Month: December 2018

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018

by Jed Pressgrove

2018 could be the worst year ever for big-budget hits. A couple of months ago, Spider-Man would have made this list. After playing dozens of games since that time, I can’t give it a spot. The list now lacks any of the obvious choices that the gaming hype machine would endorse.

Fortunately, the state of mainstream gaming doesn’t have to be impressive in order for it to be a good year for games. The following titles hold their own against last year’s best.

1. Iconoclasts

In Iconoclasts, an intersection of faith and government keeps a population in check, and it’s up to Robin, a silent Christ-like figure, to upend the system. Featuring the most striking pixel art of the year, this game never lets you forget that its world is full of human beings with competing beliefs and experiences. The narrative, reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI’s theatrics, emphasizes how perspectives and goals clash to awaken a new world. Armed with a wrench that is even more versatile than Kratos’ axe, Robin solves mechanical puzzles as the melodrama of the story intensifies. Developer Joakim Sandberg articulates politics with a level of maturity that is rare in both games and our current mainstream dialogue.

(See full review of Iconoclasts here.)

2. Octahedron

No other release evolves like Demimonde’s Octahedron, which takes the platform-creating premise of all-time classic Solomon’s Key in an intoxicating direction. Level by level, the game suggests a yearning for personal and artistic change. Its constant mysteries, silky-smooth controls, heart-pounding soundtrack, and neon colors are entrancing. Sexiest game of 2018 by far and true platforming genius.

(See full review of Octahedron here.)

3. Legendary Gary

Notwithstanding its sarcastic title, Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary is a revelation for having a non-snarky metatextual approach alone. Sensitivity abounds in this strange RPG in which a lazy young man must stop ignoring what’s important in life. Like many gamers (including game journalists who are supposed to have higher standards), the titular protagonist uses video games to retreat from reality, but Gary learns that the real world needs him more than he needs the virtual world. In the middle of this humanistic story is an innovative and comical combat system that subverts the notion of taking separate turns.

(See full review of Legendary Gary here.)

4. Subnautica

Subnautica is everything the overrated Abzû should have been and more. Its alien ocean suggests a paradoxical masterpiece: few settings in video games are as inviting, yet no other open world is as frightening. As a result, crafting has rarely seemed as essential in a game, as new technology gives you the privilege to survive the depths of the sea. And 3D game creators, take note: there’s no excuse for clunky underwater mechanics when developer Unknown Worlds nails them so well here.

(See more thoughts on Subnautica here.)

5. Guacamelee! 2

This game is a certified barn burner. It can be wild, as when you learn how to duke it out with bad guys as a small chicken. It can be avant-garde, as when you can only see enemies and splatter against a white background while you move on invisible platforms. It can be cathartic and shocking, as when you finally get your hands on a pesky, elusive wizard who, after getting caught, transforms into a large animal and swallows you whole like Jonah. Forget Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Yakuza 6, Dragon Quest XI, Monster Hunter World, Attack on Titan 2, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Guacamelee! 2 is the 2018 sequel that flexes real creative muscle.

(See full review of Guacamelee! 2 here.)

6. Into the Breach

Into the Breach’s turn-based battles carry a distinct kind of urgency and drama. Hit points are low, so every move could be your last. Defense matters more than offense, as the game ends when the buildings you’re supposed to protect sustain too much damage. And the large, pixelated sprites have a rough sort of menace to them (this game has the best B-movie vibe since 2013’s Gaurodan). No moment in Into the Breach lacks dire stakes, as suggested by this line of in-game dialogue that evokes the cynicism of war hawks: “We can postpone the discussion on where you got the weaponry until after you use it.”

(See more thoughts on Into the Breach here.)

7. Dandara

Multiple games on this list (Octahedron, Guacamelee! 2, Yoku’s Island Express) provide fascinating ways for the player to travel across and between platforms. Yet Dandara still seems strange because of its fundamental awkwardness — with no option to walk or run, you can only land on white surfaces by zipping to them in a straight line. We’re simply not accustomed to a game that places such a significant constraint on movement while demanding pinpoint accuracy. More so than any game in 2018, Dandara rewards patience with a unique and blistering form of kineticism.

(See more thoughts on Dandara here.)

8. A Way Out

With a nimble camera and a bizarre dedication to cooperative gaming (A Way Out is always two-player split-screen), director Josef Fares continues to push the boundaries of duo-centric play. But while his previous game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons delves into the difficulties of coming of age, A Way Out flips friendship on its head after hours of bonding between two hard-boiled protagonists. The emotional aftermath of the game’s competitive twist cements A Way Out as one of the finest examples of pulpy storytelling in video games.

(See full review of A Way Out here.)

