Year-end lists are a wasted opportunity, a relic from the heyday of magazines and newspapers, a recap of the recommendations you missed because an issue got lost in the mail or consumed by the family dog. They tend to be a bit foggy (why did I like this game, again?) and incomplete (what came out in January?). Worse, they arrive when we’re too busy with the holidays to put the lists to their intended use. A list of the best games of the year is more useful, more thoughtful and more complete, we believe, if it accumulates all year long.
So we’re making a change. Beginning today, the Polygon team will collect its game of the year list in real time. We will update the list as new games make the cut, with the latest entries up top, followed by the complete list organized by the time of each game’s addition. Fortnite Battle Royale begins our list, because we feel its recent seasons were the first great game of 2018.
Mario Tennis Aces arrives on this list with numerous caveats. For fans of the Mario sports series, particularly the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance entries, Aces’ story mode isn’t nearly as rich as its those of its predecessors, more of a tutorial than an inventive role-playing adventure. For fans of local multiplayer, Aces still needs more options for matches, especially when it comes to its unusual scoring system. And for competitive players, Aces’ roster lacks balance; most online tournaments are currently dominated by Bowser Jr. and Waluigi players.
Aces is imperfect, but it’s worth, at the very least, keeping an eye on the community’s videos. As other critics have noted, Aces looks and feels like a fighting game. Rackets have health bars and can be broken; lose all your rackets, and you lose the match by KO. Special hits, trick shots and the power to slow time have led to high-level players flooding YouTube and Twitch with inventive strategies. As with a fighting game, Nintendo will need to commit long-term to updating and revising Aces, but even with its flaws, Aces’ track appears to have more in common with Splatoon than the fun but ill-fated Arms.
The lengthy development of Wreckfest encapsulates the trajectory of midsized independent game studios over the past six years. Developer Bugbear began work on the project in 2012, around the same time that Double Fine’s Broken Ageestablished Kickstarter as a potential funding tool for modestly scoped games. So in 2013, Bugbear tried to crowdfund its game. When it became obvious the studio wouldn’t meet its $350,000 goal, it terminated the Kickstarter campaign.
The project didn’t even a name; Bugbear had dubbed it Next Car Game. It became Wreckfest in October 2014, and like so many Kickstarter and early access games, it began to sputter with setbacks, delays and fussy updates. But like a special few games within this ecosystem, at a certain point, years into development, everything began to click. Fans who had soured on the game returned for new updates. Its Steam rating began to shift toward the positive again. And in June 2018, the official release of Wreckfest delivered on the gleeful destruction of the original demo, while also standing on its own as a racing game that emphasizes destruction in a way its contemporaries won’t or, because of licensing agreements, can’t.
It says something about Bugbear’s ambition that a game originally meant to be released in 2014 feels so fresh, looks so beautiful and handles so nicely in 2018. And it speaks to the state of the industry that a doomed Kickstarter from half a decade ago could become, today, one of the best games of the year.
Available on Windows PC, coming to PS4 and Xbox One.
Buy it here: Steam
Florence is a universal love story tastefully spiced with complicated emotions. It doesn’t need a huge budget or uncanny valley motion capture. Instead, its message benefits from simple story beats beats and playful interactions.
Florence is a game about love in all its varieties and degrees. It portrays the awkwardness of first dates, how two people can ease into each other’s lives. It shows the hills and valleys of a relationship with a critical but caring parent. It also captures the feeling of being a 20-something and feeling (despite all evidence to the contrary) that you are stuck on a path, like a parcel on conveyor belt carrying you to a predetermined destination.
Its greatest strength might be its minimal text. You assemble dialogue bubbles from puzzle pieces in conversations between Florence and her boyfriend Krish. When they get along, the bubbles may be only one or two pieces. When they fight, the bubbles fragment and the pieces become more jagged, the colors more intense. It’s evocative, but also engaging. The player is both a voyeur and a participant; this is both Florence’s story and our own.
Don’t worry about being late to Fortnite Battle Royale. The creators of this colorful and constructive twist on the battle royale formula ensure that new players have plenty of chances to jump on board, constantly reimagining and retooling the map, weapons and modes. The most dramatic changes take place across seasons, reminiscent of Blizzard’s Hearthstone model. Over a couple of months, players progress through the ranks, unlocking new costumes, gliders and bonuses. And when the season wraps, everybody returns to zero. Of course, none of these upgrades and rewards give players an advantage on the battlefield, so if you don’t care about cosmetics, there’s no wrong time to start — or reason to spend money.
Whether you come to Fortnite through a console, a PC or a smartphone, the items and experience you earn are persistent. (Unless you play on PlayStation.) We’ve found ourselves rotating where we play, enjoying a week on an iPhone, then craving the precision of mouse and keyboard, then spending a week on the couch with an Xbox controller in our hand. PUBG revolutionized this genre, but Fortniteis quietly revolutionizing the fashion in which big video games seamlessly exist wherever you wish to play them. And it’s free!
Here’s Polygon’s Chelsea Stark laying out everything you need to know about Monster Hunter: World: “To answer the three most pressing questions around Monster Hunter: World: Yes, its creators have made a notoriously inaccessible franchise into something that, if not totally accessible, somewhat resembles it. Yes, it’s still filled with countless menus and tough-to-parse mythos. And yes, this game lets you be best friends with a cat.”
