Game of the Year 2017 : Wrap Up

Calum – Euan talked about a game this year as “Important and I`m not sure why”. That feels like it sums the year up to me. The gaming community at large is now more diverse than it has ever been, and the releases we saw match that. We also learned that we have the power to make real change in the face of naked greed of companies. It was a great year.

Euan – Yes I know it’s April, and it’s a little late to be doing this, but we both got caught up in a lot of real world commitments, and suffered our yearly amnesia about how much time it takes to put these things together. We are here though, so let’s get into it.

By this point (all technology gods appeased) we have video and audio versions of our deliberations up on the site, so if you want a little more detail on how we got to this point, go check them out. All 6 hours of them are timestamped so you can get to the category you are interested in.

Ok let’s go.

2017’s 20xx Game of the Year – Elite Dangerous

Runner’s Up

  • Rhythm Heaven Megamix
  • XCOM 2

Calum – Elite Dangerous took over my life for a good few months in 2017. The combination of a Steam sale and becoming friends with a couple of “experts” convinced me that this was a game worth looking at. I do not regret my decision. Up front I will say, do not play this game unless you have massive amounts of time, and are willing to Google a hell of a lot of things/have friends to tell you what it what. The game shows you the basics, forward, back, up down and how to dock with a station without crashing, then lets you loose on a seemingly endless galaxy. And believe me it feels endless, but that is in no way a bad thing. Infinite space means infinite possibility. You can do near enough anything from frontier explorer to be an alien researcher, bounty hunter, or human trafficker (not joking). All with space controls that feel responsive. I am told that the “only way to play is on a HOTAS”. If you want to live out your space fantasies, Elite Dangerous is here to satisfy.

Best Looking Game – Cuphead

Runner’s Up

  • Persona 5
  • Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Calum – Cuphead is easily the most unique and striking looking game ever. I have had several people, many who do not care about games, look at Cuphead and say “wow, what is THAT?”. It’s the reaction we all had when we first saw the game at E3, and it’s the reaction you will have the entire way through the game. By calling back to cartoons of the 30’s and hand drawing every frame of animation themselves, Cuphead looks like no other video game. Several bosses will have multiple phases, both changing their entire animation suite and sometimes what the boss even is, leading to an excitement to continue and see what the developer has thought of not. Everything in Cuphead is a marvel to behold. Complex boss wind-up attack animations are countered by the simplicity of the dance of Cuphead and Mugman on the title screen, all means you will be nothing but stunned the entire time playing.

Best VR Thing – Robo Recall

Runner’s Up

  • Rec Room
  • Hotdogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

Euan – I have a real problem with choosing hobbies and interests that require substantial investment at the outset. 14 year old Euan decided to take up Games Workshop games, which anyone who has been through that process will know what that investment is required. Games are no different, especially when PC gaming is concerned. 1080s are not cheap.

Robo Recall is a game that proves the concept entirely.

So when consumer VR was announced, with a required investment that was more than usual, I knew that I wasnt going to be able to get in on the ground floor. A year later, and Oculus  announce that their headset with hand controllers had dropped to £400. That was my limit, and meant I could finally get into a technology that I thought could be something special.

I was right.

Putting the hype to one side, the technology is sound. It works. Everyone I have put a headset on, even people who are not big game players, makes the same noises of amazement when it works exactly how they expected it to work. Now all we needed was the games to back it up.

Robo Recall is a game that proves the concept entirely. It has the interactions you need to prove out the hand controllers as essential. Graphically it has the chops to sell the immersion that just having the motion tracking headset gets you 90% of the way. Then on top of all of that, you have a game that is fun to play, has a sense of humour and a real style to it. Yes it is “just” a shooting gallery, like a large amount of the VR titles out there, but it is by far the best of them, and a great thing to show just what this technology can do.

Best Original Track – Cryptometrics (The Mummy Demastered)

Runner’s Up

  • Layer Cake (Persona 5)
  • JUDGEMENT 審判 (Yakuza 0)

Euan – The fact that we have two separate categories for music should show that it’s one of the things we value a lot in this medium. For this category specifically, this year is a special one. Our winner this year is a game that neither of us have played and, only speaking for myself, have no interest in playing. Not because it’s necessarily a bad game, just not a genre I play a lot of. This should speak to how into this track we were this year. It’s sythwave-y as well as chiptune-y, taking the 16-bit sounds of the console the game is trying to emulate and elevating it with a modern beat behind it. We both had this track on repeat for large parts of the year, and it still has not gotten old.

