Trevor's Top 10 Games of 2018
Trevor | January 10, 2019
2018 is over. They said we wouldn't make it but by God, we did. Good work, everyone.
I’ve got a confession to make about this year’s list.
I’m cheating. It’s two lists.
This was a banner year for fighting games. There were so many fantastic releases in the genre, they overpowered everything. It was like every other game in the world was up against SonicFox in Grand Finals.
After hours of shuffling the list around, I decided it was a fool’s task. The experience I’m looking for when I boot up a fighting game is difficult to compare across other genres, and doing so only gave me a headache. (If you want to see how they measured up when I was forced to make such difficult choices, be sure to check out our cohesive Game of the Year list--Coming Soon to a front page near you.)
It takes us long enough to get these out as it is, so I've split the lists.
First, my top 4 fighting games of the year.
4. Soul Calibur VI
Welcome back to the stage of history, Soul Calibur.
Soul Calibur 2 and 3 were mainstays in my fighting game diet. Anyone could’ve challenged me to a match at any time, and I would’ve said yes.
It’s been quite a while since the last entry in the series, and after hearing many tales of troubled development, I started to believe we’d never see a Soul Calibur VI--but here it is.
Soul Calibur VI is a fantastic package. In addition to online battles, the game also offers two story modes. One covers the history of Soul Calibur and follows the kind of format you might expect. You bounce from character to character, playing through snippets of their story throughout the years. The other mode has the player create their own avatar and go on an RPG-like adventure across the world. There's traveling, random battles, leveling up--the works. It's easy to lose a lot of time in The Libra of Souls.
The actual fighting feels quintessentially Soul Calibur, with a few new tricks to make the series more approachable. The biggest addition is the reversal edge, a defensive technique to turn the tables while under pressure. The first few frames of a reversal edge block incoming attacks, then follow up after with a vertical blow, not unlike Street Fighter IV’s focus attacks. After the hit, both fighters enter a pause state and select their next attack. It's thankfully more complex than a simple rock-paper-scissors, with both players having a multitude of options next. It's a useful tool to get back in the game while under pressure, but it's also not invincible. If you see it coming, it's fairly easy to sidestep.
If there’s one thing Soul Calibur IV has over every game on the list, it’s the character creator. If you aren’t happy with how a particular character looks but you love their moveset, Soul Calibur IV has just the fix. With enough time and dedication, this thing is robust enough to create anyone or any thing you can think of.
I had the misfortune of fighting the famous CUBE this year. Pay a visit to r/soulcaliburcreations and marvel at the creativity--or horrors--on display.
The only criticism I have of Soul Calibur VI is the training mode. Every other game on this list teaches players basic combos for their chosen fighter, a growing trend in fighting games in an effort to become less insular. I realize the Soul Calibur series plays quite different from other fighting games, but there’s still plenty of simple three-or-four hit combos new players should be able to learn without a trip to YouTube.
Nonethless, it's great to see Soul Calibur return in all it's former glory, character creator and all.
3. BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle
If you want fast-paced action, this one's for you.
Cross Tag Battle is an anime fighters dream come true. It includes characters from BlazBlue, Under Night, Persona, and even the Rooster Teeth series RWBY.
There’s a lot of different systems in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, but they’re all easy to comprehend and simple to execute. Few moves are more complicated than a quarter-circle motion, assists are done with one button, and any more complex assist actions are simultaneous button presses. With such technical precision, it’s much easier for players to focus on their combo timing and neutral game rather than memorize a long series of complex motions.
For better or worse, Cross Tag Battle is also the most unforgiving fighting game on my list. The average match barely lasts a full minute. Even simple combos can pile up damage to staggering heights, which gives new players great opportunities to stay competitve, but also means experienced players can win that much faster. It also means players must manage who sits in the reserve spot healing very carefully. The comeback mechanic, Resonance Blaze, fills a player's super meter at a steady rate while active, and even allows you to break the normal limitations in combos. While I'm sure it can be frustrating for new players to get blown up with a 40-hit-combo from one hit, it makes matches exciting to watch. Comeback potential here is huge.
