2017 has been a hell of a year in... well, pretty much every aspect. It’s been scary, infuriating, and exhausting—a perfect opportunity to escape through games in any circumstance, but one made all the better by the fact 2017 has been one of the best years in a while for games. Here’s the 10 I’m happy to have escaped with the most.
Despite a childhood growing up with everything from Tekken to Smash to Capcom vs SNK, I am not a good fighting game player. I am a button masher through and through, or at the best an endless repeater of basic combos. But Injustice 2 feels like the first fighting game I’ve actually cared enough about to properly learn multiple characters (I play a decent Green Arrow, Flash, and Black Canary), and feel like I understand the systems and how to link things together instead of flailing wildly while hoping for the best. Mainly because Injustice 2 feels like a blast to play, and the easiest, mechanically speaking, of Neatherrealm’s games to dive into.
Combining that with the wildly enjoyable customisable/RPG elements added to creating your own unique spin on DC’s finest heroes and the wonderfully put together, and the enjoyable romp of a story mode—one that still features some of the most jaw-droppingly smooth transitions between cutscene and combat I’ve seen in a game—the second Injustice is perhaps the longest I’ve casually stuck with a fighting game, and it was worth every second.
My love/hate relationship with the original Destiny ended on a relatively high note, so I was more excited than I probably should have been for the sequel. And for 40 or 50 hours of it, racing through the campaign and gearing up, I was extremely pleased—the same excellent gunplay was there, but there were new locations, an actual half-decent story (which, by Destiny standards, is basically phenomenal), smart changes to PvP and a gear system that felt rewarding—almost too rewarding—instead of a mysterious cult where RNG was god. And I got to occasionally take to the sky on ashen wings to immolate foes from above with hellfire cast out of a burning blade, so that’s pretty good.
If this were any other year I’d probably be a lot less kind to the “casual” endgame of Destiny 2, which is designed to actually let you just walk away from the game and feel like you’re not discarding an investment (admittedly the lacklustre Curse of Osiris DLC helped keep me away too), but honestly, I kind of love having Destiny as a non all-consuming experience in my life. It meant I got to play some other great games this year too!
Night in the Woods
Video game dialogue is rarely good, in that it is rarely natural—it’s often designed to be consumed at the player’s pace, pausable between comments, or in cutscenes where the importance is on highlight whatever your next objective is rather than the actual conversation taking place. The flow and rhythm of how conversation in real life works is rarely present—but Night in the Woods is a shining example of how well naturalistic dialogue can work, an excellent capturing of its sullen youth vibes beyond the homely 2D, almost papercraft-y aesthetic.
I’ve had conversations like the ones Mae, Gregg (who definitely rulz, ok?), Bea, and the rest of the cast have had, which endearing me all the more to their quirky, intimate tale of friendships lost and an aimless life. It’s incredibly touching, but what stuck with me was just how real all these anthropomorphic animals ended up feeling, in how they communicated, commiserated, and lived with each other.
Star Wars: Battlefront II
There are a lot of things to deeply dislike about Battlefront II. Its campaign, while stunningly rendered, is a disappointingly safe Star Wars tale, abysmally marketed to the point of almost deception. Its progression system is arcane in the most cynical of ways, built around a paid-for lootbox system so gallingly toxic in its greed and contempt for the average player, that removal of a way to pay actual money for a spin of its RNG wheel ahead of the game’s launch created a disaster so public that not only did EA’s stock value plummet, multiple governments got involved in declaring investigations into the state of the video game industry’s current love affair with the darkest impulses of gambling. Battlefront II could spur a radical change to the way we understand and accept the contemporary gaming industry forever, and not for any of its positive aspects.
And yet, despite a enraged frustration with many of the structural mechanics surrounding Battlefront II, I can’t help but love the game buried deep underneath those fundamental flaws. An unabashed fan of DICE’s first foray into the galaxy far, far away in 2015, Battlefront II from an actual gameplay perspective stands miles ahead, in spite of its fatal mechanical misgivings elsewhere. The class system promotes a diversity of playstyles instead of players stuck with the same meta-dictated loadouts and weapons. The benefit of content from the sequel and prequel eras means a lavish array of locals to blast all sorts of droids, stormtroopers, and rebel scum in. And then there’s the real reason Battlefront II is on my list: Criterion’s sublime Starfighter assault mode, a vastly improved stellar skirmish from the first game that feels like a PvP update of Rogue Squadron in the most joyous of ways.
