Another year is in the books.
While 2018 was basically a screaming horror show in real life, it was still possible to retreat for a while into gaming, and my mental health was glad of it. For brief moments, some of the wonderful works released over the last 365 days soothed the ragged edges of living in America, and I thank them for the respite.
Interested in what I found to be the best experiences? They’re listed below, prefaced with…
Shadow of the Colossus (PS4 remaster) my review
Minit review by Mike Suskie
Subnautica (review forthcoming)
Black Bird my review
Vampyr review by Dan Weissenberger
Death Road to Canada review by AJ Small
10 Hitman 2 review by Corey Motley
On one hand, it’s hard to say anything about this other than the fact that it’s more Hitman. This release is basically an expansion pack with missions that are virtually indistinguishable from the 2016 release, so it’s not pushing the envelope in any respect. On the other hand… it’s more Hitman! This is a fantastic series that is basically in its own genre with no real competition. I absolutely love the gameplay, and it’s always a welcome sight to see Agent 47’s bald, barcoded head. This is probably the most polished the series has ever been, and the trademark dark humor is still as present as it ever was. This is peak Hitman, and even when Hitman is just more Hitman, it’s still Hitman.
9 The Council review by Dan Weissenberger
The thing that’s most notable for me about The Council is that it takes the formula Telltale Games made famous and then iterates and improves on it in many ways. In addition to the standard elements, the developers integrated an RPG-style skill system where the player can level their character up in various ways, and those choices have significant and far-reaching consequences. If your character is more of a scientist and less of a statesman, he might solve an alchemical equation but fail at making conversation with a politician. There are also real stakes attached to the gameplay — whenever in conversation (just like in real life!) there’s often only one chance to make a good first impression, and since the game autosaves nearly every time something happens, it’s impossible to re-do a flubbed convo. Also, although I started cold on him, I eventually grew to love main character, Louis de Richet, and the political intrigue of the plot was great. The puzzles were over-the-top for me and there’s a late-game twist which I could have done without, but overall, The Council shows there’s a lot of territory left in this genre to explore.
8 Unravel Two my review
Similar to Hitman, this one is also basically more of the same when it comes to the visually-rich 2D platforming action that was delivered the first time around. However, not only have the devs greatly improved on their mechanics, they’ve crafted a fantastic cooperative experience that plays wonderfully with a partner, but also solo – it’s no mean feat, and choosing to go it alone gives the game a much different flavor than when alongside a friend. The puzzles were incredibly clever, and there’s no denying such lush, evocative visuals. I played the entire game to 100% completion with my wife and it was a treat from start to finish.
7 Celeste my review
It’s rare that I come across a game that combines gameplay and themes as wholly and as successfully as Celeste does. Taking the idea of climbing a mountain and marrying it to making peace with your inner demons is a perfect fit, and the trek to the top of the peak is significant on many levels. Mechanically, it was tight and demanding, and the developers were clearly aware of the high skill level required to finish it on the vanilla settings – their move to include a wealth of options to customize the experience was a masterstroke that helped set the bar for accessibility in titles that would come afterwards.
6 Monster Hunter World review by Mike Suskie
This game isn’t perfect. I’m not a fan of the Westernized art style, some of the menus make absolutely no sense, and the online systems still need a lot of work, but this was the genuine step forward that the Monster Hunter series has badly needed for many years. By taking this series off of handheld platforms and putting it on beefier systems with the ability to create monsters that live and breathe as never before, players who never batted an eye at previous versions sat up and paid attention. The wonderful new SOS system seen here for the first time brings random players together at a moment’s notice, and revamped weapons made the action more approachable than ever. I always knew this series could have a bigger audience if Capcom would embrace the next generation of hardware, and I’m thrilled they finally did.
