This is a blog I've been looking forward to publishing for quite some time.  It's been said in countless of my own blogs and pieces that other people put out this year, but 2017 was an incredible 12 months for video games, regardless your preferred platform and genres.  If I may be so bold, I believe the main reason why is that after years of stagnation, the Japanese gaming industry really gave it their all, pumping out creative games one after the other.  While the Western AAA gaming market was pumping out sometimes downright controversial disappointments like Star Wars Battlefront II, Mass Effect:  Andromeda (I keep almost forgetting it exists), Yooka Laylee, and Destiny 2, Japan was constantly putting forth colorful and original titles that reminded me why I fell in love with this hobby to begin with.

You may be sick of reading "best of 2017 lists" by this point, but I hope you'll enjoy mine regardless.  In previous years I would include games released before the one being evaluated in my "best of X" lists, so long as I played them for the first time that year.  But this is the first year since joining Game Informer where all of my favorite games I played this year came out that same year.  So without further ado, let's take a look at what I believe will go down in history as one of the best years in the history of the gaming industry.

Honorable Mention:  Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - Before we begin the list proper, I'd be remiss not to give a shout out to the enhanced Nintendo Switch port of 2014's Mario Kart 8.  I bought the game on a whim last week to have a local multiplayer game for my new console and was pleasantly surprised to see that all of my major complaints with the original game were rectified.  Fan-favorite cut characters like King Boo and Dry Bones were brought back to patch many of the holes in the original roster.  All the DLC was included from the start to make the game seem like it was bursting with content from the moment you turned it on.  Balance tweaks were made, like the ability to hold more than one item at once, making races seem slightly more fair and skill based.  And Battle Mode is no longer terrible; in fact, it's brilliant, and matches of Shine Thief and the new Renegade Roundup are some of the most fun I've had with the game to date.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe takes one of my least favorite installments in the series and redeems it fully, making it one of my favorite Mario Kart games in the process.  It deserves some credit for that.

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10) Shovel Knight:  Specter of Torment

I realize that proudly proclaiming this opinion on the Internet is about as dangerous as... well, stating any opinion on the Internet, but I wasn't the biggest fan of the original Shovel Knight.  I can certainly understand why it resonated with people, and I'm happy that so many enjoyed it, but for me, it never felt as fun to play through as the 8-bit era games it emulated.  My biggest complaint was the overall structure of it all - I wasn't a fan of the World Map and how it constantly interrupted the action by prompting you to return to the same few areas to restock on goods and such.  What's more, I didn't find the basic premise of the plot terribly interesting, as up until the final hour, it's pretty standard NES storytelling era stuff.

I am however, happy to say that the second of the three post-launch campaigns the passionate developers have promised, Specter of Torment, is one of my favorite 2D platformers of this generation, rectifying virtually all of my flaws with the original game.

Specter of Torment is a prequel to the events of Shovel Knight, telling the origin story of Specter Knight, once just a forgettable boss, as we learn not only how he was cursed to his current perpetually undead state, but also how he assembled the "Order of No Quarter" - the gang of villains Shovel Knight wars with several times in the main game.

Right off the bat, Specter of Torment tells a much more interesting and heartfelt story than the original Shovel Knight.  Learning how arrogant thief Donovan because the monstrosity we met in the main Shovel Knight campaign is heartbreaking, and Specter of Torment features a surprisingly moving story about friendship and unwavering loyalty.  Beyond the touchy feely scenes though, it's built around an interesting presence, as you're fighting the knights of the Order of No Quarter to force them to surrender and join you, rather than for heroic purposes.  You're putting together the rouges gallery you fought in the original game, and that's super cool.

Structure wise, I also prefer what Specter of Torment offers.  You begin the game in a hub world known as the Tower of Fate, where you can hang out with your fellow villains and purchase any upgrades you'll need.  After defeating one of the future members of the Order of No Quarter, you'll be brought back to the hub world, and it actually evolves and becomes more crowded as you play through the game, making it a fun place to return to.  This structure ensured that the down time between the riotously fun stages was minimal, and I vastly preferred it to the original's.

