2018 in video games was a year where no one game easily took the title of game of the year. There was no Breath of the Wild to rally around, no Overwatch to capture people’s imagination. Instead, we were fortunate enough to simply see the release of a ton of excellent games that ensured that there was always something great to play on a month to month basis, regardless of one’s personal taste.
Ostensibly, this is where I rank my five favorite games of 2018. Instead, I’m presenting them to you here, without any order, as ranking five very different games from different genres would be a disservice to the games themselves. And I enjoyed a great many games this year, and some of the ones I enjoyed the most that aren’t on this list include Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Spider-Man, Return of the Obra Dinn, Yakuza Kiwami 2, Monster Hunter World, The Messenger, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, DragonBall FighterZ, Valkyria Chronicles 4, Frostpunk, Donut County, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
So here they are: My five favorite games of the year. I cannot recommend them enough.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is as strong an argument as any that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Dragon Quest series is known for being one of the most traditional franchises in video games, in the sense that it doesn’t dramatically evolve from game to game. The basics that made Dragon Quest III a hit in 1988 can still be found in more or less the same form three decades later. But it’s not a weakness—it’s Dragon Quest XI’s greatest strength.
Because above all else, Dragon Quest XI is comforting. It lulls you into a rhythm via it’s simple yet complex mechanics. It has a fantasy world that is so colorful, so delightful, and such a treat to explore that it stands out from every single one of its competitors, few of which come even close to matching its scale. And it has a cast of characters that truly grows on you through the game’s epic runtime, even if the best character makes his debut 8 hours in (Love you Sylvando). Dragon Quest XI is as classic a JRPG as you can get, one that is simply a joy to play even after spending dozens of hours in this world. Just try and listen to the main theme without growing a smile.
Hitman 2 is less of a game where you assassinate a handful of targets and more of a game where you slowly and methodically create and destroy massive Rube Goldberg machines. IO Interactive have followed up its spectacular episodic Hitman with a sequel that features marginal improvements on the gameplay front and a new design philosophy that has embraced controlled chaos to an extent not seen anywhere else. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Hitman 2 might just be the most darkly comedic game ever made.
What IO has figured out is that it’s far more fun to simply provide you with several hundred tools than it is to tell you how to do your job. As satisfying as it is to garrote a target or shoot them from afar with a sniper rifle, it is far more enjoyable to just set up a bunch of dominos, give them the slightest push, and watch as a race car’s engine explodes in its inventors face. The levels in Hitman 2 the most intricate environments in any game released in 2018, featuring a ton of hidden secrets, methods and approaches to kill targets, and some of the best background conversations you’ll ever hear. Listening to a billionaire come to the slow realization that he has invested in what is essentially communism is a personal favorite.
I could go on about how Hitman 2 is designed to encourage experimentation, how it meticulously teaches you the basics of interacting with the environment and watching your targets, and how it all comes together to create the best game in the entire series. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to go collapse a statue of a drug lord on top of said drug lord, and there’s no time to waste.
Into the Breach
Subset Games has pulled off the rare feat of creating a sophomore title that is not only just as good as its first game, but one that is stronger in nearly every way. FTL: Faster Than Light is a great game; Into the Breach is better.
As a turn-based strategy game, Into the Breach is fairly straightforward. You hop into three mechs, travel back in time, and try to stop a massive alien invasion using a variety of mechs, gear, and pilots. While most tactics games are puzzles games at heart, the genius here lies in the fact that you can see the moves the insectoid Vek make before their turn. It’s the sole thing that keeps the odds even, and it’s also the reason why you’ll be sweating over the decisions you make to ensure that neither you nor civilians suffer too many casualties.
Into the Breach is the most despicable of games, by which I mean the kind that keeps you playing for one more turn long after you know you put it down and walk away. The simplicity of the turn-based action, coupled with the sheer variety in weapon types, pilots, and potential strategies, means that you can easily play and experiment for far too long. Thankfully, you’ll be having too much fun to care.
I deal with anxiety and depression on a daily basis. Some days are better than others, but there are times where I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of my own thoughts and worries. There are days where I have difficulty getting out of bed as I worry about work or social media or some other issue that’s impacting my life. To recuperate, I sometimes talk about these issues with friends, or go to therapy. Other times, I just shut off my brain and play a video game to distract myself. It was in one of those latter moments that I first played Celeste.
Celeste is many things. It’s a challenging platformer that teaches you it’s OK to fail, and to work through problems inch by inch. It features an art style that is, for lack of a more imaginative term, gorgeous, with an accompanying soundtrack that is by far and away the best of the year. But Celeste is also a game about dealing, or at least coping, with mental illness. It’s not trying to make a definitive statement on the subject either—it’s just a personal story about one girl dealing with her anxiety. And sometimes, when you’re looking for something that tells you to keep pushing forward, that story is all you need.
It’s just Tetris.
That’s what normally comes to mind when you first sit down and play Tetris Effect. Compared to the other series that constitute the list of most iconic video game franchises, Tetris is the one that has arguably changed the least. After all, it’s just Tetris. What more can you change? Turns out, a whole lot.
Within minutes, you’ll discover that the music changes as you rotate and slam down blocks to create lines. You’ll feel the beat coursing through you as the speed of the falling tetrominoes increases alongside the tempo. Occasionally, in brief moments where you can afford to look outside of the game’s boundaries, you’ll see flames burst to the ceiling alongside a drumbeat, dolphins leap out of the water, and Earth itself float by as you travel to the moon.
And then you’ll start paying attention. You’ll see that Tetris Effect is as much a puzzle game, with it’s dozen-plus modes and time-stopping Zone mechanic, as it is a celebration of life itself. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in a trance, consumed by a medley of music and visuals that is overwhelming. Perhaps you’ll become lost in a journey through a desert, or in the jazz fueled sights and sounds of a city while clearing line after line. And perhaps you’ll realize that the first track you listened to in the game is actually about a mother expressing her love for her child, instead of the generic pop song you assumed it to be.
Tetris Effect is both more than and just Tetris. And it is glorious.