My 2018 in Games

Oh 2018, what a tangled and wearisome path you wove. Politics in England continued to circle the drain and is now teetering on the very edge of the plughole. There were dire warnings from scientists about the environment, alongside plenty of examples across the globe. Unfortunately, after the accumulation of several 'annus horribli', it's now not even possible to put this down to a one-off bad year. No, it's a trend, my friends - the result of the previous bad years' even badder decisions. Indeed, if 2018 could be considered the tainted offspring of 2016 and 2017, the poisoned apple has not fallen far from the tree. It might have actually fallen inside the tree. Imagine that.

But it's not all bad. There are other trends. Unicorns appear to have subsided a little as figurehead for all stationary, cards, t-shirts and hats - to be replaced by Llamas, a much more pleasant marketing fad in my opinion, purely on the grounds that they exist. Though they do spit - so don't say I didn't warn you. Also, games! All the games. Another excellent year, where approximately 6 million games were released on around 5 million different service platforms.

I, being only a regular human, only managed to play a few of these, amongst quite a few older games I felt compelled to catch up on. Let's discuss them. Now.

January

Good-old freezing January is traditionally a catch-up month (honestly, they all are, but it feels more poetic to write it this way). I played and completed What Remains of Edith Finch on New Years Day, starting the year with a game about the fantastical account of the deaths of an entire family. That's the spirit! Although a very short experience, and also one which you allows me to use words like 'experience' rather than 'game', I was blown away by the art direction and loved the short and bleak narrative it threaded. The house itself that forms the majority of your wandering is utterly captivating, an extremely detailed and fascinating haunted house experience. I need to stop saying that word. At some point I'll play it again - maybe this New Year's Day. It's a new tradition!

Also in January, I finally completed Final Fantasy X, and made it most of the way through Alan Wake. I'd played through to the end of FFX on the PS2 several times, but never clocked it, so this time I was determined to do so, doing all the side-quests (including dodging 200 lighting bolts for the third time in my ever-diminishing life). Despite that tedium, it was great to see the complete story - people have been kind of hard of FFX, especially with regards to Tidus, that scene, and the VO-work in general. I actually think it's one of the better and more coherent Final Fantasy stories, and certainly one of my favourites. Such was the power of it, that I completely bounced off FFX-2, a game that instantly put me off with its pop sensibilities and level structure. That was filed away for another day. Alan Wake was an interesting one - I've enjoyed Remedy's other games in the past, and this one started off well - if a little hackneyed (possibly intentionally so, considering the theme) - but I found the combat wasn't very engaging and started to drag as the chapters wore on, eventually prompting me to give up. A shame, really.

February - June

I have to smash these months together because I decided now would be a good time to replay The Witcher 3. Yes, that happened. I'd played it on PS4, but hadn't done the expansions, and wanted to see how much I could do. To anyone unfamiliar with the Witcher 3 - it's quite big. So 142 hours and 5 months later it was finally as complete as I was ever going to make it. I love this game, it is right up there amongst the greats of all time, in my humble opinion. The world is terrible, menacing, and utterly beautiful, and the quest narratives almost always interesting regardless of its import to the central story. I particularly loved the Blood and Wine content, the painterly scenery of Toussaint just a pleasure to explore.

I did manage to fit in a few other things around that mammoth task as well. I played through the first season of the Telltale Batman game - which was an interesting take on the whole Batman thing. All the shit that happened around Telltale later this year was awful to hear about, and I'm firmly in the camp that felt they really needed to have found a way to twist their products to keep them interesting. After a great Walking Dead 1st series and The Wolf Among Us, which I liked even more, the magic quickly started to fade for me. This particular game had a few interesting tricks up it's sleeve, but also a lot of the same annoying quirks that was common in their output. I also finished Stardew Valley. When I say finished, I mean I was finished with it, after 90 pleasant hours toiling on my farm. This was also one that had been played sporadically through the previous year and this one, and I think at this point I was ready to send my farm, er... to the farm. It's a magical game - with that same Civ style 'one more turn' thing, except it's "I'll just do one more day, one more day, one... more... oh it's morning and I'm kinda... oh god, I've got to go to real work now".

