My 2018 in games had me dealing with failure in multiple ways. Designed to move further and further away from the fantasy of the all-powerful player ever looking for an appropriate challenge, these games teach to forgive and accept – forgiving someone a past hurt, accepting the lack of a perfect solution to a problem. From the satisfyingly familiar to a type of game I would usually avoid, 2018 had it all.
I’ve always waited for the day I’d grow tired of JRPGs, with their calls for me to believe in friendship and love, their undemanding difficulty and bold colour palettes. I haven’t, and games like this might be the reason why. Ni no Kuni II is disarmingly honest about what it is. It’s no epic journey or breathtaking adventure – it’s a fairy tale about a world in which everyone tries to be nice to each other. You never become all-powerful or too cool to help. Your growing kingdom, your progress in the story, all is built on reaching out a helping hand and eradicating injustice, simple as that. Just like the Ghibli films it’s visually modelled after, Ni no Kuni II wins you over with honest love.
The Banner Saga is my first experience with actively waiting for a game in the way I previously only experienced with good TV shows. By the time TBS III came around, I had been on a journey with most of its characters for so long that I would’ve been devastated for developer Stoic to drop the ball at the last second. Thankfully they’ve found both mechanical and narrative ways to convey the desperation of trying to fend off insurmountable odds and taught me that the best ending is sometimes not to have a definitive ending at all.
This game gives me the satisfaction of nudging people who usually have little to do with strategy games and going “it’s fun, right?” Round-based strategy is at its best when victory and defeat are always close to each other, and even after many hours spent with Into the Breach, the AI still surprises me, corners me, beats me in unexpected ways. Just like a good board game, Into The Breach does a lot with little, and has a mechanical familiarity to it that makes it easy to get into. You look at Into The Breach and think that by all accounts it should not be as tricky as it is, and that is the real marvel that makes me come back for more every time.
Hades is an early-access title, but you would hardly recognise it as such. Created with developer Supergiant’s emblematic love for eye-catching visuals and storytelling, Hades feels rewarding even when you’re no good at roguelikes – which I am certainly not. Meeting new characters is one strong incentive for playing that I often miss in games like this, but I feel great about the basics, too – battle is speedy and new skills unlock regularly. While of course still light on actual content, Hades has become one of my most-played games this month, just because the complete package of looks, moves and music immediately won me over.
Another late-late entry, Gris is just as lovely as everyone says it is. It’s a game like a museum that attracts all kinds of people to its doors: analysts rubbing their chins and pouring over its meaning, immediate fans who happily sigh “games can be art after all” and people like me who just spent a relaxing afternoon with something pretty. Sure, Gris looks good, every frame is literally a painting, but there’s more to it. Like similar “art games” such as Abzû, it’s self-explanatory. Your possible actions are limited enough that you can solve every puzzle with ease and still feel rewarded by beautiful vistas, unexpected changes in the landscape and so on. You can be cynical about how it’s all precision-designed for impact, but I applaud every game that promotes calm and leaves you feeling mysteriously enriched.