2017 has been a huge year for games.
I’ve never had so much trouble narrowing my list down to just ten, and even then it still feels like there were so many great games that I didn’t even get a chance to play.
On top of that, this year I’ve felt fortunate to find several games that have probably become some of my all-time favorites.
With all that said, let’s get started!
10. Destiny 2
Destiny 2 is a game that landed a spot on my list just because of how much fun I had with it. I never played the first Destiny because: a) I heard those voice clip compilations of Peter Dinklage as the Ghost; and I had kind of written it off as “not really my thing”. I gave Destiny 2 a chance mostly because my friends were playing it, and I’m really glad that I did.
The game blends elements of an MMO and an FPS in a way that feels pretty unique and captures a lot of the good aspects of both. I played the entire campaign co-op as a Warlock and it was a lot of fun, both because I enjoyed playing with other people, and because I enjoyed the way my class affected the gameplay. Also, the world feels alive in a special way, like how you can run into and join groups of players doing public events while chasing after a quest. And, as a small perk that feeds into my personal interests, there’s great character customization and cool outfits.
Another nice perk of Destiny 2 that I wasn’t really expecting is that the world and lore are quite interesting, although I’m somewhat frustrated that you have to do some digging both in and outside the game to understand them. Additionally, the game had a cast of likable characters that added to the experience. Plus the world itself was beautiful and fun to be in.
All things considered, Destiny 2 was a pleasant surprise for me which I enjoyed more than I expected to.
9. Yakuza Kiwami
In an unexpected turn of events, there are not one but TWO Yakuza games on my list this year (more about this later). As such, it’s kind of tough to write about Kiwami without comparing it to Yakuza 0 so if you want to skip ahead and read that one first I wouldn’t blame you.
While a lot of my newfound love for this series comes from it being unabashedly sentimental and ridiculous, Kiwami has something extra special: Haruka, AKA the light of my life.
The relationship between Kiryu and Haruka is what really makes this game.
It’s just incredibly sweet to see Kiryu, a professional criminal hardened by ten years in jail, spending his first days of freedom looking after an orphaned little girl, helping her feed a puppy, and cheering for her at karaoke. Since Yakuza 0 is the only other Yakuza game I’ve played, I’m really looking forward to seeing Haruka grow up through the rest of the series.
In addition to Kiryu being the world’s best dad, Kiwami has so much good melodrama and ridiculous plot twists. I also really appreciate some of the new additions in the remake, like the extra cutscenes explaining what happened to Nishiki and the Majima Anywhere System (which is delightful, if sometimes a little annoying).
Kiwami is great, but the reason this one ranked so much lower than Yakuza 0 is because of its relative lack of content. The sidequests felt pretty lackluster and the combat less complex than in 0, which is to be expected. But all things considered they did a nice job with the remake, and it feels natural to jump to it after starting with 0, especially since 0 provides additional context to better inform your understanding of Kiwami’s characters and their relationships.
Rakuen was a pleasant surprise that sort of snuck up on me this year. It’s unique, visually beautiful, and -- as one might expect from Laura Shigihara after her work on To the Moon -- it has a fantastic soundtrack.
Taking all that into account, I think the place where Rakuen shines the brightest is with its story and characters, and the way that it presents them to you. In the game, you play as a boy in a hospital, who is accompanied by his mother for most of the game. Through top-down adventure gameplay, you get to know the other residents of the hospital both through your interactions with them in the real world and a beautiful fantasy world which stands in stark contrast to the drab interior of the hospital. Rakuen also features no combat and largely no sense of immediate peril, which allows the player to focus on what the game wants to share through its characters.
Rakuen deals with some heavy themes and is quite sad at times, but it handles them in a way that is heartfelt and thoughtful. And despite that sadness, there’s a strong focus on the importance of being kind, gentle, and caring for others. All in all, Rakuen is an earnest and lovely experience, and I hope it doesn’t get buried in the wave of releases this year.
As a big fan of Gone Home, Tacoma was a game I was really anticipating this year. Although its basis is more or less the same as Gone Home - walk around an abandoned space and piece together the fragments of someone else’s story - Tacoma manages to be an experience that feels unique and different.
The scope of the story in Tacoma feels bigger, and it’s not so much about the personal journey of one person, but about how people interact with each other. This is reflected not just in the writing, but also in the AR mechanic the player uses to uncover the story of the Tacoma crew. Rather than just uncovering a recording to experience once, the player must move through parts of a scene, rewinding and fast forwarding to capture everyone’s role in the event. However, even with the focus on more people, the recordings feel intimate and personal.
