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The best of what I played in '18

I almost feel like this list should be split into two halves - the games I played before June and a mild heart attack I went through, and the latter half of the year when I just didn't play much apart from Minecraft until December, when all of a sudden my games addiction hit me again in full force. It's strange - I spent much of the year miserable in one way or another, but I'm coming out of December swinging in a hard way. It's a good feeling to end 2018 on a high note, so let's have some fun with this list.

Keep in mind I rarely, if ever, play enough games from a current year to make a best of the year list, so this is just a rough ranking of the best of what I played. I'm really looking forward to getting caught up on some of 2018's biggest hits next year sometime. On to the list!

List items

  • This is a special mention, since I usually don't feature games I've played before. But after my heart attack, my brother wanted to play something regularly online together, something that means the world to me as I've lived my life being a bit of an asshole to him and have ruined a lot of our multiplayer experiences together because I'm a dickhead with a temper. We've been working on building a variety of silly things, bullshitting, playing with friends new and old. It's been a great experience, one of the best of the year, and I wanted to mention it here because it's the only gaming moment this year to me that really mattered.

    Love you bud. Glad we're both around to throw eggs at each other.

  • This isn't just one of the best JRPGs I played this year, but stands tall as one of the best JRPGs I've played, period. The first Trails in the Sky was mostly fine. It laid a good groundwork and created a surprisingly complex and frustrated relationship between its two leads, one of whom was an adopted brother of sorts, which led to a lot of wringing of hands when it came to their attraction to each other. That relationship is played surprisingly straight despite the anime trappings, and SC takes the ball and rolls with it by giving the lead role to the young woman figuring out her feelings for someone she only is now allowing herself to truly love. It's an absolutely fantastic backbone to a game that also, surprisingly, has some great villains to boot. Each character in the game is given an antagonist to their own personal stories, sometimes directly related to them, sometimes more by shared experience, and while not all these stories are particularly good, enough hit that by the time you confront the villains individually at the end of the game in a protracted tower sequence, the final showdowns are ultimately rewarding in a way that most games don't manage.

    Now, there are problems with this game, largely stemming from its obvious budget constraints and the trappings of a game made over a decade ago. The assets are almost completely taken from the first game, and I do mean almost completely - this is the same exact world, and at times, even world-changing events like a building burning down are fixed because the game designers simply didn't redesign the areas. It's also frustratingly easy to get a bit lost in this world thanks to a lack of obvious direction at times and the lack of a fast-travel system.

    But I think if you can look beyond that, the game has a TON to offer JRPG fans. The turn-based combat system, with enemies visible on the field, was both a great example of the best of its time and forward thinking. The magic systems are basic but rewarding, and highly reminscent of Final Fantasy VII's Materia slots.

    I cannot heap enough praise on this game. It's well worth playing the first one to see the story beats through, but this is the real gem of the bunch. Estelle is a fantastic protagonist, and her coming-of-age story combined with her plucky determination and the surprisingly good sense of humor this game has in spades make this well worth the top spot on my list alone. Combine it with the rock-solid JRPG mechanics and you've got a true winner that shouldn't be missed by any fans of the genre.

  • The best Assassin's Creed has ever been, and that's saying something considering how much I've enjoyed much of the series. The controls are great, I loved traversing the big open world to see the world's sights, and the new action-RPG mechanics change up the game in a lot of fun, fascinating ways. It's a tremendous way to spend dozens of hours, but where it comes up short, it comes up short hard. What could have been the series' best story comes across instead as this bizarre, chopped-up and truncated mess. Bayek, a strong do-gooder protagonist, starts with an intense story about revenge for a dead child and a love for his wife, also driven by rage over their son's death. There's a lot there to chew on, plenty for one game, but then the tone and story shift over to that of a political play, a completely unnecessary one centered around Cleopatra and Caesar, and all the previously great story stuff is just shoved aside for a subpar, poorly paced story that eventually barely whimpers to an end. The new out-of-the-animus protagonist shows promise, but she's given so little to work with that the extraneous non-Animus stuff might as well have not existed at all, and given the sad state of the overall AC story as a whole, that's probably the way it should be. Either shit or get off the pot with the non-Animus stuff, Ubisoft. Have the balls to move forward with the overarching plots or just cut that stuff out entirely.

