Nioh is a white-knuckled gut-punch of an action RPG from the folks at Team Ninja. Despite releasing several quality games in the mid-90’s to mid-aughts, including the Dead or Alive series and the masterful Ninja Gaiden on Xbox, Team Ninja seemed to lose its footing and identity with a decade-long string of lackluster releases. With Nioh, they set out to boldly rediscover themselves by risking development on a totally new type of game for their studio — a Souls-alike. Fortunately, the risk paid off in spades.
Set in Japan in the early 1600’s, Nioh distinguishes itself from Dark Souls in its Japanese mythology-infused storyline and vibrant aesthetic. It is the depth and fluidity of the combat, however, that makes Nioh more than just another Souls-alike, and instead a game that pushes both the sub-genre and the entire action genre forward.
Fighting in Nioh is fast, intuitive, challenging, and varied, borrowing a bit from the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series of Team Ninja’s peak. While inventory management is clunky, and overly repetitive enemies and level design drags down the endgame, Nioh‘s gameplay is so finely-tuned that you’ll be wishing for more after the forty-hour main quest.
Steeped in Japanese folklore, polished with combat nuances like the “ki” pulse, and sporting a dazzling array of colorful landscapes and characters, Nioh is among the boldest and most unique releases I’ve played so far this year. I’d be shocked if come the year’s end, another game has as fully-realized and finely-tuned combat system as the one that lies at the core of Nioh‘s successes. Against all odds, Nioh is triumphant proof that Team Ninja is still an A-grade developer that may have their best work ahead of them, and that Souls-alikes can measure up to the high caliber of the Souls games themselves, while also carving out their own niche. (Kyle Rentschler)
Oxygen Not Included
Oxygen Not Included is a tough game to talk about in a Best-of list given that it’s still technically in early access. That said, what’s there is already extremely compelling, with only the promise of better to come. From Klei Entertainment, best known for their witheringly cool and arcane Don’t Starve (and its subsequent multiplayer version, Don’t Starve Together), Oxygen Not Included offers a new idea that borrows heavily from the survival formula that Klei has already done so well. Not only does the art style echo Don’t Starve, it sets things up in familiar fashion – nobody knows what’s going on, but you’re stuck in the middle of a not-particularly-friendly environment, and you’ll have to use the resources available to you if you want to survive long enough to figure out whether the game actually has a plot.
This time around, however, there are two huge differences: you’re not going it alone, and it’s all done from a side-view 2D perspective. The player initially controls three characters who spring mysteriously from a technologically-advanced space portal of some variety or other, and each will have their own randomized quirks and skills, performing some tasks better than others, or being more or less prone to going bonkers in particular ways. They have needs like food, sleep, general hygiene, using the bathroom, and having a decent interior decorator, and it’s up to the player to dig out and design a virtual ant farm-style colony for them to live in. There’s no direct control, but the player assigns tasks, ranks those jobs in importance, and the little colonists do their best to carry them out. More of these characters will become available over time, and managing the increasingly-intricate energy, liquid, gas, oxygen, research, food, sleep, and décor systems gets gradually more maddening as the colony grows. At first, even designing a working shower that pumps in fresh water and efficiently disposes of wastewater is a bit confusing, but before long players will be engrossed in building crazy plumbing and power networks all over the place.
Oxygen Not Included is a fantastic concept that builds on Klei’s previous strengths while subverting expectations in fun ways. Despite being an early access game, it’s already some of the most fun I’ve had this year. (Michael Riser)
Dungeon crawling RPGs are scarcely considered to be the sexiest of video game genres; they’re often complicated, stuffy affairs that hold little in terms of mainstream appeal. However, Persona 5 is a different kind of dungeon crawling RPG; an outrageous, ambitious, constantly surprising game that is simultaneously devoted to its JRPG roots while doing everything it possibly can to be the antithesis of what one expects from the genre. It’s a mass of contradictions – simultaneously frivolous and thoughtful, traditional and cavalier, taut and overwhelming. It’s an experience of quixotic pleasures.
