Wow, this was quite the year! While I think the past couple years may have had more cream-of-the-crop/outstanding games at the top, I can't remember a year with this many games that were worth playing. Some years it is difficult to come up with a full list of 10 games that I really enjoyed, whereas for 2017 I could easily go 20-deep with games I feel strongly about. It's impossible to play everything, but I pretty much got to play everything I was interested in last year, with the exception of Nioh.
I decided to list more than 10 this time, because there are some really good games that sadly wouldn't have made the cut. The gap between #6 and #11 is so slight, and with all of those games being so different from each other, any one of them could have been the one left out. It was really tough to rank them; I'm still not sure I got it right, but I found this arrangement to be the least-upsetting so...
#11 - NieR:Automata
As I reflect back on my time spent playing NieR:Automata over the summer, it strikes me as fascinating how so many aspects of that game just aren't very good, and yet I still wanted to experience every last bit of it. That's essentially the pact I made with director Yoko Taro. Right from the beginning of my very first playthrough, I knew what I was signing up for: that I was going to have to put up with a lot of bullshit, but that I was also going to be taken on a wild ride unlike anything else I've ever played. I saw enough in those early hours to know that this was the realization of one man's profoundly quirky vision, and I trusted Taro to make good on it.
By and large, seeing Routes A through E was time well-spent. The narrative through line involving the concept of humanity existing in this version of a post-apocalyptic Earth is the main driving force for everything. It takes a unique spin on well-worn "man vs. machine" themes, where androids -- typically the "machine" in similar works of science fiction -- essentially play humankind's role in the conflict, whereas the machines are exactly that: machines. It poses all sorts of questions about what exactly makes the player characters, 2B and 9S, all that different from the "enemies" they're destroying in short order.
Even though most of the mission design is bad and feels like an artifact of the PS2-era, I actively wanted to do every side quest that popped up on the map. I wanted to see how each NPC's story would play out, because every little bit seemed to always contribute to the larger whole. New questions relating to the game's overarching themes are posed everywhere, from the most seemingly inconsequential side-mission to the main golden path, and are often answered in the form of more questions. It's thought-provoking, but it leaves you to do most of the thinking yourself. Nearly everything about the "what?" and the "how?" of Nier's world is eventually explained, but as to what 2B and 9S' actions (and by extension, my role as the player) mean in the greater context, those are answers I needed to come up with on my own.
And kudos to Platinum/Square for including content in the main game that most other games would require you pay extra for. Some of Automata's best content comes after a significant time investment, but seeing all that stuff included was a breath of fresh air nonetheless. It's not higher on the list because the game eventually drifts into over-the-top anime nonsense, with some unnecessary late game twists that made me roll my eyes more than anything else. I personally found the payoffs to the earlier main routes to be more impactful. But that said, I can't say I played anything else in 2017 quite like this. I never would have thought I'd be up for a game that asked me to stay with it through multiple playthroughs, but NieR:Automata offered enough one-of-a-kind content to have made it all seem worthwhile. (PlatinumGames, Playstation 4)
Oftentimes when we contemplate how good video games can ever look visually, we tend to consider the pursuit of photo-realism as a natural end game. We tend to forget that there's a huge world out there beyond what can be captured in live-action or hyper-advanced CG.
And that brings us to Cuphead. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a game could ever look like this. When I first saw it as part of an indie sizzle-reel at one of Microsoft's E3 conferences, I did an immediate double-take: "Was that a video game?" Because I knew what it looked like. It looked exactly like early 20th century cartoons, from the way the hand-drawn characters animated all the way down to the aberrations and graininess associated with old film. But could something with that style work as a game?
The answer is a resounding "yes". Of course, it was its visual style and big band-inspired soundtrack of the same era that initially drew me to Cuphead, but the notion of it being more or less a series of finely-crafted, challenging boss fights also held a lot of appeal for me. Its presentation being unique among video games is one thing, but I appreciated that it wasn't just another puzzle-platformer. More than any other 2017 game, Cuphead has absolute confidence in everything that it's going for. It knocks it out of the park, really.
