It has been a great year for Xbox.
Since the Xbox One launched in late 2013, the console's software library has grown exponentially each year. 2014 was a fine year for Microsoft's latest console, but 2015 is where it really came into its own. Several of Phil Spencer's (head of the Xbox division at Microsoft) projects and big-name exclusives came into fruition, and the floodgate of downloadable indie titles never seemed to close. Your friendly neighborhood Games Editor has combed through those games big and small to bring you this list: The 11 best Xbox One games of 2015.
1. Best Beat 'em Up: Castle Crashers Remastered
Originally released on Xbox 360 way back in 2008, Castle Crashers from indie developer The Behemoth became an early standout XBLA hit during a time when mainstream gamers were still learning to accept downloadable games. One to four players could select a knight and embark on a humorous quest to rescue four princesses from an evil wizard's army.
Castle Crashers Remastered showed up on Xbox One almost out of nowhere, touting several welcome improvements like HD textures, an uncapped 60 FPS framerate, a brand new mini-game called 'Back Off Barbarian,' new menus, and numerous minor rebalances and tweaks. Most excitingly for owners of the original version, they could get the Xbox One game for free for a short time after release. Previous owners who missed out on the free promotion can still save $5 on Castle Crashers Remastered.
The beat 'em up genre is not the most highly-populated nowadays (Rock Zombies was the only other Xbox One entry in 2015). Few games have exceeded Castle Crashers' scope since 2008 — only Charlie Murder, Scott Pilgrim, and Phantom Breaker: Battlegrounds come close. But nothing truly tops Castle Crashers.
Part of Castle Crashers' longevity comes from the simple but addictive character leveling and loot systems that make revisiting past levels worthwhile. We can chalk the rest up to the game's subversive (and occasionally juvenile) sense of humor, memorable and expressive character artwork and backgrounds, and both local and online co-op for four players.
Castle Crashers Remastered doesn't stray much from the original design, but the bump in textures and frame rate ensures that it looks as good on Xbox One as we remember it looking on 360. Teaming up with a friend or three and laying into hordes of enemies proves just as addictive now as it ever did. The faster loading and streamlined menus certainly help.
The new 'Back Off Barbarian' mini-game involves hopping around environments and dodging enemies using only the four face buttons or arrows. I doubt anyone will play it once they unlock its Achievement, but the 360 version's mini-game (absent in Castle Crashers Remastered) wasn't any more enjoyable. Shame the game still only has 12 Achievements, but at least they pay out 1,000 Gamerscore here instead of 200.
I regret that we didn't review Castle Crashers Remastered, but it's sort of a game that speaks for itself. If Remastered proves anything, it's that Castle Crashers deserves a sequel. And The Behemoth really needs to release games more frequently than once every few years!
2. Best Twin-Stick Shooter: Crimsonland
Crimsonland is one of the more robust games to come from 10tons, a developer known mostly for its casual games. The Steam version of Crimsonland is a modern remake of a classic PC game of the same name. That remake would come to mobile and PlayStation platforms before eventually landing on Xbox One.
The meat of the Xbox One version is its 70-level campaign (10 of which are Xbox exclusive). The goal in each level is simple: kill everything. The more things you eliminate, the more blood coats the ground. A meter at the top of the screen indicates how many enemies remain. Once the meter fills and the last monster dies, you can move on to the next level. You'll also unlock a weapon, perk, or game mode.
Crimsonland also packs six distinct survival modes in which players can compete for higher leaderboard scores. Only a few of those modes have any real staying power, but they will certainly provide a challenge to Achievement hunters. And every mode in the game supports 4-player local co-op, so you never have to face the alien hordes alone.
Although its simplistic visuals won't turn any heads, Crimsonland still won its way into my heart thanks to its healthy arsenal of unlockable weapons and perks. Nearly every new level you beat unlocks a new weapon or perk, so you're constantly earning new stuff. These will then appear in subsequent levels, adding variety to your quests. Beating levels and unlocking new gear just doesn't get old.
The only big weakness in Crimsonland's gameplay is its uneven difficulty. A few particular levels are far harder than the rest due to annoying spider enemies that split in two when shot and the random nature of weapon drops. One Achievement is also tied to a 2048-style puzzle mini-game, which is neither fun nor fair to players.
Still, Xbox One owners who dig twin-stick shooters won't find a better example of the genre than Crimsonland.
3. Best Fighting Game: Dead or Alive 5 Last Round
Dead or Alive 5: Last Round is the latest evolution of Dead or Alive 5, with all the characters, stages, and modes from the previous versions of DOA5 plus some new characters and features. Fighting fans can buy the whole game outright for $40 (a steal), or grab the Core Pack of eight fighters for free.
