As 2016 continues to slip through our fingers, September brought us a rather eclectic mix of games. In addition to our picks for Game of the Month, you should also check out the gleefully silly courtroom drama of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice and the souped-up, stunningly gorgeous sports cars of Forza Horizon 3. There's also the stellar spatial reasoning of Picross 3D Round 2 to puzzle through. Unfortunately, ReCore missed the mark by muddling good platforming segments with a laborious open-world desert, and the XCOM 2 console port pales in comparison to the PC version.
Every month, we pick two games from our multitude of reviews that stand above the rest, and add them to our best games of 2016 list, getting our full recommendation no matter what type of games you enjoy. If you're already looking forward to all the highly anticipated new games of 2016, playing these excellent titles should tide you over until then.
Game of the Month Sept. (Runner-up): Destiny: Rise of Iron
While it might not bring the same monumental glut of new content as last year’s Taken King, Destiny: Rise of Iron knows that expanding Destiny isn’t really about the concrete number of new ‘things’ you bring to the table. It’s about how carefully you weave them into the existing MMO ecosystem, how they resonate, and multiply, and evolve the possibilities. And in that respect, Rise of Iron’s new quests, bounties, vast, consummately explorable patrol map, game-changing Iron Lord Artifact perk system, and lashings of new loot do a splendid job.
Of course, it helps that the new ‘physical’ content is uniformly excellent too. While a little too brief, the campaign is probably the best chunk of story-driven FPS Bungie has made since Halo: Reach. The new Crucible PvP mode, Supremacy, is a glorious blend of strategy, anarchy, and high-flying carnage, and the new and remixed Strikes are a fantastic carnival of co-op fun. Also, a new Raid, anyone?
Game of the Month Sept. (Winners): NBA 2K17, PES 2017, FIFA 17 (three-way tie)
It's a good time to be a sports game fan. Annual sports titles are typically measured in incremental improvements, but these three sports sims offer such a wealth of polished gameplay that it's borderline ridiculous. Virtual basketball has never looked better than in NBA 2K17, which continues the series' trademark excellence with a staggering amount of content. The bevy of gameplay options may initially overwhelm new players, but it's ultimately a game that "can be genuinely enjoyed by anyone and everyone."
Meanwhile, aficionados of the original football have two great options (though you may as well just get both): PES 2017 and FIFA 17. The former achieves staggering realism with its revamped physics and controls, make it the most replayable Pro Evolution Soccer since the PS2 days. And the latter enjoys an incredible sense of atmosphere thanks to the attention to small details and the move to the Frostbite engine, and the choice-laden story mode entitled The Journey is worth taking. If you're partial to the endlessly replayable sports titles, this month offers more game than you could possibly play through in 30 days' time.
Game of the Month August (Runner-up): The King of Fighters 14
SNK, one of the elder statesmen of Japanese studios, is looking to get back to its roots of dominant arcade gameplay - and judging by The King of Fighters 14, it's off to a fantastic start. Maybe you played the original KOFs on those giant red cabinets back in the day, joined the party recently with KOF 13, or have an appreciation for fighting games but never dipped into the series - whatever the case may be, KOF 14 will do right by you. It delivers everything a stellar fighter should, with tightly tuned mechanics, a bevy of colorful characters, and a full suite of features available right out of the gate.
Players assemble a team of three fighters from the 50-strong roster to duke it out in a series of 2D, one-on-one duels, utilizing complex combo strings made possible by MAX Mode or simply focusing on the fundamentals and peppering in some flashy, drop-dead-easy Rush combos. KOF 14's balance of intricate depth and inviting accessibility feels just right, and the mix of a new 3D look and endearingly old-school presentation is a hit. As fighting games go, this one's a champion.
Game of the Month August (Winner): Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
They say if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and it seems like the mantra Eidos Montreal took to heart when crafting Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the follow-up to 2011's superb Human Revolution. Taking place two years after the events of that game, Mankind Divided continues the adventures of augmented Matrix aesthete Adam Jensen as he continues to dig into worldwide conspiracies while governments across the globe are segregating and persecuting augmented individuals, seeing them as something less than human. While Mankind Divided's larger themes and story moments fall flat, its smaller gameplay-focused moments are some of the best in the series.
Mankind Divided wears its video gamey-ness proudly, and the Prague it presents is densely layered and full of opportunities to navigate neon-lit streets and underground tunnels however you see fit. Kit yourself out for combat, arming yourself to the teeth with shotguns and gas mines, or opt for silent, non-deadly infiltration options by picking augments that let you sneak by enemies without making a sound. Additional augments twist an already deep bench of tools and toys even more, allowing you to equip yourself with remote hacking abilities, launchable blades, or a Tesla gun that can take down up to four opponents (relatively) peacefully. Mankind Divided is a stealthy, cyberpunk playground, offering its biggest rewards to those who seek them out.
