What a year it’s been. I don’t know about you, but it feels like 2018 has been an absolute corker of a year for video games. Choosing a top ten has been tough – and these are just the games we’ve had time to play. There are plenty more very good-looking games that slipped through the net this year.
James Keen Esq., Percival Smythe-Pipton and I picked out our personal highlights from 2018, and it makes for an interesting – some might say eccentric – list of titles. But then that’s only to be expected from a gaggle of weary old fogies seeing out their dying days in a Victorian manor. Here are our choices, listed in alphabetical order – and of course, our first pick is as Victorian as they come. Onwards!
Percival Smythe-Pipton: I love a good city builder. I mean, who doesn’t like urban planning, resource management, tech-tree research, and providing an icy burial ground for citizens who died horrible deaths from overwork? Such is life in Frostpunk.
A planet-wide environmental disaster has left the late-Victorian period world in the grip of a new ice age, and you have to help your tiny speck of civilisation survive. This type of game is nothing new, and there have been many variations on the real-time strategy theme over the years, but there’s never quite been anything like this. Your resources are (very) limited, your people are incredibly flimsy, time moves relentlessly forward, and the environment exists only to kill you with temperatures of minus 100 C.
Amidst all of this you are expected to keep everything going and grow your small collection of tents and huts into a city. It’s Dark Souls hard – oh yes, I went there – and the whole ‘when you die, you die’ mechanic can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you’ve been at it for a couple of hours. However, this is made up for by the richness of detail and thought that has gone into making it. The gothic steampunk design is lovely, with each building and citizen realised as a tiny work of art. When the big chills blow in, a hoarfrost spreads across your screen and lingers on the edges, the snow piles around your buildings and cutting winds whip at flags and scraps of cloth. You begin to feel bloody cold just by watching it. In addition, you have no easy choices at leader, particularly when it comes to your tech-tree. I always suspected that I would dislike signing off on child-labour laws, but at least I now know for sure.
Frostpunk is a lovely, if brutal, twist on a genre that risked getting a bit tired, and a recent flurry (lolz) of free content is an unexpected boon for the grimdark frozen wastes.
James Keen Esq.: ‘Tis the season to be sat indoors, huddled up with blankets and tea. This makes it the perfect time of year to properly appreciate Frostpunk.
11 Bit Studios’ follow up to This War Of Mine retains that game’s sense of attrition and foreboding, but relocates it to a Victorian-era tundra. Although the bulk of the city-building gameplay will feel familiar to SimCity and Skylines veterans, that’s not the only challenge. Frostpunk also forces you to make ethically questionable decisions. Just how far will you bend your morality to survive? What are you prepared to sacrifice? After all, a storm is coming.
Frostpunk is a testing, thought-provoking strategy game. Its aesthetic and audio are great at evoking a sense of mounting doom. My biggest criticism of it at launch was that it was a little light on content. Since then though, 11 Bit has done a great job of expanding the core experience with a series of free add-ons. This includes an ‘Endless Mode’ released last month, which allows players to just build a city without any game-ending story restrictions. For my money, this is the best strategy game of 2018.
James Keen Esq.: Gris is probably the most beautiful game ever made. Nomada Studio’s first game could accurately be described as a relatively short puzzle-platformer. In truth though, that would be completely missing the point.
The protagonist is a young girl who has apparently experienced some sort of traumatic event. The game leaves its meaning open to interpretation, but to me, Gris is her dream-like journey through the grieving process. You guide the girl through a strange, grey, shattered world, seeking to restore its colour.
I found the journey utterly captivating. Gris not only looks incredible, the music and sound design are excellent, too. The lonely echo of the girl’s footsteps, the way the music (provided by the band Berlinist) swells and fades: it’s all great. Gris conveys so much without saying anything. It credits the player with the intelligence to make up their own mind about its meaning. A lesser title could be accused of focusing on style over substance, but Gris is executed so exquisitely that such criticisms fall flat. Elaborating on the underlying mechanics would almost get in the way of what Gris is trying to achieve.
Gris is the best game I’ve played this year.
Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition (review)
Lucius Merriweather: We have been blessed with an absolute avalanche of excellent Metroidvanias this year – August alone saw the release of Chasm, Guacamelee 2, Dead Cells and a host of other entries in the genre. But without doubt, 2018 is Hollow Knight‘s year.
Technically Hollow Knight was released last year, but it was the port from PC to Switch this summer that really caused the game’s popularity to explode. That was followed by PS4 and Xbox One ports in September, complete with all of the generous DLC updates as part of the Voidheart edition. But even without the DLC add-ons – which are generally super-hard, optional bosses – there is just so much here to do.
The world of Hallownest is huge, and the game has an insane level of polish coupled with a wealth of content. There are dozens and dozens of enemy types, each with unique attacks, and so many beautiful little touches that elevate the game up to being something really special – like when you press the map button and your character takes out a tiny map. There’s not much that’s truly new in Hollow Knight – we’ve seen things like double jumps and charged attacks many times before, for example – but it’s all done with such incredible style and attention to detail that I can say without doubt that it’s the best Metroidvania ever made.
