Sunday, December 31, 2023
Fare thee well, 2023. It's been emotional, but 2024 is knocking at the door, and it's time to let it in. We hope you've had a wonderful Christmas, and are looking forward to having a Happy New Year, but, until then, we have some final end of year business to get down to. Everyone, sit down and steel yourself – it's time for our Game of the Year winners!
It's been a fairly special year for games, with a huge and varied range of genuinely great titles to enjoy throughout 2023, and while you'll already know which of those are in the running, thanks to our nominees, this is where we narrow down the real cream of the crop. No doubt, you'll have your personal favourites, and if they failed to make our list, don't despair. Just know that we spent a long time putting together this list, and, as ever, there were a lot of arguments.
Here's to 2023, then, and the fantastic games that shined a light through the darkness. Onward we march into 2024, and, hopefully, even more video gaming excellence. But first things first – find out our 2023 Game of the Year winners below. Enjoy, and have a Happy New Year!
If for the past five years you've been wondering what exactly long-time Yakuza protagonist Kazuma Kiryu has been up to, then Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name has the answer. With Yakuza 6 seemingly wrapping up Kiryu's saga in suitably melodramatic style, Gaiden continues to lean into that spirit of heightened emotion, as we find our man attempting to lay low under the assumed name of 'Joryu'.
Naturally, things very quickly begin to unravel, and developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio spins a tremendous yarn that belies the game's 'side story' status, welcoming Kiryu back into the fold in spectacular fashion – no more cameos, at least for the time being. Following the events of The Man Who Erased His Name, Kiryu will be back front and centre alongside Ichiban Kasuga in Like a Dragon Infinite Wealth. RGG Studio has always had a handle on what makes a compelling tale, and this is no different. Stellar.
We’ve been saying for years that the games industry needs to do more with the espionage genre, but even we didn’t expect that the first game in a long time to do it would be Cyberpunk 2077. As it turns out, though, Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty was the perfect setting for it. With high-tech gadgets, alluring characters and more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, CD Projekt RED’s redemption arc was complete. Phantom Liberty had it all. Fantastic chemistry within the cast, great dialogue and characters to boot, and some sensational writing that fuels the all-pervading sense of paranoia. It truly was one of 2023’s best stories, and we can’t wait to play it all over again in 2024.
Thirteen years is a long time. Since we last saw Alan Wake, he has gained a mop of long and oily hair and a look of permanent confusion. Both justified, arguably, as he has been immured in a paradimensional prison under a lake all this while. The task of this sequel wasn’t easy: to pick up where Alan left off, to tell a new story, and to be relevant. The developer, Remedy Entertainment, managed all this by bringing in Saga Anderson, a bright and buoyant F.B.I. agent, to dig around in Alan’s wake and work out where he went. The plot is a two-hander, giving you the choice to switch between protagonists and measure out the drama according to whom you want to drive it onwards.
The real story of Alan Wake II, though, lies with Sam Lake, who writes and co-directs, and who has – to judge by the game’s prevailing themes, of writer’s block and cycles of repetition – spent the intervening years trapped in himself. A Lake of his own intricate devising. The risk of making a sequel about how tough it is to make a sequel is that people will charge you with self-indulgence. (Just ask anyone who played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.) But the notion that in 2023 a studio can, with the backing of a huge publisher, exercise such creative freedom with a Triple-A game is reassuring. Roll on the sequel!
Ever since Yakuza/Ryu Ga Gotoku first released in 2005, Kuroda has become synonymous with series hero Kazuma Kiryu. And with good reason. Few voice performers manage to imbue a character with such warmth and good humour, before turning on a dime with a shouted threat. How many actors could convincingly utter to a gang of thugs “turn around now and I'll let you go home in one piece,” in hushed tones, without it seeming laughable?
When the first Yakuza came to the west all those years ago, Darryl Kurylo provided Kiryu's English language voice. Now, Yong Yea has taken over, and the trouble is, there's simply no matching Kuroda's inimitable performance. He is and always will be Kazuma Kiryu, and in Like a Dragon Gaiden, he gives it both barrels – especially during that scene. You know the one.
