2018 wasn't exactly a stellar year for games. I mean, it’s not like it was all doom and gloom, because we got some wonderful surprises along the way, like the beautiful Florence, some wonderful returns like Hitman 2, and some cowboy games, like that one that people liked.
And, as we do every December, we’re here to look back on those special games that stood above everything else; those ones that made a lasting impression because of interesting mechanics, good stories and everything in between.
So, in no particular order, here are five games that I particularly enjoyed over the past 12 months.
A masochistic platformer with a heart, Celeste is about a girl whose anxiety is chipping away at her as she makes her ascent. And it’s absolutely phenomenal.
Whilst Madeline scales the supernatural mountain, her struggles manifest as the game’s main villain, taunting you whenever the opportunity arises. Your own doubt is basically constant, too, as the death counter is forever ticking upwards – I was in four figures by the time I’d finished. You must show as much resolve as the mountaineer, and not succumb to the perils of Celeste, and you will. Because death isn’t failure; it’s knowledge gained.
Each time you perish you get a greater understanding of your surroundings and how you got the timing slightly wrong on a jump, or used your dash a teeny bit too early when trying to reach a ledge. The environment introduces new elements as you progress, and what is initially an insurmountable obstacle, becomes something you must, and will... eh... surmount.
Equal parts satisfying and touching, Celeste is one of those special video games that lives long in the memory.
Yoku’s Island Express
A number of years ago, I could’ve been spotted hammering the roads of Cork, Ireland, delivering mail to the locals with a
scowl smile; I suppose I was always going to gravitate towards Yoku’s Island Express, then, the 2D platformer that involves a postperson dung beetle, but not jumping.
A novel concept: a platformer with no fucking jumping.
Instead of precise jumps, you’re tasked with making precise shots on the variety of pinball tables dotted about the open-world of Mokumana island, firing the little insect-that-could every which way. On an almost daily basis, I try and figure out how Swedish indie Villa Gorilla created a metroidvania pinball game, let alone one of the best games of the year. It’s a unique, hand-painted delight, with as much charm as something created in-house at Nintendo. And exploding slugs, for Christ’s sake. Wonderfully paced, full of character, and unlike anything else: Yoku’s Island Express is just exceptional.
God of War
The old games were delightful hack and slashers that captured the imagination of PlayStation players with brutal boss battles, lovely platformy bits, and LOADS OF BLOOD AND GORE AND NAKEDNESS... and a terrible protagonist. The one-dimensional god had the body of a chemically-enhanced professional wrestler, the facial hair of a ‘00s nu-metal frontman, and the anger management skills of a famished toddler. Kratos was just shit.
Fast forward to the confusingly titled God of War, though, which plucks the baldy beardsman from Greek mythology and plonks him in Norse mythology, and you see a more nuanced Kratos. He isn't the the sex-craving, mini game-loving, ball of furious rage, anymore. Zeus’ young fella is real now. He’s still able to mangle enemies, obvs, but watch him crumble when he has to have a father-son conversation with Atreus. Developer Sony Santa Monica took an avatar for destruction – just blades with muscular legs – and made him vulnerable, whilst not neglecting the vicious combat of the past. They actually made it better.
When describing the feeling of summoning the Leviathan Axe after flinging it at the head of a Dark Elf, I can't be hyperbolic enough. And, then, there’s the wild swinging at a swarm of Draugar, and the outlandish executions that see you ripping a wolfman’s jaw clean off. It’s outrageous. And brilliant.
And, yet, God of War’s greatest achievement is that I now care about what happens to Kratos. I didn’t think I’d be saying that at the start of the year.
The Red Strings Club
Why is it not okay for a big corporation to manipulate the masses, but you’re alright to mix some dodgy cocktails, like a cyberpunk Tom Cruise, and play with the emotions of your pub’s patrons?
Is crafting an implant for a follower-hungry person that gets rid of their need for social acceptance, or mimicking the voices of others on the phone in order to get what you want, any different from Supercontinent’s plan to eliminate anxiety, fear and depression from the general public? In an effort to stop the big evil’s plan to eradicate free will, you use some super shady means… but that’s okay, isn’t it?
One of the most challenging, and terrific, aspects of this adventure game isn’t an obtuse puzzle, but the quizzing from android Akara who forces you to justify your stance on particular issues, understandably asking why the comparable isn’t equal. Countless times, I had to pause before continuing the conversation, feeling the full weight of the robot’s questioning.
This pixelart beaut isn’t without issue – the pottery section is a bit fiddly, and the final section can become trial-and-error – but the main section, where you’re mixing drinks at The Red Strings Club, is a unique joy.
Podcast listeners will be aware of my (self-appointed) official title – ‘The World’s Foremost Authority on the Yakuza Series’ – so it would feel like a disservice to exclude 2018’s entry; especially when it’s one as good as this. Sega has modernised its mainstay with The Song of Life. Simple quality of life improvements, really: the freedom to enter shops without being forced to sit through a loading screen, encouraging exploration; the ability to save whenever you like, eliminating the erratic search for payphones; and, gloriously, the ability to run away from fights. Seriously. Sprinting away from a group of Menacing Men that have gotten in between you and your next mission objective is game-changing. Small changes that make the world of difference.
The Live Chat mini game is questionable, but the side activities are generally a joyful distraction from the dramatic narrative, and the substories have some wonderful moments – you wear a giant orange on your head in one, like – and the Clan Creator, while simple, lets you battle it out with Kazuchika Okada. What more do you want? A fitting send-off for Kazuma Kiryu.
Come back next year and I’ll (hopefully) be waffling on about why Judgment is an absolute belter.
Granted, 2018 didn’t live up to the ridiculousness of 2017, but it did provide us with some greatness, which is all we can ask for, isn’t it? Well, that and a world that isn’t completely fucked in 2019 would be nice, I suppose.