Vincent Caravella has lost the thread regarding what he does anymore. He likes to mess with video a whole lot but he also likes to complain about not understanding the internet too. If there's one thing he's sure about it's that it's the best time to be playing video games and he also knows that if you say that enough times it will be right at least once.
Well, here we are, and never be it on me to say I told you so but best times... video games. You do the math. If you locked the doors, ripped out all the incoming communications, and nailed plywood to your windows, 2017 was an amazing year... in video games. Seriously though, I couldn't help but notice that most of the games I was into this year were themed around the ruins of collapsed empires or being the pinpoint of light in a sea of oncoming darkness. Maybe that's just video game stories 101 and I never really paid much attention to the unifying elements before now. Whatever the backdrop for all these games, they were damn good. There were good big games, good little games, good polished games, and even good unfinished games. All sorts and all sizes.
There are even games that seem pretty great that I didn't get to finish or get far enough into and had to be sidelined for this year's list. Games like Divinity: Original Sin II, Night in the Woods, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Hopefully, by the time you are reading this I'm sitting playing at least some of them. There are also a bunch of other games that just didn't make the list. All the number 11s out there like Destiny 2, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and Hollow Knight to name a few. Specifically three, because lists look good in threes.
Anyway, if you're on this site and reading this you know these games are fantastic. For the most part, the ordering of this list is still fluid in my mind. At some point I had to hit submit and that's the order that stuck. So here are ten games that really stood out to me in a year just overflowing with exceptional releases. What a year.
Previously, drafts of this part were about how different Assassin’s Creed games are for different people, and how the series has changed, and blah, blah, blah. Really though, I just didn’t like Origins when I started playing it. I still am not sure if I like it as an Assassin’s Creed game. I’m not into the loot drops, or the sterile way you get new moves through the upgrade tree. BUT… I am now having a lot of fun playing it. That stupid predator bow is so dumb, and I love it. I have upgraded my wrist blade enough to rarely give me problems assassinating targets, berserk and sleep darts are back, and I learned how to counter somewhere along the way. Also, I kind of enjoy being Bayek the Egyptian Super Cop. I do feel like I have murdered pretty indiscriminately for someone with a strong moral code of some sort, but I have also found pretty much all of the missing peoples of Egypt, so the balance probably works out.
A lot of what can make a game impactful, or have it rise above the din, is time and place. While most of the games on this list build their narratives on some world-ending fiction, the collapse of society, or being the last point of light in a blanketing darkness of subjugation by a foreign foe, Dream Daddy takes a different tack. It focuses on community, generally being supportive and positive to other members of that community, and going beyond first impressions to build meaningful relationships. I was hesitant to get into Dream Daddy as I thought it was going to a bit of a one-trick pony Dad Dating Simulator, getting by on some cheap and easy jokes. Instead, I found it genuinely heartwarming. There is one particular moment where your Dad attempts to remain involved in their daughter’s life, while also trying to give her space. It still gets me a bit weepy when I think back on it. While the game definitely leans into the goofy, there’s real heart there. I found the near-idyllic judgment-free world of Dream Daddy to just as appealing a piece of escapism as any of the other dystopian hero fantasties on offer this year.
This is another game which builds its premise on sifting through the remains of a collapsed society. While the setup might not be too cheerful, the game is a joy. This one scores direct hits on my most sensitive gaming pressure points. It has a meaningful and flexible upgrade mechanic tied to engaging collectibles. Ding. Backtracking, progress, and exploration rarely feel tedious as you move through because of the generous fast travel system and said upgrades. Ding. Ding. And… it’s all wrapped up in a decent little narrative. Dingdingding! You win.
So much has been said about NieR. I’ll cut straight to it: I think it’s pretty good but it didn’t change my life or shake me to my core. I thought the story was engaging, if also drawn out. The personalized interactions around the themes presented are more novel than the actual themes themselves, in my opinion. The game definitely has its moments, though, and many of them are from the side and smaller interactions. It also has an incredible soundtrack, which works exceptionally well as the backdrop to the unfolding events. It also has a combat system--again with flaws--in which I got fairly invested. Even with its troubles, it’s a journey worth taking. It delivers on the investments it asks of the players in unique, troubling, yet also satisfying ways.
