For the seventh year in a row, I’m published a roundup of every game I played in the past year. Last year, I experimented with going beyond the “one sentence” format; I felt it had become overly constraining, particularly since this has been my only substantial piece of game writing for the last few years (not counting Game Club). It worked out well, so I endeavored to stick to short notes again this year. But I went sort of crazy, and before I knew it I was churning out paragraphs on Final Fantasy XII. By the time I realized what I had done, it was too late; the gloves were off, and I proceeded to write about 13,500 words about this year’s spate of video games. That (and various life events) are why it’s so late this year.

Going forward, I will publish quarterly notes, to get myself back in the habit of games writing, to write about games fresher in my memory, and to avoid the massive burden that is throwing this together at the end of the year.

Crap. That means I have to immediately get started on the next part. Just…give me a little while, okay?

Legend

means I played the game to completion.

♥ marks it as one of my favorites of the year.

 

The Games

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

I played and loved the original Animal Crossing back in 2003, but played it to exhaustion. Coming to this much-hyped sequel fifteen years later, I was surprised–and disappointed–at just how narrowly it hewed to the same formula, with the new additions (mayorship) being pleasant but shallow, and much else being identical (down to the animal’s speech patterns, banal fetch quests, and hatefully small inventory limit). I feel this series can be so much more; but given that New Leaf was a huge critical and commercial success, I doubt Nintendo will be changing much up.

 

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

A finely-wrought Skinner box that allows a small amount of personal expression via Animal Crossing‘s patented furniture arrangement. This is basically the equivalent of eating a spoonful of sugar; you get a nice rush and want to eat more for a little bit, but ultimately something more substantive is desired. Plus, as usual, the F2P stuff is kind of gross (and unusually expensive).

 

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey √

My nomination for Most Overrated Game of the Year, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has featured on numerous Best of 2018 lists by virtue of its obvious strengths. It features an enormous, immaculately detailed rendition of Ancient Greece, which strikes a lovely balance between the historical and the mythological. The movement across this world is effortless, and in an alternate universe in which nonviolent games make big money, it could be the basis for a fantastic “exploration and storytelling” game.

Instead, the only form of interaction with the immaculate detailed world is murder & looting (with no actual mechanics for looting beyond “hold a,” so really just murder). This has always been the albatross around the series’ neck, but Odyssey‘s addition of RPG elements, sidequests, and dialog choices exacerbates the issue, because things like “quest design” and “believable character motives” are severely hampered by the core design loop of having your character murder a billion people for money (that you don’t even need past the early game). As a result, the sidequests aren’t merely uninspired or frequently nonsensical, they’re incredible repetitive, forced to build basic quest structures using the same limited building blocks. This game must have 20 different quests that boil down to “kill some sharks.”

There is a place in the world for map-clearing icon games in the Ubisoft mold, but I think they *have* to be systems-driven to work; any attempts at storytelling or role-playing end up nonsensical.

 

Aviary Attorney √ ♥

One of the most underrated games of the last few years, Aviary Attorney wears its influence in its title (the Ace Attorney series) but is significantly more ambitious and interesting than its forebears. Ace Attorney established a pleasant, if occasionally maddening, formula and then refused to deviate from it in the slightest throughout its many games. Aviary Attorney, on the other hand, manages to significantly change things up in its short running time, producing a haunting, thoughtful exploration of injustice within the justice system, and the benefits (and drawbacks) of a law-driven society. It’s also one of the funniest games I’ve played in years.

 

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit √

This free, standalone prelude to Life is Strange 2 embodies all the strengths and flaws of the original; for my money, that’s a lot more good than bad, since I think Life Is Strange‘s take on “the new graphic adventure” is better than latter-day Telltale’s. This is a series that knows how the “look at” verb can be used for worldbuilding and fleshing out the player character, and does so with aplomb. Captain Spirit continues the focus on children (in this case, a pre-teen) and is unusually good at getting into the headspace of a kid. The flaw is a continued tropiness, a tendency to contrast the grounded worldbuilding with soap-opera plots and stock side characters (in this case, the Alcoholic Dad). If you can deal with that, it’s worth playing.

 

Aye, Fair Lady! √ ♥

This short game jam entry by Charlotte Gore is easily the best video game musical I’ve played (though they are few and far between), and–combined with Yorkshire Gubbin‘s free tutorial, ‘verb school’–is my now my go-to pick for introducing people to point-and-click adventures. I have the ending song on my annual playlist, which is saying something.

 

Back to the Future: The Game √

Back to the Future: The Game is a halfway success; the love for the source material comes across in each of its five episodes, Christopher Lloyd gives a genuine performance rather than phoning it in, and the soundalike for Michael J. Fox is fantastic. But everything else feels half-baked, rushed and underfunded. The core “set” for the game is dull as dishwater and reused ad nauseam; narrative logic and character motivations are constantly subverted in pursuit of creating roadblocks for the player to overcome; and the Telltale Tool was already showing its age in a big way even when this released in 2010. Back to the Future: The Game isn’t terrible—the puzzles are competent and occasionally inspired, the pacing is solid—but it’s the most skippable of all of Telltale’s “classic” adventure games, and is a real step backwards compared to the brilliant heights of Sam & Max Season 3.

 

The Banner Saga 3 √ ♥

A shrine to the design philosophy of Choice and Consequences, the third act in the Banner Saga trilogy is the slimmest, and yet in some ways the most accomplished. Every designer knows that a series of mutually-exclusive branching choices will produce exponentially more options the farther on you go; essentially all games solve this either by limiting your choices, isolating each branch such that most choices don’t affect each other (e.g. sidequests), or using smoke and mirrors to make it seem like the game is responding to your choices.

By and large, The Banner Saga rejects these easy solutions and does the incredibly hard work of respecting the player’s previous decisions, from the major (which characters are still alive?) to the minor (respecting the stats/level/abilities of every character through all three games, rather than doing any “reset” like other RPG series do). The relative shortness of the final chapter is an inevitable side effect of the developers having to make many, many permutations of the final chapter, and it makes what’s there all the more satisfying. This is my Banner Saga, my triumphs and mistakes, and no one else’s.

I did find the third Banner Saga 3 slightly underwhelming because, after three games worth of sustained, subtle mystery, it does an all-explaining lore dump about five minutes before the end. This can only be the result of the designers realizing they had too many loose threads and not enough time to resolve them. It’s a disappointment, but it makes up for it with a lovely epilogue. Altogether, The Banner Saga is probably my favorite game series of the decade.

 

Battlefield 1 √

The episodic single-player defaults to being an unexpectedly open stealth-action game with inconsistent vehicle sections mixed in (great tanks and horses, brain-dead air combat). It’s the first DICE single-player to really embrace the open-ended absurdities that define Battlefield multiplayer, and so it’s consistently fun, though it’s weighed down by tonally incongruous narratives that simultaneously mix classic war film heroics with the emphasis that World War I was really terrible and was not a ground for heroics (this is further undermined by the inexplicable decision to only show the Allied Powers perspective).

Multiplayer is honestly as good as anyone could reasonably expect a WW1 Battlefield game to be; it has mechanics and level design that emphasize both the war’s particularities (trench warfare, artillery, general meatgrinder feel), as well as the enormous technological advancement and experimentation (in how to kill people) that happened over the course of the conflict. The progression mechanics aren’t particularly intrusive ,and nothing of great import is gated far in; it’s almost all sidegrades, and so avoids the pitfalls of e.g. Battlefront 2, where new players face veterans whose greater experience is propped up by being more powerful in absolute terms.

I’m Getting Too Old for these massive deathfests, but some part of me still appreciates the sandbox of possibilities, even as the popular lean towards authenticity makes me question just how much I want to spend my free time simulating the horrors of war.

 

BATTLETECH √

A satisfyingly faithful rendition of the classic miniatures games, Battletech does the hard work of selling the weight and inertia of Battlemechs while sticking to the isometric camera necessary for tactical wargames. Battletech has solid rules, and makes all the right decisions in terms of translating them to the PC; it’s crunchy, highly replayable, and just varied enough that it doesn’t get tiresome. The tutorial leaves out key information*, but does allow the player to quickly take the role of a free-roaming mercenary company, paying the bills, salvaging new ‘mechs, and pushing forward the just-good-enough story (which has consistently varied, thrilling missions, and also features what is probably the most ethnically diverse cast to ever appear in a strategy game).

