GOTY #10: Dead Cells
Dead Cells is a run-based, roguelike (or roguelite? Rogueish? In the company of rogues?), side-scrolling action game by Motion Twin. You are a prisoner on an island trying to escape, and you only have one life to get out. Think Castlevania, but every time you die, you have to restart at the beginning. That might sound terrible on paper, but each run can last between a few minutes to a little over an hour, so it’s never completely world-ending each time you have to restart. The prison is semi-randomized as well: each run will look slightly different as the layout of the rooms will change, but the rooms themselves are curated, meaning the prison still feels hand designed while feeling fresh each run. There are ways to have persistent progression though, either through unlocking new weapons to use in later runs, or by unlocking upgrades to your character.
The best part of the game is far and away how good the combat feels. Each weapon feels distinct (and there are a lot of weapons), and the controls are precise, leaving success or defeat almost entirely up to player skill, which is nice. Rarely have I found a moment that felt “cheap” or wonky in a way that killed me unfairly — either myself or my weapons needed to be better. There is a wacky sense of humor that shows up in subtle ways, whether it is from a comment by an NPC, or by a goofy gesture in response to something in the world by the main character. I was surprised by the humor, as the setting seems to be fairly dark in nature, but I appreciate it. The game takes itself seriously enough in ways that benefit gameplay, while not taking itself seriously in ways that provide some needed levity. The game is quite difficult - I still haven’t beaten it, and I’m not super sure I’ve even gotten very far - but the challenge is balanced enough to make you feel like you’re always getting better at the game each time you play. The game saves at pretty frequent intervals as well, which means the game is well-suited for both short and long sessions, which I find helpful. The story isn’t told traditionally, but rather through clues in the environment or NPC comments, much like a Souls game. It’s possible (maybe probable) that I haven’t seen enough of the game to get a good enough grasp on the story, but what I’ve been able to deduce so far doesn’t seem like there is much that is interesting. There are glimpses of an interesting world, but the focus definitely seems to be on finding new weapons and using them to take out monsters, which is fine by me.
I keep coming back to Dead Cells, partially due to it’s addicting gameplay loop, but also because it’s great to play in shorter sessions. The auto save is great — I’ve never really lost progress any time I’ve left and come back before a run was over. If there was more and/or a better story, I could see this game being higher on this list, but it is still a great game and an easy recommend.
Played on: Switch Also available on: PC/Mac, PS4, Xbox One
GOTY #9: Celeste
Celeste is a game that flew under my radar until I started hearing folks on podcasts rave about it in a way that seemed special. Review scores were in the high 9s (or even 10s in some cases), and my friend and former podcast partner was singing its praises as well. Initially this didn’t look like my thing at all - I’m not huge into deadly tough platformers or 8-bit graphics - but I’m glad I finally decided to give it a shot. What I found was a game with super responsive platforming, a great soundtrack, and a story I found meaningful in a way that I didn’t expect before I played.
The secret sauce of Celeste is really the instant reload after you die. You die a lot in Celeste (I’m somewhere north of 3,000), but you immediately start back at the beginning of the screen you are on, hardly missing a beat. This helps curb the frustration of completing some of the platforming challenges, as they are some of the most difficult I’ve ever played in a 2D-platformer. The quick respawn helps to encourage you, that no matter what, you can get through the challenge as long as you keep trying. The game chooses to trust that you, the player, can get through the challenge without much handholding, and that message is consistent in the story as well. I don’t want to spoil much of the story here, but Celeste is the journey of a girl named Madeline as she is attempting to climb a mountain. Along the way, Madeline runs into a quirky cast of side characters who both help and hurt her along the way. The emotional beats of the story resonated with me in a way I wasn’t necessarily expecting - which was a nice surprise - and ultimately was the reason I continued to subject myself to the ever-increasing and punishing platforming. I wanted to see Madeline’s journey through, even if that meant failing over and over and over (and over) again along the way. I don’t mean to knock the challenging aspect of the platforming — I just personally found it taxing to run into a buzzsaw (figuratively, not literally) over long sessions. If you’re into that though, Celeste brings along a quality story to go with the platforming, as well as a top-notch synthy soundtrack. The main quest is about 8-10 hours (depending on how good you are at super difficult platforming I guess), but there are unlockable alternate versions of each level that amp up the difficulty significantly, so there’s a fair amount of game in the game as well.
