(Disclaimer: I wrote about a few of the games listed below prior to writing this post. My thoughts haven’t changed much since my initial impressions, but I did update a few things for particular titles. You can read my original thoughts on such games here, here and here! So, without further ado…)

It Keeps Going and Going and Going…

I have selected my top 10 games for the year, but I wanted to discuss some of the titles that didn’t quite make the cut, including my thoughts on the expansions, remakes and ports of 2018. It goes without saying (and sentiments appear to be mutual among those in the community), but 2018 has been quite the year in terms of both the volume and quality of games to play. In addition to simply having an incredible library and back-catalog of games at one’s disposal, 2018 is the first year where “Games as a Service” (GaaS) can really be seen and felt. Developers and publishers alike are looking for more ways to make bank off of consumers from existing products. While there are some exceptions to this reality, most “AAA” games are no longer shipped and forgotten post-launch.

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I’ll keep going just as long as there’s something interesting to play…

Whether it’s through small updates or traditional “expansion packs”, depending on the studio’s financial position, talent-pool and type of genre, many games are no longer sent to die after their initial release. For critics and those who write reviews and do commentary on video games (whether professionally or as a hobbyist), it’s becoming more difficult to do traditional games media coverage due to this ever-changing landscape. Magazine articles and website reviews are quickly becoming replaced by podcasts and streams (see Twitch and YouTube Gaming, for example). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this new movement, however, as the discussion should change in tandem with how games are being released, discussed and played. Where is this all headed, one may ask? Who knows! In the meantime, there are some amazing games and experiences to be had along the way and I’m here to talk about them.


Favorite Ongoing Game & Expansion

Destiny 2: Forsaken

I’ve been playing Destiny 2 since its launch back in 2017. It’s probably becoming my most played cooperative/competitive game since the original Gears of War on the Xbox 360. I’ve easily invested hundreds of hours between the vanilla content and all of the various updates and expansions over the past year or so. While the game has had its numerous ups (Forsaken, Shattered Throne and material reworks) and its many downs (Curse of Osiris, Black Armory grind and clan drama), I continue to play Bungie’s pseudo-MMO, perhaps against my better judgment. Despite all the racket surrounding its drip-feed content (or lack thereof), its monetization efforts towards cosmetics or its slow and demanding grind towards existing end-game content, Destiny 2 just feels so good to play still.

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Cayde! Cayde!? Caaayde!

At the beginning of September, Bungie released their latest expansion, Forsaken. With the new expansion came Season 4, which introduced many changes, including random rolls on perks for gear, 1,000+ triumphs (Destiny 2’s in-game achievement system), a new collections tab which keeps track of everything you’ve collected and even a highly requested lore tab that requires players to discover even more collectables scattered throughout the public spaces (which provide context and backstory on the many characters, races and pivotal story moments from the Destiny universe). Needless to say, it’s the most significant/impactful update for Destiny 2 and even rivals the Taken King expansion from the original game, or so I’m told.

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Some morning coffee contemplating whether or not I should continue the grind…

Now that I’ve spent a decent amount of time with Forsaken, it still feels like a cross between Mad Max and Lord of the Rings, but in space. The new campaign took place initially on the Tangled Shore, which is a cluster of meteorites and rock connected by wires and pipes. The atmosphere felt dark, cold and muted, which is befitting of the environment as it’s not the most colorful or vibrant location Bungie has created in their extended universe. Cayde-6, one of the main Guardians from the Destiny universe, was murdered and it’s your job to avenge his death. An Awoken prince, a handful of barons and other rogue creatures escape from what’s known as the Prison of Elders (are you lost yet?).

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My character progress as of 12/30/18.

It’s all rather confusing if you’re not invested in the lore, but at its core, Forsaken is simply a tale of revenge/retribution that’s interesting and thoroughly enjoyable, even from an outsider’s perspective. The majority of the expansion has you facing menacing barons, which not only provide unique challenges and gimmicks during each encounter (such as an entire adventure on pikes and another where you must disable bombs), but can also be tackled in a non-linear fashion. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a Destiny campaign to date (although, this is coming from someone who didn’t get to experience the Taken King during its prime) and many agree that Destiny is currently at its best right now.

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Bungie still designs the best-looking sky boxes in the business.

