The 50 best games of 2018
ear-end lists are a wasted opportunity, a relic from the heyday of magazines and newspapers, a recap of the recommendations you missed because an issue got lost in the mail or consumed by the family dog. They tend to be a bit foggy (why did I like this game, again?) and incomplete (what came out in January?). Worse, they arrive when we’re too busy with the holidays to put the lists to their intended use. A list of the best games of the year is more useful, more thoughtful and more complete, we believe, if it accumulates all year long.
That’s why we made a change. Throughout the year, the Polygon team collected its game of the year list in real time. We updated the list as new games made the cut. Now, with 2018 in the books, we’ve reorganized that list, ranking entries into a Top 50. In January, we’ll start the process over with a new rolling list.
You may notice the inclusion of games that were either fully released or made available in Early Access prior to 2018. Because many games change from update to update, let alone year to year, we will include previously available games that receive a significant update within the year or become available on a platform that substantially impacts how that game is experienced. For example, Fortnite Battle Royale is included, ranked No. 13, because we feel its recent seasons were the first great game of 2018.
Don’t worry too much about the ranking. It’s a fun and light exercise. Ultimately, we recommend all of these games. That’s why we’ve included a bit on what makes each one special: so you can find the best games of 2018 for you.
Here it is, our list of the top 50 games of 2018. For a deeper look back at our top 10, check out our dedicated GOTY 2018 hub. If you’re looking for something more platform-specific, check out Polygon Essentials. a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.
50. Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom
No, you needn’t have played the first Ni no Kuni to enjoy its sequel, a feverishly optimistic (and welcomingly naïve) Japanese role-playing game inspired, in part, by the works of Studio Ghibli. Its colorful animation conceals a rich but not overly complicated kingdom-management system that gives the adventure a grand sense of scope. A fairytale storyline gives its motley band of heroes a playful pep that feels anachronistic, if not flagrantly in conflict with our times.
Here’s Cameron Kunzelman’s take from our review: “There’s not a wasted breath or a plot point that doesn’t manage to pay off in a significant way. Ni no Kuni 2 is a solid contemporary JRPG that brings a lot of design ideas that I love into sharp, clear focus while staying entertaining and engaging throughout.”
- Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is a classic JRPG transported into the contemporary era
- Ni no Kuni 2 is better because it’s aimed at Western fans
49. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
When Nintendo released Super Mario 3D World on Wii U — you know, the console that barely anybody owned — the game maker included a handful of experimental levels starring perennial Mario sidekick Toad. They were wonderful little puzzle boxes in which players guided the waddling Toad through diorama-like levels to collect stars. Nintendo later expanded that idea into a full game, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Unfortunately, it too was doomed on the Wii U. Now available on Switch, one of Nintendo’s most underappreciated projects is getting the audience it deserves.
Treasure Tracker is a puzzle-adventure game that’s relaxing at times and confounding at others, thanks to Nintendo’s smart, sometimes devilish level designs. It is also consistently charming, as Captain Toad (and Toadette) light up the screen with beaming smiles and chirps of success as they hunt down golden treasures. It’s an accessible game with easy-to-understand rules, but it will regularly surprise you.
Like a lot of Nintendo games, it’s also great for kids and co-op play, with little in the way of frantic action or combat. (It’s also on Nintendo 3DS and it’s great there too.)
- Where Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker came from (and why Nintendo brought it back)
- Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker guide
48. Lumines Remastered
None of the many sequels and ports for 2004’s Lumines stack up to the PlayStation Portable original, a marriage of high-fidelity graphics, pumping Japanese dance tracks and bright charm. That the original Lumines was portable made it all the more enjoyable.
Lumines Remastered, the franchise’s latest entry, is available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and most importantly, the Nintendo Switch. The Switch version captures and in some ways bests the feel of the original, with improved visuals and better controls on the Switch’s comparably more spacious Joy-Cons. All versions feature “trance vibration,” a term that series creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi popularized with another of his beloved games, Rez. Additional controllers can be paired to Lumines Remastered and turned into vibrating nodes, humming in rhythm with the game. The Joy-Con controllers fit in your pockets or underneath your toes, providing a subtle vibration that adds a little extra texture to the experience without feeling too weird.
If “trance vibration” isn’t your cup of ayahuasca tea, Lumines Remastered stands on its own as one of the best rhythm games ever made. We’ve waited over a decade for an experience to rival the original Lumines on PSP. It’s finally arrived.
- Lumines Remastered left us hungry for DLC
- Tetsuya Mizuguchi on the creation of puzzle classic Lumines and its new remaster (via The Verge)
Frostpunk gives me a deep sense of dread and satisfaction I didn’t think a city management sim could deliver. Unlike its contemporaries, which might include fiddling with a city’s economy, zoning and the happiness of its citizens, in this game, all my decisions have life and death consequences. Because in this world, resources are limited and there’s hardly any safety nets to be found. Mismanagement could mean folks might starve, freeze or beat each other to death.
While I enjoy the leisurely pace of similar sims, I really love how Frostpunk always manages to keep me on edge. Keeping a society alive, stable, and most importantly hopeful, in the darkest of scenarios is reason enough to keep playing. Not every decision I have to make is easy — many of which are the toughest I’ve ever been asked to make in a virtual world — but being the pillar of a crumbling society is a task I couldn’t help taking on time and time again. There’s something about crawling from the depths of despair to find hope over the horizon that keeps me coming back, even when all I could see ahead was an approaching storm.
- Frostpunk is a game about suffering on an industrial scale
- An opt-in Frostpunk quest throws a lavish Christmas party at the end of the world
46. Octopath Traveler
Octopath Traveler’s plot certainly doesn’t shy away from the stereotypical JRPG confusion, but its eight parallel stories highlight how much the entire game feels like an ode to the genre. The gorgeous sprites and lighting effects emphasize Octopath’s pop-up book aesthetic and fill it with joyous nostalgia.
The combat is what really sets Octopath apart. The break and boost mechanics convert boss battles into long-form puzzles, where a misplaced hit or a well-timed spell can turn the tide of the entire fight. And these elements aren’t the only thing keeping random battles from becoming a chore; Yasunori Nishiki’s score is a delight and makes spending hours in this world all the more worthwhile.
45. My Child Lebensborn
My Child Lebensborn is a mobile game that investigates the consequences of war and the pain of bullying. Set in Norway in the 1950s, it’s the tale of a child born during World War II from a local mother and an occupying German soldier. Both have left the child behind. The child is happy enough in the care of their adoptive mother. But their status as “lebensborn” exposes them to prejudice from adults and children. Through small parenting tasks — prepping dinner, fixing clothes, telling bedtime stories — the player engages with the child’s pain and confusion.
It’s a kind of bullying-management simulation that offers a path for any parent who is struggling to deal with bullying. It teaches the value of patience, of listening, and of empathy. Mechanically, it’s a simple game, but at five hours long, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and offers a warm, affecting narrative.
