The past 12 months have been wild for video games. Where 2017 year floored us with Breath Of The Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, 2018 ate a Super Mushroom and barreled through our libraries like the goddamn Kool-Aid Man. The year in games birthed Shirtless Spider-Man, made us care about Luigi’s butt cheeks, and if it wasn’t turning Tumblr into space for all-things Sexy Bowsette (at least before it got rid of the porn), it reminded us, many times over, that Hideo Kojima is still working on Death Stranding. It teased the future of gaming (see: Cyberpunk 2077, The Last Of Us Part II) and leveled us with indies and AAAs that had their own story to tell. Every developer, composer, and voice actor on this list implored us to dissect the relationships that make us whole by engaging with themes that created escapes for every person who picked up a controller. The world we currently live in isn’t pretty but the video games sure are, so here are our picks for the best of 2018.
Everything We Know: 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'
Release date: April 3 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch) Developed by Jan Willem Nijman (Vlambeer), Kitty Calis (Horizon Zero Dawn), Jukio Kallio (Nuclear Throne), and Dominik Johann (Crows Crows Crows), Minit is a top-down adventure game that embraces the thrills of... time management. In it, you leave your home to help other pixelated folk, uncover hidden secrets, and challenge precarious foes, all with a cursed sword that inexplicably kills you every 60 seconds. The time crunch is equal parts anxiety inducing and exhilarating, but its monochromatic aesthetic and obsessive take on progression systems makes it an infinite loop of death that's worth the price of admission.
29. NHL 19
Release Date: September 14 (PS4, Xbox One) NHL 19 succeeds by being one of the most complete sports titles in recent years. It has refined skating, with Real Player Motion tech and physics collision technology, but it sticks it five-hole (that's a hockey term, you know) by accommodating every hockey groupie known to man. There’s a new legends-filled Ultimate Team for card collectors; a scouting-heavy Franchise Mode for data nerds; and then there’s the World Of CHEL -- a social hub that unifies NHL Ones, Threes, and the EA Sports Hockey League. It’s a bold move forward that balances the sim with arcade, but it’s one that was also tailored for those who still quote Slap Shot and The Mighty Ducks.
28. The Gardens Between
Release Date: September 20 (PS4, PC, Switch) The Gardens Between is a downright mesmerizing and gorgeous interactive puzzler that uses minimalist storytelling to punch a hole directly through your heart. You fill in the story of best pals Arina and Frendt who navigate their way through a series of dreamlike islands, but here, you use a rewinding mechanic to dissect the different threads of their friendship. There’s not a lot to it -- considering its three-hour runtime -- but compared to other wordless adventures like The Witness, it carves its own niche by tying together logic and the concept of time in an inescapable puzzle adventure that's uniquely its own.
Release date: January 23 (PS4, PSVita,PC, Switch) Konjak’s new 16-bit side-scroller is a shining example of retro pixel art done right, but it’s also a puzzle-platformer that will fish-hook you for days on end. At its core, Iconoclasts is a party mix of all things Metroid, Metal Slug X, and Final Fantasy Tactics, balancing its god-tier sprite designs with a PG-NieR narrative and screen-filling, anxiety-inducing boss encounters. The latter are more of a cerebral process as bosses shuffle through their unique powers, tempos, and puzzle elements enough to put you into a deep Metroidvania hole.
Release Date: August 7 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch) Ghost Town Games’ Overcooked 2 is a damn good time as a proper sequel that spoon-feeds you another helping of what it’s really like to deal with too many cooks. Throw in an Arcade Mode, emotes, online multiplayer (and local wireless play), dynamic kitchens inspired by the Dreamcast’s Power Stone 2, and the ability to throw ingredients, and voilà! You have a recipe for disaster that will happily forge some of the greatest (and most frustrating) three-minute bursts of your gaming existence. You will laugh, cry, yell, and repeatedly hit someone in the face with unnecessary amounts of chopped fish, but that’s just a part of Overcooked’s divisive charm.
25. Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Release date: March 23 (PS4, PC) Like most good JRPGs, Ni No Kuni II transcends the age of its youthful protagonist (in this case, a boy king) to offer a more fulfilling, mature, and fucked-up experience to a wider audience. I mean, a city is bombed to bits in the opening scene. Though this sequel didn't have the direct support of Studio Ghibli like its predecessor, Ni No Kuni II still had a former Ghibli character designer on staff to maintain the beloved studio's level of charm. With simple gameplay and a manageable open world, it's a great entry-level title for gamers at any age.
24. Donut County
Release Date: August 28 (PS4, PC, iOS/Mac) Donut County is one of those indie anomalies that has little business being as good as it is. What began as a multilayered Twitter joke made in 2012 has become one of the most interesting and accessible puzzle games of this year. You play as a hole in the ground -- er, really, as a band of greedy racoons using the hole as a low-lift proxy -- moving around and sucking things on the surface into the cavern world beneath. As simple as it may seem, coaxing oddly shaped objects down the hatch can be trickier than you may think, and the quick, two-hour game is a clever and deeper allegory for power structures and technology that's as fully engrossing on your iPhone as it is on a console.
23. Spyro Reignited Trilogy
Release date: November 13 (PS4, Xbox One) With the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Activision scaled up Spyro (1998), Ripto’s Rage, and Year Of The Dragon to be fully realized worlds that were made for modern 3D adventuring. Every animation, cutscene, score, and splash of color accentuates the other. Reignited is an full-fledged nostalgia trip, but it also adheres to Insomniac’s design to bundle together three charming collectathons that look and feel like instant classics.
Release Date: June 22 (Switch) Mario Tennis Aces revives Mario Tennis in the right way. It’s extremely competitive, Wario is there, and Spike coughs up tennis balls while Chain Chomp somehow embodies Andre Agassi's prowess. The Switch title has its imperfections -- its story mode is an in-depth tutorial with a few hazards along the way -- but its flaws turn into the fodder for lonely GameFAQs diatribes when you jump online and discover Aces is actually just a fighting game. Rackets have their own health bars and can be broken, resulting in an instant K.O., and there’s a barrage of trick shots and special moves that turn a set of tennis into a full-on cage match. It still could use a few revisions, but at least Birdo and Koopa Paratroopa are on the way as playable characters.
21. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Release Date: October 5 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) As much as Assassin’s Creed Origins was a decade-defining return to form for Ubisoft, Odyssey does it better than any of its predecessors. Its premise taps into the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, all illustrated through a "misthios" (aka mercenary) of your choosing: Alexios or Kassandra. What follows is a deep, choose-your-own adventure that is layered with parallel storylines, naval combat, bounty hunters, cult-loving targets, BioWare-like dialogue options (romance included), and a never-ending supply of color-coded gear drops that will keep your Destiny urges in check. It’s as RPG as an RPG can get these days, but with the level of detail around every corner and the fact that Kassandra is the heroine gaming needs right now, Odyssey is a 100-plus hour crusade that’s worth exploring until the very end.
20. The Messenger
Release Date: August 30 (PC, Switch) Sabotage Studio’s The Messenger exists somewhere between Ninja Gaiden and Axiom Verge, and it doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to leave you speechless. It’s a 2D action-platformer that pays homage to the NES and SNES eras with superb level design, seamless animations, intricate boss fights, and a witty sense of humor that never feels forced. There’s an unexpected M. Night Shyamalan twist that inserts itself at the halfway point, but the way in which it bends the action-adventure genre to its will and throws Eric Brown’s (aka Rainbowdragoneyes) musical scores into another dimension makes it one of the most compelling indies to date.
Release Date: December 14 (Xbox One, PC) The indie that people have been waiting years and years for finally dropped on the 11th hour of 2018. Below, made by the same creators of Super Time Force and Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP, takes you on a risky subterranean journey in the dark, moody, and claustrophobic underworld of The Isle. It's a brutal survival game of difficult battles, labyrinthine puzzles, and diligent multitasking, and along with Jim Guthrie's characteristic mesmerizing score, Below is a perfect cap on a strange year.
