During last year’s list of favorites I started off by commenting on how the year was garbage culturally. I had absolutely no clue how bad 2017 was going to be comparatively. On year later with my career things have balanced out a lot emotionally and am actually feeling hopeful for future opportunities again. On the opposite side of work, the games went for this year were bananas in the best sense imaginable. It’s been a non-stop slew of quality releases for all types of players. I feel like I managed to play a great mix of what interested me on the new release horizon, as well as dipping back into older releases that I missed.
As with most years from working in an industry bombarded by the holiday season’s demands – (I work adjacent to retail) a lot of what closed out 2016 actually started off my 2017. It’s always a nice release after wrapping up a hectic work schedule when I can start off the year with the best releases of the previous one.
Here we are together at the end of the year which means a look back at my favorite games of the year. As with previous years my rules are simple for what qualifies…
- Choices are NOT limited to what was released in 2017. Platform ports, remasters, backlog, etc make it too complicated to just restrict options to recent releases.
- Choices must be the first time I’ve played them in that form. What I mean by this is Final Fantasy XII (PS2) and Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PS4) are two different releases for me.
- These are my personal favorites and are not indicative of anything beyond that. Technological, cultural, or sales achievements are not weighted in my choices.
Hopefully you took a minute to glance over what didn’t quite make the cut for this year. There were a lot of hard decisions to make honestly. Robots are always near and dear to my heart. That’s reflected with choices like Alien Isolation, Subsurface Circular, and some choices we’ll get to in a bit. This year was dominated with science fiction and nihilism as I explored various worlds that were varied all over. Perhaps a reflection of the state of our political climate? Either way I spent a lot of time getting cozy with thematically heavy hitters released this year… Which is also kind of unique this year. Normally I fall behind with what I’m playing a lot of my GotY contenders are years or decades old games that I just now managed to find my way to. Somehow I kept finding myself playing a lot of new releases this year, with 3 of the 4 selections for my favorites coming from 2017.
We all came here to see just what took top marks from my library this year. As heavy as many of the games were my first choice was intentionally the opposite. Bringing some levity to pull me out from the nearly Nine Inch Nails level of hopelessness… And God damn did it deliver in such a way that I didn’t expect!
South Park: The Stick of Truth was a game I didn’t foresee myself loving as much as I did. I’d always hear about how it was a great representation of the show with throws back to tons of moments in the show’s over two decade run. As someone who enjoyed the show but hadn’t watched it in about 11 years I figured it wasn’t for me. There was also the bit where it released late to PS3/X360 after I had moved onto PS4 made accessibility a bit of a problem. Thankfully with the upcoming release of The Fractured But Whole where the gang pokes fun of Superhero tropes this got brought forward to PS4.
Jumping onto Stick of Truth first so I could play them in proper order I was incredibly surprised with how sharp it was. All the kids in town were LARPing in a faux Dungeons & Dragons style setting. Choose your class from familiar archtypes (and unfamiliar such as a strength through wounding “Jew” class). After naming yourself they proceed to just call you douchebag then send you adventuring around town. Things escalate rather quickly as somehow Aliens and the government become involved all the while the kids remain committed to their game. It’s charming in a way that I haven’t really encountered before in video games. Beyond the crude humor and creeds of “never fart on another man’s balls”, the innocence of the kids is just great. Moments capture it well when events occur like seizing a betrayer’s fort builds up the climatic energy just to have it deflated by his parents mentioning that it’s past everyone’s bedtime and they needed to get home before their parents grounded them. To take it from that epic level down to the reality that it’s just a bunch of kids having a fun game together while everyone else around them continues to be lost in the stupidity of adulthood really appealed to me over it’s twenty’ish hour campaign. There were a lot of other cool bits with how they poked fun at game design, allowing you to bypass a lot of fights by clever use of environmental puzzles to disable the enemies, and of course how nothing is sacred when it comes to making a completely offensive joke if you placed it a remotely decent real world setting. A lot of the time I was smirking from either the charm or humor, but it really went into full on laughter when playing alongside my wife and seeing the sheer horror on her face as my shrunken character battled gnomes beneath my parents lovemaking and dodging my father’s swinging scrotum via QTE prompts. Good times.
