Tom’s Intentionally Controversial Top 25 Games of 2015
Splatoon. Mario Maker. Kerbal Space Program. Fallout 4. Just four of the games you won’t see on this list.
Why? Well I have good reasons for leaving them off. I don’t have a Wii U any more, I don’t have a Wii U any more, I didn’t get round to learning how to play and it’s not a great game.
And if games like that didn’t make it, then this must have been a great year, right?!
Hopefully I’ve upset some of you enough to make you read the rest of this list – red faced, fists clenched – looking for a typo or factual error that you can point out to me. Good luck. I hope you “win”.
For those of you who aren’t violently reactive to differing opinions, I hope you enjoy these choices. And as ever, if your own GOTY list would be wildly different from mine, please write it. After all, 2015 was great and now is your chance to shout to the world how much you love a thing. We can all get a bit divisive when discussing games, so now’s a great time to remember that developers make wonderful things for us, and celebrating them is as important as critiquing them.
(Oh, and I stuck them all on one page, because that’s what I would want to read. Imagine I split this list into 25 separate entries. I’d be an awful person.)
25. The Room 3
The only game here I haven’t actually played, I sure did watch a lot of The Room 3. It’s a puzzle game, but somehow also one of the best horror games of 2015. There’s a lot of Lovecraft and a fair bit of Clive Barker here, and the moody atmosphere can be soaked in even when you’re watching a smarter friend solve all the hard puzzles.
24. Her Story
One of the best trends in 2015 has been innovative, genuinely original games winning awards, and the ensuing confusion amongst game bros whose sphere of gaming knowledge only extends from Zelda to Skyrim. When any game studio smaller than CD Projekt Red won an award, there would be a predictable reaction: “I’ve never even heard of that game.” As if this were evidence of the award panels poor judgement rather than their own limited horizons.
And Her Story deserved all of the acclaim it accrued. It managed to achieve the seemingly impossible. It envisioned a format for an FMV game that actually worked – and not just as a curio, but as a genuinely engaging, puzzling and affecting mystery.
23. Crypt of the Necrodancer
Klei Entertainment put out some tremendous games this year, and one of the best was Crypt of the Necrodancer. A rogue-like that included rhythm-action gameplay, it somehow made that disgusting description appealing. The soundtrack was perfect for the games marching, metronomic rhythm and it was fun to play from the first moment. As soon as you start Crypt of the Necrodancer you just “get it”, and whether you play for days, or just dip in for quick ten minute games, it’s a great idea that’s great fun.
22. Mortal Kombat X
I was a massive fan of Mortal Kombat 9’s storytelling method, with narrative motivation for ripping spines out of opponents provided by interstitial cut scenes between fights. The thinly veiled excuses for conflict were usually awful, but awful in a fun, sometimes intentionally funny way. In truth MK X didn’t work as quite as well as 9. A lot of the humour was lost and the storyline meandered awkwardly, but underneath it still offered a solid fighting game with a lot of charm.
21. Nuclear Throne
People have been playing Nuclear Throne for a long time and have gotten really good at it, so when it finally left Early Access this year and appeared on PS4 and Vita, the trophy for “completing” the game and reaching the Nuclear Throne became common. Don’t let that fool you though, this is a demanding game, but the people that love Nuclear Throne REALLY love Nuclear Throne, and with secrets layered on top of secrets, this Rogue-like can really clock up the hours. And although purists will say it’s best played with mouse and keyboard (don’t they always?), it feels pretty great as a twin stick shooter too.
20. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Hotline Miami 2 was (along with Fallout 4, Halo 5 and Telltales Game of Thrones) one of the biggest disappointments of the year. And yet, and yet… it still makes it on to the best games of the year. The music is still astoundingly good, the atmosphere is still there. It’s still a trippy acid nightmare. A neon, retrograde, sun-bleached, anochronistic, anarchistic, exploration of the end of the world. And the developers are too smart to accidentally make a game this bad. I think Dennaton are the most punk games developers alive, and the frustrating level design and the story that collapses into self-indulgence both seem premeditated. Lots of musicians created bad albums to mock their own fans, but Dennaton might be the first developers to do the same thing with a game. Right?
