There were a lot of really good games that came out this year. I’m not claiming that these are the best games that came out this year, because I’m just one dude who is relatively busy and I haven’t played everything. There were however a few of note that I was particularly excited because of what they brought to the table, or how they presented it, and I really think if you’re someone who identifies as a gamer, you should check them out. Without further ado…
#4 – SOMA
I say to a lot of people that I want my games to tell stories that explore the differences and similarities between artificial intelligence and human sentience, and SOMA is very much a game I would excitedly point to and say,
‘Like that one! Yes!’
SOMA is the latest project from Swedish developers Frictional Games, who were also the creative minds behind the wildly popular horror game ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’. I’m very pleased to say that SOMA is every bit as terrifying. The atmosphere is second to none, and there’s a lot that goes into maintaining that.
First and foremost is the sound design. I highly recommend playing through SOMA with headphones, as the developers have clearly spent some time ensuring that the world you explore sounds as authentic as possible. Pipes creak and settle, footsteps echo based on room size, sound travels differently through water… Alongside a convincing cast of well-voice-acted characters, and an attention to environmental detail exceeding that of many higher budgeted games, the immersion is maybe SOMA’s greatest success. There’s something deeply unsettling about water-based horror, and the game does a great job of utilising this for a ‘slow burn’ style of psychological fear rather than opting for cheap shock factor scares. While Amnesia made me jump, SOMA made me feel like I had nowhere to escape to.
This isn’t to say however that the game’s ‘game-y’ bits are slouching, though. Frictional Games have certainly used the five years since Amnesia’s release to hone their design skills. The obstacle design feels constantly fresh, with each new combination of enemy type and room layout offering a new set of challenges for the player to overcome. While early on, you’ll receive subtle guidance on how the monsters work and how to avoid them, the game boldly refuses to continue offering any concrete rules or hints on the game mechanics after about the halfway point, and the resulting difficulty curve is spot on. You’ll have to experiment and explore to uncover the best path forwards, and this, coupled with the game’s powerful subject matter and chilling atmosphere, delivers an absolutely unforgettable experience.
#3 – Splatoon
If you’d asked me a year ago whether or not I liked shooters, I’d say that I didn’t. I’d be lying, but I find it hard to get particularly excited about the annual new installment of Call of Duty or the latest Battlefield – and even Halo has, under its new ownership, seemingly succumbed to the ‘realistic shooter’ tropes. So the blanket answer of ‘no I don’t like shooters’ is just what comes most naturally. That’s why with their release of Splatoon earlier this year, Nintendo has done something incredible.
Truly nothing else out there is even similar to Splatoon. It has that unique Nintendo quality where it feels like each component of the design circularly benefits each other component, achieving depth without requiring complexity. The first half of Splatoon’s core design is spraying ink. While there are a few different game modes, your goal essentially boils down to splattering as much of the arena with your team’s coloured ink as you can. You can shoot your foes with the ink too, to send them back to their home base, but it’s a tactical preventative measure rather than the core objective, which is a breath of fresh air for the genre.
Outside of it being the objective, coating the terrain in your ink is also what gives life to the other major component of the game, which is movement. You can swim at high speeds through ink, even up walls, both making you harder to see and granting you huge potential for maneuverability, but only through your own team’s colour of ink. Thus comes together the constant battle in Splatoon. Spray more ink to move around the arena faster to spray more ink. Paint over your opponent’s ink to limit their movement to prevent them from spraying more ink. It’s simple and brilliant and more importantly it’s just really fun.
Where Splatoon’s genius really comes through is in its accessibility. It has that same draw as Mario Party or Super Smash Bros., where you don’t need to be good at the game to have fun playing the game. While at the higher ranks of competitive play, teamwork and precision are paramount, if you just want to hop online and play a few rounds, you’re able to contribute to the team regardless of skill level. The most simple game-type, ‘Turf War’, is the only one available in the casual lobby, and the only rule is to have the most ink on the field when time runs out. So if all you know how to do is walk around near the base and mindlessly spray the ground with ink, that’s okay, because you’re still helping your team win. It rewards skilled players, but is simultaneously easy for anyone to pick up and play.
In the end, Splatoon is an incredible moment of originality in a genre that badly needs it, and it just so happens to be incredibly appealing to the eye. If there was one game worth picking up a Wii U for, it’s this one.
#2 – Axiom Verge
If you’re a Metroid fan like myself, still crying yourself to sleep over the disaster that was ‘Other M’, hovering your finger over the call button with Nintendo’s customer support number dialed, unsure if it’s inappropriate to ask what in the world is going on over there, then I have some incredible news for you. Axiom Verge is the new Metroid game you’ve been waiting for, and it came out earlier this year for only $13.99.
