Quick warning to those in search of a little confirmation bias: Some of the year’s most popular plays — including Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Fortnite, and FIFA 19 — just aren’t my bag. Power to anyone who enjoys these games, but I’m more interested in single-player games focused on storytelling. It’s just how I’m built.
With that in mind, 2018 was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There was a handful of truly standout games that satisfied my personal proclivities, but the overall depth of offering felt a little shallow. A sign, I suspect, of current gaming trends and appetites.
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And so my top 10 games of 2018 isn’t in fact a top 10 list at all, but rather a top five list, with an additional five titles I enjoyed added as honourable mentions in no particular order simply because I feel an illogical need to adhere to the tradition of a list comprised of 10 items.
1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Rockstar’s simulation of the Old West (or a couple thousand miles east of the Old West, if we’re being geographically technical about it) gives players a deeply authentic taste of what outlaw life was like a little over a hundred years ago. More than that, it delivers a profoundly tragic tale about a man who knows right from wrong and too often chooses the latter. Laugh all you like at the admittedly riotous horse fail videos that have been popping up on YouTube since its release; the moving story at the heart of this classic oater is going to be studied and dissected by critics and game design students for years to come.
2. God of War (PS4)
Mockingly referred to as “Dad of War” prior to release due to its focus on the relationship between series protagonist Kratos and his son, this renewal of one of Sony’s most beloved franchises is daring, beautiful, and emotionally poignant. It picks up with everyone’s favourite musclebound demigod trying to create a new life in a land far away from the chaos he authored in Greece, only to come face to face with a fresh pantheon of angry deities. The real emphasis, though, is on Kratos’s interactions with his son, a constant companion for whom he feels an almost paranoid responsibility after the death of his mother. This more insular narrative tack results in the franchise’s best storytelling, by an Olympic mile.
3. Detroit Become Human (PS4)
An absolutely enthralling depiction of a world in which believably humanoid androids exist and are at the cusp of joining us on equal terms as sentient intelligences — assuming they can mount a successful revolution. Its narrative is spread across a cast of multiple protagonists, each of whom can die permanently based on the player’s irrevocable decisions. Like most works from designer David Cage, its status as game is debatable. It’s not about winning or mastering play mechanics so much as it is about making decisions based on your sense of mortality and morality. Add in some of the year’s best production values and a sci-fi subject that has always fascinated me, and this one was bound to be one of my favourites.
4. Below (Xbox One, Windows PC)
The latest from Toronto-based indie darling Capybera Games, Below is a deliciously mysterious little role-playing game set on an island in the middle of the ocean. Travelers come, one by one, to discover the secrets lying at the atoll’s core. Nothing is explained; you’ll need to riddle out the purpose of everything you find. And when you die, you die forever. You’ll begin again as a new adventurer on the beach, all of your gear lost, forced to retrace the path of the previous hero. But not to worry; the cave dungeons are different for each traveler, and if you’ve done a thorough job of exploring you’ll have found shortcuts that will quickly lead you back to where the last hero perished. It’s atmospheric, splendidly scored, deeply challenging, and full of discovery.
5. Tetris Effect (PS4)
It seems odd that a Tetris game released in 2018 would compete for a spot on a list of the year’s best, but Tetris Effect is that game. Chalk it up to Zen. Tetris Effect is the most chill game I’ve played in years, with absolutely mesmerizing visual effects and a terrific soundtrack. It knowingly borrows from another great puzzler called Lumines by mixing a variety of block themes and aural soundscapes into its classic puzzle play, but it kicks it up a notch by adding virtual reality to the experience. Play with a PSVR headset and headphones on and you’ll be transported to another world, utterly immersed in orgasmic block-stacking pleasure. Well, perhaps that’s a tiny overstatement, but I doubt you’ll find a more pleasing puzzle game released in 2018.
And now the runners up…
Octopath Traveler (Switch)
This Japanese role-playing game from the folks behind the Bravely Default series has a terrific aesthetic that combines old-school graphics with modern filtering for a delicious diorama-like visual effect. It also tells a set of surprisingly grown-up fantasy tales centred on a group of memorable heroes, each of whom has unique talents and abilities that help them not only in the game’s tough turn-based battles, but also in bypassing more creative narrative obstacles while exploring.
Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One)
This open world racer is stuffed with enough activities to keep players busy for an hour or more every night for months on end. You’ll race on road and off, collect hundreds of real rides, take on rivals, shoot professional looking photos, go in search of well-hidden collectibles, and earn an almost endless procession of little rewards that will keep luring you into just one more race well into the wee hours. That it might also be the prettiest car game around at the moment is just gravy.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC)
Huge and beautiful, this ambitious adventure set in Ancient Greece combines satisfying exploration of land and sea, delivers an impressive roster of historical locations and characters, and serves up some surprisingly challenging action. The sense of discovery is terrific, especially when exploring ruins that were considered old even in the time of Socrates. It eventually begins to grow a bit repetitive — you can only invade and conquer so many fortresses before it starts to feel more task than treat — but the elements focusing on characters and plot never grow old.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC)
The third chapter in Square Enix’s Lara Croft reboot doesn’t reinvent the wheel — we still spend our time hunting, crafting, exploring tombs and solving puzzles — but it does refine it. Using Lara’s bow, for example, now feels so intuitive and empowering that it makes other weapons feel passé by comparison. The real star, though, continues to be our heroine. Thoughtful, sympathetic, and compelling, she’s one of the most well rounded and fully developed protagonists appearing in games today, female or male. At this point seeing her in a new game almost feels like going to visit a very good friend.
Ashen (Xbox One, Windows PC)
This one’s like a Dark Souls game with, for lack of a better term, a soul. And a surprisingly gentle one at that. It’s got the core ingredients of one of From Software’s punishing role-playing games — including challenging block, dodge, and strike combat; severe consequences for dying; and a cleverly designed open world that rewards careful exploration — but it replaces darkness with light, and a sense of negativity with cautious optimism. You’ll be challenged throughout and recompensed for your determination and grit, but more than that you’ll feel as though you’re working toward a better world. It’s not what you’d expect from this sort of game, but it is oddly pleasing.