10. Stardew Valley
Who would think that this really chill and copacetic farming sim would be the hit that it was? Stardew Valley is a game that exceeded many people’s expectations, including my own. I’m already a huge fan of games similar to this such as Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, and the general consensus among Harvest Moon fans is that the games in the main series have been declining in quality for quite some time. Stardew Valley is more than enough to scratch the itch that Harvest Moon has left, but what I believe shows how good of an experience the game is was the mass appeal of the game with people who aren’t fans of games in this genre. As of writing this, Stardew Valley has an estimate of two million copies sold on Steam. Not bad for an indie game about farming, am I right?
Stardew Valley takes many elements from Harvest Moon specifically the first game in the franchise. What Stardew Valley does though, is polish those elements and make it more palatable to newcomers of the genre. There are many activities to do in this life sim – while a lot of it has to do with agriculture, the fun comes with the balancing act of doing all your chores while also doing side activities within the limited hours of any given day. These activities include, but are not limited to, farming, mining, fishing, combat, building, and a little bit of dungeon crawling. Of course, what would these activities be without the npcs and the world that you inhabit? While one of the main drives of the game is to get married, you do over time develop relationships and bonds with the characters, and grow to rely on them mechanically while you enjoy their company on a personal level. You do feel a tangible connection to characters and the world – and what you impacts those in the community.
It is easy to dismiss Stardew Valley as the first Harvest Moon with quality of life changes, but what is actually there and what is playable is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences in this year of gaming. The game balances relaxation with this interesting meta of time and resource management, along with world building. This genre is not for everyone, but Stardew Valley is probably the best gateway for those interested. Get ready to farm your real life away.
– Nathaniel Terencio
9. Dishonored 2
The moment that I realized the scope of Dishonored 2’s excellence was when I closed a door on my way out of an apartment; I had broken in through a window, poking around for a way to bypass the authority’s feeble attempts to bottleneck my passage. I found a suitable exit and, determined to leave the apartment without anything pointing to my presence, I shut the door. Dishonored 2 creates such a believable and complete world that I found myself in situations like this, moments where I found myself role-playing far more than I do in most RPGs. Though the game has a myriad of excellent qualities, it is the world design that makes it one of the best titles of the year. Like nearly every aspect of Dishonored 2, the city of Karnaca is built off of the groundwork of its predecessor, but shakes things up enough to grab even the most grizzled explorer of Dunwall; the steampunk-esque elements that littered Dunwall and gave it its unique flavor have been transplanted into a decidedly warmer climate. Karnaca takes clear inspiration from the ancient cities of southern Europe, and the art design brings oppressive heat and ancient buildings with modern implants to life. The city is as verbose as it is pretty, with scraps of paper and official documents spilling off of each desk, the stories they tell enhancing the character already inherent in Karnaca’s look.
Fortunately, the level design immaculately fuses this unique aesthetic with fun. From seedy alleyways concealing illicit vendors to posh mansions with mechanical guard details, there are always a multitude of ways to navigate your surroundings and approach your target. The choices transcend the standard merciful/merciless dichotomy through which your actions are judged, as well, and leave ample room for players to exercise their creativity. Dishonored 2 is a sandbox that provides its players with a veritable arsenal of tools both supernatural and technological with which to brutally execute their foes or forsake confrontation altogether. Anyone who feels up to sampling something that’s a bit on the different side should definitely give Dishonored 2 a shot; the beautifully dangerous Jewel of the South plays host to one of the most visually interesting and intricately designed sets of levels I’ve played in years.
– Hal Olson
8. Watch Dogs 2
I’ve often said that for every great game Ubisoft make, they need to make an equally bad one first – it’s a law of cosmic balance. As disappointing as the first Watch Dogs was, Watch Dogs 2 is just as colourfully, vibrantly brilliant. Whereas in Watch Dogs you had the dead-eyed, thoroughly unlikable Aiden Pierce – in Watch Dogs 2 the protagonist is the goofy, fun, good-natured Marcus Holloway. Unlike in the first Watch Dogs – where Aiden bizarrely delays rescuing his sister to hit countless petty criminals with a baton – the story is actually meaningful and intriguing; Marcus and his hacktivist DeadSec crew are fighting Big Data right in the nation’s tech capital: San Francisco. The story cleverly parodies the real world collusion of data-farming mega-corporations to harvest our personal data for their own ends, while encouraging people to be more aware of it.
