Best Games Played 2018: Freshest Storytelling

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Florence is the debut project from dev studio Mountains, headed by former Monument Valley developer Ken Wong. Wrapped in a graphic novel aesthetic, you follow the eponymous 25 year-old Florence Yeoh as she goes about her young adult life. Scenes transition by having you swipe from comic panel to comic panel, sometimes left to right, sometimes up and down. Sometimes, a scene will play out in a single splash screen, with you poking and prodding everything in view to further the story.

Florence takes pleasure in the mundane. You’ll follow her through her day-to-day: tapping and swiping on the screen to shut off her alarm clock, brush her teeth, get ready for work, prepare spreadsheets at her boring office job, and chat on the phone with her mother, who expects so much more from Florence.

If these interactions seem boring to you – that’s the point. Just like in games like Papers, Please, Florence uses the gameplay’s monotony to communicate the inescapable societal systems the protagonists find themselves in. In Papers, Please, it’s about reconciling the fact that your job keeps an authoritarian state in power with the truth that, at the end of the day, you still need to provide for your family. In Florence, the game is about the titular character drifting aimlessly through life, waiting for something to happen.

That something comes in the form of an fatefully-timed dead smartphone battery and a street cellist, Krish. Florence discovers him performing in a park, drawn to his music, but doesn’t try to speak with him. It isn’t until later when crashes her bike and literally flips head over heels that they get a chance to speak. He makes sure she’s okay, they get to chatting, and they exchange numbers to go out later.

Unique gameplay methods are used to convey Florence and Krish’s growing relationship. When you first start getting to know each other, Florence’s speech balloons appear as a dozen puzzle pieces scattered across the screen – her seemingly fractured thoughts that need to be carefully constructed to talk to her new acquaintance.

But as Florence feels more comfortable around Krish, the numerous speech balloon pieces shrink in number and grow in size, clicking together effortlessly. Eventually, you’ll simply be sliding whole dialog bubbles in place, with Florence smiling and laughing as she and Krish grow closer.

They go out together; they meet each other’s families; they eventually move in together, with you tapping on shelves and drawers to make room for Krish’s possessions. But, unfortunately, the same comfort that made talking so easy makes arguing easy too. Stress from life and work boil over, and they lash out at each other. Now you’re swiping dialog as quick as you can, trying to get more words in to win the fight.

They reconcile, but grow distant. There’s a rift between them that never closed, a spark that never reignited.

The game could’ve ended with a picturesque happy ever after, but that’s not how life works. Every one of us finds happiness in something different. Some find it in being with the right partner. Some find it in creating passionate and meaningful work. Some find it being respected amongst their peers. Sometimes, we know exactly what makes us happy; other times, we don’t. Sometimes, as Florence teaches us, what used to make us happy may no longer do so.

Florence shows us that we’re not static beings, born to love and hate the same things through our entire lives. We grow; we change; we rediscover ourselves over and over again. We may not be the same people five, ten, or fifteen years from now, but as long as we chose to live meaningful, kind, and happy lives, we can never go astray.

Best Games Played 2018: Most Majestic

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

I’m probably one of the last people on the planet to play Shadow of the Colossus. Originally released on PlayStation 2 and lauded as one of the greatest games of all time, Shadow of the Colossus is a cultural touchstone that permeated the membrane of all of gaming. For the PS2, the game was an amazing technical and visual accomplishment, with a level of grandeur that still inspires awe in its dedicated PS4 remaster.

I’d watch as hero Wander challenged epic colossi that soared through white clouds, stomped across gray marshes, and dove into pristine waters. A favorite moment of mine was finding the fifth colossus, Avion – a large bird that circled a foggy lake. As I scrambled between stony ruins jutting out of the water, they swooped down to attack me. I leapt onto their wing and grasped at tufts of fur to hold on as Avion ascended back into the sky. As they climbed, I could practically feel the air rush past me as I played, and the orchestral music built to a swell. I raced across the creature’s stony spine to deliver a fatal blow to the head, causing Avion to shriek and crash back into the water.

It was a breathtaking spectacle of grit, passion, and sorrow as I watched the life snake out of Avion in trails of black mist. It was as amazing as people said it was back in 2005.

But just as awe-inspiring – if not moreso – were the quiet moments between these encounters. As Wander tracks his prey, he treks across the forbidden lands – an abandoned place, cold and tranquil. The sky is a persistent pallid gray, casting a spectral glow over everything it touches: ancient groves, crumbling towers, and desolate plains. There’s a natural bridge that connects the northern part of the continent, overlooking a barren cove where one of the colossi resides. It’s a lonely little inlet that reminds you of chilled, blustery days at the beach as the seasons change from summer to autumn.

