The countdown is over and we’ve solidified our list for the top 50 games of 2018, which covers the gamut of big-name blockbusters and small-team triumphs. But we know it’s a pretty long list, so here are the picks that can be played on Windows PC (and sometimes Linux and Mac, too).
Out of our top 50 picks, 35 can be played on PC. That’s more any other platform. Of those, seven titles cannot be played on any console: Frostpunk, Wreckfest, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, The Red Strings Club, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, BattleTech, and our #2 game of the year, Return of the Obra Dinn. That’s more than any other platform represented on our list.
As for the inclusion of games like Hollow Knight which technically first came out prior to 2018, well, what we said in the top 50 post holds true here as well:
You may notice the inclusion of games that were either fully released or made available in Early Access prior to 2018. Because many games change from update to update, let alone year to year, we will include previously available games that receive a significant update within the year or become available on a platform that substantially impacts how that game is experienced. For example, Fortnite Battle Royale is included, ranked No. 13, because we feel its recent seasons were the first great game of 2018.
Don’t worry too much about the ranking. It’s a fun and light exercise. Ultimately, we recommend all of these games. That’s why we’ve included a bit on what makes each one special: so you can find the best games of 2018 for you.
Related, we’ve nixed the numbers from this because, out of the context of the top 50, the rankings lose their value.
If you’re looking for recommendations that expand beyond 2018, check out our essentials page for the all-time best PC games.
Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom
No, you needn’t have played the first Ni no Kuni to enjoy its sequel, a feverishly optimistic (and welcomingly naïve) Japanese role-playing game inspired, in part, by the works of Studio Ghibli. Its colorful animation conceals a rich but not overly complicated kingdom-management system that gives the adventure a grand sense of scope. A fairytale storyline gives its motley band of heroes a playful pep that feels anachronistic, if not flagrantly in conflict with our times.
Here’s Cameron Kunzelman’s take from our review: “There’s not a wasted breath or a plot point that doesn’t manage to pay off in a significant way. Ni no Kuni 2 is a solid contemporary JRPG that brings a lot of design ideas that I love into sharp, clear focus while staying entertaining and engaging throughout.”
Frostpunk gives me a deep sense of dread and satisfaction I didn’t think a city management sim could deliver. Unlike its contemporaries, which might include fiddling with a city’s economy, zoning and the happiness of its citizens, in this game, all my decisions have life and death consequences. Because in this world, resources are limited and there’s hardly any safety nets to be found. Mismanagement could mean folks might starve, freeze or beat each other to death.
While I enjoy the leisurely pace of similar sims, I really love how Frostpunk always manages to keep me on edge. Keeping a society alive, stable, and most importantly hopeful, in the darkest of scenarios is reason enough to keep playing. Not every decision I have to make is easy — many of which are the toughest I’ve ever been asked to make in a virtual world — but being the pillar of a crumbling society is a task I couldn’t help taking on time and time again. There’s something about crawling from the depths of despair to find hope over the horizon that keeps me coming back, even when all I could see ahead was an approaching storm.
I devoured The Messenger over a vacation at my in-laws. After a slow start on the flight, I found myself staying up late and waking up early to make my way a little further in this throwback 2D action-platformer that borrows gleefully from the Ninja Gaiden series and Metroidvanias. Its creators stuffed the crunchy, pixelated world with small, smart creative choices. A shopkeeper with a winning personality; secret, bad bosses with good intentions; environmental puzzles that bend the fabric of reality.
Many critics rightfully celebrated The Messenger’s second-act twist, which shifts the structure of the game in an unexpected way. It’s neat! But what’s stuck with me after that sprint through the campaign are the characters, who both get a complete story and feel primed for a sequel. Plus, the technical problems from launch on Switch seem to be fixed. Have a vacation coming up? Have I got the game for you.
Fallout 76 understands that an open world needs to be rewarding — not in terms of finding resources or new quests, but because the act of exploration itself should be engaging. Foregoing the skeleton-on-a-bed storytelling that worked so well in past games, Fallout 76’s landscape of wasteland West Virginia is speckled with descriptive mise-en-scènes. Every time I stumble on one, I feel like I’ve uncovered a secret about the world. I’ve found a birdhouse workshop, a gladiatorial arena and a household studded with cat-head wall plaques. That’s just a small slice of what’s on offer.
