Thursday, December 28, 2017

Best Games of 2017: Anime, Automatons, & Adventure

Yoko Taro’s Nier: Automata was released in February.

The impulse to categorize, rank, and quantify games is a natural one, given the sheer volume that’s available to play in any given year. But it’s also antithetical to deeper thinking and incisive critical analysis; it’s the same petty list-making that has turned film discussion on the internet into a virulent Petri dish of tribal toxicity. “Best of Year” discourse is small-minded, superfluous, and uninspired – but dang if it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

I’m not above a little treat now and then. Here’s a list of the best games I played in 2017. Happy Holidays!

–  Justin Cummings

“Classic, Haven’t Played It Yet”

Night in the Woods was released in January.

I played a lot of games this year, but the list of games I didn’t play – many of which were highly acclaimed – was even bigger. Even Lil B himself, whose immortal quote gave this section its name, couldn’t quantify the number of modern classics I didn’t have the time to play in 2017. Here’s a quick rundown of the major titles I never got around to, which you can expect to hear about in this space when I finally get around to playing them sometime in 2018:

Night in the Woods
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Evil Within 2
Yakuza 0
The Sexy Brutale
Little Nightmares
Star Trek: Bridge Crew
Metroid: Samus Returns
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Call of Duty: WWII
Dead Rising 4

Close, But No Controller

Guerrilla Games's Horizon Zero Dawn was released in February.

The following is a list of games I did play, but since the year’s offerings were so bountiful and sweet, even these fine titles were not significant enough to earn a spot on the “Best Of” list. My experiences with these worthy yet imperfect games ranged from positive to negative, but each deserves at least a quick mention here for its cultural significance, innovation, refinement of an established formula, or simple fun factor.

Uncharted: Lost Legacy
Star Wars Battlefront II
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Horizon Zero Dawn
Nintendo Switch Ports (Skyrim, DOOM, L.A. Noire)
Splatoon 2
Sonic Mania
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
The Mummy Demastered

Honourable Mentions

Persona 5 was released worldwide in April.
Persona 5
My first foray into this storied Japanese RPG series could have been daunting. I had never been overly fond of the JRPG genre growing up, and without the tug of childhood nostalgia to pull me past its outwardly ludicrous concepts and presentation, diving into this 90-plus-hour monster was a bit of a risk. But I found its hyper-stylish anime flair hypnotizing and magnetic, and its fast-paced treatment of the traditional turn-based JRPG combat system felt fresh and creative. Its story, though – while occasionally fatuous in terms of execution – was the real turning point for me, depicting a rebellious group of high schoolers whose greatest enemies are the corrupt and selfish elders they have been raised to unthinkingly praise and obey. Persona 5’s metaphorical commentary on Japan’s generational divide, where the old guard refuses to graciously give way to the new, speaks to real cultural anxieties that are deeply felt even here, across the pond.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
Perhaps the most interesting game of 2017 was one that wasn’t even finished. When it was released in “early access” status in March, millions of players worldwide were happy to pay for the privilege of joining in on this broken, unrefined multiplayer game. Why? Well, you might as well ask why any phenomenon takes off: it had some strange alchemical combination of simple mechanics, tense, organic gameplay, and hardcore competitive spirit that made it instantly irresistible. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s extremely fun to watch; it rocketed to the top of Twitch and Youtube’s most-watched gaming content thanks to thousands of pro-level players across the world who put their favourite games down to try this janky thing instead. Born of modding work by developer Brendan Greene (the titular “PlayerUnknown”) and inspired in part by properties like Battle Royale (2000), PUBG (pronounced lovingly as “pub-gee”) shines with a feisty grassroots exuberance, despite its rough trappings.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins
Speaking here about the games made by my employer Ubisoft feels like a conflict of interest, but since our Toronto studio didn’t have anything to do with it, I’m comfortable saying this much: Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a fantastic refinement of the Creed formula that improves dramatically on the core pillars of the franchise, while depicting perhaps its most visually sublime historical setting yet, a lush and vibrant ancient Egypt in which I’m consistently delighted to get lost.

Of the indie games I played in 2017, few affected me so much on a narrative level as Supergiant’s Pyre. Its lyrical, poetic presentation and richly-drawn fantasy world felt natural, complete, and inevitable, in the way that only the best art can feel. As a game whose experience was comprised largely of reading, Pyre succeeds on the strength of its storytelling: sometimes its says very little, but when there are words to be said, it chooses exactly the right ones to communicate its tale of conflict, beauty, melancholy, and hope. Plus, you get to play fantasy basketball. What more could you ask for?

For the first year in recent memory without a new Dark Souls game, there was only one real option for the discerning fan of hardcore 3rd-person action games: Team Ninja’s Nioh. Thank goodness, then, that its quick, brutal combat, its extensive RPG mechanics, and its feudal fantasy storytelling matched (and sometimes even surpassed) the kind of quality we’d come to expect from the Souls series. In my analysis for Critics At Large, I praised Nioh for “burning away bad gaming habits like impatience, laziness, and lack of focus in the crucible of its crushing difficulty”, and it’s that particular fact – that besting this game made me better at games overall – that really makes Nioh feel like something special.

