Each year, my dear friend Alex Navarro sweetly asks if I would like to contribute a top 10 list, and each year (except for the one I faked in 2015) I’ve had to let him down. It’s simply been too hard to find the time and justify the expenses of playing a lot of games when you have two young minds (aka toddlers!) to shape 24 hours a day. The past few years I didn’t even PLAY 10 games a year, let alone ten BEST OF games.
But in 2019, something truly magical happened. Like that Blessed Virgin Mother before him, Phil Spencer immaculately conceived a child which would become my savior, and its name is Xbox Game Pass. I mean no hyperbole here, it has absolutely changed how I play games. Before Game Pass, I’d get whatever the BIG new release was, play it a couple months until I fully completed it, then get the next, rinse and repeat. Now with Game Pass, I have instant access to hundreds of interesting titles, with no limit on how many I can download and play. Gone is the guilt-trip feeling that I must complete one of these expensive (not as expensive as they should be if we’re being honest here…) purchases before moving onto the next. Now I can dip my nasty old toes into a game and be satisfied with a couple hours in it, with no worry about seeing it through to the end, guilt-free. Looking at my XB1 hard drive, I currently have about 40 games installed from Game Pass!
Long story short, I actually played a lot of games this year. So what follows is a list of the 10 best 2019-released games I played on Game Pass this year.
I love tactics games. I also love puppers. In this game, you can deploy cute but deadly pups into increasingly complex battles of good vs. evil. The game basically is a bright and pixely Advance Wars, which is all you need to know if you liked Advance Wars. There’s a lot of story going on, but I’ll be honest, I found that not super interesting or engaging, just lemme at them tactics!!!
Every year someone manages to find an interesting, new twist on a well-tread genre, and so it was with this year’s criminally overlooked Creature in the Well from Flight School Studio. The game puts you in the shoes of an ancient worker robot named BOT-C who must venture into a desert mountain and reboot an ancient machine. It’s a good setup for a standard dungeon crawler, but the combat is made fresh with its puzzle-y, pinball mechanics! Instead of slashing enemies with a sword, you’re batting around an orb. It sounds wacky, but it works and is really fun and challenging. The story is interesting and presented organically as you progress through your quest to reboot the machine and confront the mysterious Creature. I’m excited to see what Flight School does next.
Bad North apparently came out before 2019, but the Jotunn Edition is a 2019 jam, and honestly I’m not sure how enjoyable the game would have been without the features added in the Jotunn edition (such as checkpointing, meta progression, and better economic model). But hey, more tactics! In Bad North, you make simple tactical choices, like sending an infantry unit to a square where an attacking unit’s boat will land, and the game handles all the combat. As you would expect, there are various attacking unit types that are best dealt with by specific defender types, so you need to think quickly to complete each procedurally-generated island level. I played through the campaign quite quickly on the default difficulty, and then spent two days trying to finish the final level, which was delightfully challenging, especially given the character permadeaths. A fun little game.
I don’t need to say much about this one as it’s one of the big games of 2019. Despite being a lover of RPGs myself, I’m less and less hot on the Bethesda-style these days, so for me, personally, this game didn’t knock my socks all the way off. I loved the setting, the dark anti-corporate humor, and the Mass Effect-style side-character narratives with your crew, but was pretty turned off by the bad combat and repetitive quests. Still, building a fresh new world and IP is no easy task, and The Outer Worlds is a very impressive accomplishment from the team at Obsidian.
Ape Out is the type of small, clever indie title that makes me love video games. Created by a team of only three people, Ape Out puts you in the role of an enraged gorilla escaping increasingly challenging mazes guarded by gun-toting humans. It’s wildly violent with hyper fast gameplay sort of in the vein of Hotline Miami. You will die a lot, but the game reloads so quickly you’re never given much time to consider quitting. I have a personal connection to this one, with my old Harmonix friend Matt Boch contributing a dynamic jazz percussion soundtrack to the game, which changes in intensity depending on the given situation you are in. Each chapter is presented as an album, and Boch’s role in the game makes me so proud to see the tendrils of the Harmonix beast still branching out and contributing super cool musical things to games (as Drool did with Thumper).
Released on the cusp of 2018/2019, I’m calling this one valid for a 2019 list. We were made to wait for years and years for Capy’s opus, playing it many times at multiple PAXs while in development. The finished product delivered on the vision as it was initially presented to me at its first PAX, applying Dark Souls combat difficulty to a roguelike dungeon crawler. But what stuck with me most about the game was its atmosphere, despite a very minimalist art direction. I eventually found it too hard for me to finish, but I love what this game brought to the table this year.
I loved Drinkbox Studios’ original Guacamelee!, and was happy to dive into the sequel. The game delivers more of what the original brought: fun, colorful, metroidvania brawling and platforming. The big difference this time around being that I played the whole thing in co-op with my young son. It’s among the first games I’ve gotten to enjoy with that father-son co-op gameplay (I can do all the heavy lifting in puzzles or fight and he just teleports to where I am) and it’s probably going to stick with me for a while for that reason. If my kid grows up to be a luchador, we’ll know why. Oh also you play a significant amount of this game as a chicken, which is important to note given 2019’s penchant for fowl-based gameplay.
I’d like to thank the good people at Mega Crit Games for making Slay the Spire, as it got me over my aversion to playing deckbuilding games. I’ve always found the genre to be too daunting and seemingly complicated for my pea-sized old man brain, but the way the gameplay unfolds here makes it easy to slide into and understand the importance of your card selection and usage against a bevy of different enemies and situations. Each of the characters you play feels unique, and must be mastered differently to win, and I had a ton of fun learning and improving. Whenever I lost a match I knew why, and how to not do that again. Slay the Spire also benefits from a really swift game loop, allowing for short bursts of gameplay sessions in between other responsibilities of my dad life.
2. Outer Wilds
The most unique game I played all year--most unique in many years, in fact. It was such a pleasure discovering every little detail in Outer Wilds’ universe, from the initially confounding “loop” to the mystery of what it means and what you must do to fulfill your duties as the hero of this world. I can still hear those solitary banjo notes plucking in my mind when I think about my first hours playing the game. I have to admit I was unable to finish the game because of those fucking bonefish things, so I only experienced the climax secondhand via youtube, which is probably the only reason this isn’t my #1. But go play it if you haven’t, there’s nothing like it.
I talked tactics a few times already, but how about some GRAND STRATEGY?! One interesting side effect of living the Game Pass life is being exposed to multiple games in a single publisher’s catalog, such as Paradox Interactive, which has a whole bunch of their strategy games available. I didn’t realize a year ago I was a Paradox fan, but I sure am now, and eagerly await playing their other games on the service when I have the time. Stellaris was released for console in 2019, and is probably the game I spent the most time playing. It's one of the few strategy games I’ve played in my life where I immediately started up a new campaign after winning my first, after putting dozens of hours into it.
In the game you play as a race of your choice, trying to live, thrive, and survive in a hostile galaxy full of other such competing races, as well as sundry ancient mysteries populating your galaxy’s worlds. The real-time progression is always exciting, rather than overwhelming, and you are regularly faced with a number of crises, opportunities, and cool choices along the way to keep things interesting alongside your carefully planned military buildup and civilization expansion to neighboring planetary systems. While the game was clearly made first for PC, the Console Edition adapts admirably. Don’t freak out when you load it up and see that intense amount of menus and subsystems present in the game! The hands-on tutorial is superbly done and explains everything along the way on your first session.