Greg Kasavin is a writer and designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Hades, and Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre before it. Prior to joining Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He’s @kasavin on Twitter.
It’s been a busy and eventful year for me, culminating in the surprise announcement and Early Access launch of Hades, the game I started working on almost immediately after I finished work on last year’s Pyre. Hades is a game designed around replayability, and I played it more than any other game this year. Though, I made time for plenty of other games, which as always kept me entertained, grounded, and inspired in 2018, through all its ups and downs.
There’s a lot of stuff I’m only just getting to, so I’m going to divide my list into two halves--games I played too little or not enough, and games I sank my teeth into enough to put them in a real Top 10.
My Top 10 Games I Barely Played or Didn’t Play at All
Here are games where I’ve either just started scratching the surface or, in some cases, not played yet at all but have every intention to as a top order of business, hopefully, during a bit of downtime this holiday season.
SNK is on a short list of my all-time favorite game developers. Even before I fell in love with the company’s wonderful collection of fighting games back in the ‘90s, I counted myself a fan of weird games like Victory Road and Crystalis, and these and many others are packed into this carefully curated collection, replete with bonus material perfect for a long-time fan like me. I feel downright ashamed at having not picked it up yet. What kind of an SNK fan am I?! I need to get on this. I think my trepidation is around confronting favorite games from my past--it’s hard for reality to live up to nostalgia.
Blizzard’s card game Hearthstone and Valve’s competitive strategy game Dota 2 rank among my all-time favorite and most-played games. Artifact essentially fuses the two together, distilling Dota 2’s incredibly sophisticated dynamics into the format of a collective card game. My first impressions of Artifact have been super positive, I just haven’t had enough time to sink my teeth into it yet. On a personal level I’m also really excited to see Valve back in the business of creating original games.
I played a chunk of this before my kids usurped the PS4 and started making good progress on their own. I grew up playing Dragon Quest alongside other western and Japanese RPGs, and I find it downright joyous to see this series still going strong, with several of the original creators still at the helm. I love how Dragon Quest XI, despite some modern trappings, is deeply faithful to the spirit of the original, proving once again that a classic format by definition cannot go out of style. And, how about that subtitle? The subtitle couldn’t be more fitting, given the legacy of this monumental series.
I’ve started playing this beautifully crafted side-scroller but can’t say for sure yet whether the experience of doing so will sink in and stick. The artistry on display is undeniable, though, reminding me of Journey (maybe too much in spots) along with games like Limbo. I think we all know by now that games are fully capable of conveying powerful emotional experiences, and GRIS quickly comes through as a clear and focused effort in this regard. If only more games could be as artfully presented as this.
This really flew under my radar and I haven’t played it at all yet but it looks so much like my jam, it’s not even funny: It’s a squad-based, character-driven, turn-based tactics game, evidently a mix of stuff like X-COM, Jagged Alliance, Fallout, and Commandos. One of the characters is a hard-living duck called Dux. This is very much in my wheelhouse and I need to play it. Jagged Alliance, if you’ve never heard of it, is a big influence on my work--a game that taught me how specific characterization makes literally everything better.
I saw a mixed critical response to Detroit when it came out, and between that and work keeping me busy at the time, I balked at it initially. But I still really want to play. Compelling characters like the stoic android detective Connor, who’s tasked with aiding the humans who resent him, showcase an ambition that’s always been present through writer/director David Cage’s work. I’m OK with works like this being flawed, lacking subtlety, lacking sensitivity, whatever the issues are. That they get us thinking, talking, criticizing, and dreaming up alternatives is more than can be said for most.
Soul Edge and the original Soulcalibur gave me countless hours of fantastic 3D fighting, and introduced me to an excellent cast of characters that’s stuck with me for years. So, I was happy to see the series make a strong return this year in Soulcalibur VI. The year has offered an embarrassment of riches for fighting game fans, so I haven’t had a chance to play this latest installment yet other than a few practice rounds at E3. Though that plus an early look at live streams and reviews was enough to tell me Soulcalibur is back and well worth playing once again. It warms my heart that Soulcalibur and Tekken are both still a thing in 2018.
