Many professional critics consider 2023 one of the best years in gaming we’ve had in a long time. OpenCritic underlines this opinion; more games than average this year landed a coveted score of 85 or higher. But I was left mildly underwhelmed by what I played.
“Keeping up” as a modern console gamer is a challenge, with time available as my main hurdle. Many of the most acclaimed games this year – Baldur’s Gate 3, Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty – are massive action adventure RPGs. They demand at least thirty-plus hours of my time to complete and are challenging to dip in and out of casually. Multiplayer experiences like Call of Duty or Halo Infinite still have a steep learning curve to play competitively. I never felt like I had the focus (or reflexes) to play matches without being repeatedly ripped apart.
The big budget games I did invest time into this year almost universally underperformed. Forza Motorsport is excellent when I’m racing on the track, but the overall single player experience lacks personality, and I’ve encountered many game breaking bugs and crashes. Starfield has gorgeous production and audio design, and I had a blast running through the game’s many faction quests. But eventually, character progression felt meaningless, with exploration that felt like a total afterthought. Diablo IV, as I’ve written about previously, had a great gameplay hook but suffered from a lack of variety and forgettable narrative. Call of Duty: Warzone’s DMZ mode was a mid-year multiplayer favorite, but Activision effectively killed it off.
Stumbles aside, my favorite game experiences this year, as in 2022, remained shorter. You can easily wrap up three of the five listed here in twelve hours or less. Another has daily puzzles that routinely take me under five minutes to complete. All have been a blast to play and are accessible enough to recommend to almost anyone.
It’s easily the best puzzle adventure I’ve played in years. There’s gorgeous artwork that blends insect-like creature works with science fiction, enough puzzle variety to never get boring, and an overall length that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Probably the game’s best feature is how it manages difficulty. Like most games in its genre, the puzzles get progressively more challenging as the game introduces new mechanics. However, Geometric Interactive smartly restricts movement and direction so you never feel lost, adding subtle audio cues as you progress toward a solution. Puzzles are challenging enough to feel satisfying upon completion, but not to the point they ever became frustrating.
It was exciting to revisit this modern remake of a horror classic I played fifteen years ago. The core level design and gameplay variety holds up quite nicely by 2023 standards. I’d highlight the surround audio as exceptional; it is easily my favorite soundscape of the year. The mix of the atmospheric score, monster growls, and screams was unnerving on headphones. Also, while I’ve often found “3D” or “positional” audio disappointing, it works exceptionally well here; I could easily hear when a xenomorph was about to attack me from behind.
Speaking of sound, for licensed music Hi-Fi Rush’s soundtrack was irresistible for a 90s music kid like me. Fighting bosses with The Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails, and The Black Keys blasting in the background was memorable, almost as much as the game’s stunning cel-shading animation. When so many AAA games traffic in the same drab palette of grays, browns, and blacks, Hi-Fi Rush’s is bold, colorful, and approachable. It’s an aesthetic that borrows liberally from anime, Saturday morning cartoons, and early 2000s Sega Dreamcast gaming. Almost every character feels lovingly realized, with the core duo of rocker Chai and his robotic cat 808 a particular draw.
There’s also something to be said for the game’s core gameplay that feels refreshingly out of place in 2023, a mix of third-person brawler and rhythm action that never lost its charm on me.
Zach Gage is a brilliant puzzle designer I’ve followed for years, mainly in the form of bite sized iOS games like Spelltower and TypeShift. Puzzmo is his most ambitious project yet, effectively reimagining the newspaper games page.
Each day brings new challenges from some of Gage’s greatest hits and fresh new games. The variety and depth is impressive. Typeshift, Spelltower, and Wordbind are word puzzles. Really Bad Chess provides approachable yet challenging bite-sized chess challenges, and Flipart relies on spatial logic to place blocks in place, heavily influenced by classic jigsaw puzzles and Tetris. If that’s still not enough for you, there’s a daily crossword refreshingly loose in its answers and logic compared to mainstays from The New York Times. Crosswords also include a clever hint system built in so you don’t feel obliged to jump away and search for answers.
Puzzmo is playable on any device with a web browser, an excellent way to take a break from work or other pursuits. A reasonable yearly fee removes all ads, adds competitive leaderboards, and opens up previews of new games that designers are still refining.
Having spent twenty or more hours with every major Street Fighter incarnation since the second, Street Fighter 6 is unquestionably the most refined and well-rounded iteration we’ve ever gotten. It’s also an approachable fighting game, the only one I’d recommend to anyone with a casual interest in the genre.
The bread and butter fundamentals are solid, with one of the most diverse sets of characters and fighting styles in the Street Fighter series. The online netcode – essential for long term multiplayer – is also rock solid. However, such features are becoming table stakes in an increasingly crowded fighting game market. What sets SF6 apart is its breadth of content in a genre that’s usually thin outside of hardcore multiplayer. I’d primarily single out World Tour, a robust single player experience that’s an RPG-lite story mode. You customize an avatar and level them up by getting into fights. It can get silly, but the experience adds charm to Street Fighter’s main roster.
The artwork and animation are also gorgeous, an underrated factor for me to keep returning to the game for online ranked matches. I’m not exactly flying up the ranks with my average skill set. Still, the audio-visual experience is so infectious that I always play a few more matches than I originally planned.