Alex Navarro is very tired.
In the interest of not beating a dead shitty horse and also getting this list up in a semi-timely fashion, I'm going to keep this opening short. I think you probably already know how I feel about the events of 2017. If you'd like it summed up in a metaphor, if 2016 was the feeling of veering off a road, 2017 was one long, protracted sensation of watching through the windshield as your car careens down a hill. My hope for 2018 is that at the bottom of that hill--a bottom which we most assuredly have yet to see--is a nice patch of soft grass that will minimize the impact, and not a yawning chasm, the floor of which can't even be seen from this distance. Maybe we'll be able to get up and walk away with a few scrapes and bumps and only a totaled vehicle to worry about, and not a fiery ball of death from which there is no escape. Gotta look on the bright side, right?
It's been very strange trying to maintain focus on video games this year. Nothing could possibly feel less important, more utterly frivolous than these goofy fucking entertainments. But I also recognize that people need these frivolous entertainments in the face of overwhelming dread. I certainly did. I spent more collective hours escaping into the varied worlds of these games than I think I have in any year prior. I needed to explore the nooks and crannies of Night in the Woods' small rust belt town, I needed to see every corner of Bayek's Egypt in Assassin's Creed Origins, I needed to consume every last detail in NieR:Automata's sprawling storyline, I needed to see what would happen if all the members of Giant Bomb fought in a giant battle royale, in both the gun-murdering and professional wrestling definitions of that term.
I needed the games I've chosen for this list more than I'd really care to admit. Even the runners-up, which I'll list first, brought me a measure of solace in a year that was severely lacking in that particular category. I loved these games a lot, and hopefully you'll find something in here to love too.
First up, here are six games I spent a lot of time with this year that just missed my top 10.
Why am I this game? Why is this game me? What's happening here?
I asked myself that question a bunch this year, as I encountered more and more people posting screenshots of Getting Over It. This is a game about a man in a pot who has to navigate hellish geometry with only a sledgehammer to help pull him across. This is also a game by Bennett Foddy, a man known for turning simple acts of traversal into Sisyphean torments.
The sledgehammer pot man in question also looks a decent amount like me--specifically the me of my freewheeling, goatee-sporting days. He also looks kinda like any other dude who might have been into heavy metal and/or existential dread at some point in their lives, so I'm willing to chalk this up to coincidence, especially since Bennett Foddy and I are not well acquainted. I'm content to call this a Mr. Sparkle situation, and my head is the fishbulb in this case.
Still, seeing people repeatedly call out the reasonable resemblance to the protagonist/tortured soul you occupy in the game made me want to give this a shot, and I'm glad I did. Not because I enjoy Getting Over It, exactly--this is pretty expressly not a game designed to be enjoyed by anyone--but because I admire its notion of exploring failure as something more than just a thing to get frustrated at. Foddy's small bits of narration explaining his inspirations and gently coaxing the player to keep going in the face of obnoxious adversity is something I greatly appreciated. I'm fucking awful at this game and I don't know that my time with it will extend too much longer, but it made for a fascinating, excruciating year-end surprise.
I don't think I actually like Destiny 2 all that much. I certainly like it a great deal more than the first game, as evidenced by the fact that I actually finished Destiny 2's campaign and participated in some of its endgame content, something I never felt even a little inspired to do in Destiny 1. Still, when I look back on my time with Destiny 2, all I remember is a flurry of satisfying gunshots and not much else.
Destiny 2 was like a two-week long torrid affair for me. The whole time I was playing it, all I felt was an almost guilty sense of recognition that what I was doing was pointless and maybe even a little irresponsible, given how many other games I could have been playing at that time. Yet even as the back of my brain was screaming for me to do literally anything else, I kept playing because the extremely dumb and dominant pleasure center of my brain that liked playing Destiny 2 wouldn't let me stop. In a way, the Leviathan raid was a blessing in disguise. Like an affair that goes terribly sideways, doing the Leviathan put all the problems I was having with the game into stark relief, to such a degree that I not only no longer wanted to play Destiny 2, but I began to react with a measure of revulsion whenever the idea was brought up.
