My ten favorite games of 2018

I don’t write about games as often as I used to. I would like to say that’s due to a lack of free time, but it’s mostly because of a lack of motivation. I used to love writing, especially about games, but over the past two years something inside of me shifted and I no longer feel as passionately about it. I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why that is, but a contributing factor is the recent feeling of hopelessness that has continued to swell inside of me, only subsiding for those brief moments while I lose myself in some of my favorite games of the year.

I feel like it’s a trend of me beginning these write-ups this way, and for that I apologize, but it’s a feeling I cannot shake. It’s why some of these games impacted me in such an emotional way, even more than my favorites from previous years. “Games allow us to escape from our modern day woes,” I would remind myself, “if they can distract me for even an hour or two, I’ll take it.” It would sometimes be hard to focus on what I was playing, but a handful of games reminded me, even for a just a minute or two, that it’s not entirely hopeless.

Let me start by talking about a number of games that just missed my list with a few words about their importance.

  • Hitman 2 — It’s more of the best Hitman game IO Interactive has ever made, which is enough for me.
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate — Melee will never be topped as my favorite game in this series because of how important it was to me when it released way back in 2001, but Ultimate comes damn close.
  • Life is Strange 2: Episode One — I loved the original Life is Strange, but the first episode of the sequel is alone better than anything the team at Dontnod created for the original game. It’s not an easy experience, but perhaps it’s the most relevant in 2018.
  • Minit — This game boils down the adventure game formula into its more simplistic form and does so brilliantly.
  • Into the Breach — FTL is undeniably great, but Into the Breach surpasses it on almost every level and quickly became one of my favorite strategy games.
  • Florence — Florence tells a very relatable story expertly, utilizing its platform better than any other game I’ve played this year. If you have an hour to spare, check this one out.
  • God of War — I have issues with the story and how certain characters are handled, but I cannot deny how much fun I had playing this.
  • Monster Hunter World — I played a handful of games with my partner this year, but Monster Hunter World is the one I enjoyed the most. I’m as shocked as anyone that I liked this as much as I did.

As tempting as it was to create another top 20 list and do full write-ups on all of these great games, I felt I needed to keep things simple this year. Now let’s talk about my ten favorite gaming experiences of 2018.

I’ve always liked Tetris, but have never been particularly good at it. Playing Tetris Effect was the first time I felt like I was improving. The core of what Tetris is hasn’t changed here, yet I found myself more invested in it than any previous game in the series. Why is that? Because of its brilliant aesthetics and music wrapped around an experience that is still one of the most satisfying puzzle games around. I felt invested in this genre in a way I haven’t felt since I played Lumines on the PSP back in 2004. I was mesmerized, completely and utterly lost in a vision of Tetris I never thought I would see.

It inspired me in a way few puzzle games do. For a lack of a better way of describing it, this was almost a spiritual experience I rarely have with any game, much less a puzzle game. And when I finally got myself a PlayStation VR and played through the Journey Mode again, it was like a whole new experience. Different, but just as impactful.

I wanted to take this opportunity to link to a piece written by my friend Graham Russell over at Michibiku about Tetris Effect. It does this game justice more than I ever will.

I was looking forward to Moonlighter for a while, but it completely took me by surprise once I actually played it. Despite its simple, albeit gorgeous, visuals, the world presented here has a lot of personality. There is a rich history here, one that you slowly unravel as the game progresses. It doesn’t tell a story that is particularly groundbreaking, but I found myself intrigued by even the smallest amount of world building.

That wouldn’t be as impactful of the gameplay was lackluster, which definitely isn’t the case. The gameplay loop of fighting your way through a dungeon to gather materials, selling those materials at your shop, using that money to upgrade your shop and equipment, and using that equipment to progress further into the dungeon to gather even more valuable materials is quite addictive. It’s not overly complex, but it didn’t need to be to win me over. I appreciated the simplicity of it all; it became the perfect game that I could engage both mindlessly and with complete focus.

Moonlighter is the kind of game you really need to dig into to appreciate. It’s not going to win you over because of any one aspect, but once you start to play and see beyond the basics, you may find yourself losing as much time to it as I was.