Set in modern Tokyo, you take on the role of a floppy-haired high school teen living under probation after he was sued for assault by a drunk man he stopped from sexually harassing a young girl. Let down by the system and shunned by his peers due to his new-fangled reputation for delinquency, our hero believes that his luck couldn’t possibly get any worse. Then, thanks to a magical mobile phone app (don’t ask) and a talking cat (don’t ask), he’s able to travel into the subconscious of various people withholding terrible secrets and force them to repent their sins from within. Finally given the means with which to fight back against the oppression and subjugation imposed upon teenagers by unscrupulous adults, our hero embraces the power he’s been given and becomes an outlaw vigilante for truth and justice.
The overarching narrative of the game isn’t exactly subtle, and the gaggle of pantomime villains that the heroes go up against are overblown and somewhat comical, but the themes that bubble beneath the surface of Persona 5 are thought provoking and ever present. It’s the story of a bunch of kids who feel like they’ve been let down by the older generation – something that I’m sure will resonate with many young people in 2017 – only unlike in reality, they’re given the tools with which to fight back. Persona 5 is a hundred-hour journey through the psyches of some of Tokyo’s most deplorable residents – from gangsters to crooked politicians to teachers that are abusing their students – featuring a super-slick aesthetic, some killer music, and an amusing, relatable cast of characters that never wear out their welcome despite the long running time of the game. It’s also one of the finest JRPGs ever made. (John McCormick)
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, or (more affectionately) PUBG, is a King of the Hill shooter from one of the best-known designers in the genre. Yet another early access game, it earns a mention due to the fact that it’s already sold well over 2 million copies worldwide, earning over $60 million in sales before it’s even hit version 1.0.
When you play it, you might ask yourself why, and it would be a valid question. PUBG is a bit janky, controls feels imprecise and floaty (partly as a conscious design choice, partly because of the aforementioned jank), and the game generally feels like it jumps between varying levels of absurdity and brokenness. It’s also difficult, featuring semi-realistic gameplay, meaning that even with a beefy tactical vest and a good helmet, you might get sniped by a player you never saw in the span of a few seconds, leaving you wondering why you just spent 20 minutes scrounging for weapons and gear in the first place.
And yet despite all these things, or perhaps even on some weird level because of them, it remains a blast to play. Essentially boiling down to a slightly-altered version of the Arma III mod and H1Z1 spinoff game that preceded it, PUBG doesn’t do anything remarkably new. Drop via parachute onto a deserted island with 100 other players, either alone or in squads, scrounge for weapons amongst the plethora of empty houses, and try to survive running from a weird blue circle of death that slowly draws closer and forces you and your opponents into a meat-grinder deathtrap of ballistic and tactical horror.
If you’ve got some friends and enjoy military-style shooters –and maybe even if you don’t – this is the most fun you’ll ever have paying thirty bucks for an unfinished, broken game where you generally don’t even fire a shot before someone better than you sneaks up and murders your entire team. (Michael Riser)
Resident Evil 7
When Resident Evil debuted in 1996, it helped popularize the survival horror genre and ushered in a golden age of survival horror video games known for their slow-pace, heavy exploration and brooding atmosphere. A decade later, Resident Evil 4 shifted directions with a more third-person shooter approach, fewer puzzles and a greater emphasis on gunplay and weapons upgrading. Both the original Resident Evil and Resident Evil 4 have arguably been the two biggest highlights of the series, and no other game in the franchise has come close to the greatness of those two titles – until now.
The seventh entry in the series, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard swerves in its own new direction by taking the best parts of the series (a measured pace and focus on exploration) and adding a new first-person perspective. Fear is palpable everywhere and just about everything in this game can make a player jump. It could be the creaking of a floorboard or a door that slams shut behind you or even nothing but silence. It immerses you like no Resident Evil before it and all of this is captured with gorgeous (or grotesque) visuals and incredible sound design which rivals the best work ever done in video games.