It’s a damn good Mario game, and I like those. The worlds are unique and fun to explore, the moons you collect range from butt-stompingly easy to how-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-get-up-there-ingly challenging. It’s fun, it’s tight, it has a level of polish that lets you know you’re in a well-designed and meticulously crafted space. And that’s a good thing, because you’re going to be exploring those areas quite a bit, hunting down those moons. I also think the modifications to gameplay that Assist Mode make are incredibly smart. It was a great way to play with my kids, with a big thank you from me for getting rid of things like drowning. I’m not sure how much longer I can shelter them from the universal truth that all underwater levels are out there to cause them immense suffering, but I will try my best.
Last year’s rollercoaster ride for me was DOOM, and this year it’s Wolfenstein II. It’s pulp, it’s absurd, it’s hyperbole, but it also aims its power fantasy at the right target for a lot of people that are feeling overwhelmed by the less cartoonish versions of encroaching bigotry and hate. Even divorced from the times, it’s a gory but action-packed romp with an incredible cast of characters that are given more room to breathe than you would expect from the genre. And while I had similar complaints as others about the combat sections, only a few of them actually started to drag down my overall enjoyment of the game. I’ll usually suffer weaker gameplay elements over weak or missing narrative, and I really did enjoy the ridiculous tale the game was spinning.
What a weird and wonderful time it is to playing video games. Some might say it’s the best time. Here we are with a truly open-world, see-that-mountain-you-can-go-there Zelda game. It feels like it’s finally delivering on the real, hands and knees, pulling brambles out of your hair exploration that they’ve talked about building for ages. Then they put a loot system in with durability. FINE. WHATEVER. But why can’t the Master Sword just be above it all? Ugh. And the rain. The rain. Anyway, it’s a fantastic world that has you literally lifting up every rock and climbing every mountain. I also liked the story - even the photo hunt parts. There are flaws, but I loved what I played and it makes me very excited to see where they go from here.
I really fell for the world of Pyre hard. All of the characters, the backdrop, even the celestial basketball. I was all in. I was invested in all of the members of my wagon, and I felt like as I was progressing through the game, my relationship with each got more interesting as I got better with them during the gameplay bits. Obviously, not by coincidence. I’ve always enjoyed that sort of game, where you explore the stories of your team to uncover their unspoken histories, and Pyre is full of interesting backstories. I also really enjoy a game that delivers on laying out multiple paths for you and at the end giving you a satisfying and meaningful coda for your particular choices. It’s an amazing cast and collection of stories, set in a world that feels like it has actual history. Also, again, I even like the celestial basketball.
It’s one of those games that seem like once you get your hands on it, everything is going to suck. Or a game where the trailers and demos are just setting the whole thing up for failure. Somehow, it does all work, and even better than I could have hoped. When I was a kid/teen I wanted to be an animator. Granted I wasn’t a kid in the 1930s, but you might see where this is headed. The entire time I played Cuphead I was constantly in awe of what I was seeing. It’s really something. Also, I think I’m not half-bad at it, which feels good. That probably comes from my kids constantly wanting to play with me, which adds its own in-game challenges. I love the art, I love the music, and I love the gameplay. Nicely done, Cuphead.
I’m not very good at competitive games. I’ve always been more attracted to working on teams and playing support in games. I also like poking around in big worlds with just enough of a rule-set that leaves room for chaos. I found PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds to get that mix just right for me. I was able to play on a team in a role that varied from support to lead, surrounded by a tension that came not only from the skill of the other competitors but from experimenting within the world. I felt like there was always a new tactic we could employ or a new approach to a situation that might catch the other players off their guard. A lot of those went down in hilarious failures, but they were still some of my favorite gameplay stories to share. It was great to chat with friends during the looting phases, until someone inevitably would whisper “Shhhhh, hear that?” into their mic. Usually, there was a binary outcome to the events that followed: universal celebration at how amazing we are at this game, or reloading into a new match.
It’s an experience I’ve gone back to time and time again, mainly having to do with some really great people to play and chat with. I do think the single-player is also an amazing time, but for my money I was mostly looking for duos and squads. Probably because I knew I was going to be leaning on other people that were way above my skill level, but also because it simply allows for stretches of time where you can just talk and catch up with friends.
Battlegrounds is certainly iterative in terms of past games in the genre, but the choices it makes are important. It peels away some of the levels of complexity, especially the crafting, that some of the more survival-oriented entries included. Whether by chance or design, it happened to get the mix just right for me, and apparently many, many others. I think we’ll be feeling the ripples of its success for a decent chunk of time and I’m curious and excited to see how things evolve from here.