Hey guys, (video games.)
It’s been exactly one year since I posted anything on this website. I have a good reason for that! I spent literally all of my free alone-time playing video games! That’s how many video games there were!
A mixture of disappointment in how many games I had to fantasize about playing and assuming I would have liked in last year’s list as well as a very early sense that there was something really special happening this year gave me a strange sort of motivation to play as many 2017 games as I could within calendar 2017 so that I could be a part of ~the moment~. So that’s what I did. I definitely played every noteworthy, quality video game release of calendar year twenty-sevent…
The Top Five Also-Ran Games That Could Have Been One of My Top Ten Games of the Year if I’d Just Found Time to Play Them
Christ, guys. I tried. I swear. I tried so hard. I feel like I haven’t seen the sun or breathed fresh, outdoors air in months. It still wasn’t enough. I failed. Some quick eulogies:
5) Divinity: Original Sin 2
This one’s cheating a bit, because I actually did play a few hours of Divinity: OS2 this year, but far from enough to make a good, coherent judgement on it. I enjoyed the free-form, experimentative qualities of the combat and the characters seemed pretty charming. I need to make more time for this one, which, I suspect, is the reasoning everybody who’s interested in this sort of game gives for why they didn’t play enough of it in 2017.
4) Hollow Knight
This is mostly based on positive word-of-mouth. I like Metroidvanias a lot but there’s just so many of them that it can be hard to stand out. I heard enough buzz around this one that I was interested, and purchased it, but never found the time. There’s a strong possibility it wouldn’t actually have made the top ten if I had played it, but I feel bad for not at least giving it a shot.
3) Metroid: Samus Returns
I’m so inherently distrustful of everything MercurySteam does that I honestly didn’t expect to want to play this one at all, but everything I’ve heard suggests it’s Totally Fine at what it’s trying to do. Frankly, I’m still distrustful enough that I don’t think I’ll like it that much. But I’m also a diehard Metroid fan, and the idea that a new Metroid game came out in 2017 and I didn’t even play it is crazy to me. That’s the shame that gives it the bump to number three.
I generally like Supergiant Games’ output and this one just seems weird and inventive enough that I bet I would have liked it a lot. The Visual Novel stylings probably wouldn’t bother me as much as they do some, and the Mystical Basketball looks pretty fun. We’re now hitting the point where I’m certain this would have bumped something off the Top Ten that I did play.
My greatest shame. Cuphead looks awesome, it sounds awesome, and I haven’t heard anything that would dissuade me from my belief that I would have loved it enough to place it quite high on my Top Ten. It’s not even really an issue of time—the game doesn’t seem that long—but rather that without an Xbox, I’d have needed to play it on my Personal Computer, and I’m a little lacking in controller options for my PC right now. I need to rectify that and get on this heckin’ train.
The Top Ten Games I Played in 2017
10) PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS
I would be remiss to not start a Game of the Year list entry about a popular multiplayer shooter without mentioning that sometimes (a lot of the time) I hate this game. The friends I play with and the family I live with can attest to me frequently pleading, “YO BRENDAN! YOUR GAME!”, “BRENDAN! THIS CIRCLE!” “BRENDAN! WHERE THE GUNS AT?!” (Brendan is the real-life first name of the titular PLAYERUNKNOWN.) Every lag spike, every rubber-band, every time the game freezes or crashes in the middle of a tense moment, I begrudge this game and its success.
Any time I’m able to divorce myself from the jank, the technical mess, the network issues, just long enough to have a good game—not even a good game in terms of how I place, just one where I had a good firefight or three unfettered by all the bullshit—I like this game a lot.
I don’t know what else to say about it. It’s the most popular game out there, right now. There’s an absolute zero chance you’re reading this 2017 Game of the Year list on a random blog by a guy you might know without having heard about, being exposed to, and growing sick of hearing about PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS. It is the zeitgeist. L’espirit du temps. The sign of the times. Who knew that we’d want nothing more in 2017 than to hole up with a couple of trusted friends, desperately clinging on to anything we could find, and to shoot a bunch of fucking strangers in the face? I will say that these days I’m shooting more people with Chinese names in the face than people with Nazi names in the face, so that’s why it can’t crack the next game on my “faces I most enjoyed shooting in 2017” list. That’s what this is, right?
9) Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
I liked Wolfenstein: The New Order a lot. It’s a really cool game. I was really excited for the sequel. It was a little disappointing. I also got to curb stomp Hitler to death on Venus. It’s even a non-canon fail state, so I feel certain I’ll get to do other bad-but-actually-really-good things to Hitler in a hypothetical Wolfenstein III.
MachineGames continues to write a weirdly-compelling gothic-industrial pulp tone-piece around the fucking Wolfenstein franchise. My only complaint about Wolfenstein II’s story is that there isn’t enough of it. I wanted more chances to interact with the lovable cast of characters they’ve written into these things, especially the new characters, who you just don’t get to see enough of in this one.
Wolfenstein: The New Order was hardly a perfect shooter, but it was a refreshing breath of fresh air after what felt like a decade of lazy Call of Duty clones, which I had completely checked out on. 2016’s DOOM spoiled me. I hope these guys take some notes from their friends at id Software for the third one of these. At some point we (even Call of Duty!) finally opened the window and let all the stale Modern Warfare out, and just being different from that isn’t enough anymore. They’re so close to having the perfect narrative-focused single-player first-person shooter on their hands, and I was hoping this one would be it. It’s not. There are too many boring, visually-indistinct levels, the gunplay needs to be just a little bit tighter, and the encounter design needs to be just a little bit crunchier and easy to read.
If Wolfenstein III also lets me get to super-kill Hitler (with or without mech) while also playing super-tight and delivering the same caliber of batshit-but-also-affecting story they’ve been serving up, well, then we’ll be talking.
There were times, as I was playing Prey, where I wondered if I didn’t have the patience for these games any more. While I was able to appreciate—if only on an academic level—the care and detail that went into the world-building exercises of populating every single workstation with inane emails between coworkers before the Bad Stuff happened, I just so rarely had the patience to commit the minutiae of these normal people’s lives to memory, to put the puzzle pieces together as I crawled my way through the innards and outtards of Talos I. The combat threw so many options at me, but never really felt wholly cohesive. There was a story in there, somewhere, but I never really felt like I had a full grasp of what was actually going on (or, more accurately, what had gone on).
Still, there was something compelling about that environment, that sense of place. So much freedom in how you could explore and navigate those dense, detailed environments. So many seemingly-stupid ideas I had that were consistently rewarded with pats on the back and self-affirmations of my own genius.
Prey gives you a Nerf Dart Gun, fairly early on. The darts squeak when they hit a surface, causing a sound that can, theoretically, distract enemies. I almost never found a valuable use for this mechanic—mostly because the enemy AI is so hard to get a good read on—and quickly dismissed the dumb Nerf Gun as useless.
A couple of hours later, I figured out that I could fire the Nerf Gun at the game’s interactive touch-screens for various workstations, terminals, and door switches, in order to activate or de-activate door locks, security measures, and environmental machinery. I felt like a genius. I upgraded the dumb Nerf Gun to “somewhat useful,” in my head.
Yet more hours later, I was at my wits’ end with how to deal with a specific type of enemy. Cystoids are dumb little balls of radioactive acid that blindly bounce around the vicinity of a Cystoid Nest, which explodes on contact with just about anything, producing several more Cystoids. The Cystoids react to sound, travel to the source, and blow up. I would shoot a nest, and suddenly find dozens of Cystoids bearing down upon me, exploding near me, and eating a chunk of health. I felt like I had tried everything. I had not tried my dumb Nerf Gun. The sounds from the darts would draw the Cystoids away from me, instead of towards me, and they would explode upon impact with the dart. I felt like the world’s foremost genius-level accomplished astrophysicist neuroscientist, which, in the game, I think is who you’re playing as, canonically? Anyways, I love that fucking dumb Nerf Gun, and that’s a good summation of my time with Prey.