I completed a few other short things over this period too. Machinarium has been sitting in my Steam library for maybe fifty years or so, and I noticed it and was suddenly compelled to see it through. I used to be a big graphic adventure guy, back when that was the genre, so this was right up my alley, but I'd gotten distracted when I played it before and just stopped. This time I made it through. It's a fun experience, mostly for the graphical style. The puzzles can be a little obtuse, but hey, that's the nature of the beast, isn't it? Also Guacamelee! and 35MM. Talk about your stark contrasts. Guacamelee was a tough reminder that I'm 'too old for this shit', this shit specifically being reaction heavy metroidvanias. The theme was fun, and I got about halfway through, but eventually the combat wore me down and I binned it, cursing my old fingers as I did. I did manage to finish 35MM - that was an interesting game, doing that whole grey, dour, The Road-esque thing, but in a eastern european/russian flavour. Fairly ropey in parts, but it was also kind of captivating, just to see where it went. I wouldn't say it was successful, but it was fascinatingly broken.

July

The summer of gaming. First on the list was the release of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, the free short game released as marketing for Life is Strange 2. As the first game in that series was a big big positive the year it came out, I was really looking forward to more. Captain Spirit gave us a taste of what was to come, a taste I enjoyed. It was also pretty clever in not being directly (as yet) connected to the plot of LiS2. I love what DontNod is doing with these games - bringing it back to Telltale, when I compare the two, this series is so much more narratively satisfying to me than the more recent TT games I had played at the time. I think when LiS was out, the last TT game I had played was the Game of Thrones one, which I found disappointing, so when I got to try Life is Strange, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Plus I'm a sucker for those angsty 'my so called life' trappings it wears. Sorry!

Tokyo Dark was next on the list. Another interesting spin on the adventure format - it was suitable creepy but perhaps not that mechanically interesting. They do some RPG-like things with stats for sanity, professionalism, etc, but in the end it wasn't so engrossing a plot that it was worth the repeat play-through's to see all that actually manifests (I went through it a few times, but it felt like you needed to go through it more). In the end, while not a bad game in any sense, it was a little hollow.

Lastly for July, I decided now would be a good time to replay Deus-Ex: Human Revolution. Well, actually, I wanted to play Mankind Divided for the first time, but couldn't remember the plot to the first game, so that was why (I later discovered the sequel actually gave you a lengthy catch up video - so that was a waste of time). Also, the remastered version was sitting on my account, so I was kind of interested to see how they'd changed those awful boss fights. Turns out the solution was basically add access to turrets/sentries. Go figure. DX-HR is a good game, I can't knock it too hard, and it was fun to replay, actually. It holds up pretty well.

August

This was a month mostly comprised of Deux Ex: Mankind Divided. I played this pretty much straight after completing HR again. It was an interesting experience. Mechanically, I found the second game more fun, the guns and movement felt better to me, and I like that they basically overpowered you pretty much immediately, which had the downside of reducing the challenge, but making you feel like a bad-ass was, I felt, not a bad trade. It was another solid entry to the series, though one which I believe sadly under-performed sales wise. This potentially is annoying, as the game didn't resolve a lot of it's plots and we may not see another one for a while. That would be... a shame.

August seems to have been a busy month for me. I also played through 9 Persons, 9 Doors, 9 Hours, as the first part of the zero escape collection on Steam. I'd gone through this series in a weird order, having played Virtue's Last Reward, it's sequel, on the 3DS first, and then read through the VN version of 999 on iPad. I wanted the complete experience, so I bought the newer steam version and this was infinitely superior to the Tablet version. I love this series and it's convoluted time bending/science butchering premise, so it was good to go through it again. I'm hoping to find time to go through VLR again this coming year, and then finally play Zero Time Dilemma to conclude the series. I recommend the first two games thoroughly. Also on the menu was Kathy Rain, another Point and Click. This was solid, not too many stupid puzzles and a charming lead character. It reminded me a lot of the first Gabriel Knight game, which I consider a good thing. Lastly for the month was AER Memories of Old - which has an very enjoyable flight mechanic coupled to very light 3D platforming and one of those mythological, kind-of environmental stories that usually drive me up the wall. I like plots, and while visually interesting, it didn't ultimately do very much for me. I did like flapping my wings though. I liked it a lot.

September

In September I had room for just one game. Monster. Hunter. World. I had actually played it a bit on PS4, but the PC release was what I was really interested in. It was my first Monster Hunter game, and I fell for it big time. It's strange - it's an awfully repetitive game, and the plot is basically awful, really - though some of the dialog is very amusing, in an EDF kind of way. But that core loop. What a loop that is if it gets you. Besting those monsters and your weapon of choice is just plain satisfying. I've killed Odogaron I do not know how many times, and I've never stopped enjoying the frantic positional ballet that emerges during those fights. It is a really good game, if you can put up with the surface oddities which, by all accounts, are much less pronounced than in previous instalments.

