My Top 21 Games of 2018

Hello!

I like writing ‘Thing of the Year’ lists, and you enjoy reading them, so here we are. What follows is a list of the 21 games (it’s 21 because I realised midway through that I’d forgotten Florence, and cutting out another Australian game to fit it in didn’t feel right) that made me say ‘yowza’ this year.

celeste_switch

These lists usually open with a little ‘it was a great year for games’ spiel, but I’m not going to bother with that. As noted I haven’t actually finished some of these games, and this list should not be seen as the official position of any of the publications I have written for, or as a list that is, in any meaningful way, deeply considered or scientifically weighted. It’s just a list of stuff I really liked, and you’re reading it because these lists are fun to read, not because you need someone to argue with. Okay? Okay.

Because of the nature of my work, this isn’t a particularly ‘cool’ list. There’s maaaaybe one game on here you won’t have heard of, possibly because you didn’t read my review of it on Gamespot. I would love to be able to tell you about all the best games released on itch this year, or about the cool new Twine-built branching drama that will change the way you think about housing redevelopment, but honestly I have not played them. Other people have, and their recommendations, which are not informed by being required to keep on top of mainstream game releases, are no less valid than mine.

First up, here are some games I want to make note of so that people don’t ask where they are:

Games That Probably Would Have Made It On Here If I’d Actually Played Them: Return of the Obra Dinn, Into the Breach, Dead Cells, Astrobot

Games I Actually Have Played But Absolutely Need To Spend More Time With: Hitman 2

Games That Are Not On This List Because I Played Them In 2017, But Are Now Winning A Lot of Awards And Deserve Acknowledgement: Hollow Knight

Alright, that’s enough preamble. Here’s my top 21.

21. The Gardens Between

Did I finish: Yes

The Gardens Between

The Gardens Between is one of those lovely, simple puzzle games where ten minutes in you feel like it has exhausted the limits of what you would have built if the game was dependent on your imagination. What follows is three delightful hours of ‘oh, well that’s very clever’ moments. It’s origami in videogame form – small and simple but folded into a piece of thoughtful beauty.

20. Detroit: Become Human

Did I finish: Yes

detroit-become-human-screen

I barely know myself, putting this shit on my game of the year list. I’ve always been a fan of David Cage’s ambitions, but not his work. Fahrenheit is awful. Heavy Rain is approaching something interesting, but is fundamentally fucked. Beyond: Two Souls is a nightmare.

But Detroit? Detroit kind of works most of the time. The branching narrative system is excellent, there’s some fun comedy in here, and when it’s just trying to be a wacky blockbuster about robots being weird, I dig it. Of course, it’s also a game that thinks it has something to say about racism and the human condition, which is most assuredly does not. If the whole game was about a bumbling detective having to deal with his weirdo robot partner and felt like a forgotten 80s cinematic curio that never got a DVD transfer, I would have properly loved it.

19. Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu

Did I finish: Yes

pokemon lets go onix

I assumed that I would hate Let’s Go Pikachu going in, but found that I am, in fact, still a nerd for Pokémon. Replaying through Kanto reveals just how far Pokémon has come since – it’s a blocky, awkward world – but my nostalgia sweet-spot was pinged again and again, and for the first time in forever catching them all actually feels potentially viable (I think I’m still 15 short).

18. The Red Strings Club

Did I finish: Yes

the red strings club

Take all that stuff that I said Detroit does poorly, and then imagine a game that does it well instead. I played this right at the beginning of a long, long year, so the main thing I remember about it now is how much I liked it.
 

17. A Way Out

Did I finish: Yes

a way out

I finished A Way Out – another game I assumed I would hate, because I truly do not like the studio’s earlier Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – in a single day, sat on my couch with a friend, as we periodically turned to each other and said ‘this is actually pretty cool, right’? A Way Out is painted in the broad strokes you must paint with when your audience is probably talking through the cutscenes, and every beat is boiled down to the barest emotional through line, less ‘here’s why this thing is important’, more ‘here’s what the characters are feeling in this scene, blown up to 100’.

And it works! The game is ludicrous but it’s always clear what you’re doing and why, and the split-screen/cooperative elements are great, right up to the intense, weird finale (which works far, far better than it should).
 

16. Batman: The Enemy Within

Did I finish: Yes

batman enemy within

Telltale’s second season of Batman was an under-the-radar wonder, their best season since the first Walking Dead, and a real treat for Batman fans because it found new things to say about and do with all of these characters. This season eventually branched into two very different potential end chapters, and its version of the Joker felt unique while still being recognisable.

