BEST OF 2017: existence and persistence
Yes, I'm late to the party, but I've arrived with a belated Best Of 2017 article. Not for NOTHIN' would I miss out on posting my top games from an extremely fruitful year. Sure, this hobby might be fucked up with truly awful people and unneeded shit, but hey--games are great, and we should all be GREATFUL for such GREAT things that bring us together. The theme of 2017 seemed to be one of both ponderous inner battles and wide-reaching spaces, both figurative and literal. It was the year Nintendo rose from the grave and took the world by storm with not one but two critical darlings. I must say, I absolutely love the Switch, and have extremely high hopes for its months ahead.
Let's bite right into it!
10) NIGHT IN THE WOODS (Everything)
After what felt like an eternity, I was very pleased to finally play Kickstarter darling Night in the Woods. A charming world of animal people in a small town caught in a microcosm of nostalgia, hopelessness, and stagnancy, Night in the Woods casts you as Mae, a cat who has skipped out on her college experience and moved back to this aforementioned community. Largely reliant on its candid characters and bolstered by wonderful writing, I loved my experience with this game and loved it even more seeing my wife play through the experience in a different way than I did. It resonated with me immensely, hearkening back to my own post-college listlessness and despondency, but let me laugh along with it even as it descended into more depressing elements. It's more real than the majority of stories offered in games right now, well worth the price of admission, and has a spectacular ending. In such an exceptionally strong year, it's pleasantly surprising that I (and others) loved this enough to put it in the upper echelon. From the standpoint of games being able to tell a great story, Night In The Woods is up there with the best of them.
9) RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD (PS4, X1, PC)
Resident Evil, a franchise long in decline, hoisted itself up by the bootstraps and did the sanest thing possible: coast off the goodwill earned by the dearly departed P.T.--and it mostly worked, for about 3/4 of the game. Anything involving the terrifying Baker family is pulse-pounding and legitimately chilling; the last chunk of the game spent in a gauntlet of slime monsters and a salt mine, not so much. Even though RE7 runs out of steam near the end, it redeems itself with a knockout ending encounter and an overall terrifying journey. It's refreshing to get back to the "resident" in Resident Evil after galloping across Europe and the polar icecaps and volcanoes or whatever, and I hope future entries keep us grounded in smaller, tighter environments. Please do not fuck this up, Capcom.
8) INJUSTICE 2 (PS4, X1, PC)
NetherRealm Studios' largest and most ambitious project to date, Injustice 2 is possibly one of the biggest fighting games ever created in terms of the content it offers. It's also one of the most accessible, even for those who don't have the time to commit to every single Multiverse match; there's a fun tamagotchi mode to customize your own AI fighters and watch them conquer the universe. If playing dress-up RPG with your fighters is desirable to you, Injustice 2 has a wealth of options for how to outfit each member of the roster, impacting their stats and how silly their stupid fucking helmets look. Speaking of looks, NRS pulled out all stops with the visuals because goddamn this is a huge leap in quality, especially in facial structure. We've come a long, long way from horrific skull shapes, balloon bosoms, and plastic hair, but Injustice 2 represents the pinnacle of this studio's work. A complete success in every possible way, NRS once more dominated the charts with their fighting game and dominated my heart with their ridiculous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles announcement for 2018.
7) MARIO+RABBIDS: KINGDOM BATTLE (Switch)
Nothing so perfectly encapsulates the revival of Ubisoft's public fortunes as the Mario Plus Rabbit: XCOM game does. Initially derided upon being leaked months before E3, the presentation that followed that summer made a believer out of most of us due to some fun new mechanics to the formula and a simple, though engaging momentum to the madness. Fun writing and personalities for the Rabbids make them the most endearing and enjoyable they've ever been, which is some kind of ungodly triumphant. This is a potential new cash cow for Nintendo and Ubisoft together, as we're sorely lacking in XCOM clones these days, let alone strategy games on a Nintendo home console, so by all means Ubisoft, go full hog on your "milk this for all its worth" because I would keep buying these forever.
6) PREY (PS4, X1, PC)
The heir presumptive of System Shock, Prey is the culmination of everything Arkane has learned in its 20+ years of expertise with mirror-men Raf Colantonio and Harvey Smith at the wheel. Combining the best of what immersive sims have had to offer, Prey is a grand narrative told by way of objects both sinister and nakedly confessional; the fake and the real intertwining like a helix around the makeshift identity that you and your adversaries are creating. A masterpiece in creative thinking and toolsets, Prey absconds its flaws by way of just how great the construction and execution of its ideas are. Not without its warts, I still enjoyed the grand majority of Prey's themes and overarching exploration, even with semi-sequence breaking possibilities. It will possibly be Raphael Colantonio's final contribution to gaming--but what a last hurrah it was.
5) SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY (Switch)
Nintendo found a way to liquefy pure fun and bottle it into Mario games sometime in the 80s, and the recipe hasn't lost its flavor just yet. Odyssey is a small revival of the Mario 64 and Sunshine template, but focuses more on accomplishment in miniature through 900 or so Moons to collect. Every new level is a notable playground to dig up and turn over, and hardly any space exists for naught. The prizes may be more plentiful but so is the nonstop sense of accomplishing something, which is good for making even the dumbest games journalist feel smart. In terms of presentation and execution, this came through with flying colors, and might just be the prettiest Mario game created yet.
4) FIRE PRO WRESTLING WORLD (PC, PS4 coming soon)
The return of Fire Pro was one of the coolest goddamn things ever, because I miss the old days of creating a bunch of whackjob combatants and programming them to my heart's content. Fire Pro is less about the fighting you're doing and more about the spectacles being detailed and narrated to an insane degree. The AI system has always been the most interesting aspect of Fire Pro; making your own federation of weirdos and madmen eclipses anything that resident shithouse 2K could even dream of cooking up. I've got a roster of almost 60 custom fighters by now, and with the upcoming Management Mode on the way in February, this game is going to get even sweeter. I have probably 120 hours logged in this and I don't see myself stopping at any point.
3) PERSONA 5 (PS4)
The latest entrant from Atlus continuing to revolutionize the now considerably-niche JRPG formula--a genre that even Final Fantasy is slowly moving away from with FFXV's real-time combat and wide-open world. Though Persona as a series does rely on turn-based 4-person combat at its core, it's only a small facet in a much grander and eloquent scheme cloaked in domino masks, part-time jobs, your disgruntled coffee uncle, and capturing satanic pixies after gossiping with them about high school. This is the wild metaverse of Persona, wherein a bunch of teenagers are playing a game within a game while a fansite eggs them on to solve the squelchy problems others don't have the clout to investigate.
As much as I wanted to finish my review of this, I just didn't have enough time--but I will say that it improves so much upon Persona 4 Golden in the gameplay department that I could likely never return to that dungeon-crawler setup. With a menu system more stylish than the entirety of other games and a soundtrack to die for, Persona 5 is wild ride with wonderful characters, a fun and snappy fighting scheme, and more than enough to keep you occupied in the downtime it offers. It's great that JRPGs are still alive and have even managed to evolve over time. When it comes to straight up RPG entertainment and ease--of-access to a speculative genre, Persona 5 is the cream of the crop.
2) THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD (Switch)
I'm no Zelda guy, but BOTW was a game that captivated me right up until the closing act. The freedom it offers and the sparse, sometimes tranquil solitude you wake up within is a pleasant change from the cacophony of modern games these days. Sure, Horizon Zero Dawn or even Assassin's Creed: Origins put similar, sometimes better elements on a platter--but Zelda captured me by the sheer scale of exploration and the puzzles within. There was a refreshing simplicity in many of its moments, and I do hope that the future of the franchise follows up by improving upon some of its highest moments achieved here. I've said way too much about this already so by all means, refer to my dedicated review for more.
1) YAKUZA 0 (PS4)
Yakuza 0 was an anomaly coming into 2017 because the Yakuza franchise was very much a cult game series. Yakuza 0, a brand new origin story, turned the tables by kickstarting at least 2 other remakes for 1 and 2 while guaranteeing 6 would be coming to the West. Although I can't say how much influence Yakuza 0 really had in this outpouring of support from Sega, what I can say is that Yakuza 0 is one of the best games I've ever experienced. Much like DOOM in the year before, Yakuza 0 is just simply fun in a Dreamcast retro-classic kind of way. It's a near-perfect gem of tremendous storytelling wrapped around a joyous brawler, and sprinkled over generously with wonderfully written sidestories and genuinely fun supplemental activities. It says a lot that the pool game in a Japanese dramabomb is so well realized that it could have been a standalone game somewhere else.
The people behind this game put a lot of soul and passion into it, and I can only hope that Yakuza 2 and Yakuza 6 follow in its footsteps to garner even more fans of this fantastic series. But even if you simply start and then stop at Yakuza 0, it's well worth the playthrough and the fun to be had by hosting your weirdo nightclub and slamming men into traffic cones for real estate ventures. Sometimes, videogames just need to be simple in the ways they delight you. Yakuza 0 is an experience that's out of time, free of season passes and microtransactions, offering you a world of bewilderment and passionate fistfights within the scale of just a few city blocks.
SPECIAL EXTRA AWARDS: "THE SPECIAL EXTRA AWARDS!"
Boy, it sure was a stacked year in 2017! Unfortunately, not everything was on my top 10, and not every game gets a Special Award (mainly because I'm so fucking late this year and had less time to write this shit) but let's just be thankful for EACH OTHER, AND WHAT WE HAVE.
