2015 was the year of the open world games that take way too long to finish. Home consoles are far from dead going into the third year of this generation, with many wrongly predicting their demise a few years ago. The PlayStation 4 is dominating in sales with close to 36 million worldwide while the Xbox One is selling more than the Xbox 360 did during the same time-frame.
Some of the other big news stories last year include Satoru Iwata sadly passing away, a new Nintendo president is named as the company prepares for its future, Activision buying everything Candy Crush for $5.9 billion, the controversial way Final Fantasy VII Remake is being developed, Xbox One getting backwards compatibility and Hideo Kojima leaving Konami after almost 30 years by going independent, making an exclusive deal with Sony for his first game.
I didn’t play enough of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain or Bloodborne to rank them, which will all have to wait into 2016. Special shout-out goes to Dying Light by Techland, another big open world game that I need to go back and finish after putting many hours into.
These are my favorite games of 2015:
10. Until Dawn (PlayStation 4, Supermassive Games, Aug. 25 )
Until Dawn is one of the exclusives worth checking out on the PS4. On the surface it looks like a take on stereotypical teen horror movies. While it uses some of these tropes, the game isn’t limited by those. A group of friends go to a cabin during the winter to vacation and party. After a short time the trip turns into a nightmare when they discover someone or something else is on the resort with them.
Every playable character in Until Dawn can permanently die based on the choices made throughout each chapter. Trying to keep everyone alive to the end of the game is hard. Decisions you made hours before can be the cause for someone’s death later on. Until Dawn has a solid cast of characters, each with different personalities that need to be managed. I grew to like people I initially hated as they kept finding ways to stay above ground. There were some good scares too. Supermassive Games created an enjoyable ride over 10 or so hours. I played straight through the story over one night, something I almost never do anymore.
9. Splatoon (Wii U, Nintendo, May 28 )
An online multiplayer game being both one of Nintendo’s best releases and new franchises for the Wii U is actually kind of shocking, given the company’s lack of comparable network infrastructure to its competition and its reliance on Mario over the years. Splatoon is such a fun game though. The game’s quick multiplayer bursts become addictive. The colorful representation of its core gameplay, weapons and stages gives the game its unique flavor. Splatoon evokes summertime even during the bitter months of winter.
It turns out splashing paint everywhere with people that transform into squids is a great multiplayer concept. Anyone can just jump in and play regardless of skill level and still have a good time without feeling overwhelmed, unlike in a lot of other online games.
Nintendo constantly adding new content like weapons and maps for free instead of releasing an empty game with a Season Pass that’s just as expensive is another reason why Splatoon stands out in 2015. I didn’t play many multiplayer games this year but I hope the Splatoon franchise continues to hold an audience in the years to come regardless of what happens to the Wii U and Nintendo’s next console.
8. Affordable Space Adventures (Wii U, Knapnok Games/Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, April 9)
Affordable Space Adventures is a Wii-U exclusive indie game. Before Super Mario Maker released in September, it was easily one of the best uses of the Wii U’s GamePad, coming from a small independent studio instead of Nintendo itself.
Nearly every part of the GamePad is used to control a small ship on a strange planet filled with puzzles and traps. The GamePad touch screen shows adjustable gauges for sound, heat and electricity used by the ship. Movements make these gauges increase, which can cause the ship to slow down or activate deadly traps in the area based on how much energy is used. There are also different engines in the game, with some areas only accessible by switching between them. Each engine has its own advantages and drawbacks that also impact the ship’s gauges. Sounds emit from the GamePad’s speakers while overheating warnings or dangerous impacts cause vibrations. The GamePad’s gyroscope is also used to fly the ship and move between tight spaces.
Advancing to the next area never seems easy. Affordable Space Adventures is a difficult game. Finding ways to guide the ship with the GamePad while solving the puzzles is challenging. The game continues to add new abilities as the story mode progresses. Controlling the ship with all the different adjustable tools on the GamePad is intensely stressful and rewarding.
Affordable Space Adventures is also a phenomenal co-op experience where communication with a real human being sitting next to you is the only way to get to the next stage. Working through the puzzles with a friend as each of you controls part of the ship with different controllers is a lot of fun. Even if it were ported to another console I don’t know if Affordable Space Adventures can be played without the GamePad’s features. It might work, but then it would have nowhere near the same effectiveness or enjoyment.
