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  1. Gaming-wise, 2015 encapsulated a wide range of emotions from myself. Whether or not it came from reviewing lesser known games... that should remain lesser known, witnessing shocking announcements (I can no longer say the FFVII: Remake and Shenmue 3 are impossible?!), or just the generally consistent great heavy-hitters that sprouted in 2015. More than anything else, however, 2015 was a strong reminder of my own mortality in that I could not even come close to playing/finishing everything I wanted to this year. I made an effort to play quite a bit, but alas, my efforts were not nearly enough. Even so, here are my top 10 games of the year. 10. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn did the impossible. It made me play an MMO... and like it. Not only like it, but be invested in it enough to expedite a PS4 purchase in order to play it on much stronger hardware (Playing late-game content on PS3 = bad times.). Then came along the first full-fledged expansion pack to the title with Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward. Heavensward added fun new dungeons, abnormally cool boss fights, a few new classes (Astrologian ftw), a soundtrack to brag about, but the most pleasant surprise is probably its intriguing storytelling. The narrative that takes place across Ishgard from its Ivalice-styled political intrigue, or themes like the damaging effects of unchallenged traditions, with the fairly sharp writing to accompany it more than convinced me that the world of FFXIV is the best thing to bear the name in a very long time, some MMO-jankiness aside. 9. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain For the longest time, following Metal Gear Solid V felt like an unobtainable myth. A white whale if you will. It seemed like a fever dream until... BOOM, we wake up with shrapnel lodged into our forehead and the realization that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is actually a real thing. Now, I could make fun of the storytelling, and it noticeably missing an entire third act all day, but for what it sacrifices in storytelling it more than makes up with incredibly rock-solid gameplay. The huge open world, smooth controls, and many buried gameplay nuances that allow one to tackle seemingly simple missions in a multitude of ways makes it easily far surpass its predecessors in gameplay alone. Also, D-Dog 4 lyfe. 8. Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance Official GP Review Even after five main entries, Disgaea feels anything but normal. Sure, they have a similar appeal game by game but their inherent absurdity and gameplay depth keeps rising to the point where their 9999 level caps and a damage counts that reaches past a trillion seems normal in contrast. In spite of it, Disgaea 5 finds a common ground in being a great SRPG. Disgaea 5 boasts many smart refinements of gameplay systems as well as entirely new ones outright that I enjoyed uncovering even as it betrayed my free time. I only wish that an enhanced version formed an alliance with my Vita one day... 7. Splatoon I made a fairly big 180 on Splatoon in general. I was rather annoyed by excessive fandom and was pretty unimpressed by the early "testfire" beta as well. After a couple months of actively ignoring it, and an impulse purchase later, I completely turned around on it. Frankly, Splatoon is a whole lot of fun in multiplayer, more so with a steady group of online victims friends to play with (thanks, GP). The title has only gotten better over time from fixing key criticisms at launch to regularly adding new weapons and maps -- all for free. 6. Divinity: Original Sin: Enhanced Edition Official GP Review I usually avoid adding games to GOTY lists that technically debuted last year (or earlier) but... the Enhanced Edition itself (plus my hypocrisy of adding FFXIV prior to this) gives me just enough of an excuse to include Divinity: Original Sin to forego any such thinking. While I found this year's Pillars of Eternity more on the safer side of a classic feeling computer-RPG in the modern era, Divinity: Original Sin felt both progressive and oddly nostalgic for my former PC gaming self. It forced my creativity to go into overdrive with its fantastic, and flexible, gameplay systems and also had an unapologetic depth to it that can easily run the risk of drowning most people that I highly enjoyed... well, after several early hours of immense confusion about character builds. 5. Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea Official GP Review I feel like I have gradually been associated with the Atelier series. Now, I have no idea why people would get that idea. I mean, it's not like I've reviewed at least five games in the series or have a fascination with barrels or anything. False accusations aside, it has been several years since I've even considered an Atelier game to be anywhere near a GOTY list. That said, even after being disappointed by the prior two entries of the Dusk trilogy I definitely was not disappointed with the gameplay of Atelier Shallie (story/characters is another matter...). As someone who tends to judge how much I like a game by how absorbed I am while playing it I'll just say that I was pretty addicted to Atelier Shallie's deceptively addictive and actively rewarding gameplay structure to say the least. Also, I'm easily impressed by "Barrel!" shouts. (Editor's note: Yep... *looks at article image*) 4. Xenoblade Chronicles X With the original Xenoblade Chronicles, I liked the setting despite my contention with the so-so gameplay. In Xenoblade Chronicles X, I really enjoy the gameplay despite my contention with its so-so main story. What I mean to say is that even though it is a surprisingly significant departure from the well-respected original Wii title it manages to carve out its own distinctly different appeal. The art direction for its massive open-world is top-class, new online features oddly immersive, but, most importantly, its compelling and fairly deep moment to moment gameplay makes me want to keep going back for more. Plus, the mecha Skells are pretty dang cool and anybody who says otherwise I'll just quote the hub theme by saying: "I CAN'T HEAR YOU! I CAN'T SEE YOU!". 