It’s that time of the year again, the period in which I look back at my massive backlog of games that I missed over the past twelve months and feel vaguely disappointed that despite my best efforts there is still a mountain of stuff I haven’t even touched yet. Between Return of the Obra Dinn, Into The Breach, Monster Hunter World, Spider-Man, and Tetris Effect, I feel fairly confident that the current list of my favorite games from 2018 is woefully incomplete, and will likely be fairly different in a few months.
But, with all that said, I did get around to playing quite a few games this year, some of which left a lasting impression. It was an outstanding year for fighting games in particular. Dragon Ball Fighter Z lead the pack by attracting series fans and longtime ArcSys enthusiasts under the banner of what is likely the best Dragon Ball game to date, Soul Calibur made its triumphant return, Street Fighter V redeemed itself with its Arcade Edition and Smash Ultimate appeased much of both its casual and hardcore fanbase. The trend of great storytelling in AAA games continued strong, with God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 leading the way through their rich characterizations and well-considered narratives. And of course, the indie scene continues to thrive with titles like the previously mentioned Obra Dinn and Into the Breach, alongside a cavalcade of other games such as Celeste, The Messenger, Subnautica, and many more.
Admittedly, in my opinion, the upper echelon of games isn’t quite as stacked as it was last year. But that is largely due to the fact that the quartet of Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Yakuza 0 and Nier Automata was a lineup that would undermine almost any other year’s titles. Regardless of this, there were still a variety of games that provided deep competitive experiences, well-considered storytelling, and satisfyingly difficult gameplay. Let’s run them down.
Hollow Knight made for a distinctive Metroidvania, anchored by a foreboding tone that was brought to life via a macabre art style. While that particular genre feels as though it has been thoroughly milked in recent years, Team Cherry was able to craft a game world that is as hauntingly evocative as it is immaculately designed. Twists and turns blend seamlessly into one another, creating an ominous labyrinth that beckons deeper into its depths. (My review of Hollow Knight can be found here)
The first chapter of Deltarune was a welcome surprise, a freeware pseudo-sequel to Toby Fox’s outstanding Undertale. Sporting similarly charming writing, and a more engaging combat system, it once again wove a tale that allowed for the forces of pacifism and understanding to outweigh those of glib violence. (More of my thoughts on Deltarune can be found here)
Yakuza Kiwami 2 marked the second remake in everyone’s favorite wonderfully wacky Japanese crime saga. While the first Kiwami was something of a letdown after the brilliance of last year’s Yakuza 0, Kiwami 2 got things back on track with another winding epic that continued the tale of Kazama Kiryu. Sporting notable graphical improvements thanks to its utilization of Yakuza 6‘s engine, a bevy of insane side stories, and an affecting narrative about pride and the bonds of family, the game further proved that this series should not be slept on. (My review can be found here)
5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
As a member of the coalition of strange individuals that take Super Smash Bros Melee very seriously, the prospect of a new Smash game is one that I always approach with cautious optimism. The series is somewhat unique, as it exists in the intersection between fighting games and party games, two genres that generally exist at the opposite ends of the difficulty spectrum. This makes appealing to both audiences a somewhat dicey proposition. If the core systems are too complicated or unforgiving, then the party game people will be at a loss. But if there are too many elements of randomness and simplification, then it will lack any sort of legs, and the more competitive oriented players will be dissatisfied.
Generally speaking, Ultimate walks this tightrope elegantly, offering the most satisfying set of core systems since Melee, a huge cast of characters, and a decent single-player mode full of delightful fan-service, while also maintaining the general style of play that makes it easy for newcomers to play these games. To briefly summarize what is so alluring about the game’s core systems, the neutral game is quite fast. The ability to perform any move out of a dash makes movement much more nuanced, aerials have low ending lag allowing for longer combos, and although its too early too tell for sure, it seems as there aren’t any game-breaking characters that result in overly defensive play.
But the elements that make for an interesting competitive experience don’t undermine its appeal as a party game. The large-scale eight-person matches from the Smash 4 make their return, alongside a host of new items, a massive roster with plenty of different character archetypes, and every map that has ever been in one of these games is present as well.
Its most glaring flaw is the woeful inadequacy of its online functionality. Its mediocre netcode combined with the game’s built-in 8 frames of latency leads can easily lead to lag-fests on anything less than fairly fast internet. While its baffling lack of settings for matchmaking was mildly remedied by a patch, even at decent Elo I find myself playing on rulesets that are way more random than I would like for ranked matches. But online functionality aside, there’s a lot to love from this celebration of Nintendo’s history, and gaming history in general. Smash Ultimate is a rare fighting game that has something for everyone.
