Friday, January 12, 2018

Year in Review and Best of 2017 Part 2 - Games

The Year in Review continues as I look at all of the games I played in 2017. I'm honestly surprised I got through this many lengthy titles, but having a newborn sleeping on top of me for weeks certainly helped with that.

This year really belongs to Nintendo. The Switch has been a massive comeback after the Wii U performed so poorly and this year saw new, phenomenally good Mario and Zelda titles as well as touched-up ports like Mario Kart 8. I've heard nothing but good things about Splatoon 2 and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and I've been curious about ARMS, but I haven't been able to check them out yet.

I only managed to play a single game that I thought was awful, and even then, it was charmingly terrible rather than irredeemable. Some titles I was less warm on than average players (looking at you, Sonic Mania), but even then I didn't think they were bad games, just titles that didn't fully click with me.

It was tough picking a top five! The line between some of my Top Tier choices and Excellent choices is very thin this year. It's been an all around excellent year for video games, one of the best in recent memory. Let's see what we've got!

All titles are listed in alphabetical order in each tier category and the system on which I played is listed after the title.

Top Tier - My favorite games of the year.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U) - Though it's easily one of the most compelling reasons to buy a Switch, I actually played the Wii U version of the latest Zelda. The differences are minor, but it would have been nice to be able to play it portably!

I've never been a huge fan of the 3D Zelda titles. I don't enjoy the way they tell their stories, I rarely enjoy exploring their worlds, and their combat never did much for me. Breath of the Wild changes all of that! Story is kept in the background, with much of what happened to the world implied rather than monologued. Sure, there are some (fairly bad) cutscenes in which we see what happened in the past, but they're few in number and not mandatory. Exploration now feels immediately rewarding, with puzzle and combat-driven Shrines absolutely everywhere.

Combat feels far more involved, with tons of weapons to find, environmental interactions, and a nice dodge/parry system. Scrambling for improvised weapons after my last sword breaks is part of the fun, rather than a source of frustration. Getting access to almost every one of your abilities early on means they can all be used often, and everywhere, rather than the Zelda standard of finding special items that have little to no use outside of the dungeon in which you find them.

Breath of the Wild fixes every complaint I had about 3D Zelda games and then goes the extra mile. The amount of love and craft put into this world is astounding, and being able to climb almost anywhere is liberating after years of open world games where I'm so often blocked by invisible barriers.

Night in the Woods (PS4) - One of the year's best written games, Night in the Woods follows Mae, a 20 year old who returns to her hometown after dropping out of college. The town's suffering a slow death, with a coal industry that's moved on and shops closing one after another. The fact that Mae's a cat-person and her friends are dogs and crocodiles doesn't matter to the story, but it gives the game a cutesy, appealing art style.

This game is driven by its narrative but built around a simple 2D platformer with occasional Guitar Hero-inspired minigames. It feels good just to jump around town and engage with/annoy its citizens, and there's always something new to talk about as each in-game day passes. By the time I started getting tired of exploring the town every day, Mae herself started to become more restless, completely nailing the integration of game and story. There's also a very complete game within the game that you can play on Mae's computer, a dungeon crawler with some randomization.

Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson's script is the heart of this game. It has fantastic dialogue and every single character around town has a distinct personality; you never feel like you've wasted time talking to anyone. You have to make choices regarding what to do on certain days so it's impossible to see everything in one play through and I appreciate that. You're not making world-altering decisions, simply choosing how to spend your time as Mae drifts through life. Her story is incredibly human and relatable (more so than I'd like to admit at times) and even when things take some surreal turns, that human core remains.

Pyre (PS4) - Props to Supergiant Games: They really tried something new here! Their previous games, Bastion and Transistor (both excellent), differed from one another but were both overhead action games driven by a narrator. Pyre remains an excellent, story-driven game, but goes somewhere totally different for its game play: Magical basketball.

Players control a squad of slam dunkers, each with their own unique movement styles and abilities, as they battle other teams for a chance to leave a purgatory world. You take the role of their coach, more or less, guiding the team from arena to arena, choosing who plays, and at the end of each season's cycle, choosing who gets to leave and return to the world of the living. Do you allow someone who's already served decades in this purgatory to go free, or do you keep her trapped here because she's useful to the team? Can you give the right pep talk between rounds to get your players hyped for the next match? Another excellent example of integrating story and game play choices in a way that only works in this medium.

There's no Game Over here: If you lose a crucial match, the story continues in an altered manner, and I feel that it suits the story better if you do lose a few times. There's a thematic focus on why we play games, why we subject ourselves to repetition, and what it means to fight ultimately meaningless battles. These themes also come up in this year's Nier: Automata, but I felt they were developed in a stronger manner here. Pyre is both a well-told story and a very fun sports game, something I was completely surprised by.