Best Moment – The Cannery (What Remains of Edith Finch)

Runner’s Up

  • The Audition (Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus)
  • Hela (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice)

Euan – Edith Finch is a game of vignettes with each one portraying the final moments of a member of the perennially unlucky Finch family. Once the player establishes this after the first few, they play the unfortunate game of working out how the character they are currently portraying will meet their end. This is why when the story of Lewis began with his job in the local fish cannery, the player is immediately tinged with fear. Surrounded by that many sharp instruments, the mind immediately begins to reel.

This moment stands out above the others as it manages to do what only games can, it marries interactivity with storytelling in such an incredible way. The player is immediately put on edge by the constant flow of “grab fish”, “push fish to edge”, “wait for giant blade to decapitate fish”, “dump fish”, “repeat”. We have all had those monotonous jobs at some point, and know how the brain decides to just wander, so adding a giant blade to the recipe ramps up the tension so much. As Lewis’s brain wandering starts to take on more and more of the screen, the player continues to get taken in by it all, just waiting for the moment when it is all going to come crashing down. It’s a masterful combination of storytelling, interactivity and visuals, and will stick with people long into the future.

Best Headpiece – The Rubber Helm (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)

Runner’s Up

  • The Masks (Absolver)
  • The Psychoscope (Prey)

Calum – Dude has a fish on his head! Look at it! If you get the whole rubber armour set he looks like some BDSM ninja with a fish on his head! How is that not the best?!

Best Soundtrack – Persona 5

Runner’s Up

  • Yakuza 0
  • Prey

Persona 5 has easily the most complete, impressive and surprising soundtrack of the year.

Calum – To me, there was never any other option. Persona 5 has easily the most complete, impressive and surprising soundtrack of the year. It both fits the individual style of the game itself, while also slotting perfectly into the wider persona OST pantheon. Persona 5 takes a more jazz/funk approach, unlike 4’s more J-Pop and 3’s rap/hip hop styling.

At over 100 tracks, the soundtrack is vast, allowing it to explore a lot of different spaces, but all sticking to this heist/jazzy motif. The soundtrack is at its most obvious with songs like Life Will Change being some of the best “we’re going to steal some shit” music ever, with aggressive, peppy guitar riffs and a bass line that walks with a sense of purpose. It also knows when to cool off, with the rainy day theme Beneath the Mask, where the bass takes a smoother, calmer line and is backed up by delicate piano and the smooth and calming voice of Lyn to create music that deserves to be played in every coffee shop for eternity. In contrast, the soundtrack can also really ramp up to amazing heights, with boss battle themes like Blooming Villain that start with downright evil sounding bass and guitar lines, that break into uplifting, triumphant solos, so the player always feels the push to keep going. The last two songs I will mention as tracks that really stick out are Layer Cake, the theme of the gun shop that does such a good subversion of the songs true intention that it has to be heard to be believed, and Life Goes On, the theme of school tests that is so groovy that I’d pay a lot of money to go back in time had have it played during my own personal exam periods.

Mae and her group of friends talk to each other how friends actually talk to each other, and it cannot be over emphasised how much of a god damn revelation that is in games.

Best Narrative – Night in the Woods

Runner’s Up

  • Yakuza 0
  • What Remains of Edith Finch

Euan – Night in the Woods wins this category on the strength of the conversation writing alone. Mae and her group of friends talk to each other how friends actually talk to each other, and it cannot be over emphasised how much of a god damn revelation that is in games. After years of terrible “teen” dialog, it’s so refreshing to hear the main character reply to someone being a dick in pretty much exactly the same way you would with your terrible friends that you love to death.

On top of having some of the best dialog out there, the story itself is exceptionally well executed. Mae moving back to the small town where she grew up after spending her time at college is a situation all to familiar of people of our age range (just ask Calum), and both her internal and external struggles are relatable and something we have seen in ourselves or those around us. Night in the Woods just would not be the game it is without it’s writing, and am so happy it got the recognition it deserves this year.

Most Important News – The Loot Box Fiasco

Runner’s Up

  • The Shuttering of Visceral
  • Fortnight: Battle Royale

Calum – This was incredibly important, but holy god this was a shitshow. It seemed wrong to just say “Battlefront 2” , but this was largely cause by Battlefront 2. Starting with an early access beta that caused many to take pause about the tangible in game benefit to some cards found in loot boxes, leading EA to redesign the entire Star Cards system. Then more news from early gameplay that heroes like Luke Skywalker costing too much, potentially leading to more loot boxes and premium currency being sold. This lead to costs being cut (but also the gain of currency being cut by the same amount). Then a single day before release, EA stripping the entire premium currency from the game to try and lessen negative press was nothing but embarrassing. This has led to a global discussion about loot boxes and their potential gambling and effects on children. Naked greed has now lead to potential government regulation on some aspects of video games. That is the most important point this year.