You could probably give a shout out to any of Baldur’s Gate 3’s cast for Best Performance in 2023, because they were all excellent. Whether you’re talking about the fun-loving devil Karlach (Samantha Beart), the more soulful Shadowheart (Jennifer English) or the soothing narrator (Amelia Tyler), the entire cast of Larian’s epic CRPG were just outstanding. However, there is one name that climbs its way to the top ever so slightly. Yes, we are of course talking about Neil Newbon as Astarion; a character that grows and grows throughout Baldur’s Gate 3. Astarion’s bravado and sarcasm in the early stages of Baldur’s Gate 3 is just the beginning for a character whose depth knows no bounds. It won’t take long before you start peeling back the layers of an incredibly complex character, and Newbon does an outstanding job in bringing that to life. A simply stunning job from the UK actor.
It sometimes can be natural for big Hollywood silver screen actors to phone it in a little when it comes to video games. But when it came to Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty in 2023, clearly Idris Elba as Solomon Reed didn’t get that particular memo. Elba was utterly mesmerising in Phantom Liberty, putting in arguably one of his best performances ever - across any medium. The gruff and veteran former agent might seem a little one dimensional on the surface, but as the expansion’s narrative unravels, the depth to Solomon Reed is astonishing. In fact, the longer it goes on, the better Elba’s performance really is. Return to Night City for Phantom Liberty’s engaging espionage thriller, but stay for Idris Elba’s outstanding performance.
Arriving like a bolt from the blue earlier this month, The Finals introduced its fast and furious free-to-play multiplayer shenanigans to the world, and rather quickly, it caught on. The setup is simple: three teams of three duke it out inside a simulated gameshow for a shedload of cash. During 'Quick Cash' mode, teams race to be first to the vault, then attempt to deposit the cash – the twist is, the box of shiny coins takes its sweet time to go through the machine, so you'll need to protect it. Yes, it's one of those multiplayer games that demands teamwork.
With opponents able to swoop in and steal your consignment of readies at any time – even, heartbreakingly, at the very last second – working with your teammates to keep foes at bay is vital, otherwise a win can slip away fast. 'Bank It' mode is even more frantic, as you squabble over money from wherever you can find it, then strive to keep hold of it for long enough to 'cashout'. Get taken out, and you'll drop any cash you've collected for an opportunist rival to hoover it up – sometimes, it's a cruel game, but, with its destructible environments, fluid traversal, and novel modes, The Finals is a blast.
When the first Moving Out launched in 2020, there was the kernel of co-op greatness. Coming close to the excellent Overcooked! in its capacity to create unbridled chaos with friends, Moving Out was one of those rare co-op games in which you end up yelling at one another while endlessly laughing. Moving Out 2 refined the formula set by its forebear, adding the ability to swing and throw large objects like sofas with a pal, and expanding your territory beyond the confines of Packmore.
A far greater variety in its 50+ levels also succeeded in keeping the activity of shifting furniture from various buildings into your truck consistently engaging, and, also – get this – there are levels that challenge you to move in. With its pleasingly floppy physics, scope for reckless destruction, and an absolute guarantee that hilarity will ensue each and every time you play, Moving Out 2 is a real co-op treasure.
For decades, Street Fighter has cemented its place as the fighting connoisseur's game of choice, and with Street Fighter 6, Capcom went big in providing one of the coolest, most exciting multiplayer offerings to date. Under the roof of the 'Battle Hub', you're let loose in an expansive arcade filled with cabinets and ways to interact with other players. Fancy a match? Sit at the nearest cabinet and get cracking. Want to take a break? Mosey over to the big screen and watch some replays, spectate a few bouts, or tool around with a few retro Capcom classics.
Extreme Battles, meanwhile, introduce various modifiers, making throwdowns slightly more unpredictable. Then there are avatar battles, where you can pit your custom-made fighter from the game's 'World Tour' story mode against one another. All this before you even consider the simple joys of sitting down next to a friend for a local versus match – something that has made Street Fighter a mainstay at EVO year in, year out. No doubt Street Fighter 6 will also be doing the rounds for years to come.
