Players of Undertale find themselves in some strange situations: eating a steak shaped like a glamorous robot's face for TV ratings, getting close (but not too close) to an anthropomorphic airplane, and dating a skeleton are just a sample of the game's pleasures. If these were just goofy, consequence-free actions in a game of relaxed japery it would still be worthwhile; however, in actual play they're emotional moments that have our staff's hearts beating as one. Undertale draws on the common language of RPGs to create an experience that's comfortably familiar before pushing into unexpected territory that both celebrates and critiques what RPGs can be. Undertale's monster Wonderland is peopled by endearing characters, simultaneously absurd and struggling earnestly for acceptance.
Undertale's originality also shines through in its battle system. Enemies attack in short real-time segments where the player has to dodge fun shapes. The variety of enemy shapes and attack patterns makes dodging attacks feel like different mini-games, which keeps combat fresh. When it's time to strike back, battles can be won with either timed attacks or kindness. Soothing a comedian with a chip on his shoulder may require laughing at his jokes, while a lonely lava monster may just want a hug. Between their attack patterns and personal needs, even the lowliest random monster is a unique entity worth exploring. Boss encounters are even more complex, both in their attacks and player interactions. For its inviting world and unexpected takes on RPG conventions, Undertale was an easy pick for our most original RPG of 2015.
In an alternate version of the 19th century, President Abraham Lincoln fakes his assassination to go underground and lead a special team of characters from literature and folklore to fight against an invading force of Lovecraft-inspired aliens using steampunk weapons and vehicles. This ridiculously awesome concept is framed as a comic book from the Silver Age, complete with limited movement during cut scenes, panels, speech bubbles, and exaggerated sound effect text. Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.'s premise is unique to say the least. It's the last game to be expected from anyone, let alone from Nintendo's Intelligent Systems. While the turn-based strategy mechanics with light third-person shooter elements are reminiscent of Valkyria and the story is straightforward, the awesomely absurd concept and setting grab our attention. Its challenging difficulty and varied, well-designed maps are what keep us invested in S.T.E.A.M. Now, if only the giant steam-powered mech in the form of Lincoln and piloted by the president was more engaging gameplay-wise.
Hauling cargo isn't especially original. Neither is battling pirates. Sunless Sea isn't worried. Its cargoes are contraband sunlight and human souls (heavily taxed, but wholly legal); its pirates devils and clay men, hewn from the measureless body of the King with a Hundred Hearts. The life of a sea captain in the Victorian Gothic world of Fallen London is stocked with a king's ransom of stories both humorous and horrific. Unspeakable eye-bees exist under the same stony sky as adorable postal rats, but the contrast is whimsically grim rather than disorienting. Any captain with the patience to plough the wine-dark sea and brave the knife's edge of solvency will find top-notch writing and a rewarding, palm sweat-inducing subterranean world to explore. Each new island is an unexpected discovery, and the inhabitants of the Unterzee are unmatched on heaven or earth (to say nothing of the guinea pigs).
by Zach Welhouse, Cassandra Ramos