2023 Games of the Year!

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YEAHbrother

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2023 was an absolutely incredible year for playing video games! Every month had at least one banger - and often multiple - which exacerbated the age-old problem of "there's never enough time to play anything." Despite that, the industry also had thousands of layoffs (although never any changes to executive salaries...hmm) which makes celebrating the year feel a bit strange. I think ultimately celebrating the work of the developers who absolutely brought it for games released this year is important, and hopefully there can be some positive change moving forward to make this industry more stable and less stressful for everyone who makes games. With all that said, let's get to reflecting on the games that truly made this year special!

#10: Lies of P

Lies of P is a real video game title. Lies of P is also a really good game! The premise of this game is pretty wild: Bloodborne, but this time with Pinocchio? That's Lies of P, and it absolutely nails it.

I've been a fan of FromSoftware's work since Demon's Souls, and have played or beaten every one of their games in that lineage. Up until Elden Ring, Bloodborne was my favorite of theirs in that lineage, and I still wish they would go back to that spookier setting at some point. This is where Lies of P comes in. Many other developers have tried to make a Soulslike game - to the point where "Soulslike" is its own subgenre now - and until Lies of P, I don't think any have come close to replicating what makes the Souls games so good. It's hard not to forget that FromSoft didn't make Lies of P while you're playing it. The trademark fair-yet-difficult combat is precise, the animations are incredible, and the level design and overall vibes match FromSoft's typical output. FromSoftware didn't develop Lies of P, Neowiz did. To my knowledge this is their first major title, and that is incredibly promising.

The "P" in Lies of P is your character, a mechanical puppet created by Gepetto. In this world, puppets have rebelled and become murderous, and you have been tasked with helping to fight against these rebel puppets. Much like various android/robot science-fiction, the puppets in this world are programmed to not be able to lie. P, however, *can* lie, hence the title. So far, the story has been an interesting take on Pinocchio, while also delving into other sci-fi ideas around what it means to be alive, etc. The setting here also leans very much into horror, which again is something that has been missing from other Soulslike games since Bloodborne. The creepy atmosphere makes the already tense combat feel even more tense, which creates an even more rewarding feeling when you find success.

Mechanically, this game includes and builds upon the tried-and-true Soulslike formula of studying enemy patterns, dodging and/or parrying at the right time, and picking moments to strike. Lies of P rewards aggression, as you can rebuild health after a successful block or parry, and your health items recharge after successful hits. There is also a customization system for both weapons and tools that P can use, allowing for some variance in builds - another staple in Soulslike games. The greatest customization aspect for this game is what is called the P-Organ (the P-Organ! P-Organ!!!!!!!!!!), which lets you modify different abilities for P. All in all, there is a lot of flexibility in how to approach combat, which is always a good thing. Boss battles are challenging and epic in scope - another way this game successfully captures what makes the Souls games great. The checkpointing system is a little more forgiving (thankfully), as most of the time there is a checkpoint right before each boss. This is nice, as it allows you to focus on figuring out how to approach a boss on multiple attempts vs. having to worry about fighting your way back to the boss.

Bloodborne came out in 2015, and there hasn't been a game since then that captures the spirit of what that game did until now. Lies of P is the best Soulslike game not from FromSoftware, and an intriguing major debut for Neowiz. Even though Elden Ring dominated the world last year (and will hopefully receive DLC this year), Lies of P is a fantastic entry in the genre as we wait for the next proper FromSoft Souls game.

P-Organ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Music shout-out: An unofficial marker of a good Soulslike game is great boss music, and Lies of P has this in spades. I want to shout out a cool aspect of this game though: in your main hub area, you can play records that have a completely different feel than the rest of the soundtrack. Here's the first one you find:

https://youtu.be/skBJ7YUWk-U?si=c_NnKe_JiqBUoeep

#9: Starfield

Starfield, for a very long time, was not on my GOTY list this year. After playing around 5 hours or so around the initial launch window, I realized that a lot of my fears about this game seemed to be true: there was a lot of different kinds of content, but not a lot of depth; the lack of different species to talk to would seem boring; there would be nowhere very interesting to explore even though there are 1000+ planets. This was my experience for those first 5 hours - I tried very hard to get into the game but there was nothing that hooked me very much, and none of the experiences that Bethesda claimed were in store for me felt realized at all. The combat was feeling pretty good, but ammo management in the early game was hamstringing some of the fun of it for a while. As much as I was really trying to give it a fair shake, I was left feeling rather cold, and often disappointed.

