Favorite games of 2018

10. Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion

I love pretty much everything about the Splatoon series: the aesthetic, the music, the ink mechanic, even the weird post-apocalyptic lore. Since I generally prefer single-player games, though, I fell off of both games pretty quickly once I finished the campaign and grew tired of online head-to-head matches.

So Octo Expansion is exactly the sort of thing I wanted from Splatoon but never dared to hope that they’d make. It feels like I’ve been dropped into a series of special challenge levels in some alternate universe Super Mario Galaxy.

9. Dragon Quest XI

At the beginning of the year I would have expected to have Octopath Traveler or Ni no Kuni II (or both) on this list, but in the end I wasn’t especially fond of either. Dragon Quest XI is not without its own problems—in particular, it has one of my least favorite JRPG soundtracks in years, and it plays straight a bunch of genre tropes that should have been left in the 1990s—but its fundamental charm and rock-solid mechanics still shine through. This is my third or fourth time trying to get into Dragon Quest, and it’s finally stuck.

8. BanG Dream! Girls Band Party!

I imagine this is the least familiar title on here. Bang Dream is a cross-media franchise about a group of anime girl musicians, spanning anime, manga, games, albums, and even real-life concerts featuring the voice talent (cf. Idolmaster or Love Live for similar franchises). Girls Band Party is Bang Dream’s mobile rhythm game. Imagine a version of Dance Dance Revolution that you play with your fingers, wrapped in the usual mobile game trappings like stamina meters and weekly events and gachapon pulls.

It’s the first game in this surprisingly crowded subgenre to hook me since the analogous Love Live game, School Idol Festival, a few years back. The two standout features for me: a steady drip feed of new songs (including covers from outside of the franchise), and the ability to keeping playing even if you don’t have any stamina (with fewer in-game rewards, which suits me fine).

7. Hollow Knight

Between Early Access, episodic releases, expansion packs, and games as a service, it’s increasingly unclear where to draw the lines for “game of the year” eligibility. In the case of Hollow Knight, its 2018 Switch port earned it a place in many discussions despite the fact that it was originally released in 2017.

I don’t really have a stake in the procedural arguments about what “year” means in “game of the year,” but since I’m one of those players who discovered Hollow Knight once it made it to Switch I’m including it here. I don’t have too much to say about it yet; it’s great so far, and I suspect it would be higher on my list if I’d had a chance to get further into it.

6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Ten years ago, the first post on my new games blog Cruise Elroy argued that the just-released Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a fine game, but was actually most successful as a game museum. I could write a similar blog post about Ultimate, I think—it’s largely the same game as ever and is still fun to play, but the main appeal for me remains those moments where I think “Oh hey, it’s that character (or song, or stage) from that game!” As such, my biggest disappointment isn’t a missing gameplay feature like Home Run Contest or Subspace Emissary, but a missing curatorial feature: the collectible Spirits don’t have little descriptive blurbs or debut dates like the trophies from earlier Smash games.

5. Mario Tennis Aces

This is the most surprising entry on the list for me. I don’t generally get into multiplayer games, as I mentioned above, and I didn’t care for the single-player campaign here (as opposed to Ultimate’s World of Light, which I enjoyed). I don’t even like most of Aces’s mechanics—the special moves and trick shots are too gimmicky for my taste.

But playing in “Simple” mode, which turns Aces into something closer to Virtua Tennis, is just sublime—it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a video game all year. A few days ago YouTube recommended me a video of two world-class Simple players facing off and I was completely riveted. I’ve been holding off on Nintendo’s online subscription service, but this game will probably be the reason I break.

4. Tetris Effect

One way I think about Tetris Effect is that it does for Tetris what the Disney film Fantasia does for classical music: it adds a new aesthetic dimension to a familiar experience, transforming it in the process. Playing Tetris Effect is a profoundly different experience from playing a “regular” version of Tetris, in the same way that watching Fantasia is profoundly different from just listening to Beethoven.

Another more cynical way I think about Tetris Effect is that it’s what happens when you cross Tetris with a Coexist bumper sticker, or a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle. The narrative subtext of all its audiovisual flair is an uncompromising faith in humanity, which is a bit cornball at times. It’s hard not to be won over by how optimistic it feels, though; I can find it in my heart to give a relentlessly positive game a pass in 2018.

3. Dragalia Lost

Dragalia Lost is a mobile action RPG co-developed by Nintendo and Cygames (of Granblue Fantasy fame). It’s one of those games where seemingly everything has a progress bar: you level up your castle, your buildings, your weapons, your characters, your characters’ abilities, your “wyrmprints” (equippable buffs), your dragons, your dragons’ affinity levels, and even yourself. If you like to make numbers go up, you’ll find a bunch here to play with.

Besides the grinding, there are also gacha pulls (naturally), Fire Emblem-esque unlockable character stories, MMO-lite raid battles, and a surprisingly catchy soundtrack. Nothing about it feels especially groundbreaking, but virtually everything is well-executed and polished. I continue to be surprised by how much time I spend with it, even when the specific things I’m doing don’t sound appealing on paper.

2. Celeste

I remember describing Celeste to a friend as “difficult without being frustrating,” but that’s not quite right—it absolutely is frustrating sometimes, and intentionally so. A better description might be “frustrating without being unpleasant.” Frustration, like tedium or repetition or anything else, can be used as a tool; Celeste employs it to make Madeline’s story resonate. By the end of the second chapter, I wanted to climb that damn mountain as much as she did.

Everything in Celeste has an exquisite design sensibility, from the levels themselves to the floatiness of the jumps to the reactive soundtrack. It’s one of the all-time great 2D platformers, for my money.

1. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

It is patently ridiculous to put a game originally from 2014 on here, I know, but if I’m opening the door for the new Switch port of Hollow Knight I’m leaving it open for the new PC port of Cold Steel II. Just consider Celeste my favorite game of the year if you don’t buy it!

Trails of Cold Steel is the third sub-series in the broader Trails saga, a series of JRPGs which begins with the Trails in the Sky trilogy, and continues with a duology that was never officially released in English. Although each new sub-series introduces a new main cast and is a reasonable jumping-on point, the Trails games are part of one contiguous story—more Dragon Age than Final Fantasy, say.

Jason Schreier at Kotaku once wrote that “Playing Trails of Cold Steel is like eating a hero sandwich that’s way too heavy on the bread. Often you’ll get nice big chunks of turkey and salami. But sometimes—more often than you’d like—you’ll realize that all you can taste is fluffy white filler.” I actually think that’s an apt description—the parts of Cold Steel (and Trails generally) that most people would consider “the game” are pretty spaced out, and in between you spend an inordinate amount of time just…talking to people. Often it’s not even about anything in particular.

For me, though, that stuff makes the game. Every time the plot advances there are dozens of NPCs with new dialog, and many have their own little side stories that play out over dozens of hours. In Jason’s analogy, this sandwich is made with ambrosial bread, and I will eat as much filler as they give me. (Which is not to say that I dislike the “meat”—the combat and the main story are right in my wheelhouse too.)

I mean, look: I remember almost all of these people by name at first glance. I’m most of the way through New Game+ after spending 80-odd hours on my initial run. I played through Tokyo Xanadu, a game whose combat I didn’t even especially like, because it kind of works as Trails methadone until the next game in the series is localized.

I would not be able to construct an argument that Cold Steel II is more tightly designed than something like Celeste, or better paced than the similarly interminable Dragon Quest XI, or even as good as some earlier entries in its own series. It’s a sprawling mess in a lot of ways, but its excesses are exactly to my taste, and there was no other game I enjoyed half as much this year.