Truth be told, I didn’t play a lot of new games this year. This is partially on account of there not being a ton of new heavy hitters that stood out to me (I’m looking at you Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider), partially on account of me having a lengthy backlog of games from previous years I’ve been working through, and partially on account of the few new games I HAVE gotten into this year being pretty lengthy titles. While this year may not have been the best year for me in terms of quantity, and there are many other games from this year I’d still like to get to (Celeste, Monster Hunter World, and Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, just to name a few), this year did make up for it with quality, delivering some of the best darn games of the generation. So let’s talk about some of those, shall we.
No. 6: Vampyr
I got a lot of guff for loving Vampyr as much as I did, but I stand by the game fully. Vampyr is far from a perfect game, being brought down by Dontnod Entertainment’s usual slightly better than B-tier production quality. Technical hitches, inconsistent writing, and a clunky, not-fully-developed combat system stopped this game from truly shining among the rest of this year’s incredible games.
With that said, Vampyr does do something truly special. Dontnod created a game that really hangs on your every move and shows you the consequences of your every action. No matter how you choose to play as protagonist Jonathan Reid, from a bloodthirsty, death-dealing vampire to a merciful physician, you won’t come away from Vampyr feeling good, and that’s awesome. Your actions have great consequences on the struggling residents of London, with the lives of entire districts being in your gross, clawed vampire hands.
What’s most interesting about this is how your decisions in the story greatly affect the gameplay. Every NPC in Vampyr can be eaten, and Johnathan must consume blood to evolve his vampiric powers and grow strong enough to fight off his many foes. This creates an interesting dilemma of weighing your prowess in combat with your morals. Choosing not to eat people will leave the districts in a better state and Jonathan in better moral standing but will give you a much harder time in combat. On the flipside, eating everyone will make you the deadliest vampire to roam the streets of London, but your actions will leave very few people left on those streets other than the monstrous Skals you’ve created through your bloodlust. It’s an interesting and well-thought-out system that made me be very deliberate with my actions and left me more than once stunned by their consequences. It’s not even close to a perfect game, yes, but Vampyr provided some of the most interesting game design I’ve seen all year, a design that I hope greatly influences Dontnod’s games moving forward.
No. 5: Tetris Effect
Everyone has probably played Tetris at some point. The literal bestselling game of all time, Tetris has taken many iterations across just about every platform imaginable, but what makes this one stand out is its ability to completely enrapture you in the game of Tetris. The basic game is already addicting and mind-consuming, with the title Tetris Effect referencing the phenomenon in which people continue to see those familiar blocks falling well after playing the game. This game completely capitalizes on that by immersing you in an audiovisual rhythmic experience, all while playing the classic game of Tetris. The visually stunning lightshow matched with the utter bops playing as you move around tetrominoes to the beat is hypnotic and *usually* relaxing. But, this game still brings the challenge and often reminded me that I’m really not that great at Tetris, but that’s alright, because this game provides an experience for every player. If you want a fast-paced, pulse-pounding challenge that requires split second reactions, Tetris Effect’s got you covered. If you want an atmospheric soothing experience without the anxiety of losing, Tetris Effect’s got you! I tend to prefer the latter for obvious reasons, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite games of the year. Tetris Effect serves as both a weirdly relaxing lightshow/rave and a reminder that even after all of these years, Tetris is still a good time.
No. 4: Marvel's Spider-Man
Insomniac Games has a knack for creating games that are just good fun, and Marvel’s Spider-Man might be one of their best. Many Spider-Man games have tried their hand web-slinging, but Insomniac refined it with one of the most fun movement systems to ever grace a video game. The speed and momentum of swinging through Insomniac’s photo-realistic recreation of New York City is a thing of pure joy and never failed to delight even after performing the same maneuvers time and time again. While the game relies on many of the same open-world tropes that have made lesser games fall stale, the simple act of moving in Spider-Man makes reaching every activity and finding every collectible a blast.
However, what surprised me the most about Spider-Man was not how fun it was, but how much it got me to care about its story. Not being the biggest superhero fan in general, let alone of the tights-wearing spider-boy, I went into the game only expecting to get a fun time out of it, not a smartly-written adaption of the Spider-Man universe that actually got me into the character of Spider-Man AND Peter Parker. As Peter is pushed to his breaking point in what has to be the worst week of his vigilante career, I actually began to deeply care for Peter in his struggle to keep the city from falling apart and to protect the people he loves. It’s a surprisingly well delivered story that made me enjoy Peter’s story just as much as playing as Spider-Man, something I never would’ve thought the game would be able to pull off.
No. 3: Hollow Knight
While Hollow Knight first came out on PC last year, its 2018 release on consoles alongside some new content-filled updates got a lot of people in the gaming community talking about it again, and it finally got this boy to beat it after spending 20 hours on PC and 26 hours on the Nintendo Switch, where the game fits just perfectly.
