Is it really over-done to talk about how great games were in 2017? Yes.
But they were.
There were several games that came out last year that you could argue were legitimate all-time greats, and countless others that were really, really, really fantastic.
In particular, I felt this was a year that video game writing came into its own. I know the myth of ‘games can’t tell good stories!’ has been dead for some time, but 2017 felt like a year where they tackled an impressive range of topics, sometimes with nuance, sometimes with bombast.
A few notable omissions; I never got around to Cuphead, much to my shame. I’ve been anticipating it for years but not owning an Xbox meant I missed out. Me and my room-mate were planning a co-op run on his XB1, but it never materialised. Likewise, not owning a gaming PC means I missed out on the phenomenon of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – even though it looked like the logical advancement of the waning-survival genre that I’ve been waiting for.
- Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was an incredible rejuvenation for a franchise I thought I would never want to revisit. Changing perspectives and moving away from zombies offered a fresh take on what was, at its core, a very traditional RE experience of survival, ammo conservation, puzzle solving, and some great, and not so great, boss battles.
- Another survival horror entity bouncing back in 2017 was The Evil Within. The original had lots of cool ideas on paper, but in execution it was buggy, confusing, ugly mess. The Evil Within 2, on the other hand, might just be the biggest surprise of the year. I can’t believe how much fun I’ve had with this — if I played it a little sooner, and had time to finish it, it might even have crept in at number ten on my list.
- Nidhogg II refined and added to the excellent original’s formula of sweat-inducing, highly competitive local multiplayer. The trippy art style was divisive at first, but I adored the ‘SNES on acid’ look of the final product, and it sneakily had one of the best soundtracks of the year. In the same genre, the console release of Gang Beasts overcame some technical hiccups to bring tonnes of laughs and bitter rivalries among friends.
- Steam World Dig 2 was a perfect sequel to a real gem of a platformer. Nothing encapsulates the idea of the video game ‘loop’ better than the Dig games – you dig, get treasure, return to town to sell the treasure, use the money to improve your digging, dig again, and so on. It’s a relaxing and rewarding experience, with a gorgeous new coat of paint and some fun new mechanics to keep it interesting for the sequel.
- Life Is Strange: Before The Storm was a poignant and heartbreaking addition to the franchise, that didn’t feel out of place with the original, despite the different development team. Some voice acting woes aside, they did right by the original series, and added some much-appreciated context to the relationships that shape Chloe as a character.
Anyway, I could go on and on with these. Lets get to the real list.
10. Assassin’s Creed: Origins
I can’t believe this is on here but I have to give Ubisoft credit; they really surprised me with Origins. Revamping the combat and producing their most interesting protagonist in years gave Asssassin’s Creed a much-needed shot in the arm. With open-ended, Far Cry-esque mission spaces, a gorgeously recreated Egypt to explore, and a skill tree full of awesome abilities to unlock and play with (remote steering an arrow, defying all logic in the process… that’s the good stuff) – Assassin’s Creed: Origins is an open world game I’ll still be exploring throughout 2018.
9. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nothing really pushed an entire genre forward this year quite like Breath of the Wild. If AC: Origins was a wonderfully refined and polished version of the pre-existing open world tropes, Breath of the Wild was a whole new experience that bordered on a different genre all together. It had RPG elements, but no skill tree. It had survival aspects, but no hunger or thirst meters. It had day/night and weather cycles but they were more than just window dressing. It’s a one-of-a-kind adventure game with the most dramatic progression from feeble dweeb to mighty knight I’ve ever seen. It took me a long time to ‘get it.’ I found the weather system and the frequent weapon breakages to be frustrating. It was a full 20 or so hours before everything clicked. I realized how much more capable I had become in my time in Hyrule, and not because of the increased number of health containers I earned (but hey, that helped). Learning, the hard way, to deal with everything the world had to throw at me was extremely rewarding. Every storm dodged, every puzzle solved, every ‘aha!’ moment while tackling a Divine Beast – it all felt so satisfying. More often than not, the games industry picks up on the wrong trends and runs them into the ground. Hopefully in 2018, people will learn from Zelda and treat open worlds as places to be explored, and not just overblown checklists with some grass inbetween the objectives.
