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Alex Navarro's Top 10 Games of 2018

December 28, 2018 25 min read

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Alex Navarro is a video game drummer who moonlights as a writer and podcaster. You can follow him on Twitter @alex_navarro.

Every year I write one of these intros and every year they get sadder and more exasperated. I don't think I'm imagining the ever deepening slide toward misery the world seems to be taking. I don't think I'm imagining the caustic, cumulative effect the last several years--and this year in particular--has had on people's mental health. I'm definitely not imagining the bottomless well of anxiety I've felt since I woke up in Hawaii in January to a phone alert telling me a missile was headed my way and that THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Now that I think about it, that event really set the tone for my year.

I don't have anything all that profound to say about the current state of things. I'm exhausted and sad and angry and fatalistic in equal measure these days, and I scarcely know what to do with any of it. If I was able to concentrate on video games at all this year, it's because it's my default coping measure. My work is also my escape from those feelings, and while I frequently had to reconvince myself this year that escape was sometimes a necessary, vital thing--and not just a selfish, deeply irresponsible one--I still managed to find some games this year in which immersion was not something I had to work toward achieving. The games in this list all played some part in pushing despair away from my day-to-day life this year. I'm grateful for them, and for the respite they provided.

Also, as a quick aside, I just want to once more shout-out the Giant Bomb Extra Life team for all their hard work this year. I'm thrilled with how my stream turned out, but I'm especially thrilled with how the whole team--including our wonderful community--managed to come together for an absolutely amazing donation total this year. Y'all gave me some real hope in a year that desperately needed some. So thank you for that.

Anyway, onto the list. First, here's a few old games I came back to in 2018 that I found myself loving all over again.

Burnout Paradise Remastered

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Burnout Paradise is rightly going to be considered one of the best driving games of all time no matter how badly it ages. The HD update that came out this year looks great and emphasizes both what a stone cold classic this is and just how far open world games have come in the last 10 years. The races are kind of repetitive and half the soundtrack is now unlistenable, but god the sense of speed and sense of discovery as you poke at every corner of the city looking for more shit to crash into is still a blast. They're never going to make another one of these and that sucks, but at least this one runs in 4K now.

American Truck Simulator

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Since we last checked in on ATS a couple years back, both New Mexico and Oregon have come to the game, plus a bunch of other little bits of DLC and more mods than you can shake a Peterbilt at. As it was when it first launched, ATS remains my cool out game of choice. It's a way to reach a measure of zen as I crank up the radio and take to the vastness of the American west's highways and byways. At SCS Software's current pace of the development, we should cross the Rockies sometime around 2025. That's fine by me. I've still got huge swaths of road left to cover, and I'm more than happy to keep exploring at my current languid pace.

Fire Pro Wrestling World

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I put this on my top 10 list last year and frankly I almost put it on my regular top 10 again this year. Fire Pro Wrestling World is still the most fun I've had with a wrestling game in ages, and the addition of New Japan Pro Wrestling's roster and the visual novel story mode that came with it turned out to be a nice bonus. An expensive bonus that seemed to throw Spike's entire development schedule off, but nice all the same. The DLC and PS4 launch prices were too expensive, but it's still an incredible wrestling game with an ungodly number of community creations to try out. Give it a shot, especially if you see it at anything but full price.


Hey, remember how Thumper totally fucking rips? Thumper totally still fucking rips. That has not changed.

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The only thing that changed is I got a PlayStation VR this year. I had played a little Thumper in VR when it launched, but it was not how I predominantly played it. I am currently replaying the whole game in VR and it is a goddamn panic attack stuffed into a helmet. Every aspect of the game is so much more heightened when you're enveloped in it. The music is still astounding, the core visuals are a magnificent assault, and those giant boss heads and upside down black pyramids don't get less menacing when jammed directly into your eye sockets. Thumper was already one of my favorite rhythm games of all time, and now I think it's just one of my favorite games, period, end sentence. I don't know if I want a Thumper 2 or for Drool to go off on some other wild tangent. I just know that I'm excited for whatever they do next. If you got one of those PSVR helmets on the cheap this year, Thumper is like five bucks right now. Buy Thumper. Play Thumper. Let the transdimensional hyperspeed beetle nightmare into your life.