October

This month saw the completion of Sniper Elite V4. I'd been playing it in co-op through the campaign over the year, just doing a level every so often, and we finally beat it. This was my first SE game, and I liked it quite a bit. The sniping was fun, though the enemies a bit dumb and generally quite an easy game. The levels were so big though it was fun to just make your way through them, slowly removing them of their hapless NPC enemy soldiers. The only other game I finished that month was Subsurface Circular. This was really interesting. The game takes place entirely on a circular tube-line, with you as a static robot detective trying to unravel a crime. The entire game is conversation trees, but remained interesting and left me thinking once it's short play time was complete. It left a lasting impression, which, while not always a good thing, in this case definitively was.

November

Part of the reason the previous few months were so thin was that I was also working my way through another long game. Divinity: Original Sin 2 was finally completed towards the end of November. What a beast of a game that was! I have conflicting opinions on this series, and this game. D:OS2 was better, I think, than the first game, but had similar difficulty spikes which were annoying and eventually led me to turning the difficulty down. But I also feel there's a tipping point where you become more powerful and then the encounters can become, if anything, too easy. So, balance isn't quite there. The story was good, and the characters you play alongside (or as) also very interesting. The developers are very keen to work with a 'shades of grey' philosophy where no one is truly evil or good, and that makes for interesting stories. However, I found there was a downside to this moral greyness, which was that it isn't always that clear whether a choice you make is going to come back and bite you in the arse, or not work in a way that you could have worked out. I find those sorts of story curve-balls work when used relatively sparingly - but in Divinity there are so many options and outcomes that it becomes very hard to pick out the one you want to head towards. I found myself freezing during story branches out of dread fear of choosing an option that would suddenly turn my generally 'nice guy' hero into a species murdering sociopath. Freedom truly can be it's own prison. Despite my crippling narrative anxiety, it's still a really good game, and really fascinating design.

I also managed to play through and complete The Return of the Obra Dinn. This was great, and is still relatively fresh in my mind. I completed it over two days. You're an insurance agent with a mysterious watch with ability to see the last moment of a person's death - a very useful trinket that I wasn't aware was part of the job but hey-ho. Armed with aforementioned vignette creator you're plonked on a deserted ship and tasked with identifying what happened to all on board. What follows is a really interesting visual logic puzzle game. I love a game which makes you crack out the paper and pen, and this did that, plus came with it's own virtual book to scroll through, so bonus points for that. The mechanic is flexible enough not to frustrate too much, and visually it's fantastic to wander around in.

December

The last month, just time to get in a few more games before we reset and go again! For me December was time to complete Forgotton Anne, a gorgeous 2D platformer evoking Studio Gibli animation, and to be honest, themes as well. Unfortunately, the actual platforming in the game isn't great, and the story, while interesting in places, can dull in places. Like Tokyo Dark, it encourages multiple play-through's but didn't do quite enough to encourage me to want to go through it again. It's a strikingly beautiful game though. Finally, I completed World to the West. I hadn't known much about this one before starting it, so it was a surprise to be faced with a Zelda-style adventure game. It made me wonder why we haven't seen more to them, to be honest. I found World to the West to be entirely charming in it's design, with very funny writing and interesting mechanics. Giving you multiple characters with different skills was a cool idea, but ultimately I didn't feel it was used to it's potential, essentially cross interaction was reduced to blowing up rocks blocking paths for other characters. It would have been good to them affecting each other more dynamically or creatively. It was a nice surprise to end the year with those.

So all-in-all a good year, I think. I certainly played more than I thought I would manage, and dipped into a few others as well, though perhaps not as thoroughly. My favourite game this year has to be The Return of the Obra Dinn - it's was just an excellent realised complete game, thematically consistent with an engaging mechanic that I got completely lost in for a few days. But generally speaking, there were few games I was totally disappointed in over 2018, so I won't be complaining on that front. Next year, I'm looking forward to completing Life is Strange 2, trying to get through the rest of Zero Escape and a few more Final Fantasy games, including going on tour with the boys of FF15.

Have a good christmas everyone, and a happy new year!

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