Trevor Starkey's Top Ten Games of 2017 - 2017 Game of the Year

Happy New Year!

With 2017 officially in the bag, the time has come to celebrate the best of the best in gaming for the year (at least of the things I played).

A real quick recap of everything else I’ve published in the last week or so.

Combined with what you're (hopefully) about to read and an extra few thousand words I wrote up for Irrational Passions, I've put together just over 21,500 words in the last week or so.

Alright, let’s dive in to my Top Ten. And hey! I didn’t cheat and throw in a tie or anything this year. Just ten phenomenal games that impressed me in 2017.

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10. Battle Chef Brigade (Trinket Studios, Adult Swim Games)

After playing Battle Chef Brigade at PAX West, I figured I’d at least pick the game up to support my friends over at Adult Swim but I didn’t really know if it would grab me. My demo was light on story and mostly just threw me in the deep end with the match-three component of the game so I wasn’t quite sure my objectives (and I haven’t really played a match-three-type game since Bejeweled on a flip phone circa 2005).

But when I got my hands on the full game on the Switch at launch, everything clicked into place. I joke at PAX “so it’s an anime Iron Chef hack-and-slash match-three game” and the person at the booth said, “yup.” And that is an incredibly apt description. Anime Iron Chef is the story as you play Mina, an aspiring Battle Chef Brigadeer. The Battle Chef Brigade protects the people by attacking monsters and cooking them up in friendly competition, with special ingredients and judge preferences and the like. The story, animation, and performances could easily work as a stand-alone anime without even needing the gameplay.

But the gameplay is there too in the form of the hack-and-slash match-three component. As you battle your fellow chefs, you will gather ingredients by beating up the monsters and picking up the bits they leave behind. Then you cook them using the match three components. Ingredients commonly have fire, water, and/or earth elements and matching like with like with level up the element and improve the rating of the dish, with the chef with the highest rated dish named the victor. As the story progresses, you have to present more dishes with new and varied judges and other mechanics come into play such as poison or bone in the dish that, when matched can actually help, but left alone will lower your score. Throw in a dash of RPG aspects and Trinket Studios has really cooked up a fantastic dish.

Hey, I really should have been doing that cooking metaphor for the whole thing.

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9. Pyre (Supergiant Games)

Pyre was another interesting genre mash-up in 2017. On my radar since PAX East 2016 and especially after I played it at RTX that year, Pyre continues Supergiant Games’ history of exquisitely incorporating brilliant art and sound design as they continue to reinvent themselves with the gameplay aspects of their work. Transistor was a departure from Bastion and Pyre strays from them both as part narrative choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel and part fantastical sports game.

You play as the Reader, an exile with the ability to read the stars and determine the location of sacred Rites, which play out like a high fantasy twist on 3v3 basketball. Each team of three has a flame with a set number of hit points and a glowing orb acts as the “ball.” If you manage to carry the orb past your opponents into their pyre, you’ll extinguish the flame a bit, lowering the total hit points. Fully extinguish the flame before they extinguish yours and you win. But carrying the orb into the flame also banishes that character from play until the next “score.” Alternatively, you can take a riskier approach and through the orb into the flame, which would spare your player from temporary banishment but it’s also easier to miss or be intercepted. Lastly, players have a defensive aura around them so long as they don’t have the orb. If their aura touches your player (or is thrown at the player), they will be banished for a few seconds (like a penalty box). It’s all very convoluted in explanation but it works so incredibly well and becomes very intuitive in practice that Pyre has excelled at creating a really fun new sport.

As your party grows, each member will have different aura sizes and abilities, allowing you to mix and match playstyles. As you complete the Rites, there are a series of what would amount to championships, but instead of a trophy, the winner gets to free one of their party members from Exile. This is great for them as it gives the characters that you’re meeting and getting to know on your journey their freedom back, but it also means, you’re out a player. The real heartbreak comes as you start to see that the stars are fading and the Rites are drying up, meaning you won’t be able to free everybody and some of your party will have to stay behind. It’s a beautiful tale filled with rich characters and some absolutely fantastic dynamic storytelling (for example, you could lose every championship rite, which would send your opponents off to freedom one by one, and the narrative can accommodate that). And when you’ve played the story, hopping into the stand-alone local multiplayer with a friend or against the computer is fun as well.

