Welcome to the first annual “Best of”s from all your friends here at We Have Always Lived in the Kraken! This year and every year we’ll be making ridiculous top lists, handing out awards we just made up, and in general celebrating the weird, wild year we all just experienced. Today we’re talking video games and board games.
Thanks to advances in distribution and production like Steam and Kickstarter, the independent development of both board and video games lately is off the charts, a trend that definitely continued in 2015. There were thousands of new video games, ranging from the weird and innovative (like indie FMV non-linear mystery game, Her Story) to massive new open world entries in long-running franchises (like post-apocalyptic RPG Fallout 4). Meanwhile, hundreds of new board games continued to flourish in the medium’s true golden age as more and more people are introduced to a world of wonders beyond Monopoly. The story of the year on that side of things seemed to be expansion, from the enormous (and enormously expensive) miniature-filled experiences of games like Cthulhu Wars and Kingdom Death: Monster to new kinds of campaigning and narratives in games like Pandemic Legacy and T.I.M.E. Stories. Keeping up with both of these industries is like trying to hit a moving target with a slingshot in a hurricane, but in the torrent of phenomenal new content, each of us found at least enough time for a few amazing works. First up, some of our favorite video games from 2015.
This is the year where I stopped being a player of video games, and began playing video game. Singular. As my fellow bloggers here at the Kraken have referenced in the past, I took up League of Legends (Riot Games) in February, and it has utterly consumed my gaming time ever since. Somewhere between a video game and a sport, MOBAs (or “multiplayer online battle arenas”) are like playing a team-oriented version of a well-designed fighting game, complete with regular balance changes. As a long time player of Japanese (and even imported) fighting games, the experience of “living” with balance issues while the updated version of a game won’t be released for another six months–or worse, is available, but only in physical arcades in Japan–is torturous. In comparison, LoL‘s update schedule is refreshing. No matter how egregious a balance issue is, I have faith in Riot’s designers that they are aware of the problem, and that I’ll be waiting a few weeks, at most, for a patch. I’m not sure if I can recommend League of Legends, per se; as the single most played game in the world, I suspect many of our readers may already be familiar with the game. Even if you aren’t, though, I hesitate to send you there, because the new player experience (tutorials, etc) is frankly awful. But if you can get past that, and if you want to play a video game that will hold up to every bit of attention, effort and skill you put into it, LoL is worth considering.
This was also the year when I began moving to more of a “graze” approach to video game playing. Between Steam sales and Humble Bundles, I now own a lot of smaller indie games that I will likely never finish, but which lasted several enjoyable hours nonetheless. I can certainly recommend Darkest Dungeon and Crypt of the Necrodancer. Both are procedural fantasy dungeon crawlers, but each offers a very different take on this well-worn genre. Crypt of the Necrodancer is a lighthearted, pulse-pounding rhythm game, as odd and as fun as that sounds. On the other side of things, the aptly named Darkest Dungeon is one of the bleakest roguelikes I’ve ever played–not to mention the most successfully, overtly Lovecraftian entry in the genre.
Although I didn’t go quite as far as Keskel did into only playing one game, I will say that I certainly played a lot fewer different video games this past year than I did in 2014. Part of that is due to finding myself playing far more games on my phone, including Mobage games like Brave Frontier, Terra Battle, and Chain Chronicle, as well as app versions of board games like Ascension, Splendor, and Ticket to Ride. The other major part of this was the time I spent playing the MMO Final Fantasy XIV, which only improved once Square Enix finally released the game’s first major expansion, Heavensward. Final Fantasy XIV has had one of the more fascinating MMO lifespans since its launch in 2010, as it went from complete disaster to ever-growing success, and now it finally is coming into its own. Heavensward brought an engaging story, quests, new classes, and most, importantly flying mounts. The opening up of the world to flight really can’t be understated, as it allows players to enjoy this game’s stunning beauty in all new ways. This game isn’t for everyone, but if you are on the lookout for an MMO to play, you can do no better than FFXIV. It seems like plenty of players agree, as the game is one of the few MMOs that actually finds its popularity on the rise, even as the giant MMO bubble finally seems to have burst across the rest of the genre.
