Tuesday, January 1, 2019

TheDustinThomas's 2018 Game of the Year Awards

2018 was another outstanding year for video games. Unfortunately for me, I was entering my final year of school and had to devote days off of work to doing clinicals at a local hospital. Due to that, I didn't play nearly as many new games this year as I had wanted to, but I think that hard work will pay off and 2019 will be a year for me to get back into doing more writing and more gaming.

As usual, I have a few categories to go through and then my top 10 games of the year. Enjoy!

Best NPC
The Shopkeeper - The Messenger
The first time I met the shopkeeper in The Messenger, I got a little worried. I got the impression that I was about to play another fourth wall-breaking, self-deprecating, self-aware indie game. "Isn't it cool that we realize that we're in a video game?" No. Stop it, video games. I hate that.

Luckily, the shopkeeper kept that to a minimum, and when he did bust out that kind of humor, it was done well. I took every opportunity to visit the shop just so I could speak with him, whether because he had some witty dialogue, told an interesting and sometimes thought-provoking story, or simply telling me to stay out of his closet.

I truly loved The Messenger, but if the shopkeeper wasn't so funny and well-written, it definitely wouldn't have been as memorable, despite how great the overall gameplay is.

Runner Up: The World Serpent - God of War

Biggest Surprise
Yoku's Island Express
Yoku's Island Express released just before I had to spend a month traveling back and forth between Cincinnati and St. Louis for a month, practically living in a hotel room. Yoku's Island Express (with some help from Dragon Quest Builders) is the game that helped me get through that time.

The best way to describe Yoku's Island Express is as a pinball-action-adventure-metroidvania. I'm not typically one to play pinball video games, but Yoku is such a unique twist on traditional pinball with a delightful cast of characters, a fun world to explore, and a catchy, upbeat soundtrack. If I had any complaints about the game, it's that the fast travel system isn't that fast and that sometimes the controls require a little too much precision in order to achieve the desired outcome. I understand what they were going for with that, making it as close to real pinball, but I think some concessions could have been made.

That being said, however, Yoku's Island Express is one of the most unique games I've played in a very long time and I can't wait to see what the developers come up with next.

Runner Up: Super Mega Baseball 2

Biggest Disappointment
Mutant Football League
I love football. I love mutants. And I especially love leagues. I'm a huge fan of the original game that inspired this one, and I was truly excited to finally get my hands on it. Within 16 hours of my purchase I had already traded it back in.

Passing the ball is sluggish, and I never felt like I had enough time to find an open receiver. Most passing plays resulted in me noticing I was about to get sacked, hitting a random button to throw the ball, with a result of an incomplete pass or interception 90% of the time. Running is the only effective way to gain yards, and even then you're lucky to get a first down in three plays. When playing defense, the AI breaks two-thirds of the attempted tackles, making it frustrating to be on either side of the ball.

The franchise mode only increased my distaste. Regardless of which team you choose, you always start at the bottom with the lowest possible stats. That's nothing new; many games utilize this strategy in their created player modes (usually in hopes of selling microtransactions for those who don't wish to put the work in), but even when playing on easier difficulties, my team was about as good at football as I am at not being handsome (i.e. not very).

Runner Up: Fallout 76

Best Remake or Remaster
Shadow of the Colossus
How do you make a remaster? Just ask Blue Point, they made it look very simple.

Step one: Choose a beloved title that would actually benefit from a remake.
Step two: Redo all of the game's assets from the ground up and make it look better than ever.
Step three: Show genuine reverence and respect to the original.

Shadow of the Colossus may be the best example of a remake of any product in any medium. Ever. I've played the game on every platform it has been released on, and the PS4 version that was released this year is by far the best one.

Runner Up: Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology

Most Unnecessary Remake or Remaster
Secret of Mana
How do you ruin a remake? Just ask Square Enix, they made it look very simple.

Step one: make the original 16-bit soundtrack sound worse.
Step two: HD it up but somehow still make it look more aged than the 1993 original.
Step three: Bank on nostalgia for some easy money.

I fell for it. A lot of people fell for it...

Runner Up: De Blob Remastered

Best Retro Game
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
This category is reserved for the retro game that I played for the first time that year. Previous winners include Kirby's Super Star, Earthbound, and Felix the Cat. I've played many retro games this year, including some all-time classics, such as Chrono Trigger, which I finally finished this year. However, I had played Chrono Trigger before, so I can't give it this award, which is why I chose Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

I've made it no secret how much I love the Castlevania series, especially the 2D metroidvania-style entries. I didn't own a GameBoy Advance in its heyday, and for whatever reason it's taken me this long to play what many consider to be the best Castlevania game post-Symphony of the Night. I don't know if I necessarily agree with that opinion, but it's certainly one of the best. The castle isn't as big as it was in previous games but still a good size, with plenty of hidden secrets, upgrades, and a great progression system.

