Tag Archives: RPG

Best of 2016

Better late than never!

I found last year about as good for games as it was reasonable political discourse and beloved celebrities. Hell, my annual top tens, shortened to top fives in recent years, now find themselves shortened to a three-game single-post list – and still there weren’t many notable leftovers. These were basically the only ones that gave me the butterflies that a true GOTY contender should bring.

I enjoyed Fire Emblem Fates but disliked its split across three games; the long-awaited The Last Guardian came close but fell short due to technical issues that were somehow worse than its 2005 predecessor, Shadow of the Colossus, making it my least favourite of the series; Pokémon Go was among my most-played games but I don’t think there’s enough actual game there for me to put it up there with these three; Battlefield 1 was reliably fun and surprisingly polished for a DICE game at launch, but couldn’t hold my interest for long. I liked Project X Zone 2 as well, but I can’t ignore the fact that its main hook for me was the presence of Ryo Hazuki.

With most of my gaming time spent on retro these days, I had worried that my declining interest might have been terminal. But my document listing potential GOTY nominees for 2017 is already longer than the below, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is coming, so maybe it was just a crap year.

3) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

The most technically impressive reason to own a PS3 continues the pattern on the PS4. Uncharted 4 is stunningly beautiful, as I’m sure you’re aware – probably the closest we’ve come to a playable CG movie, so polished in its performances, cinematics and attention to detail that it makes everything else look amateurish. Frankly the visuals would have been enough to drag me through it, but it’s one of the strongest adventures in the series, and deserves credit for being the only mainline Uncharted game not to shit the bed with annoying supernatural enemies in the final act.

That said, I’ll be disappointed if we get Uncharted 5. ND’s done well to wring another top release out of this series and I’d like to see it turn those remarkable skills to something new.

2) The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine

Yes, one third of my already-truncated list is an expansion. I said it was a bad year.

Blood and Wine, though, is the first expansion in a long time – maybe since the GTA IV episodes – that’s an actual expansion. Not a handful of missions wrapped up in poor-value DLC. It’s new environments – on a similar scale to the already vast original and arguably the most beautiful locale yet – hosting a new scenario, new gameplay styles, new characters, an almost entirely new story.

It’s also probably the best part of the game. It was fun to take part in a smaller adventure, where you’re not fighting for the fate of the universe, that doesn’t use narrowing the focus as an excuse to skimp on the production values.

CD Projekt Red has fast become one of my favourite developers; one that – like Naughty Dog above – commands my full attention simply by announcing a new game. Only this is done without the financial and technical powers of a first-party publisher behind it. Is it simply lower costs of doing business in Eastern Europe, or an unexpectedly vast bounty coming from the admittedly brilliant Good Old Games? Who cares as long as Cyberpunk 2077 can come close to this?

1) Doom

I could probably have guessed at the beginning of 2016 that new releases from Naughty Dog and CD Projekt would be there or thereabouts when I was compiling my favourites of the year, but a new Doom? No way. I don’t think id’s games have been hugely relevant since Doom 3 got overshadowed by Half-Life 2, and the multiplayer and E3 demos didn’t instil confidence.

What I got, though, was a shockingly fun old-school shooter that revelled in its status as a game, and a Doom game at that. It has the visual design of the classroom doodles of a 14-year-old angsty teenager – but that’s a good thing. It’s about speed, responsiveness and blasting demons without only token gestures towards providing depth and a storyline for motivation – but that’s a good thing too. The soundtrack is awesome, no caveats required. The whole thing pressed the buttons I’ve been trying to touch with a recent retro fixation, reminding me why I grew up loving games above any other medium.

It’s brilliant, pure and simple. The excellent Wolfenstein: The New Order – based on an id property but not developed by the studio – reminded us to pay attention, but it was only the herald for the true return of id Software.

Best of 2015 #1: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild HuntWhen I finished The Witcher 3, for the first time in a while, I was left with the feeling that my most anticipated game of the year had knocked it out of the park. I’d expected great things, having loved the previous game and enjoyed the books too, but The Witcher 3 turned out to be a genuine, unequivocal masterpiece that puts similar games from bigger developers to shame.

I love how The Witcher 3 not only seems to invite the comparisons with Skyrim but revels in them once you get to Skellige, a cold, mountainous and Nordic land ruled by jarls and peppered with ruins to explore and dragons forktails to kill. And The Witcher does it with an astonishing breadth of content that belies how little it cost, every quest offering its own plot arc and well-acted, well-voiced characters – a far cry from Skyrim’s endless treks to identikit dungeons on the orders of barely animated automatons.

A truly good game shouldn’t be defined by its competition, though. This game is put together with confidence, from the writing – it’s come a long way from the stunted script of the first game – to its treatment of difficult subject matter. I didn’t feel like any of the list of touchy subjects, from abortion to spousal abuse via racism and persecution, were given superficial coverage here.

What could be described as the typical fantasy fare, too, is interesting. CD Projekt Red delved deeper into real-world mythology than is typical – elves and dwarves are relegated to side characters while you’ll face obscure creatures from Eastern European and Asian folklore like djinn and the fabulously creepy – particularly when you stumble upon them when you’re woefully under-levelled, as I did – leshies. I mentioned before, apropos Metro 2033, that I often find Eastern European takes on sci-fi and fantasy refreshing next to the predictable English-language offerings around at the moment, and the Witcher series is a big part of that.