Katamari Damacy Reroll

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Katamari Damacy is one of the best games ever made. This is canon. For all the gajillion different opinions about what gets to be called a greatest game of all time, it's as close to a universally understood fact as we'll ever get that Katamari ranks. Rolling humanity's vast collection of garbage up into colorful balls of eventual stardust is one of the most definitively pleasing acts you will ever do in a video game. The King of All Cosmos is one of the best antagonists anywhere in video game history. The prince and his many cousins are style icons. Katamari Damacy whips ass and anyone who would argue otherwise is not worth listening to. Anyone who can take one look at what goes on in these games without at least cracking a smile is not someone you want to spend time with. They're forfeit, a lost cause. Let them live in their eternal misery away from the rest of us, we who recognize the gleaming light of Katamari and gleefully bask in its Royal Rainbow.

My only problem with Reroll is that it doesn't include We <3 Katamari, the other Katamari game that one could easily argue is one of the best games of all time. That sequel made solid improvements to an already near-perfect game, and you just know they're gonna sell it as a second HD update if this one does OK. That's fine. I'll buy that update too, because it's one of the best games of all time, just like Katamari Damacy.


OK, now here are some games that almost made my top 10 list.

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden

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Of all the late releases this year, Mutant Year Zero got the closest to making my list. I just haven't gotten far enough into it to knock anything else currently on my top 10 off. But I am extremely into this game's whole S.T.A.L.K.E.R. meets XCOM meets Howard the Duck thing. It's definitely got a learning curve that's slowed my progress since my initial hours, but it's a challenge I'm enjoying (for the most part). Dux is my dude.

Mega Man 11

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Capcom made a Mega Man game that doesn't just look like NES Mega Man and it's...good?!? I genuinely don't understand how this happened, but I don't need to understand it to appreciate it. I like this game's attempts at making the Mega Man experience more accessible with the wider array of difficulty and assist options, and while the bosses are all pretty much riffs on the same handful basic elements 90% of Mega Man's bosses always consist of--that thesaurus entry for "fire" sure is running low on unused synonyms--they've got a lot more personality than these poor robots usually get to exhibit. Some of the level designs are deeply frustrating in ways that I very much did NOT appreciate, but again, I'm just glad Mega Man is alive again and that Capcom seemingly has some ideas about what to do with this series going forward.

Donut County

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A delightful experience that's maybe three enjoyable hours and absolutely did not need to be more than that. It very clearly worships at the altar of Katamari, but it's got its own distinctive personality and a lot of charm, especially in the game's trashopedia, where the genuinely very funny descriptions for the myriad items you can suck down into the 10th level of hell reside. I can't say that I thought too hard about Donut County after I finished it the first time, but hearing how much people loved it this year inspired me to go back to it again. I still don't think I fell for it quite as hard as some other folks did, but's definitely a charmer.

Return of the Obra Dinn

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Like the band Daughters, the writings of James Joyce, and Greek cuisine, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game I think I admire way more than I actually enjoy. Its mundane application of magical time travel as insurance investigation tool a very cool way to unfurl a mystery, and the story itself definitely grabbed my attention. I just don't think I got quite as hooked into the actual piece-by-piece investigative process as others did. I don't really like Sudoku either, so that might have something to do with it. I probably just need to actually hunker down and finish this thing off, rather than picking away at it in short bursts as I have been. Like I said though, I admire the hell out of the thing. It's an impressive construct. I just wish I was more interested in the act of playing it.

Dragon Ball FighterZ

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One of the most important things to me this year was making sure I did not get caught up in the wave of Dragon Ball Z fever that swept over our staff and audience like a giant energy blast from a Dragon Ball character that can shoot one of those. I don't know which Dragon Ball characters do energy blasts. All of them, probably? Right? I'll just say Cell.

Anyway, I don't like Dragon Ball Z. I'm not ever going to. I don't judge anyone who does like it, but I know me and what my capacity is for anime nonsense and DBZ is just a little too much nonsense for me. I say all of this to frame just how fucking weird it is that I liked Dragon Ball FighterZ so much. We all know ArcSys makes incredible looking and playing fighting games, but I don't have a lot of personal experience doing anything other than watching people play them. And if we're being 100% honest here, I am still way better at watching people play FighterZ than I am at playing FighterZ myself. I can watch the everloving shit out of some FighterZ matches, let me tell you. But it's just uncomplicated enough that a forever masher like me can still make some really dope looking shit happen, and doing so is an enjoyable enough process that my cursory-at-best understanding of the source material hasn't hindered my ability to get into the game. It's beautifully weird chaos and I don't need any of you ruining that for me by explaining why any of it is happening. Don't tell me why there are all these Gokus. Let me just enjoy the Gokus sans context.

