Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Highlights of 2018

Another year has past, and with it another assortment of fantastic games. It seems that as the years go by, I find it harder and harder to keep up with the near constant flood. Even if I quit my job and spent all my free time playing, I'd never be able to come close to touching all of the remarkable games that game out in 2018 alone.

That said, there is still a respectable number of games that I did play this year. And, as in previous years, this space is dedicated to the ones that stood out. This list is presented in random order, and just because a game you like doesn't make this list doesn't mean it's bad. Rather, it means it didn't evoke strong enough feelings from me to make this list, or I just didn't get around to playing it.

With that said, the highlights for 2018 are:

I was lucky enough to get in on ground zero of the craze that became Undertale before it grew into the phenomenon that it has become. I feel in love with its wonderful cast of characters, and its premise, well before it got lost in a barrage of memes and internet in-jokes.

So when Toby Fox silently released this game around Halloween, out of nowhere, I had to do the same once more. Taking place in an alternate universe from Undertale, Deltarune feels like a logical extension of what made Toby Fox's magnum opus so great. This time, though, players are given a whole adventuring party of humans and monsters to spare the foes that stand in their way.

Odds are, if you've been on Twitter for any length of time, I don't have to tell you about Deltarune. You already know.

Detroit: Become Human
Good lord, how on Earth did a David Cage game make in onto my highlights list in the year of our Lord 2018.

Those of you who watched the Interactive Friction season on Detroit: Become Human will be familiar with my adoration for Bryan Dechart's and Clancy Brown's performances as Connor and Hank respectively. The way the two characters play off each other is so genuine, and the actors clearly had a great time on set.

I may have... strong opinions about the other 2/3rds of Detroit, but this section is so great that I would gladly play a standalone game of Connor and Hank solving cases and fighting crime.

Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom
I wasn't a fan of the first Ni No Kuni when it came out. I thought the monster capture/recruitment mechanic was completely unnecessary, and a lot of the bosses were more frustrating than fun to fight.

Ni No Kuni 2 fixed that problem, but it kept that same whimsical nature that drew me into the first game. In times like these, I needed that more than ever.

What impressed me even more is that despite clearly being developed for a younger demographic, Ni No Kuni 2 doesn't shy away from more mature or adult themes like racism, worker exploitation, and what it means to rule. (Waypoint wrote more about it in their coverage of the game.) Some might call it's outlook naive, but that's exactly the kind of game I needed at the time.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey
Seeing Odyssey come only a year after Origins made me nervous, especially since franchise fatigue is what I was starting to associate with Assassin's Creed. Fortunately, Odyssey, while clearly taking much from its predecessor, did a lot to stand out on its own.

Even now, I can think back to some of my exploits in raiding fortresses. It always start out simply enough, stabbing a few guards and trying to hide the bodies as best as I can. Then, something goes wrong... I fail to notice a patrolling guard as I make my move, my carefully aimed sniper shot just misses, or I just decide it's easier to go in and kill everyone in a bloody spree.

It's never the reinforcements that cause a problem, on the rare occasions the guards successfully light the signal fire. Those are just extra small fry, not worth fretting over. No, what scares me are my fellow mercenaries. Every witnessed kill, every theft or crime while I'm raiding this fortress adds to the bounty on my head. And a big enough reward attracts the strongest of warriors to join this cascade of mooks on my tail.

Even after I complete my raid, the bounty persists, and I have to decide to wait out the storm, pay off or kill witnesses, or use my notoriety as an opportunity to slay my way through the ranks of mercenaries on my journey to the top. Stories like that mark my time in Odyssey well, and often I deliberately get caught to see these mechanics come into play.

On top of that, the quest to hunt down the Cult of Kosmos is one of the most satisfying Assassin's Creed has had in a long time. It was delightful to scour the realm for clues as to the identity of each cultist, and stalk them in the open world, and take my chance when I saw the opportunity. It is moments like those the make it clear where Odyssey shines, and it shines bright.

Dragonball FighterZ
Dragonball FighterZ was, to me and my playgroup, more of a year-long event than it was a video game. We played this game together more than we did any other this year. Not only did FighterZ tap into the nostalgia I have for the number of hours I wasted away my youth watching Dragonball Z on Toonami, but it's a solid fighting game on top of that.

