Best of 2023: Mayo’s Top 3 Games of the Year

This year has been quite a year for the video game industry. It has been a good long while since gamers have been spoiled with such a bounty of AAA titles, indie darlings and mid-budget gems spread out across a single calendar year. However, it has not been all sunshine and roses. Unfortunately, the industry celebrated one of the most historic years of gaming in conjunction with seemingly endless waves of layoffs and studio closures. From the 10K layoff at Microsoft to begin the year all the way to the late December closures of 3D Realms and Free Radical under newly crowned evil empire that is The Embracer Group, the industry has been rocked with thousands upon thousands of staff reductions all while recording record profits and having a stellar critical year overall. If there was ever a time for the publishers to re-examine themselves + have a general need for some sort of union within the workers of the gaming industry, now is it. On that note, I would like to bring it back to the reason I am writing today, to celebrate some of my favorite titles – and the developers who made them – released in 2023. As I always do, I will have my top three – awarded a gold, silver, and bronze medal accordingly – and a runner-up. Without further delay, here we go:

RUNNER-UP: Puzzle Games Galore
Cocoon, Humanity, Jusant, and Viewfinder

(Cocoon – PS, XBOX, SWITCH, PC / Humanity – PS, PC / Jusant – PS5, XBX X/S, PC / Viewfinder – PS, PC)

I may be cheating here, but I don’t care. I was about to settle on the remake of Resident Evil 4 – a simply amazing redo of the iconic 2005 adventure – when I thought about all the amazing, smaller puzzle games I played in 2023. I figured, while one of these alone may not necessarily have the advantage over the RE4 remake, the four puzzle titles I did play & complete did deserve a special call-out amongst all the other high-profile games, so all four are getting the nod here. Cocoon (developed by Geometric Interactive) has you playing as a small bug that is exploring various worlds contained within small orbs, which then eventually utilizes bringing those orb worlds within other orb worlds. Jusant (developed by Don’t Nod) puts you in the shoes of a mysterious human-like creature – and his adorable pudgy pet – scaling a massive mountain to discover the truth of what has happened to the world and the water of the world. Humanity (developed by Enhance/THA Limited) has you inhabiting the form of a Shiba dog, going through multiple levels/worlds of Lemmings-like gameplay to solve various puzzles to learn what has happened to humanity and what sentient being is pulling the strings of your adventure. Viewfinder (developed by Sad Owl Studios) has a simple gimmick – use a classic Polaroid-like camera to take photos that you can make reality to build bridges, craft ways to get objects from enclosures, etc. to solve puzzles and proceed through an experiment that ultimately failed to save the environment of the outside world. Every one of these games was a pure delight to go through, lasting somewhere between 5-7 hours – a great length for a puzzle game with a great hook – and there was never a dull moment. It’s always a real treat to experience small indie studios putting out such polished puzzle perfection. With all these four releasing in 2023, and all experiencing great critical success and commercial success, I feel like a puzzle game revolution is upon us (there was even a few I couldn’t get to this year – ex. The Talos Principle 2). I couldn’t be anymore happier.

BRONZE: Hi-Fi Rush

(XBOX Series X/S, PC – Released January 25th)

I am as surprised as anyone. As someone with zero sense of rhythm, for me to fall head over heels with an action/adventure game whose combat system is based completely around the ability to follow the beat, is baffling. I guess if anyone could pull off this feat, it would be the beautiful maniacs over at developer Tango Gameworks, the company behind such gems as The Evil Within 1&2 and Ghostwire: Tokyo. Shadow dropped back in January (shadow drop = a game announced and released same day), Hi-Fi Rush is an exhilarating action rhythm game with an amazing Saturday morning cartoon animation style, insane multi-layered battles, and truly one of the best soundtracks around. The story of Chai – who has a music player embedded within his heart after being labeled “defective” during experimental cybernetic surgery – and his quest to take down the evil villains of Vandelay Technologies is truly the most fun dozen hours or so you will experience, truly. It runs at a smooth 60 FPS, has impeccable stage and character design, glorious artistic scope and a wide array of enemies, puzzles and mega-bosses to come out victorious against along the way. Chai and his entire crew – Peppermint, Macaron, CNMN and a cat named 808 – are all fully realized and fleshed out individuals. Each one immediately endears themselves to you. On the other side, all the main baddies, such as Zanzo, Rekka or Corsica (among others) are all beautifully animated and gloriously over-the-top. While I did merely OK with the all the rhythm-based combat, I still had an amazing time going from beginning to end in this hyper-stylized jaunt through a musical paradise. It must be quite exhilarating to watch someone, like a musician who has natural rhythm and vibe ability, play a title like this. I bet it truly sings even more than I have experienced personally. I need to shed my lack of dance skills and get good, because I truly want to dive back into this world with a *hopeful* part 2 and actually OWN it from beginning to end.

