Dark Aether’s Top 10 Games of 2022
Salutations Internet dwellers and welcome to my 6th annual Game of Year Awards. For my regular readers, you may have noticed I decided to publish this one last rather than first this time — I had a lot to say about the anime one! Despite the extra allotted time I gave myself, I didn’t have too much trouble putting together my top 10 games on account of having a rather short list to begin with. Looking at my catalog, I want to say it was probably less than 15 games total, but probably no more than 20, and that’s counting every game I played/finished in 2022!
Dark Aether’s Top 10 Anime of 2022
“If you run, you gain one. If you move forward, you gain two.”
In the seven years I’ve been writing these lists, I think it’s fair to say 2022 was finally the year I accepted that I’m not getting any younger. I ache in places I didn’t before, I don’t sleep as well as I used to, and no matter how much time I carve out for myself and how much the medium advances, it no longer occupies the same portion of my brain where it once lived rent free. Not to say that I’ve lost my passion mind you. Rather, I carried it with me in other ways. I found new experiences both on the large and small screen, whether it was me in player 1’s seat or listening, reading or watching other people’s thoughts and analyses. I made time to catch up on familiar AAA franchises and dipped my toes into some fresh indies. Hell, I even went out and bought a gaming laptop, which greatly assisted with my last two articles!
While last year was rather uneventful gaming-wise personally, I’ve come to terms with my favorite hobby-turned-casual recreation, getting creative with my limited free time or letting myself be inspired through other content creator’s passions and thought-provoking words. If nothing else, I have a gaming laptop now, which brings me along to my most played games of 2022. For this list, I’ve loosened the rules to allow games that didn’t necessarily release in 2022, with re-releases and remasters being included if I’m playing it for the first time AND its being released on a new platform (see, casual!), with games of that year receiving higher ranking priority as the list goes on.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge
In starting this list, I was honestly debating putting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge as my number 10. Maybe it’s the IP or maybe I just had my fill of beat-em ups for a while given the genre has had something of a resurgence, but I never got the itch to go back and revisit it after the fact. Not for lack of trying either. I did two full playthroughs (including some repeat levels), loved the art and music direction, and overall had a very positive impression after the fact. In some ways, it feels like a natural evolution and an improvement on Dotemu’s previous work with 2020’s excellent Streets of Rage 4, a title which previously ranked in that year’s top 10. Perhaps I’ll give it a fresh playthrough and try the other characters, but until I’ve sunk more time into it, I can’t in good conscious put it on the main list yet.
Fire Emblem Heroes
Every year, I keep saying I’ll stop bringing up Fire Emblem Heroes, but then they just up and drop a Christmas Black Knight which I managed to pull for free, so I’m legally obligated to highlight it. Now for next year, will you remaster Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn Nintendo? C’mon, I know you want to…
And now for the top 10!
10. Ring Fit Adventure
From motion controls and touch-based software to third party attachments and other ridiculously shaped toys packed in oversized packaging, I’ve always had a soft spot for Nintendo’s experimental phase of weird games with unorthodox gameplay. Though I don’t look back at that era with any attachments or longing for a bygone era — my wallet certainly appreciates it — and the Nintendo Switch is doing quite well for itself with some of my favorite games from the last couple years, it does make me reflect on what made that junction in time special in the first place. The one two punch of Donkey Konga and Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and its Bongo themed controller. The excitement I felt with each new WarioWare game often boasting at least one new feature, if not being a showcase for Nintendo’s untapped potential and creativity. Whatever the hell the handle on the GameCube represents.
While the Switch is a unique piece of gaming hardware, it always felt like it could do more in providing unique experiences built around that architecture. Fortunately, the company never truly got out of the “weird” business, because in 2019, Nintendo released Ring Fit Adventure — a motion-controlled exercise themed RPG with a fitness ring and thigh strap designed with the Joy-Cons in mind. Believe me, I was dumbfounded when I opened the box, shocked that I went out of my way to buy it as I contemplated every possible excuse to return it and never talk about it again. But after a personal bet with myself to “exercise more,” I swallowed my pride and forked over the money.
Needless to say, I came away pleasantly surprised at the level of detail and attention at turning regular exercise into rewarding gameplay. In this turn-based RPG, you navigate a fantasy world equipped with a magical fitness ring to defeat the evil Dragaux. Staying true to its genre roots, you defeat enemies and level up, acquiring new attacks called Fitness Skills and growing stronger to prepare for your inevitable final showdown with the dragon. Despite having a clear endgoal, Ring Fit Adventure understands that fitness is about the journey, not the destination. Throughout the last couple months, the game provided small suggestions to make the most out of my sessions, often providing extrinsic rewards such as optional challenges, items and money, or reminding me to call it a day.
