Mark Trapp

Twelve games I enjoyed playing in 2015

Another year has come and gone, and I'm still playing video games. I think I've played a lot more games than I've played in a long time, a conscious decision to play more games in genres outside my go-tos: one can only play so many 4X strategy and JRPGs without trying something new. From everything I played this year, there are twelve games I can say I really enjoyed and either kept coming back to, or plan to in the future.

Before I get to that list, the usual disclaimer: these are not the games I think are the best ones to come out in 2015: I don't play nearly enough games to be able to make that call in any year. And these aren't games that are perfect by any stretch of the imagination: every one of the games on this list has recognizable flaws. But they are games that I came back to time and time again this year, and are at least worth checking out if you ever get the chance.

Now, onto the list of games I really enjoyed playing in 2015, in alphabetical order:

The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner's Guide logo
  • Genre: interactive narrative
  • Platforms: Linux, Mac, Windows (I played the Mac version)
  • Trailer

The Beginner's Guide was the last game I played in 2015 and the most personal. On its face, it's almost like a "director's commentary" for a series of small games created by a friend of the narrator's in hopes that he'd create more. But it's a bit more than that: rather than a commentary on the games themselves, it's a commentary on both the games' creator, the narrator himself, and the relationship with each other.

Throughout my life, I've struggled with being an introvert, and, on occasion, with depression. If you've ever been in that position with someone who cares about you, or in the reverse position, you've no doubt experienced the frustration in that relationship: one person trying to "fix" the other so they'll be happy, but not knowing what to say or do or realizing it won't help.

If last year's Depression Quest helped to internalize what it feels like to live with depression, The Beginner's Guide is the internalization of that other side: what it's like to care about someone in that position. It's super short and straightforward: I completed it in 80 minutes, and there are minimal puzzles or roadblocks. But I'd recommend it to anyone as an honest and frank portrayal of how introversion, depression, narcissism, and a desire to help can affect a relationship.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition logo
  • Genre: open-world action RPG
  • Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One (I played the PlayStation 4 version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

Like a lot of people, I loved Dragon Age: Origins. Unlike a lot of people, I also really liked Dragon Age II. Playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third in the series, was a no-brainer for me.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the most enjoyable Dragon Age for me. In fact, it's probably the least enjoyable. But man, it was still really good and I got the platinum trophy for it just like the last two. BioWare learned from the mistakes made in Dragon Age II, taking all the good things from it and removing all the stuff that people really disliked. Amazingly, it retroactively adds weight to Dragon Age II's story and ties it into the larger narrative established in Origins.

What killed the enjoyment for me, at least somewhat, is that they made it an open world game. So much filler! In order to illustrate the far-reaching effects of your character's actions on the world, the game is too big. From sending agents out on missions instead of doing it yourself (because you're too important, naturally), to a dozen different types of collectibles, it includes about 50 hours of unnecessary content and busywork. It's a shame, but I guess that's the way AAA franchises like Dragon Age are going now.

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII logo
  • Genre: RPG
  • Platforms: iOS, Windows, every PlayStation platform (I played the PlayStation 4 version this year)
  • Official website
  • Trailer

It's often said that the first Final Fantasy you complete is your favorite, banking solely on the feelings of nostalgia and accomplishment. Though it was my first completion, I'm not sure if I'd definitively say Final Fantasy VII is my favorite, but it's definitely one I've come back to every couple of years to try and chase that "high" I felt when playing it when I was 13 years old.

One big problem: it hasn't aged well. It was a product of a time when mainstream gaming was just transitioning to 3D, before controls were standardized and models were nothing more than a handful of triangles smudged up by incredibly low resolution displays. For me, it was always hard to switch between modern games and playing Final Fantasy 7.