I feel a need to highlight how well team RWBY has been implemented. The entire cast stands out as some of the best characters in the game, and slot right into an anime fighter like they’ve always belonged there.
When it comes to training, BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle is the inverse of Soul Calibur VI. The training mode here is the best on this list, hands down. Each character has their own series of lessons that teach both simple and complex combos. This training mode goes a step further with important information unique to your chosen character. It goes over which normals to use in anti-air situations, what moves can launch, and even explains the best situations to use their specials and supers. It’s incredible, and the kind of thing I wish more fighting games would do.
Cross Tag Battle's only failing is a lack of single-player content. There’s an amusing story mode that takes a few hours to see, but offers little replay value once you've seen each team's story. There’s a survival mode where you see how long a chosen duo can last, a training dummy and... that’s it. There’s no arcade mode or challenges aside from combo training, and that’s unfortunate. I realize most fighting game fans prefer to grind out matches online against human opponents so this won't be a problem, but that’s not always the experience I’m looking for.
Still, BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle earns its spot, and I hope it stays supported for some time to come. If Joker is coming to Smash Brothers, why not to a game that already has Persona characters in it too?
Arc Systems teased a new franchise would be "Crossing Fate" soon. Speculation is rampant, but the way things are going, It’s probably Final Fantasy XV.
2. Super Smash Brothers Ultimate
Do I even need to write anything here?
Is there anyone alone in our circle on a Venn Diagram of people who know what Smash Brothers is and people who read this site?
Smash Brothers Ultimate is the best Smash has ever been. It lives up to its namesake, bringing together every character and (almost) every stage across the series storied history.
If you are the one person learning about Smash Brothers from our website, this paragraph is just for you. Welcome! In Smash Brothers, the goal is to smack your opponent to increase their percentage rating. The higher the number, the easier they are to launch. Once those numbers are high enough, send them flying off the stage for a KO. Each character has four different special moves, each assigned to a different direction--Up, sides, down, and neutral.
If this is your first Smash Brothers game, don’t worry too much about feeling overwhelmed with moves or characters. When it comes to each character's moveset, nothing is more complicated than direction and a button. As for characters, this game distributes 63 fighters one at a time, a slow trickle of new fighters to check out. It does hit you with all 100+ stages at once though, so I can’t help you there. Dive in and hope for the best.
Smash Brothers Ultimate stands out from previous entries with how usual offerings have been shaken up. Adventure Mode in previous Smash games has typically been a short story mode, a light romp to the Subspace Emissary and back. This time it’s a sprawling RPG-esque experience, replete with a world map and hours of content.
My personal favorite touch is the changes to Classic Mode. In previous Smash Brothers games, Classic Mode was more or less analogous to an arcade mode in other games. After six or seven fights, you battle Master Hand and Crazy Hand. Win and you’re done. It was fun, but once you’d seen it once, you’d seen it all. There wasn't much reason to tackle it repeatedly with other characters.
Ultimate’s Classic Mode shakes things up by providing a unique route for every character. Play as someone from Fire Emblem, and you might be fighting a dragon for your final boss. Simon and Richter? Dracula, of course. Even the rulesets change. Ryu and Ken’s routes become stamina battles instead, giving everyone a health pool to better mimic a Street Fighter match. With so many unique paths, Classic Mode becomes infinitely more fun to replay than previous iterations.
I couldn’t be happier with the new additions to the cast as well. Simon and Richter Belmont are projectile spammers of the best order, King K. Rool is a powerhouse, and Isabelle is death incarnate given puppy form and an office job. With Joker on the horizon, this is shaping up to be the best Smash yet.
I do have one other question for Nintendo, though. Where do you get off calling this “Ultimate” without Pokefloats?
1. Dragon Ball FighterZ
There were no other contenders for #1 here. Dragon Ball Fighter Z is in a class of its own.
The Dragon Ball series has long gotten the shaft when it comes to fighting games. There’s been quite a few throughout the series long history, but you could count the enjoyable ones on one hand.
Dragon Ball FighterZ finally harnesses the potential of Dragonball Z’s over-the-top super moves and power blasts, and does it without five-minute-long power up cutscenes.
