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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GREAT BOSS FIGHTS AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT US, NO. 2: “PHALANX”

Last time we looked at the endearingly icy antagonist of Arkham City, “Mister Freeze,” and after several hundred words deduced that boss fights – and stay with me on this one – should generally be a bit harder than the bits of the game that aren’t boss fights.

I know, I know, it’s certainly bold new thinking, but what made Monsieur Gel work so well was the fact that he was testing every aspect of the player’s skills up until then. In a game split evenly around reaction-brawler combat and stealth, Freezey is the enemy who demands perfection in the latter of those two, as well as an organic understanding of how to use all the tools you’ve acquired.

But now we’re leaping back in time by half a decade and a whole console generation to a game beloved in indie circles, to the point where it’s recently gotten a shiny new re-release to bleed pennies out of all the people who bought it the first time, but don’t get to play it on the new, (allegedly) superior consoles. That’s progress, apparently.

 

“PHALANX/COLOSSUS 13/THE SNAKE,” SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS

Replaying Shadow of the Colossus recently, what struck me was how many of the Colossi frankly seem to be struggling to live up to the promise offered by the first few you encounter – that promise of big, epic struggles between towering monstrosities and an anime pretty-boy in a poncho, who hangs from their pubic hair and hacks diligently at their exposed ‘nads.

You can certainly tell which Colossi feel more like gimmicks than fleshed-out ideas: Buffalo Bill and his baffling pyrophobia, Crash Thompson and his penchant for headbutting pillars into perfect locations, or Tooth-Temple Terry pootling around his lake until you steer him into a wall. They’re not bad, these fights, they’re just a little… token, dropping in quality because of what they’re not, rather than what they are.

But then there’s the thirteenth Colossus, referred to as “Phalanx,” or sometimes as “the Snake.” Neither term does it proper justice. Show up at the vast stretch of bleached desert sands to the North-West of Dormin’s Temple, and there’ll be a moment of confused searching before the ground begins to rumble and nearly six hundred feet of flying tapeworm explodes out of the sand, dwarfing even the huge monsters you’ve seen so far and making you feel like something barely worthy of notice as it begins to fly in wide, looping patterns, supported on giant, organic balloons of gas.

Uh… now what?

 

WHAT IT INCLUDES

A bit of everything, largely. To begin with, you can’t even get up to reach Phalanx as he circles lazily through the air, and must engage in a bit of precision shooting with your bow, trying to pierce the three air sacs that keep him at his lofty altitude. This done, he’ll descend to the point where the tips of his sixty-foot fins are dragging through the sand, and this is probably the best moment of the fight, as you charge alongside him on horseback, trying to keep pace, trying to keep an eye out for obstacles, trying not to freak out at the size of this thing, and must organically pick a moment to throw yourself at the fin and cling on for dear life before his airbags refill and he begins to raise back up into the stratosphere. Hope you don’t mind heights.

And suddenly, you’re higher than most birds can fly, gawping over the edge of oblivion as you pull yourself up onto his broad, fur-flecked back, and try to hold on as you pull yourself against the wind currents to his three weak spots and stab furiously at them in an attempt to bring this beast down. He’ll try and shake you off, even dropping back down into the sand to get rid of you if you take too long, which means you’ll have to try and pull this off again. Sounds good to me.

 

WHY IT’S GOOD

What, weren’t you listening? This is a huge fight that actually feels like both of you are doing your utmost to get rid of the other, and has a sense of scale and majesty that few other games can match. It’s not just big, it’s… well, colossal.

Heck, not only that, but nothing here is scripted. Yeah, there’s an order to how you need to do things, but the way you go about it is up to you, no quick-time events or anything. Start by doing a bit of sharpshooting with only your own skills to rely on, ride on Aggro alongside this runaway train of a beast, literally stand on the horse’s back to leap at Phalanx’s fin (desperately trying not to miss), then pull yourself up to his body proper and crawl around his lengthy frame at your leisure, hunting down the magical equivalent of jugular veins and carving them up royal. It’s big, and it’s epic, and it feels like you’re the one doing it, not just the game setting you up for this moment disingenuously like it’s a fairground ride at Disneyland. And when Phalanx barrel-rolls through the air to shake you off, hanging upside down off his back hair by one hand as your feet drag through the clouds feels like an untouchable adrenaline high.

 

ANY MISTEPS?

If I had to object, I might say that the fight is perhaps a smidge too easy and could afford to be little more punishing when you do something stupid. Traditionally, once you’re on a colossus, the big threat is running out of stamina and losing your grip, but at this point in the game you’ve got a stamina bar as long as Das Boot and playing with even a modicum of care should see you getting rid of at least two of Phalanx’s weak points before he finally just throws himself back into the dirt for a guaranteed breather.

Not to mention that if you do fall off his back before then, the end result is surprisingly tame, with our prepubescent protagonist not even losing half of his health as he drops though the air and lands face down in sun-scorched rocks and sand. Hell, it’s not long before you realise that Phalanx never actually attacks you, just trying to shake you off his back after you stab him one too many times, so there’d be odd moments of disconnect where I’d look up at this thing soaring overhead after I just hacked half the blood out of it, still apparently unconcerned by the aggressive little microbe shooting arrows up at it and screaming angry, Ico-brand non-language.

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

That huge-scale stuff has to be handled carefully, and never to the player’s detriment, putting the cinematic too far forward. I admit, running around all over the giant figures in the God of War series never really did much for me, because everything about it felt scripted and planned in advance. Not to mention that Kratos’ absurd power didn’t make it feel like that much of a fight to begin with, so who cares about the distinction in size?

But Team Ico designs Phalanx like some strange, alien airship, something so big that it can hurt you by accident, and placing it in an environment large enough that you keep forgetting how huge this thing is until you ride close to it. Then moving around on its back feels real, roughly speaking, with everything going towards making the battle feel plausible and terrifying in scope. The game doesn’t give you anything, you have to claim it all for yourself, and that’s far, far more satisfying.

 

NEXT TIME: “I’ve done everything this world has to offer. I’ve read every book. I’ve burned every book. I’ve won every game. I’ve lost every game. I’ve appeased everyone. I’ve killed everyone.

“Sets of numbers… Lines of dialog… I’ve seen them all.”