10. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero

One of the advantages of our post-holidays process is I get the chance to include late-month releases most publications forgo for their time-sensitive lists. This year, Shantae: ½ Genie Hero gets to reap those benefits.

Whenever a project I once backed on Kickstarter comes to fruition these days, I’m left feeling more apprehensive than eager. Shantae: ½ Genie Hero is the first one in, well... an alarming amount of time, to be honest, to sway me back towards the old days of gleeful anticipation.

Shantae: ½ Genie Hero is a delightful, colorful romp through Sequin Town and lands beyond. If you’ve never played a Shantae game before, the series harkens back to an older era, pulling design elements from the Castlevania, Metroid, and Zelda series to craft the world.

You know how in Metroid, you get an ice blaster and now you’re able to open a bunch of blue doors you passed along the way? In Shantae, replace “ice blaster” with “turn into monkey” and “blue doors” with “tall places,” and you’ll start to get the idea. Each transformation Shantae learns changes the way you navigate previous locations, meaning you’ll explore the depths of the ocean and skies above later.

The real star of Shantae -- and the reason it takes my tenth spot -- is the joyous sense of humor and levity that permeates the series. It’s impossible for me to not crack a smile when Ammo Baron sabotages a magic carpet race to craft flying robes for his entire army, or when Shantae’s arch-rival, Risky Boots, accidentally names her new weapon something that acronyms out to “P.O.O.P. T.O.O.T.”

Shantae: ½ Genie Hero is a great platformer with a fun sense of humor, and I hope this series picks up enough popularity someday to be funded without the need of Kickstarter.

But if not, I’ll happily back another.

9. Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

Speaking of a series that may need a Kickstarter campaign to continue, 2016 marked the Wright Anything Agency’s return to the courtroom.

The Ace Attorney series has dwindled in both popularity and sales significantly since its debut in 2001, but the quality overall continues to impress regardless of what the sales numbers might say.

If you’ve never played an Ace Attorney game, here’s the basic structure, which hasn’t changed (much, anyway) since 2001:

  • Phoenix Wright and Company take on a client no other attorney will because the evidence against them is overwhelming, but Wright and his employees know otherwise (somehow, sometimes through magic, don’t ask), and believe in their innocence.

  • The player is given time to investigate the scene of the crime, collect evidence, and question witnesses, all while the prosecution does the same and occasionally impedes your progress.

  • The court date arrives. The player listens to witnesses’s testimony and uses the collected evidence to point out contradictions.

At its heart, Ace Attorney is a collection of logic puzzles and critical thinking tests, but with the dressing of a fast-paced legal system around it. Over the years, additional mechanics have been introduced as Wright obtains new employees. (Apollo Justice can see people’s nervous tells and call them out in court, for example, a mechanic which makes use of all the exaggerated expressions the series is known for.) Since the core mechanics are so light, the characters and stories built around them are what must charm you, and somehow the series has managed to charm me for over a decade now.

Spirit of Justice marks the return of Maya to the series, Wright’s first assistant -- who also happens to be a Spirit Medium from a distant village -- making this her first visible appearance since Trials and Tribulations in 2004. Wright finds himself wrapped up in the Kingdom of Ku’rain’s legal system, a land with no defense attorneys since the passing of the Defense Culpability Act, which forces an attorney to serve the same sentence as their client should they lose. The newest gameplay mechanic is the divination seance’, where the victim’s final moments are revealed in a scrying pool.

Meanwhile, Wright’s employees Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes take on their own cases back home. One involves a murder during Wright’s adopted daughter’s magic show, and another takes place the night of a Rakugo performance.

As I look over all this, I’m realizing just how much disbelief this series asks you to suspend.

Let me reiterate -- I made none of that up.

It all happens.

In the same game.

Each Ace Attorney game is designed in such a way that you could potentially jump into any entry as your first, so if any of that insanity sounded intriguing to you, please give it a shot. Please. (We Ace Attorney fans need all the help we can get these days.)

