Thursday, January 3, 2019

Year in Review and Best of 2018 Part 1 - Games



I'm starting 2018's Year in Review with a look back at all of the new games I've played. There were some big ones that I missed and hope to check out early in the new year, but much of my gaming time this year was devoted to replaying and testing my own game over and over and over again: Kaiju Big Battel: Fighto Fantasy is finally here! I plan on writing a big commentary on the game in the future (and maybe implementing a running text commentary inside the game itself) but for now I'm relieved that this three-year project is finished. I can't say whether I'll release anything new this year, but either way my next project will be something much smaller!

I'd love to hear what people thought of the Kaiju game. Reviews are, so far, positive but few. I did very little writing this year myself outside of work, so I'm hoping this series helps me get back into the habit!

As for everyone else's games: I didn't play anything this year that I truly disliked (I stopped downloading every game that showed up free on PS+), though there were some well-made games that just didn't resonate with me as much as I'd hoped. Let's start with the best ones!

All titles are listed in alphabetical order in each tier category and the system on which I played is listed after the title. 




Top Tier - My favorite games of the year:


Beat Saber (PSVR) - I had never played a VR game until this December and there couldn't have been a better introduction to it than Beat Saber. I always imagined a virtual reality light saber game would be a ton of fun, but I never imagined the perfect implementation for it would be a rhythm game! You swing your Move controllers around to slice blocks as they fly at you in a very convincing 3D space; simple concept, perfect execution. The song list's short but solid and every song here is mapped to the beat so well that dancing along feels completely organic. There's a campaign mode that does a good job introducing the basics and features some fun variations including a mode where you need to move your arms as much as possible, perfectly blending human-octopus dance techniques.



Bomb Chicken (Switch) - This one came as a complete surprise to me! A pun-heavy puzzle/platformer by Nitrome, Bomb Chicken's stage design is a textbook example of excellence in stage design. Each little stage is short and compact but with enough secrets to make exploration worthwhile. The game gets challenging, but never so much that it becomes frustrating, and the punishment for failure is minor. The graphics are adorable, the learning curve generous, and puzzles compelling; it's one of those games that keeps you saying, "OK, just ONE more stage before I stop."


Mario Tennis Aces (Switch) - In a year where I played way more fighting games than usual, I never expected the new Mario Tennis to become my most played competitive game. I've enjoyed previous games in the series, but Aces really captured me in a way none of the others have. With varied character abilities, super moves, and a way to slow down time and dive for the ball, Mario Tennis Aces feels like a hybrid sports-fighting game. It's funny, sassy, cute, and has alternate modes for casual party time in addition to its legit online tournament play. There's a decently long single-player campaign mode that helps you learn the game, but my focus here was entirely human competition.



Minit (PS4/Switch) - So nice I bought it twice! Minit completely amazed me when it launched on PS4 and I happily bought it again later on to play portably on the Switch. Minit boils down the formula of Zelda-style games to their basics and adds a grim twist: The player automatically dies every 60 seconds. This design concept keeps the game moving and ensures that nothing can ever become too tedious, with shortcuts and warps opening up the world a little bit more with each attempt. Like Bomb Chicken, this game's zones are an example of perfectly executed stage design. There are plenty of secrets, but none so obtuse as to be frustrating. On top of the wonderful game design, Minit's writing is funny from start to end. The jokes are 100% my kind of jokes.



SoulCalibur VI (PS4) - After a long hiatus and a couple of mediocre predecessors, the sixth game in the SoulCalibur series is a triumph. Ignoring the lesser sequels, SC6 brings back most of the classic cast of SC1 and 2 with a few new additions and some guest stars that fit the game's tone a lot better than the bizarre Star Wars crossover in SC4. Of all the fighters I've played on PS4, SC6 functions the best online, and even matches with a little lag aren't too terrible due to the game's lenient design. It's so smooth, so pretty, and features a wonderfully nutty character creation system for making awful monster people. There's also an enormous single-player mode for those interested; I bailed early and stuck to online and local fights, but there's a ton of content in here for people looking for a huge fighter.



Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (PS4) - The final chapter in Kiryu Kazuma's story is a phenomenal conclusion to my favorite game series. Yeah, there will probably be more sequels in the future, but for now, Y6 closes everything out in a surprisingly touching way with great cinematography, great writing, and some incredible jokes. It's not as huge as last year's prequel Yakuza Zero, but Y6 still manages to introduce some great new minigames including a baseball manager sim (I'd be happy to play an entire game of this), cat cafe manager, and a spear-fishing game where you get to punch a giant shark in the nose. After the last three games split their stories between multiple main characters, Y6 smartly focuses entirely on Kiryu as the world's best dad, best fighter, and biggest blockhead.

Excellent games worth your time:



Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch) - An 8-bit style standalone prequel to the still unreleased Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, this is essentially a modern remake of Castlevania 3. It's barely legally distinct from a Castlevania title, but is much more lenient on the player than the NES Castlevanias it's inspired by. Excellent platforming with some nice, modern quality of life improvements, this game feels like a lost Castlevania title. Since Konami's not making those any more, someone had to step up and do it!




