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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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