Every year, I post a collection of thoughts on the year somewhere, but this is the first year in a while I haven’t had a good place to do that, like a blog I was running. So here it is, my favorite games of 2015.
What a year it was! After 2014 was one of the most disappointing years for video games I can recall, it’s like 2015 was working overtime to make up for that, with great release after great release. A top ten list isn’t even really enough to cover the games I liked this year. Even including some honorable (and dishonorable) mentions it feels like I’m leaving off some cool stuff, not to mention the stuff I wanted to play, but never got to (or was unable to get to), like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Star Wars: Battlefront, and countless indie games.
That said, let’s get some business out of the way before we move on to the actual list.
Dishonorable Mention: Batman: Arkham Knight
Batman: Arkham Knight was the worst game I couldn’t stop playing this year. It is an unmitigated disaster every step of the way, at least from a narrative perspective, and the reveal of who the Arkham Knight was felt insulting to me on a personal level for multiple reasons. Also, everything surrounding the game from a business perspective was super gross, from the still-busted PC port, to the flat out lying about who the Arkham Knight was (when everyone guessed correctly the minute the game was announced), to the absurdly expensive season pass, offering DLC which was, from what I hear, pretty mediocre across the board.
That said, there’s a lot of Batman stuff in that game, and it turns out if you put enough Batman stuff in your game, I will run around collecting every single Riddler Trophy in your game, for I am an idiot. A lot of that Batman stuff is really well executed. Most of the main narrative is not.
Dishonorable Mention: Broken Age Act 2
You had done it! You’d all done it! You’d made a great game, a little bit easy, maybe, but a great game, and had a twist at the end of Act 1 that felt perfectly executed.
You screwed it all up, game. You went, and you screwed it all up. Everything about Broken Age Act 2 simply felt off to me, from the way the game took a turn that felt like it had been obscuring information from the player in Act 1 (“Oh, you mean the Plague Dam?”), to the just absolutely infuriating, incomprehensible mess of a final sequence, to an ending that felt ultimately unsatisfying. Broken Age Act 2 was the biggest bummer I had playing games all year long.
Honorable Mention: Rocket League
I don’t like competitive multiplayer games, I don’t like soccer, I’m kind of disinterested about cars, but it turns out you put all three things together, and you get a really fun game.
Honorable Mention: Crypt of the Necrodancer
Someone made a rhythm game roguelike. It’s awesome. You should check it out.
Honorable Mention: Just Cause 3
Just Cause 3 is like someone made those fake movies from Last Action Hero into a real video game, as it gleefully embraces all things cheesy, over the top, and fun about action movies. I really like all of those things, and I really like Just Cause 3, I simply didn’t spend enough time with it for it to rate on my list this year.
Now, onto the actual list. Keep in mind, this is a list of my personal favorites, and is hugely influenced by my personal taste, and experience playing the games (along with the amount of time I managed to put into the games). I make no bones about this being any sort of objective list of the best games released, because objective opinions of “good and bad” media don’t actually exist, and also because this is just meant to represent how I feel, right this moment, in 2015. All right, good. Now, time for my list that no one will ever agree with.
It’s a true testament to the quality of gaming in 2015 that my list is starting out with a game as absolutely incredible as Undertale. If this had come out in a year that was more sparse with great games, like 2014, it’d be a real contender for my favorite game all year. As it is, it’s my tenth favorite.
Undertale felt like it came out of nowhere to become one of the most talked about games of the year, and for good reason. Undertale is a tribute to classic JRPGs, especially Earthbound, but even if you don’t have a lot of nostalgia for that time and place in gaming, it’s worth checking out simply for how fun and original it is.
It’s hard to even explain what it is that makes Undertale so great. Not only does it manage to punch way above its weight in a year absolutely bursting with great video games, it even outdoes some of the most expansive, and expensive, games of the year in terms of sheer ambition. The combat makes a truly unique experience not just in the game as a whole, but in every single encounter. Every character, even the most pointless NPC, is full of charm and personality. The story, while deliberately invoking classic JRPG tropes, manages to be very fresh. The soundtrack is full of memorable pieces which I kept coming back to listen to, completely divorced from the game, throughout the rest of the year.
A theme of some of these early entries on the list is “this would probably be much higher, if I’d simply spent more time with it,” and that’s true of Undertale. I really want to get back in to see a second, and maybe third ending, but as it is, Undertale deserves it’s spot as one of the best games of 2015.
