Another year, another twelve months of excellent video game releases. I’m cutting it very close, but I managed to find between eating all the Christmas mince pies to write up a short list of my favourites from this year. Here’s a selection of ten, with no real preference on which I loved the most (okay *spoilers* it’s Sekiro).
Resident Evil 2
It’s not often you’d find a remake of a ‘90s game ranked on GOTY lists but Resident Evil 2 is a special exception. The 1998 original turned many heads as the perfect example of survival horror done right, and this new incarnation manages to evolve that with modern tech. It’s not a faithful adaptation, as there are dozens of changes to accommodate the shift from a fixed-camera horror to an over-the-shoulder third person shooter, but what it does with the story, setting and enemy design is remarkable. It feels wholly contemporary and sets a high bar for which other remakes should aim for.
When I played Sunless Skies back in January and saw how well it weaved humour into its horror storytelling, I knew it would become an all-time banger. To say this game has a grand sense of adventure would be inaccurate. Exploring in Sunless Skies is a thing to be feared. The depths of space will constantly find ways to kill you. Whether it’s a crew mutiny, a dangerous virus or a deadly encounter with a great creature, every time you leave port you’re embarking on a potentially fatal journey. It’s a huge step up from Sunless Sea, which was fun but hard to adjust to the different systems at play. Skies adds in features and difficulty options to make it accessible to new players, and has only received more excellent content updates in the months that followed.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Until mid-2018, I hadn’t played a single FromSoftware title. Since then I’ve earned the Bloodborne platinum, I’ve beaten Dark Souls twice and I’ve done four full playthroughs of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The latter has especially stood out to me as an outstanding example of how well FromSoftware evolves its own genre. Despite still being very much a soulslike, Sekiro dramatically changes up the formula that it becomes the antithesis of what Souls is really about. There’s a huge emphasis on parrying, signified through an excellent ‘clash of swords’ presentation as you lock blades with your enemy. It’s a fast-paced, pulsing affair that has you perfecting combat patterns and keeping your reflexes on alert. The perfect rhythm game.
Yes, the title is all capitalised. ISLANDERS is a puzzler disguised as a city builder. On procedurally generated islands, you have a set of buildings that yield points when placed. Factors such as trees, rocks and other structures can either add to deduct points, and the more you earn the more objects you can unlock. It then becomes a goal to place as many buildings as you can while keeping your score up, and the challenge comes in trying to maintain that streak even while your space to build on depletes. Also featuring a low-poly art style and peaceful music, ISLANDERS is a beautiful, chilled game that is as engaging as it is therapeutic.
I love a good mystery, and Remedy Entertainment excels at telling interesting genre stories with fun little twists. Control is the latest in this long line of action blockbusters that sees Remedy utilise the strengths of its previous games to deliver an exciting, world-bending thriller like no other. The Metroidvania-like structure of the Oldest House allows for lots of variety when using Jesse’s paranormal abilities to explore the area and fight off hostile threats, with potential for so many weird inexplicable events. But Control’s best feature? Its art direction. Featuring intimidating brutalist halls, empty sunless voids and hard rock quarries, the visuals of the Oldest House instil the correct balance of dread and marvel in the player, and atmosphere is where the game truly shines.
If you want your organisational skills tested, check out Wilmot’s Warehouse for a mental exercise in efficiency and memory. You are Wilmot, a warehouse worker in charge of logistics. Every round, a truck drops off various stacks of items – each one represented by abstract images – and it’s your job to organise them in such a way that they can be easily accessed later when people at the service hatch require them. At this point, the game becomes a triumph of your own memory, as you race around the warehouse collecting the items each person needs, using your own categorisation to find them. The faster you are, the more stars you earn and so on. It’s a casual game, almost relaxing to sort these messy stacks into something legible, but there’s still an aura of intensity to it.
The simple message of Kind Words is to do good by your fellow human. The joy of this game comes in the intimate interactions you have with real people. There you sit, alone in your bedroom listening to chill music, when a letter comes through from another person asking for advice, or maybe celebrating something exciting going on in their own life. Each one is unique and special, as you are talking to a real individual in a virtual environment. When you take ten minutes to respond to a few of these letters, it can really feel like you’re improving the lives of folks you’ll never interact with again. If games are a force for good, Kind Words is at the centre of this.
Untitled Goose Game
There’s a lot to digest on Untitled Goose Game’s meme legacy, but let it be known it also stands as a well-designed puzzler. Part of its appeal comes in the short, bite-size sessions you can play in, with every simple to-do list item feeling like a big accomplishment once you discover the correct solution. Very little compares to the amount of fun you can have locking a groundskeeper out of his own garden or trapping a young Tory lad in a phone booth. Playing as the goose allows us to live out that anarchistic fantasy, dismantling the social order enforced by the townsfolk through clever puzzles and a playground of interactions to make.
I think Disco Elysium may well be the best RPG I have ever played. I never expected I’d get into something that requires so much reading, but ZA/UM’s writing chops really sells the game as a politically charged detective mystery set in a fantasy world. The tagline of Disco Elysium is ‘What kind of cop are you?’, and it really means it. Much like a tabletop RPG, each dialogue-based stat affects how well or poorly your conversations with NPCs go, with traditional dice roll mechanics being the instigator of these systems. In my first playthrough I didn’t put many points into emotions-related skills, meaning my character lost his temper a lot and got irritated with everyone he spoke to. He also didn’t have points in physical attributes, resulting in him dying of a heart attack whenever he did something active. This amount of depth ultimately results in a game that plays differently each time, and Disco Elysium is a massive feat in storytelling, customisation, and art.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
I’ll quickly preface this by saying that I think Jedi: Fallen Order is a 6/10 game. It lifts its entire structure from popular titles such as Uncharted, The Legend of Zelda and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. If you go into it with the expectation that it will improve on those, you’ll be sorely mistaken. It doesn’t. But still, there’s something about it that just works. There’s a fluidity to the lightsaber combat, which is brisk, enjoyable but challenging. I have to respect EA and Respawn for going so heavy on the Metroidvania/Soulslike formula, which is a design decision riskier than a more generic linear third-person action game. For all its faults, it does exactly what it sets out to do and tells a story that feels grounded within the Star Wars universe. I’d like to see future games in this series to try experimenting with different genres, because it really pays off here.