A Year for the Books
2017 has been an incredible year for gaming. Some have argued that it’s been one of the best years for video games and for good reason, too. Between high-profile releases, independent games and all of the in-between, unless you’re extremely particular about what you play, you’d be hard-pressed not finding something interesting or fun to play. If we’re talking about the big-three publishing giants; Sony continues to dominate the console market with the on-going success of the PlayStation 4, Nintendo makes a comeback with the Switch and its release of both a mainline Zelda and Mario title within the same year and Microsoft carves a niche with its emphasis on providing a legacy-console due to their continued support of backwards compatibility for the Xbox One. So, without further ado, here are 10 Honorable Mentions followed by my Top 10 Games of 2017:
X. Horizon: Zero Dawn
As someone who’s always been lukewarm and neutral to Guerrilla Game’s previous Killzone titles, Horizon: Zero Dawn, from the 40 hours I’ve played, has been a huge surprise. Horizon may not be the most original open-world game (as it clearly borrows ideas from its contemporaries; such as the more recent Tomb Raider titles, Assassin’s Creed and even Monster Hunter), the game still manages to carve its own identity. Hunting mechanical beasts is exhilarating and the combat tools/options at the player’s disposal keeps encounters interesting and fresh. Horizon is also a technical marvel with its beautiful visuals, landscapes and consistent performance on display. It’s also probably the most photogenic game from this generation. All is not well in the land of the mechanical giants, however. Janky NPC animations during cinematic cut-scenes/conversations and questionable voice-overs sometimes breaks the immersion. Unfortunately, traversal also feels a bit cumbersome as highlighted footholds, wires and other clearly marked ledges are the only means in climbing the numerous mountainsides that litter the environment. Having played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild this year has spoiled me on open-world exploration, so portions of Horizon feel dated, despite having released a few months prior to Nintendo’s mammoth of a game. With that said, there’s something about Horizon that keeps me coming back for more and I look forward to uncovering its mysteries in 2018.
X. Xenoblade Chronicles 2
After an onslaught of amazing first-party titles from Nintendo, Monolith Soft’s titan-of-an-RPG finally released to cap-off an amazing first year for the Nintendo Switch. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the long awaited successor to the original game first released on the Nintendo Wii. The game takes place in a world where its inhabitants live on the backs of giant titans. Various cultures/races have populated these massive creatures which has resulted in political/economical strife as the titans are slowly dying and collapsing into the cloud sea below. At first-glance, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s anime-like tropes/cliches may be off-putting to even the most diehard RPG fan, but rest assured, there’s plenty of mature themes, references and callbacks to past Xeno-games for long-time fans (and newcomers) to digest and enjoy. As a more recent follow-up to Monolith Soft’s previous Wii U title, Xenoblade Chronicles X, the sequel improves on a lot of the smaller issues present in their last title. The user interface (UI) is much easier to grasp, due to the increased resolution and readability. The combat system, although complex and layered, slowly unfolds as the player progresses, as to not overwhelm the user with the various sub-systems and mechanics during the first few hours of gameplay. Unfortunately, there’s a system in-place for acquiring “Rare Blades” (additional party members which act as familiars during combat) which resembles the Japanese mobile “Gacha-game” market. The difference here, however, is that there are no in-game purchases (or what are known in the west as “Loot Boxes”) nor are there any online-features or amiibo functionality, which I believe the developers should be commended for. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an epic RPG that’s content-rich and massive in-scope. I look forward to continuing my journey in 2018.