After the final mission in The Tangled Shore, players can access the second destination in the expansion, The Dreaming City. Many have said the area evokes The Lord of the Rings and it’s true. The elven-like architecture and grandiose vistas do remind you of an elven city from say, The Fellowship of the Ring. The most interesting aspect of this new social space, however, is the fact that it evolves/changes every three weeks. New activities, challenges and events pepper the landscape each week. In addition to these ongoing activities, there’s already an abundance of triumphs to complete, secrets to discover and items to collect. We’re now in Season 5 of Destiny 2 and I’ve spent a good amount of time in the Awoken city and I can easily see myself spending many more hours there well into 2019. Needless to say, it’s the most ambitious destination in franchise history and I can’t wait to see what Bungie has in store for us Guardians when 2019 is all said and done.

Expansion Runner-Ups

Nintendo surprised dropped Splatoon 2’s Octo Expansion during their E3 2018 showcase. While I’ve completed Splatoon 2’s  base campaign and dabbled in the numerous multi-player modes since launch, I haven’t played any of the new content beyond a handful of stages. From what I’ve played, however, Octo Expansion appears to be a selection of increasingly difficult stages which can be completed in a non-linear fashion. I unfortunately did not get the opportunity to complete the DLC, so I don’t have much to say beyond some initial first impressions. The interconnected subway system seems very cool and more single-player content in what’s primarily considered a competitive multi-player game is highly appreciated, though.

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I want to play this so badly.

Finally, there was Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna – The Golden Country, an expansion/prequel to the base game released back in 2017. As someone who STILL hasn’t completed the original Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (I’m 60+ hours on Chapter 5, please don’t judge!), I’ve shelved the expansion for the time being. I’ve heard great things about Torna, specifically its re-worked combat system, a new soundtrack composed by one of my favorite composers of all time, Yasunori Mitsuda, and its relatively short but sweet run-time. I’m (hopefully) planning on completing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 sometime in 2019, so Torna – The Golden Country will be played in due time.


Re-Master Me Edition

As a platform grows and establishes its dominance in the marketplace, developers/publishers find opportunities to capitalize on the increased install-base. That may sound cold and cynical, but it’s unfortunately the reality for many of our favorite childhood games that have been getting remade, rebooted and remastered over the past few years. Last generation, we received such hot garbage like Konami’s Silent Hill HD Collection and Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia Trilogy HD, for example. Post-release patches and updates aside, these collections are still not the most desired way to experience these classics.

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I’m not sure who asked for this, but I’m glad it exists!

Fortunately, the quality of re-releases (whether they’re been simply up-rezzed or redone from the ground-up) have gotten better over the past few years. 2018 saw many remakes, remasters and 4K enhancements, including Secret of Mana, Burnout Paradise Remaster, Shadow of the Colossus, Resonance of Fate 4K/HD Edition, Yakuza: Kiwami 2 and even The Last Remnant Remastered, all of which I did not get the opportunity to play, except for one…

Favorite HD Remake/Remaster

Spyro Reignited Trilogy

Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot go hand-in-hand when it comes to iconic PlayStation mascots. Although their original developers, Insomniac Games and Naughty Dog, respectively, have parted ways and moved on to greener ($$$) pastures, these two franchises still remain cherished and adored in the hearts of many. Toys for Bob, the developers behind the toys-to-life franchise, Skylanders, and last year’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, rebuilt the original Spyro trilogy in all of its PS1 goodness and then-some. For all intensive purposes, the Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a one-to-one remake of the first three Spyro games (Spyro the Dragon, Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage! and Spyro: Year of the Dragon) with some additional features and a beautiful new coat of paint, of course.

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You can tell the team really cared about this franchise.

Spyro the Dragon has always been the easygoing, more chill younger brother as opposed to the louder, more obnoxious older sibling that is Crash Bandicoot.  The original Spyro game was more or less a collect-a-thon, but its simplicity was nonetheless charming. Gliding across gaps, freeing dragons, collecting gems and burning sheep feels as satisfying as it’s always been and each stage offered compact yet engaging platform challenges to conquer. Now, after having revisited the first game after many years, my biggest takeaway from the remake is the attention-to-detail and the beautifully animated dragons. The dragons that Spyro frees serve as checkpoints and tutorials for the (presumably) younger audiences. To create such lavishly designed creatures with one-liners and 5-second animations says a lot about the love the studio had for the franchise.

