My Favorite Games of 2018

Despite putting TrevorTrove on ice for the better part of 2018, I kept playing games and having thoughts about them, so now seems a good a time as any to share those thoughts with my favorite games of 2018. I’m foregoing the separate lists that I’ve done in the past in favor of one Top 20 list to rule them all (mainly because I didn’t revisit enough games or play too many non-2018 games that it just didn’t make sense). But as always, before we get to the list proper, here are a couple

Honorable Mentions: Florence and Just Shapes & Beats

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There was a ton of praise for Florence this year and I definitely remember playing it and enjoying it at the time but outside of it being “that game where you kind of play through 500 Days of Summer” it just didn’t stick with me enough to make the list. And Just Shapes & Beats was a game I’d been eyeing since I first saw it at the 2015 PSX in San Francisco but when it finally came to Switch this year, the bullet-hell-ness of it just proved too overwhelming for me to stick through the amazing soundtrack. Absolutely loved the music, just couldn’t experience it enough thanks to the difficulty.

20. Minit

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Kicking the list off proper with this innovative puzzle game in the guise of a black and white Zelda-like. When you come into contact with a cursed sword, you suddenly start dying every 60 seconds but as it turns out, you can do a lot in that minute when yours actions will outlive you. Finding the solutions to the games puzzles and secrets was rewarding but it was the clever use of the Groundhog’s Day-type of hook that stood out for me.

19. Let’s Go Pikachu/Pokemon Quest

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As is the Game of the Year list tradition, I’m combining a couple of very similar titles that I enjoyed so they don’t take up two slots. Let’s Go Pikachu is an interesting blend of the Gameboy classic Pokemon Yellow infused with Pokemon GO’s catching mechanics. It definitely felt oversimplified but the focus on Kanto brought me back and I enjoyed catching ‘em all. And I echo the sentiments of pretty much everyone I’ve seen in that The Pokemon Company should never ever go back to random encounters. Seeing the Pokemon in the grass/caves/water made the world feel more alive than ever. Pokemon Quest was also a nice little distraction early in the year and was actually the first of three times this year I completed a Kanto Pokedex (the other two being the aforementioned Pokemon GO and Let’s Go Pikachu).

18. Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Pre-release coverage didn’t really do anything to sell me on this game and as much as I remember enjoying the last two Tomb Raider games, I also feel like they’ve been far too forgettable to really keep me invested in the series. But a friend enjoyed her time with it enough that I picked it up on a Black Friday/Cyber Monday deal and played through Lara’s adventure. The game itself felt the roughest of this trilogy with most of my deaths coming at the hands of seemingly inconsistent physics or platforming problems but I also found the story to be the most compelling as it was a much more personal one for Lara Croft.

17. Detroit: Become Human

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I pretty much knew going into Detroit: Become Human that it was going to be a lot of cheesy dialogue mixed with atrocious motion-controlled quick-time events. So maybe that’s why I enjoyed the game. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of infuriating choices in the game the don’t feel earned at all but there are also some really cool puzzles and scenarios that can be drastically different depending on how your game has played out. Also, Connor and Hank were a lot of fun together and replaying the game to get a trophy for having Connor die in every possible instance was one of the funniest trophies I’ve ever gotten.

16. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

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For the longest time, I kept telling myself (and others) that I hated Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and that I was just playing it because I needed a “check off all of the boxes” kind of game. And that last part is very much true but I suppose I have to admit that after 85 hours getting the Platinum trophy here, I probably liked it a bit. I will at least cede that I think Kassandra was a fun character and this was my favorite Assassin’s Creed. And playing this before Red Dead Redemption 2 probably made all of that game’s shortcomings in the “action-adventure” department look even worse by comparison because at least in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, getting around the world wasn’t a mind-numbingly boring chore.

15. Guacamelee 2

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I remember playing a 4-player co-op demo of Guacamelee 2 at the 2017 PSX and thinking three things: I love Drinkbox Studios art style, game design, and humor; I really liked the first Guacamelee; and I’m never going to play 4-player co-op in the normal game because it’s way too chaotic! And sure enough, Guacamelee 2 was a ton of fun this year, expanding on the story from the first game into the “Mexi-verse.” Packed to the brim with easter eggs and nods to other games in the “Metroid-vania” genre, Guacamelee 2 expands on what made the first game great while exploring some new ideas as well. And adding Shirtless Arachnid-Person and Portillo in support of long-time advocate Greg Miller and the Kinda Funny Games Showcase was *chef’s kiss*.

