By Keza MacDonald, Laura Kate Dale, Rich Stanton and Kim Snaith
Game of the Year lists are a nightmare. No matter how hard you try not to, you often end up in a futile attempt to quantify which experience was “better” than another, or more “deserving” of recognition. Do you miss out some predictable things that everyone enjoyed in order to offer a lesser-known game a moment in the sun? What do you do when one member of your staff hates something that everyone else loved?
Our approach at Kotaku UK is to sidestep all of this entirely, pick four games each that we’ve loved over the past 12 months, and explain why. Some of these games would probably end up quite far down a more conventional ranking, but here they can rub shoulders with the ones that everyone’s expecting to see.
2017 saw the gaming world spread further in different directions. Near the beginning of the year we had Nintendo’s Switch, and near the end we had the Xbox One X – one little console that you can take with you anywhere and play with anyone, and one big console designed to complement top-end TVs and home cinema systems. These are two totally different technological approaches: smaller and more convenient versus bigger and more powerful. At the same time as enormous companies like EA, Valve and Blizzard are making and maintaining games that are expanding to fit however much time you have to give, hundreds of independent developers are making games that want to make an impact in one or three or five hours. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a game that has not technically been released, is the most-played game of all time on Steam. It’s been impossible for some time now to play every good thing that comes out in a given year, let alone everything. But in 2017, these were our favourites.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It’s been an unusual challenge picking four favourite games from 2017, because I’ve played about half as many games as I normally would have. Breath of the Wild is the reason why. I’ve enjoyed more than a hundred hours of uncovering delightful new surprises, puzzling over shrine riddles, mapping strange landscapes, hunting down memories, slashing at the ankles of giant beasts, and indulging the natural curiosity and bravery that all humans are born with.
Breath of the Wild is absolutely the best game I have ever played, and taps into something fundamental about human nature: the urge to explore. It offers up a world so beautiful and brimming with such detail and mystery that I remember it like a place I have been, rather than a game I have played. I have memories of this Hyrule as fond and as visceral as the memories I have of the year I spent in Japan when I was 20, and ten years down the line I have no doubt that I will cherish them just as much.
Breath of the Wild is by turns funny and sweet and meaningful and I love it because pretty much everybody I have spoken to this year has enjoyed it for slightly different reasons. If I could travel back in time, this is the one game I would show my 9-year-old self as an illustration of where games would be in another two decades.
What Remains of Edith Finch
I’m not sure what I expected when I sat down in front of What Remains of Edith Finch, but I did not expect to still be sitting there five hours later with tears streaking down my cheeks. Probing the warren-like home of the Finches, squeezing through secret passages and creeping along tree boughs, my apprehension was tinged with both excitement and a growing sense of grief: what sad tale would be next, and how creatively and beautifully will it be told? How much more can this family possibly suffer? How much more can I take? What Remains is not macabre, however; its magical realist tendencies add a difficult-to-define sparkle to its anthology of family misfortunes.
The appearance of books like Gravity’s Rainbow on the crowded shelves of the Finch family home might suggest that this game is overreaching, but it’s not. It is right at the peak of video game storytelling.
Despite a properly ropey, rushed English translation – which, as a sometime-translator myself, almost caused me physical pain at times – and some truly (if appropriately) adolescent tendencies in its various stories, I loved Persona 5. I don’t think it really succeeds in tackling anything real, as its convoluted tale of stolen hearts and abuse of power is often too black-and-white to say much about the conflicts within real people’s hearts. But it was wonderful escapism to dive into a madcap, stylish, characterful teenage adventure in Tokyo, tooling around on the Yamanote line and carving up demons in a parallel netherworld.