Then something happened - I'm not entirely sure why, but right before the end of the year I decided to pick it back up for a casual session on a Saturday morning. I think taking a bit of space (lol) from the initial launch of the game, plus coming back to it with reduced expectations allowed me to finally find some fun, and many hours later I'm really starting to enjoy Starfield. I debated putting it on this list because it's the only game that didn't immediately hook me, but I've put enough time into it now (as well as found more hooks) that it became more of a go-to game as the year ended than I ever thought it would.

Starfield is a game where you can: explore different cities each with different vibes, touch down on more remote planets or dock onto space stations to find enemies and loot, engage in interstellar ship combat, design/modify ships, follow a mystery that could unfold secrets of the universe, and talk to a wide variety of different characters, often gaining quests in the process. If Starfield did all of these things at a high level, then it would be one of the best games ever made, but unfortunately it only really excels at a few of those things. Space travel is merely dressed-up fast travel, broken up by loading screens. You can also skip space travel altogether if you want even faster-fast travel. Unlike games such as No Man's Sky or Elite Dangerous, space travel doesn't add much of anything to the overall gameplay. There are thousands of planets, but most of them are pretty dead, with only a handful of repetitive activities to do once you touch down, such as exploring a cave or some sort of human installation, usually with enemies to fight. The combat feels good at least, but seeing the same types of enemies and small variations in locale doesn't do the combat any favors.

Like previous Bethesda games, I think the best part of this game is the faction missions. These have become the biggest hook for me, as they spend more time in the larger cities vs the more remote/generic areas of the game. These bigger hubs are way more interesting to be in, as they have more characters, more activities, and more visual variety in set dressing. Anything in this game that can keep you in the larger cities is a great idea, and is what has kept me coming back to the game more than I thought I would. There is still a good amount of what Bethesda does well in their games in Starfield, but it's underneath more clutter than usual. I don't think this will have as intense of an overhaul like Cyberpunk 2077 did, but I do think there is a lot of potential for this game to grow into more of what they envisioned here in the coming years.

Music Shout-out: The music continues the tradition of Bethesda games having great soundtracks. Here's the opening theme:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrO7Nk-t_9o

#8: Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon

I've never been a huge mech guy, but FromSoftware returning to the Armored Core series had me interested. I never played any of the previous five Armored Core games, but anything that FromSoft puts out, I'm there. Armored Core 6 is not MechSouls, but that's okay - it's an incredibly fast and furious action game in its own right. Despite having no familiarity with the series, Armored Core 6 wasted no time in getting me not only into the action, but also invested in the dark, cynical, corporate sci-fi world where all of this action happens.

You are a mercenary mech pilot trying to survive on a dangerous planet called Rubicon. The planet is host to an incredible energy resource, so naturally many different corporations wage wars against each other for control. As a mercenary, you take jobs from any and all of these corporations in order to survive, as well as make a bigger name for yourself. The story, while having a basic premise, certainly plays with bigger ideas of corporate greed, morality, and humanity within such a dystopian situation. The story is certainly more interesting than I thought it would be, but it honestly doesn't need to be - the main draw is how incredible this game feels to play, as well as the absolutely wild spectacle this game is capable of - both aspects true to FromSoftware games.

The game follows a mission structure rather than operating within an open world, so you'll take missions, complete objectives, and earn money that you can use to upgrade your mech. Most missions can be completed fairly quickly, which encourages replay to try out different mech builds and strategies, knowing you'll always earn more money if you succeed. I think that the idea of replaying so much would be tiresome if this game didn't feel so dang good to play. Initially, it is a bit overwhelming to manage multiple weapons, your health, your speed, your altitude, and the number of enemies on screen, but after a few missions I realized I was very much in a flow state, dodging and flying around enemies and using the appropriate weapons at the right times. Executing the amount of action on-screen that is required to succeed while *also* doing that in a flow state is incredibly satisfying - even for somebody like me who hasn't been hugely interested in mech-action stuff before.

