Best of 2017

2017. Bad year in terms of news and world-happenings. CRAZY year in terms of games. For the first time ever, I couldn't keep this to top 10. Hell, I wasn't happy with top 20. It's top-25. #dealwithit?

In terms of release and early access relation to this list, I'm basing this purely off my enjoyment with a title in a given year (provided it hasn't been featured on a previous year's list). For this reason, Battlerite is not on my list because it was on last year's list, but Dead Cells is on the list despite having not been released.

Notable omissions:

  • Super Mario Odyssey: I don't have a Switch quite yet.
  • Cuphead: played it, love the art, but the game just isn't for me. Not my style.
  • Injustice 2: haven't gotten around to it, but looks fucking rad.

Also, I apologize that my blurbs are long as fuck. I find they're getting longer every year.

List items

  • Original Sin 2 may be my favourite game. Like, not just this year. Like, ever. Competing against the Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect series, my #1 would vary depending on how the wind blows on any given day. Enter: Original Sin 2.

    I really enjoyed the first Original Sin game. I think I ended up critically underrating it the year it came out, went back to it recently, and fell in love all over again. Original Sin has a couple core issues. For starters, the writing is directionless, tonally EVERYWHERE, and doesn't know how to take itself seriously for half a second. While there is a fair bit of variety to both the abilities and environments in the game, there isn't *enough* variety to last 40+ hours; it can all get a little samey after a while. Finally, pacing. Within half an hour of learning the core game systems, you can be stuck in a city with 10-20 hours of quests and exploration to do. It's an impressive design feat in terms of content density, but boy does it get in the way of feeling like progress is being made.

    Original Sin 2 addresses these problems and is, almost without question, the best role-playing experience the video games medium has ever produced.

    God, where to start? ACT I (har): Character creation. I spent 2+ hours here, and the game doesn't even have much in the way of cosmetic choices to make. Pick a race, class, go. Simple, right? Nah, son. You can go in and customize appearance, voice, attributes, combat abilities, civil abilities, skills, talents, tags, and instruments. WHAT? Appearance, simple; voice is a bunch of options for combat reactions and light commentary mostly; attributes govern the outcome of your numbers from health to spell slots; combat abilities are your proficiency-rank in a given class of skills (necromancy for instance) that come with their own passive perks; civil abilities are non-combat oriented proficiencies like thieving or telekinesis; skills are the spells available to you (hotkey buttons); talents are personality-loaded Fallout perks that can range from Pet Pal (letting you talk to all animals) to Leech (standing in pools of blood heals you); tags are conversation-influencing personality identifiers (Dwarf, female, jester, outlaw, etc.); instrument changes all the combat and conversational music to be played in the instrument of your choice. No joke.

    Character creation: Chapter 2 (har). If you scroll out of the "custom" character section, you arrive in the cast of 6 preset "origin" characters. These have their own little narrative presentation button that gives you their gist. They come with their own tags, voice lines, questlines, and recontextualize the entire narrative to certain around them. They also act as your cast of potential companion characters to round out your party for the journey. Playing as a different origin character can have so many mechanical and narrative implications for your playthrough that it might as well be a different game. Fane, for instance, is undead; you can make him a mage or warrior or whatever. Because he's undead, healing hurts him and poisoning heals him--enemies use this to their advantage and you can fuck up and accidentally heal him to death (death-death?). Moreover, people will generally run in fear from the undead so you need to keep yourself hooded or rip the face off NPCs with his grotesque face-ripper device optionally-found in the first hub. Not including his constant commentary, unique conversation lines or anything else--these two facets of his character make him a totally different play experience than any other origin character. I spend so much time here talking about the character creator because it's exemplary of why Original Sin 2 is so special: it's the MOST role-playing game.

    Moving into the game itself. Like the first Original Sin, it's tactical turn-based combat where you move characters by measured meter rather than by square. Like Breath of the Wild (discussed below), it's all about the systemic interaction of objects as influenced by rules and elements. Take an arrow. Blood leaks on floor. You're now standing in a pool that conducts electricity. Your mage-buddy's spell now backfires and stuns you accidentally. Where this differs from Zelda is that the verbage (the sheer variety of ways you can interact with the world-space) is so much higher being an RPG with hundreds of skills and talents. Telekinesis is officially a non-combat ability, but you can use it in combat to move a torch to an oil spill. Everything interacts with the same logics; if you can think it, do it.

    This extends to the quest and conversation mechanics. Almost any quest can be completed without direct combat. Combat abilities can solve quest puzzles; combat abilities can influence conversations; you can charm someone, make them wet with a rain spell, dry them off, create a smoke cloud and blind them. It's like the whole Skyrim head-bucket thing (put a bucket on a shop-keeper's head and they can't see you stealing from them). Tags (personality traits in conversations) can create entirely new solutions to questlines or make other characters refuse to talk to you. You can break up your team for individual play; one member could be in combat with a guard while you converse with a shopkeeper next you. Hell, you can have one party member do the duo-robbing thing by forcing the shopkeeper to talk to you while while your thief steals everything. Speaking of which: best stealing/crime system in a game? They walk by the counter and notice a missing item, run around and inquire, call guards if they catch you in a persuasion/lie check you don't pass. They'll ask each individual party member nearby too, so you can swap the item between characters to dodge their pocket-checks. It's crazy that they treat each individual party member as a different entity potentially-capable of stealing.

