Games of the Year — 2018

Mike Kelly
8 min readDec 14, 2018

I had hoped this year would be a bit of a breather after the onslaught of quality games last year. To a degree it was, but going from an onslaught to merely a torrent is not all that different. 2018 not only brought re-imaginings of old forms, but also opened the door to experiments within the medium that had never before been done.

Before I start, it would be remiss to mention the Cinderella story that is No Man’s Sky. That game’s launch in 2016 was so catastrophic that it didn’t seem it would survive as anything more than a cautionary tale. But Hello Games proved themselves to be more dedicated and tenacious than anyone gave them credit for. Instead of lashing out or succumbing to despair, they made it right. No Man’s Sky Next, released this year, finally made that game what it always deserved to be. I was happy to dive back into that universe and finally truly revel in it.

10. Unavowed

Wadjet Eye has been keeping the flame for old-school point-and-click adventure games alive. I’d cooled on their recent offerings, which is why I was so surprised Unavowed blew me away. Set in modern-day New York, you follow the story of a small cabal that fights to keep the city safe from the supernatural. The Unavowed are the vanguard that protects humanity from vengeful dryads, the machinations of the Faerie Court, and demons of the shadow. Every character is fantastically realized— the lady jinn warrior who feels every untruth, the fire mage that was formerly a banker in 1920s New York, the recovering alcoholic thrust into becoming a medium after being adopted by the spirit of a 10-year-old girl. These beautifully realized characters delve into a story that is so well-written that it had me guessing to the very end. Unavowed is a triumph of storytelling in games, and I dearly hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this incredible world.

9. Slay The Spire

I didn’t think anything could tear me away from Hearthstone, but this Early Access deck-building roguelike became my new morning ritual. On its face, Slay the Spire is a simple genre mashup, but the variety of classes, cards, and paths that you can take provides for nearly endless replayability. Aside from the combat encounters, the real challenge comes in finding ways to break the game — finding the right cards to create a near-endless loop of play, eliminating your opponents before they can react. While I wish there were a bit more to the metagame, it’s no bar to spending hour upon hour climbing the Spire.

8. Cultist Simulator

What in the absolute fuck is this game? How on earth do I describe it? It’s ostensibly a game about forming your own secret society, but the gameplay area is just a tabletop, littered with cards. And on those cards are written obscure concepts and themes — “Knowledge”, “Rite of the Crucible Soul”, “Winter” — that give zero context for what you are meant to do. And with that, you are free to stumble your way into a realm of forbidden knowledge, dark prophecy, and cosmic horror. These simple cards try your sanity as you fumble around in the dark wisdom of the ancients. However, beware that you not descend (ascend?) into madness yourself…

7. Tetris Effect

A Tetris game made me cry this year. It seems impossible, but Tetris Effect takes the well-worn block falling mechanic and paints a tapestry of music, light, and action. It’s something that could only have come from the mind of the creator of Rez, Tetsuya Miguchi. The journey of Tetris Effect travels over a soundscape evoking sounds of the cultures of the Earth, weaving through effect and emotion. You swim alongside dolphins, glittering in the surf. Raise an ululation of joy from within a mandala of fire. Float upon the air, weaving between cloud-topped mountains. And at the end, a heartrendingly positive message: “Come with me, we’ll take tomorrow. Everything you want is waiting for you.” It’s a paean to hope and humanity in a dark time.

6. Prey

Prey is a game about identity. Stranded within a space station orbiting the Moon, you are the sole survivor of a takeover by entities called the Typhon — aliens constructed of filaments of shadow that hide in plain sight. A clear homage to System Shock and the 0451 games of the past, Prey tilts toward psychological horror — the Typhon can mimic anything or anyone. And as the Typhon mirror the world, you’re forced to to deal with your own mimicry — told what to do, are you the driver of your own reality?

5. Monster Hunter: World

Monster Hunter has been a juggernaut of Japan for nearly 15 years. It has sold tens of millions, but never gained a foothold in the West. Until this year. Monster Hunter World follows the same formula as its predecessors, but the smart integration of online multiplayer and the incredible visuals introduced it to a wider audience. On its face, it’s about gearing up to hunt giant monsters, but every part of the process is exciting. You learn to master any or all of 12 starting weapons, maintain those weapons, craft traps and poisons, outfit yourself and your cat companion with armor, and eat meals made from your previous successful hunts before you even leave camp. Then the hunt — tracking your quarry, stalking them through the underbrush, and finally catching a glimpse through the trees. You draw your weapon, and the fight is on.