It's also one of the easiest fighting games to get into right now, devoid of the many overly complex button inputs seen in its contemporaries. Combined with its noticeably lenient demands for timing/execution, it's hard to recommend a fighting game other than this to get someone into the genre.

But anyone who calls it "simple" is dead wrong. As the likes of GO1 and SonicFox demonstrate when they go at it, experts get just as much out of it, if not more, than people like me do. I rarely watch competitive fighting game play, but I tuned in to every Dragonball FighterZ event I could see.

Not only that, this was the game that got me back into Dragonball. I started watching the most recent Dragonball movies and Super because I was playing FighterZ, and I'm glad I did because the Tournament of Power was one of the best storylines this franchise has ever produced.

So thanks to Dragonball FighterZ for both giving me so many great nights with my friends and rekindling a spark I didn't think I still had.

God of War (2018)
Never, in a million years, would I ever think that I'd begin to show sympathy for Kratos, out of all the characters in gaming, but the new God of War managed to do that.

The latest in the Sad Dad series of video games started by The Last of Us, God of War takes place well after Kratos has killed the Greek Pantheon and caused untold damage in that world. It's a story about his relationship with his son, Boy, and their journey to fulfill his mother's dying wish.

At the time, a lot of popular discourse, and even discussion between my friends and I, revolved around the choices to make the entire game one continuous shot. There are no cuts, even during "cutscenes". Whether people thought it was a mistake, the gold standard we should expect from here on out, or somewhere in between, it was a bold artistic decision, and I can't imagine how much work went into it.

Beyond that, nothing God of War did was particularly unique in the realm of video games, but it was all polished to a mirror shine. It's rare to see a game as graphically stunning and technically proficient as this, and that deserves to be commended.

Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late[st]
Though I didn't give Under Night anywhere near as much time as I've given to Dragonball FighterZ, what time I have given it with my playgroup has been an excellent time.

It's hard to say if I would have given this game the same commitment I gave FighterZ if it was the only game in that slot for me, but the fact that FighterZ did come out really such made such a time sink that much more difficult.

Still, for the few fight nights I spent playing Under Night in good company, it deserves a shout out.

Yakuza 2 Kiwami (and 3-5)
(I know that Yakuza 3, 4, and 5 weren't released this year, but I played them for the first time in 2018, after I beat Kiwami 2 and I want to mention them in the same breath. Shame I didn't have time for Yakuza 6: The Song of Life.)

What can I say about the Yakuza series that I didn't already say about 0 and Kiwami last year? Well, Yakuza has an extraordinary ability to transform otherwise mundane everyday tasks into interesting and varied gameplay.

I have fond memories of playing as Kiryu in Yakuza 5, and spending hours on the taxi driving side missions. Though I only needed to complete a few of them as part of the story, I sat there ferrying people from point A to point B, obeying all the traffic laws and keeping up conversation with my passengers, having a fantastic experience. As odd as that sounds, similar experiences mark each of the games in the series in their own way.

Something also needs to be said for the developers allow players to feel the passage of time from installment to installment. It feels nostalgic to come back to Kamurocho and exploring to see what has changed. The city begins to feel like home, and I found myself learning building placements and street names between games in a way that I never do with most other games. Yakuza offers a sense of continuity and place that's so rare that I couldn't help but notice it.

I not only grew fond of Kiryu, Haruka, and the people they work with. I grew fond of the world they inhabit. There's something special about that.

Magic the Gathering (and MTG Arena) / Eternal
If last year was the year where I dove earnestly into Magic, this year was the one where I began to figure out the best way for me to make the most of the game.

Now that Arena is in Open Beta, and Kaladesh (and Amonkhet) has rotated out, playing Standard feels a lot better than it did last year. The game is in a healthier state with more varied and interesting decks than there used to be.

In addition, I’ve started playing Commander, a 100-card singleton format, with a play group on a semi-regular basis. I find myself thinking about deck construction and matchups far more than I have before, trying to keep my play group competitive, but healthy. We have players who are competitively-minded, and players who are focused more on their decks flavor, and finding a compromise in power level was tricky, but satisfying challenge.