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8. Golf Story (Sidebar Games)

Continuing on with the wonderfully indie-heavy start to this list, we have Golf Story. I didn’t think at the beginning of the year I’d have put so much time into not one but two golf games in 2017. But I did. Everybody’s Golf was a ton of fun as well but Golf Story’s humor and RPG story rise it above the competition to land on this list.

Playing out in a Game Boy Color or Super Nintendo-era 16-bit design, Golf Story has you trying to return to the golfing scene after showing promise as a child before spending the next couple decades in a humdrum life. But where other games would put you up on a pedestal as this amazing golfer with an innate ability, Golf Story finds humor in tearing you down with nobody really taking you seriously, regardless of how many rounds of golf you’re winning or how many trick shots and little side quests you do. Your Coach is slow to warm to you. The golf commentators treat you like a joke. One of my favorite gags came as I won my first tournament and my ex-wife came and took half of my winnings.

Add in any number of other bizarre scenarios like facing down against undead skeletons, a werewolf murder mystery, and senior citizen golf rap battles, and Golf Story is also probably the funniest game on my top ten list.

Oh also, I managed to actually get a Hole-in-One in Golf Story but never Everybody’s Golf! So Golf Story wins on the basis of making me feel like a great golfer, as well.

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7. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo)

There was a time while I was playing Super Mario Odyssey where it was as high as number two on this list. My number one (spoilers, it’s Horizon: Zero Dawn) has been there since March as the game to beat all year. And in the midst of playing through Super Mario Odyssey, it rose up the ranks. It only fell back down as I really reflected on what games really stood out to me and what I wanted my list to reflect and for me, that was games that (for the most part) really blended gameplay with storytelling. And at the end of the day, the gameplay in Mario is a ton of fun but the story is still pretty lacking. It’s just barely a step above the “we’re sorry Mario, the Princess is in another castle” tale that we’ve been getting literally my entire life. The extra little bit is that this time, there’s a unique wedding-themed item Bowser is collecting on every world en route to the wedding.

But again, that doesn’t take anything away from Mario’s gameplay, which does very much feel like the team said “let’s make Super Mario 64 for the modern era.” I had a great time playing through the various worlds finding an overabundance of moons and purple coins in every little nook and cranny of the expertly-designed levels. When I put the game down I had collected I think all but 6 of the objective-based moons (I’m never going to have the patience for 100 volleyball hits. I made it up to 72 on my flight out to Maryland for Extra Life and had to muffle the obscenities that would have surely gotten me detained upon landing). I collected every purple coin and costume and I earned enough coins to buy the rest of the moons to get up to the 999 cap.

I wrote in my Best Non-2017 Games of 2017 piece, that LEGO Harry Potter scratched the collectathon itch I had in the middle of the year. Super Mario Odyssey scratched that same itch to wind the year down. But it’s also probably something I won’t ever really feel like I need to go back too. If I try picking it up in a couple years, I fear I’d be compelled to collect everything again and really, I think once was enough for me there. I would just be going through the motions at that point and with over 800 moons to collect, it’s just not as manageable as, say, hopping back into Super Mario 64 for a quick 120 Star run over a couple days.

Absolutely, a great game, but as I looked at the list there were just some other games that I wanted to recognize more.

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6. Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, Finji)

Where Super Mario Odyssey is all about the gameplay over the story. Night in the Woods is all about the story over the gameplay. There really isn’t too much in the way of gameplay for Mae Borowski outside of platforming around the town and talking to its citizens. There are a few stray rhythm game segments and the Demon Tower game-within-the-game, but this is very much a narrative-driven game.

And the themes that Night in the Woods hits on are really striking. In my review, I wrote about Mae as a “self-centered jerk...a character I loved to hate.” She and so many of the characters in Possum Springs are flawed, but they’re just trying to get through the day, like so many of us. The game addresses the themes of depression and quarter-life crises head on and it’s probably one of the best illustrations of the struggles facing rural towns in any medium I’ve seen. Small-town America is dying in the global economy; 2016 reflected that in the polls with people turning to the man who told them he’d bring back their jobs and way of life. There’s a desperation for that shown in Night in the Woods that helped me better understand those disenfranchised members of society, even as I wanted to scream at them my belief that Trump doesn’t care about and certainly can’t relate to their problems and was just telling them what they wanted to hear.