Life is Strange 2 (PS4) - It's tough to say much at this point since only the first of five planned episodes is currently available, but Life is Strange 2 starts things out strong. Moving away from the high school drama of Life is Strange and Before the Storm, LiS2 is a road trip focused on two brothers on the run after their father is shot by the cops. It walks a very fine line between grim and hopeful, carefully pacing out the darkest events with moments of innocence and kindness. Like the original game, Stephen King-esque mental powers play a major role in the story, but this time you're the observer rather than the conduit.



Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus 2P (Switch) - An updated version of a Pac-Man title released two years earlier, this edition adds a cooperative mode that's a completely new experience of its own. With new stages and a new boss fight mechanic, if you've got someone local to Pac with this game is absolutely worth playing even if you've played the previous version to death.



Tetris Effect (PSVR) - Tetris is Tetris and it's hard to screw that up, though some have tried. What makes this version special is its wonderful, immersive audio/visual design that works fine on a TV but becomes truly special in VR. The main twist on the classic formula is The Zone, a mode where time slows down and blocks rearrange themselves to help clear your mind/play field. It's a joy to play and so stylish that it really does make one of gaming's most enduring puzzle games feel fresh.



Yakuza Kiwami 2 (PS4) - This year's other Yakuza title is an extensive remake of the second game in the series, originally release on PS2 in 2006. It's hilarious, it's huge and it features a touching conclusion to Majima's story that started in Yakuza Zero, but it doesn't measure up to Yakuza 6. The two central minigames here are a streamlined version of Zero's excellent Hostess Club Manager and a crappier version of Y6's real time strategy battles. The story's fine, but it feels so impersonal compared to other games in the series that I wasn't captivated by every ludicrous new plot twist the way I usually am.

Games with standout elements:



Celeste (Switch) - A lovely puzzle/platformer with a fantastic soundtrack, Celeste is a great example of tough-but-fair game design. You'll die a lot (I was at over 900 deaths when I finished the game) but you'll get a little better each time until tasks that looked impossible become second nature. Thematically appropriate to this game design, there's a storyline about our protagonist struggling to climb a mountain symbolizing her anxiety and depression. For whatever reason, I couldn't connect to it in a way that I normally can in stories like this, but I'm happy to see that it's meant so much to so many players. It's much cuter about everything than games like last year's Night in the Woods or Hellblade, both of which left me completely captivated start to finish.


Dead Cells (Switch) - I'm open about not being a fan of procedural generation or Rouge-like elements in games. Whether it's a classic arcade game or a modern platformer, I get a sense of satisfaction from repeating the same task until I can conquer it, but too often in Rogue-likes I end up failing because of bad luck and immediately turn sour. In spite of that, I really had a lot of fun with Dead Cells! Its combat and platforming is incredibly fluid and simply moving around its world is a joy. If this were more of a standard Castlevania-style game it would probably be one of my favorites of the year, but I just got too worn out repeating the easier parts of the game over and over and over again to get to the tough parts and then dying before I could learn enough to get better. If that kind of thing doesn't bother you, this is an excellent game!



Donut County (PS4) - A puzzle game where you play as a hole devouring everything in town. A simple concept that works great and serves as a sort of inversion of Katamari Damacy (the holes ruin everything and make everyone miserable, while Katamri's star-building unites the world,) the only problem with Donut County is that it ends just when it feels like it's getting started. Stages are small and you don't have a lot of freedom until the final, excellent areas. There's never a moment where you just feel like the whole game's opened up like the final areas of Katamari games, but it almost gets there. Like a real donut, the game's very satisfying but just not filling enough. I want more!



Dragon Ball FighterZ (PS4) - A Dragon Ball Z fighting game that looks exactly like the TV show! This game's gorgeous, plays great, and has a nice goofy story mode. I'm also incredibly bad at it. This one's ranking is entirely based on me being awful at the game, because I've seriously never been worse at a fighting game, even though this one's supposed to be streamlined enough for anyone to enjoy! I tried to get better but eventually how terrible I am at it just became funny, and I doubt my online win percentage ever broke 5%. Even after playing for a while I'd get totally crushed by players trying the game out for the first time. I've never had an experience quite like that! Regardless, it IS a fun, well made game.



Gris (Switch) - I love this game's art. The hand-drawn characters and soft watercolor designs are beautiful start to finish and the ending is genuinely touching. The problem is that I didn't actually like playing it. It's a very simple puzzle/platformer with slow movement and simple puzzles with a whole lot of doodads to collect.  A wordless story, Gris boils down to "A Woman in Grieving," but is told with such visual flair that it feels bigger and more spiritual than just that. Unfortunately, the lovely, true ending that contextualizes everything is gated behind collecting all of the doodads. This is a game where the game elements get in the way of the storytelling rather than complement it. I think it's worth playing, but I wish it had just been a short film instead.



