Associate Editor, Gaming
Taking cues from Metroid, Castlevania, Spelunky, Dark Souls, and Rogue Legacy, among others, developer Motion Twin’s Early Access Rogue-“lite” Dead Cells serves up the kind of tight 2D combat and platforming you can play over and over and over again.
A procedurally generated run-based experience, every aspect of Dead Cells is designed to keep things fresh. Its unique progression, which forces players to bank and spend “cells” earned from killing enemies to gain access to new and more powerful weapons, encourages you to tough it out through challenging levels and change things up in every run. Each of those weapons employs a unique slash or strike, changing how you play. Even in its technically “unfinished” state, Dead Cells is a joy to play, and never ceases to put a smile on my face.
Despite the excitement about the industry’s explosive growth in the last decade, mainstream video game design remains remarkably conservative, with the most popular titles often making narrow adjustments to well-established genres. Pyre, the latest from Bastion developer Supergiant Games, stood out in 2017 as something wholly new in both its worldbuilding, and its underlying gameplay.
Blending hybrid action-RPG and sports game mechanics, with a little bit of visual novel thrown in for good measure, Pyre leads you down the path of a nameless outcast in a land called Downside, where you lead a team to compete in the Rite — a 3-on-3 ritual sport through which you can earn your way back up to civilization. Its gameplay is elegant and easy to pick up, but with a very high skill cap, and plenty of room to experiment. Pyre’s stunning 2D artwork, charming characters, and compelling worldbuilding all tie together to create something damn near perfect.
Nier: Automata combines the bizarre, philosophical storytelling of director Yoko Taro with the action expertise of PlatinumGames to create an action role-playing experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen – or, most likely, will ever see again. On the surface, Automata is a post-apocalyptic tale preaching nihilism and the futility of effort in the face of certain death, but playing the game slowly peels back its superficial layers to reveal a story devoted to celebrating life and its inherent unpredictability.
With a novel multi-perspective structure requiring multiple “playthroughs” to get the full story, Automata asks you for a lot, but the time you’ll spend in Taro’s beautiful and desolate world gives back even more.
Plus, the game just happens to have one of the best soundtracks of the generation.
The story of Nioh’s development spans generations. What began as an unfinished movie script by famed Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, eventually morphed into a video game from Team Ninja, after a tumultuous 13-year development.
Like the games from which it draws its inspiration, Nioh’s brilliance isn’t necessarily in its story, setting, or characters — but in its unforgiving swordplay. The combat, which invites comparisons to both Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden series, and From Software’s Bloodborne, offers unique complexity. Its layers of interlocking systems create an experience more challenging and substantial than its winding levels might suggest at first glance.
Nioh is not for everyone, but few games in 2017 were so rewarding to master.
Super Mario Odyssey
Every time Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot steps foot into a new 3D world, players everywhere rave about the marriage of classic platforming tropes with bold, new mechanics. Odyssey is no different, and scouring its colorful collection of Kingdoms for Power Moons feels both familiar and thrilling.
The addition of Cappy — a sentient hat giving Mario the ability to possess enemies and object are the world – opens the doors for new gameplay possibilities, and a dynamic addictive gameplay loop that’ll keep you exploring for hours on end. If you’ve ever dreamt of inhabiting a giant hunk of meat with a mustache, this is your chance.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Many narrative-heavy video games struggle with finding ways to make the act of playing a game meaningful in context. That struggle often gets you games where the story happens in short movies between the action. What Remains of Edith Finch makes its gameplay feel essential to the act of telling its story, by using it to bring you closer to the characters, and empathize with their experiences. It ends up feeling like the kind of story that only a video game could tell, where the addition of interactivity reels you in closer than if you were just watching what happened.
Mario + Rabbid’s Kingdom Battle
When players wished for third-party developers to make more games for the Nintendo Switch, they probably weren’t thinking about Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. What seemed like a bad joke turned out to be something we didn’t know we wanted.
Mario + Rabbids celebrates Mario’s legacy, while mixing in slapstick humor and a dash of modern turn-based strategy. Simple, but challenging, each story mission feels like a puzzle. Mastering the game’s unique movement, weapons, and character skills, are all essential. If you do, the game’s frantic fun retains the joy so many of us feel when playing Mario, but delivers it in an entirely new way.
I know what you’re thinking. “Madden NFL 18 was your favorite game of 2017? Really?” I didn’t pick Madden ‘18 because it’s an excellent football sim — though it absolutely is. The distinction is earned by “Longshot,” Madden’s new story mode.
Devin Wade’s journey towards redemption on the gridiron after immense personal hardship excelled in every area. Longshot’s movie-quality cutscenes and cinematic direction catapulted the experience to a level of narrative prowess rarely seen in any game, no matter its genre.
Conventional wisdom suggests Madden’s foray into storytelling had no business being good, let alone deftly moving. Football fan or not, Longshot artfully demonstrates the power and possibility of storytelling in games. The bar has been raised.
Proving there are never enough hours in the day, Atlus’ Persona 5 is jam-packed with amazing experiences. The high-school simulator RPG sends your band of misfit heart thieves on adventures in wild, colorful dungeons, while juggling school, friendships, and maybe even a love life. That constant pressure stems from the fact that nearly everything in Persona 5 is worth seeing and doing. Whether you’re going to the movies with your friend Makoto, trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee, or simply studying, everything you do feels both mundane and meaningful. And whatever your choices, the game’s highly stylized art, and jazzy soundtrack, make every day worth playing.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds came out of nowhere, rising to become the most unexpected game phenomenon of 2017, and kickstarting its own genre, the Battle Royale shooter. Every 100-player deathmatch feels unique, from the moment you jump out of a plane, right up until you earn that tasty chicken dinner (or, more likely, get shot in the head). Every match is filled with exciting moments, and that’s kept me coming back to PUBG again and again.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: Zero Dawn reminds us of humanity’s arrogance, but also its primal instinct to survive. Horizon’s vast “reborn” world is full of mysteries, interesting inhabitants, and dangerous mechanical predators. The world instantly connects you with the protagonist, driving both you and the character across lush landscapes to unravel the past, and resolve conflicts in the present.
No amount of interesting audio logs and awesome robot dinosaurs could compare with the emotional weight of Horizon’s story. Protagonist Aloy’s journey of discovery and discrimination conjures up equal amounts of determination and empathy, to the point where you’re almost shedding a tear when the journey ends. It’s perfect marriage of plot and worldbuilding: The tragic setting hooks your heartstrings, and Aloy’s tale of redemption draws them tight.
Simply put, Horizon: Zero Dawn is simply one of the best post-apocalyptic games on the planet.
Prey is borne out of a long line of elite immersive first-person RPGs, including Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and Thief, and you can see core ideas from many of those games remixed and reworked in its style and mechanics. The game takes a bold approach to open-ended play, encouraging exploration of a space station not far from Earth. In that cold coffin of steel and composites, you hack your brain, playing with your own memories and psyche. The result is a mind-warping series of puzzles and challenges that riff on the best of mid-90s game design.
Prey also earns its mantle as a torch-bearer for modern science fiction. It plays with contemporary ideas and fears, tormenting players with surreptitiously-hidden, but expected enemies throughout. In your time with it you are taught to question everything — your own perception most of all. I can’t think of any greater metaphor for an era where truth seems nebulous.