January did what Januaries do: started slow, kinda stayed slow, kept staying just a little bit slow, and then sped way the heck up just before it smashed into February. All the games below came out in the second half of January, with the top four all landing in the last week of the month. Together they give a sense of how diverse videogames can be. There’s a fighting game based on an anime, an almost-endless action-RPG that you can play alone or with friends, an arty game that tries strongly to kill you, another arty game that doesn’t really kill you at all, and finally, well, a third arty game that tries so strongly to kill you that it seems kind of addicted to the idea, but that’s also a poignant depiction of mental illness. (It’s Mega Man crossed with therapy. It’s called Celeste. Play it.) There might be some visual similarities to the beautifully abstract worlds found in Innerspace and Subnautica, but for the most part these five games are all about as different as games can be. Combined with their high level of quality, that made January a surprisingly fascinating month for videogames.
If you haven’t recovered from 2017’s plentiful bounty, and are just now wading into the waters of 2018, here’s what you should prioritize.
Platforms: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Mac
Innerspace gets flying right. They did the damn thing. You have just enough control to feel the wind whizzing by your face when you skip across the stone surface of a megamonolith, and it’s just arcadey enough that you don’t worry about smashing into that wall when you make a miscalculation. It takes some getting used to, but the lack of fuel, hit points, or any of the other markers of traditional flying mechanics is a welcome absence. Innerspace wants you to feel comfortable flying, and it doesn’t try to get in your way.
It also wants you to get used to diving. The little plane creature that you embody is at home in the sea as much as the air, and you can seamlessly drop into the sea from your flight path anytime you want. Then, when you’re beneath the waves, you can soar up toward the surface and engage your flight ability. It’s like being a dolphin that suddenly grows wings at the apex of its leap, and it feels amazing.—Cameron Kunzelman
Here’s the problem, once again, with early access programs: the full version of Subnautica was officially released on PC just over a week ago. Of course it’s been on Steam Early Access for like three years, and in the Xbox One Preview program since the spring of 2016. So it’s a little old, but also new, and people have been playing it for years, yet it blew up in awareness in January thanks in part to streams and let’s plays. It’s on this list because it’s a beautiful and brutal survival game that deftly balances its serene environments with its stressful play. It’s one of the rare games whose alien planet actually feels alien, and that kind of inspiration ripples through almost every aspect of its design.—Garrett Martin
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (later in 2018)
The Monster Hunter series, as the title suggests, has primarily been about striking down massive beasts and using their remains to fashion new armor, weapons and food. While Monster Hunter: World certainly maintains that emphasis on killing giant beasts, the game also asks us to care about the monsters we slaughter, and understand our own hand in maintaining and destroying the ecological system.—Shonte Daniels
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 4
Dragon Ball FighterZ is both the fighting game and Dragon Ball spin-off I never realized I always wanted. The production values are better, and the narrative tension is vastly improved. Given how Dragon Ball FighterZ amps up the drama on existing Dragon Ball storylines, increases engagement by allowing the player to take dialogue sequences at their own pace, and puts a polished, beautiful spin on the old cartoon, this isn’t just my favorite Dragon Ball game. It’s my favorite Dragon Ball anything.—Holly Green
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to Towerfall employs a familiar aesthetic and language from videogames past to tell a story about mental health and self-actualization, using the mountain the game is named after as a representation of a young woman’s struggles with depression and self-doubt. Celeste is an inspired triumph, with art that recalls the early ‘90s, and requiring a precision to navigate its levels that comes straight out of the heyday of platforming. The vibrant use of color and warm, stylistically varied score elevate the retro aesthetic beyond mere homage. It’s a touching and occasionally insightful depiction of what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression.—Garrett Martin