The moment that truly hooked me on how awesome this game is happened fairly early: you are tasked in one of your missions to take down a gigantic walking base that houses a huge laser weapon near its "head." When you start the mission, you see the thing out in the distance, and it looks impossibly huge from that far away. As you move in closer, all of a sudden you hear a warning about its weapon about to fire, and then you see this *massive* laser beam surging towards you. So now you have to dodge that giant laser AND other enemies as you get in closer. Once you finally get to the walker, you realize "Okay...now how do I take this thing down?" The size difference between your mech and the walker is absurdly comical, but yet you still have to take it down. Because the game *rules,* you quickly see all of the small ways that build up to take the thing down, even though it feels incredibly dangerous the entire time. The feeling I had while flying away, watching this giant monstrosity explode while I, a mechanized mosquito, flew away mostly unscathed was incredible. I think I'm a mech guy now?

Music shout-out: Honestly...I can't remember what any of the music sounds like in this game. It's okay though, because there's too many awesome sounds happening at all times anyway.

#7: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

This was my most anticipated game of the year by a landslide, and it mostly delivered! It's a bit weird putting this game so low on the list, but that's the kind of year this was. Tears of the Kingdom expands on most of what made Breath of the Wild great: abilities were added to allow you to manipulate and create in the world in order to progress, and temples were added that each had their own personality, with challenges that put the game's new abilities to use while mostly giving the player freedom to complete them however you see fit. That's actually the main strength of this game - there is just enough structure to keep the game together, while giving you the tools and abilities to create solutions in innumerable ways, rather than the game dictating one or only a few ways to solve puzzles or get past obstacles. Can't get past that large river? Build a huge bridge by combining tree planks together. Don't want to cross that annoying stretch of desert? Build a glider airplane and fly over it. There are so few barriers to achieving what you want to do as a player, and I'm in awe at how the game's physics don't completely blow up a Switch every time the game runs. There's not many better feelings I had playing a game this year than when I tried a solution that I came up with, using machines I built using the in-game mechanics, and watching it simply *work* - and there are tens to hundreds of hours of content in this game where this kind of feeling is possible.

The reason why this game is a little lower on the list than I thought is that where the seams of the game show, it feels worse than Breath of the Wild. Because there is so much freedom, the moments where that freedom is stifled feels that much more frustrating. One temple in particular I felt was hamstrung by a particular mechanic that you are required to use, and especially in that temple's boss fight I got pretty frustrated by it. Those moments were few and far between though, which is amazing considering how many other times the game could have taken player agency away, and chose not to instead. I also had issues with the storytelling, both in content and method of delivery. Because the game allows you to tackle any of its temples in any order, the storytelling in the temples is frustratingly simple. The same cutscene plays out at the end of each temple as the game has to assume that this is the first temple you play - so by the second temple I was already tired of seeing the same story over and over. The cutscene is also fairly lengthy and unskippable, which added to the frustration. There is also a huge choice in the story that I found to be fairly problematic, and while it did culminate in a huge moment at the end, I'm not sure it was the right story to tell.

Speaking of the ending - it is far and away the best ending to a Zelda game, and it was absolutely worth powering through to get to once I got closer. The entire final sequence once you get access to the last quest is some of the best gameplay, story, and music that Zelda has ever been, and I think there's a chance this game would have ended up slightly lower on this list had that ending not been an all-timer. All in all, despite a few struggles I had with the game, it is still a top-tier Zelda game, even if it is one that is certainly taking the franchise into a new direction. I think I like Breath of the Wild more as a game, but that's not to take away from all of the very cool things that Tears of the Kingdom does. In many, many other years, this is a top-3 game on my list.

Music Shout-out: This was my favorite game soundtrack of the year, so it's tough to pick just one track to showcase! Some of my favorite music comes from more spoilery scenes, so I'll include the main music that plays when you're in the sky. Throw this on loop and enjoy the relaxing trip it takes you on:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6peV7ynyT7A

#6: Octopath Traveler II

In a theme that will be revisited later on in this list, Octopath Traveler II is a huge upgrade from the original game, while keeping a similar premise: you play as 8 different characters who you find along the way, each with their own stories and gameplay abilities. Each of the stories are varied and different from each other, and all are written well. When I think about playing Dungeons and Dragons, part of the fun is finding out each character's backstory, and that is half of the fun of this game, as finding a new character and delving into what's making them tick is consistently engaging. I have not yet finished the game, but I can already see ties that will bring these characters and stories together eventually, which is a big difference from the first game.