Aria has an...interesting story, to say the least. Something about Dracula's castle emerging from a solar eclipse, and that your character, Soma, is the reincarnation of Dracula. Soma has the ability to absorb the souls of the enemies that he defeats, and this "Tactical Soul" system allows you to use and upgrade special abilities for use throughout the game.

There's no upside-down castle in this entry, but there are different endings depending on a couple of factors. Striving for one of the better endings opens up the final area and secret final boss battle, which is worth the extra effort because the "bad" ending is very unsatisfying.

Runner up: Chrono Trigger

Best Moment or Sequence
Returning Home - God of War

I've been a fan of the God of War series since the very beginning. I would have been perfectly okay with Sony releasing a new game that played exactly like all of the previous ones that just gave me new Greek gods to mutilate. As we all know, they took a different route.


There are excellent bits of foreshadowing this moment, like at the very beginning and we see Kratos' arms wrapped in bandages or when he becomes adamant that Atreus refrain from going down into the basement of their home. Kratos is trying to put his past behind him, but when Atreus falls ill and a special item is required to cure his illness, Kratos has to travel back home to retrieve his old weapons, the Blades of Chaos.

This sequence is so well done, with Kratos sitting in a boat as it returns him home, and without him saying a word, you can tell that Kratos hates what he has to do. There's no music, just the sounds of nature and the thunderstorm that surrounds him. When Kratos returns home and retrieves the blades, the spirit of Athena taunts him, and while Kratos realizes that he'll never be able to change who he is, he can choose who and what he fights for.

Runner Up: The Summit - Celeste

Best 2017 Game I Played in 2018
The Mummy Demastered
I bought The Mummy Demastered at the tail end of 2017 on the PlayStation Holiday Sale and made it the opening game of my 2018 gaming year. As someone who loves the metroidvania genre more than most, I am in no way being hyperbolic when I say that The Mummy Demastered is one of the best metroidvania games that I've ever played. I've played a lot of them, and there are few that I've enjoyed more than this one.

If Symphony of the Night took place in the modern day, this is what that game would be. I loved the Dark Souls-esque system of retrieving your gear following a death, the music is superb, all the weapons in the game feel useful, the boss battles were great, and had I played it in 2017, it would have made it into my top 5 games of the year.

It's crazy to think that a "demastered" game of a garbage movie that was a failed attempt at resurrecting the Universal monster movie franchise could have been so enjoyable. It was developed by WayForward, who have made some great games in the past, and their previous forays into this genre (Aliens Infestation and Shantae and the Pirate's Curse) were excellent. If you enjoy the genre, you're doing yourself a disservice by not playing this incredible game.

Runner up: Pyre

Biggest Blunder
Fallout 76
I was never on board with Fallout 76. Not from the moment they announced it. I play Bethesda RPGs in order to get away from having to play with people, and this is the exact opposite. No big deal, I just wouldn't play it, Bethesda was very up front with what kind of game it was and I appreciate that. What they weren't up front about was that they were releasing a game that was nowhere near finished.

Then there was the whole canvas bag fiasco. The only people who spend $200 on a single video game (outside of retro games) are the people that are big fans of the series. I'm about to do the same with the Resident Evil 2 remake. So only the hardest of the die-hard Fallout fans were the ones spending that kind of money on Fallout 76. What did they get? Well, if you're a YouTube influencer, you got that nice, durable canvas bag, as advertised. If you're just a fan (i.e. someone that doesn't have hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers), you got a big box full of goodies, still advertising that sweet canvas bag. Only difference is that you don't get what's advertised. You get a cheap, dollar store, drawstring nylon bag.
If you had the audacity to complain, you received 500 Atoms worth of in-game currency (about $5), which isn't even enough to purchase a canvas bag for your character. After saying that the nylon bags were a cost-cutting measure and that they had no intention of replacing the bags, Bethesda back-tracked after much backlash. Though it's been said that you'll be waiting several months for that bag to show up.

Runner Up: The PSone Classic

The Single Best Thing That Happened This Year
Titus O'Neill

Notable Games I Didn't Play This Year

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
I've really enjoyed the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise up to this point. Shadow of the Tomb Raider got pretty mediocre reviews, mostly for being too much like the previous games in the franchise. That's alright by me, I'm up for playing a game like other games I love, and it's been long enough since I've played something close to this that I think I would enjoy it quite a bit.

