I need to stop buying games…
When I was in high school I would buy a big AAA game every month or so, and I’d beat it. Now I’m finishing my fourth year of University and I’m buying more games then I’m beating. I just see a cool game I want to try and grab it, not considering whether I’m going to be able to give it the time it deserves. Or rather the time it demands, because one of the biggest trends of 2018 was massive games that I was playing for the sake of playing more then I was playing because I was enjoying them.
So moving forward I’m going to be more selective in what games get my dough. Not only to spare my wallet but to make sure I’m rewarding game designers and studios who make meaningful experiences I want to play, not massive blockbusters I feel I have to in order to be part of the conversation. Thankfully, there were only a few games this year I felt really wasted my time at points and in most of those cases, another aspect of that game redeemed it.
So here are my 10 favourite games from the year that was 2018 and why. I wrote more for the ones I had more to say about and I wrote less about those ones that I didn’t. I hope you enjoy!
Developed & published by @DrinkBoxStudios. Released August 21, 2018. I played it on PS4 but you can also play it on Windows, Xbox One & Switch.
Guacamelee! 2 is cringey in a way I could only forgive this game for being. Usually, when a game features memey sections or slaps references to other games all over the place I roll my eyes. But that was kind of Guacamelee!‘s shtick, and it wouldn’t really feel like a sequel if it was missing. So instead of cringing I rolled with it- and had a great time.
The premise this time around is that Mexiverse is collapsing, and so little portals are scattered all over the map to different dimensions. These were some of my favourite sections of any video game I played this year. I travelled to an alternate universe where Guacamelee! 2 was a turn-based RPG and was reminded why I hate turn-based RPGs. I travelled to a world that was an obvious mockery of free-to-play games and all their exploitative designs. I travelled to worlds done in the style of other popular games like Limbo and Street Fighter II, filled with in-jokes for people familiar with them. It was really fun and worth the price of admission alone.
But of course, there’s the whole main campaign to do, which was more of the juicy platforming, beat-em-up gameplay I loved from Guacamelee! back with a refined lighting system and a new ridiculous adventure. Pollo Powers have been refined, making the chicken sections almost as complex and challenging as the rest of the game which was one of my biggest faults with the original. All in all Guacamelee! 2 is a triumphant return to one of my favourite games with a nice coat of polish and a new delightful story with the characters I’d grown to love. As I said in my review, “It’s a gorgeous game with an enchanting world made a pleasure to explore with its fluid platforming.”
Developed & published by @CAPYGAMES. Released December 14, 2018. I played it on Xbox One but you can also play it on Windows.
Below is unlike any other Roguelike I’ve experienced. It beats out Dead Cells on my list because while Dead Cells was friggin’ awesome, it’s incredibly arcadey in a way where its story just falls apart. There’s flavour text and information during loading screens but I just didn’t care. But that isn’t the case with Below, where the joy of diving deeper and deeper into the caves with every run was matched by my desire to discover why I was here and what was going on.
Below plays with light in a way no game has before. Your lantern is key as you descend and every room gets darker and darker, making the instant death traps all the more difficult to detect. But you can use your lantern to light the area around you or focus it ahead of you and burn your fuel supply. You can also use your fuel supply to set return points at the campfires scattered throughout your descent. It’s the most important resource in the game and the many ways you can use it (and lose it) made for some of the tense, most rewarding moments in any game I played this year.
Below also nailed its atmosphere more than any other game I played this year. The incredible soundtrack by Jim Guthrie carries you through gorgeous environments, tense battles and calm crafting times. I know this game came out late in the year but I hope people don’t miss out one of 2018’s best games.
Developed & published by @TheVoxelAgents. Released September 20, 2018. I played it on Xbox One but you can also play it on PS4, Switch, PC, Mac & Linux.
