Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
After being lost at sea, the Obra Dinn drifts back to civilisation with not a soul left but plenty of corpses. Wielding a magical pocketwatch, we can see the moments of their death, exploring scenes of tragedy frozen in time. But who are all these corpses? How did everyone die? It’s our job to identify the fate of every last person aboard by snooping through the scenes and stories, coming to learn the crew and the many tragedies that befell them. It’s a detective game where you might clearly see how someone died but discovering who they are takes hours of deduction.
Alice Bee: More than one person I have lived with has remarked that I am, in some respects, the stereotype of a little old lady. I sit on the sofa, with a fluffy pink blanket over my legs, drink a lot of tea, and watch episodes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I have read all the books, and I know the culprits already, so occasionally I’ll throw a Midsomer Murders in to spice things up. What I am saying is, I love a mystery. Specifically, I love the mysteries where you have a chance of figuring out whodunnit yourself: the murderer has been introduced to you, in the pack of suspects, and then shuffled back amongst them.
I have, I’m sure, said many times before that Return Of The Obra Dinn is probably the only game where I have felt like I am actually detecting things – figuring them out myself, using logic, and being rewarded for it. Rewarded with the solution. And that is enough for a good detective.
Alice0: I’ve never felt so proud of myself for investigating people’s socks. And my god, some of the surprises floored me. Even frozen in time, I felt unsafe.
Katharine: I, too, was a fervent shoe enthusiast in my approach to Obra Dinn, but the best thing about it was comparing notes with Matthew. He never once looked at a shoe during his first playthrough and ended up discovering an entirely different way of figuring out what’s effectively the world’s most obtuse version of Guess Who? So many possibilities exist in this game, and seeing friends and relatives arrive at the same conclusion via so many different methods made me appreciate its ingenuity even more. A true masterpiece.
Video Matthew: I replayed this recently – left it long enough to forget the most vital clues – and was dazzled afresh by its cleverness and the sheer horror of the thing. Obra Dinn is a great advert for environmental awareness: once you’ve seen what nightmares live in the ocean, the last thing you’ll want is the world to have more sea. Brrr.
Alice L: This game made me feel both smart and incredibly dim at the same time, for 80% of the time I played. That art style, that music, that mystery. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’m sure it took me a lot longer to figure everything out than anyone else. But I still did it. Look, ma. I’m a detective now.
Yakuza 0 (2018)
After a decade of PlayStation exclusivity, Sega’s open-world brawler RPG series about the Tokyo underworld has finally come to PC, starting with this prequel. Two playable characters living in Tokyo and Osaka become ensnared in the same plot around an estate deal, though they don’t seem to notice because they spend so long on minigames, side-businesses, dinners, and sidequests where they slam thugs with bicycles then dispense fatherly advice to children and adults alike.
Alice0: An open-world RPG set in small city spaces dense with detail where I can thunk punks with a bicycle sounds just grand to me. I’d be happy enough pottering about, doing quests, eating dinners, and playing minigames. You know, GTA on a smaller scale with more to do, something like that – it’d be fine. What makes me so adore Yakuza so much more is the melodramatic tone. Yakuza 0 knows two things: you are Japan’s toughest mobster, and you are Japan’s nicest uncle. It commits fully to both.
Yakuza 0 is a crime melodrama focused on an backalley lot in Tokyo. Several organisations are jostling to secure this invaluable real estate and tighten their grip on the city, and it’s turned deadly. Who owns this lot? How far does this web of intrigue spread and how high does it go? And why is everyone trying to kill us? With our steely resolve, our strong moral code, our dramatic shouting, and our raw strength, we might just settle the matter.
Yakuza 0 is a melodramatic family comedy about a wacky mobster who loves food, has a childlike wonder, is nervous around women, and wants to help every downtrodden person in the world. Reunite families! Teach children kindness and self-confidence when you join a slot car racing league! Help a kid get back his stolen video game, and teach a valuable lesson in parenting to his dad! Help a floundering dominatrix believe in herself! Befriend a weird dude who hangs around in his pants yelling about porn! Befriend Michael Jackson! Hire a chicken to be a property manager at your real estate business!