Okay, word of warning: the ending to Life is Strange is kind of disappointing. After the Mass Effect 3 fiasco, I thought game developers collectively agreed to never again make the mistake of inadvertently allowing the final choice in a game to invalidate all other choices made before it. However, that disappointment doesn’t change the fact that this was one of the most unique gaming experiences in years, and one of the finest examples of how the journey is far more important than the destination. It’s a real treat to take on the role of Max as she discovers her ability to change time–and all the consequences such an ability entails. Released over the course of a year in five different episodes, Life is Strange nearly gained appointment viewing status whenever a new episode came out. Of course, if you were like me and waited until the whole game was released, you would also be treated to a very solid 15 hour or so game that works very well as one work. This game was not afraid to offer up maximum feels, clever puzzles, interesting choices, and one of the best soundtracks ever. It’s accessible to any type of gamer, no matter your interest or experience level, so it’s well worth a play and a definite highlight for 2015.
Honestly, Xenoblade Chronicles X isn’t so much a game as a comprehensive, immersive experience. I don’t know if I have ever seen a game with a larger open world than this edition of Xenoblade, which, considering Fallout 4 exists and also came out in 2015, is saying something. XCX had a lot of hype to live up to as the spiritual sequel to one of the greatest games of all time, Xenoblade Chronicles, and for the most part it delivered. It doesn’t have the story that the first Xenoblade had, but Xenoblade X instead has the greatest example of open travel. Do you see that mountaintop far, far in the distance? You can walk to that if you want, so go for it. That level of openness is almost overwhelming, and there is a good chance I could be playing this game off and on throughout all of 2016 in order to properly explore everything it has to offer. Did I mention this game is gorgeous? Oh, Lord, is it pretty. On top of all that, the game is playing out a weird experiement: how close can it get to being an MMO without actually being an MMO? The results of this are admittedly mixed, but it’s fun to watch the game execute its daring experiment to discover the next step in the merging of solo and social gaming. Plus there are mechs, and let’s be honest, that’s all you really need.
My final pick for the best games I played this year is a bit of a cheat, because this Nihon Falcom game, Legend of Heroes: Trail in the Sky Second Chapter, came out for the PC in Japan in 2006. But its official North American release didn’t happen until this past October, so I say it counts. The first chapter of this game officially came to America in 2011 for the PSP, and it was an expertly made JRPG that brought both nostalgia and innovation, while also being one of the localizations that helped XSeed cement its status as the premiere studio to release niche Japenese role playing games for the North American market. The thing is, this game ends on a cliffhanger (something JRPGs just don’t do), leaving all who played it desperate to play the next game. Unfortunately, the next game also needed to be localized, and no one knew when that would happen. So we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, I gave up on the idea of ever getting to play the second chapter. And then out of the blue, in October of 2015, the game was just released with little fanfare. Its hard for a game to live up to that many years of hype and expectation, but Second Chapter definitely does so. Getting to see more of the stories of Estelle, Joshua, and co. after thinking there was no chance of doing so was the unexpected delight of 2015. If you are a lover of JRPGs, the Trails in the Sky series is for you–and unlike me, you can play these two games without the four year wait in between.
