October 4, 2022

Just my own personal best list for games of 2017.

Having already done a Game of the Year Awards podcast I decided to keep my personal list a little slimmer this year than in the past. These are the video games that mattered the most to me that also came out this past year.

Mentions

Games I played and enjoyed this year but just don’t have anything to say about them here

Sonic Mania, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. RESIDENT EVIL 7 biohazard/BIOHAZARD 7 resident evil, Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, PLAYERUNKNOWN”S Battlegrounds, Battle Chef Brigade, Night in the Woods, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Battlerite, Dead Cells, Hand of the Gods

Honorable Mentions

Tekken 7

The best Tekken game since 5. The way they worked Akuma in was fantastic and honestly since I’m more of a Street Fighter guy now than I was back when Tekken was my favorite thing (With Tekken 3, Tag and 5) I actually gravitated towards playing him the most.

The story mode has some amazing moments, legitimately great parts, but it’s brought down by the unbelievably terrible narrator and audience surrogate character. He’s so fucking bad. Also, while it is a conclusion to Heihachi vs Kazuya, not a single other Tekken story thread is tied off which I find annoying.

Tekken 7 just doesn’t quite live up to my standards for fighting game story modes set by NARUTO SHIPPUDEN: Ultimate Ninja STORM 4. Comparatively still felt like holding back, as crazy as it does get in spots.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Machine Games is just much better at story, both through cutscenes and interactive gameplay than they are at combat mechanics. This game should be in the conversation with the great shooters of last year (DOOM, Titanfall 2) because of its ideas and balls, but it just doesn’t play well enough. Also, like Tekken it feels like it’s holding back, there are unfired bullets in the chamber once credits roll.

Splatoon 2

My favorite Switch game this year, I just think the mechanics of Splatoon make for a much more fun console shooter experience than the standard ones. The iterative improvements and shiny new hardware resulted in me spending a lot more time with this one than the first game.

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment

My favorite of the 3 Shovel Knight campaigns. The mobility additions are right in my wheelhouse. Also the remixed music tracks are simply better than the base Shovel Knight OST. This came at a time when I was burned out on open world games and just wanted a straightforward linear game and it was perfect for that. But at only 4 hours long and an expansion to an existing game it just felt a little too slight to make my top ten.

The List

10. Destiny 2

“It’s raiding for people who have other shit to do.” – Me

Destiny 2 is a loot shooter that just feels great. It’s also calibrated correctly so that I found the loot grind very addictive despite the fact that the story is garbage. It was purely the fun of the moment to moment shooting, and the drip feed of loot drops that carried me through. The thing that brought that all together for me and earned it a place on this list though was the raid a the end of the tunnel.

Specifically because of how accessible the raid was, and what a good jumping off point it is. The appeal of Destiny 2 to me is that it’s raiding for babies, it doesn’t demand of you what a real MMO does. If it did I would have walked away from it because I’d grown sick of it, like I did with WoW last year; instead I walked away satisfied, like a spell had been broken and I was free to live my life again.

There are plenty of issues, both technical (The raid was pretty janky) and on the design side, but it’s the captive hold it had on my attention that gets it on this list. Although really it’s the dumb Tower mini-games (the floor is Lava and the ball game) that made me love it. It captured just enough about what I like about MMOs, for just the right amount of time.

9. Cuphead

From its opening moments Cuphead just looks amazing. It has a visual style and quality of animation that is amazing. It has that instant classic power, Cuphead slides in as a video game icon. And the gameplay… is pretty good.

I think the boss fights in Cuphead are pretty excellent and the run and gun stages are pretty bad. Oddly the parts that standout the most to me are the shmup levels. Those are the ones that stick in my mind the most and the ones I think of first on both the style and gameplay fronts. Maybe it’s because on those you can’t rely so much on power-ups or weapon load outs, and you really just have to put up or shut up to get through them. I’m not quite sure, but those are where the tension and ultimate satisfaction felt the strongest for me.

I don’t have a history of loving Shmups, but I do love Super Mario Land which had shooter segments so maybe the answer is in there some where.