Fallout 76 can manage because there’s just so much good content; tons of enemies, buildings, quests, outfits. Sure there are no NPCs, but with the spice of online multiplayer added, I found I haven’t missed it much. The interactions I’ve experienced have been mostly kind — strangers showing off their bases or handing out desperately needed clean water. Occasionally they’ve been violent, but the wasteland is a dangerous place, and the repercussions for being murdered are pretty minor. More importantly, anything is possible in a virtual world, and Fallout 76 opens up the possibilities in a way few games do.
Dragon Ball FighterZ
Through its various manga and anime incarnations, the world of Dragon Ball has defined an unmistakable look. While those versions of the series remain untouchable classics, the franchise has always been playing catch-up on the video game front. Thankfully, Dragon Ball FighterZ lives up to the series’ legacy and delivers one of the best fighting games of the year.
The game’s cel-shaded art style is a clear nod to the aesthetics of Dragon Ball’s illustrated and animated forms, even down to ripping the same angles from the manga and anime. The visual spectacle goes hand in hand with the game’s simplified control scheme, which turns experts and newcomers alike into players who can dish out damaging laser light shows with ease. These elements work together to deliver one of the most satisfying multiplayer experiences of the year and the Dragon Ball fighting game I’ve always dreamed of.
The lengthy development of Wreckfest encapsulates the trajectory of midsized independent game studios over the past six years. Developer Bugbear began work on the project in 2012, around the same time that Double Fine’s Broken Age established Kickstarter as a potential funding tool for modestly scoped games. So in 2013, Bugbear tried to crowdfund its game. When it became obvious the studio wouldn’t meet its $350,000 goal, it terminated the Kickstarter campaign.
The team pivoted, offering pre-orders and a surprisingly deep demo on its website. The pre-orders surpassed the $350,000 threshold within a week. In 2014, Bugbear pivoted again, this time putting the game on Steam Early Access. Within a week, it hit another $1 million in sales.
The project didn’t even have a name; Bugbear had dubbed it Next Car Game. It became Wreckfest in October 2014, and like so many Kickstarter and early access games, it began to sputter with setbacks, delays and fussy updates. But like a special few games within this ecosystem, at a certain point, years into development, everything began to click. Fans who had soured on the game returned for new updates. Its Steam rating began to shift toward the positive again. And in June 2018, the official release of Wreckfest delivered on the gleeful destruction of the original demo, while also standing on its own as a racing game that emphasizes destruction in a way its contemporaries won’t or, because of licensing agreements, can’t.
It says something about Bugbear’s ambition that a game originally meant to be released in 2014 feels so fresh, looks so beautiful and handles so nicely in 2018. And it speaks to the state of the industry that a doomed Kickstarter from half a decade ago could become, today, one of the best games of the year.
The Gardens Between
The Gardens Between starts on a rainy night, with two middle-school-aged friends huddled together in a treehouse. A mysterious light transports them to a gorgeous, mystical world filled with islands populated by memories of their friendship. Each island is a towering puzzle; the tweens must work together to reach the top, but obstacles block the path. One character carries a lantern holding a mysterious light that can dispel fog and create bridges, while the other works magical machinery that can stop and reverse time.
Playing The Gardens Between feels like a lucid dream. The lack of control — I can’t directly choose where the characters go — and manipulation of time and memory can get a little trippy, but never overwhelmingly so. When I start to get frustrated by a difficult puzzle, I pause and observe the flow of time. Usually I’ll find my solution by watching time pass by.
The Gardens Between isn’t the first game to explore memory and growing up. It probably won’t be the last. But the visuals, story and bending of time harmonize in way that elevates the game, bringing new light to an overworked theme.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s multiplayer suite is both bigger and more refined than those of its predecessors. The traditional multiplayer and Zombies modes — two hallmarks of the Call of Duty franchise during the last decade — have been freed of the bloat accumulated over recent years, with developer Treyarch refocusing the central mechanics that give Call of Duty its iconic feel.
Rather than release another overwrought single-player campaign, Treyarch has invested in a huge multiplayer expansion. Blackout is battle royale with the signature Call of Duty shine. It’s faster and smoother than almost any other battle royale game. But where the mode really sets itself apart is the map. Each town in the massive space is taken from the multiplayer maps of previous Call of Duty games, ensuring it was designed to stand on its own as a full multiplayer map. It has a level of authorship that borrows from over a decade of top-notch multiplayer design, something its contemporaries haven’t matched.
