Guest List: Zak’s Picks for 2017

Friend of the show Zak Lyons stepped in to give us his take on the year that was 2017, and his picks for our award categories. You can find Zak on Twitter.


Stranger Things (Season 2)

Most television shows have one of two problems: either their first season is extraordinary and they garner a massive following, only to falter in season 2 by trying too hard to replicate what made season 1 successful and engaging (i.e. The Walking Dead), or season 1 is a slow burn and difficult to get through, but by season 2 they’ve found their footing and things finally start getting interesting, but by then too many people have already dropped off, so it suffers in the long run (i.e. Agents of SHIELD). By some miracle, season 2 of Stranger Things is every bit as good as season 1, and even though it ends on a much more final note than season 1, with fewer cliffhangers or unanswered questions, I’m still excited for the upcoming seasons 3 and 4. Most of the original cast members have meaningful developments (shout out to Steve, Dustin, and Eleven in particular), while newcomers such as Bob and Max slide right into Hawkins, Indiana seamlessly. The mysteries are intriguing, the jokes are funny, and the suspense is thrilling. Without a doubt, Stranger Things season 2 was the best television I watched in 2017.


Agents of SHIELD season 4B concluded the LMD arc and took the team into an alternate timeline where SHIELD was no more and Hydra ruled supreme, and this gave the chance to bring back several fan-favorite characters from earlier seasons in unique and interesting ways. The show grows in quality with each passing season, and I feel bad for anyone who gave up on it after the slow-as-molasses first season.

Honorable Mentions

Though they have both been out for years now, I finally watched both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra in their entirety in 2017, and they lived up to every bit of hype I’d heard over the years. These are easily some of the best cartoons I’ve ever watched that are just as enjoyable for adults as kids, without defaulting to subtle crude humor thrown in for the older crowd. They are just legit great shows for anyone willing to give them a chance.


I haven’t really been invested in the X-Men films. I’ve seen most of them at least once, but they never gripped me like the inter-connected MCU slate of films have. Perhaps this makes my pick of Logan, in a year where we saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok all come out, even more impressive of an achievement. Logan as a character isn’t always family-friendly, so it was refreshing to see him be allowed to go all out, both in his dialogue and his action. Hugh Jackman has consistently upped his game as Wolverine in each new iteration over the last 17 years, to a point where no matter how many other actors play that part in the coming decades, his name will forever be synonymous with live-action Wolvy. He was born to play this part, and all the ups and downs of the X-Men film legacy led him to his shining finale in Logan. Of course, his was hardly the only noteworthy performance, as Daphne Keen proved an incredible successor to the Wolverine mantle (fingers crossed we get to see more of her as Laura in the future), and Patrick Stewart, as always, played Xavier immaculately. The morose tone of the film was the perfect way to send off Logan on his final journey, and I imagine it will be a long time before heartstrings are tugged at so effectively and poignantly in a superhero film.


Both Thor: Ragnarok and Wonder Woman impressed the hell out of me this year too. It was amazing seeing local New Zealand icon Taika Waititi succeed with such a high-profile title like Thor, and everything about it – from the bright colors to the acting from all sides to the constant laugh-out-loud jokes – was so on-point. It was a breath of fresh air for the Thor trilogy in a similar way that Wonder Woman was for the DCEU. Gal Gadot fully embodies Diana, and her coming-of-age story is a shining beacon of hope among the doom-and-gloom of her compatriots. Currently, she is the one character that will keep me coming back to the DCEU for the foreseeable future.

Honorable Mention

I want to give a shout-out to a single non-superhero movie from 2017 that I thoroughly enjoyed too: The Belko Experiment. It’s like Office Space meets Battle Royale, and is every bit as intriguing as that makes it sound. Highly recommended.