2023 has been one of those years that truly feels like the current generation is starting to meet the expectations we had for how games ought to look. Rather crazily, though, it’s not Unreal Engine 5 stealing the headlines when it comes to spectacle and wonder in 2023. It’s a series of in-house custom solutions. Launching on Ubisoft Massive’s Snowdrop engine in December of this year was a game that really came from leftfield in terms of its visuals: Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
Sure, we know The Division and its sequel was attractive enough, but with Frontiers of Pandora, the Swedish developer really raised its game. Avatar’s world of Pandora is, as we said at the time, a technical and visual masterpiece. It’s diverse, it’s wondrous. It’s picturesque. It’s everything you want in an open-world to explore, and definitely one of 2023’s best looking games, not just in terms of visual fidelity, but in terms of artistic vision as well. If Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is an indication of the capabilities of Ubisoft Massive’s Snowdrop engine, then we can’t wait to see what they pull off in Star Wars Outlaws next year!
Among the many impossible challenges facing Leon S. Kennedy, the hero of the Resident Evil 4 remake, looking good was not on the list. Arriving at the game’s rural Spanish village in a shearling pilot’s jacket, with his hair in creamy curtains, he had that covered. Capcom, however, had a tall order on its hands. How do you reimagine one of the most beautiful games ever made, while taking care not to scuff its memory? In the event, it was no big deal. Armed with the RE Engine, it delivered a rich and rusty catalogue of dung browns for the opening chapters; a banquet of marble, lamplight, and milky stone for the castle section; and capped it all off with a mud-and-drizzle industrial nightmare. Along with pure graphical oomph, credit must go to the art director, Hirofumi Nakaoka. Who would have thought such an infernal place could prove so irresistible?
With Alan Wake II, Remedy has shown its knack for the hours of dusk. Just as it gave us all those espresso-black nights, in Max Payne, here it specialises in low light – skies that clot with the threat of rain, afternoon sun that bruises over and leaks away into evening. One of the joys of the game is to stand back and stare at it. The graphical grunt of the Northlight engine, mixed with Remedy’s eye for ebbing brightness, throws up sight after sight. I won’t soon forget the texture on Saga’s F.B.I. windbreaker, nor the cosy warmth of the log cabin that she conjures in her mind, nor the purgatory of Alan’s imagined New York: a nocturne of smeary neon and dead alleys. So romantic! You could forgive anyone for wanting to stay trapped all these years.
It should come as no surprise if you played the original Alan Wake, that Remedy’s Alan Wake 2’s audio offering is just as suitably iconic as the original that spawned the franchise over a decade ago. From an excellent performance delivered by a magnificent ensemble cast, including Matthew Porretta as Alan Wake and Melanie Liburd as Saga Anderson, to the accompanying music, everything about Alan Wake 2 is a celebration for the ears.
While in 2010 Alan Wake lent heavily on incredibly popular licensed tracks, the sequel took a slightly different direction with lesser known tracks and artists on top of Petri Alanko’s deeply disturbing and fascinating original score. Arguably, this shift in style suited the game far more. It fitted the structure of the game like a glove, too, with Alan battling through the Dark Place, it not only birthed an incredibly uneasy composition from Alanko, but it also allowed us to experience the delights of that infamous chaotic early chapter from Alan’s adventure. Yes, we are of course talking about the Herald of Darkness set piece, which is wacky as it is wonderful.
We've already waxed lyrical about just how good the voice acting is in Baldur's Gate 3, but Borislav Slavov’s accompanying soundtrack is just as good, too. In fact, that’s underselling it. Baldur’s Gate 3’s original composition is utterly fantastic. From meandering around the Sword Coast to traipsing through the seedy underbelly of Baldur's Gate itself, Slavov's original score is absolutely sublime.
While I still listen to Skyrim’s soundtrack to this day, Baldur's Gate 3’s will undoubtedly join that illustrious list. It’s that good. From the pompous and in your face “The Legacy of Bhaal” to the truly soothing, “Down By The River,” the soundtrack has incredible range and has a sound for every occasion, so to speak. The haunting choirs littered throughout is like something out of an ethereal dream. It’s truly beautiful. Sure, everyone is already talking about Alan Wake 2’s Herald of Darkness set piece, but the truth is, Baldur's Gate 3 has a track to rival that in the latter stages of the game. If you've not already sampled the delights, do not sleep on Baldur's Gate 3’s epic soundtrack. You will not regret it.
