Dusk ($20 on Humble) starts at 100 miles per hour and it only gets faster from there. That’s my overbearing impression of this ‘90s-revivalist shooter: Speed. It moves like Quake or Doom or Hexen or any of a dozen other obvious inspirations. Dusk is all about rapid-reloading a shotgun while circle-strafing an enemy cultist, then flipping over said cultist’s head to deliver both barrels point-blank in an explosion of guts and gibs.
It’s very satisfying.
But Dusk is just as noteworthy for its changes, the places where it’s less slavish in adherence to ‘90s norms. Dusk appropriates the old “Colored Keycard” style of level design for instance, asking you to find red, yellow, and blue keys throughout each level. It’s not afraid to subvert expectations though, dropping the floor out from under you in your moment of triumph, or opening a door only to find a wall on the other side where you hoped for escape.
It also has a story worth caring about. For a game that’s meant to be absorbed at 100 miles per hour there’s a surprising amount of storytelling hidden throughout these sparse, polygonal environments. You don’t need to engage—feel free to send a million vaguely-KKK cultists to hell without a second thought. But there’s depth to Dusk, and digging into it reveals one of the more unsettling shooters of the year—as well as one of the best, period.
Return of the Obra Dinn
The Obra Dinn embarked with more than 60 people aboard. Now the once-bustling ship drifts towards shore, empty. What happened?
It’s your job to find out in Return of the Obra Dinn ($20 on Humble). Taking on the role of an insurance adjuster in the 1800s, it falls to you to uncover the fates of the Obra Dinn’s crew and passengers. Luckily you have one remarkable tool in your inventory, a magic compass that allows you to relive the last moments of any corpse you can find.
Or moment, really. Each is frozen in time, a still-life that you can walk around—and usually a few snippets of dialogue to go with it. Through these piecemeal conversations and context clues, you must determine three pieces of information for each member of the crew: Their name, how they died, and who (if anyone) killed them.
Some are easy. Cause of death? Those are usually pretty obvious. And some of the identities are easily discerned as well. The guy with the big hat and mustache who people call “Captain”? He’s...probably the captain. But who is the captain shooting? And why? The answers might take you 15 or 20 more scenes worth of context to figure out, assembling scraps of information like “This man works in the rigging” and “He has an accent” and “He seems to be friends with this other crew member” to finally draw a conclusion.
Lucas Pope has a knack for spinning magic out of mundane premises, and while Return of the Obra Dinn didn’t quite capture me the same way as his previous game (and our 2013 Game of the Year winner) Papers Please, it’s an incredible experience that completely redefines what constitutes a good detective game. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Celeste – Game of the Year
If Celeste ($20 on Humble) were simply a fantastic precision-platformer, that’d probably be enough to land it on our best-of list. And it is fantastic. Celeste is easily the best platformer I’ve played since Super Meat Boy, and maybe that’s enough reason for you to give it a shot. If it is, then good. Go buy it. Stop reading and just go buy it.
Because here’s the truth: It’s impossible to explain why Celeste is our 2018 Game of the Year winner without spoiling it, and spoiling it necessarily takes away some of the magic of discovery. Better for you to just play it than to experience it secondhand. Anyway...
Sometimes you play the right game at the right time. 2018 was a rough year for me, personally. It started rough, got rougher somewhere in the middle, and it’s only recently I’ve started seeing improvement. No need to delve into details, but I spent much of the year struggling against depression and burnout.
And somewhere in there I played Celeste. It looked charming. The controls were tight. There was a lot to love as I started guiding Madeline up the titular Celeste Mountain, dying often, occasionally getting frustrated, but cheered on by the game’s entreaties to keep climbing, not to worry about the setbacks, to ask for help if needed.
Celeste Mountain is a metaphor—for depression, for anxiety, for self-loathing, for all the various demons people fight day-to-day, often behind the scenes. That’s the “reveal.” It’s not particularly subtle or unique, the mountain-as-metaphor-for-struggle, but Celeste perfectly weds its mechanics with its themes. Celeste believes in your ability to keep fighting, to keep trying even when the world seems arrayed against you or when you fall down further than you’ve ever been before. Celeste believes in you.