SILVER – The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

(Switch – Released May 12th)

The safest bet in the world is if a new Zelda game emerges, it will most likely end up on my, and everyone else’s, “best of” list at year’s end. 2023 was no exception. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, one of the rare direct sequels in the Zelda canon, continues the world and story laid out in the 2017 Switch launch title, Breath of the Wild, and goes above and beyond what was already presented in that revolutionary title. Sequels are always meant to be bigger and grander than the original, and TotK is no exception. The evil dark Lord Ganon is discovered to be buried way beneath Hyrule Castle, seemingly withered to a skeleton and held in place by some ancient mysterious arm. Some shenanigans ensue and Ganon is freed from his prison, pushing Hyrule Castle into the skies amongst other land masses that now exist high up above the clouds, called Sky Islands. Zelda is thrusted into a mysterious time long ago while Link is left defenseless up in these islands above the clouds in the present. So begins the adventure to defeat Ganon and figure out what happened to Zelda. TotK essentially takes the open world of Hyrule we already were familiar with in BotW and expands upon it by adding tons of islands to explore in the sky + even having an entire underground cave area that is the exact same size as the above ground Hyrule. BotW was a huge world to explore but having that expanded x3 is just insane. The new gameplay hook of TotK is also just a testament to the ingenuity of the Zelda development team. Link’s new abilities are some of the coolest ever conceived in the franchise and allow for so much creativity and freedom to play how they choose. Ultrahand allows the player to grab almost any object and move it around the world as you see fit. Fuse gives the player the ability to fuse two random objects together, creating a variety of weapons, vehicles or anything your heart desires. Recall allows you to rewind the world to allow you to avoid getting hit, retry an attack that failed, re-attempt a daring leap, etc. Finally, the Ascend ability allows Link to fly up into the air and go through rocks, platforms, etc. to reach new heights without having to scale mountains or taking the long way. Zelda games have always been known to innovate and redefine the gaming space, with BotW in 2017 pretty much setting a new template for open-world games. TotK takes that formula, builds and expands upon it with ingenious new gameplay mechanics, and truly delivers something magical. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom knocked it out the park, but let’s be fair, did anyone really think it wouldn’t?

GOLD – Alan Wake 2

(PS5, XBOX Series X/S – Released October 27th)

Usually when I settle on my Game of the Year, it tends to be a title that may be well revered, but not something one would consider the best release of the year. Developer Remedy’s Control was my GOTY for 2019, Streets of Rage 4, from Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games, got that award in 2020, Housemarque’s sci-fi rougelike shooter Returnal snagged 2021 and Massive Monster’s ingenious world builder/roguelike Cult of the Lamb went home with it in 2022. 2023 was one of the rare years that I was essentially convinced, well before it released, that it would be my GOTY. That title was Remedy’s newest title, the survival horror sequel Alan Wake 2. I feel head over heels with Jesse Faden and the wild trippyness of Control back in 2019, and was quite hyped that Remedy’s next project would be their first true foray into survivial horror, my favorite genre. On top of that, it would be a 13 years-in-the-making sequel to the bizarre, Twin Peak-esque Alan Wake. Trailers had me hyped, interviews had me excited (the one on one between lead writer Sam Lake and writer/director Mike Flanagan that I attended during TriBeca 2023 was amazing) and everything was falling into place for this to be my defacto GOTY. When I finally got my hands of the game and finished my roughly 25-30 hour playthrough, it was solidifed. Alan Wake 2 keeps the Twin Peaks vibe of strange story beats and even stranger characters, injects it with a foreboding atmosphere with pure horror leaking out from every pore, and has a plot that is constantly challenging the player and imposing two new questions for every one it answers. A departure from the OG Alan Wake, you now have two main playables characters, with stories running side-by-side as you progress, allowing you to freely play each character at any time, so you can either complete one character chapter at a time, swapping back and forth after each one, or play all of one character’s story first before you even truly begin the other. The 1A main character is FBI agent Saga Anderson, as she is called to investigate a murder in Bright Falls, Washington (the location of the original AW), and stumbles across distrubing enemies, cult killings, and the re-emergence of missing writer Alan Wake, who vanished into Cauldron Lake over 13 years ago. Alan Wake becomes our 1B main character, as we follow him trapped in the Dark Place, trying to make his way out and get back to the real world, to ulimately try and save what life he has left as well as getting back to his wife, Alice. The contrast between the real world’s Bright Falls environments that Saga explores and the broken reality of the Dark Place that Alan goes through always keep the game fresh and the player always on their toes. The metatextual writing of lead Sam Lake is so mezmerizing and truly pulls you into this universe, with endless inventive boss battles, scenarios, and links to Remedy’s previous game Control. There are so many singular stand out setpieces in AW2, none more so that what occurs in Chapter 4 for Alan Wake’s part of the story. I am sure most of you have seen what this chapter entails – I can imagine its been hard to avoid that spoiler up to this point – but I wont mention it here in lieu of hope that someone who reads this didn’t play the game yet, but let me just say that was the most memorable sequence in gaming since the Ashtry Maze setpiece in Control. Alan Wake 2 is everything I want a game to be. Great length, endlessly creative, heavy themes and in depth storytelling that is not always explained cleanly to the player, allowing them to try and fit the puzzle pieces together, and a pure survival horror game that delivers equally on both the horror and survival. For the 2nd time in four years, a Remedy game has topped my list, and I couldn’t be more excited for what this wild studio unleashes on me next. I am waiting Mr. Lake, take your time.

Eric Mayo
Horror Lover / Resident Evil Fanatic
While Evil Dead 2 is my first horror love, my cozy horror that I always return to is the Friday the 13th franchise, though I am known to thrown on Tremors or even Malignant at a moment’s notice for some good old absurd fun. However, first and foremost, my most loved piece of horror anything was, is and always will be the Resident Evil series. Wesker for life!
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