My fellow fanatics, the end of the year is upon us again. We had some interesting times this year, Kazuma Kiryu had his final goodbye, Smash Bros. Ultimate came out and is a giant love letter to the energetic and weird history of videogames wrapped around one of the tightest party fighters made this decade, and we also found out just how quickly Bethesda can burn through gamers’ goodwill with several of the largest embarrassing mistakes performed back-to-back and with such reckless abandon it makes former whipping-boy EA look like a saint.
But now I’m burying the lede so let’s get to what we traditionally do here at The Game Fanatics: our own personal top 5 games of the year. This is of course my own personal taste with my own personal rules and metrics for what makes the cut. Feel free to agree or disagree. So let’s get to it with….
5. Dead Cells by Motion Twin
Dead Cells is exactly the kind of high-speed arcade action I crave. You’re a weird zombie man trapped on an island hit by some horrible plague and is now crawling with monsters. There are some weapons lying around. Pick some up, get out there, and see how much you can destroy before something puts you into the ground. Respawn, get some different weapons, try again. It’s simple, and yet I have pumped dozens of hours trying to perfect it.
There have been plenty of rogue-like action experiences before in the past, but Dead Cells manages to hit a perfect balance of making you feel completely in control and unstoppable once you get the right powers and upgrades, while also providing enemies that are challenging without feeling cheap. Not to mention the game constantly finds ways to reward you with secret areas, bonus areas full of special items, or even time-locked doors full of goodies if you’re in the mood for a speedrun.
It must also be said that it’s one of the best games to play if you only have a couple of minutes at a time to play just through how fast and energetic the whole thing is. Those couple of minutes might snowball into hours but that’s the risk with gameplay this slick and rewarding.
Dead Cells might be the only game on this list I haven’t seen the end credits of, the final locations are real heart-breakers in terms of the challenges they throw at you, but it has quickly won a place in my heart and on its list thanks to its pure solid design and Gothic charm.
4. Celeste by MattMakesGames
This ridiculously challenging puzzle-platformer directed by Matt Thorsen holds a very interesting place in my heart. It tells a relatively straightforward story about a young girl named Madeline trying to climb to the top of a mountain said to have mysterious magical properties. As to why she’s doing this and for what reason, she plays it very close to her chest. Unfortunately, the mountain also seems to be a window into the soul, and Madeline has some demons she needs to work out.
If Celeste had simply used this threadbare narrative as a vehicle to deliver controller-breaking precision platforming levels that only real-life ninjas can complete, that would have been enough. But, in addition to including those utterly daunting challenges, they are presented in a way that is winnable with enough time and patience, similar to Super Meat Boy. The difficulty also helps sell the major themes of the protagonist grappling with depression, not just in a literal sense when it manifests as a dark version of herself, but even in the abstract when challenges become overwhelming.
It’s one of the more wholesome experiences on this list, which is impressive considering the subject matter it tackles and the character dynamics it balances. Plus, it’s one of those games full of accessible difficulty options like being able to toggle the speed of certain traps or being able to get multiple jumps, which is always a nice thing to see in modern games. The only reason that I don’t have it higher is once the main narrative is done, the only real replay value to Celeste is more unlockable levels, which is a bit too much for someone of my skill level. But dammit if the narrative isn’t a memorable delight.
3. Monster Hunter: World by Capcom
I’ve made it clear before, and I’ll make it clear again: I love Monster Hunter. I’ve logged in hundreds of hours of play on the various Nintendo 3DS games just on the pure delight of getting a giant weapon, going out into the wilds, getting into a drawn-out brawl with a giant monster, then using its body parts to make better armor and weapons so I can take on something bigger and meaner.
It’s the simplest of feedback loops ever, but Monster Hunter: World has all but perfected it. Finally taking the formula, the memorable monsters, and giving it all the modern gaming makeover they desperately needed.
It still amazes me how every monster continuously acts and behaves like a natural predator would in their respective biome, rather than being just another enemy to kill.
Unfortunately, a lot of this HD gloss did come with some caveats. There just aren’t as many varied monsters as other entries in the past, and all of the endgame content basically amounts super versions of the same small number of monsters. Apparently that will be changing with the announced Iceborne expansion coming out next fall, but until then, Number 3 isn’t a bad thing to be.