Eternal sits on this list for reason as well, but it also challenged my conceptions of what a card game can be in the digital game. It took the best aspects on Magic, and retooling some of the more irritating mechanics (like the mana system). On top of that, it’s digital nature lets it get use effects that one can’t do in a physical game like Magic (like cloning cards, casting them from the top of your deck, or permanently altering its properties for the duration of a match). I play Arena more often, but I will gladly come back to Eternal.

I’ve learned much about myself, and how I engage with card games relative to other people this year, and I hope to keep learning as I go into 2019.

Spyro: Reignited Trilogy
Though the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy last year was a blast from the past, the Spyro series is my favorite of the two unofficial PlayStation mascot platformers. I had high hopes for this remaster, and Toys For Bob delivered.

I spent so much time on Twitter gawking at the various updates that have been made to the game beyond just pure visual fidelity. So much additional detail and world building has been inserted into the game to make each level feel more like a place. I remember posting a lot about many of the extra background details in the first game alone, like the books in Dark Hollow that make the space feel like a library, or the additional buildings around Gnasty’s World that breathe life into what was once a small metal island surrounded a singular water texture.

And that goes double for the updated character designs. Anyone who was online when the remake came out was inundated with fanart and screencaps of the various dragon designs. It became a phenomenon on its own. (I, myself, also took part in that trend.)

It’s also just fun to explore the much more open (when compared to Crash Bandicoot) levels. Even back then, Spyro has a very tight set of core mechanics that only ever went through marginal upgrades as the series went on. I could go on, but then you’d never stop hearing me gush about things like the long glide on Autumn Plains, the satisfaction of beating Gnasty’s Loot or the Super Bonus Round, and giving Moneybags his due.

SoulCalibur VI
SoulCalibur VI hearkens back to the days I spent way back in elementary school, where my friends would get together at my house and we would spend hours going against each other in versus and 8 v 8 team battles in SoulCalibur 2 and 3. Though there are new systems like Critical and Reversal Edges, picking up the controller brought me right back to those days.

Characters that I used to play heavily back in the day, like Raphael and Talim, felt exactly as I remembered, down to the very specific moves that would vex my friends every time we fought, before both of those characters got nerfed in SoCal 3. This is the best SoulCalibur has felt in a very long time, and I’m so glad to say that in 2018.

While I don’t necessarily need a character creator to get the most out of SoulCalibur, there’s no denying that this is one of the most robust custom character toolkits I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen so many amazing characters, both original and recreations from other properties, that I can’t help but be impressed.

The Soul Still Burns.

Return of the Obra Dinn
Out of all the games I’ve played this year, Return of the Obra Dinn has the distinction of being a game that very uniquely appeals to me. Specifically, to my desire to play detective. Created by Lucas Pope, the creator of Papers, Please, has players assume the role of an insurance adjuster investigating the events of that occurred on the Obra Dinn.

Armed with a magic compass that, when pointed at a dead body, creates a diorama of its final moments, a journal, and a manifest of 60 crew members, the player is tasked with identifying each deceased passenger, and figuring out what happened to them.

What separates this from any other puzzle came is that the game provides minimal guidance when going to solve the mysteries of the Obra Dinn. The player has to instead rely on logical deduction to answer the questions that the game is asking. Brute force has been made less effective as well, since the game only locks in the fate of the Obra Dinn’s crew 3 members at a time.

Giving specific examples would ruin the game, so I can’t get into detail. That said, as someone who is used to being guided through mysteries in games like LA Noire and Murdered: Soul Suspect, it was nice to be have a game trust me to do my own thinking and work through the possibilities on my own.

Marvel's Spider-man
I know that practically everyone who has played this game has said it, but “This game really makes you feel like Spider-man” is an incredibly accurate statement.

Web swinging has a heft and momentum to it that I can never get enough of. I’ve spent hours just traversing New York City without getting bored. Spider-man is one of the few games where I see that the next story mission is all the way on the other side of the map and don’t react to it. Where I would normally groan at needing to travel all that distance, I relish being able to take advantage of all the many options to stay in the air while maintaining my speed.