3. Undertale Undertale is very clearly the indie darling of this year. You are either swept alongside the fandom hype or find it quite obnoxious for possibly ruining the holy integrity of Gamefaqs polls. Usually I brush off such indie fanfare *cough* Gone Home *cough* but I was actually quite charmed by Undertale. I can certainly nitpick several facets, most from a gameplay standpoint, but what Undertale has in spades are moments. Moments that are only very memorable, from characters to clever gameplay gimmicks, but also show an incredible amount of foresight and heartfelt touches from the modest indie developer Toby Fox. Passionate fandom may have blown it out of proportion by this point, yet it is also telling that Undertale manages to be so memorable and charming in a time where so many games can easily blur together. 2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Official GP Review I honestly anticipated The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt to be my game of the year before it even started, and I'm surprised it's not. I mean, I know why. The Witcher 3 played quite poorly at launch and I stick by my criticisms of it at the time. However, CD Projekt Red has more than gone the extra mile supporting it with their incredibly respectable work ethic by adding hugely significant patches (granted, many of which should've been implemented day 1) and great DLC in addition (most free). Plus, the game that is there is more than excellent. The incredibly sharp writing and well-developed characters alone outclasses most in the medium but the attention with its world-building and divergent, and unpredictable, quest design sets it head and shoulders above any other RPG this generation. 1. Bloodborne Compared to most other titles on this list, I probably could not tell you much about the setting or story of Bloodborne. I mean, there is an obsession with hunters, dreams, and most obviously blood but... like hell if I can tell you many nuances beyond its powerful and basically nightmare fuel imagery for its enemy designs -- even after two playthroughs. What I can say is that I was very utterly engrossed during both runs by playing and seeing content very differently each time, which was more apparent after playing the downright fantastic and shockingly worth it The Older Hunters expansion pack. People tend to be fixated on the difficulty Bloodborne and prior -Souls games have, which is obviously there, but I care far more about its immensely satisfying gameplay, disturbingly imaginative world design, awesome and versatile weapons, and very creative online features integrated within Bloodborne. Prior -Souls titles rewarded much more passive play and Bloodborne tells you to get over such habits in favor of a much faster and more aggressive, but smart, playstyle that makes it far more fun to play because of it. If you are patient enough to stick with it even as you are learning the ropes, Bloodborne showcases its rightful place as the PS4's best exclusive title. But seriously, I can't tell you much about the convoluted story. Awesome game, though.
  2. Developer: Gust Corporation Publisher: Koei Tecmo Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: March 10, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen With a near-annual schedule since a 1997 debut, the Atelier series has now reached its sixteenth main entry. Though I have become something of a consistent fan of their whimsical alchemy-centric RPG nature over time, I could feel myself slowly drifting away from the series after the previous two "Dusk" entries. I could tell Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy were good games, and they tried some different things that I liked, but something about them just did not click with me like the prior “Arland” trilogy. Perhaps the formula was getting old for me, and maybe the new direction and characters just weren't resonating with me as much as I would like. What I actually realized is that Atelier Ayesha and Escha & Logy were simply not as enjoyable. The third and final entry to the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, not only reminds me why I even got into the series but it also outclasses both of its prequels in many ways. The last entry in the trilogy continues to leave the world in a bad way. The "Dusk" is causing fresh water to drastically deplete, wildlife to starve, and desert masses to stretch far beyond the eye can see. So, the attention shifts to commerce town of Stellard, known in particular for its fresh water supply. Within Stellard are the two main "Shallie" protagonists: a brunette chieftain's daughter, Shallistera, who intends to find work to compensate for accidental collateral damage caused by her airship and also by helping her decaying village; and an eccentric green-haired girl, Shallotte, who is flat-out broke and simply looking to make a better life for her and her mother. Like the previous Atelier Escha & Logy, you have a choice between playing the two different "Shallie" protagonists. While their overall tone and cutscenes differ early in, with Shallotte generally being more happy-go-lucky, and Shalistera's side is slightly more self-serious, they both more or less converge around the halfway mark so that you don't really miss too much from either side by the end beyond unique endings, specific character events, and music. Traditional Atelier titles used to be light-hearted RPGs that blended time-management, simple yet enjoyable combat/exploration systems, many tongue-in-cheek character interactions, and a surprisingly deep crafting system that wove it all together. Pretty much all of that is still here except for the time-management part. This was a heated topic for earlier games where people either found it too limiting or—if you are like me—made it so the games