By my estimation, 2017 was one of the best years in gaming history. Even if we ignore the Nintendo Switch (and we will because this is PCWorld) 2017 delivered an incredible number of top-tier games. Our initial version of this list of the best PC games was almost 30 entries long, and paring it down to 10 was painful. I can name a handful of games we cut in 2017 that would’ve made 2016’s Game of the Year list over and above some of the selections we actually included last year, including Opus Magnum, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Hollow Knight, Resident Evil VII, and Observer.
But ten’s our number, and so ten is what you’ll find below, followed by a couple of honorable mentions. As always, our list is in no particular order—there’s a Game of the Year, but below that is simply nine runners-up.
Dark Souls has inspired many imitators—so many it’s become a running joke. Few have reached the same heights as From Software’s originals, though.
Nioh ($50 on Steam) is one of the few. It borrows quite a bit from Souls for sure, but evolves many of those ideas in just the ways you’d expect from a Team Ninja game. It’s fast, aggressive, and unforgiving, with a remarkable amount of depth in its combat system.
Most noteworthy are the weapon stances. Each of Nioh’s dozen or so weapon categories (Spears, Dual Swords, Kusarigama, etc.) can be used in High, Middle, and Low stance, with each stance resulting in entirely different animations and combos. Once you get the hang of it you’ll find yourself swapping stances mid-fight or even mid-combo to keep your opponent off-balance or maybe get in an extra-powerful hit while they’re staggered.
But my favorite feature is the Ki Pulse. Like in Dark Souls, attacking and blocking depletes stamina (called Ki here), and once it’s gone you leave yourself open to attack. But whereas in Souls this often means cutting an attack short, in Nioh you can follow up a combo with a well-timed button tap to instantly regenerate some stamina—then either retreat to safety or continue to press the attack. It’s a smart system, and one that encourages a much more aggressive play style.
Turns out that’s exactly what I wanted from a Souls-style game. There’s plenty more we could discuss, especially surrounding the game’s take on Tokugawa-era Japan and the exaggerated story of real-life sailor/samurai William Adams, but combat is key to this genre and it’s Nioh’s exceptional combat that kept me coming back night after night.
Did you expect Prey ($40 on Steam) to be good? Wait, you mean Prey, the follow-up to that campy 2006 shooter? The one sandbagged by controversy after Bethesda scrapped Human Head’s original sequel and gave the property to Arkane? Yeah, that Prey.
I certainly didn’t expect Prey to be good. Or at least not “Game of the Year list” good.
Arkane pulled it off though. The key to Prey lies in its openness and system-drive gameplay. Arkane gives the player tools, and it’s up to the player to use them, be it brute force or a craftier approach. The elevator’s broken? Sure, you could rewire it, or you could use your glue gun to create ledges in the empty shaft, then climb to the next floor. Door locked? Shoot the release valve with your Nerf gun—or co-opt alien powers to transform yourself into a coffee mug, then jump through the hole.
If Dishonored is Arkane’s modernized take on Thief, Prey is System Shock. You’ve got your deserted space station (Talos I), your alien presence, and so on. More than anything though, you’ve got the spirit of System Shock—a free-form approach to problem solving, where every door has about a dozen keys if you know how to use the tools you’ve been given. It’s a game that makes you feel like a genius even when you’re playing exactly how the designers planned, which is a rare quality indeed.
Stories Untold ($10 on Steam) is likely the smallest game on this list. A horror anthology, Stories Untold consists of four short vignettes, more ominous than outright terrifying. The first chapter actually came out of a game jam called The House Abandon, where you’re home alone playing a text adventure and then...well, I don’t want to spoil it.
That’s a running theme with Stories Untold, actually. It works because so much of its horror is understated, subtle. Much of it is couched in mundanity, like the twiddling of knobs on an X-Ray setup or entering code words into a workstation while it softly snows outside. There’s a focus on analog technology, the ways we interface with machines—and no surprise, once you find out one of the developers worked on the retrofuturistic tech in Alien: Isolation.
The final chapter of Stories Untold isn’t quite as satisfying, trying to tie a neat bow on what up until that point was a refreshingly messy experiment. But it makes our list if for nothing else because it proves unequivocally how many avenues developers have yet to explore, and how even something this simple can form a connection just as strong (if not more so) than the relentless bombast of games with a hundred times the budget.
Torment: Tides of Numenera
Torment: Tides of Numenera ($45 on Steam) had enormous shoes to fill. After all, it was billed as a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, long considered one of the greatest games ever made. That’s not a burden I’d willingly take on.
The surprising part is Tides of Numenera mostly pulls it off. Maybe not so much from a mechanics standpoint—it’s weirdly easy to abuse Numenera’s systems, especially when it comes to skill checks. Each character has a pool of points which can be spent to ensure success on nearly any task, and those points replenish when you rest. Powerful right? And there’s no penalty for resting, so…
It doesn’t matter though, at least not if (like me) you’re in it for the story. In 30ish hours I only had to sit through a half-dozen fights. The rest was spent exploring Numenera’s refreshingly weird world and reading through pages and pages of dialogue. You know, the same reasons people liked Planescape all those years ago. From cities hidden inside transdimensional space slugs to a tavern full of psychics to a room inside your own mind, Tides of Numenera always has some new wonder to show you. It’s a font of creativity in a genre that’s all-too-often willing to play it safe, and a reminder that video games can do anything, not just retread the same narrow slice of tropes time and time again.
If you’re looking for a(nother) game to fight your way through, Tides of Numenera probably isn’t a good choice. But if you just want to be told a story, or want to explore an interesting world and read pages and pages of dialogue about what makes it tick, then I think you’ll love it.
The Evil Within 2
It took me three years, but I finally finished The Evil Within in October—after its sequel had already released. I won’t take much time to discuss it here, but suffice it to say: The Evil Within is the worst masterpiece I’ve ever played. It has some of my favorite moments in any horror game ever, but it’s debatable whether those moments are worth playing through one of the decade’s jankiest games and fighting its busted save system.
I recommend The Evil Within 2 ($60 on Steam) wholeheartedly though. Picking up where the first game left off, returning protagonist Detective Sebastian Castellanos is forced to re-enter STEM, a virtual world of sorts that’s “hosted” in someone’s brain. In the original Evil Within the brain in question belonged to a psychopath—the reason it all went so wrong.
In The Evil Within II, the host is Sebastian’s daughter, and she’s being threatened by some unknown force. It’s campy for sure, but an excellent setup for psychological trickery and some amazing environments, reminiscent of German Expressionism or (for an example closer to home) the best moments in Silent Hill’s history. The final two hours or so are some of the most audacious I’ve ever seen a horror game attempt.
Pair all that with a game that actually plays well this time around and you’ve got a winner. The Evil Within II sands off some of its predecessor’s rough edges, and while usually that’d be cause for concern...well, The Evil Within had a lot of rough edges, and losing a few leads to a much more enjoyable experience. It’s a solid stealth game, a decent shooter, and everything in between, meaning you can sit back and admire the spectacle.
Next page: More of the best PC games of 2017, and PCWorld's Game of the Year.