As per usual, I’ve had a bloody awful time trying to narrow down my list of personal favourite games of 2015. How do you compare Way of the Samurai 4 to Pillars of Eternity? Does it matter if I pick multiple games that kinda do the same thing, or should I try to spice things up a bit? Should I make special note of a few games that didn’t really get the attention they probably deserved? I mean, these are my picks, and there are certainly a few games that really need a lot more highlighting than they actually got.
I have no answer to any of that. Instead, I rattled off a big long list of the games that I really liked from the past 12 months, and squeezed that list until a few particularly special ones popped out of the top.
Yeah, okay, the 10/10 game is a really obvious choice.
The thing is, I still don’t feel comfortable talking about Undertale. As noted in my review, it’s the sort of game which is vastly improved by knowing as little as possible about it.
I could give details about the ways it messes with your expectations, makes you feel bad about every other RPG you’ve ever played, creates characters that I like so much I pretty much consider them friends, and toys with the usual mechanics of games and RPGs in heart-rending and harrowing ways (while still being witty, funny, and having some of the finest music to have touched my ears this year)… but I shouldn’t. Because you might still play it, and dammit, you should experience it as blind as possible.
On the other hand: it’s possibly the only game I’ve ever played in which I’ve tried to date a skeleton, debated as to whether or not anime is real, fought my battles by dodging attacks and showing mercy, and then followed all that heartwarming delight with a genuinely horrific playthrough that actually caused me some emotional damage (Peter refuses to do this, which is probably the sane choice, but he’s missing out on a lot). It marries very real characters, a quirky and knowing sense of humour, and actual emotions in a way that’s pretty much unmatched.
Undertale isn’t a lengthy game, insofar as you can pretty much get through it in maybe six hours, but it is a very broad one. You can use a cellphone to call up the various characters you’ve befriended, and they’ll have different comments for practically every screen of the game. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that multiple playthroughs are basically essential to really get into the meat of some of the game’s deeper mysteries, or that there are loads of secrets squirrelled away in the most unlikely of places. The game’s demo shows a really good indication of this, particularly if you pay attention to the way the help file changes…
The best way I can say it is this: I hate it when people ask me “What’s your favourite game” because I play so many that I simply don’t have one. I do have a vague list of a dozen or so perennial favourites that I can reel off, though, and after finishing Undertale, it immediately made its way into that list. This isn’t just one of my favourite games of the year; it’s also one of my favourite games that I’ve ever played.
Not quite 20,000 words, Peter. Sorry.
Way of the Samurai 4
I spent awhile mulling over whether or not to include Way of the Samurai 4, because I don’t know if it really matches up with some of the competition… and then I remembered that I spent dozens of hours with this before it came to the PC, dozens of hours with it after it came to the PC, and that I was shoehorning mentions of the Way of the Samurai series into reviews, podcasts, and articles years ago. So yeah, I don’t think I can exclude this.
Way of the Samurai 4 is ostensibly a game about being a wandering samurai in the mid-1800s, who’s just arrived in a fictional port town that’s on the brink of civil war. There’s a British embassy, a xenophobic nationalist group, a police force desperately trying to keep the peace, and a cartoonishly evil representative of the Shogunate – and you can work for any, all, or none of them.
Way of the Samurai 4 is actually a game about doing whatever the hell you like, and it’s one of the best examples of player agency I can think of. The game is divided up into little slices of time, and resting or proceeding with a mission for one of the factions moves you into the next slice. Who you work for and when, and what decisions you make, impacts the course of the game and the ending you’ll receive. Help one of the factions achieve dominance, shoot for the golden ending, or just work for the highest bidder. It’s up to you.
Or you can open up a dojo and recruit an entire army of maids by smacking them about with the blunt end of your sword until they agree to call you master. Or you can indulge in some “night-crawling”, where you have to sneak around a house to meet a girl and take her to a hotel, by flipping open beds until you find the one she’s in. Or you can get tortured by three sadistic sisters via mini-games. Or you can go fishing. Or you can complete side-quests. Or you can track down rare weapons and fighting styles. Or you can heckle the Chief Minister when he turns up. Or you spend 15 minutes messing around with the outfits and discovering that, yes, you can make it so that your hat starts levitating two feet above your head whenever you draw your sword. It never, ever takes itself seriously.
Way of the Samurai 4 is utterly ridiculous in the best way possible. Short playthroughs mean that it can offer genuinely diverging paths, and while most of its individual elements can get a bit tedious in the long run, there are hours upon hours of new and interesting things to discover and toy around with. In a lot of ways, it’s one of the only genuine sandbox games out there, as it never forces you into the plot or into progression to “complete” it. It simply says “Here’s the world: do what you like, or don’t do anything at all.”
