The best video games of 2016 are as usual a sundry gathering of delights I both saw and didn’t see coming, a medley of experiences that range from the traditionally exquisite to the exquisitely nontraditional.
TIME publishes its top 10 games list in November to coincide with the start of the holiday season. What you’re reading now is that list slightly reorganized to accommodate late November and December stragglers, as well as a few things I played later than expected.
15. No Man's Sky
There’s what celestial PC and PlayStation 4 game No Man’s Sky turned out to be, what a vocal minority assumed it would be, and the chasm of misunderstanding that lies between. The heir to a game like Elite it’s not. But taken on its own terms, as a Zen zoology simulator framed by freeform exploration of a procedurally generated universe with bouts of interstellar combat, it’s an extraordinary achievement. If Minecraft is about refining and reorganizing distributed bits of information—all those cubes of dirt and rock and ore into recognizable objects and structures and mechanisms—then No Man’s Sky is a procedural game about instead cataloguing all that visual output while reveling in the five-star views.
Buy now: PlayStation 4
14. Battlefield 1
Battlefield 1’s multiplayer modes are predictably unimpeachable if you prefer sprawling, thoughtful, micro-campaign-style competition. But it’s this PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One shooter’s anthologized campaign that steals the show this time. Each story offers a unique problem or narrative perspective: a bickering tank crew lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of Cambrai, the latent heroism of a cocksure swindler-turned-aviator amidst “Bloody April,” the remembrances of an Italian war vet relayed to his daughter during a birthday party. All told, they add up to perhaps a half-dozen hours of play, but offer some of DICE’s finest work—an attempt to get around the usual boo-rahs and faux gravitas by bracketing eruptions of carnage with humanizing, indelible accounts.
13. Final Fantasy XV
Somehow they pulled it off. Don’t ask me how, but Final Fantasy XV for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is not the dumpster fire some worried was inbound after years of developmental tumult. It is, in fact, the opposite, a glorious return to relevance for Square Enix’s venerable mix of rideable birds, hopping cacti and emo fashion victims. How often does vaporware materialize, after years of elliptical studio messaging, this lively and focused and fully realized?
Chances are you’ve never heard of D-Pad Studios’ side-scrolling action adventure Owlboy for PC. Let’s change that. Here is a wonder of a game, an indie Metroidvania 10 years in the making that arrives like the proverbial schoolchild whose long-practiced drawing when finally chalked out makes the blackboard crack. Part platformer, part shoot-em-up, it’s in fact the game’s plaintive, powerful tale of a neophyte owl peacekeeper’s tussles with exterior as well as interior dilemmas that resonates long after you’ve set the controller down.
Studio Drool’s Thumper is musically ingenious, a rhythm game that’s Speed Racer meets Guitar Hero meets space beetles. Players maneuver a glistening scarab down an undulating licorice-whip track as animations that wouldn’t be out of place in Pink Floyd’s The Wall play in the distance. You have to time your taps as squares of light whoosh pass, an insectile drummer skidding and grinding through turns or raising your gossamer beetle wings to graze rings. It’s playable on a TV set, but within the distraction-free ambit of Sony’s PlayStation VR helmet, becomes utterly trance-inducing.
Buy Now: PlayStation 4
Variable State’s Virginia, whose makers cite filmmaker David Lynch as an influence, may at first seem maddeningly opaque, but its rewards—best realized off multiple viewings—are rich and many. It challenges players to make sense of abrupt scene transitions, constrained perspectives and general narrative reticence. Other “walking simulators” settle for the museum tour, replete with audio logs and text dumps that fix meaning. Virginia trades that sort of clarity for another: that of the subjective, ever-precarious moment. And what gorgeous, reverberant moments there are in this haunting tale, empowered by its absent words and explanations.
Old school roleplaying games dole out abstract rewards like “experience points” so you can make your superpowers a trifle more super. New school ones like studio Butterscotch Shenanigans’ Crashlands let you scoop those rewards up off the battlefield, drag them back to your base, then turn them into cool, usable objects. Killer aliens meets goofball storytelling and characters meets a weighty crafting system brimming with hundreds of recipes, Crashlands (for PC, Mac, iOS and Android devices) is everything predictable RPGs aren’t.
