Oh, boy. This year has flown by, and it’s probably been the most difficult year I’ve had in a long time. I’m not the spring chicken I used to be, but it’s been tough, all the same.
What a year, huh? While I cannot think of many personal positives for me in 2023, I’ve been able to keep active with my game coverage. Reviewing games and interviewing the creators behind them is always a pleasure, and I will continue that into next year.
Today marks the final episode of my GOTY series, and officially announce my Top 5 games of 2023. I’ve mentioned several times how difficult it was to form a definitive Top 10 list this year, but god damn, it was a challenge! For the first time, I’ve been unsure about the selection I made, but it is still a solid lineup all the same.
So, without any more delays, here are my top five games of 2023. The 10th to 6th positions can be found here:
5) The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
How did a game as good as Tears of the Kingdom only just crack my top five? That’s a testament to how much fun I’ve had with playing games this year. What to say about Tears of the Kingdom that hasn’t been said already?
I’ve been on and off my Nintendo Switch Oled this year. Beginning of the year I was addicted to Pokemon Scarlet — which despite the horrible technical performance is still some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a mainline Pokemon game. Up until the Zelda launch, I was torn between my Steam Deck and the Switch. While I’ve played a fair bit of Breath of the Wild, something always kept me from investing more time.
Fast forward to the summer, and I cracked over sixty hours in Tears of the Kingdom. Have I finished it? Not even close. It’ll be months before I finish it: too many projects to juggle right now. I bought the game on launch day, and I’ve been engrossed ever since. Even though it feels more like Breath of the Wild 1.5 than a full-blown sequel, I’ve grown more attached to Tears of the Kingdom than the original. I’m not sure why.
As a video game, it has been wonderful. The exploration is as great as it was in 2017, with the big underground realms to churn through. I was not as enthralled by the sky islands as I might have been — perhaps it could use more of those. All the same, Tears of the Kingdom took all the good parts of Breath of the Wild and just added more. The new powers such as rewind and ascend almost feel like cheat codes built into the game, and it makes exploration even more fun. The build mechanics feed my addiction to creating wacky tools of war. The weapon durability mechanic has long been a divisive topic with these games, and while I don’t love it, I never felt like I had to save weapons. Being able to reinforce and create weapons with whatever I find in the overworld reduces the annoyance significantly.
As much as I love Tears of the Kingdom, I cannot put it higher than five. The following four games are just… well, you’ll see. Don’t be put off by it being as low as ‘five’. This will be many people’s Game of the Year, and it is an incredible game.
4) Six Ages 2: Lights Going Out
At number four this year is the incredible Six Ages 2: Lights Going Out. I had the pleasure of interviewing the developer earlier this year, and you can check that out by clicking on the link below:
What a roleplaying experience this is. Developer A Sharp has made a few games like this in the past — essentially sprawling visual novel/picture RPGs like Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind and King of Dragon Pass. While I have enjoyed the previous iterations, Lights Going Out is by far the best of the trilogy. The number of choices and consequences in this game is astonishing, offering so much gameplay and immersion that I really felt like the ruler of a clan. Bravo, David. Amazing work!
Six Ages 2 took a while for me to dig into, at least at first. The world is slowly collapsing into shit, and it is up to the player to lead their clan to salvation. This is a game of survival and brutal choices, and by golly, the game hammers that home for you. Fortunately, the game offers a deep in-game codex on every mechanic in the world, as well as a tutorial to give at least a glance into how to play. There’s a lot to manage — everything from what to focus on and which gods to worship, all the way to organizing raids and diplomacy. Hundreds of events show up throughout a playthrough, offering their own challenge. There’s no right answer and a whole amount of wrong. While the folks on the elder council will offer their own opinions, it is down to the player to work out what to do. When juggling important matters such as food, the growing chaos affecting the world, sickness, and war, you’re gonna make some bad decisions.
I sure as hell did. My first playthrough was officially my ‘Fuck It’ run, I made a torrent of moves that resulted in my eventual downfall. It took years, but my policies eventually resulted in my failure. Even losing in Lights Going Out is a delight, and as soon as I realized my defeat and the collapse of civilisation, I just started another playthrough. I learned some crucial lessons. In this playthrough, I’m going to be a warlike asshole who hunts down my rivals.
That’s just one of the many roles Lights Going Out grants the player. It placed me in the driving seat from start to end, and the journey is what ultimately matters. What an amazing game, and one of the most refreshing RPG experiences I’ve ever had.
The Top Three are a trio of extraordinary experiences. Making a ranking of any game featured in this year’s series was a pain in the arse, but after much debate, I’m pretty happy with my final rankings.
3) Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
I was not sure how to count this one. I don’t often feature expansions into my criteria, but I had to make an exception. We all know about Cyberpunk 2077. The years of hype, the frequent delays, the famous launch, and all that jazz. My big hope is that CD Projekt Red has learned some valuable lessons from making Cyberpunk 2077, and takes that into account as they develop the Witcher 4 and Orion.
While it is ultimately unfortunate we got only one expansion for Cyberpunk, it is a brilliant one. Phantom Liberty is an easy argument for one of the greatest expansions ever made, and greater than the sum of its parts. Alongside a gigantic duo of patches in the last few months, it makes for a powerful swansong for Cyberpunk 2077. While it may never have truly matched the marketing, this is still one of my favourite games I have ever played. Phantom Liberty takes all the best parts of Cyberpunk and dials it up. It’s more than an expansion to me but is a vision of the future.
The opening hours of Phantom Liberty were a delight… oh man. From sneaking into Dogtown to shitting myself fighting some pretty powerful opponents, it was one hell of an introduction. Everything from the sound design to Dogtown’s gnarly districts was a slice of heaven. Phantom Liberty slots into the base game pretty nicely. Since the enormous 2.0 patch, I started a brand new Cyberpunk playthrough and seamlessly went into the expansion. No rushing the story, I just played how I wanted to.
It is difficult to mention Phantom Liberty without talking about those patches because 2.0 and 2.1 changed quite a lot. Not so much the core principles of Cyberpunk 2077 — largely fixing up big downfalls of the game and making some attempts to improve them. I was never that bothered about the police system, but the new one alongside the car combat adds new layers to the city design. Hell, there’s a ton of fun I had just hacking cars during my exploration of Night City. Ordering a car to suddenly accelerate creates its own level of chaos, and the surprise 2.1 patch in December added more emergent gameplay elements such as gangs hunting you down and repeatable car races.
I have long been a ‘defender’ of Cyberpunk 2077, although it’s important to highlight the mess of its original launch. Despite my love of the game, it suffered from major flaws that prevented a solid game from being truly great. Phantom Liberty and these patches have gone a long way into making it a true great. CD Projekt Red had some brutal lessons to learn, and I hope they take this into account in the future. For me, Phantom Liberty is one of the best expansions ever made. I’ve put 90 hours into my 2023 playthrough of Cyberpunk 2077 since September, and I’ll be playing it a lot longer. In 2024, I plan on making a revamped retrospective of this notorious game, and I will properly review the expansion then.
Now we’re on to what I believe is the best indie game of the year.
While that is a challenge in itself, it is easily the most addictive. Who would have thought that a turn-based roguelike city-builder would be so good! But here we are. Cracking into the Top 2 games of 2023, dotAGE is an absolute dream to play and belongs on the S-Tier indie game list. I’m talking monumental ones like Factorio, Rimworld, Kenshi, Stardew Valley, and Hollow Knight. DotAGE belongs to this elite circle, and I want to congratulate the developer for making a masterpiece.
In many ways, dotAGE is my personal Game of the Year. 35 hours into this game, and I am still working out how on earth he pulled it off. The concept of it is simple. At every turn, you can take as much time as you want to decide how best to build the village. With a limited number of people, there are only so many resources you can harvest or decisions to make at once.
Starting off as a tiny group supported by an elderly codger who can see the upcoming Doomsday, the player is tasked with saving them — or surviving as long as possible. Already the game offers so much, and the number of unlocks is incredible. New mechanics, new buildings and threats become available organically as you play and die — let’s face it, everyone dies in this game at some point. Fortunately, dotAGE offers not only an expansive tutorial but an expanding lore codex to keep track of everything players need to learn. And difficulty settings! There are several — from a cosy mode for those like me who hate too much challenge, right up to a setting for the greatest masochists. Being able to vary the gameplay experience and tweak to player preference is an important part of these games, and dotAGE offers that in dollops of ice cream.
Despite the challenge, dotAGE is remarkably easy to learn the basics, making it available for anyone. It becomes a meditation — create new followers through breeding, gather resources, build buildings, and expand the village with signposts. Unlock new randomized techs with knowledge, while dealing with random events that always keep you guessing. The doom events offer several forms of threat, most of which can be fought by building the right layout. It’s about choice and consequences — focus on holding off the next Heat threat, or build your settlement to better survive the potential disaster? With so many things to unlock, dotAGE at first can feel like fighting an army of ninjas while equipped with one sheep, but the gameplay loop is so good that the ‘One More Turn’ addiction is incredibly satisfying.
With its great price tag and frequent updates, dotAGE is one of the best games I have ever played.
