Undeniably a terrific year for games. One of the best. It started out uncharacteristically strong in Q1 and didn’t relent until December 31st. I found 2016 to be underwhelming, but 2017 blew my expectations away, several times. Numbers five and six would have been in discussion last year for beating Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.

In a way, it’s also unsurprising that we were treated to such a collection of digital delights. Developers need to time to become overly familiar with hardware and now that the Xbox One and PS4 have both been out for over four years (where DOES the time go?), we’re seeing the intended results. Video games continue to be the biggest entertainment medium in the world and you didn’t need to look far this year to find proof.

I couldn’t look everywhere and my list of shame grows. Divinity 2, Nioh, Resident Evil 7, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, Prey, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Splatoon 2, Night in the Woods, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Destiny 2 all eluded me. I spent some time on Player Unknown’s: Battlegrounds but not enough to warrant a spot here. I beat Nier: Automata, but didn’t find the sublime satisfaction that many others did.

Regardless, a few misses can hardly stain a year that saw the launch of my new favorite console, my new favorite Supergiant game, my new favorite (and first!) Persona, along with a bunch of others that clearly show passion and creativity is thriving and healthier than ever. Here’s to a great 2018!

10) Dungeon Defenders 2

Dungeon Defenders 2 (1)

This is a weird one, and I might be cheating. BUT, if PUBG can find itself on Top 10’s everywhere despite it not being close to “finished”, then I get to put Dungeon Defenders 2 on here. Of course, it doesn’t enjoy a fraction of the media coverage, or popularity, or profitability that the Battle Royale inspired shooter does, but it’s a free tower defense game and that’s as good as a bribe to the judges. The judges being me.

It didn’t quite satiate the same urges like its predecessor did. I have very fond memories of playing cooperatively through the old campaign and was muddled to find out that everything in the sequel is…different. Different price point (free), different micro transaction options (any), a multitude of power ups and a vastly different aesthetic.

But I still had tremendous fun. There isn’t a Tower Defense around that I haven’t enjoyed to some degree. Here, the Dead Road and the Liferoot Forest had me replaying the stages several times – not due to failure (which I’m sure squeezed its way in there), but simply for the thrill of combining the Huntress’ mines, the Monk’s auras, the Apprentice’s towers and the stalwart Squire’s barricades in a maze of mayhem. Despite beating the main campaign, I’m eager to jump right back in to test out new heroes; how can one resist the call of a Gunwitch, or the Lavamancer?

9) Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight (1)

Chalk up Metroidvanias as another irresistible genre for me. Backtracking to previous areas, collecting power ups, traversing a massive 2-D map and being alone. Very, very alone. The atmosphere is the star of the show here. The potential for failure was there; after all, who wants an entire game filled with bugs? Spiders, Hornets, Worms and other creepy crawlies litter the game, but each is so wonderfully and stylishly designed that even the biggest arachnophobe will be able to make it through.

Against a backdrop of depressing solitude and muted colors, you’ll feel like you’re part of a living underworld. Where populations exist in every corner, dry and dark, wet and bright. The combat was stellar, the upgrades felt meaty and the soundtrack is beautifully harrowing.  “Reflection” would sound right at home in Road to Perdition

You can’t help but root for your little guy – all he has is courage, his nail (sword) and a map system that’s woefully inadequate. I also could’ve done without the Dark Souls mechanic of how death works, but aside from those minor quibbles Hollow Knight was an overall pleasure to play.

8) Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment 

Shovel Knight Specter (1)

It appears that Shovel Knight expansions are going to be a mainstay on my top 10 as long as they keep making them. And why shouldn’t they? You’ve got the perfect combination of retro feel and new standards in this package. Some parts Mega Man, some parts Ducktales, some parts all its own, Specter of Torment delivers in ways that Plague of Shadows didn’t. Specter Knight may not have the personality of Plague Knight, but his story is a whole lot more interesting. And I greatly prefer honing Scythe attacks from above than mixing and matching bombs.

