Game of the Year 2017: Turtles and Cupheads and But Wholes, Oh My

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I played more games to completion this year than any prior, which is saying something. Much of that has to do with the fact that 2017 was a stupendous year for video games. This also comes with a realization that I’ve spent a huge amount of hours-per-game in front of various screens, which, at times, saddens me.

It’s like only yesterday that I was 70 hours into Persona 5 with the end nowhere in sight. However, fret not: The end of this year is most definitely here, and I’m going to celebrate it by giving you my top five games.

As always, the Backlog Adventures GOTY rules: I don’t put anything I haven’t played on the list. Alas, this means Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey. I know. I’m a bad game critic. Blame my current status as a freelancer with a spouse in graduate school.

DLC is fair game for the list, though this year it didn’t really come into play. They just don’t make em like they used to with Shadow Broker and Minvera’s Den.

Looking for last year’s top five? Here ya go: 

5. Pokemon Go
4. Overwatch
3. Dark Souls 3
2. Enter The Gungeon
1. DOOM

For the fifth year running, I bring you my top games of the year. Don’t hurt me.

5. Injustice 2

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The fighting game genre has gleamed like a diamond the past two years, which is even more astounding if you consider the fact that, not only has Capcom not contributed in an impactful way to that wave of momentum, but has actively hurt the genre.

I won’t hide my disdain for Street Fighter V and Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite. That said, someone else has to climb to the top of the mountain when the king went tumbling down, and by and large, that someone is NetherRealms.

Injustice 2 continues much of the good faith generated from its predecessor, which came from the combination of a developed, thoughtful story mode and game play that didn’t chase off newbies from the series. Injustice 2 adds to both of these by not rocking the boat and sticking with what works, resulting in a sprint of a single-player mode that’s more fun than any movie with a woman-named-Martha centric plot.

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Credit also goes to the visuals of Injustice, as the game features the best motion capture and facial animation work outside of Uncharted 4 and Horizon: Zero Dawn. I was caught off guard by the fact that the characters in the story mode cut scenes weren’t just animated, but genuinely felt brought to life. Being able to see the performance of someone like Terra Strong as Harley Quinn shine through is a feat in itself.

The capper for Injustice is the fantastic post-launch support. The DLC packs are varied and fun, and bringing in characters such as Hellboy is not only thematic, but also a great way to expand an already prolific roster.

While I expect Dragon Ball Fighter Z to overtake Injustice in less than a month, its still the most put-together and engaging fighter of 2017.

4. Persona 5

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The biggest sin of Persona 5 is that it isn’t Persona 4, which is a hell of a thing to put on it. “How dare you not live up to the greatest JRPG of all time? Pfft. Loser.”

Life isn’t fair. Still, Persona 5 managed to accomplish something impressive in that it held my attention and kept me engaged for an overwhelming 90 hours, though it was a struggle at times.

The style and substance of Persona 5 carries the load in regards to quality, with a soundtrack that I couldn’t get out of my mind for months and a combat system that made me feel cool in a way that only fighting games usually accomplish.

The real fault of Persona 5 is that I didn’t believe in the friendships of the characters, but that doesn’t mean that their plight isn’t compelling. The story of a bunch of outcasts and fringe elements will always get my attention, and the tale of enforcing vengeance and righting the wrongs of the world rings especially true in a year where the political and social darkness continues to blot out the sky. Some problematic writing — especially in the beginning with the sexual harassment subplot — does stick out like a sore thumb, leaving me feeling like this game needed an editor to reign in its worst tendencies.

Even as a bloated, sanctimonious mess, Persona 5 is better than a majority of the games available in 2017. Perhaps I’m too hard on it, but in all fairness: It’s simply not as good as its older sibling.

3. Horizon: Zero Dawn

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Man, did I think that Horizon was going to be a train wreck of epic proportions. As someone whose spent the better part of a decade making fun of Guerrilla Games for only being able to muster up a half-assed Bungie impersonation with Killzone, I had no reason to look forward to an open-world robot/dinosaur hunting game that looked too Assassin’s Creed for its own good.

Matters weren’t helped by the dodgy demos shown at E3 and the various trade shows, which seemed as if Guerrilla had went down a checklist in designing the main character and world. Post-Apocalyptic? Check. Cultural appropriation? Bingo. Map-reveal mechanics that involve climbing tall things?

Oh, yes indeed.

