Video games are an incredibly expensive, time-consuming hobby, and the sad reality is none of us have the time to play everything we’d like or ought to—a fact that’s especially hard to swallow in 2017, a year so rich in great and ambitious games. So rather than pretending like we have played everything and presenting a definitive list of the very best games released in 2017 so far, we thought we’d just tell you about some of our favorites from among the ones we have played.
Prey finds its brilliance in fragility; where Arkane Studio’s earlier Dishonored games made the player rapidly and monstrously powerful, Prey luxuriates in their weakness. The result is a game where I felt hunted, harried, and constantly on the defensive, in the best of possible ways. Rather than rush into a fight with confidence, I skulked. Rather than trust in my shooting skills, I became cunning: freeze that monster, chuck an explosive canister at its friend, never drop your guard. The result is the most happily tense I’ve been with a game in years (wearing headphones and tuning into the game’s gorgeous sound design didn’t hurt), sneaking through the interior (and exterior) of Talos 1, smashing every chair in case it turned out to be a monstrous mimic. It’s not surprising that Prey’s last few hours, when the power curve evens out, can’t live up to its glorious beginning (especially since they’re bogged down by an unfortunate deluge of back-tracking and an overly telegraphed final twist). But that doesn’t stop me from remembering how exciting, frightening, and freeing the early two-thirds of Morgan Yu’s journey were.
Night In The Woods
As Patrick Lee pointed out in his great For Our Consideration from a few months back, there’s been an uptick in games that tackle the crumbling, existentially terrifying world that’s staring menacingly in the face of today’s young adults. No work in that wave nails millennial anxiety and disillusionment as genuinely as Infinite Fall’s Night In The Woods. Mae drops out of college and moves back in with her parents in the Rust Belt town of Possum Springs where everything is the same but so different. The streets are lined with empty storefronts and sleepy-eyed citizens. Mae’s friends have grown up and moved on from the aimless life that she falls back into. It spoke directly to me, about real fears I have and the place I grew up in, and it did so in a way that felt real and relatable.
Two quick memories about Nier: Automata. The first is an hour or so in; you’ve already switched between multiple styles of shooters, fought your way through an abandoned factory, and then jettisoned to a side-scroller in outer space. You’re doing that thing where a character forces you to go into the menu and explains what all the different settings do, but then, nestled somewhere in the menus alongside brightness and difficulty is a self-destruct option. What does it do? Memory two: Later, you return to the factory and find the robots you were initially slaughtering have formed a cult. Death, they chant, will make them “become as gods,” an intonation that then turns into a techno soundtrack as you make your way through the factory again, watching the little robots leap ecstatically to their deaths. Both of these things happen in the first of four completions of the game, and things only get stranger from there. It’s a wildly entertaining postmodern riff on games and existence that traffics in the sort of bleary, bleak sci-fi beauty that Japanese game designers seem uniquely able to conjure.
Snipperclips—Cut It Out, Together!
One of the Nintendo Switch’s best gimmicks is the way it makes low-impact multiplayer games extremely accessible, mostly because it comes with two controllers that live on the sides of the screen. The little things aren’t necessarily ideal for something like a shooter or an intense fighting game, but Snipperclips is basically a perfect showcase for the way the Switch lets you pop in a game and hand a spare controller over to anyone interested in playing with you. Plus, Snipperclips, which is all about you and a partner solving puzzles by cutting each other into shapes, has a weirdo sense of humor that sort of encourages good-natured trolling, and that’s always funny in a puzzle game.
Torment: Tides Of Numenera
I struggled with Torment: Tides Of Numenera’s various faults in my Game In Progress reviews. But I can’t bring myself to feel anything less than love for a game that’s so clearly in love with writing and storytelling. Some of its vignettes—the starship AI still agonizing over the passengers it failed to protect, the band of adventurers who mourn their fallen comrade by literally keeping his memory alive, the little girl who attaches herself to your quest, desperate to be kept safe from harm—are going to stick with me for years. For all the game’s talk of highfalutin Changing Gods, wayward Castoffs, and legacies, those smaller stories are the elements that persist, and the reasons anyone who’s a fan of storytelling in games should give it a chance.
Everything made waves as the first game to be long-listed for an Academy Award, thanks in part to its pedigree as the second interactive project from the delightfully profane surrealist animator David OReilly, who used the game to create a 10-minute short film. It’s a lovely work, but it only hints at the pleasures of the larger interactive piece, which allows you to become one of an uncountable multitude of things, ranging from the subatomic to the interdimensional: taco trucks, cacti, birds, nebulae, tesseracts. And while you can do a lot of stuff with those things—you can dance and sing and multiply and shrink and so on—you don’t really accomplish much of anything. Rather, you fidget with them, absorbing the game’s celestial sprawl and its narcotic sound design as lectures from the philosopher Alan Watts gradually guide you toward transcendence. It’s as much an essay you experience interactively as it is a traditional game, and the fact that it merits thoughtful consideration and disagreement may be its greatest achievement. Yes, even greater than an Oscar long-list.
