The end of 2018 snuck up on me. I can guess why; after months of searching, Kyla and I finally found a condo that we loved and could afford in our hometown of Victoria. The process was arduous. Searching for a home in a hot market is awful, even with assistance from of our lovely real-estate agent, who also doubles as my brother-in-law.

The moving in process included keeping our furniture at a friend’s garage (thanks Josh!), living at Kyla’s parents place for a week, painting and, naturally, more moving and unpacking. None of it was particularly fun, but thanks to help from family and friends, we finally are settling in.

What does this have to do with video games?

Well, there was less time for them. Obligations increased and a new position at work mandated a change of pace. As a result, I didn’t get to Valkyria Chronicles 4, Mega Man 11, Into the Breach, Guacamelee 2, Return of the Obra Dinn and Monster Hunter World (sorry Sean!) to name a few.

Thankfully, I still managed to squeeze in a moderately unhealthy amount of time with a controller in my hand, and was privileged to enjoy the below ten titles.

Across the entire list, it may be my overall strongest to date, although it lacked a top candidate such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from last year.  I had tremendous difficulty ranking them; each had their obvious flaws, but all of them had some impact on me. Since there was no clear cut winner from the outset, I had to discern what I considered the most important part of a video game to me – lasting appeal? Emotional impact? Gameplay? A combination of all three?

I’m still not sure what the deciding factor was, but the top ten is complete. Here it is!

10) Batman: The Enemy Within

batman enemy within

I’ll begin my list with an homage of some sort, and an In Memoriam for the developer Telltale Games. The year was tumultuous for many, and the gaming industry was not immune to corporate politics, or economic fallout. Telltale, after nearly 14 years of operations, announced a total studio closure, right in the middle of their final Walking Dead game. To say this was a gut punch would be putting it lightly; this is the studio that’s responsible for one of my favorite games ever in The Walking Dead. The importance attributed to devastating choices, the focus on characters and a narrative that never seemed to run out of ways to shock me still resonate deeply. I had lengthy conversations with friends who had also played about the morality of the decisions we’d each made. And why.

That type of discussion in regards to video games are so rare that I was forced to admit that this updated point and click adventure moved me more than hundreds of other games before it. It is an unforgettable experience.

It’s obvious Telltale games never reached such heights again. Due to the success of The Walking Dead, they expanded massively by acquiring expensive licensing agreements and speeding up their release schedule. Fans still responded positively to games like The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands, but it was clear that they were relying on an old engine and old tricks. The lack of technological advancements, a high level of competition and poor financial planning resulted in workers being unceremoniously let go. As somebody who also makes a living in the video game industry, it is easy to empathize as a professional. As a fan, it’s equally difficult to accept.

Batman: The Enemy Within was never meant to be a “goodbye” game, or a farewell tour, but it may end up being just that for me. It’s a fine epitaph. Telltale knocked it out of the park with Batman: The Telltale Series and I couldn’t help but love the direction they went with in The Enemy Within in regards to Joker’s rise to become…well, the Joker. You meet him in an asylum and he’s only known as “John Doe”, a far cry from the psychotic criminal genius that we all know and love. This game is almost more his story than Bruce Wayne’s.

Batman and Telltale are two creative influences that I can’t get enough of, so this game is basically cheating. Pivotal story beats felt weighty, and the exploration of the Batman mythos occurred in interesting ways I hadn’t seen before. It’s also important to remember that story based games with little to no gameplay are my absolute jam. I’ll never get tired of them, as you’ll see again in spot number 4. Farewell, Telltale.

9) Dead Cells

dead cells

Roguelikes, or Rogue “lites”, are slowly capturing my curiosity. I’ve only delved into a few of them, largely because of my hesitation due to the learning curve. In order to “git gud”, one has to go through multiple, multiple runs of a Roguelike in order to master the mechanics AND get lucky enough on a single playthrough to see it through to the end. I don’t know why I’m not willing to put in the elbow grease; I’ve played a ton of difficult games before, and I’m clearly no stranger to spending hours in front of a screen.

Games like FTL, The Binding of Isaac, Rogue Legacy and a slew of others have captured an audience that is most decidedly sans-Henry, but if they’re anything like Dead Cells, I might have to purchase a ticket.