Maybe that’s also why I felt a little let down by the end of the game. Specifically the fights against Mr. King Dice and The Devil. Part of the disappointment comes from the music, the Die House theme is so good it gave me elevated hopes for the music that would play when you finally faced the die himself; the lack of vocals let me down. And the Satan fight just felt like another fight and not a culmination of the game. It’s not bad, it just felt a little underwhelming.

Cuphead is a good game with great presentation. For me it’s not its Gunstar Heroes and Contra elements that put it on the list, it’s the side scrolling shooter parts. It’s Cala Maria, Hilda Berg, Dr. Kahl’s Robot, Wally Warbles, and Djimmi The Great. Though I do think the variety and mix of the two styles is key to what makes the game work.

I could really do without the run and gun and mausoleum stages though.

8. Divinity: Original Sin 2

The best translation of tabletop role-playing to a video game I’ve seen. The whole key to this thing for me is the ability to do online 4 player co-op. It’s such a long game and organizing and sticking with that commitment unfortunately is very difficult. So I haven’t played as much of this game as I would have liked to. If I had this would very likely be higher.

But I also haven’t played more because as a single player experience I don’t know that it’s particularly notable. The way the game doles out XP and gold for you to progress and get new skills seems kind of fucked. The freedom the game allows in terms of interacting with the world, and the nature of the story details I think do a great job of supporting a multiplayer experience, in a remarkable way. But as something to hold my full attention and pull me through on its own it’s just not for me.

I think the design is very messy and when I’m playing something by myself I think I gravitate to more streamlined experiences. But when playing with friends I really love and appreciate the mess. The mess, the weirdness the jank, the secrets, the oddities the exploits, the simple joys, the failures; they all work for me much better when it’s with others.

This is the game from this year I most wish I had gotten more time with.

7. Slime-San

This is one of my favorite 2D plat formers ever, in the conversation with Super Meat Boy and N++ for me. The core skill set you have at your disposal is deep and took some time for me to wrap my head around, but playing out that learning curve is the kind of this I love about these games. That you get a double jump but only off of walls allows and the way that interacts with your ability to dash allows for some amazing ways to tear through stages. The ability to slow everything down greatly helps that learning curve and allows you to see possible techniques that you might have missed otherwise.

But the thing that really sets Slime-San apart is the level design, and the way it weaves in new stage mechanics. What I love about it is that none of them overstay their welcome, After some easy introductions they ramp up and then quickly go away so that some other mechanic can fill the whole, only to come back later in conjunction with another mechanic. It’s that progression and variety that I really appreciate. It lends a variety that those other two games really never hit.

I mean the game introduces Donkey Kong Country style barrel cannons at one point; it goes so much farther than I expected from this small indie game with an extremely limited color palette. Also the ways in which Slime-San is gross with the body horror nature of a lot of the bosses, like when you fight a brain that rips apart to have a mouth, amuses me.

6. XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

I though I was done. I thought I was out. XCOM 2…. I thought I was free.

So what was it that convinced me that I needed to play this expansion pack to XCOM 2; to return to that sickness? The first was playing Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle which really just didn’t do it for me ultimately. It awakened my desire, but it did not satisfy.

Also was the word of mouth on the expansion was very good. That it included massive code reworks to fix the game in a way that the base game was never going to get patched into was also a reason to get it and infuriating. “Hey guys our game is super broken, SO super broken in fact that we needed to build it back up from scratch in a way we can’t justify giving to you without charging for it.” That’s pretty scummy and gross. That was mitigated by the volume of changes and additions present. The most intriguing of which was the inclusion of a version of the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor.

With no other game having picked up that mechanic, and Shadow of War looking like its own gross nightmare. XCOM 2 had my attention again. There’s a long storied history of weak PC strategy games getting buoyed by expansion packs that make them truly great. The addiction I felt toward XCOM 2 was based on something, there was a good kernel in there that had potential to be sprung. So, feeling a dark need, I dove back in.

And holy shit. They did it. They fixed XCOM 2.

