Well, that’s a wrap on 2023. It was, by all accounts, a strange year.
On the game release side, there were some pretty incredible ones launched this year. And on the games industry side, it was historically fraught, as thousands have lost their jobs. Even the media side felt rough this year, as we saw outlets cut staff and close doors.
For me personally, I managed to do some writing I’m proud of, but it’s still been tough. My hope is that 2024 doesn’t have this stark contrast at the end, but only time will tell. I certainly feel games like Metaphor, Rebirth, and Dragon’s Dogma 2 are already set up to make a big splash.
On the games front though, it was absolutely stellar. 2023’s games got me through a lot. I’m certain we’ll be talking about them for years to come, ranging from the titanic AAAs to the smaller projects. This is a year where my no. 8 could fight for a top spot any other year, it’s just been that good. Let’s get into it.
From the outset, Paranormasight is already my kind of jam. It’s a mystery adventure game, where several people are pulled into a supernatural death game. Each one has been bestowed a curse, and told that if they kill enough of their fellow curse-bearers, they can bring someone back to life. Already great.
But what really locked Paranormasight in for me is how smart its puzzles are. Director Takanari Ishiyama brings some expertise to this area, having a less-known-in-the-west history with detective games. At several points, Paranormasight rips the rug out from under you, or asks you to meaningfully engage with its systems—all of its systems.
These “a-ha” breakthroughs felt tough, without ever feeling like too much. It’s maybe a testament to how much I liked Paranormasight that I wish it were longer; once the credits rolled on the true ending, I was hoping I’d somehow uncover another lead to chase. I really can’t recommend this enough for horror and mystery fans.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
Oh boy, Cyberpunk. A catastrophic launch, then months and months of patches, then Edgerunners debuts and everyone is teed up for the big question: is Cyberpunk good now? And honestly, the answer is yeah, it’s really good now. The combined launch of Phantom Liberty and Cyberpunk 2.0 really brought this game together.
It’s still the first-person RPG that mixes the open-world do-anything style of GTA with splashes of Deus Ex, Shadowrun, and other inspirations. Many of the foundational pieces, flaws and all, are still here. Phantom Liberty provides an exciting spy thriller with some strong performances; though I like Idris Elba, I really need to emphasize that Cherami Leigh left it all on the field with her performance as female V. Truly award-worthy stuff.
Between making the skill progression more interesting, updating how different builds work, and adding new ideas and concepts into the world, this version of Cyberpunk 2077 feels like the closest CD Projekt Red can get the game to its most realized state. It’s certainly got me keen on a 2078, or whatever you want to call it. Not without flaws, but even still, I love the new ending, and I’ll never tire of simply cruising around Night City.
Slay the Princess
When I demoed Slay the Princess at PAX East 2023, it was a joy not only to see my own playthrough, but watch others play it too. This seemingly simple text game hid a web of narrative twists and turns under its surface, all responding to the ways in which players approached a single situation: you’re in the woods, on your way to a cabin. A voice tells you that inside, there is a princess, and you need to kill her to save the world. So, what’s next?
Suffice to say, the full game lived up to those expectations and then some. What starts as a single quandary with its own surprises and responsive outcomes becomes an entire experience about those interpersonal relationships. The ways in which little things, like leaving or taking the knife, or even being up-front about whether you have the knife, can distinctly alter the tone and outcomes with the Princess is fascinating.
It all gives way to cosmic horror, terror, suspense, and some tearful moments. I think Slay the Princess is fairly open to a number of reads. For me, as I wrote in my review, it was about finality and the fleeting experiences we feel in life. But for others, it could be about love, loss, estrangement, death, grief, hope, despair, anything. It contains multitudes. And I think if any of that sounds appealing, you need to play Slay the Princess ASAP.
Final Fantasy XVI
What an interesting entry. I struggled with this one as, while I get why fans hoping for a more traditional RPG experience felt a little let-down here, I really enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XVI. It’s got a fascinating blend of action and RPG, trying to marry the two in ways that take a while to click together.
In fact, a lot of XVI starts to come together when you have more of its Eikon forms, and can start to really mold a playstyle around them. I loved patiently waiting and dodging in my Bahamut form, then setting off a massive Megaflare and unleashing a combo on its heels. The later forms like Odin arrive almost too late in the game. But combined together, they’re a really fun set of tools to unleash. They’re even more incredible in the boss fights, which were huge and a joy to blast through.
