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Top 10 of 2016! (Part 2: The Top 5!)

Game of the Year 2016 – Charlie Hunter

2016 has been over for a little while now, but I just now got around to writing all of my thoughts of video games in 2016.  So I am posting all of my thoughts in five installments.  This final one is my Top 5!

The Games of 2016 (#5 – #1)

This is it. These are my 5 favorite games of 2016.  These are all something quite special.

 

5. Firewatch

 

Firewatch is relaxing and tense, hopeful and heartbreaking.  It’s about struggling with inner conflict and running from past mistakes.  And it’s about yelling across a pond at teenage girls for setting off fireworks.  In Firewatch you play as Henry, who is taking a break from some very serious real life problems to live by himself in a tower in the Shoshone National Forest and watch for forest fires.  Most of what you do is wander around a beautifully stylized vision of the Wyoming park, and chat with your boss Delilah over the radio, who occupies a neighboring tower miles away.  But after Henry discovers a break-in at his tower and some unsettling remains of a campsite, the story quickly becomes about a mystery that had me both eager and nervous to find out what happens next.  Firewatch made me feel isolated and alone, and at the same time, kept me constantly looking over my shoulder, terrified that someone might be there.  It all works thanks to amazing performance and character work for Henry and Delilah, two very broken and hurt people that grow emotionally close to each other, as long as they stay a tower apart.

 

4. The Witness

 

The Witness is a puzzle game.  You solve puzzles.  The puzzles are grids that you draw a line through, and they are on little screens scattered around an island with an insane amount geological variation for how small it is.  But it really isn’t that simple.  Often, the puzzles themselves do not have enough information for me to solve it, not without discovering some environmental clue revealing the path.  And those environmental clues are clever, requiring me to view and analyze things from different perspectives.  The best puzzle games strike a perfect balance of challenge and approachability that makes you feel like a genius when solve it.  The Witness strikes that balance deftly, always a challenge and always fair.  The puzzles are structured so that each new element builds on previous lessons learned, so if I was ever able to brute force a puzzle or two, it ended up hurting me much more than it helped.  The cryptic nature of many of the puzzles created an excitement when I figured out one of the mysterious symbols and had to rush to solve another puzzle with that same symbol I remembered seeing on the other side of the island.  The Witness is a string of “Aha!” moments that built me up in a way that made me feel like I earned it.

 

3. Severed

 

I used to dream up these game maps when I was a kid on long road trips with my family.  I loved Zelda and mazes, so I would block out these mazes on paper, add locked doors and other obstacles, and then put keys and power-ups in weird corners.  Severed feels like the game I was trying to make.  Something about it feels very classic/vintage/old-school, whatever you want to call it.  You play a young woman who has lost her arm in some devastating attack on her village, and seems to have been transplanted to some strange alternate dimension with weird monsters.  You quickly find a sword and wander around these very grid-like dungeons looking for your family.  The view is in first person with movement similar to moving around Google Street View.  In the dungeons, you find a wide variety of obstacles blocking your path, puzzles to solve to progress, new powers to unlock new areas, pieces of heart to increase your health, and monster parts to upgrade your combat abilities.  And there are enemies, which you fight by swiping your finger, and it feels oh so satisfying.  Its frantic, because you usually have to fight multiple enemies at a time, each with a countdown bar to when they will attack you, and all of them attacking from different directions.  So you have to quickly switch between enemies in order to attack their weak spots when they are open, and block attacks when they come your way.  Executing blocks and critical hits fills a meter which allows you to perform a special attack to sever body parts off the monsters when you defeat them, which is how you get the parts you need to upgrade your abilities.  It’s an engaging gameplay loop.  The art style is also fantastic, incorporating a Central/South American style in painting form.  Exploring these dungeons was one of my favorite experiences of the whole year, and in terms of pure gameplay, was the most fun I had with any game.

 

2. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

 

Uncharted 4 is an emotional goodbye to characters that I’ve been with for almost a decade.  It tells a story that stays true to Uncharted, but takes a more mature tone and explores the consequences of living the lifestyle of the first three games.  And the story that unfolds is a heartfelt tale, not about a long lost brother or a hidden pirate treasure (that’s what it is on the surface), but about Nate and Elena’s marriage.  It’s a story about coping with nostalgia, and being honest with yourself (and your spouse) about the things you want out of life.  Thanks to incredible facial capture, Nate and Elena can avoid exposition and convey true emotion just with the way they look at each other, and make the quiet moments the highlight of the journey.  This is some of the best acting I’ve seen, and not just in video games, in any medium!  Uncharted has always been masterful with blending its gameplay with cinematics, and this final installment does it best, with strikingly smooth transitions between action and dialog scenes, and incidental lines during exploration that bring the characters to life.  And it caps everything off with an absolutely perfect epilogue that left me with a peaceful warmth for this game, and for my friends Nate, Elena, Sully and all the rest.