After a few weeks, my gameplay sessions became routine rather than dread, bringing balance to my work life as well as personal time once I started adding podcasts into the mix. Though I can tell you right now I haven’t become a demigod of fitness, I have started noticing some changes with my flexibility and muscle strength, particularly around my arms and legs. All in all, Ring Fit Adventure did the unthinkable, making exercise approachable through familiar game design and out of the box gameplay. If nothing else, I even started using my dumbbells again!
9. Neon White
Yes, I know, I can already tell I’ll be upsetting at least a couple of folks at how low I put Neon White, the stylish action/platformer/anime/card/shooter/parkour game from developer Angel Matrix. Given the almost universal praise, I’m not surprised it ended up on many peoples GOTY lists, if not their number 1 slot. Despite a few minor nitpicks, it’s hard to deny that Neon White is something special.
Playing as an assassin brought back to life to help heaven cleanup its demon infestation in a deadly battle royal, you play through a gauntlet of tightly designed stages as you navigate the otherworldly architecture in a race to beat the levels as quickly and efficiently as possible. To do that, you’ll collect limited use ability cards taking the form of traditional guns (handgun, shotgun, machine gun, etc.), each equipped with an alternate fire emphasizing movement (double jump, bomb, dash, and more). These special cards are the flavor to Neon White’s fast paced kinetic gameplay, encouraging mastery through level knowledge and repeated playthroughs to aim for the higher clear times. In short, it’s a game built around speedrunning, flexible enough for first-time completionists wanting to see the story while incentivizing returning players with additional medals and leaderboard ranks for those wanting a challenge.
Speaking of story, I suppose I should address what some might consider to be the most divisive element of Neon White. While I can’t be too hard on an independent studio, depending on your tolerance of “anime-isms,” your mileage is going to vary wildly. Speaking personally, the writing and dialogue can be very hit or miss, with some scenes ranging from comedy gold to plain groan inducing. Fortunately, most of the cast is well realized with protagonist White (Steve Blum) getting quite a few moments to shine. The narrative even manages to bleed into the gameplay and level design in addition to pacing the game out at the risk of levels becoming monotonous during longer sessions.
I do have two major gripes and it involves Neon White’s secondary objectives. Each level contains a secret gift that unlocks additional dialogue, as well as serving as a sort of endgame checklist to complete if you want to see everything the game has to offer. The problem is each of these is hidden in a way that is completely counterintuitive to what you’ve been learning. As a point of reference, it reminds me of the platforming sections in 2D Sonic games. When you are forced to slow down or stop moving, the game comes to a grinding halt as it forces you to hold onto cards or completely go off the intended path, making it impossible to grab the collectible and finish the level if you intend to do both simultaneously.
The rewards themselves aren’t anything to write home about either, unlocking additional dialogue between characters, as well as one additional secret. Unless you are invested in these characters or want to see the story in full — and depending on how you feel about the dialogue — there is not a whole lot of incentive to track these down outside of completionism.
That being said, Neon White’s primary gameplay loop and moment-to-moment sense of quickness and impact packs more than a few extra rounds to earn it your humble author’s recommendation. Whether it’s heaven or hell, Neon White delivers both in spades.
8. Marvel Snap
I feel a little weird putting this on my list for several reasons. First, I seem to have dropped off in the last month, because I haven’t felt the urge to log back in daily as I had during the game’s first few seasons. Second, there is the aggressive monetization built into the game’s economy, a fact that has become more evident as time has gone on despite not personally dropping a cent into it. Whether or not I continue with the game into 2023 remains to be seen, but for all its flaws, it’s hard to deny that Second Dinner crafted one of 2022’s finest video games with the fast paced, easily accessible card battler Marvel Snap.
For those unfamiliar, Marvel Snap is a digital deck building game based around the ever-present Marvel universe. Tossed into a short tutorial upon launching the game for the first time, it teaches you the basics of its game structure and mechanics. You build a deck of 12 cards with various costs (the amount of energy required to play), power levels (what you need to win), and special abilities, if any. Cards are played each round on a set of three locations with their own additional rule thrown in to spice things up. Whoever has the most power at each location and has the most locations under their control at the end of the game wins. In addition, the game allows you to “Snap” at just about any moment in the game, enticing players to raise the stakes by betting in-game ranking units called cubes to further up the tension.
