Steven Strom’s Top 10 Games of 2018

It’s finally time! With what feels like only seconds to spare, I’ve gone and completed my personal Game of the Year list. 2018 had some real bangers, huh? Although it wasn’t nearly as strong a year as 2017, I still had major trouble narrowing it down to just 10 games I felt this strongly about.

For those of you that enjoyed these games as much as did, hey! Fist bump! If you haven’t gotten around to playing them yet, though, I highly recommend you check each and ever one of them out. They meant a lot to me in this very strange, stressful year.

Dragalia Lost Game of the Year

10. Dragalia Lost

What can I say? Sometimes I’m a sucker for “bad” mobile games. Dragalia Lost is one helluva grind — designed to push you towards spending money on in-game currency for more stuff. The kicker is that it’s a really fun grind.

The action is simple, but surprisingly deep once you dig into it. More than that, though, the ever-expanding cast of characters feels rich and fun. Learning more about their stories rewards you with more premium currency, too, so there’s always a reason to dig into their charming little side plots.

And, oh my god, that music. Dragalia Lost is a never-ending treat for the ears. Maybe that’s what got me to play it for more than a day or two (which is what I usually do with gacha games). Either way, I’ve played it every single day for months (sometimes ignoring “better” games in the process).

Into the Breach Game of the Year

9. Into the Breach

Into the Breach didn’t grab me the same way as it did other people. At least, it didn’t at first. The ultra-simple strategy game (you might even call it a reactive puzzle game) felt… too simple, honestly. I never felt like I had enough space to make interesting choices. The “almost a puzzle game” nature of Into the Breach just felt restrictive, since it meant there was always a “right” move to make.

Then I started unlocking new squads with unique abilities. That’s when the game’s tactical layer really opens up. Every single run basically becomes its own overarching strategic decision — as you match different pilots to different squads with different equipment over time. The moment-to-moment action still feels stifling to me, even now, but I can appreciate the front-loaded tactics in a way I never considered before.

Dragon Quest Game of the Year

8. Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age

Dragon Quest 11 is a great reminder that you can do a lot with a little. The latest game in this long, long-running series doesn’t shake up things too much. Dragon Quest games never do. That’s kind of the point! And that classical turn-based combat (plus the many hours of grinding behind it) is as relaxing and uniformly rewarding as ever.

What this sequel does have over its predecessors is charm. And that’s saying a lot; the previous Dragon Quest games were plenty charming.

They just don’t match up to the endless charisma of Sylvando: a gay knight turned adventurer and circus performer that joins your party early in Dragon Quest 11. Nor did previous Dragon Quest games make every single chapter feel like a self-contained fairy tale — keeping the standard action and character development fresh over dozens of hours. And previous games in the series certainly didn’t look quite this good. Dragon Quest 11 looks like an Akira Toriyama illustration that stood up and inflated itself into 3D.

I don’t always love traditional JRPGs, but this just might be the pinnacle of that ancient formula.

Obra Dinn Game of the Year

7. Return of the Obra Dinn

Have you ever used a magic pocket watch to watch the final moments of a man’s life? Have you then used that information to investigate why an entire 19th century sailing ship disappeared from the face of the Earth? I certainly hadn’t until I played Return of the Obra Dinn.

But novelty (both in the game’s premise and its incredible 1-bit art style) isn’t all Obra Dinn has going for it. It’s also the best puzzle game of the year.

Each death offers more data you can use to infer more information about the rest of the crew’s fate. When you know all the important bits — name, cause of death, and assailant — you add them to a book. Once three people are correctly labeled, Obra Dinn “cements” them in your log. And it does so with some of the most amazing, most rewarding sound design I’ve ever heard.

Ashen Game of the Year

6. Ashen

Maybe you haven’t played Ashen yet. It was in development for a long time and came out as a surprise release during this year’s Game Awards. So there wasn’t exactly a lot of hype around it before launch. But let me tell you this: you should absolutely play Ashen.

The game is just another Dark Souls-like at first blush. You kill enemies. You die. Your experience points get left behind wherever your corpse fell. Then you go back and get them (fighting those same enemies you just beat along the way). Eventually, though, the game slowly but surely nudges its familiar formula in fascinating directions.

There’s a base building mechanic, for instance, that lends a sense of life to the world around you. And since there’s an actual map (complete with a quest log in plain English) you can perform favors for your citizens without much hassle. That might just sound like Dark Souls lite, but I promise you there’s so much more going on here — for fans of the source material and newcomers alike.

Yakuza 6 Game of the Year

5. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 is supposedly the last game that will star series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. And as far as swan songs go, this is a good one. Yakuza 6 includes everything that made the series great from the beginning — plus a number of features its developers didn’t discover until much later.

