Geeks Under Grace 2023 Gaming Experiences of the Year

Stars, Tears, and Wonders, oh my!

Hello! Welcome to our favorite video game experiences of 2023! We’re not doing awards this year, because we couldn’t find enough advertisers to fill 2.5 out of 3 hours while we quickly give all the wrong awards. (For what it’s worth, all we’ve seen from Baldur’s Gate III is bugs.) And how can we define “best”? Gaming is often deeply personal. Yet no one can deny that by any metric, 2023 bestowed upon us an embarrassment of riches. But for Geeks Under Grace staff, two games stood above the rest, so we’ll start with those: Tears of the Kingdom and Sea of Stars. In lieu of a review, we posted about our early experiences with Tears of the Kingdom here, but we can’t stop talking about it. Some of us were a bit later to Sea of Stars, but we’ve finally arrived, and you can read Jamie Rice’s excellent review here. Without further ado!

Tears of the Kingdom 

Thanks to Nintendo’s year in review, I know I played  more than twice as much as my next-most played game, Starfield. In fact, it’s pretty much all I played this summer. I realized I needed a break when I started getting “gamer neck” from looking down at my Switch.

Somehow, Nintendo took this sequel and made a world so vast and full of things to discover that it made Breath of the Wild feel like a demo. I remember when I found out you could not only go up, but also down below into the dark Depths. But, once I had duped enough materials to fully upgrade my batteries, it wasn’t so bad (yep, I duped…one of the perks of playing at launch). I also remember how great it felt landing on a dragon for the first time, and also realizing you can ride them throughout the depths and back up again. Tears of the Kingdom gives players enough freedom that pretty much without fail, if you can ask, “I wonder if I can do…,” the answer is yes. Usually with a rocket shield.

Oh, and the crafting! I thought I was going to miss my Master Cycle (I kind of still do, but the Hover Bike is where it’s at) but some of the creations people have come up with are *chef’s kiss* wonderful. My claim to non-fame is making a working two-stage rocket that, while not as aesthetically pleasing as a NASA shuttle, did manage to get me to the max altitude.

Just talking about Tears of the Kingdom makes me want to play it more, which if that isn’t the mark of a great game, I don’t know what is. Breath of the Wild felt like a must-have, a reason for buying the system, a once in a console-generation game, and the sequel somehow topped it and made it seem small in comparison. If you have the means, I’d highly suggest getting Tears of the Kingdom. – Andrew Borck

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom took everything I loved about Breath of the Wild and made it better. Despite being the same map, it managed to give me the same sense of awe that I had when I played the first one. Plus, the seamless transition from the ruins in the sky to the depths without making my dying Switch overheat just goes to prove the game runs on dark magic. I still haven’t finished it, and I’m in no rush. – David Koury

Story has never been the selling point of the Zelda franchise for me. I always came to the games for the puzzles and worlds I got to explore. It took until Breath of the Wild for me to really get invested in the lore, and its follow-up Tears of the Kingdom takes that lore and uses it to build up to arguably the best ending in the franchise. Traveling around Hyrule and experiencing the different communities the people have set up in the wake of the Upheaval made the fight hit home in a way that not even Breath of the Wild was able to pull off. Then, of course, the “big reveal” of Zelda’s story is one of the most somber experiences of the franchise, and after that final memory played, I just sat still for a moment to take it in. Then, taking that story with me as I descended into the Depths below Hyrule Castle with enemies crawling on the walls, then fighting off an army of Ganondorf’s minions as the music swelled made this one of the most epic experiences the franchise has to offer. Every moment of this climax was timed beautifully to have the maximum impact, and no other Zelda game has left such a strong and satisfying impression on me. Wesley Lantz

My complete idiocy at Minecrafting and open worlding left a sore spot for me on Tears of the Kingdom, but maybe that’s on me, because everything else in this game boggles the mind. How did this run on Switch, let alone so smoothly? Likewise, while Breath of the Wild’s personal story of Zelda’s journey impacted me enough to write an article about our adoption and a one-week devotional, somehow the sparse-but-dramatic story of Tears of the Kingdom hit me even harder. – Derek Thompson 

Sea of Stars

I’ve never been an “RPG guy,” so the fact that Sea of Stars has gotten me to commit to seeing it through to the end is a real accomplishment. While the writing itself isn’t perfect, there’s something about the characters the game sets up and the way they interact that has charmed me for my entire playtime. The beautiful pixel art combined with a lovely soundtrack and engaging themes makes every time I boot up the game a pleasure. It’s not a life-changing experience, but it is a touching and ultimately joyful one. It doesn’t lean away from dark and macabre themes, but it ultimately leaves you rooting for good and hope to win out. It gives you champions to support and challenges to overcome. It really feels like it hits on what human stories have always excelled at: catharsis. Sea of Stars doesn’t have to win any Pulitzers for writing for it to still have an impact; the passion behind the project and its blend of gameplay, direction, and story is enough to convince even the most RPG-averse that it’s something special. – Wesley Lantz

