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GOTY 2017

My ten favorite games of 2017, as of December the 23rd 2017. My actual rankings on the many quality games released in 2017 will probably shift a whole lot over the subsequent years - there's so many I didn't get around to but wish I had - yet I'm reasonably satisfied that the following list of ten still represents some of the best gaming experiences to be found in 2017. Just not all of them. I mean, how could it? A bajillion games came out this year, and very few had the good grace to be terrible so I could miss them off my list. Ingrates.

Anyhoo! We should probably lead this thing with a few honorable mentions:

  1. StarCrawlers combines procedural generation (the core ingredient of roguelikes) with traditional first-person dungeoneering for a compelling enough premise for a RPG - one I've seen only once before with 1993's Dungeon Hack - and buoyed it further with a neat gritty sci-fi cyberpunk aesthetic, deep turn-based combat with a moderately customizable party of four, and a branching storyline with its own series of pre-generated dungeons as a sort of support pillar to keep you motivated as you grind through the randomized stuff between the next level-recommended objective. Buggy, but definitely one of the more pleasant surprises this year. Just not, uh, pleasant enough to make it onto the list I guess???
  2. Doki Doki Literature Club, another freebie, was something that really hit the zeitgeist hard over the past few months: a harem dating sim that seeks to brutally subvert its slightly icky genre, which has been gaining ground on Steam in recent years despite being omnipresent in Japan for at least three decades. There's a relatively long period of normalcy before it starts dropping its surprises on you, along with some pretty disturbing imagery that needs content warnings out the wazoo, and then you're off to the races with its glitched out meta lunacy. Worth seeing for yourself, given the price.
  3. Uurnog Uurnlimited is an open-world puzzle-platformer that's like Fez in that it appears to be one thing and then becomes something else the further you dig into it. Its focal point is a big central hub room which is the only location in the game that remembers what you placed into it after you die, and from there the game builds its puzzles around finding and hoarding a large assortment of blocks, each of which has their own distinct functionality, and using them to approach the game's puzzles from a number of different angles. It has this great learning curve to it, as you figure out new applications for your tools through exploration and experimentation, and I was hooked on solving its many mysteries for a good couple of days. It's a Nifflas joint too, so you know he's got that chilled ambience on lock.
  4. Gravity Rush 2 has a lot going for it - for as vertiginous and confusing as that anti-gravity movement could be, it's really something when you're in its groove, plus that evocative soundtrack is fantastic - but the fact is that it feels like they took a so-so game with various issues and simply made more of everything, rather than addressing those faults and improving on the core experience. It's a sequel every bit as good as its predecessor, and almost twice as big, but one that does nothing to realize the latent potential of its franchise; it just feels like the zero-G equivalent of treading water instead.

I also didn't consider the following for various technical reasons: Danganronpa 1.2 Reload, which is a remastered compilation of two Vita VN games that were first released in English back in 2014; Full Throttle Remastered, which is similarly a gussied up version of a 1995 game; and Caveblazers, Flinthook, Cryptark, TumbleSeed and Loot Rascals, all of which are devilishly difficult "roguelites" that I bailed on long before I got anywhere close to a decisive conclusion. (Though, I suspect if I really pushed myself to get to their end states after many hours and hundreds of failed runs, they wouldn't rank regardless. Not terrible, but "they don't hang", to use the common GOTY vernacular.)

List items

  • In some ways, NieR: Automata feels like this incredible opportunity for a struggling auteur with a strong vision that has taken so long to find a development team able to give that vision the technical competency it deserves, supporting Yoko Taro's soulful storytelling with some excellent, fast-paced character action combat that never disappears up its own ass with a thousand different combo chains and contextual commands to master, and a number of inventive RPG systems for a strong foundation. Even as a fan of the original, NieR: Automata regularly feels like a mulligan for NieR: Gestalt: an attempt to address some of that game's shortcomings, while ensuring that everything that endeared that game to its niche fanbase - which includes, presumably, a number of Platinum Games employees - is still intact in this more confident reboot.

    Either way, I couldn't be more thrilled to finally have a Nier game that is actually, objectively good. That first Nier was like a deeply personal thing, in part because of its emotional core but also because it felt like barely anyone else played it, and Automata finally allowed Nier fans to invite others to join in on something precious to us, now that we no longer have to make excuses for mechanical weaknesses that have either been greatly improved or removed completely. I don't really subscribe to the idea that some piece of media - a book, a game, or a movie - becomes more precious the fewer people that know about it. I'd prefer that it and its creators are recognized and have a success under their belt that can be used to fund future efforts. Yoko Taro's elaborate masks aren't going to pay for themselves.

    But really? I think this takes the number one spot because it's one of the very few reasons I still have any faith in my species in 2017, as a frequently lapsing secular humanist. The questions it raises about the nature of being human, its arguments for why the legacy of mankind is worth preserving, and especially in the hopeful and magnanimous way the game ultimately ends: even with all the bullshit we've had to endure this year and how eagerly we seem to sprint towards total environmental collapse and our own extinction, maybe - just maybe - humans are still all right. Mostly.