Kiryu is still the supportive, inclusive muscle-dad he’s always been. He still helps folks far and wide with their zany problems, before marching into hyperactive, soap opera fistfights in the main story. The combat feels as heavy-hitting and over-the-top as ever, too.

Cameos from Beat Takeshi and most of the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster only heighten the sense of absurdity. And despite the juxtaposed tones, not one thing ever feels out of place. This is an incredible franchise that I still can’t get enough of — no matter who the main character is.

Forsaken Game of the Year

4. Destiny 2: Forsaken

It’s awfully disappointing that Destiny 2 followed the same trajectory as the first game. The sequel launched. It felt impressive! Then we got to the endgame and reached all the same old problems (not enough content, an ultimately dull story, etc.). Destiny 2: Forsaken fixed most of those problems — almost exactly the same way that The Taken King did for the first game.

Is it disappointing that Bungie doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes? Absolutely. Does that make me fear for the inevitable reset with Destiny 3? You betcha! But that doesn’t change the fact that Forsaken and the series in general have never felt better.

3. Subnautica

Subnautica should not have been “my thing.” It’s a survival game. Sure, it’s set underwater on an alien planet, and that distinct setting was enough for me to give it a shot. But I don’t usually gravitate towards games about “subsistence.” I like an overarching goal. I like characters and plot and a true ending.

As it turns out, Subnautica has all of those things. It just uses survival as a conflict in place of direct combat — or whatever other obstacle games usually put in the player’s way. That (largely) nonviolent form of expression kept the tension high while I worked to unravel the game’s greater mysteries. And there are greater mysteries. Not only that, they’re near perfectly paced for what is ostensibly an open-world game.

Subnautica uses incredibly clever tricks — like breadcrumb trails of crashed escape pods — to pull the player forward without forcing them down a linear path. The peaceful solitute of planet 4546B then becomes eerie, and at times terrifying, with amazing regularity.

Monster Hunter Game of the Year

2. Monster Hunter: World

I already wrote quite a bit about Monster Hunter: World this year. You can read my final (for now) thoughts about it on our overall Game of the Year list. And my opinions largely mirror the rest of the staff’s.

Suffice it to say, World is a fantastic next step for the creature-killing series. It’s like a dozen games rolled into one, with amazing monster design and the most deeply satisfying cooperative combat in any game this year. Play it now and get ready for the Iceborne expansion next winter!

BattleTech Game of the Year

1. BattleTech

Mechs — those big, murderous robots with typically human pilots — are one of my soft spots. They’re as aesthetically diverse as real human bodies, but still reflect our biases about what the “ideal” humanoid form should look like. Or, depending on the fictional universe, they blend our mundane functions (standing, walking, grasping objects) with other aesthetic ideals.

The greater BattleTech fiction leans toward a mix of utilitarian, WWII-like military might and medieval ritual combat. BattleTech, the video game that came out in 2018, interrogated that detached appreciation for mechanized death with newfound skepticism. The great houses of the Inner Sphere and its Periphery (the factions of the BattleTech universe) aren’t black and white knights. They’re not paragons of monarchic virtue. They’re screw-ups, dictators, idealists, and people.

And you don’t play any of them. Instead, you embody a custom mercenary caught in the crossfire. The onus is on you to color your character as either someone who believes in preserving galactic politics, as they stand, or as an opportunist trying to get by while your “betters” bicker.

And BattleTech knows about the sense of community that builds around small fish trapped in a big pond. Inter-pilot stories crop up as you travel the space-ways, adding color to you semi-random employees. That makes it all the more painful when they get pressure washed out of their cockpits by laser light.

See, BattleTech is a tactics game. Specifically, it’s a tactics game as much about taking damage as dealing it. Each encounter becomes a battle of attrition as you try to angle the least-damaged sides of your walking tanks towards incoming fire. So — despite the drab, angular, imposing mech design — it’s interesting that these human-esque metal bodies also feel so fragile.

All these tiny details, plus the guttural satisfaction of CRONCH-ing enemy vehicles, adds up to something truly special. It’s not just unique in the BattleTech franchise. It’s not just unique in the tactics genre. This one is just plain special to me as someone who plays video games.

Hollow Knight Game of the Year

Honorable Mention: Hollow Knight

This incredible Metroidvania game didn’t technically come out this year, but it might as well have for all the people that discovered it on Nintendo Switch. I’m one such person. The dark, charming, and mechanically pitch perfect platformer completely took over my life for like three weeks. I still haven’t gotten to that newest piece of DLC, but you bet your ass I’ll make time for it in 2019!