Recently, Square-Enix went back and cleaned up the original PC version of the game, adding modern conveniences like high resolution support, upscaled backgrounds, achievements, ways to skip the old-school grinding, and modern control schemes. The graphics are still a product of the late '90s, but now has never been a better time to see what the fuss was with Final Fantasy 7 as it was when it came out.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn logo
  • Genre: massively-multiplayer online RPG
  • Platforms: Mac, Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 (I played the PlayStation 4 version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

There was a game that I played a ton of in 2014 but didn't make my list last year: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor. I've probably played way more World of Warcraft than I should've over the years, but there was a game loop there that was easy to come back to, even after years-long breaks. But Warlords of Draenor was a turning point in that cycle: everything about that expansion crystallized that World of Warcraft is going places I don't want to be.

My fallout with World of Warcraft made me wonder if the MMORPG is just not a genre of games I could get into again. But then I played Final Fantasy 14, and it was a breath of fresh air. Story isn't some throwaway aspect of the game to get you to move from one place to another! Classes/jobs offer unique play-styles and story lines and aren't completely interchangeable! Repeatable content (like the dreaded daily quests) is completely optional! You don't get penalized for switching things up and trying different classes!

I definitely don't have enough time in my life now to truly get into Final Fantasy 14's endgame, so it could all break down there, but what I played was way more enjoyable than what I've played in World of Warcraft in a long, long time.

Gravity Rush

Gravity Rush logo
  • Genre: open-world action-adventure
  • Platforms: PlayStation 4 (in development), PlayStation Vita (I played the PlayStation Vita version)
  • Official website
  • Trailer

After unlocking and completing everything in The Binding of Isaac, I was looking for a new game to play on my Vita. Gravity Rush has been sitting in my library since before I even owned a Vita, a result of being free for PlayStation Plus users years ago. I gave it a try, despite it not being a genre I typically like, and was pleasantly surprised.

Gravity Rush is an open-world action-adventure game where you play a woman, Kat, who is trying to help solve problems around her adoptive city. The conceit is her power: she can manipulate gravity around her, allowing her to fly but also change the direction gravity works. This gets really trippy: you can walk on walls and ceilings, and it a large part of the difficulty of the game is trying to decide the best perspective to approach a puzzle or set of enemies.

One downside is that it has a bit of "fan service": there's an unnecessary, and shoe-horned dress-up feature and a few out-of-place and awkward, "lingering" shots. It's especially weird considering Kat is otherwise a pretty strong lead whose actions and motivations are her own. Despite the weird fan service, Kat's character and the gameplay made it easy to come back to my Vita daily to knock out a couple more missions.

Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange logo
  • Genre: adventure
  • Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One (I played the PlayStation 4 version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

The adventure game genre has a tendency to get into ruts. It's seems like once a developer comes up with a set of mechanics that works for one adventure game, they lock into them and churn out game after game using the exact same mechanics with very little variation. In the '90s, that was the SCUMM system that dominated all of LucasArts's classic adventure games: Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and so on.

Lately, Telltale Games have created a system and are churning out 3-5 series a year that all use quick-time events, a "Who Wants to Be a Millionare?"-style dialog system, and a largely superficial decision system. The stories change, for sure, but in terms of gameplay, if you've played one Telltale game, you've played them all.

Life Is Strange feels like what the next generation of adventure games—post Telltale—could be. The premise of the game is that you're a teenage girl, Max, who's trying to figure out how to juggle school, friends, family, and all of the other things teens have to deal with. Oh, by the way, she can rewind time.

By virtue of that power, you're not penalized for making the wrong choice: in fact, you're encouraged to explore not only your surroundings, but also the conversations with people. At the same time, your decisions, once locked in, have tremendous weight—way more than Telltale's tradmark "Soandso will remember that.". Never mind a throwaway line just to let you know your decisions are being tracked: make a series of decisions in episode one, and those decisions will determine whether or not whole scenes will be available to you in episode 3.

It's not perfect, but it's such a breath of fresh air when it seemed like we were doomed to the Telltale model for the foreseeable future. Highly recommended if you like adventure games.

