The A.V. Club hasn’t traditionally structured its year-end round-up with some authoritative ranking, choosing instead to look back at the myriad experiences we had in games over the year and sorting for the ones we really, truly liked. The result is a list that’s as true to our writers and their own predilections as it is to the year that was. There isn’t a clean-cut narrative to the games that stuck with us in 2018—which span massive superhero extravaganzas, elliptical horror experiments, and psychedelic VR rhythm games—which is, truly, proof of how rich and exciting games can be.
As always, you’re invited to write your own retrospectives in the comments, following the rubric laid out here. Feel free to overlap with our own picks; we’re interested to hear why you liked these games, too! We’ll collect some of our favorite responses for our annual Games You Liked round-up on Wednesday.
I liked Beat Saber because it actually got me off my ass. As an internet writer whose primary hobby is video games, I have to confess to a certain, let’s say, sedentary lifestyle in my day-to-day existence. But that’s changed ever-so-slightly since virtual reality sensation Beat Saber came into my life, filling the work-up-a-sweat-while-playing-video-games hole left behind when I got too fat and old for Dance Dance Revolution. It’s absolutely nuts that a rhythm game with a little more than a dozen songs to its name can be so compelling, but that’s a testament to how damn good it feels to slash colored blocks with my virtual lightsabers. Out here, I might be a hunched-over word-miner with carpal tunnel and perpetual blogger’s stoop, but inside my headset, I’m a swashbuckling musical ninja, bouncing around the room and pulling off totally sick moves. If I have to do a little light cardio in order to tap into that feeling, well, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. [William Hughes]
I liked Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon because it shamelessly imitates something great. I still think about parts of Castlevania III—the sickly green timbers of the pirate galleon; the hellacious ascent to the source of the Outer Wall’s electric blue waterfall; the powerful name of my sidekick, Grant Danasty—all the damn time. The world is overrun with Metroidvanias, but the NES Halloween aesthetic of an old-fashioned Castlevania can feel as distant and dreamy as the era of silent film.
Until this year, at least, when Bloodstained reproduced the mossy backdrops and shuffling staircase battles of Castlevania III so perfectly that it might have been grown from a lost flake of Grant’s banana-colored skin. It has the same pokey, yardstick-like weaponry, the same surreal washes of color, and the same awful giant toads, which should be attacked as soon as they appear, when their movements are least random. Only the flashy bosses and weather effects remind you that we’re all 30 years closer to a fat gray 8-bit tombstone. (Its soundtrack also maybe, outrageously, improves on the original.) The game is short, but its lovingly illustrated levels stick in your head with the power of a false memory. [Chris Breault]
I liked Celeste because it didn’t let challenge get in the way of kindness. Celeste should qualify for every best-of-the-year list for one simple reason: It’s the best, most impeccably designed 2D platformer since Super Meat Boy. But what makes it transcend such hoary plaudits is its personality. Celeste is tough. Its gauntlets require pinpoint precision and timing, doubly so if you’re tempted off the main path by collectible strawberries and triply so if you’re going to test yourself in its uber-difficult hidden levels. But while it won’t ever pull its punches, the game doesn’t just throw you to the wolves and mock you for failing. The mountain you’re tasked to climb is the real enemy here, and Celeste is your greatest cheerleader. It wants you to succeed and delivers messages of encouragement any way it can, like the precious loading screen messages—“Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!”—and Lena Raine’s quietly triumphant score. That understanding spirit informs every ounce of the game, from its ingenious difficulty options to its tender fable about mental health and the acceptance, love, and perseverance needed to overcome it. [Matt Gerardi]
I liked Dragon Quest XI because it knew what it was and didn’t bother trying to be anything else. After 14 years of spinoffs and remakes and numbered entries chasing after Japanese gaming trends, DQ11 stripped this series back down to its genre-defining traditions. You battle. You travel. You level up. You get charmed by the wacky monsters and motley allies and fairy-tale vignettes. That’s it, and you sink into that comfy, frictionless rhythm for dozens of hours. It’s a familiar formula excellently executed, down to an incredible English localization with multiple accents and dialogue spoken in haiku and iambic pentameter. Outside of that subtle achievement, there’s very little about DQ11 that screams out for attention, but that’s the beauty of it. At a time when more and more tentpole releases are mutating into sprawling, unwieldy genre chimeras, making a game this confident in its quaint comforts is a radical act in its own right. [Matt Gerardi]