It’s hard to have gone through the year in gaming without hearing Persona 5 uttered from someone’s lips or on their timeline. Persona really hit it’s stride with Persona 4 Golden on Vita a few years back. Being one of those who discovered the series then I’ve been excited to be at the cusp of what the studio had going on ever since. There was a brief detour with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. It played a lot like a Persona game with the cross of demons, corruption of people’s identities, battling in a secret world, and of course relationship building within your squad. When Persona 5 finally hit the scene though, ooohhh boy did it make a name for the brand like no other.
I don’t want to necessarily go into all the bits everyone already knows. The bullet points include a parallel timeline to our own with political corruption, over a hundred hour campaign, gorgeously fresh menus that pop, that sweet sweet soundtrack, and it’s darker mature themes throughout regarding the id and ego. All of that is fantastic and it’s tied to the proven formula of time management between dungeon delving and hitting up the arcade with friends to grow your bond with them. Really all of that just provides the machine to pilot through the space. What really makes P5 stand out as one of the best of the year comes from feel this game gives you. There’s a soul to all the 1’s and 0’s that make this game function. Shoji Meguro’s soundtrack definitely helped to breath life into the project as I can’t recall scenes separated from the accompanying tracks. When you first experience the camera roll back to reveal the cruise ship late in the game and that driving bass line opens to more bombastic strings? Or the very open of the game with the incredibly jazzy Whims of Fate inside the casino? You just feel like you’re in the coolest heist story ever. Of course I can’t close out talking about the soundtrack without highlighting just how damn good it feels when it gets time to steal the treasure of a Palace. VICTORY IS YOURS FOR THE TAKING – SEIZE IT, PHANTOM THIEVES!
The unmatched atmosphere is what puts this heads above the rest. You can’t help but be drawn into this world where you live out a mundane existence while tapping into the supernatural. The line that separates you from Joker, your in game avatar, fades away as you pluck away hour after hour. Suddenly you find yourself saying “I stole the heart of this jerk of a politician” instead of “they stole…” when discussing with friends. There are rough edges to parts of the game in the form of problematic side characters and themes, or designing a 70+ floor randomized dungeon that you have to return to between key story arcs. Somehow the lack of polish just adds to the punk persona that this game exudes with it’s anti-establishment agenda. At the end of it all they manage to wrap it nicely with plenty of twists along the way. The last story segment in particular leaves you walking away questioning a lot of things in our reality that we take at face value. Any game that can leave you pondering is a great game by my standards.
Hoo boy. If you want to talk about leaving you spiraling into existential despair you need to look no further than Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Something as critically praised as this but commercially overlooked looks to be a theme this year and Hellblade is no exception. Created independently by Ninja Theory, the team that brought you Heavenly Sword, DmC, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – It completely floored a lot of people how beautiful the game ended up looking. Holding rank with some of the best AAA out there visually you’d have no clue this was an independent release. So much of the game’s premise relies on your connection to the titular Senua as she battles her way through a hellscape in order to save her lost love’s soul. Making a real person with emotions that could be read a mile away just through facial expressions was key. You’re with Senua on her personal journey as psychosis takes hold through auditory and visual hallucinations expand the setting you’re in while also sharing her history with the player to understand who she is and why she’s willing to take this trek into hell to save her lover’s soul.
Something that struck me with this game was right out of the gate. While I complemented Persona 5 for convincing me that I was the main protagonist, Joker – What really caught me off guard with Hellblade is how openly they disconnect you from Senua and establish her with her own identity. When spinning the camera around to try and take a screenshot to share on Twitter I came across a feature where she refused to look at the camera. I don’t know how to explain it but it just sent a chill through me. Suddenly video games weren’t linking me to the world through the avatar I controlled. Senua wasn’t a husk meant to be manipulated so I could exist in that space. She had her own life that I couldn’t break. With her paranoia she refused to look at the camera, to look at me in the eye. No amount of spinning the camera could correct it as she intentionally dodged my view with a heavy shift in focus away from wherever I spun the camera. It was surreal. From that moment on I was in love with the direction the game took and the respect they had for their character.
