Best of 2018: Top 15 Games

It’s truly fascinating to me to watch the cooldown period after a universally-acknowledged year of videogame greatness. Sometimes the vaunted 2007 gets the wonderful afterparty that was 2008 – with the likes of GTA IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, Fallout 3 and Bioshock – and sometimes 1998 gets the uneventful ’99 hangover. In the age we live in, packed as it is with more games and more types of games than ever before, it’s difficult to argue that any year can be truly bad for releases. That said, 2018 mixed in the kinds of critical and commercial disappointments that might have sunk an older year but only seemed to add a footnote to an annum of tremendously successful standalone titles – especially if you owned a PS4.

This is, of course, my personal favourites list, so games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are absent (for reasons I’ve already touched on). There are fewer indie games on this list than usual, which doesn’t reflect a poor year for smaller-budget games (not even close) so much as it does that sweet spot near the end of a major console life cycle where a number of ambitious projects in development for years all seem to hit at once. There are iterative sequels that perfect a formula, refreshing surprises and a not-insignificant combination of both. Overall it’s a list defined by games I did not expect to fall in love with – either because they were entirely new or because I had not ever properly been grabbed by their respective series. In fact, I’d say I was only confident I would enjoy four out of these fifteen games before I played them – and trust me, that’s an undeniably low conversion rate for me. Yay for the unexpected.

Eligibility for the countdown is simple. Excluding multiplayer-first titles, I need to have played each game for more than five hours or completed its main path – whichever comes first.

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VR BEST OF 2018 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s odd, but let’s have a beer. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Unravel Two (XBO)

E3 week was pretty uniquely special this year because for the first time in a long while, I was just as excited to play unexpected games that had just come out as I was about those on the horizon. One of several surprise “out now!” releases during E3 2018 was Unravel Two, a sequel to one of the indie darlings of E3s gone by. While I didn’t hear great things about the first game in terms of mechanics and ended up skipping it entirely, I was extremely happy to find that the sequel picks up the slack in a big way while presenting a world just as visually stunning. The rope physics in this game are the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of finding in a 2D platformer and they are used to great effect for both fluid movement and puzzle solving – the two often going hand in hand – but the kicker is that the entire 5-hour adventure absolutely sings in co-op. I played Unravel Two start to finish with my sister, who rarely plays games, and she was as glued to the screen as I was.


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14. Florence (Mobile)

I’ve highlighted a grand total of two mobile games on this list over the years – both as honourable mentions – so suffice to say I don’t tend to seek them out a lot. Despite a decade-long history in the industry now, I still find most of them too inaccessible and predatory for my liking. Florence is a welcome deviation from the current mobile trends, reminding me of the exciting early 2010s when indie developers seemed to have the room to explore exciting and unique ideas in the mobile space. The elevator pitch is simple and bizarre: 500 Days of Summer meets WarioWare. The game tells a story lasting less than an hour total, as you tap, slide and drag your way through several simple tasks to progress the story of an adorable-yet-finite relationship against the backdrop of the city of Melbourne. The actions you take do a surprisingly good job of immersing you in a dialogue-free tale, but the real star is the emotive, minimalist score. For the price of a coffee you could do much, much worse than playing this gem on your next train ride.

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13. Pokemon Let’s Go Eevee (NS)

No abilities, held items, or EVs. No breeding, no wild Pokemon battles, no Pokemon beyond the original 151. This game seemed on paper like an affront to the fans who had stuck by the core Pokemon series for decades, playing every game that came out. But it needn’t have been, because for one, the powers that be have confirmed there’s more to come on the traditional front, and secondly, as a remake of the original Pokemon Yellow (my first videogame) with the room to shake up some of the series’ more weary elements it is actually quite good. In particular, the capture chain mechanic and its various benefits almost single-handedly saves the game from feeling too simplistic. It allowed me to live out a childhood dream of using my actual favourite Pokemon (as in, not fully evolved) without getting utterly destroyed. The visuals are also super crisp, and the music! Oh my word the music. More orchestral Pokemon tunes please.
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12. Forza Horizon 4 (XBO)

I don’t really play racing games, but this generation I always at least try the new Forza game every year – the motoring enthusiasm coursing through every menu frame is contagious. But Forza Horizon 4 is the first racing game I’ve played enough to qualify for this list since I started this blog. I don’t know quite what it is – I really enjoyed the way Forza Horizon 3 revelled in its Australian setting but it didn’t grab me quite the same way. Perhaps it’s the love that developer Playground Games put into rendering their native Britain with the help of sumptuous out-of-the-box 4K HDR. Perhaps it’s the significant way the massive world map changes through each of the four in-game seasons. Perhaps it’s the almost MMO-esque way the game promotes the presence of other players. Perhaps it’s this pseudo-review by Tim Rogers, which is now one of my favourite gaming videos of all time. I don’t know. It’s one of them. Or all of them. Play this game.

