5) Xenoblade Chronicles X
It's no secret that the Wii U has been RPG-starved for too long, so MonolithSoft's follow-up to 2011's stellar Xenoblade Chronicles couldn't have come soon enough. In a surprising move for a Xeno-game, X dials back the storyline complexity to the bare minimum, but doubles down on exploration: Planet Mira is a vast world of rolling plains, lush forests and breathtaking vistas that players can explore on foot or from the cockpit of a giant mech. The game takes its time to get going, but few titles instill a sense of wonder as successfully as X.
4) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Second Chapter
One of the biggest surprises of the year, the long-awaited sequel to 2011's Trails in the Sky has finally arrived to bring closure to its agonizing cliffhanger. A rare shoujo JRPG, Second Chapter has us joining Estelle Bright on a return trip through the vibrant country of Liberl to stop a new threat and locate her missing beau Joshua along the way. Only players who completed the first game will appreciate Second Chapter's story, so the barrier to entry is somewhat high, but Falcom's attention to detail is second to none: Liberl feels like one of the most realized and lived-in settings in any video game. Fans of immersive storytelling will find a lot to love in Second Chapter, even if its core gameplay feels slightly old-fashioned.
Cute, funny, sweet and heartbreaking, Undertale pays equal homage to Mother, Shin Megami Tensei, Bullet Hell shmups and Web 2.0's slew of new subcultures. The end result is a unique and thoughtful RPG that draws upon its inspirations to bring versatility to the genre while simultaneously asking questions about how and why we play. Go Hog Wild, Vote Sans/Papyrus 2016.
2) Read Only Memories
Cyberpunk games have always had a bit of an issue bringing their literary inspirations to life. Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, for example, undercut its postmodern setting and spot-on visual cues with a modernist tale that was both pro-establishment and pro-xenophobia, all without a shred of irony. Cyberpunk literature has always been about underdogs fighting the powers that be, so it was wonderful to see Read Only Memories ditch the action movie trappings and pay homage to what makes the genre truly special. Midboss' microcomputer-inspired detective story drops the player into a pastel-colored Neo San Francisco lit up by 2Mello's thumping FM house soundtrack and populated by a cast of misfits who know how to have a good time. In a medium that often treats alternative gender identities with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Read Only Memories presents a vivid and believable cast that you'll instantly adore. Majid and Gus for Hottest Couple of the Year.
I initially wrote off From Software's punishing Souls series as not for me, but Bloodborne changed all of that forever, being one of the few games released this year that kept me in its deathly thrall from start to finish. Always surprising but rarely unfair, Bloodborne demands player attention at all times, reprimanding slackers with zero hesitation. Such an unrelenting and intense experience may not be the best game to unwind with, but there are few moments more satisfying than when you best a particularly difficult foe who's already handed your rear-end to you dozens of times before. Heavy on lore but light on narrative, the story may not appeal to those looking for an easily-digestible plot, but piecing things together undeniably feels like being caught up in an esoteric mystery. Bloodborne is also secretly the greatest Lovecraftian game of all time, but I'll leave it to you to find out why.
Lisa: The Painful RPG
Mad Mother Max, or Earthbound if it was inspired by underground comix. Lisa boasts an excellent soundtrack, a Legend of Legaia-esque battle system and a darkly comic view of the apocalypse. If anybody says RPG Maker isn't a valid game engine, point them towards Lisa and see if they change their tune.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
As a longtime fan of the Kojimaverse, I couldn't wait to see how Japan's most notorious game auteur would cap off his trademark series. Unfortunately, The Phantom Pain was severely lacking in the weirdness I had grown to love and expect from the series, opting instead to tell a by-the-numbers revenge story that failed to deliver on its promise to provide closure to the Metal Gear saga. That said, it also happens to be the most technically proficient, accessible and fun entry in the entire series, dropping players into a veritable toybox of Tactical Espionage Action. There's no wrong way to play, and even failure can result in a rousing good time.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters
Shuuhou Imai boasts a sizeable cult following in Japan for his long-running Toyko Majin Gakuen series, which marries turn-based strategy with social/relationship mechanics. Despite critical acclaim at home, none of these games ever made it westward, so it was quite a surprise when Aksys announced their localization of Imai's latest game, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. Sadly, the game ended up being half-baked, featuring insipid dialogue, ill-informed stereotypes and a frustrating battle system that favored luck over skill. Aksys did a fine job with the localization, but stick with Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker to see strategy and socializing mixed the right way.
Zero Time Dilemma
Virtue's Last Reward was one of the most captivating stories of 2012. It also happened to end on a whopper of a cliffhanger, with prospects of a sequel in limbo due to poor sales. This agonizing situation was finally relieved this past summer when Aksys and Spike Chunsoft formally announced Zero Time Dilemma, the final piece of the trilogy that began with 999. Will ZTD provide answers, or just more questions? Either way, it's sure to be a mind-bending good time.
I wish a generous publisher gives Hidetaka "SWERY65" Suehiro all of the money he needs to make as many bizarre adventure games as he desires, with a little leftover for him to achieve his dream of travelling to Australia to hug a koala. Hug KING.