- A game about hatred, children and war
- My Child Lebensborn review: The child of a Nazi interrogates the complexities of bullying
44. Mario Tennis Aces
Mario Tennis Aces arrives on this list with numerous caveats. For fans of the Mario sports series, particularly the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance entries, Aces’ story mode isn’t nearly as rich as its those of its predecessors; it’s more of a tutorial than an inventive role-playing adventure. For fans of local multiplayer, Aces still needs more options for matches, especially when it comes to its unusual scoring system. And for competitive players, Aces’ roster lacks balance; most online tournaments are currently dominated by Bowser Jr. and Waluigi players.
Aces is imperfect, but it’s worth, at the very least, keeping an eye on the community’s videos. As other critics have noted, Aces looks and feels like a fighting game. Rackets have health bars and can be broken; lose all your rackets, and you lose the match by KO. Special hits, trick shots and the power to slow time have led to high-level players flooding YouTube and Twitch with inventive strategies. As with a fighting game, Nintendo will need to commit long-term to updating and revising Aces, but even with its flaws, Aces’ track appears to have more in common with Splatoon than the fun but ill-fated Arms.
43. The Messenger
I devoured The Messenger over a vacation at my in-laws. After a slow start on the flight, I found myself staying up late and waking up early to make my way a little further in this throwback 2D action-platformer that borrows gleefully from the Ninja Gaiden series and Metroidvanias. Its creators stuffed the crunchy, pixelated world with small, smart creative choices. A shopkeeper with a winning personality; secret, bad bosses with good intentions; environmental puzzles that bend the fabric of reality.
Many critics rightfully celebrated The Messenger’s second-act twist, which shifts the structure of the game in an unexpected way. It’s neat! But what’s stuck with me after that sprint through the campaign are the characters, who both get a complete story and feel primed for a sequel. Plus, the technical problems from launch on Switch seem to be fixed. Have a vacation coming up? Have I got the game for you.
- The Messenger is a shaggy but lovable adventure
- I had no idea it was possible to hate the mid-game twist in The Messenger (via Waypoint)
42. Fallout 76
Fallout 76 understands that an open world needs to be rewarding — not in terms of finding resources or new quests, but because the act of exploration itself should be engaging. Foregoing the skeleton-on-a-bed storytelling that worked so well in past games, Fallout 76’s landscape of wasteland West Virginia is speckled with descriptive mise-en-scènes. Every time I stumble on one, I feel like I’ve uncovered a secret about the world. I’ve found a birdhouse workshop, a gladiatorial arena and a household studded with cat-head wall plaques. That’s just a small slice of what’s on offer.
Fallout 76 can manage because there’s just so much good content; tons of enemies, buildings, quests, outfits. Sure there are no NPCs, but with the spice of online multiplayer added, I found I haven’t missed it much. The interactions I’ve experienced have been mostly kind — strangers showing off their bases or handing out desperately needed clean water. Occasionally they’ve been violent, but the wasteland is a dangerous place, and the repercussions for being murdered are pretty minor. More importantly, anything is possible in a virtual world, and Fallout 76 opens up the possibilities in a way few games do.
41. Dragon Ball FighterZ
Through its various manga and anime incarnations, the world of Dragon Ball has defined an unmistakable look. While those versions of the series remain untouchable classics, the franchise has always been playing catch-up on the video game front. Thankfully, Dragon Ball FighterZ lives up to the series’ legacy and delivers one of the best fighting games of the year.
The game’s cel-shaded art style is a clear nod to the aesthetics of Dragon Ball’s illustrated and animated forms, even down to ripping the same angles from the manga and anime. The visual spectacle goes hand in hand with the game’s simplified control scheme, which turns experts and newcomers alike into players who can dish out damaging laser light shows with ease. These elements work together to deliver one of the most satisfying multiplayer experiences of the year and the Dragon Ball fighting game I’ve always dreamed of.
The lengthy development of Wreckfest encapsulates the trajectory of midsized independent game studios over the past six years. Developer Bugbear began work on the project in 2012, around the same time that Double Fine’s Broken Age established Kickstarter as a potential funding tool for modestly scoped games. So in 2013, Bugbear tried to crowdfund its game. When it became obvious the studio wouldn’t meet its $350,000 goal, it terminated the Kickstarter campaign.
The team pivoted, offering pre-orders and a surprisingly deep demo on its website. The pre-orders surpassed the $350,000 threshold within a week. In 2014, Bugbear pivoted again, this time putting the game on Steam Early Access. Within a week, it hit another $1 million in sales.
The project didn’t even have a name; Bugbear had dubbed it Next Car Game. It became Wreckfest in October 2014, and like so many Kickstarter and early access games, it began to sputter with setbacks, delays and fussy updates. But like a special few games within this ecosystem, at a certain point, years into development, everything began to click. Fans who had soured on the game returned for new updates. Its Steam rating began to shift toward the positive again. And in June 2018, the official release of Wreckfest delivered on the gleeful destruction of the original demo, while also standing on its own as a racing game that emphasizes destruction in a way its contemporaries won’t or, because of licensing agreements, can’t.
It says something about Bugbear’s ambition that a game originally meant to be released in 2014 feels so fresh, looks so beautiful and handles so nicely in 2018. And it speaks to the state of the industry that a doomed Kickstarter from half a decade ago could become, today, one of the best games of the year.
39. Nintendo Labo
Nintendo Labo is one of the most “Nintendo” projects ever made. Part game, part gimmick, Labo pairs the featureful Joy-Con controllers with various cardboard creations. When combined with a not-insignificant amount of magic known as software, Labo’s real-world cardboard constructions become a fishing rod or a motorcycle, a piano or a toy house. (Of course, I’m talking about the superior Variety Kit here; the Robot Kit, by comparison, is a disappointment that’s best avoided).
The pure, almost primal joy of creation is a laudable component of many games, but one that is easily lost on onlookers. That castle in Minecraft? Oh, you’re playing Minecraft. Your masterful Super Mario Maker level? Ah yes, Mario. Love him. But with Labo, that creation process pairs the virtual with the physical and, thanks to some very clever engineering and thoughtful software guidance, a stack of cardboard is transformed — without tape or glue or, really, any fasteners — into something surprisingly sturdy. It’s a memorable sensation to play a piano that you made out of nothing more than recyclable materials, with a dash of Nintendo’s outside-the-box creativity.
While the era of video game peripherals appears to be behind us — as thrift stores full of Rock Band gear, Tony Hawk skateboards and Wii Fit balance boards can attest — Labo is an entirely new breed. The arc, from paper to plaything, is in part the “game,” well before you get to the actual final device. But the games, while not the main attraction, do offer charm. A favorite in our household is the Toy House, whose weird alien cat thing — coupled with a matrix of crank, button or key inputs — delights my son.
