2015 saw a staggering amount of great games released, with many of them (Bloodborne, MGSV, The Witcher 3) sizing themselves up to face off against the best games of all time. With the status of games set to such a high bar, 2016 has its work cut out for it if it hopes to measure up. Even if there aren’t quite so many heavy-hitters to get excited about as last year, that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to look forward to. Here are our choices for the most exciting and enthralling looking games of 2016.
For the Nintendo side of this, check out our list right here.
20) Styx: Shards of Darkness
While 2014’s Styx: Master of Shadows certainly doesn’t match up with Metal Gear Solid V in terms of mechanics, what it did do was provide hardcore stealth fans with a ray of hope. Most stealth games these days, Metal Gear included, give the player too much power. Rather than being a ghost, players have become accustomed to being a hyper-lethal predator. Well, Cyanide Studios means to put us back in the shadows, with classic pure stealth gameplay that hasn’t really gotten much attention since the great Thief: Deadly Shadows. When playing as Styx, you really want to avoid any sort of confrontation. Your goal is to always remain unseen, sneaking through huge environments and leaving no trace of your presence. Master of Shadows was a great game, and Shards of Darkness looks to up the ante. It’ll almost certainly be an underrated game, and most people aren’t going to play it, but if you’re a fan of stealth, do yourself a favor and put this game on your radar. (Matt De Azevedo)
What happens when the makers of Mega Man and Metroid Prime collaborate on a new project? You guessed it, a whole lot of robots. Debuting at E3 2015, the announcement trailer for ReCore shows a human female exploring some ruins with her robotic canine companion. When the protagonists are suddenly swarmed by a bunch mechanical spiders, the robot dog self-destructs, taking out all the enemies, but sacrificing his own body in the process. When the dust settles, the girl walks up to all that remains of her friend, a glowing blue orb that seemed to be the source of his power. She picks up the orb, and places it inside of a large, seemingly broken robot nearby. The new robot comes to life, immediately recognizes the girl, and they continue on their merry way, deeper into the ruins. The end of the trailer shows the female lead with a small army of different robots at her side, hinting that the player will either be able to have multiple companions at once, or simply displaying some (all?) of the different bodies that you can put the core of your ally into. Nothing has been seen of the game since E3, and the trailer was completely CGI, so we don’t even know what actual gameplay looks like, but ReCore’s debut was interesting enough to make it one of Microsoft’s most appealing exclusives of 2016. (Matt De Azevedo)
At this point thousands of people have already played Overwatch via the multiple alpha and beta tests that have been held. There’s no reason to contemplate the quality of this game, we’ve experienced it, and we know it’s fantastic. It’s Team Fortress 2 mixed with DOTA, coated with that beautiful Blizzard sheen. The gun play is awesome, the modes are fun, the maps are fantastic, and the characters are amazing. The addictive gameplay and crazy potential when it comes to mixing and matching team compositions will have people playing this game for many, many years to come. In typical Blizzard fashion they haven’t announced an official release date yet, but come on, the beta already felt perfect. Just release the damn game! (Matt De Azevedo)
17) Sea of Thieves
Let’s be honest, Rare has been in a bit of a rut for a while now. A long while. It’s crazy to think about, but It’s actually been 15 years since they’ve released a truly great game. How did one of the greatest development teams in the world just suddenly fall off the face of the planet? Well, Microsoft bought them, Perfect Dark Zero was horrible, and then they were slowly transitioned into a team that’s been focused on making Kinect games. It’s been painful to watch. Many people, myself included, never really expected Rare to come out and announce anything of significance ever again, and then E3 2015 happened. Dubbed “the most ambitious game Rare has ever created” by Craig Duncan (Rare studio head), Sea of Thieves is an MMO style game where players take the role of pirates in a wide open world of swashbuckling and treasure hunting. How much do we actually know about the game at this point? Very little. But what we do know has us chomping at the bit for more. Sailing a ship bound for adventure with a crew of friends? Check. Ship on ship combat? Check. Being able to make someone walk the plank? Check! No firm release date has been set, and expectations should be tempered, as the Rare of today isn’t run by the same people that made all those N64 classics, but the foundation for Sea of Thieves is solid, and it has the potential to be one of 2016’s sleeper hits. (Matt De Azevedo)
16) Banner Saga 2