There’s something special about getting to see how someone deals with a situation through multiple lenses, such as what they write home about, what they say to their loved ones, and what they do when they’re alone.
These sequences feel very intimate even though the player is only a passive observer of them, and it’s refreshing to discover a story through the little details of how it impacts the people it’s happening to.
The scope feels bigger not only because it deals with a whole cast as opposed to just one person, but also because Tacoma tackles some interesting sociological issues, and does so in part by exploring their impact on the lives of individuals. While it maybe didn’t impact me in the same way that Gone Home did, I still really enjoyed my time with Tacoma and its cast.
Supergiant Games is a developer that has carved out a pretty big space in my heart over the last couple years, so naturally I was pretty excited for their latest game. Even though I was a little wary of what looked like “sports” gameplay, they definitely didn’t let me down.
As I expected, I loved the art direction, music, characters, and worldbuilding of Pyre. I’m always impressed with the way that Supergiant crafts worlds that are interesting, fully fleshed out, and unique.
Pyre is especially great in this respect in that it gives you the freedom to revisit the lore at any time, both by collecting it all in an easily accessible tome and allowing you to hover over names and terms in spoken dialogue to get a brief refresher on who or what they are. The world is only improved by the fact that it’s populated with a lovely cast of characters who you get to know in all sorts of ways over the course of the game, including through the enjoyable banter between characters.
In a slightly unexpected turn of events, I loved the gameplay of Pyre as well. To progress the story, the player must complete Rites which are sports-match-like challenges where you assemble a team of characters with a diverse set of skills to face off against another team. I got so into the Rites I was even doing the extra challenges and turning on difficulty modifiers, which is a bit out of character for me. Ultimately, the sports-like gameplay in Pyre wound up being just as unique and delightful as everything else.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
When I found out Breath of the Wild was going to be an open world game, I was definitely a little worried. In recent years there’s been a trend of tacking open worlds onto games that don’t really benefit from them simply because “that’s what the kids want these days”. For me, open world games have all been feeling similar to each other, and the exploration they offer is starting to feel more and more like a chore. However, Breath of the Wild managed to buck this trend entirely.
The way the world was done felt both unique and consistent with the Legend of Zelda series. It was carefully considered and meticulously designed, and just walking around the landscape was a joy and a goal in itself rather than a means to an end. It was beautiful and had such a strong sense of place that I often found myself avoiding key places and events just to keep wandering.
It was really exciting to see the series that initially got me into video games take such a big step forward and succeed so well. And even though it was such a big change of pace for the series, it still felt familiar to me, and still had the elements of the series that I’ve come to know and love for the past twenty years.
With all that said, I do still love the more guided, linear Zelda experience, and I hope that Nintendo continues to try new things with the series rather than stick exclusively to the open world approach they took with this one.
4. Yakuza 0
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the Yakuza series, but after being introduced to the series with Yakuza 0 I’m a true believer. Who knew a game about beating up goons as a tough-as-nails Yakuza with a bunch of goofy mini-games would actually tell a sweet heartfelt story?
The soft side of Yakuza 0 is the core reason why I loved it so much. I found Majima’s half of the game in particular so touching that I even shed real grown-up tears about it in the epilogue. It was really refreshing to see a game that on the surface appears to be a punch fest steeped in absurd masculinity turn out to tell a story that’s actually sweet and sentimental. Of course, the game still has plenty of absurdity, and that’s the other big reason I love it.
Yakuza 0 is absolutely ridiculous. Between the melodrama, outrageous fights and action sequences, and hilarious side quests and mini-games, the game is totally unafraid to be campy. In an era where it feels like there’s a push for big-budget, story-focused games to be deadly serious to prove just how artistic they can be, this absurdity felt refreshing.
I think there’s a place for artistic seriousness, but I think there’s also a place for recruiting a chicken to work at your real estate agency and breakdance fighting. And to be honest, if the karaoke sequences in Yakuza 0 don’t prove video games are art than I don’t know what does.
My only complaint about the game is that the combat can be quite repetitive, especially towards the end of the game, which I’ve come to understand is an issue with the series in general. But all things considered, Yakuza 0 seems like a great jumping off point for those new to the series, as it’s polished and fun and actually provides some pretty meaningful background for the first game.
