Welcome to Ani-Gamers Staff Picks, the feature series in which we list some of our staff's favorite anime, manga, and game content from the past year. We're starting off the series with video games, though unfortunately we're not nearly as on top of the latest game releases as our site name would imply! Below you'll find picks from the hosts of the Ani-Gamers Podcast, David Estrella and editor-in-chief Evan Minto (our other contributors abstained). It may not be an exhaustive list, but within it you'll find a mix of big names and unexpected gems. Enjoy!
#1: Pokémon Sun and Moon
For the first 20 hours or so, Pokémon Sun and Moon was not a Game of the Year contender. Even now, I’m hesitating to really go out and say that the new Pokémon was the best game I played all year. Honestly, sometime around the third-generation entry in the series, the innovations became little more than a few judicious refinements hidden under piles of experimental, and often mediocre, side content that rarely survived from iteration to iteration. With a little less hand-holding and a little more respect for the player’s abilities, Sun and Moon could have been the entry that put the series up to a higher level, but right now it’s only a very well-realized step toward a landmark achievement. Still, what Sun and Moon eventually accomplishes after the 20-hour mark is making me excited to play Pokémon again after going cold on the series for so many years. All these minor tweaks to the core have led to a game with demonically potent number-crunching mechanics. By degrees, the spirit of adventure is returning to the series in a way that makes me think the past 20 years have aged Pokémon far kinder than other, longer-lived RPG series that thumbed their noses at this “kid’s game”. Pokémon is for children, and for adults, and for anyone that simply enjoys a fun journey.
This year, I played two games in the newly popular "walk around the wilderness while talking to people" genre: Firewatch and Oxenfree; only one of them made the list. Oxenfree feels a bit like a teen horror movie come to life, though it thankfully ends up leaning much further toward supernatural mystery than cheap slasher thrills. The ghosts haunting Edwards Island spook out the five teenagers spending the night there and, by doing so, force them to pair off in unexpected ways. Consequently, the teenagers end up learning something about the island and themselves. It's a post-Telltale world, so all the dialogue choices are timed, and one of the game's most unexpected delights is the snappy, quippy, (mostly) natural dialogue that results. The performances have an exaggerated, cartoonish charm to them that meshes nicely with the indie-comic visual style. Oxenfree is a fairly linear experience that handholds you through most of the puzzles, but the few changes you can affect via your choices feel meaningful in large part because of the vibrant, memorable cast of characters. Plus, there's a new game plus mode that builds on the main game, so I imagine I'm not done with Oxenfree just yet.
#2: 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
One of my favorite comics is Marjane Satrapi's autobiography Persepolis, which chronicles a young girl's coming of age amidst the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The details of the Revolution, which was one of the most important moments in the history of Iran and a turning point for the Middle East in the 20th century, aren't common knowledge for many Westerners, but both Persepolis and 1979 Revolution provide deeply personal accounts of what it was like to live through such a massive political upheaval. 1979 Revolution looks and feels in nearly every way like a Telltale adventure game – from its timed dialogue choices to its clunky quicktime events, but rather than escaping zombies or catching criminals, you play as a photojournalist caught between a burgeoning revolutionary organization and a conservative family. While the game has a strong focus on education (blurbs about Iranian cultural customs and real photos of the Revolution show up throughout), what makes it shine is strong characterization. Everyone in the story is a passionate believer in their creed, whether it's communism, religious fundamentalism, or secular democracy, and the clash of ideals combined with a web of interpersonal relationships and the pressure of choosing a side in real-time creates a story rich in conflict and uncertainty. 1979 Revolution is tragically short and doesn't cover nearly as much detail as I'd like it to, but in a mere two hours it makes the Iranian Revolution feel more real than any history book.
I've never been big into online competitive games, but a weekend with the Overwatch beta was enough to turn me around. Supposedly inspired by the gameplay style of Team Fortress 2 (I never played it), Overwatch takes the twitchy, unforgiving experience of the first-person shooter and adds a variety of team-based RPG- and MOBA-inspired play styles (healers, tanks, melee characters) that both make the game accessible to a wide range of players and enable deeper, more competitive play. This focus on collective achievement carries over to almost every part of the game — kills are awarded to both the player who fired the final shot and those who assisted, and healers get prominent commendations in the post-game stats. On top of this, Overwatch doesn't feel grim and gritty like so many other shooters. Instead, it takes place in a vibrant cartoon world with distinct heroes and elaborate backstories. Not only do these heroes represent a huge, incredibly creative variety of sci-fi concepts and designs (a robot monk, a scientist gorilla, a superpowered DJ), but they also feature lots of different ethnicities, body types, and more (an old Egyptian woman, a lesbian Brit, a morbidly obese Australian man). When it all comes together, Overwatch is a joy to play, and the interplay of characters and stages (plus developers who are constantly working on new characters and seasonal events) makes for a game that never fails to surprise me.
That's it for our favorite games of 2016. Look forward to our manga and anime picks in two more posts that we'll be publishing in the coming days!