You call that a knife?

The End of Year Hullabaloo: Top five games of 2018, Number 2

Getting close to the end! Today we’ll give you our #2 games of 2018 but you’ll have to wait until Monday for our #1 picks. Can you handle the anticipation? I didn’t think so.

Alex Connolly #2: Phantom Doctrine

Ah, Phantom Doctrine. I came, I saw, I loved. Even if finding myself against the grain of consensus, this Cold War XCOM is a top shelf milieu of espionage. There are a lot of interesting pieces to Phantom Doctrine’s puzzle, and while they might not all join cleanly, it’s definitely how I want my squad-based tactics game served. Even again the heavyweights like the aforementioned XCOM and Julian Gollop’s pre-release Phoenix Point, Phantom Doctrine’s presentation and evocative ambience is absolute catnip.

Moving my agents around the map in preparation and reaction to enemy operations, tasking codebreakers and intelligence analysts to parse intel, prepping agents with specific local languages to afford less cordite-related outcomes. And hell, when things do hit the fan, I couldn’t get enough. There’s just such a well-realised world within Phantom Doctrine. Lurking in the darkness outside a hospital or security branch, figuring out routes and taking note of civilian workers and potential enemy agents. Infiltrating a dust-blown research facility, skulking up behind a guard in a checkpoint pillbox, tactically luring a gunship’s barrage away from the squad with a single heroic agent; these moments continued to pile up. It remains an intoxicating pastiche of pulp spy goodness.

Some gears admittedly failed to connect to their neighboring cog, most glaringly in tactical line of sight rules, but these were fixed in time and the resulting experience remains just a hell of a thing. I’ve fallen out of love with the modern XCOMs and despite liking Back in Action, the less said about modern Jagged Alliance, the better. When something like Phantom Doctrine came along, I was intrigued. And after playing it, I was smitten. Need more.

Kelsey Rinella #2: KeyForge

There are so many unknowns about KeyForge that it’s hard to feel like any judgment is plausibly wellfounded yet. But I know already that it’s accessible enough to be a favorite of my nine-year-old, yet offers me new insights into its gameplay almost every game. The built-in handicapping system means I don’t need to take it easy on him, so I’m fully engaged every time I come to the table. There’s so much variety in the five decks we have that I expect never to own more than ten, out of a desire to avoid pushing all other tabletop gaming out of my life. I’ve always loved the creativity and authorship of deck-building in Magic. I didn’t realize until KeyForge how much I dislike the burdens it necessitates, especially after 25 years of new cards to know and new rules and rulings to learn.

Nick Houghtaling #2: Yakuza 0

While I don’t like to admit it, I tend to have a bit of a impatient side. I often skip through dialogs or read things as quickly as possible to get to the next sequence to finally finish a game. My free time is precious, and I try to slam as much as possible into the moments I do have. This probably says a lot about my personality, and a lot about the collective mindset of humanity in 2018. (Maybe my New Year’s resolution should be to stop and smell the proverbial flowers).

Yakuza 0, however, is a game where I could not help but stop and examine each and every small part of the overall spectacle. The game has an incredible, emotional story with one of the best final emotional beats in the history of the medium. I did not expect a button mashing fighting game from the Yakuza series to provoke such a strong reaction in me, but here we are.

While I’ll never forget the big, heavy hitting moments of this game – and there are indeed many – what I’ll most remember are the side quests you stumble upon by chance on the streets throughout the rich, authentic world of a fictionalized Tokyo and Osaka. These quests range from absurd to moving. In one quest (minor spoilers here) you help a punk band find its mojo. In another, you’re helping a father find resolution with the loss of his family.

(Oh, who am I kidding – I just loved this for the disco dancing mini game).

Nick Vigdahl #2: Subnautica

Open world exploration games with a focus on crafting and survival are one of my favorite types of game, and Subnautica is one of the very best. In it you’ve crashed on an ocean-covered planet and have to make the best of it by finding food and fresh water, gathering supplies, crafting useful items, and starting to figure out how to get off the planet. The main storyline is focused on just that and is both intriguing and well-paced. Subnautica is perfectly fine with you taking your time and exploring the world, which is as beautiful and interesting as it is deadly. The crafting system is compelling with plenty of rewarding technological advancements, getting a submarine is a cool fist-pumping achievement for example. There’s no end of worthy short and medium-term goals to aspire to as you move along the main story quest. If open-world exploration games are your thing definitely check out Subnautica.

Tof Eklund #2: Tales of Maj’Eyal: Forbidden Cults

I’m going full on with the “best games I played in 2018” here, as Tales of Maj’Eyal celebrated the 9th anniversary of it’s first code commit this year. In my defense, it’s a living game that saw it’s 3rd major expansion, Forbidden Cults, this year, and it was that very expansion that finally convinced me to take the plunge.