    Anyways, yeah, AC: Origins is fantastic, but the parts that aren't really make me wish they were up to the rest of the game's high standards.

  • One of the best crafted games I played all year, with a level of polish I don't believe anything save Zelda could compete with. I wish the levels were just a little bit more intriguing and less cookie-cutter at spots (looking at you, obligatory water world), but I think overall this is one of the more superb modern Mario games, coming close to eclipsing Galaxy at points. There's an exuberance to this game, a joyousness that just pulses through it. At times, that can be a little cheesy and forced, but good golly, when it hits, it hits hard and the whole package just makes me feel happy to have a Switch and be gaming in this day and age. And really, what more can you ask for from a game than that kind of heart?

  • Made by Grundislav Games, who used to work in conjunction with Wadjet, it's no surprise then that this is a tradtional point-and-clicker much like Unavowed. Unlike Unavowed, though, this is more puzzle-centric, focusing on several cases a private investigator in a steampunk-Victorian setting must solve while his mind is slowly crumbling. It feels like a spiritual successor to the old Lara Bow games, high praise by me since I really liked those. The investigations can be botched, but the plot continues forward anyways, meaning failure isn't the end of the game. It's a neat concept, but I'd still save scum like crazy if I were you, because seeing these cases solved properly is a great feeling. I think I actually like this one better than Unavowed, but truthfully, both are so damned amazing I'd say pick them up and see for yourself which one you like more. Also of note, I think the voice-acting in this game straddles a great line between hammy and earnest, and the backgrounds are stpuendously gorgeous. It is an absolutely superb, underrated adventure game.

  • Unavowed and Lamplight City make for one hell of a one-two punch of classic adventure gaming. Despite their similarities, there are some subtle differences in how each one plays. Unavowed is definitely more story focused, driving the plot forward rapidly and seeing you through to the finish line in about the time it takes to finish two of Lamplight City's cases. The characters and story are the focus here, with only a light dusting of puzzle solving to make it a game. That's not a negative. It's an approach I really like, actually, as evidenced by my love of Telltale's games. I like that you have multiple ways to finish each chapter depending on who you have in your party, and the breezy pace means I never really got bored or frustrated. It doesn't hurt that the plot here is solid - I don't think I like it as much as Wadjet Eye's prior efforts in Blackwell or Technobabylon, but it's still very solid occultish stuff. Give it a go if you like story-focused adventure games.

  • I expected this to be a novelty, a few extra Bloons missions I'd play through, be done, and set aside.

    And ehre I am, months later, still doing daily map runs, still upgrading my hero characters, still unlocking loot. Bloons AT is the best in the series, hands down, and I don't even know what the hell Adventure Time is.

    What makes the game great is the primary "towers" in this game are hero-type characters. There are about, mmm, maybe twenty of these, but you can only use a set number at a time in your party, meaning you have to swap in characters depending on their strengths and your needs for that particular map. Each character has skills that can be upgraded with (admittedly grindy) currency dropped randomly from chests you win after each battle and for completing quests. Each hero can also equip weapons, minion-type towers with lesser powers, artifacts, items that add buffs or special abilities.

    If that sounds complex for a Bloons game, it is, and it's shameless about trying to woo your extra bucks out of your wallet to buy the currencies necessary to upgrade your character or get new items. But once you get into the meat of the game, the hero/artifact/minion system becomes something great. Scrabbling for every bit of stat boosting equipment you can get at first, it's difficult to unlock any new characters at all. Every win feels like a tactical victory at those early stages, but once you start unlocking new characters, you'll quickly begin racking up wins easier and easier, until the game becomes breezy and you're devising ways to make it more difficult for yourself. That's aided greatly by the quest system, which rewards you for doing specific tasks like leaving out certain towers for a certain number of wins. It's a fun way to add longevity to a game that might otherwise get a little stale once you're powerful enough to beat every map.