 

1. Pokemon Sun & Moon

 

I loved Pokemon Red when I was 13.  I got it for Christmas and played it over several times.  But I never got into any of the other games.  Years later I tried Black and then X, but they didn’t stick and I didn’t finish either one.  When Sun and Moon were about to come out, several of my friends were getting really excited for it and posting all kinds of stuff on Twitter about it.  So I decided to get Moon, knowing that I would like to have a portable game to play for Thanksgiving and Christmas travels.  I ended up completely enthralled with it, and now I have played almost 100 hours between Sun and Moon.  There are a lot of great improvements that Sun and Moon bring to Pokemon like snappy character movement in the 3D world, player customization options, in-game type chart notifications on moves, and the replacement of HMs with the Pokeride system (a personal favorite).  It has a balanced mix of new Pokemon, familiar classic Pokemon, and revamped classic Pokemon to match the new location.  But what I absolutely love about this game is the beautiful island setting, Alola.  Like the settings of some of my favorite games ever, I just want to live in Alola.  And it’s more than just looks, which with a full 3D world and 3D rendered cutscenes, finally looks like the console Pokemon game I always wanted when I was 13.  It is the culture and character and attitudes of the people of Alola that bring it to life, from the companionship of Hau and Lillie and many others, to the barista dude at the coffee shop who is ready to hand out some life advice to go with my late night hot chocolate.  That Alolan attitude is perhaps at its most evocative in the game’s music.  Whether it’s the beautiful ukulele strumming of Iki Town, the blissful piano jazz of Hau’oli City at night, or the jaunty rock guitar riffs of Professor Kukui’s theme, the music brings the world to life.  It has been a long time since I played a game with a world so inviting as Alola, and that’s why Pokemon Sun & Moon is my favorite game of 2016.

GOTY 2016 – New Characters

Game of the Year 2016 – Charlie Hunter

2016 has been over for a little while now, but I just now got around to writing all of my thoughts of video games in 2016.  So I am posting all of my thoughts in five installments.  This fourth one is a list of my favorite new characters.

 

The Games of 2016 – New Faces

Characters can make a game, and we had some really good ones this year.  I wanted to take some time to call out some great characters that made their debuts in 2016.  This is an unordered list, because I just couldn’t pick.  Some of these may end up sounding a little vague, so maybe I’ll do a full spoiler version later that gets into the nitty gritty of each character’s arc.

Warning: There may be some mild spoilers.  I’ll be touching on plot setups and character qualities and struggles.  It is pretty hard to talk about why these characters are great without going into details, but I’ll try.

 

Alex – Oxenfree

Alex, the player character in Oxenfree, is a high school student who winds up on an abandoned island with a group of friends for a night of shenanigans.  And after some beachside campfire truth or dare, and a cave investigation, things start to get really weird.  Alex is smart and cool.  She responds to social drama with nonchalance, but takes things seriously when she thinks the situation requires it.  And the mystery on the island forces her to face both outward enemies and inner demons.  In any medium, it can be really hard to make a fantastic lead character that shines.  That goes double for video games, where the lead character has to be somewhat open for the player to project themselves into the character.  But Alex somehow manages to have it both ways – to be clearly defined and yet variable enough to give the player ownership of the experience.

 

Delilah – Firewatch

Henry has experienced some real pain, and also caused pain to others, and he knows that part of it is his own fault because of how he has handled events in his life.  And finally overcome by guilt, he runs away from his problems and heads to the Wyoming wilderness to take a job as a firewatchman in Shoshone National Forest.  This is where he meets Delilah, his boss from the next tower over (several miles away), and companion only in voice, over the radio.  Delilah is able to understand Henry in a way that no one ever has before, because she has been doing the same running away Henry is doing, but for over a decade.  Delilah is sarcastic and funny, but it seems that is to hide her fragility.  As Henry learns more about Delilah, he is able to see through her initial confidence starts to find pain and regret.  The decisions and actions Delilah makes throughout the story reveal that she is terrified to face her past.