This Tokyo is up there with the Yakuza series’ as a brilliant place to spend time; I almost resented having to visit people’s mind-palaces when I could be studying in a diner with my best friends instead. This is a stage of life that is definitively Over for me in reality, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I dived into this story with such relish. Persona 5 is certainly a good reminder of what it feels like to be a teenager, and the importance of your friends at that time in life.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
You’d think that any Uncharted game not to feature Nathan Drake would suffer from the comparison, given the brilliant character dynamics at play in the first four games, but honestly, half an hour into The Lost Legacy, I’d forgotten all about him. This is just an amazing game on all levels: the PS4 Pro makes it look so good that it’s sometimes difficult to believe, the pacing is excellent and refreshingly snappy, it’s hugely exciting to play, and the interplay between Chloe and Nadine is frankly perfect.
The opening chapter alone – with its vivid portrayal of a bustling market – does things with animation and performance that I wouldn’t have thought technologically possible even five years ago. It’s as good as any of the twice-the-price “full” Uncharted games, if considerably shorter – though that’s actually a plus.
Super Mario Odyssey
Mario Odyssey walks the line between loving tribute to the past and experimental dive into the future. It features a fantastic mix of small, quick environmental puzzles perfect for cranking out on the bus, and with longer puzzle chains requiring skill and exploration perfect for sessions sat at the TV. Add on top the ever-changing play dynamics, the densely packed worlds, the constant surprises and the ridiculous number of Moons to find, and you’ve got a game that’s had me hooked for weeks.
I can’t help but smile every time I boot up Odyssey, and there are very few games that bestow joy so reliably.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn is an incredibly polished open-world adventure, with gameplay that feels like a technologically-advanced Monster Hunter and a story about the downfall of modern civilisation. Horizon’s is a matriarchal society focused on the earth’s natural value, in the wake of a patriarchal society drawn towards technology as the solution to all issues. It feels rooted in a believable diversion from the world we know today.
Aloy’s journey was filled with endearing moments that I’ve already felt the need to revisit, from the first time I pinned down a giant mechanical dinosaur and disarmed it while it struggled to escape, to taking a mechanical bull and riding it into combat while firing flaming arrows. Oh, and having your Ubisoft-style map towers be giant roaming long-necked robo-dinosaurs was a stroke of contextual genius.
Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods is a brilliant analysis of modern millennial culture, as viewed through the lens of a pansexual college dropout who, upon returning to her tiny hometown, realises the world is moving on without her whether she likes it or not. It follows the character of Mae as she hangs around her home town, clinging onto the simple joys of being a young adult, and battling the depression that can come from feeling lost and abandoned in a world that feels like it has a place for everybody except you.
The ways that Night in the Woods handles queer themes, topics of mental health and depression, as well as the struggles of crossing the threshold from child to adult are truly touching. Also, the art style is fantastic... and it’s really cool to repurpose weird local monuments to house baby rats.
While Splatoon 2 at its core isn’t a drastically different game to the original Splatoon, it does have something going for it that the first game never managed to secure: a stable and growing online playerbase. On the Wii U, Splatoon sold fairly well, but very quickly started running out of new players. The sequel has a far healthier community, which will hopefully continue to enjoy an influx of new players indefinitely.
The idea of a non-violent shooter where you have to paint the floor neon colours was always something I wanted in my life, but not until the Switch did it take over my life. The constant post-launch free updates keep giving me a reason to come back, and it’s easily my most played online game this year.
Resident Evil 7
Reinvention is hard to get right. Change too little and why did you do it at all? Change too much, and you lose what defines the series. This wasn’t the first Resident Evil game made with the first-person perspective (that honour goes to the rather average Gun Survivor spin-off series) but it was Capcom’s first real shot at translating its biggest cash cow into a new form. The single best thing about Resi 7 is that it’s not like any other video game out there – though movies, of course, are another question.