Kirby Star Allies (Switch) - It's short, easy, and adorable. This is a great cooperative goof off game and welcoming to young players, but it's a very straightforward Kirby adventure. Nintendo recently added a second, tougher campaign for free and I definitely appreciated that! It's less visually interesting than the rest of the game, but it's a nice expansion with some cool boss fights.



Mega Man 11 (Switch) - I loved Capcom's 8-bit revival of Mega Man with 2008's Mega Man 9 but didn't get as much mileage out of 2010's Mega Man 10. Eight years later, Mega Man 11 tries something new while still being immediately familiar. With cartoony 3D graphics and a fun new system that lets you temporarily power up or slow down time, MM11 hits a lot of classic Mega Man feelings while introducing new ideas. Some stages are excellent, some are subpar, but the only really awful thing here is audio: This is the most dull soundtrack a mainline Mega Man game's ever had and it's full of irritating voice clips. Sound design is usually one of the best elements of a Mega Man game, so this was an unpleasant surprise in an otherwise solid production!



Moss (PSVR) - A VR platformer that feels like you're standing in the middle of a giant Redwall diorama, directing your adorable mouse buddy as she fights bugs and solves puzzles. I loved playing through this game, but it's over way too soon and ends with a big To Be Continued scene that left me feeling let down. Still, the sense of presence in this game's world is amazing, allowing players to physically turn, bend, and look around to find secret places and puzzle solutions.



Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch) - This is a great game but I burned out on it fairly fast. Smash Bros. is a series I love to play in person but don't get a whole lot out of online, and it's just too hard personally for me to get people together to play these days. In high school and college, I'd have been in love with this game, but after unlocking all of the characters (which took way more time than I'd have liked) I was ready to go back to SoulCalibur and Mario Tennis for my competitive fix. There's a ludicrous amount of single player content here, but I don't get anything out of fighting against the CPU in Smash Bros. games. It's easy for me to look at this game's overall design and see that it's excellent, but it doesn't connect with me the way I wish it did.


Some flawed, some decent games:




Dragon Quest XI (PS4) - This is a beautiful, enormously charming game whose charms wore off on me after the first dozen hours. But hey, that's 12 hours where I had a great time! I kept going until I hit the 40 hour mark and had to give up; I'd been playing for months and felt no drive to finish this game. The story is a simple good vs. evil tale with minimal growth, battles can mostly be won by holding down Attack (you can move around during battle but it does nothing,) and dungeons are often just one long hallway with a couple tiny branches. The music's repetitive (while the soundtrack's large, there's really about five songs you'll hear for 90% of the game,) the side quests are almost all "Go collect a thing/kill a thing and come back" content, and I could only take so many "Go to this town to get this thing/meet this person. Whoops! You just missed it" story beats.

The boss fights are decent and I more or less like the cast, but this game coasts entirely on charm alone and that's not enough when I'm asked to commit days of play time. This is another game I probably would have been really into as a kid, but I've danced this dance too many times.



Guacamelee 2 (PS4) - I loved the original Guacamelee and yet when it came to putting this list together I said, "Wait, Guacamelee 2 came out this year? What was it about again?" The original title's mix of beat em up brawling and platforming flowed so perfectly for me, but this installment, which features much easier combat, much harder platforming, and way more story, doesn't hit the same balance. While the first one was the kind of game I happily completed 100% multiple times and even did some speed running with, I was done with the sequel after one play and had no interest with getting 100%. I'd recommend playing the original again instead.
 

Hollow Knight (Switch) - Hollow Knight has the distinct honor of being the only game I reviewed in full in 2018! Click on the title to see my full thoughts. I'm very mixed on this one; great art, awesome boss fights, but there's just too much padding and the platforming didn't compel me. I'd have enjoyed it way more if it was all compacted into half as much play time.



Iconoclasts (Switch) - This is one of those games that I was really into for the first hour or two and then fell off sharply. It's got fantastic pixel art graphics, it controls wonderfully, and the boss fights are solid. As I kept playing, each zone became more linear, each story scene became longer, and the light, cute art eventually felt heinously out of place for the story it was telling. In the final act of the game, I felt like I was spending more time in cutscenes than actually playing, which just wasn't what I wanted or expected after the brisk pacing of the earlier sections. The dialogue ranges from bland to baffling and there's maybe fifty too many text boxes where a character just yells "aaaaarrgh" and shakes. If nothing else, it perfectly captures the bizarre feeling I'd get from reading dialogue in old PS1 RPGs, so that's almost kind of cool? This is an impressive project and it's far from terrible, and I honestly feel a little guilty about how much this game irritated me by the end, but it's very decisively not for me.

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Well, that's a downer to end on, but I did enjoy a lot of games this year! What's next for 2019? I'm excited for Bayonetta 3, Doom Eternal, Sekiro, and the continuation of Life is Strange 2, but most of all I hope to be surprised and delighted by indie titles as good as Minit and Bomb Chicken again. Maybe Wattam will actually come out this year? And there's always Untitled Goose Game to look forward to!

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