And it's hard. Oh man, is it a hard game. As someone who sucks at who has never really liked run & gun side-scrollers, I wasn't sure if it'd be a game I'd be able to enjoy beyond its aesthetics. And I have to admit, I spent the majority of the game cursing at the Xbox, the TV, myself, and everything in between. But the frustration that arose from hours and hours of repeated failure was only matched by my jubilation and satisfaction after finally scoring the big "Knockout!" (the subsequent schadenfreude directed towards my fallen opponents included healthy dose of profanity as well!)
Cuphead is so astounding in the way that it's able to execute on its ambitions to such an impressive degree. The animations of the boss characters, and the increasingly unpredictable ways that each one transforms into something different altogether, is just brilliantly done. I hate this game, but I love it all the same.
Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, Playstation 4)
Going back to a more traditional open-world game like Horizon Zero Dawn, even several months removed from my time playing Breath of the Wild, was always going to be difficult. That style of game-design had become stale years ago, and after Zelda raised the bar as much as it did, I wasn't sure if Horizon would have much to offer me. And through the first dozen hours or so, I was about ready to bounce off of it. Getting around the world and exploring it wasn't especially fun to do, and many of the quests repeated the same "Witcher tracking" gameplay that has been done ad nauseam. It was finding out Aloy's backstory, and the reasons for why Earth came to be like this, that had me intrigued enough to stick with it. Oh, and the visuals. (I held off on starting Horizon until I got a new OLED 4KTV over Black Friday. Needless to say, it looks jaw-dropping). It's the best-looking game I've ever played.
But as I continued to play, things eventually started to click as far as the combat goes, and that's where Horizon shines the brightest. Early on, I never felt like I had to do much more than stealth and rudimentary melee attacks. As the enemies continued getting more and more threatening, though, these tactics started to become worthless. It evolves into a game where combat is centered around your various bows and arrows, and boy does it work. With each different enemy type, I found myself constantly strategizing and trying to come up with the most effective way to deal with them.
Additionally, being able to use your bow to shoot specific parts off of enemies added another dimension to both the combat and progression systems. Those parts can be used in a multitude of ways, and it's all up to the player. They can be used in crafting more ammo or potions. They can be used to sell/trade to merchants for currency or better equipment. And some parts can be used against the enemy that they were detached from.
Between the increasing number of different enemy types, the upgraded weapons that can be purchased and Aloy's skills that can be unlocked, combat became exceedingly varied and fun to engage with. In the early stretches of the game, I found myself being stealthy and avoiding combat, but the more Horizon I played, the more I began seeking out these enemy encounters. The toughest battles are very challenging and can force you to use almost everything in your arsenal, and this led to some of the most thrilling moments I had in a game all year. It's the best bow-and-arrow combat I've seen implemented in a video game.
The storytelling itself isn't awesome; there are a handful of huge "info dumps" strewn across the main quest line where the majority of the big questions are answered; outside of those, it's pretty thin. But when it comes to explaining the state of the world and why Aloy is special, it goes in some very unexpected directions. It was refreshing that many of my (predictable) theories were off-the-mark. As an added bonus, it all wraps up very nicely in the end, and feels complete in a way that many other modern AAA games do not. Yes, there will almost undoubtedly be a Horizon 2, but the story never felt like it was setting the stage just for that.
Overall, Horizon Zero Dawn is a really, really well-made take on an existing open-world formula, and it goes above and beyond that with it's deep combat, compelling plot and breathtaking presentation. It's a top 5-caliber game in any other year.
Metroid: Samus Returns (MercurySteam, Nintendo 3DS)
It's been a rough decade for us Metroid fans ever since Metroid Prime 3: Corruption released for the Wii: Retro Studios moved onto Donkey Kong Country. Other M was a big-time disappointment. And as the Metroidvania-style of 2D action-adventure game really blew up in the indie scene, the series that fathered that genre was MIA; no new 2D games since 2004's Zero Mission. Things really hit rock bottom at E3 2015 when, after a five-year layoff, the Metroid series resurfaced...in the form of Federation Force. Even worse than the series possibly being dead was that Nintendo appeared to have no idea what their fans wanted. For a company known for sometimes being very out-of-touch, this may have been the most glaring example of it.