Best In Game Theatre Performance – Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Runner’s Up

  • Night in the Woods
  • NeiR: Automata

Euan – Every now and then we pitch one of these categories as a joke, living only in the Trello board that tracks our thoughts throughout the year, that we add something to and laugh, and then move on. Every now and then though, these categories track a trend throughout the year, serious or not.

One thing that kept coming up this year was theatrical performances as part of the narrative thread of a game. Each one had a different purpose, serving it’s participants in different ways. In the case of Before the Storm, this was a moment where Chloe puts herself out there in a way she is not at all used to, and help Rachel do what she does best.

As in our Best Moment categories, this combined gameplay and narrative in a very effective way. Chloe gets roped into playing Prospero in the school production of The Tempest, and is presented with an actual script. There was a moment as a player where there is a realisation that they cannot possibly be asking you actually memorise an actual script. At this point you have two options. Remember the script as written and help Rachel in her performance, or just wing it and see what happens. Being the precocious do-gooder I am, and my distinct lack of Shakespearean knowledge, a quick photo of the script got the result I wanted, however a part of me really wished I had chosen the latter option. This is doubly true when Rachel herself goes off script, using the theatrical moment to tell Chloe exactly what her feelings are. It’s a great moment that combines humour, staging (excuse the pun) and some really touching moments that make the second episode one of the best the series has done so far.

Most Disappointing Game – Mass Effect: Andromeda

Runner’s Up

  • NeiR: Automata
  • Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Calum – For two years in a row now I have the pleasure of talking about the most disappointing game of the year. This year, it is much less of a pleasure. Yes, Mass Effect: Andromeda is disappointing, and I’ll get to why. It’s effect on the Mass Effect franchise, however, is MUCH more disappointing.

Let’s start with the basics. ME:A looks like shit. Characters are boring and animate incredibly poorly. Enemies are almost copy/pastes of previous Mass Effect villains. Planets try to look unique, but end up exactly the same barring a change of paint.

ME:A also plays, at its best, fine. It has a truly free-form level up and upgrade system, backed up by a player profile system that matches your chosen play style, and that is great. However, the physical act of shooting and moving around the world is so by-the-numbers and floaty that it really just isn’t fun to play.

People want single player RPGs. They just do not want BAD single player RPGs, which ME:A most certainly is.

Then we hit the most important reason in the disappointment that is ME:A. The writing is bad. Very bad. Something that should never happen in a game with the Mass Effect name, happened. Characters are cliches and rarely have anything interesting to say. Interactions between them feel like two AIs learning to speak to each other and only kind of succeeding. They are also very limited in scope. The old races of Mass Effect are few in number, four to be exact, and the two new races are so boring. The Angara, sentient fish people, are a society made up of the most obvious choices for new alien design. They are a group of bi-pedal, two gender, heterosexual humanoids, which have trade, military, government and rules governing law and order that are all very similar to our own. They do nothing new, nothing original and so slot of perfectly into the existing mass effect pantheon that it is dull. The evil Kett, rock people, are evil for evil’s sake. That’s it. They are the bad guys, designed to stare menacingly at the player and be cannon fodder. Compare them to the Reapers, ancient aliens from beyond the stars that are shrouded in mystery around their “infinite universe cycle”, which have tangible reasons for their actions and you start to scratch the surface of the writing problems in this game.

All of this combines into a bad experience in every way for the player. This has lead to poor sales, and thus potentially killing the Mass Effect series for a long time. This is heart-breaking.  You will be told that mass effect is not being made because “ME:A just did not sell well (true), players don’t want exclusively single player RPGs anymore (false).” Do not believe these statements. People want single player RPGs. They just do not want BAD single player RPGs, which ME:A most certainly is.


Game of the Year

#5 – Night in the Woods

Euan – What more can I say about Night in the Woods that I didn’t already cover in Best Narrative above. It pulls together a great style, some fantastically endearing characters and the best dialog between friends that I have seen in a game to date. It’s not perfect, where the main line of the story goes places towards the end that I’m not confident it fully deserves, and there are maybe a few too many dream sequences between acts, but all of that is washed away by the interactions between this group of friends.

