Honourable Mentions Awards 2015- The Best of the Rest

We all like to organise stuff into nice, round numbers. Normally to a factor of 5 or 10. As such, while I’m very happy with the list of my top 10 games from 2015, I feel like there were are still some loose ends to tie up. Stuff that, while I didn’t think represented the absolute best that 2015 had to offer, still managed to shine in some meaningful way, and so deserve an honourable mention. Maybe they had a really great story but fumbled the gameplay department, or maybe they had an interesting mechanic that set them apart from the crowd. Perhaps they were a great example of a genre that I didn’t want to be over-represented in my main list. In any case, they’re all games that should be worth your time and well worthy of recognition.

THE REPACKAGED GEM AWARD- Journey HD (PS4)

I missed out on Journey the first time around due to issues with my PS3 and the internet setup at my old house. I’d heard rumblings of an HD remaster for the PS4 for a while, and checked with a hopeful google every couple of weeks for several months before I got my Journey HD release.

The wait was worth every second.

As advised, I played through the game in one sitting, and it became clear to me that the game’s title was apt in more ways than one; not only was my character journeying from point A to point B to point C, but so too were my emotions. As I guided my character on a pilgrimage through desert, ruins and mountain peaks towards the omnipresent beacon of light emanating from a split mountain peak, my emotional state was poked and prodded, giving rise to a full range of feelings, subtly manipulated by the game’s flow. Journey is a great example of superior design trumping graphical fidelity. Journey’s unique aesthetic nonetheless forms a distinct personality. It’s detailed, but not complex; it’s got a streamlined visual style that nevertheless feels rich. Crimson ribbons of flowing fabric pop against rolling dunes of golden sands and black rocky climes topped with crisp white snow. And the music, oh the music. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack works seamlessly in tandem with the game world to punctuate the emotional gravity of your pilgrimage, ranging from melancholy and haunting to curious and playful to joyously rousing. No part of the game illustrated this point better than the final section of the game, a visual, auditory and emotional tour-de-force that has lifted my heart and brought a stupid grim to my face better than almost any other piece of media has managed.

The only reason that the game didn’t make my game of the year list is because it’s a remaster of a game from 2012, and while the update to the visuals certainly crispen up the visuals, everything that makes the game what is is is a product of that year, not 2015.

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THE LENA HEADEY DIGITAL SNEER AWARD- Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series (PC, Mac, Android, PS4, PS3, XBO, X360)

If there’s a franchise that benefits from gameplay with a focus on measured decision-making, it’s  Game of Thrones (or A Song Of Ice And Fire, but that’s a pain to type out each time). A more cerebral, slow burning fantasy, it’s quickly established in the books and show that Westeros and Essos are no place for the weak of mind and will. To survive in this world, especially at the higher levels of society, characters must hone their silver tongues to become a weapon as useful as any deadly poison or hidden dagger. Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series places you in the boots of several members of struggling Northron family, the Forresters. War and age-old enemies may spell calamity for the once-proud family, and the sons and daughters of the house need valuable allies and clever plans, or else their legacy holds nothing but ash.

It’s fascinating and terrifying to guide the decisions of your characters as you progress through the game’s story, and you do get the genuine feeling that your words might spell victory or doom for you and those you care about. I’ve had jump scares from Until Dawn and existential, surreal dread from SOMA, but maybe the scariest experience in gaming for me this year was reading the words, “Cersei Lannister will remember that…” Chilling.

This is, however, a Game of Thrones game, and as fans of the series will attest, cruel twists of fate or unknown threats can cast best laid plans to the wind, and so there are many points in the game where you feel as though you’re unfairly set back by the plot, essentially voiding much of what you’ve been working towards with what hard-win little victories you could attain. While consistent with the source material, I would’ve liked to have felt like my actions mattered a bit more for the characters I had been carefully guiding. With that in mind though, the story is worth seeking out with its vibrant cast of characters, and a promised second season on the way- perhaps with some much-needed payoff.

And, yes, the first episode came out in 2014, but the rest all came out in 2015 so I’m going to count it as a 2015 game.

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THE I REALLY NEED TO PUT MORE TIME INTO THIS AWARD- Tales From The Borderlands (PC, Mac, Android, PS4, PS3, XBO, X360)

There are always those games that, despite starting off incredibly promisingly, somehow seem to fall by the wayside and you realise you really should get back to several months down the line. Such is the case for Telltale’s second game on this list, Tales From The Borderlands. I often find that I fall away from Telltale Games despite their consistent quality. I think that’s the problem with episodic games- if I were playing the game whole, I could ramp from each episode from the next to enjoy a complete story as intended. When there are months between new episodes of the game, I lose that sense of pace and find it hard to get back into the series.

