Not to brag or anything, but we get sent a lot of games. A LOT of games. Some we review, some we write news stories on, and some we turn into lovely videos on our delightful YouTube channel. But many, many more get no airtime at all, swiftly consigned to the great Gmail Archive in the sky. It’s often through no fault of their own, merely a necessary reality when you consider time, resources, and our collective sanity.
This year has been full of incredible releases, so check the best of them out in our favourite games of 2016.
But in the spirit of giving, receiving, and goodwill to all games, we decided to break free of these shackles for one week only, and give every single game we got sent over the course of a seven-day period their 15 minutes (often literally) of fame.
We generally didn’t include expansions, DLC or new VR versions of previously released games (although sometimes we did), and almost certainly a few slipped through the net. Also because of the volume of games we generally didn’t play any for more than about half an hour, and thus the ‘verdicts’ you’ll find below are in no way final, accurate, or even properly informed in the vast majority of cases.
Scientific? Not at all. Sustainable? No way. Fun? On occasion...
Joel says: This appears to be an attempt to combine traditional RPG questing with the modern world’s predilection for recruitment consultants. Rather than directly taking on the role of an adventurer tasked with dispatching unruly bandits and filling your pockets with sweet gold and the trinkets of your fallen foes, rather you’re heading up an agency designed to do so. This, of course, means coming up with a brand name - I plumped for ‘Your Mum’, because I’m nine-years-old - and then drawing up contracts for your prospective warriors/rogues/bards/etc. In a final twist there’s a vague nod to eSports in that you have to climb leagues in order to prove the epic-osity of your management style.
Verdict: The clue’s pretty much in the oxymoronic title.
Joel says: Take me out, tonight. Because I want to see people and I want to see life. Driving in your car, please don't drop me home because it's not my home, it's their home, and I'm welcome no more.
In half an hour playing Hired Ops I didn’t see a single other player, and yet I was killed four times.
Verdict: Is that screen tearing, or just salty tears clouding my vision?
Joel says: Now, this I like. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, but I know I like it. Even if it did take me almost the entirety of my allotted playtime just to figure out how to get out of the first room. A puzzler in which - according to some Google searches - you literally do have one shot to complete the game (although I haven’t discovered quite what form that takes), the goal seems to be to guide a… thing called Kip… outside? Maybe? Look, I’m not sure, alright, but it’s obtuse and difficult and that’s enough for me.
Verdict: The Dark Souls of puzzle games called OneShot that I’ve played for 20 minutes.
Lara Croft GO
Joel says: Aside from the annoying insistence on capping GO, as if we’re dealing with a road sign or the irritated exclamation of someone walking behind a dawdling treasure hunter on a busy high street, this is really quite lovely. An isometric puzzler with a perfect difficulty curve - more of a gentle brain massage than furious assault on your thinkbox - perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is that it momentarily distracted me from the screaming existential dread I fought through the day after the PCGN Christmas party. Also, turns out there are loads of these GO things, featuring several of Square Enix’s most beloved franchises - Deux Ex, Hitman, Pokémon, the lot.
Verdict: Anything that can push the yawning darkness aside for even a moment gets two big thumbs up.
Jordan says: Exit is a nice puzzle game about moving coloured balls around a maze so that they come to rest on a tile of the corresponding colour. But wait, there’s more. Get this: you can’t move the balls one tile at a time, it’s either all the way to the left, all the way to the right, all the way up… or all the way down. Like all puzzle games, Exit is great until you get stuck, and then it’s the worst thing ever and honestly where do they get off making my brain hurt.
Verdict: Oh, look at Bertie Big Bollocks over here, trying to outsmart the stupid games journalist.
Slayaway Camp - Santa’s Slay Expansion
Jordan says: Remember that complex puzzle mechanic I literally just explained? Well, here it is again, only in a much more exciting package. Slayaway Camp tasks you with violently murdering happy campers for scenes in a series of slasher flicks. It’s genuinely delightful, and while the Santa’s Slay Expansion only adds some wintry skins and a new set of levels for you to think your way through, it’s probably worth the two dollar price tag.
Verdict: Finally, a game that pays homage to one of the most insidious slasher films of the early ‘80s.