While dotAGE wins my ‘personal’ favourite game of 2023, I thought about the entire picture when addressing this year’s winner. It might be predictable, but when I sat down with my Top 5 and thought about an overall winner, I thought of all the factors. The love brought into the game, how much I enjoy it, and the future. Above all, one game just about took the podium, although it got shoved aside in September just so I had a chance to finish some coverage plans. That is how much the game affected me.
1) Baldur’s Gate 3
So, this might not be a great surprise. The success of Baldur’s Gate 3 this year has taken the entire world by storm. What surprised me was how good the final product is. Even taking Larian’s great track record into account, we got a masterpiece of epic proportions.
It was not a foregone conclusion. When Baldur’s Gate 3 first launched in Early Access, there were many question marks. Larian Studios steadily grew in power and prestige over the past decade, employing the Early Access model to great effect with their Divinity Original Sin series. Divinity Original Sin 2 won my 2017 GOTY award. I wondered how Larian would take the Baldurs Gate franchise. Would it become its own thing or more of a ‘Divinity Original Sin 3’ kinda deal? That hefty £50 price tag for an Early Access game raised a few eyebrows, mine included. After messing with the early versions and keeping track of the updates, I chose to leave the game until full launch. Back then, it was a messy but impressive slice of what Baldur’s Gate 3 could become. There were concerns up to the full launch. Could Larian Studios really pull it off? Would the later acts be a buggy mess like their previous games?
Going into the full release, I expected Baldur’s Gate 3 to be a pretty damn good game. Probably a lot of bugs in the latter portion of the game, but probably not a true Game of the Year Contender. I’m happy to say that I underestimated Larian because they rose to the challenge and threw the kitchen sink at the game industry. The result is an enormous narrative masterpiece, coupled with D&D gameplay that transforms the world into an interactive sandbox that rewards player creativity. All the strengths from Divinity are in here, backed up by living characters and dialogue that took my breath away.
What they have achieved is extraordinary. Seeing Larian leap from its status as an already great studio into this AAA, Game of the Year Award smashing behemoth is fantastic, as well as all the media coverage. The voice actors especially get my nod for being so active in their communities and being a joy all around. As a D&D game, blending the interaction with that ruleset makes for one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve had in years. The ‘fuck around and find out’ philosophy got me pretty far in my current playthrough as a Dragonborn Warlock, with the ability to mix and match playstyles for the ultimate player agency. It’s not an easy game at all and has so much depth it can be quite overwhelming, but the options available make things balanced.
It might not be the perfect game, because what game is? While I am still relatively early in the game (seriously, this game is gigantic), the third act was pretty rough at full release, although frequent patches have eased most of the more serious glitches. I probably had other games in my Top 10 that I feel a greater personal connection to, such as Cyberpunk’s expansion or Season: A Letter To Our Future. I’ve probably enjoyed playing Jagged Alliance 3 or dotAGE more than Baldur’s Gate 3 on a sheer ‘fun’ factor, but at the same time, Baldur’s Gate 3 is a champion. Not just to prove that Early Access games can work (it happens a lot more than we think!), but it shows the world that CRPGs are still alive. This game feels for Larian Studios that Witcher 3 was for CD Projekt Red. Right now, Larian is on top of the world. The highest reviewer score on Metacritic, overwhelmingly positive reception, a stunning game after years of hard work, and the winner of so many Game of the Year awards.
Ultimately, it wins mine as well. Across August and September, I got so heavily into Baldurs Gate 3 that I had to ban myself from playing it further, just so I had a chance at covering some of the other releases. That’s how much it drew me in. I haven’t played it since October, as some nasty health issues put me even further back.
Bravo, Larian Studios. They are in a fantastic position right now, and I cannot wait to see what they do next.
This year has been a massive undertaking. With this article comes the end of my annual GOTY series. Twenty-eight games in total across six episodes. Not quite as big as last year, but I feel the most proud of this one. It’s time for a more personal note.
I cannot put into words how challenging this year has been for me. After a bright start, the last six months have been an enormous undertaking of physical and mental health mountains to climb. Between a major depressive resurgence, the loss of income, fibromyalgia and another dose of COVID-19, I feel relieved I got through to December still in one piece. There have been bright spots, such as a fantastic therapist who is helping me, as well as reviving my fantasy series that I previously gave up for dead. And of course, all the amazing games and developers I have interacted with!
I plan on continuing my coverage into 2024 as well, and I want to thank you all for your ongoing support and feedback. It is just me now controlling this ship — it has been a tough year for the site as well. We’re a small outlet and despite the major challenges, I’m pleased it has weathered the storm. There will be a few more reviews coming over the next few weeks, and then I will have a break. I have some plans for next year involving ways to support me, so keep an eye out for that.
While this is the end of my annual event, we will be back next year. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a great holiday, and congrats to all the games that made my list.