Best DLC: XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
XCOM2 was a major success when it came to isometric strategy tactics against an alien menace. With the tremendous overhaul in WOTC, now it is just plain sexy. Not only cribbing from Shadow or Mordor with the surprise assailants in the 3 Chosen, but putting in a legit zombie horde mode in certain maps really takes the cake. New faction classes, movie poster victory rolls, teamwork synergy, and rad new maps are just the tip of the iceberg, but this DLC is almost essential to the XCOM2 experience now in terms of the colossal amount of content it dumps onto you. This is the grand kahuna of tactics games, so take a big spoonful of WOTC next time you double dip into XCOM2. Nothing compares to beating a psionic alien warlord in a swordfight while two dozen zombies are crashing out of derelict apartments towards the cynosure of the conflict.
Best Music: Persona 5
It was a real dogfight this year in the Best Music department. Night in the Woods has a great blipbloop score, and Nier: Automata's space language made for a beatific vision of an otherwise repetitive and dusty adventure. However, I couldn't let go of the smooth jazz stylings on offer in persona 5. I thought it would be impossible to put one over on the spritely janglepop of Persona 4, but in the end the score for P5 was one for the ages with its upbeat jams and rainspattered slow burns.
Best New Character: Jack Baker
In a year full of goth lolita androids, Rabbids, and space junkies, the most charming and hilarious of them all was a swampman in a jumpsuit who just wanted to WELCOME YOU TO THE FAMILY, SON. Jack Baker may be infested with some kind of mind-altering fungus that grants him invulnerability and super-strength, but his best asset is still his ability to take bullets to the face with a smile and a laugh. A cackling omnipresence in your Resident Evil 7, two of the best boss battles in 2017 were against Jack, setting the tone for a mostly frightening journey. Capcom dropped the ball by refusing him entry into the latest Marvel v. Capcom, thereby guaranteeing the game's immediate and utter failure. How do you say no to such a well-mannered gentleman? Not many bayou boys can wield an axe or a pair of chainsaws with such class, except for maybe Jimmy Carter. Hats, and hands off, to Jack.
Best Story: Prey
Although Yakuza 0 has one of the best narratives in years, I have to give this pick to Prey solely due to how important it is to the entire game's progression. The writing isn't just limited to the plot, but permeates every pore and object available to examine--from books and computers to secretive recordings and abandoned board games. Prey's greatest strength lies within its atmospheric tales and mysteries left on the wayside; often the best tales are the ones that have been lost to time and (literally) space. It's fascinating how the prevailing of these memories now depends on a character who may not understand or trust their own memory at all. When it comes to Prey, you get out of the narrative as much as you want to give.
Best Boss: Jack Baker
It's a rare thing that the Best New Character pick also happens to be a grandstanding boss within his game, as well--but Jack Baker is just that good. In the 3 main encounters with Jack outside of his usual stalking, you're taken through 3 completely different scenarios that mirror the mounting horror and mutation faced on this vacation from hell. The second duel in particular is a plainly incredible grindhouse moment, bridging the gap from stupidity to awesomeness. There may have been more complex bosses last year but nothing holds a candle to how insane your fights with the Baker patriarch were in RE7.
Best Comeback: Ubisoft
I can't believe that I get to eat crow over a company I've shit on year after year, in consecutive E3 previews, since the beginning of time. Ubisoft playing the long game ended up working out pretty well, as they had a new and generally fun medieval fighting IP, an Assassin's Creed that's actually really good, a Nintendo XCOM that is beyond the scope of our expectations, and a fantastic new Far Cry coming up in early 2018. Sure, they also created Wildlands, which is like if MGSV was brought to a house party and left with party favors that somehow made you blind and shit blood, but hey--who hasnt done that?? Yes, Wildlands sucks and is a stiff mediocre shootman with impressively bad vehicle collision, but aside from that, Ubisoft continued to support For Honor and even Rainbow Six Siege well into 2018--no small feat in this gaming climate. It's been a long road for the little Frenchmen that could and their friend Aisha Tyler, but taking a year or so to development their new toys instead of pumping out 6 in 12 months paid off handsomely, and even gave them a mutually beneficial hit with the Switch. I can say that I'm actually looking forward to the future of Ubisoft, whatever it brings. Hopefully the reveal of Beyond Good and Evil 2 lands on its feet, and within the next 2 years.
Biggest Wet Fart: Destiny 2
It gives me no joy to declare Destiny 2 a wet fart. Hell, I bought it and played for a month or so, enjoying the new experiences and improved missions offered within. There was an actual wealth of stuff to do....until there wasn't, and the rewards or even purpose for most of these things added up to very little. It turned out that the homogeneous gun stats and equipment on hand would be a kind of undoing, and the continued small offering of Strikes didn't help. By fixing the problem of "not enough stuff," you were soon encountered with "too much stuff too fast" and at that rate, you could get the 2 or 3 best guns rather quickly (anything with fucking exploding bullets.) What's worse is that the crapshoot 6v6 PvP, which was somewhat fun in Destiny 1, was dumbed down to 4v4 matches that devolved further into crouching and nervously shooting around corners, while your Ability cooldowns were hobbled worse than a Stephen King protagonist's ankles. Gone were the frantic moronic spacefights with DBZ beams and knives to the head; PvP had been transformed into the dullest, worst multiplayer offering in existence.