Rise & Shine
Jordan says: The title of this game conjured up images of croissants, orange juice and Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing playing faintly in the background. This game has none of those things. Rise as it turns out is the main character, Shine is - naturally - his talking gun. So no to bitter black coffee and rays of sunshine beaming through the blinds, but yes to a gorgeously detailed puzzle-platformer that relentlessly nods its head to gaming culture.
Verdict: Charming, but not as charming as the breakfast scene playing out in my head.
Super Dungeon Tactics
Jordan says: Super Dungeon Tactics is basically XCOM in a fantasy setting. Except without any of the overarching progression mechanics, tactical depth, visual charm, narrative… am I missing something? It’s a semi-functional turn-based strategy game with incomprehensible controls and a weird anime cat; I should never have brought XCOM into this.
Verdict: You can’t cap the first letter of your characters’ names - 0/10.
Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel
Phil says: I picked this one out of the spreadsheet of games because it sounded like it might be a racer. Nitro! Blast away using your Nitroplus Blasterz, wheeeee!
But look at all the nonsensical, unrelated words in that title: of course is was going to be a 2D fighter about girls with boobies. Of fucking course it was. Mechanically there doesn’t seem to be much wrong here to these layman's hands: each tweenage girl in a negligee has a responsive and agile set of moves, and countering the advances of a martial arts expert wearing a boob tube and thong is easy enough thanks to clear animation signposting.
There’s a quasi-tag team dynamic at play here too, so once you fill up a meter by landing combos you can bring out two more girls who’ve been sexualised to the point of deformity to help you in the fight.
Verdict: The world is now slightly worse.
The Little Acre
Phil says: Thank god for The Little Acre. A point-and-click set in fantastical Irish countryside bliss, opening on a puzzle about getting dressed while remaining under the duvet. Ahhh, that’s better isn’t it, psyche? We needed that after Tit Battle: Hyperfight earlier on. Charles Cecil is executive producer, which is one of many reassuring things about the game. Its chirpy hero, hand-drawn animations and gentle pacing are all lovely. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Thanks for existing, The Little Acre.
Verdict: The world’s been restored to its former, slightly better, state.
Total War: Warhammer - Realm of the Wood Elves DLC
Phil says: This was a stroke of luck for me really, because I’d been playing a lot of TW:WH recently anyway. Hand on heart though, I still find the Empire tough enough to manage in battle, so the super-specialised, melee-averse Wood Elves weren’t a good fit within the curvature of my learning experience. That is to say, I just lose every battle.
Simply every battle. That’s no reflection on the game, of course. It appears that the Wood Elves are every bit as fully-realised as their Dwarf, Greenskin, Chaos, Beastmen, Vampire Count or Empire adversaries, and there’s obviously a strange and radically different game to be played using their superior ranged units and bizarre movement abilities. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to utilise it. But it’s going to take a while.
Verdict: Yeah, I’ve got an Empire state of mind.
Phil says: Look at that. Look at that absolute mess above. That’s one of the Steam page screenshots too, not one I’ve snapped to make Hunger Dungeon look more chaotic than it really is. But despite taking on the appearance of a memory leak at Devolver Digital’s central mainframe, there is some order and strategy to this roguelike. In groups of four, you’re sent into dungeons to plunder and do battle with both AI foes and each other. You’re also all slowly dying of hunger.
There are probably clever balances between gathering essential resources and going on the attack here, but the F2P structure keeps me resolutely at arm’s length from the good stuff. Each of the three ‘free’ characters feel useless in combat, and I’m not sure I found much incentive among all those pixels being hurled about to grind through the 20 or so crushing defeats it’d take to build someone more effective.
Verdict: Honestly, it seems pretty solid. But if you’re lamenting the F2P model 20 minutes in, that’s probably not a great sign.
Jeremy says: The road to hell is paved with dismembered legs. I know that’s not how it’s supposed to go, but trust me - I’ve just visited, and it was all legs. Here’s a first-person horror-stealth landscape built, as far as I can tell, entirely from flayed human flesh and where there’s always somebody weeping within earshot. Sometimes Agony has astonishing graphics, the best in Unreal Engine-enabled brimstone, but mostly it’s just astonishingly graphic. At one point I literally watched a naked man put together a dry stone wall using wrinkled newborn babies, crushing their skulls as he went. Genuinely distressing.
Verdict: Memorable, but isn’t all trauma?
