A personal landmark year.
After an elongated engagement and a date that was delayed due to Covid, I finally married my best friend and partner Kyla. The wedding was a triumph, and a relief. We had so many of our beloved friends and family attend that it made my head spin; I still can’t believe how fast the day went.
That encompassed the year as a whole, I suppose. Things have started to return to normal, though as always life presents new obstacles no matter what direction we go. Time flies.
When it comes to the big things, like family, work and friends, it may have been the best year of my life.
How was it for games?
I think far better than it looked initially. While we did see a large amount of big titles delayed to 2023 (and what a year THAT’s going to be…), there was an overwhelming number of releases this year and I just couldn’t keep up. After not having a List of Shame the last few years, it apparently has been rabid for a comeback. While I usually make a point to play as many narrative-focused adventures as I can, I wasn’t able to get to Pentiment, Norco, The Case of the Golden Idol, Immortality, The Quarry, Citizen Sleeper and Return to Monkey Island. I missed out on surprise hits like Stray, A Plague Tale: Requiem, Cult of the Lamb, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, Marvel Snap, Rollerdrome, Grounded and Tinykin. My own hitlist that I failed to complete included Rogue Legacy 2, Splatoon 3, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin and, the biggest one, Elden Ring. I’m not a Souls guy by nature and I just wasn’t able to find the time, though I am extremely curious since it was on nearly every Top 10 list I could find on other outlets. In an alternate universe, it’s entirely possible this whole list is replaced with ten of the games I just listed.
For all the hoopla of 2022 being a weak year, I sure had a harrowing time picking my winners. Leaving off games like Tunic, As Dusk Falls, Overwatch 2, Vampire Survivors and Chained Echoes was rough. But…didn’t Vampire Survivors come out in 2021? This whole early access/full release thing is confusing. And what about remasters of old games that came out this year, which you shall see an example of down below? I’m still not 100% that I got it right, but I know I did have a terrific time overall. With a new Zelda, Final Fantasy and more on the way next year, I can’t help but think that this still may be the calm before the storm.
Even looking at Dorfromantik’s logo calms me down.
If I ever need to relax, I know this game is here for me.
It’s a simple concept, beautifully executed. You play one tile at a time and build your own little countryside village. Each hexagon can contain trees, wheat fields, rivers, houses, railroads and more. Combining them in the right places will ensure you gain more points and access to additional tiles. Game Over happens when you run out of tiles, but I never felt frustrated in the slightest; achieving a goal isn’t really this game’s goal. It’s to sit back and watch the cute little boats traverse your snaking river. It’s imagining living in the little village and hearing the train’s whistle in the background. It’s sitting back and appreciating the tranquility of the ever-expanding town you’re putting together.
It’s blissful to the point of being therapeutic. What a quaint, wonderful experience.
I’ve read that this counts as a city-building puzzle game, but it’s about as friendly a puzzle game as I’ve ever played. I’d certainly be motivated to beat my high score and there’s a slight annoyance when I can’t build my lake exactly the way I want it, but those are nitpicks and never diminished my enjoyment of Dorfromantik. I can’t recommend it enough for anybody who is a fan of board games, or city building sims or if you just need to feel at peace.
The first movie I ever remember seeing was the movie adaptation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). That was my religion for the next few years; I was absolutely obsessed with anything Turtles. I played every game featuring the heroes in a half shell I could find. I begged my parents to take me to the sequel in theatres. I had playing cards, comics, novels and action figures. That level of frenzy didn’t last, but there’s always a latent love for the Ninja Turtles.
I was way too excited when I heard about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. There are some games that I will go out of my way to play, I don’t care what console it’s on, what it costs, who I have to play it with, if I have to sign up for some lame DRM or endure bad reviews – this is one of those games.
And it was absolutely perfect.
Has there ever been a more aptly named developer? Tribute Games understood everything about what fans wanted to see in a new Turtles game. There’s the trademark goofiness and jokes. The animation is smooth as butter. The art style is stunning. This is what we think we remember seeing in the original arcade games. They got the spirit of the franchise and updated it with fantastic modern additions. Adding in Splinter and April O’Neil was long overdue and seems so obvious in hindsight. Boss fights are a frantic, fun mess. Secrets are everywhere. Homages litter every corner for hardcore fans. The background detail on the levels forces you to focus on the task at hand – little touches like the Foot Clan working random jobs so they can ambush you elicited frequent chuckles out of me.