Dead Cells was merciful enough to allow you SOME progress after you die, die, die. You won’t unlock useful items or abilities every single time, but after slightly increasing your odds of finding better weapons, or retaining more gold, you’ll find that banging your head against the wall has revealed a small crack in the enemies’ defenses.

A crack is all that’s needed.

Tremendous 2d platforming and combat, a wide range of weapons that blow up everything in your way and a random level layout forced me to be on my toes at all times. I never felt discouraged after a death, even with an optimal layout, I knew that I was getting better.

I can see where the appeal comes from with these types of games.

I ended up beating the final boss on my 18th run, after about 10 hours. Landing the final blow on the boss was as satisfying as any moment this year. The physical relief I felt was overwhelming; I’m pretty sure I’d forgotten to breathe at some point. It’s all so tempting to go back and do another run, the trademark of a truly great Roguelike (or so I’m told).

8) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

super smash bros ultimate

A verifiable museum of video game history, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the best Smash Brothers game, but not my favorite. It’s not through any faults of the game itself, it’s just very difficult to replicate circumstances where myself and three friends would play endless matches of Super Smash Bros. Melee while not having any responsibilities. Smash is definitely meant to be enjoyed with more than one person!

And enjoy it with more than one person I have!

A bit.

A majority of my time spent with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has been in the World of Light single-player mode. If you thought Red Dead Redemption 2 was overly long, you haven’t seen anything yet. I’m at about 350 matches of varying scenarios complete and I still have yet to face off against the floating …uh….demon made of feathers (?) but I’m persistent. I’ll get there.

I couldn’t help but smile to see that Kirby, out of all 76 fighters, is the only one to survive the initial apocalyptic onslaught. If that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.

The polish on this game is staggering. The quality of life updates are plentiful, the series has never looked or sounded better, and the pacing feels more Melee and less Brawl, always a good thing.

I don’t know where the franchise goes from here, but using my Gamecube controller from 2002 to play a game made in 2018 that’s the fourth sequel to a franchise that started in 1999 brought a nostalgic smile to my face. Very few franchises have that advantage.

7) Red Dead Redemption 2

red dead redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2 aspires to such great heights that I suppose it was bound to fail in some capacity. The scope and scale in this open world cowboy classic is beyond anything we’ve seen before. The amount of money spent on the game can be smelled through the screen. The intricate details populate every single corner of the game, from the impossibly beautiful vistas, to the thousands of NPC inhabitants, to flipping through the pages of a merchant’s inventory, to shaving, to the way the game allows you to do nearly anything you want.

Sort of.

The game’s controls are also awkward, there are far too many systems built upon systems, the mission structure is boringly repetitive, the epilogue drags and the story is long.

But I can’t say too long.

Red Dead Redemption 2 also has the best writing, voice acting and story I’ve ever seen in a video game. Beyond that, Arthur Morgan takes the crown as the best protagonist in gaming history. The tragic fall of Dutch’s gang, and a man looking death in the face ensured some fascinating cut scenes and retrospection. It’s rare that we get a main character that is both morally reprehensible, yet caring and good in the same breath. Major credit to Arthur Morgan’s voice actor, Roger Clark.

I said the story is long, but it’s not too long. The story’s length services the narrative nicely. When your band of misfits face adversity, or sing a song around the campfire, the moment feels earned. The emotions aren’t faked. They show a ton, rather than just tell. You want to believe Dutch when he says he has a plan, but deep down, you sense that he doesn’t have a clue.

It’s polarizing for a reason; many loved how open it was, how insanely beautiful it looks, how deep and dramatic the plot is…but also many hated how the missions took forever to get to, how there’s very little fast travel and how monotonous the riding is.

I’m somewhere in the middle, but leaning towards it being an incredible experience. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence to the contrary is that I can’t say I had fun playing it.

6) Slay the Spire

slay the spire

I am obsessed with deck building games. Mystic Vale, Magic: The Gathering, Baten Kaitos, Dominion, Clank – you name it, I love it.

So it’s not surprising that I have 70 hours played on Slay the Spire.

I didn’t even want to play it. Josh, my friend from work, made me. He said if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be friends anymore and he would steal my furniture.

I had no choice.

