By ALLTheDinos 2 Comments
2022 was a big year of change, both in the industry and in my personal life. On the former, the slow trickle of pandemic games began to open up at long last. I ended up playing 35 different games that were released this year, a personal record. The change was not all good, though, as massive layoffs seemed to hit both developers and games media alike. It’s tough to even summarize without trivializing it, but it feels like an era of games coverage is coming to an end. Mix in the takeover of Twitter by the world’s shittiest poster, and it really seems like we’re living in the aftermath of the Internet we’ve known for decades. This site lost its last remaining founder, fired a couple weeks before he intended to leave by some ding-dongs who immediately sold the company to its third owner in two years. Obviously, this is not on the scale of the Fanbyte layoffs, but it heightened the belief that nothing in video games is safe.
In my personal life, we doubled our number of kids. As I wrote in a semi-review of, um, Scorn, this was also a very challenging and surreal period. My son has been at home with us for two months, and every day is a complete wild card. Trying to stay sane and at least somewhat rested while also continuing to care for a preschooler used to getting all of your attention is a full-time job, so naturally I made the silly commitment to work part-time during the last few months. Gaming took a backseat eventually, but there were still a ton of things I was able to get to in my downtime over the prior 10 months. I enjoyed this year in gaming more than any other since 2016, which I consider high praise. I’m hoping 2023 at least approaches those highs.
Not Rated: Comedy Games
First, I’d like to give a special shout-out to a trio of games that I didn’t rank with the others. Rifftrax: The Game, Trombone Champ, and Aperture Desk Job are all fantastic experiences, especially when shared with others. It’s hard to pull off humor in games a lot of the time, and these all made me laugh a lot while playing them. I tend to let this sort of game slip through the cracks every year, so it was important for me to give them their due.
10. PowerWash Simulator (Xbox Series X)
Honestly, I first downloaded this game expecting to play no more than an hour of it. When it stuck around past a single play session, I figured it would be my perfect podcast game. By the end of the game, I estimate that I spent less than 10% of the time I played it listening to anything. It doesn’t really have music, unless you count the white noise of the power washer as music (though I do love noise rock). I think the game just occupied a space of my brain that was desperate to shut off, focusing on making stuff clean and some percentages to reach 100. It proved to be a zen experience, one that I looked forward to after any rough day of work, or to wind down after a particularly rough bedtime for my daughter. There’s a ton of value to these kinds of activities; my collection of jigsaw puzzles and half-finished Kakuro books can attest to that. Definitely give this game a shot if you haven’t already, and treat yourself to some boredom.
I played PowerWash Simulator on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass, and it's available on Steam. It's getting a Switch and PS4/5 port soon!
9. NORCO (PC / Xbox Series X)
This was definitely the year of the point-and-click narrative game, so much so that I didn’t have time for all of them (sorry, Return to Monkey Island). I began NORCO before all of the others, but I finished it last. Part of this is because the writing packs such a punch that I needed to be in the correct mindset to experience any of it. The majority of my family lives in the New Orleans area, and everything in this game evoked powerful memories I have of visiting them. Scenes underneath I-10 or outside of a bar are far more weighty than those of the French Quarter. The characters of LeBlanc, Dallas, and Ditch Man will stick with me for a long, long time. And in all likelihood, I’ll never look at a half-open garage door the same way again. Ultimately, I enjoyed the other narrative games more than NORCO, but this was an unforgettable and bizarre experience.
I played NORCO via Game Pass Ultimate, and it's also available on MacOS, Steam, and PS4/5.
8. Hardspace: Shipbreaker (PC)
This game made my 2020 GOTY list, ranking at #7 while still in Early Access. That’s no knock on its 1.0 release; if anything, that means it still offered enough features to get me to sacrifice valuable top 10 real estate once again, and this time in a far more competitive year. I finished the campaign, and I highly recommend seeing it all the way through. The story gets a little ham-handed at times, but the payoff at the end is worth it (especially the final mission). For those who probably won’t get there: you’re tasked with committing industrial espionage, destroying as much as you can. It’s really tough to overcome all of your cutting and sorting instincts, yet it allows you to use your failures in previous jobs to beat the story mode. It’s a clever reversal, one that I’m surprised I didn’t see coming in advance. There’s still a lot for me to do with this game; I never even checked out RACE Mode or any of the ghost ships! So once again, I write this with the promise that I’ll be playing more Hardspace: Shipbreaker next year, and I would bet I follow through with that.
