Biggest Surprises of 2016 (So Far)

You know, when I picked up Hyrule Warriors on Wednesday, I actually wasn’t convinced I would like it. I hadn’t played a Legend of Zelda game to completion, I had only ever played one Dynasty Warriors game in the past (and that was because a then-friend came around to my place and had me play it), I hadn’t been that sold on Samuri Warriors (a sister franchise to Dynasty Warriors) when I picked up Samurai Warriors: Chronicles a month ago and I knew in advance that the game has a lot of love from fans of the franchise, effectively meaning that, if I didn’t like it, I was going to be in for a world of pain.

Yet, surprisingly, the game might actually end up being one of my favourite games of the year. I’m not THAT far into it at the time of writing, I’ll admit, but the game truly feels like an impressive reinvention of the franchise through the formula of another one and it is hard not to enjoy it, at least in my eyes.

This got me wondering what other stuff I have discovered this year which I’d say truly surprised me and I figured that I’d use this week to share them with you. This isn’t a ranked article, or anything like that, just a list of the works of art (and not even necessarily new ones) which I hadn’t been sure I’d like only to be really impressed by them when I actually gave them a shot. You can give these works of art a shot if you want or you can completely ignore them, but, for me, these are the works which made me look at entertainment in a whole new light, whether on a larger scale or just making me go “Yeah, you know what, this is actually pretty good for something I don’t usually check out!”

Dead or Alive: Dimensions

I probably could have put the entire fighting game genre on here if I’d wanted to, but Dead or Alive had the biggest hurdle to overcome with me, as I was well aware of the franchise’s strong use of fanservice in their characters and hadn’t been that impressed with it taking that route on a personal level, and I would argue that it did the best overall with me, as it has probably my favourite combat system out of all of the fighting games I have on my 3DS (it’s a really fluid system that moves very quickly and feels as intense as you’d expect from a fighting game) and, despite a few criticisms (the story mode is pretty weak, the tag team mode can be ridiculously difficult if you have the AI to team up with rather than a friend and I find the counters a bit overpowered in terms of their damage), it actually holds up as a truly great fighting game in its own right, to the extent that I’d argue it is one of the strongest portable fighting games I’ve ever played (with the possible exception of Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS). Not bad going for a game which cost me about a fiver!

Incidentally, this one could count for another two people as well, as I got copies for two friends (one of them a huge fan of Tekken who hadn’t really given Dead or Alive a proper shot before then and the other a Dead or Alive fan who was a few installments behind on it) and both felt it stood up really well as well! So yeah, if you have ever wanted to get into fighting games and don’t particularly want to go for Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS, this is probably the best starting point available!

Valkyria Chronicles

I first heard about this game through its review by Yahtzee for his show Zero Punctuation and what I heard from it originally put me off the game so much that it was only when I found the game going really cheap during a Steam sale that I finally picked it up to find that it was actually a really good game that he had unfairly torn apart. I’m sure that most people who have heard of this game are already familiar with it, but I’ll fill you in all the same. Essentially a turn-based strategy game where you move your units in a third-person view, the game is one of those hybrid systems which you wouldn’t think would work on paper, but actually works brilliantly once you adjust for it. Combine this with a great variety of main characters, a good challenge curve and a story that, while cliche as all hell on some levels (an invading empire which genocidal tendencies and unusual superweapons attacking another nation? Gee, I wonder what conflict that is a transparent retelling of…), nonetheless gets the core points across very well and you have a pretty underrated gem of a game that is truly worth the time to hunt down.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

While I could just leave this article’s Legend of Zelda discussion at Hyrule Warriors alone if I wanted to, I feel that I should also highlight a mainline game in the franchise as well which I’ve taken a shine towards, which brings me towards A Link Between Worlds. Probably not the first game that springs to mind whenever one thinks of the franchise, I’ll admit (especially considering that the 3DS has ports of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask as well which are arguably more worthy of your time if you’ve never played them due to the original’s reputations for being among the greatest games ever made), but it is hard to deny that this is still a really great game, with some truly imaginative puzzles and one of the coolest powers introduced in the franchise to date: the ability to merge with walls to cross gaps. If you haven’t played a handheld Zelda game and need a place to start with the franchise, then this is a pretty solid starting point!

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy

I will freely admit that one of my dream jobs as a child was actually that of a lawyer (I know, weird choice, but, if you know my past, it makes a lot more sense than it might seem at first glance), so the idea of playing a game where you actually take on the role of a defence attorney is one which appeals to me. However, I will also admit that I suck at puzzle and logic games, so I was expecting to find myself lost very quickly and having to give up playing the 3DS port of the original three games because I didn’t know how to beat them. Instead, what I discovered was a truly underrated gem of a trilogy that is strong enough for me to seriously consider giving the title of “favourite Capcom franchise” to Ace Attorney over my beloved Monster Hunter franchise (no small feat, considering my absolute love of the Monster Hunter franchise!). The games themselves are really solid, encouraging a lot of creative thought and logical deduction that makes the court trials so engaging, but combined with investigative skills that make the non-trial parts engrossing as well. Combine this with some great challenging testimonies, questions which makes you truly feel like you are solving challenging scenarios and enough twists and turns for the story to truly become an emotional roller coaster (ESPECIALLY the final case of the trilogy) and you have three great games bundled into one excellent package that will keep you busy for a good while. I will be continuing to play this franchise over the rest of 2016 (since there’s only six games to purchase overall in it thanks to the trilogy release of the original three games and I’ve already got Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth on order, so I just have three games after this before I’ve played the entire franchise!), so expect to read a lot of highly positive comments related to this franchise when I get a chance to continue past the original trilogy over the next week or so!

