With the naughty list done and dusted for another year, time for my nice list of 2015.
Whilst 2015 was a year littered with disappointments, there have also been plenty of very good games this year.
It’s very easy to complain about video games which are bad – heck knows I found plenty to gripe about in my worst list and disappointing list – but in an industry coasting and playing it safe for the most part, afraid to take risks or gambles, you can certainly appreciate those games which do push the boat out and do try something new, interesting and/or exciting. It works in their favour, in fact; the more mediocrity there is, the more the gems sparkle amongst the beige, bland backdrop that comprises much of the video game market these days.
Of course, the usual rules apply. Released in 2015, PAL Region releases (I’m waiting on Story of Seasons – which will miss this list by a week, but that’ll make it eligible for next year if it’s really good), no remakes (sorry, Scholar of the First Sin. FROM should have waited to release you instead of the original Dark Souls 2…) and of course – the crucial part, I do need to have played them. This isn’t some, “Oh this game looks great!” thing – these are the games which have really blown my proverbial socks off and are taking home a spot in my top five games of 2015.
Congratulations to all below.
SPLATOON (Wii U)
Nintendo had another barnstorming year; whilst the Wii U may be a commercial dead-end for the company now, they have been turning out some of the finest gaming content of the whole generation and that only serves to demonstrate what I said in a previous post – that quality isn’t entirely what sells people new consoles. Sad, but true.
Nintendo’s squad-based neo-punk turf war splatathon was easily the most promising looking game when it was debuted during their cracking E3 2014 showcase, and finally playing it earlier this year, it has been evident that Nintendo did not shirk a single ounce of that potential. Slick, bright, polished and with gallons of paint-filled buckets of that old Nintendo charm, Splatoon is an addictive entrant into the MOBA-style scene that takes the complex mechanics of the genre, pares them right back to their base elements and rebuilds an incredible, stylish and fun game on those simple foundations.
The multiplayer is amazing fun; but credit also must go to the single player campaign, which – whilst a tad short – was infinitely better than it had any real right to be. And not only that, but Nintendo has been supporting the game with free new weapons, costume packs and modes since its release, and what you get for buying it now rivals the vast majority of games on the market. The one criticism people had – the light content on release – has been eradicated with extreme prejudice, and now the game stands head and shoulders above a samey, safe gaming world.
Plus we all like being a kid now and a squid now. The Inklings are charming and adorable, with that crazy anime neo-Tokyo punk aesthetic running right the way through every component of the game. This, we’re told, was Nintendo opening up a little and letting its newer, upcoming talent do things that the company wouldn’t have traditionally done. If Splatoon is one of the first examples of this “Garage”-style development project, then the Nintendo NX is in for a bumper crop of sensational video games in the coming years. And I couldn’t be happier.
This was a high-risk shot from Nintendo. And it was clearly worth the wait.
HAND OF FATE (PS4, PC, XBox One)
I like a good indie surprise, and Hand of Fate is one of the finer examples of a good indie surprise – much like Shovel Knight was last year.
Hand of Fate tips the card-based role-play simulation on its head by making the cards comprise the main meat of your game experience; the cards represent enemies, bosses, situations, vendors, dungeons, traps – that sort of thing, laid out in a grid-based system for you to progress through. Each encounter is slightly different based on how you build your deck before each “journey”; a game of limitless depth and potential with the added addition of having infinite replay ability and scope for some fair, decent DLC in the future.
Thing is, that sounds like a solid base for a good game. What makes Hand of Fate stand out, for me, is the presentation. The game is narrated by “The Dealer”, a masked and mysterious entity that comprises not merely your narrator and storyteller, but ultimately your foe and nemesis. The voice acting is absolutely spot-on; it would be so easy to overdo it and just head down the typical evil sorcerer path, but instead the voice is calm, collected, cool. He mocks your misfortune, exclaims surprise at your lucky streaks and congratulates your successes. Aside your “adventurer”, he is the main character you see the most of and he is a joy and a pleasure to be in the company of; even if he is a bit of a knob here and there.
