Games of the Year

I’mma keep it real with you chief, 2018 was a down year compared to 2017 for videogames. But, that’s kind of an unfair bar to hold 2018 to since 2017 might have been the best year for videogames in my lifetime, or at least since I was cognizant of what a “year” for mediums could be. Still, it had some great and solid releases. Here are the best I’ve played in 2018.

10. Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

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Now, I’ve never played the first Ni No Kuni game, as much as I always wanted to (I was really hoping for a PC port or PS4 remaster at some point). But, I was still relatively excited for Ni No Kuni II as it is very loosely connected to the first and being out of the loop wouldn’t hurt me, and goddamn if the combat didn’t look great… Which it is, but with one caveat I’ll get into in a moment. Before that, I want to mention just how charming this buttercup gumdrop of a game is. It’s so damn heartwarming and fuzzy but it never gets vomit inducing or too overly grating. Beyond the art style, it’s just the journey of a boy king who was thought to be assassinated as he begins to unite forgotten or disassociated portions of the continent under his new kingdom he wishes to found.

It’s got a solid cast of characters, some of which are really good a few of which are forgettable, who are well-voiced (when there’s actually voice acting since this game has a lot of text boxes)- Like my man Roland, who might be one of my favorite characters this year, the right-hand man of King Evan. The world is varied and vast and while the chibi art style the game changes to during traversal of the overworked map was controversial, I’m on the side that found it endearing and not too far removed from the overall mood of the game. I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of the side-quests that offer little bits of exposition and lore of the world and were never too demanding and the RTS-like kingdom battles as well as the town-simulator style kingdom management.

I did enjoy what amount of the combat I actually got to play around with. Ni No Kuni II is an action-RPG with a very good battle system that is often undermined by how easy the game can be. Most enemies can be deleted in a matter of seconds by one of your characters main abilities. Bosses and higher level enemies offer far more challenge and really allow you to enjoy this system that unfortunately, over half of the time spent in combat often doesn’t. Thankfully, the developer has added difficulty settings which were absent from the game at launch and this may no longer be an issue. I never did beat the game because I was waiting for the difficulty patch, but my time spent with the game was charming and relaxing due to its many varied gameplay systems that kept it fresh and a lovable cast of characters I will be returning to.

9. Vampyr

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There is much praise I need to give to the character interactions in Vampyr. I think that beyond the repetitive combat and cramped open-world, what really shined for me was the interweaving relationships of the characters you meet in the game and the way the decisions the player as protagonist, Dr. Johnathon Reid, makes within the game affects their status and as a result the meta-narrative and the world itself. Where many games have dozens upon dozens of fodder NPCs, either there to dispense side content or just as window dressing to make the world seem more alive, the vampire themed RPG makes more use of less. While the world isn’t exactly packed with characters to interact with (there are around 8-12 per zone), every one of them feels important. Not only that, but they all have interconnected narratives and relationships that can go up or down depending not only how you interact with them, but their friends/brothers/fathers/mothers/etc.

The game at times becomes a detective simulator as the player delves into many dialogue threads and picks up pieces and clues that the game doesn’t spell out for you. It expects the player to be aware of their surroundings and make dialogue decisions based on subtext. There are many major choices that can result in the permanent deaths of these characters or their detachment from the world resulting them in becoming enemies. The game also has a risk reward system in which you can choose to charm, hypnotize, and feed on the characters to gain hefty amounts of experience for Dr. Reid resulting in upgrades in his ability tree. The more you interact with the characters, the better their blood becomes. So, say, if you complete their side-quest with the best result and max out their affinity with you, then they become tempting meals for Dr. Reid, resulting in the game’s organic morality system. They’re all conducive to a very satisfying whole. The decisions you make in the game hold weight. They matter. These things are examples of mechanics that don’t happen often in games and for that, Vampyr, with all of its warts, was one of the games I enjoyed most this year.

8. Minit 

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Minit is really unlike any game I’ve ever played. It’s a a top down adventure in the style of Zelda with a low-fi art style. That might not seem like a very fresh recipe, but that’s where the games gimmick comes in. In the game, your character finds a sword that causes a curse to befall him. He can only live for sixty seconds and will die only to return to his home and start over. But the progress you make in that sixty seconds carries over the next life. So you’ll spend time completing quests, getting into combat, solving puzzles, and getting new items that result in shortcuts, knowledge of the map, and abilities that allow you to progress a little further each time.

It’s also got a good sense of humor and some genuinely memorable moments such as when I interacted with a turtle character who was delivering very important dialogue that would lead me to a new item but his text box would scroll extremely slow, resulting in it taking up almost all of my life. I died quite a few times before finishing his dialogue because the game required me to open a short-cut to get to him and to get there in optimal time. Minit isn’t the only game of its ilk. There are titles out there like Half-Minute Hero, for example. But what Minit did was inject something fresh and creative into an old template and it did so with a great art style, writing, and world design.

