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Alex Van Aken's Top 10 Games of 2023

The lead of GameInformer's video team is here to teach us magic. I mean... talk about magic games. Wait... no... the magic of video games. That's it.

Hey, I’m Alex Van Aken! I’m a multimedia video game journalist, leading Game Informer Magazine’s video team and hosting The Game Informer Show.

Before telling you about my favorite games from the last twelve months, I’d like to thank the Giant Bomb crew for inviting me to participate in this year’s end-of-year event. I started listening to the podcast in 2013, finding solace from my anxiety in the warm personalities and jokes that filled my headphones weekly. Over a decade later, I’m writing this list while flying to a mysterious location for Game Informer’s next cover story (it’s just Canada), honored to be a friend of Giant Bomb after being a fan for so many years.

Okay, I’m going to write about some video games now. These are my favorite games of 2023:

10. Final Fantasy XVI

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This year, I finally accepted the truth that the Final Fantasy series is pretty good, especially when it features veteran voice actor Ralph Ineson and the newly-beloved performer Ben Starr. Their performances aren’t the only ones worth seeing – the entire supporting cast brings highly impactful, dramatic performances that left me laughing or in tears.

The action in Final Fantasy XVI is incredible, granting stylish and impactful abilities to players early and often. I love experimenting with Clive’s dozens of abilities – each upgradable – and how developer SQUARE ENIX allows players to access more powers via quick-access menus tied to the triggers.

Lastly, I’d like to honor composer Masayoshi Soken, who scored the game’s soundtrack while battling (and beating) cancer throughout its development. You’re the best of us, Mr. Soken.

9. Coral Island

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For an ADHD-haver like myself, there’s nothing better to hyper-fixate on than incidental tasks in life sims, but I haven’t had time to commit to one since Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Enter Coral Island, a 3D farming game I knew little about until it swarmed my TikTok feed ahead of its mid-November release.

While Coral Island doesn’t push the genre forward meaningfully, which feels necessary amid the current swath of farming sims, it rarely waivers in its understanding of the genre’s fundamentals and features all the activities that make it alluring to players.

Players must clean up trash, plant trees, build relationships, and cultivate a thriving eco-friendly farm to accomplish the game’s central goal of restoring Coral Island to its former glory. Your commitment to these tasks, which require a healthy cash flow via selling crafted goods, determines the island’s tourism rank.

I like Coral Island, and maybe I’ll even grow to love it if I can get Alice to date me. I just think she’s neat.

8. Fortnite

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I drink more Shield Potions than water in a given day, and Fortnite has been in a great state throughout 2023. Chapter 4 kicked off at the tail end of last year, introducing Reality Augments, functioning as a mid-match perk system granting players new abilities like glider redeploys, low-gravity super jumps, and natural healing while hiding in bushes. The system was a boon for the game, incentivizing users to play more to uncover new Augments.

In addition to introducing excellent mobility items like the Battering Ram and Shockwave Hammer, the chapter presented a new map featuring Frenzy Fields and Brutal Bastion– two of Fortnite’s best locations in recent memory. Of course, in early November – barely a month after Epic Games laid off over 800 employees – Fortnite OG released with unprecedented success, celebrating the game’s history by taking players back to its first map.

The recent release of LEGO Fortnite and Rocket Racing – Rocket League developer Psyonix is developing the latter – solidified 2023 as a banner year for the game. Fortnite is one of my favorite games of all time, and I sincerely believe every developer at Epic deserves better than layoffs.

7. The Finals

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While developer Embark Studios only just released The Finals during The Game Awards, I’ve been enamored with the first-person shooter through various closed and open betas all year. Set within a futuristic game show, the game tasks multiple squads with collecting and defending money caches in a gorgeous, fully destructible level. You can play as three weight classes, each filling a different role on the team, to interact with the map in various ways. The Heavy class possesses the ability to bulldoze entire buildings with its immense strength, the Light class can sneak through ventilation shafts or soar through the skies with grappling hooks, and the Medium class functions as a reliable support who can throw jump pads, launch ziplines across the map, or even heal their teammates.

The intersection of The Finals’ level destruction and high-stakes multiplayer modes have facilitated some of my favorite gaming moments of the year, often ending in my teammates and me screaming at our screens in excited disbelief. You should play this video game, especially if you’re a Battlefield: Bad Company 2 fan or love Prey’s Gloo Cannon.

Thanks to the Noclip crew for initially putting The Finals on my radar with this excellent video.

6. Jusant

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I don’t want to say much about Jusant other than this meditative climbing adventure features amazing climbing and animation systems you should experience. Developer Don’t Nod continues to push its narrative-driven titles forward, this time without a spoken word.