As you accumulate new cards with their own energy, power, and unique playstyle, often taking inspiration from said Marvel hero or villain, new possibilities open. Some characters like Wolverine regenerate when they are destroyed, immediately being played again at a random location. Others like Colossus cannot be altered, destroyed or moved once played. Then there are what I like to call the “homewreckers” like Hobgoblin who start with a negative power level and move into your opponent’s side on reveal or everyone’s favorite Wong who can play on reveal card powers twice.
Almost every card has at least one counter, and that’s not counting the location effects which can heavily alter strategies such as extending the game an additional round or give each player a random card, adding another layer of strategy and luck without ever feeling completely one sided. This effectively makes each new game feel distinct even when using the same deck, rewarding knowledge and effective use of card abilities, positioning and when to activate or combine cards to set up some devastating comebacks.
Then there’s the Marvel factor. Suffice to say, Marvel aficionados and casuals alike will find a lot to like about Second Dinner’s take on the universe, drawing from the company’s rich pool of iconic characters, as well as more than a few deep cuts for those who have been here longer than most. From the signature discovery entrance reveal whenever a new card you haven’t seen yet is played to the sound and animations used for each individual card before and after being played, it is clear the developers at Second Dinner have a lot of love and passion for these characters, incorporating their personality and charm on a visual and mechanical level.
With some of the quickest, pick-up-and play gameplay combined with one of the most iconic IP on the planet, it’s no wonder why Marvel Snap became a hit. I’ve long since stopped keeping tabs on the amount of time sunken into quickfire matches and close calls, and while I don’t know if future seasons will retain the same fire as it did while I was still accumulating new cards, with the Marvel Universe continuing its growth in the public conscious, it’s only a matter of time before I inevitably get pulled back in — or find a really nice Variant card I like.
Originally released in 2021, Elechead made its debut on the Nintendo Switch the following year, and to coincide with my newly revised ruleset for this year, this charming indie platformer is the first title to be featured on this list. A throwback puzzle platformer with a very Game Boy inspired aesthetic, the small duo of developer NamaTakahashi and composer Tsuyomi crafted a minimalist and mechanically rich experience that managed to stick with me long after uncovering all its secrets during a rather uneventful summer weekend.
Playing as the robot Elec, you jump, platform and solve puzzles using your electrically conductive body to power devices. Once you learn how to throw your head, the puzzles become more intricate, challenging players through a combination of reflexes, memory and some out of the box thinking utilizing your small toolset. Simply put, Elechead gets a lot of mileage from its primary mechanic despite the short runtime.
Whereas most games simply add new tools overtime, Elechead sticks firmly to its primary mechanic (with one exception I’ll let you discover), slowly increasing the difficulty by introducing new obstacles and clever uses of the on/off switch. Not factoring in the endgame/100% route, it goes to show the power of creativity can stretch interesting mechanics as opposed to simply adding new tools and only using them a small number of times or in a few featured areas (cough, Ubisoft, cough).
For being a small project, I was pleasantly surprised that a narrative was incorporated given the limited scope. It’s no grand epic by any means, but by the time I reached the endgame, I’ll just say that in terms of breaking new ground in some of the usual well-worn tropes of video games, there is a strong case that ElecHead more than qualifies as a candidate of discussion when it comes to impactful choices in video games.
To say nothing of the game’s visual appeal and excellent sound design, not to mention the electrifying (pun intended) 8-bit themes incorporated throughout. It’s not often I think about sound design beyond the occasional footsteps in video games or moments of quiet while up and about, but there is a particularly satisfying mechanical feel about Elechead’s clicks and beeps that toes the line between retro inspired with a modern touch up. It’s hard to explain, so if you haven’t already, give Tsuyomi’s score and listen for yourself.
As I’ve said many times before, platformers are my bread and butter, and Elechead just might be my new favorite in a long time. A shining example of the indie space, positively charged with plenty of juice to spare — just don’t lose your head.
