pyre

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017

by Jed Pressgrove

2017 had plenty of good games compared to the last few years. But don’t be thrown off by the hype: several of the biggest releases were very flawed (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Yakuza 0) or downright terrible (Resident Evil 7, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Xenoblade Chronicles 2). The gaming world still has incredibly low standards, and many critics can still be indistinguishable from fanboys, but as always, the games themselves represent a vibrant art form.

1. The Norwood Suite

Cosmo D’s 2015 game, Off-Peak, was an audiovisual and thematic revelation. No other independent first-person game — not Dear Esther, not Gone Home, not Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — had captured humanity in such provocative, comprehensible, and technically daring terms. Incredibly, The Norwood Suite doesn’t just match the effort of Off-Peak. It surpasses its predecessor’s use of sound, incorporating a larger, more emotionally varied soundtrack and making every character’s dialogue an instrumental riff within the sonic landscape. It complicates the theme of art under capitalism; whereas Off-Peak focuses on the diversity and struggle of artists in an exploitative system, The Norwood Suite covers a wider range of expressive individuals, including corporate sellouts, leading figures who abuse other artists in the process of creating iconic works (as exemplified by Peter Norwood), and more. Last but not least, The Norwood Suite confirms its developer’s distinctiveness as a surrealist. Some fans of Cosmo D compare him to filmmaker David Lynch. That’s an oversimplification. Lynch, who often serves up ominous abstractions, has never so blatantly called attention to cultural joy, sacrifice, and problems through a surreal lens, nor can he fully explore the possibilities of music within space. Cosmo D, like the people he portrays, is his own artist.

(See more thoughts on The Norwood Suite here.)

2. Nier: Automata

With some of the most resonant images, songs, and dialogue of the year, director Yoko Taro presents the bigotry of androids in Nier: Automata as a reflection of our own othering, which has no political boundaries.

(See full review of Nier: Automata here.)

3. Splasher

This platformer from developer Splashteam understands that “more” does not equal great design. That’s why Splasher’s unique kineticism thrives across 24 levels. There’s an odd humor in failing to rush through these intricate stages, as your fingers scramble to tap the right button for the right kind of environment-altering liquid. This dynamic makes Splasher an action masterpiece.

(See more thoughts on Splasher here.)

4. Little Red Lie

As the most cynical game of the year, Little Red Lie sometimes lays everything on too thick. At the same time, one would be lucky in 2017 to find more compelling writing, from a standpoint of form or unfiltered emotion, than Will O’Neill’s work in this game. Little Red Lie is an ominous statement on how individuals and society influence each other, but it also functions as a mirror. In highlighting all of the characters’ lies, which come in innumerable forms, the game asks us to take a longer look at our own words. The coda, which aggressively breaks the fourth wall, might feel like an accusation or an insult, yet I interpret it as a moral challenge, a chance to be honest with one’s self.

5. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the antithesis of Silent Hill 2. Its action is not fundamentally banal. It’s a focused, rather than inconsistent, metaphor. It doesn’t rely on a hackneyed “the protagonist is the culprit” plot twist. Even more, it ultimately presents the human mind as something to understand, not fear, with a universal message about overcoming hatred in all its internal forms.

(See full review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

6. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

The combat of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is distinctively hard-nosed, avoiding the gimmicks of recent Fire Emblem sequels, and its time mechanic encourages experimentation in a way the series never has. Just as remarkable is the game’s story of two heroes, whose love can’t overlook the need to discover identity and destiny along separate paths.

(See full review of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

7. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

If Mario + Rabbids didn’t have a pointless story and so much inconsequential item collecting, it could have been the best turn-based game of the year. As it stands, movement within a tile-based system has never been this electrifying.

(See full review of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

8. Super Mario Odyssey

There are two strange signs of Super Mario Odyssey’s greatness. First, the game manages to counteract its pandering nonsense — a photo mode, nostalgic and trite two-dimensional platforming segments, repetitive item collecting — with sheer ingenuity and humor. Second, we may never see another pop game that reveals the urge of so many different people to enslave, brand, and manipulate things for their own gain. Cappy is innocuously packaged as a friendly guide, but his popularity as a device for unbridled control speaks to a double-edged type of catharsis, where we see in each other a common dark thread.

