Insert “Jump Up, Super Star

Welcome to my belated second annual “Favorite Games of the Year” list! Due to a combination of the holidays, stress, and dealing with a personal loss, I’ve had a rough start coming into 2018. As I sorted through these mixed emotions and tried to pick up the pieces, all I can do is try to maintain some level of normality or routine and go back to doing what I do best.

This year, I’ve decided to compile every game I played into one list rather than do an honorable mention section, with one exception as I did not make enough progress to make a recommendation (I’m still figuring out the format moving forward). With a larger variety of games to play, I also made the decision to rank these titles based on level of personal enjoyment, with the top 3 games highlighting my GOTY nominees.

Before we get into the list, some random tidbits about my gaming habits this year:

  • Games I wanted to play but didn’t get the chance to: Sonic Mania, Cuphead, Resident Evil 7, Tales of Berseria, Yakuza 0, Night in the Woods, the Crash Bandicoot Trilogy, Uncharted Lost Legacy, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, and ARMS
  • Games I totally missed on Black Friday because I spent too much: Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy
  • Game I made some progress in before dropping again: Dishonored II
  • Game I tried really hard to like: Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Games that probably would kick my ass: Nioh, every fighting game from this year
  • Games I have still yet to finish: XCOM 2, Dishonored II, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, Metal Gear Solid V (which I started over after jumping to the PS4 edition), Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • The number of awards I accurately predicted for The Game Awards 2017: 10 out of 22 (see, I didn’t forget to follow up!)
  • Number of awards that matched my personal picks from the actual winners at The Game Awards: 7 out of 22

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And now, my list:

10. Fire Emblem Heroes

Book II

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One of the biggest surprises was Nintendo’s full embrace of the mobile market with the introduction of original games. Being the huge Fire Emblem fan I am, I was ecstatic when I first heard Fire Emblem would be coming to mobile devices.

Though the game was rough around the edges at launch, Fire Emblem Heroes has been getting a steady amount of new content through continuous updates each month and adding or modifying features based on player feedback. The game’s meta is continuously changing with every new character or feature introduced.

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Given the platform, it is impressive the amount of mileage the developers got implementing the familiar weapon triangle down to a very simplified map and character movement. What most stood out for me was the amount of detail and presentation. Every character is voiced and given original artwork specifically for this game. An original story was created with brand new characters and a second campaign was recently added that confirms a theory I’ve suspected about the world of Heroes and where its origins point to.

If you stopped playing since launch, while I don’t think any of the above will change your mind about the game (there is still grinding, the gatcha mechanics still feel unfair even with more forgiving odds, too much currency types), Fire Emblem Heroes might be worth a second go.

9. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

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The only game on this list I have not completed one full playthrough (not counting Heroes as it is continuous), I am solely going on how far I am in the campaign (up to Act III).

After the resurgence of the Fire Emblem series post Awakening, fans were divided on the direction the series was taking. Gone was the old art art-style in favor of a more anime-inspired look and heavier emphasis on fan-service and shipping (looks at you Heroes). Given that Heroes launched earlier this year, it seems that future titles will likely continue in this direction and play a larger role on the development of the next game coming to the Switch.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a reboot of the unreleased Fire Emblem Gaiden, feels closer to games before Awakening, but also something radically different from previous titles. Echoes, like the game it is based on, rewrites a lot of the series’s unwritten rules and traditional mechanics. There is no weapon triangle, promoting or changing classes happen sooner and can only be done in shrines, and magic is ridiculously OP but costs HP to use, to name a few.

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While not every change succeeds, Echoes is off to a good start and looks to be a large improvement over Fates in terms of gameplay and story. I only wish I picked it up sooner to be able to talk more about it and give it a proper ranking, but for now, it’s one of the best handheld games on the 3DS last year.

8. Final Fantasy XV

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If The Game Awards can include this, then screw it. Besides, this game has changed so much, it is practically a new game than the one released in 2016. Anyways, I actually bought this game in December, but didn’t get around to starting it until January/February and finished it around April.

