For a year filled with so many sequels and rehashed ideas, I expected 2017 to be rather bloated and bland. Much to my surprise, there were a number of games that exceeded my expectations, particularly on the JRPG side. If there was any year to pick up a PS4, it was 2017.
Favorite Game Released Before 2017, Played in 2017: Disgaea 5
While I am a longtime fan of the Disgaea series, I didn't purchase a PS4 until the beginning of this year. With the newfound opportunity to catch up on some titles, I found Disgaea 5 to be a natural choice. For the most part, it's just another Disgaea game, complete with a lengthy story, flashy attacks and quirky humor. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, so those who aren't already fans won't be swayed by it; however, for me, it delivered exactly what I hoped for. The absurdity of the humor and exaggerated attack animations are endearing, and I'm glad to see that it has also been released on the Switch.
2017 Honorable Mentions
Prey, Resident Evil 7, Sonic Mania, Shadow Warrior 2, Cuphead
Top 5 Games of 2017
The popularity of Dark Souls has now spawned the Souls-like genre, and Nioh sought to capitalize on that early. I had reservations about such an obvious aping of the formula, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. I'm certainly glad that I did, because Nioh is an excellent game. It borrows mechanics that work for the Souls series, but it does just enough to feel like its own unique experience. As someone who was beginning to get Souls fatigue, I found Nioh to be incredibly refreshing. Part of this is due to the Japanese folklore aesthetic, which allowed the developers to introduce a lot of interesting character and creature designs. The stance switching mechanic provided depth to every weapon type, and its use of items and magic complimented multiple different playstyles. It's not without its flaws, such as the grinding system and a handful of disappointing moments. Regardless, Nioh has set the stage for more Souls-like games to not only be great, but to exceed the almighty Dark Souls in some areas.
4. Nier: Automata
Nier is my favorite game of all time. It is incredibly flawed, and I wouldn't begrudge anyone for considering it mediocre. Nevertheless, the story and characters resonated with me to the point that I would call it a work of art. Its sequel, Nier: Automata is a great game, and yet I can't help but be disappointed by it. It's beautiful, has a great soundtrack and the combat system is solid. As a game, it excels technically and mechanically, and uses the medium of video games to grant greater emotional weight to some key story moments. One segment in particular works only if you played the first game, and it manipulated me in a way I wasn't expecting.
With that being said, Nier: Automata failed in the area I valued the most: the characters. They're not bad per se, but they lack the depth to be interesting. Quite frankly, 2B really doesn't carry the main character role very well, and her inconsistent reactions, while justified, do not change the fact that she's not enjoyable to follow. A2 is in a similar boat, so only 9S really stands out. It doesn't help that his gameplay sections are inherently more limited, making some segments a slog. This could have been alleviated if one particular element of the world was fleshed out, but it was largely wasted. The secondary characters could have picked up some of the slack, but the vast majority are under-cooked. At the end of the day, I found myself simply appreciating the gameplay and music as opposed to connecting with the characters. For some, this criticism won't matter, but for me, the lack of characterization held back what could have been my new favorite game.
3. The Evil Within 2
A lot of people disliked The Evil Within, to the point that it seemed like I was the only one who loved it. It was a very flawed game, but it offered a great experience in a barren genre. I was incredibly excited when I heard that a sequel was announced, and I'm glad to say that it did not disappoint. This feels like a sequel that truly learned from the first game. Many of the criticized mechanics and design decisions are gone, while the strongest parts are retained. I could gush about what I loved about the tone, gameplay, environmental variety, and Sebastion's character, but I'd like to point to one excellent design mechanic.
The Evil Within 2 is a pseudo open-world game, complete with side missions; however, what truly makes this world special is how it rewards exploration. Seemingly random areas contain fantastic sequences that contribute the overall story. These places have no map marker or visually distinct features. They're just a house, or an alley, or a table with a book on it, and if you bother to really search the area, you'll be treated to some of the best moments in the entire game. Unlike the typical open world design, where everything is labeled as a side mission or optional area, The Evil Within 2 is content to let the player organically discover them, and it's something that future open-world games need to take note of.
2. Persona 5
To absolutely no one's surprise, Persona 5 is great. It's a wonderfully stylized world with a solid story, good characters, fantastic music, a ton of content, and a classic turn-based combat system. There's no other series that truly offers what Persona does, and Persona 5 feels like a natural evolution of the formula. Everything about it just oozes style, whether it is the costumes, music, or even the menus. Beneath this excellent presentation and gameplay is an intriguing narrative that really drives you to keep playing.
Like its predecessors, Persona 5 compels its players to go to school, work and talk to people as often as fighting. It's a game that makes you think "I could go fight giant monsters in this dungeon and use a bunch of extravagant attacks, but I'd rather go grab coffee with my friends and then do a bit of studying." The way Persona 5, and the series in general, incentivizes you to balance your superhero life with you regular one is what really makes it special. By the end of the 80+ hour story, there is a rewarding conclusion, but it's the journey itself filled with a mix of the fantastical and mundane that really makes the game work.
1. Yakuza 0
I would be remiss if I didn't try to spread the word about Yakuza 0. The graphics are excellent, the soundtrack is incredible, and the gameplay is brutally satisfying. Put simply, Yakuza 0 is a solid beat 'em up with a ton of moves and different styles. As a result of this variety, you can play the game in whatever way suits you, and they're all rewarding. Expertly maneuver around opponents and beat them with a string of punch combinations, or mash a box of nails into their mouth and then suplex them into the pavement, your choice. The boss fights in particular do an excellent job of ramping up the tension, and the pure spectacle of it all is a joy to behold. On the surface, it's just an exaggerated beat 'em up with goofy moments, but it doesn't take long to figure out how much depth it hides behind its Japanese quirkiness. Yes, you can play Sega arcade games, bet on Rumble Roses-esque battles, go bowling, run a cabaret club, and recruit a chicken as the manager of your real estate business. While those features may be enough to grab the attention of the uninitiated, Yakuza 0's true value is its story.
For all the bizarre moments in the side content and battles, the main plot is serious and dramatic. In fact, it's outright mundane in some ways, with the crux of the plot being a small empty lot that the Yakuza wants to buy. Despite this, Yakuza 0 manages to be compelling right from the outset. I absolutely fell in love with the story, and while there are some contrived moments, it never stops being interesting. Much of this can be credited to the character interactions, and their general likeability shines through as you progress. Yakuza 0 expertly balances the Japanese melodrama with its bizarre absurdity, which is no small feat. If the subject matter or gameplay is even tangentially related to your interests, I highly recommend you pick it up.