My fellow players, my fanatics, we are finally near the end of 2017. While this year may have been full of uncertainty and turbulence, we can at least take solace in the fact that this year was bursting with some utterly fantastic games.
The list of genuine excellence was so lengthy this year I actually had serious trouble trying to pin things down to a definitive personal top five. But after consulting with several experts, taking a serious look back at everything I’ve played this year, and even replaying some of my choices to make sure that certain special something still resonated with me, I have finally brought for your reading pleasure the top 5 games I thoroughly loved in the year of 2017.
5. NieR: Automata
NieR: Automata is that rare game that markets itself as one thing, then completely pulls the rug out from under you. On the surface, it is a hodgepodge of different gameplay ideas and systems: bullet hell shooters, hack and slash action, fishing sim, open-world RPG, etc., held together with the shear talent and polish by the action-game experts of Platinum Games with the trappings of a sci-fi dystopia story full of androids and robots. But this shiny and glistening wrapping falls off within the first two hours of play, revealing the game for what it truly is; a somber tragedy.
This is a game that manages to cut away a lot of the traditional preamble about robots and the nature of humanity, something that most narratives have beaten into the ground, while also punching players out of their comfort zone in a small matter of minutes. For me, it was a mission very early on in the game where you are sent to kill a dangerous tribe of robots hiding in a ruined city. I tore through them like they were tissue paper in a highly stylized flourish of katana swings and gunfire, only to have these seemingly emotionless machines scream in pain and beg for their lives saying they had a family that needed them.
It was a a metaphorical twist of the knife that went deeper the more and more I played. Simple levels about cutting down hoards of enemies became demented vignettes of religious zealots committing mass suicide, boss battles slowly mutated from giant killer tanks to androids reduced to berserk madness from an obsession with humanity’s dark past, and all the while the main protagonists are forced to question the morality not just of themselves but of the superiors calling the shots.
NieR: Automata is a game that lured me in with visceral, satisfying gameplay and addictive enemy encounters, then proceeded to slap the taste out of my mouth with the story it wanted to tell. Encouraging multiple playthroughs that revealed new perspectives and different playable characters, including essentially the game’s own sequel in its very files, slowly eroding the fourth wall to non-existence, and painting a truly dour, unhinged, even patently ridiculous picture of the future and personal legacy that I still think about to this day.
4. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Ninja Theory set out to prove that you can make a visually impressive and polished action game that handles delicate themes and not completely break the bank, thus the release of the confusingly labeled indie/AAA game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
This is the game that I’ve always wanted Ninja Theory to make once I became aware of their work on the underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and their respectable re-imagining of Capcom’s action series DmC: Devil May Cry. Impressive environmental design full of superb lighting and a color palette that just sings, satisfying and responsive action combat, and a thorough dedication to character performances and emotionally driven narrative.
That last element is particularly prevalent here since Hellblade is a game that boldly goes into representing a protagonist with severe mental illness. A Pict warrior named Senua who makes a journey into the viking underworld of Helheim in an attempt to rescue the soul of her lover, but the hellscape and monsters she face might not entirely be real.
As exploitative as that description sounds, Ninja Theory did an impressive amount of research into psychosis, auditory hallucinations, and neuro atypical people to make as authentic as an experience as possible that complemented its gameplay and frame the protagonist not just as she struggles with her own mind, but also celebrates the uncanny insight her mental state brings.
Speaking personally it was a major risk that paid off in spades. As someone on the autism spectrum and spent most of my formative years around those with mental or social quirks, albeit lesser than what afflicted Senua, it was beyond affirming to see a more nuanced representation of someone with a nonstandard mental state without it devolving into a curse or magically becoming a superpower.
Combine all of this passionate hard work with some amazing audio design, a go-for-broke tour de force performance of the lead by Melina Juergens, and some maddeningly frugal corner cutting in production resulted in an experience that not just could stand head and shoulders with the rest of the entries on this list in pure visuals and tech, but hit a special place in my heart for unusual but inspiring heroic characters.
Arkane Studios creates a loving spiritual successor to System Shock 2 and definitively revives the immersive sim genre with this sci-fi action/horror experience. Playing as scientist Morgan Yu on the futuristic Transtar space station, things start to go incredibly wrong during their research experiments when the crew is systematically wiped out by an alien menace known as the Typhon. Yu is stricken with amnesia and must piece together what has happened in the aftermath of the alien infestation, who is alive, but more importantly who to trust.
There is so much to love about this game. How fully fleshed out and realistically depicted Transtar station is laid out from its atrium to its multiple research wings. Arkane’s spot-on use of environmental storytelling to make the crew more than just random corpses that line the halls; there’s an entire substory about the crew getting together to play a Dungeons and Dragons-style RPG complete with character sheets and dice that is wonderfully goofy. The truly bonkers level of versatility that the level designers got out of something as patently silly as a cannon that shoots large globs of glue. Like the classics that came before it, Prey rewards thinking outside the box and gives plenty of interesting tools in which to act out those radical strategies.
But what helped earn this game a spot in my list above another similar experience, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, was the game’s morality system and the themes it played with during its ten to twelve hour run time. Prey does a fantastic job of judging the player’s actions and ties it into a truly thorough examination of human nature. While most games will play simple lip service to what it means to be human compared to more alien threats while still giving the player a clear moral high ground to rain hot lead from, this game elects to show the whole picture, including the ugly parts. On the one hand, the Typhon are truly alien killing machines, but on the other the experiments done by the scientists on Transtar cross several ethical lines all in the cold-hearted pursuit of progress. Some that may make you question whether or not anyone on the station is worth saving. This dark tone helps add deliberate meaning to just about every action taken, from your interactions with the small cast of human survivors to your priorities in either escaping or blowing up the station.