Each of the three modes that make up Black Ops 4 could easily stand on its own as a worthwhile game, but together they prove that to survive this year and into the future, Call of Duty’s creators are wise to focus on what the series does best.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is hard to place in 2018. It’s been up and down, loved and despised. Our initial impressions praised the leveling experience and the content of the world. But our updated review hit hard on the expansion’s many problems, particularly where it’s fallen seriously short of its predecessor, Legion.
But Battle for Azeroth’s standout feature is persistence. One system like Azerite can do so much to damage the game’s reputation and feel, but World of Warcraft has survived dark times and crummy expansions for over 14 years now. One system, no matter how bad, can’t take away the good times the MMO still offers each and every week — playing through dungeons with friends, or trying your hand at the raid’s hardest difficulties.
Slowly, Blizzard and the players find a point of equilibrium with each expansion. New patches have just arrived with more in the works. And most importantly, we’re still playing despite the frustrations and imperfections. Battle for Azeroth is still a World of Warcraft expansion, and World of Warcraft is still pretty damn good.
A Case of Distrust
A Case of Distrust is one of the slickest-looking games of 2018. It’s a 1920s murder mystery that was filmed and then rotoscoped so that it looks like it’s made of moving paper cut-outs.
As San Francisco’s only female private detective, the player must solve the case of a missing bootlegger. It’s drenched in a Jazz Age aesthetic and historical detail. Developer Ben Wander did his homework, and it shows in the travel segments where the detective can opt to chat with the city’s taxi drivers. Not once did I skip this option, because each taxi driver has an opinion on a cultural event, or a story to tell about his life. Attempts to seed historical detail into fiction can come off as stilted, but here they feel present and lived-in.
In our review, Colin Campbell wrote that A Case of Distrust “gives flight to a genre that’s been so thoroughly tilled in other media.” It’s true that noir has been done and then redone to death, but it’s something different when I’m the one calling the shots and solving the crimes.
—Simone de Rochefort
Moonlighter answered a question I never thought to ask: Where do shopkeepers in adventure games find the items they sell in their stores? In this fantasy world, at least one shopkeeper works double duty as the kind of adventurer they serve in their store. This double life sets up one of the most lovable genre-mashups of the year: Moonlighter is more than an adventure-filled rogue-lite — it’s a retail sim, too.
To gather wares to sell, each night the main character journeys into the darkest depths of various dungeons, slaying beasts and collecting items. When he returns from his quests, those spoils become the next day’s inventory. As a shopkeeper, he needs to stock the shelves, speculate on pricing, entice customers with lovely decor and tackle would-be thieves. Whatever is left in his cash register that day becomes the purse he brings around town to the various weapons dealers, potion makers and more. With better gear, he can explore more dangerous dungeons, which beget better loot, which fetches higher prices in the shop and so on. It’s a compelling loop that oscillates between the part of my brain that seeks adventure and the part that believes in good ol’ fashioned entrepreneurship.
Nine hundred ninety-nine feet below the Earth’s surface is a crackling campfire and a ragtag group of animals who lost their homes and loved ones to the holes terrorizing Donut County. Blame the disaster on BK, an extremely selfish — and extremely cute — raccoon with a nasty smartphone addiction.
Donut County invites plenty of comparisons to Katamari Damacy: A strange, unexplainable force descends on a town and its unwitting residents, consuming everything it comes across. But where chaos reaches literal new heights with Katamari, the holes that terrorize Donut County are silent, efficient and clean. Where Katamari giveth, Donut County taketh away.
The premise of the game is simple: Be a hole in the ground and swallow up as many things as you can while solving a few puzzles along the way. It’s oddly therapeutic.
The dialogue is witty, charming and funny. Texting BK is a joy. I spam him a duck emoji; he spams it right back. Between stages, I can review all the items I’ve swallowed as a hole in something called a Trashopedia. It lists a candle, for example, as a “really bad version of the sun. Tastes ok.”
As puzzle games go, Donut County is a sugary treat. Like any good donut, it’s short, sweet and best enjoyed in one sitting.
The Red Strings Club
I love the way games can turn the most mundane activities into delicious loops that I want to slurp up with with my morning cereal. The Red Strings Club got me as soon as I heard it was a bartending game. Mixing drinks and chatting up customers: I could practically taste the mundanity before I started.
The story centers on the titular club’s bartender, Donovan, who has a side gig as an information broker. In this cyberpunk setting, everyone has ulterior motives. There’s a shady corporation, a scrappy rebel group, and questions about body modding and free will. With the help of his “muse,” Donovan mixes drinks that bring out his customers’ emotions. And so you go about the complicated task of information gathering, not necessarily made easier by alcohol. You’re expected to learn to read between the lines in these conversations — what do people believe, but not say?