This whole Telltale situation is very sad, and I don’t know if you can still actually buy The Enemy Within. Even if you did, the money from the sale would not go to any of the people who worked on it. But I definitely came away from it thinking ‘oh, Telltale found some interesting ways of keeping this fresh’.
 

15. WarioWare Gold

Did I finish: Yes

wario ware gold

Not so much a new game as a Frankenstein’d meld of every WarioWare that came before it, WarioWare Gold is a celebration above all else. It’s a party in your pocket, but it’s one of those weird parties that sort of spirals out of control as the night goes on, until you’re standing in your friend’s backyard at 3am trying to figure out which of your friends is or isn’t on meth right now, wondering whether you should just keep drinking until the sun rises or if it’s time to call it a night. But then, sometimes, it’s more like one of those parties you went to as a kid where they tied donuts up on strings and held races to see who could finish eating one first with their hands behind their back. It’s fun, is what I’m saying.
 

14. Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 /The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit

Did I finish: Yes

Captain Spirit 4

Bless Life is Strange for being explicit with its politics and for knowing exactly which Sufjan Stevens songs are most likely to tear my heart out. Bless every part of these two episodes, except for that one puzzle in Captain Spirit where you unlock your dad’s phone by inputting the numeric code for ‘HAWTDOGMAN’.
 

13. FAR: Lone Sails

Did I finish: Yes

far lone sails

I’m not going to convince you in a short blurb to play the wonderful FAR: Lone Sails, so please go and read my full review.

12. Octopath Traveler

Did I finish: No

Octopath

JRPGs often aren’t games you can casually chip away at, and the fact that I haven’t touched Octopath Traveler in months but am reasonably confident that I’ll eventually get back to it speaks volumes. It’s the JRPG for people who have work in the morning, and it loses nothing by splitting itself into eighths.
 

11. Marvel’s Spider-Man

Did I finish: Yes

spiderman

I was about 15 hours into Spider-Man before I started to really think ‘huh, for all its polish this game is super reliant on tired AAA tropes’, and perhaps it would have made it higher on the list if I hadn’t spent so much time with it. But it’s also a game with the exact same satisfying game feel as the experience of pelting a tennis ball at a wall so that it hits on the full, bounces once off the pavement, and then zooms right back into your open palm, and as such I’m very fond of it.
 

10. God of War

Did I finish: No

god of war

I’m not entirely sure where I fall on God of War’s defacto ‘Game of the Year’ positioning. It’s a game I thought was extremely good but am still slightly surprised to see cleaning up so many game of the year awards with the momentum and assurance of a sure thing. It’s great! Really! It’s my tenth favourite game of the year, because it plays well and is superbly directed and it feels weighty and fun and exciting. And I’m happy that people saw even more than that in it, because it’s good when people like things. But…I dunno. Maybe I need to finish it.
 

9. Florence

Did I finish: Yes

florence.jpg

Florence is, on the surface, a game about falling in love, but it’s also not just about romantic relationships. More than anything, Florence made me think about that moment when you realise you’ve lost touch with a part of yourself, that a standard has slipped, that you’re struggling because you’ve lost track of where you are in life.

It’s a game you play and come away from thinking that, hey, maybe you need to call that person you care about, because caring about someone doesn’t mean anything if you don’t show it. And, shit, you’re already on your phone playing this game, so why not do it right now while the thought is fresh? It’s also about being vulnerable and coming to grips with a loss and, of course, the magic of falling so deep in love that your life changes in ways that you start to believe could be permanent. It’s just…very good. And it’s an hour long, and you can play it on your phone, and I love it.
 

8. Yoku’s Island Express

Did I finish: Yes

yoku

Yoku’s Island Express should have been a major event. Its pinball-Metroidvania concept clicks hard and immediately; the time between ‘oh, this is a cool idea’ and ‘wow they are NAILING this’ is maybe two minutes. I’ve never been particularly taken with pinball, but pinging little Yoku and his big ball of what I think is meant to be white shit around the world is a damn delight.
 

7. Forza Horizon 4

Did I finish: Kind of, but this isn’t one of those games that really finishes

Forza Horizon 4 Sega Rally

Good great game about cars that go vroom. They slide around the corner fast and it’s good. I kind of feel the same way about this one that everyone did, so here’s my review.
 