The sequels, however, offer more of the same, but Insomniac made improvements on the formula with each iteration. Spyro 2, for example, has an actual story-line (or at least makes an attempt at having one) and Spyro can (shockingly) swim! Stages are also much larger and contain mini-stories and quests, including areas and tasks that require backtracking once new abilities are learned. As a huge fan of Ratchet & Clank (R&C), it’s also clear that Spyro 2 set the foundation for what would become Insomniac’s next escapade, particularly from a game design perspective. R&C would travel from world to world, solving planetary issues on a micro-scale. Charmian Drek, a corporate overlord looking to rebuild his planet off of the destruction of others, was the cause of all the world’s problems in the first R&C.

 

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Spyro 2 laid the groundwork for what would become Ratchet & Clank.

In Spyro 2, each of the realms that make up the Kingdom of Avalar, a fictional place of weird creatures and animal-like denizens alike, are suffering a similar fate at the hand of Ripto, a wizard who just happens to hate dragons. Spyro and his partner, Sparx,  are summoned from their world and fly from realm to realm in order to help the citizens who’ve had their lands invaded by the evil magician. The design parallels are interesting if you look closely enough! While I did not get the opportunity to revisit the third Spyro game before year’s end, I’m looking forward to closing this chapter on a part of my childhood sometime next year. Hopefully, Spyro isn’t one of the last Ahamkara Dragons from Destiny 2 (see what I did there?) and my final wish for a true sequel is granted in the near future.


Honorable Mentions

– The Gardens Between – Developed by Australian studio, The Voxel Agents, The Gardens Between is a sweet and endearing puzzle game about childhood friendships and the passing of time. Two childhood friends find themselves on dream-like islands comprised of giant objects from their youth. The two kids move on a predetermined path and the player can only move time forward or backwards in order to solve the puzzles that lie before them. Certain conditions (such as wind-chime like switches) can be activated, which defy the flow of time and cause permanent changes to the stage. It’s a difficult game to describe, so it’s best to see the game in motion to get a better idea. I completed the Gardens Between in a few short sessions and even obtained the Platinum trophy. It’s highly recommended if you’re in the mood for a short & sweet trip into the minds of two best friends from what was presumably the late 80s.

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Don’t sleep on this game!

– Bomb Chicken – As someone who loved the Game Boy Advance (GBA) and its unique 2D platformers, the most striking thing about Bomb Chicken is its crispy, 32-bit visuals. In a red sea of 8-bit/16-bit tributes, it’s nice to finally see an independent studio tackle a 2D platformer with a visual style that’s grossly unrepresented in today’s retro-inspired scene. Bomb Chicken, with its chunky sprites and exceptional animations, feels and looks like something that would have released alongside Nintendo’s very own Wario Land 4 or Game Freak’s Drill Dozer for the GBA. Ask any GBA aficionado and these two games are often discussed in conversation circles surrounding the hardware’s capabilities. If Bomb Chicken released 15+ years ago, it would have easily been a cult-classic on Nintendo’s portable platform of choice. I wrote A LOT more about the game which you can read here!

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Don’t let the name fool you. This is a legit 2D puzzle-platformer!

– Donut County – Developed by Ben Esposito, Donut County is a weird one. Raccoons have moved into a new town and a donut shop, run by a selfish raccoon named “BK”, has been delivering donut holes to customers. These aren’t your ordinary Boston Crèmes or old fashioned glazed donuts, however, they’re quite literally holes, in fact! That’s right, the player controls a hole which allows them to wreck havoc on a community of human and animal citizens alike. In true Katamari Damacy-like fashion, the hole starts small and grows larger as more garbage and environmental-junk falls into the black abyss. There’s minor physics-based puzzles and other silly environmental scenarios, but nothing is ever too difficult to solve. I completed the game with the Platinum trophy and while it was an extremely short experience, it’s best played as a palate cleanser between other, more substantial games.

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Katamari AF.

– Spider-Man – One reason why I picked-up the new Spider-Man game is because it was developed by the same studio that brought us Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank; two of my all-time favorite franchises growing-up. I also really enjoyed Insomniac’s Sunset Overdrive, which clearly shows its DNA here (specifically with the open-air traversal and web-swinging). The open-world aspects (the side-quests, collectables, and activities) are relatively familiar by today’s standards, but unlike other games in the genre, Spider-Man’s map isn’t littered with a million icons and way-points. The Arkham-like combat looks and feels good, too, but it’s an incredibly easy game (web blossom anyone?) even when played on the highest difficulty setting. My favorite things about the new Spider-Man game is its swinging mechanics and the photo mode, though.

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Taking pictures and applying overlays and stickers is one of the best parts of the game.

