Friday, December 22, 2017

Jonathan's Top 10 Video Games of 2017

2017 was a surprising, overwhelming, and altogether wonderful year for video games, with another insanely strong showing from Sony’s PlayStation 4 and an all-time great launch year for the Nintendo Switch (the less said about Microsoft and Xbox in 2017 the better). Trying to keep up with one ongoing video game library this year was tough; two or more nearly impossible; and trying to cover as much as possible for an ongoing weekly podcast? Well, let’s just say it’s good we were able to divide and cover as much as possible, because no one person could take in all the great games 2017 had to offer.

We’ve been doing Top 10 Video Game lists on the podcast since 2011, and I can say with confidence that 2017 was the most competitive year I’ve done this. I played more than 35 new games this year, and when the time came to start assembling this list, I had 9 games I considered ‘locks’ and 5 or 6 titles jockeying for the last spot. Suffice it to say, even in great years like 2013 or 2016, I usually have a lot more room to maneuver when compiling the list. In 2017, the truly great games landed early and often and I accumulated favorites at a pretty rapid clip. Every game on this list is one I love deeply and could not recommend more enthusiastically, but I must make particular note of the Top 3, because not only do I think they stand as the clear masterpieces of 2017, but they would all land very highly – perhaps even in this exact order – on the ‘Best of the Decade’ list we’ll be considering in two years’ time. They are 3 of my all-time favorites and it is incredible they all came out in the same calendar year.

Some quick observations on the content of the list before we begin: All but one of these ten titles are from an existing franchise or property, and while that could on the surface point towards a stale year in games, it was anything but, for all of these games (and others not listed here) were substantial innovations or refinements, returns to form or glorious evolutions. And on a personal level, 2017 played home to new entries in almost all of my favorite ongoing series, and nearly every one (sorry, Mass Effect Andromeda) was a home run. What a treat. All but one of these games are also exclusives, in one way or another, with 6 of the 10 appearing on only one system, and for the first year this generation, not a single game I played on Xbox – which, with a largely anemic lineup, was the year’s clear outlier – made it on this list (the one multiplatform title is playable there, however). Save Microsoft, though, the barrage of great games in 2017, and the sheer number of accomplished exclusives, speaks to an industry that is, while not without its problems, healthy and thriving in creativity, imagination, and ingenuity.

What a year. What a joy to experience and cover it. And without further ado, these are the 10 I loved the most, coming up after the jump...

10. Gravity Rush 2
Developed by SIE Japan Studio – PS4

Gravity Rush 2 is a game defined by its ambition. It’s an ante the game ups from its already ambitious predecessor, a PS Vita game that offered a relatively large open world and one of the most thoroughly original movement, combat, and presentation styles in the history of 3D video games. Gravity Rush 2 takes all of that, moves it to PS4, adds two new sets of gravity powers that greatly expand and alter the gameplay, offers a much bigger and even denser world to explore, and extends the story to such a dizzying amount that the game serves, essentially, as three sequels in one. It’s Gravity Rush 2, 3, and 4 all in the same package, continuing and eventually concluding protagonist Kat’s story far more thoroughly, and on a far grander scale, than anyone could have reasonably expected.

This is a beautiful, mesmerizing, once-in-a-generation video game accomplishment, its art style, characters, atmosphere, gameplay, and especially musical score all not only outstanding achievements for the medium, but utterly singular in voice and execution. The game puts everything it has on the table, explores every corner of its world and lore there is to explore, and while that leads to problems in places – the game suffers from a bit of open-world bloat and drags a lot in the middle act – they are ultimately easy to excuse for one simple reason: There has never been a series like Gravity Rush, and given how thoroughly this sequel leaves everything there is to leave out on the field, there probably never will be again after Gravity Rush 2.

9. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Developed by Ubisoft Paris & Ubisoft Milan – Nintendo Switch

It’s easy to say that Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle shouldn’t have worked, that its very existence was a surprise and that an idea so seemingly bizarre and random had no business becoming a good game. But then, one of the greatest things about Mario is his endless pliability. For every traditional platformer Mario has starred in, he’s been at the center of at least 5 different spin-offs, each in a variety of genres, more of them enjoyable than not. And with RPGs in particular, Mario has an unexpectedly sterling track record, with Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga each boasting a dedicated and well-earned fanbase.