14. The Gardens Between

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Another game I was first introduced to at the 2017 PSX, The Gardens Between is another heartfelt puzzle game. The gameplay is simple enough as a pair of friends can really only move in a linear path through a series of abstract levels evoking memories from their past. They can interact with various objects in the world though that will alter their path and redirect them or uncover secrets. The Gardens Between never outstays its welcome telling a concise, focused story through a series of diverse puzzles leading up to an endearing finale.

13. Donut County

Another short puzzle game that doesn’t outstay its welcome; Donut County is most easily described as a relaxing inverse of the Katamari Damacy games. Instead of collecting every loose object together in an ever-growing ball of stuff, Donut County sees you gobbling up all of those objects into an ever-growing hole in the ground. If anything, I would have been happy to just keep gobbling up stuff via the fun little puzzles provided and I would have loved to just keep reading the hilarious item descriptions.

12. Into the Breach

When Into the Breach stealth-dropped on the Nintendo Switch during a Nintendo Direct earlier in the year, it caught my eye as something that might scratch that isometric strategy itch of something like Final Fantasy Tactics. I didn’t realize it was built more around randomized bite-sized campaigns than a particularly deep narrative but the strategy tactics gameplay hooked me just the same. I loved slowly becoming more and more familiar with how to best the enemy tactics with an ever-growing arsenal of tools. I think one of the game’s best aspects is that you don’t always have to win a fight, sometimes it’s just enough to survive throughout the battle. I finally managed a full victory while vacationing with my family at Disneyland in September and so this game will now forever be linked to the fun I have there as well.

11. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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I haven’t really cared too deeply about Super Smash Bros. since sitting around the couch with my friends playing the original. I have continued to purchase each iteration on the off chance I suddenly become a social butterfly looking to play with a group of people again but I usually just go through the motions of unlocking the characters, playing some classic mode and other single-player content, beating a group of CPU fighters for a few matches, and moving on. I was probably finally going to skip this one until the World of Light reveal, which intrigued me enough to buy the game. And that’s how I unlocked most of the characters this time around, by patiently wading through the 25 hours of themed battles in the World of Light campaign. I’ve since beaten Classic Mode with about half of the characters and collected over 1200 of the games unique Spirits. And once again, have not play a single match with another person so far. It just misses cracking the top ten because I thought World of Light was actually far longer than it needed to be. Because while some of the themed battles are clever, most of the games Spirits are far too obscure to register for anyone but the most die hard Nintendo fans or just wind up feeling a bit monotonous. This is a case where less would have been more.

10. West of Loathing

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Or as I like to call it, the good Western that came to consoles in 2018 (take that Game of the Year contender/winner Red Dead Redemption 2!). I’d seen West of Loathing at various PAX events for the last couple of years but never actually sat down with it until it came to Switch this year. This turn-based RPG Western has a fun little stick-figure-based simple art style and it is genuinely one of the funniest games I’ve ever played with nearly every line of dialogue and even item or attack descriptions being filled to the brim with jokes. I loved every little side quest that would pull me away from the relatively straightforward “go west” main story. Between the humor and gameplay, I was much more driven to play through the story of my dumb little stick man than I was Arthur Morgan’s tale of woe.

9. Fortnite Battle Royale

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I historically haven’t been too keen on online multiplayer games. For me, multiplayer more or less came to an end in the N64 era when my middle/high school friends stopped getting together to play Goldeneye and Smash. I only played my first Call of Duty a couple years ago and even then it was a purely single-player experience. So Fortnite and the Battle Royale genre have been something I’ve viewed at a distance. But like many others, when it came to Switch over the summer, I decided to hop in to the game alongside some friends who were far more addicted than me. Ultimately, I only really played with them a couple times but I was definitely addicted to the challenges and the Battle Pass grind playing hours and hours of the 50v50 modes through Season 5. I was even one of the first of the group to reach Tier 100. I kept going for a bit into Season 6 before something like Spider-Man came along to pull me back to single-player but the whole experience gave me a newfound appreciation for all of the cool stuff Epic is doing to keep that game engaging for their massive community.