So far, I've held fast. The new DLC was mildly tempting, but then all the feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction began to bubble up again, and I held off. Destiny 2 is not a bad game. It's actually a pretty good game. Good enough for me to spend two blissful, brain-dead weeks I played with more energy and dedication than I did many other games this year. I don't think I'm ever going to play it again. I wish it the best in life and hope that it finds happiness someday.
Conversely to Destiny 2, here's Edith Finch, a game I played and loved for exactly two hours and got exactly what I needed from it in that time. Operating in a similar space to the Gones Home and Ethans Carter of the world, Giant Sparrow lovingly crafts a magnificently strange space for a player to explore, then proceeds to tell a series of tragic fairy tales about the lives and deaths of the utterly doomed Finch family.
There's a Wes Anderson-like quality to the game, not so much in the storytelling, but in the elaborate, patchwork construction of the Finch home. Even the clutter has an air of meticulousness to it. It's one of the best sets I've ever had the opportunity to explore in a game.
It only narrowly misses my top 10 because other games hit me harder this year. I loved the little stories and peculiar moments peppered throughout the game, and the last half hour or so is incredibly strong. Highly recommended.
Tekken 7 fucking rips. I don't have nearly the expansive fighting game knowledge/prowess to assess the game too much more deeply than that, but goddamn, what a killer surprise this was.
It's not that I haven't enjoyed other, recent Tekkens. I think Tekken has been reliably good for most of its lifespan. But Tekken 7 awakened something in me I haven't felt since I was a shitty teenager, bumming around the dingy arcade at our local music venue and dropping double axehandles as Jack-2 on my dumbass friends. It's not any one thing, exactly. The fighting system is more or less the thing you know it to be, but little touches--like the new rage art system and slow-motion zoom on the potential final hits of the match--come together to make bouts so much more exciting. Hell, they even found a way to not only insert Akuma effectively, but make him a vital part of the canon. That's bonkers!
Though I have no active dislike of Street Fighter V, I have to admit that the Tekken finals at this year's Evo were way more captivating to me than the traditional grand finals. I'm not saying there's much chance of Tekken taking over as the predominant fighter in the tournament scene, but I am saying I wouldn't mind too much if that ever did come to pass.
Cuphead sits atop a pile of games I maybe admired more than I enjoyed this year. I did, and am still enjoying my time with Cuphead, but I didn't quite fall in love with it the way other people on staff did.
Still, this is one of those games that I've found myself going out of my way to show people when I've had the opportunity, especially people who don't necessarily spend a lot of time playing video games. It's such a fascinating visual showpiece, and not in that way that every photorealistic action game aspires to be. It's a lot of fun watching people yelp when they realize you're actually playing the cartoon, instead of just watching it between the parts where you play.
My reluctance to put it on the top 10 has less to do with its difficulty--which, while very challenging, isn't unreasonable by any stretch--and more just not feeling as inspired to keep going back to it as I did other games. It's something I pick up once a week or so, play for an hour or two, then put down. It's great in those short bursts, and that's good enough for me.
Before you all pin me down and beat me with a sack of Korok seeds, let me make one thing absolutely clear: Zelda not appearing on my top 10 is probably my fault, and my fault alone.
There were a number of large-ish games this year that I tried to get into, or got into for a period and then just never quite got back to. Hollow Knight is one of those games--despite loving the aesthetic, the Metroidvania-ness of it eventually caused me to bounce off it the way I always do those kinds of games. Another is Horizon Zero Dawn--love the world, love the visuals, never felt super compelled to keep going past the first 10-15 hours. And then there's Zelda--I have no good explanation for Zelda.
All the things people say about Breath of the Wild I think are basically true. It is one of the coolest, most fascinating sandboxes any developer has ever put together. The ways that Nintendo has combined the familiar pieces of Zelda with that sandbox are pretty incredible. I spent a good long while in this version of Hyrule messing around, finding shrines, just poking and prodding at the world, seeing what I'd discover. That feeling of discovery is every bit as good as people told you it was.