The game’s weighty themes are bolstered by its lovely, mundane gameplay activities. They’re grounded. Even during a sequence when you carve cybernetic implants, the work is tactile and weirdly soothing.
—Simone de Rochefort
Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age
The makers of the Dragon Quest franchise like to play it safe. Under the direction of Yuji Horii, the creator of the iconic Japanese role-playing game, the games have gone where the audience goes, boomeranging from Nintendo to PlayStation to Nintendo and back again. Over more than three decades, they continue to tell tales of legendary heroes who battle evil to save their homelands or the entire world.
Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive Age staunchly sticks to many of the series’ formulas, for the better. It’s a grand role-playing game, spanning dozens of hours (as required by JRPG law) filled with turn-based battles against slimes, dragons, golems and other cute tongue-wagging monsters. I love it, for all its slavish adherence to the Dragon Quest formula. I love visiting charming towns, exploring the countryside with a party of endearing and sweet heroes, and vanquishing evil. Dragon Quest games have always had these things, and Echoes of an Elusive Age has more of them, in high fidelity and polished to a comfortable smoothness.
In our review of Dragon Quest 11, we rightly criticized the game for appealing largely to longtime Dragon Quest fans. It’s true; there are a great number of things in this game aimed squarely at the veteran Dragon Quest player. But that’s me, and it’s wonderful to slip back into the coziness of these worlds once again.
At the beginning of Gris, the protagonist loses her voice and begins a journey to reclaim what’s been taken. It echoes Journey, another game without words and limited instruction that sends me on a mission with little guidance other than move forward. The charm reveals itself gingerly as I explore at my own pace, interacting with the environments and solving a few platforming puzzles. My travels are accompaniment by warm ambient sounds and a orchestral score that boosts the sense of scale.
There’s no combat or fighting to interrupt my quest, save for occasionally escaping an inky black shapeshifter. I adapt to my environment. Sometimes I turn into a heavy block to resist desert winds, other times I use my power to crash through unstable floors. Gris is a story about grief, powerlessness and self-discovery. Through its voiceless lead, it explores these themes not with words, but actions.
Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire
OK, I’ll be the first to confess that CRPGs have been something of a blind spot at Polygon. Last year, we didn’t place Divinity: Original Sin 2 in our top 10. Or our top 50. I know, we goofed. Game writer Shawn Kittelsen rightly took us to task with a great op-ed, “Divinity: Original Sin 2 ignored 2017’s biggest trends, and that’s why it’s great.” And yet, this year, I almost made the same mistake, sleeping on Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire.
Deadfire is different from Original Sin 2. It’s even denser in terms of text and lore. I found its systems difficult to learn; then again, I’m a novice to the genre. But the thing I’m discovering about CRPGs — a little late — is the immersion and interactivity. What amounts to marketing speak for so many AAA games is genuinely delivered through Deadfire. The closest comparison is dungeon crawling at a kitchen table with a brilliant Dungeon Master. At first, this sort of video game seemed irreconcilable with my schedule. But in reality, it’s much easier to make time for Pillars of Eternity 2 than to maintain a regular game of D&D.
It seems like we’re getting a fantastic CRPG every year now. I’m grateful that folks finally got me to pay attention. Would be a shame to miss out on this moment.
Subnautica first appeared on Steam Early Access in 2014, but didn’t get a formal, full release until this January. I remember years ago playing a promising but relatively thin and unfinished game that borrowed from previous construction hits like Minecraft while paving the way for the glut of survival games that would flood the market during its lengthy development. How wonderful to say that Subnautica in 2018 is richer and more mysterious than I could have expected, a sprawling and playful experience that captures the thrill of survival and exploration games while largely trimming away the busy work that has accumulated on the genre like biofouling on the belly of a boat.
In 2016, right in the thick of development, Subnautica’s director, Charlie Cleveland, responded to questions about why the game didn’t include guns. Cleveland, who had previously worked on first-person shooters, described a change of heart in reaction to the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. “I’ve never believed that video game violence creates more real-world violence,” Cleveland said. “But I couldn’t just sit by and ‘add more guns’ to the world either.
“So Subnautica is one vote towards a world with less guns. A reminder that there is another way forward. One where we use non-violent and more creative solutions to solve our problems. One where we are not at the top of the food chain.” The decision has fostered something beautiful, inspiring, different.
