The Top 10 Video Games of 2015
1. Undertale (Toby Fox, PC)
The greatest children’s fiction is rooted in fear. Think about the moment of death in your favorite Disney movie, or the terrifying zombies in “Zelda,” or the gore and violence in Spielberg’s ubiquitous blockbusters, or the Unforgivable Curses in “Harry Potter.” The best kid literature emphasizes the joy and wonder the world has to offer while acknowledging the aspects of life that are, ironically, often deemed too scary to discuss with kids.
“Undertale” expertly employs this synthesis of joyful and frightening. It’s a role-playing game that’s full to the brim with goofy, wonderful characters, laugh-out-loud clever dialogue and beautiful, quaint environments. It’s also a narrative about genocide. By allowing the player the choice of either fighting or talking to the game’s randomly encountered ‘enemies,’ “Undertale” becomes an inversion of the classic ‘chosen hero’ mythology found frequently in RPGs. Being a hero in “Undertale” isn’t about slaying evil monsters. It’s about finding mutual understanding, discovering the reasons why people are different and learning to accept them, even though the process can sometimes be painful. It’s moral absolutism, but it’s so well meaning that it’s tough to criticize.
But you can also kill everything. You can live out your video game power fantasy, like you did in “God of War” and “Shadow of Mordor.” But once you do, there’s no going back. Not even if you delete your save file. The game remembers. Decisions in “Undertale” have consequence unprecedented in the medium, because it refuses to abide by rules that have long been standard in its genre.
There’s too much great stuff in “Undertale” to discuss in a little blurb for a top ten list. I can’t believe I haven’t even touched on the soundtrack (the best of the year by a mile), or the savage but loving parodies of dating Sims and “Final Fantasy VI,” or the little character moments that are completely unnecessary but contribute so much to making the game’s world worth caring about.
You’ll never forget the time you spend with “Undertale.”
2. Bloodborne (From Software, PS4)
It’s 2015. Video games are more diverse and inclusive than they’ve ever been. If your game is still structured around blood and gore and killing stuff, you’re going to have to be the cream of the crop to impress me. “Bloodborne,” 2015’s goriest, bloodiest game about killing stuff, impressed me.
Since their 2009 breakthrough game “Demon’s Souls,” developer From Software (which I imagine consists of dozens of depressed Japanese salarymen who have similar worldviews to me) has been lauded as the last bastion of old-school difficulty in action games. They’re the heir apparent to games like “Ghouls and Ghosts” and NES-era “Castlevania,” where killing gross monsters was a simple pleasure and even the shortest games were so hard they took ages to beat. From Software has been doing the best work in the genre for years, but now they have a budget.
“Bloodborne” blends top-of-the-line monster-slaying combat with a strange, environmental otherworldliness influenced by Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Exploring the city of Yharnam is like a fever dream of violence and surrealist imagery, but “Bloodborne” ’s violence is less Hot Topic pseudo-edginess and more intimately crafted depravity. This might be meat-and-potatoes video game, but it’s the best damn meat-and-potatoes I’ve eaten all year.
3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED, Xbox One, PS4 and PC)
“The Witcher III” makes me proud to be Polish. If you haven’t heard of it, “The Witcher” is a fantasy mega-franchise that’s essentially the equivalent of “Game of Thrones” in the country (there’s books, shows, movies, and games). The games in particular have really hit in the United States, with this entry in particular taking home numerous American game of the year awards. It’s for good reason — this is a fantasy universe that’s made the transition to open-world gameplay with stride, providing a fantasy narrative that’s actually mature and interesting where many games fail to be. Pogroms, abortion and rural superstition are tough themes to explore in this format, but “Witcher” deftly handles these weighty topics using intimately crafted cutscenes and complex characters that are given lots of quiet moments to develop in between epic monster-slaying adventures.
Oh, and its combat system emphasizes thoughtful preparation over in-the-moment RPG reflexes, which is a nice change of pace. It’s also incredibly meaty with content, and pro-consumer developer CD PROJEKT RED has a nice habit of providing lots of free DLC to reward its loyal fans. “The Witcher III” is quite the package: it’s games as art, entertainment and service, all done right.
4. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Kojima Productions, Xbox One, PS4 and PC)
How can a fifth entry in a hugely popular blockbuster series be the most daring game of the year? This open-world magnum opus is the first big stride the genre has made in many years thanks to Kojima Productions’ complete 180-degree turn in design philosophy. Where the previous “Metal Gear Solid” games wore their genre film inspirations on their sleeve, this one prioritizes emergent sandbox gameplay. “MGSV” transforms what could have easily been another boring open-world shooter into a gleeful, flamboyant, ultraviolent romp through base after base of enemy soldiers — the clay for the player to sadistically mold with an immense arsenal of brutal weaponry and stealth trickery. The scummy microtransactions added since the game’s launch diminished its lasting appeal, but the base game is so good that not even the terrible business practices of publisher Konami can keep it from its rightful place high on this list.