I played Hardspace: Shipbreaker on Steam, but it's also on Game Pass Ultimate. Also on Playstation 5.
7. Neon White (PC)
On paper, this game doesn’t seem like something that would ever appeal to me. I don’t love first person shooters, or competitive games, or speedrunning games, or even anime. But anytime I watched someone else play it, I was transfixed. The extremely quick recovery into trying another run proved decisive. I can’t even describe how big a deal it is to immediately scrap a bad run and get back into the mix before you can get frustrated. I found myself getting platinum medals and collectibles in each stage and not even minding the extra time. When you’re running through enemies and alternating between shooting and dropping abilities, you feel like the best goddamn fps player on the planet. I’m a total sucker for any game that makes me feel godlike (see #5 on this list), so Neon White will always occupy a special place in my heart. Now, if I could just get more of my friends to play it, I could become a competition sicko like Grubb and Dan…
I played Neon White on Steam, and it's also available on the Switch (though I wouldn't recommend it without instant restart).
6. Songs of Conquest (PC) [Early Access]
If you really pressed me to name a single favorite game of all time, I would probably say it’s Heroes of Might and Magic III. If Songs of Conquest was just a blatant copy of that game, it would still rank fairly highly on my list. However, it’s more than that, offering modern improvements (army size caps! Skipping move animations!) alongside classic world map and combat gameplay. The spell system is interesting (and due for an overhaul, according to the developers), and the limited slots for buildings in each town encourage strategic management in a new way. The campaign is still half-finished, but it dug its hooks in me for the time I spent with it. Afterwards, I played far too much Heroes of Might and Magic IV because this game awakened some long-dormant impulse inside of me. I can’t wait until this game hits 1.0, because the promise is off the charts.
I played Songs of Conquest on Steam, where it might hit 1.0 in 2023.
5. Vampire Survivors (PC / Xbox Series X / iOS)
Every so often, a game hits my friend’s group text thread that gets everyone swapping strategies and information. Over the last couple years, it’s mostly been Hades. This year, the game to do that was Vampire Survivors. The early game exploration of each weapon and discovering the depth of the game’s weirdness were in the absolute top tier of 2022 gaming experiences for me. As someone with a newborn, I appreciate the bite-sized nature of individual play sessions. Bottom line: any game that makes me feel godlike after putting enough work into it is always going to rate pretty highly.
Footnote: I checked out the DLC briefly, and I found it an impressive spin on the core gameplay with its map features. I look forward to exploring the new items, and maybe I won’t just Mad Groove everything to my side every time.
I played Vampire Survivors on PC and Xbox Series X via Game Pass Ultimate, and I even tried it out on my iPhone 13. It's also available on MacOS.
4. Signalis (Xbox Series X)
At last, we reach the S tier of games I played this year. It was extremely tough to pick an order here (aside from #1), so it feels almost disrespectful to have Signalis as low as #4. It’s a game dripping with styyyyle, simultaneously a callback to the PS1 era of survival horror while rising above mere imitation. It’s a game that feels like a Resident Evil / Dino Crisis for the first portion of its runtime, but it becomes pretty explicitly a Silent Hill before too long. The unreliable narrative from the protagonist takes you to some bizarre locations, and by the end of the game you’re wondering how much, if anything, happened. Like the better survival horror games, it doesn’t trivialize your actions so much as recontextualize them. When you went to
literal hell Rotfront, what might the place have looked like to a human? Its story was compelling enough for me to immediately seek out the other endings after beating the game, something I rarely do. Overall, Signalis is a new classic with an underappreciated soundtrack, a game that should occupy a special place for any survival horror fan for years to come.
I played Signalis on the Xbox Series X via Game Pass, and it's available on PC, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch as well.
