In keeping with the spirit of year-end favorites and best-ofs, and In lieu of a new comic this week, I present to you my inaugural year-end list of the Best of the Backlog! You guys know the drill, so let's get straight to the categories.
I make mobile games for my day job and, as a result, play a fair number of them. I rarely get to talk about these on MvB as it's primarily PC- and console-centric, but I'd be remiss if I didn't at least give some of the more polished and innovative mobile experiences a nod.
While I certainly spent more time on the (beautiful) slopes of Alto's Adventure or building dungeons in King of Thieves, nothing impressed me more than Lara Croft: Go. Tomb Raider has been a roller coaster of a AAA franchise, but when its developers have been given the opportunity to craft something unique within its borders (as they were with the excellent co-op-focused Guardian of Light) they have excelled. Lara Croft: Go keeps this tradition alive by not replicating the console experience, opting instead to center on a mobile-friendly turn-based puzzle design that evokes a similar atmosphere. And the recently released (free!) episode will even make those who thought the core game was too easy or brief go looking for a walkthrough.
Favorite Game to Look At
This is not necessarily the Best Graphics category; rather, this is the chance for me to highlight a game whose whole aesthetic was exceptional. Though it may sometimes go to the most impressive technical achievement, being able to max out a high-end graphics card is not a requirement.
This was an extremely difficult choice, as games like Galak-Z and Broken Age showed off visual stylings that were unique, additive, and holistic, while Ori and the Blind Forest was nothing but jaw-droppingly stunning at nearly every turn. And while Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt wasn't the most painterly of the bunch, it did something just as impressive by breathing life and artistry into a (previously) by-the-numbers fantasy world. From the fluidly convincing conversation and combat animations, to differentiating the miles and miles of in-game wilderness with unique landmarks and lighting, Witcher 3 bathed itself in gorgeously constructed detail. No other game threatened to wear out my keyboard's screenshot button as much as it did — and to run as consistently smoothly as it did is a testament to its architecture.
This one is pretty clear-cut for me: Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt may have had the best RPG story I've played in years; Tales from the Borderlands may have been a hoot; and Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist may very well have been the best 15 minutes of writing all year in any medium; but nothing comes close to what a tiny FMV-focused indie effort pulled off with Her Story.
Her Story is notable for a lot of reasons (Good use of FMV! Great acting! Stripped down mechanics!), but its strongest suit is how it tells its story. Or, rather, how you uncover its story. Playing the part of a detective, you are granted the tools to uncover the truth as quickly as you can piece it together — nothing is stopping you from getting to the center of the case other than your own clues and deduction. It's a revelation in non-linear storytelling and pacing, but also restrained game design: there is no end boss or major climax. Instead, you're left to your own devices to delve deeper and (when you're ready), walk away knowing the truth (or not!).
Favorite Reason to Not Give Up
Each year, I seem to find myself endlessly beating my head against a particularly difficult game, masochistically seeking approval in the form of end credits or a rare achievement. In years past, titles like Super Meat Boy and Rogue Legacy claimed this honor and, with rogue-lites (or rogue-likes or rogue-like-lites or ...) currently en vogue, I've currently no shortage of material with which to derive pleasure from digital pain.
This year, a number of challengers entered the ring, promising to send me packing: Galak-Z's perfect controls and 80s cartoon aesthetic surely broke the hearts of many casual thrill-seekers; Hand of Fate's dealer and card-game presentation made for an oddly intimate experience;, and Titan Souls's hyper-focus on devilish boss battles provided some of the year's most memorable moments. But it was Crypt of the Necrodancer, with its perfect blend of rhythm and dungeon-crawling, that truly got its hooks in me. I originally walked away from the game, thinking I would never finish it's fourth dungeon and final boss(es). Over the next few weeks, however, Danny Baranowsky's rocking soundtrack kept calling out to me like a chip-tune siren and I inevitably found myself back at it. When I finally (and miraculously!) cleared the final stage, it was as much un-expected as it was satisfying — so much so that I came back to clear it with further unlockable characters. Very few games are pulled back off the shelf like Necrodancer, but I couldn't be happier I sought out its brand of beat-keeping pain once more.