Last Round offers a multitude of modes to keep players busy, starting with Story mode. The story menu consists of multiple pathways dotted with battles. These battles star a variety of different characters, giving players a taste of the game's cast and some of their relationships with one another.
Other single-player modes include Arcade, Time Attack, and Survival. None of these has story-based endings (like you might expect from Arcade), but they're all good fun. Each offers the choice of fighting in solo or tag battles. Online players can challenge you while you go through single-player modes, which helps take the boredom out of matchmaking.
Although Xbox One already has a solid fighting game in Killer Instinct, Last Round still provides a worthwhile alternative. This one is fully 3D, with players able to move in any direction rather than being confined to a 2D plane. The 3D presentation includes gorgeously colorful graphics and character models, stages with destructible walls and secret areas, and some very * ahem * bouncy ladies. But you can turn off the bounce and play it as a serious fighting game, so don't let the exaggerated body physics turn you away.
Dead or Alive 5: Last Round is a big, beautiful fighting game that can easily be enjoyed by both fighting beginners and experts. We'll be streaming it as part of our Koei Tecmo stream series in 2016, so don't miss it!
4. Best Adventure: The Fall
Xbox One saw several fine adventure titles in 2015, including King's Quest (which would be in this list if episodes weren't still coming) and Minecraft: Story Mode. But my favorite entry combines traditional point-and-click adventuring with Metroidvania-like nonlinear platforming and an engrossing science fiction narrative.
The Fall starts out with a bang, with a protective suit-clad person hurtling through space. As the suit plummets towards a lone planet's surface, its artificial intelligence (known as ARID) kicks in and prevents the suit and its wearer from being destroyed.
Unlike so many other games, you don't play as the person inside the suit here. Instead, players control the female-voiced ARID. Her job is to protect the unconscious wearer, and so she immediately seeks out a medical facility within the planet's ruined industrial complex. But it soon becomes clear that ARID and her passenger are not alone. Another suit wearer has been crucified on a communications pole, and a mysterious figure stalks our protagonists from afar.
Metroidvania-style platformers traditionally feature expansive maps with areas the player can't reach until finding upgrades later in the game. The Fall cleverly incorporates these mechanics with ARID's status as an AI. She can't access the suit's full suite of abilities until life-threatening situations arise that require them.
Gameplay consists of running, jumping, and climbing ledges as you search for clues as to what happened inside the facility and a way to save the suit pilot. ARID will also acquire a gun that helps not only in combat, but also in your search for parts and items. Aiming the gun's flashlight allows you to highlight and interact with the environment, a clever integration of traditional point-and-click mechanics.
The actual controls for interacting with objects leave something to be desired, though. You have to hold a shoulder button and use the analog stick to navigate context-sensitive menus whenever you need to pick up or otherwise interact with something. It's quite clunky, but you get used to it. Occasionally getting stuck on puzzles and a few missable Achievements are the only other real annoyances.
The Fall ends on a revelation that you shouldn't let anyone spoil for you. Despite the cliffhanger ending and promise of a sequel, this is a complete game rather than an episodic title like many modern adventure games. Sci-fi fans won't find a more intriguing tale among Xbox One's 2015 lineup.
5. Best Shooter: Gears of War Ultimate Edition
Microsoft published two huge shooters in 2015: Gears of War Ultimate Edition and Halo 5. Choosing between the two of them for this list presented a challenge. In the end, Gears wins out because its campaign is simply much better than Halo 5's — and it offers split-screen co-op. Play through the story alone or with a friend and you'll quickly see what made Gears of War such a system-selling game back in the Xbox 360 days.
Gears of War is a third-person shooter. While modern shooters tend to play similarly, the first Gears introduced clever mechanics like the active reload system that stand out even today. Instead of just pressing a button once to reload, players have the option to press the button again at precisely the right moment (indicated by a meter at the top of the screen) to perform an active reload. This completes the reload faster and makes the reloaded bullets deal extra damage.
Gears didn't invent the concept of taking cover to avoid enemy fire, but it did create the most intuitive cover system in gaming. Players can tap the A button when standing next to nearly any wall or object to take cover behind it. From there you can aim and fire (popping out slightly) or blind fire without raising your head. Tap the button again to hop out of cover. On the whole, the cover system just works, with very few instances of missing, taking, or leaving cover unintentionally.
Of course Gears of War always played great, but the Ultimate Edition updates the game's visuals to modern standards as well. The new version features new-and-improved character models and textures, and it runs at 1080p and a solid 30 FPS (and 60 FPS in multiplayer) to boot. Other enhancements include a previously PC-only campaign section, several extra multiplayer maps, and new options and tweaks here and there.
