Halfway through the decade, we sit at a really interesting place in terms of where gaming is.
Developers have finally found a comfortable sweet spot between "cinematic" storytelling and gameplay that actually feels substantial, leading to a spate of AAA games that satisfy in both departments. Meanwhile, other developers and publishers that were once thought of as one-trick ponies have put out bold, innovative titles that challenge whole genres, and even create entirely new ones. While 2014 felt like a rote, dull stop-gap of a year for gaming, 2015 reminded me why I fell in love with the medium. I mean, I gave six games a "perfect" score, compared to one last year. And one of those games can't be on this list thanks to being a remake, but still. There was a lot of good shit this year.
Putting aside all of the controversy that the gaming industry has been embroiled in over the last couple of years, there really is no better time to be a fan of these games that happen to be presented in video format. Here are twelve of those games that came out in 2015 that I thought were pretty great.
12. Fallout 4 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)
I really don't like Bethesda games. Okay, that's sort of a lie. I really dug Skyrim, and put a ton of time into it. But other than that, I just feel like so many of their games are same-y. They've been using the same engine for years, and so many of their worlds just blend together in my mind. Did I nuke a city in Skyrim? Did I fight giant flying things in Fallout 3? I dunno, man.
So, what was it about Fallout 4 that I liked so much? Frankly, I'm not entirely sure, but if I had to guess, it'd be how everything fit together in a way that I didn't think past Bethesda products did. There was just so much here, so much to do, so much to uncover, so much to get killed by... there's was just a ton of stuff here, and unlike a lot of AAA games with a lot of stuff, all of this stuff felt like it had actual substance. Whether it was making my OTP dream team of Protagonist and Piper come true, making a blue baseball bat with circular saw blades hammered into it, or taking down a giant, cult-like futuristic society that could have saved mankind just for kicks, there are so many great gaming memories I had in Fallout 4 this year, and they'll likely remain some of my favorites.
Is it a perfect game? Nah. Is it still basically the same format as everything other Bethesda game ever? Yeah. Is it buggy as hell? You bet. But when looking at the finished product, it's hard not to admire how everything comes together to craft a brutally difficult, content-rich role-playing experience with several great narratives, a diverse motley crew of characters, and a post-apocalyptic world that's one of the very best in gaming.
11. Hatsune Miku Project Mirai DX (Nintendo 3DS)
Have you heard of Hatsune Miku?
She's a pretty rad virtual idol that's toured with Lady Gaga and appeared on David Letterman, and even scored a pretty sweet series of games too. Only, the games featuring her and all of her Vocaloid pals we've gotten over here have left me with pretty mixed feelings. The core rhythm mechanics have been solid, sure, but the rest of the content sort of sucked, to say the very least. So imagine my surprise when the supposedly kiddified 3DS spin-off ended up having more content, more depth, and more fun to be had when it hit store shelves.
Projext Mirai DX, to me, is a perfect storm of a rhythm game. There's a huge playlist of music, and not a single song that I disliked. There's a lot of fun stuff to unlock, like new furniture and outfits for your big-headed Vocaloid baby, and a lot of is full of retro Sega fan service to boot. There are different games to play too, like a Puyo Puyo clone. And it's all just so, so cute, positively bursting with charm and personality more than a lot of other big titles this year. From gameplay to presentation to depth, it's a game where you get a massive bang for your buck.
All this, squeezed onto a 3DS cartridge. Hatsune Miku Project Mirai DX is not only a fantastic rhythm title, but it's one of the very best titles on the 3DS, and well worth the time and money for anybody in the market for a new rhythm game... or just something that's really, really cute.
Read my review here!
