guacamelee 2

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

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Loaded Questions Vol. 12

Loaded Questions is a regular feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Mingying Wang: As a big fan of film (you are as well, I assume?), I had a thought about video games that fall into the romance or romantic-comedy categories. Both genres have been popular in film, but why haven’t there been any in video games? I searched for examples through Google and found disastrous non-answers. Do you think romance or romantic comedy could work in video games? Or are there examples out there already?

Jed Pressgrove: First, I love film and the many genres within it. To answer your questions, romance or romantic comedy can work in games if the writing, presentation, and design are strong. As you’ve found, though, the mainstream often doesn’t have much to offer outside of relationships or moments between certain characters. One example that comes to mind is the great cutscene in Final Fantasy X where Yuna dances on water and Tidus is spellbound by her image and movement. You can see how romance blossoms on sight in that segment. For a more recent game, check out Florence. Unlike most pop games, Florence revolves around a romantic relationship in terms of both storytelling and mechanics. You might also be interested in Cibele, which has a lot to say about how online relationships can create unique challenges for people.

Of course, there are a number of well-known games that feature dating systems. There’s Stardew Valley (or, as I call it, Harvest Moon Wannabe). There’s Persona 5. And so on. But to be frank, I find that, more often than not, these games are superficial and contrived in how they explore romance dynamics. Boiling down potential romance to whether you give someone the right gift or whether you choose a particular dialogue option is asinine.

If you look outside of the mainstream, you might have more luck finding romance and romantic comedy in games. Visual novels seem to be a breeding ground for this sort of thing, but unfortunately I’m not as familiar with that sphere.

Question 2

Andrew Smith: I was wondering what role a game should play in explaining its mechanics. The example I’m thinking about is Kingdom Hearts II. I beat it on its normal difficulty setting and thought it was a fun game, but it also had a lot of button mashing and seemed to lack depth. I then watched some videos of higher-level players and realized that I either missed or didn’t use half of the game’s mechanics. I immediately played the game again on a higher difficulty, learned more mechanics, and had much more fun and appreciation for the game the second time around. For the first time ever, I’m playing a game for the third time right after my first and second playthroughs and having even more fun.

The thing is, while I greatly appreciate all the hidden mechanics and depth, I realize a lot of them are poorly explained, and I feel most people would never know about some of them without learning about them online. Then again, most people wouldn’t need to know these mechanics unless they played on higher difficulty settings.

Do you have any thoughts on this? You frequently say most people don’t need to be great at video games but just need a level of understanding. Thoughts on this situation?

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t think a game must always explain its mechanics (in fact, I often criticize overtutorialization), but the experience will usually be more interesting if the developer gives players the opportunity to explore mechanics in an intuitive or experimental fashion. Take Octahedron. It doesn’t spend much time telling the player what to do, but it consistently puts you in situations where you must play around with new things in order to advance through each stage. I typically prefer it when games tell you less or just enough to play.

On the other hand, Guacamelee! 2 always points out what you can do in it, and I have found it to be a blast so far. You can make so many different choices during combat in Guacamelee! 2, so even though the game spells everything out, the player still has a great degree of kinetic freedom.

I haven’t played Kingdom Hearts II, but it’s typically annoying to me when a game is boring or doesn’t show its true colors, so to speak, during its first playthrough or on its normal difficulty setting. I can’t say too much about your situation, as I can’t judge the game without playing it, but my gut reaction to your account is that Kingdom Hearts II missed a lot of opportunities to be interesting within a shorter timeframe.

Questions 3-5

Carlo: Has reading a piece of game criticism ever drastically changed your evaluation of a game?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t remember a case where a piece transformed my opinion in such a way, but sometimes an article will challenge my view of a game and force me to think again about my stance. Jess Joho’s review of Octopath Traveler made me reconsider how I viewed some of the female characters in that game. Another interesting piece was Ed Smith’s take on Nier: Automata. Smith’s essay didn’t call into question my interpretation of the game, but it did make me muse about Toko Taro’s overall maturity. Reviews should get us to think more, not necessarily change our minds.

Carlo: You named your website Game Bias. Is this a declaration that you embrace your biases, a joke (on commenters who type “You’re biased!” if they don’t like a review), or something else altogether? What does bias mean to you?

Jed Pressgrove: I can see how the blog name can make people think it was a response to a certain type of commenter, but it wasn’t. A few years ago I said something on Twitter about needing a name for a new blog, and Farida Yusuf, who has a sharp and provocative critical mind, half-jokingly (I think) suggested “Game Bias.” The term immediately struck me, so I went with it and never looked back.

I get a kick out of the phrase. I like that you can take it either as a serious statement or as humor. I embrace my biases in any case. To deny them would be to deny my heart, mind, and soul. In general, I believe everyone should let their feelings flow.

Having said that, I don’t think we should be biased against games before we play them. There are too many critics nowadays who dismiss work before they even honestly try it.

Biases, in their most honest form, are not merely angles or slants. They stem from convictions, personal experiences, and moral codes. Criticism, as a form of expression, can’t ignore such things.

Carlo: I really liked your podcasts with Tevis Thompson and Keith Andrew Hathaway. Do you have any plans to do more?

Jed Pressgrove: Glad you liked those. I have no plans now for a podcast with anyone, but you never know when another project will pop up. It’s a format that I remain interested in, and I always enjoy talking to people.