This one surprised me. I included The Gardens Between in my Most Anticipated Games of 2018 list based solely off the intriguing, time-bending puzzles and cute art style I saw in the trailer, but just like so many other games this year I unexpectedly fell in love The Gardens Between‘s story. There’s no dialogue, no text between levels, nothing. All we have is the interactions between these two characters who help each other through dreamscapes of teen life in the 80s, holding hands and sharing moments.
The main thing the player does is move time forward and backward, while having the two characters interact with things as they pass them. With this very simple interaction, The Gardens Between fills out dozens of beautiful, brain busting levels that were an utter delight to finish. Moments where I thought “No way this works” and then it did, had me grinning many times through my playthrough.
With its gorgeous style, great puzzles and heartwarming story, The Gardens Between is one of 2018’s hidden gems.
Developed by @SonySantaMonica and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Released April 20, 2018. I played it on PS4 and that’s actually the only place you can play it… Console exclusives are a bummer, huh?
In a perfect world, we could let studios loose to try new worlds, new settings and new characters. But we don’t, we live in a world where franchises must be milked for as much money as they’ll produce and now we have two video games with the exact title God of War. Don’t get me wrong, there’s loads of new stuff in God of War (2018), but it was all tethered to the immature gore fest of a franchise that started as a PS2 game where you had sex for experience points.
I was sceptical at first, but ultimately I’m glad they ditched the fixed camera, combo action hack-n-slash that had defined the series in favour of tighter, third person parry and roll combat a la Dark Souls. The comparison to Dark Souls is apt, although Game Director Cory Barlog said in a gameplay breakdown video they didn’t want to copy Dark Souls 1 to 1, they definitely tried to capture that game’s interesting combat loop.
I absolutely hate the RPG elements. My eyes glaze over every time the menu with tiny text detailing all the slightly different perks and buffs the dozens of bits of armour and runes or whatever I’d accumulated did. I dreaded approaching one of Brok’s shops as it meant I had to stop playing the part of the game I loved (beating the shit out of undead monsters) and micromanage my many lists armour bits and ability runes.
While the game’s story has been hailed by many as an amazing and touching story of a father learning to love his son, it really didn’t feel particularly new to me. It just felt like the same rehashed, trope laden story of a father figure with a hidden dark past escorting a child they grow to love. That’s literally the plot of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and Telltale’s The Walking Dead to name a few. The story was adequate at best, while the performances were absolutely stellar. I’ll forever adore Christopher Judge’s Kratos over the original and Alastair Duncan’s Mímir is a treasure.
Sony Santa Monica injected a desperately needed breath of fresh air into the mutilated corpse that was the God of War series after 10 games and 2 collections since 2005. As a sequel, God of War drew on Kratos’ past games by directly referencing big scenes that hit even closer to home for longtime fans of the series like myself. And how can we forget THAT scene, when we went home to retrieve- uh I guess that’s a spoiler. I’ll give you some more time to play, but needless to say, I stood up and slapped the wall when it happened.
As Game Director Cory Barlog told Kotaku in an interview, he’s planned out roughly 5 games worth of story. I really hope this doesn’t happen. I hope Sony Santa Monica takes the talented team they’ve assembled and does one sequel to this game to sort out that cliffhanger ending as well as get out any combat ideas they couldn’t in the original and then move on. I thoroughly enjoyed God of War but I’m ready to see a new AAA blockbuster from this team that doesn’t star Kratos or have the words “God” or “War” in the title. There’s only so many different facial hair styles you can slap on the same character before it’s time to move on.
Now some people here might be saying, “Wait a minute Stephan- you’re putting Match Land, a stupid little free-to-play matching game for mobile, ahead of God of War, a massive franchise reboot that smashed expectations and set a new precedent for AAA storytelling and combat?!” and to them I say “Why yes, yes I am.” This is “Stephan’s Top 10 Games of 2018” after all, and you bet your ass it’s based on pure personal bias. Plus there’s every other goddamn outlet or award show that puts God of War at #1 (IGN, Destructoid, Polygon, the VGA‘s to name a few) so you can go check out that giant circle jerk for validation. I enjoyed this little match game more than Daddy Issues: The Game (sorry, boy).