You cross this bridge several times, as every colossus hunt starts you back at the temple in the middle of the map. It becomes another landmark to guide you on your travels as you and your trusty horse, Agro, thunder across the landscape. The land becomes a character in and of itself, an innocent bystander that can do nothing to stop you from killing its native colossi and stomping through its natural beauty.

Contemporary games are jam-packed with so many art assets that it’s truly a crime that we as players don’t take more time to sit and observe the creations of countless man hours. I believe this is partially an issue of overstimulation, that we can’t decide which high-poly object to focus on, so we focus on none of them. We instead choose to consume the content that the designers have set in front of us and treat the rest like so much needless fluff. Shadow of the Colossus, however, is vast and empty, likely a creative constraint of the hardware at the time, but it forces you to absorb the nature around you on your way to your final destination.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game about being transported to a faraway land with mystical creatures that challenge you to comprehend their otherworldly beauty and size. Everything, from the long treks across the world to the puzzling climbing and combat with colossi, force you to slow down to take it all in, and I will never be more thankful for a game doing that.

Best Games Played 2018: Most Charming

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

In the mid 2000s, I was in a weird spot. I was working a crappy job at a crappy company for crappy pay. I’d given up on school, given up on making art, and given up on making games. I tried to be realistic about my life: it was enough to eke out a living and never pursue my dreams, because my dreams were silly.

Then I played Cave Story.

It would still be years before I would sit down and force myself to learn game development, but seeing a game that well-crafted made by one lone developer – the great Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya – spoke to me. The fire was lit again.

Over a decade later, I sat down to play through another one of Pixel’s games, Kero Blaster. The art looked more rough than Cave Story’s, the game was strictly linear compared to Cave Story‘s expansive semi-open world, and the story had far less depth, but despite all this, the game captivated me.

For a while, I tried to identify why this was the case, what deeper feeling was pulling me along. The longer I played, more of the game’s brilliance shone through – things like the tension in a well-designed level leading up to an engaging boss fight or the joy of unlocking a new weapon that redefines your playstyle.

Above all else, I found the simple pixel art and chiptune soundtrack wonderfully delightful and funny. I found myself cackling as my boss slowly transformed into a goofy monster. I found myself humming along to the music while blasting refrigerators into oblivion. I found myself intensely gripping the controller while fighting a bird perched on an alarm clock.

Kero Blaster, like Cave Story before it, brings me back to the childlike joy of making and playing games. It’s the kind of game I imagine me and my friends making – it’s kind of silly, you might even consider it a little ugly, but it’s got some deep refinement in ways that make it a priceless treasure and one of my favorite games this year.

Best Games Played 2018: Best Remix

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

In my own work, I’m a big fan of the Haxe coding language, pixel art, limited palettes, and trying to nail an aesthetic. Ruari O’Sullivan utilized all of this in making his action-horror platformer OVERWHELM.

OVERWHELM has been described by many people as a sort of inverted Metroidvania. The player traverses a world, shooting off alien bugs in their hive to reach five different bosses. Upon defeating a boss, many games may reward the player with a power up – something to aid them in traversing to their next goal, something to aid them in battle, or something to help the player from getting overwhelmed by the dangers surrounding them. As the name implies, that is not the intent in OVERWHELM.

After defeating a boss, instead of granting the player a power up, the game grants enemies power ups. Enemies will get faster, stronger, more relentless in their efforts to destroy the invading player. This clever remix of a simple idea produces the dread that makes OVERWHELM feel unique. Beyond that, the world truly feels overwhelming. Oppressive soundscapes, unforgiving one hit deaths, a pittance of three lives to accomplish your goals, the encroaching darkness, all of it is masterfully crafted to bring the tension of the game to a piercing level of unease.

And if that’s not your speed, O’Sullivan has graciously coded in various accessibility options so that players can dial in a level of difficulty that matches their own comfort level. I personally adjusted the auto-aim to be extremely forgiving, and even then, I still get goosebumps every time I delved into the hive.

Best Games Played 2018: Greatest Evolution

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

I have a self-professed weakness for retro-revival FPS games, so New Blood’s latest shooter, DUSK – and it is stylized as DUSK, all caps – should be no exception. But DUSK cuts through the pack of them with a full awareness of what it can and should be. Like Shovel Knight’s dedication to recapturing and reinventing the NES-era 2D platformer, DUSK understands what makes 90s shooters click just as well as how to make them feel even better.