It would’ve been easy to just throw in a new character and moveset into the existing levels, but Yacht Club games went several steps further. The trademark stage songs have been remixed. The level design is completely different, challenging you in a number of different ways that will have you slashing through the air like never before. There are new enemies, new upgrades and new ways to traverse through the stages. I’ve never felt more confident and eager to fight enemies in a 2 dimensional platformer.

I truly envy those that haven’t started the Shovel Knight saga. We even have one last campaign DLC in King of Cards, set to release in 2018. If I’m a betting man (and I am), I wager it’ll join its Plaguey and Spectery brethren in my next top 10.

7) Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn

Holy hell, now we’re cooking. You know it’s a strong year when one of the most interesting, gorgeous open world games I’ve ever played is SEVENTH. I never got used to how incredible every piece of foliage, hair strand, mountain range and mechanical dinosaur looked. This is one of the best looking titles you’ll ever have the pleasure to play and it doesn’t ever wear out its welcome.

Playing as fellow ginger (YES!) Aloy, I felt a true connection to the protagonist. You see I, too, was raised by an outcast named Rost and lived in a post apocalyptic world plagued by mechanized animals and must use my bow and arrow to survive.

Not quite, but I found Aloy’s facial animations and voice acting to be a cut above most character designs, particularly in open world games, and it forced me to breeze through the main story. Taking down enemies was a real rush, particularly my first Thunderjaw (T-Rex).  Crafting mid-battle is something I never thought I could do, and do quickly, but it felt fantastic.

The story kept my interest the whole way. There’s something about being present hundreds of years later in a place that was once home to complete turmoil and now is nothing but dust and peace. Watching the cut scenes play out as to how the world came to be, and what catastrophes occurred that led to Aloy’s world held real emotional resonance.

The pacing suffered greatly in the mid-game and after playing a certain other game, the way you traverse the world didn’t seem so great, but I’ll play a sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn any day. Flinging arrows at enemies has never felt better.

6) Cuphead

Cuphead (1)

It is usually with heavy hyperbole and dubious intentions that somebody says you’ve never seen anything like this before.

Without any malicious intent, I am telling you now that you’ve never seen anything like Cuphead before.

Among the hundreds of thousands of video games that populate our zeitgeist, Cuphead stands out. It may the best looking, most stylish example of creativity I’ve ever seen. Straight out of 1930s animation, Cuphead comes complete with appropriate noises, animation, characters and feel. It’s a love letter to the Contra style shooters and combines them with an unrealized Disney nightmare.

It kicks ass in every way.

It’s mostly a boss rush, with a few run and gun levels in between. Some you’ll beat with only a few deaths, others will take you hours. And then you’ll start to sweat.

The game is never unfair – it lets you “parry” (jump ontop of without damage) pink projectiles, the enemies always telegraph their moves, you have a different weapons to equip to match your playstyle and there’s a co-op mode. But it is punishingly difficult at times.

One of my favorite activities was to go online and see which boss everybody had the hardest time with. For every boss, there’s a subsection of angry gamers who claimed they nearly had a psychological breakdown while fighting the Dragon. Or the robot. For me, it was the Clown. His stupid, roller-coastery form and permanent smile only furthered my ire.

When you you’re victorious, and you WILL be if you keep at it, you get a fanfare straight out of the roaring 1920’s. I couldn’t help but dance, and ask Kyla – I NEVER dance.

Note: I received a free copy of Cuphead for non-promotional purposes.

5) Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Uncharted Lost Legacy (1)

What an incredible top five. In any other year, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy may have had a shot at the title, but it’s a victim to 2017’s outstanding results. There’s always bound to be casualties.

I love all the Uncharted games. The Indiana Jones feel, the Tomb Raider gameplay, the top notch voice acting, the cut scene direction, the bombastic approach to set pieces, the secrets, the locations, the characters. Everything. Nearly perfect in my mind.

So when they announced Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, I had very little doubt that it would end up on here.

Nadine and Chloe are excellent counterparts, and a welcomed break from Nathan Drake and Elena. I will NEVER want a break from Sullivan, one of the greatest video game characters to date. His absence was notable, but not crippling.

The gameplay additions we saw in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End are here, along with a more open world approach at one point. I really felt the story come to life in this section, as the Uncharted games have always lent themselves to exploration, but been entrenched in a linear environment. I see potential for Uncharted 5 here, but I doubt Naughty Dog goes for it.

