I’ll be changing up the formula a bit this year, as I’ve decided to make my year-end review specifically centered on video games, since this year in music presented almost nothing truly noteworthy or exciting for me, and it’s the first time this really happened since I started writing here. 2016 marked a year where I started writing a lot more game content on the site, and it was a very welcome and comfortable change for me, so I think this is a good direction for my final thoughts of the year.
I made it a personal mission over the last year (and especially the last few months) to play a good amount of the games released in 2016 on all major platforms, excluding shovelware or genres that hold no interest for me, (which are basically only sports games, RTS, MMOs, and JRPGs) and tried to find the most impressive, noteworthy, and unique games that I think most people should take a look at or that push the industry forward.
I just wanted to preface this by saying that the gaming industry has a large share of problems right now, like the market being mostly dominated by bloated, messy, and over-priced big-budget AAA titles, as well as lazy, bare-bones remasters (many of them being games that were only released less than 5 years ago) and droves upon droves of vapid cell phone and tablet “games.”
Despite all of this, the industry is still in a position where it’s producing a lot of quality content, even though much of it is buried in a sea of junk, much like the Japanese music industry was to me for the last few years.
This took quite a while to narrow it down, as there were a lot of interesting games released this year, but I’m going to list each one that had the biggest impression on me and gave me the most enjoyment, and I’ll give a little info on each.
I hope something here sparks your interest enough to try some of these games out if you haven’t already, and hopefully you’ll find something you enjoy that you weren’t aware of before.
In order of release date, here are my most noteworthy games of 2016:
Oxenfree (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Oxenfree starts as a simple story about a group of teenagers spending a summer night together on the beach of a coastal Pacific Northwestern US town, but becomes something so much more powerful and frightening by the end of the night that it left me shivering from uneasiness on numerous occasions. I wouldn’t quite call it a horror game, but more of a “thriller” featuring some extremely well-written dialogue that drives the narrative, deep and interesting character relationships, and a story that deserves to not have spoilers, to put it simply. If you took Life is Strange, Twin Peaks, and a point-and-click adventure, then mashed them all together, Oxenfree would be their beautiful love-child.
Unravel (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Unravel is a charming action/platformer from a Swedish development team, and it shows in the way the game oozes the calm and beautiful nature of the Scandinavian countryside from every pore, with some of the most gorgeous art direction I’ve seen in a very long time, and some really fun platforming mechanics to boot. It also takes place from the viewpoint of a tiny, adorable character made of yarn, giving a great sense of scale to everything that seems small and insignificant to us humans. This may not be for everyone, but for those into platformers or games with top-notch art production, I wouldn’t miss this.
Raiden V (Xbox One)
The king of arcade shooting games makes its triumphant return in 2016 with Raiden V. Raiden is the series that started my life-long obsession with arcade shooters in the early 1990s, which still lasts to this day. Raiden V is the first game in the series in nine years, and it’s arguably the best in the entire series, so if you’re a fan of top-down arcade shooting games, this one pushes the genre just a little further with live social media-type interactions with other players built into the gameplay and some new levels of variety, scale, and story that the vertical shooter genre hadn’t really seen until this release.
SUPERHOT (Xbox One, PC)
SUPERHOT is a game that got a lot of people talking this year, and while it may appear to be a somewhat mudane and repetitive first-person shooter game with minimalist visuals, I assure you this game is much more than that. The base mechanic of the game is that “time only moves when you move,” which essentially turns every stage of the game into a action-based puzzle that you need to find the best solution for. While this seems like a fairly basic premise, the game contains a cleverly-injected back-story that soon turns SUPERHOT into a strange journey that makes you question the very nature of technology, video games, and even life itself. This game is worth every bit of attention is received this year, without question.
Slain: Back From Hell (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Slain is a balls-to-the-wall, beat-you-over-the-head kind of classic platforming combat game, along the lines of the first few Castlevania games, with a similar theme and art style to go with it. The combat requires frame-perfect timing to succeed, and almost every single checkpoint in the game required me to die somewhere between 25-75 times before I actually got it right and made it to the next. This results in a very rewarding feeling when you finally tackle the checkpoint you’ve been working on for so long, but also requires an equal amount of patience and perseverance that many people just don’t have. If you welcome a challenge and love the Castlevania games of old, this is for you.
