Arguably there's no better way to summarise what makes Avalanche Studios so wonderful than the pun, intentional or not, contained within the title Just Cause - "just 'cause". For the past 12 years, the developer's Stockholm and New York based teams have made the open world concept their own. This year's Just Cause 3 and Mad Max have raised the bar in terms of what to expect from area traversal, taking exploratory freedom to the next level.
Common to both blockbusters is how, despite the maturity of content, the game worlds feel like terrific toys that continue to surprise. Despite obvious technical achievements made, the tendency toward unscripted events deftly disguise all the engineering feats as goals to achieve, the best of which emerge from the player's sense of curiosity, constantly piqued. Most endearing of all about Avalanche Studios' output is the emphasis on fun. Players run their own show but receive just enough guidance to keep narrative proceedings on track.
Clearly Monolith Soft belongs on this list on the strength of Xenoblade Chronicles X - a game that really pushed the limits of what we thought the Wii U capable of. Technically masterful and a fresh look at what open world RPGs can offer, it was a brave departure from fan favourite Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii), which also saw release on Nintendo 3DS earlier in the year (though Monolith themselves were not responsible for this port). While Xenoblade Chronicles X departed from its JRPG origins to some degree in favour of free exploration and a truly wonderful world. In many ways it's a technical marvel, but this fact is overshadowed by the sheer beauty and wonderful design of Mira.
In addition to Xenoblade Chronicles X, Monolith Soft created another game Project X Zone - the imaginative strategy-RPG that mixes characters from Bandai Namco, Capcom and Sega franchises (this time there are also some characters from Nintendo's Fire Emblem) - in 2015 when it was released in Japan. This game, however was not released over here (slated for release on February 19) and so it doesn't weigh in as much. However, it does illustrate what a productive year it has been for the studio.
The veteran Japanese RPG maker is often confused with its American namesake Monolith Productions (F.E.A.R., Shadows of Mordor), but the two have nothing to do with each other. But as fate would have it, where we placed Monolith Productions in third place last year they have now been outdone by their Japanese counterparts who takes second in this year's list. Of course, the two performances can't be compared as the slate for best studio is wiped clean each year, but it's an interesting note nevertheless.
The best studio this year is without doubt CD Projekt Red. The expansion of the Polish-based company has been quite remarkable in recent years, where just over twenty years ago they started translating RPGs into Polish, before eventually working on their own titles as well as setting up online retailer GOG.com). The first game in The Witcher series was a modest affair, but the scope was expanded somewhat in Assassins of Kings, and that work was then blown out of the water with one of this year's outstanding releases, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The ever increasing quality of their games mirrors the meteoric rise of the studio, their growing confidence increasingly reflected in their increasingly ambitious titles.
Before this year started we knew that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was probably going to be a good game, but we there was no way that we could be sure that it'd be a modern classic. With its release we saw CDPR elevate themselves to the top table of western RPG development, where they now currently sit alongside Bethesda and Bioware. Both of those studios can boast their own fantasy and science-fiction franchises, and soon enough CDPR will join them on that front, with Cyberpunk 2077 currently in development and likely to land sometime within the next twenty-four months. If they can achieve similar success with their first foray into science-fiction, their ascension to the top will be assured.
In 2015 we saw CD Projekt Red come of age (coincidentally, the studio was formed in 1994, meaning this year they enjoyed their 21st birthday). This a studio working at the height of its powers, and with the release of The Witcher 3 earlier this year, they succinctly demonstrated their ability to mix it with the big boys. There's still room for the studio to grow and develop, but make no mistake, CDPR are here to stay, and now that they've stepped out of the shadows of the studios that inspired them, who knows where their creativity and unique approach to world design will take them next. One thing we know for sure: we can't wait to see where their journey takes them.