this detour for the ridiculously bubblegum Jpop setting they opted to use. Combat had a clever system to combo attacks together, the characters were enjoyable, music was fitting, and the art style served the overall presentation perfectly. Two things kept the game from greatness for me was the lack of full translations/English dubs leading to bits of dialog I couldn’t understand, and the other being the absurd amount of backtracking required every time you wanted to upgrade your weapons or skills. Even for a JRPG it felt like there was an excessive amount of grinding. What ended up being a 70 hour game could have easily been a 40 hour just by not stretching out the combat and advancement systems. Regardless of those setbacks it was still easily one of the best Wii U experiences I’ve had.