From Axe Throwing to Swinging, Celebrating The Best Game Mechanics of the Year

From Axe Throwing to Swinging, Celebrating The Best Game Mechanics of the Year

Sometimes all a game needs is one perfect interaction to stick out in your mind.

Sometimes, all a game needs is a single mechanic to grip you. Maybe it's jumping in Mario, or hopping through a portal to solve puzzles in Portal. Just one solid mechanic is sometimes really all a video game needs to resonate.

This year, there were dozens of great mechanics. Gripping walls in Celeste, nicking plants while on horseback in Assassin's Creed Odyssey. A memorable mechanic isn't necessarily a game-defining thing: it just colors the overall experience. The best are still just itty-bitty pieces in very big puzzles, helping the entire game work as a whole. For me, lone mechanics are what I usually remember most about games. For 2018, these are the isolated instances of the year that I'll look back on fondly the most.

Calling back the axe in God of War

I was never sold on God of War's premise—sad dad tales aren't really my thing—but the moment I recalled the axe back into Kratos' beefy hand, I got it. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. Sorry Atreus, it wasn't your story that sold me on God of War, it was your dad's projectile weapon.

Specifically, it's the tactile grab that hooked me, as if Kratos was partly-cyborg with a giant magnet embedded in his hand. No matter where he leaves his axe (and believe me, I would leave it in puzzles and other dumb places all the time), when he calls it back, the whirl of his axe spinning back towards him makes a great sound. The time it takes to return always fits too: the axe would take longer to find its way home the farther away it was, which I appreciate—even if it defies the logic of walls and doors and other obstructions. The deeper you progress, the more useful Kratos' axe becomes too. Of all the weapon-feel of 2018, Kratos' axe in God of War stands atop as the best. I just love throwing that axe y'all, I could throw that axe all day long.

Canceling the time rewind in Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn, an adventure game from Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope, may not be the first thing you think of when you imagine satisfying game mechanics, and yet Return of the Obra Dinn has just that. The one that comes to mind immediately is a specific one, one that you use the most throughout its seven-or-so hour playtime. On the Obra Dinn, your goal as an insurance adjuster is to uncover the mystery of what happened on the ship: that means identifying everyone onboard, how they died, and by who or what. The story gets wild as you explore the ship, but the means for observing deaths is particularly peculiar.

With your handy pocket watch-like Memento Mortem, you possess the power to rewind time to the precise moment of a corpse's death. You use it a lot, because every time you happen upon a skeleton, you rewind time. But you're not locked into the choice, which is soundtracked by a loud orchestral hum (a tune, also composed by Pope, that's dramatic and will definitely get stuck in your head). You can also cancel it, which leads to a harsh reversal sound and an immediate pocketing of the Memento Mortem. I won't lie: when I discovered this was possible, I stood around and did this about a dozen times in a row because I loved the sounds it made, and how punchy it felt. Zeroing into a death sequence was great too—thanks to the soundtrack and the effect of a pseudo-portal opening up—but the canceling animation... that, that was where it was at.

Landing a great T-Spin in Tetris Effect

This might be a bit of a cop-out, as T-Spins have been a thing in Tetris games since, well, a long time. (Though they only started netting points with The New Tetris on Nintendo 64 in 1999.) Somehow, I've never mastered it. I've always been more of a Puyo Puyo person than a Tetris person, when it comes to puzzle games about dropping things. Tetris Effect, though, is where Tetris finally clicked with me; like a hard drop of a tetromino into a perfect spot. Maybe it was the overtly-earnest music from producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi soundtracking it; or maybe it was the beautiful visuals crafted by Resonair. I don't know what it was, but I finally got really into Tetris this year.

The T-Spin, though, is what really felt good, even more so than lining up that perfect Tetris of four lines; or clearing a bunch of lines in the new Zone mechanic. The T-Spin relies on skill: on lodging a block into a spot, and spinning it into perfect place even when it seems like it can't fit. With Tetris Effect, I finally mastered the move. And boy, I sure feel powerful now.

Swinging in Spider-Man

Over the weekend I saw Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an excellent animated film with about a dozen Spideys in it. (I'm over exaggerating, but you get the point.) There's a scene early on where Peter Parker is teaching Miles Morales to swing, which Peter describes with a "thwip" sound. Weirdly, it reminded me of swinging in Marvel's Spider-Man, the PS4 exclusive from earlier this year. It made about that same sound, and was endlessly satisfying in flinging a web out, detaching, and repeating the process to maintain speed. Swinging in Spider-Man was exhilarating.

