Monday, December 28, 2015

Quick Fix: My favorite games of 2015

A lot of great games came out in 2015. Perhaps the understatement of the year? From much-anticipated titles like Fallout 4, to Kickstarted successes such as Serpent in the Staglands and Hard West, to lesser-known gems or innovative projects like Mushroom 11 and Her Story, 2015 was a year where quality releases thrived and indie games in all manner of genres excelled.

It's impossible to play everything or highlight every interesting, fun, unique experience, but I can point the ones that were my favorites. The games that I kept coming back to, that lingered in my mind when I was away from my computer, that impressed me with their mechanics or art design or any other permutation of elements:

So here we go, in no particular order or ranking:

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There's something almost magical about how text alone, simple strings of characters and spaces, can bring a world to life in your mind and tug at your imagination. The wordsmiths at Failbetter are masters of prose and breathed dank, damp, inky-black life into the Lovecraftian/Gothic seascape of Sunless Sea. As master and commander in this quite literally alien place, you set out on grueling journeys into unknown waters where mind-rending horrors lurk in wait for woefully confident fools such as yourself. Confident that loot and glory await out there in the darkness, of discoveries beyond comprehension, a legacy for your bloodline. And all those exist, but more likely...terror, insanity, cults and cannibalism, unfriendly gods and terrifying denizens of the deep. Failbetter creates all of those possibilities and more with their expertly crafted prose and atmospheric top-down visuals.
Ori and The Blind Forest doesn't reinvent the wheel, or innovate the platformer. But what it does do is deliver what is easily the most gorgeous, most fluidly-animated, vibrant platformer I've played in years. From mist-choked forest to caverns strangled by thorny vines, from crystal clear lakes to flaming ruins, every location in Ori is flush with color and life and little details. The exploration, acrobatic combat, challenging platforming, and excellent music are all satisfying icing on a beautiful cake.
Personally, I've been somewhat burned out on the explore/craft/survive genre for a while. Minecraft was great fun due to the endless wonders of its sprawling worlds, and The Long Dark's focus on unforgiving wintry realism is a nice change of pace, but those were about it for me. But Subnautica is something special. The alien ocean feels fresh, a unique place unlike any other environment I've explored before in a game, and exploring its colorful but deadly depths imposes interesting challenges that other games in the genre can't.like oxygen management and pressure. Discovery and exploration is the focus here, and each new crafting formula and tool lets you push a bit more, a little bit farther downward, thanks to bigger oxygen tanks, air-channeling pipelines, fins, submersibles, guidelines and beacons, and more. 
The thought of blending a command line interface and a survival horror game seems like an odd mishmash of ideas that would never work. But like how Crypt of the Necrodancer combined roguelike and rhythm game in stellar fashion, Duskers merged sci-fi horror and text-based gameplay to create an always tense and surprisingly strategic experience. Alone in a universe gone silent, you must scavenge derelict vessels still crawling with alien entities and active defenses. To that end, you send out drones, remotely controlled through the aforementioned interface, to scour ships for supplies and clues. Failing equipment and minimal maps means danger can lurk around any corner, and each drone lost means fewer supplies for you. Myriad gadgets - from hacking and cloaking to scouts and generators - allow you to devise improvised tactics to explore each vessel, and the command line interface forces each tactic, good or bad, to be methodical and deliberate.
Klei proved themselves to be masters of the stealth genre with Mark of the Ninja, but Invisible Inc is not only a fantastic stealth game, but an innovative one, combining the strategic, methodical nature of turn-based gameplay with cautious desperate sneaking. A wealth of agents and skills opens the door for a plethora of tactics, but at its core, Invisible Inc is all about careful sneaking around sight cones, avoiding patrols, stealing important data, and infiltrating secure facilities. Invisible Inc is a masterpiece of stealth gameplay and a blueprint of how to do stealth right in an unorthodox way.
No other game that I played this year stuck with me like SOMA did. Horror games and I don't always mix well - in fact, I still haven't been able to finish Amnesia - but SOMA's thought-provoking and horrifying narrative compelled me to brave its terror-filled corridors. Haunting moments abound, moments that send a chill down your spine not just because what's happening onscreen but also because of their unnerving implications. But SOMA doesn't just excel because of its narrative. Excellent pacing that knows just when and how to build slow-burn tension, an unsettling atmosphere anchored by the groaning of pressure-crushed metal and sounds of inhuman things roaming the halls, and the designs of the twisted abominations found within SOMA's environments make for one hell of a horror game.
