Branching Path: Josh Torres’s Top 10 Games of 2023
Looking back at 2023, I think it’ll end up being one of my most important years on a personal level. I moved to a new place and admittedly, I still miss my old home but I think this is ultimately a better environment for me after what’s happened to me the past few years. I established a sense of inner stability which is a step-up in recent years so I’ll take that as a win for now.
I’ll be frank with you - RPGs weren’t my favorite kinds of games this year. Most of my picks in my personal favorites of this year weren’t RPGs, though the ones in 2024 might just rekindle my faith.
Nevertheless, there were several games in 2023 that surprised me; some in good ways, and others in not-so-good ways. Once again, there are a few honorable mentions that just barely didn’t make it before the top 10.
I had to really marinate on which games would make the cut top my top 10 list this year. These two were very, very close to making it. My Honorable Mentions for 2023 are Fire Emblem Engage and World of Horror.
While Fire Emblem Engage didn’t light the world on fire as much as Three Houses, I found it to be a more interesting game to play. The new mechanics that toyed around with expanding a character’s capabilities with a past Fire Emblem series protagonist’s unique traits opened up a lot of strategies to fiddle around. It also helped that the overall designs of maps and encounters were some of the strongest the series has had since the Conquest route of Fire Emblem Fates. Ironically enough, all the systems that tried to make it more like Three Houses, like all the activities around the Somniel home base, were where Engage was at its weakest; if it just stuck to going from map-to-map without any fluff, it would’ve made for a much stronger game to me.
World of Horror is a game I praised in my recent review of it. The title finally launched out of early access this year and I never got the chance to try it out until its full release. I loved my time with the game and think it’s one of the most visually unique RPGs to come out this year. I don’t have any big complaints against World of Horror itself that held it back from being in my top 10; I just simply felt more strongly about other games.
10) Star Ocean: The Second Story R
Although Star Ocean: The Second Story R wasn’t done by tri-Ace themselves, you can tell that the developers at Gemdrops were fans of the original game. This is a fantastic version of Star Ocean: The Second Story that has become the definitive version of the classic RPG due to the myriad of quality-of-life features it introduced. It’s difficult to paint a picture of just how much smoother the game has become if you’ve never played any of its previous releases before; it was certainly not a bad game then, but The Second Story R truly nailed it in balancing what needed to be changed, to what extent should things be changed, and what to add without getting in the way of the original experience. I’m very impressed with what Gemdrops achieved and hope this isn’t the last time we see the development team of The Second Story R come together when it comes to releasing modern versions of classic RPGs.
9) Wandering Sword
It’s been interesting seeing how the game industry has responded to the HD-2D visual design that the first Octopath Traveler introduced. While Square Enix has continued to utilize it in several of their releases since, several independent game studios have been inspired to walk along a similar path for their titles. The developers at The Swordsman Studio created something special with Wandering Sword; it is a RPG that gives players the feeling of living out a grand Chinese wuxia tale.
What makes Wandering Sword compelling is presenting a flexible framework for players to mess around in. It’s a playground that keeps its non-interactable segments brief as it lets people wander wherever they want and play however they want. There are all sorts of optional party members to recruit - even some with strict or harsh requirements to follow. While the presentation in some of its UI elements isn’t the most refined, I can feel the passion that the developers had in creating it.
8) Fate/Samurai Remnant
The Fate series hasn’t had a strong track record when it comes to console titles; the Fate/Extella games were okay, but not necessarily stellar. I wasn’t all that excited for Fate/Samurai Remnant even though I knew it was headed by a different development team. Thankfully, Samurai Remnant surpassed my expectations and provided a solid experience that entertained me enough to see everything it had to offer. The growing camaraderie between Miyamoto Iori and Saber was quite well-done and I think this is the most important aspect of the game that it had to absolutely nail for it to work.
There was a lot of care put into building the relationships between the other Masters and Servants, so it made for a story that was easy to get invested in. Coupled with some fun sword stances, skill trees, and wacky references for Type-Moon fans, it was a good time; I hope it’s not the last time we see a great Fate console game for awhile.
7) Cyberpunk 2077 2.0 Update + Phantom Liberty
My patience has been rewarded. Almost three years after its initial launch, I finally started playing Cyberpunk 2077 after a friend gifted it to me for my birthday. I don’t know what Cyberpunk 2077 was like before its big 2.0 update, but I’m glad I waited because this was unexpectedly some of the most fun I’ve had in a game this year. I decided to focus on a katana build exclusively that just sliced through dozens of enemies and it was a blast. The Phantom Liberty expansion was a nice change of pace that expanded upon Cyberpunk 2077’s strengths while dialing down the amount of fluff that the base game had. It was pretty cool to see how well it seamlessly integrated itself into Night City overall and that it could even directly interact with places outside of the new area like it was always there.
