It's always kind of a struggle to me trying to determine if I should include games like this on a list like this. Morrowind is an expansion, so should it be considered its own game? Given the nature of ESO, that new players can access all of this content immediately, I'd say it is. Morrowind pretty much stands on its own and can be played independently of the rest of ESO. As a bonus, you get the rest of the game with Morrowind too! I've discussed this particular game at length in my review, but the bottom like is that it's the best content yet for the best MMO I've ever played. If you've not played ESO, then Morrowind is the perfect place to start.
Doesn't that just look like a place you want to get lost in?
If you're like me, or any sane person, the idea of a crossover game between Nintendo's Mario and Ubisoft's Rabbids sounds completely insane. The fact that it's a strategy role playing game is even more insane. But the most insane thing of all? It's excellent. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's one of the best games of its kind. The game takes the best aspects of strategy role playing but cuts out a lot of the fat, making for an extremely focused experience.
Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle has a pretty simple premise: the Rabbids have invaded and "rabbified" the Mushroom Kingdom, and it's up to Mario and friends to save the day. It's a little bit more complicated than that, but not much. Like Mario games in general, the story isn't the point here because it's all about the gameplay. Because most of the characters don't talk, though, they have extremely fun and expressive animations. Likewise, the music by Grant Kirkhope (of Banjo-Kazooie fame) is some of his best work ever, and occasionally makes fun references to other Mario games, even including Donkey Kong 64 which Kirkhope also worked on. The look and feel of the game is goofy, whimsical, and charming. It's a good thing, then, that you're allowed to explore it!
Mario+Rabbids asks, "What if Mario had a gun?"
A lot of games of this nature require you to select missions from a menu, but Kingdom Battle has your party of three traversing through the (admittedly linear, though it's fine in this case) game world and solving simple but fun puzzles between battle. Although the puzzles are pretty dang easy most of the time, there's usually some secrets to be unlocked by solving them and it really helps with the game's pacing that you aren't always battling nonstop.
Speaking of battles, another design choice that I really liked was that the battlefields are literally part of the game world. After you clear the objective, you kind of just walk through the battle zone to the next area. You can even come back to these spaces later and talk to a Rabbid with a Toad hat who will task you with completing a new challenge in that space. Between this and also having some secrets inaccessible until you unlock certain puzzle-solving abilities later, the game has a surprising amount of replay value. Not to mention the local co-op and VS multiplayer modes!
The experience system is one of the game's smartest design choices, and something that really helps set it apart from similar games. Not only will you unlock permanent upgrades to health and strength as you progress, you'll also collect orbs that you can use to purchase and upgrade skills for your characters. I got most of the way though the first world before I realized that this wasn't a shared pot, but that each character gets their own! So, for example, if I find 50 orbs in a chest what I'm actually getting is 50 orbs for each character, which really encourages the player to try out every available party member. But there's more! You can also reset any character's skills and refund all their orbs any time for free. Now we're talking! Each character is fairly unique, too, with their own combo of weapons and exclusive skills, so there's no reason not to try them all.
It seems clear to me that Grant Kirkhope's effort in recent years went towards this amazing soundtrack rather than Yooka-Laylee.
Unfortunately, as great as the world and the characters and the battle systems are, I do have a couple of complaints. For one, as you progress through the game the weapon shop will periodically stock more inventory that you can buy with coins. This is fine, but then the game does something else with its unlocks that I absolutely hate. Sometimes, you'll solve a puzzle that leads to a secret chest that unlocks a weapon... that you have to buy. I hate unlocking the ability to purchase gear! I already did something to earn it, so just give it to me! These secret weapons are often the best ones, too, and cost a pretty penny.
Second, I wish the game gave you more freedom in organizing your party. There's eight characters to unlock as you progress, and it's a little unfortunate that some of them are only available towards the end of the game, but the real problem is that one of them always has to be Mario and another one always has to be a Rabbid. You can't make an all Super Mario team or an all Rabbid team (at least in the campaign) and that sucks. Mario isn't even the best option in some cases and I wish I could swap him out for someone else.
Overall, though, Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle was the biggest surprise of the year!
Before I get into why Splatoon 2 became one of my favorite games of the year, you can read my review for overall impressions of the game and its campaign. Bottom line: While I stand by my review ranking, I've only come to love the game more over time because of it's multiplayer which keeps pulling me back in with weekly updates and monthly events that keep everything fresh and fun.
Splatoon 2 is a game that I keep coming back to because of just how damn entertaining it is. And wouldn't you know it, I just happen to be pretty good at it too! Not sure I can say that about any other online shooter. Besides its unique and refreshing twist, wherein you cover the stage with ink and you can swim through your own color, the game's various modes remind me a lot of the classics I grew up with as a kid. Halo, mostly. I really liked Halo. The more Splatoon 2 reminds me of it, the better!
