Argh, this was meant to go out over the New Year period(!) but I’ve been burning the candle at both ends with work and… well, this turned out a lot longer than I expected!
Thankfully, you’ll not be getting a decade list from me. Can you imagine how long that would be? I’ve not done a games of the year list since 2016 so let’s catch up with 2017 to 2019. In some kind of loose order, because where’s the fun in an unordered list?
Golf With Your Friends
It’s janky and ugly and there’s weird collisions/physics and lag at times, and some of the holes are pure nonsense, and that ‘Your’ in the title bugs me, but… it’s crazy golf, and it’s still a lot of fun, with friends. There are alternatives out there but apparently this is one of the best, and we still play and moan about it.
It’s an update of ‘The Mother of All Games’ Scorched Earth, but with the vast arsenal locked away behind levels and XP. Booo! That’s a killjoy, but the enduring core gameplay remains and there’s still a lot of stuff to fire at each other. One tank each and simultaneous turn-taking makes it so much more chaotic and snappier than Worms as well. It’s a simple pleasure that we always come back to.
Warhammer: Vermintide 2
It’s more of the same but with some nasty Chaos amongst the rats now. The unnecessary gear ‘power’, loot box and crafting/upgrade system is fiddly, messy and confusing and bogs the experience down, but the first-person hacking and slashing is still some of the best around, and the enduring Left 4 Dead co-op lives on in it.
Tooth and Tail
I loved the ‘distilled real-time strategy’ but disliked the linear campaign. It felt downright unfair and nigh on impossible at times, thanks in no small part to the procedurally generated maps. Since then there have been some major updates so I suspect the campaign is now a lot smoother. I should probably give it another shot. The multiplayer, however, is excellent, and with it being playable on controller, it can be enjoyed split-screen for up to four players (and played online). Games are fast, but manageable, and because of the map unpredictability and what combination of units players choose to bring along, you’ve got to be adaptable. That’s how I like my RTS. The artwork is stellar too.
Spirits of Xanadu
Spirits of Xanadu slots in somewhere between The Swapper and System Shock 2. It’s hugely influenced by the latter but its got a low-fi indie arthouse feel to it and premise that, while familiar, never fails to intrigue me. ‘At the farthest edge of the explored universe, the research ship Xanadu slumbers in orbit around a mysterious planet. Her systems remain active but there has been no message from her crew for months. Now a lone operative has been sent to wake the Xanadu and bring her home to Earth.’ It’s got a few endings which I wouldn’t usually chase but because of its short duration (around 2 hours) and clever structure, at least two of them are easy enough to see and they’re really satisfying as a pair. There’s an uneasy stillness on the Xanadu that made it very creepy (with some delicious understated scares), and I was surprised by the writing and strong vocal performances. Definitely worth a look if you’re into your sci-fi horror/thrillers.
Vectorpark of Windosill fame (well I loved it anyway), does the alphabet, and it’s every bit as lovely and playful as you’d expect. Probably brilliant for early learners, still brilliant for adults and everyone in-between.
Frozen Synapse 2
Due to a rough launch and ongoing bugs and stability issues, Frozen Synapse 2 was never able to shake its ‘Mixed’ user review score on Steam and find the success of its predecessor. While the newly added dynamic strategic city layer brought with it warring factions and emergent stories of deliveries gone wrong, pissed off leaders and withdrawn funding, parking lot shootouts, road blockades and base raids, the UI and UX strained under its ambition. The combat was better than ever with improved control features, more varied maps, greater unit variety and deeper tactical possibilities, but without a playerbase the multiplayer well–which the original drank from so deeply–ran dry. Paul Kilduff-Taylor a.k.a. nervous_testpilot’s soundtrack is also brilliant. A crying shame. Here’s a clip of one of my knife units ninja-ing a sniper across the street.
You’ve got to fight, for your rite, to BAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-TTLE. Stunlock Studios’ follow-up to Bloodline Champions (which we covered here on Tap back in 2011) is terrific, further refining what was already a highly focused skill-based multiplayer PvP arena brawler. With a dwindling player population Stunlock succumbed to the siren song of battle royale to develop Battlerite Royale which never really found a comparable audience. In the wake of the battle royale buzz however, the base game still stands proud with a thousand or so peak daily players. Not too shabby for a niche 2017 release.
A single-screen couch competitive shooter with a twist: everyone is invisible. Tricky to get into but very rewarding once you get a feel for the grid-based movement, character abilities and the different pick-ups, modes and level quirks. Initially launched as ‘Invisigun Heroes’, it underwent an overhaul with its Switch release adding an improved single-player experience as well as cross-platform multiplayer. Super polished and well presented, smartly designed and feature-rich with a thumping soundtrack. Almost entirely by one guy and a real passion project.
