Earlier this week, our writers submitted for reader consideration (and even, occasionally, approval) their collection of some of our favorite games of the year, in no particular order, and grouped around a single idea: What did we like this year, and why? As has become one of our favorite annual traditions here in the games corner of the site, we also threw open the question to you, our readers, and you came out in droves to stump for apocalyptic city-builders, big-budget adventures, and rambling folk tales. We’ve collected some of our favorite responses here, presenting our annual survey of The Games You Liked.
needle.hacksaw—Where The Water Tastes Like Wine
I liked Where The Water Tastes Like Wine because it’s an exciting scavenger hunt for people who are deeply in love with folklore, made by people deeply in love with folklore.
WTWTLW is a strange game, and not only because its acronym sounds like the sound a rake scratching on concrete might make. It is at once a small game—very much a niche thing, for people who like to read their games as much as play them—and downright lush: Its heart are small stories, spread around a sprawling map of a post-Great War, post-Great Depression U.S.A, in which neither of those things is really past yet. You walk around that map at leisure pace, as the soul/skeleton of a tramp, collecting those narrative vignettes, and watch them grow, over time, from a casual anecdote told by somebody at a bus stop into a truly TALL TALE. If you’re even a bit familiar with American folklore, this is very much a supremely entertaining form of Where’s Waldo or “Spot-That-Folktale-Whack-A-Mole”: You might want walk into the woods near New York, expecting to encounter a haunting presence, and you will find it there. You might scan the woods of the Northeast in search of a particularly skilled lumberjack, or go to Texas, where you’ll be certain to meet a death-defying cowboy who is not afraid of some ghastly weather conditions. And there is so, so much more there.
Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is, in a way, an impossible oddity: The elevator pitch would make you think of a passion project, something that you could imagine finding one day on Itch.io, or maybe being published by Failbetter Games or Inkle as a mobile app. Instead, it turned out to be bigger than that, and way riskier: it was, not surprisingly, a spectacular financial failure for its creator. I’m all the more grateful that it exists. And for a game all about tales, ending up as a cautionary tale itself might not even be the worst fate one could imagine.
Unexpected Dave—428 Shibuya Scramble
I liked 428 Shibuya Scramble because it tells a complicated story about how our decisions affect those around us. 428 Shibuya Scramble is a visual novel that follows five protagonists through an eventful day. Each protagonist has their own goals, but their stories intersect in various ways. Seemingly innocuous decisions made by one character (such as where to eat lunch) can have drastic effects upon another character, leading to a premature bad ending. The game has only two “good” endings (one basic and one perfect) but 85 “bad” endings which run the gamut from hilarious and surreal to bleak and apocalyptic.
Like a lot of visual novels, 428 Shibuya Scramble has a mix of wacky humor and serious emotional moments, and it balances them flawlessly. Despite the game’s central novelty being its use of real-life photographs instead of illustrations, what really makes it work is the sound design. The score shifts seamlessly as it goes from moments of tragedy to moments of levity.
(Technically, this game came out in Japan for Wii in 2009, but 2018 was the first release for the English version.)
Drinking with Skeletons—Pillars Of Eternity 2: Deadfire
This year had a ton of great games. I honestly don’t know which one I’d call the best, but I know the game that I’ve most come back to throughout the year: Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire.
Building on the strong foundations of its predecessor, Obsidian took some refreshing chances with its isometric RPG sequel. Out goes the traditional, vaguely European setting in favor of vaguely Polynesian opulence. Less emphasis on small villages and more on politicking in a bustling metropolis. Four factions, each with their own divisions, to sift through to determine the fate of the archipelago. A fun take on multiclassing.
The pacing was thrown off a bit by the short and somewhat underdeveloped main quest, but Obsidian did something I didn’t expect: they made an Elder Scrolls game with the gameplay of Baldur’s Gate. And they supported it throughout the year with DLC and significant updates. I’ve logged nearly 70 hours into my character and am itching for the final big update to come out so I can justify rolling something new.
It apparently sold very poorly, and with their recent acquisition by Microsoft I’m concerned that we won’t have a final game to truly wrap up the tale of the Watcher of Caed Nua. But if you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to try it.