9. Super Mario Maker
OK, so, I just got a Wii U this week, I haven’t been able to dive into Super Mario Maker as much as I’d have liked, but I really love what I have played.
The toolset given in Super Mario Maker is extremely powerful, but also very simple and easy to use. The result is that it actually is easy to make Mario levels, and the 100 Mario Challenge game mode makes it easy to quickly find levels created by others to play. While the in-game level browser leaves a lot to be desired, it’s a relatively minor blemish, at least so far, on a great game.
This game also has the (dubious) honor of being the game I watched the most this year, as I not only checked out and jealously wished I could play a number of great levels, but I got to experience the complete madness that was Patrick Klepek and Dan Ryckert’s Mario Maker rivalry, which was, it was just a joy to behold. At one point this year, I was watching Dan Ryckert livestream himself watching Patrick Klepek dying over and over to a level Dan had built. That’s stupid. I shouldn’t have done that. I sure did enjoy it, though.
Super Mario Maker is fun to create level in, fun to play levels in, and even fun to watch others create and play levels in. It’s a wonderful game, and I’m looking forward to spending even more time with it.
Splatoon is an amazing game, because I hardly ever get into competitive games, let alone competitive shooters, and yet I absolutely love Splatoon. I’m not sure why it took Nintendo 20+ years to find out about Nickelodeon’s 90’s aesthetic, but I couldn’t be happier with the results. Everything from the game’s visual design, to the soundtrack, to the dialog manages to be a pure delight to look at. I had the opportunity to play Splatoon over the summer on someone else’s Wii U, and throughout the remainder of the year I found myself itching to come back to the game.
Competitive shooters are probably the most tired genre there is, at least currently, and yet Splatoon manages to come up with an extremely fun new take on the genre, and create a great new game mode that’s not about killing other players. Seemingly strange choices like offering a small selection of maps, and switching those maps out every four hours, actually manages to give the game surprising legs, and offering substantial (free) content updates throughout the year (as well as fun events like Splatfests) have established a community around the game in a way so many similar games fail to do.
The game also features a fun, though admittedly thin, single-player mode. I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy the game if they don’t intend to play multiplayer, the intended way to play, but as a bonus, it’s fun.
Somehow, the game even manages to balance it’s “rad attitude” in such a way that you get just enough of it to be endearing, without being obnoxious, and that’s pretty impressive. In 2015, Nintendo finally figured out what the internet was, and the results were super fresh.
7. The Witcher 3
I’ve said it many times, The Witcher is the franchise Dragon Age wishes it could be. I’ve really enjoyed all the Witcher games, even though the first one was pretty rough to actually play, and I’ve found the world they’ve built to be extremely fun and fascinating. The Witcher 3 is a sendoff to the games as CD Projekt Red heads on to bigger and Cyberpunk-ier things, and what a sendoff it is. Building one of the largest games in recent memory would be an accomplishment in itself, but what they managed to do beyond that was build a game where every small sidequest was worth doing. There was meaningful, well-written story content at every turn, and that’s rarely seen even in small, super focused games, let alone massive open worlds.
Another thing I can say in its favor is that it managed to do things visually that I’ve rarely seen other games do. Not only does the world have a level of graphical fidelity that truly feels like a step forward for the medium, but it manages to nail faces in a way few games have. The characters of the world are easy to believe, and easy to connect with, and a large part of that is because they have faces that look like faces, the first video game facial expressions I’ve ever seen that rival Naughty Dog’s in my opinion. There’s a particular moment I can think of in the game, where Geralt cracks a bad joke, and Yennefer gives him a look I can only describe as utter disgust. It was an expression I’ve never seen in a video game before, because it’s a hard one to pull off. It’s a wonderful character moment, because I was able to connect with the character on a surprisingly human level, whereas when most games try that, I simply wind up wondering what direction they thought the stiff, ugly faces were going to take with this emotion.
Speaking of characters, not only are some of the best characters from past games brought back and improved upon, but two of the best new characters in gaming (yes, I know they’re from the books, I said in gaming) Yennefer and Ciri both made for fantastic additions to the story. With Ciri, you finally get to see a different side of Geralt, as you see his fatherly side show in both a protective way, as he fights to find, and defend Ciri, and in a loving way, as their eventual interactions are charming and fun to watch unfold. Yennefer, meanwhile, is the first character in the series who seems to truly be able to keep Geralt on his toes, serving as a true foil to him on an intellectual level, as well as a level of power. Don’t get me wrong, I love Triss, I actually ultimately chose to romance her on my first playthrough, but Triss isn’t really a foil to Geralt. She takes too much of Geralt’s bullshit, Yennefer won’t take any of it.