Sea of Stars surprised me. Despite the fact that I was looking forward to its arrival and my husband Johnathan wouldn’t stop talking about it, I did not expect to become so engrossed. Usually Johnathan plays the RPGs and I watch, but Sea of Stars is the perfect amount of challenge for me to play myself. It has gorgeous graphics, fun gameplay, and an emotional story. I looked forward to playing when I got off work, and I stalled the ending so I would have time with the characters. Definitely Game of the Year material for me. – Courtney Floyd

The relatively weak dialogue writing – especially early on – kept me from committing to Sea of Stars until the very end of the year. Boy, was I glad that I finally did. The storytelling on a grand scale (the overarching plot, the surprises, the little graphical touches at key moments) is actually some of the best I’ve seen in a JRPG. Combine that with beautiful pixel-art graphics and a soundtrack by the legendary Yasunori Mitsuda, and you’ve got a game that’s, yes I’m saying it, better than Chrono Trigger.  – Derek Thompson

Where do we start with Sea of Stars!? Looking from the outside-in, the most striking aspect is the incredible pixel-art visuals. It’s a style that’s made a resurgence in recent years, but nothing comes close to how gorgeous the game is. Characters, environments, combat, lighting…it’s all been meticulously crafted with an incredible attention to detail you have to see in action to really appreciate. On top of that, I’m a sucker for turn-based RPGs with real-time mechanics in combat. Games like Legend of Dragoon and Super Mario RPG come to mind. 

Weaving those elements with memorable characters and a wonderfully told story has set Sea of Stars up to be not only one of the top RPGs of 2023, but an incredible game that’s sure to captivate fans for years to come. I’m enthralled. – Joe Morgan

This may be the only time in my life that I can confidently say I knew a game was going to be great when I first laid eyes on it. Sea of Stars was in the middle of its campaign on Kickstarter, and after looking at everything Sabotage Studios promised, and combining my experience with The Messenger, something told me this game was going to be amazing. Fast forward to 2023: my copy of the game has been waiting for me for a week; my feed is popping; my friends are shouting; Sea of Stars is incredible. I didn’t need to rush and get home; I knew it already. But when I got to it, I couldn’t put it down. And neither could my wife, who needs a good reason to keep her attention on a video game. She played it more than me, and that’s saying something. Sea of Stars has player accessibility, a sense of wonder, twist after twist in plot, charming characters, and a world of color and imagination. It’s still too early to give those details away, but Sea of Stars definitely needs to be played. – Johnathan Floyd

For the rest of the article, we’ll present the other games we loved this year alphabetically. Here we go!

Anonymous;Code: Visual novels are an underappreciated genre in the West, but the Science Adventure series has gained a small following. This newest game in the franchise is the first to feature English dubbing and new 3D visuals. One of the main characters is a Christian female, and the storyline revolving around the Catholic church and hacking kept me on the edge of my seat. As an avid visual novel enthusiast, I couldn’t pass up a chance to mention how great this game really was. – Courtney Floyd

Broken Age: My video game journey in 2023 has been, in a word, eclectic. I played a variety of games both new and old, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed one in particular, and it’s almost  ten years old as of this writing. That is Tim Schafer’s Broken Age. 

Point-and-click adventures are rare nowadays, but a great pastime for me, and I found myself smiling the whole time I was playing Broken Age. I think this gameplay approach helped it create a unique kind of storytelling game about the challenges of growing up. After finishing the game, I immediately played it again from start to finish, and what better compliment can I give a game? 

Crash Team Rumble: The orange marsupial has a new game as a service entry in his series, and it’s splendid. The hiccups surrounding the Playstation Plus membership requirement, and a $40 price tag are understandable. If I wasn’t a hardcore fan, I wouldn’t have bothered. I can see from the outside how that looks, and with fresh games these days, there’s not much to offer. I’m writing this after six months of watching ToyforBob consistently update and tweak, and I’m here to say, the game is worth it. I follow the fanbase closely, and there are some hardcore players out there providing sincere feedback, and wishing the best for this game. Even now, season three is going. Spyro, Ripto, and Elora are obtainable, reuniting the two franchises once more and leaving much speculation for more.