What’s astonishing is that Yakuza 0 has not one crimedad but two, with two protagonists playable in different chapters. Kiryu and Majima are quite different and both absolutely delightful. What good boys. What excellent thugs.
Yakuza 0’s a cheery old brawler, with different fighting stances and skills to upgrade making even ploughing through random wandering enemies a joy. Kiryu slamming thugs with bicycles and boxing blows, Majima whirling around with a baseball bat and breakdancing moves. Never not melodramatic.
It’s almost a shame that so many Yakuza games have hit PC so quickly after ending their PlayStation exclusivity. They do become ‘more of the same’ if you chain them. But that ‘same’ is still delightful, and Yakuza 0 is perhaps the series at its best. It’s certainly the place the start.
I’m so happy to be in Yakuza. It’s warm and funny yet still an interesting crime drama. I forgive its few mastubatory missteps. Its cities are bustling and full of fun diversions that make me digitally live there. I have jobs there too – and Majima’s cabaret club is the best money-making minigame I’ve played in any game. Ah, I want to stop writing this now and go hang out with the nice crimeboys again.
Star Traders: Frontiers (2018)
Here’s space, here’s you, here’s a spaceship to get you started, and now what? In this space RPG, the galaxy is your sandbox. Faction conflicts, business, and personal interests run the simulation, the universe changing around you as you build your crew, ship, reputation, and fortune. What sort of spaceman do you want to be?
Sin: Star Traders Colon Frontiers lets you do what you want. You know that point you get to in most RPGs where you’re sort of bored of your character and want to try something else? You don’t have to. You can hire a new crew, kicking out those bounty hunters you trained, and replacing them with diplomats and spies instead. Perhaps retool your ship for your new career, letting it and your people make up for your captain’s lack of expertise. It’ll cost you, but hey, you can probably do both jobs now anyway.
Star Traders is brimming with hidden people and events. Its encounters are driven by local and regional politics, most of which you can influence if you ferret out the hidden faction contacts who jostle for influence as they make everything move. Several heavily branching (and entirely optional, although they’ll resolve without you if you wait long enough) plots throw you deep into the corporate and neo-feudal machinations of its setting. You’ll never stick to your plans – sooner or later some interesting opportunity or tempting prize will pull you out of your comfort zone. Your terrifying-but-fair pirate might become a key diplomat in an era-defining trial. Your unassuming spy might double as a merchant, your scavenger pivot to hunting aliens. And who knows, that swordsman you recruited might have potential as a field medic, and become one of your favourite officers after a hasty field promotion. Now you’ve got a deadly frontline fighter who can poison attackers and patch your team up.
The work the Trese Brothers put into supporting their game is truly phenomenal too. Every criticism we’ve made has been contemplated and addressed during its two years of frequent updates and additions, each one bringing a little more life and longevity to an already outstanding RPG. It’s my favourite space game ever.
Hitman 2 (2018)
The seventh main game in Io Interative’s sneaky murder simulator focuses even more on sandbox levels with oh so many strange and creative ways to assassinate targets. Creep around, disguise yourself, and learn the many possible ways to kill people as Ian Hitman returns for new targets and opportunities. It does have a linear story campaign but it’s a murderworld to revisit and master, not blow through.
Graham: A point-and-click adventure where instead of sticking tape to a fence to make a moustache from cat hair, you’re putting a bomb in a toilet and poison on a fish to make a man do an explosive poo. Hitman 2 (which contains all the levels from 2016’s also excellent Hitman) offers a series of elaborate Rube Goldberg devices where you need to work out which domino to place and push to make a person die at the end of the chain.
This turns out to be disturbingly satisfying. All the parts are laid out and waiting for you, but it still tricks you into feeling clever for manipulating them as required. And Hitman 2 contains levels so vast and surprising that I think I’d be happy if IO just followed this template forever, releasing 5 or 6 new murder playgrounds every couple of years.