And it’s to that list of unexpected RPG successes that Mario + Rabbids truly belongs. Like Legend of the Seven Stars, this is a case of an outside developer (Square Enix on the SNES title, Ubisoft here) taking the reins and running with them, creating a game that is as mechanically sound and surprisingly deep as it is aesthetically celebratory, having a tremendous amount of fun with the Mario license and Rabbids crossover while marrying it to a challenging and satisfying set of gameplay systems. The core tactical combat here, reminiscent of the XCOM series, is simply outstanding, its streamlined nature creating a game that is easy to learn but pleasantly hard to master, and allowing the developers to craft some truly creative (and frequently fiendish) combat scenarios that require a real command of strategy and forethought, particularly in the game’s second half. And where many tactical RPGs struggle with pace and monotony, Mario + Rabbids elegantly sidesteps these problems with its navigable overworlds, giving players a chance to catch their breath, enjoy the creative and colorful scenery, and solve some simple but enjoyable puzzles in between bigger bouts of action.

The writing and character work is similarly inspired, the entire game bursting with laugh-out-loud dialogue and amusing sight gags, including the best characterization of Bowser Jr. in Mario franchise history. And when all these complementary elements come together as one – namely the World 3 boss with the Opera-singing Phantom rabbid, a riotously funny sequence that offers an ingeniously designed combat encounter – it makes for a refreshing, deeply engaging gameplay experience like no other. Mario + Rabbids was one of 2017’s most pleasant surprises, and it’ll make me think twice next time I express any trepidation at Mario stepping outside his comfort zone; Nintendo’s mascot is a lot more versatile than we give him credit for.

8. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Developed by Naughty Dog – PS4

Last year’s Uncharted 4 was, to my mind, an undeniable masterpiece, the high point of the series to date and a thrilling, soulful evolution of everything Naughty Dog does so spectacularly well. But it was also, deliberately and reflexively, an ending, a firm and rousing punctuation note that not only seemed to close the book on Nathan Drake, but serve as a culmination of the series’ unique blend of puzzle, platforming, and shooting gameplay. I thus felt split going in to Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, eager to play more of one of my favorite franchises, but curious if there was enough gas left in the tank to support another full release.

Eight hours later, I never wanted the series to end.

In both story and gameplay, The Lost Legacy is fully and completely invigorated, so much so that it feels like Naughty Dog could keep on doing this forever and never run out of steam. In addition to the same tight, energetic combat system from Uncharted 4 (which was a huge step up over the PS3 games), The Lost Legacy features: the greatest and most creatively complicated puzzles in the entire series; the best extended climbing/platforming sequence in any Uncharted game; an amazing open-world chapter that feels like a breakthrough for Naughty Dog, and a potential glimpse into what future adventure games like this could look like; an incredible finale that provides the series with its finest action climax to date, blending genuine challenge with immersive cinematic thrills to stunning effect; another terrific and rousing score from Hollywood composer Henry Jackman; and, of course, an outstanding lead in Chloe Frazier, who makes the jump from supporting character to playable protagonist with aplomb, driven by a magnificent performance from Claudia Black and buoyed by a perfectly calibrated sidekick in Laura Bailey’s Nadine Ross. Chloe is every bit as compelling a protagonist as Nathan Drake, and even if the gameplay, environments, and puzzles weren’t so accomplished, she alone would make this feel like a fresh second act for the Uncharted series. It all adds up to a game that feels far more vital and refreshing than the fifth game in a series has any right to be, and while it would be understandable if Naughty Dog wanted to walk away from the franchise for good in favor of new opportunities, The Lost Legacy is proof that Uncharted has more than enough life left to continue wowing us for years to come.

7. Sonic Mania
Developed by PagodaWest Games, Headcannon, & Christian Whitehead – PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch

It’s been a long, long time since Sega consistently knew what to do with their speedy blue mascot – a fact thrown into stark relief by this year’s other Sonic game, the scattershot and underwhelming Sonic Forces – so is it any surprise that the answer lay in trusting things to the fans? Made by a small team of independent Sonic enthusiasts – Christian Whitehead was responsible for the stellar iOS ports of the original Genesis games, while Headcannon and PagodaWest Games had previously developed Sonic fan games and independent HD remasters – Sonic Mania is virtually without precedent in the realm of mainstream gaming. How often do developers from the fan community get brought up to the big leagues by a company as large as Sega? And even with all the skill and passion involved, how often would you expect the final product to be as polished and invigorating as this?   

