Originally published at: https://statelyplay.com/2018/12/17/the-end-of-year-hullabaloo-and-so-it-begins/
When we kindled Stately Play from the smoldering ashes of things that were, we did so with a few things in mind. Firstly, we weren’t going to try and replicate the magic from days gone by. The previous eleven months had demonstrated it wasn’t possible without Owen in the driver’s seat. Secondly, while games would always be front and center, SP was going to be an open and free place where we could talk about whatever the hell we wanted to. I’m not sure anyone encapsulates that as much as Alex and Tof who, in our Friday scrying articles, will often highlight games that are either 20 years old or so indie that most other sites don’t even know they exist. Most of all, we wanted SP to be a place where a bunch of friends–who’ve never actually met in person–could get together every day, share, learn, or just talk about the stuff that interests them.
So far, I think we’ve done okay. We don’t get the clicks we used to pull at that old site, but I think we’re all a hell of a lot happier and I’m too old to care about much more than that. Why am I talking about this today, when I should be introducing our End of the Year shenanigans? Going over the writers’ lists, it dawned on me that they’re pretty perfect from a Stately Play point of view. I think other sites would be terrified to have a 3 year-old game appear on their Best Of list, but if we liked it and can justify its inclusion, who the hell am I to stop it [you’re the editor, dumbass. Oh..I mean, I’m the editor. You’re the owner? Wait, who the hell are you? -ed.]
So, here goes nothing. Today we’ll cover games that we wished we could have included in our top 5’s, but didn’t quite make the cut. Tomorrow we’ll get into the lists, proper.
Quite the year was had for games, but as is always the case, it’s never a bad year for games. Anyone who says otherwise is just not looking hard enough.
This year, I fell in love with a mobile game for the first time in a long time, in the form of Holedown. If you’ve not played it, and you’re chasing the childhood zen of bouncing superballs down a hallway, dig in. Other notable mentions that just stopped short of the Top Five were Insomnia: The Ark and Observer. Both dark, brooding futureworks, and each selling their respective worlds with aplomb. Something like Observer shouldn’t work on account of visual density bordering on farce, but it does so with effortless grace. Insomnia wears a plethora of inspirations on its sleeve, but manages to craft a unique dish from ingredients you’ve tasted elsewhere, namely Bioshock, Fallout and STALKER.
Ancestors Legacy was another surprise, a riotous real-time tactical affair served on a blood-streaked sparth. The unwritten tagline was ‘Company of Heroes, but Dark Ages’, and that was a fair description. Small unit clashes had an immense physicality to them, with motion capture and litres of merlot making this far from family-friendly fun. A standout.
Rebellion deployed their pulp shooter Strange Brigade, from which I have heartily enjoyed wringing fun. It’s a safe bet, perhaps a little too safe, but a dependable co-op romp through scores of Egyptian revenants and their antediluvian overseers. Does exactly what it says on the box. Nothing more, but nothing less.
But it was not a year without disappointment. I’m still wondering why I haven’t booted up more of Frozen Synapse 2, a game whose bullet-points alone scream Game of the Forever. Maybe it was a litany of launch stability issues, or a map that confused in place of intrigued. We all played the original and loved it, but the lightning somehow missed the bottle this time around. Worse part is, I can’t even tell you why.
But if that’s as bad as 2018 got in the games department, I’m sitting very pretty. Here’s to 2019.
Matt Thrower has a great perspective on why he’s not doing end-of-the-year awards. Everything he says is reasonable and I acknowledge that while also wanting to play the foil: that is, my list is likely even less exhaustively researched than his would have been, but so are all of the other lists you’ll read this December. But reading them is fun, might help players prioritize great games that would otherwise be missed, and gives us at the least the tiny first step toward resisting the desire to always be playing the latest thing.
For context, I went through a strange shift in my tastes for a while this year, backing away from longer, more involved games while finding classic newspaper-style puzzles like sudoku and picross more compelling. Far and away the greatest discovery of that period was the Word Slide, an absolute brain-tickler involving anagrams and spatial reasoning. I’ve yet to find a respectable app for them, but they’re a great puzzle type. And I should give credit to recently-released Rebel, Inc. for helping to wean me back toward lengthier mobile fare (though I do wish it had Tactical Space Command-style tempo control).
Five games wasn’t enough, so here’s a few that made an impression that weren’t quite list worthy.
Destiny 2 and it’s latest expansion, Forsaken, was an absolute blast to play for a few months. I grew addicted to finishing every quest and getting my power level as high as possible. There’s no game that makes watching numbers go up quite so exciting.
Marvel’s Spider-man is a delight. I’m still a little in awe of how well the story beats work. There are quite a few really exciting narrative turns that have a personal impact on the titular character. And of course, the web swinging is perfection.
Crosscode is an incredibly deep RPG with a unique concept, one that exists inside the world of an MMORPG. I haven’t made a ton of progress thus far, but it’s a game that I am excited to go back to at some point in 2019. The game’s rich world, retro art style and dual stick combat melds together quite nicely.
I had no trouble at all this year zeroing in on my top five. In each case, I was aware I was playing something very special. The back half of a top ten would’ve been a lot harder to nail down, thanks to a year full of games I liked a lot but probably won’t (or didn’t) stick with me like my top five. Here’s a bunch of those games:
- Burnout Paradise Remastered and Lumines Remastered: Two all-time favorite games, remastered and easily playable on things I actually have hooked up.
