The X Button
The Top Ten Games of 2015

by Todd Ciolek,
The X Button has next week off for Christmas vacation, and I'll be back in the new year, stirring up debate just as I did in 2015. For one thing, I tried to goad XSEED and Natsume into a full-scale war over who had the better Harvest Moon game. That did not come to pass, but I think next year will be bring about the savage conflict I've worked so hard to instigate. Just look at the holiday cards the two companies sent out!

Natsume, who still own the rights to the title "Harvest Moon," put together this wintertime cluster of characters from The Lost valley. It's very cute, though I detect something stern and ominous in Hunter's gaze as he cradles that chicken. Is he fretting that Emily and the game's male and female avatars are idly cavorting with a dog when there are chores to be done? Or is he thinking of the harsh winter ahead, when that chicken might be the sole available food?

Meanwhile, XSEED Games made this postcard with art from Popolocrois: A Story of Seasons Fairy Tale. XSEED and Marvelous keep the rights to the actual Harvest Moon games, but due to Natsume's legal hold on the name, those games will go by Story of Seasons on these shores. The artwork fills in more space than Natsume's card, but the characters aren't arranged in ways that invite idle speculation.

This suggests another clash of adorable farming games in 2015. Natsume plans to send their Harvest Moon: Seeds of Memories to mobile devices, the PC, and the Wii U this year. XSEED sticks with the 3DS for the crossover of Popolocrois: A Story of Seasons Fairy Tale, though it didn't do so well in Japan. So I look forward to their inevitable collision, be it on store shelves or Christmas cards.

NEWS

GOD EATER FINALLY RETURNS TO AMERICA, TWICE
The God Eater series was a curious no-show for years. The PSP original arrived here as Gods Eater Burst in 2011, carving out an interesting niche by adapting the Monster Hunter formula to a post-apocalyptic vision of fanged sword-guns that consume their prey—all while their cocksure wielders show you just how cool they are by smoking in the rainy battlegrounds of civilization's ruin. That made for an entertaining creation in my book, even if it didn't resonate in North America. God Eater continued on just fine in Japan, but Bandai Namco apparently didn't have room for it in their worldwide catalog. Well, we now have the troubled God Eater anime to watch, and Bandai Namco has both God Eater 2 and God Eater Resurrection headed here in 2016. And this time the title stays blasphemous.

God Eater Resurrection is an enhanced revision of the original Gods Eater Burst, which introduces a world worn to wreckage by giant monstrous beings called Aragami. The best defense against them is the paramilitary group Fenrir and its ranks of young, stylish hunters who lug around enormous God Arc weapons. The game plays out like a tighter Monster Hunter, letting players and their allies stalk and slay ornate horrors in demolished cities and fields. Resurrection also has an extra mode setting things up for God Eater 2: Rage Burst. The sequel picks up three years afterward, and though it introduces new main characters, cast members like the reticent Soma, the snobbish haute couture Alisa Illinichina Amiela, the friendly-fire expert Kanon, and the cheerful grease monkey Licca all appear in the sequel. Yes, that's Alisa's real name.

Bandai Namco announced Resurrection and God Eater 2 for the PlayStation 4 and the PS Vita as well as Steam, which sees a lot of Bandai Namco ports these days. The games will carry English voice acting, with no Japanese track for the North American release. That may not be to everyone's liking, but the first Gods Eater Burst had a pretty decent dub, with Kari Wahlgren and Megan Hollingshead and everything!

TALES OF BERSERIA IS ACTUALLY A PREQUEL, KINDA
Bandai Namco filled out their 2016 schedule with more announcements: the Jojo's Bizarre Adventure fighting game Eyes of Heaven, the action game One Piece: Burning Blood, the RPG Tales of Berseria, and Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme VS-Force. The last of these is the most curious. Extreme VS-Force is a Vita game and technically part of the well-liked Gundam Extreme Vs. head-to-head fighting series, but Japanese players raked it over the coals something awful.