    This whole game is also open to coop play where players control a portion of the party. We're talking multiplayer conversations with NPCs (along with PVP-antagonistic response tags unique to multiplayer). You can be as close-together or as split-up as you like. And there's a Game Master mode where someone can create entire campaigns for you and your buddies to play. While I haven't explored this mode at all, I imagine it's the best D&D experience since Neverwinter Nights. Mod tools are in there too, so you can always add what the core assets/systems don't accommodate.

    Last thing I want to touch on is the writing and quest design. It is so astronomically better than the first game. All six of the origin characters are loaded with personality, and are super interesting--both as companions and playable protagonists. Almost every sidequest has a ton of emotional payoff (laughter-inducing, rage-inducing, tear-inducing... you name it), have wonderfully original twists and turns, and be a blast to navigate. The number of times I've found non-traditional solutions to quests is shocking. For instance, the first major obstacle you have is to get out of a prison-town; there are no fewer than five totally different solutions to accomplish this goal--each requiring at least a good deal of conversing, exploring or sheer dumb luck to stumble into.

    Knights of the Old Republic, being my first CRPG, awestruck me with how different characters made at character creation could enable drastically different narrative and exploratory routes through the story (obviously I now know that this is a staple of the CRPG, which KOTOR was far from the first entry in). Along with being Star Wars and having a great story, this is why the experience cemented itself as a favourite game of mine. It's crazy to think about how much further Original Sin 2, some 14 years later, has moved the needle forward in this respect.

    As I said above, it is unequivocally the best role-playing game ever made. And, more personally speaking, my favourite video game.

  • In any other year, PUBG could have been my GOTY. But this is 2017...

    It's a broken mess, I know. We all know. Is it a little charming to get run over by your own vehicle when you fall out after a small jump? Absolutely. Is it a little charming to have your parachute catch on the edge of a building, stall a second or two to catch up to the server, and inevitably decide on throwing you 20 feet away and taking half your health? Absolutely. Is it a little charming to randomly crash to desktop, rejoin way too late and find a corpse? I guess not so much.

    The reason why people truck through the jank with PUBG is because the core sandbox is so fucking masterful at delivering "stories" that you just don't care. Every match is a story waiting to happen, and--if it goes long enough--a journey that you'll never forget. PUBG goes through all the crescendos of a narrative arc. It has the overly familiar introduction with the skydive. It has the rising action of the deliberate looting session. It has the climax of engagement (after engagement, after engagement--if you're lucky). The falling action comes as your heartbeat stabilizes at the death or dinner screen at the end. And the credits roll when you're at that main menu again, ready for the next round. PUBG can also substitute in for so many genres. It's a buddy-comedy with a team of friends talking nonsense while looting; it's an absolute horror story when you're alone surrounded by a team of foosteps moving in; it's a bombastic revenge tale when a teammate is executed by another squad, and you go in rambo to avenge them; it's a tense stealth thriller when you're sneakily breaching an occupied building with your squad.

    All of this makes PUBG a great game, but doesn't justify being so high up my list. That honour goes to the social experiences I've had *through* PUBG. Almost all of the best social experiences of my adult life have come from PUBG; I've made new friends, I've had incredible gaming nights, and I've bonded with a ton of really awesome people. It's been such a delight that now, in December, I'm a little heartbroken that we've fallen off PUBG recently. It's at the point that I'm reminiscing with a sad smile on my face, and I think only an amazing game could accomplish that.

  • In any other year, Horizon Zero Dawn could have been my GOTY. But this is 2017...

    When Horizon was first shown off, the game showed a lot of promise. Ashley Burch would be taking on her first main character in a serious, AAA-budget acting role; the demoed dialogue was so plentiful, and really sold you on the character. It showed you how much character commentary could add to an experience. The robo-dinosaurs looked rad, and the prospects of a post-post apocalypse sounded intriguing. But this was the Killzone team, and I think most had the same hesitation that I did.

    Low and behold, Horizon Zero Dawn exceeded every one of my expectations. The biggest shock is how *good* the writing and core story was. The world is so unbelievably textured that you have to wonder how this team came directly off a game with bland space Nazis as the antagonists. Every bit of clothing feels lived in and loaded with cultural cache in a way that even the best modern sci-fi series struggle to do. And the world oozes depth, nuance, and "lore." Honestly, it gives Mass Effect a run for its money. All this artistry comes together with a gaming package that is so technically impressive that I'd call it the best looking game I've ever played, running at impressively-consistent console framerates, and across so many different colourful world biomes that I just don't understand... how did they do this?

    Then there's the robot dinosaur bits. Minor quibbles out of the way first: the combat verbage is more limited than I'd like, and the RPG elements aren't quite deep enough. Those two things aside, the gameplay fucking rocks. Every battle feels like a fight-for-your-life intense battle against truly savage and monstrous foes. It's frantic. It's panicked. More than that, the overly-complicated dinosaur cast is so varied and nuanced that they carry the game on a gameplay front. Scanning for bits of weaknesses, isolating particular components for crafting or sabotaging, and maximizing elemental variety in your arsenal all comes together in a chaotic strategic dance. I think if there's a direction for them to go mechanically for the inevitable sequel, I'd like to see more tools and fewer "DPS" weapons; I'd like more mobility options in combat; I'd also love more depth to the melee combat--a light and heavy attack aren't enough.

    In either case, Horizon Zero Dawn feels like a labour of love from a team that was really 100% behind an idea. They clearly, as a team, were bursting at the seams for a chance to push themselves beyond a generic science fiction shooter. And they did so. A thousand times over.

  • In any other year, Breath of the Wild could have been my GOTY. But this is 2017...

