The best of Unknown Pleasures 2018
The other best games of the year
The end of the bizarre and troubling year 2018 is close, and with it comes a time of reflection. I hope you're enjoying the RPS Advent Calendar, but even that cannot hope to contain the bounty this year provided.
When I joined Unknown Pleasures a year ago, I was a little fatigued with games. There were both too many to see and none that were grabbing me. This isn't the critic speaking - I'd written only one article in a year - but the player. 2016-17 were by no means bad years for the PC, but despite all the industry drama (not to mention wider sociopolitical troubles) I think this is the best year we've had for PC games for absolutely ages.
The games are out there. The weird, the funny, the clever, the silly, the exciting, the touching, the unambitious-but-plain-good games are positively sloshing about the place. But which ones were the best? So here it is: the pick of picks. A selection of the very best, weirdest, most original, and plain fun Unknown Pleasures of 2018.
As an empath/equivocating coward it is my longstanding tradition to open any review with multiple disclaimers.
Disclaimer A: while nobody can ever play even half the 'big' games released in a year, I have escaped them altogether in 2018. So my selections are not influenced by anything that normal people have heard of, for good or ill.
Disclaimer 2: While I've played a ridiculous number of games this year, I've played most only briefly, and very few have taken more than a few hours of my time.
Disclaimer D: Everyone else is wrong. Listen only to me, and always read Unknown Pleasures. We are the PC, the beating heart of the mightiest of platforms in this, the probably-still-golden age of indie games. Read. Obey. Thrive.
In no particular order then, the Pleasurablest Unknowns of 2018.
Watch Me Jump
I pronounce 2018 the Year of Interactive Fiction. This is, hands down, the genre that surprised and humbled me most. Ignore that most of them are vaguely ephebophilic toss about partially inflated teenagers. There are some talented people doing some strong work, from the clever narrative devices of Winds of Change, to the queer wife-dodging of Your Royal Gayness, via the bizarre patricidal psychodrama of Behind the Screen (which Noa covered much better than I can), and I've never had more optimism for the future of games writing, both in terms of sheer quality and creativity and experimental meddling with form, structure, and theme.
But there's a much simpler work of IF that's stayed with me. When I came out to my mum (she probably already suspected. The stack of Amiga Power magazines. The Steam Key Sudoku. The scraps of paper where I'd written "visceral" 200 times. You can only ignore the signs for so long. Statistically, two people you know are games critics), I mentioned Watch Me Jump. I told her it was basically a play adapted to let you walk around a bit and sometimes choose how to react to things people said. And I told her it was what games could be now. That's how hard it struck me. I don't think she'd asked me the name of a game since she played the Great Giana Sisters.
Watch Me Jump is a short story - comfortably under 90 minutes, at most - about Audra Bee Mills, a star player for America's Women's National Basketball Association. She's angry. She's tired. She's trapped by obligations to her fans, to her agent, to her coaches, to her team, to other players. To other women. And all of this finally bursts out of her in one long, fraught night after a private encounter with another woman in a hotel is revealed to the press. A messy, complicated drama that is nonetheless very grounded and impossible to resolve without hurting anyone in that terrible way real problems sometimes are. Everyone is flawed but in normal, relatable ways, not in the modern style of "an absolutely atrocious person has a sob story".
Go in blind. Expect a story in which a woman's sexuality matters but doesn't wholly define her. Expect to sympathise with people but still choose to hurt them. Expect to be angry and sad and a little ashamed. And expect that indescribable relief that follows a night of drama, where you're worse off than you were, but you're too emotionally drained to feel anything but glad that it's over, and mildly, perversely happy because you don't have to worry about how it'll all turn out anymore.
Observe how Shadowlings looks. You see its simple flat planes? You see its absurd limbless circlemen? You hear perhaps the jangly heavy metal in the trailer (side note: I sympathise with this last one. "heavy metal in the trailer" is a 98% accurate litmus test for a terrible game)? How could this possibly sate my urge to stab up electrodudes?
Fie you, o unwise player of fancy trifles! Shadowlings is better at delivering tense, frantic, and complicated swordfights than most games with a hundred times its budget. You get a few unlockable alternative weapons, plus optional throwing knives, and, perhaps somewhat regrettably, an array of magical attacks powered by the souls of those you slay. But none can replace the thrill and fury of clashing swords and spears. Dodge, block, block, trade blow after fruitless blow waiting for an opening. Click and swing and cancel and time and move just so and maybe you can take both of these clowns without getting hurt. Are you that good yet? Let's find out.
