Illustration by Derrick Sanskrit

Every December, instead of searching for a group consensus, Gameological looks back at the year in games through individual perspectives. These are the staffers’ personal takes on a few games that have stuck in their minds for whatever reason—big or small—and does not represent any sort of institutional expression. These are simply the games we liked.

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Today, we’ll hear from Patrick Lee, Samantha Nelson, Derrick Sanskrit, Ryan Smith, John Teti, Drew Toal, and Nick Wanserski. If you missed part one or would like to revisit that font of unabashed positivity, you can find it by clicking right here. And just a reminder: Feel free to tell us about your favorite games of the year in the comments using the format we’ve laid out here. We’ll collect some of our favorite Games You Liked in a special edition of Keyboard Geniuses on December 30.

Patrick Lee

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

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I liked Assassin’s Creed Syndicate because it reminded me of home. Virtual tourism has always been a draw of Assassin’s Creed, but it’s never been one I’ve found all that engaging. Clambering up the Dome Of The Rock or Santa Maria Del Fiore is a thrill, sure, but those are places I’ve only read about, so the thrill for me is purely academic. Syndicate’s setting of London, though, is where half my family comes from. It’s a city I’ve visited dozens of times and love like my own hometown. Jacob and Evie Frye’s journey is set in a place that I can recognize and have a personal relationship with, and it’s given me a new appreciation for the series’ digital sightseeing.

The fact that the game is set a mere 150 years ago in historic, well-preserved central neighborhoods only intensifies that feeling. The American-set entries in the series depict generic visions of olde timey New York or Boston, unrecognizable as the metropolises they would eventually become, but players with a functioning knowledge of London’s geography will easily be able to locate landmarks like Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Charing Cross station. For me, scampering up the National Gallery or Westminster Abbey wasn’t about the minor excitement of exploring a building I had read about in a textbook, but about reconnecting with a landmark from my own history. It’s the first time Assassin’s Creed, or any game, has done that for me.

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae

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I liked Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae because it restored my faith in Final Fantasy. Around the time I was playing Final Fantasy IX on Christmas of 2000 and going slack-jawed with awe at what I was seeing, I would have called Final Fantasy my favorite game series. That was 15 years ago, though, and Square Enix’s RPGs have never captured my interest that same way since. My excitement for the long-in-development 15th entry in the series has waxed and waned as worrying news about the project has slowly trickled out: The main playable cast are all moody goth boys? The most prominent female character is a mechanic who wears a bikini and cutoff jean shorts?

After playing Episode Duscae, though, all my doubts were eradicated. A decade of studio foot-shuffling and mismanagement ultimately means nothing if the game they produce is as gorgeous, expansive, and weird as this. The central cast turned out to be more irascible than moody and feels like a real group of lads with a history and genuine affection for one another. The central rhythm of adventuring by day, then hunkering down with the homies for some nosh and a snooze at night feels great in miniature, and I can’t wait to see how it feels across dozens of hours instead of just two or three. Episode Duscae is the first time in years that I’ve had unambiguously positive feelings toward my one-time favorite game series—bikini and cutoff jean shorts notwithstanding.

Samantha Nelson

Guitar Hero Live

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I liked Guitar Hero Live because it made me feel like I was playing a part in something bigger. Let’s pretend I wasn’t so unsettled by the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” that playing music for an audience of cheering and jeering animated people has forever lost its charm. Guitar Hero Live’s simple change from digital avatars to footage of real people that respond to my playing made a huge difference in how immersed I felt in the game, making it a lot easier to imagine I was a real rock star when I was jamming on my plastic keys.

But what sucked me in even more is Guitar Hero TV. I played so much Rock Band 3 that I worried I might be forever burned out on music video games, but the extra stimulation GHTV provides by allowing me to watch music videos I’m not familiar with goes a long way to keeping me engaged. I also like having the ability to see how many people are playing the same song as me and comparing my performance to theirs, feeding my competitive drive. I’ve had a lot of fun in the past playing music games with friends, passing around our preferred controllers and debating over set lists and what songs were worth paying for, but it’s nice to have both the control of playing solo and the feeling of being part of something bigger.

