With Winter of Arcade sneaking in toward the tail end of 2018, our Game of the Year Awards is coming in a tad later than normal. It was a pretty fantastic year for ID@Xbox and other indie games. They’ve continued to be the highlight of my Xbox experience for the last few years. Though I’d be lying to say I wasn’t thoroughly addicted to Fortnite and Monster Hunter for a good chunk of last year.
We’ve decided to do things a little differently this year. We have one single GOTY winner. Instead of doing a list of other categories into which we try to shoehorn our favorite games, we’ve decided to feature some other titles that had stuck with us when the year was done. These are many of our favorite games from 2018, and why they’re worth talking about, followed by XBLA Fans’ 2018 Game of the Year.
A Way Out
Nathan Bowring, Senior Staff Writer: The best way to describe A Way Out is that it’s a jack of all trades; it’s got driving, shooting, baseball, you name it. It throws so much at you, but each rendition of its gameplay ideas are merely serviceable. That may not sound great at face value, but there’s one key feature that makes this game greater than the sum of its parts: mandatory co-op. Playing as prison inmates Leo and Vincent, the two strangers decide to work together to break out of prison and exact revenge on the man that set them up. It’s a fine story with likable protagonists, but the way it uses both players and a constantly-shifting split screen to tell that story is something special.
It’s easily the most cinematic co-op game in existence, with a smorgasbord of gameplay scenarios that are perfectly designed for two players. It’s one thing to go from intense stealth to a game of Connect Four. It’s an entirely another thing to do it with a friend and watch your dynamic change from sincerely working together to a trash-talking battle of wits. This is a bold co-op experiment the likes we’ve never seen before – if you haven’t played A Way Out yet, find a friend and do so right now.
Zero Jehuty, Streamer: Coming very late in the year, Ashen stormed onto Xbox, even launching on Game Pass, and quickly won my love. Combining a lovely art style and Dark Souls-like gameplay, Ashen throws you into a dark and bleak world charging you to bring back the light into a world of darkness. A “simple” task maybe, but amazingly well done.
After many years in development, Ashen released to high praise and much love in the community. With a bit of Dark Souls and some limited co-op by design, you are thrown into a hostile world where your only allies are the weapon you carry and those with whom you have helped build a home. Taking and completing tasks from these same people sees them grow alongside your home town and become stronger to assist you in your future endeavors.
While it did release very late into the year, Ashen won my heart in all the right ways. The world was bleak but you and your group manage to overcome this all; the entire time, your own starting area grows and changes as you progress, itself becoming an ever-changing and evolving vital part to the story. You must bring back the light and fight the dark and all that is within it.
Zero Jehuty, Streamer: Dead Cells killed me in all the right ways. Flashy graphics and tight gameplay quickly won me over as I slaughtered foes to draw closer to the next safe area and drop off my cells to the ever-growing collection of weapons and skills that awaited. A flashy rogue-lite with tight combat and a massive collection of weapons, skills and progression abilities was a breath of fresh air to the normally slow-paced combat and harsh death penalty of the genre formed by the wake of Dark Souls.
Following the path of what could be best described as a rolling slimeball on a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, your only goal is to progress and uncover the story of this kingdom and the amnesia hiding the truth about your beheading and death. With no limit to the combinations of weapons and skills that grow with every “cell” a foe drops, your only limit is how fast you can return to the next safe area and stock those cells into the next upgrade. Cells are the currency of upgrades, and the panic and thrill of rolling and dodging to the next safe area never get old, because of course on death you lose them all!
Dead Cells was a very welcome rogue-lite indie game that slashed and rolled its way onto the Xbox One. A huge collection of weapons, skills, and randomly generated areas made replaying this game endless fun. Chaotic but fluid combat with an impressive armory made me fall in love with this game. Dead Cells dodge-rolled its way into my heart and stole my cells.
John Laster, Editor in Chief: Imagine having only 60 seconds to beat an old-school Zelda game. At first, that might sound stressful. If not entirely impossible. I never enjoyed having a ticking clock on the screen while playing a game, as often it just feels like a forced way to add tension. Instead, Minit uses this timer to create almost a puzzle out of efficiency. With only sixty seconds to accomplish tasks, players must be quick and make good decisions. The game is full of exploration. As major events unfold or new inventory is acquired, those will stay persistent through the next respawn.
The game isn’t very long and it’s full of a simplistic complexity. It looks and feels incredibly retro, but you’ll quickly discover how much there really is within this game. You’ll find various objects that help you continue to move forward in different directions to continue to progress and explore. It’s honestly better the less I talk about it. Give this a try.
