March 1, 2018

My Top 10 Games of 2017

I played a lot of great games in 2017. Here are 10 of my favorite games of the last year, plus some honorable mentions at the end.

1) Persona 5 (PS4)

Persona 5 took me completely by surprise. I had never played any of the earlier games in the series. I always had an interest in playing them, but never really got around to it. I was wary of the time-limited mechanics as I usually don't enjoy those pressures, but with Persona 5 I finally dove in. I am very happy that I did.

I was enthralled for nearly 100 hours. The evolving story and intriguing cast paired with enjoyable combat, dungeon crawling, and other activities meant there was never a dull moment. I even had fun managing my limited time, choosing which activities to pursue or relationships to grow. The uniquely styled art consistently impressed me, even down to the menus. The soundtrack is a wonderful mix: peaceful, frenetic, relaxing, tense, upbeat, sad, and always unique. I even love the battle track's use of vocals which would normally bother me.

When I reached the end of Persona 5, I wasn't ready. I had finished most (but not all) of what the game had to offer, and I still wanted more. I'm sure I will start another playthrough eventually, but for now, I am happy with one satisfying, memorable experience. Maybe I will try to play some of the older entries in the series first.

2) Divinity: Original Sin 2 (PC)

I played and enjoyed Divinity: Original Sin a lot when it was released, then again with the Enhanced Edition. I played both alone and in a co-op game, both of which were great fun and very different experiences. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Divinity: Original Sin 2 improves almost everything from the first game. The writing is better, the characters are better, the progression is better, the choices and consequences are more impactful, the world is more reactive, and even more freedom is offered.

In Original Sin 2, you can accomplish goals in almost any way you can think of. Many quests can be solved by combat, or stealth, or diplomacy, or manipulation, or magic, or trickery. Quests can be failed by your actions, NPCs change their opinions of your party members, and those party members can even insert themselves into conversations, forcing hard decisions.

The premade "Origin" characters were a great addition, each with their own backgrounds, storylines, unique abilities, and personalities. I chose former Lone Wolf assassin Ifan Ben-Mezd, along with arrogant lizard The Red Prince, exiled dwarf pirate Beast, and undead Fane searching for others of his race. Each of these characters has specific motivations, individual quests, and potentially major effects on the story.

The unique tactical combat is improved as well, with a new armor system that I initially disliked but grew to really appreciate. Tying most crowd-control effects to physical or magic armor and making them guaranteed once that armor is removed solves the "randomness" that could sometimes ruin battles in the first game. Instead of fishing for stuns on round 1 and hoping the enemy doesn't succeed in doing the same, you can plan around consistent effects. The capped action points (sorry, Glass Cannon) made each skill feel more meaningful instead of just spamming out as many skills as possible each round.

I was completely engrossed for my entire solo playthrough of Original Sin 2. I actually had to consciously stop myself from immediately starting a second playthrough when I was finished. I had other games to try, and I also wanted to save my second playthrough for when I could play the game in co-op. I can't wait to experience the game again in a different way.

3) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U)

I do not own a Wii U or a Switch, but I actually borrowed a friend's Wii U to play Breath of the Wild (and also Tokyo Mirage Sessions after enjoying Persona 5). I don't think I played anything else for days and days. Breath of the Wild showed just how interesting an open world game can be. All around you can find natural puzzles, shrines, NPCs, and other points of interest. Almost everything in the world is interactive. You can roll boulders down hills towards enemies, chop down trees to create bridges, spark spreading fires, use metal objects as lightning rods, and probably whatever else you can think of. Link can climb almost anything and use his paraglider to get around. The game even goes so far as to make climbing more difficult in the rain, which is frustrating, but a nice touch. Add in the magical runes for bombs, magnesis, stasis, and cryonis and you can do all sorts of crazy things.

The combat itself can be a bit dull, but all these interactive elements carry the gameplay. Weapons frequently degrade and break, especially early on, encouraging the use of these alternate combat methods. In many cases, you can even just avoid combat altogether, except for one disappointing forced stealth segment. The story is similarly average, but some of the support characters are entertaining. I will say the worst aspect of the game is by far the terrible inventory management. I was constantly trying to pick up items, realizing my inventory was full, opening the inventory, dropping an item, closing the inventory, and trying to pick up an item again. On the other hand, I absolutely loved the in-game compendium which catalogs items and creatures once you have taken a photo (and then uses your photo as the image). I spent a lot of time tracking down new entries for the compendium and trying to grab good photos to make my compendium my own.
Horizon: Zero Dawn was another surprise for me, though in a different way. I was confident that I would enjoy an open-world robot dinosaur hunting game. The trailers showed off some unique combat and imaginative art and world design. But I did not expect such a well-designed story with fleshed out villains and heroes and mysteries. I was more invested in characters who I only experienced through audiologs and written logs than I was in any character in other, similar open world games. The conflict between Ted and Elizabet, the motivations driving Sylens, Aloy's past (and her father's past), and the discovery of just what exactly happened to the world drove me through the main plot with a sense of urgency I rarely have in these games.