6. Into the Breach: Advanced Edition
Sometime last year, I took a small trip down to the East coast. While I was largely away from my desk enjoying the sights and avoiding getting sea sick, I had a lot of downtime in between waiting for transportation. On our first airport stop, I was digging through my luggage when I remembered I had downloaded Into the Breach on my phone. Thinking I’d never have time for it, I fired it up, trying to recall where I had left off. Fast forward a day or two and I had completed my first run. And then another. And the next one. And the next one. And the next…
While the actual trip was a mostly positive experience — excluding my complete lack of sleep — I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Into the Breach on this list, the 2018 indie strategy game that recently made its way onto mobile devices via Netflix and to coincide with the release of the newly expanded Advanced Edition. For this entry, I’ll be mostly focusing on the base game as this was my first time experiencing it (yeah, I know, filthy casual).
Played on a turn-based grid, you control three mechs in an ongoing war against an advanced alien lifeform known as the Vek. While the mechs are powerful, the strategy layer is limiting the amount of collateral damage including civilians and the power grid required to operate the mechs. Failure to maintain enough makes it difficult to progress, eventually leading to an untimely demise and — spoilers (not really) — reboots one of your pilots to another timeline, effectively starting the cycle all over. Yep, it’s a roguelike.
As you cycle into the next timeline over and over again, you gain new pilots, accumulate weapons, learn to position yourself, use the environment to your advantage, and die all over again, taking that experience and knowledge with you once more into the next jump. Even as I got better at completing the side objectives to ensure more credits and rewards at the end of each island, the game always seemed one step ahead of me, throwing one more curve ball such as a difficult boss encounter or, as was often the case, putting me in the difficult position of making a sacrifice in order to play the long game. Forget save scumming and playing perfectly because Into the Breach takes no prisoners, always asking the player to weigh their options and roll the dice.
War is hell and when the doomsday clock is always looming over your head, Into the Breach asks to what end will you go to stop the Vek? Clearing it for the first time during my break, there was a certain catharsis of fulfilling the final mission, and then going back to it with a new squad, eager to clear the game more efficiently. New mechs, new strategies, new choices, what else can I say but here we go — once more Into the Breach.
5. God of War: Ragnarok
Yeah, I know, another polished big budget action game and sequel to a long running franchise, a tested case of “been there, done that.” In my defense, I didn’t make a list for 2018, which is likely where I would have awarded God of War (2018) as my GOTY, so consider this to be my makeup for that missing year. Having just completed the story earlier this month, I’m still processing my thoughts on the experience. While I can’t with 100% confidence say that God of War Ragnarok surpasses its predecessor, it paints a very interesting portrait on the series legacy and what it might mean for it moving forward.
Taking place shortly after the events of the 2018 title, you once again play as Kratos and his son Atreus as they prepare for Ragnarok’s arrival. But as Odin and Thor arrive at their doorstep, it seems fate and destiny have deemed once again that conflict is inevitable — or is it? Yes, you still mow down enemies with the axe, the twin blades and eventually a third weapon, all of which still feel incredibly good so swing with reckless abandon. You still solve environmental puzzles and listen to far too many random conversations because the game can’t let you enjoy a moment of silence. And yes, the game makes it clear that this is a story driven game, so enjoy those high quality cinematic cutscenes because this is a Sony game and you know what you signed up for. The bigger question is what does Ragnarok add to the table to differentiate itself?
The answer is “not much, really.” Though that might come off as a negative, the thing is GOW (2018) was very much a proof of concept as it was a continuation of the Ghost of Sparta’s previous adventures, and while I greatly enjoyed the 2018 reboot, it was still finding its identity (and the next loading screen). Rather than reinvent the wheel, Ragnarok improves and refines its existing systems. Enemy variety is greatly expanded. Combat options feel more tailored to fit multiple playstyles. Environmental storytelling is given a lot more oomph to fit the larger open world structure. And the camera — actually, that still sucks!
(Editor’s note: seriously, what is it with these AAA games and their fixation on the “ass cam?” At least pull back the camera a little further so I can see what’s on screen!)
Though I’ve always disliked the opinion that the rebooted GOW “redeems” or diminishes the previous trilogy, Ragnarok takes a very ambitious path with regards to its overarching theme of predetermined fate, and while I can’t talk about the story in detail here, the way it frames it calls back to a time when the series took a stab at it previously before arriving at a wildly different conclusion. Having just seen the ending myself, it’s a fascinating dichotomy and a more rewarding experience when you have the context of Kratos’s previous adventures, building on the franchise’s deconstruction of myth through its fixation of prophecy and fate.