Sonic Mania is an obvious labor of love, its gorgeous graphics devotedly recreating the look of Sega’s 16-bit era for our HD generation, its stellar soundtrack (by Tee Lopes, another creative from the Sonic fan community) picking right up where the amazing music of the Genesis left off. But it is also a game made with a tremendous amount of skill and creativity. There have never really been any other 2D platformers quite like the original Sonic the Hedgehog games, and it is positively uncanny how precisely these developers nail exactly what once made this series so special, while simultaneously ladling a whole lot of new and clever ideas atop the durable formula. Nearly every level in this game is a straight-up masterclass in platforming design, the sense of momentum, challenge, and variety expertly calibrated from start to finish. The team works wonders with remixed stages, taking the basic ideas behind a classic level like Chemical Plant Zone or Hydrocity Zone, blowing it all apart, and rebuilding and expanding upon it all in ways that ingeniously defy expectations. And the craziest part may be that the all-new stages, such as Studiopolis or Mirage Saloon, are even better.

After two full playthroughs and a lot of time tinkering around in random levels, there is little doubt in my mind that Sonic Mania is the best game the franchise has ever produced. If Sega has any sense whatsoever, they will already have commissioned a sequel in secret. The company at large may have no idea what to do this property these days, but this group of incredibly talented fans has their finger on Sonic’s pulse, and I’d hate to see them let up after just one outing.

6. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
Developed by Intelligent Systems – Nintendo 3DS

The Nintendo 3DS had a fascinating year, overshadowed by the stellar launch of the Nintendo Switch but still playing home to at least two, by my count, of the year’s most compelling games. And both, by an interesting stroke of coincidence, made great new strides for their respective franchises by revisiting ‘black sheep’ sequels from the past.

The first of these is Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a game that one would do a great disservice to call a ‘remake’ of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden. Echoes certainly gets a lot from its Famicom ancestor, including an engaging central premise, a great pair of protagonists, and some amazing musical compositions. Yet what it gets most from looking to the past is a refreshing sense of freedom from 25 years of franchise formula and familiarity. Without longtime series staples like the weapon triangle, or more recent innovations like the bonding system and support conversations, Echoes is free to invent in new directions, and I find its experimentations endlessly invigorating. Fresh elements like dungeon exploration and first-person segments in towns and castles add a sense of atmosphere and immersion greater than Fire Emblem has ever had, while all the fundamentals – namely the tactical combat encounters, which are some of the most creative and challenging in Fire Emblem history – are executed with supreme confidence.

Underlying all of this is, to my mind, the best story Fire Emblem has ever told, featuring one of its best casts of characters, and realized with some of the best presentation I have ever seen in a JRPG. The art direction and graphics are first-rate, another miraculous achievement for the humble (and aging) powers of the 3DS, while the stellar writing and incredible voice acting – in a Fire Emblem first, the entire game is performed in full – combine to make one of 2017’s most compelling video game narratives. The tale of Alm and Celica isn’t just good, but surprisingly rich in cultural background and thematic nuance, building to one of the best uses of the traditional ‘Let’s fight a God!’ trope I’ve seen from the genre. Simply put, this is perhaps my favorite entry in one of my favorite franchises, offering one of my all-time favorite consoles one of its very best titles.

And 2017 is so insanely stacked that it ‘only’ comes in at Number 6. What a crazy year this has been.

5. Metroid: Samus Returns
Developed by MercurySteam & Nintendo EPD – Nintendo 3DS

The other of the 3DS’ ‘almost-but-not-quite-a-remake’ triumphs, Metroid: Samus Returns is a glorious rebirth for a franchise most of us thought dead (or, at least, stranded in a severe long-term coma) at the beginning of the year. But then came E3 in June, and the unexpected announcement of not one but two new Metroid games: the in-development Metroid Prime 4 for Switch, and the already-completed Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS. As they did in 2002, when Metroid last came back from the dead, Nintendo resurrected the franchise with both a 3D console tentpole and a handheld 2D throwback, and while we only have the 2D titles for now, Samus Returns is more than enough to tide me over.

