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2017 Biggest Disappointment: The Entire Industry

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

The biggest issue with Mass Effect Andromeda was that they only had 18 months to make the game.  That’s unacceptable.  Before the game was actually in development, most of what made up Andromeda were pie in the sky ideas and a system designed to develop some planets.  The actual development, as in when they actually had a game to develop and work on and they weren’t in pre-Alpha, was 18 months.  The game came out on March 21, 2017.  Dragon Age: Inquisition’s final DLC, Trespasser, the last thing relseased by Bioware before Andromeda came out on September 8, 2015, just over 18 months before Andromeda came out.  The entire development cycle for this game, the real development for this game, exists entirely in the space since Trespasser came out.

It’s an embarrassment.  The game probably wasn’t as bad as people said it was, and considering how the original trilogy ended, it’s about the only way it could have gone, but the level of mediocrity involved in the development of this game showed that no one at Electronic Arts gave a shit about this game, seeing it only as a way for the company to shit out something attached to Mass Effect’s shitty, but surprisingly popular, multiplayer and make all the money.  The game was released in a clearly unfinished state, and not in a Final Fantasy XV way, where they keep adding features based on community content.  I mean, voice acting was cleaned up, features were put into the character creator, missing textures were put in the game.  The reason that lady looks so awful at the beginning of the game?  Because they didn’t finish making her.

There was so much shit like this all year that it’s really hard to narrow down just what’s the most disappointing part thing of the year.  There wasn’t one game, or one industry practice or one anti-consumer stupid bullshit thing that felt like it was any worse than the others.  Even things that have been bad for years, like crunch or industry working conditions, managed to come out and get bad all over again.  Not just because they were dragged out into the limelight as a part of a larger conversation in Western culture, but because there were reports of crunch being particularly bad over this past year.  The aforementioned Mass Effect Andromeda released after being drowned in it, and it wasn’t the only one.  CD Projekt Red’s current project, Cyberpunk 2077, was rocked with allegations of poor working conditions, and of course more and more news comes out of Japan every week about how the developers are treated.

They’re not the only ones.  EA famously canceled a mysterious Star Wars project, codenamed Ragtag, which led to the closing of the Visceral Games, the makers of the Dead Space trilogy.  It was a series I wasn’t a fan of, I don’t like horror games myself, but it was definitely a series that put things like quality and good player experience over trying to get more and more money and that’s something I can respect.  There’s a lot, both positive and negative, to be said about the development of Ragtag, but all of that falls into the larger picture of a bloated industry more interested in greed that still doesn’t know how to keep the ambitions of studio heads in check at the same time.

This doesn’t even get into the loot box system, which was already a terrible thing and somehow managed to become even worse than it already was.  Microtransactions and loot boxes and other ways to siphon money from players were such a pernicious and sinister part of the game’s industry for so long, it was hard to imagine them being worse, and then we got Star Wars: Battlefront II, which not only tied player advancement to a microtransaction system, these microtransactions were also done through loot boxes.  It’s insane.  Not only would one player do more damage than another, whether or not the player who’s behind can even catch up was intended to be random.  That doesn’t even sound like it’s good for long term player engagement, so I don’t even know how a greedy CEO can look at that and think it’s what will bring in the money.

SWBF2_box

Copyright DICE and Electronic Arts

I understand the appeal, form a business perspective of “games as service,” even if I think that it misunderstands the idea behind, and the potential of, interactive media.  A continuing game that can be updated, generally through some sort of paid service or expansions, rather than having to build a new game each time.  It’s why we had the MMORPG boom between 2002 and 2011, and why everyone is rushing a battle royale style game out the door now.  It’s something that could, technically, even be a benefit to the industry, were it used to buoy smaller projects, or more ambitious or niche titles, but that’s not what the industry is using it for.  Instead, it’s just a way to make games cheaper and maximizing profits.  I’m not under any illusion that video game publishers are anything other than engines to make money for the company and their investors, but that doesn’t mean that the industry can’t also have its cake and eat it too.  As we’ve seen this year, the indie scene has shown there is an audience out there for genres, titles and concepts that might not fit into the traditional “AAA” “Hardcore” market.

