And finally, we come to the games. I’m going to be brutally honest here; I don’t think this was a particularly great year for games. When I look back at the games I played the most, they were almost all either ports or games that came out a while ago. I finally started playing the Dark Souls series in full force; I started to replay Ace Attorney; I caught up on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Hollow Knight and tried again in vain to get into Yakuza. My list of games I loved this year has ended up looking a lot like the list of all the new games I played, while last year I struggled to decide what would make the cut. In a way though, this is a pretty good thing – while I wasn’t swamped for games, the 2018 games I did end up buying and playing through have mostly been hits.
If you didn’t read my best TV of 2018 or my best films list, it’s worth noting before I continue that the way these lists have been done has changed since last year. I’ve ditched ranking the games in any way – I have one ‘best of the year’ but the rest of the ‘runner’s up’ are simply presented in alphabetical order without ranking. I think (and hope) this is the best of both worlds – there’s some competition about which game gets to be the best, but I also don’t have to decide which of two games I liked more when they’re of completely different genres and appeal. I’ve also stopped putting a number limit on how many entries are in each list – it’s just however many I feel like highlighting now.
So, without further ado;
Celeste is hands-down one of the finest platformers I’ve ever played. The game has you take control of Madeline, who is trying to climb ‘Celeste mountain’ using her small repertoire of skills; a jump, a stamina based wall climb and a mid-air dash.Those three skills are with you for most of the game, but they never wear out their welcome because of the tight level design, and because of just how great the mid-air dash feels to use. Level gimmicks add some variety, but it’s those skills that make the game so addicting and keep you coming back through the often crushing difficulty.
What impressed me most about Celeste, however, is how it blends gameplay and story. The story is a rather simple one about a girl finding herself on a mountain, and coming to terms with her own faults, but the way this is communicated not only through dialogue but through how the game plays is genius. The difficulty is not only for an arbitrary challenge, it’s key to the game itself. Without it the story would have so much less impact on the player and the protagonist. That’s just one of the ways Celeste manages to pair story and gameplay, though, and I would be remiss about spoiling any more. Suffice to say though, Celeste is not only an amazing platformer, but an amazing example of how to communicate through gameplay.
Yee Haw. I haven’t yet finished Red Dead Redemption 2 (I’m actually still pretty early on (life gets in the way)), but even at the point I’m at, it’s clear what a breath-taking game this is. The open world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is unlike any other; it’s so brilliantly realised, so near photo-realistic as to fool you, even for a little, into buying into its cinematic ambitions.
There has been controversy about how much work went into making RDR2, and while I agree that the way Rockstar’s employees were treated deserves serious conversation, it’s hard not to be near constantly in awe of their achievements. The level of detail has left itself open to ridicule at points, but I’ve found it justifies itself through how it helps tell the story that RDR2 wants to tell. A more stylised game might inadvertently have the story lose some weight, but you feel everything Rockstar wants you to here. This is of course in part due to the strong writing, but it’s also because every action has a rippling series of consequences. Even murder, which the game isn’t shy about encouraging, feels worse in a heavily realistic world, something the game seems like it’s trying to achieve.
It’s a shame, of course, about the classic Rockstar style mission system, which is overly restrictive and consists too often of menial and boring tasks, but even this feels like it has more purpose in slowing down the pace than in a game like GTAV.
When I eventually get round to finishing the game in 2022, I hope I’ll have kept enjoying it like I am at the moment.
Spider-Man has had a pretty great year. As I said in my films list, he has always been my favourite superhero, because he’s instantly relatable, has some sweet powers, and of course is pretty much the only one I knew about before the current tidal wave of superhero mania we’re currently in. But even despite my pre-exisiting love of the bug eyed New Yorker, there’s something very cool about swinging around the Big Apple. Really, that’s all Insomniac’s Spider-Man game had to get right, and it’s so great that it did.
Yes, the swinging is as simple as pressing R2 and moving the camera in the direction you want to go, but there’s enough of a flow to it that it’s addicting. It’s a shame nothing in the game lives up to the web-swinging, but the combat also comes close. It’s similarly fluid, and adds a lot more options to play with and develop throughout the game than the swinging.