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11. Valkyria Chronicles 4 (NS)

I bought the first Valkyria Chronicles on two different platforms and was very close to buying it on a third before I stopped myself, forcing myself to realise that such an action would be foolish on account of the two hours total I had spent on both versions combined. The release timing was always bad for me, the in-game systems required my full attention to absorb, and the game was not on the Switch. Valkyria Chronicles 4, which for all intents and purposes is only the second game in the series for us console-playing Westerners, fixes at least two of those issues, so I played the hell out of it for a couple of weeks around launch. As it turns out, this series brings me the closest I’ve been in a long while to that elusive feeling of playing an Advance Wars game, such is its unit variation, tight mechanical focus and colourful cast of characters who seem more cheerful than one would expect of kids in their situation. The only thing it’s missing is more actual colour – it’s going for that alternate-history World War II vibe, after all. I hope I get time to go back to this gem (and eventually the first game in the series) because it’s superbly well-made.

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10. Mario Tennis Aces (NS)

Say what you want about the bar being rather low in recent times, but Mario Tennis Aces is quite comfortably the best in its series for a very long time – If only because it actually has a functional single player campaign and bothers to overhaul the looks of its classic characters. But that’s hardly why it’s on this list. In a year where regular local multiplayer seshes roared back into my life like they’d never left, Mario Tennis Aces led the charge. From its impactful early-June online tournament demo to its flawed-yet-gangbusting launch to its phenomenally self-aware early August patch and beyond, the game’s expansive on-court additions to a tennis videogame formula that no-one has successfully managed (or really needed) to deepen in decades drew comparisons to the likes of Halo 5‘s stellar multiplayer suite. That’s how essential the additions of Zone Speed, Zone Shots and Trick Shots feel. The multiple roof-busting friendly tournaments that Aces provided me in 2018 will live long in my memories, as will the days when I played the game casually almost non-stop with mates. The deceptively addictive online mode is mere icing on the cake. Camelot is back!

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9. Starlink: Battle for Atlas (NS)

No game on or off this list took my attention so quickly, so unexpectedly and so completely in 2018 than this sneaky devil did. Using the promise of a playable Arwing from Starfox to lure my Nintendo-weak brain in, Starlink presents a heavily altered version of that famous Ubisoft open world template across seven gigantic planets and multiple layered gameplay systems, with starship controls that don’t stop feeling amazing for 20+ hours of obsessive box-checking, map-expanding, resource-gathering and element-based combat. The sense of movement in both the planetary and space-faring sections – which can be switched between on the fly – are evocative of a time when Factor 5 and Pandemic were making Star Wars games where vehicular control really mattered. Plus Starlink is the first toys-to-life game which both offers a cheaper digital alternative to buying physical toys and actually doesn’t require any extra financial investment to get “the full experience”. The surprise of the year for me.

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8. Detroit: Become Human (PS4)

David Cage’s games are perhaps the most consistently divisive in the upper tier of development budget from which they hail. They lean hard enough into the “cinematic” potential of gaming to make plenty of players glaze over, while others praise the Frenchman’s often bold attempts to push boundaries and ask deep-ish questions. I didn’t cross paths with any of his major previous efforts for any significant period of time despite enjoying quite a few choice-based, story-first videogames in my day, but Detroit‘s moderate sci-fi slant and extremely impressive motion capture tech won me over. The game’s visuals and serial-like direction kept me engaged even throughout my multiple irreversible mistakes and poor choices, constantly offering me a believable answer to the question “How is the story gonna recover from this?” The ending I got frequently shocked those I told about it, and I was amazed at theirs in turn. In a sense, Detroit is the first game I’ve played that delivers on the promise of a choose-your-own-adventure book and it looks real pretty doing so.