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D

Xenoblade is one of those games that seems to incur huge amounts of love from JRPG fans and for good reason, as it is one of the strongest JRPGs to be released for many years and the fact it was originally only released on the Wii, yet have a reputation for being one of the best looking games on the system and stands up well against games on more powerful systems is quite the technical marvel. The New 3DS port, while not quite as good looking as the Wii version, is still quite an impressive game (if not more so) when you consider that it is pretty much the Wii game with NO cut content: while the locations have been rebuilt from the ground up to better suit the system, it is still pretty much the same game, which is pretty impressive when you consider the difference in specs and whatnot between both systems. I was originally on the fence about getting this game, as I’d heard so much good about it that I was worried that it would fail to live up to expectations (especially since I had to upgrade to the New 3DS before I could play it, something I hadn’t particularly felt the need to do up until I found the Monster Hunter Generations New 3DS bundle) and I was concerned that what would happen would be that the game would end up feeling like the only good thing to come out of it was Shulk’s appearance in Super Smash Bros. (which, to be fair, IS really good: I’ve loved playing as Shulk so much in that that he’s actually ended up becoming one of my main’s in the game!), but it happily proved me wrong on that front! While one would certainly be advised to get the game on the Wii U eStore if you have the system, as it maintains the graphical quality of the original Wii version of the game, the New 3DS port is still a perfectly great game in its own right and is perfect for playing if you’re someone who is always on the move.

Project X Zone 2

Being honest, I wanted to include both the original game and its sequel in this slot, but I would say that the sequel is the better of the two overall and it is a self-contained game which means playing the original isn’t required, so I’m going with that. I originally got this game because I was in the middle of a Fire Emblem adoration period (still am, if I’m honest: I just haven’t played them for a while because I lent the games to a friend and haven’t received them back yet!) with no idea of what to expect and without recognising a good amount of the characters on the game’s artwork (already a bad start with a crossover game), so imagine my surprise when I found that my lack of knowledge was not only NOT a barrier for entry, but that the game was actually a really good one overall! Another game with a hybrid system, this time combining turn-based strategy with the timing and combat inputs of fighting games, this game does have problems (the combat system itself can become very repetitive in later missions due to how long they can last, it isn’t a particularly difficult game and the story makes very little sense if you think about it) and it is blatantly a game which is made to appeal to people familiar with games made by Sega, Namco Bandai and Capcom (and not necessarily the obvious ones either: some of them are from franchises that most people won’t have heard of outside of Japan!)…but it still is a really enjoyable game in its own right. While it isn’t going to be a game for everyone (and it’s certainly one that is going to require you to already have some familiarity of the franchises representated to get the most out of it, although there is certainly no requirement to have this knowledge), it is still a fun enough experience for fans of turn-based strategy games to make it worth hunting down.

It’s also this game which introduced me to a bunch of characters from franchises which I have since gone on to check out and really enjoy, like Street Fighter, Tekken, Darkstalkers and Ace Attorney (yes, seriously), so this is probably the equivalent of a gamer’s version of Avantasia.

Little Battlers eXperience

This is a game which probably slipped by most people, but was a really fortunate find for me (as well as being another blind purchase, because I literally bought it based on how cool the cover art looked and it was going fairly cheap) and one that deserves more attention than it has received. Effectively a game where you take on the role of a young boy who has a toy combat robot and is fighting to become the world’s greatest mech command, this game is equal parts JRPG and hack-and-slash game, but pulls off the result incredibly well, with some excellent variety to it. While one would be forgiven for writing this off as a tie-in to something, it is actually not a tie-in at all and could be one of the biggest multiplayer surprises of the 3DS library, for it is capable of supporting six player combat, something few other games can boast in any handheld system, and is one of the few mech focused games on the system. The single player, however, is still a joy in its own right, so, if you are fond of mechs at all, have a 3DS system and find this game anywhere, then it’s definitely worth adding to your gaming collection!

NEKOPARA Vol. 1

This was something that I was a bit unsure of when I first checked it out, as I was unconvinced by the idea of a visual novel with catgirls and sexual content in it (I haven’t forgotten HuniePop and Momo!) and very nearly passed it over until a chance encounter with a person who loves catgirls convinced me to give it a try, which swiftly made me realise that I had almost passed over a potential gem of a visual novel franchise! I wouldn’t normally recommend a visual novel if it contains strong sexual content (since I try to keep my recommendations to stuff which isn’t going to raise too many eyebrows on the content), but I honestly would say that the Nekopara franchise has quite an interesting approach to it which makes it worthy of checking out, as it actually takes time to build up towards the sexual content and, despite some potentially iffy questions which might be raised (such as why a catgirl would fall in love with her master if she’s known him for many years and why catgirls aren’t put off by their sexual partners having multiple relationships ongoing at the same time), it is surprisingly well handled. While I would personally say that the first game in the series is probably my favourite one overall (hence why I’ve recommended that one), the whole franchise is really solid and worthy of your time if you like catgirls and aren’t put off by sexual content.

