The dust has settled, and we here at CGMagazine will name our own Game of the Year for 2023 today. However, “GOTY” debates can be a little reductive at times. Especially in a year peppered with so many amazing titles, it’s hard to uphold just one as the “game of the year.” This medium brought me so many special moments throughout the year in so many different ways.
So, I thought I’d use my last column of 2023 to award personal laurels to some new games that captivated me. Instead of lumping titles into their respective genres and crowning one title above the rest, like most game of the year contests, I’ve picked some personalized accolades to bestow. So, without further ado…
The Hidden Gem—Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key
Amidst the onslaught of annual “wrap-up” summaries that every platform loves to send us now, from Spotify to Nintendo to Steam, I realized something: I spent a lot of time in Atelier Ryza 3: Alchemist of the End & the Secret Key. It’s not the kind of game that’s going to get nominated for many traditional “game of the year” contests, nor is it even my typical style of game—but it does take several gameplay styles that I enjoy and turn them, alchemy-like, into one epic adventure that I kept coming back to long after my review.
The Atelier series is one I only stumbled upon recently, in my first months here at CGMagazine, when I reviewed Atelier Ryza 2. I was surprised by the depth of its gameplay, compared to my admittedly low expectations, though its writing was somewhat shallow. However, Atelier Ryza 3 managed to fix the things I disliked, strengthen the things I did like, and throw it all into a massive open world.
It combines both the “one more turn” compulsion of the best cozy and life-sim games via its alchemy systems with exploring a sprawling fantasy world and layers an involved RPG system over it all to scratch a very particular itch I hadn’t realized I had. Even after previewing it early in the year and reviewing it in March, I found myself coming back to it regularly.
Defying the Sophomore Slump—Star Wars Jedi: Survivor and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 (tie)
A sequel is a tricky thing. They’re a dime a dozen—coincidentally, every game on this list happens to be a sequel or installment of a long-running series—and yet, they’re also inherently difficult to pull off well. The first game sets the tone and expectations, and it’s up to the sequel to cash its cheques.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Marvel’s Spider-Man were game of the year contenders in their own time. Both put a bold, unique stamp on beloved franchises and launched to general acclaim. Luckily, 2023 brought us follow-ups to both, and they did their homework.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor took all of the building blocks laid by Fallen Order and ran with them. Players step back into Cal Kestis’ shoes (and Jedi poncho) with the full set of skills and toys that he earned through his original adventure… and woefully didn’t have much time to explore back then. As is immediately evident, Cal has matured palpably through some off-screen tribulations between games, and his sophomore journey puts him further through the wringer.
All the best thematic and gameplay elements return, are elevated, and combined with a new original story to present one of the best Star Wars games in twenty years. From the moment I played it at an early preview, I knew Respawn had a strong game-of-the-year contender on their hands.
Likewise, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 tapped into next-gen tech to surpass the high bar Insomniac Games set for themselves in 2018. Peter Parker and Miles Morales share the spotlight in a tight, refined sequel that hit a real sweet spot between tempering the original experience and expanding it. Grindy base-clearing objectives were scaled back, stealth segments were used to accentuate key plot moments, and the heroes’ abilities adapted in meaningful ways.
Both games carried their predecessors’ flags well, bolstered by terrific performances. They left me reeling in a satisfied way as their credits rolled, and I’ll surely be dipping back into them for years until their inevitable threequels arrive.
Remaster Masterclass—Star Ocean The Second Story R
Remasters are also a tricky venture. When remaking and/or remastering a beloved video game, do you stick close to the source material, or do you do something to take it further? Is a new coat of paint enough, or will longtime fans be alienated by change? There’s no universal “right answer” to this philosophical quandary; developers can only take a case-by-case approach.
In the case of one late roleplaying game of the year contender, Square Enix chose very wisely with Star Ocean The Second Story R. Having fond memories of renting the original on PS1 multiple times, I was on board for this journey from day one, and the result exceeded my expectations. With a beautiful, fresh take on the company’s HD-2D style (as seen in another early game-of-the-year contender, Octopath Traveler II), developer Gemdrops, Inc. deftly walked the fine line of nostalgia and reinvention in this sweeping remaster.
A straight-up port would have sufficed, simply making this overlooked classic accessible to a new generation, but Star Ocean The Second Story R has been reworked with respectful quality-of-life improvements that sand down all of the original’s rough edges. The UI is graceful, the ability and crafting systems are like a secondary management game in themselves, and the New Game+ mode is a godsend for its dual-protagonist narrative.