Into The Breach (2018)
Monsters have risen from the depths of the Earth to ravage the remains of humanity, and only a timeline-tripping squad of mech pilots can stop them. The second game from the makers of FTL sends us out to mash the monsters in short turn-based tactical battles focused on manipulating enemy movement. The beauty of Into The Breach is that we can see every enemy’s planned action and the consequences of our own. Blessed with certainty, we become master manipulators shuffling enemies around the battlefield, nudging attacks onto different targets, and setting up clever chains.
Nate: I’m too thick for chess, and I’m too impatient for puzzle games. Which is why I absolutely loved Into The Breach, until I realised it was just a series of Pacific-Rim-styled chess puzzles, and quit in a cloud of my own prejudices. That’s my problem, however, not the game’s. And in fairness, it doesn’t feel like chess, at least at first. It feels like a classic turn-based tactics game.
But there’s no element of chance involved, and in each beautifully minimalist battlefield, there’s no information required to achieve a perfect victory that isn’t available to you from the word go. It’s a game about planning, basically. Not just planning; a game about packing for a caravan holiday could be about planning. This is a game about being able to mentally simulate the future interaction of known quantities, and plan a series of actions that takes advantage of all those interactions to achieve your own goals.
About being so clever you can see into the future, essentially. And as already stated, I’m too thick for that. I like my tactics with a side order of chaos and improvisation. I prefer to react, rather than to act. But if you’re wired the other way, it’ll be easy for you to agree that Into The Breach is one of the neatest achievements in the history of game design.
Graham: Nate says that ITB is a game about planning, but I say it’s a game about shoving. Big robots shoving big insectoid monsters into each other, into skyscrapers, into lakes. You do this in order to warp those enemy’s intended next turn. They’re going to shove your mate, so you shove them first so that their shove actually shoves their mate. Take that, shovetoids! Do this successfully enough and you can preempt the enemy’s every attempted attack, leaving you with a squad at full health, and a saved city in awe of your genius.
Football Manager (2010-2019)
Battles are almost an afterthought in this strategy game which focuses on the finance and intrigue behind army-building. When dozens of other armies are competing for the same soldiers, you’ll need to build a strong financial base, regiments of supporters, and the sympathies of the media to secure top troops and build your dynasty. Even the greatest plans can be undone by the flesh, one torn ligament taking down your linchpin soldier. All’s fair in love and ballwar.
Graham: Football is about stories: long-running rivalries, last-minute comebacks, underdogs rising up and legends on the fall. “Football Manager is a spreadsheet,” goes the common dismissal, but through its pages and pages of stats, all those stories of the sport are told. That’s what makes it more than just an impressive simulation, and that’s why people write Football Manager fan fiction.
It is an impressive simulation, though. You can talk about dwarves getting sad that their cat died, but Football Manager isn’t far off Dwarf Fortress when it comes to attention to detail. Aside from the 40 or so visible and invisible stats which determine a player’s performance on the pitch, there’s also a representation of their personality, morale, and more. You can poke at these things via conversations with players, working to get the best out of your players by amping them up before a big game, or compelling them to sign a new contract by appealing to their ego.
Many of these systems are deliberately opaque, which means they’re often unrewarding to tinker with, but there’s rarely a situation where the game just rolls a die. Even the in-game weather is simulated, so that doing it on a rainy Sunday in Watford is the result of an actual weather front rolling across town, affecting any other games being played nearby.
For me, it’s the summer breaks I’m addicted to. I live for finding young players – fictional regens, ideally – and turning them into superstars through training and a gradual introduction to the first team. This is better than levelling characters in any other RPG.
Note that we’ve not picked any particular entry in the series to hold this spot on the list. Football Manager long ago invented the wheel and has since settled down into a steady routine of adding automatic doozits and more cup-holders. If you’re going to play any in the series, it should probably be the most recent – and they remove the old entries from sale so you have no little choice in the matter, anyway.
Dark Souls Remastered (2018)
At the end of an era, civilisation has long-since fallen into tragedy and ruin, haunted by remnants of what once was. Still, you get to stab a lot of people. This fantasy action-RPG has a reputation for being murderously tough mostly because it requires you to pause, think, and learn. Die, respawn, take a deep breath, parry, counter-attack and away you go. Dark Souls debuted on consoles in 2011, hit PC in 2012 with a rubbo port, then got polished with a remaster in 2018 so that’s what we’re cooing over.