The combat is a very comfortable JRPG turn-based system, with a few extra wrinkles. Every character has a resource called Boost Points that build up over rounds of combat. You can choose to use up to 3 Boost Points on a round to beef up any ability you use in that round, so there is a push-pull strategy to knowing when to use those points, or when to save up. This rewards thinking a few rounds ahead, and is absolutely crucial in harder fights. Each character also has a Job, which is essentially a subclass that comes with its own abilities. These abilities are often tied to outside-of-combat actions as well, such as recruiting a townsperson to help you once you are in combat. These extra systems in combat help it to remain fresh and engaging without getting bogged down. Thankfully, there is also a combat speed option to help fights go quicker, which is incredibly helpful when trying to grind levels (every JRPG should have this!!!).

There is not much in this game that isn't engaging, and while at heart it is a traditional JRPG, Octopath Traveler II nails every aspect, and is a jewel in a stacked year for RPGs. I'm not sure it is the most innovative game, but it is consistently excellent at everything that it tries to do. This is top-tier Comfort Food gaming, and even in a year packed with experiences that were swinging further for the fences or pulling off more ambitious goals, it was still nice to play a game that understands its groove, and never stops being fun.

Music shout-out: the easy answer here is the Entire Soundtrack, but here's a nice tune:

https://youtu.be/Zdb3O2T-N_0?si=quLkC6EnutPyaTHO

#5. Alan Wake II

Thirteen years later, Alan Wake II delivers a wildly unique and dense sequel, and is one of the best horror games I've ever played! This is an incredibly dense game: it is survival-horror in the legacy of the best Resident Evil games; it is a mixed-media reflection on creating and storytelling that has not only the "most" storytelling in a game this year, it also has many, many different layers to the story both textually and meta-textually; it is a technical showpiece, with incredibly-lifelike character performances and animations, and absolutely mind-bending level design; and it is a sequel to not only the first game, but also to...every game that Remedy has ever made? While many aspects of Alan Wake II are familiar, there's also nothing else quite like it that I've ever played.

The basic premise of this game has you playing as Saga Anderson, an FBI agent who has come to Bright Falls, WA (the setting of the first game) to investigate a murder. Not long after Saga arrives, the situation starts to get pretty horrifying and surreal. You also play as Alan Wake, a writer who has been trapped in a nightmarish alternate reality called "The Dark Place," where he's been in the past thirteen years since the end of the first game. Both protagonists have their own chapters, with Saga trying to solve the mystery of what's happening in Bright Falls, and Alan continuing to try and escape The Dark Place. Saga's chapters play out like an episode of Twin Peaks or True Detective - you'll talk with residents of the local area before inevitably going further in to darker and more dangerous areas in order to try and solve the mystery. When you aren't casually exploring Bright Falls (a wonderfully realized town, complete with unique residents, offbeat TV commercials and radio shows, and lived-in locations) or its surrounding area, Saga's sections play more closely to straight-up survival horror, where something dangerous could be lurking around you at any moment.

Alan's chapters are far more surreal, both in gameplay and in storytelling. While combat is present, it is less frequent and more easily avoidable than Saga's sections. There is also a unique puzzle-solving mechanic as Alan's ability to rewrite reality will change the architecture and details of different locations in order to progress. For instance - an impassible train car will become passable - even if it also forces you to confront something incredibly horrific to pass through. I really liked this element of the game, as this showcased Remedy's expert level design while still remaining a puzzle to solve. Because The Dark Place is nightmarish and surreal, sometimes you play as in-game Alan, and other times you watch Alan (or other characters) on another in-game screen, and sometimes it switches to live-action FMV and back - it is a surreal whirlwind of storytelling, and it generally succeeds even if it is often confounding.

This switching between in-game graphics and live-action FMV is always well done, but it is the coolest when the game blends FMV with in-game graphics, and it happens *a lot.* This goes a long way in why I think Alan Wake is an incredible technical achievement. Nothing looks like Alan Wake II - and not much *sounds* like Alan Wake II. This game has some of the best audio design I've ever heard in a game, whether it is the soft crunches and swaying leaves in the background when you're in the woods, the gentle bustle of Bright Falls, or some of the most unsettling creepy soundscapes in an intense moment, the audio design does just as much to immerse you in the surreal world Remedy has created as the often trippy visuals. The soundtrack is also tied directly in to the story of the game in a way I've never heard. Between each chapter, there are songs by various artists that sound like they could be taken from the radio. These songs are created specifically for the game, and lyrically they all connect with what is happening in the story at that moment. Instead of hitting 'Continue' to play the next section, I always found myself listening to the songs and reading the lyric subtitles to see what they would say about the story. I've never played a game that made me want to study the lyrics of the soundtrack before, which is pretty cool!