Super Mario Odyssey (Switch) - I've always preferred the more level-oriented Mario games to the exploration driven titles like Mario 64 and Sunshine, so I was initially disappointed to hear that this game was an evolution of those titles rather than a continuation of the wonderfully designed Super Mario 3D World. No need to worry: Odyssey is phenomenally good, far and away the best of the exploration-type Mario games.

Funny enough, Odyssey feels like a hybrid of a Mario and a Kirby game: The action is driven by Cappy, a sentient, sassy hat that Mario uses to possess enemies and use their abilities. There are dozens of enemies and objects to possess, some delightfully weird, each with its own distinct feel. The pacing in this game is perfect, with new objectives and abilities introduced at a consistent rate so it never feels like it's repeating yourself. Some abilities only appear once or twice, but that's good! It makes those moments that much more special.

As with Breath of the Wild, many of Odyssey's objectives are quick and can be cleared in short play sessions. This design philosophy suits the idea of the Switch, with many quicker missions that are perfect for portable play complimenting the larger objectives of each zone. Boss fights are fun, exploring is a joy, and the weirdos you meet along the way are lovable. Also, it turns out dressing Mario up in goofy costumes is a ton of fun.

Yakuza Zero (PS4) - While the other games in my top five are fresher, Yakuza Zero perfectly refines an already excellent formula. Taking us back to the 1980's before Kazuma Kiryu was a national legend, players explore a gaudier, more neon-drenched Kamurocho where the economic boom has everyone throwing their dollars around. Punching out an enemy makes a cloud of yen burst out and you improve your skills by literally investing in yourself. You get to become a real estate tycoon (and hire Not Michael Jackson as an advisor), run a night club, and race RC cars against children while trying to maintain your dignity.

There's a clear sense that this is all a facade that can't last. The ludicrous 24 hour party has to end some time, and when it does, it's going to hit hard. The extravagance looks fun, but both of our protagonists are completely trapped by it, stuck under the thumb of powerful figures unwilling to let anyone else have a piece of the pie.

This is the most focused narrative a Yakuza title has ever had; it's still a wonderful, melodramatic macho soap opera, but there aren't any moments where I felt that the plot twisted in a stupid way just for the sake of a twist (Yakuza 4 being the worst example of this.) It's also the funniest, with incredible side stories that are worth pursuing not for their rewards but for their great, goofy writing. This is how you do side content in a game: Drive players to seek it out with quality scenarios that they want to engage with, rather than just wanting to check objectives off on a checklist.

Excellent - Great games worth your time.

The Evil Within 2 (PS4) - The sequel to Shinji Mikami's 2014 action/horror/stealth game surprised me. While it's not nearly as surreal and trippy as the first game, Evil Within 2 greatly refines the clunky original, giving us a more focused, far more polished title. These games take place inside of a virtual dream world, and it's understandably less crazy when the lead character is fully aware of it going in. John Johanas takes over as director with Mikami moving into a producer role, but the game is faithful to the original while moving in new directions. While the first game was fairly linear, Evil Within 2 breaks it up with open exploration areas. It's an excellent compromise between open-world gaming and more linear design and features a story focused on a more personal angle than the original game's. It's also heavier on Twin Peaks imagery, so there's that too.

Golf Story (Switch) - It's nice to see an excellent, exclusive indie title on the Switch! Sidebar Games' debut title is a charming, funny combination of golf sim and RPG. Players control a down on his luck bum who gets no respect and must earn it the only way he knows how: By proving his golf skills to a bunch of jerks. There are plenty of side activities to break up the golfing, from frisbee to digging for treasure to finding lost turtles. Each course is surrounded by a town filled with goofy characters that bring a lot of life to the game's world and the actual golfing plays well. If I could change anything it would be to add more mini-golf areas, the one that's playable here is great!

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (PS4) - The year's best sound design, hands down. Ninja Theory's first new release since their divisive Devil May Cry reboot in 2013, Hellblade takes us through a doomed Norse world as our heroine, Senua, seeks to save her beloved's soul from the goddess of death. What makes Hellblade so unique is Senua herself. Suffering from an unknown psychosis, Senua is taunted or encouraged by voices in her head as she struggles to make sense of shifting visual information. The implementation of these voices with the game's stellar sound design makes it a truly unique experience, with swirling whispers surrounding the player, sitting right behind you and getting closer and closer. While this is primarily a puzzle solving game, there is some simple, but weighty, combat which is, again, greatly enhanced by excellent sound design.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PS4) - After some initial hiccups, Dontnod's 2015 story-driven title Life is Strange won me over and was one of my favorite titles of the year. It was a very complete story, so I had low expectations for a prequel by a different developer, but Before the Storm is excellent. It loses the original game's time rewinding mechanics as focus shifts to a different lead character, but exploring the game's world and interacting with everyone you meet, choosing the tone of your story, still feels great. Dialogue is stronger here than in the original title, with no oddball moments where the game takes a second to break the fourth wall and inform you that actually, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was totally rad. As the lead character, Chloe has a far stronger and more compelling personality than she did as a supporting lead in the original title.