X. Nex Machina/Matterfall
Housemarque, a Finnish developer best known for Super Stardust HD and Resogun, continue to deliver technically-sound, competent arcade-shooters with their latest game, Nex Machina. As someone who’s been a casual fan of their previous work, Nex Machina is the first game from the studio to completely resonate with me on nearly every level. Nex Machina is essentially an overhead, on-foot run & gun variant of Resogun. It’s a chaotic score-chasing game where the incentive is to perform better, maintain a multiplier and ultimately become skillful enough to 1-credit clear (1CC) the game. The voxel-powered effects/explosions are incredibly satisfying to behold and the general feedback and gameplay-loop make for one difficult game to put down. I completed the game on Experienced, but plan on attempting a 1CC in order to achieve the true ending. Hot off the heels of Nex Machina comes Matterfall, Housemarque’s latest (and potentially final) run & gun arcade shooter. Matterfall, unlike their previous overhead score-chasing title, is a side-scrolling shooter which not only borrows elements from their previous games, but also takes note from franchises such as Mega Man and even *raises riot shield* Mighty No.9. The main mechanic in Matterfall is the ability to dash into enemies in order to stun them so that they become vulnerable to your fire. It’s very similar to Mighty No.9’s dash, shoot and combo-loop, but you know, actually fun. With that said, the stage design isn’t the greatest and the overall combat-loop/progression doesn’t feel as satisfying as say Resogun or Nex Machina.
X. Little Nightmares
Little Nightmares has been one of my most memorable experiences of 2017. Developed by Tarsier Studios, Little Nightmares is a physics-based, puzzle-platformer where the player, donned in nothing but a yellow raincoat, takes on the role of a tiny child (or creature, perhaps?) named Six, as he/she/it struggles to escape a hellish nightmare on-board a vessel to god-knows-where. The game’s aesthetic is dark and depressing, yet beautifully disturbing at the same time, almost Tim Burton-like in its presentation/style. The art-style and animations are top-of-the-class, too, as the studio was formerly a subset of Sony Interactive Entertainment (SCE) and had previously worked on such titles as Little Big Planet 3 and Tearaway: Unfolded. I’ve completed the main game and its first DLC, The Depths, and I’m ready for more nightmares, to say the least! Fortunately, there’s one new DLC chapter that I’ve yet to play. If there’s one game where I’d take a full-fledged sequel, it’s this game!
X. Snipperclips: Cut it Out. Together!
Snipperclips, developed by SFB Games and published by Nintendo, is a cooperative puzzle game where the player(s) control pieces of construction paper and literally cut-out pieces of each other in order to solve various puzzles. As a launch game for the Nintendo Switch, Snipperclips clipped (get it) the competition as it was arguably the best couch-cooperative game available for the system. I had an opportunity to play this game with a dear friend of mine and it was one of the most fun multi-player games I’ve played in the longest time. Despite some frustrating stages and the light-content, find a close friend and buddy-up for one of the best games available on the system.
X. What Remains of Edith Finch
Giant Sparrow has definitely made my list of Developers-to-Watch in 2017. I downloaded What Remains of Edith Finch on a whim, as I kept hearing nothing but great things about the Finch family and their cursed history. I initially only played the introduction sequence and one of the Finch’s backstories, however. I regrettably placed the game on my mental back-burner and did not return to the family’s horrific tales until a few weeks later. I ultimately decided to restart the game (as I was still relatively early on) and finished climbing the family tree in one unforgettable sitting. I don’t think I’ve ever played something quite like Edith Finch and I doubt I ever will experience a game like this ever again. On the surface, Edith Finch is just another walking-simulator. The player explores an abandoned house in search of clues regarding the untimely deaths of the family who once inhabited the grounds. It’s not made clear who the player is controlling at the start, either (although this aspect of the narrative is revealed at the end). If there’s anything Edith Finch does so brilliantly compared to its contemporaries, it’s the incessant reliance on playing with the user’s expectations. It’s difficult to describe the game without further spoiling the experience, so it’s best to witness the family’s unfortunate demise for yourself.
X. Snake Pass
Snake Pass, developed by Sumo Digital, is one of my surprise hits of the year. Sumo Digital’s slithering-surprise is a physics-based platformer where the player must navigate a snake named Noodle throughout various themed worlds. While the controls may feel complicated at first, when it finally clicks, the movement feels natural and believable. The objective to each stage is simple; collect gems to unlock a gate and move forward. The various obstacles, hazards and mini-puzzles keeps things interesting and the hidden coins strewn throughout the environments will keep completionists (like myself) coming back for more. Snake Pass feels like a 3D mascot-platformer from the 90s more so than any of its contemporaries. In a sense, it’s the kind of game I wanted Yooka-Laylee to be. Here’s hoping for more Noodle in 2018 and beyond!
X. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Ninja Theory’s “AAA Indy”, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, is arguably their best game to date. Hellblade is about the journey of Senua as she descends into Hell in order to find her long-lost lover. The developer has always been known for their motion-capture/cinematography and the actress who played Senua delivered a performance that is quite like nothing ever seen before in the medium. Although the combat is serviceable and drives the narrative forward, some encounters last way too long and the combat grows stale due to its limited options. The incredible audio-design and powerful character performances sets this game apart from anything else on the market, however. As much as I enjoyed Hellblade, I hope Ninja Theory creates another new IP similar to Senua’s Sacrifice instead of creating a direct sequel.
X. Knack 2
Knack 2 is quite possibly the winner of the “How did this game get made?” award for 2017. Mark Cerny and Japan Studio are at it again with what some have said is “Uncharted for children”. Knack is a guilty pleasure of mine due to my love for mascot-era platformers and its back-to-basics mantra. Continuing with its God of War-lite influences, Knack 2 improves on the original in nearly every aspect, including new combat mechanics, abilities and a skill-tree for a sense of progression. The environments are richly detailed and varied, too. Unfortunately, just like the original, Knack 2 overstays its welcome and insists on its ridiculous plot-line and Pixar-wannabe characters and story-beats. Despite Knack becoming an internet joke/meme over the years, I enjoyed my time with the game and would most certainly take a Knack 3 (not before an Ape Escape 4, however…).
Top 10 Games of the Year
10. Sonic Mania
What happens when a fan creates a new game from a beloved franchise? Sonic Mania, that’s what you get. Christian Whitehead, also known as “The Taxman”, is an independent game developer from Melbourne, Australia. He is notorious for working with Sega and Headcannon to produce remakes and enhanced ports of the original Sonic the Hedgehog games for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. As someone who grew-up with Sonic the Hedgehog, 3D Sonic games (basically, anything post-Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast) have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Sega and their various 3rd-party developers (such as Dimps) have attempted to recreate the 2D Sonic formula with middling success. With games like Sonic Rush and its numerous sequels and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and its handful of episodes, they’ve all been fairly underwhelming or just plain bad. Sonic Mania, however, feels like the true successor to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 + Knuckles. It’s as if we received a modern-day Sonic title for Sega Saturn with all of the bells & whistles. The sprite-work is phenomenal, the backgrounds are richly detailed, and the parallax-scrolling is some of the best in the business. What’s also so great about Sonic Mania are the remixed classic stages from the previous Sega Genesis titles. The way they’re designed and how the stages toy with players/fan’s expectations feels like they are just as unique and interesting as the new levels. The cherry on-top? Sonic Mania runs at 60FPS on most platforms and with its near-perfect controls, you’ve got, what some may deem as one of the most ironic releases of 2017, one of the best Sonic games of all time.
9. The Evil Within 2
Tango Gameworks and new director, John Johanas, released yet another 2017 sequel that no one ever expected to see. The original Evil Within was divisive among fans and critics alike. Shinji Mikami’s post-Resident Evil 4 horror game had a lot of great ideas, but at times felt unfocused and a bit of a mess, in terms of the overall gameplay and scenario-design. The Evil Within, however, provided one of the more visceral 3rd-person shooters for its time. Setting traps for enemies with the Agony Crossbow predated Horizon, in a sense, as using the environment and tools at one’s disposal for combat was the player’s greatest asset. Gun feedback felt satisfying and rewarding as nicely aimed head-shots left an impact, which is an important element for this genre. The Evil Within 2 carries most of the positives from the original yet somehow takes two steps forward and one step back. If you’re one of the few who’s played the DLC expansions from the original, The Evil Within 2 will make a whole lot more sense. If not, the game tries to establish a method to the original game’s madness, so-to-speak, while introducing new characters (some of which I could have done without) and story-beats along the way. One of the more interesting aspects of The Evil Within 2 is that a good portion of the game takes place in an open-world environment (think the town of Silent Hill). Numerous horror-themed vignettes are scattered about the Matrix-like town of Union and they’re some of the more memorable sequences from the game. Lastly, The Evil Within 2 (much like Gravity Rush 2) ends on such a high-note that I had to include it on my Top 10. Plug me back into STEM and let me experience The Evil Within 3, please!
