Every December, instead of searching for a group consensus, Gameological looks back at the year in games through individual perspectives. These are the staffers’ personal takes on a few games that have stuck in their minds for whatever reason—big or small—and does not represent any sort of institutional expression. These are simply the games we liked.
And as with every year, you’re all invited to write your own mini-retrospectives in the comments. Just follow the rubric we’ve laid out here—set up your rationale in the first sentence and go from there. (It’s fine if your picks overlap with ours, because you’ll probably have a different reason for digging a game.) We’ll collect some of our favorite responses in a special Games You Liked edition of Keyboard Geniuses on December 22.
I liked Persona 5 because it chose the perfect villains for its heroes. Japanese role-playing games don’t exactly have a villain problem—the genre has provided decades’ worth of iconic, memorable antagonists—but it does have a hero-villain mismatch problem. So often these games tell stories about scrappy young do-gooders sticking it to entire invading kingdoms, or evil gods, or whatever. Persona 5 has its share of that toward the end—the final boss is the non-divine world-creating demiurge of Gnostic cosmology (Is something still a spoiler if it’s total nonsense?) But along the way its young heroes take on antagonists of a more believable scale: handsy gym teachers, pervy drug dealers, emotionally distant parental figures, and the entire uncaring general population. The villains Persona 5's Phantom Thieves aspire to take down are mostly super-powered cartoon-villain versions of actual teenage antagonists, (or perceived antagonists), making the game’s first three-quarters a “fuck you dad, nobody understands me!” of apocalyptic proportions. It recasts the ordinary struggles of real kids as a series of hyper-stylish anime arcs—the perfect approach for a half-magical, half-mundane series like Persona.
I liked Sonic Mania because it showed everyone what I’ve always seen in Sonic. The quality of Sonic games has dipped, soared, and spun in circles as much as one of the series’ roller-coaster levels. You’d need to have pitiful standards to think every Sonic title was a gem, but claiming the series was never good is an equally terrible and confoundingly popular stance. With its Trapper Keeper palette, breakneck pace, bottomless bag of tricks, and utterly crackin’ soundtrack, Sonic Mania is a delight, and it delights by staying true to the spirit and style of games that revisionist historians dismiss as nostalgia exercises. By pushing the blueprint of the 16-bit classics just enough—the colors a little richer, the music a little fuller, the levels a little bigger—Mania made accessible to everyone what lifelong apologists like myself have got out of the series. Trash the Adventure games if you want, but after Mania, I don’t want to hear anyone saying the Genesis games were never good ever again.
I liked Gravity Rush 2 because it had a story perfect for neglecting. Sandbox games live and die by their side quests and optional content, and most of them can be continued even after the main quest is completed, but somehow saving a kid’s cat from a tree is not as satisfying after the evil empire has fallen. In Gravity Rush 2, the main plot is told in such a childlike, scattershot way, with stakes that change often and increase rapidly, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. But for a game so rich in side activities and make-your-own-fun pastimes, that’s perfect. The ongoing melodrama about a magical, sewer-dwelling, cat-powered amnesiac’s socialist revolution, or whatever this game is about, can wait. Instead, take all the time you want to explore the marvelously designed world, make creative use of an impressively robust photography mode, and collect the heroine’s numerous extremely cute outfits. The plot isn’t bad—in fact it’s an uncanny thrill, and protagonist Kat is a joy to be around—but putting it on hold to hedonistically wallow in everything else is way more fun.
I liked Uncharted: The Lost Legacy because it kept the cinematic fun while changing up the nature of the Uncharted format. Upon my initial run-through with the first spin-off in the Uncharted universe, I considered the game a fun but minor diversion, lacking the heft and emotional arc of the earlier iterations of the series. However, after spending some time away from it, I realize just how much I appreciated Lost Legacy’s commitment to keeping things enjoyable. It maintains the tradition of movie-worthy plotting, but the most significant alteration—a Tomb Raider-style map section that constitutes the biggest chapter of the game—is all about giving the player a chance to have some fun exploring. At first, it felt like little more than a way to stop the narrative dead in its tracks, but upon further reflection, it actually provides a welcome change from the go-go intensity of the series and transforms Chloe and Nadine’s adventure by making it something more than a distaff Nathan Drake journey. It gives the game room to breathe, and in doing so, makes it a smart hybrid rather than a rehash of its progenitors. Plus, Naughty Dog is really, really good at what it does.