7. Yakuza Kiwami 2

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I have quickly fallen in love with the Yakuza games. It’s no secret to anyone that knows me. There’s just something about the familiarity of the world that comes from it being as extremely detailed and alive as it is. Something about the way it effortlessly jumps between intense, criminal drama with fantastically directed cutscenes and voice-acting to the often and insane over the top sense of humor it can have. Not only that, but whenever I return to it, there’s always been something just a little different because of the game’s disjointed release structure in the West (0, Kiwami, 6, Kiwami 2) and as a result the disjointed plot. But that’s never an issue because each Yakuza game, while having an overarching plot, has its own self-contained one. That results in Kiwami 2, a remake of the Playstation 2 title Yakuza 2, not feeling out of place. I was able to come hot off the heels of Yakuza 6 and Kiwami 1 with enough attachment to the game and its world to thoroughly enjoy finding out about the war between the Tojo Clan and the Omi alliance and the new main antagonist Ryuji playing both sides for his own gains. I’ve never played Yakuza 2’s initial release but longtime fans of the series are quick to note this is where the series hit its stride and comparing it to Kiwami 1, I can say they may be correct.

Where Kiwami 1 at times felt like an updated relic with frustrating mechanics and poor writing, Kiwami 2 being remade from the ground up in the dragon engine shows a huge upgrade in quality that is often made even better by new technology. That isn’t to say that Kiwami 2 completely escapes the problems of its past. There are some questionable things left over from its era such as the couch enemies that function as doors, a confusing romance subplot, and plenty of “walk forward 5 feet, watch cutscene, walk forward another 5 feet, watch cutscene” moments.

6. The Messenger 

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Metroidvania games have seen a huge resurgence in the last few years with exemplary titles like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, Iconoclasts, Bloodstained, and more. With so many, it’s easy to see some get overlooked in the sea of recent releases. One that I hope doesn’t get overlooked is The Messenger. The game can at times be frustrating, with some platforming sections and boss fights that at time feel outright unfair and time-consuming. But, the game’s checkpoints are often forgiving enough that success is never too far out of reach, it just might take more repetition than some may be happy with. At first it’s a seemingly safe Ninja Gaiden clone with slick platforming and controls. But soon the game’s humor and personality jump out at the player. It’s full of self-referential  meta humor that never comes off as forced. But most importantly is the game’s sensational time shifting mechanic.

Without spoiling much, the game begins as an 8-bit title and soon becomes a 16-bit title that turns into a game that has the player solving puzzles by switching back and forth between the two art-styles for reasons tied to the narrative. It’s a smart way to justify the gimmick beyond gameplay and it results in some creative world puzzles that along with the great implementation of Metroidvania staples like new gear and abilities and the slick platforming and world design resulted in a very satisfying 12 hours. The Messenger shines because in the overwhelming amount of 2-D, side scrolling Metroidvanias, there is room to innovate and inject fresh ideas into the genre.

5. Shadow of the Colossus Remake

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Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favorite games of all time. I adore the game’s minimalist approach to storytelling, puzzle solving, the at times terrifying colossi, and the scale of it all. For those that don’t know, in this game you play as Wander, a boy who seeks to revive his love by slaying 16 towering colossi. That’s it, that’s the game. On paper it doesn’t sound like much but it’s the way these gargantuan figures dwarf the player mixed with the things earlier that truly make this an exemplary piece of art. Shadow of the Colossus is one of those few games that can only work as a videogame. The sense of scale, the insignificance of the player, the vast stretches of white space used to give the player time to ponder over his actions, slaying these often peaceful creatures, the loneliness and desolation. It’s something that can be only captured the way it was in this medium.

The 2018 remake recaptures a lot of this but it’s also a very different game. Sometimes, it’s for the worse. Like the main character, Wander’s completely unanimated face, which often results in detractions from emotional moments in the original. Often though, these changes just make the game a little different in a way I won’t necessarily makes it worse or better. Such as the reduction of the fog, which in the original was the result off a technical limitation that actually lended to the mood off the game by adding mystique to the world. In this game, the fog is all but gone in most areas resulting in a different mood.

The mystique is still there, but it is lessened in favor of a more desolate tone that allows you to appreciate the beauty of the world. Whether the trade off is worth it is up to the player. You also have some improved controls that don’t remove the feeling of disempowerment from the player but make the game a bit more “playable”. My advice, play the original first on an emulator, PS2, or PS3 collection first. If that’s not an option for you, this is still a fantastic reworking of one of the greatest pieces of the to ever come out of the medium.

4. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age

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Dragon Quest XI doesn’t do many new things. It’s not the most unique or original game I’ve ever played; far from it in fact. On the surface it’s a very by the numbers JRPG. But the way it perfectly executes on so many tried and true pillars of the genre is what makes it a breath of fresh air. It’s been years since I’ve played a traditional JRPG. Recently, many have tried to break the mold with experimental combat systems that are often convoluted and poorly implemented. Dragon Quest XI has and deep, customary turn-based combat system that rewards experimentation of the classes and characters develop in a way where none of them ever feel like they won’t be useful. You’ve got your tank, your mage, your healer, etc. But what really makes this game so sensational was the scope of the journey.

Every locale feels unique with allusions to real cultures and exist in a way that makes them feel like real places. From snowy peaks that invoke Nepal to expansive port towns reminiscent of Spain. Plenty of adventures are supposed to feel grand, but Dragon Quest XI feels like a true globetrotting excursion. The story feels appropriately epic with a cast that has believable personalities along with problems and flaws that ground them and make them relatable. Every time I reached a new town I felt like this was going to be the central hub. They are all immensely detailed and offer plenty of nooks and crannies to explore with denizens to meet and interact with. But every time there was always another, and that lasted for about 60 hours.

The tail end of the game feels a bit padded with the player revisiting a lot of areas to tie up some loose ends before the final boss, but by the end of my 100+ hours with Dragon Quest XI I felt like I had completed a grand undertaking. It’s not often that games make me feel accomplished like this. When it was all over and the credits rolled after the incredible final boss encounter and subsequent tying of loose ends, I had to take a deep breath.

3. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire 

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Pillars of Eternity II is the best pirate game I have ever played. I think the template of the game being such an open-ended RPG is really what makes this the perfect pirate game. Not only does it nail so much of what makes good RPGs good, it nails the sense of freedom that would come with being a pirate. Playing by no-ones rules but your own and making decisions that shape not only your path but of those that follow you. Since this is an RPG, you can choose to be a ruthless pirate, sinking all in their way for loot and booty (who tyrannizes their crew members into obedience), a true neutral only looking out for themselves and their mates, or a benevolent traveler that sets the pirate life aside altogether, or really anything in between moral lines. You can completely forgo most of the actual piratey stuff.

At times, these things often feel completely disconnected from the main story to the point where I’ve been playing for about 30 hours and I’m not following the main narrative at all. I’m simply soaking in the world and being a key player to how things in the region play out. That might sound like an issue, but so far I honestly don’t have a problem with it. It will be interesting to see how Obsidian further connects this with the hunt for Eothas. The setting of a fantasy Caribbean parallel is refreshing for a game of this type and it really let’s a lot of non-european influenced culture shine (things we don’t normally see in many games). As with Pillars 1, your actions often have meaningful consequences within the stories you are a part of and when contextualized within the scope of a pirate theme, it really makes these things shine.

The ship combat offers a unique take on turn-based combat and while it is relatively simple, it really gives me the sense of someone making impactful orders to their crew, be it through the actual combat itself or storming in for some good ol’ fashioned swashbuckling. In most games I don’t care for micromanaging things but maintaining the morale of the crew, recruiting new members, and outfitting my ship with upgrades is something that is done without being grindy. Hell, sometimes you’ll just organically stumble across would-be crew members and you may have a small task or even a lengthy side-quest to add them to you crew and they work to make each member feel a little more personable. Your main companions are all tied to at least one of the vying powers in the region so you always have a personal connection to the politics of the world. Encounters with other ships and other written text-adventure-esque moments only serve to enhance the immersion of the player.

Pillars of Eternity 2 has some of the best writing in the genre as well as a satisfying multi-class system that rewards experimentation and well thought out character builds. It’s simply one of the best RPGs in terms of what an RPG is in recent memory.

2. Monster Hunter: World

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I was chasing a Rathalos though the jungle. My friends and I had him down to low health. We could tell because he had began limping. We were almost out of healing items and we needed a good score because we all needed materials from the creature to finish armor or weapons that we wanted, so nobody could afford to die. The timer was getting low as this was a challenging fight and it was taking us quite some time to dwindle his health down. We found the creature in his lair, asleep, trying to heal his wounds. We surrounded him with traps to cause loads of damage upfront and our friend who used a bow and arrow lined up the shot to set the traps off around him. The bombs exploded and as he walked forward he was stunned by an electric trap. However, he wasn’t dead yet. He swept his tail around and as it hit me it threw me back, nearly killing me. Finally, one of our group members landed the final blow with a mighty swing of his hammer and the Rathalos fell before us and we claimed out prizes. I was lucky, I had gotten the rare material I needed to craft the upgrade for my Longsword. Then I woke up.