7. Axiom Verge (PS4: March 31; PC: May 14, Thomas Happ)
Axiom Verge takes some of the best of old school platforming games and puts its own twist on them. Made by only one guy, Tom Happ, over a five-year period, the game is basically like a modern version of Metroid but goes way beyond being a flattering imitation.
You play as a scientist named Trace in an alternative dimension. A far-out, sci-fi storyline plays out in the background. The game’s boss fights are challenging but not rage-inducing. Axiom Verge doesn’t hold your hand when it comes to finding where to go next. Just when you think you’re helplessly lost, discovering a new item or tool creates a breakthrough that opens up unexplored areas. Backtracking doesn’t feel like a chore. Getting one item naturally fuels the urge to return to old areas for more secrets.
The game has its unique features and skills like the ability to manipulate the environment and enemies, “glitching” them out in different ways, transporting through walls or using a drone companion to reach unobtainable rooms. The variety of the game’s weapons allows for different attack styles, especially against bosses. Axiom Verge is filled with incredible music too, noticeably during boss fights.
Who knows the next time we will actually get an authentic “Metroidvania” from the two series the genre is based on. Axiom Verge knows its influences but is different enough to distinguish its own name.
6. Life is Strange (PC/PS4/Xbox One/PS3/Xbox 360, Dontnod Entertainment)
First episode released Jan. 29, final episode released Oct. 20.
Life is Strange is an episodic game spread across five releases throughout the year, which concluded in October. Max Caulfield returns to the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend Blackwell Academy for her senior year of high school. She discovers she has the ability to rewind time, reunites with her childhood best friend Chloe and tries to uncover dark secrets about Arcadia Bay all while growing into adulthood.
Dontnod threw in some crazy, shocking twists at the end of the chapters that I didn’t see coming. Life is Strange’s episodic release format left a craving for more but binging the game Netflix-style is just as good a way to experience the story. Max is a powerful character, a strong young woman who faces some overwhelming situations. She and Chloe are a terrific combination, who balance each other out in their personalities and dedication to each other.
The rewinding time mechanic separates Life is Strange and puts a twist on its genre. You can open up new conversation points or scenes between characters based on knowledge gained from rewinding moments. Even after going back to see all my options, I still had trouble deciding what major actions to move forward with. Unlike in most games, the decisions I made during Life is Strange feel like they actually impacted the storyline. The choices matter and do change each person’s experience.
The dialogue can be crappy at times, either being way too video gamey or completely unnatural, obviously written by people double the character’s ages. Almost every character you interact with in Life is Strange is there for a reason though, making you care about them. Bonds and connections are formed with these characters through the episodes. After the finale I felt bummed it was all over and wished I could be in Arcadia Bay just a little longer.
5. Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One, Crystal Dynamics, Nov. 10)
Rise of the Tomb Raider improves upon the 2013 reboot in almost every way. After finishing with more than 25 hours, it’s one of the most absorbing games I played this year. All the game’s elements, from its combat, exploration, weapons, crafting system, puzzles and storyline combine for a great adventure. Exploring and solving mysteries behind the new optional tombs, while brief at times, are a much needed addition to the rebooted franchise. The crazy action sequences don’t disappoint either.
The world becomes so immersive because of the remarkable level of detail put into the ruins, environments and creation of the story’s ancient history. Faded paintings and artwork help tell the game’s story almost as if they were real historical pieces. I needed to explore every inch of the map for secrets, to hunt animals like bears and wolves while crafting new items and weapons for survival. The game’s storyline about a cult, immortality and ancient treasures plays out well. Lara Croft becomes a more confident person and bigger bad ass in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
As an Xbox One exclusive (for current platforms) released on the same day as Fallout 4, it’s a shame Rise of the Tomb Raider didn’t even break the top 10 best-selling games for November. I’m much more interested in the series now than I ever was throughout the ’90s. More people need to play Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2016.
4. Fallout 4 (PS4/Xbox One/PC, Bethesda Game Studios, Nov. 10)
I put a lot of time into Fallout 4, more than I did any other game this year. Fallout 4 is basically more Fallout 3 (2008) and I’m fine with that. This time we’re going around Boston finding abandoned locations and radioactive freaks. I played about 15 hours before I even started advancing the story missions. I lost my first file with over seven hours of gameplay after accidentally saving at the exact moment I would be killed, leaving me in a constant death loop upon loading. A majority of other games I wouldn’t bother restarting but with Fallout 4 I jumped right back out of the vault.
