2017 was a great year for games. And before I give up on the year entirely, I think it’s only fair I pay my respects the only way a man in my position can: a list of the best games of the year.
Worth noting that since I’m not one of them big city game reviewers the pool of games I’ve played this year is considerably smaller than most. So this list will be incomplete, inconsistent with other reviewers, and personal—which is why you won’t see any Nintendo games on the list, I don’t own a Switch yet. But heck, if you weren’t here for my personal opinion then why the heck did you click on this list? I think I made the title pretty clear.
So without further ado: the best games of 2017.
This, along with Nioh (spoiler alert) is where myself and most professional reviewers will be aligned, because there’s no other word for this gem than a “masterpiece”. While I’ve never been a huge fan of hack-and-slash gameplay, nor have I ever been a big lover of drama, this game managed to captivate me despite being uncompromising and brutal on both counts. Fast-paced cinematic action intercut moments of profound depth and heartbreak that still haunt me, and the stunning soundtrack has created a high mark for video game composition that will remain unchallenged for years. Inconsistent story beats and some awkward character growth doesn’t stop 2B, 1A, and 9S from being extremely compelling, gripping characters whose flaws, strengths, and misguide attempts to do right in a world gone wrong create an emotional weight that so few games can manage. And when you finally reach ending E, you’ll find yourself singing along with the game’s main theme with tears in your eyes and proudly declaring that, no, games aren’t just silly little things. They can be life-changing.
NieR is a game you have to play three times, at least. But it’s also a game you can only really play once. And if you don’t know what I mean when I say that, then hurry up and play it already.
“Souls-like” is a genre now, like it or not, but most games that want to take after the 2006 legend that spawned it are tasked with answering a difficult question: “how can you be different”? Nioh answers that taking the familiar beats of the Dark Souls games, including challenging enemies, stamina management, punishing difficulty, and the reclaiming of lost progress by reaching the point where you died, and infusing it with the pace and strategy of a fighting game to create a brutally efficient combat system that is equal parts Diablo and Street Fighter.
Nioh can be overwhelming at first, with stance switching, ki bursts, and more loot than you know what to do with. But if you invest the time you need into the game to master those elements, you’ll be rewarded with a stunningly intricate and strategic game that has your mind racing and your fingers trembling at the end of each encounter. And when you die (which will happen, a lot), all the strategic choices you have at your disposal means you’ll have plenty to consider, and lots of opportunities to re-evaluate your plan of attack. Finding yourself thinking “I should snipe it’s horn before I engage” or “I needed to switch to a low stance after it enraged” after each death is always satisfying, and actually makes you excited to try again. Not many games can say that: not even Dark Souls itself.
In a year full of Souls-like, Nioh sets a bar for what exactly the genre can accomplish: a bar I’m not even sure From Software can rival with Code Vein. But we’ll have to see.
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen
I’ll keep this short since this isn’t actually a 2017 title and was only re-released, but when it comes to games I spent the most time with, Dragon’s Dogma is near the top of the list. Dark Souls meets Skyrim meets Shadow of the Colossus, this high-fantasy romp was unappreciated when it came out and it’s unappreciated now. If you want a small but beautifully detailed and challenging open-world RPG, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than this… assuming you’ve already got Skyrim and Dark Souls, I mean.
While eyes were first drawn to Cuphead thanks to the art style, which was unabashedly committed to emulating the cartoon style of 20’s and 30’s animation, the game has so much more to offer than throwbacks to old drawings. The gameplay takes the simple premise of side scrolling shooters, and perfects it with the addition of two things: a focus on boss battles and the unique arenas they can be fought in, and the introduction of a “parry” move, which allows you to bounce off certain projectiles for extra height and a boost to your special meter.
With that, the creators were able to make the most interesting and addictive 2D shooter since the golden age of the Metal Slug series. A menagerie of clever and visually creative boss battles will challenge your wits and reflexes as they each bring their own unique patterns, tools, and tricks to bring your journey to a quick and dangerous end. Toe-tapping music will push you forward, as well as 6 varied and unique finger-guns… and while none will be as generally useful as the 3-way gun and the basic straight shooter, there are situations where each one shines, adding a slight strategic edge to proceedings.
But really, while the creative game design can’t be understated, the visuals are the real star of the show. And when you find yourself dying the 10th time to a boss you thought you had figured out, it’s the idea of seeing what whacky foes await you in the next arena that will keep you fighting. A real high-class bout, to be sure.
Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City
The last DLC for the last Dark Souls game (in theory), the Ringed City offers the perfect climax for a series about desolation, despair, and futility: a battle against the last undead in the empty wasteland of a long-dead world for the last spark of hope. Dark Souls has always been sparse on the story, and this DLC was no exception, but even if you didn’t watch a single one of Vatii’s famous lore videos, you could appreciate how nicely that one battle manages to wrap up the series: ending not with a bang, but with a whisper, leaving you alone at the end of time with no company save the curse that got you this far.
I won’t linger much otherwise, the DLC was fairly average as far as Dark Souls is concerned, but it warrants a mention if for no other reason than giving me a reason to think back on the series time and time again. I often find myself in that wasteland after that battle, thinking about the endless sea of sand and the empty dark sky above. It’s meditative to think about. And I suppose I will be for many years to come.
STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT 2
Don’t quit the article in a fit of well-deserved anger: hear me out.
When people compile these “best of” lists, the first assumption (and a rarely challenged one) is that the “best” title is earned because of excellent gameplay, compelling storytelling, or other marks of impeccable design/enjoyability. And for most of the games on this list, I’ve followed the same pattern. But Star Wars Battlefront 2 deserves a “best of” spot for a different reason: Star Wars Battlefront 2 was the breaking point for the “loot box” economy that had grown out-of-control at that point. Star Wars Battlefront 2 was the most naked cash-grab we’ve ever seen in the gaming world. It was a bastardization of something people loved and it showed just how twisted the industry had become. Star Wars Battlefront 2 is the crucified corpse that became our banner in a battle against industry greed.
If Star Wars Battlefront 2 hadn’t been as crappy, blatant, and greedy as it had been, the Loot Box might have gone unchallenged for years. Companies would have been fearlessly yet gradually pushing the button on what was and wasn’t allowed in Loot Boxes, the same way they did with DLC and pre-order bonuses and microtransactions, and as with all those other examples we would have slowly grown to just accept it as inevitable and, eventually, acceptable. But EA pushed too hard, too soon, with an IP that people adored too much to simply let it happen. The push back happened, and it was so hard it rippled across the entire industry.
The soreness that followed meant other games started getting called on their bull. Destiny 2. Shadow of War. Even Overwatch, a bit. Loot Boxes became a dirty word thanks to Star Wars Battlefront 2, and while it’s sad such a promising game had to be sacrificed to make it happen, I am so glad it has. So thank you, EA. For making the worst, and then the best, game of 2017.
Anyway. Enough looking back. With that list out of the way, it's time to look forward to 2018 with earnestness. Fingers crossed it turns out... tolerably.