- Forza Horizon 4: The Horizon series seems to be the only franchise interested in following up on what Criterion started ten years ago. Unfortunately, the obnoxious set dressing wore me down, but the couple weeks before hitting that breaking point were a lot of fun.
- Cinco Paus: 2018’s 2017 GOTY, thanks to a release just after our 2017 GOTY posts. Probably Brough’s best game.
- Marvel’s Spider-Man: A game that really gets what makes Spider-Man great, both mechanically and as a character, and manages to avoid the pitfalls of most mainstream superhero media. Unfortunately, the design of the missions and open world are pretty by-the-numbers. Instant-fail stealth missions should not exist in
- Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: I’m having a hard time qualifying this as a game release. It feels more like paying for Netflix. There’s an overwhelming amount of content, some of it pretty good, and you feel obligated to buy it because that’s just what you do. Richter and Isabelle, though.
- Monster Hunter: World: Hoo boy, for the first month or two of 2018, I fell pretty hard for MonHun. But after March or so… I didn’t play it. At all. The drop off basically coincided with my roommates losing interest in the game, eliminating my dependable hunting partners. There’s a chance I’ll pick it up again when the big expansion comes out next fall.
- Pocket Run Pool: Zach Gage is an amazing game designer and this is definitely one of his best, but it also made me incredibly angry at myself for underperforming, to the point where I had to uninstall the game. I think I’ll stick to FlipFlop Solitaire. (Also, the big updates for Sage and FlipFlop this year were excellent.)
- Twinfold: It’s too soon to call on this one. I’ll play any Brough-like that comes my way, but I don’t know if this one will have the legs that Cinco Paus or Imbrolio have. It sure is slick, though.
- Diablo III on Switch: This is the best way to play Diablo III. Of course, it’s still Diablo III, so those middle acts are still a slog. Maybe Path of Exile will end up on there someday…
Some blind spots: I didn’t play Red Dead Redemption 2 or God of War, which are games I would probably like to some degree, but likely wouldn’t have cracked my top five. I’m waiting for the Switch version of Dragon Quest XI to come out, because playing a JRPG on anything else sounds awful now. And Hitman 2 could’ve been a contender, based on how much I’m enjoying the last game right now.
There are a lot of games that deserve to be in my top five list this year but aren’t. Into the Breach and Banner Saga 3, for instance, are games that I desperately want to play on my iPad, but they aren’t out on iPad yet. I have ItB on my PC, and maybe Santa will bring “the family” the Switch version, but I want my Varl and time-traveling robots to come with me on the train, and that means iPad. Celeste is the only “masocore” platformer I might ever come to love, with it’s encouraging framing and nuanced adaptive difficulty settings, and Return of the Obra Dinn is one of those games the Centauri archeologists will go crazy for when they discover it in the melted remains of our civilization, but I haven’t played either yet, unless you count the Obra Din demo/prototype I fell in love with back in 2016. Why haven’t I played these games? Clearly a moral failure on my part. Then there’s Civilization VI, which was originally released on PC in 2016, but whose December 2017 iOS release would be good enough to qualify even if it hadn’t landed on the Nintendo Switch a mere month ago. I plead cowardice there: there are so many games I want to spend countless hours with, and a game like Civ VI on iPad would threaten to consume them all and leave nothing but the bones of time. Plus, I’ve always found the decontextualized hodge-podge of historic leaders in Civ games to be off-putting. If I want to receive threats from Theodore Roosevelt, I’ll join a Spanish-American War reenactment troupe.
I played the heck out of a pair of games that came out in late 2017, so I’m creating the best-game-of-2018-that-really-came-out-in-2017 category to properly recognize them. The first is Slay the Spire, an incredible roguelike deckbuilder that hit Steam in November 2017. I could probably make a case for it being more of a 2018 game as early access is a bit of a grey area. Slay the Spire added a third character class and two more game modes this year, in fact. Regardless of how we date the release, Slay the Spire is exceedingly well-designed, and the Silent class might be my favorite of any roguelike deckbuilder ever made.
The second winner of my special made-up category is zombie-apocalypse city builder They Are Billions. It’s also an early-access game, though it’s tough to tell given how polished it is already and was released even later—last December. Gameplay is an entertaining and super challenging blend of city building and tower defense. You have to figure out how best to grow your civilization while fending off the increasingly savage onslaughts of hordes of undead looking to eat all the brains. You lose, a lot. You learn. You try again. Then lose some more. If you don’t mind a steep learning curve, however, it’s an excellent game.
As for games that came out in 2018 that I actually played…well, there are still too many worthy of a coveted Stately Play top-5-game-of-the-year award to mention. So I’m going to game the system a bit. I suspect Into the Breach will show up one or more times in the coming days (I’m looking Tanner’s way) so I’m just going to emphatically nod my agreement here. It’s outstanding. Buy it. Play it. Rejoice. One Deck Dungeon is also worthy of comment but I’m betting Dave is going to tell you how great it is, and once again I agree, in advance.
I will now close with a rapid-fire round of notable games of the year that did not make my top 5. Holedown is an excellent ball-shoot-and-bounce game with tons of upgrades and hours of gameplay. Slydris 2 is a great take on Tetris mechanics and is free-to-play with a reasonable ad-removal IAP. Vampire’s Fall: Origins is an entertaining and completely free turn-based RPG. Motorsport Manager Mobile 3 made me care about motorsports for the first time ever and managing all aspects of a team over multiple seasons was quite fun.