Magic Duels: Origins

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I liked Magic Duels: Origins because throwing a bit of story around games of Magic: The Gathering provides an excuse to keep playing. I was a huge fan of MicroProse’s 1997 Magic: The Gathering computer game, where the goofiness of encountering a dragon that could only be vanquished by pulling out a deck of cards was endlessly amusing. A slightly more substantial splash of storytelling is wrapped around games of Magic in the Duels Of The Planeswalkers series, and Wizards Of The Coast’s latest digital outing, Magic Duels: Origins, runs with this formula and adds the bonus of rewarding you for wins with the coins needed to build you card collection.

The story here is thin. It’s basically a series of short visual novels about some of Magic: The Gathering’s signature characters, but considering I’ve always been a fan of piecing together a Magic set’s greater arc through snippets of flavor text, getting whole paragraphs is a generous serving of backstory. It also helps that being able to set my own unwritten goals, like getting through a character’s story, mitigates my hatred of grinding and makes it feel like there’s a bit more purpose to my playing than just eking out enough currency for a vital card to improve my deck.

Starcraft II: Legacy Of The Void

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I liked Starcraft II: Legacy Of The Void because it’s a Starcraft II game with bigger stakes than the romance between Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan. Don’t get me wrong. The space marine with a heart of gold and his psychic crush who is transformed into the monstrous leader of the Zerg are great characters, but it’s pretty frustrating that so much of the past two entries in the series has been devoted to their star-crossed romance. Sure, there are threats to all life in the galaxy, but when you’re following Raynor in Wings Of Liberty, his main goal is restoring Kerrigan’s humanity, and when you’re focus is on Kerrigan in Heart Of The Swarm, she’s all about sacrificing everything Raynor fought for so she can avenge his obviously exaggerated death.

Legacy Of The Void provides some much-needed perspective. Within the first few missions, it’s clear just how bad the series’ big bad is, as he devastates the Protoss in what was supposed to be their moment of triumph and leaves them scrambling to save their civilization while other heroes and planets fall. With stakes that high, the story of “boy meets girl; boy loses girl to horrifying insectoid army” rightfully falls into the background.

Derrick Sanskrit

Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival

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I liked Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival because it was a party game where nobody loses. While most of these virtual board games either reward or punish players with each tile they land on, this Animal Crossing spin-off does things a bit differently. Each tile represents an action that could take place in a typical day in your village, so “good” tiles could be anything from going to a party with friends to receiving an award for your feng shui. “Bad” tiles, on the other hand, include a huge sale at Nookling Junction, buying a new sewing machine for the town seamstress, or liking a song of K.K.’s so much that you bought the album. In the context of a board game, those represent the loss of money, but in the context of daily Animal Crossing life, those would be proud accomplishments! I can’t be mad about spending money on things that make my villagers happy. There’s no such thing as failure in this board game, only having a somewhat less delightful time than somebody else.

Splatoon

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I liked Splatoon because it encouraged players to refine their fashion. When you’re in the heat of battle, with the enemy team coming for you and time running out, you want the strongest gear in order to survive. Since all the weapons in Splatoon are evenly balanced, the way players get an edge on the competition is with their fashion sense. Every pair of shoes, every shirt, hat, and hair clip includes some sort of skill boost, from stronger defense to increased weapon range. Whenever an enemy splats you into inky oblivion, you’re shown a rundown of the clothes your attacker wore, complete with the skills those threads granted as if to say, “These are the clothes that beat you, available now at a store near you.” Each garment starts with one skill, but they can gain up to three more as players wear them out, because every fashionista knows that you’ll never impress people with the clothes that stay in your closet.