DUSK captures a sense of adrenaline unparalleled. Through slip-n-slide movement mechanics and chunky weapon firing, DUSK operates on a keen sense of the rule of cool, empowering players through big changes to the FPS formulas we all know: the biggest and brightest being instead of reloading, your guns just shoot forever until the massive ammo pool runs out. Hitting the reload key simply flourishes your weapon – spinning it about to give the moments between shootouts a distinct sense of style. Instead of a run button, your player character is constantly at a nonstop sprinting pace.

DUSK establishes these rules immediately before letting you lose on a carnival of levels set in creepy rural Americana, steeped in the occult and rampant with the kind of gooey, cheesy horror you’d reminisce about waiting for Halloween in the 90s. Demonic reindeer and burlap sack-wearing cultists rush you with magic spells and shotguns alike. Levels are riddled with moments that let you stretch your new legs – flying through the air is as easy as a mouse movement and an open canyon filled with jump pads, letting you feel the wind and exploding viscera in your hair.

Puzzles are kept simple and are largely there to keep you moving between shooting galleries, like colored keys opening their corresponding doors and hitting switches hidden in dark corridors, but this is by design and proves very effective when used against you: following the path to a door I finally found the key for saw me falling through a sudden trap-door to the next level.

All of this culminates in an FPS adventure that reawakens a nearly forgotten flame, one that yearns for the simplicity of classics while providing even more to keep that love burning. Games like this only come once in a nostalgic era, and DUSK is an absolute must play.

Best Games Played 2018: Best Antics

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Before WarioWare came along, Mario’s portly doppelganger was relegated to the Wario Land franchise, an also-ran in the long history of platformer franchises. But Luigi’s voyage into non-platforming waters with Luigi’s Mansion foretold the reinvention of Nintendo’s plumber family, and WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$! came to be soon after.

Outside of a few run-ins at the local Target kiosk, I never played it much.

In fact, I never really interacted with any of the WarioWare games. Not Mega Party Game$, not Twisted!, not Touched!, not Smooth Moves, not Snapped!, not D.I.Y. But despite only having briefly interacted with the series before, I was able to recognize this sparkling gem for what it was. With it’s kooky, charming cast of misfits and it’s digestible, addicting microgames, the WarioWare series has been a joy to play from the very beginning. So it’s a good thing that WarioWare Gold is not only the latest, greatest entry in the series, but also a collection of the best microgames from throughout its history, with new microgames added to boot. It succeeds at both reigniting players’ love for the WarioWare franchise while also introducing new players to the wonderful world of Wario and friends.

Wario, ever the scheming trickster, returns home after robbing the town of Luxeville of its prized artifact, a seemingly jewel-encrusted pot. Back in Diamond City, he discovers he’s strapped for cash and decides to host a buy-in tournament of microgame players, giving a portion of the the tournament fees to the winner and a portion to himself, naturally. He once again conscripts his friends to make games for his tournament, which are collected into different leagues.

There’s the Tap League, the Touch League, and the Twist League, each corresponding to the unique control interfaces used in previous entries like Touched! and Twisted! Then there’s the Ultra League, which throws all those aforementioned games into one big pot along with the Blow games played with the microphone. And I thank Nintendo every day for not including a Blow League in this game.

But WarioWare is still weird Nintendo at its best. Every league is broken into five sections, each showcasing a different WarioWare pal with fully voiced cutscenes. Jimmy T enjoys Diamond City’s nightlife; Mona shops for a party dress; 9-Volt and Fronk goof off during math class; and Ashley battles demons in Hell. My personal favorite is the stretch of games hosted by 18-Volt, who challenges newcomer 13-Amp to a rap battle, with each microgame win juiced up with a rapidly increasing beat. Interlaced between these vignettes is the story of Lulu, the self-proclaimed hero of Luxeville, here to challenge Wario and recover her town’s treasure.

These narrative threads between microgames are more than just extra fluff: they endear you to Diamond City’s residents and make the game about more than just microgames. Some storylines are continuations of previous WarioWare games. In a previous entry, cabbies Dribble and Spitz had their taxi upgraded by Dr. Crygor, giving it the ability to travel through space, so their story in WarioWare Gold begins with them zipping through the cosmos trying to defeat an alien armada.