I'm just glad we have a good Marvel-like "here's a whole bunch of bullshit on your screen" fighter to latch onto for a while. Those EVO finals were incredible.


OK, and now, my actual top 10.

10. Frostpunk

Frostpunk is a great game that I had an increasingly difficult time continuing to play as the year wore on. It's an excellent concept for a city builder. You are leading a band of refugees after a global climate event swallows the earth in snow. The only thing keeping your people alive is a giant crater that keeps some of the worst winds at bay, and an old engine that is your sole source of heat. You have to feed the engine and build a little makeshift society around it. Every decision matters and is awful. Need more coal to keep the fires burning? Maybe you should put some the kids to work gathering it. More refugees coming to your camp? Decide to dedicate the resources to building more housing and integrating them into your group, or send them away to their doom. Even the tech tree is profoundly depressing. Every new "perk" you enact seems just as likely to inflict abject misery as it is to alleviate the challenges you face. And that misery isn't for nothing. You've got to maintain some semblance or morale, otherwise your people will revolt against you.

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The thing that's made Frostpunk harder to come back to over the course of the year is...well, no sense in mincing words here. 2018 is the year it became abundantly clear that the timetable for reversing--or even slowing--climate change is rapidly shortening. The herculean effort we are going to have to make as a species to have any meaningful impact whatsoever doesn't quite feel impossible, but it's not far off. Frostpunk is a terrific game, but it's not an easy thing to enjoy when it feels like we're in the middle of staring down our own untimely, self-inflicted doom.

The game's dedication to not putting a brave face on the misery its people find themselves mired in is admirable, if also utterly dejecting. After a few weeks playing semi-regularly, I kept trying to come back to Frostpunk in spurts with increasingly lengthy periods between. Even once I finally crossed the finish line and saw what the game's definition of ultimate survival looked like, it wasn't some big celebratory thing. I didn't jump with joy. I just felt a small measure of relief, a deep sigh at the end of an arduous task. After a whole slew of horrible decisions, here we are, still alive. Still freezing, but alive. Nothing's ever going to be like it was again, and taking stock of all we've lost is too grim a task to bear. But we're still here, holding on to the tatters of what we have left.

I love Frostpunk. I don't think I'll be playing Frostpunk again for a good long while.

9. Astro Bot Rescue Mission

Speaking of things that are joyous and wonderful, Astro Bot Rescue Mission is an absolute delight. If Thumper was my favorite old VR experience this year, Astro Bot is easily my favorite 2018 one. Maybe it's because I haven't spent too many hours in VR in my personal time, but the novelty of Astro Bot's perspective-heavy platforming never really wore off on me. I see why people threw those Mario 64 comparisons around. It's not got nearly the same impact as that classic, genre defining platformer, but it does feel like its own particular spin on the genre in a way perfectly suited for the technology. I love peering around odd corners of the environment and spying hidden bots hanging out on the periphery. I love all the little playsets you can unlock for the Astro Bots' ship. I love all the big honking boss fights. I like pretty much everything this game does and I'm glad it doesn't overstay its welcome (it almost does).

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8. Hitman 2

Like Dragon Ball FighterZ, Hitman 2 is a game I've spent a lot more time watching people play than playing myself, but I've played more than enough of it to know that I still really like this version of Hitman. The criticisms that it's essentially a large content update for the game IO made in 2016 aren't unfair, but considering how incredibly good that last game was, I can't really be mad. The possibilities for slapstick homicide feel near endless, and the levels included in Hitman 2 are among the very best this series has ever had. I love uncovering all the little murder scripts that crop up over the course of each mission, too. I know most seasoned Hitman players probably prefer to improvise with exploding ducks and carefully hidden broadswords and whatnot, but as someone who just isn't naturally talented at on-the-fly murderin', having these breadcrumb trails I can follow up front helps me conceptualize my own ideas for ensnaring my targets on subsequent playthroughs.

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Also, considering how much Rock Band I've played over the last *flips through calendar* 11 years (god help me), I'm always gonna support a game with the disc export business model. Being able to access all of Hitman 1's levels in this refined version of the game is a delight. While I think the episodic design of the first game perhaps better lent itself to long-term engagement with the game, I haven't had much issue returning to Hitman 2 over the last month, and I expect I'll still be stone cold murdering motherfuckers well into 2019.