3. Pentiment (Xbox Series X, PC)
“Love is the only reason to do anything in this world” - Claus Drucker
The above quote summarizes Pentiment to me, at least on the development side. I’ve never seen a game, or really any other form of media outside of maybe Defunctland, take its love of such a specific thing and elevate it to sublime heights. It’s a game set in 16th century alpine Germany that is ostensibly a murder mystery across three timelines but is mostly a love letter to civilization itself, with writing that is simultaneously ornate and unpretentious. It’s a beautiful tableau of a town that isn’t the first iteration of itself and certainly won’t be the last. The Christmas dinner scene in the third act put me in my feelings something fierce. Pentiment captivated both my and my wife’s attention separately, and it’s one of the rare games I actually want to watch others play after I’ve beaten it (on that note: Abby Russell recently finished a playthrough on her Twitch channel). This is a gaming unicorn, one whose lead writer says wouldn’t exist without Game Pass, and I hope we see more people able to make art like this with such wide distribution in the future.
I played Pentiment on the Xbox Series X and PC via Game Pass Ultimate, and it's also available on Steam.
2. Citizen Sleeper (Xbox Series X)
Simply put, this is the best-written game of 2022. At the risk of spoiling the conclusion of one of the many possible resolutions to the midgame’s biggest obstacle, there’s a character who is not only actively antagonistic towards your decaying protagonist, but who is enjoying the power they lord over you in a profoundly cruel way. After completing some time-sensitive challenges, the roles become somewhat reversed. This character warns you of an impending threat far greater than them and encourages you to set aside your differences to fend off this new menace. In two of my three playthroughs, I ignored their offer and found different paths. But when I did work together with them, it showed hints of a true antagonist becoming more of an antihero. Fortunately, the game never falls into that cliche, and this character reveals their true, cruel nature after you finish helping them get back on their feet.
It takes a ton of confidence to show hints of a good person in their character and be willing to shove your sympathy for them right back in your face. In real life, there are people who neither deserve nor seek redemption from the empathetic. Any attempt at friendship is an opportunity to use people; whatever needs to be said to get that person on top, they will say. This one storyline stands in immense contrast to the rest of The Eye, where Citizen Sleeper takes place. You meet people like a disgruntled, idealistic systems programmer looking to settle a score for his parents; a street cook who just loves stories and takes care in their cooking; a mysterious gamemaster in search of information and spirited competition; the leader of a commune with an intense interest in the station’s mysteries; and an adoptive father-daughter pair, just looking to escape the station the only way they can. Each one of these characters is fully realized, to the point where you just want to spend as much time with them as possible. The game’s mechanics emphasize this through progress meters (which I've been calling clocks, thanks to Austin Walker’s Friends at the Table podcast). You return to different people every day based on your need and the dice you have available. And more than that, the world is so rich that you just want to pop between destinations and check in on everything for hours.
Briefly, on the mechanics: it’s the closest I’m ever going to get to a Scum and Villainy video game. The RPG mechanics, such as they are, function more as exceptions to the game’s rules (think how the Pandemic classes bend certain parts of the game). The game smartly allows you to do something with your worst rolls within the hacking sub-game, where you need to match dice to progress. It was difficult for me to put this game down when I started playing it, and I immediately started a second character after finishing my first run. I returned again in December, which considering the density of fall games, speaks very highly of its importance to my year in gaming. I’ve only accessed the DLC but not progressed through it, so I still have more content to enjoy. I really can’t wait to see what this developer does next, because Citizen Sleeper was a revelation.
I played Citizen Sleeper on the Series X via Game Pass, and it's also available on PC, MacOS, and the Nintendo Switch.
