2016 was by all accounts a pretty fantastic year for games. Unless you're me, because I barely played most of them. So many critically acclaimed games released this year that I just didn't get around to playing, or even buying. Games like DOOM, Inside, Uncharted 4, Hitman, The Witness, Superhot, Firewatch, The Last Guardian, Darkest Dungeon, Hyper Light Drifter, Salt & Sanctuary and a whole bunch of others I'm definitely forgetting. I didn't play a whole lot from this year, but what I did I enjoyed. Here are The Top 10 Games That Are Probably Perfectly Acceptable of 2016:

Street Fighter V

I'm just glad Urien has graced us with his presence once more.

If you know me at all, you'll know that I love me some Street Fighter. Sure, V didn't have a particularly successful launch, and sure, it was (and still is) missing quite a few features, modes and quality-of-life that you would expect out of a modern fighting game... but I still like it. I think (some character model clipping issues aside) that it's a really nice looking game, and I certainly enjoy playing it. I think that Capcom need to fix quite a few things, both in the core gameplay and the things surrounding it, but even in it's currently pretty barebones state, it's the game I've put the most amount of time into in 2016.

Overwatch

fuckin loot boxes HELP

Blizzard's latest was that game that reminded me that I still like first-person-shooters. After a few years of getting burnt out on the latest Call of Duty releases, and other similar, modern/near-future military shooters, along comes Overwatch to let me know that the shootan can still be fun. And boy, do I think Overwatch is fun. For a game where me play-time in hours is at three digits, the amount of time I've spent getting annoyed and salty is surprisingly low, especially so when I've payed most of that time solo. I also may have bought a few too many loot boxes...

 

Titanfall 2

Finally, I can be a pink lady-robot.

Hot on the heels of Overwatch is another FPS game to let me know that FPS games can still be awesome. Respawn's first attempt at making a post-Call of Duty shooter was very promising, but lacked a lot of that customisation that keeps you coming back for more. It also lacked a single-player campaign. Titanfall 2, does not, and Titanfall 2's single-player campaign is, perhaps one of the greatest single-player campaigns since these guys made a little game called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The fact that the multiplayer is still really fantastic (albeit with a few little changes from the first game I'm not a huge fan of) and a bunch of visual customisation, Titfanfall 2 is absolutely the game Titanfall 1 should've been. I just hope it can maintain a healthy player population for more than a few months.

Dark Souls III

Never change, Dark Souls players.

I played a decent amount of Dark Souls. I didn't play it to completion, nor come close, but I put a solid chunk of time into it. I didn't play a decent amount of Dark Souls II, in fact I barely played any of that game. I played a lot of Bloodborne. It was one of my favourite games of last year, perhaps even my favourite. Dark Souls III, I played a decent amount of. I played it to completion. It's a game that has clearly come after Bloodborne, but still retains it's identity as Dark Souls. The combat isn't as fast and hectic as Bloodborne, but there are some hints of influence there. The way the game looks as well, with the environments very dense with detail also looks like something informed by FromSoft's previous game. I still think that Bloodborne is my favourite out of all these games, but DSIII is definitely a solid offering.

 

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Sage advice.

I adore this game. I adore it so much I wrote my first review in over three years about this game. VA-11 HALL-A is a visual novel through-and-through, but it's not something typical of the likes you see coming out of Japan. It isn't 400 hours long for one thing. There aren't any shoehorned in sex scenes for another. The plot is delightfully small in scope, dealing with a decently sized cast of well realised and fleshed out characters that feel somewhat like real people and not just vaguely anime-shaped pixels on your screen. The player choice is interestingly obtuse, though ultimately doesn't have a whole lot of effect on things. The retro-Snatcher-esque aesthetic is nice and the tunes are banging.

Stardew Valley

This screenshot isn't mine. My farm doesn't look this good.