This may seem like cheating. The developer of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Respawn Entertainment, has access to a vault of nostalgic noises. The hum and spit of clashing laser, the moan-wail of a TIE fighter, the droids and their symphony of beeps and electronic burps. However, on top of this suite of inherited gifts, Respawn has layered a wealth of its own. The score is composed by Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab, whose work on both games is a Forceful tribute to John Williams. Music has always been key to Respawn. (Barton scored both Titanfall games, along with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, before the studio had splintered off from Infinity Ward.) It knows, as Williams did, that the fastest way to rouse a rebellion is by playing to hearts and minds.
Featuring a mechanic that's like Duolingo for ancient runes, Chants of Sennaar set itself apart from every other game this year with puzzles that really stretched your grey matter and tested your lingual skills. Each stage of your journey through Sennaar's unique world takes you to a different civilisation, with its own culture, architecture, way of life, and language. To progress, you'll need to compile a lexicon of symbols, then apply logic to figure out what they all mean.
Every symbol pertains to a specific thing within your notebook, and you can freely type in your best guess at what it might be, until you discover a definitive answer. You can potentially get by on guesswork for a time, but eventually, you're going to have to come up with a solution, be it through a process of elimination, or, in some cases, it might just be dumb luck. Either way, Chants of Sennaar's language decoding twist made it easily one of 2023's most intriguing and distinctive puzzle games.
In any other year, Hogwarts Legacy would no doubt have featured a lot more heavily in our end of the year awards, but alas, 2023 was just one of those epic years we’ll still bee talking about for some time. What Hogwarts Legacy did better than most in 2023, however, was innovate. Hogwarts itself was a sheer delight, with its gamut of secrets and ever-shifting corridors. There was mystery and wonder around every corner. One of those mysteries comes a fair way into the game, Hogwarts Legacy’s ‘Room of Requirement,’ a fully customisable and ever-expanding getaway for the player.
What starts off as a simple place to grow some plants and make some potions, eventually evolves into a full-scale wizardry production outfit with tons of options to decorate it with. One room becomes two. Then you get a habitat biome to breed fantastic beasts. Then you get another biome, and another, and another. The Room of Requirement truly was your home away from home, and as you made your way through the game, it expanded to meet your needs - just like the version from the books and the films. You even get your own house-elf by the name of Deek. Like the game itself, Hogwarts Legacy’s Room of Requirement was purely magical, and a really fresh take on a mechanic in games that has grown a touch stale over the past few years.
The crux of Cocoon is that you, an insectoid scurrier, must lug the world, contained in a glassy orb, on your back. Or at least a world. The world that you are in is similarly contained in a capsule of its own, and there are worlds outside that to think about, too. At the touch of a button, you hop outside of one plane, downsize it to a portable bauble, and bear it off. Amid this cosmic Russian Doll roundelay, questions arise. What is this grasshopperish fellow’s intent? Who sent him, and what is his mission? The answers are purely mechanical, and the developer, Geometric Interactive, does well to pull us through without chafing us with challenge. The mechanisms in play – as we shrink entire planets into goldfish bowls and slosh them to their destination – are never daunting. And at no point is our chap bowed down by his task and tempted to do an Atlas Bugged.
Games have chewed through the fabric of reality before; think of the termite routine of Portal, wherein you bored holes through spacetime. But to encapsulate whole planets, including the one you’re standing in, and string them together like pearls, without turning a player’s cranium into a shaken snow globe? That takes craft and curation. 2023 saw some delicious mechanics, but this one is worlds away.
Another interesting title released under the EA Originals label, Immortals of Aveum is a magic shooter set within a fantasy realm steeped in its own rich lore. Unfortunately overlooked by many, Aveum combines first-person spellcasting using different magic types, each behaving like weapon archetypes from a traditional FPS. Green magic is rapid-fire, blue magic carries out the duties of a sniper rifle, and red magic is your heavy hitting shotgun. It works remarkably well.