The original Banner Saga is a brutally difficult tactical RPG that has an incredibly methodical battle system and a jaw-dropping art style. The sequel, originally slated for a late 2015 release, was pushed back and is now scheduled to launch sometime in Q1 of 2016. Developer Stoic Studio has a good number of changes lined up for the sequel, including new enemy units and various new options in combat, as well as more choices when exploring the game’s over world. While certainly not for everyone, this indie gem is worth looking into if you’re a fan of Strategy RPGs or games that offer a firm challenge. (Matt De Azevedo)
15) New Danganronpa V3: A New Semester for Everyone’s Killing Life
The Danganronpa series has been a surprise hit for Spike Chunsoft, finding a small but passionate audience in the west. The games see gifted teenagers kidnapped, locked up, and forced to enter a deadly game in which the only escape from their prison is to murder one of the other kids and get away with it. After a murder, the teens have to investigate the crime and find out whodunnit, and then the game turns into a Phoenix Wright-esque class trial, with the courtroom drama being presided over by an evil robotic teddy bear named Monokuma. Both of the first two games, Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair, told gripping, ambitious stories featuring eccentric and memorable characters. Seeing where this story goes is something I’m really looking forward to in 2016. (John Cal McCormick)
14) Ratchet and Clank
This is going to be a big year for the Ratchet & Clank series. Not only is there a big screen adaptation coming out, but 2016 also sees the release of the rebooted Ratchet and Clank title for PS4. The upcoming platformer developed by Insomniac Games, is described as a re-imagining of the first game, but with a variety of gameplay elements from different entries in the series. As you would expect from Ratchet and Clank, the player can use a wide variety of outrageous new weaponry – and the 2016 release promises an array of new gadgets and tools. Visually, the game looks nothing short of incredible, and truth be told, it is hard to tell the difference between the game and the movie. Ratchet & Clank was originally released for PlayStation 2 in 2002 and in my opinion; it is one of the best exclusives ever released on a Sony console. Chances are this game won’t disappoint. (Bill Clay)
13) Quantum Break
Anyone who played the highly underrated sleeper hit Alan Wake should have good reason to anticipate this one. Alan Wake was hands-down one of the best Microsoft exclusives of the previous generation, and Quantum Break looks to be upholding that tradition just fine for the Xbox One. Set in a reality where time is broken by a failed experiment, Quantum Break looks like it will finally give the worn out stop-time mechanics of gaming yore a much-needed shot in the arm. The graphics are stunning, the presentation is immaculate, and the gameplay looks smooth as silk. Expect this one to turn a lot of heads in 2016, and as a fresh new triple AAA IP from a respected developer, it’s just the kind of game that the Xbox One could really use at this point in the cycle. (Mike Worby)
12) Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
With the original Deus Ex being one of my personal favorite games of all time, I couldn’t help but be skeptical about Square-Enix’s choice to revive the long dormant franchise back in 2011. However, developer Eidos Montreal ended up doing a fantastic job, and Human Revolution was both a critical and commercial success. Now that they’ve proven that they can faithfully expand upon the franchise, expectations for Mankind Divided are through the roof. Where Human Revolution was about the Cyber Renaissance, Mankind Divided sees humanity turn its back on the technology, and augmented individuals are being hunted down and persecuted. From a game play perspective, Eidos will maintain the series’ unique blend of shooting, stealth, and RPG elements, but many refinements and additions have been made. The cover system has been overhauled to make it feel more intuitive and smooth, and Adam Jensen will have more than a handful of new augmentations to play around with. Key among the new abilities is the “Icarus Dash”, a blink which allows you to move around the map like Corvo in Dishonored, and an ability named “The Titan”, which allows Jensen to cover himself in a metallic shield that absorbs massive amounts of damage. Based on everything we’ve seen of the game, from story trailers to gameplay demos, Mankind Divided looks primed to be one of 2016’s biggest games, and perhaps even a Game of The Year contender. (Matt De Azevedo)
11) What Remains of Edith Finch
Back in 2012, Giant Sparrow released The Unfinished Swan on PlayStation 3. It’s a short but stylized indie game with a compelling story about a little boy named Monroe, who chases after a swan that has escaped a painting. The game received glowing reviews and went on to win two BAFTA awards. Now the small studio is back with their follow-up – What Remains of Edith Finch, a “collection of short stories” about the deaths of various members of the Finch family. The game begins at the eccentric Finch house, where players can eventually unlock the bedrooms of each family member to reveal their fates. Similar to Gone Home, you’ll follow Edith Finch as she explores the history of her family and tries to learn about their troubled and mysterious past. (Bill Clay)
10) Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn turned plenty of heads at E3 2015, which was no mean feat considering it was announced during the same conference that showed off The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy VII remake, and Shenmue III. Featuring robot dinosaurs and a post-apocalyptic/future stone age setting, Horizon was one of a handful of games shown off at the conference that looked genuinely new and exciting. It’ll be interesting to see what Guerrilla Games can come up with post-Killzone and that they’ve chosen a completely different genre of game to create is commendable and risky. Plus, you know, robot dinosaurs, man. (John Cal McCormick)
As any fan of A Clockwork Orange should well know, a bit of the old ultraviolence goes a long way. With that in mind, if it’s a bloody good time you’re looking for, this Doom reboot should be right up your street. The trailers have showcased what looks to be an insanely wild ride, with tons of returning enemies looking more gorgeous than anyone could have ever imagined, especially for such ugly creatures. The action looks gruesomely intense, but with just enough fun and camp to give the well-worn FPS genre a long-desired about-face. Count on this one to carry on the Doom name with the pride that the FPS grand-daddy deserves. (Mike Worby)
Perhaps the only game that Electronic Arts is releasing this year that we are really excited about is Unravel, an adorable side-scrolling puzzle platformer from Swedish studio Coldwood Interactive. You play as a character made of yarn who uses his body to solve puzzles and swing across gaps while navigating the treacherous environments of northern Scandinavia. The puzzles are all physics based, and rely on the player’s creativity and the story looks to be rather touching. According to the game’s official website, Creative Director Martin Sahlin said that Yarny is a “fragile but capable” character and is a manifestation of the love and bonds between people. (Bill Clay)
7) Persona 5
While Final Fantasy XV will almost certainly be the biggest JRPG of 2016, Persona 5 has a good chance of making quite an impact itself. Persona 3 and 4 were minor hits, providing some old school JRPG action with a modern day twist. The relative lack of quality JRPGs gave Persona a chance to be noticed, one which Atlus have seized upon. After the minor success of Persona 4, they remade the game for Vita, sanctioned two anime series’ based on the game, released 2D fighter and dancing game spin-offs and topped it off with a Persona 4 stage play. There was also an unsanctioned porno, but the less said about that the better. The gaming world is ready for Persona to be a big hit, and given how popular the PS4 is right now, with the right push, Persona 5 could really surprise people in how it sells. Since Final Fantasy has gone off the rails in recent years, the Persona series has become my new go to JRPG. In 2016, there’s no other game I want to play more than Persona 5. (John Cal McCormick)
6) Dark Souls III
If you’re a sucker for punishment, like any good Souls fan, then the promise of another trip into a desolate world of pain and misery is just what you were hoping for. After Bloodborne went a more Gothic horror route, From Software is back to doing what it does best with a pitch-black fantasy tale filled to the brim with all the obscure, indecipherable lore anyone could hope for. Series mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki has expressed concern that the series could grow stale if it continues on this path, and has even affirmed that this might be the final game in the series, a fact that puts, even more, pressure to deliver a satisfying conclusion. Likely in hopes of assuaging fan concerns, the trailers released thus far feature a ton of callbacks to the series for longtime aficionados, and for anyone who hasn’t yet been on the edge of throwing their controller through the flat screen, Dark Souls III is as good a place to start as any! (Mike Worby)
Cuphead is the run-and-gun platform indie game (developed by Canadian brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer) that pretty much stole the show during last year’s Microsoft E3 presentation. Obviously, the visuals are what first grabbed everyone’s attention – Cuphead combines the look of hand-drawn, hand-inked cell animation reminiscent of 1930s cartoons with the sort of shooting challenges that Treasure provided in its early ‘90s games. It also includes its own original jazz recordings and a series of strange bosses that you must defeat in order to repay a debt to the devil. The game is said to be partly inspired by the works of such legendary cartoonists as Max Fleischer’s Fleischer Studios and has sought to keep the works’ subversive and surrealist qualities. Everything is alive in the world of Cuphead: and more importantly, it looks like a blast to play. (Bill Clay)
4) Final Fantasy XV
