As we go into the beginning of 2019, and everyone started posting their game-of-the-year lists, a realization fell upon me. Had anything I played all year come out in 2018?
For someone who likes to run a blog of narrative game chatter, I had unwittingly played catch-up this year and let new releases that I was excited about (Yakuza Kiwami 2, Return of the Obra Dinn) slide by. Hopefully, I can find time in 2019 to get to those, once they’re no longer a hot journalistic item.
While my sense of anticipation and hype may be broken, I still played a ton of games. So, I am here to give you my list of the top 5 games I played for the first time in 2018. May your top games of 2019 be just as bizarre as mine of 2018.
Tales of Berseria
I don’t play many JRPGs anymore, but I still love them. Over the summer I came down with a mysterious infection and a JRPG was exactly what I needed to recover. Tales of Berseria was not my first Tales game and it probably won’t be my last, but it is my new favorite and the best one so far.
Berseria takes everything that we love from Tales games and strips it into something beautiful and sleek. We play the baddies from start to finish, each character in the party pursuing their own mission of revenge or personal gain. The protagonist, Velvet, is out to kill the man who killed her brother just as he is venerated for his work in saving the world from its destruction. Velvet doesn’t care that he saved the planet, she only seeks to settle the score on behalf of his victims.
What makes Berseria really special (aside from all of the characters, who are great, but Tales characters are always great) is that it has the most thematic cohesion in a story that I’ve seen in a long time. In Berseria, there are three elements: family, responsibility, and emotionality. Each of the main characters operates with at least two of these at the core of their stories. All three steer Velvet in her effort for vengeance, guided by her fury that someone who was supposed to protect her brother killed him instead. Rokurou hunts his own brother, who he wants to defeat. Eizen searches for the missing captain of his ship, a close friend and leader. Eleanor, a follower of Velvet’s brother, pushes back against the idea that her emotions are inconvenient. Magilou is an enigma who also fits this pattern, but I’ll spare the spoilers. The last is Laphicet, a boy who Velvet takes in, who looks like her brother and she calls by his name. He arrives in this group to learn about the world and navigate what it means to live, and all of the problems of the party also become his.
The ending is the weakest part of the story and doesn’t quite pull everything together, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen narrative fundamentals follow through with such elegance. If you want to try a Tales game and you don’t know where to start, play Tales of Berseria.
9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors
Chunsoft / Aksys Games
If I had known what 999 was, I would have played it sooner. I should have played it sooner. I love adventure games and I love mysteries and I love visual novels, and 999 is a cross of these plus an escape room. I’ve had an original copy of the game for Nintendo DS for years and I played that, even though the game has been remastered since. Following through on the narrative forks was awkward, and I played through the first room many times. I imagine they fixed these issues in the remastered versions.
999 is the first game in a trilogy known as Zero Escape. After finishing Danganronpa v3, I was hungry for more linear adventure games about murder. (I’ll buy them as long as someone makes them well. I’m lookin’ at you, indie developers.) In 999, you play Junpei as he wakes up in a flooding room on a ship. After solving a puzzle and getting out just in time, he discovers he’s not alone. With eight complete strangers, he is trapped on a sinking ship modelled as the Titanic. They are given directions over a speaker by a person who calls himself Zero: if they don’t find the door with the number 9 on it, they will all go down with the ship. The 9 door is the only way out.
But who is Zero? Who are all these people, and how did they get here? What do they have in common? The journey to figure it out is a lot of fun. All of these strangers are suspicious enough to keep your guard up. They each have secrets and know things they shouldn’t. 999 is chilling, spooky, and sometimes very funny. It crafts an excellent mystery and holds up well, even though it’s ten years old. If you haven’t played 999 yet, you should make the 10th anniversary the time you get to it.
I loved 999, but I don’t think that the following games are as good. As a trilogy, it falls apart by the end for me, and I wonder if the creators had any idea where they were going with it in the first place. Regardless, 999 is excellent, and if you love mysteries and thrillers, you will enjoy it too.
I love games of all kinds and when playing Yakuza Kiwami, I was excited to check out all of the offered minigames. I learned how to play koikoi, oicho-kabu, and tried and failed to get the hang of shogi. No, Yakuza Kiwami is not one of my favorite games of 2018 (although it could have been) but rather, Mahjong is.
