PlayStation 4 is riding high. Having hit its stride early in this generation, it has maintained momentum with big exclusives that add to an ever-growing and impressive library of games. Two of the year’s best games, God of War and Spider-Man, were only on PS4. Those came alongside competitive console versions of popular cross-platform titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Dead Cells. Tetris Effect, meanwhile, capitalizes incredibly well on the PlayStation VR, Sony’s consumer-friendly virtual reality contender. In alphabetical order, here are our picks for the best PS4 games of 2018, and what made them standouts in a year chock full of great games.
This surprising indie game is a prime example of the phrase “more than the sum of its parts.” At first, the mishmash of influences and homages seem to contradict one another. It’s a Metroidvania game–a genre known for its character progression–but this is also a roguelike, meaning it’s built specifically around dying and resetting from near-zero. Though Dead Cells does have a handful of permanent abilities tucked away in obscure corners, for the most part you’re no more powerful on your 20th run than your first. What truly makes the difference is how you shape the game’s economy and weapon selection organically as you progress through each run.
Purchasing a new weapon or secondary gadget from the vendor will also add it to the pool of items you can find in the world during a run. By steering your choices toward the weapons that fit your playstyle, you can increase the chances of finding the right set to progress further than you have before. It’s this constant push and pull on the game’s economy that creates a meta-strategy running throughout the experience. Do you reserve your hard-earned cash for only a handful of weapons to increase their odds, or do you collect everything you can in an effort to find what works? Over time Dead Cells becomes an experience of tinkering with the game’s systems, and then fine-tuning the smaller variables nested inside it, with each passing run.
God of War
This year Sony Santa Monica showed how to modernize a classic with impeccable grace and style. Gone was Kratos’ unfocused rage, replaced by a weary, simmering anger kept barely contained under the surface. The new Kratos is aging, tired, and skeptical. Most significantly, he’s now a father, trying to avoid leading his progeny down the same path that caused him so much pain in his own life. This Kratos feels beaten down, just short of broken, when the inciting events begin.
The level design is cleverly built around his new weapon, the Leviathan Axe. Both a melee weapon and a projectile, the game’s puzzles and combat are built around the Leviathan Axe’s ability to boomerang back on command, a la Thor’s Hammer in the Marvel universe. It’s a unique differentiator to the usual gameplay style, providing a synthesis to the the overall experience’s various component parts.
When the mayhem does start, it carries a new level of emotional resonance that had been missing from the series. Kratos is far from a perfect father, but his world-weariness carries real tenderness for the boy. The ultimate revelations at the end of the game set the stage for more God of Wars to come, with a newfound resonance. This new take on Kratos manages to move beyond his legacy without rejecting it. Instead, it embraces those violent and sometimes campy roots and contextualizes them as mistakes from his past, while building for the franchise’s future.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar has gained a reputation for its bombastic action and cheeky humor. However, Red Dead Redemption 2 subverted expectations by being quiet and somber, and making its gameplay meticulous in a way that aimed to put you into the worn leather boots of an Old West gunslinger. Those who embraced the experience were rewarded with a rich story of loss and distrust in the waning days of westward expansion. Prequels can often feel unnecessary or staid thanks to the audience already knowing events that come after the story. Red Dead Redemption 2 sidestepped this pitfall by focusing less on what happened and more on how it felt.
The vast open world presents almost every environment and weather pattern one can imagine. The plains and mountains are teeming with wildlife to hunt for food or trade. Your horse is a stable companion and bonds with you. Your guns can be crafted and customized to a degree that it feels like a cowhand’s old reliable tool. The bank heists and train robberies are just as carefully crafted as the rest, putting you in tense scenarios where anything can and often does go wrong. These moments, paired with the camaraderie at camp, build the gang to be much more than a plot device or set dressing. The bonds you build between characters touch on themes of loyalty and honor, even among thieves.
To truly capture the feeling of embodying Spider-Man, the one element that stands above all others is the web-swinging. Through a combination of sophisticated physics systems, Spider-Man’s traversal is fluid and versatile in a way few games can hope to match. The mission waypoints spread widely across a realistic Manhattan backdrop were easy to manage thanks in large part to this intuitive system. Combat is also given a distinct personality that expressed the wallcrawler’s individuality. The webslinger is light on his toes and improvisational, making his animations slightly off-kilter. The character carries himself with a grace that always looks moments away from losing his balance, and the combat expresses that beautifully.
Insomniac also crafted a resonant story that pays homage to the spirit of the world while building its own surprising continuity. Characters like MJ and Miles are given their own agency and practical parts in the story, while villains like Mr. Negative and Norman Osborn are given sympathetic motivations. The heart of the story lies with Otto Octavius, Peter’s scientist boss, friend, and mentor. Through it all, though, Spider-Man–both the character and the game–never becomes cynical. Peter Parker spends his spare time volunteering at a homeless shelter, even after a tough day of trading blows with superpowered weirdos. Doing and being good can be difficult, even heartbreaking, but Peter does it regardless. That’s the kind of inspirational message superheroes were made for.
Tetris has been done dozens of times on almost every platform, so it may be difficult to see what would set a new one apart. The involvement of Rez and Lumines designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi has made this version of Tetris distinct in a way that few others are, pairing a variety of musical styles and genres with the gaming perfection of Tetris, set against various backdrops and visualizer styles. The result will have you engaging with–and experiencing–music you may not have tried before. Somehow, though, the selections fit the mood so well that it’s difficult not to get caught up in them.
A new Zone mechanic lets you build up a meter to pause the action and hover your tetriminos, giving you more time to consider your choices. For newcomers it provides an assist tool when the board feels overwhelming, while also opening up more scoring opportunities for veterans. It’s this inventive reconsideration of Tetris fundamentals that makes Tetris Effect an inviting playground for any level. It also ties nicely into one of the game’s other standout features, VR. Enveloped in a VR headset, your consciousness can sink into the game and focus on it with all the intellectual and emotional wrinkles that it brings. The experience can be profound on a level you may never have expected from a classic puzzle game.