Monster Hunter: World
Nathan Bowring, Senior Staff Writer: Monster Hunter: World is a repetitive, grindy multiplayer RPG with a steep learning curve – and that’s why it’s so fantastic. Not because of those facts, but in spite of them. Where so many other games use tactics like randomization and obtuse systems to keep people playing, this game respects and rewards the time players put into it. Craving that cool sword? Just get the right parts and it’s yours; no dice rolls for subpar stats, no big let-down after hours of effort, just the loot you want 100% of the time. What makes the grind even more satisfying is the fact that even with the best gear, it means nothing in the hands of an unskilled hunter. All fourteen weapon types are unique and deep, some taking more effort than others to pick up but all requiring time to truly master.
Perhaps more important than knowing your skills is knowing your enemy. Every monster in the game, besides being an awe-inspiring wyvern, is its own boss battle with unique attacks and movement. Every move needs to be deliberate during the hunt, delivering damage while avoiding crushing blows, exploiting weaknesses while hiding your own. All monsters have tells, quirks and weaknesses that aren’t immediately apparent, but skilled hunters can pick up on them. Time spent learning and practicing is just as important as getting stronger tools, making taking down stronger and stronger beasts a feat that feels well and truly earned.
While the core loop has long been a part of the series, the new open world takes the hunt to the next level. The environments are absolutely breathtaking, making each habitat a thrill to explore. Each of the five large maps is teeming with life, from the giant target monsters to tiny endemic life and everything in between. It feels like a real, thriving ecosystem; the animals eat, sleep and battle each other in terrifying displays of brutality. It’s a fantasy world full of dragons, but seeing them as living creatures and exploring their home adds weight to the hunt. It may be small, but my favorite thing about the game is you don’t have to be cruel to these magnificent creatures. Monsters can be captured non-lethally instead of killed, and the various other critters can become your pets.
Anthony Blizzard, Staff Writer: I knew from the second I laid eyes on the trailer for Moonlighter that I was going to fall in love. Once I started to play it, I was instantly immersed in the experience I had before me. The music and environment were nothing short of intoxicating. The game dynamic of grinding through randomly-generated dungeons to have things to not only craft but to sell in your shop the next day was an exciting breath of fresh air compared to other rogue-lites I have played.
Just as enjoyable, and adding to the experience, is that you’re able not just to upgrade the store but the town itself. Adding merchants and abilities to enhance the gameplay experience kept me feeling a steady sense of satisfaction and progression as I dug further into the mysteries of the world. By the end of the game I was yearning for more but who wouldn’t that when you get an ending like this one had?
Anthony Blizzard, Staff Writer: The original Overcooked was one of the best couch co-op experiences that we have seen in gaming in forever. So I knew when this crazy kitchen of fun was adding online play with friends in its sequel that it was going to be something to be excited for. It brings back all the fun and hilarity that the original brought and just amplifies it. More characters, levels, modes, dishes – and adding that online capability just put everything over the top. I found myself laughing at most of the puns and enjoying every level, especially the unique “Kevin” challenge levels.
The other thing about this title for me is the fun we had on Twitch streaming this. Literally some of the most laughs I have ever had while playing a game. We spent hours not just playing the co-op but sabotaging each other in competitive. I’ve literally never had more fun throwing food all over the place than I did here, and the additional DLC didn’t hurt either.
Aaron McCurdy, Staff Writer: The atmosphere of Strange Brigade is fresh and exciting. You play as one of the characters in a team of explorers who are after treasure and must solve puzzles and fight off undead hordes of mummies and all kinds of creatures in 1930’s Egypt. The narrator gets my vote as the best voice actor for the year. It’s funny, informative, and creates a level of excitement I don’t normally have while playing.
As a third-person shooter, it’s crafted as magically as the powers you’ll encounter. The upgrade system is well done and replaying each area frequently will grant you the delight of a stronger character. I enjoyed the puzzles and trap-based system. Shooting the traps to destroy monsters to give you an edge was so much fun. I also really liked the collectible system which made you want to keep playing to do everything Strange Brigade had to offer. I still go back and play it just to see what’s new and test out new content.