— Chris // Punk (@PunkrawkBbob) August 10, 2017
Outside of the strong characterization I couldn’t stop playing whenever I had free time. The combat was richly polished to allow instant counters and cycles to work with. Ninja Theory has been honing their skills for melee combat across several games now and clearly have it down to a science. The other half of the experience came from the puzzles laid out in the world. Overall the game came in about 10 hours so nothing overstayed its welcome, each of the challenges it put out in front of me felt fresh until the very end. The story had a constant growth until it’s end, at which point it ended in a perfect conclusion. There’s so much to say about this game to entice others to play it, but it runs the risk of spoiling the best parts of discovery within it. Going in blind and working your way through without outside information is absolutely the best way to play it… The only part I’ll mention as it leads the game in is wearing headphones during play builds the experience so much. The isolation created from your real environment is one piece of that, but a lot of the narrative is explained by voices speaking to you and speaking to Senua. It creates an uncomfortable balance of trying to figure out if they’re talking to you or to her throughout the entire game. I promise you this is the best game you don’t know anyone that’s played and you will love… Provided you cherish a darker level of storytelling in your games.
I had not seen Nier: Automata coming at all. Announced during Square’s horrible E3 conference in 2015 alongside the FF7 Remake. I was unfamiliar with Nier beyond it’s goofy looking box art. What I did know about it came when the demo was released and people started talking about how the director Yoko Taro was a mad man behind the pen. Looking at previous works via a YouTube lore summary video, I learned this was not something I should be ignoring. Bearing a heavy slant on robots vs androids, as any good science fiction knows the futility of life and parallels to ourselves to question life, existence, and free will into a shell of newly minted species fighting for survival. Actions are taken that are morally questionable in order to secure a future for mankind. Deeply problematic situations constantly arise and the villains you thought you were facing become beings of sympathetic origins. The story caries you through multiple perspectives as you unravel the larger story piece by piece. Suddenly that big death machine you’re facing isn’t just a big nasty standing in the way, they’re someone not so different from you. That’s the beauty of it all in the end… just how relatable all the parties involved are given the right circumstances. 2B, 9S, and A2 all have their role to play as you jump around their lives and witness the sorrow all around you scene after scene. Make no mistake, this game is a tragedy from start to finish. to finish. to finish… but more on that in a minute.
Regardless of how great the story is without good mechanics to hold it up it’ll fall flat. I think that’s where Nier and Drakengard fell short trying to reach their audience. Now the action RPG is lead by Platinum Games, renowned for their ability to build some frenetic combat action engines. Nier: Automata exemplifies the very best of what Platinum has to offer from what I’ve played. The opening scene starts with a ‘shmup shooter sequence akin to Ikaruga or Raiden. Soon after it transfers into open world action. Then a boss fight that combines ‘shmup and beat ’em up. Eventually you unlock hacking mini-games that are full on Geometry Wars clones. The game never stops varying up what it wants from you with some sections going into side scrolling 2D brawlers like Streets of Rage. So much of this game is just punk game design at it’s finest. Whatever they felt like doing they ran with. Platformer, boss rushes, fishing minigames, etc. There was never a dull moment to be had mechanically.
The music. Oh. My. God. The music.
Yet back to the “to finish. to finish. to finish.” bit we go. The story plays through in a dozen or so hours to a conclusion that you can walk away from… but then they gently nudge you on saying “hey, there’s more if you want to keep playing, and we strongly recommend you see that through.” Alright, sure, why not? I’ve been enjoying myself and the character relationships. It just ended with a strong conclusion, what else could they do to spice this up? Continued plays reveal so much more going on from the sidelines or internally kept secret during the first campaign. Slowly you start to realize the first ending [A] was just a taster of the grand buffet that is the game. Chasing endings [B], then [C], [D], and [E] paints an entirely different picture of the events within the first ending [A]. Going back to revisit the story you can’t believe all the subtle beats you never picked up on. Once again, the director Yoko Taro is a mad man with the pen. Few would have saw the twists he planned ahead of time yet when you go back it all lines up into an intricate pattern of one of the best stories about humanity you’ll ever play – starring androids and robots.
That’s really the jewel of the whole experience too. Living with the characters and watching them develop together. Grow as individuals as they take to their environments. The risks they take to help others. Acts of selflessness. Altruism and trust. Navigating a dying world while a new one emerges. Realizing behind every terrible act is a road of good intentions that lead to desperate actions. Even the best people are often faced with the horrors of reality, and Nier: Automata gives no shits about who you love or how great their deeds may be. You will see civilizations form. Religions are born. Fear festers within us all. We will become as gods. There’s a futility to it all and you will feel every moment of it for years to come. But this cannot continue. This cannot continue. This. Cannot. Continue.