And really, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Playing a video game with my son that we built together, and whose simple and, yes, childlike charms call to us from the corner of the living room where we now keep our well-worn pile of cardboard curiosities.
38. The Gardens Between
The Gardens Between starts on a rainy night, with two middle-school-aged friends huddled together in a treehouse. A mysterious light transports them to a gorgeous, mystical world filled with islands populated by memories of their friendship. Each island is a towering puzzle; the tweens must work together to reach the top, but obstacles block the path. One character carries a lantern holding a mysterious light that can dispel fog and create bridges, while the other works magical machinery that can stop and reverse time.
Playing The Gardens Between feels like a lucid dream. The lack of control — I can’t directly choose where the characters go — and manipulation of time and memory can get a little trippy, but never overwhelmingly so. When I start to get frustrated by a difficult puzzle, I pause and observe the flow of time. Usually I’ll find my solution by watching time pass by.
The Gardens Between isn’t the first game to explore memory and growing up. It probably won’t be the last. But the visuals, story and bending of time harmonize in way that elevates the game, bringing new light to an overworked theme.
- The Gardens Between is a magical journey that’s well worth your time
- The Gardens Between is an unexpected lesson in theoretical physics (via The Verge)
37. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s multiplayer suite is both bigger and more refined than those of its predecessors. The traditional multiplayer and Zombies modes — two hallmarks of the Call of Duty franchise during the last decade — have been freed of the bloat accumulated over recent years, with developer Treyarch refocusing the central mechanics that give Call of Duty its iconic feel.
Rather than release another overwrought single-player campaign, Treyarch has invested in a huge multiplayer expansion. Blackout is battle royale with the signature Call of Duty shine. It’s faster and smoother than almost any other battle royale game. But where the mode really sets itself apart is the map. Each town in the massive space is taken from the multiplayer maps of previous Call of Duty games, ensuring it was designed to stand on its own as a full multiplayer map. It has a level of authorship that borrows from over a decade of top-notch multiplayer design, something its contemporaries haven’t matched.
Each of the three modes that make up Black Ops 4 could easily stand on its own as a worthwhile game, but together they prove that to survive this year and into the future, Call of Duty’s creators are wise to focus on what the series does best.
- Black Ops 4 shines, thanks to PUBG– and Fortnite-inspired Blackout
- Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Blackout weapons and items guide
36. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is hard to place in 2018. It’s been up and down, loved and despised. Our initial impressions praised the leveling experience and the content of the world. But our updated review hit hard on the expansion’s many problems, particularly where it’s fallen seriously short of its predecessor, Legion.
But Battle for Azeroth’s standout feature is persistence. One system like Azerite can do so much to damage the game’s reputation and feel, but World of Warcraft has survived dark times and crummy expansions for over 14 years now. One system, no matter how bad, can’t take away the good times the MMO still offers each and every week — playing through dungeons with friends, or trying your hand at the raid’s hardest difficulties.
Slowly, Blizzard and the players find a point of equilibrium with each expansion. New patches have just arrived with more in the works. And most importantly, we’re still playing despite the frustrations and imperfections. Battle for Azeroth is still a World of Warcraft expansion, and World of Warcraft is still pretty damn good.
- Battle for Azeroth’s successes and failures, one month in
- Battle for Azeroth is all about the Horde’s identity crisis
35. A Case of Distrust
A Case of Distrust is one of the slickest-looking games of 2018. It’s a 1920s murder mystery that was filmed and then rotoscoped so that it looks like it’s made of moving paper cut-outs.
As San Francisco’s only female private detective, the player must solve the case of a missing bootlegger. It’s drenched in a Jazz Age aesthetic and historical detail. Developer Ben Wander did his homework, and it shows in the travel segments where the detective can opt to chat with the city’s taxi drivers. Not once did I skip this option, because each taxi driver has an opinion on a cultural event, or a story to tell about his life. Attempts to seed historical detail into fiction can come off as stilted, but here they feel present and lived-in.
In our review, Colin Campbell wrote that A Case of Distrust “gives flight to a genre that’s been so thoroughly tilled in other media.” It’s true that noir has been done and then redone to death, but it’s something different when I’m the one calling the shots and solving the crimes.
—Simone de Rochefort
- A Case of Distrust is perfect video game noir
- A Case of Distrust is a minimalist noir story (via The Verge)
Moonlighter answered a question I never thought to ask: Where do shopkeepers in adventure games find the items they sell in their stores? In this fantasy world, at least one shopkeeper works double duty as the kind of adventurer they serve in their store. This double life sets up one of the most lovable genre-mashups of the year: Moonlighter is more than an adventure-filled rogue-lite — it’s a retail sim, too.
To gather wares to sell, each night the main character journeys into the darkest depths of various dungeons, slaying beasts and collecting items. When he returns from his quests, those spoils become the next day’s inventory. As a shopkeeper, he needs to stock the shelves, speculate on pricing, entice customers with lovely decor and tackle would-be thieves. Whatever is left in his cash register that day becomes the purse he brings around town to the various weapons dealers, potion makers and more. With better gear, he can explore more dangerous dungeons, which beget better loot, which fetches higher prices in the shop and so on. It’s a compelling loop that oscillates between the part of my brain that seeks adventure and the part that believes in good ol’ fashioned entrepreneurship.
33. Donut County
Nine hundred ninety-nine feet below the Earth’s surface is a crackling campfire and a ragtag group of animals who lost their homes and loved ones to the holes terrorizing Donut County. Blame the disaster on BK, an extremely selfish — and extremely cute — raccoon with a nasty smartphone addiction.
Donut County invites plenty of comparisons to Katamari Damacy: A strange, unexplainable force descends on a town and its unwitting residents, consuming everything it comes across. But where chaos reaches literal new heights with Katamari, the holes that terrorize Donut County are silent, efficient and clean. Where Katamari giveth, Donut County taketh away.
The premise of the game is simple: Be a hole in the ground and swallow up as many things as you can while solving a few puzzles along the way. It’s oddly therapeutic.
The dialogue is witty, charming and funny. Texting BK is a joy. I spam him a duck emoji; he spams it right back. Between stages, I can review all the items I’ve swallowed as a hole in something called a Trashopedia. It lists a candle, for example, as a “really bad version of the sun. Tastes ok.”
As puzzle games go, Donut County is a sugary treat. Like any good donut, it’s short, sweet and best enjoyed in one sitting.
- Donut County is the hole in my heart I never want filled
- The Weirdest Game of 2018 Wanted You to Be Nothing at All (via GQ)
32. Pokemon: Let’s Go, Eevee!/Pikachu!
A console version of Pokémon has been a long-held dream for fans. Pokémon: Let’s Go! doesn’t quite match hopes and expectations. This isn’t a new mainline entry, not as fans have come to expect. It borrows from the mobile phenomenon Pokémon Go, streamlining some of its bedrock systems, and it repeats the setting of the original three Pokémon games, dropping the player, for better and worse, into a familiar world full of familiar monsters.