Returning fans will get the most out of Spirit of Justice due to the past references and return of Maya Fey, so if you’ve ever enjoyed an Ace Attorney game, now’s the time to return to the world of fast-paced trials and dubious legal understanding.

8. Oxenfree

Oxenfree is like coming home to find your kitchen light on when you were sure you’d turned off on the way out.

Released early this year, Oxenfree is the story of a group of friends who travel to an island for annual end-of-the-year high school shenanigans, but in the process invite something else to come out and play.

Oxenfree captures that unsettling sensation when you know something is wrong, but cannot figure out what. The unleashed creatures exist and communicate in the periphery of human senses, their nature and motives unknown and strange. Horror games have a tendency to jump right to the scares, but Oxenfree has the confidence and execution to let the player live in an unsettling atmosphere.

It helps a lot the cast of characters stuck with you in this oppressive environment are the brilliantly written sort, with unique voices and authentic reactions. It’s the best cast of teenagers I’ve seen in a game in terms of believability, capturing the full range of annoying, whiny quirks during those tumultuous formative years, while still maintaining the endearing traits as well.

(If it wasn’t for one other game on this list, I would say Oxenfree had the best script of the year. More on that later.)

You can read a full review of Oxenfree here.

7. Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is one of those games I showed everyone I knew this year. The bleak, stark, almost David Lynchian opening left a profoundly strong impression on me. It’s one of those games where I could feel the effort and love that went into every pixel on each screen.

The most reductive description I could muster for Hyper Light Drifter is that it’s a cyberpunk version of Legend of Zelda, but even that isn’t entirely accurate. Most Cyberpunk universes lose any semblance of nature, while Hyper Light Drifter still retains the grassy fields and mountainous landscapes, but with the remnants of futuristic technology still strewn about. Giant automatons with gaping faces lie dormant, as moss and vines grow across their arms, nature reclaiming its territory. It feels like exploring the remnants of a long lost, technologically advanced civilization. The way the world is littered with small dungeons and hidden paths leans into the “exploration” angle, a feeling the later Zelda games have begun to lack.

The overall goal will feel similar to any Zelda fans, new and old. Explore the far corners of the map, enter the dungeons, fight the bosses, get the macguffin. What won’t feel quite as similar is the skillful play the game demands of you. Every action -- slashes, dodges, shots -- somehow manages to feel responsive, yet still have a short cost in the form of recovery frames.

(You may be expecting a reference to another famous series known for deliberate attacks with recovery frames, but if you refer to a particular award in our collective GOTY list, you’ll see why I refuse to draw such a comparison.)

The bosses are where your mastery of the game’s mechanics get put to the test, and I will remember the many, many attempts it took for me to conquer the Northmost boss forever.

6. Furi

Okay, let's get one observation out of the way -- Furi and Hyper Light Drifter look errily similar, right?

The protagonists both have red capes and glowing swords, both games take place in lands of avant-garde, gravity-defying architecture, both involve a mix of ranged gunplay and close combat swordplay -- it’s weird. They came out within a few months of each other too, so any claims of imitation seem unlikely, given how long each took to develop.

Something something, Zeitgeist. Life finds a way.

Moving on.

Gameplay is where all similarities end. Where Hyper Light Drifter focused on creating a full world to explore, Furi sets its focus entirely on boss encounters. The entire game is a series of lengthy one-on-one fights. Each boss has multiple life bars, and with each extinguished bar comes a new mechanic introduced into the mix.

Fortunately, you too have multiple life bars, which act as checkpoints in each fight. With each death, you’ll be reset to the top of the current phase. Once all your bars are expended, well -- you can probably guess what happens. Back to the top for you.

Where Furi won me over was the extreme emphasis on risk/reward gameplay. Careful blocks reward you with health. Parrying at the last possible second will trigger a special attack animation and restore health. You could play it safe by keeping your distance, or you can get in close and find ways to put on the pressure. As your confidence against a boss grows, so too do your opportunities to be more efficient.