By the end, I had improvised so many stupid solutions to so many open-ended problems that I felt like the human embodiment of the galaxy brain meme (2017’s meme of the year). I’d really like to go back and give those early hours of Prey another shot, to see how much more it clicks with me now that I’m a certified genius astrophysicist.
7) Resident Evil 7 biohazard
Resident Evil was the first media franchise for which I was a member of a fandom. I liked plenty of things before Resident Evil, but I never sought out like-minded individuals with which to talk about those specific media properties before this one.
I was a moderator for a Resident Evil fan forum for several years.
I have, in my much-younger years, written bad Resident Evil fan fiction.
I owned Resident Evil novels (they were not very good).
I watched (and hated) the early Resident Evil movies, because I felt they were a bad representation of the thing I liked so much.
All of the things listed above occurred well over ten years ago.
All of these things being as they are, consider for a moment that in nearly any other year of video game releases, Resident Evil 7 would be an easy slam-dunk capital-G capital-Y Game of the Year. In 2017, it took seventh place. There’s no shame in that, and it’s not Resident Evil 7’s fault. I just want to highlight how competitive the field was in this particular year.
It’s a much-needed shot in the arm to a franchise in peril—honoring the series’ earliest incarnations and ideas while putting a new spin on the formula to keep it from falling into empty nostalgia pandering territory. I wasn’t sure about the game’s first-person perspective until I played it for myself, when it became clear to me that Resident Evil 7 was offering a compelling evolution of one of the biggest draws of those early Resident Evil games—the opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of a small, dense, claustrophobic environment. To learn every room, every hallway, every stupid puzzle, every hidden item. To exist in a place, at a specific moment in time, and to commit it so thoroughly to memory that I could still probably draw a map of the Spencer Mansion from recollection alone. Those were the feelings I was getting from this game, for the first time in over a decade, as I was crawling underneath the Baker Family’s front porch to find a healing item, as I was opening hidden passages to rooms I’d visited before and updating my mental map of the place.
The game falters in its final act—attempting to deliver the same feelings of catharsis the older titles had of finally surrendering all the ammunition you had spent a game hoarding to the corpses you would leave in your wake, but doing so in environments that just aren’t very interesting to look at or explore. Enemy variety proves to be a problem as well in those closing hours. Where normally a Resident Evil game would all but abandon the notion of fighting mere zombies in their final hours (perhaps just using them as obvious filler encounters between bigger, meaner critters), Resident Evil 7 has you shooting the same dumb Molded goods you’ve been dealing with all game.
Still, in spite of its flaws, I was really happy that Resident Evil 7 got made. I hope we’ve got more on the way. That Capcom got me to care about Resident Evil again, at all, is worthy of applause.
6) Xenoblade Chronicles 2
I still hate that they append “Chronicles” to these games’ titles in the west. I hate it. Henceforth, all references to this video game on this website will be as its rightful title: Xenoblade 2.
Xenoblade 2 is a fucked-up, kinda-rushed, probably-too-inspired-by-anime-for-its-own-good mess of a game. The UI is a nightmarishly unfriendly labyrinth of menus upon menus. The game’s combat is so ridiculously complicated that it takes about twenty hours before they’re even ready to fully take the training wheels off. The balance and difficulty curve never quite lock into place. The sidequests aren’t very fun, and rarely tell stories worth bothering with.
Xenoblade 2 is the most obviously-flawed game on this list. I couldn’t put it down. I think it speaks volumes to this series’ core gameplay that in a game that so-often bungles the landing on so many ancillary aspects, it’s still an experience that I found kinda irresistible. I’m already thinking of replaying it sometime—not just to see what I missed, but to see how the ridiculously open-ended possibility space this game offers in its tweaks and optimizations to your party changes things. You are assigned this game’s best side-content (rare blades, the sidequests they offer, and the ridiculously-minute adjustments you can make to your team to make them sing) at random, for crying out loud. That’s wild! I love it!!