I spent a lot of time with The Witcher 3 this year. It’s an enormous game, and I played nearly all of it. The only thing keeping it from being higher on this list is that I found the combat to be mostly a chore after a while, which was further accentuated by the fact that I went directly from a certain other game, one with some of the best melee combat of all time, to this one, which… Yeah, I mean, it’s all right. It’s not bad. I don’t want to do it any more though.
Even with the combat holding it back just a touch, I look forward to going through a second playthrough next year, seeing how some of the storylines can wrap up differently, and diving into those DLC packs, which, so far, are getting a good reception. The Witcher 3 is a great game.
6. Heroes of the Storm
If you’d told me 2015 was the year I’d get into a MOBA, I’d probably have laughed in your face. League of Legends is a strong contender for my most hated game of all time, because I played a lot of it, a lot of it, trying to figure out what my friends, who had become wholly consumed by the game, saw in it, and I finally discovered that it was a garbage game filled with garbage people.
I didn’t expect to stick with Heroes of the Storm past the tutorial, or maybe my very first match, if I was optimistic. Yeah, I love the Warcraft universe and the fanservice of the game appealed to me, but I really hate MOBA’s. I just… I just really hate MOBA’s.
And yet, Heroes of the Storm is one of the games I played the most of in 2015. Making changes to the MOBA formula to strip all of the crazy nonsense that has made the genre so popular, they somehow managed to make a game that was— and this is a crazy, revolutionary idea— fun to play!
Not once did I have to look at an item shop in the middle of a battle. Not once did I have to worry about last hits. Yeah, they screwed up by dropping the “takedowns” idea for a more standard Kills/Assists/Deaths display, but I can still mute any terrible people with the click of a button, so I can live with that.
Plus, there are multiple maps, and most of them are even good. Of course, one of them is also the Haunted Mines, but they’ve removed that from the map rotation, so even the worst part of Heroes of the Storm is only barely a part of Heroes of the Storm now.
It’s fun. It’s a fun game to play solo, it’s a fun game to play with friends, it’s a fun game to watch, and it actually made me appreciate the MOBA genre. Just not League of Legends. League of Legends is still a bad video game.
I’ve been looking forward to SOMA for years. I was sold on the premise from the very first teaser trailer for the game. The creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, working on a Sci-Fi horror game? Done. Ready.
Even then, I was taken by surprise by what SOMA actually was. I had pretty much accepted the game as something I would play from the moment it was announced, so I’d stopped keeping an eye on it until it came out. Not only did I miss that the game was going to be set on the ocean floor, rather than some deep space vessel, but I only found out the game was even coming out a few weeks before it actually launched.
Even from a gameplay point of view, SOMA wound up defying my expectations. I was pretty much ready to play Amnesia again, but this time with sci-fi mutants and robots. SOMA is only that on the most surface level. Amnesia was a game where the horror came from running away from monsters, and being trapped in a creepy environment. SOMA has monsters you have to run away from, and it includes you being trapped in a creepy environment, but I never found either of those elements all that scary. To tell the truth, I might have preferred the game if it hadn’t included any monsters at all, or found a way to let me get past those monsters in a more interesting way, because I found most of the stealth sequences incredibly tedious.
SOMA works because it’s telling one of the best stories of the year. If this list boiled down to “Best Story,” it’d probably be my number two on this list, behind only one other game I have yet to talk about. SOMA is a game about the human consciousness, the limits of human experience, and how technology can, and will, change those limits. The horror of SOMA comes from the sheer nihilistic quality of the world in which it is set. It’s a game which very early on establishes that there’s no happy ending coming, and the best you can do is try to make the happiest ending possible, and where that ending might look less like butterflies and rainbows, and more like euthanasia.
It’s the absolute best kind of Sci-Fi story, because it uses an impossible premise to make the player ask very personal, real questions about the human experience itself. The monsters aren’t that scary. The absolute hopelessness of the situation you find yourself in, and the questions it leaves you with about identity, those are. The ending left me speechless. SOMA is not one to be missed by any Sci-Fi fan.
4. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Until this year, I had never played a Metal Gear Solid game. I was familiar with it in that I knew Solid Snake was a character in Smash Brothers, and that there were apparently hour long cutscenes, which sounded like a complete nightmare which I wanted nothing to do with.