Where XVI shone for me most was the performances, though. Clive, Cid, Joshua, Jill, and Dion form a solid central cast. I like the dramatic moments, and I really, really clicked with the “brotherhood” story at the center. It’s not all Final Fantasy fans’ cup of tea, but for me, it was an attempt at something fresh that stuck with me.
This is a December 2022 title, but since those games are often left by the wayside amid end-of-year talks, I’m letting Chained Echoes sneak onto my 2023 list. Because, frankly, it’s an absolute banger. I think if I had finished it last year, it would’ve been a top entry.
Matthias Linda’s RPG is certainly nostalgic for a certain era of the genre, but unlike others that fall into the trap of simple replication, Chained Echoes crafts something new from all its disparate parts. The ransom board, the heat and overdrive mechanics, even the way each character feels so distinct from one another is sincerely wonderful.
Its story is better than I think most give it credit for, too. I love a lot of the early Act 1 writing, and the eventual twists might be a tad predictable, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable to watch unfold. The music is simply sublime too, and the side content was surprisingly fun to work through, without feeling like busywork. Linda’s made an indie RPG that can box with the giants, and stood out in a stacked year for role-playing games.
Street Fighter 6
God, I cannot tell you how much I missed playing so much Street Fighter. I had some regular bouts whenever I would travel, but SFV felt more like “the best available option” than the actual best option. It left a lot of hopes on the shoulders of Street Fighter 6 to carry, and yet, Capcom’s latest entry carries them well.
The roster is diverse, the gameplay changes are solid, and the new mechanics in SF6 work so well. Even just the straightforward punching-and-kicking of Street Fighter 6 feels great. And the netcode has, in my experience, been very good. I wish the lobby and custom match systems had some better UI, but that’s a minor gripe that I’m used to with fighting games at this point.
Seriously, some of my favorite multiplayer moments of the year were playing SF6 with friends, either in-person or online. And watching others, who don’t often play fighting games or felt a bit scared by the premise, get into SF6 was spectacular. This was the year everyone had a Street Fighter main again, and I love that.
Alan Wake 2
Man, just give Remedy a blank check for whatever they want to make next. There are other games, though not many, that I like more than Alan Wake 2. But none of them take the kind of risks, leaps, and creative liberties that Remedy does in this sequel. Even the premise alone, that Alan has returned to the real world after the same number of years it’s been between AW1 and 2, is brilliant.
But Alan Wake 2, like its protagonists, continues to descend down, deeper and deeper. The story is filled with metatextual commentary and ties, but not in the annoying, Wiki-fodder way. Every line of red thread on the manic corkboard is additive, whether its pushing specific vibes or ratcheting up tension.
It’s not just story alone; Alan Wake 2 is also a solid survival horror game that gets a lot right with its ambiance and level flow, especially in the Saga sections. There’s a commitment to cohesive tone and creative drive, from the setting and mood through to the gameplay itself.
But Alan Wake 2 is still content to completely pivot in ways only Remedy could, like the infamous “We Sing” chapter. Seeing a company, of this scale, make a game like this, with this much budget? A wonderful note to end 2023 on.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
There was little doubt I was going to enjoy Tears of the Kingdom. I love when Nintendo gets weird, especially with its sequels, and boy did Nintendo get weird with this sequel. Creepy hands, gooey contraptions, and Link squirming his way through the ceiling to pop out the top? TOTK feels just as goofy at times as it does dark and dreary.
But it also gets dark. I mean, The Depths are honestly one of the coolest ideas I’ve seen in a Zelda game. The first time I dove in, it felt like the wind got ripped out of me by the inky, yawning void sprawling out below me. The terror you feel, when you drop a light down a chasm and see it shrink as it plummets down, down, down is so good.
Yet Tears of the Kingdom didn’t lose the pieces that made Breath of the Wild work for me. Much as I love the goofy fun of building anything I want, this Zelda duology has done some great stuff with its side quests. I loved being an assistant reporter for Penn, and reuniting the traveling band, and helping rig a mayoral race.