10. Until Dawn (PS4)
God, did I ever think this game would be a steaming heap of garbage. Here we had a title that looked to ape every single aspect of its production from a David Cage title, and let's face it, that's a bad thing to ape considering the guy's stuff is "pretty good," at best. Hope was not inspired by a trailer last year that showed the cheerleader from Heroes running around in a towel, trying to escape a masked assailant. Add in the fact that the game had been in development hell for years, and Until Dawn looked like a recipe for surefire disaster, and one of the worst entries into the weakening genre of horror gaming to date.
As fate would have it, the only "surefire disaster" about Supermassive's phenomenal horror experience is the series of bad situations that the affable cast of characters find themselves in. Sure enough, Until Dawn is a horror game in which every possible thing that can go wrong does, and then some. The entire game is a non-stop barrage of horrifying jump scares, creepy settings, and a brilliant narrative that's full of some of the best twists I've seen in a modern game.
Not only that, but Until Dawn managed to take every horror trope I can think of and subvert it in an intelligent, insightful way that not only elevates horror games, but horror media in general to another level. It's not only a great game, or a great horror game, but a fantastic work of general fictive horror. It's smart, fun, and, above all, fucking terrifying. Throw in some beautiful graphics and a presentation that's very much in line with old-school PS2 horror titles, and you've got the year's best horror experience.
Read my review here!
9. Rodea The Sky Soldier (Wii)
The fact that Rodea the Sky Soldier is this low on the list is very telling at how good gaming was this year, because this is one title that fly in out of left field and smacked me clean in the face. Which was unexpected, considering that it's a title that shouldn't even exist.
Completed in 2011 or so, Rodea was shelved by the publisher, and work began on a Wii U and 3DS version that completely stripped away everything that creator Yuji Naka was trying to do with his original vision. Luckily, all first-run copies of the Wii U version (which is a truly abhorrent piece of shit that nobody should even bother trying, by the way,) come with a copy of the cancelled Wii version. And if you want to experience what is both a magnificent swan song for Nintendo's stalwart waggle machine and a wonderful spiritual successor to the Sonic franchise, I'd highly recommend you give it a shot.
The mechanics are deceptively simple. You point, you click, Rodea flies. Nothing much else to it. But it's the way in which that mechanic is used that's truly special. Fly hundreds of feet up a mechanical giant to bring it down. Dodge gunfire from airships that you're ramming into to take down. Don rocket shoes and fly through the air at untold miles per hour and ricochet off of walls. The sheer variety on display here is impressive, and kept me on my toes throughout the entire experience.
While there's some occasional frustration that comes with the territory of making motion-control-based games, Rodea is a zippy, intuitive title that makes some of the best use of the Wii remote yet. Not only that, but it has a fun story full of charming characters, and takes place in a bright, imaginative world that's a joy to fly around in. It's a damn shame that Kadokawa shelved this game and tucked it away as a bonus afterthought, because it's one of the Wii's greatest.
And considering that first run copies also come with a Wii manual and cover art for the Wii version? Get a white case, put everything in there, then throw the Wii U version in the nearest trash can. Where it belongs.
Read my thoughts here!
8. The Legend of Legacy (3DS)
I felt like The Legend of Legacy would be a special title when it debuted, and when I got my hands on the demo, I knew it would be. But I wouldn't know exactly how special it would be until I experienced the full package. As it turns out, a Japanese developer in this day and age can still make an RPG devoid of bouncing breasts, grim-dark edgy teen 'tude narratives, or dumb gameplay mechanics that confuse rather than innovate.
Furyu and Grezzo brought us a JRPG that was not only a throwback to the SNES heyday of high fantasy JRPGs, but offered up a dozen different ways to innovate the formula and make a game that felt bold and creative by modern standards. The result was something that felt simultaneously nostalgic and forward-thinking, a game that was decidedly old-school yet relevant to modern players. That's not to mention it having a nice collection of different protagonists with different playstyles, a huge world teeming with content, and a main narrative that lasts for literally dozens upon dozens of hours.