There is, of coures, the game's signature "turf war" mode that has your team vying for control of the map by covering it in your color of ink, but it's the ranked modes that bring back the classic shooter nostalgia for me. First, there's Splat Zone which is part King of the Hill, part Territories, and part something new entirely. It's a mode where your team has to capture and hold a point (or sometimes two) on the map by covering it completely in your team's ink and then keeping control of it to score points. The mix of classic gameplay with with twist of painting makes it surprisingly frantic and exciting.
Next, there's Tower Control which is sort of like one of those escort modes from games like Overwatch, but instead of one team being on offense and another being on defense, the tower sits neutrally in the middle of the map and each team has to fight for control of it (hence the name). It's true that some matches go by very quickly if the teams are really one-sided, but when you get an intense, even match there's nothing like it. There's a constant push and pull and really tense moments as you ride the tower into the enemy's base. You have to decide whether to go on the offensive and try to take the tower or spring a trap for the enemy at your base, and if you're on the attacking team whether to clear the way or hop on top to speed things along. The tower will also stop at checkpoints along the path, but only the first time you encounter them. If it resets to the center and you ride it past the checkpoint it won't stop again, meaning that sometimes it's worth it just to get that far and die.
Rainmaker plays like on of my all-time favorite Halo game types: Neutral Bomb Assault. In the middle of the map is a giant gun called the "rainmaker". It's surrounded by a shield that has to be broken by firing ink at it before you can grab the weapon, and once you do it makes you a walking target to everyone by showing your location on the map. The objective is to bring the rainmaker to a specific point in the enemy base, get the closest to win. The rainmaker itself lobs giant explosive ink balls, so you're not defenseless, but they're usually pretty easy to avoid. If the rainmaker carrier gets killed, they drop the rainmaker and the shield resets and must be broken again. The fight over the rainmaker is kind of like what happens in a classic Capure the Flag match, making it not only like Neutral Bomb, but Neutral Flag as well. Honestly, for whatever reason, neutral objective games have always been my favorites.
Finally, there's the game's newest (and possibly best) mode: Clam Blitz. This plays a little bit like Assault, but also a combo of two of my favorite forgotten game types from Halo Reach: Headhunter and Stockpile. In Clam Blitz, each team has a basket at their base surrounded by a shield where clams can be deposited. Clams are found scattered around the map, or can be picked up by obliterating your enemies and causing them to drop their clams. Clams can only be seen trailing behind you when you're not swimming in ink, unless you have ten of them. When you get ten clams they combine into a super clam, which is the only object that can break the enemy basket's shield. Once you do that, you can throw as many other clams in the basket as you want until the shield recharges. Whoever reaches the point goal or gets the closest wins.
The strategy in Clam Blitz comes in acquiring clams and assaulting the enemy base. Often, it's a better idea to pass clams to one another so multiple people have less then ten, then combine them when you're close so you can throw the super clam at the basket without the enemy knowing your exact location, since super clams are visible when you swim and also mark your location on the map like when carrying the rainmaker. It's a surprisingly deep and well thought out mode, and it's unique combination of elements means there's nothing else like it. Clam Blitz is also responsible for my proudest gaming moment, in which I scored the only point during a suicide run in overtime after a really intense match that was tied tied 0-0. It feels so great to be good at a game for once!
Lastly, I can't forget abut Salmon Run, Splatoon 2's cooperative horde mode where you can earn rewards to use in competitive matches. Despite the premise being the same each time (kill salmon and collect eggs) and their only being four maps, the mode has enough variety with random boss events and weapon combinations that it continues to be fun even after six months. I would very much like them to add some new enemy types soon, though.
I like Zelda. Who doesn't, right? But I don't like every Zelda. I never played Ocarina of Time as a kid, and when I finally did on 3DS I determined that it's one of the most overrated games of all time. I had Majora's Mask but it scared me when I was ten, so I didn't really play it until its 3DS remake, at which point it became on of my favorites in the series because of it's lack of unnecessary padding. I had Wind Waker and, again, didn't play much of it until the Wii U remake where it became my favorite entry until I played Majora. Twilight Princess was my favorite game for many years because it was the only one I played a substantial amount of when it came out, but now I can see that it suffered from the same problem as most of the others which is that it was full of fluff. I enjoyed Skyward Sword more than most people, but I have to admit that game was overstuffed too. I'm not a fan of the 2D games in general because of the way that they play with a d-pad's eight directions, but I absolutely loved A Link Between Worlds. The analog movement helped, but I think it's mostly because that game really did something different by letting you tackle the dungeons in any order.
