Best of 2016: Video Games

In All, Video Games by Matt Morris

Matt: 2016 was a rough year in many ways, but when times are tough, video games are like a warm blanket of comfort on a cold night. So huddle up, folks, because it’s time to talk about the year in video gaming!

We saw the release of a handful of highly anticipated games in 2016. Uncharted? Check. Final Fantasy? We got one of those… even if it took ten years to get here.

We got a Dark Souls, we got a Civilization, and we got a Gears of War. There was even a goddamn Star Ocean game. Who saw that one coming?

I’ll preface this column with a confession: these days, I generally have a preference for smaller games, indie games, and Japanese games rather than the usual blockbuster AAA options. That being said, my love of the medium tends to bring me to games of all shapes and sizes anyway. So while my own “games of the year” may look a little different from other people’s picks, I hope they’ll give a somewhat refreshing perspective on the year’s offerings. Without further ado, presented for your perusal in no particular order, here are ten of my very favorite video game experiences of 2016.

Platform: Windows, Mac OS, Linux
Released July 22

In July, UK-based studio Chucklefish Games quietly finished their long-in-development space sandbox adventure, Starbound. There was a small amount of coverage of the game across the blogosphere, but I feel as though it largely flew under the radar.

Which is a damned shame, because Starbound is truly everything that the video game community wanted the much-maligned No Man’s Sky to be.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to quest and explore across a procedurally generated, infinite universe, Starbound is the game for you. If you’re a fan of Minecraft, but have grown bored of the same old blocky voxels day in and day out, Starbound‘s beautiful 2D sprite-based approach to the building sandbox genre is just the prescription you need. This game has it all. Collecting, farming, fishing, building, dungeon crawling, exploration.

Imagine spending a solemn night by a campfire, out in the frontier of a lonely alien planet, strumming your guitar to yourself while you wait for day to break and the creatures of the night to disperse. Or digging into the crust of a mutant landscape, only to find a gnome village underground or a temple filled with floating eyeballs. These are merely the beginning of the plethora of unique experiences that Starbound has to offer, and there’s no other game that offers them in quite the same way.

Pokémon Sun and Moon
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Released November 18

If you haven’t played a Pokémon game in a while, it’s possible that the accomplishments of Pokémon Sun and Moon may not be immediately apparent. But make no mistake, the newest entry in the storied franchise shakes things up in a number of ways that solidify its place as my favorite game in the series.

For starters, the game takes place in a whimsical analogue of Hawaii called “Alola,” which is absolutely bursting with charm and vibrancy. It’s a far cry from the fairly generic regions of Pokémon games past. To really hammer this home, the team of composers responsible for the game’s score have crafted one of the most stellar soundtracks I’ve heard in a 3DS game to date. Each track manages to be evocative of Hawaii and the Pacific islands, while still maintaining its own distinct identity to preserve the fantasy of it all.

The story can get a little anime-crazy, but the characters are highly enjoyable and the game has a sense of humor about it that really transcends Game Freak’s previous efforts in the writing department. Add in the fact that the game has almost completely abandoned the “fight these gym leaders” structure of the old titles in favor of an island journey through varied trials, and you’ve got yourself a totally fresh experience. Even the overworld movement system is no longer hampered by adherence to an old-fashioned grid, instead allowing you to run freely across the beaches, mountains, and grassy plains of Alola’s four islands. It’s a wonderful trip from start to finish, and it deserves a look from any RPG enthusiast.

Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Windows, Mac OS, Linux
Released January 15

Created by the former Telltale Games employees of Night School Studio, and not to mention programmed by sometimes Kraken contributor Bryant Cannon, Oxenfree was one of the biggest surprises to come from the indie scene in 2016. (Check out our podcast episode about Oxenfree with Bryant as guest. -Ed)

The game blends suspenseful sci-fi adventure with the flavor of 80’s teen movies and a sprinkling of fourth-wall-based psychedelia, for a really unique story experience that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. I won’t spoil anything specific about the narrative, but I will say that the game’s well-written cast shines in the way interact with each other–as well as in how they overcome being stranded on a horrible, otherworldly nightmare island. I found myself really identifying with them, and pulling for their survival by the end.