After the release of a show-stopping trailer at E3 2014, the trickle of information regarding Final Fantasy XV has stagnated down to a slow and seemingly methodical pace, leaving many wondering how far along the game actually is. After years of delays and restructures, though, Square-Enix has assured its fans that the latest Final Fantasy will be launching in 2016, and that is a major cause to celebrate. As the first proper Final Fantasy title to hit shelves in six years, Final Fantasy XV has a lot of weight on its shoulders, and with the bad taste of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy still fresh in a lot of gamers mouths, XV has a lot to prove for the series. Let’s just hope that Square-Enix can make good on their promise and finally get it out the door. (Mike Worby)
3) Mass Effect: Andromeda
As much as fans love the Mass Effect series, there isn’t a lot of information yet pertaining to the latest installment, Andromeda, outside of a brief synopsis and a quick trailer from E3. Still, Bioware has an impressive track record and it’s hard to contain even a modicum of excitement when you imagine exploring another galaxy of unique planets and getting re-invested in the highly unique lore of the Mass Effect universe. After the mixed reaction to Mass Effect 3, the pressure is going to be heavily magnified for Bioware to deliver a worthy successor, and as such, they won’t be sending Andromeda out of the gates without a ton of polish and forethought. Little as we know, this is still a big game to watch out for in 2016. (Mike Worby)
2) The Last Guardian
Incredibly, 2016 could see the release of both Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian. While I won’t believe that either is actually a real game until I’m holding the disc in my hands, if they do make it out this year, sheer morbid curiosity alone makes me excited to try them out. Coming off the back of two critical darlings in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is a game that has a lot to live up to, even without taking into account the absurd amount of time it’s been in development. It’s cute, it’s arty, and it’s probably never going to make any money back for Sony. Good or bad, I can’t wait to play this thing. (John Cal McCormick)
1) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a game that worries me slightly. The first three Uncharted games were some of the very best of the last generation, and then Naughty Dog outdid themselves with The Last Of Us. Expectations are high, but a couple of delays and rumors of a tricky development have the cynic in me questioning whether the game is going to deliver or not. Assuming the development and team changes haven’t derailed the latest Uncharted, given Naughty Dog’s track record this should be one of the very best games of the year. Oh, and if Drake dies, I’m going to send you a hamper of poisoned muffins, Naughty Dog. (John Cal McCormick)
Thanks for checking out our most anticipated games of 2016 folks, we’ll, of course, keep you updated on news, reviews and trailers for these titles as the year develops!
‘Sayonara Wild Hearts’ is the Rhythm Game of a Lifetime
Few Rhythm games can boast the sheer strength and variety of gameplay and stellar soundtrack that Sayonara Wild Hearts offers the player.
Rhythm games can sometimes be a dicy prospect. As well populated as the genre is, the possible variety in musical style, required skill set and game length can make it hard to parse whether a rhythm game will be a good fit for an individual player. With that in mind, few rhythm games nail all of these attributes as perfectly as Sayonara Wild Hearts does.
A neon-drenched fever dream of a game, Sayonara Wild Hearts tasks the player with driving, flying and sailing through an increasingly elaborate world of giant robots, sword battles and laser fights. In this ethereal plain you battle other wild hearts as you seek solace from a broken heart and navigate around the obstacles of each course.
Though this may already sound very gnarly, or even radical, if you will, what really makes Sayonara Wild Hearts work so well is the diversity of of its levels. Some stages will see you weaving in and out of traffic while dodging oncoming street cars and the like, while others will see you navigating a ship across storm drenched waters or working your way through a retro inspired shooter. There’s even a first person level that calls to mind old school PC classics like Descent.
It’s really something to see so much variety packed into a game that it nearly defies classification as a result. Few games can offer the depth and breadth of gameplay that Sayonara Wild Hearts does, and that’s part of its enduring charm.
Of course, a rhythm game is only as good as its soundtrack. Luckily Sayonara Wild Hearts soars in this regard as well. The soundtrack contains pulse-pounding beats by Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng, with dreamy pop vocals by Linnea Olsson. Inspired by the likes of Sia and Chvrches, the killer soundscape of the game will keep you powering through time and again in hopes of attaining the ever elusive perfect run. A rank system and collectibles keep things interesting as well.
The unique look of the game is another feather in its cap. Pulsing neon lights pump to the beat while pinks, purples and blues color the world around you in a unique 1980’s dance club aesthetic. All of the elements coalesce together to make a game that looks and feels like nothing else you’ve ever played.