Swinging in Spider-Man was first impressive a long while ago, with Treyarch's movie tie-in Spider-Man 2. In that, swinging was tethered to actual skyscrapers for the first time in Spider-Man games; plus Spider-Man could embark on mundane tasks like helping kids snatch a lost balloon. Spider-Man 2 helped you feel like Spider-Man, and its latest iteration on PS4 takes it even further. Marvel's Spider-Man, from Insomniac Games, perfects the swing. You can do tricks in mid-air (making me wish for a deeper trick system, to be honest), you can bounce off the edges of buildings to build up speed, and lots more. Momentum is everything in Spider-Man, and the deep swinging system coupled with just how downright pleasant it feels, is what makes exploring its version of Manhattan so dang fun.

Throwing a briefcase in Hitman 2

Throwing items in Hitman has always locked onto a target's head, even as they move away. Usually, this isn't that silly, since most objects are relatively small. In Hitman 2, that all goes away though, now that briefcases have been introduced. With briefcases, you can use them to wack someone over the head, smuggle around big weapons, or you can even throw them at an unsuspecting person. Throwing is where it gets comical, as the briefcase spins in mid-air in a perfect direction, even turning to follow whoever is targeted. It looks ridiculous, but without fail, it always makes me laugh.

Dodging in Dead Cells

The art of the video game dodge is hard to perfect. It has to feel natural, and it has to be useful. Dead Cells nails both criteria, and then some. Dead Cells is a brutal sort-of roguelike, where progression is only earned if you complete a level and retain a lot of cells collected from enemies you took down in the process—that means, just speeding through isn't really a good idea. Dead Cells is a game built to be played through over and over again, with new generated layouts each time and new challenges awaiting in nooks and crannies.

The dodge is how you survive it all. The dodge in Dead Cells is a mainstay; even as you collect different weapons and abilities, the dodge is your most reliable tool. It helps you stay alive in the long run, and is useful for both skipping an attack, and sliding behind your foe to get some solid swipes in too. I've never been good at dodging in games in general, but in Dead Cells, the dodge doesn't only feel good, it's essential to getting good at its platforming action too. If you don't dodge, you can say bye-bye to any hope of seeing more than one boss.

Drinking coffee (and eating stew) in Red Dead Redemption 2

Honestly, there are so many little interactions I could highlight in Red Dead Redemption 2 that I love. Arthur scribbling in his journal when he happens upon a weird-shaped tree, Arthur leaning forward while riding to offer a reassuring pat to his horse, the in-game ability to greet or antagonize anyone you walk past, and so on. My favorite interaction, however, came with something I did everytime I woke up when I returned to camp to deliver food and restock other goods. I drink coffee and have some lunch.

You can make coffee by the communal campfire with grinds you find out in the world, usually stashed away in the backs of cupboards. After noon, you'll also find some hearty stew that Arthur can eat thanks to Pearson's cooking; otherwise, you can brew up some coffee yourself. The animation is relatively quick, but Arthur pulls a tin mug out of his satchel, pours coffee into it, and walks around camp, sipping away. I greet my comrades as I make my morning rounds, sipping the coffee with the R2 button as I saunter; usually, other gang members are drinking coffee too, like a morning routine. You can see the steam billowing out of each sturdy mug. When Arthur's done, he shakes out the cup and puts it back into his satchel. It may be a dumb little interaction that only serves to reward you with bonus stamina, but gosh-darn-it, I love it.

Calming the baby in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

Yakuza 6 thrusts poor Kazuma Kiryu into another father figure role, aside from the father he's been to Haruka the majority of her life. In Yakuza 6, he's thrust with caring for Haruka's baby son, since she's in a coma. He goes on a quest to find the birth father, knowing that Haruka was living in the quaint port town of Onomichi for quite some time. Onomichi itself is a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Kamurocho, but caring for the baby is especially an endearing change.

One of the moments of Yakuza 6 that stuck out to me most happens close to the start, with Kiryu frantically running around a barren Onomichi at night, not used to the fact that stores close at reasonable hours rather than staying open late at night. Kiryu's panicking because poor baby Haruto needs to be fed—and he's fresh out of baby formula. He scrambles around town, asking loiterers if they have any leads on baby formula, and in between all that Haruto sometimes gets fussy… which leads to a ridiculous sorta-minigame. You raise the controller up and down in an effort to quiet down Haruto, making them stop crying and start giggling. It's cute, and later on when you carry the baby around in the crook of your arm, if you initiate a street fight you hand the baby off to a stranger nearby. Unfortunately, this isn't player initiated, so I'm gonna have to edge this one out to the "calming down the baby" mechanic.

What are your favorite singular game interactions of 2018? Let us know in the comments!

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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