Yet, for some reason, I just...fell off. Other games came around, and I kept telling myself I'd get back to Zelda. A few times I've actually tried, but I never got very far. I've spent all year trying to articulate exactly what it was that put me off, and I've never been able to draw a clear picture of it. It's not the rain. It's not the dungeons. It's not anything specific that I can piece together. I just didn't feel like going back to it. There's a decent chance that in 2018 I'll come back to it and realize I was an enormous idiot. I'll declare it 2018's 2017 game of the year and wonder where I went wrong in the first place. It's a great game I respect the hell out of. I just need to find that early, burning desire I had to play it and figure out how to hold onto it this time.
And now, onto the top 10 proper.
10. Persona 5
This is kind of a weird one. If you listened to the spoilercast Ben and I recorded earlier this year, you might have gotten the impression I had a lot of problems with Persona 5. That's because I do. There are a lot of problems with Persona 5.
I also spent near-on 100 hours playing Persona 5. If I really hated the game, I can't envision myself doing that. I've played too many bad games for too many hours of my life to ever want to spend that much time on something I dislike.
The only conclusion I can draw is that I actually did like Persona 5. I can certainly point to the things I liked. The style is absolutely incredible, to the point that I never got tired of hearing that battle music, seeing that victory screen, or even just wandering around the streets of Tokyo, grooving to "Beneath the Mask". Maybe half the dungeons are actually pretty great (though the ones that aren't extremely aren't), and I even dug tooling around inside Mementos, battling random monsters whenever I got the chance.
I think I just wanted more from the script--and I don't just mean the obvious issues with the localization. There are tons of interesting characters in Persona 5, especially in the social links outside your crew of teen thieves. Only a handful of them get what feels like a complete character arc though, and it's even more inconsistent among your closest friends. Makoto is the only one who comes across like a complete character from start to finish, and as much as I loved Makoto, she's a fucking cop.
Persona 5 ended strongly enough that I felt like my time with the game was worthwhile. I absolutely wanted more from it, but what I got out of it was one of the better experiences I've had playing alongside my girlfriend in a very long time. We played it obsessively for a solid month, and we don't do that with very many games at all. So this lands on my list as much for my appreciation for that time spent with her as for the game itself.
If you'd asked me back in 2014 whether I thought MachineGames' Wolfenstein series would become something we'd be talking about as a work reflective of the times in which we live today, I would have thought that a nonsense question. Why would this hyperviolent, ridiculously pulpy Nazi hunting action series be even remotely relevant as anything beyond another frivolous entertainment--albeit a very good one--to be consumed and not-thought-too-hard-about like so many other frivolous entertainments just like it. This bizarre question seems somewhat less bizarre in 2017, the year in which Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus crashed into a world in which Nazis are a thing people talk about with considerably greater urgency. Whether by design or not, Bethesda and MachineGames suddenly had a game on their hands that fed into a larger narrative about Nazis, and what one should generally do about them.
Wolfenstein's stance, going back to the Castle Wolfenstein days, has always been that maybe shooting them in the face is the best thing to do about them. MachineGames maintains this response steadfastly throughout The New Colossus. Even as it attempts to deepen the players' connection with protagonist BJ Blazkowicz and his band of merry Nazi hunters, and poke at some of the root causes that would allow for Nazism to not merely conquer, but take hold in America, it is still unflinchingly the game that Wolfenstein has always been.
That game is maybe the one thing that holds Wolfenstein II back. For a game that is very much about the base pleasure of tearing bad guys to shreds with insane guns, the action in Wolfenstein II doesn't quite pack the punch that you'd hope. It's not the difficulty--which is not well-balanced, but can be managed--but the surprisingly flat design of many of the combat encounters made me feel like I was just biding my time until the next big, insane cutscene dropped. I wanted to like playing Wolfenstein II as much as I liked watching it, and I never quite did.