Jeremy says: There’s a spaceship, right, and it’s been overrun by the Kreep - so-called because a K is cooler than a C and because the alien is self-replicating, barfing out new versions of itself until the entire map is filled with green gloops. You’ve got to stop that by running around shooting gloops dead. It’s a simple game, and the idea is that you play it with maybe three others, so that it becomes a kind of co-op Bomberman.
Co-op my arse, though - my AI comrade sent me into permanent cryo-sleep far more often than the Kreep did, and I gave as good as I got. In fact, the fire was so friendly that sick bay quickly succumbed to Flubber-likes. Oh well: the crunchy, pre-sound card style laser noise was really starting to peck my head.
Verdict: The ship is lost but we’re OK with it.
Jeremy says: There’s something very wry and knowing going on here and it starts with the name - which presumably refers to both the corn fields of Stephen King-style genre fiction and the navigation puzzles Maize concerns itself with. This first-person adventure game has you brushing against ten-feet tall crops and breaking into farmhouses in pursuit of... answers? Aliens? Not clear, but the jokes are so meta it’s fair to assume there’s no straightforward story here. This is a game that sees fit to write in its tutorial: “Press C to crouch and C again to not crouch. You can do this forever.”
Smug? Well, yeah. But in a promising, Stanley Parable sort of way. I’m enjoying being given the runaround by these clever-clever sods.
Verdict: More arch than the Arc de Triomphe.
Jeremy says: Pocket Kingdom is made from the finest Amiga-effect materials that look just like the real thing, only far prettier than the ‘80s ever was, as these sorts of rose-tinted throwbacks tend to be. Like the excellent VVVVVV, Pocket Kingdom evokes the noises of the era and the structure of a Metroidvania while winding up somewhere different and new.
Precisely what the game is, I couldn’t tell you - the challenge seems to revolve around puzzle rooms, but there’s a lush density to Pocket Kingdom’s big, purply pixels and buzzing, polyphonic soundtrack that makes it a joy to just exist in.
The mute locals insisted that their floating city was “enchanted” and that I could never leave, but I can confirm that it’s possible to exit to desktop.
Verdict: The ‘80s in gaming, distilled as a cosy and inviting bubble bath mix.
Matt says: Balthazar’s Dream is a platforming game where you play as a cute fluffy dog bouncing on furniture through a surreal, domestic-flavoured dreamscape. It sounds like the perfect little play for a Monday morning, but I can assure you it’s not. You see, the game opens on a scene in which Balthazar the dog and his human are having a nice game of frisbee, and then his human is run over by an ice cream van. What follows is a montage starting with the boy getting Balthazar as a puppy, followed by snapshots of their happy life together, and finally concluding with a shot of the dog sleeping at the end of the boy’s hospital bed.
I’ll just be over here using the whole office supply of tissues.
Verdict: The ‘Pixar’s Up’ of videogame intros.
Matt says: I’m mostly confused as to how you pronounce ‘Flyff’. It apparently stands for ‘Fly For Free’ (it clearly doesn’t, that would be FFF), and so far I’m toying between ‘Fly-ph’ and ‘Phily-fuf’ as the best bets. This phonetic investigation is a far more interesting pursuit than Flyff itself, which Wikipedia helpfully informs me is a ‘a party-oriented grinding game’. I’m pleased that wiki entry exists, as the game doesn’t make that obvious. After making my anime player character I was confronted with a town square filled with an overwhelming amount of players shouting incomprehensible babble into the in-game chat. The square was so packed with these people that it was impossible to find any kind of quest-giver. There were snowmen though - of both the child and daddy variety - which will explain why we were sent an email about it. Superb holiday content.
Verdict: Not a flight simulator. A complaint has been filed with the Advertising Standards Authority.
Scalpers: Turtle and the Moonshine Gang
Matt says: Of all the games on this list, I can assure you this has the best menu. It’s got an old western-style song playing over it; all guitar twangs and soft female vocals cooing about ‘the hidden blues’ and ‘the paths you choose’. I like it so much I’m listening to it right now. That’s all I can say about Scalpers though, since when I try to create a game the only thing that happens is a ‘coming soon’ screen appears. Putting out demos of your menu isn’t traditional, but I can understand why you would when it’s as authentically atmospheric as this.
Verdict: A mexican stand-off, but where none of the guns are loaded. Great build up, no pay off.
