2022 was a bit of a strange year for video games. To begin with, quite possibly the most anticipated game of the year came out in March, well before the usual holiday season of releases. But that holiday rush has itself been muted this year, thanks to delays from big-name franchises from devil to Starfield to The Legend of Zelda.
This led some commentators to call 2022 a “slow year” for a games industry still recovering from the development chaos of COVID. And it is true; we did have some collective trouble reaching our usual selection of 20 games for this year’s best playlist, a possible sign that there were fewer “obvious” choices than usual.
Looking at the picks that made the 2022 list, though, it’s hard to feel like the collective industry has somehow let us down. The relative lack of big-budget blockbusters has allowed many indie games a chance to shine, including those that made this list on the strength of bold new ideas in gameplay or storytelling. All in all, the games listed below will stay with us for a long time and speak highly of the continued creativity and resilience of the gaming industry.
This year we’ve chosen to list our game picks in alphabetical order, with a single “Game of the Year” selection at the end. Here they are.
Atari 50: the Anniversary Party
Digital Eclipse; Windows, Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series, Atari VCS
It’s rare for a compilation of retro games to be considered for an annual Ars Game of the Year list. It’s unprecedented for a game like this to actually win one of our coveted spots. But Atari 50 does a few crucial things to set itself apart from the countless classic game emulator collections that have proliferated over the years.
The first is an intense focus on supplemental materials. Atari 50 is packed with video interviews, design docs, simulcasts, trivia, quotes and more. It all gives crucial context to Atari’s 50-year history, and makes even the least playable games in the collection more interesting from a historical perspective. The “timeline” presentation is also excellent, making the whole product feel more like an interactive museum than a simple collection of old titles.
Atari 50 also shines in its half-dozen “reimagined” versions of some Atari classics. These feature updated graphics, sounds and gameplay that take advantage of decades of advances in game design and technology, giving old concepts fresh life for a new audience. While these offerings are not all winners, the addictive action of Vctr Sctr alone is enough to warm the heart of any old-school arcade gamer.
– Kyle Orland
Cult of the Lamb
Massive Monster; Windows, Mac, Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series
Here’s an odd statement: There aren’t enough cult simulators out there. There are, however, many crooks. Cult of the Lamb is both, and while it’s a good roguelite, it’s the cult simulator part of the package that has made it stand out this year.
The combat portions of the game play like a more forgiving and accessible cousin to the indie classic Binding of Isaac. The action on offer here is tight although nothing too original. But you’ll spend at least that much time in a city-building loop, in which you’ll produce and harvest resources, perform favor quests for townspeople, and manage the overall happiness and productivity of your sect—all while preaching sermons, silencing heretics, and performing anthropomorphic animal sacrifices.
There are lines of Animal Crossing, Stardew Valleyand even that of Peter Molyneux Black and white here. It’s all pretty fun, but the cartoonish vision of running a cult in a world of Lovecraftian horrors is what really sells the game.
The art is top notch, the music will get stuck in your head (in a good way), and the progression systems are just the right amount of addictive. Cult of the Lamb isn’t reinventing a single wheel, but it’s a tasty cocktail of some of the best indie gaming has had to offer over the past few years—whether we’re talking roguelike dungeon crawlers or the cozy gaming phenomenon.
In other words, it’s a “greatest hits” of popular indie game mechanics with a hilarious and original theme. As such, it is worthy of your devotion.
Bay 12 Games; Windows
The version of Dwarven Fortress that existed for the last 16 years was, well, depressing. The default graphics were colored ASCII characters; onboarding depended on wikis and painful trial and error; and the inherent difficulty was also the rallying cry of the game: “Losing is fun.”
However, Dwarven Fortress unmatched complexity and epic storytelling potential gave it a devoted following and kept the game funded by donations—but barely. That makes the modern “debut” of the game—with 16-bit-style graphics, amazing music, tutorials, and optimized shortcuts—something of an invitation to newcomers. It’s also a chance for longtime fans to show their love for Zach and Tarn Adams, the brothers who kept this crazy simulation running without ever actively selling the game
The new, commercial version of Dwarven Fortress released this year is much easier to dig than the old version. Now, after your first few attempts at the game, you’ll more than likely be left with a question like, “How do you find a camp with sand that also has enough minerals?” rather than “What was that red Turkish-looking symbol and how did it kill my hunter?”
Yet despite the spit shine, the terrifyingly deep systems and procedural myth chaos are all still here, just with more rational ways of accessing and understanding them. (Which leads to another possible question: “Why does that cat get anxious when it thinks about tables?”) This new version of Dwarven Fortress only adds to the charm of this already impressive work and will hopefully bring the game to a wider audience that can better support it. We will all be better for it.
God of War: Ragnarok
Sony Santa Monica Studio; PS4/5
After four years, Ragnarok could have just provided more of the “Daddy of a Boy” style God of war that we remembered and loved back in 2018. That game would probably be in contention for a spot on this list.
And yes, at its core, much of the gameplay and many of the environments in this sequel will feel familiar to fans of its predecessor. That’s not a bad thing; RagnarokThe combat systems of are as deep as ever, to the point that major new combat options were introduced nearly 20 hours into my playthrough.
But Ragnaork also stands on its own, thanks in no small part to its supporting characters. The Norse pantheon implied by the game’s title cleverly steals the show, trading off subtle barbs and mythological drama through some delightful, scenery-chewing performances. While the relationship between Kratos and his pre-teen son Atreus doesn’t really tug at the heartstrings this time around, there are enough interesting side stories to make up for this relative lack.
The sequel does a good job with its varied pacing as well, switching to the nimble, bow-equipped Atreus or extended puzzle-solving sections before Kratos’ standard ax-and-chain-swinging gameplay can feel too tedious. And the wonderfully decorated environments shine, especially on the PlayStation 5, almost begging you to explore every corner for many hidden paths and plots. Such touches help push this sequel up our list, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor.
– Kyle Orland