Ah Games. They expand to take everything we give them. But are they any good? A few of them are, and in 2018 any genre is up for grabs. Read on to see which 2018 games were the absolute tops.
10. Full Metal Furies
The name Full Metal Furies might make one a little scared that you’re about to be dealing with fur suits, but it turns out the title refers to the Furies; greek goddesses of vengeance which were once whispered about in hushed tones. FMF comes from the makers of the loving Metal Slug homage Mercenary Kings, which rose above its source material. This time we have an isometric brawler, a thorough exploration of Double Dragon With Guns. It’s a side scrolling shootem up packed with a pretty thick RPG coating, but every atom of it was really made for coop. It’s full of frantic strategery, careful positioning, and yelling at your couch bud for a rez. Just like Mercenary Kings it’s also just crammed full with secrets, aesthetics, and personality. Even the pulpy plot, a cross between Greek apocalypse scrivenings and World War I trench warfare style battlefields, ends up worth the attention. In a year that was extremely rich with single player gems, at least one game remembers that your little brother might want to play too.
9. Super Smash Bros Ultimate
Nintendo periodicity is sort of like that of our omnipresent moon. They’ll pump out a reliable full (moon) product after long waits and always get to that full climax, but even though everything they put out though is unbelievably solid, rarely do they ever eclipse anything. This latest iteration of Smash, a series which created a mascot filled fighting games subgenre on the Nintendo hardware starting with the N64, is completely packed to the gills with characters from that history and call backs to all Nintendo games, even popular ports like The Twin Snakes. Smash Ult may not have the best single player content of the series and netcode and tournament support from Nintendo continues to be a struggle, but despite that Smash is probably the most consistently played Fighting Game by the people of the world. It’s the great recruiter, using colorful mascots and faithful recreations of popular characters to trick people into a genre which is cruel and punishing (and rewarding). Smash Ult is the slickest playing version of this so far and the flagship of our modern era. It’s the kind of game that is sold almost 1:1 with Switches. It deserves that attention with clean UI’s, quick readable interactions, and exciting screen filling pizazz, all of which keep that poor friend you keep beating up coming back for more.
Iconoclasts is from the new breed of metroidvanias. They have refined pixel art, pleasant mechanics, and even maps that work! While addictive mechanics usually summon big corporates to milk the genre, instead most of the new wave has been pleasantly small-scale passion projects (the root of the word passion is, of course, pain). Nothing exemplifies that better than the ironically named Iconoclasts, a one-man ten year effort which nicely refines genre conventions into a pleasantly unified journey on a new and mysterious sci-fi world. The advantages of a single invested developer are replete - Iconoclasts has the most consistent world building of any game of its type, with entire facets of society filled with characters who have opinions about the world around them colored by their local environment. It’s a rationally built planet, with each area actually serving some kind of purpose, as a part of some structure that developer Joakim Sandberg sat and thought about. This makes Iconoclasts an incredibly unique experience, not unlike reading a book, where you can sit and live in this little world for a while. The mechanics, many of which involve striking and grappling off switches with a wrench, are a little goofy but not fiddly, and most of the game is a form of puzzling out the best approach rather than grinding mobs over open ground. It’s a pleasant cerebral gem.
7. Dragon Ball FighterZ
The challenge has not really been how to make a DBZ fighting game. There’s been many, and the flow of the show lends itself to obvious mechanics and cinematic splendor. The challenge has been, who would bother making something more than just a rehash of the anime when you can cash in so easily? Enter ArcSystemWorks, the fighting game masters with a serious reputation on the line. I’m not sure exactly how Bandai cornered them into taking a shot at this, but ArcSys didn’t mess around. Building on the tech and thoughtfulness of their Guilty Gear Xrd update, they have crafted a startlingly beautiful ode to the show which defined so many childhoods. The look and the action are all pitch perfect, down to rounds ending when someone gets tossed into a mountainside or a killer laser beam slices off a bit of a planet. As is typical of the genre, the single player stuff is a bit daft (despite some effort clearly being spent to vary it up), so most of the fun is going to be in match, learning how the systems work and watching the explosions fly. If anything, many lessons seem to have been taken from their previous tag fighter BBTAG, which sees certain functions simplified and some sacrifices made for readability. Balancing and metas aside, at heart DBFZ is looking towards big brother Marvel Vs Capcom, with crazy maneuverability and combos that easily go into the 100s of hits. Pick your favorite Goku and you’re well on your way to actually feeling like one of the Z Fighters.
