Another year in the bin

The End of Year Hullabaloo: Top five games of 2018, Number 1

And here we are, with our #1 games of 2018. I’m hoping to have a poll for the reader’s pick up today or tomorrow, but most likely Wednesday, with the announcement of the winner coming next week on New Year’s Eve. Yes, I know I said I wanted to reveal them both at the same time, but life and all that. We’re up visiting family in the northern Wisconsin woods through tomorrow, so I will definitely get back on the horse after Christmas Day. Look for the poll then and, please, have a happy and safe holiday. We’ll see you here on Wednesday!

Nick Houghtaling #1: God of War

I knew this game was going to knock me out from the very beginning. There’s something within me as I age that is naturally pulled towards these father/child dynamics, and the story of this brilliant game is no exception. During my childhood I struggled with this relationship (daddy issues? How original) and seeing it played out even in this mythological Norse world was very emotionally affecting.

But hey, enough about me. God of War (2018) threads the needle between combat, puzzling and story so masterfully that it invokes Ocarina of Time in some ways. It really is a near perfect balance. Despite the fairly linear “open world” the game presents, it is a game that rewards discovery and the completionist attitude of fulfilling every quest and travelling to every point on the map.

It’s a maturation of the series, and one that move things forward exponentially from the previous iterations.

And that’s why God of War is the best game I played in 2018. To me, it really underlines what makes the medium so great and so full of potential. It enables storytellers to touch on deeper themes in a more meaningful and personal manner when compared with television or cinema. It’s the ability to examine ourselves through the characters we play as, no matter how different we may be from those characters.

Tanner Hendrickson #1: Celeste

Here it is: Celeste, the game that sneakily usurped Into the Breach at the very last minute. The uncertainty started about a month ago, as I was looking over the games I had played this year to narrow things down into a shortlist. Arriving at my top five was fairly easy, but as I was looking at the order, I had a creeping realization: I think Celeste is the best platformer that isn’t made by Nintendo. And honestly, my brain’s unwillingness to overturn the twenty-or-so years of gaming dogma it’s absorbed is the only reason that qualifier is there. Some takes are just too spicy. I don’t feel nearly as comfortable saying anything so absolute about Into the Breach, probably because of my comparative lack of experience with the wide world of strategy games. But enough attempting to justify myself to our readership. This is my list!

Celeste is the rare platformer that has a story as compelling as its moment-to-moment gameplay. “Celeste” is actually the name of the mountain that the main character, Madeline, sets out to climb. Like all the best “Man Vs. Nature” narratives, the mountain is a metaphor! Specifically one for Madeline’s anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. But wait, it’s also a literal manifestation of all that! And it’s also a metaphor for the game itself! See, Celeste is a very challenging game. I’m not normally a huge fan of the “masocore” sub-genre of spike-filled platformers (e.g. Super Meat Boy), but Celeste does everything it possibly can to keep you from getting discouraged. Load screens have encouraging messages instead of the edgy taunts a lesser game might present. Checkpoints are liberally distributed, and respawns are near-instant. But Celeste goes above and beyond by offering a variety of “assist mode” options to ensure that everyone can see all the game has to offer, regardless of platforming prowess. Options that used to be hidden behind cheat codes, like invincibility and infinite stamina, or borderline debug options, like slowing down the entire game’s speed, are available from the very beginning. It’s so refreshing to see this kind of feature implemented without patronizing the player, unlike Nintendo’s recent attempts. It just shows how much thought and care went into every corner of Celeste.

None of that would matter if the actual platforming sucked. On the contrary, Celeste has my favorite physics of any platformer I’ve played. You are entirely in control; every success and failure is on you. And the various levels explore every nook and cranny of the possibility space presented by the game’s main mechanics, the air dash and wall climb. It’s the best implementation of the Nintendo school of game design I’ve seen in the indie space. No single gimmick or mechanic overstays its welcome. 

Look, I just really love this game. Madeline’s story hits close to home for me, and it’s written in such a way that even if you don’t identify with her struggles, you’ll come away with a better understanding of those who do. Empathy seems to be in short supply these days, and Celeste engenders it with a deft touch. It easily could’ve been cloying and didactic, but instead it radiates a gentle warmth from within its cold and spiky exterior. Kind of like Madeline! So many layers. 

If you’ve ever enjoyed a platformer, I think you owe it to yourself to give Celeste a try. Don’t be dissuaded by screenshots of spikes and bottomless pits. I believe in you! And remember, it’s always okay to ask for help.

Nick Vigdahl #1: Meteorfall

My top game of 2018 was also one of the year’s first hits—the excellent roguelike deckbuilder Meteorfall. The game’s withstood a bevy of challengers throughout the year to remain my favorite game of 2018 thanks to its excellent game design, attractive art style, developer support, and ease of play. Meteorfall is a card game in the same vein as Dream Quest and Slay the Spire and is very well designed. The game’s balance is particularly good. Attacks cost stamina and spells deplete charges, neither of which recover on their own, so there’s a great tension between being aggressive and attacking and the need to replenish resources. Meteorfall also does a great job differentiating its five character classes and each has a distinct style and plenty of tactical crunch.

