GOTY 2018

Hey! We survived another year! And despite everything else, 2018 was another great year for games, with plenty that I enjoyed; certainly more than the 10 on this list. That said, I also noticed a pair of big shifts for me this year, and it’s hard to parse whether they have more to do with me, or where video games are at right now. Probably some of both. First, as you’ll see on this list, I didn’t get super into many "big" games in 2018. And that’s not because I didn’t play them; rather, I felt like most of them were some combination of very safe sequels, too reliant on standard design, or bigger and more repetitive than they needed to be. In other words, I found myself getting bored with them. Thus, I found a lot of joy in 2018 from games that were smaller in scope, and presented more cohesive and/or novel design.

Second, I found myself just wanting to play games in 2018. Games that got out of their own way and encouraged me to think, interact, and participate meaningfully. This has been a longer trend for myself, and I think 2018 became the tipping point where I got exasperated with games where the focus was elsewhere. These are all subjective measures of course, but I found myself really engaged with games that presented complex systems, holistic experiences, and/or fun challenges to overcome. Games that let me play.

Put those together, and I wind up with a lot of smaller and/or more mechanics focused games on this list. It turns out that 2018 was a good year for those. So with all of that said, here are my 10 favorite video games I played in 2018. Thanks for reading!

List items

  • Into the Breach takes the things I love most about strategy, puzzle, and run-based games, tosses what I don’t like, and then combines and distills what’s left down into its purest essence. This is an incredibly smart and elegant game where nothing is wasted. Each turn presents you with a focused set of variables to consider, with the magic being that every one of them feels important; every decision could mean the difference between life and death. Then there are so many permutations of how the board can play out that you can encounter new patterns for seemingly forever; each new set of mechs and weapons almost feels like playing a different game. I played Into the Breach for close to 100 hours over the course of the year, and it continues to pose new, interesting problems I'm not tired of solving. And so many of those solutions turn into great stories, full of exciting moments of triumph and disaster. It’s a beautiful game.

    I could talk at length about all the little design details that make all that possible. Such as how you have almost perfect information and little randomness, or how slick the UI is at conveying all that information, or how manipulating the board is just as important as dealing damage, or how the enemy and map variety cleverly explore every mechanical angle, or how its simple rules make it easy to learn yet are still robust enough to provide seemingly limitless depth. And maybe someday I will write about those details. But for now, know that I think Into the Breach is a masterclass in game design. It executes on its idea flawlessly, and is a game I genuinely loved playing and thinking about all year. As time goes on it becomes increasingly rare for new games to legitimately compete for the honor of “my favorite game.” This is not something I say lightly, but Into the Breach is one of those rare gems. No surprise then, that it’s easily the best game I played in 2018.

  • I had only dipped my toes into Monster Hunter prior to 2018, but World pulled me all the way in. While there’s still room for improvement, its quality of life changes allow it to sharpen the focus on what it does best: setting up epic encounters between you and dozens of large, exciting monsters. It’s hard to stress just how much fun I've had in these fights, thanks to the intricate weapons that are fun to learn, responsive controls, and the variety of the monsters themselves. And there’s a satisfying loop to the whole thing that's nearly as fun as the central fights: preparing for a hunt, going out and executing the hunt, and then using the parts obtained from that hunt to craft new gear. And while connecting with others online is still a certain kind of nightmare, going on group hunts is a blast. Monster Hunter: World was my social game this year, and one I got a ton of enjoyment from on multiple fronts.

  • Subnautica elicited the most “wow” moments of any game for me this year. For as tired as I got of the inventory management, or just having to make water all the damn time, my stay on Planet 4546B was an unforgettable adventure. I’ve never been one for survival games either, but there’s a smartly designed progression here that hooked me. I loved seeing all the crazy gear I could make, and I also loved seeing all the crazy shit out in the world. It had a real sense of mystery and wonder that games rarely do, and as I explored I began to feel like I belonged in this foreign place. I learned its ins and outs, and how to survive and coexist; I became a part of this planet, and it a part of me. So when I finally left, it was a powerful, bittersweet moment, the kind that only a game could produce.

  • Like Papers, Please before it, Return of the Obra Dinn turns a seemingly rote job into a fascinating affair. My investigation of the titular Obra Dinn as an insurance adjuster was filled with mystery, dread, and genuine surprise, and the process of piecing together exactly what the hell happened on this boat proved mesmerizing. That’s not only because the tale itself is wild, but also due to some incredibly smart design ideas. Sleuthing out how everyone died is a complicated web where you have to pay attention to every little detail, and I had a blast making those connections and solving this large, unique puzzle. Also, Return of the Obra Dinn looks and sounds absolutely incredible. Playing detective has never been this good.

  • I have a confession to make: I’ve never loved either Tetris or Lumines. The former was always too dry, and the latter was never an interesting puzzle game to me. But I’ve always respected things about both, and Tetris Effect takes those good parts and combines it all in a way that elevates it well above its source material. Wrapping the aesthetic pleasures of Lumines around the time-tested gameplay of Tetris makes for a borderline transcendent experience, as the incredible soundtrack and gorgeous artwork dance and respond to your every move. It’s a profound sensory journey that ties every part of the package together, and it honestly makes me wonder why more video games can’t be this comprehensive in the ways they involve the player.

