For me, in general 2018 was the year of Metroidvania. There was an abundance of examples of the genre being released and it's hard to point out another year in which fans of the genre got so much to play with. Yet, it wasn't alone and 2018 saw a slew of other games slam-dunk itself into my gaming life in ways I couldn't have imagined beforehand.
5. Dead Cells
One of my favourite games from the past few years - without actually being that good - must have been Rogue Legacy. The roguelite Metroidvania-ish game was incredibly more-ish in playing and proved to be the perfect busywork while chomping through a massive podcast playlist. I must've completed a handful of playthroughs in that game because of it.
And like another child of a knight, Dead Cells inherited the mantle of Podcast Grinder in 2018. Taking the same cues from Rogue Legacy, yet infusing it with a lot more action, bravura and nastiness; the game is simply delightfully hard.
Having to balance your weapon load-out against your character's stat progression is such a great mechanic, making your own actions your greatest enemy. All the while teasing you with permanent upgrades around every corner. More so than Rogue Legacy, this actually feels a bit more like a 'Legacy' boardgame: until you've reached the very end, it feels like you're playing your own customised version of the game.
The distinct soundtrack and graphical style just add the cherry on top. I'll be playing this well into 2019.
4. Octopath Traveler (Nintendo Switch)
Tears of joy. It's been a while since a game primarily sold me on its soundtrack, but by Jove, Nishiki has done it. This composer can just go stand next to Uematsu and Mitsuda, thank you very much. Octopath Traveler takes all the good stuff from the 16-bit era console role-playing games and simply upgrades it to correspond with how you remember you've experienced them.
But this isn't just a trip down memory lane as the combat system itself is ingenious. All magic elements and weapons form damage types and enemies can be weak against one or more of them. Exhaust the weakness and enemies will "break" skipping their turn while extra vulnerable. Meanwhile, you build up boost points allowing you to unleash multiple blows upon enemies within a single turn.
The result is a sort of custom Limit Break system, allowing you to conduct massive assaults with pinpoint accuracy. Luckily, "breaking" enemies slowly becomes a complex puzzle as you progress, not just being a showcase for the first boss (looking at you, Final Fantasy). That the game's story is a mere collection of eight separate character beats is probably its greatest weakness, though I loved the more Suikoden-esque views it presented.
But man, that soundtrack. The last time I was fist-pumping, shouting at the screen, all hyped up to take down a boss as the theme music segued into the actual battle music, was during Chrono Trigger. Here it happens throughout the entire game and it messes me up emotionally. Just incredible.
3. Tetris Effect (PS4)
It's 2018 and Tetris is a thing. Yeah, I know. But it simply is. This is the Russian puzzle game we all know, love, and hate, but infused with Mizuguchi's crazy drive towards synaesthesia. That means every action within the game of Tetris is linked to vibrations, sound, and visuals. It's spellbinding.
That on itself would've been enough, but Tetris Effect also toys with how you progress through the game, giving you clusters of levels to be played through in succession, changing difficulty as you go along. Instead of the gradual increase so prevalent in previous versions of Tetris, here the difficulty fluctuates, comes and goes in waves, and as a result adds to the emotional experience that its creators try to instil.
Did you ever know Tetris had a boss? No? Well, it doesn't. Yet, play Tetris Effect and you will feel the tension build up towards such a battle next to the joy and exuberance of surviving it. You can now have a favourite Tetris level. Think about that. That's insane by any other definition, but in Tetris Effect, it's the only valid one.
And then you put on the PlayStation VR headset. That's when your mind gets blown all over again, the vibrations, sound, and visuals amplified in intensity, and then... yes. It's 2018 and Tetris is a thing.
2. Astro Bot Rescue Mission (PSVR)
Mario isn't like Sonic. Sonic was made to be a mascot. But Mario grew into the position of one. What started as Jumpman, became a villain, gained a brother and it was only when he became Super, that things started to click.
Astro Bot is Sony's mascot that seemingly came out of nowhere. What started as Double Fine's attempt to humanise the new features of the PlayStation Camera and DualShock 4 controller in The Playroom, became the adaptable humanoids of fun in The Playroom VR, and was then finally turned into a single 'named' superhero in spin-off Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
As I've mentioned elsewhere, it's impossible to describe Astro Bot to someone and not slump back deflated by your own words. Screenshots, videos, and words cannot competently describe the generational leap forward that is Astro Bot. Again, this is the true sequel to Super Mario 64. I cannot imagine anyone at Nintendo playing this and not saying to themselves "by the gods, we really should've gone forward with that VR-thing after all".
It's a masterclass in VR design, it constantly, genuinely, delights you with new mechanics, old mechanics, forgotten mechanics, and yourself. You are in the game. You are part of it. Yet, no one realises it until they finally don the PlayStation VR. By all rights this game should have been on the cover of every magazine, sparked a thousand online essays, and be celebrated as the next generation in video games. As it is, Sony's new mascot is simply glossed over, because - as its cute claw happily waves towards you - it is simply too personal an experience to share.
Just be sure to play this sometime in your life.
1. Hollow Knight
I've never been a fan of the term Metroidvania. For one, I always thought Symphony of the Night (SotN) was more of a Metroid-like, simply adding some Japanese number-fluff on top of it. Of course, I underestimated the fact that a new generation had grown up with the PlayStation, never heard of Nintendo, and so SotN was allowed to share the spotlight. Metroidvania it is.
So what do you call Hollow Knight then? It's obviously a Metroid-like. The Gothic darkness and RPG number-fluff are just as obviously more SotN. But then there's the thick bittersweet tang of Dark Souls-sauce it's all smothered in, permeating every aspect of it. Metrouls? Darkvania? Metroidvaniaborne? Maybe [gasp] its own genre?
It certainly goes out of its way to claim its own little niche, despite the graves of its forebears it dances on. Progress is literally off the hook. Where Metroid dictates a lifeline that could be unravelled with skilful play, Hollow Knight opens up and makes exploration an integral part of the game. The inconvenient way it treats mapping is initially frustrating but wholesale brilliant in context. The way people traverse trough the game world is bound to be different for everyone. The sheer size of that same game world being overwhelming to the point of just staring at the screen slack-jawed as yet another area opens up.
Sure, there's Metroid's progression abilities, SotN's personal upgrades and beautiful soundtrack. But there's also Dark Souls' unforgivingness, its steep learning curve, its uncompromising bosses, its shattered story that you have to piece together from seemingly unrelated clues, and its bleak atmosphere.
Next to there being so much to gorge on, the game has been steadily growing even fatter with new content. Its greatest update (a new player character) not even arriving until 2019. Technically this may have been a 2017 title, but with its console origins, Hollow Knight feels more at home on a Nintendo Switch or PlayStation 4.
It's also a giant kick up Nintendo's behind. Again. If Astro Bot didn't grab their attention, surely Hollow Knight's bright example of how to update the Metroid-template to modern times should. Especially with a new one waiting in the wings while having delivered a lukewarm instalment one year ago (which also got clobbered by an independent attempt, lest we forget).
Hollow Knight is definitely not a game I could universally recommend. It's not like Astro Bot. But it's clearly the best of whatever genre it's just claimed. Few games in the last decade have completely taken over my mind like this one has, making me think of the game at random moments, while being completely lost in it, and loving that. It's simply too bright a light to ignore. And it's becoming brighter still.