It’s one hell of a platformer, sure, but Celeste is also more than that. It is earnest and honest about its subject matter in a way few games even attempt, and never have I felt so certain a game deserves our Game of the Year prize. Again: Sometimes you play the right game at the right time. For those in a dark place, I hope Celeste can help. For those who aren’t, I hope you still fall in love with its characters and its themes. You can climb Celeste Mountain, even if you die a thousand—hell, ten thousand—deaths on the way to the top. Just keep trying.
HONORABLE MENTION: Prey: Mooncrash
Calling Prey: Mooncrash ($20 on Humble) an expansion is doing it a disservice. It’s basically an entire new game, adapting Prey’s freeform System Shock trappings into a roguelike, of all things. I had zero expectations it would work, but Mooncrash is one of 2018’s most exhilarating releases, challenging the player to break out of familiar routines and approach Prey’s challenges anew every single time.
The plot’s pretty light. There’s been a disaster at a moon colony and all the colonists are presumed dead. Using some sort of VR rig, you’re able to tap into the memories of certain colonists and “relive” their final moments. The goal is to use the tools available to make it out alive.
And at first it’s not too difficult. An hour or so in, you’ll probably escape with at least the first character intact. Then it resets though, and now you have access to more parts of the base—and two characters to shepherd out. The catch: Whatever items you use as the first character will still be gone when you play as the second character. This bit of persistence forces you to adapt on-the-fly, to question whether that shotgun’s really needed on this run or whether it might be better saved for a future, weaker character, and so on. It’s a bit like playing chess against yourself.
Attempts can feel a bit too long by the end, especially as you get more familiar with the levels and start going through the motions again. Mooncrash is a truly special experience though, and had it been given a standalone release it would absolutely be in our top 10 instead of relegated to the honorable mentions.
HONORABLE MENTION: Assassin’s Creed: Origins - Curse of the Pharaohs
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is 2018’s mainline Assassin’s Creed release, and it’s pretty damn good. Waaaay too long, but good.
It was the second Origins expansion that impressed me though. Released in April, Curse of the Pharaohs ($20 on Steam) finally let Assassin’s Creed stretch its wings and break free from the rigidity of history. Set four years after the events of Origins, Bayek travels to Thebes to investigate the presence of a Piece of Eden. There, he finds the resurrected spirits of ancient Egyptian rulers terrorizing the city.
In order to lay them to rest again he must enter the afterlife itself, encountering these legendary rulers among the myth-ridden realms they’ve constructed for themselves in the Duat. Ramesses II presides over the long-silent battlefields of his greatest triumph, Kadesh. Akhenaten sits beneath an enormous sun, representing his belief in the monotheistic reign of the sun-god Aten. Aaru is dotted with towering statues of Nefertiti, regal beneath the pale light of an eclipse.
For nearly a decade Assassin’s Creed tried, if not for complete historical accuracy, at least the semblance of such. Curse of the Pharaohs proved this series could do so much more though, given the freedom to try—and then Odyssey built on these ideas as well, introducing mythological creatures like the minotaur and Medusa. It’s an interesting new direction, and I’m curious to see whether Ubisoft leans into it for future iterations.
HONORABLE MENTION: Destiny: Forsaken
Destiny 2 had…a rough first year. It started pretty strong, with the series’ snappy shooting successfully making the transition to PC. But then we had two thoroughly mediocre expansions, first Curse of Osiris and then the somehow-even-worse Warmind.
Those who anticipated a Taken King-style overhaul for Destiny 2’s second year were proven right with Forsaken ($40 on Battle.net), though. Starting with the death of Cayde-6 at the hands of Uldren Sov, Taken King’s story was more coherent and higher-stakes than anything Destiny 2 had done up to that point, and the high-level Dreaming City region is one of the most artistically ambitious environments ever to grace gaming. The hybrid co-op/competitive Gambit mode is a treat as well, a reminder that Bungie used to be best-in-the-business when it came to dreaming up multiplayer modes.
The game’s swung hard back in the direction of so-called “hobbyist” players, the ones who log in every day, which makes it difficult to pick up and play as a newcomer. Maybe that’s okay though, because those diehards set the tone around Destiny 2, and people have certainly seemed more positive as the game proceeds into its second year.