    The big story with Breath of the Wild is that it reimagines Zelda with modern game design. Clearly, nothing about Zelda was sacred for Nintendo. The result is an absolutely outstanding example of game design that (with the mainstream appeal of the Zelda brand) could be hugely influential in moving this industry toward systemic design philosophies. There's a lot going on in Zelda here, certainly way more than what could be discussed in a couple paragraphs. I'll try my best.

    There are two things that make Zelda hugely important, and drastically different from previous entries: the game's structure and the game's "rules." Structurally, Breath of the Wild opens with almost no fanfare, and isolates you on a plateau until you've completed some preliminary challenges in a micro-ecology of design encounters. With the plateau done, you're introduced to a goal (kill Ganon, save Zelda), have a basic understanding of the game's verbs, and a couple breadcrumb quests to guide you to suggested areas. What follows is ENTIRELY up to you. There are no walls (save cliffsides that you're not strong enough to climb yet). You have your full set of abilities (for the most part). You can go anywhere in the world, including right up to Ganon's front door. To accompany this overwhelming sense of exploration is a set of mapping tools that let you scope toward an area, add a marker, then pin that marker to your map for self-defined management. If you want to mark a scary enemy, do so. If you want to mark every high cliff for later reconnaissance, do so. It is so satisfying to have open-ended exploration, open-ended progression, and player-controlled cartography structuring the play experience.

    Now, the consistent "rules" that govern the world of Zelda. Almost like a physics simulator, everything in Zelda is systemic and governed by the same set of core rules and interactions. This is a hard contrast from previous Zelda entries which were very contextual; "if I have ____ item, I can stand here and interact with ____--producing ____ result." It'll always produce the same result. Unlike previous Zelda games though, every object in Breath has physics, material and elemental properties, and they can all interact with one-another. The player can climb almost any surface. A player can take an axe and and swing at a tree to cut wood down. Log will roll down hill, as physics dictates. All wood is flammable. A player can cut down a tree, light the log on fire, and roll it down a hill at a pack of enemies. Unintended discovery: fire causes a cartoonish amount of updraft which can be used to propel yourself with your parachute--turning the encounter into an aerial arrow-battle above a sea of flames. Magnetism, velocity, electricity, wetness, dryness, heat, buoyancy... it's all there. It's like a giant physics playground as a Zelda game. You can throw a rusty shitty blade at an enemy during a lightning storm to instantly kill them with lightning rather than a mediocre swing. Every puzzle is the game asking you to environmentally solve this issue with the grounded rules you've come to understand, and it's fucking glorious.

    That said, in the Zelda pantheon, there's a certain *something* holding it back from the top of my personal Zelda list. It forgoes too many Zelda hallmarks for me, and breaks my heart in a couple places (not in a good way). Aesthetically, it splits the difference between Skyward and Wind Waker, but lacks an identity of its own. At best, it has the post-post-apocalyptic thing going on, but the game doesn't embrace that identity nearly as much as it should. The core narrative is told primarily through flashbacks spawned by Link visiting the locations in photographs; while interesting, it's given too little screentime to be impactful. While I generally enjoy the puzzles found in the game's 120+ shrines, they feel so disconnected from the main world; moreover, they're all so samey from an aesthetic standpoint that the process of doing them back-to-back-to-back can be extremely repetitive. The "dungeons" are also hugely disappointing for that reason. They lack personality, mechanical diversity, and aesthetic variety... and there's only four of them. So while Nintendo had a brilliant time coming up with an open-ended structure with systemic verbage and rules, they sort of fell flat on their face incorporating these philosophies with the world itself. So many of these challenges are disconnected from Hyrule, unrelated to characters, places or things that you may care about. It's like they came up with a developer sandbox to test ideas, then shipped it for all of us.

    Still, Breath of the Wild is hugely important, and was an incredible 100+ hours of bokoblin-filled silliness.

  • The pseudo-historical/partially mythological Edo-period narrative that Nioh has going on is bad. We all know it's bad. That's not the point. This game spent 13 years in development hell. So what does that amount to?

    Nioh is Team Ninja marrying their predisposition toward precise, lightning speed Ninja Gaiden action combat with measured, consequential, and role-playing-garnished Souls combat. All set in a game loaded to the brim with Diablo looting conventions (gear sets, rarities, shiny things falling out of every baddie), with a Monster Hunter-like mission-based structure. Got it? K, good. It's sort of a complicated meets-meets-meets, but the inspiration is right there in your face.

    I'll say that Nioh might have my favourite combat in any character action game. It's probably better than Bayonetta 2. I don't know, I'd have to think about it. Like Souls, you've got an energy bar that restricts your blocking/attacking/rolling. Unlike Souls, you've got unlockable weapon combos, three different stances, and an active-reload mechanic that (with precise timing), refills your energy bar almost instantly. There's a lot going on mechanically with this game, and it was more than enough mechanically to keep me entertained well over the 60-hour mark.

    The role-playing elements are perhaps a bit too heavy-handed for this sort of game though. You're constantly finding loot. Most of it is absolute trash. Every piece of gear is a list of about a million different stat modifiers and unique effects. Honestly, half the game is spent in menus managing skill points, changing set pieces, allocating spell charges, leveling up particular stats... it's a bit much. For a game that excels so well in the heat of battle, I really wish Team Ninja didn't second-guess themselves with this additional layer of RPG numbers muddying the gameplay loop.

    But the levels themselves are rad. Despite having what feels like hundreds of individual missions, there are only maybe less than two-dozen "levels." These levels are repopulated, reoriented, redecorated for each mission--often feeling so distinctly different from previous missions that it doesn't feel like a "been there, done that" problem. They've got nasty bosses, hidden treasure, shortcuts, corpse runs... most of the Souls level design tropes that people love. What the mission structure doesn't allow is an inter-connected world that loops in on itself. Or more open-ended exploration of the game world. Levels are generally more linear than not, but that isn't a problem. Nioh is it's own thing, and I love it.