Cuphead is a run & gun indie game developed and published by StudioMDHR. After its many delays, the game finally released in 2017 to much success. Cuphead is one of the most beautifully animated games I’ve ever played. It’s 1930’s Walt Disney-inspired aesthetic is a sight to behold. Aside from its beautiful art and jazzy score, Cuphead feels like a long-lost Treasure game at its core, too. Much like Treasure’s Alien Soldier, Cuphead is essentially a boss-rush mode. The game, at times, is extremely challenging, yet mostly fair due to the various options at the player’s disposal (such as purchasable powers and charms). Unfortunately, the optional run & gun stages (which apparently were shoehorned mid-development) feel like an afterthought and the random number generator (RNG) elements during boss fights do not encourage repeat attempts in order to obtain the elusive A+ Ranks. Aside from its few minor gripes, Cuphead was one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of the year.
7. Yakuza 0
For someone who’s been playing Yakuza games since the original on the PlayStation 2, Yakuza 0 has been a real treat. The game can best be described as a modern-day Streets of Rage with elements of Shenmue. Yakuza is a long-running Sega franchise that has gained more popularity in the west over the past year or two and for good reason! The series is a wonderfully engaging crime story filled to the brim with memorable characters and fantastic cinematography. Running around the streets of Kamurocho beating-up street thugs and wannabe gangsters at 60FPS has never felt so good. Yakuza 0 is a prequel to the franchise which takes place in the late 1980’s, prior to the events from the original game released back in 2005. A young Kazuma Kiryu, the long-running series protagonist and up & coming Yakuza, is framed for a murder he did not commit. If you’ve played a Yakuza game before, you’ll more or less know how the story will unfold. If not, it’s the perfect entry-point for those who are curious enough to set foot in the underbelly of the fictional town known as Kamurocho. While Yakuza is primarily a brawler, there’s a ton of side content, mini-games and other distractions to partake-in. While sub-stories/side-quests have always been more interesting than your average game, they’ve only gotten better with each new installment. One particular side-quest had Kazuma tracking down a stolen video game from street punks for a kid who saved up their allowance for the latest installment in a popular franchise. What appeared to be a game of cat & mouse resulted in a heart-warming story about a father and his estranged son. What tend to be menial tasks or fetch-quests in most games end up being meaningful encounters thanks in part to both the localization team and the scenario writers. Good stuff. Yakuza games are typically 100+ hour affairs comprised of (hilarious) side-stories and mini-games, however, I was unable to complete the game before year-end. Regardless, from the little I’ve played so far, the Chapter 3 introduction was enough to justify its position on my Top 10!
6. Super Hydorah
Super Hydorah, developed by Locomalito & Gryzor87 and published by Abylight Studios, is a love-letter to the arcade shooters of yore. If you’re one of the few who’s played Maldita Castilla EX, you’ll know right away just how genuine and talented this developer truly is. Super Hydorah is a horizontal/side-scrolling shooter (or as the cool kids will say, a “shmup”) which tributes such classics as Gradius, R-Type and Darius. Hydorah is comprised of short, challenging yet oh-so satisfying stages which culminates in creative boss encounters. Much like Darius, a non-linear, branching path is available to the player, so there’s a degree of choice when it comes to the route one may take. Unlike most shmups from the past, Hydorah saves the player’s progress after a stage is completed, so there’s no immediate commitment to complete the entire game in one sitting. Furthermore, the player earns new powers as stages are completed and there’s hidden secrets and multiple endings depending on one’s keen-eye and thoroughness. If you’re a fan of the genre, do yourself a favor and support/download this game. DO IT! NOW!