7. Marvel's Spider-Man

Congratulations to 2018's "Most Number Seven Game on Everyone's Top 10 Lists" game, Marvel's Spider-Man. I'm not just making this up, right? I feel like Spider-Man was number seven on a LOT of lists. Does that mean this is ACTUALLY my number seven game? Or have I just been convinced by all the other number seven listings that it's a number seven game? Am I actually going anywhere with this line of questioning? Will I provide even a pithy joke answer to any part of this paragraph? Are you still reading?

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Marvel's Spider-Man is pretty much exactly what I wanted out of a modern take on Spider-Man 2. The city of New York is dense, lively, and perfect for swinging and flinging your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man around. The combat is a strong take on the Arkham-style attack-and-dodge mechanics, albeit with a greater emphasis on Spidey's incredible agility. The game's take on the lore smartly eschews another Peter Parker origin story and crafts its own spin on the spiderverse that doesn't just feel like it's treading the exact same ground as the comics or the movies. It reminded me a little of Telltale's (RIP) Batman series, which was more than happy to blend familiar stories with a fresh perspective on how all those characters knew and interacted with one another. Spider-Man's a touch less ambitious in that regard, but they do a great job of reframing characters like Dr. Octavius and the Osborn clan into something that feels right for this particular universe. And I really liked the way they established Miles Morales in this canon, using time that might've been exhaustingly spent rehashing the Uncle Ben story to instead make his origins as a burgeoning hero a key piece of the plot.

I agree with the criticisms that Spider-Man's world is too checklist-y, that the majority of what you end up doing while swinging around New York feels like ticking job boxes, versus interacting with a more living, breathing city. I also agree that having Spider-Man kind of uncritically running around fixing draconian crime tracking towers is a bit of a misread of how people in 2018 feel about things like police surveillance. But beyond that, I had a blast with Marvel's Spider-Man, and if Insomniac wants to keep making more of these, I'm on board.

6. Forza Horizon 4

Every year one of these games comes out I inevitably end up playing it, inevitably feel very strongly that it will make my top 10 list, then inevitably it ends up getting cut in favor of 10 other games I felt more strongly about. The Horizon games in particular always excite me for about three wonderful weeks and then I all but abandon them save for occasional check-ins to see how the DLC I paid up front for turned out. They're great games, but they're always the same game, more outsized and marginally reshaped and rendered in increasingly ludicrous fidelity. Forza Horizon 4 is more or less the same "Burnout-Paradise-but-not-Burnout-Paradise-enough-to-upset-our-car-licensors " formula every one of these games has been, but it is also, in just about every way, the best version of this formula there has ever been, and as a result it is the iteration of Horizon I have stuck with the longest past launch. I think that's got to count for something.

The addition of seasons is weirdly compelling. I like that I have to plan my destructive joyrides around whichever weather pattern the week is built around. It's gotten me to use cars I probably would have otherwise unlocked and then promptly forgotten about. And it's not like you don't have options. Forza Horizon 4 is a celebration of the concept of unlocking shit. Every six seconds you'll unlock another wheelspin that will yield a pair of cargo shorts or a horn that belches La Cucaracha or a Lamborghini that will immediately be befouled with downloaded anime stickers. Microsoft heard your feedback about Forza 7's fucked economy and apologized with an entire game dedicated to firehosing a generous spray of bad dances and horrible fashion and 45 different Fords directly into your face in-between the usual races and speed traps and movie stunts and whatnot. In no way do I intend this statement as a complaint. I like the bad fashion and horrible dances and all the different Fords. I wish there were some Toyotas, but what can you do.

The setting is a big plus, too. Northern England/Scotland didn't sound super exciting to me on paper (sorry your country is grey) but Playground Games gets the most out of the environment by letting you run roughshod over the most picturesque countrysides you've ever seen. All those beautiful, lush fields and adorable stone fences exist solely for you to drive an AMC Gremlin through. The first DLC even sends you to Craggy Island to fuck up druidic stone formations in a drift car.

