As with every year in the realm of videogames, 2016 will see a full slate of sequels, re-imaginings, and new entries in storied (or not-so-storied) franchises. We’re not out of the first quarter yet, and we’ve already seen a new Homeworld, a new XCOM, a new Mario & Luigi, a new Fire Emblem and spinoffs from Final Fantasy and Assassin’s Creed. But have these games learned the lessons of their predecessors to carry the best bits of their respective series forward? (Quickly: Yes, yes, sort of, pretty much, not really, and almost certainly not.)
We should all do our best to resist the notion that all game series are a continual march toward a platonic ideal, but when looking ahead to games that we’re excited for, it’s hard not to look back at previous entries and hope that our favorite bits are carried forward—and the chaff is left behind. With that in mind, let’s take a look at ten titles scheduled for release in 2016 and do a little crossing of fingers.
What it should keep from previous entries: Ambient storytelling.
The common refrain is that the Souls games are bone-crushingly difficult, but anyone with familiarity with the franchise can tell you that’s not quite their hallmark: Dark Souls and its brethren aren’t cruel so much as unforgiving, expecting the player to have the perseverance to learn enemy patterns, area layouts, and even how the games’ systems work without much in the way of tutorials or hand-holding. The same is true of their narratives—the games aren’t light on story; far from it. Instead, they rely on the player to observe, explore, and piece together the bits of narrative that are woven into the fabric of the game’s world. From what we’ve seen so far of Dark Souls III, it looks as though that trend will continue—we might actually be privy to some revelations about how the worlds of the previous two games are connected, but it’s a guarantee that those discoveries will only come if we’re paying very close attention.
What it should leave behind: Introducing fast-travel early.
Fast travel is one of the prime conveniences of modern videogames, and especially in games with sprawling, wide-open worlds to explore, it feels like a godsend. Nobody likes to tromp halfway across the map just to get to wherever you’re meant to go next. The problem, of course, is that teleporting across huge distances undermines the storytelling technique outlined above—criss-crossing a map multiple times means you’re more likely to stumble across little things that will tell you more about the world (or, perhaps, things that will give you an advantage in combat). When Dark Souls 2 granted you the ability to fast travel early on in the game, it hobbled its ability to use the environment as a storytelling tool.
What it should keep from previous entries: The chemistry between its cast members.
The strength of the Uncharted games has always been its cast—voice acting, direction, and Naughty Dog’s flair for character animation have given Nathan Drake and cohorts enough charm to weather at least four outings already. (There was a Vita one. That’s the one you’re forgetting. Understandably.) It’s pretty safe to say that Uncharted 4 will deliver the same trademark wisecracks and smirking benevolence that we’ve come to expect from Drake. That’s a gimme.
What it should leave behind: Poor gunplay.
It’s also a gimme that we’re going to shoot many men in Uncharted 4. Hopefully, that’s going to look a lot more like Uncharted 2 than either of the other two entries. (Three. Right. Vita. Sorry.) Among Thieves has a much greater variety of action, environments and setpieces than either Drake’s Fortune or Drake’s Deception, and that means fewer static shooting galleries with bullet sponge enemies. The gunplay in the Uncharted games has never felt particularly satisfying, especially when put up against some contemporary third-person shooters (Tomb Raider and Spec Ops: The Line are just a couple of examples), but now that Naughty Dog’s been through The Last of Us, maybe they can borrow some of the polish from that game’s combat to give back to Drake.
What it should keep from previous entries: Tight, focused levels that entice players to return and best their past performances.
When the original Star Fox was first released in ‘93, Nintendo held a country-wide competition to see who could rack up the highest score in four minutes of play. Gaming has mostly pivoted away from the high-score mania of the arcade, but the competition highlighted something special about Star Fox—its constantly-moving levels filled with baddies made you want to play each zone over and over again to see if you could optimize your run. Combine that with branching pathways that open up based on your performance, and you have multiple incentives to play each mission.
What it should leave behind: Slippy.
Let’s be real. Does Slippy Toad have any adherents? Would tears be shed were Slippy to remain relegated to the recently-announced Star Fox Guard? I posit that there would not.
What it should keep from previous entries: The City.