Played on: Switch Also available on: PC/Mac, PS4, Xbox One
GOTY #8: Hitman 2
There was my target: Vicente Murillo, a revolutionary military leader trying to take over Columbia. He’s arrogant and surly, and he just finished recording a speech in a room with a green screen, trying to convince the people to follow him into a better Columbia. He’s also a facist, and I’ve caught him stepping outside the small shack where he recorded his speech, taking a second to gaze out over the river. Maybe he’s taking a second to go over the speech he just recorded, considering how people will react, or maybe he is taking a second to “smell the roses,” knowing that his moment is near, or maybe...he’s turning around to go back in the shack? Wait, that can’t be right? I watch as he returns back to the seat in front of the green screen, starting over with the same exact speech. Okay, that’s a little weird, I think, as I hunker down in the small shop I have commandeered to spy on Murillo (so sorry to the guy I had to put to sleep and dump into a laundry box - I know you’re just trying to work hard to make a living). I watch and listen as he finishes his speech, and again gets up and walks out the door to the back of the shack, taking a second to look over the river...before he goes right back in, sits down, and starts his speech all over.
At this moment, I realize he’s glitched. He’s stuck in a never-ending loop of sitting down, recording a speech, walking outside for about two seconds, and then repeating the entire process over and over. This isn’t great for creative assassination, which is what I’m there to do. Well, I guess we just do this the basic way, I think, as I prepare my silenced pistol - effective, but extremely boring in a game where you can knock someone out with a blueberry muffin to the face. I take aim and shoot - success! Target eliminated! Time to go! I immediately leave my makeshift base of operations and start walking towards the closest exit. I thought I got my shot off without anyone noticing, but someone somehow saw me, and now everyone’s mad. I’m getting close to the exit, so I start sprinting (in serpentine motion, naturally). Within feet of the exit, my heart pounding, believing that I’m gonna barely make it out, I finally get taken down. I’m Kevin Dyson at the goal-line, the Rams win, I fail the mission. That was my one shot at the Elusive Target, one of a series of one-off, one-attempt missions in Hitman 2, and I was left laughing with a goofy grin on my face. I loved every minute of it, even though it all went down in flames.
This story is the best way I can describe Hitman 2, outside of the very reductive: it’s more Hitman. The sequel to the 2016 iteration, Hitman 2 brings more levels to explore, more ridiculous ways to complete your objectives, and small details that add wrinkles to the experience. When it works (and this is most of the time), Hitman 2 is the best James Bond movie simulator out there, complete with gadgets, costumes, lavish set pieces, and a solid sense of humor. Not much of that has changed from Hitman 2016 - there’s just more of it. The level design is still absolutely amazing here, and each new area brings its own distinct flavor of fun. Some new details like tall brush to conceal yourself (or someone else) and working mirrors bring new things to thing about as you approach your mission, and the graphics engine seems to have been given a slight overhaul in order to run more smoothly.
Sometimes though, the simulation breaks in ways that create my story above. People glitch and get stuck in a loop. People find an unconscious body and then track me down (wearing a different costume than before) halfway across the map during a cutscene. Sometimes the simulation breaks in ways that are more funny than they are frustrating, but other times it’s just frustrating. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, and even after completing the main story, I’ve had fun replaying the levels and trying new things. Hitman 2 a great addition to the best stealth action series of this generation, and it would be higher on this list if it was more innovative than iterative.
