Hey guys, (video games.)
Another year in the books! We made it! 2018 was easily among the worst years of my life. They just keep getting worse! I didn’t play as many video games as I’d have liked, as a result. There was way too much Real Life happening. Funerals to attend, ailing loved ones to care for, horrible headlines to sort of uncomfortably gawk at—it was kind of hard to motivate myself to get some serious Video Gaming done for a lot of the year. This means two things:
- It is a testament to the quality of the games on this list that they were able to, occasionally, distract me from the never-ending horrors of my continued existence on Planet Earth, and
- I just didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth for certain types of games this year, and I’m sure they could have done just as good a job of distracting me from the never-ending horrors of my continued existence on Planet Earth, if I’d been able to clear out enough space in my worm-eaten brain to actually make room for them.
So, with that in mind, I want to start this list off as I always do, making note of the games I wish I’d found time or energy for, but just couldn’t:
The 2018 Would-Have-Rans:
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux
This is an odd one because it’s an expanded re-release of a 2010 game. Would that count for my Game of the Year list? I don’t know! I didn’t play it, so I didn’t have to consider it! But it’s my damn list, so I’d probably have counted it, if I played it. I’m not even considering the possibility that I could have played this and not considered it one of the ten best games I played this year. It’s a MegaTen game! A well-regarded one! I love those!
Anyways, I’m looking forward to dusting off one of my three Nintendo 3DSes to play his soon.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna, The Golden Country
This is a DLC expansion to last year’s sixth-best game, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I played just a couple of hours of it. It seems like more of that game. I liked that game, and liked what I played of this one, so that’s cool with me! It’s a totally self-contained “little” adventure, with air-quotes because it’s still longer than most of the games I did play this year. It’s like a 25-30 hour game unto itself. That would be more than enough to be considered its own game, and thus, eligible for this list— if I’d played it. Whoops!
Valkyria Chronicles 4
I like Valkyria Chronicles a whole lot. They made a couple of sequels on the PlayStation Portable that I didn’t play, because it seems like they kind of fucked with their winning formula. They went back to their winning formula, for this one. It’s like the Valkyria Chronicles 2 you wish they made, instead of the one they actually made. I should have played it. I didn’t.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
One year I’ll play a Dragon Quest game. One year. This one looks like it’s a really good one of those. Maybe this will be the Dragon Quest game I’ll play one year.
This one’s cheating a bit, because I don’t think I should have played this game this year, even though it came out this year. I still have to play Yakuzas 3, 4 and 5! Still, it should have been eligible for my 2018 GOTY list, but it wasn’t, because I didn’t play it. Honorable mentions and all that.
You’ll notice there’s a lot of Japanese Role Playing Games up there. Those are my bread and butter! This year, it was often pretty difficult to convince myself to spend over sixty hours sitting alone in a dark room, accomplishing little. I needed to squeeze as many small feelings of accomplishment out of the shortest spans of time possible. Big time-sinks like JRPGs just didn’t cut it this year.
Anyways, here’s my favorite ten games I did play:
The Top Ten Games I Played in 2018
10) Octopath Traveler
This one’s kind of a bummer. It should be a lot higher on this list. A classic-styled JRPG— the only one I played this year— with a striking and gorgeous art style, excellent music, and an extremely tight battle system? How couldn’t this be, like, a serious GOTY contender?
Simple: the structure of the game is extremely simple and unambitious. There are eight characters, they each have their own four-chapter story, for a total of 32 chapters. 31 of these chapters are the exact same thing, every time. You go to a town, you talk to some NPCs, you do a dungeon, you fight a boss. End scene, next. It’s way longer than it has any right to be, and I couldn’t actually finish it. I burned out after completing something like 26 chapters.
Still, the battle system is a ton of fun, the class system is fun to tinker with, there are a couple of decent, memorable characters (but most of them aren’t.) I had really high hopes for this one, and came out feeling pretty burned, but ultimately still enjoyed most of my time with it. I just don’t think I’d enjoy any more time with it, so it’ll sit unfinished in my Switch library for the rest of time.
