Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (PS4, PSV)
The majority of coverage of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana focused on its sub-standard localisation effort. Though that criticism was deserved, it overshadowed everything else that made Ys VIII such an enjoyable game.
True to its franchise, Ys VIII is an action RPG that puts a focus on exploration and frantic combat. Where it mixes things up, though, is in its structure: framed around a shipwreck, it has you searching an uncharted island for survivors, in order to grow your “Castaway Village” and eventually find a way to escape. Light simulation elements and a horde mode minigame balance out the central hook of exploring further afield and slowly mapping out the island.
The story is somewhat formulaic, but the characters at its heart are delightful—and, one assumes, they’ll become even more so when the new translation rolls out. Even so, the adventure that Ys VIII takes you on, with Nihon Falcom’s expertise in designing compelling action RPGs, makes this one of the most compelling games of the year.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares (PSV)
Japanese dungeon crawlers are always a lot of fun, but it’s still a rare treat to see one come together as beautifully as Mary Skelter: Nightmares. It’s structurally similar to games like Etrian Odyssey and Demon Gaze, where you explore and slowly map out complex dungeons, solving a variety of puzzles and fighting monsters in turn-based combed.
Mary Skelter‘s point of difference is its beautiful, terrifying world. The game takes place within the Jail, an organic prison beneath the earth’s surface, and sees players trying to find a way to escape. The different areas of the dungeon represent parts of the old world—temples, city streets, and so on—but they’re odd pastiches of the real thing replicated through the Jail’s endless growth. That means that every zone is both familiar and eerily divorced from reality, creating an atmosphere that’s unlike any other game I’ve played.
It helps that the dungeons are intricate and expansive, the puzzles creative, and the combat system both simple but tactically deep. It helps that the story is a compelling one, drawing on fairy tales to create a fascinating cast of characters and plumb some of the complexities of the human condition. But what makes Mary Skelter: Nightmares stand out is how well all of these things come together.
Ayo: A Rain Tale (PC)
Ayo: A Rain Tale is a simple game with a powerful message. A straightforward platformer on the surface, it’s also an interactive metaphor for the struggles faced by a lot of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, who have to walk miles every day to collect water for their families.
Ayo is one such girl, and Ayo: A Rain Tale begins as she sets out on her daily journey. Things take a fantastical turn when she falls down a hole and encounters a pair of spirits who impart on her the wisdom (and platforming powers) to overcome the various obstacles she faces. Her journey takes her into the very clouds, where she has to brave a violent storm in order to collect that precious water.
That all makes for a captivating metaphor, but the real impact comes on the final level. The game suddenly pulls back to reality, and you have to guide a tired, overburdened Ayo back home while hiding from the scorching African sun. It’s harrowing, moving stuff, and one of the best recent examples of gameplay as a metaphor.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection (PC)
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection came out of nowhere. It’s been almost 10 years since its Japanese release (as Zwei II), but in XSEED’s continued efforts to localise Nihon Falcom’s back catalogue, it finally saw its Western debut in October, bringing with it one of the most joyful and fun games of 2017.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is a fantasy action RPG centred on a pair of heroes: the roguish adventurer Ragna, and the sassy vampire Alwen. In an effort to reclaim her castle, which has been taken over by unknown villains. That might seem a familiar premise, but Zwei is dripping with enough charm and personality to make this simple setup work wonders.
Ragna and Alwen make a wonderful pair, and the way their friendship develops over the course of the game is a constant source of delight. Humorous dialogue is a constant, and an excellent localisation means that every joke lands perfectly. Perhaps best of all, experience doesn’t come from defeating enemies—it comes from eating food. Now that’s the kind of training regime I can get behind.
Inverness Nights (PC)
The premise of Inverness Nights is an intriguing one: a visual novel that draws on dating sims, but instead looks at the choices people have to make when going through a breakup. Seen through the perspective of Tris, a gay tailor in a fictitious 18th century Scotland, Inverness Nights pays particular attention to the unique challenges that queer people often face in such situations, without the support networks that heterosexual people often take for granted.
As curious as that setup is, it’s in the execution that Inverness Nights really shines, delivering a layered, complicated story that touches on a great many related ideas. As well as Tris’ own tale of heartbreak and persecution, there’s a second story that’s recounted to him by a mysterious client; one of daring adventure upon the high seas. As the game progresses, these two distinct narrative arcs twist and merge in fascinating ways, exploring the game’s themes in a way that a standard, linear narrative never could.
It helps that these tales are captivating, relatable, and carry just a hint of wry humour. It also helps that the writing is of the highest quality—the product of a great many editing passes, or so I’ve been told by the game’s developer. But it’s the way that Inverness Nights plays off our expectations of storytelling and the visual novel medium, the way it pushes against those artificial boundaries, that really makes it stand out.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Life is Strange: Before the Storm was one of the best surprises of 2017. It’s announcement at E3 was unexpected enough, but the real surprise was how good it was, despite Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment having no direct involvement. Somehow, the good folks at Deck Nine Games picked up that baton and delivered a game that surpasses even its source material.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a prequel, focusing on Chloe Price and her relationship with Rachel Amber. There’s is an odd match: Chloe’s rebellious and sarcastic, with few friends and a penchant for drugs and alcohol; Rachel’s a model student with perfect grades, daughter of the district attorney, and loved by everyone. But as the series shows, there’s a lot more to both girls than meets the eye.