If I had to pick a a single title that represents most game of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2 would win without question. There is so much here in this densely-packed western that I often found myself overwhelmed by it all. It engaged me on a similar level as Breath of the Wild did last year, but it didn’t quite hit all of the same notes as there was plenty that could have been trimmed from the final version. Having said all of that, this is likely the best game Rockstar has put out in its long and storied history, or at least the one I found myself invested in the most. It worked its way into my heart and set a new standard for open-world games that will be difficult to top.

Part of that is because of the main character, Arthur Morgan, who has quickly become one of my favorite protagonists. It wasn’t long before I found myself truly playing the role of Arthur, enraptured by the world and characters he surrounded himself with. When I wasn’t engrossed in the overarching narrative, one that slowly drove a wedge between Arthur and those he thought he trusted, I was traversing the world, eager to seek out as much as I could. I hunted, explored the wilderness, played card games with strangers and friends, committed a robbery or two for the sake of the gang, and encountered strange individuals who added new flavor to the already richly-detailed world.

Throughout Arthur’s journey, I found the best moments are the smaller ones. An unplanned date with an old flame, a conversation at a train station about facing your own mortality, and finding joy in even the smallest of interactions between your friends at camp. There is plenty of bombast and more than enough action to keep you entertained, and many of those sequences are handled brilliantly, but the smaller details are what kept me so invested in Arthur’s story. Even the way Arthur talks to his horse provided an intimate connection that so rarely seen, especially in Rockstar games.

I don’t consider myself particularly good at playing games, especially those that require quick reflexes. Celeste is a tough-as-nails platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy, but with one key difference. Instead of just being a game with a long list of challenging levels, it’s a game about accepting yourself, even your faults, and learning to make the best of it despite the many challenges you’ll face along the way. This, along with the game’s brilliant accessibility options, helped me see it all the way through until the end.

As someone who lives with anxiety and depression, I found Madeline as a character incredibly relatable. Over the course of her adventure you learn more about her struggles, which adds to the sense of accomplishment you feel as you slowly make your way up the mountain. The levels presented to you are tough, but the satisfaction of clearing a difficult room or getting to the next stage isn’t just due to the challenge of the excellent level-design, it’s because you want Madeline to succeed.

Every challenge I face in my day-to-day life, even the challenge of getting out of bed in the morning, sometimes feels insurmountable, and just thinking about Madeline’s adventure was enough to make me feel a little bit better. Celeste is far from the only game that made me feel hopeful this year, but it directly spoke to me in a way few games have. This is all enriched by a gorgeous original score from Lena Raine. This is the soundtrack I found myself listening to the most this year, and one I expect I’ll continue to listen to for many years to come.

It’s 2018 and a brand new Dragon Quest game released! What more could you ask for, really? It helps that Dragon Quest XI is one hell of an RPG, perhaps the best in the series to date. It’s about as traditional as you would expect a Dragon Quest game to be, but the formula has been polished remarkably. For starters, the world is beautiful and full of tiny details that enhance the experience. So much careful attention was paid to every town, its NPCs, and the ways in which the events of the game shape their lives made the world feel alive, which I something rarely see from JRPGs.

The battle system, while as familiar as many aspects of the game, is still a lot of fun. This is mostly due to the excellent variety in the large cast of characters. While I ended up with a favorite party by the end of the game, I felt like I could use any arrangement of team members in any situation and still feel comfortable. Also, I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated seeing enemies on screen. I will never mourn the loss of random battles.

The best thing I can say about Dragon Quest XI is how comfortable it all feels. From the story to the character interactions, it’s all so distinctly Dragon Quest, but one with a level of detail and polish that I feel has been absent from the series for quite some time. It doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking, but it does refine something that was already so great to begin with. Sometimes that’s all I need.

So we enter the top five, also known as the games that provided me the experiences I so desperately needed in 2018 (and will continue to need in 2019). Obviously this feeling can be extended to previous games on this list, but these five reflect this the most. This is all a lengthy set-up to say that when I play a Forza Horizon game, it feels like taking a vacation and letting my troubles simply drift away. Similarly to Tetris Effect, I get lost driving around in Forza Horizon 4, just as I have in the previous three Horizon titles. It’s relaxing, it’s visually stunning, and it was the fast escape from life that I think everyone needs every once in a while.