Dragon Ball FighterZ moves at the speed of Marvel vs. Capcom. The game’s mechanics are built around many similar systems, but iterates on them in ways that expand your options considerably. You’ll constantly be swapping in teammates, chaining super arts together, teleporting around the screen, and racking up huge combo numbers.
Dragon Ball FighterZ already excels at representing the I.P. it’s based on, but there’s a lot of smart mechanical decisions too. I’m just going to rattle off a list of all of them here.
Vanish. At the cost of one super bar, you can disappear from your current location and reappear behind your opponent. This gives players a new tool to escape pressure and turn the tables. If used in the middle of a combo, vanish wall-bounces your opponent so you can extend your combo further.
K.O. Reset. When one character gets taken out, the match restarts with each combatant entering the field anew. This gives the loser a chance to get back in the game, rather than spend the next two minutes pressured in the corner.
Dragon Rush. The Dragon Rush functions as grab as it will break guards, but it also leads directly into combo opportunities. It can even be used mid-combo to throw some extra damage in.
This is a simple thing Arc Systems has been doing in Guilty Gear already, but it bears repeating here--changing combo colors. If a combo counter is reddish orange, it means there’s nothing you can do about it. Just sit back and pray the pummeling ends. However, if the combo counter shifts to blue, it means the player missed an opportunity to escape the combo.
- Super Dash. As the name implies, the Super Dash sends you flying towards your opponent. While in flight, you are immune to small projectiles, making this a fantastic tool for punishing projectile spammers and quickly closing the distance.
Dragon Ball Fighter Z rides the perfect line between accessibility and complexity. You can teach every move and mechanic in only a few minutes, but a noticeable skill gap persists in knowing how to exploit all these techniques. Every fight becomes a test of each player’s reflexes and tendencies. All sorts of changes and adaptations happen mid-match, and the neutral reset gives the loser a chance to bounce back after every K.O.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is a death-defying dance where every match reaches the same dizzying heights of insanity as the show.
I have a feeling Dragon Ball FighterZ is going to be a mainstay at EVO for many years to come.
Update 1-10-2019: Typing this closing sentence appears to have invoked some ancient incantation to doom the subject in question, because not even a week after I finished a first draft Dragon Ball FighterZ was pulled from multiple upcoming competitions. Let’s hope this is just a momentary hiccup and not a bad portend.
Now, onto the other games.
6. Monster Hunter: World
The Hunt returns to consoles, and this time it's on platforms people actually own.
Monster Hunter is a franchise who’s ambitions always outstripped their technical capabilities. To be honest, I feel like technology caught up to Monster Hunter’s design ideas years ago and the series has simply refused to adapt, but who cares? Monster Hunter: World finally brought us over the technological precipice.
Gone are loading screens every five feet. Gone are the stockpiles of paintballs to track monsters. All the equipment clogging up your valuable inventory space to mine, fish, and harvest? Gone, gone, gone. Monster Hunter: World has streamlined everything so you’ll do less inventory management and more hunting.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the gist is this--pick from one of many available weapons, set out to kill a giant monster, use parts from giant monster to build new weapon. Repeat.
That description shortsells just how involved the whole process is. The full loop goes like this:
Pick monster to hunt -> Eat at canteen -> Set out on hunt -> Collect footsteps, mucus, and carcasses to track monster -> Fight monster for many minutes -> Kill monster and return to base -> See what new items you can craft -> Check on harvest -> pick new monster to hunt...
If that sounds fun, Monster Hunter is going to be perfect for you. If it sounds tedious, it may shock you to learn this is the least tedious it's ever been. Either way, Monster Hunter is back and bigger than ever.
The best praise I can offer for Monster Hunter: World is this; Co-editor Alan once tried playing Monster Hunter 4. One hunt was enough for a lifetime.
Alan played World for a non-inconsequential amount of time upon release, even going as far as to buy a new Playstation 4 to optomize his Monster Hunter: World experience. I didn’t think the changes to World were significant enough to win anyone over anyone who'd already bounced off the series, but I can comfortably say I was wrong.
5. HITMAN 2
Puzzle that one out, then get back to me. Even I can’t explain it.
