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GOTY 2018

This is meant to be a companion piece for the awards blog I usually create, but I'm running a little behind with that so I'm tossing this list up early. This is not a final definitive ranking, as I intend to keep playing the many excellent games released this year in 2019 and beyond, but at least currently serves as ten games I would happily recommend to people (for the most part). This is assuming they don't have all the same hang-ups and weird neuroses about specific games on this list that I do, and are simply looking for ideas on worthwhile ways to spend their time.

Look forward to a more comprehensive (though still limited to ten games from 2018, since that's all I played) blog on 2018 when I start giving out awards with little cartoon people, as is the tradition around these parts.

(The aforementioned awards blog, fashionably late.)

List items

  • The sequel to my 2015 GOTY was always in with a great chance of taking home the coveted #1 spot again, but what I didn't anticipate was how much more Obsidian managed to do with their nostalgic Infinity Engine throwback. The first game tossed out almost everything D&D related, from the Forgotten Realms license down to the ruleset, and created a world from scratch with its own bespoke combat and character development mechanics. Deadfire fine-tunes that process even further; Obsidian clearly realizing that they could do anything they want to improve the engine without waiting for Wizards of the Coast to push out some new "E" in the meantime.

    As such, Deadfire not only improves a lot of extant mechanics - such as the way they reshaped the health system to regenerate after every battle, but still leave some severe scars for those knocked unconscious that only a full rest would cure, so as to retain some degree of peril and stakes - but also shifts the action to a much more imaginative part of its world. The titular archipelago of Deadfire is one drawn from both Polynesian and Caribbean cultures, with various factions representing real-world oppressors like the Spanish Armada or the Japanese Empire. Even smarter was how Obsidian worked with the budget they had to deliver its content in a myriad number of ways with variable levels of resources required, turning a number of lesser side-quests and ocean exploration into "choose your own adventure"-style book sequences that allowed for a rich level of role-play and narrative delivery without the necessity of building each of these locations with the top-down engine, while still retaining plenty of the latter for those eager to explore and fight their way through dungeons - both story-critical and optional - in the traditional Baldur's Gate/Icewind Dale style. The ship-to-ship combat, for instance, is depicted entirely through text: rather than losing the wonder and chaos of these battles, your perspective from the captain's chair gives you the full scope of what's going on and makes it easier to direct your assault besides. When it does let you explore as a party on-foot, it's one of the best looking RPGs I've ever seen, though not in a way that is likely to overwhelm any weaker platform you try to run it on.

    Sometimes a throwback is just a throwback: something that cheers you up because it means there are developers out there that care about the same weird antiquated shit you do. There are those rare occasions, however, where the throwback manages to forge ahead and break out of the era they're invoking to present an alternative evolutionary path of which we were robbed as games inevitably steered towards different perspectives and engines. A great RPG like Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire ably demonstrates that it's the content and mechanics that matter, regardless of whatever era's presentation you use to frame them.

  • There was a time not too long ago where I would anticipate every Level-5 RPG with bated breath. Since the PS2 era, though, they've been so spread out between Layton, Yo-Kai Watch, and Inazuma Eleven that the few big RPGs they do put out tend to be compromised in some way, usually because they drag too much. The first Ni no Kuni, for instance, was an ambitious game with a high-budget presentation to die for (Studio Ghibli! A real orchestra!) that suffered from pacing problems and an unappealing, grindy monster-raising aspect to its combat.

    What Ni no Kuni II does is fully realize the potential of the first by retaining everything that was worth saving - the presentation, the excellent voice-overs, the whimsical setting - and starting over from scratch with everything else. The monster-raising mechanics have been greatly reduced, with the cute new elemental-spirit Higgledies instead providing more of a supporting role in battle. Much of the simulation aspect has been moved to the kingdom of Evermore - the player's home base and ever-growing kingdom, which can you continue to populate by meeting talented citizens in need and helping them solve their problems. There are also the skirmishes, which has players take part in mid-scale real-time battles which are contingent on mastering a rock-paper-scissors approach to unit types.