Then Metal Gear Solid V came out. I saw some gameplay footage of it, thought “that looks rad,” and got it. I was right. Metal Gear Solid V is one of the best playing games of the year. One of the best stealth games ever made. It has flaws, but at its core, it is a game where you can sneak into a base, and strap balloons to people. Doing that is the entire loop of the game. So here it sits, near the top of my list of games of 2015.
Quiet’s design is the kind of thing that makes me embarrassed to be a video game fan. The game’s story feels incomplete, most likely due to the fact that the game was being published by a pachinko company that used to make video games. Any mission which requires you to actually fight, rather than sneak into a place and strap balloons to people, is an exercise in frustration.
That said, the highs of this game are so high, they’re easily the most fun I had with any video game this year, because they involved sneaking into enemy territory, and strapping balloons to people. Some of the most fun I’ve had with any video game ever. I enjoyed this game so much, I went back and watched complete Let’s Plays of the first four games, and now have a working understanding of the Metal Gear franchise. It’s a great game, I just wish it had been a bit more complete an experience.
3. Fallout 4
Fallout 4 is a great game. Bethesda RPGs are still the only place where you can get the sort of experience being offered by these games, though some people have fooled themselves into thinking The Witcher 3 is even in the same genre, and until someone manages to offer the kind of game being made in the Fallout, and Elder Scrolls franchises, I will cut any problems they might have a lot of slack, because I can’t get that type of game anywhere else.
The crafting system was great. Most of the quests were great. The companions were the best they’ve been in one of these games, and while that maybe sounds like damning with faint praise, I did actually like and remember several of them, which is more than I can say for Fallout 3. Exploring the world was engaging, and wonderful. The shooting was not only an improvement over Fallout 3, it actually felt pretty good.
People can complain about the typical Bethesda jank, or say I’m merely excusing it because it’s a Bethesda game, to which I say: Yeah. You’re right. I’m excusing the Bethesda jank because it’s a Bethesda game, and no one else has ever, ever, successfully made a game of that type before, and had it run better. Actually, the only company I can think of who even made a game like the Bethesda-style-RPGs before is Obsidian, who made a little game called Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas was a better game than Fallout 4! It still ran like crap, and I couldn’t play it without crashing for weeks.
I love the Bethesda-style-RPG. If I had to list a favorite game genre, that would probably be it. Because of that, until someone offers a game which plays like that and does it better, I’ll keep playing my Fallout games and my Elder Scrolls games, and loving them.
There are some huge grievances with the game. The new dialog system is bad, the main storyline falls apart at the end, and the amount of content feels fairly limited compared to previous games like Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas, but I still sunk over 80 hours into it, and I’m still not done, I’m merely waiting for the DLC, and for some great mods to come out.
A year from now, two years from now, Fallout 4 will almost certainly be the best game that was released in 2015. Right now though, it actually is 2015, and it’s merely the third best. That’s quite an accomplishment in itself.
Several days into my first playthrough of Bloodborne, I had a nightmare. I dreamt that I opened the window above my bed, and that there was an enormous eye staring through it, four feet, maybe more, across. The eye was there, it was staring at me, and I knew it was staring at me, but I couldn’t see it. I could tell you what it looked like, I could sense that it was there, but I couldn’t see it, because it wasn’t something which could be seen.
My point is, that’s the kind of thing Bloodborne did to me. Long after playing it, it’s stuck with me in a way even Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Demon’s Souls, great games though they all are, didn’t. It was memorable, to me, in a way which I’m not sure any game has been before. Games don’t give me nightmares, they never have, but Bloodborne did.
I’ve talked about Bloodborne a lot this year, and I still have more to write about it yet (I still haven’t written up the rest of those Bloodborne lore articles I said I was going to do, *sigh*), but I’m not sure what I can say that I haven’t said before. It plays like a dream, a faster version of the best melee combat of all time, which the Souls series has always offered. The lore was fascinating, full of unexpected twists and turns. The game itself— Holy crap, the aesthetic offered. It’s like Van Helsing were hunting Shoggoths.
I love Bloodborne. I tortured myself for weeks over whether I’d put this, or the other game that I have yet to mention, at the number one place, because this and the other game are both my favorite, for completely different reasons. I bought a PS4 specifically to play Bloodborne, and I was not disappointed, not at all. It’s an incredible game. Truly, truly an incredible game. I cannot say enough good things about it. Even the flaws it has, such as the frustrating Chalice Dungeons, or the overall lack of variety in loot and weapons compared to previous games, or the ultimate lack of variety in viable builds compared to the previous games, which made Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls II so endlessly replayable, feel like minor blemishes on an unbelievable accomplishment.
