It’s hard to top a year like 2017. Last year saw some of the biggest names in video games reinvented and rejuvenated, from the lush open world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to the heart-pounding Resident Evil 7 to the manic wackiness of Super Mario Odyssey. Meanwhile, we were surprised and delighted by brand-new names like PUBG, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Cuphead. There was even a great Sonic the Hedgehog game, which doesn’t happen very often.
But this year was also surprisingly strong, offering up an incredibly varied mix of interactive experiences. There are the blockbusters, of course, like the free-wheeling Spider-Man and the meticulously detailed Red Dead Redemption 2. But 2018 was also a fantastic year for smaller games. Florence used interactivity to show what it feels to fall in love, and Return of the Obra Dinn is perhaps the best whodunit to ever grace the medium. Meanwhile, Tetris Effect made the case that stacking blocks can be an emotional experience.
There was a lot to choose from, and we’ve whittled it down to the best 15 games of the year. Check them out.
It took much longer than anticipated, but virtual reality finally has its killer app. Beat Saber is a mashup of Star Wars and Guitar Hero: blocks of color fly toward you in time to the music, and you have to swat them away with a pair of humming lightsabers. The concept is simple, but when you strap on a headset and get in tune with the music, it’s an absolutely absorbing experience. It manages to satisfy that long-held desire by many of us to wield a Star Wars laser sword, while also just being a great rhythm game. It’s also a workout: it’s unlikely any other 2018 release will make you sweat quite as much as Beat Saber.
Read next: Why Beat Saber is my game of the year
A challenging climb up a daunting, pixelated mountain, Celeste looks like a typical platforming game, but it’s so much more, telling a powerful story about overcoming mistakes. But in order to enjoy the game, and luxuriate in its gorgeous retro visuals and phenomenal soundtrack, you’ll need to accept that you will die… many, many times.
Konami has largely left the Castlevania series to flounder, but thankfully indie developers have picked up the slack. There are no shortage of so-called “metroidvanias” — games that mimic the open-ended structure of Metroid and Castlevania — but even still, Dead Cells manages to stand out. Its combination of brutal combat, constantly changing world, and incredibly fun abilities to unlock makes it nearly impossible to put down. More than that, though, Dead Cells also evokes a very Castlevania-like sense of style, as you venture through ruined landscapes battling all manner of gothic monsters. It feels like a classic while remaining very much its own game.
Florence lasts less than two hours, but it manages to tell an incredibly powerful story within that short time. It’s a familiar story, chronicling the ups and downs of young love. But what Florence lacks in originality, it makes up for by telling its tale in a way that only video games can. As you go through the life of the titular lead, you use simple interactions to mimic her everyday life, whether it’s riding the train or brushing her teeth. But when she falls in love, those interactions become more powerful, and eventually stressful; racing to win an argument, or choosing what to keep when you move. It’s short, sweet, and sentimental, and it will absolutely melt your heart.
The biggest surprise isn’t that God of War is good; the surprise is the things the game succeeds at. Over the course of several games, the series has made its name primarily on violence and spectacle. Iconic lead Kratos had exactly one personality trait: he was very, very angry. The soft reboot of God of War for PS4 manages to take what the series is known for — namely, over-the-top action set pieces — and combines it with a story and characters you’ll actually care about. The relationship between Kratos and his son builds naturally over the course of the game, resulting in one of the most compelling video game narratives of the year.
Gris is more than just a pretty face — but it sure is pretty. Playing is like moving around a lush, hand-drawn space, where the world changes and grows around you. It tells a simple story of bringing color back to a desolate landscape, and while it only lasts a few short hours, Gris makes a huge impact.
Into the Breach does things a little differently than most strategy games. The turn-based game, which pits human-piloted robots up against gigantic kaiju forces, is focused on small-scale battles that usually involve just a few moves. You also get to see how your opponents will act before you decide on your strategy. This makes every single decision an important one, and early on, Into the Breach will absolutely kick your ass. But as you learn how to play over the course of several in-game timelines, a world of strategy opens up. Think of it like chess, but with tanks and giant bugs.
For years, Monster Hunter has been one of those series that seemed resistant to change, offering up very similar experiences designed explicitly for its hardcore fanbase. That all changed with Monster Hunter: World. The new game brought modern sensibilities to the series, with a huge world made possible by modern consoles, and a more seamless design that made venturing out into the wilds feel more natural. It still has all of the tense, often unpredictable monster hunting you’d expect, but this time it’s in a much bigger and more approachable package.
There’s a lot that could’ve gone wrong with Pokémon: Let’s Go. It’s a game meant to ease Pokémon Go players toward more traditional Pokémon games, and it could’ve easily ended up as a half-baked solution that didn’t appeal to either audience. Instead, it streamlines the Pokémon experience, cutting away much of the cruft that the series has gathered over the years. Let’s Go ends up as the best of both worlds, and perhaps the perfect entry point for new players.
At times, it can feel like Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t really want you to have any fun. It’s slow and plodding, with fussy controls and underexplained mechanics. But it also has a depth and texture like no other virtual world before it. From the high-intensity action set pieces to the quieter moments, like riding on horseback or cooking a meal, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that will absolutely engross you if you let it. It’s the closest you’ll probably get to living as an outlaw in the Wild West.
Initially, Return of the Obra Dinn seems almost mundane. A missing ship has washed up on shore, and as an insurance adjuster, it’s your job to see what exactly happened. But it’s not long before the game reveals itself to be something more. Aided by the power of a magical watch, you’re able to explore the grisly demise of the Obra Dinn, all while cataloging clues and details in a book to determine the mystery behind its disappearance. Make sure to keep a notebook handy.
It’s hard to really explain just how good it feels to swing around New York City in Spider-Man. The game is, in many ways, a typical open-world action game, with a huge city to explore, an obscene number of collectibles to find, and lots of bad guys to beat up. But all of those elements are made all the more enjoyable thanks to Spidey and his web-slinging abilities. It’s the rare game where you’ll want to track down a few dozen random objects just because it’s so fun to move around the city.
Ultimate is more than just a title for the latest Super Smash Bros.: it’s an ethos that permeates the entire game. The latest release in Nintendo’s long-running character fighting series, Ultimate improves on its predecessors by offering more of everything. A more robust single-player mode, more customization options, and more characters than ever before. It’s so huge you have to wonder what the next game could do to improve on it.
It’s not easy to make Tetris feel new. The iconic puzzle game has been around for decades, but it hasn’t really improved or changed much during that time. Tetris Effect manages to shake things up by adding a beautiful, and surprisingly emotional, layer of music, visuals, and storytelling over the familiar game. You’re still trying to line up blocks to clear space and rack up a high score, but this time it’s an audiovisual journey. And it’s even better in VR.
Yakuza’s first proper current-gen game is also a send-off for longtime leading man Kiryu. It offers the series’ most fully realized rendition of Tokyo yet, but doesn’t sacrifice the quirky writing and thrilling combat that have made the Yakuza games so beloved. In fact, Yakuza 6 adds an extra layer of drama to the experience, putting Kiryu in charge of a young child for large chunks of the game. If this really is his last starring role, it’s a great way to go out.