Imagine that there was a guy who really liked Harvest Moon. He liked it so much, but he thought he could do better. Imagine this guy, dreaming of a Harvest Moon game where, not only can you farm, you can do a whole bunch of other stuff. Collecting wood, fishing, mining, hunting monsters, interacting with the locals and forming relationships with them. Well, imagine no longer, because that guy is real and Stardew Valley is that game what he made that is exactly what I just said. It wins the coveted Jeo Dot Me Oh Lemme Just Play One More Day Wait Now It's 6.30am What Award.

 

 

Pokémon Sun/Moon

POPPLIO DA BEST

You know me. I love Pokémon. A new set of Pokémon games came out, so of course it's going to be on this list. Sun and Moon shake up the formula of these game in the most dramatic way since... well, ever. I mean, you're still a little kid who gets a pokémon from the local professor or whatever and leaves home to go on a journey collecting pokémon and making friends and fighting trainers and stealing their money and all that shit but the overall structure just isn't quite the same as it always is. Pokémon gyms are gone, replaced now with the Island Challenge (the region in these games is a set of islands modelled after Hawaii) where you have to undergo and pass a bunch of trials which consist of a variety of things ranging from different minigames to just "beat this strong pokémon". Sun and Moon shake things up enough to make things feel fresh but still familiar. Also the story, something you don't normally expect too much out of a Pokémon game, is pretty good. The characters are great. Lillie is a cutie.

Steins;Gate 0

Presented without context.

Seven years after the original visual novel, Steins;Gate 0, the first (and lets be honest, likely only) real sequel is out, and available in English in relatively short order no less! Steins;Gate was a time-travel story and so, the sequel, rather than being an arbitrary continuation of that story, takes place in another worldline (timeline, to grossly simplify things for the uninitiated) from the original, and details a lot of events that allow for the true ending to the original game to come to pass. I can't really go more detailed without spoiling some things, which I don't like to do in these posts, so I won't. I can say however, that if you were a fan of the original, you will undoubtedly enjoy this latest offering. I do have a few somewhat relatively small complaints, and I don't think it matches up to the, quite honestly, 10 out of 10 original game. But those were huge boots to fill, and 0 is still by-and-large, very great.

Guily Gear Xrd -REVELATOR-

what is even happening

Let me say this up front: I am terrible at Guilty Gear. Like, really bad. Capital G Garbage. It's a fighting game that's so far removed from what I'm used to playing (Street Fighter) in terms of movement, options available to you and just the general speed of the gameplay that it kind of overwhelms me. There's a lot to like though: The soundtrack is choc-a-bloc full of ridiculous J-metal; It looks fantastic, they way Arc uses 3D models to emulate sprites is a technical marvel; The character designs are nuts, and not just visually, but from a gameplay standpoint also: There's a character that's basically just a tower-defence game imported into a fighting game. There's another character that fights using pool balls; The single-player offering is plentiful, including a really good tutorial and a bunch of combo trials and missions to help you get a handle on the game. I'll never be as good at this and most anime fighters as I am at Street Fighter (and I'm not even that great at that), but it's hard to not like Guilty Gear. If I may be cliché for a moment: it oozes style.

Final Fantasy XV

YO LOOK AT THIS FROG

I'll admit, I haven't finished Square Enix's latest yet, probably not even close. However, in the 10 or so hours I've put into it so far, I've liked what I've seen, more so than most other modern Final Fantasies I've played. I have pretty much no idea what's going on in terms of actual plot because... the game doesn't really tell you. There's something to be said about the way it just kind of drops you into this large open world  with these 4 pretty likeable characters without really giving it a whole lot of context and letting you mostly just do your own thing. The world so far is fun to explore, and there's a looot of sidequests to keep you busy from just beelining the main story quest. The game does a really good job of showing off the personalities of it's main foursome through mostly natural-sounding and enjoyable banter between them as you go about doing your thing. The general consensus seems to be that the game takes a bit of a nose-dive in quality during one of the later chapters, but we'll see how that pans out. I'm only at chapter 4 at the moment, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the time I've spent with Noctis and his similarly silly-named buddies so far.

