The “Oscars” – Games of the Year 2018

It’s that time of year again — that’s right the END of the year. Before the fire and brimstone falls down to blast away the remains of yet another year, it’s my tradition to look back at the year of video games. Because I like video games I guess. Usually I do this as awards, but this time I wanted to take a little bit of a longer form approach, and do something a bit more contemplative not strictly mired in the 2018 release schedule, though sure enough I will be presenting some games of the year too.

So bear with me, and strap in for some self-love about my walk through the medium. Least of all encompassing, of course, my job switch from Editor of Rice Digital to Games Editor of Official PlayStation Magazine. Which hasn’t brought many changes to be honest, I’m just as much trash as ever.

In Pursuit of Boys (and novels)

It won’t surprise many of you that I want to kick this off talking about my anime boys, and of course some visual novels in general. Except, maybe it will. To be honest, 2018 was the year I truly embraced the otome, and it’s been a real whirlwind. It’s been the sort of experience where I’m still struggling to finish off Danganronpa V3, but can always set aside time for some new anime boys. It’s in no small part thanks to Rice Digital’s Max, who we hired onto the site as Staff Writer while I was Editor. Partially because he was just so knowledgeable on things I was not. That’s how you build a team! And of course, working with someone helps some things rub off, even if I still don’t really understand Fate/Stay and can’t name half the characters I gacha in Fire Emblem Heroes (sorry, Max). I loved getting back into Mystic Messenger at the beginning of the year, and finally getting that 707 route. Cheritz have massively expanded that game since I first played it, and it was an absolute pleasure. This pushed me into more mobile otome, where I played Love Ice Rink (pleasant enough, but not really recommended).

It’s Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds on Vita that really got me hooked. A remake of the original game (sort of!), it’s the perfect mix of historical fiction and vampire demons that’ll get me every time. Coupled with the released-this-year Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms it tells the full story of the Shinsengumi in lavish detail, with more options than you can shake your prayer beads at seeing as this is essentially a definitive edition. Like a man unleashed, this led me to consume more and more — Amnesia Memories (the chilling Diamond route changed how I think about life), both Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly and Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk (both beautiful and emotional and fantastic), and 7’scarlet (a super intriguing modern day murder mystery in a small town). I also played The Men of Yoshiwara: Kikuya on Switch which was kinda cool but less good. While these stories are about romance (and don’t I know it), it’s more about just telling a really good story and using the interactive medium to make that even better. Give them a shot!

But it’s not about love being in the air! I also got my hands on more visual novels about other things. I didn’t get to play much Death Mark yet (a horror VN), but was thrilled to see it head west, and The 25th Ward (follow-up to Suda 51’s The Silver Case) was great to see properly remastered and finally released in the west, though it didn’t hit home in quite the same way the first game did to me. I also, as I said, continue to put off Danganronpa V3. But I fell in love with 428: Shibuya Scramble. It might be an older game, but it’s here in the west at last. Touching in moments, fantastically goofy in others — it’s a wonderfully approachable visual novel that sees you nudging multiple characters route in a kidnapping case (that quickly escalates) an hour at a time so all their paths end up working out. For those scared of visual novels, this may be the one. So please give it a go if you want to find out more about the “dick diary” (trust me on this)

TL;DR

Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk, 7’scarlet, and 428: Shibuya Scramble all deserve your attention!

Contemplative about narrative

It’s not just the wordy wordy games that give you story, though. There’s plenty more ways to soak in narrative delights. After all, I do work with Official PlayStation’s very own mistress of narrative, Jess Kinghorn. Several games have been shoved onto my radar through her recommendations. Quite a few FMV based! D’Avekki Studios released The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective this year – both super interesting FMV throwbacks that were a lot of fun, if far from perfect. They both have pretty different vibes, but I had more fun with the goofiness of Dekker, but if a more noir plot interests you, then maybe check out Shapeshifting Detective. They’re definitely curiosities, and I’m interested in seeing what else they come up with next, though they might be for true FMV lovers only!

It’s also a year where I’ve still not gotten to Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, or Life Is Strange 2 Episode 1 just yet. But I did play through The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, and found myself ruminating on the first game some more. With the closure of Telltale Games, it’s been a ponderous time for episodic narrative gaming, and there’s still something about that first LiS I loved so much. But alas, Captain Spirit is an interesting free vignette, but not much more as it’s short and lacking in conclusion, and mainly just teases the second game. Worth a look, but I’ll get to the main thing down the line.