For like Sonic Mania or Fire Emblem Echoes, Samus Returns is so much more than a mere return to titles or ideas from the franchise’s past. With the tightest and most fluid controls in Metroid history, immersive open-ended level design, a stellar series of upgrades, perfectly atmospheric music and sound design, and the most incredible graphics in the Nintendo 3DS’ library – the 3D backgrounds look so deep it feels as if one could stroll several miles into the distance of any given image – Samus Returns is as eminently playable a game as I’ve encountered all year. It is so satisfying and accomplished, so perfectly hits that sweet spot unique to Metroid, that when I finished playing I immediately went back to the menu and started all over again on the hardest difficulty. I wound up playing Samus Returns to 100% completion twice in a row, something I can confidently say I’ve never done before for any other game, and if there were more of it to play, I’d be doing so right now. The Nintendo 3DS has one of the best libraries of any console on the market, and I’d say Samus Returns is, along with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, right there at the top of the pile. If you own a 3DS, you should already be playing this game; if not, Samus Returns alone is reason to buy one.

4. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Developed by Ninja Theory – PS4, PC

More than perhaps any game I have ever played, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice makes full, visceral use of the medium’s most experiential qualities, instilling in players a sense of the psychosis and turmoil experienced by its main, eponymous character, and which succeeds in powerful, harrowing fashion by allowing the player to inhabit the soul of another. I knew the game was working on me in a way no other game ever had when, roughly two hours into playing, I realized I was having active trouble breathing. It is the main physiological symptom of my anxiety, and having forgotten to take my medication that day, the game was triggering it in terrifying fashion.

That may sound like a weird recommendation. And to be sure, I only think you should play Hellblade if you know what you’re getting yourself into. This isn’t a game one plays to have fun, just as one doesn’t watch certain arthouse or avant-garde films for simple entertainment. One plays Hellblade to experience something artistically profound and technically masterful, to see the video game medium pushed to its limits in service of telling a story that simply could not be told, at least not with this degree of immediacy and sophistication, in any other format.

On a purely technical level, what the 20-person team at developers Ninja Theory achieved here is jaw-dropping. The incredible art design and graphics, which look as good as any AAA game on the market, are frequently breathtaking, modulating between natural beauty and visual horror with startling fluidity. Even more significant is the ridiculously immersive binaural sound design – this is a game that must be experienced with headphones – which is perhaps the most accomplished and essential use of sound I have ever heard in a video game, illustrating much of Senua’s internal toil by placing you, quite literally, in the center of her mind. The voice work throughout is outstanding, but the central performance by Melina Juergens – a first-time actor who was the video editor at the studio, doubling as a stand-in for Senua until the team realized how perfectly she embodied the character – is an utter knockout, in both voice and physicality, pouring a tremendous amount of humanity and scarred personal history into the character at every turn.

While much of the game’s narrative and thematic greatness comes from its specificity of time, place, and culture – its use of Nordic Gods, legends, and oral traditions, aren’t just texture, but thematically essential and deeply ingrained in the story – Hellblade is ultimately an astonishingly universal story about how one’s emotional pain and feelings of difference or isolation can leave one stranded inside a purgatory of the self. It is a sprawling yet deft, intimate yet maximalist story about the flagellation a person can impart upon themselves in order to heal, and no matter how fantastic the imagery becomes, no matter how severe Senua’s mental illness grows, it is shocking how much of it feels recognizable and relatable. That it truly does so much of this through gameplay, with breathlessly intense combat and sinister environmental puzzles that all feel like natural extensions of Senua’s psychosis and turmoil, is why it works so powerfully. This is not a story that could be told passively – it demands interaction, and being an active part of how it all unfolds makes it utterly unforgettable.

I have never played anything like Hellblade, and I’m not sure I will ever have the will to experience it again. But I know that the evening spent playing this game was one of the most riveting, painful, moving, thought-provoking, and by the end, uplifting experiences I have ever had in this medium. It is one of the great achievements in the history of games.

3. Super Mario Odyssey
Developed by Nintendo EPD – Nintendo Switch

There are so many ways one could break down the greatness of Super Mario Odyssey, and I suspect we shall spend much of the next generation doing just that. For both in individual parts and in glorious whole, Odyssey is a joyous masterclass in game design, a game that takes many different fundamentals from all areas of Mario’s rich history and combines, remixes, and innovates expansively on top of them to create what may in time prove to be the greatest 3D platformer ever made. There is literally nothing one can do in this game that is not fun, that is not compelling or rewarding to the player, and given the sheer sense of variety and scope on display in the game’s many wondrous Kingdoms, that is no small feat. Just as it can feel delightfully overwhelming to know where to go or what to do when presented with so many possibilities in the game itself, writing or talking about Super Mario Odyssey feels like an embarrassment of riches. There is so much that is so good on display, where does one possibly begin?