One of my favorite things about the game is how easy it is to play one handed on a phone. Meteorfall has a vertical orientation and features swipe-to-choose gameplay, which means you really just need a thumb to play. Combat encounters are also very quick making it ideal to fire up for quick bouts wherever you are, or extended play sessions while lounging around at home. Meteorfall’s attractive art style and constant free content updates, including a new character class, is just icing on the cake.

Tof Eklund #1: Nintendo Labo

Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes once sang “Don’t fall in love with a Kickstarter, cause they’ll break you every time,” and they were right [FYI, the Stately Play fact checking staff is off for the holidays -ed.] Still… I’m head over heels for Kitfox Games’ Boyfriend Dungeon. I fell fast and hard for this game from the moment it was announced, and not just because it’s a game where you and your magic sword hit “the dunj” to fight evil (or maybe just a serious bug problem?) and then the two of you hit the dance floor every night to shake it out.

Kitfox has a history of taking on crazy concepts and making it work. You may remember me raving about Moon Hunters, which wedded Gauntlet-style coop action to an ancient Mesopotamian setting and an unfolding narrative about recovering the stories of a culture crushed by a rising empire. Then there was Shrouded Isle, a village management game that asks the question “who do we sacrifice to the old ones this year?” Still… can I give the top slot, the title of Game of the Year, to a game that isn’t out yet?

No, no I can’t. I’m really hoping that the sword-smooching Boyfriend Dungeon will be my game of the year next year, in part because two of the shapeshifting weapon-people are non-binary: hooray for representation! But that’s next year (hopefully). That leaves: the Nintendo Labo Variety Kit!

Labo is the Switch’s killer app, especially for families. Nintendo’s renowned attention to design and the clever, entertaining interactive instructions make building the toys and seeing how they work worth the price of entry by itself. Then there are a whole lot of additional interactive lessons about why things work, from the RC “bug” that moves and turns by varying the vibrations of its triangular cardboard “legs” to the piano, where the construction of the keyboard (one key at a time) is paralleled to the workings of an acoustic piano, amd followed up with an introduction to musicology.

Those lessons are part of why I’ve singled out the Variety Kit as the cream of what Labo offers: the variety of projects allows for a comparable variety of interactive lessons (maybe don’t call them lessons if you’re trying to sell your kid on doing them). The other reason the Variety Kit rises above the really-impressive Robot Kit is that it’s compatible with apartment living. In my family, the four of us are crammed into a two bedroom flat nine floors above street-level. The idea of having my seven-year-old stomp around in a robot suit punching virtual enemies in our tiny, very full living room sounds like a recipe for bruised shins and stomped-on toys if not worse (this is why we are never getting a VR headset).

We don’t have the Vehicle Kit yet, but it is less fundamentally compelling as it is basically a set of controllers for different (virtual) vehicles, rather than the compelling hybridization of “analogue” play with screen time that the Variety Kit allows.

There is a fundamental downside to cardboard, and that’s durability. The RC bug’s legs didn’t last a week, and all of those meticulously-crafted keyboard keys are piled in the bottom of a plastic bin with the rest of our half-wrecked Labo stuff. But that’s a blessing in disguise, as Labo toys that have seen their day can easily be broken down and recycled, and fresh sheets of cardboard and reflective “sensor” stickers are available at a fraction of the cost of the original Kit. If this all sounds like kid stuff and you’re childless, don’t write Labo off until you take a look at the Labo Garage, which allows you to make and program your own creations from whatever materials you like (and you can get the right kind of reflective tape at your local hardware store).

Alex Connolly #1: The Council

In a year that saw Telltale Games’ overreach coming home to roost, its cinematic brand of episodic delivery coming unstuck in part due to creative stagnation, The Council showcased what might have been for the once-successful adventure studio. A rip-roaring tale of Renaissance skullduggery and a world on the cusp of modernity, the formula established all those years ago with The Walking Dead was given a shot in the arm via skill trees and choices that actually made a difference, rather than pretending to hinge on them.

Though a mechanically wonky affair – kind of clunky in its third-person packaging, not quite as optimized as it should have been – The Council’s five-strong episodes has a grand arc, not unlike that feeling of unraveling antiquated conspiracies in a Broken Sword title. There is murder most foul, mysticism, a rogue’s gallery of historical figures and possibly the greatest collection of digital art on show in the medium. You arrive on Lord Mortimer’s island in search of your mother, amid the machinations of presidents, generals and representatives of secret orders. These are the people who craft the future of the world, and each has their own prerogatives, vanities and alliances. And as with all mysteries worth their weight, nothing is as it seems.