The rest of the game is a bit of a let-down; the story is a tad predictable and less charming than I’d hoped (although it does have a few nice ideas in the relationship between Peter and Mary-Jane). However, because the whole thing clocks in at only around 20 hours, it’s refreshingly well-paced and never outstays its welcome. More like this please.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is such a colossal achievement that even considering how it all came together makes my mind hurt. There’s so many modes, features, characters, music tracks etc that makes the whole feel like such a celebration of Nintendo gaming.
Not all of these features work, mind; Spirits mode is a disappointing replacement for the trophies of Smash games past and the online mode (while having been improved by a recent patch) is far from perfect. But the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ mentality that seems to have been behind making this game means that not everything has to work.
Most importantly, the ‘Smash’ mode itself works perfectly. It’s faster and more aggressive than past games, and with a roster that’s so huge that it’s impossible not to find a character you either enjoy playing as or have some connection with.
All of the other games on my list are single player, story focused experiences, but it’s important to give proper credit to a game that makes multiplayer as perfect as this does. In fact, I was supposed to publish this list a few days ago, but the thing that kept distracting me? Smash.
Swery’s The Missing: JJ. Macfield and the Island of Memories isn’t a perfect game. It’s wonky and tedious; often even just poorly made in general (I was told by someone this is a Swery staple, but it’s often not charmingly broken, but rather just frustratingly so). The puzzles, which involve the main character tearing off her own limbs in increasingly grotesque ways to hit levers or push down buttons, may not have been intended to be funny but too often land in the realm of the absurd to avoid some dark chuckles.
However, like Celeste, what The Missing does well is a blend of story and gameplay. It’s a shame that a lot of this doesn’t click into place until the ending, but when it does it delivers one of those rare twists that successfully re-contextualises so much of the experience without feeling like a cop-out.
It’s also, and I hate to use this word, an ‘important’ game. Art shouldn’t be solely judged based on when it was released, but this game does feel quite timely and well considered. Games that tackle these kinds of subjects (I’m being intentionally vague here) are usually few and far between, so it’s always nice to see one that’s clever about how it approaches it and largely successful to boot (or so I’ve been told by people with far more experience than me).
Lucas Pope’s last game Papers Please is one of my favourite games of all time, so I’m glad to say that his latest creation Return of the Obra Dinn may well be on its way to joining those ranks. It’s genuinely one of the finest, most creative games of any genre I’ve ever played, and the way it revitalises the detective game is a sight to behold.
Like Papers Please, Return of the Obra Dinn again takes a boring sounding job and gives it an engaging hook. Here you’re in control of an insurance investigator who board the Obra Dinn, a Mary Celeste like ship where all the crew seem to have disappeared or left their body parts strewn all over. Using a magic pocket watch, you can investigate their moment of death and gradually piece together the series of events. The whole game sustains itself off that simple premise by layering together a complex plot of murder and horrors from the depths in that you almost always feel surprised by whatever you see and hear in each memory.
Games that make you actually feel clever are really hard to pull off. Something like Ace Attorney, a series I write about a lot, has to carefully guide you through all its logic, only occasionally asking you to solve simple puzzles as a way to make you think you’ve solved the whole. Return of the Obra Dinn, however, puts all the logic in your hands. It gives you some pointers, sure, and it tells you when you’ve gotten things right or wrong, but for the most part the deduction feels all yours. It’s incredibly satisfying to be presented with a snapshot of a situation and to be able to tell what’s going on just through one little name mentioned in a line of dialogue two deaths back, and the outfit of a certain ship mate.
While the gameplay is the main star, what’s immediately astounding about this game is how it looks. If you click the sub heading above, you can watch a trailer and see just how incredible it all looks; the black and white early Macintosh era look actually makes scenes much easier to parse than anything hyper-realistic. It also of course, gives the game a beautiful, unique aesthetic. The music, which is used pleasingly sparsely, is of Papers Please‘s high standard and gives each scene a proper punch.
I truly can’t recommend this game highly enough.
And that’s it for 2018, a year I can finally put behind me. 2019 looks pretty fantastic for all forms of pop-culture, and I look forward to more tough list-making decisions next December. For now, it’s back to looking at Ace Attorney, and a few other little projects I’ve got stewing.
Thanks for reading!