Not that things have been great on that front, either, since Valve has decided that doing any work to curate their storefront is some sort of cardinal sin.  Despite promising, after closing Steam Greenlight, that Valve would let fewer shit titles onto their platform, this year we’ve seen even more questionable titles, Unity asset flips and straight up scams on the Steam platform than any other year.  Seriously, last year was the worst year ever in that regard, but it grew this year.  Hell, before writing this sentence, I opened up the Steam store and the first thing presented to me was some sort of survival early access sort of game.  A type of game I don’t even play, which, if Steam had algorithms half as good as YouTube (which still seems to think I hate women because I play video games), would understand that’s not the kind of game I’m interested in.  During the Winter sale, it was almost impossible to find any good deals without the help of a third party, and I basically skipped most of it anyway, instead electing to buy a bunch of Final Fantasy games I hadn’t played so I can do a project for this blog.  It’s ridiculous.

So, as a whole, this year gave us some of the best video games I’ve ever played.  It was also a year where publishers constantly tried to shove their shit down our throats, lying to our faces and hook us into near-gambling “lifestyle” games to satisfy our own greed.  It was the most 2017 thing I think I could have experienced.

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Game of the Year: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

BreathoftheWildFinalCover

Copyright Nintendo

This might actually be my favorite game, ever.  Seriously, I was talking to a student today and he asked my what my favorite video game was, and without hesitation, I said Symphony of the Night, which has been my favorite game for nearly half of my life, but after I wasn’t so sure.  I love this game.  I love it more than A Link Between Worlds, I love it more than Twilight Princess, Ocarina of Time and even more than A Link to the Past.  I spent my entire spring break last year playing nothing but this, and it was a sublime experience.  There are few games I can say that I’ve enjoyed so thoroughly as the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  It’s the best game, at least since Skyrim, to do use an open world, with some of the best systems and mechanics I’ve seen in an RPG of its caliber.  It’s better than the Witcher, it’s better than Skyrim, it’s just the best.  I love it.

I could almost stop there, because the next few paragraphs would probably just be me gushing about how much I love the game, or how I miss not playing it, so I’m not going to go into that.  First, I’ll talk about a few of the flaws.  There’s a lot of Hyrule that doesn’t get properly utilized, there need to be more enemy varieties and a lot of the sidequests are just sort of there for the sake of having a sidequest.  Nintendo clearly knew they needed to have them, but they didn’t really know how to populate their quests properly, so we get a lot of fetch quests.  Also, shrines get boring after a while and korok seeds were a bad idea.  At least, having 900 of them was a bad idea.  That looks like “add more for the back of the box” kind of numbers rather than good content.

It’s not a game without flaws, and it has flaws other games in the genre don’t have, but I enjoyed playing this one more than any other for a number of reasons.  First, it was actually fun and enjoyable to play and explore.  Combat has a nice amount of depth without being too intimidating, giving players a lot of options, both in tactics and strategy.  Combat felt challenging when it should, and was easy when it needed to be too, and that’s a rare rhythm to find in a linear game, let alone an open world one.  I loved that I could climb and my exploration wasn’t limited to a horizontal axis.  I would climb a mountain just to see if there was anything at the top, and sometimes there wasn’t, and that was absolutely awesome.  The view, and jumping off to see how far I could parasail was enough.  Even though I slavishly followed every part of the main quest, the fact that I didn’t have to, and the game actually took this into account, is amazing.  The fact that it gave that much control and trust to the players, that they could skip any section of the main quest, do it in any order, or just take a suicide charge at Ganon if they wanted to, is something I have not seen in any other open world game ever.

Breath of the Wild is a thing of beauty.  There’s so much to see and explore, so much to find off of the beaten path.  I saw a dragon, out in the distance once, and ran off to discover what it did.  I climbed to the top of a bunch of steppes outside of Kakariko Village just to see where all the goats went.  I climbed to the top of a goddamn mountain to fight a lynel, then did a swan dive off of the mountain into a lake.  I have experiences from this game, that I can only dream about from the Witcher or Skyrim, that I could only hope Horizon Zero Dawn could live up to.