It’s The Council that has been the stand out for me (again, entranced as I was by watching Jess play it for review). I’ve yet to finish the whole thing, but I’ve had most of it spoiled for me by sitting next to her. But, at the same time, not spoiled completely. Ruminating on episodic adventure games as I was, this is a step forward that really feels fresh and unique. The choices feel like they have consequence not in what people necessarily do, but how they affect your character. Your stats affect some of your choices and how you progress in conversations, which you can build up to specialise in certain areas over time, or certain events will give you buffs and debuffs, making you really feel like you’re playing it your own way. I would love to see more narrative games explore a stat based system like this, as it has been simply a delight to play if not a perfect game. I also feel compelled to mention Vamypr in this section too, as it’s a bizarrely janky game I can’t stop thinking about, with a very clunky yet intriguing combat system – it’s mostly interesting for the story and setting. You play a vampire doctor who can feast on those around him for xp as he works to solve a vampire plot in old timey London during the Spanish plague. It’s worth more of a look than you might think, but you’ll have to put up with some jank for sure – but I love what it’s trying to do.

It’s also worth mentioning that both Shenmue and Shenmue 2 came to modern consoles via a remaster. It didn’t really change much, but even shorter load times were much appreciated. It was my first time playing the second game, and I loved both of them. The first one is still super special to me, and I really love how this small mystery slowly unravels as you prod at it. Shenmue 2 is pretty good too, but the more sweeping narrative didn’t have that same charm to me. Hoping, as ever, Shenmue the Third lives up.

Perhaps that’s why Detroit: Become Human fell flat for me this year. As dazzled as I was by the buddycop strand of the story, held aloft by the probably-aching acting arms of Bryan Dechart and Clancy Brown as Connor and Hank respectively – an android detective and a non-android human policeman who end up having to put their differences aside to work together. But the rest was just pretty cliche and kinda dull. I think the main disappointment is in many ways it was pretty and oozed budget, but at the same time felt lacking in much originality, whereas other games that feel like they’re pushing what narrative games can be (perhaps even only incrementally) feel quite the opposite, having to struggle with limitations in budget. Can’t they get some of that money.

TL;DR

Definitely making time to play The Council if you like old school adventure games, and are interested by episodic narrative games.

Vampyr, The Infection Madness of Doctor Dekker, and The Shapeshifting Detective may interest you if you’re super into the subject matter – they’re interesting!

Check out Shenmue if you never did – rejoice in its availability!

Always tied by the strings of JRPGs

It’s true, I always have one hanging over my head. It feels like this year I’ve been less blitzed by big releases. Before 2018 I ended up reviewing Final Fantasy XV, Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age, Persona 5, Tales of Berseria, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. This year the pressure has been off, and to be honest I’ve not made my way through many, though I’ve still be enjoying, though not always the newest out there. Because with JRPGs it doesn’t always have to be. The greats always stand the test of time. One I slept on before was Shadow Hearts, and Jess would end me if I didn’t mention it. It’s about as PS2 as it gets, but in a great way. It’s a goofy-in-some-ways bits of horror historical fiction, which is exactly my thing, and with an interesting transformation battle system that revolves around timed button presses. How did I miss this one? I definitely need to finish it, though I’m enamoured by what I have seen so far. It’s only playable on PS2 though which makes it tough to sink into, and just goes to show how important making old games accessible really is.

It’s not quite JRPG, but here I may as well say I also watched a Let’s Play of Clock Tower 3, a game that’s always intrigued me but I was too flustered to play (also its controls have not aged well). Clock Tower as a series has always fascinated me, and while the third instalment is truly strange (the original game for me has the most effective scares), and it was great to see it through. So too did I read a Let’s Play of the original Suikoden, a JRPG I really love that I never came close to finishing, especially not recruiting all the characters. For the time it was truly special, and to this day has a truly unique edge to it with how full of rich characters to recruit it is.

I’ve been making my way through Persona 3 Portable too. The dungeons are such a slog. But, as expected, I love pretty much everything else. There’s just something so compelling about the Persona games. They’re relatable, essentially, as you explore the world and lives of contemporary teens through your main character. I’m in January, and all I need to do now is wait for the last day for the final path to open up. Wish me luck! My quest to make it through all the Persona games continues. Naturally, the Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection lit up my life recently, bringing Persona 4 Dancing to PS4 for the first time, and the Persona 3 and Persona 5 versions too. Fantastic rhythm games oozing personality with some great music. What’s not to love? I also finished Kingdom Hearts for the first time this year which was quite the ride, though it’s amazing to see how far even Kingdom Hearts 2 took it with smoothing out the combat, though I’ve not played much of that one.

