First, a dishonorable mention: Fallout 76. This is the first video game I have returned in 15 years. From the moment I heard someone’s un-mutable mic during the character creation screen to the moment I achieved what the game told me was an important goal, I never felt immersed in the world of Fallout. I gave it two hours of my time and then asked Bethesda for a refund. To be fair, they gave me the refund, but it was still my biggest gaming disappointment of the year.
On to the good stuff:
10. Into the Breach
2018 was an interesting year for me—the year I tried to buy zero games. I lasted until March 21st, and this is the game that broke my streak. I loved FTL and when the developers of one of my favorite games of the decade released a new title, I didn’t really try very hard to resist the urge. But, as you can guess by its last place ranking, I kind of wish I had held strong. Into the Breach was fun enough, but it didn’t come close to capturing the magic of FTL.
9. Crusader Kings II
I’ve wanted to like Paradox Games for a long time now, but last year I was in the right mental space to learn Stellaris. This year, by the skin of my teeth, I managed to claw out enough time and mental energy to get half-a-clue on how to play Crusader Kings. I’m not good at it, mind you, and I have to constantly rein in my paint-the-map-red urge, but there are very deep and fascinating mechanics at work in this game. It’s fun at my current level, but I’m confident that as I improve my skills, CK2 will be higher on next year’s list.
8. Red Dead Redemption 2
EIGHTH!? RDR2 is eighth on my list? Yes—because it’s slow. I get that it’s designed to be slow. I get that this wasn’t ever supposed to be Grand Theft Equine. In fact, I can see the reasoning behind every single game design that resulted in this mosey-along game. And, I don’t even think it was the wrong call. It's just that the times this year when I thought, Man, I just want to play a slow game for a couple of hours, have never been the times when I had a couple of hours to spare. The Venn Diagram of those two circles never intersected, so RDR2 is ranked accordingly.
7. Darkest Dungeon
I have sent many a good person to their death in my video game career. If you were to line up every hero, not even the villains, who have gone to meet their digital maker thanks to my button mashing or keyboard clicking, the macabre caravan of fallen champions would stretch to the horizon. Darkest Dungeon, with sparse writing, deep atmosphere, and a wonderful theme, made me feel bad for doing that in a way no other game ever even attempted.
6. They Are Billions
I played on the easiest difficulty, with the fewest number of zombies, and the most amount of time, and I still died. Again, and again. And again. And it was still fun. The zombies in this game are no joke; if even a few get into a defenseless area of your hamlet, it is damn near an instant game over. The fun comes from planning and placement to make sure a breach never happens.
5. Donut County
A fun, goofy, time-wasting iPad game? Yes. The humor was inviting, the graphics were whimsical, and the time wasting fun was—get this—fun! Just as I am always on the search for TV shows that are enjoyable, but not too good (so that I can have them on the background while doing chores without being upset that I am missing something important), it’s also pleasant to have a light game to pick up and enjoy while waiting in line.
Fighting for the survival of the human race is a high goal, and one I would do anything to achieve. Boy, does this game make me do anything to achieve it. Child labor is literally one of the earliest decisions I had to make. Every last second of every single game was spent desperately clawing at an uncaring wilderness to get every scrap of food and every bit of fuel before an imminent blizzard exterminated the human race. Even a few mismanaged cooking huts would bring the ultimate disaster. I genuinely felt a sense of accomplishment when I brought the last surviving remnant of humanity through … only to realize the horrible truth as the credits rolled. This game made me feel more guilty than any other game before or since.
3. Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze
Pitfall and Super Mario Bros. are some of my earliest gaming memories, so I’m no stranger to platformers, but this is without a doubt the best platformer I’ve ever played. The controls are tight, and I never suffered a single death that I didn’t feel was my own fault. The most amazing thing, though? Every piece of the platforming flowed. In even the best Mario platformers, you have blocks that hang in midair. No reason. They are just anti-gravity blocks that exist solely so you have a place to jump. In Tropical Freeze, every object you jump on has a reason to exist in that specific place. Immersion at this level actually makes this gorgeous game feel even more fresh and exciting. Pretty big accomplishment for a Wii U port.
Spider-Man 2 was a cherished gaming memory for me. No other game made me feel like I was a superhero the way that Spider-Man 2 did. Every Spider-Man game I played after fell inevitably into comparison with SM2. This game, though? It turns SM2 into a good-for-its-time game. Spider-Man captures the characters of Peter Parker and Spider-Man to a T, and even does something interesting with Mary Jane that I could see getting copied into the comics. The only way it could have been better would have been with a Shadow of Mordor nemesis system where various villains grew in power after defeating you. You'd never know who the real big-bad was going to be. Leave it all up to emergent game-play, I say. Don’t get me wrong, the story is fine, but my dream game is still Sim-Spider-Man.
