PlayStation’s had an interesting year. The company ricocheted between the highs of launching new technology like the PlayStation Portal and a new PS5 Slim (now with a detachable disk drive!) and the lows of layoffs, game cancellations, massive data leaks, and the end of CEO Jim Ryan’s 28-year tenure.
And though 2023 was the year of cross-platform blockbusters like Diablo IV and Baldur’s Gate 3, PlayStation still had a number of exclusives not to be missed.
When you start out with a game as good as the original Spider-Man, you don’t have to change much. And thankfully that’s exactly what the developers at Insomniac did for Spider-Man 2. The sequel has some new ideas — including web wings that let you glide across New York City — but mostly it’s just more of a good thing. More villains to fight, a much bigger city to explore, and — since you play as both Miles Morales and Peter Parker — more Spider-Men to control. It also cuts down on some of the open-world fluff of the original, letting you focus more on being the very best Spider-Man you can be. That means lots of exhilarating swinging through skyscrapers, and some very satisfying combat (where bad guys definitely don’t die). And, as with basically all Marvel properties, it ends with the promise of even more to come. — Andrew Webster
The only thing surprising about Forspoken being on this list is that the game actually came out this year instead of mid-2022 like it feels. Despite complaints about “cringe” dialogue and brand tweets made in poor taste, Forspoken is still one of the best PS5 console exclusives out this year. The parkour movement tech, magic system, graphics, and story make this game worth your time. It is still fun as hell hardcore parkouring across the landscape, and I adore the novelty of using different kinds of nail art to equip different abilities. C’mon now, what other game gives you the power to blow shit up off the strength of your acrylics? None!
Frey is also refreshing as a Black female protagonist. Ella Balinska’s performance brings her to life with a flair that doesn’t read as cringe but authentic. If I were isekai’d into a world and blew up a dragon with my mind, you better friggin’ believe I’m gonna holler about it.
The game’s not without its flaws. Beyond the boss fights against the four Tantas, exploration in the open world is lacking. The dungeons are copy-pasted empty corridors and regular enemies don’t have much variety to them. That said, Forspoken is proof a game doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable, especially since it’s one of the rare games that actually dared to do something different for a change.
God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla
God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla came out barely a week ago and is strong enough to merit inclusion on this year’s Best Of list. During The Game Awards, Sony Santa Monica surprised God of War fans with the news it would release free DLC for God of War Ragnarok in just a handful of days.
Valhalla takes the action of God of War and remixes it into a rogue-lite format. Kratos will have to rely on all his abilities and weapons as he journeys through combat arenas, facing enemies familiar and new. Every so often, he’ll be offered a choice of perks and power-ups with the goal of assembling the perfect array of skills to defeat all of Valhalla’s challenges. It’s a fun twist on Ragnarok’s generally enjoyable combat, but that’s not where Valhalla’s true brilliance lies. As with all things regarding this new era of God of War, it’s the story that’s the most compelling part of the game. In Valhalla, Kratos is once again forced to reckon with his past, but this time, it’s not being used as a bludgeon but as a vehicle for healing.
The most honest impression of Valhalla’s story is “The One Where Kratos Goes To Therapy…Literally.” Kratos is so fearful that he will repeat his mistakes that it prevents him from embracing a better future. And so much of Valhalla’s dialogue and interactions are wrapped up in examining some of those mistakes (remember when he ripped off Helios’ head and plunged Greece into sunless darkness?) and recontextualizing them in a way that Kratos can accept them for what they are and move on. The DLC is a 10-hour (or less depending on how good you are) therapy session that can feel a little preachy at times but considering God of War’s target audience, that might not be such a bad thing.
Baldur’s Gate 3
Yes, I know BG3 already showed up on the PC list, but this is my list and I can do what I want — and I wanna talk about the console version of my game of the year, so you will deal with it. I was thrilled to death that BG3 was coming to the console, but the initial reality left me a bit cold. Baldur’s Gate 3 on the PS5 was clunky and buggy with a massive learning curve to surmount before I was having fun again. I’m happy to say that Larian Studios’ commitment to post-launch patches and updates has improved the game’s performance such that the experience on PC and PS5 feels seamless.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is one of those once-in-a-decade, epoch-shifting games for its level of depth, detail, and sheer size. I’ve spent 300+ hours in the game and missed whole swathes of content. I don’t mean minor side quests here and there but entire areas are completely untouched. If Dungeons and Dragons combat isn’t your thing, then Baldur’s Gate may try your patience, but what the game offers in terms of storytelling and characters makes all frustrations with combat worth it. These are some of the best performances and writing in a game ever. It eclipses all its inspirations and forebears. From now on, all extensively narrative RPGs will be compared to Baldur’s Gate; it is the platinum standard. And there are hot elves! And hot tieflings! Everybody’s hot! What more could you want?
Final Fantasy XVI
I am still thinking about the time I had with Final Fantasy XVI. I still viscerally remember my experience of “accepting the truth.” The fight with Bahamut is embedded into my brain, etched upon my very heart as the pinnacle of video game combat. Fighting in Final Fantasy XVI felt so friggin’ good that I can excuse the game’s weaker story moments because it took the worst lessons from “gritty” prestige shows like Game of Thrones.
Enhanced by a soundtrack from Masayoshi Soken that feels like injecting pure gas into your veins and voice performances by Ben Starr and Ralph Ineson, Final Fantasy XVI makes you feel like you could punch God in the face… then let you.
I discovered for the first time why the Diablo format clicks for people. Sometimes the grind is good. Diablo IV makes the grind feel good with all the different and highly detailed ways you can build a character designed to do one thing only: wreck shit. Numbers going up should not be, but often is, the core conceit of a game, and yet Blizzard has found a way to make that fun as …well …hell.
I’m not even concerned about building the most efficient sorcerer by taking the “right” skills and abilities, I’ve correctly tuned into wanting to build powerful characters around an ability that I find enjoyable. Diablo IV works because every facet of that kind of customization is rewarding to the player. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the “best” version of a class because all the other 9 million permutations of that class feel just as good and melt just as much face.
Then you get unleashed in expansive areas with dozens of dungeons to acquire hordes of loot to further tweak your build even more, and then you look up hours later wondering where the time went.
Humanity is a puzzle game throwback that’s unlike just about anything out there right now. If you remember games like IQ: Intelligent Qube and Echochrome, you probably have a good idea of the vibe. You play as an ethereal Shiba Inu with the ability to direct large crowds of humans around using basic commands like “jump” and “turn.” The goal, in most cases, is simply to get the mass of humanity to the end of the stage. Sort of like Lemmings but with a designer touch.
But the incredible thing about Humanity is that it just keeps throwing ideas and concepts at you, evolving itself into a tightly constructed puzzle experience that always challenges you in new ways. Seriously, by the end, the puzzles resemble a warzone, complete with little characters wielding lightsabers. Even better: once you’re done with the campaign, there are a whole bunch of user-created levels to dig through.