DISCLAIMER: If you’ve already read my Top Games of 2015: Honorable Mentions Edition post, these next few paragraphs are going to look awfully familiar. Just scroll on down to the list!
Say what you will, but I thought 2015 was a damn good year for video game fans. With a variety of big budget titles, insanely popular indies winning arbitrary awards over legendary classics, and even JRPGs finally finding a home on PC via Steam, there was a little something for everyone. But who has the time and money to buy and play everything?
I’m a mere mortal, so of course there were games I skipped out on this year, or didn’t get around to finishing up–Fallout 4, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and Rise of the Tomb Raider still haven’t found their way on to my shelf, for instance.
But I still played a lot of games in 2015.
It was hard narrowing it down to 10 of my favorites, not just because there were so many to pick from (side note: I didn’t enjoy a lot of what I played, since it was purely for review purposes at the old blog), but I didn’t feel confident adding things like remasters, or games I didn’t put enough time in to. That’s where my previous post, the Honorable Mentions Edition, came in to play.
Since I love a good cliche list, let’s get started with #10 and work our way down to the top spot, shall we?
#10: Grow Home
Ubisoft’s Reflections Studio created this wonderful little game about a robot’s journey in a new world, where the sole purpose is to grow and climb a massive plant from the ground at your feet to your space ship 2,000 meters in the sky. B.U.D. is clumsy and charming, stumbling around the low-poly environment looking for crystals, plants, and animals to beam up for observation, and the game itself practically begs you to explore it.
Even with a name like Ubisoft attached to the project, it’s not a big game by any means. I was sucked in to the premise immediately and ended up completing it within a few hours, but it was clearly an enjoyable experience. Climbing this ever growing structure, dangerously scaling vines and guiding them to floating islands, gave a sense of vertigo that made my palms sweat. I know, poor controller, right?
Grow Home is a fun, powerful adventure, led purely by a sense of wonder and our most basic of instincts.
#9: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below
When I’m ready to unwind, few games offer mindless entertainment quite like the Dynasty Warriors series. And while I enjoy these musou games for what they are, I’ve never really considered them for Game of the Year-type posts. Until now, of course.
They’re usually the same ol’ same–defend a base, kill a target, command troops, repeat–but (like Hyrule Warriors in 2014) Dragon Quest Heroes has enough fan service and RPG elements that allow it to step away from the mindless grind Omega Force is known for.
Featuring likable newcomers and iconic favorites from the Dragon Quest universe, as well as a plethora of familiar enemy types, Square Enix and Omega Force merged their two respective genres in a way that managed to freshen up their approach to gameplay. Sure, I was still hacking and slashing my way to victory, but each cast member has their own skill trees to level up, magical spells to cast, and screen clearing tension attacks, placing a variety of different play styles at my disposal. Having the option to switch between 4 different party members in combat was awesome, but what I really enjoyed was the tactical advantage of summoning defeated monsters on to the battlefield to defend NPCs, hold choke points, or assist in bludgeoning dracky and slimes to within an inch of their adorable lives.
As a longtime fan of Dragon Quest, and a casual fan of the Warriors series and its many, many spinoffs, Heroes was already an easy sell. I just didn’t expect it to be so good.
#8: Until Dawn
Scream. My Bloody Valentine. April Fool’s Day. I Know What You Did Last Summer. All great horror films, right? As a lifelong fan of the genre, Until Dawn held my interest because it seemed to draw inspiration from a vast array of horror films that I hold in high regard. However, I was never really impressed with any ounce of gameplay footage or screenshots shown leading up to its release.
The developer didn’t exactly have the best track record either, handling the HD port of Killzone, creating arcade games inside Vita’s port of Little Big Planet, and spearheading a handful of physics- and camera-based family games centered around Sony’s failed Playstation Move controller on PS3. Yet, here Sony was trusting Supermassive Games with one of the PS4’s few 2015 retail exclusives. I had every right to be concerned, I think. Imagine my surprise when Until Dawn turned out to be fucking incredible.
The game centers around a group of friends returning back to a yearly vacation spot the year after a pair of sisters went missing. They want to relax, have a good time, and by that I mean bitch, bicker, and screw each other’s brains out, while trying not to die. It’s the typical setting of any great slasher flick from the 80’s and 90’s, and it makes for one hell of a game.
We’re given the opportunity to play God with each of the cast members, making choices and acting in ways that impact the game in some pretty significant ways. If you’re familiar with the butterfly effect theory, it’s at the core of Until Dawn and leads to some pretty gruesome moments should you choose poorly.