All of this makes what happened in 2017 all the more unbelievable. Metroid Prime 4 got announced for the Switch. "Awesome! But it's probably years away...still, that's really cool!" But the bigger surprise was that there was also a 3DS remake of Metroid II, and it was coming out in only a few short months. Released almost exactly ten years after Corruption, Metroid: Samus Returns is exactly as its name suggests. Okay, so maybe it's not the grand comeback that Prime and Fusion releasing on the same day back in 2002 was for the series, but all things considered, it's no less gratifying.
Remaking Metroid II was perfect, because it was the only main Metroid title that I hadn't ever played some version of. So for all intents and purposes, this was a brand new game for me. And it's great. 2D Metroid has never looked, sounded or played better than it does here. Finally getting the chance to ditch its SNES roots after all these years, Samus Returns borrows from the series' 3D counterparts and delivers a look and feel that can be best described as "2D Prime". And that goes beyond just the art-style, the sound design and atmosphere. Even some of the boss fights reach a Retro-level of quality, striking just the right balance between challenge and creativity.
Enemy encounters are no joke either, and they justify the melee counterattack's addition as a key new component of the combat. Even when backtracking for secrets, I had to constantly be on my toes and ready for a fight. And just when it started to feel like the odds were being stacked against Samus, the game always seemed to dole out powerups at just the right time, giving her a more palpable sense of newfound strength than other previous Metroid games did.
I put close to 20 hours into Samus Returns on my way to 100%-ing it, which dwarfs the other 2D games. And I never approached the point of growing tired of it. There's way more game here than I was expecting coming in, and the bulk of it is excellent. When taking into account all of the things it does to improve on the existing games, the sheer volume of content, the new abilities, the boss battles -- everything -- Samus Returns deserves a spot right at or damn near the top of the 2D Metroid pantheon. I hope to see this developer-publisher partnership continue going forward. As far as I'm concerned, they've earned the opportunity to make more of these.
Resident Evil VII: biohazard (Capcom, Playstation 4)
And if it's been a rough stretch for Metroid fans, it's been even worse for Resident Evil fans -- doubly so for those of us who prefer its classic survival horror roots. Ever since Resident Evil 4 turned the series' formula on its head, RE has alternated between the increasingly over-the-top action of the main games, and the Revelations sub-series that tried splitting the difference between survival horror and action (with mixed results). Aside from the announcement that RE2 was being remade, there wasn't much else that excited me about this series anymore.
To be perfectly honest, I had pretty much given up on both Resident Evil and Capcom after RE6. While I didn't love the new action-oriented direction of the series, I still think RE4 is an incredible game and RE5 was at the very least a competent follow-up. Those games didn't tarnish the legacy of the franchise or the developer. RE6, on the other hand, was a complete and total disaster, a bloated mess of a production that bore almost no resemblance to the series I once loved. It was clear to me that inside the walls at Capcom, Resident Evil no longer had an identity and there wasn't a Mikami or Hideki Kamiya-type figure there anymore that was willing or able to rescue it. I didn't believe for a second that Capcom still had it in them to make a good Resident Evil game, let alone one that could put the series back at the forefront of the survival horror genre.
I was wrong. Resident Evil VII: biohazard was the biggest surprise for me in 2017, and just typing out those words warms my heart.
Even though we knew going in that RE7 was aiming to be more about horror, I still wasn't sold. It wasn't clear to me that RE had shed its identity crisis. It seemed just as likely that, out of ideas, Capcom was trying to hitch its wagon to the recent hype around first-person horror games like P.T. and Outlast. All of their marketing suggested this, as did the first hour of the game.