There’s a lot to be said about the feel of a franchise like Star Wars, and when you’re zooming across space in an an X-Wing, spinning rolls through the control struts of a Resurgent-Class Star Destroyer, evading TIE fire and missiles to land your own blasts against a vulnerable spot on its hull, Battlefront II is at its best—and feels more powerful than you could possibly ever have imagined.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
I had no excitement for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 when it was first announced. My experience with the first was minimal at best—a few hours of the 3DS re-release, a few listens of the soundtrack, and the finest I’M REALLY FEELING IT memes the internet has to offer. So it’s a surprise that I find myself, in the space of about the last 2 weeks of ownership, nearly 80 hours in and loving almost every second of the sequel, a JRPG that feels part Grandia, part Phantasy Star, and part Pokémon. The locales are varied and beautiful (if a little muddy on the Switch at times), and the soundtrack is filled with some absolute bangers. The MMO-esque cooldown-driven combat system is tough yet satisfyingly chaotic in all the right ways, and the story is endearing, lead by a delightful English voice cast that charms me almost entirely due to the fact that it’s driven by UK-accented actors instead of the typical all-American anime dub (Nia is the best, and to loosely quote her, I will bash up anyone who says otherwise proper, I swear).
There are some circumspect aspects, like some clunky overworld navigation, forgettable sidequests, and the occasional infuriating roadblock. Perhaps most egregiously alongside the at-times plodding pace of the story there’s also the almost comically oversized chest of Pyra, one of the game’s most crucial and fascinating characters, that the camera is all too welcome to leer upon in cutscenes. But despite that Xenoblade 2 has a ton of charm that takes me right back to my younger years of devouring any JRPG I could get on the Playstation 2. In a banner year for Japanese games, it happily sends 2017 out on a high note.
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood
On my more contrarian days, I’d be inclined to say FFXIV—specifically its Square-Enix-saving reboot, A Realm Reborn—is one of my favorite Final Fantasy games, or perhaps even my favorite full stop. As an MMO its story driven nature (and its excellent battle system, which works like a song on its PS4 port) appeals to the more singular-minded way I play these types of games, but its challenging party-based activities are also some of the best co-operative experiences I’ve ever had in the genre. It’s a love letter to the traditional era of when Final Fantasy was, well, traditionally fantastical.
So when I say that this year’s expansion Stormblood is more Final Fantasy XIV, I mean that it is more of a game I already hold incredibly highly anyway, but it’s not just more: it is absolutely the best FFXIV has ever been. Its Asian-inspired setting lends itself to some gorgeous vistas, from the cold mountain plains of Yanxia to the Imperial cityscape of Kugane, its timely story of resistance and sacrifice is wonderfully told, and its soundtrack—mostly built around a single, triumphant leitmotif that serves as the emotional backbone of the expansion’s grandest moments—contains some of my favorite Final Fantasy pieces of all time. The addition of the Samurai and the Red Mage as classes, two frenetic and exciting damage-dealers with a wonderfully intricate ebb-and-flow to their playstyles, was just icing on an exquisite cake. Long may FFXIV’s second life reign.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
This is going to start out on a weird note, but I hate Bethesda RPGs. I don’t think they’re bad by any means—the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series are wildly popular for a reason—but they’re decidedly not for me. Every time I’ve tried, and I’ve tried several times, the same thing happens: I get paralyzed with infuriating indecision. Their worlds are so vast and their structures so freeform, that the chance to run out into the great wide somewhere and just do things overwhelms me with choice, and pushes me away. So I should hate Breath of the Wild, which is in its most dismissive form basically The Legend of Zelda: Skyrim.
Instead, I fell in love with a side of Hyrule I never expected to, far from the tightly structured epics of Zelda’s past. Glancing out at distant plains, climbing the highest mountains, and trudging through the rain-soaked forests as pianos softly tinkled in the background made for some of the most remarkable moments of the year for me—and so rarely did the reward for doing so matter as much to me as the experience of moving around and interacting with Breath of the Wild’s soft, painterly world did. On top of that, beneath the freeform exterior of Breath of the Wild there lies a meaty, mechanical core in its shrines, tight, inventive puzzleboxes that teach you the tools you need to survive (and sometimes break) the wider world beyond them, spurring you ever onwards to see what’s beyond that rise, what’s below that crevasse, and what’s atop that mountain—the chance to see this remarkable land Link finds himself flung into from another perspective.
There’s a reason one of the defining pieces of art from Breath of the Wild’s marketing so strongly evokes Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog—Breath of the Wild is a game that is less about saving the princess (although it is that, too), and more about the Romantic ideal of wanderlust, something I never felt in the wastelands and realms of other games, and something it gracefully doles out in spades.
Super Mario Odyssey
Rarely does a game exude sheer, almost excruciating joy in the way Super Mario Odyssey does. Its bold colors, its toe-tapping soundtrack, its titular character’s almost-ceaseless smile, Odyssey’s charm lies in an earnest burst of happiness around every corner. Like Breath of the Wild before it, it traffics in franchise-twisting levels of openness, inviting players to find the collectable du jour, Moons, in almost every nook and cranny of each kingdom you visit.