Also interesting is Tales of Berseria, which is headed here for the PlayStation 4 and PC while ignoring the PS3 version that Japan will get. Bandai Namco dropped a new detail about the game: it's set in the distant past of Tales of Zestiria. Tales games often get sequels, but they're usually plainly labeled Tales of Xillia 2 or Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, or Tales of Destiny 2 (though the last of these was also the unrelated Tales of Eternia's American title for silly reasons). The catch is, of course, that Berseria takes place in such a remote time and place that its world bears only vague resemblance to what Tales of Zestiria showed. Is there any point to the connection?

If Tales of Beseria looks to be its own game, it may be more intriguing for it. It has the usual action-based battles and character designs by Mutsumi Inomata, Kousuke Fujishima, Minoru Iwamoto, and Daigo Okumura, but it diverges in minor ways. Set in an age when a disease turns humans into monsters, the story focuses on a pirate named Velvet as she's granted a sinister power. It manifests in an enormous demon-hand that leads her to pick fights with werewolves, insult samurai, and never change out of her severely shredded clothing. The trailer shows a darker edge than most Tales titles—along with lizard-people and a surprisingly catchy instrumental towards the end.

Then again, it also shows a precocious, mystical child named Laphicet who travels with Velvet and inspires her. I hate precocious, mystical children.

YS VIII WASHES UP ADOL ONCE AGAIN
The Ys games fell behind in sheer numbers. Back in 1990 they stood quantitatively equal to Final Fantasy and not far behind Dragon Quest. But Ys slowed down after the fourth or fifth game, and now it's catching up. That doesn't bother Falcom, a company that always goes at their own pace, so they have Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana coming in 2016.

As he often does, recurring Ys hero Adol Christin ends up stranded in a dangerous land. In this case, it's the Siren Island in the Goethe Sea, and Adol washes ashore after an ocean monster attacks his ship. He explores the isle by partnering with other misfits, and he can establish a base to house castaways who end up on Siren Island. Early shots of the game show off a three-member party similar to the rapid-paced systems of Ys: Memories of Celceta and Ys Seven. It's due out on the Vita and PlayStation 4 in Japan, and I wouldn't be surprised if XSEED Games was eying it already.

GAMES OF THE YEAR

A lot of 2015 felt overdue. We saw heavily anticipated sequels, translations long in the works, and several crowdfunded creations approved years ago. We also saw many notable games from blockbusters to modest wonders—so many, in fact, that I brought aboard ANN contributors Heidi Kemps and Dave Riley to help me round up the ten best games of 2015.

10. METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN
(Konami, PlayStation 4 / Xbox 360 / PC / Xbox One / PlayStation 4)

In many respects, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain shuns what made its predecessors great. True, it fills in yet another piece of the Big Boss path from disillusioned operative to prime Metal Gear antagonist. And it's replete with creator Hideo Kojima's affection for threading serious discussions of military intervention, Pax Americana and the Soviet-Afghan War into a story with psychic powers, linguistic warfare, and a scantily clad sniper named Quiet (it's all right, folks: she breathes through her skin and has to expose it). Yet it trades the cohesive approach and unavoidable frivolity of past Metal Gears for a wide-open Afghanistan battlefield where you're just as free to roam the hills and catch okapi as you are to pursue the game's loosely arranged storyline. Compared to the steady pace and relentless surprises of the best Metal Gear games, The Phantom Pain comes up a little empty.

Ah, but Metal Gear Solid V does wonders with that emptiness. You'll slowly push forward a storyline about Big Boss, here under the name Venom Snake, once again facing conspiracies and weapons somehow related to the nuclear tank known as Metal Gear. In between, however, you can guide him through enemy camps, call in helicopters for support and pickups, recruit new soldiers, ride a horse, build a home base with everything from gunsmiths to a small-scale zoo, and raise a wolf companion from a puppy. Or you can just ride Snake's horse until it poops, at which point an enemy jeep might skid on the droppings and crash. Just about anything can be a weapon in Metal Gear Solid V, and there's a great wide world in which to test them. And if it's not as melodramatic and satisfying as other Metal Gear offerings, it's much bigger and more inviting. –Todd Ciolek

9. BLACK CLOSET
(Hanako Games, PC)

Part visual novel, part dating sim, part mystery, part board game, Black Closet combines a lot of ungainly parts into a remarkably cohesive whole. As Elsa, new head of the student council at St. Claudine's Academy, it's your job to sort out the crimes and follies of the student body. You investigate cases by delegating your lackeys to the best of their abilities. Popular girl Althea can schmooze for info, but sometimes you need to break out the domineering Thaïs to put the screws to a group of uncooperative students, or the sneaky Rowan to ransack a few dorm rooms in search of crucial evidence.