That isn’t to say that Let’s Go is a forgettable novelty. Familiarity appeals to the nostalgic player base, while the return to a small location with fewer Pokémon makes for an accessible entry point for newcomers. Let’s Go also has many quality-of-life improvements, catering to both audiences: faster but no less challenging Pokémon battles; the ability to see and avoid once randomized scrimmages; and Pokémon haircuts. Delightful, wonderful haircuts.
Pokémon has always been designed to fit into a pocket. Let’s Go! maintains that spirit, taking careful steps into the big world of console games without losing what has made the franchise special for decades. There’s still time for a giant MMO version of Pokémon with numerous lands to traverse. Let’s Go! is the first step on the road to what’s next.
- Pokémon: Let’s Go! is a charming, imperfect transition to the big screen
- How to style your Eevee or Pikachu in Pokémon: Let’s Go!
31. The Red Strings Club
I love the way games can turn the most mundane activities into delicious loops that I want to slurp up with with my morning cereal. The Red Strings Club got me as soon as I heard it was a bartending game. Mixing drinks and chatting up customers: I could practically taste the mundanity before I started.
The story centers on the titular club’s bartender, Donovan, who has a side gig as an information broker. In this cyberpunk setting, everyone has ulterior motives. There’s a shady corporation, a scrappy rebel group, and questions about body modding and free will. With the help of his “muse,” Donovan mixes drinks that bring out his customers’ emotions. And so you go about the complicated task of information gathering, not necessarily made easier by alcohol. You’re expected to learn to read between the lines in these conversations — what do people believe, but not say?
The game’s weighty themes are bolstered by its lovely, mundane gameplay activities. They’re grounded. Even during a sequence when you carve cybernetic implants, the work is tactile and weirdly soothing.
—Simone de Rochefort
- The Red Strings Club is a fascinating journey into the problem of free will
- How The Red Strings Club sabotages its hopeful cyberpunk vision (via Waypoint)
30. Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age
The makers of the Dragon Quest franchise like to play it safe. Under the direction of Yuji Horii, the creator of the iconic Japanese role-playing game, the games have gone where the audience goes, boomeranging from Nintendo to PlayStation to Nintendo and back again. Over more than three decades, they continue to tell tales of legendary heroes who battle evil to save their homelands or the entire world.
Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age staunchly sticks to many of the series’ formulas, for the better. It’s a grand role-playing game, spanning dozens of hours (as required by JRPG law) filled with turn-based battles against slimes, dragons, golems and other cute tongue-wagging monsters. I love it, for all its slavish adherence to the Dragon Quest formula. I love visiting charming towns, exploring the countryside with a party of endearing and sweet heroes, and vanquishing evil. Dragon Quest games have always had these things, and Echoes of an Elusive Age has more of them, in high fidelity and polished to a comfortable smoothness.
In our review of Dragon Quest 11, we rightly criticized the game for appealing largely to longtime Dragon Quest fans. It’s true; there are a great number of things in this game aimed squarely at the veteran Dragon Quest player. But that’s me, and it’s wonderful to slip back into the coziness of these worlds once again.
29. Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and now PlayStation 4. The 4K remake, produced by Austin, Texas’ own Bluepoint Games, is a respectful (but not too respectful) restoration of the classic. This isn’t a reboot, nor is it a light-touch upgrade. Instead, it’s akin to a modern performance of a classic script. Everything is there, just as you remember it, and yet it feels fresh and more present than actually returning to the PS2 original, a game that isn’t quite as smooth and pleasurable as we remember it.
In our review, I wrote, “The original’s bare-bones interface would rapidly be replaced by a decade of open-world games loaded with minimaps, health bars and countless on-screen prompts telling you precisely what to do, how to do it and when — only for that minimal interface to return to fashion again in the past year.” Shadow of the Colossus feels like it could have been made today, not because of what’s in the game, but what was purposefully left out.
- Shadow of the Colossus guide
- Shadow of the Colossus remake puts the game’s artistic vision in the player’s hands
At the beginning of Gris, the protagonist loses her voice and begins a journey to reclaim what’s been taken. It echoes Journey, another game without words and limited instruction that sends me on a mission with little guidance other than move forward. The charm reveals itself gingerly as I explore at my own pace, interacting with the environments and solving a few platforming puzzles. My travels are accompaniment by warm ambient sounds and a orchestral score that boosts the sense of scale.
There’s no combat or fighting to interrupt my quest, save for occasionally escaping an inky black shapeshifter. I adapt to my environment. Sometimes I turn into a heavy block to resist desert winds, other times I use my power to crash through unstable floors. Gris is a story about grief, powerlessness and self-discovery. Through its voiceless lead, it explores these themes not with words, but actions.
- Gris is about the fear we live with, and finding voice to defeat it
- Gris mirrors the stages of grief through art, sound and design
27. Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
OK, I’ll be the first to confess that CRPGs have been something of a blind spot at Polygon. Last year, we didn’t place Divinity: Original Sin 2 in our top 10. Or our top 50. I know, we goofed. Game writer Shawn Kittelsen rightly took us to task with a great op-ed, “Divinity: Original Sin 2 ignored 2017’s biggest trends, and that’s why it’s great.” And yet, this year, I almost made the same mistake, sleeping on Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire.
Deadfire is different from Original Sin 2. It’s even denser in terms of text and lore. I found its systems difficult to learn; then again, I’m a novice to the genre. But the thing I’m discovering about CRPGs — a little late — is the immersion and interactivity. What amounts to marketing speak for so many AAA games is genuinely delivered through Deadfire. The closest comparison is dungeon crawling at a kitchen table with a brilliant Dungeon Master. At first, this sort of video game seemed irreconcilable with my schedule. But in reality, it’s much easier to make time for Pillars of Eternity 2 than to maintain a regular game of D&D.
It seems like we’re getting a fantastic CRPG every year now. I’m grateful that folks finally got me to pay attention. Would be a shame to miss out on this moment.
- Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire review – a golden doubloon of an RPG (via Eurogamer)
- Best RPG 2018: Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (via PC Gamer)
Subnautica first appeared on Steam Early Access in 2014, but didn’t get a formal, full release until this January. I remember years ago playing a promising but relatively thin and unfinished game that borrowed from previous construction hits like Minecraft while paving the way for the glut of survival games that would flood the market during its lengthy development. How wonderful to say that Subnautica in 2018 is richer and more mysterious than I could have expected, a sprawling and playful experience that captures the thrill of survival and exploration games while largely trimming away the busy work that has accumulated on the genre like biofouling on the belly of a boat.
In 2016, right in the thick of development, Subnautica’s director, Charlie Cleveland, responded to questions about why the game didn’t include guns. Cleveland, who had previously worked on first-person shooters, described a change of heart in reaction to the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. “I’ve never believed that video game violence creates more real-world violence,” Cleveland said. “But I couldn’t just sit by and ‘add more guns’ to the world either.
