With each passing year, it gets harder to stay current with the new games across the industry. It used to be that the only time release schedules would get seriously clogged was from early September to late December for the holiday season. The rest of the year was usually comparatively low-key. Now, big budget titles have started gradually seeping with greater frequency into slower months like January, March, and April, while on the other side of the business, there are effectively too many independent games released to play in a lifetime. Keeping track just of what even came out this year can be difficult.
As 2016 draws to a close, with the majority of players engrossed in their copies of Dishonored and Final Fantasy, that means there’s probably a lot of smaller games out this year that you might not have played, or perhaps even heard of. Here’s a small sampling (in no particular order) of the best.
Jonathan Blow’s long-, long-awaited follow-up to Braid, the developer’s time-bending debut, The Witness owes as much to Myst-style exploration as it does to Blow’s idiosyncratic, brain-grinding puzzle design. The description on the game’s website is tellingly vague: “Explore an abandoned island.” But as Blow has long since established, cracking The Witness’s logical abstractions is just the tip of the iceberg.
Hyper Light Drifter
Hyper Light Drifter is meant for anyone who grew up loving Zelda, yet calling it a clone would be a staggering oversimplification. While Heart Machine’s brilliant design cribs a great deal from Nintendo’s classic overworld adventure on the surface, underneath beats a heart thats equal parts obsessively tight design and spare, evocative presence. This is a game that demands absolute mastery over its systems in order to succeed, and one with hauntingly beautiful art and atmosphere that is left open to interpretation. Plus, just look at it.
Abzû is, to put it simply, a breathtaking experience about our connection with nature. Like its older cousin Journey —which Giant Squid’s creative director Matt Nava worked on as art director — it is a voyage through a changing environment that parallels the emotional arc of the player, but really, it’s so much more than that.
The developers worked incredibly hard to present living, breathing ocean environments populated by hundreds of different aquatic lifeforms (thousands of which tend to be onscreen at any given time); it is a game that encourages you to simply let yourself exist in its underwater world, whether riding alongside your fish companions, meditating to observe their behavior, or basking in the allure of the sea itself. No game has before captured its beauty in such profound and striking ways.
There has never been a game like PS4’s Bound. In some ways the absolute definition of an art game, it blends the artistry of ballet dancing within a geometrical aesthetic that pops off the screen (and essentially never looks quite the same twice). While developer Plastic has a history of making thought-provoking experimental games, Bound is perhaps the first time they’ve struck the right balance between the opaque and the concrete, in design as well as narrative. Bonus: It’s fully playable in PSVR.
The oddly-named SUPERHOT has a great conceit: It’s a disgustingly stylish minimalist shooter where time only moves when you do. Initially developed as a game jam prototype, the game is designed to keep you on your toes through a number of wild scenarios that are as much puzzles as they are Matrix simulations. If you can, play it in VR — there’s nothing closer to feeling like Neo than actually dodging around an incoming volley of bullets by physically moving your head. Genius.
Stardew Valley will instantly feel familiar to anyone who’s played Natsume’s classic farming sim Harvest Moon. As the inheritor of a rundown farm, it’s your job to till your lands, plant and harvest your crops, and tend to your livestock in order to restore your homestead to glory. With the social aspects — court and marry your sweetheart, help out townsfolk and the like — Stardew Valley plays exactly like a fan-made independent love-letter to Harvest Moon itself, albeit expanded for a modern audience.
But imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, and with the original series having gone in a different direction in recent years, the sheer freedom here has basically introduced a whole new generation to what made Harvest Moon special in the first place. It even has creator Yasuhiro Wada’s seal of approval.
Inside is a game that you should know as little as possible about when you play it, so I’ll just say that if you liked what PlayDead did with the hellishly chiaroscuro puzzle platformer Limbo, you’ll appreciate the grim journey the developers’ astounding six-years-in-the-making follow-up meanders through. Don’t read any reviews or watch any game footage — just play this one blind. It’s unlike anything else you’ll play this year.
Spiritual successors from either old developers or classic series (or both) are all the rage these days, and, not to be outdone by Jonathan Blow’s The Witness, Myst creators Rand and Robyn Miller have gone back to recreate the magic of their 1993 first-person adventure in an entirely new world. As you might expect, a finished product that uses all the latest tech — with VR as its world-enveloping centerpiece — is incredible. If you’re already a Myst fan, there’s nothing else that needs to be said. If you’ve never played either, you’re in for a treat.
Jonathan Burroughs’s Virginia is another game that should be (and rightly is) sold mostly on its premise: It’s a surreal, interactive homage to Twin Peaks and The X-Files about a rookie FBI agent on a case investigating the disappearance of a missing teenager in rural Virginia. You can play a teaser right now on Steam. You probably don’t want to know any more than that going in, but it’s definitely one you don’t want to miss.
Photos via Playdead