Let’s just have it said and done: 2016 was a shit year in almost every conceivable way. Divisive political stances have never been at a higher slant, the right and left are more split than ever, every news link has lead to more and more bad news, and a laundry list of our favorite celebrities have bit the dust in a ridiculous procession of what amounts to some of our favorite humans being snatched away by a very sadistic reaper.
With that said, it’s no surprise that 2016 has been a banner year for gaming. I think we all needed to escape from the harsh truths of reality just a little bit more this year, and we were not wanting for options in that regard. So, without further (depressing) ado, here are the 20 games that most kept us distracted from the encroaching apocalypse in 2016.
May 2017 offer brighter days. (Mike Worby)
20) Salt and Sanctuary
In an era where we haven’t seen a truly great Castlevania game in nearly 20 years, who would have thought that the best Castlevania game to arrive in two decades wouldn’t be a Castlevania game at all, but an entirely new IP.
Marrying the dense dungeon-crawling and 2D exploration of Castlevania with the intense challenge and pitch black lore of the Dark Souls series was certainly a gamble for Ska Studios. Luckily, this was one roll of the dice that paid off in spades. Salt and Sanctuary is not just a great game, but a marvel of game design in and of itself. Any studio that can so carefully merge the worlds of two disparate series like this into an entirely new entity, one that manages to mirror its source materials while still feeling like its own beast, is certainly worthy of commendation. (Mike Worby)
19) Fire Emblem Fates
The brutality to the battlefield returns and the side you choose determines your fate. Your soldiers are ready, your swords sharpened, and your arrows are plenty. All that awaits is the decision of defense or conquest. Whatever you decide, the kingdoms of Hoshido and Nohr will change forever.
Fire Emblem: Fates brings some of the most compelling stories to the franchise, boasting three different games with three different scenarios. Birthright is seen as the best of the three for a beginner, with a much easier play through. Conquest is the most challenging, and the DLC Revelations lies somewhere in between.
The complex moralities surrounding the three games leave you with more questions than answers, participating in a tale of clashing bloodlines where the uncomfortable middle is your unfortunate situation. Conquest remains the better of the three games, with its darker shade of gray tone that uncomfortably leads you to follow the bloodthirsty King Garon, whose missions seem to punish rather than test you.
The turn-based style of battle remains its biggest strength. The game of chess absorbs you into a perfectionist’s nightmare, with one wrong move able to cost you the entire battle. This endearing style of strategy game has kept Fire Emblem alive and well for over three decades, and the intricacy of the battle leaves a devastating beauty to each critical moment. There’s no right or wrong adventure; each journey will leave you wanting more. (James Baker)
Firewatch distinguishes itself by immersing the player in an unlikely role. You are not put in the shoes of a powerful warrior, mystical chosen one, or space cop, but in those of a lonely, vulnerable and flawed man named Henry.
The first person adventure takes place in a National Park, far from civilization, in the 1980s. The terrain is mountainous with caves, lakes, and other natural elements peppering the landscape. The opening sequence is a character creation of sorts, where the player gets to decide, not what Henry looks like, but what kind of person he is, through a series of text-based decisions. Solitude and self-discovery are major themes throughout Firewatch, and Henry rarely comes into contact with people other than his supervisor Delilah, who Henry communicates with via radio. Conversations with Delilah push the story forward and allow for the player to make more choices that develop Henry as a character.
Moment to moment gameplay involves moving Henry from one location to another, using a map and compass, while communicating with Delilah. As a failed boy scout, I did get lost on a few occasions when trying to find my way around the small map while using the compass. By the end, the playable area will be pretty well traveled as quests have you re-treading ground.
Clocking in at around 4 hours, Firewatch is a short game, best played in a single sitting. The real core of the game is its story. The unraveling mystery kept me hooked throughout, as a Lost type mystery unfolded. Like Lost, however, Firewatch is more about the ride than the reveal as the last few moments of the game are ultimately unsatisfying and leave one too many questions unanswered.
Firewatch is for anyone who is looking for a good story to play through in an evening with little dexterity, quick timing or puzzle solving skills needed. Sit back, relax and release your inner outdoors person. (Justinas Staskevicius)
17) XCOM 2
The biggest and most immediate change from 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that XCOM, as an organization, is now on the offensive. After the alien invasion was successful, XCOM has dedicated themselves to liberating the human race – at any cost.
Battles now begin in “concealment”, with the aliens unaware of XCOM’s presence, allowing clever players to mastermind devastating opening gambits. Each of the character classes was reworked to be more interesting – the Ranger class replaces the old Assault but comes with a sword and some extra stealth capabilities. The former Support class has been reworked into the drone piloting Specialist, who can deliver health or harm from anywhere on the map.
