Our Favorite Games of 2018: Cameron Kunzelman's Top Ten
There are two types of games on this list: Sprawling epics set in a massive world, and games focused on doing exactly one thing incredibly well.
Header screenshot courtesy Bandai-Namco
Every week, Cameron Kunzelman writes Waypoint's 'Postscript' column, an exploration of endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities throughout video games. It only made sense to ask him to contribute a top 10 list during our end of year celebration. Enjoy!
10. Magic: The Gathering Arena
If we’re talking pure playtime, then this is probably my game of the year. It’s a digital version of Magic: The Gathering, the greatest game ever created, but in a digital form. Unlike the long-existing Magic Online, Arena actually works well and brings Magic into digital competition with games like Hearthstone and Gwent. This simply enables me to spend time and money playing Magic, a game I love, on the internet with other people. No more, no less. It’s good.
9. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
I honestly cannot tell you if I enjoyed this game or not. I certainly played a lot of it. I finished off my playthrough of the game at 10pm on Christmas after having rounded 60 hours of playtime since its release a couple months ago. I’ve been playing this game a few hours a week, steadily, without marathoning it or pushing through hours of content in one go. Weirdly enough, as a freelance writer about video games, that’s not a luxury I have access to very often, and I really took my time here.
And it was fine. It’s not as narratively interesting as Origins and it isn’t as mechanically solid than even the original Assassin’s Creed, which I replayed again earlier this year and found a lot more fresh and interesting than many people seem to give it credit for. But I stuck with Odyssey to the end, puzzled over how it fits into the bigger franchise, and killed a hell of a lot of mercenaries. I don’t know if the whole experience was great, and I think I could have probably spent tha 60 hours in a better way, but golly did I play this game. And kept playing it. And keep playing it. So it goes on the list.
8. Circle Empires
I wrote about Circle Empires earlier this year when I sat down and binged a huge portion of the game over a weekend, and I haven’t quite shaken my obsession with it since. It’s a game where you create giant Starcraft-y ball of diverse units and you tactically take big arenas with that ball. That’s it. It is a game that cuts to the chase of unskilled real-time strategy games, and as far as I know it’s the only game that does something like that. It is a fresh experience, it’s fun to play, and there’s no infinite time commitment or huge amount of information to memorize about how units match up with one another. It’s just one very particular feeling cut down to the bone, and I wish more games were doing that.
Paratopic is another game that has that has a no-frills vibe to it. It’s giving you a very specific feeling: you’re traveling the land doing illicit activities and discovering a labyrinthine mystery about video tapes. There’s nothing extra going on here, and it is good. I’ve already made my case for why Paratopic is so interesting and important for 2018, so you can just go read that.
I purchased SkateRide earlier this year with the intent to write about it, but I just never managed to write out all of my thoughts about it. It captures some of the thrill of a Tony Hawk game for the GameBoy Advance, and it’s just a rad skateboarding game created for a small, pseudoisometric perspective. As my last couple picks have suggested, this year has been the year of enjoying stripped-down, purposeful games, and this damn thing has you skateboarding all around its little maps without fuss or muss. It’s a hard game to learn, borrows some interesting things from the Skate games, and gives us something interesting to play before the next big skateboarding game inevitably comes along.
5.5 Dead In Vinland
When I finished this list I realized that I had 11 games, so to save us from the clunkiness of a Top 11 list, I have decided to briefly mention the spreadsheet-simulator-ish Dead In Vinland, a game that I played earlier this year and intensely enjoyed before burning out on it. That burning out should not be a mark against the game. I simply went too hard, too fast, and I went looking for a palette cleanser. I never returned.
It is a game about taking a family and settling on an island. You have to manage their abilities, their hunger levels, their emotional state, and their social relationships. Then you take them into tactical battles. And then you can let more people into your camp. And you also have to defeat a magical, powerful barbarian clan. Dead In Vinland is the very definition of “a lot,” but it ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to the things I like about strategy games. When I’m looking for complexity, I want to go for it, and Dead In Vinland is one of the most extreme versions of that kind of development desire I have ever seen.
Northgard is a hex-based digital strategy game that asks you to struggle against the weather, enemy factions, and your own consumption of raw materials. It is an interesting single-player experience, but it is on this list because of the multiplayer games that I have had the good fortune to play with people in the Discord community for my YouTube channel, Ranged Touch. Earlier this year, several of us purchased the game, and it has led to some of the weirdest multiplayer experiences that I have ever had. Alliances are forged and broken in a moment. Border skirmishes between two Viking factions are initiated only to be shattered by a third party entering the fray. Some people just refuse to play the game so that they can trade enough with with giant NPC faction, therefore becoming Friend of the Jötun.