Forza Horizon 4
Playground Games is a British studio made up of developers with a broad range of experience making driving games. So it’s fitting that this latest in Microsoft’s fun and loose Forza Horizon series takes place in a lovingly crafted version of the United Kingdom.
With the fantastic Forza brand, it almost goes without saying that the cars look beautiful and handle superbly, from high-performance racing beasts to retro runarounds. An open map guides players through a variety of challenges and mini racing seasons, with a heavy emphasis on challenging real players to online matches, or teaming up with friends for various challenges.
But the real star of the show is Britain, rendered in four seasons of sceptered wonder. Forza Horizon 4 is one of those driving games in which open exploration really is as much fun as carefully designed courses.
Without losing focus, Dead Cells brings together no fewer than six different genres into a single adventure. It’s an incredible feat. Creating an excellent roguelike or Metroidvania is a challenge on its own, but Dead Cells shows a mastery of each form as well as its contemporaries dedicated to a single genre.
Some credit goes to the game’s roots in Early Access, where its developers used feedback to refine and revise their ideas. By the time the game officially launched, Dead Cells felt like a fully formed creature, rather than a half-finished Frankenstein creation.
Despite the complexity of its design, it’s friendly to newcomers, slowly introducing new mechanics rather than repeatedly hurling players into impossible fights. And thanks to numerous secrets and upgrades, each death feels less like a game over and more like a step toward progress.
In the end, Dead Cells feels like so many games we’ve loved, and yet, there’s nothing quite like it.
It isn’t inaccurate to describe Hitman 2 as “more Hitman,” but it is reductive. If anything, Hitman 2 is the culmination of its predecessor, rather than a cash-grab sequel. 2016’s episodic collection of open-world assassination locations has been cemented into a traditional stand-alone release, featuring all the additional back-of-the-box bullet points you’d expect. Smarter baddies! Sillier costumes! Mirrors that actually fog and reflect!
While the story is still barely intelligible, it’s the last thing on my mind as I explore Hitman 2’s sprawling environments, filling Agent 47’s bottomless pockets with everything he needs to distract and incapacitate anyone standing between him and his targets.
Every Hitman level is a giant puzzle box in which people, places and things are linked by what must be a rat’s nest of AI routines. Figuring out the connections between everything remains the most thrilling element of the game. The AI of the hundreds of people drifting through each set-piece isn’t realistic, nor should it be.
Hitman 2 doesn’t work like a simulation of a real-life assassination. How grim that would be! Hitman 2 works like Groundhog Day with considerably more murder. I’ve put enough hours into the games to be able to anticipate the reactions to every action — because I understand the interplay between the systems and mechanics, the NPCs and objects. The more I play, the more I learn about how these intricately layered contraptions function, how each person will behave. And once I know the rules, I can bend them to my will as I orchestrate the perfect hit.
A Way Out
A Way Out may have frustrated some players with its ending. But the hours leading to the conclusion were by turns ludicrous, heartfelt, quirky and memorable. The split-screen co-op game veers between identities and styles with abandon, and that’s part of its charm.
The plot follows two escaped convicts on the run from every police officer in the world. And yet, the leads seem unconcerned when controlled by me and a friend. Might as well stop and play some baseball in the trailer park, right? Might as well try on hats in the house we’re robbing. Action movie set-pieces invariably follow these more playful sequences, destroying tonal consistency but giving players a lovable ride.
Leo and Vincent’s friendship still has a place in my heart, and though this game sure has its faults, I don’t regret my time with it one bit. Like people say, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, especially when the journey features so many hats. Yes, that is exactly what they say.
—Simone de Rochefort
No Man’s Sky Next
The No Man’s Sky Next update is the game No Man’s Sky appeared to be in its early trailers and demos. Players have been given more freedom to explore the universe as they see fit, be it constructing an underwater bases or assembling a massive fleet of frigates. Crafting systems are revamped, the UI enhanced and new music added. You almost never lack something new to do or discover. And you can now truly play online with three other players — exploring the galaxy, transferring resources and building bases.
The addition of multiplayer has had an unexpected side effect: the need for a third-person camera option. This new angle reframes the game. Your explorer is now an avatar who can gesture, sport different looks and be photographed in the game’s fantastic photo mode. We enjoyed the solitude of No Man’s Sky right from the start, so the third-person camera feels like a dramatic enhancement. There’s something about seeing our own character on a vast, unpopulated planet that nails the game’s impeccable sense of isolation and the vastness of space. The update that finally brings players together also makes it easier to feel like the only being in the entire universe.