In 2015, the Year of Too Much, something had to fall by the wayside, and for me that turned out to be video games. As much as I love the medium, I had a difficult time finding space in my life for them. That said, I absolutely made some room for the third (and final?) official installment in one of my favorite video game series ever, Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Knight. Regular readers of Baturdays will know that I’m a huge fan of just about anything Batman, but the Arkham series are masterpieces by any right, featuring thrillingly realized open worlds, tons of content, whacked-out (and well-directed) narratives, and the finest third person combat system ever designed. Each of the three games (four, if you count the non-Rocksteady prequel, Arkham Origins) is special in their own way, from Arkham Asylum‘s atmospheric level design to Arkham City‘s sprawling world and twisted narrative, but the series’ finest achievement has been all the ways in which it makes you feel like Batman, whether you’re swooping around the city, hunting terrified criminals in Predator Mode, or going toe to toe with the Dark Knight’s most fearsome villains. With Arkham Knight, Rocksteady delivers the final piece of the puzzle, the chance to zoom around Gotham’s streets in your very own Batmobile. Knight isn’t without flaws (like having about eight too many tank battles), but the strongly thematic story it tells about Batman’s sidekicks and legacy is one of the better Batman stories I’ve seen lately. Arkham Knight is so nice, I’ll play it twice (New Game+ ftw!), and maybe then get around to some of the 2015 video games I’ve missed, like The Order: 1886, Ori and the Blind Forest, Bloodborne, Mad Max, Tearaway Unfolded, Undertale, Soma, and of course, Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. Hey, I’m nothing if not consistent.
But there was one other game I enjoyed the hell out of this year, and unlike Arkham Knight‘s weeks of content, it only took one night (although I played it over two). I’m talking about Until Dawn, the highly anticipated choose-your-path horror game from Supermassive Games. A cross between a David Cage game and the type of slasher flick Roger Ebert used to call Dead Teenager movies, Until Dawn is a creepy, campy, gripping experience from the beginning all the way to the bloody end. The story: a group of young friends gathers in a house on top of a snow-covered mountain, one year to the day after a prank gone awry at a similar gathering killed two of their number. Pretty soon people start getting attacked left and right, and the game’s silly but engrossing mystery as to which cliche horror baddie is after them really keeps you guessing. But what makes the game special is that you get to decide how the movie plays out–not just who lives and who dies, but how they feel about each other. The “butterfly effect” is in full force here, and over the course of the story, even the smallest choices have huge consequences later on, as jokes and jealousies become rages and romances that in turn mean life or death for the characters. Scary, involving, and innovative, Until Dawn is a blast of a rollercoaster–and best of all, the ride only lasts one (long) night, which is perfect for a busy gamer like me.
From the digital interactive to the just plain interactive–we turn now to board games, video games’ nerdier, cardboardier cousin.
Kyu and Keskel’s Board Games Worth Playing in 2015
We played a lot of board games this year, and acquired even more (thanks, Kickstarter!), but even we can’t say we played enough to make a definitive Top Ten List (but see our list below of games we want to catch up with). That said, here are some games worth playing from this year.
Keskel: This year, a Kickstarter from way back in 2012, Kingdom Death: Monster finally arrived. Indie designer Adam Poots actually moved to China in order to guide his manufacturer through producing some of the highest quality plastic miniatures sculpts ever, and the result is a product somewhere between a board game and an art piece. Set in evocative, nightmarish, grotesque, explicitly sexualized and yet somehow hopeful apocalyptic fantasy world where a small band of humans alternate between running a colony and fighting deadly monsters, Kingdom Death is a grand statement about the nature of human civilization. All societies have a certain responsibility to fight back against barbarism, says the game–and then goes on to question the very definitions of words like “society” and “barbarism.” Requiring a dedicated group of players and hundreds of hours of investment, this immense experience isn’t without flaw. Explicitly sexualized (including the monsters) in a potentially troubling fashion, the game also has a massive tome of a rulebook (filled with full-page art) that’s sometimes more evocative than helpful. But these aren’t criticisms so much as descriptions of exactly the game Poots wanted to make: deep, narrative, and unlike any other board game in my collection. Kingdom Death: Monster is the most “adult” board game I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and I look forward to continuing to delve into a campaign whose surface my group has barely scratched.