The RPG category has become exceptionally competitive in recent years, especially as the Game Awards handles it, so unfortunately, Star Ocean stood little chance of breaking through the noise to secure a roleplaying game of the year nomination. Yet, it was one of the most fulfilling RPGs I played this year, and I hope other studios take notes from the way it adapted its source material.
The Thrill of Adventure—The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
As a kid, my favourite Zelda game was Link’s Awakening. I never passed the second dungeon, as I kept overlooking the solution to its maze and lacked the Nintendo Power subscription to get me through. Nonetheless, I played it for countless hours, exploring every inch of the map I could access over and over again, reveling in every little discovery.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom transported me back to those halcyon days. From its launch, I ignored social media, refused to check guides for at least the first fifty hours, and simply went where the story and my curiosity nudged me. I marvelled at the things I could achieve with its groundbreaking building system and the way Hyrule had changed between games. I was over twenty hours in when I discovered the Depths even existed, and just like that, everything changed again.
“My personal choice for 2023’s game of the year is Final Fantasy XVI, though I can’t say it was an easy choice when pitted against Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3.”
The gaming industry has been chasing Breath of the Wild for almost seven years now, so I had no doubt that Tears of the Kingdom would be one of the most captivating titles to land this year. But boy oh boy, did it ever deliver.
The Prodigal Son—Final Fantasy XVI
My personal choice for 2023’s game of the year is Final Fantasy XVI, though I can’t say it was an easy choice when pitted against Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3. Each game is very, very good at what it does: Tears is an exemplary adventure, and BG3 is a sprawling juggernaut of choice and replayability. Final Fantasy XVI, likewise, is a massive epic with tighter guardrails, but what secured its throne in my books is the way it brings its series back.
“The story leapt to the top of my game of the year list early on, thanks in large part to Ben Starr’s raw performance as protagonist Clive Rosfield…”
Final Fantasy has been in a weird place for the last twenty years since Squaresoft and Enix merged into Square Enix. The single-player numbered installments since then (XII, XIII, and XV) have had their own development struggles and launched to divisive receptions. Its overall identity has become nebulous—a side effect of the innovation and change that makes each installment unique—and as the series’ godfather, Hironobu Sakaguchi, departed, the studio’s identity shifted, and game development became increasingly complex with the advent of HD graphics, the answer to the eternal question “what makes a Final Fantasy game” has become increasingly personal to each fan.
Thus, as I approached the final hours of Final Fantasy XVI and began to feel thematic resonances to Final Fantasy X, arguably the last masterpiece of the pre-merger era, I knew that I was playing something truly special. Not since the earth-shattering revelations late in that PS2 classic have I felt this level of emotional resonance for my favourite series. The circumstances are different, but the same themes run through the struggles of Yuna and Clive, 20 years apart: the defiance of false salvation and the determination to do what is truly best for the world and yourself.
That may sound unusual, since, from a gameplay perspective, Final Fantasy XVI could not be much farther from the series’ classic definition. Turn-based play is utterly absent, replaced with a thrilling action system. The series’ massive summoned beasts take center stage through this new approach to gameplay, but that might be the closest overt link to its lineage.
But the story leapt to the top of my game of the year list early on, thanks in large part to Ben Starr’s raw performance as protagonist Clive Rosfield, but also for the rest of the ensemble and the writing they brought to life. Yes, perhaps too many notes were taken from Game of Thrones, and a few too many F-bombs were peppered throughout, but the whole 60-hour or more plot was developed so well that I can overlook those minor flaws.
In a lot of ways, Final Fantasy XVI is a paradox: a major departure from its ancestors, yet also the truest inheritor of its values to grace our screens in 20 years. Some may disagree, but for this lifelong fan, at least, the prodigal son has come home, and ultimately my heart could choose no other as game of the year.
The Real Heroes—Game Developers
I’d be remiss if I spent this whole column raving about the game of the year highlights without also addressing an elephant in the room. As great as the products of the video game industry were this year, they came at quite a high cost to the people who actually make them happen: developers.
Time and time again, 2023 highlighted the sorts of harsh conditions that game developers endure to bring the experiences we love to life. From reports of untenable deadlines and gruelling crunch to vast swaths of workforces being laid off at once, we can’t help but acknowledge that the games we love come with a very human price. Things need to change in 2024 and beyond, starting with unionization to ensure that working conditions are not allowed to stay at their current, negligent levels.
None of the moments highlighted above, or any moment of joy you had playing a game this year, or the contenders for the next game of the year debate would be possible without the skilled and hard-working game developers who literally render them into existence. On behalf of everyone at CGM, I thank you for making our year brighter and wish the best for you in the year to come.
And I extend the same gratitude to you, dear readers! Thank you for your support of CGMagazine this year, and we’re eager to keep you informed and entertained through 2024 and beyond.