And so we reach that point yet again: the closing of the year, the transitional period between 1 moment and another, moments which we have arbitrarily decided as a species hold some distinct, separating meaning from one another. It is a time of reflection upon what has occurred since our last annual weaning, to look back upon the world’s events and ourselves, and draw some fundamental, summarizing truth from it all, while making a final, emotional bid of farewell to the year and all it has meant for us. And so it is that I say:
Burn in Hell, 2018, you fucking garbage year.
That’s a pretty subjective goodbye, admittedly. 2018 has been a righteous pain in my ass, but on a personal level. RPG-wise, it was, from what I can see, rather unremarkable. We had a few ups (SURPRISE TOBY FOX DEMO...and, uh, I heard Octopath Traveler and Kingdom Come: Deliverance were good) and a few downs (Bethesda slaps its consumers in the face and tells them to like it with Fallout 76, Legrand Legacy landed with all the grace and skill of a wet, sloppy fart at your ballet recital, and I needn’t even go into the Diablo: Immobile debacle), but overall, it’s just been a keep-your-heads-down, go-about-your-business kind of year for RPGs. Well, that’s fine with me, I guess, because 90% of the time I’m just playing catch-up to previous years’ releases anyway. The game I’m most looking forward to playing on my 2019 list was released in the fucking 90s.
For me, in terms of RPGs at least, it was a pretty darned good year. Though the current RPG crop wasn’t especially noteworthy in 2018, the preserves I consumed from previous years’ yields had some definite winners. Also some stinkers, of course, but what can you do? Anyway, the games I played this year were:
Etrian Odyssey 1
ICY: Frostbite Edition
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages
Romancing Saga 2
South Park: The Stick of Truth
Star Story: The Horizon Escape
Tales of Eternia
Witch + Hero 3
The Witcher 3
As I’ve tried to do the past few years, I had a nicely varied RPG experience this year...plenty of Indies, of course, which these days are about the only RPGs you can rely on to actually give a shit about providing the audience a quality experience (even if, as Legrand Legacy proves, they sometimes fall short of that aim), but also some big titles of the past few years, too, and, of course, several older titles to round it out. I now can say with some confidence that I understand the Tales of series well, having seen a substantial portion of its offerings all along its history, and in that, I have confirmed what I suspected about it from the very start: as a whole, it’s kinda subpar, even if a couple of its titles were great. Continuing the Romancing Saga series is something I’ve been meaning to do, and Nintendo was kind enough to help that along with a rerelease of the second game for the Switch, and I finally got to finish up the Witcher trilogy, too. And I even dipped into a bunch of franchises I’d never tried before...some of which I’m gonna backpedal the hell away from, because dear sweet Hresvelgr was Conception 2 ever bad.
I could have played more RPGs, of course, but you know me: I do sometimes get up to other stuff, too.
Stuff like Anime: Yuru Yuri is fucking hilarious and I love it, showing my mom Noir reminded me of how good it was (while also reminding me that it’s not perfect; they really love holding shots longer than they should in that show), Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is alright (but way, way better than it has any right to be), My Hero Academia is the best formulaic shonen anime ever made (but since that only makes it better than stuff like Naruto and Dragonball Z, it’s still low-quality trash), and A Place Further than the Universe is really good.
Stuff like Books: I failed to read as much as I’d told myself I was gonna this year, but I did check out Absent in the Spring (great; 1 of Christie’s best works), Antigone (decent), Brave New World (good), Dandelion Wine (really, really overrated and boring), Death Comes as the End (good), The Illustrated Man (very good), The Man in the Brown Suit (good), Oedipus at Colonus (okay, I guess), Once on a Time (good), and a collection of short stories from the Soviet Union (not as interesting as I’d hoped).
Stuff like Non-RPG Games: Melancholy Republic is good in a few regards but ultimately something you regret playing (more on that might be in a future rant), Metro 2033 is a solid post-apocalyptic setting (and very welcome as an alternative to Fallout 76), The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns was another strong work by Ebi-Hime, and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate...well, expect next year’s list of RPGs I played to be half the size of this year just because of this game alone.
