TOP TEN GAMES OF 2018

I find it hard to summarise my thoughts on gaming for the previous year, partly because it’s been an eclectic mix of tragedies, tedium and triumphs, but perhaps the overall word that comes to mind is “unadventurous.” What’s good was good, but very rarely was it surprising (with a few exceptions I’ll be getting to in a moment). Gaming feels like it’s running further than ever into safe, unchallenging places, where even quality products are made not by experimentation and innovation, but by refining well-known formulas to the point of… well, making them feel formulaic, a problem that is already coming round to bite a few major companies in their grossly overbudgeted behinds.

Still, quality has shone through despite this, sometimes by bucking the trend of predictability and sometimes by pushing head-on through it, and today we celebrate those who did just that.

 

  1. The Red Strings Club

the-red-strings-club-press-release_729_388_c1_c_t.jpgA little-known entry to start off with, an independent cyberpunk Steam game based largely around booze and banter, mixing the perfect drink to manipulate your customers’ minds and gaining information to use against others. Though its world goes somewhat undeveloped and the decision not to have a third act is… bewildering, to say the least, what’s there is unique and memorable enough to be worth trying out. If nothing else, you might learn how to make a decent cocktail.

 

  1. Subnautica

It’s been out for a while, but only came out of early access this year, so we’re counting it as a 2018 release. subnPut simply, Subnautica denies a lot of the obvious trends and tropes of survival games to its advantage: it has an interesting premise, a fixed map with surprising variety, a unique aesthetic and a natural sense of tension and development as the plot progresses from start to end. Coming face-to-face with a luminescent coral reef gives a sense of eerie wonder matched in intensity only by the fear of flicking on your light in dark waters and seeing alien horrors descend on you.

 

  1. Hitman 2Hitman_2_selfie_1920x1080.jpg

Though little more of a expansion pack for the previous game and generally in need of a bit of evolution, it’s hard to deny Hitman 2 manages to capture the same impish pranking and black humour of the 2016 game. Yes, whether feeding drug lords to hippos, shoving illuminati leaders into iron maidens, or flapping about Miami in a giant pink mascot costume while Agent 47 wears his constant expression of stony-faced seriousness; it’s all delightful fun broken up by the occasional muffled gunshot or impromptu toilet-drowning.

 

  1. Shadow of the Colossus: Remastered

I try not to put remasterings and reboots on these lists if I can help it, but at the end of the day Shadow of the Colossus is still as hypnotically enchanting as it was over a decade ago, and even now there really isn’t much out there like it.

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Yes, a few of the colossi don’t quite live up to the standard (Headbutt-Henry and his Crumbling Columns of Doom come to mind), but Phalanx, the giant balloon tapeworm, is still one of the greatest boss fights in all of gaming, and most of the other titans aren’t far behind.

 

  1. Dead Cells

headerAnother one to make a break from early access, and Dead Cells was a game I couldn’t help but be utterly hooked by for about three months; a 2D rogue-like Metroidvania platformer with a combat system flexible enough to bend without ever breaking. At times it becomes too difficult for its own good (last I checked, there was still a bit of balancing needed overall) but the simple core loop becomes a lasso that’s very hard to escape. It’s never been so fun to be a piece of snot swinging a sword, including Cloud from FFVII on that list.

 

  1. God of War (2018)god-of-war-key-art-01-ps4-us-01nov17.jpg

This was a good year for exclusives (by which I mean, a good year for bloated corporations holding games hostage in an utterly anti-consumer practice) and the adventures of Kratos and his pet goblin was undeniably part of that. Yes, God of War is a good game, albeit with some notable flaws, mainly that it feels like a three-hour plot stretched over a fifteen-hour story, and like The Red Strings Club it also declines to have a proper ending, though did just about stretch to a hand-waving “to be continued.” Nonetheless, hacking Draugr to pieces is fun, the relationship between the Ghost of Sparta and his mini-me is well-handled, and it’s still hard to think of a franchise that can convey sheer scale and size any better than this one.