Not only did they fix technical level, they fixed the whole design and mission structure. The thing that made XCOM 2 a bummer, other than the bugs, was that almost every mission was on a timer, with the game constantly pushing you into samey clusters on enemies. The weight of the procedural hand heavy on your throat. The game only had one real way to pressure the player. What makes War of the Chosen so good is that it finds lots of new ways to push and engage you while simultaneously empowering you with new toys to play with.

The biggest addition are the Chosen themselves, 3 immortal warriors who each reign over a section of the world and have a chance to interrupt any mission that takes place in their territory. They are nakedly a riff on the Nemesis system to the point of all basically being sassy Orcs with snappy introduction screens, specific strengths and weakness that are randomly assigned and will grow stronger over the course of the game.

The first time I fought one of the Chosen, it was a stealth assassin who did not trigger overwatch reaction shots, and would return to the darkness after downing my soldiers in a single blow. It was intense and exhilarating. It was a nightmare. I fucking loved it.

Another big addition are the city maps where The Lost spawn. The Lost are basically zombie hordes that have a special mechanic where every killing blow against one grants that soldier a free action. It’s great because these hordes of enemies present an extra obstacle in missions that take place on their maps, but also it feels empowering and awesome to get a streak of kills with one soldier. It’s just a fun mechanic. And part of the key to these maps is that The Lost will attack both you and the enemy Advent soldiers on the map; Advent will even benefit from the kill shot bonus action if they down one. It’s a potential element of chaos to make things more interesting.

I could go on and on there’s so much. There’s the fact that the Chosen can take your soldiers prisoner opening up missions where you can go try to rescue to kidnapped soldier. Covert missions that can end with you soldiers being discovered, triggering an escape mission where you have to run a pair of soldiers through a city as they’re perused by Advent soldiers and The Lost. The fact that now when you go to defend resistance bases that are being raided the people who live there put up much more of a fight on their own, making you more invested in saving them. There are the new faction units which help build out the world and are just fun to use, plus they’re mostly voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation actors which is dope. Bunch of new enemy types, more interesting maps. Soldiers can bond a la Fire Emblem and get traumas a la Darkest Dungeon.

I had a medic who kept getting attack by Vipers and developed a fear of snakes, and then I cured him of that fear of snakes, and then he got attacked by Vipers again and developed a fear of snakes again.

War of the Chosen not only fixes XCOM 2 it transforms it into a game a game that’s a worthy sequel and significantly better that the previous XCOM.

The only bummer is that because this is built into base XCOM 2 the bad last mission is still the same bad last mission, without the new enemy types which made it even more of a bummer this time. The parts where the same experiences I had in the base game bleed in, for better and worse are the reason this doesn’t rank higher.

Most importantly though you can now take group selfies after every mission.

5. Persona 5

The problem with Persona 5 is that it’s not a mystery, but it still hits the same major plot beats of Persona 4 which was a mystery. I think a lot of the breakdowns that occur over the course of the game stem from that. I could go beat by beat and explain what Persona 5 is copying from 4 and why I think 4 did it better, but I’m not gonna do that here. That’s not to say that Persona 5 isn’t bringing anything new to the table, just that it often forces comparison to my favorite game which isn’t in its favor.

Without the central driving pursuit of a killer the game struggles with pace and it took me a very long time to get hooked. That’s not helped by the fact that the first party members you get are probably the weakest among the group. Also P5 has a similar problem for me that Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE had where the game will pull you in and out of the dungeons which broke up my momentum with the game.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is I think the better comparison in terms of what Persona 5 does right, which is that the characters are just much more engaging. They’re shitty and angry in ways that make them feel more real and while that means they can grate sometimes, especially at first, but that’s a big part of what makes them work over the long haul, and why the game eventually hooked me.

Once I did get hooked, I was hooked pretty hard. There’s a big appeal to Persona 5 to me in that I’m really drawn to stories set in cities that can leverage that well. That results in this story being much more connected to the world and less personal and intimate than Persona 4. The internal struggle of the characters is much less pronounced here… well at first anyway. But it’s living in the world and sinking into the rhythm of routine where a lot of Persona’s power lies and once the game let me settle into that it had me.

