These games just barely missed out on being the most fun games I played this year. They’re either games that are near and dear to my heart already, or games that I was extremely impressed by over the last 12 months.
#20 Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright Trilogy (Nintendo 3DS, 2014)
Phoenix Wright is a character who is now very close to my heart. His series is one that I’ve played through multiple times, despite it being a visual novel that doesn’t change at all between replays, because it’s so charming, funny and well thought-out. The trilogy follows the three first games of the franchise which feature the beginnings of Phoenix’s auspicious career as a defence attorney, and the ups and downs of those close to him, including his perpetually unlucky childhood friend Larry Butz and spirit medium-turned sidekick Maya Fey. Add in a host of dysfunctional prosecutors and you’ve got yourself a game.
Each game has a self-contained complex story arc which feature the same characters, and character development sticks, so it’s worth playing every case in order even if you get stuck. Each game also adds new ways to find out information, of note is the inclusion of ‘Psyche Locks’ in the second game, which function as mental barriers in the people in front of you that you must batter down with evidence, to make them share something honest with you.
It’s a really wacky, oft-serious, lovable game and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys the idea of a light-hearted game about gruesome murders.
#19 Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance (Nintendo Switch, 2017)
Ah this game. As you may know by now, I love strategy RPGs, and this game is an absolute gem when it comes to that genre. Disgaea plays beautifully, with a huge range of character possibilities, from a large cast of story characters, a massive collection of unlockable characters from other games, and infinite possibilities when it comes to generic units. You can build your army in this game exactly to your specification, as the beauty is that most ideas are viable, if you have enough time to put into them.
And time you will need, because apart from the story itself which takes the form of a few large battles per chapter, you have endless random dungeons to tackle, a board game that raises your stats, teams to send off to explore new worlds, side-quests and secret bonus fights to challenge. While you could easily just storm through the story, taking your time and challenging everything that the game could throw at you is very fun.
One quirky thing I like about the game is that it has an inbuilt cheating system, which is fun to use and fair. You can reduce things like the experience you gain or the money you gain from fighting in order to increase other things like the rate at which you learn skills. It’s a way to adapt your game to your specifications, and it’s really balanced.
The animations are crisp, the artwork so pretty, the voice actors very good and the music is sublime. I’d recommend this game to any fan of RPGs, especially silly ones where you play as an evil yet noble demon.
#18 Persona 5 (PS4, 2016)
Be still my beating heart, I really love this game. Another fifth entry in a super-popular RPG franchise, Persona 5 is wildly lauded as one of the best RPGs you can get for the PS4 and with good reason. With a super-original storyline (no really, honestly) and compelling characters, something the series is definitely known for, Persona 5 draws you into its world quickly. Not to spoil anything too much, because this is a game that you should definitely experience blind, you play as a group of thieves who can steal things that aren’t necessarily physical. You’ll target the meanest, baddest souls of Tokyo and traverse through shockingly original environments.
Combat is smooth, full of fun transitions, quirky menus and interesting enemies. It features the series’s popular Press Turn system, where exploiting an enemy’s weakness and protecting your own will net you more turns and therefore more chances to win without even taking a scratch. As you collect Personas (oh yeah, this is a Mons game, with ‘breeding’ and everything) you’ll up your arsenal with new powers and become flexible killing machines.
The social element of the game is really fun to play around with too. There are a number of individuals who are important to your story, and when you’re not acting as thieves you can explore Tokyo and interact with them. As you spend time with people and please them with your amazing social skills, they’ll like you more. This can lead to romance, new services to use, fantastic items and as you become closer to your party members, they’ll get stronger in battle.
The only thing this game could use is a gay romance option and some more leeway when it comes to spending your time. It’s easy to become anxious that you’re not spending your time in the best way, for example when you’re told you have a test at school and suddenly you realise all you’ve done is go to the cinema and work out when you should have been hitting the books.
I’d recommend Persona to any living soul who has enjoyed a turn-based RPG, or anyone who likes mythology/demonology. There’s a lot of that.