Game of the Month July (Runner-up): Headlander
Double Fine's always been known for its quirky, inventive worlds, from exploring the minds of the bizarre characters in Psychonauts to Brutal Legend's heavy-metal wonderland, and Headlander is definitely no exception. It's dripping with '70s style, evocative of the best sci-fi movies of the era, plastered in psychedelic colors, analog gadgets, and disco balls. But for the first time in what seems like forever, Double Fine's crafted a game whose gameplay actually lives up to its one-of-a-kind aesthetic.
In Headlander, you play as a disembodied head, jetsetting around a space station inhabited by the last remnants of humanity who have had their consciousnesses uploaded into robot bodies. They live without a care in the world, but it's a false peace, and you'll have to rip the skulls off the robots you come across and 'headland' onto them to explore Headlander’s Super Metroid-inspired map and solve its clever puzzles. It's a little rough in spots - combat's finicky and some sections are a bit frustrating - but its foundation is solid enough that Headlander never feels like it's merely coasting on its admittedly good looks.
Game of the Month July (Winner): Monster Hunter Generations
The Monster Hunter series is just as dense as the giant hunks of meat its hunting heroes scarf down: every proverbial bite is chock full of rich combat and succulent character customization, making for a dense, thoroughly satisfying action RPG feast. Like any large meal, it can look awfully intimidating to onlookers, but Monster Hunter Generations makes the formidable mechanics welcoming to beginners, while adding the kinds of refinements that give franchise veterans even more ways to play.
The former is handled through comprehensive tutorials and the new Prowler mode, which lets newbies dip their toe into the demanding combat by joining the fray as those adorable, cat-like Palicos. Meanwhile, experts will appreciate the specialized Hunter Styles that tweak your moveset for significant playstyle changes, as well as the super-move-like Hunter Arts. No matter where you sit on the Monster Hunter spectrum, be you beginner or battle-scarred, Generations is the most enticing Monster Hunter yet.
Game of the Month June (Runner-up): Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE
Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is an absolutely ridiculous name, but then again, the whole concept has been from the start. It combines the turn-based RPG battling of Shin Megami Tensei with the characters and weapons of Fire Emblem. Oh, and it's about a bunch of teens living in modern-day Japan, who use their talents to a) try to make a name for themselves as pop stars and b) save humanity from a demonic scourge. None of this should work, but it totally does, making for one of the most entertaining JRPGs to come along in a good, long while.
For one, its multiple difficulty settings and abundance of information make it incredibly player-friendly, especially for people not quite up to speed on Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE’s inspirational franchises. It's also just a really light, bubbly, energetic time. There may be bad things happening, but as long as our heroes have the power of friendship (and their expertly choreographed dance routines), everything will turn out just fine. It's peak anime, for sure, but its infectiously optimistic attitude will ensnare even the wettest of blankets. In fact, it's so good it'll almost make you forget the fact that Persona 5 isn't coming out until February 2017.
Game of the Month June (Winner): Inside
It's best that you go into Inside blind, taking this recommendation on pure faith with the promise of a memorable experience as your reward. But if you played 2010's Limbo, then you already have a sense for the kind of creeped-out, intrigued sensations you can expect. Developer Playdead is adept at crafting games that instill a series of stirring, sometimes uncomfortable sensations, rather than deliver a straightforward, clearly defined narrative.
Puzzle platformers don't get much more evocative than Inside, and while its obstacles are mechanically simple, its themes are grippingly enigmatic. The 'Are games art?' discussion has long been answered with a resounding "Yes", but Inside is a nice reminder of how effectively a game can convey a poignant vision. Like Limbo, Inside is shorter than most games, but it's sure to leave a lasting impression, whether or not you opt for multiple playthroughs in search of buried secrets.
Game of the Month May (Runner-up): Overwatch
Overwatch pulls off what seems impossible for most multiplayer shooters: promoting cooperation and rewarding teamwork while still giving individuals their own personal moments of glory. This team-based FPS employs the same winning formula as Team Fortress 2, where distinct roles and objective-based maps incentivize players to diversify their skills to bolster their allies. And you'll definitely want to try out every hero to see who suits you, because the characters in Overwatch's roster are all wonderfully unique and equally enticing in their own ways.
Perhaps the best part about Overwatch is that your happiness isn't directly correlated with your Kill/Death ratio (a metric that's meaningless to this particular shooter) or the final outcome of each match. Sure, victory always feels great - but even in defeat, you can still appreciate and even celebrate other players' contributions to their team, whether you fought beside them or against them. That kind of gratifying, altruistic feedback is the perfect hook to complement Overwatch's remarkably refined gameplay, ensuring that virtually any multiplayer FPS fan can sink countless hours into this beautiful, charismatic shooter.
