Every year I set out to play and finish every new game I find interesting. That doesn’t mean every major release, but it does mean any game I have a good feeling about. Early on in the year, I always feel like I’m keeping up with new releases well enough, and every year I find myself in the same mad scramble to finish as much as possible before December ends.
This year’s attempt was no different, concluding with me begrudgingly abandoning a short list of titles in order to write a top ten in a timely (-ish) manner. The big potential omission is God of War: Ragnarok, a sequel to my second favorite game of 2018. As of this writing I’m about 20 hours in and I’m definitely enjoying it. But I can’t really say if it would crack into my current top 10.
As far as big, bloated, triple-A sequels go, I certainly like it a lot better than Horizon: Forbidden West, a game that might be my biggest disappointment of the year. Horizon: Zero Dawn was easily my favorite game of 2017, but Forbidden West took everything about the original and made it more complicated and less fun. The cheesy, Saturday morning cartoon plot turned a story I took really seriously and squandered it completely.
With two of the biggest games of the year missing from my list, you’d think getting it down to 10 would have been pretty easy. And to be honest it kind of was. There were a lot of surprises this year. I never thought I’d enjoy a 3D Sonic game again, but Sonic Frontiers was weirdly great. Kirby and the Forgotten Land was a delight from beginning to end, but never felt essential. Steelrising kept me away from Elden Ring for more hours than I’d like to admit. Hell, I even replayed a nostalgic favorite of my teenage years with Shadowman: Remastered.
But there was only one game that was truly hard to cut from my top 10, and I’d feel weird if I didn’t at least acknowledge it here. That game is Atari 50.
I really don’t have much nostalgia for Atari games. I dabbled as a kid, but I was a Sega and Nintendo kid at heart. It doesn’t matter though. Atari 50 is like attending a museum exhibit. It’s an essential piece of gaming history. Digital Eclipse has fully redefined what a retro collection can be, giving context and history around the various Atari eras, the hardware, the people, and the games. I can only hope they give the same treatment to a collection of games I’m truly passionate about one day.
When it comes to my actual top 10 list though, well, this was not easy. Arranging the list below took quite a lot of hemming and hawing. I’m not entirely convinced I won’t swap one or two games before I finalize this write-up. That’s all to say this is a very solid collection of games, many of which will enter into my all-time favorites. I hope you enjoy and find something new to play along the way.
10 – Neon White
Neon White is a first-person, speedrunning game in the spirit of the original Mirror’s Edge time trials. It blends in a variety of weapons and enemies into the equation, making it your goal to quickly dispatch them all while dashing and jumping your way to the finish line. The gameplay is an absolute rush, and over the course of over 100 levels it manages to reinvent itself and remain interesting. The final sets of levels are some of the best in the game.
Neon White is also a bit of a visual novel. In between chunks of levels you’ll go to a hub and talk to a cast of whacky, anime-inspired characters. I’m a fan of visual novels, but Neon White has to be by far the worst one I’ve played. The story of this game is truly awful, and I cannot recommend enough that you start skipping it as quickly as possible.
I’m also a big video game story person, so if I’m saying that and still including Neon White in my top ten, then you know the gameplay is truly something special. It’s hard to deny the appeal of competing with friends on the leaderboards. I could easily devote entire evenings to a single level, discovering every little shortcut to achieve a platinum medal, and then refining microscopic elements of my run to shave a few milliseconds off and overtake a friend. A day later they’d figure out a way to top my time and the cycle would start again.
9 – Vampire Survivors
Vampire Survivors can’t be healthy right? It’s a game that plays into all kinds of addictive loops while offering up the most braindead gameplay imaginable. All you do is walk around and try to avoid enemies while your character automatically attacks. You suck up blue gems for XP, you level up, and you get more and more powerful until you’re finally overwhelmed by enemies and die. Then, you take the money you made and put that into permanent upgrades, and the loop begins again.
The thing is, while Vampire Survivors occasionally made me feel like I was wasting my life away, the majority of the time I was wondering what wild trick it would pull next. Making it to the 30 minute mark on a level is just the beginning, and the visuals are so spectacularly ridiculous by then it’s hard to describe. This game eventually turns into 2D pixel art vomit in the best way possible. It’s Symphony of the Night combined with a late-game Geometry Wars run.
It’s also more than walking around mindlessly. There are so many micro-decisions to be made second-to-second and they can feel really important to staying above water against an impossibly large number of enemies. Even when I achieved “giant mass of death and destruction” status in a run, it was rare that I could just put my controller down and walk away indefinitely. There was almost always some other goal in mind, or a chance that the enemy forces would get so powerful they finally worked their way in. That this smart design is packaged into a game almost anyone of any skill level could play makes it all the more impressive.
