To that end, we wanted to take a moment and share our thoughts on some of our individual favorites of 2016. We’re confident you’ll recognize some of them, as we’ve been writing about them for days, weeks, and months. There may also be games you haven’t heard of, or maybe forgot about.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what to play this holiday season, we hope you’ll take our word for it, and give these games a shot.
Of all the VR games on all the headsets that came out in 2016, Superhypercube is the one I kept playing on mine. The VR puzzle game from Fez developer Polytron is a simple construct: You rotate a three-dimensional shape, comprised of small vector-style cubes, to make it fit the very specific hole cut out of an oncoming wall. With every success, more cubes are added, and the shape gets larger. As it does, you’ll need to crane your neck and lean out of your chair to see the wall as it draws closer.
Superhypercube doesn’t adhere to the audacious claims of most VR. It doesn’t transport you to a whole new world. Instead, it explores the subtleties of a new platform, creating something that feels both familiar and completely new.
System: PlayStation VR
Darkest Dungeon embodies several of the best trends in indie game development from the last five years. It’s a punishing roguelike dungeon crawler with turn-based combat and an XCOM-style strategic management layer for cultivating squads of feckless, permanently dying heroes in a gothic, Lovecraftian fantasy.
Reducing it to zeitgeist chasing does Darkest Dungeon a great disservice, however, because it does all this with an impeccable panache all its own. Undermining the typical power fantasy progression of games, your heroes track not just health and experience, but also stress, which is driven up by the horrors they witness underground. Over time, they acquire traits like kleptomania, paranoia, or masochism that will cause them to defy your orders and make a mess of your plans.
Systems: PC, PS4, PS Vita
Dark Souls III
Many studios have tried to imitate the “Souls” formula, but Dark Souls III proves that no one can deliver an experience quite as polished, atmospheric, and downright fun to play as FromSoftware and creator Hidetaka Miyazaki. Pulling in ideas from Bloodborne, the studio’s 2015 offshoot, Dark Souls III speeds up its combat without sacrificing the strategic element that drew many to the series. Fighting tooth and nail to defeat bosses like Pontiff Sulyvahn or Aldrich is a stressful, sweaty-palm ordeal, but the satisfaction you feel after landing that final hit and lighting your next bonfire is incomparable.
Systems: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Doom is a game that knows what it is and revels in it. In an industry that, more often than not, looks to outside sources like film or television for inspiration, Doom dared to look within. Throughout its masterful single-player campaign, Doom insists on being a video game first and foremost, and nearly every aspect of its top-tier production values exists in service of gameplay. Recognizing its own absurdity and (frankly) stupidity, the game leans in and revels in its over-the-top violence, rather than trying to humanize the protagonist or add emotional gravity where it doesn’t belong.
Systems: Xbox One, PS4, PC
While enthusiasm may have died off in recent months, it doesn’t change the fact that Pokémon Go was one of the most popular games this year, and one of the most popular mobile games ever. Developer Niantic and The Pokémon Company leveraged nostalgia and a wealth of location data to bring Pokémon to life in a way that clearly captivated the hearts of gamers across the world.
It takes a massive amount of playtime to power up the right Pokémon with the right moveset and the right underlying values, but once you do, the satisfaction of seeing your name and Exeggutor in the gym at your favorite bar was more than worth the kilometers walked and Pokéstops spun.
Systems: iOS, Android
When Quantum Break was first announced for the Xbox One, it came with a larger-than-life promise: It was to be an action game that was also a TV show, part of Microsoft’s initiative to make its own original TV-style programming. During the course of the game’s development, though, Microsoft cancelled its TV production plans, leaving developer Remedy to figure how to make the original concept of Quantum Break work on a much smaller scale.
You can feel the constraints on the final version of the game, but it succeeds more than it fails. Quantum Break has a ton of amazing ideas. It’s filled with intense time-bending battles and amazing set pieces, like running through an overturned tanker as it skips backward and forward in time, replaying its own destruction.
Plus, time travel rules.
Systems: Xbox One, PC
World of Warcraft: Legion
World of Warcraft’s last expansion, Warlords of Draenor, left players wondering if the franchise’s glory days were over. Fortunately, Blizzard’s designers are clever, and with Legion, they’ve delivered what might be the game’s best expansion yet.
Once you hit the level cap, you’re delivered to dynamic world quests that change each day, an awesome chain of story quests about elves addicted to magic, and an embarrassment of dungeon and raid options that cater to every skill level.
Blizzard’s pace of new content is so quick that some players are complaining, not because they lack things to do, but because they can’t keep up.
Gotta Protectors stands alongside Shovel Knight as one of the few modern games to truly nail the “retro” aesthetic, channeling an intensity straight from the 8-bit era. At its core, Gotta Protectors combines combo-driven brawling mechanics with cooperative territory defense elements, giving its battles a distinctly thrilling sense of ebb and flow.
It’s a joy to witness Gotta Protectors‘ fiendishly challenging maps, detailed character leveling system, and cleverly localized dialogue, even when playing solo. When taking on the game’s challenges with a group of friends, however, it transforms into one of this year’s best multiplayer experiences.
System: Nintendo 3DS
Picross 3D Round 2
Picross 3D isn’t a normal puzzle game. It lacks complex rules, arcane mechanics, and increasing speeds or timers that crank up the difficulty until you can no longer keep up. Its simplistic yet elegant 3D block puzzles do one thing incredibly well: rewire your brain until you can see the shape of each row and column with a glance. You become Cypher in The Matrix, but instead of “blonde, brunette, redhead,” it’s varying patterns of orange and blue blocks.
The dual-colors mechanic, new to Round 2 (2016’s sequel to the original 2009 DS game), make the controls more complex. Other than that, not much has changed: Picross 3D is still handheld crack to those who can learn its patterns and tricks like a second language.
System: Nintendo 3DS
Even almost a year after its initial release, The Witness is that rare kind of video game that still jumps back into my mind on a regular basis. The grid-based puzzles that serve as the game’s mechanical bedrock could easily grow tiresome in less capable hands than those of director Jonathan Blow, but with him at the helm, there’s always a new twist on what’s gone before.
In its best moments, the game brings together its puzzles and the environment they’re placed in to produce a subtly immersive and thoroughly satisfying experience. When I first climbed the tower in the area known as The Keep, I was floored by how the setting and gameplay came together to offer up a solution. It was the just one of many “eureka” moments that The Witness inspired.
Systems: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Stardew Valley is a wholly original experience. While it borrows from the legacy of games like Harvest Moon and the Animal Crossing series, it stands on its own as a uniquely beautiful and thoughtful game. Everyone who plays it will approach it differently, and get something different out of it: Some people explore, and fight, and build, some people will do just one of those things — there’s a game here for everyone. Stardew Valley is as deep or as shallow as you want it to be, it is like and unlike any game you’ve ever played, and I cannot recommend it more.
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