It is not without issues. The early game can be brutal in terms of funding your operation and avoiding bankruptcy. Missions could use more variety. And despite a solid effort to make lighter ‘mechs fill a distinct role, the late game ultimately favors assault ‘mechs (just like all the Mechwarrior games). Pleasingly, it has sold well enough that Paradox bought the developer (Harebrained Studios), and I suspect we’ll see many more ‘mech games to come.

(*This has either already been fixed in a patch or is getting fixed shortly in the future, FWIW)

 

Cultist Simulator

Cultist Simulator is the most interesting, evocative idle game ever made; unusually, it contains absolutely no tutorial, and so most of the game is figuring out what exactly you’re trying to do, and what mechanisms are available to you to do it. It’s brilliant and frustrating in equal parts. On one level, it’s about arranging cards on a table and combining tags, Fallen London style; on another, it’s an exploration into the unknown. But it’s also a highly repetitive grind, as it’s a classic roguelike where little progress carries over; as with its forebears, it’s the players knowledge that improves future attempts, not statistical advantages. Like with Sunless Sea, at some level this feels contrary to the design; this is a narrative experience, and while the best roguelikes present continuously novel challenges through randomized levels and obstacles, Cultist Simulator and Sunless Sea require you to repeat, more or less, the exact same processes to get back to where you were.

I will return to this, and finish it, when the free DLC is finished fleshing out the game, and someone has modded in a mid-game save.

 

The Curious Expedition

This is a hex-tile exploration in the vein of early game Civilization, but as a surprisingly challenging roguelike. Like many roguelikes, it requires time investment to reap its rewards; I have yet to make that investment, and so have bounced off so far.

The gaming world has a great need for turn-based strategy games you can play in 15 minutes, though.

 

Darkest Dungeon

I finally got around to playing Darkest Dungeon thanks to the new Radiant mode, which significantly reduces the game’s grind without actually lowering the difficulty. Given that it’s *still* pretty grindy, I can’t imagine playing it its original form.

I quickly learned that, underneath all the Gothic artwork and Lovecraftian horror, Darkest Dungeon is basically a JRPG with procedural generated dungeons, permadeath, and an unusually deep (but not over complicated) battle system. This is not a bad thing, and I think all can agree that no other game has done this better (sorry, Chocobo’s Dungeon 2) but I drifted away because Darkest Dungeon is a game about engaging in the same core loop over and over and over, and I didn’t find it *quite* compelling enough. Maybe I’ll play again in a year when I’m not drowning in turn-based combat?

 

The Darkside Detective

I only just started this game in the last week of December, so it’s listed here as a technical inclusion. Full write-up next quarter!

 

Deltarune

I’m a big fan of Toby Fox; I don’t know of any other developer who has seen their solo-designed game become a smash hit with a disturbingly intense fanbase, and then correctly describe that same game as “about an 8/10 niche, RPG game.” I found Undertale charming and at times brilliant, but it didn’t really stick with me, and Deltarune just didn’t grab me as of yet. I plan to finish it in 2019, so perhaps I’ll write more then; but really it’s just the first few hours of an incomplete game, so maybe I won’t have much to say.

 

Dishonored 2 √

If Arkane’s Prey was the best iteration of the System Shock immersive sim, than Dishonored 2 succeeds, more modestly, at being the best unofficial follow-up to Thief. Dishonored 2 expands on the first game with significantly more non-violent options and more varied levels, often mirroring the heist format employed in Thief 2. It never quite manages to translate its evocative landscapes into a story worth telling, but taken as a series of sandbox levels, it’s the best stealth game since Thief 2, and will likely remain untopped for some time.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition–Trespasser √

Trespasser is a very good follow-up to Inquisition that satisfying ties up story threads and gives the player some solid, varied combat encounters, as well as featuring some genuinely heart-wrenching (but justified, never cheap) consequences to the player’s choices. Yet it didn’t quite stick with me, simply because Inquisition was always a game that suffered from too much content, and by the end of the third substantive DLC, I was ready to move on.

 

Drunken Robot Pornography

Dejobaan Games has always used flash and humor to paper over some looseness in the design–A Reckless Disregard for Gravity remains the only mechanically tight game they’ve made–and Drunken Robot Pornography is no different. It’s a fun and charming bullet-hell game with levels that can be beaten in a couple minutes, but most people who enjoy bullet hell games will look for something with fewer cheap deaths, and people who don’t will flame out early on (like I did).

That said, the main menu song is a delight, and almost worth the price of admission alone.

 

Endless Space 2

Endless Space 2 tries to take the many innovations of Endless Legend and bring them back to the Endless Space series; on many levels, this succeeds, but it’s more vanilla than one would expect, and (in the one playthrough I’ve done) suffers from an eternal endgame worse even than an older Civilization title. Special mention should go to Flybyno’s soundtrack; he is one of the best, unsung composers work in games today.

 

Epistory: Typing Chronicles ♥

Without a doubt the best typing game ever made, in both senses. As a typing tutor, it uses sharp adaptive difficult to ensure that people of all typing levels can play it, enjoy it, and be pushed towards greater precision and speed. As a game, it’s a simple but clever Zelda-like, complete with puzzle dungeons and an ever-expanding overworld. The occasional “horde attack” mode can be more grueling than ideal, but overall I recommend this highly, particularly for anyone who wants an actual typing game!

 

Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age √

Final Fantasy’s brand is built around a weird tension between conservatism (being a standard-bearer for the JRPG, arguably the most tradition-bound game genre) and novelty (every Final Fantasy reinvents itself to greater or lesser degrees). In retrospect, Final Fantasy X was the last of the of the truly traditional games; XII started a trend towards experimentation which was (and is) welcome, even if the results are often a mixed bag.

In brief: XII is structured as a single-player MMO (no doubt taking some inspiration from the actual-MMO Final Fantasy XI, which was in turn heavily based on Everquest) which is to say there are very large, not-particularly-detailed spaces where you can run around and fight monsters ad nauseum. Notably this means that FF XII does away with the separation between “field” and “battle” common to JRPGs.

This set-up points towards banality, but the game’s One Neat Trick is the Gambit system, which allows the player to program basic AI for their party using a ranked list of if-then statements, like “if enemy is weak to fire, cast Fira” or “if ally has less than 30% HP, cast Cure.” Intelligent use of the Gambit system enables the player to cut out the fat and not have to micromanage trash mobs…but in a game where fighting trash mobs is the majority of the run-time, this leaves the player without a lot to do.

It doesn’t help that FF XII is a *long* game with a plot that quickly loses steam, and only pops its head in on occasion–which is a shame, because much of what’s there is full of interesting ideas and nuanced characters (the game shares not only its setting but its politically-focused storytelling with the classic Final Fantasy Tactics). At the end of the day, you’re going to have to enjoy the sidequests, monster-hunting, and (generally well designed) dungeons. When this game came out in 2006, the grind was too much for me, and I petered out about 2/3rds of the way through.

The Zodiac Edition, released in 2017, has a bunch of key features (overhauled HD-ified graphics, a new-and-improved leveling system for party members), but it turns out that the most substantive one is a simple tweak that lets the player speed the game up by 2X or 4X at the press of a button. This single handedly changes the game from an interesting slog to a crunchy, enjoyable RPG; it lets you zoom through all the battles that your Gambits take care of, and slow down to real time only for boss fights and other important/interesting encounters.

I spent the many hours of my playthrough trying to determine whether this was damning (what does it say about a game’s original design when the player spends the majority of her playtime hitting the 2X fast forward, and it STILL feels a bit slow?) or brilliant (it’s a JRPG with the fat cut out, something the genre desperately needs and had heretofore only been provided by the Chrono series). It is, of course, both. After putting in a good 75 hours to finish it, I was glad I did so, but am confident I will never touch the thing again.

 

Final Fantasy XV √ ♥

I could probably spend more time talking about XV’s flaws than its strengths, but I kind of adore it. As with Final Fantasy XII, FF XV gets points for undertaking a substantial renovation of the franchise’s core and a concerted effort to break out of the JRPG mold. What came out is basically a male-bonding road trip, and for all that video games are dominated by dudes, this ends up being surprisingly distinct. Cruising down the highway while listening to classic Final Fantasy jams never got old, and these road trip elements (including the game’s famed and fantastic campfire cooking and automatically-captured photos) make this not just distinct from Final Fantasy, but from any other blockbuster game I’ve played.