“So Subnautica is one vote towards a world with less guns. A reminder that there is another way forward. One where we use non-violent and more creative solutions to solve our problems. One where we are not at the top of the food chain.” The decision has fostered something beautiful, inspiring, different.
- Subnautica review: The devil in the deep blue sea (via Eurogamer)
- Subnautica developer explains why he won’t add guns to the game (via Kotaku)
25. Forza Horizon 4
Playground Games is a British studio made up of developers with a broad range of experience making driving games. So it’s fitting that this latest in Microsoft’s fun and loose Forza Horizon series takes place in a lovingly crafted version of the United Kingdom.
With the fantastic Forza brand, it almost goes without saying that the cars look beautiful and handle superbly, from high-performance racing beasts to retro runarounds. An open map guides players through a variety of challenges and mini racing seasons, with a heavy emphasis on challenging real players to online matches, or teaming up with friends for various challenges.
But the real star of the show is Britain, rendered in four seasons of sceptered wonder. Forza Horizon 4 is one of those driving games in which open exploration really is as much fun as carefully designed courses.
- Forza Horizon 4 is a ray of sunshine, with a few clouds
- Evidently, the sheep in Forza Horizon 4 are immortal
24. Dead Cells
Without losing focus, Dead Cells brings together no fewer than six different genres into a single adventure. It’s an incredible feat. Creating an excellent roguelike or Metroidvania is a challenge on its own, but Dead Cells shows a mastery of each form as well as its contemporaries dedicated to a single genre.
Some credit goes to the game’s roots in Early Access, where its developers used feedback to refine and revise their ideas. By the time the game officially launched, Dead Cells felt like a fully formed creature, rather than a half-finished Frankenstein creation.
Despite the complexity of its design, it’s friendly to newcomers, slowly introducing new mechanics rather than repeatedly hurling players into impossible fights. And thanks to numerous secrets and upgrades, each death feels less like a game over and more like a step toward progress.
In the end, Dead Cells feels like so many games we’ve loved, and yet, there’s nothing quite like it.
23. Hitman 2
It isn’t inaccurate to describe Hitman 2 as “more Hitman,” but it is reductive. If anything, Hitman 2 is the culmination of its predecessor, rather than a cash-grab sequel. 2016’s episodic collection of open-world assassination locations has been cemented into a traditional stand-alone release, featuring all the additional back-of-the-box bullet points you’d expect. Smarter baddies! Sillier costumes! Mirrors that actually fog and reflect!
While the story is still barely intelligible, it’s the last thing on my mind as I explore Hitman 2’s sprawling environments, filling Agent 47’s bottomless pockets with everything he needs to distract and incapacitate anyone standing between him and his targets.
Every Hitman level is a giant puzzle box in which people, places and things are linked by what must be a rat’s nest of AI routines. Figuring out the connections between everything remains the most thrilling element of the game. The AI of the hundreds of people drifting through each set-piece isn’t realistic, nor should it be.
Hitman 2 doesn’t work like a simulation of a real-life assassination. How grim that would be! Hitman 2 works like Groundhog Day with considerably more murder. I’ve put enough hours into the games to be able to anticipate the reactions to every action — because I understand the interplay between the systems and mechanics, the NPCs and objects. The more I play, the more I learn about how these intricately layered contraptions function, how each person will behave. And once I know the rules, I can bend them to my will as I orchestrate the perfect hit.
22. A Way Out
A Way Out may have frustrated some players with its ending. But the hours leading to the conclusion were by turns ludicrous, heartfelt, quirky and memorable. The split-screen co-op game veers between identities and styles with abandon, and that’s part of its charm.
The plot follows two escaped convicts on the run from every police officer in the world. And yet, the leads seem unconcerned when controlled by me and a friend. Might as well stop and play some baseball in the trailer park, right? Might as well try on hats in the house we’re robbing. Action movie set-pieces invariably follow these more playful sequences, destroying tonal consistency but giving players a lovable ride.
Leo and Vincent’s friendship still has a place in my heart, and though this game sure has its faults, I don’t regret my time with it one bit. Like people say, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, especially when the journey features so many hats. Yes, that is exactly what they say.
—Simone de Rochefort
21. No Man’s Sky Next
The No Man’s Sky Next update is the game No Man’s Sky appeared to be in its early trailers and demos. Players have been given more freedom to explore the universe as they see fit, be it constructing an underwater bases or assembling a massive fleet of frigates. Crafting systems are revamped, the UI enhanced and new music added. You almost never lack something new to do or discover. And you can now truly play online with three other players — exploring the galaxy, transferring resources and building bases.
The addition of multiplayer has had an unexpected side effect: the need for a third-person camera option. This new angle reframes the game. Your explorer is now an avatar who can gesture, sport different looks and be photographed in the game’s fantastic photo mode. We enjoyed the solitude of No Man’s Sky right from the start, so the third-person camera feels like a dramatic enhancement. There’s something about seeing our own character on a vast, unpopulated planet that nails the game’s impeccable sense of isolation and the vastness of space. The update that finally brings players together also makes it easier to feel like the only being in the entire universe.
- No Man’s Sky Next is an astonishing update, but don’t expect a brand-new game
- No Man’s Sky Next: The best and worst new features
20. Prey: Mooncrash
In 2017, Bethesda released a handful of deep and inventive single-player games, including Prey, The Evil Within 2 and a stand-alone expansion to Dishonored 2. Though critically lauded, none of them sold especially well, raising questions about the sustainability of smartly designed single-player games, particularly those in the so-called immersive sim genre. Since then, some fans and critics have speculated on what the developers of these projects might be forced to create to stay alive. Vapid first-person shooters? Cynical battle royale modes? Match-three apps?
Prey: Mooncrash is our first look at the future of immersive sims, and it’s unquestionably influenced by the rise of Twitch streams, with its pseudo-procedurally generated design emphasizing player expression and unexpected scenarios. In one playthrough, I had nearly escaped the game’s moon base when I found myself cornered by a gang of roaming enemies with telekinetic powers. I decided to wait them out in an air vent, but I made too much noise. Rather than wait for me outside, the enemies used their powers to detonate the gas lines in the vent, causing the pipes to spew fire. As I tried to escape, their telekinesis ability lifted me into the air, pressing me against the ceiling of the vent, allowing the fire to roast me like a pig on a spit.
Mooncrash hasn’t been made easier or less complex to appease a broader audience. Its semi-permadeath sessions encourage you to actually use all your fancy skills, rather than sitting on them for the perfect occasion. And its goals are refreshingly opaque, inviting players to discover how its elaborate systems work over the course of dozens of hourlong playthroughs — or to learn with help from a Twitch chat audience. That is to say, it’s a single-player game that might be better played with others watching, providing insight from their own playthroughs.