9) Warhammer: Vermintide 2
I don’t particularly care about Warhammer, but a friend convinced me to get this as a fun co-op game. It’s definitely a fun co-op game. It’s basically Fantasy Medieval Left 4 Dead, except with gross Rat Dudes instead of zombies.
What really made it stand out to me was the ways it carries that Left 4 Dead formula forward— each of the five playable characters has different types of weapons available to them, as well as unique perks and abilities. This means they all play differently, and fulfill different roles in a group. Furthermore, each character has three sub-classes they can choose between, which helps because the game also features light RPG elements— leveling up, selecting talents, acquiring gear— and being able to swap sub-classes lets you mix things up without starting over at Level 1 with a new character.
There are some fun hidden secrets, including grimoires that will permanently reduce everybody’s maximum health if carried in exchange for better loot at the end of a map, and finding those secrets was a lot of fun too, as they’re extremely well-hidden. I ended up consulting guides in some cases, but I have fond memories of me and three friends carefully poring over every brick in a wall to see which one we could press to open some hidden passage to a cursed book. And the part where we were cutting through hordes of gross Rat Dudes was a lot of fun too.
I haven’t actually finished Celeste yet, but I’m a fair ways in and it’s already vibed with me enough to end up on this list.
There isn’t a ton to say about it— it’s an extremely tough 2D platformer of the “die hundreds of times per level” variety, complete with lightning-fast same-screen respawns every time you accidentally dash into a bushel of spikes instead of through the extremely narrow path between spikes you needed to dash through. The movement feels tight and the air dash mechanic that the game is built around is super satisfying. Each level has its own collection of mechanical gimmicks that gradually escalate in challenge in a Mario-esque way. It’s a lot of fun.
The stroke of genius that elevates Celeste over similar “splatformers” for me is all the set dressing. By crafting a brutally challenging game around the central narrative of climbing a giant mountain, the game itself becomes an extended metaphor for, well, climbing a metaphorical mountain. You’ll slip and fall and slip and fall, and at times the trial will seem insurmountable, but with enough effort and gumption you’ll always rise to the task.
Of course, there’s some layering of metaphors going on here, as Celeste isn’t just about one girl’s quest to climb a mountain, but also an extended metaphor for dealing with mental health issues. I’ve found this stuff to be a little on-the-nose so far, but I appreciate what they’re going for all the same. We are often our own biggest, scariest mountain to climb. I’ve been feeling that a lot, lately, so I’ll applaud the effort.
The music’s excellent, and it’s got a nice, distinct look compared to other pixel-art platformers. It reminds me a lot of a Game Boy Advance game in terms of fidelity and color palette, and that’s a mine that isn’t quite so tapped out as a 16-bit throwback. It’s a very nice game.
7) Dead Cells
Dead Cells is a roguelite action platformer that takes some of its stylistic cues from the Castlevania series, which I adore, so I had to check it out.
It gets the word “Metroidvania” tacked on to it a lot, which I don’t quite agree with— exploration isn’t quite the name of the game in the same way that it is in, say, Symphony of the Night. The procedurally-generated environments might loosely resemble a Metroid map in how they tie together long corridors full of enemies and hazards into a mazelike configuration, but there isn’t much need to backtrack, explore hidden nooks and crannies or unlock new navigational tools. They’re mazes that exist to be swiftly navigated, as there’s an element of time pressure at work, with a few predictable patterns per level to learn so that you can navigate them more easily.
Anyways, what really makes this game jump out to me is just how damn good it feels to play. The combat is lightning-paced and extremely satisfying, and there’s a constant drip-feed of unlockable combat abilities that spice up your future runs when you inevitably die, die, and die again. Messing with new builds, making the best of a randomized situation, and cutting your way through dozens of enemies always feels extremely satisfying. I think I’ll be continuing to come back to this one for a while, yet.