Not only is it the first game that ever feels, to me, as though it’s captured the actual spirit of Cosmic Horror, and of the works of H.P. Lovecraft successfully, but simply the fact that they kept that a secret, that it even was a Lovecraft inspired game, until it came out? That’s pretty amazing too. I went into Bloodborne expecting werewolves, and I got to fight eldritch abominations. It was surprising, it was fun, and it’s easily one of the best games of 2015.
1. Life Is Strange
Life is Strange is the best video game to come out in 2015. In a year filled with great blockbuster gaming experiences, like The Witcher 3, or Fallout 4, the game I’m ultimately choosing to put at the very top of this list is an unassuming adventure game from Dontnod, a developer whose only previous game was the ironically mostly forgotten Remember Me.
It’s hard to even explain why Life is Strange is such an incredible achievement. Playing this game made me feel like I felt playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead back in 2012, like I was witnessing an evolution of the adventure game genre. The Walking Dead impressed me, and most audiences, back then because it felt like they’d finally struck on a format that made sense, and which with some fine tuning, could bring adventure games back in a big way. Telltale has never quite managed to make lightning strike twice, although Tales from the Borderlands is surprisingly great, and they’ve definitely been financially successful with that formula.
Life is Strange is the first game I’ve played that not only uses the Telltale adventure game format, but manages to improve on it in some very important ways. The Telltale games have increasingly felt like choose your own adventure books to me, getting even lighter on the puzzle design front, and while that’s not an inherently bad thing. Life is Strange manages to include quite a few really great puzzle elements using the time rewinding mechanic, and to make the world feel like just that, a world, rather than a series of set pieces and hallways, like most of the Telltale games have felt. Not to mention, they’re doing their own thing, rather than telling a story set in an established universe like Telltale has started making a habit of.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m simply writing a hate-piece on Telltale, nothing can be further from the truth. I love Telltale, I think they’re a great company making some great games (I sure would like to see them make a new Puzzle Agent game, even though it would make no financial sense to do so), and I do think there’s something impressive, and artistically valuable, about being able to successfully write stories based in other people’s established universes. The point I’m trying to make is, everywhere I’ve personally been getting tired with the Telltale formula, Life is Strange breathes new life into the genre.
The thing that makes Life is Strange such a great game is the story they are telling. The characters they introduce you to, and make you care about. The world they so successfully build. The moments that, repeatedly, made me want nothing more than to find out what was going to happen next.
If I had to list my favorite gaming moments of 2015, that list would have the ending of SOMA on it. It would include the first time I strapped a balloon to someone in Metal Gear Solid V on it. I would mention the doors to Yahar’ghul opening, after the blood moon rises in Bloodborne. There’s a moment in each of those games, each of the other games on this list, really, I can boil down the whole game to. That’s the piece of those games I want people to see, to understand what makes them so great. The rest is great too, but those moments encapsulate what I loved about them.
If I had to list my favorite moment from Life is Strange though? There are too many to pick from. To obliquely list a few, the end of episode two. The end of episode three. The beginning of episode four. The end of episode four. The beginning of episode five. The end of episode five. Taking a snapshot of something goofy, and hearing Max comment on it. Every time Max sits down to think, and I and just listen to the music, and look at the art, and reflect on what’s happening.
Speaking of those quiet moments of contemplation, it’s funny that my two favorite games of the year are Bloodborne and Life is Strange, because they’re as different as game can be. While Bloodborne offers a feeling of discomfort, even disgust, at every turn, Life is Strange is perhaps the most mellow game on this whole list, save perhaps Undertale. Life is Strange is mostly a quiet and understated work of brilliance.
Every character, even the bit players, feel like well-realized people, who have their own stories going on in parallel to the story of Max and Chloe. Speaking of, both Max and Chloe are great characters, and Ashly Burch (who, full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of for years) gives a performance as Chloe which may be the thing that elevates the game from good to great.
Really, the only flaw I can remember having with the game was the lip syncing. I was playing on PS4, and I don’t know if that’s why, but the lip syncing was impressively bad pretty much the entire time I played. Yes, it was really distracting at first, but eventually my brain prevented me from noticing it, as I got more and more engrossed in the story.
Life is Strange may be my new favorite adventure game. It’s an emotional rollercoaster like no other game this year, with some of the highest highs, and lowest lows. To merely say it had the best story in a game this year is selling it short. It wasn’t just the best story in a game in 2015, it was the best game in 2015.