It’s time for video games! In fact, it’s never not time for video games. There were actually so many video games last year that I almost have a top ten list this time. Sadly, I’m short one on that count; I couldn’t quite get around to playing a lot of the big titles, even the ones I was looking forward to. But ten is just a number after nine, and while I do have nine games for you, we do have to start with an honorable(?) mention. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.

What I kept coming back to time and time again last year was this notion that approaching games on their own terms makes enjoying them for what they are easier, as well as helping to zero in on why they work in some areas and why they don’t in others. This isn’t some grand revelation or anything; it’s more of a litany against falling into the spiral of expecting games to conform to our own perceptions about how they ought to be, or how they should have played out. It’s all too easy to conflate critique and wishful thinking; to confuse projections we impose on games with our analysis of its components. I think a lot of people get hung up on this ethereal concept of a “platonic ideal” version of a game, and they build their entire perspective around how a game fails to achieve that zenith. It’s an exhausting way to play and talk about games, and while I understand that it’s fun to think up ways a game could be enhanced or improved, it’s important to acknowledge the version of the game that actually exists, and see it for what it is, not what we might want it to be.

 Without further ado, here are my top games of 2023.

Honorable Mention: Starfield

I do not know what people expected with this one. I’ve managed to get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of Bethesda’s older games (Morrowind was on my Game of the Year list for last year!) but anybody shocked that this game was not a meteoric game changer for the industry probably needs to be reminded that Fallout 4 was not actually that good of a game, even if you found it fun like me, or like Bethesda games in general. Perhaps it’s because I had no expectations, no hype, and barely saw any preview material for Starfield that I was able to enjoy over 300 hours with it. I went in expecting nothing, and got Something. What that Something was wasn’t what many people wanted, but just like with Bethesda’s previous games post-Morrowind, Starfield is serviceable at what it does. Is it the best? Of course not: Destiny 2 and Titanfall 2 are better sci-fi FPS games. Baldur’s Gate 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are better RPGs. Elite Dangerous is simultaneously a better space exploration game, and a better spaceship-flying simulator. Its individual components are C-grade at best, and together they average out to a passable, serviceable game in my eyes. 

Like many games of its kind, there are kernels of greatness that can be found here and there, but Starfield is ultimately held back by the same design and scriptwriting framework we’ve seen from Bethesda time and time again (maybe someday they’ll figure out how to make unarmed builds fun and rewarding.) I cannot deny the reputation it has garnered in the wake of its release, but I will say I still enjoyed my time with Starfield. It’s better than Fallout 4 by a country mile, and at the very least, that’s something.

8. Lethal Company

I am not a horror game person. I hate jumpscares, and being chased by foul creatures without some recourse for their assaults fills my skeleton heart with dread. But I can play Lethal Company, a game that’s sometimes about the first thing, and definitely about the second thing, without any issue. Something about the whimsical art style, the hyper-corporate hellcapitalism of its future dystopian setting, and the silly little creatures what snap your neck and crumple your character into boneless ragdolls on contact is very funny and refreshing. I still get scared while playing it, and there can be very tense and dreadful moments throughout a run, but the beauty of proximity voice chat, the bonds between good friends, and the thrill of making it back to the ship alive with a puzzle cube, scrap metal, and a clown horn cuts through the intensity of the horrors and makes the experience all the more delightful. Any game that can not only force me out of my comfort zone, but also show me that I can thrive outside of it is a good game in my book. It’s still in early access, but it’s already a runaway success, and Lethal Company deserves every bit of praise it gets.

7. Shadows of Doubt

While Shadows of Doubt was slated to be fully released toward the end of 2023 after a period of early access, it was ultimately pushed back to 2024. I’m still including it here because it’s an exceptionally good game with a very focused conceit, and I also put Lethal Company in so it’s only fair. Solving procedural murder mysteries in the future-past world of 1979 proved to be so engaging that I spent an entire week doing almost nothing else but playing this game. The voxel aesthetic has never been something I’ve been very keen on, but Shadows of Doubt is the game that sold me on their potential. I initially found myself suspecting this art direction would hold the game back, but every still taken of this game evokes its sheer tone and atmosphere that makes it shine. It’s like playing a video game version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. There are tons of little details in the game’s world that made learning more about its setting extremely fascinating. I’m a particular fan of how each of the procedurally generated cities are built on what appear to be large offshore platforms due to the global warming crisis: You are a film noir detective solving murders on one platform of Big Boss’ Brother’s Mother Base, and sometimes you are paid by strangers to retrieve their bric-à-brac from their covetous, thieving friends. That is an absurd sentence to type, and yet it’s a pretty accurate description of what Shadows of Doubt is like, in part. I cannot wait for the full game to release with all the refinements and updates that will entail, but for now, I am content being the voxelated 1979’s version of Columbo.