There’s one other aspect of Furi I must praise before I move on, and that’s the overall style. All the otherwordly character and world designs mesh perfectly with the high-octane soundtrack. The way the story is told, with long walks and short narration from your rabbit-masked companion between each boss, help establish a contrast and raise the tension.

Perhaps the finest example of this is during the approach to The Edge.

“What would you do if you had an eternity to do nothing but wait? Do you keep busy? Do you daydream? Do you freak out? He trained.”

There’s been a lot of chatter out there about how these sequences are questionable inclusions that drag on too long, and I don’t necessarily disagree. It would be nice to have a way to skip over them on repeat playthroughs.

However, the execution on these sequences are so good I would never condemn their existence. The cinematography, music, and dialogue of these scenes sometimes combine to form such singularly perfect, striking moments, that the game is ultimately better with them than without.

From beginning to end, Furi was a treat for the senses.

5. Dark Souls III

Ash seeketh Embers.

This was my most anticipated release of the year by far. It’s no secret we’re fans of the Souls series here -- Dark Souls II was our Game of the Year in 2014, after all -- so the only surprise here, I suppose, is that it didn’t place higher on the list.

Everything you’d expect from a Souls game is here. Bleak atmosphere, check. Gothic architecture, check check. Bosses with titles as long as their health bars? Check, check, check.

There’s some welcome improvements as well. Animation speeds are quicker, a sign perhaps From Software applied lessons from Blodborne to Dark Souls. While we’re at it, magic users rejoice -- you may now substitute some of your estus flasks for ashen estus flasks, allowing you to restore your FP bar.

Oh, right. Magic use is now relegated to a separate bar, too, which I find to be a much better system than the previous “Spell-uses-per-bonfire-visit” approach. Weapons now have skills which draw power from the same bar upon use, expanding choices for my fellow pure melee users.

Perhaps the highlight of Dark Souls III is the variety of bosses. I adored Dark Souls II, but even I will admit it had a tendency to fall back on tall-armored-humanoid-with-big-weapon a little too often. While these enemies are still here in appearance, they’re wildly different in behavior compared to their army of predecessors who could all be beaten by circle-strafing right.

Also, In Dark Souls III, sometimes you fight a giant tree instead.

What kept Dark Souls III from rising higher on my list is the environments. The level design still features the trademark shortcuts the Souls series is now known for, but an awful lot of areas go from Gothic Castle, to jail of a Gothic Castle, to Catacombs, to more Gothic Castle. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the sameness of the environments waned on me long before I reached the end.

On a report card, I would’ve written Dark Souls III “met expectations”. And yet, it was still my fifth favorite game of the year. I’m not sure if that means my own personal standards are now too high to accurately judge this series, the world now collectively demands far too much from this series, or From Software actually came up short this release.

The honeymoon may be over, but the Souls series remains top notch in both design and atmosphere. I just wish there weren’t so many damn castles this time around.

4. Civilization VI

As I write this, I’m listening to “Sogno di Volare” by Christopher Tin, and it makes me want to stop everything I’m doing and launch this game right now.

I’ve always enjoyed the Civilization games enough to play along with friends, but I’ve never felt the same passion that drives so many to play until the sun rises the next day.

Civilization VI taught me what those people feel. It’s a Civilization entry devoid of all the mechanics that once frustrated me. Gone are the days of my populace living in perpetual unhappiness, or gold slowly hemorrhaging out of my Civ every turn while I scramble to try and comprehend why. Gone are the days where founding a new city causes unrest and instability across your entire civilization. When these issues do occur now, I feel better equipped than ever to respond to them.

(I will say, Civilization VI could be better about presenting information when problems do arise. The “view reports” button is far too small on the UI for how useful it is.)

The way builders vanish after three improvements cuts a lot of unnecessary flak from unit management, and the new district system forces you to make careful choices on how to build your Civilization. The end result is a more aggressive style of game -- do you go all in on culture, investing heavily in theaters and great writers, musicians, and poets? Or do you build a holy site in every city and send out your apostles to spread the holy religion of Rubadubdub?