The balance probably needed a bit of work as it was easily beaten, but challenge was never in the Beat ’em Ups DNA, particularly once we moved on from the need to feed the arcade machine with quarters every minute. Flinging the Foot Clan at the screen, seeing the exquisitely cheesy animated cutscenes and hearing the familiar Turtle tunes kept me smiling, and smiling. I doubt this would make the Top 10 without Mohin, Ben, Mitch and Matt joining me. But they did, and it was totally tubular. Cowabunga!
The first movie may have been the Ninja Turtles, but the first game I ever owned was Kirby’s Dream Land on the Game Boy. Since then, I’ve had a devoted affinity for the globular, pink marshmallow. I haven’t played every single variation, but he’s my main in every iteration of Smash Brothers. and to entertain learning another character would be like asking me to stop having red hair. It’s as ingrained in me as blinking and breathing.
That being said, I haven’t played a Kirby game that I could point to and legitimately say “that’s a fantastic game.” Oh sure, they’re always cute and light-hearted but I rarely feel the rush or enjoyment of a top-tier title. Kirby’s Adventure was close, but that’s likely more nostalgia than game design.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land has put that claim to rest.
Taking a page out of Super Mario 3D World was a wise move. Kirby’s always had a ton of platforming potential – he can run, he can swim, he can dash, he can fly. Here, Kirby finally has a world that’s worthy of his talents. There are secrets in every corner, I replayed levels often to ensure I found everything. I liked that you couldn’t just use your go-to power every time, if I truly wanted to see and do everything, I was forced to switch things up.
Luckily, nearly every power is fun to use. Mouthful Mode is always funny, every single time. I never thought I’d be excited about turning into a giant traffic cone, but here we are! Boss fights were a legitimate challenge. The hub town inhabited by Waddle-Dees was a welcomed respite from the rest of the action. The Treasure Road challenges provided a spike in difficulty for when I was feeling saucy.
It’s by far the best Kirby game ever and HAL Laboratory has set a bar for themselves going forward.
I still haven’t played anything less than a 5 out of 5 game on the PlayStation 5. How appropriate!
Now, I’ve only played six games for the console. Despite the small sample size, the fact remains that the beefed up hardware can be responsible for astounding graphics and, perhaps most importantly, nigh non-existent load times. I’m getting impatient in my older age and as games expand, demanding dozens of hours from me, I’ll need them to play ball. With a world this big, I’m going to fast-travel often and it better be fast. If I’m staring at a loading screen for more than a few seconds, my frustration is going to grow.
Luckily, I don’t recall any such instances happening in my time with Horizon Forbidden West.
I’m finding it difficult to describe what I liked about the game, or at least highlights. The entire package was satisfying, but it never reached an emotional high. It’s very similar to its predecessor and detractors will say that this style of open world game has run its course. Opening a map to a dizzying amount of icons that represent various challenges or collectibles isn’t peak game design in 2022, I suppose.
That being said, I really don’t mind the game telling me where to go, but also telling me I don’t have to go there right now. The world is staggering in its beauty, so much so that I don’t think I ever stopped appreciating it. There was no final satiation; every sunset, group of trees, mountains in the distance, or snowflakes falling consistently drew an exasperation from me. If this is the kind of system needed to really make me feel like I’m transported to another world, so be it.
It has to be one of the best looking games ever, no? Say what you will about first party Sony games, they know how to craft a cinematic experience, for better or for worse. I still want more out of the gameplay and traversal, but Aloy as a starring character and her not-so-merry band of allies were likeable enough that I was totally hooked for 43 hours.
And you gotta feel for a series that decides to launch their first game within a week of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and then their sequel within a week of Elden Ring. As the thug in the first Ninja Turtles movie told April O’Neil, “Bad timing!”
Adding in flight and gliding ensured I was incentivized to get to the top of every mountain and soar. Fighting robot dinosaurs continues to be fun, though I could’ve used more help from the camera. I’ll always be happy with the decision to add Carrie-Ann Moss to the mix. They’re clearly going places for the third, and I’ll be there to do my part.
I didn’t see this on any Top Ten Lists and I don’t know if that means I’m getting weird or I’m out of touch with what is cool in the video game zeitgeist or I just genuinely enjoy Borderlands games. Probably all three.
I played Borderlands 3 late, otherwise it would have ended up on my top list for 2019 easily. While I will concede that nobody in that game ever shuts the hell up, the gunplay is phenomenal and some of the side quests were hilarious.