Monster Hunter: World
Lucius Merriweather: I never got around to reviewing Monster Hunter: World in 2018 – because I was far too busy playing it. I’ve been into Monster Hunter games for a while, but MHW took the series’ formula and raised it up to a new level of excellence. Everything was overhauled to make it more user friendly, and for the first time we had huge levels that weren’t separated by loading screens, which made an enormous difference to the gameplay.
And it looks gorgeous. After playing many of the prequels on tiny handheld screens, it was astonishing to fight monsters in glorious HD. MHW was also the game that finally persuaded me to subscribe to PlayStation Plus and play online. And as ever, the Monster Hunter community was a delight to be around – this is probably the most friendly online game in existence.
I honestly can’t think of anything to fault with Monster Hunter: World. Capcom rebuilt the series from scratch, and completely knocked it out of the park. Not only that, there’s been a steady stream of free updates, including new monsters and armour, and next year will see the release of a big new expansion in Iceborne. All in all, MHW is undoubtedly my game of the year – and it well deserves its phenomenal 10 million+ sales.
Percival Smythe-Pipton: Putting this in as an entry for the best games of 2018 feels like a bit of cheat, as I’ve been playing it since February 2017. Spurred on by reading the occasional review and glimpsing the odd bit of gameplay on YouTube, last year I decided to take the plunge (lol) into Unknown World’s oceanic adventure. And this was way back when the game was in early access – a risk almost on par with exploring those foreboding depths.
Subnautica is a striking and enjoyably complex game with a simple premise: your starship has crashed on and an unknown alien world. Now survive. Said world is a vast ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see and as deep as the mind can tolerate. Now, I’m afraid of the sea – and what’s in it – so you would be justified in wondering why I would be so masochistic as to play a game about being stranded in the ocean. The reason? It’s absolutely beautiful, both in design and function.
Your starter zone, The Safe Shallows, looks like a snorkeller’s dream, with dozens of bright fish, sparkling corals and oxygen-bubble-producing plants that look like brains. Go a bit further and deeper, and you enter dark kelp forests lit by glowing seed pods – and the light glinting off the teeth of things that want to eat you. These give way to vast fields of red grass, which further give way to deep dark trenches of glowing mushrooms and abyssal magma vents. And that’s just if you head north.
Your motive for exploring all of this is a light-touch story line that nevertheless creates a compelling mystery. Also, you need to forage for raw materials and blueprints to use in your research and base-building efforts, the pursuit of which is almost too enjoyable. Subnautica is a textbook example of alpha gameplay done right; a work in progress aided by a group of supportive players providing feedback to dedicated and receptive developers, leading to a nearly 99% bug-free official release in early 2018. Oh, and there’s not a gun in sight.
Sunless Sea: Zubmariner Edition (review)
Lucius Merriweather: Sunless Sea is a slow burner. In fact, it’s such a slow burner that I was almost tempted to give up on it after a couple of hours. Not much happens, almost everything is presented as text rather than action, and the game’s systems seem utterly impenetrable at first, with little in the way of help for the player.
But I persisted, and my god I’m glad I did. The choice of using text to describe the Lovecraftian horrors of the Unterzee turns out to be inspired, as your imagination does a much better job of crafting its terrifying inhabitants than mere pictures ever could. And the writing is just so good. Rarely have I played a game in eager anticipation of the next dollop of flavour text, but here I found myself hanging off every word of exposition.
And the game just keeps on giving. Long after I thought I’d explored every inch of the Unterzee, I kept coming across new and compelling mysteries – if you’ll pardon the pun, Sunless Sea has unexpected depth. The game has been out for a while on PC, but it was only released on PS4 this year – and it seems like sales have been slow. Using the My PS4 Life video I was sent, I calculated that only around 2,750 people bought this game on PS4. For shame! Buy it now, it’s amazing!
James Keen Esq.: Unavowed is a point-and-click adventure game from Wadjet Eye Games in which you play a recently recruited member of the titular organisation. The Unavowed are dedicated to protecting the ‘normal’ world from supernatural threats, and your character is deeply entangled in one of these menaces. Unravelling your exact involvement provides the impetus for the story.
Unavowed’s pixel-art style harks back to genre classics like Monkey Island, although thankfully none of its puzzles have the ‘rubber chicken with a pulley’ obtuseness of those past titles. On its own, all of this would make for a perfectly acceptable game. However, what elevates Unavowed is its writing.
Dave Gilbert’s dialogue crackles with wit and irreverence. In many ways it’s reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at its best. The voice acting is generally terrific too. Your fellow Unavowed members swap stories, share opinions and crack jokes. And there’s a genuine heft to the story as well, throughout which you have to make a series of tough decisions. When it comes to the paranormal, The Unavowed are judge, jury and occasionally executioner. Beware though, as some of those choices may come back to haunt you.
I loved every twist and turn Unavowed took. I found myself spending whole chunks of time just talking to my companions; getting to know them, learning their histories. Not only that, the music is really well crafted and lends depth to these conversations. The fact that the core development team could all fit in a single car makes Unavowed‘s achievements even more remarkable.