It also bears mentioning that the game’s visual style and soundtrack are a perfect complement to the atmosphere that the designers created here. This is not a game to be passed up if you have any fondness for story-based adventure games.

Stardew Valley
Platforms: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PS4, Xbox One
Released February 26

Stardew Valley seemingly took the internet by storm earlier in 2016 with its masterful execution of the Harvest Moon / Rune Factory formula on the Windows platform. Entirely the creation of one person–Eric “Concernedape” Barone–the game recreates the 2D farming and life simulation genre of yore faithfully and with great success. I found myself addicted to this game in the late portion of 2016, and I ended up clocking over 90 hours during that time farming, fishing, interacting with townsfolk, and spelunking in dark caves.

The game lacks a little bit in the department of townspeople interactions, but it easily makes up for it with the depth and robustness of its simulation mechanics. There are hundreds of items to collect and fish to catch, and a variety of craft goods that can be created from your crops and livestock products. It’s fun to watch the money rack up as you expand your farm operations, and there’s even an overarching objective to tie the story together in a nice package and motivate everything you do. It takes time (lots of it) but it’s worth every moment.

In a way, Stardew Valley‘s success makes me sad that we may never see another proper successor to the Rune Factory series it so closely resembles. When Rune Factory 4 developer Neverland closed in 2013, I certainly never thought the genre would see another game of that caliber again. But with Stardew Valley, one guy by himself managed to do a pretty damn admirable job of getting us there.

Ace Attorney 6: Spirit of Justice
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Released September 8

Capcom’s Ace Attorney series is a fairly venerable one by now, although you wouldn’t know it from the way they’ve been treating it. Relegated to digital eShop-only releases here in the West, Phoenix Wright and his lawyer cohorts feel overlooked as of late. But that doesn’t stop the sixth main entry in the series, Spirit of Justice, from being a fantastic lawyering adventure with the same quality writing that we’ve come to expect over the years.

The game takes place in a new location referred to as “The Kingdom of Khura’in,” not to be confused with the Kurain village of earlier titles. Nonetheless, it heavily leans upon the mystical elements of Kurain by implementing a new form of cross-examination: the Divination Séance. As the defense, you get to watch the last moments of a murder victim’s life, and try to suss out the truth of what happened in each murder case by hunting for inconsistencies among the victim’s five senses. It’s an interesting spin on old series mechanics, and it provides a new way of approaching the game’s trial logic.

To make things more fun for old fans, the writers have decided to bring back fan favorite character Maya Fey as a companion during each trial that takes place in Khura’in. It feels a bit like plain fanservice, but this fan was pleased to see it there nonetheless.

The game is worth playing whether you’re a newcomer to the series or an old veteran, but don’t deprive yourself of the earlier entries if you haven’t checked them out first. They’re all wonderful experiences, and Spirit of Justice lives up to the same standard of quality.

Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4
Released May 24

It’s hard to dispute the inclusion of Overwatch on a Game-of-the-Year list for 2016. The game arguably revolutionized the multiplayer FPS genre by providing a gameplay experience that’s friendly to players of all skill levels and interests, and Blizzard’s penchant for meticulously fine-tuning game mechanics is plain to see in every update they’ve pushed since the game’s release.

But beyond just being a remarkably fun multiplayer experience, Overwatch created a world and a set of heroes that transcend the game in ways that other shooters can only be jealous of. It goes far beyond just the officially licensed comic books and animated shorts, which on their own are already wonderful additions to the franchise. Dive into the fandom even a little bit, and it’s not uncommon to see dozens of fanfics, comics, and other paraphernalia on display.