It was one of the more nuanced moral dilemmas I had the privilege of playing this year. An experience that will stick with me for a long time even in the face of some minor underdeveloped elements like the generic look of the Typhon themselves and the somewhat clunky gunplay.
What happens when the creative team behind the more recent Ninja Gaiden games decides to give their personal spin on Dark Souls with a heaping helping of Japanese historical fiction thrown in? You get one of my games of the year, Nioh.
Set in the 1600s during Japan’s Sengoku or “Warring States” period, you play as an Irish sailor named William who quickly becomes involved in the war for Japan’s future. But it seems that every single Japanese folk tale about demons, monsters, and evil spirits turns out to be fatally true, and William must also help the likes of Hattori Hanzo and Ieyasu Tokugawa slay and banish them from the land.
To be frank, Nioh is a weird beast of a game. Masochistically difficult action gameplay where a single small misstep can mean death coupled with complex systems for stamina recovery, multiple combat stances, and entire spreadsheets worth of stats. There’s a myriad of modes and mechanics like Titles, Guardian Spirits, Familiarity, and an in-depth weapon crafting system, all designed to help you get a little bit stronger, tougher, and faster by putting in a bit more time. The entire game’s story took me north of ninety hours to complete, including most of the side missions and optional challenges, and the immediate gameplay was full of punishing and exotic Japanese monsters like the Yuki-onna and the Gashadokuro.
But the actual story being told is hilariously campy; almost bordering on a farce. The villain is some evil sorcerer who wants to weaponize the life energy of Japan to summon an army of demons to help Queen Elizabeth conquer Spain. William becomes a samurai basically overnight and understands Japanese because he can somehow interact with spirits and the only real explanation given is a handwave. And there is a lot of signature Team Ninja weirdness sprinkled throughout the entire game.
Yet here I am at the end of the year still completely in love with this game. This is thanks not just to the stellar long-term support Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo have given this game with three impressive downloadable expansions and multiple difficulty levels, but the utter dedication the game has to being the best version of itself. A game that wants to constantly challenge you with escalating enemy encounters and environmental hazards, but continuously dishes out resources and advantages to keep each encounter from feeling like a complete slog.
The result is a game I have put more than a hundred hours into yet keep finding a new reason to return and lose a hundred more.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo tackles open-world level design with their latest installment in The Legend of Zelda series and it winds up making one of the best sandboxes of the year.
I could easily link to my glowing review of the game and let that speak for itself, but the major reason why Breath of the Wild gets a place in my top five despite coming out so early in the year is because it reminded me of why I used to love huge open worlds. Scaling up large mountains, discovering new landmarks, solving puzzles, accidentally kicking a proverbial hornet’s nest, all of this was done not just to get another collectible doodad or to finish some contrived story mission, but to train and prepare for the game’s bigger challenges.
It’s a design decision that is absolutely freeing. There are no giant markers on the map telling me where everything is, no completely pointless collectible doodads that are just there to pad things out, and what very few scripted predictable elements there are like the appearance of the dragons or the Divine Beast dungeons don’t overstay their welcome or completely overwhelm the experience.
The after effect of this attitude is a Zelda game that feels utterly bittersweet and melancholic. The whole adventure is framed as the aftermath of a great disaster with villages and towns destroyed, monsters roaming free, and the world’s heroes all long since dead. An atmosphere that is saturated into the very world itself and helps make the smaller triumphs more triumphant and the quieter moments of nothing feel expressive. Something as energetic as using your shield to snowboard down the side of a snowy mountain or riding a horse through an open field can feel almost as freeing and lively as fighting off monsters or discovering a hidden shrine.
It’s a mood and attitude I feel that completely aids and even forgives some of the more contentious bits of design in Breath of the Wild such as the weapon degradation system and an epilogue that could have been better.
I am currently near the end of my second playthrough of Breath of the Wild on Master Mode difficulty and it is still the kind of game that I can lazily slip back into and be transported to a grand adventure no matter what kind of mood I’m in. It is one of my favorite experiences, not just as a Nintendo Switch exclusive but of 2017 as a whole.
Also the latest expansion gave Link a freaking motorcycle which is the best thing ever, fight me.
Cosmic Star Heroine
I loved Zeboyd Games’ homage to to mid 90s JRPGs when I first played it on PS4. An eclectic mix of cyberpunk sci-fi and outrageous fantasy that also refined the combo system used in the developer’s past indie darling, Cthulhu Saves The World. But outside of some stand-out moments and some killer pacing, Why isn’t it on the list? There was just too much good out this year. Consider this an unofficial sixth placement.
In terms of shear visual and musical style, Persona 5 is absolutely fantastic. As a JRPG, it’s got some of the most satisfying turn-based combat around. In many ways it’s a worthy sequel in Atlus’ beloved cult franchise… but I honestly struggled to remember much about the characters or really cared about the plot despite the urban supernatural gentleman thief set-up. And for a JRPG that has sported believable and likeable casts of characters and exciting plots in the past, this isn’t exactly a disappointment as much as it is barely missing the sublime brilliance of its predecessors. I’ll be humming the soundtrack until I’m six feet under though.
Resident Evil 7
Capcom successfully revived their long-running survival horror franchise with this installment. They made it first-person, set it in the deep south of Louisiana, had the major villains be virtually unstoppable corruptions of a loving family, and made the whole thing playable in VR. Basically tailor-made to have a special place in my nightmares. This gets an honorable mention on its shear quality coming from someone who doesn’t actively seek out survival-horror games to play for fun. Take that for what you will.