Last Friday on a bonus episode of the Make Me A Gamer Podcast, I doled out the first-ever Manatees (T-Man, manatee, get it?) to some of the games I really enjoyed this year. But I also wanted to write up a companion article to expand a little bit on all the games I talked about and a few I didn’t get to on the podcast.
In the podcast I go over a lot of the technical and mechanical details as to why I enjoyed the game, but in this piece I wanted to go a little more into the feelings and emotional side of the games. I’ve gotten into a habit of writing about and reviewing games from a detached, matter-of-fact standpoint instead of really exploring how games make me feel. Sometimes a game just has that je ne sais quoi and grabs you from the beginning and never lets go.
So here are TMan’s 2018 Manatees in article format. Hope you enjoy, and happy new year!
Honorable Mention #1: Hollow Knight
Not a lot of games make me feel uneasy. Some scare me (I’m looking at you, Five Nights at Freddy’s) but only a few really create that palpable sense of dread and disgust in the pit of your stomach. Blighttown in Dark Souls was the last time I really felt like “I don’t want to be here” in a video game.
Until Hollow Knight.
For a game about bugs, it’s mostly cute. The main character is cute. Zote is trying to be tough, but he’s cute. Hornet’s cute. The Dung Defender – yes, he’s a dung beetle – is hilarious and mostly cute. For a crapsack world, a lot of the game’s design is friendly and cute and puts a small smile on your face.
And then there’s Deepnest, which is the legit most skin-crawling area I’ve been in a game in a long time. You want shadowy spiders crawling across your screen like they’re caught inside your Switch? You got ’em. You want random ominous rumblings from a direction you can’t really pinpoint? You got those two. You want low visibility and a really freaky shadow creature? Yep! Deepnest is something out of the mind of HP Lovecraft, if HP Lovecraft was a bug and only designed bug-related creatures and worlds. I was tense every moment I explored the area, and my gut wrenched every time I realized I had to go back there for some reason.
The rest of the game is a blast of a Metroidvania, but Deepnest is what I’ll remember from Hollow Knight.
Honorable Mention #2: Valkyria Chronicles 4
Every year there’s one game that I play right at the end that suddenly threatens to upend all my hard work in planning out my lists. This year it’s Valkyria Chronicles 4, and it’s because it’s a strategy game that really, truly, makes me feel like I’m commanding epic battles on a large scale. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a map and thought “this is impossible” only for me to finish the map an hour later feeling like I just pulled out a victory by the skin of my teeth.
No map takes less than an hour. Every map takes skill, thought, and planning. It takes place in a parallel-universe World War 2 scenario with similar countries (but not quite the same) and every battle makes you feel that pressure. I’ve bonded with all my squad’s characters – who all have distinct personalities that make choosing who to send into battle important. And every battle is important. You leave your tank out of position one time and two of your characters get picked off by a sniper you couldn’t see. You have to be the best battle commander you can be when you’re playing this game.
It’s very good, and if I’d played it earlier it may have bumped something off my final top 10 list, but I couldn’t quite rationalize it replacing anything currently. It’s worth a mention, though, so here you are.
10. Deltarune Chapter 1
I’m sitting hunched over in front of my computer at 2 AM in the morning as I tackle the secret boss of Deltarune Chapter 1 for the fifth time. Even though I have work tomorrow, the frenetic challenge of this particular boss has made it impossible for me to sleep until I do. THE WORLD REVOLVING starts playing for the fifth time and I feel the same chill go up my spine as the first time I heard it. Because let’s face it, if it weren’t for Toby Fox’s brilliant music I wouldn’t be so keen on continuing to play the game.
Both in Undertale and Deltarune, Toby Fox does so much with so little. The sprites are simple, the backgrounds are plain, and the music is chiptune – but through characters, dialogue, and the perfect use of melodic leitmotifs he makes you feel things that some game developers never succeed at doing no matter how hard they try. There’s an emotional resonance in every character in Deltarune that just makes me want to spend more time in this world. Even though it was free, three hours was just not enough time in Deltarune’s world and I am already waiting with bated breath for the final product.
9. Return of the Obra Dinn
Sometimes the idea of a game is strong enough to leave an impression on you even if you haven’t actually played much of the game itself. My Steam log says I’ve played the game for 2 hours. I’ve only personally solved 9 cases of the 60 total passengers of the Obra Dinn, but that was more than enough time for it to be indelibly marked in my brain. The unique aesthetic and the way the game does not handhold you in the least bit and instead encourages you to use your own brain and not just click the button that says “solve mystery” makes a lasting impression.
I’ve recommended this game on the strength of concept alone. And it resonates with a lot of my friends who are looking for unique games that don’t follow the same routine. Of all the games on this list, I’ve probably played this game the least amount of time but am most likely to rave about it to random people, so that’s something.
8. Octopath Traveler
On a random weekday evening in the middle of July, I posed a question about a song from Octopath Traveler’s soundtrack – specifically They Who Govern Reason – to a few of my more musically inclined friends. I’d been listening to the song non-stop for the past day or two after first being exposed to it, and a specific section of the song (1:39-2:00) had stuck with me. And so I ended up going on a journey learning about minor keys, half-steps, chord progressions, and the like as my friend used his pitch pipe to figure out just what was going on in the sections I was asking about. It was a blast and I felt like I was legitimately learning new things, all because of a single song from a video game.
Oh, and I guess this was a pretty nifty old-school JRPG too.