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7. God of War (PS4)

Another blockbuster Sony exclusive and a surprise Game of the Year winner at the 2018 Game Awards, the newcomer-friendly God of War is a near complete reset of the famous franchise. Often it feels like it’s from a different series entirely despite being made by many of the same people, thanks largely to Playstation’s current-generation philosophy of sharing techniques, technology and even personnel between its multiple industry-leading first party studios. Though its false endings are frustratingly populous and its combat progression isn’t quite balanced to fit the narrative pacing, God of War is a technical marvel on all fronts that sits worthily in the same tier as the Uncharted and Last of Us series. It sets yet another Sony performance capture benchmark and puts it to good use telling a story with a level of intimacy not often seen at the highest level of videogame budgets. What’s more, its moment-to-moment gameplay mechanics are just immensely satisfying (That axe throw though). As the first God of War game I’ve ever finished and the first triple-A game I finished this year, I daresay I will remember this flawed masterpiece rather fondly.

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6. Celeste (NS)

Celeste is a story about a journey, but finishing the game was another journey in itself for me this year. The much-hyped indie platformer released in late January but I didn’t finish it until early September, mostly due to other releases but also because I hit a number of roadblocks within the gauntlet of pain it presents so confidently. Celeste is brutally difficult and can get even harder if you’re game for it, but its lightning-fast respawns and incredibly tight, Towerfall-borne controls are stunningly effective at eliminating all the negatives from that pitch. And it’s not as if the gameplay is the only thing worth writing home about. Lena Raine’s superb synth score is a treat to enjoy outside the game, but within the context of our heroine Madeleine’s ascent up the eponymous Celeste mountain, it combines with some wonderfully concise writing to elevate what first appears to be just another 16-bit indie darling to the level of a deeply personal story about depression and anxiety that just loved to infiltrate my tear ducts.

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5. Super Smash Bros Ultimate (NS)

With the notable exception of 2016, when the Wii U was limping to an undignified finish, Nintendo hasn’t failed to drop a show-stopping December game for the last half-decade. It has become a cruel tradition for me personally, as it’s extremely difficult to give these games the time of day that late in the year. Luckily, Super Smash Bros Ultimate is on the Switch and it isn’t a 200-hour JRPG. I can and have jumped in and out of the game many, many times over the last few weeks since its launch and I have always felt like I achieved something, whether that be unlocking a character, picking up a Spirit or two from the RPG-like Spirit Board, doing a Classic Mode run with a cool referential theme to it or just becoming a better player with one of my main fighters.

Ultimate feels like a much stickier game than its (still great) predecessor, with fields of content to keep both the hardcore and casual players coming back. What the series chooses to cut in the name of expanding or introducing other aspects of the Smash Bros experience is shrewd, the UI hasn’t been this functional since the first game in the series, the loving attention to new and returning characters / stages is genuinely impactful and at least in my experience, the online 1v1 play is a significant step up from the last two entries. I look forward to playing this one for a long time to come, with and without friends.

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4. Octopath Traveller (NS)

At the start of 2018, Octopath Traveller was my most anticipated game of the year, but that never guarantees I’ll play a game, let alone enjoy it enough to finish it. This particular JRPG is already infamous for being quite an effort to complete, so the fact that I did – in 90 hours at the expense of just about every other game released in July and August – is a testament to the staying power of its phenomenal art direction, seamlessly adaptive soundtrack and tight, customisable battle system. Octopath‘s wholly unique approach to storytelling amongst its peers – with its focus on eight individual, mostly unconnected stories – took many by surprise and turned off many more. And yet it sets up the framework for some deeply character-focused narratives that just about every other JRPG cannot tell by mere virtue of genre traditions (You can read about my eight favourite chapters in the game here if you’re craving more detail). But it is that battle system – where party dynamics really come to the fore and almost everything is an expendable resource – that truly carries Octopath firmly into my top five of 2018.

