Our Favorite Games of 2018: Austin's Top Ten
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All screenshots courtesy of game publisher unless otherwise noted.
Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!
I'll be honest. I thought I was going to have some keen insight into what this year has been, or an identification of some throughline I've noticed between people's top ten lists, or some thesis about Gaming Under Trump or whatever but... man, I'm just tired.
2018 has been so long, y'all. And I think maybe that, more than anything else, is what I've come back to when writing this list. I've seen so many people this week talk about games as self care, or games as foci for thinking about tough personal and social issues, or game-making as therapeutic practice.
Maybe because games have been so personal this year, I've also been thrilled to see so much variation among people's individual best of lists. There are, as Jackson Tyler wrote over in Deorbital, some games that will control conversations and win awards through sheer "polish." But I've been thrilled to see a lot of mentioned around the internet this week that I've never played or never heard of. (I'm looking at you The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa.) And appropriately, my list may be no different.
Okay. Deep breath. Time to dig in.
10. Sea of Thieves
On yesterday’s Sea of Thieves retrospective podcast, I said that one incredible session is why the game would make it onto my top 10 list. And it’s true, the time that Danika, Rob, Natalie and I set out to confront the then-newly-added Megaladon, a prehistoric megashark, was a blast. The war drums drove us forward as we prowled the waves, recruiting other players into our ad hoc armada. Finally, we confronted the beast.
Sailors moved from ship to ship to share supplies and repair leaking hulls. The endless cannonade grew more and more rhythmic. We took risks. They paid off. The shark’s movement’s became predictable. We’d won.
Honestly, that would be enough for it to secure this spot. But as we talked through the game, I realized that there is so much more about it that I love, and each new update brings more to be curious about. And in a year where I was unable to keep up with Destiny 2’s expansions, there is something really appealing about a game like Sea of Thieves, which allows me to jump in with my friends without missing a beat. That alone is worth a spot.
9. Tetris Effect
I am not often a sore loser when I play video games. Die to a boss in Dark Souls? That’s the point, let’s go again. Permanently lose an XCOM soldier in an ironman run? Sad, but so it goes. Getting whooped by a better player in Soul Calibur? By the end of the match, I’m damned near cheering for them.
But puzzle games? They get me heated; make me feel small and stupid. And because of that, with rare exception, I’ve never gotten good at them. Getting better requires pushing through failure, practicing your fundamentals over and over. But whatever joy comes from clearing lines or creating combos has always been undercut by the acute feeling of inadequacy when I inevitably fail.
Tetris Effect is the first pure puzzle game to make me overcome that feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel terrible when I do stumble towards a game over screen. But the game’s rhythmic challenges make the repetition, defeat, and (yes) practice worth it.
On first blush, the game’s strength is the visual theming of its levels and their accompanying collection of absolute ear-worms. But by the fifth or sixth level, it becomes clear that the game’s stand out feature is the way those songs actually blend with the gameplay, pieces arriving with rising tempos as the tracks move towards climax. In its best moments it feels like playing an instrument, chasing the next note just as the present one arrives.
And yes, like many “humanist” projects, its attempts to universalize a feeling of positivity do wind up reducing parts of the world into a sort of exotic, aesthetic flavor packet. Aha, this is the level with camels. Ooh, tribal drums!
But somehow, it never feels Tetris Effect is trying to get one over on you. Its positivity is not the bland and conflict-free marketplace jubiliance of a Coca-Cola. It can’t be, because Tetris Effect is hard. But it wants you to succeed. It believes in you.
8. Frozen Synapse 2
In both today’s top 10 podcast and in another piece running this week, I dig deep into what I love about Frozen Synapse 2 as a tactics game. So instead of repeating that, let me instead tell you about this bastard, Eht Par:
Eht Par runs Safehouse, “a paramilitary organization dedicated to security and defending the city from pernicious interests.” Which city? Which pernicious interests? Well, in Frozen Synapse 2, your role is to lead an agency in identifying who or what is behind the mysterious Sonata, a violent organization that is randomly attacking innocents in the cyberpunk city of Markov Geist.
