With 2017 finally over, it’s time for me to talk about the 10 games I enjoyed the most for the year. This was a year of amazing quality, and way too many games for me to look at them all.
So without further ado, here are my personal favorite games of 2017.
#10 — Nier Automata
Nier Automata is one of those titles that leave everybody wondering what the heck did they just play. While a sequel to the game Nier, Automata tells a completely original story about love, what it means to be alive, religion and even more.
This is all told through a game that feels like a collection of game systems stitched together, but it still works in a weird way. Players can install chips onto their character that can enhance their stats or give them new abilities. There are a variety of side quests, mini games and some of the most interesting music you’ll hear in 2017.
The game even has 26 different endings varying in length, weirdness and content. You will also have to replay the game several times to see it all.
Nier Automata is what I call a game that was explicitly designed to be like this. For some people, this was probably one of their favorite games of the year; for others, their least favorite.
The reason why it doesn’t rank higher on the list is simple. Nier Automata is about an experience first, gameplay third or fourth down the line. The difficulty of the game is either very easy or a frustrating time depending on the difficulty level, and I don’t think there was much balance put into it.
You have to go into playing Nier Automata with a very specific mindset of what you’re looking for in a video game.
I may never meet Yoko Taro or ever find out who he is, but shine on you crazy diamond.
#9 — Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is another example of just how surprising the level of quality and polish we can see outside of the AAA side of the industry. Developed by Team Cherry, the game was an immediate eye opener thanks to its heavy line aesthetic and beautiful character design.
Gameplay-wise, Hollow Knight was one of the harder metroidvanias for some. The fact that your health could only be regenerated while standing still lead to some tense standoffs with the game’s many bosses.
Hollow Knight had all the staples of a great metroidvania, with a number of new abilities unlocked that radically changed how you played. The final area of the game before the real last boss was one of the most challenging platforming sections seen this year. The ability to add trinkets that changed your character offered some customization to your character.
Since release, the game has been expanded on with DLC, but I haven’t had a chance to go back to this world. Speaking of which, the world design was amazing and reminded me of Dark Souls in the “show don’t tell” style.
Ultimately what keeps this from being higher on the list was that the game just didn’t do too much in terms of standing out from other metroidvanias from a design perspective. The middle of the game just kind of blurred together, and there were several big parts of me wandering around without any idea as to where to go. Similar to Dark Souls, this was a game where one missed path could have you completely missing an entirely new area. Once you got used to the game’s combat and movement systems, it fell into the trap of becoming repetitive.
Still, this being the first game from the team was highly impressive, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing great things form them in the future.
#8 — Shadowhand
Shadowhand by Grey Alien Games is a very unassuming title. For fans of their previous game Regency Solitaire, you might think that you were getting another period-inspired casual game.
Even with the solitaire design as the base foundation, Shadowhand feels more like a puzzle and RPG game. There are a number of ways to manipulate the board and mitigate the RNG in your favor.
But the real standout and what gets Shadowhand on the list is the RPG combat. You wouldn’t associate combat and solitaire together normally, but it works in this game. Outfitting your heroine with weapons, clothing, and gear, would determine your options and utility in combat.
Translating the RNG of an RPG to the solitaire board was a great move. The later challenges proved to be more puzzle-like than just about luck. The reason was how resistances and defenses were tied to the gear and items you were using. This creates a situation where it’s not just about luck, but the skill at figuring out the best gear for the given situation.
Shadowhand is a vastly different game on hard mode vs. normal (and the game’s upcoming relaxed mode.) Playing through it on hard, I had to work for every win; both in combat levels and just getting through a solitaire match.
I would love to see things go further with the RPG layer. The game takes a bit to get going in terms of using gear and special abilities. I bet there were people who gave up on the game before the challenge showed up. That’s a shame, because Shadowhand definitely deserves a hand for taking a casual activity and bringing it to the hardcore masses.
#7 — Snake Pass
Snake Pass by Sumo Digital was a great example of the concept of subjective difficulty; where the game’s difficulty was measured by the player’s skill level.
How the game worked was that you could control the movement and positioning of Noodle the snake. The positioning of his body was crucial to grab objects and maneuver your way through obstacle courses of traps. What made Snake Pass work for me was how the game’s difficulty curve was tied to the player’s progression.
Each level had three difficulty tiers of collectibles. The easiest tier was required to beat the level, while the medium and advanced tiers were hidden in areas that corresponded to their difficulty. There were no elements of abstracted progression in the game; unless you count the post game reward of x-ray collectible seeing.