A solid grasp on cinema and gameplay (a sentiment echoed by one Jim Sterling in his GOTY video), a memorable cast of characters, and a deliciously campy script allowed Supermassive Games to create one of the best adventure games of the year, and one of the biggest surprises of 2015. In a year light on horror, I couldn’t have asked for more.
#7: Her Story
After gaining a lot of notoriety at this year’s Game Awards ceremony, I felt compelled to experience Sam Barlow’s FMV detective adventure for myself. Not just as a fan of his criminally underrated gem Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but as someone unfamiliar with this style of game as a whole.
As the story goes, a British woman was interviewed seven different times concerning the disappearance of her husband, Simon, in 1994. Using an in-game police database, your job is to watch video clips of the investigation, decipher the woman’s story for keywords and clues, and use that information to search for additional video clips to piece it all together. The acting is top notch, the writing is incredible, and I found myself furiously pecking keywords in to the database until 3am the next morning, because I couldn’t peel myself away from it.
Barlow himself is already a masterful storyteller, but the game’s lone actress, Viva Seifert, really drove his vision home in one of the most intriguing and unique games of 2015.
#6: Life is Strange
DONTNOD’s episodic adventure series Life is Strange unapologetically tackles mature themes, while weaving an engrossing narrative with its unique time bending hook and well fleshed out cast of characters.
Life is Strange stars Max, a young photography student who just moved back to her home town of Arcadia Bay. It’s here that she rekindles her friendship with childhood-BFF-turned-misunderstood delinquent Chloe, and discovers her mystical ability to rewind time.
Some crazy stuff is going down in Arcadia Bay, from the mysterious disappearance of local girls, to an unseasonally strange tornado set to wipe the fictional city off the virtual map. Using Max’s newfound power, you’ll need to make some tough decisions throughout the game’s five episodes. Do you project your own morals on to others, changing their future in to something you deem satisfactory? Will you put your own future in jeopardy to cover for a friend that never seems to stay out of trouble?
There’s a lot I loved about Life is Strange (particularly the cast, the incredible indie rock soundtrack, and the overall writing), but the visuals were a little on the drab side and the finale left me a bit torn. In a game so rife with choice and consequences, I got the impression that DONTNOD anticipated players making certain decisions and focused a lot of their efforts on tailoring one of the endings to reflect that–but didn’t provide the same satisfying finality in the other.
It was an emotional end to a series I was fully invested in, and I left feeling satisfied, but after viewing the ending for the alternate choice, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for players who may have done things a little differently. Closing problems aside, Life is Strange was still an incredible experience, and one of the best adventure games of the year.
#5: Tales from the Borderlands
The Borderlands series is known for being a class-based first-person shooter, where friends can get together online and mow down bandits for boatloads of that sweet, sweet loot. We’ve grown to love Pandora and its inhabitants over the years, but one thing that’s never really been at the forefront is storytelling. Thankfully, they’ve left that to the experts at Telltale Games.
Tales from the Borderlands brings together a ragtag mix of Hyperion higher-ups and Pandoran con artists (voiced by some of the best in the business) who get caught up in a scam to buy and sell a fake vault key. One thing leads to another, and in typical Borderlands fashion, unpredictable hilarity ensues. Handsome Jack’s murderous A.I. ends up stored in one character’s brain, the gang scoops a “dead” guy’s eyeball out with a spork, and you could have one hell of a drinking game by taking a shot every time Pre-Sequel’s Loader Bot delivers a fist-bump or a hilarious one-liner. There’s even a John Woo style shootout between an entire office building, using nothing more than imaginary fingerguns.
It’s not without its tear-jerking moments, though. Tales from the Borderlands was often comedic, but man, that finale was one hell of an emotional roller coaster (and don’t even get me started on episode 4’s big moment). The final episode reminded me why Telltale Games is adored so much for their storytelling, and I sincerely hope that Borderlands 3 features some of the newest cast members in some way, shape, or form.
#4: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
As far as open-world RPGs go, The Witcher 3 may very well be the greatest ever created. It’s utterly massive in scale, drop dead gorgeous to look at, the combat is exciting, there’s monsters, romance, unbreakable friendships, and the world is full of amazing characters that I’ll remember for as long as I have an interest in video games. That was a long series of commas.
Developer CD Projekt Red also won over fans this year with heaps of free DLC, a regular series of meaningful updates (New Game+, in-game storage), and a sweet little thank you note inside each physical copy. There’s a reason why they won Developer of the Year at The Game Awards.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is by no means a small game, taking my girlfriend and I well over 100 hours to reach the finale, and we haven’t even touched the new expansion. And then there’s the insanely popular not-so-mini-mini-game Gwent.