As mentioned at the top, sometimes rhythm games live or die based on their difficulty and accessibility. Fortunately Sayonara Wild Hearts manages to nail this aspect of gaming too. All you need to do to pass a level is get a Bronze ranking, which is attainable even for those of low skill sets. My 5 and 6 year old daughters were able to beat several of the levels, even some of the harder ones. Better still, less skilled players can skip the more challenging areas of the later levels with a prompt that comes up automatically when a player fails three times in a row.
With a stellar attention to all of the aspects that make for a successful rhythm game, Sayonara Wild Hearts is the rhythm game of a lifetime. Destined to be listed among the best games of 2019, and in the company of the best rhythm games of all time, Sayonara Wild Hearts is revolutionary entry into the genre and one of the best indies to come along in years.
The Lasting Impact of Indie Acquisitions by AAA Publishers
AAA publishers are acquiring indie game studios at record rates. 76 studios have lost their freedom since 2016, and history tells us that is not good news.
AAA publishers face fiercer competition today from indie developers than ever before. With indie games selling in the millions, an abundance of tools that make development easier, and fan gatherings around the world, the indie scene is now a huge part of gaming. Perhaps that’s why publishers have been on a spending spree as of late, acquiring 76 indie studios from around the world since 2016.
After years of neglect, AAA publishers seem to finally be aware of the impact indies have had on gaming. As their awareness grows their desire for control does as well. By making these moves, publishers get that control while indie developers get financial security they previously only dreamed of. But is this a strategy that’ll pay off in the long run?
The large-scale acquisition of smaller studios by the AAA industry does have some benefits. But in the long run, this mass shedding of independence could have catastrophic effects on gaming. You only need to look at the past to see why.
AAA Acquisitions and You
The rate at which large publishers are buying smaller, independent studios is nothing to bat an eye at. Since 2016, AAA publishers have purchased at least 76 independent game studios all over the world. What’s more, the rate at which publishers are buying studios has increased. Seven acquisitions were made in 2016, a number which skyrocketed to 31 in 2018 and 29 the following year. 2020 is only three weeks old, yet there have already been two major takeovers. We could be here all day listing all these acquisitions, so instead, here’s a Google Doc highlighting all that we could find.
Microsoft and THQ Nordic are two of the biggest spenders making all the noise. Microsoft really threw their money around in 2018 after combating a reputation of not having enough games or variety for their console. They purchased Obsidian, inXile, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games, Undead Labs, and Playground Games that year, and then Double Fine in 2019. THQ Nordic, seeking to rebuild after going bankrupt in 2013, has acquired 14 studios since 2016. Other recent acquisitions of note include Facebook purchasing Beat Saber creator Beat Games, Sony tying the knot with longtime collaborator Insomniac Games, and Google wrangling Journey to the Savage Planet maker Typhoon Studios.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg, with more deals expected in the coming months and years. In early 2019, THQ Nordic announced they raised $225 million to buy more studios. Rumors continue swirling that Sony is looking to counter Microsoft’s spending spree with further purchases of their own. With Google’s Stadia struggling at launch and Facebook looking to improve the Oculus’ line-up, they’re likely just getting started, too.
Why Do AAA Publishers buy Indies?
Buying pre-existing studios is cheaper than building a new one from scratch. You don’t have to hire 100 people and then find a place for them to work. Plus, you get a roster full of experienced developers right out of the gate along with whatever intellectual property they own. When EA bought Respawn Entertainment in 2017, they got Titanfall along with it. Paradox nabbing Harebrained Schemes gained them cult-classics BattleTech and Shadowrun.
AAA publishers are getting smart and buying indie studios they think could produce big hits before they become big. If Minecraft hit Early Access today, Microsoft probably wouldn’t need $2.5 billion to purchase creator Mojang. So, THQ Nordic buys Experiment 101 before they release Biomutant and Sega acquires Two Point Studios just after they release Two Point Hospital.
That’s also why so many of these companies are creating indie searchlight programs. PlayStation is launching an indie initiative with former Double Fine producer Greg Rice. There’s the Square Enix Collective, Take-Two’s Private Division, and EA Originals. These programs get publishers in on the ground floor of young indie creators before they become famous (i.e. too expensive).