Lastly, it has to be said that Specter Knight is an absolute treat to play as.  Naturally he can jump and swing his scythe, but he can also temporarily walk up walls, wall jump, and shoot himself through enemies and certain objects to horizontally or vertically progress through levels.  Specter Knight's abilities are more complicated than Shovel Knight's, but also much more unique, not taking inspiration from other games and offering a play style that feels wholly original and riotously fun.

As one of the original Shovel Knight's biggest critics, I adored my time with Specter of Torment.  It tells a more interesting narrative, is structured in a way that makes the game feel less padded, and features a protagonist that is a joy to control.  If you enjoyed the original Shovel Knight, you'll have a great time with Specter of Torment.  And if you didn't, I implore you to play it anyway.  It's a free expansion for those that own the game after all!

9) Metroid:  Samus Returns

2017 was a year of many gaming miracles.  Previously niche series like Persona, NieR and Yakuza broke out of the niche scene and into the mainstream.  Once floundering series like Resident Evil, Mario, and Sonic were put back on track after stellar new installments (though Sonic quickly sank bank into mediocrity).  But no doubt one of the biggest of these miracles is that METROID IS BACK BAYBEE.

While we have a new 3D Metroid Prime game to look forward to on the Switch, Nintendo quickly unveiled Samus Returns at E3 this year and dropped it on the 3DS just three months later.  After years of waiting for some kind of Metroid related scrap to be thrown our way, to have a new game in the series announced and released within a few months was a joyous occasion.

Well to be fair, Samus Returns isn't technically a new game per se.  It's a heavily reimagined version of the forgotten Metroid II:  Return of Samus, which released on the Game Boy in 1991.  It might as well be a new game however, because Samus Returns adds and improves upon the flawed foundation of the original Metroid II to the point it's almost difficult to recognize the original experience in there.  The most noteworthy change to the traditional Metroid formula is the new control scheme, which takes advantage of the 3DS' circle pad to allow players to aim Samus' weapons in a full 360 circle around them while locked in place, rather than straight up, down, and at 45 degree angles like previous 2D Metroid games.  The result is a gameplay experience that feels far more fluid, and allows for tense action sequences where careful aiming is a necessity.  While the controls are admittingly quite complicated and not exactly intuitive (having to physically touch the bottom screen with my fingertip to switch to super missiles was a pet peeve of mine), once you've adjusted they allow for a freedom of movement and flexibility to the way Samus controls that wasn't quite possible in previous 2D Metroid games.

On top of being more action packed, Samus Returns is a more linear romp than the standard Metroid fare, reflecting its roots as Metroid II.  Samus' objective this time is Metroid genocide, to ensure the race of parasites will never trouble another galaxy.  You'll progress deeper and deeper into the caverns of planet SR388 over the course of the game, one area at a time.  Each area is substantially large, so much so that while the game linearly pushes you from one to next, it doesn't feel like you're on rails or have no freedom like in previous linear Metroids, like Fusion and Other M.  The ability to backtrack to old areas is available at any time, and the you can even use warp stations to get around the very large planet (the largest of any 2D Metroid to date); both are welcome features that allow for the kind of open-ended exploration series fans crave.

Speaking of SR388, this locale truly benefits from this remake.  The original Metroid II was limited by the hardware of the first Game Boy, which monochrome screens and limited power holding back what was possible for the handheld to render, leading to environments that felt very "same-y."  It was very easy to get lost in Metroid II, and not in a good way.  This time around, a map exists to minimize frustration, but the planet also has much more life.  While I would've liked to have more original tunes to listen to and some of the early areas appeared rather bland, overall the creepy environmental noises and immense amount of background details packed into some of the later levels make the planet truly feel like a living ecosystem, and watching the environments progressively get more dangerous as I continued deeper beneath the surface was a great feeling.

Unlike the re-imagining of the first Metroid game, Zero Mission, Samus Returns more or less follows most of the story beats of the original Metroid II, but without spoiling too much, there are added boss fights and plot threaads that are much appreciated.  They help accomplish things long time Metroid fans like me have wanted to see for a while, like Samus nonchalantly acting like a badass again, and further exploring the maternal bond between Samus and the baby Metroid.