1. Elden Ring (Xbox Series X)
The temptation to punt on writing something in this entry was nearly irresistible. I’ve seen a lot of people write “what more is there to say”, and I felt the same thing. The scope and breadth of Elden Ring is almost impossible to fathom; as others have said, it’s as if they wrapped Dark Souls 4 through 6 into a single game. Since this is my game of the year, and one of the best games I’ve ever played, I suppose I should elaborate on why:
: Elden Ring is a testament to the philosophy of “less is more”. Too often have open world games devolved into a smattering of punctuation across a map, leading to the derogatory term “map game”. Elden Ring’s map provides intrigue through what it doesn’t say. Sure, that looks like an island in Liurnia, but is there something there? Is the island itself even there anymore, or did this map get drawn so long ago that there’s no longer any trace of it? Traversal allows you to engage / disengage with enemies at your leisure, but getting surprised by an undead bird mini-boss is always on the table. I really liked getting to a new open area, setting my sights on something, and working my way towards it. I also loved mopping up the Sites of Grace; I made a Notes app entry that was a checklist of every site listed online, then sought them all out after I’d done my initial foray into the area. It’s a satisfying loop that lets you take a From game at your own pace, something that feels unprecedented in the post-Demon's Souls era. Speaking of which…
: There was a lot of debate, to put it generously, around the difficulty of Sekiro. Many people wished they (or others) could experience the game outside of its punishing difficulty, while hardliners wanted to avoid forcing From to compromise its game design. Elden Ring showed their response, and it was what we needed rather than what we thought we wanted. Early on, Margit the Fell gates player progression in classic Souls fashion. However, you can just turn around and explore two enormous areas, gathering runes and player skill while fully enjoying what the game has to offer. You can even bypass this fight altogether to proceed into the next major area. A number of people have realized they don’t need to beat Elden Ring to enjoy the wonderful (and viral) things about it. From allowed this kind of player the space to exist, without adding difficulty sliders or other half-baked ideas. It’s a move that I didn’t expect, and it kept my experience as rich as it would have been in a more punishing design.
: As noted in this site's staff GOTY debates, the ever-increasing size of the map was staggering to behold. The underground area seemed impossibly big in promise, then maybe smaller than I thought, but then larger than expected again at various points in my progression. Getting launched to a new area and watching the world map push its margins further than I ever dreamed was jaw-dropping each time it happened. The environments were incredible, whether it was wandering a golden plain, descending into a city built into a tree, or carefully hopping along ruins suspended in a perpetual tornado. Even the relative repetition of the dungeons was strategic: just when you thought you knew what was coming, the game threw a curveball. As someone who frequently acts as Dungeon / Game Master in tabletop RPGs, I recognized the use of these tools to create bespoke experiences. The dungeon after a dungeon that descends further and further downward, risking death by fall from a great height, until you reach an underground space containing a secret cult? If you wrote off those dungeons, it’s an experience you’ll never have, and you don’t want to miss out on the enormous graveyard of merchants within.
Look at this fucking crab below! I just saw this a couple days ago while looking at a crab in my telescope for basically no reason. I gave the controller to my 3 year-old and she navigated into a corner of Liurnia that I don’t remember seeing for myself the first playthrough. There’s always some detail, some angle of approach, or some item that I just didn’t see in my first game.
Elden Ring was my steady hand of 2022, the game that I could just pop into at any time and run around to the next Site of Grace or clear a small dungeon. It hits a sweet spot of gameplay that is simultaneously relaxing and tense. It can be the perfect podcast game or the object of your full attention. No game, aside from Hades in 2020, has made me feel the way Elden Ring did over the last decade. It’s a triumph in the medium and deserves every accolade it’s received. I’m going to play it again tonight, and you can’t stop me!
I played Elden Ring on the Xbox Series X, and it's available everywhere but the Switch. I think the Switch should really try to run this game, because that would be very funny to me.
Honorable Mentions: Both Metal Hellsinger and Scorn seemed to be fairly divisive, but I enjoyed both of them a lot. The former mostly for its excellent soundtrack (guess I’m a fake metal fan), and the latter thanks to being inextricably tied to the birth of my son… Temtem got a shout in my daughter’s GOTY list, but I enjoyed it more than any Pokemon game since Gold / Silver. I also liked Legends: Arceus a lot, while I’m on the topic… Lastly, Marvel SNAP did the impossible: made me care about a Marvel property. It’s quite possibly the best mobile game I’ve ever played, and in a less crowded year, it would have done better than #11.
Dishonorable Mentions: High on Life felt like such a poorly implemented first-person shooter that I immediately downloaded Doom (2016) again to wash the taste out of my mouth… I already wrote a review for Immortality discussing my dissatisfaction with that game. What I’ll add here is that it was my Most Disappointing nominee, as I really enjoyed my first 90ish minutes but ended up souring on it greatly… The game that I enjoyed the least this year was Trek to Yomi. The combat felt so terrible that it convinced me I just suck at video games… Lastly, a big ol’ fuck you to Activision Blizzard for its predatory microtransactions in Diablo Immortal. That game was fun for a few hours, and then I hit the pay-to-win wall others have reported. I hope they get better under new ownership, but I won’t hold my breath.