That’s about how I felt playing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. Some of the humor didn’t land, but Tiny Tina herself was a treat. She hits just the right note of obnoxious yet innocent and she’s about the only character not to make me roll my eyes at some point. Ashly Burch is a phenom.
The voice cast is top notch, but I think I was just in the mood for some low-stakes Borderlands. I didn’t need to save the universe from some evil force (again) and the switch from a pure science fiction setting to a fictionalized fantasy-esque Dungeons and Dragons, er, sorry, Bunkers and Badasses was a creative and welcomed one.
What really hooked me was my character’s build. I will always gravitate towards a class that can use summons or familiars. I like the idea of having a buddy along for the ride, especially if I’m playing solo. Even the mere presence of my gross little mushroom dude, or the beating wings of my wyvern put me at ease. Seeing them aid me in combat as I laid down acid fire from my crossbow pistol was supremely satisfying. I think this may be my favorite of the Borderlands franchise from a gameplay standpoint. Gearbox seems to have the quest and loot loop down to a science – I was always swapping out old weapons for better ones, which ensured that I never went long before finding a shiny new toy. Switching out grenades for magic spells was appreciated – I can’t throw grenades worth a damn.
And Will Arnett being the villain is the icing on the cake. I’d listen to him read a phonebook.
I haven’t had a Xenoblade game on my Top 10 since 2015. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a massive disappointment and felt like a slap in the face. Every design choice they made pissed me off to no end. It’s one of the rare games that I didn’t finish. Couldn’t.
With a sigh of relief, I knew Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was the exact course correction I was hoping for in the first hour.
It encompassed everything I loved about the other beloved Xenoblade titles – a sweeping story, an impossibly large world, peerless vistas to gaze upon, secrets to discover and plot twists that kept me chugging along for 71 hours.
The concept is built upon a fascinating premise – two nations are at war, but the soldiers have a set lifespan of 10 years. After their time is up, they’re sent off to die in a bewildering and creepy ceremony. Six soldiers, three from each side, are thrust into a new adventure that has them questioning why their lives have to be this way and why they’re fighting. I won’t spoil anything else because it would be a disservice if you’re at all interested.
The banter and relationships formed between Noah, Lanz, Eunie, Mio, Taion and Sena were nearly as good as what I saw in Final Fantasy 15. I believed every interaction between them: The initial distrust, the reluctant acceptance, the gradual chemistry and, eventually, love blossoming by the game’s ending. All the seemingly annoying idiosyncrasies that can litter JRPG dialogue and characters seemed so very minute.
Having six (seven, if you include a support character) people running around with various magical abilities and mechanical weapons is extremely chaotic, but that’s all part of the fun since the UI has been mercifully streamlined. I rarely lost sight of what was going on, thanks to easily viewed cooldowns and a battle system that doesn’t get in its own way, even if it can be overly flashy.
It’s far from perfect. The soundtrack doesn’t quite match the quality we’ve seen in previous Xenoblades and the pacing dips in the final act. Small blemishes on a superb product – I found every area of the world to be unique, full of dangers and worth exploring. I was so keen to see if my friends could break the cycle and avoid their death sentence. I was stunned at the revelations at the end of Chapter 5. I can’t remember the last JRPG I played that had such a satisfying ending, it gave me Final Fantasy X vibes. It’s not for everybody; if you can’t get on board with anime tropes and people shouting their moves over and over while performing them in combat and a truckload of melodrama, stay away. But, if you want to experience a terrific JRPG and have the time to invest, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 gets a big recommendation from me.
Ok, justification time.
I didn’t see this one on a single Top Ten and I was left a little confused. I’d seen Among Us on many lists for 2020, despite the game being officially released two years prior. That didn’t make sense to me, the game didn’t come out in that year, so why should it be on a specific year’s list just because it got popular in that particular year?
I listened to Dan Ryckert defend his choice for Death Stranding: Director’s Cut to be eligible for Fire Escape’s Top Ten of 2021. The game itself wasn’t new, but the specific edition was.
So, what are the rules?
I used to be of the mindset that it had to be a wholly original game and it had to be released in the specific year. I also would wait a few weeks (or months) to play any December releases, since most outlets will outright ignore the final three weeks of the year for some reasoning I don’t agree with. I’m as uncertain about the rules now as I ever was.