6) Street Fighter 6
Exoprimal aside, Capcom had a strong line-up to offer in 2023. Street Fighter 6 is an incredible rebound for one of the most important fighting game series ever. While Street Fighter V eventually got better later in its lifespan, its initial state and offerings around its launch were dire. With SF6, it came out swinging with a ton of new systems, mechanics, and modes on day one. I even went through the goofy single player RPG story mode and got a good amount of hours out of it.
While I love SF6, I do hope the development team considers distributing more frequent balance adjustments; at the moment, they’re planning to only give the game one balance patch a year. Then again, I’m a Manon player so I might be a bit biased. I’m also not the biggest fan of their monetization practices - especially when it comes to collaboration cosmetics and new in-game outfits.
5) Theatrhythm Final Bar Line
I spent an unhealthy amount of time playing Theatrhythm Final Bar Line this year. I was obsessed with the original Theatrhythm games on 3DS and, obviously, fell off when All-Star Carnival was only in arcades for several years. Even when I got the chance to play it, I couldn’t wrap my head around its control scheme in the brief time I got with it.
Final Bar Line brings back the addictive Theatrhythm loop, but now in a full shiny console experience. There are a massive amount of songs that continue to celebrate the legacy of Final Fantasy’s music library. I loved collecting all the characters, leveling them up, and finding optimal party setups to get every song’s sub-objective. I still need to go back and play through all the DLC songs it recently added.
4) Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo
Very few games get me giddy to play more of it after finishing a session anymore. Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo was hard to stop playing as soon as I started it; every time I had to take a break or set it down for the night, I was disappointed because I wanted to keep playing it. This horror mystery adventure is a captivating experience from start to finish; it’s truly one of the most underrated gems of 2023.
I couldn’t praise it enough in my review and even had the chance to interview some of the developers behind it earlier this year. Once the embargo lifted, I immediately convinced as many people as I could to play Paranormasight. It helps that this game doesn’t overstay its welcome; it can easily be completed in 2-3 sessions and it never wastes your time. I’ve been crossing my fingers everyday hoping that a new Paranormasight is in the works since then.
3) The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
There’s a certain charm to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom for me. I respect its confidence in me to think of ways to overcome situations without giving me an explicit prompt of what to exactly do or how I should exactly do said task. Every time I think about the brilliance of this game, my mind immediately thinks of the Ultrahand tool and the ability to no-clip vertically up through most surfaces.
I imagine that It takes a tremendous amount of courage as a game designer to allow players to well… build whatever they want and traverse the game world with an official no-clip system at their disposal. Sure, Tears of the Kingdom may not revolutionize the core fundamentals of what Breath of the Wild established but to me, it didn’t need to. Ultimately, what I wanted from Tears of the Kingdom were new, inventive ways to explore the remixed map and it brought that in spades. Tears of the Kingdom gave me numerous enjoyable ways to interact with its mechanics in a manner that no other game could in 2023.
2) Resident Evil 4
Like many others, I was incredibly skeptical at the prospect of remaking Resident Evil 4. It’s one of my favorite games ever and I didn’t want a new interpretation to “ruin” it, as silly as that sounds.
Lo and behold, the Resident Evil 4 remake was freaking amazing. Oddly enough, I love that it doesn’t completely replace the original as some sort of one-and-only definitive version of it. Playing the original version of Resident Evil 4 still holds merit, as well as playing this remake; the remake isn’t necessarily inferior and improves upon it in smart ways, yet it serves as a fascinating companion piece because of how different it is.
There are some things altered, some things removed (and were re-allocated into the Separate Ways DLC later), and some things added that make for a more organic modern experience. It’s difficult to clearly express if you haven’t played the original RE4, but my mind doesn’t quite register the remake as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ - rather, it’s different and that makes it an intriguing experience to play through.
1) Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon
FromSoftware remembered its once long-running mech series after a decade. Although Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon isn’t my favorite Armored Core game in the series, it’s a nice return to form for the series. This entry isn’t as blistering fast as the Armored Core 4 generation and serves as a back-to-basics philosophy, while adding in some of its own ideas. The most important aspect that Armored Core VI needed to do was find a new modern audience, while keeping AC veterans satisfied. I think it did its job as far as I’m concerned.
Honestly, the primary reason Armored Core VI is my 2023 Game of the Year is its stellar keyboard and mouse support in its PC version; operating my customized mech with my custom keybind setup was sublime. Managing boost while firing off my arm and shoulder weapons simultaneously as I maintained target lock-on never failed to be a thrilling experience.
The story and characters of Armored Core VI were solid overall, too. I’m happy that FromSoftware didn’t bend the knee on Armored Core’s fundamental narrative presentation to cater to modern standards or expectations. Instead, it doubles down on the cold atmosphere with no human portraits or models; your interactions are with a voice and sometimes, an emblem. FromSoftware had a job to do, so they did it right.