In 2017, Bethesda released a handful of deep and inventive single-player games, including Prey, The Evil Within 2 and a stand-alone expansion to Dishonored 2. Though critically lauded, none of them sold especially well, raising questions about the sustainability of smartly designed single-player games, particularly those in the so-called immersive sim genre. Since then, some fans and critics have speculated on what the developers of these projects might be forced to create to stay alive. Vapid first-person shooters? Cynical battle royale modes? Match-three apps?
Prey: Mooncrash is our first look at the future of immersive sims, and it’s unquestionably influenced by the rise of Twitch streams, with its pseudo-procedurally generated design emphasizing player expression and unexpected scenarios. In one playthrough, I had nearly escaped the game’s moon base when I found myself cornered by a gang of roaming enemies with telekinetic powers. I decided to wait them out in an air vent, but I made too much noise. Rather than wait for me outside, the enemies used their powers to detonate the gas lines in the vent, causing the pipes to spew fire. As I tried to escape, their telekinesis ability lifted me into the air, pressing me against the ceiling of the vent, allowing the fire to roast me like a pig on a spit.
Mooncrash hasn’t been made easier or less complex to appease a broader audience. Its semi-permadeath sessions encourage you to actually use all your fancy skills, rather than sitting on them for the perfect occasion. And its goals are refreshingly opaque, inviting players to discover how its elaborate systems work over the course of dozens of hourlong playthroughs — or to learn with help from a Twitch chat audience. That is to say, it’s a single-player game that might be better played with others watching, providing insight from their own playthroughs.
If Prey: Mooncrash hints at the future of Bethesda’s single-player and immersive sim projects, there’s reason to be comforted and excited about the future of the genre and its creators. (Though its commercial viability remains a question mark.)
Destiny 2: Forsaken
A year after Destiny 2’s release, the Forsaken expansion reinvented the entire game. Bungie completely re-engineered the weapons system to offer more flexibility and increased access to powerful guns like shotguns and sniper rifles. The flow of every combat encounter feels different, yet the series’ fantastic gunplay remains intact.
Forsaken also adds two new environments and Destiny’s best raid to date. PvP and the new hybrid PvEvP mode, Gambit, are faster and more enjoyable than the Guardian-on-Guardian combat of years past. Forsaken pours a foundation that the team at Bungie can build upon for years to come, starting with its new approach to seasonal content in the upcoming Annual Pass.
In so many ways, playing Moss is like vacationing in a storybook. I take on the role of the Reader, a powerful force that the residents of Moss can sense but not see. I come across a tiny mouse named Quill who is on a quest to save her uncle, after their kingdom was overthrown by a fire-breathing snake. As the Reader, my job is to solve puzzles and clear obstacles to aid Quill in her journey.
Magic radiates from every corner of the game: Pulling a handle from the ground renders a tower of stone steps. Pushing and pulling objects feels like an act of wizardry — wisps of light follow my path, as if from a magic wand. There are tiny libraries, mouse-sized pubs and rich forests, each worth the few minutes rest to pause and marvel at their details.
Moss’ creators have built each scene like large dioramas. Had I not stood up, leaned forward or looked left to right, I would’ve missed so many more lovingly crafted details along my adventure. Polyarc Games uses VR fostering a sense of intimacy, to build a protectiveness of its lead character. Like its central characters, Moss is a game of small things that make a big impact.
Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves emerged as a promising game in need of more content — a chaotic pirate sandbox kept interesting by its players. The core concepts of the game have simmered over time, its flavors bolstered by a regular update schedule and new systems that enhance the the game’s appealing foundation.
The beauty of Sea of Thieves is how organic and responsive it is. Very few systems stand between the player and the pirate sandbox. There are minimal menus, and goals are straightforward. The pirates’ tools have specific purposes, but can be manipulated in a variety of ways by clever players. And yet, when you combine all of the above and add other players to the mix, you end up with cinematic ship battles, dramatic betrayals and alliances, and an adventure that feels different from one session to the next.
The first two expansion packs added new concepts to the game, but the recent addition of the Devil’s Roar region and the re-tuning of the game’s core systems in Shrouded Spoils really unlocked the game’s potential. As the game stands in 2018, between the AI threats on the sea and the other players at the helm of their own ships, a session of Sea of Thieves can be as tranquil as a road trip with friends or as frantic and terrifying as the final firefights of a battle royale match.