Along the way, you have to deal with the dozen-or-so other factions vying for power in the city, including Safehouse. Which potentially makes you one of the “pernicious interests” that Par is aiming for. In fact, “potentially” is probably giving it too soft a sell, because Frozen Synapse 2 is all about factional entanglement. Which is to say that at some point, maybe because you were hired to blockade a major avenue that one of his hit squads needed to get through, or maybe because you recovered a powerful cyber relic before his crew did, you’ll run afoul of Eht Par.
For me, it was when I accepted a mission from the city’s industrial district to drive away a Safehouse squad occupying the city’s only airport. Turns out, he didn’t like that. And he made it known.
Every intersection, every park, and every building in Frozen Synapse 2’s procgen city is a potential battleground. Which is something I learned when he blocked in my own, Syndicate-style squad of bio-enhanced killer clones was heading home from the airport to patch up their wounds, and gunned them down. And he didn’t stop there. Soon, his troops were circling my own home base. They waltzed in the front door, blew through a pair of armed guards I’d kept in reserve, and found me— me—cowering in a back office in my agency’s compound. It was over quickly.
It was the best game over I’ve ever had. And what makes Frozen Synapse 2 so great is that fifteen hours later, in my second attempt at the campaign, it was Eht Par who wound up cornered and scared.
I spent 45 or so hours with Ashen, about the same that I’d spent with Dark Souls. But instead of focusing on boss strategies or character builds, I spent much of my time re-exploring old areas, lining up screenshots, and just sort of floating from one part of the world to the next.
That surprised me, because as a fan of the Dark Souls series, I find myself making a major mistake pretty often when speaking about the game’s legacy, and that is: speaking about the game’s “legacy.” As if there’s only one.
When I’ve played games like Nioh, I find myself running weird purity tests. Is its expanded take on loot a betrayal of the focused core of the Souls gear system? How does its “ki pulse” fit into the tried-and-true, stamina-driven combat model? What the hell are these cutscenes?
The greatest indicator of Ashen’s strength is that, while it constantly drew on the same lineage of games, it never made me ask those sorts of questions. Instead, I was taken by its divergences: the openness of many of its areas, its optimistic attitude, the ease and joy of its… platforming?
It’s a reminder that there isn’t only one lesson to learn from a game as influential as Dark Souls, and that the world of games is bolder and broader when we diverge .
6. Valkyria Chronicles 4
Between an essay that will run on the site later this week and this nearly two hour episode of Three Moves Ahead from earlier this year, I feel like my love of Valkyria Chronicles 4 is well documented. But let me give you the high level pitch.
In a genre filled with procgen soldiers and empty canvas mercenaries who are little more than a collection of gear, stats, and abilities, Valkyria Chronicles gives you a collection of characters. And yeah, they also do have gear, stats, and abilities, but somehow each of those feels flavorful and appropriate to who the characters in question are.
Take a second to scroll through this fan-made personnel guide. Look at how characters who share the same basic class and gear are given life through their “potentials.” Fleuret Valois and Emmy Mistral are both shocktroopers--close range combatants who spray fire with high-damage submachine guns. But that's where similarities end. Emmy is built for surprise attacks: "Foul Play" gives her bonus attacks when she attacks from an undiscovered position, and charging in dead on makes her "Panicky," reducing her evasion. Fleuret, meanwhile, is a "Daredevil" whose defense increases the more surrounded she is. Which is useful, since her "Code of Honor" can straight up prevent her from pulling the trigger if she isn't yet discovered.
None of that stuff is new to Valkyria Chronicles as a series, but VC4’s cast is my favorite in the series (at least as far as the localized entries go). Plus, unlike past games which resigned side characters to the occasional cutscene appearance, VC4 offers special side-story content that gives nearly everyone a moment in the spotlight for unique characterization.
There are plenty of things that VC4 could’ve done better—especially when it came to one of its major characters and its depiction of sexual harassment—but in 2018, it was great to play a tactics game that cared about people more than it did maneuvers.