Release Date: December 13 (PC, Switch) Gris may be a latecomer, but it’s one of the most intimate pieces of art of the year. The Nomada Studio project follows a young girl stuck in a world where color has been sucked from it and through her dress, she’s granted abilities "to better navigate her faded reality" as she works to return color and life to this landscape. What follows is an original puzzle platformer that binds challenges, detailed artscapes, and a beautiful watercolor world to intricate portraits of grief, pain, loss, anxiety, and isolation. It’s a delicate rollercoaster that uses sublime aesthetics (and an incredible original score) to get you hooked. It's a short run, and well worth playing multiple times through.
17. Shadow of the Colossus
Release date: February 6 (PS4) Remaking an original work largely considered a masterpiece is a tricky dance to pull off, but the newest version of Shadow of the Colossus makes it look easy. The spirit and adventure of the 2005 PS2 game remains the same -- fight the gigantic stony colossi, ride your horse around a ruinous fantasy landscape, save the befallen maiden -- but it looks a whole lot sleeker thanks to Bluepoint, the studio also responsible for the PS3 remaster, rebuilding the improved graphics from the ground up in ultra HD. Return players will be glad to hear the controls are less cumbersome; newcomers should revel in their fortune for not gaming harder sooner.
16. Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4
Release date: October 12 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) Treyarch’s Black Ops 4 goes to varying lengths to solidify itself as one of its most entertaining multiplayer experiences to date. There's traditional multiplayer, three new modes of undead chaos for the hardcore zombie killers, and then there’s Blackout -- a Frankenstein-ed PUBG copycat that balances tactics with the ability to crash helicopters into anyone who decides to hide out in a cornfield. The latter is still COD and in every single way, but times are changing: Black Ops 4 looks, feels, and one-taps in a fresh direction.
15. Hitman 2
Release Date: November 13 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) Hitman 2 is a follow-up to 2016’s Hitman that throws Agent 47 into the depths of Miami, New Zealand, Mumbai, and Whittleton Creek, Vermont to question what you can do with a fish and an expired can of spaghetti sauce. It’s IO Interactive’s most ambitious project to date and one that propels itself forward with stealth, exploration, and a brilliant approach to sandbox game design just to see if you can eliminate the likes of Sean Bean while wearing a flamingo costume. With Elusive Targets back in play, it’s an excuse to revisit the episodic series and suit up for another 40-plus hours of a ridiculously fun game.
Release Date: December 7 (Xbox One, PC) Developed by New Zealand’s A44, Ashen is a Souls-like RPG that’s equal parts Hollow Knight,Journey, and Shadow Of The Colossus. You control a faceless protagonist who is out adventuring in a brooding age of darkness, but it balances its minimalist dreamworld with combat that will push your buttons for days. One minute you’re slashing your way through bandits and acid spiders, and the next you’re doing the bachata with a nightmarish shadow boss who can eat your lantern’s light to render you blind and useless. Every little detail brings every creature, dungeon, and score to life, and it forever defines Ashen as a captivating debut.
13. Octopath Traveler
Release Date: June 5 (Switch) The Bravely Default team’s SNES-inspired, HD-2D turn-based battler is a remarkable tribute to every JRPG ever. It binds its stunning pop-up book design to highly detailed sprites that recall Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6; harmonizes its eight different characters with superb level design and an overworld that is crawling with secrets; and swaps the endless grind of similar RPGs for an intuitive play style that requires a whole lot of hypothesizing to deal massive amounts of damage. Octopath Traveler is everything you would want in a 70-plus hour adventure and new NVIDIA cards be damned, it’s one of the best-looking games of this decade.
12. Dragon Ball FighterZ
Release date: January 26 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch) PSA: Dragon Ball FighterZ is anime on bath salts. The latest entry in Akira Toriyama’s series is a hyper-stylish 2-D fighter that sticks to its source material. Its three-versus-three approach makes last year’s Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite look like Shaq Fu with infinity stones, and its shared command list is a welcome change for newbies and EVO heads. There’s levels to the mechanics but you’ll mostly find yourself getting whooped by some 10-year-old from South Dakota who triggers a Dragon Ball Z finish that you haven’t seen since your Pepsi Blue days.