Divine Darkness by Crimson Moonlight

There were a couple of albums that I could have put here if I had wanted to, but the album that I felt I had to include here was the album that served as the real lightbulb moment with extreme metal and, in that regard, it was Crimson Moonlight who really made me realise for the first time what extreme metal was trying to do properly without compromising what extreme metal in general stood for. I would certainly say that this record was the first time I had heard an extreme metal record and, rather than my then-usual response of wanting to put something else on because I was bored, wanted to hear more. While other records have come up since which I listen to more than this one, I cannot overstate how important a record this was to me, for it was unambiguously black metal, but it had some recognisable melody to it which hooked me in from the start, essentially serving as the perfect jumping on point for a genre which I had simply written off as not being for me. It won’t change most people’s opinion on the genre, but I think that this is the record that I will labelling as the most important record of 2016 for my own personal musical development, because, without it, I probably would have not developed a taste for extreme metal at all.

Issues

I will freely admit that anything which has the nu-metal label attached to it usually gets immediately filed under “crap” in my mind. I know that there is an audience out there for nu-metal and, if that’s you, then good for you, but I personally don’t like nu-metal much even at the best of times. That said, three songs have reached my attention over the course of this year that have pleasantly surprised me: “Remember We Die” by Gemini Syndrome (which is arguably closer to alternative metal than nu-metal), “Primetime” by Keychain (which is pretty great) and my favourite, “Hooligans” by Issues. The band combine nu-metal, metalcore and top 40s music (three of my least favourite music genres) and manage to produce something that is, if you pardon my language, fucking awesome. They remind me a bit of Amaranthe in terms of what they are aiming to do (combine metal with mainstream influences), but they both have their own unique touches to them which help them to sound distinct from each other and they have sounds which are very unorthodox in general. While Issue’s second album DOES dial it back a little bit, I still find myself thinking that, much like Volbeat, Issues and Amaranthe are among the most important metal bands of our time and they have a lot of potential which I cannot help admiring them for. Not bad going for a band whose first response from me when I first heard about them was literally “Da fuk?”

Jewel of the Vile by Necromancing the Stone

This one, I’ll admit, was one which I wasn’t sure I was going to be convinced by when I first heard about it. After all, it’s a project by several musicians who are mostly known for their work in extreme metal working alongside some complete unknowns to make a speed/power metal record, which already seems like a poor decision because extreme metal musicians aren’t usually known for their strong melodic vocal hooks and previously well known musicians working with unknown musicians in a style of music that isn’t the one their usual fanbase is that fond of usually spells disaster very quickly to most people. Yet, surprisingly, Necromancing the Stone defies that by producing a really solid record that is really easy to recommend. Fast paced, energetic and with a vocal performance that, while not GREAT in comparison to the best of the genre, certainly gets the job done, this is a record that might not win over everyone, but is a surprise all the same at how well it actually does.

Fragments of Creation by Sunburst

Alright, I know this might be a rather predictable choice nowadays, considering my vocal love for this album, but bear in mind, when this first arrived in my inbox, all I knew was the description of it on the promo, which mentioned Conception, Dream Theater and Nevermore as comparison points. Which piqued my interest, but I couldn’t say that I was actually going into it expecting to love it, because Nevermore soundalikes tend to be pretty weak bands who are basically trying to capture what Nevermore did and failing to do anything except prove just how inimitable Nevermore were, I’m not all that fond of Dream Theater and I’ve never actually listened to Conception at all (it’s on the list, I’ll get to it eventually!). Such a thought process basically meant that, when I first started to listen to the record, I was actually half expecting to hear nothing of any interest. Needless to say, I was REALLY wrong with that assumption, as my frequent mentions of the record over the course of the last year will have proven alone!

So there you go, my surprises of 2016 so far. I would say that I don’t think there’s more potential to surprise me this year, but I know that I’m planning on picking up Resonance of Fate, Yo-Kai Watch, Bravely Default and its sequel, the God Eater games, Cross Edge and Final Fantasy Explorers if I get the chance before the end of the year (all of which could go on to surprise me, as I’m not entirely sure how good they’re going to be) and I’m curious to check out Metroid Prime: Federation Force despite my lack of familiar with the Metroid franchise (if only because I want to see if Next Level Games truly screwed the game up as badly as the fandom is claiming or whether it’s a game that would have been acceptable had it not been for the Metroid name being put on it), not to mention that there’s still some music releases which I am hoping to get an opportunity to check out before the end of the year (such as Babymetal and the upcoming Metallica album), so who knows, maybe this year still has some cool tricks up its sleeve…