5. No Man’s Sky Next
Will No Man’s Sky ever fall off my list? No, seriously. As the game that gave me a much needed emotional vacation during the hectic launch of Waypoint, it earned the number four spot on my 2016 list. A year later, buoyed but the intriguing sci-fi storytelling of its Atlas Rises expansion, it placed at number six. This year it *checks notes* gained a spot???
This year’s Next expansion (along with “Abyss” and “Visions,” the game’s subsequent updates this fall) delivered a number of things that players had been hoping for since the game’s initial release: Multiplayer, more mission types, unique crashed ships to explore, buried treasures to find, a sharper upgrade loop, fleet ownership. What those updates didn’t do, though, is change what the game fundamentally is. Which, for me, is perfect
Let me be, like, fully honest with y’all. My mental health is a disaster right now. 2018 has been a lot for a lot of reasons. No Man’s Sky isn’t a cure, or an adequate stand in for therapy or medical support. But it has been a key tool of self care, not least of which because of its flexibility. If I need a “make-work” game, No Man’s Sky’s base-building and farming can give me that. If I want to wander around scanning animals and taking photos, there’s a new types of gear and new sorts of missions that will reward me for doing that. And if I just wanna flow through a collection of pretty planets, going into Creative mode with all of the new updates means that those planets are prettier than ever.
There used to be an old rule-of-thumb phrase that was passed around gaming sites, message boards, and comment threads: Every time you mention Deus Ex, someone will re-install it. For me, that game has become No Man’s Sky. A quick mention, a good screenshot, even the hint of space, and within the next 24 hours I’ll be climbing back into one of my ships and lifting off for a new adventure.
4. Monster Hunter: World
Between my initial review and last week’s podcast, I don’t know what else I can say about Monster Hunter: World. So, instead of some belabored summary of points I’ve made elsewhere, I’m going to do what I almost did for my initial review and just say that everything you need to know about this game is contained in these gifs:
3. Into the Breach
If Into the Breach’s greatest success was bringing the joy of tactics games to the curious but under-initiated, like Danielle, then its second greatest success was challenging what we mean when we say “tactics games.”
2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown was such a dominant success that it reconfigured the tactics genre for both casual and die hard players. So many of its features—from cover mechanics to character progression to base-building—became must-haves for new games in the genre. When I look at something like Phantom Doctrine, a Cold War tactics game that released this year, I see a game playing with the design language of XCOM not because it fits the themes and goals of the game, but because it knows that players already know how to “speak XCOM.”
Into the Breach doesn’t even try to play in that box. Instead, it’s a game about proactive defense, crisis management, clever ability combinations, and the precision available when you have (and study) near-perfect information. In many ways, Into the Breach felt like more fully featured Hoplite, one of my favorite tactical roguelikes ever. But unlike Hoplite, it had the reach necessary to actually make an impact on the expectations people have about the genre.
All of which is to say that by the time I secured my first win, I was certain that Into the Breach would be my favorite game of the year. I was, now obviously, wrong.
Into the Breach did something that only my favorite games in the very, very broad “mech” genre do: “[M]ost mech games—from the BattleTech board game to Heavy Gear to the Armored Core series—care more about the fantasy of the engineer than the fictional pilot,” I wrote in my review. “[ Into the Breach] understands that mechs aren’t about the parts they’re made of, but about the steps of their dance.”
It’s not that I don’t love tinkering with equipment loadouts for the sake of a higher mission score, or that I’m not entranced by “Itano circus” missile barrages, or captivated by particularly striking mecha design. But my favorite mecha games, shows, and stories explore giant robots as more than just walking tanks—while simultaneously reckoning with the fact that they are weapons of war, too. They are extensions of us at our most perfect and cruel, balletic projections of intention so focused that they become violent.
