Game of the Year

Alex O’Neill’s Games of the Year

Writing about 2018 is one of those conflicting headaches that I honestly find myself wanting to avoid. I’d rather not make the intro to this list the most depressing thing I’ve ever written, but I feel and have always felt honesty is really important in context like this. On a personal level, my relationships, friendships, living situation, and even my career were all thrown to hell and into chaos, making 2018 one of the most difficult years of my life, if not the most difficult. Yet, it also was the year that Scott White, Quinten Hoffman, and Mike Burgess joined Three folks that not only spurred me on, but Jarrett Green, Logan Wilkinson, and Jurge Cruz as well.

I’ve never seen a year like 2018 come and go, professionally, and so much good work and collaboration was done through it, and through this team. Forgive me for bragging on a part of my team, but I’ve never seen Logan so driven, never seen Jarrett so optimistic, and never seen Jurge produce such good social work. That, coupled with the bonds I got to make through shows like Book Club and Podcast Ultimate with Scott and Mike respectively. And watching Quin go from his stellar Celeste review to his first ever video project in his Hitman 2 Video review all in the span of 12 months fills my heart with pride.

All this while dealing with friendship fallouts, constant fighting between roommates, the possibility that I’d have to move out and live on my own in May, and just crippling depression for what feels like the entire year. Feeling like you’re drowning for so long now you don’t know what it’s like to be breathing anymore is the pervasive takeaway for 2018 for me.

Projects like video essays, Alex Talks, Case Study, and most of all Get Acquainted suffered because of that. It hurts looking back on all the content ideas and promises I made that I can’t fulfill. I just know those things will never happen in the way I initially envisioned, and while it’s mostly a cut to my own personal pride, it’s something I own and hold myself accountable for.

But new year, new vibes. That’s the hope. I’ve had a conflicted year, in theory, but the things that are still around are this amazing team I hope to make amazing things this year with (starting with our most stellar rendition of Game of the Year) and new shows, new ideas, new projects, and so much more to come.

Let’s celebrate games, celebrate the things that are still here, and hold our hands strong until Kingdom Hearts releases in just a few short weeks.

Here are my favorite games from 2018.

Honorable Mentions:

God of War – Ultimately, I really liked God of War. But the further I get from the title the more problems I find in it. I don’t want to dunk on something honorable on this list. Just know that I feel I have far more issues with how God of War handles its characters than most other players. Regardless, it does a lot of legwork modernizing a franchise that I felt was too archaic to live in the modern age, and that’s pretty impressive.

Marvel’s Spider-Man – I think the open-world-ness of Spider-Man is its greatest downfall. It feels like any other open world game from 2008. But it told a great Spider-Man story, and I certainly want to see another one.

Monster Hunter World – My first foray into Monster Hunter with this one. I really had fun with it, but it took too long for it to click with me. I wish I had stuck around to see the “post-game” content MHW had to offer, but I’d still recommend it to anyone trying to break into this franchise.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey – Good god I could write a book about everything I don’t like and everything I do like about this game. It’s great. And also bad. But also great. If you like open world action RPGs, it’s probably worth playing just to see Kassandra in action. She’s perfect. I adore her. But she certainly does the work to carry the rest of this game.

Gris – I just played Gris, and honestly if I had more time to ruminate on it, it’d absolutely be on this list. I love this game. It’s beautiful, emotional, and has an endlessly powerful message. Play Gris. Play it now, don’t hesitate like I did, you won’t regret it.

Into the Breach – This game is so awesome. I think it just didn’t make the cut, in my heart, since I was really happy with the 10 games on my list. But as far as a follow up to FTL, Into the Breach reaches many of the same highs for many of the same reasons: simplicity, tension, and constant give and take of balance.

Now for the real thing…

10. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 is my first entry into this long-running, absolutely bonkers franchise. I ended up playing it for review, and I had a front-to-back blast with Yakuza 6. It’s been described as Kiryu’s goodbye to the franchise as a whole, and I don’t know how true that will turn out to be, but I still found myself very emotional at the end. It’ll probably be a running theme throughout this list, as most of these games had a really powerful emotional impact on me. For me, Yakuza 6 is the best father-child story this year.