As much as this game has going for it that is forward-thinking and unique, it's down a bit on this list just because the combat doesn't always feel great, and I found a repeatable bug (both times during an intense boss fight) that was visually humorous, but ended up causing frustration as I just had to watch helplessly while my character lost all of their health. Some sections aren't super clear in how you are to proceed either, which in a game that is already surreal and somewhat nightmarish, it didn't feel great to feel stuck. Thankfully, moments like that weren't as prevalent as having the next cool or very scary thing happen, and they often wouldn't last long.

If this was Game Like Nothing Else 2023, Alan Wake II is a clear #1. The layers of the story being told as well as the mixed-media storytelling make this game a wild narrative experience. Some of the locations and situations are top-notch horror, and the jump scares in this game are genuinely affecting. I still think this would be entertaining for horror fans even if they haven't played another Remedy game, but for those who have played Remedy's earlier games, there is *a lot* of references and connections made that are very satisfying. Alan Wake II swings for the fences and is an incredibly ambitious game, and overall it succeeds far more than it fails.

Music shout-out: I'm going to cheat a bit here and give two shout-outs, because there were two songs that became Certified Bangers by the time the chorus hit. Here they are:

https://youtu.be/RLZ7peL-j_U?si=Bu7OxYoKXpsGTZYD

https://youtu.be/HJc7n7eabT0?si=ItuSn5oiC6HmYc9w

#4. Dave the Diver

I've historically loved a good fishing mini-game, with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Stardew Valley, and Red Dead Redemption 2 in particular having some of my favorites. Dave the Diver is a huge expansion on why fishing mini-games are fun, and that's only one part of the core gameplay loop. In Dave the Diver, you start your day by diving in to a large ocean area called The Blue Hole, finding all sorts of fish to try and reel in...or occasionally hit with a baseball bat, or shoot with a gun. This game is pretty wacky from the start, but that's part of the charm, as well as some of the most vibrant pixel art/animation in a game I've played in a while. When you aren't fishing, you head back to a sushi bar where you work at night to serve sushi to different customers, turning the game into a restaurant simulator. There is a hectic energy to managing ingredients on the menu, serving customers in a good order from when they arrive, cleaning the bar, pouring tea, and prepping wasabi, all within a relatively short window of time. Having worked in the service industry, I really enjoy this element of the game as well.

That core loop of fishing during the day and working the sushi bar at night is incredibly tight, and with a constant stream of small upgrades to both, there's always small goals to work towards. This loop allows for consistently engaging sessions whether it is popping in for only a few minutes to catch some fish, or for longer sessions to upgrade your arsenal and your bar, along with finding out more about potential mysteries under the sea. The side cast of characters are all weird and wacky as well, and the writing always centers Dave as the most "normal" character, which creates some humorous exchanges. Dave the Diver has a confidence in vision and identity that I find very charming, and I'm excited to see more of what this game has to offer as I continue to....dive deeper into it.

Music Shout-out: This is the music that plays when you dive. There's a chill tranquility to the music while also keeping a small sense of pushing forward. It never gets old.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtJ8iKiBq0I

#3: Marvel's Spider-Man 2

Batman has always been my favorite superhero. Growing up, we had great Batman comics, the legendary animated series, and some fun (if not great!!!!) movies (Batman Forever still sort of holds up - I'll die on that hill), but as I've grown up, it's become increasingly harder to root for a billionaire vs rooting for a "from the people, for the people" kind of hero. This is where I've realized that Spider-Man (both Peter Parker and Miles Morales) has certainly become my favorite superhero, and we've been gifted with 3 incredible games over the last 6 years as well! Whereas Miles Morales was the first game in this series to appear on PS5, Spider-Man 2 is the first to truly take advantage of the PS5's hardware. The gameplay is smoother than ever, load times are almost non-existent, and the visuals are spectacular. Almost every element of this already-great series has been improved upon for this installment. In particular, the combat is faster and more intuitive than either of the past two games in a way I didn't even realize the game needed! Insomniac took an already-fun combat system and tuned it perfectly, as I never had to think very much about any controller input - every action continued to flow easily until each encounter was finished. I don't like when games give you many different options and abilities with no reason to use more than a couple - this game is great at giving you situations to actually use all of the abilities you've spent all of your skill points on, and it is always fun.