5 Hollow Knight my review
Hollow Knight had a tall hill to climb with me — I’m not lorehound, nor a fan of games that are obtuse about important things. I’m also totally over Dark Souls-isms popping up across the industry, and I’m tired of metroidvanias in general. So, with all that counting against it, it really says something that this indie darling (which checks all those boxes) had me hooked from the get-go. The controls are tight, it’s a joy to engage in the platforming, and the combat is exciting. And the visuals? Just stunning. Screenshots don’t do it justice, but the animation is a thing of beauty. I needed an FAQ more times than I could count and some of the bosses drove me insane, but I’m glad that I spent time with this gem and I respect the hell out of it, even if I don’t love every part of it.
4 Darkest Dungeon my review
It took me several tries to get into Darkest Dungeon, but it wasn’t until it hit the Switch that all of the pieces fell into place – it’s a long game, so playing it on the go was more conducive to putting time in. The small-scale nature of the world and graphics were a better fit for a portable screen than a huge home setup. The vanilla version was incredibly harsh, and it took a awhile for the developers to sand the sharp edges down. By 2018 there also were a number of new features that let me customize the experience, and an easier difficulty level had been added – this iteration is the best version of a fantastic game. I played it endlessly, did every single thing in it, and then kept on playing long after rolling credits.
3 Metal Gear Survive my review
Some people may be surprised to see this one in my best-of, but it’s earned its spot. First, let’s be honest here – a lot of players never gave it a chance. Whether it was umbrage at Konami’s corporate misdeeds, fanboy solidarity with Hideo Kojima’s cult of personality, or the fact that it’s not a mainline entry in the Metal Gear Franchise, the list of reasons people found to immediately dismiss it goes on and on. But when taken on its own terms? Survivor is a fantastic experience. I loved putting the mechanics of the series in a new context, constructing and maintaining my own base gave me a great sense of ownership and involvement, and the survival was done well – drinking dirty water and foraging for scarce berries was a rough start, but it evolved over time and never became too harsh or onerous. Eventually being able to provide not only for myself, but for a whole camp of survivors was a great feeling. The Metal Gear franchise has successfully branched out into a diverse array of genres over its history, and Survive is one more in the ‘win’ column.
2 West of Loathing my review
Absolutely fantastic from start to finish, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that managed to be as consistently funny, clever, and flat-out entertaining as this one. Humor in games is notoriously hard to do, and the fact that nearly every joke lands is an achievement unto itself. Also incredibly impressive? That these devs have pulled off a 2D open world RPG that remained as engaging in its last hour as it did in its first. The wealth of secrets, areas to explore, sidequests to take on and surprise interactions to chuckle over seemed infinite (in the best possible sense!) and I never wanted it to end. The mechanics were also ingenious — difficulty never stopped progression since people could grind if they wanted to, but there were also a wealth of skills and items to get past problems, and there were multiple ways to solve nearly every challenge in the game. Don’t be fooled by the stick-figure graphics the way I was — on every level, it’s a masterpiece of design and craft.
1 Into the Breach review by Mike Suskie
Brilliant in every aspect, Into the Breach takes the standard template of turn-based tactics and tosses it on its ear by crafting a system that is absolutely transparent about what it’s going to do, and then challenges the player to make the best use of available resources. There are no tricks and no ‘gotcha!’ moments – it’s an honest, straightforward presentation that asks the player to rise to the occasion. Each team of specialized mechs is widely varied, and brings a new spin to the combat. Some are defensive, some are offensive, some specialize in damage over time, some focus on melee, some are about repositioning… the diversity and clever design keeps each session fresh while also teaching the player through time and iteration about the sophistication hidden under the seemingly-simple hood. Breach is also intensely replayable thanks to custom options, and the fast, bite-sized nature of missions. It’s rare to see something so completely thought-through, so rich, and so deep. I honestly can’t find fault with it, and could not pull myself away until I had done every single thing in every possible permutation. Into the Breach is a master class in small-scale design that manages to be more sophisticated than games with ten times the budget, and it’s polished from every angle. They simply don’t come better than this.
Thanks for reading my top ten, and special thanks go out to @8BitWiz for his great suggestion to make this list a Top 12. Unfortunately, the last two titles I was considering disqualified themselves, and I ended up with natural top ten in the end. Still, the idea was appreciated!
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