What about early access? Hades 2 was announced to be available in 2023, but not in a full release. Everybody I know, including me, will be frothing at the mouth to play it. Is it technically out? Will it be eligible for 2023? If so, what about when it’s fully released in perhaps 2024? And didn’t Vampire Survivors officially come out in December 2021? Oh, wait, that’s early access. Never mind.
What a mess.
So, I’ll go with what the PTI guys use for their Turkeys of the Year – THERE IS NO CRITERIA!
…Can’t do that either.
Ok so, I will include remastered/remakes of previously released games, likely ones that are major favorites only and I won’t care what platform they’re on. We’ll see how much attention the Pixel Remasters of the classic 2D Final Fantasy games get now that they’re going to be released on consoles.
What a boring diatribe. Let’s get to the actual game. Final Fantasy 6: Pixel Remaster.
There’s a very good argument to be made that this should be my Game of the Year. Final Fantasy 6 is an all-time favorite, it’s placement on the 500 will be so high, it’s nearly off the list. It’s one of two RPGs I replay every few years (a can of coke for those who can guess the other…) for a very good reason; it’s endlessly comforting. The story is exciting, the characters are timeless, the world building is fantastic, the villain is unforgettable and it has one of the best soundtracks in video game history.
The Pixel Remaster is that, only with a better script, some much-needed quality of life updates, proper implementation of stats, terrific updates on spell animations and, my favorite, an update to the masterful songs. Just listen to this version of “Searching for Friends“. Or “Figaro Castle“. I could just post the playlist of the entire soundtrack and use that to justify putting a 28 year old game on this list, or as my GOTY. I’ll compromise and put it at 4th. If, for whatever reason you haven’t played this gem and you’re even REMOTELY into RPGS, this is your chance. It’s the best version of one of the best games of all time and I’m jealous if you haven’t given it a whirl yet.
The Switch may not have had many releases in 2022, but three of them are on my Top Ten. That’s a solid batting average and my silver slugger is Triangle Strategy. Aside from the boring name, which in all honesty doesn’t bother me in the least, it’s right up there with Ogre Battle 64 as my favorite strategy/tactical RPG ever. Everything about the game resonated positively with me.
It’s got a slow beginning and feels more like a visual novel at times. Fine by me! I love reading and I don’t mind periods of inactivity, gameplay wise.
It’s got the 2D-HD look, like a visually enhanced SNES game. Perfect! It’s my favorite art style ever, I never got tired of looking at my cute little sprites debate politics and engage in morally dubious behaviors.
You don’t get to choose which class of fighter a character is. What a relief – I find being able to customize anybody as anything tiresome and makes each character less unique.
I loved this cast of characters so much that I felt legitimately guilty about not taking somebody into combat. I made sure everybody got their fair chance; even the weirdest classes that built ladders or used a toy ball as a weapon got their licks in. The variety of weapons and abilities ensured that I couldn’t just repeat what I did in the last fight. I always had to be on my toes.
Aside from the stellar gameplay, I was intrigued by the plot. A lot of the “warring factions with political intrigue” twists have been done before, but what really got me out of my chair was the Scales of Conviction.
When a big story beat happens and you have to decide which direction your band of rebels will go in. Only the main characters will each get a vote. You can influence character’s decisions if they’re on the fence by speaking with them about your own justifications, but this was such a neat feature simply because I was completely blindsided twice. I was positive that I had the votes secured to make a choice for the group only to be rebuked, like I was in some crazy Survivor Tribal Council. My own allies disagreed with me and, as a result, I had to face a different scenario than I expected, or wanted.
I loved this. I thought I knew or agreed with varying members of the group, only to slowly discover their values didn’t completely align with my own. And with themes like slavery, revenge, compassion and war at the forefront, it makes sense that not everybody will agree with my try-to-appease-everybody personality. This meant that every subsequent Scales of Conviction votes had me biting my nails in ancitipation.
It’s one of the few RPGs where I was legitimately sad when it ended. I wanted more. The combat is so tight and the design felt entirely tailored to my own personal preferences that I could have easily endured another 15-20 hours. Since there are multiple endings, I suppose I could have gone back to do another playthrough but I didn’t want to make my playthrough feel any less special. Triangle Strategy is right up my alley.
Another God of War game, another 2nd place in the Top 10. Kratos and Atreus may be the bridesmaids again, but I hope that doesn’t disappoint them too much. It was exceedingly difficult picking between #1 and #2 this year and I could be very comfortable putting God of War Ragnarok at the top. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
The only real detraction is that it’s very similar to the 2018 game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, particularly when the game is of a quality this high, but it does lose a bit of the “wow” factor.