When telling friends I’ve gotten into Mahjong, it’s alarming how many people think I’m still referring to the tile-matching game. This is called Mahjong Solitaire, while Mahjong is a game for four people and plays more like poker. I spent many hours in Yakuza Kiwami just playing Mahjong.
How do you play? Don’t ask me. I’m not very good at it, and there are a lot of rules involving the table set up and acting quickly that I didn’t have to worry about when playing on a console with the difficulty of the NPCs set to “easy”. I hope that you also try playing Mahjong, and maybe you, too, will spend a hundred dollars on a real set with the nice tiles, only to have no one ever play with you. (I haven’t actually done this, but I see it happening in the future.)
Access Games / Square Enix
As of the end of 2018, I have played (or in the case of Drakengard, read an LP) all of the Yoko Taro games. I can’t decide if Drakengard 3 or Nier: Automata is my favorite, but it might be accurate to just say that Yoko Taro is my favorite. I invite all fans of Nier: Automata to play Taro’s other games, as well.
The original Drakengard was a conversation about the acceptance of violence in games, and what that truly means for the main character. Who is this person, who accepts killing indiscriminately? Each of Yoko Taro’s games tackles this theme in different ways. In Drakengard 3, you play Zero, who is an intoner: a goddess of song. We join her as she prepares to embark on a mission to murder each of her five intoner sisters.
At its heart, I believe that Drakengard 3 is asking who you are or what you have left if your body betrays you. Zero’s powers come from her body, her strength, her violence, her sexuality, and her magic song. As she loses her body to the disease of the flower that grows out of her eye, Zero accepts her oncoming death and takes responsibility to take her sisters down, first.
Drakengard 3, for being crass and silly with a meathead protagonist and slapstick comedy, is still flush with meaning, all the way to the final boss, which strips you of all your hard work and leaves you high and dry with a musical rhythm game. And before you ask, no, I haven’t beaten the last boss. It’s really hard!
When it comes to game design and programming, Drakengard 3 sucks. The controls aren’t perfect and the camera is a pain in the ass. It’s a bit like playing the worst ever iteration of a Dynasty Warriors game where the goal is not to get stun-locked by random enemies so you can get all the way to the part where you never finish. So of course, I loved it. I can deal with a lot of suffering for the sake of a good story. If you’re interested and less tolerant of bullshit, I recommend checking out an LP.
Illusion of Gaia
Quintet / Nintendo
If I have extra money in my wallet (a rare occurrence) and I encounter a classic game in the wild, I’ll pick it up. I love experiencing old, classic games, and revisiting mechanics and design systems that have gone extinct or are unrecognizable in the modern era. (I’m lookin’ at you, Shadowrun.) Illusion of Gaia was released in North America in 1994 and disturbed me as a child in a way I couldn’t really remember. Revisiting it in 2019, I see why.
Illusion of Gaia is poorly localized and rather confusing because of it. The story follows Will as he is implored by the spirit of Gaia to leave his home and save the world from an oncoming evil. A comet will soon be in the sky and bring disaster with it. He gains the power to borrow the forms of other warriors of the universe in order to fight. The world in Illusion of Gaia is full of suffering. People throw away their lives recklessly, exploit others, and are exploited by others. Slavery is on the rise, and people are starving to death. The joys in Illusion of Gaia are few and far between.
While saving the world, we explore such famous fantasy icons as Angkor Wat, Egyptian pyramids, and the Great Wall of China. What makes Illusion of Gaia special is the inventive level design. A lot of Illusion of Gaia’s play is built on features recognizable from other action RPGs like The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past and Ys, but the levels are at times, inspired. My favorite is the Sky Garden, which is on a piece of floating land in the air. You interact with the environment and change the shape of the area, and then leap off the side to the underside of the Sky Garden. The background of the sand below becomes the sky above, and the two sides change, following the other. The bosses are pretty cool too, but the level design is, in my opinion, what gives Illusion it’s lasting value as a classic.
I’m charmed by the mercilessness that the game uses when taking on suffering and dehumanization. Empathy is something that we can always stand to have more of, and these days, I value it in storytelling more than ever.
I think it’s valuable to continue looking at older games, be they 2 or 20 years old. These classics can still be studied to see what works and what doesn’t, or even just to see if your childhood favorite holds up. As someone who has recently taken to game development, I think the classics are important for inspiration. It’s possible to find designs and concepts of value that have been forgotten in the past that can be explored again. Let’s steal like artists from artists in the past.