Final Fantasy XV is good, but not great. Throughout the game, I felt there is this duality at play that continuously came into conflict with itself. It opens with a promise of an open world, but in reality it is limited to what you can do in it. You spend a great deal of time in the car getting from point A to B, and once on foot, you hunt monsters and collect items/treasure. Most of the side quests aren’t very good, which range from fetch quests to go to specific location and pick something up, or defeat a specific monster or group of monsters that felt more like busy work. Also, you can fish.

Despite that, I found a lot to love. The battle system was improved from XIII and felt more enjoyable (though it still feels like an odd mix of an action game and part menu-based), the villain is one of the series’s strongest (if somewhat underdeveloped), and the main cast largely stole the spotlight even when the story itself never quite reached the emotional heights it was reaching for (though the ending remains one of my favorite conclusions this year).

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FFXV is a hard game to recommend. For every nitpick I had, I usually found something else to quickly remind me it was a journey worth taking. The music is excellent, taking down a huge beast that formerly owned me the first time felt great, and traveling with Noctis and company and having them make conversation or comment on their surroundings was always a source of enjoyment, if not hilarity. It’s a shame FFXV’s world, despite how pretty it is, is never utilized for more than a vehicle to move the cast from point A to B. Still, with friends like these, I wouldn’t mind starting up the Regalia again; or pushing it to the nearest repair shop.

Fun fact: this was my third most played game according to my PlayStation account (92 hours).

7. Metroid: Samus Returns

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Nintendo really surprised everyone by not only announcing one, but two new Metroid games. Though the focus might have been on Metroid Prime 4, there was another game that would be launching a few months later after E3.

Metroid: Samus Returns feels like a homecoming for the series. Coming off the mixed response from the last two games, Samus Returns is a complete remake of the original Metroid II on the Game Boy. Like Fire Emblem Echoes, Samus Returns introduces a few new mechanics to give the game a new edge from the original title that also change up what we’ve come to expect from 2D Metroid games. Enemies are a lot more aggressive than in previous games to utilize the new counter mechanic which requires the player to strike back an attacking foe with precision. It’s a small change, but one that trickles down to the rest of the game leading up to the final boss as this mechanic is used constantly to encourage a direct approach.

Its only real flaw is how faithful it is to the original game. In Metroid II, Samus is tasked with wiping out all the Metroids on planet SR388. Because of that, you spend a great deal of the game fighting the same enemies with some variation. It doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Metroid Zero Mission with its endgame content either, and backtracking felt more like a chore in this game as you make progress by moving down and deeper with each new area.

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Though not my favorite game in the series and not a dramatic game changer like Nintendo’s other offerings, Metroid: Samus Returns is a good retread of the 2D games and an excellent choice if you missed out on Metroid II the first time around.

6. Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment

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I’m honestly surprised we’re still talking about Shovel Knight and even more shocked how high this next game ended up ranking on my final list. With the previous game/expansion, Plague of Shadows, swapping Shovel Knight for Plague Knight and revisiting the same levels with albeit with a different toolset, I didn’t expect the next DLC, Specter of Torment to change things up further than that.

Instead, Yacht Club Games went back to the drawing board on this one and completely redid the levels, hub, powers and movement, and boss fights. Even the music got touched up and remixed! Taking on the role of Specter Knight in a prequel to the original Shovel Knight campaign (renamed Shovel of Hope in the Treasure Trove collection), you learn of the origins of the Order of No Quarter and the tragic fall of our hooded protagonist.

Specter Knight plays quite differently from both Shovel and Plague Knight, so each stage and boss was reworked to take his toolset into account. Even having gone through these levels for the third or fourth time, I was impressed with how well these stages were remixed that I would have gladly bought this game on its own (though I’d still recommend Treasure Trove). Previous bosses have completely different attack variations or entirely new stages up to the final boss which has one of the most memorable encounters of any game last year.