  • The best PS2 game I've played all year.

    Honestly though, Nier is weird, knows it's weird, and I love it for it's weirdness. It embraces a lot of the odd mechanics from it's niche predecessor (bullet hell mechanics, alternate endings, intentionally repetitive? sidequests), but Platinum takes these Yoko Taro-isms and throws them into a stellar-playing video game. On the gameplay front, it's just a step down from Bayonetta in terms of combat. I think the lack of Bayonetta's bombast is really the only thing keeping Nier back from being on-par, honestly. More than that, the brilliant memory-allocation system is something I'd love to see other games adopt. The idea of turning off HUD elements to power combat advantages is just rad.

    On the writing front, it's a little too anime for me in spots, but it manages to break past cliches into some fantastic stuff at times. The 'warm soul robot' Pascal is probably the narrative highlight for me, and ranks among the best characters in any Japanese game I've ever played. 2B, 9S and A2 are also really solid protagonists in their own right, each adding a ton of personality and flare to their respective playthroughs.

    Automata's soundtrack is the best soundtrack this year, bar none. It's the sort of soundtrack that I think about on a regular basis, and actively listen to when I'm in the mood. The fact that every(?) track also has a chiptunes variant in the second playthrough also blows my mind.

    Yoko Taro has established himself alongside Kojima, Suda51 and Swery65 as one of the biggest Japanese "auteurs" in gaming.

  • The raddest Metroidvania since Ori and the Blind Forest. Hollow Knight does two things that really stand out for me in this genre.

    1) Aesthetically differentiating itself from Metroidvanias, it has a tone like nothing else. Part sombre and subdued, part morose, part playful and light. Many have compared it to Dark Souls, and I think that's not too far off from the truth.

    2) Mechanically differentiating itself from Metroidvanias, Hollow Knight embraces cartography in a totally refreshing way. In some ways, it reminds me of what Breath of the Wild does: it gives the player a world, gives them mapping tools, and lets them run wild. It works out so well in this genre because backtracking, traversing large regions, and exploring unknown depths is core to the 'vania.

    Standouts aside, Hollow Knight has some air-tight platforming, spectacular level design, some of the most memorable bosses I've faced in a 2D action game, a world oozing mystery and depth. I think this may dethrone Ori as the best modern Metroidvania game.

  • In working through the myriad deaths of Edith Finch's family, What Remains excels at exploring the smallest pleasures we often forget, and the largest depressions we too often ignore. It's my "games as art" title for this year's list.

    Edith Finch is a shockingly-layered experience. A quick read through a first playthrough punches your gut with emotional highs and lows, but a studied second playthrough reveals layers of outstanding narrative thought throughout. It's powerful stuff, and everyone who cares about the games medium as a narrative medium should check it out. Just maybe wait for a sale or something. It's a poor value proposition if you care about that sort of thing.

  • I loaded up Subnautica on a whim during my GOTY catch-up binge in December. What a mistake. What followed was mild curiousity that spiraled into a daily glee, and then spiraled once more into what should only be described as drowning. I couldn't think or breathe anything but Subnautica; I laid in bed planning out my next venture, my next goal to accomplish--losing sleep in the process. It was both a beautiful and terrifying state to be in.

    It all comes down to the loop of Subnautica. You have a safe space, you venture out to dangerous new locations for blueprints, you harvest resources from said dangerous locations, and you return to your safe space for crafting. The crafting highs are as high as they come. Every haul nets you some serious quality of life improvements, has plenty of far-reaching goals to aspire to, and has a ton of frilly fun stuff for personal investment. It's almost a Sims-like self-appreciation that kicks in when you return home to your beautifully-expanding base. Or when you've finally got enough resources to build a cyclops (the massive mobile submarine base).

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lows of delving are so fucking low that I'm tensing up just thinking about it. There are really only a small subset of creatures that pose any real threat to you when you've got a vehicle, but boy does their sheer existence put you on constant edge. It might be my mild case of thalassophobia, but I'd often just power down my seamoth and just wait out the night because I couldn't mentally handle how little peripheral vision I had.

  • I love rummaging simulators ("immersive sims"). This is a very good one of those with spooky Lovecraft space monsters. A brilliant opening, a solid ending, and a ton of narrative-based player agency in-between.

    Prey marries mechanical decision-making with narrative outcome in a way that a lot of games struggle with. Where Dishonored's lethal/non-lethal dichotomy feels like a one-dimensional decision with a one-dimensional outcome, Prey's handling of different questlines and upgrade trees has layered, complicated outcomes that you can't easily define. What's more, the ending (without spoiling) wraps a very beautiful bow on your playthrough in a way that felt like so much more than a summary, slideshow and credit-roll (as is usually the case for decision-making RPGs).

    The sheer amount of level design and boardroom-meeting work that must have gone into designing a complete space station from top to bottom... it blows my mind. It's like if, back in 2007, Irrational designed the entirety of Rapture for the player to explore. Incomprehensible, right? Well, Arkane did the next best thing with Talos 1. Having all the levels logically interconnected, non-linearly, relative to the rest of the station and proportioned realistically takes a while to comprehend. It didn't hit me until I went out into space and saw the airlocks and windows into the space station. The entirely of the game world was right there. It's one of the most impressive level design feats I've ever seen, and it works at both a macro and micro scale. You can go through every person's work station, find their notes to one-another. Every person listed in the directory of Talos 1 can be found--alive, dead or somewhere in-between. That's insane. And the whole station has this rad future-y art deco look... mmmmmmmm. Fucking love it.