4. Frostpunk

A great frost has covered the entire globe. The cities of man are wiped away, buried under the snow. You lead a group of survivors from Victorian London to the only warmth left in the dying world — a generator that rises like a tower from the snow — and try to keep your small society alive.

Frostpunk is a slow grind of despair and attrition. You must build your city to provide the basics: heat, food, and shelter, but you also must minister to your people, keeping the flame of hope alive and quashing discontent. It is a game about survival in the face of an implacable foe and impossible choices. Do you have your people use precious calories to bury the dead, or simply stack them like cordwood in the snow? If there is not enough labor to extract the needed coal from the earth for the ever-hungry generator, do you send your children into the dark of the mines? And once that mine collapses, will you give those children up for dead?

There is no happy ending in Frostpunk. No deliverance from this apocalypse. There is just the cold, the dark, and the humans that rage against the dying of the light.

3. Return of the Obra Dinn

Being an insurance claims adjuster has never been so thrilling. After 6 months at sea, the Obra Dinn returns to port with none of her crew left alive. You are tasked to board the ship and discover the fates of all the 60 souls that called the ship home. Your only tools are a manifest, a sketch of the assembled crew, and a mystical pocketwatch that allows you to see each crew member's moment of death in a fully-explorable tableau. With this limited toolset, you explore the ship using inference and deduction in a type of “murder sudoku” to figure out who is whom, and how they died. Clues to a person’s identity can be extremely obscure, requiring a lot of mental flexibility to fully discover. Return of the Obra Dinn is an elaborate puzzle of interlocking mysteries, and completely satisfying at every step of the way.

2. God of War

The God of War series of the mid-2000s was pure excess. You played Kratos, a Spartan warrior enacting violent revenge against the entire Greek pantheon. It was an orgy of murder and blood set against huge Harryhausen-esque setpieces. However, this year’s sequel eschews that power fantasy and instead shows an older Kratos attempting to outgrow that past and build a meaningful relationship with his son Atreus. A painfully authentic character-driven story results as the two navigate their relationship following the death of the wife and mother in their lives. After running from his past for so long, Kratos is forced to confront his own divinity even as he finds himself standing against the gods of the Norse pantheon.

The Norse mythology is more than set dressing — Kratos and Atreus’ strained relationship is paralleled with the family squabbles of these new gods. Kratos learns fast that if he fails at raising his son, Atreus could easily fall into any of a dozen pitfalls — He could become a vengeful, venial tyrant, an cursed outcast, or even just another divine corpse left in Kratos’ wake.

God of War offers a meditation on the finality of all things — even gods may die. Kratos has been an unstoppable force of nature, but now his age and passing of his wife has forced him to confront the future. Who will he be as the world moves forward, and, through Atreus, what will he leave behind?

  1. Into the Breach

What a triumph of game design. On its surface, Into the Breach is a series of turn-based battles where you control towering mechs battling a race of giant insects called the Vex. You fight to liberate a series of 4 islands, getting upgrades to your crew and war machines. Either you stamp out the Vex menace, or are forced to retreat into another timeline to try again.

But good lord, everything about this game is so beautifully interlocked and balanced. There are no dice rolls, no random twists. Everything is laid out before you like a chess game, a dynamic series of puzzles that demand strategic thinking to overcome. Battles are less an exercise in attrition as they are about positioning, chaining effects, anticipation, and situational awareness. There are times where you stare at the board for 15 minutes, desperate to find the one way you can possibly salvage this situation…. and then you see it.

Into the Breach takes the core of a strategy game and evolves it into one of the most harmonious things I’ve ever played. Its core is as ancient as games themselves— moving pieces on a board to gain advantage. It’s the rare game like Into the Breach where it transcends these mechanics. The board is set, the pieces are placed. And then you dance.

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Mike Kelly

I’m trying to find a good place to scream into the void about video games.