My perspective on the games of 2015 as a whole is admittedly rather limited. The year was marked by a profound lack of income for me, to the point that I was only able to play 2015 releases if I got review codes for them. This resulted in a much wider net being cast over the review spectrum, from genuine Game of the Year contenders to some of the worst games I've ever played. What it did not include were any AAA games. Their exclusion probably doesn't change my ranking much (the majority of my favourite games have been smaller titles for several years running), but it does mean I can only definitively comment on 50% of the industry at best. Even then, I still couldn't play all the indie games I wanted, as the honorable mentions list will attest to. That said, I actually want to play several of 2015's major releases, as opposed to feeling obligated to do so by a desire to understand the current gamer zeitgeist. That's more than can be said of the last few years.
Favorite Game Released Before 2015, Played in 2015: Shovel Knight
My honorable mentions list last year was also meant as a "Possible GotY Redux" award, and this is why. Shovel Knight is my true pick for 2014's Game of the Year. It's everything a retro game should be; rather than pointlessly imitate classic titles, it mines their design techniques, modernizes them, and treats the nostalgia as an added bonus rather than a key selling point. What results is tough yet fair, familiar yet refreshing, and deep yet accessible. The protagonist's weaponized shovel is far more than an excuse to have a silly, attention-grabbing title; it combines the best parts of DuckTales and Zelda II into an exciting, fluid blend of combat and platforming. While that alone would have been enough to make a decent game, Shovel Knight also offers an array of inventive sub-weapons and level gimmicks, excellent boss fights, and a surprisingly engaging story. The outcome is a fantastic experience from start to finish.
5. Crypt of the NecroDancer
Crypt of the NecroDancer is an exercise in controlled madness. Its mash-up of roguelike and rhythm mechanics should, by standard logic, be a flaming disaster. Instead, it clicks into a mesmerizing trance. Mostly, this is thanks to the thoroughness of its execution. No mechanic escapes from the genre clash without some level of novelty; status effects screw with the beat, loot drops are improved with a healthy timing streak, and later levels can ramp up the challenge simply by increasing the tempo. Additionally, the incredible variety and ingenuity of enemy types keep the gameplay fresh and addictive, and the small, dense level structure minimizes the chance-based frustration of its roguelike component. Plus, the shopkeepers sing along to the awesome soundtrack, which is something I didn't know I wanted until I had it.
Let's shoo the elephant from the room: Undertale looks terrible. It looks like an NES game, and even that might be a bit insulting to NES games. Ugliness aside, though, Undertale is amazing, and everyone should play it. It totally defies categorization. Structurally, it's a JRPG, but with 50% of its combat taking the form of a stylized bullet hell, that's not remotely adequate. The genre-warped gameplay is moderately engaging, but it's the writing and narrative that give the game its classic status. It's one of the funniest and most touching games ever made, while simultaneously housing the potential to be profoundly unnerving. Yet it never feels disjointed, partly because these tonal possibilities are largely decided by the player's choices, and partly because the game is absurdly self-aware. It's rare to play a game that has something to say, and Undertale outdoes the entire industry by having more to say on the nature of game mechanics and the player/protagonist relationship than Metal Gear Solid 2 and Spec Ops: The Line combined.
3. Her Story
I agonized for some time about Undertale's position on this list relative to Her Story. Apart from being highly unorthodox story-based games and homages to older titles, there's no common ground to compare the two on. However, Undertale's Mother-inspired visuals had no artistic merit – they were just bad. Her Story, on the other hand, quickly justifies its 90s FMV style in-story, making it quite bearable – atmospheric, even. Of course, that's not all the game offers. Its story is a perfect example of "open to interpretation" done right: it provides multiple concrete explanations, none of which quite align to the events we understand, creating a unique sweet spot between acceptable closure and lingering mystery. Furthermore, while the story itself is reasonably interesting, the "database search" structure makes discovering the story especially engaging. Throw in some effective symbolism and ranged acting (both of which video games need more of), and you have an exceptionally thought-provoking title.
2. Circa Infinity
Word of mouth is a powerful force in this industry. When a game remains totally obscure, it's usually its own fault. Not so with Circa Infinity. This game is brilliantly simple fun that just happened to fly under everyone's radar. As a "circular platformer", comparisons are immediately drawn to Super Hexagon, and these aren't unfounded, but it's so much more than another game's clone. It features a variety of enemy types arranged into immaculate constructions that reward speed and creative maneuvering. It features inventive and thoroughly explored mechanics that spice up later levels. It features hypnotic visuals, maddeningly addictive music, and memorable, experimental boss confrontations. It may not be as high-minded as the last two games I've listed, but it offers the most instant gratification and unexpected player absorption of any game I've played this year.
1. Ori and the Blind Forest
It's going to be a long time before another game is released that exemplifies beauty as completely as Ori and the Blind Forest does. The world it portrays – and the lavish art style and excellent audio that bring it to life – is a wondrous creation on its own. The narrative has all the distilled poignancy of a Disney classic. And most importantly, the gameplay and level design form a work of supreme elegance. Movement alone is engaging in Ori and the Blind Forest, because every artistic and technical decision that went into the game reinforces the protagonist's agility. Combat is 90% elaborate dodging technique, and in lieu of boss encounters, major areas close with harrowing, minutely crafted escape sequences. Lastly, the perfect controls provide absolute precision, even as the player's ability arsenal expands to offer nearly unlimited freedom of exploration. Any one of these facets would be the major selling point of a lesser game, but here, they're just fractions of a masterful whole.
Honorable Mentions: Axiom Verge, The Beginner's Guide, Hand of Fate, Homeworld Remastered, The Magic Circle, Xenoblade Chronicles X