Thing is though, I really liked watching Wolfenstein II. The story is as ludicrous a rollercoaster ride as I've experienced in years. The developers at MachineGames know exactly what kind of story they want to tell, and the moments of dread and misery intermingled with the moments of levity and excitement create an intoxicating brew of violent weirdness. I loved the new additions to your team of ragtag rebels, and BJ's arc over the last two games is one of the most fascinating reenvisionings of a boilerplate video game protagonist ever attempted.
Not everything about Wolfenstein II worked for me, but I can't help but admire the hell out of its weird-ass ramshackle spirit. Here's to Wolfenstein III and shooting the living fuck out of MechaHitler.
Webster's dictionary defines joy as: 1. the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires; 2. a state of happiness or felicity; 3. the act of playing Super Mario Odyssey.
Everything that has been said collectively about why people loved Super Mario Odyssey can be boiled down to a simple expression of joy. Super Mario Odyssey makes you feel fucking good when you're playing it. It's goofy, silly, colorful, effervescent, pretty much everything you'd want a 3D platformer to be. It is mathematically designed to inspire maximum smiles in anyone who touches it for even a minute.
It's also just a very well-designed game. Cappy is maybe the least interesting character in a Mario game that I actually love. Not because of his story, but because of all the myriad things I can do with him. Capturing is, of course, his primary role, and Nintendo has done a magnificent job creating a huge variety of different enemies and objects you can plop a Mario hat and mustache on. But once you start exploring his function as a platforming aid, Cappy becomes an amazing companion. I'm not great at using him consistently yet, but I've been poking around some of my previously conquered kingdoms, looking for new zones I can access by flinging my hat friend around. Every time I do I let out a little squeal of delight. It's embarrassing, but I can't help it.
Mario might have gotten a little higher on my list had I felt like the initial run through it were more substantial. I'm not against how easy some of those collectible moons are to acquire, I just wish the game had been balanced to require players to spend a liiiiiittle more time in each kingdom before moving on. I've no issue going back to find what I missed the first time around, but I didn't get quite the same level of satisfaction from "completing" those kingdoms as I've gotten in previous Marios. It's a minor quibble, but one that's stuck with me since I first saw the credits roll.
Boy was I ever ready to give up on this game. Hell, if I'm honest, I had kind of given up on it before I even started it.
As much as I was grateful for Ubisoft finally taking a year off from the AC release grind, I can't say that anything in the early marketing materials for Origins caught my attention beyond the setting. Ancient Egypt sounded like a great launching point for a new volley of historical murdering, but hearing about the layers of action-RPG-ness that had been bolted on, and watching the early trailers, just left me shrugging. Then the game finally came around, and between its awkward in medias res intro and incredibly slow opening hours, I was pretty sure I was going to fall all the way off of Origins.
I can't pinpoint the exact moment things turned around for me. It was a little ways past where we recorded the Quick Look. I'd been dutifully plucking away at the various story and side missions that presented themselves, experiencing them, but not necessarily feeling much of anything toward them. I knew I liked Bayek, but I kept wondering exactly what the game was going to do with him. I liked the side stories I'd been uncovering, but I kept wondering exactly how many of these I was going to be on-board for. Then, without me even realizing it, I started finding myself wanting to come back to the game every night. And I kept doing that, over and over, every night I had free, for at least an hour or so. I'm still doing that right now.
Whatever that turning point was for me, it completely changed my outlook on the game. In the context of what would normally be a 20-30 hour game, those opening hours seem incredibly off-putting. In the context of what is actually a 60+ hour game, those hours are recontextualized as the game taking its time to immerse the player in Bayek's world. I still don't like that opening fight very much, but thinking back now on my first time entering Alexandria, my first attempts at helping the Egyptian people, those opening hours feel as vital as anything else I've experienced in Origins.