Played on: PS4 Also available on: Xbox One, PC
GOTY #7: Monster Hunter World
Monster Hunter World, for a while, was much higher on this list. If this was Gameplay Loop of the Year, Monster Hunter World might be number one. The basic loop of explore the map, track the monster, fight, gather materials, craft, rinse, repeat caught me in a major way. This is the basic loop of all of the Monster Hunter games, but the big difference with World is the amount of quality of life improvements within. In the old games, the map was broken up into different sections, and there was a fade out/fade in between every section, so it never felt like a living, breathing world. The basic function of sharpening your weapon was tied to finite consumable items, but now all you need is time and space, and there’s no limit on the amount of times you can sharpen. Other granular details like this make this the easiest to get into Monster Hunter game in the series by a country mile. I sunk 40-50 hours into this game and had a blast throughout.
Some of the best emergent storytelling moments I had in a game happened here as well, whether it was chasing down a monster only to have two bigger and badder monsters meet us all in a corner of the map, taking a huge leap down onto a flying monster and nailing the landing, or the first time my friends and I discovered the table in the one area in the hubworld where you can see each other, there were countless unscripted moments that really made the game special. Along with all of the cool emergent moments, another great aspect of this game is the quality of the animations. Instead of a health bar, monsters convey how weak or strong they are by how they move. Monsters might start limping away, or they might get more aggressive and reckless if they are hurt. When monsters fight each other, even more animations occur, making it awesome to watch. Every time you eat a meal at the main hub, there is a montage of the cat chef cooking, and it wins Best Cutscene of the Year, no contest.
Despite all of the quality of life enhancements, there are still some really bewildering design decisions, especially when it comes to multiplayer. It’s not made clear initially how to join up with other players, and it is impossible to join at all if one player hasn’t seen the opening cutscene for a certain monster. I understand that they wanted to have that moment of discovery for the player without any other people around, but in practicality it made things less intuitive. There are still way too many menus, and the drop rate of certain items needed to make high level loot is not great, forcing you to really grind once you hit a certain point. There is a story, but I’m not sure there should be one. I ended up blazing through dialog boxes because the writing wasn’t the best, but also the overarching themes of imperialism and conquest weren’t my favorite. The good news is, you really don’t need to engage with the story to fully enjoy the game. This was far and away the most fun multiplayer game I played this year, and I’m looking forward to how this series will continue to evolve in the future.
Played on: PS4 Also available on: Xbox One, PC
GOTY #6: Florence
Early in the year, I checked the Apple App Store to check and see what was new — and that’s when I lucked out and saw Florence. I was initially intrigued by the hand-drawn art style, and then once I found out the lead designer worked on Monument Valley, I decided to give this game a shot. This game is a gift. A refreshingly different experience than most games I play, Florence had no violence, took about 45 minutes to complete, and told a story that, while not in comparison to books or film, is mostly unique to video games. We follow the journey of Florence Yeoh, a 25 year old Asian-American woman who works in a stale office job but has aspirations for more, and her relationship with Krish Hemrajani, an Indian-Australian street cellist. The gameplay mechanics and the story intertwine in ways that are endearing and creative. Conversations play out as puzzle pieces that fit together to create a speech bubble — there is no dialogue, but the puzzles have less and less pieces as Florence and Krish get to know each other, just like how real conversations become easier. Moments like this use mechanics to connect you to the narrative in a way that I haven’t experienced much in other games. Some moments in particular actually hit me pretty hard - instead of reading or watching important story beats happen, the way you interact with the game end up being a metaphor for what the characters are going through, which ends up being pretty powerful.
The story itself isn’t groundbreaking, but I appreciate that the main characters aren’t the typical white couple that is in hundreds of love stories, and I appreciate that the overall theme is positive, even if it deals with both love and loss. I was left wishing I had more of this game, but the short length worked perfectly for the story. Fortunately, replaying through it is still charming in large part due to the incredible soundtrack, filled with piano and cello lines that sweep in and out, and create an emotional framework for the story to move. This is an easy recommend for anyone interested in playing through and experiencing a well-told love story, and the unique mix of story and mechanics make it one of the most interesting games I played this year.
