One of the great tragedies of the last console generation was the demise of the Red Faction series. Red Faction: Guerrilla, from 2009, put the environmental destruction of its first-person-shooter predecessors to astounding use in a third-person open world. It was a brilliant new direction for Red Faction, and one that Guerrilla’s immediate sequel, 2011’s Red Faction: Armageddon, didn’t continue as then-publisher THQ tried to parlay the property into an ill-advised cross-media franchise, complete with a TV movie. The game took a more traditional (and prospectively more commercial) approach by retreating to linear corridors filled with aliens. When it didn’t sell, THQ announced that they were shuttering the series for good.
Following the bizarre shuffle of company names and intellectual property in the wake of THQ’s liquidation, the Guerrilla remaster from THQ Nordic jolts the Red Faction franchise back to life. Though the remaster—or re-Mars-ter, if you can stomach the title pun—doesn’t fix the grave injustice that the game never had a true sequel, it’s a compelling reminder of what made it a minor classic. Where modern open-world games try to impress with their ballooning scale and number of side activities, there’s an intriguing economy to Guerrilla’s design. It’s a game built on the assumption that its hook, a robust destruction model that lets you demolish entire buildings piece by piece, is good enough for players to overlook the barebones aspects of the mission design and storytelling. And it’s a correct assumption.
The story, for example, is basic stuff. After his rebel brother is murdered by the fascist Earth Defense Force, a miner on Mars named Alec Mason joins the worker uprising, the Red Faction. What saves this tossed-off narrative is the way it, like every other aspect of the game, interacts with the destruction: it colors your exploits with an overtly political edge. Though it may be common practice these days for games and the people who sell them to downplay any such themes in hopes of placating asinine cries for apolitical art, the Red Faction isn’t just red because it’s based on the planet Mars; after all, Mason’s primary weapon in the proletariat rebellion is a hammer.
And Guerrilla’s sledgehammer is an all-timer—a simple tool that immediately cements the tactile pleasure of dismantling EDF structures. Buildings buckle inward as they recoil from violent, mechanically enhanced hammer blows that turn every swing into an explosion of metal and concrete. Though you get remote-detonated bombs, vehicles, mechs, and more, the hammer remains one of your best, most satisfying options—and definitive proof of just how finely the game has honed its central, destructive conceit.
The Red Faction’s goal is to liberate Martian sectors, which means turning you loose on the various EDF buildings and side activities marked on the map. You might rescue prisoners, destroy convoys, or send aid to union rallies about to be violently suppressed. There’s a fairly basic template to many of these missions, and the fact that they’re necessary to progress might sink a lesser game, but Guerrilla’s destruction is downright transformative. Otherwise rote objectives take on a new dimension when you can cave in walls to make a new path or, say, drive a dump truck into a smokestack and then hit the detonator on the bombs piled in the back. Unlike so many other open worlds that peddle some pretense of freedom by serving as little more than a glorified hub for inane distractions, Guerrilla’s Mars supplements its freedom to destroy with a single-minded focus on freedom of approach, feeding you a variety of angles and weapons and vehicles for use in your revolutionary work.
But like any open world, mayhem prompts a response from the authorities, and it’s here that the game stumbles. EDF efforts to thwart your uprising quickly grow overwhelming; the soldiers have great aim, and they arrive in droves either by armored transport vehicles or by spawning out of thin air. They keep coming until you either die or flee no matter how many roadblocks you set up, and while it’s true that this imbalance is apt to that “guerilla” in its title, the game struggles to accommodate the pressure. Gunplay is too basic for any sort of tactical consideration, and stealth is so limited that sneak attacks devolve almost immediately into full-scale shootouts.
Guerrilla plays best on the lowest of its three difficulty modes, which offers some measure of challenge while letting you withstand enough of the EDF gunfire so that it can’t keep you from the game’s great strength. Its world was a bit lean in 2009 and in 2018 it can seem downright quaint, but since that original release, no game has equaled Guerilla’s incredible destruction mechanics. Though the remaster occasionally gets bogged down in long load times and glitches, what it does most of all is re-establish the game’s place at the head of the open-world genre, with a take on working-class rebellion that’s just as revelatory now as it was nine years ago.
Developer: Kaiko Games Publisher: THQ Nordic Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: July 03, 2018 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game
Review: Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey for Nintendo 3DS
The effectiveness of the game’s humor doesn’t always tie back to the concept of Bowser as a frustrated, impotent vessel.4.5
The premise of the 2009 RPG classic Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, recently remastered and issued as part of the exhaustingly titled Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey, is among the weirdest in the mainstream gaming canon. In the game, the player punches, breathes fires, and stomps around as iconic villain Bowser on a mission to recapture his castle, but you also assume the roles of a shrunken Mario and Luigi, both of whom are trapped inside Bowser’s body. Far from perfunctory, this 3DS port of the game boasts superior graphics and a new strategy mode, Bowser Jr.’s Journey, which focuses on the concurrent misadventures of Bowser’s obnoxious son.
