The hardest part of putting together these end of year articles isn’t searching down links or trying to find a good trailer, it’s writing these damn introductions. Therefore, this year, I’ve decided that I’m going to do the absolute bare minimum and leave these intros as short as possible so you can bite right into the chewy middle. [In other words, you’re too lazy to put together a couple hundred words and are going to make it look like you’re doing us a favor by sitting on your ass and doing nothing? Normally, I’d say this is utter crap, but considering the way you write, I have to agree that less is more. -ed.]
Alex Connolly #5: Distance
A toss up between long-time Early Access racers, Refract just pipped out Bugbear’s rambunctious Wreckfest with Distance by a single coat of opalescent duco. This is one of those curious racers that aren’t racers, but totally are. Distance is survival slotcar par excellence, and it doesn’t neatly fit conventions.
Starting as an ambitious embryonic student project known as Nitronic Rush, Distance was successfully Kickstarted after intrigued parties got a taste for Refract’s blend of transforming, trick-based racing. Stylistically, Distance draws from some of the genre’s most elegant submissions, and in particular the carbon-filament chic of Psygnosis/Studio Liverpool. The vehicles, once described as high-speed iPhones, are clean, lean creations that jump, flip, sprout wings and find traction on any plane or vertice. And more often than not, find themselves in orbit.
But that still doesn’t quite sell the atmosphere of Distance, which is absolutely crazy. It straddles rave as much as it does quiet ambient. On a turn, one can revel in the four-four, tearing around heart-stopping tracks riddled with car-slicing lasers and sawblades, then enter a sort of automotive zero-G torpor. Gimballing in protest within a frictionless void, drifting through a silent canyon of transplanted skyscrapers, Distance is the strangest racer you’ll probably ever play. Certainly the closest, possibly only example of a collision between walking simulator and racing game. There’s even a story, deftly unfurled via environmental storytelling. No easy task, but a perfect match here.
Distance, even if you don’t count its wealth of options, game modes, online, VR and so forth, is a hell of an achievement.
Kelsey Rinella #5: The Room: Old Sins
I call this the “Scent of A Woman Al Pacino Oscar” of my top five. (That is, an award given largely in recognition of a body of work, rather than exclusively for the awarded performance. I also call it that to provide myself an opportunity to mention I was an extra in Scent of A Woman which filmed some scenes in Troy, NY, near my hometown.) The Room series has done more than any other I know to make the unique affordances of touchscreen gaming salient. Old Sins was more of the same, packing a tremendous amount of puzzling and exploration into a dollhouse. I’m keen on Lovecraft-esque alternatives to Lovecraft, and, in saying that this is tied for my favorite with Cast a Deadly Spell simply reveals how excessively tainted by nostalgia my affection for Cast a Deadly Spell is.
Nick Houghtaling #5: Monster Hunter Stories
While Monster Hunter World is probably going to be the most remembered iteration in the series from 2018, Stories is the best Monster Hunter game I played this year. I recently got into Monster Hunter World and, while a ton of fun, the sheer amount of mechanics in the game make it more of a challenge than a leisure activity. While that is part of the game’s appeal, it has been more of a situational game for me.
Monster Hunter Stories, on the other hand, is a game I can throw my time into with reckless abandon. Set in the style of a Pokemon game, you roam through relatively open maps, fighting monsters, and defeating them for experience. The battle system is straightforward, set up in a rock-paper-scissors style. Occasionally, you come across an egg and hatch it to get a “monstie” of your own.
Despite the cutesy art style and dilution of a Monster Hunter game’s core mechanics, I have found that the difficulty scales quite pleasantly, and I occasionally find myself fighting a monster (I mean, monstie) that presents serious trouble.
I’ve been playing the game on iOS and I think that it is very well suited to the platform. Yeah, you have to deal with controlling camera and movement with virtual joysticks, but it’s not a huge problem considering that precision is not really required and the combat is turn based.
Tanner Hendrickson #5: Tetris Effect
Tetris is about as fundamentally sound a game design can be, but there’s a surprising amount of quirks and mechanical variations between different releases. Tetris Effect’s main hook: it looks and sounds incredible. A Tetris game made in Unreal Engine 4 with VR support might sound extremely unnecessary until you hear that it’s from Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the guy behind Rez and Lumines. You’re basically playing a really good version of Tetris inside of the world’s most expensive Winamp visualizer, and that freaking rules. It’s the one game I can recommend to literally anyone with a PS4. Unfortunately that’s also my one issue with it: I can only play it on my PS4. When the game came out, I was able to monopolize my roommate’s huge 4K HDR TV in the living room and binge the game until the titular Effect took over completely. But now he’s back from vacation, and it just isn’t the same on the comparatively tiny screen in my bedroom. And I generally prefer my Tetris in portable form, which wouldn’t really jive with Tetris Effect’s whole raison d’être. You’re supposed to play it as big and loud as you can, and right now I can’t do either as much as I’d like. But that brief time I had with it in the sweet spot was truly sublime, and more than enough to earn a spot on my list.
