2018 was like a whole thing, huh?
Instead of waxing philosophical about the state of things both in and outside of the industry, lets just dive right into my top 5 games of the year. After all, I think we’re all a little impatient to wrap up the last 12 months.
A small caveat though, there were some major releases this year that I missed out on due to timing and life being…well, life. God of War and Celeste stand out to me most as works I need to play but that will undoubtedly come in the new year.
No. 5: Frostpunk
I am not good at tactical play. I’m also terrible in a crisis and incapable of making the hard choices.
So naturally, a game which forced me into all three under threat of my people freezing to death around me was one of the best experiences I had in 2018. 11 Bit-Studio’s Frostpunk gives you a heavy burden from the outset and rarely ever relents – a Volcanic Winter has consumed most of the planet and one of the few remaining human colonies sets out for the North in search of a new home and, Gods willing, survival. Your role as colony leader means you are constantly expected to be making choices that will impact your citizen’s lives; from the disbursement of precious heat, the allocation of works and medics, the implementation of religion and of course, the upholding of civility.
The game is relentlessly bleak and brutally difficult but never to a fault – Frostpunk gently teases the limits of fun while providing players with a compelling narrative and immersive sandbox. The many mechanics require constant tendering, and despite a less than smooth introduction into the interlocking nature of the beast, I never felt entirely overwhelmed…just mildly stressed. The game’s engaging system aside, Frostpunk also looks incredible to boot and boasts a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. I might not have been very good at it, but I’ll be damned if I had a better sim style experience all year.
No. 4: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Even more so than including a remastered game on this list, this one feels like cheating.
At the time of writing this, I have barely unlocked a third of the full roster and I’ve only had the game for a couple of weeks but I’ll be damned if any other franchise in gaming has such a firm grasp on unmitigated fun. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate feels like a perfect distillation of not only Nintendo’s history but also that of the medium and paired with gameplay that has been deftly refined over decades, Ultimate truly feels ultimate. There isn’t a single facet that doesn’t feel polished, though only time will tell if the Spirits Mode remains fun, but even still, Nintendo has once again put together a blast of a fighter and all I can think about is playing more.
Oh, and so far, Bayonetta is main <3
No. 3: Dark Souls Remastered
I started and quit playing Dark Souls several times over multiple consoles, each time failing to comprehend it’s nuances and bailing out the moment I felt it was needlessly punishing. I loved the art, respected the lore and had a quiet admiration for those who somehow ‘got gud’ enough to enjoy it but I had resigned myself to the fact that Souls games just weren’t for me. Then, finally, late in 2018 with a bunch of free time and the Remastered version of the game on sale, I gave it one final chance to click for me and oh boy, did I git gud.
The despondent elements of the game which never worked for me, most especially the grueling difficulty and obscurity of its systems, completely synchronised as I rang the first bell of awakening. The rush of emotions, the heights of achievement, were sensations I’d never felt in a game before – nothing had ever asked so much of me and in turn, had ever rewarded me with as much as Dark Souls Remastered.
There is little left to be said about the game, it is many years old now after all, but the remastering has done wonders for an already beautiful piece of art with high-resolution textures and incredible sound design holding up even on modern consoles. Beyond simply being a beautiful game to look at, the core of Dark Souls still inspires without equal. The sense of dredge and desolation from the game’s minimalist plot resonates deeply and is married perfectly with a combat system which still has almost no contemporaries, even in 2018.
At the time of writing this, I have just entered Anor Londo (a jaw-dropping moment of awe to which I am of course years late). Wish me luck.
No. 2: GRIS
GRIS is special.
I struggled for a good long time about whether or not it should have taken out the top spot on my list, and honestly, if Rockstar hadn’t dropped their magnum opus this year, it would have been my number one by a wide margin. There are so many things you can say about GRIS, it’s the kind of game that practically begs lengthy discussions and analysis of it’s every achievement, of which there are plenty. The watercoloured stylings of artist Conrad Roset have been lovingly translated into a digital landscape which immediately demands attention and rewards deeper inspection – during my couple of hours with the game I never once saw a single frame which didn’t inspire genuine awe, my eyes constantly scanning every inch to soak up the detail and life embued into each environment and character.
