It’s been a busy year for us at BetterPlay Studios (you can read some recent happenings here). Between work, family, and other commitments we need to find ways to destress and unwind. Our whole company is based on the premise that video games are good for your mental health, so gaming is naturally a part of our mental health care routine. This year, I played a wide range of games. Some were released in 2023, others were released last decade. I keep a record of every game I play and give it a review score (nerdy, I know!). Since we're at the end of the year, we thought this would be a fun post to close things out. Hope you enjoy and we would love to hear about the games you loved in 2023. This list represents the very best gaming experiences that I’ve had in 2023.
15. Little Nightmares 2 - The controls may be clunky at times and lining up jumps can be a chore, but absolutely nothing has the vibes of the Little Nightmares games. It’s a feverish version of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Creepy and tense from start to finish. I still get chills thinking about the “thin man.” Little Nightmares 2 is a captivating and inventive puzzle platformer.
14. Sea of Stars: Chrono Trigger is one of my all time favorite games and The Messenger is one of the greatest platformers to come out in the last 20 years. So, a game set in The Messenger universe that pays homage to Chrono Trigger is a no brainer for me. The art direction is unparalleled. Sea of Stars has some of the most drop dead gorgeous pixel art I’ve ever seen. The music by Rainbowdragoneyes also makes for another banger of a soundtrack. However, it’s that 90s jrpg gameplay that gets me every time. Well worth your time.
13. Tetris 99: I almost never play online multiplayer games. But then I started dabbling in Tetris 99 and developed a bit of a problem. Most nights before bed, I’ll tell myself that I’ll play just one round. Then I’ll look up at the clock and feel a bit of panic because hours have slipped by without me noticing and I have early morning meetings. It’s worth it though. Tetris is the perfect game and put in this format, is the perfect online multiplayer game for me.
12. Fable 2: I remember watching my dorm mates play Fable when it originally came out on the Xbox. I was fascinated, but I didn’t really understand how it all worked. The morality system, the choices, the cartoonish fantasy art. 20 years later, I decided to try the series for myself. Now I get it. Fable is as immersive and compelling as any modern game. Thus far Fable 2 is my favorite in the series. There’s something heartwarming about playing the Fable series. Like you’re turning the pages on a classic storybook. I absolutely cannot wait for the new one to drop on modern hardware.
11. Mutant Year Zero: I’m a huge Xcom fan and am a glutton for any game that uses its combat system. Mutant Year Zero is a terrifically creative spin on Xcom that sees you take control of mutant hogs, ducks, and foxes to uncover the secrets of a post-apocalyptic world and their leader “the elder.” Since playing, I’ve become a fan of its developer, The Bearded Ladies and look forward to trying more of their work.
10. WWE 2k23: I’ve been playing wrestling games since Wrestlemania on the NES. Thankfully they’ve gotten much better over the last 30 years or so. This game has been particularly special as I’ve played it with my eight year old son. Making stupid looking wrestlers and coming up with rivalries and storylines is as fun today as it was in the N64-era wrestling video game heyday. The only downside is that I can’t take a break to walk to the kitchen without my son trying to do a flying elbow drop IRL on me.
9. Like a Dragon Gaiden: Yakuza is one of my favorite series in gaming. It is the only game I know of that can take a player from sweat inducing drama to absurd comedy within minutes. This “mini” entry in the series continues more of the same from the series. To be honest, I was enjoying it but not loving it. That is - until the climax. Holy crap! The final 2 hours of this game are bananas and I will not try to hide the fact that I wept like a baby at the finale.
8. Deus Ex Mankind Divided: I never got a chance to play the classic Deus Ex games, but have really been enjoying the immersive sim genre as of late. I’m glad I jumped in. The dark, cyberpunk version of Prague is a refreshing and unique setting. Gameplay wise, the sheer amount of options to approach any situation and the customizable upgrade paths keep me engaged and coming back for more. Will be going back and playing others in the series.
7. Tales of Arise: Tales of Vesperia was a delightful game that overstayed its welcome. So I started Tales of Arise with a bit of trepidation, knowing that the “Tales of…” series contains some very lengthy games. Within moments of embarking on this journey, I was hooked by the vivid anime art style, dazzling combat, and intriguing narrative about class divides. By the time I came to the ending, I actually wished for more. It’s one of the best action jrpgs ever made and my favorite in the series. So glad that DLC was released earlier this year as I’ll be tackling that in 2024.
6. Evil Within 2: This game was a revelation to me. A horror game that incorporated open world elements. Who would have thought it would work so well? I’m here to tell you it does. Shinji Mikami, who is a Resident Evil vet, pushed the boundaries of horror with this game. In fact, as much as I love Resident Evil 2 Remake, I think I enjoyed Evil Within 2 more. Although it was almost a bit too violent for me, and a few of the boss fights made me want to throw my controller, I still view it as a horror classic.
5. Starfield: This game is truly divisive. On one hand you have people who have put in hundreds of hours customizing ships and shooting pirates. On the other you have those who were let down by some of the design and UI. Despite the glut of menus in this game and an overuse of fast-travel, I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with Starfield. I believe games should be met on their own terms. When I play Starfield with that in mind, I find an epic space adventure that feels like a combination of Fallout and Star Trek: TNG. It’s a game I’ll likely consistently return to, especially as the developers continue to add new content.
4.Octopath Traveler 2: Octopath Traveler 1 was a game I played with my children that had us jumping up and down together and hugging when we defeated the secret boss. My wife even made a cake for the occasion. I mean, we’re a little obsessed. The soundtracks are on constantly and any given night you will find my kids leafing through the Octopath Traveler art books we’ve purchased. So Octopath Traveler 2’s release was like a holiday for us. As for the game, we were not let down at all. It takes everything we loved about the original and improves on it in every possible way. Though I will say that the secret boss is much harder in this one. All the more reason to celebrate when I actually figure out how to beat it.
3. YS 8 - The last YS game I played was 1991’s YSIII on the Genesis. I did not love it. As a result of that experience, I kind of overlooked the rest of the series. However, I decided to take a gamble on 8 as it get a lot of love in jprg communities. I now see what the fuss is about. YS 8 might look a little rough, especially on the Switch, but it’s gameplay and story more than make up for it. Running around a tropical island with your gang of castaways, slicing through monsters to the sound of ripping guitar solos will never get old. The simple combat system is exactly what I want out of this style of game and the bonds between characters kept me compelled to play it to the end.
2. Fire Emblem Three Houses - In case you can’t tell, I’m fan of tactic games and jrpgs. Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Three Houses mixes both. It’s so incredibly deep, rewarding, and absolutely stuffed to the gills with things to do. Some did not like the visual novel/lifesim elements getting in the way of their tactical strategy combat, but I thought it paced things out nicely. Also, my mind was spinning at all the ways relationships can unfold between characters and the incredible amount of dialogue they had to record for all the possible outcomes. It's just amazing what they accomplished. This game gives the most bang for your buck of any on the list as it can be replayed at least 3 times for radically different experiences. It’s an oceanic game that was fun from start to finish.
1. Alan Wake 2: The first Alan Wake is one of my favorite games ever, but I never in a million years thought it would get a sequel. But here we are in 2023, a year where creative director Sam Lake even did a dance routine at the Game Awards (check out the video below). Simply put, Alan Wake 2 is a miracle. It’s miraculous that a game this weird gets funded, much less finds critical and commercial success. The way Remedy tells stories and mixes media will absolutely be required playing for any aspiring game designer. This is a historical, landmark game and easily sits atop my 2023 experiences.