This year has been an odd one for the gaming industry. Although the annual sequels and franchise updates have been leaps and bounds over their predecessors – Titanfall 2 and Watch_Dogs 2, in particular – their sales have been slower than anticipated.
We imagine this has left many publishers baffled. If vastly improved sequels to renown franchises aren’t selling, then what do gamers want? Something fresh and new is arguably one valid response to that question.
Luck would have it that 2016 saw a fair few games released that have since fallen into ‘hidden gem’ status. Some are franchises, others provide something unique. We’ve rounded up six you may have overlooked:
Thumper – PS4/PC
We have to hand it to Sony – they managed to launch the PSVR with an impressive amount of titles. So many, in fact, that some were shunned in favour of the more publicised likes of Batman VR, RIGS and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.
Thumper is one such title, and that’s even though it isn’t a PSVR-exclusive. Those not wanting to invest in fancy headwear can indulge in this trippy ‘rhythm violence’ affair too.
This kaleidoscope of colour borrows elements from Audiosurf and Amplitude but still has its own identity; it’s an assault on the senses that’ll push you to the limits. There’s an eerie and sinister atmosphere present, making it an experience that’s impossible to forget. This is mostly since you’re playing for sheer survival, rather than mere melody making. The hellish backdrops only heighten the sense of dread further.
Alongside Rez Infinite, Thumper is one of the finest PSVR showcases. It’s sad to think that both have probably been outsold by the mediocre PlayStation VR Worlds.
Mount & Blade: Warband – PS4/Xbox One
Talk about belated – this open world role-player made its PC debut in 2005, and as such was likely a candidate for an Xbox 360/PS3 release at some stage. That never happened; instead it made a stealth appearance on Xbox One and PS4 over the summer, arriving for around the £15 mark.
That price tag helps to forgive the visual shortcomings. With no improvements whatsoever over the 11-year-old original, it looks positively passé. Less forgivable is the fact that the menus haven’t been altered for a joypad set-up, but this is the only major complaint. In a bizarre way, the dated visuals do benefit the game somewhat – loading screens last mere seconds, even when entering large towns.
This is a hugely ambitious adventure, giving the chance to lead the life of a medieval warlord as you see fit. Unlike so many obscure European RPGs, it manages to make good on its promise. You’re free to help villagers, ransack bandit hideouts, embark on special missions for the King and more, all while boosting the size of your army to colossal proportions.
Combat is where Warband shines the most – the game engine can handle countless characters on screen at once, leading to some messy and pleasingly chaotic encounters. Weapons feel suitably different to one another, and there’s tact to the combat. It’s vital to time and aim strikes with precision, while also blocking fatal blows.
These large-scale battles translate well to the multiplayer mode, offering castle sieges with war towers and such. Storming a castle with 30 other players provides a rush no other game in 2016 has managed to beat. Charge!
Darksiders: Warmastered Edition – PS4/Xbox One
We planned to review this remake, but with time and resources constantly against us, it ended up slipping off the agenda. For the record though, it would have received either a 7 or an 8. Just don’t ask us why THQ Nordic decided to remake Darksiders II before the original.
As remakes go, this one is handled superbly, running as smoothly has a hot knife through butter. The visual improvements are remarkable too – instead of resembling a game from 2010, it now looks closer to an early current-gen title. Quite reminiscent to Lords of the Fallen, if we had to name a comparison.
Which begs the question, if THQ Nordic can give their older games a complete technical and visual overhaul and give them a physical re-release at the impulse buy point of £15, then why can’t other developers? Just look at how many big-name publishers have put out sloppy re-releases knocking on for almost full price recently. Activision is the biggest offender here, with their shoddy Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Deadpool and Prototype re-releases. But let’s not forget Batman: Return to Arkham either, or the hilariously poor Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection.
Anyway, we digress: Darksiders is a decent Zelda-alike, with a robust feel and satisfying hack and slash combat. The voice acting is also of note, with Mark Hamill playing the part of The Watcher, a sharp-tongued serpent-like creature that helps keep our hero War on the right track.