As burgeoning magic wielding 'Triarch' Jak, Immortals of Aveum sees you caught in the middle of a war, as an extinction event looms large on the horizon. The stakes are high, then, but as you progress, you can upgrade Jak's abilities, arm yourself with more powerful Sigils, totems, and rings, using your lash to zip around the game's open environments. As you choose the correct colour of magic to efficiently dispatch foes, and take down gigantic bosses, Immortals of Aveum pulls you in, and keeps you hooked. Give it a go, why don't you?
For a long time, Monster Hunter has essentially had the monopoly on the monster hunting genre. Until now, that is. Enter Dynasty Warriors studio Omega Force, and its own take on beating down innocent creatures with big swords. Taking on Monster Hunter at its own game - as the series is enjoying its zenith with World and Rise, no less – Wild Hearts set itself apart by bringing a few of its own ideas to the table, including karakuri gadgets.
All wood and gears, karakuri are what set Wild Hearts apart, enabling you to place a variety of contraptions like spring-loaded mallets, jack-in-the-box jump pads, and a helicopter-like rotor blade that enables you to gracefully glide about. With the spoils of your hunts, you can also craft armour and weapons to make the next hunt a little less of a challenge. Wild Hearts' hunting mechanics are exemplary, too, making for a worthy rival to Capcom's titanic series, and one you ought to seek out sharpish.
While not technically a new intellectual property, being a riff on a book from 1883, Lies of P gave us a vision of Pinocchio that was unlike any other. This is saying something, given that Carlo Collodi’s work has been warped into many shapes – not least by Disney, which sticks its nose wherever it can sniff out fresh invention.
The coup of Lies of P is its setting, Krat, which resembles Paris at the turn of the century: a bad turn, with bits of BioShock Infinite fused onto its cobbles. We get robotic policemen, opera houses with vanilla-cream facades, lamplight, and savage violence. The figure at the heart of the action was cold and hard, refusing to pump any life or presence into the game; this was fitting, considering his own heart was made of metal and ticked like a pocket watch. While P himself is purely a mechanism, and hardly fit to pull any narrative strings, the world is one we would happily go back to.
How do you make a brilliant racing sim even better? Adding more cars is one answer, and developer Polyphony Digital had plenty of those up its sleeve for Gran Turismo 7. Throughout 2023, GT7's bulging garage expanded considerably, then, in November, car updates and new Café Menus to complete weren't the only thing added to the game. The Gran Turismo 7 Spec II update upped the ante with loads of new stuff.
Providing you owned the PS5 version of Gran Turismo 7, the Spec II update added split-screen support for up to four players, seven cars, the Lake Louis circuit in the snowy Canadian Rockies, a multiplayer paddock, a new opening, extra events for the World Circuit, Master License Tests, and Polyphony's advanced Gran Turismo Sophy AI for Quick Race. In short, Gran Turismo 7 players have been spoiled rotten this year.
More than six years on, Fortnite kept the seasons coming, impressing with its Chapter 4 Season 4, which introduced a heist to the wildly popular battle royale, and brought things back to the beginning with the celebrated 'Season OG'. 2023 was also the year we saw Geralt, Ciri, Attack on Titan content, Resident Evil characters, Anakin Skywalker, Padme, Darth Maul, Ahsoka Tano, Spider-Man 2099, Optimus Prime, the cast of Futurama, Jujutsu Kaisen, My Hero Academia, and Alan Wake all come to Fortnite. Phew.
Then, as if all that wasn't enough, 'The Big Bang' event earlier this month brought actual full games to Fortnite, starting with sandbox survival game LEGO Fortnite, Rocket Racing from Rocket League studio Psyonix, and rhythm-action game Fortnite Festival from Rock Band maker Harmonix. What a cracking year Fortnite had – even if you'd never dabbled with Epic Games' all-conquering free-to-play game before, this year made a very compelling case to dive in.
After a notoriously rocky launch three years ago, Cyberpunk 2077 continued its road to redemption in 2023 with the massive game-changing Update 2.0 and engaging espionage storyline in the Phantom Liberty expansion starring Idris Elba. Those two things along would have been enough to cement a successful year for developer CD Projekt RED and its ongoing mission to ensure that Cyberpunk 2077 lives in the memory as a good game, rather than the messy product it released as in 2020.
