Between unemployment and being depressed, I had a lot of time to play video games this year, and while I did play a decent amount of titles only a handful of them really left a lasting impression on me. More accurately, these were the games this year I remember playing and thinking, “yeah, I had a good time with that.” So in no particular order, here are my favorite games that I played this year.
When I think back on my time with Tunic, also known as the cute fox Zelda game, I tend to remember a lot of the negative things first, like how difficult and incongruous the combat felt in comparison to the rest of the game. I remember feeling frustrated at the lack of direction and general ambiguity of everything that was happening. I remember feeling lost and confused, almost like I wasn’t smart enough for Tunic and should just give up and stop playing.
But then I remember the many “Oh shit!” moments I had with Tunic, where I’d figure out how to navigate a seemingly impassable part of the map and felt like the smartest person in the world. I remember finding pages for and utilizing the in-game manual to complete puzzles and shed some light on what the hell was going on in this world. Every low moment I had with Tunic was eventually followed by some satisfying high that would carry me over and past each of these peaks and valleys.
Tunic was a game that genuinely challenged me even after I adjusted the accessibility settings to nullify the challenge of combat. Tunic is filled to the brim with mysterious secrets that lead to wondrous revelations, most of which I pretty much understood. My only complaint with Tunic is that its combat didn’t need to be as punishing as it was, as it detracted from the real treasure of the experience, which was exploring and uncovering every little secret Tunic had tucked away.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land
Kirby and the Forgotten Land isn’t the most difficult or complex game I’ve played this year, but it didn’t need to be. Kirby games are usually a lightweight and breezy experience, and this entry was no different. Kirby and the Forgotten Land was a cozy little 3D platformer that was oozing with charm which is something I needed this year. It was a fun, low-stakes game that I could mindlessly play, stopping to occasionally appreciate its lovely art direction and endearing character design.
There’s a surprising amount of stuff crammed inside of this Kirby game, from some very light upgrade mechanics that alter and change the effect of the powers you suck up, to these challenge levels that test your abilities to control and utilize said powers effectively within a time limit. In addition, each level has a set of challenges or collectibles for you to tackle and collect, granting you additional upgrade resources and currency for the rest of the game.
Kirby and the Forgotten Land isn’t the Mario 64 of Kirby games, but it is a lot of fun and a fresh take on the Kirby formula that’ll scratch that platformer itch I know you’ve got.
A setting where a fascist dictatorship violently tamps down on dissent and propagandizes its populace through an overly complimentary ‘news’ network might seem like an odd backdrop for a teenage coming-of-age adventure game, but it actually works surprisingly well.
In Road 96, you play as a series of unnamed teenagers who are hitchhiking their way through their terrible country in the hopes of crossing the border and fleeing into a less oppressive country. On its surface, the game almost presents itself as a roguelike because you’re essentially making runs on the border as different characters, but there is cumulative story that concludes despite which character you choose for each run.
On your journey you’ll run into a reoccurring cast of weird and fairly complex characters, aiding or avoiding them all in service of gaining cash and inching closer towards freedom all while keeping your morality intact. It’s a game about making choices and living with the consequences, and it was one of the more memorable experiences I had this year.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a game about safely deconstructing and salvaging spaceships with cool laser beams. There’s some other stuff about working in a future capitalism-ravaged hell-scape where you’re paying off a massive debt to the demolition company, but none of that is particularly interesting or necessary to enjoying the simple act of safely demolishing a space ship. It has this zen-like quality where you fall into that zone you get into when you’re doing your job and doing it well, as if it’s second nature to you.
The default mode in Hardspace: Shipbreaker puts some oxygen and fuel restrictions on you that I found to be more restrictive than I wanted, but luckily you can toggle that stuff off or just play in a free-mode with no restrictions, which I’ve found to be the optimal way to play the game. I find that disabling those restrictions lends it a more puzzle game feeling that’s far more satisfying than having to juggle the light survival mechanics.
The pacing in Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a little off, as the first few hours of the campaign don’t really afford you too much variety in ship types or tools to use, but after enough time that eventually starts to change. But aside from that tiny quibble, I’ve got nothing but praise for the slow and methodical gameplay of Hardspace: Shipbreaker.
Sniper Elite 5
Sniper Elite 5 doesn’t reinvent the Sniper Elite formula, but it was one of the most fun cooperative gaming experiences I had this year which is mainly why it’s on this list. While the slow motion bullet-cam is still as exciting and gruesome as ever, but what really made this entry come alive was how flexible it was in catering to different play styles. More specifically, it allowed me to watch from a safe distance as my cooperative partner charged into overwhelming odds and chained knife-takedowns on hostile Nazis, thus obliterating any and all sense of stealth that might be implied in a game called Sniper Elite 5. It was frustrating to watch, but hilarious to experience.
The best thing about Sniper Elite 5 is how much of a perfect platform it was for my friend and I to make each other laugh, which we did a lot of. It’s a game that you don’t have to really think about too much because the objective is simple: destroy all Nazis. Knowing that core mission left ample opportunities for us to perform comedy bits with each other as we bumbled our way through the sprawling levels, completing objectives in our own ways and more often than not, screwing over the other player because stealth was never an option.
Much like Hardspace: Shipbreaker, PowerWash Simulator is one of those meditative, ‘lose four hours of time’ kind of games that has you doing something mindless yet incredibly satisfying. In this game you blast grime and dirt off of the filthiest structures and vehicles in the world, utilizing stronger power washers, nozzles and soaps. That’s it. That’s the whole game. There’s a story, but who really cares about that? There is something borderline indescribable about PowerWash Simulator that makes it easily one of the best games I played this year.
Aside from its cutting edge dirt-tech, something that I’ve just made up, it doesn’t look especially great nor does it run flawlessly, but it lets you and your friends come together to methodically blast the cruft off of things, and that’s good enough for me.
Without question, the games that I end up putting the most time into year after year are in the NBA 2K series, and this year’s entry might be one of my favorites, ever. NBA 2K23 is the latest in a series of basketball simulation games that seems overly eager in siphoning as much cash away from you as it possibly can depending on what modes you play. If you’re like me however and don’t play those modes, opting to stick with the tried and true franchise mode, this is another solid iteration that still has some of the same lingering bugs as it did 3 years ago.
But what really changes everything for me is the ‘MyEras’ mode, which is basically just your standard franchise mode, but you can start it in the ’80s, ’90s or early 2000s. It isn’t a perfect mode, but it is the only thing I’ve been playing in NBA 2K23. The game reskins the courts, jerseys and imports the appropriate draft classes all while implementing historical changes as they happened, such as ripping my precious Nets away from me and taking them to Brooklyn. NBA 2K23 is one of favorites cause it lets me play in the time period I’m most familiar with, which is something I never thought would happen.
I don’t know that there’s a game that I’ve played this year that so deeply sunk its fangs into me like Vampire Survivors did. Never would I have guessed that a roguelike would ever capture my interest for more than a few runs, but Vampire Survivors is the game I keep wanting to play above anything else. Which is crazy considering the only control you have over anything in the game is moving your character and selecting your upgrades.
As you level up during a run, you are presented with a random array of weapons and buffs to choose from, one per level. Combining the right items and leveling them up can create some devastating effects that let you feel like an all-powerful demigod projecting an impassable zone of death around you that vaporizes any enemy the moment they stupidly enter it.
It also takes a lot of weird turns which is a crazy thing for me to say about a game with no real story or lore, but it still found a way to toy with me when I felt like I ‘got’ the game. Ultimately, what I’m saying is that you should 100% try this silly little arcade game if you haven’t, because it’s way better than it has any right to be.