Destiny 2
I made a point in my piece on Destiny 2 to remind everyone – myself included – that at the time of release, even if the game was as fun and polished as Destiny 2, it’s too early to comment on the title’s long-term sustainability. It’s only been a couple months, but some cracks in the game’s fa├žade have definitely started to show; developer Bungie having slipped right back into their old consumer-hostile habits by following up Destiny 2’s excellent initial release with a suite of DLC that locked players out of certain activities if they didn’t buy the extra content. I’ll put another reminder here: despite the stumbles along the way, Destiny 2 has not stopped being the incredibly fun, beautifully refined, deeply satisfying game it was at launch, and though my friends and I have put it down for now, it’s all but inevitable that we’ll be back again soon to revel in each other’s successes and failures as we shoot our way through the stars.

Top 5 of 2017 (Don’t @ Me)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released in March.

5: Resident Evil 7
Horror experienced a renaissance in gaming this year thanks to this pitch-perfect revitalization of an age-old brand. Rarely does a developer – especially one as large and bloated as Capcom – succeed in tapping into the essence of a property like Resident Evil, slicing away the excess cruft that gathers over decades of releases and emphasizing the core qualities that made it successful in the first place. Even unintended boons, like the locked camera position and obtuse controls of the first Resident Evil from 1996, were given their due with RE7 in the form of a restricted first-person perspective and a terrifying sense of vulnerability. I’ve never had more fun with a Resident Evil title, and the moments throughout the experience when my friends and I all screamed in unison on the couch will be etched in my memory forever.

4: Cuphead
Gamers seasoned on difficult titles will seek out ever-tougher challenges, especially if they appear in genres they haven’t yet mastered. I was never one for shmups (though Ikaruga was a university staple) and I was always terrible at sidescrolling actioners (though I still fondly recall my time with Metal Slug, Contra, and Gunstar Heroes), and yet Cuphead, by Toronto-based developer Studio MDHR, somehow broke the mold. Its utterly unique presentation, modeled after the animated American cartoons of the early 20th century, was enough of a hook by itself, but its tightly cultivated gameplay was what kept tugging me back in for more. It’s rare for a game as punishing as Cuphead to engender such positive feelings – usually a game that kicks your ass this hard is met with rage, frustration, and shame – but that’s simply an indicator of how thoughtful and precise its design truly is, as meticulously detailed as its stunning art style and brassy soundtrack.

3: Super Mario Odyssey
My ultimate stress reliever for the insanely stressful year that was 2017 was Nintendo’s latest adventure in its “acrobatic Italian” series, Super Mario Odyssey, but its merits go far beyond its ability to soothe my jangled nerves. The Mario series has always been excellent at providing pure, simple fun, with even the worst titles in the franchise still offering charm and polish to spare, but Odyssey expands the established formula in joyful new directions that give the simple pleasures of hopping and bopping your way through the game’s colourful settings a more profound significance. Even Mario’s set of moves is like the whole thing in miniature: easy to pick up but tough to master, instantly fun and endearing, and celebrating a legacy over 30 years strong. On both the macro and micro scales, Odyssey must be considered the most complete and perfectly-constructed Mario title ever – and the old guy is showing no signs of slowing down yet.

2: Nier: Automata
Any end-of-year list that doesn’t include Yoko Taro’s masterwork Nier: Automata must have been written by someone who hasn’t played it. Its highly technical action gameplay would have been worthy of praise by itself, but as an exercise in subversion and transcendence, Automata takes even that elementary part of its experience and coldly dissects it, allowing you to completely bypass the combat using protagonist 2B’s android chipset if you feel it’s not a necessary part of your time with the game. Automata uses parallel storytelling, shifts in perspective, and the basic trappings of its own genre to examine what it means to have fun playing a game, what it means to participate in virtual violence, what it means to be attached to a fictional character… and ultimately, what it means to be human and alive and vital in an unpredictable, hostile world. In my capsule critique of Automata, I called it a “genre-defying rebel yell”, and it’s that courageous insurgent attitude that allows the game to question everything about itself and its medium, and therefore close the book for good on the insipid question of whether games can be art. They can, they are, and this is what that looks like at its best.

1: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I sometimes find it difficult to continue talking about Breath of the Wild, since its triumphs are so self-evident. All it takes is a couple minutes of playing the game to understand why it’s topping everyone’s Best of 2017 lists, including this one. But then my experiences in its unbroken, overgrown, untamed expanses, where nature reigns and a sense of adventure is ever-present, come flooding back, and words begin to pour out of me anew. Other games this year were able to capture the essence of their brand to offer a new experience, but none succeeded at this so profoundly as Breath of the Wild, whose every player-guided action is a paean to the childhood spirit of discovery and thrill that inspired Shigeru Miyamoto to create the very first Legend of Zelda game. BotW is a rare example of a game that inspires creativity through its core design, asking that you find your own unique solutions to the challenges it presents, and consistently respecting the choices you make. It offers a story that builds on the narrative legacy of the Zelda series in surprising ways, gameplay systems that bravely challenge the norms of the genre, and an sense of atmosphere that is sweeping and intoxicating. Its moment-to-moment gameplay, from the tactile control scheme to the visual palette of its world, supports a philosophy that can be distilled to a single word: forward. Everything in the game is designed to allow you to push forward, towards the next landmark, the next peak, the next glitter on the horizon . . . to wherever your own personal adventure is calling you. It’s the best Zelda game and easily the best game of its kind I’ve ever played, and its peerless quality shows in the fact that statements like that don’t even feel like hyperbole. Ask anyone who’s played it, and they’ll tell you – it really is that good.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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