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That environmentally destructive spirit, coupled with the game's endless cycling of seasons--presenting the Horizon Festival as something akin to an indefinite occupation of the region--makes the whole thing take on an especially sinister tone framed in a post-Brexit U.K. Look, these games are a blast, but the whole festival's premise is one built upon defilement of the landscapes they take over. Has anyone checked in on Colorado or Australia since Horizon took off? My guess is you'd find a population living in a scorched, tyre scarred wasteland, littered with mountains of discarded car parts and ruins of EDM concerts long since forgotten. We all know that anything that even resembled the Horizon Festival in real life would go exactly like the Fyre Festival with a bunch of vehicular manslaughter charges tacked on. In reality the Horizon Festival would be treated with roughly the same air of dread currently surrounding every city unlucky enough to host the Olympics. And now they've come to the U.K., and they aren't leaving. What does a no deal Brexit look like? It looks like these Horizon ghouls dropping a metric tonne of cash to take up full-time residence inside a third of your country. It looks like total abdication of traffic law so that a bunch of rich gearhead influencers can turn your once bucolic farmlands into permanent offroad tracks. It looks like an obscenely wealthy dipshit in a silver top hat and cowboy boots doing the Running Man on all your most beloved geography in perpetuity.

I know this because I am that dipshit. I live here now motherfuckers, and the only thing I care about is using my embarrassment of vehicles to obliterate your homeland. I am going to buy every centuries old cottage I see, tear out every modicum of history they once held, and stuff them full of Subaru WRXs in slightly different colors. I hope you don't have to drive anywhere between Edinburgh and the Cotswolds for the rest of your life, because doing so will almost assuredly result in me crashing headlong into you in one of 10 possible James Bond cars because I'm the American equivalent of Victoria Tennant in LA Story. Got a problem with it? Take it up with the leadership in London, who seem to have gotten off scot-free while selling out the North. That ain't fair if you ask me. If I can tear ass over your entire region, I should get to crash headlong into the capital too. I want to play a vehicular game of Capture the Ceremonial Mace around the House of Commons. I want to fling a Renault straight through Big Ben's clockface. I want to drive a Dodge Ram straight into the heart of Buckingham Palace and chase the Queen around while the Benny Hill theme plays. This is your culture. Let me celebrate it.

Anyway, this is a good car game.

5. Dead Cells

Dead Cells is my favorite game of 2018 that I absolutely suck ass at. Just miserable. A steaming, flailing pile of garbage. That's me playing Dead Cells.

It's a testament to just how good Dead Cells feels to play that I have not yet gotten frustrated at my total inability to do well at it. This is what the best roguelikes (roguelites? likelites? whatever) do for me. They allow me to acknowledge that I can still have fun with games I have no real aptitude for out of the gate. Spelunky was like this for me. Risk of Rain, and Enter the Gungeon, too. Dead Cells is right up there with those for me.

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The variety of ways you can load your little dude out is certainly a big part of the appeal for me, but what's especially exciting is just how GOOD all those different loadouts feel. I'm still experimenting with different builds all the time. This isn't a game where I felt like I needed to pigeonhole myself into one particular style. I feel like I can shift my methods with my mood and still have a really good time when it doesn't work out. That, to me, is what these games are meant for. Yes, yes, the slow build to success and the thrill of finally beating the game, and all that. Whatever. I'm not sure if I care if I ever beat Dead Cells. I'm having a good enough time just trying to beat it that seeing an ending feels almost beside the point.

An aside: maybe this is slightly unfair, but this might have been higher on my list had Hades not hit early access late into the year. Hades is fuckin' gooooood, man. It's scratching a very similar itch to Dead Cells for me, and comes with a bonus drip-feed of Supergiant brand narrative. Go play Hades if you haven't already. It might be early access, but it's still good as heck.

4. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

To be honest, this spot could have just as easily been occupied by Yakuza Kiwami 2. I played both this year, and I'm not sure that I feel more strongly about one over the other. I just went with 6 because it's the one I finished, whereas I'm only around halfway through Kiwami 2. You should play Kiwami 2 if you haven't.

Anyway, as those reading this may already know, my history with the Yakuza series is short. At this point, I've seen most of the beginning of Kiryu Kazuma's long, utterly bizarre trip through the Japanese underworld, and now the very end of it. The middle? Not so much. So it's possible that how I felt at the end of Yakuza 6 might not be echoed by fans who've seen this thing the whole way through. And how I felt was that, while I'd enjoyed a hugeportion of my time with Yakuza 6, I was left a little bit cold as I watched the "final" events of Kiryu's story play out.