But be mindful of your methods, lest overbearing techniques or a string of unsolved mysteries tank your reputation with the faculty, the student body, or both, leading to a summary expulsion and a Game Over screen. Black Closet is about managing both time and statistics, and there's never enough of either to go around. To make things worse, while you're wasting breath sorting out disputes between upperclassmen (and whiling the weekends away with your archetypal visual novel girl of choice), a foreboding presence builds. A traitor from a rival school is working against you, and you've got precious few clues and even less time to figure out which of your flunkies is a two-faced liar before they sully the good name of St Claudine's from within. Black Closet crafts a thriller atmosphere laced with unease and dread. Beyond the cases of vandalism and missing art supplies, you start to wonder if something darker than highschool mischief lurks beneath the floorboards of St. Claudine's.

An intricate game with many moving parts, Black Closet keeps you guessing at all turns. Do you harass a pair of bickering BFFs into submission of do you let them off with a warning, hoping nothing worse comes of their feud? Was the missing student kidnapped, or did she just wander off for a night on the town? With the traitor randomly assigned at the start of each game, it could be any one of your so-called friends, and the only way to suss things out is by keeping a dictatorial eye on your minions: is Althea purposefully flubbing her investigations, or is that string of low rolls on the investigative d20 just a coincidence? Is it just bad luck that Vonne is bringing back worse-than-worthless Lemons from her Supply Closet runs, or does she have it out for you? Rarely having enough time, clues, or resources to investigate every lead fully, you'll have to go with your gut more often than not. Black Closet's story sequences may be brief, and its romances may be more amuse-bouches than full-course dating sim material, but as a procedurally generated mystery romp, it's a triumph. –Dave Riley

8. THE LEGEND OF HEROES: TRAILS IN THE SKY SECOND CHAPTER
(Falcom / XSEED Games, PSP / PC )

Falcom firmly ignores those periodic calls for RPGs, especially Japanese ones, to shed their old habits and morph into something more malleable and current. It's a good thing, too. If Falcom heeded those suggestions to forcefully modernize, we wouldn't have as engaging an RPG as their The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky sub-trilogy. That, and a more reckless and trendy Falcom likely would've gone bankrupt five years ago and killed off all chance of us seeing a Popful Mail remake someday.

Trails in the Sky is nearly a decade old and shows it. The characters have a squat look even in battles, and their surroundings wouldn't impress beyond the PlayStation 2 library. In fact, the game's storyline doesn't ring unique at first: we follow Estelle Bright, a mercurial young Bracer operative, and her more sedate and mysterious stepbrother Joshua as they and their goofball allies explore the kingdom of Liberl and uncover a deep and unpleasant conspiracy. The Second Chapter finds them separated in the wake of unsettling revelations, and Estelle picks up the pieces. It's a struggle many RPGs have chronicled before.

The details save it all. Trails in the Sky feels like an old RPG grown and matured, not with cutscenes and celebrity voices but with a thoroughly imagined world and a well-paced battle system. The game fills in blanks everywhere: in the townspeople who have their own lives and motivations, in the conversations that go into avenues most RPGs would discard as superfluous, and even in a novel to be collected one chapter at a time. In a standard RPG they'd be trinkets with brief inventory descriptions. Trails in the Sky makes them an actual story.