When Metroid II came out in 1991, the subtitle "Return of Samus" was likely nonchalant.  It probably wasn't surprising that one of the NES' most popular games was receiving a new installment.  Fast forward to 2017 and the subtitle "Samus Returns" is triumphant.  It's been seven years since the last Metroid game, and our favorite bounty hunter is back in what I believe is the second best 2D game in the series (sorry, Super Metroid is still king).  Even if you're so busy with your Nintendo Switch that you forgot what a 3DS is, I highly recommend taking it out for one last hurrah to meet up with an old friend.

8) Resident Evil VII

Survival horror is one of my favorite video game genres.  While lately these titles have suffered from being developed for streaming services like Twitch in mind, with spoopy jump scares taking precedence over effective atmospheric development and clever sound design, two superb single player survival horror games released this year to buck that trend, the first being a glorious reimagining of the Resident Evil franchise.

I confess with a hint of shame that despite my affinity for survival horror, I've never been much of a fan of the Resident Evil franchise.  Newer installments are action-y shooting galleries above all else, and the original games are difficult to return to due to cumbersome "tank" controls and B-horror movie style storylines that make it difficult to actually find the games haunting.  I've always been more of a Silent Hill guy myself.  However, Resident Evil VII does an incredible job of translating the Resident Evil perspective into a more grounded, first person experience, without sacrificing the DNA that has made so many people fall in love with its wacky world.

Instead of playing as some secret agent trying to defeat a horde of zombies or stop a virus from destroying the world, Resident Evil VII thrusts you into the shoes of everyman Ethan Winters, as he tracks down his missing wife Mia to a suspicious plantation and gets kidnapped by some crazy hillbillies.  VII is built around a simple, but very effective premise - find your wife, and escape.  The game doesn't bog itself down with crazy lore, and as with all great survival horror games, scarce resources require you to play smartly.  Every bullet truly does count, and without carefully searching environments, aiming your shots thoughtfully and conservatively using resources, you'll never escape the Baker plantation.  Resident Evil VII succeeds where lesser survival horror games fail at maintaining tension all the way until the end - while the final area does become a bit more action packed than the rest of the game, encouraging a "guns blazing approach," 90 percent of the time the game keeps you on your toes, and playing cautiously, aware and afraid of every bump around the corner.

Part of the reason the game is so successful in maintaining this tension are the Baker family, a deranged bunch who aren't too happy about Ethan's resistance to "join the family."  The father, Jack, is an aggressive hunter, who relentlessly pursues you through the mansion, forcing you to quickly decide whether to fight back or flee.  The mother, Marguerite, stalks you through her domain and can summon insects at will, encouraging a more stealthy approach.  And the son, Lucas, a real demented fellow, prefers to leave Saw-esque traps for you, forcing you to constantly be aware of your surroundings and think carefully about how to proceed.  Each member of the family has their own unique approach to making your life miserable, forcing you to change up your playstyle and keeping the game fresh most of the way through.

It also helps that Resident Evil VII is a game that's devoid of padding - I really took my time in my playthrough and it lasted 9 and a half hours.  While some may lament that this is short for what at launch was a $60 AAA game, I'm thankful it ended when it did, as I had a blast from beginning to end.  No menial sidequests or filler to bloat the completion time, just a solid, engaging, and atmospheric campaign from beginning to end.

Throw in an excellent late game twist that forces you to rethink how you've been stereotyping the villains, and Resident Evil VII is a game that is well worth your time, whether you're an existing Resident Evil fan or not.  Personally, I'm looking forward to hopping back into its twisted world with the recently released free DLC soon...