It took me months to get through The Witcher 3’s main campaign, and it’s still in my PS4’s drive as I find new secrets and work my way through the first and smallest expansion – and CDPR’s positive approach to DLC in these cynical times deserves commendation on its own. Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to justify the gorgeous Blood and Wine expansion as a contender for the Best of 2016, but I suspect it wouldn’t be undeserved. A superb game.

Best of 2015 #2: Bloodborne

BloodborneI’m still yet to get further than about ten hours into a Souls game, and that trend continues with this spiritual sequel. I’m afraid I just don’t have the nerves, nor the patience, for it these days. But even if I couldn’t get to the end, this is probably my favourite of the lot.

It’s slicker and significantly less janky, more focused on timing, aggression and combat skill than skulking along behind a shield. Also gone is the medieval European fantasy setting, which had its own take on the style but inevitably felt limited because, honestly, what is there left to do with knights and dragons?

I’d been saying for a long time that Assassin’s Creed should do Victorian London, and in the year that it happened, this did it better. This isn’t precisely Victorian London, of course – more like the comic book take on that era of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies crossed with a dash of Lovecraft – but it’s really wonderful. Oppressive, frightening, unique and filled with much more personality for that unique brand of minimalist storytelling than swords and sorcery.

The one prediction I can make about Dark Souls III with reasonable certainty is that I won’t finish it. But although that’s not a criticism in my case, what may be is that I’m far less interested in another romp through ruined castles after playing this.

Best of 2014 #1: South Park: The Stick of Truth

South Park: The Stick of TruthThe South Park games are an eclectic mix, from an FPS in the days before everything had to be an FPS, through kart racinggame shows and tower defence. An RPG must have been the obvious choice, then, thankfully after they had the revelation that South Park games work better when they look like the TV show.

But even despite the turmoil that accompanied the development, from THQ’s bankruptcy to the frankly shameful censorship – I imported the unsullied version, naturally – it turned out amazingly well. It’s fun, funny, authentic, and unlike many turn-based RPGs, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. With my reduced gaming time coming into frequent conflict with my love of a genre that thrives on lengthy narratives, words cannot express how much I appreciated a traditional RPG that I could finish in 15 hours.

It’s the fact that it was funny that stood out most, though. From the ludicrous summons to the creative trophies (‘Are We Cool?’ and ‘Heisenberg’ are favourites), through the obsession with anal probing, dodging swinging ball sacks and the way the Nazi zombies speak in incomprehensible snippets of Hitler speeches, it’s often hilarious when most games can’t raise a chuckle. Even if the game had sucked, which it absolutely doesn’t, I’d have happily endured through the running time to soak in all the humour.

Happy new year, everyone. May it be better for gaming than the last one.

Best of 2013 #8: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White WitchDid I say that big budget RPGs were dead? OK, I lied. They’re only mostly dead. Think of this as the last hurrah before Final Fantasy XV comes along and introduces a cover system, surely representing the death knell for the genre.

I’ll admit that my love for Ni No Kuni is mostly skin-deep. It marries Level-5’s cel-shaded style, seen previously in games like Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII, with Studio Ghibli to stunning effect. It tickles the nostalgia gland through its animated aesthetic and young-boy-on-an-adventure story that’s straight out of an 80s family film. And playing a voiced game with a character called Oliver is like something from the future, where speech synthesis is of a standard where naming the protagonist after yourself does more than personalise the name of your save file.

It was enough, however, for extremely traditional JRPG tropes, supported by a bit of Pokémon catch-’em-all-ing, to keep me at it for over 50 hours, which doesn’t happen often. I adored the wonderful world in particular; I frequently cite the standard of its towns as being the ultimate barometer of an RPG’s quality, and Ding Dong Dell and the Fairyground are right up there.

What Ni No Kuni lacks was never enough to dilute its charms for me, and so it remains one of the few shining lights among last generation’s crop of JRPGs.

Best of 2013 #10: Bravely Default

Bravely DefaultA lot’s been written about how JRPGs in general and Final Fantasy in particular have gone off the rails in recent years, but it frequently seems to escape the notice of such editorials that portable RPGs have thrived. While Final Fantasy stuttered on consoles, minor classics like Radiant Historia, The World Ends With You, Jeanne D’Arc and innumerable Shin Megami Tensei games have shone on the last two handheld generations. Dragon Quest saw where the action was, and now Final Fantasy does. Kind of.

Square Enix got cold feet, instead making this the spiritual successor to a minor Final Fantasy spin-off, but it doesn’t take long to see where its roots lie. Familiar enemies, items and tropes show up in a world that blends Final Fantasy IX – an easy way into my heart – with the style of the DS Final Fantasy remakes.

Some late subversion of various RPG stereotypes aside, it’s disappointingly conservative – more old-fashioned than nostalgic. But as a fan of classic JRPGs, I had a great time with it. It makes some clever use of StreetPass; it’s beautiful, making subtle use of 3D to add depth to its watercolour environments; and the return of the job system is welcome, since it’s one of my favourite character development systems that got left by the wayside for some reason.

JRPGs as big budget entertainment burned brightly but lasted only two generations. The likes of this show where the real talent has gone.