Adding in some of the most realized characterizations of old and new characters with some of the finest acting performances in the medium, God of War Ragnarok does not completely erase the ghost of its past. Instead, it engages it, telling a beautifully provocative story about letting go — to lead by example and be better for the next generation.
Lately, there’s been a recent trend among a certain crowd of gamers that like to glorify other titles by knocking down their inspirations. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with punching up (they can take it) or making a clear comparison for the sake of comprehension, but too often I hear the words “Zelda-killer” or “Soulslike, but playable” in a vainglory attempt to elevate newer titles to their stature. There are two fundamental problems with this approach: 1) it demonstrates a misunderstanding of what made those inspirations great in the first place and 2) it undermines the “uniqueness” newer titles that may have something meaningful to say or add to the conversation.
Though I’ve played through a lot of Zelda/Soulslike inspired games of varying quality, the issue I inevitably come across is they overemphasize one aspect, usually the combat, difficulty or the setting. When I think of Zelda or Soulsborne games, the first things that come to mind are level design, exploration and sense of discovery, progression, and yes, fantasy and adventure, which brings me along to Tunic. Developed by Andrew Shouldice, Tunic is described as inspired by “certain classic triangle-seeking games” as well as a homage to games of that era where information was still gleamed from the instruction manual and word of mouth.
Like its inspirations, there’s a sword, a shield, magic, items and a dodge roll with an overarching goal of finding three divine items. If you’ve played one of these, you know the drill, so let’s get to the good stuff. Whereas Soulsborne games used elevation as a part of its world building and level design, Tunic does much of the same through perspective. Using an isometric view, locations and far away vantage points often appear impossible to reach at first glance. Through some lateral out of the box thinking, you’ll quickly gain a third eye, repeatedly questioning your surroundings until you take a second glance at it and realize “huh, so these areas are connected.” And when you gain access to a few more traversal items, then the world truly begins to open, revealing even more secrets in areas you previously thought were simply decorative.
It’s this drip feed of discovery that paves the way for Tunic’s most recognizable achievement, and that is its in-game manual — or what’s left of it. That’s because it’s up to you to find the missing pages and decipher the content, often leaving the next destination for the player to uncover for themselves. There is a nice balance between leaving subtle cues and obvious signposts, ensuring that the next objective is not too far out of reach without completely giving it away altogether, empowering the player to problem solve and think about the larger picture before arriving at that next “aha!” moment.
To give you a quick example, I almost went into the first major boss area without ever finding the shield. It was only when I brute forced my way through one clearly out-of-my-level area that I had no way of clearing without a certain item that I stopped and thought to myself “this game is getting really hard now. I should have a shield by now.” So, I did the thing I probably should have done sooner and consulted the map in what felt like the millionth time, muttering something under my breath before returning to one of the starting areas. I won’t go through the step-by-step process of how I eventually came across it, but when I did find it, it was an eye-opening moment and I was all like “damn, that was actually pretty good.”
With its pop-up aesthetic, wonderful art style and electronic, progressive, and ambient based soundtrack, Tunic is more than another riff on the classic and contemporary spin on the popular adventure genre — it is a playful yet cunning fox.
3. Kirby and the Forgotten Land
My first introduction to Kirby started with the classic 1999 Super Smash Bros. Having received the game second hand, I quickly became obsessed with this unusual fighter, spending nights going through the single player and far too many local matches with company, before eventually turning to my attention to the characters not of the Mario universe. Incidentally, it was around that time that I would be introduced to Kirby proper with the release of 2000’s Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, a game that for a time was one of my favorites of the Nintendo 64 library (Checkerboard Chase is still the best). After that, I pretty much jumped into full blown Kirby-mania. I watched the anime, I played the GBA games and spin offs, and I even picked up Super Star Ultra on the DS, a remake of the game often cited as the best entry of the series.
And then…. Nothing.
Either I was asleep under a rock or had other things on my mind, but Kirby and I never really hung out much afterwards, beyond the occasional Super Smash Bros. entry as time went on. Maybe I lost interest or simply couldn’t justify the price given my limited funds now that I was old enough to buy my own games at the time. Perhaps I had simply “outgrown” the franchise because of the difficulty. Clearly, something had changed, and we were at different points of our careers. I was working through college and figuring out “adulthood” while Kirby was trying different things on the 3DS. I began working for real and earning my paychecks, Kirby continued to go on new adventures and adding more friends than I care to list — several, in fact. Somehow, we never crossed paths until one fateful day Nintendo dropped an ambitious first look at the next Kirby game. Suddenly, my curiosity turned to interest.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land comes at a very interesting point for both the series and myself. A fresh take on the franchise following up on the excellent reimagining of Mario, Zelda and Metroid, Forgotten Land arrives as we enter the Nintendo Switch’s supposed twilight years (I think?), as well as my own on strange journey as a writer over the last few years. After taking my leisurely time with the game over the course of January this year, it has given me a new perspective of what I value on a critical and personal level. Though I wouldn’t call it a complete reinvention, HAL Laboratory aimed to cater to the largest demographic possible, presenting a decadent array of delights under an avalanche of sweetness.