It’s got the alien invasion scenario and British setting of The World’s End; the top-down procedurally generated levels, crafting and survival tension of Teleglitch; and the more evasion-oriented play, forgiving structure and personality of Sir, You Are Being Hunted. Puppygames did an amazing job of translating their distinctive 2D style to 3D and there are lots of amusing touches throughout, from the blue screens of death illuminating the dead at their desks to the ‘Quality Control’ advice labels on blurred close-up photos of aliens about to chew your face off (the flash blinds them, y’see). Sorely overlooked.
Probably the best pure platformer ever, but the sheer number of devilishly difficult levels–all exquisitely designed–is daunting. “And if thou gaze long into an abyss, N++ will also gaze into thee”. I’ve been tempted to pick it up on Switch since launch but… 2000++ levels tho? The Steam launch trailer is still beautiful and one of my all time favourites. The co-op and competitive multiplayer is pretty nifty too, as Joel and I found out on Side by Side:
Nier: Automata spectacularly and creatively explodes in so many directions. You’ll find bits of shooter here, pieces of brawler there, platformer fragments and RPG debris strewn across a desolate and compact open world. At the core of it is a dizzying story and I’m not going to lie: I got lost in the blast. But once the dust had settled, there were answers buried amongst the wreck and ruin. Not that I found or understood them all. Nier: Automata kept surprising me though, from the beginning until the very [E]nd, through its structure, shifts in perspective and forth-wall breaking shenanigans, to its philosophical musings, bold presentation and dramatic dynamic soundtrack.
I loved the giddy enthusiasm and zaniness of Chuchel; it felt like a playful slapstick comedy sketch show. I didn’t quite enjoy this as much as Amanita Design’s more textural and calmly absurd Samorost 3, but it was hard not to be won over by poor Chuchel’s angry quest for cherry and DVA’s suitably effervescent soundtrack. Check it out to see (and hear) what I mean:
The Haunted Island, A Frog Detective Game
Competing with A Short Hike for most wholesome game is Grace Bruxner and Thomas Bowker’s The Haunted Island, A Frog Detective Game. It’s simple and silly but the dialogue is just so good and effortlessly entertaining. It’s an hour long, only costs a few quid and probably has the best ending sequence ever. And the best graphics options ever. Basically, if it doesn’t make you smile then I can’t help you I’m afraid.
My girlfriend and I managed to ace 66% of this before I soloed the rest. (This allowed her to just enjoy the eye-popping visuals and indelible soundtrack without the constant interruption of death). It’s an exceptionally tough (but tight) game and I was surprised by how it rewards experimentation with the different weapons and abilities. It also rewards pigheadedness. We died over 2000 times together. Porkrind would be proud. GOODBYE.
Frameception: we must Gorogoa deeper. I’m still not sure what Gorogoa is actually about but that doesn’t matter when it’s such a gorgeous, clever and unique puzzler. This only took a couple of hours to play through but it’s a lovely thing to behold and absolutely worth your time.
I don’t think I’ve played better looking 2D games than Machinarium and Samorost 3, and Machinarium’s soundtrack is one of my all-time favourites too. (I was surprised to hear Paul Hartnoll of Orbital share the same sentiment last year.) I remember the first Samorost coming out back in my final year of uni in 2003 and at the time I was doing a lot of mossy, knotted wood macro photography, so to see that kind of thing come to life was magical. God, that feels like an age ago and Amanita have come a long way since then!
I finally got round to playing Samorost 2 recently but I rage uninstalled it on the final stretch, shortly before starting the third installment. And as beautiful as Machinarium is, I found the adventuring aimless and… fumbly. While Samorost 3 is similarly opaque at times, I felt that it got the balance right so that even when you were lost and a little confused, there were still plenty of odd, cool and unexpected things to witness and poke at. Sound is a huge part of Samorost 3 and it’s as alien, rich, textured, organic and whimsical as the visuals. It’s such a key part of the game that the collectibles are musical, and they’re utterly delightful too.
Decide on a derelict, plan your heist and gear up, execute your plan with surgical precision (or improvise trying)… profit? Cryptark is a frenetic and tense strategy shooter about tight margins and that (gun)heady space between playing it safe and risking it all. Not for the faint of heart. Its characters, green HUDs, pyrotechnics and muscular biomechanical 2D visuals are brilliant and complemented by some excellent vocal performances and an absolute monster of a soundtrack that pistons, pulsates and snarls. Take a look and listen:
Plot a railway track that picks up all the aliens in each space station then drops them off at their abode. Easy to pick up but fiendishly difficult. Refreshingly, it’s also easy to come back to if you put it on the backburner. Some puzzlers I really struggle to return to if I stop playing them for too long (see Induction)–and the trickier they are, the more likely that is to happen–but Cosmic Express always welcomed me back to its simple, elegant and clever compact puzzling. I’m still chipping away at this and it’s perfect in your pocket.
