2018 was a pretty good year for video games. Looking at my list, it was specifically a good year for big meaty games that you can really sink your teeth into. I was pretty happy with this, as in recent years the AAA game space has been pretty lacking. This was also the year where I was reunited with my PC and got back into some genres I had been severely missing. These games aren’t ordered in any list, just a loose collection of thoughts about the games that made an impact on me in 2018.
Dragon Ball FighterZ
This game holds the honour of being something I spent far more of the year watching rather than playing, but nevertheless deserves to be here. The idea of a Dragon Ball fighting game made by a developer with the prestige that Arc System Works has set my anticipation high from the get go, and the final product did not disappoint. The animations are top notch, there’s a bunch of callbacks and references for fans like me to enjoy, and most importantly it convinced me there is a perfect balance between accessibility and depth that can keep the competition high while still letting causal players live out their Super Saiyan dreams. The top notch Esports scene for the game’s first year of release has kept me glued to every major tournament, with players from all corners of the scene coming together to duke it out. I’m not gonna say I’m not biased after watching all of Dragon Ball Kai and Super this year, but I think it’s mix of high production values and way it toes the line between its various audiences makes it a winner.
Monster Hunter World
This was the year me and everyone else finally got Monster Hunter. By taking it off the goddamn low-rez handhelds it’s been trapped on and making the quality of life improvements they did, holy shit did this game captivate me in a way no other game has this year. What still strikes me as shocking even after the 350 or so hours I put into the game, is just how fun it is to fight the monsters. This game did the thing where even after I saw credits and thought I was ready to move on, there was a nagging feeling in the back of my brain urging me to get back to hunting those monsters. This truly comes down to the inventive and deep gameplay each weapon provides. Either of the two weapons I mained (Charge Blade and Insect Glaive) could almost support a game on their own, with optimal combos and nuances to learn on a per-monster basis. Put on top of this an additive largely targeted loot grind that even when it starts stacking RNG on top of RNG (attack gems I’m looking at you), the simple act of eating a delicious meal, gearing up and getting out there with your cat buddy or fellow hunters remains a gameplay loop I was enamoured with far longer than I thought I would be.
I know this game didn’t actually come out this year, but having the switch version release when it did gave me the shot in the arm I needed to jump in and I’m extremely glad I did. Hollow Knight is a master class in world building, taking the broad approach of show-don’t-tell that Dark Souls has popularised without being obtuse just for the sake of it. I loved exploring the bug kingdom of Hallownest to see what secrets it had to show me. The gameplay is crisp and every one of my many, many deaths at the hands of the various horrors felt deserved. The fact a game this large and confident was made almost entirely by two dudes in Australia still blows my mind to this day. I will concede that the game doesn’t put its best foot forward at the start, in terms of limiting abilities and not showing how beautifully and well designed the world is. Also, I will come down on the side of not loving the map system as it just compounds these early issues, while simply not being a factor in the later portions of the game. Despite those small criticisms, if you push through you’ll find one of the most well realised metroidvanias ever made.
Destiny 2: Forsaken
Ah, Destiny. Once again I blindly threw myself into the Destiny fire to find out if I’d get burned, and thankfully this year I didn’t. In fact, this is easily the best Destiny has ever been. There’s a story you can follow and is interesting! The PC version is great! The warlock class can shoot a kamehameha now! I’m not the first to say it but this is how destiny should have been at launch, and it sucks Bungie are perpetually in this endless dev cycle where they have to produce a sequel in a short amount of time, followed by two subpar DLC packs right after, then finally have enough time to release these yearly big expansions that feel like the game they just wanted to make from the start. The loot is good, the new raid is good, the crazy lore justification for an endlessly looping three week content cycle is good. Everything is good, but I am feeling fatigued by the whole thing as someone who has been grinding this game to varying degrees since launch. Everytime I jump back onto the Destiny treadmill I find myself jumping off faster. I’m much less willing to run the raid for the 10th time to get that last elusive weapon that won’t drop for me, or grind out exotic quests for guns I already know will just sit in my vault until they’re obsolete. I still put a lot of hours into Forsaken and it definitely deserves to be on this list, I’m just not sure next time Destiny releases something new without shaking up the formula how ready I’ll be to buy into it. (Sidenote- I didn’t jump back into Black Armoury when it released, it seems like good content if you’re still happily on the endgame grind, but I like my breaks between Destiny stints to be a bit longer.)
