Stephanie Herdman's Games of 2018
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Spyro Reignited Trilogy

Insomniac Games + Toys for Bob / Activision

So like many early 90's kids, I was raised during the golden era of 3D action-adventure games like Banjo Kazooie, Jak and Daxter, Crash Bandicoot, Mario 64, and Donkey Kong 64. While for some people the nostalgia for this genre is long gone, it continues to be my favourite, and I get excited for every new and remastered game announced.

After Yooka-Laylee, this was probably my most anticipated game of this decade, if not of this millennium. But I was cautious, I've been burned before. I've enjoyed but had frustrations with Hat in Time and Yooka Laylee, but had fantastic payoff with Mario Odyssey, so I was eager to see where this would land.

Almost immediately after starting up the first game, I was enamored with it. The sights, the sounds…. It's all EXACTLY how I wanted it. The same Spyro games I remember from happier, easier going times, but looking the way that I thought they did back in the day. There are so many tiny details into this game that show the amount of love and support that was poured into this trilogy. From the unique designs of the dragons to the absolutely gorgeous graphics, Spyro sparked the need in me to do it justice and 100% it. A feeling I haven't gotten since Mario Odyssey, or Jak and Daxter before that.

Don't get me wrong, this game suffers from the same faults at the original. Sometimes it has weird logic to solving a problem. Some of the mini-games are a bit of a pain. You'll constantly be fighting with the camera.

But the polish and payoffs of this game is so worth it and doesn't overstay it's welcome or overburden you with too many collectibles.

I think this game could have been a disaster, but I'm so thankful that it was put into good hands. So thank you, Toys for Bob.

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Valkyria Chronicles 4

SEGA

*For full disclosure, I work with SEGA ATLUS and did not pay for the game key*

We always try to play games for work, and sometimes we're fortunate to find and work on a game that really just strike a chord with us. And for me, that was Valkyria Chronicles 4.

I love turn-based strategies like Pokémon, Fire Emblem, Suikoden, Civ 6, and so many more. I've also loved anime since Grade 6 and recently gotten into a deep visual novel hole. So when someone comes along and goes: "Hey, we have a turn-based strategy with Japanese animation inspired graphics and an adorable medical dog", who am I to say no? So I jumped into the demo with mild curiosity and next to no expectations. And boy did I fall hard, and fast.

The first thing I noticed was that the Switch demo didn't have Japanese dub. This is usually a deal breaker for me as I am firmly on the "sub > dubs" side of the debate (look, to each their own, but I personally ALWAYS default to the original voices), but I trooped on. After the initial kneejerk "ugh", I realized that the English voice acting was actually… really good. Even after the Japanese voice pack dropped at launch, I realized that I had grown too attached to the English characters. And while the localization team is getting all sorts of kudos for the Yakuza series, there's so much to be said about their excellent work in VC4. The conversations flow naturally and each character has a very distinct personality.

The story follows Squad E, a group fighting in a war against a group called the Imperials in a sort of alternate, soft-fantasy World War 1. The game can feel quite story-heavy at times, especially since it breaks the story down into multiple chunks and there can be 8-10 of these before a battle, but I actually really liked how they did this. It meant that they didn't skimp out on the story or character development, but I wasn't overwhelmed with extremely long story cuts. As I have it on the Switch, this meant that picking is up and putting it down was extremely easy, which means that I'll actually play it rather than feel guilty for not putting large chunks aside for it. It also meant they could keep it fresh by switching between full cinematics to a more visual novel-esque style.

As for gameplay, you will be given a case brief which hints about the battle's particular challenges, the win condition, and any automatic failure conditions. Then you'll choose which units will go into battle and their placement to start. Upon jumping into the battle for the first time, you may notice that your positioning isn't ideal, but you'll truck on. There are 6 unit types and 2 vehicle types in battle and they each have their pros and cons when it comes to shot strength, range, area damage, armour, accuracy, movement, and counters. While the game is turn-based, the nearby units can react to opposing units as they move, which means you can't always just run willy-nilly all over the place.

But what I truly love about Valkyria Chronicles 4, is that it's so much more than the mainline story. There are weapon and equipment upgrades which can completely change your strategies, there are squad stories which are completely supplemental chapters that not only let you get to know your squad members better through cutscenes and battles but also can change their personality quirks (often for the better). There are also skirmishes which take a battle you've completed and will add additional challenges to it if you want the extra experience or money for upgrades.