— Cass Marshall
Unlike in other adventure games, where exploring vast landscapes and poring over the tiny details of the surroundings is the norm, every second counts in Minit. The main character dies every minute, only to get another chance at the moment. It’s like Majora’s Mask and Groundhog Day but, well, you know, shorter.
The hero makes gradual progress by reaching checkpoints from which death restarts the adventure. Progress, die, restart from the beginning, apply what you learned, reach a checkpoint, die, restart a little further in the quest, and repeat.
Tasks are simple enough to be completed in 60 seconds, whether that’s finding the perfect radio station for a stranger, listening to an old man’s story or solving the mystery behind the cursed sword that has plagued the hero’s hometown.
With the finite amount of life there is to live, mundane tasks turn into monumental undertakings. Each new life becomes a fresh opportunity to learn more secrets or find more money to buy new sneakers. Most modern games expect players to do a bit of everything at once; Minit succeeds because it focuses on one thing at a time. Progress, it shows, is incremental and deliberate.
When Firaxis Games released XCOM: Enemy Unknown in October 2012, I was forced to add a new word to my turn-based strategy vocabulary: “lavish.” Here was a fully three-dimensional game with all the bells and whistles I had come to expect from a AAA developer. It looked as good as it played, something rare in the strategy space.
After playing BattleTech, I need a lot more words.
Harebrained Schemes’ presentation of the now 35-year-old franchise is stunning, from the emotional introductory CGI sequence to the interstitial cutscenes. As I wrote earlier this year, it’s also, compared to many of its contemporaries, a surprisingly multicultural affair. The game’s writers lean into a vision of the future that includes palace intrigue and heroic last stands, but also a universe that has a place for everyone.
On top of it all, the gameplay keeps everything that makes this particular brand of big stompy robots so much fun to inhabit. Unlike other tactical games, BattleTech challenges players to plan ahead and then actually gives them the freedom they need to execute those plans on a massive stage. It forces difficult decisions, with missions that can bleed over into the category of roguelike experiences. As painful as some missions are, there’s always a way out and it never feels like the AI is cheating at its dice rolls behind the screen.
Fortnite Battle Royale
Don’t worry about being late to Fortnite Battle Royale. The creators of this colorful and constructive twist on the battle royale formula ensure that new players have plenty of chances to jump on board as they constantly reimagine and retool the map, weapons and modes. The most dramatic changes take place across seasons, in a fashion reminiscent of Blizzard’s Hearthstone model. Over a couple of months, players progress through the ranks, unlocking new costumes, gliders and bonuses. And when the season wraps, everybody returns to zero. Of course, none of these upgrades and rewards give players an advantage on the battlefield, so if you don’t care about cosmetics, there’s no wrong time to start — or a reason to spend money.
Whether you come to Fortnite through a console, a PC or a smartphone, the items and experience you earn are persistent. (Unless you play on PlayStation.) We’ve found ourselves rotating where we play, enjoying a week on an iPhone, then craving the precision of mouse and keyboard, then spending a week on the couch with an Xbox controller in our hand. PUBG revolutionized this genre, but Fortnite is quietly revolutionizing the fashion in which big video games seamlessly exist wherever you wish to play them. And it’s free!
The game technically launched in beta in 2017. It’s unclear if it will ever graduate from being “early access,” as that status makes the process of releasing regular patches and updates easier, particularly on consoles with complicated publishing contracts. But beneath all that legal stuff that gets in the weeds is the kernel of what made Fortnite Battle Royale uniquely special this year: the use of game updates as an interactive group storytelling device. The 2018 seasons told a exciting, confusing, messy and surreal story fueled by a handful of sci-fi plots that have fueled countless B-movies. The meta-story of Fortnite has lost some of its energy — entropy! — but at its peak, the game felt all encompassing.
Yes, we know Hollow Knight first came out in 2017. We’re ashamed to admit it, but most of us never actually played it last year. That changed when the game arrived on Switch this summer, and I realized just how big of a mistake that was.
I adore Metroidvania games, and, quite simply, Hollow Knight is the greatest the genre has ever produced. The game’s design, from its sprawling map to its bespoke customization system to its countless boss fights, is peerless. Better than Symphony of the Night, better than Super Metroid, better than Bloodborne. That quality is matched by a haunting score and hand-drawn visuals that look ripped from the pages of a Tim Burton sketchpad. It’s a feast.