The fact that all of these themes are tackled through the use of charmingly animated anthropomorphised animals is a brilliant approach because it disarms us. When 90% of animation is geared toward family friendly content, the ones that address the family unfriendly content standout. It’s why the Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and now Rick and Morty found audiences and rose above everything else. Listening to a father address his insecurities about taking a low-wage job as a grocery store butcher resonates more when that father is a cat in glasses and a blue polo shirt because we haven’t seen it before.

As someone who was sold on the game’s art style, Night in the Woods’ story snuck up on me in the best way possible.

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5. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus (Machine Games, Bethesda)

Wolfenstein 2 was a game I needed in 2017. As a seemingly endless barrage of hate was thrown around in the 2016-2017 climate, and Nazis were once again given a megaphone in the public eye in America, every day made me angrier and angrier with no real way to vent that frustration. I needed a game centered around the idea of “Making America Nazi-free Again.”

A lot has been said about the game’s brutal difficulty balancing. I initially thought this was some kind of subtle statement to the effect of “yes, this will give you the catharsis you want by killing Nazis, but we want to make you, the player, work for it.” But then I realized that would go against the core character of BJ Blazkowicz who has been killing Nazis since my childhood. So it really was just a seemingly antagonist design choice against the player, maybe trying to respect the series roots.

But looking past the subpar gunplay, Wolfenstein 2’s story was fantastic. I get that a lot of people thought they went too far with some of the game’s “big” moments, but Wolfenstein is always a series that has veered into over-the-top absurdity. Ever since Mecha-Hitler. But they do such a great job setting up BJ here, that when these moments hit here, I was invested and along for the ride (and yeah, I hated the zombie turn of The Old Blood so I can recognize that I’m inconsistent in this area but who cares?).

I already touched on the fact that Wolfenstein 2 gave me one of my favorite moments in gaming this year with how it handled the relationship between BJ and his father, but the game was filled with great moments just like that. The relationship between BJ and Anya is in a tight race for my favorite couple of the year against Bayak and Aya from Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Walking through Nazi-occupied Roswell, New Mexico and seeing Ku Klux Klan members out and about (and then getting berated by their Nazi occupiers) is surreal. Flying to Venus and everything that happens there. The entirety of the Courtroom scene and its aftermath. And of course the ending. (As an aside, it struck me how many people really hated the end credits music, whereas I just found it forgettable. Seriously, without looking it up I couldn’t even tell you what it was. I remember it was like one of those slowed down cover songs in a minor key or something but I’ve also just become so numb to stuff like extra-melancholic “Sweet Dreams” as a suggestion of tone that I just didn’t even notice it here)

With so many great moments and an inherent catharsis, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus lands at #5.

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4. Destiny 2 (Bungie, Activision)

At the beginning of the year, Destiny 2 was nowhere on my radar. It wasn’t officially announced until March but everyone knew it was coming. As the year went on and they started showing the game, I mostly didn’t care. I was one of the many people who bounced in the Vanilla Destiny era. I didn’t go back for The Taken King, I had no intent to go back to Destiny 2.

But then I got interested at the prospect of actually having friends to play with this time. I’d been burned on that before, buying Overwatch and only ever hopping on to play a couple nights of matches before realizing it wasn’t for me. But at least with Destiny 2, I knew more or less that I would enjoy the gunplay and just not expect much from the characters or story.

And yet, here I am, continuing to play the game long after everyone else has moved on. Yes, Bungie and Activision have been absolutely terrible in how they handled pretty much everything about the microtransaction side of the game and bugs and patches and whatnot. But it sucked me in nonetheless.

Destiny 2 is a great time waster game for me. As the year wound down, I didn’t have the urge to hop into something new like Nier: Automata or Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, despite really wanting to play both. Telltale’s Batman or Life is Strange: Before the Storm felt like they’d be too heavy. But with Destiny 2, I could hop in for an hour after work and recording my daily video, run a handful of public events, crucible matches, or strikes, and get rewarded with new gear as I slowly inched toward the Power cap. Before Curse of Osiris, I had managed to get all three of my characters to the 305 cap and as of today, I’ve got all three up over 330 on the quest to the current 335 cap.