I liked Monument Valley 2 because it did everything the first one did, but with greater emotional impact. The quiet beauty of Monument Valley has always been its biggest selling point. The whimsical, ethereal puzzles that constitute the foundation of the game are a pleasure to traverse, but the effectiveness lies in just how spare and affecting the supernatural atmosphere and elliptical story are along the way. So when Monument Valley 2 came out, I assumed it would be the very definition of “more of the same”—satisfying, but holding little surprise.
Mea culpa: I could not have been more wrong. With the introduction of the child, the new installment of the game acquired a profound emotional weight, one that hit even a childless solipsist like myself square in the center of my heart. The separation of mother and child, the struggle to reconnect, and the sense of growth playing out—it was like seeing your offspring mature in front of your eyes but from both perspectives at once. And with every geographic shift came a greater sense of responsibility, a stronger desire to bring these two back together. Thanks for repeatedly getting something caught in my eye, Monument Valley 2.
I liked Hollow Knight because it recaptures the thrills of daring to move off the edges of the map and the comforts of returning home. It’s hard to maintain an air of mystery in modern gaming, where there’s always a guiding line or map full of big, blinking checkmarks to keep players frustration-free and on the proper path. Indie Metroidvania game Hollow Knight eschews that comfortable safety by making mapping less automatic, and more of a goal in and of itself. Every entrance into a new area is a mad dash for the adorable bug-man who’ll sell you the map that allows you to start charting your progress; before that, you’re traveling blind, descending into dangerous territory with only your wits to guide you. Hunting for the mapmaker’s telltale humming and the discarded pages he leaves behind—as the safety of the known fades further and further behind you—is an exhilarating feeling, matched only by the relief when you finally find the guy and fill the details of your journey into the waiting blank page. Hollow Knight looks and plays beautifully, with gorgeous boss fights and a whole bug-based ecosystem that’s both ominously threatening and very, very cute. But the back-and-forth between blind stumbling and confident mastery makes it feel special.
I liked Pyre because it captured the beauty and mystery lurking at the heart of sports. In the world of Pyre, sports are more than just shared entertainment; they’re a ritual, one that can spell the difference between a life of freedom and luxury for the participants, and a miserable existence scavenging for food in the dismal purgatory where its story takes place. As beautiful as anything else that’s come from Supergiant Games—the studio that also brought us the lush Bastion and Transistor—Pyre treats its central sports game with absolute reverence, complete with an announcer who has the cadence of a spiteful high priest and team anthems that double as somber spiritual odes.
All of which makes the actual games—which play out like a fast-moving combination of football, laser tag, and the old American Gladiators event Powerball—carry an enormous feeling of welcome stakes. Your characters, all of whom are lively, odd people, like the plucky imp Ti’zo or wily mustached dog man Rukey, are literally playing for their lives. That additional import and the decisions it forces on the player make every bout memorable. If the best sports moments are stories, rather than individual plays or a tired old highlight reel, Pyre is a parable, one designed to make you really care about the action on the field.
I liked Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus because it embraces the crazy and never backs down. At every point where calmer heads might have said, “Hey, let’s step back a little,” MachineGames’ follow-up to 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order charges blindly ahead, dual guns blazing and German blood dripping from the edge of its ax. Gunning down Nazi supersoldiers in Area 51? Hell yeah. KKK members walking down American streets in broad daylight, practicing their German for their fascist masters? Sure. A spittle-flecked, clearly insane Hitler shooting Ronald Reagan over and over again for failing to address him by the proper title? Throw it in!
All of the madness is anchored by B.J. Blazkowicz, a character who’s grown from a nondescript face at the bottom of the screen back in Wolfenstein 3D into a complete, shockingly complex character. William is many things: an abuse victim who hunts the world’s biggest bullies; an everyman fighting evil in a crazy science-magic supersuit; a viciously heroic killer who worries about protecting his unborn children in one moment, then blasts off to Venus for more murder the next. As a character, Blazkowicz is simultaneously deeply sad and gleefully absurd. That feels like a pretty perfect fit for the satirical catharsis The New Colossus offers up in our troubled political times.
I liked Injustice 2 because it let me put a personal touch on a bunch of my favorite superheroes. I basically dedicated my entire review to discussing the game’s gear system, which allows you to collect different armor pieces to customize the look and improve the stats of every character. I’m an absolute sucker for excessive cosmetic options in video games, especially when it involves putting crazy gloves on Batman or a cool Robin Hood hat on Green Arrow. I just love being able to hop online and fight a Harley Quinn who looks completely different from my Harley Quinn.
I’m not a hardcore fighting game master, so some intricacies of its combat may be lost on me, but I appreciate that the wide and weird range of characters allows for a varied selection of abilities and skill requirements. There’s also a solid story mode and tons of single-player challenges that—get this—allow you to unlock special gear, which you can use to make yourself look cooler as you complete more challenges and get more gear. That’s really all I need.