  • A bold selection for my #2, perhaps, but Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment pulled the same trick NieR: Automata did, by taking a game I loved and making it even better. What's more impressive is that Shovel Knight was nearly perfect to begin with: a peerless Indie throwback platformer with a great soundtrack, wonderful pixel art, subtle humor, and a "best of" merging of mechanics and presentational quirks from a dozen beloved NES games. Where Specter of Torment excels is how it creates an extremely fluid mid-air "hooking" mechanic that has you regularly bouncing off floating enemies and background objects for vertical lift, and using that and a small amount of running up walls to carry you through its many traps and platforming trials.

    Once you have this movement system mastered - and there's a challenging and partially randomized obstacle course in the starting castle for exactly that purpose - the game flows like a dream. Oh yeah, did I mention this game is free for early Shovel Knight owners? Feels almost criminal.

  • It's tough making open-world games these days, in part because you really need to be an expert at your craft on a purely technical level to make a big enough splash for people to notice you, but also because you need to keep innovating to lift your own franchise above an extraordinarily busy crowd. With Horizon Zero Dawn, you have what seem to be all the essential building blocks for a top-quality open-world game - the world looks incredible, the character traversal is acrobatic and natural, and there's a huge amount of collecting and hunting to be done in order to upgrade all your equipment and fill out some checklists.

    However, Horizon goes two steps further in what feel like opposite directions, without somehow falling on its ass in the process: the quiet and illuminating moments when you're picking through the desiccated remains of a once booming human civilization - our civilization, in fact, just a few decades in the future - looking for answers in the few computer files and voice clips that haven't yet disintegrated, and its well-considered combat against enormous foes that balances careful preparation of the immediate area before ever startling your foe, and the tense every-moment-counts reactive battles when a powerful robotic foe is bearing down on you and you only have arrows, ropes, bombs and a big stick with which to deter it. Both of these elements, though tonal opposites, do so much to establish Horizon as a new challenger to beat in this field. Think of it this way, perhaps: it's Monster Hunter but good.

  • My only hint that The Sexy Brutale might be one to watch this year was the huge acclaim given to it by Jim Sterling: a vociferous defender of the common video game consumer and a clearly intelligent individual, but not someone I regularly see eye-to-eye on with regards to video game critiques. I might concur with him on this matter, however, because The Sexy Brutale is a delight from beginning to end. Setting itself up as a diabolical time-hopping adventure game, in which you must effectively solve four-dimensional puzzles to proceed, it's actually incredibly fair and the game is much more invested in immersing you in its steampunk world of eccentric elites and allowing you soak in its witty dialogue and macabre twists than insisting on stonewalling you until you can figure out some unintuitive solution to its temporal brainteasers. It's not a game that will take you long to complete, as a minor downside to that approach, but running through its isometric halls and figuring out all the secrets of the titular manse is thrilling while it lasts.

    If you consider yourself a fan of point-and-click/graphic adventure games, and have been lost in a reverie over the past few years with a procession of highly imaginative genre subversions to emerge from the Indie market, The Sexy Brutale is recommended as my pick for adventure game of the year.

  • If there's one thing Arkane Studio excels at, it's environmental storytelling. Dishonored is replete with the stuff, from overhearing the deep thoughts of random NPCs around town to walking in on little assortments of props and corpses that tell their own sad little stories. That's why I was determined to try out their take on System Shock: a sci-fi thriller that sees a station full of scientists and engineers fall, well, prey to an enigmatic and insurmountable alien threat. I particularly liked the game's refusal to speak for its amnesiac protagonist, Morgan, instead allowing various ancillary characters - her opportunistic brother Alex, her personality-infused robot January, or the few associates she has on the station - to be the voice of reason instead.

    The game also speaks for the type of player who is more invested in solving mysteries and drinking in incidental world-building than leaping into standard first-person shooter combat or relentless jump scares (though the game has many of these too, thanks to the shapeshifting mimics). This is why it lets you track dead crew members through security station computers to see what became of them, or why the game is filled with notes and emails and audio logs that generate extra objectives to investigate. Its tone is less Doom and more that of a leisurely-paced 1970s sci-fi thriller movie, with an era-appropriate wood-panelled decor to match (the in-game explanation for this is that the world exists in an alternate timeline where Kennedy survived his assassination attempt and the Soviet Union never dissolved which... damn, all right, way to go the extra distance with your worldbuilding). I was dreading yet another BioShock or Dead Space wannabe, but I think Prey tops all of those in my estimations. And it's certainly better than that 2006 Prey, even if I did like its portal trickery.