Red Dead Redemption 2
I don’t know if there’s another game released this year more likely to top both GOTY and most disappointing lists. Red Dead 2 is an experience unlike anything else, for better and worse. To me, Arthur Morgan might be the most well realised main character I’ve ever seen in across any media. I felt like I was controlling a real human, with thoughts and needs like any of us. Sure, a lot of that is down to my actions and how I wanted to handle what the world threw at me, but the fact Rockstar created a world and characters that facilitated that is remarkable. Once I got into the meat of the story when the stakes rise and everyone butting heads, I couldn’t get enough of it. The tension bubbling in the background as things go from bad to worse was so well executed through the subtle details in everyone’s performance it’ll remain in my mind as one of the most shining examples of storytelling in games. I’m probably an outlier on this but I liked the slow, long animations on everything and I’ve always been a sucker for the linear missions Rockstar are known for (GTA IV is still my favourite of their games). I can totally see how and why this stuff has made the game disappointing for some, hence my earlier proclamation, but I think it largely earns what it asks of players and I think it’s a game people will be referencing for years to come.
God of War
Probably the best gaming moment I’ve had this year is the first time you call back the Leviathan axe to Kratos’ hand. With the satisfying way it flies through the air, demolishing everything in its path and lands with a heavy thud, I knew this game was going to live up to the series name more than ever. God of War is a great reboot of a franchise I thought would firmly stay dead in an era of video games we’ve since past. Taking Kratos out of his element into the world of norse mythology, giving him a moral compass/responsibility in the form of his (new) son and setting him on a gritty quest in name of his (new) dead wife turned out to be a winning formula. I never got bored chopping my way through the not-quite-linear-not-quite-open-world Midgard and its various realms, and although the story does unfortunately pad itself out with endless fetch quests by the end, there’s more than enough great moments to remain impressive. Although I applaud the decision to hold back on showing the real big boys (and girls!) of the Norse pantheon, the game does have a boss problem. Considering it was a hallmark of the old games, and Norse mythology has plenty of mythical creatures they could utilize while leaving out the important gods for later games, it’s a bit lame you’re fighting basically the same reskinned troll in the place of some memorable baddies, but not a dealbreaker!
If Hollow Knight is a beautifully curated, story driven metroidvania, Dead cells is the complete opposite. It takes the familiar trappings of the rogue-lite genre and mashes it with 2D, item based progression and the result is amazing. With hundreds of item and weapon combinations to unlock, every run forces you to mix up your strategy based on what you have available. There are permanent key items to find that let you spawn vines, for example, to access new areas and get further in the world, meaning even runs that end in death are still satisfying. I haven’t even beaten the game yet let alone unlock the multitude of weapons and discovered all the secrets, but so far it’s been a perfect game to mess around with on Switch and highlights along with Hollow Knight how two games can be immensely successful within one genre while taking polar opposite approaches.
Into the Breach
Into the Breach is a smart game that makes you feel dumb. It achieves this by giving you all the time and information you need to succeed, and then watches as you lose. Despite this, you still jump back into that time breach and try again. Into the Breach is a fun turn-based rogue-lite strategy game where you’re fighting alien bugs with teams of mechs with varying abilities and trying to save timelines and unlock other teams of mechs to use. There’s a plethora of upgrades and weapons to buy during a run to try and get a win, which frequently won’t happen. During the fights the game tells you exactly where each enemy is going to attack, down to the order those attacks will execute, and it’s up to you to either kill, interrupt, move, block or stun enemies to defend buildings and the power grid they’re tied into. You need to plan turns out precisely to maximise what you can do to stem the tide, and take calculated losses where you can. This has been another great game on the Switch where it’s been easy to do a quick run and then put it down when it all goes up in flames and my brain hurts.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Yes it’s another game not released in 2018 but I haven’t had a PC in two years so cut me a break. To me, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the perfect blend of old school CRPG gameplay with modern mechanics, presentation and QOL improvements to help people like me who weren’t playing these games in the 90’s enjoy them. The combat system is this weird but really interesting mix of traditional RPG skills with elemental physics-y effects. Want to cover your enemy in tar and poison, then throw a fireball at them and watch them explode? This game has that in spades. The writing is top notch with the supporting cast being full of interesting characters with their own quests and motives, and a vibrant world that surprised me constantly as I explored it. I was shocked how much I enjoyed Divinity after bouncing off CRPGs for years, but if you’ve had similar experiences to me, this is the one to try.