Hollow Knight is a delightful indie Metroidvania experience that is as challenging as it is beautiful, and I mean this game is b-e-a-u-tiful. Hollow Knight’s gorgeous hand-drawn art style, stunning score, and charming sound design come together to make one of the most atmospheric worlds I’ve stepped into this year, and in a 2D game at that. The world of Hallownest is large, varied, and is easy to get lost in as you explore every inch of it for secrets and fight off all manner of bugs (literal bugs, this isn’t Fallout 76).
What makes Hollow Knight stand out even more is that it mixes this classic 2D metroidvania formula with elements of, you guessed it, Dark Souls, with challenging boss fights and punishing deaths that mean trekking back to where you died to reclaim your lost resources. Like those recent From Software games, Hollow Knight also encourages you to be aggressive in combat, as the pool of soul used to restore your health is replenished by dealing damage. Combat is satisfyingly challenging, and taking down the game’s long list of unique bosses was one of the most fun experiences in gaming I’ve had this year. No matter what platform you pick this one up on, Hollow Knight is one of the best experiences out there, and it’s only $15. Go get it.
No. 2: God of War
Putting God of War in my #2 spot feels like a disservice, but here we are. If you would’ve told me in May that God of War wouldn’t be my game of the year, I would’ve slapped you. Hell, if you caught me on another day, it might even still be my #1.
God of War is nothing short of one of PlayStation’s best exclusives to date and one of the best games of the generation. Santa Monica Studio’s revival of the long dormant franchise brought the character of Kratos to new emotional heights without sacrificing the violent and visceral action and grand set pieces the series is known for. Through a renewed focus on storytelling throughout every aspect of the game, the team at Santa Monica transformed a previously comically one-note character into a father struggling with how to carry on after the death of his wife and how to handle the burden of raising a son in a world in which neither of them fully belong. Not the emotionally poignant story we’re used to getting out of our boy Kratos, but through Santa Monica’s superb writing and the incredible performances of the game’s leads, these characters deliver one of the most memorable stories I’ve yet to see in the entire medium – a powerful journey through the series new Norse setting that left me in tears when it reached its literal and figurative peak. God of War is a game I’m going to remember for a long time, and one I plan on revisiting often.
No. 1: Red Dead Redemption 2
So like, Red Dead Redemption II might be one of my favorite games ever.
Like no other game I’ve played, Red Dead Redemption II responded to my place in its world. Its slow pace and painstaking attention to detail creates the greatest sense of place to be found in any video game – a game world where the stretches of it just feeling real are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in games. All of this is in service of building its narrative, an emotional story of a family of outlaws coming to the end of their time together as distrust, betrayal, and the changing of the eras has brought them to the end of their rope.
Red Dead Redemption II’s extraordinary Van der Linde gang are some of the most memorable, fully-realized characters I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with in games, with all 22 of the gunslingers, thieves, conmen, and all-around outlaws leaving an emotional impact on me by the game’s finale. Among these characters stands one of the most fascinating explorations of villainy I’ve seen across any medium, Dutch Van der Linde, whose transformation from a collected and charismatic leader to a selfish and unhinged psychopath laid the backbone for the game’s thrilling narrative. Creating a great counter to Dutch, Red Dead Redemption II hangs on its protagonist Arthur Morgan, whose expertly written arc took my Arthur on a journey of redemption, transforming him from a no-good, dirty outlaw to the caring leader the gang needed all along. The game’s long journey, immersive world, and almost full-blown cowboy-simulator systems gave me the means to really get into the character, and my feelings for him and the rest of the gang drove my actions both in the story and out in the open world.
While the game doesn’t allow much room for you to step outside of its rules, following Rockstar along on this epic journey stood out as one of the best experiences I’ve ever gotten out of the medium. Red Dead Redemption II is not only my game of the year, but is easily up there with some of my favorite games of all time.
Honorable Mention: Battlefield V
Battlefield is hands down my favorite multiplayer FPS series, and Battlefield V looks like it could be one of the best of the bunch. Dice has made many welcome changes that have shaken up the multiplayer scene, from changing how tanks function on the battlefield, to pushing a faster time-to-kill that makes gunfights more deadly, to creating the fortification system that gives your squad more cover after a match’s worth of fighting has left most structures leveled. While not all of the maps are bangers, Battlefield V features some of the most stunning creations to come out of the Frostbite engine thus far, with Arras standing out as an instant classic for the series. BUT, I only just started playing the game a couple weeks ago and have only just dipped my toes into Battlefield V’s meta, so it feels a bit early to properly place it on my list (especially with the TTK being in flux for a few weeks). With that said, I’ve enjoyed the 10 or so hours I’ve put into the game thus far, and I’m looking forward to the hundreds of more hours of shooting to come.
If 2018 just gave us God of War, it would have been enough. If 2018 just gave us Spider-Man, it would have been enough. If 2018 just gave us Red Dead Redemption II, it would have been enough! But no, 2018 gave us multiple generation-defining games all in one year! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be getting back to my backlog. All of these games aren’t going to play themselves.