As far as years go, 2016 was a shitshow. A dumpster fire. Over the last 12 months I’ve lost my dad, the family dog, and almost lost my closest uncle to a car accident. With gaming as my primary form of escapism, I’m at least eternally grateful that this was one hell of a year for our favorite medium.
I’ve already gone over my honorable mentions, so let’s not waste anymore time and dive right in to my absolute favorite games of 2016. I’ve narrowed it down to 10.
#10 – Alone With You
Alone With You is an interesting sci-fi tale, focusing on the sole survivor of a space colonization project gone awry. With the help of the colony’s A.I., you spend most of your time locating parts and schematics in hopes of building an escape ship. Only you’re not mentally equipped to do it all on your own. To help out, your new A.I. pal uploads the memories of four of the colony’s most important figures (now dead, by the way), turning them in to sentient holograms.
It’s mostly an adventure game, favoring a narrative focus instead of action or combat, but with a dash of dating sim thrown in for good measure–as you can spend time with each of the four holograms between scavenging missions. There’s a lot of backstory to uncover as well, as you’ll tap in to the lives of the recently deceased by scanning the many, many corpses that litter the colony grounds.
I liked the idea of associating with sentient holograms that still felt somewhat human, and piecing together the deceased’s final moments through found documentation was always a horrific treat. The retro aesthetic, the OST, the writing, it all came together rather nicely and I was far from disappointed.
#9 – Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization
Hollow Realization is the latest gaming installment in the wildly popular Sword Art Online universe, and it’s a game that’s probably not going to connect with those unfamiliar to the source material. Even if you are, your mileage may vary. It’s definitely an action RPG for Sword Art fans, letting players customize and control the series’ hero Kirito while partying up with familiar faces from within the anime, like Asuna, Lisbeth, and Klein.
The story isn’t very good and the piss poor translation certainly doesn’t do it any favors, but there’s tons of loot to collect, weapons to master, and dungeons to scour that make it a worthwhile undertaking. I’ve spent nearly 60 hours with the PS4 version, when combining the passable campaign and the online multi-player raiding feature, and I’m eagerly awaiting the new update and DLC packs.
It’s not the best action RPG around, but as a huge fan of the anime I had a great time palling around with my series favorites, leveling up different weapons, and tackling the game’s massive raid bosses with randos online.
#8 – Firewatch
Firewatch is a first-person narrative exploration game that offsets its beautiful Wyoming landscape with the somber tale of a man’s struggle as he deals with his young wife’s early-onset dementia symptoms.
Taking place in the Shoshone National Park, Henry accepts a part-time job as a fire lookout in hopes of mentally checking out for a few months. His only human interaction is with Delilah, a female fire lookout stationed in another part of the forest. As Henry’s wife succumbs to dementia, thus slowly purging their memories from her mind, your dialogue choices with Delilah set the tone for the rest of the game.
The storytelling in Firewatch is pretty top-notch, having given me a steady stream of intrigue as I explored Shoshone and conversed with Delilah over my walkie talkie. The narrative’s delivery is also rock solid as Rich Sommer (Mad Men, The Devil Wears Prada) and Cissy Jones (Life is Strange, Adr1ft) bring both of the central characters to life with gravitas.
Firewatch is a bit on the short side, which is fine, but my main gripe is in how the game ran. The PS4 version suffered from some pretty awful framerate issues and screen tearing, which did pull me out of the experience a bit. However, neither of those problems were enough to keep me away. I was sucked in from the jump and happily played through in a single setting.
#7 – Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax
I love me a good bullet-hell shmup, but Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s absurd, beautiful, and plays like a dream, while having one of my favorite OST’s of 2016. The bleeps and bloops are just pure ear-sex.
There’s a ridiculously good gameplay loop, drip-feeding a steady supply of rewards to the player as they blast their way through hordes of baddies and over-the-top bosses. Each character class even has their own abilities that added a bit of Destiny and Diablo to my frantic shoot-em-up sessions.