    Where does it stumble? Well, Prey needed more weapon and enemy variety. It's really odd to only have 5 (and a half?) combat weapons in a 20-30+ hour game (and a couple elemental grenades). Some aren't even particularly inventive or flexible. It's literally a shotgun, pistol, wrench and beam gun. The recycler is functionally a generic grenade, but also cubes materials for you for crafting. The GLOO gun is the one stand-out for its traversal uses, but I wish there was more of this sort of weapon. The enemy variety is just as bad. Most are elemental variations on the same model, with the mimics standing out mechanically. Having props that haunt you when you spend the whole gaming sorting through prop-filled spaces is equal parts terrifying and satisfying.

  • In a stellar year of game writing, Night in the Woods somehow manages to stand high above the competition. Night has the most naturalistic dialogue I've seen in years. It's funny. It's touching. It's poking and prodding at young adult existential insecurity in a way that only the best indie flicks have ever done for me. Within a handful of (short) lines, Night in the Woods moved my emotional state from belly laughs to tears. The only real complaint I've got is that it doesn't have a ton going on mechanically... it's essentially a 2D platformer equivalent to the "walking simulator." But that's a minor grievance. Night in the Woods knows what it is, what it wants to be, and succeeds fantastically.

  • I adore this little gem.

    Shadow Tactics has you commanding up to five units in a ridiculously tense, chaotic real-time stealth tactics game. Each character is a specific key to fit a very specific niche in your stealth arsenal, but the trick is that you command them all in real-time. So a lot of the most difficult encounters revolve around you positioning everyone perfectly, setting up actions, then executing in a beautiful, synchronized death-domino. When 5+ minutes of carefully planning out the perfect engagement turns into a silent gore of dead guards, it's a rush of satisfaction unlike anything else I've played this year.

    I have a couple minor quibbles that keep this game near the top of my list. For starters, I wish the art direction was a little more uniform. The key art is sleek and modern, the menu art and UI is textured with realistic and traditional Japanese art, and yet the in-game 3D art feel like very early-iteration Western cell shading. I wish they leaned more consistently into the the parchment texture for their 3D assets, and reigned the key art in to suit that aesthetic a little more. Moreover, on the narrative end, I find that none of the characters really develop much past the stereotype that they're boxed into. That said, these are very minor complaints; art and narrative are not why you play Blades of the Shogun.

    There are small gameplay frustrations too. Frantically repositioning a character around guard cones can register as a double-click which causes your character to stand and sprint, and this is 100% not what you want to happen when you're skirting around guards. There's also the issue of click-through in the environment. Since all the traditional Japanese roofs arc out over the ground-traversable space, you'll often click on the edge of a roof and interrupt the movement command with an attempted command for a character to move onto said roof. These issues, taken together, make the game a little too finicky for 100% real-time execution. They circumvent this by embracing save-reload in all their UI as a hasty solution. Failing constantly due to bullshit-y "fuck off video game" moments becomes the norm. Swapping to a pause-issue-execute system would solve almost all these issues. That said, it's still a treat of a game for any stealth lover.

  • The games industry needs more of this.

    I'm a big fan of the "triple-I" industry movement of the past few years--your Supergiants, Kleis, etc.. Having indie games grow up in size, scope and polish; it feels great to have indie sensibilities in fairly expensive-feeling experiences. Hellblade sits in a totally different space. Rather than being an indie team scaling up, Hellblade is a renown AAA developer scaling back. This scale adjustment leads to a brilliant $30 experience that is stunning, has a ton of modern technology fueling the experience, and yet has bold ideas.

    Budget and tech aside, there's nothing quite else like Senua's Sacrifice. It's a deep exploration of psychosis in a fantasy world steeped in Norse mythology. Senua's journey is harrowing and horrifying, honest and exposing. Looking back on the 5-hour experience, I'm uncomfortable with the whole thing, but not because of the experiences *I* went through. I'm uncomfortable with seeing what *she* went through. Even as a fictional character, her journey is so personal and private that I feel like I crossed a line in seeing it through. In either case, it's original and unforgettable.

    My one complaint is that the combat is tacked on. There are large stretches of the game without combat, and I feel like the game is better off in those bits.

  • Man, talk about a one-two punch of satisfaction and dopamine hits.

    Moment-to-moment, Dead Cells plays way better than it has any right to. Slashes have impact, i-frames feel spot-on, and the enemies can be balls-to-the-wall aggressive. There's also a liberal use of slowdown that really emphasizes every hit so poignantly. And all of comes together wrapped up in the best-animated pixel art that I've seen all year. The result is that it comes out of the gate swinging with 2D action finesse that straps you in for a good time...

    ... then you get to the roguelite bits. And holy fuck does it work as a loop that keeps on giving. You play it because it's rad to play, but then you have this constant sense of semi-progression with each run. Dying isn't really a big deal because it's an excuse to start over and play more of that intense 2D combat (and obviously your haul from that run helps too). Slowly you unlock new weapons to encounter in each run, and the game evolves but never loses itself in the sheer variety of combat styles. It's shocking that a game can feel equally satisfying with a trap-heavy run as it can with a sword-and-board run.

    I guess the only thing that stands out as holding Dead Cells back is its reliance on Metroidvania elements. You permanently unlock new methods of traversal in the different procedural generated areas--opening up new shortcuts and progressions through the areas. It just feels so out of place to have these permanent upgrades in a genre that just can't do backtracking--what's the point? All they really do is give you minor area-specific goals in your progression. They've got one foot in roguelite and one in Metroidvania, and it's like: come on man, just make up your mind.