Those scenes, where Bayek is just doing his job as the last Medjay and helping people in desperate need of it, are the highlights of Origins. The layers of Assassin's Creed-ness attached to Origins are mostly fine, if occasionally pointless, but purely taken as a game about a guy roaming a massive rendition of Egypt, helping people as he goes, like the Egyptian equivalent of David Banner or Kwai Chang Caine, it's incredible. The best storytelling in Origins has almost nothing to do with the main murder plot, which is fine because the main plot is pretty minor compared to the insane volume of side missions scattered across the world.
It's great stuff, and as invigorating an entry in this series as I've played since Black Flag, if not further back. I still actually haven't seen the ending to Origins, because I've put off doing the final round of story missions until I experienced every side mission and at least visited all the question marks on the map. 60 hours later, I've got one side quest left and a handful of mystery spots left to see. Maybe the ending sucks, but even if it does, it won't change how appreciative I was of the time I spent with Origins.
Man, what a magical surprise this was.
A little background: Fire Pro Wrestling is my second-favorite wrestling game franchise, behind only the AKI-developed N64 wrestlers you often see used in League of Heels shows. Fire Pro has a well-earned reputation among nerds who enjoy professional wrestling a little too much as one of the most customizable games ever. Even within the context of its sprite-based visuals, the sheer volume of create-a-wrestler options, from appearance and moveset, down into the nitty-gritty of wrestler A.I., is unparalleled. Even in 2017, with time and technology suggesting seemingly incredible possibilities for advancing well beyond what this series was doing back in the '90s, nobody has quite captured that same Fighting Spirit that Fire Pro has always embodied.
The only thing holding back Fire Pro (aside from potential legal issues, which this game sidestepped altogether) was a lack of accessibility. Apart from a couple of GBA entries and one PS2 entry in 2005, Fire Pro has almost exclusively been a Japanese-only game. And even when people would go to the trouble of importing the games, gaining access to people's creations was a chore. You either had to painstakingly recreate details written on some dude's Geocities page, or do what I did, and get a fucking DexDrive to download other people's saves. Nobody should have to buy a DexDrive under any circumstances.
Fire Pro Wrestling World fixes this glaring issue by embracing the Steam Workshop. It's not a perfectly elegant solution, but being able to just subscribe to any person's created wrestler and have it load up in your game after one quick menu edit is a HUGE improvement. Of course, it helps that the Steam community has been incredibly engaged with the game since it first launched into Early Access. There are thousands of creations, ranging from top wrestling superstars to GG Allin, all available at the press of a button.
And the core game is as good as it's ever been. Half (or, if I'm being real, almost all) of the appeal is in pitting these creations against one another and seeing how the A.I. handles each match. There's a 75% possibility that any given top 10 list you read on the site this year was edited while a G1 style tournament among Saturday Night Slam Masters characters ran in the background on my PC. Titanic Tim won, in case you were wondering.
There's more content on the horizon, too. The devs are adding a booker-style manager mode in January, and I've seen some loose talk about some kind of story editor coming later on as well. There's a good chance Fire Pro Wrestling World will consume as much of my time in 2018 as it did in 2017, if not more. Woe be to any game that attempts to get between me and my exploding barbed wire deathmatches featuring Goku and Stan Hansen.
Pyre might be my favorite Supergiant game. I really didn't expect that. Bastion is one of those games that occupies a rare space in my head reserved for my most cherished games. Transistor didn't do it for me, but I nonetheless had hopes for Pyre. Those hopes didn't come anywhere close to how much I ended up loving it.
Pyre is primarily a triumph of character and world-building. I loved being in the Downside alongside my cadre of weird orbsportsmen and women. I loved looking at Jen Zee's vivid, colorful art, and interacting with the various opponents that came up against us in the rites. The presentation of it all is so beautiful, but of course it wouldn't work if the characters didn't leave an impression.
The genius of Pyre is in its structure. It's anxious to let you interrogate and feel for these characters you play with, but makes it clear pretty early on that you'll have to say goodbye to some of these folks as you send them back to the home they were originally banished from. It makes the choices of who you play with, who you build up, mean more than it would if you just stuck with the same crew the whole way through. Nobody in Pyre is a generic hero or villain. Many of your opponents are just as understandable in their motives as your teammates, and some of your teammates aren't always as clearcut in their motives as they initially lead on.