I enjoy the main Borderlands series a fair bit, having played much of Borderlands 1 and 2, and a bit of The Pre-Sequel. I like the gunplay and loot system, I don’t mind the WoW- style quests, I like the visual design, and I like the world and humour, not as bothered by some by the memetic nature of much of the writing.

Borderlands is funny. Tales From The Borderlands is hilarious.

Taking elements of the humour of the main series, and bolstering them with a dedication to quality comedy writing to drive the player’s interest, Tales From The Borderlands is just about the funniest game I’ve played this year; hell, of all time. Pairing skilful writing with an all-important sense that it doesn’t take itself or the main series seriously (to an even greater extent than the main series, which is saying something), it’s a gloriously entertaining thing to experience. I’ve been spoiled for a few of the sections I haven’t gotten to yet, having only played through the first third of the game, but it’s right at the top of my to-finish list once I’ve polished off the couple of more recently released games on my pile.

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THE APPRECIATE- FROM- AFAR AWARD- Super Mario Maker (Wii U)

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more sad about not being into a game.

Super Mario is a monolith. A big, important cornerstone of the games industry. It’s a powerhouse of finely tuned platforming; a masterclass of intrinsically rewarding gameplay, an exemplar of smart design as intuitive tutorial, and an encouraging ambassador for successful, quirky ideas. I just don’t ever feel driven to play the games for more than a sitting or two.

I’m also not really into making or experiencing user-generated content. I don’t have the kind of imagination in that area, nor the investment in 2D platformers as a genre to drive ambitions of creation, and when I can hardly summon the obligation to finish crafted experiences from professional developers, randomly queued content from the general public doesn’t really hold my interest either.

I’m sure I’ll get around to playing more of Super Mario Maker. It’s an unlimited source of levels for one (or rather, four) of the best platforming games ever created. And I’ve loved following high profile projects like the Dan Ryckert vs Patrick Klepek shebang and Game Grumps taking on devious creations from their own Ross Donovan. It’s just that the game simply isn’t for me, so it just doesn’t resonate with me like I feel it should.

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THE ONE I FELT WEIRD ABOUT BECAUSE THE FIRST HALF OF THE GAME WAS RELEASED IN 2014 AWARD- Broken Age (PC, Mac, Android, PS4, PS Vita)

I really fell in love with the world that Double Fine created in Broken Age. Their trademark quirk and humour felt appropriately realised in the vibrant environments and unique art style. For the couple of days it took me to blow through the game, I was enraptured, driven forward through the sheer desire to see more of the world, and learn more about the plot and characters. The way that the story weaves the parallel stories of Shay, a young man coddled by a motherly spaceship AI, and Vella, a girl pledged to be sacrificed to a massive creature in a fantasy world where each town revolves entirely around a single skill. You can complete each character’s sections at your own pace, switching between them as you get stuck or tired in their respective areas, and when their stories start to converge at the end of Act 1, it’s a moment that rivals any other highlight from 2014.

Which is why I couldn’t consider Broken Age for my 2015 list. While I loved the game, everything that made it the great game it is was established in Act 1. Had both parts been released as a whole game in 2015, and had Act 2 not reused the environments from Act 1 wholesale, Broken Age would be a real gem among many-a 2015 list.

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THE ADORABLE VARMINT AWARD- Yoshi’s Woolly World (Wii U)

Yoshi’s Woolly World is light, bright, laid back entertainment. It’s one of those games that you sink into like an old beanbag to switch off and chill out. It’s got a delightful aesthetic, building on the art style from Kirby’s Epic Yarn to build levels that’ll just make you smile. It’s without a doubt the happiest game from 2015, and I adore it, but haven’t played much of it.

It’s just that there’s not a whole lot of depth to the affair; it’s my problem with a lot of 2D platformers coming to light again. It’s popcorn: a joy to consume, but it doesn’t hold your attention or sate your appetite for that long. It deserves to be appreciated for the aesthetic and consistent variation between new environments and little injections of level sections where Yoshi becomes a mole, or a motorbike, or massive. The core gameplay just doesn’t manage to grab me for more than a few hours, meaning I don’t really feel all that driven to complete it and see all of the levels and worlds on offer.

