Movie Sleuth Gaming: Justin's Top 10 Games of 2018

The year of our lord 2018 was one of big-budget blockbusters. 2018 is a year where Rockstar released a game, a year where a lot of E3 hype was realized in the form of big console-selling exclusives and a year where the Switch continued to make its mark after the disappointing Wii U. That makes it all the more interesting to me that it was a year where I ended up focusing even more heavily than usual on independent or smaller audience games. This is not revelatory, I have enjoyed a lot of indies in the past half-decade or so, but what it did was make me stop and think about what the AAA game space is doing to make me less interested in it over time. I haven’t put 100% of my finger on why, but I think a big part of it has to do with bloat that comes along with trying to follow trends, create mass appeal, and bridge gaps between genres. So many new games are trying to be many games to many people, and while this is not a bad thing inherently, I have found that I personally don’t enjoy the results of a lot of it, leading to some notable exclusions to this list that many others are high on. In spite of this, I found the year full of some amazing games. On to the list!

10.) Florence
If you have an hour and you are in dire need of a good cry, then this game is for you. Florence does an amazing job of conveying the ups and downs of a relationship through gameplay mechanics and there are some individual moments in this game that are supremely powerful from an emotional standpoint. I don't want to say too much else about it because it is such a short experience that it would be easily spoiled, but for a low price and time commitment, it was an unexpected high note for the year from the unlikely place of smartphones.

9.) Super Smash Brothers Ultimate
They made more Smash Bros and the more Smash Bros is good. The historical aspect of this game is legitimately amazing. Between the spirit mode’s deep cuts of classic characters, the massive roster, and the massive soundtrack full of old standbys and new remixes, this game defines teaching an old dog new tricks. If you aren't super deep into the game, you won't notice too much of a difference between it and 4 on the Wii U, but for those of us who have played a lot the balance changes and new characters are significant. Smash is something of a known quantity so I couldn't put it any higher on this list, but it is extraordinarily well-produced in its own right and manages to take a cool historical look at Nintendo as a company. Also, the online experience is still terrible and Nintendo needs to fire their UX team, but I have still had a lot of fun punching Fire Emblem characters and competing on the couch with friends.

8.) Mega Man 11
I am a lifelong fan of Mega Man as a franchise. I was not expecting another entry into the series after the divisive throw-backs that were 9 and 10. I adore those games for what they are, but even I agree that if it was going to come back, the Mega Man franchise needed some serious mixups to be interesting. The new double-gear system was exactly the kind of mixup that the franchise needed, and it walks the line well between being fresh without feeling out of place or clunky in the series’ history. I was also particularly fond of how they chose to evolve the cartoonish aesthetic to 3D(ish), it kept up the cutesy look and bright colors without venturing too far into the garish. It still feels just as good as it did before even with the visual upgrades and I was pleased with it. Check out my full review here.
7.) Marvel’s Spider-Man
The swinging is really good guys. The combat and character progression are serviceable, but where the game shines is making an interesting game around the mundane of a super hero’s life: relationships, struggles with being broke, jobs, and family. They set out to make the best Spider-Man game but what they succeeded in doing is making the best Peter Parker game. They made a likable MJ character that kicks butt, they included Miles Morales to keep things up with the modern canon, and as a whole, it is just a solid game top to bottom. For more formal thoughts, check out my full review here.

6.) Donut County
Sometimes I just want to play a game that is nice and reminds me that the world isn’t all terrible. Donut County is very much one of those games. It is not a system-driven sandbox or full of strategic elements, it’s just a simple treat that I finished in an afternoon that I was still smiling about days later. There is so much charm to be had there, all of the text message interaction (something I generally roll my eyes at as a concept) is written naturally and feel like real conversations. The gameplay itself is simple and akin to Katamari but with an ever-growing hole in the ground, but still manages to get more interesting as you progress through the story. The soundtrack is wonderful, and the soundtrack I have spent the most time listening to outside of the context of the game. I just want to go to the world of Donut County and sit down and chat with the talking animals, please just let me do that world, America is a nightmare and I just want to crack wise with a rude raccoon.

5.) Dead Cells
The majority of my time with Dead Cells was during its time in early access, but I am glad that it actually came out as an official release, and I am even gladder it jumped on the ‘every game should come out for the Switch’ hype train. I don’t think there is a single other video game that does side-scrolling combat better than Dead Cells. Even after dozens of hours of playing the same early game areas due to the rogue-like nature of it, the moment-to-moment feel of the movement and combat never became rote or formulaic. Crashing through a door, taking down a few enemies, rolling through projectiles into position to take out the rest of the enemies with my alternate weapon is just one of the hundreds of little jaunts that never ceased to be satisfying to plan and play.  I did get a little frustrated at times when I was grinding out the later stages of the game, but it was never so problematic that it subtracted from how good the game feels with a controller in your hand. I haven’t gone back to it lately, but I am definitely not done dying, fighting, and dying again.