The sheer weight of the text naturally renders Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter an immense and daunting localization project, and the game sat through a year's delay even after it was formally announced for North America. Yet Carpe Fulgur and XSEED persevered through harrowing production problems and delivered one of the most voluminous RPGs of the year. It won't sate those who've embraced Xenoblade and Undertale and the latest Final Fantasies without looking back, but for the traditional fan this year had nothing better than Trails in the Sky's middle act. –Todd Ciolek

7. SUPER MARIO MAKER
(Nintendo, Wii U)

The problem with most games that offer a creative aspect—be it a level editor, making custom decals or cosmetic stuff, or just doing silly dress-up—is that the act of making simply isn't well implemented, fun, or rewarding. What really makes Super Mario Maker so darn appealing isn't that anybody can come up and start plopping down elements to create a functional Mario level. It's that the act of making those levels is really, really fun. The interface is easy to use and filled with little Easter eggs and amusements. Who imagined before this that shaking a Koopa Troopa violently until it changed color would feel so satisfying? And testing and refining your creations is incredibly easy to do.

Being able to play and enjoy what others have made makes Super Mario Maker even better. Yes, as I wrote in my review, there's a whole lot of garbage out there. But when you eventually encounter the really, really good courses, the stuff that uses all those goofy sound effects for a laugh and layers enemies and objects in creative ways you never expected, it's an absolute joy. Hopefully the website Nintendo just opened to help players find stages actually works well. –Heidi Kemps

6. FINAL FANTASY XIV: HEAVENSWARD
(Square Enix, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac)

You'd have to work to find a better comeback saga in video games than Final Fantasy XIV. Out of the miserable morass of the original game's crash and burn, a team led by the relatively untested Naoki Yoshida (whose credits, to that point, mostly involved Dragon Quest spin-offs), crafted the spectacular A Realm Reborn, a solid MMO whose handful of forward-thinking ideas were bolstered by a seemingly endless deluge of Final Fantasy fan service. As the years went on, players could suit up in Cloud's armor and Lightning's sword after a game of Triple Triad and saunter off with Cid in an airship to a frantic fight against a gleefully psychopathic Garuda, accompanied by a bitchin' hard rock guitar solo. A Realm Reborn was indulgent to the point of error, but its absolute enthusiasm for all things Final Fantasy spackled over its clumsiness—that brand of unself-conscious, joyful pandering can be fun!

Heavensward does nothing if not continue that trend, fully willing to spend a third of a raid fight on an interactive Knights of the Round summon, expanding its class roster with Dark Knights and Mechanists (Final Fantasy XII's Balthier with the serial numbers filed off), and RTS minigames at the Golden Saucer where you can send your non-combat minions—cactuars, chocobo chicks, even a puppy cosplaying Final Fantasy 6's droopy-bearded Emperor Gestahl—into battle against one another for prizes. With Heavensward they've added flying mounts and toned down most of the mandatory grinds, the standard quality-of-life improvements you expect from an MMO expansion, but they've hit the throttle where fan-service is concerned. If you're an MMO fan, Final Fantasy XIV is probably polished enough to satisfy you, but if you're a Final Fantasy fan, the limiter is off. –Dave Riley

5. YOSHI'S WOOLLY WORLD
(Good-Feel / Nintendo, Wii U)

Yoshi's Island is hard to follow. It's an adorable fixture of the Super NES era, but Nintendo hasn't done its ideas justice since then. They've tried, of course. Yoshi's Story traded the original game's delightfully elastic pixel style for bulbous CG, Yoshi's Island DS crammed itself into an awkward split-screen setup, and Yoshi's New Island stuck so firmly to tradition that it hardly counts a new game.

Yoshi's Woolly World is a spiritual successor done right. It seems a gimmick at first, as a realm of Yoshis, all rendered as adorably crocheted fabric, are transformed into even cuter yarn bundles and abducted, with two remaining Yoshis squeaking and hopping and flailing their feet through a rescue mission. Beyond all of that, though, there's an exceptional action game with novel design and some of the most precious atmosphere this side of a Kirby outing—plus the return of Yoshi's canine friend Poochy, possibly the most under-appreciated character in the Mario catalog. And it comes to even sharper life in the game's fantastic two-player mode. No afterthought, cooperative play is the best way to experience Yoshi's Woolly World.