A MULE-like worker placement game where each player competes for the goddess Inanna’s favour to rule Sumer. Sumer takes the numerous victory routes and thoughtful play of boardgames and tosses in moments of frantic real-time videogame panic. It’s an exciting mix, but with a learning curve that some may find intimidating. This coupled with a lack of friends to play it with means I’ve not played it nearly as much as I’d like to! Booo! Joel and I had a great time with it though, producing one of our favourite (longer form) episodes of Side by Side.
AT SUNDOWN: Shots in the Dark
Compared to Invisigun Heroes/Reloaded, At Sundown clicked with my friends immediately. I put that down to two things: the full 360 analogue aiming and movement, and the 3D graphics allowing for light sources to intuitively illuminate areas and hiding players. The latter seems like a silly point, but often just brushing past the outer glow of lamplight is enough to catch a glimpse of your character (or enemy) sneaking around in the dark. Where Invisigun depends on square counting to move around, At Sundown is a more granular and messier affair, but all the more fun for it. Add in all the satisfying weapons, character specials, pick-ups, map quirks and modes and you’ve got yourself a good time with up to four friends, locally and online.
Yoku’s Island Express
Max covered this dungballvania in his Games of 2018 list and it’s every bit as delightful as he said. What I especially loved about it was the little odds and loose ends dotted all over the island waiting to be investigated and tied up later. Pinballing around was a little tiresome at times, but the bright colourful visuals coupled with one of the most eclectic soundtracks I’ve heard this side of Katamari Damacy (pulling in Pink Floyd-esque guitar solos, chiptune synths, throat singing, dark bassy Portishead trip-hop and scratching, jazz, some sort of medieval sax reggae mash and more) wouldn’t let me get too frustrated.
Hyper Light Drifter
There’s a beautiful restraint and melancholy to Hyper Light Drifter that made exploring its enigmatic post-apocalyptic world a quiet joy. This is further heightened by a gorgeously evocative and atmospheric ambient score from the consistently excellent Disasterpeace. The combat is tough, but fluid and satisfying, and, thankfully, the checkpointing is forgiving too for the tricky movement challenges. There are some gorgeous sights here and plenty of secrets to discover, and while the story lost me, it was intriguing enough to keep pulling me along. Sometimes that’s enough.
A Hat In Time
See, the problem I have with Mario at this stage is that it all feels so familiar and safe, even when the insufferable mustachioed man is doing what he does best. He’s Mickey Mouse now. Super Mario Odyssey was amazing, at least it was for the first two or three worlds before I started to recognise the beats and rhythm of the activities, then the repetition and moon fatigue set in. Breath of the Wild felt similar. Look, if you hide a korok seed under a rock, you’re setting a dangerous precedent and expectation when it comes to every other rock in Hyrule. If I start seeing the same activities with the same results scattered across a big open space, whether they’re marked on your map or not, I start to switch off. That’s fluff. And don’t get me started on the horribly inconsistent visuals and those ugly Broodals in Odyssey. New Donk’s citizens, Pauline and Mario are just… I mean, look:
What were they thinking?
And honestly, screw Odyssey‘s ‘all the cool stuff unlocks after the credits’ nonsense. I want that stuff from the get-go. Lasers, 8 o’clock, day one.
ANYWAY. I played A Hat In Time after Super Mario Odyssey, and while it’s certainly not as polished (I mean, duh), it does find a sweet spot between Psychonauts’ madcap scenarios and Odyssey’s tight acrobatics that I found a lot more interesting. 3D platforming doesn’t generally excite me much these days (except stuff like Refunct or Sonic Utopia) but A Hat In Time managed to be varied, kooky, spirited and charming enough, with just the right amount of collectibles and unexpected turns to keep me entertained. The Seal the Deal DLC was a treat and I’m yet to check out the Nyakuza Metro, but I steered clear of the masocore Death Wish content–some of the story rifts were hard enough as it is. If you die enough times in Death Wish you’ll be treated to the amazing loop below:
This was a recommendation from AJ and Joel on Twitter, and it was a great one. Your first run will be a steady, almost meditative affair, as the colours rise and set with the sun and the euphoric music patters away in the background while you find your feet. If you’re slow like me you’re probably looking at half an hour to complete it. Then you see the achievement for a sub-four minute run and think ‘Whaaaa?’. You fire it back up. Okay, maybe I can’t hit that, yet, but the eight minute cheevo? Looks possible. So you give it another spin, each time getting better at sliding, wall jumping, gauging distances and navigating tighter routes. It’s blissful first-person platforming that you can enjoy on your own terms. And the thing with it being first-person: there’s no worrying about the camera like in these third-person 3D platformers because the camera is in your face.
