Video Games of the Year 2016

1. The Last Guardian ; (genDESIGN, SIE Japan Studio) – Never thought it would take over a decade for creative designer Fumito Ueda’s final chapter in the minimalist trilogy, comprising Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, to finally reach retailer shelves and the collective hands of passionate gamers. Many influential life events would unfold within my life and anticipation for this title would stumble across three console generations, but my appreciation for Team Ico’s work hasn’t ever wavered. I certainly agree with the lukewarm impressions sprawled across the board for this tale of a young boy and a griffin seeking an escape from the dilapidated ruins of a bygone fortress. On a technical level, controlling the young boy stammers with an uncanny sense of weightiness and our mythical companion, Trico, requires a tremendous amount of patience from the player when waiting for the A.I. to navigate through the linear level design at its own pace. Steering of the unforeseeable camera typically exacerbates these aforementioned faults, especially when manipulated within narrow areas, plus a handful of convenient tutorials for directing your counterpart can easily be missed. All these thorns could perhaps be summarized with the feeling that the master plan for this journey wasn’t fully revamped for the new hardware while long-standing points of critique from previous adventures continue to persist. However, I was able to adjust to these issues with every passing moment. I became increasingly engrossed one more time in Ueda-san’s folkloric storytelling built upon coming-of-age and the eternal bond of companionship. Like an echo chamber, the amusing mannerisms of Trico serve as a technical marvel to behold and every location presents a memorable piece of narration told through environment over exposition. Without a doubt, Fumito Ueda and his development team are the interactive equivalent to anime director Hayao Miyzaki and Studio Ghibli. Sony Entertainment acted with the patience of a saint with this tremulous production. Its release was a symbolic gesture toward the loyalty of the fanbase and their dedication to artistic works. In the end, Last Guardian arguably might not have been a game-changer nor the best of the trilogy, but it was another masterpiece under the PlayStation brand. An evocative tale worth telling about a boy and his beast – nay, a friend, that will transcend the medium to pluck our heartstrings long after the controller has been put down.

2. Dark Souls III ; (FromSoftware) – Highly doubt this third installment will remain as the final entry in the acclaimed Souls franchise, but creative designer Hidetaka Miyazaki delivers a stunning conclusion to the dreary cycle of the first flame with his return to the directorial helm. A commanding amalgamation of the fast-paced action present in his previous masterpiece, Bloodborne, lends itself into another blissful romp through the gorgeous melancholic medieval fantasy and I would really recommend players to seek out the secretive ending for an empowered metrical send off.

3. Steins;Gate 0 ; (5pb., Nitroplus) – Like practically everyone else, I had reservations over the necessity of a follow-up to one of the greatest visual novels of all-time after its time-traveling tale was so skillfully sealed tight will little room for speculation. Was such a worry justified as the final credits begun to roll after devoting thirty-something hours? I would be lying if I didn’t confess that such a thought races to the forefront of my mind whenever I think about this visual novel, especially when I consider the original release one of the greatest video games of all-time as well. It’s difficult to discuss the premise of this installment without spilling the beans on major plot points in the predecessor as an “interquel.” Basically, it explores a timeline in which a self-proclaimed ‘mad scientist,’ Okabe Rintaro, hangs up his lab coat and desire to save the love of his life after succumbing to post-traumatic stress from enduring numerous timelines in which he fought to preserve the life of a childhood friend. Failing to protect the existence of his significant other leaves Okabe broken while condemning his future to a timeline in which World War III will consume millions of lives in the pursuit of a time machine. It is his choice… And the seeming choice of Steins;Gate. Ultimately, the overarching plot of this piece feels exceedingly less elegant compared to the warranted exposition from the “prequel” which is rather inexcusable when the concept has been drawn from pre-existing light novels and drama CDs. Reasons for the shifts between different worlds feel barely defined this round while jarring use of old character sprites feel lazy standing next to modern renditions of the cast. Lack of freedom to utilize the Amadeus app for the phone mechanic was a largely missed opportunity to explore character development and story deviation. One newcomer feels like they were added to merely serve as a roadblock to impede progress making the structure of these trials and tribulations more evident with the continuous wobble between slice-of-life and thriller sequences. The localization team, PQube, sadly dropped the ball when the pedigree of this entry in the Sci;Adv world should’ve been better respected. Although it was a tremendous treat to have this in our possession about a year after its debut in Japan, it feels a bit disingenuous when numerous typos and untranslated content remain throughout the final product that makes it seem like a contractual release window obligation. So why rank it so close to the top after these gripes? It should be a testament to the strong characterization, performances from the main cast and the delightful high-points that make you thankful to see these roles once again. Unlike Zero Time Dilemma, it doesn’t become a train-wreck that maliciously undermines the world it has fought to establish. Most of the returning cast demonstrate growth in their arc and the new genius scientist, Maho, functions as a great compliment to another character’s absence. A slight disappointment that, optimistically, will get fleshed-out with the anime adaptation.

4. Doom ; (id Software) – A shocking return to form for the godfather of the modern shooter sub-genre and undeniable surprise after the lackluster press demonstrations. With tongue-in-cheek approach to weather-worn staples in the series, the development team has managed to successfully resurrect the satisfactory combat of the Doom Slayer into the current generation that finds its place, for better or worse, in the Millennial ‘nostalgia’ era.