Stuff like Replaying RPGs: I played the rerelease of Radiant Historia. S’okay. I also took Dragon Age 1 out for yet another spin, and I just can’t really explain why--for some reason, every now and then, I just like to experience DA1 over again. I really do love that game, far more than is logical.
Stuff like TV (or whatever we call its equivalent nowadays): my mother and I checked out some classic Doctor Who, from Doctors 1 - 4, and found it to be...uh...how shall I put this without inciting hardcore fans? Overrated. Just not very good. Yeah, I said it. Bite me. I also finally finished watching The Office with my sister--such a great show--and checked out Disenchantment, which is mildly humorous but honestly just not really worth the time, and the second season of American Vandal, which, in spite of my initial misgivings, turned out to be just about as fantastic as the first. Totally check that one out, guys. Also, I kept up to date with Steven Universe, and...actually, I’m way behind on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but that is related to all the personal crap that’s been going on this year, odd as that may sound, so I’ll just have to catch up come next year.
Lastly, stuff like having a full-time job, writing rants, and dealing with, as mentioned previously, a buttload of nonsense going on in my own life that I just would like to overall be DONE with now.
Anyway, enough of all that crap. What’s the score with the RPGs I played this year? We’ll let’s see...
RPG Moments of Interest in 2018:
1. It was pretty cool to play Transistor and find out that Supergiant Games isn’t just a 1-hit wonder. In fact, it was even better than Bastion! Can’t wait to get to their third title.
2. Everyone loves The Witcher 3. I am no exception. But make no mistake: it has a flaw. A terrible, horrible flaw that in any other game would be fatal. The Witcher 3
It’s just a damn good thing that no one ever mentions this when they talk about it, or I might very well have just plain not played the damn thing.
3. Every now and then you just have a moment of pure, crystal clarity in a game, a single scene that peels away the layers of varnish on the game and tells you exactly, in no uncertain terms, what its deal really is. And every now and then you have a moment in a game that just leaves you utterly, completely, helplessly agog, the mental and emotional equivalent of being smacked across the face with a dead fish.
Conception 2’s final moments of its true ending--the ending of this harem game masquerading as an RPG in which you get to hook up with all the girls instead of choosing just 1--decides to deliver both kinds of aforementioned moments at the same time. These are the final lines from the game, transcribed as they are, no exaggeration, no summary, no editing. This is an actual quote. These are the actual fucking words this game ends on.
Fuuko (Love Interest 1): Well, Mister Pilot, make sure we get there safely!
Wake (Protagonist): You can trust me with that.
Wake: I have a responsibility to take all of you towards whatever future you wish for.
Wake: So, don't any of you worry...
Wake: And have my children!
4. The Witcher 3’s drunk scene at Kaer Morhen is comedy gold.
5. Darkest, most disturbing fucking moment of the year? It ain’t Tiny Tina’s tea party where she tortures her parent’s killer to death. It ain’t getting slammed by and taken for a ride upon your dad’s titanic balls in South Park: The Stick of Truth. It ain’t watching Yennefer defile the body and spirit of a dead man by reanimating him and then putting him through a painful interrogation, or feeding a starving, cursed werewolf his own flesh that chokes and burns him to death, or any of the other messed up shit that The Witcher 3 pulls.
No. The darkest, most disturbing moment of the year for me? It’s Bravely Default’s sidequest to help a pair of little girls find pretty hairpins for themselves. Holy shit is it fucked up.
6. As some of the titles on my list of completed RPGs may have clued you in, this was the year that I finally put an end to my boycott of SquareEnix. Yeah, I actually did pay for Nier: Automata and the Bravely games. I still have some major grievances with the company, but with the shit that companies like Bioware and EA pull nowadays, not to mention Bethesda’s shameful showing with Fallout 76, and those cow-fucking scam artists The Game Bakers selling games they never bothered to finish...well, it seems silly not to put an end to my complete ban on SquareEnix for committing lesser (although sadly more frequent) transgressions against its audience. A soft end, though, mind you. I’m only getting their games when they’re on a good sale, and only when I have strong reason to believe that they aren’t garbage. So don’t expect me to touch Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts anytime soon without some serious piracy going on.