 

  1. Into the Breach

Ah, the makers of FTL: Faster Than Light have done it again, with an incredibly compelling set of mechanics that had me hooked from the start and thinking about them even when I had to leave. 20190104163641_1.jpgDon’t be fooled by the Pacific Rim premise; Into the Breach is more cerebral puzzle game than brutish combat brawler, artfully moving your mechs around to evade and control your enemies. You’ll spend ages staring fixedly at the board before committing yourself to a strategy… And then realise in frustration that you forgot about the sodding push effect on that attack, and everything’s gone wrong now. Time quietly make my exit and abandon that timeline to chaos, I think.

 

  1. Spider-Man (2018)

562944_scr10_a.jpgI agonised for ages about whether to give this game second or third place, and in the end I reluctantly gave the bronze medal to Insomniac’s web-whipping, wall-crawling adaptation of Spider-Man. Yes, the story has its problems, the Mary-Jane-Morales stealth sections are now infamously tedious, the new costume design is a little “meh” and the game is probably too easy even on the hardest difficulty, but I can’t deny that the basic mechanics are a blast, a combination of acrobatic, free-form movement and frantic, elastic brawling. Hell, the impact web alone would’ve gotten this game into my top ten. Thwip!

 

  1. Red Dead Redemption 2

Cards up front: Red Dead Redemption 2 is not as good as Read Dead Redemption 1. It’s less focused in everything it does, suffers from a case of too-many-cooks, of being overbudgeted, but mainly of coming after the overpraised mess that was GTA V. And yet it’s hard to deny that RDR2 has a lot of strengths, with a strong central cast of characters, an incredibly underrated soundtrack, a detailed world and shooting/exploring gameplay that’s just fun enough to make you forget it really isn’t that innovative.

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Perhaps its best strength is the relative grounding of tone. Whereas GTA V was a mix of teenage sneer, stupidity and sub-par satire, Red Dead 2 takes itself and its ideas a bit more seriously, and consequently you just might find yourself caring about its cast as people, not punchlines. Who would’ve thought it?

 

  1. Return of the Obra Dinn

I know you’ve probably not heard of this one, but stick with me as I tell you about the adventures of a nineteenth-century insurance agent that – no, don’t go yet!

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Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective game, pure and simple, a genre that’s so rare that it almost doesn’t exist. Oh sure, some games will tell you they offer investigative work, but all you get is a cereal box puzzle or a glowing line to follow before it just gives you the answer. Obra Dinn actually lives up to the promise, presenting a compelling mystery full of betrayal, excitement, blood and seamen (you heard me) and asking you to properly untangle to the web of events that lead to over sixty people going missing at sea. The ability to walk through frozen tableaus of people’s deaths is a fascinating one, and the only thing I really dislike about the game is how short it was, over and done with before ten hours had elapsed and leaving me whimpering for more. And while the plot might not be as elaborate as Red Dead’s or the gameplay as complex as Spider-Man’s, it almost doesn’t matter, because Obra Dinn is the only game on this list that would actually make me punch the air in satisfaction when I got everything right, and when something is engaging me that much, nothing else can compare. This is my game of the year, and frankly by quite a wide margin.

 


 

Hope you all have a good 2019 (a hope which seems less and less likely with each news cycle), and a special thanks to those who still read this site even when events keep me from adding new content anywhere near as much as I should. However, in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to ask you for something – a favour, if you like, that could maybe form the basis of one of those new years resolutions everybody’s already abandoned by now.

This year, don’t do the obvious. Don’t buy the game that’s marketed to high hell, especially if it’s something you suspect you’ve seen before, instead look for the game that might be a little more out there, a little more peculiar. Gaming had been falling into a rut for a while, but now the danger is that all our loot-box, multiplayer-only, hamster wheel games are so well-polished we don’t see how little they matter to us in the long run, because they’re serviceable… but that’s all. Red Dead Redemption 2 has a lot of strengths and is certainly worth playing through, but it didn’t really surprise me, and so I couldn’t give it the gold. Obra Dinn, contrarily, is something new that bucks every trend going, and consequently I don’t think I’ll forget it in a long time. Even Red Strings Club and Subnautica probably wouldn’t be on this list if they weren’t held aloft by their own unique fascination. And the problem with something being only attractive and functional is that we forget what it’s like to be really… well, moved.

