Since we kept you all waiting an extra week or two for our 2017 Game of the Year podcast(s), Derek, Terrell, and I wrote up a little bonus content for all of our fans: our top five games of the year. If you haven’t seen theirs yet, check out Derek’s top five and Terrell’s top five here. But read mine first because it’s better.
Disclaimer: 2017 was a great year for games—maybe not as good as 1996, but that’s hard to beat—and it was also a super busy year for me, personally. I played a lot of the contenders for GOTY, but a lot of awesome games from this year also passed me by. For instance, I completely missed out on Persona 5, Super Mario Odyssey, and Nioh among many others. I plan to remedy this crucial personal failure soon, but in the meantime these are the best 5 games of 2017 that I had the time to play. Enjoy!
5. FIFA 18 (EA Sports)
So let’s start this off with a weird one. As listeners of the podcast probably know, I’m a soccer fan and, thus, I engage in the yearly ritual of giving $60 to EA Sports in order to receive the same game I bought last year with slight adjustments. I’ve done this every year for the past decade, and every time I think what a ridiculous concept sports games are, yet I still do it. It’s a strange thing, but millions of people do this too and—STOP JUDGING ME.
Anyway… FIFA 18 is EA’s latest crack at translating “the beautiful game” into… a beautiful game. In terms of controls and gameplay, FIFA 18 is pretty similar to its previous installment named (you guessed it) FIFA 17. Passing is a bit better and man-marking still sucks, but it’s altogether still a tight game. It has all the same composite parts as past FIFA installments: a “campaign” manager mode, online competitive play, and FIFA’s unique spin on the lootbox genre: FIFA Ultimate Team. I’ve always been attracted to FIFA for its “campaign” type elements rather than its competitive play (which I think is somewhat unique among FIFA players). If you scroll through old saved files on my PS4, you’ll find many a year where I brought lowly Swindon Town or Coventry City to Champion’s League glory in manager mode.
Because of this, what really stands out for me about FIFA 18 is its expansion on the new playing mode launched last year in FIFA 17: The Journey. The Journey is a “campaign” type game where you take on the role of an up and coming soccer wunderkind named Alex Hunter. You follow Hunter as he gets drafted up to the Premier League, scores winning goals, and eventually makes it big, all while playing games as Hunter throughout the 16-17 soccer season. Gameplay is interspersed with cutscenes explaining Hunter’s family life, his fallout with his childhood friend, and their reactions to his incipient stardom. Some of these cutscenes border on the melodramatic, but some of the story is surprisingly well-written and are deserving of a place in a more mainstream video game. FIFA 18 expands on these plots, offering Hunter the chance to play soccer in the United States (which is strange fanservice to a country that is frankly not that good at soccer) as well as make new friends and rivals and meet new family members. Altogether it’s a pretty solid gaming experience, even if the narrative is relatively straightforward and linear.
Altogether, Hunter’s journey is one part of a game that offers a little bit to many different types of FIFA players: hardcore online competition for those who want it and a bit of maudlin sentimentality and lighter gaming for those who need a break (that’s me). Overall I think it’s the best FIFA ever…until next year’s comes out.
4. Cuphead (MDHR Studios)
Cuphead is one of those games that’s hard to dislike. It’s maddeningly simple yet, often times, frustratingly difficult. In terms of gameplay, Cuphead is an iteration on a longstanding staple of gaming. The game is, at its core, from the same genre of run-and-guns as Contra or, more recently, Broforce. These games feature side-scrolling action, a bewildering number of weapons, and complex and so very very difficult bosses.
What really sets Cuphead apart, though, is its aesthetic. Drawing from early 20th century art styles, prominently early Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers, Cuphead gives you all the fun and destruction of the masculine overdrive games mentioned above with a fun and, frankly, pretty weird and surrealist world. Let’s get down to brass tax: you play as an anthropomorphized cup who can shoot lasers from his fingers. This type of Dali-esque absurdity is only continued in the plot where the Devil (yes, literally the Devil) sends our young cup-shaped heroes on a series of escalating adventures to win back their souls. That felt weird even typing, but it all somehow makes sense in the game.
Cuphead is a delightful and exhaustingly fun take on a genre that has mostly descended into parody (see: Broforce). I might have punched my screen with anger while playing it, but I came back to it time and time again.
3. Divinity: Original Sin II (Larian Studios)
The long awaited sequel to Larian Studios’ Divinity: Original Sin was a huge critical success, yet very few people that I talk to seem to know anything about it. For a certain crowd of gamers—predominantly RPG fanatics and Bioware alums—Divinity Original Sin II is the culmination of a decade long quest (pun intended) to replicate the complexity and depth of Baldur’s Gate II. For those unaware of this gaming institution, the original Baldur’s Gate was developed by Bioware—yes the same Bioware that made Dragon Age and Mass Effect—and their goal was simple: to translate Dungeons and Dragons to a digital format. What they made became a hallmark of the genre: isometric viewpoints with 3-D characters moving through a variety of complex maze-like dungeons in an even more complex world. Their first games, the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate and its sequel as well as a handful of expansions, were runaway hits among D&D fans.