The music’s great, the characters are surprisingly endearing (some questionable designs aside), the story, while totally missing some beats, is refreshingly big-hearted and packed with so many weird concepts and ideas that I still can’t really keep track of them or wrap my head around them. It checks off every nearly big-picture box that I look for in a JRPG and is still married to Tetsuya Takahashi’s oppressively-maximalist design and writing tendencies that I find myself continually enamored with. It makes all of the rough edges and questionable decisions a hell of a lot easier to swallow. I went in expecting my least-favorite Xenoblade game, and while that ultimately proved to be the case, I was surprised at how competitive it managed to keep the field. That’s a win, in my book.
5) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The first thirty-or-so hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are probably the best video game released in 2017. The next thirty-or-so (and, God forbid, whatever might come after) are… just pretty good. It’s very easy, in those first thirty hours, to ignore this game’s problems: the core combat just isn’t very fun, but it’s extremely easy and viable to find other, more-engaging ways to defeat your foes. The game’s shrines—small, distilled Zelda Puzzle Room experiences that you stumble upon and conquer in a single sitting—are still more than novel enough to distract from the game’s paltry, unstimulating “main dungeon” experiences. Managing your way around the game’s breakable weapons is an active, ongoing process which forces you to adapt in the middle of a heated battle—and not an occasional, obnoxious reminder that you’ll have to replace your high-level sword with another one at the next chance you get. The first fifty times that Link’s hands fail him and he slides impotently down the side of a mountain during a rain storm, you find some small rocky overhang and build a fire to wait it out. You feel like the first man to discover fire. The next fifty times this scenario plays out, you feel like you’re playing a video game that needed a slightly deeper bag of tricks to throw your way.
That core notion—of something seeming pristine and beautiful until you get up close and see the myriad cracks—lies at the heart of nearly every aspect of Breath of the Wild. The first time you get a wide, sweeping panorama of beautiful wilderness, you are filled with an undesirable urge to climb every rock and investigate every crevice. So you do. All that truly awaits are the skeletal remains of a lost civilization, fallen into disrepair. You are history’s most-untimely handyman fixer-upper, finally arrived to patch up the roof a house nearly one full century after the property was deemed condemned. Even the Master Sword can “break.”
I don’t mean to suggest that the game’s developers intentionally crafted an experience that would seem somewhat broken, worn-down, or otherwise indisposed upon close inspection—I think they tried their best. I need to salute them for it, it’s not an easy ask to completely reinvent one of the most cemented, ancient game formulas on Earth for your company’s historical second-biggest franchise in time for the launch of new hardware. They tried their best. They did pretty good. I’m just saying the form fits the content, nah mean?
I can’t wait to see what happens when they take another swing at this. The pristine, unblemished take on Breath of the Wild is going to be one hell of a game.
4) Persona 5
Persona 5 was the most excited I’d ever been for anything, ever. After all, Persona 4 saved video games. From the moment I’d finished Persona 4, I was desperate to see what those bastards at Atlus were cooking up next. They took a really, profoundly long time to show what they were cooking up next. After a cryptic and slapped-together announcement trailer in 2013, actual gameplay footage wouldn’t be seen until 2015. After that, it was still another grueling two years before I was actually able to sit down on a couch and play Persona 5.
The livestreams that debuted new Persona 5 trailers were a highly-advanced and specialized form of torture, generally being gargantuan marathons that lasted days. The streams were mostly just a countdown timer ticking down as music from older Persona games played, but every couple of hours there would be some little skit, or teaser, or dumb fan rankings of characters or music or what have you. At the end of the countdown timer, there was probably another hour or two of incomprehensible stage banter between presenters, and maybe trailers for like six other games, before they coughed up the goods. Being Japanese streams for Japanese audiences, the goods were usually coughed up around 8 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time. I stayed up all night for nearly every single one of these streams, except when my job wouldn’t let me—in which case I’d wake up early to tune in for a bit before I left, and then bite the bullet on mobile data charges to keep watching on my phone as I commuted.
