RPG of the Year
Thanks to poor interfaces and shaky combat, The Witcher games have been hard to love despite their outstanding writing, characters, and setting. CD Projekt RED finally gets the monkey off its back with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a AAA title that improves upon the series' strengths while fixing all of its weaknesses. Its beautiful, detailed world features a wide variety of immersive environments when most games focus on either detail or variety. The bustling city of Novigrad is large enough to house a game unto itself, and makes up just a fraction of the size of the world. The storytelling and quests take advantage of the different settings. Swamps provide grim, unsettling tasks completely unlike those found in small villages or posh galas.
Central themes lifted from the novels shape The Witcher 3's gameplay more than in previous games. Contracts on monsters come with dismal backstories and depressing revelations; the true monsters are the humans rather than the beasts Geralt puts out of their misery. This is a world where domestic violence can lead to an aborted fetus returning from the dead. Nothing is sacred, and the game delights in making us uncomfortable. It sees Geralt poison, electrocute, and torment a deformed cripple, chat with a corrupt leader while ignoring the anguished screams of his lover being tortured in the next room, and ally with assassins, bigots, and villainous kingpins all in a selfish search for his long-lost daughter. Maybe Geralt is the real monster.
Supreme visuals and story scenarios are both expected and where The Witcher 3 shines brightest, but a fun, functional battle system is what caps this off as the best RPG of 2015. Gone are the clunky controls and awkward pauses in the action. Geralt moves smoothly, magic signs are easy to switch between, and forewarning of what types of monsters lie ahead make it easy for us to correctly prepare for any situation. Customizability and planning pay off beyond the mere personal preferences common in other action RPGs; it's important to have a strategy for slaying wraiths, beasts, or drowners with the system providing a small variety of options to best handle each. The frequent changing of enemy types and smart pacing of cutscenes keep combat fresh in this lengthy game. We hope that CD Projekt RED continues to deliver games at this level and keep its gameplay bugaboo away from future releases.
After the grand ending of the first Trails in the Sky and its subsequent cliffhanger, fans were dying for a resolution. That resolution landed with a glorious bang in 2015 with the release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC for PSP and PC. Even as huge fans of the original Trails in the Sky, its super slow start and constant swapping-out of characters made for some frustration before it really got off the ground. Trails SC fixes every problem with the original and ramps things up even higher as the game progresses. This character-focused title offers some of the best-developed characters in one of the twistiest RPGs in some time. This game, and the series as a whole, is highly recommended to anyone who misses the good old days of Japanese RPGs. Those days are still alive and well here.
Continuing the theme of story-driven RPGs filling the top slots here is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. The character-focused Legend of Heroes games offer a lot of gameplay features, but really nail home how important narrative is in RPGs. The adventures of Rean and the rest of Class VII are what make Cold Steel come to life. Seeing how the characters interact and develop over time is what makes this game special. Attachment to these characters is also what will bring us back for the upcoming sequel.
by Glenn Wilson, Michael Cunningham