8 – Saturnalia
I really don’t like horror games like Slenderman and Five Nights at Freddy’s. The first taste is fine, and it’s usually pretty scary, but as soon as the loop begins again and I’m asked to achieve some sort of goal I just can’t be bothered. The idea of suffering through one cheap death after another and starting over from the beginning is incredibly unappealing.
By that logic I should probably hate Saturnalia, a game that builds on the Slenderman model with a fleshed-out cast of characters and a town that houses a dark history. In this game you take control of an outcast crew of four characters all trying to survive the night and find their way out alive. A creature hunts you as you explore and discover clues, and if it catches you that character is out of commission until you rescue them. Or, they die, and then another character dies, and another, until it’s game over and the entire town gets reshuffled.
It’s the same logic as a million other cheap scare horror games, but here it works brilliantly. The developers want you to see the ending, and as you progress they smartly strip away some of the earlier friction points, allowing you to finish the game with a little persistence. It helps that the story they weave is genuinely cool. It’s told out of order, through clues and bits of dialogue scattered all over the town. Eventually, a coherent narrative forms, and getting to an ending feels a bit like the epic final run of Outer Wilds, where you finally have all the tools you need, but you just have to string them all together without dying. It’s a rush.
7 – The Case of the Golden Idol
This year I finally got around to playing Return of the Obra Dinn, a fantastic detective puzzle game. It’s the kind of game you play once, and then wish you could erase your memory and experience it all over again. The developers of The Case of the Golden Idol must have felt similarly, and amazingly they managed to make a game inspired by Obra Dinn that’s arguably just as good.
In it, you are thrown into a crime scene frozen in time. A split second loops endlessly before your eyes, in which characters are wincing or being thrown through the air or screaming at a party. You can click on items within the scene, read notes, go into different rooms, dig through characters’ pockets, and eventually, start to piece together what happened. As you gather clues, a word bank begins to fill in at the bottom of the screen. Switching from the “exploring” view to the “thinking” view reveals character portraits and fill-in-the-blank paragraphs that you can drag your gathered words into and solve the case.
At first I was a little overwhelmed by the structure of the game, but after a few chapters I was fully absorbed in it. This is more than a series of screens too. Each chapter picks up some time after the last, and eventually a complex plot begins to form. There are twists and turns, recurring characters, and the whole thing wraps up beautifully. And, thanks to a built-in hint system and point-and-click nature of the game, it’s something that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to almost anyone.
6 – Tunic
I always thought Tunic was supposed to be a cutesy Zelda clone. And yeah, there are big chunks of the game, especially early on that are inspired by Zelda. A little fox in a tunic with a shield and a sword, exploring a bright, monster-filled world for upgrades and keys to locked doors? —it sure sounds like Zelda. But ultimately, thanks to Tunic’s collectible instruction manual pages and a whole host of secrets, this game ends up having more in common with Fez or The Witness than any Nintendo game.
The unnecessarily difficult Dark Souls-esque combat could have been mellowed out a little bit, because the highlight of Tunic is the intricate puzzle it eventually becomes. To say too much more would be to spoil the best parts of the game, but to give you a hint of where it goes: let’s just say I finished the game with several physical notebook pages of doodles and nonsense.
I do think Tunic could have been just a little bit less uncompromising. It offers a way out of the combat with an option to essentially make your character invincible, but stubborn players like me may find themselves a little worn down by the boss fights. That said, it’s the crazy escalation of the puzzles that eventually forced me to look up answers. I was really proud of what I managed to figure out on my own, but the final layer of secrets is basically impenetrable to all but the most determined without running to forums for answers. Regardless, they don’t make games like this often, so for those players who don’t fear hard combat AND puzzles, it’s a must-play.
5 – A Plague Tale: Requiem
In my 2019 top ten list and my full review of the game, I praised A Plague Tale: Innocence for how it felt perfectly scoped for what it was trying to accomplish. It had the bones of a B-tier game, with all the charm and ambition that can come with that, but it also looked and played like an expensive triple-A production. It walked that line perfectly, and presented a story that felt unique for a game. It was the perfect playable dark fantasy novel, with an ensemble cast of charming and violent kids.
A Plague Tale: Requiem didn’t grab me as easily or as immediately. The perfect line the first game walked has been fully crossed over. Requiem is a triple-A game, full stop. It looks stunning, it has a ton of insane, blockbuster moments, and early on it has some of those little contrivances and awkward storytelling decisions that feel so common in massive console-selling exclusives like Horizon: Forbidden West and God of War: Ragnarok.
So why is it so far up on this list? Simply put, after some stumbles, Requiem fully finds its footing, regaining the confidence that made the first game such a surprise masterpiece. More importantly, it takes some huge swings that pay off, exploring the impact of violence and trauma in a world that gives little solace for either of the sibling protagonists.