It feels like it’s been an eternity since a mainline Tekken game graced consoles. After the pleasant detour of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and the failed free-to-play experiment of Tekken Revolution, Tekken 7 comes off like a triumphant return for the best-selling fighting-game series of all time. It’s a dream to play, with combat that looks, sounds, and feels satisfyingly impactful and characters that are lushly animated and mind-bogglingly complex. But it’s also a lovable heap of nonsense, from a story mode that opens by asking you to throw your child off a cliff (spoiler: he survives, so don’t worry about it) to its huge roster that includes a Cossack-dancing robot, two bears, a vampire, and multiple reanimated corpses among its assemblage of weirdos—all of whom you can dress up as ridiculously as you want. It’s deliriously stupid, but that’s exactly what Tekken should be.
I tend to play games with an eye on creating interesting tensions; the build-up and release of a taxing challenge being primary among them. Gnog bypasses all of that, though, making for one of the most relaxing games I’ve ever submitted myself to. Built for VR (but perfectly playable on a TV), the game presents itself as a series of elaborate, friendly puzzle boxes, inviting you to poke, prod, and twist various items and happy little animals while the blissful music lulls you in. Quasi-hypnotic, the game’s few puzzles all operate with intuitive ease, meaning you can just sort of drift along and let it carry you from point to point, confident you’ll hit a solution in time. I came to Ko_Op Mode’s little treat at the end of a deeply stressful work week, and I’m still grateful to it for being the gaming equivalent of just happily zoning out for a few hours at a time.
Having just recently tried out the new Friday The 13th game with a bunch of my fellow staffers, a common refrain was that there wasn’t actually anything scary about the game. To that I say, Outlast 2 has got you covered. During the first 10 minutes of the game, in which your character stumbles out of a plane crash and sets off to look for his significant other, you’re doing nothing but waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it’s terrifying. Sure, once you get into its rhythms, another round of hiding from demented backwoods religious zealots becomes a question of strategy, not hair-raising jitters. But littered throughout this game are multiple moments in which I found myself entering a poorly lit dungeon or peering through a keyhole, and suddenly I was breathing a little too rapidly and tensing my muscles, waiting for another outraged shriek or jump scare to throw me off my guard and send my character running for the hills. Forget the ancient evil being worshiped—I was more scared that the body lying in the corner of the screen might not be dead after all.
Here’s an idea: What if cyberpunk were (gulp) fun? Tokyo 42 doesn’t drown its futuristic cityscape in plumes of smoke and dead-eyed drifters and musings on the cost humanity pays for technological advancement; it is, instead, deliriously high on the aesthetic flourishes of cyberpunk films and games past. Set in a sprawling pastel city full of mid-century hotels and Zen gardens and sparkling commercial colonnades, the game tasks you with carrying out a variety of assassinations and assaults that play out like isometric Hotline Miami missions. It demands such a precision that it doesn’t always make things easy, but then, those frantic moments spent spinning the world around for the right angle as you hot-wheel through the city are their own sort of reward. And, unlike Hotline, Tokyo 42 encourages a variety of methods of play, whether planning out tactical surprises, going in guns blazing, or prowling through its gorgeous environments with katana in hand (obviously, the best method). Throughout, it ribs cyberpunk tropes with an intelligence that never gets cutesy, full of knowing references that know not to wink too hard and sparkling sine waves that coalesce into throbbing electro pulses. Press caps lock to don your trench coat, and get slicing.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild
What is there to say about Breath Of The Wild that hasn’t already been said? The game is a masterpiece, and even though it’s not quite perfect, it’s definitely proof that Nintendo can still make games that are truly special. Part of that is the way that Breath Of The Wild feels true to the Zelda format while still being totally and completely fresh, which somehow makes it seem more like the original NES Zelda than pretty much any other game in the series. Plus, it shows that there’s still a tiny part of Nintendo that is actually willing to change and evolve after all of these years. The company could’ve crapped out another Twilight Princess, giving us a traditional Zelda that makes use of the Wii U and Switch’s graphical capabilities, but instead it actually reinvented what a Zelda game could be. That itself is a minor miracle.
I’ve never played a Yakuza game before. I’ve always been intrigued by them—the ravenous cult following and YouTube videos of hilarious karaoke scenes definitely helped—but having missed out on the originals back in the PlayStation 2 era and having heard how dense and idiosyncratic the series was, I felt like it was something that had passed me by. Sega probably had people like me in mind when it devised Yakuza 0. It’s technically the sixth game in the series, but it’s a prequel, taking the story back to the ’80s and chronicling the beginnings of Kazuma Kiryu’s Yakuza career. Devoid of the series’ baggage, I was able to dive in and enjoy this surprisingly engrossing tough-guy soap opera and its charming ’80s trappings.