5. Titanfall 2 ; (Respawn Ent.) – Most appropriate application of the wall-running mechanic to date with plenty of variety, albeit gimmicky, in the landscape of the single-player campaign that recalls that combat that can cover vertical level design, too. Despite the stunningly-crafted gameplay, the mech-oriented narrative comes off tragically forgettable in the sea of available shooters with the relationship with your own robot, BT-7274, feeling restricted to two recurring in-jokes that failed to leave a lasting impression. I’ll return for the Valve-esque craftsmanship, but it doesn’t carry much substance outside the initial thrill of the shticks.

6. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare ; (Infinity Ward) – Foolish decision to have Modern Warfare Remastered locked behind a special edition as a digital-only addition. Anyway, the development team certainly carried themselves beyond the disappointment of their Ghosts campaign and, honestly, I found myself enjoying the straightforward nature of the sci-fi aesthetic. I woefully dread the return to the exhausted trenches of World War whatever so it’s unfortunate that audiences have begun to drift away from the ‘king’ of the mainstream shooter, but it’s understandable after a whole decade at the forefront. Campaign-wise, everything felt fluid in the gameplay and I was slightly engaged with the premise more so than previous efforts from Treyarch’s Black Ops offerings. One of your AI-companions, Ethan, was a lively breath of sarcasm over cliché soldier chatter and Titanfall’s own mechs so I hope they’ll bring some of that same energy into their next inevitable installment.

7. Attack on Titan ; (Omega Force) – It might be a faint alteration to their Dynasty Warriors formula, but the development crew manages to bring the high-wire, limb-chopping spectacle of the source material into reality with an abridged version of the opening half that further spurred my interest in the material.

8. Shadow of the Beast ; (Heavy Spectrum Ent. Labs) – PlayStation’s little re-imaging of the side-scrolling classic manages to surpass the tarnished legacy of the original arcade releases with an addicting arcade combo system and successfully realizes the original concept artwork from illustrator Roger Dean.

9. Umineko: When They Cry – Question Arc ; (07th Expansion) – Having witnessed the first half of the grand witch mystery through the untranslated PS3 port, I still bounce back-and-forth between whether I feel it’s a masterwork that pulls off a surrealist compilation of “whodunit” plot devices or a drawn-out piece of exposition that costly distracts from the thematics. It has been a quite sometime since I watched a playthrough of the original chapters so I’m in the process of re-evaluating the Golden Witch mystery. In contrast, the captivating presentation with a lush cast of voice actors makes up for the spiritless, unfinished anime adaptation coupled with a seductively jamming soundtrack and undeniably makes full use of the visual novel format aside from plot deviation. I’ve thought about the enthralling plot-line quite frequently so, despite being unfinished at the time of the vote, it has left a mark unlike other stuff that I have beaten for 2016. Hopefully I’ll be able to retroactively place the closing half higher on a new list once they become available.

10. Firewatch ; (Campo Santo) – Regardless of the critical praise, Firewatch operates as a decent addition to the ‘walking’ simulator-style with an acute awareness in the subtlety of color inspired from graphic artist Olly Moss with an enchanting relationship between two fire lookouts. However, the sudden shift toward a conspiracy plot felt contrived in the obvious attempt to put a strain on their interaction and, consequently, I saw the ending coming a mile away.

Honorable Mentions:
x. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – Accusations of the finale being severed off to pad out the season pass sounds like a pretty big deal for this stealth follow-up courtesy of Eidos Montreal. Their reboot with Human Revolution was one of the biggest surprises from last-generation as a cyberpunk fan and I suspect that I’ll enjoy this next round as well, but I’ll probably hold out for a re-release with the story-related DLC to ensure that I can experience the entirety of its augmented world.

x. Final Fantasy XV – Not only has it been a decade since the original announcement of this Square Enix title, but I haven’t beaten an installment within this respective series following the release of Final Fantasy X on the PS2! I probably would’ve knocked this out had it not been delayed closer to the tsunami of Japanese niche titles launching within the winter season. Hearing about the constant updates further put a damper on my willingness for an immediate playthrough, but the breath of the production value and action-adventure tooling to the mechanics make me eager to dive into its world once all the patch material has been rolled out.

x. Gravity Rush Remastered – Project Siren’s physics-defying adventure would’ve easily breached the top three picks of the entire year if it weren’t for self-imposed results for re-release material. From the beautiful visual presentation to the whimsical essence of the premise, it’s an all-around alluring adventure that’s worthy of the big screen for our protagonist Kat and her, uh, cat named Dusty as they defend their home from shadowy beings. Bluepoint goes the extra mile with their enhancements from the massive boost in frame-rate over the handheld origins to the reworked visual palette that continues to make them the ‘Criterion Collection’ of the gaming world.

x. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero – I intend to marathon through the entire “high-definition” trilogy through physical copies in the coming year and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself charmed by the hip-shaking, butt-kicking antics of WayForward Technologies’ indie darling and another great success from the crowdfunding platform.

x. Yomawari: Night Alone – Although I missed out on celebrating Halloween with this handheld venture, Nippon Ichi Software’s nightmare-scape of a little girl searching for the disappearance of her loved ones becomes gripping from the get-go and feels like an appropriate spiritual successor to Kikiyama’s Yume Nikki.

x. Wild Guns Reloaded – Limited local multiplayer, locked access to the original soundtrack and notorious difficulty might be as a deterrent for contemporary gamers. However, the gun-slinging goodness of Natsume’s SNES remaster comes retrofitted with new characters and strengthened pixel imagery that becomes immensely appreciated for newcomers that want to test their dead-eye precision without the $175+ price tag for an old cartridge.


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