The Norwood Suite
You’ll not find a stranger game on this list. I think it was Amanda’s review on Steam that brought The Norwood Suite to my attention. I gave the demo a spin and something about the surreal visuals and atmosphere, the spaced out dialogue and very cool music being pumped out all over the Hotel Norwood just won me over. While The Norwood Suite plays out as a pretty straightforward first-person adventure game, it ruminates on themes relating to the artist, art and the production of it, fans, idolatry, corporate interests and the relationships between them all. I was really surprised to see the developer, Cosmo D (who also composed the hypnotic soundtrack), explaining his intent on the forum. Folks, the author isn’t dead: he’s right here spoiler tagging stuff and I want to know what he’s got to say. It was so refreshing to hear a creator just being open about their work. I lost nothing and gained so much more insight alongside my own.
Described as a ‘post-reality racing game played by children in the year 2601’, Witchball is a strange 1v1 beast that mashes up volley ball and… I dunno, a trippy glitchy Hang-On, I suppose. Both players race each other on foot while simultaneously volleying the ball over the split in the screen. How cool is that? Going fast makes you less maneuverable and prone to missing the ball (conceding points), but you get points for coming first each lap too so there’s tension between speed and positioning. I loved this and all its eccentricities when I played it for Side by Side:
It’s Nidhogg but more. More weapons, more maps, more character customisation, more graphics. Toby Dixon’s pixel art is still divisive, but I think it’s glorious. Did Nidhogg need more? Not really, but the sequel is still excellent.
There’s nothing quite like Crytek’s Hunt: Showdown. You’re a bounty hunter in the 1890s Louisiana bayou surrounded by all manner of hellish creatures and your aim is to track down a target monster, banish it, claim the bounty and escape the map. Unfortunately, you’re not the only one, and the hunter holding the bounty is highlighted to everyone else. What’s more, unless you’ve got a teammate to revive you, if you die: you’re dead and lose your hunter. It’s brutal, unforgiving and intense PvPvE, but unlike other shooters, it’s a lot slower. Most weapons require reloads after every shot, melee is viable–indeed essential–and stealth is a key part of getting the edge on your opponents. Everything makes a noise in Hunt: Showdown so if you can hear it, others can too. The sound design here is exceptional and up there with Sea of Thieves and Return of the Obra Dinn.
One of my favourite moments was vaulting over a fence into a maize field with another hunter pursuing me. I heard him enter the field and slowly inched backwards tracking his position based on the noise he was making. He was coming straight for me so I pulled out my bag of decoy blank bullets and tossed a few over and behind him. As he emerged from the maize in front of me, he was facing the other way, towards the crack of the bullets I’d just thrown. He didn’t know what hit him.
There are various tools and traps, environmental elements and hazards to watch out for in Hunt: Showdown which just makes traversing the maps that much more interesting. I’ve not played the game’s main mode, Hunt, as much as I’d like because playing with random silent teammates hasn’t been that much fun, and I’ve not had any friends interested (enough) in joining me yet! That said, the game’s solo Quick Play mode, which is similar to battle royale, has been a blast and utterly nerve-wracking. The cool thing is if you manage to succeed, your hunter, all their gear and traits get carried through into the Hunt mode. I’ve got a stable of them now, ready for some co-op.
6 years late to the party but BlazeRush is (still) great! It has the same kind of camera and courses and varied chunky-boy vehicles (each with their own wacky characters) as Rock n’ Roll Racing on the SNES. It has the single-screen chaos and pick-ups of Micro Machines V3 (enhanced by some seriously enthusiastic physics and effects), and the satisfying bumps, bounces and handling is straight out of Super Off Road. What a mix.
There’s a standard racing mode but the stars of the show here are Death Race, which has a gigantic mechanical monstrosity chewing up the rear waiting to scrap any racers that fall behind, and King of the Hill, where the leader accrues points over time. First to 50 wins. There’s real sustain and tension with this mode that I find really exciting.
BlazeRush offers up to 8 player online multiplayer madness as well as 4 player local (that can also join in online play). The controls are super simple, intuitive and accessible too which makes it really easy to get new players to join in. My girlfriend and I had a great time working through the campaign together.
The aim of Void Bastards is to try and get the bust-up Void Ark out of the Sargasso Nebula by restoring the ship’s vital systems. To do this you take control of rehydrated inmates or ‘clients’ in order to scavenge parts or ‘action items’ from dangerous derelicts scattered across the nebula. Most of the trouble comes from the Kafkaesque nightmare of administrative hoops to jump through, so you’ll need a citizen card to restart the FTL drive, but because you’re a prisoner your card has been shredded. Better find the materials to create a new one. It’s very knowing and every setback is as hilarious as it is crushing, and it’s all impeccably delivered. The writing is superb.