All of these threads converge on Lulu’s ultimate confrontation with Wario, who dons the Luxeville pot, transforming him into Wario Deluxe. With help from the player in one final set of microgames, Wario Deluxe is defeated, and Lulu reclaims her town’s treasure, reverting Wario back into his normal, selfish self. But even after temporarily being a megalomaniacal villain, Wario’s friends still forgive him for his greedy ways, and then he runs away with the tournament’s earnings without paying them. It’s a silly moment to let you know that, in WarioWare, we’re all here to make friends, have fun, and – most importantly – goof off.

Best Games Played 2018: Greatest Redemption

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

God of War opens with a Kratos in mourning.

Abandoning Sparta, Greece, and the gods they served, Kratos travels to Midgard, the Norse realm of men, and raises a new family to love and care for.

But, like any good Greek tragedy, it wasn’t meant to be.

Kratos’ second wife, Fey, has just passed at the start of God of War, with Kratos lumbering trees to build her funeral pyre. Their young son, Atreus, tries to help, but is constantly rebuffed by his Spartan father, who carries a multitude of burdens on his back: the death of his first wife and daughter, the murder of the Greek pantheon by his hands, the death of his second wife, and the fact that he has kept his – and by extension, Atreus’ – godhood a secret from his son.

Their time of mourning is short lived, however, when they decide to fulfill Fey’s final wish: to have her ashes spread on the highest peak in all the realms. This leads Kratos and Atreus on an adventure across Midgard, facing gods, killing beasts, and struggling to connect as father and son. Atreus works so hard to prove himself to his father, and constantly, he is rebuffed by Kratos, who is conflicted between comforting his child and knowing that they live in a cruel and uncaring world.

God of War is a redemption on many fronts. It partially serves as a redemption of Kratos, who, by the end of the game, has learned to no longer be immobilized by the burdens he wishes to carry. He’s told Atreus of his godly stature, choosing to guide him instead of letting him struggle with his identity. He’s also told him of Kratos’ genocide of the Olympian pantheon, stating that as gods themselves they must do better than simply sew death and chaos. He even stops Baldur’s attempted parricide, something he couldn’t even stop himself from doing to Zeus.

God of War is also a redemption for the franchise itself. Historically, God of War traded itself on simply being a testosterone-laced, meatheaded murder spree, where Kratos’ lust for godblood fueled him through three games, slowed ever so slightly by tasteless minigames like sleeping with a harem of characterless women. However, as the series matured, it realized it needed to have meaning behind the violence and sex. In God of War III, we began to see that Kratos’ actions had worldly consequences: with each Greek god slain, their corresponding aspect of reality is thrown into imbalance: Hermes’ death unleashes a plague, Helios’ death plunges Greece into eternal night, and Poseidon’s death causes the seas to boil and rage.

It isn’t until Kratos’ bloodlust is sated with the death of Zeus atop Mount Olympus does he turn to face the calamity he caused, a world in ruin. It’s here, in the game’s final moments, where we see an inkling of regret in Kratos. It’s a feeling that he carries to Midgard and through the events of the new God of War.

Many notes of the original series’ story are seeded throughout this new entry. Kratos and boy meet a peculiar god early on in their travels, and he’s dispatched similarly to Helios in God of War III, but where Helios is defeated with unflinching blood and viscera, this norse god is dealt with in a soft, respectable way, panning the camera away from any gore. Even more references to Kratos’ former life surface – visions of Athena and old wounds left by the Blades of Chaos – and it all shows how he tries to forget the past and escape a cycle which seems bent on repeating itself with the Norse pantheon.

God of War succeeds at redeeming and recontextualizing a series that many saw as irredeemable. It breathes new life into a franchise while also lifting up the best parts of its former self. The game, while great, still struggles with its characterization of women, featuring only two female characters in its plot – one who is dead and one who seeks to die – continuing an issue of women and mothers’ places in a series that has historically cast them chiefly as plot devices, villains, and eye candy.

It’s a very real problem in an entry that has been so good at addressing the other issues of its past self. This is seemingly the first part of a larger story, so it should strive to achieve better representation. Because if God of War has proven anything, it’s that it is capable of evolving into forward-looking themes without succumbing to its baser impulses.

Best Games Played 2018: Clearest Purpose

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

On the surface, Kingdom Death is a towering wall of smooth black stone, a monolith among board gaming that dares anyone to try and uncover its secrets. This might be what makes it so alluring – between its many mechanical layers of strategy, combat, and crafting and its bleeding edge art and atmosphere, Kingdom Death feels rich with an energy of menace. Yet, for all that splendor, what intrigues me the most about it is what it doesn’t do.