And then something magical happened: it suddenly turned into a Resident Evil game. Like, actual, old-school motherfucking Resident Evil! Manual save stations. Item boxes. Non-linear level design and progression. Inventory and resource management. A strong sense of place. A tense, foreboding atmosphere. That persistent feeling that something might be lurking around the corner. These were all things I didn't think I'd ever get to experience again, all at once, in a new video game. It brought back feelings that I haven't felt in a very long time.
It seems almost insulting in its straightforwardness to suggest that taking classic RE and simply making it first-person would be such a big deal for this genre, but the fact remains that it is. Because the recent run of first-person hide & seek games, great as some of them are, aren't doing what RE7 is doing. Those games are weak mechanically, and don't give you much in the way of fighting back. They don't scratch that old-school survival horror itch; Resident Evil 7 does.
The only real bummer is that it doesn't stick the landing: the last hour is...not good. It's pretty bad, actually. But the meat of the game, the majority of RE7 sandwiched between its first and last hours, is kinda awesome. The transition to first-person takes a tried-and-true but unquestionably old style of game design, and makes it feel fresh in a way that I wasn't sure would work. This is easily their best effort since RE4. RE7 establishes a solid foundation for the next game to build off of, and for the first time in years, I can honestly say I'm excited about the future of Resident Evil.
Splatoon 2 (Nintendo EPD, Switch)
When the Wii first came out, I spent the first few weeks playing nothing but the new Zelda game, as though this was just another new Nintendo system. Eventually I got around to playing Wii Sports, and then everything made sense: "Okay, now I get it." Twilight Princess came and went, but my friends, family and I played Wii Sports over and over for years. This wasn't any ordinary new video game console.
The Switch release shows how little I've changed over the years. I spent the first few months playing nothing but the new Zelda game, as though -- you guessed it -- this was just another new Nintendo system. I kept it docked the whole time, hooked up to my TV while I sat on the couch. I've never been big on handhelds, and when it came to the Switch, I was much more enthusiastic about playing Nintendo's handheld games on a big screen than I was about taking Nintendo's console games on the go. "Why would I ever want to play Breath of the Wild on that tiny screen?" That was all before I started looking at the Switch not as handheld device, but as a portable console.
So where does Splatoon 2 fit into all of this? I did play a little bit of the first game, but it was well after a lot of the buzz surrounding the game had died down. And I've just never been that into competitive online shooters, or more broadly, competitive online games in general. When I'm at home after work and have 3 or 4 hours of free time, I much prefer spending that time playing single-player games. That just happens to be where my interests lie.
But I did still want to give Splatoon another shot on the Switch, and I had just discovered the perfect place for it: the office. Taking the Switch into work, setting it up in table-top mode with the Joy-Cons, and killing an hour during my lunch break has been a revelation. I wouldn't have known it if I hadn't tried it, but it's changed the way I play video games. And through Splatoon 2, I think I'm into competitive shooters again. I'm into this one, at least.
It's just so much fun. When I'm struggling to get through the workday, it's something to look forward to when the clock strikes Noon. I can sit down, play a dozen matches online and it doesn't really matter whether I finish first or last, because I'm always having a great time. And there's nothing complicated about Splatoon. It's delightful in the simplicity of it all; just go out there and spray ink and just have fun. I have so many fond memories of playing Smash Bros. and Mario Kart through the years, but right now, I think Splatoon is Nintendo's best multiplayer franchise. I find it to be all about having pure, mindless fun in ways that those other series sometimes aren't.
And now it's on a platform that allows me to get the most out of it. This is as much about the Switch as it is about Splatoon 2 itself, but in this instance, they're inseparable. If it wasn't for the portability of the Switch, I'd have never gotten into Splatoon 2. And if Splatoon 2 wasn't such a great game, the Switch would still be docked next to my TV. Next up for me: Rooftop parties!
Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo EPD, Switch)
Very few series have the kind of track record where I could make a statement like "this game's really great, but it's one of my least-favorites." And so it goes with the embarrassment of riches that is the 3D Mario series, where even the worst game -- Super Mario Sunshine -- is still great.