HITMAN 2 is a great continuation of what made the original HITMAN exceptional. Agent 47 gets turned loose in some exotic locale, and it’ up to you to stumble into prime murder opportunities. HITMAN 2 expands on the old formula with additional barriers to 47’s hits. Sometimes you may not know what your target looks like, leaving 47 to do some reconnaissance first, or they’re in a highly fortified area with no clear entrances. In fact, the first proper new mission in Miami has 47 taking out an F-150 driver.
The HITMAN series lives or dies based on it's locations and level design, I find, and HITMAN 2 has plenty of strong locales. Santa Fortuna and Whittleon Creek stand out as my favorites thus far. The first involves crippling a Columbian drug cartel, and the second has 47 infiltrating a small american suburb. The latter particularly stands out. I never thought infitrating a backyard barbecue could be so exciting.
If you own the original HITMAN, great news. All the stages from HITMAN appear here with some slight modifications. HITMAN 2 also introduced blending into crowds and hiding in brush, techniques that have been retroactively added to previous maps. It comes in handy, and opens up new methods of “disguise acquisition” that didn’t used to exist before.
HITMAN’s emphasis on flexibility keeps it exciting and fresh with every attempt. Throw in custom contracts and the time-locked elusive targets, and it's easy to keep coming back to HITMAN 2.
4. God of War
4. God of War (For real this time)
Okay, I couldn’t leave it at that. Tempting though it was.
I didn’t think there was any love in my heart for Kratos and his rage-fueled, carnage-driven world. I enjoyed the first God of War for what it was, but quickly burned out on the series after God of War 2.
When this reboot was announced and looked nothing like a God of War game, there was a slight negative reaction from die-hard fans, concerned God of War (2018) would be another Dark Souls clone. I had the opposite reaction. A God of War game that looked nothing like the God of War I knew is what I needed to get back on board with the series.
Design-wise, God of War is a technical marvel. The environments are rich, elaborate, and detailed. This imaginative world is filled with larger-than-life creatures on every horizon. The World Serpent, Midgardsormr, is a feature on the landscape the entire game. One stage involves climbing a dead frost giant to advance, while another has Kratos and Atreus repeatedly clinging to a dragon on a harrowing flight through a cavernous mountain. As is often the case with God of War games, sometimes the spectacle of what’s around the next corner is part of the draw. This entry never disappointed.
The actual gameplay this time around is more methodical and less hack-and-slash, but not so much it ceases to feel like a God of War game. Kratos is still the king of combos, slamming people into the air after repeated axe swings. He’s also perfectly capable of ripping revenants in half with his bare hands. You’ll have to make a more concerted effort to block and dodge in this particular God of War, but concerns this would be another Dark Souls clone may be put to rest.
God of War’s story is not something I’ve ever been invested in, so I was impressed this particular entry made me care about Kratos in any capacity. The first God of War tried to paint Kratos as a sympathetic, tragic figure, but it was pretty hard to buy Kratos as morally conflicted when he spends his three main games killing the entire Greek pantheon, plus any humans who get in his way. I always felt Kratos had a decent motivation for hunting down Ares, but the reasons for his bloodlust became flimsier and flimsier as the story went on.
Now Kratos has a son, and even had another wife. I still have a hard time buying the bit here, that Kratos could be anything other than a monster, but seeing his hardened nature conflicted with how he wishes for his son to grow up to be better than himself is core to God of War’s story. I may not be able to get past accepting our new, reformed Kratos, but I can empathize with a father who wants to keep his son from making the same mistakes.
And that’s just the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus. There’s a number of other memorable characters you’ll encounter from Norse Mythology on your quest to reach the tallest peak in Jotunheim. My favorites were Sindri and Brok, two blacksmith dwarves who act as your shop. You’ll get to know both of them very well, as they pop up at the start of almost every area. Most of the time they’ll have something to say about your current region or recent happenings, and they're often your source of gossip among the Norse Gods as well.
