With all of the triple-A spectacle crashing into the PlayStation Store this year and a whole bunch more to look forward to thanks to E3, you'd be forgiven for missing these smaller gems that have launched in 2018 so far. Some innovative, engaging and just damned beautiful work has quietly shuffled onto digital shelves, and we felt that the release drought of July was a good time to shine the spotlight on them.
Starting strong with my actual Game of the Year so far, Matt Makes Games' Celeste is a triumph of platforming perfection. Under its unassuming pixel-art exterior is a masterpiece of intelligent game design. Flying through these levels feels utterly delightful, and the simple story is very touching for anyone who has dealt with anxiety or depression. It's a punishing but rewarding ride in the game's regular mode, but a robust Assist Mode allows more casual players to tailor the challenge along the way. The visuals are as gorgeous as kuraine's soaring soundtrack. Please just buy it. I have already talked about it enough.
It's been a bumper year for beautiful games in the big leagues, but I think the indie and small-publisher scene has produced equally gorgeous visuals thanks to their art design. Owlboy manages to recall the lush visuals of classic SEGA Genesis Disney games, but is kind to our rose-tinted memories by adding so much more fidelity and texture than those early consoles could handle. Much like Celeste, Otus' vertical journey captures the feeling of soaring across the screen more acutely than a whole host of big-budget adventures. Once again a bittersweet narrative and a wonderful soundtrack elevate Owlboy above the pack.
Yet another vertical platformer slipped quietly into stores early this year, but this time with a neon aesthetic and a pumping rhythmic soundtrack. Octahedron is a success story for Square Enix's Collective program elevating promising indies with an injection of cash. As you explore the strange dungeons of Veetragoul you must create your own platforms to ascend and to defend. Enemies and obstacles move in time with the music, so you'll have to sink into the flow to master this challenging platformer. It's not flawless, but it packs in a whole lot of interesting ideas with competence and that's not an easy trick to pull off. Don't expect an easy Platinum though.
"Pinball Adventure" isn't a genre mash-up anyone was asking for, but don't be surprised if a lot of mediocre imitations of Yoku's winning formula start cropping up on your app stores. This quirky tale is full of humour and colour but with a significant challenge, blending metroidvania exploration with precise pinball action. It's not something that translates well to screenshots, but it's yet another beautiful world just asking to be explored so I urge you to go and check this one out for yourself.
Unlike everything else on this list, Minit is probably not going to walk away with any awards for its looks. But under the surface of this unassuming top-down platformer has a simple yet effective hook: whatever you manage to do in your run, you'll be killed after 60 seconds thanks to a curse on the land. With no collectibles, progression trees or upgrades, it's a refreshingly simple concept that asks you to think about time management. Your first several sixty-second runs will be about learning the character's skill sets and limitations. After a while it comes down to picking a direction and making the most of your short life span, heading out to see a new part of the world or dealing with a particular threat after finding a new item. Somehow the game manages to find a balance whereby you don't feel overly punished by death; you just get up and go again until things work out. The game will likely only take you a handful of hours to finally "beat", but it's a refreshing change from the usual triple-A experience of wandering around for hours with no constraints.
Moonlighter is far from the first game to subvert the idea of a typical RPG shopkeeper, with many games exploring what it'd be like to manage a supply store for travelling heroes. But here the idea is fully realised and polished in terms of visual design, gameplay and heart. Part of the charm is Will himself, a humble shopkeep that dreams of becoming a hero as he delves into danger looking for new stock. The roguelite elements of the game play off well against simple RPG systems and shop management. What keeps players coming back is the perfectly gauged gameplay loop; you dungeon-delve for better loot to sell in your store, and then you improve your store to delve further into the dungeon. Whichever half of the game you are currently playing, you are excited to see how its rewards affect the other half. It sounds so simple on paper yet after decades of playing RPGs where certain gameplay systems are woefully out of balance with the rest, I can't tell you how refreshing this little experience is.
If there was ever a year to get into 2D platforming or metroidvania adventuring, 2018 is clearly the one. The last entry in this list is yet another game in the same mould, but Iconoclasts has an identity all of its own. A labour of love for developer Joakim Sandberg for nearly a decade, what stands out most here is the storytelling, frequently surpassing the efforts of many triple-A studios claiming to be masters of the art. Sandberg appears to be a master of drama and theatricality, but also weaves a tale of political and religious struggles while maintaining a sharp wit. The action is as compelling as the story, with spectacular boss fights and grand, complex puzzles to solve.
What Iconoclasts and the rest of the games on this list prove to me is that sometimes we can look for engaging narratives, beautiful visuals and polished gameplay in all of the wrong places. Triple-A games can impress off the bat with sumptuous trailers and renowned studios, but if you give these little guys a chance you may just find yourself with an even more rewarding experience.
Let us know what you think in the comments, and please share your favourite unsung heroes of 2018 if they're not on the list!
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