Super Mega Baseball 2
John Laster, Editor in Chief: If you enjoy baseball and own an Xbox One there is a huge elephant in the room. While football, basketball, hockey and soccer all receive AAA-level installments annually on all platforms, MLB-licensed baseball has been dormant on Xbox One since, well, forever. Sure, there is RBI Baseball, but it’s no substitute for MLB the Show. For a few months this year, not only was that elephant largely forgotten, it was almost entirely gone. While Super Mega Baseball 2 didn’t have the MLB license, it offered an insane amount of customization and some of the most fluid sports gameplay ever.
The first Super Mega Baseball had a bit of a goofy aesthetic in some ways with large heads and cartoony vibes, but it had perfected Player vs CPU gameplay with a highly tuned Ego system. As players improved they could adjust the difficulty to continue to challenge themselves and get realistic matches. The sequel pushed this system even further allowing you to tune specific aspects of the game individually. More importantly to many, it included online multiplayer matches. For a few months, literally, the only game I wanted to play was Super Mega Baseball 2.
The developers created something genuinely amazing with this title. Unfortunately the online isn’t exactly where it was at launch, but the game itself is still fantastic and worth a look for anyone who enjoys sports titles. I could give my opinions on why the online community has died, but more important is the fact that the developer, Metalhead, created something so good that I genuinely miss it daily.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
Aaron McCurdy, Staff Writer: Sometimes a story is powerful enough to make you think outside of the game. While most of the time we use it as an escape from reality, The Missing engages you in thought and brings a sad truth about what depression does to someone. Some feel all hope to be happy has vanished away and there’s no longer a reason to continue on with life. It’s not an “in your face truth”, but one that you come to realize as the ending unfolds. Usually, someone can be saved from this depression by knowing they matter to another person. Love is the strongest emotion, and The Missing may flaunt pain and suffering, but the core is beautiful and full of life.
Besides using a theme that most shy away from, you can also find some amazing gameplay. Puzzles in the form of self-inflicted injury and resurrection are done with clever precision. It’s different than anything I have played and will be my most memorable experience this year.
I could not put the game down and completed it in one sitting, even replaying certain sections. You get an alternate story because of your outlook on the information you receive at the end of your first playthrough. Nothing else changes. Just knowing one fact changes the entire feel of the game. This is one of the most intelligent games I have ever played and it sits at the top of my list for being the best game of 2018.
Warhammer: Vermintide 2
Aaron McCurdy, Staff Writer: I didn’t plan on being addicted to Vermintide 2. I never played the original one and actually thought it was more of a strategy game. Boy, was I wrong! I quickly got sucked into the chaotic world of swords and sorcery. It’s a cooperative game that can be compared to Left 4 Dead. Yet, it’s more RPG-based. You can level up your character and get rare and legendary gear. You may play levels over and over but because you’re improving, you’re feeling that each time is progression.
Just about everything Vermintide 2 has to offer is at a superior level. It isn’t a quick game, so expect to spend a ton of time playing it. Like I mentioned before, I was surprised when I tried it out. If you enjoyed Left 4 Dead, you’re going to love this one.
Yoku’s Island Express
Nathan Bowring, Senior Staff Writer: Since the dawn of pinball, table designers tried to inject some sort of adventure into the game. Tables would give you grand quests to complete, but to me, they never felt like anything more than a thinly veiled and unnecessary excuse to hit bumpers and trigger lights. Even with the magic of video games, the best we’d get are standard tables with more impressive action going on around them.
That all ended in 2018 with Yoku’s Island Express, a pinball game that traded a small table for a huge open world and high scores for world-saving missions. Turning flippers into a platforming mechanic works surprisingly well, aided by a seamless world built by smart metroidvania design. It’s all presented as the charming tale of a (thankfully sanitary) dung beetle delivering mail across a colorful island. If you’ve been craving something more from your pinball, you need to check this out.
John Laster, Editor in Chief: There are games that are virtually perfect platformers, and there are games with great stories. Celeste without question fits both of these categories, however, it also pushes past surface-level greatness. Celeste is about Madeline’s quest to conquer a mountain.
The game intertwines the complex platforming with the story to create a metaphor for depression. Throughout the game, Madeline must deal with her own self-doubts and even a physical manifestation of herself. It becomes the perfect complement to the deeply enjoyable platforming mechanics as players journey up the mountain.
Celeste’s platforming is so good that it alone would have been an incredible game. But the way the visuals, music, gameplay and plot come together creates something truly magical. Celeste may be a difficult platformer for many, but it’s worth the challenge. If the difficulty has you scared off, the developers have included assists for those who need them. This is a game that is fully worth experiencing. Games this close to perfect don’t come around often.