4. Dragon Ball FighterZ
While Melee was the game that sucked me into the world of fighting games in a broad sense, it was Dragon Ball FighterZ that segued me into more traditional entries in the genre. I can personally attest to the merits of FighterZ as an introduction to fighting games, as instead of prioritizing complex inputs that are best performed with an expensive fight stick, the controller-friendly input scheme makes things far more approachable. Functioning as a wonderful tribute to one of the most popular anime/manga series of all time, this blazing fast anime-fighter captures the show’s frenetic speed and vigor.
Despite the lowered skill-floor, DBFZ is a lighting fast, movement-based fighter. It prioritizes instant-airdashes, long combos, and complex block strings, which combine to make for a flashy and generally exciting spectator-friendly experience. Its combo-structure is relatively similar across the cast, which unfortunately limits some of the unique attributes of its various characters. However, this is somewhat fortunate for newcomers given the fact that battles are structured around 3v3 tag combat, minimizing the number of unique combos that need to be learned. Although the core gameplay is defined by its speed, the input simplifications make things manageable. There are universal anti-airs, and combo extending super dashes which can easily be performed, minimizing the barrier to reach the game’s fun decision-making component. Combos frequently end in gratifying Supers due to the generous rate of meter gain, a rewarding incentive for a successful string.
These gratuitous Supers tie into game’s generally dazzling aesthetic qualities, a clear selling point for those who would not normally be interested in this type of game. The 2.5D art style does an excellent job of adapting the art-style of the show/manga through gorgeously colored 3D animation, resulting in an aesthetic that actually looks better than its source material. The result of all of this is a fighting game that has numerous selling-points for genre-newcomers, while also offering a tight and fast-paced experience for the more experienced crowd. The solid netcode and totally passable single-player adventure round out what is one of the strongest fighting games of 2018, in a year that was dominated by the genre. And if you need further convincing, check out the game’s incredibly hype Grand Finals from EVO, the biggest fighting game tournament in the world.
3. Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is an ambitious behemoth of a game. While its flaws are numerous and shouldn’t be ignored, it also delivers a vivid depiction of early 20th century Americana that outshines the majority of modern open-world offerings. Its eight years of development were clearly spent crafting a world that is defined by nuanced details. In many ways, its depiction of nature is more transcendentally beautiful than the real thing, drawing from the exaggerated whims of Romanticist landscape paintings to deliver a truly immersive setting.
And filling this world is a litany of interesting optional content which inspires due to being genuinely interesting, as opposed to just offering ways to fill up an XP bar. Whether it’s hunting for a legendary animal or tracking down various odd figures that inhabit this space, exploration is encouraged through the merits of the gameplay and the distinctive aesthetic sensibilities. The optional Stranger Missions offer a more appropriate setting for Rockstar’s signature satire than the mainline stories of their previous games did. Instead of undermining their central story with incessant gags and cynicism, the goofier interactions function as a much needed tonal break from the grim nature of the primary narrative.
And thankfully that primary narrative is a huge success, operating as an excellent vehicle for the protagonist Arthur Morgan’s redemptive arc. Through relegating much of the distancing satire to the side content, the storytelling can instead focus with precision on the emotions of Arthur, and how he processes his actions. His slow and believable conclusions about his own decisions are the humanistic bedrock that cleanly separates RDR2 from the majority of Rockstar’s other stories. The plot bounces across various archetypes of Westerns and other tropes, detailing train robberies, blood-feuds, the result of manifest destiny, and more. It is told through traditional cutscenes but also relies on an amalgamation of journal entries that naturally portray Arthur’s internal monologues. Then there are also the naturalistic interactions with your gang back at base camp, a clever addition that fully takes advantage of the interactive nature of the medium. During these camp scenes, your compatriots will break into song, gossip about each other, reveal bits of their personal lives. They play games and fight, and the general mood of the proceedings directly ties into events in the main story. It’s all optional but feels completely essential for conveying the camaraderie of your compatriots.
RDR2 is a strange title, in that there is a great divide between what it does well and what it does poorly. It is a striking period piece anchored by strong characters, but many of its gameplay elements are defined by clunkiness. In general fine movement is a pain, getting behind cover is haphazard, and the Deadeye mechanic is the only interesting twist on the combat. The result is a third person shooter that can be described as mediocre at best. Its mission design is restrictive and archaic. Sometimes its focus on animation priority for the sake of realism lapse into tedium. But despite these glaring problems, ones that traditionally would have likely been quite game-breaking, I would easily count Red Dead Redemption 2 among my personal favorites of this year. If anything, that is a testament to the quality of its writing and world design.
