Clive, Jill, and Torgal looking at the Phoenix Gate. Header for Tips for Final Fantasy XVI
Screenshot by Destructoid

Timothy Monbleau’s 10 favorite games of 2023

Featuring Jimothy Donbleau from the Timothy Monbleau series

To be perfectly honest, sitting down and thinking about my favorite games of 2023 has been a surreal experience. When I look back on my corresponding list I wrote in 2022, I feel like the person who wrote that is a fundamentally different person than who I am today.

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At the time, I was still recovering from some rough life experiences and wasn’t playing a lot of new games. My list of candidates was so sparse that I had to include Jimothy Donbleau’s Quest for Game of the Year, which is totally real and not just something I mocked up in RPG Maker. Look, I’ve always had an overwhelming passion for video games. Once upon a time, I was here as a community member of Destructoid talking about my story of playing Final Fantasy II (IV) before I could even read. But it was always something I treated as my hobby and not my work.

Now, ever since Chris “6.5” Carter invited me to write for Destructoid full-time, my relationship with the world of gaming has changed a lot. I’ve gotten to preview games like Persona 3 Reload, Dragon’s Dogma 2, and even Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth. I was able to review huge games like Diablo 4 and be on the forefront of complaining about its microtransactions. And aside from talking about new releases, I got to write about the insane backstory behind Gex and how The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse still holds up.

And of course, I must mention the entire week I spent pouring my heart and soul into a single Link’s Awakening analysis for Destructoid’s Zelda Week. I’ve been given so many opportunities to follow my passions here, and I cannot express how thankful I am that so many of you have been reading my words. Despite the gaming community’s reputation for toxicity, most of you have been nothing but exceedingly kind and supportive. I don’t know what I did to deserve that, but from the bottom of my heart, I’m grateful to you all.

Screenshot by Destructoid

The dark side of the industry

That said, I can’t say this year has been a bed of roses. Being this close to “the industry” and seeing how the sausage gets made has meant being keenly aware of layoffs after layoffs after layoffs after layoffs after… you get the point.

It’s been hard to retain my enthusiasm for video games when the people making them have been treated like disposable assets. It’s as if the ones responsible for these firings merely see their employees as gears in a machine, completely unaware that those gears have hopes, aspirations, families, and maybe the occasional desire to just stop turning for a few minutes. Even if 2023 was a particularly bad year for job security, it’s not like any of this is necessarily new. But it’s been hard to sit here and enjoy amazing new video games when so many lives were changed in the process.

In the face of such tumultuous times, I’ve frankly felt kind of cursed. Feelings of imposter syndrome and more have welled up throughout the year. All in all, I’m doing okay. But I also couldn’t talk about a bunch of cool games I played this year without acknowledging the sheer mental and emotional cost they accrued. My hope beyond hope is that everyone who lost their jobs this year will land back on their feet soon.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Now let’s talk about video games

Some quick ground rules for my rankings: I’m not limiting my picks this year to strictly 2023 games. Since there was some warm reception last year to seeing older games pop up, anything I played this year is fair game. Priority is given to completely new titles though, so don’t expect older stuff in the top 3.

Also, I’m only ranking games that I finished or at least got close to finishing. So while I’m sure Tears of the Kingdom belongs on this list, I didn’t play enough to have much to say about it. And given how much I struggled to find time this year, I had absolutely no chance of making progress in Baldur’s Gate 3. I played more games than I ever have and still missed some of the biggest hits of the year, which is maybe worrying. I’m going to choose not to think about that now.

Screenshot by Destructoid

Timothy Monbleau’s favorite disaster of 2023: The Last of Us on PC

Look, playing The Last of Us on PC was not pleasant. I had a lot of issues, to the point that my write-up for the port had less to do with the game and more to do with my whirlwind experience of playing it. But I can’t pretend that I didn’t have an absolute blast writing that piece for you all.