I love this game because it seemed so simple at first glance, but both the mechanics and characters grew in complexity the more I played. I am not going to argue that this game is perfect, we all have personal preferences in certain aspects of game design, but by golly is it ever endearing.

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Oxygen Not Included

Klei Entertainment

If there's ever a time I feel hipster, it's talking about Klei Entertainment. I played Don't Starve when it was a Chrome Extension… and that was extremely early on. And seeing how Klei continued to support and pour so much love into that game gained a lot of trust and respect from me. So when they announced their new project, Oxygen Not Included, I knew I needed it immediately.

Compared to Don't Starve, which is more of an action-based survival, Oxygen Not Included is a much slower paced, worker and resource management game. The game starts off with 3 workers spawning into the middle of an asteroid, and much like Don't Starve, you start off with next to nothing, and you'll have to get resources to create technologies.  Unlike Don't Starve, however, the biggest threats are mostly from the environment rather than creatures. The biggest threats are a lack of food or water, sicknesses, and much like the title, a lack of oxygen. It seems simple, but it is extremely hard to do.

Each of the people, called duplicants, have positive and negative traits that will affect their stats and so much more. These range from duplicants needing to go to the bathroom more often, randomly falling asleep, better athletic abilities, and so forth. The most annoying of them is the loud sleeper who needs an entire room to themselves or they'll keep all your duplicants up through the night.

I can't really explain why I love this game so much, it just kind of nails that "okay, just one more thing" vibe that games like Prison Architect, Civ 5, the Sims or Stardew Valley give me.  There's also that extremely cathartic feeling that takes me back to old Skyblock Minecraft mods of starting with nothing and then having a huge, sprawling complex that you created.

Other things to note is the extremely stylized art which looks similar to Don't Starve, and how much Klei continues to support this game. Klei are so good at launching things into early access in a playable state and then adding more content to flesh out the world they have built. It's how early access SHOULD be done. The most recent large update patch added the ability to leave your asteroid and explore the universe. I have yet to "git gud" at the game, so I've yet to see it, but I enjoy the game regardless and can't stop thinking about how I want to go back to see what they've added and changed since the last time I've logged in.

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Dead Cells

Motion Twin

*Disclosure: I got this key from work, but did not directly work on this game*

I heard so much about Dead Cells that I felt like I should check it out and see what all the fuss was about. I'm not usually a fan of action-based platformers, but hey, Green Eggs and Ham, right?

Well, I fired up the full game shortly before the launch and almost instantly got hooked. There was something so simple, yet so addictive about it. The gameplay was fast, but not too fast. It both eased you in but also didn't take any prisoners. It was challenging enough that I was determined to get better at it and do the game some kind of justice.

You start off in a dungeon and very little information is given to you about the world you're living in or your character's backstory, and to be honest, the hints were enough to pique my curiosity, but it was the smoothness of the gameplay that sold me. It just felt so good and responsive that I wanted to keep playing and getting better at it.

Also, as a working adult, I am increasingly attracted to games where I can pick up and put down without having to worry about forgetting the story or being locked into one place. Dead Cells is perfect for that, as the cyclical gameplay sessions aren't incredibly long, and there's exactly the story or character depth of a game like Persona.

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Super Smash Bros Ultimate

Bandai Namco Studios, Sora Ltd / Nintendo

Last year was weird for me as every time a Nintendo Direct happened with Smash news I got extremely hyped, and then almost immediately after, asked myself why I was so hyped. I wasn't a huge Smash fan after all, and the last one I played was probably on the GameCube. So I told myself I didn't need Ultimate for launch, and I probably wouldn't buy it for a while.

That all changed when I went to a dev party for the holidays and they had the game hooked up to a projector. It took me right back to all those hours lost to previous versions of the game at countless parties, hangouts, and middle school tournaments.

Despite not playing it in years, muscle memory and familiar characters kicked right in from the first round. That night stirred something in me and started an obsessive need to buy the game. So the second I was in a mall, about a week before Christmas, I popped into the local EB Games and picked up a copy. So much for not buying it soon after launch.

The funny thing is, I primarily bought it as a party game, and there are plenty of Tweets and podcast episodes out there where I've said that I wished there was a secret code to unlock all the characters for people like me who just wanted it for the local multiplayer experience. But after party guests went home and we had only unlocked a handful of characters, I was consumed by the need to unlock the full roster, and this is where I discovered the Adventure Mode and Classic Mode.

The Adventure Mode is the story that the last trailer hinted towards before the game released, with a strange creature in the sky taking out all of our favourite heroes, sans Kirby. Now, this worked out well for me as Kirby was my original main, and to this day, is probably the character I cleared a solid 95% of the board with.