So what is the game? It’s a four-vs-four score and battle arena game. You collect Wumpa fruit to score points, and you can fight the other team for it with attacks, items, and arena traps. The experimental labs mode is updated with new game modes that add variety to their formula; such as an electric fence that activates between two teammates, and instantly eliminates enemies that run into it. Other game modes do things completely differently, and move into team collaboration, time trial modes, and lightning round modes that are designed to keep fans coming back. It’s seriously a lot of fun, and it satisfies the part of me that drew these characters to fight at once as a kid. ToysforBob isn’t in this to make another dollar, and if they are, it’s to make more games with our childhood mascots. Yeah, this is a hard sell, but only because I loved the experience I had, and I want others to have it. – Johnathan Floyd 

Final Fantasy VI Pixel Remaster: This is probably my sixth full playthrough of Final Fantasy VI, but by far the most impactful. Now that I’m a husband and a father, the themes of love and family hit harder than they ever did when I was a kid. I made sure to thoroughly Platinum the game and explore every nook and cranny, including some scenes I had either missed or forgotten that tackled loss, grief, family and suicide on incredibly deep levels for a video game from 1994. It remains a masterpiece, and this remaster is the best it’s ever been. – Derek Thompson

Final Fantasy XVI: After my review, it should come as no surprise that my favorite gaming experience of the year was Final Fantasy XVI. That it could dethrone FFVII as my favorite game of all time still amazes me. I’ve played a lot of games in my time, and I’ve never been so invested in or moved by one’s story or characters. Even now, six months later, something as simple as a screenshot or a song from the soundtrack is enough to elicit an emotional response. – David Koury

Gangs of Sherwood: I really wasn’t expecting much more from Gangs of Sherwood than a neat take on Robin Hood. What I got was one of my favorite beat ‘em ups in recent memory. From a worldbuilding perspective, Gangs takes place in a retro-futuristic Sherwood Forest. The Sheriff controls the area with an iron fist and some magic, taxing the good people into oblivion. It’s left up to Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck, and Marian to topple the evil police state.

Each of the four heroes plays in their own style. Tuck and Little John are big bruisers where Robin and Marian are smaller and faster. Robin and shoot, of course, but Marian is a wiz with daggers, the devout Tuck cleans house with a massive mace, and Little John uses fire-based gauntlets to dole out damage. Each character has a progression tree to unlock new skills and upgrades and, should you really get into it, expensive alternate outfits.

The game isn’t very long. I clocked in my first entire run in 4-5 hours including extra missions. It’s perfectly beatable by yourself in an afternoon, but you can join with up to three friends and take the romp together.

Short beat ‘em ups aren’t for everyone. Gangs of Sherwood is fun, has a certain addictive flair, and pushed all the right buttons for me. If you’re in the market for a great game to burn up an afternoon with some buddies, it’s an excellent option. – Joe Morgan

Ghost Trick: I really can’t remember the last time a game impacted me the way the remake of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective did. I went into it expecting a fun romp of a visual novel, and came away with one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve never played a game that married its main gameplay gimmick so seamlessly into its story, and still somehow made it fun to play. Ghost Trick pulled me in from the first chapter and took me on a wild ride that kept me hooked literally until the last minute. The game is a masterclass in game design and direction, with every element contributing to a cohesive whole. The characters are memorable and fun, the puzzles are unique, and the story, while absolutely off-the-wall bonkers, still manages to be touching and gripping. It’s not often that I can say that a game is a “must-play,” but seriously, even if you’re not a fan of visual novels, you owe it to yourself to give Ghost Trick a try. It’s not long, but it proves that you don’t need to have 90+ hours of gameplay to make an impact. – Wesley Lantz

Immortals of Aveum: From underdog to oppressive force, EA has run the gamut over the years. Outside of sports titles, it feels like the pendulum has swung to the side of them being a little less in the limelight. Enter Immortals of Aveum, a game published by EA I feel was grossly overlooked in 2023. I think a lot of people saw a story-driven magical first-person shooter and decided that wasn’t mainstream enough so they didn’t even give it the light of day. How could it possibly compete with Call of Duty, Fortnite, or Apex Legends?

The thing people either didn’t realize or didn’t care about was that, like the original Unreal, Immortals of Aveum was building its place firmly in the single-player story-driven camp. In my opinion, what they’ve delivered is a gorgeous game with excellent characters, a fun narrative, and wonderful world building that has, well, merely alright shooting mechanics.

Aveum is a beautiful, wondrous land the game does a great job building. Jak, Sandrakk, and the Immortals are wonderfully realized characters with great performances. I think the game’s shooting mechanics and upgrades are passable, and that’s its biggest downfall.