Horizon 4 changes things up a bit by introducing seasons, which shift between spring, summer, autumn, and winter on a fairly regular basis and change the world in subtle, but impactful ways. Even if I’ve already experienced all four seasons thanks to the game’s incredible introduction (seriously, play the demo for Horizon 4 and see what I mean), I still felt joy when I saw it change in-game. It made driving around the world feel new again and gave me a reason to replay old events and discover new ones.

I wouldn’t be surprised that Forza Horizon 5 will be on my list for favorite games in 2020 as this series has honestly done nothing but impress me with each iteration. Until then, I think Forza Horizon 4 will keep me plenty busy.

Continuing on with the theme of my top five, Iconoclasts is, as the name suggestions, a game about tearing down the established order, something I desperately needed to experience in 2018. Man, did this game hit me hard in the best ways possible. It’s not a particularly happy game despite its colorful visuals. It actually tells one of the darkest, heart-wrenching, and ultimately most satisfying stories in any game I’ve played this year.

Iconoclasts’ gameplay is a blast thanks to its tight controls, excellent level design, and memorable boss fights. In a year full of great Metroid-style platformers, this is the one that stands out the most. But for me, the central reason this game had the most impact is its narrative, which gave me with a lot to think about. I really want to avoid spoiling it for those interested in checking it out, but there are moments in this game that may be some of the best I’ve experienced in any game.

Despite being a silent protagonist, I found myself pretty attached to Robin and ultimately felt bad for her throughout. She is often thrown into situations and given no choice to make tough decisions that lead to outcomes that are out of her control, yet she becomes the easiest person to blame when things go wrong. Despite this, she carried on, knowing just how hard it would continue to be. Like Madeline in Celeste, I found myself rooting for her throughout her journey and felt truly empowered when I, through Robin, was able to make a meaningful impact in a world that seemed to have lost all hope. I’m still in shock that this is the game had as much of a profound impact on me as it did, but here we are.

The original Ni no Kuni was a favorite of mine the year it came out, but it had a lot of issues. Ni no Kuni II, on the other hand, improves upon the original game in almost every way, providing my favorite RPG experience of the year. This is an upbeat game that shined a pure, joyful ray of light on me that left me in such a great mood days after the credits rolled.

While Dragon Quest XI had my favorite cast of characters in an RPG this year, I still think more fondly about the characters in Ni no Kuni II primarily thanks to Evan. I found his unrelenting optimism even when presented with the gravest of circumstances to be inspiring. He made friends no matter where he went, even turning his former enemies into allies, which I couldn’t help but find endearing. It made every battle, every side quest, every minute I explored this vast world that much more enjoyable just knowing that I was working with Evan on achieving his ultimate goal of world peace.

In many ways, Evan’s ambition is that of a child’s fantasy and I kept waiting for it to fall apart. I was expecting the dramatic turn which lead to him “growing up” and realizing that he couldn’t do it, at least not as originally intended. Maybe it was the pessimism I brought in from the real world that affected me, but I had a feeling it would hit go south. But Evan kept on going, even when he hit roadblocks, and found a way to continue to work towards a dream that many people, myself included, expected to see fail. What does that say about me?

In many ways, that’s why I appreciated having Roland there, a character literally transported from an entirely different world, one not entirely unlike ours, to help Evan achieve his goal. Roland, as the player surrogate, never had doubts that Evan could do it, and if he did, he hid them for the sake of Evan’s vision. And this optimism persisted with every new character who joined his quest, with each new story beat somehow managing to charm me even more than I thought was possible.

I found myself unable to stop playing, continuing to grow Evan’s kingdom, explore the many corners of the world and fight endless hoards of monsters (which never grew old thanks to the game’s excellent battle system). It wrapped itself around me and refused to let go, and I couldn’t be happier.

More so than any other game this year, Spider-Man provided me the most pure joy from simply playing it. As explained by basically everyone else already, the swinging mechanics are immensely satisfying. I never grew tired of traversing through New York and almost never used fast-travel. From the moment you have full control to the time the credits roll, I couldn’t wait to just swing around the city again. It’s exhilarating in a way few other open-world games are, including previous Spider-Man titles.

This led me to doing just about everything the game had to offer. Was some of the side content repetitive after a while? Certainly, I do wish there was a little more variety, but that didn’t stop me from mopping up about 90% of what that game had to offer. It helps that the combat kept me on my toes and was often challenging. The comparisons to the Batman Arkham series are valid, but Spider-Man’s speed and variety of abilities made it feel fresh. The boss battles in particular stood out as excellent demonstrations of Spider-Man’s abilities. Just like the swinging, I never grew tired of beating up baddies.