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The original Shovel Knight was one of the few indie games that managed to keep my attention long after I put it down and prove that there is still room in the market for old school games while putting its own unique spin on the 2D platform genre. Specter of Torment doubles down on this in the best way possible, and made even more impressive knowing that there is still one more campaign coming in the near future.

5. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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Having not played The New Order, I largely went into Wolfenstein II with no prior knowledge save a gaming sins video I watched online for the previous game. My incentive to play this game was largely coming off from last year’s excellent Doom (one of my top 3 games of 2016).

At times, both games do share a bit of the same formula: spongy enemies, emphasis on fast movement, and excellent gunplay (along with some of the best shotguns of any shooter). While Wolfenstein II’s gameplay never reaches the same heights as Doom 2016 due to some questionable game design choices (stealth sections with tight corridors, odd difficulty spikes and paper thin health), The New Colossus’s real heart is its cast of characters, with protagonist B.J. getting a very well put together narrative than I would normally expect from your typical FPS story.

Wolfenstein II’s first half frustrated me to no end, which may have been intentional given the state of B.J. at the beginning of the game, but I was driven to see what happened next, and my patience was eventually rewarded by the second half which is where the game’s more interesting levels and story beats start dropping in. If you love single player FPS games, then Wolfenstein II was easily the best shooter of the year.

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4. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I’m going to be completely honest and say I did not initially like this game as much as my peers did after getting off the Great Plateau, where just about everything was intent on killing me. That was the first few hours of the game.

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Breath of the Wild changes almost everything about a traditional Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, and for traditionalists, there was a lot to learn and relearn. Weapons can break, inventory is finite (though expandable), and for the first time since the original The Legend of Zelda on the NES, you can go just about anywhere provided you had the stamina to reach a location or you avoid being killed by the environment.

I slowly started to make progress and acquire items and armor to make my travels easier. Enemies that once killed me in one hit were now on the receiving end of my blade (or at least I avoided being completely mauled by a Lynel). I spent several hours uncovering shrines and finding secrets; sometimes by complete accident!

BOTW breaks new ground and continuously rewards player curiosity. It sets a new gold standard for open world games that I have no doubt will be replicated for years to come. I don’t know where Zelda can go from here, but if BOTW is any indication, Nintendo has only scratched the surface of what it can do given this started life on the Wii U (the version I played as I bought my Switch later on).

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3. Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is one of those games that reminds me why I love gaming in the first place in. Out of all the games on this list, Odyssey was by far the most fun I’ve had in a video game all year long, and the only game on this list that I have completed to 100% completion.

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There is something about Mario games that have always drawn me to them. From the excellent controls, the colorful worlds, and the new ideas or mechanics introduced with each game (for Odyssey, it is Cappy), it is hard to pinpoint one exact reason why I loved Odyssey as much as I did.

What amazes most about Odyssey, and to the same degree BOTW, is that Nintendo took a look at the open world formula for most games, got rid of the excessive bloat, and narrowed it down on a few key elements: exploration and discovery.

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Any other year, Super Mario Odyssey would have likely taken the GOTY spot, but there were two other strong contenders that were extremely tied for the number one spot. Regardless, Odyssey has quickly become one of my personal favorite games in recent memory, possibly surpassing the excellent Galaxy games.

2. Nier: Automata

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Confession time: I had honestly forgotten this game existed until the demo launched on PSN sometime before it released. There was such little advertisement, I vaguely remembered the first teaser that popped up when it was first announced. Anyways, the demo made such a lasting impression that I ended up buying the full game a few months after release when the first sale popped up.

Nier: Automata is the one game I regret this year not picking up on release day; it’s that good. It is also the only game on this list that I’ve done two full playthroughs for endings A - E, which according to my PSN stats puts me at about 98 hours (my second most played PlayStation game last year).

