- Shadow of the Colossus
There’s something about the first time you encounter each colossus, the simultaneous majestic awe mingled with looming dread that you’re going to have to find a way to bring it down. It’s a game constantly at tension with itself, beautiful and barren, awe-inspiring and haunting. There’s a hallowed feeling to this game, like you’ve stepped on sacred ground when you entered this world and no other game I’ve played evokes that feeling so perfectly.
Old-school CRPG design is bonkers and perhaps no more bonkers than this game. There’s a power where you can talk to the spirit of any corpse, including anyone you kill, and you can kill everyone in this game. If you decide to play a half-orc in this game everyone hates you because everyone is super racist. Or you can play a dumb character which changes the dialogue everyone in the entire game has with you because you’re too dumb to communicate with words. How many people would want to play the game that way? Probably more than you think, but the hours and resources dedicated to that level of reactivity is what makes this game such a gem.
Who would have thought that a Zelda game would be one of the most refreshing and bold pieces of design in the latest generation? After a couple of generations of playing it safe, Nintendo took a chance with systemic design built around leaving the player to his/her own devices. The result makes for one of the most vibrant and reactive game worlds ever conceived.
- Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas improved just about everything from Fallout 3. A more cohesive world and story, better combat, richer dialogue, and more intricate quest design. It took cues from old-school RPGs, letting you talk your way out of combat encounters and relying more on letting you express your character instead of forcing how you tackle each encounter. People have played through the game without killing anything and that’s a testament to the flexibility this game allows its players.
- Into the Breach
Turn-based tactical roguelike strategy mech game is a string of words I didn’t know I needed in my life. Most strategy games introduce elements of chance to simulate the real chaos of battle, but here every last piece of information you could want is communicated to you. This makes for a strategy game that feels closer to playing chess than anything else. There are optimal moves and clear plays that are simply better than others. Also like chess, it’s a game I feel like I could play endlessly and still feel like there are more layers to peel back.
- Sins of a Solar Empire
When it comes to real-time strategy games, I have a love-hate relationship. I love the tactics and expansion, but the actual battles are often messy and rely more on twitch reflexes than tactical thinking. Sins of a Solar Empire slows down the real-time elements to such a glacial pace that you’ve got all the time to reposition squads, make maneuvers, and enjoy the spectacle of a battle. It’s an RTS you can play with a cup of tea instead of a can of Redbull.
I’m not sure I like Metroidvanias but I do know I love this game. The simultaneously cute and creepy aesthetic made for this fascinating underground world of bug creatures. It’s the closest a game has come from capturing the lessons of Dark Souls without ripping off mechanics for mechanics sake. There’s heart and soul here and a deliberate design that makes it more than just another challenging game.
From the Super Meat Boy school of design, this masochistic platformer physically hurt me to play sometimes. I’d be gripping so hard to my controller trying to get the timing down on a jump I’d been stuck on for at least 100 tries. It’s a game that demands a lot from its players, which makes the story all the more relevant as it follows Madeline, a young woman obsessed with climbing the titular mountain while also working through her own personal past. You come for the tight platforming and stay for one of the best stories in gaming.
- Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
Any of the first three games in this series could have made this list. Dark Forces is a great shooter with crazy level design and Jedi Outcast is the closest gaming has gotten to making you feel like a lightsaber-wielder. But it’s the second game that felt like the full package: the great shooting and levels from the first game while also providing the force powers and lightsaber combat that would make the rest of the series memorable.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Is it weird that most of my favorite moments of this game are the sailing bits? Running across some random island or encountering the wreckage of a ship are great moments of discovery in a wasteland of blue. It’s also a tight, fun Zelda action adventure with a charming cast of characters and a great aesthetic.
© James Blake Ewing 2018