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3. Shadow of the Tomb Raider (XBO)

It may have taken me three years to clear its middle chapter, but the final act of the modern Tomb Raider trilogy provided no such trouble. Shadow of the Tomb Raider combines the mechanical richness of its immediate predecessor with a much more vibrant world while somehow serving up even more memorable Lara Croft moments than 2013’s standout franchise reboot. The freshly puzzle-heavy gameplay balance is a welcome change, the huge emphasis on stealth and swimming works surprisingly well and the mountainside town of Paititi is now one of my all-time videogame favourites. On top of all that, Shadow is stupidly good-looking / sounding, especially on the Xbox One X where the damn-near native 4K resolution, class-leading HDR implementation and full Dolby Atmos support really helps the art direction shine (which is to say nothing of the delectable RTX-toting PC version). I got surprisingly emotional at the end credits and that’s because this game has solidified the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy as my favourite of the decade. Bravo.

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2. Spider-Man (PS4)

I don’t read very many comics and so I say this with only eight cinematic Spidey appearances under my belt, but Spider-Man for the PS4 is my favourite Spider-Man story ever. It’s a near-perfect blend of familiar touchstones from the Spidey mythos, deep cuts given proper attention, fresh ingredients, intelligently sidestepped cliches (This is not a fresh-faced Peter Parker so no origin story rehashes), fantastic character writing and heartfelt performances from some of the industry’s finest voice actors, not to mention one absolute belter of an ending. The pulse-pounding action beats are paced against the quieter moments with great skill, especially for an open-world game packing so much to see and do within its version of New York City. The combat controls – understandably based off the Batman Arkham games – are lent a staggering amount of options thanks to the lovely interchangeable Spidey suit system, and most crucially, I could swing around that city with those Dualshock 4 triggers for days. It just feels so good!

In a year that promised plenty of long-awaited PS4 exclusives brimming with obvious quality, I did not expect this one to come out on top for me. Which is great, because it technically didn’t. Which brings me to…

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1. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (PS4)

This wonderful game
Hides a mountainside town where
Folks speak in haiku

And so on this page
Against my better judgement
I shall do the same

My first Dragon Quest
The most visually polished
Old-school adventure

This epic journey
Structured like a TV show
Burns slowly and bright

Stellar characters
Battles with deceptive depth
Wondrous energy

Emotion, plot twists
All pay off for those who wait
The story hits home

Sylvando is great
And Serena is best girl
Just tell me I’m wrong

MIDI music files
Weren’t perhaps the wisest choice
Over eighty hours

But everything else
Without a doubt delivers
In confident style

After a tough day
A serving of Dragon Quest
Lifts the spirits high

Absolute top-tier
Japanese role-playing game
My game of the year

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Honorable Mentions
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WarioWare Gold (3DS)

I thought for sure that this game would end up on the main list while I was playing it, but the sheer landslide of quality titles that hit after this little gem’s late July release means it just missed out. WarioWare Gold is not only the first “proper” WarioWare game since the Wii’s excellent Smooth Moves, it’s a damn fine entry in the series. Part greatest-hits anthology, part off-the-wall fresh story, part bizarrely Nintendo-fied collection of gimmicks (such as a gallery of bad drawings reacting to amiibo scans and several unlockable alarm clocks that force you to beat microgames before they stop yelling), Gold lives up to its name.

Overcooked 2 (NS)

Though the sequel to my 2016 game of the year could never hope to recapture the sheer unexpected freshness of the original – especially with so few visual changes – I actually managed to finish this one with two of my friends and that’s thanks in no small part to some cool level ideas and – thankfully – the ability to throw ingredients to your co-op partners.

Super Mario Party (NS)

May have made the main list if I had played it a bit more, but the few board game rounds I’ve been through – each with different people and different setups – have shown off some wonderful new mechanics (Unique dice blocks! Allies!) and what might be the most exciting suite of minigames to hit the series since the original trilogy.

BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle (NS)

I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that this is the fighting game I’ve played the most since Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. That would not have been a difficult bar to clear, to be fair, but I played this one with three different friend groups and two of those sessions went past three hours. It’s amazing how much mileage you can get out of simple, quick fighting gameplay, a heap of colourful characters from other games and series, and a bunch of unique interactions to discover.

Pokemon Quest (NS)

Perhaps this should be a dishonorable mention because of just how many hours I racked up doing an awful lot of waiting and grinding, but I loved it anyway. Whatever small Game Freak team made this game just nailed that devious balance between gratification and carrot-dangling. Thank God they put a cap on the microtransactions.

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