Either that or they just fucked up.
Not every good game released in 2015 achieved the success it deserved, and Evolve is one example of a game that deserved credit for originality and ambition, but failed because of conflicted design and misguided market placement. Confusion over maps and DLC characters showed a lack of judgement from the publisher, and a focus on the games E-Sports potential engendered skepticism in the market. For those that bought in, Evolve was a cool asynchronous multiplayer game, tense and atmospheric and surprisingly varied, with a strong roster of diverse characters and monsters. Sadly, the gameplay felt a bit sticky with console FPS controls straight from 2001. In the end, only half of Evolve was fun. The monster half. But it really was a LOT of fun.
18. Dying Light
I feel like Dying Light missed out on some GOTY plaudits because it came out so early. Way back in January this game was justifying peoples Christmas console purchases. It’s a gorgeous game, and a great way to show off your new XB1 or PS4. And it’s not just technically impressive, the art design is good and the middle eastern setting lends it a distinctive flavour. A less ambitious dev would have set the whole thing in New York, but Techland fully leveraged the hazy, bleached Aesthetic of the setting to create a real sense of place.
In truth, the gameplay and story were fairly generic – it played like an updated Dead Island – but it didn’t matter. Any game world this gorgeous and detailed is worth exploring.
17. 80 Days
There’s not many games I’ll consent to play on the tiny screen of my phone, but 80 Days is one of them. An interactive novel, it’s Inkle’s best game so far and probably the best thing you could put on your mobile device.
A steampunk re-imagining of Verne’s classic novel, it’s full of difficult choices. You’re always balancing the tight timescale with your own safety (and that of your traveling companion Monsieur Fog). Will you cross the arctic on a boat, or a giant mechanical spider robot? Should you take the jungle hat or the desert robes? And while you’re constantly forced into these tough decisions, you’re looking at the interactive globe, turning it round and trying to find the best route round the world.
It goes without saying that 80 Days strongest feature is the writing, and in that regard it’s the best game released in 2015.
Bending the rules again here as 80 Days came out in 2014, but it came to PC this year. So I’m allowed to include it, right?
16. Ori and the Blind Forest
It says a lot about a game when you lose your save file and ten hours of progress, but don’t give up. When it happens twice, it would take a really special game to keep you playing. An especially broken one I guess, but an especially good one too.
Well I lost my save file three times in Ori, and I DID give up, but I ALMOST didn’t. So that says something. Playing on XB1, I encountered a progressing-erasing bug that (I believe) has now been fixed. And I will go back. Some day.
But while I was progressing through the game, I found it to be charming, tough and absolutely gorgeous. It’s a well designed Metroidvania game (there’s no better word for the genre, so I’m using it) that’s not afraid to challenge the player to some difficult platforming. And you won’t find a prettier game this year either.
15. Rise of the Tomb Raider
As an XB1 exclusive, the audience for Rise of the Tomb Raider was sadly restricted. I think that killed a lot of the buzz around this game, because from a visual and gameplay perspective, this is the best Tomb Raider game ever made. It’s undoubtedly one of the best looking games of the year, and the environmental design is astounding.
Still, it had problems. The story was risible with cardboard cut-out antagonists and a paper-thin plot that still managed to be riddled with cliche. And then there’s the ending… A truly awful arena fight that highlighted the loose, unsatisfying gunplay. It’s such a shame that the combat took centre stage at the stories conclusion, because the platforming and exploring in Rise of the Tomb Raider was exceptional.
14. Invisible Inc
Another Klei Interactive game, Invisible Inc seemed to invent a whole new genre. Turn Based Stealth doesn’t sound nearly as good as it actually is, and if anyone else makes a Turn Based Stealth game they’ll struggle to create one as good as this.
It’s brutally hard, but also completely fair. It made me want to throw my laptop out a window a few times, but I always came back for more.