At this writing, Bungie is pretty much in an endless loop of apologizing for things every 2 weeks, fixing or fucking something up ad infinitude. It's madness that they still can't seem to grasp the solutions to these problems, but hey, why bother when you had the biggest release of any console game in 2017? Take the monies and run.
"This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get" Award: King Of Fighters 14
No, this is not an award sponsored by Public Image Limited. I figured even though XCOM2 won Best DLC, I should still mention SNK's comeback game King Of Fighters 14 and the excellent tendency they now have to give the players exactly what they're asking for. In this case, SNK dropped a DLC character pack of Whip, Yamazaki, Rock Howard, and Vanessa, pretty much running the gauntlet of fan favorites everyone was asking for since day 1. Their great work continues with another character pack coming this April, and they've already exceeded expectations by injecting a rare badass one-time character, Oswald, into the mix. SNK may not have the same budget as Capcom or even ArcSys right now, but they're doing all they can with the resources and time available, and for that I have to give them props yet again.
Retro Classic Award: Blaster Master Zero
So many little gems were released on the Switch this year--but we'd be here all day if I went down the list. Instead, I did want to point out how fun Blaster Master Zero is, taking an original concept from long ago and adding some quality of life improvements and a trove of cheap additional DLC characters to sweeten further playthroughs. It's not the biggest or the most difficult game there is, but it's a very charming romp that gets what makes "retro" games popular. Inti Creates, aside from Mighty No. 9, has a spectacular batting average when it comes to this niche, and I hope they get the chance to remake even more classics.
Dog Park Award: Friday The 13th
A curious and unique game from GUN Media, Friday the 13th had a rocky start but eventually transformed into a corny yet faithful recreation of a slasher movie survival sim. The real joy isn't in playing a camp counselor, though--it's when you step into the big soggy boots of Jason Voorhees. The sheer power you feel as you stab through a closet to annihilate your victim, or punch their head off with one swing, is unbelievable. Jason is a brutal monster and a horrific antagonist, but goddamn he's fun to play as, even as his fatal finishers make the rest of the players wince.
As usual, let's review what I had picked for my 2017 top 10, in 2016:
1) Persona 5
2) Nier: Automata
3) Resident Evil 7
5) UNANNOUNCED NINTENDO GAME
6) Red Dead Redemption 2
7) Mass Effect: Andromeda
8) Injustice 2
10) Yooka Laylee
50% ain't too bad, considering the Nintendo game was Kingdom Battle. I suppose I got tired of putting Zelda on my list every year and left it off. Red Dead, as we all know, was postponed til 2018. Nioh, while rather good, didn't quite make my cut as I didn't have too much time with it. Yooka-Laylee is a hilarious pick, given how it bombed--same with Andromeda, which was very unfortunate. Games like Yakuza 0 and Fire Pro weren't really a thing back when I made this initial list so I had no way of predicting what would happen.
You probably have noticed the distinct lack of Nier:Automata on this list. I toyed with the idea of giving it an "overrated" award but decided not to write about it. All I can say is that I found the combat dreadfully boring, the open world aspect unnecessary timewasting, and the story to be a rather diet take on better ideas that I've read from Phillip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov. It's a game with a lot of good ideas but the concept of multiple playthroughs isn't quite deserved due to the lackluster characters that don't get worthwhile until 30 hours in, and the disappointing combat that can actually frustrate you if you're a "lower level" than future enemies, which is ridiculous.
Now, without further waffling, here's my presumptuous list for the Best of 2018:
Red Dead Redemption 2
God Of War
Monster Hunter World
Far Cry 5
I admit, it's kind of cheating to create this list when I've already been playing a bit of DBFighterZ and Monster Hunter, but fuck you. As usual, I took out insurance on Nintendo, presuming things like No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Back come out in 2018. The rest of these are kind of no-brainers. It seems to be a very simple year but I kind of like it; there's a clear road ahead of the heavy hitters, though I could certainly see games like Indivisible or Celeste be on here, as well.
IT'S BEEN A GREAT YEAR FOR GAMES, AGAIN. EVERYONE IS A WINNER IN 2017 AND WE WILL CONTINUE TO BE WINNERS IN 2018 WITH BIG BUCKS AND BIG THRILLS. PLEASE LEAVE YOUR NAME AT THE DOOR. WELCOME, AND GOODBYE, EVERYONE.
Amazing and topical!