Final Fantasy VII’s Disappointing 20th Anniversary
There were several messy moments throughout 2017, from the Nick Robinson/Polygon scandals to PewDiePie being racist to E3 being a congested mess full of normies to EA completely fucking up Star Wars Battlefront II microtransactions, and compared to most of them, my Hot Mess is probably fairly tame. Even so, it left me feeling pretty dang salty. Now I was one of those hopeful, naive babies in 2015 who, when the FFVII Remake was announced, wished and prayed for it to release in 2017, as a way of celebrating the 20th anniversary in style. Of course, 2016 came and went with nary a single screenshot or trailer or anything of any significance. Drips and drops of information here and there arose from interviews, but nothing terribly noteworthy. “That’s okay,” I reassured myself. “They wanted to focus on development as much as they could in 2016 so they could really blow us away for the anniversary,” I muttered hopefully. “Even if it doesn’t come out in 2017, we’ll still get heaps and heaps of announcements and trailers and a release window,” I tried to convince myself. “The Remake aside, they can celebrate the anniversary in other ways too, like a PS4 HD port of Crisis Core or a PS2-on-PS4 port of Dirge of Cerberus,” I blatantly lied.

I clung to that hope for most of the year, spurred on by the Key Art for FFVII Remake we were shown during the Final Fantasy 30th anniversary opening ceremony event in late January, followed by the two new screenshots of the opening bombing mission released at the Monaco Anime Game International Conference (MAGIC 2017) in February. Plus at MAGIC, Nomura also directly stated that he wanted to show off a new trailer at the event, but Square Enix told him he couldn’t. Not yet. Sometime at a bigger event later in the year, he claimed. Okay, fair enough. MAGIC isn’t exactly a well-known industry event, and Square Enix wanted to wait for something like E3, right? Makes perfect sense. I eagerly attended the Sony press conference at my first (and probably only) E3, only to be let down by a no-show for anything related to FFVII. No big deal. There’s still Gamescom. Nope. Okay, what about Tokyo Game Show? *shakes head* PSX? Nuh uh. *whispers desperately* …The Game Awards?? That’s a clear N-O from Square Enix, as well as two gigantic middle fingers.

So in the end, all we got for Final Fantasy VII’s 20th anniversary was one piece of promotional art, two screenshots from literally the first hour of the game, and a celebratory ice sculpture in Sapporo (which called back to when they made an ice sculpture as the same place for the original FFVII twenty years ago), all of which happened in the first three months of 2017. Square Enix had been frustratingly tight-lipped on the project all year, and anytime someone asks Nomura about it in an interview, he is forced to be equally cryptic and vague. That eventual trailer has still yet to surface. It has been two and a half years since the game was announced, and we’ve still only seen two of the nine main protagonists. The most recent trailer we received was in December 2015, and the newest screenshot turns a year old next month. I don’t know about you lot, but for this fanboy, that is my Hot Mess of 2017.

Runner-Up/Anti-Hot Mess

In contrast to the Hot Mess, I wanted to give a quick shout out to a couple Anti-Hot Messes. That is things that made me extremely excited and hyped in 2017. The Switch event Nintendo held in January skyrocketed interest in their new system, as many titles in their extremely impressive year 1 line-up were shown off, as well as the unique functionality. I still haven’t managed to grab a Switch for myself yet, but that presentation showed me that they were ready to dust themselves off from the Wii U’s failure and start getting back in the common gamer’s good graces.

Additionally, the reveal of the Toy Story world for Kingdom Hearts III is something I’ve been waiting on for YEARS. Toy Story has been my #1 most-wanted Disney property to join Kingdom Hearts basically since Kingdom Hearts II released, so this is a dream come true. I’m glad it took until KH3 to get it too because the models look *Italian finger kiss* (also reminder that I got to see the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra concert twice and I cried both times and it was amazing)


Please note that this list would probably very different if I owned a Switch, but unfortunately, I was not able to play a single Switch game during the entirety of 2017. Thus, here is my Zelda-less, Mario-less, Spla2n-less, Snipperclips-less, and Xenoblade-less GOTY list for 2017:

10) Seasons After Fall
If you like whimsical indie platformers with gorgeous art styles (read: Ori and the Blind Forest, Unravel, Child of Light), you’ll like Seasons After Fall. You play as a spirit possessing a fox in the forest and can control the seasons to change your surroundings. Winter turns impassable lakes into ice, spring makes it rain, and the summer sun makes new flowery platforms bloom (I forget what autumn does), and it’s a wonderful mechanic that makes the puzzles so fun to figure out.