And so brings us to the end of 2016. Next year should be a fairly interesting one, what with the launch of a new Nintendo console and all. I wonder if I'll play enough to not struggle to put together a top 10 list.

Probably not.

VA-11 HALL-A isn't a visual novel, but saying that seems kind of silly, because it pretty much is. The reason I say it's not is because... well, it's not a novel. Aside from a few optional side things, VA-11 HALL-A's story is told through pure dialogue. I'm pretty sure something that consists purely of people talking can't be considered a novel, right? Prose doesn't work that way, right? Perhaps I'm wrong, who knows.

You know it's cyberpunk because there's an X in the year.

You know it's cyberpunk because there's an X in the year.

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action is a totally-not-visual-novel set in the very rough part of a cyberpunk city-state in the year 207X. You are Jill, a bartender who works in Hall A of the V-11 building, or "Valhalla" as it's most often referred to. You "mix drinks and change lives", as she puts it, by chatting to your patrons and concocting the drinks they ask you for.

The biggest draw of VA-11 HALL-A is the way in which is tells a comparatively small story. Valhalla feels like the sort of place you'd visit in a big budget, AAA cyberpunk action game, the kind with an epic, high-stakes, bombastic plot. Its customers the types of NPCs who repeat the same single line of dialogue whenever you approach them. You'd only be here at all because you need to speak to a specific character in order to receive some maguffin, or get some info that helps advance the plot, and then you'd never have a reason to return.

But VA-11 HALL-A isn't that. It's a small game that tells a small story consisting of what would be inconsequential characters. These characters do have a story, even if that story isn't quite on the same scale as say, Adam Jenson's or Cloud Strife's, but they're still interesting and a lot more grounded to boot. By being (totally not) a visual novel, the characters are the main draw and the game does a fantastic job of making them interesting and enjoyable, even the ones that only appear a handful of times. Each one has their own stuff going on, and you can help them in your own little way as a bartender would: by supplying them alcohol and listening to their woes. Jill herself also has her own share of guilts and anxieties, a past she'd rather not speak of. However, as you get to know your regulars, and as they get to know you, she'll begin to open up, willingly or not, about her troubles. You'll learn exactly why it is she works at a seedy downtown bar, spending most of her free time sitting bored at home with her cat, reading the in-universe equivalent of 4chan and the Daily Mail.

Of course, characters aren't much if their dialogue isn't up to the task. Fortunately, for a game that consists almost entirely of dialogue, it's pretty stellar. There are times when it can feel a little... videogamey, for lack of a better term (such as when a character asks "hey, so I was wondering about such and such..." in order to segue into a particular topic, usually a character's backstory) but the majority of it feels naturalistic and, above all else, enjoyable. The game has its share of references and in-jokes: a couple of characters like to announce their presence with pro-wrestling quotes, and one character is straight up wearing that red jacket from Akira. The game doesn't rely on this though and does have it's own sense of humour, one that fairly often had me giggling to myself. These characters feel like people that know each other, and so, often joke around in a way that people that know each other often do.

Look at how rad this shiba is.

Look at how rad this shiba is.

Spending so much time chatting to and getting to know these characters also means getting attached to them. Feeling thrilled when a particular character shows their face at the bar because you're excited to spend time with them, or rolling your eyes and sighing when another shows up because you don't fancy listening to their shit, feels rewarding. Especially when those thoughts mirror those of Jill herself. The characters are the stars of the show here and each feel like they have something to offer, even if it is just being the slightly rude patron who only visits the bar on occasion. The cast of characters is also pretty unique, from the physically 13-year-old, but mentally 24-year-old sex-worker robot girl who takes an adorably large amount of giddy pride in her work, to the talking dog who wears sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt. Yes, you read that correctly. His name is Rad Shiba. He's pretty alright. There was only a single character that felt out of place and thankfully they don't get too much screen-time so they didn't sour the experience too much.

