Well, last time I bent five games I didn’t like over my knee and spanked them for my own amusement. Which is sort of the point of worst lists, granted, but after pointing and laughing at five terrible games, the world requires I balance that out by talking about games I am in serious danger of giving a toss about. Which, surprisingly for me, wasn’t actually too hard this year.
For all the complaints about 2016 being a painfully slow down moment before the Nintendo Switch launches and tickles me down in the naughty regions, there were plenty of games I did like. It’s odd for all the disappointment, there were plenty of solid games which were either unassuming or just outright surprising in their quality – that one of these games surprised me perhaps speaks more to how cynical and jaded I am, but I suppose that’s just how things are.
Anyway, the rules are simple. I have to have actually liked the game – a lot – and it had to have been released some time between January 1st and December 31st 2016.
Got that? Awesome, here’s me forcing a smile.
5. STARDEW VALLEY
In Short: In a year of dreary shooters and disappointment, it’s just nice to have a retro-inspired take on Harvest Moon for the PC. Inoffensive, addictive and calming in the best possible way, Stardew Valley is a one-man effort that just makes you smile, think and feel good.
2016 is going to go down for me as the moment the Indie scene finally outpaced the big-budget market, and Stardew Valley gets there by being different. An ode to the classic Harvest Moon games, it runs the same gamut; make friends, be a pillar of the community and farm like your life depends on it. What sets this apart is that there’s actual combat, randomly generated dungeons in a psuedo-classic sense and a lot more weight behind it, with crafted machines that you just wish someone at Natsume or MarvellousAQL would… ahem… ‘borrow’ for upcoming instalments of Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons respectively.
It’s also just… nice. It’s a feel-good game; light, frothy and insanely likeable. Add into the mix the ability to mod it, so the community can continue to add insane amounts of additional content to a game which is already pretty broad and interesting in its own right and you get something that most would suggest should have been done years ago. The only downside is I can’t actually take this with me to hospital appointments. At least, not yet, not until they drop it for the Nintendo Switch next year. Which they are.
There’s absolutely a place for this kind of game, particularly in the PC Market, and everything from its wonderful pixel art to its general tone and how it plays mechanically just slots together. This is a one-man effort too, so just think about that for a moment. One guy spent years working on this. And it’s better than 90%+ of the drek on the market. Big publishers and developers, you getting the bigger picture yet?
4. GRIM DAWN
In Short: A great action-RPG that manages to out-Diablo Diablo 3, it’s a sprawling game with a great story, a fantastic aesthetic and a character class system leagues ahead of anything Blizzard have done in years. And people ignored it. I sure as hell won’t.
Good things come to those who wait; I’m told, by my friend Val who directed me to this game, that this was KickStarted all the way back in 2010 by the same team behind Titan’s Quest. So the team has pedigree – and oh boy, do they deliver on that potential in spades with Grim Dawn. A dirty, gritty action RPG that is immediately familiar to those of us who like Diablo 3, but with so many layers on top that it now makes going back to Blizzard’s game feel like walking back into the Stone Age.
The build system is fascinating too – there are six classes, but you can pick two to effectively build a new class. Want to be an explosives-happy rogue? You got it, Saboteur! A tank with pets? Sure thing, Warder. A mix of magic? Hello, Mr Warlock. With fifteen combinations, it’s easy to find something to fit your tastes and that’s before we get to the constellation system, a sprawling talent tree that confers passive buffs alongside modifications for your actual abilities to make combat more engaging, fun and interesting. The enemies are typical for a post-apocalyptic setting but the story is something else, and I found myself oddly engaged the whole way through – wanting to see it through to the end, come what may.
And that’s before random dungeons, multiplayer, crafting, quests and treasure hunts as well as puzzles along the way and plenty of secrets to be found. Grim Dawn is another example of why KickStarter should not be judged solely on the high-profile faceplants of the likes of Mighty No. 9 and how each project must be judged on its own merits. Sure, Grim Dawn took a while to get out onto the wider market. But they got it out, and it’s a fantastic game, and no. There’s no going back to Diablo 3 now.
3. POKÉMON SUN/POKÉMON MOON
In Short: A fantastic modernisation of a now classic formula, Pokémon has never felt so live and alive. With huge Quality of Life improvements and one of the best locations since… well, Gold and Silver, Sun and Moon brings the series bang up to date with some of the best new ‘Mon in years!
It would have been easy to have been cynical about Sun and Moon, especially coming in off the back of the cultural zeitgeist of Summer 2016 that was Pokémon Go. But no, a new team and a new director at the helm decided to take some pretty large risks. A full-scale 3D Pokémon game at the end of the 3DS’ natural lifespan? The abolition of gyms as a concept? The freedom of no longer needing an HM slave in your party to get anything done? A totally revamped interface that actually provides information beyond what you expect? Pokémon Snap fun nestled deep in there for some kicks? Madness! Madness, I tell you.
And yet, it works. It’s hard to say why. Actually, it’s not too hard. Much of it is down to the tropical island setting of Alola, which frankly most people would rush to live in if there was any justice in the world. It’s a proper little adventure almost in the vein of the old TV shows, with engaging characters, rivals and a villainous band in Team Skull that is both comically inept and a little sinister when you think a little deeper. There is so much about this game that works it is impossible to discuss it in an end-of-year summary; laden with jokes, nostalgia and more (Professor Oak makes a few appearances!), and let’s not even start on the Professor Kukui thing. Hell, I know some lovely ladies who bought a 3DS just because Kukui. It’s odd that a Pokémon Professor becomes a sex symbol, and I won’t even begin to pretend to understand it.
