In 2016, it felt like my gaming diet returned to normal. Last year, I played smaller titles and indie games almost exclusively. This year, I got back into big-budget gaming, and I think I found a nearly-optimal balance between indie games and AAA behemoths. I enjoyed almost every game I played this year, and there wasn’t a single one I hated. For that reason, I’m not covering the worst titles of the year  (Pony Island and That Dragon, Cancer, if you care, but I wouldn’t consider either to be a bad game). Instead, I’ll be talking about the most disappointing games: the ones with the biggest gap in quality between what could have been and what was.

But let’s save that for later. For now, let’s talk about my top 10 games of the year. (You can find my full ranking here.)

THE 10 BEST GAMES OF THE YEAR
10. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Platform: PC

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The Deus Ex franchise has had its ups and downs over the years, and Mankind Divided will probably go down in history as a down, mostly due to the fact that it doesn’t measure up to its excellent predecessor, Human Revolution. But to classify it as a bad game would be a mistake, because Mankind Divided is still a top-tier action-stealth FPS/RPG hybrid, blending its disparate gameplay elements so seamlessly that you’d think the game was their progenitor. Its Prague setting is loaded with detail, with neat touches that look futuristic yet plausible. However, the real star of the game is its excellent level design. There are not just multiple paths for getting from point A to point B; this is a game that rewards exploration and facilitates experimentation. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another five years for Adam Jensen’s next adventure.

9. Glittermitten Grove / Frog Fractions 2
Platform: PC

Frog Fractions 2

Frog Fractions 2 is another game that I think will miss most people’s best-of lists, because it isn’t as wonderfully weird and surprising as the original browser-based Frog Fractions. (I’m sensing a theme here.) But is a terrific send-up of video games, filled with obscure references and dadaist humour (and a lot of apocryphal Korn history). It also has more laugh-out-loud moments than any other video game in recently memory, including a “character creation screen” that might be funniest moment in any piece of media from 2016. Burying it inside another game – the simple strategic simulation Glittermitten Grove – was a bizarre stroke of genius.

8. We Become What We Behold
Platform: PC (browser)

We Become What We Behold

Some may say it’s unfair to pit 10-minute browser games against 40-hour AAA juggernauts, but I’m not one of those people. In any case, We Become What We Behold more than holds its own; it’s one of the best games of the year. It’s also one of the most timely. With hatred and xenophobia on the rise, it’s crucial to illustrate the media narratives that give rise to them. Only then can we break the cycle of fear.

You can play the game here.

7. Oxenfree
Platform: PC

Oxenfree

Hollywood is still wedded to an old style of high school fiction with rigidly-defined cliques, where football-playing jocks beat mercilessly on D&D-playing nerds, and bandgeeks are ridiculed for their goofy costumes. But anyone who has their secondary education in the past two decades knows just how ludicrous that conception of high school is. In reality, cliques are more like amorphous, intersecting social circles, and navigating them can feel like traipsing through a minefield. Everyone’s still trying to figure themselves out. It can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Oxenfree is one of the first pieces of fiction to capture that nervous energy, amplifying it through a supernatural horror story set on a tourist island. The adolescent characters of the game speak like real teenagers, with all their foibles and insecurities bubbling just beneath the surface. Rarely has a two-dimensional point-and-click adventure felt so three-dimensional.

You can view my playthrough of the game here.

6. Grow Up
Platform: PC

Grow Up

B.U.D.’s back, baby! And this time, the adorable robot is fumbling his way across an entire planet, Super Mario Galaxy-style. I named B.U.D.’s first adventure, Grow Home, my fifth-favourite game of 2015, and Grow Up is at number 6 on this list for similar reasons: the thrill of climbing to dizzying heights; the sense of wonder felt when exploring floating islands; and the exhilaration of gliding across vast expanses of sky. Grow Up expands on its predecessor in appealing ways. This time, B.U.D. has developed somewhat of a green thumb: he grows plants that he discovers in the environment to catapult himself into the air. It’s a mechanic that’s equal parts awkward, goofy, useful, and adorable.

You can view my playthrough of the game here.

5. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
Platform: PlayStation 4

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth

2016 has been something of a banner year for Digimon, with a new game in the series making its way to English-language territories, followed by the English dub of the new Digimon Adventure tri. anime, with much of the old dub cast reprising their roles! As someone who was a huge Digimon fan in his youth, I’m grateful for the opportunities to indulge my nostalgia. But if Cyber Sleuth only had nostalgia going for it, then it wouldn’t be much to write home about. Luckily, it’s a lot more. In addition to being a rock-solid turn-based RPG with a bevy of interlocking systems in the vein of Persona, it’s also a gripping yarn that piles twist upon twist (once you get 20 hours in, unfortunately). Plus, its titular monsters are lovingly drawn and animated, rendered to look and feel just like their televisual counterparts. Cyber Sleuth didn’t set the world at large on fire, but if you’re a Digimon fan, then this is a game you don’t want to miss.

4. Inside
Platform: PC

Inside

Few games are as elegantly and tightly designed as Inside. Playdead spent the six years after Limbo’s release making the game, and it shows. Every interaction and animation feels like it was uniquely scripted. Every object feels like it was placed there intentionally by the developers. Every frame looks like it could be a painting. Playdead took all the lessons they learned from Limbo and made a better version of it. Puzzles are clever but rarely aggravating. Moving and platforming feel tighter. Moreover, there’s something approaching an actual narrative this time around, not just mood and atmosphere (though Inside has those in spades). Using no words whatsoever, Inside tells a story about a boy’s attempt to escape the dystopian society that wants to subject his body to cruel scientific experiments. It’s a darkly comic tale that had me suppressing horrified laughter with each new twist. At this rate, we should expect Playdead’s next title in 2022, but I’m willing to be patient; I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait.

You can view my playthrough of the game here.

3. Titanfall 2
Platform: PC

Titanfall 2

I’m not as down on the modern FPS as most “respected” games critics -vomits-, but most blockbuster shooter franchises don’t hold much appeal for me. Imagine my surprise when word started trickling in about how good Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign was. I was skeptical, but I decided to give it a go, expecting another setpiece-laden bloodfest. What I got instead was a meticulously constructed roller coaster ride that kept throwing new twists at me until the credits rolled. Titanfall 2 isn’t a throwback shooter – it has a two-weapon limit and regenerating health – but it captures the excitement of playing old shooters, with its fast-paced combat and fluid movement mechanics. This is a game designed for running and gunning, for leaping off tall buildings while lobbing grenades into the fray. The multiplayer is pretty fun, to boot.

2. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Platform: PlayStation 4

Uncharted: A Thief's End

Getting the fundamentals of a game right is crucial for crafting a solid experience, but it’s the details that elevate a game from merely good to truly great. Uncharted 4 was made by Naughty Dog, a studio that wholly understands this and takes it to heart. Sure Uncharted 4 has really good gunplay and decent traversal mechanics, but it’s in the details that the game really shines – the excellent voice acting, the subtle facial animations, the stellar sound design, the gorgeously detailed environments, the stirring soundtrack – these are the things that make the game truly special. Uncharted 4 is also a fitting send-off for the series, having series protagonist Nathan Drake consider the toll that his treasure-hunting ways have taken on his interpersonal relationships, but also concluding with a happy ending that doesn’t feel like an asspull or a cop-out. It might seem odd for a franchise to go out on a subdued note instead of a bang, but I can think of no more fitting end to Drake’s tale.

You can read my review of the game here.

1. Firewatch
Platform: PC

Firewatch

If there’s one thing the top tier of narrative-heavy, choice-driven indie games has shown, it’s just how deficient Telltale’s formula is. Contrary to popular belief, Telltale’s biggest problem isn’t the fact that players’ decisions have little overall effect on the direction of the narrative. No, their most significant flaw is their tendency to fill their games with artificial dilemmas and overly-signposted major “moral” choices. In real life, moral dilemmas rarely present themselves in such stark terms. Instead, life is made of a series of minor choices that have subtle long-term consequences. Oxenfree understood this, and Firewatch does too, even more so. In this game, the protagonist, Henry, rarely has major decisions to make. Rather, most of his choices in the game involve what to say to his supervisor, Delilah, over his walkie-talkie; the development of their relationship unfolds subtly from these choices. This relationship is brought to life by stellar vocal performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. I can’t praise them enough; these are two of the best vocal performances ever in a video game.

