As is the case with theatrical film releases, the month of January has typically been something of a dumping ground for video games, and while recent releases like Amplitude, The Witness, and That Dragon, Cancer are working to challenge that notion, February is still generally when the gaming industry starts to trot out its heavier hitters. With that in mind, here are ten games due for release in 2016 that look to be among the year’s most exciting and innovative titles:
Adr1ft (PC, PS4, Xbox One; March 28 for PC, TBD 2016 for consoles)
Forget about the awful name. Forget about the fact that it’s a shameless ripoff of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t that original of an idea to begin with). What makes Adr1ft one of 2016’s most exciting games is two simple words: virtual reality. Promising to make use of upcoming VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, Adr1ft holds the potential to redefine what makes an action game great: not mowing down waves of enemies, but experiencing a high-octane simulation of a life-or-death situation that feels real. Just be prepared to have a barf bag handy: a virtual reality disaster in zero gravity sounds like quite the trip.
Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan (PC; April 2016)
A Kickstarter success from last year, Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan is a 2D fantasy RPG with an important twist: it’s the first major video game to emerge from the nation of Cameroon, with a narrative based heavily in African folklore and culture. In an industry that too often adheres to the normative and “race-blind” standards set by major publishers, Aurion offers the promise of a critically important in interactive narrative storytelling, and though crowdsourced games can sometimes be a mixed bag, this is one to be hopeful for.
Cuphead (PC, Xbox One; TBD 2016)
Video game graphics may be closer to photorealism than ever before, but the most gorgeous game of 2016 is likely to be the hand-drawn Cuphead. Heavily evocative of cartoons of the 1930s, Cuphead is a visual stunner of a game, with a setting and style that conjures nostalgia for an era of animation that few people are old enough to have experienced firsthand. If its gameplay, a retro-inspired take on the 2D sidescrolling shooter, holds up, then Cuphead will easily be one of 2016’s greatest accomplishments.
Firewatch (PC, Mac, PS4, Linux; February 9)
In what looks to be a wonderful fusion of first-person exploration and choice-based narrative, Firewatch explores the life and career of a fire lookout in Wisconsin during the aftermath of the 1988 Yellowstone fires. The game’s trailer, which is coated in a healthy layer of ominous foreboding, promises mystery in a unique real-world setting. It doesn’t hurt that the game’s art style, a blend of cartoon and real, is an eyepleaser. With a release imminent, Firewatch is a game to watch out for.
The Last Guardian (PS4; TBD 2016)
A game almost ten years in the making, The Last Guardian is Fumito Ueda’s long-awaited follow-up to the hugely acclaimed Shadow of the Colossus. Set in a rustic fantasy world cut from the same cloth as Colossus, The Last Guardian tells the story of a boy and his mystical griffin creature as they explore the aged world around them. What exactly that entails remains largely shrouded in mystery, but given Ueda’s knack for hitting the sweet spot between despair and awe, there’s a solid chance that The Last Guardian ends up being something ambitious and commendable, even if it ultimately falls victim to its protracted development.
Mafia III (PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One; TBD 2016)
Mafia III is by far the most traditional game on this list: a big budget action shooter with an open world and guns aplenty. What sets it apart from its similarly flashy peers is its protagonist and setting: a biracial Vietnam veteran at war with the Italian mafia in 1960s New Orleans. In an industry that is only just now beginning to lend an ear to the voices of advocates for intersectionality in games, Mafia III may be the first major test of whether or not so-called “AAA” games have anything intelligent to say about race. Let’s hope that they do.
Persona 5 (PS4, PS3; TBD 2016)
The Persona series of role-playing games has always been an ambitious blend of realistic teen drama and fantasy dungeon exploring, with a dash of absurdist humor thrown in because, really, what slice-of-life anime game would be complete without it? With a technically sound formula in place, the latest game in the series, Persona 5, looks to be a gorgeous continuation of a series with remarkable depth and sincerity that elevates it above the juvenile sleaze of many of its peers.
Tacoma (PC, Mac, Xbox One, Linux; TBD 2016)
Admittedly, not a lot is known about Tacoma at this point, but behind this mysterious tale of a space station crew gone missing is the Fullbright Company, consisting of the minds behind BioShock: Minerva’s Den and Gone Home, two games that utilized first-person narrative and exploration to tell introspective stories of race and gender. Even in this early state of minimal information, Tacoma is certainly a game to keep an eye on and one of the closest things to a prestige title that video games have.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood (PS4; TBD 2016)
Until Dawn was one of 2015’s biggest guilty pleasures, a horror game that captured the spirit of fun and mayhem that fueled the slasher films of old. Rush of Blood, developed exclusively for PlayStation VR, looks to capture a different kind of nostalgia: that of the arcade light gun game, such as the gleefully cheesy House of the Dead series. If Rush of Blood manages to be half as fun (or half as campy) as that series, then it might prove to be one of 2016’s most exciting VR titles.
Yooka-Laylee (PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Linux; October 2016)
An unfortunate consequence of the industry’s pursuit of shallow “maturity” via games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto is the decline of the kid-friendly platform game as top talent in the industry flocks to grittier sorts of stories. Yooka-Laylee, from the minds behind the Nintendo 64 classic Banjo-Kazooie, promises to fill a gap that has existed among mainstream games for far too long. With an emphasis on exploration of colorful, imaginative worlds, Yooka-Laylee looks to be a rekindling of a genre in decline, and if its hugely successful Kickstarter campaign is anything to go by, it might just succeed in doing so.