#244: Games Of The Year 2023

Here we go! (Sort of!)

#244: Games Of The Year 2023
A load of trophies, isn’t it. Please take out a paid subscription so I can afford an illustrator next year, thank you. Photo by Jelly Dollar on Unsplash

Here we are, then. The final Hit Points of 2023.

Last year, this was so easy. In a quiet year Elden Ring was the obvious winner for the top gong, and the blurbs for Wordle and Vampire Survivors pretty much wrote themselves. This year, though? Sheesh. The relentless onslaught of high-quality games would have been too much for a one-person publication to bear even if said person wasn’t also a running a one-person consulting operation. But I consulted on over 30 games this year, and have written 70 newsletters in between. I have inevitably failed to keep pace with such a packed release schedule.

Baldur’s Gate 3? Mate, I’ve played like 45 minutes of it. Alan Wake II? It feels wrong to play it in daylight, but when I stick it on at night I remember I am a right old wuss; I’m about three hours into it. I have completed a number of solid 7/10s that do not belong on this list. I have played a number of promising things for an hour or so, and have a dozen games in my ‘to start’ section on Steam.

What follows is, then, an alphabetically ordered selection of the best games I have played in 2023 and am legally allowed to talk about. I hope something within it strikes a chord with you. Perhaps we can revisit this subject once I’ve had some time to catch up with everything I have missed, presumably some time in 2036. Lawks, what a year. Onwards!

Cobalt Core
Rocket Rat Games, PC / Switch

I have played countless Slay The Spirelikes over the last couple of years, and as is often the way with these things, few have come anywhere close to recapturing the magic of the game that started it all. Cobalt Core, though, is an absolute cracker. It’s Slay The Spire with spaceships, effectively, spicing up the template by adding an evasion mechanic that lets you dodge incoming fire, a party system that lets you mix and match character decks a la Monster Train, and a gently amusing, Hades-style persistent narrative to tie your runs together. Chuck in one of the very best soundtracks of the year, and you’re onto an absolute winner.

Cyberpunk 2077
CD Projekt Red, PC / PS5 / Xbox

I feel a bit iffy about including this. Firstly, it’s only a 2023 game if you count the expansion, Phantom Liberty, which I am yet to start despite racking up 50 hours in the base game when the 2.0 update launched alongside the expansion. More to the point, it seems a bit icky to reward a game with so chequered a past in this fashion. By calling Cyberpunk 2077 one of my favourite games of 2023, am I endorsing the fact that I paid CD Projekt for it in 2020, and it has spent two-and-a-half years using my and many other people’s money to turn the dismal game that launched into the brilliant one it is today? Mmm. Perhaps it’s best we don’t dwell on that too much.

Besides, I make the rules around here, and for me all that really matters is that the 2.0 version of the game is exquisite, and that I haven’t felt so utterly convinced by a videogame world since Red Dead Redemption II. There was a moment, a few hours in, where I was left without a vehicle after a mission. I was unable to summon a car because I hadn’t kicked off a certain quest chain and, mindful of the fact that the police had supposedly been made more aggressive in the latest patch, didn’t want to risk a carjacking. I decided to go on foot. This, to my mind, is the truest measure of a believable open world; if you can make going for a walk feel good, you’re probably onto something.

Cyberpunk absolutely can. I strolled along a waterfront, stopping to listen to buskers, saying hello to passers-by, clearing out a gang hideout along the way. I sauntered, stopping to eavesdrop on two women in conversation outside a street-corner cafe. I waited at crossings until the lights changed because I was completely, utterly there. Sure, I passed the same cafe 20 hours later and found the same women, in the same clothes, still complaining about the same boyfriend but look, obviously these things are all smoke and mirrors. What counts is how powerful the illusion is on first contact, and in this respect Cyberpunk truly put me under its spell. (Shame about the music, though. Absolutely godawful.)

En Garde
Fireplace Games, PC

This charming, flamboyant, slightly roughshod brawler has what I can only describe as a certain PS2 energy. At times this is a question of budget, the constraints evident in the abundance of loading screens, the looping flamenco soundtrack, and the complete absence of lip movements when characters talk. But really it’s a question of vibes. At its core this is Arkham combat with swords. But it’s also a game where you can kick a hapless lad off a jetty into the sea, push another into a plinth so the fancy vase on top of it falls onto his head and blinds him for the rest of the fight, then kick a sofa at a third so he stumbles back into a weapon rack that collapses on top of him. In an era where even the conceptually silliest games take themselves oh-so-very seriously, this was a refreshing change of pace.

Final Fantasy XVI
Square Enix, PS5

Really not my thing, Final Fantasy. Not my thing at all. A bunch of lads who look like different fashion eras of Timothée Chalamet? A revolving door of prim anime lasses? All that reading? Nah, not for me. My brief dalliance with FFXIV at the start of the year made me reconsider my position, though, and when FFXVI came along, promising fancy-schmancy graphics, spectacular realtime combat and Actual Ralph Ineson, I figured, hey, I like all those things. Perhaps I should give it a chance. I was sure I’d play it for about five hours, wonder what all the fuss was about and walk away, like I’d done with all the others, but I decided to give it a go.

