It’s been a great year for games.
While last year can rather pessimistically be summed up as “the year of the remaster,” 2015 brought us strong sequels to established games, new franchises to fall in love with, and a wide span of genres to please nearly every palate. We’ve seen a resurgence of old-school RPGs, adventure games that occupy multiple emotional spaces, and thought provoking horror games. We’ve even been surprised by franchises thought to be too set in their ways to possibly change.
So when it came time to build my Top Five list, you can maybe understand why I was a little terrified. I sweat bullets when it comes time to assign a score to a game, so the thought of arranging a list of my favourites seemed impossible
So I’ve cheated.
Instead of your usual list, here’s my Top Five Number One Games of 2015!
When Bloodborne came out I gave it an 8.9 – mostly because the load times sucked. In a game where you spend the majority of your time dying, the last thing you want is to be looking at a loading screen for minutes at a time, as the game’s logo gets burned into your television (and your brain). Thankfully, the load times got to an acceptable level after patching – making death more akin to a learning experience, and less of a torturous punishment for poorly-optimised code.
The game is so incredibly different from the developer’s predecessors, but also very familiar. The punishing difficulty is still there, and it still gives you that giddy sense achievement when you overcome its hardships – a moment of respite from an onslaught of things designed to kill you. But the combat is where it differentiates itself. Instead of the slower, measured pace of Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne encourages aggression. Through the use of its Regain system (where hitting an enemy restores some of your health), and the speed of its strikes and dodges, Bloodborne makes multi-enemy encounters an exhilarating challenge, and not an immediate death notice.
Mix this in with an unsettling and twisted Lovecraftian universe, built upon a Gothic-Victorian art style with Giger-esque sensibilities, and Bloodborne is one of the best looking games of the year.
In the past, I wasn’t too hot on the Witcher franchise. I’d played both of the previous games to completion, and found each one to be more of a slog than a rip-roaring, dark fantasy tale. I thought Geralt was about as interesting a bucket of grey paint, and the combat in both entries just felt muddy and disconnected.
While The Witcher 3 didn’t completely turn me around on the action, it was inoffensive enough that it never detracted from the game’s other stellar elements. While most open world games’ side quests feel more like to-do lists, every single one in The Witcher 3 felt like a short story – the kind you’d read in one of the author’s source books.
The game also does some interesting stuff narratively. Instead of focusing solely on Geralt, it also loosely follows his friend and former pupil, Ciri. As events unfold, you come to realise that her story is far more like your stock-standard fantasy tale – dealing with ancient evils and mass destruction. Geralt is just a passive observer, with little-to-no agency in these pivotal events – subverting the traditional choice-and-consequence hook many have come to expect from the series.
While fondly remembered, Baldur’s Gate and its Infinity Engine ilk are incredibly hard to go back to. The Enhanced Editions did a lot of the technical heavy lifting (so you no longer had to do black magic to get the games to run), but the mechanics of old-school D&D just don’t translate well to videogames – at least, compared to today’s standards. Determining where your spells would land was a chore, clicking a random number generator hundreds of times for optimal stats wasn’t fun, and don’t even get me started on THAC0.
That’s why I was so impressed with Obsidian’s crowd-funded RPG offering. They captured the nostalgia of those older games – from dialogue boxes to the isometric view – while also creating their own combat rules that curtailed the uncertainty and frustration that they brought with them. Encounters aren’t just about bottlenecking foes through corridors, laboriously buffing your party before bosses, or abusing quick saves and a rest system. Pillars of Eternity requires thorough strategizing, and rewards you by making your solution feel valid, and not a mechanical exploit.
The universe that they’ve built is also incredibly unique. Different cultures speak their own way, and have their own idioms. The world of Eora feels like any good world should – a melting pot of cultural identities and ideals that gently coalesce in some regions, and violently bubble over in others. It draws parallels to our real world issues of mental health and eugenics, with narrative elements about religious doctrine and its place alongside scientific rigour. It’s got a surprising amount of depth to its story, if you’re willing to dig. If not, then the banter and dialogue you share with its cast is both sharp and insightful, and sure to keep you entertained.
Very few games have me staying up until the early hours of the morning just to complete them. By the time I hit the credits screen of SOMA, I was a quivering mass of emotions and nerves – and not just because the game does an incredible job of generating its sense of tension, anxiety, and dread. SOMA asks some fundamental questions, and then like a good teacher, expects you to come up with your own answers.
The main question the game raises is about how we identify with our sapience – what makes us human? The issue becomes a lot more muddied when that sense of self becomes bits on a USB stick, a data file to be copied and moved elsewhere. What value do you then place on your humanity, when the metaphysical becomes physical? SOMA explores this branch of philosophy without any of the navel gazing of higher education, nor by thumbing its nose at it like a flippant undergrad.
I’m also not one to tell people how they should play their games, but you really need to play SOMA in a dark room with a pair of headphones on. The sound design is impeccable. The creaks and groans of the game’s metal hallways add a level of authenticity to the more aberrant, indescribable screams of the biomechanical inhabitants that hunt you down.
Encounter resolution in games normally comes down to who has the biggest gun, the sharpest sword, or the highest level. While there’s nothing wrong with that model, it becomes difficult to critically dissect your actions when every game is so utterly entrenched in that same methodology.
You are killing. You are murdering. Often on a massive scale – and it feels good, because you get to see numbers go up. We’re humans, and we’re hardwired to enjoy that sort of feedback. But why does character progression have to be tied to the act of killing? Undertale tackles issues like this, as well as typical video game doctrines that have become engrained in its consumers – like rampant completionism, and the need to unearth every secret.
But look past some of this heavier stuff, and Undertale is just a lovingly crafted game. It has a razor-sharp wit that’s irreverent and fast. Like the Naked Gun films or Airplane, it doesn’t linger and it doesn’t draw attention it itself. The humour is mostly self-contained (although it veers close to empty references and memetic culture at times), but those fluent in the RPG vernacular will probably glean more from it.
The game also does fairly novel things with its platform to help tell its story – with crashes to desktop, or manipulation of your save files among them. It feels like that weird explorative phase you saw with Hideo Kojima, where his games would act in unexpected ways to enrich the experience.
So those are my favourites of 2015. Are you as indecisive as I am? Sound off in the comments and let me know!