Between Autocraft and Space Engineers and a whole lot more, the vehicle building genre is alive and well in 2015. But did any one execute it better or more enjoyably than Besiege? Besiege is a medieval toybox at your fingertips limited only by your imagination and creativity, since the building interface is so simple and intuitive.  Its plethora of pieces and parts let you construct formidable siege engines and catapults...but why stop there? Tanks. Transforming mechs. Multistage rockets. Rolling platforms festooned with cannons and sawblades. Airborne bombers. The possibilities are endless and the playgrounds are just so cool, presented in a stylishly diorama-esque aesthetic that crumbles under the might of your creations. 
Another blend of genres pulled off with style, Hand of Fate combines the thrill of a text adventure/dungeon crawler, the strategic deck-building of a card game, and the loot-based action of a brawler. Each successful run adds new cards to the decks, both yours and the nefarious Dealer's, expanding the pool of events, enemies, weapons, and gear; even late in the game, that means there's always new to discover and drive you to play again. And while the card dungeons are fun to traverse, the melee action is just as fun, featuring such varied gear and skills as lightning imbued hammers and area-of-effect ice magic or enemy-slowing armor and powerful blades that set the undead aflame.
While SOMA devised its horror through its themes and setting, Dark Echo presents its horror-exploration/puzzling in total darkness. Sound is sight here, each step and noise revealing the world in a manner reminiscent of The Unfinished Swan or Daredevil's radar vision. Dark Echo's atmosphere rests solely on its minimalist visuals and exceptional sound design: footsteps reverberating through shallow pools and mossy undergrowth, the heavy groans of iron doors and locks, the guttural growls of things hunting you in the pitch blackness. Yes, you're aren't alone in Dark Echo, and the way such a seemingly simple game is able to offer stealth, puzzles, and tense exploration speaks volumes to its elegant design.
Sublevel Zero was probably the surprise of the year for me. I'm sure, at one point or another, you've played a game and thought "Why didn't I play this weeks/months/years ago?", Sublevel Zero released in October, and as soon as I started playing it, I regreted not getting the game earlier. I never played Descent or any of the 6DOF titles that followed in its thruster wake, but playing Sublevel Zero, I understand the thrill and tension of the genre. Boosting down twisting serpentine tunnels, navigating cavernous quarries and caves and tight claustrophobic halls, unleashing an onslaught of lasers and plasma and rockets on the relentless robotic foes that could attack from any angle. The roguelite angle meant every moment was fraught with tension, every battle could be your last, and the simple crafting mechanic allowed for a versatile arsenal of satisfyingly powerful weapons.
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So hope you enjoyed that, 10 of my favorite games of 2015. Truthfully, I could easily add another dozen or more games there, such was the amount of interesting and excellent indie games that came out this year. Here are some honorable (but no less enjoyable) mentions:
  • Mushroom 11 - An innovative puzzle-platformer where you control an amorphous fungus that can mold and shift into any shape, and constantly introduces new puzzle elements
  • Elite Dangerous - My first space sim, and what an incredible introduction to the genre. It's like having your own personal Interstellar at your fingertips
  • Infinifactory/TIS-100 - The two brain-breaking puzzlers from SpaceChem's Zachtronics. The former evolved SpaceChem's assembly line formula with a z-axis and sci-fi setting. the latter distilled it into pure programming conundrums
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer - Roguelike meets rhythm game, with an incredible soundtrack, tons of content, and simple yet challenging gameplay
  • STASIS - An isometric sci-fi horror adventure game with a grimy industrial atmosphere and gory setpieces that would make Ridley Scott and David Cronenberg proud
  • Sorcery 3 - Inkle continues its fantastic interactive fiction by expanding the structure into an open world across two timelines and an astounding amount choices and events
  • Guns, Gore, and Cannoli - Colorful hand-drawn art and animations gives this fun over-the-top run-n-gun action game a ton of charm


4 comments:

  1. Ori and The Blind Forest is by far the most enjoable game i played this year. While some of my friends said it´s a trash game expect the graphik, i think they are completly wrong. A sad begin but an wondeful game. Played it already more then 200 hours, i think i should write something about it at my blog http://pixelnostalgie.de/

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  2. grwat klist - Sunless sea was a stand out for sure and one of the best narrative experiences this year - great setting as well.

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