You can read my full breakdown of the good and the bad of Red Dead Redemption 2 here.
Celeste is a marriage of two of my favorite things, twitch-platformers, and earnest storytelling. In terms of gameplay, the latest by Matt Makes Games is clearly inspired by the wave of unforgiving platformers spearheaded by games like I Wanna Be the Guy or Super Meat Boy. While the game world is occasionally non-linear, it is broken up into small difficult platforming segments that are thankfully littered with frequent checkpoints. Your moveset is simple; you can jump, dash, and climb. But this seemingly limited pool of options results in a surprising degree of fluidity due to the great amount of variance that results from your dash angles and analog jump height. When combined with the low latency inputs, the core movement always places you firmly in control of your own success.
While there is very little expansion of these core powers, each different area introduces new gameplay mechanics which each present their own unique challenges. Sometimes you will encounter temporary power-ups that allow you to dash multiple times in the air, while other times you will uncover objects that function as trampolines, launching you further than you could otherwise travel. These clever obstacles and boons add constant layers of complexity to the proceedings, resulting in some of the most engaging level design in recent memory. After completing the main story you can participate in increasingly insane challenge levels, culminating in the C-sides which offer brutal but tantalizing gauntlets of pain. Admittedly in these later levels, some of the power-ups can be somewhat grating, particularly a feather upgrade that requires the player to switch from the d-pad to their control stick, a challenge that is more annoying than it is interesting. But overall, even the levels that will likely test players patience tend to feel fair.
And the gratifying gameplay loop is only half of what makes Celeste one of the best games of 2018. Flanking the often brutally difficult platforming is a frank investigation of depression. The story follows Celeste, a girl who decides to climb a mountain to try to better understand herself. While there is certainly a place in storytelling for opaque metaphors and ambiguity, the direct way that the game deals with its protagonist’s mental health issues are wonderfully sincere. Lena Raine’s soundtrack pulls together an amalgamation of influences to create an incredible retro-inspired soundscape that elevates the story’s core themes and punctuates your platforming triumphs.
1. God of War
It’s hard to think of a game that better embodies the transition of modern AAA games than the recently released God of War. What was once a juvenile power fantasy based around fairly straightforward character-action combat, has transformed into an immersive narrative-based experience. Kratos is no longer a perpetually raging meathead, but a flesh-and-blood person. Sure, he is certainly still quite gruff, his laconic demeanor the frequent butt of jokes. But instead of screaming at the heavens in a constant state of blood-thirsty anger, he now gazes mournfully at his distant objective, a mountain where he intends to deposit his dead wife’s ashes as per her final wish.
Although that objective is certainly grave, he is accompanied by his son Atreus, a beam of warmth whose presence forms the bedrock of what makes this reimagining of the series so successful. The relationship between Kratos and his son is used to convey a multitude of themes concerning parentage, familial selfishness, and the burdens of power. Their interplay, Atreus’ naivete clashing against his father’s world-weariness, is a constant delight. We see the crushing weight of godhood on Kratos’ conscience, his terrible decisions recontextualized in the context of his son’s morality. While he may be a far more relatable character, he is still clearly connected to his past transgressions, his bubbling anger just barely in check.
However, God of War doesn’t only rework the series in terms of its storytelling, it also is a complete overhaul in terms of its gameplay. Instead of the isometric perspective of previous games, we are given a third person view that fits better with the more grounded tone of the proceedings. Taking a small degree of inspiration from the Souls games, combat is much more methodically paced, requiring weaving through waves of enemies with well-timed dodges and parries. The action gameplay is mixed with RPG elements to create a gratifying core loop, as crafting better armor improves your defensive capabilities, and progress in tech-trees increases your moveset. The world of Midgard is a semi-open world that is both imaginative and thoroughly technically impressive, a well-considered intersection between fantasy and reality that is grounded via its strong characters.
Overall, God of War is one of those games that feels as though it is almost universally successful. Although the progression systems break somewhat in the closing hours, the combat system remains responsive and engaging throughout. Creative director Cory Balrog and the rest of the team at Santa Monica Studio have succeeded at transitioning a lineage of entertaining but facile action games into something with a heart. And that is certainly something worth celebrating.
My full review of my Game of the Year can be found here.