Red Dead Redemption 2
I didn't like the original Red Dead Redemption. Not at all. But my tastes in games has changed since then, and I'm at least interested in RDR2 enough that I'm willing to give the franchise another shot.

Look, all I'm saying is that if you tell me a game is heavily inspired by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I'm already in. If you then tell me that the visuals look like an SNES RPG, I'm even more down.

Now is the time! My top 10 video games of 2018.

10. Kirby Star Allies
Kirby Star Allies wasn't received as the best Kirby game. That alone should be an indicator of how few 2018 games I actually had the opportunity to play. I likely wouldn't have played Star Allies if I were playing by myself. Playing the entirety of the game with my wife, however, made it into one of the more fun co-op experiences she and I have had in a long time.

It's a traditional Kirby platformer. I enjoy traditional Kirby platformers. This time I got to play it with my wife.

9. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
I wait with bated breath for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the next game from Koji Igarashi, the former mastermind behind the Castlevania series. Curse of the Moon is an 8-bit inspired companion game to Ritual of the Night, playing very similarly to Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, complete with branching paths, multiple playable characters with their own special abilities, brilliantly composed music, and classic difficulty.

The game was released as it was announced, and at only $10, it was a bargain. If you're a fan of retro gaming and the classic Castlevania style, you owe it to yourself to play Curse of the Moon. While I would have preferred to have the more Symphony of the Night-esque main game, this side story is a nice diversion to hold us over in the meantime.

8. Shadow of the Colossus
I already touched on this one briefly, but this is how a remake is done, and I had as much fun replaying this game in 2018 as I did on my first time playing. It looks better and plays better than it ever has, it's still breathtaking to traverse the desolate world, and the colossi continue to be a sight to behold.

It's a little bit of a bummer that there really wasn't much added to the game; the collectible coins that were included were tedious to find and weren't worth the trouble. That being said, it's easy to look past that nitpick, because it's still Shadow of the Colossus, a game that I still herald as one of the best ever.

If anything negative came from this remake, it was having to hear people talk about how sad it made them to kill the colossi again. Shut up. You weren't really sad. Stop being a baby.

7. Yoku's Island Express
No game gave me the kind of constant joy that Yoku's Island Express gave me this year. From bell to bell, its charm is on full display, and I had a big, dumb smile on my face the entire way through. Yoku is easily the most unique game I played this year, mish-mashing pinball with an open-world game. If you were to tell me that one of my favorite games this year would see me playing as a dung beetle delivering mail, I probably would have asked you to take a drug test. Somehow, that premise works, and I have yet to talk to anyone that has played Yoku that doesn't love it.

Secrets abound throughout the entire island of Mokumana, and completing side missions and finding every collectible gave me just as much to enjoy as the main story. The world isn't overly large, but each subsection of the island felt unique and well-structured. If you play the metroidvania genre like I do, any time you unlock a new ability, you immediately revisit every area you've already been through until you inevitably reach a new standstill. Even when I would find myself racking my brain figuring out where to go next, I never found myself frustrated.
Yoku isn't a long game and can be beaten in a day or two, but I can seriously see it as one of those games that I return to every year just because of how delightful it is.

6. Mega Man 11
Let's take it in for just a moment. Capcom made a new Mega Man game. A new Mega Man game that doesn't just try to be a retro throwback. A very good new Mega Man game was released in 2018. Capcom has done a great job with their top franchises over the past two years. They resurrected a dying Resident Evil series in 2017 and have my current most anticipated of game of 2019 releasing in less than one month, Monster Hunter World took the world by storm in early 2018, and Mega Man hasn't been this good since the early Mega Man X games.

As much as I loved Mega Man 9 and 10, if they tried to return to the 8-bit well, I don't know how well it would have gone over, and I know that I personally wouldn't have been on board despite how much I love the series. Not only does Mega Man 11 look modern, but it plays like a modern game, too. Bosses have multiple states to the fight, are uniquely designed, you get to try new abilities out after acquiring them, selecting the robot abilities is streamlined, you have loads of items and upgrades that can be purchased, and the Double Gear System provides a new level of strategy to the Mega Man formula.
Some would argue that the Double Gear System makes the game too easy, but there's still a good challenge to be had here. The level design is excellent and the robot master abilities serve more of a purpose during the levels instead of just being useful against the next robot master. There are a ton of bonus challenges if you're into that sort of thing, and if you're a completionist, then God bless you, because Mega Man 11 is not an easy platinum trophy. Much like the old-school games, Mega Man 11 can be completed in a couple sittings, which some may see as a detriment, but the game is a budget title, being $30 at release. Personally, I was more than happy with my purchase and love seeing the Blue Bomber restored to his former glory.