Axiom Verge delivers on every front you’d want it to, and always finds a new way to take you by surprise. Every single environment is gorgeously rendered in a high contrast, 4 colour shading style of pixel art, and the game marries this with an art direction clearly inspired by the works of H.R. Giger to give itself an incredibly distinctive look that is simply breathtaking.
As is standard in these exploration platformers (I hate the term Metroidvania), you’ll find yourself collecting various gadgets and weapons that gradually increase your abilities such that you can explore further and further away from your starting point. Of course, with each new acquisition comes the thoughts of ‘wait, I think I needed this exact tool way back this way somewhere’, and there’s a HUGE amount of hidden stuff to find in the world. While Axiom Verge proudly flaunts just how damn good it is at employing this traditional set of rules, it brings a number of new elements to the table as well. Of particular note was a tool you obtain early on that allows you to ‘glitch out’ enemies and objects in various ways, causing them to distort and warp, reminiscent of buggy early sprite-based games. It was especially cool to see how this mechanic was repeatedly used in different ways throughout the progression of the game, and there’s even an achievement for glitching every different kind of enemy at least once.
There’s an honestly insane amount of cool and creative science fiction weapons that are all loads of fun to use, and what’s even cooler is that almost all of them are optional. If you’re just rushing through, you’ll probably reach the end of the game without seeing even a quarter of what the game has to offer, and you really need to pay attention and be willing to explore if you want to track everything down. This means that each upgrade is accompanied with a powerful sense of achievement.
Axiom Verge is fast-paced, refreshingly difficult (albeit only on the harder difficulty setting), and an aesthetic treat. It’s the kind of game I knew immediately upon finishing that I was going to replay time and time again.
#1 – Pokemon Picross
Just kidding it’s Undertale.
Undertale almost doesn’t deserve a place on this list because you’ve undoubtedly already heard about how good it is. I’m someone who is aiming to have a career based in making games, someone who has been playing video games their entire life, and someone who would proudly point to a list of video games that I know shaped who I am as a person. I try to learn a little about what it means to make a game ‘good’ whenever I play something. I’ll play bad games endlessly trying to pinpoint exactly what I don’t like about them, and conversely have stacks upon stacks of notes, diagrams and flowcharts documenting what concepts and ideas I want to try to work into my own creations.
So please, understand the weight of what I’m trying to convey when I say that the ONE game I urge everyone to play through, the ONE among the list of hundreds, is Undertale. It’s above ‘what kind of game you like’ or even ‘if you’re someone who plays video games’.
To quickly sell you on the game, without spoiling anything, Undertale is:
-Very funny, without ever leaning on the oh-so-popular crutch of reference-based or ‘meme’ humor.
-Scored with one of the most beautiful and original soundtracks I’ve ever heard in any movie or game.
-Very original, and mechanically dissimilar from anything you are likely to have played before.
-A game where, if you want to, you can talk your way out of having to actually kill anything. This is A Pretty Big Deal.
If you’ll allow though, I’d like to say a bit more about Undertale, because it deserves more than a few bullet points.
Undertale is the kind of game that carries more impact the less you know about it going in, and so I try to encourage people to play it without revealing too many specifics. The question I probably hear the most in response is ‘So what is it about?’, and I honestly still haven’t perfected an answer to that yet, because Undertale is about a lot of things.
It’s a game about staying determined, and what that really means.
It’s a game about choices and the consequences of our choices.
It’s a game about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, and not just because we want a reward.
In some ways, it’s a game about games.
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of reviewers say about a lot of movies or games that they ‘made them cry!’, and Undertale did make me cry. But it wasn’t because of anything that happened in Undertale, it was because of the way that Undertale made me feel, and the way it spoke to me. I don’t like to talk about it, but there are rare days that I wake up or go to bed feeling sad about a lot of different things.
Undertale is a game about it being okay to talk about that kind of stuff.
Because it’s part of who we are, and it’s a game about the people who stand by you in moments of vulnerability.
Oh and there are some cool skeletons in it, so I guess Undertale is also at least a little bit about cool skeletons.
At it’s core, what most impresses me about Undertale is its ability to be a video game alongside a beautifully woven story, never sacrificing one component to benefit the other. I think a lot of games that try to tell important stories forget that they need to be fun to play as well, which leads to what a lot of people in the industry are now referring to as the Walking Simulator problem, where the only real interactivity the player has with the story is walking through it. So I want to stress that while Undertale was making me laugh, cry, and think, it was simultaneously an immense amount of fun to play through from start to finish, which I have now done several times over (it’s also a relatively short game).
So if you haven’t already, boot up your computer, head over to http://www.undertale.com, fork out the $10, and give the game a go. You’d be making a huge mistake not to.
Why 4 rather than the nice round 5? Because right behind this list were ‘Downwell’, ‘Yoshi’s Wooly World’ and ‘Nuclear Throne’, none of which I could cleanly place above or below the others, and I would have had to include all of them. Say what you will about 4 but it’s definitely not as weird as 7.