And yet, everything in Horizon comes together in perfect harmony, exceeding my low expectations and coalescing into an astounding first entry in a new franchise, with a mysterious story that hooked me to my TV until completion and a series of brilliant monster and world designs that literally took my breath away.

Literally. I mean, that may have also been from that choking spurt I had while trying to juggle fighting a metal hawk and eating Cheetos, but we’ll just say it was the game and not my inability to chew.

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The vistas, jungles, and snow-etched mountains of Horizon are something to behold, which is saying something in our current day and age of gorgeous, pristine gaming visuals. Horizon also features animations and facial capture that almost rivals Injustice 2, allowing main character Aloy — as played by the brilliant Ashly Burch — to come to life in ways that I’ve seen few main characters as of late.

Horizon achieves a miraculous feat in that it made me care about open-world adventure games again. The combat leaves you with a sense of cool and everything comes together for a game that makes me care about open-world adventure titles once again. Come for the impressive visuals, stay for the compelling main story and tense, epic fights against robot animals.

2. Cuphead

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The two games at the top of my list this year both manage to do something note-worthy: They distill their respective genres down into the purest essence of mechanics. In the case of Cuphead, I’m astounded that it took this long for a game to marry run-and-gun mechanics that never left me feeling like I was out of control with a game concept that boils down to “Hey, what if our game was only boss fights?”

Let’s be honest: The worst part of side-scrolling platformers are the sections where you aren’t fighting bosses. It’s tedious and merely meant to keep you away from the good stuff. And trust me: In the case of Cuphead, you want this good stuff, because the bosses take center stage as the stars of this show and you’ll want to see what each of these nightmarish re-imagined versions of 1930’s era cartoons are all about.

You might have noticed that I’ve avoided leading with the visuals, and that’s because there’s no point in it. Cuphead is far and away the most stylish, interesting looking game of the year. One second of seeing the game in motion and it sells itself. However, what I find more interesting is that in the “chicken and egg” debate, the game play for Cuphead actually came first, and not the visual design.

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The creators talked about this on a video with Giant Bomb, discussing how their dream game was something that combined Mega Man X and Gunstar Heroes into something new. The choice for early-Disney art came second, which I find fascinating.

Cuphead is a sprint, and you’ll find yourself more than a few times searching for a stress ball to squeeze, but the attention to detail that went into every cell of animation is more than worth a little controller throwing. The reason why Cuphead stays off the number one slot is — and I feel this is a valid criticism — the difficulty of the game does distract from the visuals on more than a few occasions, getting to the point where I found myself so caught up in the intensity of the later fights that I wasn’t even seeing the visuals.

There’s an argument for another day as to whether or not Cuphead’s difficulty does a disservice to the art or vice versa, but for now it is certainly one of the most impressive independent games to come along in a long time and my second favorite game of the year.

Now… The next one will require some explanation.

1. South Park: The Fractured But Whole

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One of the things that people overlook when it comes to South Park the show is the sentimentality and portrayal of how children see the world. The best South Park episodes — Good Times With Weapons, the Coon trilogy, The New Terrance and Phillip Movie Trailer, and many, many more — all lean on the concept of taking how a kid would react to a situation or view an aspect of adulthood.

One of my favorite moments from the show is in the episode The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers, in which the kids are so enraptured by The Lord of the Rings movies that they interact with their world as if they are in the films, a type of play and use of imagination that’s common and important in the development of children. The adults get the film as a distraction, but end up getting a hardcore porn video instead. Token’s reaction upon viewing the video is one of my favorites, as he literally ‘nopes’ out and says he’s done playing.

There’s something hilarious and true to life about filtering the real world through the lens of kids at play, and this is at the heart of South Park: The Fractured But Whole. Yes, this is still a South Park game with farts, mountains of curse words, and a wide variety of jokes about Morgan Freeman, but on the story side of things it channels the best parts of what makes South Park so great. Akin to how the group were playing high fantasy in the first game, Fractured uses the continued twist on what super heroism means, as the gang are so focused on money and proliferation of their brand.

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It’s a small joke that gets repeated multiple times throughout the game, but there’s a point where combat is interrupted because a car is coming through the battle field, leading to combatants on both sides to yell “Car!” and move out of the way, serving as an example of one of the many ways that Fractured uses meta humor to tell jokes but also frame the story and world. During one of the last boss fights, your opponent will literally hand-wave away status effects because “that attack totally didn’t hit him,” leading the other kids to yell “You aren’t playing fair!” I remember those exact things happening as a kid and those kinds of emotions and moments are used well here.

