Branching Path: Josh Tolentino's Top 7 Games of 2023 (and a bunch of honorable mentions)
2023 was a particularly good to people who play games and quite terrible for people who make games. Despite the advent of some true all-time great titles, many game developers were affected by mass waves of layoffs and outright studio closures. It wasn't easy even for folks who just write about video games, either, between layoffs and other signs that, like the game industry, the meda industry doesn't see much value in its workers.
Of course, there's an upside to everything, and one of those for me, personally, was gaining the opportunity to do work for this very website. Now I'm here to confuse readers with a second year-end toplist from an RPG Site writer who goes by "Josh T."
A year of turbulence in personal circumstances (and perhaps the world at large) led me to seek out titles that can be played a little bit at a time rather than in big feasts, which meant that with a couple of exceptions, many of the games I played weren't 2023's biggest and most substantial releases, but were live service games with dailies and event-oriented structures. This left my "Top 10" looking more like a "Top 7", two of my top rankers aren't titles I would strictly consider "2023" games. These and others will be highlighted in the Honorable Mentions section.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Ghost Trick is one of my favorite games of all time, and Capcom's excellent port and remaster of the game brings it to contemporary consoles and PC right on time for a new generation of players to play it, love it, and never speak of it again, lest they spoil someone who hasn't played it yet. Please play it, and use our spoiler-free walkthrough, if you wish.
Fate/Grand Order Lostbelt No. 6: Avalon le Fae
FGO is definitely not a 2023 game, and even if it were, it wouldn't really warrant inclusion on such a list under normal circumstances. But this also happens to be the year that its Avalon le Fae chapter came around in English, and it blew me away. Some of that reaction is definitely a result of the kind of investment you feel from playing a single series of storylines for multiple years. But the rest is brilliant on the sort of level that reminds me why I fell in love with the likes of Fate and the works of Type-Moon in the first place. I agree entirely with Josh (Torres) when he says that this chapter transcends the shady gacha game it's trapped in to be one of the best video game stories of the year.
The nice thing about personal top lists are that they're personal. They don't have to make sense. The same goes for Blue Archive, which barely makes sense itself. The world of Kivotos doesn't make sense, as a massive city made up of nothing but schools, with no other human-like figures than the player "Sensei" and the halo-sporting anime girl "Students". Its events and storylines aren't arranged in chronological order, and thanks to the global edition's shifted release window, players on the English edition play Christmas- and New Year's-themed events in July.
And yet that hasn't dampened its storytelling one bit. There's a confidence in Blue Archive that's fascinating, and it shows when its development team can release an expertly-crafted promo video that outright spoils major plot scenes (or at least their event CG) without affecting any of the excitement players feel when the pre-spoiled moment comes up as scheduled. In its way, Blue Archive is a massively commercially successful testament to how much characters, vibes, and music can carry a setting over and above conventional logic and realism and other supposedly foundational elements of fictional world-building.
And The Rest!
Other 2023 releases that I thought were really cool but didn't play enough of to place in the main ranking include:
- Armored Core VI: The Fires of Rubicon - From expertly revived a series that seemingly everyone had written off as a "legacy" franchise in their post-Souls era, bringing an all-time action game back to the forefront.
- Tokyo Necro - An killer sci-fi visual novel from Nitroplus and translated by JAST USA, Tokyo Necro puts a ton of visual flair in its genre trappings, using 3D-rendered battle cutscenes and some clever visual hooks to sink players deep into its world of a bizarre frozen Tokyo haunted by zombies and protected by the "Living Dead Stalkers" that kill the necromancers behind them.
- Goodbye Volcano High - Almost on the opposite end of the "visual novel/adventure game that looks really really good" spectrum from Tokyo Necro is Goodbye Volcano High, a bittersweet high school story exclusively starring anthropomorphic furry (scaly?) dinosaurs.
Live A Clive Final Fantasy XVI
I'm quite familiar with much of the criticism surrounding Final Fantasy XVI, and I agree with some of it. Its attempts to retain its RPG elements amid the shift to character action-based combat is counterproductive and makes its systems come across as confused and vestigial. And despite an interesting, intense premise, the narrative loses interest in some of its strongest elements midway through, settling for a conclusion that feels like a cop-out.
