Alice Bee: I love point ‘n’ click adventure games, because they got to me at a formative time. One of the first games I ever played was Day of the Tentacle. Then The Curse of Monkey Island. I worked around the LucasArts/Lucasfilm stable for a bit. Adventure games will stay with me, like everything else that touched me between the ages of 10 and 16: scented gel pens; Blue WKD; crushing parental disappointment at GCSE results.
They tend to be ‘if you liked Monkey Island, then check this out!’ games, though. They come with a caveat built in from the ground up, usually even in the press releases, because they scratch a specific kind of brain itch. And often they aren’t very good, but I play them anyway, because of that itch. But Unavowed is very good. It’s the ‘if you like video games, then check this out!’ kind of game.
A band of cool misfits teaming up to solve supernatural crime is extremely my jam anyway; it’s basically every TV show I regularly watch. But Unavowed has so many twists and turns and entanglements, and the characters are so beautifully drawn, in every sense. You want to play it over and over again, not just because you can pick three different origins for your character (what’s the word? Replayability?), not just because puzzles have different solutions depending on who you’re with (the strong lady will throw a brick through a window; the police detective can shoot it out) but because of how the different members of your squad talk to one another.
Backstory and personality are revealed in the incidental party banter, but you can only take two of them with you on a mission. Different situations can trigger different conversations, so all together there a lot of possible combinations. Eli the fire mage was my favourite. He is preternaturally long-lived, and watched from afar as his children grew up and then aged past him, having faked his death to protect them. He is well-mannered in an old fashioned way, but deeply sad and conflicted. And like any of the characters, you find most of this out by walking around in the rain in New York, waiting for your team to talk to each other. And the weird thing is that you want to.
John: Every year there are one or two good adventure games. This year we had the splendid Unforeseen Incidents, a fantastic example of the form. But we also had Unavowed, that did something different. It was a fantastic example of an evolution of the form – something traditional point-and-click adventures haven’t seen since the ’90s.
Dave Gilbert has always shown a deft had at creating great stories and decent puzzles in a very traditional fashion, and using Adventure Game Studio meant they also looked like the classic early ’90s games they were in the spirit of. But in Unavowed, by intelligently lifting key elements from RPGs, he adapted a genre that has been stuck for decades and showed what else it could be.
Of course, it could be argued that it actually all happened the other way around. That RPGs picked up where the adventure game became stale, took the best elements of the conversational choices, the impactful decisions, and put them in a whole other genre. Unavowed perhaps marks the reclaiming of this, using the ideas BioWare developed (until they forgot them), letting you choose between companions have having accordingly different experiences, having different decisions have different consequences, and even changing the puzzles you see depending upon how you play.
Whatever it might be, Unavowed shows that there is still life in the old genre yet, that there are new places for pointing and clicking to take us. And frankly, if one man can do it, then teams should be able too. I desperately hope this sees others try to follow, although I feel wearily certain in a world where adventures can only ever be minor indie niche hits, it’s incredibly unlikely they will.
But this year it matters not, because we got the wonderful Unavowed, and for now that’s lovely.
Matthew: At the time of writing, winter is about to arrive in the Britain of Forza Horizon 4. It will coat the open world in snow for one chilly week and then have the good manners to bugger off for another three. Playground Games have long catered to the impatient – this is a series where you can come in last and still unlock the next race – but accelerating the seasons into a monthly blur of wet mud, soggy bluebells, frozen lakes and sweating sheep feels like a whole new level of instant gratification. And I love them for it.
I can think of few games that work so hard to make my life so easy. Its campaign is a vast spread of driving disciplines, but I can totally ignore the stuff I don’t like (crunching into bollards in Edinburgh street races) to spend more times with stuff I do (shattering every bone in my ass as I throw jeeps off Arthur’s Seat in cross country). The more you play a discipline, the more you get of that discipline, which is really how all games should work out what to offer you next.
And the racing itself is built around beautiful scaling difficulty. You can tune your drive from ‘pretty much just hold accelerator and you’ll at least get to the end’ all the way up to the sim-like depths you’d expect from its grumpy big brother, Forza Motorsport. (I can’t speak to Horizon’s quality as a sim, but there are a lot of words I don’t understand on the tuning menu, which is usually a good sign.) Win too easily and Horizon politely asks if you’d like to punch up the difficulty. Asks, not demands – it’s not just the landscape that’s stupidly British.
And it’s such an incredibly good natured game, a celebration of all things wheeled. Yes, it fetishises the the playthings of billionaires, but its garage of 400+ cars is also full of quirky old bangers from Britain’s automotive glory days and the humble hatchbacks you learned to drive in. There’s also a new side story based on a YouTuber recreating classic racing games. Yes, that sounds ghastly, but to see Playground acknowledge its debt to Project Gotham Racing, Smugglers Run and OutRun is genuinely endearing.
As someone who failed their driving test nine times it takes a lot to get me to look past that psychological scarring and settle into a virtual driving seat. Forza Horizon has long aided that recovery, and this is the best one yet.
Graham: It normally takes me a good hour at least to start having fun in a game, as I bat away cutscenes, memorise controls and slog through tutorials. Recent driving games like Need For Speed and The Crew have been no different. If we were judging games on their first ten minutes however, Forza Horizon 4 would be the best game of 2018. In that short time it gives you a brief taste of four different kinds of vehicle across four seasons and four locations in its bucolic British countryside, with each time-skipping transition made via a seamless match cut.