6) Yakuza Kiwami 2
My descent into Yakuza madness continued in 2018 with Yakuza Kiwami 2, a PS4 remake of the PS2’s Yakuza 2. There isn’t a ton to say about this one. It’s more Yakuza. It still has the same mixture of ridiculous tonal shifts, bonkers side content, and affecting narrative that made Yakuza 0 my surprise second-favorite game last year. The new engine they’ve used to render Kamurocho in Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 2 looks real nice, and the new combat system is… decent. It feels more limited than Yakuza 0 or Yakuza Kiwami in terms of how many zany special moves you can use, which lessens the appeal to me, but it still feels pretty satisfying to punch hundreds of useless street goons in the face.
I kinda fell off this one near the end and have to get back to it, but I was pretty interested in the story in this one compared to Yakuza Kiwami. You can definitely tell that Yakuza 2 is where this team started to hit their stride and find their ideal for what a Yakuza game ought to be. I’ve gotta finish this one off before they start re-releasing Yakuza 3, 4 and 5 on the PS4. I still have a lot of catching up to do in Kamurocho.
5) The Return of the Obra Dinn
WHO’S STOKED TO BE AN INSURANCE INSPECTOR? THAT’S RIGHT, I AM!
In The Return of the Obra Dinn, you play an insurance inspector investigating a derelict ship so you can figure out the details of an insurance claim on the boat and its crew. The end. Sounds exciting, right?
I jest. It is really exciting, because this boat got fucked up by a bunch of horrible sea creatures and you have a magic pocket watch that lets you travel through time to see a sort of explorable 3D diorama of the exact moment of each crew member’s grisly death.
From there, you need to use deductive reasoning to figure out the identity of each person whose demise you have time-jumped to, and the cause of their death. In a few cases you’re clearly given a person’s name, and you can clearly tell that a giant kraken crushed them with its tentacles. More often than not, you need to get a lot craftier, because you’re not clearly given a person’s name, and maybe they were shot by another person, whose name you also don’t know. So now you’ve got two names to try and figure out. You might get Person A’s name from another time-jump, into some totally unrelated incident, where somebody happens to mention Person A by name. You might need to figure out Person B’s identity with yet more crafty deductive reasoning, say, figuring out that person is an officer on the ship based on their attire, and then using the process of elimination to determine that, since you’ve identified all the other officers, Person B is the last officer you haven’t identified. This is all just a hypothetical example, but it gets the point across.
This is a game you need to play with a notebook, because you’re constantly being bombarded with tiny clues that might start to add up to something, if you can keep track of them all. Each time the game pops in to inform you that you’ve successfully determined the fates of some of the crew, you’ll feel like a genius. I love it when games make me feel like a genius.
My only complaint about the game is that a lot of the crew’s identities hinge on one extremely specific aspect of one particular death-diorama. There was one specific memory I found myself jumping to way too much to get the info I needed, and it feels like that information could have been better-distributed in some way. I’m taking care not to spoil what I’m actually talking about here, but I’m sure anybody who’s played Obra Dinn to completion knows the one I’m talking about. It feels like a really fun trick the first time you figure somebody out using this method, but by the tenth time it feels like the game needed a slightly deeper bag of tricks.
4) Tetris Effect
When this got announced, I sent a friend an all-caps message with only two words:
That message, frankly, says all that needs to be said about Tetris Effect. It’s Tetris, by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. It’s like Lumines, but with Tetris. It’s a series of trippy, wild audio-visual treatments… for Tetris.
But it’s a really good version of Tetris, with all the modern fixings you’d expect. You can hold pieces, you can fast drop, you can spin and maneuver pieces almost indefinitely as they join the top of your stack. And the audio-visual treatments are all really nice.
I don’t really know what else to say.
3) HITMAN 2
Remember 2016’s second-best game of the year, HITMAN (2016)? Well, guess what? They made six new maps and packaged them together as HITMAN 2 (2018)! Guess what, again? It’s still super good!