Matt says: Possibly one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played, Into Delight places you in an abstract, empty world made up mostly of plain white corridors, and occasional voids of darkness. You’re sort of guided by a shadow that talks in cryptic phrases, but much of it is spent following your nose. It’s a sort of walking simulator/puzzle hybrid, with plenty of downbeat musings (as in the screenshot above) and rooms that loop in and over themselves and require some logic to break out of.
Verdict: This world is drowning in loneliness.
Matt says: It all started so well. MHRD, a game about designing CPUs in the 1980s, is played in an authentically DOS-like black-screen-and-white-serif-text interface. It even has the clicks and whirrs of an old-school PC playing constantly in the background. But that’s where my fun ended. Not really because MHRD is a bad game, but because I am not a computer scientist. The incredibly obtuse systems require you to read reams of techno speak in order to learn how to play, and then do something akin to coding in order to create the CPUs. I found it baffling in the same manner as how Spacechem flew over my tiny brain, but I’m sure if you’re a smart’un you could dig this.
Verdict: Halt and catch fire.
Rich says: Diluvion opens with a portentous story about gods punishing humanity for our wickedness, which is a bit rogue since most gods I read about get up to way worse than me, but I guess that’s the privilege of omnipotence. Anyway, once it’s established that I’m looking for the redemptive gift of the last god, I’m plunged into an inventive submarine adventure game. Controlling your sub is the kind of awkwardness that you quickly get the hang of, and though the section I played was set in a very murky bit of ocean, it allowed the abundant bioluminescent life around me to literally shine. Some of it didn’t even try to eat me. Locations beneath the sea are displayed in cross-section, and here you can shop, recruit new crew, and chat to NPCs to pursue your quests.
Verdict: I pretended my sub was the Nautilus and did some Captain Nemo role-playing. I very much hope my crew mutiny and feed me to a squid later in the game if I keep it up.
Rich says: Stubbornness, metal fetishism, love of violence and a soundly sceptical view of pompous joyless elves - it’s all here. I begin by fending off a horde of orcs from the gates of our fortress, hotkeying my heroes’ abilities to control the crowds and take out targets like ogres and catapults. Next I’m thrust into the shoes of an unassuming but good-hearted Dwarven smith - who will doubtless prove to be Touched By Destiny in some way - and run around pilfering food, drooling over beer barrels and fixing things for humans too precious to get their hands dirty. Dwarves, as depicted in most fantasy fiction, are badass, and it’s past time they were the sole focus of their own RPG. So far this game has got it right.
Verdict: “You’re not at all interested in magic and all its elusiveness and whimsy. Your realm is the forge.” Damn straight. These guys get it.
Book of Demons
Rich says: Turns out the Devil has a rubber duck with him when he bathes in a lake of fire. This is a key takeaway from my time with Book of Demons, a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler apparently set in a pop-up book. You could say the characters are all paper-thin, but then you’d be making a bad pun of the game’s art style, so I’m glad that hasn’t crossed either of our minds. Book of Demons features your classic three character classes in a quest to clear out the catacombs beneath a defiled Cathedral, so it’s a pretty traditional premise, but with bags of charm and a few neat new ideas. I particularly enjoyed the footprints which turn gold when you’ve fully explored a corridor, and the ‘level clear’ indicator that appears when you’ve got all the loot in a dungeon. No tedious backtracking for those of us with completionist tendencies.
Verdict: Classic ideas, inventively and charmingly executed. But why doesn’t the duck melt?
Rich says: Stuck in a cutthroat galaxy full of escaped prisoners, the idea is that you’ll build space stations around planets to harvest their resources, strengthen your ship, plunder your rivals and find a way to escape to civilisation. In practice, I spent most of my time holding LMB to mine asteroids for scrap to upgrade my stations. Then I got ambushed by a small fleet of agile ships that I couldn’t hit, and which somehow instantly repaired themselves whenever I did. You only get one life, so I had time for this to happen to me three times. Flying around feels smooth, but music, sound, graphics and UI are all pretty basic.
Verdict: Monotone left-click action, rudely interrupted. Not a bad idea, but more work needed.
Well, there we have it. What did we learn? First and foremost, that we don't have anything like the time required to do any of the above games justice, and in some cases that's a shame because there's hidden treasure lurking in our inboxes. Should we try to cover everything, or stick with our first instincts? Let us know below.