After a bevy of amazing releases last year, one might be forgiven for thinking that 2018 wouldn’t possibly compare. And yet, it has proven to be immensely difficult to choose five games to represent a “best of” list for 2018. In retrospect, this year feels as though it truly had something for everyone. Featuring addicting multiplayer games and immersive, evocative single-player experiences on both the indie and AAA front, 2018 provided us with releases that both represent this console generation at its best and give us a glimpse towards the future.
Favorite Game Released Before 2018, Played in 2018: Hollow Knight
Between its Switch launch and subsequent release on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, 2018 is the first opportunity that many players had to experience this gem of a game. Technically, however, Hollow Knight released last year on the PC, and it just wouldn’t feel right to miss the chance to give it a nod in a very competitive year. Put bluntly: Hollow Knight is probably the best Metroidvania-style game since Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night themselves. Taking just as many cues from the Dark Souls franchise as its more apparent forbears, Hollow Knight provides nearly sixty hours or more of dark, gloomy explorative goodness that should absolutely not be missed.
2018 Honorable Mentions
Marvel’s Spider-Man, Florence, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Monster Hunter: World, A Way Out
Top 5 Games of 2018
5. Tetris Effect
Tetris Effect’s (ahem) effect on me was immediate and visceral. Now personally, I’ve never been much of a Tetris player - I’m just not very good at it. But Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s newest release on PS4 finally made it all click for me. Tetris is all about entering a sort of trance state: play enough and it won’t even feel like you’re in control anymore, you just know where the pieces should fall and your thumbs act accordingly, of their own volition. Combined with sensory, vibration feedback and an outstandingly emotional soundtrack, Tetris Effect makes for an outright spiritual experience, especially when played in virtual reality.
4. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Dragon Quest XI is, essentially, exactly what I thought games would be like in the future, back when I was tearing through Final Fantasy games on the original Playstation. DQXI is hyper traditional, from its combat-systems to its narrative, and even its (admittedly awful) MIDI-soundtrack, but its all couched in an utterly captivating presentation with outstanding cel-shaded graphics and an endearing localization, featuring excellent voice-work. There’s also lots of great little quality-of-life features that make playing this 100+ hour behemoth as painless as it could possibly be. It all comes together for the sort of meaty JRPG experience that we so rarely receive anymore.
In a year of unabashedly stellar indie-releases, Celeste stands out as the very best. It’s a tough-as-nails platformer, but rarely frustrating, and provides a sense of progression that you rarely see in these types of releases. As you progress through its campaign, you get better as a player, learning how best to handle particular setups and situations. This works exceedingly well when paired with its touching narrative about anxiety and mental-health, which is at least half the reason to pick this game up. Of course, this wouldn’t matter very much if the gameplay itself wasn’t on-the-level, but Celeste is tight, and controls so well that you’re unlikely to think twice about diving into its borderline-masochistic post-game content.
2. Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar’s cowboy-simulator sequel is a masterpiece. It’s drop-dead gorgeous, intensely immersive and immensely strengthened by its superlative narrative, best-in-class voice-acting and jaw-dropping soundtrack. RDR2 is also lurching, slow and, often, intentionally frustrating. It doesn’t care much for the person actually playing the game; Red Dead Redemption 2 has its own ambitions - it’s going to do what it’s going to do, and the player is either along for the ride or they’re not. It is quite easy to imagine many would-be players coming in off of Grand Theft Auto V and not enjoying themselves. This is a good thing; this is all a part of what makes Red Dead so refreshing. Removed from the wacky-hi jinks of GTA and its grotesque form of satire, Rockstar gets to stretch their legs and offer up a game that is far more engaging on an immersive level. The game-world feels truly reactive, from its NPCs to its wildlife, and it is near-impossible to predict how the game will react to player-action at any given point. It is intensely good at making you forget that you’re playing a game - just riding around on a horse triggering scripts. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the kind of game that you only get with eight-year development cycles and unlimited budget. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the kind of game you only get by feeding an untold number of developers to a man-eating work-machine to push a product through to the other side. It offers a glimpse into what the future of video games might be like if such practices are sustainable.
1. God of War
God of War was a true surprise - a masterstroke representation of how to revive a franchise. It retools the entire framework of a dormant and flailing game-series and transforms it into one of the most engaging experiences of the entire generation. The decision to move the camera in was a good one - it keeps the player connected, and combined with an excellent story featuring literally zero camera cuts, you truly feel as though you are inhabiting Kratos. You feel the power surging underneath his new, cooler, calmer facade - a ticking time-bomb of death and destruction. God of War knows when to let loose and let the player engage in the spectacle of violence, but what it knows even better is when to pull back and let its characters breathe - when to let the players experience the pathos of this well-worn video-game antihero. God of War is very self-aware; it expects that the player is at least somewhat familiar with Kratos’ god-killing reputation and what sort of monster he could be, and potentially still can. It is constantly playing with these expectations, and yet almost always paying off in ways that are very difficult to anticipate. The video game industry has a come a long way since the Playstation 2, in ways that aren’t always positive, but there is no doubt that ambitions regarding narrative and storytelling are seriously peaking compared to where we came from. God of War is what happens when an industry veteran grows up and then decides to look back at that prior work, and it’s difficult to argue with the results. There is nothing more exciting about the next generation of consoles, to me, than the sequel to this game.