Hollow Knight is the rare “Dark Souls-influenced” game to understand what makes that storied franchise so great. (Note to Nioh, Salt And Sanctuary, and FromSoftware’s own Dark Souls III DLC: It’s not brutal, uncompromising difficulty.) Rather, the secret is a particular breed of beautiful melancholy, mixed with mechanics that subtly push the player to take dangerous, interesting chances. Set in the beautiful but decaying bug-eat-bug world of a dying insect civilization, the game takes the majority of its DNA from the Metroid series, sending your tiny, masked knight into a world of increasingly massive dangers and platforming challenges. Hollow Knight would make my games of the year solely by dint of being a rock-solid Metroidvania game in an era when they’re scarce on the ground; the fact that it also tells a surprisingly deep and clever story with its teensy protagonist is just icing on the cake.
Puyo Puyo Tetris
For a combination of two series that are as refined as Puyo Puyo and Tetris, the appropriately named Puyo Puyo Tetris isn’t an especially clever take on puzzle games. That, however, is precisely what makes it so brilliant. Earlier this year, I compared the game to “walking while also riding a bike,” but that doesn’t capture how much you have to think while playing. Really, it’s more like juggling while also bouncing a ball, sometimes switching off between the two and sometimes doing both at once. Depending on which mode you’re playing, you have to constantly be aware of the basic rules and core strategies of both Puyo Puyo and Tetris, and you have to keep track of what’s coming and what’s just happened so you know how to react accordingly. It’s crazy and frustrating in the best way.
What Remains Of Edith Finch
What Remains Of Edith Finch is a first-person exploration through an old house; you play as a punkish young woman, meditatively discovering the ephemera of a family—hey, wait, where are you going? Trust me when I say that even if you’ve played (and not been moved to tears) by the acclaimed “walking simulators” of the past few years, What Remains Of Edith Finch is no meandering academic exercise, but instead a compelling mystery that unfolds steadily and actively, constantly yielding new secrets and sources of fascination. It is also wildly original and crammed with ideas about how games can tell stories with a scrappy invention that recalls the films of Michel Gondry. (The segue that has you working a 9-to-5 in a fish cannery while simultaneously exploring the history of video games is perhaps the most head-turning, but for my money, the most impressive is the one that captures the vertiginous thrills of being a child on a swing set.) The net result of all this is an engagement with the story, which endeavors to ponder the mystery of death and the strangeness of life with a fantastical touch. If you don’t like walking simulators, you should still give this one a shot—it’s an evolutionary leap forward.
Monument Valley 2
When you’re a full-time pop culture junkie, there’s nearly always a screen in front of your face bearing new information. Whether you’re checking your social media on a phone while listening to a podcast as you play a game, or simply Google-chatting with another person while binge-watching a new streaming show, our nerves endure a more or less nonstop sensory assault. That’s why something like Monument Valley was such a welcome addition to touch-screen games, and now its sequel has upped the ante. Not since Journey have I had a game experience that managed to combine heartfelt emotion and meditative calm in such an effective way. The mother-daughter relationship here raises the stakes from the first Monument Valley—already a benchmark for visually entrancing and thoughtful puzzlers—lending this new edition a warmth that helps to create a stronger personal affinity for the voyage, even as it offers a respite from the go-go intensity of nearly every other game I play. It’s rare for stillness to be raised to enough of an art form that I want to just sit and marvel, but that’s the magic of this game’s quiet ambiance.
In my review of Injustice 2, I noted that my favorite thing about it was the expansive loot system that allows you to dress the game’s collection of heroes in awesome/ridiculous costumes. I’m a sucker for customization options like that, and the seemingly endless supply of gear gives me a significantly greater incentive to try out new characters than in a fighting game without alternate hats to unlock. I don’t really hate myself enough to get serious about competing online, but I love that I can hop into a match with a Batman who looks at least somewhat different from another player’s Batman. A lot of fighting games have included customization options like this, but the way Injustice 2 lets you have fun with the basic aesthetics of iconic DC superheroes appeals to me a lot more than something like unlockable costumes in a SoulCalibur or whatever.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
Resident Evil was in desperate need of a makeover, and Capcom succeeded in far grander fashion than most anyone expected. RE7 is more like Resident Evil than Resident Evil has been in years—lonely, stressful, invested in its setting—but it’s also been rebuilt from the ground up and revitalized with a new perspective and sense of humor. The Baker family that Resident Evil 7 pits you against is the lifeblood of that change, providing the game with a fresh horror-comedy tone and perfect pacing. As things go off the rails in the back third and it invokes later games in the series, RE7 still shows as much heart as it does bluster, playing up the Bakers’ tragic backstory and managing to create some real empathy for the deranged monsters that were tearing you apart just a few hours prior.