We tipped Darksiders: Warmastered Edition to break into the UK top 20, but sadly it didn’t even manage to make the individual format charts, let alone the top 40. It may have fared better on the digital services, though. Like we said, the £15 asking price puts it in impulse buy range. The next game on this list fared better and is also from THQ Nordic. Only a little better, mind…
Warhammer: Vermintide – PS4/Xbox One
Despite decent reviews, mostly clocking it at around the 8/10 mark, Vermintide made its UK top 40 debut at a lowly #34 before vanishing entirely the very next week. While that’s a higher position than Darksiders managed, THQ Nordic probably had this one pipped for a top 20 appearance given the fact that Warhammer is more popular these days than ever.
Still, and again like Darksiders, it’s likely this one performed better on the digital services – it was available at a reduced price to pre-order, making it a few quid cheaper than the physical release. The beta proved popular, so it’s easy to imagine Vermintide’s sales mostly being digital.
It’s impossible to talk about Vermintide without mentioning Valve’s Left 4 Dead, so we may as well blurt it out now: it’s incredibly similar to Left 4 Dead. It’s a four-player co-op affair with long levels, and mission objectives that include fetching barrels and provisions and bringing them back unscathed. They’re the kind of missions that focus on teamwork, with one member doing the legwork while other watch their back. Not from zombies in this case, but bipedal rat men.
Rat folk attack and surround our heroes – which vary from a witch hunter to a dwarf – in great number but go down easily, with limbs and blood spewing all over the place as you hack them to bits with swords, axes, hammers and more. That’s the other major difference to L4D – it favours melee combat over ranged. Rifles and pistols do still feature, however. Vermintide gives the best of both worlds.
A weapon upgrade system holds the whole thing together, with a new piece of armour or new weapon gained at the end of each stage, much like Destiny. Duplicates can be melted down at the forge and turned into raw elements for further upgrades, while trinkets give small boosts to defence and luck to help give characters that personal touch.
To top it all off, Vermintide is something of a looker. Character models are detailed, fire and other elemental effects are exemplary, and the frame rate holds steady even when dozens of rat men are trying to gnaw you to death. It’s not quite the ‘Triple A’ production we described it as in our review, but it’s close, and easily one of the most impressive games THQ Nordic has published so far.
Kirby: Planet Robobot – 3DS
Nintendo spent the first part of 2016 slowly plodding along at their own pace, propelling themselves back into the limelight only once every few months with games like Fire Emblem Fates, Yo-Kai Watch and Star Fox Zero. While Kirby: Planet Robobot arrived to excellent reviews – even gaining a few 9/10s – it was quickly forgotten about. Dare we say even as quickly as Metroid: Federation Force.
So, here’s your reminder that Planet Robobot is the best Kirby game in years, if not ever. This is not just due to superb level design, but also the inclusion of a mech suit that makes the whole experience feel fresh despite retaining many traditional Kirby elements. While it’s easy to argue that Planet Robobot is on the easy side, it’s loaded with content including some nifty extras.
It’s likely a fair few gamers have picked up either a 3DS or 2DS recently off the back of Pokemon Sun/Moon hype. If your time in Aloha is coming to an end, consider Kirby as your next adventure.
Salt & Sanctuary – PS4/PC
This 2D tribute to Dark Souls is one of the highest scoring games of the year, outperforming the likes of Watch_Dogs 2, Deux Ex: Mankind Divided, Final Fantasy XV and Tom Clancy’s The Division on Metacritic. A Metacritic score of 84%, no less, which puts it inside the top 30 games of 2016.
Developer Ska Studios are pretty well-versed with 2D hack ‘n slash adventures, having worked on The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and its sequel, plus the cult classic Charlie Murder.This is arguably their finest work yet; a collimation of everything they’ve learnt and mastered thus far.
If From Software was tasked with transferring Dark Souls into 2D, the end result wouldn’t be far off what’s on offer here, both in terms of style and quality. It’s accessible yet holds great depth, and despite being in mere 2D it still provides plenty of scope for exploration.
Don’t add salt to taste; this is less of a side-dish and more of a main course. And a meaty one at that.