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Baldur's Gate, The Legend of Zelda and Cocoon shine brightest in a stellar year for video games

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Baldur's Gate, The Legend of Zelda and Cocoon shine brightest in a stellar year for video games
AP
LOU KESTEN
December 08, 2023

It’s been a terrific year for video games. Developers hit their stride on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox X/S consoles, unleashing massive adventures big enough to satisfy gamers for weeks. The Switch is at the end of its lifespan, but Nintendo debuted two spectacular games on its way out. And indie studios held up their end, delivering distinctive takes on classic genres.

Here are the top 10 games of 2023, as chosen by Associated Press writer Lou Kesten.

1. Baldur's Gate III

Role-playing games were particularly ambitious this year, and none was more rewarding than this epic from Belgium’s Larian Studios. The main plot — you have a deadly parasite in your brain, and you need to get it out — is compelling enough, but your trek through the Forgotten Realms introduces a lively cast of characters and a cornucopia of fascinating side missions. It’s as close to the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game as you can get digitally, and it’s a blast.

2. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Nearly 40 years in, Nintendo keeps finding new ways to present the heroic Link and his eternal battle against evil. His most powerful new skill this time is Ultrahand, which allows him to build a seemingly endless variety of outlandish vehicles to traverse the sprawling land of Hyrule. Add in the usual assortment of devilish dungeons and brain-busting puzzles, and you can spend 100-some hours just goofing around before tackling its emotionally moving climax.

3. Cocoon

Feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world? That’s literally the burden of the beetle at the center of this masterpiece from Annapurna Interactive. Thing is, each of those spheres gives you a special power (which I won’t spoil), and you can jump inside each world and explore. By the time you’re moving worlds within worlds, your mind’s fully blown. Designer Jeppe Carlsen is known for the bleak cult classics Inside and Limbo, and while he’s in a more forgiving mood here, Cocoon is just as thought-provoking.

4. Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty

The 2020 release of Cyberpunk was, frankly, a mess, but Poland’s CD Projekt Red has devoted an extraordinary amount of effort to turning it into the game fans had hoped for. This year’s expansion makes it all worthwhile. It begins as an “Escape from New York” riff — the president’s plane crashes in an urban hellhole — and evolves into a brutal take on technology, global politics and corporate voracity. Yes, Keanu Reeves is back — and you get to hang out with Idris Elba too!

5. Super Mario Bros. Wonder

Nintendo’s most iconic character returns to the 2D, side-scrolling, running-and-jumping antics that made him famous. Mario has some new powers: He can drill through the ground, trap enemies in bubbles and even turn into an elephant. But the real highlight of each level is the Wonder Flower, which can transform the whole environment in an entirely different challenge. SMBW feels like the designers took every wacky idea they’ve had over the decades and stuffed them all into one game, and it’s hilarious.

6. Chants of Sennaar

This puzzler from French indie Rundisc is built around a distinctive mechanic: translating foreign languages. Your mission is to explore an edifice inspired by the Tower of Babel, but you’re not going anywhere until you can make sense of the enigmatic signs and cryptic speech of each level’s inhabitants. It’s almost relaxing, but I felt thrilled every time I managed to crack a new code. And the overarching goal — trying to find common ground with people you don’t understand — is inspiring.

7. Sea of Stars

The 1990s are regarded as the golden age of role-playing games, and the folks at Canada’s Sabotage Studio are obviously fans. Their latest throwback is the tale of two young warriors who can harness the powers of the moon and sun as they fight monsters summoned by a wicked alchemist. The graphics and gameplay evoke 16-bit classics like Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, the characters are thoroughly charming, and the story takes some surprising twists. While it works as homage, SoS has enough original ideas to make an old formula fresh.

8. Marvel's Spider-Man 2

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be limping, but Sony and Insomniac Games apparently didn’t get the memo. Their latest comic-book romp soars, with two Spideys — Peter Parker and Miles Morales — web-slinging their way between the skyscrapers of Manhattan and beyond. It’s beautifully paced, alternating low-key personal episodes with high-octane brawls against flamboyant supervillains. It’s the ideal antidote to superhero fatigue.

9. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew

Afia, the swashbuckler at the center of this pirate caper from Germany’s Mimimi Games, has a problem: She’s dead, with a big old sword sticking right through her torso. But she’s not about to let that stop her from reassembling the crew of the ghost ship Red Marley and wreaking havoc on the high seas. Each of the sailors has a mystical power — Afia can teleport, for example, while the ship’s carpenter can drag people to hell. The result is an addictive series of tactical challenges with a bracing dose of black comedy.

10. Starfield

Bethesda Softworks tries to cram decades of science fiction — from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Blade Runner” to “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — into its newest RPG. It doesn’t always work: You can’t build an entire galaxy without some stops being a little dull. But Starfield’s sheer ambition is arresting, and there’s enough of Bethesda’s well-honed storytelling finesse to make the journey worthwhile. Given the studio’s history with The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, here’s hoping it becomes the foundation (another classic SF reference!) of another successful franchise.

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