Nilson Carroll's Awards

Nilson Carroll

In an unlikely turn of events, someone at Square Enix had the idea to turn the original Dragon Quest into a Minecraft-like action RPG. It's a novel idea, a fantastic idea, but the game pulls off some true, unexpected magic. Instead of giving into the preciousness of retro graphics, nostalgia for a blocky reality to a stilted end, Dragon Quest Builders revels in the idea of block building, of crafting an RPG town out of different colored squares, the importance of tiny "Inn" signs, of the tonal difference between a wall of green squares and red squares.The game is at its best when it pays complex homage to the game it's poking fun at (Dragon Quest on NES), such as when it reminds players that the hero of destiny trope is silly but to "please try hard anyway." Like Dragon Quest VII, Dragon Quest Builders gets to the core of what makes Dragon Quest unique: there is a sense of literally removing the poison from the earth, of removing evil from a community and replacing it with goodness and light. This is especially poignant in Dragon Quest Builders' final act, which brings players back to Tantegel Castle, where the series began.

Dark Souls III is probably the cleanest, most modern game From has ever made. It's more AAA than Bloodborne, and almost user friendly (as long as you're ready to die). It's also the least ghoulish of the Souls games, unfortunately, but it still manages to be immersive in its darkness and depravity. When the dust settles, Dark Souls III will probably be my least favorite of the series, not because it's the plainest, but because it plays the Souls concept too safely. I adore the spoilerific fanservice From puts in here. It recalls the original Dark Souls in a fun, video game kind of way, and I appreciate it. There's a missing weightiness to the game's world, though, and it's not because of the fanservice or a lack of skeletons. Rather, Dark Souls III lives up to expectations and never exceeds them. Still, I love it.

The first and last paragraphs from my review of Act IV:

"Kentucky Route Zero Act IV falls in line with a long tradition of stories structured around journeying. It can be compared to Heart of Darkness (and by extension, Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of God), On the Road, Easy Rider, and most JRPGs (Final Fantasy XV in particular, with its focus on roadtripping), though is most similar to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And in many ways, Act IV is a Lynchian Huckleberry Finn (which might pique some interest), or perhaps akin to American Graffiti, with its vignettes, or Little Miss Sunshine. You get the idea.

"It might seem disingenuous or too far-reaching to describe Kentucky Route Zero as just a combination of bits of all these great things we have familiarity with (Lynch, Silent Hill, Flannery O'Connor, Final Fantasy VII, Gabriel García Márquez, Mark Twain), especially because so few of them are related to video games, but due to the unprecedented nature of the game (and because it is so successful at what it does), we need some grounding and context to even begin to speak about it. Kentucky Route Zero is not The Legend of Zelda, but it's also decidedly not Grim Fandango, not Myst, not a Telltale game. Kentucky Route Zero and its developers are not interested in recreating that kind of experience. It breaks all our expectations and manages still to be quite powerful."

Like last year's Majora's Mask 3DS port, Dragon Quest VII makes the list simply because it exists in 2016. Like Majora's Mask proper, Dragon Quest VII on PlayStation is one of my personal favorite top ten games of all time, but ends up being lower (higher?) on this list because it's not new. Still, Dragon Quest VII is probably the best game released this year (certainly the best JRPG). Dragon Quest VII is the most long-winded Dragon Quest, the slowest to get into, but it's also the spiciest, the meatiest. It's the most worthwhile Dragon Quest, one of the most worthwhile JRPGs ever. It takes the poisoned village Dragon Quest concept, a very Japanese concept, and runs with it for like 80 hours. This port streamlines the original a bit, which reduces its overall impenetrable, inexplicable mystical quality, but makes it more accessible and portable. Dragon Quest VII remains humble even with its weightiness, and I have no trouble saying it's the most JRPG of all JRPGs (except maybe Chrono Trigger). It's charming but also vile, all-encompassing in its scope. Players get a sense of truly ridding the world of evil, the heart of Dragon Quest.

There's a scene early on in Final Fantasy XV where something cataclysmic happens and the four warriors of light instinctively pull out their cellphones in unison. It's one of the most real moments in any Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy XV is "aggressively millennial," a game for "fans and new players" as the game literally says. There's an emphasis on selfies and photography in general (you unlock Instagram-like filters via leveling up your photo skill), a nuanced foodie vibe tied to a gameplay element, and a sense of detail in regard to leather and fine fabrics, car models, and camping gear. There's a trophy called "Immortal Photobomb" and one of the best scenes is Noctis thanking his father for his first car (a car that rivals Shadow of the Colossus' Agro). If I had been asked what my ideal Final Fantasy would be, I probably would've described this game, a roadtrip with four handsome dudes with perfect hair. Throw in some Half-Life 2/Ed Ruscha gas station wastelands and some Hamlet, and bam.