In thinking about it, I keep coming back to this one thought, this one feeling I had when I finished the game, and I think it is the most defining testament I can make to Odyssey’s greatness: That after pouring in over 60 hours and achieving 100% of objectives the game has to offer – 880 power moons, plus enough coins to get to 999, plus purchasing every costume, and so on – the only thing I wanted to do was to keep on playing. And I have never before so thoroughly completed a game this big only to want there to be so much more of it. The game just plays so damn well, is so clever and surprising in how it builds these worlds for you to explore, is so consistently inviting in how steadily it rewards you for discovery and curiosity, is so wonderfully joyful and open-hearted in its voice and tone and aesthetics, that it feels like the game could go on forever and never stop being fun. There may have been deeper, more radically innovative games in 2017, but I don’t know if there was a single title as purely fun as Super Mario Odyssey, and that counts for a hell of a lot in my book.   

2. Persona 5
Developed by Atlus – PS4, PS3

Persona 5 is a profound act of alchemy. It is a game that takes a pointed sense of outrage, a distilled and pure and deeply felt anger, and over the course of 100 hours of expertly interwoven story and gameplay transforms that rage into beauty and transcendence. No game this year – heck, no game this decade – has its finger on the pulse of our times like Persona 5. It harnesses the fury we feel towards our deeply broken world – a world where liars prosper, goodness comes at a cost, and those most in need of a voice are frequently the first to be silenced – and tells us those feelings are real, that they matter, and that we should hold our anger close to our heart and let the flame burn bright.

And then it tells us to get the fuck out there and do something about it. It tells us that it is possible to imagine and actualize a better future, a better tomorrow, a better today, and by the end of its masterful campaign, it makes the allure of that seemingly simple possibility – the possibility of having a fighting chance towards charting one’s own unique, fulfilling path – feel like the most powerful, inspiring, and liberating thing in the world.

That it does all this on top of the most refined, accomplished, multi-layered, complicated-yet-elegant RPG system ever created for a video game is something that’s almost easy to take for granted. Yet Persona 5 is awash in engaging, expertly balanced, perfectly realized gameplay systems – some in, but many out, of the exquisite dungeons and battles – and even moreso than its wonderful predecessors, it works overtime to ensure that every single thing a player can possibly do in some way furthers the story, deepens the world, enhances the sense of atmosphere, or, most importantly, brings one closer to the incredible cast of characters. The number of superlatives one could hang on Persona 5 is almost overwhelming. Its writing, performances (in English or Japanese), art style, and especially Shoji Meguro’s bass-driven musical score rank among the greatest accomplishments ever attained in this medium. Be it games, movies, TV, music, painting – few works of art reach as high as Persona 5 does. Fewer still attain everything they set out to grasp, and it is to this rarified class of masterpieces that Persona 5 belongs.

(This is also the game we talked about most on the podcast this year, and which formed the basis of some of the best critical discussions we’ve ever had, all of which were compiled into a ridiculous 10-plus hour episode that you can listen to here, if you’re so inclined).

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Developed by Nintendo EPD – Nintendo Switch, Wii U

Edmund Burke defines the sublime as a beauty so astonishing and absolute that its presence consumes our physical and mental bodies with a state of purest awe.

(Bear with me on this).

In his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin … of the Sublime and Beautiful, he broke with classical and Greek aesthetic theory in asserting that the deepest meaning of an encounter with the sublime can be the experience in and of itself, that it need not lead us to a concrete intellectual revelation to have a deep existential impact on our minds and beings. When I use the word sublime, I use it in this sense, and I do not use it lightly, because I feel it is an effective way to describe a meaningful aesthetic encounter – an encounter so meaningful, in fact, that it can be difficult to put into words, for the most powerful aesthetic experiences are, by their very nature, intensely nonverbal.