And that’s really about my only complaint. I found this to be an improvement overall from God of War. The combat in Ragnarok felt a lot better for me. I was far more comfortable switching weapons on the fly, and the movesets didn’t seem as daunting to perform. Sure, the talent tree is fairly large and the amount of equipment you can have on your person is meaty, but it never felt excessive.
I’ll never get tired of the “one take tracking camera” thing. You don’t see other games do it for a reason; it’s very difficult to pull off and I’m assuming hideously expensive. But man alive, it puts you right next to the characters and never lets you go. I was always invested. Kratos remains a fascinating re-work from his classic PS2/PS3 days and I liked teenager Atreus trying to find his own way in a world that is equal parts fascinating and deadly.
I adored what they did with Thor and Odin. We’ve seen countless representations of these Norse gods before, but not like this. Thor is a drunk, surly, jaded bodyguard and Odin is more like a disappointed high school principal than the traditional booming voice and commanding presence. Much like Triangle Strategy, I was never fully sure what the characters were going to do and that kept me hooked for dozens of hours.
It’s one of the few games that I relished doing side missions and exploring for the sake of exploring. I deviated from the main story at least half a dozen times to help out a ghost, shut down a mining operation, take on some overly difficult enemies and aid the various NPCs. I’ve seen this done in so many games, but because Ragnarok looks and plays so well, I’ve rarely been this motivated to partake. It wasn’t about grinding for better gear necessarily, I just wanted to do it. Snippets of dialogue were often the funniest in these scenarios, including a few references to previous games. I’m always up for that!
This is right up there with Horizon Forbidden West in terms of graphical fidelity. The story is richer because now actors can portray emotions and the developers can capture it properly. You don’t need thought bubbles, or misused dialogue to get across what Freya is feeling – we can see through her winces, or pauses, or the trembling in her jaw how to portray how she’s feeling. The expert voice acting is flawless. Not every studio can go to the lengths that Santa Monica Studio has gone, but they’re one of the few that has made a game that truly feels like an interactive movie. I’m not sure where the next game goes, but I’ll be there day one. With this kind of track record, how can I not be?
Neon White feels like a forbidden Japanese Arcade game that’s been unearthed from a planet whose sole industry is making amazing video games. It takes everything I loved about Mirror’s Edge, adds in a dash of Doom Eternal and wraps it up in a Shonen anime blanket. The sense of movement? Perfect, unmatched. Using weapons’ secondary fire to launch myself in an mid-air zig-zag is mesmerizing. Level design? Fantastic, I’ve never replayed stages this much in my entire life.
The aesthetics are so clean that I wanted to stop and stare at every architectural wonder. It would ruin my time by doing so, sure, but restarting a level is so instantaneous that it never feels like a penalty. Experimentation is a breeze and everything is so well thought out that you can improve upon your score multiple times before you even realize you’re not even doing it the most optimal way.
It’s so easy to learn, and so difficult to master. Less is more, how many games can be this well revered with only three actions and the directional keys? (Golf clap to Vampire Survivors in this regard, you can only move in that one!) It gradually introduces new weapons, but that only opens up new movement possibilities! It doesn’t bog you down with extraneous options or confuse you with any combos. Getting stuck or lost is such a rare experience as the games guides you naturally with obstacles, enemies and gun cards, to the point where there might as well be a giant arrow pointing THIS WAY!
I know for others the batshit story was a turnoff, but I thought it was a nice break from the insanity of the stages. Plus, you can just skip them without really losing too much. The core gameplay is too good, it could have overwhelmed anything negative story-wise.
I’ve really never played anything like this. I never felt any frustration. Each successful run flooded my brain with serotonin. The amount of challenge is perfectly suited to nearly every skill level – the main story isn’t overly challenging, but there are optional areas that will test even the most godly of angelic assassins. The soundtrack is ethereal, even now I have some of the tunes stuck in my head, particularly when I get into a flow state of reading, or writing, or arithmeticizing about video games.
Watching speedrunners and world record holders is like watching somebody peel away the very fabric of physics. It shows the skill and confidence of a developer that can ensure the lowliest noob to the most elite in the world can both enjoy the same game every step of the way. It doesn’t have the relationships or story or graphics of God of War: Ragnarok, but it does have that fresh, exciting, completely unexpected X factor that so few games have.
Neon White is my game of the year.