I really enjoyed my time in Aveum. Despite its poor reception, I hope others will give it a fair shake. I’d love to see Jak and his team in more adventures. – Joe Morgan

Persona 3 Portable: For those who don’t know, this version of Persona 3 features two playable protagonists – one male and one female. I went with the female protagonist mostly because I knew that the new remake will not feature her, but this decision led me to one of my favorite gaming experiences in 2023. In my experience playing RPGs, playing as a different gender barely changes anything in the game. Normally, the extent of changing an avatar’s gender is being referred to with different pronouns and maybe having different romance options available (like in Dragon Age or Fire Emblem). However, the female route in Persona 3 Portable changes so much more! 

Characters interact with you in unique ways, and multiple social links (an important aspect of Persona games) are replaced with all new ones. These changes reflect a woman’s experience far more than any other RPG that I have played (at least of the ones that give you a choice to choose your gender). I believe it is important to allow avatars in RPGs to be customizable to the player’s liking, and to not have those choices change the player’s experience. However, there is something so refreshing about a game that acknowledges the significance of gender, and I believe modern RPGs could learn something from the way Persona 3 Portable presents it.  – Shelley Waltar

Silent Hope: Silent Hope probably didn’t ping very hard on many radars this year. A cute action RPG published by XSEED, Silent Hope puts you in the shoes of seven heroes with different abilities, each using different weaponry when fighting. When you’re not combing dungeons with them, they’ll sit back in town and operate their own shop or farm.

In terms of narrative, there really isn’t a lot of meat on the bones. What is there really only serves to push the action along. I fell in love with the game, though, because the mindless dungeon crawling was just fun. It was a fun way to turn my brain off after a long day of work and melt something without the experience being too heavy. Since each character has their own progression path and unique weapons, I could do it over and over again without the game wearing out its welcome for me, too.

If you need something cute, family-friendly, and fun to pass the time, Silent Hope is an excellent pick. Just don’t go into this expecting something earth-shattering. It’s a good game that filled a gap right when I needed it. – Joe Morgan

Street Fighter 6: The rivalry between my brother and I is about as old as some of the most legendary rivalries in gaming: Sub-Zero and Scorpion, Ryu and Ken. I’ve been playing fighting games since the release of both Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2. Since then, my brother and I have shared many battles in every iteration released in both franchises. However, the release of Street Fighter 6 felt like a true full-circle moment. This summer, I found myself competing at a local tournament in which I tied for 9th place. This entry aimed to make the series the most accessible it has ever been, and Capcom truly achieved that.

Over the years, I found a few characters I experimented with, but mostly stuck with Ryu and Ken; entry-level characters that the fighting game community refers to as “Shotos.” That wasn’t the case this time; I gravitated towards Kimberly, a young ninja girl who is one of the many new fighters on the roster. With some time in the training room, she became my main choice. Capcom also made an effort to put the “Street” back in Street Fighter by giving the game an urban hip-hop style that bleeds all over the screen and into your ears, whichI truly adore. The new look combined with the new mechanics brings quite a rush to every single match. – LJ Lowery

Super Mario Bros. Wonder: There are experiences in life that transform you. They permanently change your modes of thought and your value system. A too-close call in a car wreck; getting married, having a child, getting divorced, losing a loved one, losing your job, experiencing Christ’s love for the first time. Sometimes, apparently, a video game. Experiencing this game made me reimagine the way that I teach mathematics, and the way I seek to be wowed by God in my relationship with Him. It’s truly something special and my favorite game of the year. – Derek Thompson 

Can you believe we made it through this whole thing without mentioning Octopath Traveler II, Jedi Survivor or Hogwarts Legacy? Embarrassment of riches, indeed.

We’ll end by reminding you that this is about our favorite gaming experiences of 2023, and Geeks Under Grace is proud to have partnered this year with Electronic Arts and Square Enix for live preview events, a major milestone for us. You can read about Jamie Race’s experience at the Jedi Survivor preview event in Los Angeles here, and David Koury’s experience at the Final Fantasy VII Rebirth preview event in New York City here

While these games were all great, it also makes us think about our wishes and hopes for 2024. We hope to play some great games. But what we really hope for is that you find ways for gaming to transform and renew your mind, by finding the ways that the truth of God is revealed in all creative endeavors. We hope you find a way to use gaming as a platform to connect with other believers, and to invite those who don’t to come alongside you in a relationship that leads to Christ. And we hope that video game developers find new ways to be thanked for often thankless or unrewarded work. Let’s make a good year, everyone. 

Johnathan Floyd

Writer, Editor, President, and overall complete goofball.

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