I keep looking at my list of games and trying to find a through line, some theme that ties them all together beyond “they were all good.” I can’t. Last year, several of my top games challenged me to master some kind of skill through repetition and improvement, but this year, only two games were truly challenging (and one might be the most challenging game I’ve ever played). The others are a good mix of genres and difficulties, each with different hooks, different strengths and weaknesses. In fact, no genre is represented more than once. That seems odd for me, since I have pretty particular tastes, but it’s a welcome change.
Like last year, subscription services gave me a reason to check out games I otherwise might have passed up. I played four of my top ten games via Xbox Game Pass, and a fifth became available after I had already bought it. Since I “pay” for Game Pass exclusively through Microsoft Rewards, these games were technically free for me to play. I gave up on several games through the service, but the ones I stuck with ended up being fantastic. I guess it’s no coincidence that my list is as diverse as it is.
10. Untitled Goose Game – PC, Mac, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
I don’t think the developers of Untitled Goose Game had a strong grasp on what they had created before it was released into the world. The tone is set at the first button prompt (HONK) from inside a bush, but unfortunately, that’s the best moment of the game. Tedium drags the rest of it down. I wanted more absurdity, or more self-awareness, or more heart. Luckily, it’s short enough that it didn’t lose me before the end.
9. Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX – PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
If this game had the structure of Azure Striker Gunvolt on top of the new dash-based tagging system, it would have been higher on my list. The core gameplay is awesome—fast and satisfying with plenty of room for improving your skills. Once I finished all the main missions, however, I had no incentive to improve. I was disappointed to be done so quickly.
8. Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair – PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
While the original Yooka Laylee is a tribute to Banjo Kazooie, this game is a tribute to Donkey Kong Country. Considering how fantastic Tropical Freeze is, they chose a good franchise to ape, but Impossible Lair doesn’t quite live up to its inspiration. The overworld map is great, though, and the 2D platforming is solid enough. It’s a great first attempt, so I hope Playtonic tries again, this time with a bit more polish.
7. Crackdown 3 – PC, Xbox One
I’m lucky enough to have ignored all the prelaunch hype (or criticism) surrounding Crackdown 3, so I had practically no expectations trying it out via Xbox Game Pass. I loved it. It has a unique blend of platforming and shooting that I wasn’t expecting, having never played a Crackdown game before. The never-stop-moving gameplay style is hectic but really satisfying once I got a handle on it.
6. The Outer Worlds – PC, Xbox One
Unencumbered by the Fallout license, Obsidian was able to craft a world around the story they wanted to tell, and it’s their best yet. The corporate-run solar system of The Outer Worlds is just absurd enough to make you smile at how awful it is, while giving you the power to disrupt it all however you choose. It also has one of my favorite characters ever in a video game. I never would have guessed that in a game about space corporations and space politics and space pirating, I’d be most invested in an engineer going on a first date.
5. Astral Chain – Switch
I’m a sucker for good character-action combat, and Astral Chain might have the best in the genre. The learning curve is steep since the mechanics are so unique, but once I got a grasp on controlling two characters at once, I felt unstoppable. And stylish. It would’ve been higher on my list, but everything outside of the combat kind of sucks. The story is big and anime, but it isn’t quite big enough, especially when compared to other Platinum stories like Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta, and the action is broken up by tedious side missions that often have no combat at all. The result is a 30-hour game that should’ve been ten. But those ten good hours are awesome.
4. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
I’ve never played Symphony of the Night. I know. But now I don’t need to, because Bloodstained filled that gap with something just as awesome. The giant pet heads and floating Kickstarter backer portraits are weird, but they’re not the only weird things in the game, so they kind of fit into the whole vibe. It’s a goofy game, both in overall tone and in its mechanics, which allow you to break the game in ways that make it more enjoyable, not less. Most importantly, it nails the pacing that’s so important for the genre. This game was looking rough before it came out, but I’m thrilled that it turned out to be so good.
3. Super Mario Maker 2 – Switch
Super Mario Maker is one of my favorite games of all time, and the sequel builds on what the first got right in every way. The novelty has worn off a bit, however, so I spent less time with this game than I thought I would. Honestly, there are just too many good games that keep pulling me away from it. Luckily, it’s the type of game that I can return to whenever I find myself in a gaming lull, make a couple levels, and still have a blast.
2. Gears 5 – PC, Xbox One
I never would have guessed that a Gears game would be so high on any list of mine. I’m not much of a fan of the series (I hate bullet sponges), but Gears 5 is on another level. Every aspect of the design is polished to near perfection. I didn’t spend much time in the larger open world, but the fact that I could make that decision is another example of how well the game is designed. Playing on Easy let me pop heads with ease, but it didn’t make it too easy, either. I’ll definitely be on board to see this leg of the story wrap up in the next game.
1. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – PC, PS4, Xbox One
Some people think you need to be a masochist to enjoy From Software games. Trust me, I get no pleasure from the pain of failure in them, and the pain in Sekiro was easily the worst I’ve experienced in a game. I’ve never been so angry, so frustrated, so baffled. But I’ve also never been so happy, so triumphant, so empowered. The pain of failure leads to that much more pleasure in success.
But that’s just the status quo for the genre. Sekiro ramps it up with incredible combat—rhythmic, deliberate, beautiful, basically the opposite of the clunky, methodical Souls combat that encourages you to be cautious and calculating. This is where I’ve seen Souls fans stumble when they pick up Sekiro. We think we know what From Software games are, so we pick this one up and think that it’s another Souls game or another Bloodborne, just in a different setting. But we may have forgotten that the Souls games forced us to unlearn so many things we thought we knew about how games worked. Those games were obtuse and unfamiliar. For the first time in years—maybe decades—we had to learn how a new type of game works. The brilliance of Sekiro is that it turns that idea onto the genre itself. It forces you to unlearn the habits and strategies from Souls and replace them with something new, again, while still scratching the same itch that the previous games did. Just when I was getting comfortable with the genre, I was forced to figure it all out again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve been happy to see Sekiro get broad recognition through awards at various outlets this year. I never would have expected a game designed for such a specific audience to get such widespread praise. Usually I feel alone with my love of From Software games, since most people either don’t like them at all or have a cult-like obsession, with seemingly few people in between.
That’s one of the joys of game of the year awards–seeing other people enjoy what you enjoyed, along with being introduced to games you may have missed. So give Sekiro a try. You’ll probably hate it, but you might become hopelessly obsessed. Or you can just watch all the amazing slowmo cinematic shots of combat animations that are out there. Honestly, those may be the sole reason it won awards at all.
(Seriously, they’re that cool.)