The player is given the choice in which one of her estranged friends Mae will hang out with each day, and for me the choice was always Bea. I needed to know the story of how these childhood friends lost each other, and Night in the Woods rewarded me handsomely. The scene where Bea takes Mae to the closest city to a club that she likes to go. What follows is a great encapsulation of what makes Night in the Woods so great. There is humour, shit talking between old friends, and ends with such an explosion of emotion that hits right in the gut. It’s an exceptional game that’s well worth a weekend of your time.

#4 – Prey

Having an enemy that hides as banal objects in the environment, ready to attack when the player gets to close is nothing short of genius

Calum – Prey is the latest in a long line of games following the 0451 genre, a name taken from gaming essayist Christopher Franklin (@Campster on Twitter). Think BioShock, Deus Ex and the like. Immersive Sim would be another term. Prey, however, is one of the most unique of this genre in recent years, yet still holding the tenants of the genre to high regard. Through the exploration of Talos 1, you’ll stealth, shoot, hack and generally do whatever you feel is correct to get from A to B and discover what happened to the crew of the station after the Typhon release.

The game does an excellent job of telling these stories through the usual audio logs, but also through in-world story telling. For example, the lab where the scientist are so scared of what could be a shape-shifting mimic, that they physically post-it everything in the lab that they know is NOT an alien waiting to ambush them.

Speaking of the Mimics, they are one of the best designed enemies in a long time. In a game where the station itself is meant to feel like a threat, presenting enemies at every turn and under constant incursion by the Typhon coral, having an enemy that hides as banal objects in the environment, ready to attack when the player gets to close is nothing short of genius. It’s simple, it’s unique and it, largely, works every time.

This is all backed up by an art-deco design of the station giving it a truly alternate world feel, and a soundtrack, headed by Mick Gordon, that plays the duality of human and alien that is central to the games theme amazingly well.

Prey, I think, was largely shrugged off as “another one of those games” this year. But it is so much more, and I think everyone should see it

#3 – Persona 5

Calum – It makes me happy that a Persona game made it to the top 5 games of the year. I never thought I’d see the day that a very specific series that I love so much would do so much so well to earn a place next to some of the best games of the year. Persona 5, however, did.

The story deals with a group of teenagers that learn they can use a special app on their phones to enter another world and change the hearts of evil adults in Tokyo. If that sounds like the story line to a very millennial anime, that’s because that is basically what Persona 5 is. The story, however, takes such a bizarre and “heist movie” style turn towards the end that is I couldn’t quite believe what this game was doing. The story, while predictable, serves a good framework to drive you into the dungeons the gameplay is set in.

Persona 5 takes the known rock-paper-scissor style, weakness driven, combat Persona has always had, and brings it to a mirror polish. Weaknesses are easier to see and find, the addition of gun damage provides a whole new combat angle to exploit, and the new recruitment system  for acquiring new Persona is a vast improvement over the almost random selection of previous games. This builds to individual bosses, with unique mechanics that are satisfying to fight.

This is all presented in an striking cell-shaded style, with UI that will make your eyes bleed with how smooth everything flows together. It, also, can not be said enough how good the soundtrack is in this game. See above for details, but every track serves a purpose and they are all fantastic.

For a series famous for being for a specific group of people, Persona 5 makes the game so easy to get into and enjoyable to play that no one should skip on playing.

#2 – Yakuza 0

What makes Yakuza 0 special is it’s ability to marry the absurd with the serious in a way that seems totally plausible.

Euan – Yakuza 0 was my great voyage this year. My only experience of the series was the Dead Souls spin off from 2011, which was not good by most metrics but left me with the nagging sensation that there was something there. After hearing some initial buzz around Zero I took the plunge and was left with one of the best experiences I had all year.

It’s so difficult to explain to someone why it’s worth being at number 2, because few of the traditional “game” components are particularly outstanding. Graphically it does nothing particularly special, with most of the conversations taking place between slightly animated talking heads. It doesn’t control well, with the combat system functional but lacking the depth needed for the 30-ish hours it takes to see the ending.

What makes Yakuza 0 special, and from what I can tell this is true for most of the series, is it’s ability to marry the absurd with the serious in a way that seems totally plausible. This is a game where the main plot line concerns a complex political chess game between criminal organisations, where you can take a break from that to help a living statue go to the bathroom, and can round out by hiring a chicken that you won from a good streak when bowling to run part of your real estate business.