I had a horse named Paladin.  She was a white horse, descended from Zelda’s horse.  I got her from a quest.  She was both the quest, and the reward, and she helped me fight Ganon at the end of the game.  I loved that horse more than I ever loved Epona or the King of Red Lions, because she was my horse.  Her, and Warlock, my giant horse who was probably the scion of Ganondorf’s horse from Ocarina of Time, were horses I went out and found and I made stories with them.  We outran Guardians, ran over bokoblins and charged headfirst into the Ganon-corrupted Hyrule Castle.  I rode south to a beach town that I didn’t have to even go to, because it’s not part of the main quest, on Paladin and explored that place.  The experiences, just with my horses, were mine and I haven’t had anything like them, except maybe in World of Warcraft (another game where I named my special horses…).  That’s just the horses, man.

I even liked weapon breakage.  I didn’t have a big deal with running out of weapons, I loved grabbing new ones and fashioning new combat scenarios out of what I had.  I understand that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, it was perfect for the adventure.  I made do with what I could find, and what I had, and I haven’t gotten a chance to experience a game that gave me that level of trust, without also being a system’s driven nightmare to play.

I don’t know if it’s better than Symphony of the Night, but I love Breath of the Wild.  I don’t know if there will be anything else like this, that appeals to me quite in this way, ever again.  I am glad that I had a chance to experience a game like this.  I think it’s the kind of game I’ll pass on to my kids if I have children.  It’s a sandbox, but one that’s easy to understand and doesn’t punish the player.  It’s a game that reached through time and spoke to me across my whole life.  I can only think of a handful of games that ever did that, and all of them are on my top 10 list, I think.  Breath of the Wild, as some saw on my Top 10 Games of All Time list, got my number three spot.  It definitely earned it.

Number 2: Super Mario Odyssey

Super_Mario_Odyssey_(artwork)

Copyright Nintendo

I guess this sort of spoils what my game of the year is.

Super Mario Odyssey looked like shit 11 months ago.  When it got announced, I remember comparing it to Sonic Adventure, in that awkward “Sonic is in the real world” sort of way.  Station Square is a weird place where cartoon Sonic interacts with more realistic (although it is an anime style “realistic”) humans than himself and Super Mario Odyssey’s debut trailer had Mario running around New Donk City with a bunch of realistic looking humans.  It was weird and incongruous and was definitely not representative of how fucking amazing the actual game turned out to be.

3D Mario games have always been these experiments in how to work with 3D platforming, even all the way back at the beginning with Super Mario 64, which pioneered things like camera controls and multidirectional jumping.  Sunshine and the Galaxy games pushed their own boundaries, and had their own successes and triumphs, but then there was silence on Nintendo’s front for seven and a half years, with the only Mario platformers being these sort of okay 2D throwbacks to the SNES era and a couple of cool, but plain, isometric platformers.  I guess when I saw that trailer all those months ago, I expected Nintendo to have lost the magic.  Even when people were saying the game was great, I didn’t expect anything.  A hat that possess things?  Why can’t I just play as Mario?

Then I played that first level.  There’s not much in that first level.  It’s a desolate, barren place that Bowser tore through on his rampage toward Mario and Peach and there isn’t much to see, but it’s also the first time in years that, as Mario, I got to run around and practice my jumps and moves, just like the courtyard of Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64.  Using Cappy was a breeze, and when I finally used him to possess a frog and jump super high, I got it.  Everything made sense.  By the time I finished the next level (which was only as far as I had gotten for a long time, because it was my brother’s copy), I had been a T-Rex, a goomba, even a chain chomp!  There was even a solid boss fight, with boss mechanics.  It wasn’t like it was Dark Souls or anything, but 3D Mario games have always had kind of crappy bosses, and that was not a problem with this one.