The trailers, at the end of the days-long livestreams, were stylish as hell, and the game looked to be, too. I remember furiously messaging a friend, in the wee small hours of the morning, the day Persona 5’s first real trailer dropped. My sentiment was one of breathless and pure excitement, something along the lines of “PERSONA 5 IS REAL AND IT’S GOING TO BE THE GREATEST GAME EVER MADE IT’S STYLISH AS HECK AND YOU PLAY AS A BUNCH OF CAT BURGLARS???”
As each trailer came out, I was more and more affirmed in my belief that Persona 5 had to be the greatest game ever made. There was no way it couldn’t be.
I have taken a solemn vow to never, ever, ever get so excited about anything in my life, ever again.
Persona 5 wasn’t the greatest game ever made, if a fourth placing in my personal game of the year list—a list that already skews heavily towards Japanese games that can either charitably or unimpeachably be referred to as Role Playing Games—is any indication. I still think it’s a pretty great game, and if its competition wasn’t so stacked this year, I’d have had no qualms calling it a game of some year. It’s a game that is roughly, approximately as good as the forebears it so closely resembles (Persona 3 and Persona 4): better in some regards, worse in others. To call a game that so closely rivals some of my favorites ever made “disappointing” seems absurd, but that’s the consequence of the unrealistic and unfair weight of my insane expectations. When Persona 6 comes out, I’ll be sure to keep my expectations in check and will probably emerge from the other side with far less complicated feelings about the whole thing.
The one lingering doubt in my hype-addled brain during the interminable Persona 5 marketing cycle was about the game’s writing. After what felt like a billion Persona 4 spinoffs that were lazily-written at best and poorly-written at worst, I wasn’t sure if there had been some sort of writing-staff-shakeup over at Atlus, or if the people who’d written Persona 3 and Persona 4 were just phoning it in, saving their creative energies for the Real Deal they were working on behind the scenes. I think, overall, the latter is the more likely case, as parts of Persona 5 are just as well-written as its direct prequels. On the other hand, my most enduring complaints about the game itself have to do with the writing: the story completely derails at its climax, tumbling down a proverbial cliff. It bounces back up and tries to get itself back on track, but is still wobbly and uncertain in the aftermath of the great and terrible fall it’s just endured. I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this list, but there’s a twist involving a certain character that is so bad, so belabored, and has so much of the game’s narrative support structure propped up on its weak and ineffectual back that I had a hard time feeling invested in anything that came afterwards. I also feel that although the cast of Persona 5 is, on paper, my favorite cast in a Persona game yet, the game makes a deliberate but ultimately bad decision to not give you as much time to just hang out and have fun with those characters as prior games, for which the characters suffer. Atlus USA also screwed this one up pretty bad, and I’ll never be entirely sure how many of my issues with the game’s writing can be chalked up to that. That’s a bummer.
Persona 5 is also an extremely long game, which comes with some fat that could have been trimmed. I mention this, though, to highlight the fact that in an eighty-hour narrative-focused linear game, these are ultimately only a small part of a much larger whole. I still spent most of my time adoring Persona 5 and the story it was telling—I just wish they stuck the landing better, gave the characters more room to breathe, trimmed some fat.
Still, it’s a Megaten game. If you’ve spent any time on this site at all, you know this is my shit. These guys make my shit. They will probably continue to make my shit until it stops being my shit or they just start making different games. I have a hard time imagining someone loving other Megami Tensei games and not enjoying this one. It’s a pretty great one of those.
3) Super Mario Odyssey
A confession: I’ve never been that hot on 3D Mario games. I’ve enjoyed some 64 and Galaxy in the past, and consider most of the games in that lineage to be pretty good, but I’ve never quite seen the immense, earth-shattering appeal that the games hold for so many others. To me, they’ve always just been a pretty good time.
Odyssey made a believer out of me. I don’t even really know what it was about Super Mario Odyssey that put it over the top. I think it was the culmination of a million little things: Mario’s shoes feeling better than ever to fill, a gameplay loop that metes out smaller rewards more frequently, the wild and imaginative locales you visit. Most of all, though, I think it was the ease with which even a mildly-proficient player can find creative solutions to almost any problem. It’s not just the fidelity of control, but the possibility of control.