If Prey: Mooncrash hints at the future of Bethesda’s single-player and immersive sim projects, there’s reason to be comforted and excited about the future of the genre and its creators. (Though its commercial viability remains a question mark.)
- Mooncrash Is Everything That’s Great About Prey (via Waypoint)
- Prey’s Mooncrash DLC Is Better Than The Main Game (via Kotaku)
19. Destiny 2: Forsaken
A year after Destiny 2’s release, the Forsaken expansion reinvented the entire game. Bungie completely re-engineered the weapons system to offer more flexibility and increased access to powerful guns like shotguns and sniper rifles. The flow of every combat encounter feels different, yet the series’ fantastic gunplay remains intact.
Forsaken also adds two new environments and Destiny’s best raid to date. PvP and the new hybrid PvEvP mode, Gambit, are faster and more enjoyable than the Guardian-on-Guardian combat of years past. Forsaken pours a foundation that the team at Bungie can build upon for years to come, starting with its new approach to seasonal content in the upcoming Annual Pass.
- Destiny 2: Forsaken is the Destiny I’ve waited four years to play
- Tips for jumping into Forsaken, Destiny 2’s new expansion
In so many ways, playing Moss is like vacationing in a storybook. I take on the role of the Reader, a powerful force that the residents of Moss can sense but not see. I come across a tiny mouse named Quill who is on a quest to save her uncle, after their kingdom was overthrown by a fire-breathing snake. As the Reader, my job is to solve puzzles and clear obstacles to aid Quill in her journey.
Magic radiates from every corner of the game: Pulling a handle from the ground renders a tower of stone steps. Pushing and pulling objects feels like an act of wizardry — wisps of light follow my path, as if from a magic wand. There are tiny libraries, mouse-sized pubs and rich forests, each worth the few minutes rest to pause and marvel at their details.
Moss’ creators have built each scene like large dioramas. Had I not stood up, leaned forward or looked left to right, I would’ve missed so many more lovingly crafted details along my adventure. Polyarc Games uses VR fostering a sense of intimacy, to build a protectiveness of its lead character. Like its central characters, Moss is a game of small things that make a big impact.
- Moss review: a small step for a mouse, a giant leap for VR
- Gaming’s favorite VR mouse uses sign language in the cutest way
17. Astro Bot Rescue Mission
Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a platformer that has me moving as much as its adorable robot hero. To fully explore levels, I have to maneuver my body to peek around corners and swivel my head to find new ledges. At one point, I headbutt the air in my world to move a crane into place in the game world, helping my bot cross a chasm.
The physicality feels like a natural extension of the “gamer lean” — the sensation of tilting while, say, going around corners in Mario Kart. It’s intuitive; the game is seamless and well-designed so that it’s always clear how I should bend or stand or tilt my head, without feeling too easy or dumbed down.
As a result, Astro Bot is the first VR platformer that feels like not just a good VR game, but a good game beyond its sub-category. Combined with the expressive character designs and peppy music, Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a complete joy to play — if not a little exhausting.
- Astro Bot is another example of how great platformers can be in VR
- PlayStation VR has a killer app, but it’s getting buried by 2018’s biggest games
16. Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves emerged as a promising game in need of more content — a chaotic pirate sandbox kept interesting by its players. The core concepts of the game have simmered over time, its flavors bolstered by a regular update schedule and new systems that enhance the the game’s appealing foundation.
The beauty of Sea of Thieves is how organic and responsive it is. Very few systems stand between the player and the pirate sandbox. There are minimal menus, and goals are straightforward. The pirates’ tools have specific purposes, but can be manipulated in a variety of ways by clever players. And yet, when you combine all of the above and add other players to the mix, you end up with cinematic ship battles, dramatic betrayals and alliances, and an adventure that feels different from one session to the next.
The first two expansion packs added new concepts to the game, but the recent addition of the Devil’s Roar region and the re-tuning of the game’s core systems in Shrouded Spoils really unlocked the game’s potential. As the game stands in 2018, between the AI threats on the sea and the other players at the helm of their own ships, a session of Sea of Thieves can be as tranquil as a road trip with friends or as frantic and terrifying as the final firefights of a battle royale match.
— Cass Marshall
- I lived a modern-day Aesop’s Fable in Sea of Thieves
- Sea of Thieves’ lore is surprisingly deep, silly and refreshing
Unlike in other adventure games, where exploring vast landscapes and poring over the tiny details of the surroundings is the norm, every second counts in Minit. The main character dies every minute, only to get another chance at the moment. It’s like Majora’s Mask and Groundhog Day but, well, you know, shorter.
The hero makes gradual progress by reaching checkpoints from which death restarts the adventure. Progress, die, restart from the beginning, apply what you learned, reach a checkpoint, die, restart a little further in the quest, and repeat.
Tasks are simple enough to be completed in 60 seconds, whether that’s finding the perfect radio station for a stranger, listening to an old man’s story or solving the mystery behind the cursed sword that has plagued the hero’s hometown.
With the finite amount of life there is to live, mundane tasks turn into monumental undertakings. Each new life becomes a fresh opportunity to learn more secrets or find more money to buy new sneakers. Most modern games expect players to do a bit of everything at once; Minit succeeds because it focuses on one thing at a time. Progress, it shows, is incremental and deliberate.
- Minit is a 60-second adventure you’ll want to play for hours
- 60-second killer Minit is a perfect game for speedrunning
When Firaxis Games released XCOM: Enemy Unknown in October 2012, I was forced to add a new word to my turn-based strategy vocabulary: “lavish.” Here was a fully three-dimensional game with all the bells and whistles I had come to expect from a AAA developer. It looked as good as it played, something rare in the strategy space.
After playing BattleTech, I need a lot more words.
Harebrained Schemes’ presentation of the now 35-year-old franchise is stunning, from the emotional introductory CGI sequence to the interstitial cutscenes. As I wrote earlier this year, it’s also, compared to many of its contemporaries, a surprisingly multicultural affair. The game’s writers lean into a vision of the future that includes palace intrigue and heroic last stands, but also a universe that has a place for everyone.
On top of it all, the gameplay keeps everything that makes this particular brand of big stompy robots so much fun to inhabit. Unlike other tactical games, BattleTech challenges players to plan ahead and then actually gives them the freedom they need to execute those plans on a massive stage. It forces difficult decisions, with missions that can bleed over into the category of roguelike experiences. As painful as some missions are, there’s always a way out and it never feels like the AI is cheating at its dice rolls behind the screen.
13. Fortnite Battle Royale
Don’t worry about being late to Fortnite Battle Royale. The creators of this colorful and constructive twist on the battle royale formula ensure that new players have plenty of chances to jump on board as they constantly reimagine and retool the map, weapons and modes. The most dramatic changes take place across seasons, in a fashion reminiscent of Blizzard’s Hearthstone model. Over a couple of months, players progress through the ranks, unlocking new costumes, gliders and bonuses. And when the season wraps, everybody returns to zero. Of course, none of these upgrades and rewards give players an advantage on the battlefield, so if you don’t care about cosmetics, there’s no wrong time to start — or a reason to spend money.