The worst part might actually be that I did get that taste of playing with friends this year. I absolutely detested the raid when my group got together and first attempted it over 17 long hours across two days. But when we were all more leveled up, it became a much easier task, reaching Calus is only a couple hours. Calus is still an absolute piece of shit phase of the game where a single mistake can force a wipe so fuck that noise. But still, I beat him once and now I miss that I don’t have people to play with to try and beat him again. Or explore the newer raid content. Or even just run through the world shooting the shit together. If I still had those regular friends to play with, it’s entirely possible this game, which I never thought I’d bother with, would be even higher on this list.

At almost 250 hours, Destiny was easily the game I spent the most time with in 2017 and with more content still to come, I fully expect I’ll still keep coming back to my #4 game in 2018.

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3. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory)

Hellblade was my biggest out of nowhere game. I remember it getting announced and everyone cracking jokes about the Hellblade name being so thematically similar to Heavenly Sword but then I forgot about the game until a couple days before it came out when, prior to embargo, people started hinting at a really great game that was about to drop with almost no fanfare.

I sat down a couple of days ago and recorded a special discussion about the game for Irrational Passions with Logan Wilkinson and Jack Kruse where we talked for about an hour and a half about how the game affected us. It was much fresher in their eyes as they both played it recently but even having played it around launch, there are so many aspects of that game that have stayed with me.

I think, if played as intended with headphones that incorporate the game’s stereoscopic soundscape, this game has arguably the best sound design the medium has ever seen. The way the game uses the voices in Senua’s head by planting them into your own through this design is as immersive and viscerally unsettling as anything I’ve ever experienced in a game. The fact that it carries into every aspect of the game, from the puzzles to the combat, elevates what would otherwise feel like a somewhat pedestrian hack-and-slash title.

The voices routinely insult and berate you, as anyone with depression can relate to. But hearing them also tell you to “watch out” as a cue that an enemy is attacking you from behind is genius because they are also out to save themselves. They contradict each other and really make the idea of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder relatable in a way that no other medium can really accomplish.

Senua herself is one of the most fascinating characters of 2017, if not all of gaming, because she suffers all of this and still fights on. Even today, we have a hard time talking about and addressing mental health issues. In Senua’s time, she was suffering from a “darkness” that got her mother burned alive. But Senua fights into the mouth of hell itself for something she believes in, battling herself and the gods on the way in equal measure. She is simultaneously vulnerable and fierce and a lot of that is a testament to Melina Juergens honest, unbridled portrayal of the character.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice told one of the most powerful stories of the year, if not the entire medium, earning my #3 spot.

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2. Persona 5 (P Studio, Atlus)

Persona 5 is bigger and better in virtually every way over the already phenomenal Persona 4 Golden. There will be an eternal debate over which cast of characters is better but that all comes down to personal preference at the end of the day (just like the age old “Who is best girl” debate that will tear friendships apart). Personally, with the Persona 4 cast being my first, it’s impossible not to compare the Shujin Academy crew to the Yasogami High gang, and I wind up giving Persona 4 Golden the edge. However, the non-party member characters in Persona 5 stand out much moreso than their P4G counterparts (with the obvious exceptions of Dojima and Nanako), which ends up giving the overall edge to the Persona 5 cast for me. There were only a few Confidant stories that didn’t resonate with me but even in those cases, the support abilities you obtain from these relationships might more than make up for it.

The world is so much bigger than anything we had in Persona 4 Golden as this game takes place in and around Shibuya instead of the quieter, calmer Inaba region. And this bigger world is absolutely filled to the brim with style. The music is fantastic and, after 200 hours across two playthroughs, never managed to drive me insane. The art direction is vibrant and even the menus - be it in stores, the main menu, or combat - are all memorable and unique.

