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.
In their Kickstarter campaign Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick, and Co. pitched Thimbleweed Park as “like an undiscovered classic LucasArts’ adventure game you’d never played before.” They succeeded.
Like most homages, Thimbleweed Park ($20 on Steam) works because it captures the spirit of those classic SCUMM adventures instead of the reality. The block of verbs in the lower-left corner, stunning pixel art, mind-bending puzzles—they conjure up memories of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, and so on. But the verbs are more flexible than they were back in the day, the pixel art more complex, and the puzzles often more logical than anything from the “real” classics.
The story, setting, and humor are Thimbleweed’s true strengths though. The setup is simple enough: There’s been a murder in the titular town of Thimbleweed Park, and you’ve been left to unravel the mystery. Thimbleweed Park is a Twin Peaks-esque town full of odd and unnerving characters though, like a foul-mouthed clown trapped at the local carnival, or a woman who converted her pie shop to sell vacuum tubes. It’s wonderfully bizarre, and chock full of inside jokes for longtime SCUMM fans and regular jokes for the rest.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
I could list a half-dozen things I don’t like about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus ($60 on Steam), starting with the lack of feedback when you’re being shot and ending with the final big fight (a slog). But at the end of the day, I just don’t care.
I loved 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, and Wolfenstein II gave me more of what I loved: The absurd swings between BJ Blazkowicz’s gravelly monologues one second and campy All American rah-rah patriotism the next, the Nazified alt-history takes on 1960s and 70s pop culture, a certain willingness to go for it, to come up with absurd set pieces and ideas and then stick with them. In The New Order that meant going to the moon. In The New Colossus, it’s...well, let’s just say an old dementia-riddled man provides some amazing entertainment.
So sure, there are a few parts where the pacing flags, a handful of arenas where the weaknesses of the shooting mechanics really get in the way.The New Colossus’s greatest sin is arriving in a post-Doom world, because the Doom reboot is one of the all-time great shooters. Wolfenstein II is not.
It’s one of the all-time great shooter stories though, tackling America’s strengths and its most dire social ills, with a side helping of (to quote Blazkowicz) “Lotta things you can do with a hatchet and a Nazi.”
The biggest misconception about Nier: Automata ($60 on Steam) is that it has five endings. It doesn’t. It has one ending, and it is worth your while to reach it.
The confusion stems from terminology. Nier boasts of 26 different “endings,” with five “main endings.” Having played a few visual novels and RPGs in my time, I took this to mean that the player reaches an ending and then starts over from the beginning to attempt a new one. Nier’s endings are more like chapters though. After each “ending” the game continues on into new territory, into bits of the story you’ve never seen before.
What a story it is, too. Nier: Automata is the tale of 2B and 9S, two androids charged with removing a more dangerous robot presence from Earth and making it habitable for humans who long since fled to space once again. There are familiar themes here, with NieR exploring the usual “What does it mean to be human?” and so on, but it shines in the details—a stunning amusement park full of dancing robots, or another obsessed with Nietzsche and other philosophers, or a robot child who’s fled from its mother. Moments that stick with you, both these and others (more emotional) that I don’t want to ruin.
And it all culminates in a climax (the legendary “Ending E”) that no matter how much it’s been hyped will still likely manage to surprise you. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Divinity: Original Sin II
Writing up Divinity: Original Sin for 2014’s iteration of our Game of the Year list, I said it was “the game you’d get if isometric CRPGs had continued to innovate for the last 15 years instead of the genre almost disappearing.” With dozens of interlocking mechanics for players to explore, the joy of Original Sin came from asking “What happens if...?” questions—What happens if I cause it to rain on these fire elementals? Now what happens if I electrocute the puddle underneath them?—and then giggling with delight at the logical-but-still-somehow-surprising results. Surprising, if only because few games bother to implement those sorts of cause-and-effect relationships.
Divinity: Original Sin II ($45 on Steam) doubles down on those ideas, introducing wild new spells and abilities to the player’s repertoire. For instance, elven characters can eat body parts to attain a glimpse of a dead person’s memories, while undead can steal the faces of their enemies and wear them around Hannibal Lecter-style. You can even talk to ghosts.