Game of the Month May (Winner): Doom
Doom isn’t just a ferociously good FPS. It’s an intricate, deeply intelligent showcase of the genre’s very nature. Examining, exploring, and constantly escalating and reworking what the first-person shooter is on its most fundamental level, it delivers the most organic, affecting, potent and pure expression of it in years. At every moment, Doom feels alive, its fast, flowing, utterly freeform combat an ever-changing, omnidirectional frenzy made out of nuanced, intimate interactions.
Fighting in Doom is an ecosystem, every thoughtfully crafted demon, weapon, decision, and movement changing and reshaping the action profoundly. You’ll never be less than screamingly, air-punchingly exhilarated in the moment, but when the dust and entrails settle, you’ll be struck by how smart and insightfully considered it all is, how immaculately paced and fearlessly evolved, hour by hour. The campaign alone is a vital experience in both senses of the word, but beyond that there’s the spectacular and strategically layered multiplayer as well. And then there’s Doom’s glorious parting shot, SnapMap, a set of user-generated content tools that are as close to drag-and-drop game design as a suite of their power and versatility is likely to get. Even after you’ve rinsed out its immensely replayable, secret-packed campaign, Doom will have plenty to give you for a long, long time to come.
Game of the Month April (Runner-up): Ratchet & Clank
I had Ratchet & Clank downloaded on a Saturday afternoon. I had the game finished by late Sunday night. I was midway through my second playthrough on Monday evening. It's not a short game, either. I was just so enraptured by moving through its world, by levelling up my weapons, by finding its secrets, that I couldn't stop until I'd finished it. And then I immediately wanted to dive back in. These are not words I thought I would be writing about a mascot platformer in 2016, especially one that is a game based on a movie based on a game.
But that's because Ratchet & Clank walks the line between reboot, sequel, and homage almost flawlessly. It's effectively a retelling of the first game in the series (along with a few CGI cutscenes from the animated film for good measure), but it wraps in 14 years of level design, gameplay features, and weapons, making it a greatest hits collection as much as it is a reimagining of the series. Throw in a Challenge Mode, which lets you carry over your upgrade progress in a new game, and a surprisingly addictive trading card-based upgrade system, and you've basically got yourself one of the best Diablo clones in years - only this one lets you throw disco balls which causes enemies to dance uncontrollably.
Game of the Month April (Winner): Dark Souls 3
By now, you probably know whether or not FromSoftware's highly acclaimed action RPGs are for you, with their exacting difficulty, anxiety-inducing boss fights, deeply layered lore, and wide-open worlds that are gorgeous and treacherous in equal measure. But whether you're gearing up for a New Game+ run or just now cutting your teeth against Iudex Gundyr, it's apparent that Dark Souls 3 is an exceptional, engrossing experience and a fitting swansong for the entire Dark Souls series.
There's so much to do, see, and slay in the kingdom of Lothric, and it's all built upon a perfectly tuned combat system that encourages experimentation and rewards dedication. But it's the enemy and boss designs that make Dark Souls 3 so special: each encounter is meticulously designed to keep you on your toes, where caution or bravery might be punished or rewarded depending on the situation. You might feel all-powerful in one moment and start fearfully fleeing for your life in the next, but that's the beauty of Dark Souls - anything can happen, so you better come prepared. In addition to the rich exploration and tense action, there are plenty of nostalgic moments for series vets, a host of fascinating NPCs (with ludicrously complex sidequests, as expected), and FromSoft's distinct brand of online integration, where aggressive PvP, altruistic co-op, and messages both helpful or deceitful are all par for the course. It may not reinvent the Souls wheel, but Dark Souls 3 doesn't have to - this is simply more of what you love, refined even further.
Game of the Month March (Runner-up): Tom Clancy's The Division
Tom Clancy's The Division is a deep, deep game. Not only is there a whole mess of things to do in its virus-riddled version of New York, you can also spend hours and hours exploring a wealth of customization systems. And that's the true beauty of the game - it's full of ways to incrementally boost your character's stats, to make their loadout and abilities more suited to the way you want to play. Helps that the cover-based shooting is pretty handy too, thanks to a smart movement system and some lethal-feeling weaponry.
No, The Division isn't perfect. Its end-game is pretty dull, but thankfully more stuff is being added all the time. And if you tire of maintaining law and order in Manhattan, you can always head into the game's ace Dark Zone areas to grab sweeter loot and maybe get into a gunfight with other human players. Either way, there's enough good stuff here to keep you engrossed for 50+ hours, which makes The Division excellent value for your money.