Missions are selected from a world map, though now XCOM is operating solely out of their starting continent. They can slowly expand by undermining the aliens’ plans, but each mission takes time, and the Advent – the new name for our antagonists – are developing a plan that will ensure the extinction of the human race. Desperately trying to balance the flow of resources and expansion while staying on top of the Advent’s plans is a trying, stressful thing, though it’s so packed with addictive turn-based strategy combat that it’s hard to not enjoy yourself.
The combat is back in form, utilising procedurally-generated maps to great effect. Gone is repetitive map design and predictable enemy placement; now, each mission is truly unique, meaning that no two battles play out the same way. Training a recruit from the ground-up, equipping them with the finest technology you can develop and weapon mods you’ve found and then having them brutally – and permanently – die in battle is a trying experience, though it only inspires players to try harder on their next attempt. After all, no two are ever the same. (Rowan McDonald-Nyland)
Furi – the boss rush game that transcends boss rush games.
Furi is so well fleshed-out as a game that calling it a ‘boss-rush’ feels almost like a criticism. Often with such games, the experience is very stripped down and focused – not so with Furi. Each new attack phase a boss goes through is akin to a new level to pass, and each boss is akin to a new zone within a game world. Add to this room for players to find their own play style and discover little tricks and techniques that trade risk for reward and you’ve got a solid, condensed experience. Add to that a polished difficulty curve as later bosses expand upon mechanics laid out by earlier ones, the range of bosses ultimately demanding a player masters the fundamentals of the combat so as to prep a player for new play-throughs, and a game length long enough to be fulfilling, yet short enough for new play-throughs not to be daunting, and you’ve got a fully-fledged game. Furi is so well made it doesn’t have to sacrifice breadth for depth as many games do, boss-rush or otherwise.
It’s worth mentioning since no one else seemed to; the game had solid visuals too. Admittedly, purely in terms of aesthetics, the boss design was horrendously inconsistent, with noh masks, the biomechanical art style, and Zen Buddhism being just a few of the influences in the melting pot. However, this isn’t a flaw of Furi’s – when you’ve got the player and their opponent hurtling at each other at Furi’s furious pace, detailed aesthetic is lost. What Furi does do amazingly well is pick its colour palettes. The player and the bosses all have clear, flat, contrasting colours that mean everything remains as visually clear as it can be amongst the chaos. The music score is also very agreeable (Liam Hevey)
15) Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 has a trope filled plot. Titanfall 2’s writing is often cringeworthy. Almost all of Titanfall 2’s characters are forgettable. This begs the question of why the game is on this list? Fortunately, the answer is simple: it recaptures the awe that came with the release of Modern Warfare back in 2007. The argument could be made that military shooters have grown stagnant over the last few years but 2016 was the year of the FPS, with Doom, Infinite Warfare and most importantly TitanFall 2 providing single player campaigns that felt fresh and imaginative. This game deserves to be here purely for its level design, offering a short and sweet tight set of levels that throw new mechanics and ideas at you every half hour. Highlights include a conveyor belt tour of a factory creating small simulation towns and a section that introduces time mechanics in one of the most satisfying levels in a shooter seen this generation.
People may lament that the game is only a lean 6 hours long but it uses every minute of that running time to show you something exciting, there’s no fat, it’s the perfect length to match the game’s strengths. The game took elements from Mirror’s Edge (parkour), Call of Duty (gunplay) and even sprinkled in a little Portal style magic at points. When people ask if Titanfall needed a campaign this game proved unquestionably that it indeed did, it’s surprisingly the game’s biggest selling point and no one saw that coming. Now it just needs to sell well, so what are you waiting for? (Oliver Rebbeck)
Games continue to grow bigger, more intense, more immersive, and more beautiful by the day, and ABZÛ exemplifies the last of these qualities better than most. While it may not be quite as groundbreaking as its predecessors Flower and Journey, two games from which it draws obvious and immediate inspiration, it takes the meditative non-game to new heights. It asks little more of the player than to languish in its world awhile, and as it turns out, it’s one of the best undersea game worlds ever developed. Though it is perhaps less weighty and tactile than the beautiful and oppressive ocean of Subnautica, its lightness is itself a strength, allowing players to swim (often in awe) through a largely peaceful space of abundant color and sound.