Like its 2D forebears, you play as the titular Kirby, navigating linear levels and sucking up enemies to absorb their powers. Despite the impressive 3D visuals and movement, its formula should sound familiar if you’ve played any Kirby game in the past. Forgotten Land is no exception, though it throws a few extra scoops of ice cream flavors on top of the already stacked sundae, with the biggest addition being Mouthful Mode. Not unlike Super Mario Odyssey’s transformations, Mouthful Mode adds additional inputs and abilities to Kirby’s arsenal, completely changing the gameplay layout and adding in several spicy challenges, including some devilishly designed puzzles and combat scenarios.
Of course, this is still a Kirby game, so difficulty never becomes an issue aside from the optional post-game content. As you progress, you can level up copy abilities incentivizing exploration and side challenges to further evolve power ups. There is a nice level of progression here — you play the levels to find the blueprints and do the challenges not only to earn the currency needed to upgrade but learn how to better utilize those newly acquired powers. Late in the game, Forgotten Land is still introducing new scenarios, presenting opportunities to use powers in ways that wouldn’t come up during normal play. For returning players, it’s a fun way to experiment with pre-established powers while throwing in some speed bumps (look out for Carby!) while escalating the difficulty for those wanting to see and do everything Forgotten Land has to offer.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land is a nostalgic homecoming, paving the way for one of the strongest entry points in the franchise and a blueprint for what I can only hope will be future adventures. From its infectious opening song to the inclusion of a dedicated “Hi!” button, this 3D platformer won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
2. Vampire Survivors
Just on the precipice of completing arguably my biggest publication to date, I took the following Christmas for some down time and forget about work. With drink in my hand and a brand-new gaming laptop at the ready, I fired it up with hopes of filling my heart with the warm elixir of holiday cheer and warming my balls while the heater was being repaired! “So, what do you want to play first? A shiny new AAA video game to test the limits of your hardware? How about a popular online game for a more social experience? Perhaps that one title you missed out on a few years back?”
Vampire Survivors — it was Vampire Survivors.
Despite being keenly aware of its existence, somehow, I managed to avoid virtually all of Vampire Survivor’s cultural zeitgeist, even as it started popping up everywhere from Xbox Game Pass to strong recommendations from almost every well-known gaming outlet. Even after it launched on mobile which I only found out in mid-December and began to accumulate GOTY nominations, it had still not entered my radar until I downloaded the mobile game. “Okay, I can see the appeal, but it’s still missing something. If only I could play this game on a system I own with an actual controller.” When Christmas weekend arrived, it finally dawned on me, “oh yeah, I have fucking gaming laptop!” One quick trip down the Steam page to open a new account and I was in, ready to bash some pixelated undead.
Part reverse bullet hell rougelite, part legally distinct “not Castlevania” survival horror, you select a monster hunter, accumulate weapons and hold out for about 30 minutes. On paper, this sounds like the concept for a cheap mobile game, which is funnier now that there is an official one available for free. Under a large publisher, it could have easily been constructed to fit the pay to win model, complete with loot boxes and other aggressive monetization models. Except it didn’t. For five bucks, you get the whole game, no questions asked. Unlock new characters and stages by playing the game. Level up through in-game currency which is rolled out by playing the game. Enjoy several layers of content, challenges and fun by playing the game.
At the risk of beating an undead horse, this is the kind of title that would have been sold at a premium or tweaked for an online service, but Vampire Survivors survived — pun intended — the meat grinder of the video game industry and simply billed itself as a “good ass video game,” easily carving away many nights and hours of my spare time, constantly challenging me to get better and progress a little farther through the various unlocks and cheeky commentary on tropes and the medium itself. Its straightforwardness and candid approach to gameplay complements its unabashed and whimsical fourth wall breaking, hiding additional secrets and other horrific monstrosities the further along you manage to survive the night.