 

Lillie – Pokemon Sun/Moon

Lillie is a companion of the player character as they journey around Alola on their island challenge.  She is somewhat mysterious at first, and doesn’t reveal much about herself, other than that she is caring for a strange little creature named Nebby that she keeps in her duffle bag and is somehow connected to the Alolan deities, the Tapus.  Lillie is dainty, but determined to care for Nebby.  She initially seems overwhelmed by the thought of battling Pokemon, but after experiencing the struggles of the journey, her resolve is strengthened and she ends up playing a huge role.

 

Rafe Adler – Uncharted 4

Rafe is a smarmy little weasel who is after the treasure of pirate Henry Avery.  He inherited his parents less than legal business, but wants everyone to realize that he is his own man.  Rafe wants the treasure and he wants to be the one to find it.  And he definitely doesn’t want to hear about how great Nathan Drake is.  Rafe is obsessed and is willing to do anything to get what he wants.  And he’s a total jerk, and I just want to punch him in the face.  There is such a fine line between Rafe and Nate, and the way Uncharted 4 shows both their similarities and differences makes for one of video games’ best villains.

 

Sam Drake – Uncharted 4

Nate’s long lost brother Sam shows up on Nate’s door after 15 years of Nate thinking he was dead.  Nate is out of the adventuring game, but Sam is in desperate need to find the treasure of pirate Henry Avery in order to get him out of a bad deal he made with a South American crime boss.  So Sam and a conflicted Nate set out to find the treasure.  Sam is a little shifty, and his insistence to leave Nate’s wife Elena out of the loop on the treasure excursion puts Nate in a bind.  Sam causes problems for Nate on their adventure together, but he grows a lot on the journey, and also is the catalyst for Nate to really grow, too.

GOTY 2016 – The Music

Game of the Year 2016 – Charlie Hunter

2016 has been over for a little while now, but I just now got around to writing all of my thoughts of video games in 2016.  So I am posting all of my thoughts in five installments.  This third one is my favorite music from this year’s games.

 

The Music of 2016

There was so much great music this year.  I’ve got six games represented here, and they all have great music that match the games perfectly, but the last two have some really special stuff.

 

Firewatch

Stay In Your Tower and Watch

The steely and solemn guitar of Firewatch gives a feeling of loneliness and mystery.  It has a minimalism to it, but when it picks up tempo it can really build the tension.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GHenNAJzLA

 

Song of the Deep

Merrow Ruins

The bubbly harps and strings of Song of the Deep have a sense of awe to them that make you feel like Merryn discovering a strange new world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVW28yLXY9s

 

Oxenfree

Epiphany Fields

Oxenfree’s soundtrack has this pulsating sound that seems to phase in and out, and then adds repeating layers that fold in and echo.  It is seemingly peaceful, and at the same time odd and unresolved.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1xqCQU82HY

 

Uncharted 4

Epilogue

Uncharted 4 flips the tone of the previous games’ soundtracks.  Instead of bombastic fanfares of adventure, you get a much quieter sound.  And when that soft familiar melody plays in the game, you get a feeling of peace and fond remembrance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDXRw3_G_x0

 

Destiny: Rise of Iron

Rise of Iron

Destiny has always been this mix of medieval knights and fantasy with guns, spaceships, and sci-fi.  With the Rise of Iron expansion, they literally went for a Knights of the Round Table theme, and goodness they nailed it with the music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNYWdBokAmQ

Young Wolf

This track is triumphant fanfare with blasting horns and driving percussion.  And I love that drop.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YahLsNN0qkM

Eyes Up

This is the music to the final boss fight of the Wrath of the Machine raid, which is probably my favorite boss fight in a video game ever.  I’m not even exaggerating.  I’ve never had a more engaging and invigorating fight ever, and the music just keeps it epic with its steady climb up the pounding steps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yms5R60fFUg

Sepiks Redux

The villain in Rise of Iron is a nanovirus called Siva, and Bungie revamped the first strike from the original game to be “Siva infected”.  This music is the Siva infected version of the original orchestral boss fight music for the final boss of that original strike, Sepiks Prime.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N4PSgvpd2A

 

Pokemon Sun and Moon

Kukui’s Theme

This is one of the first songs you hear in the game and it really sets the tone for the fun and laid back vibe that this game has.  Also it perfectly fits Kukui, who wears an open lab coat with no shirt.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvxQoQLd5OQ

Hau’oli City (Night)

I want to live in this track.  It’s vintage and classy and effortlessly cool.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owZkO4TY4zk

Iki Town (Night)

This track is just complete peace.  It’s a lay on the grass and stare up at the crystal clear, starry night sky with your best friend song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW2MfdLKwLo

Lillie’s Theme

The slight mysteriousness of this track really fits Lillie’s character, and I love the distinctly Parisian flair.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-t_C-CgJ-3A

 

Top 10 of 2016! (Part 1)

Game of the Year 2016 – Charlie Hunter

2016 has been over for a little while now, but I just now got around to writing all of my thoughts of video games in 2016.  So I am posting all of my thoughts in five installments.  This second one is the first half of my top 10.

