We’re a few days into January now, which means 2018 is a thing of the past. It saw a seemingly endless string of game releases—I played and reviewed well over 100 new games myself, and even that seemed to barely scratch the surface. (I also finally picked up a Switch early in the year, so catching up on that system’s backlog added to an already bloated year.)
But no matter how cluttered the release schedule, a handful of games will always stand out from the crowd in the way they creatively explore topics that need to be explored, offer fresh perspectives, take us to places we’d never otherwise be able to go, or simply dish up some spectacular fun. 2019 was no exception, with some truly remarkable games covering everything from World War I to psychedelic trips to Holmesian romance.
These are, in my view, the best games that 2018 had to offer.
10. Tetris Effect
Tetris Effect achieved what I thought impossible: it made me enjoy Tetris. Played on a regular TV, it’s Tetris but with an assortment of colourful visual effects and musical interactions. But played in VR, it becomes something transcendent.
In VR, the audiovisual effects overwhelm the senses to create a sort synesthesia. As the bright colours and emotive tunes dance interact with your puzzle solving, it feels like you’re touching music and playing colours. It gets under the skin, and makes you feel on some primal level. That’s something not many games can do well, and Tetris Effect does it flawlessly.
9. Unravel Two
Unravel Two is the sequel I never knew I wanted. Unravel‘s ending was perfect, and I couldn’t see any way for a follow-up to not ruin that. Unravel Two, instead, left the first game’s ending untouched and turned its attention to a new pair of heroes, while looking at the same themes from a different perspective.
Unravel was, fundamentally, about family: about the threads that bind one generation to the next, no matter how far they might travel. Unravel Two is about found family; about how a severed thread can be just as strong when it’s tied to that of another.
This naturally lends itself to new platforming challenges and a cooperative design (though just as playable in solo), but it’s the way Unravel Two builds upon the magic of the first that makes it truly impressive.
8. London Detective Mysteria
London Detective Mysteria might be my favourite otome game since Hakuoki, and that’s saying a lot. Set in London in the late 1800s, it casts you as a detective-in-training who’s trying to solve the mystery of her parents’ murder. At the same time, she gets caught up in all manner of cases alongside her classmates—who include relatives of such famed characters as Sherlock Holmes, Arsene Lupin, Miss Marple, and Kogoro Akechi—and will, inevitably, fall for at least one of them.
It’s part high-school romance and part Sherlock Holmes-style detective fiction, all wrapped up in gorgeous artwork and one of the best English localisations I’ve seen in a game. The heroine, Emily, is delightfully self-sufficient and avoids the otome cliche of the helpless, voiceless protagonist. The bachelors are all delightful, too—I obviously have my favourites, but there’s not one among them I don’t like, which is a rarity.
My review of London Detective Mysteria is on the way. Thanks for your patience!
7. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
The more things change, they more they stay the same. Dragon Quest is a series that never strays too far from its core formula, and yet technical improvements and tweaks to that formula make each new entry feel fresh and enticing. Dragon Quest XI sticks to that trend, delivering a modern, streamlined take on the classic JRPG.
The battle system, art style, monster designs, music, and general thrust of the narrative will be immediately familiar to anyone familiar with the series. At the same time, new elements like team-based special attacks and new means of traversing the world add fresh layers, and within the usual tale of a chosen hero ending the reign of a dark lord, Dragon Quest XI quietly bucks a lot of the genre’s cliches.
6. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
As odd as it may sound, the best way I can describe Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is as an open-world visual novel. Set in early 20th century United States, it sees you hitchhiking your way across the country, trading stories with other travelers along the way. The more you travel and share tales big and small, the more they grow and evolve—you’ll often stumble upon much more juicy versions of some old, mundane account you shared way back when.
In that, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is an exploration of the tradition of folklore and oral storytelling; at how some fairly regular thing can morph into something fantastical as it leapfrogs across the land and is shared from generation to generation. At the same time, it’s an insightful dive into a fascinating period of American history and what a rapidly changing society meant for the people on the ground.
5. The Gardens Between
A lot of games look superficially to nostalgia as a way to make an impact. “Hey, you, remember the ’80s?”, they scream as the flood players with pop culture reference after reference. There’s some comfort in that when it tickles some memory you’re particularly fond of, but it’s almost always a superficial thing.
The Gardens Between is more interested in nostalgia as a theme. Sure, it has its retro consoles and casette tapes, but the bigger question is: why? What is it about these flashbacks to childhood that are so important, and why are they so meaningful to us? Delivered through a wordless story about a pair of teens reminiscing about their childhoods together, The Gardens Between is a heartfelt journey into the power of memories.
Moss is one of the few virtual reality games that really makes use of the medium. At first glance, it appears to be a simple third-person action game, but the way it casts you as an actor in the game world fundamentally changes the relationship between player and protagonist. You’re no longer a silent, hidden force guiding the hero on their journey; you’re quite literally an accomplice with your own presence in the world, acting as a guiding hand.
On top of that, the unique VR perspective opens up a new world of possibilities for level design. To guide Moss‘ pint-sized hero, Quill, through the game is to play with a series of interactive dioramas; moving around lets you see things from different angles, and you can reach in and manipulate the world before you to open up new paths.
The final piece of the puzzle is a captivating story about an unlikely hero’s journey to rescue her grandfather from the clutches of evil. It’s simple and familiar, but that’s not a bad thing, and Quill is such an endearing protagonist that it’d be very hard not to get pulled in.
3. Black Bird
Black Bird is a rock-solid shoot ’em up full of oddball enemies and with a killer soundtrack, but it’s so much more than that. Opening with a scene of a poor, sickly girl dying on the streets while middle- and upper-class bytanders give her nary a glance, it then sees said girl transform into the titular Black Bird and rain destruction upon a rigidly class-based society.
Dripping with Onion Games’ unique brand of black humour, Black Bird is a middle finger to capitalism that’s both scathing and hilarious. Few things things from 2018 will be as memorable as watching the wealthy civilians in the final level—a wealth quite literally built upon the bodies of the exploited poor—flailing haplessly as an ever-growing black ball of death tears their world apart.
2. 11-11: Memories Retold
Videogames don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with historic wars. For many a developer, the World Wars are a source of “fun”, “excitement”, and “adventure”, typically cloaked in a veneer of American imperialism and outright propaganda.
11-11: Memories Retold is a solution to that. Told from the perspective of two non-combatants on either side of World War I—a Canadian photographer and a German engineer—it’s both a tale about the human cost of war and a solemn warning about the dangerous power of propaganda.
A painterly art style gives the game a beautiful, dreamlike quality, but that only serves to highlight the horrors that war brings to all involved. Instead of fun and adventure, 11-11 looks for hope that we might never repeat the mistakes of the past.
1. The Missing: J. J. Macfield and the Island of MemoriesJ
The Missing: J. J. Macfield and the Island of Memories is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable, powerful, and important games of all time, let alone of 2018. Despite how grisly it appears—this is, after all, a game where your protagonist has to deliberately maim herself to progress through a surreal, nightmarish world—what makes The Missing stand out is how tender it is underneath.
This is a story about living your truth. More specifically, it’s about the struggles that trans people in particular so often face in dealing with a world that’s hostile to their very existence. It’s shocking and confronting, but that’s all underscored by a genuine humanity, and the fact that it’s resonated so well with a lot of trans folks is testament to how well everything is handled.
This doesn’t mean it’s a game solely for trans people, though—quite the opposite. It’s a lesson in empathy towards an especially marginalised community, and the more of that in the world, the better.
What were your favourite games of 2018? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!