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!
10 - Iconoclasts
In the earliest part of 2018, there were three excellent platformers that all had their own quirks on the genre. Celeste (which I sadly didn’t get much time with—yet!), Dandara, and Iconoclasts. The latter here is an impressive puzzle-platformer with ambitious storytelling, wildly creative boss fights, and intricate, detailed environments. It’s a big, beautiful game, almost unfathomably the work of largely one person, and impressive in its cohesion.
9 - Donut County
Alongside The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game, Donut County was the most bang-for-buck delightful game I played this year. It’s sweet and operationally simple—you control a hole in the ground, and it gets bigger the more objects you swallow—but mechanically deep. As the game goes on, you control or cause more and more interactions with the game’s systems: all the way to a full-scale infiltration of a massive surveillance operation. That speaks to (and is perfectly served by) the wacky story and bright, beautiful low-poly aesthetic.
8 - Assemblance: Oversight
Last spring, I slipped into Assemblance Oversight’s black hole of secrets. An exploration/puzzle game with deep ARG elements, it had me dive deep, deep into the rabbit hole of a community actively plumbing a game’s secrets during release week. From my piece on the game:
“I think the reason why a lot of folks liked Assemblance, and why it became a minor streaming phenomenon a couple of years back, is the stream-friendly collective intelligence aspect of solving the game’s bigger puzzles. Much like PT in 2014, it took many people, playing with many variables, to find the “true” ending and the secret endings, and this stuff is catnip for some folks.
I resist at first, preferring the subtext to the meta-text. To get lost in all the environments. But then, I find myself looking up after hours of looking at the art assets for any tiny change—I was convinced for a bit that some scuff marks on a cabinet were a clear sign that something had been moved to hide an important secret. I can’t help myself: I need to track down message boards and read theories and watch the first fledgling streams of folks looking for the deepest secrets and now I’m in it.”
7 - Minit
Minit is a super-smart, tight piece of game design that you play in 60-second chunks. It’s a lot like an irreverent and quirky 2D zelda, but in each run, you either make some small amount of progress (like finding an item that allows you to go further, or faster), or gives you information towards new progress. As I said in my review, even though there’s plenty of time pressure in the game, you never feel like you’re wasting your time:
“It’s important to note, though, that Minit never felt too stressful for me, despite the constant timer. I typically hate timers in games—and especially Zelda games, where that constant ticking of a flipped switch or opened eye panel means you need to haul Link’s ass to whatever door or second switch you just activated. Minit is fast-paced by nature, but I rarely, if ever, felt like a door got shut in my face. If something didn’t work on one sixty-second run, it was always ok to just try it again. I was never wasting time in Minit, and therein lies its core brilliance.”
6 - All Our Asias
Sean Han Tani has become one of my favorite game designers. His work on Anodyne and my 2016 GOTY Even the Ocean cemented that, and his mostly-solo project here was revelatory for personal, small-scale game development. It uses a PS1-style aesthetic to tell the tale of Yuito, a Japanese-American man traveling through the scattered memories of his dying father. The environments are beautiful and evocative, using that low-poly style and eerie soundscapes to put you in a unique headspace, and the story is personal and heartfelt.
5 - Hitman 2
Hitman 2 is essentially a murder-themed immersive sim, and if you’ve read any of my top ten lists, you know how I feel about the genre (it’s a favorite). It’s so great because it allows for so much player expression: with verbs on verbs for interactions with the game’s many systems, and support for all of those actions. Hitman 2 is more restrictive than say, Prey, since you do need to kill your targets (and not just break the game by building a GLOO stairway to heaven). But it gives such a breadth of options (and paints your targets as major assholes, assuaging any potential bad vibes) that playing it feels appropriately empowering. I had way too much fun stalking the Miami racetrack as a giant bird mascot, and confusing the hell out of a drug lord’s gunmen walking around in a bad shaman outfit. I even enjoyed the daylights out of playing the training missions, getting a feel for how important costumes and behavior are to the Hitman series’ style of play.
