Just when I thought 2017 couldn’t be topped, 2018 happened. On a personal level, I finally got a paid job in an industry I love. When it came to gaming itself, from start to finish, the year boasted a consistent line-up of top-quality titles. From smart reboots of weary franchises to new IP fit to go toe-to-toe with the all-time greats, there was no shortage of GOTY material this year. So, before I get into it, here’s some honorable mentions: Spider-Man (PlayStation 4), Hitman 2 (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One), Florence (Android, iOS), and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch). These games would have made my top five in any other year, but this year’s competition was just too fierce. Keep reading for the full list!
5. Return of the Obra Dinn (PC)
Never has a game made me feel so dumb and so smart in equal measure. For me, Return of the Obra Dinn is the best puzzle game ever created. End of. And it’s one that’s so meticulously crafted down to every last detail. It’s no wonder it took one-man dev army Lucas Pope a whopping three years to develop.
The premise is that you’re a shipping-company agent tasked with finding out what happened aboard the Obra Dinn, a fictional 19th-century East India Company ship. The kicker? All the ship’s passengers are unaccounted for and are presumably fish food. Your job is to figure out if or how each passenger kicked the bucket and—where necessary—by whose hand.
How do you figure this out? By pure logic. Oh, and by using a magic pocket watch, the Memento Mortem, which gives the player an audio log and a visual snapshot of the exact moment each person died—once you’ve found their body, that is. Armed with nothing but the Memento Mortem, your noggin, and a journal, you’ve gotta deduce it all. The devil’s in the details, and the details are devilishly difficult to discover. And each and every scene is intricately intertwined, uncovering a morsel of the overall story with every new death The only way to work out some of the fates is by the process of elimination; even then, you may have to cross-reference someone’s accent with a nationality listed in the crew manifest.
If the premise wasn’t captivating enough, wait until you’ve seen the visuals. The nostalgia-inducing 1-bit graphics of Pope’s previous hit, Papers, Please, make their triumphant return here. They’re made even more striking by the first-person perspective. And the up-tempo music underlines the drama and intrigue seamlessly, tying everything up nicely.
4. Red Dead Redemption 2 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
Woah: a word I uttered time and time again throughout my 60-hour playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that—for better or worse—hit headlines more than any other title this year that’s not bloody Fortnite. Every corner of Red Dead’s giant open world is crammed with details you simply don’t see in other AAA games, with new “are you seeing this shit?” moments happening several times an hour. This makes sense, given the sheer number of people who worked on the game, and the ungodly hours they poured into its development.
From the gorgeous visuals and best-in-class sound design to the Hollywood-worthy voice acting and script, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a blockbuster in every sense of the word. In terms of production values, it feels like a AAA linear game of Naughty Dog pedigree but on an open-world scale.
Though, there’s a caveat. And it’s a big one. I don’t know if I actually had fun playing Red Dead 2, especially toward the end. I was consistently impressed throughout my experience, but sometimes—a lot of times— it felt like a grind. It was the embodiment of diminishing returns. The first—heck, even the second, third, and forth—10-minute gallops through the game’s stunning environments were truly special. The twentieth, thirtieth, and fortieth—not so much. What’s more, the movement is clunky, awkward, and—like most Rockstar games—feels like a misguided love letter to the early days of last gen. Still, it was 100% worth powering through for the narrative and spectacle, hence its position on this list.
3. Dead Cells (PC, Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
Dead Cells is one of those just-one-more-go games. Developer Twin Motion took the Metroidvania concept, gave it a roguelike foundation, and slapped on some Dark Souls mechanics for good measure. The result is a fast-paced action RPG like no other—with the constant and adrenaline-inducing dread of permadeath looming over every single run.
The game started life in early access in 2017 and fast evolved into something special ahead of its August 2018 release. The controls are tuned to perfection, meaning that each and every death (of which there are many) can only be attributed to the player. There are no cheap shots here; the input is so fluid and seamless that all mistakes are avoidable and every enemy pattern can be learned, countered, and overcome.
The gameplay sees the player advancing through increasingly difficult biomes, with plenty of chances to cash in cells (souls, basically) and upgrade their gear in between. You start each run with a random weapon, but you can also collect randomly generated gear on the fly. The weapon pool grows as you discover blueprints in your runs, which always keeps things fresh. Experimenting with different builds is half the fun in Dead Cells, and some of my favorite runs came from weapons/items that I thought were pretty useless—until I used them together.
But the thing that makes Dead Cells so great is its longevity. I’ve ‘finished it’ (beat the final boss) like ten times now, but there’s incentive to keep playing. Even though you lose all progress after each death, some upgrades—including health vials, traversal abilities, weapon blueprints—can be carried through different runs. The more I put into it, the more I got out of it. Which says a lot, as it was fun and rewarding as hell from the get-go.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a 2D action game, do yourself a favour and pick up Dead Cells.
2. God of War (PlayStation 4)
Boyyyyy is this game spectacular (sorry—couldn’t resist). Anyway, moving on swiftly. I was a lapsed God of War superfan, let down by 2013’s uninspired God of War: Ascension. 2018’s semi-reboot, boldly titled just God of War, had me happily relapsing into the series’ fandom. It has now Sparta-style reconquered its rightful place as one of my favourite franchises in gaming.
