Our backlogs have never been bigger than the monstrous sizes they swelled to in the past year. Even if I would’ve restricted myself to the games I’m predisposed to like (I’m curious, so no, I didn’t), it still would have been impossible to keep up with the sheer onslaught of games. It’s inevitable that we all missed something, or more likely, a lot of “somethings.” In honor of all that games accomplished in 2017, I’d like to recognize a few of my favorites that deserved a little more time in the spotlight.
From step-by-step combo challenges to replay systems and extensive tutorials, we’ve seen varied attempts to draw new blood to fighting games. Arms, however, is a different kind of “accessible fighting game” that gleans striking depth from a dead-simple foundation. Every character has (well, approximately) the same moveset: two punches, a grab, a block, a dash, and a jump. They also have inexplicably stretchy arms, varying in design from springs, to ribbons, to even…championship belts…? This game is something else, folks.
The thing about having long arms, though, is that they take an exceptional stretch of time to coil oooout-and-baaaack. Therein lies the core of the competitive Arms experience: exploiting the opportunities left in the dust of your opponent’s punches. I’m as green of a fighter as they come, but even I was able to rapidly pick up on Arms’ mindgames, strategies, and nuances. For example: punching slows your movement, which means you can always catch up to someone who is trying to whittle you away at a distance. A jumping opponent can’t block, which leaves them vulnerable to the full damage of your rush attack. For the first time in my life, Arms allowed me to move past the “double quarter circle” hurdle of a traditional fighting game, and truly engage with the genre in its rich, fulfilling entirety.
To the cursory mind, “immersion” is a concept of narrative design. What details in an environment make a setting feel real? How is failure contextualized within a game’s world? Flywrench, however, generally forgoes narrative and induces immersion through meticulous mechanical purity. I once described the game as having made me feel “like I could catch a bullet between my fingers.” That is the pinnacle of timing, execution, and reflexes that Flywrench pushes towards.
Flywrench differs from most games, in that it handles with almost distressing sensitivity. A single button press carries its weight across hundreds of milliseconds, and as your momentum builds, it can take incredible care to reverse. My accident-prone human mind felt at times insufficient for this game, and I love that about it. Challenges whir by at hyperspeed - the very first level (in addition to many others) can be completed through ordinary play in roughly one second. Its unrelenting pace and gradual difficulty curve instill an almost inhuman awareness of time and motion, and that’s just not an experience many other games are going to offer.
Shovel Knight: Spectre of Torment
Considering Shovel Knight’s booming reception when it launched in 2014, I have to admit, I’m somewhat puzzled by the muted reaction to its follow-up campaigns. In fairness, I guess March of 2017 was among the most busy months the hobby has ever seen. Nintendo launched a console, there was a new Nier, a new Zelda, a new first-party exclusive from Sony (Horizon), and a new Persona not long after. Regardless, Spectre of Torment is a game that more people should have made time for.
As loud as this praise might sound, I mean it: Spectre Knight’s campaign is Yacht Club’s most impressive work yet. More than “just an expansion,” it’s an experience completely unlike the weighty bounces of Shovel Knight, or Plague Knight’s bounding leaps. Spectre Knight zips gracefully from enemy, to obstacle, to enemy again using his signature move, the “slash dash.” It’s an attack, a double jump, a dive kick, and a gap closer all at once, and its utilized in each and every stage with diversity and brilliance. All of that leaves out the fact that the music is inspiring and catchy, the narrative is (yet again) surprisingly affective, and it only costs $10. Play it!
…as long as we’re on the subject, the King Knight campaign comes out this year. I don’t know, maybe you’d be interested? I’m just throwing it out there.
In any other year, Linelight’s impeccable design sensibilities would have been more than enough to land it near the top of my Game of the Year list. It carries an enveloping sense of minimalism, not only as an aesthetic, but as a foundational design principle. I don’t know, maybe there’s no other way to design a puzzle game about lines? It’s a triumph nonetheless. Linelight’s vibrant, splashy color pallette communicates new puzzle mechanics without any need for explanation or interruption. There are some real mindbenders hidden away along optional paths, but its gentle piano melodies and energetic blips and chimes maintain a thoughtful sense of optimism and encouragement.
Gradually solving its puzzles is a meditative experience, like sitting on the beach, listening to the waves roll up to shore. In a way, though, that feels…insufficient. What makes Linelight so memorable are the moments where I discovered that the game was a little more “alive” than expected. For example, here’s something minor that isn’t much of a spoiler (by all means, skip ahead to the next paragraph if you prefer): sole developer Brett Taylor closes out the game’s credits sequence with a sweet, heartfelt message to his parents. There are plenty of other small touches that are directly experienced in the game proper, but they’re neat, and probably wouldn’t land the same way if I explained them in advance.
Minimalism, when pursued to its natural ends, can often feel sterile, sometimes even lifeless. Linelight is anything but lifeless. Despite being a game about the “lines” sliding about predetermined paths, its human touches remind us that we aren’t alone.
To be honest, Pyre is a tough sell. As natural as the combination might be in actuality, “sports” and “RPG” are not genres that people think of as going together. Genre definitions are a fickle friend, and Pyre is far too notable of a game to skip over merely for the gameplay concepts it combines.
Without getting too specific, its narrative raises heavy questions: What is the cost of freedom? Who is worthy of being free, and are there those that are more worthy than others? If push came to shove, by what criteria would you choose? These themes are fully explored in visual novel segments, which are miraculously both short and effective. Obvious care has been given to ensure that each and every text box counts, and despite this ruthless efficiency, its lines carry a powerful, poetic quality.
Like any RPG, you’ll make decisions about the members of your team, the skills they use, and how to utlize them in the heat of the moment, but there are even more decisions to be made on a metanarrative level. Unlike, well, nearly every game ever made, losing a match in Pyre is not a game over. Its “battles” aren’t life-and-death duels, but rituals along the path of liberation. It’s inevitable that at some point, losing a match will become a narrative decision - and unfortunately, I cannot talk about why this matters without spoiling anything. Ironically, by making losses an acceptable outcome, the stakes of the rites are dramatically raised.
The team at Supergiant have made three games as disparate as they are exceptional, and if you ask me, Pyre is easily my favorite of the bunch. It takes so many risks: in genre, in narrative, in structure, and especially in its politics. Now, I realize I’ve been vague, and I can’t promise that each and every one of those gambles will pay off for everyone. The least I can do is urge you to give it a chance, if only to see for yourself how different of a game it is.