I've seen Super Mario Odyssey described as both a "return to form" and a "return to Super Mario 64-style", but I don't really agree with either assessment. Dealing with the former, if you look at every 3D Mario game from SM64 up through Super Mario 3D World, you can see how each subsequent game took further steps towards bringing that 2D, level-based style of Mario into 3D. I thought 3D World was a tremendous game that fully realized 2D Mario platforming in 3D, and if Nintendo decided they couldn't take it any further down that path, I get it. But Odyssey does represent a step backward in that regard. And as for the latter, SM64's worlds were still very much about platforming challenges and were essentially large puzzles in and of themselves, both integral towards collecting stars. The sandbox worlds in Odyssey aren't really constructed to do that.
In truth, Super Mario Odyssey is a new type of 3D Mario game. There's platforming in it, but it's not really a platforming game. It's not really an exploration game, either. You're almost tripping over moons with how densely-packed with secrets it is. No, I think the most appropriate description is that it's a game about discovery. Discovery of what's hidden in each world. Discovery of what Mario can capture with his hat. Discovery of what Mario's normal abilities can do in certain circumstances. Discovery of what Mario's capture abilities can do in certain circumstances. Oh, and the discovery of the winks and nods to over 30 years of great moments we've all enjoyed with gaming's most iconic franchise, little references here and there that any Mario fan can't help but smile at. If that was their aim, then Odyssey is an overwhelming success.
I mean, I can't really knock a game too much when I put over 50 hours into it, and there wasn't a single second where I wasn't having a good time. Every time I thought I was done, I kept coming back until I eventually found everything. And that was no small task; it's absolutely staggering how much content there is in this game, and how there are secrets everywhere, even in spots where you'd least expect them. Nothing else I played last year, not even Breath of the Wild, was as rewarding on a moment-to-moment basis as this game. While I can point to things that I liked more about other Mario games, I can't point to a single thing in Mario Odyssey that isn't done exceptionally well. It's as polished as video games get.
But what differentiates Odyssey from other 3D Mario games the most is the source of its strongest moments. In other 3D Mario games, it was usually something associated with the gameplay or the level design that blew me away the most. With Odyssey, it's the fan service that delivered the most resonant moments. And while fan service isn't something that I'm normally too keen on, it worked its magic on me here. As the Miyamoto's and Tezuka's and Koizumi's have moved onward and upward at Nintendo, kids who grew up playing Mario games are now the ones making Mario games, and it shows. Between everywhere you look and everything that happens in the game, it's abundantly clear how much love the creators have for this franchise. Moments like the New Donk City festival, and the events that unfold after the final boss, tapped into the series long history in a way that really struck a chord with me. Super Mario Odyssey is more than just a new Mario game; chronicling his first appearance in Donkey Kong up through 3D World, it's a heartfelt celebration of all things Mario.
What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, Playstation 4)
I'm still not sure if "walking simulator" is considered a pejorative term for games like What Remains of Edith Finch and its brethren, games that still largely exist only in the indie realm. Maybe "first-person narrative adventure" is more appropriate. But if it is considered a slight, it's because games in the genre haven't strayed too far from the golden path -- figuratively speaking, but perhaps literally as well. I generally like these types of games, but I can't deny their lack of innovation and diversity in game design. The commonalities among most of them are numerous and easy to point out: first-person, linear, silent protagonist, story told through finding notes and/or recordings, no NPCs, no significant gameplay mechanics, limited player agency, and a lack of real challenges. That's not to say they are without merit, but it's not a stretch to suggest that they haven't exactly been taking full advantage of the medium. For example I enjoyed 2016's Virginia, but if it was presented as a non-interactive movie, not a whole lot would have changed for me.
In just a few hours, however, Edith Finch laps the field and sets a new standard for walking simulators/narrative adventures/whatever the hell you want to call this type of game. It starts like any of these other games would: you're going back to visit your old house, you're all by yourself, things have happened to the people who aren't there and those are the blanks you'll need to fill in (the Finches are like the Kennedy family, in that so many family members have died under tragic and/or suspicious circumstances that many have attributed that to a curse).