I that finally don’t have the lifetime commitment to roguelikes that some people do, but I have played everything from the original Rogue to Nethack to a range of modern roguelikes from Dungeons of Dredmor (loved it!) to MidBoss (you must play this one!), and of all the games in the genre, ToME is my all-time favourite… so far. I’m intending to play Caves of Qud, ADOM (neé Ancient Domains of Mystery) and Ragnarok (hat tip to *) next year. Maybe 2019 will be the year of the roguelike.

ToME does a lot of things I like: Adventurer mode gives your characters a limited number of lives that you slowly earn by leveling up, a compromise between classic permadeath and infinite lives that allows you to take more risks while keeping a sense of consequence and the death of kings (and heroes). It also allows extensive customisation with a huge set of character classes with very different feels, each with an impressive set of skill ladders to mix and match. I love seeing a build play out, hopefully as intended. The game’s Temporal Warden and Paradox Mage classes are a good example: they have powers that actually include time travel, and aren’t limited by mana, but by the Paradox they build up, producing progressive dramatic spacetime Anomalies.

Then there’s ToME’s original, highly developed, ethically nuanced world. All the powers that be in ToME are flawed, most have done horrible things at some point, and good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. There is no ancient evil that has returned in ToME, just a series of conflicts between groups that are not morally equivalent but all have comprehensible motivations. There are torture-obsessed demons, for example, but they’re the last survivors of a world destoryed in a magical cataclysm that was accidentally unleashed by elvish mages, and the human-halfling alliance that ended centuries of war is also the perpetrator of the attempted genoicde of the orcs. This extends to characters: some character classes can join a cult of brutal anti-magic partisans, and others have an option to ally with a morally and magically corrupt wizard to destroy the cult. With the addition of Forbidden Cults, even eldritch horror gains nuance.

There is no overt queer repersentation in ToME. You can play a female character and get a girlfriend, but only because that subplot is the same for everyone. You can also play as a female Dwarf with or without a beard, something Cheery Littlebottom would approve of, and I know I’m not the only trans person who identifies character who are changing into something else, and having some people freak out over it. O Writhing One, I feel you.

Tanner Hendrickson #2: Into the Breach

I’m as surprised as anybody that this isn’t my number one pick. I’m writing this the night before it goes live because I was grappling with accepting that another game would be number one on my list, after spending all year comparing games to Into the Breach and finding them wanting. But another game snuck up on me, and well… I’ll talk more about that on Monday.

I really do like strategy games, despite what my coverage here and at the other site might suggest. I just get overwhelmed by screens full of percentages and menus and unit type advantages and so on, and my brain shuts down before I can get properly into a lot of beefier strategy titles. Console SRPGs are basically the upper bound of my attention span, and even then I’m pretty picky. But Into the Breach cuts away all the fiddly bullshit, leaving nothing but agonizing tactical puzzles. Upon the Switch release, I described the game as a “Robot Kaiju Trolley Problem Chess Puzzle”, which might be my favorite thing I’ve written this year. It feels like the lovechild of an Advance Wars game and a Michael Brough game, which is such a powerful combination that we should probably kill it before it becomes the Antichrist. Or maybe we should hear him out because he’s honestly making a lot of good points. Metaphors!

The Switch port (the surprise release of which was probably the most excited I’ve been all year) is where Into the Breach truly became all it could be. I played the crap out of the PC version at launch before, in the greatest feat of self-control I’ve ever achieved, I forced myself to stop playing in order to save myself for a potential Switch release. There were no announced plans for a port at the time, but it made so much sense to be able to play it on the go that I deemed it worth the gamble. Folks, it feels so good to be right, and it feels even better to play Into the Breach on my Switch. (Shout out to the rumble as your mechs land at the start of a battle. That shit’s rad as hell.) It easily stands among the best games on the console, which is no small feat considering that Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played, period. Just writing this has me itching to dive back in, so I think I’ll do that now.

Dave’s #2: Return of the Obra Dinn

There have been at least 3 people in the past few months to whom I’ve tried to explain Return of the Obra Dinn with the purpose of convincing them to play it. The most I’ve gotten thus far is confused stares and eyebrows raised in concern for my mental health. Hell, listening to my own explanation I often start wondering why Obra Dinn works.

First of all, you play an insurance claims adjuster. Woohoo! Secondly, you don’t do anything. Return of the Obra Dinn is an incredibly passive game. You walk around the cursed ship and watch events happen around you, but these are glimpses of the Obra Dinn’s gruesome past and there’s nothing you can do to intercede or even interact with as scenes unfurl around you. Lastly, the graphics are straight from a 1989 Mac. It’s intentional–and the effect is stunning when seen in action–but it’s hard to convince someone that any of this comes together into an interesting whole unless they try it for themselves.