13. Darkest Dungeon
I’m really bending my own rules here, as not only do I avoid Early Access games in GOTY lists, I also avoid buying them. In the case of Darkest Dungeon though, it’s already so polished and enjoyable (if you can call a game about nihilistic, psychological horror and existential hopelessness enjoyable), that I have no compunction about recommending it. If you like horror, Lovecraft, clever games and good things generally, you should go right ahead and buy this.
Darkest Dungeon is really tough. Intentionally so. You will fail, and when your characters die, they will stay dead. A 2D turn based dungeon crawl, the games unique red-and-black cartoon look and its grim, oppressive atmosphere are what make it work. Somehow, the games simple animation and camera work are incredibly effective in conveying the action. When you take a big hit, you FEEL it. Similarly, when you crit an enemy you immediately know you’ve landed a heavy blow. And beyond the physical combat, you’ll have to also manage the psychological damage done to your adventurers. Failing to keep your frontline knight calm can result in him keeling over with a heart attack when you need him most.
I’m not sure how Darkest Dungeon will develop next year. Perhaps it will be in the top 10 in 2016. For now though, in it’s current state, it easily justifies it’s place as one of the very best games of 2015.
12. Batman: Arkham Knight
“But the Batmobile sections Tom, THE BATMOBILE SECTIONS! They are terrible and you can’t avoid them! A Bat Tank?! Really? A BAT TANK!”
Well I really liked them. No wait, don’t leave, I’ll try to justify my wayward opinion. I’m not saying The Riddler assault courses are good. But everything relating to The Riddler in the Arkham games is awful, whether it’s the frustrating Question Mark collectibles or the painful padding of the puzzles that were obviously created by the game design interns at Rocksteady. No, the assault courses and puzzles are bad.
But careening through the city in the Batmobile, barely in control, smashing through everything… perfection. The tank battles were also well designed, allowing you to strafe around enemies, tricking them into firing at their team mates. The way the firing lines are drawn on screen makes the tank combat tense, strategic and skill based, while being immensely satisfying. I even enjoyed the stealth, with the battle against The Arkham Knight’s super tank a highlight; an engaging, suspenseful battle, albeit one that perhaps could get a bit frustrating.
As for the rest of the game? Well the story was decent, but a lazy, open ended denouement and a lack of adequate antagonists made this a rather unsatisfying conclusion to the series. Still, it’s a gorgeous game and the combat and stealth remained amongst the best you could find in a game this year. And it let’s you be Batman. Swooping, grapple hooking, batmobile driving, thug punching Batman!
11. Until Dawn
More Evil Dead than Cabin in the Woods, Until Dawn played the horror tropes straight, but with so little competition in the genre it was the best game of its type in 2015. Early moments in the story hinted at a more psychological horror experience than the by-the-numbers plot that eventually played out, but with an open ended story structure that could see any number of annoying teens survive or die, this game was a suspenseful experience whether you guided the jock, the joker, the popular girl and the nerd to safety or witnessed the cathartic slaughter of them all.
10. Titan Souls
One shot. One chance, A fraction of a second. Don’t miss. It’s the central concept for the final scene in Star Wars. And it’s all you have to do to beat every enemy in Titan Souls. One arrow. One weak spot. One hit to kill them.
Within the constraints the developer set themselves, Titan Souls has a huge variety of boss enemies and strategies necessary to defeat them. A brutally challenging game, when you eventually succeed it always seems simple. But until you do, triumph seems impossible. It’s an infuriating game, but discovery and eventual triumph is so revelatory that it forces you to keep going. When the animation plays out for killing a boss, there’s an ecstatic feeling that can’t be described. It has to be experienced.
Titan Souls can seem off-putting at first. Failure is painful. Traveling the same paths over and over to face that same enemy can seem like a punishment. But all that grinding is an essential component of the design. The stark, austere world seeps in to your mind as you trek the same paths over and over. Progress is slow and energy-sapping, but in the end you’ll look back on the road behind you and realise you’d gladly walk it all again.
9. Persona 4: Dancing All Night
While the title may bring to mind a lighthearted, throwaway experience, Persona 4: Dancing All Night is a large, clever, beautifully produced sequel. It might be a little less dark and a little more ridiculous, but it does nothing to undermine the quality of the characters and story of Persona. Indeed, in Persona 4: Dancing All Night you’ll be delighted to spend some more time with your old friends.
