Brendan: Subnautica is a game of wondrous dread. It surfaced from the slimey seas of early access in January, so it qualifies as a 2018 game, and if any of you want to argue about that, I will feed you to the deep. I like this fishy survive ‘em up because it puts humanity in its place. You’re stranded on an ocean planet, one of untold humans who have conquered the stars, but forgotten the sea.
Most survival games are about overcoming nature, dominating it, bending it to your human will. You affect the environment. In Subnautica, it feels the other way around. You’re not top of the food chain in this water world, not even close. And you quickly learn that the best way to live here is to accept that nature is king. To thrive, you have to work within it, not against it. The best way to get teeth from those Stalkers isn’t to kill them, but to play fetch with them using scrap metal. The most useful thing you can do when a terrifying new seabeast emerges from the shadows isn’t to blast it to bits, but whip out a scanner and learn what the hell it is. It’s still about exploiting natural resources, sure, but it does this in its own gentle, thoughtful way. It helps that it doesn’t offer any worthwhile weapons, and maybe it’s a sad condemnation of humanity that in order to learn humility within the natural world we must be entirely disarmed, but the result is the same: a survival game that’s about knowing nature, not beating it.
Matt: My interest in survival games tends to perish pretty quickly. There’s satisfaction in overcoming a world that doesn’t want you in it, but I was loath to start trudging on another treadmill of mundane tasks. Then Subnautica came along, and plunged that treadmill into an alien ocean.
It’s a place of terror and wonder. More the former at first, when you can’t be sure if every iridescent fish is going to be your dinner or if you’re going to be its. Gradually, though, you get comfy. You carve out a base amongst the coral. You craft some flippers. A handheld jet. A submarine.
As the world yields to your knowledge and machines, new areas open up. Dangerous areas, where oversized shadows let out oversized wails. Dread deepens with every step into the dark, a drone that batters against need and curiosity. Those caves are rich in minerals and mystery, your existence sustained by both.
Fear gives way to understanding. You set up an outpost in the depths, a metallic invasion supplied with oxygen from dead fish. You build a scanner room, turning painstaking searches into simple collections. Your work is well rewarded.
‘Rewarding’ sums up so much of Subnautica. Every project has its bounty, every zone has its surprises. There’s a unique, primal horror to being in an environment you’re not equipped for, with creatures that very much are. Subnautica’s brilliance lies in subliming that fragility into mastery.
That ocean will never be your planet, but it can become your home.
John: I’m so pleased I was dumb enough to ignore Pip’s plaintive pleas that we all play Subnautica during its early access. Because I got to experience my favourite ever survival game only after it was complete.
I’d certainly have had such a splendid time, over a much longer time, if I’d played its earlier iterations when a person with far more sense than me was imploring me to do so. But I’d also not have had the completeness of it, the beginning, middle and end of a genre that so often only offers the middle.
Despite putting in as many hours as I could, despite not mainlining its storyline at all, I found Subnautica to be a narrative experience in a way survival games almost never are. Not just because it has the whole plot to discover (and discover it you must, don’t let anyone tell you about it), but because it let me tell myself so many more personal stories as I went. Struggles to survive calamities, that first time I discovered a new spectacular species, building my home and making it feel safe, venturing into the deepest caves to find the strangest secrets…
Subnautica is as deep as its own oceans, with so much to find, so many ways to happily potter, and always with just enough sense of threat that the safe parts feel wonderfully safe. If you don’t care for survival games, don’t write off Subnautica with them – it’s something uniquely special, where the mechanics of the genre feel vital for the greater purposes of exploration and understanding.
John: Chuchel does something very, very few games have ever tried to do. Vignettes. While there has of course long been the madcap 5-second game modes of WarioWare and its various copies, Chuchel is something very different – something like mini-episodes of a cartoon, except as an outrageously cute puzzle game.
Each of the dozens of little scenes sees Chuchel, an ill-tempered and hungry ball of black fuzz, trying to get hold of a delicious cherry. Only to be thwarted by a red bug-like creature, the Jerry to Chuchel’s Tom. Or indeed a deific hairy hand that descends from the sky and just plucks the cherry away, ending a sequence with perhaps a nod to the animation of Terry Gilliam.
This is Amanita, they of Machinarium and Botanicula, but in a far more silly and joyful mode. Where their games are usually whimsical and musing, this is anarchic and daft, a cacophony of happy noise and colour. And most of all, goodness me, it’s so, so funny.
Playing Chuchel has been one of the absolute highlights of 2018 for me, not just because it’s a self-contained creation of joy and fun, nor just because it features exquisite animation and puzzle design, but because it was the very first time I’ve been able to properly play a game with my boy. 3 at the time, this was a game that let him make suggestions of what to do for me to try, in a way he instantly got. And even more than that, it was a game that had us both guffawing, sharing laughs in a way that really doesn’t happen often when there’s a 38 year age gap. It’s such a pure thing, pleasurable and ridiculous and with that slight edge of malevolence that makes all the best cartoons fun.
Dave: If there’s one lesson to take away from Chuchel, it’s that a lot of hassle would be avoided if people shared more. Chuchel, a black doodle with an orange hat, is fighting with a rodent-like scribble over who gets to eat a single cherry, but their dispute frequently means they lose it entirely to some other creature. They team up together to try and get it, only to stab each other in the back with the rodent-scribble usually coming out on top.
