It’s time for our yearly selection of favourite games from 2015, and my word it’s been a bumper year. This year the new consoles came into their own with some great exclusives, the indie scene continued to surprise and delight as it pushed at the boundaries of the medium, and some long awaited entries from established franchises showed there was life in the old goat yet. Reading through the selections from Ready Up’s myriad of writers it is clear that the games industry’s output is as diverse now as it has ever been. Long may it continue.
Super Mario Maker
Chosen by Scott Cameron
2D Mario games have traditionally always been about following rules. The masterful design of 1-1 taught us the base cause-and-effect for platforming in the Mario universe: jump on enemies to defeat them, collect power-ups to transform Mario, and run-and-jump if you want to cross that gap. Its pitch-perfect level design has always rewarded all types of players, whether they speed to the goal or take some time for casual exploration; scrolling levels aside, rarely will you find yourself in a situation where you are actually trapped, or punished for experimenting. But what would happen if you took this strong, tried-and-tested platforming framework and threw the design conventions out of the window?
Super Mario Maker, the official level construction kit many of us have been dreaming of since we were kids, is Nintendo’s answer to this question. Not only does it allow players to bend the rules, it lets us outright break them. From self-playing levels requiring zero player input; to cruel, crowd-sourced skill challenges; to mammoth, Metroidvania-like puzzle labyrinths, ‘makers’ are turning Mario design upside-down each and every week. An irreverent presentation and playful UI quirks (many of which recall the seminal Mario Paint) only add to its sense of fun, teasing players to explore the minutiae of mechanical differences between Super Mario Bros. 1, 3, World and New.
Like Splatoon, Nintendo’s commitment to free, post-release support (including new costumes, level features and sorting functionality) has only led to Super Mario Maker feeling more and more like a valuable investment as time passes. And in an age where the company have made some questionable decisions regarding online video use, it’s encouraging that they’re finally letting communities naturally prosper, allowing events like The Ryckoning happen organically.
Life is Strange
Chosen by Adam Gulliver
When I played the first episode of Life is Strange back in January no way did I predict it would be my favourite game of the year. It was an interesting but flawed start to the episodic series, but it built on a strong foundation and just got better and better.
It’s the story of Blackfield Academy student Max Caulfield who, after witnessing a student getting shot, quickly discovers she has the power to rewind time, leading her on an excellent adventure (Wild Stallion’s guitar riff) where the fate of Arcadia Bay hangs in the balance.
It came at a perfect time for me, because, while I’m a fan of Telltale Games many series’, they were fast becoming stale. Life is Strange is different. While Telltale’s stuff was putting story and decision making ahead of everything else, Life is Strange brought back puzzles and actual gameplay that didn’t feel on rails.
You have to think about how to use your time travel powers in order to progress. One early puzzle asks you to make it so paint falls onto the school bullies, another just simply asks you to remember what your friend Chloe has in her purse, then rewind to before she showed you in order to prove that your powers exists. Then there are the decisions you’ll have to make. With all episodic games your choices matter, culminating in an outstanding finale.
Somewhat awkward dialogue aside, characters are beautifully realised, with twists you won’t see coming and just an overall a wonderful story that will have you hooked till the very end. Then there’s the graphical style and indie movie soundtrack that add to the overall package. Life is Strange truly is an excellent experience and well worth all the awards it’s earned over the year.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Chosen by Verity Hartley
I came to the Witcher 3 with pretty low expectations. I had played the previous instalment, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and absolutely hated it for its lengthy cutscenes and convoluted combat controls. I never got out of the first act. However after seeing a demo of The Witcher 3 at EGX with its immense game map, branching story arcs and beautiful visuals I felt compelled to give the franchise another go. And boy, am I glad I did!
This game is near perfect. The graphics are jaw-achingly good. The combat mechanism is clever, making you feel like you are actually using some skill to win a fight, rather than just spamming buttons for the kill. The game world is richly developed and steeped with lore and varied cultures. In particular you can feel the suffering of the Northern Kingdoms torn apart by war in the grim, blood-soaked landscapes and during some pretty macabre encounters on the roads.
However it is the primary story of Geralt, the gruff-voiced, white-haired, demon-slaying protagonist (with a heart of gold!) that makes this game so special. The narrative is tight and the voice acting spot on which makes the dialogue witty and engaging. Yes, there are still a lot of cutscenes and they can sometimes feel a little on the lengthy side. However these are quickly made up for by Geralt’s sarcastic dialogue choices and array of passive-aggressive grimaces and eye-rolls whenever he gets way-laid from his main quest, yet again, by various quarrelling factions.
The side quests, of which there are simply too many to count, are so varied that you could choose to ignore the main plot line altogether and just spend your time exploring the vast game world or riding from tavern to tavern to play a round of Gwent. It would be time well spent. See an interesting landmark on the horizon? Head over to it. It’s really there. It’s probably guarded by a level 40 Arch Griffin who will eat your liver for breakfast but oh, the adventures you’ll have on the way!