But I would be lying if I said I didn't have a great time with it in the moment. Character performances, Clive's in particular, carried it, as did the big moments and the spectacle of the flashy, varied Eikon fights. And even when character action's best entries, the combat itself and the process of finding the perfect, flashy combo of Eikonic abilities was rewarding.
6) The Invincible
If my daily rotation of games this year was calibrated deliberately not to surprise me, the year was also home to a number of out-of-left-field titles that did something unique and interesting. One of the them was The Invincible, a first-person narrative-focused adventure adapting Stanisław Lem's classic sci-fi novel of the same name.
The Invincible manages to reframe a now-quite-old sci-fi story in a new way, and does so with maybe the best sci-fi aesthetic sense of the year. That's big praise in a year whose lookbook enjoyed the likes of Cyberpunk 2077 and Starfield. But The Invincible's unique, Cold War-era approach to environment and equipment design helps the story's delivery, and makes the game feel like a work from another alternate timeline, one where retrofuturism was defined not by American nuclear-age optimism but the Soviet space program.
5) Star Trek: Resurgence
I love Star Trek Online more than most, but as a free-to-play MMORPG in its 13th year of operation, even it has its own limits when it comes to truly capturing the Trek spirit. Star Trek: Resurgence was the breath of fresh air I needed to get that feeling back. Despite some technical shortcomings, it managed two welcome feats: Positing a new, original Star Trek storyline, starship, and cast that, frankly, is worthy of building a show around, and breathing some life back into the idea of a "Telltale-style" adventure (though thankfully free of the baggage of the old episodic game release model).
4) Lies of P
As I mentioned in my review of the game, I was practically primed to dismiss Lies of P right out of hand for having all the energy of a pretender to From Software's throne. "We have Bloodborne at home," I said.
But to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the Fate series, there's nothing that says an imitation can't match the original. Neowiz and Round 8's Souls-like wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it seems to understand the assignment as well as almost anyone who's tried to make some space for themselves in the house FromSoft built. Now I can't wait to see what they've got planned next in their calculated plunder of public domain fairy tales.
3) Fate/Samurai Remnant
Fate/Samurai Remnant isn't just the best introduction to the Fate series I could ask for from a new video game, but it's a great action-RPG in its own right. It combines deep-cut fan service for longtime Fate-heads with a new setting and original set of routes that grasps all the essentials, not just of a good Fate story, but a good story outright. Even the Musou-adjacent gameplay receives enough mechanical tweaks to make for interesting, easy-to-grasp battles that fit the flashy nature of any fight involving a Servant.
Even if it weren't as good as it is, I'd still be glad Fate/Samurai Remnant exists so that I needn't point curious potential Fate fans to an anime series or a gacha game to get them oriented.
2) Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
Cyberpunk 2077 isn't good "now". It was always good! It suffered from an all-time disaster of a launch for a game of its scale and level of anticipation, but it always had the pieces it needed to be a top RPG. That's my view, and I'm glad that the launch of Phantom Liberty and the many, many updates CD Projekt Red rolled out for the 2.0 upgrade have made my stance feel more vindicated.
Phantom Liberty and its self-contained area of Dogtown are everything great about Cyberpunk 2077's base game, fine-tuned by three years of feedback and refinement and focused into an area a fraction the size of the (admittedly), bloated map of Night City. While one could lament that it took several years and a humiliating narrative of failed launch for Cyberpunk 2077 to truly look and feel like the game it was originally hyped up to be, I find it hard to believe that an experience like Phantom Liberty could have come about without that clarifying crucible.
1) Baldur's Gate 3
Speaking of "clarifying crucibles", a more socially acceptable form of trying stuff and refining through iteration is Early Access. Though Baldur's Gate 3 is deservedly the breakout hit of the year, Larian owes this monumental success to the full three years the game spent in Early Access (not to mention an almost unprecedented level of resources and development investment for an otherwise very traditional RPG design).
This isn't to downplay Larian's achievement, mind you: I wouldn't be putting the game at #1 on my ranking if I were. Instead I mention all that time in Early Access to highlight that what Larian did with Baldur's Gate 3 isn't magic or sorcery but a ton of work and uncommon levels of support, and that fully deserves all the recognition and accolades received so far.