But the Polish studio had more to give, dropping Update 2.1 out of nowhere, with even more features that many thought had been consigned to the cutting room floor for good. CDPR finally added the NCART metro system, enabling you to admire the view while getting around Night City; introduced the Radioport for listening to music outside of a vehicle; and gave players more hangouts to share with V's romantic interests. Also, how about a new Porsche 911 Cabriolet, repeatable car races, and extra accessibility features on top of that lot? Don't mind if we do.
In a good year for soulslikes, the developer of Lies of P, Neowiz Games, stood apart. The surprise came in two stages. First, that there was a side to the story of Pinocchio that we hadn’t yet seen – one that entailed automatons, a slight hiss of steampunk, and sticky flood of horror. Second, that the game was actually good. It didn’t look bad, in the trailers before its release; it just looked staid.
Another love letter penned to FromSoftware, this one specifically to Bloodborne, it looked like a known quantity, a carefully carved lump of homage. But the combat cribbed smartly from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, with its parries and its posture-breaking, and the setting was not a pure copy of Yarnham; it benefitted from a transfusion of fresh sights. Lies of P had a life of its own, in other words. The truth is, in this genre, you can’t hope for much more than that.
Granted, this is a bit of a weird one to consider a surprise, but given that The Crew and its sequel failed to elicit much excitement, The Crew Motorfest provided a kick up the backside for the series. The Crew 1 and 2 were perfectly solid open world racing games, but Motorfest took things up a notch, doing away with a sprawling map of the USA in favour of a more focused and compact Hawaiian Oahu island to explore.
Influenced by Forza Horizon, The Crew Motorfest saw developer Ivory Tower approaching its racing series with a seemingly renewed vigour, boasting a range of fun playlists, picturesque environments to soak up, and masses of variety in its garage. If there's a proper The Crew 3 on the horizon (no pun intended), then Motorfest bodes well for what's next. The Crew Motorfest is a marvellous open world racer, and the best Crew yet.
Without question, we'd buy RoboCop: Rogue City for a dollar. And then some. Though expectations were low for a game from the makers of Rambo: The Video Game and the not-that-bad Terminator: Resistance, RoboCop: Rogue City came right out of left-field, demonstrating a clear love for the original 1987 movie that inspired it. Bringing actor Peter Weller back on board as Alex Murphy/RoboCop, Rogue City felt like an authentic part of that cinematic world, its Old Detroit rendered in grimy, graffiti-daubed detail.
Not only does Rogue City look the part, but it's also ludicrously fun to play, every rapid-fire bullet from Robo's iconic Auto-9 handgun wreaking environmental destruction and exploding criminal heads left, right, and centre. You can grab enemies and chuck them. You can use RoboCop's hacking spike as a melee weapon. You can throw objects around with reckless abandon. RoboCop: Rogue City is a very good game.
On the face of it, Remedy may seem undeserving of a nod in this category, having only put out one game this year. But with Control 2, remakes of Max Payne and Max Payne 2, something codenamed Condor, and something else codenamed Kestrel, the studio is feathering its roost with an awful lot of upcoming projects. To deliver Alan Wake II with all this going on is no lean achievement. In fact, to deliver Alan Wake II with nothing else going on would be no lean achievement. It’s one of the year’s best games, a hulking blockbuster of horror-tinged gunplay and looping narrative, and it shines a light on the studio’s lead creative, Sam Lake, whose accomplishments have only grown richer and more strange.
Fine work this year from Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, who did a great Capcom impression: serving up something new and not altogether expected, along with a lavish remake of one of its older games. The latter was Like a Dragon: Ishin!, which originally came out on the PlayStation 3 in 2014, and only in Japan. The former was Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name, a side story that focused on Kazuma Kiryu, the series erstwhile protagonist. The focus, however, was cleverly fuzzed by Kiryu’s new spectacles – as he donned a new identity. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio has revamped its main entries and gone for turn-based combat. (2024 will see the arrival of Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, in that vein.) But for series die-hards, who may fear too much change, this year was a salve.
Larian Studios’ rise to the top has been wild. The Belgian video game developer opened its doors back in 1996 by founder Swen Vicke - who’s still running the show to this day - but it wasn’t until its make-or-break moment in 2014 that things started to really turn around. Thanks to the success of Divinity: Original Sin, the studio was allowed to breathe another day. Since then, however, the studio has perfectly honed its craft in the CRPG genre and gone from strength to strength, with each game building upon the foundations of the last.