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not just a magnificent game but it is by far and away the best RPG I have ever played. A truly worthy winner of the accolade of Game of the Year 2015.
Chosen by Kitty Crawford
A common thing I hear from people who have yet to play Undertale is that they have no idea what it is about, nor why people are going nuts about it. Having played it two times over, this is something I understand greatly. This discord exists because it’s very difficult to describe what makes Undertale such an amazing experience to someone who hasn’t played without spoiling it; it is one of those stories that it’s best to know nothing about going into it. People who’ve played it know this, and so they keep quiet, but they also want to share the experience with everyone else, and so they rave without telling details, leading to confusion until you play.
With this in mind, take note that I called Undertale an experience instead of a game. Not to mislead, it’s not an experience like ‘Gone Home’ would be, it’s still very much an RPG style game. No, I mean an experience in the way a good book can leave you shaken to the core after reading, or an event in your life that changes you in a way that you can’t reverse after; when you discover more about the world or yourself that you didn’t realise you weren’t aware of before. This doesn’t take into account the cute 8-bit style graphics, phenomenal music, unique battle system or the laugh-out-loud exchanges with characters. But ultimately I think Undertale deserves game of the year because it is an experience that will leave you with that weird nostalgia for games you played a decade ago that you thought you’d never feel again, giving you revelations that’ll stick with you long after the game is over.
Chosen by Dean Bowman
Videogames have flirted with the work of HP Lovecraft, author of the weird and wonderful Cthulhu mythos, for decades now, making him probably the most cribbed from and adaptable sources outside of Tolkien. But for my money no game has come closer to realising the tantalising cosmic horror of that maestro of the macabre than Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Bloodborne. Despite initially seeming a spin-off of From Software’s pioneering Souls series (which I’d count as some of the most influential games of the last decade), Bloodborne’s intricate Gothic facades and twisted Victoriana, make it atmospherically a different beast entirely.
The opening cutscene sees you being given a blood transfusion before being turned out in the desolate streets on the ominous night of the hunt. People refuse to open their doors and mad wretches, half transformed into werewolves stalk the streets, congregating around the burning corpse of a huge lycanthrope. It’s the first of many set pieces that Miyazaki characteristically uses to convey the bulk of the game’s twisted narrative; written into the very fabric of the game world rather than imparted in cut scenes or dialogue.
Lovecraft’s influence becomes all the more clear when the Kin are introduced; weird alien monstrosities that bear a striking resemblance in name and appearance to the elder gods. The game even has an insanity system (perversely entitled ‘insight’) that not only makes certain aspects of the game harder, but allows you to see even more horrors, like huge demonic creatures hanging off the game’s other-worldy architecture. If Dark Souls was Miyazaki’s love song to brutal fantasy, than Bloodborne does the same for cosmic horror, all filtered through the unique sensibilities of one of videogame’s emerging visionary auteurs.
Chosen by Cameron Bald
Never before has there been a game such as this, never again shall we see its likeness… oh no wait that’s rubbish, Bethesda has been singing this tune for the best part of a decade, but dammit if that tune ain’t a catchy one. For a month now my life has been consumed by Bethesda’s latest, good grades be damned as they mean little in the face of such majesty, praise be to Todd Howard and all that. In truth Fallout 4 is a heavily flawed title that despite its issues has by and large won me over.
I could talk about the countless hours I’ve spent exploring the vast expanse of post-apocalyptic Boston, or the numerous dislodged raider eyeballs that I’ve sent on a one-way trip to the moon, or the fact that my every waking moment is now spent assessing the crafting usability of the various unwashed dishes around my flat, or that the ghost of Elton Britt visits me in the night to whisper Uranium Fever endlessly into my ear. But really all of that seems minute when compared to the fact that you can pimp your dog out with a bandana. And if that doesn’t sound like a fun time then you’re probably wrong.
I’m in the camp that prefers New Vegas to 3 and so the faction based storyline appealed to me even if they still haven’t quite nailed it. The combat is leagues ahead of both 3 and New Vegas and with nary a backwards flying dragon in sight I can say that this has been my least buggy experience with a Bethesda game (even if it’s still a bit of a mess). By now most know what to expect from an Elder Scrolls or a Fallout game and if you like that (which I do) then you’ll almost certainly find yourself enamoured with the world, atmosphere and overall experience that Bethesda offer. Ultimately I don’t really feel the need go on about how good it is seeing as you’ve probably already sank a horrifying amount of time into it, but yeah, it’s pretty good.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
Chosen by Kirsten Kearney
I’ve had a couple of great experiences with developer, The Chinese Room. Firstly through playing the seminal Dear Esther and then when I met the very small core team at an awards night, where they hadn’t the slightest idea they were about to sweep the board. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is considered Dear Esther’s spiritual successor. What I wanted was basically a similar experience in a prettier setting. I love Dear Esther but it’s in a craggy mountainous place and I’m from Scotland so you know, been there done that. I had the same over familiar feeling with Skyrim’s environment. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture however looked like the perfect Cotswold’s setting, like a chocolate box village you could wander through. I’m sure for many that would be the most dull and dreary experience ever. Dear Esther provoked a similar marmite reaction from gamers but that’s what The Chinese Room do. They take everything you know about games, chuck it straight in the bin and do the exact opposite.