In Bowser’s Inside Story, a disease that causes its victims to grow to an outrageous physical size has afflicted different inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom. But this outbreak isn’t Bowser’s doing. It’s a plot hatched by the evil Fawful, who, with the use of a magical mushroom, forces Bowser to swallow up Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and others. This over-the-top plot results in both Peach and Bowser losing their castles. And because the full-sized Bowser presents the only chance to defeat Fawful and restore the status quo, Mario and Luigi are left with the task of boosting the power of their archnemesis by, well, stimulating his muscles, whacking his nerve endings, swimming in his fluids, and cleaning out his organs.
Such suggestive, inner-body hijinks solidify the game’s position as the most adult Mario & Luigi title to date. Here, Mario and Luigi don’t get to kick Bowser’s ass because they’re too busy controlling it, and literally so when they’re accessing his “Rump Control.” Later in the game, a trip to Bowser’s mind suggests that his perpetual plotting to kidnap Peach is partially related to his loins. Such sexual connotations reveal a fundamental insecurity in Bowser’s character, which lends a humanizing element to the game’s kooky plot.
The effectiveness of the game’s humor doesn’t always tie back to the concept of Bowser as a frustrated, impotent vessel. The script drips with absurdity and fun wordplay, as when supporting character Broque Monsieur (a moniker that plays off the character’s lack of money) tells Bowser that he has the “odor of a gentleman.” Fawful’s haphazard style of communication juxtaposes hilariously against his cunning. Right as Bowser and company fall prey to his scheme, he offers up his best line: “Easy as bread sandwiches!” Sometimes the jokes even subvert RPG norms, as when a senile ally of Bowser, forgetting his promise to assist the surly ruler, attacks you after telling you to save the game.
The gameplay in Bowser’s Inside Story is as creative as that of any turn-based RPG. Although players have to perform separate tasks as Bowser and the plumber brothers, the action emphasizes clever forms of interplay between the multiple protagonists, further highlighting the uniqueness of the game’s narrative framework. Boss fights can involve teamwork such as Bowser swallowing adversaries who then must be dispatched by Mario and Luigi. And at times exploration requires coordinated assistance, as when Bowser drinks water so that Mario and Luigi can more easily navigate a section within his body.
Bowser’s Inside Story, which was originally released on the Nintendo DS, has gotten a significant graphical uptick. Now that the dark outlines of the original sprites are gone, the characters have a more natural appearance. Elsewhere, environments have been spruced up with new static details, extra animations, or streamlined colors. The game also incorporates new audio that brings a certain realness to the experience of being inside Bowser, such as the sounds of Mario and Luigi’s boots stepping on bones and sinking into tissue.
But this remaster’s most striking changes to the original involve twists on point of view. During battle, subtle zoom-ins and zoom-outs punctuate different types of action, such as Mario jumping high into the air or Bowser landing a perfectly timed punch. Certain cutscenes now benefit from 3D effects. The sequence where Banzai Bill flies toward Bowser’s castle has received an impressive overhaul, with the camera hugging close to the bullet fiend and effectively highlighting his enormous size and velocity of movement. In contrast, the original game uses an at-a-distance side view in which Banzai Bill doesn’t look threatening at all.
The game’s new mode, Bowser Jr.’s Journey, doesn’t register as a necessary tie-in to the original story. Bowser Jr. is a run-of-the-mill brat whose hubris isn’t as entertaining as his father’s, chiefly because Bowser’s Inside Story is more biting in the way it plumbs the psychology of the elder Bowser. Moreover, the spats between Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings grow tiresome due to their almost complete dearth of subversiveness.
Still, Bowser Jr.’s Journey is engaging as a real-time army-versus-army game. Because your party automatically runs toward enemies in the style of the opening scene from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, you only have control over small but crucial elements of the skirmishes. Through punctual button presses, you can help your troops score critical hits, interrupt your foes’ techniques, and provide temporary buffs. Managing your forces here provides an interesting change of pace from the more unorthodox madness of Bowser’s Inside Story, cementing this release as the ultimate version of a pop masterpiece.
The game was reviewed using a final retail 3DS download code provided by Nintendo.
Developer: AlphaDream Publisher: Nintendo Platform: 3DS ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game
Review: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
It takes more than a little bit of programming genius to allow a game as simple and accessible as this to still keep the door open for in-depth competitive play.4.5
Conventional logic says that a game as enormous as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate should be collapsing under its own weight like a dying star. It feels like the Mr. Creosote of video games, a title almost disgustingly distended with content. The series roster has grown enormous beyond belief, and already another announced DLC character—Joker from Persona 5—threatens to be the wafer-thin mint that makes the whole thing explode. It would be all too easy for any developer to lose the rhythm of a game that juggles so such, so it’s a genuine feat of skill that Nintendo so ably holds the whole thing together.