Stardust Galaxy Warriors is one of the finest arcade shmups I’ve ever played. Bottom line. And its plethora of customization and game modes, along with its almost Mega Man-like soundtrack, still have me revisiting it months after release.
#6 – Oxenfree
Oxenfree intrigued me when it launched on Xbox One, but I didn’t get around to Night School Studio’s supernatural adventure game until it landed on PS4 earlier this year.
It’s a 2D tale about a group of teenage schoolmates meeting up on a retired island to shoot the shit, drink, and do whatever it is crazy teenagers do. Like open an enigmatic rift using radio frequencies. Yeah, it gets pretty weird.
There’s a lot of great dialogue in Oxenfree, and not just about parallel dimensions, rifts, time travel, aliens, and ghosts, but the kids also delve in to some pretty dreary life issues, like love, divorce, and drug use. Your actions and dialogue choices not only affect the way others perceive and react to you, but alter the ending as well. With a handful of different endings to unlock, it significantly added replay value to an otherwise short (yet incredibly memorable) 4-hour experience.
If you’re a fan of Life is Strange, I highly recommend giving it a shot.
#5 – World of Final Fantasy
I love Final Fantasy. I love Pokemon. Therefor, I love World of Final Fantasy. Poor attempt at comedy aside, I’ve really enjoyed my time with Square’s light-hearted nostalgia trip about capturing and battling with the series’ famous monsters and I’m sure I’ll be playing World of Final Fantasy well in to the new year.
The story is kind of a mixed bag, generally existing as nothing more than a way to push the player along to the game’s next zone, full of new mirages to battle and capture. Thankfully that part of the game is compelling and addictive. I’ve spent the better part of my time collecting, leveling, and transfigging mirages to make the perfect stacks, and that includes spending time in the game’s optional Coliseum to snag some of the series’ most well known heavy hitters, like Ifrit, Shiva, and Valefor.
The writing is clever as well, particularly the flavor text that accompanies each of your newly imprismed mirages, but it’s a shame they didn’t put more effort in to the central narrative or its characters outside of a batch of side-quests.
Still, I’ve yet to lose my urge to catch all of the mirages, summon champions from earlier games, geek out over Squall and Cloud cameos, and play mad scientist with the stacking feature.
#4 – Doom
Doom is one of the most polished and enjoyable games of 2016, hands down. Not only am I thrilled to see Bethesda’s enthusiasm toward delivering single-player shooter experiences, but their quality thus far has been outstanding. The reboot of Wolfenstein in The New Order, and its standalone offering The Old Blood were both fantastic, and I’m stoked to see how its rumored sequel The New Colossus turns out. And of course we have Prey coming in 2017, on top of this year’s well received Dishonored 2 (though first-person, the latter is anything but a shooter).
This was a game that I picked up at launch, which unfortunately occurred shortly after my dad passed away. I was in an emotional rut and just wanted a bit of a distraction, but I wasn’t in the right mindset to play and appreciate Doom for what it was. I eventually got back to it about a month ago and I’m certainly glad I did, because the campaign is incredible.
Everything from the push-forward combat, the brutal glory kills, and relentlessly ferocious A.I., to the hellishly beautiful world design, intriguing narrative, and metal-as-fuck composition on behalf of Mick Gordon worked in unison to forge Doom in to one of the finest shooters of this generation.
#3 – Inside
This is a tough one to describe without spoiling anything, considering the best way to experience Inside is by diving in blind. From the creators of indie darling Limbo, developer Playdead crafted one of the year’s most perfect games. The intricate world design and clever puzzle solutions, along with Playdead’s attention to character animations and composition, are standout features.
Never has a game kept me guessing throughout its entire adventure quite like this one. The moment I thought I had a vague understanding of its goings on, a new mechanic, puzzle, or plot device is introduced. And that ending… man, that ending.
Like Limbo, there’s no spoken narrative. Rather, the storytelling is left up to the environment and player interpretation, which I loved. After finishing the game, I immediately took to the internet to read over fan theories while attempting to decipher its cryptic hidden ending.