(Read my full review here).
5. Sonic Dreams Collection (Arcane Kids, PC)
At its core, “Sonic Dreams Collection” is deep sexual fear. It’s a twisted, nihilist parody that relishes in the weird stuff we do with our doors closed and our Internet browsers open.
Possibly the first instance of the “found footage” genre in video game history, this game was announced as a discovered set of “Sonic The Hedgehog” prototypes SEGA made for their failing Dreamcast console in the late 90’s. But once the “Sonic Dreams Collection” devolves into furry prom night threesomes, feeding fetish porn and nightmare gastrointestinal nativity scenes, it’s pretty obvious that the family-friendly Japanese developer had nothing to do with this.
But that doesn’t change this game’s raw power; the power to discomfort and terrify and, best of all, elicit laugh after laugh. This game and developer Arcane Kids’s 2013 masterpiece “Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective” are a one-two punch of profoundly affecting avant-garde challenges to form. Do not write this game off because it’s a free download. This is one of the best video games of the year.
6. Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady, Xbox One and PS4)
I’ve felt that the transition to open-world gameplay was the wrong direction for the “Batman: Arkham” games since “Arkham City.” While there are definite improvements in player movement and visual design in “Arkham Knight”, debut game “Arkham Asylum” still remains the best interactive Batman experience. Its contained environment that had only been seen in glimpses in the comics provided an incredible nightmare-playground to get acclimated to. By the end, it felt like home. There’s no familiarity with big-ass open-world cities like the one in “Knight.”
That being said, “Knight” is the Batman game that does the most interesting stuff with the idea of Batman, both as a mythologized symbol and as a human character. Throughout the game Batman is wracked with fear, paranoia and self-doubt, visualized in one of the most ingenious uses of game form I have ever experienced. You’ve probably already had it spoiled for you if you follow games, but if you’ve somehow missed it, head into this one blind and see where it takes you. You won’t regret it.
Note that the PC version is not included in this ranking. I hear it’s a quite sub-par version of the game.
7. Fallout 4 (Bethesda, Xbox One, PS4 and PC)
Let’s just come out and say it: “Fallout 4” isn’t the leap ahead for Bethesda open-world games that “Skyrim” was. “Skyrim” will live on as perhaps the most important blockbuster video game of the 2010s, while “Fallout 4” will be remembered as a nice, but ultimately too iterative follow-up.
Still, the wonderful specificity of exploration at your own pace (an experience so unique to video games and so wonderfully achieved in Bethesda’s RPGs) has not been lost here. Fallout 4’s immaculately detailed world was a joy to turn over from beginning to end, providing some wonderful new characters and great little story beats along the way. It’s the most-good game you can get for $60 this year, but it’s not the best.
8. The Beginner’s Guide (Everything Unlimited Ltd., PC)
Davey Wreden’s personal opus begins as a simple walk-and-talk showcase of an indie developer’s unreleased video games, a sort of museum tour of a person’s internal creative energy. Things get interesting when the game design starts to talk back. “The Beginner’s Guide” transforms into a commentary on sadistic voyeurism and personal privacy, centered around a moral quandary — is it okay to assign meaning to art that isn’t yours? Is that what I’m doing with this entry in this top ten list right now?
I’m not sure, but I think it’s safe to say that you should buy and play “The Beginner’s Guide.” It’s cheap to say it’s unlike anything you’ve played before, but believe me on this one.
9. Until Dawn (Supermassive, PS4)
“Until Dawn” is the greatest realization of R.L. Stine’s “Give Yourself Goosebumps” the world has ever seen, and I mean that in the best way possible. A teen horror tribute with elements of “Evil Dead,” “Scream,” “Saw,” and “The Descent,” “Until Dawn” is a choose-your-own adventure novel presented with possibly the best visual design, performance capture (Hayden Panettiere and a pre-“Mr. Robot” Rami Malek light up the screen here) and kinetic cinematography in video game history.
It’s a bit disappointing that the narrative structure changes little from playthrough to playthrough (especially since the game hints at such a feature up front) but what’s amazing about this game is that the player’s actions really do determine who lives and who dies. Any combination of the game’s eight cute teens can survive the night, and the game really understands the fun of gory horror film death without feeling mean. What a lovely piece of trash.
10. Rocket League (Psyonix, PS4 and PC)
In a way, “Rocket League” is an elaboration on “Pong”: head-to-head multiplayer with two goals and a ball. But “Rocket League” has cars with rockets strapped on them pushing around a giant soccer ball. The beauty of it is that it’s an idea we’ve all had – what if real-life sports were crazy dystopian messes of steel, engines and explosions? “Rocket League” lets us live out this essential human fantasy.
This is a so-dumb-it’s-genius idea married to great gameplay. A revelation in physics-based object manipulation, “Rocket League” manages to capture the competitive spirit of soccer and simplify it to work perfectly with a controller. This was my go-to competitive game for intoxicated hangouts this year, and I don’t see that changing for quite some time.