Set in the Lousiana swamps around an old family estate, Resi 7 marked a step-change in tone for the series and moved decisively away from constant action towards atmosphere. You explore the house and grounds. You move slowly, and hear things shuffling in the distance. The fights are quick, messy, panic-inducing affairs. And when you start to see the real terrors of this place, it can freak you out. I started playing using PSVR. Around half an hour in, there was an interactive sequence so pants-browning that I played the rest of the game on a flat screen. I’m not ashamed; that’s a tribute to just how well this game achieves what it was going for. It has flaws, and could certainly have done with one or two more enemy types, but the overall achievement is magnificent – this is Resident Evil’s essence, reimagined in a game that feels utterly modern and in some respects pioneering.
The Evil Within 2
I’ve always had a lot of time for Tango Gameworks’ The Evil Within, and loved its unusual structure and combat. The Evil Within 2 doesn’t abandon the original’s no-holds-barred scene shifts, but it chooses to root them within two large open world environments packed with surprises – while refining the underdeveloped stealth system into something much slicker, and polishing up the already magnificent combat. You’re often surprised by what’s next. Much of the appeal is the scary, grotesque enemies and the intensity of combat situations – especially when unplanned. Another surprising element is the game’s themes, from the artistic exemplar Valentini to Sebastian’s all-consuming sense of personal failure.
TEW2 is a great game on the surface. But I played a lot of great games this year. The difference is that this one, for whatever reason, stuck with me. This is a world of horrific psychological symbolism, uncomfortable truths, and sometimes outright terror. Despite the fantastical lengths it goes to, however, there’s something real, human, and vulnerable at the core.
The Shrouded Isle
What’s in a name? Well that depends on if you’re living in the kind of community where, for example, being called an intellectual might mark you out for an early demise. Such is the kind of society that you watch over in the Shrouded Isle, a town controlled by a draconian religious sect that, each season, sacrifices one of its inhabitants to the god Chernobog. Each season you choose a representative from each of the town’s main families. Then you put them to work and, incorporating gossip and targeting schedules, you try to work out who is ‘bad’ and who is ‘good.’ Who questions scripture? Who is lecherous? Who is lazy, or a narcissist, or god forbid an artist?
The Shrouded Isle is a simple game in its elements, but the way they interplay over each playthrough always feels different. You learn to manage the squabbling families better, and identify warning signs early. You become a hunter for the telltale phrase, the word out of place, and soon enough are a virtual inquisitor par excellence. Much like the Crucible offered an historical parallel to the excesses of McCarthyism, The Shrouded Isle feels like it offers a fantastical reflection on aspects of our lives today. We don’t ferret people out and offer them up to some monstrous god every three months, of course. But across the globe and across creeds we live in an age where personal sins can be suddenly exposed – and the power of words is implicitly understood. I couldn’t help but feel some pang of the familiar as I would identify a villager’s sin – he’s a liar! – then feel relief as the sentence was carried out in public, and the public agreed it was just.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade is hard to categorise: it’s an action game, sure, and it’s also definitely an adventure. But not much else is so straightforward. Senua’s journey takes place against an internal landscape. The world’s puzzles are all about how she perceives them. And the game’s enemies, when killed, fall back and collapse into dust – like they were never there.
We cover Hellblade in some depth elsewhere. For this I’d like to mention one tiny thing, incidental really. There’s an animation which sometimes breaks in during combat, when Senua is not actively attacking or defending but just facing her enemies. She’ll lightly twirl her sword 360 degrees, never losing control, in what feels like a second or less. This touch has always stood out to me because in the rest of Hellblade, there’s no suggestion whatsoever that Senua is cocky.
But then, this little touch is an inheritance. Heavenly Sword’s Nariko flows somewhere through Senua’s veins. And Dante, that beautiful punk, is somewhere deep in the background – breaking out in this split-second flourish. It’s Ninja Theory really, embodied in Senua, breaking out of the grim and oppressive atmosphere that pervades much of this game to remind us we’re in very good hands.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
For the last few years, the Assassin’s Creed series has been a bit like Marmite – you love it or hate it. In response to growing ennui with the series, Ubisoft decided to take 2016 off in order to refine what the Creed franchise actually is. And by god, did they do a stand-up job of it.