Reader, I inhaled this game. I loved it. I gather than some people take issue with the sidequests; this was not a problem for me, because I simply ignored them, mainlining a story that somehow managed to blend the grimy death-and-swearing vibe of Game Of Thrones with the magic-and-crystals nonsense of vintage Final Fantasy, and slathers it all in the anime excesses of Asura’s Wrath. An intoxicating blend indeed. (Seriously though, make sure you ignore the sidequests.)

Don’t Nod, PC / PS5 / Xbox

With A Highland Song, Only Up, Surmount and some others I’ve definitely forgotten, 2023 was a big year for games about climbing; a consequence, one imagines, of a number of the world’s game developers spending the lockdown era getting super-into bouldering. Don’t Nod’s airy, artful Jusant is the one that truly captured my heart. Any game that repurposes Grow Home’s trigger-based climbing is off to a great start, but Jusant’s greatest trick is the way it repurposes the climber’s piton as a sort of ad-hoc checkpoint. Palms slick with sweat? Worried you’re going to whiff the jump to that far-off handhold? Plunge an anchor point into the rock face and you can press on without fear, knowing you’ll fall no further back than this spot right here. Excellent stuff, especially for those of us who, despite our advancing years, are still a bit scared of heights.

The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom
Nintendo, Switch

One of my favourite descriptions of Breath Of The Wild — apologies, I can’t remember where I read it; probably Donlan, it usually is — is that it is basically a big chemistry set. What, then, does that make Tears Of The Kingdom? A secret, government-funded laboratory exploring alien technology? Even that undersells a sequel that expands upon the already cavernous possibility space of its predecessor to a thrillingly absurd degree.

The sort of wanton creativity Tears Of The Kingdom permits, encourages and frequently insists upon is not really my bag. Hand me a recipe book and the necessary ingredients and, sure, I can cook you a decent meal — but show me to your pantry and ask me to come up with something on the fly and, well, I hope you like omelettes. What I am trying to say here is that, firstly, I am hungry. But also, I have struggled at times with just how freeform TOTK is. Furthermore, I am a bit intimidated by the sheer size of the thing, and the hundreds of hours people have sunk into it. I think that all this, as much as a busy year of consulting commitments, newsletter duties and real-life nonsense, is why I’ve barely scratched the surface of it. (Just 33 hours, apparently. I was the laughing stock of the Hit Points Discord when I admitted to that.) Never mind! Zelda games are even better at Christmas, and this is top of my holiday catch-up list by a long, long way.

Zach Gage, web

To be honest, I can take or leave the actual selection of puzzles available in Zach Gage’s reimagination of the humble newspaper puzzle page. They are fine. Puzzmo as a whole has not woven itself into my daily life in the manner of a Wordle or NYT Spelling Bee; there are days when I only do a puzzle or two, and days when I do none at all. Getting into Puzzmo, though, was my single favourite gaming experience of the year.

At launch, you see, Puzzmo was invite-only, and strictly limited to 500 new signups per day. At a different time each day, the stock would replenish — you could sign up for an email that gave you five minutes’ warning — then a unique daily puzzle would go live, and you would compete in realtime against a global audience of god-knows-how-many people to complete it. Finish it in time and, if you were in the US, the website would ask for your address and send you a postcard with a scratch-off puzzle on it that would, eventually, reveal your invite key. (Those of us outside North America, mercifully, could access a PDF of it immediately.)

I had to wait for more than a week just for the timings to sync up — for the warning email to arrive when I was actually at my desk, with enough spare time to act on it — and a few more days after that for me to be able to complete the puzzle before the day’s stock of invites ran dry. The day I made it through I had to play Really Bad Chess, which I’m terrible at; luckily so was everyone else. I was on my fifth try, sure I’d be too late but sufficiently bloody-minded to want to finish it regardless. I made it. I completed the PDF puzzle with pen and paper, just like the old days of doing newspaper crosswords on the morning commute. Then, at last, I was in. I may have done a little dance in celebration.

As a rule, I do not endorse the mechanics of scarcity. They have that sort of exclusionary, high-school-cool-kids vibe to them; they are the primary driver of FOMO, and of course were the beating heart of NFTs and all that awful nonsense we endured last year. But Puzzmo’s early scarcity worked wonderfully for me. It was asking me to prove myself: not just to prove my ability, but to prove my interest. To show that I was prepared to throw my various responsibilities to one side for half an hour to solve some puzzles, in the hope of solving many more in the future. Gage and co disabled the invite system a few weeks ago. You can just go and sign up for it now, like any other website. But I am delighted to be able to say I was there at the beginning, because it gave me a memory to cherish.

That’s your lot! Gosh, was that okay? I hope it was okay. I will now spend the Christmas break ignoring my family while playing Tears Of The Kingdom. And Baldur’s Gate 3. And Alan Wake II, Chants Of Sennaar, A Highland Song, Resi 4 Remake, Asgard’s Wrath 2… ah jeez, who am I kidding. I’m just going to drink port, indulge my children, and play Hades.

Hit Points will return in early January. Thanks so much to everyone who has read, commented, liked, shared, posted in Discord, or replied to an email over the course of this year; I properly love you all. As for paid subscribers? My adoration for you knows no bounds.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a joyous New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.