It’s not just the story and the characters that are hugely improved, but every aspect of the gameplay. No longer are you funneled into overloading the same steam vents and hacking into the same cameras. Now you’re gloriously free to take a wide variety of approaches to every single mission. You can send your drone to fly over a patrolling goon’s head and drop an explosive on him. You can hack cars from a distance and remotely drive them over your crypto-fascist foes. You can even send your RV through tiny air vents, accessing crucial data and finishing many missions without you ever needing to set in a dangerous area. It’s amazing how many solutions are on offer for every problem, and how you’re encouraged to use a combination of them to succeed.
Watch Dogs 2 really gives us a window into the full potential of open world games. Unlike this year’s disappointing Mafia III – where the setting is just an interchangeable backdrop for the missions – San Francisco itself is the star of the show. You can walk through the Castro district where a crew of gay guys in leather chaps will pose with you for photos. You can order a beer in one of the quayside seafood restaurants in Marin. You can even watch the adorable sea lions basking off the side of Pier 39 (exactly where I expected them to be from going there in real life). Our very own Bay Area native Nathaniel Torencio even commented on the authenticity of ambient dialogue of the countless hipsters you’ll encounter (and you can even join them by dressing up Marcus in skinny jeans if you want!)
No other Ubisoft open world epic has ever so vividly realized its setting or let its world feel so organic and interactive. That’s why Watch Dogs 2 thoroughly deserves its high ranking on this list.
– Jonathan Trussler
7. Fire Emblem Fates
Following on the success on its success with Awakening, the newest Fire Emblem game brings another fantastic gaming experience. Fire Emblem Fates took the a number of the features and improvements that made Awakening great and further improved on them, resulting in gameplay that surpasses its predecessor. The more dynamic maps kept the flow of battle feeling exciting while also presenting a colorful and likeable cast of characters including the player’s own avatar who proved to be more than just another player created character.
The two storylines offered a longer, more open minded narrative that managed to keep both sides feeling unique and original, as opposed to just changing some parts depending on your side. It lacked the same emotional impact as Awakening but managed to stand on it’s own a step or two below it’s predecessor. A third storyline further extends the game’s play time but ultimately fell short of the bar set by Birthright and Conquest’s storyline by focusing more on map gimmicks rather than creating a more memorable story.
Fire Emblem Fates is held back by some unnecessary features catering to fans of Awakening, a number of visual design choices, and a few localization issues. Despite these issues, Fire Emblem Fates manages to be one of the better games to come out this year, falling just short of being this year’s best 3DS game.
– Jack Hills
6. Pokemon Sun/Moon – Jay
A lot of the time, when a new Pokemon game comes out, it feels like the general coverage of the thing is written more or less to the tune of “this just in: Pokemon continues to be pretty good.” The brief discussion is had, and the thing seeps into the ether of its own amoebous fanbase. But for Pokemon Sun and Moon, that wasn’t quite what happened.
Sun and Moon change things up; pure and simple. The age-old system of “you must fight 8 Pokemon gyms in order to become the Best Monster-Training Good Boy” is now replaced with a gauntlet of seven trials set across the four tropical islands of the Alola region. The idea is still “do X number of thing to win,” but the Island Trials are leaps and bounds more varied than the structure of any previous Pokemon game has ever allowed for. There’s no sense of predictability. The trials inform the unique and rich feel of the game’s region, which feels so distinct that it almost comes off as alien to the rest of the series.
The reason Pokemon Sun and Moon are on this list, and why they’re honestly some of the best Pokemon games, is that they solve an age-old problem with the series. The turn-based RPG gameplay of the series has been carrying the same fundamentals for most of its run, with small variations and additions here and there. New Pokemon and new moves change things up every generation, but with Sun and Moon, Game Freak were able to make the predictable completely unpredictable, purely by dropping the gameplay pattern their series has traditionally echoed. With that one move, they freed themselves up to create the least by-the-books game in series history, and opened themselves up to endless possibilities in the future.
– Jay Petrequin