5. Alan Wake 2

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Remedy beautifully portrays the Pacific Northwest in its compelling action title – perhaps the prettiest video game I’ve played – capturing the small-town spirit of the real-world region and twisting it into a profoundly unsettling murder mystery. Protagonist Saga Anderson offers an effective lens into the strange and often scary world in which fictional writer Alan Wake has found himself trapped, deciphering scattered clues to ultimately solve the game’s central secrets, usually with some innate disbelief. Notably, I haven’t finished Alan Wake 2 because I fear it. Perhaps it’ll be higher on my list once I have.

4. Friends Vs. Friends

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Developer Brainwash Gang’s genre-bending FPS is my favorite indie game of the year, combining a head-to-head competitive action format with a robust but approachable deck-building system. You start each round with a randomized selection of cards from your deck and can choose to play or save them to synergize with other cards later in the match.

There aren’t any requirements for which cards can belong in your deck, so long as the sum of your deck’s value doesn’t exceed 50. Basic debuff cards like Big Head, which makes it easier to land critical hits on opponents, only cost one point; however, a rarer card like Heartless, which places your vulnerable organ on the ground in exchange for immunity, costs more points.

I rarely feel cheated or confused in Friends Vs. Friends due to the action feed that summarizes every card played during the round, a crucial feature that facilitates careful planning and exhilarating counterplay. One of my regular strategies is combining Barbed Cards with Garbage, filling the enemy’s hand with junk cards that deplete their health with every discard. Despite the absurdity, every win and loss still feels earned in Friends Vs. Friends and I rarely walk away from a match feeling bitter — especially because there are always new packs of cards to rip open in the shop with the currency you get from competing.

It’s only $9.99 on Steam, features zero microtransactions, and receives regular free updates and premium expansions that introduce new arenas, characters, and cards!

3. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

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I am largely checked out on Star Wars lately, but Jedi Survivor challenges my disinterest with its fascinating worlds, intriguing exploration, clever puzzles, and unexpectedly human moments.

Cal Kestis’ traversal abilities make the galaxy’s intricate, jaw-dropping vistas a joy to uncover with their many secrets and cinematic action scenes— a particular set piece would make Nathan Drake’s mouth water. I’ve had so much fun solving Survivor’s logic puzzles and platforming challenges, chasing after Jedi cosmetics, like Cal’s infamous mullet hairstyle, that await me on the other side.

The character performances and locales evoke top-tier space drama, contrasting familiar themes of family and redemption with aggrandized sci-fi backdrops. With Jedi: Survivor, developer Respawn Entertainment continues to prove the most interesting Star Wars storylines exist on the periphery of what’s happening on the silver screen.

2. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

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Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece, surpassing the incredible work of art preceding it by recontextualizing a formula millions fell in love with when Nintendo released Breath of the Wild in 2017.

Despite the dramatic swings between dramatic story beats and emergent comedy, Tears of the Kingdom manages to be heartfelt thanks to its characters’ earnestness. While the namesake Tears serve as scattered, nonlinear story vignettes, the central storyline they orbit offers a compelling mystery to solve.

Ultrahand, Link’s new marquee ability, allows you to lift almost any object and attach it to another, unlocking the capacity to build novel and often hilarious contraptions to solve physics-based challenges. You can add flair to your creations with Zonai Devices, ancient gadgets like rockets, fans, and flamethrowers you can discover around Hyrule.

Navigating the Water Temple’s boss arena was difficult since the enemy covered the area in sludge. Out of arrows, which are nearly essential to winning the fight, I assembled a Zonai-powered fire truck and chased the boss down, spraying him with water and stunning him during his typically offensive phase. I felt like a complete genius— you can watch the clip right here.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a triumph.

1. Baldur’s Gate 3

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Baldur’s Gate 3 evokes a sense of place I haven’t felt since playing The Witcher 3 in 2015. Faerûn is a continent brimming with larger-than-life personalities and impossible curiosities. Actually, playing Larian Studios’ RPG fills me with the optimistic emotions I felt when reading Harry Potter as a kid, long before the series was tarnished by its creator.

Baldur’s Gate 3’s gripping dice rolls resonate with my taste for strategy, its battle scenarios are thought-provoking, and the game’s fantasy-themed loot satisfies to a degree I’ve not experienced since my early days exploring Azeroth in World of Warcraft. Additionally, Shadowheart’s storyline beautifully represents religious trauma and offers commentary that resonates with my own experiences.

Perhaps its greatest achievement: Baldur’s Gate 3 captures the spirit of role-playing with friends, and it reminds me video games can still feel magical.