2016 was a big year for XBLA Fans, and to say we've been busy would be an understatement. Just shy of 150 indie games passed through our proverbial door for review with even more play tested for you by our hardworking Twitch streamers. To put those numbers into context, it's almost double the number of games we reviewed in 2015!
We also changed our review scoring system this year. With a lack of demos and trials on offer on the Xbox store, the old Buy It, Try It, Skip It wasn't really working anymore. It was time to shake things up with a new five-point scoring system (you can read a more detailed explanation here). While it's still helpful to our readers, it also made it much tougher for games to earn top marks and certainly gave our reviewers some hard decisions to make.
All of this, of course, makes it even more difficult for us to pick our favorites out of what has clearly been a strong year on Xbox One. So many games this year were easily GOTY contenders, but decisions needed to be made. After a lengthy vote from all our writers and streamers, we've come up with what we believe to be some of the very best indie games to hit Xbox One in 2016.
All right, no more fluff. Here are the big winners!
John Laster, Editor-in-Chief: Biggest Surprise can mean a lot of things. Inside probably had the single most surprising moment in a game, but to us, Biggest Surprise has always been the games we didn't expect to like that somehow wormed their way into our hearts. Licensed games traditionally have a bad reputation. Budget priced licensed games have an even worse reputation. When the licensed source material is questionable to begin with (the reboot didn't even last a full season), expectations on Gemini: Heroes Reborn were set chronically low. Somehow, despite everything that should be standing in the way of this game succeeding, a genuinely interesting game was created.
While it is far from perfect and often does have a budget feel, Gemini: Heroes Reborn shines. The game has some incredible time-shifting mechanics and solid enough telekinetic combat. The story was engaging for me even as someone who gave up on the Heroes universe after the brilliant first season. It's genuinely worth a look despite the often mediocre reviews. It's not the best game that came out last year, but it was surprisingly good.
John Carson, Contributor: There are many reasons why games are forgotten over the course of a year. In the case of Rebel Galaxy, much of the conversation around it happened in late 2015 when it was originally released on PC, although it wouldn’t be until January of 2016 that it hit consoles. Many months followed along with many games, and sadly Rebel Galaxy was left behind. Even though we have transitioned into a new year, almost 12 months since Rebel Galaxy launched on Xbox One, it remains one of the best space-faring games in recent memory.
Double Damage Games managed to make a beautiful, accessible space sim. Its bright, colorful cosmos is a joy to cruise through while jamming on the warp drive to reach the next objective or running from a scuffle that’s best not fought. A catchy blues-rock soundtrack accentuates being an outlaw space pilot doing what needs doing to make a credit or two. Captains have the freedom to attack ships and scavenge debris left in their wake, make deals with alien species, mine asteroids for valuables or be a regular ol’ cargo hauler. There are even ways to purchase, customize and upgrade ships to be more efficient in whatever role is necessary. Rebel Galaxy genuinely allows someone to be their ideal captain in an often dangerous and exciting cosmic frontier, and that’s enough reason to not leave this gem lost in space.
Nathan Hubler, Senior Staff Writer: Rocket League released in February but has stayed relevant for the entirety of 2016. The base mechanic, driving a car around an arena while attempting to hit the ball through the opposing team’s net, leads to intense matches and hours upon hours devoted to the game. I always found myself wanting to play just one more match regardless of if the previous game had been a win or a loss. One aspect that aids its multiplayer longevity is that there is always something new to learn and improve upon in Rocket League, regardless of whether it’s a player’s first game or their thousandth. And therein lies the game’s greatest strength — regardless of skill level the gameplay is a blast, but the ability to learn and truly get better at the game makes it one of the most rewarding multiplayer experiences on Xbox One this year.
