One year ago, it seemed impossible that the games of 2018 would live up to those of 2017. We were fresh off of an apparent renaissance of the entire Japanese AAA scene, from the innovations of Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Nier: Automata, to the unprecedented polish of Persona 5 and Gravity Rush 2. It was naive of me to hold 2018 to those same standards. While I waited for another genre-defining experience to sweep me off my feet, the year pressed on and a pile of exceptional games began to build around me. If the bar had raised in 2017, then in 2018, creators around the world rose to meet it. Most of all, new indie creators burst onto the scene with refinements across games of all varieties.
As I’m writing this, it’s now…oof…March…so clearly it’s not practical for me to write about every game I enjoyed in 2018. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try, though! What follows are my three favorite games of last year. And if you’re hungry for more, I also made a list of the many other games that I notably enjoyed: “The Very Good Games.” I wasn’t quite able to finish everything I wanted to in time, but with games like these, I can’t say that I have regrets!
As much as I envy Toby Fox’s talent, I’m not quite as jealous of the situation it’s put him in. Is there such a thing as a “good” way to follow up the runaway success of Undertale? Making anything at all would be an immense challenge, especially for a young creator. And yet Fox chose the boldest path possible: to tackle his one-game-legacy head-on.
Undertale, in all of its humble stylings, challenged us to be brave and believe in empathy’s power to change the world. As if in mockery of those ideals, Deltarune opens with a grim rebuttal: “Your choices don’t matter. In this world, you have no control.” It felt like a signal that Deltarune is as much a re-imagining of as it is a sequel to Undertale.
Deltarune is an RPG that builds on Undertale’s combat foundation, which made waves combining the strategic planning of turn-based RPGs with the tactile challenge of action games. As each combatant takes their turn, you’ll play various mini-games in real-time to dodge attacks as well as time your own. Defeating an enemy is only one condition for success, though. You might instead work to “spare” someone by identifying a way to appeal to their desires, thus ending combat peacefully.
The most fundamental difference from Undertale is that you now travel with companions, each with their own abilities. That’s no Dramatic Twist! for this kind of game, but it becomes one inside of Deltarune’s framing. Namely, if your goal is to spare everyone, how are you going to do that while your AI-controlled “friend” tries to kill everything? That’s not a question an RPG has ever contended with! And maybe this is wishful thinking, but I suspect the final game will continue to toy around with the player’s concept of “control.”
We’ve been given the first chapter so far, and normally, it would be tricky to judge a game from such an early stage. But Deltarune’s thematic and gameplay ledes are definitely there, and they’re both evocative and inspiring. The game clearly has ideas that it wants us to reckon with, and wastes no time in getting there or hiding behind plot twists. It’s not just the “Undertale sequel” of my wildest dreams - it’s something more. Something bigger, braver, and tougher.
As a masterfully-designed platformer, Celeste quickly impressed - but under the surface, there’s something more: a powerful narrative about mental illness. You play as the demure, but determined Madeline, as she takes on the eponymous Mount Celeste. Your ascent is made one small challenge at a time, utilizing familiar platforming tools: a jump, a directional dash, and a grip that lets you briefly climb walls. These basics get twisted with a smattering of stage hazards, each introduced, built upon, and pushed aside by something new and different. It gives the game an exceptional sense of progression, which is emboldened by delicate difficulty balancing and a moving narrative.
The metaphor at its heart is apparent: the struggles of mental health are as fierce as the tallest mountains. But the details of how Madeline was hurt in the past, and what pushed her to this point are omitted. Unlike so many narratives about trauma, Celeste isn’t about relitigating pain, it’s about overcoming it. That ambiguity makes the story more resonant to more people - regardless of what they’ve been through.
As for myself, I’ve struggled with self-worth and depression for pretty much my entire life. Playing Celeste didn’t fix my problems, of course, but it at least made me feel seen…and that matters! The media we observe teaches us how to interpret our life experiences, after all. While Celeste’s circumstances are generalized, the advice it offers is very specific: You’re going through a lot, but you can overcome this, and you’re going to be stronger for it. It’s something that everybody needs to hear at some point in their lives, and Celeste even uses its gameplay to teach some real-world coping mechanisms. It’s a remarkable achievement for a platforming game, a genre that has often abandoned narrative entirely!