The original Mirror’s Edge is one of the prettiest and messiest big-budget games of the last several years, and so there’s plenty for DICE to try and fix—and plenty of brilliant stuff they might break in the process. It’s tempting to suggest that the hand-to-hand combat and shooting mechanics should be cleaned up, for instance, as these bits were by far the clunkiest pieces of the original. That awkwardness, though, does a lot for the game symbolically: it helps to construct a world in which the fight-or-flight instinct is heavily tilted toward the latter option. Altering that will be a tricky proposition. Certainly there’s much about the original Mirror’s Edge which needs to be preserved and replicated in its re-imagining: the feeling of movement, the exhilaration of momentum and the thrill of “reading” an environment and instantly understanding multiple paths of traversal. For my money, though, the core of Mirror’s Edge is the City, painted stark white and primary colors, bright and immediate, commanding your attention. If this new take on Faith can recreate the cold beauty of that City, I’ll consider my money well spent.
What it should leave behind: The animated cutscenes.
If there’s anything that we can all agree should be ditched without a second thought, it’s the ugly cutscenes, which look for all the world like they were animated in Flash over the course of a single weekend. For the life of me, I’ve never understood why a game with such fabulously beautiful environments would opt not to render story sequences in-engine.
What it should keep from previous entries: The ability to approach a problem from many different angles.
When the original Deus Ex came on the scene, it was heralded for just how open it felt compared to its contemporaries. While its levels feel positively claustrophobic by modern standards, it nevertheless succeeded at offering its players multiple paths to their objectives—both spatially and in terms of the techniques they could employ. Want to sneak your way past all of your aggressors? There are augments for that. Want to hack every computer system and robotic guard? There are augments for that, too. Want to kill everything in sight with heavy weapons? You may be surprised to note that this is also an option. Although Invisible War dropped the ball in this regard, the more recent Human Revolution picked it right back up again. Mostly.
What it should leave behind: Those boss fights everyone hates.
This is where that “mostly” comes into play. Deus Ex: Human Revolution undercut its pretensions of player choice in a big way by featuring several boss fights which were pretty much only beatable if you put some points into your weapons, frustrating those who wanted the option to sneak or hack their way through the entire game. Fortunately, those bosses were tweaked for the Director’s Cut, suggesting that Eidos may have taken a different tack when designing this year’s Mankind Divided.
What it should keep from previous entries: Fast, satisfying gunplay.
Doom and its sequel Doom II are frequently heralded for their level design, and they should be. The most defining characteristic of the first two Doom games, to my mind, though, was the way that they moved—fast. In part this was a way to let the player dodge incoming fire and run circles around hordes of demons, but the effect was to give Doom a rhythm of play that matched its heavy-metal soundtrack to a T: Live fast, die fast, fill a Cacodemon full of shotgun shells fast. From what we’ve seen of the Doom reboot, it looks like—fingers crossed—they might have captured some of this hyperkinetic feeling.
What it should leave behind: The flashlight from Doom 3.
Doom has always been rather frightening, and so it was no surprise when id Software tried to turn the scare factor up for Doom 3. In trying to enhance the lingering tension of being alone on a Mars base full of demons, though, they added into the mix something Doom never needed: plot. There were computer terminals you had to examine, audio logs you needed to listen to—all of which slowed the pace that so brilliantly characterized the first two games. Probably the thing most emblematic of this shift is the addition of a flashlight, which inexplicably you can’t hold at the same time you’re holding a gun. As far as the original Doom was concerned, if you were ever not holding a gun, it was because you were holding a chainsaw. Let’s hope the reboot agrees.
What it should keep from previous entries: A character-driven narrative.
The best thing about Final Fantasy, at least after the 8-bit era, is that the games anchored their epic sci-fi/high-fantasy/low-fantasy/cyberpunk/steampunk/whatever narratives in the stories of characters the player could care about—Terra’s journey of self-discovery in FFVI, Tidus and Yuna’s pilgrimage in FFX, Squall’s sullen, teenage shuffling toward emotional availability in FFVIII... These characters are the reason that Final Fantasy has accumulated such a following over the years. They’re the reason that Square Enix can put out rhythm-action games, fighting games and mobile free-to-play nonsense games and people will buy them: Because we love the characters. I don’t know much about FFXV’s Noctis or his band of stylish bros, but if Square Enix can find a way to make me care about them, I’ll dive into FFXV eagerly.
What it should leave behind: Oppressive self-seriousness.