Both Peter Parker and Miles Morales are playable in this game, and most often you can switch back-and-forth whenever you want. Both characters have their own stories separate from the main plot, and each have their own set of abilities. Insomniac has done a great job in making both characters feel separate even while doing shared abilities - for example, small details in animations go a long way in showing how each character's personality shines through while swinging around the city, making it *feel* like two different characters, even if functionally you are doing the same thing. Both characters are fun to level-up, and there are tons of costumes (and specific variations per costume) for customizing the vibe of each Spider-Man. One of my favorite things that happened in this game as well would be running into the other Spider-Man than the one you were controlling - there were a few times in combat that the other Spider-Man would swing in and start helping out of nowhere, and that always felt very very cool.

In the end, I enjoyed playing as Miles more, and I thought his individual story and side stories were stronger than Pete's. Peter's story is really the only complaint I have about the game, as his story and where it goes was less interesting to me. When it comes to the villains, there is some really interesting stuff in the periphery that I don't want to spoil, but I do think that the main villain story kind of fizzles out in the end. I was left wanting more from both of the major villains in the story, which is disappointing considering how strong of a start both villains have.

Overall this is a major improvement on an already great franchise. I love that the length of the game wasn't too overwhelmingly large (especially considering how most open-world games tend to go on for hundreds of hours), and all of the side activities felt fun and meaningful. The spectacle and technical achievement of this game also makes it an incredible showpiece for the PS5, and certainly raises the bar for cinematic moments in games moving forward. I love this game, and can't wait to see what this studio does for Wolverine!

Music shout-out: The main themes of these games are the best parts of the soundtrack - this one is cool because it melds elements of both Peter and Miles' themes:

https://youtu.be/jLkeqHGhJLo?si=xOA98k18bsi1hy-U

#2: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

I really, really, really love Star Wars, so when Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order came out I was...pretty disappointed by a lot of it. I thought the combat felt pretty bad, the platforming was atrocious, and the story left a lot to be desired. I had such high hopes about a Star Wars game from Respawn, a studio I trust, and ultimately was left wanting a lot more. After the reveal trailer for Jedi: Survivor I was cautiously optimistic that this one would be better, and it knocked my expectations out of the park. Every aspect of this game is a major improvement from the previous game - the combat, story, characters, platforming/puzzles, and level design all are a significant step up. I was floored by how much better this game felt to play, and was far more engaged in the story along the way.

Let's start with the combat. One of my main disappointments with the first game is how weak the combat makes you feel. On one had I get it - this series is going for a heavier, Souls-like combat system that does reward mastery, but at the same time if you are going to play a video game as a Jedi, you should *feel* like a Jedi, not spend many hours reloading after getting wasted by a couple of crabs. This game starts you off with every ability gained over the course of the last game, so from the jump you are much more capable and powerful in combat. It still feels heavy and precise, and much of the challenge comes from knowing when to attack and when to defend, but the challenge feels much more earned this go-around. Yes, you can still get wasted by crabs, but there are enough options at hand where it feels much more "on you" if that happens. Between the different lightsaber fighting styles and Force powers, you can effectively build what kind of Jedi you want to be in combat, and while there are some enemies that are easier against certain options and strategies, I never felt like there was one optimized build that the game drove me toward. I found the build that I liked, but I'm confident that all of the options the game gives you are valid, which is a much needed improvement over the last game.

The story is set 5 years after the first game in a time where the bad guys have won, and don't seem to be letting up any time soon. I found the journey of how Cal and his companions reckon with this - what do you do when you're tired of fighting? How do you begin to take down something that feels impossibly large? How are you supposed to take care of yourself or the ones you love in a world like that? These are much more interesting questions that the Star Wars universe is perfect to explore, and I was consistently engaged with both the questions and answers you find in this game. One of the best parts of Star Wars is also how varied and interesting the characters are, and this game goes above and beyond the first game in that regard. Whether it is the returning characters, new main companions, or the plethora of side characters you meet, everyone is interesting, often funny, and always compelling. You visit many different planets and locations in this game, but you have a hub cantina that you frequently visit as the game continues. I always made it a point to check-in with each character in-between main missions, and it was consistently rewarding.