Ultimate lives up to its name beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, though the game tries to deny that fact at the outset, when players can only use the original dozen or so fighters from the original Super Smash Bros.—a feeble and mildly irksome attempt on Nintendo’s part to drip feed the one component of gameplay everyone will want all at once. On its face, Ultimate offers the same familiar Smash Bros. experience: Pick your favorite character, and use a combination of straight-up strikes and special, series-specific attacks to essentially loosen your enemies’ grasp on gravity—and to the point where hitting them hard enough sends them flying off into the stratosphere, never to return. Thankfully, though, all it takes is 10 minutes in any one mode—fussing with the controls, playing with enemy head and torso sizes, or scanning an Amiibo—for the game to unveil its multitudes.
Play the game’s Classic Mode, a straightforward series of eight fights with dynamic difficulty, and you realize you’re no longer toying around with randomized enemies as in previous titles in the series, but taking a winking stroll down a memory lane that lovingly recalls the games from which these characters originated. Mario’s path leads him to an eight-enemy brawl against the Koopalings, followed by a confrontation with a giant-sized Bowser, featuring remixed final boss music from Super Mario Bros. 3. Simon Belmont’s Classic Mode path puts him up against a series of characters standing in for major bosses from past Castlevania games. His boss stage is a full-blown recreation of the final level from the very first Castlevania, complete with a teleporting Dracula and a second phase where he morphs into a 10-foot-tall demon. The tiny details in the plotting, locations, the music, character actions, and personalized boss fights would be impressive and admirable in any fighting game, and then you realize that Nintendo has done this for 74 characters, half of which aren’t even owned by Nintendo proper.
Every little accomplishment in Ultimate foists bonuses, spendable points, and new characters on the player. In the age of microtransactions, it’s easy to forget what actual abundance and reward in these types of games looks like. Nintendo cannot be praised enough for continuing to smile on every player for enjoying the studio’s games on any level—whether casually or competitively—while many competitors unapologetically turn their protects into gambling machines. The relative slowness of unlocking Ultimate’s full roster is forgivable in that context, though one imagines players who already have a favorite character in mind, or just want to play with one of the game’s new characters, will find their patience tested somewhat.
It’s hard to feel too bad, however, considering that the game is seemingly designed to keep dullness at bay at all times. Go beyond Classic Mode and there’s an endless number of changes of pace to the standard Smash Bros. battles. There are, of course, relatively straightforward ways to play, like tournaments. The standard-issue match modifiers that have been there for years have returned, like making every player into metal (thus harder to knock out) or giant-sized. There are also more robust and forward-thinking ideas like Squad-Strike—essentially a 5-on-5 tag mode—and Smashdown, which could be described as Ultimate’s interpretation of Fortnite; it’s an elimination mode where you can play as the entire roster, one character at a time, but losing as a character means they can’t be selected again.
The biggest new time sink is World of Light, a full-blown, 20-plus-hour RPG that plays like the unholy offspring of Smash Bros., Pokémon, and Magic: The Gathering. In it, an extraterrestrial being called Galeem pulls a Thanos and wipes out the entirety of the Smash Bros. roster, minus Kirby, who’s apparently Carol Danvers in this scenario. Kirby is then charged with traveling around the world and rescuing the souls of his comrades, which have been trapped by Galeem and are being used as red-eyed puppets to roam the Earth. It’s a strangely dark premise but not nearly as grim in execution.
The mode really boils down to a basic top-down JRPG journey, with an addictive series of Smash Bros. fights doubling as random encounters, augmented by special Spirit cards—essentially, Smash Bros.’s old trophy rewards but finally given an actual purpose—granting player and opponent alike random augments. It’s more involved than one might expect, to the point where this could have been the only part of Ultimate released to the public and no one would have probably complained. World of Light is held back mostly by some uneven spikes in gameplay, and, yet again, the slow way you unlock additional fighters besides Kirby means being stuck with a weak character for long stretches. Still, having it as a sizable chunk of an absurdly feature-packed whole is bound to buy a lot of forgiveness from players.
None of this would be worthwhile if the foundation of the series’s combat wasn’t still as rock-solid as ever, and even then, tweaks have been made to the gameplay elements that were already finetuned by Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. The gameplay is slightly faster now, with a few useful indicators for telling how close off-screen players are to being completely out.