From what I understand, The Last of Us on PC is at least a bit better today than it was then. At the very least, the underlying game was still excellent, which made coping with the ridiculous PC port easier. It was a good, bad time, and sometimes those experiences are memorable too. Still probably better than half the things Zoey puts herself through every week, though.

#10: Astlibra Revision

I was barely able to finish Astlibra before 2023 ended. Fittingly, it barely makes its way onto my best of the year list. Granted, I don’t mean that as an insult. The fact that I’d sooner rank a game made predominately by one person over other polished AAA games is a testament to KEIZO’s dedication to this passion project. The ever-evolving gameplay was an absolute trip, and the story really stuck out to me with its numerous twists and turns.

It’s a title for a very specific audience. But if you like the grindy games, there’s truly nothing quite like Astlibra.

Image via NIS America

#9: The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails

Few things make me smile wider than a Falcom action game, and The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails is no exception. Despite technically being an HD version of a decade-old PSP game, Nayuta’s adventure absolutely competes with the best games released this year. The combat gave me a rush that only Falcom games can, and the soundtrack is easily one of my favorites of this year.

Nayuta’s adventure is pure RPG comfort food. One day, I’d love to complete a New Game Plus run and see everything it has to offer. It’s just a pleasant time from start to finish, and a game I highly recommend you check out if it passed you by this year.

Screenshot by Destructoid

#8: Final Fantasy VII Remake

How’s this for a long overdue backlog game? Someone into both RPGs and Final Fantasy like me should have had Final Fantasy VII Remake long finished by now, but with Final Fantasy VII Rebirth on the horizon, I knew I needed to catch up. And, surprise, it’s a good game.

I’m going to make a potentially controversial statement here, but the weirdest thing about Final Fantasy VII Remake is that it kind of felt like a better version of Final Fantasy XIII? I mean, the dungeon design often devolves into hallways, but the inclusion of puzzles and twists and turns helps disguise it much better. The battle system feels like an evolution of the mix of action and menu-based combat XIII attempted, with things skewed towards the “action” side to give more player freedom. Even the weapon upgrades feel like the Crystarium with less busy work.

I don’t say this to argue that Final Fantasy XIII is actually a misunderstood gem. It was just a weird case of déjà vu, but also a testament to how rough ideas can be refined in interesting ways. Also, I like that Tifa and Aerith are pals this time around. I’m not emotionally prepared for anything to happen to them in the sequel.

Screenshot by Destructoid

#7: Rakuen Deluxe Edition

Rakuen is the very first game I reviewed for Destructoid, and… I honestly feel a little bad about it. I was still finding my voice at the time, and in retrospect, I perhaps focused too much on critique and created a negative sounding review. A lot of that was because of my reaction to Mr. Saitou, but it does seem like most people did enjoy that little side story. Honestly, I’m happy to be in the minority as far as that goes!

All of this is to say, Rakuen was a special experience. It’s a very earnest, emotional story that hit me hard after my experience through the pandemic, even though Rakuen originally came out in 2017. And Laura Shigihara did a fantastic job on the music here. Build a Little World With Me is one of the most emotionally devastating songs I’ve ever heard, and I’m amazed more artists haven’t covered it. I’d say I’ll listen to anyone who takes a stab at it, but I don’t think I’m ready for that feels-trip again.

Screenshot by Destructoid

#6: Blasphemous 2

As far as my personal tastes go, Blasphemous 2 is an absolute dark horse hit. I genuinely was not grabbed at all by Blasphemous when I tried it out, and I was prepared to just treat reviewing the sequel like sheer work. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I didn’t just like Blasphemous 2, but I loved it. It just hit so many notes that I feel a Metroidvania should, and I adored nearly every boss battle.

I don’t typically expect Metroidvanias to hit the highs of stuff like the GBA Castlevania games, but The Game Kitchen pulled it off in stride. It’s just a good as hell video game that’s well worth your time, whether you played the first or not.

Screenshot by Destructoid

#5: Super Mario RPG

It’s Super Mario RPG, what do I even have to say? It’s one of gaming’s greatest creative collaborations, and this remake retains nearly everything that made the SNES classic special. Mario RPGs work so well for both genre fanatics and those who typically dislike RPGs, and Super Mario RPG especially reminded me of that.