Overall the cast of characters is excellent, it just takes some time to fully feel the full weight of their presence. The gameplay itself feels like good solid iterative improvement; guns are a pretty cool addition.

It’s weird to me that you play a high school kid who can date (and have off screen sex with) all these older women, But it’s also weird for me as an adult to play this game where you date high school girls. Because I disassociate from the main character of video games the latter felt less weird to me. Could not deal with these cool ladies talking about their high school boyfriend. I dunno, games are weird. I spent too much time thinking about this and I don’t feel great about it.

This is a bigger story, grander in scope, and also dumber but in a fun way. In Persona 4 saving the world, justifying humanity, was an intimate, private, secret fight. In Persona 5 that fight is bombastic and big and public.

The important thing though is that you can buy a retro console and play Punch Ouch, so best game.

4. Horizon: Zero Dawn

Horizon was the Mass Effect game I didn’t know I needed and then Andromeda hit and oh god how I needed it. Horizon completely delivers on a strong central driving narrative that I so desperately need in open world games. That focus and direction informs all the side quests and exploration for me. Without it these kind of games don’t work for me at all.

I also think the combat in this is really unique and fun. The Bow combat and needing to hit weak points on these robots really comes when you fight the bigger machines. I also really liked the trip wire as a weapon, both for setting up trps and as an active weapon. Sometimes it felt annoying when I was out of healing juice and could be difficult to restock, but sometimes getting my feet pushed to the fire makes the experience more memorable to me. Again a lot of this has to do with balance and how the things that are frustrating weigh against the things that are empowering and how satisfied I felt at the end. For me the formula here with the combat really worked.

And the narrative was paced within the world correctly so that doing most of the side stuff felt natural and never compulsory or overwhelming. Which can be another point of failure with these kind of games for me.

Aloy herself is a great main character, raised as an outcast I really appreciate how comfortable she is as an outsider. That she never feels a need to belong, she never gets mopey about her lot in life. None of the drama in her life feels emotionally forced; she’s sad about about the death of the man who raised her and she wants to find out who her mom was. Everything else is water off a duck’s back. I really like how effortlessly she brushes off the dudes who hit on her.

For me what makes Horizon so good is how well all the pieces come together, The contrast of wilderness and technology, The way the mystery of Aloy’s mom feeds into the backstory for this world and the threat you have to overcome. Obviously it’s not perfect: It doesn’t have a great cast of characters beyond Aloy, the world traversal stuff feels a little outmoded compared to some other games from this year that are pushing forward. But its incredibly solid and it held me from start to finish, to the point where there’s very little in the game I didn’t do.

3. Hollow Knight

I think Hollow Knight is the best Metroidvania game. Period.

It doesn’t put its best foot forward, and it’s much weaker on vertical movement than horizontal. You get an incredible horizontal dash fairly early but don’t get a double jump until weirdly late. And compared to Ori and the Blind Forrest, your initial tool set is very limited and that lack of mobility makes a difference to me.

But Hollow Knight completely delivers over the course of its full runtime, in a way that Ori certainty does not. The level design is on point and great, The way things feed into other areas and the secret nooks and crannies, it’s all fantastic. Also I think the combat itself is really great. Enemies have good deliberate patterns for you to work off, which means that while the early fights with them can be a struggle, once you’ve learned their pattern you can just tear through them effortlessly, ripping through the world as you cut across it. Also there are a bunch of great boss fights, and in their paced out in odd ways that I think is to the game’s benefit; you’re never sure what’s around the next corner, what the game’s gonna throw at you next.

This is game that goes all the way with pushing and testing the player. The White Palace and the True final boss fight were two of my absolute favorite gameplay experiences this year and felt like the perfect caps to a long journey.