5. The Messenger
The best way to describe The Messenger is as a slapstick comedy. Imagine Spaceballs but it's about a time-travelling ninja. That's The Messenger. It's a unique take on the "chosen one" story, and it does it very well. What starts off as seemingly another self-aware, self-deprecating indie game actually turns out to be a very well-written and witty game that uses it's time-travelling mechanic to solve environmental puzzles and open up the game in both size and scope. The first half of the game seems like nothing more than a very good indie game that is heavily inspired by Ninja Gaiden, but once time-travelling is introduced, you're suddenly replaying the game as a metroidvania and realizing that all of these levels were interconnected.

Though the great writing is a tremendous attribute for the game and deserves to be praised, the two things that really make The Messenger one of my favorite games of the year are the soundtrack and its "cloud step" mechanic.
Simply put, the soundtrack of The Messenger is my favorite of the year, having two versions of each level's music in both an 8-bit and 16-bit, representing the past and future, respectively. The 16-bit versions of the songs have the very distinct, twangy sound that is undeniably emulating the Sega Genesis, and the music transitions seamlessly with the time-travelling mechanic.

The cloud step is your de facto double jump. After your character jumps, if you land an attack, whether it be on an enemy, a grappling point, a candlestick, or any other acceptable surfaces, you gain your jump back. Essentially, you could jump continuously as long as you had enough things to strike. The majority of the game is not difficult, but there are some late-game areas that require precise and continuous use of the cloud step. These areas can be frustrating, but become empowering upon successful completion.
It's obvious that The Messenger was meticulously crafted by a man obsessed with bringing his vision to life much in the way that Stardew Valley was. I appreciate that level of obsession and it resulted in one of the finest games of 2018.

4. Spider-Man
All Insomniac really had to do with Spider-Man was make sure that the swinging worked. Not only did it work, it was perfect. I've never enjoyed traversal in an open-world game as much as I do in Spider-Man. The only times I used fast-travel were during instances where I wanted to get to a specific story mission and was very far away. Those instances were few and far between. Insomniac populated the island of Manhattan with so much to do that I found myself just swinging around seeing what kind of trouble I could get myself into.

But they didn't stop with just making the swinging feel great. They crafted a great story with some real weighty and emotional punches to the gut. As someone who is only a casual Spider-Man fan, kudos to Insomniac for getting me attached to characters that I don't know very well.
Combat is similar to the Batman Arkham series in the sense that you have the triangle button acting as the dodge/counter button, but where Batman's combat is more brutal, Spider-Man's is more finesse. If there's anything negative to say about Spider-Man's combat, it's that I had to remind myself that Spider-Man has several gadgets at his disposal, and when I did remember, using the radial menu slowed down the flow of combat to the point that I often opted not to use them.

I had a blast unlocking the all the new Spider suits and abilities, changing them often because I liked so many of them, despite not knowing their significance to the lore. Each one unlocked a different ability, and luckily the abilities weren't tied to the suits themselves, allowing you to mix and match. I didn't wind up unlocking all of them because they were tied to Taskmaster challenges, and I didn't have it in me to shoot for the top scores to acquire more Challenge Tokens.
If anything, I'm excited to see what a sequel has in store. While I'm familiar with enemies like Dr. Octopus and Rhino, I would love to see where the series goes with Spider-Man's more notable rivals like Green Goblin and Venom, and I anxiously await our friendly web-slinger's next adventure.

3. Dead Cells
Without question, Dead Cells is the most exhilarating game I played in 2018. There's something special about being deep in a level with 50+ cells, knowing that one more hit might be the end of your excellent run. It's that kind of lean forward in your seat, white-knuckled grip on the controller that made me obsessed with Dead Cells for a good length of time.
Unlike similar games like Rogue Legacy, death never felt like a consequence to my actions. In Rogue Legacy, dying is simply an excuse to go back to the main screen, level up, and start again. In Dead Cells, however, each death felt tragic, especially those that came late in a run. The beauty of Dead Cells is how well the game controls. Each death was because I made a mistake, whether it was because I ran into a room hastily, not utilizing traps effectively, or trying to parry an attack that can only be dodged.