7) The Evil Within 2

As I said, 2017 has been a great time for survival horror fans, and several months after the superb Resident Evil VII, we were treated to a follow up to 2014's immensely flawed but oddly compelling The Evil Within.  I feel like a bit of a hypocrite for putting The Evil Within 2 on this list because in a lot of ways, it's everything I condemned Western AAA games for in the introduction of this blog; it's got an open world (albeit a small one that's limited to a few chapters), a crafting system, upgrade trees... you've seen a lot of this stuff before.  Yet The Evil Within 2 is also something that's becoming increasingly rare in the industry - a strong, purely single player game with no DLC, no season pass, and no microtransactions... and of a niche genre to boot!  I'm surprised and elated that Bethesda decided to publish this game at all.

While The Evil Within does lose a bit of the original game's identity by eschewing ideas like changing the setting in random, schizophrenic fashion, I believe that overall the franchise's second outing is a much stronger adventure than the first.  The game puts players back in the shoes of Sebastian Castellanos, a grizzled detective suffering a bout of PTSD after surviving the events of the first game, as he ventures back into the world of STEM to rescue his presumed dead, actually kidnapped daughter.  It's a bit of a predictable narrative, but it's a bit more engaging this time around due to a new voice cast that actually tries to emote (even if they still aren't that great at it), and a more compelling setting.  The world of STEM itself is a bit of a creepy concept - it's a world generated through the shared consciousness of many individuals, after their mind is separated from their body through technology.  It's a bit of a freaky concept to have your mind plucked from your physical form and shoved into this shared space, and the lore of the game explores this idea and its implications in interesting ways.  The version of STEM the second game takes place in is "Union," a sort of utopian suburbia that's been ruined for plot related reasons, now infested with monsters and cloaked under perpetual darkness.  It reminds me a bit of Silent Hill, and I mean that in a very good way.

Several of the early chapters in The Evil Within 2 take place in environments that are much more open than the linear corridors typically featured in survival horror games and that's actually a very good thing for this genre.  The Evil Within 2 was at its best when I was thrust into this huge, cursed neighborhood, armed with a pitiful amount of ammo and no health packs, and forced to scavenge for supplies, decide whether exploring a nearby area was worth the risk of being jumped, while slowly making my way to the next objective.  Open world design works surprisingly well with the survival horror genre here - Union's small but densely packed streets are lined with goodies to collect, lore to discover, and optional scenes to witness, but in order to find all this you'll have to be willing to face what goes bump in the night and risk wasting precious ammo.  It's surprisingly tense because now you're not confronting monsters because you have to, but because you want to in order to discover new things, meaning any failures are your own, and you have to be cautious to prevent them.

The upgrade system from the previous game has also been streamlined and is really satisfying to make use of.  You can still collect green gel from defeating enemies to unlock new abilities for Sebastian, such as being able to run longer or make less noise when sneaking, but now upgrading weapons is done through collecting crafting parts, meaning you no longer have to decide between upgrading yourself or your weapons.  This makes the upgrade system easier to navigate, but a compelling idea from the first game returns - you can never obtain enough gel to unlock all your abilities in your first playthrough.  This means you have to decide which branches to invest most of your upgrades in.  Will you focus on athleticism and stealth, so that you can sneak into frays and easily get out of them?  Or will you throw all your cards into your combat abilities, becoming a ruthless man on a mission.  "Play the game your way!" is a common phrase uttered by AAA developers but in The Evil Within 2, this is not only a necessity, but a must.  If you spread your abilities out too much you may find yourself being a master of nothing.

The Evil Within 2 may be a bit dry from a storytelling perspective, but it's the most fun I had with a survival horror game all year long.  Carefully deciding when to explore its open areas, thoughtfully upgrading my character, and discovering the many secrets the world of STEM had to hide made for a really immersive experience.  Throw in a few clever easter eggs and a small amount of rewarding but disturbing side quests (where are you Sykes?) and you have a game that I personally feel is sadly underappreciated.