Void Bastards is a strategy shooter nestled in a sandbox with procedurally jumbled up star maps, ships, enemies and hazards that throw up all kinds of unexpected and emergent scenarios. The moment-to-moment play mostly reminds me of System Shock 2 (minus all the inventory management) but with Bioshock‘s vacuuming up of items and enemy and security in-fighting. The overall structure however, is a lot closer to Cryptark with its deep space derelict hopping and risk/reward friction. While it’s a lot more open and forgiving than Cryptark, Void Bastards can get incredibly tense, especially when things start going wrong and you’re desperately trying to make it back to the airlock to escape. Ultimately, the engine that drives your progress in Void Bastards is scavenging and crafting but it’s focused and manageable here; it’s always exciting to get a new toy to throw into the sandbox and see what interesting stuff you can do with it. For example, hacking a turret then using your Rifter to make it portable? Yes please.
Anyway, Void Bastards is brilliant and somehow creepy and funny at the same time. I’m looking forward to trying the challenges with the new Bang Tydy DLC.
(Void Bastards was developed by a bit of a supergroup alongside former Looking Glass and Irrational dev Jonathan Chey: I recognised Cara Ellison’s voice as the pirates (she’s also in Assault Android Cactus) but didn’t know she was the writer too. I had no idea William Pugh (of Crows Crows Crows and one of The Stanley Parable devs) voiced some of the enemies. The Stanley Parable’s narrator makes a return here as BACS. Jay Kyburz of Neptune’s Pride and Blight of the Immortals also worked on it as well as Farbs (Captain Forever) and Ryan Roth (the Cryptark soundtrack).)
Vignettes is a game about exploring objects and discovering secrets. It’s unique, beautifully presented, trusts you to work things out and is so gratifying if you do. Coincidentally, Joel wrote about it recently over on Electron Dance and I found his thoughts particularly relevant for a game of this nature:
“How was I to know that Vignettes would be an engaging exploration? How was I to know that objects would work together to hide secrets? How was I to know that Vignettes would have tricky achievements that would absorb me for days?”
Vignettes is one of my favourite mobile games but aside from being on iOS and Android, it’s also available on macOS and Windows too. Check it out at http://vignettesga.me/
Regular Human Basketball
Or ‘Ballers in a Dangerous Space Jam’. One of my favourite multiplayer games from 2018 with one of my favourite game trailers ever.
Control a giant metal baller by flipping switches inside to move the thing around. Score hoops to win. Bring up to 9(!) friends to compete against, co-op and get(Down) with. Frequently hilarious, always brilliant. It excels on the couch but the netcode is solid as a rock for online play too. Even with just the two of us, Joel and I had a blast with this for Side by Side:
Such a good trailer. Joel and I really should have checked out Videoball for Side by Side because it’s one of the best multiplayer ball games I’ve played thanks to its simplicity and immediacy coupled with an emerging strategic and twitchy depth. It has numerous options and levels that dramatically mix things up and it scales beautifully from 1v1 to 3v3. You’ve played with a single ball before, but what about three at the same time? And instead of an open pitch, what about a winding tunnel? Or multiple goals on either side? It’s just terrific and a guaranteed good time with (competitive) friends.
I tried Enter the Gungeon but it just didn’t have that Vlambeer-ian feel and pop, y’know? Nuclear Throne is brilliant but it’s rock solid and I still can’t get past the Frozen City despite many, many attempts. I love everything about it though, from the fuzzy wasteland guitars and guttural sounds to the Super Crate Box suicide weapons and Saturday morning TV cartoon characters. This is one I keep installed. The co-op is pants though.
Assault Android Cactus
I hurt my thumbs playing this trying to beat friends’ scores. Totally worth it though. Assault Android Cactus is a blistering battery-powered top-down twin-stick shooter where you dance the bullet hell ballet with ass-kicking assault androids. Each one is as unique, cool, fun and viable as the others and the levels and boss designs are fantastic. The new ‘+’ version remixes the levels so I might very well return to this one day. Super slick and absolutely glorious.
Bad North: Jotunn Edition
Oh man. Bad North. It’s an entire game of heroic last stands. Stay one island ahead of the viking hordes razing everything in their path; defend idyllic dwellings; rescue, recruit, arm and train survivors, and, ultimately, escape. It’s a unique, tightly focused, super rewarding and perfectly executed real-time tactical defence game. With permadeath. There is an end, and it’s a frightening experience against overwhelming odds, but, god, emerging victorious from it is exhilarating.
All this is supplemented by some lovely visuals that are simultaneously cute and grim. Martin Kvale’s evocative sound design is exemplary (but what did you expect from the GoNNER, Genital Jousting and Hidden Folks guy?) but his music, which changes depending on the enemy types approaching, adds such menace between the breezy interludes. Let me put it this way: you don’t need to see the brutes to know they’re coming.