11. Into the Breach
Release date: February 27 (PC, Switch) The premise of Into the Breach is simple: Take control of powerful mechs from the future in order to defeat an alien threat. As much as it sounds like some weird X-COM 2 meets Armored Core visual novel fetish, it’s not (for now, anyways) -- Justin Ma and Matthew Davis’ follow-up to 2012’s FTL: Faster Than Light is surprisingly irresistible. You're thrown into a turn-based world fighting pixelated kaiju on eight-by-eight grids, and since you’ll die, like a lot, you’re locked into a perk- and skills-filled progression that makes every 20-to-30-minute run feel meaningful.
10. Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Release Date: September 14 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) Lara Croft has been through it all. She has dual-pistoled Bengal tigers, wrestled with grizzlies in the Siberian wilderness, and solved more puzzles than your grandma and her Tuesday night bingo team. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a magnetic leap forward from the 2013 reboot that started it all (again), but it’s a lot more than the First Blood sequel it’s marketed to be. Its story intertwines the Mayan apocalypse with the fact that Lara is prone to making the wrong decision 99% of the time, and it’s an arc that’s layered with breathtaking views, impeccable sound design, and a whole lot of tombing that makes the Uncharted series look like an adult version of Go, Diego, Go! Every single action sequence is orchestrated to give you butterflies or an incomparable sense of anxiety, and the creative team's ability to crank the immersion to 11 is what makes Shadow a riveting single-player experience.
9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Release Date: December 7 (Switch) Compared to other Nintendo mainstays, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is where things get weird. There are 70+ fighters, 100+ stages, and more than 800 tracks of licensed music for those who love jamming out to Galaga medleys with their pants off, and it’s the only place in which you can use Isabelle from Animal Crossing to beat the crap out of Jigglypuff and Solid Snake. Its affinity for pitting Persona 5 against everyone in the Mario universe justifies it as a Switch staple, but it is also one of the greatest multiplayer experiences you can have.
8. Super Mario Party
Release date: October 5 (Switch) Super Mario Party is a Toad-approved, return to form with 20 playable characters (including Pom Pom) and 80 brand new mini-games involving tricycle races, group selfies, Chain Chomp rodeos, and playing a friendly match of badminton in hell. It ditches Mario Party 9 and 10’s UberPool mechanic in favor of smaller boards, new character dice blocks, and non-traditional modes that openly flirt with Joy-Con implementations. There’s Partner Party for Team Battle fans; River Survival for those that gotta tube; Sound Stage for Guitar Hero outcasts; and a new online Mariothon for when you’re in the mood to take L’s from eight-year-olds in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Birdo and Mouser didn’t make the character cut, but our fingers are crossed for Bowsette.
7. Dead Cells
Release Date: August 7 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch) Dead Cells is an overstimulated fever dream, sure, but Motion Twin’s debut hits every checkmark that’s attached to rogue-lites and Metroidvanias. It’s an action platformer that keeps you grounded and invested -- throwing you head-first into a 2D pixelated nod to Dark Souls that replaces "serenity now" with "kill, die, learn, repeat." Its difficulty is right up there with the likes of Spelunky and Hollow Knight, but it balances those hair-pulling, pixel-perfect deaths with a ridiculously awesome upgrade system that makes "loop" feel like a dirty word. It’s an Early Access game done right and one that gives every run a genuine purpose.
Release date: February 14 (iOS, Android) Mountains’ Florence is a twee look at love and heartbreak, and how both can permanently change a person for the better. It follows Florence Yeoh, a 20-something who puts her everyday routine on pause when she falls for a bearded cellist named Krish. Florence's story, told through a beautiful interactive puzzler, is wordless, swipe-friendly, and full of minigames that recall the golden days of WarioWare, but the way in which it unfolds and uses its aesthetic to carve relatable moments into your heart is second to none. Interactive art really can sweep you off your feet.
5. Monster Hunter: World
Release date: January 26 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) If you've been itching to invest all of your foreseeable free time into an expansive sandbox world, consider Monster Hunter: World! Easily the most accessible game in the Monster Hunter franchise, this one still doesn't quite hold your hand as it runs you through its basic machinations, like how to track down monsters or properly upgrade your weapons, but it offers enough direction to send off even the newest players on a big dino-monster slaying adventure. Figuring out your combat style and quest strategy (sometimes with friends!) is just part of the fun.