I adored the first trio of God of War games during my teenage years. Mostly due to the gratuitous violence, ruthlessness, and Kratos’ no-shit attitude. Yeah, I was a dumb kid. I’d like to think that I’ve grown up a bit since then (mostly), and fortunately, so has God of War. Obviously, the misogynistic Kratos of the previous games just wouldn’t fly in this day and age. And quite frankly, this game is better for it.
Kratos has all but left his past behind. Sure, the violence, brutality against mythological beasts (Norse this time), and Kratos’ silent sternness are all still here, but this time he has a son, Atreus, to look out for. The juxtaposition between weathered, disgruntled Kratos and his inquisitive young lad make for some of the most fleshed-out and complex character development I’ve seen in a game, as Kratos tries to shepherd Atreus down a more noble path than his own. I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a tear or two along the journey.
Luckily, the gameplay loop is just as satisfying as the narrative. Speaking of satisfying loops, can we just take a second to appreciate the axe? That bold thunk when it returns to Kratos’ grip never gets old. The sound design in general is outstanding; I still have nightmares about the booming sound my speakers made when the World Serpent talked. The visuals are equally amazing, with believable, fluid character movements, beautiful particle effects, and convincing facial expressions.
Of course, let’s not forget about 2018’s character of the year, Mimir, whose Norse stories are as heady (heh) as they are informative.
Simply put: Sony Santa Monica made a masterpiece. God of War, like Resident Evil 4 before it, is a rare ilk of game that gamers will look back on fondly for years to come.
1. Celeste (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch)
Celeste is the perfect 2D platformer—in terms of control, difficulty, and presentation. But it’s so much more than that. A deep dive, sometimes quite literally, into depression, anxiety, and the woes of 21st-century society, this game handles its poignant subject matters in a way that is not only enlightening and refreshing but also funny and charming.
The player, taking control of a disheartened millennial named Madeline, sets out to climb the game’s eponymous Celeste Mountain. You scale it by completing a series of exponentially more difficult levels, each one with its own unique environment and platforming elements. You’ll die—a lot. Just like Super Meat Boy before it, Celeste has a forgiving respawn system—as well as damn unforgiving platforming sections.
Celeste’s presentation is spectacular. Taking the tried-and-true 16-bit art style, the game visually pops with vibrancy and character. Whether it’s trying to be decadent and debauched or lively and effervescent, it always succeeds. In among the sprites and big pixels, the game mixes it up a bit with high-res text bars and character portraits—as well as in a few in-game moments. It can seem jarring at first, but overall I think the contrast works well for the game’s charm.
Although the game’s visuals are outstanding, the soundtrack is even better. Beat for beat, each area and screen’s track fits it to a tee. Modulation and harmony changes are used expertly, helping build tension and dread when needed. The music is harrowing on some sections, ambient on others and even heroic in parts, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. Bravo to composer Lena Raine. And the sound cues for the platforming are so seamless that you won’t even notice them most of the time.
Throughout the ten-hour-ish base story, Madeline crosses paths with a colourful cast of characters, some charming and some downright creepy. The dialogue is spectacular, and it’s executed flawlessly. In a similar style to the Banjo games, cutesy gibberish is dubbed over the subtitles; some people might find it annoying, but I find it endearing. As for the writing itself, it’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes charming, but always brilliant.
But it’s not just the way that the story is told that’s first-rate, it’s the topics it covers, too. The game goes places I really wasn’t expecting. Honestly, it totally caught me off guard. I thought I was in for a fun 2D-platforming romp and not much else. But bloody hell, I couldn’t be further from the truth. If that is all you what you want, though, the story is all skippable. But you’d be an idiot for doing so.
So I’m going to get serious for a minute. In the past, I’ve struggled with both depression and anxiety, and to a much lesser extent I still get a little anxious from time to time. I’ve never seen mental illness portrayed so accurately and truthfully in storytelling than I have here. Never. The narrative really resonated with some of the darkest moments of my life, and I’d be willing to bet that most people would feel the same—whether they’ve experienced mental illness or not. The game touches on how people run away from what’s happening in their heads, trying to ignore it. How people turn to alcohol as a crutch for their insecurities and inside afflictions. How advertising creates unrealistic expectations for how we should look. How, on paper, some people have everything they ever wanted—a great job, a loving partner, a like-minded group of friends, but not even that brings joy.
Much of the multi-billion-dollar film industry, which typically approaches such issues in a way that’s tasteless and ham-fisted, has been put to shame by an indie game made by a handful of talented individuals. The Celeste has told could only be achieved in a video game. For example, I saw the game’s learning curve to be a metaphor for conquering mental illness, and I reckon the developers intended it to be interpreted this way.
The game ramps up its difficulty in baby steps, introducing the player to a new mechanic by smacking it across their head, but the challenge slowly ramps up, and by the end of a level—and indeed, the game—you’re blazing through difficult sections using the techniques you’ve been mastering along the way. This is exactly how to deal with living with a mental illness. You take on one challenge at a time, each one greater than the next, until you’re doing something you never thought was possible—whether that’s something as small as leaving the house without having a panic attack or giving a presentation to 50 people. Baby steps.
The final product is truly something to behold. Easily one of the best 2D platformers of the last decade or so, Celeste is one mountain that I’d recommend any gamer to climb. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my favourite 2D platformer of all time, 2018’s biggest surprise, and—for me—the game of the year.
Do you agree with my choices? Did I miss anything? Am I an uninformed idiot who doesn’t know God of War from Gears of War? Let me know on Twitter: @DragonGamingDG
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