6. Dragon Ball FighterZ

Did I finish: No, I got bored by the story mode

dragon_ball_fighterz_6

From 12 to 14 or so, I loved Dragon Ball Z. From 13 and a half onwards, I stopped telling people how much I loved it. From 15 to…a few years ago, I pretended that I had no real interest in it, that I’d grown out of it or whatever. But at some point in my 20s I had to just accept that, no, I think Dragon Ball’s pretty good. All those explosions and beams and golden pointy hairdos! All those weird cackling villains and fathers training sons and space monsters beating each other to death! That aesthetic! Those characters! It’s all pretty good fun.

Dragon Ball FighterZ takes all the stuff that makes Dragon Ball good, and then fits it into a fighting game framework that actually makes sense to me. I’m not a fighting game guy, so this might be the first year ever where I’ve truly loved two different fighting games (the other one is Smash Bros, big spoiler for a bit further up this list).
 

5. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Did I finish: No

AC Odd

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey reminded me of how much I loved studying Greek history and classical literature in high school, and, look, any game that makes you think back on high school with positivity and nostalgia deserves high praise. Very early on there’s a mission where you’re asked to go and explore the ruins of Odysseus’ palace, which is, for a lapsed nerd, like being invited to Disneyland on a day where it’s only open to you and your close friends.

I’ve put about 15 hours into AC: Odyssey, and while, yes, there’s plenty to criticise, what really excites me is the pulse of passion and excitement it awakens inside of me. ‘Oh, fuck’, I’ll think, ‘I should start reading up on history again. I should become a better educated person. Hell, I should just…be better. Learning is so good, and I am not doing enough of it. I wonder how many of the guards in this area I can stab without getting noticed?’
 

4. Celeste

Did I finish: Yes

celeste

Celeste is a game in which you must climb a mountain, which involves a lot of hard work and quite a bit of coming to terms with who you are and learning to love the parts of yourself that you’ve always struggled with. Which…yes please. But aside from all the metaphors and the lovely little story beats, Celeste also plays like a damn dream. It feels so good that I didn’t mind repeating the same jumps over and over, adjusting myself very slightly until I find the exact route through the horrifying obstacles the game was hurling at me.

At some point towards the end of the year I felt like the narrative around Celeste shifted from ‘what a masterpiece’ to ‘oh, I guess this is the indie we’re all going to decide to laud this year’, and that disappointed me a bit. Celeste really is just all that and a bag of chips, I think.
 

3. Super Smash Bros Ultimate

Did I finish: No

smash bros ultimate

This was a foregone conclusion the moment it was announced. When it comes to Smash Bros, I am like a cat hearing a box of dry food being shaken in the kitchen. Regardless of when I last ate, I must have it. I must stick my face into the bowl before all the food has been poured in, and I will be a bit sulky about stepping away even after I’ve eaten so much that I later need to throw up.

I love Smash Bros, a fighting series that was once considered the most accessible in the genre, but which is now looked upon as a Byzantine by anyone looking in at its dozens of mechanics and systems.The easiest way to grasp the appeal of Smash Bros quickly is to pick a single character and learn their moves – spend half an hour to an hour just figuring out the basics of how they work – and then pick another character, someone with a completely different move set, and observe how every skill you just learned has somehow transferred over to them, too. There are, like, 400 characters or whatever in this one (I think it’s actually 74), and learning how to use each of them to a level of basic competent is totally possible.

What a good, good game.
 

2. Tetris Effect

Did I finish: No – I’m up to the last level but I keep going back and playing the earlier ones again and again

tetris effect

I’m yours forever
There is no end in sight for us
Nothing could measure
The kind of strength inside of hearts
It’s all connected
We’re all together in this life
Don’t you forget it
We’re all connected in this love

Tetris Effect is a miracle. It’s a game that looks, yes, neat from the outside, but then you play it and realise what it is: a game about universal beauty, about seeing things with clarity, a game that posits that Tetris, the simple but nevertheless perfect puzzle classic, is the one thing that could bring us all together. It is a vision of peace and unity, and I had tears in my eyes within five minutes, thinking ‘maybe everything will be alright after all’. In 2018 that took some doing, but then Tetris Effect does things that barely seem possible with a handful of block shapes. And all of that happened before I ran out to buy a PlayStation VR for it.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

Did I finish: Yes

red dead 2.jpg

Boring choice, I know. Sorry. It’s really good, though.

Instead of writing a whole thing, I’m just going to link to the four pieces I’ve already written about this game for VG247:

If Red Dead Redemption 2 is a PS4 and Xbox One milestone, do we really need next-gen consoles?

Red Dead Redemption 2’s final acts owe a lot to a Japanese cinema classic (this one’s full of spoilers)

The argument for killing Compson

What happens when you obsessively stalk the mayor of Strawberry?

Author: James O'Connor

Freelancer.

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