While the more recent entries in the series placed a focused on action and gunplay at the expense of a methodical, brutal form of horror, Resident Evil 7 does the opposite. Yes, folks, Resident Evil is terrifying again, and a bold and successful reinvention of the franchise. The long-overdue return to survival horror is just what the series needed and, making Resident Evil 7 one of the best games of the year. (Ricky D)
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment
Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment may seem minor compared to the gigantic AAA games on this list, but it sports just as much heart, ingenuity, and effort. Topping the original wasn’t just a difficult task – it was damn near impossible, and Spector of Torment does it in every way. Unlike the original, it moves at a relentlessly quick pace, yet it’s still surprisingly manageable. Trading in a shovel for a deadly scythe brings a lot of gameplay differences, as instead of bouncing off of enemies to gain altitude, Specter Knight dashes through them from all angles, allowing for split-second platforming. This mechanic shines through in all corners of the gameplay, be it boss battles, platforming, or puzzle solving.
Specter of Torment‘s level design is jaw-dropping, with new and fun concepts dripped into every facet of every level. What could have been copy-and-paste levels from the original turn out to be dense platforming gold. I was consistently shocked by the amount of love seeping from every pore. The scythe dash starts out as a cool mechanic that probably could have carried an entire game itself, but transforms into a dynamic frame for the gameplay. For example, while the player uses it in its simplest form during the first stage, the idea is reversed during Treasure Knight’s stage, as it’s filled with water.
Yacht Club had the chance to make a quick buck with an easy expansion, but decided to create a meaty sequel (technically prequel) instead. With ingenious mechanics, remixed music, and a touching story, Specter of Torment proves not only that Yacht Club’s still got it, but that they’ve learned even more about game design since their inception. I, for one, am expecting Shovel Knight’s next campaign to top even this one, and their next game to be just as excellent. (Ricardo Rodriguez)
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier
While A New Frontier may not match up to the success of its predecessors, there is still a lot to love in this latest undead visual novel/excruciating choice simulator. The first three episodes, in particular, pack in a pile of solid storytelling, and the new protagonist, Javier, presents a compelling change of pace for the series as he struggles to keep what remains of his family alive at all costs. While series mainstay Clementine is here, she feels more like an extended cameo, weaving in and out of the main story throughout the episodes.
The morally gray nature of the choices has been amped up considerably, and there is a pile of gore to be had, but fans could still be forgiven for thinking that something is missing with this latest effort, especially in the last two episodes. Episode 4, for example, has a killer ending, but it’s squandered disappointingly in the finale, emerging as a cheap fake-out with no real explanation. Also worth noting is the overall weak nature of the villain, and how easy it is to miss out on what should be an essential part of the experience.
Still, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is worth playing, even if it doesn’t necessarily fly high with Telltale’s best. (Mike Worby)
Torment: Tides of Numenera
There’s a pretty decent chance that Torment is going to be buried by all the other games this year, and to a certain degree, it deserves that. Its combat is downright terrible, it’s one of the buggiest games to come out recently, and its entire appeal is based around being the niche-market spiritual sequel to a niche-market PC-exclusive RPG from nearly 20 years ago that no one played. In short, you’re likely only going to see Torment mentioned in reviews and this very list. Torment might not be for everyone, but it’s hands down one of the most interesting games of the year, and those that play it will find an experience unlike anything else.
