In 2016, hundreds of my hours were spent focusing on how not to die in video games. I failed at that task multiple times. That’s nothing new. In most cases, I managed to survive to see their respective end credits roll. In those life and death cycles, thank goodness good music scored my successes and failures.

My 2016 plan was to write at least one article per week to spotlight whatever game I was playing—whether new or old. The result was mixed. There were some games I didn’t talk about at all, and a couple I started that I haven’t finish quite yet but I intend to. The following 10 games are the ones I loved the most.

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Some may have had more memorable soundtracks than others but as music and sound are important to any gaming experience, I’m giving them their due too, even if the music may not have necessarily enriched the game’s overall greatness in a largely dynamic way.


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel | Trails of Cold Steel II

I began the year as I ended the previous—playing the first game in the Cold Steel series. This installment ended on an insane cliffhanger involving mechas and madness. In June, I happily got a preview of Cold Steel II and the game, which released in early September, turned out to be one of my favorites in 2016. It continued a personalized perspective of war, friendship, magic and those aforementioned bad-assed mecha (which, unfortunately, turned out to be the least interesting things in Cold Steel II from a gameplay perspective, but such is life).

Other JRPGs have large soundtracks that excite as much as their locales. They’re commanding, sweeping and charged with operatic emotions. Trails of Cold Steel has those moments, too. But some of its best pieces touch players in a real, down to earth way. My favorite was feel good. It was hopeful and it soared. While Cold Steel II’s soundtrack echoed many of the same songs of the first game, this particular track captures the second game’s spirit of resolve as demonstrated by its cast, Class VII.


Bastion

It took me 5 years to play this game because I am a terrible person. To drive home the point of just how terrible, I didn’t buy the soundtrack until a month ago even though I played the game back in April. That was some unnecessary torture but now I’m set, and thank goodness. Re-listening these past few days reminds me how great and sobering this game is. It’s depressingly relevant for 2016 in some of its themes—Racism. Xenophobia. Fear. Environmental destruction.

It’s a tough one to listen to now given all that’s been happening in our real world. But it also ends on a note of uncertainty and wistful hope. Its end theme, “Setting Sail, Coming Home” layers the push and pull between the game’s talking points of what’s wrong, what’s right and what’s unknown. It’s gorgeous and leaves me in ruins.


Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair

Danganronpa’s a hard series for me to get through because 1) I sometimes lack the patience for investigative, logical gameplay and 2) the series has the power to induce anxiety. This year, I played Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair with hesitation. I knew it’d be great but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to deal with grizzly murders. Monokuma’s a grizzly...right? Getting over that obstacle meant I was fortunate enough to experience madness.

Danganronpa 2 is utterly stylish, depraved and brilliant. Its music may not be particularly standout for listening on its own but during gameplay, it adds to the heightened sense of dread.

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And then I watched the anime to conclude the series, and *spoiler* wouldn’t you know? I was alright with a happy ending. It’s shocking that it got one, as bittersweet as it was. More shocking was that I was okay with it having been taught to steel myself to the series’ inevitable sadness.

I’m sure the new game series in 2017 will have me cringing all over again, and I look forward to it.


Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

I learned with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception that I shouldn’t get excited about the series. In theory, anyway. It’s not that Uncharted 3 was a bad game—it’s just that I had poured too many expectations into it and it failed to live up to that. With Nate’s final adventure, I tried my best to temper feelings ahead of release. What I got was a game that taught me I could enjoy stealth even though an earlier entry in the series gave me a strong aversion to that mechanic. And I put stock in the belief that maybe the ending would leave me in tears. I won’t tell you what happened if you haven’t played, and I’ll leave it at that.

The gloomy, mysterious and almost triumphant spin on Nate’s theme with “Nate’s Theme 4.0" signaled the beginning of the end, and it hit me hard. Even though the world of Uncharted will continue with the recently announced adventures of Chloe and Nadine, for me, it’s over now. Thanks for some fantastic moments in gaming Nathan, Elena and Sully.


Yo-kai Watch

I love Level-5, and I love elements of the supernatural and folklore in my storytelling (though I hate horror movies). I’m less accepting of monster-catching motifs in games. The Pokémon games of the world don’t really appeal to me. It’s less the monsters and more the lack of story that makes me not love those games.

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Yo-kai Watch does the opposite.

There’s a built world with a neighbourhood that feels tangible, as do the protagonist and his small circle of friends and his everyday life. It’s not a unique story overall. But smaller stories of lives being affected by the supernatural and incorporated folklore which shape and explain everyday weirdness has its charm.

There’s a very real feeling to the world of Yo-kai when looking at its simple shops and business establishments rooted in realism. Accompanying this is a soundtrack that’s built on the natural sounds of a Summer adventure with a touch of goofiness and the mystery that Yo-kai represent.


Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

Dragon Quest VIII comes out in a few weeks—the beloved entry in the series that everyone talks about. To tell you the truth, I don’t recall having a fondness for it. I’m looking forward to playing it again after all these years, and will hopefully have a new appreciation for it. But it’s going to have to be extremely creative coming off my playthrough of Dragon Quest VII.