But while its freedom is captivating—especially when paired with the game’s new “capture” system, allowing Mario to embody everything from manhole covers to koopa troopers to use them as charming puzzle-solving tools—and its environs endlessly charming, Odyssey is also a joy to physically play. Mario has never controlled better or had a wider array of tools to run, jump, and buttstomp around with, making navigating Odyssey’s locales so very satisfying to explore, which you’ll be doing not just to satiate your Moon-lust, but to revel in the tiny details hidden in each world. I’d also be remiss to not mention Odyssey’s delightful photo mode too, furthering the game’s tourist-y aesthetic—I spent hours taking hundreds of photos across my playthrough, leaving me with a picturebook of vacation memories to trawl through even though I’m done with Mario’s best and brightest journey.
Many video games are stylish, but not many video games swagger like Persona 5 does. It takes a universal discontent, your edgy teen rebellious phase, and thoroughly commits to it in the loudest, brashest, and yet most stunningly graceful manner. In fact, there’s committing to a theme—the very idea of rebellion itself, here—and then there’s what Persona 5 does, which is practically scream that concept at you with every aspect of its design and appearance. From its bratty pack of punkish heroes, to a soundtrack that delicately dances between acid jazz and wailing rock guitars, to slick, bold menu design that makes even the rote JRPG activity of buying items an artistic endeavor, everything about this game is charmingly loud and in your face. Even mechanically it embodies that theme, with what should be passive, turn-based combat feeling more like something that is joyfully aggressive, finding glee in a manner of fighting that feels brutal and bloody in a way summoning demons through sheer, impudent will to battle across mental landscapes absolutely should. Persona 5 just oozes style in every aspect, and does so in a rebellious and bold manner at every available opportunity.
But, like most angry young teens, beneath Persona 5's brash exterior there beats a very big heart. At first, it feels like the whole world is out to get your protagonist, and even the people you meet at school are standoffish and dealing with their own problems to even give you the time of day. But as you explore the red, black, and white-sketched Tokyo Persona 5 inhabits, and get to know people like the abrasive, yet loyal Ryuji, or the bookish yet unchained Makoto, or even the characters that fill out the rest of the game’s arcana-based social sidequests, the game slowly but surely reveals an emotional heart—one that only beats so rebelliously in the first place because it’s driven by an earnest message abound making friends, changing the world, and finding your place in an unforgiving and cruel world as a young person in the 21st century.
Persona 5 falters in some aspects, sure. Its English script can be a little awkward in spots, its pacing is alternately restrictively linear and annoyingly sluggish at times, and the way it handles LGBTQ themes—particularly in two gay men who appear solely to act as punchline about how gay men are lecherous perverts lusting after teens a fraction of their age just to freak them out—is excruciatingly retrograde, even taking in the context that Japan is still behind in the way it treats LGBTQ people. But even with some occasionally deep misgivings, I adored the 140 hours I sunk into it. Persona 5 slams its entire presence in your face at all times with a confidence rarely seen in games, let alone 100 hour plus long ones, while simultaneously acknowledging that it does not give a fuck about what you think of its attitude. It thrashes along to its own, at times messily-paced beat, and I’m more than happy to have followed along with it too.
A lot of games in 2017, including several on this list, have aptly been about resistance and rebellion—a spoonful of media-based manna in a year that felt like it stood on the edge of overwhelming chaos far too many times. Many of them have been rightfully of a more angry bent—raging against the systems that ail them, and glorifying the power that can be used to rise against those awful systems. Pyre is about those things (and also about 3-on-3 wizard basketball, weirdly enough), but also a million miles away at the same time, because its message is in finding hope to make a better world, instead of in the cathartic satisfaction of tearing down a broken one. The fact that it finds that hope while navigating a sea of almost wistful sadness (best punctuated by its truly phenomenal soundtrack, full of warm guitars to soothe, and achingly melancholic lyrics to scar, your very soul) is what makes it such a remarkably emotional journey to undertake.
Pyre’s world and its motley band of characters invite you to explore the sadness of the unjust situation that unites these disparate people from all walks of life, “together on their own,” as the breathy vocals of the soundtrack tell us. But most importantly, it tells you not to give into that sadness. That despite the melancholy you discover in Pyre’s clever worldbuilding—highlighted scattered words in conversation that pull up brief supporting details for everything from branches of cruel government that landed you in your situation, to the meaning of a character’s animalistic screeches—and in the interactions between its cast as they reveal their histories to you, standing together in hope can dispel even the most daunting of challenges.
The people around you in Pyre do not lose themselves to despair, do not shut themselves out to the chance to co-operate and change a world for the better, even when their journey is at its darkest. Regardless of where they all end up by the story’s end, they are better people for their experience. That, in a year like this one, is one of the most powerful statements a game can make.
I should also probably add that the wizard basketball is, in fact, extremely good.