    It doesn't hurt that there are lots of maps here, and with updates, an easy way to access them. The UI is smart and gets smarter, the maps are original and feel up there with the series' best, and with a rewarding unlock system that doesn't require you to spend real money (and in fact, feels much more rewarding when you don't), this is an easy recommendation and the best mobile game I played all year, unquestionably.

  • Look, you've seen it said that this is more Hitman, and that's true. But it's one of the best packages in gaming this year, as including the first game for owners was a cool way to beef up the admittedly thin offerings here. The new maps are universally better than the first game, the plot more fascinating and fun, and the small upgrades to the settings and world around you are all well thought out additions.

  • Whooo boy, did this game grab me hard for a week. A middling overarching plot doesn't change the fact that this is a FANTASTIC way to tell a fighting game story, but then, that's what the house Boone built has been doing for a while now. What anchors that story is the jaw-dropping amount of stuff there is to do beyond it. I loved this game's version of dailies, with tons of little miniature towers to complete with specific characters or handicaps. And oh Lordy, there are traditional arcade endings for ALL the characters! Mwah!

  • Horizon Zero Dawn's fascinating, lush post-post-apocalyptic setting and its terrific "animal" life in its dinosaurs are incredible. The plot is fairly interesting too, but unfortunately for me, the game is dragged down by a confusing waypoint system and a pervasive lack of polish that make the otherwise decent gameplay feel as though it wasn't playtested as thoroughly as it should be. Zero Dawn is rad, but I'm really intrigued about where the series goes from here and if those games happen to play better than the slightly grimy-feeling controls here.

  • Here's a game that suffers a bit from the hardships of my year, because while I remember the narrative being great, I don't actually remember a lot of the specifics. I do remember really liking the version of the Joker here, played largely as a man feeling betrayed by everyone around him, especially Bruce, who uncomfortably needs to use him to get information on the other villains in the series. This was a fantastic series from Telltale, and it's a shame there won't be any more to come.

  • A bit of an oddity on this list, I know, but Minecraft Story Mode is very much a Telltale game, just with the trappings of Minecraft's world around it. With an absolutely stellar voice cast dominated by Paul Reubens' terrific turn as Ivor, a bumbling evil wizard type who later becomes an adventure-loving part of the main cast, it's fantastically well acted for something with so few ways to display actual emotion. It might be a kid-friendly game, but it entertained me as well, and I'm kind of a jaded jerk when it comes to these sorts of things.

    Also, I should note that while the main game is good, it's really the first season's bonus chapters that shine. Give them a shot!

  • Fractured but Whole does a great job of masking its lack of major updatery to the world by revamping the combat system from the first game. The grid-based combat in this one is great, and with a ton of options as to how to kit yourself out in terms of abilities as well as a bunch of characters to add to your party, there's a surprisingly flexible amount of choice.

    But that said, a lot of things could have used as much work. The DNA system of upgrades is truly awful. Ubisoft has included some accessibility options to make traversal and combat easier for those with problems timing jumps or button presses, but doesn't include options to help read its tiny fonts. The map is identical to the first game's, and while some new areas are fun (seriously, the boss stripper fight in the strip club is one of the most memorable boss fights in recent memory), there aren't nearly enough of them to hold your interest for long.

    That said, this is just a fun thing to blow through. The various superhero designs and costumes make for a great collect-a-thon syste. The humor is very much typical South Park fare, which should be enough to tell you if you're going to like it or hate it (I liked it).

    It's a solid game so long as you're not expecting too much to change. At a discount price, it's a no-brainer.