So what if this is a little self-indulgent? It's my chance to look back at the better part of a year's worth of comics and pick the one that I still chuckle at. And while it isn't my favorite from an artistic perspective (Ori and the Blind Forest would win on that criteria alone) nothing really comes close to my lasting memory of This War of Mine:
Least Favorite Game I Played
When I started MvB, my stated goal was to play every game on my backlog. I don't think that's particularly realistic anymore, but it did lead to me brute-forcing an hour of gameplay out of some real stinkers. Games like Super Killer Hornet: Resurrection, which hilariously tried to marry a bullet-hell shooter with mathematic equations, or the redundant digital-jack-in-a-box that is Five Nights at Freddy's come to mind, but at least those titles at least were trying something novel.
There was one game, however, which failed to do anything interesting or with any level of craftsmanship. One game was more a collection of soullessly emulated features from better games. After two minutes, I had seen everything this game had to offer, yet I forced myself to give the game a full hour as some sort of noble attempt to find The Good. Sadly, the best I could find was the ability to watch the credits, for they were at least a brief respite from the gameplay. Congratulations, Blast Em.
Favorite non-2015 Game
While I got a lot of enjoyment out of get-togethers with Jackbox Party Pack, and nearly lost my mind to Valkyria Chronicles' inane anime story, 2014's Alien: Isolation is the clear winner here. The horror genre is not one that I would have considered myself a big fan of prior to playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast in recent years, but I now find great enjoyment in hiding in dark corners and whimpering like a lost puppy. So much is unlikely about Alien: Isolation's success: a horror title should NOT still be scary after 20+ hours; a major publisher like Sega should NOT get behind a AAA game wherein your main method of advancement is constant retreat; and Creative Assembly should NOT be able to out-Alien the original film.
But here we are.
Go shut off the lights, place anything breakable out of your flailing reach, and look forward to the nightmares. You'll thank me later.
Probably My Favorite Thing, But I Haven't Played It Yet
AKA, my pile of shame from 2015 — and list of games you can expect to see made into MvB comics shortly! While I certainly play a lot of games, I'm a one-man show and can't get to everything. Some of the titles I've yet to play are largely known quantities due to their lineage (Bloodborne, Telltale's Game of Thrones), while others are series I'm frankly somewhat bored of (Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V). Still, enough praise has been heaped upon each that I will certainly check them out in 2016.
So what truly stands apart? Invisible Inc. looks like the closest thing to XCOM we got this year, Life is Strange appears to have taken up Telltalle's episodic story-telling torch and done some intriguing things with a time-traveling mechanic, and Sunless Sea's narrative-focused rogue-lite structure is appealing despite its outwardly dour appearance. Still (and with Alien: Isolation fresh in my memory), it is Soma that is (still) my most highly anticipated. Here's hoping that Frictional Games' follow-up to Amnesia: The Dark Descent can match or exceed its highs and push the horror genre forward ...
Favorite 2015 Game
Rocket League is my favorite game from 2015. I don't have an addictive personality, but I have had to remove this game from my hard drive on multiple occasions for fear of never getting any actual work done. Most telling of all, I was hooked from the first minute of gameplay. No other core video game in my life has been as immediately approachable and fun as Rocket League — and that's seemingly been true for all the gamers I've witness be introduced to it. It's helped along by clean and silky-smooth visuals, absolutely perfect controls, and wonderfully educational/inspirational in-game XP grants. It's endlessly deep and continues to yield further enjoyment the deeper you get into the game's mechanics: After you master your positioning and angles, you'll long be struggling with anticipating defenses and perfecting aerials.
As a soccer fan, I am predisposed to soccer games. I just didn't think the best soccer game ever made would include four-wheeled combatants. Play it. Love it.
And if you'd like to hear me extol the virtues of Rocket League further, check out the Victory Conditions podcast I was on a while back where we break down our love for it.