On top that, as I was saying when talking with some of my friends, it’s nice to just play as someone who is trying to do good and be a good person, in an age where every character seems to have some shade of gray (much like Ni No Kuni 2, in that respect). Yet, despite that, Peter Parker is, by no means, a flat character. There’s so much believable human drama in this story that I can’t help but be impressed by the writing team.

It’s the best Marvel movie to come out this year, by far.

While Celeste is an excellent indie platformer, I want to shout it out for it’s brilliant accessibility options. As Mark Brown discussed in his GameMaker’s Toolkit episode on the subject, the game’s Assist Mode offers so many options for players to make difficult challengers easier for people who are having trouble with the game.

Furthermore, the Assist Mode ties into the game’s core themes of self-love, and learning to reach out for help when you need it.

Octopath Traveler
Up until I launched Octopath Traveler for the first time on my Switch, I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to play a classic Final Fantasy-esque JRPG. It had everything I could ever want: A diverse and interesting cast of playable characters, deep customization through a job class system, and an innovative combat system that rewards smart play and exploitation of enemy weaknesses.

The game isn’t without flaws, but I have fond memories of experimenting with class combination to figure out what would work best for me. In particular, I remember giving Cyrus, the Scholar, who specializes in exploiting elemental weaknesses, the Dancer, who specializes in buffing themselves and their teammates, as a subclass. While the intent was to give him MP regeneration and the Peacock Strut ability to strengthen his magic, I ultimately just started laughing every time his voice actor enthusiastically exclaimed “The Peacock shall STRUT!”.

And while I had a setup that worked for me, what I enjoyed was comparing my party with other people, to see what bizarre and interesting combinations they came up with. Class-based systems like the one in Octopath encourage this kind of customization and experimentation, adding a social element that you rarely find in other JRPGs, despite being a strictly single-player game.

I’m so happy that Octopath did as well as it did, because I could use more games like it.

Valkyria Chronicles 4
I consider Valkyria Chronicles to be one the best games released on the PS3. More than just a graphical marvel, it very seamlessly blended real-time and turn-based strategy into a wonderfully unique RPG experience in what I often describe as “anime World War 2”.

Unfortunately, the subsequent 2 games were developed for the PSP, and that transition to portable, and the restraints of the hardware, destroyed much of the magic the first game captured.

Valkyria 4 represents a form of resurrection for the series, since it’s back on consoles. After a series of failed experiments, the franchise has finally gone back to what made it so good in the first place.

And even more thankfully, all of the degenerate tactics I had mastered over my time in the original Valkyria. I enjoyed giving one of my Scouts defense/attack boosts and having them rush to the enemy base to end the entire battle in a single turn. It’s fun to figure out the best way to angle my tanks and shocktroopers so that they intercept and defeat enemies moving towards my own base. It is everything I’ve wanted and more from a Valkyria Chronicles game for the past 10 years, and there’s something to be said about that.

Monster Hunter: World
I feel bad for Monster Hunter: World. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the game, and if it weren’t for all the many games I wanted to spend time with, I might have stuck with it for the long haul.

That’s not to say that I didn’t give the game a fair shake: I spent a good 50 hours slaying, capture, and making meals/equipment out of the various beasts I’ve encountered, both on my own and with friends. I wish I had time to start getting into the end-game, where crafting, character builds, and preparation become so much more relevant, but that just wasn’t in the cards.

Cheers to you, MH:W, and the alternate universe in which I could dedicate more time to you.

Dead Cells
I was on board with Dead Cells while it was still in Early Access, when it was just this Metroidvania/Roguelike hybrid the unlocked more and more equipment and skills for you as you played. Since then, the game has only gotten better.

What struck me while playing through the full release was just how much was changed/added, and how all of those modifications stayed true to the core identity that had been established back when I was playing the Early Access build.

Whereas before each stat corresponded to either weapon damage, item recharge rate, or health (meaning that glass cannon became one of the best possible builds), now each stat scales the damage on a weapon type(s). The addition of mutations, enhancements that can also scale with certain stats, also helps create an environment where players are encouraged to experiment with new and interesting builds and item combinations.