I haven’t had a game invade my dreams like this since my first time playing Dark Souls. I was addicted to this game. The gameplay loop of tracking, hunting, killing, and crafting gear had taken all of us by the hand. The combat was satisfying and the game did an excellent job of making teamwork essential and enjoyable. Finding chemistry with your friends was crucial to having success out in the field and the game dangled an enticing carrot in front of you at every step.

1. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

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This is it. This is how it ends. I played Yakuza 0 and Kiwami and read up on the long backstory to prepare for Yakuza 6. With 0 and Kiwami I had witnessed Kazuma Kiryu grow from a lowly yakuza to the fabled Dragon of Dojima; a name that strikes fear and awe into the hearts of those in Tokyo’s criminal underworld. But, I also learned that Kiryu is a man with a heart of gold who isn’t suited for this life of crime. He constantly tries to escape it. Not just for himself, but for his adopted daughter, Haruka. 6 was touted as the final game for our stoic hero. This game sees him returning to the life of crime he so desperately wants to find reprieve from after an accident befalls Haruka. He needs to find out who they were and why they attacked her. He also discovers that she has a son, a key to the mystery that he cares for. Kiryu goes on a quest that spans 2 major locations, one the familiar Kamurocho and the new town of Onomichi, a quiet port/fishing town. Yakuza 6 still maintains the open-world brawler gameplay of previous titles. But it fixes one of my biggest gripes with the games, the combat system. Where the previous games felt dated and clunky, a combo based system that hasn’t really been updated since the PS2 era, Yakuza 6 uses its new Dragon Engine to power a combat system that is more about managing physics and crowd control that it is about building large combos. Because of the emphasis on physics, every punch feels impactful and combat just has an all around better flow to it. Not only did the Dragon Engine improve the combat, it improved the world as well. No longer are locations locked behind loading screens. Once you are in one of the two maps, everything is seamless. You can walk into stores, buy that you need, and walk back out without any interruption. Hell, you can even walk into stores or locations in the middle of combat which allows for some interesting finishing moves (one involves throwing a guy’s head into a microwave and having the convenience store clerk turn that motherfucker on and nuke the dead’s face). Everything about the gameplay of this game is simply better than what came before it.

But it also has the best story of the Yakuza titles I’ve played, even when bringing Kiwami 2, which came out later in the year, into the comparison. Kiryu’s trek to find out why Haruka was attacked, and who her child’s father is brings him into the lives of many new friends in Onomichi. All of them are endearing and I loved learning about this new gaggle of riff raff and seeing their development from minor ruffians to key players in the game’s events. It all culminates in one of the best send offs to a character in any medium, let alone videogames, in recent memory. Most games struggle to wrap up their singular iterations of games, let alone a beloved and storied series like Yakuza. I had feared that the ending of Yakuza 6 wouldn’t have the gravitas it needed for a character like Kiryu, but in the end it is handled impeccably and I’ll even admit that during the closing moments of the game, someone barged into my room and started cutting onions. It still has all of the meaningful side content that make taking time away from the plot beat to explore and interact with its world worthwhile. Some of my favorites include one where Kiryu must build bonds with cats to get them to go to a cat cafe that has no cats and as a result of which is failing, one where Kiryu must don the costume of Onomichi’s mascot to inspire the children of the town to love it and keep them from wanting to leave, and especially the quest-line that involves getting to know all of the regular patrons of a bar in Onomichi. You learn about their lives and their families and their problems. You use conversational cues to advance their dialogue (which is a the result of a mini-game that is a bit easy, admittedly). You become connected with these people. This is something that happens throughout many of the game’s side-quests and they make the dense and intricately detailed world not only worth exploring, but make it feel like a home that you are a part of. This is something the series has always done, but the fully voiced dialogue and better writing in 6 as well as the more in-depth nature of the side-quests make them so much livelier than previous iterations.

My one big gripe with this game is that many of the important characters from previous games are relegated to minor or almost non-existent roles. For example, we only see Goro Majima during the prologue and never again until the very end of the game. But aside from that, I struggle to think of any actual issues aside from performance issues that are most likely because of the hardware (screentearing and minor frame rate dips).

Videogames are the medium I indulge in more than any other. With that said, it’s unfortunate that I feel most videogames fail at being captivating pieces of art. Most of them have very safe, by the numbers narratives that fail to evoke much or any emotions. Yakuza 6 however, does this. The narrative is gripping, the characters feel real, the cutscenes are excellently directed, the dialogue is fantastic, the pacing is nearly perfect. This game was a ride that never overstayed its welcome. The game is still jam packed with everything one would expect from a Yakuza title, silly side missions, mini-games galore, fucking karaoke.

Yakuza 6 is Yakuza at its best. Yakuza 6 is video games at its best. Yakuza 6 is far and away the game that had the biggest impact on me this year and for that reason, it is my game of the year.

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