I've wanted a game, particularly a shooter or manstab, to model health and damage on a granular, organic model like that of Dwarf Fortress or Bushido Blade, instead of just more health bars. But instead of going to this hyper-detailed route, Shadowlings shows purity as a strength. It strips away so much of its warriors that they don't even have limbs. Because they don't need them. There are vital areas and there are weapons. Blows connect or don't. Even the magic can't seriously dilute its vital essence. Shadowlings is combat distilled.
Shaolin Vs Wutang
Explicitly designed for fans of less overwrought fighting games, Shaolin Vs Wutang is nonetheless challenging and rewarding. Its movesets are limited but this serves to make the small differences between some of the fighters more important. The basic idea is that instead of outlandish cartoon characters, each fighter is a nameless representative of a named martial art, inspired largely by old kung fun films where karate dudes would gloat and glower and judo the hell out of each other. Somehow this had me characterising them all even more strongly, based on their appearance, their levels, how irritating I found them to fight (Snake Fist guy is SUCH a pretentious ... god I can't even explain how much he annoys me). Even the way the pitch perfect announcer says their 'name' seems to matter.
One of the many times when my internet went down, I spent a mealtime watching an AI vs AI tournament of this. Do yourself a favour and switch off the HUD and switch on letterbox display (and optionally, film filter). It looks wonderful and although it doesn't communicate a fighter's status visually like the criminally under-appreciated Fight Night games did, it takes this already excellent face-rearranging sim to even greater heights. I have dozens of screenshots I can scarcely resist putting up here just to say I would watch the absolute hell out of that film.
Can you get by with button mashing? Probably. Can you master a fighter? Yep. But most importantly, can you have a good time somewhere in the middle, like most people will spend their whole time with the game? God yes. Although admittedly it's a bit redundant now, since Hapkido is the greatest martial art. I have confirmed it using many kicks.
I struggle to think of anything like SV-4. A spaceship orbits a dead, unknown alien planet for a brief time. Its sole occupant sends a remote-controlled probe down to the surface, hoping to salvage enough valuable material or scientific data to make it worth the incredibly deadly dose of radiation they're receiving. If they're smart, they'll get into an efficient pattern of launching the probe, decontaminating their poisoned body, and initiating research on whatever artifacts they pull from the surface. And of course, driving the probe around.
God, it's terrifying. SV-4 leaves you alone with only some tools and your judgement, and the result is an intoxicating blend of mundane faffing about with your cumbersome spacesuit and malfunctioning hardware, and desperately pushing the limits of what your body and probe can tolerate. I can squeeze one more run in. I have to see what that triangular structure was. I MUST find the source of that noise. I can rejig the probe to use the radar and... okay that was... that was just the cargo bay arm moving, right? Eesh, why am I so jumpy, so what if I lose the probe, I can just go home with less loot.
Permadeath has never been so justified, nor as effective. The randomised planet and even back story seem natural and right. Of course you'll see things repeated after a few goes, but the details are everything. And those handful of times when you'll realise a new option the game can provide, never prompting you but just leaving the tools in plain sight, and doing what they ought to. It's one of the most memorable games I've played for years.
Realm of the Ghost King
The first roguelike of the year to overpower my dislike of the subgenre (or more precisely, the genre's ubiquity and infection of otherwise good games), and one I'm most surprised to see so few people talking about. Your goal is to lead a semi-cute monster to outsmart the other monsters, and ultimately blow up the Ghost King, by sliding about small random, tile-based dungeons dropping bombs.
There are few unknowns, beyond the behaviour of the half a dozen monster types the first time you encounter them, making for a less arbitrary and more fair challenge than most. Where others tend to overwhelm with options and pedantic details, and some lean on physical challenges of reflexes and timing, ROTGK is something of a middle ground. Everything moves but only when you do, and every monster has its own rules, but only one or two. Each is easily predicted, but you must pay attention to the position and options each has, so you can manipulate them into moving into a vulnerable spot.
Even a strong run won't last all that long, easing the pain of failure and encouraging repeat efforts. Each player monster's (you can "be" any of the monsters once unlocked) gimmick is distinct and worth mastering. Charming and lightweight and the best entry point to the roguelurch I can think of, Realm of the Ghost King really does deserve more attention.
As motivations go, there's perhaps nothing more pure than "faster!". Blast-Off has upgrades, it has unlockables, alternative weapons and tools, and it has high scores and achievements. All that is tertiary. The thumping heart of the game is to drive your little bullet/laser/mote-shooting ball as high as possible, as fast as possible. You do this by shooting other balls that randomly fly towards you from below or above, either killing you, falling behind as they most wonderfully fail to keep up, or best of all, detonating a picosecond before crashing into your rear, their death throes thus propelling you ahead once more.
Chaining together shots/boosts has that Robotron-level feeling of the zone, where you're half planning on the fly, half living in sheer reflex and instinct to avoid the next hazard, weaving in and out of danger and reward before you even know what you're doing. The reward? Faster. Faster. FASTER.