Played on: iOS Also available on: Android
GOTY #5: God of War
As a fan of the original God of War trilogy, I was really looking forward to this year’s entry to the series, and BOY (Boy! Boy. Boy...BOY) was I happy with the result! God of War is the story of Kratos, the Greek god of war, as he has settled down in Norse mythology land with his son, Atreus, after the death of his wife. The tone of the game is set pretty immediately — the opening scene is of a funeral pyre. Unlike the over-the-top-ness of the previous games, this God of War opts instead to be more introspective, somber, and weighty, while still providing moments of intense and large-scale action. The Kratos of the previous games was as one-note as any character could be: always angry, loud, and boisterous. The gameplay was equally singularly focused: kill everything, and be as extremely violent as possible. While those games were fun in a mindless monster mash kind of way, God of War 2018 expands and improves on the formula in satisfying ways.
The biggest change in combat is the change in weapon. Kratos begins the game with the Leviathan Axe, which is an axe that can return to Kratos’ hand after throwing it, similar to Thor’s hammer. The axe is also imbued with ice magic, so Kratos can use the axe to also freeze enemies. The complexity of the combat does come with a much steeper learning curve than the previous games, but the trade-off is immense. I really felt like the God of War by the end of the game, assessing combat situations and making the right call to clear any and all enemies as efficiently (and stylishly) as possible. My favorite game mechanic this year is that axe recall — it might not sound like much on paper, but the animation and sound design of the moment the axe returns to your hand is just so satisfying.
This game also has my favorite soundtrack of 2018. Bear McCreary created a soundtrack that weaves unique themes created for different characters, and it contributes as much to the narrative as anything that happens on screen. Almost midway through the main theme, there is a choir crescendo that gives me chills every time I listen! The music provides gravitas during dramatic scenes, and ramps up the tension during combat. Frankly, I think this is a perfect soundtrack, and it’s one I’ll continue to listen to long after this year.
While this is most certainly a new step for the series in many ways, there are still some great nods to previous games that I appreciated as a longtime fan, including one extended sequence that might also be my favorite sequence in a game this year - just not one I want to spoil here. The art design and animation are at the top of the industry, and while I do enjoy the “no camera cuts” design choice, it is also easy to see some of the shortcuts they took to get there. I enjoy this game a lot, but I don’t think it’s perfect.
I was left disappointed with some major elements of the story, and it’s hard for me to explain without spoiling so -
SPOILER WARNING FOR ELEMENTS OF THE STORY - SKIP DOWN IF YOU NEED
A major theme of the game is the reconciliation of Kratos’ past as an extremely violent character, and how he wants his son to be better than he was. I feel like the story was doing the work to get to that point - that you don’t have to be so violent to do what needs to be done - until the killing of a main character is shown to be an act of redemptive violence. I’m not super into the idea of redemptive violence, so I was pretty let down that the end of the story went in that direction. I feel like it undercut a lot of the character work done for Kratos, basically saying that even though he might never escape from his violent nature, sometimes that’s okay if that’s what needs to happen. As a lesson from a father to a son, I wasn’t happy with it, and it also was disappointing for another reason: the character death that was viewed in the light of redemptive violence also culminated with the devaluing of the sole main female character in the story.
We first meet Freya a few hours into the game, and she is revealed to be the mother of the main antagonist, Baldur. Freya is a complex character, one who helps out Kratos and Atreus while trying to uphold and maintain her complicated relationship with Baldur. Freya is portrayed as a level-headed, strong, and wise character - which goes out the window completely near the end of the game. As Kratos and Baldur fight, Freya becomes emotional and fragile, and would rather herself die than Baldur - while this isn’t necessarily a surprising emotion for a parent, but it isn’t very consistent with her portrayal leading up to these final moments. The death of Baldur reduces Freya into the vengeful mother, the kind of harried and intensely on-the-edge portrayal of a female character that removes the majority of the complexity that was carefully constructed up to that point. It is a shame that the major female character of the game doesn’t get an ending that she deserves, and becomes a caricature more than a character.