The story is fairly generic, as these large beings have captured and corrupted the heroes, and you must fight them to free them. In between the shadow fighters, there are probably hundreds of duplicate characters and unique challenges. These range from defeating multiple characters, to sudden death, or large characters. They sometimes seemed a bit much, but I loved how each character or stage reflected the hundreds of companion spirits you were unlocking. These spirit companions could be equipped to neutralize stage effects or to provide extra buffs. Often times I just hit the autofill to save the tinkering time, but I still appreciate just how many characters were added into the game.

My biggest complaint with the Adventure Mode is that while yes, you could unlock characters for your roster by defeating the shadow characters, but these were extremely few and far between. I was then surprised to learn that if you exit the mode, you could face another challenger to unlock. For reference, the game sends these new challengers after about 10 minutes of gameplay (actual matches, and not just hanging out in menus), but if you played ~30 mins in Adventure Mode, you would only get one challenger. As my goal was to unlock characters as quickly as possible, I had to keep remembering to leave the game every so often to check for a challenger. I felt this broke up a lot of the gameplay and made it feel like a chore to constantly leave and reload the map.

After the frustration with the Adventure Mode when it came to unlocking characters, I really fell into a groove with the Classic Mode. This brought me right back to the 1P mode from Super Smash Bros on N64, and I loved how the stages for each character were so different and had different bosses at the end. This mode also had me trying out a lot of different characters that I maybe wouldn't have otherwise thanks to the difficulty selection. I also loved how you can add extra people to this mode, so my boyfriend could join in for a couple of rounds if he wanted, then jump out when he was done. It also so happened that after every round of the Classic Mode, I was guaranteed to face a new character for unlocking. This made the flow of gameplay so much smoother, and this is primarily how I unlocked the full roster while still keeping the gameplay fresh.

Between the Mob Smash Battles, the Spirit Board, and the modes mentioned above, there's just so much in this game. It really is the ULTIMATE Smash Bros. There's a little something in it for everyone, and I'm sure there's going to be people who prefer different modes to others, but it doesn't matter as it's all in there.

So thank you to Sakurai and all the devs behind this masterpiece, you made this disbeliever into an absolute fan. And boy am I ready to be a Joker main.

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Pit People

The Behemoth

If you have never played a Behemoth game, you owe it to yourself to do so. These wonderful people are my favourite developers for not only their sense of humour but how great their games are. So when they announced they were making a turn-based strategy, I knew it was going to be a day one purchase. And yes, I still watched their pure gameplay video and read their dev-blogs leading up to launch, but I was already sold by that point.

So what is Pit People? It's sort of hard to describe, but it's kind of Fire Emblem meets Pokemon with the hex-based system like in Civ games. You start with a core band of heroes each with their own weapons, specialties, and weaknesses, and when you move them towards an enemy, they will choose one at random to attack. While this may seem bizarre to fellow strategy fans, it ends up being just another level to your tactics.

You can expand your team by capturing the last unit on the battlefield in just about any encounter. These can range from spider women to floating robots, to fairies for a total of 19 classes. The Pokemon "gotta catch 'em all" mentality doesn't here though, as there are probably THOUSANDS of aesthetic accessories that you can get from the enemies as well. We're talking hats, weapons, armour, faces, and so much more. Some of these have different stats, with the largest difference being in the different weapon types, but some of it is purely cosmetic. You may be thinking "so what?", but then you'll find someone with super Saiyan hair, or someone using an olive on a toothpick, and you're going to want them all.

The story of the game is as silly as you expect from Behemoth and uses the same incredible narrator from Battleblock Theatre. If you don't chuckle once in either of these games, then I'm not really sure what to say to you. You can even bring a friend along after completing a few missions and do co-op.

While the main story may seem pretty short, there are tons of side plots that you can pick up from the main mission center, and tons more that you can stumble upon on the world map. If that's not enough for you, you can also challenge people online.

Since you can't select an exact unit to attack, I can understand why some strategy fans may turn up their nose to this game, but for casuals or if you're looking to get into the genre, I definitely cannot recommend this game enough for a good laugh.

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Collar x Malice

Idea Factory / Aksys Games

Look, I didn't think 2018 was going to be the year I was going to obsess over visual novels and buy a PS Vita…. But that's exactly what happened.

I have no idea how it started, but I can tell you that Amnesia: Memories was probably my first proper entry into the visual novel/otome genre. It took me completely by surprise when I first played it back in 2015, and I immediately tried to get all the good endings, and somehow poured 25 hours into it.

