My Games of 2017
2017 was a monster year for games. The first half of the year, the Playstation was getting one great title after the other, with Gravity Rush 2, Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Nioh, For Honor, and Horizon Zero Dawn all coming out in the first two months.
Then in March the Nintendo Switch was released and the year kicked into high gear. I haven’t bought a Nintendo console since the Gamecube, not because I didn’t want one, but because I couldn’t afford to own every single console… and I would just steal my friends at every available opportunity. But I couldn’t pass up on the Switch. I’d walk by it in the shop and stare longingly, pulling myself away, thinking of my suffering bank account. And then Mario Odyssey came out and I completely caved. Needless to say, I’m glad I did.
2017 had a plethora of brilliant games, too many to mention them all, but here are my favourite of the year.
*Side note – I have not yet played Zelda Breath of the Wild, making this list redundant because we all know if I had, it would be number one….
I was always going to love this, regardless of game play. A loving homage to the Fleischer Brothers cartoons from the 1930’s. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, getting every detail right, from the occasional soft focus, to the character designs exaggerated to the point of being grotesque. MDHR, the studio behind Cuphead, understand that the most inspired of those early cartoons are also those that border on the nightmarish. That style perfectly compliments the game play, which is fun yet bastard hard. To play Cuphead is to laugh riotously one second, then pull your hair out in screaming frustration the next. You’ll throw your controller, then pick it up and try again.
I have never been a JRPG guy, and have never really been able to get on with turn based combat in games. I just couldn’t get into the rhythm of it. Persona 5 changed all that for me. This game is a like a head rush brought on by a sugar high. It is bright, loud, colourful, silly, and over the top. The characters are great, and along with the pop art style of the menus and systems, acted as my entry point into a genre I was unsure of. The troubled kids of Persona 5 are vigilantes, capable of entering the subconscious of the wicked and attacking their twisted desires. Imagine if Inception was directed by Andy Warhol staring a cast of Japanese school kids and you get the idea. It’s vibrant and brash, but there is an element of social commentary giving the whole thing weight. There is a darkness behind the luminous colours of this world, and it is one you’ll happily spend your time exploring. If, like me, you’ve never been into 100 plus hour JRPG epics full of random battles and turn based combat, give this one a go. It’s daunting to start with, but it might just change your mind.
5. HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE
Featuring one of the finest performances ever in a video game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice successfully puts you inside the head of someone suffering with intense mental illness. In a medium where depictions of those struggling with mental health problems are almost always exploitative and often offensive, a game that attempts to portray the issue with sensitivity should be rewarded. The fact that this is done in a fascinating, visually gorgeous, and emotionally rich game is just icing on the cake.
In Hellblade we escort Senua on her journey into Hell in order to save the soul of her lover who was brutally butchered by Northmen. She fights tooth and nail against gods and monsters, but her biggest battle is internal. She is under attack at all times by visual and auditory hallucinations that turn even the mundane into a nightmare. There are constant voices nagging at Senua, pushing and pulling, questioning her resolve, chipping away at the limited confidence she has, and doing their damnedest to drag her down into the darkness. Playing this game with headphones on is a must. The sound design is masterful. These voices come from all around you, whispering in one ear, before screaming in the other. You never feel stable or secure, because the doubt is always there, sat on your shoulder, nagging away. Senua’s psychosis becomes yours.
In most games the characters you play as become you. Even those with clearly defined personalities. They do what you want them to do. React how you want them to react. But in Hellblade, you become the character. You react how she would. You feel what she feels. It is a truly transformative experience.
Nintendo had one of the best years in its long and storied history in 2017, launching a brand new console to universal praise, as well as revitalising two of its oldest properties in Mario and Zelda. But for me the biggest surprise was Arms, the new IP that perhaps isn’t getting the love that it should.
The game is the definition of “easy to pick up, difficult to master”. Like any beat em up, your character can attack, block, or grab. Block beats attack, attack beats grab, grab beats block. What makes this dynamic feel fresh is the way in which you do these things. The controller in your left hand controls the characters left arm, and the controller in your right controls their right. You punch with your right, they punch with theirs. Cross your fists, they block. Throw them both like you are reaching, and your character grabs. The movement is like for like, so it feels intuitive from the get go. But the more you play the more you feel how the slightest tweaks to your movement change the angle or speed or your punches. Timing becomes important. And it escalates from a game of rock, paper, scissors, to chess. But it never loses its sense of fun.
In my opinion, the most instantly accessible game on the console, and without doubt the most fun to pick up and play. If I’ve got a spare twenty minutes to play something, it’s going to be Arms.
3. RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD
The first Resident Evil is one of my favourite games. It is the reason I love the survival horror genre. I have played it from start to finish many times, way into the double digits. Which is why I was so disheartened to see the franchise lose its way in recent years. The fourth entry is rightly heralded as a classic. But 5 was a noticeable step down in quality, and as for 6, well, we don’t talk about 6.