    In either case, Dead Cells is probably my favourite roguelite. And it's still in early access. Can't wait to see how great this game will play when it hits 1.0 because it's already amazing now.

  • Persona 5 is probably my biggest shame of the year. I've played roughly 20 hours of the game, got distracted, and haven't returned.

    So what can I say about the first 20 hours? If you've seen any trailer, you'd know that Persona 5 is stylish AF. I'm not sure if it's best style or "most" style, but it needs to be #1 of one of those two lists. Personality oozes from every bit of animation, monster design, to even the menus; there was a dude who cosplayed as the Persona 5 UI this year. Like what?

    The combat is very similar to previous Persona games--it's Pokemon on demonic steroids. The game is all about manipulating enemy weaknesses, catching demons, fusing them, and doing team-up maneuvers. The big standout on the mechanical end is incorporating some Shin Megami Tensei stuff into the demonic encounters. With Persona 5, you now have discussions and negotiations with the demons--bartering for items, for demon acquisitions, etc.. Talking back-and-forth with the mentally unstable cast of demons is just as twisted and perplexing as the SMT games.

    So far, the narrative isn't rubbing me right though. I generally like all the characters, but none of them stand out like the Persona 4 cast. Using flash-forwards to frame the narrative feels like it's just there for flare rather than actually benefiting the storytelling. Moreover, the villains seem so cartoonishly evil that it's just hard to take them seriously in the "real" world. Given that so much of the game is told in the grounded highschool reality, having someone as mustache-twirling as Kamoshida (the game's first villain) walking around highschool disconnected me from the plight of these poor kids. It's just a bit too hamfisted for me, but that's an anime thing I guess.

    What does work for me is the setting. I fucking love it. Unlike recent Persona games, Persona 5 takes place in Tokyo--across several different districts of the ever-busy city. It's beautifully urban and almost feels like Yakuza's virtual Japanese tourism. Moreover, the "other worlds" in Persona 5 are splendid so far (from the two I've seen). Like Persona 4, they're loaded with character personality and are quite varied from one-another. There's a penis mini-boss in the first dungeon, and it's so rad that it got greenlit to exist in the pervert's brain-space.

    Good on you, Atlus.

  • Assassins Creed has always felt like the video game industry's comfort food for me. I've played almost every major entry to completion, I have a good time doing it, and yet I'm not better or worse off for it. They're a lukewarm experience from start to finish.

    Taking a year off of their yearly releases, Assassins Creed Origins is, unfortunately, still more of the same comfort food. The radical changes this time around come in the new RPG elements, the more open world, and the combat. So how do these changes hold up?

    The eerily-Destiny loot system generally works out pretty well, but there's far too much junk to sift through. Moreover, there isn't enough variance in weapon-exclusive traits. Unlike Destiny and Diablo, the highest tier of gear in Origins does not have unique traits to give the item a custom gameplay flair. So loot is way more boring than it should be. The rest of the RPG mechanics work out fairly well--the XP bar gives a constant sense of progression, the enemy levels and level variance across the world makes you excited to return hours later. The Witcher 3-styled question marks on the map beckon you over to every point of interest, and sidequests work out wonderfully in fleshing the world out.

    I feel like I'm a bit more positive on the combat than others. Given the prevalence of the Arkham counter system in modern action-adventure games, swapping to Soulslike combat works in the game's favour. The animations are kinetic, there's a ton of well-used slowdown to emphasize hits, and there are a large number of weapon animation sets to choose from that all feel vastly different. I have two core complaints with the combat: 1) I wish there was an additional layer of depth to the melee combat, like Souls' endurance bar. It's just too straightforward to last 60+ hours. And 2) it's really easy to get into a set groove, and the game never pushes you out of that groove. For me, that lead to only using an instant-charging legendary sword, and the predator bow. I was honestly never challenged, even during the epic timed God-fights.

    Quick thoughts on the story: the main arc is totally too straightforward, but the characters of Bayek, Aya and Apollodorus really pulled me into the narrative in a way that the core plot otherwise couldn't. The sidequests are generally wonderful illuminations of the setting, even if the voice acting here is much more spotty. Speaking of the setting, the one thing that Origins excels at more than anything else, is it's world design. I don't think I've ever played a game that has immersed me more into a time/place than this. It was an obvious labour of love from the environment team. Good on them.

    It's a *good* Assassin's Creed game. Like every other game, it excels in some spots, and has a ton of room to grow in the future. Ubisoft's changes are welcome, but do not push things far enough to feel totally fresh. In a lot of ways, the game plays it too safe.

  • The direction that Guild Wars has taken in the last year has been pretty fucking mind blowing. I think I need to do a rewind here as a super casual GW2 player to contextualize Path of Fire's success.

    So Heart of Thorns came out 2 year ago. It added the first set of subclasses ("elite specializations") to each profession, added the new Revenant class, 3.5 new zones, and added a new horizontal progression system to keep end-game peeps busy with the mastery system. General consensus is that the $60 purchase for 3.5 maps and a new class is terrible value. What followed was a horrible content drought and a piss-poor raid experience. This was Guild Wars 2 at it's lowest. Then they had a drastic change in top-level direction. Season 3 of the Living World came out, releasing a new map and story content every 2-3 months. This bridged DIRECTLY into Path of Fire. Long story short, since July 2016, there's been a ridiculously steady stream of quality Guild Wars 2 content.