Tracking down Geralt’s chosen daughter Ciri, while dodging and battling the Wild Hunt along the way, made for an exciting adventure. And in a genre that usually prides itself on character customization, The Witcher 3 is carried by a strongly written, pre-determined lead, and a vast world that’s just as much a part of the game as our ashen haired hero.
#3: Rocket League
If you haven’t heard by now, Rocket League is essentially soccer played with cars. It exploded in popularity, due in large part to its free price tag for Playstation Plus subscribers back in August, but also word of mouth through social media because it’s just really damn good.
I typically shy away from competitive games, especially those played online with other people. I never downloaded Rocket League during its free period, but after talking with some of my Twitter friends, I was convinced to give it a try anyway. And I’m so, so glad that I did.
It’s an easy game to just pick up and play, and its accessibility probably has a lot to do with how insanely popular it is with non-competitive gamers like myself. You drive a car like you would in any other game, but now you can double jump, flip, roll, and fly.. while you play soccer. It’s as absurd a concept as it is genius, and it consumed me for two straight weeks. I was planted firmly on the couch, jumping in to random games with my unlocked Sweet Tooth vehicle, screaming along to every hilarious failure, every goal, and it didn’t matter whether I won or lost–I had a fucking BLAST.
Had I not played these next two games after the fact, Rocket League was an easy choice for my Game of the Year. It’s not only a testament to just how good it is, but how amazing these next two are.
#2: Axiom Verge
I’m often asked what my favorite game of all time is, and I’ll always say it’s a two-way tie between the original Legend of Zelda and Metroid on NES. Both of those games defined my childhood, and I can still recall the way the fabric felt on my parents’ recliner, the smell of the house, and the sound of the fish tank that questionably sat atop our wooden floor-model television set that I used to play these games for many, many years.
Axiom Verge is a love letter to the Metroid series, from its expansive map with varied environments and tense boss battles, to its memorable soundtrack, pixel perfect graphics, and enjoyable array of weapons and power-ups. There’s even a throwback to Metroid’s old JUSTIN-BAILEY code that puts Trace in Samus Aran’s one-piece bathing suit. Color me impressed.
When I think of the best Playstation 4 console exclusives, Axiom Verge is at the very top of my list. Not Bloodborne, or inFamous, but a game developed by a single person–Tom Happ. Axiom Verge is not just an incredible work of art, but a master class in 2D game design. The fact that it was done by one person makes it all that more impressive.
Guiding a dead scientist around an alien planet has never been so enjoyable, with remote control drones to summon, brilliant zones to explore, and secrets to uncover. And the soundtrack, MAN, that soundtrack. It’s just an incredible game, and one that any fan of Metroid should experience.
When it came time to decide which game would take top honors, I struggled back and forth between Axiom Verge and this other choice down below. I was instantly reminded of the question mentioned above, “what’s your favorite game of all time?”, because I just couldn’t declare a clear winner. But if I had to choose–absolutely had to–I would put Axiom Verge second by a very, very small margin. Both games are phenomenal, but Undertale won me over just a tiny bit more.
There’s a (figurative) million things I want to say about Undertale right now, but I’m struggling to find the right words to justify my claim. So I’ll just sum it up and say Undertale is one of the greatest games I have ever played in my entire life. That’s a bold statement (italicized, actually), coming from a 34-year old that’s played more than his fair share of games over the years, and it’s one I make in utmost confidence.
It’s an emotional roller coaster that becomes sentient, remembering who you’ve killed, who you’ve shown mercy, and it makes you feel like the imperfect human being that you are. To say Undertale is beautiful is laughable. It’s not pretty, and neither are we. We’re all made of blood and guts, strewn together with free will and living with the consequences of every choice we’ve ever made.
In a world where humans and monsters are at odds, it’s clear that they’re not all bad. If that doesn’t speak volumes about modern society, I don’t know what does. Do you show compassion when monsters attack you? Do you strike up a conversation about cooking, do a little dance, maybe strike a pose and become friends? Or do you bury your dagger between their ribs in hopes of being showered in gold and XP? The world of Undertale never, ever forgets, and if you’re a terrible person, be prepared to feel like a fucking monster.
Weeks after finishing Undertale, I still find myself scouring the internet for fanart, listening to its soundtrack (Spider Dance is the single greatest track in video game history), then listening to remixes of its soundtrack, and chatting obsessively with friends about everything in between.
It’s games like Undertale (and the others listed above) that pull me out of my jaded funk and remind me that something special still exists in the realm of video games. That there are still developers out there creating memorable experiences that stretch far beyond a game’s credits screen. Games that break free from the norm, pull at our heart strings, make us feel human, strike emotional chords, and rival any other medium on the planet.
Undertale is that something special, and it’s the greatest game I played in 2015.