Normally intros to lists like this try to summarize a whole year in a few sentences, or gin up some kind of overarching theme or meaning through a few stray observations and coincidences. I can’t think of anything more boring, so that’s out. I’m not going to wax poetic (or philosophic) about what it all means, because you’re smart enough to know the score and I respect you enough to not peddle my own nonsense that insistently. 2018 was a year, it had games, some of them were good: that’s all we need to agree on.
You might remember that we ran our all-encompassing list of the best games of the year earlier this month. We don’t break down the process behind that list, but it factors in every review we ran during the course of the year, along with the personal preferences of our games editors, who are myself and Holly Green. There’s no hard and fast equation, or anything, and as the guy who assembles the final piece I pretty much have total discretion in how the finished lineup looks. Still, it doesn’t exactly reflect my own tastes and opinions. You’ll see a lot of overlap, and you’ll also see games that our writers strongly vouched for in their reviews, whether they be ones I didn’t personally enjoy or just haven’t had time for yet this year (I’m talking about you, Into the Breach). In the twin interests of full disclosure and more content for the insatiable maw, Holly and I will be posting our own personal top tens this week, starting right here with mine. No matter your own preferences, I’ll think you’ll agree that it’s certainly a list of games.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
If you pay attention to what we write about here at Paste’s games section you probably realized this game would end up near the top of this list. This is the game, remember, that made me question my lifelong ambivalence towards anime. That’s a massive achievement. Ni no Kuni II is a big leap forward from the middling original for a few reasons, one of which is that it more elegantly unites its gameplay loop with the anime aesthetic of its cut scenes. The camera seamlessly transitions into action when the talking is done and it’s time to take control of your characters, and the new real-time combat scheme also breaks down the off-putting distance found in the first game’s fight scenes. On top of all of that is a surprisingly thoughtful political storyline and characters that are deeper and more human than you might expect from their extremely anime appearances. If you’re remotely interested in role-playing games or anime, you should play this one.
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Tetris Effect is a brilliant and forward-thinking new take on an old and deeply familiar classic. It’s a curious combination of relaxation and extreme stress, often swerving abruptly from one right into the other, and surrounding myself in it through virtual reality and headphones makes it even more powerful and evocative. It could use some more variety in its music, and be a bit more esoteric and surreal with its imagery, but it’s still a gorgeous, sometimes glorious vision, and a true VR stand-out.
Platforms: iOS, Android
Holedown came out this year but felt instantly timeless, like a forgotten early arcade hit dragged onto 21st century smartphones. It takes a simple idea—you shoot out balls to break blocks before they reach the top of the screen, caroming the balls around the screen like it’s a pool table—and maximizes it for the mobile platform, with easy drag-and-go controls and a ruleset that makes it much more complicated than just busting some bricks. Somehow Holedown makes one of the oldest ideas in videogames—bouncing balls off of blocks—feel fresh and original.
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Not content with sheer novelty, Dead Cells importantly taps into the most significant aspect of both of the genres it fuses together. Few games are as addictive as those Metroid-style backtrackers, and perhaps the only thing that has come close this decade is the spate of roguelike platformers that flourished in Spelunky’s wake. Dead Cells beautifully captures what makes both of those genres impossible to put down, uniting the “just one more” drive of a roguelike with the “must keep going” compulsion of a Metroid. It’s a smart, confident piece of work, and anybody interested in either of the genres it builds on should consider checking it out.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Spider-Man might return to too many wells too many times—it might be too stuffed full of fights and collectibles and typical open-world business—but its foundations are so strong that it never threatens to collapse on itself. This game understands why Spider-Man has been perhaps the most popular superhero of the last half-century, and does about as good of a job as the comics or movies at capturing the character’s essence. It blends more than fifty years of Spider history together, molds it around a thrilling recreation of Spider-Man’s trademark motion and fighting styles, and puts you in control of the whole thing. All together that makes this one of the most mechanically, narratively, and nostalgically satisfying big budget games of the year, and the best Spider-Man game yet.
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, iOS, Android, Linux, Mac
Long Hat House’s first game might play fast and loose with history—its hero, Dandara, is a real-life figure from Brazilian history—but its Metroid-style design and unique approach to motion make it compulsively playable. It’s part myth, part dream, all wrapped up in an occasionally psychedelic sci-fi action game heavily indebted to the aesthetics of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and one of the best new games of the year.
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to Towerfall employs a familiar aesthetic and language from videogames past to tell a story about mental health and self-actualization, using the mountain the game is named after as a representation of a young woman’s struggles with depression and self-doubt. Celeste is an inspired triumph, with art that recalls the early ‘90s, and requiring a precision to navigate its levels that comes straight out of the heyday of platforming. The vibrant use of color and warm, stylistically varied score elevate the retro aesthetic beyond mere homage. It’s a touching and occasionally insightful depiction of what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression.
Blood doesn’t fade that easily. Obra Dinn might be rendered in the stark monochrome of an early Macintosh game, but that blood still jumps out at you. And not just the blood of the sailors and passengers whose murders you try to solve aboard the empty ship they perished on, but the blood of all the people and cultures cut down and ground into profits by the force that sent that East India Company ship on its journey in the first place: colonialism. Lucas Pope’s follow-up to Papers, Please might feel like a game of deduction at first, an especially complex game of Clue, but it unmistakably grows into a critique of Europe’s exploitation of native populations without ever becoming too obvious or heavy-handed about it. It’s an inherently political game that never becomes didactic or boring, and more proof that interactive media like games can be persuasive and educational without feeling like a lecture.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Linux
Minit is an adventure with a twist and also a critique of capital split up into tiny bite-sized chunks and told through adorable animals in a sparsely drawn fantasy land. After enough stop and start minutes you’ll realize a factory is running roughshod over this place, polluting the land and working some of its employees to the bone while firing others whose jobs can now be done by machines. Behind it all is a maniacal manager prioritizing productivity over all else. After all these minutes and all these lives the true story reveals itself, and to reach the end you have to collect item after item, life after life, to eventually have the skills necessary to grind the factory to a halt. Even after realizing this it’ll take many minutes and many lives to finish everything you know you need to do, tiny bits of incremental progress in-between passages of rote, mundane, repetitive busy work. If it starts to feel like a job, well, maybe that’s the game’s point. The factory is Minit itself, its employees all of us who play the game, and its dictatorial boss the developers who put us through these paces again and again and again in hopes of the smallest iota of progress. Like the unending and uncaring work shifts that eat up our days until we die, we expend most of our vital energy redoing the same soul-killing nonsense over and over. It is one of the most effective metaphors for the exploitation of the working class seen in videogames. The minutes pass, we experience multiple tiny deaths every day doing the job we’re expected to do. And we press a button, and we do it again.
Platforms: iOS, Android
Florence knows what it means to be human. We love, we lose, we learn, and move on. This story follows a relationship from its first flickering to its final ember, and although that’s as sad as it sounds the misery isn’t the point. The message is that this is normal—this is life. Most relationships won’t last, and what’s important is what we learn during them and how that impacts the people that we’ll be if—or when—they do end. Florence captures this entire journey in elegant fashion, using the touchscreen to turn us into active participants in Florence’s life. It’s a modest game that’s made a deep impression, and proof that videogames don’t have to serve as a power fantasy or wish fulfillment to resonate with an audience.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter at @grmartin.