The journey to get to those final moments, though? Spectacular. Just spectacular.

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I have fallen deeply in love with the ridiculousness of the Yakuza series, and 6 almost overdelivers in this regard. Want a taut, twisting crime story involving multiple international crime families, labyrinthine blood ties, shadow governments, and secrets people will kill for? It's got that. Want a comedic romp involving a deathly serious ex-gangster dressing up like a mascot to entertain children, running a small-town baseball team, and helping local bar patrons solve their sitcom-esque problems? It's got all of that and then some. Do you just want to beat the goddamn hell out of thousands of angry idiots, including several played by real life pro wrestlers? Oh lord can you ever do that. Do you want to do all of this while listening to one of the best soundtracks anywhere in the series? Of course you do.

So much of Yakuza 6's story, and so many of the characters deliver--Beat Takeshi's rowdy, weirdo small time Yakuza boss, and Hiroyuki Miyasako's bumbling sub boss Nagumo are particular highlights--that it was just a bit disappointing that I couldn't get all the way on board with the very end. Especially coming off of Yakuza 0's incredible final fight, the closing action of the game felt disjointed, and the send-off for Kiryu just didn't quite land for me. Still, I had more fun with Yakuza 6 than I did the vast majority of other games I played this year. I'm glad the team is moving on to something a little different with Judgment, and I'm still looking forward to what they do with Yakuza down the line. They're welcome to take their time on that. I've still got a LOT of catching up to do.

3. Cool Tetris

I've been thinking about Tetris Effect since June. When we all landed at E3 this year, one of our first appointments was in a hotel room in LA where the Mizuguchi crew had set up shop to give some demos of Enhance Games' next project. This was not a lengthy, formal demo. It was a bit of set-up and then the next thing I knew I was putting on a VR helmet and diving straight into the incredible sensory experience that is Tetris Effect. I only played a couple of levels, but it was enough to immediately grab my attention. In the subsequent months, I would periodically find myself thinking about that demo and vague feelings of euphoria I could recall from my time with it. A Tetris game--a Tetris game--was actually sticking with me in a way that went beyond just wanting to play some damn Tetris.

Now that the game's been out for a while, and I've had ample time to experience it both in and out of VR (and on varying degrees of, uh, enhancing substances), I feel pretty comfortable saying that Tetris Effect is my favorite Tetris game. First and foremost, it's just really tight Tetris. The gamefeel is top flight, and none of the accompanying visualizers or songs detract from the laser-brained focus needed to play Tetris well. But when you put on that damn helmet and really immerse yourself in the swirling space whales and bamboo forests and pulsating monks and the like, Tetris Effect becomes a hallucinatory experience. I imagine that if I actually experienced synesthesia, it might be even more overwhelming. As it is for me, I just get these little pulses of emotion that periodically wash over me as I'm twirling pieces and frantically trying to figure out how to beat this goddamn Metamorphosis level.

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I realize that EDM and neon particle effects might not be enough of a selling point for you to drop a bunch of money on a game that's Extremely Just Tetris. I wasn't a hundred percent sure it was gonna do anything for me, either, until I played it. I grew up the child of very spacey hippies whose "everything is connected" rhetoric rarely did anything but make me want to stay as far away from new age belief systems as humanly possible. But for some reason, when applied as an aesthetic over top of the kinds of games Miz and his crew make, it just works. All those cranky barriers I've put up over the years come down, and I find myself willing to give myself over to the PLUR-ness of the whole endeavor. Even if I don't fully get it, I get it.

And as one last selling point, I'll also add that Tetris Effect is the first Tetris game in probably two decades that actually made me want to get better at Tetris. And I did. I got way better at Tetris by the time I'd finally beaten the journey mode. This winamp visualizer-ass, She's Never Gonna Come Back Down-ass, hippy-dippy "the universe is love"-ass Tetris game is the one that somehow got through to me. Thanks, Cool Tetris.

2. Red Dead Redemption 2

I've written a great deal about my thoughts on Red Dead Redemption 2 already this year, not to mention discussed them at lengthover the course of our GOTY deliberations. So hopefully you'll forgive me if I don't spend a whole lot of time rehashing those same statements here. In short, Red Dead 2 is definitively one of my favorite games I've played in years, and a game I completely understand people's vehement aversion to. It is both a lumbering, bizarre monument to what you can do with unlimited budget and nobody willing to say "no" to any idea--no matter how needless and/or needlessly complicated--and one of the most immersive and satisfying experiences I've had playing an open world game certainly this decade, if not ever. Everyone criticizing it for the extensive laundry list of things they found dissatisfying or flat out unpleasant about it are correct and valid. I see you, and I recognize your feelings. I still loved the hell out of it.