More than any other video game ever made, it is this notion of the sublime that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild taps into, minimizing (though in no way erasing) linear narrative and overt characterization to make its aesthetic, palpable, interactive world the thing itself – those vast open distances, endlessly beautiful sights, and, especially on one’s first playthrough, that constant sense of discovery serving as the most fundamental point of the experience. Burke writes of “infinity” as one of the most powerful aspects of the sublime, asserting that “infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime. There are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses that are really, and in their own nature infinite. But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so.” His definition rings true when you first climb out of the Shrine of Resurrection and see the seemingly boundless world laid out before you, or when you first realize that mountain far off upon the horizon can be reached and climbed, or when you first download a map segment and see that this big, beautiful, wondrous plateau you’ve been exploring is only a tiny sliver of the larger world that awaits. And it continues to ring true the second, fifth, tenth, or twentieth time you do these things, and even beyond that, in an endless permutation of visual and experiential wonder.

In all these things, Breath of the Wild makes us feel the sublime. It is not the most graphically or technologically advanced game ever made, even this year, but it is to my eyes far and away the most beautiful, its employment of rich and varied color, dramatic and dynamic light, swaying grass and textured, painterly landscapes evoking the greatest traditions of Japanese painting and animation, but in a world that feels fleshed out, tangible, lived in, and, yes, infinite. The sublime is felt almost constantly in this game – not a facsimile of it, nor even a good artistic representation, but a genuine experience of it, of something so much bigger and more awe-inspiringly beautiful than one can even comprehend. All forms of art may touch upon this from time to time, but games, being interactive, have a unique yet often, in their never-ending search for visual ‘realism,’ underused opportunity to incorporate these ideas into their very being. For Breath of the Wild, the feelings associated with the sublime are the seed from which the entire game is grown, in all its component parts, and it is a truly wondrous creation.

Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest games ever made in large part because it could only exist as a game. It is unadaptable to any other medium, not just because its story is minimal, but because its truest, purest stories are the ones you experience while moving through the world at your own pace and upon your own whims. It is a purely experiential work of art, something that cannot be precisely recreated even between individual players, and that is a kind of magic only video games can conjure. The title itself is such a lovely signal of this mission statement. Where most titles in the Zelda series are on one way or another a comment on the story – on central objects like The Wind Waker or the Ocarina of Time, or characters like the Twilight Princess or the Oracle of Seasons Breath of the Wild is a phrase that evokes what the player experiences and feels while moving through its world. Nintendo has lovingly crafted a landscape tailor-made for adventure, gifted the players with all the necessary tools and gameplay systems, and set us loose to have that adventure in an intensely personal, thoroughly unique way.

Philosophically, this approach is ambitious and admirable, but it would be nothing without sufficient execution, which is of course where Breath of the Wild, like most Nintendo masterpieces, excels. The game is a complex but intuitive mixture of a concentrated number of gameplay elements and systems that interact in surprising, challenging, and consistently rewarding ways, where nearly all parts of the world are in some way a puzzle, and curiosity will prove endlessly rewarding. A search for a Shrine will involve all forms of movement – walking, running, horseback riding, and most importantly, climbing – a healthy sense of exploration, and perhaps some subtle environmental puzzles; and once it is found, it will provide you with a 3D puzzle room, nearly all of which are clever and intellectually engaging, frequently on par with games like Portal, all built on a small but flexible set of tools that must be combined in seemingly infinite permutations. The four Divine Beasts, this game’s variation on the traditional ‘dungeon’ structure, are even better, grand symphonies in comparison to the Shrines’ pleasing intermezzos. Your explorations may also uncover Koroks, a nearly never-ending series of environmental puzzles that appear in many more forms than you are probably aware (I have found over half of the 900 in the game, and am still stumbling upon new solutions I had never thought of), or lead you to a little side-quest, or to save a character under attack, and so on. In almost all cases, you will be rewarded with something – a heart or stamina piece, a Korok seed, a weapon, a shield, some rupees, etc. – that will empower you for the next encounter.

But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes, the reward for getting to the top of that hill, for figuring out the best way to climb or traverse that great and complicated distance, might just be the experience itself, may just be the view one gets to gaze upon. And that is, in its own way, quietly radical. We have, throughout the 2000s, been inundated with open worlds that strive to give us more: more gameplay systems, more progression rewards, more map icons, more sidequests, more on-screen indicators, more dialogue, more story, more distractions. Breath of the Wild has the audacity to suggest that more might in fact be less; that silence and stillness, openness and evocation, freedom and exploration, might be more powerful motivators for the player than a constant, ever-present, overbearing guiding hand. So while the world is vast, its rewards and discoveries many, the game allows you to find it all for yourself, with an absolute minimum in the way of indicators, tutorials, cutscenes, quests, or clutter. And much of the time, it has enough confidence in its own miraculous aesthetics to know that the reward might just be the experience itself, the experience of exploring, feeling, touching, seeing, and sensing this beautiful, wonderful world they have so lovingly built.