This might be the first game since The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that feels just so polished and perfect in nearly every way that it almost feels a little boring. A little dirt or a small blemish on your otherwise-perfect face goes a long way to affecting some personality. I’m talking mechanically, here, not tonally—Odyssey is a wild and joyful and unambiguously non-pretentious little thing in its personality. I’m not saying this as some backhanded compliment to justify a third-place finish on my Game of the Year list: the other two games above this one are just more my-kind-of-game, and as many impressive inroads as Odyssey makes to overcome my anti-3D-Mario bias, it’s just an impossible mountain to completely overcome. I only say this to leave some room in my life for people who come out the other side of Super Mario Odyssey still preferring Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy—I could not disagree more, personally, but I can see where those games might prove just a little more charming for their flaws, inconsistencies, and timeliness.
Still, I almost can’t believe how much I enjoyed Super Mario Odyssey. It was around the time of this game’s release that 2017 was truly cemented in my mind as a banner year for video games. I had a list of 10 games ready to go at that point that I would have been happy to call my ten favorites of the year. Multiple games have been bumped off that early list, and Odyssey stands head and shoulders over the other games that weaseled their way in during these final months of the year. It’s a hell of a game, and as far as I’m concerned, the main reason to own a Nintendo Switch right now.
2) Yakuza 0
I’ve wanted to get into the Yakuza series for a while now. The reasoning, at the time, was simple—there’s a fair amount of Amusement Vision DNA in the team that makes the games: most notably executive director Toshihiro Nagoshi, who directed classics like, uh, Super Monkey Ball and F-Zero GX. Bit of an odd fit for what seemed, from the outside looking in, to be a saga of hard-boiled crime dramas (heads up: they’re only just barely that, and so much more.)
So, last year, after a bit of research, I determined that the easiest way in was to play Yakuza 4, watching a handy set of story recap cutscenes included on-disc for the first three games in the series. I liked what I played of Yakuza 4, but it didn’t quite get its hooks in me. Other games came out, or came up, and Yakuza 4, cool though it seemed, ended up shelved.
Later that year, I finally purchased a PlayStation 4. At this point, a new entryway into the franchise presented itself: a prequel game, long-overdue for localization, finally being brought overseas in January 2017. I made a note to check out Yakuza 0 when it came out.
Come January, I was scheduled for a wisdom tooth extraction. A fun personal fact about me: I was born with six wisdom teeth. Crazy, right? Anyways, since the extra teeth were buried so deep in my skull that they hadn’t even emerged from the gums, the dentist warned me it would probably be a slightly more traumatic procedure than the average extraction. For safety’s sake, I booked a week off work for recovery. As it turns out, I didn’t really need a week for recovery. I was probably ready to go by Wednesday. What I did need a week off for was playing a heckin’ ton of Yakuza 0, a game that I picked up alongside Resident Evil 7: biohazard, the game I’d expected to spend that week chipping away at during recovery.
Obviously, based on the list thus far, you can tell this isn’t a knock against Resident Evil 7, a game I also enjoyed. Yakuza 0 just completely caught me off guard. I knew I’d like these games. The pedigree was there, and, again, I’d liked what I’d played prior. I had no idea how much I’d love this game. This time I was completely, utterly hooked.
For the uninitiated, the Yakuza games are not, as the idea that has pervasively floated around in the past suggests, Japanese Grand Theft Auto. They’re more like a sort of wild mish-mash of River City Ransom and, uh, an actually-good version of Shenmue. You run around a small-ish, ridiculously-detailed modern urban environment getting into fights with goons, which in turn enables you to upgrade your character’s stats and abilities. You duck into restaurants to heal, and can entertain yourself with a seemingly-endless deluge of surprisingly-fun minigames (ranging from the obvious, [billiards, darts] to the involved [shogi, mahjong] to the downright weird [a phone-dating minigame where you need to aim a cursor and shoot the word bubbles containing the correct answers to flirtatious questions?]) All the while, you’re running from plot point to plot point in a dense, engaging, hyper-dramatic (and also excellent) story and taking breaks to enjoy the game’s sidequests, which are so charming and goofy and downright weird that they need to be seen to be believed.