Streaming the Future, Today
The role that game streaming plays in all this cannot be overstated. Microsoft are pushing the idea of a gaming ecosystem spread across multiple devices while Sony is potentially bringing their games to the PC. Both have their own streaming services. Look at any movie or TV streaming platform and you’ll see they all share the same mantra: quantity over quality.
With streaming, the customer has unlimited access to every game in that service’s library. They can play a game for an hour, get bored, and play something else all for $9.99 a month. Publishers know that, and they’re priming themselves to be able to put as much content out there as possible.
The Cost of Doing Business
On the surface, these acquisitions make sense for everyone. Publishers get a studio without the hassle of creating a new one from scratch, and developers get the financial security they previously could only dream of. However, while the little guys and gals get a steady paycheck, they lose something vital in the transaction: independence.
Without the creative freedom to produce whatever art they want however they wish to do so, AAA publishers zap developers of what made them special. Publishers are notoriously risk-averse, and it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Microsoft asks Obsidian to make an online survival game or THQ Nordic demands a remake of an old Spongebob game from Purple Lamp Studios. Projects like these are likely in production because the publishers view them as low risk, high reward.
The biggest restriction to any of these studios is that they’ll become console or streaming service exclusive. Microsoft is only allowing games like The Outer Worlds, Psychonauts 2, and Wasteland 3 on the PlayStation 4 due to prior commitments made by those studios before their sale. Once those games are done, nobody without an Xbox console or gaming PC will be able to play one of their games again. The same goes for Typhoon Studios and Beat Games, both now proud anchors of the doomed Stadia and Oculus, respectively.
“They Have Completely Ruined That Company”
The word “Rare” is enough to send any gamer of a certain age into a frenzy. Once a second-party developer for Nintendo (who owned 25% and later 49% of the company), Rare was once a legendary studio. They created Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, GoldenEye 007, and so many more classic games. Nintendo granted them rare creative freedom, a blessing for any studio, and one that they took full advantage of.
That all changed in 2002. As the cost of development increased, Rare found Nintendo unwilling to increase its funding and uninterested in purchasing the remaining 51% of the company. With nowhere else to turn, Rare executives sold out to Microsoft for $375 million. It seemed like Microsoft saved Rare at the time, but little did anyone know they were worse off than ever.
After the purchase, Rare made a string of disappointing games such as Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Kameo: Elements of Power, and Perfect Dark Zero. After these failures, they reached a new low with Kinect Sports and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.
“The Culture Changed”
Former Rare Engineer Phil Tossell attributed the decline to a culture clash between the two companies. “However, as time passed,” he said in an interview with Destructoid, “and there were staff changes at Microsoft Game Studios, together with [Rare Founders] Tim and Chris [Stamper] leaving, the culture changed and it began to feel more Microsoft and less Rare.”
“I think Rare have completely fucked themselves. And it isn’t their fault; it’s Microsoft’s fault,” former Rare composer Grant Kirkhope said in an archived interview with ScrewAttack. “They have completely ruined that company, and it makes me cry every day of my life.”
The hard feelings went both ways, as former Xbox executive Peter Moore told The Guardian in 2008: “Perfect Dark Zero was a launch title and didn’t do as well as Perfect Dark… but we were trying all kinds of classic Rare stuff and unfortunately I think the industry had past Rare by […] But their skill sets were from a different time and a different place and were not applicable in today’s market.”
Whomever you blame, there’s no denying the sale changed Rare forever–and for the worse. Today, their most recent games are Rare Replay, a complication of their old games, and Sea of Thieves, an online multiplayer “live service” game light on content but heavy on the microtransactions.
AAA Crunch Berry
Arguably the worst thing these indie studios inherit is the AAA publishers’ track record with workers’ rights. The games industry has a long, ugly history of treating its developers poorly. Long workdays and weeks, excessive crunch, workplace harassment, lack of health benefits, high turnover, and low job security are all prevalent issues.
There are plenty of terrible examples to point to. Disney shutting down LucasArts after buying the Star Wars license because they wanted nothing to do with video games. Ken Levine gutting his staff at Irrational for the sake of “a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers,” whatever that means. Riot Games employees walking out in 2018 to protest rampant sexual harassment. Rockstar allegedly forcing employees to work 100 hour weeks with no pay. EA laying off 350 people in 2019 despite earning $5.4 billion in revenue that year. Any example works, take your pick.