As far as new games go, it’s been a delight to play through a good few hours each of both Ni No Kuni 2 and Dragon Quest 11. They’re simply charming. Bright and colourful, they remind me of JRPGs I used to love so much, and I can’t wait to play them some more. Both feel a bit like throwbacks – Dragon Quest especially – but also quite modern at the same time. JRPGs don’t always need to evolve too much, as something comfortable with quality of life improvements can be great too.

It’s also been the year where I played through both Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2. What a great series Yakuza is. 6 closed out Kiryu’s story with a great tale of fatherhood and family, and Kiwami 2 fantastically remade the second game in 6’s engine – which is simply a great crime story with many, many twists and turns. Despite playing so similarly (though Kiwami 2 edges out 6 with a slightly more refined fighting system), they tonally manage to feel quite different. Though, of course, both have the unique Yakuza thing of perfectly balancing some of the most emotional and heartfelt moments you’ll find in gaming with some of the most laugh out loud silly. It takes a lot for a game to make me laugh, but Yakuza always, always manages it.

And, one more for the pile seeing as so many other places have been categorising it as a JRPG – Monster Hunter World. It’s not my first rodeo, but definitely the hardest and most gratifying ride I’ve had in a long time. Monster Hunter World is not only perhaps the best rendition of the act of monster hunting yet, but also the most accessible. While still challenging, it’s never been easier to understand, which was always the bane of the series. And also never easier to summon in random friends to help you (a little like Soulsborne), which is super. It manages to just feel great to play – both the satisfying feeling of force as you grapple with huge monsters, but also with the loop of hunting those monsters directly feeding into materials to get better gear, rather than you grinding for intangible xp. And with a ton of free updates, it’s become just a really fantastic platform.

TL;DR

Monster Hunter World is great! As are Yakuza 6 and Yakuza Kiwami 2!

If you like Persona, please play Persona Dancing: Endless Night Collection.

My life is full of action

#As usual. I’m just a very exciting kind of guy. Starting, of course, with the Japanese stuff. I finally went back and finished Bloodborne at the start of the year, after being trapped in the Old Hunter’s DLC for some time. My course carried me through and well past the other side, into the chalice dungeons where I netted that platinum. I also dipped into Dark Souls Remastered, it was great to be reminded of just how tough that first game could be, and into the DLC of Dark Souls 3 which remains unfinished (though I liked what I played). The differences in the series From Software can do remains ever interesting, especially with the much different again Sekiro (or even Deracine, which I’ve only see a bit of – a PS VR narrative game). Between Dark Souls and Bloodborne, I just find the more no frills of approach of Bloodborne that much easier to jump back into, and hopefully Sekiro will be the same. Bloodborne was a phenomenal experience, as expected.

I spent a lot of this year since E3 hyped as heck for Devil May Cry V. Playing the Nero demo, it was great to be reminded of the systems in Devil May Cry 4 and how unique the felt at the time, and hopefully DMCV will be a great evolution of that (so far it definitely seems to be). Hopping back into Devil May Cry 4 Special Edition I found myself instantly sucked back in for the first time since its 2008 release (or perhaps I played it first in 2010…?). The way Nero pulls you into the game, shows you how things can be different than the Dante you knew in Devil May Cry 3 – and oh, the grabs, the grabs! Then midway through Dante is placed back on your lap, more complex in some ways than Nero, with multiple weapons to swap between and even on-the-fly style switching as opposed to the one-at-a-time in the third game. Even so many years on, the combat system holds up. It’s just a shame the game repeats a lot of areas – but when they combat’s as fun as it is, it’s hard not to just be entranced.

Speaking of old games, how fantastic was the Spyro Reignited Trilogy? In many ways reminiscent of the Crash remake trilogy, this Spyro one just clicked way more for me. Because you explore these 3D worlds so much more deeply than Crash’s platforming challenges, it just benefits loads more from the fresh coat of paint. The attention to detail is stunning – the way the characters feel so distinct, right down to the enemy designs. It’s just a heap of fantastic game.