Mini Metro

Mini Metro logo
  • Genre: puzzle
  • Platforms: Android (in development), iOS (in development), Linux, Mac, Windows (I played the Mac version)
  • Official website
  • Trailer

In 2013, Maxis and EA released a reboot of the longstanding SimCity: it was so poorly received and performed so poorly at launch it singlehandedly killed off the 30-year franchise and closed the Maxis studio responsible for anything other than The Sims.

One of the principal factors to is failure was its GlassBox engine: using a mechanic called agent-based modeling, the engine treated each object in the world as either an "agent" or a "well". Wells either require agents or create agents, and are connected via links. Agents travel via links, creating a network of wells. This sounds great on paper, but it's computationally intensive and it makes it easy to be reductive about a seemingly-complex game like a city simulation.

But what if you didn't try to hide the agent modeling behind a thin veneer and kept it at a smaller scale? It turns out it's pretty fun: Mini Metro takes agent modeling and applies it to a minimalistic puzzle game revolving around connecting metro stations together. Between the visuals, pacing, ambient sound and built-in daily challenges, Mini Metro has been a game I've gone back to almost every day for a quick round.

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - Rising Tide

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - Rising Tide logo

Rising Tide is the first expansion to last year's Beyond Earth, a game that made my list of games I really enjoyed last year. I was looking for an Alpha Centauri sequal in Beyond Earth last year, and while Rising Tide doesn't make it that, it definitely gets it closer. Diplomacy matters now. You can build cities in the ocean! The tech web system, and how it interacts with affinities, makes a lot more sense now.

In Rising Tide, it seems Firaxis is doing the same thing it did with Civilization 5: release a base game that maybe isn't 100% there, then release substantial expansions that, when combined with the base game, make a really phenomenal 4X game. Beyond Earth is not there yet: it'll probably take at least another expansion. Consequently, Rising Tide probably won't win over anyone who hated Beyond Earth, but it's not nothing, and it was enough to get me to come back and play "one more turn" a few hundred more times.

Tearaway

Tearaway logo

From the creators of LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule), the PlayStation Vita version of Tearaway is probably the only game on the platform to utilize all of its weird features—the camera, the gyroscope, the back touch-panel—in a way that makes sense and doesn't totally feel like a gimmick. That alone would be enough to be interesting, but it's still a fun action-adventure game wrapped up on Media Molecule's signature skeuomorphic style (this time papercraft instead of cloth) and charm.

Unfortunately, it didn't sell that well on the Vita, so they re-released it on the PlayStation 4 with a lot of reworks to get around the lack of Vita-specific controls that were essential the original. It's still worth a look if you're into LittleBigPlanet and are curious to see what the creators would do if it wasn't another one of those games.

Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone logo
  • Genre: puzzle-platformer
  • Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Wii U (I played the PlayStation Vita version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

Thomas Was Alone is part of a very, very, very long line of indie puzzle-platformers. If you're an indie game designer, creating a puzzle-platformer seems to be the equivalent to building a blog for web developers or learning an étude for musicians.

What makes Thomas Was Alone so special to me is the writing and poignant narration by Danny Wallace: combined, they make it easy to not only go through yet another indie puzzle-platformer, but feel something and root for the plights of literal rectangles. Its pacing and variety of jump mechanics also help to keep it fresh and a joy to play compared to many other games in the genre.

Ziggurat

Ziggurat logo
  • Genre FPS / dungeon crawl hybrid
  • Platforms: Linux, Mac, Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (I played the PlayStation 4 version)
  • Official website
  • Gameplay video

I'm not a fan of first person shooters. I used to be, back when that meant Quake and Wolfenstein 3D. But somewhere around Half-Life they became much slower and more tactical, and I lost interest.

But what if there was a game that brought that back, and combined it with one of my current favorite genres, the dungeon crawl? Sign me up, I'd say. Turns out Ziggurat is just that: a weird hybrid game that plays like an old-school arena-based first person shooter but contains all the trappings of a Roguelike: permadeath, random item drops, unlocks, and an ever-downward trajectory into a labyrinthine dungeon.


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