It has been a stellar year for video games, maybe even an important one. Indeed, there is the crisis of microtransactions bleeding or trying to bleed gamer’s wallets in titles like "Star Wars: Battlefront II", but hey we must take the bad with the good. Here are the five titles I have played that stood as the reason it was a good time to play, with one honorable mention.
"The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild"
Before anyone freaks out and pans this article for daring to make one of the most acclaimed games of all time an honorary entry, my reasoning is simple: I haven’t finished Breath of the Wild. I bought a Switch in mid-November and spent my time first with "Super Mario Odyssey" (more on that later). What I can say thus far is that despite my lack of completion, Zelda’s latest legend is audacious in scrapping a well-worn formula that has been utilized for decades and in turn builds a new open world adventure. It takes inspiration from ironically the very first Zelda’s (1986) game’s open ended structure, letting you commence your journey to save Hyrule and defeat the evil Ganon in almost any way you want.
It does take some obvious cues from contemporary open world games like Far Cry (observation towers, for instance), but provides a welcome spin that still feels like Zelda. There are still the puzzles, the adventure, and the strange charm of this Nintendo series, but in a way never seen before. The game’s surprisingly stiff difficulty entreats you to take advantage of exploration and experimentation. I do not know how highly I will place Breath of the Wild once I finish it, but for now it’s worthy enough of mention either way.
The people who brought us the Dishonored series now bring us their take on System Shock 2, better known for its spiritual successor, Bioshock. Step into the boots and padded suit of Morgan Yu, a scientist that has lost his/her memory and struggles to find answers and survive on an alien infested space station. Sounds rote, but it’s Prey’s execution in visual and thematic areas that allow it to be its own thing, being committed to living up to a 1999 cult classic title.
It’s mission statement to choose your own playstyle, going from a weapons and tech setup to a telekinetic/alien approach allows you to experience the eerie journey through Talos I in legitimately different ways. The cream of the quest is in learning about the residents both alive and dead on the infested station and making your mind up on how you want to go about determining Yu’s and the station’s fate. Prey succeeds more as a thought provoking RPG than as an actual shooter, but the balance of what is and isn’t there is still commendable. Oh, and don’t forget to save often to enjoy it best.
"Resident Evil 7: biohazard"
This year’s premier survival horror title gave the pioneering series a much-needed shot in the arm from the mess of a game that was "Resident Evil 6" in 2012. For one, it actually managed to be scary, make you feel vulnerable in the shoes of protagonist Ethan, unused to the horrifying creatures that earlier series’ heroes have become accustomed to. Dropping the scale of the franchise from a globetrotting fiasco like 6 to a claustrophobic and creepy Louisiana plantation was a step in returning to the series roots of exploration, item management and careful thinking in proceeding forward, ingredients which make the original games intoxicating even after roughly two decades. T
he most impressive innovation was going from third person camera to first person, seeing the new scares in a way that is more immersive and in your face than ever. RE7’s biggest accomplishment overall was not just returning "Resident Evil" to a place of honor in gamingdom but also making me and many others actually excited to see where the series goes next, with new questions, new threats and hopefully new frights on the horizon.
"Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus"
BJ Blazcowicz, the original first person shooter is back to continue his quest to kill all Nazis in a fascist run world. While the story, while well told and a downright gutburster in the humor department, does make "Wolf II" feel like the middle child of a planned trilogy that it is. The length of the cutscenes, while enjoyable, can wear on your patience. What makes up for these issues is the greatly improved gunplay that allows you to wield two different weapons at the same time, greatly enhancing the creativity of your Nazi slaying adventures.
There are the Enigma missions, which have you return to prior levels but with some twists in store that ensures it doesn’t fully feel like a retread and allows you more to time to master the battlefield. It’s a well-rounded, well designed and even heartfelt experience, which despite the massive shifts in tone, feels unusually successful, despite the concrete heavy subject matter. It’s the best of both worlds, of the narrative and of gameplay. There is no better game out there to make fighting Nazis feel so good and more importantly, so creative.
"Super Mario Odyssey"
Hand in hand with Zelda, Mario’s latest adventure is making the Nintendo Switch a legitimate contender against the likes of Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. On his own merits, Mario’s Switch game is all about the Italian plumber evolving for a new time. The irony is that like "Resident Evil 7," "Mario Odyssey" looks to the past to survive the future, bringing the open-ended playgrounds of classics like "Mario 64" and "Mario Sunshine" to mind. Mario’s trip to a set of beautifully realized locales gives you options to traverse and explore in ways that at first seem like cheating but are actually approved of by the game developers.
If there is an unorthodox way for Mario to progress and find those “power moons” required to do so, Nintendo isn’t going to hold you back, so long as you master the controls. If there is a single real problem, is that there are perhaps too many moons to collect, the style of challenges Mario needs to overcome becoming very familiar overtime. Then again, the mastery of Nintendo’s game design in how you control Mario and let him “capture” certain creatures or objects with his cap, makes it up for it, allowing you to do these tasks your given way. Not exactly revolutionary, but perhaps Nintendo’s mascot’s biggest jump forward since "Mario Galaxy" a decade. Wahoo!
The gameplay is often the most important thing for a game, seems obvious putting it like that. My game of the year is anything but a disappointment in that category. Yet it is the, at times, painfully relevant message of "Persona 5" that makes it so special. A group of downcast and even outcast Japanese teens enter a world made up of the collective unconscious, allowing them to affect positive changes in people of a corrupt and despondent world.
They take on the style and purpose of a gentleman thief, letting who they are subconsciously spring forth gloriously. They are fighting not only a series of corrupt individuals that poison the city of Tokyo and beyond, but a pervasive feeling of unease, helplessness, and indifference to a landscape for which selfishness is king. Despite taking place almost entirely within Japan, many of its themes ring true in America, what with all the stinging pains of false saviors like Trump being reflected back in these teen’s foes.
Of course, even if you are not interested in the social commentary, "Persona 5"’s turn based gameplay is filled with so many complementary systems, that even the act of “grinding” for experience can be fun, more so than in many other games of its genre. Then you have the series staple of the confidants’ system. Creating bonds with both your teammates and other people in your life even to a romantic level, letting you improve yourself and them back both mechanically and narratively.
It is a complex game that doesn’t beat you over the head with its complexity. It lets you set how much commitment you want in order to succeed both in the real and cognitive worlds. It’s a masterpiece that may make someone disinterested in the JRPG genre a fan. No other game this year had so much under the hood and was able to make its components work quite like "Persona 5". Maybe that will change by the time I beat Breath of the Wild but my heart was still taken by those Japanese high school students. That doesn’t sound nearly as weird or creepy once you dive in.