Pyre flies in the face of ‘elevator pitches.’ I can’t really sum it up in a sentence, without butchering or undermining why it’s so cool. It’s half adventure game, but not really, and half sports game… but not really. Playing as a ‘reader,’ you’re a scholar cast into a colourful purgatory called the ‘Downside,’ where you meet a team of travelling exiles who take you in as one of their own. As you navigate through the awe-inspiring, painting-like world, you and your pals take part in Rites, which are kind of like a high-fantasy version of an NHL Hits game. The action is far deeper than it first appears, as different species of exile offer different traits in Rites. Story and gameplay intertwine as you choose who you want to level up, which in turn makes them more likely to be liberated from the downside, as only the most ‘enlightened’ characters can return to civilisation. Exiles come in all shapes and sizes – talking dogs, imps, demons, humans, witches and more — and there’s a whole lot of lore and story threads linking your team mates and rivals. When it came to neck-cutting time in the game’s final quarter, I knew I wouldn’t get to free everyone I wanted. The game had made so many of its heroes, and even some of its villains, so sympathetic that I was agonising over who to free — even contemplating throwing a few matches to save an opponent. Pyre’s depth of characters and mechanics kept me scratching my head right until the credits, and made for one of the most satisfying gaming experiences $20 can buy.
7. What Remains of Edith Finch
LET’S TALK ABOUT DEATH! What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that examines death in a way I’ve never quite seen in the medium before. Not the fantasy concepts of death, afterlife or undead-ness. Not the death of a character. But rather, simply, death. And, moreover, if overanalysing death is a the quickest way to it. Navigating through a house that feels straight out of a Roald Dahl book, you learn about several untimely and grim deaths that befell the Finch family. Flipping the script on the usual ‘walking simulator’ formula, each family member’s death is conveyed with a new mechanic, almost like a more narrative focused mini-game collection. It adds a real sense of character to each scenario and makes the already brisk two hour playtime just fly by. Some of the heavier scenes really hit hard, more than making up for some brief hiccups, including a not-so stellar ending.
6. Night in the Woods
If you’ve ever felt like a gigantic loser in your early 20s, boy have I got the game for you. Night in the Woods is painfully real, despite it’s cutesie, talking animal aesthetic. The irreverent Mae Borrowski quips her way through a story of failure, aimlessness, economic downturn in small-town America, and broken families. And it’s a hoot! While it juggles several heavy themes, Night in the Woods’ keeps things frothy with a throughline of enduring friendship with your fellow burnouts. One of the earliest hurdles for Mae is trying to fit in with her old friends, whom she left when she began her doomed college career. Awkwardness quickly transitions to familiarity, and when everything else is confusing for Mae, you’ll be thankful Gregg is there to smash light tubes with you on his lunch break from the Snack Falcon.
5. Horizon: Zero Dawn
ROBOT DINOSAURS! Horizon delivered on the awe-inspiring promise of its many E3 demos, with a visually stunning open world, set in a vibrant time, after the fall and re-dawn of humanity. Fighting the robots presented players with lots of options, and taking the bigger ones down felt like a real accomplishment. It was enough to look past the game’s aged and uninspired side quest designs, and flat encounters with human enemies. Keeping you invested between battles was a well developed sci-fi plot, that not only had me engaged with Aloy’s character, but offered a tonne of insight into how its bizarre, sci-fi setting came to be. I can’t wait to see where life after Killzone takes the talented folks at Guerrilla next.