I’m not sure we remember frequently enough how weird and goofy some of the earlier Final Fantasies are. FFVI has a recurring villain who is a lecherous octopus. FFVII has your entire crew, even a quadruped and a man with a gun-arm, sneak aboard a freighter simply by donning sailor suits. FFIX has a mini-game where you control the regent of a kingdom who has been turned into a frog. These are games that are aware of their silliness, even as they by turns deliver some of the most potent and affecting narrative beats in the medium. Though there are some great aspects of recent entries like FFXIII and FF Type-0, often they’re so busy trying to be cool that they forget to have fun. FFXV is going to be a game about a quartet of bros cruising around the countryside in a fantasy Cadillac and killing behemoths with swords. Let’s hope it recognizes its own inherent goofiness.
What it should keep from previous entries: A tight-knit group of friends.
The Persona games are all about developing relationships with a wide swath of characters, from widows who reminisce on riverbanks to savvy businessmen to foxes who watch over run-down shrines. All of these incidental characters, however, are merely satellites circling a core group of friends that starts small and grows in size even as it grows closer, each new trial forging tighter bonds amongst its teenage members (and, of course, the occasional bear, dog or robot). These friend groups, from the Yasogami High Investigation Team of Persona 4 to the members of SEES in Persona 3 (and even the crews of persona-users in the earlier games!) are some of most lovable teens in all of gaming. When you reach the end of a seventy-hour playthrough, you really feel like you know them. Like they’re your friends, in a real way that most other games can’t match. Certainly Persona 5 will star a cadre of high schoolers… but in the end, will we come to love them as deeply? It’s a very high bar to clear.
What it should leave behind: Heteronormativity.
To Persona’s credit, it’s a little more liberal with gender norms than your average JRPG—Kanji Tatsume’s story in Persona 4 deals with Kanji’s struggle with expectations of masculinity, and Naoto likewise struggles with issues of gender and identity—but that just makes it all the more frustrating when the game dips into the easy well of gay jokes, crossdressing and adherence to gender norms. Why do we have to press Naoto into dressing like a girl in order to date her? Why can’t we date Yosuke (he’s just an insecure, tortured soul, desperate for the love of his “partner!” It’s plain to see!)? If Fire Emblem can put a tiny dent in the armor of heteronormativity, there’s no reason Persona 5 can’t blast a huge hole in it.
What it should keep from previous entries: Personal melodrama and cosmic horror.
Star Ocean has always been a series that has had just as many weaknesses as strengths, and for every one thing the series does right it seems to trip over its teleporter pad twice. Nevertheless, there are a couple highlights that I hope are replicated in the newest entry, which has the ungainly subtitle Integrity and Faithlessness: The dual narrative of Star Ocean: The Second Story, giving you the option to play as either Claude or Rena, is a wonderful way to tell the same story from two subtly different perspectives (an Earthborn spaceman stranded on a backwoods fantasy planet and a simple village girl from said planet—OR IS SHE?). This gives the opportunity for some potent scenes, like when Claude learns that the planet he’s on is about to explode and declines to be beamed up so that he can remain with the friends he’s made. Star Ocean 3 likewise has some great moments among the chaff, and it pulled the eldritch-horrors-from-beyond-space-that-are-coming-to-devour-all-life bit years before Mass Effect did the same thing.
What it should leave behind: Flubbing the ending.
Have I ever told you about how Star Ocean 3 comes this close to having one of the all-time great endings of the genre, with a wonderful ambiguity that really leaves you mulling over the events of the game’s climax, and then completely and totally ruins it with a full hour of boring, talky, unnecessary epilogue vignettes? What I want is for someone on the Star Ocean 5 dev team to walk around the studio with a ruler, smacking the hands of anyone who wants to do that again.
What it should keep from previous entries: Giving players a new way to navigate its world.
All of the best Legend of Zelda games have replicated the same basic formula, but filtered that formula through a new way of looking at each game’s world. The Wind Waker took Hyrule and made it the Great Sea, fundamentally altering navigation (not to mention aesthetic!) to give players a new understanding of what a Zelda title could be. Majora’s Mask changed the way players thought about time, using that filter to create an experience that is unsettling and often dark. If the newest Legend of Zelda really is coming this year, it’s going to have to present its world to us in a fundamentally new and unprecedented way if it hopes to make a mark.
What it should leave behind: Talking.
In terms of narrative, The Legend of Zelda most often does more with less. Heck, Link’s Awakening—maybe the most emotionally potent Zelda of all—has next to nothing in the way of plot and dialogue. All of the best moments in the Zelda canon are made up of staging, of action. When games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword try to lend weight to the proceedings with a script, it usually ends up having the opposite effect. I think the odds of us seeing a chatty Link in Legend of Zelda Wii U are pretty small. Fingers crossed the other characters get the memo.
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.