Kingdom Death recreates a Dungeons and Dragons-like experience, the story creation and player mythos, without any of the shortcomings of its predecessor. Tabletop RPGs like D&D are unique in that they allow players to create near infinite stories, legends, and worlds, unhindered by the video game constraints of asset generation and production timelines. However, the same systems that make tabletop RPGs so limitless and free can also run the risk of making them feel weighed down.

Trying to work with hundreds of variables in your game system – character traits and motivations, player temperament, game master skill, quality of narrative, and more – can turn a noble attempt at an RPG campaign into an incoherent mess of wasted effort and disappointment. Kingdom Death aims to circumvent all of those pitfalls by creating a streamlined game experience focusing on the core joys of tabletop RPG gaming: relaying adventure, humor, comradery, and pure terror with every dice roll.

Players declare a hunt query at the beginning of every session, starting off with a series of events that play out like miniature stories – discovering anything from strange fruit, fellow survivors, or a deadly trap. Once found, monsters engage in combat via an AI deck, each card being an action that declares a target via unique parameters and executing their maneuver ruthlessly. This AI deck also counts as a health counter, so as cards run out, the monster becomes weaker and actions get repeated and more frantic. Actions like carrying a player across the board or specifically targeting someone who would be hiding in a bush starts to create story beats for each character within this system. Combat, and death, all feel visceral and textured with added flavor text and gorgeous art.

Kingdom Death builds upon this foundation with random enemy encounters and player progression that rivals many tabletop RPGs, always using the same board but with new environment tiles and minis – and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the minis are among a league of their own, beautifully modeled and constructed, with detail in every possible corner – to create unique fights and moments with accompanying story beats, and an art direction that carries the full weight of its world on its back. Kingdom Death is not for everyone, but if you can accept its aesthetic (and its price tag), you’ll experience easily one of the finest board gaming has to offer, with a refined core and a clear goal for players to endure.

Hidden Gems Returns to PAX South with Folks from Vlambeer, Finji, and Kickstarter!

We’re starting out 2019 with the return of the Hidden Gems panel to PAX South! Hidden Gems is where we uncover all of the unique and overlooked games and experiences on the show floor that you need to check out.

We’ll be joined by Ward Games co-founder Dylan Ilvento, 50% of Vlambeer Rami Ismail, Finji community manager Harris Foster, and Kickstarter senior games outreach Anya Combs on Friday, January 18th, at 5:30 pm in the Cactus Theatre.

And be sure to check out what we’ve highlighted at previous shows with our recordings from PAX East 2017, PAX South 2018, PAX East 2018, and PAX West 2018.

Best Games Played 2018: Greatest Mechanical Reach

These games and awards were decided during the Wardcast’s Best Games Played 2018 episode, where we considered any and all games played by the members of the Wardcast in 2018, even if they weren’t released that calendar year.

Earlier this year, Alex came to the podcast with glowing praise for tiny smartphone game Part Time UFO. I’d been trying to find enjoyable mobile games to dig into, and when he mentioned that the game was developed by HAL Egg, the mobile division of HAL Laboratory and the minds behind Kirby, Earthbound, and Smash Bros., I was itching to play. In the game you command a cute, little UFO with an extendable claw, taking on a number of gigs to pick up and place objects in specific locations – what Western audiences would call a crane game or claw machine and Eastern audiences would call a UFO catcher.

Even on first blush, I could tell that this was a well-crafted package: the pixel art was adorable, the music was catchy, and the controls felt solid. There’s a virtual analog stick to direct the UFO and a virtual button to operate the claw. There’s also an option to use a one-finger control scheme that, while intriguing, works better as an accessibility option than a convenient way to play. But the first few levels were fun, so I kept playing, not knowing what I would find.

What starts out as a simple physics-based puzzle game unfurls into a series of precarious challenges, thoughtful puzzles, demanding time limits, and more. I was immediately sucked in by the optional objectives for each level, like making sure boxes were placed right side up and stacking other objects in the correct order. Each level has three of these extra achievements, and they typically include a time limit. By completing these goals, you earn extra money which helps you unlock unique outfits for your UFO. These outfits don’t just add a cosmetic flair, most also bring strategic benefits: faster movement, stronger claw control, and other smaller tweaks that can make the difference between succeeding and failing at your current objective.

Part Time UFO brings all of HAL Labs’ charm into a tight mobile game that branches out into challenges that will keep a player engaged all the way through to the last gig.