The only thing that keeps God of War from moving higher up my list is the fights overstay their welcome in one too many areas. I'm all for a long experience, but some sections felt like a burdensome slog to get through. There’s a lot of backtracking to advance, lots of murder rooms where enemies attack forever, and huge stretches where you’re just killing Revenants or Dark Elves by the boatload before the next crucial plot development. When it takes an exceptionally long time to get from one event to the next, or a boss feels like some kind of axe sponge, the game loses some urgency and becomes motonous.
Curiously, if the combat is what you’re here for, there’s plenty of optional places where you can get your fill. There’s entire sections of the game dedicated only to combat challenges, more than enough to keep one entertained for hours. Much of the middle sections feel padded to an unnecessary degree, and it feels even more gratuitous knowing these later optional zones exist.
None of this detracts, however, from God of War's other accomplishments. As a technical powerhouse and a reinvention of an aged franchise, God of War is a huge success.
3. Marvel’s Spider-Man
In a game that isn’t bland.
He can swing and kinda fly.
So many upgrades for you to buy
It’s open-world Spider-Man."
Good news--Marvel’s Spider-Man lived up to the hype.
When insomniac was out there talking about how they wanted to recapture the magic of Spider-Man's playstation days, I had concerns. Spider-Man’s track record since then has been...
It’s been... not great.
Insomniac gave us a Spidey who will be remembered for something other than face-planting into open flames seconds before their death.
Web-swinging around New York City is a real treat, especially after living on the East Coast. I found all my usual train stations and at least two friends’ workplaces, perfectly modeled and rendered. Couldn’t find my old apartment in New Jersey though--Spidey refused to swing across the GW bridge.
One of the most irritating traps open worlds fall into, I find, is giving players a giant playground but then forcing them to do specific things in specific places. Spider-Man justifies its open world better than most others. While Peter Parker will often visit Dr. Octavius and his Aunt May, excitement abounds while en route. There are high speed pursuits to stop, jewelry heists to foil. Sometimes you might even get attacked by rogue bandits or sable agents. While the game does eventually provide you with a fast travel system, I never used it, partly because traversing New York was so much fun, but also because the world felt so alive.
I appreciated the decision to set this particular Spider-Man adventure many years after Peter got bit by a fateful spider. We’ve seen Spider-Man’s origin story many times in the past decade, enough so I feel most of the world could give you the cliffnotes on Peter Parker’s history. Spider bite. Ben dies. Great responsibility. We know the drill. It was far more exciting seeing an established Spider-Man navigate the perils of strained relationships and apartment evictions.
Speaking of strained relationships, by far the biggest highlight in Spider-Man is the dynamic between Peter and M.J. They bumble about each other's feelings, reading far too much subtext into every word in a text message like only anxious young adults can. M.J. gets to be a character too, thank God, and not just a handy red-headed prop for Peter to save. You’ll spend a decent amount of time doing some hard journalism as everyone’s favorite reporter. These sections often tie together with Spider-Man’s, helping them feel like one cohesive crime-fighting team, taking down the baddies on multiple fronts.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is the most fun I had with an open world game this year, and in an industry where one of these comes out every two weeks, that’s saying something.
2. The Missing: J.J Macfield And The Island of Memories.
The Missing is the hardest game on this list to describe, but by god, I’ll give it my best shot.
The Missing is the story of a girl named J.J Macfield. She visits an island with her friend Emily when things get weird in a David Lynchian, psychedelic kind of way. J.J. scours the island searching for her friend Emily, all the while being clobbered, dismembered, eviscerated, and incinerated. In most games, getting hit by an obstacle is the failure state. In The Missing, its often the only way to continue.
I won’t pretend The Missing is a technical masterpiece, but what’s at the heart of The Missing--what all this dark weirdness is in service of--is something I never expected. It’s powerful, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at the same time.
I really believe everyone should experience The Missing. We all have something to learn from J.J.’s harrowing experiences.
The topics The Missing explores are deserving of more than a text blurb in a Game of the Year list, so I will be writing about The Missing in more detail soon.
No journey has stuck with me this year quite like Madeline’s harrowing, self-reflective climb up Celeste mountain.
In terms of cohesive design, Celeste is the total package. Tight mechanics, a solid story, and musical pieces that really sell the mood and atmosphere of each scene. Taken alone, no individual element is revolutionary, but the way it all comes together is.