Success in Splatoon depends on finding the clothes that work best for you and a willingness to try new things. “I know that leather jacket has been good for you and your swim speed, but maybe this Hawaiian shirt will help you stealthily sneak up on your enemies.” The combat in this game may be ferocious, but nothing is more fierce than its fashion.

OlliOlli2: Welcome To Olliwood

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I liked OlliOlli2: Welcome To Olliwood because it made me feel more alive with each bone-shattering face plant. Maybe it was the way a single tap of a button would instantly start the course over, encouraging me to shrug off my every mistake the moment I realized I’d made one. Maybe it was the effervescent soundtrack full of clicks, wobbles, buzzes, and coos that made my triumphs feel superhuman and my wipeouts monumental. Maybe it was the tight controls that made me certain that it was my fault I missed that grind, I won’t forget this time, don’t forget it this time, come on, you’ve got this. Surely it was all of the above and more, as everything in this game double-dog dared me to pick myself up, get back on that board, and try again. OlliOlli2 employed so many tricks to make success feel sublime that those repeated failures felt like mere hiccups, and I couldn’t wait to scare those hiccups away with another Nollie 720 Flip 180 (whatever that means).

Tembo The Badass Elephant

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I liked Tembo The Badass Elephant because it equally rewards caution and gleeful smashing. It becomes apparent very quickly that this game wants players to charge forward, plowing through every obstacle in their path. You’re an elephant wearing combat paint, after all, and the bad guys are regular dudes dressed like G.I. Joe cannon fodder. Holding one button is all it takes to dash through the baddies by the dozen, tossing them long distances against their will. Reckless smashing won’t save the day, though, as there are plenty of hidden odds and ends throughout each level that require a more cautious trunk. Like the classic Sonic The Hedgehog games, Tembo finds a balance between dashing headlong through broad swaths of terrain and slowing down to explore. Some paths are inaccessible once they’ve been smashed, so a slow and steady hand is essential for saving the day. Besides, a little restraint makes smashing the bejeezus out of everything feel just that much more cathartic.

Ryan Smith

Shadowmatic

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I liked Shadowmatic because of its Zen-like simplicity. I remember setting a flashlight on my bedside table as a kid and contorting my hands in the light to cast animal-shaped silhouettes on the wall. It was great fun, even if I wished I was better at it—I couldn’t come up with much beyond a blobby-faced rabbit. Shadowmatic turns the act of shadow puppetry into a challenging puzzle game without overcomplicating things.

You’re presented with a series of misshapen objects that cast unrecognizable shapes against the wall while suspended in mid-air. Only a couple of basic swipes on your touchscreen are needed to twist, spin, and adjust the misshapen objects in the light until you intuit a singular form, usually an animal or a household object. The puzzles start out easy, but eventually you’re given multiple objects that must be manipulated in tandem in order to work. Unlike playing shadow puppets, Shadowmatic doesn’t empower you to be creative—it’s mostly problem solving. Still, there’s an epiphany waiting with each puzzle’s solution, and it stirred a childlike sense of wonder in me. Whoa, I took a random looking hunk of metal and made a lizard out of it?! Cool.

#IDARB

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I liked #IDARB because it’s a sports game missing the baggage that comes with simulating real sports. The game’s creators started with a simple red square and asked the internet to help suggest what kind of game should be made around it. The result is an original sport that plays like a chaotic cross between hockey, rugby, and a retro Mario-style platformer. Two teams of up to four players jockey for possession of a blocky ball and attempt to score goals by booting it—or walking it—into their opponent’s goal while a cartoonish announcer loudly spews random pop-culture references.

How divorced is #IDARB from real life? Some of the avatars aren’t living beings, much less digital athletes. (You can pick dinosaurs, mimes, strips of bacon, and even anthropomorphic video game hardware.) Even better, you’re not measuring the game’s flow against what happens when it’s played in the physical realm. I certainly enjoy the NBA 2Ks or FIFAs of the world well enough, but they remain prisoners of the sports on which they’re based. The closer they come to hyperrealism—both visually and conceptually—the more I notice their tiny flaws. Call it the uncanny valley of sports games. #IDARB goes the opposite direction, and its goofy personality is completely its own.

