Alissa McAloon (@Gliitchy) is a news reporter for Gamasutra.
I realized that most of what I considered my top games of this year actually came out last year. I fell a bit behind on keeping up with new games this summer, and because of this ended up not buying a lot of the big 2016 releases. While that was great for my backlog, it’s not so great for making lists like this.
Personally, I had a lot of big life changes this year including such events as learning to function after a college graduation and suddenly moving 1,500 miles away from home for the first time.
Because of all of this, my world was in an exciting and strange state for most of 2016, and I think this shows on my top ten list. I very clearly found comfort playing games that reminded me of games I grew up playing, like Harvest Moon, Digimon World, and Team Fortress 2. At the very least, this was a great year to pick up a game and reminisce.
Listed in alphabetical order, my stand-out games of 2016 are as follows:
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth by Media Vision
This is probably the most flawed game on the list, but it’s easily one of my favorites. Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth came out for the Vita in Japan last year, and was officially released on PS4 and Vita in North America in February. In it, you raise partner Digimon to battle, and power them up by evolving them through a surprisingly complex ‘digivolution’ tree. The game itself is a bit messy sometimes: dialogue boxes are frequently packed with, sometimes hilarious, errors and the game falls victim to annoyingly sharp difficulty spikes at every turn, but Cyber Sleuth still has my unconditional love.
There was a solid month or two this year where if I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was playing Digimon. I absolutely hate to grind for levels in any game, but I spent entire days doing just that in Cyber Sleuth to get a certain rare Digimon evolution. I still haven’t completed the game because I keep tearing my entire party apart trying to level each Digimon’s stats just right so I can unlock more powerful fighters.
A minor obsession with the original PlayStation Digimon games no doubt contributed to this ranking in my top ten, but even without any prior knowledge of the series Cyber Sleuth still stands as a legitimately enjoyable JRPG that manages to charm its way past whatever technical flaws it might have.
Firewatch by Campo Santo
Firewatch also earns a place on the list of games that made me cry in 2016. I went into the game mostly blind and ended up being blown away by just how perfectly every part of it was executed. Firewatch casts players as Henry during his summer working at a remote lookout tower in the Shoshone National Park. He communicates via walkie-talkie to another lookout named Delilah as he explores the surrounding forest and stumbles upon a larger mystery hidden in the woods.
The stylized world of Firewatch is incredibly beautiful, but the game really shines through how it builds its characters. Whenever Henry and Delilah are locked in conversation, players are able to directly shape that relationship by choosing what Henry says. The introduction to the game is done in a similar manner. Henry’s backstory is largely set in stone, but players have the option to decide the finer details of his past. Dialogue choices in a game aren’t groundbreaking, I know, but the way this is executed in Firewatch connects players to Henry on a deeply personal level.
Job Simulator by Owlchemy Games
Job Simulator on the Vive was one of my first experiences with VR, and honestly, I think it’s one of the best games to use to introduce someone to virtual reality. It offers a choice of jobs to experience - such as mechanic, chef, or office worker - and then guides players through completing comical approximations of tasks that represent each job.
For example, as the chef you might crack eggs to bake a cake and then add in a literal flower rather than flour to complete the dough. The little tasks through Job Simulator also give players a lot of freedom to just have fun doing really dumb things in VR. There are a lot of neat VR games that let you explore dramatic stories and solve complicated puzzles, but sometimes you just want a game that lets you throw raw steak at your floating robot boss.
Mystic Messenger by Cheritz
Mystic Messenger scratched that weird visual novel itch I get every now and then. It’s a mobile otome game that drops you into a virtual chatroom with five different characters. You’re able to select different conversation options that will either grow or harm your relationship with each of the chat members. New conversations open up at set times throughout the day and you can only participate in those chats if you’re on your phone during that window.
You don’t have to shell out extra cash to reach the end of the game, which is a refreshing change from how free-to-play visual novels usually handle monetization. Instead, players are able to pay to participate in missed conversations or access ‘Deep Story’ routes for two of the characters.
Mystic Messenger is one of the few games in recent memory that uses time-based events to control the pacing of a story, and it's a feature I’ve come to really enjoy in mobile games.
Overwatch by Blizzard
I paid zero attention to Overwatch before its launch, but it has dominated my free time since releasing earlier this year. The hero shooter is remarkably easy to pick up, thanks in no small part to a diverse cast of playable heroes. Currently, there are twenty-three characters to choose from, though Blizzard has been periodically adding to that roster since the game's release.
Overwatch quickly picked up a following in the competitive community but despite this, it still remains a game that can be enjoyed by players of different skill. With such a wide library of heroes to choose from, it's easy to find a character to start learning. The game itself has a way of teaching players organically which characters work best in which situation, and there are no pay-to-win microtransactions built into the game. I admire Overwatch for its massive eSports presence, but I consider it one of my top ten games of this year for being a competitive game that is equally appealing to casual players.