Not only that, but there's another admirable trait here: the difficulty. By and far, The Legend of Legacy was the most difficult game I played last year, and indeed, the most common critique of the game was that it was "too hard." I'm not sure about you, but that doesn't sound like much of a valid criticism to me. I actually liked how ruthless and unforgiving that the game was, and thought of that as one of its strongest suits. Few games want you as dead and are willing to pull out all the stops to get you there as this one, and I found it to be a rewarding challenge to overcome the steep difficulty. Some of my favorite gaming moments this year were small boss fights that still wrecked me for hours on end until I managed to best them. It was just so damn gratifying to do good in this game, and so soul-crushing to do poorly.
Brutal, creative, and whimsical, The Legend of Legacy is one of the better role-playing games in years, and certainly one of this year's finest.
Read my review here!
7. Bloodborne (PS4)
The Souls franchise is one of the last bastions of "hate yourself" levels of difficulty in modern console gaming, and I wouldn't have it any other way. While it's true that both Dark Souls and Demon's Souls didn't necessarily resonate with me as much as it did with others, I admired its willingness to bend over backwards and fuck over players in the most hilariously extreme ways possible, and appreciated its commitment to tightly-controlled perfectionism. Imagine my surprise, then, that I ended up liking the same formula a bit better with a bump down in both difficulty and precision.
Don't get me wrong: Bloodborne is still a particularly difficult game, and unforgiving if you go in expecting to play it like a generic hack-and-slash title. And yet, it's definitely a marginally more forgiving and decently less precise experience than its predecessors, in such a way that I found it a lot easier to wrap my head around and get into the flow of things. Combat is fast and furious, checkpoints are frequent, and difficulty feels more like a puzzle to be solved rather than a process of "keep dying until you win."
I'm not saying that Bloodborne is a perfection or fine-tuning of the Souls franchise, but honestly, I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more. It sucked me in and didn't let go until I finished my first 40-ish hour run, and I felt immediately compelled to run through it all over again. At the time, it felt like a benchmark game, and that nothing would surpass it this year. The fact that six other games did is no small feat.
Read my review here!
6. Super Mario Maker (Wii U)
Over three years after the Wii U launched and people are still clamoring for a "real" Mario game for Nintendo's latest console. Despite, you know, Super Mario 3D World already existing and everything. Regardless, the wait for something that people could subjectively consider a successor to the phenomenal Galaxy franchise continues. In its stead, we get something that I would argue is even better: the keys to Nintendo's kingdom.
When Super Mario Maker first debuted, I was as cynical as cynical can get. "Oh boy, another 'create a game' game," I said. "I bet there'll be no community and no support," I said. To date, this was one of the happiest instances of being wrong I've ever experienced. What Nintendo managed to put out is nothing short of a technical marvel, squeezing four different styles of Mario assets onto a disk and telling players to go nuts. And not only that, but giving them the complete and utter freedom to go as nuts as possible. Cannons that shoot enemies, floors that explode into crazy graphical effects, Bowsers stacked on top of each other... that's just the tip of the iceberg. If you can dream it up, you can make it a reality.
And it's a ton of fun doing just that, too, because Super Mario Maker is the best console-based creation tool I've seen yet. The Wii U gamepad is used to do everything, meaning the tedious task of using a controller to click and drag everything is a way of the past. You can put together a halfway decent stage in a matter of minutes thanks to the touchscreen. It's easy enough to pick up and play with, but deep enough to build some truly excellent stages with. Coupled with one of the best online systems in a Nintendo game to date and a steady flow of free post-release content, Super Mario Maker is one of the Wii U's finest titles, and the best creation tool to grace a console yet. Sorry, Sackboy.
5. Life Is Strange (PS4, One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
"Your choices matter." "Choose carefully." "Clementine will remember that." So many games these days tell us things in this vein, but frankly, none of them really ever make good on that promise of everything being urgently and intrinsically connected to the rest of the story. But this year, the developers of 2013's woefully underrated Remember Me finally managed to put out something where decisions had long-lasting effects that carried throughout the entire experience. Not only that, but the core narrative was one of the best in recent memory, and one that brought us one of this year's most memorable protagonists.