As added bonus, Spider-Man gave the world the last very high-tech, digital motion capture scan of Stan Lee. I’m willing to bet it is going to be used for decades to come.
1. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
I’ve never had gaming buddies like I had in college. Christ, has anybody? For us, no game held a higher place in our roster than Super Smash Bros., not even GoldenEye. You probably wouldn’t be wrong to say that I’ve been chasing that co-op gaming dragon ever since, despite radical chages to my lifestyle. Melee and Brawl were almost exclusively single-player experiences for me, but even solo, I couldn’t help feeling the glow of memories from college. When I got Ultimate, that glow returned, only fading slightly by Monday when I had to return to work. My six year old son, however, did not have school on that Monday. The Guildford County school system closes down if there is even a hint of snow, and we had a semi-blizzard that day. For five solid days, he was home with the only babysitter my wife and I could find on such short notice. We made an exception to our usually pretty strict screen time limits, so every day after work, my son would hand me the Switch so I could beat all of the characters he had partially unlocked that day. He would get so excited every time I beat one of them. I will remember for years how joyously he shouted, “You unlocked Incineroar!” By Friday, we had unlocked every character in Ultimate. Plus, with all the time he spent on the game, he’s now better at playing Smash than he’s ever been at playing any other game. Now, I’m looking forward to fine tuning a few of the many options to make my character weaker and his stronger. I’ve got a new gaming buddy to play with, and it’s time for me to make some new memories of Smash. I think they’ll be very good ones.
After writing my list this year, I found that my top 10 sorted themselves rather nicely. As always, a lot of amazing games on offer, and many, very good ones didn't make the cut!
As tastes and time management have changed, so has the style of game. If we were to size them as T-shirts, you'd see a couple XXL and a whole lot of small and "smedium". It's tough to get to those 20-30 hour games anymore.
10-7: A Grab-bag of Genres
10. Darkarta: A Broken Heart's Quest
As usual, I'm giving this spot to a game that maybe isn't actually in my top 10, but that does something interesting and is worthy of visibility. Darkarta is a hidden-object game with some inventory-management puzzle game thrown in. Visually, it's gorgeous. Puzzle-wise, it's fantastic. Voice-acting-wise it's terrible. And story-wise it's ... odd. But if you enjoy this kind of game you should not miss out on what it has to offer.
9. The Turing Test
In a world where Portal and The Talos Principle didn't exist, this game would have made a lot of waves. It doesn't quite match the brilliance of those two (particularly from a puzzle-perspective), but it is still a solid game with some top-notch voice work from the main character.
I keep hoping for something, anything, to match the snowboarding brilliance of the 2012 release of SSX. This isn't it; however, it comes a lot closer than pretty much everything else released since. The wackiness is dialed down and the realism is dialed up (some), but it still holds together for a very fun experience.
7. Slay the Spire
Give it another month and this might be in my top three. Graphical glitchiness (for me) aside, Slay the Spire is a fantastic mash-up of a few different elements that boil down to an epic package. Now, if I could actually beat the Act III boss with The Defect instead of just getting it down to 25 health every time...
6-4: Character-Driven Dramas
H0I, Temmie! It's good. I'd place it higher if the actual gameplay were a bit more enjoyable and less repetitive, or if you didn't have to hit the same story-beats several times to get to any appreciable ending. If it's more fun to quote Monty Python than to actually watch it, diving into the Undertale communities to discuss the story and theories around it (what is Sans, really?) is similarly more fun than actually playing the game.
I don't know if I'd say this has the best dialogue ever written, but it sure is evocative. At the tender age of 36, I was pretty-instantly whisked away to being a teenager again by both the writing and the delivery. It is functionally a conversation-simulator, but the setup of the story is interesting, and I appreciate the supernatural-explanation-of-history theme.
Bucking the general consensus, I much preferred this game to Gone Home. It presents a truly interesting and unique storytelling mechanic, is less terrible about beating you over the head with characterization than most character-driven games (not great but seriously, way less terrible), and it posits a believable near-future world with some of the interesting questions that could arise. I'm looking forward to going back through this short, delightful experience with the developer commentary on.