So what am I getting at here? Basically, Breath of the Wild is my ideal Zelda. I always liked the gameplay of the series but not the format. With this game, Nintendo wanted to go back to the feeling of the original Zelda, where the game really let you do whatever you wanted and figure it out along the way. But Breath of the Wild takes it a step further. You don't have to acquire any required items in dungeons as you progress because the game gives you all the tools you need during the tutorial. A tutorial which, by the way, thrusts you directly into the game instead of making you a farmer, or a student, or a wood elf. After that, you head down in any direction you want into probably the greatest open world ever created and complete as much or as little of the game as you want. Seriously, nothing beyond the tutorial and final boss are necessary. Your first mission in the game is "Defeat Ganon" and literally everything else is optional. You can march on into Hyrule Castle in your underwear armed with a stick if you want. Hell, some people have even figured out how to get off the plateau without even completing all the tutorial and getting the sail cloth!
But what really pushes this game over the top is that around every corner and atop every mountain is something. You'll never be punished for exploring in Breath of the Wild. If you can get there, something is waiting for you, and every kind of reward is useful whether it's a orb you get from discovering a hidden shrine or a korok seed. It's one of the reasons the weapon durability system doesn't bother me at all. Weapons are rewards- and they're everywhere! If they didn't break, we'd have a Skyrim situation where the world is full of weapons you can pick up but since you encountered, say, that glass sword once already you'll never need another one again. It becomes a useless decoration! But in Breath of the Wild, earning an ancient sword++ feels good. You can use that for your next boss encounter, and after it breaks you're on to the next cool thing like a lightning spear.
And it's not just the freedom you get to explore the world, it's the freedom in how you approach any given challenge. There's always more than one way to accomplish a goal. A great example is during the game's only mandatory steal section, in which the game tells you to use bananas to distract the guards and sneak around them. Instead, I climbed up onto the rafters and glided over the whole section. And that's just how I chose to approach it. You can actually reach the same boss by going an entirely different way and gliding down a hole that's accessible in the mountains that leads directly to the boss. The physics engine lets you do all sorts of crazy creative maneuvers too like catching a boomerang midair with magnesis which turns it into a spinning blade of death.
It's this kind of creative open-ended gameplay that puts Zelda: Breath of the Wild leagues ahead of other games like Horizon: Zero Dawn. Everything about it feels new and fresh. I can't even imagine how Nintendo will top this with the next Zelda, but I won't be surprised if they somehow do.
Most people would probably choose Mario or Zelda as their game of the year, and I can't fault them for that. They're both incredible games! But for me, in 2017, Night in the Woods was more memorable than anything else I played. It's a hugely subjective choice based solely on the fact that it affected me like no game ever has before. I recognize, however, that not everybody will experience the game in the same way. It has a very specific kind of audience that I just happened to fit into which made it an unforgettable experience for me. It's the type of game that some people won't like at all, while others will enjoy it but see it as nothing special. I don't think a lot of other people would call it their game of the year.
Night in the Woods is something that many would probably struggle to call a game. It's closest to the adventure genre, narrative-driven games where you talk to people and solve puzzles, but it probably has less gameplay than that. It's about a cat in her early 20s who dropped out of college and returns to her small-town home to pick her life back up where it left off, but when she arrives she discovers that the things and people she left behind aren't the same any more. It is, essentially, a game about growing up for young adults. Not the book store section kind, the literal kind when you're old enough to be an adult but young enough that it's still scary. Night in the Woods deals with subjects I've rarely seen covered in a way that I've never experience before... because I played them. This story being interactive makes it so much more impactful than if you were just watching a movie or reading a book. For the most part, yes, you're just having conversations by choosing dialog that changes how the story plays out, but that dialog is so incredibly realistic and the direct interaction you have by choosing responses really puts you in that space. I relate to these characters more than I've related to anything in a video game before.
But, okay, yeah, there is a point to all this. There's a mystery to be solved but it's one of those things where that kind of story is really used as a backdrop for character interaction, so at the end of the day that really becomes the side story. Night in the Woods is an incredibly heavy drama that I found extremely relatable but there's definitely people out there who would relate to it even more. I didn't, for example, drop out of school and I'm not really from a small town, but the best kind of literature can apply universal themes and feelings that we all experience and apply them to anything. It's for anyone who's ever felt lost or stuck or hopeless. It's sad in a lot of ways, yet manages to be unexpectedly optimistic. I think most people would probably get a lot out of the story Night in the Woods tells, but will probably be turned off by the lack of actual gameplay. That's a real shame because Night in the Woods is a lovely, cathartic experience. It's the perfect storm of excellent writing, music, and visuals. And you get to interact with it. Really experience it. As someone who has a college degree in creative writing I simply can't ignore all the things this game does right. That's why it's my game of the year, and one of my favorite games ever. Breath of the Wild is Zelda but better, yet I've never experienced anything like Night in the Woods.