Essentially, Before the Storm is a story about the difficulties of adolescence, of trying to figure out your place in the world and yearning for a freedom that always feels just out of reach. It traverses this beautifully, with sharp dialogue, moving performances, and a groundedness that’s especially rare in video games. At the same time, it theatre motifs to underscore all that, perfectly cementing its exploration of the performative nature of life.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PS4, PC)
Mental illness is a tricky thing to explore in any medium, but it’s especially difficult in an action game, with their penchant for high energy, flashy cinematography, and fantastical stories. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a perfect marriage of serious theme and refined action, resulting in an unexpectedly authentic look into psychosis.
Set during viking times, Hellblade follows Senua’s descent into Helheim to rescue her beloved. The journey is fraught with danger, not just from the world itself but from the hallucinations born of her mental illness (or her “darkness”, as she describes it). Deliberately, it’s unclear where the line between reality and hallucination lies, making for an intense experience. At the same time, Senua’s learnt to use her psychosis as a form of coping mechanism: the voices in her head offer helpful advice (most of the time), and her ability to see shapes and patterns in the environment that other people wouldn’t register is the key to solving the many puzzles that lie between Senua and Hela’s domain.
Most importantly, it feels authentic. Ninja Theory consulted extensively with psychology experts and people with firsthand experience of psychosis to ensure that, fictional though the game is, the way it approached the issue was genuine. Through both metaphor and literal depiction, Hellblade looks at how mental illness manifests itself, how it relates to trauma, and people can even come to depend on and find comfort in their symptoms in a “devil you know” sort of way. I can’t speak personally about psychosis specifically, but the way Hellblade traversed depression and anxiety—things I know well—made for an experience both terrifying and cathartic.
What Remains of Edith Finch (PS4, PC)
Death is something that features so heavily in so many games, but it’s rare to play one that actually explores death as a theme. That’s exactly what What Remains of Edith Finch is: an emotional journey through life and death, and a look at how we remember our loved ones after they’re gone.
The game is seen through the eyes of Edith Finch, the last surviving member of a family said to be cursed: every Finch seems to die an untimely, bizarre death. After inheriting a key from her grandmother, Edith returns to the old, long-since abandoned family home. As she explores the mansion, she uncovers accounts of her ancestors’ lives and deaths, with each one transporting the player into a little narrative vignette with its own unique mechanics and visual styles.
In so doing, each of these segments paints a vivid picture of the life of the person at its centre, as a build-up to the strange circumstances of their death. They are, fundamentally, celebrations of each Finch’s life, with death simply being the the final chapter of the story. For a game so morbidly fascinated with death, What Remains of Edith Finch is, more than anything, a celebration of life.
Blue Reflection (PS4, PC)
Blue Reflection seems to have mostly slipped under most people’s radars—especially if you live in Australia or New Zealand, where ratings board nonsense mean the PS4 version is difficult to get hold of. It’s a shame, because Blue Reflection is a beautiful, poignant game, and one of the best examples of a coming of age story in recent memory.
It tells of Hinako Shirai, a high-school girl whose life was shattered when she injured her knee, stomping on her lifelong dream of becoming a prima ballerina. Then, on her first day at a new school, she discovers an ability to enter an alternate world made up of people’s unconscious thoughts—a world where not only can she dance and move as freely as she likes, but by fighting monsters she can help her friends work through whatever problems they’re facing in life.
It’s part Persona and part magical girl anime, with a heavy focus on love and friendship. It’s a fantasy game about coping with very real struggles, from depression to bullying to family breakdown. Most of all, it’s a game about the power of friendship to help deal with those struggles—a common theme in JRPGs, but one rarely explored as richly as in Blue Reflection.
NieR: Automata (PS4, PC)
NieR: Automata isn’t just the best game of 2017; it’s one of the best games of all time. It’s a perfect balance of exciting action (courtesy of Platinum games), creative game design, irreverent humour, deep and relatable human drama, and heady philosophy. It’s a game that’ll mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.
At its heart, NieR: Automata is an existentialist look at the meaning of life, as seen through the lives of a group of androids caught up in and endless proxy war on behalf of their human masters. What starts off as a typical good-versus-evil story quickly gets more complicated—and thought-provoking—as new information gets layered on. What does it mean to be human?
The remarkable thing about NieR: Automata is how perfectly every different aspect of the game comes together in service of the ideas that it explores. This isn’t a game with distinct “story” and “gameplay” and “art” and “music”; it’s a game where all those things are one and the same. The story as told as much through game mechanics as through cutscenes; the playing as carried as much by the ebb and flow of music and story as it is by pressing buttons. This is a game that people are going to be talking about, studying, and exploring for generations to come.
That’s it! Those are, in my estimation, the 30 best games of 2017. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment below with your thoughts!