I’m not sure if Divinity: Original Sin II does anything particularly remarkable or different from Baldur’s Gate II or similarly lauded franchises like Planescape, but it captures something about those early games that has been missing in some of the iterations that have come to us in the past decade. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly Larian Studios did to make Divinity II such a masterpiece. Perhaps it’s the new character creation studio, which offers six “stock” characters that have specially reserved dialogue and interactions, giving you six unique and powerful storyline options to play through. Or maybe it’s Divinity II’s masterful control over the delicate balance between reading and playing that often bogs down RPG adventures.
Whatever it is, Larian Studios can now proudly say that they have produced a game that, while not a departure from the format laid down 20 years ago, is an exciting new development on the genre.
2. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD)
What is there to say about a game that has already won almost every award and wooed games journalists, critics, and players alike? Breath of the Wild is an astounding, breathtaking game. It rejuvenated the Zelda franchise, which, in spite of insanely high sales, has received mixed reviews in its past few AAA iterations; it carried the Switch for several months as Nintendo found its new footing in the modern gaming market; and it provided millions of gamers, me included, a chance to relive the best moments of our childhoods while simultaneously providing new and exciting adventures for millions of new gamers. It’s a really freaking good game.
Some key standouts for a game that has many high points: the aesthetics are pastoral, bright and imaginative. The controls intuitive, challenging, and engaging. The gameplay is interesting and the storyline on par with the classics of the franchise. Breath of the Wild uses the accessibility power of the Switch to its fullest extent, offering all of its gameplay on the go with ease.
If you haven’t played this game yet, you should.
1. Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerilla Games)
This was a contentious choice. In almost every big gaming awards review, Horizon Zero Dawn lost out to Breath of the Wild. In many ways, the things that make Breath of the Wild great are the very same things that make Horizon Zero Dawn an amazing game: engaging combat mechanics, a fun new twist on older fantasy/sci-fi tropes, and a breathtaking open-world sandbox gaming experience. However only in HZD can you kill a ROBO-DINOSAUR THE SIZE OF A BUILDING with a FREAKING BOW AND ARROW.
Other than that obvious reason, there are two more key points that make Horizon Zero Dawn my top game of 2017.
First, Horizon Zero Dawn’s main character is one of, if not the only, truly realized complex female protagonists of a video game that I have ever played. “But wait Kyle!” you say, shaking your fist at your screen, what about super badasses like Lara Croft or Samus? Well, fist shaking reader, I agree that Lara Croft and Samus are all super cool characters, but their “coolness” is, at its core, derived from the simple adoption of male tropes and stereotypes uneasily pasted onto a female skin. Nothing about many of the female protagonists in purportedly “progressive” or “equality-driven” game franchises distinguishes them from male protagonists. This may seem like a good thing (I’m all for eliminating stereotypes), but the best way to do this is not to simply take male tropes and apply them to women. It is to make complex female characters that both derive power and/or character traits from their gender while also not becoming caricatures. This might sound very difficult. That’s because it is.
And so I give Horizon Zero Dawn even more credit for giving us Aloy, an energetic and combative redhead raised on the outskirts of a strange post-racial matriarchal tribe by an exiled Paul Bunyan type father figure, Rost. As you play through HZD, the player is given chances to influence Aloy’s decisions (is she combative or conciliatory? Smart or angry? Etc…), however the base nature of Aloy is not really up to player decision: Aloy is caring and protective, a fierce warrior who struggles with her own personal problems while desperately trying to live in a world that has rejected her. Even better, Aloy’s goals in Horizon Zero Dawn are, in no way, tied to male desires. Aloy is not trying to find a man, rescue a man, get her man, etc… Instead, her goal is to find the truth about her mother and, in some way, find her own place in the world. That’s how you do it, guys.
Second, HZD is the only AAA game title released in 2017 that is wholly new IP. We live in an age of sequels, reboots, sequels, adaptations, and even more sequels, and so to come across the new and exciting world of Horizon Zero Dawn is a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong, nothing makes me more nostalgic or five-year-old Kyle excitable than a new Zelda game, but the best moments of Horizon Zero Dawn put me back to when I first played the original Assassin’s Creed on my good ol’ Xbox in college. That was a game that, to me, came totally out of left field and stunned me with its complex world-building and innovations on an older genre of science fiction. Being a budding historian-in-training probably didn’t hurt either. HZD captured those same feelings for me. Following Aloy’s adventures throughout the harsh, and often confusing, post-apocalyptic world of Horizon Zero Dawn offered me a completely new gaming experience, something that hasn’t happened in a long time.
Oh, and there’s also a little thing where you get to kill a DINOSAUR made out of METAL with a BOW AND ARROW. Did I mention that?
E. Kyle Romero is a Ph.D. Candidate at Vanderbilt University in the History Department.
You can listen to him bicker with Terrell and Derek in their "Scholars at Play" podcast. He's the bad boy of the pod.
Come at him on twitter @e_kyle_romero