Thus, you should try it for yourself. Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective story with you in the role of an claims adjuster working for John Company, trying to suss out just what happened to the missing crew on the merchant vessel, Obra Dinn, after its mysterious return. Unlike anything else I’ve ever played, it’s a true mystery that you need brains to solve. There’s actual deduction here, and it’s delicious. The entire game is one giant, interlocking puzzle and you’re only shown one random piece at a time. Can you put them together and see the big picture? Even if you can’t, it’s a hell of a ride.

The only reason Return of the Obra Dinn isn’t tops on my list is the first person perspective, which triggers my motion sickness and only allows me to play in bursts of 20-30 minutes before needing to lay down. Thus, I haven’t finished the game yet, but that’s okay. I so enjoy savoring it, that I hope it takes me a long, long time to unravel all of the Obra Dinn’s secrets.

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Notable Replies

  1. Heads up: Subnautica is currently completely free on the recently-launched Epic Games Store.

  2. Kolbex says:

    Subnautica is so good, and utterly terrifying if you have any fear of dark, deep water. I love Into the Breach so much but like others wish its new squads weren’t gated behind some oddball achievements. Yakuzo 0 I expected to get on better with than I have, but I’ll get back to it I’m sure.

  3. It sounds and looks awesome. Wish it weren’t first person, though. :frowning:

  4. I’m surprised that more reviewers don’t mention when something is first person perspective, I get interested in something only to be disappointed that it’s first person. Which leads me to suspect that we’re in a tiny minority that doesn’t do first person gaming? :thinking:

  5. Kolbex says:

    It would be so, so much less immersive if it wasn’t, though. I mean I’ve been putting off playing for a couple of days because I’ve set myself the task of exploring the wreck of the Aurora, but to do so I have to scoot out a bit into the deep water and ugh, ugh, ugh those sounds…

  6. I wish I could, but it really just makes me feel so crappy it’s not worth it.

  7. Absolutely! I’m not upset the dev created a first person game, I’m more mad that science hasn’t figured out a way for me to not get motion sick while playing (and, no, dramamine doesn’t work…then I just fall asleep, even with the non-drowsy stuff)

  8. Kolbex says:

    Oh god, I feel for you. I remember those early “3D” games like Dark Forces would make me sick to no end, and I was pretty bummed about it. Thankfully that has mostly disappeared, although even some non-first person games have gotten me. Fez I couldn’t get very far into because of it (the near-constant flipping of the backgrounds required was too much), and most recently I had to refund Resident Evil 4 because the narrow FOV was just killing me, motion-sickness wise.

  9. I also can’t do first-person games for the same reasons. And, like Dave, dramamine doesn’t help me in this. I can’t believe we’re that small of a minority. Many games I wish I could play but can’t. But then perhaps that’s part of why we gravitated to top-down turn-based strategy games?

    You would think there must be some really powerful stuff that astronauts take that they could just start selling us.

  10. Maybe we should start drinking Tang and eating freeze-dried ice cream…

  11. Kolbex says:

    I definitely have heard of astronauts getting sick, but I think they just get used to it over time. Presumably if they’re really prone to motion sickness, they just wash out before they ever get close to space.

  12. I’ve got a friend who couldn’t play doom because of motion sickness. Maybe the way the screen slides around got to him. He loves VR stuff though, which is notorious for motion sickness.

  13. Kolbex says:

    Original Doom or 2016?

  14. It was the original doom but on Xbox 360. I assume he hadn’t played doom previously because of the motion sickness there too

  15. Wow, Phantom Doctrine looks incredible!

    I may have to download that tonight.

    @AlexConnolly so you’d say that most of your quibbles with the game have been fixed since it first came out?

  16. Yeah, I think so. There are some oddities in its bag, stuff inherent to cost of actions and their validity in the meta/strategic mode, but these are niggles that a little bit of self-control and roleplaying on the player’s part ameliorates. Which sounds like an apologist approach, but I tend to overlook these things when the flavour is as thick is it is.

  17. I’ll also just reiterate that the tactical mode plays wonderfully as a stealth TBS, you really don’t want to play it as an out and out gun battler unless it’s stipulated, shit hits the fan or you’ve trained up a good squad. Very tense, either way.

    I actually really like the gun fights, but it took a while to see how it should be approached.

  18. Fellow motion sickness sufferers: ever try Sea Bands? They’re wristbands with a plastic piece that hits a pressure point that helps relieve motion sickness, at least a bit. I still can’t play first person games as long as I might like, but wearing them definitely helps me.

    Now to actually try Obra Dinn …

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