Shinigami Apple Merchant—Yakuza Kiwami 2
I loved Yakuza Kiwami 2 because it completed the reflective trilogy that started with Yakuza 0. It’s The Undiscovered Country to Yakuza 0's The Wrath of Khan. And it completes Kazuma Kiryu’s early journey from headstrong good-doer mixed up, Worf-style, in the corrupt organization to which he has sworn allegiance into the world-worn, reflective soul he is leaving Yakuza Kiwami 2. He started off trying to hold all this weight alone, all these sacrifices fulfilled by his own shoulders, and he ends this trilogy with friends to help share that burden without ever forgetting the COST of all that’s happened before him. He won’t foolishly go it alone again, but he won’t act like this life is ever something to relish either. It’s just the path he’s chosen and he’ll see it through (“like a dragon”).
The conversation with the bartender, all his cigarette breaks staring out into the dusk, his attempts to help Kaoru Sayama from delving too deep into her past, and his wishes for Haruka to find a lifeline away from the ever-present bullseye on his back. The well honed pathos on display, knowing when to show and when to scream is what makes this series so memorable. And I’m very much looking forward to where it all goes from here, post Yakuza 6.
Chum Joely—Into The Breach
I liked Into the Breach because it was like a chess match against Godzilla, only with even more challenges and greater complexity. The amount of depth and interactions that this game packs into its bite-sized matches is truly incredible. Obviously, a core part of every match is the situation where you have, say, 5 Vek (monsters) on the board against your 3 mechs, with one aiming at the “Must Protect” power plant, one tying your best mech up in webbing, and so on. A certain percentage of the time, you will find the ultimate brilliant solution to these conundrums—like a perfectly placed shot that knocks one enemy into nearby water to drown, while pushing another aside to a position where it will no longer shoot that power plant, but instead kill another bad guy who would have badly damaged or killed one of your mechs—but a lot of the time, you have to choose which loss is least unacceptable and plan your move accordingly. So you learn the art of cutting your losses. But there’s also a larger metagame at play where, once you manage to get out of an individual mission, you choose which sorts of power-ups you want: stronger weapons so you can take down the baddies faster or from farther away, vs. reinforcements to the power grid so you can feel safer allowing an attack on a building because the odds that it will “resist” the attack is higher, etc. The number of options and play styles you can develop is astounding, and yet the gameplay itself is utterly simple to learn. Truly an amazing achievement, and even better in my opinion than FTL (which is really saying something— I played well over 100 hours of FTL even before I managed to beat the damn thing).
I liked Frostpunk because it’s been a while since I felt I earned a win. Frostpunk at first seems unreachable. I picked it up 4 or 5 times, each time telling myself I was done, before I finally figured out how to play—at least how to survive; I’m still figuring out its more obscure systems today. The first time I played, I was exiled 8 or 10 days in. Then 15 days. Then 25 days. I’d get a little further before I became frustrated with how opaque the rules and systems worked. But then I’d try again a day later, and figure something else out. Then, one day, it clicked. My city made it to the end. The final hours of play were a revelation. I turned the music up—which is excellent, by the way—and let myself, like I haven’t been able in a while, completely immerse myself in the experience. I was lost in the game, and when it was over, I looked around in a haze, reorienting myself to my real life house, which had faded away for an hour or two. This was my win. I had to figure it out on my own. I had to learn how to manage resources and buildings. I had to learn which of my morals should be sacrificed to survive, and which I could stay true to.
I can’t speak to how well Frostpunk holds up in its genre. I haven’t played a city management game since the original Sim City. I was drawn to the game because of its graphics, dreary and beautiful and industrial. But it stayed with me because of its refusal to hold my hand, and so when I finally survived long enough to “win” the first scenario, it really felt an accomplishment.
I liked Dead Cells because it reminded me of some of my favorite video gaming experiences from my childhood, but updated and feeling fresh and new with element of genres that didn’t exist back in the day. It was super challenging, but, similar to the “Soulsborne” series of games, no death felt unfair or like anybody’s fault but my own. The only problem with it was how every death resulted in a super long trek back from the beginning of the game again. I get that check-pointing would have destroyed much of the intended effect of the experience, but man, for a game this hard, there needed to be some kind of gameplay element that allowed it to be a bit more respectful of the gamer’s time available for playing. Overall it is a consistently hard, entertaining, exciting experience full of the moments that make you feel like the most skilled player in the world, as much as it is full of those frustrating moments that make you want to throw your controller through your screen.