At the end of the day, the creativity that Blizzard put into shaping these characters is remarkable. That kind of love and care, that attention to detail, is the sort of differentiator that elevates a game like Overwatch miles above its peers. I spent many hours playing the game in 2016, and if you go by how little I tend to care for online multiplayer shooters, that really speaks volumes.

Fire Emblem Fates
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Released February 19

Not content to release only one Fire Emblem game in 2016, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems apparently decided it was better to release three Fire Emblem games at once.

Okay, so maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. But nonetheless, Fire Emblem Fates has all the content of three separate games when you include the three versions that were made available at launch. Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, and Fire Emblem Fates: Revelations each tell a different version of the same story over the course of dozens of turn-based strategy stages, and while it’s a bit expensive to buy and play all three, you’d be hard pressed to find better bang for your buck on the 3DS lately.

The series is known for quality, and has especially exploded in popularity in recent years. The inclusion of some mild dating-sim elements has either helped or hurt the game, depending upon who you ask, but it’s hard to deny that there’s an absolutely insane amount of content in this package. The mechanics are tough but rewarding, the characters are well-written, and the adventure is enjoyable from start to finish. I had a blast playing Fire Emblem Fates in both the Birthright and Conquest storylines, and I look forward to eventually playing through Revelations as well.

Kirby: Planet Robobot
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Released June 10

Oh, Kirby. How I love you.

When you weren’t looking, the Kirby series went and became one of the most fun platforming series on the 3DS. Anyone who played Triple Deluxe a few years back can attest to that fact. Planet Robobot uses the accomplishments of Triple Deluxe as a launchpad to skyrocket into greatness, adding in new powers and giant robots that bring the excitement level of traversing Kirby’s adorable world to new heights.

I can’t understate how much attention to detail has been put into this game. Elements of the foreground and background break away to reveal fun easter eggs and cute vignettes going on behind-the-scenes. The 3D effect really pops with movement on all planes, and the enemies all animate in that lovable way that only Kirby enemies can. The level designs are top-notch, and perfectly paced for portable play. I could go on for paragraphs about the charms of Planet Robobot, but I will spare you and leave you with this: if you can play only one 3DS game from 2016, play this one. You won’t be disappointed. Unless you have no soul.

Ratchet and Clank
Platform: PS4
Released April 12

It’s been said a dozen times by a dozen bloggers more prolific than myself, but it’s the truest statement I have come across about this game: Ratchet and Clank is the closest thing we have to a playable Pixar film.

I suppose that’s partially because this game was released to coincide with the theatrical release of the Ratchet and Clank film, but… yeah, let’s not talk about that.

What I can tell you is this: the game is the most beautiful game in the series, which is truly saying something. Essentially, the game is a reboot of the very first Ratchet and Clank game of the Playstation 2 era, but with all the modern fixin’s that we’ve come to expect from the more recent Playstation 3 iterations. It’s a little on the lean side, content-wise, when you compare it with earlier entries like Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time on the PS3, but it’s still an amazingly engrossing adventure with all the technical wizardry and face-melting eye candy that Insomniac is known for. Not to mention a heaping helping of hilarious banter coming from the game’s wonderful cast.

These days, the 3D platformer genre may not be what it used to be, but as long as games like Ratchet and Clank keep coming out, I think we’ll be okay.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 2
Platforms: Playstation Vita, PS3
Released September 6

Trails of Cold Steel 2, like its predecessor, is a beefy game in a lot of ways. It’s got dozens of hours of content, tons of sidequests, a large cast, and it’s packed to the brim with dialogue. I suppose that’s what makes the whole experience feel so epic.

In the first game of the series, you play the role of a military student named Rean Schwarzer who is in the midst of his education at (for lack of a better phrase) military Hogwarts. Rean and his companions are forced to grapple with political conflict and international diplomacy as they learn to understand each other, and it makes for an entertaining coming-of-age narrative. In this second installment of the series, Rean and co. have been thrust unceremoniously from their school and into the heart of an ongoing rebellion. It’s a great natural progression from the first entry, and the production values are just as high as before.