The combat and story are both huge improvements on the last game, but I can't think about any other aspect of this game that isn't also a major improvement: the platforming was so consistently frustrating in the last game, but it feels amazing in this one! I'm often not one to do side-challenges before I've beaten the "main game," but each of the different platforming challenges I found I made sure to beat because the platforming feels so good in this game. One of the highlights of my year was how satisfying it felt to beat one of the most inventive (and most challenging!) platforming sections I've ever played in a game. All this game needed to do was make the platforming not frustrating, but they went above and beyond to make it one of the more fun aspects of the game. The scale and scope of the different locations is much, much bigger this time, and the myriad of side activities never felt like filler. There's a lot of game in this game, and the side activities always felt worthwhile. Star Wars is also often about spectacle and this game delivers, especially taking advantage of the PS5 hardware. Had it not been for the ending of Zelda, one moment in this game would have been my favorite curated* (I'll explain more about what this means later) moment in a game this year - it's a moment that mixes visuals, the soundtrack, the characters, and gameplay in such a spectacular (and spectacularly Star Wars) way, and it's a moment I wish I could experience again for the first time.

I can't speak enough about how much I love this game. For a long time it was my #1 game, and in many other years it would have won. That's the kind of year this has been in games, but this game is still very special. I'm once again excited for this franchise, and I can't recommend this game enough, especially if you're into Star Wars. Just make sure to skip the first one!

Music shout-out: I can't imagine having to fill John William's shoes, but this is very much a great Star Wars soundtrack. Here's my favorite track that I think captures much of what makes Star Wars music so good:

https://youtu.be/EiV6HCQFw8M?si=mXXBaCfTP65AlhWN

#1: Baldur's Gate 3

Writing about my favorite game any year is always difficult. It's hard to know where to begin, hard not to write a novel about any particular aspect of the game, hard to fully convey how special it is...the list goes on and on. This year is no different - the majority of this list is full of games that could have been my favorite game in other years - but at the same time, Baldur's Gate 3 became my #1 game by a landslide when it finally released in September. I've been playing this game off and on in early access since it released in 2020, so the promise and potential has been there - but I was not expecting how completely it was going to blow the barn doors off of anything I could have ever thought this game would be. Baldur's Gate 3 is a complete masterpiece.

Let's not talk about Baldur's Gate 3 for a second. Over the last 10ish years, I've grown to love Dungeons and Dragons. Not only is it my favorite game to play, I think it's the *best* game. There are other tabletop RPGs - many of which are also great and fun to play - but D&D's freedom and ruleset allow for moments of creativity and uniquely rewarding fun that I think is impossible to replicate in other games - except now, Baldur's Gate 3 has completely done it. For decades, video games have replicated or iterated on Dungeons and Dragons' mechanics, and its fantasy setting has also inspired the fantasy RPG genre, and while there are some games that have tried to "be" D&D, they've still always felt like a video game at the end of the day, rather than a true replication of the tabletop experience. Even trying to fully replicate that experience seems like a daunting and potentially impossible task. How could you plan, program, and create a world of infinite possibility? How could you ever account for the myriad of player choices within the constraints of a video game? How do you guide players through your world while still giving them nearly unlimited freedom to play how they want? Most games that try this still have to have "invisible walls" up at certain points - whether literal invisible walls that the player would run into, or conceptual walls by limiting choices. Again - this seems like a reasonable expectation; how could a developer ever truly create something that is as wide-spanning in freedom and content as what players create in their own imaginations at the table? Larian Studios somehow found a way to do this, and I'm stunned not only at how they were able to make this game, but just how good they made it.

In video game terms, Baldur's Gate 3 is a story-driven, turn-based fantasy-RPG set in the world of Faerun, the "default" setting in Dungeons and Dragons lore. BG3 is both a sequel to the first two games while also continuing the legacy of games such as Neverwinter Nights, the Dragon Age series, and the Mass Effect series, each of whom were also heavily story-driven, with an emphasis on player choices in determining the outcome of the game. If this is all Baldur's Gate 3 was, it would still rank very high on my list. However, this game is more than that because of how effectively it translates Dungeons and Dragons into video game form. The overwhelming majority of mechanics and options from the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ruleset are here - and every single bit of it is valid for success in-game. This isn't the kind of thing where yes, all of the options are here, but really you should pick from a select few playstyles in order to really play the game "best." This is what D&D is all about - giving you the options and freedom to play however you want. There is a level of curation in most video games - content that developers want the players to see in their experience. That level of curation typically is what hinders player freedom.