A common theme of this year is indies that are incredibly slick with refined yet simple approaches. Celeste might be the smartest of them all, with deceptively meta game within game elements, an obscured plot that leads you along with themes that pervade the environment, and a crisp platforming that calls to mind the super sonic type extra powered segments you’d sometimes hit at the end of a game, except here it's from level one. Celeste is the kind of game where you immediately want to sink your teeth into a puzzle of a screen after struggling through the last one, and is a worthy 2010’s update to Super Meat Boy, with frantic pixel by pixel scrambles to preserve enough momentum to jump a gap and find out more of the story.
There have been lots of survival games, ever since the first warrior needed food badly, but there’s been hardly any games at all focused on the serene mystery of the ocean. It’s life's first cradle of survival, as vast, alien, and dangerous as any other exotic location. Abzu from a few years ago struck some of the right notes in its quiet underwater journey but lacked any nitty gritty at all concerning air, food, or predators. Subnautica colors those problems way, way, way in, marooning you on an ocean planet with 30 seconds of air per dive, a hungry belly, and a deep dark ocean full of teeth. It's a big vibe. Even if the survivocrafty loop is familiar, it's so incredibly streamlined and pleasing here thanks to brilliant interface decisions, that it’s the exemplar of the genre. On top of the best survival loops I’ve seen in a game, it also has a mysterious world just begging to be explored. It’s pretty uncommon that you care about the plot in a game where you chop plant X to make 2 mats. It’s even more extraordinary fighting your way through a couple weeks and miles of ocean and watching your thin line of hope gloriously explode in the upper atmosphere. But you won’t give up yet. There has to be some way out of here.
4. Return to the Obra Dinn
Lucas Pope, the Paper’s Please weirdo, sat down and made exactly the game that he thought was too interesting to not exist. Obra Dinn is an obvious idea in hindsight that blows open the possibilities of the entire detective genre, building on the pseudo circumspection of games like the Arkham series to create something that requires actual leaps of logic. Your mute detective is posted to a ghost ship crime scene, with almost the entire crew lying in rigor mortis. Dead men tell no tales they say, but you happen to possess a device that lets you see the last minute or so before someone’s death if you can find their corpse and lucky for you the Obra Dinn is riddled with dozens and dozens of corpses! It’s exactly like 10 games of Clue where you dumped all the pieces from a bunch of boxes together and also sometimes spooky stuff happened. It’s pretty great though it can be intellectually tiring. That's in part because you’ve never done anything like this before! Even though innovation is a gaming watch word, it's truly rare. Obra Dinn manages to actually create an evolution of the detective genre by adding a 4d twist to the crime scene puzzles. It is definitely the most unique experience in 2018 by far.
3. God of War
The master and commander is often a gruff acerbic icon of masculinity. He knows all the right moves, but in many of our stories he is stymied by some flaw in character, often finding themselves abandoned by their compatriots and left to meet some proud fate. This is more or less what the sometimes Greek God of War Kratos got up to to in his prior 3 games, where in he pursued righteous vengeance against a complicit and frankly heartless pantheon of godly bastards but did it in such a nasty self serving way that there was nothing left for Kratos or for his character arc at the end of the story. He was no longer the hotblooded teenager that tasted sweet revenge in the PS2’s God of War 1. Over the trilogy he gained some wisdom but did it by smashing Greece, its people and its culture, to bits.
The name is rebooted in this PS4 version but not the story, which instead continues some time after and finds Kratos settled in the Nordic north, surviving on a small scale by buttoning up a past he has no hope of decompiling. However things have gone sideways - he met a nice lady and a kid popped out, as can happen. We pick up with life returning from that idyllic detour - his wife is dead and the world is grumbling for blood again. However, that pesky kid is still in tow. Will things be different this time?