    Revenant Kingdom handles all these systems and game modes with aplomb, and is the closest Level-5 has been to returning to their PS2 golden era of Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII, and Rogue Galaxy, all of which broke up their dungeon-crawling with any number of compelling diversions. Best of all, Revenant Kingdom even works as a spiritual successor to Konami's defunct Suikoden franchise, combining that game's emphasis on small character moments with a large number of recruitable NPCs and big battles with only a mild difficulty curve for those, like me, who are less tactically-inclined. While a little bit on the easy side overall, and very prone to detours and side-questing which might not be to everyone's liking, it's a superlative RPG and a relentlessly positive experience that seeks to find the goodness in all people. It's easily the most pleased I've been with Level-5 for a long time.

  • If you know me and my predilection for spacewhippers, which is so strong that I invented my own goofy term for them, you may also know that with the sheer number of games of that very specific model coming from the Indie space I'm likely to gravitate towards anything that bucks the trend. Yoku's big idea is to combine the usual open-world and progress-enabling power-ups of spacewhippers with sections that resemble pinball tables. With enough skill you can manipulate the flippers to get to wherever you need to go, but there are plenty more rewards and collectibles to be found by making more challenging shots or taking the time to figure out the tricks and secrets behind a particular table.

    I've never been a huge aficionado of pinball, and to its credit the game never makes the more pinball-heavy areas of the game too difficult or demanding for the non-Tommys in the audience. It's a game that rarely punishes bad gameplay with death or severe hindrances, and the speed at which you can navigate the world mitigates a lot of the annoyance of backtracking, which tends to be common in games of this type. As with Ni no Kuni II, it's also a perpetually chipper experience that combines cool island vibes with a certain sense of goofy fun, via both its eccentric soundtrack and Rayman-esque visuals. I know a lot of Indie fans despair of the preponderence of spacewhippers, but I can always rely on them to be somewhat entertaining, and Yoku's is far and away my favorite of this year's batch (though I've still got Timespinner and Death's Gambit to check out).

  • (This entry is specifically for Jazztronauts, the Garry's Mod add-on.)

    Jazztronauts is the game I never knew that I'd always wanted. A game that is bolted together by a handful of original assets - a group of cat thieves and the interdimensional bar they call home - and a lot of licensed jazz music, that instead derives its content by borrowing from the many user-created maps available via the Garry's Mod program, which is also required to play Jazztronauts in the first place.

    What you have with Jazztronauts is an almost sardonic and disdainful but still ultimately appreciative love letter to the creativity and imagination of the Garry's Mod userbase, as the player and as many companions as they can wrangle take to different randomly-determined maps - some built to be replicas of locations both fictional and real from multiple media, while others are purposed for a role-play chat environment, tense deathmatches, co-operative multiplayer games, or just elaborate shitposting - and then steal all the "props" (objects placed in a scene from GMod's library), find all the arbitrarily distributed "shards", and then am-scray by summoning a tram that comes crashing through whichever wall you point at. The value of the props are tallied up, players buy new upgrades with their cut of the profits, and maybe they hang out with one of the four cat NPCs for some exceptionally well-written comedic skits.

    Jazztronauts is truly one of those games that I can't stop playing, simply because the number of discoveries you can make never seems to cease. There always seems to be new fetch quest targets to look out for, new maps to plunder, and new ways to explore each environment more efficiently (or by breaking them wide open) with the upgrades you keep buying. Its shelf life will run out eventually, but I'm inclined to keep playing it well into the new year.

  • Ten years after completing the first Valkyria Chronicles, I was more than ready to jump back into anime WW2 ("senpai will not grow old"). While VC4 is very iterative, there have been ten years and three sequels' worth of new ideas and tweaks to the successful formula of the original, and not a single new feature feels out of place. Whether they're side-stories that focus on the more disposable members of your squad, or they're a range of extremely helpful new orders, or they're the APC and grenadier units which add a great deal of utility to the battlefield (and in the latter's case, a devastating one when used against you), they do nothing to disturb the careful balance of caution and recklessness needed to complete its stages with both a high rank and with as few casualties as is manageable.