I liked God Of War because it didn’t ask me to forgive or forget. It’s easy to imagine a far less ambitious God Of War revival than the blockbuster miracle Sony Santa Monica delivered this year. It could’ve gone the straight reboot route, building a game that looks and feels like God Of War 2018 but happily starts from scratch with a new, less damaged star. Instead, the studio boldly took on the task of modernizing this outdated series while also facing down the horrific nature of its monstrous main character. The Kratos here is the same immature, rampaging rage beast that drove Greece to the brink of destruction. The game takes every opportunity to remind us of that past—with every overly aggressive ax swing and angry glare—and terrify us with the possibility of it violently erupting into the present. Like the Spartan-turned-Viking looking inward during whatever self-imposed exile predated this latest adventure, the developers must have spent a long time reflecting on the series’ history, and they recognized the one essential truth for creating not just a successful reimagining but also a worthwhile one: Kratos can never forget or forgive himself, and neither should we. [Matt Gerardi]
I liked Into The Breach because, while it seems like a game about giant robots fighting giant bugs, it is not. It is a game about time travel—perhaps more singularly obsessed with this theme than any game ever made. The concept pervades everything, from the way enemies telegraph their moves to the player’s continuously looping, tragic quest for victory against the insectoid menace. In its terse, tweet-length blasts of narrative, characters muse over their fate in alternate timelines, ponder the paradoxes they’re creating, bemoan the nausea created by all these localized rifts. How astonishing, then, that the game would think so deeply about the player’s own time, fitting the tactical depth of much longer games into battles that rarely last longer than four turns. A single botched move can shatter an entire play-through, sending an adorably animated universe howling into the ever-expanding abyss of abandoned timelines. The small team at Subset has taken a galactic jump beyond its previous work, the beloved roguelike FTL, packing even more information and intrigue into the stylish, throwback animations of Into The Breach. Perhaps the greatest time paradox of all is how they could make something so charmingly retro feel, simultaneously, like a glimpse into the future of the medium. [Clayton Purdom]
I liked Jackbox Party Pack 5—the latest in an annualized series of group-friendly minigames—for one specific game, “Mad Verse City,” which shows how far friends and family will go to win. Like most Jackbox party games, Mad Verse City involves typing things on your phone as the game plays out on your TV, but instead of answering trivia or coming up with wacky responses to silly prompts, you’re writing lines for a rap battle. It gives some prompts, you come up with the rest, and then robot characters recite your verse with silly digitized voices. That would be a fun toy on its own, but Mad Verse City’s smartest twist is that it tells you beforehand who you will be facing in the robot rap battle, giving you a chance to tailor your lines to your opponent. When your fellow competitors are judging you based on how well you construct your robot’s raps, how long will you be able to go before you start throwing in personal insults to get a laugh? In my experience, the answer is “maybe one round.” Not all of the games on Party Pack 5 are as wild as Mad Verse City, but—like all of the best Jackbox stuff—you can’t find anything like it anywhere else. [Sam Barsanti]
I liked Marvel’s Spider-Man because it was made in the wisecracking, web-slinging spirit of its source material. Spidey was everywhere this year—weathering the fallout of a secret-identity reveal in the comics, getting a tearjerker send-off in one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, swinging into an acclaimed new animated movie. (He was a no-show in Venom, but maybe that was for the best.) But the masked crime-fighter’s most satisfying adventure may have been the one that let fans themselves soar between skyscrapers and hurl manhole covers at goons. Insomniac’s PS4 superhero smash is blatantly derivative of the Arkham Batman games, especially when it comes to its button-mashing combat system. But Spider-Man did more than transport that sturdy gameplay formula from a perpetually nocturnal Gotham City to a bright, bustling New York. It also invested it with a top-to-bottom love for the character, staying true to his values and conflicts—that eternal tug-of-war between the responsibilities of Spider and the more mundane chores of Man—while sprinkling half a century worth of Marvel lore on top of its original, operatic story. In a great year for the wall-crawler, Insomniac turned Spidey fandom itself into a vast sandbox, as fun to navigate as its sprawling facsimile of The City That Never Sleeps. [A.A. Dowd]
I liked Minit because it’s concise. Most games like it, that do the whole swords-and-dungeons deal, are long-winded affairs, taking hours to set up narrative, seed mechanics, and just generally get going. Which is fine and all, but sometimes I want to get some cool items and fight some bosses, y’know? Sometimes you just want to get to the point.