The cast of companions makes quests and explorations feel more important. Bringing a friend along makes the wasteland feel less deserted. Their involvement gives interesting perspectives to characters you grow attached to over the many hours of play. The new settlement building is a cool addition. I found myself gathering as much junk as I could hold just so I could keep building more things for my settlements. I probably have the most robust farm and largest collection of clean beds in the wasteland. I already spent way too much time making sure my settlers are as happy as they could be after a nuclear fallout. Combat is also improved, with the ability to fight freely without solely relying on the V.A.T.S. for every encounter.
There are problems though. The new simplified dialogue tree leaves plenty to be desired in conversations, often leaving choices that either didn’t fit my character or repeated a variation of stories I already heard many times before. The same dumb technical problems are still in these Bethesda games after all these years. Seriously, why can’t they fix these games yet? Still, I love the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout and will probably put dozens of more hours into Fallout 4.
3. Her Story (PC/Mac/iOS, Sam Barlow, June 24)
In Her Story you become a detective, connecting randomized interview clips to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of a woman’s husband. To find evidence you type keywords into a computer database that returns scenes related to the search. The game replicates the feel of using an old computer from the 1990s, all with the sounds and desktop icons from that time.
Everyone will uncover the game’s angles and surprises in their own personal way. Viva Seifert does a phenomenal job of carrying the extremely brief scenes. With hundreds of clips all found and played out of random order, her performance strengthens the game. Connecting clues and clips together is a engrossing mechanic. Trying to find new information that could reveal the truth can spiral into pages filled with handwritten notes and crazy theories. Her Story uses FMV-stylized gameplay to deliver one of the most unique experiences of the year.
You can read my review of Her Story to find out more about the game.
2. Soma (PS4/PC/Mac, Frictional Games, Sept. 22)
Soma is an experience that left an impression on me long after I finished the game. It wasn’t about horror or the scares. It’s not about the few encounters with monsters that chase you down, bringing death where they roam. Soma is about its journey and destination to the meaning of humanity.
The way the story unfolds as you uncover more truths about what happened to the protagonist and the world he finds himself in is amazing. The environments are tragic, from exploring underwater ruins to various abandoned facilities. Each new discovered place brings more gloom and anxiety. The sound effects are another highlight. Every noise has an amplified reach, creating an atmosphere of dread and loneliness. Walking on metal floors, opening empty rooms, messing around on computers, gushing water reminding you of your future. All these sounds play into the escalating feeling that something’s not quite right and may never be.
Soma explores deep philosophical, scientific and ethical concepts that most games never touch or wouldn’t be able to even do properly. What is the essence of a human being? Can we go on living even after death? Frictional Games did so much with Soma. The studio is another independent developer pushing the limits and boundaries of games.
1. Undertale (PC/Mac, Toby Fox, Sept. 15 )
Undertale is the most creative game I played this year because of its design, gameplay and personality. The game manages to cram a complete JRPG experience with bosses, towns and sidequests into only six hours. It’s also really funny. Humor goes a long way with me.
The game starts slow then builds up, with a certain darkness always hovering over the player. A human is stuck in an underground monster world and tries to make it back to the surface. It turns out that as the playable protagonist you might not actually be that great of a person. The game’s important and minor characters are all wonderful. Many of the conversations during scenes or with random monsters are hilarious. Undertale commits plenty of breaking the fourth wall moments. It’s a nod to those old JRPGs of the 16-bit era.
Undertale does a lot of weird things, like combining a bullet hell shmup with a traditional JRPG battle system. This core feature of a JRPG is so drastically different from almost every other game in the genre. You can even talk and interact with the monsters during battle in bizarre ways that’s the opposite of everything you’re supposed to do in a video game.
You also don’t always have to use violence to beat enemies. After damaging or performing actions on an enemy like complimenting, high-fiving, or hugging them, you can spare its life. While you don’t get any experience this way, it demonstrates a peaceful alternative to a mechanic that’s always been there while still making encounters enjoyable. It’s something I wasn’t fully cognitive of when going through a JRPG, grinding in countless battles to level up. It’s so subconsciously part of playing games that you forget what you’re actually doing; killing up to hundreds of monsters, creatures and people just to level up for the upcoming boss fight or advance to the next chapter.
Undertale makes notice of missing characters that you killed, with monsters wondering where a certain person disappeared to. You start to realize, Oh wait. I’m the one who killed that guy. On a second playthrough characters even remember and bring up your actions from before. All the game’s boss fights are highly unique and representative of the developer’s creativity.
Undertale is truly memorable, with many more of the game’s secrets still left for me to uncover.