I could listen to Nadine and Chloe banter back and forth as they discover ancient civilization McGuffins, water temples, giant statues, militarized trains and busy markets all day. Is it possible for games to look any better?

4) Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey

This is cheating. Anytime Nintendo releases a “main” Mario game, it’s going to be the following.

  1. Insanely creative
  2. Stupidly goofy
  3. Wonderfully crafted
  4. Easy to control
  5. Endlessly entertaining

He’s the biggest star in video games, rightfully so. The rate at which Nintendo puts out quality Mario titles is akin to Pixar’s run, or the New England Patriots. It’s unfathomable, it’s unbelievable and it’s understandable. Nobody else has a culture of creativity, risk-taking and success like Nintendo does in the video game world.

So, Super Mario Odyssey gets number four largely because it was predictably phenomenal.

I mean, what did I think was going to happen? Original levels, foot-tapping music and a level of presentation rarely seen in other games. There’s a song sequence in New Donk City that belongs in the hall of fame for levels. It’s such a wonderful tribute to Mario games of the past that I nearly shed a tear. Hell yes.

3) Pyre

Pyre (1)

Pyre surprised me the most. I enjoyed Bastion and Transistor immensely, but Pyre hit a high that the other two didn’t. I felt a rare emotional ennui by the end credits. I am still thinking about the story’s conclusion and what happened to the participants afterward. It stuck with me.

The gameplay is right up my alley. It’s fantastical, mythical NBA Jam meets rugby meets soccer meets who cares, it’s incredible. Each intrepid adventurer you pick up in your rinky dink, eventually flying rinky dink travelling wooden RV adds incredible flavor to the conversations, story and yes, the rites.

I never felt confused about where to go. The rules made complete sense to me. Maybe I was a rite-r in a previous life. In one of the game’s most brilliant twists, you have  to consistently bid farewell to one of your companions. They get to leave the wasteland go back home. Everybody wants to go, but everybody also feels guilty about wanting to put their name forward. After all, their relief from banishment means a friend stays even longer, or permanently.

It’s tragic, it’s wonderful and it creates an incredible sense of camaraderie when it happens. Selflessness, selfishness, wishful thinking and reality all come together in a single instant. Who do you choose?

When they’re gone, they’re gone. They don’t come back. You don’t see or hear them. You cannot use them in the rites. Your most powerful player is now permanently on the bench.

Anytime a game can combine gamplay and story effectively, I have to applaud. It’s so difficult to do. The Portal games did it. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons did it masterfully. The Last of Us is right up there, and now I must include Pyre.  I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my little bird bro Ti’zo, or the imposing Jodariel, or the hilariously eager Sir Gilman, or Rukey and his dashing doggy mustache. Yet somebody must go, and don’t you want to see them happy?

Oralech is one rightfully pissed off villain. His backstory is wonderfully told, and his theme is one of my favorites of the year. Doesn’t it sound like a massive dude with horns just showed up, unannounced and uninvited, into your cabin?

Outstanding. Absolutely outstanding. I cannot recommend this game enough. It’s cheap, it’s short, it’s original and it’s fun. When the big moments hit, they REALLY hit. There’s a particular audio instance involving Sandalwood that made me jump out of my chair. The ending had me staring at the end screen in awe. It’s not for everybody; there’s a LOT of just reading dialogue and going through menus, and some may not appreciate the gibberishy voice acting. For myself, on the other hand, I couldn’t have asked for a better surprise.

2) Persona 5

Persona 5

Persona 5 was my very first Persona, and what a way to start a franchise. This completely exceeded every expectation I had.

The style is overwhelming. It is drenched in pizzazz and swagger from the second the intro movie begins. Every single second you’re playing Persona 5, you can’t mistake it for anything else. Even activating the menus, or starting a dialogue with an NPC will treat you to a pixel perfect barrier that’s fully animated and lined perfectly. People cosplay the menus – they’re that good.