#17 World of Final Fantasy Maxima (Nintendo Switch, 2018)
Do you like nostalgia? Do you like fanservice? Do you like deep storylines that start out jolly and then break your heart? Get this game. Featuring two original, well-written and entertaining characters who romp through a world full to the brim with popular characters from the Final Fantasy canon, this game will have you wondering what’s coming next at every turn.
It’s a Mons game, first and foremost. You can collect most every monster you come across in the game by fulfilling some conditions (hit it around a bit, put it to sleep, heal it) and then throwing what is essentially a personalised Poké Ball at it. They come in four varieties, Small, Medium, Large, and a special XL which is reserved for the most powerful monsters. Uniquely, you stack up with your monsters to form two player characters with the powers of three individuals each. To support this, your player characters can, at the will of plot, shape shift between a Large size and Medium size, so you can switch around as you see fit to use the monsters you like most.
With characters such as Princess Sara, Vivi, Cloud, Lightning, Snow, Squall, Shelke, Faris and Sherlotta, the game knows to play to both casual and diehard fans of the series, the ones who will squeal with delight when they see a character they never thought would see the light of day toddle onto their screen once more. I mean, we now know what Quistis would sound like! Before Rinoa! Magical.
Difficulty-wise, it could be harder, but it does provide a challenge every now and then. It’s quite easy to overlevel a bit, especially if you’re hunting for certain monsters to add to your party, so I’d recommend trying out new monsters all the time, developing them and playing with their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a classic Mons game after all.
I’d recommend this game to anyone who has played two or three Final Fantasies and enjoyed them. I’d like to say I’d recommend it to any fan of Mons games in general but it really is aggressively aimed at fans of the series.
Oh, and a warning, the story writer is the same guy as Final Fantasy Type-0. So there’s that.
#16 Darkest Dungeon (PC, 2016)
One of the most addicting, difficult roguelikes I’ve ever played. In this game you play as a person who has control over a small hamlet. A quaint little town with a church, a pub, a blacksmith, few houses, that sort of thing. Oh, and it’s surrounded by dark dungeons full of eldritch horrors. Lovecraft fans will be right at home.
Taking four adventurers out at a time, you must explore randomly generated dungeons to find loot with which you can upgrade the hamlet, and experience with which your adventurers become more powerful. That is, of course, unless they die. Adventurer death is permanent and will happen quite a lot, especially if you don’t figure out a good strategy for both fighting and composing your party. The game expects you to lose a few adventurers though, and experiencing a total wipeout does not lead to a Game Over, it just means you wasted that week of time and whatever resources you poured into that run. You can recruit new adventurers every week from a range of classes, including the hard-hitting Leper, versatile healer/smasher Vestal and super-useful status king Occultist. Finding your favourite type of adventurer is a fun experience of attrition, and working out who they work best with is important too.
Stress is a unique and important factor in the game. A lot of things will stress your adventurers out. Walking in the dark, taking critical hits, watching their allies go insane, everything will contribute to their Stress Meter. Once this meter fills, they can either pull through in a glorious fashion or more likely, succumb to madness, making them unpredictable, sometimes even a liability to keep around. Your adventurers can pick up quirks, such as kleptomania (which makes them take loot for themselves, keeping it from you) or a fear of water, which keeps them from being their best in the watery dungeon. These additions to the game keep it fresh, adding new elements of strategy which make the game fairly ruthless.
I’d recommend this game to patient gamers, gamers who enjoy a challenge, and anyone who enjoys dark, horrifying themes.
Also, the game is narrated by a man with a voice like sex.
#15 Dragon Quest XI (PC, 2018)
We got puns galore here. Look at that picture. See those monsters holding spears? They’re called Cruelcumbers and that’s not even the beginning of it. Dragon Quest XI is the most recent entry in the franchise which spans decades and it shows, being a surprisingly beautiful, fluid experience. I’ll say this now, it kind of reminds me of Ni No Kuni II in its graphical style, both with characters and environments, but it does both so much better.
