Honorable mentions include Heat Signature, Persona 5, and What Remains of Edith Finch.
Honorable mentions include Heat Signature, Persona 5, and What Remains of Edith Finch.
My contentious relationship with 3D Zelda games centers around two main philosophies that largely define the franchise in modern times: adherence to tradition and a fear of player freedom. Every 3D Zelda game follows a familiar structure with its overworld/dungeon dichotomy. Each one features a tutorializing sidekick with often unsolicited hints. Whether it's Navi in Ocarina of Time or Midna in Twilight Princess, Nintendo aggressively drives home the core fundamentals in each game. It speaks to a lack of trust in the player, an over-reliance on guidance that limits the creativity of a smart and imaginative audience.
Clearly I'm not a Zelda fan, so the idea of a reinvention piqued me interest. I just didn't expect Breath of the Wild to succeed on such a massive scale. Somehow Nintendo crafted the most daring and exciting game of 2017 within a franchise that largely follows a path of familiarity and linearity. Breath of the Wild doesn't hold the player's hand so to speak. Instead, it gently nudges players down key paths while allowing them to discover, experiment, and improvise in clever and thought-provoking ways. There's only one quest that needs to be completed to beat the game, and it can be finished within the first few hours. Everything that happens in between varies depending on each player.
It creates a sense of wonder that I imagine most players felt back in 1987 when they played The Legend of Zelda on the NES. The lack of guidance fueled player discovery – poke around the world, find secrets, become stronger, and beat the game. Breath of the Wild's structure can be simplified in a similar way, but the combination of its large, expansive world and an emphasis on player as cartographer takes that structure to new heights. Nintendo ignores the icon-littered maps of modern open-world games. Instead, they trust players to note named landmarks and curious geographical structures on the map in an effort to find surprises. It feels like a breath of fresh air (sorry) in a bloated and increasingly rote genre.
None of that even speaks to the boldness of Nintendo's emphasis on mechanical reactivity in Breath of the Wild, which forges a world of crazy interactions. The ways in which players can use the four main tools – all of which are earned in the first hour or two – result in some astounding solutions that are only limited by an individual's creativity. The thought, "will this work" in Breath of the Wild is always answered with a resounding "yes." There are also plenty of little touches that extend beyond the game's core powers. You can chop down a tree to create a bridge, create an updraft with fire to quickly ascend to the skies, or use a wooden shield to block an archer and collect spare arrows on said shield. The amount of interactivity feels unparalleled by just about any other game I've ever played.
That's not to say Breath of the Wild doesn't have its faults. Weapon durability is a constant frustration, the dungeons are underwhelming, and damn it's raining again so I can't climb this mountain. Ugh! But at the end of every year when I think back on my favorite games of the past 12 months, I focus on the positives. I focus on how a game made me feel, and possibly how it pushes game design forward in important and meaningful ways. In that sense, I have a hard time putting anything other than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at the top of my list. It filled me with childlike glee and wonder as I explored Hyrule kingdom for 100+ hours, a world of brilliant minimalist design within the open world framework, and one that values the contributions of players within the overall design process. Bravo Nintendo.
As I get older, I tend to admire games with fun, responsive mechanics the most. Art design, narrative, and structure can all elevate an experience, but I often ask myself, "at its core, does this game feel fun to play?" The way a game "feels" is such a nebulous concept, but it's a critical aspect of good design. Super Mario Odyssey is a shining example. Yes, I love the weirdness of its hat-throwing mechanic. I love the weirdness of New Donk City. I love the emphasis on hidden moons and how it feels like a step forward for world design within the Mario franchise. But more than all of that, I love the way Super Mario Odyssey feels. Shortly after beating the game, I took a trip down memory lane and replayed portions or the entirety of just about every 3D Mario game. Mario's movement options in Super Mario Odyssey are revelatory compared to those past games. That's not a knock against the series, but rather a recognition of Odyssey's strengths. The creatures you capture provide satisfying and unique tools, but Mario himself can utilize plenty of nifty moves that allow players to circumvent entire sections of a level. I didn't feel compelled to test the limits of Mario's movement options in past games, but I wanted to push the boundaries in Super Mario Odyssey because the simple act of controlling Mario is such a joy. When you learn those advanced moves, pratice them, and master them, it can feel just as satisfying as defeating a tough boss. I guess what I'm really trying to say is I love destroying the gold koopas in those freerunning races. It feels so good!
Divinity: Original Sin felt like the perfect marriage of old-school CRPG design with modern sensibilities and a kickass combat system. Divinity: Original Sin 2 takes that core, expands on the world, improves its writing tremendously, and ultimately delivers one of the most impressive RPGs I've ever played. Much like the #1 game on this list, it rewards outside-the-box solutions far more than straightforward approaches. Sure, I died a lot and used the quicksave feature an embarrassing numbers of times, but the elation of overcoming difficult obstacles constantly pushes the player forward in Original Sin 2. I mean, why fight a group of enemies head on when you can abuse teleporter pyramids and stealth to execute a series of cheap shots. There are also multiple ways to complete certain quests, an addition to the sequel that further contributes to the Original Sin foundation of player freedom. Oh, and the game master mode seems like one of the most impressive RPG features in recent memory even though I have yet to try it. It already takes over 80-100 hours to beat Divinity: Original Sin 2, and the prospect of limitless custom campaigns for D&D fans must feel like RPG utopia.
