I played more games in 2018 than in any prior year, which makes sense given it was also my first year as a full time staff writer at this illustrious website. There were so many that were so good, and yet I still didn’t manage to play as much of some of the year’s biggest games to render a strong verdict on them, such as God of War and Red Dead Redemption II.
Fortunately, those games have gotten plenty of love on plenty of other lists. What follows isn’t my definitive take on the best games of this year, simply because I didn’t manage to play all or even most of them. It is, however, a definitive, alphabetical list of the games that meant the most to me this year, as well as the ones that I think did something worth thinking about and returning to.
I’ve spent a lot of time—maybe too much—with Valve’s new card game. It’s imperfect in a lot of ways, and RNG casts too long a shadow over the battlefield for my taste, but despite all the knocks against it, there’s no other game I’d rather sit down to play since it came out last month. Despite borrowing a lot from Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, when taken as a whole, Artifact remains independent from its influences. In the almost 100 hours I’ve spent with the game so far, it’s managed to surprise and delight me in ways I never could have expected.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is overwhelming in its size and the sheer number of things you can do. Most of them aren’t even all that good or fun when taken individually. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s scope is in fact its greatest virtue. Having reached a critical mass of places to go and things to be distracted by, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is like a black hole nothing can escape from but inside of which everything feels possible. The mere fact that it feels like I could get lost playing the game forever imbues each individual moment with a special sense of freedom and potential.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
The single most fun per minute spent playing anything this year came from an unlikely source: a stretch goal for Koji Igarashi’s crowdfunded Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is an 8-bit-styled call back to the NES Castlevania games with an amazing chiptune soundtrack and brooding, gothic art that distills the pleasures of platforming, exploring, and slicing through the pixelated enemies of the original series with precision and gusto. Only a few hours long, the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, while also providing a smartly implemented party system and custom special attacks to make it worth playing a second or third time. Not a macabre moment nor inch of space feels wasted, making Curse of the Moon the new ideal of what a retro homage should aim for.
I didn’t quite understand Cultist Simulator when I first started playing it, and I’m still not completely sure how it works. Despite that confusion, or maybe because of it, this grim card game changed how I think about storytelling in games and the mechanics that can be used to stitch them together. Consequences layer, one on top of the other, ultimately building into a narrative of mundane suffering and dark mysticism that feels like it’s reaching out from an alternate past to shake me from my prosaic world view.
Dragon Ball FighterZ
Colorful, sumptuous, and wonderfully intuitive to control, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a stunning achievement in the field of trying to take larger-than-life anime worlds and make them into comprehensible video games. Dragon Ball FighterZ didn’t change fighting games, but it did breathe new life into what Dragon Ball could be through its ability to not just capture the wonder and spirit of the manga and anime, but at times surpass it. While Dragon Ball FighterZ performs some of the great and by now familiar dramas of the original series, it’s also a masterful platform for generating countless new ones.
Gris is beautiful. We knew that when it was announced, and we know it even more now that it’s out. There are a lot of beautiful games, but Gris is different. Its presentation and animation are truly next level. The way its beauty is deployed to bring its world and puzzles to life is stunning. At times breathtaking tender, at times solemn and harsh, Gris, complimented by an excellent, contemplative musical score, takes a vaguely defined but pervasive sense of loss and lets it manifest in various shapes, colors, and movements until it’s intimately knowable while still ineffable.
Paratopic is concise, beautifully haunting, and eerily transformative. Nothing else this year left me feeling so disturbed and yet also entranced. Its ghostlike audio design, discombobulating jump cuts, and grainy, confined spaces combined to create something so evocative that after I finished I wasn’t sure if I’d had a nightmare about the game or was simply remembering my actual time with it. A testament to how violently resisting the expectations many of us take into the games we play can yield exciting sparks in the friction, Paratopic will be haunting my dreams for years to come. (One of the game’s designers, GB Burford, is a freelance writer who has occasionally contributed to Kotaku.)
Return of the Obra Dinn
Most mystery games I’ve played have felt contrived, as if the central goal had been to add a menu system to the pages of a crime thriller. Return of the Obra Dinn feels like a much more natural marriage of form and content, with hidden truths that take shape as you collect facts and deduce new ones rather than being earned by simply jumping through the right hoops. Playing Return of the Obra Dinn is like taking part in a séance with the soul of logic.
The Red Strings Club
Few games this year did so much with so little. As played out and occasionally poorly executed as the cyberpunk aesthetic can feel, every year yields a handful of great games that make it their own. Last year it was Observer for me. This year it’s The Red Strings Club, a tale of corporate espionage and transhumanity that plays with the way consciousness can be manipulated by chemical substances. I don’t normally enjoy more passive, narrative-based games, but The Red Strings Club’s combination of jazz, alcohol, and philosophic introspection had me glued to my laptop.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
The fifth Smash Bros. isn’t my favorite in the series. Its Spirits mode left me underwhelmed, and in fact the entire way it’s packaged feels both hostile and inadequately evolved from previous games. Smash Bros. Ultimate’s gigantic roster and excellent moment-to-moment feel and action make it unmissable, though. The underlying Smash Bros. formula is one of the best in all of video games. And even if Ultimate isn’t the best in the series, it’s certainly one of the more respectable permutations in it. Plus Young Link is finally back.
Frostpunk: 11 bit studios’ brutal apocalyptic society simulator was very close to making my top ten, and on a day where I was feeling slightly differently it might have. Frostpunk imagines life after environmental collapse and renders it intimately and irresistibly.
Valkyria Chronicles 4: In a generally underwhelming year for JRPGs, I still had a lot of fun with Valkyria Chronicles 4's turn-based combat and World War II-inspired setting. It reminded me of the PS1 and PS2 strategy games that used to enthrall me, but also some of their eccentricities and narrative shortcomings. In 2018 I have zero patience for games indulging in creepy male gazes.
Below: The first few hours of Below were some of the most amazing I experienced in any game this year. The later parts begin to overstay their welcome though, stretching that original magic out in uneven directions until Below feels less like a revelation and more like other roguelike dungeon crawlers.