Then the demo for Resident Evil 7 was released, and I had mixed feelings. I was pleased they seemed to be going back to their horror roots, abandoning the action heavy style that had become the series bread and butter over the last ten years. But I couldn’t shake the feeling the demo was a shameless rip off of P.T, the Silent Hills demo from 2014 (which is in my top 5 PS4 games ever).
But once I actually played the game properly upon release, I was overjoyed to be so wrong. It may be in first person, but it feels like Resident Evil. The mood is oppressive, the tone is schlocky, and the scares are legit. The Baker family are disgusting, vicious creatures who feel you with dread every time they are on screen. And their house and grounds are as fun / terrifying to explore as the Spencer mansion from the original.
Yes, the final third becomes too action heavy, but that’s the case with every one of these games. The high points are up there with anything in the series. The game is flawed, but it’s Resident Evil. A true return to form.
A certain type of game has grown in popularity over the last seven or eight years, that focuses on combat above all else. These games punish the player for the slightest misstep. Misjudge the distance of an attack, you’ll die. Read an enemies movement incorrectly and react one way when you should have went the other, you’ll die. These are games that revolve around the mastery of a move set. Nioh is the latest in this punishing subsection of RPGs, and might just be the most successful since Bloodborne. Comparisons to Dark Souls are as obvious as they are unfair. This game does not have that series sense of atmosphere or depth of detail. It doesn’t need to. The combat is different enough to allow it to stand apart, which coupled with its Eastern setting and mythology, give it a flavour of its own.
In Nioh you chose two weapons from five categories, swords, dual swords, spears, axes, or kusarigama (blade on a rope). Each of these weapons have their own moves. Then adding to that move set are the different stances. High, mid, and low. There are different moves in each stance. At first you’ll get to grips with one and that will carry you for a few hours. Then the difficulty ratchets up and you’ll need to learn how to use every stance, and then eventually every weapon, switching back and forth as the situation dictates. The combat is thrilling because you are never more than one wrong move away from death
The level design is rarely inspired, but is always solid. The characters are largely forgettable, the voice acting passable, and the cut scenes range from bland to incoherent. This is very much the type of game that puts all of its focus on one aspect, and everything around that aspect suffers. But it doesn’t matter, because everything around the combat is window dressing. Locked in with a hulking boss, one you’ve been fighting for hours and hours, dying time and time again, you feel yourself slip into that zone where your fingers and thumbs seem to be moving on their own, as you dodge perfectly and follow that up with a blistering combo, your timing is flawless, your accuracy pin point, and your adrenaline spikes. That is what these games are about. That is Nioh.
1. SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY
Nintendo have a better grasp of what video games are than any other company in the industry today. At their best, their games are pure unbridled invention and joy. There are moments in Super Mario Odyssey that most companies would build entire franchises around, be it an ability or game play mechanic, but Nintendo use it for one level, or even one Moon (the collectibles in this game instead of the traditional stars) and then they throw it away. Such is the embarrassment of riches within this game. It’s fresh idea after fresh idea. Pick it up and play it for twenty or so minutes, grab a moon or two, and you’ll be smiling the entire time, or play it for an entire Saturday, from morning to night (it’s that easy to lose track of time playing this thing), and you’ll still be smiling.
No other game this year has been such fun to just run around in. Every nook and cranny of every level hides a surprise, and even when it doesn’t, you’ll still enjoy looking. On one of the early levels of the game, a huge Triceratops skeleton is jutting out over the edge of a waterfall. I jumped, back flipped, and swung my way to the top of that waterfall, and found that next to each of the triceratops ribs, was a part of the bone that I could hit into the ground. I hit every single one… and nothing happened. Was I disappointed? No. I was impressed that this early on, the game had already engendered in me the urge to experiment with anything and everything just to see what would happen. A minute later I was trying something somewhere else and the completely unexpected was happening.
Nintendo makes games that feel like games. Which is a poorly written way of saying, in a day and age when developers are trying to make everything bigger, and more cinematic, and deeper, and darker, and more adult, it’s nice they are still out there doing this. The Switch doesn’t play Blu-Ray or have multi-media capabilities. It plays games. Really fun games. Like the ones we remember playing back in the day. The games that made us fans.
Mario, as a concept, is so simple. He jumps on things. That’s what he does, and that’s what he’s been doing since 1981. But he also does so much more than that. For many of us, he introduced us to 2d platforming. Or video games as a whole. Then he taught us how to navigate 3d worlds. He even got me into tennis in real life (this is honestly true). Mario is a simple concept, but more than that it is a malleable one. As the technology has grown, so has he. But he’s never abandoned his roots. He’s still Mario. He still jumps.
Here’s to hoping he never stops.