If the Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door remake (remaster?) does just as well and succeeds commercially, I hope we see a renaissance of Nintendo RPGs. Bonus points if we get Yoko Shimomura back for the soundtracks!

Screenshot by Destructoid

#4: Terranigma

Anyone who has followed me this year knows I’ve spent a lot of time discussing this nearly 30 year old RPG. I wrote a whole passionate write-up about it back in May, and I even ranked it as one of the top three best SNES games ever made. Given how much I’ve already said about it, I’m going to let you in on my dirty secret that partially influenced why I’m so enthusiastic about it.

This year was the first time I’d ever finished Terranigma.

Don’t get me wrong, I played Terranigma a lot when I was younger. However, given the game’s Europe exclusivity, let’s just say I had a rough time trying to beat it with a keyboard two decades ago. My main motivation for playing it this year is that I wanted to rank Illusion of Gaia on my best SNES games list. However, I needed to see if Quintet’s subsequent game was more worthy of the spot.

Screenshot by Destructoid

I was not prepared for how hard Terranigma’s themes would strike right through my soul. Shortly after I finished the game, my girlfriend called me while she drove home from work. I was doing my best to engage in our usual small talk, but she could tell there was something different about me.

She asked me about it, and I just started bawling, and we spent the rest of our call talking about Terranigma. The ending didn’t even have those big emotional moments that I was expecting it would. But everything Terranigma was about, and everything it had built up to, just sunk in. I was so profoundly sad and so happy to be alive all at the same time, and I couldn’t believe something that powerful was hidden in an SNES game all this time. A week hasn’t gone by since where I haven’t thought about Ark’s journey in one way or another.

I gave myself the rule about prioritizing newer games in my rankings here because Terranigma was, hands down, the game that impacted me the most this year. It’s easily in my top 10 games of all time and stands as a testament to the reasons we create and share art with each other. I’m almost three decades late to the party, but you did it Quintet. You created a masterpiece, and I’ll never, ever forget it.

Clive in Final Fantasy XVI
Screenshot by Destructoid

#3: Final Fantasy XVI

Final Fantasy XVI is somehow both a critical darling and a surprisingly divisive game, and I can understand both sides. I don’t necessarily agree with every take on its gameplay or story I’ve read, but I do get the points of view. Personally, Final Fantasy XVI really resonated with me, and I felt it was the kind of story I needed this year.

As I discussed back when I was ranking Final Fantasy games, the series likes to explore the concept of hope amid hopeless circumstances. And despite how edgy Final Fantasy XVI is, I felt this spirit was intact. This particularly struck me early in Clive’s journey, when he is getting to know his mentor figure Cid. Clive explains his desire for revenge, which makes Cid rather bluntly respond with:

“Fate. You’re content to be its slave then.”

Clive, Jill, and Torgal in Final Fantasy XVI
Screenshot by Destructoid

Many RPGs explore the concept of fate, but usually from an external perspective. For example, for the characters in Final Fantasy XIII, their fate of becoming l’Cie is forced on them, and the game’s theme involves breaking free of that fate. But in Final Fantasy XVI, fate is anything that takes our agency away from us. Whether it’s the destruction of your home or a desire for revenge that clouds your judgment, we’re constantly struggling with forces that threaten to take or redirect our freedom.

That depiction of fate has really struck me since it’s something that I struggle with daily. And I’ll venture a guess that many of you have your own “fates” you’re battling too. Reframing fate in those terms has, weirdly, been mentally grounding for me. Whenever I feel myself staring too deep into that void, feeling hopeless as the world around us just seems weirder and dumber with each passing day, I try to remember Cid’s words. I don’t want to be a slave to fate. No matter how futile that may seem, it’s something I want to fight against.

I also like the part where Clive gets the big laser beam move and can go pew pew on his enemies. Good game, I hope to have a drink with Ben Starr someday.

