Putting together my best of 2017 was a strange experience.
Of course the perennial caveat of not being able to play everything holds true. There are still plenty of intriguing games left on my list that I just didn’t have time to crack — Night in the Woods, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Golf Story and more. Maybe they’ll get their shot in 2018.
When ranking the projects that I was able to play, I found myself skipping over of many of the year’s ‘obvious’ shoo-ins, and was instead drawn to smaller projects and more unconventional things outside the triple-A space. There were so many breakouts and new voices in 2017, it was impossible not to respond to them.
This was also the first year, ever, that I felt it necessary to review my GOTY criteria. What importance does a release date have when so many titles have an extended Early Access development cycle, a long-lasting lifespan, and the ability to implement significant changes months or even years after launch day? Games are changing, and traditional thinking has to change along with it.
So, with all that said, here are the ten best experiences I had in 2017.
10> Nioh – Full Review by Steven Brown
As one of the first Soulslikes to take more than a half-step away from the games that inspired it, Team Ninja turned out what is, for me, their finest work ever. The Japanese setting was a nice change of pace from European crumbling castles, and its fresh takes on the usual elements in this genre gave it an identity of its own – discrete levels, a strong emphasis on loot, and flexibility when it came to respecs and build experimentation. There have been several titles following in Fromsoft’s footsteps, but Nioh succeeds by not only acknowledging that seminal work, but also by clearly and confidently striding out in its own direction. If not for Team Ninja’s catastrophic backslide into their old habits via the offensively difficult DLC add-ons, this one would have ranked higher.
9> X-Morph: Defense – Full Review
It’s rare for me to choose a ‘best’ based solely on flawless execution, but this one absolutely nails the Active Tower Defense genre. Taking control of an alien ship able to transform into different modes and being given an unheard-of level of flexibility when it comes to placing towers, this title laid it all out on the table for the player and let them engage as fully as they could – there were no arbitrary rules, stifling limits or bogus restrictions to hold a player back. Honestly, this one is quite likely the best the ATD genre has ever seen.
8> Cryptark – Full Review by Dan Weissenberger
I’ve gotta be honest — I hated Cryptark when I first played it. It’s brutally difficult, it’s not great at explaining its systems, and a few bugs cropped up here and there over the course of play, but despite all of that it managed to get its hooks into me. The premise of being a spacefaring freelancer cutting their way into derelict ships and trying to make off with precursor loot was too good to resist, and the wide variety of mech suits and weapon loadouts gave this one incredible legs. Stealthy? Assault? Explosive? Acidic? Players could choose one approach, many, or anything in between. Also, big points awarded for being a roguelike whose campaign was actually quite manageable once one had a good understanding of its formula.
7> The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – My Second Opinion
I have to admit, I’m fairly torn on BotW. On one hand, I greatly enjoyed exploring the land and being able to chart my own course, not to mention the freedom that the (upgraded) climbing and gliding provide. At this point in my life I’m quite tired of open-world games, but Breath of the Wild managed to make the template interesting again. On the other hand, the devs made a lot of choices that just didn’t work for me — the combat was both unsatisfying and irritating, most of the supporting systems needed more refinement, and I was not a fan of telling the story in past tense — it would’ve been more exciting and immediate if things had been unfolding in the present. However, despite these flaws (and frankly, they would have sunk a lesser game) it’s hard to deny that my time in Hyrule climbing mountains, gliding over the landscape, and solving temples was well spent.
6> The Count Lucanor – Full Review
This dark fairytale managed to charm me with its masterful visual style and writing that had me laughing and recoiling in equal measure — the devs had no hesitation in going quite grim when the situation called for it, yet the plot never lost its light, nor its spirit. The puzzle design was just right, and the surprisingly large number of moving parts in how the tale unfolded meant that this seemingly-simple story had quite a bit of depth. Plus, the best ending is absolutely pitch-perfect.
5> Battle Chef Brigade – Full Review by Joshua Tolentino
I love a good cross-genre title, and this is one of the best. Combining match-three with visual novels and 2D side-scrolling action could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but this team delivers the goods. The writing is great, and the characters are quite likable and memorable. The unexpectedly nuanced gameplay abstractly mirrors is the complexity of real-life cooking, and the art style is wholly appealing thanks to strong design and a cozy color palette. I loved this one from start to finish.
4> Candleman – Full Review by Corey Motley
My heart absolutely breaks because I don’t know anyone who played this besides myself and my podcast co-host, but it absolutely deserves to be experienced by wider audience. This tale of a small, animate candle who dreams of glowing brighter starts out as a simple action-puzzler, but the story takes some tremendous twists and turns – it was honestly one of the most emotionally impactful things I played all year. Strangely, only 3/4 of the game was released originally, and ending at that point was a gut punch. The developers later released at the final quarter of the game, and it was a triumphant crescendo. Candleman is a wonderful work absolutely full of heart, and I wish more people would give it a try.
3> Tacoma – Full Review
As a critic who values creativity and innovation, Tacoma‘s rewind/fast forward mechanic was a revelation. Being able to witness all aspects of a conversation — as well as what led up to it and what occurred afterwards — gave a whole new dimension to storytelling. The characters in this game were also incredibly human. Their problems, attitudes, and dialogue were immediately relatable, and despite the fact that they were only represented onscreen as blobs of in color, I still felt quite attached to this crew and their struggle.
2> Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun – Full Review
I adore turn-based strategy and tactics, so this title starring a band of ninjas on the run was phenomenal for me. Not only was the gameplay incredibly deep, detailed, and full of options, the campaign was perfectly crafted to show off the aspects of each character, as well as the unique hooks that the devs had come up with for each environment. The level of challenge was high, but the game kept me in thanks to a crucial quicksave feature that was a snap to use — it freed me up to experiment with infinite variations on micro-strategy and took the sting out of failure. Every strategy game should take a lesson from this. Also, unlike other tactics games, the writers didn’t skimp in the story department – each moment featured great writing, strong voicework, and plenty of interaction during missions. I grew to love this team over the course of the campaign, and I’ll never forget their tale.
1> Warframe – Full Review
I’ve been making GOTY lists forever, but this is the first time I’ve ever considered nominating a game that wasn’t released in the same year. However, the changing nature of the industry has to be taken into account, and the fact of the matter is that these days, not many games are not at their best when released. How developers handle post-release is now a thing and it counts for a lot. In this light, it’s only fair to view a game like Warframe from this updated perspective — I dismissed it several times in the past because it just wasn’t up to par, but the developers never gave up, they’ve been constantly improving, and now, four years from launch, it’s a fantastic experience. Not only is the action incredibly stylish and dynamic, this is one of the very few games in history where I’ve actually wanted to group up with strangers and had almost universally positive experiences when doing so. There’s also tons of content that could easily last for months or years, but it’s able to be digested in bite-size chunks, with friends or without. Something else to celebrate is that the developers of this free-to-play title do microtransactions and games-as-service correctly – no small feat considering how many egregious examples of greed we saw this year. I found myself returning to Warframe time and time again, despite having so many other options available, and considering how much time I spent with it this year, there could be no other choice for top honors. While it may not have been released in 2017, it was definitely the best experience I had in 2017. For me, this year? That counts.
Thank you for reading my top ten! I hope I’ve brought some new titles to your attention that you may have missed. If so, give ’em a try and let me know what you think in the comments below! Now, bring on 2018!