Thankfully, the end to this boycott has been a highlight of my RPG year--Nier: Automata deserves all its acclaim, and so does Bravely Default. I mean, the company’s still clearly out of its goddamn mind, as evidenced by Final Fantasy 14 and 15 and Kingdom Hearts, a series against which the greatest insult possible is just to explain it...but Nier: Automata and Bravely Default prove that at least someone in that company seems to remember what actually brought it success. And I gotta say, I played Bravely Default just when I really needed it most--I really just had no idea how badly I needed a classic, wholly enjoyable, well-written JRPG this year that reminded me of all the things I loved about this genre in its early days. Bravely Default was like therapy for me; I came out of it just feeling so much better about everything.
7. In addition to “real” RPGs, I also played some more Shadowrun user-generated campaign mods this year, and let me tell you: the Shadowrun: Hong Kong mod Calfree in Chains is damn fine stuff. Like, better than a large majority of the published, major RPGs in existence.
8. Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome is still going strong, if Ringabel and Edea in Bravely Second are anything to go by--if you can really count that tepid, halting half-step romance to begin with.
9. This year is not the first time I have played a Christianity-reference-using, Nietzsche-inspired future story starring a female android struggling to understand her existence, an existence which is killing her partner. But it is the first time I’ve played one that had its shit together.
I sincerely hope that the creators of Xenosaga have played Nier: Automata, and that they did so while feeling a truly profound sense of embarrassment.
10. OH MY GOD DELTARUNE
Best Prequel/Sequel of 2018
Winner: The Witcher 3
In some ways, The Witcher 3 is just towing the line for a series already of high quality. But even if it doesn’t stand out as a huge leap up from its previous game, the way Borderlands 2 does, Geralt’s final adventure definitely deserves to top this list. It’s a great culmination of all the characters we’ve come to know in this series, it makes terrific use of its setting and lore to tell its story...and, most of all, it’s the perfect, logical conclusion that the trilogy was created to drive toward. The Witcher 1 introduced us to the true conflict of the trilogy, that of the inevitable, world-consuming White Frost which slowly but surely covers the cosmos, using its existence as the motivating factor for the game’s villain and in-game conflicts. The Witcher 2 redefined the field and current events of the setting, and reconnected Geralt to his past personality as he regained his memories. So basically, The Witcher 1 sets the Why, and The Witcher 2 sets the What...and they both lead to The Witcher 3’s story in this way, each a complete product in themselves yet ultimately serving best as a preparation for the final installment. By being that final installment and living up to every narrative expectation of the first 2 games, The Witcher 3 defines itself, to me, as the best sequel I played this year.
Runners-Up: Borderlands 2; Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod; South Park: The Stick of Truth
I’m reasonably sure that Nier: Automata should be on this list, too, but I never did play Nier, nor any of the Drakengards, so this is what we got. The first South Park RPG is a great treat for anyone who’s a fan of the show, containing countless references and appreciations for South Park’s long, lofty, and usually ludicrous history--and more than just a bunch of references, it perfectly embodies a major feel of the show, too, being a blend of absurdity, epic conflict, and just a bunch of kids playing around, where you start having difficulty seeing the borders between each of those perspectives. Borderlands 2 is a fucking great sequel, it really is: it manages to build on everything from the first game, using Borderlands 1’s events, setting, and characters to go forward with its own story, but it does this while actually following through with the quirky, humorous, off-kilter style that the first Borderlands promised, tried hard, but ultimately failed to deliver. Borderlands 2 is essentially the perfect embodiment of what Borderlands wants to be, and while it stands on its own just fine, having a familiarity with the first game gives you a comfortable, even reassuring connection to it that makes the time you spent on Borderlands 1 seem to actually mean something, after all.