Similarly, I never grew bored of the combat loop. Even after gaining access to the majority of weapons and encountering the majority of enemies, I never felt the combat growing stale. The combination of unique weapons & tools with the physicality of the dinosaurs made every fight feel new. Whether I was tearing off armor pieces with a bow, setting up traps and tripwires, or diving into melee with a spear, the enemy reactions felt individual.

The only complaint I had about Horizon was the constricting inventory, constantly overflowing with all manner of dinosaur parts, plants, and materials. The arbitrary space limit was too high to feel realistic but also too low to feel good in a game of hunting, salvaging, and gathering.

5) NieR: Automata (PC)

NieR: Automata is hard to describe. It's a strange mashup of genres, perspectives, and styles. You even have to play the game multiple times to experience the full ending(s). The beginning drags a little, the second playthrough is almost identical to the first (but much faster), and yet I kept going. I was rewarded with deep, dark, complex stories hiding beneath the initial presentation.

With developer Platinum Games, Automata has the expected flashy, fast-paced, combo-based combat. For me, the combat was just good enough, but a bit tedious or even too easy at times, with infinite, near-instant dodges. An interesting chip system allows great customization that actually fits within the story of the game, and those were what made the combat more fun for me. You can even remove your OS chip for an amusing result. Other chips include stat boots, automatic item use, HUD elements, lifesteal, and more. On the Easy difficulty, you can add chips to automate attacking, dodging, etc.

Much of the lore and background information is hidden in logs, character conversations, sidequests, or even unlockable "weapon stories" (from upgrading weapons). It can be easy to miss a lot of what the game has to offer; some of the best work in the game is in the optional content. I was rewarded for exploring with not just physical rewards, but a better understanding of the world of NieR: Automata.

6) Hollow Knight (PC)

Hollow Knight came out of nowhere for me. I was unaware of the game entirely before its release, somehow missing its Kickstarter campaign. I believe I first saw Hollow Knight being streamed and it caught my eye, so I decided to give it a try. I ended up being blown away by what a great "metroidvania" game I had almost missed.

The world of Hollow Knight is exceptionally well-crafted, full of secrets, hidden passages, collectible items, characters, and sequence breaks to discover. I have seen the setting compared to Dark Souls, and I would have to agree. There is a sense of mystery around everything; NPCs offer vague hints about the lore, there is an abundance of environmental storytelling, and there are similar themes around the decaying world and its inhabitants. The hand-drawn art and atmospheric music create a great environment to explore.

Hollow Knight doesn't bring too much new to the table in terms of combat and platforming, but all the traditional elements have been brought together very well. Traditional upgrades like wall climbing, air dashing, and double jumping are used to great effect in both combat and exploration. An extensive system of runes can be found and used to alter your playstyle, offering bonuses that vary from simple stat boosts to entirely changed abilities. A great mix of difficult bosses, platforming challenges, and relentless enemies kept me on my toes throughout the whole game.

7) Cuphead (PC)

I have not finished Cuphead yet. I'm not even that far in (early in "world 2"). I can already tell I will be returning to Cuphead again and again until I complete it. The artwork is extremely well-drawn, the character animations are charming (even the bosses!), and the soundtrack perfectly matches the Cuphead's unique style.

I would probably love Cuphead even if the gameplay was average, but I'm finding the game a lot of fun. The bosses are challenging, but fair, with learnable patterns, attacks to parry, and windows to deal damage. None of them (so far) have seemed to drag on too long. Even the "run 'n gun" levels fit into the game well, offering a change of pace that requires a different set of skills. I even liked the occasional flying levels, though probably less than the grounded stages.

8) Cosmic Star Heroine (PC)

From the creators of Cthulhu Saves the World and other retro-influenced 2D RPGs, Cosmic Star Heroine brought a refreshing experience. Although most of the game is similar to a traditional JRPG, with an over-the-top plot full of absurd characters, the combat system stands out the most. Encounters and battles take place directly on the map similar to Chrono Trigger, but the actual combat plays out very differently. The developers describe it more effectively than I can:
In combat, there's no MP. Instead, most abilities you have can only be used once until you use a Defend/Recharge move to restore everything. As you choose abilities, your character's style score goes up and as that goes up, your abilities become more effective. 
There are also a few "Burst" abilities that you can use that will spend all of your existing style points for one massive effect. Every few turns, your characters will go into Hyper mode and abilities will deal double damage and ailments are more likely to work. Plan in advance to take advantage of hyper and style for combat success.

This makes many battles, especially bosses, almost like a puzzle. Trying to coordinate style increases, once-per-battle items, buffs/debuffs, and attacks with the periodic Hyper boosts, move recharges, and enemy attacks can get very complicated. A simplistic equipment system offers even more abilities, and for most of the game, your party is constantly being switched around with new characters, necessitating changes in strategy. Thankfully, the game also includes very limited grinding and very few filler battles, making most battles feel important and necessary. Cosmic Star Heroine would still be fun with a standard battle system, but the innovative combat really raised the game up for me.

9) Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (PC)

Not much needs to be said about Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy. Bennett Foddy created QWOP. In Getting Over It, you play as a man in a cauldron who uses his hammer to climb up things. A strange commentary about game development follows your progress. The premise sounds absurd, but the game is surprisingly well crafted. The controls are very precise and every obstacle feels perfectly placed to provide enough frustration to make overcoming that obstacle feel great. On the other hand, you will fall and lose progress, often, again and again. But every time, getting back to where you were is smoother and smoother (until it isn't).

I have not finished the game yet (I have gotten slightly beyond "orange hell" at best). I keep coming back, making a little progress, falling, getting back to where I was, making a little more progress, and so on. One day, I will get over it.

10)  Warframe (PC)

I am cheating a little here by choosing a game that isn't really from 2017. Warframe is a free-to-play game with a long development history (the fifth anniversary is in March). I had always been vaguely aware of Warframe, but I had never really taken a deeper look. Warframe had a brand new open area with the Plains of Eidolon expansion, and after being disappointed by Destiny 2 and seeing some comparisons favorable to Warframe, I decided to give Warframe a try.

I have become a little trapped after finding Warframe to have a dangerous amount of things to collect and experience. There are hundreds of weapons and over 30 warframes to try out (and more always seem to be coming), and all of them can be leveled and customized. Many of the weapons are entirely unique; I have used a rifle that saps my life to create ammo, a sound blaster that sends enemies flying, and a blade that doubles as a shotgun. The warframes are similarly diverse, with frames for damage, support, crowd control, tanking, and more. Octavia is probably the most interesting example I've found, using customizable music which offers bonuses to players who jump, shoot, or crouch in rhythm with the song.

All of the weapons, warframes, and companions can be leveled, increasing an account-wide mastery rank which offers its own bonuses. A vast number of mods can be found, upgraded, and equipped to individual items. An expansive codex can be filled out by scanning enemies, resources, and even objects like storage containers and grates. Many enemies and mission types have unique and/or rare drops like crafting blueprints or mods. There are endless resources to be found in different locations. I can play for 10 minutes or 4 hours and never feel like my time is wasted or that I don't have anything to do. I am always gaining something: experience, resources, quest progress, etc.

The story does start very slowly, the tutorial is bad, and many of the game's systems are obscure or unexplained. Expect to have the Wiki and other resources open for a long time. I heavily recommend joining a clan in-game, both for assistance and a number of important benefits (and potentially beautiful player-designed clan dojos). Warframe can become quite grindy if you try to craft a large variety of weapons and warframes. But once the systems start to click and you reach some of the later quests (the Second Dream and the War Within are both amazing cinematic experiences), Warframe really shines.

I should also mention Warframe's premium currency, platinum, which can be used to buy weapons, warframes, cosmetics, and more. Normally, I would not like a system like that, but Warframe allows players to trade in-game items for platinum. I have not spent any money on the game (yet?), but have purchased dozens of extra item slots, two warframes (Harrow and Nidus), and some cosmetics. I acquired my platinum solely through trading rare mods and crafting components with other players. In a way, free players can sell their time, the time spent farming or acquiring rare items, to those who buy platinum to skip the wait. It's a very interesting economy.

Honorable Mentions:

In 2017, Path of Exile saw two major expansions released: The Fall of Oriath and War for the Atlas. I enjoyed the game more than ever with The Fall of Oriath finally eliminating the multiple difficulty playthroughs and adding six new acts to make the game a single ten-act playthrough. Near the end of the year, the War for the Atlas revamped the endgame mapping system with 32 new maps and an ongoing conflict throughout the map atlas between the Shaper and newly-added Elder. My characters progressed further than normal, I completed some endgame challenges for the first time, and really enjoyed the builds I chose to play. I can't wait to see what comes next.

Pyre (PC)

From Supergiant Games, developers of Bastion and Transistor, Pyre continues the trend of unique experiences with great music, narration, and characters. Pyre is only down here because I only just started playing it. I'm already very interested to see it through.


From Piranha Bytes, developers of Gothic and Risen, ELEX is another open RPG, though with a heavy "science fantasy" influence this time around. I actually loved ELEX a lot, but it still needs a lot of work. ELEX is buggy, unbalanced, and kind of a mess. The interface is just bad. But beneath the surface there is a great experience. The progression with each of the three factions from hated nobody to barely tolerated outsider to friend to ally feels natural and rewarding. Gaining access to a faction's armor and weapons after numerous intertwined quests was a huge ordeal, but well worth the trouble. Choices you make and characters you deal with have reverberating consequences across the world.

I was also surprisingly interested in the story, although its presentation can be very disjointed. I was both disappointed and excited by the ending, which answers a few important questions but leaves many more unanswered, clearly setting up for a sequel.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PC)

I really liked this prequel to Life is Strange, despite its development by a different team and the switch in voice actors (due to strike). I did enjoy the original game more though. Before the Storm is both shorter and more predictable, but it does have some great characters. I especially loved the quick dungeons & dragons games you can play with some classmates, and the relationship between Chloe and Rachel is explored very well.