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Branching Path: Josh Torres’s Top 10+1 Games of 2016

It’s been one hell of a first full year here at RPG Site for me. Moments of triumph. Moments of slumps. Moments of confusion. Moments of astonishment.

I learned an incredible amount of stuff in 2016 - not only the inner workings of this odd juncture in the video game industry, but also a lot about what things I value on a core fundamental level. Expanding my horizons and challenging multiple viewpoints from a variety of angles is not an easy thing to internalize. Quite frankly, it’s exhaustive… but extremely rewarding.

Games continue to serve as my convenient gateway of gazing into someone else’s pair of glasses - to see, visualize, and understand why an individual loves a particular genre, mechanic, system, cast, and the list goes on. Though I may not always agree or share that same passion for a particular element, I’m always left appreciative that I got the opportunity to engage myself in that environment. This year’s list reflects some of those personal life lessons.

Before I go too deep down the rabbit hole, let’s set some ground rules. Only games that I’ve beaten to completion were eligible. Unfortunately, that disqualifies titles like Persona 5’s Japanese release and Steins;Gate 0 which I haven’t had the time to even start yet. Part of me is holding off on the western release for Persona 5 and I’ll see how it ranks once I’ve finished that.

Another caveat I’ll mention is that the releases cannot be straight ports of old games. While the PC versions of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen and Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair are crazy awesome in how well they’ve optimized these two excellent titles, they are sadly not making the cut.

Lastly, I would like to give a shoutout to Rocket League’s Rumble update; if there was a best DLC category that could sneak its way into these end-of-the-year lists, I would probably crown that one as the winner. It continually revitalizes that game to me in a way that most other games’ late post-launch DLC does not. The power-ups add just enough random hijinks that adds another layer of incidental (or calculated?) strategy that swings the physics in an insane matter.

Without further delay, here are my top 10 11 games of 2016.

11. The Last Guardian

I felt that it would’ve been a crime to not include this game in some way, shape, or form on this list. It’s the sole reason why I absolutely had to mention a #11. After Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, my curiosity for The Last Guardian went on a long rollercoaster ride due to its troubled development cycle. When the rubber finally met the road, I was pleased to see that it was a solid package. The technical work in Trico, especially its AI behavior, stands out in a way that most other games can only dream of. Coupled with beautiful visuals that spur a painting-in-motion feel, smart architectural level design, and its ability to invoke a sense of a meaningful bond with this bird-cat-dog-ish creature left a significant lasting impression on me.

10. Gundam Breaker 3

Further refining the gameplay and presentation overhaul in its predecessor, Gundam Breaker 3 is not much of a big step forward. Instead, it strengthens that new foundation to such an incredible degree that truly represents and emphasizes its themes of the freedom in building gunpla. The amount of customization switches, along with finding a way to make optional parts viable during gameplay, opens up a limitless array of methods to play. Learning how to finetune the capabilities of my giant robots and deciding a theme for them as I built each one unlocked my sense of creativity that no recent game has done. I like to call Gundam Breaker 3 my favorite Diablo game of 2016; in some ways, it actually excels in parts of that genre that no other game has.

9. INSIDE

Playdead’s long-awaited second title is one of the most finely-tuned experiences I’ve witnessed in video games. While INSIDE is indeed a short ride, the contents of it are highly impressive. Every single element of its core design tenets of its oppressive world, gripping sound effects, haunting animation quips, and bizarre puzzle pieces come together in such a gorgeous way that makes it stand above a lot of this year’s releases. INSIDE is a game defined by memorable moments especially housing one of the most shocking twists of 2016. It got my heart pumping in an unexpected way that’ll stick with me for years to come.

8. Hitman

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I definitely was not expecting to see Agent 47 on this list as I entered 2016. Hitman’s newest entry had a lot riding against it especially after many devoted fans of the series were soured by Hitman: Absolution. The delayed announcement of its restructuring to an episodic series did not help ease people’s worries. Sure enough, we’re now here at the end of 2016 and all of Hitman’s initial “season one” maps are now out and it has been a blast to play every single time I picked up my controller to play it. It embodies the very best of what that franchise is known for, but also finds a way for newcomers to dive in. There’s enough optional hand-holding for people to discover delightful environmental opportunities that shed light on some of the most creative assassinations in the series. It was an easy decision to have it win RPG Site’s Best Tangential RPG Award and for good reason. I won’t be getting tired of throwing random fire extinguishers, axes, letter openers, and spaghetti cans in a doctor, security guard, or Japanese hot springs resident disguise anytime soon.