Persona 5 (PS4) - A great refinement of turn-based RPG game play, Persona 5 features excellent stage design, likeable characters, and a talking cat that turns into a magic bus. The art design here is exceptional, turning what could be boring menus into flashy, stylish screens, and it's got one of the most timely stories I've seen in a video game. I wrote an extensive review earlier in 2017 that explores the game more thoroughly.

Very Good - Strong games with standout elements.

Gorogoa (Switch) - A very cool puzzle game made by just one guy. It took me a little while to get into the mechanics (moving pieces of separate story scenes around to form something whole) but once I did, solving them felt great. The art design is strong and does a good job keeping your objectives clear without making them too obvious. There is a central, wordless story here, but I was paying such close attention to the actual puzzles that the story just washed over me.

Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4) - Horizon is a very solid open-world action game, but I feel like Zelda: Breath of the Wild spoiled me. I was so used to being able to climb everything in Zelda that I'd get frustrated by getting stuck and sliding down slopes that looked totally climbable in Horizon. Still, Horizon is beautiful, has very fun robot-dinosaur combat, and a cool, well-developed world. The story is split between tribal conflicts in the present and uncovering the secrets of the past; the former was completely uninteresting to me, but the latter was great.

Nier Automata (PS4) - Seven years after the release of Yoko Taro's original cult-classic Nier, Platinum Games took the reins on this sequel. Taro remained on board as director, but this game is very different from the original, with only a few small connections. Automata gives us a world where humanoid androids endlessly wage war with more machine-like robots, with both sides suffering deep losses in a battle that neither side should really be fighting. It's a commentary on the endless repetition of war, both in reality and in the context of video game violence, but lacks the compelling characters that made me fall for the original Nier. While this sequel definitely plays and looks a lot better, the story focus moves from personal to global. The world that's developed here is great and the actual, final ending is spectacular, but I felt completely detached from our lead androids and that feeling's only grown with time. A strong title with a great soundtrack, but not one that compelled me the way the original game did.

Resident Evil VII (PS4) - Resident Evil keeps reinventing itself: The first three games defined the Survival Horror genre, with a focus on puzzles and item conservation, while Resident Evil 4-6 embraced a bombastic, globe-trotting action movie aesthetic, shifting focus very heavily to combat. The seventh title brings with it a much smaller scale conflict,with players controlling an average guy in a first-person view, a stark change from the action heroes of the last three games. The goal's simple: You're trapped in a house with a murderous family and need to find a way to safety. Much time is spent hiding from enemies and sneaking through areas unseen, but in spite of that, it still feels like a Resident Evil game, especially when it comes to puzzle design. The final act is a bit of a slog, but otherwise, this is a surprisingly strong sequel after the highly unfocused Resident Evil 6.

Spelunker Party (Switch) - This is an updated version of 2015's free-to-play Spelunker World, featuring a revamped map, rewards focused on exploration rather than random luck, and the removal of paid features. Spelunker Party shares many of World's stages but is a nicer package overall and feels much more fair. Stage design is still weaker than 2010's wonderful Spelunker HD, but this one's a lot of fun to play with other players if you can find them.

What Remains of Edith Finch (PS4) -  Explore your family house and learn the horrible fates of your relatives! The stories of each member of the Finch family are each told in unique manners, from standard walking narratives to an interactive comic book to a game within the game in which players guide a character through a top-down dungeon. The way this game plays with storytelling techniques is fresh and wonderful, but it starts to lose its impact the fourth, fifth, or tenth time a story ends with, "And then, tragedy hit."

Yakuza Kiwami (PS4) - A full remake of Sega's original 2005 Yakuza game, Kiwami puts almost all other video game remakes to shame. This isn't an upscale or a remaster; this is a completely rebuilt game using the same story and many of the same side quests as the original release. Gone are the horrible, slow-loading battles of the original release, replaced with the more organic flow of the sequels. Combat is heavily overhauled, using Yakuza Zero's as its base. Additional story beats and cutscenes are added to make the game line up more coherently with Zero. Buddy/bitter rival Goro Majima is now everywhere.