CN Match Land is the first matching game I’d played in a long time that didn’t feel cheap and derivative. Getting multiple matches in quick succession to build up damage dealt in a turn-based, party building RPG is incredibly addictive. I played CN Match Land almost every day for months after it came out. On the bus, during class, on my couch in front of my TV while God of War was paused… I thoroughly enjoyed CN Match Land every chance I could.
Drawing on characters from Cartoon Network’s most popular shows all presented in some amazing sprite work by Tori Dang helped me get into the action a lot more than the generic fantasy characters of the game’s predecessor Match Land. I loved unlocking Lapis, Peridot, Garnet… okay I only know Steven Universe but still. I loved it all the same.
You know the best (worst?) part is? I never paid a cent to the cool team at Race Cat Games who poured their love into this little gem that gave me hundreds of hours of time killing fun. And if there’s one thing the gamers love more then great games it’s not paying for them. Check out an interview I did with Race Cat Co-founder Chris Savory earlier this year about the game and how they got hooked up with Cartoon Network (sorry for not paying anything to play your game, Chris).
Games are too fucking long. So many times in 2018 I was halfway through a game I was stoked to play only to realize they were wasting my time. Red Dead Redemption 2‘s nonsensical middle chapters, God of War‘s fetch quest after fetch quest, Spider-Man‘s painful instant fail stealth sequences and awful hacking puzzles… we’ve grown to equate “60-hour campaigns” with being a key selling point. But one game I played this year was a delightful little reminder of what games can be. A single mechanic explored through a witty and well-written story that wraps up right before it has the chance to become tedious. That game is Donut County.
For those who don’t know, in Donut County you play a hole in the ground that gets bigger when you make things fall into it. There are really simple puzzles that play off that mechanic, like getting a fire to fall in so you can lift a hot air balloon or having a bunch of baby bunnies fly out when you have two bunnies fall in. The game’s levels were essentially little biomes that implemented several of these layers on the main mechanic to great effect. That and the quirky, adorable cast who star in the different levels and the little cutscenes between each one made this game an instant classic.
But Donut County is much more than a puzzler, it’s a metaphor. And one of the things I find fascinating about Donut County is the story of the game’s origins. Creator Ben Esposito originally wanted to use the same mechanic to explore the culture of the Native American Hopi tribe. But just like the final game’s protagonist BK realized that his holes eating up his friends, Esposito realized he was hurting the Hopi by trying to tell their story for them. It’s a fascinating development process and in the end, Esposito said he learned that “Research does not equal lived experience. Folks are not trying to silence you by telling you you’re trying to silence them.” Read more about Esposito’s journey to creating Donut County in this excellent piece from Rock Paper Shotgun.
Developed & published by @BeatGamesStudio. Released May 1, 2018, on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, but I didn’t play it until it came to PSVR on November 20, 2018.
I was sweating buckets when I finally beat the last level of the Beat Saber. I’ve probably moved more playing Beat Saber than any other video game in my life, and I played tons of Wii Fit, Wii Sports, Skyward Sword and so on. But the amazing thing about Beat Saber is I didn’t even notice. The game made me forget everything. While I had the VR headset on I wasn’t an overweight weirdo in my living room waving my arms around, I was rhythm-god-dual-wielding-samurai and nothing else mattered excepted nailing this combo at any cost. And that pure, unfettered escapism makes Beat Saber not only one of my favourite games of 2018 but my favourite VR game I’ve ever played (and probably my favourite rhythm game too).