9) Everything
Everything allows you to take control of any being or item that populates the game world. A blade of grass, a car, a discarded banana peel, a mountain range, a house, a planet, an atom; if it’s in the game, you can become it. It’s less a game and more an experience (this phrase would usually make me roll my eyes, but trust me, that’s what it is), accompanied by philosophical recordings from the late Alan Watts, which urge you to look at the way you live and interact with the world, mirroring the game’s themes beautifully. It’s a trip. Check it out.

8) Resident Evil VII: Biohazard
I hadn’t cared about a Resident Evil game since Nemesis (RE3), and I hadn’t completed a Resident Evil game ever, but for some reason, RE7 just pulled me in. The Baker family mystery intrigued me, the boss battles were challenging without feeling impossible, and I had a constant feeling of dread throughout. Beating the game gave me so much satisfaction; more than I’ve felt from beating a game in several years.

7) Yooka-Laylee
Playtonic Games promised that Yooka-Laylee would be a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, and they followed through in spades. For many modern gamers, this was the worst outcome, but I relished in every bit. Even the unnecessarily difficult platforming moments somehow felt right, and couldn’t stop me from coming back to this world to find more pagies and ghosts and other collectibles. As someone who longed for some N64 nostalgia with a current-gen polish, this was godsendnd. Heaps of fun.

6) Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
The Zero Escape trilogy of games initially came out on the DS (game 1), 3DS and Vita (games 2 and 3) between 2009 and 2016. In 2017 all three got the HD upgrade to PS4, which is when I took the opportunity to play them all for the first time. Zero Time Dilemma is the third and final chapter of Zero Escape, and it manages to wrap up the absolute mind-trip of mysteries introduced in 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward nicely, while also presenting some brand new iconic WTF moments of its own. It also utilizes an amazingly effective Tarantino-esque style of storytelling, presenting different viewpoints from different points in time in non-chronological order, and you have to try piecing together how it all fits as you play. It’s not quite as good as 999 and VLR (more on them later), but it’s a worthy finale.

5) Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Though I was skeptical of Life is Strange taking the prequel route, especially with Ashly Burch unable to reprise her role as Chloe Price due to the voice actor SAG-AFTRA strike, somehow Deck Nine managed to impress the hell out of me with Before the Storm. There are no time-travel abilities here, just Chloe being a sassy badass teen as she grows closer to Rachel Amber. The final episode felt a bit anti-climactic, but overall the 3-episode mini-series won me over.

4) Pyre
Going into Pyre all I knew was that it was by the developers of Bastion (which I love) and Transistor (which I haven’t played). So at the very least, I knew I’d be getting a stand-out OST, and Supergiant Games’ composer Darren Korb certainly didn’t disappoint there. Music aside, Pyre is a colorful and thoughtful fantasy RPG sports game (weird, I know, but just hear me out) about a bunch of misfits exiled to an underworld, trying to earn redemption and a way back to their lives up above in the common world. The cast is filled with eclectic characters like hulking horned demons, anthropomorphic dog-types, nymphs, and more, all forming opposing teams who partake in Rites – 3-on-3 sportsball games where you have to throw a ball into the opposing team’s pillar of fire (hence the title Pyre) – to proves their worthiness. On paper, the combination of sports and RPG sounds nearly as ridiculous and terrible as Final Fantasy and Disney pairing up, but somehow it works just as famously. And speaking of…

3) Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue
Following the two-games-and-a-cinematic-movie precedent set by the 1.5 and 2.5 Kingdom Hearts collections, Square Enix managed to squeeze out one more insanely titled HD collection before finally giving us the hold grail of Kingdom Hearts III. KH2.8 is almost more enticing than either of its predecessors though because two of the three titles within are completely new. KHX: Back Cover is an hour-long movie that tells the story of the Foretellers that have been teased throughout the mobile game and various KH3 trailers, and though it is stunning to look at, unfortunately, we’re left with more questions than answers at the end. Par for the course with KH I suppose. Also included is the HD remaster of the previously 3DS-exclusive, Dream Drop Distance, the finale of which sets the stage for KH3 beautifully, while also including handy recaps of all 6 games that came before it. But the crown jewel of this collection is 0.2 Birth by Sleep -a fragmentary passage- which lets us control Aqua on her journey through the Realm of Darkness. Not only does this act as our first real Kingdom Hearts title that was developed from the ground up for the PS4, but it provides juicy insight into where most of the main players will be as Kingdom Hearts III begins. We learn where Mickey and Riku are going, we know where Kairi will be, and if you told me they planned to re-use 0.2’s ending cinematic featuring Sora, Donald, and Goofy to open KH3, I would honestly not be surprised. The gameplay is a smooth blend of several titles before it, the effects (which will only be more finely honed by KH3’s release) are superb, and even though there’s some obvious retcon happening here, the way it connects to the original Kingdom Hearts is extremely satisfying. No joke, I got chills the first time I played this and saw Mickey’s side of things leading to him meeting up with Sora and Riku for KH1’s ending. So good.