Which is where Minit’s brilliant premise comes in: Every 60 seconds, your character dies, and you have to restart from a checkpoint. That means that every bit of progress you make has to be achievable in 60 seconds or less. In other words, Minit is a game about constantly getting to the point. There’s not space for dillydallying in this Zelda-like. Get the item. Talk to that weird guy by the lighthouse. Beat this boss. What are you waiting for? The clock’s ticking. Minit has plans later, and it’s not going to waste time waiting for you to keep up. [Julie Muncy]
I liked Monster Hunter: World because it makes me incredibly hungry. Holidays are the time to return to Monster Hunter, gaming’s horn of plenty, filled to the brim with grumbling little Deviljhos and Kirins. Every day in Astera is a feast day: Lordly cuts of monster steak and grilled fish arrive steaming, hoisted over the ears of the smiling cat-servants (Is their service voluntary? Don’t ask) who prepare the hunter’s banquet. Thus fortified, you track the New World’s titanic beasts, a cornucopia of dinosaurs and dragons, all bulging with the good meat and bones needed to continue your endless celebration. Sometimes you capture one alive, humanely, allowing your researchers to somehow extract even more of its hide and skeleton (don’t ask).
It’s best not to question the irrepressible good cheer of Monster Hunter World, where many beasts have the distinctive intelligence of an old family pet, but should—and must!—be bludgeoned and stripped for parts. MHW is by far the most welcoming game in the series, and it’s not until you hit the later hunts that you understand it as a game of inches, where you need to know the reach of your hammer’s swing from a neutral stance to catch a monster square on its stony chin. But the sunny outlook of the Fifth Fleet never fades. It’s a world that always feels like a party, where everyone arrives dressed in their best bony carapace to find the guests of honor already breathing fire and electrocuting each other in the living room. [Chris Breault]
I liked Moss because its affection for its main character is as fully realized as its world. In it, you take control of a small heroic rodent named Quill, leading it through a virtual reality fantasyland in an effort to defeat an evil snake and save your little mouse uncle from its clutches. But from the moment you don the headset, the game is invested in your connection with your diminutive hero. This is most evident in the way it makes Quill cognizant of your presence (rendered in-game as a sort of ghostly masked giant there to help Quill on its journey), creating a more direct bond than normally exists in such games. As Quill enlists your help, the bond between you grows, leading to your sense of protectiveness over the mouse and increasing the emotional stakes. A lot of VR games sacrifice heart in the effort to deliver technological gimcrack, but Moss wants you to care about its hero because you care, not because you’ve got a futuristic helmet on your head. It’s fun as hell, but when you finish, your thoughts aren’t on the puzzles or fights, but the lingering affinity for your plucky little companion. [Alex McLevy]
I liked Overcooked 2 because it captures the joys of controlled chaos. Remarkably light and fun for a game that also feels like an ongoing, escalating panic attack, Team17’s sequel to its beloved cartoon cooking simulator only amps up the heat in its goofy-serious kitchens. The adorable animations and panda-heavy roster of playable characters belie a whole host of new complications for you and your fellow chefs to deal with, navigating crashing hot air balloons, ornery conveyor belts, and zombified sandwiches in order to serve up perfect-looking fictional meals. The controlled chaos makes Overcooked 2 this year’s best couch co-op game, but it’s the aftermath of those culinary crises—high-fiving your partners after plucking yet another three-star victory from the hangry jaws of defeat—that lingers well after the fact. [William Hughes]