Unforeseen Incidents (review)
Lucius Merriweather: Hey look, we have two point-and-click adventures on our best games of the year list! And yes, the year is 2018 and not 1993.
Unforeseen Incidents starts in a town under quarantine due to an outbreak of the mysterious Yellowtown Fever. A dying woman asks you to contact a journalist, and from then on you’re embroiled in a cracking conspiracy that yields all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. I was gripped right to the end.
It’s funny, too – I genuinely laughed out loud at some of the jokes. And there’s a lovely Twin Peaks vibe that’s emphasised in the wonderful score and the odd cheeky reference. Unforeseen Incidents also manages to nail the part that many point and clicks struggle with: puzzles. Rather than hopeless clicking and combining to see what works, most puzzles require a series of logical deductions that result in a satisfying eureka moment. And the art! This game has a stunning sense of style. I want to wear it on a T-shirt.
Unforeseen Incidents is simply the best point-and-click adventure I’ve ever played, and Backwoods is already working on their next game, Resort. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 (review)
Lucius Merriweather: I can’t stop playing Valkyria Chronicles 4. I’ve bought and enjoyed every single bit of DLC that’s been released, and just last night I popped the game’s Platinum Trophy. I hardly ever bother trying to go for these tricky trophies, so that gives you an indication of just how much I love this game.
This turn-based tactical RPG goes back to the first game in the series for inspiration, and is all the better for it. Gameplay is very similar to its prequel, but with some clever additions like mortars and an APC that give you an immense amount of options when it comes to clearing a level. Often I’d finish a chapter only to go back and play through it again looking for a more efficient way to complete it.
And the plot! Wow, for an overtly cheery and colourful game, this thing goes to some very dark places indeed. I may have actually gasped at one point. If you like XCOM and you’re looking for another turn-based game to play, then you can’t go wrong with Valkyria Chronicles 4 – and it’s completely self-contained, too, so there’s no need to have played any of the previous entries in the series. And speaking of the series, hopefully this isn’t the last we’ll see of it – sales seem to have been fairly slow, but hopefully there’s still enough of a fanbase for Sega to justify making more
World of WarCraft: Battle for Azeroth
Percival Smythe-Pipton: Boy howdy, I do love me some WoW! However, charming colloquialism aside, I am not completely obsessed to the point where I am forgiving of its every flaw. As a player since early 2010, I found myself, along with a large number of others, very disappointed with WoW‘s fifth expansion, 2014’s Warlords of Draenor. Long story short, I was out of the game for four years.
I passed on the sixth expansion, 2016’s well-received Legion, due to a combo of real-life responsibilities and an increasingly jaded attitude towards the long-running MMORPG. But then fast-forward to 2017, and Blizzard goes and drops a big old bomb at the yearly BlizzConn event in the exquisite shape of a surprise trailer for the next expansion. It looked very good, it sounded very good, and by all accounts it was going to be very good, so I decided to get back in and give it a go. I haven’t been disappointed.
The expanded world, now including the island nations of Kul’Tiras and Zandalar, has been beautifully designed and scored, with each area and sub-area given its own unique aesthetic. A number of character-class changes have thrown up some nice little alterations for gameplay mechanics, and a game-wide ‘stat squish’ means that you no longer have to count your damage/health in telephone numbers. While the gameplay is essentially the same, it has been re-directed, giving you access to a wide array of quests, warfronts, invasions and battlegrounds. This is a lot more content, at least in my opinion, than you got in some of the previous expansions. There’s now something for everyone, with raids and PvP for hardcore players, repeatable world quests and warfronts for the less extreme but still dedicated (yo), and a satisfyingly rich main questline for the casual drop-in, drop-out players. World of Warcraft has become fun again, and no longer a chore.
Honourable Mentions from Lucius
428: Shibuya Scramble (review) – the best visual novel I’ve ever played, it was a toss-up between including this or Unforeseen Incidents, but the latter just squeaked it in the end.
Chasm (review) – a beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable Metroidvania let down by a few problems, like its wonky difficulty curve. Still worth a play though – after you’ve played Hollow Knight, of course.
Dandara (review) – another of 2018’s amazing Metroidvanias with a clever mechanic of leaping from floor to ceiling and a unique style.
Dead Cells (review) – I almost added this to the top ten, but in the end its Rogue-like constant restarting means I’ve been reluctant to go back and finish it. Still a brilliant game though – the combat is the best I’ve ever experienced in a 2D game.
Moonlighter (review) – a clever mix of shopkeeping and dungeon crawling that had me hooked right to the end. And there’s been a constant stream of excellent updates throughout the year.
Red Dead Redemption 2 – I will probably love this game, but the stories of harsh working conditions surrounding its creation have so far put me off playing it.
Vampyr – I’ve just finished this (review coming soon), and it creates a beautifully atmospheric version of WWI London with a fascinating cast of characters. Well worth a play.
And that’s your lot! What did you think of our list? What games would you include? Let us know in the comments!
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