I liked Friday The 13th because it helped me appreciate a movie series I couldn’t have cared less about. I had seen a handful of the films and wasn’t impressed, but the Friday The 13th video game captured the vibe of being in a horror movie so well that I tracked down the whole series and watched all of them in order over the summer. A lot of them are bad—and one or two are truly awful—but I wasn’t expecting to learn just how faithful the game really is.
It’s all multiplayer, and you either control a person trying to survive or Jason himself as he tries to murder everyone. There are only a handful of maps, but some of them have specific areas that are very accurate to the movies, right down to the placement of buildings and the layout of the furniture. Hiding from Jason is fun, but hiding in the exact same kitchen where that stoner made popcorn in Part III is even better. Plus, Tommy Jarvis’ weird arc in the movies makes his arrival in the game almost as thrilling and confusing as in Part 6 (the best movie).
I liked The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild because it’s one of the most surprising games Nintendo has ever made. It brought new ideas to a series and a company that are primarily dedicated to replicating old ones, resulting in the kind of game that could define a generation in the way that Ocarina Of Time did—especially since that was probably the last time a Zelda game felt as necessary as Breath Of The Wild does.
Sure, it’s sort of a revival of the original Zelda, and it borrows a lot of elements from survival games, but it’s also bigger than its parts. Its openness encourages doing whatever you want, however you want, making it more of a proper adventure like Skyrim than a typical linear Zelda game, but it also feels just as true to the series as any other entry. It’s a masterpiece, and it bodes very well for Nintendo’s future, both in terms of its treatment of these core characters and the company itself.
I liked Ys VIII: Lacrimosa Of DANA for its trashy, glorious breeziness. An action role-playing game in a storied 30-year-old series with a rabid following, Ys VIII shipwrecks its boyish hero on a mysterious island full of giant, reptilian monsters and the crumbling ruins of a faded, magical civilization. Running up mountains, collecting raw materials to craft powerful new equipment and make delicious meals, sword-fighting behemoths: Ys VIII has all the familiar fixtures of classic fantasy adventure but with an effervescent modernity.
It’s a constant barrage of speed and Iron Maiden-ready guitar riffs and new sights to see. Its treasure isn’t in balletic moments of discovery, like the eerily similar Breath Of The Wild, but a constant rush of simple joy. Over every hill is another castaway to meet and team up with, in every cave another deposit of ore or an ancient monolith to discover. And the sheer momentum of its characters—who tumble and bound like anime caricatures let out for recess after a sugar-rich lunch—carry you ceaselessly to the next sight. Few games are this pleasurable to just move around in, and the righteous music, delicious, almost lurid art, and affable characters just make it easier to slash and roll through its lost world.
I liked Resident Evil 7 because of the sickening reality of the Baker household. Very few works of art have scared me as an adult the way Resident Evil 7 did this year, and it had everything to do with the Hot Pockets-before-bed-nightmare of a house from the game’s first half. The Baker family house in Resident Evil 7 is the only one of the series’ mundane-but-strange locations that’s ever felt tangible. The family photos in the master bedroom, the shabby pillows with the embroidery lit pale blue by the moonlight spilling in from outside, the meticulous detail, the rot—it recalls every family house I’ve visited in America.
That authenticity makes everything else in the game so much scarier, even when the house’s other wings are deeply unreal. The oily monsters haunting the halls and the Baker family themselves (who at first seem like hackneyed Texas Chain Saw Massacre knockoffs but are redeemed by what turns out to be a pretty kick-ass story) wouldn’t be scary in another game. They’d be too familiar, too obvious as spring-loaded ghost-house scares at a county fair. While they’re still familiar in the Baker house, they’re as impossible and intestine-knottingly creepy as the worst critters in your dreams because they’re in a place that feels so true.
I liked Super Mario Odyssey because it feels like anything can happen. Deep contradictions sit at the heart of any game promising freedom, but Odyssey reconciles these conflicts, letting you hop around endlessly specific places to your heart’s content while never losing sight of pleasurable goals. There’s always another coin, another hat, or another moon, and actually finding them feels as right and distinct as a custom suit. Super Mario Odyssey’s freedom is still an illusion, of course—all of its stages are smaller than they first seem, the variety of its challenges less expansive—but I was totally convinced of the illusion while playing, constantly shocked at where I could go, what I could do, and what the game wanted to show me from moment to moment. I expected to get a moon from a tiny Dia De Los Muertos skeleton when I herded sheep into his desert corral, but I didn’t expect to get another one from a New York taxicab frozen in ice 10 feet away. Mario’s adventures have always been delectably surreal; Super Mario Odyssey is the first one where the action felt as boundless as the art.