Life is Strange
I also mulled over Life is Strange for awhile, but in this case, it was because it does a lot of the same stuff Undertale does. This Telltale-ish story of two teenage girls rekindling their friendship/solving a mystery/exploring supernatural powers/averting the apocalypse, toys with your feelings and plays with its own genre in some new and clever ways.
While the first episode started off relatively strong, things got an awful lot better as the season progressed and its true themes and colours started to emerge. Despite a few bits of cringey teenage dialogue and a few “aren’t we so indie” moments, there’s a strong undercurrent of emotion running throughout this labour of love, and it’s very, very hard not to get swept along for the ride. The characters are great, the mystery is compelling, the decisions – even the ones that clearly don’t matter – are hard, and it’s not afraid to pull the rug out from under you.
It’s also a game I’m going to properly critique, in a BioShock Infinite Bird-or-Cage way, and it’s rare for a game to be deep enough and to do enough with its themes and its mechanics to support that. I could talk a little about that here, like mentioning the changing colour palette, but let’s take a page from the game’s own book and liken it to art.
Life is Strange is chiaroscuro, with a huge contrast between the light and breezy overtones, and the dark horror that gets uncovered bit-by-bit as the series progresses. This heavy contrast makes both parts all the stronger, and it intertwines them perfectly thanks to generally strong pacing and believable characters. It has its flaws, but none of them detract from this poignant, touching, and surprisingly dark story.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain
We reviewed Ground Zeroes a little bit too late last year for it to make any lists, so I’m sort of lumping it in here with The Phantom Pain as “Metal Gear Solid V”.
As with everything that isn’t Undertale, I had a really hard time deciding whether or not to include this. It’s a horribly, horribly flawed game. It’s got rubbish characters and an unfinished story that’s even more ludicrous than most Metal Gear Solid games, and that’s saying something. I love themes of revenge, redemption, falling-from-grace and so on, and this doesn’t manage to really hit any of them in a satisfying way.
It’s also got absolutely goddamn brilliant stealth mechanics and a big open world that lets you approach missions however you choose, and that is why it’s on here. You can be a ghost, or knock out your foes, or murder them, or go in all-guns-blazing while calling in artillery strikes and helicopter support. You can sit at long range with a sniper rifle picking guards off and misdirecting their counter-attacks by moving location without letting them spot you. You can sneak in undetected, plant bombs on every piece of crucial equipment, sneak out, and watch everything go crazy when you detonate and suddenly they lose all power and all communications. Generally decent AI and a wealth of options let you mix things up however you like, and as long as you don’t stick to just one playstyle and like to challenge yourself to try new and more difficult things, it’s really hard to get bored.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Ah, fuck it. I was going to throw this in as an Honourable Mention, but it’s pretty much obligatory for me to cheat and add one more game than everyone else, so it might as well be this, because deciding between this and the rest of the games on the list was a nightmare.
I spent my entire review complaining about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – not because it’s bad, but because the review was months after everyone had already played the game, so I wanted to say something a bit different and focus on what it did wrong rather than its many, many triumphs. Quite a few people seemed to misunderstand, though, so let me clarify: those triumphs outshine the flaws, and this is still a bloody brilliant game.
I’ve already typed a lot so I’m not going to go into much detail, but The Witcher 3 rarely disappoints, and from what I’ve played of the first bit of DLC (review coming soon, honest), that actually addresses a lot of the problems I had. It’s a very well-rounded game with an awful lot going for it – but if the sales are any indication, I’m pretty sure you already know that.
Pillars of Eternity: Haven’t played too much, but I love what I’ve played. This is pretty high up on my list of Games To Play Properly In My Spare Time, alongside Divinity: Original Sin‘s update (which doesn’t make this list because I haven’t played it at all.)
Fallout 4: Much like Fallout Tactics, it’s a great game, just not a great Fallout game. More shooter than RPG, but one that’s compelling, well-written, and entertaining.
Invisible, Inc.: Klei’s randomly generated, turn-based, corporate espionage-’em-up is a deeply clever and tense game of stealth, anticipation, and balancing out risk and reward.
Crypt of the Necrodancer: Who knew that a rhythm-action roguelike could actually work? Brace Yourself Games, apparently, and now they’ve convinced me.
Rocket League: It’s a football game, and I played it. I mean, if that doesn’t say something…