Swinging through the streets of New York City feels perfect. Picking-up momentum, launching yourself off of perch-points and stopping mid-air to reposition your swing down a narrow street is immensely satisfying. The photo mode is also a standout as it comes equipped with cool filters, stickers and overlays, which essentially allows you to create your very own custom comic book covers! So far, I’ve spent almost as much time playing the game as I have been taking pictures. I completed Spider-Man, but I’ve yet to go for 100% completion. I enjoyed my time with the game, but I don’t have the same nostalgia for its characters/extended universe like others do, so a lot of the fan-service and lore just didn’t land for me. I’m happy for the fans, but most importantly, I’m excited for Insomniac Games. They’re super competent developers long-overdue for some good-will from the community at large.

– Fe – EA’s independent studio branch, EA Originals, released Fe, a game developed by Zoink! Games. Unlike their previous PC-like adventure games, Fe is a minimalistic 3D platformer set in a world where its creatures communicate with each other in order to survive. From what I’ve gathered, alien-like monsters are out to enslave the inhabits of the world and it’s your job to set them free. The story is told through visions, flashbacks and tribal-like murals that are scattered throughout the game’s locales. Crystals (the game’s main collectable) are also hidden throughout the various interconnected Metroid-like environments. When enough are collected, the crystals grant the player with abilities which allow him/her to progress to new areas. I completed the game after putting it down for a few months and ultimately enjoyed my time with it for what it was worth.

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I guess this guy was a friend? I don’t know.

– Mulaka Developed by Lienzo, a development studio located in Chihuahua, Mexico, Mulaka is a 3D action/adventure game based on the stories, myths and legends of the Tarahumara (or Raramuri) indigenous tribe. It’s inspiring too see indie games developed from around the world, but it’s even better when they’re not just another 2D, sprite-based throwback to the 8/16-bit era. Mulaka’s low-poly, minimalist aesthetic invokes the PlayStation 1 era and it’s honestly a breath of fresh air among its contemporaries. The levels in Mulaka are semi-open world and are littered with arena-like combat sequences, simple puzzles and exploration elements. The player also earns transformations over the course of the game, which can be used both in battle and in the environment in order to solve puzzles and obtain hidden items. Mulaka, at times, feels like a low-budget Okami, which is a wonderful feeling to have and an amazing game to aspire to be.

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Low-budget Okami.

– Kirby: Star Allies – As someone who considers themselves a huge Kirby fan, I enjoyed Hal Laboratory’s Star Allies, just maybe not as much as the more recent titles on the Nintendo 3DS. More couch-coop driven than any other entry in the franchise to date, the game is meant to be played with friends/family in close proximity. Playing Star Allies solo is an incredibly easy experience and the AI is almost overly competent to a fault. It’s still a super polished title and while the art’s great, music’s fantastic and charm’s through the roof, I couldn’t help but to walk away thinking something was missing. I completed the game with nearly everything collected, but the real challenge (like in most Kirby games) begins with the post-game/boss-rush modes, which are typically unlocked upon completion. The game has also received many free updates and DLC characters for its “Guest Star ???? Star Allies Go!” mode since launch, too. Perhaps one day I shall return to the dreamland…

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I want to go back for 100% completion, but I’m just not feeling motivated.

– Minit Developed by Vlambeer, Minit is a top-down, 2D Zelda-like/micro-adventure with a unique gimmick. Upon the retrieval of a cursed sword, the player will die at the stroke of sixty seconds. Safe havens (checkpoints) are scattered about the environment, which act as anchors (re-spawn points) to the world, however. The player’s goal is to find the source of the curse by interacting with certain NPCs and resolving their requests. There are also simple environmental puzzles that require certain items to be found first. Shortcuts and wraparounds are cleverly placed, which allow the player to complete their 60-second goals once discovered, too. It’s an extremely short experience that’s meant to be replayed as there are a slew of secrets to uncover and additional modes to challenge. I enjoyed my brief time with the game and would love to see a sequel!

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“Washing the dog! Washing the dog!” – Beavis and Butt-head.

– Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon – Developed by Inti Creates, Curse of the Moon is a retro-inspired side-story based on the much larger Kickstarter version of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night due out in 2019. For anyone who grew up with Konami’s classic Castlevania franchise, Curse of the Moon doesn’t try too hard to hide its inspiration. It’s essentially Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse with a new ensemble and a fresh coat of paint. Curse of the Moon utilizes an “enhanced” 8-bit style as the parallax-scrolling and boss-scaling on diaplay here wouldn’t have been possible on the original Nintendo (NES) hardware. The player begins the game as the lonesome Zangetsu, but three additional playable characters can be recruited (or slain), which allows the player to discover new routes and hidden challenges.