Gears of War is one of the best third-person shooters of all time, with a distinct personality and world and plenty of innovative and refined gameplay mechanics. Even if you knocked out the original on Xbox 360, the Ultimate Edition is well-worth a visit for its memorable campaign and satisfying competitive multiplayer modes.
6. Best Free to Play: Gems of War
I could hardly write this list without including Gems of War, one of my current favorite Xbox titles. Gems is a spiritual successor to Puzzle Quest – a match-3 puzzle-RPG with endless hours of content and PvP gameplay. It's also one of the rare free to play games that never stops being fun even if you don't buy anything.
The hallmark of the Puzzle Quest series is its match-3 puzzle battles, and that's just what you get in Gems of War. Matching three or more gems of the same color makes them disappear, and it also provides your team of warriors with mana of that color type. Each troop on your team has a unique offensive or defensive spell you can call on after building up enough mana. Alternately, matching skull gems delivers a physical attack without consuming resources.
Gems packs a hefty single-player campaign with over 15 kingdoms to conquer. Each of these locations offers numerous Quests and Challenges to complete. These all amount to battles against AI opponents, but they still provide lots of rewards and goals to work towards. The XP earned from battles helps level up your primary hero, and other resources will level your troops or help unlock new kingdoms.
Single-player content aside, the real fun comes from asynchronous multiplayer battles. You can invade other players' kingdoms or suffer invasions of your own. The winner gets a pile of gold and earns Trophies that contribute to multiplayer rank. Meanwhile, joining a guild allows you to cooperate with other players towards common goals and unlock numerous bonuses. Windows Central ranks among the top 30 guilds as of this writing!
Free to play games aren't too common on Xbox One yet. And as with mobile, many free to play games suffer from cynical design that aims to milk players of their real-world money. But Gems of War ranks right up there with Warframe (one of my 2014 faves) as a game that's fun to play for free and paying players alike. Puzzle fans won't be able to put it down.
7. Best Indie Co-op: Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime
One of the best things about indie games is how different they are from the mainstream. Lovers takes place in a very different universe in which a machine called the Ardor Reactor allows explorers to travel the galaxy and unite its peoples with love. When the forces of Anti-Love manage to destroy the Ardor Reactor, it falls upon the heroic Lovers to put things right.
In Lovers, one or two players will have to pilot a spherical ship through exotic levels as they seek to rescue Space-bunnies and other hostages from their Anti-Love captors. Finding all of the hostages in each randomly generated level will allow our heroes to escape to the next level and unlock new ships and upgrades.
Several games on this list play fantastically in co-op, but Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime benefits from truly distinct cooperative design. One person can pilot the ship, but you can't attack or man the shield while piloting. That's where the other player (or AI in single-player) comes in. Both astronauts must scramble from station to station, cooperating to navigate and avoid danger amid barrages of enemy fire.
Lovers' cooperative nature also leads to its greatest weakness. Playing by yourself just isn't nearly as fun as bringing along a partner. When playing solo, you'll choose an AI co-pilot and assign it to various stations on the ship. But bossing around an imperfect AI doesn't feel nearly as good as working things out with a friend.
Even though I don't recommend Lovers as a solo game, it makes a perfect couples games. The delightfully cute setting and deep gameplay (with selectable difficulty levels) will appeal to friends and significant others like. Team up and share the love!
8. Best Collection: Rare Replay
This Xbox One exclusive celebrates the legacy of Microsoft's UK-based Rare studio. Since 1985, Rare has made games for a number of platforms including personal computers, NES, Nintendo 64, and Xbox consoles. The studio languished on Kinect titles for a while, but Rare Replay hopefully marks Rare's return to glory.
Rare Replay collects 30 games spanning from 1985-2008. A few of my favorites: Battletoads Arcade, the Banjo Kazooie platformers, Jetpac Refuelled, RC Pro-Am I and II, and Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. Grabbed by the Ghoulies for the original Xbox has even been remastered here rather than emulated, so it looks better than ever.
As much as I love this trip through Rare's history, some of the developer's best games didn't make it into the collection. Not just Nintendo-published titles like Goldeneye and Donkey Kong Country, either. Microsoft chose the aged Conker's Bad Fur Day instead of the vastly superior remake Conker: Live and Reloaded, and the crappy NES Battletoads is here rather than the much-better Super NES sequel. And a few games like Conker's just control terribly, which could have easily been fixed for Rare Replay.
What Rare Replay really does right is teach modern gamers about the studio's history and provide incentives to play through older games. Snapshots are new optional goals that will unlock bonus content and Achievements when completed. That overall progression system will keep you hopping from game to game — even the really old ones. For the low price of thirty bucks, you're sure to find something to appreciate in Rare Replay.
9. Best Roguelike: Rogue Legacy
The Roguelike is a genre that has really blossomed along with indie gaming. Some traits of Roguelikes include randomly generated levels, large numbers of helpful and harmful items to discover, and usually some form of "Permadeath" – the inability to continue upon dying.