Finally...alright, I know I shouldn’t count an unofficial, user-created mod alongside the ranks of real, published games, but frankly, the Calfree in Chains mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong was 1 of the highlights of my RPG year, and you can see from the list I provided earlier that said year had some heavy hitters on it. And hey, if Bethesda can create a hasty, slipshod game mode mod for Fallout 4 and then have the audacity to pretend it’s a game of its own and sell it for $60...well, why can’t I count a GOOD mod as a complete product? So fuck it, I am giving Calfree in Chains its due, and part of that due is to recognize that it is not only an excellent, engaging, fulfilling story in its own right, but an accomplished and perfectly crafted piece of Shadowrun lore that should be considered canon. It deftly weaves itself into the known facts of Shadowrun’s history regarding the California Free State, and delivers an authentic, thrilling Shadowrun experience that investigates the issues of the series’s world and ties them strongly to real-world conflicts and philosophies. You can’t ask better from cyberpunk than that. Calfree in Chains fits more snugly into the Shadowrun series than quite a few of its established, published pieces of canonical literature do.
Biggest Disappointment of 2018
Loser: Legrand Legacy
It’s always a damn shame to see a game you helped Kickstart come out poorly. But even beyond the fact that it’s ultimately a bad RPG that I myself bear some responsibility for, Legrand Legacy is a disappointment in that there’s a lot about it that’s promising. Its world is a decent one, and a lot of its overall premise likewise had potential. It also captures the unique feel of a large part of the Playstation 1/Playstation 2 RPG era very well, which is a part of gaming history that you don’t see glorified with homages nearly as often as the 8-bit and 16-bit days that preceded it. Too bad the cast’s inability to interact without constant bickering over nothing and a rushed final quarter that eventually just falls flat on its face right at the end wind up being the lasting impressions of Legrand Legacy.
But hey, on the other hand, Legrand Legacy actually DOES bother to have an ending, so it’s still a hell of a step up from last year’s most disappointing RPG. I guess that’s a step in the right direction, yeah?
Almost as Bad: Conception 2; Excave 1; Tales of Eternia
Excave 1’s only real claim to being disappointing is the fact that when you buy a game, you hope that it won’t suck, and Excave 1 does indeed happen to do so. It wasn’t the only boring, passion-less waste I played this year, but I’ve come to expect nothing more from Kemco, so it’s Excave 1 that finds itself here rather than other titles that are equally poor. Meanwhile, Conception 2 kind of looked a bit like a Shin Megami Tensei: Persona game. And while it most definitely is a knockoff of SMTP, Conception 2 sure as hell gets a lot closer to Persona in its visual and gameplay aesthetic than it does with its quality of writing--it’s bad even by the standards of the harem dating sims it’s trying to pretend it’s not.
Tales of Eternia is actually an okay RPG. Well, “okay” might be overstating it a bit, but I wouldn’t call it bad, at least. I’m just disappointed with it because a friend of mine once, many years ago, recommended it to me as being really good, back when I was complaining about the series because of how bland Phantasia and Symphonia were, so I was hoping for something better than ToE ended up being. Although that no doubt has something to do with Namco stupidly removing its skits, which is an aspect of disappointment in its own right.
Best Finale of 2018
Winner: Bravely Default
When the final chapter of Bravely Default begins, things get real epic, real fast, you get hit with some kickass plot twist action regarding The Liar that’s pretty gripping regardless of whether you might have guessed it was coming, and it all comes together in a final battle that’s felt across the multiverse, cleverly incorporating the connection features of the game into the plot in a spectacular fashion that catches you up with it, that finally leads to a solid ending. Damn great conclusion to a fine RPG.
Runners-Up: Nier: Automata; Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod; The Witcher 3
The final battle for Ciri and her confrontation with her destiny is handled as well as you’d expect and as well as you’d hope from The Witcher 3, and (provided you made the right decisions, of course) you’re left, at the end of it all, with a deep satisfaction at having seen Geralt’s tale through to its end. Similarly, the finale to Nier: Automata is a powerful conclusion of emotion and philosophy that hits you hard, with an ending quite unlike any other in gaming history that puts the game’s existentialism and your own morality to the final, only test--spectacular, intellectually-heady stuff from 1 of the most thoughtful RPGs ever made. And finally, again, I must give the Calfree in Chains mod its due: it culminates in an emotional and thematic tour-de-force that, depending on your choices, can conclude with 1 of the most beautiful, poignant farewell speeches I’ve ever read.