Let’s start by what drew me in: the gameplay. Developed by Platinum Games (best known for games like Bayonetta), Nier: Automata is an action RPG, though it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was an RPG from the demo. I legitimately thought it was action game from the first sequence that mixed a number of bullet hell sequences, 2D platforming, and some linear navigation with hack and slash fights, leading up to game’s first boss encounter that combines all of the above; and that’s the first 10 minutes of the full game!

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Then there’s the story, aka, what kept me playing for a full 40+ hours in addition to the gameplay. I can safely say I have never played a game quite like Nier: Automata in the 20+ years I’ve been gaming. From the characters, to the environment, it takes a certain kind of melancholy to be able to take so many moving parts and put together several themes that make you question what it means to be human. Without giving too much away, there are some very difficult questions and choices that feel eerily directed towards the player.

Nier: Automata is in a league of its own; I can’t even begin to describe the madness that is this game. It is a game that transcends its own media by asking how much worth we put into it. At what point does a game stop being just a game and something more? For all the naysayers and critics, as well as some of the bullshit practices that several AAA developers pulled in 2017 that threatened to derail it, Nier: Automata stood out as a shining example of what the medium is capable of when created by the heart and why I will continue to be a defender and advocate of gaming.

1. Persona 5 (GOTY of 2017)

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As you may have gathered from my top 3 games, I play for a variety of reasons: For fun, to get absorbed in a story, or to escape reality for a bit.

On paper, Persona doesn’t sound like a series that I normally would dabble in. Role playing as a high school student during the day, managing my time with various contacts and activities, and engaging in some otherworldly extracurricular activities when you aren’t doing either sounds closer to reality than a video game. This game has so many moving parts, it can be pretty overwhelming when you realize you only have a finite amount of time to try do everything or are suddenly forced into making a choice.

To give one example, over the course of the game, you are given opportunities or scenarios to hang out with friends over a shot at getting closer to a potential romantic interest. None of these choices necessarily alter the game, but it always meant that I couldn’t see every choice play out in my first playthough. Though each game does feature a central antagonist or force to overcome, the biggest enemy is always that invisible clock looming over you, constantly reminding you to prioritize and carefully plan out who you spend time with.

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There was a lot I loved about this game; probably too much to fully list here. If I had to narrow it down to two things of why I hold the series in such high regard, it would be characters and theme.

On characters, Persona 5 largely follows a template established by what came before. You have the nameless but cool avatar, the best friend/troublemaker, the popular beauty, the animal/mascot, the class president, the ace detective, and so on. Despite almost fitting an established mold, its when you start spending time and getting to hear their stories or ranking up their social links where they begin to deviate from that script. Some are a little more predictable than others, particularly when it comes down to the game’s main story towards the climax, but even then, there were plenty of surprises and unexpected revelations that continued to add depth to the Phantom Thieves’s ultimate goal.

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Persona 5, like its predecessors, features a variety of playable characters and much larger non playable cast which include some of the most memorable side character stories of the past year, only evenly matched by Nier: Automata’s own side quests, which brings me to my second point on theme. Right from the start, Persona 5 wastes absolutely no time touching some of the darkest corners of society (minor spoilers follow). There aren’t very many games that I can think of that tackle issues such as depression, child abuse, suicide, and death or coping with loss of a loved one in such a direct, yet subtle manner. At times, the stories can get a little too close for comfort. Too close. Okay, disturbingly close to reality.

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Persona 3 is still one of my favorite games of all time, but Persona 5 comes extremely close to overtaking that spot as it improves on almost every major flaw I had with the gameplay. For a game that technically came out in 2016 (if you lived in Japan), Persona 5 still feels relevant today as I look at the state of affairs here in my own country, and my personal life. Clocking in at 100 + hours (my official PSN record states 160), Persona 5 is a huge time investment, one that may discourage some people from jumping in. But if you do answer the call, you’ll find one of the best, most stylish games available, as well as one of the best video games of 2017.