I even loved the story and the slick motion graphics-as-cutscenes. I’ll almost certainly be playing this well into the new year.
4 - Dandara
When I think of my favorite games of a given year, I mostly focus on what sticks the most. What were the places I most enjoyed exploring, the mechanics and systems I had the most fun with or got the most out of engaging with? Who were the characters and stories that stayed longest after putting the game down? Dandara is one of the first games I played this year and it’s stuck the longest. A platformer with unique “warping” traversal mechanics (and a soulsike progression system), and dodge-heavy combat that relied on zipping the protagonist around intelligently, Dandara felt special and different. it featured some of the most unique, detailed, gorgeous environments to explore, with inspired level design throughout. The game is extremely challenging (I got stuck on bosses often), but I can’t look back on it with anything with fondness.
3 - Life is Strange 2 episode 1
I said much of this during our podcast on the game, but I was truly impressed by the storytelling (and the subtle design decisions that supported it!) in the season opener here. As a huge fan of the queer characters (and the ways young queer women’s stories were front and center) in previous LIS entries, I certainly went into the new season with a bit of healthy skepticism. But the team delivered beautifully. The small ways the gameplay encourages you to understand older brother Sean (such as his drawing, and the way he interacts with his environments) are effective. The writing was impressive, the scenarios emotionally honest and well-presented, and the overall impact of the game has me primed and excited to see what the team can do with the rest of the story in the new year.
2 - Prey: Mooncrash
I felt positively validated by Mooncrash, since, while most people agreed that 2017’s Game of the Year (mine, anyway!) was good, few people disputed that Moon Crash was great. A distillation of everything that made Prey fantastic: it features a wide breadth of loadouts and builds with which to attack the immersive sim’s impressive challenges, a staggering amount of possible player verbs and interactions, and excellent storytelling. As I said here in my review of the game, it is in the rich interactions and brilliant level design that Mooncrash rises far above most game experiences, even in the genre.
“And this is where Mooncrash shines the brightest (alongside its level design and story content, which are up to par with Prey). The tools at your disposal, spread across each character, are varied and incredibly fun to mess with. Just thinking about the possibilities makes my eyes go big with excitement. I can repair machinery with Joan, and make a small army of turrets to do enemies in with. I can use Riley Yu’s typhon abilities to turn into tiny objects and sneak through holes in walls as, say, a coffee cup or pair of headphones, or resurrect phantoms from dead bodies to do my bidding.
And just because you’re playing as five different characters with five general areas of specialization doesn’t mean you’re limited in your approach to problem-solving as any individual. No, I can’t do what the main game offered, and construct a super-powered Morgan Yu here, who can do literally everything the game has to offer at once (a small sampling: hacking, mega-strength, the full suite of typhon abilities, etc.). But being clever with the GLOO cannon or the Nerf-style gun will always go a long way. As in the main game, there are several valid approaches to any given problem, not just a couple of main tech trees, Deus Ex style.”
1 - Into the Breach
I have written about Into the Breach a few times now, the latest was today, with an essay on how the game genuinely helped me survive a terrible, awful, no-good year. And we have a podcast detailing the many, many ways Subset games brilliantly designed mechs-vs.-giant-bugs tactical puzzler is brilliant. I have over 1100 hours in my steam save, and dozens more on my Switch save, and I’m nowhere near done with the game.
As I just addressed in my #2 entry, last year, my Game of the Year was Prey, and it comfortably sits somewhere on my own personal favorite games of all time list. Into the Breach has a real shot at being my first true “forever” game, a title I will play, perhaps near-daily, for years to come. It’s the closest I’ve ever played to a perfect game, where infinite combinations, the cleanest UI I’ve ever seen (offering near-perfect information to the player at all times) and a compelling, thematically sound time-loop conceit keeps it fresh forever. I am both genuinely in awe of Into the Breach, from a design standpoint, and truly grateful for its existence, as a player. Thank you, Subset Games, for putting this into the world.