It’s been a wonderful year for video games both big and small. The games that appealed to me most were games that moved me, that challenged me, that gave me interesting tools and then allowed me to decide what to do with them. Also, the ones that were on Switch.
Here are my 10 favorite games of 2018, ranked by how much they made me use my brain.
Return of the Obra Dinn
No game has been stuck in my head this year more than Return of the Obra Dinn, which anyone who likes video games should play. Set in 1807, the newest game from Lucas Pope (Papers, Please) is all about a ghost ship whose 60 passengers have either died or vanished. You play as an insurance adjuster armed with a pocket watch that lets you witness the final moment of each passenger’s life. Your job is to figure out all 60 fates, and as you gradually piece together what turns out to be a massive logic puzzle, it’s hard not to feel like the smartest person in the world. Many games reward perception and deduction; Lucas Pope has made an entire game out of it.
Into The Breach
Although Into The Breach looks like your average grid-based strategy game, it’s nothing like XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s something brand new, a twisted take on kaiju fighting in which you can see every move before it unfolds. You control a squadron of three mech pilots, each equipped with abilities that can damage, nullify, or move around the alien invaders. Your goal is to protect civilians from getting squashed in a series of missions that take place across four themed islands. It’s a cerebral, dangerously addictive game that I spent dozens of hours playing on both PC and Switch.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom
This game makes me happy, even as it’s crushing my spirit. It’s full of tough platforming challenges, tricky puzzles, and more animal shapeshifting than you can shoot with a pig’s fireball. Monster Boy is a spiritual successor to the beloved, confusingly named Wonder Boy/Monster World series for old Sega consoles, and it takes what worked so well about those old games, then adds a nice sleek polish. I love every minute of it.
For a while, I didn’t understand the appeal of Hitman 2. The story is incoherent, the main character is a drag, and a game about nothing but murder just didn’t seem that enticing to me. Then I played through Miami, and played through it again, and played through it again, and meticulously killed Sean Bean. Now I get the appeal. Hitman 2 is about mastery—about memorizing layouts and patterns and challenging yourself to get really, really good at a game. Also... well, it’s about murder.
God of War
By now you probably know what makes God of War so special—the delightful combat, the sharp acting, the way it transforms Kratos from relentless psychopath to lovable dad. The way it feels to throw the Leviathan Axe at a hidden rune. The way Mimir puts his stories on pause every time you leave your boat. What a damn game. It even got me on a Norse mythology kick.
A Way Out
Forget the clunky gunplay and rough voice acting—A Way Out is one of the most unique video game experiences I’ve ever had. It’s like a budget Naughty Dog game designed for two people, complete with cooperative puzzle-solving, teamwork, and one ridiculous ending sequence. I recommend playing it with a significant other or close friend. It will tear you apart and then bring you back together.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
If you’re playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as Alexios, you’re playing a good role-playing game with fun combat, great quests, and lots of bloat. But if you’re playing as Kassandra, you get to experience one of the best performances in gaming—a Wonder Woman simulator that resonated with me as much as anything I played this year. It’s a little too humongous, to the point where I can’t imagine any adult with a full-time job seeing everything in the game, but the trappings of ancient Greece and some really good writing make Odyssey stand out.
What I like about Insomniac’s Spider-Man isn’t just that web-swinging feels great and virtual Manhattan looks beautiful (even if it is missing my apartment), it’s that it tells a complicated, adult story about the way people interact and how they can hurt one another. Add a healthy dose of comic-book madness to the story of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson and you’ve got one excellent video game.
Red Dead Redemption 2
I expected Red Dead Redemption 2 to be gorgeous, to play with new gameplay mechanics and feature the most ambitious world I’d ever seen. What I didn’t expect was that it’d move me. Arthur Morgan turned out to be the best protagonist that Rockstar has ever written, and Dutch van der Linde morphed from someone I’d barely remembered in the first game to a charismatic despot I’ll never forget. It’s hard to imagine that this story was written by the same creative team that wrote the nihilistic Grand Theft Auto V. I want to replay Red Dead Redemption 2 one day, to just keep soaking in its world, playing poker with gang members, and hearing Arthur Morgan say “Sure.” Red Dead 2 often feels clunky—good luck escaping the law if you accidentally graze someone with your horse—but it’s a special video game.
Destiny 2 Forsaken
I didn’t think this would make the list. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Destiny since the day it launched in September of 2014. Forsaken is the best iteration of Bungie’s longrunning series to date, but Destiny is still the same loot treadmill it’s always been. My favorite Destiny story to date is the time my wife asked me after a raid why I kept playing Destiny when I had just spent the whole night shouting to my teammates about how annoying it was to play Destiny. Really, though, that’s the reason. Past the glorious alien-shooting and addictive level-climbing, I play Destiny to hang out with friends... and to complain with them about how much we hate Destiny.
Here are two games that I played in 2018 and would be on this list if they hadn’t come out last year:
Hollow Knight: The quintessential Metroidvania. Hollow Knight masters everything you’d want from an action-platformer—exploration, combat, tricky challenges, atmosphere, special abilities. It is a perfect video game.
Divinity Original Sin 2: I spent most of January playing through this game, exploring its world through 14-to-16-hour sessions. I haven’t been so engrossed in an RPG since Baldur’s Gate 2. Every decision matters, and there isn’t an ounce of filler.
Put another way: Most of the games on this list took me between 40 and 60 hours to play, and by the end I wished that they’d been shorter. Divinity: Original Sin 2 took me close to 80 hours to play, and by the end I wished it had been longer.
Runners-up: Celeste, Deltarune, A Case of Distrust, The Messenger, Ni no Kuni 2
Games I didn’t play enough to judge properly but could definitely be contenders if I had: Monster Hunter World, Prey: Mooncrash, Pillars of Eternity 2, Gris
Other older games I played for the first time this year and enjoyed: Batman Arkham Knight, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Dark Souls
Game I played competitively non-stop this year: StarCraft II
Game that remains my go-to during subway rides, flights, and sometimes even conversations: Threes