Worst RPG of 2018
Loser: Conception 2
Excave 1 and Crystareino might be far more empty and bland, and Legrand Legacy may be more relentlessly grating on your patience. But Conception 2 is a low-effort, crass cash-in combination of the trashiest qualities of dating sims, the careless lack of sense of Final Fantasy 8, and the cheap fanservice of a Dead or Alive Volleyball title--and that’s a combination that’s damn hard for average old Boring and Annoying to compete with. 1 review for Conception 2 that I read a while back described it as “trashy Persona,” and I’m still unequal to the task of more perfectly describing this soulless, manipulative, base pile of refuse.
Almost as Bad: Crystareino; Excave 1; Legrand Legacy
Crystareino’s just your average Kemco title, really--if RPGs were food, then Kemco would be the nutrient slop dispenser on a Matrix ship. Excave 1 manages to be even worse than that; it’s an RPG with less story presence than Chip’s Challenge--and not nearly so well-designed. As for Legrand Legacy, well, I just recently went into the major problems with that one, so no need to go repeat myself so soon
Most Creative of 2018
How do you describe Transistor? How do you describe its unique style and the creativity of its direction, method, messages, aesthetic, and setting? Simple: you don’t. You just acknowledge that it’s innovative to a delightful extreme, a true entity unto itself, and then tell people to go experience it for themselves.
Go experience Transistor for yourselves.
Runners-Up: Bravely Default; Nier: Automata; Romancing Saga 2
Honestly, this was THE year for creativity. In many years past, several of the games I played this year, like ICY: Frostbite Edition, Borderlands 2, and Darkblood Chronicles, would have been shoe-ins for this category, yet they haven’t even placed this year. That’s how creative the above titles are!
Bravely Default is possibly the truest Final Fantasy game ever created, yet the deeper level upon which its lore and events are built is marvelously interesting and inventive, which makes the game just about the best representation of past games possible, while paradoxically fiercely its own, distinct entity. Meanwhile, Nier: Automata...well, if you’re in any way familiar with Yoko Taro, a real-life mad and tortured genius, then it probably comes as no surprise that NA is almost as much a distinct, inventive entity as it is a philosophical one.
Finally, I gotta say, Romancing Saga 2’s got a hella creative basis, and the level of effort that went into making this SNES RPG as open-ended and event-trigger-complex as it is...well, it’s just staggering, really! Multi-generational stories are uncommon and interesting already, but to make that aspect the fundamental crux of both the story and gameplay, to build it on top of a fairly innovative lore premise, and to unite the storytelling aspects with the gameplay functions to a degree that we still find noteworthy and laudable in current games, and all on the old SNES...well, I gotta just applaud Romancing Saga 2’s creators for what had to be a truly herculean effort of creativity married to programming. Transistor is an outright work of art and it deserves top billing as a creative work, but I’ll be damned if Romancing Saga 2’s creativity doesn’t deserve equal, nay, more respect simply by sheer force of effort.
Best Romance of 2018
Winner: Arelia x Protagonist (Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod)
Well, official, published, AAA developers, that’s 2 years in a row now that Seberin, a random fan working for no pay on mods, has beaten the pants off you guys at writing an involved, heartfelt, inspiring romance. I would say that means either the love stories that you find in the Calfree Trilogy mods are just that amazing, beautiful connections of affection and passion that make your heart flutter in romantic sympathy, or developers need to seriously step up their game when it comes to writing romances...yes, I would say that, but actually, both are true. Seberin is just that good, and the RPG industry as a whole is just that behind where it should be on this point. At any rate, while all the romantic options of Calfree in Chains are wonderfully written, the connection between Arelia and the protagonist is truly lovely, the kind of thing that just makes you sigh happily to witness.
Runners-Up: Geralt x Triss (The Witcher 3); Geralt x Yennefer (The Witcher 3); Red x Subject Not Found (Transistor)
Well, okay, it’s not like no one can write a good love story anymore, I guess, I just wish quality like these ones was more common in RPGs. As I’ve mentioned, there’re definitely issues with Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer, and arguably more so with Triss, but at the end of the day, whichever you believe is right for him in The Witcher 3, his connection to his beloved sorceress is clear, passionate, and a love you can get behind and believe in. As for Red and the unknown man...theirs is a love that threw a world out of balance, and surpasses the desire to survive of both mortals and even newly-born goddesses. Powerful stuff.