So this year, expand your pallet. Enjoy the big company games – they can still be good, even in this era – but buy something different or a little less obvious every so often, just to keep the industry remembering that games don’t have to be a process, a service or a product. They can also, funnily enough, be art.

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TOP TEN GAMES OF 2017

So as gaming goes this was… actually a good year. Not quite bottled lightning with an ice-cream float, but certainly not a jockstrap full of angry and litigious bees either. I think anybody with semi-functional neurones will agree we got the A-grade material in the first six months and all the energy disappeared from the industry post-summer, but half a year is better than nothing, and so are the following games.

 

  1. PREY (2017)

Number ten on this list was tricky, as I found myself torn between three possible candidates, all for different reasons. Would I give a spot on the list to Prey, the Sexy Brutale, or Persona 5? Basically, do I award the bronzest of bronze medals for effort, for ingenuity, or for style? Eventually I settled on Prey by merit of having a dash of both the other qualities as well, not to mention having the balls to homage Bioshock without having to directly rip it off (and you should never rip off Bioshock’s balls, that’s just impolite). Check this one out for its rich science-fiction story, though not for the balancing issues and frequent, often irritating deaths.

  1. NIGHT IN THE WOODS

Despite a monumentally slow start and the occasional hiccup where social drama bumps up awkwardly against thriller horror, Night in the Woods manages to do the one thing that can justify a walking simulator – have an engaging story. And though the protagonist looks like a DeviantArt original character drawn by a talentless fifteen-year-old, Mae turns out NOT to be an infuriating Mary Sue, but a complex and flawed figure who’s worth investing in emotionally, with a journey that’s interesting enough to be worth sticking with even in the feet-dragging sections.

I dropped it a couple of notches for the daily commute and the Guitar Hero bits though. I’d feel like a liar if I didn’t.

  1. RESIDENT EVIL 7

After failing so hard with RE5 and RE6 that Capcom were lucky not to have burnt down their own studios in the process, the team obviously realised that they should take a step back, have a think, and go back to the basics. Big scary house, fumbling protagonist who keeps getting injured, intimidating enemies and the kind of horror that actually has an impact, i.e. getting your hand chainsawed off and having to run around with a bloody stump, trying to nudge the ammo clip into a pistol. And though it loses a bit of faith with its own premise in the last act and would’ve been well-advised to shake off the silly puzzle elements that haunt the series, Resident Evil 7 is one of the most effective big-budget horror games since Alien: Isolation. If you weren’t scared of rednecks even after the Trump election, you will be now.

  1. WEST OF LOATHING

The surprising successor to the free browser game: Kingdom of Loathing, this western comedy game brings a satisfying (if rather unbalanced) turn-based combat system to the table, along with the playing cards, whiskey and the pocketful of spare change that was presumably the budget for the art department. With solid writing that’ll make even the gloomiest cynic snort their drink from time to time – I can raise my hand and vouch for that – West of Loathing is a solid indie game that reminds us that comedy doesn’t have to be Uncharted’s snarkiness or Sunset Overdrive’s unhealthy pop-culture parody obsession.

  1. SUPERHOT VR

Take note, this is how you translate a game into virtual reality – by exploring a core mechanic that’s actually improved by being in virtual reality in the first place. With Superhot’s central idea of slowing down time when you stop moving, that takes on a whole new perspective in VR, as you contort your body into all sorts of bizarre positions to try and avoid the bullets slowly chugging towards you through the air, matrix style. And it means you can pull off all manner of epic tricks that make you feel like a bona-fide badass. Use the motion controllers to gun down a couple of bad guys, throw the empty weapon at a third enemy, snatch the sword he drops out of the air and turn to bisect a fourth enemy on your flank. It’s an experience so mind-bogglingly cathartic and satisfying I practically wanted to have a post-coitus cigarette afterwards.