Fixing global catastrophe, Into the Breach seems to say, may take more time than we have, an unthinkable sort of sacrifice, and a mastery of the same machines that doomed us in the first place. This is communicated not only with its unique feeling of combat choreography, but its surprisingly satirical writing and deeply memorable pilots spoke too. It spoke to the part of me that desperate for mechs to be “taken seriously,” not only as fun props but as metaphors.
Unfortunately for Into the Breach (though very fortunately for me), it wasn’t the only game this year that did that.
2. Heaven Will Be Mine
In both Into the Breach and Heaven Will Be Mine, mechs are tools of violence that also must serve a defensive purpose. But while the kaiju-fighting machines of ItB are meant to protect the innocents of that game’s besieged islands, the world-changing, gravity-controlling, reality-poisoning robots of HWBM protect the deeply vulnerable pilots inside. Not only because the slings-and-arrows of war (and life) are dangerous, but because being dangerous is fun. And even with the world on fire and war a breath away, HWBM’s bratty, sexy, mean protagonists are determined to have a good time.
Heaven Will Be Mine is the latest visual novel from from Worst Girls Games’ Aevee Bee and Mia Schwartz. (Bee, for disclosure’s sake, is a former Waypoint contributor.) The setup is undoubtedly my kind of shit: Years ago, humanity detected an existential threat. Something truly alien. And in response, they created a school for of young children marked as potential mechs. And, well, they built the mechs too. But then (due to circumstances you’ll learn as you play through each of the game’s routes), the threat was dealt with, and we were left with an open question.
See: the young pilots, their “ship-self” mechs, and the space-based schools and organizations that built them, they have become a sort of existential threat all their own. Not in a military sense (well, not only in a military sense). By proving a different way of life could exist, the state of things on Earth has been shaken. And humanity is facing a decision about its future.
Each of the game’s protagonists (skeptical and detached Luna-Terra, impish and needy Saturn, and pressure-cooker perfect Pluto) is tied to a different organization, each with a different goal. One believes that we owe it to each other to return on earth, fix what we’ve broken, and own up to our mistakes. Another sees our future in the stars, somewhere that we can leave behind the sins of our past. The third wonders why we’re so focused on staying “human” at all.
What makes HWBM so powerful and fun is that, while there is a bible’s worth of a lore and information about this world, you don’t experience it from the top down, but from the bottom up. (Well… Hmm. Anyway.) You pick it up through emails, chat logs, and of course the interactions you have with the other pilots when you go on a mission
And it’s when you’re on a mission that HWBM is at its best. Certainly some visual novels and interactive fiction games would attempt to bolt on an entire mech combat simulation to what is primarily a work of art, music, and words. But HWBM gets away from all that and treats you as a co-writer more than a competitor. When you face off against one of your rivals, it just asks you: Do you win or lose?
These characters and their experimental mechs have the power to determine the future, but they’re not the technocrats who are calling the shots or who are driven by pure ideology. Instead, they’re interested in flirting, fucking, and finding out what they think about the world (and each other). They and their robots are sexy and scary, and HWBM is smart for never trying to place those two things at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Its pilots are vulnerable, wounded, caught mid-transformation into something better, more (or less) confident. And their mechs are as much extensions of their bodies as they are restraining devices. As often as their mechs allows Pluto, Saturn, and Luna-Terra to do incredible things, they find sometimes find themselves struggling against their confines. And when they do finally break out of their cockpits, they step into a world of exhilaration and defenselessness.
Many of this should sound familiar to those who know Worst Girls’ first effort, We Know the Devil, which followed a trio of queer teens, well, hunting down the devil as members of a religious summer camp. There, they find themselves pulled between each other and themselves, haunted by what they see as their monstrous inner selves, and (in the “true ending”) reject isolationism for “companionship and power.
Heaven Will Be Mine doesn’t have a “true ending.” In fact, it spits in the face of a true ending, calling out the notion even when you game the system just right. But don’t worry, it’s a playful sort of spitting. In fact, even when it’s touching on topics of emotional manipulation, romantic betrayal, and mental fraying, HWBM always remains playful. It really does believe that for those of us stuck in danger and suffering, we may as well have fun with it. Happy 2018.