It’s very minimalist, each scene containing all the puzzle pieces needed to progress. The frantic art style and madness of what’s on display is strangely charming and by the end I was rooting for the black scribble to eat the cherry. But the thing that made Chuchel stand out to me was that it managed to tell a relatively endearing tale without uttering a single word. Characters talk gibberish, yet their gestures clearly show exactly what they desire and how they react to each other. It’s also one of the few games that nails slapstick humour, which is quite the feat. Very enjoyable for the short amount of time it takes to finish it.
Dave: Monster Hunter: World is probably the game I’ve sunk the most hours into this year (a whopping 81 so far, if my Steam account can be believed). I’ve slain or captured countless monsters in my pursuit to make some powerful weapons and effective armour to hunt bigger beasts.
It is utterly gorgeous to look at, with each of the five areas you can hunt in being a large labyrinth that you must memorise the optimal paths for. The vibrant locations you explore are filled with life, be it plants to harvest to craft items to make hunting easier, or the fauna that occasionally try to attack you, distracting you from the hunt.
But the main attractions are the massive beasts found with every mission. From your first hunt with the Great Jagras, all the way up to taking on the Elder Dragons, the hunts will test your combat skills in unique ways. It takes a big investment of time and effort, since you’ll regularly grind the same monster repeatedly for resources to make new weapons and armour, but chasing monsters with friends was probably the most fun I had this year, especially when you’re all working together to take down a massive Elder Dragon that’s been giving you hassle. Are Kushala Daora’s tornadoes in the final phase too much to handle? Have some friends place explosive barrels while it’s asleep so that you can end the fight quickly.
I’ve always wanted to get into the Monster Hunter series, and while I’ve been reliably informed that Monster Hunter: World is a far more streamlined experience than some of the other versions of the game, it felt suitably complex enough for my tastes. But really it did shine the most when I got a group of friends together to take down tough monsters, even though it is entirely possible to get through the main game on your own.
Monster Hunter: World also has a ton of character, which is a thing that seasoned Monster Hunter players are all too familiar with. Palicoes can be outfitted with all sorts of cute costumes, including the most recent update allowing players to turn them into little snowmen. You can also create more personalised armour that either upgrades your character’s abilities, or gives them slots to put decorations in to customise them to your liking. There’s even a woolly pig in the main hub area, for no other reason than to be cute.
It was most certainly worth the wait for it to come to PC, even if it didn’t have the best of starts. Now that the updates are coming thick and fast, we’ll hopefully see some more returning monsters from the prior games in the series, as well as new beasts to slay.
Matthew: I’ve not progressed much in Monster Hunter World, the popular videogame adaptation of Rock Paper Shotgun’s extensive tips guide, but that’s entirely because I’m hooked on walloping the game’s first monster, the Great Jagras. It’s far from the most spectacular beast in the game — it’s basically An Iguana But Big — but it has one of the most satisfying takedowns I’ve seen in 2018.
The Jagras likes to gobble up smaller creatures to heal and strengthen itself, distending its belly with the unfortunate Aptonoth it swallows in the opening area. (Incidentally, one of the best bits about this fight is how it plays out like clockwork, so you can always enjoy Jagras-whuppings on tap.) As a fellow overeater I see a lot of myself in its sad, post-lunch waddle, but as a monster hunter I only see an opportunity.
Hit its fat tummy enough and the beast vomits up its meal, leaving it as a wheezing heap on the floor and ripe for further bashing/stabbing/whatever-the-hunting-horn-does. Yes, it’s unkind to pick on anything in that window of post-puke vulnerability (see also: Hitman), but I love the logic of this particular tactic. It’s such a reliable technique that it’s especially good for feeling the improvements of your weapon upgrades; every sharper blade I build I’m right back there, smashing its stomach to see how much faster it delivers street pizza. If that’s not worth a recommendation, what is?
(My compliments to The Vomit Thesaurus for the phrase ‘delivering street pizza’.)
Alice Bee: Dave totally grokked my Palico love. Like, the best thing about MonHun: World is obviously the fashion. Yeah, living eco-systems and whatever, but good lord, the outfits. The armour sets range in style from puffy winter wear to bondage night in Shoreditch. Some of them are spectacular. And your Palico basically becomes an accessory, like a chunky handbag.
These outfits are all made from the skin, scales, armour, teeth, feathers and fur of the beasts you’ve successfully hunted. If you wore any of it down the street in real life you’d be covered in red paint almost instantly. And it’s hilarious because all the Monster Hunter HQ lads are going on about how amazing and wonderful these rare creatures are and how we should respect them and study them, and then send you off specifically to kill them. Like, yeah, I’ll study it up close, I’ll study it real close, with this big mace made from the bones of its cousin.
Basically, the core of Monster Hunter: World can be summed up with a small section from that Radio 1 interview Tom Hardy did where kids sent in questions:
“We can see ourselves in all living things, so one has to care about everything and approach it with love — unless of course it attacks you. In which case, lovingly, see it off with a big stick. Love all things buddy. Unless it’s coming at ya mate. [In which case] dispatch it with the love, man.”