I liked Rain World because it reinvented the Metroidvania, a silly but fitting name for one of games’ most atmospheric genres. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night lingers in the mind all these years later not for its story, action, or music, but its sense of place and mystery: the confession booth, the telescope, the weird crannies that make Dracula’s castle(s) feel so lived-in. Rain World is the first Metroidvania that takes that eerie permanence to its logical conclusion, rendering a whole world teeming with menace and mystery. You clamber through its heating ducts and back alleys one sumptuously rendered post-apocalyptic tableau after another, its minimal music and controls gradually revealing unforeseen depths. And, like Symphony Of The Night, it contains an ungodly wealth of game, its epic tale continuing to unveil new sprawling vistas far after you’d thought it was over, with far-flung enigmas that, months later, people are still piecing together like lore from a Souls game.
And yeah: It is hard, but some patches have smoothed the path, and it’s also one of those rare games built around its difficulty, its snapping demon birds and circuitous paths always eventually creating a hard-won path for your poor, lovable slugcat. An easy mode is planned for later release, but no matter what, make time for this criminally slept-on game. It belongs in the same breath as Symphony Of The Night, Super Metroid, and Cave Story as one of the very best Metroidvanias ever made.
I liked Echo because of its sheer visual audacity. In a lot of ways, it’s the stealth game pared down to its raw essence, a terse, mean piece of game design. Played on easy, it’s still as brutal as it is economical, with exactly one enemy type (an army of eerie clones of the protagonist) and few mechanics to grasp. But this tautness masks some of the most daring aesthetic choices the genre’s ever seen. The writing is uncommonly rich, meted out in sarcastic banter between the protagonist and a witheringly scornful AI compatriot, a theatrical dialogue that explores a far-flung society in which scarcity has been abolished but mass class distinction still exists.
Its setting draws this opulence via a dizzying descent into an endless, planet-sized palace, a glistening labyrinth of polished alabaster, strange ceremonial chambers, and gloaming, Gigeresque caverns of industrial latticework. Some strange horror exists at its heart, and so you plunge ever downward, a half-dozen hour journey as indebted to the survival-horror of Fatal Frame as it is the architectural menace of Stanley Kubrick and the high sci-fi of Iain M. Banks. It’s a game by and for adults—difficult in every sense of the word.
I liked NieR: Automata because of the dreamy way it exists in hindsight, like some sort of collective cultural hallucination. Did I really stumble into a robot orgy, witness those ponderous philosophical mass suicides, slice my way through ghostly ruins, and evade waves of sumptuous bullet-hell cyborgs? Did I really spend dozens of hours grinding not via static menus but with angelic, gliding controls, more balletic than violent? Did I really beat this game four damn times, each run vastly different than the last, its structure explained with a Hideo Kojima-style wink? And, perhaps most fantastically of all, did a fiercely individualistic, writerly Japanese role-playing game, from eccentric genius Yoko Taro, really move a few million copies in the year of our lord 2017? Somehow, yes, all of these things occurred. For all its bleak beauty, NieR: Automata is a feel-good story, both for its central musings on what makes us human and its unshakeable lesson that games are as vital—and strange—as ever.
I liked Cuphead because it was a celebration of craft in the age of content. You can’t authentically borrow the look and feel of classic cartoons without also immersing yourself in the painstaking artisanship that made those Disney and Fleischer films possible. That dedication and thoughtfulness is most recognizable in the game’s incredible hand-drawn animation, but it’s a shared ethos that informs everything about the sleek, wonderfully executed work Cuphead turned out to be.
At little more than 19 quick boss fights and a handful of platforming stages, it’s remarkably focused, leaving the Moldenhauer brothers and their development partners to fine tune each encounter into a distinct eruption of creativity. While it stands as one of the year’s most demanding challenges, that difficulty is easily overcome if you can stick to the game’s gentle slope and accept that learning the intricacies of each foe is the only way to get by them. For the player, obsessing over every detail isn’t just a matter of appreciation; it’s a matter of life or death. All the thought, sweat, and restraint you can see went into making Cuphead certainly makes it something worth obsessing over.
I liked Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice because it knew exactly how to tell its story. As hokey as it is to say by now, games really do have a unique capacity for putting players in the experiences and mindsets of their characters, and this stunning release from a small team inside DMC developers Ninja Theory demonstrates that like few others. Designed to respectfully emulate the sensations of someone suffering from psychosis (and with the guidance of patients and mental-health professionals), Hellblade marries a disturbingly malleable, unbelievable world with paranoia-inducing audio that demands the intimate, head-turning sound space of headphones.