Alice0: Many words have been written about the joys of parry-countering, of beating a boss you’d been bashing your face against, of learning how interconnected the world is, of how sad and lonely it all is, of having freedom to explore and experiment then fail or thrive, of invading and surviving invasion, of being a cheeky big lad invading then passively block a doorway with your large body, and of how history is hidden in handed-down stories, myths, and swords. These are indeed all great. I’ll use this space to expand on something I meant to say a while back.
Adam and I ruffled some feathers when we semi-cheekily declared (or I remember it was chiefly us two agitating for it?) that Dark Souls is the best RPG, a title it has surprisingly held for years without either of us touching that list. I stand by it. Dark Souls very much is a roleplaying game. It has choices and it has consequences. You can form friendships and alliances. You can save people and you can can betray them. You can find hidden quests and stories. But, wonderfully, very little of this is presented in standard RPG ways. To roleplay, you need to know that you have this choice – and forces driving the plot would very much prefer you did not have ideas of your own.
If you’re curious about NPCs, you pay attention to what they say, and you think to search when they go missing, congratulations, you’re a hero who thinks of others and wants to help. Perhaps you also like helping other players and always drop a summon sign to be drawn in and fight alongside them, maybe joining a covenant dedicated to helping. I often regretted killing a sickly spidersister’s protector and would join her covenant to nurse her as an act of contrition. Leaving misleading messages for other players is a classic dick move. If you don’t care about any of these people and want their hats, mate, you’ve probably already stabbed them. Maybe you even joined the soulstealing cult deemed so dangerous that a whole city was drowned to stop them, because you wanted to invade and kill other players. And what does it say about someone who joins a group dedicated to fighting invaders? We’re all turning hollow and falling into obsessions but some of us retain a little more humanity.
Between the (admittedly few) NPC stories, multiplayer interactions, and the covenants, Dark Souls offers a generous and fascinating space for roleplaying. It just requires a wee jolt to your logic to realise this, because it flows backwards to the norm. Rather than decide what sort of character you want to play then make decisions around that, in Dark Souls the game offers no direction then your character is only clear in retrospect or with introspection. What you do as the player is who your character is, even if the game never notes these decisions in a quest log or morality gauge. You might never realise this. It’s just like life, the world’s most punishing hardcore RPG. And it’s fitting that Dark Souls is quiet about this.
We’re the “Chosen Undead” because we’ve lost who are but not degraded so much that we’re useless. We’re not destined, we’re another idiot who chased the old legend. One of us had to succeed eventually. We’re just damned enough to persist in the quest to link the fires then burn up rekindling civilisation for another doomed cycle. It’s an aeons-old con and we’re the latest rube. The Man wants you to not think about what you’re doing or who you are. It’s a great scam and most of us probably did link the fires without thinking. I know on my first go I saw the final boss fall, noticed a button prompt pop up, and instantly smashed it. Even as an unthinking idiot, I like to think I’d been a good-ish person who cared for my NPC pals, helped my fellow Chosen, and felt remorse for my sins. Maybe aside from that stretch where the whole ‘quest of destiny’ thing was getting to me and I joined a cat’s murdercult in the woods, but we’ve all felt that right?
Your choices especially matter when you step into another player’s world. Are you an agent of light reaching out to help a real person beat a boss you know could have been trouncing them for hours? Or have you come to gleefully stab them in the back? Oh I’ve learned a lot about your character.
Dave: I went in to Dark Souls with the optimism and confidence of someone who had never played Demon Souls. This, as you can imagine, did not initially end well for me. But I persevered. I began to learn the precise timing needed to parry an attack, and got as far as beating the grim half-a-naked-woman-fused-to-a-spider witch Quelaag. Some absolutely classic FromSoftware monster design for you, there.
Coming back to the remastered version of Dark Souls years later was like visiting an old friend,and one who’d had a tasteful facelift. It’s still the same game, but everything about it just felt better. It was also with the remastered Dark Souls that I delved into the world of PVP with real purpose, and I now get it. Each fight is like the climactic scene in every action film. A final test of skill based on all your years of training.