Best Voice Acting of 2018
Winner: Tales of Eternia
Actual Winner: The Witcher 3
Perfect casting down to the smallest NPC. Perfect performances of every line. Iconic vocal work that indelibly defines the protagonist.* And all of this done over the scope of such a tremendously huge, dialogue-filled game. Yeah, The Witcher 3’s pretty damned impressive as a work of voice acting.
Runners-Up: Borderlands 2; South Park: The Stick of Truth; Transistor
I mean, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the South Park RPG is here--it’s basically just a big, playable installment of a show whose every episode is founded on voice work to begin with. It’s business as usual, basically. And that business is very competently done. Borderlands 2 is a game whose storytelling is done almost entirely through voice-overs narrating the action and the interactions of the game’s NPCs, so it’s damned important that it have a talented cast of voice actors who are natural fits to their roles and can bring their characters alive--and that’s exactly the case. I want to give a handshake to the guy who does Handsome Jack for being an essential component to an amazing villain...and a throat lozenge to the poor bastard who plays Mr. Torgue. I hope to Ziusudra that guy ain’t a method actor, because if he is, I’m pretty sure he swallowed battery acid for the role.
As for Transistor...well, it’s like Borderlands, a game whose storytelling relies almost entirely upon narration, but in this one, it’s mostly by 1 guy. And when that’s the case, that guy has got to be an incredible vocal talent. Luckily for Supergiant Games, they’ve got Logan Cunningham in their corner, a man with a voice so talented and flexible that it makes me think impure and adulterous thoughts even though I’ve been in a happy relationship with the vocal chords of Keith David for years now. Frankly, if I weren’t impressed with the scope of The Witcher 3’s voice acting’s consistent excellence across the board, Transistor would’ve been the top this year for its superior quality.
Funniest of 2018
Winner: Borderlands 2
Flippant, appealingly irreverent, genuinely clever, outgoingly unique, and with a finger on the pulse of gaming and its audience, Borderlands 2 is as funny as it is fun, and it knows exactly how and when to sprinkle in some darker moments and depth of character to give the prevailing humor an even greater draw. There are admittedly times when it misses the mark (most of the DLCs feel forced), but overall, Borderlands 2 is sure to elicit 1 chuckle after another from you.
Runners-Up: Bravely Second; Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages; South Park: The Stick of Truth
I didn’t know what I expected, exactly, from a sci-fi combat flight sim RPG involving spiritual bending of the universe, but a wise-cracking AI sidekick with an insatiable hunger for peanut butter cups, turret rights activist groups, and homicidally aggressive salesmanship of Dvorak keyboards were not it. While there’s a decent story to be had out of Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages, it’s the game’s peculiar brand of askew humor that keeps you engaged with it and flying from galaxy to galaxy, ready to see the next oddball set of circumstances you’ll encounter.
As for the South Park RPG, well, I mean, it’s South Park, of course it’s gonna be a rather funny game. That’s the whole point; it’d be quite the failure if it didn’t make it to this list. And lastly, I gotta say, whoever decided to give Bravely Second such a markedly lighter tone was damned smart. Bravely Default was clearly the sort of perfect coming together of varied virtues that’s never gonna be replicated to anyone’s satisfaction, so going in a new direction by making its sequel just a step short of a humor RPG, filled with puns and enjoyable interpersonal antics, was a great call. This way, it stands very clearly as its own entity, maybe not quite as good as the first, but fun and enjoyable in a different way that draws the audience in with guffaws and giggles well enough that we don’t even think to complain that it’s not quite up to what we had expected.