    Add to this a suspenseful story full of wartime tropes like betrayal, loss, courage, and resolve, and the further deepening of the connections between this World War 2 and our own with the emergence of city-levelling bombs, as well as the considerably more fantastical exploits of the titular "valkyria" - an ancient race of superhuman female warriors who aren't nearly as extinct as anyone seems to think, given every VC game introduces a brand new one to the same conflict.

    What I appreciate most about this game is that, while there are definitely ways to mitigate its difficulty, it's not one to ever pull its punches. You have to earn every victory, as the game endeavors to work against you with last-minute surprises and a fog of war that makes it difficult to know exactly what you're tangling with and who you should bring with you into the scrap. I had to tackle this game methodically to get the best results, and it's rare - and complimentary - that I get invested in a game that tests my patience like that.

  • I spoke earlier in the Yoku's Island Express entry about how, for a new spacewhipper to really grab me, it not only has to be a good game of its type but also needs to bring a certain x-factor to the table, preferably one I've not seen before. With Iconoclasts, it's an absolutely bonkers story that's one of the most elaborate I've seen in a 2D action game. There's twists, there's revelations, there's a heck of a lot of lore to digest before you understand what's going on, and there are definitely a lot of "oh shit" moments peppered throughout. I grew to sympathize with almost everyone, though some characters took longer than others and certain villains came and went without ever seeing a redemptive moment, and all this from an otherwise standard spacewhipper experience.

    A lot of the time, deep narratives don't work in games like this because the backtracking throws off the pacing. I commend Iconoclasts for taking a chance with it and going the distance, even if I was the type of player to ignore where I needed to go for the sake of a suddenly attainable upgrade a dozen screens away in the opposite direction. Speaking of which, the game invented this clever touch of equipping power-ups that go temporarily offline once you take damage and can only be restored by giving as good as you got. If you play well, you can keep all your best power-ups and finish a fight in moments. If you're struggling, you won't immediately die (unless you have the one-hit kill mode enabled), but you won't have as many passive abilities to fall back on. The combat, meanwhile, is every bit as chaotic and pulse-pounding as developer Konjak's earlier Noitu Love shooters, with some lively bosses and a few tricky action sequences. It is, by most metrics, a typical game of its type, but the balance of frantic action and deep lore makes it a little more eccentric and appealing than average.

  • Built around a single small idea - what if you only had a minute to save yourself and maybe the world - that its developer, Dutch masters Vlambeer, figured out how to build an entire game around. Wearing its Legend of Zelda influences on its sleeve, Minit's duck-billed hero is given a tiny amount of time to explore their surroundings and figure out how to progress to the next objective before croaking and waking up back home. However, the player does keep their progress after every one of these minute-long lifetimes, slowly building a mental map of their surroundings and working through puzzles by making plans for subsequent resets.

    While you'd expect to be hurried by the minute-long timer, it instead only serves as a minor inconvenience. Rather, your brain is kicked into gear as you continue to devise ways to make the best use of your time with the information you've gathered. Now that you know that there's an item to the west that a guy to the north needs, you can start your next "life" heading directly to the two locations you need to go, receiving a reward that unlocks some other route that was blocked to you earlier. Thus, you continue to bounce between "fact-finding" runs and "getting shit done" runs until the game eventually ends. It's short, but perfectly calibrated, exploiting every single angle and idea possible with its central conceit, and bowing out gracefully well before it's worn out its welcome.

  • There's certainly a lot I like about The Messenger, not least of which is the way it controls. It feels like a continuation of last year's Shovel Knight add-on campaign, Specter of Torment, in that it gives its hero a lot of verticality by allowing the player to extend their jumps by hitting targets on the way up, or using devices to cross gaps and otherwise move around quicker. Once you have a handle on these mechanics, you're flitting across each screen at the speed of sound with a mix of jumps, slashes, wall-climbing, and slow glides. I also appreciated the game's music, which is fully couched in the finite sound capabilities of the NES and Sega Mega Drive consoles with each level's theme having a mix in both styles, and that the game had a perfect balance of difficulty - some tough bosses and tougher (though usually optional) platforming sequences, especially towards the end of the game, but nothing that couldn't be conquered with enough time and patience.