8. Tetris Effect

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The core gameplay of Tetris has always been great. And I definitely suffer from the titular “Tetris Effect,” wherein I will see the pieces falling into place in my mind’s eye as I try and drift off to sleep. But I was more than willing to revisit that affliction with this latest installment. The standout elements of Tetris Effect come in the form of the dynamic visuals and soundtrack, both of which build spectacularly as lines are cleared. I loved nearly every minute spent with the game. Nearly being a key word though as the brutally unforgiving difficulty spike in the story-mode’s final level ultimately keeps this title from being a couple spots higher on my list. I finally managed to beat it on Easy difficulty after upwards of thirty attempts but I never intend to play the Metamorphosis level again as a result. But that bit of unpleasantness aside, this is a beautiful tribute to the age-old classic. And playing in VR adds another great...sigh...dimension… to an already incredible experience by immersing you in the visualizations without becoming overwhelming.

7. Moss

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In my small studio apartment, my PlayStation VR is often on the shelf because I have to actually rearrange furniture to give myself space to play. But a few times a year, I decide there’s an experience worth the setup and I play it and a handful of other PSVR titles I’ve been stockpiling. Moss was one of those experiences this year. I absolutely adored the game’s fairy-tale aesthetic and its enjoyable approach to platforming in virtual reality. You control mouse heroine Quill with the controller but you also exist in the world as a sort of guardian spirit, interacting with the environment to create new paths. I found so much simple pleasure in leaning into the diorama-like scenes and peeking around a corner to find a hidden secret that I would have been unable to find otherwise. Charming from start to finish, I hope for the next installment in Quill’s journey soon.

6. Beat Saber

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As with Moss above, Beat Saber was another marquee title that led me to dust off my PlayStation VR here at the end of the year. I’m not great at it yet but the soundtrack is wonderful and swinging around my virtual lightsabers to the beat of the music makes me feel like enough of a badass that I’m not only tempted to permanently re-arrange my furniture to keep PSVR a regular option, but even moreso, I’m increasingly tempted to buy a PC-based VR setup like Vive or Oculus to enjoy the much wider array of songs available online. If only I had the room.

5. Celeste

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When the year began, I had figured I was probably going to pass on Celeste. I’m not the biggest fan of precision platformers where you’re expected to die over and over again (a la Super Meat Boy). But people quickly started praising the game for how it incorporated its built-in difficulty into a story of overcoming self-doubt and depression and I was sold. Actually, I was probably really sold on the game’s included assist mode (where you can toggle various game mechanic options like invincibility and infinite jumping if you want). To my own surprise, I actually wound up reaching the summit without ever turning on any of these options, respecting the game’s suggestion to stick it out. However, once I beat the game I found myself having even more fun playing with these options to go after the rest of the collectibles or explore the more difficult and hidden B-Side (and C-Side) levels, admiring just how precise one would have to be to actually undertake those challenges in normal mode. I’ll never be that guy but I can still be impressed by the design. If I were ranking the year from a more critical point of view instead of my personal favorites, I would probably rank Celeste as high as number two but I just had a better all-around experience with a few other titles on this list.

4. Spider-Man

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I’ve been excited for this year’s Spider-Man since it was first teased at E3 2016 and then even moreso when I saw it played myself at E3 in 2017. It was one of my most anticipated games for the year and I was very pleased by how it shook out. The team at Insomniac built upon the traversal and open-world design they established in Sunset Overdrive - which remains my favorite Xbox One game - and told a fun and compelling Spider-Man story on top of it. I loved playing as a Peter Parker who has been at this for years now. Not only did it feel like a fresh perspective from what we normally see in the mainstream iterations, but it also made discovering little nuggets of this world’s history such a joy to find. I love the world they’re building here and I look forward to the inevitable sequel. I’ll just have to be more wary about how they handle additional content/DLC next time, as my experience with “The City that Never Sleeps” soured me a bit. I enjoyed the story just fine but with the content fully in the “post-game” category, it meant I kept coming back and having to re-learn the combat mechanics month after month among the most difficult fights in the game, which was not nearly as fun as the rest of my time with the game.