Raw Fury/Plausible Concept get major points for Bob Ragnar Ross too:
It’s a testament to the original design that ‘more of the same’ is just as fun. This time it has online multiplayer, more dynamic stages, better visuals and the ability to throw stuff to your buddies. Or at them. We’ve laughed a lot playing this, and got very angry with each other, but what happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen. I say ‘kitchen’; they’re more like culinary hellscapes designed by Trollface himself. Overcooked 2 also gets bonus points for the ‘Necro-nomnom-icon’ causing ‘the unbread’ to ‘rise’. That’s some legendary punning.
Slight but oh-so-sly. Antihero is a carefully crafted and crafty digital boardgame that’s best played against friends. Run a thieves guild in a Dickensian gaslit city and bribe, backstab and blackmail your way to victory. Most of my 250+ hours(!) with it have been spent playing the async multiplayer once or twice a day in 10-20 minute bite-sized chunks so… that’s a lot of chunks! They’re dense though, with tough decisions to chew on so it’s been a constant source of thoughtful turn-taking and friendly competition with fellow forum folk. When it was released on iOS and Android, and I was able to play it everywhere (syncing up and working seamlessly across mobile and desktop), my girlfriend renamed it ‘Antisocial’.
Through the Ages
Folks, the Civilization series has never interested me. My experience with it is limited to the fifth installment, where I dabbled in single-player and started many an ill-fated multiplayer game with myriad desyncs. You know why ‘just one more turn’ is a thing? Because so little happens each turn.
Through the Ages, then, is a digital version of the highly regarded boardgame that it well and truly obsoletes. Moreover: it’s Civ distilled, with a clever and evocative lattice of interlocking systems and rules that make every turn and decision matter. There’s no End Turn facerolling here. It has an amazing tutorial and set of challenges, a formidable AI, and real-time and async multiplayer that can be played between mobile and desktop versions, even syncing across devices. This is my kind of civilisation game.
Splatoon was my favourite online shooter alongside Titanfall 2, but Splatoon 2 just builds upon the strengths of the original in almost every way. The motion/gyro aiming is still a revelation on a controller, and I’m still in awe of the ink system and its elegance: it’s a sploshy territory marker for your team, a damaging slick to enemies and a hiding place for allies, a way of traversing walls and large distances quickly, and a way of topping up your ink tanks. It’s ingenious.
The co-op horde mode ‘Salmon Run’ is worth the price of re-admission alone but coupled with all the other new content and quality of life improvements it’s a no-brainer for fans of Splatoon. I do miss the controller screen of the Wii U though for super jumping, and I’ve yet to try the campaign. I should get on to that.
A Short Hike
It’s probably the loveliest, most heartwarming, wholesome and gentle game on this list. Despite being indebted to Animal Crossing, its sweet and often touching story vignettes coupled with Claire’s glorious movement means it frequently soars. If you need a break, then I can’t think of a better game to sink into for a few hours. I should pick up the soundtrack as well because it’s just gorgeous and perfect.
Sea of Thieves
There are a few things that make Sea of Thieves tick: reputation, vanity and greed. But mostly vanity and greed. To pimp your pirate (and ship) you’re going to need a lot of gold. The only way to get gold and increase your reputation with the different companies/factions, is to turn in treasure, skulls, precious goods and exotic fish at outposts. The problem is turning stuff in. Do you make lots of piecemeal trips back and forth to outposts to ensure you get every last gold coin, or do you keep filling your hold and make one big dangerous drop off, all the while risking losing the lot to the ‘Sea of Thieves’? It could be to other pirates. It could be to the kraken. It could be to a storm when you nip to the loo or put the kettle on (true story). But let me tell you: when you score big, it feels amazing, as a player and a pirate.
Although the world is vast, it’s sparsely populated with other players, and indeed, enemies, which gives you some breathing room to appreciate all the lovely details, from the waves catching the sunlight and cumulonimbi rumbling in the distance, to your ship gently creaking and water sloshing around on the deck. But you never know when you’re going to come across other pirates, and whether they’ll give you a wide berth, try their luck against you or even ally up. Since launch, Rare have added so much: longer form voyages and treasure hunts, skeleton lords, skeleton ships, megalodons, fog, volcanic ashen islands, fishing, cooking, pets, rowboats, PvP arenas, special cannonballs, different kinds of treasure, utility chests, bounties and more. All these things mean you never know what’s going to happen in a session. It’s a game where the best laid plans go spectacularly awry, and often in the blink of an eye. The calm is never far from the storm (literally, see above). This uncertainty and tension is at the core of Sea of Thieves and it’s what makes it so consistently exciting and unpredictable despite being a very simple game.