But going even further back. Remember Mega Man? I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Mega Man 11 this year, helped in no small part to the mediocrity of the spiritual successor to Mega Man, Mighty No 9 being such a disappointment (though I was more warm on that one than most). What’s great about Mega Man 11 is that while on one hand it feels very much in the mould of the classics, it also reinvents too – the gear system added a great twist, allowing you to power up Mega Man’s shots or slow down time in limited bursts, and to be honest the stage design for the most part is just incredibly tight. Challenging in much the same ways as you’d remember from the classics, but playing a lot fairer. It looked gorgeous too, and had some great difficulty options to aid those intimidated by Mega Man, but also offering more than enough challenge for veterans. It was just a real class act of a throwback – as far as revitilaising their catalogue goes, Capcom have been on fire for the last couple of years. It’s just tremendous.

I’m getting wordy so let’s rattle through some more standouts. Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man too threw back in a lot of ways to some older types of game design. There’s a heap of collectables, and even towers, but it stays fresh thanks to the web-swinging being just so satisfying. It put so much love and care into adapting what’s great about the character, full of fun little nods – and tells just a superb Spider-Man story. At the end of the day, that’s great to see. Red Dead Redemption 2 was surprisingly a little divisive, but after spending just so much time with it I fell in love with the slow paced sim-vibes it put out in the end. What made it click for me wasn’t just following through the journey myself, but seeing so many other people go on their own journeys that felt so different to mine. The main story was a bit restrictive in that regard, but seeing people just go out into the world and stumble on things in their own way was just so special. As someone who didn’t love the old God of War I wasn’t expecting to love the new God of War as much as I did. It’s a slower, more personal take. The Leviathan axe Kratos can throw and summon back made the combat feel extra special, and the slower story about his journey with his son was just, like, super nice. Helps the myth stuff was super cool too, more of that.

I pre-preemptively prepared for a few of the big releases of the year too. I played through all of Assassin’s Creed Origins in preparation for Odyssey and… ended up not having time to play much Odyssey yet. I’m a big AC fan, and while I really loved a lot of Origins, it also felt super different to the stuff I loved in the Ezio Trilogy and Syndicate. And Odyssey is just SO big. Too big. Overwhelming. I also started replaying some of Rise of the Tomb Raider in anticipation of Shadow of the Tomb Raider which… I’ve also struggled to finish. I really like some of the tomb puzzle designs more than ever, but aspects of it just really aren’t clicking for me. A little bit checklisty and a bit too big for its own good. The Paititi city hub is interesting but… feels  a bit weird. I wanna finish it because I really liked the first Tomb Raider of this new trilogy at the time. I also ALSO finished the last couple of stages of the 2016 Hitman. Then launched into Hitman 2. Which. I. Loved. No other game does stealth in quite the same way. The social stealth is so deep you can take a step back and almost play it more like a puzzle game. Stealth can mean a lot of different things in games in different contexts, but Hitman 2 is just a real class act. With all the maps out at once, there’s no real weak link in them. They’re all incredible, with the American suburbia level being a real stand out.

TL;DR

Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption 2, and God of War were great.

And if you like those oldies, don’t sleep on Mega Man 11 and Spyro Reignited Trilogy.

And Hitman 2 is just perf and I love it.

Fight me

I got into a lot of fights. Big fights. Beautiful fights. With all my faves. That’s right Dragon Ball FighterZ and Super Smash Bros Ultimate have been great. Dragon Ball is a wonderful fighting game that encapsulates the spirit of the anime/manga, and is an ArcSys fighter than manages to really be approachable by baking the autocombo options into the way the whole thing is design from the outset. I’ve yet to spend enough time with Smash, but already the World of Light mode is offering so much for single players in such a creative way.

While it’s not the best fighting game of the year, the hill I die on is SNK Heroines: Tag Team Battle, which I thought was super underrated. Unafraid to embrace being a “casual fighter” it leans hard into the party game like vibes with crazy items, and super simple basic controls (no duck!). This leads to some surprisingly clutch moments that mimic big esports moments, but achievable to everyone, as you all scramble to push through defences to land that big finisher.

TL;DR

Dragon Ball FighterZ is great, I didn’t play enough Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and SNK Heroines is serioisly underrated fun.

