The holiday season has arrived which means preparations are being made to close the year out as quickly as possible in all the right ways. Well, not entirely right. No ‘Bloodborne 2’ announcements from either E3 OR the Sony Press Conference…
*UPDATE* A new Bloodborne project was just announced on their official Facebook page, but read on with me still, yeah? 🙂
Really, this year has been particularly horrific if you’re any level of progressive in nature, so the need for escapism has risen to the extent that consumable content has become a therapist in its own right with video games taking an easy lead in medium for their interactive and cooperative capabilities. In December many game review sites honor the best video game achievements of the year, so I’m going to conveniently hop in on that fun and highlight some of the best games (in my humble opinion) to hide away from our stark reality and say ‘fuck off’ to 2017!
Clocking in at number five, we’ve got INJUSTICE 2. I know, it probably looks rather biased for me to include a comic book video game, but hear me out on this one! NeatherRealm Studios saw pretty decent success off of Mortal Kombat X just two years ago for its wild gore-fest of a fighting game, staying true-to-fatality-fashion with some great PVP options and a fun story mode that felt like an insane action film. There were new additions to the roster too, like D’Vorah, Kotal Kahn, Cassie Cage, and so on, all with equally brutal moves that nestle them comfortably among the ranks of the known champions like Raiden, Mileena, Goro, or Liu Kang.
So take that level of creative dedication and visceral fighting experience and implant it into the DC universe–er, multiverse, give your favorite superheroes kick ass moves that a comic takes pages to convey, and add a fun cosmos-reaching adventure for the Justice League and co. to take care of, and you’ve got a REALLY awesome video game. Of course the gore is toned down, but you’ve got tons of customizations, further unlockable characters, all the same cool stuff you’d get out of one of their Mortal Kombat games, just with a superhero experience (though I will be honest and admit some ‘ecchhh’ over games using loot boxes, but other people seem to love them, so….). There is something truly spectacular about Harley Quinn’s victory screen specifically, but that’s digging into a particular bias I won’t ramble about. Injustice 2 is a big step up from its predecessor visually, but also technically. It handles very well; competitive play feels amazing with friends or online, but even just sitting down by yourself trying out all the different heroes and special moves is incredibly satisfying, with both complex directional options for seasoned fighting-gamers as well as simple progression techniques for newcomers. It’s been a LONG time since I enjoyed a versus-system battling game as much as this one, and if you’re just as bummed as I am over the stupidly obvious ‘skip the X-Men’ thing in the latest Marvel vs. Capcom game, check out Injustice 2 instead.
The year isn’t complete without at least one good horror game, and this year, the number four pick is an unsettling one: OUTLAST II. If you’re not familiar with the Outlast series, it’s a first person survival horror game that follows journalists uncovering some unsavory secrets regarding an asylum, the company that owns and runs it, and the violent history it hides. However, the sequel isn’t a total return to the original story; in this game we follow two original characters in a new mystery that takes the first game’s controversial religious undertones and now blasts them purposely into the forefront, creating a grisly, shadowy Arizona landscape to explore and record with your only weapon, a digital camcorder. The first game seemed to largely depend on jump-scares and your lacking ability to defend yourself from crazed patients at the asylum to fit the bill, but where Outlast II really shines is giving you the same sorts of startles and adding layers of atmosphere that even in moments of silence and calm create a sense of constant insecurity and disorientation. It’s a wild west sort of setting but instead of cowboys and sheriffs running the streets, it’s a backwater cult driven mad by the Murkoff Corporation’s experiments, a company name that links us back to the first Outlast game and its DLC, ‘Whistleblower’.
This game is incredibly unnerving, and what felt even further perfected in this sequel was your inability to fight didn’t seem to hinder the gameplay, but rather enhanced your options to hide, sneak, run courses and avoid obstacles. Despite following a specific storyline, there still seemed to be interesting clues to follow on to side paths, spaces to explore while avoiding enemies, as well as a few new mechanics introduced to create a more realistic and alarming experience. I fought between this and Resident Evil VII for this year’s list, but I enjoyed Outlast II juuuust that little bit extra to give it this spot, which it comfortably deserves.
Number three: YAKUZA: 0! This game was a ride, let me tell you. The story of Kiryu and Majima, told from different sides of a fictional Tokyo, is one of intimate relationships within the Japanese mafia families, as well as the people affected by the crime they commit and inspire. For a game so violent and energetic, there is A LOT of heart painted into every district, every character and side-quest to make this game a charming, tense, hilarious, dark, fantastic altogether experience. The fighting styles are unique visually, but also hilariously diverse and expansive, evolving move after move until you’re a regular Yakuza boss on the streets and at headquarters with a preferred skill-set. There’s a great selection of both small, quick stories to run errands and complete tasks for other side characters, and huge business opportunities to run famous clubs and defend huge turf, all tied together perfectly through the power of supportive karaoke sessions and collecting sexy phone cards laying around scuzzy phone booths. No lie.
