It was actually rather fun putting together a list of favorite games last year, so here we go again for 2016.
Just like last year, this isn’t necessarily a “Best Of” list. Some weren’t even released in 2016. They’re just the games that I enjoyed playing this year and can recommend without reservation. Further down I list some honorable mentions — still great games, but not quite good enough to include on the main list.
Enjoy, and thanks for reading!
Undertale was exploding at the end of 2015 — so much so that I couldn’t help but give it an honorable mention on last year’s list:
I have not played Undertale. It’s on this list because EVERYBODY IS TALKING ABOUT IT. The amount of discussion and creative outpouring that has resulted from this game is incredible, and that alone earns it a spot as an honorable mention. I plan on playing it myself soon — you should too, if you haven’t already.
Not long after writing this, I did play it. I’m glad I did.
Undertale is difficult to get into. It’s quirky, crudely pixelated, and the point of the game isn’t immediately obvious. But, once you make it past the first battle — the first real battle — it hooks you.
I’m going to avoid spoilers even though I’m sure most people have played Undertale at this point. So, let’s talk about the single most unique gameplay aspect: you don’t have to kill anything. It’s such an odd thing to say — most games, especially RPGs, have some concept of a battle. But the nature of such battles are rarely talked about, or abstracted in such a way that it’s easy to write them off. I think the first time I tried to spin logic into RPG battles was Pokémon. In that game, the loser of a battle doesn’t die, it just “faints”. But even in that case, trying to imagine the game world is horrific — trainers leaving trails of dazed and injured Pokemon in the wild, on their quest to becoming a Champion.
Undertale takes this seed of an idea and cultivates it in ways you truly can’t fathom until you play it. There are several rough edges to the game, but they’re easy pills to swallow in the context of such a heartfelt, creative game.
Undertale – $9.99; Windows, Mac, SteamOS/Linux
Next to Undertale, the game I was most looking forward to in 2016 was Jonathan Blow’s followup to Braid: The Witness. This game is a masterclass in puzzle design. It even manages to teach all of its core mechanics without a single tutorial, explanation or written word.
But let’s be clear: The Witness is a puzzle game. The narrative that’s there is subtle and doesn’t take focus. The thrill and satisfaction comes from solving the puzzles and seeing how the island you are on reacts to your actions. For me, that was enough to keep me hooked — there was something addictive about how all the puzzles built on each other, adding unique twists and fun insights at each step. And the “secret” challenge at the end is an experience I won’t soon forget.
If that sounds like your kind of game too, then it doesn’t get much better than the Witness. Just promise me you won’t look at puzzle solutions
if when you get stuck — you’ll regret it. Trust me.
The Witness – $39.99; Windows
I did not expect to like Firewatch.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly my kind of game — engrossing story, strong characters, respectful of the player’s time. But I wasn’t completely sold on the theme. National Park fire watcher? Who… what? Watches for fires? Possibly some shenanigans? Um, okay.
Eventually I bought it, and I realized I should have trusted my instincts. There is more to Firewatch than meets the eye, and it’s an enjoyable journey. The scenery in particular is worthy of praise: a lot of care was put into reproducing America’s majestic National Parks.
The only thing holding the game back from perfect marks is a few rough edges to the story — but I only mention that because of how much the game makes you care about the story and its characters. I just wish they had gone the extra mile (so to speak).
Firewatch – $19.99; Windows, Mac, SteamOS/Linux
Shadowrun: Hong Kong
Speaking of games I didn’t expect to like.
I came across Shadowrun: Hong Kong as part of a narrative Humble Bundle. I was curious about the game since it had an Asian cyberpunk setting that I found interesting. But once I started playing, I realized this game was quite special.
If The Witness is a masterclass in puzzle design, then Shadowrun: HK is a masterclass in storytelling. To fully appreciate the game, there is a great deal of text to read through — but it’s worth it. The story and characters draw you in, and I truly didn’t want the game to end because I wanted to spend more time in its world.
The gameplay itself is a tactical RPG, which is challenging but not impossible. There were one or two battles that I had trouble with, but overall it is manageable. For me it was the perfect balance between game and story.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong – $19.99; Windows, Mac, SteamOS/Linux
No Man’s Sky
What can be said about No Man’s Sky that hasn’t already been said? Some would probably be surprised to even see this game on my list of favorite games. But here’s the thing: No Man’s Sky is a good game.