It took me a while to warm up to the main character of Louis de Richet, whose voice acting seemed lackluster against the theatrical pomp of the other characters. But as time went by, and as the plot thickened, Nathan Rippy’s congenial portrayal came to be appreciated. Not quite Rolf ‘Paris in the Fall’ Saxon, but comfortable enough.

The skill and trait element makes The Council more than just a pretty adventure game. As you progress, you accrue points to invest in any number of proficiencies. Dealing with statecraft? You’d be wise to read books and improve your ability to go toe-to-toe with wily politicians. The knock-on effect allows expanded wit in conversations, and at increasingly lower cost to your conversational cache. The mechanic spreads across any number of interests and actions. Where The Walking Dead was shadowboxing with pivotal divergences, The Council offers some legitimate depth to the promise of player choice.

I took my time with the game, and not just because the episodes released on a gentle schedule. Maybe that’s why I found it so engrossing, dipping in like it was network television, enough to linger pleasantly on the palate without cloying under some of The Council’s aforementioned shortcomings. Binged, who knows? But absence made my heart grow ever so fond of the adventures and encounters on Mortimer’s isle, this much I know.

A wonderful romp and hopefully a sign of things to come.

Kelsey Rinella #1: Cinco Paus

Aesthetics matter to me quite a lot in choosing games (heck, I considered Donut County for this list), so I held off on Cinco Paus despite the early buzz on Stately Play. The fact that my top five all-time iOS games would include this and Dream Quest makes me think maybe I’m not approaching this quite right. Perhaps the best position to land on is that a nice-looking game will usually be at least mildly pleasant, so I’ve adopted a risk-averse strategy. But the ugly games (and I really do hate the way Cinco Paus looks) are at least as likely to be among the all-time greats. Cinco Paus keeps making me think that it couldn’t be beat in the sub-five-minute genre. I’ll love it when something proves me wrong, of course, but every action not only affects all of the enemies on the board, but also gains you so much information, that the branches on its tree of possibilities spread away from each other absurdly fast. Every move is weighty, full of issues to think about, yet there’s enough uncertainty that it’s not worth getting terribly bogged-down in overthinking.

Dave’s #1: One Deck Dungeon

There wasn’t one game in 2018 that saw more play on my iPad than One Deck Dungeon from Handelabra. Now, time played doesn’t have to equate with best game of the year, but in this case it definitely does. One Deck Dungeon is the perfect mix of luck mitigated with strategy. Picking just the right skills or items or knowing when to turn in an encounter for XP is a tightrope and it feels so good when all your choices come together in a quick takedown of the Big Bad.

In terms of deep strategy, ODD can’t hold a candle to other board game releases this year, such as Scythe or Terraforming Mars, but ODD is right in that perfect mobile sweetspot where you can finish a complete game in 20 minutes, or you can jump in and out, taking on an encounter at a time and getting your fix in 30-60 second bursts.

To top it off, the Handelabra crew have crafted an app that’s bug-free and fun to play. Whoever’s idea it was to have the dice literally burst from your finger tap and bounce around the screen like popcorn in hot oil should get a raise. Other games have dice slowly tumble about, but here, just touching the screen and watching what can become a prodigous amount of dice explode across the screen is a trip. Want to use special abilities or convert dice? Everything is highlighted or explained as you go along, making it a perfect game for someone who’s never heard of ODD to pick it up and start slaying.

If the game has a defect, it’s that I can’t yet play it on my phone. I’m still hoping it happens one day, but I’m less confident now that they have other projects like Aeon’s End and Spirit Island going full speed for release in 2019. Still, when I have my iPad and anywhere up to 15-20 mins to spare, I don’t open Civ VI or Twilight Struggle. Instead, I always find myself popping open One Deck Dungeon, hitting Quick Play, and see what random heroes I get to try and run the table with.

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Notable Replies

  1. I really want ODD for my phone. If that doesn’t happen before a vacation I’m taking in Feb., I’m getting the physical edition to being with me.

    I’d really like to play God if War but I just don’t have the free time without my little ones. I can get away with playing a couple rounds of Smash Bros. on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but I don’t think God of War would work for that…

  2. I’ve went back to Until Dawn solely for wintry chills, but when I’m done, The Council has my name on it.

  3. One Deck Dungeon is also what I’ve played most on ios this year, for all the reasons Dave lists. It’s better than the physical edition, IMO–it plays faster and there’s less “Am I getting that special power right?” for me. Plus lots of updates and added stuff.

    The Council is one of the only games I bought on Steam this year, and I really like it a lot. My only beef is, as Alex writes, the controls are not especially fluid. And there’s more “hunt the scene to find an item” than I’d have liked. If the controls were better, I’d be able to overlook that I think, but it gets tedious at times. The rest of what the game does, though, makes up for it.

    Nick’s description of God of War has pushed that onto my “someday I must play this” list. Haven’t had a console in the house for years, though, so it may be a while…

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