    However, what drops this down from mid-table to near the bottom of this year's top ten list is the obnoxious writing and personality of the game. Back when I reviewed it I spoke about how it had the cadence of a sneering masocore game that enjoyed deriving pleasure from the player's suffering - the exact reverse of the next game on this list, which had objectionable level design but a huge, beating heart behind its empathetic script. The shopkeeper routinely rags on you, you're treated like dirt by almost every other NPC (besides, oddly, the bosses once you've defeated them), and a tiny crappy demonic imp hits you with a "hilarious" quip every time you die and then hangs around to sponge money off you until he gets bored and mercifully blips out of existence. None of this adds to the game's charm, humor, or appeal, and exists as a personality black hole for an otherwise likeable game. Sometimes missteps are big enough to sink a game: that wasn't quite the case here (a lot of that dialogue can be skipped after all, and you're not usually playing an action game this fluid for the rich story, Iconoclasts perhaps excepted) but it did grind my gears and lowered it in my estimations all the same.

  • Likewise, there's a lot about Celeste that is objectively wonderful. As a sufferer of various forms of anxiety and depression, its central story of learning to get along with the part of yourself that wants you to fail is very insightful, and its narrative turns even hipster doofs like Theo into sympathetic, relatable characters that you root for. There's definitely something about the millennial's generation on display here: hopelessly selfish, hopelessly self-obsessed, but generally good-natured people who would go out of their way to protect those vulnerable or different from those that might predate them, frequently looking to others for support and supporting them in turn. Likewise, Lena Raine's chiptune soundtrack, despite sounding like a collection of bleeps and bloops to anyone not inclined towards that type of music, has this uncanny knack of cutting to the emotion of the current scene and establishing each region's idiosyncratic personality. The eponymount (see what I did there?) is a hazardous place, but also one with a lot of secrets and well-buried beauty to observe, and Celeste is all about digging deep for something amazing inside even while you spend the whole time ascending ever upwards.

    And yet. Despite the gameplay, which like The Messenger is super smooth and really emphasizes your time spent in the air with double-jumps and wall-climbing, and despite the presentation outlined above, Celeste is still - by its nature - a masocore platformer that expects you to fail, over and over, on each of its single-screen nightmares. Like Super Meat Boy and countless others, it's all about figuring out the correct chain and timing of jumps and maneuvers and executing on them perfectly, moving onto the next set of timing-contingent leaps and hops. It becomes draining after a while, and you'll naturally hit a skill wall before too long. To mitigate this the game has an "assist mode" which can alleviate some or all of the game's challenge with what are essentially cheats, but hitting that point is equivalent to admitting defeat and you'll either hit that point eventually - either during the game's story or during the obscenely hard "B-Side" versions of the levels that come after, unless you're some of savant or really obstinate - and feel like dirt when you finally break that seal. Either that or you quit early, defeated, out of pride.

    There's joy and comfort to be had in the telling of Celeste's tale, and about learning to love yourself and coming to terms with the bete noire deep inside that insists you're no good to anyone, but that optimism is soon quashed by the game itself - even if you do make it up to that summit and beyond to the game's "B-Sides", you'll eventually hit an impassable barrier and with it the dawning despair that you'll never be quite good enough, and maybe you deserve to fail after all.

  • I'm still not sure if Deltarune (a.k.a. SURVEY_PROGRAM.exe) is a real thing that happened or some weird malware I inadvertently downloaded because Toby Fox told me to. Based largely on his highly popular game Undertale, it seems to shake up the foundations of that game - reuniting with different versions of Alphys and Toriel, treating your opponents with kindness and empathy, dodging their attacks until they finally decide to play nice - within a world that feels familiar, but is really just preying on that warm fuzzy sense of belonging that Undertale left us all with for new twists and surprises. The RPG mechanics are improved, there's certain wrinkles like the obnoxious but misunderstood bully Susie that you have to work around, and a sense that your history with Undertale is working against you as Toby Fox works his subversive magic for a second time. Deltarune isn't quite a full game yet - it was released as a free playable prologue, something akin to what happened to The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, which would've taken this slot in an alternative universe - but what's here is very promising for Fox's future efforts, whether he intends to expand Deltarune out into a much larger game or opts to follow an entirely different path.