As usual, Josh was right. The deck building is highly addicting, it’s incredibly intuitive, the ability to see enemy actions allows for deep strategy, the game is pleasant to look at, no two runs are the same and it’s being continuously updated. I don’t even know if I can count this as a 2018 game. Some say it “launched” in late 2017, but wasn’t out of alpha until 2018? However, since it’s my list, I can pseudo-cherry pick what games count for each year. Slay the Spire is a 2018 game for Henry, and one of the best.

5) Spider-Man

marvel's spider-man

What a year!

Spider-Man at number five? Mitch will never let me live this down, but that’s how good the top five was. If you ply me with a few drinks, I might be willing to re-arrange the next five games and be perfectly content. The margin of placement is razor thin and the quality is sky high.

I have no idea how you’d do a better Spider-Man game. The voice acting is endearing, the story feels like a classic comic book story, the relationship between Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker is devoid of cliches, the villains are suitably corny and there are some genuinely emotional moments that could have belonged on the big screen and not felt out of place.

The most crucial piece of the game is, of course, swinging through New York. And Insomniac Games absolutely crushed it.

CRUSHED IT.

Traversal is so gleefully pain free that I barely ever fast traveled; in most open world games, that’s unheard of. As you fall hundreds of feet towards the earth, only to blast a web at the last second as the music swells, the camera dramatically follows and you soar through the sky, you remember why you love video games in the first place. Zipping around at unheard of speeds, only to start sprinting up the Empire State Building is thrilling, maybe the most enjoyable movement I’ve ever felt in a game.

The open-world design feels a bit dated, but since the collectibles are so easy to spot, and the side quests are worth doing, it feels more modern than most open-world games. I will say the instant-fail stealth missions were NOT my cup of tea, but they aren’t very frequent or difficult so that’s hardly a reason to gripe.

I can’t wait for Spider-Man 2. Let’s get some Venom in there!

4) Detroit: Become Human

detroit become human

This may be the most controversial game on my list. The allegations about workplace conditions at Quantic Dreams upset me greatly. I hate hearing that a studio responsible for something I love may be responsible for reprehensible behavior in the workplace. I also am not willing to believe that Detroit: Become Human is an “important” game, or one with a profound message.

That’s not why it’s on the list.

It’s on the list because it’s emotional impact still has reverberations months later.

I adored Heavy Rain and even Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s previous two iterations of this style of game. Detroit: Become Human is, by far, their best effort.

It looks amazing. The female android on the main menu screen was entrancing and that’s just the beginning. Every corner of the city, every house you find yourself in, every high-rise that requires a murder investigation provide the perfect setting. On top of that, every conversation was gripping. It’s emotionally manipulative, to be sure, but I’ll surrender myself to any piece of entertainment if it means I’ll be emotionally manipulated. I like feeling things.

The story verges on made for TV movie level, but specific scenarios had me gasping for breath, or moved to tears. The final chapter, which takes over an hour, led one of my main characters into a terrifying situation – one she could not talk her way out of. As I beat the game, I immediately booted up the last level again. There was no chance that I was going to let Kara down and not have her survive. The drive to see a happy conclusion for all three of the main protagonists was powerful, a step above other video games in no small part due to the actor’s motion capture performances.

Playing this while reading Isaac Asimov’s Robots/Foundation series, you’d think that I would be overly harsh and critical at the fluffy science fiction ideas present in Detroit: Become Human. But it’s not a book, and it’s not a made for TV movie. It’s a video game, and I’ll give bonus points to any developer that try to have me empathize and think about a story rather than just blow stuff up. It’s peculiar, and not for everybody, but the highs I had were extraordinary and I’ll continue to seek out any game that hand-holds me through an engaging world.

3) Octopath Traveler

octopath traveler

This game was made for people exactly like me.

I cannot believe how wonderful Octopath Traveler is. It’s a time capsule for lovers of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6. It’s a masterful product that brings massive quality of life updates to the old-school Japanese RPG. The music is astounding, the diorama style graphics are stunning and the turn based combat eclipses the classics it’s based on.

This is a hell of a game for the right player.

The concept to have eight main characters, each with their own smaller story, wasn’t something I’d played before, but I found it a nice change of pace. Each sub-chapter was interesting enough to keep me going. The game was difficult, but the combat and customization allowed for some fantastic fights, particularly against the bosses. I really, really didn’t mind grinding for experience. When the fighting system is this good, why would you?