  1. DARK SOULS 3: THE RINGED CITY

Nobody will be more surprised than me to see two separate DLCs on this list, but there’s really no way of getting around it – they’re both really, really good. After a rather tepid addition to the canon with the Ashes of Ariandel add-on , it seemed like the last chapters of Dark Souls were set to fade away without much excitement… And then The Ringed City changed everything. Beautiful design, thrilling gameplay, hours of material, and a bombastic, incredible conclusion that feels like the most perfect way you could end a series that is in itself about the end of all things – not with a whimper, but with the kind of bang that made my eyes actually widen with amazement when I realised the true implications of what I’d just seen. Well-bloody-played, From Software.

  1. XCOM 2: WAR OF THE CHOSEN

And unlike The Ringed City, this DLC is less of a conclusion and more of a revitalisation. XCOM 2 was a game I found myself less impressed by as time went on, but this is exactly what it needed. A whole new campaign with new characters, missions, mechanics, ideas, and more importantly, three very punchable enemies to center all of our bubbling aggression onto. Nothing will make your heart plummet like seeing one of the cackling, melodramatic Chosen snatch your best soldier and drag him screaming into a portal to be tortured, and nothing will make you want to punch the air like putting a shotgun in that Chosen’s mouth and watching yellow blood spray over the opposite wall when you pull the trigger. Especially the Warlock, that insufferable cu-

  1. CUPHEAD

Newsflash: pretty game looks really pretty. Far less obvious newsflash: pretty game is actually very well made and not just selling itself on looking pretty.

Yes, Cuphead’s 1930s cartoon style is so utterly wonderful and encapsulating that it’s really hard not to start grinning as you watch the newest examples of the artwork bounce energetically into shot, combined with a suitably lively gameplay model that, whilst blisteringly challenging in those last few missions, is never truly unfair and always worth pushing through, just to see what comes next. If you like your tough games as much as I do, this is definitely for you.

  1. ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD

I guess reinvention is the name of the game this year, as franchises worked to improve themselves in new and interesting ways (or worsen themselves, if they’re Shadow of War or Star Wars: Battlefield 2), and Breath of the Wild feels like a good example of that. A well-crafted and delightfully organic form of gameplay, one that’s fine with you going straight to the final boss if you think you’re tough enough, squire. This Zelda game is all about experimentation and discovery, not just discovering the world through exploration but seeing how you can play with the mechanics to have that unique edge in combat. I mean, how many games with axes and trees will actually let you combine the two and actually start playing lumberjack? Surprisingly few, I must say. And if you can drop that tree trunk on a moblin’s head, all the better.

  1. HOLLOW KNIGHT

Newsflash: pretty game looks – oh, wait.

Yes, Hollow Knight is my game of the year for 2017, and quite deservedly so. This cute little mash-up of Metroidvania, Dark Souls, and even Earthworm Jim is a beautiful, bittersweet, bewitching little romp through adversity and triumph, as our diminutive insect hero pioneers across an underground kingdom of bugs laid to waste by a mysterious sickness. Drawn in an elegant, simple style and matched by a sound design that imbues everyone with character even before they start speaking, Hollow Knight may just be one of the best indie games in the last few years.


 

Happy New Year to everybody, and thanks to everyone who enjoys my work here or on other websites. Hopefully next year will bring even better things – but who really trusts hope, anyway?

TOP TEN GAMES OF 2016

Blimey, what a rubbish year 2016 was! Thoroughly awful, and I didn’t even care about that stupid gorilla, though the internet isn’t going to let me forget about it any time soon. Never pay attention to all the crap that’s online, bunch of self-obsessed jackasses that-

Oh. Uh, forget that last bit.

Regardless, the time has come to rustle up the notable games of the previous year and shoot all those with broken legs, bad eyes or a sub-standard smell until only the good ones are left. Fire on my command.


10. Steamworld: Heist: “A rather sweet and memorable IOS game, Steamworld: Heist combines a good difficulty curve and surprising amount of content in a 2D turn-based strategy game, all with lovable (if slightly flat) characters.”

