Best Games of 2016: The Final List

Well here we are. My best of the best for 2016...

To recap:

All told, that (plus what follows here) comes out to nearly 14,000 words in the course of about a week and a half. And that's not counting the Final Fantasy XV and Dishonored 2 reviews I cranked out along the way.

Guess I've been pretty busy. Now let's finish this!

10. Brut@l (Stormcloud Games) and Oxenfree (Night School Studio)

Yup. Starting right off the bat with a cheat from the "Top Ten List" playbook: The Tie. If you read the first draft of my list over on OK Beast a few weeks ago, you might remember that these were two separate entries. Well, since then, another game made its way onto the list but I really didn't want to cut either of these two so I gave them both the #10 spot. And I think they actually compliment each other well, with Brut@l being all about great gameplay and Oxenfree being all about a great story. And they both feature some of my favorite art direction from the year.

Brut@l managed to win me over on a genre I don't typically enjoy: the procedurally-generated rogue-like. But this hack-and-slash dungeon crawler got its hooks in me prior to launch. The ASCII-inspired art style caught my eye when it was revealed at the 2015 PlayStation Experience. I already had the game pre-ordered when Stormcloud Games offered me a review copy of the game and I went all in for a couple weeks on that game, rising to the top of the leaderboards pre-release (and taunting friends like Roger Pokorny and Jakejames Lugo with that a bit). I was even the first to Platinum the game. But ultimately, I loved the satisfying combat and art design more than those little meta-competitive elements. Collecting ASCII letters in order to craft new weapons and leveling up my characters in order to nab my ideal build kept me striving to get deeper and deeper into the dungeon.

Meanwhile, Oxenfree was one of the first games I played this year and recognized that it was something I would want to keep in mind come Game of the Year conversations. Utilizing choose-your-own-adventure-style dialogue choices (where there's even an achievement/trophy for playing through the game silently), the characters and narrative continually adapt to how your playing. If you interrupt a conversation, other characters might call you out on it. Likewise, if you just refuse to talk, they'll comment on that too. All of those dialogue choices tie into a wonderfully off ghost story that, in retrospect, almost ends up feeling a bit like Stranger Things before Stranger Things was a...thing. Throw in great performances and a beautiful animation style and I knew this game would end up somewhere on this list. I think I played through it four times to see many of the different ways the story could unfold.

9. Final Fantasy XV (Square Enix)

Yup. After absolutely picking this game apart in a somewhat scathing review, I'm still giving this a spot on my list. Because sometimes, even a mediocre-to-bad Final Fantasy game can still wind up being one of my favorite games of the year.

And while there were five to ten hours of story that I absolutely hated in this game, there were another sixty hours of fun combat and gameplay. Hell, after I finished my diatribe on Christmas, I immediately dove back into the post-game content for a few hours exploring more side quests. Hell, now that there's no more story to worry about, I can really enjoy the gameplay exclusively!

All joking aside, Final Fantasy XV is one of the best examples I can point to where a game with excellent gameplay and a crap story will always beat out a game with terrible gameplay and a great story. It's why Final Fantasy XV makes the list and something like The Last Guardian missed the cut.

8. Stories: The Path of Destinies (Spearhead Games)

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If you're reading this the day this comes out (January 2nd), stop reading and go make sure you've downloaded this December PlayStation Plus game.

All set? Good.

Stories is a charming fantasy action-adventure title with another choose-your-own-narrative gameplay hook. Featuring Batman Arkham-esque combat and a narrator who voices every character audiobook-style, you can probably play through the game's five-act story in an hour or two. But you'll inevitably fail at saving the world like you should. The pages of the storybook turn back and you are invited to choose a different path. Each playthrough affords you the opportunity to learn critical new information though, that will open up alternate paths on future playthroughs. This replay-ability-by-design and the games beautiful art style make every nook and cranny a joy to explore.

7. Headlander (Double Fine Productions)

Headlander is a fantastic Metroidvania game (and coincidentally fills the same spot Ori and the Blind Forest held in my 2015 list)! Song of the Deep and Headlander hit my PlayStation 4 around the same time earlier this year. And while I can appreciate intentionally tranquil nature of Song of the Deep, the quirky humor and more importantly fast-paced nature of Headlander won me over. Popping your flying head from robot to robot in a mission to overrun a space station's rogue AI is a delightfully off-the-wall science fiction plot and the 70s/80s sci-fi-inspired art style perfectly matched the game's tone.

6. Ratchet & Clank (Insomniac Games)

Prior to this year's reboot, I'd never played a Ratchet & Clank game. For whatever reason, I missed the heyday of PlayStation 2-era platformers (probably because I was putting in so much time on Nintendo ones or Grand Theft Autos or something). Ratchet & Clank at least had my attention as an outsider though. I was always amused by the outlandish weapons I would see in game trailers or footage. But I just never got around to exploring Insomniac's brand of lunacy until Sunset Overdrive. Having thoroughly loved my time with that title, I was happy to give Ratchet & Clank a shot (because I sure as hell wasn't going to play Dark Souls 3...).