The Smash Bros. series has always been conceptually right as rain—a genius premise that’s been often imitated but never duplicated. Ultimate makes a strong case that no one ever will. It takes more than a little bit of programming genius to allow a game as simple and accessible as this to still keep the door open for in-depth competitive play. Whoever develops such a game requires an ethos as unshakably welcoming as Nintendo’s to prevent it from becoming a money-sucking, pay-to-play pachinko machine. Above all else, said developer needs a near-bottomless imagination to make it so that pitting the greatest video game characters ever created against each other is as exhilarating to behold the umpteenth time out as it was way back in 1999.
Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: December 7, 2018 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game
The 25 Best Video Games of 2018
This list recognizes games many of us love, but it devotes as much space to ones a few of us are passionate about.
In video game journalism, the desire for consensus is often wielded like a cudgel in an attempt to silence dissenting voices. Calls for so-called “objective” analysis—for a number-crunching product review rather than a thoughtful critique of what a game means, or doesn’t mean, to say—suggest a desire for the process to be all but automated. The cycle can be disheartening, especially when it suggests that what is said matters less than whether it lines up with impressions gleaned from marketing materials, or when it demands that a review score remain in the ill-defined bounds of an industry that feeds on hype and demands flattery.
But, then, it’s easy to conflate how people weaponize consensus with the concept itself, meaning it’s easy to overlook its uses. In such a loud, dense, and expensive medium, where everything seems to be crying for our attention all the time, it’s indispensable to be able to cut through the noise. It’s invaluable to see a handful of games everyone else is pointing to as something you should consider spending your money on. Those games—God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and even smaller but no less beloved titles like Celeste—are on this list, the ones that captured our imaginations and dropped our jaws just the way they did for thousands of players.
Just as useful, though, is to be able to champion the unsung in the face of consensus. We can laud the expansive world of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the underwater alien vistas of Subnautica in the same breath. This list recognizes games many of us love, but it devotes as much space to ones a few of us are passionate about: the outsider art of Arbitrary Metric or Hidetaka Suehiro, the RPG-mirrored journey of a man named Gary, a cooperative prison break, a pulsating neon-tinged platformer. We prefer to think of consensus less as a means to silence dissent than as a way to hack away at the brush and clear a path for our own individual passions, as well as leave space for you to find your own. Steven Scaife
25. Forgotton Anne
Players waited for ages to see a game that captured the visual imagination and deep, earnest emotion of Hayao Miyazaki, and after Studio Ghibli helped work on Ni No Kuni, well, they were left waiting. Whatever magic the game contained was drowned out by one clunky RPG mechanic too many. The specific thing players yearned for has finally been conjured by Forgotton Anne, which goes beyond doing an admirable job of aping the look and feel of Studio Ghibli’s animation. Yes, the concept of a girl finding herself the orphaned enforcer of a world made by and for every forgotten object the human world has ever lost is ripe for the exact kind of emotional allegory that Miyazaki himself is famous for. Even still, Forgotton Anne has a power all its own when it comes to how it uses player choice against the player. The narrative sinks its teeth deep into exploring the idea of people struggling with being able to see immigrants as human, even despite the fact that Forgotton Anne‘s immigrants are very much not, and it’s soul-crushing how relevant that plot element became this year. It’s even more so when our heroine’s choices and hypocrisies and so-called altruism comes back to haunt her later on. Forgotton Anne goes to beautiful, unexpected places, and while it wears its inspiration on its sleeve, it’s very much its own remarkable creature. Justin Clark
24. A Way Out
What’s fascinating and successful about A Way Out is its insistence on a forced split-screen—even for online co-op. The game wants you not only to do your job, but to be aware of how the other player has gone about doing his or hers. This choice mirrors in players the begrudging trust that’s built between Leo and Vincent when the game’s prison-break narrative forces these two strangers to work together. You’ll chisel a hole in the wall while your partner in the next cell stands watch for guards. Then, it’s your turn to return the favor, by causing a distraction or breaking up a fight, knowing that you may need to rely on your partner later to do the same for you. But A Way Out actually shines brightest in its action-free sequences, which focus less on familiar cooperative activities and more on illuminating how players think—what they choose to focus on interacting with and how they respond when the stakes aren’t necessarily a matter of life and death. Aaron Riccio
23. Donut County