It’s rare for a game to be able to handle such wild tonal shifts, but Yakuza does it with ease. Personally I feel a lot of this can be put down to what is possibly the best Japanese translation in a video game to date. It’s genuinely funny on it’s own, and takes jokes that would only make sense to someone with cultural knowledge and does an amazing job of making them more widely accessible.

To go from a series that I only had a passing knowledge of, to it’s next instalment being my most anticipated game of 2018, should say a lot about how much of an impact Yakuza 0 had on me.

GameEngineStart Game of the Year 2017 – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Calum – Hellblade is something very special. While other games this year attempted to be unique through style or musical choice, Hellblade looks at something here to unseen in video games from every angle of gaming. This is the experience of psychosis and the resulting mental state of a person experiencing it.  This idea permeates every aspect of this games design.

This begins with Senua herself. As she attempts to bring her love back from the bowels of hell itself, her story his revealed as being so horrific and terrifying that you can see the start of how someone’s mind may be twisted in this way. This eventually leads to her mental state being so fragile, plagued by several voices in her head and vivid hallucinations, that she breaks down on several occasions through the game. This is highlighted by both an amazing vocal performance for Senua and the unbelievable face capture tech used to capture and impart this grief onto Senua’s soliloquys during the game that it is sometimes hard to even experience.

I took a 3 month long break from this game due to coming to a section physically could not deal with, it was that unnerving. This was compounded by sound design that is so specific at both trying to throw the player into a state of madness, hearing the several voices Senua hears, and unnerving them with hallucinations of monsters and being watched.

Combat is also a panic. The game often asks the player to get out of several multiple foe situations, again reaffirming this real feeling helplessness, that lead to amazing state of overcoming the odds through clever parries and use of the mind clarity power of the mirror of Senua’s mentor.

Everything in this game serves the purpose of putting the player directly in the shoes of the psychotic, and it is incredibly effective at this. It is unlike any game I’ve ever played. Everyone should see this.

Euan – I knew that Hellblade would be somewhere on this list from very early on. It’s a game that I have struggled to encapsulate the many times I have talked about it, so let’s see how this goes.

Hellblade has a story to tell, and one that does not mess about. It’s a game that deals with adult themes, and treats them in an adult way. Like a lot of the best games this year, it uses all aspects of the medium to tell its tale, where visuals, audio and gameplay all combine in a way that I have not seen in a long time.

Not enough superlatives can be put upon Melina Juergens performance as Senua, and resulted in one of the best implementations of performance capture out there in the games sphere

The decision to design the environments as realistic rather than fantastical is a smart decision. Not only does this provide for some utterly breathtaking vistas, but also makes the moments when Senua’s metal state is reflected on the world all the more powerful. When debating Best Moment, I talked about the scene in the forest, where as her internal voices start to take over, the trees start to grow eyes on the periphery of the players vision. It’s a moment that reflects the lineage of games like Eternal Darkness, where the entire purpose of the effect is not to be flashy, but to trick the player. It’s not only effective at that, but successfully made me think I was mistaking it myself.

A lot of shade was thrown at the game where the initially terrifying prospect of losing your save if you die to many times was shown to be not entirely true. Even going in with this knowledge, the combat still felt exciting to me. Apart from one particular enemy that I never really got the hang of (damn shield dude…) each enemy type was a puzzle to solve, which was then complicated when multiple types are combined. All of this then made the Hela finale all the more affecting, where eventually you are just stomping all over multiple foes with ease, a great payoff to the past few hours of careful and methodical combat.

Not enough superlatives can be put upon Melina Juergens performance as Senua, and resulted in one of the best implementations of performance capture out there in the games sphere. The confidence the developers have in the performance is obvious considering the amount of extreme close-ups of Senua happen through out her journey, highlighting the degree of expressiveness they have managed to capture.

There are issues with the expression of mental illness that Hellblade depicts for sure, but they are more in regards to storytelling rather than character. I have to applaud them for not only trying it at all, but executing on it in a way that shows they made the effort to really capture it in a way that uses all of the available tools the developers have. The audio is supremely effective, and highly encourage that players take the recommendation of using headphones to heart, as the immersion it creates is unparalleled. The scene above that Calum talks about shows how dedicated they are to sound as a mechanic, and a core part of the work rather than an afterthought.

Take all of this into account, and then remember that this game launched at £25, hopefully showing developers that there is a price point between £10 and £50 where they can target a title with super high production values and a more reasonable scope.

Hellblade is an incredible achievement, and has set a number of bars for me that I don’t envy 2018’s releases trying to compete with.