And the game did not disappoint. While also one of the most beautiful games I've ever played, the action was what drew me in. Whether it was shooting every enemy I could with the Groovitron or summoning Zurkon to fight by my side, the combat always felt good. For a brief period of time, Insomniac held the honor of having produced my favorite exclusive titles on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Assuming they continue to explore this rebooted universe, I'll be along for the ride.

5. Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe)

When people started flocking to Stardew Valley this year, I felt somewhat resentful. As a fan of Harvest Moon going all the way back to when I first played it on Super Nintendo at my friend Luke's house in middle school, I wondered where they've all been these last couple decades.

In the time since, it would seem there were a ton more secret Harvest Moon fans than I thought as many of my own friends enjoying the game are not new to the farming/dating simulator genre. When I played it (and documented my time with the game using a pseudo-creative writing journal dubbed Starkey Valley) I quickly recognized just how much love the developer had for that original Harvest Moon. This was, in many ways, the successor I've wanted to that original (or my own personal favorite Back to Nature on the original PlayStation).

I will likely remember the quirky little story I was creating here on the site more than the specific moment-to-moment gameplay, but I'm certain Stardew Valley will find it's way into my list of comfort food games (especially now that it has been ported to consoles).

4. Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios)

The other major shake-up since my original OK Beast version of this list, Dishonored 2 shot up a few spots. When I originally had it slotted at #7, I had played half of a stealth-based no-kill run and raced through a murder-a-thon of the game. Since then, I finished that stealth run, and immediately dove into and completed a third playthrough without powers.

Every bit of variety afforded by this game left me incredibly satisfied. For me, it was an exquisite example of a game that provides a wide array of tools and an objective and says "do whatever you want." The level design is enthralling, both from a mechanical sense and from a narrative sense as every room has a story to tell.

After three times through this game, I think an early 2017 revisit of the original Dishonored and it's DLC might be in my future.

3. Doom (id Software)

Doom single-handedly reinvigorated my enjoyment of first-person shooters. Having grown up with the original Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, I was apprehensive of the modern approach until I heard such positive buzz. And I'm so glad I dove in.

From its very opening moments, Doom is brash about exactly what kind of game it is: one where you're gonna kill a shit-load of demons and feel like a fucking badass doing it. If that's not what you're looking for, there's the door.

The new id absolutely nailed the tone and pace of this game. So much so that any game that doesn't feel as frantic and as fast-paced as Doom moving forward will feel like a step in the wrong direction to me.

2. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Naughty Dog)

A beautiful send off for Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake story, this game does so many things right: characters, performances, visuals, direct storytelling, environmental storytelling, the list goes on. Even adding a long-lost brother (which myself and many others thought was setting the game up to fail) manages to showcase a new side of these characters instead of distract from them. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End quickly surpassed the other games in the series for me because it built on and honored so many of the characters I’ve come to connect with over the course of the previous games and as I have grown up, so have they.

This will be a lot of people’s Game of the Year and I don’t fault them for that at all. One of the only reasons it’s not mine as well is because even with all of its greatness (from small beginnings), a lot of the game still feels just like the others in the series, for better and worse. It also greatly benefits from the legwork put in by all of its predecessors to make the payoff so memorable.

1. The Witness (Thekla, Inc.)

The Witness has an incredibly simple premise: you wake up on a beautiful and mysterious island and are presented with a series of puzzles to solve. Every puzzle in the game involves getting from point A (the full circle starting point) to point B (the semi-circle ending point). New rules and tricks are added throughout the world in a largely non-linear fashion. You might stumble upon an incredibly complex puzzle with all sorts of unknown shapes and colors well before you’ve discovered the simpler versions of each of those shapes and colors that “teach” you what each one means. There is no feeling “cheated” in this game. Every reward comes as a result of solving a logic puzzle. The rules of the world are defined and unbreaking.

The game’s most difficult challenge – a set of randomized puzzles that must be completed in succession within a time limit – took me easily more than 100 attempts over the course of a week before I finally stumbled into the right mix of luck and headspace and managed to complete it. And even that doesn't feel like a "cheat" because it's all about being able to look at a puzzle and instantly know where that line needs to be drawn. Anyone who has gotten that far would get there eventually but this challenge requires you to know the rules so well that you won't waste a single second. The Platinum Trophy I secured in completing this challenge will likely live at the top of my favorite gaming achievements for years to come. It feels even more special because I was among the throngs of players in those early days after release who played through refusing to look up even the smallest of hints online.

Every puzzle I solved in that game was a combination of exquisite design and my own brain being tested. Not because I fought off wave after wave of enemies. This game is all brain; no brawn. And I would desperately love more like it.

And that's my list.

2016 was an incredibly diverse year for video games and it genuinely feels like we have plentiful options for pretty much any type of gamer (unless you only want Nintendo's big franchises maybe...). Let me know what your favorites from 2016 were either here in the comments or over on Twitter. Here's to 2017 and all of the games it will provide (or push to 2018).