And god, even the orbsports are good! The game seems incredibly easy at the beginning, but as you work your way through and encounter new teams (and acquire new teammates), the strategies become way more complicated. Laying down a huge glowing orb dunk on a punk rock nihilist dog was one of the most satisfying things I've done in a game all year.
I especially admire Pyre's prevailing notion that it's not all about winning. You can lose crucial battles in Pyre, and the story will continue rolling on without so much as a hiccup. It's designed to a tell a story that's as much about your failures as your successes. My advice is to let it tell that story without worrying about getting every victory. I did that on my second play-through, and It's absolutely worth it.
When I was a little kid, my friends and I used to get together either in one of our backyards or at a local park, and just play "guns." Playing guns probably means a variety of things to people, but to us, the notion was pretty simple: we'd bring whatever toy guns we had, throw them in a pile, then randomly grab whichever ones we felt like playing with, and run around "shooting" each other until either everyone was "dead" or we were too tired and went home.
That's what Battlegrounds is to me. It's a hundred people playing guns over and over until they're tired of it or they're dead.
Of course, when I was playing around as a kid, we didn't have particularly realistic looking guns, nor the amount of real estate Battlegrounds allows people to play around in. Still, at its core, I'm doing the exact same thing. I'm either teaming up with friends, or rolling solo, looking for hiding spots and cover points as I spray imaginary bullets everywhere until someone says "got ya!" and I have to start up a new game. At least with Battlegrounds I don't have to wear out my mouth making "rat-a-tat" sounds every time I fire a gun.
Look, Battlegrounds is undoubtedly still kind of a messy game. We know about the server issues and cheating problems that have flared up at various points throughout its Early Access period (and, frankly, post-launch). We know about the jank that is as often utterly frustrating as it is unintentionally hilarious. This is not a visual showpiece in really any way. Its strange attempts at post-purchase monetization have not been especially welcome.
I also played more Battlegrounds this year than just about any other game outside of Persona and Yakuza. I love playing solo. I love the feeling of finding a good hiding spot, crafting an enticing trap with a well-placed health kit, and dumping a full clip on anyone who lets their loot lust override the instinct to check their corners. I love constantly fighting against the blue wall of death as it herds players into increasingly tight spaces where the closest thing you may find to a defensible position is a single hay bale. I loved the white-knuckle tension of being alone in a world solely dedicated to killing you from any viable distance.
I also loved playing with friends, albeit for totally different reasons. I loved piling into a shitbox sedan and tooling around a map, honking horns and shooting (poorly) out of windows. I loved running a full convoy of cars into firefights just to see how many people we could run down. I loved the feeling of getting my first chicken dinner, thanks largely to the efforts of Battegrounds superfans Matt Pascual and Danny O'Dwyer. I loved watching the Bomb team get their first dinner, even though I wasn't in that match.
The highs of Battlegrounds are so high that I've just gone past the point of worrying too much about its problems. There's a high probability that come next year, the battle royale thing will be so worn out that Battlegrounds will wander into that space of popular culture where the things that invented trends we all grew to hate live in perpetuity. Battlegrounds may eventually morph into the game equivalent of the '90s swing revival or "BWAH" sounds in movie trailer music. But it's not there yet. Until that day, come find me on the battlefield. You'll probably be able to kill me, but I'll just be happy to put up the fight.
3. Yakuza 0
I owe a major apology to the multiple people who have repeatedly suggested over the years that the Yakuza franchise is something I'd be into. It's not that I ever disagreed, exactly, it's that I just didn't have the drive to launch myself into a series like that midstream. If I was gonna play some Yakuza, I felt like I wanted to start from the beginning, and with everyone telling me that Yakuza 1 was both Not Great and sort of hard to find, I'd basically given up on the idea.
Then along came Yakuza 0 to knock me back on my dumb, lazy ass. I'm so, so glad I found my way to this game.