If you wanted to fully beat the game, you had to master the control scheme and mechanics of controlling Noodle. The game itself felt like a hybrid of puzzle and action gameplay. Every new collectible taunted the player to try and get to it, and then get back to safety.
The level design was really great at providing easy, medium, and advanced sections that all grew progressively more challenging over the course of the game.
It’s very hard to do subjective difficulty right, and we could argue that Snake Pass may not have been the most accessible form of it. Outside of the opening area, the game doesn’t really give the player instruction in terms of advanced play and left it to them to figure it out.
The game was also on the short side (depending on your skill level). Because everything was based on the player’s progress, it did limit how much they could have reasonably done to the game. With that said, Snake Pass was a great and challenging game. While it may not be for everyone, players looking for a challenge should not miss this gem of 2017.
Morphite was a very unassuming game. After the broken promises of No Man’s Sky to deliver an amazing universe to explore at launch, I was skeptical that a game I had never heard of would be able to even come close.
The subtle genius of Morphite was that it never intended to go after the No Man’s Sky’s promise of complete freedom in space. While the universe of Morphite was procedurally generated, the developers went with a far smaller goal.
The story of the game pushed players to explore while providing the means to upgrade their abilities. Scanning creatures, plants and more, would give the player currency and resources to upgrade their base stats. The game started off on the simple side, but it was surprising how far it went with adding in new kinds of content and challenges. Questing, ship battles, boss fights, platforming, racing, and I’m sure there was more that we didn’t see yet.
The game’s presentation is also another example of an indie developer doing more with less. The abstract design of planets and characters required far less graphical power compared to No Man’s Sky, while the game’s synthwave soundtrack was great to zone out to.
There were two things that hurt the game I think. The first was an overall lack of polish: Cumbersome menus, getting stuck on the environment, and that there wasn’t enough growth to elevate the basic gameplay.
The other problem was that the pacing and progress of the game were at odds with each other. You wanted to explore the universe, but any gameplay or mechanic growth was entirely built into the linear story of the game. I could see a lot of people getting bored with the game and quitting before things started to get good.
Morphite was one of those unassuming titles that if it works for you, expect to spend a lot of time listening to great music and exploring the universe.
#5: West of Loathing
West of Loathing came out of nowhere for someone like me who played the hit Kingdom of Loathing back in the day. Nevertheless, we got an impressive take on RPG design combined with the dry humor that made Loathing famous.
Moving from fantasy to western, West of Loathing told a story of demonic cows, ghost bureaucracy, bean slinging, and many, many, spittoons to stick your hand in. The game’s combat system was simple, but there were subtleties to figuring out the best way to combine your skills with the gear. And despite the basic gameplay, the story and varying strategies and quest were enough to get me to play through the game three times.
We also need to talk about the game’s aesthetic. West of Loathing probably won’t be beating games like Persona 5 in the graphics department, but this is a perfect example of how a strong style does so much to elevate a game. There were many times that I was impressed by the background and character art in the game.
West of Loathing is probably the simplest in terms of design to be featured on my top 10 list this year, but the complete package was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. And one last point: Stupid Walking.Will.Never. Get. Old.
#4 — Yakuza 0
Nioh and Yakuza 0 were both two amazing games released this year. While I did enjoy Nioh, I wanted to give the nod to Yakuza 0. The Yakuza franchise has always been a niche success for Sega; growing more and more complex in terms of story over the years.
To try and win new fans, they did something very smart: Create an original prequel to the series using the refinements learned over the years. To its credit, Yakuza 0 turned out to be an even better introduction to the series than Yakuza Kiwami which was a remake of the very first game.
Yakuza 0 follows Kiryu and Majima before they would become the recognizable favorites. Starting from scratch in terms of story gave the developers a chance to create a great self contained tale that set the stage for future games. And because of it being original, it was the perfect game for new and returning fans to get into.
Everything that you liked about the main series was here: The intriguing story, crazy cutscenes, and of course tons of side content. The real estate and hostess club side quests were such a nice break from the main game that I was disappointed they weren’t in Kiwami.
While the game did improve on a lot of older systems of the series, it still had a lot of its quirks too. Expect to fight plenty of random encounters, lots and lots of cutscenes, and get lost looking for side quests. Be that as it may, Yakuza 0 certainly takes the parts that made the series so endearing in the first place.
If you haven’t yet checked it out, Yakuza 0 is a great entry point to a series that certainly needed it; and has me actually excited to see how things turn out with the next game. I would also still recommend checking out Nioh if you’re looking for your action game fix. Maybe I should have had two #4 this year.