It’s rare that an RPG really stands out, but despite its shortcomings, that’s exactly what Torment has managed to do. Everything in this game bleeds originality, be it the incredibly bizarre world that’s formed after eight separate apocalypses, the memorable characters that ooze personality (occasionally literally), or the thousands of lines of dialogue and flavorful text that sucks you into the world in a way few other games manage to do. Torment is something we don’t see enough of in games these days, especially RPGs: it’s original and memorable from the first second through the last, and if you get past the shortcomings, it’s unlike anything else out there. (Andrew Vandersteen)
What Remains of Edith Finch
While 2017 hurtles forward at break-neck speed, accompanied by video games that force us to the edge of our seats, What Remains of Edith Finch slows…things…right…down. Instead of shooting the bad guys and leaping over dark, scary chasms, Edith Finch takes its time to deliver a poignant tale of life and death, and the way in which perspective and beliefs influence our lives. You assume the role of Edith Finch as she returns to her mysterious family home. Once inside, she uncovers the truth of how each Finch in her family tree met their tragic end. The dichotomy between the simplicity of the core “walking simulator” gameplay and the complexity of the overarching themes is where developer Giant Sparrow’s title truly shines.
As they discover the secret passage to each family member’s room, the player is treated to a playable vignette from the perspective of the Finch in question. The Finch stories vary in tone and aesthetics; for instance, as Molly Finch you might adopt the form of a cat hunting a bird, or a shark swimming in the sea, whereas Barbara Finch’s demise is presented through Halloween-themed comic book panels and a scary narrator. Every story is refreshingly different, but the end result is always the same: the death of a loved one.
In a lesser studio’s hands, the tragic stories could’ve proven too depressing and bleak for an audience to connect with. However, Giant Sparrow handles the fragile subject matter with a sense of delicacy and restraint all too rare in the videogame industry today. The bathtub sequence in which you play as a baby embodies this notion perfectly, as the wonderfully animated toys come to life and start splashing around in the water not unlike something from a Disney film. As mentioned, the outcome is always the same, but not before you witness the sheer joy and happiness that life can offer all of us. The fact that Giant Sparrow somehow manages to avoid any sense of melodrama during its existential examination is another miracle in this excellent 2017 title. (Craig Sharpe)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Before it released, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild faced an incredibly daunting task. Eiji Aonuma’s newest entry in the legendary Zelda franchise had to successfully launch the Nintendo Switch and change the negative narrative that had been hanging over the company for years. Somehow, it managed to do all of that and more. Breath of the Wild introduced the world to Tatsumi Kimishima’s new Nintendo. Although the game takes place in the familiar land of Hyrule, just about every convention players expect from a Zelda game was removed or redefined. Linear progression through dungeons, scouring the land for pieces of heart, cutting down grass for rupees – all of that was removed, and Breath of the Wild was better for it.
Magical moments – moments that cause your jaw to drop, your eyes to well up, and your heart to race –happen constantly throughout Link’s seemingly endless journey. No two players will experience these moments the same way, however. You’re free to experience the story at whatever pace you’d like and explore areas in whatever order you choose. Enemy encounters offer dozens of ways to take down foes, and creativity allows for some very stylish victories. Shrine trials test the player and make this iteration of Link earn every bit of the power he needs to complete his quest, and the four major dungeons feature some difficult brain tests. Still, it’s the moments in between these areas that make Breath of the Wild special. Taming wild horses, gliding off the peak of Mount Lanayru, and chasing mystical dragons offer a sense of bliss rarely found in video games.
Those moments of peace don’t always last, however. Breath of the Wild redefines the word “difficult.” Death awaits Link at every corner, making it wise to carefully consider the situation before picking a fight you cannot win. However, those moments where you’re face to face with a Lynel with only a Traveler’s Sword at your side make this game even more special. You constantly have to think about the best way forward if you want to survive, creating an immersive experience unique to Breath of the Wild. A subtle soundtrack perfectly captures the emotions of every moment; a peaceful piano plays while you forage for food, and dramatic trombones bellow when Link stumbles upon a mini-boss. Enemies, scary as they may be, possess the same charm that defines the rest of the game. Everything you encounter in Breath of the Wild oozes with personality.
Countless dissertations have been written on this masterpiece already, but its legacy has only just begun. Breath of the Wild launched the Switch successfully, turning it into a phenom that has yet to show signs of slowing down. It’s hard to say right now, but in a decade Breath of the Wild could be remembered as the game that revived Nintendo and forever changed the gaming landscape. (Tyler Kelbaugh)