Games, Talk, and Whatever Else

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.

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