From new Alola versions of classic Pokémon to some of the best new Pokémon in… well, a long, long time (Rowlet is awesome), this is just a great modernisation of a series that could have limped over the line whatever it did. Instead, this one ran across the line, then ran around and lapped dozens of other games several times before it was even pausing for breath. It’s the biggest-selling Pokémon game ever, one of the two biggest game launches ever (only paling under the shade of Grand Theft Auto 5) and cemented 2016 as the Year of Pokémon. And you want to keep telling me Nintendo is doomed? Yeah, I’m sure Nintendo is looking at the huge increase in 3DS sales – so far not even reported with updated figures – and drying its tears with stacks and stacks of cash.
In Short: What was it with modernised retro classics this year? DOOM is a glorious throwback to its roots, throwing a middle-finger to a po-faced industry and delighting in its revelry. It’s having fun, we’re having fun, and that’s what really matters. Helps that it looks and plays brilliantly though.
I never really liked Doom 3, mostly because it followed where the genre was rather than trying to be itself. DOOM, however, has no such pretensions. It’s a violent, gore-drenched ode to the classic formula of the series. With tons of demons to kill, fully realised and intricate maps which require a 3D mapping system because they are so broad and non-euclidean, a customisation system and those Glory Kills, it’s almost easy to miss that this game is constantly mocking the industry and its own genre at large.
Doom Guy, you see, isn’t interested in ‘the story’ – though there is one, and damned good it is too actually. He knows why we’re all there. Back from the dead, so to speak, after a brief spat with a few demons we jump back into our favourite suit, grab a gun and make it very clear to our friend Dr. Hayden that we’re in no mood for a lecture from scientists who thought it was a great idea to siphon off limitless energy from beyond reality. Apparently, in the far-flung future going green means going to hell. Our Doom Marine makes it clear throughout the game, in these down moments, exactly what he thinks of this whole scheme – and we’re all right there with him, middle fingers firmly erected, not just to the characters but a genre that this game constantly pokes fun at with subtle jokes and knowing winks.
It’s fair to say it’s not as long or as difficult as Classic Doom, but frankly after years of bland samey first-person shooters, getting anything this tasty and fiery on your plate is never worth turning your nose up at. It’s fun, I kept going back for more and there’s plenty of scope for id Software to build on this. Add in classic retro maps and some fantastic in-jokes and legacy tombs in the old retro style, and you have a glorious throwback. Oh, and Glory Kills for days. I love them. But I always did like chaining combos together.
So, what could possibly top DOOM’s surprising comeback? Well…
1. SALT & SANCTUARY
In Short: A criminally-overlooked masterclass this year, Salt & Sanctuary is the blend of Dark Souls and Metroidvania that you never realised you needed in your life. An incredibly solid game with tons of content and a talent tree/weapon system that still keeps surprising me, this is just as close to perfection as the genre can get.
If you’re saying, “What?”, yeah. Most people overlooked this absolutely phenomenal game this year mostly because it decided to launch a couple weeks before Dark Souls 3. And yes, I platinumed this game in a week (though I platted Dark Souls 3 in two weeks so eh, maybe I’m just weird). But where I got very bored of FROM’s efforts rather quickly, I found myself weeks and months later being pulled back to Salt & Sanctuary.
It’s a two-dimensional Metroidvania which does ape mechanics from Dark Souls (using Salt, dropped by enemies, to level up). But unlike Dark Souls, Salt & Sanctuary has a lot more going on under the hood. A freeform skill tree in which to specialise your character adds mountains of depth. A weapons upgrade and even transmutation system that offers enough variety that even I’m discovering fun stuff months on. An art style that I actually think works perfectly; just detailed enough, just beguiling enough to give some individuality without obsessing over every wrinkle. Boss encounters that are at times inspired in their bleakness. Characters with dialogue that fleshes out their character. I could go on, but there’s so much in this game which just works so well. Add to that the fact that the 2D Metroidvania stuff (real Metroidvania, you have to get stuff in order to progress) is the best we’ve seen in… well, years, I’d argue the best we’ve seen since Aria of Sorrow back on the Game Boy Advance, and you have a game which for me this year blew everything out of the water, which incidentally is how the game sort of starts. I do love that sort of correlation.
An unassuming release built by a husband and wife-run studio, this drips passion project from every pore. Everything from the enemies to the backdrops is drenched in style and substance, tied together in a really very strong story and with hidden depths I am still plumbing, this is everything I love and more in my video games – hook me in, and then drown me in your hidden depths (wow, the metaphors are so aligned here!). And that it’s a fraction of the cost of Dark Souls 3 makes it a no brainer. If you love Dark Souls, you need to play this game. Hell, if you love RPGs, action games, platformers or games in general, you need to play this game. This deserves far more attention than it has gotten, and that most didn’t even mention it in their end of year lists is a slight I find completely unforgivable. Guess it’s no longer about the quality, it’s about the hype, eh media people? And the gaming press wonders why it is becoming so increasingly irrelevant…
It may be a consolation prize, Ska Studios, but you did make the better game this year. I award you the title of My Favourite Game of 2016, and long may you rave. Also, anyone who dissed you for a delayed Vita version should be slapped. (Though a Switch version would be nice in 2017… pretty please?)
And with that, the annual lists are done. Hooray!
Onwards into 2017! The Switch! The Scorpio! Maybe the Grim Reaper will take a well-deserved vacation after being so overworked in 2016! Who knows what will happen? It’s going to be exciting, new hardware is always cause for interest.
And yes, I still think this year, we’ll see the PlayStation 5 revealed.