#3 — Cuphead
Cuphead was finally released this year, after years of teasers and being published by Microsoft. The game’s development was a story in of itself; with Studio MDHR putting everything on the line to make their dream game.
That level of passion definitely shows through the final product. The game is visual and audio masterpiece for me. As a lover of hand drawn animation, big bands, and barbershop quartets, the game was almost made entirely for me.
In terms of game design, Cuphead is very lean in that regard. The game consists of boss battles with a few run and gun stages. With that said, the quality was definitely there. Each boss fight took the form of a multi phase battle; requiring the player to learn all the ins and outs to succeed.
The game is such a great example of form and function. After some basic tweaking, the controls felt perfect in my hands. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a game be this creative with their boss designs.
Cuphead was also the first game that I attempted to speed run, and for a time I held the #2 world record for the game.
This is going to be a quick entry, because I’ve already said so much about the game in my review of it. As someone who loves games for their design and systems, Cuphead just fires on all cylinders with its design. While it may have taken a long time to come out, Studio MDHR is certainly off to an amazing start as an indie company.
#2: Asura (Plus Vengeance Expansion)
Asura by Ogre Head Studios was an impressive first full title from the developer who was previously known for making mobile games. With Asura, the team wanted to take their love of rogue-likes and action games in a different direction for the genres.
With Asura, we have an action rogue-like with procedurally generated levels with a similar structure to the Binding of Isaac; one of my all-time favorite games. Where Asura goes further, and is quite brilliant, is with procedurally generated skill trees on each new play.
Not only do you have the random nature of what items you’ll find, you also had different combinations of skills to use. That extra randomness helped to make Asura play out vastly different on each new play. And just like the Binding of Isaac, you could have runs where you would make it by the skin of your teeth, or overpowered builds of absolute death.
At launch, Asura was a good game, but the developers hit it out of the park with post release support and the free Vengeance expansion. Quality of life updates were introduced to smooth out the difficulty curve and make the game easier to play.
What makes Asura great was how much Ogre Head was inspired by the genres to make their own, while still keeping a critical eye to what works and doesn’t work in terms of design. I’m still shocked that games like it and Shadowhand weren’t mentioned more in the public space due to how unique their designs were.
#1: XCOM 2 War of the Chosen
I’ve said it before, but Firaxis’ take on X-COM has been the closest to being the perfect game for me. With Enemy Within, they managed to take an already great game and made it even better.
War of the Chosen follows that same model, but so much more. When I talked about Asura, I mentioned how much the post release support helped to elevate the game. For games that had a shaky start, it’s very easy to connect the dots in terms of what areas to support, but both Asura and XCOM 2 were great from day one.
Being able to take a look at a great game and say, “Where can we go from here?” is not an easy task. This is compounded when you’re not just adding more content, but changing how the game gets played.
War of the Chosen, like Enemy Within, follows the same template of adding in supplemental content — Content designed to create more variety, not length. The three new “hero” factions provide some early game muscle and unique tactics. While the aliens get new units designed to mix up their general strategy.
But of course the real star in terms of content would be the Chosen themselves. Taking a brilliant page from Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, the Chosen become procedurally generated boss fights over the length of your campaign. By interfering with the tactical and strategic layer makes them more than just a new enemy on a mission.
If this was it from War of the Chosen, it would have been a great expansion, but Firaxis took things further. The reason why it gets the #1 spot comes down to the complete teardown and reconstruction of just about every system in the game. Firaxis as a company is not known for rushing out patches and updates to their games. Instead, they go for massive patches that try to fix any and all issues found.
War of the Chosen in that regard is an “uber-patch,” with the team doing everything they could to improve the game. When I said every system received an update, I meant every system. The new UI takes a page from the community mods to make the game easier to play. You can now send squaddies out on missions for new bonuses and promoting them without needing to go to a tactical battle.
The personalization options in XCOM 2 were already fantastic, but War of the Chosen takes things even farther. The new propaganda posters you can create add a brand new layer of storytelling for people to build their game around.
Once again Firaxis has taken a game and made it better by giving us stuff that we didn’t know we wanted, but now we can’t live without. And the fact that all the improvements in War of the Chosen were original and not just copied from Enemy Within is astonishing.
In interviews, designer Jake Solomon said that the expansion could have been considered an XCOM 3 for the company given all the work and improvements they did to the game. Having played the game, I would not argue with that.
If it wasn’t for my computer being on the old side and having more games to play, I could have spent most of 2017 going through and enjoying this masterpiece of a game.