Nioh (PS4, PC)
Nioh wears its inspiration on its sleeve. It follows in Dark Souls‘ footsteps in a lot of ways, most noticeably its animation-heavy combat system, creepy world, and punishing level of challenge.
But it also finds its own niche, thanks to a rich tapestry of Japanese yokai and historical figures. Its combat is more aggressive and intricate thanks to the Ki Pulse system and some creative skill trees. William Adams makes for a fantastic hero, and monstrous add it is, Nioh‘s world is also utterly beautiful.
Dark Souls has inspired a lot of imitators, but until this year, none has been able to match FromSoftware’s iconic game. Nioh doesn’t just live up to its inspiration; it exceeds it.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows (PS4, PSV, PC)
Yomawari: Night Alone was a unique and special game. Yomawari: Midnight Shadows takes everything good about the first game and builds on it, resulting in one of the most creepy and affecting horror games of recent memory.
The juxtaposition of chibi art style and gruesome monster designs is particularly effective at building a tense, unsettling atmosphere. It’s the perfect for Yomawari‘s stalker-horror antics, where you have no direct means to fight back against the threats.
Like the first game, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows uses this horror framework to explore a young girl’s first real experience of grief and mortality. Seen through the eyes of two best friends going their separate ways, it’s a game about learning to let go.
Gravity Rush 2 (PS4)
By anyone’s reckoning, 2017 was a fantastic year for games, and even the usually-quiet January was packed full of great games. Case in point: Gravity Rush 2, a sequel to Toyama Keiichirō’s delightful PS Vita game Gravity Rush.
Like its predecessor, Gravity Rush 2 is hard to pin down: it’s part action-adventure, part RPG, part platformer, part flying game, but it brings all those different influences together to create something that’s unlike anything else on PlayStation 4 (except, of course, Gravity Rush Remastered). Within the simple concept of being able to manipulate gravity so that you fall in different directions is some of the most captivating game design of the year.
That all takes place in a wonderfully realized world, a network of floating islands and airships that draw inspiration from everywhere from Victorian London to South America. Topping it all off is a pair of enchanting heroines: the clumsy, lovable Kat and the steely but warm-hearted Raven.
All these factors come together to create a game that’s an absolute joy to play from start to finish.
Doki Doki Literature Club (PC)
The less you know about Doki Doki Literature Club going into it, the better. It’s a free download on Steam, it’s only a few hours long, and it’s well worth a look. Suffice to say, despite how cute and light it looks upfront, it’s an incredibly creepy game, and a masterclass in using creative game design to mess with players’ heads.
Doki Doki Literature Club starts out as a by-the-numbers anime dating sim, with you roped into joining your best friend’s literature club. You’re the only guy in the club, and all the girls are oddly attracted to you, so you make decisions to try win the heart of your chosen waifu.
Then it all gets weird. Then it gets even weirder. Then it gets weirder still. It’s all kinds of unsettling, and employs the creepiest use of fourth wall breaking since Metal Gear Solid 2.
Play it, now.
A Rose in the Twilight (PS4, PSV, PC)
A Rose in the Twilight is a spiritual successor to htoL#NiQ, and comes from some of the same creative minds as the Yomawari series. Like all those games, A Rose in the Twilight makes its mark with the juxtaposition of cute character designs and grim atmosphere, but rather than being an out and out horror game, it’s more of a dark, gothic fairy tale.
A Rose in the Twilight follows a young princess called Rose as she tries to escape from a decrepit castle that’s frozen in time. She has the curious power to absorb blood from objects and transfer it to others, painting them red and unfreezing time in the process. She also meets a nameless giant who becomes a vital companion in her effort to escape.
Rose’s blood abilities are a curse as much as a power, though, and their use comes with great pain to her. At some points in the game, she even has to go as far as killing herself in order to spill enough blood to proceed through certain gates. She then finds herself reborn, to continue her painful struggle to escape.
A Rose in the Twilight is a lot of things: an atmospheric adventure, a clever puzzle platformer, a dark, beautiful fairy tale. For me, its real power is as a metaphor for depression; the lethargy, the pain, and the hope that comes from having a strong, sturdy support network to carry you when you need it.
Yakuza 0 (PS4)
When Yakuza 0 launched in early 2017, it set a new golden standard for localisations of Japanese games. The English script is overflowing with energy and character, capturing the spirit of the Japanese dialogue precisely because it didn’t conform to a direct, literal translation. The proof was in the pudding: for months after release, social media was flooded with Yakuza 0 screenshots, and I still see them popping up on my Twitter feed often.