9. Yoku’s Island Express

Imagine Sonic Spinball as a semi-open world. That’s a simple way to describe how Yoku’s Island Express, developed by Villa Gorilla, stands apart in a year of groundbreaking 2D platformers. Navigating the game’s paddle-laden setting is intuitive enough to be relaxing and challenging enough to prevent boredom. It also helps that Yoku’s Island Express is an audiovisual feast: viewing the map is like appreciating a tapestry, and the sharp sound effects can linger in your mind long after playing.

10. Onrush

Onrush takes cues from several games (Burnout and Overwatch among them), but developer Codemasters’ commitment to structured chaos is undeniably distinguished. Whether convenient or not, Onrush ensures that you will be near vehicle-based war at all times. Completing laps ironically serves no purpose as you power up your automobile like a junkie. In an industry where fighting games refuse to move forward, Onrush is a refreshing and electrifying take on competitive combat.

(See full review of Onrush here.)

Honorable Mentions

Return of the Obra Dinn
The Gardens Between
Florence
Spider-Man
Plug Me

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2018 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

Welcome to this year’s list, which continues a feature introduced in last year’s round-up — the play-instead recommendations. For every entry in this list, I name a superior title. The catch is that a lot of these alternatives don’t approach greatness; they’re just competent enough to further highlight the ineptitude of the following titles.

1. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (PS4)

This RPG might be stripped down (no monsters, no spells) and might aim for a sense of realism (you must eat), but it plays like a college project gone wrong. The PS4 version (which I played at launch) is a technical travesty characterized by unresponsive button input, laughably repetitious townspeople dialogue, inconsistent visuals, bizarre bugs — I will generously stop the list there. Going by the “finished” product, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was made by people who have no respect for themselves, audiences, the notion of realism, or the art of video games.

(See full review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance here.)

Play Instead: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

While this sequel frequently scans as the work of depraved Resident Evil 4 and Uncharted fans who like to see dirt and blood on women, and while Lara Croft and her neck-beard-sporting friend Jonah are insufferable dullards, at least the game has the decency to function like it’s supposed to.

2. Red Dead Redemption 2

Go ahead, game industry whore. Excuse the lack of combat innovation, the unresponsiveness of basic functions, the numerous glitches, the contradiction between the focus on minute details and the overall lack of realism. Keep kneeling before the Rockstar executives and telling them that their game stuffing is different and competent. But if you’re going to take the extra step and claim that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a meaningful story about a gang of mythological outlaws being left behind by society, get off the game’s fake cinematic camera and sit down and watch the work of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch superbly depicts the gradual destruction of a nomad group of cowboys. In contrast to Red Dead Redemption 2, the film doesn’t pass off its tale as a kind of half-assed morality lesson. Instead, Peckinpah stares into the heart of violence and sees much of humanity. The gaming world’s ignorance of The Wild Bunch (and other great philosophical westerns) allows it to worship developer Rockstar one more time with zero self-reflection.

(See full review of Red Dead Redemption.)

Play Instead: Milanoir

Milanoir has much in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. It controls like crap, its cover-based gunfights are inferior to those of Gears of War, and it was developed by people who might very well believe a juvenile lens of the world is mature. Yet Milanoir doesn’t have a preposterous and outdated bounty system to bail you out. It actually sends the player to prison at one point, and you can almost taste the potential for a profound statement before Milanoir goes right back to its poorly constructed shooter sequences.

3. Chuchel

It’s clear that developer Jaromír Plachý wants to make a cartoon of sorts with Chuchel, but neither the subject matter (a chase after a cherry) nor the puzzle design is intriguing. Most of the time you just keep clicking on things until something happens, and the allusions to classics like Pac-Man are insultingly dull. Oddly, the protagonist resembles the golliwog racial caricature. If this artistic choice doesn’t point to any ill will, it definitely underlines the lack of intelligence in the overall design of the game.

Play Instead: The Gardens Between

Like Chuchel, The Gardens Between is not a mechanically complex game, but its puzzles, while simple, are much more engaging; the solution involving a suspended water drop ranks among the cleverest ideas in 2018 games. The Gardens Between is also a visual masterwork in how it links two characters’ childhood memories to level design. Every stage is an island that rotates as you move time forward and backward, resembling a hypnotic spell.

4. Donut County

It doesn’t matter that the apparent goal of Donut County is to make you smirk and giggle as you consume animals, bricks, chairs, cars, and more by moving a hole in the ground that grows every time it is fed. The game’s failure lies in its immediate loss of novelty. Developer Ben Esposito’s levels are largely the same exercise, requiring little imagination from the player and confining the action to extremely limited boundaries. Donut County’s redundant, brainless style recalls the numbing idiocy of Chuchel. The best thing you can say about either game is that they have the potential to reduce us to unthinking but amused participants. Just as eating certain foods can make you unhealthier, playing certain games can make you stupider.