It’s also a game where it’s easy to create situations where feelings get hurt, so it’s a game that’s probably best played with people that you trust. But it’s also sort of like the best kind of summer camp activity: Northgard asks you to get your feelings hurt a little bit for the sake of the game, and everyone is friends afterward. I cannot recommend a big multiplayer game more strongly than I do this one.
4. The Haunted Island, A Frog Detective Game
I think it is a stone-cold fact that we don’t have enough genuine comedy games. It seems like there was a ten-year period where screaming weird memes was all of the effort it required, and some people became famous for their meme screaming. Grace Bruxner’s The Haunted Island, which I wrote about on release, is a vision of some type of video games to come. The humor is so specific as to almost be regional, and it has its own language that shoots out of that specificity to hit a much broader topic. I see Bruxner’s work as being emblematic of what I hope is a brand of comedy game coming down the pipe: games with unique takes on the world spoken with unique voices and presented through tried-and-true mechanics.
3. Hitman 2
I haven’t put nearly as much time into Hitman 2 as I have some of the other games on this list, but I’d be lying if those scant few hours weren’t some of the most fulfilling ones that I’ve spent playing a game this year. This isn’t a big revolution over the previous Hitman title in the same way that none of these games since Hitman 2: Silent Assassin back in 2002 have really moved all that much from their predecessors. But you can feel everything getting a little better, some edge cases being eliminated, and it’s all in the spirit of making you feel like you can plan and execute wild hijinks.
People are always talking about immersion in games, but I’ve never really thought it was me in Skyrim or God of War or whatever game supposedly flattens out the relationship between avatar and player today. I feel immersed in games, or at least what I think people are talking about when they say “immersion,” when I can think from a position. There’s a subject in this game world, whether it is the Commander in an XCOM or Agent 47, and I can take on their perspective to understand how they relate to this fictional place they are are. Hitman 2, and almost all of the games on this list, are about taking on the perspective of a system. When you play a Hitman title, you’re not just thinking about your actions. You’re thinking about the clockwork universe that’s operating in front of you. And it’s a rare game that really delivers that feeling as well as Hitman 2 does.
2.Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
I played and reviewed both Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom and Dragon Quest XI this year. I fundamentally do not understand what could get a person to willingly play through more than a couple hours of the latter, and I am deeply hurt that more people aren’t hollering about Ni no Kuni II, a game that I couldn’t get enough of, from the rooftops. They’re both JRPGs that tell simplistic stories of fallen kingdoms, heroic destinies, and a grand battle between light and dark, but Dragon Quest XI is so bogged down by mechanical comfort food mechanics that it mostly feels like a game you should use to waste time instead of having an actively good time with it.
I’m not digging in my heels here to dunk on Dragon Quest XI, but instead to say that it provided me with an excellent baseline for me to understand that Ni no Kuni II is basically my ideal JRPG experience. It keeps all of the things from the simplistic, classic JRPG in a narrative sense and then dials up the complexity in places that I found incredibly valuable. I loved wandering around the world doing quests to convince people to come to live in my kingdom. I enjoyed small tactical battles that used rock-paper-scissors mechanics to defeat enemy armies. And I even liked the action RPG battles that allied my party members with mystical Higgeldies who provided us with benefits and hurt our enemies. It was just a joy to play, from top to bottom, and I really think that more people should be giving it a go. Dragon Quest has enough history behind it to keep the steamroller going for years to come. Try out a little bit of kingdom creation, yall.
1. The Pizza Delivery Boy Who Saved The World
When I wrote out my list of games, I surely did not believe that a visual novel about pizza delivery and time travel was going to end up at the top of the list. I thought this game might hit a safe #7 slot, the ultimate respectable finish, but as I started putting numbers to things it crept lower and lower. The fact is that I enjoyed my 74 minutes with this game more than I have enjoyed any other game this year, and it is important to be honest about that.
It is a simple game, but it is also one of the only games I have ever played that really does say something about labor in America. It does so in service of a science fiction plot, but right beneath the surface is all of this slightly exaggerated realism about working in the service industry for a bad boss who fundamentally sees you only as a worker and never as a person. It is about having co-workers who don’t care about their job, and from bird’s eye view, you can understand why they don’t. It is fundamentally honest about what it means to work in food service, and in that way it hits harder than any other game on this list even gets close to.
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