For example: in most games, when your adventuring party enters into a boss fight encounter, you're going to see all of the different moves and/or story content that the developers created for that boss, and that means you'll need to engage with that boss in specific ways curated for the player. Baldur's Gate 3 does not care about that. In one of the major boss encounters, I snuck up behind him while he was talking to the rest of my party (in a cutscene that they were involved in), and shoved him into an endless chasm, ending the fight before it ever started. This is so completely wild to me, but encompassing of Larian Studio's dedication to replicating the tabletop experience. They spent time creating that boss, creating abilities and movesets, writing dialogue, recording animations, etc. but they still let me skip seeing all of that so I could shove him into a chasm, because that's how I wanted to play. When you play D&D, the Dungeon Master could spend time creating characters, stories, and encounters for the players to engage with, with the knowledge that the players might just...turn and go the other way, or shove the Big Bad Enemy into a chasm while they are delivering a monologue. This is what makes D&D so special, and Baldur's Gate 3 not only understands that on a deep level, but also implements this in every single aspect of the game. I do not have enough time or energy to detail other examples of how the game does this, but I think to sum it up, Baldur's Gate 3 feels like maybe 4-5 games worth of content and possibilities - and they let the player decide what all of it they want to see. Every person I know who has played this game has had both similar and *wildly* different experiences and outcomes throughout, and that is a remarkable achievement.

I haven't even gotten to so many aspects of what this game does right, despite having already written a novel (I wasn't kidding at the top of this!), but quite simply, this is one of the best written, best looking, best sounding, best playing games I've ever played. Narratively, this is one of the deepest experiences I've ever engaged with it, as the main plot, side stories for each playable character, and smaller stories throughout the worlds are richly detailed. There are hundreds of thousands of lines of dialogue and written notes that flesh out this massive fantasy world in a way that is consistently engaging. There have been other massive fantasy worlds in games, but I've never seen one that is as narratively interesting from top to bottom as this game is, and that's despite it being based off of an existing property. The soundtrack is proportionally epic and lovely, the voice acting is top notch throughout, and the art design both brings familiar D&D designs to life, while also keeping a more traditional fantasy setting look fresh and interesting.

Baldur's Gate 3 is a stunning achievement, and one of my favorite games of all-time. I have well over a hundred hours into my first playthrough, and I am nearing the end. I haven't even gotten into how fun this is to play with friends as well, which I've only done a handful of times but even that feels like a completely new and fresh way to experience the game! I have ideas for other playthroughs with different playstyles, focusing on different stories that I didn't choose the first time around. There are entire sections of the game that I missed that I'm excited to hit next time. I've never felt more excited to play a game that I've already played with the expectation that it is going to be so completely different, and essentially feel like a brand new game. There's not much else I can say about this game. I'm so glad it exists. Baldur's Gate 3 is a complete masterpiece.

Music shout-out: This is my favorite theme in the game that plays mostly while you are at camp hanging out with the rest of your party:

https://youtu.be/3rrTWbpd8eY?si=gBinuZ_QKvwo5Bje

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Ginormous76

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Where did you talk more about this moment? I was trying to find it, because I'm curious what moment it was. Interestingly, we had opposite opinions about both Fallen Order & Survivor.

Had it not been for the ending of Zelda, one moment in this game would have been my favorite curated* (I'll explain more about what this means later) moment in a game this year - it's a moment that mixes visuals, the soundtrack, the characters, and gameplay in such a spectacular (and spectacularly Star Wars) way, and it's a moment I wish I could experience again for the first time.

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Manburger

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Great & enthusiastic list, entertaining read!

I'm mostly indifferent to Star Wars these days, but I did actually enjoy the previous Fallen Order - suppose I should check out Survivor, huh? I think the PC version has been unborked at this point.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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Great list and some fascinating choices. Nice writeup!

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hoodselina

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The list of games you shared is really interesting, I will try and play one of the games you recommend tonight.