Whether you come to Fortnite through a console, a PC or a smartphone, the items and experience you earn are persistent. (Unless you play on PlayStation.) We’ve found ourselves rotating where we play, enjoying a week on an iPhone, then craving the precision of mouse and keyboard, then spending a week on the couch with an Xbox controller in our hand. PUBG revolutionized this genre, but Fortnite is quietly revolutionizing the fashion in which big video games seamlessly exist wherever you wish to play them. And it’s free!
The game technically launched in beta in 2017. It’s unclear if it will ever graduate from being “early access,” as that status makes the process of releasing regular patches and updates easier, particularly on consoles with complicated publishing contracts. But beneath all that legal stuff that gets in the weeds is the kernel of what made Fortnite Battle Royale uniquely special this year: the use of game updates as an interactive group storytelling device. The 2018 seasons told a exciting, confusing, messy and surreal story fueled by a handful of sci-fi plots that have fueled countless B-movies. The meta-story of Fortnite has lost some of its energy — entropy! — but at its peak, the game felt all encompassing.
12. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
There’s a reason that a new Super Smash Bros. is an event: It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to mash up a wildly diverse group of gaming fandoms, gathering as many people as possible under one roof. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is no different, though its challenge is particularly extreme. How does a game that proudly chants “everyone is here!” — literally every previous fighter and then some, from Mario to Solid Snake to Sonic — remain accessible yet complex, full but without bloat?
Ultimate steers into the skid. This is an unabashedly dense experience, littered with tips and tutorials for modes that could intimidate even the most veteran player. Its greatest strength is that it never overdoes it. It trusts the player to figure things out through play and exploration. With its hundreds of rules and variants, it allows each fandom to make the game their own.
Ultimate emerges as one of the finest, tightest, most self-assured games of the Nintendo catalogue. It’s more than a fighting game; it’s also an RPG, a collect-a-thon, a character creator and even an MP3 player.
With all of the ambitious new modes and sense of grandiosity, Nintendo still remembers what’s most important and lovable about Super Smash Bros.: a chance to watch Pikachu electrocute Donkey Kong, or Kirby swallow Ridley. Taking on all of these unique features could have been a misfire, but they coalesce to welcome every kind of player to return to it, no matter their gaming preference. Ultimate can be whatever game you want it to be. What it’s best at is being fun, pure and simple.
- How to unlock every Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character as fast as possible
- Super Smash Bros. Ultimate guide
11. Hollow Knight
Yes, we know Hollow Knight first came out in 2017. We’re ashamed to admit it, but most of us never actually played it last year. That changed when the game arrived on Switch this summer, and I realized just how big of a mistake that was.
I adore Metroidvania games, and, quite simply, Hollow Knight is the greatest the genre has ever produced. The game’s design, from its sprawling map to its bespoke customization system to its countless boss fights, is peerless. Better than Symphony of the Night, better than Super Metroid, better than Bloodborne. That quality is matched by a haunting score and hand-drawn visuals that look ripped from the pages of a Tim Burton sketchpad. It’s a feast.
And on the Switch, it has found a truly perfect home. Hollow Knight’s length and difficulty are made far more palpable when you’re able to trawl the depths of the bug kingdom on the go. As a bonus, the game has only gotten bigger with a handful of free updates over the last year. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ll find an unforgettable experience awaiting you.
10. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Exploration, combat, stealth, role-playing progression and dialogue choice make up the core activities in this giant open world, but its kinetic elements don’t entirely do it justice.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a teeming saga of the Peloponnesian War, loaded with likable, believable characters, both fictional and drawn from history. Moody marine hues and bright Hellenic contrasts create an eye-pleasing world of mountains, meadows, cities and islands.
The story twists a warm familial reunion narrative with a cold, hard search for vengeance against an evil cult. Hidden shipwrecks, mythical beasts, combat arenas and creepy tombs add to a sense of a fantastical, expansive world.
Ubisoft built the Assassin’s Creed series on its big, dense open worlds. But Odyssey’s world feels like a turning point, loosening its focus on muted historical settings seen from grimny rooftops, and instead embracing vibrant colors, mythological beasts, and sprawling swaths of ocean and countryside.
- In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Kassandra is better than Alexios
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey tries for moral introspection in new DLC
9. Marvel’s Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man achieves something rare among licensed games: it goes toe-to-toe with its lead character’s two blockbuster movies this year in terms of quality, while not directly tying into either. The PS4 exclusive takes inspiration from Spider-Man’s significant history in comic books, movies, television shows and games, but established canon doesn’t prevent the writers from taking their own risks.
Sure, the plot’s a little predictable, and yet while I could predict each beat, so little of the final experience felt rote or uninspired. It does just enough to subvert expectations, while also providing the opportunity to zip around a world so familiar and established.
8. Monster Hunter: World
Here’s Polygon’s Chelsea Stark laying out everything you need to know about Monster Hunter: World: “To answer the three most pressing questions around Monster Hunter: World: Yes, its creators have made a notoriously inaccessible franchise into something that, if not totally accessible, somewhat resembles it. Yes, it’s still filled with countless menus and tough-to-parse mythos. And yes, this game lets you be best friends with a cat.”
There’s a BFF cat — what else can I add that might convince you to give Monster Hunter: World a try? You demand more? For fans of Capcom games who haven’t leapt into this daunting franchise, Monster Hunter: World carries a bounty of goofy cameos. The game has received post-launch updates featuring characters from Street Fighter, Devil May Cry and Mega Man. For non-Capcom fans, the guest stars complement the abundance of other additions, from new quests to humongous beasts. Monster Hunter: World was a great game at release. With each month, it’s only gotten better.
7. Into the Breach
Into the Breach would feel like a Nintendo game, were it not so fascinated with the death of human civilization at the hands (claws? maws?) of grotesque aliens. Similarly to what Nintendo has done with so many genres, creators Justin Ma and Matthew Davis distill a complex strategy formula into an approachable, forgiving idea that feels almost like a classic board game. That isn’t to say Into the Breach is easy — it isn’t! Rather, it’s fair, taking time to teach you rules, presenting them clearly within the world’s design, then testing you to see what you learn and how you adapt.
In an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Ma said the team spent half of the game’s four-year development on its user interface. “When we decided we had to show what every enemy was doing every single turn, and that every action needed to be clear, it became clear how bad that nightmare would be,” said Ma. The magic of Into the Breach is that, to the average player, the work doesn’t show. It’s invisible. Everything works, just as you’d expect it to. Which, again, mirrors the je ne sais quois of Nintendo’s catalogue. What makes truly great games special is, often, not something you spot. It’s something you feel.