4.) Celeste
I spent the better part of 2018 completely shrugging-off Celeste as just another one of those exceedingly-challenging 2D platformers that have been invading the indie scene since Super Meat Boy. I regret this. I should have listened to my friend Dan earlier in the year so I wasn’t feverishly finishing the last few chapters the same week I am writing this article. Celeste is another pixel-art ‘splatformer’ but also it is so much more. The handful of characters you meet throughout the game are likable and fleshed out even from just the limited interactions you have with them and I found myself getting unexpectedly attached. The journey of Madeline herself as the main character is very relatable and ultimately a narrative about mental illness and acceptance. On top of all of that, the platforming itself is extremely fair in its difficulty, and with the quick restarts and try-try-again attitude, it's satisfying to play on every single screen of platforming challenge. I am really glad I checked it out and it is easily my favorite game of the genre.

3.) Monster Hunter World
This was not my first foray into the series as it was with many folks, but it is Monster Hunter at its absolute peak. It would be dishonest to say that they cut out 100% of the bullshit but there has never been a better time to start your trek into the world of giant beasts and talking cats. The amount of streamlining of otherwise needlessly complex item mechanics takes nothing away from the core gameplay that has carried the series since the PS2 era, and I am ecstatic that Capcom finally bit the bullet and made some quality of life changes. The monster hunts themselves have never looked or felt better, the full suite of weapons is available, and the core loop of hunt, craft, hunt has kept up what made it good. Where this game fails is with the obtuse online systems. This game is at its best when you team up with three other hunters to take on monsters cooperatively, but the means of doing this confusing and backward considering its importance to the game. Making a guild was complicated, joining up with friends was a chore, and basically impossible if one person was ahead of the story of the other. The only reliable way I found to team up with others was the SOS Flare system that allows you to call for help from the internet; not a great experience. With Monster Hunter World being so good in every other aspect, it could have been the game of the year in itself, but with the flawed online experience, it could never have been that. I put in well over 100 hours battling elder dragons, and while I might not go back, consider my interest extremely piqued for a proper sequel. Check out my more thorough thoughts in my review here.

2.) Hitman 2
In almost any other year than 2016, the first Hitman reboot would have easily been my game of the year. The standalone follow-up is what many of us believe to be more like a season 2 of the previous Hitman, but that does not take away from any of the strides it has made in the quality of life improvement or the quality new levels. The new locations show the charm and polish I wanted, complete with dozens of unique mission stories, costumes, and the absurdity we have come to expect from iO Interactive. It’s a game about exploitation and execution both narratively and mechanically and executes on everything its going for start to finish. It is still very much standing on the shoulders of the giant that was its predecessor, but there are so many amazing moments to be had.  I even found myself going deep into the harder difficulty and trying out ‘Silent Assassin Suit Only’ ratings on levels, something I never would have expected myself to do. This game is a treat; so many systems to interact with and humor that leads you to believe the team at IOI knows exactly what they are doing. Hitman 2 is not a game where it is appropriate to wax poetic about ludonarrative dissonance or blunt metaphor. Whether you are poisoning an octogenarian’s morning muffin with a protected species of marsh frog or knocking out an aging drug manufacturer with a school-bus-shaped brick of ‘ super cocaine’ dressed as a clown, the dissonance is the point. This game is magical and I urge people to check it out.

1.) Into the Breach
Into the Breach is the perfect combination of puzzle, tactics, and rogue-like elements converging into a game that feels like it was designed specifically for me. My initial excitement about it was mostly because of a deep-seated love of Final Fantasy Tactics and Subset Games’ previous title FTL: Faster than Light, but what I got was so much more than even my loftiest expectations.

I love that the missions eschewed the traditional ‘destroy all enemies’ objectives in favor of survival and damage control. I love the time-travel ideas as it works double-duty as both a narrative hook and a mechanical justification of the game’s roguelike elements.  It balances achieving objectives with keeping pilots alive and saving civilians and infrastructure, and it does so with unique spins on tactics mechanics, mostly revolving around positioning allies and enemies.

It makes for an insanely interesting push-pull, both figuratively and literally as you push Vek around the battlefield to prevent damage to infrastructure and civilians. There is so much to say about this game, the bleak tone mixed with the cutesy style, the intuitive UI work, the impressive design of the different mech teams, but where the biggest innovation lies is with the openness of information when you are in the fray. You know where every enemy attack is going to land, what order they are going to attack, and where new enemies are going to spawn every single turn. Once it clicks with you, it makes you feel like a strategic genius; and when you fail, it’s your fault and you feel like an idiot. I am not typically one for the mastery and completion aspect of games, but when the mechanics are so compelling, I never wanted to stop. Every aspect of this game from the mechanics, to the menus, to the UI is expertly crafted and intuitive on a level few games achieve, even today.

-Justin Wicker