Rapture was exactly what I had imagined… sort of. It had that “This is doing my nut in, when do I get to kill something? Och, I’ll just play on for another few minutes” feeling. It did indeed feel like walking through the most twee, picturesque village ever but there was something weird about it that I can’t quite put my finger on, an atmosphere that was conjured by more than just the bonkers premise. That is what The Chinese Room is so good at; that intangible quality. It was a hugely memorable moment in my gaming year and sank into my memories like ring in a tree trunk, never to be forgotten.
Yoshi’s Woolly World
Chosen by Susan Marmito
Yoshi’s Woolly World would probably have been my game of the year just because of the adorable knitted Amiibo that goes with it. It probably would have been my game of the year just for including Yoshis of different colours and patterns, not just plain blue, pink or green, but ones inspired by food (Watermelon Yoshi, Cookie Yoshi), or by other Nintendo characters (Shy Guy Yoshi or the various Yoshis you can get with other Amiibos), or the levels that they reside in (Alpine Yoshi, Treetop Yoshi). But there’s more than the accessories and character outfits – the game looks amazing and is great fun to play. The game world bursts with colour and creativity, building on what Kirby’s Epic Yarn started and multiplying it. The textures – fuzzy yarn, solid buttons, shiny zips and fabrics of all kinds – are cleverly pieced together, everything carefully crafted to create platformer and puzzle worlds you can’t help but be charmed by.
Joy and happiness is the thread that runs through this game, but the fluffy exterior hides a diamond-hard core. The game encourages collectormania in a way Nintendo only can, and if you want to get every single last ball of yarn to rescue every Yoshi, every last flower, every last bead, the game is going to make you work for it. And that’s probably what I love the most about this game – it’s punishing, but so cute and cuddly that you would never really know it. A level that involves running across spouting water jets becomes a test in fortitude and patience when you see the next part of the level throws in surprise enemies that get increasingly worse. It’s the most adorable trolling that Nintendo has ever done, and I love them for it.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Chosen by James Hamblin
Routinely, Metal Gear Solid V can be an infuriating game. Often, the moments that induce feral screams, attempted controller strangulations and volleys of emotionally-delivered Anglo-Saxon expletives come directly after you’ve spent over 15 minutes hiding in a bush only to be gunned down less than 15 seconds after emerging.
None of that seems like much fun, but MGS V is a game that managed to convince me it was worth doing time and time again.
Every mission in Hideo Kojima’s sprawling tactical espionage swansong is a meticulously created special-ops sandbox designed to foster endeavour and reward adaptability. From that position concealed amongst the foliage, the question is always, “What next?” Do I proceed with my precarious non-contact approach, push my luck even further and attempt to silently extract enemies to expand the ranks of my private army or just pull out good old Mr Bazooka and run amok shouting, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you all with me.”
The Phantom Pain is a game that finally realises the potential of open world stealth. It revels in handing the player power and freedom in situations of weakness and oppression. And all of this swirling around the resolution of possibly the most compellingly convoluted story in modern video games. A tale of control, conflict and exile. The product of a noble soldier betrayed by his superiors. And that was just what was going on with Kojima and Konami.
Video games are often referred to rather dryly as interactive entertainment, but I think that sells them way short. The best games don’t just involve the player, they envelop them. Their worlds aren’t ones protected and predefined on pages, canvases or behind glass walls. They’re made for inhabiting, for adventuring.
Whether it was The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Undertale or something else completely different, I hope you found at least one game in 2015 that made your heart soar like a donkey attached to a Fulton balloon. For me, it was MGS V and those moments hidden amongst the undergrowth wondering, “What next?”
Chosen by Sean Halliday
I didn’t play Her Story, and Undertale was over meme’d to the point of death by time I came around to it. One game that never got old was Rocket League. If it wasn’t for it appearing on PC and PS4, you’d swear Nintendo made this. Rocket League focuses on a core concept and refines it to the point of perfect. Crashing a car into a ball in an attempt to push it into a goal sounds simple, but it’s not that easy. Hidden depth can be found within the gameplay. Mastering the art of the perfect strike, appreciating the skill of defence, it’s wonderful.
At its best, it’s the perfect union of sports and chaos. The playful nature that occupies the heart of Rocket League is what makes it shine. I challenge anyone to play a few games and not crack a smile, it’s impossible. Like a kick around with your friends in the park, all charging towards the ball, joyful madness. The chaotic nature of Rocket League is what propels it from novelty title to a genuine classic. Easy to pick up gameplay, with a hidden depth, Rocket League is finely tuned engine providing non-stop thrills.