Donut County is an absurdist comedy game about a raccoon inexplicably gifted with a phone app that causes mass destruction via remotely controlled holes in the ground. Similar in tone to cult classics Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy, the game’s abstract concept is executed via simple gameplay wherein the player moves an ever-expanding hole around familiar settings to suck furniture, people, and buildings into the earth. There’s a sense of accomplishment in successfully annihilating everything in sight, from smaller items such as fence posts and pot plants, to larger ones like animals and gardening utensils, then cars and entire buildings. Nothing can escape you and your inexplicable instrument of doom. Donut County matches its one-of-a-kind gameplay with clever comedy writing, best demonstrated in an in-game encyclopedia—with its detailing of the raccoon’s ludicrous beliefs, such as cliffs being an alien-created trap—that satirizes the overused video game trope of collectables. Ryan Aston
At the heart of GRIS is the idea of recovering from anguish through coping strategies and empathy. As the game commences, a girl has undergone some kind of devastating trauma. Then, the player avatar, Gris, falls through the world and into a derelict and hopeless place devoid of color. A first, Gris can barely walk, her movements seemingly encumbered by her psychological tolls, but she perseveres through barren wastes to find a monument where she restores the first ounce of color to the world and gains the ability to jump. From here, each wordless and strikingly artful section of GRIS symbolizes a different aspect of dealing with a psychological trauma, which is represented here by predatory animals that manifest from black ink. Crushing depression is exemplified by gray colors and empty landscapes, which Gris brings color and form back to as she helps others, as well as reforms the girl’s fractured psyche. That the narrative is intentionally ambiguous is important, as the game would not have the universal appeal that it does if it only dealt with a specific traumatic event. GRIS is a triumph of deeply affecting interactive poetry. Aston
21. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memory
When The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories starts, it’s a bog-standard indie platform-puzzler—albeit with an eye-catching, fluid animation style—starring a girl trying to save her missing girlfriend on an abandoned island. The very second lightning strikes, frying the girl to cinders, and a moose in a lab coat brings her back to life, The Missing takes a hard left swerve into the realm of the surreal and never looks back for most of its play time. Death isn’t a teacher in the game, but a most morbid, all-purpose skeleton key that fits every lock to every door if you’re creative enough. It’d be a bonkers gimmick worthy of stunned applause by itself, and then it becomes clear exactly what all this suffering was meant to represent, and suddenly, it’s the most progressive and affecting game of the year, an exercise of excruciating sympathy toward the marginalized that has absolutely no parallel in gaming. Clark
Breathe it in, the grime and the decay and the desperation rendered in Paratopic‘s stark, lo-fi polygons. The game’s world is ambiguous and anonymous and empty, leading you through wilderness and concrete sprawl. It pulls you into garbled faces, pushes you down highways with no company but a suitcase and a distorted radio. You become disoriented as the game cuts away, throwing you into other perspectives and then back again. Are you in control? Is your fate truly your own? The long, still moments between cuts leave space for the dread of this world to seep in and build anticipation for something terrible. It seems inevitable. A short, experimental game from designers Jessica Harvey and Doc Burford and composer BeauChaotica, Paratopic is the nightmare version of so-called walking simulators, revealing the existential horror simmering just beneath their constraints. Scaife
19. Yoku’s Island Express
It’s tough to picture how a game could mix pinball with Metroid-style exploration, and even tougher to visualize how it might be pulled off well. But any skepticism melts away after just a few moments with Yoku’s Island Express as its title character, a postmaster beetle attached to a ball, careens across the screen. Instead of jumping, he’s propelled by pinball flippers seeded throughout the beautiful island environment, and the pinball/platforming combination immediately feels so fluid that it becomes less a strange gimmick than a natural extension of Yoku’s delightful journey. It’s a warm, friendly game filled with moments guaranteed to win you over from as early as the very first upgrade: a tiny party horn for Yoku to blow on and get a character’s attention. He might need it in-game to compensate for his short stature, but even in this crowded exploration-platforming subgenre, the blissful mechanics of Yoku’s pinball adventure ensure he stands tall as the rest. Scaife
18. Legendary Gary
It’s no secret that the game industry attempts to exploit our desire for escapism, and most developers seem fine with reinforcing this dubious status quo. But Legendary Gary, created by Evan Rogers, addresses the tension between art and responsibility with a tale about a young adult who spends hours playing a computer game called Legend of the Spear in order to forget about his duty of supporting his mother and girlfriend. As the titular protagonist advances further in Legend of the Spear, he notices weird connections between the game’s world and the real world. While the line between fiction and reality crumbles, Gary is forced to face the hurdles of life—a friend overdosing, the emotional hole left behind by his dead father, shady managerial politics at his supermarket job—as a man and human being. Many years ago, filmmaker François Truffaut famously asked, “Is the cinema more important than life?” The touching conclusion of Legendary Gary seems to respond, “Of course not.” Jed Pressgrove
