It was a damn shame Rise of the Tomb Raider came out on the same day as Fallout 4, wasn't it? Nevertheless, release schedules be damned, a lot of great games came out this year. Here are the ones I liked the most.
Sequels to good games aren't always a good thing. The drive to bank more cash off of a follow-up to a title that sold well can result in uninspired repetition or clunky new elements that feel tacked on. OlliOlli2 has none of that. It gets mad air on the strength of being a successful extrapolation of the tight design ideas of predecessor. It's bigger, yes, but in a way that makes it feel like its creators' skills have grown. That growth, in turn, made me want to perfect my own skills inside OlliOlli2.
No game over the last year made me feel the way that Mushroom 11 did. On one hand, it's a platformer set in a post-apocalyptic universe, familiar ingredients in many a game recipe. But Mushroom 11's singular control scheme — pushing a fungus blob along by erasing parts of its ever-rejuvenating mass — made the experience of traversing hazardous architectural elements from right to left (or vice versa) a fresh, all-new experience.
All too many games deliver landscapes that are notionally static backgrounds that are ready-made to be taken for granted. Not Rise of the Tomb Raider. Lara Croft's survival and skill evolution depends on the player achieving a symbiosis with the game's environment. Learning to rapidly read and take advantage of the craftable artifacts plants, wildlife and elevation of a given place felt like a vital subroutine planted in my head by the latest Tomb Raider game and that's a feat that more games should try to accomplish.
This mobile puzzle game gave you a set of great puzzle mechanics along with terrible consequences for solving the brain-teasers. Casting the player as a neophyte NSA operative, Touchtone explored what it might be like to be a cog in the machinery of the surveillance state accessing personal conversations to decide whether people are threats. Even if you believe you're doing the right thing in this game, there's unavoidable evidence that it's being done in egregiously wrong ways.
At first, Rocksteady's farewell to the superhero series that endeared them to gamers comes across as too much, too fast. The shifting points-of-view, narrative non-mysteries and new Batmobile mechanics made it seem like Arkham Knight was going to be a muddle. But, the more I played it, the more the game revealed another playable interpretation of Batman to me. I loved Arkham Asylum because of how it communicated that patience was an essential tool in Batman's utility belt. Arkham Knight shows how overworked and lonely Batman forces himself to be, with all manner of threats to be investigated, defused and dismantled in the city he protects. The subtext of the game posits that Bruce Wayne's crimefighting mission is a dead-end path to self-destruction, making it a grim but appropriate farewell to this version of the Dark Knight.
Looking like an artifact from an alternate universe's Game Boy catalogue, Downwell deceives players into thinking that it's only going to be a test of twitch-reflex response. But as you delve deeper in the game's depths, all sorts of micro-strategies reveal themselves. Indie developer Ojiro Fumoto's big achievement with Downwell is in crafting a winning fusion of nostalgia and present-day design ideas.
A mobile version of chess that constantly remixes itself? Chesh sounds like a shallow gimmick at first but, after playing a few games, the thrill of strategic discovery and deployment makes each skirmish a fun new adventure.
Vikings were all about dying in glorious deaths in battle. Jotun offers lots of chances to do exactly that, in large-scale boss battles that come to life in beautiful hand-drawn animation. A moody, well-imagined series of endurances tests, Thunder Lotus' action-RPG creates an imposing sense of scale with a modest amount of manpower.
It made me tense almost every second I played it but Galak-Z also made me feel more precariously alive than just about any other game I touched this year. The only reason I kept playing 17-Bit's high-stakes, die-and-lose-all-your-cool-stuff space combat game was because it archetypal roguelike design was built inside of an invitingly fun homage to old-school anime. The unpredictability of the level designs, enemy deployment and treasure chests make the joy of victory all the more sweeter.
Yes, Spry Fox's word game does a great job of bringing clever ideas into a genre that's way over-represented in the mobile phone space. But the main reason Alphabear's been a consistent go-to in my spare moments is that it lets me spin up awful MadLibs-style jokes as a reward for my wordsmithing skills. It's a weird takeaway to look forward to, but that's just part of the game's undeniable snarky charm.