It’s always a pleasure to see the Australians do something brilliant; big props to Defiant Development. And it’s also lovely to include a KickStarter project on the list; it’s true, I wasn’t a backer – but I am thankful for those who did choose to back this sensational little project. And it only demonstrates that you don’t always need to over-complicate a good thing; stick to your guns and do the best you can.
Thank you, Defiant Development, for making this game.
XENOBLADE CHRONICLES X (Wii U)
I have to admit, after playing both Fallout 4 and Xenoblade Chronicles X, I struggle to understand how anyone could like Bethesda’s already outdated continuation of a successful franchise over MonolithSoft’s technically jaw-dropping and content-rich open-world JRPG.
It’s not just that Xenoblade X is better looking and aesthetically more pleasing; the world of Mira is just an outstanding piece of creative fiction in its own right, with not a segment wasted with something to find – be it a quest, a collectable, a rare “tyrant” mob or just another stunning scenic viewpoint. And I’ve had to stop consistently in the game just to take a moment to look out on the landscape and think, “Damn! This is pretty!”
I even like the splitting of quest types; affinity missions are to get to know and understand your companions. All are marked on your map. Normal quests are red question marks and are unlocked through starter missions or just overhearing other NPCs talking. And your typical RPG collect-a-thon stuff is relegated to a mission board, so you can check it once or twice a day and see if any of your collectables will finish them instantly for cosmetic gear. The story is compelling and frankly at times unusually dark for the light-hearted tone the game likes to keep for the most part, but it makes those moments of forging meaningful alliances with alien races all the more exciting and emotive.
And then there are the Skells – oh my word, how I love stomping about an open-world in an over-sized mech! The moment I nabbed the flying module, I was almost in tears because I got an even BETTER overview of Mira. From any angle, this fictional planet is impossibly pretty. The game is content-rich, technically spot-on and just a glorious, masterful piece of modern-day gaming. That such games seemed impossible on the Wii U even when X was being teased only points out how utterly third parties failed Nintendo, in my opinion, and ultimately failed themselves in the process. This is one of the best games of the year on any platform – hell, possibly in terms of the amount of content, the best game of the year. And it makes full use of the Wii U gamepad, finally showing me that this object which felt almost forgotten has a future, and lots of unrealised potential, in the market.
Quite the achievement, then, and if 2015 is the last full year of the Wii U, this is a damned fine swansong for the machine – an erect middle finger to any and all who doubted the potential in the Wii U and it’s gamepad. And I, personally, cannot wait for the next Xenoblade title on NX if this is the quality that MonolithSoft can achieve under Nintendo.
THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT
Perhaps not a big surprise that The Witcher 3 hits the top list of someone who does quite like their RPGs!
Even taking aside the graphical downgrade, it’s an impressively pretty game and like Xenoblade Chronicles X, a technical showcase that demands your attention. It’s also a fitting conclusion to a trilogy; it feels “final”, be that a good or a bad thing I’m not sure yet – but after three well-received games in this series, I can imagine the sigh of relief inside CDProjekt Red to finally go and do something else. It’s narratively excellent, if sometimes also shallow, and it just feels – like Xenoblade Chronicles X – like an actual world, not just a place.
I’m not super-versed in the history of The Witcher – I like the games but I’ve not been compelled to go read the novels, but I am assured that for fans of the novels – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a solid piece of work. And that should also be highly commended; it’s often very easy for developers to take something in a different direction because oh, they want their own stamp on things. See last years Shadow of Mordor as an example. Trying to be faithful to the source material is hard, hard work – and I don’t envy the developers one bit for adhering to it. And it’s a really good story too – perhaps more solid than that of Xenoblade Chronicles X. And it’s good the mechanics of the game are superb – I mean, seriously, this game is brilliant.