7. Dead Cells
Dead Cells is one of those games where when you start to get really good at it, it starts to feel like a dance routine. You throw the turret first, which has the oil property, so when you throw your fire bomb everything takes extra fire damage. Then you leap in and fire one shot with your bow that causes everything in a radius to take extra critical damage, then hack away with your double daggers that cause bleed to anything on fire. And then everything in your general vicinity is dead. You pause for a brief second as there’s an interlude in your deadly dance as your skills recharge and then you venture into the next room and start the process over again.
And then some aggravating elite enemy gets a lucky swing in and you lose all your health and have to start over from the beginning and ARGH YOU FREAKING GAME I ALMOST HAD THE PERFECT RUN THAT TIME YOU STUPID SON OF A…
…no, I’m just going to stick with the dance metaphor. Dead Cells, it’s like a dance. A wonderful, exciting dance that in no way shape or form induces high blood pressure.
6. Super Smash Bros Ultimate
My enjoyment from Smash Bros can be encapsulated by one specific instance. I had four of my friends over and we were taking turns playing 4-player matches and most of us were just choosing random characters since there are so many in this version. One of us eventually got Yoshi and all five of us ended up bursting into a hysterical laughing fit when his Final Smash activated for the first time. This led to the next match being three Yoshis vs. Duck Hunt Dog and all three Yoshis building up their Final Smashes to use on the poor Dog over and over and over again and all of us dying of laughter every time it happened.
Smash Bros is a game that just brings pure, unadulterated joy to me and my friends every time we play it because every time we get together some new inside joke spawns out of it. No other multiplayer game has quite brought my group of friends together quite like it and this iteration is no different.
5. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Sometimes you play a game for 80 hours and you know exactly why you did so. And then there are games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey where I definitely enjoyed my time with it but it didn’t feel like 80 hours of my life went into this game. It’s all such a blur – sneaking into forts and assassinating dudes, sneaking into palaces and assassinating dudes, climbing to the very top of a mountain just to assassinate a dude, riding a horse halfway across the world to assassinate a dude, using my galleon to cleave a ship in half because I wanted to assassinate a dude. And then for a change of pace, sneaking into a palace to assassinate a dudette.
In all seriousness, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inspired some sort of joy in me that I can’t put my finger on. I enjoyed every moment I played this game and every time I tried to take a break from it I ended up back in the midst of it within an hour. It commanded my attention because I love the ancient Greek world and it occasionally surprised me: from fighting the Minotaur to escorting an Olympic hero named Testikles, there were moments both challenging and hilarious. No other game quite captured the epic scale of a huge open world like this one did in 2018.
4. The Messenger
I’ve talked about music several times already, but this game has the most lasting soundtrack of all the video games I played this year. The fact that every stage theme has an 8-bit and 16-bit version is only the tip of the iceberg. Every time I put this soundtrack on while I’m working, I want to dive back into playing this game. Only a few games have ever gotten me to really tackle the New Game+ version, but this one is doing so solely through the soundtrack.
The mechanics are great, sure. The story is interesting, yeah. The art design is amazing and the humor is a riot. This game had everything in spades. But I daresay that this game’s soundtrack is my album of the year – topping anything I listened to this year by “actual” bands. Music is one of the hardest ideas to quantify and explain in words because sometimes songs just touch you in a way you can’t explain.
So yeah, The Messenger is a good overall package. But if it weren’t for the soundtrack it may not have even ended up on this list. Sometimes that’s all a game needs to get my attention and make me raise it far above everything else.
3. God of War
Do I need to say anything else?
2. Into the Breach
There was a specific moment, that I think I mentioned in an earlier blog post, where this game really clicked for me. I was sitting on the first turn of the very final map. I couldn’t make any mistakes because I was barely clinging to enough power grid health and one successful alien attack would mean curtains for this run. I was so close and could taste victory, but the scenario I was looking at felt impossible. I moved a few of my mechs, realized I wasn’t able to successfully defend everything, and used my very precious turn reset to start over.
Then I sat there and stared.
It took me a good five to ten minutes, but eventually I was able to sort all the puzzle pieces and with my three actions I was able to survive that turn, kill a bunch of the aliens, and not take any damage. And that’s when it all came together. I was absolutely, positively, completely sure that the game had put me in an impossible situation on turn one and I was ready to swear off the game forever. But no. All I had to do was spend enough time just thinking and analyzing and eventually the solution was dropped right in my lap. Not only did I survive that turn, but I survived the rest of the map and that run became my first successful victory in Into the Breach.
The feeling you get when you use your brain and only your brain to solve a difficult puzzle is a special one, and Into The Breach provides those feelings over and over again. And it does so with really cool mechs. So yeah, that’s why I love this game.
1. Marvel’s Spider-Man
Mechanical: Okay, press R2 to swing. Press X as you let go of R2 to get an extra boost at the height of your arc. Press X twice to slingshot yourself forward. Now hold L3 to dive and gain momentum, then hit R2 right before you hit the ground to get a maximum swing arc. As you swing up, hit L2 and R2 to zip to that rooftop, then hit X right as you land to boost yourself forward and hold R2 to start swinging again. Swing close to this building so you start running along its side, then hold O to slingshot yourself around the corner and head a new direction. R2. X. R2. X. L2 & R2. X. L3. R2.
Mental: I’M. MOTHER. FUCKING. SPIDER-MAN. MOTHER. FUCKING. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
See y’all in 2019!