We're halfway through 2015, so the Shacknews staff has been sharing what we've affectionately nicknamed our "GOTMYs"--Games of the Mid-Year. This year will be top-loaded with big releases in the fall, so we're bound to shift some spots around when it comes to crowning our official winner, but in the meantime here are some of my frontrunners so far.
Who would have thought such an unassuming game would make my list of favorites? Box Boy came out of nowhere for me, and became one of my biggest surprises this year. It's a throwback to the simple mechanics and monochromatic colors of classic Gameboy games, with a simple and ingenious hook. You are Box Boy, a small anthropomorphic box with the power to replicate boxes out of himself to make stacks or patterns.
That's it. That's the whole premise. Box Boy doesn't gain new powers or abilities. Your character at the start is the same as your character at the finish. What follows is a master's class in gameplay iteration, with more than a dozen worlds absolutely bursting with puzzle-platforming challenges that each feel unique. That these mechanics can be used to such an expansive degree really goes to show that we don't always need big budgets and massive worlds. Sometimes a game designer can still surprise us simply by wringing every last drop of potential out of a simple concept.
Batman: Arkham Knight
I have a few reservations about Batman: Arkham Knight. The story reveal of the Arkham Knight's identity frustrated me, the character motivations seem muddled at times, the Batmobile has a tendency to feel forced and overused, and some of the combat scenarios press the crowd control aspect just a hair too far.
On the other hand: Batman.
Whatever faults it may have, Arkham Knight is building on one of the most rock-solid foundations in recent gaming history. It has created a Batman universe with its own unique tone, borrowing liberally from both the Animated Series and some of the darkest pieces of the Dark Knight's saga. Dropping into a room full of thugs still feels great, edged out only by taking them out one by one as the remaining ones grow increasingly terrified. The feeling of being Batman permeates everything, from the empowerment of his gadgetry to the way every character is certain from the start that he'll get the job done. Even the Batmobile feels great in its best moments--a powerhouse vehicle that outclasses everything the Knight throws at you. It may not be the best Arkham game, but there's no shame in being second place to Asylum.
I intentionally remained in the dark on Splatoon, somewhat turned off by the art style but otherwise ambivalent towards Nintendo's quirky take on the third-person shooter. I really should have known that if Nintendo was going to dip its tentacle in a new genre, it would nail the fundamentals and make something that felt entirely new.
Splatoon is a shooter, but it isn't. It's a playful experience that mixes arena combat with a Jackson Pollock painting. It finds a way to deemphasize combat and give everyone a chance to contribute to the team. It's gloriously fun and supremely weird. I raised concerns in my review over some odd user-interface choices and a lack of content. The UI remains somewhat awkward, but the summer of free content has already provided plenty of richness to the experience. Games like this remind me why it's never wise to underestimate Nintendo.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
I haven't finished The Witcher 3. I may never finish The Witcher 3. If we were giving a prize for "most game," it would go to The Witcher 3. I predict this will be a slow burn, the game that I constantly go back to between finishing all other games, possibly right up until the end of the year when we get to our actual GOTY votes. It's just so massive that it's intimidating.
Not so intimidating that I can stay away, however. I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with it so far, and though I feel like I'm only scratching the surface, I can already see the depth and breadth of this enormous world that CD Projekt Red created. It swept me up with its characters and personality, and even the smallest of sidequests has a story of its own to tell. I can't wait to finish it (estimate: 2017).
Ori and the Blind Forest
Being a veteran in the games media, I'm prone to navel-gazing discussions of cliches and writing crutches. Games writing is filthy with these, and I was recently pondering a few with a fellow games journalist. He mentioned "tight" as an example, and I had to admit I was guilty of it. The problem, I pointed out, is that the games media hasn't come up with an elegant way to say "this feels like it should feel." So we use shorthand.
Ori and the Blind Forest feels like it should feel. There's an intuitive, ineffable sensation to mechanics so expertly crafted that a game immediately feels not just good, but correct. Nintendo is infamous for finding this hallowed ground consistently, while other platformers tend to be hit-or-miss. Ori is all hit and no miss. In terms of sheer mechanics, it is as close to perfection as any Mario game.
Layered on top of that foundation are a few elements that make it stand out even more. It's composed of a gorgeous 2D world with artwork that appears to live and breathe. The story is emotionally resonant from beginning to end, giving each character its due. It's tough as nails in a way that constantly entices the player to give it just one more try.
This fall looks packed full of games that are bound to shake up my favorites of the year, but even this far in advance I predict Ori and the Blind Forest will make my top five. I simply can't see five more games coming that will displace such a touching story, harrowing challenge, and yes, "tight" controls.