Hello, everybody! It’s once again that time of year where we wrap ourselves in blankets, grab a cup of cocoa, and then sneer at traditional game of the year lists. Rather than try to decide that X first-person shooter is better than Y strategy game, and that Z third-person open-world thing is objectively the best game of the entire year, we work out our own lists of the best pc games we particularly enjoyed over the course of the last 12 months.
Honestly, it’s difficult enough narrowing things down even this much, but here are five games that particularly stuck out for me.
How can I not include Stardew Valley in my list of picks? I mean, any game which I pick up on a whim and then play for about 40 hours over the course of three days – without planning on writing anything about it – probably deserves some praise. Or at least a warning label. Probably a warning label.
Ostensibly, Stardew Valley is a cutesy little game about running a farm with the cluck-clucks and the moo-cows and the rows of corn and potatoes. This is one part of it. The other part is dealing with village life: forming relationships with the local townsfolk, getting married, maybe exploring the mines and upgrading your tools and taking on quests. Then you go to bed (in-game, because you sure as hell won’t be doing it in real life) and repeat. Water crops, talk to people, do some quests, buy or unlock or craft some better stuff, notice a new area appear…
It’s Harvest Moon or Rune Factory on PC, basically, only it’s arguably better than most of the Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games. Besides its exceptionally strong base game, it’s also had patches that added content and fixed issues (hello, new farm maps), plus a huge amount of mods that let you tweak the game experience to your liking and adjust a whole bunch of the game’s mechanics. At this point, about the only thing I want to fix that’s still troublesome to rejig is the dialogue.
In any case, I highly recommend Stardew Valley to anyone even the least bit interested in it. Unless you have literally anything to do for the foreseeable future – in which case, don’t even think about it.
Dark Souls 3
This didn’t quite make it into Peter’s list, but it sure as hell made it into mine. Yes, the fire is fading a little, but for the most part Dark Souls 3 is just as much of a joy as it ever was.
I’m not really sure what I can say about Dark Souls 3 that doesn’t equally apply to the rest of the series. It’s a deliciously atmospheric and tremendously rewarding romp through a blighted land, populated with some of the nastiest enemies, bosses, and traps this side of… well, the last Dark Souls game.
It has its lows, but Dark Souls 3 also has an awful lot of highs. The more direct connections to earlier entries in the series are a joy to behold, in particular, and a few of its bosses rank up there with my favourites in the entire series. It’s not as “new” as it once was, but a lot of the little tweaks and changes in Dark Souls 3 are for the better. Were I to go “Hey, I fancy replaying a Dark Souls game” right now, it’d be this one that I’d fire up.
Also: no bloody spiders.
The first time I ever heard of speedrunning was Quake Done Quick With A Vengeance, a jaw-dropping video showing how to beat the rather lengthy FPS in under 20 minutes (assuming you have a tremendous level of skill). I then mostly forgot about it up until a period of illness this year, when I found myself curled up in bed watching Summer Games Done Quick – a speed-running marathon stream – and got a little bit hooked on seeing how clever players don’t just perfect the timing of button presses, but also break mechanics so hard they shatter into little pieces.
I think this re-introduction to speedrunning is part of why I love Furi so much. It’s a boss rush, essentially, with your sword-wielding protagonist fighting his way through a series of beautiful and bizarre bosses. No filler enemies. No filler levels. Just timing-based melee combat and some bullet-hell ranged combat as you duel remarkably tough foes to the death – as efficiently as you can, if you fancy trying the game’s built-in speedrun mode. This raw focus on the mechanics results in, by and large, tremendously precise gameplay.
Furi also exudes effortless cool. The characters are designed by Afro Samurai‘s Takashi Okazaki, the art style is a beautiful cel-shaded neon dream, and the speakers pump out top-notch synthwave from the likes of Carpenter Brut and Waveshaper.
It’s more of a niche pick than most on this list, for sure: not everyone’s going to love the mix of Batman: Arkham-esque melee combat (albeit a billion times more precise and difficult) and bullet-hell shooters; and the soothing, dreamlike walks between bosses are going to annoy others. But niche doesn’t mean bad, and Furi‘s precision, beauty, and ambience have left an awfully large mark on my brain.
The jailer is the key. Kill him, and you’ll be free.
Enter the Gungeon
Roguelikes are one of my “things”, as are roguelikes, roguelike-likes, roguelike-lites, and also rogues. Oh! And action roguelike-lite-likes, like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon.
While this sort of game looks simple, it’s deceptively hard to get right: other than the nebulous “feel” of the combat and movement, you need variety, secrets, unlockables, and balance. You need to reward continued play while not gating the game with difficulty spikes which require that continued play. And, perhaps most importantly, you need spot-on pacing, which is really hard to get right with anything randomised or procedurally generated.
Enter the Gungeon pulls off the borderline impossible and does indeed get pretty much all of this right. Moving, rolling, and shooting feels good, and the whimsical nature of the game (your main enemies are, by and large, ambulatory bullets) means that your weapons are as ridiculous as they come. Yes, you’ve got your basic magnums and assault rifles, but also the Stinger rocket launcher (which fires rockets that explode into swarms of bees) and the Pea Shooter (which… fires peas). At a guess, we’re talking about 200 weapons, most of which feel unique and different.
Then there are the enemies, some truly esoteric secrets, the multiple player characters, the little side-quests, and a whole bunch of clever little features that mitigate some of the genre’s more common annoyances – like teleporters making backtracking across a huge level a lot easier. This is probably the best of the genre since The Binding of Isaac, and is arguably a lot more fun than that game’s slightly bloated remakes.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Darkest Dungeon, not least because I’d probably be fucking haunted if I didn’t.
Darkest Dungeon follows the standard dungeon-crawling trope: your hand-picked party of four ventures into one of the game’s blighted locations on a mission, be it to scout the area or retrieve some treasure or kill an enemy. Then they come back to town, level up, and can be sent out again.
The twist is that going into dungeons is not a job for the sane, and it’s definitely not a job that makes you more sane. Being assaulted by tentacled cultists and puked on by pig monsters isn’t the sort of thing you just shrug off, and putting aside the possibility of your adventurers’ poor little minds shattering (making your squishy priest shove her way to the front of the party and start screaming taunts at the eldritch beasts, say), they’re also going to have to find a way to relax in town. Or possibly have a quick stay in a sanatorium to relieve them of some of their more problematic afflictions before you force them back into the depths once more.
It’s not just your adventurers who suffer, either: the game oozes stress and tension, forces you to make difficult decisions, demands you roll the dice on life-or-death decisions, and harshly punishes mistakes. Lengthy sessions of this can leave you as gibbering as those who’ve seen the true horrors of the titular darkest dungeon… so it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to spend so long playing this on a laptop while ill, now that I think about it.
Quite a few honourable mentions, because whittling this list down was hard. Hitman (or Hitman 6: Hitman: Season 1, as we prefer to call it) definitely deserves a mention for basically being Blood Money 2016; it would likely have wound up in my own list if Peter had omitted it, simply to ensure one of us mentioned it. Dishonored 2 deserves an honourable – or dishonourable – mention for being a bloody fantastic game with phenomenal level design, rather unfortunately marred by nasty technical gremlins. Civilization VI is a marvellously unique take on that venerable series, and I was beginning to think making Civilization feel “new” was impossible. Titanfall 2 is exactly what I wanted from a Titanfall sequel. SUPERHOT is, obviously, great. Etc.
There were a lot of fine games this year, and off-hand, I can think of at least another half-dozen that could easily have made this list on a different day. But right now, if I had to pick five – and I do – it’d be the five above.