Into the Breach’s mechs are extensions our natural strengths so that we may protect others. Heaven Will Be Mine’s enable the impossible and then shield us from it. BattleTech’s mechs? They’re us at our most grimy and material, unlucky and desperate, bottom-line and bottom of the barrel. And for that reason, and many others, BattleTech became my favorite game in 2018.
And the truth is, I thought that Into the Breach had this spot locked down. Its simplicity and transparency, it’s divergence from the norm, and all the rest of the reasons I said above. Then, in the weeks prior to writing this list, I found myself pulled back into BattleTech only to realize that it had all of those things I was (and am!) glad that Into the Breach avoided, and I loved the game for it. Base building, character upgrades, an economy to manage. All of this stuff that was beginning to bore me in the XCOM model of tactics game, BattleTech had in droves. Why didn’t it bug me here when it was starting to be a bore in other tactics games I’d been playing this year?
Well, one answer is that what you do between all of that stuff is so different and unique. You’ve already heard me talk about my love of BattleTech’s combat at length, and you maybe even watched Rob Zacny and I play about 15 hours of it this year, so I’m not going to walk down the bullet points. (And, hey, if you haven’t, yet please go read Rob’s review of the game, too.) But at a high level? This is a game that takes seriously the idea that mechs are just walking tanks. It systematizes the risks and costs of warfare—especially in the game’s new career mode.
Another, even more simple answer is that I just kind of wanted this and have never had a game so perfectly live the fantasy of the belt-tightening, mech-piloting mercenary captain. All of the meta-systems in BattleTech turn it into a game that splits the difference between the tactical challenge of Into the Breach and the pilot-driven drama of Heaven Will Be Mine. It gives me characters to give a fuck about, a memorial to mourn them in when they die, and a garage where I can try to build something that’s more rifle and less coffin.
I can’t underscore the importance of investment in my pilots here. Frozen Synapse 2 is a more distinct and innovative game than BattleTech is. But my “vatform mercenaries” in that game? I can’t name one of them. And that’s fine, that’s not what FS2 was going for. But it is something I like and it’s something BattleTech gives me in spades.
Because death is terrifying in BattleTech, I can tell you how I lost Dekker, one of my starting characters—as can most other BattleTech players, probably. And because building a flexible team is one of the larger, meta-level challenges in the game, I can brag about my campaign game’s elite A-team—Vesper, Rooster, Root, and Witness—and how they carve through enemies across all ranges. Because all of this is paired with a collection of random narrative events, I can also tell you that a pickup game of space basketball once brought an up-and-coming pilot (Partisan) out of a funk just in time for a big mission, and that his improved morale wound up saving my ass.
But I also think that the reason I like all of this stuff that I first thought “bloated” BattleTech in contrast with Into the Breach is because in 2018, it’s been rewarding to play a game about staying one step ahead in a cruel, indifferent world. This is no more clear than in the game’s career mode, which makes every piece of scrap that much more precious, and every wound that much more detrimental.
My career mode game of BattleTech has become my go-to game when I have nothing else on my plate, and every single session has been a blast. Each time, I shoot someone a message summarizing some dramatic encounter I’ve had. ”I was outnumbered, eight to four,” I’ll start. Or “Now, the thing you need to realize is that I thought my large laser had been repaired.” Or, with as much resignation as an IM can muster, “I didn’t expect heavy mechs in a two star mission.”
In 2018, where every month felt like a year and every minor success felt like a lucky break, I needed a game that both scratched my oldest fanboy itches and also made me keenly aware of what failing felt like. There is too much on stake in the world right now for me to really enjoy fantasies of perfection or grimy, joyless simulations. Right now, I need both a fast boat and a little blood in the water. BattleTech was happy to provide both.
Career mode doesn’t give you the same lush supply of gear and money that the campaign does, I’m clawing my way forward, blowing huge stacks of cash on low tier medium mech parts just because I need something to turn the tide in my favor out here. It’s miserable. I love it.