For being a relatively modest game, developer Luca Galante cracked a large whip, injecting a lot of personality, strategy and most of all, fun into one package. Vampire Survivors enters the infinite corridor that is my 2022 game of the year list.
1. Elden Ring
200+ hours — a number that now haunts my dreams. It’s also roughly the amount of time it took me to finish Elden Ring, conquer every boss, complete every major milestone and view all four endings. Or perhaps it’s the accumulated time I spent after finishing the main campaign and getting the Platinum trophy, followed by another sweep of The Lands Between, squeezing in as much playtime as possible by with even more additional stories, other weapons I completely missed, and just taking in the sights and following wherever the wind sent me. To put it bluntly, calling Elden Ring my game of the year would be the biggest understatement of the millennium. It’s a goddamn masterpiece, and I’m here to tell you why.
For the uninitiated, Elden Ring is the latest game from the infamous From Software, the studio responsible for the ever-present Dark Souls series. Continuing their work of “extremely challenging games set in a dark and terribly grim fantasy world,” Elden Ring takes the next logical step in the formula, going open world for the first time on an epic quest to become the Elden lord.
Before I go any further, I suppose now would be a good time to properly explain my own relationship to the series. Here we go — Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and that’s it. Seeing people describe Elden Ring as an unofficial “Dark Souls 4,” I simply don’t have that frame of reference to compare. However, having cut my teeth to the final boss’s doorstep in Bloodborne and learning to “Ride the Lightning” and parry in Sekiro, I felt more than confident to tackle whatever From Software decided to chuck at me and bought the game at launch — and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.
There’s a term often used in the fighting game community often referred to as “player expression.” Now, I couldn’t tell you the first thing when it comes to fighting game meta, but in terms of customization, combat style and that personal touch, Elden Ring follows that principle to the letter, allowing for a depth of self-expression unseen in most open world game. Want to be a hulking tank with heavy armor and colossal weapons? You betcha! Prefer to fight from a distance using magic and sorcery? Go for it! Perhaps you favor a lighter assassin build using daggers and bows. If you can dream it, you can build it!
As for my own Tarnished, I went for a “Berserk” build, brandishing a colossal greatsword with the occasional dual wield or shield during tricky encounters, complete with a dash skill for speedy evasion. Overtime, I dipped into Intelligence, learning some basic support magic and a few ranged spells for extra versatility. It eventually paid off after acquiring two unique magic greatswords, one of which became my other primary weapon with its devastating secondary skill, or as I like to call it, the “back the fuck off” wave, which got me through most of the endgame, including possibly the hardest optional boss of the game!
Beyond the sheer difficulty and overcoming insurmountable odds is the other main attraction — exploring! Much like Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild, adventure and discovery are no more than a few steps away at any given moment, leaving the choice of direction in the player’s hands. No two adventurers will traverse the exact same route and encounter the same challenges in a specified order. Some might opt to brute force their way on the main path. Others might throw caution to the wind and travel to the far out reaches of the map, entering areas that are very much out of their league. And some might just go at their own pace, riding on horseback until something in the distance catches their eye as I often did for the first chunk of the game before returning to that forsaken castle!
Though From Software is notorious for building “very hard” games, there is something genuinely magical about Elden Ring and its approach to environmental navigation and narrative. It may not be for everyone, but only because it’s a game about anyone, and that accomplishment alone is legendary. Or so the shattered ring foretells:
The fallen leaves tell a story
Of how a Tarnished became Elden Lord.
In our home, across the fog, the Lands Between.
Our seed will look back upon us, and recall.
The Age of Elden Ring.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a wrap for my 2022 awards. Huge round of applause to all the nominees and a special thanks to everyone for being extra patient with me! I took an additional week off and realized I really needed the extra breather after the herculean effort I put into my previous list. My aim with this one was to be super casual, so most of it was written within the course of two days before editing and media. I don’t do game coverage as often as I used to, so being able to continue this tradition is something I still look forward to every year.
As always, hit me up in the comments. I’d love to hear your favorite games and recommendations I likely missed last year. Until next time, I will see you all in the next article.
Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can check his main writings on Medium, archives at TAY2, or follow him on Twitter @TheGrimAether. Not Dead Yet.
Arise now, ye Tarnished! (Previous Awards)
Dark Aether’s Top 10 Games of 2021
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Dark Aether’s Top 10 Games of 2019
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Dark Aether’s Top 10 Games of 2017
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