"Filling in those blanks" is where this game diverges from the mean. It's not about finding pages torn from a notebook, or playing hidden cassette tapes. Rather, you -- the player -- get to live out the final moments of the deceased Finches. Each death is presented as a unique vignette that isn't like any of the others, and each incorporates its own set of gameplay mechanics that you wouldn't normally see in a game like this. And if it sounds like all of this would be too morbid and possibly even tasteless, it's not. The vignettes don't harp on the depressing, sad aspects of death. Instead, the deceased are presented as larger than life, extraordinary people that went out doing the things they loved to do most. Edith Finch doesn't tip its hand as to whether this is really how they died, or if these events were all embellished, and that's because for the purposes of this game, none of that really matters.
What matters most is that in its short running time, What Remains of Edith Finch provided several of the most memorable moments I had in a video game last year. The fish cannery. The comic strip. The bathtub. These vignettes all serve the basic purpose of telling a story, but here it's all done through player interactivity. They do things that are only possible through the medium of video games, and the stories made a much stronger impression on me as a result.
Prey (Arkane Studios, Playstation 4)
When it comes to making immersive-sim games, few developers have been better in recent times than Arkane. Both of their Dishonored games excel in all key aspects, from world-building to level-design to player choice. But for me, neither game really reached its full potential because they didn't know exactly what they wanted to be. The designers really wanted those games to be like Deus Ex, but the games they actually made had a lot more in common with Thief; because of that lack of a clear focus, they weren't the spiritual successors to either classic series in the ways I would have wanted them to be.
That's not a problem with Prey. It knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be, and that's the spiritual successor to System Shock. The space station Talos-I which serves as Prey's setting is the year's best example of great world-design meeting great world-building. The entire station is largely open to explore from the get-go, and the order in which you complete objectives is largely in your own hands. There's no right or wrong way to play, because of how many tools and abilities you're given to play around with. Certain areas are gated off via locks or other obstructions, and the game's progression is Metroid-esque in that regard. But the twist is that while these areas are gated by what abilities and skills you do or don't have, there's never only one way of getting around them.
For instance, there was a locked security door at one point that I thought for sure I couldn't get past yet. I could have used a key, but I hadn't found one. I could have entered the passcode, but I hadn't discovered what it was. If my hacking skills were high enough, I could have hacked the door open, but they weren't. So I decided to try something: I used my GLOO cannon to create a small platform to elevate myself up to the height of a small slot in the window. From my new little perch, I crouched so that my reticle was inside that slot. Then, I used my mimic ability to turn myself into a replica of a three-ring binder(!) that was on the floor, and as a binder I was small enough to fit through the slot and get past the door. I felt like a genius and a cheater all at once, but within the context of Prey's design, nothing is off-limits if you can do it. You can get almost anywhere you want with the GLOO cannon if you're willing to put the effort in, and the game's excellent level design totally allows for it.
It really is the "System Shock meets Metroid" that was promised by the developer. The main story and quest objectives are fine, but I got so much more out of backtracking and exploring the station for secrets, which ranged from lore that would give backstory on the ill-fated Talos-I residents and crew, to loot that could be used in crafting or upgrading. I spent so many hours just exploring every square inch of the station just to see what I might discover, and it never disappointed. They've crafted one of the more convincing worlds of this magnitude, with the station truly feeling lived-in for years and years prior to the start of the game. Numerous secondary characters come to life through found recordings and e-mails, even though many of them are already dead or missing. Through the strength of the writing, you really come to know these people and their personalities and what they were like before the shit hit the fan, and there's so much of that throughout the entire station. And there are little things like where items that you can interact with are placed in the environments. All immersive sims have these, but Prey does an admirable job of making sure they're placed in spots where they make sense, and at times they serve to tell their only little piece of the story about an NPC. All of these things add up to make a well-designed setting like Talos-I feel even more believable and real.