Dandara is the most distinct platformer of 2018, as it involves no running or jumping. Instead, you must shoot the protagonist to select sections of floors, walls, ceilings, and suspended platforms from myriad angles. This fact alone puts the game in less-traveled territory, but developer Long Hat House doesn’t stop there. Sometimes when you travel from one surface to another, the entire screen rotates, giving the action a beautiful yet disorienting rhythm, especially when you’re evading the attacks of adversaries. Dandara is also built around unlocking segments of an interconnected world, but the game frequently subverts one’s expectations, as when you discover an area that’s plagued by an unhittable, bullet-firing enemy that chases you from one screen to the next. In another case, opening new paths comes with the catch of having to navigate around suddenly activated obstacles in previously completed sections of a level. After playing Dandara, you may never look at platforming or Metroid-inspired exploration the same way again. Pressgrove
16. Red Dead Redemption 2
Told from the perspective of a cowboy wrestling with a cultural shift in society, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a philosophical take on the American frontier. Arthur Morgan is a lawless man wanting to be lawful, but he’s too mixed up in gang affiliations to believe his life can ever truly be redeemed. Especially in its profoundly heartbreaking depiction of the demise of the Van der Linde gang, Red Dead Redemption 2‘s theme of loyalty in the face of hopelessness rises to the forefront of the gameplay experience. Just as impressive as that feeling of heft to the kick of revolvers is the level of detail that went into rendering all the towns you come across, each and every part of these locales informed by its socioeconomics. But what makes the game something truly special is how it examines its main character’s moral dilemma. Red Dead Redemption 2 tells us that sticking to our guns may leave us deader than a deer on a riverbank, and assimilation doesn’t always mean defeat. Jeremy Winslow
15. Into the Breach
This turn-based gem certainly lives up to the ominous implications of its title. From beginning to end, the goal of protecting cities from hostile aliens that burrow out of the ground frequently appears downright unmanageable. After much frustration and incredulity, you realize that trying to eliminate every threat is a fool’s endeavor and that the key to victory is a stingy, uncompromising, and cerebral defense; performing a non-damaging shove on a foe in order to block the entrance of another pest often guarantees more success than trying to outmuscle the existing opposition. Every decision is ultimately critical here, so to survive a tough battle is to feel an immense relief that’s nearly unparalleled in a video game industry that tends to reward and encourage more simplified approaches to problem solving. Into the Breach is the most chess-like video game in recent memory, an intense rebuttal to the titles that spoil and satiate us with their frequently meaningless choices. Pressgrove
14. ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission
Every console has had a game like ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission, some sort of instantly giddying title that astounds with the world it conjures and the control within it that you’re afforded. This being a VR title, however, it seems safe to say that ASTRO BOT goes a bit further than most with its immersion. There’s no fixed camera here to rotate about. Instead, it’s you who has to stand on tiptoes to see what lurks atop a construction site’s high-up girders, or crane your neck around in order to look—from cliffs or behind corners—for your missing robotic crewmates. At times, you even have to literally use your head to interact with in-game items—to break down barriers obstructing your miniature, controllable character, or to blow apart a giant white dandelion to reveal a new path. But the most wondrous part of ASTRO BOT comes when, after spending most of a freeform level swimming beneath the ocean, you surface and find your view partially obscured. A well-placed mirror reveals your robotic, controller-wielding self—and the bright yellow snorkel you’re wearing that now has seaweed stuck in it. It’s a brilliant nod to one’s desire to truly be a part of a game. Riccio
13. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Conventional logic says that a game as enormous as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate should be collapsing under its own weight like a dying star. It feels like the Mr. Creosote of video games, a title almost disgustingly distended with content. The series roster has grown enormous beyond belief, and already another announced DLC character—Joker from Persona 5—threatens to be the wafer-thin mint that makes the whole thing explode. And yet, it’s undeniable that the title lives up to its name beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Not just an all-inclusive compilation of nearly every piece of content from its predecessors, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate uses standard Smash Bros. fight mechanics as the foundation for a full-blown RPG. It also beefs up the series’s familiar Classic single player romp from being a bunch of random fights with LittleBigPlanet-style recreations of entire games and their most iconic moments. Even after cramming in everything you’ve ever seen in a Smash Bros. game, Nintendo still has a plethora of surprises to spring on the player—tiny delights waiting to be unlocked hundreds of hours down the road for any player of any skill level. Clark
12. The Messenger
Though The Messenger may resemble classic side-scrolling platformers like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Ninja Gaiden, it’s more than just a nostalgia trip. This boldly colorful title is consistently entertaining in both its gameplay and storytelling—challenging the player in ways that never feel gimmicky or punishing. But this Metroidvania is most impressive for the way it seamlessly leaps from 8-bit to 16-bit. The increase in pixel count allows Sabotage Studios to play around with player expectation: A stage that required a simple jump here and a well-timed dodge there in 8-bit may suddenly require avoiding swinging spiked balls across a series of slow-moving platforms in 16-bit. Even after multiple playthroughs, it feels as if the memorably scored The Messenger isn’t done finding new ways of throwing exhilarating curveballs at the player. Jeremy Winslow