As I said, it’s got a bundle of flaws; combat flows smoothly but is more brainless fun than anything approaching strategy, the narrative is ambitious but ultimately fractured and incomplete (presumably a result of the games’ record-nearing 12-year development), and the quest design is rote MMO “kill five rats” sort of stuff. I am not surprised that these things kill the game for many, and don’t blame them. But for me, one of the great appeals of video games is being transported to another world, and there are few places I’ve more enjoyed *hanging out* in  than the roadways of Final Fantasy XV.

 

Fire Emblem: Awakening √ ♥

When I played it from January to March of this year, Fire Emblem Awakening grabbed me and would not let me go. I’ve always enjoyed the light-RPG meets turn-based-strategy happenings of the series, but it preyed too much on my perfectionism; the permadeath system was overly punishing, and an extraordinary amount of micromanagement was required to see most character’s stories through. Awakening finally rolled out the red carpet of accessibility and gave an option to disable permadeath, opening the game up as a robust but non-threatening hybrid of tactical combat and…dating sim (you can hook up an enormous combination of characters, and there’s unique dialog for each relationship!). Like most JRPGs, the main story starts off generic-but-promising, and rapidly descends into drawn-out melodrama that had me rolling my eyes. But the character relationships are lovely, helped by a solid dose of humor; my favorite is Kellam, a massive, plate-armored knight who’s so reserved and unremarkable as to be literally invisible to every other character (hijinks ensue). It’s a prefect portable game for curling up on the couch and winter. I bought my 3DS for Animal Crossing: New Leaf, but it was Fire Emblem: Awakening that made me not regret it.

 

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright

This is one of those games I started in the final week of the year, so I can’t fairly give it a write-up; consider it a technical inclusion on my end-of-year list. More in 2019!

 

Framed

Framed is one those clever but lightweight designs that’s clearly best on mobile. A game developer I know once referred to touch as “the worst control scheme there is,” referring to the lack of precision and control available when your only input method is dragging your fat fingers on a small screen. Touch significantly limits the sort of games you can make.

Framed sees you change the position and orientation of comic book panels to change the order of narrative events; it explores the design space of these puzzles pretty thoroughly, without every becoming overly complex or fiddly.

And yet I saw it’s best for mobile because the narrative told is all style, no substance–little snippets that evoke noir tropes without actually saying anything; it’s a perfect fit for 5-minute chunks of play on the subway, but (for me) became tiresome when played for an extended period on a desktop computer.

 

A Golden Wake √

A Golden Wake takes a fascinating and underexplored setting (the Florida land boom of the 1920s) and simultaneously manages to explore and represent that setting while otherwise being aggressively banal. The player character is a rather dull salesman with a chip on his shoulder, and while an attempt is made to provide a larger character arc of sin and redemption, he (and by extension, the player) never manages to really act on his own accord; you just do what you’re told by various powerful men. A time shift about halfway through further derails the story into a more tropey, Prohibition-era gangster setting, and it never recovers. But it also displays genuine ambition in breaking the norms of adventure game setting and establishes the developer as “one to watch” (his second game, Shardlight, is discussed below; the newly released Lamplight City will likely be tackled in 2019).

 

Guild of Dungeoneering

A lovely “napkin sketch” art style and some cool ideas (building a dungeon with tiles, Carcassonne style, as your adventurer semi-automatically explores) give this some initial steam, but ultimately it’s an unusually grindy roguelike, where you must do the same simple, card-based combat and dungeon delving ad nauseum in the hopes of unlocking incremental upgrades that allow you to do the same thing again. If there were any surprises in store, they didn’t come fast enough.

 

Halcyon 6: Lightspeed Edition

Halcyon 6 is clearly a love letter to Star Trek, Master of Orion, XCOM, and basically all things strategic and space-faring. At a macro level, it’s lovely, with the right balance between earnestness and humor, and lots of ways to upgrade your space station (the titular Halcyon 6; basically Deep Space Nine). But the actual core gameplay loops are slow, repetitive, and grindy; I burnt out before I could finish a playthrough. It really is charming, though.

 

Hidden Folks ♥

Speaking of charming, Hidden Folks is sure to top a list of the most aw-shucks adorable games of all time. It’s a lovingly detailed, longform version of Where’s Waldo/Wally, in striking black and white, and playable by anyone age 3 and up. What elevates it is that 100% of the sound effects are acapella; the surfeit of ‘mouth sounds’ as you click on everything in creation should warm the heart of curmudgeons everywhere.

 

Hitman: Blood Money

I finally got around to playing this 2006 classic, long considered the height of Hitman games (whose clockwork murder puzzles constitute a genre unto themselves). The level designs absolutely hold up, and the sandbox complexity is ahead of its time. Yet the maddening control scheme–bad back in 2006–has aged terribly, leaving me fumbling objects and contextual controls more often than executing clever plans. Additionally, the “limited saves per level” is an understandable attempt to avoid save-scumming, but I don’t have the patience to play levels ad nauseum to execute the Perfect Crime. I was actually proud of myself when I stopped forcing my way through this Historically Important Game, and decided to just play the new Hitman Season 1 instead (next year!).

 

Kelvin and the Infamous Machine √

I really need to stop playing comedy adventure games endorsed by John Walker; as long time enthusiasts of Lucasarts graphic adventures, we really should be peas in a pod, yet inevitably he’s left cold by the adventure games I think are brilliant, and I’m unamused by the adventure games he thinks are hilarious. Surprise is a necessary part of humor; a joke you see coming a mile away, that you could have written yourself, is rarely funny. And despite occasional moments of inspiration, that’s pretty much every joke in Kelvin and the Infamous Machine.

Plus, I’m really tired of the Misanthropic Dude as protagonist; like all things, it can be done well, but most of the time I just loathe the character. In 2018, I have no time for even fictional toxicity.

 

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky √ ♥

I spent much of the ’00s searching, in vain, for JRPGs I liked as much as the ones put out by Square between 1997 and 2000, and I eventually all but gave up on the genre. In all this searching, I missed The Legend of Heroes: Trails in Sky–not surprising, since it was released exclusively in Japan in 2004. It turns out the developer/publisher, Falcom, largely originated the genre of JRPGs on Japanese PCs, and stubbornly remained dedicated to that platform even as the Nintendo Famicom and subsequent systems came to dominate Japanese gaming, leaving the PC as an obscure niche system primarily associated with visual novels and erotica.

While technically the upteenth title in the long-running Legend of Heroes series, Trails in the Sky is a stand-alone title (much like a given Final Fantasy), and on the surface, there isn’t a lot to make it stand out. The graphics are rudimentary even by 2004 standards (it tells you everything you need to know that this was later ported to the PSP, no downgrade required); the setting seems generic; and the combat is pretty standard JRPG fare. This is a conservative, retro iteration on the Japanese RPG, a genre that is inherently conservative and retro.

And yet I enjoyed Trails in the Sky more than any traditional JRPG I’ve played in the last decade. It’s hard to explain why without writing an enormous essay, but I think it’s a question of where the game puts its focus, and the expectations it sets for its audience. Other JRPGs of this era were focused on coming up with small gimmicks or twists that ever-so-slightly changed the JRPG formula, but didn’t really address the genre’s core problems. Some would create an interesting new battle system, and bury it under a mountain of terrible exposition; others told genuinely good stories, in small bits, sandwiched between endless random battles.

Trails in the Sky takes a different approach. It’s going to do all the things that JRPGs normally do, but do them well–not by the low standards of the genre, but by the broader standards of art. First and foremost, Trails in the Sky places emphasis on its script; there’s an enormous amount of dialog, and all of it is lively. This is a game that makes a lot of time for small moments, for different characters to bond, and for situational comedy; like Final Fantasy XV, the save-the-kingdom plot spends most of the time somewhere in the distance.

What’s more, an enormous amount of work goes into making the world of Trails in the Sky feel inhabited. In basically every JRPG, there are NPCs in towns, and they have sentence or two to say when you talk to them; they will say the same thing every time for the rest of the game. They’re window dressing that is best not thought about too much. But in Trails in the Sky, the “story” of NPCs advances alongside the main plot, such that you can continually revisit and observe dozens of mini dramas taking place in the towns and villages. I’m the sort of person who tries to view all narrative content in a game, but I quickly gave up here; there’s an overwhelming amount of it, and learning the life story of every grocer isn’t really the point. The effect is that even when the plot lurches toward generic conspiracies or Bad Things Happening, there’s a sense of weight to the proceedings; you have gotten to know the places and people affected so well.

