Novel game platform launches are rare enough. But for a flagship system (the Switch) from an industry icon (Nintendo) to arrive off-holidays pegged to a foundational game franchise (Zelda) is an order of magnitude stranger. That wasn’t the only convergence of the strange and the wonderful in games so far this year. There was a game about purgatorial torments. And one in which Jungian theories cavort with harlequin hipsters. And others that assay parochialism about what games and stories are or can be. Here’s the best of the best for 2017 so far:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Scrambling across the idyllic vistas of Nintendo’s vast new fantasy sandbox The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’s easy to see the action-adventure’s sunken structures—plaintive artifacts of a vanished golden age waiting to be restored—as a metaphor for Nintendo itself. It’s like nothing else the company has made, an experience so simultaneously prodigious and accomplished that it feels like a mic drop to the sort of “open world” games (Grand Theft Auto V, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Witcher 3) the industry seems bent on proliferating. But what drives Breath of the Wild to soar comes down to essential Nintendo design principles.
In auteur Thomas Brush’s surrealist side scrolling adventure Pinstripe, players guide a lanky wisp of a man named Teddy through a vision of hell inspired by artists like Tadahiro Uesugi (Coraline) with tonal references to Tim Burton. But there’s also something of the absurd here, those wistful vistas colliding with sleazy emanations and bathroom sounds. Beauty and horror intertwine in this superb tale of abduction and remorse, a bricolage of dreamscapes and Tin Pan Alley tunes where the devil is literally in every detail.
Atlus’s dark fantasy battle sim meets social butterflying. The lark here is that you’re cause-and-effectively playing a game about subverting cause and effect. Surrender to the paradox and the experience becomes an exemplar of the “heroic high schooler” roleplaying sub-genre, wherein troupes of conflicted adolescents who can project Jungian “personas” do battle with everything from supernatural villains to their own insecurities.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Giant Sparrow’s sophomore effort offers an interactive journey through the puzzling lives of a family beset by tragedy. Phantom memories lurk behind secret doors or at the ends of twisting passageways. The setting, a remote Pacific northwest home whose oblique additions sprawl like a stack of teetering favelas, becomes both a literal maze and a lineal metaphor. The upshot plays like an exceptional anthology of remembrances experienced through the eyes of each family member. The novelty lies in the telling, each vignette unfurling like a piece of gameplay snapped off from some other game, singular and fascinating.
If the Dark Souls hack-and-slash roleplaying games swapped their eldritch trappings for early 17th century Japan (but kept the brutally difficult gameplay bits), you’d get Nioh. Team Ninja’s long awaited opus was inspired by an unfinished Akira Kurosawa script, perhaps fitting since the studio made the Ninja Gaiden series. In place of systematic hack-and-slashery, Nioh tenders the same gauntlets of tactically vexing enemies, but lets players engage with nimbler controls and indulgent wuxia-like moves. Weird, psychedelic, seductively rhythmic and visually beguiling, it’s a relentless test of reaction that matches and at times transcends its inspirations.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
Yacht Club Games’ homage to 8-bit treasures like Super Mario Bros. and DuckTales stars a shovel-slinging knight and his thumb-torturing exploits. Knight comes full circle in this compendium edition that includes the superlative recent expansion Specter of Torment. Bask in its unabashed genuflection to 1980s game design tropes. Bathe in its classic NES color palette. Chuckle at the notion of a horn-helmed knight nobly brandishing a sharpened spade. William Faulkner said it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner might not have played Shovel Knight, but he would have understood it.
“1-2-Switch is all about looking each other in the eye as you play!” reads a disclaimer at the outset of Nintendo’s quirky collage of mini-games that include cow-milking, gunslinging and safe-cracking. Ignore what’s happening onscreen, in other words. Then get on with the business of two players hefting a pair of candy bar sized motion-sensing wands (the Switch Joy-Cons) like a couple of Hogwarts students about to duel. 1-2-Switch is a deceptively simple party game that’s also a showcase for the sort of next-gen local play possibilities the Switch offers.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Invert the old Turok games about a time-traveling, gun-toting warrior stuck in the Jurassic, and you get Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games’ action roleplaying game is set in the distant future starring a hunter who battles dinosaur-like machines with hacks, traps and acrobatic moves. Novel it’s not, but then the studio’s noteworthy accomplishments here involve both magnitude and synthesis. Horizon achieves skillful iteration of distinctive A.I. ecologies and loot-and-craft gameplay on an unprecedented scale.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands
A black ops tour of remote South American woodlands and salt flats, Ghost Recon Wildlands skirts combat-loop doldrums by serving up thickets of wary, ferociously resilient opponents. Each encounter in Ubisoft’s sandbox shooter becomes an invitation to tinker with teeming mini-playgrounds bulwarked by enemies players can sneak past or obliterate to tag objectives like assassinating local bosses or gathering. Swallow its absurd (if status quo) premise—a special forces foursome sabotages an entire cartel—and you’ll experience a game in which tactics become riveting.
Yakuza 0, which takes its name from the transnational crime syndicate, lets fans explore the origin of series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu. But it’s also an invitation to anyone interested in the power of gripping, smartly written and beautifully animated interactive narratives. Players tour districts modeled after parts of Tokyo and Osaka in Sega’s open-world brawler. This prequel to the company’s decade-old beat ’em up offers pitch-perfect combat, including the option to switch styles mid-battle.