Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!
I've never felt less confident in ranking my favorite games in a given year than 2018. I could make credible arguments for why any number of games you'll find below are my favorite game of the year, which is either a sign of a weak field, growing indifference to the notion of ranking things after Burger Gate, or a testament to how 2018, as crappy as a year as it was, actually had a shitload of great games.
At least in this respect, I have some confidence: 2018 had great video games.
My relationship with them continues to change, too. I used to stay up late into the night, dumping in as many hours as possible. Now, I'm going to sleep earlier and earlier, because I want to make sure I'm up and refreshed for the best and more energetic hours with my daughter in the morning. This has changed the kinds of games I play and the ways in which I play them. I fell off Red Dead Redemption 2 after a dozen hours or so, and I'm not sure I'll ever get back to it. I also think that game maybe sucked?
On the flip side, there are a lot of games I didn't get a chance to play this year, especially smaller experiences from independent creators. So much of what consumes my playing time are games I can turn into Content for work, and in 2019, I want to make sure to carve out more hours for work that can be enjoyed for the sake of being enjoyed, instead of wondering how the traffic numbers will play out.
Still, like I said, these are some great games. Here are the ones that stuck with me in 2018:
10. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
I’ve always thought I wasn’t smart enough to play strategy games. As a kid, I played a ton of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Command & Conquer, but in all of those games, you could get away with brute forcing your way to victory. Build tanks, blow shit up. My gaming talents have always lent themselves to fast-paced, instinctual experiences (see: my love of platformers). But XCOM and Fire Emblem: Awakening unlocked something for me; as it turned out, there were strategy games for me. It feels right, too, that my single piece of coverage for Mutant Year Zero was a post earlier this year poking fun at the game’s obnoxious title. It remains obnoxious, but the game? It’s so good. It’s XCOM with characters and a world to care about. It made me feel smart, it made me genuinely laugh—more than once. I’ll take that in 2018.
9. Monster Hunter World
Monster Hunter is a mountain I’ve been staring at for years. While at Giant Bomb, I made a point to start playing games readers were hoping Giant Bomb would cover but didn’t fall under our category of interests. I remember playing a dozen hours of the Wii U game, enough to intellectually understand the appeal of Monster Hunter and explain how it worked, but it remained that—an intellectual curiosity. Monster Hunter: World changed all that. The lack of other games probably helped, but Monster Hunter’s high-res aesthetic, combined with some much-needed UI cleanup, meant I finally made it to the top of the mountain. Now, I don’t just understand Monster Hunter, I love Monster Hunter, and I can’t way to go back.
8. God of War
For whatever reason, God of War hasn’t stuck with me quite as much as I expected it to, given how much I (generally) liked it at the time. But like The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, what’s stayed with me is Kratos and Atreus. I’ll quote my essay from earlier this week: “Kratos loves his son, but does not say it. His son probably knows it, but it’s not said out loud. My father and I had a good relationship but it wasn’t especially warm—he just wasn’t that type of guy with anyone. I hoped we’d find a way towards something different in the future, once he’d retired, become a grandfather, and we were less father/son and more like equals. We never got that chance, and I regret the things left unsaid. I do not want my daughter to assume she’s loved, and I want her to feel comfortable sharing her emotions."
7. Dead Cells
I really love when a game unexpectedly pushes me outside of my comfort zone. Dead Cells lulled me in with its familiar Castlevania-on-steroids combat, but threw a haymaker by dropping everything into a roguelike format (not always my favorite) with randomized loot. It’s so easy to fall into comfortable habits with games like this, relying on previously successful strategies because they’re convenient. Dead Cells makes that impossible because you have no idea what weapons and items are going to drop on any given run, so you’re focused to improvise and find new strategies. The more weapons you unlock, the less likely you’re to get that favorite sword, bomb, etc. You make do with what you have, and that’s exciting. Plus, some games just click, and Dead Cells was one of them. Outside of its clunky platforming, I don’t know that I played a more mechanically satisfying game this year.
6. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
As much as I liked the first episode of Life Is Strange’s new season, it’s the short prequel, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, that’s lingered with me for months. Being a parent means being constantly reminded of one’s weaknesses and failures; kids seem to have a knack for bringing that out of you. That’s why Captain Spirit knocked me over: a disturbingly convincing window into “What would I do and who would I become, if I suddenly became a single parent after a tragedy?” Captain Spirit captured Life Is Strange at its best. It’s weird, surreal, and melodramatic (Sufjan Stevens is the soundtrack!), but dang, it’s real.
The opening moments of Spider-Man are so goddamn impressive. It takes most games an eternity to pitch you on what’s interesting about them. Not here. Spider-Man opens on Peter Parker’s messy room, a quick establishing shot to remind us this Spider-Man isn’t an origin—he’s been on the job for years. Sketches of new gadgets. A photo of Aunt May. Coin jars saving money for a laptop. Despite his heroics, Parker is, like his room, also kind of a mess. But it’s what happens next that remains striking. After tossing on his suit, Parker jumps out of his apartment window and the game seamlessly transitions from cutscene to gameplay. It’s not just any gameplay—it’s the reason to play the game: swinging. And it rules. This game knows what it is, knows what it does well, and wants you to know, too.
4. Hollow Knight
You ever play a game and halfway through realize you’re playing an all-time favorite, and there are,my god, hours to go before it’s over? That’s how I felt a dozen or so hours into Hollow Knight, an experience that managed to something new to say in a genre that’s been thoroughly exhausted in recent years, to the point that I consciously punted on playing Hollow Knight—again, a game I now consider in my all-time top 10—for more than a year. It ticks some very specific boxes for me, of course—Dark Souls, Castlevania, Metroid, dens of very creepy bugs who want to eat you—but it’s the way Hollow Knight doesn’t feel like it’s checking boxes that makes it special. It has influences, yes, but it’s not trying to copy them; instead, it’s building upon them. There’s a difference. There are lots of good clones of those influences, but precious few who looked closer and thought “Where do we go from here?”
Vampyr is an extremely weird game. It didn’t make much of an impression at first, but every time I set it down, I kept thinking about it. Every time I tried to play another game, I wound up dumping another few hours into Vampyr. You play an arrogant prick who also happens to be a super talented doctor in London during the spanish flu outbreak. Oh, and you’re a vampire! And you have to eat NPCs you’ve spent time with to gain experience points to level up. And if you don’t tend to a neighborhood—help the residents, give them medicine—it’ll dissolve into ruin. And those NPCs you need to eat become more valuable the more time you spend learning about them because, shit, who cares? It’s a smart way to make you invested in the world around you. There are lots of games set in cities, but few games that are about cities. The Bloodborne knockoff combat isn’t great, but Vampyr’s earnest weirdness is very worth it.
2. Astro Bot
There is joy and sadness in the release of a new Mario game from Nintendo because it means we’re that far away from the next one. Enter Astro Bot, Sony’s virtual reality platformer—I know, I know, VR!— where it’s clear “joy” was the priority for every design decision. Not fun, but joy. There’s a difference. It’s the way flowers smile back at you after making eye contact, or how the main character quietly magnetizes to surfaces to prevent you from accidentally falling, as you crane your neck around to get the right angle. I suspect VR, like 3D before it, is not long for this world, but that doesn’t mean the experiment wasn’t totally worth it for games like Astro Bot. And Moss! Moss was super good, and nearly made my list.
Recently, someone sent me a tweet: “this is a reminder of how much you loved Celeste at the beginning of 2018.” Attached was something I wrote back on January 26, about how I should “absolutely remember” Celeste when 2018 is over. In truth, I had forgotten my time with Celeste, and filed it away as just a very good platformer. That is, of course, a grand disservice to a game that is multiple things: a very good—nay, transcendent—platformer, a quiet but powerful meditation on the everyday struggles of mental health, a home to a thumping soundtrack that is so much more than just an 8-bit homage, and a game that encourages players to modify its own rules because at the end of the day, who cares? Celeste made my fingers feel like an instrument, each tap a note in a beautiful song.
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