Another year, another nearly one hundred games played.
Between casual curiosity and work here at Kotaku, I go through a lot of games, from the largest AAA titles to innovative indie and altgames. 2018 was a good year for games but, alas, I could only pick 10 when it came time to decide the best of the best.
Yakuza 6 isn’t always the most consistent game. It tends to leap from plot thread to plot thread, underutilizes key series characters, and builds to a climax that never quite lands with the expected gravitas. (This is, after all, supposedly the last time we get to enjoy Kazuma Kiryu as a protagonist.) But in spite of its failings, Yakuza 6 is a tremendous game. It manages to explore themes of parenthood, sacrifice, and changing times while also including wacky spear fishing and baseball mini-games, side quests with sentient AI phone assistants, and over-the-top arcade combat. From the neon-lit streets of Kamurocho to the quiet alleys of Onomichi, Yakuza 6 is a joy to explore. You never know who you’ll meet, and you can never predict its various twist and turns. There is no other series in games right now quite like Yakuza. Every one of these games is essential playing, and Yakuza 6 is no exception.
2016’s Hitman refined an already astounding series of games into one of the most deviously enjoyable experiences playable today. From its creeping release schedule to the raucous complications of escalation missions that toss ever more ridiculous challenges your way, Hitman dripped with cleverness. Hitman 2 further refines its gameplay, adding dense crowds and social stealth along with a focused but pulpy plot that brings you from Miami to Mumbai to a secret pitch meeting with the world’s richest (and shittiest) people. Every level is a densely woven tapestry whose details beg to be examined and picked apart. Each new solution feels both intuitive and surprising. How it is possible for a game to be both one of the smartest games in years and one of the funniest? I don’t know, but Hitman 2 pulls it off… and then escapes the scene of the crime without being seen.
Heaven Will Be Mine combines many fantastic things: excellent writing, giant robots, queerness, and fucking. A visual novel from the same crew that brought 2015’s narrative powerhouse We Know The Devil, Heaven Will Be Mine deftly reshapes the mecha genre into something sensual and raw. Its giant robots are less war machine and more an extension of ourselves, and its combat is redefined into something flirtatious and personal. What does it mean to have someone in your sights or to have their mech caught within the confines of your energy nets? What does it mean to leave the cockpit and truly see the person you’ve been fighting? Heaven Will Be Mine explores a host of themes, including the othering of things we don’t understand, the yearning for connection, the sheer ecstasy of contact, and the manipulation of younger generations by their elders. It does all of that while delivering stylish and evocative sci-fi world building. So, you know, it’s rad as fuck, basically.
I went into Odyssey with trepidation. Here was this big, open-world game stubbornly adhering to some of the most tiresome AAA cliches, forcing a strange frame onto a once experimental franchise. And yet, as I journeyed deeper and deeper into its world, I found myself hooked. Its story was personal, its protagonist likable, and its quests were both fun and narratively rich. As Kassandra grew entangled with age old-conspiracies and nation-spanning wars, I played to see what would come next just as much as pressed on to see whatever new, colorful location awaited me. Whatever concerns I initial had melted away. This is a game that feels made with genuine care and enthusiasm, as committed to sci-fi strangeness as it is to plumbing the depths of history. And as it continues to grow with new quest and and storylines, I am eager to further explore its exciting and colorful version of ancient Greece.
You are going to lose something every time you take to the field in Battletech. Sometimes, it might just be some ammunition or one of your mech’s arms. Other times, it will mean losing your ace pilot to a one and a million stray shot to their cockpit. Because of this, Battletech is ultimately a game about failure and loss. Unlike other tactics games where clean wins are possible, Battletech is committed to the reality that nothing comes for free. Victory and change is won through the grinding of steel, the sudden deaths of the brave and foolish, and the capricious whims of fate. Each battle is a crucible, requiring smart thinking and harried improvisation when something breaks. I’ve never played a tactics game so committed to its core themes and philosophy. The result is horrifying and wonderful, and I am so glad this stubborn little game exists.