Play Instead: Way of the Passive Fist

If you’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, the least you can do is have rhythm. Way of the Passive Fist turns the overdone beat-’em-up genre into a defensive exercise where timing is paramount for both survival and high scores. It’s very true this game should have been shorter to stave off a sense of monotony, but given that its challenges require great attention to detail from the player, Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t turn you into an easily amused automaton.

5. Paratopic

This release from the indie trash pile never comes close to matching its obvious ancestors (Silent Hill, Thirty Flights of Loving, Glitchhikers). Not scary, barely coherent, and unimaginatively surreal, Paratopic is all tone and no brain or heart.

(See full review of Paratopic here.)

Play Instead: Return of the Obra Dinn

In Papers, Please, Lucas Pope pretends he has a handle on politics, suffering, and humanity. He drops that act with Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that better communicates Pope’s pure interest in mystery. Unlike the case with Paratopic, superb audiovisuals allow Return of the Obra Dinn to tap deep into our fear of and fascination with the inevitability of disaster.

6. Celeste

Those who think this game has something interesting or important to say about mental illness are sadly mistaken. Celeste is the work of a manipulative artist (Matt Thorson) who thinks it’s insightful to reduce psychological difficulty to, say, an evil apparition that follows you around like Cosmic Mario. Ever notice how the praise directed at Celeste’s trendy narrative rarely mentions the historical accomplishments of other games that deal with similar subject matter? There’s also little novelty in the game’s approach to platforming. Dashing mechanics are a dime a dozen these days, and the reason players die so many times in Celeste is that the platforming is rigid and unimaginative. This title is just another superficial ode to climbing the literal and metaphorical mountain.

(See full review of Celeste here.)

Play Instead: Plug Me

The solutions to Plug Me’s platforming trials are admittedly as set in stone as those in Celeste. But the suggestively titled Plug Me doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game is a race against time, as each level’s primary platform burns out like a fuse. If this disintegrating platform reaches the end of the level before you do, you’re dead — an inventive premise that isn’t weighed down by offensively cliched metaphors about struggle.

7. The Banner Saga 3

Tolkien’s precious hope and George R.R. Martin’s enthusiasm for destruction collide in this slog of a turn-based tactical game. The previous two Banner Saga games were far from intelligent or daring, but developer Stoic reaches a new low with this concluding chapter. Hopefully, we will never see another confused, nihilistic march like this again.

(See full review of The Banner Saga 3 here.)

Play Instead: Octopath Traveler

It’s dull watching your lumbering army break through the defenses of your opponents in The Banner Saga 3. Octopath Traveler, on the other hand, effectively fetishizes the shattering of enemy armor with beyond-crisp audio. For all its flaws, Octopath Traveler knows how to utilize sound to help tell stories and immerse you in a variety of activities and settings.

8. Minit

Minit might be considered an independent title, but it smells like part of a larger marketing scheme to dumb down classic game ideas and package them as loving tributes designed to elate the common person, who would be better off playing Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man. A facile Zelda wannabe that really should have lasted 60 seconds.

(See full review of Minit here.)

Play Instead: The Messenger

The Messenger sure looks like a Ninja Gaiden clone, but the comparison doesn’t hold up as you learn how to sail around like a flying squirrel. This game is not always good (the metatextual humor is beyond irritating), but its unusual kookiness separates it from the crowd of indie darlings that simply bank on tradition and nostalgia.

9. Mario Tennis Aces

A lazy effort from developer Camelot, Mario Tennis Aces can’t even sniff the sweaty shorts of Mario’s Tennis on the Virtual Boy or the 2000 N64 classic, Mario Tennis. Not only does this pathetic sequel lack basic tennis options, but its new mechanics are for people who don’t value skill or perseverance. A grave insult to the sport of tennis.

(See full review of Mario Tennis Aces here.)

Play Instead: Laser League

Although this game isn’t based on a traditional sport, its use of short sets is similar to the truncated experience of Mario Tennis Aces. The notion of only needing a few points to win a set makes sense here, though, as each point of Laser League can go on for a good while as team members revive each other amid an onslaught of moving laser beams. The game betrays its own simplicity by giving certain characters cheap special moves, but I’ll take the negative aspects of this fictional sport over the head-scratching design of a once-entertaining series.

10. Mega Man 11

This latest entry in the decades-old series suggests it might be time for Capcom to give up. Mega Man controls like a gummed-up, outdated piece of junk in this sequel, and all you have to do to survive the levels is save up credits and buy lives and energy tanks. That this embarrassing chapter largely received a pass demonstrates the power of a brand.

(See full review of Mega Man 11 here.)

Play Instead: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

As unnecessary as Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is (it’s like a poor remake of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), it does handle as well as the NES games it emulates. Can’t say the same thing for Mega Man 11, which botches the smoothness of the slide from Mega Man 3.