Clearing a stage in Super Mario Bros. Wonder
Screenshot by Destructoid

#2: Super Mario Bros. Wonder

After discussing two games in a row that made me think and feel, it’s also important to remember games that are like the equivalent of being dropped in a Six Flags as a kid with $500 in your wallet. I went into Super Mario Bros. Wonder expecting something along the lines of the New Super Mario Bros. games, but what I got instead was pure, unadulterated joy. As much as I like to wax poetic about video games, sometimes I enjoy a good vacation too.

I love 3D Mario, but 2D Mario has always been where it’s at for my tastes. And Super Mario Bros. Wonder is, without a doubt, the best 2D Mario game I’ve played since Super Mario World. The level design consistently knocks it out of the park, the Wonder gimmicks are almost always entertaining, and it’s visually more filled with life than all the New games combined. There wasn’t a minute of Wonder where I wasn’t having fun; it was pure Nintendo magic from start to finish.

All in all, 2023 was a great year for Mario fans. And as cynical as I’ve become about our modern corporate world, the thought of parents sharing these wonderful Mario experiences with their kids this year just warms my heart.

Octopath Traveler 2 Hikari Chapter 5
Screenshot by Destructoid

#1: Octopath Traveler 2

Octopath Traveler 2 is one of those games where I couldn’t even comprehend how special it was until it was over. I went into it expecting more of the original Octopath Traveler, which I liked but did not love (similar to Chris Carter’s take). But if Octopath Traveler was a love letter to golden age SNES/PSX RPGs, Octopath Traveler 2 is a perfect encapsulation of them.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most fun RPG worlds I’ve ever explored. There are secrets and bosses around nearly every corner, rewarding every ounce of curiosity you have. At the same time, it never feels like you’re just cutting through filler content either. Octopath Traveler 2 is immaculately paced, always tantalizing your senses with story objectives and rare treasures to pursue.

Similarly, the game’s combat mechanics offer a wonderful level of depth. Random encounters never gave me that usual feeling of tedium, since I felt consistently engaged in figuring out ways to dispatch foes faster and faster. Octopath Traveler 2 does a fantastic job of offering rich levels of party customization, yet it never bogs the player down with them. I was constantly getting huge “aha!” moments whenever I discovered different synergies with my skills and equipment. This did eventually make the game feel easy, but I also felt like I’d earned it. Even after spending nearly 100 hours with the game, I was fiddling with my team and experimenting with new ideas.

Screenshot by Destructoid

The segmented story has grown on me in retrospect too. While I initially didn’t like how separated each character’s tale was, that structure felt so real to me this year. Our paths often cross with friends and comrades, but ultimately, we’re all the heroes of our own stories. We all have our dreams we’re reaching for, and those goals may create temporary friendships of convenience.

But that’s not to say that those practical relationships can’t become meaningful. It’s human to want to make connections where we can, and we see the characters in Octopath Traveler 2 do that too. Hikari’s mission to lead Ku will naturally diverge from Agnea’s aspiration to become a star. But that doesn’t mean that, for a brief time, they can’t share a story together. People often come and go in our lives, and seemingly lifelong friendships may become fleeting over time. But those memories, however temporary, are important. And by the end of Octopath Traveler 2, that’s the sense I got from these eight unlikely, but ultimately relatable allies.

There’s no telling where our paths in life will take us. But if we only look ahead at where we want to be, we might miss the adventure we can have now. And in the case of Octopath Traveler 2, there are few adventures I’ll ever look back on as fondly. Here’s to what 2024 may bring, and may Team Asano rest easy knowing they’ve created such a special, captivating game.

Screenshot by ???

#0: Jimothy Donbleau’s Quest for Game of the Year 2: We’re All Content

That crazy bastard did it again, Jimothy Donbleau wins Game of the Year 2023!!!


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Author
Timothy Monbleau
Guide Editor - Timothy started writing community blogs for Destructoid in 2012. He liked it so much he decided to write articles for the site professionally. His love for RPGs and the Ys series will endure forever.