Executives can (and do) whatever they like, seemingly on a whim. Some of these issues are present on every level of development, of course, but nowhere are they more prevalent than at the top of the food chain.
How Things Change
Keeping people employed and keeping beloved studios alive are great things. However, consider at the long-term effects of such employment conditions; are the aforementioned pitfalls really worth it?
The games these once independent studios make in the future will be different from what they’ve made in the past, and will carry with them different expectations. Lauded as a masterpiece and winning several awards, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a small-scale game that outperformed expectations. Now as a AAA project under Microsoft, Hellblade II has a bigger budget and cutting-edge graphics and animation. The sequel can’t be a reasonably well-selling, mid-range game anymore–it has to be a big-budget spectacle. More importantly, it has to sell Xboxes.
Then there’s the case of Firewatch creator Campo Santo. A year after Valve acquired them in 2018, the developer announced that their next game, In the Valley of the Gods, was put on hold. They’re currently working on Half Life: Alyx and Dota Underlords instead. Just like that, a great-looking game from a narrative-driven company was killed–and for the sake of what? A VR game resuscitating a long-dead franchise to sell $500 Valve headsets and a free-to-play online auto-battler that will soon feature, you guessed it, microtransactions.
The Loss of the Indie Spirit
History shows that when an independent studio sells out to a AAA publisher, it’s rare that something good happens. With indie studios having more power, success, and reach than ever, it makes little sense for many of them to sign on the dotted line. Those millions of dollars from hotshot companies can be tempting for anyone, but when you look at how these things typically go, how can you not be anything but disheartened?
Art Books for Video Games: Persona Franchise
Art books for video games can create a greater appreciation for the game itself. Some of the best examples come from the Persona franchise.
While video games are increasingly appreciated as an artistic genre, art books for video games still fly under the radar. Video game art books show a game’s design process from start to finish. At their best, they can help fans better appreciate their favorite titles. Some of the best examples of recent video game art books come from the massive Persona franchise.
From main-line entries to spin-offs, most recent Persona games have art books. Whether its made for a main JRPG entry or spin-off, the books feature promotional art, early character sketches, concept and final images for settings, and commentary from each game’s artists.
This article will look at three recent main-line games, Persona 3, 4 and 5, (original releases) as well as two spin-offs: Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. This will be a good starting point for understanding Persona art books and video game art books in general.
Art Books for Main-line Persona Games
The Persona franchise has, over recent years, nailed down the art book to a science. Each book has publicity illustrations, character design pages, and a “world of Persona” type section. Every book works within this framework to showcase its art style and design process.
Persona 3: Official Design Works
The Persona 3 Official Design Works book spans 144+ pages. After being treated to several polished promotional images, including the game’s box art, the book dives into its character designs.
For its character art, the Persona 3 art book focuses on line-art sketches. The key point here is to see how characters did (or did not) change design from conception to final product. For instance, while the sketches for Mitsuru Kirijo are similar to the final design, Yukari Takeba’s pages show noticeable changes, particularly with hairstyles and facial features.
The book splits its in-game art between dungeon-crawling sprites and the more “anime” style dialogue portraits. This shows a range of equipable character weapons more thoroughly than other games.
In the “World” section, the pages have enigmatic, early-concept art, some expanded upon and used, and some put to the side. There’s also art for key settings, including Gekkoukan High School and Pawlonia Mall.
The book is compact, and makes the most of its character pages, without feeling cluttered. This collection is packed with content, and provides a stunning behind-the-scenes look at the original Persona 3.
Persona 4: Visual Data
The original “visual data” book for Persona 4 (2008) is substantially shorter than other games (barely 100+ pages). However, the art book makes the most of its pages.
The book comes with a killer introduction that connects to the game’s story. On the first page, mascot character Teddie gives a poetic spoiler alert, warning players, “…we recommend holding off on savoring this art book until after you’re done. Truths are meant to be hard-earned, not viewed safely from afar!” This message ties in with the game’s emphasis on working gradually towards uncovering the truth.
After Teddie’s warning, the book dives into promotional images, and then its character art. For the main cast, the pages show in-game portraits as well as early sketches and creator commentary. Some characters look completely different than their earlier art. For instance, Rise initially looked closer to P4’s Ai Ebihara. Also, Chie’s creator commentary explains that she initially looked closer to past Persona characters, specifically Persona 2‘s Lisa Silverman and Persona 3’s Chihiro Fushimi (page 17).