Shockingly for Dragon Quest, the story is nothing to write home about. It’s kind of the ‘standard fare’ when it comes to grand quests in RPGs, though I’m only about 20 hours into the game so that may change. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying it. The characters are pretty decent (if a bit one-note at times), the environments are gorgeous and the enemies are super fun to fight against, and not even because 90% of them have hilarious pun names. Combat is smooth and transitions well from the overworld. It’s turn-based, but it almost doesn’t feel like it with the hero being able to move around the field at will, letting you get a better vantage point and feel more in control of the flow of battle. It’s simple cosmetic, but it’s fun. And fun is the key word.
Dragon Quest often thrives in creating a fun to explore world, chock full of puns, references and general enjoyment, and they’ve done that well here. From a surprisingly decent horse racing mini game to supporting characters who are genuinely funny and well-crafted, the game is a pleasure.
I’d recommend this game to a fan of turn-based RPGs specifically.
#14 Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PC, 2018)
With this game so fresh in many people’s minds there’s not much I can say here that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey takes on Greece in an absolutely phenomenal way. It’s huge. And it doesn’t get boring to explore. With relatively fewer quests than Origins (not necessarily a bad thing, Origins was bogged down with them) you feel more free to explore as you wish. The environments are genuinely stunning and surprisingly varied. Exploring salt fields, dense forests and the grand metropolis of Athens all feel very different and very accessible.
Playing as a mercenary with improbably combat and parkour skills, you’ll romp through Greece killing just about anyone you wish, to be honest. Though with a very decent, gripping storyline of familial conflict to play through, you might not remain distracted for long. For a long time I’ve found the franchise’s stories to be too over the top, too complex and in a lot of places too boring, but this game had me gripped in Alexios’s (or Cassandra’s, if you choose to play as her) struggle. Faced with a cult that grips Greece within its fist, your mercenary faces difficult odds, and it’s fun to engage in that part of the game.
Combat is the standard AC fare as established by Origins, with a fun range of weapons to try out and a generous skill tree full of tricks you can employ during fights. I’m a big fan of poisoned daggers and fire arrows, myself. It’s just fast and fair enough to never feel boring, and it’s all too obvious when the solution is to run away and come back when the chaos has died down.
I’d recommend AC Odyssey to people who like exploring an open world, and anyone who enjoys Greek mythology to an extent.
#13 Europa Universalis IV (PC, 2013)
The eater of my time. EU4 is a grand strategy game where you play as a country. That’s it. It’s very open ended. You have no goals and no objectives apart from anything that you set yourself to do. From 1444 to 1821, the world is your oyster. Want to form the nation of Italy as Venice and take over the world of trade? You can do that. Want to conquer all of France as Great Britain? Yep, possible. Want to become the most developed nation in the entire world as little ol’ Ulm? Uh, yeah, I guess you could do that. Of course, to do all these things, you’re going to have to learn some stuff.
A lot of stuff.
A fuck ton of stuff. EU4 is hard, and can seem extremely overwhelming to a new player. Especially with no clear objectives apart from a list of nation-specific missions that you’re free to ignore, the game doesn’t really guide you. Of course, you’re free to wait until one of your neighbours decides it wants your land and declares war for it, but it’s more fun to play a little more proactively. Don’t expect to be able to play just any nation and have a good time though, some places are a lot tougher than they seem. Start anywhere near the Ottomans for example and you’ll be eaten up quite quickly unless you can sustain good alliances with big powers. Start as England and you might find your options for expansion limited if France decides to be powerful that game. Start in the east and glorious Ming can and will go to war with you to demand tribute. Or you could play as the Ottomans, France or Ming and just decimate most of your neighbours like that.
My issue with the game is not its difficulty. It has a tough but fair learning curve that you simply get the hang of with much Googling, browsing the subreddit and basic patience. My issue is that Paradox has a rather controversial (by which I mean predatory) history with DLCs, gating some necessary additions to the game behind pricey addons that really should be in the game from the start, such as the ability to send your diplomats to countries who don’t like you automatically rather than micromanaging them, or being able to do away with the fiddly transport ship mechanism and ferry your troops across the sea automatically. It’s hard to recommend a game that requires DLC to be fun.
