Whether we're talking about indie devs working on pixel-perfect platform games or huge first-party studios working on jaw-dropping platform experiences, it's time to celebrate the studios that have delivered some of the finest experiences of 2018.
5. Dontnod Entertainment
It's been a big year for French studio Dontnod, regardless of how you feel about Vampyr, which admittedly has some of us shrugging our shoulders, while others are more enthusiastic. Nevertheless, they got Vampyr finished and released, and they also released the free narrative experience The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, as well as the first episode of the long-awaited Life is Strange 2. The latter saw the developer take some bold steps away from the characters, setting, and mechanics of the first game as we followed brothers Daniel and Sean Diaz in what can only be described as an escape from the calamity that struck their lives in the very beginning of the first episode. In a way, it's a road trip where the journey becomes the main theme, while Arcadia Bay was central to the story of the first game.
Add to this that we're likely to see the first episode of their next episodic narrative, Twin Mirror, within the first quarter of 2019 (a game revealed at E3 this year), and it's easy to see that 2018 was a banner year for the developer and why there continues to be so much affection for their work amongst the team here at Gamereactor.
It feels rather nice to be able to put Rare in this category after what can only be described as something of a walk through the desert for the British development powerhouse that delighted us with countless classic games on Nintendo's early consoles. After having spent much of the last decade working on Kinect titles, it came down to the risky proposition of a pirate-themed multiplayer game called Sea of Thieves, that seemingly had a hard time finding its way across the waves and into the hands of gamers.
Sea of Thieves is one of those rare (pun intended) experiences where the sum of the individual parts equal something far greater than each taken on their own. Simply put, Rare created a great backdrop for adventures that were largely authored by players, and more specifically, groups of players. In many ways, the game has transformed the studio as it now embraces the concept of games as a service, and as we do love a good comeback story this list would not be complete with Rare.
3. Matt Makes Games
Towerfall Ascension was the game that made everyone sit up and take notice of Matt Thorson, but the game that truly elevates Thorson and co-creator Noel Berry to indie greatness is Celeste. It's a game that also puts the rather unimaginative studio name, Matt Makes Games, firmly on the map.
The concept for the game was born during a game jam, and the full game was released in January of this year across PC and all major consoles - a feat in itself for an indie developer that self-publishes. Since releasing its been praised universally, and recently picked up Best Indie Game and Games for Impact awards at The Game Awards. Offering a gripping and deeply personal story of Madeline and her struggles up (and down) a mountain, this is an experience that will stay with you for a long time. Having established Matt Makes Games among the very top of indie developers we cannot wait to see what's next from Matt Thorson's outfit.
2. Rockstar Games
We don't get to celebrate a developer like Rockstar Games often enough in this category, simply due to the fact that they release games very infrequently, but when they do they really up the ante for all other developers and set the bar ridiculously high in many respects.
Red Dead Redemption 2 has taken its sweet time in development and has been delayed plenty along the way. Now that it's finally here it's easy to see that it's been worth the wait, as an incredible amount of work has been poured into every little detail, whether important to the game or merely there for ambience and atmosphere. There's a great narrative, and pacing that elsewhere would make us anxious, but here it only serves to immerse us deeper into the game world and stories, whether its ones Rockstar has written for us or those we've crafted ourselves in the sandbox that is Red Dead 2.
With the addition of Red Dead Online we suspect Rockstar has a long road ahead with the game; the size of the production is simply ridiculous. Now the studio has got an even greater task on its hands to top this with the inevitable Grand Theft Auto VI and presumably further down the line the next Red Dead. Hopefully, we'll see this one on PC first though (ping, Rockstar!).
1. Santa Monica Studio
The God of War franchise was in a fairly sorry state. It wasn't that God of War: Ascension (2013) was a terrible game, but adding multiplayer and not really pushing the franchise in terms of storytelling and mechanics made for something that arguably was a bit of a disappointment. Where could the franchise go next?
The developer responsible for creating the series, Santa Monica Studio, was also going through some turmoil, and there was downsizing as an unannounced project was cancelled. It left the studio with one major project in development, the next God of War, developed under the watchful eye of Cory Barlog, director on God of War II and God of War III (early in development), who had left the company in 2010 only to return in 2013.
God of War is a bold reboot in more ways than one. It dared to reimagine not only where God of War was set and the main character of Kratos, but also the entire game system. While it still felt like God of War, it also felt like a much-needed step into the modern era of games, not just from a technical point of view, but also from a design perspective. The Norse setting offered new ways to showcase the studio's mastery of visuals, and clearly, the studio has made giant leaps in terms of storytelling. As we've stated previously, we do love a comeback story, and while Santa Monica Studio never truly disappointed us, it was clear that the team had a rough time during the PS3 era, even if they did provide support to some of the best indie titles to be found on PS3 - Flower, Journey, and The Unfinished Swan.
A long project like God of War can make or break a studio that's been a bit down on their luck, but as it stands Santa Monica Studio is looking as strong as ever and the same goes for the God of War franchise. We're eagerly awaiting news on what's next, though we suspect it might be a while before we get to see what that might be...
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