The Games of 2016 – Top 10, part 1

These are #10 through #6 of my 10 favorite games of the year.

10. Ratchet and Clank

 

Ratchet and Clank is one of my favorite series, so I was very happy to see a new full game and to see an older game get the control features and upgradeable weapon trees from the more recent games.  Unfortunately, the original Ratchet and Clank is one of my least favorite games in the series and I wish they had remade either of the other two (core) PS2 games, even though I know remaking the original makes the most sense.  And the movie tie-ins kind of wreck the story and make the game feel disjointed. But it’s still a blast to play, and it looks fantastic.

9. Zero Time Dilemma

 

This is probably a pretty unpopular opinion, but I like Zero Time Dilemma better than Virtue’s Last Reward.  The puzzles are better and so are the characters (even though a lot of the characters are in both games).  Just like the first two games in the series, Zero Time Dilemma is about nine people trapped in a twisted deadly game by a mysterious masked overseer.  And the story is completely bonkers, in a good way.  That’s the big draw to all of these games: the insane plot and the big twist moments.  One drawback is ZTD does tend to delight a little bit too much in its own grotesque violence, and some of the endings are pretty disturbing.  999 is actually my favorite of the series, though, because it feels a bit more contained, and they reuse some of the plot tricks for the sequels.

8. Song of the Deep

 

Song of the Deep is another Metroid-style game that automatically gets on my good side.  Young lass Merryn spends the game exploring an underwater world in her submarine looking for her father, finding upgrades that open up paths to new areas to explore (and more upgrades!) It’s pretty standard fare for the genre, but that’s just fine by me.  It has a few frustrating puzzles that don’t seem well designed for how the submarine controls, and combat is nothing to write home about.  But the things that really set Song of the Deep apart are the beautiful visuals and music of an enchanting underwater world.  And the Irish accented narrator is absolutely delightful.

7. Dishonored 2

 

The first Dishonored was one of my favorite games the year it came out.  The different options for approaching every target, as well as the political intrigue of the story and a strongly developed alternate history setting with a supernatural twist, elevated Dishonored to some pretty lofty heights. Dishonored 2 is more of Dishonored, and so, naturally, many of those qualities are still there, though they pack less of a punch the second time around.  The biggest stumbling block for Dishonored 2 is that the first 3-4 missions are rather bland in terms of approach options.  Even the Clockwork Mansion that I had heard so much praise for fell flat for me.  But thankfully, the missions pick up significantly after that, including some truly great missions in Dust District and A Crack in the Slab.  One even lets you skip the entire mission (each mission took me about 3 hours) if you solve a word problem (with randomly generated parameters) that opens a lock to the exit, which is placed very close to the start of the mission.  I did it!  It took me an hour and I have a full sheet of paper working it out.  I then went and did all of the stuff in the mission before I opened the exit because I’m crazy.

6. Oxenfree

 

Oxenfree is a spooky teen ghost story that takes place on an abandoned island.  The mystery keeps you on the edge of your seat, and the heartfelt story is layered with themes of friendship, loss, and moving on.  Mechanically, it mostly plays like a 2D adventure with very light point-and-click features.  But the shining gems here are the fantastic characters and very unique take on dialogue.  Every conversation gives Alex, the player character, options for what to say, but also when to say it.  Have you ever had that moment when you thought about saying something, waited for a good moment in the conversation to interject, but by the time the opening came, the moment had passed?  That happens in this game!  Or you can choose to just interrupt and cut someone off.  Sometimes that character will naturally pick back up with what they were saying after the interrupting topic has been explored, or sometimes they won’t.  It is strange at first, and occasionally a little frustrating, but the result is the most natural and engaging dialogue I have ever seen in a video game.  And the teenaged characters that are engaging in that dialogue are written with a respect and thoughtfulness akin to a John Hughes movie.  I really like this game and it deserves to be in the Top 5.  It was a toss-up with the game I gave #5, so let’s just say Oxenfree is #5b of 2016.