Obviously I’m not alone in my appreciation of Celeste, as it took home the title for the 2018 Game Awards’ “Best Independent Game.” And really, there’s no greater summation of Celeste’s message than director Matt Thorson’s acceptance speech at that event:
“If Celeste has helped you come to terms with mental illness, I just want to say that you deserve credit for that. That change came from inside of you, and you’re capable of a lot more.”
1. Hollow Knight
Starting from my very first session with Hollow Knight, I couldn’t stop thinking that this must be one of the best games ever made. I was impressed with every facet - the dazzling background art, the incredibly natural game-feel, the haunting music, and the all-consuming atmosphere that these elements collectively form. It reminds me so much of the games that got me hooked on this hobby to begin with! Somehow, all of this was achieved by primarily four people: a programmer, a game designer, an artist, and a composer.
Hollow Knight is a journey across what remains of “Hallownest,” the expansive, decaying kingdom of a once-great bug monarchy. From the verdant overgrowth of the “Queen’s Gardens” to even the acrid, spider-ridden caverns of “Deepnest,” rich colors and meticulous use of blacks convey a ghastly beauty. The characters themselves, each a different species of bug, fall somewhere on a spectrum between utterly adorable and absolutely terrifying. And even beyond the art itself, there’s such an immensely palpable sense of “place” to Hallownest. The environments, architectural styles, and bug castes vary widely, but their consistencies imply an engaging, believable history.
You’ll battle your way through these massive areas with lightning-quick, responsive combat. With each press of the attack button, your sword swings immediately, followed by the ever-briefest moment of follow-through. By the time your finger lifts from the button, you’ll be poised to swing again - and will you? Most enemies are always vulnerable, so you’ll be pressed to constantly weigh your safety against the impulse to attack again, again, and again, as quickly as possible.
However, Hollow Knight’s combat design is as much about endurance as it is about the raw action. When exploring, safe areas are far-between, and the game’s numerous boss encounters are strenuous, several minute commitments. Your survival depends on leveraging a resource called “Focus.” Focus builds rapidly when your attacks find their target, and it remains stored until you choose to use it. Your built-up Focus can be spent in two ways: instantly, on long-ranged offensive magic, or on a small heal, which requires a few seconds in complete stillness to charge up.
This structure grants the player dramatic control over the pace of combat. Will you rely on offensive magic, and race the enemy to the kill? Or will you play safely, seeking gaps in the action to heal and cling to life? Over time, I learned that this was more than just a means of player expression - it was a strategic lever, too. When my own skills weren’t up to snuff (which was often!), I found new opportunities by mixing up my Focus expenditure. It’s a system that rewards planning, experimentation, and naturally draws the player closer to mastery.
My experience with Hollow Knight culminated in the grand battle against “Nightmare King Grimm” - an optional and ludicrously challenging post-credits boss fight. To describe this encounter as anything other than “unforgiving” would be generous, as all of his attacks demand instant recognition and perfectly timed dodges. I have to admit that normally, this level of challenge is not my speed. I’m rarely stubborn enough to endure them, nor invested enough to learn, and I’m kinda’ fine with that. But Grimm dismantled me so thoroughly that I was compelled to try and see more.
“This guy has to be impossible,” I would exclaim, button-mashing my way past the game over screen and onto the next attempt. I can already hear the opening notes of the fight’s theme as I type this - I’m sure I’m never going to forget them. Even as the words left my mouth, though, I knew they were wrong.
What ultimately pushed me through are the allowances Hollow Knight grants its players, compared to similarly challenging, combat-oriented games. It would definitely be possible to learn Hollow Knight from failure alone, ramming your head into the wall until it crumbles down. That’s historically how I’ve felt about some encounters in Dark Souls, for example. In Hollow Knight, the player is provided with the tools to completely reframe a fight! Beyond combat instincts and Focus abilities, your playstyle can be further altered with equipment, bestowing bonuses like extra reach on your sword or even AI-controlled minions to fight at your side. Through experimentation and a deeply-refined approach, even a small, nameless bug can achieve the impossible.
It’s no mystery that the best action-platformers are so revered in the gaming fandom. It’s a blend that pulls together so many beloved gameplay fantasies – exploration, varying styles of challenge, power progression – without compromising on narrative or artistic delivery. To make a great action platformer is to make a game that is truly great at everything, and if that’s our metric, then Hollow Knight is an incredible accomplishment.