Odyssey has a depth to its gameplay that is completely unexpected.  One of the concerns I had about Cappy was that possession of different enemies and creatures would be gimmicky, maybe a means to get a moon or two, or for some sort of set piece.  I should have remembered I was dealing with Nintendo.  Each thing Cappy can possess gives Mario a different set of skills and mechanics to play with, each with their own advantages and weaknesses, even comparable to Mario himself.  A goomba might not have the strength of Mario or the ability to jump, but they’re sure footed and won’t slip and slide on ice, where as a hammer brother can jump really high and throw hammers, but isn’t quite as fast or maneuverable as vanilla Mario.

Each level, too, is unique and interesting.  None quite match New Donk City, though.  What looked like a strange, Station Square wannabe, which brought on Sonic’s still unending Dark, Dork Age, is in fact one of the best Mario levels ever.  Escaping from a rampaging T-Rex while on a motorscooter?  Confronting Bowser during a thunderstorm on the top of a skyscraper?  Precise platforming across a construction zone?  New Donk City has all of that in its setpieces and level sections, but it’s also just a really cool urban environment for Mario to play around in.  Each level makes a point of giving Mario enough room to do whatever a player wants without feeling too big, since it’s all stuffed with moons and things to do.

In truth, I haven’t seen everything this game has to offer.  I know a lot of moons are just sort of sitting there, out in the open, and the bosses can get sort of repetitive, but what I have played is some of the best Mario platforming in years.  Much like with Sonic Mania and my Game of the Year, it does so much right, taking stuff from games almost as old as me, that I almost forgot what it was I liked about these franchises.  Mario Odyssey pulls in so much from the old NES and SNES games in a way that the 3D games, and even the New Super Mario games have just failed to do.  Whatever sort of wizardry Nintendo pulled in to make all of this work, I don’t know, but I’m glad they did it.

Number 3: Persona 5

Persona_5_cover_art

Copyright P-Studios and Atlus

There were a lot of JRPGs that came out this year.  I didn’t like most of them, so I mostly played Final Fantasy games, and this.  I’ve always liked Persona games, but they’re also really hard, in grand Atlus tradition, so I’ve never quite finished one.  Truth be told, this is also the one game on my list I haven’t beaten (okay, I don’t have all of the moons in Mario, nor am I level 70 in Stormblood, but still), but I have played a great deal of it and I think I have a pretty good idea, and already, not only is the best JRPG I’ve played all year, I think it’s my favorite Persona game of all time.

Persona games have always been known for making their specific style work for the systems within the game, but they’ve never done it quite as well as they’ve done it here.  Narrative, mechanics, character design and level design all come together to form a level of cohesion the video game industry doesn’t see very often.  Every piece of the game bleeds into every other part, creating a whole so much more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are some of the best I’ve seen.

This game has the best art design of the year.  It’s a hard won victory, too, since it’s got to compete with Stormblood and Breath of the Wild in its use of colors and design, but this time, P-Studios just knocked it out of the park in terms of visuals.  Persona games always have a sense of style, but it’s always been a kind of modern, high fashion casual style, with characters who look great, but all look like they kind of shop at the same store.  Persona 5 not only gives each character the most unique appearances in the series to date, they do so multiple times.  Everyone always has a few outfits in a Persona game, sure, but here, they have multiple types of casual and school clothes, and their casual clothes aren’t just a variant on their school outfits.  Even more, they’ve managed to make the “persona” element of the series even more prominent by giving each character their own super hero-esque alter ego, complete with a costume that fits their personality and the themes that character will explore.

They’re also just some of the best super hero costumes I’ve ever seen.  Marvel and DC ain’t got shit on how good these look, and how well they match their characters.  Joker, the main character, has a really awesome black trench coat, sweet jester boots and some awesome gloves, which do a great job of comparing him to Arsene Lupin, and other master thieves from literature.  It’s not just Joker, either, but all of the characters get some sort of reference to history or literature as a means of exploring their personal identities.  From Catwoman to Goemon to Sherlock friggin’ Holmes, each character ties in with their persona both through their in game powers and their abilities and through how their alter ego looks.