I also need to spend a moment gushing about the look of this game, because the sense of era ‘Yakuza: 0’ emits, while offering some of the greatest renderings of faces, hair styles, outfits, store fronts and weapons, is ceaselessly astounding. I’m a stickler for hair graphics in games, to be very particular, and apart from ‘Uncharted 4’s’ impressive visual enhancements, this game is literally the bee’s knees in terms of realistic human representation and scenery dressing. Well, until you start lifting motorcycles and swinging them into other yakuza thugs without wrecking buildings or breaking a sweat. Don’t worry about that, trust me, you’ll love this game and all its absurdity.
Nearing the top of the list at number two is HORIZON: ZERO DAWN. You want to talk about amazing visuals, this game should receive an award for art book of the year. Horizon gives you EVERYTHING, from the science-fiction flavor of artificially-birthed robotic animals to sweeping fields of flowers that create fire and lightning, to tribal settlements and individual cultures with different artistic styles, spiritual rituals, and political standings and downright gorgeous skies.
The landscapes are dazzling places to explore, if not maybe needing a little more populated points of interest. You’re kept busy enough on the story’s main path, where the side-quests don’t force you too far from the hub-bub of the world and it’s problems, though I’d die to see even more of that in the far corners of this world Aloy, our protagonist, exists within. The story is rich, full of questions and surprises with some important things to say about people and their relationships to nature and machines. You get to see how these groups are affected by misconceptions, fear and hysteria over things they can’t understand by playing a character finally brave enough to tell EVERYONE she doesn’t give a shit what they think. It’s refreshing that even to a figure akin to a ‘god’, she snorts and keeps on kicking her own way. Maybe they don’t explicitly call her an atheist, because in a society like the game presents, a word for that doesn’t really exist other than ‘outcast’, but she’s the closest, most obvious parallel to one I’ve ever seen in a game that wasn’t a secondary character or a hero that was eventually proven wrong and ‘shown the light’. She makes her own damn light and if something exists without explanation, she seeks one that has evidence and makes sense.
There was a little controversy around this game concerning the style of the cultures being clearly Inuit applied to a largely white primary cast, and while I do love this game and the whole experience of it, it’s really easy for me to say that as a white-passing woman. It’s definitely something that needs addressing in future releases by these guys, but for what the game is and now has to be, there’s a lot of good representation given to women and even queer relationships, much like the early Mass Effect games offered players the chance to take part in. I need more games like this, pushing even harder and exhibiting more reflections of all kinds of players, and it really makes me look forward to Guerilla Game’s next projects.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for; the greatest game of 2017, making the number one slot is HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE! This game…where do I even begin? Hellblade is an experience in video gaming like I’ve never known. Some of the game’s first credits are given to neuroscientists and psychologists, and rightfully so as this game presents not only as a mature fantasy adventure based on Scandinavian mythology, but also a deep look into a mind riddled with psychosis, from severe chronic depression to internalized anxiety disorder to schizophrenia. The character of Senua is on a quest into Hel itself to save the soul of her deceased love Dillion, but with every enemy she faces on her way to meet the gods and goddesses of darkness, you come to learn that her greatest foe and ally is truly herself.
I can rave all over again about the graphics of this game, mixing hyper realistic execution, ghosting runic symbols and lens flares, and of all things, full motion video sequences, to create a world abundant in style and spirit of the lore it represents, but also to present the world of a disordered mind in a time when no such titles for mental illness existed. This ‘darkness’ in Senua has haunted her life in every conceivable way, creating abuses that even today, victims still suffer through on roads to recovery or a semblance of normalcy. The visual representation is really quite a feat when combined with in-game puzzles to unlock further avenues and tasks, but what truly shines in this game is the audio. Through the entire game, you are subject to Senua’s mind and the voices living within it, spitting doubt at her every triumph, and cheering her through every downfall. It’s amazing what this aural experience gives to the feel of playing this game as this onslaught of constant whispers jabs at your every move, your every decision to cast even YOUR mind, as a player, into doubt. It creates the most empathetic, participatory position to see into the life of someone suffering from these ailments with largely unseen symptoms and deeply physical torment.
The fighting system in this game has your usual swings, parries and blocks, but a new mechanic is introduced in ‘the rot’, a physical representation of insanity that plagues Senua’s arm. For every time you die in the game, the rot spreads further and further through her, and if it should reach her head and infect her mind, the game is OVER, and you’re forced to begin an entirely new game altogether. I know this might sound like a silly ‘git-gud’ trick, but this actually makes you think about the character you’re playing as a person, not a fictional character. You feel her fragility, despite her impressive strength massacring demons that stand in her way of finding Dillion. Honestly, the fighting is not terribly difficult if you’re attentive, so again, I see this as the developer’s decision to make you SEE this character and see what her life is, perhaps in an effort to see real people in your life or even just around it, who endure these same syndromes.
If you have any interest in the human experience, especially with these illnesses becoming more openly discussed and embraced and examined, give this game a go.
What kind of list would this be without some honorable mentions?
Destiny 2: One word: RAIIIIIDS. I’m pretty awful at first person shooters, but I love watching Let’s Plays of this game. If I had any skill at all, who knows, this game might’ve made the list.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Glitchy as hell, but so full of flair and heart, it makes me want a Nintendo system again!
The Mummy: Demastered: Maybe the movie didn’t do so well, but this game is like a modern day Castlevania meets Metroid. Look at that MOON.