The player uses fun, fluid swimming controls to propel the diver through waters blooming with huge schools of gorgeously animated fish that swim to and fro, along with a host of other sea creatures both familiar and fascinating, and these form a simple digital ecosystem that interacts with itself and the player. Mechanically speaking, it’s really just a backdrop for the basic exploration-focused gameplay, but that does nothing to diminish its raw audiovisual power. So too with Austin Wintory’s impeccable soundtrack, which stands as one of the very best gaming has to offer.
While ABZÛ’s quiet simplicity of play may not ultimately be to everyone’s taste, it remains an incredible artistic achievement that speaks sweet words to the soul. (Michael Riser)
13) Ratchet and Clank
While 2016 had a boatload of deep, emotionally enthralling games to play, let’s not forget about the truly brilliant and immeasurably fun game that Insomniac offered earlier in the year. Ratchet and Clank is what I like to call “hearty.” It does away with the complex story lines present in many PlayStation exclusive titles, and provides an experience rich with variety and pure enjoyment. There are dozens of options when approaching a situation; whether it be fighting an enemy or upgrading a weapon. This variety helps Ratchet and Clank feel utterly limitless. Not only does the player have an absolute mountain of weapons to test out and upgrade, they also have a startlingly beautiful landscape to explore.
Ratchet and Clank is the most gorgeous looking game ever created. Case closed. It balances realism and cartoonism brilliantly. Even though Ratchet looks like a cute, cartoony alien, he still meshes perfectly with the more life-like environment. He hops between platforms, decimating everything in his path with a beautifully steady frame rate. It’s strange that this game actually looks better than the movie that it’s based off of. Looking past its seemingly insurmountable appearance, Ratchet and Clank also masters the series’ formula. It goes back to its roots and oozes simple fun as a result. It’s the kind of game that rockets the player into a wonderland of pure joy; regardless of its story, themes, or any sort of fancy pants narrative, it’s just wholly enjoyable. (Ricardo Rodriguez)
12) The Witness
Revered game designer Jonathan Blow – lead creator of iconic indie hit Braid – kicked off 2016 in a big way with his experimental puzzle game The Witness. Displacing both dialogue and a traditional video game narrative, The Witness places your unnamed character on a mysterious, uninhabited Island filled with numerous environmental panel-based puzzles. What starts out as a simplistic exercise in tracing a line from a start dot to an end dot soon intensifies as the player is let loose on the mystifying Island.
What The Witness has achieved through its fundamental game design Is staggering; the lack of a tutorial and on-screen hints is a testament to Blow’s belief in his game’s philosophy. Only through practice, correct conditioning (and a lot of patience) will the player seek solutions to the Island’s bounteous cryptic puzzles. The answer’s may not appear straight away, but after painstakingly exploring every option you perceive to be possible, eventually the solution will come – you might even kick yourself for not noticing it in the first place.
The real star of this masterpiece is the Island itself. Divided by a rich and vibrant colour palette, the different areas are designed in such a way that it’s easy to see where different puzzle-types start and end. The desert’s beating hot sun might shed some light on the solution of the solar panels scattered around the pyramids, while the shadow of a thick branch in the dense, green forest might not be as obscuring as you first thought. You will feel frustrated, you may be tempted to give up, but this is the time to walk away to a different part of the Island, it’s a time of reflection and an opportunity to discover what else the Island is hiding.
The Witness takes the player through an array of conflicting emotions, but this is the cost/reward of the game gradually improving the player’s understanding of how The Witness actually functions. The feeling of successfully completing a puzzle after countless, fruitless attempts is immense – the insurmountable satisfaction of The Witness should be experienced by everyone. (Craig Sharpe)
11) Pokken Tournament
Pokkén Tournament borrows from plenty of old fighting game favorites – most obviously Tekken – but the inspirations reach further than Bandai Namco’s hit series touching on Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and the Dragonball series, to name a few. This isn’t to say that Pokken Tournament is just a poor man’s Tekken and void of any new ideas; in fact, it introduces its own features and systems that give it plenty of depth and plenty of replayability. The most notable innovation is the shifting field of battle, which transitions back and forth between Field Phase (a three-dimensional range of motion that gives players access to the full scope of the arena, and an over-the-shoulder point of view), and the more traditional fighting game-style Duel Phase (taking place on a 2D plane and putting a focus on things like mid-range strategy or close combat).
Think Tekken meets SoulCalibur, only featuring iconic Pokémon from both early and current generations to choose from. Almost everything about it works so incredibly well that Pokken Tournament is the only game apart from NBA 2K17 that I put more hours into this year – a game that breathes new life into a notoriously stale genre, and more than exceeded my expectations. Like Super Smash Bros., it’s easy to pick up, easy to play, and provides players a chance to battle against their friends, both online and in the same room. What more can you ask for? (Ricky D)