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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon… wait what?

Curse of the Moon is a rather short experience, but it’s highly replayable due to its branching paths and character-specific routing. Each character brings a unique ability to the table (such as a high jump, magic spells or a bat transformation) and can be switched to on-the-fly, which allows the player to tackle stages in different ways. Franchise favorite sub-weapons make a return and are character-specific this time around, too. The game also features many composers, including the legendary Castlevania composer, Michiru Yamane. I completed the game twice, one of which was on Nightmare mode with Veteran mechanics activated (knock-back on hit). Curse of the Moon was both a nice surprise and a delicious appetizer for the main course next year.


Late to the Party

My Favorite 2017 Games Played in 2018

– Last Day of June – Despite releasing in the summer of 2017, the Last Day of June, developed by Ovosonico, was my biggest surprise of the year… from last year!  On paper, the Last Day of June appears to be just another narrative-driven adventure game. It’s a story about love & loss and how the relationship between a man and a woman is influenced and ultimately affected by the people in their lives. Visually, the art-style and presentation evokes a Time Burton-like atmosphere. Despite the game’s beautiful watercolor aesthetic, each character’s face is featureless, almost hollowed, which provides a stark contrast to an otherwise cheerful-looking game. All spoken dialogue is also delivered in a gibberish-like manner, but unlike other games that have adopted this style over the years, the sound design and character animations perfectly convey everything the player needs to know without a single word ever being spoken.

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Don’t play this game if you cry at everything. But seriously… play it!

The goal of the game is to prevent the loss of your loved one by defying fate. As the player interacts with a handful of non-playable characters (NPCs), you’ll solve simple environmental puzzles by utilizing a time travel-like mechanic, which will change the outcome of the story. A single day will repeat if the incorrect solution is chosen, however, the game will cleverly cut-corners on repeat attempts in order to maintain a decent pace. Although the game, at times, is very dark and extremely depressing, there are heartwarming vignettes sprinkled throughout the narrative which bring harmony and balance to an otherwise tragic story. I completed the game in two sittings and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. Do yourself a favor and experience this game if you haven’t done so already!

– Yakuza 0 – There was a time when I was considered the de-facto Yakuza fan. I’ve been championing this franchise since the original game back on the PS2 and I have invested 100s of hours between the first four games (including Dead Souls). For those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, Yakuza is similar to Sega’s very own Shenmue series, but with a modernized take on Streets of Rage-like combat and a semi-open world structure. For a long time, I was always disappointed that no one saw the appeal/potential in these games. Sega did not localize the games in the west for a handful of years, but due to the sales and success of Yakuza 0, Sega has seemingly reversed their outlook on the franchise outside of Japan and I couldn’t be happier! I’ve been playing Yakuza 0 off & on for two years now and I finally completed the game a month or so ago. If you haven’t played a Yakuza game before, do yourself a favor and give 0 a whirl! It’s the perfect entry-point in a long-running franchise that isn’t going away anytime soon.

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Dancing the grind away.

– A Hat in Time – Despite some questionable drama surrounding the game’s developer, A Hat in Time is one of the best 3D platformers I’ve ever played. It’s a super polished, creative and competently made throwback to the N64/PS2-era adventure games. A Hat in Time’s premise is simple, yet very strange. A space-faring girl’s ship parks above an unusual planet. The vault of hourglasses onboard her vessel is suddenly opened and scattered to the planet’s surface below. The earth’s inhabitants, consisting of mafia members, owls and otherworldly creatures aren’t so willing to give-up their newly confiscated time capsules, however. It’s a weird, yet surprisingly fulfilling journey, to say the least.

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I would do it all over again (well, maybe not…).

It’s also great to see an indie developer not only offer a 3D experience in an ocean of 8/16-bit tributes, but also completely knock it out of the park on their first try. If you’re a fan of Super Mario 64/Banjo-Kazooie, do yourself a favor and play this game. Among its peers like Yooka-Laylee, Poi or even Super Lucky’s Tale, A Hat in Time stands-out as one of the better 3D platformers to have released as of late. I managed to 100% the game and obtain its Platinum Trophy and I’m eagerly awaiting to see what the developer, Gears for Breakfast, does next! They’ve recently released new DLC on the PC, but there has been no announcement for consoles as of yet.


 

My Top 10 Games of 2018 is next!

-Matty

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