Kyu: It feels weird to say that Dixit is a great game, not because it’s not great but because it’s barely a game. The modern classic where players try to interpret (and predict others’ interpretation of) a series of ambiguous or surreal art cards is fun, but it’s a mechanic in search of a story. Mysterium is the game Dixit was always meant to be, something with a narrative, stakes, and structure. The story has one player acting as the ghost of a murder victim, while everyone else plays various psychics and mediums who have gathered for a seance to discover (as in Clue) whodunnit, where they dunnit, and what they dunnit with. The catch is that, like all ghosts, this one is annoyingly cryptic, and can only communicating by passing Dixit-like art cards to each psychic, hopefully indicating one particular suspect, location, or weapon. Once the clock strikes eight, the psychics get one last set of clues to vote on the final solution to the mystery. Featuring perfect atmospheric components, evocative art, and a tense but amusing cooperative experience, Mysterium comes with a not-so-cryptic message: throw away your Dixit cards. (But keep the app, just in case.)
Keskel: XCOM: The Board Game is the perfect example of the benefits of the new golden age of board games. Overall, it’s not a terribly original game, picking up the idea of real time team play from Space Alert and Space Cadets (apparently in space, no one can hear you team) and adding the license of the popular real-time strategy video game series about a global organization dedicated to defending the Earth from alien invasions. But like many of our newest and coolest board games, XCOM makes an old experience fresh again with a key innovation–in this case, by using a paired app to automate all of the “game” parts of a players vs the game system. Each player has one more roles to fulfill, and each role has specific responsibilities and resources. Players can affect each other, but ultimately the final decision for any action is limited to the player with the correct role, and the time-limited nature of almost every turn makes every player indispensable to the team. Best of all, the companion app uses the musical score from the video game. Roleplayers have known for years the effect good music can have on a tabletop session, and it’s hard not to feel the tension during the timed and scored sequences, especially for anyone who’s played the original video game.
Kyu: Over the past few years, I’ve made a habit of ignoring massive Kickstarter investments like Kingdom Death or Cthulhu Wars in favor of small, interesting games that go for $20 or less. Sometimes it’s a hit (Bigfoot, Dungeon Roll) and sometimes it’s a miss (Tower, Draco Magi), but either way, you get what you pay for. That is, except for this year’s Burgle Bros., which is a steal at any price. A deceptively simple game, Burgle Bros.‘ swanky art and classy components guide you through a cooperative heist experience as your carefully selected team of hackers, safecrackers, and trained acrobats hunt through multiple floors of hidden rooms for the loot, all while skirting alarms and avoiding roaming guards. The mechanics are as elegant as any cat burglar, and the game’s modular level design allows for great flexibility in game length, difficulty, and layout. Filled with wonderful little touches (like the valuable kitty who wanders off and triggers alarms), Burgle Bros. is simply a delight that always leaves you wanting more. (Even the box is great!)
List of 2015 Board Games We Want to Catch Up With
Pandemic: Legacy (all the awesome of Risk: Legacy, none of the Risk)
Codenames (the new hotness when it comes to party games)
T.I.M.E Stories (a choose-your-own path narrative game about time travel that you can apparently only play once)
Forbidden Stars (a brutally competitive game of space murder, set in the Warhammer 40k universe)
504 (that’s how many different games are packed in this game generating “multiverse”)
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival (this looks gorgeous as well as innovative)
Trickerion: Legends of Illusion (a complex American/Euro hybrid about magicians)
Vault Wars (picture one of those trashy reality TV shows about auctioning storage units–now picture it set in a medieval fantasy world)
Dice City (supposedly a Machi Koro killer, but that remains to be seen)
Rum & Bones (what do you get when you cross a board game with a MOBA? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out)
Mega Civilization (for people who feel like the standard six-hour, 2-7-player Civilization is too short and too small–the Mega version takes up to 18 players and 10-12 hours)
Pandante 2nd Edition (controversial design genius David Sirlin fixes poker? with pandas? Yes.)
Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn (cool card game where you play as dueling beings known as Phoenixborn, sign me up!)
Broom Service (remake of Witch’s Brew and the 2015 Kennerspiel des Jahres Winner)
That’s it for today’s “Best Of”s for 2015. Come back tomorrow for the next entry in this week-long series, the best Books and Comics of 2015.