Quantum Break (Xbox One, PC)
When it comes to narrative in video games, the indie developers seem to be the ones usually pushing things forward lately, but there’s one AAA developer who has always stood out among the rest as an innovative and forward-thinking team, and that is Remedy Games. They literally revolutionized two different video game genres with the Max Payne and Alan Wake series, respectively, and Quantum Break continues this tradition. As a narrative, Quantum Break is a deep sci-fi story based around the realistic scienece behind time travel and its’ repercussions on the world, but the way the story is told is unlike any other we’ve seen yet, by mixing story from in-game cutscenes, a fully-produced live-action television show with multiple episodes, as well as littering the game with very long e-mails between characters and books that you can read, which would all amount to the length of a novel if you put it all together. All of these elements fit seamlessly together to provide a very immersive world and lore, and then wraps it all up in a great game engine with some of the most fun and unique combat in an action game that I’ve seen in years.
Back in 1995 (PC)
If you’re a long-time horror game fan like myself, and especially if you got started in the genre with early classics like the first entries of series like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill, then Back in 1995 is an experience you wouldn’t want to miss. This game is a concept piece that is completely developed by one man, and his aim was to bring back the feelings you first felt when played these early horror classics, when you first realized how uneasy a game could make you feel with an immersive 3D environment, no matter how primitive. The game features a fully retro-ized low-polygon style graphic style with texture warping and everything else you would have seen out of an original PlayStation or Sega Saturn game back in those days, as well as the clunky combat, creepy creatures, and ominous music. The result is a great journey that hits all the right notes and truly does take you back to what it felt like to play these games for the first time and any 1990s early 3D horror fans should make it a point to experience.
Inside (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
There are some games that leave you speechless and contemplative as the end credits roll, just like a deep, cerebral movie would, and Inside is exactly that kind of game. From the great minds who brought you 2010’s Limbo, Inside is an even more dark, gripping, and impactful adventure into the unknown. With some great puzzle mechanics, a very tense, immersive atmosphere, and levels of aural and visual storytelling that arguably push the medium of video games forward, Inside once again proves that Playdead’s creators are masters of their craft and always thinking forward. If you enjoyed Limbo or just like your puzzle platformers to be dark and subversive, play Inside as soon as possible.
Song of the Deep (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
From the famous Insomniac Games studio whose pedigree includes Sunset Overdrive and both the Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank series, Song of the Deep is a surprising departure from their previous efforts, taking the form of a 2D “MetroidVania” style exploration game that takes place under the sea. The story follows a young girl whose father was lost at sea during a fishing trip, and her journey to find him is beautifully told through wonderful hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, as well as emotional, powerful music cues and a great fairy tale-style narration to guide you along the way. This sometimes feels almost like a big budget and high production value Disney movie rather than a game made by a small group of people, and they also perfected the pacing and length of this game to keep it very enjoyable til the end, which is something that many of these types of games fail at.
Headlander (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
From the developers who brought you Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, and the Secret of Monkey Island games, 2016’s Headlander brings all the charm and wacky humor of their previous catalog and puts it into a great new “MetroidVania” style 2D puzzle/exploration game, making for one hell of an entertaining journey. You star as an astronaut who wakes up one day to discover that you are merely a head in a space helmet and without a body. Thankfully, your space helmet is equipped with jet thrusters to move around and the ability to attach to and overtake any body you desire, making for some inventive puzzle mechanics, a hilarious 1960s/70s sci-fi aesthetic style, and a lot of clever and laugh-inducing dialogue. Headlander was perfectly paced for this type of game, controlled very well, and had me laughing quite often, which is not something I can say for most games nowadays.
Abzu (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
If you ever played and enjoyed some of the more “artsy” games from last generation’s PlayStation 3 lineup like Journey or Flower, then Abzu is likely up your alley (and has some of the same development team.) I’d say Abzu is more of an “experience” than it is a full-fledged game (just like the other titles mentioned,) but as an experience, it’s a pretty damn cool one. You play as a mysterious diver who dives undersea with no real narrative or direction of what you’re supposed to do, and you explore a lush undersea world full of hundreds of species of real sea life, and interact with them in different ways. The story pieces itself together little by little as you go, and ends up being a loose narrative (with no dialogue at all,) but with a lot of very emotional moments, thanks to the gorgeous, dream-like art style and emotional music cues that accompany your journey. The controls take a bit of getting used to, but for anyone who likes undersea life and the idea of diving under the sea, this is a dream come true.