Yoshi's sweater-ready adventure occasionally second-guesses its apeal with an excess of tchotchkes to find in every level, and it relies on amiibo figures to unlock a lot of Yoshi's alternate forms. Never mind the gimmicks and its broader, often troubled series history. Yoshi's Woolly World stands just fine by itself. –Todd Ciolek

4. SPLATOON
(Nintendo, Wii U)

Online gaming is a given in today's modern landscape. Online gaming is also very intimidating to many folks: nobody wants to jump fresh-faced into a competitive game only to be immediately trounced and called a bevy of slurs over voice chat by a pimply 12-year-old, or wind up on a team of veterans feeling as though they're the only weak link.

That's why Splatoon is so great. It takes out everything that makes online competitive shooters feel intimidating while delivering a colorful, fun, stylish, and exciting third-person shooting experience. Allowing you to level up in a strictly for-funsies mode makes the process of getting better gear and perks feel less demoralizing. By de-emphasizing killing (or, in non-violent Splatoon parlance, “splatting”) other players in favor of conquering territory by spraying it with ink, it allows different types of play styles to be just as effective as the guy who can sharpshoot all the opposing team members. The way the ink works additionally as both camouflage and fast-travel adds a layer of strategy to the proceedings.

Of course, we shouldn't discount the excellent single-player campaign, either, It's full of creative Nintendo bosses and a spectacular finale (really, the only issue is that there's not more of it). But the multiplayer is truly the lifeblood (lifeink?) of Splatoon. It's all wrapped up in a gorgeous, pop-punk styled world of adorable squid kids and filled with humor and vivacity. Splatoon is easily Nintendo's best all-new creation in a very, very long time. –Heidi Kemps

3. BLOODBORNE
(From Software, PlayStation 4)

Bloodborne's beast hunters attack smoother and evade faster than any Chosen Undead ever could, so its combat hews closer to character action gameplay than the lumbering dodges and shield-turtling techniques of Dark Souls. Bloodborne is quick and brutal, but it has flourish to it, with all sorts of trenchcoats and tri-cornered hats to wear and a slew of creative armaments to dispatch your quarry: a cane that transforms into a serrated whip, an arm-mounted cannon, a sword that joins with its scabbard to create a massive hammer, and eldritch artifacts that summon tentacles from beyond time to harass your foes. Though it shares so much of their DNA, Bloodborne plays as a more refined, streamlined experience than any Souls game.

The look and feel follow suit. Instead of providing a smorgasbord of genre signifiers (anything that was ever in a dark fantasy novel, you could probably find it somewhere in a Souls game) Bloodborne keeps itself slim, sticking to a few central ideas of beasthood, blood, and cosmic horror. Werewolves rending with tooth and claw, posses of crazed villagers out on the prowl for infected beasts, not realizing it's that self-same infection in their own veins forcing them to violence. Bloodborne's Yarnham isn't a happy city, but it's fascinating one; beneath the penny dreadful aesthetics of blood-crazed beasts and fashionable overcoats hides an ominous, Lovecraft slant. This world is roiling, teetering on the brink of reality, helpless in the face of an oncoming collision with a nightmare universe. The post-apocalyptic citadels and forest of Dark Souls are peaceful by comparison.

The late-year release of The Old Hunters threw out new weapons by the fistful (a bizarre, saw-bladed pizza cutter and the From Software-standard Moonlight Sword, simple brass knuckles for quick staggers, a gatling gun!), a half-dozen bosses, and some of the most intricate areas in the game, including a spooky sanitarium that recalls Demon's Souls foreboding Tower of Latria, whose bell-ringing, tentacle-mouthed gaolers were, in retrospect, sort of like the proof of concept for everything Bloodborne would become. Addressing many of the concerns player had with the original game (mostly, weapon variety and build viability), The Old Hunters is a gigantic chunk of DLC, closer to a full-fledged expansion pack, that slots perfectly into the original game, giving you an easy excuse to play the whole thing again and see what you might've missed—if you dare. –Dave Riley

2. XENOBLADE CHRONICLES X
(Monolith Soft / Nintendo, Wii U)

Perhaps the most important factor to consider when evaluating an open-world game is “how fun is it to simply exist in and explore this setting?” After all, the key appeal of these titles is giving you the experience of being part of a big, intriguing world and story. Xenoblade Chronicles X passes this test with flying, vibrant colors. Out of all the game worlds seen this year, the planet Mira is far and away the most intriguing, filled with strange wildlife, treacherous terrain, and beautiful sights of in-game nature that make it all feel well and truly alive.