That being said, you will only ever get as much out of the game as you are willing to put in. It's easy to hate Final Fantasy XV and the way Square Enix wants so much for you to like it unabashedly. The exploration is not nearly as good as Xenoblade Chronicles X (my favorite game of 2015), but the battling is excellent. But the skill system isn't as good as Final Fantasy X's. And yet, the main characters are better than X's, even if the story is told in a stilted, almost art-house way. Liking Final Fantasy XV depends on your values and how you weigh certain aspects. Bottom line: it's sort of like Final Fantasy VIII mixed with Final Fantasy XII (but not really) and it's not as good as Final Fantasy VII or IX, but it's still totally essential. Final Fantasy XV questions the JRPG genre in, again, an almost art-house way. What is a dungeon, what is an enemy encounter, what are cutscenes? Unlike, say, Final Fantasy VI, which breaks down the JRPG so neatly (world map, encounter, town, dungeon, boss battle), while playing Final Fantasy XV, you never feel like you're sitting through a cutscene. It's seamless, for better or for worse.

Biggest Disappointment (but please keep trying, Tokyo RPG Factory!)

At first glance, I am Setsuna is sort of derivative, too samey, and flat. While not much changes throughout, the game becomes greater than the sum of its parts, even though they aren't too great. Despite its Chrono Trigger battle system, the barebones world feels more like an 8-bit JRPG than a 16-bit one, a shame, but that doesn't make it any less elegant. As long as I am Setsuna is compared to Chrono Trigger (a PR move intended to sell games), it can never breathe and be its own thing. One must wonder how Toyko RPG Factory came to make the game that ends up being I am Setsuna and why it turned out the way it did. Still, I am genuinely excited to see what the developer makes next.

Best Gaming Moment

I didn't play Pokémon GO for very long, and I can't speak to the current state of it. But earlier in the game's life, in the city where I live, there was a particular group of PokéStops in a park on the lake that spawned a seemingly endless supply of rare Pokémon. The site became something of a meme among the city's residents, and for two weeks after the game was released, that spot was occupied at all times of the day (particularly 12am-4am) with dozens of people of all ages, something of a PokéParty social phenomenon that transcended age, race, class, and gender. Strangers became friends, pizza, soda, and beer was shared, and whenever a rare 'mon appeared, the crowd would burst into a feverish wave of nervous energy. It was a romantic, completely complacent moment in gaming history, perfectly fitting snug in the summer of 2016 (a last hurrah for the power of friendship and justice). My favorite anecdote: three cars of policemen told the crowd to leave (one policeman a former high school classmate!). The crowd, probably 150 players, migrated to the parking lot of the nearby hamburger joint (a soda jerk there later said that that night was the hardest he had ever worked; his boss in the back room swam in gold coins) until the police left. Within minutes, the crowd returned together to the spot, and we all caught a Pinsir.

Best Non-RPG

Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight
If Bloodborne and Mega Man had a baby and dressed it up like Castlevania, you'd get the short but slick Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight. Clocking in at less than five hours, the fourth Momodora game gets straight to the point. Everything starts off disarmingly simple: you're an anime priestess in a Kirby-ish forest fighting off cute elf sprites. But within minutes, you realize you're in Bloodborne and shadowmen are stabbing out from the dark with rusty kitchen knives. You roll away from some blood-dogs and start to feel the pressure. Beautiful and haunting environments come and go quickly and quietly, and there's plenty of that dank Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance tone to revel in. The moon is the moon from Bloodborne. The boss battles are lifted from the best SNES platformers. Like my pick from last year (Downwell), Momodora, in the humblest way possible, recalls a golden era of gaming while being barely derivative or, gulp, precious. It's the opposite of a AAA game, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Special Mention

Magic Wand
Magic Wand is a tribute to animated 2D sprites, funky, squeaky chiptunes, and the uncanny spatial relationships of JRPG world maps. It's a full adventure, with a beginning, middle, and end; a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest squeezed into a blocky, neon two hour experience. There's a wild west area, a train level that evokes Midgar, a mystical tower to climb, a beach level (my favorite section) that recalls StarTropics, and tons and tons of goofy, stilted NPCs to talk to. Developer thecatamites is at his best during ephemeral, transitory scenes like the raft ride from Space Funeral; there's a scene in Magic Wand where the player character and a distant acquaintance discuss the positives of losing one's memory while riding donkeys. It's a real joy. The ambitious soundtrack from New Vadars is catchy and loving, bursting with nods to Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka, Hirokazu Ando, and others. But it's thecatamites' religious devotion to sprites, maps, and that ecstatic, black, out-of-bounds void that make Magic Wand stick.