2) NieR Automata

As a fan of the original NieR, I was blown away by the announcement of a sequel. The first one went so far under the radar that I never expected to see anything from that series ever again. But man, I’m so glad it happened. I only just finished the game properly (meaning endings A through E) a few days ago (at the time of writing – so mid-January), and man, I can’t get that ending E sequence out of my head. If you haven’t beat the game, spoiler alert, but I have to talk about it. Turning the end credits into a bullet hell game is ridiculously cool and clever. The way it ramps up in intensity about halfway through was freaking me out, but the constant words of encouragement from others who had played and sacrificed their save files was shockingly effective. It kept me amped up, made me want to keep trying, and the feeling I had upon completing it with a chorus of help is nigh indescribable. The rest of the game itself – from the budding relationship between 2B and 9S to the side-story of Pascal’s village to the sequence when 2B became infected to A2’s struggles to all the rest of it, is an absolute treat, and the callbacks to NieR like Devola and Popola, Emil, and several text documents you find, all made this game a pinnacle of what video games can achieve, but man, those final credits really sealed the deal in the best possible way. I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack yet. NieR was arguably most well known for its music – I know more people that listen to its soundtrack than who have played the game – and that follows through to Automata as well. Especially poignant are the moments where there is NO music. Like, you notice when it fades away. You know something important is happening. There are even a couple moments when songs from the first NieR start playing, like in Emil’s hideout, and holy shit, that got me feeling some emotions. Even if it’s technically number two on this list, NieR Automata is easily my number one brand new game of 2017.

1) Zero Escape: The Nonary Games
Disclaimer: The two games included in The Nonary Games – 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward – were originally released in 2009 and 2012 respectively, and the only reason they’re here on my 2017 list is because they were remastered for the PS4 in 2017, which is when I played them for the first time. I can’t say that it would have ranked so high if I’d played them previously, mainly because these are games filled with mysteries and puzzles that are likely to have the greatest effect the first time through. So if you want to technically call NieR Automata my GotY, go right ahead. Having said that, these games actually blew me away. 999 starts with a bang, as you and a group of mostly strangers wake up locked inside a cruise ship, with instructions on how to escape. You have to follow the rules of the Nonary Game, however, or else you die.

Virtue’s Last Reward starts similarly, with one or two familiar faces from the first game and a bunch of new people, but this game has completely different rules. Throughout both games you’re trying to figure out who’s pulling the strings; one among you, or an outside party. The revelations that come through are legitimately shocking, and I audibly gasped at several moments throughout both games.

I very rarely react so strongly and vocally during media that feature “shocking twists” or whatever, but I was so entirely sucked into these games that I couldn’t stop myself. On top of the stories, both games have several ending to be unlocked (similar to NieR Automata), several of which are mandatory in order to see the true and final ending. There are routes that stay locked until you’ve seen specific endings, at which point you can return to an earlier point in the game and follow a different path, having learned new information from previous endings.

999 only has 6 endings, but VLR kicks it up a notch with a total of 28 possible endings. Some are silly and jokey, others are horrifying and tragic, and more still will leave you scratching your head. The best ones are those that make you go AHA!! when you figure out another piece of the puzzle.

The only thing that might hold these games back for some audiences are that they are visual novels, meaning you’ll spend as much time (if not more) watching scenes play out with the characters talking and plot unfolding, than actually playing the gameplay segments (which are escape-the-room puzzles that vary in difficulty from “a child could do it” to “holy shit, if you can figure this out without a guide you must literally be God”). Those segments are absolutely fun in their own right, especially if you’re a fan of puzzle games, but man, the plot is absolutely where it’s at with these games, and they do not disappoint.