were at a constant moving pace. Either way, that is completely gone now, and in its place are far more flexible "life tasks". Life tasks are a surprisingly solid alternative that should please fans of either side because of how much it allows you go at your own pace while also telling the player what they can do to progress the main story. There is a lot to do in Atelier Shallie to the point of almost feeling like an insider-only club at the offset. A lot of this is because it is front loaded with mechanics and doesn't really hold your hand regarding how to play through most of it beyond some fairly brief tutorials. It seems easy enough at first as you fulfill basic requests at the Cooperative Union Headquarters by exploring new areas, making or bringing assigned items, killing specific monsters, or as Sharlotte would say: "Picking up traaash ♪. For almost no caaash ♪," but it quickly escalates from there. The concept that I like the most about this title is that you are not really funneled into any one play style. You are sort of encouraged to mess around with every facet as they each feed into one another. Unsurprisingly, since alchemy is the series staple, it remains as a centerpiece of it all. Opposed to being a chore in most games, crafting becomes a deceptively deep and addictive puzzle-like mini-game in Atelier Shallie. Not only is it satisfying to learn its nuances to make combat/exploration easier, but you can also easily get caught up in the "One more item..." mentality, just for the sake of it. Maybe you want to make the best barrel possible? (I know I would). Or perhaps you want to have its traits carry over to something entirely different that makes the next item even better? Before you know it, it has you in its evil but cutely presented trap, and this is before you even get to the other aspects. Still, the other aspects are certainly worth talking about. When you go out adventuring, battles are quite flashy and enjoyable despite being turn-based. It isn't until you get at least a six-person party that it really shines with elaborate follow-up attacks, super moves, dual-draw alchemy skills, and the newly added burst mechanic, which honestly does not take very long considering the fast overall gameplay flow and the game itself being a bit too generous with leveling up rather quickly. Also new to the series is a revolving-camera for most dungeons/areas (as opposed to a fixed-camera angle). This is by no means anything new for RPGs in general, but for the Atelier series it does make exploring and gathering in new environments more varied, since the general scope has been increased and the conveniences designed around it. The environment themselves could benefit from more visual detail, however, because of their general stark appearance. Where Atelier Shallie actually stumbles the most is with its characterization and storytelling. Atelier has never been known for high-quality storytelling, but Dusk trilogy in particular felt like the foundation for something more substantial, with its desolate world and implications of events' past, during Atelier Ayesha in particular. Unfortunately, it ends on a rather lukewarm narrative note and abandons most prior buildup with its setting and characters. The characters that do have a presence obviously fair better, avoiding Escha & Logy's issue of a paper-thin supporting cast and having noticeable individuality. And while the humor and delivery doesn't always hit its mark, the platonic relationship between the cast generally tends to be endearing more often than not despite their lack of a purposeful narrative footing around them. Though it doesn't succeed at presenting a fleshed out narrative, it does rather well with its visual and audio design. It has been noticeable that Gust has been trying to move away from visual novel-esque character portraits... with varying degrees of success (I'm looking at you, Ar Nosurge). They have progressively gotten better at forging more anime-like 3D character models and it especially shows in Atelier Shallie from the stylish skills in battle to cutesy character tics during cutscenes to even alchemy, despite the far less impressive backgrounds behind them. What is actually more pleasant than the game's vibrant visual style is its impressive soundtrack. Atelier Ayesha was no slouch with its excellent musical score, but Atelier Shallie manages to surpass even it with the sheer breadth and variety of its score. There is just a jubilant whimsy to the soundtrack with its distinct, catchy pan-flute or accordion percussion for character themes, to battle tracks that range from rocking to raving, that even if you have no interest in the actual game, it is worth giving a listen to. With its sights focused on quality gameplay over the unrealized ambition of its setting, Atelier Shallie easily bests both of its predecessors in nearly every way. It is rich with both audio and visual personality, rewarding and addictive gameplay, and a far more lenient structure for the outside looking in. It may have lost track of its potentially interesting background and characters, but I am convinced that Gust has brought their A-game to the final entry of the Dusk trilogy where it counts—as a fun, light-hearted take on RPGs that is belittled only by the unrealized potential of its setting. Pros: + Rewarding, addictive crafting mechanics + Flashy and fun turn-based combat + Excellent soundtrack + Distinct anime-like character models with lots of personality + Time limit system has been removed and replaced by a very varied and flexible gameplay structure Cons: - Storytelling and (most) characters do not really develop in any meaningful way - Front loaded with mechanics that can be overwhelming for series newcomers - Exploration environments don't look particularly good Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea proves that when the series is focused that it can more than showcase why its cunning RPG formula has not washed away over time. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.