4. Marvel’s Spider-Man
Release Date: September 7 (PS4) Insomniac Games’ new bundle of joy is the greatest Spider-Man game that has ever existed. It’s a bold claim -- considering Maximum Carnage and all -- but much like 2014’s Sunset Overdrive, it webs up a transformative level of detail and attitude to show that big, expensive games don’t need to take themselves too seriously when there’s an absurd amount of fun to be had. Spider-Man is a collectathon hidden inside of a modern beat-’em-up that’s overrun with bad guys, and while it’s not exactly torn from the pages of Dan Slott or Nick Spencer, it builds on its own character designs to get you where it hurts. In Insomniac’s world, Mary Jane is Nancy Drew; J. Jonah Jameson is Alex Jones in the flesh; and their interpretation of New York City is a heart-stopping digital playground you’ll want to swing through for days on end.
3. God of War
Release Date: April 20 (PS4) God of War is pinned somewhere between a hyper-realistic Norse mythology simulator and a satisfying 30-hour beat-'em-up that turns an axe into freaking Mjolnir (y'know, Thor's hammer?). Its storytelling, action sequences, art direction, and highly detailed approach to world-building draws up one of the greatest anti-hero stories ever told and delivers a sense of scale and scope that would throw George Miller into a tizzy. One minute, you're fully into a Man Of Steel-esque fight scene with a stranger and the next, you’re taking on a Valkyrie with your adoptive son. Its level of immersion detracts from God of War’s minor flaws and even goes on to question why some developers refuse to reinvent their intellectual properties. We may never see a Mass Effect FPS that looks like Cyberpunk 2077 or a Dead Space reboot that scares like P.T., but we are totally here for Cory Barlog and his team if they ever decide to do Wonder Woman justice.
2. Red Dead Redemption 2
Release date: October 26 (PS4, Xbox One) Red Dead Redemption 2 is a dissertation on art direction. It’s the vast cowboy simulator it set out to be, turning hunting, fishing, and good ol’ fashioned robbing into their own fully-realized systems, and it does so against a beautifully-rendered backdrop of the American West. It harkens back to RDR1 with legendary animals, rare weapons, and a never ending crossfire of challenges and collectibles without feeling excessive or intrusive. If you’re not spending hours upon hours trying to craft a Crocodile Dundee-inspired Gambler’s Hat that you can show off at the poker tables, then you’re more than likely falling for the role-playing aspect of living as an outlaw who enjoys bar fights and chugging beers under the stars.
Red Dead Redemption 2 could have been middling Wild West fodder that leans on its inventive NPC design and approach to realism, but it uses those intricacies to accentuate its end-times story. As much as its arcs are about Arthur Morgan and his struggles with loyalty and his own ideals, they're also about Dutch and the Van der Linde gang and the threads that keep them together. It fills in the greatest story Rockstar Games has ever written -- partially due to its gift for being a slow burn that can unload shotgun shells into your heart in a matter of seconds -- and like the Tombstones and Hell Or High Waters before it, it dissects human emotions in an effort to take you places. It’s not perfect by any means, but Red Dead Redemption 2 is a next-gen game that actually feels like a next-gen game, and with the team at hand, it’s one that revolts against open-world norms and artistic constraints to set the bar for years to come.
Release date: January 25 (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch) Not many masocore platformers are designed so that your seemingly endless string of deaths serves as a tie-in for a larger metaphor about overcoming depression and anxiety, but Celeste manages to do it artfully. Playing as Madeline, determined to summit the mountain Celeste, your pixelated character dashes, wall jumps, and climbs through the levels of the pseudo-haunted pastel 2D world, fighting the physical embodiment of her self-doubt, on her difficult, introspective journey to self-actualization. There are hidden rooms to find and strawberries, crystal hearts, and mixtapes to collect, but none of those things really matter in the end: Celeste is about celebrating screen-sized accomplishments and wearing your death count as a badge of learned honor. Throw in the year’s best musical score by Lena Raine and you have a pixel art classic that’s here to make the video game world a better place.
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