7. DOOM

What? How? This is probably my biggest, jaw-dropping surprise of 2016 in terms of… there was no way I could’ve fathomed this game to be as good as it is. Though its single player campaign is the only thing super excellent about it, it is that mindblowingly great! This new DOOM has had one of the most worrying game development cycles in its ~8 years of slumber till it finally saw the light of day from its initial announcement as DOOM 4. Scrapping its original vision of being a Call of Duty clone, the post-id Software era without John Carmack going into this project was always going to be a dicey proposition. Its multiplayer beta did not do it any favors either. There were also no early review copies sent out for it which painted a red flag on it from the get-go.

This was a project that well… looked doomed. Then, release day hits and the top comeback story of 2016 begins. Everything about its single player campaign wears its heritage as a series just enough to be charming rather than forced. DOOM absolutely nails what that series continues to be remembered and revered for. An adrenaline-fueled massacre of hell’s minions never felt so right as Mick Gordon’s heavy metal tunes blasted themselves feverishly in my ears. Its audio cues reinforce the sheer sense of badassery of each encounter as Doomguy rips and tears the living hell out of his enemies. I could go so much deeper into the brilliance of its intelligently laid out maps, its Glory Kill mechanic actually enhancing the experience, and how well it crafts, or rather reinvents, the lore of DOOM in an unexpectedly genius way. DOOM in 2016. It’s amazing. Somehow.

6. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Ever since Naughty Dog announced that they were yet again doing another Uncharted, I admit that I felt a bit bummed out. I really like the studio, but part of me wishes that they embarked on a brand-new IP in this console generation instead. Still, Uncharted games have been consistently excellent for the most part though I can’t say I was exactly thrilled on Golden Abyss and to some minor extent, Drake’s Deception as well. Skeptical at the prospect of introducing Sam, Nate’s brother, so late into the series could’ve been a potential blemish but it oddly turns out to be one of its many great strengths. This fourth Uncharted is miles ahead of its previous entries in storytelling and it caught me off-guard how much I cared for the characters in this new tale. Phenomenal facial animations tap into that higher echelon of photorealistic video games with equally impressive voice performances that truly made me feel like I was dynamically interacting with a movie. Uncharted 4's environments communicate a sense of scale real well, especially with the plethora of little animation touches during gameplay. Sure, it’s another Uncharted game but it’s one of the finest ones yet that give a proper sendoff to Nathan Drake’s character as it loops back around to present spectacular twists to the basis of the entire series and the endearing epilogue to top it all off.

5. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

The second part of Erebonia’s arc in the Trails series is no slouch at all. Directly following up on the stunning finale of its predecessor, it revolves around the fierce civil war in that region. Falcom has slowly been developing their story presentation techniques especially for this long-running series and it pays off in spades throughout the entirety of Cold Steel II’s finale. It’s an awesome game all-around, but what really makes it shine is playing with its player’s expectations of what conventional storytelling should entail versus what makes the risky gamble of breaching those boundaries impactful and memorable. Its unfolding on where the Erebonia arc likes in the overall Trails universe through directly calling back to a certain previous Trails game is nothing short of sheer brilliance; it sets the stage up for something much grander in a captivating manner. Very few RPGs reach this layer of intuitively placing the smallest details deliberately throughout its entire world in order for more relevant titles in the far future to expand upon; it may seem haphazardly positioned at first, but Falcom has found a way for it to flow naturally that strengthens the core of its brilliant world.