Best Villain of 2018:
Winner: Handsome Jack (Borderlands 2)
Damn. Just...what a terrific villain personality Borderlands 2 gave us with Handsome Jack. You know how the best version of the Joker is a villain who you laugh at and enjoy seeing, even though you understand how utterly despicable he truly is? Handsome Jack is that, but better. That’s right, I’m saying it: in 1 way, at least, Handsome Jack is a better villain than the motherfuckin’ JOKER. Because there are times when you have to remind yourself that the Joker is a horrifyingly bad human being as he delights you with his clever quips and antics. Handsome Jack? You’ll be chuckling at his banter and evil ways, and you’ll be doing it often, but at no time will you forget that he’s a hateful asshole and a true monster. Handsome Jack is a perfect and utterly unique character, charismatic to an extreme and yet genuinely dislikable on a personal level for the player. The fact that he has some depth and demonstrable passion just makes him all the better as a villain...to say nothing of the atrocities he commits with careless playfulness! Yeah, this guy’s the best villain of this year, and 1 of the best I’ve seen in some time. I can’t wait to play Borderlands: The Presequel; I hear there’s stuff there that further develops his backstory and motives.
Runners-Up: Gaunter O’Dymm (The Witcher 3); N2 (Nier: Automata); The Liar (Bravely Default)
Honestly? Good year for bad guys. Damn good year. N2’s the kind of overarching mastermind that fits perfectly into the existential ponderings of Nier: Automata, and provides us with all the more insights into humanity and meaning, the perfect god-role antagonist for such a game.** The Liar of Bravely Default...I can say nothing about, save that the Liar really smacks your emotional attachment right in the nuts. I mean, honestly, months later, I’m still a little bothered about it--that’s how good the Liar is as a villain, how lasting the effect. Lastly, you just gotta love Gaunter O’Dymm. Short of Shin Megami Tensei, no RPG I’ve played has so perfectly portrayed a representation of the devil as Gaunter does, and even then, SMT’s take on Lucifer is not so much better as it is simply a differently accurate depiction, decidedly more biblical, while Gaunter’s is much more like the devil of legends and folklore. He’s got the presence, he’s got the style and the methods, and he’s got the symbolism: Gaunter O’Dymm is a terrific stand-in for the devil, and he makes an impact on the player.
Best Character of 2018
Winner: Edea (Bravely Default + Second)
Edea Lee’s just a solid character whose development believably and naturally lead her to her place in the world, and she’s got a striking and incredibly appealing attitude and personality all the way through. It’s hard not to love Edea on a personal level, and the story of her learning to stand for her principles even in the face of learning that the revered people who taught her those principles lack the conviction to follow them themselves, and in the face of having to stand against the people and country that she loves in order to do what’s right, is a well-crafted one. The same is true of her role in the second game, a story of a more subtle testing of her morals and determination, as she fits herself to the mantle of world leader that she soon must wear. Edea is just great, plain and simple.
Runners-Up: Arelia (Shadowrun: Hong Kong Calfree in Chains Mod); Geralt (The Witcher 3); Subject Not Found (Transistor)
Every party member in Seberin’s mod is good, and tied to the thematic question of violence vs. pacifism, but I think that Arelia is the one with the most depth as a character, the greatest connection to the theme, and the most to offer in terms of emotional connection and engaging personality. Regarding Subject Not Found: as I said before, when the huge majority of your storytelling relies upon a single character’s narration, that character has to have some fantastic voice acting--but he also has to be an interesting, very well-written one, too, and Transistor’s narrator is definitely that. Lastly, Geralt...well, he’s Geralt. Casual, straightforward, even basic, yet insightful, subtle, containing inner demons and angels as great as any man’s, Geralt is a great protagonist and a solid character, as iconic a hero of his franchise as Shepard is of Mass Effect.
Best RPG of 2018
Winner: Nier: Automata
What’s there to say, really? Yoko Taro wanted to make existential art using video games as his medium, and in Nier: Automata, he happened to actually get appropriate, widespread acclaim for it. Nier: Automata has been called by some the most philosophical video game created. I do think that the people who say that either are exaggerating somewhat, or simply haven’t been playing enough thoughtful RPGs...but it’s definitely up there at the top, that’s undeniable.