So there I was, 3 years after completing Amnesia: Memories and wanting to scratch the otome game itch, but I quickly found out the vast majority of them are on PS Vita, and especially ones by the same publisher as Amnesia: Memories. So I ordered one off eBay and bought the games off Amazon, and the next week when everything arrived, I did nothing but play this game. You'll probably notice a pattern in these that is "I had a normal life and then this game happened", which is pretty much the way I consume video games nowadays.

The game is centered around the protagonist female who gets taken by a terrorist organization and puts a poison collar on her neck. She is discovered by a group of vigilante ex-cops who are trying to learn about this terrorist group, and they get her to infiltrate the police station she works at for information.

From there you make dialogue or story-oriented choices in order to date your best boy. And typical of otome games, each guy has a very distinct personality, and everyone will have favourites, and ones that they just power through to get to the final, unlockable one. I had two characters which I was excited to date, and two that I was pretty meh for, but those two characters ended up winning me over towards the end of their arcs.

There's not much more to say about this other than the art is absolutely gorgeous, so if you like the idea of crime drama meets romance, then you should think about picking this up.

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Stardew Valley

ConcernedApe

So I didn't get into Stardew Valley when it first launched, and as someone who never played Animal Crossing, I didn't think I was going to like it. But my friend was adamant that we should play together when the multiplayer went live, so the second it did, I bought the game and we started it up.

I was thankful to have my friend talk me through my first farm, and how to befriend villagers. There was something incredibly cathartic about farming, fishing, and going down the mines. Building something from nothing is also very much a game hook that just pulls me right in and I'm unable to escape.

For those who haven't played, you are a farmer who inherits a decrepit farm in a small town. The gameplay cycle is mostly buying things to make money, and then investing that money for more things to make more money and upgrade. This can be done through crops, animal products, fishing, or by getting rare materials from the mine.

Some people may argue that they don't like the fishing mechanic, as you have to click and hold to keep the fish within a certain frame, but I don't mind it. I don't love it either, but I somehow always find myself fishing in this game.

While my friends and I played multiplayer through last year and into this year, I must admit there are bugs in the game. We've had issues with player's models getting stuck like they were fishing, but could glide around the map. Or critters in the mines would be desynced, even though I was the host.

But despite the rough edges, I love this game. There is so much heart in it, and if I haven't convinced you how much I love, I have also bought it on the Switch since I just couldn't wait for my friends to jump on all the time.

Despite all the time I've put into both the multiplayer and my single player games, I'm always ready to jump into the next session and play again.

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Overcooked 2

Ghost Town Games / Team17 Digital

The first Overcooked was one of my favourite games of 2016. I played through the game multiple times with different groups; my brother, my boyfriend, my long-distance friend, and parties who came over to visit.

This game is just so wholesome and accessible that even people who don't usually play games, love to play this game. The sense of cooperation is so well done, and you really do have to chat (or yell) in order to get things done. With how much entertainment and regard I had for the first one, the announcement of the sequel had me worried they would mess with the formula that made me love the first one.

The good news is, they didn't. They did exactly what I wanted, which is just more Overcooked with a couple of new mechanics like throwing, and additional cooking steps.

If you have somehow never played, or heard of Overcooked, it's a game best played in multiplayer where you each take on the role of a chef in increasingly ridiculous kitchens. You only really have a few buttons: pick up/drop, chop, and throw. The throwing mechanic was added to the second game but adds a new level of challenge to returning players. There is also a dash button and one for emoting, but those are less essential.

If you're low on controllers, they also do a cool keyboard/controller share mode. I haven't tried it out myself since I have enough controllers, but it's cool they give you the option, as the more people that play, the more fun and frantic it becomes.

This game will have you making smoothies, cakes, dumplings, and yelling at your significant other that they never do the dishes… which gets a little too real sometimes. My only real complaint about it is that it did seem a little shorter than the first, and also seemed to be significantly more buggy. We didn’t have anything super game-breaking, but there were times a plate or pot would glitch out so we couldn't pick it up, and would make getting a 3 star almost impossible. These could be fixed with a game restart and wasn't extremely common.

Despite the few issues, we love this game to pieces. If you need more of a recommendation, this is the only game my boyfriend of 3 years has come home early from work and demand that we play it together.


Stephanie can be found on Twitter. She is also a Social Media and Community Coordinator (check out those Yakuza tweets) for Evolve PR. In addition, she is a host of Canadian Geekcast.