END SPOILER WARNING
Story issues aside, I also felt like the back half of the game is a bit of a slog. The plot does devolve into a Macguffin hunt for about 5-6 hours, and the encounter designs slip into “clear out this room of enemies” a little too much. While the combat itself was still fun, I grew tired of seemingly doing the same kinds of things without much plot movement. The final area of the game and plot revelations therein lift the game back up, but it still felt like more of a grind leading up to it than I would enjoy. There is a plentiful amount of side activities, loot to find, and mini-bosses to fight, but after I completed the main story, I didn’t feel very compelled to do much of it. Not to say that it isn’t quality — it just didn’t particularly move me to continue playing. God of War is a heck of a thing, and something that I still highly recommend, even if I wish some aspects could have been better.
Played/Available on: PS4
GOTY #4: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
“Everybody’s here!” Literally. This game has every single character that has ever been in a video game. Okay not really, but it feels like it sometimes. This game is the definition of CONTENT RICH. At launch, there are 76 characters and 103 stages, with more to come in future DLC. Each character has a Classic Mode route, which includes 6 fights and a bonus stage. There are numerous challenges to complete, Spirits to collect (more on that later), rulesets to tweak, and items galore. There are 27 different assist trophies, which act as computer-controlled extra characters that are completely different from the main roster. Other modes include a replay saving/viewing system, a tournament mode, special modes with different variables at play, and a soundtrack mode where you can listen to an exhaustive amount of music from the different games represented. There is so much game in this game — a dream for longtime fans of the series, but also nice for people just now getting into it.
All of this content - and then there’s World of Light mode. This is the new single-player mode where the player begins as Kirby, trying to save the rest of the heroes who have been swallowed up by a strange energy, and transformed into shadow versions of themselves. This mode alone is 20-30 hours long, and it includes references to hundreds of games from both Nintendo and other publishers. You travel along a 2D map littered with encounters of all sorts, each one is a reference to a specific character (or groups of characters). The way the game pulls this off is through changing colors/costumes of characters from the main roster, and adding different variables to the match — one match the floor might literally be lava, another might have a character who gets stronger as the match goes on. I’m not nearly finished with this mode, but I’m excited to continue digging further into it. It’s not perfect - the difficulty swings from stupid easy to stupid hard - but I’m glad it exists, as it is more than enough single-player content, which is something Super Smash Bros. Wii U didn’t have.
Generally, this game feels really good. Some characters feel a bit floaty, and some feel like Luis Mendoza from D2: The Mighty Ducks (if you inexplicably haven’t seen that movie, it means they move really fast but have trouble stopping where they need to stop), but for the most part the characters feel good to use. With the over-abundance of characters, there is surely at least a handful of characters that feel good to use for anyone who plays the game, and that’s a good thing. The updates to the graphics are subtle but noticeable, and the game runs smoothly whether in handheld or docked mode, with one exception: online. I’ve only played a few online matches, but even in those, there were moments of lag. Mine weren’t so bad, but I’ve seen videos of multiple seconds of lag — pretty unacceptable for a fighting game. As I continue to finish more of the single-player content, I’m sure I’ll move more towards online matches more frequently, so I hope some of that gets worked out in the coming months. Overall, this game is a dream for Nintendo fans, and a triumph for Super Smash Bros. fans, and one of the best games available for the Nintendo Switch.
Played/Available on: Nintendo Switch
GOTY #3: Marvel’s Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man is simply one of the best PS4-exclusives in the console’s lifetime so far. More than just another super-hero game, Insomniac’s take on the classic hero nails down everything about the character. Whether it is the perfect swinging (really, the swinging is so good, I had a stupid grin on my face even hours into the game whenever I would jump from a building and start doing my Spider-Thing), the writing, the flow of combat, or the abundance of suits, gadgets, and powers, Spider-Man is the definitive Spider-Game. The story, while ultimately predictable, is really fun, and I enjoyed the inclusions of Mary-Jane Watson and Miles Morales as more than cameo appearances. The game also spends time with Peter Parker, not overlooking the importance of that side of Spider-Man as well. Each of the performances are true to character, well-written, and well-acted. Honestly, the narrative portions of the game feel like a really good Marvel movie, but it’s cool because you get to play this one.