A key strength of the Metroidvania genre is its ability to firmly establish a world. The blocked paths, the new abilities, the backtracking – it all creates a web of interconnected areas that feel like a real place to explore and learn. Hollow Knight goes the extra mile though. It's a huge game, far bigger than most in the genre. It hides things on the map. Heck, it requires you to go places to actually fill out the map. The player learns about the space over a longer period of time, which establishes a stronger connection between player and world. It helps that Hollow Knight drips with atmosphere and mystery, a dark and dreary tale with deformed bug monsters and spectral figures. It feels lonely and desolate. There were times I didn't want to play it because of its stark tone. But when a game evokes those kinds of emotions, it must be doing something right.
I tried to get into the Yakuza series in previous years, but I just couldn't get past the brawler combat. It felt tedious and repetitive, which in turn hampered my enjoyment of the compelling characters and weaving storylines. Fortunately Yakuza 0's introduction of fighting styles alleviates some of that tedium. Thus, I'm able to focus on the fascinating tale of Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, a story wrought with political intrigue, melodrama, and humor... so much humor. I don't know that I've ever laughed while playing a game as much as I did during my time with Yakuza 0. Much of that is relegated to side missions, but they contrast the intense seriousness of the main narrative and provide welcome moments of respite. Also, Yakuza 0 introduces one of the most fascinating character arcs of the year with Majima. He appears unhinged in later games, but his role as protagonist in Yakuza 0 presents him as a likable outcast and badass with understandable motives. I like Kiryu too, and obviously he goes on to be the main protagonist of the series, but Majima is the real star of Yakuza 0.
Despite my intense love of the Souls series, spiritual successor Bloodborne felt like a necessary step forward for the formula. It replaced timidness with aggression, dodge rolls with sidesteps, and other small tweaks to place a stronger emphasis on offense. Nioh takes that combat formula and runs with it, all while adding a Team Ninja twist in the form of customizable movesets. It results in a far more complex and engaging combat system, one that feels fast, fluid, and engaging for dozens and dozens of hours. The ki pulse system in particular is a stroke of genius. It's also thematically consistent - it's only natural for the tale of a samurai to feature fast-paced duels with lightning-fast katana strikes. I'm less emphatic about the game's emphasis on loot, but at least it represents a stylistic shift among games that utilize a clear Souls influence. I should also mention the recycled enemies and environments. If that wasn't such a glaring issue, Nioh would probably be higher on my list.
Going into Nier: Automata, I was far more excited for Platinum Games' involvement more so than director Yoko Taro. I tried to play the first Nier but just couldn't generate enough interest to get past the first 6-8 hours. On the other hand, I greatly enjoy character action games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising. Give me some of that great Platinum Games combat and I'm good to go! Well, the combat in Nier: Automata wears thin quickly, whereas the storytelling is masterful. So much for my initial excitement! Lots of Nier: Automata discussion focuses on the needless tedium of multiple required playthroughs, but I enjoy the way in which the narrative structure reveals layers over time. Each playthrough presents a new series of discoveries, a whole new layer to study and analyze. It gives each revelation more of an impact, and speaks to Taro's willingness to play with the conventions of a video game story. Of course "the moment" at the end of the game perfectly encapsulates that narrative innovation, but there are so many moments spread throughout the game that feel novel and inventive. Nier: Automata also manages to explore very human and philosophical concepts in a game about androids and machines. Lots of films and games use a sci-fi premise to mirror the quandaries of our everyday lives, but few do it as effectively as Nier: Automata.
Ubisoft made an XCOM-esque strategy game in 2017 with Mario and Rabbids coexisting. Just take a moment and let that really sink in. It's such a strange collaboration, one that sounds both great and terrible on paper (XCOM and Mario = great | Rabbids = terrible). It works though. I still think the Rabbids are kind of lame, but they're less intrusive than I expected. They don't distract from a fantastic strategic system in which movement is valued above all else. It makes sense when you consider Mario is jumping on goombas left and right in his platforming franchise. I mean, XCOM soldiers aren't jumping on goombas (unless there's a mod for that... modders, get to work). So in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle you can hop on allies to get a height advantage, or dash through enemies to deal damage, or even do both on a single turn. It's a refreshing change of pace from your typical turn-based strategy game. Oh, and Mario has guns now. So there's that.
Cuphead completely nails its aesthetic. The laborious animation work is impeccable. The catchy jazz soundtrack fits the visual theme perfectly. It basically allows players to control a 1930s cartoon with a controller. A really, really difficult 1930s cartoon. The charming art style subverts expectations. It warmly greets the player, before presenting a series of tough-as-nails boss fights that require patience, pattern recognition, and fast reflexes. Every time I nearly defeated a boss and lost I felt devastated. Every time I actually defeated a boss I felt joy and triumph. These swings in emotions create a roller coaster experience – there are highs and lows, but the overall experience is memorable. Oh, and speaking of roller coasters, screw that one boss. I hate you Beppi the Clown!
I was constantly surprised by the audacity and fearlessness of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It tackles messy themes. It delves into the trauma of its protagonist. It features one of the craziest twists ever featured in a game, one that changes both the narrative and mechanics in meaningful ways. It even starts B.J. Blazkowicz in a damn wheelchair with 50% health for the entire first section of the game. Some people hate that section. I love it. Developer MachineGames committed to an idea and stuck with it. It's a shame the core shooting feels a bit limp in a post-DOOM world, but I still enjoyed most of the weapons and the fact that you use them all on a bunch of Nazis. It's the kind of catharsis that feels appropriate as 2017 comes to a close.
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