Certain games so perfectly encapsulate a theme or emotion it’s impossible not to be impressed by it. Frostpunk is one of those games.Experiencing the hopeless struggle of the evacuated citizens of steampunk London trying to survive in the frozen tundra, with you the player trying desperately to gather that extra bit of coal to keep them from freezing to death for one more night kept me captivated for a lot longer than I thought it would. Forced to make one bad choice after another, (Do I enact child labour laws, or orders to amputate frostbitten limbs to keep the coal mine going?) this game makes you feel the weight of every decision. I also love that it’s a fairly simple game on paper; gather resources, keep your town warm where it needs to be, and send out your scouts to explore the surrounding areas. Yet the scenarios each have slight differences that keep it fresh as you attempt this. The only drawback to these economy based strategy games is there’s an optimal way to beat them, you just need to find it. This results in some repetitive gameplay, especially on the higher difficulties. You’ll find yourself restarting a scenario after it all goes horribly wrong and basically checking off the boxes in the early game, “I need this much wood by day 3, then swap those workers to coal..” However, the presentation is so strong and the gameplay is immensely satisfying when it all goes right that it remains a highlight for me.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey- I’m still loving the swing to Witcher style RPG these games have moved towards, it’s a beautifully crafted world and I’m actually interested in where the scifi aspect of the story is going. Unfortunately it’s mard by bloated game design (Some of it shockingly bad, like the territory wars between Sparta and Athens) and the level scaling totally being borked in the last 10 or so levels. This felt like a blatant imbalance considering getting all the endings required you to basically hit max level. I’d played for 65 hours and done what I felt was more than enough of the side content, and I’m honestly of the opinion that they were subtly trying to push me towards their microtransaction exp boosters which was a disappointing end to an otherwise pretty enjoyable game.
Melee Left for Dead with light RPG mechanics set in the Warhammer universe is a recipe for a good time, the only thing holding it back is my lack of gamer friends keen to play, but I can’t really blame the game for that.
Ni No Kuni 2
It’s a fun fairytale style JRPG with surprisingly deep loot and kingdom building mechanics, if only the difficulty wasn’t set so low on release you had no reason to engage with most of it (I should go back and try it with the new difficulty patch). The story also feels a little wonky like it’s maybe missing a chapter or two as it wraps up suddenly, but still worth a look if you want a decent JRPG.
Far Cry 5
This is a pretty clear cut example of a successful series needing to evolve but not really sure what to do and in the end taking a bunch of half-steps and not succeeding at anything. The story feels like it started off as something ambitious but they took the punch out of it during development to avoid controversy, and the end product was boring characters with nothing to say. This normally wouldn’t be an issue if the gameplay was fresh and innovative but there was nothing new apart from some different weapon types you used to do the same checkbox objectives sprawled across the map. Add to this the enemy spawning which meant you couldn’t drive down the road of a region you cleared 20 hours ago without being endlessly attacked. Honestly I think Far Cry needs to be the next series Ubisoft takes back to the drawing board considering the success they’ve had with the new Assassin’s Creed games.
This is easily my most disappointing game of the year, because of one of the most insane design decisions that ruins what is otherwise one of the most interesting JRPGs to be made in years. The game is this amazing mix of sprite based 2D-but-in-3D art that is unlike anything I’ve seen and I want every pre-ps1 JRPG remade with this engine. The gameplay is your standard overworld exploration of forests, dungeons, caves and every other environment you’ve seen in a fantasy game, which isn’t that exciting but thankfully the combat is amazing! It’s a nice combination of a few different mechanics you need to juggle to play optimally. Every enemy has a varying number of weaknesses that when hit enough times, will put them in a downed state. Every turn your characters also gain action points that you can use when you want to do extra attacks per turn or do more damage with spells. So combat becomes this puzzle where you’re trying to down and then kill enemies in as few turns as possible, which kept it interesting for me. So with all this amazing art and intelligent combat design, the issue becomes the narrative. The gimmick of the game is the 8 different characters that you collect into your party in whatever order you want, so they needed to create a reason storywise to make this work. Characters need motivations that explain why they all want to work together but are still flexible/individualistic that the nonlinear gameplay of what order you meet the characters doesn’t cause issues. This task appeared to be too much for the developers, so instead they just treat every individual character’s quest as their own story and pretend your other party members don’t exist. I mean that literally too, apart from a few lines of dialogue when they meet which basically consists of, “Hey, let’s party up!”
And that’s it. Even in cutscenes they just aren’t there. This is even weirder because some of the characters have pressing issues they need to solve immediately but they’re still happy to wander the world with random characters they don’t have any interaction with. To top it off, the steeply increasing level requirements for the chapters of a character’s story mean you need to play across a bunch of these unconnected stories, rather than just being able to focus on just one you find interesting. The whole result of this is one of the weirdest, most disconnected narratives I’ve ever seen in a game, and that’s saying a lot considering the genre space it occupies. I can’t fathom why the developers took this route and the result is it stops this being one of the best throwback JRPGs ever made.