(See full review of Super Mario Odyssey here.)

9. Pyre

Developer Supergiant Games goes beyond the norms of RPGs and sports games to show how sport connects and divides us. Unlike countless other games, Pyre sees potential for revolution, both personal and social, via nonviolent means. In today’s world, that’s a controversial idea, especially for those who only see sports as games.

(See full review of Pyre here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

10. Torment: Tides of Numenera

Yes, I would have preferred this sequel to the unforgettable Planescape: Torment to stand out more visually and to distance itself more from the numbers obsession of many RPGs. But you also won’t find many games in 2017, or any year, this concerned with exploring the philosophies and sentiments of beings who may make you uncomfortable. Tides of Numenera is a call for people to leave their echo chambers and bubbles, even while the ghosts of history live on in startlingly destructive ways.

(See full review of Torment: Tides of Numenera here.)

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Pyre Review — Revolution by Sport

by Jed Pressgrove

I can’t recall a sports video game that captures the feelings that develop before and after a team-based contest like Pyre does. Although the rules and intricacies of Pyre’s fictional sport are fascinating, developer Supergiant Games’ greatest accomplishment lies in how it subverts role-playing game conventions to up the emotional ante and affect roster options, as when two party members, due to bad blood, refuse to compete at the same time. By the conclusion of this game, you take away a deeply personal win-loss record that can have world-altering effects on Pyre’s fantasy setting, including one possibility that speaks to a compelling type of political resistance.

As the mysterious Reader (think head coach), you lead a group of exiles on a mission to win Rites, three-on-three competitions where the object is to throw an orb into the opposing team’s fiery goal until the fire is extinguished. Every so often, a team member has an opportunity to return home to the Commonwealth, a place of prosperity, by winning what the game calls a Liberation Rite. Once a character is freed from exile, he or she is effectively retired and can no longer play on your team.

The catch is that only characters who have been leveled up a particular amount can be eligible for liberation. This rule means that if you stick to a favorite trio to increase your odds of winning Rites, you will have to do without a preferred athlete permanently if you are the victor of a Liberation Rite — an ingenious punishment for following the old RPG standard of leveling up with abandon. This set-up creates questions about how your strategy must change after you lose an essential piece of your team (a parallel might be losing, say, Kevin Durant to season-ending injury). Pyre forces you to learn how to use characters who seem less appropriate for your system. As such, the game works as a believable simulation of maximizing talent as a coach, with all the pride and frustration that comes with the job between significant matches.

At the same time, you are not required to win matches in Pyre. Here, the game deviates again from the norm: in most RPGs, losing a battle means you can’t progress. But Pyre continues even when you lose, which can set up a variety of emotionally charged situations. Before one Liberation Rite, one of your team members may plead with you to allow the opposition to win, as her sister plays for the other team and has an opportunity to be forgiven of her past misdeeds. In another case, if you win and choose to liberate a character before he has an opportunity to fulfill a promise to friends, you will be told about his guilt, so losing in that case might seem more fulfilling. Or what if you win every Rite with the exception of contests against a specific team? You then become acquainted with a nagging status that the New England Patriots must bear: a dynasty that nonetheless can’t defeat its archenemy (in the Patriots’ case, the New York Giants). With a storytelling fervor inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Supergiant Games homes in on the friendships, rivalries, and other connections that make sports a lesson in theater and psychology.

Prye’s emphasis on motivation and ego shines the brightest with a character named Volfred Sandalwood. At first, Volfred seems like nothing more than an intelligent control freak, as he goes on and on about you and your team fitting into a plan to overthrow the powers that be in the Commonwealth, so that no other person will have to suffer the injustice of being exiled. But as your journey develops, Volfred develops humility under your authority. By game’s end, you can choose to set Volfred free, and if you do, the Commonwealth undergoes a nonviolent intellectual revolution. This fantasy scenario stands opposed to the adolescent hero-ball resistance presented in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, showcasing how rules-based competition can change society via individuals who inspire unity by speaking truth to power.