  • Celeste has a lot going for it. First, it is an incredibly tight platformer, with super responsive controls and intelligent level design punctuating every moment of play. Second, it offers a lot of options that allow players of any skill level to enjoy it, from smart accessibility toggles up to incredibly tough additional challenges. Third, it tells a wonderful tale about confronting your own inner illnesses, and then accepting and living with them productively. Most meaningful to me is how it all ties together. Celeste’s themes cross fluidly between the explicit narrative and the game design itself, resulting in a holistic artistic expression that hit me pretty hard in spots. The charming art and beautiful soundtrack then wrapped it all up beautifully.

  • Curse of the Moon may not be Castlevania in name, but this obvious throwback expertly taps into what made those games great. It controls extremely well, showcases lots of fun levels and enemies, and has style for days, thanks to its moody artwork and rippin' soundtrack. In its execution, Curse of the Moon nails the classic formula, and then adds a layer of polish and some new twists of its own to make it a superb and modern action game. I even played through it multiple times thanks to some clever alternate unlockable modes, and when I was finally done it inspired me to go back to some of the older Castlevania games themselves. I spent a lot of time with the franchise during the course of 2018, and it’s all Curse of the Moon’s fault.

  • IO Interactive can enjoy a well-earned victory lap with Hitman 2. While this sequel may be predominantly “more Hitman,” that game was so unique and so good that a second outing is more than welcome. In fact, the maps here may be even bigger and more creative than before; there’s a real confidence on display this go around. But I most like Hitman 2 for what it already was. Learning the ins and outs of each clockwork level remains a highly satisfying process, and provides a great playground for you to murder in all sorts of ridiculous and entertaining ways. It’s a really smart game, with clear rules and countless exciting ways to interact and play. And I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the best comedy games I’ve ever played. Just, really great stuff.

  • I didn’t play the landmark PC shooters of the 90s, and thus don’t have the nostalgia I thought I would need to appreciate Dusk. It turns out I don’t need it: Dusk pays homage to a classic style of game, but updates it to work in a modern context. It has highly creative level design, super fun weapons and powerups, a totally rad soundtrack, and some of the smoothest, most precise controls I’ve felt in a FPS. It also subverts expectations more than enough to create its own identity, and the result is a smart, fast-paced, high quality shooter that’s a blast from start to finish. Dusk pulls off the magic trick of being what all of those 20 year old games feel like in our memories, even though the reality is they almost certainly don’t hold up nearly this well.

  • The end has come. For these characters, this world, and my journey with them. It’s been a memorable journey over the past four years, and The Banner Saga 3 wraps up the trilogy in epic fashion. It leverages the buildup from the previous games, as well as your choices all along the way, to produce many impactful and shocking moments. Nothing is off limits for the finale, and I especially appreciate how the final moments honor the tone of the series; it would have been easy to concoct a happy, “save the day” type of ending. But The Banner Saga is more real than that, and thus more real than most video game narratives. I still generally like the combat too, and the music and art remain wonderful. Oh, and fuck Rugga.

7 Comments

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amlabella

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amlabella • 

Great list! It's crazy how much your first two paragraphs describe my year with games as well. I was less enamored with the Red Deads and God of Wars of the world and preferred a lot of smaller, more focused projects. And I also gravitated towards a lot of games where the mechanics and the way you play are the main hook, they just appeal to me more and more with each passing year.

Happy to see Bloodstained on this list, it wasn't on mine but it was close. It felt like playing a modern Castlevania III and that's rad. And I'm looking forward to finally trying out Hitman 2, I bought it on sale for $30 on PSN last night.

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MajorMitch

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MajorMitch • 

@amlabella: Thanks! 2018 was certainly a different journey for me with games, as I kept shrugging at the "big" and "popular" games that got so much love, which has not always been true for me. But the good part of where games are at right now is that there's something for everyone. Including those like me who seem to get more and more focused on system-driven games every year.

Bloodstained IS rad! I think the game didn't get enough credit for being a modern Castlevania III. Yes, it's similar, but makes appropriate changes I think to work in 2018. Hope you enjoy Hitman 2! :)

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Slag

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Slag • 

Second, I found myself just wanting to play games in 2018.

Heh, I feel like that's what happens when you reach a certain age. Your patience for fluff and filler drops a ton. Otoh Microtransactions and advertismentss only up the BS factor of AAA games these days, so it's not just you.

I find myself gravitating back towards 2d platformers more often than in recent years and such a lot these days because they tend to lack such filler. Also no Daily Quests or push notifications with the oldies. :)

Nice list Mitch! I think the only real surprise I saw on your list this year was Subnautica. If you told me earlier this year that Into the Breach was going to be your GotY, I'd probably would have said "yah that sounds like what he'd like best" :). But underwater Sea exploration wouldn't have been one.

