Press X to Join: Five outstanding video games that won in 2017

In Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Lifestyle
(Courtesy of Team Cherry Games)

It’s been an overwhelming year for gamers trying to keep up with the latest releases. We’ve seen a massive fighting game resurgence, the independent scene has continued to thrive and many AAA titles have rediscovered the concept of quality (except for a few – looking at you “Star Wars: Battlefront II”).

As 2017 comes to a close, there’s no better time to take a look back at some of the best games of the year, excluding Nintendo Switch titles that my college-student budget sadly could not accommodate.

  1. “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG)

Each “PUBG” match starts as follows: 100 players are airdropped onto an island with no resources. They scavenge for weapons and the play space tightens every few minutes until there is one team or player standing. However, the early access title is dominated by silence more than scrounging or shooting.

The emptiness of the valleys and openness of the streets induce anxiety because squads never know where their enemies are. While in “Call of Duty” players embrace violence by rewarding twitch reflexes with flashy advantages, “PUBG” makes them fear and dread it.

Weapons have hard-to-manage kickback and equally jarring sound effects, making every encounter a game of its own. Given the limited ammo, all fights are difficult and require focus and on-the-spot thinking to come out on top, and sometimes the quickest route to victory is exercising restraint.

With a good group of friends, there are few games that can match the satisfaction of earning a delicious chicken dinner in “PUBG.”

  1. “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice”

Mental illness has generally been difficult to accurately portray in film and video games. Depression and schizophrenia are often minor subplots or centered around one-off characters that fall victim to stereotypes. So when I heard “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” was going to use the ailment of psychosis as a central mechanic, I was skeptical.

Thankfully, the team did its homework by bringing psychologists, neuroscientists and people clinically diagnosed with psychosis into the studio to help craft the most realistic representation of the illness. The player character Senua is a Celtic warrior plagued by voices and hallucinations, as she treks across a nightmarish hellscape to save her lover’s soul from Hela, the goddess of death.

When played with headphones, the game’s sound design is truly something to behold and a milestone in audio engineering. The voices in Senua’s head wriggle their way into players’ ears as they endlessly spew hate and self-loathing upon failure or hesitation, or encouragement and instruction after a victory.

The lack of a menu and heads-up display means there’s absolutely nothing for players to focus on besides the stunning visuals and haunting narrative. For those willing to endure the most intense, stressful and insightful six hours of interactivity in 2017, “Hellblade” is a must. As harrowing as the world of Helheim may be, it’s also stunning to explore and filled with unique puzzles and combat that are worth any horror fan’s time.

  1. “Nioh”

For the first time in three years, I didn’t have a new “Souls” game to play this year. One of my favorite series of all time came to a timely, bittersweet close in 2016 with “Dark Souls III,” and I patiently waited for the final expansion to get my fix.

Before then, I was graced with “Nioh,” a soul-crushingly difficult, fictional retelling of the first western samurai, William Adams. Borrowing heavily from the “Souls” series, the action role-playing game scratched my itch better than some of its predecessors.

By stripping the genre of its open-world format and high-fantasy setting, Team Ninja crafted bite-sized levels that were more challenging and engaging as the game plays, like a demon-filled history of the Japanese Sengoku (warring states) period. In my rush to complete “Nioh” within a week of its release to write a review, I missed a lot of optional content and story tidbits during my 40-hour playthrough.

On the flipside, the former console exclusive just got a PC release in November, complete with all downloadable content, and I can’t wait to return to slay more demons and warlords.

  1. “Hollow Knight”

I don’t often speak of games in terms of price, but at $14.99, “Hollow Knight” was released permanently on sale. This humble metroidvania game was the most pleasant surprise I stumbled upon this year.

After being dropped onto a bleak yet beautiful cliffside brimming with bugs, I was welcomed by a city elder who’d seen adventurers like me come, go and never return. With nothing but the cloak on my back and a nail to fight with, I pressed on as my cute little knight.

What began as a simple jaunt through a few connected zones quickly expanded into a map of staggering scope that seemed to stretch on forever, and I realized I was in for a treat.

Mechanically, there isn’t much to “Hollow Knight;” players just fight and explore, talking to a few non-playable characters along the way. The controls are unbelievably tight, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a game that nails down combat and movement this well.

Created by an unassuming team of three people, “Hollow Knight” is a passion project that’s worth every penny and I’d invite any fan of old 2D-action games to get lost in its depths.

  1. “Tekken 7”

I avoided fighting games like the plague due to the relentless beatings my brother would hand me in “Super Smash Bros.” when we were younger, which is why I’m surprised “Tekken 7” dominated most of my play time this year.

The story is hokey, its characters obscure and the mechanics nearly impenetrable, but the moment-to-moment online gameplay is addicting. Over the summer, it became part of my routine to make a cup of coffee and practice or play a few ranked matches before going to class. Most importantly, short match time makes it easy for me to play a few rounds as a break from my busiest days.

I bought an arcade stick just to play this game, and it has easily been my greatest gaming investment this year. In the seven months since the release of “Tekken 7,” I’ve logged nearly 130 hours and reached the 27th percentile of players in ranked play at my best. It takes a lot of time to comprehend and master, but, personally, the tangible progress is rewarding enough to keep me coming back every time.

The difficulty that enshrouds “Tekken 7” makes it tough to categorically recommend, but anyone interested in a game that makes learning and playing simultaneous might fall in love with it like I did.

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