The game also has plenty of combat, and a Materia-like magic system, all of which is solid and none of which is spectacular. Yet they don’t feel unwanted; you *need* a break from all the reading, combat goes very quickly, and it’s easy to avoid fights you don’t want to have. If you underlevel characters, they’ll quickly “scale up” to where they need to be, so you’re never tempted to grind.

Trails in the Sky is a comfortable return to form, and I’m delighted that Falcom has found a market for their games on Steam (the version I played was only released in 2014, ten years after its original outing). This title is part one of a two-part story, and it says something that I look forward to putting in another 40 hours on the sequel (and the fact that this ‘short note’ isn’t at all short).

 

Life is Strange: Before the Storm √

Life is Strange is a lovely game that stands on its own feet; you’re told everything you need to know about its characters’ pasts for the story to function, and any more would be exposition that dragged down the pacing and ruined the mystery. The last thing Life is Strange needed was a prequel; but it was an unexpected enormous financial success, and publisher Square Enix clearly wanted a game to ride its coattails before the original developers produced the inevitable follow-up.

So Before the Storm–a prequel set 3 years before Life is Strange, dedicating to exploring the backstories of characters who don’t need it–starts at a disadvantage. This is made worse by the fact that it’s the first game from a new developer, who almost certainly felt hemmed in by the expectations of the original’s rabid fans, and is more literally restricted by the predestined endings for all of the game’s primary characters. I don’t think it’s possible for a great game to come out of these circumstances.

So it’s high praise when I say that Before the Storm is a *good* game. It has the same excellent pacing as the original, using the “examine and talk” model of adventure games to create an experience that’s exactly as focused or meandering as the player wants. If you liked the original’s semi-fantastical (and yet relatable) approach to teen angst, then Before the Storm has got you covered. If it’s a bit too conservative, it never falls into outright fan service; and if it has a few broadly-written characters, or moments when the melodrama stretches suspension of disbelief, than it’s no more guilty than its predecessor. Overall, Life is Strange is an impressive performance from a new developer, and a cut above what fans should have reasonably expected.

That said: Until I played Before the Storm, I had never thought there was such a thing as too much musical montage. Before the Storm showed me the limit. I love musical montage, but it just gets silly here.

 

The Long Dark: Wintermute Redux (Episodes 1 and 2) √

The Long Dark is a survival game set in a frozen wilderness off the coast of British Columbia, and features an open-ended survival mode I have yet to touch. Instead, I played the two released episodes of Wintermute, a planned five-episode story mode that had its released episodes significantly remastered in response to a lot of critical feedback (while still iterating on the survival mechanics).

It’s mostly a success; the mise en scene is top-notch, which is vital for any game where you spend most of your time slowly trudging across the landscape. The survival mechanics straddle the right balance between modeling all the things you’d expect without getting too finicky, e.g. the game tracks the calories and ‘dryness’ of food but doesn’t get bogged down in nutrition. While the popularity of Minecraft has seen an explosion of games with survival elements, The Long Dark is one of the few to be focused entirely on it; there is no construction, and crafting is limited by virtue of limited resources.

On the standard difficulty, resources aren’t *that* scarce once you get past the opening, and so it’s primarily about being cautious and making hard choices about what you can carry. The Long Dark really brought out my hoarder tendencies–I ended up making a home base and stashing enough supplies to last the winter–but it’s smart enough not to reward that, as each episode forces you to move on to new territory with no more than you can carry (and in a few cases, less than that). My ‘waste not, want not’ conservatism led to a lot of ridiculous cases of me slowly trudging forward at 0.5 miles per hour weighed down with a caravan’s worth of good, taking literal hours to get home, though I got through a few Nick Drake albums while I was doing it. By the time I reached Episode 2’s conclusion, I had largely cured myself of the habit.

Finally, while the setting (the immediate aftermath of an unexplained phenomena that breaks all electronic devices, ala Dark Angel) is interesting, the dialog is painful, exposition and clumsy mystery with no real sense of characters as living people with inner lives. This would be a bigger issue if dialog made up more than 2% of the game; as it is, it’s just a missed opportunity.

 

Magic the Gathering: Arena (Beta) ♥

At this juncture, I’ve probably put more time into MTG: Arena than any other game this year. Here’s everything you need to do: it’s the first high-quality digital version of Magic, fixing the interface and timing issues that have long plagued the Duels games (and even more so Magic the Gathering Online, from what I hear). It has an unusually generous free-to-play model, a daring move from Wizards given the potential to be a cheap alternative to the incredible expense that is “paper Magic.” You get cards at a fast clip, and the rewards are heavily front-loaded, so even casual “a few games a week” players won’t be left in the dust. There are fun weekly events and special formats, and the developers have confirmed that they’re going to shortly create a system where you never get unusable extra cards, avoiding the pitfall of so many CCGs where finishing up your collection is near-impossible, as you get flooded with duplicates that you can “trade in” for peanuts (as in Hearthstone’s dusting mechanic). [Edit: as of February 2019 this system is in for rare and mythic cards, which is what really matters.]

It’s still Magic, and entails all the weaknesses and strengths that brings to the table, but it’s the most accessible Magic has ever been.

 

The Majesty of Colors (Remastered) √

The Majesty of Colors was one of the first ‘art games’ I played; it was released in 2008 when pixel art flash games were having A Moment (Jason Rohrer’s Passage was late 2007; Daniel Benmergui’s I wish I were the Moon was mid 2008) and it was my favorite of the bunch; I even fit it into the independent study project on narrative in video games that served as the foundation for my book. It sees you play a long-slumbering undersea tentacled horror, who wakes to discover the wonders of the human world. You can make a series of choices about whether to help or hurt the humans as they swim, fish, and even try to evade sharks.

The Remastered version, released in 2018, makes no substantial changes; its main purpose is to rescue this classic from the death of Flash and make a few small changes, including some welcome accessibility options. Ten years later, the game feels a bit slight (it takes a few minutes to play through each time, and its focus is more on evoking a certain emotional landscape than providing real depth) but it’s still perfect in its own little way, one of the games I’m happiest to introduce to new gamers, and I’m delighted it will be available for future generations to play–even if I worry that, in the devalued landscape of indie games, nobody will pay $2 for an old game where you can see all the content in 15 minutes.

 

Nier √

An exercise in contradiction, Nier often feels like an RPG made by someone who had never before played (much less created) a video game, yet regularly adopts a postmodern playfulness that displays a strong formalist knowledge of game design. This is a janky action-RPG with a fun and fascinating magic system that integrates bullet-hell shooting and over-the-top brawling. The main quests take you to interesting places, and most have a ‘twist’ on the core formula that makes things fresh (e.g. a haunted mansion level that suddenly adopts the camera setup of Resident Evil, or an entire level that’s a simple text adventure). The sidequests are a painful, sloppy collection of fetch quests and farming monsters for loot, and appear to serve no purpose other than to artificially extend the game’s playtime. The main story, while full of interesting ideas, is haphazardly told; the writer seems to believe that the way to create an emotionally affecting story is to unleash an constant stream of tragic events, which leads to eye-rolling histrionics and some flat-out nonsense. Meanwhile, the terribly-designed sidequests are narratively grounded and revel in thoughtful ambiguity; the dialog effectively builds both the world and characters in a way that the main story doesn’t.

Also, it has four endings, all of which are solid, but two of which require playing the exact same 50% of the game over again, without any mechanical or design changes, just for some extra narrative content.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, which is chock full of beautiful, haunting vocal tracks, and has since become a part of the video game music canon.

 

Nier: Automata √

Nier: Automata is not a bad game, but it ranks as my Biggest Disappointment of 2018. A lot of this is down to expectations; I knew exactly how janky Nier was going in (and in fact, had gotten halfway through a playthrough years ago) and was pleasantly surprised at the novel ideas it had. Automata had been pitched as an Actually Great Game, and I went in with high hopes. It makes a strong first impression, but the more I played, the more disappointed I became.

In short: 85% of the clever ideas that Automata has that wowed so many gamers are lifted straight from Nier. I imagine if I had played this without playing that–as most people did–that novelty could have largely carried the game for me. As it is, I’d already played an action-RPG with shooter mechanics that constantly moves the camera to emulate different game genres. Worse, Automata doesn’t really try to solve Nier’s deeper issues; it’s still full of low-effort sidequests of the “kill 10 rats” variety, it still tries to elicit emotional response through sudden, exaggerated tragedy that is unmoored from any sensible narrative, and it still features a lot of combat that simply doesn’t have much variety to it.