There is a staggering amount of side-missions, collectibles, and checklists to check, and I find it remarkable that each of these activities are fun and rewarding in their own ways. Often, open world games with a million dots on the map to find end up with a quantity-over-quality result, but that’s not the case in Spider-Man. Particularly, the backpacks scattered throughout the city were my favorite, because they all come with a short memory about the item’s significance in Peter’s voice — a nice little story touch. The pacing of the game is something I appreciate, as it is easy to play in short chunks or long sessions. Banging out a few story missions is fun, but taking a few minutes to swing around and find backpacks, stop crimes, or find one of Black Cat’s kitten dolls is still productive. 2018 was a year where I rarely had long sessions to play games, and I’m glad Spider-Man was able to still be fun even if I couldn’t devote hours to it at a time.
There are no huge complaints I have about this game, but there are two aspects of the game that left me a bit wanting. First, the main music theme is really good (especially in comparison to the vast majority of the music in the Marvel movies), but it’s really the only musical theme in the game. There are a few different variations of it that play during different situations, but...it’s still generally the same music throughout the whole game. I would have liked a bit more variety in the music, but at least what is there is good. The other part of the game that I wasn’t in love with is the combat. Just like the music - what’s there is good, but I figured out what works for me pretty early and stuck with that for the entire game. I didn’t feel very compelled to switch suit powers (and there are a lot of suit powers), and I was able to get through most combat situations using the same few moves. The combat encourages you to stay airborne, and that by itself is fun, but I wish I had more reasons to switch tactics or move sets more often. Despite those little issues, I still had a great time with this game. There’s something refreshing about a game that isn’t trying to deconstruct a hero, or tell a dark and edgy tale. Instead, Spider-Man is bright and vibrant, and a joy to play, and that’s the kind of game worth celebrating.
Played/Available on: PS4
GOTY #2: Red Dead Redemption 2
I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about Red Dead Redemption 2. I really loved the first game, but that was a while ago. Going back to the first game recently, I was far less enthused to replay it. I think I was beginning to feel fatigue with Rockstar’s open world game structure, especially after being somewhat disappointed with Grand Theft Auto V. None of the trailers for RDR2 really punched me in the gut — I thought it looked good, but basically just more Red Dead, just prettier. That as a concept never truly got me super excited, and then I realized that Red Dead Redemption 2 is most certainly more Red Dead, just prettier...and I’m really here for it more than I thought I would be.
For starters, it’s not just prettier - Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best looking game. Period. Not more than others in the genre, not more than other console games, just best looking ever. I’ve not seen a level of detail and visual fidelity in any other game, and they nailed it on both a large and small scale. There are spots in the map that literally made my jaw drop when I saw them, including a hill in the beginning hours of the game where you can look one way and see a large lake in the distance, or turn the camera around and see snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. The map has a larger variety of landscapes than the first game, making the journey feel less like playing through a playground set in the Old West, and more like the player is traversing through a sizable chunk of the American West and South. The way the light of the moon provides just enough visibility at night is remarkable. The fog and haze effects change the look of familiar areas dramatically, and muddy areas leave mud everywhere. The smallest details are considered as well, especially in the animations. In a lot of games, when you come across an item you can pick up in the world, you might press a button and then the item automatically enters your inventory and disappears from the world. In RDR2, Arthur, the main character, will bend down and pick up the item before placing it carefully in his pouch. These animations are intricately designed, and not once have any of them looked unnatural. Even during firefights, animations rarely look outlandish, despite what might be happening in the situation. I don’t recall a single time where I’ve seen a body rag-doll around, and that is mind blowing — it really feels like every animation for every situation was handmade. This game looks like what I imagine “next-gen” games would look like, but we have it right now. With each new generation, the level of realism in graphics has improved, and Rockstar has set the bar for future games in RDR2.
Improved realism isn’t only present in the graphics, as Rockstar created a world to inhabit rather than a Wild West playground. This distinction is made clear by the sheer amount of systems happening in the background, similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The rules that govern how the world works are focused on delivering the most realistic experience possible, which means that for the most part, people, animals, weather, and physics act and react in ways that they would in real life. If something could work in real life, it generally will work in this game, and vice versa. Anytime that statement isn’t true, we end up with “jank” that we see in a lot of open world games, and there’s just not a lot of “jank” here. To me, this adherence to realism is fun to navigate, but it makes it that much more worse when the realism breaks. Glitches stand out even more, and the odd moments where the world doesn’t act or react like it should become frustrating. These moments haven’t happened for me much, but they certainly are present.