That said, with DLC and maybe a person to play with, the game is utterly fantastic if it’s the kind of game that speaks to you. I’d recommend EU4 to anyone who enjoys strategy, global politics, map-painting and history. And anyone who has money to burn or the patience to wait for semi-generous sales.
#12 Monster Hunter: World (PS4, 2018)
Good freaking Jesus Monster Hunter: World ate up my time this year. Being a game featuring diverse, well-designed monsters, gigantic weapons, a huge variety of playstyle options, dress-up and combat kittens, this game was right up my alley. The first Monster Hunter to enjoy absolute mainstream success in the west, this game has made a huge range of quality of life improvements when compared to the previous games in the series, and was so popular that the originally Japan-only Generations Ultimate came to the west as a result.
To summarise the game in a few words: You play as a hunter of monsters who has come to the new world to aid a team of wildlife researchers research these monsters by hunting them. You kill them, carve them up for loot and then make big weapons and dashing armour out of their remains. You can also go fishing. Oh, and you have a cat as a friend/partner.
It’s really good. Combat is fluid and tense, with even the most basic of monsters able to take big chunks out of your health bar. Stamina management is important, as is ammo management for ranged weapons. When teaming up with other plays to take down a beastie you have to be aware of your weapon’s reach and your own positioning. You have to conserve your resources, which include traps, health potions, blinding bombs and more. There are more ways to take down or capture these monsters than you can shake a longsword at.
The various maps you can explore are diverse and full of secrets, tracking monsters feels tense and fun, and nothing comes close to the adrenaline rush you feel when you’re fighting a Rathalos (big fucking dragon) and you hear the roar of an Anjanath (fiery t-rex) announcing her arrival on the scene. It’s super, super fun. And as you get better with your weapon, you start to really feel it. You’ll finish missions with more resources than before, your kill times will be shorter, you’ll feel stronger. With no level system you have to hone and rely on your skills entirely, which is both intimidating and satisfying.
Mix and matching armour made from downed monsters is fun, and creating good looking armour sets that grant you special skills is pretty much an art form at this point, and is a main draw of the game for me.
I’d recommend this game to people who enjoyed the combat of Dark Souls, as it has the same punishing gameplay, focus on defence and dodging and skill ceiling.
#11 NieR: Automata (PC, 2017)
Set in a world of android vs. robots, NieR is an action RPG with a heavy focus on the action. You play as an android who can self-destruct at will and then reupload herself into another copy of her body, which conveniently weaves death and respawning into the game’s lore, rather like Dark Souls does. Aided by a drone who can shoot stuff, block you, search for loot and more, you traverse through a dilapidated almost post-apocalyptic world featuring an overgrown city, a creepy fairground and a frustratingly huge desert.
I don’t want to spoil any of the story, because it’s a very beautiful thing that should be seen firsthand. So I’m not going to tell you about it, barring some gushing about how much of the game’s functionality is part of the world’s lore. Like the respawning example above, saving is tied to a wireless system by which androids access respawn terminals, and sometimes this functionality is turned off by the story. Likewise, the on-screen HUD can be turned off by uninstalling some parts inside your characters equipment menu. Things like your health bar are part of your character, software upgrades that can be installed and uninstalled at will. It’s a super nice detail.
Combat is super fun, which is good as the game relies heavily on it. Using both your close-range weapons and your long-range drone can be a daunting task at first but adversity will have you trained up sooner or later. Dodging is important and it can grant you some powerful counter moves, as well as being useful for overall mobility, so it’s useful to master it quick. With not many options for how to tackle combat, the game has quite a low skill floor, with a high skill ceiling for those who want to play on harder difficulties and take on the super bosses.
I’d recommend NieR to gamers who like beautiful, philosophical stories about the nature of humanity and life itself, and to gamers who like fast-paced action RPGs where the RPG elements are downplayed.
As I get to the games I love more and more, these reviews get longer and longer. I hope, if you got this far, that you still enjoy my gushing. Next time we’re looking at the very best games I played this year.