Yakuza 0 is designed as a fanservice prequel for folks who are longtime followers of the series, but from my perspective as a newcomer, it's also a fantastic introduction. Even without the foreknowledge of who Goro Majima or Kazuma Kiryu were or what these games were even about, Yakuza 0 immediately won me over with its flashy style, rambunctious combat, and absolutely gripping narrative.
Some of you might be wondering if I actually enjoyed the combat, since for the purposes of our Beast in the East feature, Dan was at the helm. What I didn't mention is that I played a huge chunk of this game myself, all the while making sure I was staying behind our progress on the show so as not to spoil myself. The fighting system has its quirks for sure, but godDAMN is it ever satisfying when those fights line up. The heat actions are a big draw for these games, and I never got bored with picking dudes up and collapsing their spines as I drove them headfirst into the pavement. It's simultaneously so brutal and cartoonish, a line Yakuza 0 straddles in just about every facet.
I don't know whether to call Yakuza 0 a drama or a comedy. It's as good at delivering on both. It knows exactly when to treat its scenes with gravity, and when to put Kiryu or Majima in a dumb costume or make them dance as middle-aged Yakuza dads in Members Only jackets and perverts and idiots of all shapes and sizes swirl around you in a haze of destroyed scenery and raging guitar solos. I was wholly invested in every step of Yakuza 0's goofy-ass adventure, and I'm personally dedicated to seeing the rest of the series through. Hell, I'm halfway through Kiwami at this point, and I'm currently trying to decide if I should hold off on playing Yakuza 6 until I play the other ones.
I don't know if I can hold off on playing Yakuza 6 until I play the other ones. There's wrestlers in Yakuza 6. I've only so much willpower, you know?
Night in the Woods is one of my favorite representations of small town life in just about any medium. Despite containing a multitude of animals-as-people and a peculiar ghost story at the center of it, this game completely nails the particulars of what it feels like to return to a place that's simultaneously just as it always was, and nothing like you remember it.
In the game, you play as Mae, a cranky, college-aged cat who washed out of school and is trying to figure out where her life is going next. She returns to her hometown, a place that once thrived but has fallen on hard times. Jobs are scarce, people are restless, and her friends from back home, while welcoming, are beginning to move on with their lives ahead of her. All the while, strange events in town and strange dreams in the night hint at larger, darker issues at play.
It's the interactions between characters that really got me. Much of the game is spent in individual vignettes with your three main friends, and each of those little episodes are incredible. There's a comfort in the way these friends talk to one another that feels wholly genuine. They aren't always nice to each other, but even the blow-ups feel like the kind of arguments you have with someone you love, perhaps in spite of themselves. Even the minigame segments, where you go to band practice, break light tubes out behind a convenience store, or just play knifey-handy with one another, exude the feeling of familiarity that comes with tight friendship.
There's a notion floating around out there that Mae is an inherently unlikable character, and that makes Night in the Woods difficult to get into. I had the opposite reaction to this. Mae's definitely a jerk, especially in some scenes with her endlessly patient parents. That said, someone being a jerk does not make them irredeemable. Mae's lashing out feels like an important part of her journey. Her life's kind of a wreck and you can tell she's ashamed of where she's at. I don't know about you, but when I'm anxious or ashamed, I don't tend to respond with a fount of kindness. If anything, it's taken me years of therapy and self-examination to get to a point where I can recognize those behaviors when they happen. I am a man with asshole tendencies, and I have to be cognizant of that to avoid being an asshole to other people. Mae's at the stage where she's starting to figure that out, and Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry write that journey in a very empathetic way.
I finished Night in the Woods months ago and I still think about it on a regular basis. Sometimes it's just an individual joke, sometimes it's a chain of thoughts about the larger implications of the story. It's a beautiful, strange, hilarious experience, and something I'd recommend to just about anyone.