Pokemon Sun and Moon by Game Freak
After twenty years of Pokemon games, Game Freak finally shook up the usual formula with Pokemon Sun and Moon. They didn't change a lot this time around, but the new look and feel for this generation of Pokemon is enough to revitalize a series that was starting to feel a little stale.
Given, not a ton changed in Pokemon Sun and Moon but it was enough to make a difference. The basic adventure is still the same, and you'll still run around catching, training, and battling Pokemon. The usual gym-based format has been abandoned in favor of island challenges that feel more like RPG boss fights than Pokemon battles. Game Freak also made a ton of small changes, like removing HMs completely, that cut out a lot of the annoyances players felt playing past games.
The Sims 4: City Living by Maxis
Putting an expansion pack on a top games list might be cheating, but The Sims 4: City Living deserves to be recognized for the part it played in repairing the weird mess that was the original Sims 4. Like the other million games and expansions in the series, The Sims 4 gives players full control of the looks, personality, home, and life decisions of a little family of digital people.
When the base game first launched in 2014, it was met with mixed reviews from longtime fans of the series. It was a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of deal; the game improved on a lot of customization and technical features, but greatly cut back the overall scale of the world players could experience.
The Sims 4: City Living has finally rectified some of the issues players had with the latest game. The expansion pack introduces a new playable world that offers Sims the chance to live in apartment buildings populated by other NPCs, and groups buildings within themed districts. Those areas are connected right to apartments, without a loading screen.
If you’ve never played The Sims before, I’ve probably lost you at this point. But having social spaces reachable directly from homes is a big deal. The Sims 3 was mostly open world, so having to endure a loading screen to even cross the street in The Sims 4 felt like a big step backward and ended up being a major turnoff for many players.
There’s a host of other things The Sims 4: City Living did to return some of the life back to the series, but I’m not going to drone on about them here. Maxis has also been really good about releasing free quality-of-life updates that fixed some smaller grievances players had with the original game. So, even without picking up this latest expansion, 2016 is the year The Sims 4 finally became enjoyable.
Stardew Valley by ConcernedApe
I’ve been playing fantasy farming simulators for well over half my life at this point and I still have no idea how they’re as fun as they are. For the longest time, the Harvest Moon series has all but dominated that genre, but somehow ConcernedApe (AKA Eric Barone) has beat Harvest Moon at its own game.
Barone’s game Stardew Valley captures nearly everything long-time fans love about the Harvest Moon series. Players start on an overgrown farm with nearly nothing, and are able to create a thriving farm through a little thing called resource management. Planting the right crops and taking good care of animals is the simple way to explain the farming side of the game, but there’re a lot of deeper strategies involved. Players have gone as far as to set up elaborate spreadsheets detailing the exact profit per month generated by different types of crops. It’s honestly amazing.
Stardew Valley merges those basic farming mechanics with a crafting system and basic RPG-like leveling as well to create a game that players can easily dump hundreds of hours into. Personally, I’m sitting right around 140 and I’ve only played maybe four in-game years.
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE by Atlus
I’m not usually a huge JRPG person, but 2016 must’ve been a good year for anime dungeon crawlers. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE combines the worlds of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei to create a game centered around the fighting power of Japanese pop idols.
Most of the combat inTokyo Mirage Sessions is about figuring out the elemental weaknesses of an enemy, then using a character with a skill of that type to take them down. To assist with this, the Wii U gamepad is used to display detailed enemy and party stats during the heat of battle. Though this means you can’t play the game solely by looking at the gamepad, It’s nice to see a Wii U exclusive title taking advantage of the system’s quirks. And while Tokyo Mirage Sessions isn’t the most groundbreaking game of 2016, so far it has been one of the most effortlessly fun games I’ve picked up.
Watch Dogs 2 by Ubisoft
Ubisoft followed up the dreary mess of Watch Dogs with a game that is oozing color and personality at every turn. Watch Dogs 2 solves so many of the problems people had with the first game, and does so with style. But the reason Watch Dogs 2 has become one of my favorite open-world games to date has more to do with its gameplay than anything else.
A lot of games give you the freedom to complete levels in multiple ways, but I've never experienced a game that executes that quite as well as Watch Dogs 2. I'm not a stealthy player usually, but I've taken to that role in this game. The ability to hack into objects to set traps and fully plan your every attack builds this extra layer of strategy into every encounter and is something that makes Watch Dogs 2 just shine.
Hungry for more 2016 best-of? Gamasutra published its Top 10 Games of 2016, Top 10 Game Developers of 2016, Top 5 Trends of 2016 and Top 5 Events that shaped the year. Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal top-five list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Alex Wawro, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Chris Kerr, Phill Cameron, and Brandon Sheffield.