6. Final Fantasy XVI

The core element of Final Fantasy XVI is its exceptional combat system. They built the whole game around it and when you do that for a game, in any genre, it’s imperative that the combat system is robust, enjoyable, and possesses enough depth to stave off stagnation. FFXVI is a phenomenal entry into the character action genre, and it also serves as one of its most approachable titles. As to be expected from a mainline Final Fantasy title, playing other games in the series is not required, and while the story of FFXVI has some elements that could be improved (do not put the Heavensward writer in lead writing positions for any games involving women with connections to Shiva, thanks in advance,) the combat shines through as its crowning achievement. Every fight feels flashy and every attack is powerful and potent, from the smaller mob fights to the big climactic Eikon Clashes. If any game proves that set pieces and cinematic fights are good, FFXVI is that game, and it does such a wonderful job of merging cinematic sequences, combat sections, musical choreography, and sheer unadulterated exuberance for what it’s dishing out. Its lows are low, but its highs are exospheric. There is also something to be said for the game being a shorter affair than its monolithic siblings. The game is paced tight enough to feel brisk, while slow enough to not feel like you’re blitzing through everything. 

Final Fantasy XVI proves three things beyond a shadow of a doubt: Final Fantasy games can still be short in both story length and development time; mainline Final Fantasy games can completely change up the format and genre and have it still feel like a Final Fantasy game; and you should always put Rider Kicks in your video games.

Key art from Honkai: Star Rail. Two anime-stylized characters wearing futuristic clothing lean over the railing of a nightlit, building rooftop.

5. Honkai: Star Rail

After being disillusioned by Pokémon games in the wake of Sword & Shield, to the point where I haven’t even touched the new games, I was beginning to think that perhaps my love for turn-based RPGs had faded away. Not that there’s anything wrong with the genre, or that Pokémon games are the only ones worth playing, but I had realized that I hadn’t played a single turn-based RPG since Sword & Shield, and I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to dive into a new one. Honkai: Star Rail showed me that I was wrong; I do still love turn-based RPGs, I just needed to take the plunge and play one that hadn’t become stale to me. I’m a bit trepidatious about recommending Honkai: Star Rail to anyone given its status as a gacha game, but I will bring up why I find it such a fascinating game to play. Right off the rip, if you’ve played Genshin Impact, it’s abundantly clear that Honkai: Star Rail is built off the bones of its older sibling. The interface and menus are nearly identical, and it’s exceedingly obvious how much of HSR is straight-up reusing systems from Genshin Impact. That said, I am always in favor of developers recycling and reusing assets, systems, engines, models, animations, sound effects, and anything else, as game development is already a difficult and challenging process. 

With its turn-based combat system, HSR combines two things that often sell me on games; a class system, and an elemental system. Each character has a class, called a Path, and element, with the Path determining their role in a party, and their element determining their effectiveness against enemies. These can combine in fun ways, and even when characters match in both Path and element, they can still have radically different playstyles. The combat system is fairly simple, but it has a snappy ebb and flow to it that makes it engaging from start to finish. Its storyline is intriguing enough, with cosmic forces clashing in a galactic war that’s sometimes hot and sometimes cold, each side fielding factions big and small to further their own ends, but like with Genshin Impact, Honkai: Star Rail’s story is ongoing and as of now, unfinished. Time will tell how well the story winds up being, but for now, I’m content to blow up hordes of enemies with the funny SMG woman.

4. System Shock (2023)

System Shock 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and when I went to investigate the original System Shock from 1994, I was immediately put off by the clunkiness of its gameplay. I don’t really care if a game looks dated or is graphically lackluster, since graphics should serve the game’s art direction and gameplay, and while System Shock (1994) has a very distinct art style that perfectly fits its tone, the gameplay was too of the era. When Nightdive Studios announced a full remake of System Shock, I was excited to play a more modernized spin on the precursor to System Shock 2, and let me tell you; System Shock (2023) does not disappoint. As far as an FPS game goes, it’s fairly rudimentary and simple, but that simplicity is deceptive. The shooting feels as good as it needs to feel, and the animations on the weapons are far more intricate than they’d need to be. It’s very distinct watching your character reload what looks like a plastic toy gun with the rote efficiency and mechanical nature one would use to reload a real firearm, and that toy gun comment is not a criticism. 