And yet it is a better game than Nier; the art design (and enemy design in particular) is more inspired, the combat is significantly improved (because developer Platinum is the best action game designer around, so even when they whiff it’s solid), and the pacing is better; while Nier: AutomatA does make you replay a significant chunk of stuff to see all the content, it mixes it together with all-new content, unlike the original’s hateful “play the second half of the game three times just because” approach.

My feelings about AutomatA are best summed up in the final end sequence and final decision the player makes; it’s beautiful, stylized, brilliant–and an almost exact copy of the end sequence of Nier. Even when the game is at its best, it’s a retread.

 

Overload ♥

Overload is also a retread, in this case of Descent and Descent 2 (1994 and 1996, respectively). And it turns out that’s 100% okay, because Descent was the path not followed; in the 19 years since Descent 3 was released, almost no games have tackled the “six degrees of freedom” shooter, with mainstream shooters having moved in the opposite direction. The few that did were either underbaked or something substantially different (namely, the roguelike shenanigans of Sublevel Zero).

Overload is fast & frenetic, combining subterranean maze navigation, twitching shooting, fancy piloting, and secret hunting into an adrenaline-filled package that’s smooth as butter. The levels are big enough to allow for real exploration but small enough to prevent you from being totally lost, and new enemies and weapons are introduced at a rapid clip. There’s a handy, retro 3D automap, and the “guidebot” from Descent 2 returns to provide a more naturalistic way to hunt down enemies, power-ups and objectives than the giant floating HUD markers favored by modern open-world games.

It’s not entirely without its faults–RPS forumite Godwhacker summarized them well when he noted that “a) there’s only one enemy AI behaviour, which is the classic ‘float forwards shooting’ and b) they’d put secrets in every level but implemented them Wolfenstein 3D style, with the only way of finding them being shooting every wall.” But neither of these significantly reduced the fun I had digging out my HOTAS and blowing up robots while spinning in circles likely to make onlookers nauseous.

 

Overwatch

I picked Overwatch up in the Humble Bundle to see what all the fuss was about, and was genuinely surprised at how boring I found it. I normally don’t click with Blizzard games, but that has more to do with the awful fan-fiction storytelling than anything else (less of an issue with a match shooter, though it is worth noting that Overwatch gets some sort of award for ludonarrative dissonance; Blizzard has produced reams of material telling a story of the Good Guys Faction against the Bad Guys Faction, and then actual matches feature cross-faction characters playing alongside each other, and even fighting their clones, for no explicable reason).

I applaud Blizzard’s successful attempt at making online shooters accessible and colorful (something the genre sorely needed) and supporting such a wide variety of playstyles with their characters. But the fact is that the FPS already doesn’t have that many moving parts, and when you remove things like “weapon selection” and “running” from it, the player just isn’t left with that much to *do*. Overwatch is a game where you pick a character and use their three abilities ad nauseum; while there is certainly depth at the macro/team level, to me it felt a lot like playing Warcraft and controlling only a single unit; there’s not enough going on to really hold my attention, and I’m not competitive enough to have any inclination to master being an efficient cog in the team’s machine.

 

Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire √ ♥

Of all the games I played this year, Deadfire is the hardest to write about. It’s a sequel to a game I love that’s consistently interesting and in many ways improved from its predecessor; but I ultimately found it less satisfying. Part of this is the weight of expectations; the backer updates (I’m both a backer *and* a small-scale investor) were fantastic at painting a picture of how ambitious it was. Part of this was that it was released before it was ready (despite numerous delays) and was chock full of bugs that affected the playthrough. I also chose to go without level scaling, quickly became overpowered, and found that I was unable to “turn it back on” in the release version of the game (this has since been fixed).

Part of it is that the game is, by design, very non-linear, focusing on factional storylines, exploration, and an abundance of sidequests. All of these are are as good as anything Obsidian has ever done (among other things, Deadfire presents the most nuanced exploration of colonialism in any media I’ve seen, a particularly impressive accomplishment in a time when hyper partisanship drives a simplistic treatment of history) but they tend to be short and aren’t character-centric; the thematic cohesion and pacing aren’t quite there to make them feel like a unified whole.The party member’s “personal quests” are significantly shorter than the first Pillars, and almost universally anticlimactic; I later learned this was a budget necessity, but does give the game a sort of ‘middle book’ feeling, like these stories aren’t really finished and will have to wait for a third game to wrap them up.

And partly, it’s because at the game end, I tried to have my cake and eat it too (by not alienating any of my faction-aligned party members) and got the shitty ending I deserved. This is good choice-and-consequences storytelling, but it left a sour taste in my mouth that will remain until I replay it with a more honest ending.

Yet with some time and distance, I think Deadfire will be seen as one of the best “real time with pause” RPGs ever made, a game that builds on the legacy of the Infinity Engine games but doesn’t coast on it, that explores themes and setting rarely seen, that has one of the best character classing/progressing systems in RPG history (it’s infinitely deep, but easy to grasp, largely thanks to brilliant UI design). It’s also *beautiful*, and features surprisingly good voice acting throughout that really does bring the dialog–and world–to life.

An ongoing bug, seemingly specific to my playthrough, has prevented me from going through the DLC, but support tells me there’s a real chance it will be fixed yet; more on that next year! [Edit: Obsidian’s testing lead personally kept in communication with me and let me know as soon as the bug was fixed in January 2019; bless their hearts].

 

Pokemon Sapphire √

Early in 2018, I finished a playthrough of Pokemon Sapphire I had begun in 2010, in my final year of college; this was itself a follow-up on a failed playthrough I started around 2003. Pokemon Sapphire thus holds the record for “longest I’ve taken to finish a game.”

I’ve never really gotten the fascination with the Pokemon series, but when I needed something simple, Sapphire hit the spot, and the 3rd generation of Pokemon games really did bring a lot of nice features to the table. I enjoyed my time with it.

 

Pokemon Sun

Reviews told me Pokemon Sun was the most radical entry in the Pokemon series yet, that this was a game that gave the series some badly-needed updates. As someone who has found a lot of the series’ JRPG and Gameboy-era baggage tiresome, I was excited to try it out.

What I got was more conservative than I could have imagined. Pokemon Sapphire was the most recent Pokemon game I had played; it’s what’s known as the “third generation” of Pokemon games, with Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon comprising the seventh generation. The quality of life features implemented are genuinely good, but they’re also things that should have been put in Pokemon Sapphire all the way back in 2003. You can no longer permanently screw yourself out of options (e.g. HM modules are now reusable so you don’t stick a move on the “wrong” pokemon), but you never should have been able to. Abilities used outside of battle (surfing, smash rocks, ability) are now independent of the pokemon in your party, so you can just play with whatever Pokemon you want. A nice feature, but one that should have been implemented in Pokemon Diamond in 2006 if not earlier, surely?

Other than these, it’s just More Pokemon–new location, new pokemon, new incredibly-basic-narrative. And core irritants of the series (grinding random battles to find that one pokemon you want or need) are still around in full force.

Pokemon Sun (and its obligatory duplicate, Moon) probably *are* the best Pokemon games ever made–but RPG design has come a long way since the Gameboy, and I feel this series massive success has instilled a depressing amount of conservatism in its design.

 

Pyre √ ♥

There are certain things that are guaranteed in any Supergiant Games title; their primary artist, Jen Zee, creates colorful worlds and characters that ‘pop’ like few others. Their audio director/composer/musician, Darren Korb, is one of the best in the business, creating music that’s a set piece unto itself and sound design that never settles for ‘the usual’ (all voice acting snippets are in an absolutely lovely fictional language, for instance). Yet Pyre’s triumph is to tie its disparate parts into a unified, narrative driven whole. This is a game interested in telling a nontraditional story, not about warring nations or a noble rebellion, but about traditions and history; it covers a lot of thematic territory and it wouldn’t do it justice to boil it down here, but I will say that for all the games that feature Evil or corrupt empires, few examine nations that coast on their own founding mythologies and historical nobility, and are impotent to address change or problems due to their systemic dysfunction coupled with cultural conservatism. Given how many games are made in the United States, it’s nothing short of bizarre that Pyre is the first one I’ve seen tackle this correctly.