6) Yakuza Kiwami

The Yakuza series is one that has, against the odds, had its installments continuously localized for Western audiences in spite of their incredibly Japanese nature and lukewarm sales figures outside of The Land of the Rising Sun.  It wasn't until 2017, with prequel game Yakuza 0 offering fans a very easy jumping in point to the long running series that the franchise was finally able to break free of its niche status in the West.  After Yakuza 0 had introduced many new fans across the world to Kamurocho and its crazy denizens, SEGA made the wise choice of localizing Yakuza Kiwami the same year, a remake of the original Yakuza game in 0's engine.  However, Yakuza 0 is much more than a simple graphical enhancement to the original game.  It also vastly improves the gameplay by allowing protagonist Kazuma Kiryu to use all four of his fighting styles from Yakuza 0 (rather than just the one he had in the original game).  Moreover, the game makes it easier to switch between all four of these styles, allowing players to swap between a variety of brutal movesets on the fly, pulling off crazy comboes in the process, and making an already satisfying combat system even better.

Yakuza Kiwami doesn't just improve the gameplay of its source material, but also the storytelling.  New cutscenes and story beats are added that better tie the events of Kiwami into both later games in the series chronologically and the prequel Yakuza 0, and many of these involve the true star of the game, main antagonist Akira Nishikiyama.  In the original Yakuza, Nishiki was a friend of Kiryu whose weaknesses drive him to become Kiryu's greatest adversary after Kiryu takes the fall for a crime Nishiki committed (as Kiryu thought Nishiki was too soft to go to prison).  However, the original Yakuza never really explored this supposed bond between Kiryu and Nishiki, relying on telling us about it rather than showing us.

Kiwami however, takes place in a world where prequel Yakuza 0 exists, a game that spent hours developing the sworn brotherhood between Kiryu and Nishiki, making us truly believe there was a time when these two were best friends.  Brand new cutscenes over the course of Kiwami slowly reveal how the genuinely kindhearted Nishikiyama becomes the selfish menace that would go on to torment Kiryu, and it's a really heartbreaking transformation to watch.  This all leads up to what is bar none, my favorite boss battle in the history of video games. 

SPOILER WARNING

Final bosses in this day and age feel like a formality more than anything else, developers often throw them into the game for cinematic purposes and they barely pose a threat.  Fable 2 is of course the biggest offender of this, but even 2017's otherwise superb Breath of the Wild fell victim to this trend.

Kiwami however, features a final fight that is not only a true test of skills, reflecting that it is a battle of equals, but also one that has supreme emotional investment and cinematic flair.  Having to brutally fight Nishiki was simultaneously hype-worthy and heartbreaking, and the beautiful music and flashback cut-ins did a brilliant job of conveying the regret Kiryu felt as he was forced to hurt a man he once loved as a brother.

SPOILER END

Yakuza Kiwami also features what you'd expect from the rest of the series in spades.  Kamurocho is a small hub worldcompared to the massive open worlds that are fed to us today, but I really appreciate this, as you get to intimately know its streets, and they are packed with things to do.  Surprisingly addictive minigames like karaoke and bowling.  Hilarious and sometimes emotional side quests (Kiwami's best one in particular involves Kiryu and two other leading characters getting into a debate over who is the most "badass dad").  And in the case of Kiwami... Goro Majima.  Lots of Goro Majima.

Fan favorite crazy man Majima plays a much larger role in Kiwami than he did in the original Yakuza, often ambushing Kiryu on the streets or in increasingly bizarre situations (like disguised as a hostess at a club) to force him to fight and grow stronger, and this is how you unlock abilities for Kiryu's strongest fighting style.  While this "Majima Everywhere" system grew a bit tiresome by the end of the game, for the majority of it,  I found the many contrived and increasingly convoluted ways in which Majima tries to force Kiryu into a fight downright hilarious, and always smiled when I heard a deranged shout of "Kiryu-chan!" from around the corner.

While Yakuza Kiwami doesn't quite reach the heights of Yakuza 0 due to being limited by its source material, it's still a superb follow-up to the game that finally broke the series out of its niche status in the West.  It features an exciting combat system, a fantastically well developed antagonist, tons of compelling sidequest in a densely packed hub, and best of all, Goro Majima.  If you're one of the many fans that got hooked on this charming and passionately crafted series after the breakout hit Yakuza 0, seriously consider adding this to your backlogue next.

Check out the next page for my 5 favorite video games of 2017!