You really go run the gamut of feelings with Kiryu, and as overdramatic as Yakuza infamously is, it toes the line of a drama/soap opera pretty well. Nothing ever feels too out there, and the goofiness of the characters endears you to them rather than annoying you. From the most dramatic moments to its ever-so-quietest moments, Yakuza 6 has it all. It is really fun to play too. It makes me want to see every Kiryu story out there, because I cared about him so much walking out of this.

It was my first entry in Yakuza, and it can be yours too. Though I’d say you should probably play Kiwami or Zero first.

9. Moonlighter

In a year with rather lackluster “run-based” games for me (Dead Cells unfortunately did not click with me) Moonlighter became my jam.

Moonlighter balances the action of a rogue-like and the laid back vibe of a sim so goddamn well. Every time I found new treasure in the dungeon that I could stock in my shop, I got so goddamn excited. There is a feeling when you nail the price of an item on the first try that no other game has ever made me feel. The weapons, the villagers, the art, the music, it all creates a perfect “small adventure town” presentation. Making you a shopkeeper, an actual fixture of the town, made me care about it that much more.

Runs are tight, satisfying, and the risk-reward aspect of Moonlighter was always perfect. They walk that line right up until the end of the game. Even if the final boss is a little underwhelming, they get enough right here that I’m excited to go back and replay it on Switch.

8. Celeste

I loved Towerfall more than any of its other “local competitive battle royal” contemporaries. I think it’s still the best of all of them.

The payoff of those same tight mechanics translate to something that is more my speed, an emotion-driven indie platformer with tons of heart, is exactly what Celeste is, and I adore it. It took me by surprise, as someone who has been more and more affected by anxiety. The way the story delves into overcoming your greatest hardships, and above all, accepting yourself for who you are, hit hard at the beginning of this year, and still hits hard now.

I think I had more problems with the early level design in Celeste more than most, with the latter four levels being just so much better than the first ones. But I got every itch I needed scratched with the post-game levels and the amazing B and C Sides, featuring awesome remixes of the already phenomenal soundtrack by Lena Raine, and some of my favorite and most action-packed levels in Celeste.

Celeste is the best of both worlds, with excellently satisfying challenges and maybe my favorite thematic message from a game this year, all rolled up into one.

7. Detroit: Become Human

Alright. I get it. You can’t start a Detroit top ten write up without first defending yourself for taking away something genuinely positive from a widely-regarded “problematic” game. David Cage is probably doing some messed up shit, the work conditions for this game were reportedly not good, and Logan does a great job touching on this in his review of Detroit.

This all being said, I think Detroit benefits from feeling like the least David Cage Quantic Dream game to date. Both Connor and Kara’s storylines feel like perspectives that have ravenously been craving to be shared from Quantic Dream for a long, long time. They come out in the best ways, with Connor telling one of my favorite stories in games this year.

I love the slow burn. Seeing Connor slowly recognizing himself as just what he is: himself, is a genuinely powerful story, underpinned by some of the coolest and most badass moments that Quantic Dream has created in games to date. Beyond and Heavy Rain were more proofs of concepts, benchmarks along the way to a format that Until Dawn capitalized on, and did a great job doing. It was about time Quantic Dream stepped up their game, and Detroit is exactly that. The way these stories interconnect is honest-to-god remarkable, and the way things will diverge for you at the end is rad as all hell.

I think Markus’ story is a problem. At best you could say it appropriates actual, important movements in real-ass human history for its fake-ass “Android’s are people too” narrative, and it doesn’t look or feel good in the moment. But there are still positive takeaways from his thread in this narrative. There is still good in there, even if its constantly being undercut by problematic tendencies.

Detroit: Become Human is a great game, I loved my time with it, and I think it’s worth playing especially if these branching adventure games do anything for you.

6. Destiny 2: Forsaken

Well, well, well, we meet again Destiny. So yeah, this expansion is both the worst thing that happened to me this year and the best? It benefited a lot from me having almost a totally new group of people to play Destiny with this time around. Getting to play with Mike, create the amazing and misfit raid group that we did, and actually beat the raid over four attempts in just as many weeks was really, really fucking awesome. It’s easily one of my all time favorite multiplayer moments. Destiny has delivered for me before, and Forsaken was no slouch.

