This installment’s question: What’s your favorite game of 2015 so far?
I suspect I have, at some point, nominated Assassin’s Creed IV for my favorite game of the year. (Ah yes, here we are.) The fact is: I like boats. I like games about boats. Even a pesky staph infection picked up on a sailboat in St. John can’t stop my unquenchable love of the open sea. But some oceans aren’t so open, and not all boat games require swinging down onto the deck with a cutlass clenched in your teeth right before dismasting some poor, press-ganged scurvy victim. In Sunless Sea, a curious roguelike from Failbetter Games, you captain a tramp steamer in a fictional, underground ocean called the Unterzee. It’s a quiet game of exploration, drudgery, and otherworldly weirdness. Like Bloodborne, another game I only sort of enjoyed this year, you die early and often. Successive captains, however, can build on some of their predecessor’s discoveries, despite the map changing with every play through. I’ve spent hours just cruising around, pulling into strange ports, and furiously pumping fuel into the boiler to escape some Cthululian monstrosity bubbling up from the deep. Something about the amorphous borders here, how they change constantly, keeps the game feeling fresh. Also the writing is hilarious, and much of the game’s charm is to be found in its text-heavy underbelly: “’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.’” Plenty o’ tales, indeed.
My first journey through The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was done out of professional obligation, and it was a bit of a rush job. When you’re playing a game on a deadline, you don’t have the luxury of just wallowing in it, the way open-world games are meant to be played. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I knew that I would have to play it again, and this time like a normal person. Now that I’m playing it in my time off, I can savor it like a sipping whiskey instead of slamming it like a cheap beer. I’ve turned the difficulty all the way up, and I’ve forbidden myself from using fast travel. Now it’s just Geralt and me, open road in front of us, death around every corner, for the foreseeable future. I liked the game a lot the first time through, but now I feel like I’m finally playing it how it was meant to be played, and I’m enjoying it that much more.
Splatoon has all the dirty little hooks that get people caught in the multiplayer grinds of something like Call Of Duty: leveling up, a mountain of unlockable gear that grows as you level up, individual pieces of equipment that themselves have to be leveled up, more types of leveling up that I’m probably forgetting, etc. But the only thing keeping its carrot-on-a-stick design from turning me off is its uncompromising style. Everything is just so, to borrow the game’s favorite adjective, fresh—a reflection Splatoon’s shiny, youthful essence. All the characters are these clever combinations of marine-life puns and style-savvy teenagers. The music is mostly bassy, energetic punk, perfect fuel to get the blood flowing and the paint pumping. The clothing is so well designed that I catch myself booting it up just to see what new threads are up in the shop—and working my butt off to rack up enough coin for any must-have duds. But ultimately, it’s the bite-sized length of the matches themselves that keep Splatoon in my gaming rotation and me awake way past my bedtime. It’s not style over substance. It’s style elevating substance.
I didn’t know how much I wanted a game like BOXBOY! until it was already in my hands. The game is effortlessly charming with its ultra-minimalist presentation, allowing the puzzles to really shine. Each new stage feels inventive, with new mechanics that are audacious at first and reveal nuance with each challenge. The greatest surprise, though, was how much I connected with the characters in the open-to-interpretation story. Much like my reactions to the nondescript pixels of rymdkapsel, I felt great emotional pangs with the comings and goings of BOXBOY!’s companion characters, Square Girl and Rectangle. I wanted to protect them, to lead them to safety, and to see them live happily. Their unconditional support encouraged me to cross seemingly impossible gaps and collect every coin and crown along the way. Plus, dressing my hero up with sunglasses, a superhero cape, and a ninja mask allowed me to inject whatever subtext I wanted into every scenario (which is perhaps why I most often played with a ponytail and bow).
This has been a pretty good year for me so far; I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve picked up. But to keep this list from being multiple iterations on the glories of The Witcher 3, let me talk about one of my offbeat loves from this year: Dying Light, Techland’s engrossing running-away-from-zombies simulator. It’s marred by some terrible combat and a protagonist that makes Aiden Pearce feel charismatic and morally complex, but the core action here, which feels like it started out as a big-budget take on indie survival games, is excellent. First-person platforming hasn’t felt this good since Mirror’s Edge, and running from the terrifying mega-zombies that come out at night is consistently thrilling. Dying Light at its best gives you a huge layered city with interesting places in it, filled to the brim with zombies, and says, “Run around for a while. See what you find. Try not to die.” Assassin’s Creed wishes it could make climbing up rooftops this fun.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever become completely comfortable with free-to-play games; the concept always feels like a con job. But that hasn’t stopped me from wasting far too many hours of my life playing Candy Crush Saga and Dots, and it hasn’t kept me away from the delightfully odd Neko Atsume, a Japanese free-to-play app that’s all about cats and not much else. The game is almost entirely non-English (a search for “Neko Atsume” in the app store won’t even bring it up; I was only able to find it via this iTunes link from Vox), but the concept is simple enough: You arrange various cat toys in your backyard and wait for cats to play with or nap on them. When the cats leave, they give you sardines, which you then use to buy more toys. You can also spend a bit of money to buy extra sardines, including the rare gold ones necessary for better items. There isn’t much in the way of challenge or strategy here beyond basic time management, but the appeal lies in the fundamental cuteness of the cats and in the clever way the game deals out unexpected surprises—a special gift here, a cat dressed like a baseball player there. So far, I’ve gotten my girlfriend hooked, and she’s shown the game to every cat-lover she knows. It’s the ideal free-to-play experience, really: low pressure, pleasant rewards, and a clear understanding (language barrier or no) on where the money comes in.
Everyone I know has some regrets about their teenage experience, something they’d do differently if they could go back in time and give their adolescent selves advice from a position of age and wisdom. That’s what makes the plot of Life Is Strange so compelling. Putting the power of time travel in the hands of a teen limits you to the bounds of her juvenile imagination, making her ability’s both petty and literally life-changing applications seem equally as significant. When the game reminds you that a decision will have consequences, it brings to mind a stern parent warning you of the risks of drinking or not putting enough effort into your college admissions essays. Will the consequences be awful? Will it be more fun to make the wrong call? I also love how it turns my tendency to restart after a decision goes awry into part of the game, both subverting its usefulness and keeping me from feeling vaguely like a cheater. While I might have to revisit my feeling on Life Is Strange once the rest of its chapters are released, I’m hooked for now.
I’ve barely played any new games this year, so my favorite of 2015 so far pretty much has to be Chroma Squad by default. As faint as that praise may be, Chroma Squad really is a delight. It’s an homage to shows like Power Rangers (so much of an homage, in fact, that it had to get approval from the Power Rangers people), and it plays like a gentle introduction into the world of strategy games like XCOM. The best part of Chroma Squad, though, is that you can personalize a lot of it. Want to name your legally distinct Power Rangers team “The Sam Force Five”? Go for it. Want to have everyone yell “Let’s get fancy!” when they put on their superhero suits? Nobody will stop you. You can even have your team shout “Rot in hell!” when they kill a boss monster. Not enough games let you get fancy and tell monsters to rot in hell. Chroma Squad changes that.