I can’t say I recommend it to anyone who has not played the first game, but it deserves a spot on my list anyway. Ultimately, Trails of Cold Steel 2 is one of the very best RPGs on the Vita, and I look forward to the third and final entry… assuming we ever get it.

So there you have it: my ten favorite games of the year. There are so many others that could have ended up here–Uncharted 4, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, Firewatch, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD–but when push comes to shove, these 10 are the games that I believe will have the most lasting memories as I continue playing games into the future.

Next stop, 2017 and Persona 5. Let’s do this thing!


David’s Take: Much like Keskel with anime, Matt has done a really great job covering a lot of the great games 2016 had to offer, so I will once again just offer some quick additions.

First, Fire Emblem has now fully transitioned from niche to mainstream in a way that is mind-boggling considering that Fire Emblem Awakenings was almost the last game in the entire franchise. Intelligent Systems made a bold bet that they could effectively make three Fire Emblem games tell one story while building upon the foundation of Awakenings, and that bet has paid off big time. Although I have only played through Conquest so far, the latest iteration of Fire Emblem ups the storytelling ante and continues to innovate in gameplay in a way that makes this game the perfect mix of old school and new school methodologies. At this point, the only question is, how much further can this franchise rise?

This fight is intense, and makes you really hate spheres.

Meanwhile, the rest of 2016 for me was basically a study in Final Fantasy. Last year I spoke of my continued play of FFXIV, and, while not the time sink it was for me in 2015, 2016 continued to show why this game is one of the best MMOs around. A steady stream of new content arrived throughout the year, and the developers have worked tirelessly to make the gameplay experience as enjoyable as possible. Adding fun battles such as the Ozma boss fight in The Weeping City of Mhach dungeon has allowed this game to find a really good mix between appeasing casual and hardcore gamers, while also making real progress with the midcore faction. The very nature by which I play games means inevitably I will move on from FFXIV, but that will not be because of anything this game has done, as it is still operating at peak efficiency.

I know I should feel more shame about playing this, but man, it is just so addicting.

Last year also marked a lot of my descent into mobile gaming, especially Gacha games. These games continue to be welcome diversions that have just enough complexity to keep them interesting. Of course, this market is brutal, and that means even good games can be casualties, which is why I am still sad about the loss of Chain Chronicle. But in 2016 Final Fantasy joined the fray in a big way, building off the success of Record Keeper, and launching a Brave Frontier-style Gacha game in Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. Silly title aside, this game manages to have real depth in both gameplay and its (at least somewhat good). at least a somewhat good story. Sure, it is still a Gacha game, and a particularly brutal one in terms of getting the best units; but for a lover of Final Fantasy, it is a great way to scratch the FF itch without diving headlong into playing an old game once again (though that is still a great idea as well).

Who would have thought combining Stand By Me with Final Fantasy would mostly be a good idea?

Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XV finally came into existence. It’s a game long-awaited that surprisingly mostly did deliver on its promise. The game very much feels like something that has been in development for ten years, in both good and bad ways. It is easy to see how XV became such a development nightmare, as many humorous glitches still plague the game, and it’s clear that it had to constantly try and evolve to fit into the gaming trends it witnessed during its long development. In the end, though, this game is just pure fun, and scratches that nostalgic itch while also offering something new. More importantly, this game seems to actually understand how close male relationships can work, and doesn’t run away from them. I still hold out hope that there might be a sequel of some kind that would be willing to do the same with the female characters in this game, but I have really enjoyed all the bro-trip has had to offer. Final Fantasy XV offered the best glimpse of what 2016 was for video games–a great blend of old and new with some hiccups here and there, but always striving for greatness. 2017 has a lot to live up to.

Top 5 2016 Games I Still Need to Play Because Final Fantasy as a Franchise Consumed My Gaming Life

  1. Inside
  2. Kirby: Planet Robobot
  3. Uncharted 4
  4. The Witness
  5. Firewatch