Rock Band 4

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I liked Rock Band 4 because of its freestyle guitar solos. At their core, music games rely on the act of electronic mimicry—tapping buttons on plastic instruments in order to follow pre-made patterns. Rock Band 4 breaks from the conformity of note-by-note commands during designated “freestyle solo” sections. Sometimes you’re asked to hold notes or strum them at a certain speed, but you choose which buttons to press and where. (There’s an additional series of five buttons near the base of the guitar.) At other brief moments, you’re allowed to noodle on your faux ax with willful abandon.

You’d think this freedom would turn a respectable rock song into unlistenable noise when put in the stiff hands of amateurs like me, but solos have been programmed in a way that prevent them from sounding utterly horrible. Not all solos were created equal, of course. Orgasmic guitar wanking should be encouraged, for, say, Def Leppard or Jimi Hendrix—but it makes no philosophic sense for a lot of punk or indie rock tracks. But even then, it can be hilarious fun to play an inappropriate solo. My friend and I died laughing while launching into solos during R.E.M. and Pixies songs. (Somewhere, Peter Buck wept.) In the end, freestyle solos prove that even cover bands need a bit of creative freedom.

John Teti

Fallout 4

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I liked Fallout 4 because it sounds like despair. Sound design is just one reason that Fallout 4 has consumed my scattered hours of free time lately, but it’s the aesthetic touch that stands out the most from previous entries. When you step outside in the radiated wastes formerly known as Massachusetts, you might hear echoes of a gunfight in the distance or the hollow boom and unnerving crackle of a radiation storm (accompanied by the tickety-tick of your Geiger counter). Or there might be little diegetic sound to speak of, and instead your ears will be drawn to Inon Zur’s score, which is even more rich and wistful than his work on past Fallouts. Because there are so many ways that the game’s audio works to deepen the sense of struggle in the Commonwealth, you might not be getting the full experience without headphones or a good set of speakers. Luckily, this is still an engrossing world even if you play on mute.

Alto’s Adventure

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I liked Alto’s Adventure because it does so much with the tap. Smartphones and tablets lend themselves to endless runners with one-“button” controls—like Jetpack Joyride or flash-in-the-pan Flappy Bird—and Alto’s Adventure is a pinnacle of the form. You play a snowboarder sliding along an endless series of rolling peaks and hills, and you tap the screen of your iOS device (or the touchpad on your new Apple TV remote) to make the character jump. That’s all, except that’s not all. The physics and character animation of Alto’s Adventure are so finely tuned that once you get into the game’s groove—which doesn’t take long—the sensation of tapping melts away. It’s replaced by the feel of landing spectacular tricks and jumps with precision finesse. Not since the heyday of SSX has a snowboarding game done so much to turn our fat fingers into instruments of wintry athletic grace.

Drew Toal

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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I liked The Witcher 3 because it made good on the promise of Witcher 2. The Witcher 2 is a case study on the dangers of high expectations. Swords, sorcery, hilarious video game coupling, and an unholy mutant ronin stoic with a heart of gold—I was thoroughly convinced, before I even started, that this game would quickly take its place among my all-time favorite fantasy titles. So why, then, did I find myself getting supremely bored with it and giving up about halfway through (twice!)?