Origins is still Assassin’s Creed through and through, but it’s bigger and better in almost every way. An RPG-style loot system has been added, combat feels more visceral than ever, and it’s hands-down the best location we’ve ever seen. I loved the London of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but the breadth and scale of Origins sets it apart from anything else. Its recreation of ancient Egypt is teeming with real historical detail, spread over a map so big that after 30 hours, you won’t even have uncovered half of it. This year’s protagonist, Bayek, is truly three-dimensional, with a backstory that means his actions are validated and we actually empathise with him along his journey.
It’s a graphical marvel, too – especially on PC or one of the ‘premium’ console models. For every 15 minutes I’d spend completing a mission or task, I’d spend another few just admiring the surroundings, whipping out the camera mode. Endless deserts are punctuated by oases, shanty villages and grand, stately cities, all brought to live with an incredible level of detail. Oh, and you can pet cats, so there’s that as well.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
The fact that episode three of Before the Storm wasn't even out when I made this list and yet it still stood out to me as one of my favourite games this year speaks volumes about its quality. I loved 2015’s Life is Strange, not for its magical time-travel slant, but for the realistic cast and their grounded teenage problems. Before the Storm, being void of the supernatural, is solely a tale of teenage angst — and being a teenager myself once, it’s a tale that I could (mostly) relate to.
It’s all a little dramatic and over-the-top, but the characters bring Before the Storm to life. Chloe, who we’re familiar with from the original Life is Strange, and Rachel, whom we only knew by name, feel so real that we can see ourselves, our friends and family echoed in parts of their personality. For Chloe especially, through whose eyes we play the game, her emotions are so raw that it’s impossible not to feel what she feels — whether it’s brutal anger or saccharine joy.
Losing a loved one is not something anybody likes to think about, but for every one of us, it’s a sad reality that we’re all going to have to face at some point in our lives. Blackwood Crossing is a game of grief and of coming to terms with loss - seen through the eyes of two children dealing with the death of their parents.
It’s never as clear-cut as that, though; Blackwood Crossing is very clever in its storytelling, drip-feeding us glimpses of reality juxtaposed against a backdrop of surreal scenes ripped straight out of the dreams and nightmares of Finn and Scarlett, the children at the centre of the game. Whether or not we’re playing through a dream or reality though, the one thing that really stands out is the relationship between the two children. Finn, a young boy of seven or eight, and Scarlett, a teenager of around 16, have been forced closer than ever thanks to a tragic turn of events — and their bond is beautifully displayed through dialogue and visual cues. Finn adores his sister, holding her in the highest regard, while Scarlett feels a maternalistic tie to her brother than she never imagined she’d have. There’s nothing quite like the bond between siblings, and the way Blackwood Crossing portrays that is beautiful, uplifting yet heartbreaking all at once.
While my other choices may be slow and meandering narrative-driven tales, Nex Machina is all about the action. It’s pure, unadulterated frenzy from start to finish, and I love it. Coming from arcade legend Eugene Jarvis and Housemarque – the team that brought us the likes of Resogun and Alienation – it’s no surprise; Nex Machina is cut from the same cloth as its other games, which is to say it doesn’t disappoint. At all.
It’s a fairly short affair; an hour or two will see you blast through Nex Machina’s six worlds depending on your skill level, but it’s the sort of game you’ll want to jump into again and again. It’s a tour de force of sound and colour; gunfire, explosions and synth-heavy techno beats permeate your eardrums as you run and gun your way through short levels. There’s no time to stop and pause or admire your surroundings here — it’s kill-or-be-killed as you move in and out of bullet streams, dancing a deadly ballet with your own firepower as you dodge between enemies and their projectiles. It’ll keep you on the edge of your seat alright, and you might just need to lie down once you’re done to let your heart rate return to normal.