4. Overwatch

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Coming into 2016, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Overwatch would turn out to be a successful game. Blizzard is known for pumping out high-caliber titles by molding an existing genre into a universally user-friendly framework. I definitely was not expecting to fall in love with Overwatch as much as I did. Meticulously designing each individual hero in that game must’ve been a monumental task; their designs, abilities, and personalities are all endearing and charming. Everyone has their handful of favorites and Overwatch found a route to reach the hearts of people who not only don’t play shooters, but also construct an entire infrastructure of positivity from a design lens. Play of the Games, awarding contribution medals, purposefully not showing kill/death ratios inside a match, and specific visual cues that show when a player is doing well imbued me with an accomplished feeling. There’s always something new to see when I kept going back into that game whether it was an unorthodox way to utilize a certain skill or how certain chains of ultimates can devastate an enemy team on certain parts of a map - it’s all quite mesmerizing. Plus, Overwatch was one of the few multiplayer titles that helped me meet a lot of new friends, acquaintances, and even assisted me in reestablishing old friendships. To me, Overwatch is much more than the sum of its parts. Shoutouts to Genji, Reaper, Soldier: 76, Torbjörn, and Reinhardt being my personal favorites out of that stellar cast.

3. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse

Expanding the concepts and characters in the base Shin Megami Tensei IV game in clever ways, Apocalypse shines in finding a middle ground that both newcomers and veterans of SMT can enjoy. It’s not an easy task to modernize something that’s traditionally known for its hardcore RPG systems into a tangible product that operates seamlessly on a mechanical level for novices of the series. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Apocalypse keeps the ideas of the core series close to its heart and adds a few insightful solutions that dragged the previous SMTIV down. Rebalancing the Smirk mechanic, a flexible mapping UI, and helpful supporting allies make the experience incredibly smooth. I was even skeptical of its main group of characters, but the game goes through marvelous lengths to flesh them out. I must say that while I love the mainline SMT series, it never went the distance to add multiple layers onto characters like Apocalypse did. Perhaps the shining moments in Apocalypse for me was the realization that party composition matters more as a whole, rather than beefing up 3-5 core demon companions. The game does not mess around when it comes to consecutive boss battles and pushed me to reconsider how to tackle fierce bosses by utilizing my entire arsenal rather than sticking with only a handful of my favorites.

2. Odin Sphere Leifthrasir

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Exuberant, majestic, and grandiose - Odin Sphere’s remake and remaster finally achieves the full potential of its premise and systems without being hampered by hardware. It makes this list because its Refined mode, the remaster, is practically a new game. Giving each of its 5 splendid playable characters their own unique skill trees and revamped movesets, the game is faster and much more responsive. Taking the tempo of Muramasa: The Demon Blade, it simply feels amazingly satisfying to control. Mix that with fixes to its inventory system and eliminating the awful framerate problems from its original PlayStation 2 release, Leifthrasir is a sight to behold in motion. Brand-new assets were created rather than upscaling it so everything colorfully pops in a vivid manner. It travels beyond typical releases of its nature by giving players the option to go into Classic Mode and play the entire original game with the new assets on a 4:3 aspect ratio to emulate the original game’s style if they so desire. This whole package pretty much runs flawlessly in 60fps on PS4, PS3, and Vita all with cross-save functionality, it’s… a force to be reckoned with as my personal favorite RPG of this year.

1. Titanfall 2

Here it is. The best freaking game of 2016. I kid you not. Titanfall 2 is a ridiculous follow-up that does everything so right. From its mind-boggingly good single-player campaign filled to the brim with creative ideas to its magnificent multiplayer mode that implements new approaches that shake up the standard infrastructure of multiplayer FPS models, Titanfall 2 continued to amaze and entertain me in ways that no other game could quite do this year. I could sit here and write tirelessly about why the factory level was a smart way to flex the muscles of the expansive mobility system in that game. I could further go on and tell you all about why the infamous Effect and Cause mission is such an impressive technical feat on a structural level and a gameplay level. Hell, let me tell you all about that insane SERE kit moment in Titanfall 2 in which you just feel like the most badass person alive. That entire Titanfall 2 single-player campaign may not be the most impressive writing, but it is chock-full of memorable moments that will continue to leave a lasting impact on me.

It’s also probably the game that I have the most hours on for multiplayer as well. My sweet Ronin-class Titan outfitted with a sakura-themed skin and an anime girl front decal absolutely wrecks the hell out of unsuspecting players. Let me tell you how much I can dance around people with 3 dashes and 2 Arc Wave slashes only to pop off electric smoke to carefully stage ambushes on invaders. I can’t stress nor convey enough how breathtaking Titanfall 2 is as an overall package. Titanfall 2 speaks to me on every level in what I value in the world of video games and that is why it was easily my top game of 2016.

 
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