But Yakuza 0 is a lot more than just a top-tier example of localisation; it’s a damn fine game as well. An odd mix of beat ’em up, JRPG, and open-world crime sim, the game excels at giving you plenty of varied things to do, from the core hand-to-hand combat to running a hostess bar. Where a lot of open-world games feel bloated in their sidequests, those of Yakuza 0 are a highlight.
Being a game about organised crime, you might expect a gritty drama like Sleeping Dogs or a nihilistic satire like Grand Theft Auto, but Yakuza 0 sets itself apart from its ilk by being grounded in good nature and even whimsy. Yes, the main characters are yakuza; yes, things get violent and deadly. But Kiryu and even the oddball Goro Majima are fundamentally good people, and that comes through at almost every turn. It’s a rare treat to play a game with such empathetic and likeable heroes, especially in the action genre.
RiME (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC)
RiME had a tricky development, bouncing between publishers and going through a few conceptual changes over a number of years, but you’d never guess that to look at the final product. It was originally envisioned as an isometric role-playing game with tower defence elements—a far cry from the artful, puzzle-focused action-adventure game that released. Perhaps that protracted development cycle was for the best, though, because the RiME that we got is a masterpiece.
Minimalist storytelling belies a haunting tale of overcoming grief, beautifully envisioned through a young child’s adventure after washing ashore on a mystical island. A chance encounter with a strange fox leads the boy towards a huge tower at the island’s centre, with the hope of figuring out what’s going on and finding a way home.
That’s a familiar premise, but it serves a greater purpose: to take players on a journey through the five stages of grief, brought to life in creative puzzles, exciting set-pieces, and a pervasive atmosphere of awe and wonder.
The Town of Light (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
One of the remarkable things about 2017 ness. was the way games approached the topic of mental illness, and The Town of Light was a big contributor to that. Set within Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a real life psychiatric asylum in Italy, it follows former patient Renée’s return to the now defunct hospital, as she reconnects with the hell she faced there.
In doing so, The Town of Light potently flips the tired “asylum horror” trope on its head. It’s not a horror game as such, though it deliberately invokes the same sort of imagery that’s been a mainstay of horror fiction for decades. The difference is that here, the horror isn’t in the form of violent “lunatics” running around; it’s in the abuse and trauma that Renée suffered at the hands of people who were supposedly trying to care for her.
Even though Renée is a fictional character, her story is based on numerous accounts of the patients of Volterra. That’s what makes The Town of Light more terrifying than any jumpscare-riddled horror game: it’s grounded entirely in history, and relatively recent history at that. It’s haunting, heartbreaking stuff.
Toukiden 2 (PS4, PSV, PC)
The original Toukiden was one of the best examples of monster hunting RPG genre (popularised by Monster Hunter), at least until 2017, when Toukiden 2 came out and blew it out of the water. It shares the same simple, compelling game loop: hunt demons and complete quests, collecting materials along the way to craft increasingly powerful gear, before taking on bigger demons and tougher quests.
Toukiden 2 builds on that formula with an open-world design, driving home the sense of adventure and hunting mastery that forms the core of the game. It’s not your typical open-world game, though, full of pointless busywork and an onslaught of map icons—rather, its focus is on giving you a huge playground to explore, full of demons to hunt and sights to discover.
Like its predecessor, Toukiden 2 also offers a far more compelling narrative than monster hunting games often have. It’s an exploration of how societies change as the sands of time flow, and how that impacts on the people caught in the middle—from the people who don’t want to let go of the past to those who fight to move forward despite a world content to remain stagnant. Seen through the lens of some colourful characters and Japan’s turbulent history, it’s a compelling story indeed.
Collar X Malice (PSV)
Despite being an otome game, romance is the least remarkable thing about Collar X Malice. The romance isn’t bad—quite the opposite, in fact—but what makes this one of the best games of 2017 is everything that happens around it.
Collar X Malice is a murder mystery that casts you as Ichika Hoshino, a police officer who finds herself working with a group of private detectives to stop a series of violent murders in Shinjuku. The attacks are enough to cause the Japanese Government to put the district into lockdown and repeal Japan’s strict anti-gun laws within the quarantined area—a move done for the safety of residents that, inevitably, leads to more lawlessness and violent crime than ever.
If that isn’t a commentary on “gun rights” activism, then I don’t know what is. Different routes dig deeper into the issue and other adjacent ones: a character who grew up in the USA provides a means to glimpse the wildly different societies and their attitudes to gun ownership, among other things; a story of a disgraced cop looks at the holes in the criminal justice system. It’s insightful stuff, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
Despite all that, it’s still an otome game. The bachelors are dazzling and the romances are sweet, but if anything, they’re a well-earned respite from the heavy themes at the core of the game.