The game doesn’t always control the easiest either, whether due to the amount of options the game is presenting, or due to Arthur’s movement animations. There are two to three sub-menus available at any given time, and inside those are changeable options, making it a bit confusing to get to and/or remember how to get to a certain option. The directional pad has multiple options available depending on the amount of time each button is pressed, adding more control elements with which to keep up. The same button is pressed for aiming a weapon or for initiating the context-based interaction menu. This caused me to aim my gun at people I was just trying to talk to, which was always frustrating. At first, it feels a little bit like Arthur is wading through molasses when he moves, partially due to the game’s insistence on a slow pace. Just like in real life, Arthur wouldn’t necessarily run or walk fast at every moment and while that makes sense, it does take a bit to get used to Arthur’s movement.
The slow pace also extends to the rest of the game — it takes a solid hour or two to get out of the first tutorial area, but it isn’t until Chapter 3 that tutorial-type missions stop happening. This game requires some dedication, especially initially, before the story or gameplay really gets going. For players wanting to stick to the main narrative, it would be difficult to play this game in small sessions, but the large amount of side activities can make short sessions productive. Different types of challenges with unlockable rewards return from the previous game, and they are especially good for short sessions. Even just living in this world as Arthur with no specific goal is decent for short sessions, as there is a litany of different mini-events that could happen in the world at any moment.
The story, like the rest of the game, also takes a while to get going. At the time of this post, I’ve only seen about a third or so of the narrative, and only half of that time I’ve found interesting. It doesn’t seem to be telling too much of a different tale than the first game, but the multitude of characters in Dutch’s gang really add a lot. Unlike the first Red Dead Redemption, where we spent most of our time with John Marston and met different characters along the way, RDR2 is intentional about giving Arthur plenty of opportunities to spend time with the rest of the gang. Coming back to camp always brings opportunities for having and listening to conversations in order to get to know the rest of the group. Story missions involve at least one (if not more) members of the group most of the time, shedding more light on these characters along the way. I’m excited to see more of this story, despite the fairly long time it takes to really get going.
A little over a month after launch, Red Dead Online Beta launched, and while I’ve had some fun with friends messing around, the experience (at the time of this post) is still extremely barebones. There is a short tutorial that provides a bit of story as well as introductions to the mechanics of online gameplay, but after that there isn’t much else to do. The world is less populated, assumedly to make room for other human players, which steps back from the single-player experience by making it feel more like a playground than a real world. There is a suite of competitive modes, mostly built around the shooting mechanics in the game, but I don’t think those mechanics are suited nearly as well for competitive multiplayer as they are for the single-player game. I expect Rockstar will continue to add and refine Red Dead Online into something that could be special, but it’s not nearly there yet.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a special game, and is Rockstar’s best game to date. There are aspects of this game that are absolutely amazing, and the attention to detail and devotion to creating a (mostly) realistic open world make this one of the best AAA games of all time. I wish that the shortcomings didn’t stand out so much, because I do think that this game is nearly perfect. I also wish that games of this caliber didn’t basically require developers to devote every waking moment they have to working on them — an issue that has been well-documented for this game in particular. The result of all of that work certainly speaks for itself, but hopefully the industry can do better in the future.
Played on: PS4 Available on: Xbox One
GOTY #1: Hollow Knight
I had no idea that a game about bugs in an underground kingdom would beat the sequel to Red Dead Redemption on my GOTY list for 2018, but here we are! No other game left me so transfixed as Hollow Knight this year. Disclaimer: I know this game originally released on PC in 2017, but it released on consoles in 2018 so it counts as far as I’m concerned! Hollow Knight is a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania-style game about a bug who explores an underground kingdom called Hallownest. What once was a magnificent kingdom is now reduced to ruin, but that doesn’t stop explorers from searching for glory among the depths. What follows is a game that excels in exploration, action, and atmosphere.