Catch me online

This is the year I finally tried to click with some more online games. Fortnite I’ve managed to sort of understand a bit more. I’ve loved a lot of the updates to the game this year, with new games modes, and things like vehicles and ziplines to make it feel a bit more dynamic. I’ve had some great moments, like getting the final kill in a (team) match, but I still sort of feel a bit weird essentially doing the same thing over and over again. I played a bit of PUBG, H1Z1, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, but they just don’t click quite like Fortnite.

I’ve preferred Destiny 2 since some of the Forsaken updates, but still just find so much of it so opaque and intimidating. My hat goes off to the new Gambit Mode, which feels like a really fresh mode in an online shooter, which can be a bit of a rarity. Part PvP, part PvE, it’s a team based mode that essentially has players sabotage each other’s progress in a wave based mode. It’s easy to get to grips with, and just strategic enough. I also got a little into Warframe, which is a completely free game that is a little bit like Destiny. The Fortuna update was packed with style, but most of all I just love how slick it is to dash around as a robot ninja chopping and shooting things, even if the animations can sometimes be a bit silly.

But the standout has been getting back into Final Fantasy XIV, helped along by the announcement of Version 4.0, Shadowbringers. I love the care the dev team takes with updating and streamlining the game, and how it’s an MMO that’s really approachable for those who like playing solo. It’s definitely been a big plus to have been playing with Jess, though I’ve also managed to drag myself through the main questline for A Realm Reborn too. Here’s to more adventures!

TL;DR

Final Fantasy XIV is still great, sorry.

Shopping independent

As always, though, it feels like a lot of the most unique experiences I’ve had in the gaming realm have been thanks to the indies. The two gems that adorn my crown from the beginning of getting started on OPM are The Sword of Ditto and Forgotton Anne, both which have really stuck with me. Ditto is a sort of roguelike Zeldalike that oozes charm, challenging you to get to the top of a tower within a time-frame, and passing down some of your power to the next in-line every time you fail. It’s been updated a ton since I played it so it’s quite different (and more approachable) but it just oozes charm. Forgotton Anne is a 2D platformer with gorgeous animations and artwork, about a world where forgotten items (like socks or lamps) have become imbued with sentiencey. It has all the vibes of great kid’s cartoon films – with delightful charm and dark emotional moments aplenty as you’d expect. The solid animations to the movement takes some getting used to, but when you do it’s all good.

Gorogoa and Hollow Knight have been out a little while on other platforms, but I only played them for the first time on PS4 this year. And oh my, are they both very good. Gorogoa is a puzzle game where you rearrange intricate images to move in and out of pictures in a way that is only ever just challenging enough, and always pushes you to have brilliant eureka moments. Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania with gorgeous artwork and a mysterious narrative that just does a superb job of that. It’s set in a post-calamity bug world that’s full of intrigue, and punishing if you get lost in the wrong places. What’s brilliant is not only the distinct areas, but how they all work as little microcosms of what’s great about the game. You unlock map information and knowledge as you explore each area at a time, making each new one you uncover the start of a new adventure, albeit one you bring your tools and mastery of the game into.

With some similar Dark Souls inspiration as well as some Metroidvania vibes was Death’s Gambit. At times it was super interesting to take that approach into 2D, but at many points it felt slavish to its Souls inspiration. When it broke free it was interesting, but didn’t really do it enough. I also loved my time with Beat Saber, but didn’t really get into it enough. Waggling the PS Move to hit the rhythm prompts out of the are was exhilarating, albeit sweaty.

The Gardens Between and Donut County were both excellent highlights too. The first is a puzzle game that didn’t overstay its welcome where you rewind and fast-forward through sort of memory islands this pair of friends is making their way through, and activating things at the right times for them to make it through. No puzzle element overstayed its welcome, and it was just the right amount. Similarly bite-sized was the delicious Donut County, where you control a hole sucking thing in that just gets bigger over time. The story is a ton of fun, and the levels add some great varied twists over time.

TL;DR

Indies are rad, yo. Try all of these if they interest you, but especially don’t sleep on The Gardens Between, Donut County, Hollow Knight, Gorogoa, or Forgotton Anne.

 

The ten recommendations

Here are 10 games you definitely should play. In no order.

Hitman 2

Hollow Knight

Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds / Edo Blossoms (to me these count as one game)

Forgotton Anne

Red Dead Redemption 2

Spider-Man

Donut County

The Council

Yakuza 6 or Yakuza Kiwami 2 (pick your poison)

Monster Hunter World.

 

Maybe…? Goodybe!

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