And on the Switch, it has found a truly perfect home. Hollow Knight’s length and difficulty are made far more palpable when you’re able to trawl the depths of the bug kingdom on the go. As a bonus, the game has only gotten bigger with a handful of free updates over the last year. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ll find an unforgettable experience awaiting you.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Exploration, combat, stealth, role-playing progression and dialogue choice make up the core activities in this giant open world, but its kinetic elements don’t entirely do it justice.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a teeming saga of the Peloponnesian War, loaded with likable, believable characters, both fictional and drawn from history. Moody marine hues and bright Hellenic contrasts create an eye-pleasing world of mountains, meadows, cities and islands.
The story twists a warm familial reunion narrative with a cold, hard search for vengeance against an evil cult. Hidden shipwrecks, mythical beasts, combat arenas and creepy tombs add to a sense of a fantastical, expansive world.
Ubisoft built the Assassin’s Creed series on its big, dense open worlds. But Odyssey’s world feels like a turning point, loosening its focus on muted historical settings seen from grimny rooftops, and instead embracing vibrant colors, mythological beasts, and sprawling swaths of ocean and countryside.
Monster Hunter: World
Here’s Polygon’s Chelsea Stark laying out everything you need to know about Monster Hunter: World: “To answer the three most pressing questions around Monster Hunter: World: Yes, its creators have made a notoriously inaccessible franchise into something that, if not totally accessible, somewhat resembles it. Yes, it’s still filled with countless menus and tough-to-parse mythos. And yes, this game lets you be best friends with a cat.”
There’s a BFF cat — what else can I add that might convince you to give Monster Hunter: World a try? You demand more? For fans of Capcom games who haven’t leapt into this daunting franchise, Monster Hunter: World carries a bounty of goofy cameos. The game has received post-launch updates featuring characters from Street Fighter, Devil May Cry and Mega Man. For non-Capcom fans, the guest stars complement the abundance of other additions, from new quests to humongous beasts. Monster Hunter: World was a great game at release. With each month, it’s only gotten better.
Into the Breach
Into the Breach would feel like a Nintendo game, were it not so fascinated with the death of human civilization at the hands (claws? maws?) of grotesque aliens. Similarly to what Nintendo has done with so many genres, creators Justin Ma and Matthew Davis distill a complex strategy formula into an approachable, forgiving idea that feels almost like a classic board game. That isn’t to say Into the Breach is easy — it isn’t! Rather, it’s fair, taking time to teach you rules, presenting them clearly within the world’s design, then testing you to see what you learn and how you adapt.
In an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Ma said the team spent half of the game’s four-year development on its user interface. “When we decided we had to show what every enemy was doing every single turn, and that every action needed to be clear, it became clear how bad that nightmare would be,” said Ma. The magic of Into the Breach is that, to the average player, the work doesn’t show. It’s invisible. Everything works, just as you’d expect it to. Which, again, mirrors the je ne sais quois of Nintendo’s catalogue. What makes truly great games special is, often, not something you spot. It’s something you feel.
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to TowerFall takes one move from the competitive multiplayer game (its buoyant jump) and mines it for every fleck of creativity, like a chef creating a prix fixe menu around a single, delicious and flexible ingredient. Celeste is a challenging platformer, in the line of Mario or Meat Boy, but notably, it includes tools to modify and alleviate the difficulty. You can slow the game speed, turn on invincibility or skip chapters. Thorson’s game doesn’t judge players for how they experience his work. And for those who want a more difficult experience, collectible strawberries are tucked throughout the world of Celeste, typically in precarious places, provoking highly skilled players to pursue challenge for no greater reason than “it’s fun.”
The decision to trim the stress from a notoriously stressful genre pairs well with Celeste’s story, which plunges into the shadowy trauma of anxiety, depression and meeting the expectations of those we love most. A charming art style and an uplifting score hold everything together, like a warm sweater or a bear hug. Life is hard enough, Celeste seems to say, there’s nothing wrong in asking for help.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn is a detailed, unique and beautiful murder mystery from Lucas Pope, the maker of Papers, Please. Drawn in retro monochrome, it’s set aboard an abandoned ship in 1807.
The player is an insurance agent tasked with investigating the ship, seeking clues to the deaths and disappearances of its crew. By a process of elimination, the agent pieces together the tale of a torrid voyage.
It’s a highly original cross between an old-fashioned novel and a narrative sudoku puzzle, in which facts and events are pieced together to present a satisfying whole. Pope’s game is a masterpiece in detail, style and story.
Available on Mac and Windows PC.
Get it here: Steam
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