Combined with an all-time-great performance by actress/developer Melina Juergens, it comes together into a draining, emotional character study the likes of which this medium hardly ever sees, with a hero whose violent journey is one that takes her inside herself as much as it does through the wasteland around her. It isn’t without faults, but it should stand as a testament to how games can communicate, connect, and transport.
I liked Night In The Woods because it was the truest game of the year. Yes, a game about anthropomorphic twentysomething animals with a penchant for walking on power lines and knife-fighting in the woods had one of the strongest, most resonant scripts and settings of 2017. Walking the streets of Possum Springs, the economically depressed hometown of college dropout Mae Borowski and her friends, captures the sadness of coming back to a community like that, of seeing a main street full of empty storefronts, of awkward conversations with the people who never left and those who dream of fleeing.
Even the supernatural and surreal elements that creep in as the story progresses are tied up in very real issues of mental illness, middle America’s economic desperation, and the anxieties facing today’s young adults as they try to find their place in the world, existentially and financially. But it tempers those heavy themes with a cast that’s a joy to be around and watch grow, and writing that’s as affable and natural as I’ve ever seen in a game. That duality isn’t an off-putting dissonance so much as another brilliant reflection of how we live our lives, finding solace in friends and family and conversations about the charms of crappy true-crime TV shows so that we can forget about all the pain and uncertainty around us, if even for a minute.
I liked Metroid: Samus Returns because I love somber reflections on loss that also let you roll around like an ambulatory gumball. Here’s the thing: Samus Returns isn’t a contender for best 2-D Metroid, not by a long shot. It has a limited range of enemy creatures, a repetitious and occasionally numbing pattern of search-and-destroy missions required for progress, and an emphasis on a physical parry system that, while fun, severely truncates the game’s flow. But it also has those tricky honeycomb caverns laid out like a puzzle that you must navigate by climbing, rolling, bombing, and leaping in whatever quick succession is necessary to propel your way toward your goal. It has the satisfying punch of an upgraded weapon that allows you to more easily dispatch formerly troublesome opponents, as well as providing the means for yielding new secrets from the labyrinthine world.
And most importantly, it has mood. You crawl your way up a massive cavern wall to get a better view of the vast, decrepit temple structure around you. The world was abandoned by the Chozo, a now-dead race of bird-like creatures, and their ruins mirror the iconography of ancient Egypt: sarcophagus-like teleporters, giant pyramid structures looming in the distance, and great mandalas that must be infused with the DNA of your slain foes before you can continue forward. Death is the language of this place, and you are the only soul navigating this neglected afterworld.
I liked Everything because it’s the game that finally allowed me to forget what I know about video games. I’ve been playing them for about 35 years now. Naturally, over that time I’ve internalized and memorized the mechanics of the medium. I instinctively know to check out floating icons, play around with the avatar to get a feel for the controls, and systematically work toward the implicit goals. And sometimes that familiarity drains the experience of any feeling of newness or novelty. Everything subverts all that by offering an experience dressed up in game’s clothing. A floating cursor on the horizon implies a goal or a destination, but it’s a lie. Wherever you are is the destination. The game pushes and pulls on scale and perspective like taffy, allowing you to go as big or as small as you like in inhabiting every creature you wander across in your meandering travels.
In Everything, I’ve finally found the perfect game to play with my kid. I can navigate us between the game’s seemingly infinite array of animals, plants, and microbes, but eventually I’ll feel that old, familiar tug to make something into an objective. That’s when I can just hand the controller over to her and sit back as she laughs her head off over the simple joy of being a pack of antelope tumbling down a sand dune together.
I liked Rime because I like a puzzle game that’s trying less to wreck your brain than to open your eyes. Rime is pretty easy. It is not an intense, headache-inducing test for your intellect. But that’s just fine, because what the game is asking you to do is just look around. Set on a pastoral, Arcadian island dominated by a massive tower that’s punctured with a single keyhole, Rime tasks your young hero with uncovering the history of the now empty place. While the story hints at a past tragedy, the experience itself is exceedingly gentle. It’s a stroll through a world infused with a palette of rich, contrasting colors and great, rounded sculptures of soft-featured figures and abstract forms. As you wander through the temples and courtyards, you’ll have to solve some sort of environmental puzzle to continue forward. Few, if any will vex you. They seem to exist mostly to force you to look around, shift your perspective and provide a reason to see everything the island offers, which, depending on how much you’re willing to put into the experience, is quite a lot.
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