I loved the story of Arthur Morgan, a man whose journey from loyal acolyte of a duplicitous, charismatic scumbag to self-determined, deteriorating semi-hero is told with a level of care and nuance rarely seen from Rockstar productions. I loved the beautifully drawn and magnificently lively world. From the snowy mountains to the smog-choked streets of Saint Denis, I rode everywhere in this damn game. Not just because the fast travel barely exists, but because I wanted to. I loved my damn horse.

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Brad talked a little about this during our GOTY discussions, and it's something I felt myself. When I was playing Red Dead 2, I spent gobs more time plotting out how to approach each day in this world than I ever did trying to figure out how to get through it efficiently. Even when it probably would have benefitted my review schedule to do otherwise, I treated each day in Red Dead like an individual adventure. If I had a mission that was way out from where the gang's camp was, I'd plot a course along the way to make sure I was stopping through towns, checking out areas I'd never been to. I slept even when I didn't really need to, because it felt like the right thing to do. I made sure to get back to camp as often as I could, even if I had nothing to do there, because it felt like the right thing to do. I just wanted to be in that camp, with all those characters, existing in proximity to their daily lives as much as I could. Red Dead is certainly not the first game to achieve this level of immersion for me, but it's one of the most memorable examples I've ever experienced.

As I said in my review, the story of Red Dead is an often uneven and sometimes deeply cliched one, but the highs more than overtook the lows for me. It's a game I haven't stopped thinking about since I finished it, and I've even debated starting over on in an imaginary timeline where I have a free 70 hours to rededicate to it. I wish everyone could have had the experience I had with Red Dead Redemption 2, but I totally understand why a lot of people very much did not.

1. Into the Breach

If FTL was Subset Games finding their bearings on the kinds of games they want to make, Into the Breach feels like their definitive statement. A tactics game that plays out more like a puzzle game than anything else, you control a trio of mechs fighting enormous kaiju-bugs called Vek. Each turn the game communicates exactly what the enemies currently on the board are planning to attack, and where new ones are going to crop up. Each mech class has a different role. Some are there to punch bugs in the fucking face, some are designed for long range destruction, some do nothing but push and pull things around the board. It's up to you to make those varying abilities work together and minimize the damage the Vek can do.

In many cases, the best way to do that is not to focus on destroying the Vek, but rather shuffling them around the board. It's about arranging the pieces in such a way that your crew is never fully overwhelmed. One of the reasons I suck gallons of ass at chess is because I'm a deeply impatient person, and I can't stand staring at a board for long stretches of time trying to figure out what the ideal move is. Into the Breach is a game that's managed to get me staring at boards for tens of minutes just trying to plot out a single move. There's always a viable solution hiding underneath the surface, and feeling like I'm just inches away from unearthing it has kept me coming back again and again and again all year long.

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The comfort for me in Into the Breach is the fantasy of valuable and endlessly repeatable failure. It interprets the age old video games notion of multiple chances, multiple lives as part of the rhythm of the experience. It canonically waves real failure away by adding time travel and multiverse implications to the background. If the Vek win, there's always another timeline, another version of this world that can still be saved. You're going to try, and if it doesn't work out, abandonment only means inconvenience. The only death that need be mourned is one of a run that almost got there. The same four CEOs will greet you every time, their problems always the same, but different.

Knowing that there is always a right solution somewhere beneath what you can immediately see is an enticing thing. It means all that failure is worth something, that there's always something to be learned. Taking the time to learn from my mistakes is something I sometimes struggle with in the real world. It's a lot easier to bulldoze your way through your mistakes than it is to stop to consider them.

Reality doesn't often allow for this sort of failure, of course. There isn't always a viable solution for every problem, and for every little failure we can repeat until we figure out what we're doing, there are colossal, monumental failures that we'll never get to do over. Death, true death, is the loss of possibility. I like imagining the seemingly infinite possibilities of playing Into the Breach because in the reality we're currently facing, the number of available options feels ever dwindling. There isn't another timeline we can jump into if we fuck this one up. We can't keep fucking things up forever. We're running out of possibilities.