2. God of War by Sony Santa Monica
I seriously thought this particular era of videogame protagonist was over. God of War’s Kratos was practically the poster-boy for the Angry Little Boy video game hero, meant to appeal to the lizard brains of teenage boys. Killing everything with reckless abandon, stopping only to steal something they want from a bewildered supporting cast character or to set something up in order to kill something larger.
Yet, after murdering his family, then murdering the entire Greek Pantheon of Gods, Kratos’ story still wasn’t done. Moving from the opulence of ancient Greece to the brutal snowy forests of Norse Mythology. And the form that this new adventure of ultra-violence would take… would be a solemn and thoughtful journey about guilt, post-traumatic stress, struggling with one’s own demons, and generational legacy….
Yeah, it is still surreal to think about this one for too long. God of War 2018 manages to be both a rehabilitation of a character believed irredeemable, a meditative father-son road trip experience through the mountains, and an impressive action experience that balances the power and ferocity of Kratos’ warrior skill with the archery skills of his son, Atreus.
While the combat can take some getting used to, it is the writing and the character arcs that the leads go through that ultimately keep this whole experience together, whether it is Kratos slowly opening up to his son about his past or teaching him how to fight, I always wanted to push forward to see how things would wrap up. And for that, God of War takes the number 2 spot.
But before I reveal my Number 1, here are some Honorable Mentions:
Dragonball FighterZ by Arc System Works
A proper 2D fighting game that balances the high-speed energy-beam shooting chaos that is the iconic anime Dragonball Z with the balance and responsiveness of a competitive fighting game. I have pumped a lot of time into Dragonball FighterZ, figuring out which characters work best with one another and just drinking in the perfectly realized cel-shaded visuals. But why doesn’t it have a spot on the list? Well, it’s the story mode. A lot of filler and a lot of tacked-on RPG elements that make everything take longer than it should. That and my investment in the competitive scene is only casual at best so it hasn’t fully overtaken my play time than others on this list.
Destiny 2: Forsaken by Bungie
Destiny 2: Forsaken was the large expansion that the series needed. Introducing new enemies, locations, and weapons, but also a new story. A personal revenge narrative where you seek out the murderer of the fan-favorite robo-scoundrel Cayde-6. And mostly through some very personal drama in my life, this helped me cope with personal loss in a more healthy way than I thought possible.
Admittedly I have a strong rule of not including games with microtransactions on these lists, but for Cayde’s memory, I think an honorable mention is acceptable.
1. Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games
I love Marvel’s Spider-Man. No qualifiers, no caveats. The talented and skilled developers at Insomniac Games set out to tell the most iconic Spider-Man story ever, paying homage and respect to the character’s sixty year history while bravely forming its own identity. Adapting the character and his struggles to the new generation. And they succeeded with flying colors.
I honestly thought it was impossible to even have games like Marvel’s Spider-Man anymore. Full of optimism, hope, and humor, bolstered by fantastic writing and character performances for the ages. Yuri Lowenthal brings his best not just as a Spider-Man in his prime, but as a Peter Parker tackling the everyday issues of a young twenty-something. Nancy Linari hits the perfect balance of a sweet and caring but active and self-reliant Aunt May, and William Salyers turns in one hell of a performance as a sympathetic Otto Octavius.
And as hackneyed of a review phrase it has become, the gameplay does a great job making you feel like Spider-Man. Swinging through New York with ease, catching criminals with some well-placed shots of webbing, and even taking some time to give random civilians high-fives.
Hell, the gameplay feels so satisfying I wound up doing everything there is to do in Marvel’s Spider-Man….and kept playing just to keep swinging around. That never happens!
An excerpt from a Top 5 list isn’t enough for me to fully articulate how truly powerful an experience Marvel’s Spider-Man has been for me this year. But at its very core, it’s a simple matter of a game being the absolute best it can be, and bringing my favorite superhero in the world into modernity. From the high of the game’s opening hours where you fight The Kingpin, to the emotionally gripping finale that puts most of the MCU films to shame. And for that, it is my Game of the Year. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone at Insomniac Games, and I cannot wait to see what you accomplish next.