When word came down, before it was released, that The Witcher 3 was in all ways a bigger and more involved undertaking, I practically overdosed on skepticism. More game was not what this series needed. (If anything, I thought it could use more than a little slimming down.) How wrong I was. The Witcher 3 is not boring, nor is it bloated. It took the things that worked with Witcher 2, chucked most of the stuff that didn’t, and finally put it all together. The sheer scale of Witcher 3 is staggering, but the amount of care and detail put into the game’s side plots and design is what really blows my mind. Even the ending I got, one of several, was perfectly bittersweet. Could I have done something more productive with the 150 or so hours I put in while fighting against the Wild Hunt? Probably. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

Transformers: Devastation

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I liked Transformers: Devastation because I am old and can still remember the ’80s. I believe I speak for fellow Gameologician and unreformed ’80s kid Anthony John Agnello when I say that Transformers: Devastation is the Transformers game we’ve been waiting for our whole lives. Per their implied mandate, the robots in disguise have gone through countless iterations over the years. Not all of these updates have been for the better, as anyone who has followed director Michael Bay’s questionable interpretations can attest. While the most recent game adaptations were certainly nowhere near as heinous as those films, they still left something to be desired for us old timers who yearned for a back-to-basics game based on the first generation. Devastation is that perfect dose of G1 fan service—Megatron’s maniacal laugh, picture-perfect art and animation, and challenging no-nonsense giant robot melees that capture the original spirit of Prime and his merry band of Japanese-made jalopy warriors.

You see kids, back in my day, we didn’t have wireless internet or fancy phones that talk and tell you where the best tacos in town can be found. In fact, we barely had internet or tacos at all! It was a terrible and bleak existence, full of Doritos and dial-up modems. Transformers helped many in my generation through those dark times. So it’s tough to say whether or not Devastation will have the same appeal to those whippersnappers who came of age during their latter years. Fortunately, this column is about games I liked this year.

Sunless Sea

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I liked Sunless Sea because sometimes I don’t like to beat games, and also I sunburn easily. “’Course,’ the Bearded Watchman tells you, ‘there are no actual shepherds on the Shepherd Isles. Sheep are mostly illegal here. No indeed, it’s just the name of the genterman that found the islands.’ Greybeards sitting in the village square nod solemnly. ‘No sheep,’ one says. ‘But plenty o’ tales. Ask us anything.’” Sunless Sea—a steampunk-flavored maritime adventure that puts you in control of a barely seaworthy vessel in a subterranean archipelago full of vampire bats and all manner of otherworldly shit—is peppered with salty anecdotes from weird locals like this bearded spinner of yarns.

As you cruise around the “Unterzee” in your dilapidated tramp steamer, you encounter strange Lovecraftian denizens of the deep. If you survive long enough, though, you also find otherworldly curiosities and abandoned algae-caked ruins. It’s a slow burn. Like Rogue Legacy, it takes generations to progress, and the pace can be glacial. But Sunless Sea is not made for aimless wandering. It’s the Manichean flip side of Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which was resolutely cheerful and jaunty. In that game, in the age of discovery, there is plenty of loot to be taken, plenty of governor’s daughters to betrothe. In Sunless Sea, all the gold and daughters are gone. All that’s left are the tales.

Nick Wanserski

Mad Max

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I liked Mad Max because of its beautiful, barren world. It’s not the best game of the year—as its welding of a thin, unnecessary Fury Road prequel onto a massive open-world frame resulted in a rickety jalopy—yet I finished it and kept on playing, something I hardly do these days. If you remove the clumsy story beats, what remains is a beautiful game. Every screenshot looks like a Hudson River School romantic landscape—Max cruising along broken highways, the horizon dotted with plumes of flame and a full moon arcing across the pale night sky. They way you outfit your car with increasingly ridiculous adornments is also endlessly engaging. Plowing into an enemy caravan in your monstrous battle-wagon and flipping cars end over end with a well-placed harpoon remains one of the most enduring gaming pleasures I’ve experienced this year. Now every time I drive to the store to pick up milk, I imagine my car being outfitted with a massive cowcatcher that’s perfectly angled to sweep oncoming jalopies out of my path and into jumbled wreckage at the side of the road. No other game I’ve played this year has imparted that kind of vicarious sensation.