Perhaps the one caveat I must mention is the AI. In addition to making questionable life choices, they can often behave rather inconsistent in the current state of the game. There are times Catherine or Frederick may denounce you for what seems like no reason at all, or decide that founding a city eight tiles away counts as “too close”. Their inconsistent behavior did lead to this wonderful patch note, though:

So it’s not all bad.

This is a Civilization game with all the mechanics I never enjoyed stripped out, and new ones I enjoy far more placed in.

3. Hitman

Sometimes, a game comes out that has ideas bigger than the current technology will allow. For me, Hitman was always that series. The old Hitman games always had a very linear feel, which seemed at odds with the “hidden-in-plain-sight” approach to assassinations.

Suddenly, along comes Hitman (2016), which presents you with two targets, a giant map, and says “go for it”. The rest is up to you (or up to other players, if you dig into the custom contracts that dictate the weapon and costume you must use. You could also use Alan's fancy challenge database here.)

In 2016, it seems the technology finally caught up to the true spirit of the concept. It’s the structure the Hitman games seemed meant for. All the agency is left up to player, and things can either go perfectly smooth or turn into the hottest mess the world has ever seen. Every attempted assassination creates its own story.

In Marrakesh, my task was to infiltrate the local consulate and assassinate Claus Hugo Strandberg and Reza Zaydan. For my first trick, I snagged the outfit off a soldier guarding the abandoned school Zaydan uses as his private stronghold. Too many of the soldiers in the stronghold itself recognized me as out of place, so I used the outfit to make my way into the Consulate without any hassle. I attempted to waltz upstairs, but only managed to upset the guards on each landing, who saw no reason for a member of the military to be on the top floor. Once on the bottom floor again, I happened upon Strandberg’s masseuse. Once I had his outfit, I reported to the appropriate room, waited for Strandberg, and gave him a short massage before snapping his neck.

But now, I had a problem. The guards on each staircase who perform pat-downs were now suspicious of me, after I’d carelessly tried to climb each staircase. I went into the bathroom and dropped a coin. A nearby janitor came to check it out, so I knocked him unconscious and took his outfit. From there, I made my way to an adjacent office where I discovered a code word hidden in a safe. By using a phone and pretending to be Strandberg, I could summon Zaydan to an underground passage, where he would wait for a secret meeting.

Before leaving the office, I snagged a letter opener and a hammer.

Zaydan was found in the underground passage with a letter opener sticking out of his head, a trail of soldiers with hammer-sized contusions on their foreheads lining the way to the exit.

Now here’s what makes Hitman so fascinating to me. What are the odds if I pass you the controller at the start of Marrakesh, our stories would be identical?

2. Overwatch

Cheers love!

Blizzard made an arena shooter in 2016, and it’s a worldwide sensation.

With Blizzard at the helm I always expected Overwatch to be big, but I never expected it to consume everyone with such ease. Within a week of release, everyone I knew was booting up Overwatch nightly. I currently have one hundred hours on a record, and I wouldn’t be surprised if fifty of those hours are from the first two weeks alone, as I hopped from one group to another until the daylight hours.

It’s remarkable how on launch, Blizzard managed to create twenty-one heroes who feel completely different from one another. Every single hero manages not only to have their own unique approach to combat, but also manages to bring something to the table in terms of team unity no one else can, too. There’s a healthy mix of high and low skill heroes, so no matter your experience with shooters, there’s bound to be a character that speaks to your playstyle and skill level in here. It’s immediately accessible to many players in a way many shooters on the market today are not. (I think my record in CS:GO at this point is 2 kills, eighty-billion deaths.)

The level designs also offer the same variety and creativity as you travel the globe. Defense point maps have all sorts of hidden avenues and secrets that make use of hero abilities. While the various modes are perhaps not the most original you'll see, (especially not to Team Fortress 2 veterans) they cover a wide range of maps and concepts.

I also want to make mention of one more thing.

The Internet.