3. Persona 5
Persona 5 was a shoo-in for my favorite game of 2017 just by virtue of it being the next entry in one of my favorite series, and the fact that I’ve waited for it for almost a decade. In a lot of ways it exceeded my expectations, but in some ways, it didn’t.
To start off with the good: the combat and dungeon crawling are hugely improved. The combat mechanics are streamlined and feel more fun and the randomly generated floors have been replaced with handcrafted dungeons, which eliminate the tedium that was still lingering in Persona 3 and 4. As far as aesthetic and style go it’s absolutely fantastic, maybe my favorite in the series, and it has the most gorgeous UI ever. Additionally, it features my favorite premise and themes of any game in the series.
Despite being my first Persona game since leaving teendom behind, the “screw you corrupt adults” theme still resonated with me. A game about bringing down corrupt teachers, businessmen, and politicians felt pretty darn topical this year.
And while I utterly enjoyed myself playing Persona 5, and while the characters do have a special place in my heart, in several ways I think Persona 5 fumbled a bit with its writing, which is disappointing since that’s a huge part of why I love the series so much. The story occasionally felt poorly paced and poorly crafted, some of the main characters got sidelined and didn’t get the development they deserved for the sake of developing one-off throwaway villains, and the game seems to unwittingly contradict some of the points it’s trying to make.
Despite all my complaints, I still enjoyed the plot quite a bit, and I may hold the writing to an unfair standard given my opinion of the rest of the series. But for me, the Persona series really rides on its story and characters, and while they were great in Persona 5, they were not fantastic, which is ultimately what held it back from becoming my game of the year.
2. Night in the Woods
When I played Night in the Woods, I quickly proclaimed it my game of the year, and although it was dethroned it’s still very dear to me. It’s a game I’ve been anticipating since it was Kickstarted and I was so grateful that it did not let me down.
With Night in the Woods, in a way, I came for the aesthetic and stayed for the social commentary and its thoughts and questions about life. It’s the only game that I’ve ever immediately played again after beating it once.
Pretty much every part of the game resonated with me on a personal level, which I guess is no surprise since it’s being called “Millennial Animals: the Game”. The game and its themes are grounded in reality, nihilistic and sometimes tragic, but still hopeful. It takes on a lot of heavy, topical subjects, but in a way that feels realistic and avoids being pretentious. Not to mention it does so with some absolutely lovely writing that deftly weaves humor and seriousness in a way that feels unique but also authentic.
All of this is conveyed through a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom are lovable, but not without their own faults and struggles. In addition to the main cast, Possum Springs is also full of side characters who you can talk to every day to string together meaningful little vignettes about their lives and the history of the town.
And while I said I came for the aesthetic and stayed for the writing, the aesthetic is pretty killer too. Visually, the game is gorgeous. It feels like every screenshot could be printed and framed as its own work of art, and the soundtrack is fantastic, which makes exploring Possum Springs and finding all its secrets that much more enjoyable.
1. Nier: Automata
In a turn of events that will not surprise a single person who’s ever spoken to me, my game of the year is Nier: Automata. I’ve had tempered enthusiasm for Automata ever since it was announced. Nier Gestalt had some fantastic writing, world-building, and my favorite game soundtrack of all time, yet I found the gameplay a little lacking. When I found out Platinum was going to be working on Automata, I was pretty darn excited. When the game finally came out though, it exceeded all my expectations.
Nier: Automata has some of the most fun action gameplay in recent memory. This, coupled with a beautiful open world that’s fleshed out with meaningful sidequests make for a consistently great gameplay experience all the way through. I’m often compelled to turn the game back on just for the sake of being in that world again. Automata also has a fantastic score, a worthy follow-up to Gestalt (which I think still remains my favorite soundtrack of all time).
However, where Automata really shines is in its writing -- in the profound questions it asks as well as the way in which it asks those questions and the way that it uses the medium of video games to lend to the story it wants to tell. I’m being deliberately vague because I’d hate to spoil this experience for anyone, and everyone should play Nier: Automata. I’d also like to give a special thank you here to all my dear friends who still speak to me after I’ve forced this game on them repeatedly all year.
Nier: Automata is a profoundly sad game, but it’s not without hope. I’ve never found myself so deeply moved by a game before and it is hard for me to remember the last time I loved a game this much. And so, naturally, it’s my game of the year, and has certainly earned its place as one of my favorite games of all time.