There have been quite a few RPGs that have in 1 way or another tackled the question of what gives existence meaning, such as Star Ocean 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Planescape: Torment, and so on (SMT: Persona Q is a personal favorite of mine on the subject), but each of them has generally been tackling the subject on their own, with the intent of telling a story by itself and for itself. They’re serious about making you think and conveying a message, but they’re not serious about finding and exploring new ground of the question of our existence. Nier: Automata, on the other hand, uses its story as an excuse to penetrate existentialism and attempt to find new perspectives upon it and ourselves. The game intentionally references and builds upon the ideas and works of great philosophers who have explored this cornerstone of higher thinking, both arguing with and lauding the esteemed and recognized minds that came before it, while using the mechanics and expectations of the video game medium to illustrate and explore existentialism’s concepts and conflicts. Nier: Automata is, in my opinion, the newest great work of existential philosophy, worthy of standing amidst the classics that it directly references.
And hey, it’s also a very good RPG in its own sake, telling an interesting, exciting, and meaningful tale with creative, shocking twists, populated with memorable characters and told with singular aesthetics. Every way you look at it, Nier: Automata is golden.
Runners-Up: Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod; Transistor; The Witcher 3
Yeah, that’s right. All the RPGs I played this year, made by so many experienced developers, written by so many professionals, produced by companies with so many resources...and 1 of the best experiences I had was a mod created by a single fan in his free time. You want to know a secret about Calfree in Chains? C’mere and I’ll whisper it to you.
I’m glad I played Nier: Automata, because if I hadn’t, this unofficial fan mod would have been the best RPG I played in 2018.
Moving on: Is The Witcher 3 overrated? Hell yes. It’s the new Final Fantasy 7 in that regard. But also like FF7, just because it isn’t the second coming of Christ in video game form, that doesn’t mean it’s not a truly excellent product. It’s an epic, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable game with an engaging plot that feels like the natural, meaningful conclusion to the trilogy that it’s meant to be, a terrific protagonist and strong supporting cast, and a hell of a lot of heart. I don’t agree with the prevailing opinion of so many players that it’s the greatest RPG made--hell, it isn’t even the greatest RPG of its year; Undertale beats the pants off it--but I can certainly understand why those players came to the conclusion.
Transistor is ferociously artful, an excellent reminder that even over 30 years into this medium of expression, we’re still discovering the incredible potential video games have to tell stories in ways unlike anything else. Transistor’s got a lot to say and to ponder over, and although its greatest focus seems to be on its beautiful and unique world’s look and sound, it sure as hell doesn’t skimp on its story of love, choice, obsession, and stagnation. Truly great stuff--I had high expectations of Supergiant Games after Bastion, and they met and exceeded them. I look forward to playing Pyre.
Greatest RPGs: Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod has been added as a third (and final) Honorable Mention. Additionally, Nier: Automata has been added; Mass Effect 2 has been removed. Sorry, you superb sci-fi sequel that souped up and strengthened the series’s singular setting.
Stupidest Weapons: Serina’s Figure Skating Mecha-Pegleg has been added; Keyblades have been removed. Congrats, you ungainly, unwieldy, unbalanced, unintelligent union of axe and sword.
Also, I was gonna add Handsome Jack to the Greatest Villains list, but I think I’ll actually just update the list as a whole and re-post it sometime in the coming year.
Aaaaaand that closes the book on 2018. I may have hated it on a personal level, but I do admit, in terms of RPGs, any year I can add not just 1, but 2 games to my list of the best RPGs ever made has to be considered a pretty good one. As ever, I give the greatest of thanks for my sister and my friend Ecclesiastes for all the help they provide to me year-round in making these rants significantly less sucky than they could be, and, of course, to my patrons, who are just aces. And finally, I naturally thank you, the readers who patiently put up with my nonsense thrice a month, for your continued validation of my online existence. Much gratitude to ya, and happy holidays! I’ll see you again in 2019!
* I know that Henry Cavill’s a good actor (even if he’s squandered on DC’s miserable failure of a cinematic universe), and Netflix is usually pretty good at making shows, but...I just don’t see it ever seeming right. Apologies to Heath Ledger, but Mark Hamill will always be the Joker, apologies to Erin Fitzgerald, but Tracey Rooney will always be Chie, and apologies to Mr. Cavill, but Doug Cockle will always be Geralt of Rivia.
** Also, unrelated, but I feel like N2 is what the Architect from the second Matrix movie would look like if he were done well. Much in the way that Nier: Automata as a game is to Xenosaga, N2 is almost like a “what could have been” with the Architect, and the Matrix sequels overall.