Old Games of 2016

Game of the Year 2016 – Charlie Hunter

2016 has been over for a little while now, but I just now got around to writing all of my thoughts of video games in 2016.  So I am posting all of my thoughts in five installments.  This first one is a list of my favorite games that I played in 2016 that didn’t come out in 2016: the old games.

Old Games I Played in 2016

I played a lot of games in 2016 that didn’t come out in 2016.  These range all over the place, and there’s really no reason to compare or rank them.  These are just my five favorite of that bunch with a loose ordering.

5. Her Story

Image result for her story Image result for her story

Her Story has a very interesting premise: using a keyword search in an in-game video database, discover 5-30 second video clips of several days of police interviews investigating a missing person case.  It was an incredibly unique experience.  The search mechanic creates a feeling of discovery that wouldn’t have been there if the story just played out in a predetermined order.  It was a compelling mystery that my wife and I had fun playing through, but the indefinite ending makes for kind of an awkward conclusion.

4. Adventures of Mana

Image result for adventures of mana Image result for adventures of mana

Adventures of Mana is a remake of the Gameboy game Final Fantasy Adventure.  It plays like a mash-up of the Zelda and Final Fantasy games of the time (early 90s).  The gameplay is simple, but it smooshes together two games that I love. The version I played (Vita) was pretty buggy, and you can tell it was designed with phones in mind.  It really made me want to play its sequel, Adventures of Mana, an SNES gem that I have never played.

3. Shadow Complex

Image result for shadow complex remastered ps4 Image result for shadow complex remastered ps4

Shadow Complex is a modern Metroid-style game that released in 2009 and kind of kickstarted a revitalization of the genre. It is a modern/near future military version of the classic formula.  One of the coolest things about it is how well it handles combating enemies outside of the movement plane.  Enemies pop up all over the background, but aiming my gun at them always felt intuitive, which can be really tricky when you’re operating in a mix of 2D and 3D.  Other than that, it’s a pretty traditional one of those games. I just really like this kind of game, so there.

2. Rise of the Tomb Raider

Image result for rise of the tomb raider Image result for rise of the tomb raider bow

Rise of the Tomb Raider improves on the excellent 2013 Tomb Raider reboot in both its movement and combat mechanics and its light open world trappings.  It kind of outdoes Uncharted in a lot of its mechanical aspects and environment gameplay.  The bow is really fun to use, and they make it very easy to swap through alternative types of arrows (the poison gas cloud arrows were great!) It’s also a collector’s dreamland, the map is littered with stuff to get (upgrades, experience, money to spend at a secret shop.)  Although, I much prefered the Lost inspired story of the 2013 game, the story in Rise of the Tomb Raider is still engaging.

1. Life is Strange

Image result for life is strange Image result for life is strange

Life is Strange is an adventure game that takes place in a Pacific northwest art school, and throws in some supernatural time travel.  Max (the player character) and her best friend (but it’s complicated) Chloe are trying to track down a girl who went missing.   It’s in the same vein as David Cage’s games (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls), where your choices form the story, like who you choose to spend time with and what you say to people.  That description sounds like a TellTale game, but it never really feels like that.  There are more mechanics involved, like investigating the environments to open up more options and, of course, using your time powers to trick all the jerks.  The game’s real focus is Max’s and Chloe’s relationship and it hits with great emotional weight.  It can be so heavy at times that each episode has a section where Max can just sit and reflect and exhale, and it always felt like a nice (and needed) moment.

#183 – 2015 GOY

It is that time of year again.  The full crew give out awards in several different categories and dish out their 2015 Game of the Year.  Controversy arises on this perennial show!

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#182 – What Holiday?

We’re back after a longer than usual holiday with lots to catch up on.

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#181 — I’m What You Might Call a…

Nothing but long games discussed here, which is good considering our absence. Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Destiny, and Pandemic Legacy lead the charge, while Tales from the Borderlands takes its position as Gaming’s Best Secret Game of 2015 quietly in the back.

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#180 – BPE Legacy

If you are looking at this podcast like you would a circle, this would be half way around one.  Like in degrees.

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#179 – Long Games

We are all playing long games this week: Dragon Age Inquisition, Metal Gear Solid V, and Witcher 3.  Charlie is playing the longest game of all, Destiny, because it never ends!  Matthew also plays a bunch of little stuff (Broken Age, Rain, Papo y Yo).  And David starts to Awaken to Fire Emblem.  Join us as we all gear up to dance all night!

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