Also cool about this version of Persona is how it explores how society, specifically Japanese society, but it also takes aim at American and European society too, manages to exclude or oppress those who don’t quite fit in or do something that makes them easy targets.  Each main character has been screwed over in the past, whether directly or indirectly, by people in power, whether they have been sexually abused, criminally threatened, literally assaulted, stolen from, cheated or cut out from society simply due to the fact that society allows people with power to act as predators instead of protectors.  Sure, the game really stumbles (again) when it comes to LGBTQ+ themes (and the unfortunate sexual harassment angle with Ann), but for the most part, it really gives us as players a good look into what society can do to good people because of one mistake, or just because a bad person with a lot of power can decide to ruin someone’s life for no real reason.  It certainly wasn’t intended to correspond with Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump, the game had been in development for 4 years before it finally came out, but both its successes and its failures really resonate this year, making the game much more relevant than it was ever intended to be.

Mechanically, this might be the smoothest Persona game ever made.  It’s well made, of course, and plays a lot like any other Persona game, but the game is much better with balance in terms of combat and difficulty, the exception being the first dungeon, which is ridiculously hard for some reason.  The game still has the series’s tactical depth and complex system of using Personas to maximize the use of skills and abilities, but it also makes sure that the player is more eased into the system, and probably does the best job of teaching the player how the system work of any game in the series.  Then, they went the extra mile and added a whole bunch of great subsystems to the game to reinforce the “phantom thief” angle, which are simple, sure, but I’m not expecting this to be Metal Gear Solid, either.  They service the idea that the PCs are thieves stealing the sins and darkness from within the hearts of predators and sociopaths, and it’s a lot of fun to get the drop on some monsters without having to run around them for six minutes (looking at you, Tales of Berseria).  The stealth reinforces the game’s focus on tactics and long term strategy.

Also, finally, one of the Personas in this game is a fucking motorcycle that shoots nukes ridden by a girl who fights for justice and dresses like a knight.  Much like with Thor Ragnarok, it’s like they wanted to make a game that appeals directly to me.

Number 4: Sonic Mania

Sonic_Mania_(artwork)

Copyright Sega

2017 was a year of redemption and a year of best evers, but there was nothing that came out this year quite like Sonic Mania.  Despite what people say, there have been good Sonic games since Sonic 3 and Knuckles.  Sonic Adventure didn’t age well, but it was miles ahead of any non-Mario 3D platformer, and the Sonic stages are still pretty fun to play.  Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations are actually a lot of fun and decent games.  What is true, though, is that none of them lived up to the original four, 2D games.  Sonic Mania not only manages to bring the series back to its most glorious days, it’s also the best game in the series ever made.

Look, there is one major flaw in this game, that most of the games levels are remixes or remakes of levels from previous games.  However, that doesn’t really distract much from the greatness.  Each zone does something different, and plays to the strengths of a Sonic game.  It’s fast, but it knows when to slow down and let the speed build up.  It has some of the most inventive bosses in the series and some really complex and interesting levels.  Even the “remade” levels feel much more complex and interesting than their original counterparts, even when they steal sections from the original level wholesale.  Out of all 12 zones, only Chemical Plant Act 1 even feels like a retread in any sense of the word.  All of the others almost feel like completely new levels with old backgrounds stapled to them.

The game manages to make levels that I really didn’t like in their original games (Oil Ocean, Metallic Madness) work out really well.  I never thought, when I play the game, that I’d be really excited when I heard the old Oil Ocean music.  It gets even better with the second zone.  That’s impressive, because when I play Sonic 2, I tend to turn it off around then.

Gameplay wise, it’s the tightest the series has ever been.  Sonic and his friends move just as they did in the Genesis/Mega Drive era, with a few little extras.  Sonic has his new drop dash, probably the best ability he’s ever had, and that includes the insta-shield and homing attack, Tails can fly longer and faster and Knuckles finally has a decent climbing speed that isn’t too slow, but also manages to incorporate a sense of weight.  Plus, the level design works in a way to fix one of the biggest issues with the series, as it no longer punishes the player with spikes or death traps just for going fast and not having memorized the level.  Instead, the levels are set up in a way to make sure the players don’t careen into pits.  Even when there are traps, the level uses things like floors that collapse or enemies that show up with a delay, giving even unskilled or new players time to react instead of just hurling them into a pit.