Things certainly will - Sony Santa Monica has taken many notes from Naughty Dog and gives us a capital D drama, with knowing looks and bitter silences. Equally studied is their attention to Norse mythology, a modern retelling that swerves the Thor-Odin axis as an entry point and finds a way to make an interesting modern thread based on the old myths, full of gray areas and sudden brutality. There’s little in the way of glowing orbs and shining heroes in this world, there’s just murky interpersonal intrigue, replete with misunderstandings and regret even into the final major action of the game. The Greek gods were often given to ironic tragedy, smashing themselves with their own bravado and the like, but the Norse gods are a little bit more about loyalty and survival in a tough world. We’re a little removed from it of course as Kratos is not a major player in this pantheon. His main role is to smash monsters and chests to shreds alike, and he accomplishes it with great cinematic aplomb as usual. This time he’s been given a heaviness in combat that matches the new weight of the narrative, such that actions must be taken deliberately and mashing can easily put you in danger.
It’s fun but hard, and nicely complements the sparse brutality of the nordic lands and tales. God of War is a huge multifaceted accomplishment of a game, it's pretty much all we can ask for from a titanic industrial factory like Sony, that they reimagine and update the themes that made the original interesting with the care and investment that made people fans in the first place. As a franchise God of War has long since lost the safe harbor of puerile blood and guts. The musou style violence that moved boxes in the early 00’s is now passe, but this game has adapted quite ably and found a new home in the dramatically violent but serious Dad genre that Sony seems to be shepherding. As good a journey as I can imagine them making.
2. Into the Breach
Okay more name dropping time! Subset Game’s Matthew Davis and Justin Ma nearly perfected the roguelike with their spacefairing sim FTL. Now they’re back, in yet another crisp indie that again perfects some mechanic to the point of total realization. This time they take on Advanced Wars, finding the juicy core and cutting the cruft in their new game Into the Breach. Using the basics of chessboard turns, 2d directionality, positioning, and adding in the inevitable attrition from Advanced Wars, Into the Breach reimagines the battlefield as a struggle for control rather than destruction. The brilliant conceit is that this time you can see all of your opponents moves in advance, but a bunch of civilians are on the battlefield with you. Move out of the way of that shot and the building full of people behind you will be sacrificed. Every turn is a puzzle to figure out how to use the meager resources on your 3 mechs to somehow pull off the perfect turn where no one dies and your enemies even end up bashing each other instead. It’s all framed by a synergistic setting; your team is hopping through dimensions to stage a constantly new defense of various timelines invaded by the bug eyed alien menace. The failure or success in each timeline narrative matches echoes the run and rerun roguelike nature of the genre. It’s an essential bit of kit, a thorough iteration and examination of the mechanic in a pure form. I always enjoy games that make you feel like a genius.
1. Hollow Knight
King of vibes, Hollow Knight is probably the logical end point of the Metroidvania genre. It’s a Dark Souls total conversion, growing from the seed of what if bugs. A simple idea, but with total thought, investment, and care into its realization it grew into a tremendous symphony of insect acrobatics. Hollow Knight is probably one of the best feeling side scrollers ever made, with amazing feedback and control microtouch in the air, a plethora of transversal options from any position, and extremely readable game states and interactions. The goal of the metroidvania is to harmonize with the mechanics and world in incremental steps, and Hollow Knight captures that feeling almost immediately with very smart and rewarding progression. It even plays against expectations, resisting for a long time giving you the genre’s holiest move, the double jump. The key to the genre is eventually you unlock something that allows you to reach ledges that were previously just out of your reach in an obvious but fulfilling moment of literalized progress. Hollow Knight has its own ideas though, sending you scampering along walls and dashing over gaps first, leaning towards creating a series of puzzle screens that require proficiency to avoid getting hurt. Speaking of scampering, the bug aesthetic is an exercise in total commitment. Sometimes you can just tell someone sat with a creative work a long time, and Hollow Knight is clearly a case of that. Every village and passageway, every minion and honor guard, even the hippy byways and untoward sewers, are fully realized under the guiding star of imagining a fallen insect kingdom into existence. Metroidvanias aren’t just about the power fantasy of slowly becoming master of your domain, they’re also about the joy of exploration, of climbing barriers and seeing new sights. Hollow Knight is a treasure trove of those kinds of moments, you’re constantly stumbling on secret gardens and haunted spires, each new section is always creative and sublime. Hollow Knight easily shows off its harmony and mastery of the keys to the explora-slasher. All hail the best game of 2018.