That familiarity doesn’t just come from the characters either. Persona 4: Dancing All Night will be nostalgic for anyone who played the original game. The menu sounds, the interface, the style and (obviously) the music are wonderfully evocative of Persona 4. You might be playing a new game, but it is one that absolutely resides within the bizarre universe of Persona 4.
The plot this time round goes to great lengths to explain why you will not be fighting with Persona’s, but dancing with them. Indeed, the amount of exposition required to explain why dancing is the primary method of conflict resolution in this new magical world is both impressive and weirdly intricate. Perhaps Atlus would have been best to simply say “every battle is a dance off, just because.”
Combining an enjoyable rhythm action game with the Persona 4 universe, it’s a game I have no hesitation in recomending to both fans of the series, and fans of good things in general.
8. Star Wars Battlefront
Judged on what it was and not what it could have been, Battlefront was the best multiplayer shooter of the year. With an astounding score (supplemented by the nostalgia of John Williams most famous pieces), iconic sound effects we all immediately recognize, the most accurate visual replication of recongizable Star Wars locales ever seen in a game and a satisfying feel to the blaster battling and the handling of the vehicles, this is a Star Wars fans dream game.
Sure, there could have been more game modes. There could have been more iconic scenes. And the most legitimate complaint – the lack of a decent singleplayer campaign – is felt most keenly while playing the sub-par survival mode. Shooting Storm Troopers feels so good, you wish you had a better excuse to do it in an interesting scenario of some sort.
Still, despite what the curmudgeons might say, Battlefront is a fantastically enjoyable game. Fighting with blasters feels different to fighting with firearms, but to the credit of the developers of Battlefront, it doesn’t feel worse. It feels new. Though Battlefront feels like a trip down a familiar road, there are new sights to see on the way.
7. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Th Witcher 3 is really big. The Witcher 3 is really pretty. The Witcher 3 is really good. It can be hard to find anything new to say about this massive RPG that dominated many GOTY lists. It’s hugely ambitious and – for the most part – it’s very successful. Most impressively, it manages to create a massive open world with far less bugs, broken quests and general jankiness of similar rivals like Skyrim or Fallout. It also tells a decent story with great characters, with the battle at Kaer Morhen being a particularly dramatic and memorable set piece.
Still, for me The Witcher 3 is perhaps just a tad too long. While the aforementioned set piece was a highlight, by the actual end of the game I was exhausted rather than elated. It demands a huge investment of time from the player, and in the time it took me to finish the campaign I probably could have completed six or seven regular-length games.
But if length and value is as important to you as quality or good design, this could be your pick for best game of 2015. For me, it remains a game I am glad I finished, but I am also glad it’s finished.
6. Rocket League
I might have finished a lot of games in this list in 2015, but I don’t think I will ever finish playing Rocket League. Between every game I’ve played this year, I’ve played some Rocket League. In fact, during every game I’ve lost interest in, I’ve been sucked back into Rocket League. Boring dialogue in an RPG? Might just play Rocket League. Long loading times? Rocket League. Servers offline? ROCKET. LEAGUE.
Football with cars. What a dumb idea. What a dumb, wonderful, sleep destroying, work-calling-in-sick idea.
In 2015 Rocket League was baseline game fun. If any other game let me down in any way, Rocket League would welcome me back.
It’s really hard to talk about Cibele without giving away too much. If a game about distance relationships between young couples (and how they invariably involve social media and/or MMO’s) sound interesting to you, then I absolutely recommend you just go play it. It’s raw and haunting and left me with a lot to think about. It also represents brave game design, as Nina Freeman crafts a story around and about her own relationships, using her own life and emotional pain as building blocks to craft an experience for you.
In that regard it has a lot in common with The Beginners Guide, but (for me at least) it’s both braver and more honest. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I just don’t think the level of honesty and emotional integrity that Nina shows within Cibele is evident in any other game I’ve played.
Videogames are a world where we can forge real relationships and feel genuine love and affection for those we meet online. Other games allow for that, but Cibele understands and discusses it.