Kiwami is great, but falls short of Zero's story and presentation, with quests that feel a lot more repetitive. The new Majima side content is hilarious, but too many other side quests are just flat compared to the wonderful madness found in Zero and the other later Yakuza titles. A worthy epilogue to Zero, but if you're choosing between the two titles, Zero is easily the far better choice.

Average - Some flawed, some decent games

Blaster Master Zero (Switch) - A nice reimagining of the 1988 title, Blaster Master Zero adds a lot of quality of life improvements and removes much of the original's brutal difficulty by adding a nice checkpoint system and better boss fights. It's far too easy to become ludicrously overpowered and backtracking is a chore, but if you enjoyed the original there's a lot to like here.

Injustice 2 (PS4) - I wasn't able to get into either Injustice game. They're well-made, but the combat just doesn't click with me the way it does in other 2D fighters. What made me interested here was hearing about this game's single player component, which has been heavily praised but ultimately did nothing for me. It's essentially a longer, grimmer Batman: The Animated Series episode with much worse writing. The cutscenes are very pretty, but they're devoid of anything interesting, and since it's a fighting game with a large cast, many of them are just endless cameos of characters that don't have any meaningful role in the story.

Kamiko (Switch) - A retro-styled top-down action game that feels more like a proof of concept than a complete game. Kamiko features three unique characters to choose from, but the experience doesn't change a whole lot, and you're left with a roughly hour long game. I'm curious to see what the developers do next!

Puyo Puyo Tetris (Switch) - It's two classic puzzle games that play about the same as ever, and both the individual modes and the Puyo-Tetris combo mode are fun. There's a long, nonsensical single player mode and a really ugly aesthetic, but otherwise this is simply a solid Tetris/Puyo game.

Sonic Mania (Switch) - I'm not a big Sonic fan; I always enjoy the first couple of zones and then lose interest, and Sonic Mania's no different. Great sprite work, excellent music, but otherwise it's just another Sonic game to me. If you're a Sonic fan, there's plenty to love, but it's not going to convert you if you're not.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (PS4) - There are some great, gutsy moments in this game, but they're buried in a story that feels made up as it goes along (especially in the second half) and game play that's utterly mediocre. Shooting bad guys becomes a chore and stage design is bland and directionless, made worse when comparing this game to 2016's phenomenally good Doom. It pokes at interesting angles such as fascism taking hold as the result of an indifferent population as much as the result of dictators, but never goes hard enough in those directions. With a talented editor willing to cut heavily, this one would make a better movie than video game.

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King (Switch) - A tribute to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that doesn't do enough to differentiate itself. I enjoyed this one a lot early on, but as the game went on the same puzzle types kept repeating (block pushing, drawing paths, walking across thin, falling pathways) until I was tired of all of them. The most interesting thing here is the framing device; the game's story is being told by your grandpa, and you can interrupt him at certain moments to decide what kind of monsters will appear in the next area. A great idea, but it only happens a couple of times. I would have liked to have seen this as a more central mechanic.

Awful - Severely flawed games.

Uncanny Valley (PS4) - We've got a humongous mess here, but it's an entertaining mess! A 2D narrative-puzzle-stealth game, Uncanny Valley puts you in the role of a security guard working at an abandoned robotics factory. You work in seven minute shifts, and can choose what to do, including going to bed and ignoring the story. Do that and you'll see the game unravel into nonsense, as characters you never meet are introduced and events are referenced that you missed entirely, but are expected to know.

It's a mystery that's supposed to take multiple playthroughs to solve, but the underlying story is so flat that there's nothing worth solving. Instead, I played it a couple of times (each play through took around an hour, hour and a half) just to see what would break. Some of my highlights:

-You can repeatedly activate all NPCs without advancing their text boxes and they just keep piling up on top of each other.

-When you enter the game's bathrooms your guy spawns too high on the map and falls a couple feet. Every time.

-I got killed by a monster that I didn't even know existed because I was in a menu and I didn't see or hear it until I closed out and then I was dead.

-The time limit ran out while I was breaking open a door and the game didn't know what to do so it spawned a second copy of my guy falling asleep while the door animation kept playing.

-Sometimes you open the menu and there's just a giant blue square.

I understand that bugs happen and that it's hard for small indie teams to fix them all, but this game was just so hilariously busted that I can't believe it passed Sony's certification. More than that, too: They featured it as one of the free monthly PS+ subscriber games. Maybe someone at Sony found this as funny as I did!


That's it for this year's batch! As usual, I'll add in more 2017 games if I go back and play ones I missed, so be sure to send me some recommendations.

What's next in the coming year? Yakuza 6, a new Kirby, and a game where you play as a rude goose. Maybe I'll even finish and release the Kaiju Big Battel game!

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