Also, of course, the soundtrack is amazing, easily the best of the year.  I know, that’s unfair, since this is a Sonic game, and Tee Lopes is just fucking amazing, but this is also a year where we got a Persona game, a Zelda game, a Mario game, a Final Fantasy game (even if it is an expansion) and a hell of a lot of great games with crazy awesome music.  Even then, Sonic still kicks ass, and as good as the game is, the soundtrack, like any Sonic game, is the best in the series.

I can only hope that Sega allows Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley continue to work on this series, because it’s the only way to revive Sonic.  Especially after how fucking awful Sonic Forces was.  3D Sonic can work, but until Sonic Team can pull its head out of its ass and actually make a decent game that works, we need games like this to make the series keep working.

Number 5: Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon_Zero_Dawn

Copyright Guerrilla Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment

This kind of got spoiled yesterday when I talked about why this game got in the top 5 and Neir: Automata didn’t.  Part of the reason Horizon Zero Dawn got up in the Top 5 is because it’s a new IP, and that’s a big deal.  While this year has been great,  most of the major releases have been sequels or major parts of existing franchises.  Even Neir is the sequel to a game that Square Enix released in 2010, even if no one played it, and it’s sort of a part of the Drakengard series.  Horizon, though, is the biggest new IP in years.  Not only is it a great game with a somewhat unique premise, it also manages to be a complete game and doesn’t try to sell me a sequel just because I beat the game, so that helps.

Horizon Zero Dawn takes place way into the future in the ruins of the United States after a robotic apocalypse.  The player plays Aloy, a girl exiled from her tribe at birth for an unknown reason, who goes on an adventure to solve the mystery of what caused civilization to collapse and to save her tribe, as well as others, from another potential apocalypse.  Even though it’s a pretty standard hero’s journey, it’s well told and does a good job of utilizing the medium.  Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that really tries to solve the major issues with storytelling in open world RPGs by trying to tie all of the side quests, and the main story quests, either into the overall narrative or into the themes of the game, which is a really good thing games like this have problems with.

I liked Witcher 3 and Skyrim and a bunch of other open world RPGs, but none of them had the writing that Horizon Zero Dawn has.  There’s a certain focus on character and theme that most games in this genre don’t have.  Aloy is a fully realized character, as are her allies and many of her enemies.  Sure, the bad guys are a bit one note, but they do feel like real people grasping desperately for power.  The game takes place in a near Renaissance-level society (with some Roman trappings for flavor), so the bad guys, even those that aren’t very well developed do feel like they fit within the setting.  That’s good, but the game does much better with the heroes, which feel like real people.  They have flaws and foibles, make bad decisions and sometimes even piss each other off in ways that real friends can wind up doing.  It’s not a thing we see in most RPGs.  The interaction between the characters isn’t quite on the level of the boys from Final Fantasy XV, but the friendships and relationships in this are written as if they were real.

Writing isn’t the only thing it does well, of course.  It’s a great game to play.  One of the biggest issues I’ve had with open world games is that they tend to be too big.  Tons and tons of things to do, sure, but very little of it is interesting.  That’s not the case here.  Outside of the requisite Assassin’s Creed style pointless colectibles and one series of sidequests (which were good, I just didn’t like them) I did literally everything I could in the game.  There were some things I did just because they were challenging and sort of felt like I was making the world a better place.

The gameplay takes a little bit to get used to, which is probably the biggest flaw of the game.  It’s hard to aim, at first, and Aloy feels somewhat underpowered despite what the cutscenes after the tutorial seem to indicate.  It’s because there is a lot of depth to how combat works, with different weapons doing different things, and contributing to encounters in different ways, but the game doesn’t have the best conveyence in explaining that a sharpshot bow is different from a war bow which is different from a hunting bow and why all three of them are kind of needed to be equipped at the same time.  Once I got that, though, the game felt great.  There was so much to do, each type of machine was unique and had a different approach to combat, and the story and sidequests were compelling enough to keep me playing, once I got over the hump.  Once I did get over that hump, I found there was a lot to see and a lot of ways to approach each type of machine.  The game is sold as a sort of Monster Hunter with Robots, where I can shoot weapons off of the robots and use those weapons to kill robots, and once I got that, everything clicked.  I felt like an unstoppable goddess of war when I played, taking down machines several stories tall with nothing but a bow and some weird arrows.