From the brink of bankruptcy nearly a decade ago to being one of the most-talked about companies around (now with studios in six cities all across the globe) with one of the hottest video games of 2023, you can’t help but appreciate the tenacity and commitment of Larian, particularly the teams that make the games. There’s no doubt about it, Baldur’s Gate 3 is an absolute triumph, and a testament that we, the people, still crave epic single-player experiences, and are happy to put our hands in our pockets to wave them in. Larian are still flying the triple-A single-player flag with no compromises, and you have to give them eternal credit for that. And long may it continue.
In 2023, Capcom had a portfolio with sufficient bulge and variety. There was the remake of Resident Evil 4, and the Separate Ways DLC, landing six months later. Then there was the excellent V.R. mode for that game. Then there was Exoprimal, a game obsessed with scale, so to speak, stuffing every frame with thousands of dinosuars and tasking you with their destruction. Then there was the small matter of Street Fighter 6, with its nifty new Drive Gauge system. All of these games – and these are only the top notes, not counting mobile releases – had one thing in common: they were good. In fact, in the case of Resident Evil 4 and Street Fighter 6, they were exquisite. Capcom is rarely out of the running, when it comes to top publishing efforts, and if you really want to gauge its drive then look no further than the wealth of games that it published this year.
PGA, FC, F1, WRC, UFC: behold the storm of jumbled letters that marks just some of Electronic Arts’ publishing efforts this year. In other words, the EA Sports division produced excellent entries in the fields of golf, football, Formula 1, rally racing, and MMA fighting. There are a couple of games worthy of special note. With EA Sports FC 24, the company shed the FIFA name and delivered a predictably slick game of football. With EA Sports WRC, Codemasters was given the official World Rally Championship Licence, and it conjured a mud-caked dream. Along with all this, we got a remake of Dead Space, from Motive Studio; an excellent sequel, in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, from Respawn Entertainment; and, as part of the EA Originals label, Wild Hearts was a refreshing tribute to Monster Hunter, which beat with a rhythm of its own. You might look at all this and expect nothing less from a giant such as EA, so it’s a good job that it gave us nothing less.
While SEGA ended 2023 with a big bang, confirming new versions of Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, Golden Axe, Shinobi, and Streets of Rage, it had already had a strong year, releasing a surprisingly good Sonic game; and not one, but two Like a Dragon games. Meanwhile, Atlus (a SEGA subsidiary) had a field day with Persona, releasing Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden on home consoles, liberating them from their handheld prison.
Finally bringing Like a Dragon: Ishin! to the west in lovingly remastered form, resurrecting Kazuma Kiryu's story in The Man Who Erased his name, and bringing fun four-player co-op with the superb Sonic Superstars, 2023 can't be seen as anything other than a complete success for SEGA. Throw in Persona 5 Tactica, and SEGA/Atlus had a busy, busy year. And 2024 is shaping up to be even busier. Bring it on.
While one of the first things that strikes you about Chants of Sennaar is its sharp and vivid art style, what lives on in the memory is the game's whip-smart puzzles, logic-driven glyph-deciphering, and quiet contemplative atmosphere. Both a gorgeous and enormously intricate game, Sennaar has been meticulously crafted by its developer, Rundisc, and the result is one of the year's most unique puzzlers.
While Cocoon dazzled with its worlds within worlds, Chants of Sennaar combined physical puzzles with a genuinely clever language-decoding twist, really putting your grey matter through its paces. It's also perfectly pitched, starting things off nice and gently with a few simple conundrums, before introducing increasingly complex glyphs to unravel, and tracts of text to decipher. Granted, we could have done without the stealth bits, but this was a minor misstep in a bravura indie gem.
There's little wonder that Sea of Stars absolutely shattered its Kickstarter goal. An RPG adventure inspired by the genre's 1990s golden era, with music from Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda; how could you possibly not want to get in on that? Quebec-based developer Sabotage Studio knew exactly what it wanted to do, too, creating a gorgeous pixel art realm to explore, backed up by an engaging story and loveable characters.