Toronto-based independent developer Capy has created a slew of different, memorable games over the years, and Below feels like it might be the studio’s most ambitious effort yet. The aesthetic of this haunting and atmospheric roguelike reminds me of Sworcery, one of my favorite games of theirs, though the deliberate style of play resists obvious comparisons. My first experiences with the game have both compelled me and rejected my careless attempts to plug away without paying close attention, forcing me to sit up and take notice in a way that reminds me of my initial experiences with Demon’s Souls way back when. I want to play more.
I’m hearing great things about this deliberate throwback to ‘90s shooters such as Quake, and I am squarely in the target market. I never really thought the chunky polygonal graphics of the ‘90s would become a source of nostalgia, but here we are. The action from that era, though, was definitely bound to make a comeback. Unconstrained by expectations of realism, games of that era moved fast and delivered a next-level arcade-style experience. Since I always enjoyed shooters that focused on pure action, and I’m sucker for occult-themed games, Dusk looks right up my alley.
The original Valkyria Chronicles is 10 years old, and is high up there on my list of favorite games from the last decade. This latest installment looks to have all the makings of being a worthy successor, notably including what appears to be a more-serious tone than some of the previous installments. I’ve shied away partly because I’m not sure it’s even possible for a new game in the series to live up to how I feel about the original, though I feel like I really owe it to myself to play this one, having heard a lot of good things. Valkyria Chronicles packs so much of what I love in games into a single package--great worldbuilding, intricate play, complex characters, meaningful choices that can impact the narrative, and an evocative presentation. Maybe I’ve just been saving this one for things to slow down enough to where I can enjoy it as much as possible.
With all that out of the way, here’s my actual top 10 games of 2018!
My Top 10 Games of 2018
I played these games a bunch if not to completion. There are lots more I could have included though these were the ones I think I’ll carry forward with me in the years to come. Excluded from the list is Hearthstone, which I’ve been playing steadily since 2014, and continued playing routinely this year, so that’s my honorable mention.
This whimsical yet meticulously constructed platformer brought back fond memories of Super Meat Boy of all things, with its highly challenging and precise play, and the ability to instantly retry after failure. Yet, the tone and storytelling of Celeste couldn’t be more different, and I think it’s the story and atmosphere that helped take this game over the top for me. It was an early stand-out this year, exemplifying the spirit of "indie" even as the strict definition of the term grows ever-murkier. Celeste plays great, sounds great, and sticks with you after you’re finished playing. I can’t ask for more.
I love fighting games in general more than I love Smash in particular. But it’s hard not to love this sprawling tribute to the history of Nintendo’s and many other games in a fighting-game wrapper. There’s enough single-player stuff here to keep me occupied for a long time, and having it available on console or on-the-go via the Switch is a novelty that hasn’t grown old. And, much like this year's charming Pokémon Let’s Go, Smash Bros. Ultimate is just a joy to look at, what with its massive cast of so many iconic and beautifully re-created characters I’ve met over the years.
Designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi has made a career out of synthesizing gameplay with reactive audio, so when I saw (and heard!) he and his team were working on an adaptation of none other than Tetris, the project had my attention straightaway. Watch the trailer, and if the gorgeous theme captivates you as it did me, then the game is for you. I haven’t even played it in VR yet, which I hear is sublime--in fact, this is the game that finally made me cave and pick up a PS VR set as a holiday gift for the household. Tetris Effect is meditative and sublime. How many games can claim to anything like that?
I had the highest hopes for this game, since it’s from Lucas Pope, the extraordinarily talented creator of the unforgettable Papers, Please. This new game is completely different, yet the raw invention and some of the themes carry forward. From its distinctive, seemingly simple, yet vividly detailed monochrome art style, to its intricately created soundscape, to its one-of-a-kind detective-style gameplay, Obra Dinn really isn’t like much of anything else. It forces you to think and engage, sometimes in difficult and uncomfortable ways. What else can I say? How about this: If you returned from the distant future and informed me Lucas Pope is well-remembered then, long after the rest of us are dead and gone, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.
Developer Arc System Works has achieved the impossible: It created a highly playable, relatively approachable fighting game that’s very true to the spectacular, kinetic action of the iconic anime series. I think the studio’s artistry is virtually unmatched across the entire game industry--they are on a completely different level than most game studios, with 3D fighting games like this and Guilty Gear Xrd, which look almost indistinguishable from traditional cell animation. Dragon Ball FighterZ plays great, too, smartly eschewing a lot of complex controller inputs for a relatively simple style of play. It’s still not quite the Fighting Game Promised Land, as the action still is hard to get into if you haven’t been playing this style of game for ages; but Dragon Ball FighterZ does so many things so well that it easily earns a high spot on my list.