Combat itself is taken to the next level, as well. The guns add a new element from a physical attack standpoint and new elemental attacks like Psionic and Nuclear add a much wider variety, both to your party’s attacks as well as the enemy types. And I very much enjoyed the mechanic for sparing new Personas, even if trying to determine which answer prompts got the desired results felt a little arbitrary and obtuse. But it worked way better than the occasional card system of its predecessor.

The randomly generated dungeon levels of Persona 4 Golden are replaced by specifically designed Palaces for each victim of our Phantom Thieves, with the additional Mementos dungeon still also filling the role of a randomized dungeon for level grinding if need be. If I had one complaint from the game it was that I felt it had one party member/Palace too many, but I also recognize that thematically they needed seven in order to explore the seven deadly sins symbolism. But fatigue definitely started to hit in the end game as a result.

But that didn’t stop me from hopping right back into the game and playing through it all over again to see all of the side stories I missed the first time around. Persona 5’s characters, combat, style, and story all combine to land at #2 on my list.

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1. Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerilla Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

As mentioned earlier (and often throughout the year), Horizon Zero Dawn was my game to beat as soon as I finished it. And while other games came close at times, nothing was able to top this exceptional showing from Guerilla. Horizon is a game with everything firing on all cylinders.

Combat is fluid and dynamic. Taking down the game’s wide variety of machine enemies was always fun and rewarding and the ability to change weapons or heal myself up on the fly meant I didn’t have to constantly hop into menus, unlike some other open world game with a bow and arrow-clad protagonist. Not only did the game provide a variety of weapon types, but then you had a variety of ammo types on top that could come in handy depending on the situation. As I touched on in my best moments of 2017 post, using my Tearblast arrows to deftly rip the Disc Launchers off of the back of a Thunderjaw and then grabbing them to take it down was always immensely satisfying. As was the sensation of shooting Precision arrows into the gullets or sacs of Bellowbacks and watching them explode with their given element. For every enemy, I found strategy that put a smile on my face every time I took them down.

Next up, we had the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. There were some pretty clear signs going into the game indicating that it was some kind of far future version of our own world where these machine creatures had risen up as we had regressed to a more tribal nature. So I was very eager to see where in the world this might be taking place and how we got there. When I started stumbling upon landmarks and collectibles in the environment that set it in the Colorado/Utah region of the United States, I became very excited. In part because I couldn’t recall any other games really centering around the region and also because it’s so very close to my own homebase in Arizona. So when I’m looking over the majestic beauty of Monument Valley, I’m thinking about when my family went there when I was a kid. And if I’m really lucky, maybe they’ll set Horizon 2 a bit south in Arizona and New Mexico and really make my day. And the sky in this game felt like an Arizona sky. I have been incredibly blessed in that we get some absolutely phenomenal sunsets and sunrises here out in the desert and Horizon is the first game I can remember that gave me the same level of the vibrant array of colors we get in those moments; the purples, reds, and oranges streaking across the sky. It’s a little thing but I absolutely loved it. Aside from that though, the world just felt so rich, lived in, and full of things to do.

As for the how it became that way, I absolutely loved the story. Aloy is an ideal entry point into this world for us as the player because she has been an outcast her whole life. So she’s learning the ins and outs of the various tribes at the same time we are. And on top of that, she’s also trying to uncover the mystery surrounding her own birth, which winds up tying in so intricately with the story we end up uncovering about the old world and the events that led to its current state. I’m a sucker for games that manages to tell stories over multiple timelines through the main narratives thrust as well as the collectibles you can find around the world. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was great about this showing us not only Nate and Sam’s adventure, but also the adventure of Avery centuries before them as well as an ill-fated expedition for Avery’s treasure in the years between. Horizon manages this same balance giving us an in-depth look at Aloy in the present day, the journey of Elizabet Sobeck as the driving force in the past, and a completely optional and brilliant story of Bashar Mati, a guy revisiting some of his favorite places and reflecting on his life at the end of the world.

The late in the year expansion of The Frozen Wilds gave a wonderfully human side story in Aloy’s tale and continued to expand the lore of the world. It was a great reason to hop back into the game and remind me why it was standing tall as my #1 game of 2017.

So that’s my list. Let me know yours in the comments or on Twitter. Thanks for a great 2017 and here’s to a great 2018 ahead of us!

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