After my traditional six months of absence, I’ve returned with my traditional year-end list of my favorite games to be released in the past 365 days. I’ll begin with a section of Honorable Mentions, those games that didn’t quite make the list for whatever reason (though usually that reason is me simply not having enough time to play them).
Just Cause 4
I do believe this one has the unique honor of being one of only a couple games I bought this year on their launch day (because, you know, grappling hooks). The latest entry in the Just Cause series from Avalanche offers very little new to the seasoned player apart from some tornadoes roaming the map that pick up and toss about NPCs and other bits of the environment (which are, admittedly, very amusing). The rest of the new additions amount to some further attempts at diversifying the series’ trademark gameplay, most of which don’t really … change … anything, and a new map that’s a bit larger and, luckily, a bit denser than 2015’s Just Cause 3. Ultimately, Just Cause 4 is more of the same — a shallow but still rather fun romp around a new locale with the same toolset to play with. That said, I’m a simple man. Give me a grappling hook, a jetpack, and the ability to staple both of these things to a cow, and I’ll entertain myself for hours.
The Banner Saga 3
I attempted to work my way through the first two entries in this series this summer in earnest, having dabbled in them (and thoroughly enjoyed them) before, in order to hopefully finish them and play the third. I was unsuccessful in this endeavor, but if TBS 3 is anything like its predecessors, it would’ve earned a spot on this list for sure.
This one hurts the most. Given my love for grappling hooks, a new game starring Spider-Man, essentially “grappling hook” in superhero form, would’ve certainly been right up my alley. Alas, I lacked free time in the back half of 2018, and as such it, along with several other gems from Q4, found its way onto my “hopefully next year” list.
#10. Far Cry 5
Far Cry 5 isn’t much of an overhaul, but definitely acts as an improvement over its somewhat bland predecessor. Far Cry 5 smartly shifts its setting to somewhere starkly different from anything it’s done before, bringing us to rural Montana to overthrow a psychotic religious cult. Far Cry 5 opens up the player’s options really quickly, giving us three primary areas in which to wrest control back from one of the Seed siblings, each of whom operate slightly differently. This gives the game a bit of a stilted, but overall enjoyable feeling of freedom. If you get bored of dealing with one of the game’s baddies, you can easily hop over a river and start messing with a different one. The mission structure feels tighter, and the skill trees a bit more diverse than previous entries, and the trademark chaotic gameplay of the series remains strong. Far Cry 5 isn’t necessarily doing anything new (though its ending is delightfully unexpected), but it’s not doing anything poorly either, and a few gameplay improvements over the previous entry make it almost as memorable as the fantastic Far Cry 3.
#9. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey continues the series’ shift toward more combat-oriented, RPG-style gameplay that Origins started last year, and once again shows that this now-veteran series is still capable of surprising. Odyssey lets the stealth-oriented recon of yesteryear take a backseat and continues to develop a more nuanced combat system, with a really great set of skill trees smartly allowing the player to actually play a certain way, rather than having their best option always be hiding and waiting to stab someone five thousand times. The story plods at times but manages to be much more engrossing than Origins’ tale of a bunch of people I don’t care about, and its protagonist is far more compelling than any the series has had since Ezio. The Mercenary system of rivals that will tail you across the map is similar to Middle-Earth’s Nemesis system, though isn’t quite as fun, but the different options the player has for approaching his various objectives make up the difference. The Greek locales are densely-packed, almost overwhelmingly so, and the graphics and soundtrack are adequate as ever. Odyssey marks further progress in the Assassin’s Creed series’ evolution into something of substance, and by and large does so successfully while telling an engrossing story.
#8. Overcooked 2
Overcooked 2 is the best couch co-op game I’ve played in years. It brings back all the trademark frantic kitchen chaos of the first game, while continuing to ramp the experience up even further with crazier kitchens, more diverse recipes, and — most importantly — the ability to chuck things across the screen. Surprisingly, this one new mechanic drastically changes the gameplay for the better, giving a much more fluid and fast-paced feel to an already manic game. If you’ve got a couple of friends and don’t mind the potential frustration of being unable to correctly slice up a tomato, Overcooked 2 probably has the fun you’re looking for.
#7. Super Mario Party
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of the Mario Party series. Its unpredictable, luck-based gameplay combined with the fact that at any time victory could be snatched out from under the nose of a clear winner — even at the game’s end — firmly earned it its position as “the game you play when you have friends over who don’t want to play Super Smash Bros.” To be fair, most of this isn’t necessarily fixed in Super Mario Party. There’s still stupid bonus stars given out at the end of the game, and it’s still centered around dice rolling, but a ton of smart changes have been made that make it a more fun experience all the same. Each character has their own unique die they can choose to use, maximizing risk/reward. You can pick up a few NPC buddies who will travel the board with you, help you out in minigames, and add to your die rolls. Most importantly, the minigames are by and large much more fun than in previous installments, with only a few stinkers. Super Mario Party is really the cream of the Mario Party crop, and its team-based mode is especially great, bringing in a lot more strategy and making for a genuinely fun time for all. It’s still Mario Party, with all the good and bad that entails, but it’s Mario Party done really, really well.