I liked Paratopic for the way it seems to kick open a back door in the player’s head. The game’s images of VHS tapes and surreal violence recall the work of those beloved Davids of film—Lynch and Cronenberg—but they don’t seem to revolve around some grand central idea about technology or culture, as those directors’ best films do. Its brief, vignette-like scenes feature a few recurring locales and modes of transport but buck linear narrative conventions, instead documenting an assassination, a lonely car ride through an industrial nowhere, and interstitial moments in some hellish city. And yet the game has proven much more enduring than similar experiments from the alt-games space, forcing players to connect its disparate threads into some darkly comic horror odyssey. This is certainly thanks in part to its striking aesthetic, which looks like like the art deco labyrinth of Dark City recreated in the Syphon Filter engine. But I think the game gains its power mostly from its unique curiosity about video game editing: the way its hard jump-cuts force the player to ask where they’re going and why. It’s in those gaps in between that our brains must wander through dark territory, followed by long car rides to rue how quickly and easily we knew what to do with that gun. [Clayton Purdom]
I liked Red Dead Redemption 2 because it never ran out of surprises. Did you know, for example, that strangers can visit your campsite? It happened for the first time about 60 hours into my game, when the ritual of cooking alone was as familiar as Arthur Morgan’s battered black hat, and the sudden appearance of a wild-haired woman by his fire at night was a genuine jump-scare. An hour later I came across a rival gang of outlaws robbing a train, which I had never seen in all my hours of stick-up artistry.
Red Dead Redemption 2 holds more surprises in this vein than any game I can remember. It overflows with ideas that deepen the impression of life in its world and characters, whose fates turn on minor incidents that play out between the game’s occasional Uncharted-scale set pieces. Arthur’s friends sing and bicker in layered, Altmanesque parties back at camp; they stay up all night playing poker; and they die brutally in a story that is never shy to spend its narrative capital. We get some of Rockstar’s finest missions along the way, which see us soaring over the game world in hot air balloons or hunkering down to run security at a hanging. But RDR2 is best during lulls in the action, in fleeting moments when the designers choreograph weather, wildlife, and music to make Arthur Morgan’s world suddenly beautiful. Enjoy it while it lasts. [Chris Breault]
I liked Return Of The Obra Dinn because it shows how much more impressive a good aesthetic is than good “graphics.” To my eye, no game in 2018 looked better than Lucas Pope’s 18th-century “insurance adventure,” which tasks the player with investigating a gloriously monochrome sailing ship to figure out how its crew members met their various grisly deaths. The core gameplay—which expands on the detail-heavy document hunting of Pope’s previous Papers, Please—is certainly engaging, but it’s as a treat for the senses that Obra Dinn truly thrives. The soundtrack (which mostly confines itself to the flashbacks you get of the crew’s death, lending jaunty accompaniment to each individual’s various sad ends) is beautiful enough, but it’s the look of the thing that lodges it in the memory: Pixel-perfect and designed to look like the best game ever released on the old Macintosh platforms (sorry, Shadowgate), it’s beautiful and deliberate in a way that a bunch of hundred-person teams toiling for big-budget studios couldn’t hope to match. [William Hughes]