Everything I loved about HITMAN (2016) is still true here. You still have one of the widest and wildest possibility spaces around. The question in each mission is not if you can complete it, but how you can complete it. And the answer is always, always, always “as many different ways as you can imagine.” Thinking up insane, outlandish strategies and seeing if you can pull them off (you can), honing your expertise in navigating each level until eventually you can pull off the most ruthlessly efficient and inventive assassination of all time, and doing that six times in different, dense, expansive locales. It’s all still there. It’s still a hit, man (sorry.)
My primary complaint is that I’d hoped for a more inventive spread of unlockable tools and gadgets. There’s a lot of overlap with the unlockables from HITMAN (2016), presumably because they couldn’t assume that everybody playing HITMAN 2 (2018) would have access to the HITMAN (2016) maps and the unlockables contained therein.
Oh, yeah! Did I mention? They put all of the maps from HITMAN (2016) into this game, if you own the first game, and added some of the new features and mechanics from the sequel back into those old maps. So at any time I can load up HITMAN 2 (2018) and have twelve entire maps of good old fashioned Crazy Assassination at my fingertips. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better complete package of video game here.
2) Into the Breach
Into the Breach was the first 2018 game I played, and it came really close to being the best 2018 game I played. The year started off on the right foot, in games and in life. Something went wrong, somewhere along the way, and I found myself wishing I was back in February, playing Into the Breach.
Into the Breach is an isometric, turn-based tactics game with roguelike elements in which you command a squad of three giant mechs as they fight a bunch of evil alien bugs across a bunch of 8×8 tiled maps. Placed around these maps are objectives, cities that you need to defend, and various terrain features. You’ll need to factor in all of these elements as you consider your actions on your turn, which is a process that can take one minute, or one hour.
Time and again you’ll be thrown into a situation that seems almost hopeless, but you’ll stare and stare at the board, trying to figure out the exact sequence of moves that will minimize your losses and maximize your bug-killing. Sometimes it’s not even about bug killing. Sometimes you’re just pushing them around, playing crowd control. Sometimes you’re putting your mech right into the line of fire, to take a shot so you can save a city. Every move is a careful, razor-sharp balancing act.
At times, playing Into the Breach felt how I imagine it must feel to be playing one of those remote games of chess, where you’re sending your moves to your opponent by carrier pigeon, or something, and taking literal days to formulate your next move— mulling it over as you lie in bed, or do the dishes, or what have you. I would sometimes get up and physically walk away from my computer just to clear my head and try to reconsider my strategy.
I’ve played a lot of turn-based tactics games before, and I don’t think I’ve ever had that experience before. It’s something I’ll always remember about this game.
1) Monster Hunter World
Remember that whole spiel I gave about this being one of the worst years of my life and how I just couldn’t motivate myself to sink dozens of hours into any long time-sink games because I needed to get as much gratification as I could out of shorter experiences?
Whoops, I played 120 hours of Monster Hunter World this year.
I don’t really know how it happened. I know that playing the game with friends helped. It made it a social experience, which took away from the “sitting alone in a dark basement for hours at a time” element that I’d tried to avoid. It still mystifies me, though, that I was able to get as invested in this game for as long as I did at the time that I did. A Monster Hunter game. I haven’t played one of those in, like, a decade! And I didn’t even particularly like the other one I played!
They really managed to streamline the experience of playing Monster Hunter without getting rid of the essence of Monster Hunter, at least as far as I can tell, as a non-fan of the rest of the series. There was definitely still a learning curve, but it wasn’t long at all before it was the easiest thing in the world for me to get home from work, log on Monster Hunter, and enjoy some really fun hunts with close friends until way too early in the morning.
It’s definitely not a perfect game— there’s a litany of issues that I hope Capcom is paying attention to for the next time they make one of these, especially in terms of how the online play works. Issues aside, I can’t deny that this is definitely the most fun I had playing a newly-released video game in 2018. I’m really looking forward to that expansion… whenever it comes to PC.
That does it for this year’s list. I’d like to get back to writing stuff about video games that isn’t a year-end list. I’ll call that a new years resolution. We’ll see if I stick to it. If not, I’ll be back in exactly one year to tell you what my ten favorite games of 2019 were.
Later guys, (video games.)