I've already spilled a lot of ink on Life Is Strange, prior to my full review and this post, so I don't have much else to say other than I won't soon forget the crazy world that Max and her doomed lover Chloe inhabit. Cataclysmic storms, serial killers, time travelling, a weird janitor obsessed with squirrels... there was nothing else this year that offered up a world quite as unique and quirky as this game. While some aspects of it could be considered unpolished, and while the endings definitely pissed off plenty of people, neither of those things are knocks against how fucking great the core experience is. Simple, intuitive gameplay allowed players to simply focus on uncovering as much of the plot as they could, and gave the whole game a lot of breathing room for world-building and a slow burn of a narrative.
An endearing protagonist, a compelling story, and a series of repeated sucker-punches to the emotions... these were just three of the things that made Life Is Strange such a powerful experience that everyone should try at least once.
Read my review here, and my year-end thoughts here!
4. Splatoon (Wii U)
2015 was a lot of things, but to me, one of the biggest things that happened in gaming was that Nintendo finally understood what it took to make compelling, addictive online experiences. Sure, Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. both had great online components, and ones that I still play regularly to this day, but there's no denying that both games were pretty bare-bones in terms of what they had to offer. Then, 2015 rolled around and, lo and behold, Nintendo knocked it out of the park. Super Mario Maker's stellar online community, The Legend of Zelda: Triforce Heroes' great co-op gameplay... these were huge strides in the right direction.
But lumbering above those two is Splatoon. That's because it's not only the best online experience Nintendo's put out yet, but probably the best online shooter I've played, bar none. Not bad for a first effort, eh?
The reason I wouldn't hesitate to say that is that it's pretty clear that Nintendo did its research into what people love and hate about online shooters, then built an experience around that. This pays off with a game that has a huge amount of perfectly balanced weapons, varied maps with several different strategies, and a perfectly-paced leveling system that rewards players at just the right speed. Not only that, but the whole thing is a joy to play, a euphoric blend of platforming and shooting, with a novel "cover shit in paint" mechanic that expounds on the excellent formula crafted in Super Mario Sunshine over a decade ago. Oh, and that music? Those graphics? Callie and Marie? Absolutely stellar, all of it.
Splatoon is pretty much a perfect online shooter, and one that has more personality than any competitor out there.
Read my review here, and my year-end thoughts here!
3. Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)
Fun fact: I thought the original Xenoblade Chronicles was pretty okay. Not necessarily the amazing magnum opus that some thought it to be, nor the plodding misstep that others derided it as. I fell somewhere between the two extremes. Which is why I though the follow-up/spiritual successor/??? would be more of that: a pretty okay RPG with a lot of content.
I was wrong, of course. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a lot more than its predecessor was, and a lot more than most games released these days. It's a role-playing game that is truly massive in every sense of the word. A sprawling world. A long, complicated story. A huge cast of characters. Not to mention all the giant robots, too. In a gaming landscape where Bethesda and CD Projeckt Red get lavished with praise over creating large open worlds, Xenoblade Chronicles X makes anything made by those studios look like a child's toy by comparison.
It's a huge, complicated role-playing game with one of the biggest open worlds ever squeezed on a disk, filled to the brim with a diverse amount of stuff to do, vital bits of lore to uncover, and lots of giant monsters and aliens to take down. It's not only the best role-playing game of the year, but one of the best of the past decade, and one well worth exploring for any enthusiast of the genre.
2. Yakuza 5 (PS3)
The Yakuza franchise has grown from a humble little beat-em-up to a truly monolithic franchise. It's now of the most outrageously popular franchises in Japan, and for good reason. Each entry has marked a huge stride in the series' unprecedented rise to being the best open-world crime simulator out there. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza presents a more subdued (well, to an extent) take on the criminal underworld, with an emphasis on fist-fights, gang politics, and a complicated yarn revolving around a recurring cast of characters.