But it’s Original Sin II’s story that demonstrates the most improvement. In broad strokes it’s the same “Stop the ultimate evil, save the world” tale as many other RPGs. Larian’s hallmark mechanics-first approach is woven in though, with every quest, every dialogue, every interaction modified by your character’s unique traits—race, class, upbringing, and so on. The system works even better if you play as one of the five preset “Origin” characters, which have fully realized backstories that cast you as, for a character with a demon living in her head, or the last member of a long-forgotten race.
Divinity: Original Sin II is better in every way than its predecessor, and likely the closest runner-up to GOTY 2017. It’s also up there with The Witcher 3 as one of the best RPGs this decade, with only a buggy and lackluster final chapter (80-plus hours in) detracting somewhat from the experience.
Game of the Year: What Remains of Edith Finch
I played What Remains of Edith Finch ($20 on Steam) in April. For the last eight months I’ve been trying and failing to write a review, to put into words how this game made me feel. Here we are in December and I’m still struggling, albeit now with a deadline.
Even recounting the basics feels like an insurmountable task. Edith Finch shares much of its DNA with the so-called “Walking Simulator” genre, especially in its early stages. You play as the titular Edith, and you’ve arrived back at the Finch family home about a decade after leaving. The Finch home is an architectural anomaly, a reserved-looking mansion with towers and spires seemingly fastened on the edges at random.
There’s a reason, though. Central to Edith Finch is a gimmick: Every time a member of the Finch family dies, their room in the house is sealed off, a time capsule forever preserved in the state that person left it. In other games you might explore these rooms, come to your conclusions about the inhabitants, and leave. In Edith Finch though, each room is the gateway to a short (often 2 to 5 minute) vignette capturing the final moments of the family member in question.
Here’s where Edith Finch starts to diverge from its “walking simulator” roots, because the core criticism of those games is that they’re light on mechanics, right? It’s in the name—you just walk.
But in Edith Finch, every vignette seizes on different ideas to tell its story. A father out on a hunting trip with his daughter is told through the Polaroids he left behind, and as the player you control the camera. Another recounts the story of a teenage film star through one of her comic book adaptations, with you controlling the action in each comic frame. In another, you just enjoy your time on a rope swing.
It’s an incredible design accomplishment, a combination of narration and visual metaphor turning these small and highly stylized stories into a web of character arcs. On and on it goes, through something like two-dozen family members. Noting where the stories intersect you start to build out a mythology—you begin to understand why one retreated to the basement, why another got divorced.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a story about stories, but without the unbearable self-congratulatory tone those often take. It’s also a story about death, but one that treats it merely as an inevitability and a fact of life without becoming morbid or maudlin. There are heavy moments, but there’s also humor, absurdity, wisdom, childlike wonder. It’s as complicated as the human experience can be, drawn out over four generations of the American Dream.
There were plenty of great games in 2017. It was hard to put together this list. But I don’t think any says as much or will remain so achingly relevant in a decade as What Remains of Edith Finch.
Honorable Mention: Playerunknown's Battlegrounds
There was a lot of discussion around the internet this year about whether Early Access games deserve to be on Game of the Year lists—discussion that’s now moot, because Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds ($30 on Steam) released to 1.0 this week.
For the record, our official stance is: No, they don’t. But it’s fine if you disagree. It’s all a bit arbitrary. The bigger discussion, I think, is whether PUBG should be in contention for Game of the Year at all. Personally I don’t think so—even at 1.0, the game is still pretty damn buggy at times, and lacks quite a bit of polish.
There's no denying PUBG has had an impact though. Fortnite is the first of presumably many knock-offs, and everything from Call of Duty to Counter-Strike is now rumored to be planning a Battle Royale mode. In less than a year the shooter landscape has completely changed.
And despite its flaws, PUBG is still one hell of a game. Whether you spend your time pulling off motorcycle stunts or cowering in a shed with a shotgun pointed at the door, there’s a tension to each PUBG session that’s unmatched in other competitive games. That’s what ultimately lands it on this list, even if I still think it needs another 6-12 months in active development before fulfilling its potential.