Set in Japan circa 1988, the game is set against a backdrop of bubble-era excess. The clothes are as big and loud as the thugs you will be ceaselessly curbstomping. Money flies out of everybody you punch in literal clouds of yen. There’s a fun bit of ludonarrative dissonance (sorry) when you are introduced to a seedy group of rival real estate developers known as the “Five Billionaires,” and you’ve already made it Six, because you’ve already punched billions of yen out of street goons. You play as a pair of men: Kazuma Kiryu (the series’ leading man) and Goro Majima (the series’ leading lovable rival to Kiryu). Kiryu is brash and big-hearted, and Majima is cunning and big-hearted. Kiryu is a rookie yakuza who has been framed for murder and wrapped up in a vast conspiracy regarding ownership of a sixty-square-foot patch of dirt. Majima is an exiled yakuza, now managing a nightclub, who is offered a shot to return to the glamorous crime life if he can stomach an easy hit (spoilers: he can’t). The player jumps between the two men, as their stories gradually begin to dovetail into one. By the end, they’ll have become rough approximations of the selves that are presented to us in the first Yakuza title. It’s as good of an introduction to the series as you could possibly ask for: gently sprinkling in hints and nods to events and characters of future games, but otherwise presenting itself as a wholly self-contained story.
Combat is fairly simple, recalling arcade brawlers of days past, but still quite satisfying thanks to a trio of unique stances each character can swap between as well as the game’s Heat Actions: a big list of context-sensitive special moves that drain a super meter and which range from brutal to downright gruesome to, as most things in Yakuza 0 can get, superlatively silly. While it’s not the game to turn to if you’re looking for exceptional depth, when all the moving parts click into place there’s something immensely satisfying about perfectly choreographing a crazy, insane, brutal fight scene between your good-natured crime boys and the hundreds of idiot goons that oppose them.
Yakuza 0 is a championship juggler, effortlessly tossing utter insanity, heartfelt character moments, blood-pumping action movie machismo, arcade brawler sensibilities and fun virtual tourism between its hands, up in the air, back down again. Never, once, is a ball dropped. Any lesser game would just come off as capricious or indecisive, trying to be as many things at once as this one. For Yakuza 0, it’s all a part of the act. My memories of this game will be cherished, and it has succeeded in making a Yakuza fan out of me. I look forward to spending some more time in 2018 getting acquainted with older entries in the series. Now’s as good a time as any to shout out Yakuza Kiwami, a remake of the first game in the franchise using Yakuza 0’s engine. It’s a considerably weaker game than 0, and didn’t make this list on its own merits, but it did a totally fine job getting me primed for the rest of the series.
1) NieR: Automata
Early this year, I played NieR (2010). My encounter with the game was the culmination of years of overheard murmurs from strangers and friends alike about a hidden gem, an excellent soundtrack, a moving story—all of it, wrapped up in a game that was “not that bad.”
And it’s not! NieR is not that bad! It’s a totally playable b-game from an era when b-games simply stopped existing. Stuffed full of neat ideas, memorable characters and writing, and drenched in melancholy, NieR is not a game I would ever recommend to a regular human being; it’s a game I would immediately recommend to the sort of irregular human being who might be interested in a janky, rough-edged action RPG that plays around with genre conventions and fascinates itself with its own reverence for a hundred other games—all of them prettier and better-dressed than NieR.
On its own merits, NieR had guts enough to pique my interests and become a game I needed to play before I die. So, I did. But there’s a very particular reason I decided to play it this year. Somehow, against all odds, this weird-ass and wildly unsuccessful game got a sequel in 2017. The sequel was designed by PlatinumGames. The word of mouth for the sequel was far too effusive to ignore. NieR was a “play before I die” game. NieR: Automata was a “play this year” game.