2. Pyre

Pyre has the best cast of characters of any game this year. Its soundtrack is fantastic and the one I have listened to the most outside of the game this year among stiff competition. It’s a great visual style. It also just has an amazing structure that handles player choice and agency incredibly well, allowing for an amazing amount of permutations that pay off while still maintaining the central thread.

Also it’s got an amazingly intricate dunkball game at the heart of it. One that leverage the diverse cast with diverse gameplay options that are all compelling. I was even drawn to playing the characters I liked playing as less because I wanted to figure out and master their quirks. That experimentation felt rewarding and the gameplay tied to each character made me more invested in their stories which involved sending them off to freedom and removing them from my team.

Building a game where you play as characters only to remove them from the game is in incredible risk and it’s only because the cast is all so good and fun to play with that it works.

They also built so much more structure than they needed to. Compare this game to Battle Chef Brigade, another visual novel game from this year that has a sports action tournament. In Battle Chef you can choose your opponent between a couple choices but other than that it’s 100% linear and you can’t move on unless you win every encounter, even though there’s narrative allowance for you to lose sometimes.

In Pyre there is complete leader board for all the other teams with defined win loss records, and who you choose to play and beat affects the standing which determines who you play in the pivotal games from freedom. Also you could lose every match in Pyre and the game and the story allow for that and keep moving along. The stories for all your major opponents are as thought out as those of your teammates.

Pyre has an epilogue that gives a personal story cap for every character in the game that’s meaningfully determined by the events of the game and it is everything I want as story payoff from choice in a video game. There is no perfect run, but your agency over the story is palpable, your choices, successes and failures all have impact.

This is a great game that I love.

1. Nier: Automata

Before I got to routes C&D of Nier: Automata I was pretty sure the game was going to be on my top list, but on the lower end. The open world environment is bad and ugly, the fun but only serviceable to me in the way other Platinum action games are, and I’m not especially drawn to any of these characters. And while none of that really changed once in that final stretch of the game, my opinion on it only grew and grew over the course of the Act.

The part where I knew Nier: Automata was good, was the scene in the desert where you come upon a bunch of robots imitating human reproduction (from humping to rocking cradles), go berserk repeating “This cannot continue.” over and over until they all form a giant orb and birth out a humanoid in a gooey plop. Up until then the game had been both big and dumb but also tedious. Having played Horizon and Breath of the Wild, I just could not deal with another open at that time, but it was that scene that left me feeling like I did need to see this game through. To see where it went because it was clearly going places.

To me Path A of Nier: Automata feels like a standard video game, a game that establishes a world has some more ambitious moments and wraps things up in a way that leaves a lot left on the table for a sequel/franchise. It feels like the first season on TV show.

Path B is a little different, it’s more the kind of trick I’d expect to see in a Novel. Shifting the perspective but telling the same events in a way that reveals more about the world, setting the stage for the final act. At the same time it’s also a very weird change that’s uniquely video gamey with the heavy lifting of the combat being pulled away from the spectacle character action gameplay and replaced it with visually minimalistic shmup gameplay. I found this gameplay shift a refreshing change of pace in a way that I think is key to this kind of character action game.

At the end of Route B when the game pulls the “Next time on Nier: Automata” card I was so pumped and I was not let down.

The things that I think Nier: Automata does the best are world building, building its stories to reach specific emotional moments, and leveraging the medium of video games to bring that together.

But I think there are two major things that make me love Nier: Automata. First how it ruthlessly structures all its stories as tragedies. Not just that these tragedies are happening in the present, but that they’re they same as tragedies of the past and will continue to exist in the future. And then how it subverts that by allowing the player to fight for their own happy ending.

To see this endless string of failures and to still have hope in the future. To fight against all the systems that lie in place to maintain this cycle. To be willing to accept help when you can’t do it on your own and to sacrifice to help others. That’s what Nier: Automata is ultimately building to.

It was the most important sequence in any game I played this year to me, and it elevated that entire game for me.

Games that aren’t actually new that are too good and pure for this world

Puyo Puyo Tetris, Starcraft: Remastered, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Heroes of the Storm 2.0, Magic the Gathering

Thank You For Your Time.