And you know, it’s a game I just enjoy being present in, like Animal Crossing or this year’s A Short Hike. There’s no XP or character leveling; no gear or power curve; no persistent overlays spoiling the view (so screenshots are clear of clutter); no quest markers or heavy-handed clues–just player-fuelled piratin’ and adventure, and some of the best visuals and sound design I’ve witnessed in a first-person game. And what would a pirate game be without a good rousing soundtrack? Some of it you can even play with your crew at will using hurdy-gurdies, concertinas, banjos and drums. Becalmed is my absolute fave.
Rare’s focus on allowing players to express themselves with limited physical interactions, tools, emotes and cosmetics make for some unexpectedly amusing moments. For example, one time my crew and I were treasure hunting in the inky black of night. I held the map up to them while my friend Halis illuminated it with his lantern. Without realising it, his lantern was obstructing the view of old time Tapper Mat ‘Bumhead’ C, and I couldn’t stop laughing at him awkwardly shuffling around on the spot to get a glimpse of the map. That kind of thing I just can’t find in any other game. I love it.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
You know my position on Mario, and I’m not a huge fan of the Rabbids or Firaxis’ XCOM either, so imagine my surprise when Ubisoft took all these things and mashed them together into something that unexpectedly and consistently excited me. The Rabbids and XCOM are the best things to come to the Mushroom Kingdom since go-karts, and I never thought I’d say that. The rhythm of exploring, puzzling, battling, unlocking and discovering new stuff was like comfort food to me, and the sense of humour throughout irresistible, off-kilter and refreshingly un-Nintendo. I laughed a lot playing this.
Mario + Rabbids’ spin on XCOM’s turn-based combat is what really sets it apart though. It’s to XCOM what Doom is to your modern first-person shooter: it’s about movement and kinetic action, not overwatching and taking pot shots from behind cover. Dashing across the map, team jumping, bouncing off enemies, rolling through pipes and chaining attacks together, often with multiple heroes–but sometimes with one–is glorious. After a good 100+ hours I’m not usually left wanting more, but the Donkey Kong expansion was a delight and… I still want more.
It’s worth noting as well that this is my first real exposure to legendary composer Grant Kirkhope’s work and his soundtrack is just such a bright, infectious and perfect accompaniment. Mid Boss Mayhem is one of my highlights.
I don’t think I could talk about SteamWorld Heist better than Matt Lees (and his knees) did, so definitely give his Cool Ghosts video a watch. But in a nutshell: it’s a side-scrolling squad and turn-based tactics game, similar to XCOM, but with one key difference: you have to aim your shots. Some weapons have laser sights, some don’t, some have parabolic trajectories, some can shoot twice, some pierce, some scatter, some are semi-auto, but best of all: most bullets ricochet off walls so even when you miss, you might not miss. In fact, you’ll often have to bounce your shots off walls to hit pesky enemies hunkered down behind cover (see image above). This is often when SteamWorld Heist is at its most satisfying because you set that shot up, and you landed it. Or you missed, and that’s also on you. There’s gentle aim jitter, but the absence of dice rolls makes failure a lot easier to accept.
There’s also no permadeath, because robots can be rebuilt, see. Guilt-ridden XCOM save scummers rejoice! If you lose a character before completing a level then they don’t receive any XP. Naturally, XP unlocks new abilities which in turn opens up the combat even more, so you really want to try and keep your steambots in one piece. The story and dialogue are light, the gear system satisfying and manageable, and the different chapters bring new enemies and environmental hazards that keep you on your toes and the action fresh. It’s a gorgeous game too that impressed me on the Vita with its rich OLED colours, but on a nice big screen there’s just so much more detail to appreciate. As far as XCOM-likes go, this might be my favourite, possibly pipping Mario + Rabbids. Possibly not. It’s a difficult call when they’re both this good.
It’s the game that comes closest to the feeling I had when playing the excellent but often overlooked Miasmata, venturing into the unknown and constantly pushing at the edges of your survival comfort zone, without a map or GPS, on your own, in the middle of the night. But with no owls. The logistics bogged some sections down but Unknown Worlds got so much right with this, from the intricately crafted and vast underwater world with its careful gating and measured reveals, to its exotic visuals, atmospheric music and sound design. Oh, the sound design (spoilers). What a surprise after Natural Selection 2, and as terrifying as it is frequently awe-inspiring. Thalassophobes: this is a warning.
Return of the Obra Dinn
There are so many spectacular, terrifying and bloodcurdling moments in Return of the Obra Dinn, some in 1-bit suspended animation, some vividly animated in your mind through the detailed and evocative sound design. The best bits however, are when you observe clues, cleverly snap them together and scratch another crew member or three off the manifest.