Much as I have strived here to do so, it is difficult to put into words what Breath of the Wild achieves, and harder still to describe what it means to me, as the game I have loved most this year, have spent the most time playing and thinking about and constantly reevaluating. What the game aims for goes beyond definition, beyond the boundaries of the verbally reducible, making as full a use of the visual and interactive mediums as I have ever seen. That it achieves these aims, in such consistently stunning fashion, is an artistic miracle. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, simply put, one of the greatest and most significant works of visual art in my lifetime, and one neither I nor the world shall cease playing, thinking about, or discussing for a very long time to come.

Honorable Mentions: #11 – 20

In the great pile-up of amazing video games this year, some of my other favorites that didn’t make the final cut include (in rough order of preference):

11. Butterfly Soup (PC), an incredible independently-developed visual novel by Brianna Lei about a small group of female friends in the California Asian-American diaspora, written and illustrated with a remarkable amount of humor, humanity, and insight. The shortest game I played this year, and perhaps the one that made the best, deepest, densest use of its time.

12. Nier Automata (PS4, PC) is a game I respect and admire more than I necessarily enjoyed, but it has an amazing experimental streak, an uneven but ultimately fascinating and emotionally impactful story, and some of the year’s greatest character creations, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave an impact. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s absolutely a game everyone should play and experience for themselves.  

13. Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment (Nintendo Switch, 3DS, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC), the second major expansion to the outstanding 8-bit throwback, this time focusing on the Reaper-esque Specter Knight, with completely redesigned levels and gameplay that blend the familiar and the unique in the most exciting ways; with the burgeoning series’ most intriguing and emotional story to date, it might just be the best Shovel Knight experience so far.

14. Destiny 2 (PS4, Xbox One, PC), a sequel that finds Bungie on much more confident footing than they were this time in 2014, keeping everything that worked so brilliantly the first time around and jettisoning much that didn’t. The endgame is ultimately too shallow for me to consider this a real Top 10 contender, but I loved the main campaign and, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, I think the PvP multiplayer is some of the best I’ve played in years.

15. PuyoPuyo Tetris (Nintendo Switch, PS4) finally made its way stateside this year, and I’ve logged more than 50 hours in it. A great Tetris and PuyoPuyo game, it also mixes the two puzzle games in crazy and challenging ways, and brings a zany, self-aware, wonderfully charming visual novel along just to sweeten the deal.

16. Fire Emblem Warriors (Nintendo Switch) works much better than it has any right to, blending the Fire Emblem and Dynasty Warriors gameplay systems to surprisingly compelling effect, making for a gameplay blend that is challenging and addictive.

17. Splatoon 2 (Nintendo Switch) brought the multiplayer sensation to a console people actually owned (and actively played), and it’s one of the most purely enjoyable, personality-filled online games I’ve ever played, as solid in its own unique way as last year’s Overwatch.

18. Fast RMX (Nintendo Switch), our third Switch exclusive in a row, is a superb racing game that scratches that itch F-Zero long since left abandoned. This one is technically an updated Wii U port, but since few (including myself) had ever heard of or played that game until it arrived on Switch, I think it’s fair to count it as new for this list’s purposes. Extra points for outstanding use of HD Rumble.

19. Tacoma (Xbox One, PC), from the creators of Gone Home, may not live up to the developers’ previous work, but it’s a very accomplished game in its own right, with wonderful writing and a hugely compelling central gameplay conceit that allows the player to explore large, sprawling dramatic scenes by moving through them in both time and space. Its themes and narrative break down near the end, but it’s still more than worthy of one’s time.

20. Assassin’s Creed Origins (PS4, Xbox One, PC) is a bit too long and overstuffed for its own good, but it’s also a singular visual experience in its beautiful recreation of Ancient Egypt, and the story and characters are some of the best to grace the now 10-year-old series. Assassin’s Creed might never live up to its full potential, but as AAA American games go, you could do a lot worse than this.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack, and subscribe to The Weekly Stuff Podcast at  

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