5. Gravity Rush 2
Japan Studio’s gravity-defying action game is one of 2017’s few “How did this get a sequel?” candidates. Silent Hill director, Keiichiro Toyama, is back once again introducing players to the confusing yet hopelessly alluring world of Gravity Rush 2. Nearly every aspect of the original Vita game has been expanded and re-worked, for better or worse. The art style is beautiful and the soundtrack, composed by Kōhei Tanaka, is just as incredible as the original game, if not better. There’s nothing quite like Gravity Rush on the market. Flying through the air with elegance, shifting gravity and fighting inter-dimensional creatures is more exciting an engaging than ever due to the new combat-oriented gravity-styles (Lunar and Jupiter). Unfortunately, the main/side-quest structure leaves a lot to be desired. There are far too many slow-paced intelligence-gathering missions, escort quests and instances where Kat, the main protagonist, must trail/shadow suspect individuals around the various towns. Many of these objectives have been open-world staples for many years which are typically never fun. Gravity Rush 2, however, is more than the sum of its parts. The final epilogue chapter answers many questions from the first game and the final boss sequence is a spectacle to behold. Gravity Rush 2 has a lot of heart and soul and sadly, it’s unclear if we’ll ever see Kat and the gang ever again. Given the game’s poor sales and lukewarm reception, this may have been the Gravity Queen’s last flight, so enjoy it while it lasts.
4. Super Mario Odyssey
The highly anticipated Super Mario Odyssey is finally here. For those who haven’t been keeping track; it’s been 21 years since Super Mario 64, 15 years since Super Mario Sunshine, 10 years since Super Mario Galaxy and only 4 years since Super Mario 3D World. While Nintendo has been releasing numerous Mario titles over the past two decades (whether that be in the form of New Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart, Mario Party, or the occasional sports title), most fans would agree, a mainline 3D entry in the same vein as Super Mario 64/Sunshine has been long overdue. Although Super Mario Odyssey is technically the follow-up or “sequel” to Super Mario 3D World, many will argue that this game is the true successor to Super Mario Sunshine. Considering its emphasis on open-space environments, exploration, player gimmicks (Odyssey’s Cappy is more or less Sunshine’s F.L.U.D.D.) and non-linear objectives, Super Mario Odyssey follows its Nintendo 64/Gamecube counterparts more closely than its more recent adaptations. With that said, Super Mario Odyssey is simply a joy to play. Odyssey is a game that continues to run circles in my head the second I turn it off and I can’t make that statement for just any game. Mario controls flawlessly and his move-set is near-perfect, too. Despite overshadowing Jump-man’s traditional platforming elements at times, the capture-hat mechanic is an interesting gimmick which keeps objectives and exploration interesting/varied. Power Moons, the game’s main collectables (otherwise known as Power Stars) are literally everywhere. Unlike the traditional 120 Stars to gather in most 3D Mario titles, there are hundreds upon hundreds to collect throughout the various themed locations in Odyssey. It’s unfortunately a case of quantity versus quality, but it’s mostly forgiven due to the pure craftsmanship on display by Nintendo’s EPD. Super Mario Odyssey also contains one of the coolest and most memorable post-games in the franchise and I’m looking forward to exploring every nook & cranny next year when I make my return to the Mushroom Kingdom.