Celeste is the story of a woman named Madeline who arrives at Celeste mountain with a backpack and a simple goal--reach the summit. Celeste mountain, however, is known for some unique dangers. It’s less about avalanches and exposure out there, and more about the mountain’s tendency to conjure up symbolic, metaphysical threats to all who enter its vicinity.
While traversing the mountain, Madeline’s reflection assumes a life of its own. After passing a mirror, a part of her emerges and seeks to put an end to her climb. This relationship, Madeline versus herself, the parts of herself she’s trying to let go, is the crux of the whole adventure.
The Madeline we meet is kind, patient. She's willing to put her whole life on hold to help complete strangers. But the Madeline we know at the start is the person she's trying to be now. Her journey up Celeste mountain is a symbolic jesture to a new start. This other Madeline, the one in the mirror, has a more cynical outlook. She’s curt, far less considerate to others, and she especially has no patience for mountain climbing. She's everying Madeline is trying to leave behind.
It would be easy, very easy, to make this character, this part of Madeline an antagonist that needs to be defeated, but Celeste handles the topic with much more complexity. Sometimes, the parts of us we don’t like do serve an important purpose. Other times, they're things we can't simply eliminate overnight, in a single instant, with a single thought. Re-innovation is far more complicated, and Celeste uses these two warring Madeline's to explore those intricacies.
This conflict and how it resolves is so strong, it was almost enough to cinche the #1 spot on those merits alone.
But Celeste offers far more.
As 2D puzzle platforming goes, I haven’t played anything this solid since Super Meat Boy. Each stage is tightly designed around Madeline’s ability to dash, grab walls, and jump. It’s a simple kit, but the stages test your mastery to the fullest extent. As is often the case with games like Celeste you’re gonna die a lot, but Celeste puts you back in the action right away. Since each screen is a single puzzle it encourages a lot of experimentation, as no death sets you back substantially. You’re free to throw yourself into spikes and pits until you find a solution.
And finally, I have to mention the music. Celeste’s soundtrack is exceptional. Each stages song perfectly captures the tone of the current setting and the story so far. What’s more, the soundtrack changes to reflect any alterations in the stage itself. This is noticeable first in the second stage, where additional tracks fall in and the song starts bumpin’ once eerie stuff starts happening in earnest.
The final song, Reach the Summit, is the real masterpiece. As Madeline climbs, the song keeps changing at certain milestones, reflecting your entire journey so far. As you approach the top, every leg of your expedition to the summit is echoed back in song.
The game is always in complete concert with itself. Mechanics, story, and music all support one another, and together they turn the journey up Celeste mountain into a magical climb.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Odyssey is the first Assassin's Creed game I’ve enjoyed in almost eight years. I know many adore this series, but for a long time it’s felt somewhat stagnant, barely iterating outside of setting changes. Origins marked the first huge shift in the series structure, but Odyssey is the first time I experienced it for myself. Overall I was impressed, but not enough to place Odyseey on my top ten.
Fighting Ex Layer
I’m adding this mostly to welcome the series back. The Fighting Layer EX cast was first seen in the Street Fighter EX series and they seemed doomed to die there. This year marked the triumphant return of developer Arika, along with their cast of colorful fighters. There’s no Ryu, Guile, or Chun-Li this time around since they’ve been divorced from the Street Fighter cast, but it’s nonetheless wonderful to see an IP survive outside corporate entanglement.
Read Dead Redemption 2
I must confess, I never got around to rootin’ tootin’ cowboy shootin’. It’s entirely possible the adventures of Arthur Morgan could’ve shaken up my list, but we’ll never know. I was too busy murdering my way across Greece in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey--a game which, curiously, also did not end up on the actual list.
Return of the Obra Dinn
I know, I know. People keep telling me I’m gonna love this one, but I didn’t get around to it in time. It’s got a great style and tremendously clever premise, but I can’t very well put a game I haven’t played on a personal top ten list. On a "top ten games I'm likely to play soon" list, maybe. Sorry Obra Dinn, I did you wrong.