3. The Messenger

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While I stepped away from providing “coverage” for most of 2018, I did make one video game appointment when I went to PAX East in Boston and that was for The Messenger. I unfortunately ended up missing that appointment because event security was dumb and took forever but I made my way to the booth and just waited in the normal line an hour to play it anyway. Well worth it. And the full game was even better. A wonderful homage to 8- and 16-bit platformers like Ninja Gaiden and Super Metroid, The Messenger is well-deserving of the Debut Indie Game Award they received a few weeks ago. The difficulty almost never felt unforgiving and the few times where it was a bit brutal, it was just because I hadn’t stumbled upon the correct approach to a boss fight or platforming section. And the writing is a delight, with the mysterious shopkeeper providing some of the funniest tangents I’ve ever enjoyed in a game. I can’t wait for the upcoming free DLC and I also can’t wait for the game to eventually make it’s way to PlayStation so I can enjoy it all over again in my quest for the Platinum trophy on that one.

2. ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission

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Speaking of Platinum trophies, I’m writing many of these blurbs a few hours after getting my final Platinum of 2018 in the form of ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission; a game that wasn’t on my list a week ago but snuck in at the last minute and shot its way damn near the top. While Beat Saber was the draw to pull out my VR headset here at year’s end, ASTRO BOT is the game that has taken up the majority of my time this week. I had heard bits and pieces about this game comparing it to Super Mario 64 and I can now say that I agree with the comparisons wholeheartedly. Much like Super Mario 64 explored the collectathon platforming genre in the 3D space, ASTRO BOT explores it here in the Virtual Reality space. You exist in the game as a robot with a controller that can move your little robot buddy around as well as pick up a fun collection of attachments throughout the game like a grapple hook or water cannon. I had a smile across my face as I played through the various levels collecting all of the hidden robots and I only wanted to throw my controller a couple of times during the more difficult “challenge” levels, but they all felt incredibly rewarding when I was able to find every secret or nail a perfect run through a level. This is another game that charmed me immediately and kept me there the whole time.

1. God of War

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As I was writing these blurbs, a friend of mine who is a lapsed gamer from the original PlayStation/N64 era was asking me about my list and about my favorite game of the year. The first thing I described was the somewhat amazing feat that God of War took a character largely considered one-note (though I stand by the idea that Kratos journey in the original God of War was a compelling one, watered down by where the series went from there) and managed to make him a more layered figure with the new setting and a more emotionally-driven plot: take his son to the highest mountain in the realm to spread his wife’s ashes. I’ve enjoyed the previous entries (except Ascension which I never played) but was impression at just how much I enjoyed the narrative of this story. Kratos still has all of that baggage and history he is carrying over from his time tearing through the Greek pantheon but he is growing and learning from it.

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On top of that, I also really loved the world design and combat, with the Leviathan Axe quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite video game weapons. Combat encounters felt more intimate and strategic than in past incarnations but still incredibly satisfying. The single shot camera angle throughout the game, while probably not necessary, helped shape the game as a singular experience, rather than a series of connected chapters. And the game’s handful of side quests all served as some kind of lesson for Kratos and Atreus, such that the game felt like it had managed to trim out all of the non-essential bits and was honed down to a fine point. I don’t remember who originated it but I love the quote “in every good 30-hour game, there’s a great 20-hour game.” God of War feels like that expertly edited final product. It was probably a great 50-hour game at some point, but it feels like Cory Barlog and the Sony Santa Monica team managed to edit it down to an excellent 30-hour experience. It is the first game I can ever remember playing through and doing everything for the Platinum trophy and then just immediately loading up a new game and playing through all over again because I just wanted that experience again (and then again a few months later when I found myself craving it again). It was easily my favorite game of the year and has me seriously considering it against Final Fantasy VI as my all-time favorite. I look forward to revisiting it regularly in the years to come and hope we get to see where this journey takes Kratos next sooner than later.