5. God of War
This year’s God of War reboot really worked for me, succeeding at virtually every turn with bold and thoughtful choices that walked back from the increasingly senseless violence of its predecessors in favor of something that felt bigger and more significant. I was struck by how smartly the team invested in key aspects of the experience, from getting the feel of Kratos' Leviathan Axe just right, to lavishing the father/son relationship between Kratos and Atreus with lots of keen little details that unfold throughout their journey. This God of War felt like a sprawling epic, biting off a lot of different ideas and succeeding seemingly at every turn.
I enjoyed Spider-Man for similar reasons to God of War, though with the added benefit that I felt more comfortable playing it around my kids, and letting them have at it, too. It’s a game that expertly and quickly puts its best foot forward within moments, and features top-notch execution quality from the look and action to the writing and characterizations. It joins a short list of superhero-themed games that truly live up to the source material, and dare I say often surpass it. So, in my case, I came away a bigger fan of Spider-Man than when I first started playing. Not many games are capable of making it a joyous experience just to navigate around the world, and Spider-Man just nails this incredibly difficult aspect, on top of delivering many other exciting and memorable moments in the story.
Though Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t necessarily flaunt its countless features and impressive traits, it’s a game that stupefied me on numerous occasions, many of them mundane little moments I still couldn’t believe were happening. This is an astonishing game in its scope and detail, with so many different aspects delivered at surpassingly high fidelity. It’s a game that feels fully committed to giving you a specific experience, traditional fun be damned. And it feels like the omega of a game format that Rockstar Games has been trying to perfect for close to two decades. I find it hard to imagine how teams of any shape or size will be able to keep improving on the fidelity of something like this, no matter what technology allows. So, even though open-world games have honestly lost a lot of their luster with me over the years, this one truly stood out, and I think may be one we look back on and say, "That’s when the genre peaked." Games have always had a transportive power, and Red Dead Redemption 2 can take you away into its world like few games have ever been able.
2. Dead Cells
This gripping and action-packed synthesis of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’s gameplay with the highly replayable roguelike structure captivated me since its Early Access version launched last year, and kept me coming back throughout this year. It’s an absolutely terrific-feeling game that’s a lesson in how vital it is to get the fundamentals just right. From there, the intoxicatingly not-quite-predictable structure keeps you glued, sometimes permitting you to push farther than the last time, sometimes not, but always leaving you striving to give it another go. The game is just a joy to play and to keep coming back to again and again, matching you moment-for-moment with its a relentless pace, and I think it sets a new bar for this style of play. That the team has been so diligent in supporting the game during and after its Early Access is icing on the cake. Dead Cells reminds me of an era of games I miss, when action was pure and deep but also uncomplicated and quick, yet it has tons of modern flair.
This phenomenally designed, incredibly engrossing, elegant turn-based strategy game is the height of that mantra "easy-to-learn, hard to master"--and, for good measure, it also happens to be set in a bleak future where three-story mechs have no choice but to punch alien bugs in the face. The creators' previous game, FTL: Faster Than Light, kept me occupied for months, and kept me listening to its outstanding soundtrack long after that. And now, Into the Breach has accomplished the same.
The game’s supreme innovation is how it seems to remove randomness from the play experience, giving you prescient knowledge over how future turns will unfold… resulting, often, in you overlooking vital details and digging yourself deeper into a hole of your own creation. It truly makes you feel like you have no choice but to outsmart your relentless and overwhelming foe, and often puts you in situations where the ultimate sacrifice is the only way to go. Though the presentation looks simple, the world-building in Into the Breach is excellent, and the stakes always feel high. And, just when you think you’ve wrapped your head around how best to play it, it offers up completely new ways to play in the form of its uniquely different mech squads. I first started playing Into the Breach early this year, and wouldn’t have necessarily expected it to rise to the very top of this list after all the amazing games I’ve played since. But, looking back on everything I played this year, I’m realizing now how much it stuck with me, and how I’ll more than likely keep combing back to it over time.