Sounds like I need to give Bloodstained a chance when I can. What you described is a lot different than I expected (figured it'd be more Igivania style)

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MajorMitch

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MajorMitch • 

@slag: Thanks Slag! Maybe I am just getting old and cranky now, haha. Or maybe I feel like all the other fluff hasn't adapted well and kept up with the times, who knows. I just know how I felt about playing games in 2018, and it seems like a number of folks felt a similar way.

The big casualties were definitely games with a lot of filler, like God of War and Spider-Man, which sat just off my list (I wrote an expanded rankings like previous years). Games like Bloodstained, which are very much no filler, grabbed me more. I think that one is worth a shot for sure, especially if you like the older pre-SOTN Castlevania games to any degree. This Bloodstained (ie, Curse of the Moon) is very much Castlevania III inspired. The SOTN style one is coming this year. But I liked Curse of the Moon a lot!

Subnautica caught me off guard too! I've never liked "survival" games (not that I've tried many), but something about Subnautica looked different, and worth a shot. I think having a clear end goal, as well as a smooth progression, helped me a lot. And it was just a really cool world to explore. Sometimes trying new things pays off :)

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Slag

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Slag • 

@majormitch:

hunh wonder if the quote function is broken in the new GB. What I quoted of your intro doesn't look like a quote on mine and yet when I go to edit it, it looks correct. :(

Fwiw as a gamer who is almost certainly at least a touch older than you, I can tell you I hit the feeling you described back in the late PS2 era for the first time. That's when the right (or really wrong) mix of increasing number of interesting titles to play, said titles grow considerably in length in part due to the popularization of Open World games brought on by GTA III and I had started to have less time on the personal side of things hit. Unfortunately back then there really wasn't a whole lot of action only games like Indies etc provide now, so I just started gaming less.

So I guess I am saying it's probably at least partially you haha. Don't think it's necessarily age but probably just the fact you've played a lot of stuff now at this point in your life. You crank through 25-50 games every year in the 6-7 years I've known you. That's seein a lot of stuff man. The more you play the harder it is to get "wowed" by new stuff as new games tend to be iterative anyway and you notice the seams/wasted time more especially if you have less time to play. I think has happened to Jeff Gerstmann too if you look at his lists in recent years, not many big huge timesink games on there lately.

on the flipside of this, don't know if you observed the same phenomenon, the most effusive praise I witnessed for Spiderman generally came from gamers I know are quite a bit younger than me (gamers in the early-mid 20's). My guess is it probably feels fresher to someone who hasn't played 8 zillion open world games than it did to me. What I've played of it is ~4 star game for me. Similar take on it to yours, but maybe liked it a touch better than you did since I thought the story bits were excellent. It's a really good game but it certainly wouldn't be a system seller for me like it clearly was for Sony.

"clear end goal" is exactly what I needed to hear about Subnautica. Maybe I'll boot that up soonish since I got it off Epic game store for free.

btw just read through your "rest of" blog that you mentioned which somehow I missed (are notifications busted again on GB?). There definitely seems to be a theme of you wanting to see something new or at least different. Well if you are hankering for that in a metroidvania, Iconoclasts is definitely a bit unique compared to most 2d MVs these days. Whether you'll like it or not I can't say, but at least it won't be something that like SMBU etc that you feel you've played this exact game 80 times.

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MajorMitch

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MajorMitch • 

@slag: I think you're right about some features being spotty right now, like quoting and notifications. I've had trouble with those, and also with some spoiler block stuff...

Yeah, I'm 32 right now, and I'm sure part of all this is me, like you say. I've played a lot of games, and seen a lot of stuff at this point. So when I play games that are very similar to things I've played a lot before, even if they are executed well, it can be hard to appreciate them as much. Doing something new, or noticeably better, than what I've played before goes a long way for me. I know time is another factor in some cases, because I do have less gaming time now than ever before. I have some games like Into the Breach where I will spend 100 hours playing, and still want to play more. But then other games like Spider-Man where I get bored 15 hours in, and just want to see the story through, despite recognizing it as a very well made game of that type (and almost all AAA games are just long now). Maybe it just means I've gotten to a point where I can more quickly identify what I like, and what I want to spend more time on.

I've had my eye on Iconoclasts since it came out, and just haven't gotten around to it. I have it via PS+ now, the pros of waiting, haha. So I might check it out sometime!

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Slag

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Slag • 

@majormitch:

I know what you mean.

I don't consider myself an impatient gamer (I'm perfectly willing to perch up in PUBg for 20+ minutes if I have a good Sniping position) but I feel like I can see when a game is just handing me busy work. I feel open World games are basically the prettiest interactive loading screen in gaming at times if the implantation is too lazy (like in a FarCry game). Maybe that's what you see as well.

I have even less patience for what I call "loot treadmill" games like Destiny 2 , the part of those games people seem to like the best (post game loot grind) seems like an extraordinary waste of time to me.

hah you aren't kidding. There are free games to be had everywhere it seems these days. It gets harder and harder to justify buying games new every year.

Wouldn't shock me if within 5 years are all our games are basically acquired through Game Pass type services (which PS+ and Xbox Gold basically are/were precursors of)