What complicates this is that I wanted to decide which was better: Xenoblade Chronicles X or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – and when it comes down to it, I have to say I think Xenoblade Chronicles X is the technically better open-world RPG, whilst The Witcher 3 is the better game narratively. But it’s a good job that I don’t have to choose between them then, isn’t it? Whilst Xenoblade Chronicles X is the top-tier of modern open-world JRPGs, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the top-tier of open-world WRPGs. It’s rare to get one great open-world RPG in a year, let alone two, and that’s an incredible thing that I will be thankful to 2015 for.
Now, would it be really weird if I suggested we bred Xenoblade Chronicles X and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt so we can get a super-blend open-world WJRPG? Is that weird? Are there ethical issues with wanting that? Can Nintendo and CDProjekt Red sit down over dinner and get smooching already?
SUPER MARIO MAKER (Wii U)
And rounding off a hat-trick for Nintendo this year, Super Mario Maker. It’s the thing you always wanted but never really knew you wanted.
I mean, we’ve all had it – and I have to say, when I was playing Super Luigi Bros. U, I honestly had one of those moments where I thought sure. I can make better levels than this! Why won’t Nintendo give me the tools to make a Super Mario level? And look at that – now I DO have the software to make my own Super Mario levels. And by golly, is it hard to make good ones!
I’m sure you’ve seen hundreds of videos of Super Mario Maker by this point; the interface is the third example this year of solid, inventive use of the gamepad and long may this continue because I have to confess, they’re starting to win me over again with it. It’s being supported with tons of content, it has a near-infinite amount of levels since everyone is making them (and the maker has to beat the level before uploading so… yeah. Those tough stages – the creator had to beat them first.), and being able to switch between the art-styles of three generations of 2D Mario game is a nice touch. And that’s before all the crazy fanservice nonsense with having a laundry-list of Nintendo characters show up in the game as power-up options!
And I feel like this isn’t just because it’s now possible to do; Super Mario Maker, for all the ceremony, feels like the end of the 2D Mario train line. It feels like Nintendo finally entrusting the legacy and future of Mario in the two-dimensional space to its most loyal fans. It’s a sad moment, but a necessary one; I think we were all a little disappointed the first Mario game on the Wii U was a 2D Platformer, after all, and this kind of makes it harder for Nintendo to rely on that as some kind of crutch; it’s an incentive for the company to move onward and do more with Mario in the 3D Space than it has done for a while.
It’s been thirty years as well since that first tentative step into that brave new 2D World 1-1; it’s a celebration of just how far Nintendo has come, and as I said, also perhaps a hint that 2D Mario is now going to be phased out and this take its place. It’s a hell of a way to do it; and for a company like Nintendo, which often… well, let’s say it doesn’t always trust its consumer base – it’s a brave, bold move which seems to already be paying off for them.
Nintendo is changing, and this feels like laying old Boo’s to rest. It’s sad in a way… but I can’t say I’d be sad to see them support Mario Maker long-term and put more focus on other projects.
And that’s my personal top five of the year. I’m sure you have your favourites, so I want to end this with some honourable mentions.
DYING LIGHT – Which might have pipped Mario Maker this year if not for that HORRIBLE ENDING SEQUENCE WHY DID YOU DO THAT TECHLAND WHYYYYYY?!
DARK SOULS 2: SCHOLAR OF THE FIRST SIN – I almost dropped the “no remakes” rule for this one game; but I have to be consistent on the rules. Sorry FROM Software.
STONEHEARTH – Destroying my life, one voxel at a time. But it’s still in early-access and far from finished, so I couldn’t justify its inclusion.
METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN – If Konami had left this game the hell alone post-launch, it would have been a serious contender. They didn’t. Screw you, Konami.
LORDS OF THE FALLEN – For being a 2014 game I only got around to in 2015 and really enjoyed. Seriously, more of this series please!
I might have another silly awards run-down before the new year, but this is what I’ve enjoyed most in 2015. And hey, next year hopefully we’ll have even more top-notch games! Dark Souls 3 is already on my radar… I have platinums for Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. I WILL NOT BE BESTED, do you hear me FROM Software? Your challenge is to be met!
Ahem. Also, NX News. And Zelda U. Please be amazing, Zelda U. Please, please, I beg of you… please be amazing…