Nope, this isn’t about netcode -- it’s about how Overwatch consumed the internet. It’s about how the characters of Overwatch took on a life of their own outside the confines of their game. This is about Gremlin D.Va. It’s about Dad Soldier 76 and Mom Ana. It’s the countless comics and videos across every corner of Tumblr and Youtube, a reflection of how even without any semblance of a story mode or campaign, the cast of Overwatch has their individual personalities so well presented players have been able to pull infinite meaning across countless other mediums.

1. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

“I am bound to Madagascar with a design of making my own fortune and that of all the brave fellows joined with me... if you have a mind to make one of us, we will receive you.”

  • Henry Avery

Every time Naughty Dog makes a game these days, all I see on the screen is pure magic.

I played the previous three Uncharted games for the first time this year (the result of a birthday gift, in fact) in preparation for Uncharted 4 and enjoyed them all immensely. Each one is like playing a Hollywood action flick -- with all that entails. They’re fun adventures, filled with grand set pieces and protagonists with crystal clear motivations who are brimming with ennui. There’s action. Wisecracks! Jokes and death as far as the eye can see!

It also means every narrative has the thematic depth of a puddle. That’s not to say the writing isn’t good, because the dialogue and quips between the characters is second to none. However, what each story is ultimately about amounts to little more than “some discoveries should remain undiscovered” and “the real treasure was at home all along”. The gameplay and set-pieces trump the story-telling at each turn. (There’s a particular series of events in Uncharted 3 that involve a cruise ship filled with pirates. It begins and ends so abruptly, I often wonder if they designed the level first and came up with a way to get Nate there second.)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the culmination of everything Naughty Dog has learned over the course of their existence, fully realized. For the first time in the Uncharted series, Story and gameplay merge to be one, instead of one feeling like one came at the cost of the other.

Uncharted 4 Introduces us to Sam Drake, Nathan’s older brother who's been presumed dead for years. When he reappears in Nathan’s life, he brings with him a mystery they left unsolved -- the location of Henry Avery’s final treasure. This discovery comes with a time limit, however, as in order to secure his release, Sam has promised a portion of the treasure to notorious drug lord Hector Alcazar.

This begins an endless hunt from one exotic locale to the next as they follow Avery’s footsteps, as the two scale cliffs in Scotland, drive a Jeep around the plains of Madagascar, and scan uncharted islands in search of the famous pirate’s fortune.

The major set pieces and stunning visuals I’ve come to expect from Naughty Dog, but what I didn’t expect was for the story to touch upon deeper themes than the usual Uncharted outing, and even trust the player to enjoy their time outside the guns and explosions. There are several chapters that involve no action at all, my favorite among them being a chapter where you simply spend a night in the Nathan-Elena household. The conversation between them has layers to it the previous Uncharted games would’ve never attempted, while still retaining the same snappy dialogue the series has always been known for.

In fact, Elena and Nate’s relationship becomes one of the main focuses of Uncharted 4, and proceeds to pay off in ways I would’ve never expected from any game story. I can think of no other series that has the confidence to show an existing relationship on rocky turf, and then make the player live in it for a while and feel Nate’s discomfort, along with his desire to reconcile. But perhaps even better than that is Elena’s role in it all as an active agent, who has her own realizations and self-examinations as a result of Nate dragging her into yet another life-threatening adventure.

The antagonists, Rafe Adler and Nadine Cross, are a significant step up compared to previous Uncharted villains. I particularly want to highlight Warren Kole’s performance as Rafe, as I think it elevates what could’ve been a saturday morning cartoon villain to a believably unhinged and dangerous individual.

As the story goes on, it twists and turns in ways the previous entries would never dare. There are bigger choices, bigger deceptions, and bigger reveals that echo all the way back to Nate’s childhood.

You’ll notice almost everything I have to say about Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is about the narrative, but that’s mostly because in the history of Uncharted, it’s the one thing that’s needed improvement. The action, exploration, and puzzle-solving is still present as you follow the path of Henry Avery, and it’s all masterfully done.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is a phenomenal achievement. If it truly is to be the final entry in the series (and I have my doubts), I cannot think of a better send-off, or a better title to take my #1 spot at the end of 2016.