The pressure was on for Lucas Pope’s follow up to Papers, Please, a provocative story exploring the tough choices facing a border crossing immigration officer in the fictional dystopian Eastern Bloc-like country of Arstotzka. I was delighted to hear the premise for its successor: Return of the Obra Dinn. Players take on the role of an insurance claims officer sent to determine what happened to the crew of the Obra Dinn, a ship in the East India Trading Company’s fleet assumed lost at sea until it drifted into port, completely abandoned 7 years later.
Using a compass that lets players hear the moments right up to a person’s death and walk around a frozen scene of the moment someone died, players have to use the crew list, their ingenuity and the ability to move around a scene and view it from different angles to determine how the person died. Never has a game made me feel like a complete idiot and then all of a sudden a goddamn genius then while I pieced together the tragic fate of this cursed ship and those that sailed with her.
On top of all that, Pope uses a whole two (yes two) colours to create this 1-bit monochromatic love letter to early Mac games, giving players the option to swap between various early monitor styles of the time. I didn’t grow up playing games on these computers, so the nostalgia was lost on me. That didn’t matter to me, I still think this game’s presentation is brilliant and if you want to feel like a detective genius I highly recommend this one.
Developed & published by @RockstarGames. Released October 26, 2018. I played it on Xbox One, but it’s also out on PS4.
This one bothers me.
Of course, there was the very important conversation around unethical working conditions at Rockstar before the game’s launch. Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser’s “100 hour work weeks” comment was blown completely out of proportion during an interview with New York magazine (reminding Rockstar’s PR team why they let him do so few interviews). In actuality, we learned that for a couple writers they pulled 100 hour weeks to finish the script, and the average working week for Rockstar employees ranges from 60-80 hours, with the most severe overworking happening at Rockstar’s Lincoln studio where the rooms are boarded up and employees have their phones taken away and are put through some really gruelling crunches.
But the result of this rocky project management is one of the most impressive open world games I’ve ever played. Red Dead Redemption 2 has set the bar impossibly high for me, in a way that I don’t think I’ll appreciate an open world game ever again as I know there won’t be the same polish or attention to detail. Roger Clark’s Arthur Morgan will go down in history as one of the greatest performances in a video game ever. I felt every painstaking decision that went through his head, every struggle.
That said Rockstar’s mission design is still ass, the gunfights are boring and you could’ve cut the middle 30 hours out of the story and it probably would’ve made just as much sense (if not more). It’s a mixed bag, but the highs were so incredibly high for me that this is a precedent setting experience that has permanently changed my expectations for the genre.
Developed by @MattThorson & @NoelFB. OST by @kuraine. SFX by @PowerUpAudio. Art by @studioMiniBoss. Released January 25, 2018. I played it on the Nintendo Switch, but it’s also on Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4 & Xbox One.
For anyone who’s talked to me about games this past year, this should come as no surprise. I’ve been raving about Celeste since I first played it back in January, to the point I think everyone is sick of hearing me talk about it. But here it is again: Celeste is immaculate.
This game is a pixel-perfect platformer in every sense of the phrase. Take any single level out of this game and you could learn so many lessons about polished, purposeful design other games only dream of reaching. There’s no wasted space, no gimmicks, no tiresome tropes, no tedious crawls. Everything about Celeste feels handcrafted, handed to the player with a wink and a nod. I pictured a proud smile on the designer’s face each time I overcame a challenging section.
Where Celeste really surprised me was with its endearing expedition to not only to overcome a mountain but to come to grips with our own inadequacies, to learn to live with the worst of ourselves and still be happy. To recognize the pain in others, ourselves and how it’s an inescapable part of being a person. So rarely does a game marry amazing moment to moment gameplay with an emotionally resounding and heartfelt story that moves me, but this game does just that and so much more.
Celeste is a masterpiece and with its innovative assist mode, I feel comfortable recommending this game to anyone and everyone, regardless of your proficiency with platforming games. This game, more than any other game I’ve played, challenged me to not only play better but to be better, to myself and to others. And in a year like the one we’ve just had, that challenge feels so much more important than ever before.