This, on top of the amazing Dreaming City location, make me want to keep playing Destiny 2. I haven’t touched it in weeks and weeks, but I am always looking forward to getting the raid fam together again and making a crack at Riven once more.

What’s new here is fun to play, fun to see, and makes me want to invest my time in the story in a way that I never have before. The post-game grind is long in a way that hurts it in the long run, but it doesn’t deter from the quality that’s intrinsic to Destiny now. The raid has never been better, the world never more interesting, and the company never more fun.

5. Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu

I said it on Irrational Passions Podcast and I’ll say it again here: I certainly didn’t expect my takeaway from Let’s Go Pikachu to be, “boy I hope the rest of the Pokemon games are like this.” Before you light me ablaze, let me tell you how this game revitalized my entire love for this franchise.

The last time I really fell in love with Pokemon was with Black and White/Black and White 2, when everything was new again, and when you got to actually continue your story into a sequel. Let’s Go takes Yellow, my first ever Pokemon game, and makes it brand new again. Everything about the mechanics—taking out random battles, adding more trainer battles, giving you more and more XP—all of it works for this game in a way that I think Pokemon just hasn’t innovated in years.

This game moves, and you constantly feel like your seeing new, exciting Pokemon, fighting fun battles, and exploring new areas. I’ve never been the kind of Pokemon player who went out of his way to “catch ‘em all” and I actually did that this game. It’s literally the whole point of the games, but I’ve never done it! Why? Because I’d catch the eight or so Pokemon I want to commit the gross amount of time to nurture and stick with them. Here, none of that matters, because you’re both showered in XP and actively encouraged to just catch Pokemon, because it’s fun! That’s all I needed.

I will say that I’m not a lover of the motion controls here. They’re pretty awful when the console is docked, and I ended up playing most of the game in handheld mode because of it. Which is a bummer since I was looking forward to putting my pocket monsters on the big screen. Regardless, the experience was never hindered enough for me to say, “I’m done,” even after my 430th wasted Ultra Ball.

Also, one time, I petted my Pikachu, and she giggled real hard and then hugged me, and I almost ugly cried right there in that moment.

4. Super Smash Bros Ultimate

I’ll say this, I love Super Smash Bros, and I always have. I’ve gone on record saying that Irrational Passions would not exist without Super Smash Bros. The first ever website I started was a hype-site for Super Smash Bros Brawl, and boy howdy those were the good old days. This all being said, after Smash for Wii U/3DS I thought that maybe Smash Bros just wasn’t “top ten material”. It just wouldn’t fit with the emotional heavy-hitters that always topped my personal charts at the end of the year.

Fuck that. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is absolutely phenomenal.

Like me and my wonderful Podcast Ultimate co-hosts have be recounting to one another, nothing pointed out how actually underwhelming Smash 4 was like Ultimate. It takes me back to the days when I was deleting Melee saves off my GameCube memory card just so I could unlock all the characters again. It reminds me of every single bit of Smash that is magical: the music, the stages, the care in each character model, the unique mechanics to characters that absolutely should not be there but are.

There is tender love and care in every single character in Smash Bros Ultimate, and that’s just incredible. Plus, I spent 28 hours in its adventure mode because I just loved the challenges it presented. I’ve spent a half dozen more hours on the Spirit Board just because I like collecting the spirits. And I’ve spent another 20 hours in online battle arenas playing games with friends online, something I’ve never even wanted to do in Smash before, but this game is tight, and competitive, and satisfying in a way that the franchise just hasn’t been before.

This game is a love letter to its own short-lived franchise status, only being the fifth entry to it.. Moreover, it’s a love letter to the wider community of Japanese-developed video games, and it wears that with pride on its sleeve. Every aspect of Smash is an achievement, and should be celebrated.

3. The Messenger

Talking to the creative director of The Messenger, Thierry Boulanger, lit my heart up with excitement this past PAX East on a level I just can’t describe to you with words. The way he put it was that his inner child spoke to mine, and the game they both wanted to play was The Messenger.

From Ninja Gaiden to Super Metroid, The Messenger is both lovingly crafted homage to classic games and an incredible modern reinterpretation of them. It takes what was old and adds just enough new to it that gleams and shines just as brightly as 2014’s Shovel Knight. But for me, The Messenger is all that and so much more. It’s a fusion of genres that equates to rocket science done so effortlessly that you can’t even smell the fuel. It’s brilliant, heartfelt, well-written, witty, funny, and so, so, so fun.