Pyre was easily one of my favorite games of the year. Initially, it structurally resembles The Banner Saga, with refugees & outcasts traveling across a hostile landscape, mixing up weighty dialog with battles. The key difference here is that the ‘battles’ are a highly ritualized ball sport, part of a process in which exiles and outcasts can eventually be returned to society and washed of their sins. The series of difficult choices that connect the game are centered around the decision of who gets to take one of the limited opportunities to freedom. Who deserves it? Who even wants it? And who are you to decide?

Pyre moves quickly, mixing combat sequences that rarely exceed five minutes with equally short narrative segments (often just two characters getting to know each other) and light exploration; this helps reinforce the mechanical and thematic links between the disparate parts, and stops it from getting stuck in a rut. The sport-combat *is* unusual, a peculiar mix of strategy and twitch gaming that evokes nothing more than Brutal Legend’s divisive action-RTS sequences. I found it enjoyable and suitably varied, but even those who don’t should find it relatively painless.

The final thing I’ll say about Pyre is that it always changes and introduces new wrinkles right up until the end. So many games–even great ones–put all their effort into making a solid structure, a good core loop, and basically just repeat it throughout the entire game. Pyre not only gives you substantial new abilities as the game progress, but is willing to fundamentally alter the rules of the story, of the combat, and in at least one instance, of the entire game’s structure. Pyre got a lukewarm response, which I suspect is a response to it being more idiosyncratic, more opaque, and less combat-focused than Supergiants’ previous titles, but in my book it’s a stunning accomplishment.

 

Quest for Glory: So You Want To Be A Hero √

This year I picked up a playthrough I started a few years ago (but apparently never wrote about?). In short: it sure seems like Quest for Glory is the best and most interesting thing to come out of Sierra’s adventure games. While most of their output (King’s Quest, etc.) is characterized by unfair deaths, irreversible fail states, and inscrutable puzzles, Quest for Glory is a downright friendly game. It’s also the first (and, as far as I can tell, last) series to try to combine the RPG and the graphic adventure. This gives it a lot of novelty in 2018 that helps it hold up, but it also has genuinely lovely progression systems (you increase skills and stats just by using them, ala Elder Scrolls), an enormous quantity of puns, and multiple solutions to problems (basically unheard of in graphic adventures of the time, and still unusual today).

It also has its sights on being a series from the get-go, so the entire first game is a charmingly ‘low level’ adventure; you basically spend the whole affair getting strong enough to fight (or outsmart) some bandits. The downside is that the RPG elements also introduce a certain amount of grind; sometimes you are too weak to fight an enemy, too unskilled to climb a wall, etc, and there is nothing to do but try it continuously to boost your stats. But overall, a fun (and quite chill) time.

 

Quest for Glory 2: Trial by Fire (VGA remake)

Quest for Glory 2: Trial by Fire is, so far, a game I enjoy more in theory than in practice. Quest for Glory 2 allows you to import your Quest for Glory 1 character, and it doesn’t nerf them or cause them to lose any abilities, a lovely innovation that saw great use in future RPG titles. It swaps the generic Western European Fantasy of the first game for an Arabian Knights inspired Middle Eastern kingdom, and it’s a real breath of fresh (hot) air. It also has cat people.

While the first game had a day/night cycle, it otherwise ran on your own schedule. Quest for Glory 2 mixes things up, taking place over a set number of days, with a fixed narrative progressing over that course of time. It’s a cool idea, but presents the immediate possibility that they player will ‘screw up’ and somehow run out of time, making them replay the whole game. To avoid this, Trial by Fire gives the player more than enough time to get things done; but this solution is its own problem, because it makes the game’s pacing very, very slow, and leads to a fair bit of “waiting for time to pass.” At least Shenmue had an arcade.

This caused me to drift away, but I fully intend on returning on ultimately finishing this series–it’s one of only two historical, long-running series that I’ve really committed myself to seeing through (the other is Ultima. I’m playing Ultima V and/or VI in 2019, I swear it).

(Note: The “VGA Remake” is a fan effort to ‘upscale’ the original EGA release into VGA graphics; this is because the first Quest for Glory got a VGA remake, and Quest for Glory 3 & 4 are natively VGA, so playing the games as released results in a weird ‘downgrade’ upon entering the second one. Bless these dedicated modders.)

 

Red Faction: Guerilla

Inspired by the shamelessly punny “Re-Mars-Stered” edition and the ballsy choice to use Space Asshole in the trailer, I finally picked up this cult 7/10 action game. It’s everything one would expect; a dumb-as-a-rock narrative (and protagonist) that provides the thinnest excuse to blow up every structure on Mars. The original Red Faction had cool technology (terrain deformation) that it had absolutely zero idea what to do with, and played like a generic Half-Life knockoff as a result. Guerilla finally realized that terrain deformation + physics = zany fun, and went whole hog. Guerilla can’t reasonable be considered a great game–it’s an action game where the shooting is floaty and unsatisfactory, and the AI lobotomized–but as an unpretentious playground it’s a barrel of fun, particularly the “demolish this structure using only these tools in 60 seconds” challenges.

 

The Red Strings Club √ ♥

The Red Strings Club is a lovely accidental companion to 2016’s VA-11: Hall A; they’re both narrative-focused cyberpunk bartending games, which work hard to rise above the Blade Runner/Neuromancer knock-offs that so often characterize cyberpunk. I talked about the game with Joanna & Cade on the fourth episode of my podcast, so I won’t repeat myself here; suffice it to say that it’s one of the best narrative games of 2018.

 

Rise of the Tomb Raider √

This is one of those games I probably wouldn’t have played if it wasn’t in a Humble Bundle, just like its predecessor, but I’m happy to say it’s a substantial improvement over the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. That earlier game was widely criticized for the the disjunction between the portrayal of Lara Croft as a vulnerable, empathetic young archaeologist, and the fact that she killed hundreds of people over the course of the game without it particularly bothering her; Rise of the Tomb Raider sadly makes it even worse, because the first game could be spun as self defense in the face of an unexpected onslaught of well-armed cultists, whereas in Rise she willfully heads to Siberia to oppose said cult. The writers do their damnedest best to humanize the characters and provide some interesting environmental storytelling, but there is just no writing around the game’s fundamental structure of “Lara infiltrates bases full of mercenaries, kills them all, finds some artifacts.”

However, if you’re able to put that aside (and I was, mostly), this is probably the best “map-clearing” game I’ve played. Simply moving through the world and traversing the terrain is a pleasure; the environmental art is stunning, and the designers manage to get an impressive variety of levels out of the Siberian wilderness. An excellent skill/progression system, well-located collectables, and some honest-to-god tomb-delving and puzzle solving make this an excellent choice when you want a game to disappear into, one that requires you to think, but not too much.

Essentially, I think the Tomb Raider devs made a mistake (artistically, if not commercially) when they decided there should be a significant focus on combat; but once they went there, they did as good a job as anyone could ask.

 

Salt ♥

Salt is a stunning accomplishment for a two-person team; a laid back, Caribbean Pirate themed explore-survive-craft fest, complete with tons of quests, sailing, fishing, and a lovely soundtrack. When Joanna & I started doing regular co-op gaming, Salt was the game we started with; and while she was eventually ready to move on to other things, I never tired of it.

Its ambitions frequently run up against its budget and the relative inexperience of its designers. Combat is an extremely basic (very much Minecraft style); enemy variety is minimal; and various bits of the game are undeveloped, pointing to features that the developers ultimately didn’t have time for (for instance, you can get cannons to equip on your ship & cannonballs to fire, but there is no ship combat in the game). As a full-fledged Pirate Skyrim, it falls short, and it lacks the creative construction elements of most Minecraftbuts, but as a sunny place to sail around, it’s second to none.

 

Screencheat ♥

Screencheat is part of a local multiplayer revolution being led by independent PC games (with consoles, historically dominant in this sector, having almost entirely turned to online multiplayer for everything except traditional fighting games). “Screencheating” is a term referencing split-screen multiplayer, particularly in first-person shooters (ala Goldeneye) where you’d divine an opponent’s position by looking at their “portion” of the screen instead of your own. Screencheat has the brilliant idea of building an entire game around this; it’s a classic arena FPS where *everyone is invisible*, and thus you can only suss out an enemy’s location through a combination of looking at their screen and (if you’re lucky) seeing their missed shots. A variety of game modes, maps, and elaborate weapons that make the best possible use of the invisibility mechanic make this a real crowd pleaser.