  • I've had a very story-focused 2017, if these picks are anything to go by, and Torment: Tides of Numenera is an RPG where storytelling and text get a lot more play than the genre's usual emphasis on combat, loot and character customization. Whether that's for better or worse is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but it's certainly reverent to the original Planescape: Torment, of which this game is a spiritual sequel of sorts. The world of Numenera is a highly obtuse and bewildering table-top setting, perhaps deliberately so given how much freedom it offers its DMs to generate any kind of campaign they could imagine, and so it takes a while to acclimatize yourself to both the environment and to your role in the story as one of many "castoffs" - empty soulless shells of a body-hopping immortal scientist that nonetheless acquire some semblance of a consciousness after their "sire" has moved on - who has to solve multiple mysteries at once, the most pressing of which is deterring an indestructible horror known only as The Sorrow that is relentlessly chasing and killing your kin across the world.

    Tides of Numenera ultimately has more in common with an adventure game than an RPG, though I liked its perfunctory turn-based combat enough and the freedom the main character's skill progression and dialogue choices afforded them, and I greatly enjoyed my time digging deep into its many secrets in spite of a handful of mechanical shortcomings.

  • I was ready to let Uncharted go after the fourth game, since it was such a huge and draining adventure by design - there's a lot of baggage to unpack, too much is on the line, and Nate's not getting any younger - that ends on a very definitive note for Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher. However, this moderately-sized adventure with former Nate squeeze Chloe Fraser and former Nate nemesis Nadine Ross is a wonderfully fun archaeological escapade across India that retains the franchise's enjoyable pithy back-and-forth between its principal cast and the juggling of optionally stealthy combat, perilous traversal, and Indiana Jones-style ancient puzzle-solving that has become the franchise's well-practiced forte.

    This franchise has always worked a lot better as a lively adventure serial with moments of cinematic brilliance, it turns out, though I suspect the formula might be wearing a bit thin with the number of familiar sequences this game features. It's probably for the best that Naughty Dog seems invested in their mushroom zombie sadness and torture porn for the time being, though I hope they come back around on the whole "fun and breezy" approach to games in the near future. Say, I wonder what Jak and Daxter have been up to since we last saw them...?

  • Zeboyd's been quietly kicking ass with their 16-bit JRPG homages, each one demonstrating a greater grasp on the tightly scripted enemy encounters and the strategic range offered by its regular influx of new customization options. Cosmic Star Heroine represents their determination to be taken seriously as RPG developers, dropping the silly parody meta jokes and instead building a bespoke sci-fi universe that feels partially inspired by Phantasy Star and Chrono Trigger and yet distinct enough from both. This is the first game of theirs where I felt like they were moving up from the RPGMaker minors that proliferate Steam and into a league of their own.

    Of course, it's more than just a paint job and an expanded cast of characters to choose from. Cosmic Star Heroine is full of bold ideas, ones that would be difficult to work into a familiar framework and feels more like scrappy developers trying to push the envelope in as many ways possible, from enormous mech battles to a cyberpunk musical number (with merged English/Japanese vocals!) to occasional flirtations with sci-fi horror and espionage. For me, Zeboyd's doing for 16-bit RPGs what Wadjet Eye is for point-and-clicks: creating compelling throwbacks that are desirable for reasons far beyond a pure nostalgia fix.

  • Though, you know, there's something to be said for pure nostalgia fixes too; I don't claim to be above all that. Yooka-Laylee's release fell at a sort of inopportune time for them, where instead of leading the charge to resurrect the "collect-a-thon" platformers of old instead itself in the midst of several of them, from the long-in-development A Hat in Time to the exploration-focused Super Mario Odyssey. You could also argue that open-world games have supplanted that genre also, giving players a huge map full of points of interest to explore in any order they choose. Yooka-Laylee fell with a dull thud, then, and with a number of regretful technical issues to boot.

    However, for as unfortunately antiquated as some of its design decisions have been - a difficult balance of giving people what they want instead of what they think they want, since there's a lot about older games that best exist only as memories - I thoroughly enjoyed my time with a brand new, dyed-in-the-wool N64 collect-a-thon from an experienced team that knows how those games are done. I doubt it'll make it onto many GOTY lists other than my own, but I consider my investment in their Kickstarter money well spent.

  • Alwa's Awakening represents the sort of game that lacks anything that makes me excited to talk about it or anything that I'd eagerly point out to other experienced gamers with a "Look! Look at how this game does this thing differently!", but is such a solid game that I'm struggling to find any cons against it besides "it's not particularly remarkable". A 2D spacewhipper game that gets a lot of mileage out of three very simple but versatile power-ups, a handful of bosses and dungeons, and ample opportunities for sequence breaking if you really know what you're doing. If it really was an early 90s NES game like its 8-bit graphics would suggest, I've no doubt it would've been regarded as one of the system's finest.

    It's just... I guess it's kind of vanilla and forgettable at the end of the day, and the only reason it's on here at all is because it doesn't put a foot wrong: that's commendable enough on its own, and a good sign that the developer is definitely in their right profession. It's this year's "Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight": a great game of a specific but populous Indie genre that folk shouldn't sleep on if they're into those, though I'd fully understand if they did take a pass.