Beyond being an amazing multiplayer experience, Rocket League also revolutionized multiplayer on Xbox One by being the first game to feature cross-platform multiplayer. It currently only supports playing with PC players, but there is still hope that the Playstation 4 edition will be drawn into the mix at some point. Rocket League also gave players a steady of stream of free updates and paid DLC throughout the year. New arenas and new game modes were added consistently, and they all offered a new twist on the classic Rocket League gameplay that fans love. In addition to a plethora of new game modes and arenas, Pysonix, the developer, steadily worked on technical improvements and bug fixes as well as improving features that were already included in the game, like camera control in spectator mode. They showed a commitment to their game that is unparalleled by most developers and gave players a reason to trust them. They also were willing to admit when something wasn’t working the way that they had hoped as demonstrated by when they removed Rocket Lab Arenas from rotation because they weren’t what they aimed for them to be. 2016 was an amazing year for Rocket League and its fans and there is little reason to doubt that 2017 will follow suit.
John Laster, Editor-in-Chief: I'll be the first to admit I need to play more of Hyper Light Drifter. While it can be a quite difficult game, Hyper Light Drifter is exceedingly beautiful, with a pixel perfect striking art style and a hauntingly deep soundtrack. Disaterpeace, whom you may recognize from the soundtrack to Fez, creates something so wonderful it stands alone in its own right.
I've had the soundtrack for Hyper Light Drifter on my PC for a few weeks now. It is hard to describe the feelings it evokes. The sounds are tranquil and soothing, yet often quite haunting at the same time. There is a sense of building progression that caps off wonderfully with "Chimera." Often mesmerizing and truly distinct, the Soundtrack to Hyper Light Drifter is exceptional and makes me want to go back and finish the full game.
Joe Pope, Contributor: A beautifully designed world where the environment and visuals are the primary focus has awarded this deep-sea adventure the title of Best Visuals of 2016. ABZÛ is entirely focused on exploring the vast ocean, discovering its many secrets and swimming along with some marine life. Based on real creatures and environments, the scenery is awe-inspiring and vibrant, teeming with life. This game makes it evident that sharp graphics and hyper-realistic visuals are not necessary to exude beauty — what makes ABZÛ stick out from the rest is the natural flow of bright colors and lighting contrasted by the darker depths of the sea. The diver swims alongside schools of fish, sea turtles, whales and more to uncover the hidden mysteries that lie beneath the water.
This game succeeds in its elegant simplicity. You can travel to the depths of the ocean, through ancient ruins and around reefs to casually enjoy the view. While it certainly is not a game for everyone, many will be able to appreciate the relaxing atmosphere it creates. There is not much of a story to the game, but there are several collectibles and hidden areas to add a little more depth (pun intended). ABZÛ is a simple game with a plethora of visually stunning elements and serene exploration. It is a gorgeous poetic journey, and that’s why it made the top of the list.
Matthew Smail, Senior Staff Writer: Layers of Fear might seem an odd choice for best narrative driven game due to its lack of dialogue and character interaction relative to the other candidates in this genre. Walking simulators often adopt this spartan approach, but Layers of Fear paints – literally as well as figuratively – such a dark, depraved picture of the tormented human soul that it is almost suffocating to play.
The game reveals its secrets slowly, as each layer of paint is applied to the protagonist's intended final masterpiece. Between each layer, the player weaves their way through the Victorian mansion that represents both his home and his decaying mind, and with each return to his study bears witness to his diminishing sanity and darkening mood.
Layers of Fear delivers a dark, cloying tale of ambition, neglect, madness and despair that is drip fed with near perfect timing. It does so with singular vision, through an exceptionally realized setting that is always affecting and often outright terrifying. It is not an exceptionally pleasant experience, but it is one to be savored.
Nathan Bowring, Senior Staff Writer: The Witness is a puzzle game without needless confusion. In the first moments of the game, the solution to every puzzle in the entire game is shown to you. Just look at a maze, then draw a line from the starting circle to the end. Although this simple act becomes increasingly challenging as the game layers on more rules with each passing board, the base idea always remains consistent. The brilliance of the game lies in how it teaches you each new trick without words or hand-holding, providing just enough context for you to reach the conclusion yourself. These lessons aren’t for nothing, as your skills will rather quickly face some difficult challenges. Every completed puzzle feels like a well-earned accomplishment, both a lesson learned and a small step towards the ultimate goal.