Yakuza 5 marks the series at its most fully-realized, a collection of open worlds that are teeming with dozens upon dozens of activities to get involved with. Whether you're roaming several Japanese cities or a big prison, there's always something to uncover, and 99% of it is fun. Whether it's going head-to-head in a game of shogi, playing a few rounds of Virtua Fighter 2, doing taxi routes, getting into street races, wining and dining women at hostess clubs, playing a rhythm game... there's a staggering amount of variety on display here, and while most of the stuff seems pretty niche, there's no way around it: the fact that an open-world game in 2015 can come out and not feel like a bog-standard repetition of its contemporaries is impressive. This is a game that proudly marches to the beat of its own weird little drum.
Behind all of this variety lies a stellar core experience, too, with a dynamic, fluid combat system and a compelling, twisty narrative that stretches for hours on end. These are both the bread and butter of the experience, everything else just a particularly delicious, attractive garnish.
Yakuza 5 is the best open-world title released this year, bar none. It might not have the square mileage of its competitors, but it pulled me in with its staggering amount of substantial content, and I suspect it'll be a world I play around in for months to come.
1. Rise of the Tomb Raider (One)
I've been playing third-person action games since the original Tomb Raider, and have seen them evolve at each major turning point. Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder camera, Gears of War's frantic action, Uncharted's grandiose set pieces... I've seen all these changes in my lifetime, and yet, none of them have ever culminated in what I felt was a coherent, deep, nuanced experience. Most are content to settle into a groove and stick there.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is that culmination. Where the first in the rebooted games presented a stellar perfection of Uncharted's formula but not much else, Rise not only trumps itself and all of Nathan Drake's adventures, but takes bold new steps in a new direction. Aside from some of the most satisfying shooting mechanics I've ever gotten my hands on and a non-stop barrage of unforgettable set pieces, Crystal Dynamics presented a perfect, well-rounded package in every way. Sprawling areas filled to the brim with content. A complicated, compelling narrative that arguably made Lara the most interesting character in a game this year. Massive tombs that are filled with substantial upgrades locked behind complicated brainteasers. There's simply so much going on here, and that's not even touching the heaping helping of side-activities (which are, admittedly, the weakest part of the game, but still fun if you're a completionist.)
There are a healthy number of critics of Lara's latest, and I get it. It is, essentially, "Modern Gaming: The Game," with a similar sense of progression, similar narrative arc and similar types of content as other games on the market. No doubt, it could be considered a "same-y" sort of experience. To me, however, what sets Rise apart from potential competitors is how well it does all of those things. It presents the best shooting in a title this year, with a rewarding sense of progression in terms of the weapons you get. It has the best "redeeming my family" story in gaming, with Lara's descent into obsession over immortality taking her, quite literally, to the ends of the earth. It offers the best presentation side content I can think of, as it's entirely ancillary and allows players to just fly through the game in a linear way if they so choose. The entire experience is a definitive perfection of practically every step towards innovation that third-person action games have taken in the past decade-plus.
Rise of the Tomb Raider represents multiple things. The defining realization of "new Lara" as a complicated, flawed heroine. The perfection of third-person action gaming. An evolution of how to balance depth and accessibility. But, above all, it represented gaming at its finest in 2015, with a title that anybody, regardless of skill level or walk of life, could pick up and experience a non-stop thrill ride with.
That's why, in one of the best years for gaming I've ever experienced, this Tomb Raider rises above the rest.
Read my review here!
So, that's it! Another year of gaming down, and another one already kicking off! Somehow, 2016 looks even better than 2015, with a huge release schedule and some potential surprises in the pipeline! As always, I'll be there to lavish praise on the good ones and slam the bad ones.
Thanks for reading during 2015, and I look forward to having you all through 2016!