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This year, I fell in love with Dragon Quest all over again. With every entry I play, I remember how great a series it is. I’m also reminded of how sluggish and annoying it can be. Dragon Quest VII’s greatness is held back some by its frequent encounters but its individual stories of a world in trouble make for amazing storytelling. It handles time travel to tell that story in some of the most gut-wrenching ways possible.

Koichi Sugiyama’s signature sounds lovingly sends the story into fits of depression, too. Damn this game for making me emotional and having furious, weepy conversations with friends about soulless horses and unrequited love.


Picross 3D Round 2

During needed breaks from Dragon Quest VII’s insanely depressing tales, I played the relaxing (and okay, sometimes frustrating) Picross 3D. It’s not talked about too much around here but this game is really something special.

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Designed with charm in every freaking puzzle block, Picross 3D’s presentation upheld this simple principle. Finished puzzles revealed adorable wooden block 3D toy models, and the descriptions taught sweet lessons about the world’s objects and stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, or what shamos are. Too cute!

And the music? Its reminiscent of quaint afternoons spent at tea to peaceful strolls of nature. It’s necessary music to work some of its more complex brain teasers before unveiling hidden gems within every puzzle.


Dragon Quest Builders

Here’s a game that may have flown under your radar but it really shouldn’t. It almost flew under mine. Minecraft meets controlled, story-driven and goal-oriented quests? Well, part of that sounded good to me and it’s not the part involving Minecraft.

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As it turns out, a little bit of direction goes a long way. For me, this is something Minecraft lacks which prevents me from understanding its appeal. Dragon Quest Builders, on the other hand, provides a sense of purpose and is an enjoyable romp with a JRPG twist.

For a month or more beginning mid-October, I played this game with my sister. We spent many lonely nights and days in-game suffering to restore light to a forsaken world. She built our ruined towns to their former glory, and I battled the series’ famed monsters to collect their precious natural resources (sorry slimes but I really needed the goo for reasons I’d rather not talk about too much). We both loved the implied sass that came out of the protagonist’s mouth. We may have rolled our eyes at the demanding villagers who visited our banners of hope.

Dragon Quest Builders suffered a few snafus. Dedicated multiplayer would have been fun but understandably absent given how involved and personal the story is (and man, in typical DQ fashion it was a complete tragedy), and combat could be improved (games that deal damage to your character when you walk into them are a problem, especially when close combat is generally required as it becomes needlessly annoying). But little issues aside, the game was purely fun. I don’t think there was anything else I played this year that gave me such a good time, hours of bonding, and a lasting impression.

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Musically, it’s classic Dragon Quest. 30 years of adventure in sound. Grand, and sometimes overbearing. Beautiful, sullen, and other times, perfectly buried in the background for routine tasks of crafting and combating.


Paper Mario: Color Splash

I make no apologies for liking this latest entry in the Paper Mario series. For a few weeks, when life was even more trying than usual, Color Splash gave me an easy, feel good experience. I could shut off my brain and enjoy some incredibly clever humor and genuinely interesting levels in a comforting, known universe with overly sassy Toads and some damned creepy shy guys. Modern, relevant, reflective and funny—Color Splash brightened those days when so much felt pointless.

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It was intelligently written with an ending that was surprisingly touching, and all along the way I got to admire the antics of the Koopalings. I don’t dispute that it had a weird card battle system. But it seemed tailored to bringing out the best of the Koopalings and man, their personalities were large and ridiculous. The scenarios were fun and the music tied it all together.

Honestly, what’s not to love about Lemmy’s circus theme?


Final Fantasy XV

Technically, I can’t say yet if this is one of the best things I’ve played in 2016. I’m on chapter 8, and on my 70th hour with no hurry to progress the story as I’m having a great time just seeking sidequests in Final Fantasy XV’s world. That makes it great fun as is but I’ll wait until the end to make a sound determination.

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What I can say is that I’m loving the simple and should-be-mundane things this game offers. I’m still cruising along listening to some tunes with my friends in the car. Sometimes it rains and the top goes back up. Sometimes it’s sunny and the top comes down. I haven’t heard that much of the soundtrack, and what I have heard has been on repeat for the past few hours.

Some songs have become background noise, some have stood out as grating (sorry, Hammerhead). It’s strange listening to Final Fantasy songs past while driving around. So far, I think Final Fantasy X’s soundtrack fits in well with the scenery but there’s something so endearing about listening to Final Fantasy V’s soundtrack with the four friends together.

There are a couple of Final Fantasy XV songs that helps me realize how very different this experience is from previous games (given I haven’t played FFXIV and can’t speak to that one). At night, when approaching danger and ultimately danger spotting Noctis and crew, it’s actually creepy before launching into a thrilling battle sequence. It was so nerve-wracking at first when I was trying to wrap my head around this new approach to Final Fantasy. I’m looking forward to other surprises and differences I can find as I play.


That’s it for 2016. Next year, I hope to laugh and think as much as I did this past year as I did with these games. Thus far, it’s seemingly shaping up to be a good one with NieR: Automata, the hopes of Nintendo Switch on the horizon, and Persona 5 slated to launch West in the Spring.

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I know they’ll all have some great music to listen to as well. And I can’t wait.


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Follow N. Ho Sang on Twitter at @Zarnyx if you’re feeling adventurous, or you can read her articles here.