The act of hitting something, jumping, hitting something again, and jumping again was an amazing sensation that never got old in my time collecting every little thing there was to get in The Messenger’s world. The Shopkeeper always had me laughing, crying, or some combination of the two. And ultimately the way things wrapped up, I just can’t wait to see what Sabotage will do next.

2. Hollow Knight

My god. Hollow Knight. What a goddamn video game. Now, I understand it didn’t’ come out this year, and while I do endorse it, I don’t typically like to put “old” games on my games of the year list, but Hollow Knight is more than a worthy exception.

When I was about 27 hours into Hollow Knight and I was still stumbling into completely new, uncharted areas of the Deepnest, I knew I was in something special. Everything about the aesthetic of Hollow Knight is something I have never seen before, nor do I believe I will ever see again. Bugs that are made to be cute, eerie worlds that seem endless in their scope, and a deep and fascinating lore on the level of a Dark Souls told across a 2D platformer are all aspects that make Hollow Knight special.

But it’s not just that. It’s the culmination of all these things. Even in spite of each and every part of it being masterfully well-crafted, Hollow Knight accomplishes being more than the sum of its parts. It comes together as this dour, unique, and harrowing adventure into a world very much unlike anything else out there. They straight up out-Metroid Super Metroid, and then have another 20 hours to spare on top if it.

Nothing in Hollow Knight is wasted, everything is exceptional, and it just keeps on giving the more you put into it. Hollow Knight could only have ever been longer, and I would have gladly spent more time with it. And yet still I am sitting here thinking about it. After reaching 107% completion in 47 hours. After facing every challenge and seeing every ending.

Playing Hollow Knight, with its unique mask, healing, and magic system, is precise and excellent in a way no other Metroidvania has even come close to, even in the company of the best of them. It’s just fantastic, from top to bottom.

This game is special, and in many ways redefined one of my all time favorite genres for me. If you have yet to play Hollow Knight, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve been sleeping on it. And I’m gonna need you to not do that.

1. Tetris Effect

This year has been… very difficult. For me, it’s been the closest I’ve come to sleeping in the same bed with the darkest thoughts you can imagine one having. I know I’m not alone in that, and I can say that my troubles have been miniscule as compared to literal families being torn apart, human rights being violated, and even more heinous acts that have gone about in the very country I live in. Acts of injustice that I worry will never be answered for. My place, of writing a list of my favorite games of a year I found incredibly difficult, while so many found so much worse, is one of privilege. And I want to take a moment to recognize that before I talk about this last game.

To say Tetris Effect fundamentally changed me as a person could very easily be construed as hyperbole, and I understand that. But it did.

Tetris Effect tells a narrative, through its 27 levels in its Journey mode. It’s an almost literal concept album of the human condition. From accomplishments, to emotions, to feelings, to cultures, Tetris Effect’s journey is a highlight real of what it means to be alive. At the end of it, in the thick of the credits, you’re given a reimagining of the very first song from Tetris Effect, the song from the first level, telling you a story now of a mother singing to her child. The claim, albeit far from original, that we are all connected, that we as a people all come from one another, and thus must make our way together, is underscored by this amalgamation of humanity’s greatest and most intimate feelings and accomplishments, as told through Tetris Effect’s music.

It had a really powerful effect on me. It’s a message of empathy. It’s something I lose sight of when I am in my darkest moments, and I think many of us do. That we are all one people, and we feel for each other, whether we like it or not.

It’s a message that I haven’t been able to shake from my head since it first sank in weeks ago when I finished it and let its music pour over me. The absolutely travesties we as a people have committed or allowed to occur against one another over the last calendar year are just unforgivable. The message this game left me has never been more important.

Few games leave me a weepy mess after every completion of their mainline stories, especially ones that can be completed in an hour and a half, and double especially those that are literally about putting blocks into lines and clearing them. But that’s the beauty of Tetris: it’s always been about the human condition. It’s always been about sorting your shit out and taking care of it.

Tetris Effect reminded me I can always be better and can always have more empathy. But that is true of all of us, and yet we still make it through and look on to a hopefully brighter tomorrow. And in 2018, I couldn’t have asked for a better message.

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