Tof Eklund #5: Heaven Will Be Mine
The sophomore game from the folks behind We Know the Devil a remarkable mash-up of giant robots, space war, interpersonal drama, and contemporary social commentary imaginable. Three friends (all playable characters), divided between the three factions that want to determine humankind’s future in space, must come to terms with their history with each other, conflicting visions for the future, and possible desire to hook up after the war is over. Lovable asshole Saturn, Newtype savior Pluto, and grim pragmatist Luna-Terra are probably the realest characters I’ve met in any game this year, despite (or because of?!?) their names, which, like nearly everything else in Heaven Will Be Mine, have at least two meanings: in this case, the blatantly astronomical (Luna-Terra has sided with the faction that wants to return to Earth and give up outer space), and Sailor Moon (We Know the Devil also contained Sailor Moon references). In case you haven’t guessed by now, this game is G-A-Y, drawing its inspiration as much from queer games like Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story as from cult anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion. “Okay,” I can hear everyone asking “what are the giant robot battles like?” There aren’t any. No TBS, RTS, first-person sim or third-person shooter action here, Heaven Will Be Mine is a pure visual novel. You decide the outcome of battles in favour of your chosen character or her friend/rival (date?) and their respective factions.
- Heaven Will Be Mine for PC/Mac/Linux via Steam, $15
- Heaven Will Be Mine for PC/Mac/Linux via itch.io, $15
- Heaven Will Be Mine for iOS Universal, $5
Nick Vigdahl #5: Pit People
Good old Horatio is a simple berry farmer doing simple berry farmer things until everything goes to shit. Acidic rain pours down from the heavens and some asshole ruffians try to kill him and eat his son. Behind it all is a chaotic-neutral space bear with deific powers and a distinct lack of constructive hobbies who narrates Horatio’s shitty day. A simple berry farmer Horatio may be, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to sit still and take it—demi-god or not, space bear or not—and swears vengeance. This is how Pit People starts and what follows is one of the most hilarious games I’ve played. The aforementioned bear narrates this story and is one hell of a funny bastard. Gameplay is all about collecting bizarre creatures with equally strange powers and taking them out adventuring through the world. It’s a colorful, strange, and violent world and there will be plenty of fighting in the form of tactically-engaging turn-based battles. Discovering effective character combinations is half the fun, as is the ability to capture and convert opponents. Pit People also features fun co-operative online play, which is something of a rarity in turn-based gaming.
Dave’s #5: Istanbul
When Istanbul first landed on our iDevices back in June, I was happy to have another great board game port to play on the go. My only issue with the game is one that plagues many digital board games: unless you’re intimately familiar with the rules, following exactly what’s happening and why can be a challenge. Sure, there’s a log to read and the game tries to help by pulsing icons and more, but trying to put together a coherent strategy when you’re not sure where everyone stands at all times is a chore. Of course, I could just spend the extra time each turn researching and piecing together what my neighbors are up to, but this is something you don’t need to do when the game is on the table, as a quick glance about will do the trick. Thus, I put Istanbul in the “Terra Mystica” camp of Games I’m Happy That Exist In Digital Form, But I Probably Won’t Play Them Much.
A few months later I loaded it back up due solely to the sheer brilliance of Istanbul’s underlying game design. It’s a great euro and I wanted to play it, thus I put my mind to solving the problem. It didn’t take long to memorize what each tile could do or what each icon meant, and eventually keeping track of a game simplified to where I could just sit back, relax and enjoy the game. This is the sweet spot for digital board games and, while it took Istanbul a bit to get there, once it was it’s been in constant rotation on the phone. Not even online! That’s how much I’m digging the digital version, that I’m actually sitting and playing solo against the quite good AI and loving it.
At the beginning of 2018, we were excited about a few huge titles that were going to release: Scythe and Terraforming Mars. I don’t want to spoil anything, but neither made my top five. Instead, we have the underdog, Acram, stepping up and making one of the better euros you’ll find on the App Store.