I’ve never felt so immersed while playing a 2D game — Hollow Knight sets a tone early and only becomes more interesting. The story isn’t told in a traditional way, but rather through clues in the environment and dialogue by the NPCs. This allows the story to unfold piece by piece, and it gives the player agency in finding it, rather than spoon-feeding it at a regular pace. I found the mystery of “what happened here” interesting at every turn, even if at times it is a bit vague. Finding the story is only part of what makes exploration so satisfying, as Hollow Knight also has a map-making mechanic. Each time you enter a new area, the map screen is blank until you find the mapmaker NPC, who hums a cheerful tune that brings a sense of calm every time. In some areas, the mapmaker is fairly deep inside, forcing you to explore blindly until you find him, ratcheting up the tension. Once you find him, the map won’t fill in until you rest at a bench, which are the “safe” spots in the game. There is a little animation of the main character pulling out a pen and drawing more of the map, which is a nice little touch.
Benches also serve as checkpoints and places where you can engage with the progression system. Across the map, you can find charms to equip that come with different additions to gameplay. Some charms assist with offensive-combat, while some reward more defensive styles of play, and others give entirely different bonuses that can match well with other charms. This means that you can build your character to suit different challenges in the game, and change at any point. I had a build set for exploration that included quicker attack speed, a compass to help with navigation, and a longer length for my weapon (called Nails in this universe). For some bosses, I would switch to a build that would replenish my Focus meter (a combination of “mana” and health regeneration) every time I got hit, and would allow for faster health regeneration. The amount of build variety means that not only is the progression system helpful in making your character stronger, but it also helps keep the game fresh over long periods of time.
The combat is extremely satisfying, as it is fast and fluid. The game doesn’t hold back any challenge in combat, but it is rarely ever unfair. Every battle, from regular enemies to the numerous bosses, can be won using skill. Added charms, health masks (this game’s version of a health bar), and special moves can make fights easier, but ultimately each battle is a test of skill. I enjoyed feeling like I was leveling up as I was playing, feeling myself getting better and then reaping the rewards.
All of the mechanics and systems in this game are stellar enough to make it a top notch game, but the superstar feature of Hollow Knight is in it’s world design and atmosphere. At first, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the art style — initially, I thought it looked like a Flash game, which is certainly reductive. The more I played, the more I fell in love with the art design of both the characters and the world itself. Each area of the game has a different color tint to it, which helps to differentiate each area in a subtle way. This helps - there are a lot of different areas on the map, and the world never feels samey or boring. There are swampy, overgrown areas, a city where it rains constantly, a crystal cave, and an area that feels like the inside of a bee hive, just to name a few. Some parts of the map can be calming, where others are closer to a nightmare. The world in Hollow Knight is huge, and always interesting to explore.
The soundtrack is wonderful - a very close second to my favorite soundtrack of the year - and a large addition to the game’s overall atmosphere. The music will change dynamically based off of whether or not you are in combat, adding a bit of adrenaline to each encounter. A mix of melancholy and whimsy, the music never gets old. The standout track for me was the theme for the City of Tears — easily my favorite track in a game this year. The voice acting is also my favorite of any game this year - even though no one speaks English - because it is weird and often funny. While there are no performances that come close to anything like a God of War or Red Dead Redemption 2, the voices in this game bring an otherworldly life to each of the characters.
I got completely lost in this game in a way I haven’t been since playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild last year. From June to August, Hollow Knight was basically the only game I played. I found myself rooting for the main character in a way that was strange considering I was controlling him, but that’s how much I became immersed and invested in this world. There is a charm and a magic to this game that is hard to describe, but it’s one of the reasons why this game stood above the rest for me this year. Hollow Knight is on consoles and PC, and it’s only FIFTEEN DOLLARS. Please do yourself a favor and play this game, my Game of the Year for 2018.
Played on: Nintendo Switch Available on: PS4, Xbox One, PC