As young Solstice Warriors in training, Zale the blade dancer and Valere the battle monk, you'll experience the plucky duo's formative years, before venturing out into the wider world, facing the looming threat of The Fleshmancers. Bursting at the seams with infectious brio and a sense of wonder, Sea of Stars displays a real reverence for its influences, without being beholden to them. A love letter to RPGs of a certain vintage, Sabotage wears its passion on its sleeve with Sea of Stars, delivering an endearing and memorable tale, with plenty of its own unique ideas. Hoo!
Cocoon is a marvel. The mechanic at its heart is the year’s most ingenious. And the premise is a mystery and a quiet meditation. The goal is simple: playing as an insectoid alien, you scuttle to and fro solving puzzles. The developer, Geometric Interactive, cuts out anything extraneous, and the result is a game that feels guided without being airless. You shrink the world into a marble-like sphere and slot it into vast machines. Then, the world outside of that is shrunk, as well: planets within planets, all rolled along by this beetle-like figure. Nothing else this year makes you feel the way Cocoon does: calm, quietly awed, and, most of all, smart. I buzzed through the entire thing in a single sitting without ever coming unstuck. Only, it still felt challenging, because it stirs up ideas. The mechanics are polished and calibrated to bring your mind into play. You emerge from this one changed.
Alan Wake could well have stayed trapped under that lake indefinitely. His work was done, his pulp material would hang around in the game-playing public subconscious, and so what if he would never make it back to his wife? The fact is, Alan looks better when he's blocked and alone. Alan Wake II doesn’t exactly need to exist, then. That it manages to say something meaningful about the original, about the nature of birthing difficult follow-ups, while also giving us some of the most sumptuous visual texture of the year, and a solid horror action game is an extraordinary achievement. It may gaze a little too inward for some people. The story is a little wet in places and, in the end, may leave a slightly stagnant taste (we’re in for another sequel, without a doubt) but, then, it did just claw its way out of a lake, after thirteen years. Let’s give it some credit.
A lesson in sequel craft, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 is the perfect example of what Insomniac Games does so well. The studio has a knack for ease: not mechanical kind but, rather, the kind of ease that oils your movement through a game’s space and its moods. We find Peter Parker in an interesting spot, stalled and uneasy, struggling to web together the fragments of his life, with a house in the suburbs, a girlfriend at a career impasse, and an old buddy back in the frame. Miles Morales, too, has a good share of the running (and leaping, and swinging) time. Plus, the villains pose a decent threat, with Kraven the Hunter, Lizard, Sandman, and Venom all vying for attention. It’s a wonder that Spider-Man 2 holds together as well as it does, and there are moments where you wonder if the elastic might snap. It never does, and Insomniac tweaks and tinkers with what made the last two games so good, adding new mechanics and fresh, leafy boroughs to the map. The neighbourhood, while no more friendly, just got twice as big!
It's hard to say that Baldur's Gate 3 came out of nowhere in 2023, being that it's been in early access on PC for three years, but I'm not sure anyone really expected how good the final experience would be. Baldur's Gate 3 is not only 2023’s best video game, but you could argue it's perhaps the best video game of the last decade, and is definitely the best game of this generation so far. Baldur's Gate 3 has it all, from an epic score, to a fantastic cast of characters with equally fantastic performances. But more than anything, BG3 truly captured the imagination of a Dungeons and Dragons experience.
From talking squirrels and silver-tongued devils, to treacherous dungeons and phenomenal architecture, the continent of Faerun is jam-packed with handcrafted content and truly ingenious moments. It’s a game where one small deviation from the main plot can devolve into a truly epic and expansive adventure that other players could quite easily miss. Baldur’s Game 3 is an RPG with absolutely no filler, no fetch quests, and no unnecessary bloat. Everything in Larian’s latest masterpiece has a purpose. Everything is designed to empower the player with an insane amount of choice and consequence, which can have a ripple effect throughout your journey across the Sword Coast and beyond.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is a masterpiece - there’s no other way to put it - and truly deserving of our Game of the Year award for 2023. Kudos to Larian and the team on a truly iconic experience, and one we’ll remember for decades to come.
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