I have played over 350 hours of Monster Hunter: World. I have slain more creatures than I can remember, each of them posing unique, in-the-moment challenges that forced me to be alert and quickly understand a variety of factors. What can my weapons do? What items do I have? If this thing roars, what will it do next? Where are my friends standing? How long will my next move take? Monster Hunter: World mixes the deliberate with the frenzied, creating a gameplay loop where progression might yield new armor and weapons but the real metric is personal skill. It is also a game that I’ve gotten to enjoy with a vast swath of wonderful people, including those I love and still hold dear even as the nature of our relationships change. I also got to enjoy it with many of our readers, streaming on Twitch and engaging in wonderful misadventures. Monster Hunter: World might not hold up to scrutiny when you look at its themes; this is a deeply colonial game and that is uncomfortable. But it is also a joyously communal game, one which brings people together regardless of skill level or prior experience. I am grateful for all of the wonderful moments it’s granted and all the connections it’s brought.
What a wonderful surprise The Missing was. The game was already on my radar thanks to its director, Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro. Suehiro’s games mix down-to-earth sensibilities with magical realism to create experiences that are incredibly kind but sometimes problematic. The Missing initially appears to to fit that same mold: It’s a puzzle platformer about a queer romance where the protagonist must mutilate her body in order to solve puzzles. Can’t weigh that platform down? Just cut off a few legs and arms until you have it. On this mechanic alone, The Missing would be a fascinating experience, but the narrative goes above and beyond expectations. As we learn more about protagonist J.J. it becomes clear that The Missing wants to tells an empathetic story of love, social pressure, gender expectations, and rebellion. It is a story that could have easily been treated with a crass and exploitation lens, but Suehiro imbues it with genuine care. It is sweet, well-considered, and treats it characters kindly. The result is an offbeat and quirky game with a vulnerable core.
Lucas Pope’s supernatural detective game Return of the Obra Dinn is possibly the smartest thing I’ve ever played. The structure is so sound and core concept so original that it defies comparison to anything else. As an insurance agent for the East India Company, your job is to explore a ship where everyone has died and deduce their fates. To do this, you use a magic pocket watch to travel back to the moments of their deaths. It starts simple but balloons out into situations where you are making guesses based on uniforms, bunk numbers, and more. It is a process both rewarding and uncomfortable, each successful identification feels well-earned, if not somewhat uncomfortable due to the assumptions you sometimes have to make. It’s hard to say if that’s an intention or an unfortunate side effect of the game’s sometimes Eurocentric worldview, but I found Obra Dinn a cause of much personal self-reflection. It accurately captures a time and place, tells a deft and intrigue-filled plot, and does all of that within the frame of a unique puzzle game.
Tetris Effect is a lot of things. It is a familiar puzzle gaming classic. It is a planetary light show. It is a journey around the world. It is a concert with the most spectacular finale. It takes what might be the world most perfect video game and adds a dazzling humanistic touch. Each dropping piece and cleared line adds to the game’s musical score, creating a gorgeous cacophony of piano plinks, rivet spins, and even footsteps in the sand. I’ve never played anything like this and could never have conceived of how much I needed it. Tetris Effect is a celebration of all the good things in the world. “Look at this world we’re made for,” lyrics on the final level proclaim. It is that sense of wonder, excitement, and love that turns Tetris Effect from a simple puzzle game into one of the most refreshing and essential affirmations I’ve ever experienced.
When we write reviews at Kotaku, we list a game’s negatives in the small review box that accompanies the post. Celeste was the first time—and it might end up as the only time—when I could not think of a single thing to dislike. From the perfect jumping controls and increasingly innovative level design to the adorable characters and their highly relatable anxieties, Celeste is an immaculately made game. It is so simple to control and wonderfully difficult to master that each new playthrough leads to new discoveries. At the heart of it all is a story of vulnerability and doubt that is simple but wonderfully real. I will carry this game in my heart and soul for a long time, summoning its lessons with each new personal mountain I encounter, and remembering that for all of the struggles we face in this life, there is a mountain top that we can reach in due time.