 

Shardlight √

The second commercial game from Francisco Gonzalez (A Golden Wake) is a clear and immediate improvement over its predecessor. Ben Chandler’s beautiful pixel art, Nicholas Chambers’ haunting score, and better-than-usual Wadjet Eye voice acting raise the audio/visual bar, with special note to Shelly Shenoy’s warm, grounded performance as protagonist Amy Weller. Media is rife with tales of cynics in post-apocalyptic societies; the decision to have our guide through this ruined world be someone who is compassionate, empathetic, and generally nonviolent is the most inspired thing Shardlight does. Unfortunately, she’s led through a generic and at times ridiculous plot, involving Feisty Rebels taking on a Tyrannical Aristocracy (complete with powdered wigs, seriously) who it turns out are doing Very Bad Things that nobody could guess (except the player, who will see every plot twist coming a mile away).

The puzzles are grounded and Amy really is lovely, but I ended up having to drag myself through the second half of Shardlight as it hobbled to its obligatory end. Still, this shows improvement from Gonzalez, and I hope the formal ambitious of his third game, Lamplight City, also stretches his storytelling skills.

 

The Signal from Tölva

The Signal from Tölva should be right up my alley; it’s a halfway point being STALKER’s faction-driven stealth-combat, a walking sim, and some sort of archeology game. Yet it couldn’t hold my interest, and I think the primary reason is that it’s just too barren. You spend the vast majority of your time either slowly trudging across vast distances, or engaging in combat (often at very long range). But there’s not enough to see and discover in the walking, and the combat is ultimately hampered by its low budget: in short, the shooting is not that satisfying, the weapons not very interesting, and the enemies largely indistinguishable.

Tölva does have hints of a very interesting backstory (expanded upon in a PDF ‘bible’ included with the game) and an interesting set-up (the player character is actually in orbit, and just remote-controlling a series of robots on the planet, which is why death is a mere inconvenience) but this doesn’t really fix the moment-to-moment dullness.

 

Slay the Spire √

Slay the Spire is a tightly-designed game that will rank as my second-biggest disappointment of the year, despite being a quality title. This was one of those games that came out of nowhere and made a TON of games writers I respect go nutso; many picked it as their personal game of the year.

Yet what I found, when I played it, was a more polished Monster Slayers (which I played a ton last year). Sure, the math is tighter, the artwork is prettier, it allows for more build variety, etc. But it doesn’t do a single thing to transcend or alter the deckbuilding formula. There’s no narrative, no exploration, nothing except a series of battles and deck modifications. I’m forced to conclude that the reason so many people went crazy for this is that they’re discovering deckbuilding games for the first time, and are in that heady space board gamers were in when Dominion and Thunderstone first came out, before the market was flooded with deckbuilders and we all got burnt out on them.

 

Slime Rancher √ ♥

Without a doubt the happiest game I played this year, Slime Rancher manages to pull off a sort of authentic cuteness: everything in it is lovely and feel-good, but it also features a proper ecosystem that stands on its own and a varied world to explore. This is cuteness you discover, not animal videos thrown up on social media with overbearing ukulele soundtracks.

At first glance, Slime Rancher comes off as a first-person, slime-focused Stardew Valley (slimes, in this case, being bouncing, gooey animals whose poop has all sorts of fantastic industrial properties–really, that’s the setup). Yet the titular slime ranching is half the game at most; the rest is exploring the world, venturing further and further out from home base to discover new Slimes, fruits, and veggies. This is low-key exploration–the game has no real combat–but still involves tense decisions about what to carry, as well as some frantic fleeing from carnivorous slimes.

Slime Rancher doesn’t go on forever–you’ll have seen more or less all there is to see after about around 20 hours of play–but it’s lovely while it lasts, and high on my list of Best Accessible Video Games.

 

The St. Christopher’s School Lockdown

Probably the most obscure game I played this year, The St. Christopher’s School Lockdown is a graphic adventure game with a novel setting; an English private school, occupied by students revolting against the country’s massive tuition hikes (a thing that really happened when the Tories took power). I backed it on Kickstarter, and it late 2017 it came out after many years of protracted development.

It’s an odd duck, and hard to place. The setting is enjoyably novel and the voice acting is much better than one would expect from such a low-budget affair. Unfortunately, my progress throughout the game was start and stop; it seems nobody bought it, such that even walkthroughs are unavailable, and on a couple of occasions I had to email the developers to get help with a puzzle I was stuck on! Worse, my copy had an issue where music would suddenly drop out after a certain amount of time in a scene; the music is actually quite good, so I kept holding off as I waited for that to get fixed, but the developers were never able to track it down, and at a certain point I stopped asking–presumably they were already in a financial hole from the game’s lack of sales, and I didn’t want to ask for any more free labor.

I still have enjoyed what I played and plan to finish it, but it’s like playing a point and click adventure in the days before the internet; sometimes, you just get stuck and have to come back later.

 

Steamworld Dig 2 √ ♥

The Steamworld games are like a good home cooked meal–immensely satisfying to consume, but you’re not going to go and write a food column about it. Steamworld Dig 2 builds on Steamworld Dig’s “Metroidvania + Mining” shtick, adding all the power-ups and progression systems you could want, including grappling hooks and jetpacks. It’s lovingly crafted, enjoyable for every minute, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It has lots of secrets to collect if you’re that sort of gamer, but you don’t need to.

I never find these games particularly ‘filling’ and thus don’t have much more to say months after the fact, other than that shouldn’t be taken as a condemnation; sometimes good entertainment is enough.

 

Subnautica √ ♥

Subnautica is my Game of the Year, and as such I could spill quite a lot of e-ink writing about it, but I’ll keep the pitch simple: it is the first game to embrace the potential of survival games and make a fully-formed single-player experience that is compelling from beginning to end.

Survival games were the nichest of niche genres* until popularized by DayZ and Minecraft, and afterwards they proliferated. Survival games have obvious strengths: permadeath and limited resources creates constant tension and interest, and it’s easy to make a compulsively playable game by stacking tons of “resource acquisition/crafting/resource depletion” loops on top of one another. Throw in a procedurally generated world that you don’t actually need to hand-design, and you have a game.

To be clear, a lot of these survival games are a good time, but A) they’re pretty much all the same game, and B) most of the engagement is with the glorified Skinner box. Minecraft transcended the grind because of its creative aspects (and novelty), but most survival games are only fun until you grok the system; afterwards, you’re grinding for grinding’s sake. And because there’s no real narrative or general reason for doing what you’re doing, there’s nothing to keep you around once the core loop gets dull.

Subnautica has a few brilliant ideas to change the formula.

First, the world is hand-crafted, not procedurally generated; the devs decided that crafting a really high quality “first playthrough” was more important than the theoretical (but not actual) infinite replayability offered by procedural generation.

Second, the setting (an entirely water-covered world) is not just window dressing; there’s an immediate sense of discombobulation in being a human bereft of land, and as such there’s a constant push and pull between the joys of exploring an alien world, and the vulnerability of being a fragile, gilless creature in the depths. This is a game about managing terror, but it’s not a horror game; with a single glorious exception, this game doesn’t do jump scares, and that terror is always manageable. Early portions of the game are almost entirely without serious threats, but the player doesn’t know that. So it’s all about gathering new information, exploring areas until you understand them and feel comfortable with them. Ultimately, this comfort gives way to boredom, and that boredom–and the promise of new sights–pushes you to go to scary new places.

Third, the developers make an intentional, brave decision to have no lethal weapons in the game. This not only avoids the trap of subpar survival game combat, but changes your entire relationship with the world. You are not conquering it, as you do in so many open world games; you are learning to live with it, navigate it, and respect it. If there is a nasty creature that can kill you, you don’t pick a fight, you avoid it. There are enough personal defense systems and strategies that it doesn’t become some hellish underwater stealth game, but they’re focused on distraction and protection.

Fourth, the game is *focused* in a way few survival games. There isn’t an open ended quest to Craft All The Things; you have intertwined personal missions (to escape this alien planet, and solve its mysteries) that drive you to specific places in the world. There is a satisfying narrative and an actual ending; but the game never pushes you towards these, and is happy to let you explore and build. But the developers make sure to avoid letting these features take over the game; there is an easy to use and satisfying base-building system, for instance, but you can’t make bases of infinite variety and creativity, because this isn’t a construction game, it’s a directed exploration game.

Subnautica’s understanding of its core strengths, and is dedication to pursue those to the highest caliber, is what makes it by far the best survival game I’ve ever played, and my favorite game of 2018.