Underneath the gross-out humor is a story of kids attempting to relate to their parents, and often suffering from the sins of their fathers and mothers. Cartman’s egoism and inability to a good person and make friends stems from his mother’s lack of parenting and authority. Stan feels a constant need to fix his own dad’s messes, even as Randy is “red wine drunk” and initiates a boss fight where he just wants his keys back. Kyle is continually ignored by his own mother, even while his annoying cousin is doted over by her.

One of my favorite moments in the game comes the first time you return home before bed, opening the door to the main character’s parents yelling violently, a cold dinner waiting at the dining table. You’re given a quest to eat dinner and go to bed, but your character merely sighs and picks at the food while sitting alone in the dark. Even in game about murderous woodland creatures, abortions, and police brutality, South Park finds the time to stealthily tell a strong and complete tale that not only feels like a great episode of the show, but does so with little-to-no bloat.

South Park is a sprint of an RPG, and in a year where Persona 5 took me almost 100 hours, I appreciated that this time was fine with only taking up 15 hours of my time. They don’t waste any of that time, as the game is paced well and never requires you to deal with the usual RPG headaches.

Random battles are pretty much all skippable, leading to moments where you can run past mobs of enemies as they goad your party, then ask “Hey… Why are you leaving?” Stat-adjusting equipment is now separate from how your character looks. Most of all, the boss fights are scripted and laid out in ways that almost make them feel like Dungeons & Dragons encounters and less like arbitrary boss fights.

South Park has some of the best boss fights of the year, including a final boss fight that not only was funny but brings the constant rivalry and hatred between Kyle and Cartman to the forefront in a way that felt like a long time coming.

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I could gush on and on about how much this game entertained me, which is the reason why its my game of the year. In fairness, I love South Park and its a show that is definitely not for everyone, and that’s fine. But so much of South Park comes together to create a complete package in ways that other games this year couldn’t manage.

Also: I will never not laugh at Uncle Jimbo shouting “they’re coming straight for us!” Did Cuphead have that? No? Okay then.

Didn’t Make The Cut/Honorable Mentions

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm: Look, this game just came out at an unfortunate time. episode 3 is set to release this Wednesday, and as much as I loved episodes 1 and 2, I couldn’t in good conscience put Life Is Strange in my top five without actually finishing the game. There were a lot of question marks about Before The Storm, especially as to whether or not it would do the series justice. I’m happy to say that I love it just as much as the original, if not more. I think episode 3 will stick the landing, but as it stands I consider Before The Storm to be in 6th place for 2017.

Wolfenstein 2: Terrible game play doesn’t make up for a great story, and Wolfenstein 2 is no DOOM, if you catch my drift. There’s a ton of great moments to be had in this game, but too much melodrama and tone imbalance — along with poor gun play and poorly tuned difficulty — really ruin any chance Wolf 2 had with me.

Mass Effect: Andromeda: Probably forgot that this came out in 2017, didn’t you? I couldn’t forget because of how bad of an experience I had with a game from a series that used to be one of the best. Andromeda is a hot mess from top to bottom and is a far cry from how good Dragon Age: Inquisition was. Get your crap together, Bioware.

Resident Evil 7: The beginning of this game is so incredibly strong that I’m not shocked the quality drops like a rock once you leave the house. The boat and mine sections of Biohazard really kill the game’s momentum, which is a shame since the parts with Daddy are some of the best moments of the year.

Doki Doki Literature Club: Just… Play it. I’m not saying anything else.

Marvel vs Capcom Infinite: A complete letdown on all levels. The character models in the base game look like reused assets, the fighter selection is tired and predictable, and the game play is twitchy and frustrating, at best. Good thing Dragon Ball Fighter Z is coming out, because the tag team fighter genre deserves better.

Nier: I promise I’ll play this soon.

Destiny 2: I still don’t think that’s a video game.

Will Harrison is a writer, game critic, and reporter now living in Austin, Texas. He’s been in VGW, Venture Beat, Unwinnable, Dialog Magazine, the Austin American-Statesman, Thrillist, and is a columnist for the Toledo Blade. Get at him on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison or via email at backlogadventures@gmail.com. 

 

 

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