Ultimately, it sort of pales in a world where Breath of the Wild came out a month later.  It has its advantages over the new Zelda title, but the fact I can’t climb everywhere or explore as much as I can in the new Zelda does knock it down a few pegs, as well.  On the other hand, it has much better writing and characterization than anything else in the genre, giving it a serious leg up.  There need to be more new IPs like this,  more RPGs that focus on character over plot and more games that are willing to experiment and go in depth with combat.

Top 10: The Bottom Five

2011 was the last year I was able to do a full compliment of 10 games that would qualify as “the best of the year.”  Granted, I took a couple of years off from doing this, but the only year that came close to getting all 10 might have been 2013.  This year, as has been said many times throughout the year, has been a hell of a year when it comes to video games.  There are so many games that could have made it, I actually had a hard time coming up with a definitive list of games.  Hell, there were so many games that I forgot to put two of them on my Honorable Mentions.

Dead_cells_cover_art

Copyright Motion Twin

Dead Cells is a roguelike Metroidvania like every other indie game that came out this year.  Unlike the others, however, it’s fucking great with gorgeous graphics, great systems and some really kick ass bosses.  However, because it’s still in Early Access, I can’t give it a nod.  It would have made the Top 10 had it done so.

Hollow_knight_title_large_black

Copyright Team Cherry

Possibly one of the best games of the year, Hollow Knight is a complex, challenging Metroidvania with some deep platforming and excellent combat.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to play more than a few minutes this year, so I can’t in good conscience put it on my list.  I still loved what I have played of it, though.

Okay, that’s all of the Honorable Mentions.  The rest of the rules work like this.  I’m going to count down my bottom 5, starting with the 10th best and working my way down to the 6th.  I’ll do a short write up of each one, then move on.  Meanwhile, numbers 5-1 are going to get full write ups in the upcoming days.  I can’t promise I’ll have a new one each day, since I’m pretty deep into novel writing right now, and this school year is a long and arduous one.  That said, we’ll start with number 10

Metroid_Samus_Returns

Copyright Nintendo

10.  Metroid: Samus Returns

Metroid II: Return of Samus was the only Metroid game I’ve never played, except for Other M.  I’ve pretty much beaten every single one of them, and all of them had been pretty good.  The remake of Metroid II, Samus Returns, lives up to the rest of the series, and marks a return to form for the series after Other M nearly destroyed seven years ago.  Gone is the shrinking violet from Other M, and instead we get the stoic bad ass that Samus has always been.

Like any other Metroid game, there are plenty of environments to see and explore, matched up with some of the most mood appropriate music in gaming.  Once again, Metroid feels like being stranded on an alien world with a mission to complete.  Samus gets her upgrades at a good pace, and each of the eight environments don’t leave the player in there for too long.  Since it’s a mobile game, the developers did a good job of keeping everything easy to pick up and put down, placing save points at regular intervals.

The only major issues the game has is that the over all mission of finding all the metroids and killing them is really repetitive, but Nintendo has mitigated this by mixing up the metroid types, giving us five major variants, not to mention the Metroid Queen, and each of those variants have subvariants.  The only real issue is that some of the bosses hit too hard, with one boss taking a full Sub tank and a half for each hit.

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Copyright Square Enix

9. Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood

I’m always sort of wary putting an expansion to an MMORPG on this list, since I’ve done it twice before and both times I would quit the game not soon after, but I’ve had a great year with Final Fantasy XIV, and it’s been better than anything World of Warcraft has ever given to me.  I feel like I can play the game at my own pace and I can pursue the game, and everything in it, at my leisure.  I took two months off to play a whole bunch of games at the end of summer and came back like I didn’t miss a beat.  The new expansion, so far, is a bit less of a compelling narrative than Heavensward, but that’s also an extremely high bar to clear, since Heavensward might be one of the better fantasy RPGs I’ve played in a long time, as far as story and character is concerned.