It’s certainly true that the hype leading up to the game’s release was unreasonable. It could even be said that promises were made by the developer that couldn’t possibly have been achieved in time for release — at least, not with a small team with limited resources. There are lessons to be learned here both for game developers and game media.
But if you step back and look at the game for what it is, without the hype or promotion, you see that there is a lot to applaud. The terrain and creature generation produces planets that are a thrill to explore and discover. The alien races you meet are varied and have compelling backstories if you take the time to explore the ruins. Ship flight and control are spot-on — taking off from a planet and soaring up into space is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a game this year.
Of course, there are flaws: all of the buildings and ruins share the same handful of models. Alien interaction is rather limited — there are occasional flashes of brilliance, but a lot is repetitive. Creature generation starts to show common threads after a while. There’s really only one goal in the game, and that’s to collect raw material so you can keep exploring.
These are things that can be improved and refined in time, though. The heart of No Man’s Sky is exploration, and it satisfies that desire perfectly. There’s nothing quite like taking a small, personal ship up into space, finding some random planet, and seeing what secrets it holds. When that planet starts to feel too tiresome, too predictable, it’s easy to move on to the next locale.
There’s a solid, core game here and the possibilities for expansion are endless. I’m truly excited by the potential, which is more than I can say for most games available today.
No Man’s Sky – $59.99; Windows
Oxenfree is a game I wasn’t interested in until someone talked about its focus on the characters, and how they play off each other. Overall, I’d say the character exploration isn’t as deep as other games on this list — but, what’s there is engrossing, especially in the context of the supernatural events these characters find themselves a part of.
This is a good Halloween game if you want something creepy to set the mood, but can’t handle the Silent Hills of the gaming world. The friendly banter and camaraderie among the characters (or conflict, I suppose, depending on your conversation responses) helps break up the more intense plot points. In addition, the main catalyst of the game’s events is a handheld radio, which puts most of the control in your hands, effectively letting you set the pacing.
Sadly the other games on this list nudge Oxenfree down to honorable mentions, but it’s still highly recommended if it fits your mood.
Oxenfree – $19.99; Windows, Mac, SteamOS/Linux
Another game from the narrative Humble Bundle, Her Story is less of a game and more of one long puzzle. You’re given access to a terminal that contains archival video of a police interrogation. The video is filed away in chunks, sorted by keywords. Your task is to use clues in the videos to search for keywords and figure out the truth of what happened. It’s an entertaining little experiment, but it doesn’t quite come together into one satisfactory experience.
Her Story – $5.99; Windows, Mac
Fragments of Him
I really wanted to like Fragments of Him. It tells the tale of one man’s influence on those around him, including his boyfriend. There are several poignant moments — heartbreaking, human moments. On the other hand, the experiences being shared seem detached and remote, making it difficult to connect with the characters. To be sure, this is a touching story with a profound message. But for me, it didn’t quite hit the mark it was aiming for.
Fragments of Him – $9.99; Windows
Confession time: I never finished Pokémon Y. As soon as I realized the end game was similar if not identical as other Pokémon end-games, I lost interest. As a result, I was prepared to skip the latest games entirely. There were certainly some cute Pokémon in this new generation, and it sounded like there were some neat ideas, but I knew it wouldn’t hold my attention.
But then my boyfriend pointed out that Pokémon would be the perfect game to pass the time during our flights on a recent vacation. So I bought it thinking I would at least enjoy the early game.
Well, two 9+ hour flights later and I have to say I’m enjoying the game a lot more than I thought I would. I’m well past the early game and I’m still invested in the game’s story. The concept of gyms are gone in this game, replaced with island challenges. The graphic engine also helps bring Pokémon and its world to life in ways that it never has before.
So why just an honorable mention? Well, I’m still in the process of playing the game, so the jury is still out on whether the game has me hooked to the end. There are also a handful of things that bug me about the direction the games are taking — Z-moves? Mega Evolutions? It all seems to be getting a tad convoluted. It’s also disappointing that the main character’s conversation choices don’t matter, and their facial expression is a never-changing smile. Details like that stand out when everything else is so strong.
But, for now, I’m going to enjoy what this new generation has to offer for as long as it holds my interest.
Pokémon Sun/Moon – $39.99; Nintendo 3DS