4. Super Mario Odyssey
There were lots of sad games this year. It was a year of morose introspection, self-loathing, conversations about death and grim commentaries on life in 2017. Then there was a game that brought it all back to basics. A colourful, exuberant, giddy, whimsical game. Super Mario Odyssey, particularly the first run from opening to closing credits, is one of the most joyful, grin-enducing games I’ve ever played. Around every corner is something new to smile at. A track from the funky soundtrack. A nod to an older game. A bonus moon you got merely for being curious. A hidden character with a tip or a goofy one-liner. It’s a game that rewards your inquisitive nature, and despite not really being a full-functioning ‘world,’ encourages you to look in every nook and cranny of a level. With silky smooth controls and ingenius level deisgn, Odyssey is one of most polished platformers ever produced.
3. Wolfenstein II: The New Colosus
I don’t know when, if ever, a game has put my jaw on the floor as frequently as Wolfenstein II. I don’t even know if the inevitable sequel will be able to top it. It is one of the most mind-meltingly crazy stories the medium has ever told. It has more memorable moments than I could take the time to list, and most of them offer something beyond mere shock value. The unrelenting brutality of the opening hour. The kookiness of the drink-off with Horton. The poignancy of Mesquite. It’s got B-movie charm, and legitimate dramatic chops. It has swerves, but also well constructed arcs for its characters. It’s a game you want all your friends to play so you can yell at them about how crazy you felt when it was all said and done. With all this said; I wish this game was my game of the year. Unfortunately, the actual shooting parts of this first person shooter are where it falls down. Mowing down nazis with dual-shotguns is as cathartic as ever, but it’s frequently interrupted by deaths stemming from bullet-spongey enemies, less-than-intuitive level design, and UI frustrations. When it comes to the run-n-gun, Wolf 2 feels several years behind many of its peers, including last year’s heavy-hitter from Bethesda; DOOM. Make no mistake about it though, Wolfenstein II is an absoltely essential game.
2. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
I’ve watched the ending of Hellblade roughly 30 times. I’ve spent I-don’t-know-how-many hours running through it in my head. It’s one of the most sobering and bittersweet things I’ve seen in any work of fiction in 2017. On the surface, Hellblade is a well-made but grey action game. While the gameplay is competent but unremarkable, it’s part of illustrating Senua’s journey into the underworld, battling literal and figurative demons to bring her lover back to life. There are things going on in Hellblade that I struggled to truly do justice to in my full review, let alone doing so in this blurb, but it’s a game that’s many layers have kept me thinking about it several months after release. You could argue it’s a flawed presentation of mental health struggles, and I don’t know that any entertainment property has presented these without issue, but I still appreciate the nuanced, respetful and utterly engrossing story Hellblade wove them into.
1. Yakuza 0
Yakuza is a goddamn trip. It yo-yos between deadpan serious and slapstick comedy with such frequency you’ll get whiplash. It’s a beat ’em up and a dating game. You can violently break dance or, uh, non-violently dance dance. It’s a property management simulator and a saucy pro wrestling game. It’s the jack of many trades and master of… quite a few, actually. At its core, it’s a crime thriller set in 1980s Japan, with exploration and beat ’em up gameplay elements. You can finish the game by mainlining the story, getting a compelling mafia yarn in the process, and have a great time. But if you take the time to explore Kamurocho, you’ll get so much more. Each mini-game or side quest, despite being totally optional, is surprisingly deep. If you’re like me, you’ll spend 10+ hours managing your cabaret club – offering menus to yuppies and emptying their ashtrays, all while coaching your hostesses between shifts. It’s more compelling than it sounds, and like everything in Yakuza 0, engaging this part of the game allows you to grow your friendship with one of gaming’s most eccentric cast of characters.
I love everything about Yakuza 0. I love the sour-faced Kuze, your bitter rival in the Dojima crime family whose ass you kick frequently during the story. I love the cheesy, knock-off Mariah Carey song it plays when your customising your hostess’ attires. I love Mr. Shakedown. I love the moment you dropkick a guy out of a window. AND REALLY, IS THAT NOT WHAT VIDEO GAMES ARE ALL ABOUT?