Stormblood also brought the Red Mage, one of my favorite Jobs, back and it’s so much fun to play.  Casting, healing, stabbing monsters with a rapier and my character gets to look damn awesome while doing it.  It also gave us the Samurai Job, which is okay, I guess, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable a time to backflip while summoning spectral swords to kill giant monsters.

To be fair, part of the reason this got on the list is because of how good the rest of the game is, but it deserved recognition.  It’s the game I played the most this year, it put out a great expansion and it’s an excellent way to show what MMORPGs can be when they’re not super competitive grinds.

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Copyright id Software and Bethesda Softworks

8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

At the start of the year, I really thought this would make my top five.  In its defense, it’s a fantastic game, but a few short comings hold it back.  Mostly, it’s really hard to tell when I’m getting shot, and from where.  Also the story gets weird and it’s less “rah rah let’s kill Nazis” when I want it to be, and a little too weird when I don’t want it to be.  Still, it’s follows with id Software’s seemingly recent commitment to start making first person shooters that are more than hallways with targets to shoot.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2, but so many FPS games lately have been multiplayer shooters or shooting galleries, and until Wolfenstein: the New Order, it had been years since we saw real first person shooters, with maps and health pick ups and weapon lists.  Or at least games like that that weren’t trying to ape Halo, without the charm and development of Halo.

The New Colossus also boasts some of the best gamefeel I’ve had in a game this year, because the shooting is top notch.  Mission design is great and when the game hits the right notes in the right order, it feels sublime to kick down a door and blast a bunch of Nazis to death with dual assault rifles.

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Copyright Larian Studios

7. Divinity: Original Sin II

I’m not a big fan of isometric RPGs.  Actually, that’s a lie.  I hate them.  I didn’t like Fallout in the 90s, I never got very far into Baldur’s Gate II and even the much vaunted Pillars of Eternity was just a slog to play.  This, however, was a hell of a lot of fun.  The mechanics were great, the combat was complex with plenty of variation and the encounters were set up in ways that required me to actually think about my next move.  The fact the game embraced that it was turn based, like a table top RPG is one of the best things about it, making it one of the best tactical RPGs I’ve played in a very long time.

Plus, it has a really well done quest system.  A lot of people talk big about the quest systems in other games, but they’re still mostly just fetch quests with some extra cutscenes added to them.  This gives quests with multiple pathways, rewards and outcomes, and they’re generally multitiered, so in one game I might start one quest the same way as a previous one, but have a totally different outcome because I went a different way later down the line.

What kept this from nabbing the top 5 spot, though, was that Act IV is where everything falls apart.  Bad encounters, really stupid quests and a lot of really badly designed map work makes it just not feel like a complete experience.  I’ll give them a bonus for attempting to set an entire chapter in an urban environment, but that doesn’t make up for the stupid and unfair final boss fight.

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Copyright Platinum Games and Square Enix

6. Nier: Automata

I need a smaller picture.

Surprised?  Some people might be after the somewhat scathing review I  gave it, but I also wrote that review about thirty minutes after the final ending, so I was pretty mad at the time.  I actually loved Nier: Automata almost the whole way through, and the only reason it didn’t get number five is because Horizon Zero Dawn is a brand new IP, and that gets an extra point.  Also, Horizon does the open world a little better.

Sure, Nier was pretentious, and it had 9S in it, but other than that, it was still a solid title.  There was so much to do and see and the combat made for some very awesome combat encounters.  Plus, it would interweave in some bullet hell sections to add in the variety.  Plus, the game would grow more complex with each playthrough.  Plus, it was a Platinum game, it played better than almost anything I touched this year that wasn’t made by Nintendo.

Look, I had a few issues with Nier, but it’s a game that stuck with me, and I really loved playing.  It’s a game I can’t recommend enough, especially for the beautiful soundtrack and great monochrome graphics.  Hell, the fact the game made me as mad as it did has less to do with the pretentiousness of the message and more to do with the fact that I loved the game a whole lot.  It’s rare for a game to make me that emotional, and that’s worth the money I paid.  I just wish they would patch the PC version.