9. Pokémon: Sun and Pokémon: Moon: “Though it still pales in comparison to the greats of the series (I still hold that the Mystery Dungeon games are better than any of the core franchise), Pokémon Sun and Moon were smart enough to advance the Pocket Monsters concept after the appalling double-act that was Generation X/Y, followed by the turgid Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. Adding a fresh layer of personality and making some steps in advancing the core concept, Sun and Moon should represent the first steps in a long path back to greatness.”

8. XCOM 2: “Every time I play XCOM 2, I feel the review I gave it was too generous, too upbeat, too mired in the initial hype that surrounded it… But that doesn’t change the fact that I keep coming back to it and lost nearly a hundred hours to the damn thing. It’s not as good as the original, but that can’t stop it being good in the first place – and it definitely is.”

7. Orwell: “Compelling and intelligent (if a little on-the-nose and unsubtle with the name), Orwell provides the dystopian surveillance-state we’ve all seen a hundred times in sci-fi, then tells you to keep it running smoothly from behind a computer screen. The restrictive linearity of the game is a problem, but there’s something darkly potent about certain scenes, and there are moments when it becomes terribly creepy. And that’s because you’re terribly creepy, you privacy-invading perv.”

6. Overwatch: “I can’t win when it comes to this entry, because half the people who see this will be outraged it’s on this list at all, and the other half will be staggered it isn’t at number one. And to that I say: Overwatch is fun, but it’s only fun. It’s not transcendental, it’s not the video game messiah, it’s just a very solid set of mechanics that don’t really have much structure or meaningful narrative behind them, not to mention that there’s no character on the roster who makes my eyes light up at the thought of playing. But as I said, Overwatch is fun – and that’s something we shouldn’t ignore.”

5. Bioshock Remastered: “Yes, I’m putting a simple remake on the list, because replaying the first Bioshock after so many years was one of the best times I’ve had in 2016 (despite the occasional technical fuck-up). But honestly, it was only those errors that prevented it from being higher on the list in the first place. Still superb after so long, Bioshock overcomes its flaws by being smarter than the vast majority of games could ever hope to be – though that shouldn’t stop them trying.”

4. Furi: “There were a few top-notch indie games out this year (not including those that were lost in boob physics and misplaced overambition) but Furi provided a lasting experience that brought all who played it to the edge of sanity, just from the sheer rage it triggered in us. And though the extreme difficulty can come across as obnoxious when you’re wading into a boss fight on Take Thirty-Seven, it’s hard to stay away for very long.”

3. Dark Souls 3: “I think we can safely make an assumption at this point – if there was a From Software title released during the year, it will be somewhere on this list. Dark Souls 3 sidestepped the sense of aimlessness that the previous sequel struggled with, and formed a unique nostalgia for the franchise’s existence that felt like a fitting conclusion. I’m happy to wave goodbye to my beloved sadist, knowing that it had a good life and ended with the right kind of closure.”

2. Quadrilateral Cowboy: “This one might’ve been polarising if more people had heard of it in the first place. Speak about the most recent odyssey of flatpack characters from Blendo Games to your friends, and they’ll probably give you a blank look. “Quantumnul what?” Regardless, doing what Watch_Dogs and so many others failed to do; Quadrilateral Cowboy actually makes hacking feel real and tangible, not to mention fundamentally interesting. There’s not even a single pipe-and-water game the whole way through!”

1. Doom: “I said it would be good when it was shown at E3 last year, and lo’, was it so. Throwing all restraint and self-control out of the window, Id Software have made a worthy follow-up to the originals that, like Wolfenstein before it, feels like a loving homage to the classics whilst modernising it in all the right ways. Just don’t play it on any computer with less processing power than Deep Thought.”


That’s the second year this site’s been running, and I’ll say again what I forced out between gritted teeth last year– thank you all for your continued support. No, I really mean it. Your obvious good taste and kindness means that I can hold off on starting up “Project Q” for yet another year, and we can certainly all be thankful for that.