All four Roguelikes that came to Xbox One in 2015 are great: Rogue Legacy, Ziggurat, Quest of Dungeons, and Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. But Rogue Legacy is tops thanks to its tight Castlevania-style action-platforming mechanics and superior metagame elements.
Each time you play Rogue Legacy, you'll select from three randomly generated adventurers from a great family. Each varies in many ways, including gender, appearance, class, spells, special techniques, and traits. And each time you die, you'll have to start again as a randomly-generated heir with new traits and abilities.
The most fun (and sometimes frustrating) aspect of Rogue Legacy's character randomization is the trait system. Each hero has one or more attributes that can affect gameplay to varying degrees, such as colorblindness, near-sightedness, ADHD, Alzheimer's, and many more. They might make the game harder or easier, and they'll always keep you on your toes.
Likewise, the cursed castle in which the game takes place also reconfigures itself for each new adventurer. You'll run, jump, and fight through it Castlevania-style, seeking out gold to spend on upgrades between games. Eventually these upgrades make your family strong enough to reach and defeat the bosses that guard each region of the castle.
Not only is Rogue Legacy the best Roguelike on Xbox One to date, I'd also peg it as one of the very best 2D action-platformers of the year – even better than Ori and the Blind Forest. Fans of platforming and exploration will love this legacy.
10. Best Licensed Game: Transformers Devastation
Licensed games don't tend to turn out very well (aside from the Batman: Arkham series), and the first Xbox One Transformers game certainly proved that. But we have to give Activision props. The publisher contracted Japanese developer Platinum Games (makers of the Bayonetta series) to create a game based on the original Transformers cartoon, and it turned out really well!
Transformers Devastation begins just like an episode of the classic 80s TV series. Megatron and his villainous Decepticons are attacking a human city, so the heroic Autobots must stop him. The story comes to life through beautiful cel-shaded animation that closely resembles the show, and it even features authentic voices for characters like Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, and Soundwave.
Whereas past Transformers games played like third-person shooters, Devastation actually plays more like Bayonetta. Each of the five playable Autobots can hack and slash at the Decepticreeps, transforming to vehicle form and back as they pull off stylish combos. Players even get to battle against massive bosses like Devastator. Shooting and driving are present too, but you'll spend more time on melee combat and platforming.
The only downsides to Devastation result from its relatively low budget. The city environments all look alike, and the game is a bit on the short side. But just like Bayonetta, Platinum designed this one to be replayed on all five difficulty levels. Progress carries over between playthroughs, so your team keeps gaining better loot and higher stats needed to take on higher difficulties.
If you like Transformers or Japanese-style action games, Devastation will "transform and roll out" straight into your heart.
11. Best RPG: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
For RPG enthusiasts, the battle for overall Game of the Year comes down to just two titles: Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. By most accounts, Witcher 3 offers superior role-playing elements (despite not having custom characters), whereas Fallout 4 leans a bit too much on combat and shooting this time around. If you only have the time or resources for one, I suggest siding with the Witcher.
The Witcher started life as a Polish fantasy novel series (now available in English!), but CD Projekt Red's games have really done more to popularize the property than anything else. A quick recap eases new players in, explaining that protagonist Geralt and his few fellow Witchers are monster hunters for hire — skilled fighters capable of casting spells called Signs. Geralt's goal in the third game is to save his lover Yennefer and protégé Ciri from the ghostly Wild Hunt.
Unlike previous games, Witcher 3 is a full-on open-world game. Geralt can explore the vast land at will either on foot or horse. The story and sidequests here are unusually deep and interesting though, filled with morally ambiguous choices and memorable characters. The Witcher 3 is one of the more mature RPGs around, in fact. Brutal death, nudity, and other adult themes permeate the game… but it still has a sense of humor, too.
Hopping into an established series for the first time can be rough, yet The Witcher 3 goes out of its way to please fans and newcomers alike. The combat and especially menus are still a bit unintuitive, but those are small imperfections in an otherwise massive and exceptional game. I only wish I had more time to devote to this game and its expansion!
12. About these picks
I did not consider exclusivity when choosing my favorite Xbox One games of the year. And I only considered games that I actually played, which means a few well-loved games couldn't be on this list. Games I wish I could've played:
- Batman: Arkham Knight
- Dying Light
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- The Swapper
Still, this year of Xbox One games kept me busier than I could've imagined. We can look forward to even more games – big and small – in 2016. And stay tuned for my "Worst Xbox One Games of 2015" roundup, guys and gals. It's a rare instance of me breaking my number one rule: "Don't hate; appreciate."
Did you play any of my favorite 2015 games, awesome readers? Let us know what you thought of them!