4. Guitar Hero Live
There’s one real feature in Guitar Hero Live that stands out. Guitar Hero TV is the most important new gameplay feature. Effectively a range of channels that you play along with, it’s a massive library of content that you can experience. You have to play whats on the channel, but you can play as long as you like without ever really seeing the same song repeat. The whole time you’re competing with other players online who are also on the same channel. It’s an amazing competitive and communal experience, and once you start playing it’s incredibly difficult to stop. Playing earns credits that you can use to play specific songs from the massive catalogue of streaming choices available. As an alternative to buying specific songs, it appeals to me far more than old systems of DLC. I was constantly finding new songs to love rather than playing the same old library. And competing online with others pushed me to improve. When a particular hard chord would come down the note track, it’s great fun to imagine your rivals will struggle with it, especially if you know you can hit that chord.
Still, the armchair cynics will moan and moan about Guitar Hero. “Why don’t you just learn to play a real guitar” they’ll say with their joyless mouths. Well I’m one of those weirdos who loved Guitar Hero so much that I learned to play the real thing a bit. And I know more than a few kids who developed a love of music through Rock Band and Guitar Hero. And having learned to play the real thing a wee bit, my love of Guitar Hero has never been stronger. Real guitars don’t replace the Guitar Hero experience any more than buying a real car replaces playing GTA. It’s a fantasy and it’s a game, and it works as both very well indeed.
Guitar Hero Live is a fantastic game. More successful than anyone could have expected, the new controller and new play style has refreshed rhythm action games and reminded me what it was like to play Guitar Hero for the very first time. I didn’t think those feelings would come back. I’m glad they did.
I need you to all go finish Undertale. Go now. I’ll wait.
So…? You didn’t? Oh come on!
Two great things about Undertale: 1. It surprises and delights you by subverting your expectations, 2. the plot is complex and layered, and I really want to talk to you all about it but I don’t want to spoil it. THAT’S why you all need to play it.
While some games might subvert genre tropes once or twice in forty hours, Undertale is willing to offer a unique twist in pretty much every encounter in the whole game. The ideas never let up, with ever minute offering some neat trick that you want to tell your friends about. By the end, the sheer volume of creative ways the game undercuts your expectations means you’re left unable to voice exactly why the game is so essential. All you can say is, “You need to play Undertale.”
2. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Oh man, did I struggle with the ordering of the top 3 games. The Phantom Pain has my favorite ending of any game, and it was easily the most “fun” thing I played this year. But my number one pick was more engrossing and kept me up at night, the locations and nightmarish enemies seeping into my dreams. Meanwhile, Undertale was the most surprising thing I played, delighting me and making me think long and hard about the fundamental nature of games and the assumptions made by both the designer and the player about the game worlds we inhabit and the lives of the characters within them. How do I compare entertainment and fun with insightful revelation and compelling, soul-absorbing engrossment?
Well in the end, I guess I chose the game I played most compulsively as number one, but even then the choice was hard. Both Phantom Pain and my number 1 pick made me go (admittedly) “a bit funny”. I was mildly obsessed with both, but with the later it was the world and the challenge that absorbed every waking moment, while the former was more related to the base building, crew recruiting and fultoning-everything-in-existence that kept me coming back.
Metal Gear Solid 5 does not tell a perfect story, nor does it do storytelling perfectly, but it does tell a very, very interesting story. And wrapped around that story is a game. Probably one of the best games ever made. A deep game, with complex, interlocking systems that also manages to retain a personality of it’s own. It’s an open world that’s not filled with boring diversions. It’s a stealth game where getting caught is as much fun as not being caught. It’s a story based game where you know what you’re doing and why, and where your enemies feel real and your companions fates genuinely concern you. Above all, it’s a realisation of everything the Metal Gear Solid series has tried to achieve in the past and never full achieved. MGS5 is weird and vast and deep and absolutely essential.
If perfection is achieving everything you set out to do in such a way that you can imagine no change that would make that creation better, then Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team have done it. They’ve made a perfect videogame.
So that’s it. That’s my 2015. I hope yours was just as great. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next year.