It’s a mammoth. It’s the longest single player experience I’ve ever had, clocking in at 108 hours before I beat. And I never got tired of it. Since the game is segmented by calendar days, it was easy to pop in and complete a few chores if a longer session wasn’t in the cards.

I’ve never seen a game more confident in its own systems. Many other JRPGs seem pedestrian, and immature by comparison. The depth involved with the Pokemon-style enemy capturing and combining is staggering. The payoff is an impossibly powerful creature, or something that you feel only the Japanese could manifest in a drug-fueled dream. It always made me want to capture more Personas, do more combinations, do more dungeon crawling, do more chores, do more conversations, make more friends and succeed in capturing “hearts”.

I could explain the multitude of systems in Persona 5, but I wouldn’t do it justice. It’s enough to know that I felt an extreme sense of comfort, adventure and satisfaction here not since the likes of Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. The soundtrack warrants its own write up. The end boss fight is stellar. Sojiro’s coffee shop is a second home. I feel like I’ve learned a new gaming language, and I’m ready to be fluent.

1) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild

It’s not every day that something is released that the populace almost immediately agrees that it could be the best. Not just good, not just great, but the best.

That’s the conversation that inevitably happens when Nintendo releases something new, fresh, exciting, part of a highly established franchise and they do it on the fastest selling console of all time. The stars really did align for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. 

I’ve never seen a better risk/reward system. This is THE open world experience, others seem tame by comparison now. The ability to climb anywhere opens an incredible amount of variety, not just in direction, but in type of rewards as well.

Example: I can go climb that mountain. Oh, I didn’t have quite enough stamina. Let’s hit a shrine or two and increase it. There, now I have enough and I’m on my way back to the mountain. I have the anticipation of getting to the top, the satisfaction of increasing my stamina meter, the pleasant memories of the puzzles in the shrines and now, the reward. I get to the top and what do I see? Maybe a treasure chest. Maybe a Korok seed. Maybe a new type of enemy, holding a new type of weapon. Maybe a tree containing a secret. Maybe another shrine. Maybe something that will progress the main story. Maybe a new cliff to launch off of with my hand glider, reaching an area I couldn’t before. At the very, very least, you’re going to get an incredible view of a masterfully created world. Oh, look over there, you can see a whole section that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Maybe I’ll make a spot on my map to check it out later. Or maybe I’ll go check it out, only to be distracted by some other fantastical section along the way.

The music may be sparse, but effective. I’ll never forget standing in the ruins of a Hylian church and hearing the chiming of the piano, as if even the soundtrack has been long forgotten but is begging you to remember.

Many have issues with the weapon degradation, and I can see their point. It’s a new, potentially frustrating feature to deal with in a game that’s already pretty tricky. But, I give it a pass – it just meant that I had to use a bigger variety of weapons, and tactics. Running in guns ablazing when approaching enemy encampments wasn’t a viable option any longer.

I haven’t had as powerful an experience in a Zelda game since Ocarina of Time.

It’s not a bold choice to have this as my game of the year, but for Nintendo to create a true open world Zelda certainly was. You don’t even have to tackle any of the four main dungeons to beat the game. As soon as you’re off the training area, a quest reminder pops up to confront Calamity Ganon. This is a game that fully respects the player’s time, choices and creativity. Your powers, unlike previous Zeldas, are mostly given to you in the first few hours. How you use these powers in combination with the environment is completely up to you, and there’s almost always more than one solution to a problem.

I haven’t even begun to justify how much I enjoyed Breath of the Wild. How much I enjoyed the shrines, and the puzzles dwelling within. How much I enjoyed taming wild horses, or scaling mountains. Or using the map, which properly indicates contour lines and geography. Or finding the Master Sword. Or surfing on my shield. Or utilizing the physics engine in an uncountable number of ways to defeat enemies and traverse the world. Or hearing the remixed Dragon Roost Theme at Rito village. Or the callbacks to previous Zelda games. Or the art style. Or Tarrey Town. Or Eventide Island. Or the animated cutscene memories that you simply must find to get a sense of what once was.

It’s all here. I cannot wait to tackle the DLC, or see what else Nintendo has up their sleeve. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s in a class of its own.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is my game of the year.

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