System Shock (2023) has such a unique art direction that’s really quite something to behold. Instead of making the whole game look fully modernized, with “realistic” interpretations of locations and more grounded models and textures, as one might see from games like DOOM (2016), Nightdive went for an upscaling of the original game’s art direction. The areas look almost identical to their 29-year-old counterparts, albeit with more polygons, better lighting, better textures, and a modern rendering engine. The same is true for the enemies and many of the items found throughout Citadel Station. If you walk up close to some of the textures, you can see where they’ve artificially blown up the pixel size to give them a crunchiness that contrasts with the smoothness of some other components of the environment. The visuals in System Shock (2023) are so fascinating to me because they’re such a perfect answer to the question of how best to recreate an older game and retain the spirit of its original art direction, and the markings of the cultural era it was created in. System Shock (2023) looks, feels, and plays like a ‘90s comic book interpretation of a dystopian cyberpunk future, and I truly enjoyed every second of it.

3. Lies of P

I love Lies of P. When this game was first announced, I and many others thought it would be the same Action RPG slop we’d come to expect from many, many games who have died on the blade of trying to be “The Next Souls Game” in a perverse modern version of the 2000’s onslaught of would-be “Halo Killer” shooter games. But it must be said: Neowiz Games and Round8 Studio pulled it off. They’ve proven that you do not have to be From Software to make a game with this caliber of punchy, weighty combat infused within a surreal, forlorn world beset by a larger-than-life tragedy, with all the atmosphere and attention to detail both required to excel. Lies of P is going to be one of my gold standards going forward; this is what a game can be when it has a cohesive, focused vision, and the teams and talents required to realize it. This is what a game can be when its premise is leaned into wholeheartedly, and not shunned or mocked or ashamed of what it’s all about. This is what a game can be when it seems at first blush to be a pale imitation of something great, but it turns out to have been great in its own right, with its own soul, all along.

Nuts can be eaten, but shouldn't.

2. Pathologic 2

What an incredible game Pathologic 2 turned out to be. Going into it I had a lot of preconceived notions and expectations about how it was going to go, given the game’s reputation. As I said with Lethal Company, I’m not really a horror game person, and while Pathologic 2 isn’t quite as intense as some other titles, it’s certainly filled with tension and stress, and there were at least three in-game days where I was scared out of my wits. The art direction of Pathologic 2 is quite unique, as is its setting and general premise, and I’m surprised how well Ice-Pick Lodge were able to both capture the particular time period and cultural influences they blended together in the first Pathologic, and refine them visually into a style that expertly conveys the myriad emotions and moods the game evokes throughout a playthrough. This merges beautifully with the gameplay, putting you in the body of Artemy Burakh as he desperately tries to find a way to save his hometown from a catastrophe and live up to his father’s legacy.

There is so much I could say about Pathologic 2, and while I do believe it’s an incredible experience and a wonderful game everyone should play, I will say this: Pathologic 2 is a game filled with juxtapositions. They permeate every aspect of it, from the clean, minimalist user interface that’s strikingly full of character and detail, to Artemy being branded as a murderer yet tasked with protecting children and treating patients, to the machinations of the various townsfolk torn between the ancient old and the mysterious new, and to the game’s ability to portray warm moments of small, quiet coziness, and desolate nightmares of sheer, stark despair. Pathologic 2 is a game for the ages, and I’m glad I finally got around to playing it.

1. Pathologic Classic HD

That’s right, baby; did you think I was done talking about Pathologic? Not on your life, my friend, for after finishing Pathologic 2 I almost immediately went into Pathologic Classic HD, the 2015 rerelease of the first Pathologic  from 2004 (2005 outside of Russia). Pathologic 2 was a spectacular experience, but I had to go higher, dig deeper, and really sink my teeth into the roots of this story, its characters, and the game that started it all. Pathologic  is even more notorious than its sequel, and I wrote a whole piece back in September about how much I thoroughly enjoyed the game and found it to be quite fun despite its reputation. The funny thing is that Shadows of Doubt was actually the catalyst for getting me to try both Pathologic games. All three of them are first-person games with unorthodox melee combat, survival mechanics such as sleeping, eating, and managing status effects, and trying not to die while walking down streets and investigating leads. Shadows of Doubt is obviously a less brutal, less story-focused game than either Pathologics, but getting a handle on its mechanics opened up my willingness to try something that would bite back. I started with Pathologic 2 because I had actually played up to the end of Day 5 back in late 2022, but after finishing it, I felt compelled to play its much rougher predecessor. Seeing the through lines of plots and character arcs as they originally played out in Pathologic, with the knowledge of how they were reinterpreted in Pathologic 2 had this surreal effect where both versions wound up elevating each other; the old providing the blueprint and framework for the new, and the new serving to accentuate how little they ultimately had to change, because they got so much right the first time. The two of them are two of the greatest games of all time, and I say that with zero hyperbole or exaggeration.

About Spencer

Spencer is a skeleton from Florida’s B-side, currently skulking around Washington state, and he always plays the thief in games.

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