I've never gotten hung up on this game being called "Prey" or that Human Head's Prey 2 was cancelled. Original 2006 Prey was a good, solid game with a few really cool moments. I liked it. But I'm not at all heartbroken that it never got a sequel. Arkane's Prey is their best game yet, and it's the best immersive sim to come out since the genre's heyday in 1999/2000.
Yakuza 0 (Sega, Playstation 4)
I had never played a Yakuza game before, and didn't really know a whole lot about the series, other than that it was about Japanese organized crime and that it gets compared with Shenmue a lot. And knowing that they were already five or so games deep, and that they're long games...it never seemed like a series that made sense for me to get into all of a sudden.
However with Yakuza 0 being a prequel to the whole series, if there was ever a time to jump in, this was it. It got good reviews. And obviously, I saw the chicken .gif. There was something about the goofy lightheartedness of the side content contrasting with the seriousness of the main story that reminded me of another game that's near and dear to my heart: Deadly Premonition. So, I decided to take a chance on it, and boy am I glad that I did!
Where do I begin? There's the main crime saga, which alternates between cities and protagonists (Kiryu and Majima), that smartly starts off as two unrelated origin stories that eventually bleed together. You get to know exactly who these characters are to the point that there's no mistaking them for one another as you switch between scenarios. The main story has multiple layers, with several key players that have allegiances to one or more crime families; it's initially all a bit difficult to keep track of, but it all works itself out due to how effectively the game develops each of its supporting characters.
This gritty, at times noir-ish main narrative is balanced by the side missions, which couldn't be further on the opposite end of the spectrum. They are funny, and I don't mean funny in the way that this is a Japanese script that became funny due to localization, but actually legitimately funny. Seriously, I don't think I've ever laughed out loud playing a video game as often as I have with Yakuza 0. Walking around town as Kiryu or Majima, many of the quests just start automatically. And if I was on my way to go do something else, too bad, I was doing the side mission because I knew it would be a great time. I felt bad that there were still blank spots in the side mission checklist after beating the game, so I looked them up and did them all anyway. I didn't want to miss a single thing that this game had to offer.
Now, I'll just sit back and spout off about some of the cool things I did in this game. If people want to fight you in the streets, you just press a button to throw money around like a badass and everyone leaves you the hell alone. I've gone fishing and caught sharks, and I've also caught briefcases. I bought a lightsaber. I helped out Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg and became their buds. I masturbated a lot. I hired a chicken to help manage my business, and he's one of my best employees. I later hired Steven Spielberg to serve in the same role as the chicken. There's a mini-game where you manage a cabaret club, and it's so deep and addicting that I'd buy it if it was its own game. I've tombstone pile-driven dudes into the pavement, and instead of being dead, they get back up so I can tombstone them again. I helped a little boy buy a porno magazine, and was proud of it. Majima's introduction is probably the best cutscene ever in a video game:
That's just a sampling...I could go on and on and on about my time with Yakuza 0. It is one of the most thoroughly entertaining games I've played in years. If I had only known the Yakuza series was this good, I'd have started it a lot sooner.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD, Switch)
My 2017 Game of the Year is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, not because it set a new standard for open-world design or because it restored the Zelda series to greatness. It's because somehow, remarkably, it managed to do both of these things. It's one of the best games Nintendo has ever made, and it's the best open-world game that I've ever played.
Right from the moment I got off of the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild made me feel like a kid again, losing myself in a world full of mystery and wonder. This version of Hyrule felt huge in the way that Ocarina of Time's Hyrule did for me back in 1998. Back in those middle-school days, my friends and I would talk about "how awesome Zelda was going to be on the Dolphin!" The Zelda game that only existed in my dreams back then? This is that game.
It's not that everything here is totally brand new. A lot of it isn't, actually. But Nintendo looked hard at what games like Far Cry and The Elder Scrolls were doing, and smartly borrowed from the things they got right, but also avoided many of the things they were doing wrong. In Breath of the Wild, you climb towers to fill-in portions of the map. Every Ubisoft game ever does this. But rather than covering the map with icons representing the "important stuff", only the geography and topography of the region is revealed. It's now on you to actually use the map and decide for yourself what looks interesting enough to explore. It seems like a trivial change, but it actually makes a big difference.