It might annoy you for the first ten minutes. It did me. But within the next ten I had tasted invincibility. I was driven. I rose, I fired, I cackled with glee at my own skill, I sank heart-first alongside my steely escape orb as my failure handed victory to that most ancient enemy, gravity.
It's also one of almost several games whose soundtrack I've ever bothered to keep on my hard drive, let alone on my catch-all playlist.
It's 2018. The simple things can still delight me when done right. What a year.
When rhythm action games infected us all back in the mid-2000s, some lamented that there was only one way to play them. You could do exactly as you were told, or fail. Missing a note didn't even play the wrong note, just a generic failure sound. Getting it a bit wrong but styling it out wasn't possible, and freestyling inconceivable.
Floor Kids has saved us. Its inspiration even demonstrates the ethos of the art form it honours. Nugs screws up a downrock move and splays flat on his back for half a second, but he bowls it through and just lets the beat take him back. Improv and self-expression and showmanship and sheer artistry are as important as technical skill. Which makes the different characters worth trying out, and makes you FEEL the music more than memorise it, and makes the game goddamn fun.
This is what rhythm games should always have been.
Star Traders: Frontiers
It's not cheating if I never told you the rules.
Star Traders: Frontiers didn't feature in Unknown Pleasures this year because I started playing it in my precious spare time. And very soon I was consumed by the fear that if I didn't write about it, someone else would get in there before its full release, when it would become eligible (indeed, the rascally Fraser Brown ultimately did). I loved this game so much that I spent October training with knives in case I had to fight Fraser for the right to write about it here. And then it turned out I could just ask, like some sort of functioning adult. Typisch.
You're a spaceship captain in a colourful, detailed world whose backstory keeps out of the way if that's how you like it. Details peek through in its mission text, dialogues, trade goods, and regional/planetary events. The culture of your space crews and their warring mega-corporate/neo-feudal empires even if you're not looking for them, but never get in the way of... well, whatever you want to do. Spy on rival houses. Smuggle drugs and weapons to dissidents. Conduct diplomatic missions. Hunt for buried treasure and alien artifacts. Fight pirates (you absolute FINK). Terrorise wealthy merchants into handing over their goods. All of the above, specialising as you like but never painting yourself into a corner, because your crew are as important as your captain, and they can lend you whatever talents you're willing to hire people for.
Feature complete even back in August, it's nonetheless been substantially and very frequently updated by the Trese Brothers, whose work ethic, patience and consideration for their players are frankly terrifying. It was worth buying when I wrote about it, it was more so on release, and it's only gotten better since, with improvements to quality of life (including faster movement options, and some huge changes to the save system to address our, and some other players' complaints) and aesthetics, and more ships, plotlines, options, and whole careers for your captains and crew, not to mention more of the delightfully eclectic fashions.
I have played roughly 1,300 games this year. This is the one. This is the one that I was playing when I shouldn't have been. It's the one whose shortcut I kept glancing at in between the others. The one I make plans for in idle moments, and the one I kinda wing it with.
I originally headed my early access impressions with "The best space game I've played for years", thinking I should temper my enthusiasm with a bit of skepticism, in case I reconsidered later. Douse the fires, like. If I'm being honest with myself, I think even more of it now.
Star Traders: Frontiers is the best space game I've ever played. It probably will not surprise you by this point that it is also the official Unknown Pleasures pick of the year.
I could go on about a dozen other games. I've been playing just about every game I could get my hands on since my early childhood, but Unknown Pleasures has proven an accurate name. A year of writing this column has restored my enthusiasm and appreciation, and even hope for the future of games. The standard of some of the work I've seen has been remarkable, and the sheer variety of things I've been able to tell you about positively inspiring. I hope you've enjoyed it, and I'd like to thank you all for reading (oh, and yes, okay, fine, I was wrong about fighting games. Bah). You've been terrific to me, Unknowanauts. I hope you'll indulge me one more time before the season's close.
A year ago I was being evicted (48 hours' notice one week before christmas. Ho ho ho). Not long afterwards I fell ill, and thanks to various ensuing personal situations I have had a very demanding, turbulent, sometimes painful year that's cost me rather a lot. But it's also been a year of enormous progress. I've achieved some things I never thought I would, survived things that would have finished me just a year or two ago, and hand on my heart, the support and patience I've had both from RPS and from you the readers (not to mention the devs! Hug your local game dev, everyone. Most of them work bloody hard) has been a major contributor to what has gradually become a much, much happier life. I know things are rough out there for a lot of us, but if I've learned anything from this year, it's been that there's more good out there than tired eyes can see.
Look after yourselves in 2019, everyone. Be bold, and be kind.