There’s a love and care put into this game that I couldn’t do justice to in words, but shines through every time I open up my Switch on a long trip and start jamming out a few runs.

Hitman 2
As someone who played the 2016 Hitman game on and off for almost a year, and already dumped 45 hours into Hitman 2 (and since I’m streaming it, that will only go up) when it’s only been out for about a month or so, it is obvious to most people who know me that I have a fondness for the series.

I’ve spoken at length about all the things I enjoy about Hitman to such an absurd degree that it feels silly going into detail here, but Hitman is the kind of game I can keep installed on my PC because I know that I will always want to come back to it, even when the content updates eventually dry up.

Whether I’m hiding in plain sight, sneaking around in the shadows, or just barging into the Paris fashion show with an assault rifle in the garb of the Vampire Magician, I will never tire of the ridiculous antics of everyone’s favorite stone-faced murder boy.

Hitman is the gift that keeps on hitting.

I didn’t get as much mileage out of my VR headset as I would have liked to this year, but games like Moss remind me how much potential there is in VR.

It’s hard to express how being in the world, as a direct observer rather than a third party viewing through a TV, impacts the experience as these woodland animals talk to you, and come to rely on you as a partner of sorts to guide them through their trials and tribulations.

Even watching footage of it doesn’t do it justice, it’s something you have to take part in first hand to truly understand.

A Way Out
There is nothing particular special regarding the actual story of A Way Out. It’s a by-the-numbers jailbreak story, with a decent twist at the end and enough character development for it’s two leads that I did begin to feel some limited emotional investment in them by the time the game was over.

But accepting it for what it is, as a love-letter to those kinds of stories, then it does a good job of that. And as a co-op game, it is genuinely fun to have all sorts of crazy hi-jinks in between these dramatic setpieces (and sometimes within those same setpieces).

I don’t think of the moment where the game transforms into a cheap Uncharted co-op clone at the end of the game when I think of A Way Out. I think of the time I beat my friend in Connect Four while looking for my wife in the hospital, or playing horseshoes when we have an old couple hog-tied and trapped behind a bookshelf when we’re supposed in a hurry to find an escape vehicle.

The game excels at those smaller moments, and they can be worth more than one might imagine.

I don’t know if I can honestly say that Vampyr is a good game, but it is a compelling and unique game that I might recommend regardless.

As I wrote about before, the most compelling part of Vampyr is the main character’s occupation as a medical doctor, and the juxtaposition, both in story and mechanically, between that and his nature as a blood-sucking vampire. Making the rounds, and checking up on the health and well-being on each district, I am also constantly tempted by that lingering UI element that tells me how much stronger I could become if I just gave in and fed on the people I am sworn to care for.

And as enemies grow stronger with each passing story beat, that temptation only grows. To abstain from the vampire’s basic impulse to feed is to exercise an incredible amount of willpower, and choosing to defy that compulsion has consequences, even if the world around me is better off for it. The game has since been updated to include an easier difficulty setting, but I’ll never forget how Vampyr made me understand the life of the mystical blood sucker mechanically, beyond anything it did in the story.

Prey: Mooncrash
Though this was only a DLC for last year’s Prey, this is compelling enough on its own that I have to shout it out.

It is hard to overstate how innovative it was to combine the best of both run-based roguelikes and immersive sims, which is exactly what Prey: Mooncrash does. The premise of Mooncrash is that players are running a simulation of the last moments in a moon base that was taken over by the Typhon from the first games. Taking the role of 5 survivors of the event, they are tasked with getting all of them to escape in a single run.

The map takes the game general structure, but many aspects of it from how destroyed the environment is to what enemies are patrolling the area change from run to run. While I was gaining a general idea of where I was going and what I was supposed to do from run to run, I still had to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances.

There’s no greater feeling than taking up one character, and using their powers and abilities to not only make sure they escape, but set up the escape of future characters in the same run. And for that, Mooncrash is something I can’t help but recommend.

And there you have it, those were all the games that left a strong positive impression on me this year. Next up, the disappointments list, and oh boy are we in for a few doozies.

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