Subnautica first appeared in Steam Early Access in 2014, but didn’t get a formal, full release until this past January. I remember years ago playing a promising but relatively thin and unfinished game that borrowed from previous construction hits like Minecraft while paving the way for the glut of survival games that would flood the market during its lengthy development. How wonderful to say that Subnautica in 2018 is richer and more mysterious than I could have expected, a sprawling and playful experience that captures the thrill of survival and exploration games while largely trimming away the busy work that has accumulated on the genre like biofouling on the belly of a boat.
In 2016, right in the thick of development, Subnautica’s director, Charlie Cleveland, responded to questions about why the game didn’t include guns. Cleveland, who had previously worked on first-person shooters, described a change of heart in reaction to the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. “I’ve never believed that video game violence creates more real-world violence,” Cleveland said. “But I couldn’t just sit by and ‘add more guns’ to the world either.
“So Subnautica is one vote towards a world with less guns. A reminder that there is another way forward. One where we use non-violent and more creative solutions to solve our problems. One where we are not at the top of the food chain.” The decision has fostered something beautiful, inspiring, different.
Available on Mac, Windows PC, Xbox One.
Buy it here: Steam
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to TowerFall takes one move from the competitive multiplayer game (its buoyant jump) and mines it for every fleck of creativity, like a chef creating a prix fixe menu around a single, delicious and flexible ingredient. Celeste is a challenging platformer, in the line of Mario or Meat Boy, but notably, it includes tools to modify and alleviate the difficulty. You can slow the game speed, turn on invincibility or simply skip chapters. Thorson’s game doesn’t judge players for how they experience his work. And for those who want a more difficult experience, collectible strawberries are tucked throughout the world of Celeste, typically in precarious places, provoking highly skilled players to pursue challenge for no greater reason than “it’s fun.”
The decision to trim the stress from a notoriously stressful genre pairs well with Celeste’s story, which plunges into the shadowy trauma of anxiety, depression and meeting the expectations of those we love most. A charming art style and an uplifting score hold everything together, like a warm sweater or a bear hug. Life is hard enough, Celeste seems to say, there’s nothing wrong in asking for help.
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and now PlayStation 4. The 4K remake, produced by Austin, Texas’ own Bluepoint Games, is a respectful (but not too respectful) restoration of the classic. This isn’t a reboot, nor is it a light-touch upgrade. Instead, it’s akin to a modern performance of a classic script. Everything is there, just as you remember it, and yet it feels fresh and more present than actually returning to the PS2 original, a game that isn’t quite as smooth and pleasurable as we remember it.
In our review, I wrote, “The original’s bare-bones interface would rapidly be replaced by a decade of open-world games loaded with minimaps, health bars and countless on-screen prompts telling you precisely what to do, how to do it and when — only for that minimal interface to return to fashion again in the past year.” Shadow of the Colossus feels like it could have been made today, not because of what’s in the game, but what was purposefully left out.
Into the Breach would feel like a Nintendo game, were it not so fascinated with the death of human civilization at the hands (claws? maws?) of grotesque aliens. Similarly to what Nintendo has done with so many genres, creators Justin Ma and Matthew Davis distill a complex strategy formula into an approachable, forgiving idea that feels almost like a classic board game. That isn’t to say Into the Breach is easy — it isn’t! Rather, it’s fair, taking time to teach you rules, presenting them clearly within the world’s design, then testing you to see what you learn and how you adapt.
In an interview with RockPaperShotgun, Ma said half of the game’s four-year development was spent on the user interface. “When we decided we had to show what every enemy was doing every single turn, and that every action needed to be clear, it became clear how bad that nightmare would be,” said Ma. The magic of Into the Breach is that, to the average player, the work doesn’t show. It’s invisible. Everything works, just as you’d expect it to. Which, again, mirrors the je ne sais quois of Nintendo’s catalogue. What makes truly great games special is, often, not something you spot. It’s something you feel.
No, you needn’t have played the first Ni no Kuni to enjoy its sequel, a feverishly optimistic (and welcomingly naive) Japanese role-playing game inspired, in part, by the works of Studio Ghibli. Its colorful animation conceals a rich but not overly complicated kingdom-management system that gives the adventure a grand sense of scope. A fairytale storyline gives its motley band of heroes a playful pep that feels anachronistic, if not flagrantly in conflict with our times.
Here’s Cameron Kunzelman’s take from our review: “There’s not a wasted breath or a plot point that doesn’t manage to pay off in a significant way. Ni no Kuni 2 is a solid contemporary JRPG that brings a lot of design ideas that I love into sharp, clear focus while staying entertaining and engaging throughout.”
God of War is a methodical reimagining of the action franchise. Rather than ignoring its past with a top-to-bottom reboot, God of War is a sequel that’s in dialogue with both the actions of its characters and its previous creators. But plenty has been said about where the entry fits alongside its predecessors. Mentioned less is how well God of War stands on its own, working just fine without the baggage of its prequels. You get the sense, a couple dozen hours into the adventure, that it was created by massive fans of all sorts of othergames: The campaign takes inspiration from the Tomb Raider and Doom reboots, Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus and even Call of Duty — the widely praised ax throwing combat, for example, places a first-person shooter reticle within a third-person action game, creating something unique and fresh.
We scored the game a 10, but a perfect score doesn’t mean a perfect game. (Does such a thing even exist?) One of the pleasures of a game as big and ambitious as God of War is that it inspires great criticism. Deorbital hosted a set of pieces, including this great read on the series’ unique and complicated place within games from Jackson Tyler. Hamish Black produced a video praising the game’s companion, Atreus. And Bullet Points Monthly published its own series of interesting critiques. God of War feels like a game we’ll remember as a distinctly 2018 product: a glossy testament to the astonishing artistry and craft of games at this moment, and a reminder of how much room the medium still has to grow.