Many compared Dead Cells to the Dark Souls series, and I know that I've often mistakenly referred to the "cells" in Dead Cells as "souls." The difference to me is that Dark Souls is more punishing and actively tries to make you rage quit, while Dead Cells encourages you to learn from your mistakes and give it another go.
I've made it to the final boss of Dead Cells a few times, but have yet to beat him. Each boss encounter takes a few tries before you learn their nuances, and earlier bosses in the game eventually become a cakewalk, which I'm sure the same will happen with Dead Cells once I return.

2. Celeste
Anyone who reads my writing or listens to my podcast knows that I love the indie game scene. My top 10 games of this year that you've read so far is a testament to that. But I've always had one minor complain when it comes to indie games, and that is its overuse of using their story as an allegory for depression and/or mental illness. I'm not saying that I'm against games that want to have a message, far from it, I would just like to see a different message every once in a while.

When I heard what Celeste was about, it turned me off. I bought the game the first time it went on sale on the Nintendo Switch with the intention of just being interested in the gameplay, because I can look past the story in favor of a well-playing platformer.
By the time I was finished playing Celeste, it was the story that really made this game for me. While its obvious that climbing a mountain serves as a storytelling device for overcoming something, there are other themes that resonated with me because of things I've had to deal with in my past, such as anxiety, coming to terms with your own inadequacies, and realizing that you can't solve other people's problems.

All this talking and I haven't even touched on the gameplay. Celeste is one of the finest pure platformers that I've played in many years. Each bite-size section of the map serves as a unique challenge, and through much trial and error, the triumph of finally making it through a difficult area is unmatched. Each area of Celeste mountain incorporates difference mechanics that you only find in that level, so the game feels continually fresh.

The soundtrack is outstanding, and one of the best moments in gaming for me was making my way through the final section, The Summit, with its fantastic track accompanying it. What's great about the soundtrack is that it doesn't repeat itself over and over. Each track is a solid 5-10 minutes, which keeps the repetitive nature to a minimum even though you've tried and failed on one platforming challenge 30 times.

But as much as I loved Celeste, there was one game this year that far surpassed it.

1. God of War
God of War is not only my favorite game of 2018, it's a top contender for my favorite game of the generation.Say what you will about the previous God of War games, but I've loved them all. Yes, even Ascension. I would have been completely happy with them making a new one of those games every few years until the end of time. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the 80s film Clash of the Titans, and because of that, I actually wound up knowing a lot about Greek mythology. Which is why I was a little worried coming into this game. The original series was fun for me because I knew who the Greek gods and characters like Medusa and Hercules were, but I know jack about Norse mythology.

After playing God of War, I still don't know much about Norse mythology outside of the main figures, but that's okay, because there's a character in the game whose sole purpose is to educate. His name is Mimir and he's a disembodied head that you carry with you throughout the game that tells you stories while rowing your boat gently down the stream. Even though I immediately forgot about all the mythology exposition throughout God of War, I certainly did not forget all the memorable characters that I encountered along the journey.
God of War has the best characters of 2018 in my book. Baldur was an outstanding villain, I've already mentioned Mimir, Brok and Sindri's constant bickering was a delight, Modi and Magni came off as half-wits but still served as one of the best boss fights in the game, Freya reveals herself as a potential future villain, the World Serpent is a sight to behold, and Kratos served as more than a one-note rage machine this time around. Atreus was annoying at times, but that can be forgiven because of how useful he is in combat. This doesn't even take into account the Valkyries, dragons, and variety of Norse monsters that you fight.

Sony Santa Monica took the tried-and-true God of War formula and flipped it on its head, switching from an almost completely linear arcade action game to a semi open-world full of interesting locations and people to meet. Both the Leviathan Ax and the Blades of Chaos feel weighty to the point that you can practically feel yourself dicing up your foes.
I loved the story of God of War, I loved the subtle nods back to the original games, I loved the secret Thor ending, but most of all, I loved the fact that this was a strictly single-player game where I paid $60 and got the entire game with that purchase. No downloadable content, no season pass, no microtransactions. In 2018, that is refreshing to see. Here's the thing, though. If they sold a season pass, I would have bought it, because I wanted more God of War when I was done with it. A lot of people would have bought it, but kudos to Sony for showing restraint.
Like I said before, God of War is more than just my favorite game of 2018, it's my favorite game of the last few years, and it's hard to imagine that Sony is going to be able to top this masterpiece, but I eagerly await to see what they come up with.

Thank you all so much for reading, have and excellent 2019.

God bless.