The Turing Test (Xbox One, PC)
There’s been a bit of an increase in the amount of games featuring a narrative that has a more philosophical nature, with games like the Portal series, The Talos Principle or Pneuma: Breath of Life in recent years, among many others. From the creators of Pneuma comes The Turing Test, which actually feels like a perfect combination of all three games just mentioned. It features very fun and challenging puzzle mechanics involving transferring energy from one place to another with a gun, very similar to Portal, though maybe one tiny notch lower in difficulty (a welcome change, as far as I’m concerned.) The visual design of the game is a great combination between something like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Portal, with very little music, but mostly just dialogue between the two main characters. There’s also many similar puzzle and narrative elements from the other two games, with the story centering on the idea behind the famous test that the game is named after, and the moral implications of A.I constructs and how their advancement will affect the human race.
Recore (Xbox One, PC)
Microsoft’s new project with the creators of Megaman and Metroid Prime is one that calls back to a previous era in 3D platforming games, feeling like a modern take on a game that was made in the early 2000s. This is entirely a good thing, as the industry hasn’t been producing many of these types of games the last 10 years, especially ones with decent budget and talent behind them. Recore hits all the right marks in all the right places, and is something anyone who enjoyed platformers in the early 2000s should definitely experience. I did a full review of the game when it launched in September and you can read it here.
Virginia (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Here’s another rather noteworthy narrative-based title by a tiny indie games studio, and one that does things a little differently than most others I played this year. The game follows a story that takes place in the US state of Virginia (hence the name,) and you play a first-person adventure as a female FBI agent who is investigating some strange disappearances of people in small rural towns. Soon after beginning your investigation, things turn downright strange and creepy, and your character is haunted by visions, nightmares, and premonitions of what is really happening there. The game has no spoken dialogue, but is instead fully scored in the same way a silent film would be, and it’s a very unique way to tell a story, with only visuals and music. This game is nearly a 100% love letter to Twin Peaks, and I say this in the most endearing way possible, so if you’re a fan of mysterious narrative-based games, this should be something you don’t pass up.
Gears of War 4 (Xbox One, PC)
While the Gears of War series has been on a slight downturn in recent years after the team who made the original trilogy handed off the development to a new team in 2011, Gears 4 marks a return to form like most long-lived game series have never seen. Gears 4 brings a fresh take to the whole universe of the game, with a brand new cast of characters, huge improvements in the technicality and precision of the gameplay as well as the enemy AI intelligence when playing modes that feature them. Speaking of modes, there’s nearly a dozen different modes you can play on in single player as well as multiplayer, giving a ton of variety, and most importantly, Gears 4 brings back the feeling of sheer fun and freshness that the series hasn’t seen since the original game released in 2006, and it’s a very welcome change. Definitely worth a look for anyone who likes their cover-based 3rd person action games.
Dead Rising 4 (Xbox One, PC)
Ever since the first game released in 2006, the Dead Rising series has been one of my favorite series in gaming, and I’ve played every entry and spinoff game the series has produced to their fullest. When it was announced earlier in 2016 that the series would be returning to its roots with the original game’s protagonist, Frank West, returning to the main series and returning to the original town and mall where the series started with a wacky story that takes place around Christmas, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. In the end, DR4 ended up being a very strong return to everything that makes the series great and also includes lots of improvements from the previous entries in combat and inventory management, plus a much more focused and well-paced story than the series has ever had, making it a perfect game to end the year and get me into the holiday spirit. I wrote a full review of the game earlier this month, which you can read here.
Shantae: Half Genie Hero (Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, PC)
2016 also saw the release of the fourth game in the long-running Shantae series, and the series has come a long way from its roots on the Game Boy Color some 14 years ago. This newest installment to the series makes a vast leap forward in terms of the art and animation style, with this being the first entry that runs with full HD resolution on all platforms, making the backgrounds and characters feel more life-like and personable than ever, with dozens of frames of animation for everything and everyone that moves. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a great combination of 2D Megaman games with Zelda-style towns and dungeons and exploration that’s similar to a “MetroidVania” game, with many different areas and secrets to discover as you make your way through the world. This entry also features some of the most well-produced music the series has ever seen, including a few vocal pop tracks to make it feel more like a real anime or cartoon. The controls are extremely tight and the art style is one of the cutest and most colorful you’ll see in any game this year, guaranteed. If any of that sounds interesting, this whole series is worth a look.
That about sums up my favorite 2016 gaming experiences, and hopefully some of these are games you haven’t been able to give a chance to yet or haven’t even heard of yet, and you can find something that makes your gaming life a little bit more diverse or enjoyable.
If there were any games you really enjoyed that you didn’t see here, drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll be glad to discuss it with you, since there’s a good chance I did play it, but just didn’t include it here for one reason or another. I’d like to have more discussions about people’s favorite releases this year, as there were many good games that just didn’t make the cut here. Until next year, keep on gaming and having fun.