If the game had ended there, it would have been a superb 30 Flights Of Loving successor, but I’m glad it didn’t. Everything that follows is similarly slick. Forza offers you an abundance of map icons just like every other open world game, but I never felt exhausted at the prospect as I do in many of Ubisoft’s equivalents. Partly that’s because the story is light and silly, starring a cast of car-fetishist festival organisers carrying clipboards who think the only thing better than wheels is you. Partly that’s because hurling 4x4s down mountainsides is more fun than most action-adventure fetch quests, and FH4 has variety and pacing that most open world games lack.
But mostly it’s because traversal is fun when you’ve got hundreds of cars to choose from and can drive to your destination as the crow flies.
I don’t drive in real life, which means all my experience of real cars comes from the passenger seat. Most of that experience was when I was a kid, sat in the backseat of my dad’s car on long drives across Scotland. Whether driving on motorways or single-track country lanes, I’d spend that time looking out the window, imagining myself running along the fences and hilltops of the horizon, or wondering what lay beyond the dense treeline.
Forza Horizon 4 lets me recreate these days by allowing me to drive cars my family owned on similar motorways and country-lanes, but also fulfils fantasies by letting me veer off those roads and go barrelling straight through the treeline and towards that horizon. Whether driving a Peugeot or the Jaguar XJ220 I coveted as a ten-year-old, your car is a juggernaut, and stone walls, lampposts, and all but the sturdiest of trees will tumble before you as you speed in a straight line towards your next objective marker.
This is a fun, joyful, generous game. Its first ten minutes are the best of 2018, and all the minutes that follow are pretty damn close.
Alice O: The game dad is a man known for demonstrating his love for his surrogate daughter figure by stabbing men in the neck. The daughter figure will work for hours to make the game dad even crack a smile. The game dad will only voice his feelings at the bitter end. The game dad is a tedious symptom of ageing developers struggling to reconcile their love of stabbing necks with their love for their new children. There is another way.
Yakuza 0’s game dad is a beefy mobster with a heart of gold, bound by his sense of honour and duty to unravel a conspiracy that’s threatening to tear his crime family apart and has already seen him framed for murder. He shouts. He growls. He bodyslams thugs. He kicks teeth out. He straight-up stabs several people. He races slot cars with children and helps them to believe in themselves. He pulls shapes with Michael Jackson. He teaches a band of adult punk posers how to act tough. He gives a chicken a job at his real estate company. Oh, and our Kiryu is only one of two wonderful game dads in Yakuza 0. The other, Majima, is a wiry psycho with a heart of gold. I love my two game dads.
Sega’s open-world brawler RPGs don’t strike a balance between crime drama and wacky dad antics as much as lean so hard into everything that sure, I’ll go along with whatever it wants. Its tone is: a lot. Yakuza is all melodrama, all the time, in every aspect. Every boss battle a monologue. Every sidequest a personal story. The game dads give everything their all. They can’t even fight without breakdancing or heaving a startled man above their head, leaping into the air, and slamming him down face-first. I adore it.
I’m happy simply running around those bustling cities, pushing through crowds, eating a big dinner, singing karaoke in ridiculous costumes, going bowling, eating a second big dinner, running Majima’s hostess club in maybe my favourite minigame from any game, and helping every single person I talk to. God help me, I’ve even tried playing Mahjong. I gave up on Mahjong.
Matthew: I don’t know about GOTY, but Yakuza 0 definitely stars my GOTY – gangster of the year. His name is Hiroki Egoshira, aka Mr Shakedown, aka The Biggest Bastard In Kamurocho (a highly contested title). He roams the streets of Sega’s party district looking to steal our hero’s hard earned cash. By which I mean, cash I punched out of another man’s face. Egoshiro will do exactly the same to you if you let him, and because his fists are the size of bollards he’s more efficient with it. Lose the fight and he’ll take every penny in your pocket. Not so bad early on; devastating when you’re trying to save 100 million yen for later upgrades.
He’s easily avoided, but when you do spot him you can see the money he’s currently carrying – an often massive sum floating above his head, beckoning you to come and take a swing for a big payday. Even better, you can find him sleeping on the pavement and siphon money from his pockets, but at the risk of waking him. Going back for repeat pickpocketing has all the tension of Pop-Up Pirate, only Pop-Up Pirate wouldn’t kick the shit out of you once he’d popped. Egoshira is the perfect blend of brisk arcade design and memorable character building.
That’s the magic of Yakuza 0 in a nutshell. It’s a world where any interaction can be turned into a hectic minigame, be it rhythmic button thumping to sing drunken karaoke or impressing schoolgirls by sniping chat-up lines in a shooting gallery. And it’s a place you can’t walk down the street without getting pulled into harebrained distractions – in the opening hours alone you’re protecting Michael Jackson, chasing a must-have JRPG through a chain of increasingly baffled muggers and teaching softies how to be punks. At the very least this has to be the funniest localisation of 2018 – no game has made me hoot louder.
In fact, seeing how much soul Sega captures with a couple of static, un-voiced dialogue boxes reminds you how poorly its done elsewhere. What a cast of fabulous freaks this is. Papillon Kato! Steven Spindig! Ayu the nervous dominatrix! The Walking Erection! This is a world of characters – and names – I adore. That I’m still to solve the central conspiracy – a surprisingly gripping tale of property corruption – speaks to the distracting power of everything else.
Yakuza 0 has no desire to be seen as a realistic life simulation, but it has more life in it than any game I’ve played this year.