11. Dead Cells
Everyday it seems another miserable, demoralizing roguelike hits stores, trying to be the next Dark Souls but utterly oblivious to the specific recipe of tone, timbre, and ethos that makes Dark Souls work. The success of Dead Cells comes from beckoning its players onward. You wake up a formless blob of organic matter, squeezed into a suit of armor. The game then promises power, answers, and awe, and though it refuses to offer these things for free, Dead Cells is rightfully confident that these things are worth it. It’s an impressively grotesque, gothic world that our unnamed hero has to make his way through in order to achieve freedom, but it never puts mastery over one’s environment or the enjoyment of the journey too far out of arm’s reach. There will be a whole class of games we dub “Cells-like” in the near future, and it would be folly for us not to honor the one that got the trend started. Clark
Octahedron is a rave in video game form. Here, you create your own platforms as you attempt to climb shafts filled with electric neon obstacles and viral creatures that scrabble about on their glowing fibrous legs shooting sound waves at you. Each level adds some new interpretation of the electronic soundtrack’s thumping beat, layering on the complexity until you’re contending with missile-launching turrets spinning in unison, avoiding platform-eating piranha plants, or manipulating blocky speaker-like cannons so that their streams of sound no longer block your path. This synesthetic experience feels like a close cousin to that of rhythm games, though Octahedron affords the player more freedom, since you’re restricted only by the number of platforms you can create before needing to land on a fixed surface. Hypnotically satisfying, the game is the song you can’t—and don’t—want to get out of your head. Riccio
9. Hitman 2
In the exclusive VIP room of the Isle of Sgàil castle, the five members of the Ark Society council gather to discuss their plans to hold power over the world. During this Illuminati-esque gathering, the members of this privileged elite wear masks to conceal their identities—to discuss how they will profit from fixing the climate change disaster they created. But unbeknownst to them, one member isn’t who he seems. The elusive Agent 47, having earlier tossed member Jebediah Block over a balcony, has infiltrated their ranks, and he sets out to murder them all, dishing out his unique brand of darkly comedic justice. The game, a fusion of escapist wish-fulfillment and satire, has the player deploy its familiar and new stealth mechanics across inventive scenarios. Whether in an exotic jungle or a Vermont suburb, 47 exploits the hyper-detailed nature of his surroundings to complete his executions, and frequently in hilarious disguise. Hitman 2 gives players the tools to make their own amusing stories within the game’s open worlds, from choking an F1 driver while disguised in a flamingo outfit, to blowing up a Columbian drug lord using an explosive rubber duck, to reprogramming an android so it can gun down an MI5 agent turned freelance assassin played by Sean Bean. Aston
The dash jump of Celeste‘s protagonist, Madeline, is one of the great platforming mechanics of recent years, but it’s not what makes the game remarkable. No, what makes Celeste remarkable is context. In the hands of Matt Makes Games, the familiar framework of ultra-hard platforming becomes an affecting narrative about mental health as naturally as if the subgenre had been building to it all along. Thoughtful character interludes punctuate Madeline’s dangerous climb up Celeste Mountain, moments of dialogue or anxiety that show her journey to be more than a physical one. She controls a monster, concludes a boss battle with an embrace, and all but flies while Lena Raine’s excellent soundtrack pulses in the background, as the game tosses off mechanics as satisfying as they are thematically resonant. Best of all, the difficulty-adjusting Assist Mode frames Celeste‘s narrative as one of triumph accomplished by any means necessary rather than through the lone correct path to the summit. Scaife
7. Guacamelee! 2
Guacamelee! 2 is the best-paced action game since 2005’s Resident Evil 4. This sequel just never takes a breath as it throws every possible type of challenge at Juan, the player-controlled Mexican wrestler hero who picks up various skills throughout the game at an absurdly rapid clip. Unlike the references in the first Guacamelee!, the allusions here to game history and trends don’t feel obligatory, instead serving as a way to satirize everything from player empowerment to convoluted plot structure. All of this wild material is anchored by some of the most flexible mechanics of any era; throughout, punches, slides, body slams, flying techniques, and more must be performed in succession to overcome numerous platforming and combat tests. DrinkBox Studios has delivered one of the better video game sequels with Guacamelee! 2, further cementing itself among the most exciting developers working today. Pressgrove