Remember how Mass Effect 3 was kind of weird at the end? Well, it was, but it was also incredibly dark and haunting. Because I loved that cast of characters so much, the path they were heading down was upsetting and sad. Requiem follows that formula, but fully nails the landing. I still can’t believe it, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Like I said, haunting.
4 – NORCO
NORCO reminds me of so many capital-G-Great pieces of literature I tried reading when I was younger. Books like Slaughterhouse Five were evocative, full of great writing and incredible moments, but never fully within my grasp. NORCO’s opening premise is straightforward, but the journey from there is anything but.
You play as Kay, a daughter coming home to an alternate-history Norco Louisiana after her mother’s death. The setting is a mish-mash of future technology and the kind of ecological turmoil and poverty that’s left in the wake of mega-capitalism every day in our modern world. It feels like a world that could exist a year from now, but simultaneously all-too strange to exist at all.
The gameplay is essentially some traditional point-and-click adventuring through absolutely beautiful pixel art environments. The writing is poetic and literary one moment, and then wonderfully childish and comical the next. It’s a game that felt at once too smart for me, and also right on my wavelength. If you’re bored of games and looking for something truly different, look no further.
3 – Signalis
My wife usually hangs out with me and watches when I play horror games, but in the interest of trying to get caught up for this list, she told me to go ahead and start Signalis without her. I made it about 15 minutes before the perspective flipped from top-down to first-person, and crazy imagery started flashing on the screen. I said, “holy shit,” under my breath and turned the game off, starting it over the next day to show my wife.
Signalis is full of these “holy shit” story moments, weaving a plot of rogue androids stranded in space falling in love, going insane, and pursuing hopeless missions. The inspirations are clear: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell. Signalis’ development team was not shy about the media it loves and is inspired by, and this late-90s/early-2000s concoction of survival horror and sci-fi anime felt laser-focused to my specific tastes. It’s the game I would probably make if I were a game designer.
Importantly, Signalis has just as much substance as style. This is pure old-school Resident Evil 1-style survival horror. You have a small inventory, little ammo, and a maze-like facility with puzzles to solve. It’s ruthless but relentlessly engaging, and I devoured the entire thing in a few multi-hour sessions. It’s the kind of game I know I’ll replay again and again.
2 – Immortality
Immortality took over my life for a few days. It’s a mystery game where you explore clips from three different unfinished and unreleased movies, with the ultimate goal of trying to find out what happened to actress Marissa Marcel.
You start with a single clip, and you can scrub through the clip forward and backward. At any point you can pause and click on an object or person in the scene. This will “match-cut” to another scene featuring the same person or an object related to what you picked. Click on a coffee cup and you’re suddenly in a script-reading session where everyone is drinking coffee. Click on Marissa herself and you might end up in an entirely different movie.
To make this game, the creators essentially needed to film the majority of 3 entirely different movies. But it goes further than that. Immortality is a fictional story, but you’re seeing moments from before the director says “action” and after they say “cut”. Each actor is playing dual roles, going in and out of the characters they play in the movies, and the person they’re supposed to be between takes.
It’s an incredible feat and so much fun to explore. I’m really scratching the surface of what goes on here, because eventually Immortality becomes so much more than its simple mystery premise. It’s the kind of game story that people will pick apart and discuss for years to come.
1 – Elden Ring
Elden Ring is big Dark Souls.
Elden Ring is the year’s greatest comedy game.
Elden Ring is the year’s saddest game.
Elden Ring is impenetrable.
Elden Ring is the best story From Software has ever told.
Elden Ring is a soul-crushing challenge.
Elden Ring is From Software’s most inviting entry, endlessly customizable.
Elden Ring is impossibly huge.
Elden Ring is also Elden Ring 2.
Elden Ring is solitude and loneliness.
Elden Ring is jolly cooperation and ruthless invasions.
Elden Ring is everything.
It’s difficult to sum up Elden Ring in just a few paragraphs because it is so sprawling. It feels like every idea from every game in the Dark Souls series, Sekiro, and Bloodborne forced into a blender and then carefully, lovingly placed across an entirely new kind of world. Yes it can be boiled down to “big Dark Souls”, but that ignores how fundamental the open world design is.
There’s a common story of people reaching Margit, the game’s first major boss, and hitting a brick wall. Margit is very challenging, with dozens of bizarre, weirdly-paced attack animations that confused even Souls veterans. The point wasn’t for you to practice and practice and practice and finally defeat him (though you could if you wanted), the developers wanted you to be discouraged. They wanted you to leave. They wanted you to explore.
Margit is a required boss, but you could play and explore new areas for literally dozens of hours before you truly need to go back to him. By then, the fight should be much easier too. The whole game is like this, and it’s this free-form, expressive, play-how-you-want nature that makes Elden Ring the best game of the year. That, and like 50 other reasons. I want to replay it right now.