Honorable Mentions

Clash Royale

Reason for exclusion: Micro-transactions up the wazoo and destroyed my life.

Mobile Games don’t stick around on my phone. They’re typically a flash in the pan -- I download a thing, I play the thing for a week or two, I delete the thing. Somehow, Clash Royale never went away. Instead it stuck around and I played it all year, and now I’m in the Legendary Arena.

It’s a fantastic mix of both a progression cap in the form of levels, and a skill cap in optimally positioning your units and responding to enemy advances. It’s a great mix of tower defense style games and Trading-Card-type deck-building experiences (if you aren’t familiar with most Trading Card Games, just think Hearthstone.)

Even though it didn’t make my list, I felt it deserved recognition as the first mobile game to survive the entire year on my phone.

Jackbox Party Pack 3

Reason for exclusion: The novelty is over, but Jackbox is still great.

Listen. Jackbox is amazing. You know it, I know it, we all know it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then your friends have failed you, I have failed you, and the entire game journalism industry has failed you.

Jackbox continues to be a creative and highly accessible party experience. Notable entries in Pack 3 include a Horror movie-themed Trivia quiz, a game based on survey questions with a spy theme titled Guesspionage, and a party game where you must expose one person amongst you as a faker.

The one I really want to highlight is Tee-K.O, a game where players create screen tees assembled from various drawings and slogans. After the rounds are over and the winner is decided, players can actually purchase their favorite creations from the jackbox website.

(There is one stipulation -- anything licensed, like recognizable characters or slogans that might get the Jackbox crew in legal trouble, may be cancelled. Aside from that, you could wear any of your vulgar, disgusting, wildly inappropriate designs.)

While I loved Jackbox Party Pack 3 as much -- if not more -- than previous packs, the concept itself has remained unchanged.

Rhythm Heaven Megamix

Reason for exclusion: A really good “greatest hits” collection.

I played a ton of Rhythm Heaven this summer. A ton.

Rhythm Heaven is a giant mini-game collection where you’ll play through different scenarios all structured around music, and it could really be anything. Hitting golf balls, filling robots with ambiguous liquid, karate-punching pots, cheering on students in the library -- anything.

If you’ve never played a Rhythm Heaven game, I’ve got excellent news for you! Megamix is the only one you need. It includes just about all mini-games across the entire series, including a few unique to the collection itself. There’s also various multiplayer modes as well, both versus and cooperative. Megamix even makes use of the often forgotten download play feature, meaning a friend needs only their own 3DS to join you in tandem rhythmic button tapping.

I highly recommend Rhythm Heaven for all your music game needs, but because it’s assembled from many other previous Rhythm Heaven games, I could not bring myself to give it a spot at the GOTY table.

Shameful Omissions

Final Fantasy XV

Reason for exclusion: Cancelled the Road Trip.

I didn’t get a chance to dive into Final Fantasy XV until well after the New Year. As a fan of the series who has made it a mission to play every main entry, this is a rather huge blunder I’m in the process of remedying. In the meantime, it feels disingenuous to include Final Fantasy XV on personal GOTY list when I’ve only played a few hours tops, so it makes no appearance this year.

Update -- Having now played Final Fantasy XV, I can safely say I do not think it would've shaken up this list.

Fire Emblem: Fates (Conquest)

Reason for exclusion: Oh right, these are hard.

I purchased Fire Emblem: Conquest and enjoyed the first six chapters, but then I struggled to really dig in and stay engaged. I have every intention of returning to Fire Emblem in the near future, but haven’t played enough to feel I could accurately place it on a list.

Stardew Valley

Reason for exclusion: Didn’t spend enough time on Monsanto Farm.

Stardew Valley is a delightful return to farming life, but I spent more time this year watching other people play it rather than play it myself. When I resume, so too will Alucart’s journal be updated.