These sorts of smart design choices can be evidenced all throughout the game. Like being able to climb anything in the world, regardless of the surface, with no invisible walls. It doesn't seem like it would be a big deal, but it changes everything about exploration. I can look at the map and plot a course for the next thing I want to do, but if I see something interesting along the way and I want to take a detour to go check it out, I just go over there and do it and it's no big deal. Even if I had to jump off of a cliff to get there, it's wouldn't deter me at all because I can get right back to where I was without much of a hassle. The combination of the paraglider and being able to climb anything makes exploring and getting around the world so much easier and more fun.
But what impressed me the most about Breath of the Wild is how it managed to reap the benefits of open-world design, while having virtually none of the drawbacks. It doesn't have that clear drop in quality in terms of game design, or level design, or polish. It has the consistent quality of a 3D Zelda game that you'd expect, but on a much more gargantuan scale. It still feels as densely packed with compelling content, even at that much larger scope. The overall world design, with all of its distinctive landmarks, establishes a strong sense of place to the point where I always know where I am in the world and rarely have to even look at the map. The level design out in the world is still strong and memorable, giving it a bespoke feel to a degree not normally seen in games of this magnitude. And in over 200 hours with the game, I didn't encounter a single glitch, framerate issues notwithstanding. No floating NPCs, or Link getting stuck on random geometry somewhere. Open-world games just don't do all of the same things Breath of the Wild does, with a world that still manages to feel handcrafted, and to anywhere near the same level of polish.
Even after all of this, I'm sure I still left a lot out. After 200 hours of memorable moment after memorable moment, I could go on forever. But I do know that my time with Breath of the Wild is my own story, one that no one else likely experienced in the exact same way I did. I now know for certain that The Legend of Zelda series is better off by going open-world, and it has raised the bar for all open-world games going forward. And I've never been more excited about the future of the Zelda series than I am now.
So, that's the list. I hope all of that came across as coherent at least.
These would round out my Top 20:
12. The Evil Within 2 - It lacks what I call the “Mikami Moments” of its predecessor, but it’s a better, more consistent game overall with a much stronger finish.
13. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy - An Uncharted 4 “Greatest Hits” package that hits all of the high points, and does so briskly and concisely.
14. Obduction - From the creators of Myst and Riven is a spiritual successor that lives up to their pedigree – to a point.
15. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus - Memorable story moments and excellent presentation salvage an otherwise disappointing game.
16. Yooka-Laylee - A throwback to a type of game that doesn’t get made anymore, it was the right game at the right time for me.
17. Observer - Cyberpunk-inspired horror with some of the best “playable nightmare” sequences ever done in a game.
18. Tacoma - Strong world-building and innovative gameplay approaches to storytelling bring to life a space station, its crew and the future world that they exist in.
19. Night in the Woods - Underneath all of the anthropomorphic animals are a set of very believable and well-written characters, at a time and place in their lives that I could once relate to.
20. Gorogoa - Short but sweet indie puzzle game for the Switch that gets out of the way and allows you to figure out for yourself how everything works. It's not very hard, but it's never frustrating either, and finding a solution always feels great.
Nice list! Great picks in here and lots of commentary-well done. Kinda surprised Resident Evil 7 landed where it did, but your paragraphs explaining your choices helped me see where you were coming from.
Nice work here, man. Oh! I think the last time we had a year *this* good may have been 2007?
Thanks Nate. I definitely recommend Yakuza. I went into it thinking "Yeah, I'll probably like this game" but I was not prepared for how much I'd be blown away by it. There's so much content in the game and almost all of it's really good. It's really impressive.
Zelda and Mario were strong enough to make 2017 one of my all-time favorite gaming years.
Oh yeah, although it's kinda implied I guess I forgot to mention that my four favorite series had a new game this year (which I don't think has ever happened before in the same year), and all ended up in my top 8. And except for Mario, the others really needed a big bounce-back performance for me, and they all delivered. 2017 really was my year.