Inside is a short game, clocking in at just a handful of hours, but it’s one that’s remained in the back of my mind for months since finishing.
#2 – The Last Guardian
While I’ve abandoned many a game for having far less technical issues, The Last Guardian remains a masterclass in storytelling and character building despite its plethora of mechanical fuck-ups.
Here we have a game that’s spent the better part of a decade in development hell, and what we got was a game that absolutely feels like it. The gameplay is incredibly stiff, with the unnamed boy frequently fumbling and stumbling while the camera works against your every move.
But I had faith in the mad genius of Fumito Ueda! Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are both incredible stand-out games from the PS2 era, as well as key arguments for video games as an art form. Whenever I think about the PS2, my brain immediately focuses on Ico’s sense of height and scale, the bond between two people unable to understand the other’s spoken language.
The Last Guardian may very well feel like a PS2-era game, but the bond that’s formed over the course of this adventure is not only the most memorable moment of 2016, but evoked emotions that rarely feel natural in a video game. Trico’s animations, its mannerisms and instincts, the constant heartbreak and small victories, along with the game’s beautiful aesthetic and expansive melodies… just… fuck, man, the game is just really good and I hope you play it. That’s all. It’s one of those games that come along once a generation that I’ll still be ruminating about 15 years from now, regardless of its technical shortcomings.
There were plenty of games more technically sound than The Last Guardian, like the 8 listed above, but it’s a story that’ll stick with me far longer than the others.
As someone else summed up The Last Guardian on Twitter: “It’s Ueda as fuck, man.”
#1 – Final Fantasy XV
Not only does it feel good having waited 10 years for The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV and both turning out to be great games (to me, anyway), but also for them to end up as my two favorite releases of 2016. Sure, it could be bias since I’ve been anticipating them for so long, or that they’re two of the most recent games I’ve completed this year, but I truly believe a game’s value lies is how much of an impact it has on me when all is said and done.
Both of these games were emotional rollercoasters, focusing on an unbreakable bond between fictional characters in a way that’s both relatable and engaging. And although The Last Guardian’s tale of sorrow, trust, and survival puts on a gut-wrenching clinic in terms of character building and storytelling, its list of technical shortcomings was enough to push Final Fantasy XV ahead.
As I mentioned in my review, Final Fantasy as a series is very special to me. It’s one that I grew up playing, planned my free time around, and it consists of some of my absolute favorite games, characters, worlds, stories, and soundtracks of all time. Final Fantasy XV’s narrative may very well feel like it’s taken a 10-year vacation in development hell, but the journey itself was just incredibly satisfying.
It felt like I was taking a road trip with my best friends, camping, taking pictures, eating at roadside diners, and dealing with unfortunate bouts of car trouble. I could relate to each and every one of the characters, though I certainly wish they had more time to develop. The combat is extremely satisfying, the main villain turned out to be the best I’ve seen since Kefka, and there’s just so many memorable moments over the course of the 40 hours I spent playing through Final Fantasy XV for the first time.
Sometimes it’s easy to sit back and dwell on what a game could have been. Is Final Fantasy XV what I thought Versus XIII was going to be back then? Absolutely not. And sure, it’s full of weird plot holes and characters that lack motivation at times, but I really, really love what we’ve been given.
I’ll always wish I got to experience Tetsuya Nomura’s original vision for the game, but realistically that’ll never happen. I’d rather spend that time appreciating what we got, how much I enjoyed it, and be happy that a Final Fantasy is once again my favorite game of a given calendar year.
Plus, playing two games that I’ve waited a decade for within a week of each other is just surreal.
Video games mean different things to different people, and we all look for our own “something special” every time we pick up a controller or place our fingertips on the keyboard. These are the 10 games that spoke to me the most in 2016. My favorites.
I never like to use the term “best” because it’s all subjective anyway, but what about you folks? What were some of your absolute favorite games to release this year?