Interestingly, for a game so focused on dialogue, there aren't actually any dialogue choices. There is still player choice however, and this is where the gameplay comes into... play. Jill is a bartender after all, and her job consists of more than chatting with patrons. In the far off cyberpunk future of the 2070s, alcoholic drinks are cocktails of fake future cyberpunk chemicals. All the drinks you can serve customers are made up of a mixture of Adelhyde, Bronson Extract, Powdered Delta, Flanergide and Karmotrine. Various combinations of these ingredients as well as occasionally ageing, blending and/or serving them on the rocks make up every drink. There's no real challenge to the actual making of drinks, though that comes in the form of making sure you actually serve the correct drink. Folks aren't going to always be explicit, perhaps instead asking you for "something classy" or "the usual". Making sure all your patrons are happy by the end of your shift will net you bonus pay, which helps to ensure that Jill has enough money to pay her bills. Karmotrine is the alcoholic component of these cocktails, and many drink recipes list it as optional, and this is where the bulk of player choice comes into play. For such drinks, you can opt to not include alcohol at all, or load up as much booze as the game will allow. A customer might be a little more loose-lipped if you get them drunk quicker, or they might end up going home earlier due to not being able to handle their booze. You could also take a turn for the amoral by choosing to serve alcohol to the minor that managed to find her way to this back-alley bar.

It's definitely an interesting way to deal with player choice, especially in the type of game that almost unanimously relies on simple dialogue options. It makes it feel much more... natural. When presented with dialogue options, knowing what you're able to say ahead of time, you can make educated guesses as to what the "correct" choice to make is. But with creating drinks, it's a lot more subtle but still has results. You can't always be sure what will happen when you make your "choice", much like real life!

Outside of the mixing booze and chatting up customers that encompasses the majority of the game, there's also small sections each day of Jill hanging out at her apartment, and you can do a handful of minor activities. You can head to the shop and purchase little trinkets (such as posters, old video games, a Megachristmas tree...) which will stop her from becoming too distracted and affecting her performance at work. There are also a couple of sites mentioned before that you can browse on your phone: The Augmented Eye, a news outlet that primarily deals with celeb gossip and other such asinine topics, Danger/u/, analogous to 4chan, and the blog of a local robot pop-idol. Here you can read about the various goings-on in this dystopian world, topics that will occasionally be brushed upon in conversation with your friends and customers at work. It's a good way to do some subtle worldbuilding, as well as reinforce the idea that VA-11 HALL-A is a small, inconsequential side-story in a much larger epic.

Visually, the game definitely has a striking look to it, wearing its clear influences on its sleeve. A 90s/early-00s retro-anime aesthetic, and great pixel art reminiscent of Hideo Kojima's Snatcher and Policenauts or many other Japanese adventure games from that time. Along with the blue, purple and pink colour palette and the incredible soundtrack create an atmosphere unlike any other game I've played recently. The soundtrack, aside from being excellent, is also utilised in an somewhat interesting way. Being a bar, VA-11 HALL-A of course has a jukebox which, at the start of your day and after your mid-shift break, you can fill up with songs from the soundtrack to play sequentially or randomly throughout your day serving drinks and making small talk. This is how you will experience the majority of the surprisingly large catalogue of songs, so it pays to switch it up.

All in all, VA-11 HALL-A is a small, intimate story featuring unimportant, but charming characters that feels like it's something happening way behind and off to the side of something much bigger and grander, but ultimately irrelevant. And it's this feeling of inconsequentiality that makes VA-11 HALL-A's story so fresh and enjoyable. Despite all I've said, it's pretty much a visual novel and even if visual novels aren't for you, you should probably give it a try. It's much shorter than most Japanese examples of the genre, clocking in for me at around 8 hours. I'm of the opinion that there's a game of every genre for everyone, and maybe this is that visual novel for you? Regardless, it's undoubtedly one of my favourite gaming experiences of the year.