I loved the slow, intimate and contemplative nature of Return of the Obra Dinn. The less you know going in the better because some of the reveals and scenes are what surprised me the most. There were several times I audibly gasped! Lucas Pope appreciates this too given how coy the excellent trailer is:
Voice acting and localisation aside, he’s responsible for everything here. The design, programming, graphics, writing, art, sound, music. Incredible. So here’s to the good ship Obra Dinn: for coming back, somehow…
Into the Breach
The thing that blows me away with Into the Breach is that, despite the procedurally generated levels, the myriad squad and gear combos, the random enemies and their unpredictable movement and spawns, each organic tactical puzzle is totally doable. It’s a testament to how finely tuned and deep the design is that it rarely feels unfair or impossible. Seeing the solution (or the one with the least collateral damage) and pulling off the unthinkable is what makes it so satisfying.
Although it’s a very different game with all the forecasted attacks and position manipulation, Into the Breach feels like a series of those really tight and tense ‘damage control’ moments in Advance Wars, only unshackled from a tedious and overly long scripted campaign and minus the busy work of setting up production and feeding the frontline. (I thought I wanted more Advance Wars until I played Wargroove.) I’m glad Into the Breath has more of a dynamic and persistent campaign like Offworld Trading Company or Invisible Inc. where every playthrough is subtly different. And with only one ‘rewind’ per battle, failure is dyed into the experience rather than save scummed away.
Cyberpunk 2077? Pah, I’ll take Cyberpunk 1980. Gravity Bone was a beginning and end in search of a middle. Seriously, that platforming section with the bird photos can do one. 30 Flights of Loving was just brilliant through and through.
Quadrilateral Cowboy takes the same distinctively Blendo presentation, people and places, chronological leaps and the subtle storytelling, but fleshes out the game with a series of compelling and ingenious heists that involve hacking on your satisfyingly clacky suitcase deck and using all kinds of other cool tools. The format and structure is so clever (even making bugs and glitches fit) and there’s a leaderboard for completing missions as fast as possible too. After all, heists are all about getting in and getting out as soon as possible, so it’s perfect.
But the thing I fell in love with the most is the touching and understated story of the main characters, the quiet moments between heists, and particularly the ending. It’s a specific kind of turn that always gets me in other media but… in a game? I spent a long time working on those leaderboards as I played, and I had so much fun refining my techniques, getting more efficient and feeling like a badass hacker, but when the story came to an end, so did the game for me. I couldn’t go back. In that way it reminds me of Nier: Automata, Little Inferno and, indeed, the game below.
Imagine coming off Quadrilateral Cowboy feeling like you’d played one of the best games in years and shortly afterwards playing Return of the Obra Dinn and feeling the same, again. Now imagine directly following that up with…
If I was writing a games of the decade list, Outer Wilds would be at the top of it. It’s probably my favourite game. People talk about Breath of the Wild and Wild Hunt… Well this is my Wild. This is the one I now (want) go on about.
However, the biggest problem with Outer Wilds is that it’s difficult to go on about without venturing into spoiler territory because so much of what makes it great is experiencing it firsthand. Outer Wilds is all about indulging your curiosity, poking around, exploring, investigating–indeed, experimenting–discovering, finding answers and understanding the world, its phenomena, history and inhabitants. Knowledge is the nucleus around which the whole experience orbits, and spoilers absolutely threaten that. It’s also all about seeing and doing insanely cool things that my words simply won’t do justice.
Within the first 10 seconds of the game you should have at least a few questions, and those questions should be the spark that gets the fire crackling. As you play more, you’ll see, hear and read things that will only add fuel to that fire and eventually, it will roar. This mysterious and intricately crafted clockwork solar system hypnotised me, occupied my every waking thought and filled me with wonder… and dread. I’d finish sessions, go to bed and work all day thinking about what I’d discovered and where and what I could check out next. What’s more, I continued to think about Outer Wilds for a long time after I’d completed it because while it’s an astonishing, unique and awe-inspiring journey, it’s got something to say; a story to tell. It’s not just a big mystery to solve.
Outer Wilds is also amongst a handful of games that left a void in me that made playing other games difficult. Oh no. That passed, but amusingly I’ve seen people on the subreddit mention ‘Post-Outer Wilds Syndrome’ (or ‘POWS’) and requests for other ‘Wilds-likes’. Subnautica feels closest.
But because Outer Wilds is a game that revolves around knowledge, it’s not an experience you can enjoy in the same way again because once you know it all, there’s nothing left to discover. You get one shot at it, then after that: it’s over. So if you do play it, join me and Max around the campfire and let’s recount stories over toasted ‘mallows. I could even bring my guitar and play the song.
(Also, the only people confused between The Outer Worlds and Outer Wilds are folk who haven’t played either because you don’t confuse greatness with ‘just okay’ or ‘fine’. Ooo, a bit of last minute sass!)
2019 also gave me my favourite mash-up. Look, a lot of mash-ups just don’t work but this one is joyous. Enjoy.
And that’s all folks. Phew. Why do I do this to myself? Thanks so much for reading and take care!
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