It is so gosh darned adorable, though.

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THE MATT LIKES ROBOTS AWARD- SOMA (PC, Mac, Android, PS4)

I love robots. Any story that ponders the meaning of Artificial Intelligence, and what constitutes consciousness, and how those two topics impact on each other, is a story that might as well be written specifically for me.

SOMA’s narrative is absolutely my jam, and asks all the questions that I love to get explored. The morality of Artificial Intelligence based off of human brain patterns, the consequences of porting human consciousness to digital format, the conflict in the sense of self that arises when you can duplicate consciousness. SOMA feels like it could’ve been written by any of the sci-fi greats; the story is fascinating, the characters are compelling and well fleshed out (ironically, given the abundance of robots), and you really feel driven forward through curiosity for the narrative.

Sadly, where SOMA doesn’t work for me is in the actual gameplay. Much like Frictional Games’ own Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you run across enemies that you’ll have to outmanoeuvre and sneak around to progress. If you look at them directly, you vision starts to glitch and it becomes very easy to lose your bearings. I understand that this is a preventative measure to keep you from getting used to the enemies physically, therefore preserving your fear, but all it really serves to do is annoy the player. This attempt to scare the player is further undermined by a kind of “two-strike” system where if the player is caught by a beastie, they get a brief glimpse of it before blacking out and awakening in the same spot gravely injured. You them must arduously make your way, with severely red-blurred vision and impaired movement, to a healing spot before you’re caught again. If I didn’t know where a near healing spot was, I’d often just search for the creature to get gored again so that I could start the section over without the annoying limitations to my sight and movement. This is the precise opposite effect than intended, and it creates the wrong kind of tension.

SOMA is a game that’s hamstrung by Frictional’s desire to keep one foot in the horror genre. I really think that the narrative would shine even stronger if the game wasn’t trying to scare us through unkillable enemies; that worked in Amnesia, but not so much here. An early part of the game had me horrified, but not because I was in grave danger; rather, because of something that I was forced to do in order to progress. Other parts seriously creeped me out, despite my being in relative safety. If SOMA had dedicated itself to that kind of horror- not creating fear of external threats to my character’s person, but unveiling slowly the pitch-black layers of the terrible world it placed me in- then I think it would be something truly, truly special.

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THE GAME I GUILTILY LOVED GOT BETTER AWARD- Destiny: The Taken King (PS4, PS3, XBO, X360)

I love Destiny. And I have pretty much since launch.

I know it was basically a broken, non-recommendable mess for its first year. The story is horribly told, which is made worse by the hints of incredible lore locked away in unlock able Grimoire cards that you need to hunt down on Bungie’s own website. The endgame confused players with a poorly-explained “light” levelling system (essentially the same as World of Warcraft’s armour level endgame, but somehow even more esoteric) marred by frustrating drop rates and an over reliance on running through the same missions again and again. Relatively recently, Kotaku’s Jason Schreler broke the messy story behind Destiny’s development, which explained why the game came out in the state it did.

But I still loved it. I got stuck in soon after the first small expansion, The Dark Below, added a second Raid to run through and made the endgame feel more attractive. House of Wolves even added a smart feature that let you upgrade your vanilla and Dark Below weapons to the maximum attack values of year 1, making any decent weapon viable if you really missed it from an older expansion. For all its many serious faults, I still found Destiny a blast alongside my friends.

The Taken King added lots of content and tweaks to make Destiny actually recommendable. The questing system was overhauled to make it less confusing, and to help guide you through the game’s endgame content leading you through the steps to gear up for the raid. The expansion’s story, while lacklustre, spent more time focusing on characters (especially Nathan Fillion’s Cayde-6, in a clever move to harness Mr. Fillion’s sensational natural charisma) which helped make us care a bit more about saving the solar system. The new quests were interesting and varied, and there was more of a focus on secrets hunting that lend the expansion a sense of adventure and exploration.

The Taken King took a game that was my guilty pleasure and turned it into a certifiably good game. It’s still got issues, and I’m very wary of its microtransactions (cosmetic, for now), and the new reliance on live events rather than minor and major paid content releases might go horribly awry for Bungie. But Destiny is in my opinion the most improved game in 2015.

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Image credits- gamepressure.com, gamerevolution.com, heavy.com, indiehaven.com, pixelkin.org, pushsquare.com, theaveragegamer.com, zavvi.com, 3rd-strike.com

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