#6. Mario Tennis Aces
Continuing the Mario train, Mario Tennis Aces is one of the most fun Mario sports games to ever grace a Nintendo console. I grew up on Mario Power Tennis for the GameCube, and Aces recaptures all the simple joys that classic game had to offer while bringing in some surprisingly complex new wrinkles that make it play like a rhythm game, a fighting game, and a party game all at once. The new stamina meters (which are shared by your teammate if you’re playing doubles), add a level of depth to the typical back-and-forth tennis gameplay, changing the game into a battle of attrition where you have to leverage your own power against your opponent’s. Do you want to try that trick shot to gain more stamina, at the risk of messing up your timing and losing the point? Should you use precious stamina to slow down time to perfectly return that charged shot? Do you want to try and center your aimed shot just inside the court to gain a point, or do you want to aim right at your opponent and try to break their racket? These kinds of decisions have to be made every second in Aces, and they make for a surprisingly tense and hugely enjoyable entry in the Mario Tennis series. Now if only we could get a new Mario Strikers …
Celeste was most likely the most difficult game I played this year, and it was also one of the few I kept coming back to after finishing it. In a similar vein to Super Meat Boy, Celeste is an intense retro platformer from the makers of Towerfall that gets more and more complex as you progress through its levels. Unlike games that have come before it, however, Celeste tells a surprisingly touching story as it does so, being perhaps the first game I’ve played that manages to tell a tale about depression without being ridiculously ham-fisted and stupid. Celeste is a simple and engaging game to play, and it cleverly trickles in new mechanics just as you’ve mastered old ones, while managing to keep constant pressure on the player’s skills. You never know where Celeste will take you next, and each of its locations is stranger and more interesting than the last. By the time you’re finished, Celeste will leave you winded and broken — and that’s not even taking the ridiculously tough bonus levels into account. Celeste is a tense, fun and engrossing platformer that manages to tell a poignant story and leaves you wanting more, and I look forward to what’s next from the developers.
#4. Return of the Obra Dinn
Obra Dinn is probably the strangest game I played all year. It puts you in the shoes of an insurance adjuster for the East India Company in the early 19th century, investigating a ship and trying to figure out how everyone on board managed to die. All that you have at your disposal is a notebook and a magical pocketwatch that allows you to hear a few seconds of sound and view the exact moment each person died. From just the paltry clues you have at your disposal, you have to piece together the scant information you have to figure out who every corpse is and how they died. Obra Dinn works as a massive logic puzzle, and there’s more than one way to find every piece of information. Smartly, the game refrains from telling you if you’re right immediately — instead you only know once you’ve correctly divined three people’s fates — and the list of options you have for each person is big enough that it doesn’t just give away the answer like in so many other games that purport to be deduction-based. Obra Dinn has a unique concept that it carries out perfectly, and the story of just what happened on this ship reveals itself bit by tantalizing bit, leaving the player grasping for more details as they put the puzzle together.
#3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
There are some years where it’s really difficult to narrow these last few games down. Under other circumstances I’d consider each of these last three games to be “games of the year,” but as usual, a ranking must be had. Coming in at number three is Smash Ultimate, the latest and greatest in one of my favorite game series of all time. I grew up playing these things, starting with 2001’s Melee, and while they’ve all had their little quirks they by and large have stayed among my favorites. Ultimate is pretty much the culmination of what this series has been working towards (making it pretty fittingly titled), adding some new characters and bringing back the old to have a roster of a whopping 74 characters. The gameplay has been sped up to be punchier and more intense, and everything just looks, sounds, and feels outstanding. This is the epitome of the Smash Bros. experience, and while the tweaks between this and the last one aren’t huge, they’re enough to make it a clearly refined experience that’s sure to be the Switch’s must-have title.
#2. God of War
In all honesty, I didn’t expect to love God of War as much as I did. I played the first two this year in preparation for the new one (though that’s pretty unnecessary considering how unrelated they are) and enjoyed them well enough, but wasn’t particularly wowed by them. But God of War (the 2018 one) absolutely blew me away. It’s a beautiful game in all aspects. Its realization of pre-Viking Scandinavia is breathtaking (even without the aid of the PS4 Pro’s considerable graphical chutzpah), composer Bear McCreary’s score is the most beautiful I’ve heard since Austin Wintory’s soundtrack for Journey, and the tale it weaves adds impressive depth to Kratos, who until now was fairly one-dimensional, and spins a story about a father and his son that never fails to tug at the heartstrings. And that’s not even mentioning the gameplay, which incorporates probably the best combat I’ve ever seen in a game and the potential for feeling truly impressive for nailing some combos with the Leviathan Axe, a Mjolnir-esque battleaxe that feels as graceful as it does hefty. God of War does basically everything right, and upon finishing it I instantly wanted more.
This was a really tough call to make, but I decided I’d have to go with a bit of an oddball choice for my game of the year. Into the Breach, from the developers of FTL, is, in stark contrast to the previous entry on this list, as simple as they come. It’s the very definition of “trimming the fat.” It has a story, but only enough to get you involved in the game. Its writing is sparse, but pithy and inserted at the exact right moments to make you feel invested in the world. Ben Prunty’s score mimics the scantness of his work on FTL, once again laying low enough not to draw your attention but complimenting the game perfectly. And the game itself plays like a tactical strategy game (my favorite genre) boiled down to only the most necessary parts. Into the Breach is brutal but fair, strategically complex but mechanically simple, and every time I put it down I’m already thinking about how I should’ve tackled the last encounter more efficiently. There’s not much else to say about Into the Breach other than that, like so many great strategy games, it’s easy to learn, difficult to master, and will keep you completely enthralled. It’s the best game of 2018.