This Hyrule feels alive in a way Breath of the Wild‘s wasn’t, as towns are rebuilding and their denizens returning. They’re two distinctly different takes on the same world map. But Tears of the Kingdom stands on its own as a truly incredible experience. You’d think this would be higher too, but oh man, what a year we’ve had.
Octopath Traveler 2
Y’know, I really did not see this coming. Genuinely. The first Octopath Traveler was, to me, fine. When I picked up the sequel, I figured I’d probably feel similarly. In no way did I expect to not just get completely lost in this world, but also call it one of my absolute favorites of 2023.
Octopath Traveler 2 walks a fine line between addressing complaints about the original, like its too-disparate stories and slow pacing, while still maintaining the gist of what Octopath is trying to do: tell eight individual stories that, eventually, link up into one grand conclusion. But it works so well. Each character’s story is great in its own right, from Ochette’s quest to quiet an ancient evil and Castti’s search for her memories to Temenos’ murder mystery.
And Partitio? Well, he’s upending capitalism with cash. It makes sense, I promise. The linked stories and skits provide a lot of narrative connections to keep the feeling that this party is adventuring together, even when one member is in the lead.
The battle system of Octopath 2 is excellent, always keeping the action moving while providing moments where you need to stop and think, planning out the next few rounds of battle. Path actions, especially with the day-night split, offer a ton of role-playing goodness. Want in that door? Knock out the guard. Need some help in a fight? Hire a warrior’s services. Think someone’s sword skills are sick? Beat them up and take their powers. All of this is set to an incredible soundtrack, too. Maybe my favorite of the year.
Yet what kept Octopath Traveler 2 top of my list wasn’t even just the thrilling, surprising conclusion that brings everyone together. It’s the message of hope. It’s the belief that all these characters share that, beyond the horizon, there is a dawn. Each traveler has to wrestle with some pretty significant demons, but even after loss and suffering, they emerge hopeful for a bright dawn and better tomorrow. Seriously, classic RPG fans need to be talking this one up way more.
Baldur’s Gate 3
Yeah, so this was no surprise. I felt like I knew, the moment I rolled credits on Baldur’s Gate 3, that this wasn’t just a best-of-the-year game for me, but an all-timer. It is, in so many ways, that good. And we knew it was good, too. Ever since the Early Access kicked off years ago, I had an inkling that Larian was onto something.
I don’t think I could have predicted how well they’d stick the landing, though. Baldur’s Gate 3 is an incredible experience. First off, it starts with an incredible intro, having the player flee a nautiloid ship after being infected with literal brain-worms. Then, one crash-landing later, you’re tasked with a real problem to solve: get the tadpole out of your head, before it turns you into a mind-flayer.
This narrative push is also the glue that binds the crew together, when they would otherwise never meet, or maybe even just stab each other. But this common goal becomes the initial layer that starts to create a bond within the camp, forming one of my favorite RPG parties in some time. Shadowheart, Lae’zel, Karlach, Wyll, Gale, Astarion, Halsin, even the more temporary camp companions, are all wonderfully fun to talk to, and adventure alongside.
The combat proves a little divisive, depending on where you stand. Some have found it too difficult, others too easy; some think it adheres too strictly to the rules, others not strictly enough. I’ve honestly seen every different take, but I think it’s good, so there. I made Karlach hit a goblin with another goblin. You’re going to tell me that’s not peak gameplay?
The world of Baldur’s Gate 3 is so wonderfully atmospheric and dense that I’m still finding new things on my second playthrough as the Dark Urge. And oh goodness, the Dark Urge. What an incredible way to meld Larian’s Origin character system with a custom character creator, maintaining the best of both worlds.
Everything about this game feels like it’s firing on all cylinders. The dialogue is brilliant. The performances from the cast are truly the year’s best, across the board. Last night, I had to cast a Light spell to illuminate an area so Lae’zel could use a Mage Hand to hit a lever and open a door, an approach I hadn’t tried my first run through.
Playing Baldur’s Gate 3 feels like sitting down for a tailored, made-for-you campaign in the best way. And even still, my multiplayer campaign has been a beautiful, chaotic mess. This is an RPG we’re going to be talking about for years. And it is, even in a year full of stiff competition, my favorite game of 2023.