So if the most disappointing category is a list of games that should have been better, the most surprising category is the opposite. These are games that were better than they should have been. Just as disappointing is about falling short of expectations, these surprising games exceeded expectations and, in some cases, were among the best games of the year.
After the jump, the ten most surprising games of 2017.
The last thing I expect from free-to-play games is a smart new twist on old gameplay. There’s nothing particularly novel about the cardplay in Faeria, which is the usual mish-mash of fantasy-ish things with powers and costs and hit points. Instead, what’s novel is how you build and control the map as you play. Imagine if mana in Magic the Gathering wasn’t just a card sitting in front of you, but a piece of territory dropped onto the battlefield. The matches have the snappy pacing of Hearthstone, the single-player content is hearty enough, the deck-building is just what I wanted, and the free-to-play business model is surprisingly inoffensive.
Take the trading out of the usual fly/fight/trade space arcade sim. Now situate it on an FTL style branching map, with all the trappings of a rogue-like: permadeath for high stakes, persistent meta-progression for gratifying rewards, and procedurally generated maps for infinite replayability. The VR support is just gravy.
8. Aven Colony
Familiar but competent. That was my first impression, muttered in a dismissive tone. But about half way through the campaign (Aven Colony has nine maps instead of the usual randomized terrain), and still interested in playing further, it occurred to me that “familiar but competent” can be said in an appreciative tone. Many familiar city builders have too many things that annoy me. Aven Colony has pretty much none. It presents lots of information with an efficient interface that tells me everything I need to know. The colonies are powered by an intriguing sci-fi economy cultivated on colorful sci-fi worlds. The challenges are reasonably challenging and the pacing is perfect. Familiar but competent. This is how you do a solid city builder.
Is this a rogue-like or a twin-stick shooter? Both! Neither! Although it plays like a rogue-like and a twin-stick shooter, it’s actually a cerebral heist game. From the review:
Cryptark distinguishes itself for how the space dungeons aren’t dark inert dungeons. Instead, they are actively engineered to keep you at bay. Their automatic defense systems are sets of overlapping and interacting systems. Systems protecting systems protecting systems. Defensive guns, robot factories, alarms, shields, locked doors, sensor jammers, repair nodes. All of these protect the main core, which is your objective. Destroy the main core and the space hulk is yours to cash in.
You have 100% vision of the derelict (unless it’s got sensor jammers), including the locations and identities of all the robots. The plans are on the table for you to pore over. Disable this first, then that, then this, then move on the core. You’ve found a way in. Time to see if you can pull it off.
A tiny indie studio realizing Jet Grind Radio in a fully open world? From the review:
Hover drops you into a bright city, stacked absurdly vertical and mildly bustling with activity. Have at it. No agenda. Just get out there. Feel free to tick off the list of activities in the corner of the screen. Or not. Your choice. Of course a game about anarchists skaterpunking sans skates through a plasticky neon dystopia would be this free form. You can run right up to the top or indulge your completionist neurosis in the starting area, which is far more cheerful than you’d expect for a place called “Garbage Village”. Everything in Hover is the opposite of grim.
5. Age of Rivals
The last few years have seen lots of clever things done with cards. Age of Rivals might be the cleverest for how it uses a handful of cards to strike a balance among separate but interrelated systems for armies, economies, art, religion, espionage, and so on. But it’s got a powerful sense of focus because all you ever do is choose among four cards. That’s all it takes to play Age of Rivals. Here, look at these four cards. Which one do you want? An ingenious mix of simplicity and complexity.
Read the review here.
Finally a VR-only game that earns its VR-only tag. The graphics are simple enough that the world-through-a-cheesecloth visuals aren’t much of a liability. But the game itself is complex enough that it doesn’t feel like one of the dozens of VR boondoggles I’ve tried since I bought a Vive earlier this year. Ultrawings and Dirt Rally have made the purchase worthwhile.
3. Through the Ages
The best boardgame port I’ve ever played. Part of what’s remarkable about the iOS version of this boardgame is that it finally makes it a viable game. Through the Ages is easily renowned boardgame designer Vladimir Chvatil’s best design, but it’s simply not viable for many boardgaming groups. It’s hard to teach, hard to learn, easy to lose until you understand the nuances, and takes a long time to play. In other words, you have to fumble a few three-hour sessions to figure it out. I don’t know about your boardgaming group, but mine doesn’t have that kind of patience. This iOS version has an excellent tutorial for learning the game and an excellent AI for practicing the game. Of course, it also has support for asynchronous online games. Which means the tabletop version of Through the Ages, a design well worth playing, is now obsoleted. Through the Ages is dead, long live Through the Ages!
2. Golf Story
For a long stretch of time, my Vita was little more than a platform for Hot Shots Golf. If the Switch didn’t have so many excellent games, it could have suffered the same fate, but for Golf Story. Who knew I wanted an RPG that had 2D golf instead of combat?
1. Wolfenstein II
Delightfully unhinged and, much to my dismay, suddenly relevant and even incendiary. It’s a rare shooter where you look forward to the cutscenes more than the actual shooting bits. In fact, since the cutscenes don’t feature Kiefer Sutherland reciting poetry to someone named Caroline (I confess that I don’t fully understand what’s going on), I actually prefer them to the shooting bits.
EDIT: Due to a mistake made by an overzealous intern qualifying games by the date of their review rather than their release, Steep was erroneously included as the fifth most surprising game of 2017. The intern has been assigned the Cuphead review.