Of course, the fact that there's a great RPG with complex, strategic combat taking place within this big, beautiful world helps too. But Xenoblade Chronicles X's greatest appeal is the thrill of exploration. The game encourages you to brave dangers and see the sights that Monolith Soft has carefully designed for you through its many, many quests and sidestories, as you join a team of elite soldiers determined to re-establish a home for humanity's remnants on this faraway planet. While the sheer scope of the game can be a bit overwhelming at times, Xenoblade Cornicles X did the best job of any game this year of giving me a game world I'm eager to visit and revisit. –Heidi Kemps

1. UNDERTALE
(tobyfox, PC )

Undertale could be set aside if you're cynical. With countless games deliberately adopting that pixeled old look for the sake of nostalgia or budget, Undertale might seem another rehash. The first few minutes are enough to set it apart, though. The game opens with a tale of monsters driven deep underground after losing an ancient war with mankind. A human child falls into this subterranean realm one day, and from there an RPG quest ensues. It seems a comical adventure where you'll face creatures rarely as fearsome as they first seem, and battles twist in new directions. Players avoid hits by dodging objects as they might in a bullet-swarmed shooter, and they interact with the monsters in ways most RPGs completely ignore. It's not all a joke, either. Darker themes lie within Undertale, and attacking is only the most reflexive and cowardly way out.

Saying much more spoils Undertale's intent, so it's sufficient to call it a remarkably confident RPG from creator Toby Fox. Sometimes hokey but never pretentious, Undertale challenges video-game conventions and weaves a memorable story along the way, and while it sprinkles on in-jokes summoning everything from Illusion of Gaia to Earthbound (and perhaps even Moon: Remix RPG Adventure), it's very much a singular creation. It's a game that'll stay with you, and that makes it a standout in a year of overglossed blockbuster games, so much so that all three of us sounded off.

Undertale makes pacifism fun. When you take the non-violent route, each fight plays out like a unique mystery, where you have to glean, from simple context clues, what actions will appease your foes. Flirt or ignore? Hug or unhug? A hygiene-obsessed duckbot will be pleased if you simply let it give you a wash, but the hyperactive puppy sentry makes you go through a whole rigmarole of pets, play, and treats before it's willing to let you pass. Far more interesting than the average RPG's blob of random encounters barring your way to the next cutscene, Undertale's mild little puzzle battles are a draw in and of themselves.” –Dave Riley

“I'm a sucker for games that make me rethink the way we interface with games and their content, and Undertale is a game that does just that. I'm not going to give away any spoilers, but the way Undertale subverts what players expect when they play an RPG, in terms of combat, consequences (and avoiding them), and completionism is all absolutely brilliant. The fact that it's also adorable as hell and has a killer soundtrack helps, too. Yes, it's short, but not a single moment of the game feels padded out or unnecessary, even the purely optional stuff. Maybe you won't like it as much as I did, but it's still worth playing to be a part of the conversation.” –Heidi Kemps

“One of the many things I like about Undertale: it doesn't let you off easy. Every battle is important, both for the choices you make and the effects they have. And what if you happen to mess up and want to reload from a save point? The game remembers anyway. You can get around this only by rooting through folders and deleting files on your computer, and then you'll go about Undertale with the knowledge that you cheated. And you don't want to cheat Undertale. Trust me.” –Todd Ciolek

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

There's very little coming to finish 2015 and start off 2016, though you'll see a lot on sale at the Steam store and the PlayStation Network. Steam has nearly everything at a discount, including a few games from the above list, and the PSN has a good helping as well—like Gradius V for five bucks! So you'll have plenty to try over the long Christmas break. See you all in 2016!


Todd Ciolek occasionally updates his website, and you can follow him on Twitter if you want.


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