Despite all of these positives about the way Spider-Man plays, the story is actually what propelled this game to the top of my list. If not for the recently released Into the Spider-Verse, I would call this the best Spider-Man story I’ve seen since the Raimi films. By throwing you into Peter’s life well after he has become Spider-Man, it doesn’t bore you with the details you are already familiar with, only giving you glimpses of his history as a hero while primarily focusing on the present.

The characterization of Peter is excellent, but it’s everyone he surrounds himself with that I felt were handled the best. When Otto Octavius shows up, you likely have an idea of what’s going to happen with his character at some point, yet they still managed to surprise me and even make me empathize with him. Mary Jane, Aunt May, and even Miles Morales all get their moments as well, many of them stand-out as some of the best I’ve seen in any Spider-Man story. And I would be lying if I said certain moments in the narrative didn’t devastate me. As someone who grew up loving Spider-Man, the way the game wraps up came as a complete shock. I didn’t think they would go there, and they did.

My opinion on this will likely change, but at this moment, here at the end of 2018, I can easily call this the best superhero game I’ve ever played. The story is emotionally resonant and fully invested me from beginning to end, the gameplay features the most refined version of traversal and combat I’ve ever seen in a game of its kind, and it just put a big old smile on my face throughout. If that isn’t worthy of praise, I don’t know what is.

More so than anything else on this list, Wandersong is the game I needed the most in 2018. I’m honestly getting emotional just thinking about this joyous and colorful little experience that had the biggest impact on me this year. It taught me that despite how messy and fucked up everything is, there is a reason to go on. It may seem impossible at times, but I know I have to keep going. No other game, or piece of media, gave me that feeling the same way Wandersong did.

The main character, a simple bard from a simple village (who I ended up naming Burg for no particular reason) finds out that the world is ending, and despite his best efforts, he is constantly reminded he is not the chosen one destined to save everyone. Everything is slowly falling apart around him, yet wherever he goes, he brings with him confidence and his greatest weapon: the power of song. No matter where you go and who you interact with, you can sing to your heart’s delight. It may sound corny perhaps, but boy was this game such an uplifting experience.

As his journey continued, he met numerous friends along the way, all dealing with their own personal struggles. While Burg wasn’t always able to help, he could at least put a smile on their faces and remind them of everything worth living for. Sometimes his positive attitude and love of song irritates folks, including Miriam, a young witch journeying along with him, who finds his constant positivity in the face of utter destruction to be grating. He even screws up along the way, stumbling from time to time, occasionally feeling like nothing he does matters. But there is always a reminder that what he’s doing, regardless of the outcome, is important. Even grumpy Miriam, a character I grew to adore most of all, is singing along with the cheerful bard’s song by the end of the game.

The writing and the way its presented is so clever; it never feels like it’s trying too hard. Each character, even the NPCs with the smallest roles to play, all have a ton of personality that it’s hard not to love, or at least appreciate, every one of them. Whenever I entered a new town, I couldn’t wait to see who I would meet and how Burg’s journey would impact them. The music, a soundtrack that rivals Celeste as my favorite of the year, is as delightful as the rest of the game and helps elevate the material to something even greater.

At the end of the day, the bard, the protagonist of this story, doesn’t have many talents. He often faces great danger and there are many points where it seems impossible for him to succeed. What could he do? How could he possibly help, much less stop things from getting worse than they are? Maybe he can’t, but he knows doing nothing isn’t the answer. He would sing to his heart’s content and then keep on singing. He wouldn’t let those who doubted him get in his way. He would even try to get them to sing, because he knew if they just gave it their best shot, they may find a reason to be hopeful too.

Wandersong is an experience unlike any other I’ve had this year or even the past several. It reminded me why I love games as an art form and honestly gave me reason to keep caring about…well, everything without shying away from the messiness that came along with it. Many games this year offered excellent distractions from the goings-on in the world, and for that I’ll always be grateful, but none of them inspired me more than this.

If you’re reading this now, give it a shot and see what you think! It may not resonate with you the same way it did with me, but if it makes you smile even for a moment, isn’t it worth it?