6. Red Dead Redemption 2
When Rockstar Games released the original Red Dead Redemption eight years ago, critics jokingly dubbed it Grand Theft Horse. The creators of the open-world Western shrewdly transported the power fantasies and juvenile social commentary of the Grand Theft Auto series to the American Southwest of 1911. Its sequel, released this year on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, unexpectedly stands as a counterpoint to both its predecessor and the Grand Theft Auto series.
Rockstar’s notorious satire has been replaced with a straightforward ensemble piece for Red Dead Redemption 2, and the previous game’s Southwest setting swapped out for the American South, blurring the story’s genre between Western and historical drama. It’s still a power fantasy, but the developers often toy with players’ assumptions. When I find myself horseless in the mountains, for example, I discover it will be a very long and dull walk home — one I probably won’t survive, what with all the criminals and deadly critters. The game is slower, stranger and, for better and worse, more confident in its storytelling, an ambitious albeit flawed exploration of life in the American South following the Civil War.
Before the game’s release, comments by one of Rockstar’s co-founders about the amount of overtime employees worked in order to finish the game raised questions about the ethics of creating these massive open-world games. Actually playing Red Dead Redemption 2 shows the limitations that come with such an endeavor. Here is a beautiful, surprising world. At its worst, it feels like an argument between hundreds of creative people, all of whom have a slightly different idea for this one hulking thing. At its best, it feels like a novel — a patient, cohesive, sweeping trip in another person’s boots.
- Best games 2018: Red Dead Redemption 2
- Check out our dedicated Red Dead Redemption hub for guides, videos, essays and more
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to TowerFall takes one move from the competitive multiplayer game (its buoyant jump) and mines it for every fleck of creativity, like a chef creating a prix fixe menu around a single, delicious and flexible ingredient. Celeste is a challenging platformer, in the line of Mario or Meat Boy, but notably, it includes tools to modify and alleviate the difficulty. You can slow the game speed, turn on invincibility or skip chapters. Thorson’s game doesn’t judge players for how they experience his work. And for those who want a more difficult experience, collectible strawberries are tucked throughout the world of Celeste, typically in precarious places, provoking highly skilled players to pursue challenge for no greater reason than “it’s fun.”
The decision to trim the stress from a notoriously stressful genre pairs well with Celeste’s story, which plunges into the shadowy trauma of anxiety, depression and meeting the expectations of those we love most. A charming art style and an uplifting score hold everything together, like a warm sweater or a bear hug. Life is hard enough, Celeste seems to say, there’s nothing wrong in asking for help.
- Best games 2018: Celeste is a beautiful metaphor for overcoming the lies your brain tells you
- Celeste will make you better at every game
4. Tetris Effect
For the past three decades, people have zoned out with the help of Tetris. The classic, nigh-perfect puzzle game demands unwavering attention, particularly at higher speeds. To excel at Tetris is to tune out the rest of the world.
Tetris Effect wants you to tune in; don’t just play Tetris, experience it. The PlayStation 4 game bathes the time-tested classic Tetris with showers of light and music. Every turn and drop of a puzzle piece cues a wind-blown chime, a tinkle of jazzy piano keys or the hum of a blue whale. Music builds and flows as you clear lines and stages. Tetris Effect exchanges the Soviet bloc architecture and catchy folk tune “Korobeiniki” of the classic Game Boy game for something closer to an electronic music festival held in a Frank Gehry building.
Gazing upon a desert sunset, walking through pristine snow and chilling with dolphins are so sensually rich on their own, it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that Tetris Effect is also a damn good puzzle game. Its additions ultimately don’t distract from the game; they complement it, reminding us what an addictive, pleasurable and transportive experience a game of Tetris can be.
- Best games 2018: Tetris Effect’s concept proves that is indeed possible to make a near-perfect game even better
- Tetris Effect has been in development for six years
Florence is a universal love story tastefully spiced with complicated emotions. It doesn’t need a huge budget or uncanny valley motion capture. Instead, its message benefits from humble story beats and playful interactions.
Florence is a game about love in all its varieties and degrees. It portrays the awkwardness of first dates, how two people can ease into each other’s lives. It shows the hills and valleys of a relationship with a critical but caring parent. It also captures the feeling of being a 20-something and feeling (despite all evidence to the contrary) that you are stuck on a path, like a parcel on conveyor belt carrying you to a predetermined destination.
Its greatest strength might be its minimal text. You assemble dialogue bubbles from puzzle pieces in conversations between Florence and her boyfriend Krish. When they get along, the bubbles may be only one or two pieces. When they fight, the bubbles fragment and the pieces become more jagged, the colors more intense. It’s evocative, but also engaging. The player is both a voyeur and a participant; this is both Florence’s story and our own.
-Simone de Rochefort
- Best games 2018: In a game centered around relationships, family means the most
- Florence finds emotional power in how we use touchscreens
2. Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn is a detailed, unique and beautiful murder mystery from Lucas Pope, the maker of Papers, Please. Drawn in retro monochrome, it’s set aboard an abandoned ship in 1807.
The player is an insurance agent tasked with investigating the ship, seeking clues to the deaths and disappearances of its crew. By a process of elimination, the agent pieces together the tale of a torrid voyage.
It’s a highly original cross between an old-fashioned novel and a narrative sudoku puzzle, in which facts and events are pieced together to present a satisfying whole. Pope’s game is a masterpiece in detail, style and story.
Available on Mac and Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
- Best games 2018: Return of the Obra Dinn uses sound as a clue to its biggest mysteries
- Return of the Obra Dinn spoiler-free beginner’s guide
1. God of War
God of War is a methodical reimagining of the action franchise. Rather than ignoring its past with a top-to-bottom reboot, God of War is a sequel that’s in dialogue with both the actions of its characters and its previous creators. But plenty has been said about where the entry fits alongside its predecessors. Mentioned less is how well God of War stands on its own, working just fine without the baggage of its prequels. You get the sense, a couple dozen hours into the adventure, that it was created by massive fans of all sorts of other games: The campaign takes inspiration from the Tomb Raider and Doom reboots, Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus and even Call of Duty — the widely praised ax throwing combat, for example, places a first-person shooter reticle within a third-person action game, creating something unique and fresh.
Before we changed our reviews program, we scored the game a 10. But a perfect score doesn’t mean a perfect game. (Does such a thing even exist?) One of the pleasures of a game as big and ambitious as God of War is that it inspires great criticism. Deorbital hosted a set of pieces, including this great read on the series’ unique and complicated place within games from Jackson Tyler. Hamish Black produced a video praising the game’s companion, Atreus. And Bullet Points Monthly published its own series of interesting critiques. God of War feels like a game we’ll remember as a distinctly 2018 product: a glossy testament to the astonishing artistry and craft of games at this moment, and a reminder of how much room the medium still has to grow.