Each area is beautiful in its own way, I couldn’t help but take screenshot after screenshot; the Riverlands, the Desert, the sparking snow, the inspiring cathedrals, the atmospheric caves, the bustling markets, the quiet forests were all obviously created with a love for the past and a desire to improve it for the future.

Each character having their own theme was so satisfying. How often do you see that in game today? And I’m not talking about forgettable orchestral pieces that could be at place in a car commercial ; I’m talking memorable melodies. The kind of pieces where, within the first few seconds, you know exactly who the song is encapsulating. The dancer Primrose, the warrior Olberic and the scholar, my boy, Cyrus were my digital besties for about 80 hours.

The main theme might as well be a love letter to everything we love about video games; exploration, collaboration with friends, overcoming adversity. It’s all there. Have a listen. 

I understand that the disjointed nature of the storylines, as well as the lack of interaction between the main party members, was a knock against the game for some. I completely empathize; there’s no sweeping epic story, or a threat to take out the world. Maybe it was the mood I was in, but I appreciated the bite-sized conflicts. Not everything needs to be about saving the planet, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t hoping that a sequel will allow for some kind of medium-ground in this regard.

2) God of War 

god of war

My only complaint about God of War is that it’s not called God of War 4. You already HAD a God of War. Now, we’re going to be forced to call this God of War 2018, which sounds ridiculous. Don’t get me started on nomenclature.

Anyway, the game – outstanding. Easily the best God of War, surpassing the previous entries of button mashing and murdering everything in your path. Kratos is older here, a father, and takes part in a truly epic story that feels straight out of an epic written by Homer.

There’s brutal combat, yes, but it’s far more meaningful here. Throwing your axe and calling it back remains satisfying after the thousandth time you’ve done it. The slight wiggle it experiences and the auditory “thud” it makes when it returns back to your hand is addicting.

The environmental puzzles are never frustrating, the skills and upgrades are meaningful, there’s not a single loading screen to be seen outside the initial startup and when a big moment happens, it is BIG. Be it the giant Serpent, the conflict with Baldur, or returning to your cabin to pick up some old weapons; the choir builds, the fire in Kratos’ eyes flare up and I had to contain myself; it was all to tempting to gleefully scream along with the Ghost of Sparta as he clobbered trolls and slashed Valkryies by the dozens.

I seriously don’t know how much better games can look. Will I look back, years later, and mock myself for saying this? Each section of the mountain had its own gorgeous vista, and Freya’s garden was such a contrast in color that I had no choice but to stay and drink it all with my eyes. There absolutely will be a God of War 5….I mean, God of War 2? Sigh. See how stupid this is?

1) Celeste

celeste

I’m not sure if Celeste beat out the rest of the games because of how good it is, or because it didn’t have any glaring faults. When the year is littered with a buffet of well crafted video games, any nitpick seems like a chasm of criticism.

Celeste doesn’t do anything incorrectly. There’s no instant fail stealth missions, there’s no melodrama, the characters interact with each other in meaningful ways and there isn’t a sidekick character that gets on your nerves.

In terms of the Platformer genre, or Splatformer if you want to go that route, it’s absolutely sublime.

The level design is world-class. Each screen feels like a puzzle. Each solution was met with a fist pump, a cheer and a rush of adrenaline depending on how many lives that particular obstacle had taken. The controls are perfect, the music is unique and fits the mood perfectly. And it has heart.

The message and lessons it walks you through go beyond the normal attempts at a story in game. It’s small, self-contained, but utterly brilliant. The final two stages are about as perfect a mix of challenge and satisfaction I’ve seen since Ori and the Blind Forest. 

I died 887 times in 5 hours, 39 minutes and I wasn’t frustrated for a single second, despite averaging a death every 28 seconds or so. This is due to superb design – deaths are quickly forgotten, re-spawning is nearly instant and there’s a checkpoint after every screen.

Each chapter introduces more moves and more characters and just when you think you’ve seen the game’s entire catalog of tricks, there’s the B-Sides and the strawberries and the hearts and why not go for all the secrets?

Even the dialogue boxes and font for the text are pleasant to look at.

It may not have won the race by a mile, but it won. Celeste is everything you’d want in a 2D platformer, and everything you didn’t know you wanted. The ending chapter screenshots, Madeline’s endearing persistence and the looming mountain are the window dressing and sizzle a game needs to ascend to new successes. Celeste is my game of the year.