(And without getting into spoilers, it has my all-time favorite video game vehicle in it; acquiring said vehicle brought a feeling of accomplishment that took a long time to dissipate).

*I remember TTLG threads in the early ‘00s where we sat around dreaming of dedicated survival games, which largely didn’t exist, and those that did were pretty painful

 

The Swords of Ditto

Of all the games on this list, The Swords of Ditto is at least in the running for Most Lovely Art; this is one of those titles that looks less like polygons or pixels, and more like Concept Art Come To Life. Its colorful, cute, slightly twisted characters mesh well with its humor, which is a mix of the silly and the fatalistic.

The Swords of Ditto has a lot of lovely ideas for what is, much of the time, a fairly typical Zelda-like roguelike; I honestly haven’t played enough of the game to really get into those, in large part because it appears to have some bugs in its procedural generation, resulting in it making dungeons I can’t enter or progress in. I could solve this by dying and “resetting” the world, but it’s a bummer to have to do that. More next year, maybe?

But definitely Best Kazoo Music in Gaming.

 

Tacoma √ ♥

Joanna & I discussed Tacoma extensively on our podcast, so I won’t repeat too much here; suffice it to say that it’s a lovely, character-driven sci-fi tale that is a genuine improvement over Fulbright’s debut game, Gone Home. It’s one of the few first-person narrative games I’d call genuinely innovative, coming up with a way to improve the audiolog mechanic that has been massively overused since its debut in System Shock 25 years ago. There’s something here for everyone, and it’s disappointing–and alarming–that it only sold a fraction as much as its predecessor.

 

Technobabylon √ ♥

I dedicated a section of my very first podcast episode to Technobabylon, so I’ll once again point you that way for the longer take. Short version: Technobabylon is the best traditional point-and-click adventure I’ve played in years. It doesn’t seek to innovate, but manages to check every box a good adventure needs (compelling player characters, sensible puzzles, interesting mysteries) while deftly dodging the most tired cyberpunk tropes.

 

Tooth & Tail

Tooth & Tail is brilliant and compassionate, and I wish it had been around when I was younger. I came of age as a PC gamer in the ‘90s, when real-time strategy games were everywhere, rivaled in popularity only by first-person shooters. I played them cause they were there, and I liked the idea of them, but in reality I found them so anxiety inducing that I could only enjoy them with invincibility cheats. The simple reason is that racing against time causes me anxiety, and I’m terrible at multitasking.

Tooth & Tail is a strange beast, a tournament-ready RTS that is designed to be approachable. The twist is that you can only ever directly control one unit at a time (your leader) and can only give orders to units in the immediate vicinity of your leader. No zooming all over the map, micromanaging four different battles. It’s otherwise a proper RTS, with different unit types, building, resource harvesting, factions, etc. But the narrow focus on being a front-lines leader makes it approachable, if not easy, and it’s rare to see this much effort put into an RTS single-player campaign. The setting (something akin to the Russian Revolution, except everyone’s an animal, and all animals have become carnivorous because eating plants is now a faux pas) is novel and fascinating, the pixel art is fantastic, and the soundtrack is by none other than Austin Wintory.

I will probably never love an RTS, but Tooth & Tail is as good as they get for me, and I do hope to finish this one.

 

Totally Accurate Battlegrounds

A confession: I have not played a proper battle royale game. I’ve long since concluded that competitive FPS are a young man’s game, and the genre has moved away from a lot of the things I’ve enjoyed (less playful, more regimented, driven by unlocks rather than the joy of play). So I skipped Plunkbat, am confused by Fortnight, and won’t touch Call of Duty with a ten-foot pole.

I did, however, grab Totally Accurate Battlegrounds during its free period, and found it delightful. To be clear: it’s a thrown-together game jam game, whose primary purpose is to turn up the battler royale silliness to 11 through absurd animations, anarchic weapons, and the decision to make *everything* physics driven, which makes the very act of running humorous.

I also got to the final 2 on my very second game, so maybe I’ve got a knack for this battle royale stuff? But, of course, I did this by hiding out and creeping around before charging in to the final battle, where I died because I couldn’t figure out how to swap weapons.

As I said: a young man’s game.

 

Voodoo Garden

It’s a clicker game. The genre is now inexplicably infested with “free-to-play” clickers where you pay money to bypass the tedium of clicking, so you can do the exact same tedious clicking but with bigger numbers. I thus find the existence of cheap, no-microtransaction clicker games to be a bit charming, and this one has some pleasing graphics and a lovely theme song. It’s the only song in the entire game, which should tell you something about the budget.

It’s a good clicker game, but it’s just a clicker game, you know?

 

We Were Here √ ♥

We Were Here is a brilliant idea for a co-op game: both players get separated in the opening cutscene, and have to navigate the same general space (in this case, an abandoned, possibly haunted arctic castle) without ever encountering each other or even seeing the same thing. Your only item is a walkie talkie (which, like classic walkies, prevents cross talk–only one person can speak at a time). One player is the Explorer, navigating through the castle and its puzzle rooms, while the other is a Librarian, remaining in a sort of archive/library with all manner of information (but no context to understand it). Through communicating their observations, they can combine information & context to solve the puzzles. Joanna and I played this (and discussed the experience in the second episode of our podcast) and I really enjoyed it–it’s one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year, despite competent-but-unremarkable puzzles and rather pedestrian art & storytelling, because it’s so fit for purpose as a co-op experience for friends on opposite sides of the country.

 

Yakuza 0 √ ♥

I had long had my eye on Yakuza 0, and was delighted when it was announced for PC at the end of 2017. I played the original Yakuza back in 2007 or so, and enjoyed that it was the closest thing to Shenmue, albeit with way too many random battles. The copy of Yakuza 2 I traded for ended up being damaged, and I dropped off at that point, being unwilling to skip the story (and deal with the mountains of random battles populating Yakuza 3 and 4).

Enter Yakuza 0, a prequel to the series that uses that opportunity to present a more accessible and varied game. Yakuza’s trademarks are all here: a compelling, melodramatic crime story, side quests that oscillate between grounded character work and goofy parody, and series stalwart Kazuma Kiryu, who is inexplicably noble despite his decision to work in organized crime.

Yet this isn’t just more Yakuza; each and every change is good. The setting, at the height of the Japanese bubble economy, goes beyond the surface “‘80s excess!” trappings so common in works set in this period to provide a real commentary on greed and the unknowability of the future. The second protagonist–regular series antagonist Majima Goro–is a delight to play, complicating the straight-laced power fantasy of Kiryu, and presenting a more interesting and complex character than the “Mad Dog” he becomes in the rest of the series. The battle system is expanded with multiple different movesets, and the speed of the characters is such that you can almost always run away from battles you don’t want to have. The world is small but immaculately detailed, and the number of side activities are absurd–one of the ways in which the baggage of a long-running series is a blessing. You could buy Yakuza 0 as a 3D mahjong simulator and be reasonably happy.

But it really is the sidequests that make the game. Yakuza 0 leans into the silliness that has always been present in the series, and the sidequests often operate as their own episodic sitcoms. You never know what you’re going to get, and the constant surprise is a delight, given how often long-running game series go out of their way to play to expectations. With the exception of two final ‘challenge fights,’ I 100%ed Yakuza 0, something I pretty much never do, because just inhabiting its world is such a pleasure.

 

Yojimbrawl

I’m a big fan of lightweight, fast-playing fighters, and Yojimbrawl’s mix of swordplay and flintlock guns brings to mind Samurai Gunn. I found it a little finicky and maybe a bit too shallow to stand up to that classic, but it’s exactly the sort of small game that fits great in the Humble Trove–which I think is, secretly, the best part of subscribing to the Humble Monthly Bundle.

 

Yorkshire Gubbins √ ♥

An absolutely lovely series of shorts set in a fantastical version of Yorkshire, England, Yorkshire Gubbins is a love letter to the region, absurd comedy, and classic point-and-click adventures. Included in this treasure trove is Verb School, the best tutorial for classic point-and-click adventures I’ve ever seen, and Holy Molluscamony and Humble Pie, two traditional (but lovely) shorts set in the magical realist version of Yorkshire. The voice acting really makes this game, and I found it so charming I immediately went and followed its creator on Twitter (who, it turns out, is also delightful).

Aye, Fair Lady! (mentioned above) will eventually be integrated into Yorkshire Gubbins, but for now it’s separate.