I liked Sea Of Thieves because it was as freewheeling in its design as the open seas. Sometimes fun is the only reward you need. No, I’m serious! A lot of the systems the game launched with were kind of light and overly dependent on doing the same basic tasks—carry this thing from one island to another—over and over again, which meant the core novelty of operating a pirate ship by angling sails and manually loading cannons wore off very quickly. However, sailing with a crew of friends turns Sea Of Thieves into a game unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It’s easier to complete more lucrative missions with friends, getting money and new hats more efficiently, but the most entertaining moments in Sea Of Thieves came when we cut out the bullshit and just played like pirates. For example, we didn’t get any in-game rewards from the time another team of players demanded we stay away while they tried to clear a fortress of skeletons and we snuck on board their waiting ships to toss their supplies overboard, but it was a blast to interact with people online in a way that I never had before. That’s thanks in part to Sea Of Thieves’ theme, and in part to the loose way it lets us play-act. [Sam Barsanti]
I liked Tetris Effect because it made me wonder: Could one of the best games of 2018 be from 1985? It takes the framework of Alexey Pajitnov’s ported-to-everything classic and updates it with luminous, evolving backdrops and extremely-PS4 blasts of neon particles. Of course, Tetsuya Mizuguchi—the psychedelic-gaming wunderkind tasked with this reimagining—couldn’t help but tweak the formula a little bit. Newly structured levels feature climaxes that occur at a truly punishing speed, a challenge made palatable by the generous wiggle room you have to reposition each block after it lands. The result feels a bit like the work Mizuguchi has been building toward his entire career, from the Tetris-inspired Lumines to the more abstract, action-oriented Rez and Child Of Eden, in large part thanks to the transportive power of its music. In passing, some of these ecstatic J-pop tracks and percussive freakouts can seem as over-the-top as the blissed-out landscapes in the background, but a magic alchemy occurs when it’s all combined with the tension and satisfaction of Tetris. (Your favorite intoxicant won’t hurt either.) The game is named after the sensation in which one continues to think about falling tetrominoes long after playing, but Mizuguchi uses this psychological power for good—to reach deep into the player’s subconsciousness and instill a sense of beauty and calmness there. When’s the last time a game did that? [Clayton Purdom]
I liked Unavowed because it puts characters first—even in the face of the apocalypse. The latest love letter to old-school adventure games from indie vet Dave Gilbert and his Wadjet Eye Studios (The Shivah, The Blackwell Legacy), Unavowed has its share of clever inventory puzzles and dialogue conundrums. But the game’s real draw is its characters, especially the members of the titular clandestine magical protection agency, who go far beyond their simple log lines (wisecracking fire mage, tough-bitten New York cop, badass half-genie) to feel like fleshed-out people. Taking some tips from Bioware’s approach to gradually unraveling party member narratives, Gilbert’s characters have plenty to say as they roam NYC by subway, trying to stop a demon-assisted Armageddon. Full of funny dead kids, gloating evil trees, and menacing fae, Unavowed is the rare piece of modern gaming where every new piece of writing and interaction the player stumbles onto is its own reward. [William Hughes]
I liked Valkyria Chronicles 4 because I love a stylish war story that is also an over-the-top anti-war parable. The long-running Sega series is a strange one to scratch my Metal Gear Solid itch, but it does an excellent job making up for the end of that series. Its tactical warfare is broken up with so much exposition about why the game’s central conflict (basically a fantasy-flavored take on World War II) is pointlessly destructive and how the higher-ups on both sides couldn’t really care less about the soldiers doing the actual fighting and dying. There are also wild tonal shifts between war drama and soapy relationship stuff that works way better than it should thanks to the stylized anime aesthetics. In between, it makes XCOM-style combat more tactile by forcing you to physically move your soldiers and aim their shots—just deep enough that you feel clever for setting up a perfect flank, but loose enough that you can just drop into a scenario and react to what the enemy sends at you. Just remember that war still sucks, even when you win. [Sam Barsanti]