Game of the Month March (Winner): MLB The Show 16
Baseball games don't get much better than this. MLB The Show 16 continues Sony's acclaimed slugger series in triumphant fashion, where every strikeout feels like a monumental feat, and a grand slam is just as glorious as in the real world. It's all about the details here: your pitcher's fatigue is tracked and actually factors into their throws, your team's morale will affect your performance during a season, and scouting new players is an impressively multifaceted process (while still being accessible).
As always, the franchise mode lets you sink dozens of hours into your favorite team, where management can be just as engaging and rewarding as gameplay. When it comes to the PS4-powered visuals, impressive rain effects and believable crowd reactions boost the realism to new heights. And when all the small details in The Show 16 are stacked on top on the stellar fundamentals, you've got one of the best sports exclusives on the market.
Game of the Month Feb. (Runner-up): Firewatch
Firewatch seems like a tranquil game at first. You control Henry as he heads into the Wyoming wilderness to make sure no one burns the place down over the summer. He's had a lot of life stuff going on lately, and this seems to be a good way to empty his mind and just focus on one day at a time for a bit. He spends his days staring out of a watchtower while Delilah, his supervisor and only form of human contact, exists only as a voice that pipes out of his walkie-talkie. Life finally seems like it's going to be nice and boring for once - but a disquiet simmers within the Wyoming forests like tinders in drybrush, and uncovering the mystery hidden in the woods provides Firewatch's biggest draw.
That palpable sense of tension is expertly delivered by its two leads. They talk, they banter, they question and doubt, and their friendship builds and grows realistically, even as it strains under the weight of their job and the bizarre events that unfold around them. The choices you make aren't life-altering in the typical sense - no branching paths or morality gates here - but they do alter the life of Henry, slowly filling in the cracks of his personality with details of your choosing. Firewatch, then, is a gripping tale about how we deal with the consequences of our actions that's equal parts suspenseful and grounded, and it'll keep you glued to your screen from its startling intro right up to its somber finale.
Game of the Month Feb. (Winner): Layers of Fear
You’re not really in any danger in Layers of Fear, the tale of a painter desperately trying to create the perfect portrait, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy. Favoring atmosphere over gore, Layers of Fear is still quite unsettling despite the fact that death at the hands of the mansion’s ghost may actually be a good option to pursue. The layers of the title don’t just refer to the paint being applied to the canvas, but also to the elements of the tragic family tale that unfold as you explore the house from top to bottom. So while your instincts may tell you to get as far from that specter as you possibly can, you may want to face that fear head on. Or, you know, not. She is really freaky.
The voice acting is seriously wanting, but the spookiness of Layers of Fear cannot be denied, and being able to explore the ever-changing layout of the house where so many bad things happened without worrying about having to restart at a checkpoint is a shivery treat. The game knows how to tell a great scary story, so even though it’ll take you more than one playthrough to uncover all three endings, you’ll never lose the tension that comes from knowing something disturbing may be just around the corner.
Game of the Month Jan. (Runner-up): Amplitude
If you've ever wanted to know what having musical synesthesia might be like - where hearing music can make you see colors and experience sensations of movement - Amplitude is your best bet. This crowdfunded revival of Harmonix best pre-Rock Band rhythm game positively shines on PS4, with vibrant colors, hypnotic visual effects, and the feeling of cruising through a tunnel formed from pure, harmonious sound.
The gameplay may look simple, with incoming patterns restricted to only three notes. But trying to maximize your score by switching lanes with your sonic-boom-blasting spaceship gets frantic, fast. Amplitude fosters friendly competition via leaderboards and hectic local multiplayer, and the song selection is full of invigorating jams and remixes of classic tracks. Best of all, the main campaign plays out like a techno-heavy concept album mixed with a campy rock opera.
Game of the Month Jan. (Winner): Gravity Rush Remastered
There's every reason to suspect Gravity Rush Remastered exists on PS4 to get people up to speed for Gravity Rush 2. But even if the sequel wasn't coming, you should still get on this right now. Shifting gravity in a third-person, open-world action game sounds like a gimmick, but it basically means you can fly. With spectacular and exciting combat, a story packed full of revelations and a sense of scale that belies the game's handheld roots, Gravity Rush feels more like a home console game, which is probably why it works so well on PS4.
The HD conversion is exemplary, with a silky-smooth frame-rate. The art style benefits from it too, with the cel-shaded visuals looking cleaner and more cartoony. The production may fall ever-so-slightly short of Platinum's finest, but there's more than a hint of Bayonetta in here, thanks to storyboard cut-scenes and expertly-directed choreographed action sequences. Basically this is a class act in every area and you've probably never played it. So do. The cat will be sad if you don't.