3. Resident Evil 7
When a franchise has been around long enough like Resident Evil, you’re more likely going to develop preferences for not only particular entries in said franchise, but also perhaps a certain period/era of games. Resident Evil 7 is the return to form that I’ve been waiting for since Resident Evil 3 and Code Veronica. It’s safe to say, Capcom has diluted the franchise with many sequels and spin-offs over the years. However, times have changed and so have the teams, directors and producers responsible for steering this massive ship. Needless to say, Resident Evil has been in some rough waters, including even being outsourced to western-developers who nearly sank the boat. Fortunately, director Koshi Nakanishi, the man responsible for the more recent Resident Evil: Revelation titles, has been able to navigate this monster of a franchise out of its bloody-red ocean into fresh, more promising waters. The less one knows about Resident Evil the better off one is when experiencing RE7. Like most SCI-FI\Horror franchises, the longer a series drags its rotting corpse along, the more likely it’ll find itself backed into a convoluted, mess-of-a-corner. Resident Evil is no exception to this reality. Thankfully, Resident Evil 7 throws away nearly everything the franchise was building towards. In a post-RE4 world, things have gotten way out of control. RE5 and RE6 started to resemble the horrible film adaptations than their predecessors and between the complicated and miss-translated lore, story-beats that should have (or may have) been retconned, it’s almost impossible to care about the overarching universe. Fortunately, what’s old is new again and Resident Evil 7 stands tall.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
My 100+ hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in a nut-shell… First 25 hours: “I think this is my favorite Zelda game of all time! No wait, I think this is my favorite game of all time! 50 hours later: “Okay, I understand the gameplay loop and it’s still fun, but…I kindaaa miss the traditional dungeons…” 75 hours later: “Holy shit! Never mind, I love this game still! I didn’t know what those rock-circles are about, but I don’t care! Oh, you can do that with the Stasis Rune, too!?” Post-credits: “…so, when’s that DLC coming out?” The Champions’ Ballad and Master Trials release: “…wait, I’m in-love with this game all over again!”. While I don’t think Breath of the Wild is perfect by any means (weapon durability and inventory space being tied to Korok seed collection, for example), this entry was a very risky, yet completely necessary move on Nintendo’s part for both their company and the Legend of Zelda franchise as a whole. The formula/structure that has been established since Ocarina of Time carried the 3D installments for many years, but it was clearly growing stale and in much need of a revision, to say the least. While open world games are a dime-a-dozen today, Breath of the Wild feels fresh and unique compared to its contemporaries due to its focus on open-air exploration and master-class design. Nintendo and the team responsible for this journey have to be commended for crafting an open-world game that’s both content-rich and compelling, on their first try, too!
1. NieR: Automata
NieR: Automata, Yoko Taro’s latest installment in the ongoing Drakengard/NieR saga, in my opinion, is a masterpiece. Automata is a story about the struggle between androids, machines and what it means to be human. Two factions battle endlessly in an ongoing conflict in order to coexist and find meaning to their lives while the last bastion for humanity awaits patiently on the moon. The plot and narrative is as deep and complex as one would expect, however, more importantly, it’s such a joy to finally see one of Taro’s unique creations paired with a competent developer. In the past, Taro’s games have been compromised due to the development studios involved (such as Cavia Inc. and Access Games Inc.), so to have an amazing developer such as Platinum Games Inc. properly leverage Taro’s unique vision was nothing short of a miracle and quite simply a match made in heaven. NieR: Automata is an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. Much like Yoko Taro’s previous titles, Nier: Automata contains various routes/endings based on consecutive playthroughs. With each new ending the player is presented with even more depressing revelations and unexpected story beats/twists. With that said, Ending E was one of the most memorable end-game sequences I have ever experience and it’s one of the many reasons (along with its soundtrack) why I consider NieR: Automata my favorite game of 2017. Passive online multi-player features in primarily single-player focused games has been a popular feature in a post-Demon’s/Dark Souls world. A lot of games today integrate online-only elements in single-player games to give the player both a sense of community while not requiring the individual to commit to an online competitive/cooperative schedule. NieR: Automata, much like Dragon’s Dogma and the Souls games that have come before it, incorporated similar passive online features (such as leaving messages after the player perishes and summing NPCs for assistance), but the game also does something I’ve never seen before. Rest assured, it’s one of the most gratifying and fulfilling moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game and those who have witnessed this moment tend to agree. Yoko Taro, Platinum Games and Square-Enix deserve all of the credit and accolades they’ve received. The future is bright for all parties involved. Bring on the next chapter, fellas!
Stay tuned for Part II…