Firewatch is also gorgeous to behold. Artists Jane Ng and Olly Moss did marvelous work here, creating an art style that’s both cartoonish and painterly, using reds, greens, and golds to evoke memories of long, lazy summer days. The lighting is also incredible; the way the sun’s rays beam through the leaves of the forest looks just like it does in real life. Also worth mentioning: Chris Remo’s lovely soundtrack, a collection of quiet, slow-paced instrumental folk tunes with a roiling intensity that conveys the characters’ increasing stress and paranoia. Overall, Firewatch is an amazing experience, and given that it’s developer Campo Santo’s first title, it’s all the more impressive. Here’s hoping their next title is even half as good.

You can read my review of the game here.


HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Before we get to the most disappointing games of the year, let me highlight a few games that missed my top 10:

  • Virginia has some of the best editing I’ve seen in a video game, churning out an experience that is equal parts David Lynch, Satoshi Kon, and Brendon Chung. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the game really wants to be Sliding Doors, but that doesn’t blunt the impact of the game’s first three quarters.
  • I haven’t played enough of Planet Coaster yet to judge it properly, but from what I’ve played so far, it’s the theme park simulator I’ve been waiting for since the original RollerCoaster Tycoon games. It’s a testament to how solid most of the game is that I’m willing to put up with numerous glitches and a completely unusable path-building tool.
  • Though it was somewhat repetitive, Abzû was the prettiest game I played all year. Those underwater environments were stunningly beautiful.
  • Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero managed to rescue an episodic game I thought was all but dead, both practically and creatively. After a disappointing third act, Act IV didn’t exactly right the ship, but steered it in a completely different – yet compelling – direction.

THE 2 MOST DISAPPOINTING GAMES OF THE YEAR
I didn’t play any truly awful games this year, but I did play a couple that failed to meet expectations in a big way. I want to stress: neither of these is a “bad” game. But both are rife with missed potential. In some ways, that makes them worse than truly bad games. An awful game can simply be dismissed, but a disappointing game stings.

Runner-Up: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
Platform: PC

Mirror's Edge Catalyst

Can a bad story sink a game with mostly excellent mechanics? After playing Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, I believe the answer is yes. No joke: Catalyst has one of the worst stories ever featured in a AAA game. It’s boring and nonsensical, with mediocre voice acting and loathsome characters to boot. I wanted to punch every single character in the game while I was playing it. By the end, I wasn’t even rooting for the bad guys to win; I was rooting for an angry God to rain down hellfire from the sky and burn the whole damn world to the ground. The funny thing is that the plot was one of the most often criticized elements of the first Mirror’s Edge; you’d think developers DICE would have spent some effort writing a good one this time around. But no dice. (Pun intended.)

Also, the first-person mêlée combat was terrible. Just fucking terrible.

You can read my review of the game here.

Winner (Loser?): Dishonored 2
Platform: PC

Dishonored 2

Have you played the first Dishonored? Great! Then you have no reason to play Dishonored 2. The best sequels are those that preserve what was good about their predecessors while fixing their flaws and adding new, interesting elements. The worst sequels are those that basically replicate their predecessors without addressing their problems or adding anything worthwhile. Dishonored 2 is an example of the latter. It feels like Dishonored DLC – nay, Dishonored fanfiction. Dishonored 2 adds a new playable character with new powers, but provides precious few opportunities to use them effectively. Level design is notably worse than in the first Dishonored, often funnelling players down specific, pre-defined paths. Graphically, it looks no better than the first game, but it runs significantly worse, even on better hardware. And the story is somehow even more insipid and threadbare than before, a transparent excuse for creating murder playgrounds that doesn’t justify all the time spent on cutscenes and various other talky bits. It also raises complex moral and sociopolitical questions and then never really addresses them or provides the player an opportunity to explore them within the context of the game. Notably the main character doesn’t seem to give a shit that she fucking travelled through time and altered the past. It’s almost as if each chunk of the script was written by a different person.

Dishonored 2 is the epitome of a lazy sequel. It still has enjoyable action-stealth mechanics, but there’s absolutely nothing to recommend about it if you’ve played the superior first game in the series, especially the DLC, which addressed some of the main game’s flaws. Dishonored 2 is not a bad game, but it does absolutely nothing to justify its existence, and for that reason, it’s the most disappointing game of 2016.


That does it for my round-up of gaming in 2016. Overall, it was a pretty good year for gaming, with a mixture of excellent big-budget and indie titles. 2017 has a lot on the horizon that looks good, including Persona 5, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and NieR:Automata. Let’s hope they all deliver on their potential.

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