To call the beauty of GRIS surface level is a disservice, of course, but delving deeper into the game itself reveals so much more. Berlinist have crafted a soundtrack that simultaneously haunts and inspires, conveying a constant flow of melancholy and hopefulness. Nomada Studios, in their first game no less, give players a tightly tuned platformer which subverts expectations of difficulty and combat to allow new players ease of access and veterans a relaxed, but engaging puzzle experience.
Even deeper still, GRIS tells its story with effortless metaphors and whispered suggestions. Without dialogue, and with no explicit plot statements other than that which is on the game’s store page, GRIS allows its powerful tale to unfold organically and with just enough blank spaces as to allow any player to bring themselves into the experience fully. By the time credits rolled I had smiled warmly, held my breath with tension and finally allowed just a few tears to escape as I reached the stunning climax of the game.
I can not possibly recommend GRIS enough – it’s the kind of art this medium strives to be and my deepest regret is that it came out in the shadow of another masterpiece.
No. 1: Red Dead Redemption 2
I know it’s trite but please gimme a minute to tell you a story.
Arthur Morgan and I lived out our early days in the midwest with a less than noble stride – hyped up on the traditional cowboy power fantasy, we took what we want, when we wanted it and damned ourselves, and the consequences in the process. Violence was an expression of power, tinged with giddy freedom, so upon hearing about a small homestead up north in which a defenseless old crone was stashing riches, we rode north with a callous purposefulness. I’ll spare you the details of the robbery, safe to say however that it played out in much the same manner as our other early exploits and blood was spilled before we rode away with a new rifle in my holster and another name on my list. Months passed and the passage of time imbued us with a new sense of self and a harsher, deeper understanding of the world. We roamed differently now, careful with our actions and far less inclined to pull the trigger.
Eventually, Arthur and I took a request to investigate something up north once more and of course the journey toward the mountains led us right past the homestead. We knew better than to retread old paths, save for personal reflection, little could be salvaged from going backward, but curiosity got the better of us and we approached the small home once again. As we neared the door a memory flashed through our minds as quick as a bullet – the old lady had warned of her sons’ rath if anything were to happen to her. Surely though this was just an idle threat, the kind of ramblings one made while bargaining for their life and even still, it had been months and the odds of the avenging offspring being here were low at best.
We were wrong, of course. As we tried to enter the home the door practically blew off its hinges, the air filled with the cries of men made blind by rage and loss. Arthur took a bullet to the shoulder, then another to the gut as we lurched into the nearby treeline. From behind us they called out, rightful in their violent reactions, “You’ve gotta be a fucking idiot to come back here”.
I tell this story to almost anyone who asks about Red Dead Redemption 2 because, to me, it speaks directly to the living nature of the game’s open world. Much like Breath of the Wild before it, RDR2 feels like an industry-wide lurch forward in the way games should handle both sandbox style play and the balance between interactive and reactive systems.
There is not a single element of RDR2 that doesn’t deeply impress me – lush environments, massive scope, interlocking gameplay loops and systems, attention to detail, razor-sharp writing, complex character work, moving score and bold pacing are just a handful of the individual pieces that, put together, form a work of high art. There has been much discussion, rightfully so, about the game’s almost alienating commitment to its vision of the West and while I respect those who are put off by it, I can’t help but feel as though they are missing a much larger point. RDR2 doesn’t care about catering to your understanding of fun or modern game design, it deliberately chooses to forgo the traditional power fantasy in lieu of crafting a tale about the heavy burden of a life lived outside the system and the self-inflicted wounds that inevitably causes (a metaphor not lost on anyone).
There is much more to say, and in time those conversations will be had, but for now, there isn’t another game this year (perhaps even this entire generation) that has so profoundly made a statement as Red Dead Redemption 2.