    So what about Path of Fire? It adds a whole new set of subclasses, five massive zones, a new set of masteries to pursue, and a new meaty story arc... all for roughly half the price. Retroactively, Path of Fire makes the systemic additions of Heart of Thorns make more sense. Now you have two subclasses to choose between. Now you have more meaningful and satisfying mastery tracks to fill. Now they're selling both expansions for the same $30 price, and both expansions unlock their respective masteries and locations; keeping with their focus on horizontal rather than vertical progression, there isn't a *succession* of boxed expansions, but a *variety* of them.

    This is all still pretty divorced discussion from the Path of Fire content itself. The nine new elite specializations have carved out a very distinct niche from the HoT alternatives--their spell effects are also top-shelf work. The five new maps range from pleasant strolls to harrowing and oppressive (a stark contrast to HoT's entirely-oppressive jungle). Thankfully they've gotten away from the focus on height tiers and just opened up map width instead--it's simply much more straightforward to navigate this way. The story is fucking great, and is arguably the best Guild Wars 2 has ever been with narrative; moreover, the story instances are exceptionally well designed with unique locations, mechanics, and wonderful achievement challenges. It feels like the narrative and design teams are finally on the same page with content creation.

    All this said, the real standout of the expansion is the addition of mounts. ArenaNet clearly saw that Heart of Thorns' glider mastery was the thing people loved the most about the expansion, and decided to create FIVE variations on that track with five player mounts. Each mount comes with a unique traversal mechanic, is found in a different zone designed to explore that mechanic, and has a mastery track to unlock new mount-specific upgrades. However, the brilliant bit of level design comes in the form of Metroidvania-styled gates that are found throughout all five maps. Some areas can only be navigated with a particular mount, or a particular mount with a particular upgrade. So there's this constant sense of: "OH! this new one glides on water, so now I can go back to that previous area and get that skill point!" Heart of Thorns had this sort of gating too, but the gates felt more artificial; it was almost always "knowledge" of the jungle restricting your access to dull interactible objects.

    In either case, Path of Fire is a massive, exceptional chunk of content that isn't stopping. Season 4 has already begun and we've already got new story chapters and zones to explore with our fun-as-balls mounts. Excuse me while I got explore Istan...

  • Pyre is one of a kind in its own right. That said, it's probably my least favourite Supergiant game.

    Lets start with the great. Pyre is Jen Zee's best work. It's an outstanding looking game with colour decadently leaking out of every corner; honestly, she's so good that the games industry doesn't deserve her. My only real complaint with the aesthetic is that, mostly because of the structure of the experience, it's a little too busy; she's poured too much of her best work into every aspect of the experience. Darren Korb continues to do fantastic work on the soundtrack, but I feel like there's too much variety of styles in Pyre. It's inconsistent, all over the place. And this is an embarrassment of riches problem, but I feel like I've heard his amazing style variety too much after his third game.

    The middling. The writing is Pyre is, like Greg Kasavin's previous games, a little too dense for its own good. This time around they came up with a nifty UI that lets you mouse over highlighted proper nouns and concepts to flesh out or remind you of that person/place/thing, but it feels like a crutch more than a liberating tool. Because players have access to instant definitions via pronouns, the dialogue in the game is LITTERED with the stuff. The ending also falls flat; this is a huge disappointment considering how wonderfully Transistor and Bastion ended.

    The poor. It's the gameplay end, which is a Supergiant standard. I actually really liked the arcadey mage-basketball concept for a while, and the narrative structure is a neat experimentation. I just think it runs out of steam. The entire structure is so inherently repetitive that you start to beg for the credits to roll. More than that, the actual basketball is more visually imprecise than I'd like (mostly an issue with the perspective). And there are a few UI and RPG elements that annoyed the shit out of me.

    Still, if you like Supergiant, this is a must-play. May not be your cup of tea, but it's refreshing to see them continue to experiment and test new waters.

  • Holy fuck the duo of Uncharted 4 games are gorgeous. Loved Chloe as a potential new protagonist for the series, and Nadine works spectacularly as a companion. I also feel like the shorter playtime of Lost Legacy lends itself to bombastic ride of the series. I just wish Neil Druckmann came into the project earlier, or had more of a hand in it; there wasn't nearly as much emotional substance on display in Lost Legacy as Nathan Drake's final tale.

  • It's more Dishonored 2! Dishonored 2 was my favourite game from 2016, and Death of the Outsider is more of that. Honestly though, I'm fairly disappointed by Arkane's offering here.

    I'll start with the good. Unlike Dishonored 1's DLC offerings (The Knife of Dunwall & The Brigmore Witches), Billy has a totally new set of gadgets and powers. As a stealth-oriented player, I was glowing when I saw the trio of stealth-oriented powers and non-lethal gadget options; the series has allocated far too much of its toolset to lethal/noisy players, and us stealthies have been pretty bored by that schism. More than that, a seemingly-minor change that does wonders for the experience is reworking the void energy bar. Unlike previous installments, Billy's void energy regenerates to 100% no matter how liberally she uses it. Taken together, you have more options as a stealthy that you can use more liberally without worry. It does wonders for pacing and player experimentation.

    The negative is the content on display here. I'd hate to do some value math, but I think I have to here. Death of the Outsider is pushed as a $40 standalone experience with 5 missions; Knife & Brigmore were $20 together for 6 missions. Both post-release content batches reused content from their progenitor game, but it does feel a little absurd for a $40 release to reuse a level whole-sale. The five levels themselves are also fairly by-the-numbers; there are no surprise mechanics here, and a lot of the assets are obviously taken straight out of Dishonored 2.