The art and commentary continues with supporting characters. While these come with fewer designs, the sketches are still fascinating. (Nanako originally looked quite similar to a certain late-game Persona 5 character–no spoilers!)
The rest of the book has sketches for personas and shadows, and ends with key images. These pages show concepts for settings, in-game moments and character uniforms. There are also unused illustrations, showing what could have been a different Persona 4 altogether.
The Art of Persona 5
The Art of Persona 5 art book is massive in scope–compared to the last two video games, this feels more like a textbook. However, the book remains sleek and stylish throughout its 440+ pages, just like the game itself.
Each character section emphasizes the sharp divide between daily student life and the phantom thieves’ dungeon crawling adventures at night.
While the Persona 3 and Persona 4 art books focused on line sketches for the characters, the Persona 5 art book also includes pen-and-ink brush images, and more full-color images.
The book goes the extra mile with its creator commentaries. Breaking this down fully would make its own article, but a great place to start is the commentary for the main character (aka “Joker”).
The creator commentaries for Joker show how his design changed as the team worked through larger questions for Persona 5‘s story. The commentary mentions the question of how “the protagonist and party members should look like as thieves” (creator commentary, page 44). The commentary also describes game director Katsura Hashino asking the questions, “aren’t these designs too realistic?” and “wouldn’t a Phantom Thief show off when they fired a gun?” (creator commentary, page 44). This commentary shines a light on the design process for creating this 60+ hour JRPG.
Other highlights include Morgana’s and Futaba’s pages, shown below.
The book also shows art for side characters (particularly Sae, an integral character to the game). There’s also art for in-game NPC menu screens, antagonists with detailed boss-battle designs, and profile pages for the rest of the supporting cast.
Finally, there’s the “world of” section. Once again, many of these images hint at would could have been a very different game. The exciting part here is that unused images may be used for future games. Given the time lapse between the original Persona 4 and Persona 5 (about 8 years), this content may serve as the only means of speculation as fans wait (and hope for) a possible Persona 6 down the line.
Until then, fans can look forward to a growing list of Persona spin-offs and a new crop of art books.
Here’s a look at two Persona spin-offs with phenomenal art books.
Two Very Different Persona Spin-Off Art Books
The Persona franchise has many spin-off games. This includes rhythm games, arcade-style fighting games, and more. (Soon, Persona 5 Scramble will join the list, a hack-and-slash game for the Nintendo Switch, scheduled for release in Japan on February 20, 2020).
Two recent Persona spin-offs with great art books are Persona 4 Arena and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. These are both crossover games, combining cast members of Persona 3 and Persona 4 for a brand-new experience.
Persona 4 Arena
Persona 4 Arena, released in North America on August 7th, 2012, is an arcade-style fighting game bringing together the cast of Persona 4, and several Persona 3 characters, with a small batch of original characters.
The book starts off with key illustrations, which look like splashy spotlights of characters in the heat of battle.
The biggest difference, however, comes with the character pages. The pages display the line art used for showing movement and action, in a way the main-line art books don’t. This is because of the game’s combat system, and its re-use of many original character designs. These pages show how much work goes into creating a fighting game.
While this art book highlights the game’s combat and high-drama narrative, the final art book shows a more upbeat, cooperative crossover game.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was released for the Nintendo 3DS in North America on November 25th, 2014. This is a first-person dungeon-crawler, featuring the full Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts, along with two brand new characters.
The most obvious difference with this spin-off is its art style. All characters are in chibi form, highly stylized, minimized, and “cute.” This keeps with the up-beat, sugar-sweet positivity of the game, where both casts become friends and work together to resolve the game’s conflict.
The game’s main selling point comes from the characters meeting each other and working together. Unsurprisingly, the illustration pages show how the game’s designers experimented in bringing different characters together.
As always, the book has individual character pages. This time, the art focuses on how original characters are translated into chibi form. The only exceptions to this are the two new characters Zen and Rei.
The book also has art for the game’s opening animation and cut-scenes. These show how the art team created scenes showing the dramatic reveal of the casts meeting each other. They also include the slice-of-life events the casts experience together.
The Beauty of Art Books for Video Games
Art books made for video games can show fans the hard work that goes into designing their favorite titles. Some of the best art books in recent years come from the Persona video game franchise. These books compliment their title, showing the hard work and creativity that goes into developing each video game.
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