For a game I loved as deeply as I did NieR:Automata, I've had an unusually difficult time explaining to people what it is I love about it. All year I've been trying to write out and articulate the finer points of why I think Automata is a work of genius, why its story of androids fighting a ceaseless battle against invading alien robots struck me so deeply. For all my talk about not really enjoying Anime Bullshit and my total unfamiliarity with the works of Yoko Taro, NieR:Automata wrecked me to the point that I've been unable to stop thinking about it since the day my save disappeared into the ether.
Maybe it's hard to articulate because the sheer volume of things I want to say about it keep trying to all come out at once. It's like trying to focus in on a single particle of water in a geyser. I feel so much about every single facet of the game that the words keep getting tripped up and all I can muster is "I LOVE NIER PLAY NIER". I'll be the first to admit that's not exactly coherent criticism.
Obviously, the story is a humungous part of it, but it's not even the thing that drew me in initially. My first taste of NieR was the demo, which is just that opening half hour where you fight robots and then a giant robot and then it's over. Obviously I didn't quite grasp much of anything about where the game would go from there, but even the core combat system, with its odd mix of sword combat and bullet-hell shooting and dodging, caught my attention. Somewhere toward the end of Route A is where I knew I was going to have to see this thing all the way through, and by the time Route B wrapped up, it was like I was under a spell.
Yoko Taro's vision for NieR is so sprawling, yet so succinct. The themes this game deals with--existentialism, violence, culture, identity, and the repeating cycles of destruction humanity is prone to--are handled with the utmost care. Despite not having much in the way of subtext, NieR never feels like it's preaching heavy-handed ideas at you. It's content to let the narrative drive those ideas forward, and the players' interaction with that narrative is one of my favorite executions of interactive storytelling I've ever experienced.
It's not so much the plot twists. The twists are fascinating in their own right, but the discoveries of the true nature of NieR's world, while impactful, aren't as interesting to me as the individual journeys of its central characters. The structure of the game, while daunting-sounding on paper, is so vital to how those characters grow and learn throughout the game. Playing through A as 2B, and then re-experiencing those moments in Route B as 9S, completely changed my outlook on the various encounters and fights that I'd previously played.
More than the main characters even, I loved the path of Pascal. Pascal is a pacifist robot that's forged his own little agrarian society of robots that have consciously chosen to extricate themselves from the fighting. Over the course of the game, Pascal goes from a conscientious objector to a key player in the fight, and while I won't spoil exactly what takes place, the closing of his story is something that hit me so hard, I had to get up and walk around the block a few times just to clear my head.
The thing is, NieR is full of small stories that feed brilliantly into the larger narrative. At one point, you come across the remnants of an old Engels robot, a gigantic death machine that you fight in the opening segment of the game. Up to this point, they've shown no signs of the consciousness that's appeared in other robot combatants, but a quick repair to this one allows it to wake up, albeit with no motor control or function beyond communication with you. You don't really do anything with this character except go back and talk to it from time to time. It asks you questions, you keep it company, and then one day it decides it no longer can stomach existing. It bequeaths to you some of its still functioning parts, and simply chooses to Log Off Forever. It's such a simple, tiny little substory in a much grander narrative, but I haven't been able to get it out of my head.
I should probably also mention that I didn't have many of the issues people who didn't care for NieR had. I don't think the combat is bad--it's not overly deep, but there's a surprising amount of variety if you play with the chipsets and mess around with combos yourself. I don't mind the nontraditional structure at all. I don't think the ugliness of the game's world is a particularly big detriment. If anything, that ugliness just made me think about how much the developers were able to wring out of a relatively small budget. It reminded me a lot of other small budget sci-fi productions I've loved over the years. It made me think about City of Lost Children, and some of Terry Gilliam's earlier works. That's the space that Yoko Taro now occupies in my head, the kind of spirit I felt from NieR.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you NieR:Automata is one of the best made games of all time. I am going to tell you it's easily one of my favorite games of all time. I'm incredibly thankful I took the plunge and experienced everything it had to offer. I look forward to finding the time to play through it all again. I can't wait to see what Yoko Taro does next.