    The story that Arkane is trying to tell also disappoints; there's very little time spent on narrative at all here, everything is told via motion graphics or narration, and the emotional or conflict-ridden journey just isn't there. Honestly the biggest narrative failing is that there isn't nearly enough of the Outsider present in his own conclusion tale.

    Still, it's more Dishonored 2. It would just be a disappointment if this is how one of my favourite modern game series says its goodbye.

  • The disparate parts of Wolfenstein 2 are individually pretty phenomenal. The narrative is some of the best out there with outstanding acting, writing and cutscene direction. Hell, even the collectibles are compelling from a narrative standpoint. On the mechanical end, the core gunplay of aiming at a Nazi skull and pulling the trigger feels so good (the plink of the helmet and the accompanying physics that drive the body and metal to the floor.. ugh, amazing). More than that, the stealth is actually pretty rewarding. So why doesn't it come together?

    Universally, the level design is atrocious and a step down from the previous entry. It's too straightforward and linear, has poor flow, and isn't fun to navigate. The level design doesn't feel like a delicious puzzle to unravel, and instead feels a lot more like a level designer not wanting to do a disservice to the admittedly-brilliant concept art provided. It's a cluttered mess with enemy positions, lore objects and armor gusted about haphazardly. At the very least the previous entry felt like you could slowly dismantle patrols as you discovered cute little shortcuts and new inter-linking pathways. That's not here at all.

    But the level design isn't the fundamental problem. The game doesn't know what it wants to be, or it simply has too many masters that got "yessed" in a meeting room. It can't decide between speeding through the game at Doom-like speeds, or the slow-combing through playspaces like Dishonored. The narrative pushes you as a dual-shotgun-wielding badass that can mow down a whole block in 12 seconds... the game accommodates that, generally. But then you're missing all the narrative bits tucked in every corner, being interrupted every 5 minutes with 10 minute cutscenes. The slower stealth approach works reasonably well... until the level design lets you down and you're forced to pull out the shotgun.

    Every creative is doing their absolute best, but they're all pulling in different directions. Take the "contraptions" for instance: one of three new gadgets that you get to decide between half-way through the game. They let you traverse the environment in new ways, and they come with new gameplay perks. The level designers don't know how to fit this into their perfect rendition of concept art, so they include all 3 contraption keyholes at every locked door; the narrative team has no clue where to fit this into their story, so it ends up no earlier than the HALF-WAY point; the gameplay designers throw in complete perk packages with each contraption that seem totally unrelated to the mechanism itself because WHAT IS A BODY-CONSTRICTING DEVICE GOING TO DO FOR YOU IN COMBAT?

    Ugh, it's frustrating. Wolfenstein 2 needed a stronger directorial voice with a more concise vision. It's a shame, but also totally worth playing through for its narrative.

  • Destiny: With Cutscenes Edition. Still plays great, still has an intriguing world, still has a long-ass way to go. Where the first game felt like the content was severely lacking, Destiny 2 feels like the RPG and social mechanics feel severely lacking. They need to Taken King this shit ASAP. And then keep going. There's something about the speed of the gearscore treadmill condensed into a 60-80 hour experience (rather than the MMO standard of months upon months) that lays the whole thing in plain view for its audience to criticize. I think the series really needs to adopt more long-term progression systems and give the players more repeatable content (Diablo rifts plz?).

  • This is not a hot take, but Shadow of War would be a pretty fucking solid action romp with some neat ideas if that final act hadn't come in and soured the whole experience. "The Shadow Wars" pushes the emergent nemesis systems to their breaking point, exposing the limitations of what was previously almost magical. There's some bullshit in this game, but I can't ignore the incredible first 20 hours.

    Two additional grievances: 1) the story is among the worst I've seen in a AAA experience; 2) I feel like there was a constant feeling like this game needed a bigger dev team. Corners constantly feel cut. Just look at Talion's weird-ass face.

  • I have to preface this by saying I'm not the most well-versed in the dating sim genre, but I enjoyed Dream Daddy a fair bit. The writing is so funny and positive, it's hard not to play with a smile on your face from start to finish. The struggles and rewards of fatherhood are also a reoccurring theme that hit the heart in all the best/worst places. The art and music is also top-shelf stuff, but I wish the quality bar was more consistent on the VO/effects end of things. But that's nitpicking.

    Inconsistent production values aside, compared to other games in the genre, there aren't a ton of curve balls in the narrative progression. It's all a bit too neat. You have an intro where you're conveniently and quickly introduced to the dads. Then you're stuck in what is effectively a date menu where you can go on up to three dates with a given dad. After the third date, you're committed to a conclusion. It all just feels very convoluted and clean.

    Still, what a lovely smiley time.

  • I love the ideas, themes, and systems in Tacoma quite a bit. The idea of taking Gone Home and applying it to a science fiction setting where you're exploring the daily lives of a team in space... that's rad, and never really been done in a non-combat game.

    Where some games have a tendency to overstay their welcome, Tacoma understays. It feels like there's an act missing in the middle that leads to a lot of relationships, motivations and characters in generally being underdeveloped. I wanted to like the cast a lot more than I did. The only one who gets enough screentime to shine is the one in almost every scene (and arguably the most important character): the ship's AI.

    More than a missing act, there are a handful of polish issues that detract from the game--the main menu is exemplary of this: just a simple font on a black screen. All of the UI feels like this, to a lesser extend. There's a gloss missing, and more than that, some of the functionality is wonky at best.

    It seems like the drastic redirection during development forced Fullbright to cut their loses and rescope to the game's detriment. A shame. Still a memorable experience, but missing that finesse that made Gone Home fucking incredible.