But, as these things often go for me, I couldn’t just let myself keep sleeping on NieR to play its sequel. Everybody told me I didn’t need to play NieR to enjoy Automata. They were, technically, correct. I’m really glad I did, though. For one, as I’ve indicated, NieR is cool. It was worth playing by its own merits. The other reason? NieR: Automata is unabashedly a sequel to NieR—a game that virtually nobody played—and is really good at it, too. It inhabits some perfect middle ground, one that I didn’t even expect could exist, in which “You don’t need to play NieR to enjoy Automata” and “NieR: Automata is an excellent sequel to NieR” are equally true statements. You don’t need to play NieR to enjoy Automata… but it will help you enjoy it even more.
It’s the little things, you see. Characters return from the first game, except… they don’t. They’re the identical-twin-distant-cousin versions of these characters, who don’t directly reference their past lives as NPCs in another game, because they probably don’t even know that history themselves. To a new player, this is just a new character. To a returning player, this is a returning character—but you’re not sure what their angle is, because as far as they’re concerned, they’re a new character.
Music returns from the first game, but, in some cases, has been so thoroughly reworked or recontextualized that it may as well be new music. A mournful, haunting ballad becomes a frenetic action-set-piece theme. An iconic and tragic character theme becomes… this thing. Elsewhere, a returning boss battle theme from NieR is used to alarmingly similar effect in Automata: scoring a fight that is about to cancel all of your sidequests as a point of no return, and temporarily rob you of one of your companions… but that’s as far as that connection goes. Purely mechanical.
By the end, you’re literally revisiting areas from NieR, reading about the events of NieR, talking to characters from NieR, and hearing tunes from NieR, potentially without realizing any of it. If you’ve played NieR, that’s all great. If you haven’t? Congratulations, you just got bamboozled, buddy— into enjoying a NieR-ass NieR game. Being able to appreciate these things is hardly essential, but I enjoyed that experience all the same. Playing NieR in 2017, in whatever small way, helped to contribute to my overall enjoyment of my favorite game of 2017: NieR: Automata.
The problem is that I’m not sure what I can say about it. It’s a game that speaks for itself. It is monolithic in its self-ness, completely self-assured. It’ll work for you or it won’t. If it does, you’re in for a hell of a ride. If it doesn’t, you’ll be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
When I finally started Automata, I tweeted a screenshot of the game’s title screen. “ok ok,” I wrote, “i’ll play the sad robot game.” The dismissiveness and hesitation inherent to my phrasing belied my apprehensions: that after all my preparation and anticipation for this game, it might not live up to expectations. The doubt would prove misplaced. I enjoyed my time with NieR this year. I adored my time with NieR: Automata. I moved houses in the middle of playing it, and the entire time I spent packing all of my life up, moving it to a new abode, and unpacking my life anew, I spent itching to get back to my beautiful, sad robot friends.
When I was done, I had one prevailing, monolithic thought about the game, one that still hasn’t really left my mind since I finished: this game is a miracle. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I just can’t get away from it. That PlatinumGames could develop a sequel to NieR, and be in dire enough straits that Hideki Kamiya (his most-recent project having just been cancelled after a lengthy development cycle,) would later take to Twitter to credit the game with his studio’s continued survival. That a Square-Enix producer could feel so passionately about his working relationship with Yoko Taro that he’d stake his career on getting the opportunity to keep working with this weird, grim, hilarious masked otaku. That these elements could all combine and be distilled into a game that’s actually just really unreservedly excellent. A sequel to NieR. Excellent. To what horrible misfortune do we owe this karmic retribution? (Don’t answer that! I know!)
NieR: Automata is not a perfect game. It’s a game that wears its flaws on its sleeve, totally self-assured that it did the best that it could with what it got. It’s a game so charming, so thoughtful, so thorough and so full of heart that I found its flaws easy-to-ignore at worst and downright endearing at best.
If you haven’t played NieR: Automata, and are even a little bit interested, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
If you did check it out and didn’t like it, I’m sorry.
If you checked it out, and loved it as I did: I feel a kinship and brotherhood with my NieR fam that should be completely unsurprising and unreservedly reciprocated, for obvious reasons. For that, I thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and for helping to keep the dream of good-ass video games alive.