Top 3: Open-World Masterpieces
3. Xenoblade Chronicles 2
It is a very unusual occurrence that my top three are all pretty sandbox-y, massive maps of mischief. XC2 is not quite as open-world as its almost-namesake Xenoblade Chronicles X, and it has a few more cringe-worthy cut-scenes, but the combat continues to improve. Plus, the milieu of the whole thing is very engrossing. And who doesn't love scavenging for goods via quicktime events? Seriously, they actually made it fun.
2. Final Fantasy 15
Waiting for this to arrive on Windows was worth it. This take on an open-world game scratched a lot of itches I didn't even know I had. The combat was certainly not as complicated (read: fiddly) as previous games, and there were plenty of things to do and Places You Should Not Yet Be™ to explore while woefully under-leveled. I understand this was a pretty different game when it first launched, but it aged VERY well. I'm looking forward to tackling the DLC to flesh out the four characters even more. A+++ Would road-trip again.
1. The Witcher 3
I mean, it's really great. Not sure what there is to say that wasn't said already 3-4 years ago. Nobody wants to be that guy, right? Seriously though, if you haven't played it, I think there's something here for everyone.
Abzu, Sproggiwood, Slime Rancher, Gunpoint, Octopath Traveler (I could write a book about this one), Loot Rascals
What a list I have for you this year! It’s sure to excite! It’s sure to enrage! It’s sure to elicit at least one round of “Oh, Greg! That’s so you!”
So, let’s get to the fun.
10. Overcooked 2
I think the highest praise I can bestow is that Overcooked 2 actually improved my opinion of the original Overcooked. I kind of despised it before, but Overcooked 2 convinced me to go back, and heck if I didn’t enjoy myself. Well done!
9. Far Cry 5
I rarely finish open world games, but I enjoyed Far Cry 5 all the way through. The only reason this isn’t higher on my list is because the ending was so bad, I had to write my own, which I have unilaterally declared canon.
8. Sleep Tight
I adore everything about this game. The art is charming, the gameplay loop is fun, and the variety of characters let's you easily change things up to give yourself a different experience. It’s a perfect popcorn game.
7. Way of the Passive Fist
It’s a crime that I couldn’t put this into my top five. It’s the best side-scrolling arcade brawler I’ve played in decades. And I finished it! The only reason it doesn’t make my top five is due to the strength of the games that bested it.
6. Tesla Vs Lovecraft
I not only completed the story mode, which was not trivial, but I spent hours in the challenge mode before finally catching my fill. You'd have to look long and hard to find a finer example of the dual-stick shooter genre.
5. Soul Calibur 6
Every sequel comes with an unspoken request from the audience: Make me feel how I felt when I played the first one! But few sequels manage it. Doom did in 2016. Tekken 7 did (in the US, anyway) in 2017. This year, Soul Calibur 6 captures the crown. It is instantly comfortable for fans of the original, but has enough modern tweaks and quality of life improvements that it feels brand new. Bravo to Namco for consistently making the right choices with old franchises. It’s an achievement made even more amazing when you realize Dragon Ball FighterZ came out the same year!
In another year, Wandersong would have won my top spot in a walk. Everything about the game is buoyant and joyful, and I’m delighted to have had the privilege of playing it. If you play no other indie game in 2019, please don't neglect this 2018 gem.
3. Fallout 76
I’m as surprised as you are! Playing Fallout 76 with my wife is one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2018. The fact that it’s Fallout as I usually play—which is to say, ignoring the story (which is generally crap, anyway) and going whole hog into exploration and world building—is the reason it makes number three on my list.
2. Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate
How do I sing the praises of a game so venerable? I’ve always liked the Monster Hunter series, but until it came to a system with two joysticks, I never appreciated it so much. I’ve played more than one-hundred hours since its August launch, and my wife has put in double that! It is a phenomenally good version of Monster Hunter, and if you like the series to be portable, as I do, it is a must own.
1. Farming Simulator 19
"Oh, you!" Farming simulator has occupied my top ten for several years running, but has never grabbed the top spot. What changed? Was it the horses? The new tractors? The improved vehicle physics and overall complexity of the simulation? The answer is yes—and more. All of the little tweaks and adjustments conspired to make an already great series into a shining example of how to do mundane simulations.
Hitman 2, Bomb Chicken, Adventure Pals, Extinction
Amanda "Amoebic" Knowlton
Slay the Spire
The Gardens Between
Slay The Spire
Monument Valley 2
Sean "Elysium" Sands
Slay the Spire
Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
Shawn "Certis" Andrich
Read Dead Redemption 2
God of War
State of Decay 2
Allen "Pyroman" Cooke
Soul Calibur 6
Smash Bros Ultimate
Cory "Demiurge" Banks
Hollow Knight (Switch)
Slay The Spire
Into The Breach