While you spend a lot of time staring at puzzle screens, the world around you is just as important. It’s a beautiful open world that lets you do things in any order, yet still manages to ramp difficulty in a linear manner. There’s always something to do right around the corner, so even if you’re ever stumped you’re never stuck. The key to unlocking every door will come from exploration as well as recollection and problem-solving. Environment and puzzles are constantly bleeding together, only making the world more important the more you play. The Witness is a beautiful game that manages to be clear and concise without sacrificing a good mind-bending challenge.
Nick Benjamin, Streamer: Doom was one of the few AAA titles I played to full completion for one reason: the pure and uninterrupted joy it brought me. The fast-paced action and nonstop joy of running and gunning hearkened back to the first Doom games. Why have a button to toggle run? Why only carry two weapons? Why have normal health pick ups? Doom took a leap back and grabbed the old fast paced run and gun action and ripped the modern FPS formula in half before chainsawing what was left to bits! It was a fresh take on the genre, and I hope to see a lot more of this in the coming years.
Right out of the gate you are given little to no setup outside of slamming a baddies head into a bedside and leaping naked to fight foes. Storytelling comes in bits and pieces outside of data logs. This gives it a non-intrusive way of storytelling that lets you read (or not read) at your pleasure and pushes you back to the fast paced gameplay as quick as possible. Doom's "Ultra Violence " take on an FPS is a very welcomed change from the norm. You are just a man, a gun and a chainsaw, battling your way through wave after wave of demon with one hell of an epic soundtrack.
Jill Randolph, Associate Editor: Unless you’ve been living under a rock for all of 2016, I feel that this game needs little introduction, but I will give you a brief one anyway. Hailing from the mighty Blizzard, Overwatch is an online multiplayer shooter played mostly in teams of six heroes. With 23 characters to choose from, there is a class for everyone.
Some people were a little put off by the original $60 retail price tag for the game since it does not have a campaign mode, but Blizzard made a point to deliver on the new content they promised throughout 2016. They introduced two new characters, one new map, a competitive mode and eventually an arcade mode that included 3v3, 1v1 and a randomized weekly brawl playlist.
Perhaps the biggest draws of the year though were the special events. Summer brought us the Olympic Summer Games with Lucioball. In the fall we were delighted by the Halloween Terror event featuring Dr. Junkenstein’s Revenge (and some super awesome skins for Mercy and Reaper that sadly I never unlocked). Finally, Overwatch finished out the year with their Winter Wonderland event featuring Mei’s Snowball Offensive.
A unique play style not often seen in AAA games combined with special events and tons of unlockables makes Overwatch one of the most addictive games to come to consoles in a while, pushing the concept of games as a service to the next level. That being said, 2016 was a great year for Overwatch, and I don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon.
David Rosen, Contributor: Six years ago, in a landscape dominated by first person shooters and all the other kinds of same-old, same-old games, a side-scrolling platformer came out of seemingly nowhere filled with simple yet perfect puzzles, breathtaking visuals and a world that sucked you in and stuck with you long after you finished playing. Playdead's Limbo has been imitated countless times in the years that followed, so a lot was riding on the small studio's ability to follow it up with something remarkable.
From the first E3 teaser, it was pretty clear that Inside was going to hit the mark, but who knew it would be THIS good? The game toys with expectations of a follow-up (or is it a sequel… or a prequel… the jury is still out), while also giving fans what they want – mainly even better graphics, a world filled with all kinds of wonder and a-ha moments and perhaps most importantly, that ending. It's been six months and I'm still thinking about that ending… maybe it's time for my 3rd play-through?
XBLA Fans' GOTY image designs by Jennifer Sewill