As an exercise, top ten lists useful and fun; it forces me to critically examine what I've played and justify my reactions to games over the past year. But it's painful to cut games you loved because you've just run out of room, not because they're bad!
For a week or so, I thought my list was done, but as I was standing in the shower one day, I came to the realization that I'd played it too safe, and I'd left some games off that I was passionate about. Thus, three games needed to get the axe. I don't have great reasons for cutting some of these; ultimately, it's all kind of arbitrary. We've given ourselves 10 slots, so it can only be 10 games.
Managing Editor Danielle Riendeau shared the games she cut from her list last week, and now I'm doing the same. What follows are some of my favorite games from 2016, even if they didn't make the "list." I mean, c'mon, we're talking The Witcher 3 here! Gah! (The reason some writeups are shorter than others is because the longer ones were once part of my proper top ten list.)
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
There are myriad reasons to heap praise on The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine, an expansion to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that easily hangs with regular ass games, but the one I find myself coming back to is how much it respects your time. That's not to say you can't easily dump dozens, if not hundreds, of hours into CD Projekt RED's sprawling open world, but it's easy to know whether you're embarking on a quest that's meant for loot and grinding, a side quest that'll take 20 or so minutes to complete, or a sprawling adventure you'll need an hour to see through.
Blood and Wine is fine with saying "Hey, some of our content is filler, some of it isn't. Some will have story and characters, some won't. We wanna make sure you know what you're getting into." Most open world games mix everything into a gross stew in service of #content, hoping to trick you into thinking there's more to the game than there is. The Witcher 3 doesn't need tricks; it's confident in what it's offering off, leaving no reason for deception.
The final mission in XCOM 2 is a slog. You're outgunned, and the enemy has a neverending supply of troops. After more than an hour in my own playthrough, things were looking grim. Down to my last soldier, it was time for a Hail Mary. Flanked on all sides, the last enemy I needed to take out to end the mission was in sight, but the game wasn't giving good odds—the chance of inflicting damage was something like 30%. The odds of outright killing them were smaller, and I wouldn't get a second shot before my soldier was torn to shreds.
I stared at the screen for a while, looked around the room, and despite having no belief in a higher power, asked for the lords of XCOM 2 to grant mercy in this moment of need. My finger tapped the necessary mouse button, the invisible dice of XCOM 2 rolled, and I closed my eyes. Pop. Not only did the shotgun blast land, it was a critical hit. Nice job, soldier. You can go home, and I can start breathing again.
Dishonored 2 might not be what we typically call an "open world" game, but I felt more freedom exploring the streets of Karnaca than almost anywhere else. I'm almost always roleplaying the same character in these games—stealthy, non-lethal, looking for ways to help people—but what differentiated the original, and what Dishonored 2 builds on, are the tools you're given to implement your ideas.
I'm not sure another game asked me to be as creative as I was in Dishonored 2, and though I wasn't building objects or structures, I was using my imagination to take out hordes of foes—non-violently, of course—as Emily Kaldwin. And though my take on Emily tried her best to do right by others, Dishonored 2 made it clear that comes with a price. Even when I was doing the "right" thing, I was left disturbed at the cost.
Gemini: Heroes Reborn
I almost put this on my list out of principle; it's a game that should have been bad but wasn't! In fact, it was totally good. Ignore the Heroes brand and play a game with rad time travel powers.
An utterly gorgeous game with the most natural-sounding character dialogue I've heard in years. Making people sound like they're actually having a conversation almost never happens in games. Sadly, the "twist" didn't sit well for me, and deflated the last few hours of the game.
Smart, clever, funny, and subversive, no other game in 2016 had me uttering "holy shit" as much as SUPERHOT. If you ever get a chance to try it out, it's even more impressive in VR.
Final Fantasy XV
There are so many things wrong with Final Fantasy XV—the combat is flashy but shallow, the story never goes anywhere—but the main characters are utterly charming. Even flawed, Final Fantasy XV shows heart and ambition, exactly what the Final Fantasy series needs right now.
Hyper Light Drifter
I can't put my finger on why Hyper Light Drifter didn't fully connect with me. Everything about the game seems tailor-made for Patrick Klepek, and while I liked it, I didn't fall in love. Ever have a game you've hyped in your head, only to have it fail to meet expectations, even if you know that might have had more to do with you than it?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, my expectations for Headlander weren't low but non-existent; I had no idea what to make of it, outside of the slick aesthetic. What I got was a well-designed, extremely funny Metroid-style game that hit all of my buttons at the right time.