Buy now: PC
8. Dragon Quest Builders
Dragon Quest Builders is a beautiful, voxel-informed, crafting-focused, thematically relatable fantasy roleplaying extravaganza that’s better because of its constraints, not in spite of them. It’s the sort of thing those who’ve avoided playing Minecraft but still find it intriguing should pay attention to—an exquisite, LEGO-like builder deftly equipoised between structured and freeform play.
Buy now: PlayStation 4
7. Super Mario Run
With Super Mario Run, a $10 vamp on Nintendo’s iconic series about a turtle-clobbering plumber for iOS devices, the Kyoto masterminds have managed a mobile finger-tapper that’s knock-your-socks-off good. If you’re able to make peace with the game’s always-online mandate, Super Mario Run impresses in ways I wasn’t convinced this approach to the character could. This, let’s not forget, is Nintendo on someone else’s hardware making good. Who else can stroll this assuredly into a stranger’s house, size up the joint lickety-split, then remind us of how much we have yet to see?
6. Burly Men at Sea
Brain&Brain’s folklorish Burly Men at Sea is a whimsical romp for PC, Mac, iOS and Android starring three bearded adventurers that speaks in plaintive accordion tunes and whispers, airy sighs and polyphonic hoots—one that marries quirky activities with starlit encounters and aquamarine serpents plucked from Norwegian myth. If you delight in minimalist visuals, waggish writing and artful a cappella sound effects, this is both a treasure-house of those things and for you. It’s a little bit The Old Man and the Sea, a little bit O Brother, Where Art Thou? And a reminder that every journey is a circle, filled with both farce and delight.
If you like brutal, exacting clockwork puzzles with appalling dilemmas, you’ll adore Tharsis, an ingenious turn-based space strategy game for PC and PlayStation 4 by the folks who gave us the quirky Bit.Trip series. It looks like a dice-driven board game, where the board is a spaceship split into modules you maneuver astronauts between, trying to repair damage from random “events” over a 10-turn journey to Mars. Completing the journey is predictively and repeatably possible—anyone who claims otherwise is objectively wrong—but it’s also not for the faint of heart.
What makes PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One puzzle-platformer Inside interesting isn’t its dim woodlands, creepy factories, moody bunkers or underwater mysteries, but the craftsmanship of its puzzles and platforming challenges. Imagine the ethically rudderless zeal of Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil folded into the nihilism of screenwriter W. D. Richter’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This now feels like where studio Playdead’s last game Limbo was headed all along.
Buy now: PlayStation 4
3. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
Stealth-play wasn’t impossible in the earlier Uncharted games, but it’s so much more satisfying when you manage to sneak up behind one of Uncharted 4‘s smarter, hyperaware adversaries. The best in studio Naughty Dog’s rollicking pulp adventure series by a country mile, its embiggened levels become enthralling tactical playgrounds, brimming with wraparound overhangs and organic hiding spots that include swathes of waist-high grass or broad leaf undergrowth you can hunker in or creep through.
Buy now: PlayStation 4
2. The Last Guardian
For all of the decade it took to pull together, The Last Guardian feels years ahead of its time. There’s never been a character quite like Trico, the creature players must figure out how to communicate with to make the world’s sublime logic wheels turn. It feels momentous, a design breakthrough I wasn’t expecting, and an experience that seems more likely to stand the test of time than others to which we like to point. It calls out some of what’s crass about this industry while showing us another way forward, the shape of things to come.
Buy Now: PlayStation 4
1. The Witness
In Jonathan Blow and studio Thekla’s The Witness, mysteries abound on a deserted island that may or may not exist. The island is beautiful but oblique, sublime yet functionally inscrutable. Glowing screens with maze-like grids are everywhere, connective cables snake through sun-dappled underbrush or down into cavernous passages. All of it leads players to ever-more bizarre, seemingly impenetrable line puzzles. It’s weird and gorgeous and categorically defiant, a glorious repository of sublime mysteries and revelations.
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