Subnautica‘s open world, an expansive ocean on an alien planet, is frightening and mesmerizing in equal measure. As a survivor of a water landing, you must manage your oxygen wisely as you delve deeper into a sea full of never-before-seen life. As you uncover resources from caverns, long coral tubes, ship wreckage, and more, you will create more sophisticated forms of technology that can help you advance the game’s unobtrusive story or grant you access to the darkest corners of the underwater setting. No stretch of water in video game history has offered such an enlivening and humbling experience, from when you first lay eyes on the majestic alien equivalent of a whale to when you struggle to swim to the surface on zero oxygen. Drowning in Subnautica leads to gaming’s most existentially provocative moment of the year, as the protagonist’s slowly fading sight is so convincing that you might find yourself believing that you’re crossing over, in an unexpectedly peaceful fashion, to an undiscovered dimension. Pressgrove
Florence relates the story of a twentysomething woman who falls in love with and ultimately separates from a cellist she meets in a park after her phone dies during her commute to a dead-end job. The narrative-focused game unfolds, and without a single word of spoken dialogue, as a series of puzzles. Though they may be rudimentary, they effectively capture the complex, overwhelming, and often warring feelings—frustration, joy, nervousness, and wonder—of people in love. Ultimately, Florence‘s message is one of self-acceptance and self-discovery. It’s easy to settle into a routine, especially after acquiring a comfortable gig, but the game illustrates that by doing so we sell ourselves short, turning our back to an even more fulfilling life. As Florence Yeoh spreads her wings and takes a chance on her dreams, players get to see the fruits of her commitment. It’s a subtle nudge from the Australian video game developer to do the same, because you’ll never know the outcome unless you try. Winslow
While Iconoclasts‘s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts‘s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston
3. Return of the Obra Dinn
The Obra Dinn is silent, with the ship’s crew either dead or disappeared. Gifted with a kind of supernatural pocket watch, you observe freeze frames of each person’s last living moments, looking for clues to their name, occupation, and cause of death to jot down in your little book. For insurance purposes, of course. Lucas Pope’s follow-up to Papers Please places soulless, dehumanizing record-keeping on a collision course with unimaginable horror, morphing the story of the crew’s last days into a logic puzzle as an indictment of capitalism. Many games have flirted with crime scene investigation in a guided capacity, but Pope actually turns you loose to sift through myriad, missable details on your own. Tattoos, accents, crew assignments, blood trails, and more must all factor into your calculations in one of the most satisfying, complex detective games ever created. One scene finds you jammed into a narrow space that restricts your movement, forcing you to only peek through a hole in the wall at the frozen terror beyond. It’s one astounding composition among many, proof that Return of the Obra Dinn is as meticulously wound as the pocket watch that sets it in motion. Scaife
2. Marvel’s Spider-Man
This was the year Insomniac Games taught us the crucial difference between inhabiting a superhero and actually being one. Heroes rarely get to relate to the people they save on a personal level. In gaming, it’s even rarer to see a hero who saves a specific person’s day for no reward, and in ways that don’t involve breaking bones. Video games excel at letting players wield great power, while ignoring the great responsibility that comes with that. Marvel’s Spider-Man, miraculously, excels at both. As breathtaking and awesomely kinetic as it feels for Spider-Man to swing through Manhattan before taking out bad guys in a wild death-defying mid-air dance, the game’s most daring feat is when the acrobatics take a sidestep to poignancy and humanity. The inherent coolness of being Spider-Man never overwhelms the portrayal of every character as human beings trying desperately to accept or transcend their problems, their sworn duty, even their mortality, and Peter Parker showing nearly infinite empathy in coping with his and their mistakes. Spider-Man, the webslinger, is cool. Spider-Man, friend of an entire city, is phenomenal. Clark
1. God of War
The eighth entry in the God of War series is full of classic, epic combat, as you’ll slay your share of elemental trolls, winged dark elves, and giant thunder dragons throughout the game’s campaign. But whereas its precursors placed mindless violence front and center, this game brings a new weight to protagonist Kratos’s every move. It’s in the heavier Leviathan Axe that he wields this time around, as well as in the lessons his actions convey to his son. The new Nordic setting also refuels the franchise’s creative roots. The game overflows with ideas and fresh locations throughout Kratos’s journey across the Nine Realms, with some side quests so expansive that they don’t just introduce an extra area, but an entirely different dimension with its own set of rules, like fiery Muspelheim or poison-fogged Niflheim. The regions that remain on the main path are central to Kratos’s literal and figurative journey: a witch’s autumnal sanctuary speaks to peaceful isolation; a giant’s frozen corpse, perilously climbed, illustrates the bitter results of war; and Helheim, the green-hued land of the dead, gives a firsthand demonstration of the implacable calling of the dead. Even God of War‘s central hub is something more than it immediately appears: The water level recedes multiple times over the course of the game, each time exposing new islets and interconnecting pathways to existing ones, much as Kratos’s taciturn surface is gradually stripped away to reveal his deeper nature. There’s a double meaning to everything, especially the more visceral combat, which forces players to think about how to best engage foes, but about what they’re teaching their in-game son. This collection of mythic stories is made more relatable, not more mundane, through the lens of parenthood. Riccio
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