The Criteria - Here’s a bit of extra writing to explain the ordering above
Every media is a little different. Here at Cyano Crits, excellence in gaming is equal parts skill in craft and in innovation. Of the games above, probably only Obra Dinn is doing something truly unique with its mechanics, and it deserves intense praise for that. However gaming is also about spectacle - we’re moved by triumphs of design and kinetic fury, and Obra Dinn intentionally looks like it could run on one of those computers in FallOut. It’s doubtlessly the vibe Pope wanted and it serves the pace and central mechanic, part of which is trying to recognize faces and items which are obscured by the low rez art style. Without the wow though, it only barely edges out the startled gasps in Subnautica when you find your first floating land mass or swim a little too close to a toothy beasty. God of War one spot higher is almost entirely spectacle, just pounding you with fist after fist of incredible vistas and impossible architecture. All parts of the game must serve each other and innovation is a critical, but not singular, cog.
Cyano Crits is also a big booster of fighting games, and two truly excellent ones emerged this year. However, their placement on the top ten is tepid for two reasons. First, both of these games launched with bad networking. Competitive games based on split second decisions are not well served by confused and tardy railways. The second reason is that fighting games in the modern era have a huge Achilles heel, which is that the base release is almost always inferior to a DLC bundled version a few years later. Not only do more interesting characters usually get added, but patches fix problems and add mechanics that affect the game a lot more than other genres. So as a game released in 2018, it’s not all that attractive to jump right in to a new Fighting game unless you’re already going to commit to playing it like a crazy person, which is just going to be torture if the netcode is bad.
The list is full of indies that look like indies- the fighting games and God of War are the only AAA releases that made it to the top 10. It really was that kind of year. Almost all of the innovation and careful craftsmanship is happening on small dev teams in 2018. Hollow Knight was made by a handful of people with $57k AUS seed money! It’s kind of unbelievable, but maybe there is some hint in there about where big game developers are having trouble innovating. God of War will be our poster child - this game is legitimately great, and the money is on the screen. It’s a sequel but it is a notable step up from the original trilogy, and narratively and structurally it actually is innovative. However, the moment to moment gameplay is something that might be seen as derivative. Its mannered combat, followed by environmental puzzle-a-thons and open world collect-a-thons are well known tools in the AAA dev’s playbook. But it's not like making environmental puzzle-a-thons is easy. Half life 2, the father of the entire concept, barely had any itself, with less than a dozen physics puzzles gating progress over its entire runtime. These things are asset intensive and, worse yet, require level and mechanic designs to crystallize before they can be added in. I think that by picking this style of gameplay and enhancing it with superb graphics, AAA developers have maxed out their pipelines. God Of War couldn’t go any further up the list by innovating combat because everything had to be locked a year early for an army of designers and modelers to make content, at a price tag of millions of dollars. Delaying a game 6 months would have almost no effect on this, and the sequel development will already have started with the bottom line being to use similar engine/design features to streamline this time. AAA developers are stuck! Innovation is just too expensive and risky at this level. They can perfect spectacle and feel but without some inspiration they can’t make their games instant classics! Oh well, third of all in 2018 is still pretty good.
So at last we come to the battle for indie supremacy. All of them are great of course, but why are they ranked the way they are? Full Metal and Iconoclasts are just slightly awkward in gameplay. This is pretty common for Indies trying new things, and there’s actually a bunch of fun indie games with about the same level of interesting gameplay that were vying for this spot in 2018, like Minit and Yoku’s Island. These two just happened to be the ones I had the most fun with. Celeste has the best music on the list and Obra is the most innovative, but they also are the most narrow visions on the list mechanically. Subnautica is stunning, but also derives a lot of play time from playing house (building your base and outposts) which your mileage may vary on. When we get to the top 2 though, these are full featured indies with complex interlinking systems that could steal your brain for months. Into the Breach is mechanically perfect, and Hollow Knight is one of the best playing metroidvanias ever made. It’s safe to say that these games are instant classics that will stand against the history of gaming. What puts Hollow Knight over Into The Breach this time? In the Breach has a delicious setting where each run is trying to save another timeline from a world ending event. However, that intro and a little bit of complaining from the leaders whose nations you save is as far as you’ll get into lore. It’s not that the game needs text logs or cutscenes. It’s just that Hollow Knight’s environment is just so wholly consuming in comparison that it amplifies that pitch perfect game. Every frame lives and breathes some secret story for you to discover.
That's it for 2018! Play all these games! The top 5 are essential experiences for the year and the next 5 are awesome. Catch you next time!