  • I wish I still did an end of the year blog, because "best quirk" would almost certainly go to Golf Story. The golfing itself takes a backseat to this game's weird, silly NPCs, all of whom are reminiscent of traditional JRPG NPC oddballs you might find in a PS1 era game. The game suffers when you actually have to play it - the difficulty by the third or fourth course is compounded by the fact that it's nearly impossible to read the greens or conditions - but this is worth a look for the first few hours of gameplay alone.

  • I like Yakuza 0. THe fighting's fun, the side quests are silly, and there's a great sense of spirit throughout the whole thing. That said, I've played a lot of Yakuza games over the years, and frankly, seeing so little change about the world makes me a little frustrated. Imagine five or six Final Fantasies, but they're all set in Midgar. Midgar's great, but I don't want that many games set in those exact environments. I don't know. As an introduction to the series, 0 is fine. It's great, in fact. But the more I play of this series, the more tired I am of its refusal to change things up.

  • One of a pair of Bloons games to hit mobile this year, and surprisingly, the inferior one. This is traditional Bloons - you place one of about twenty towers anywhere you like on a map, you upgrade said towers through a couple of skill trees, and repeat until you've popped all the invading Bloons. It's a solid update to 5, and has been regularly updated with new maps and hero type characters. I wish there was a bit more meat to the gameplay coming right out of the gate, but given Bloons 5 is still seeing support, I have zero doubt they'll get there with this game too.

  • Far Cry 5 is a fun game, just not a great step forward for the series as a whole. The villains are often poorly motivated and begin to fall apart the moment you pluck at their stories with even the slightest amount of strength. There might have been an awesome overarching story leading to that surprise ending if it had been at all tied together or hinted at. Instead, similar to AC Origins, this is largely a disjointed mess that feels like a great deal of plot filler was yanked out to fit the needs of a release date.

    That said, FC5 is a lot of fun to actually play, when bugs aren't spawning you jumping two hundred feet in the air or dropping your current quest's waypoints, throwing you back out into the open world with a still-active quest and no obvious way to end it. The takeovers still are lots of fun, the side characters are useful, and the Montana setting is a gorgeous idea - and one obviously close to home for me, as I've lived in the state for a quarter of a century. I liked the idea of featuring a cult, but I just wish Ubisoft had the stones to do something interesting with it rather than following their typical molds for villains in these games.

  • I wish the Telltale saga hadn't ended the way it did, because this franchise deserved not to have its name tarnished by shitty managers and CEOs completely shitting the bed. But I'll always think of the Walking Dead fondly, particularly Clementine, one of the greatest protagonists in gaming history. Here she shines as an outside force, a friend to this particular chapter's lead. There's a great story to boot here about brotherhood, love, obligations, and manipulated familial emotions. It's never quite as complex as it could be, and some character choices aren't as entirely earned as others, but by the end, having to play out several terrible choices along the way left me emotionally drained and ultimately surprisingly pleased by the bleary last man standing watching as his love interest leaves him behind. It was one of this year's best moments in gaming for me, and made for an absolutely perfect ending to a grim game.

  • Winner for the most hilarious time I've had playing a game with my brother this year, Guts and Glory is silly fun with physics and blood. You race vehicles through obstacle courses, not entirely dissimilar to something like TV's Wipeout. And that's about it, really, save that you can be speared, shot, blown up, or sliced up in a wild amount of ways along the routes. It's a silly game that doesn't overstay its welcome, and has been supported nicely after its release. Great party game.

  • I wish I liked survival games more. I might have been able to endure BotW better if I had, but frankly, there's so much bullshit here to deal with, I just bounced off the game hard. I don't want to manage weapons breaking. I don't want to manage heat and cold. I don't want to have to spend half a damn hour crafting food. What I do want is to explore this cool world and see this fascinating story to its end, but the other systems in play rubbed me so hard the wrong way I doubt I'll ever finish it.