Erica is an illustrator based in Osaka, Japan. You know her as aurahack. She does cool album covers, cool limited-edition box art, cool illustration projects, and cool design work for sites like onebighole.com and giantbomb2.com. She posts art pretty regularly on Twitter, has a Patreon with monthly rewards, has a bunch of cool merch for sale, and recently got engaged to someone way more talented than her.
Hello! I'm back! I don't have a soundtrack list this time--the year has actually had a number of things that I'm like, really excited about and want to say a bunch of things about. There was still a lot of good soundtracks this year, though! Ace Combat 7 might be my favorite out of all of them!
Anyway, games. I have a top 10 but I have some things to say about a few games that didn't make the cut. It's been that kind of year.
Honestly, I yearn for the year where I can put a Need for Speed game on my GOTY list proper--or just any racing game, really. NFS Heat has a lot of problems but it... also has a lot going for it? It looks great, its customization is refreshingly simple and attainable, the car list is varied, and the day/night cycle they’ve introduced has made for some really fun play session “I think I’m gonna do some night races today” decisions that I appreciate having. The cycles intertwining the way they do is a really interesting form of progression.
Hopefully, one day, it’ll be in a game that isn’t in the world’s most uninspired, boring, empty open-world. Or just in a game that isn’t open-world at all. The longer EA and Playground continues to make these, the more I’m convinced that there’s just no good to be found in the semi-online, semi-connected drearyness of Fake Car Culture Towns they keep crafting. The open-world racer is dead, at least until Midnight Club comes back and someone at Angel Studios-turned-Rockstar San Diego breathes new life into the long-dead blueprint. I’ll patiently wait for that and until then, I suppose, NFS Heat is a plenty fine game to go out on.
My most criminally underplayed game this year. Not only is it the most fun I’ve had with any card game in our current card-based-gameplay boom, but it also has one of the year’s best OSTs and the best character of 2019, Lady Luck. I’m really hoping it sees release on a mobile platform because it’d be a great thing to play on the train, even if I had a ton of fun playing it in 15-minute bursts during work breaks.
Observation is one of those games that... hm. They’re one of those games that I think make the idea of “A Hideo Kojima Game” seem completely insane to me. I can see all the moving parts in something like Death Stranding to see the hive of incredible creative minds that came together to build that thing, but Observation is the total opposite. Of course, there's a ton of amazing work put in by studio No Code and its seasoned vets, but Observation is so incredibly the vision of its director/writer/art director Jon McKellan and I love it. You might not know him by name but you’re likely familiar with his work if you’ve played Alien: Isolation and enjoyed all of its retro UI. Its core idea of “what if you played as the often-present, often-rogue AI” is a fresh one and the change in perspective makes for some great sequences. The whole run of it will be pretty familiar if you’re big on space thrillers/horror movies but I loved every second of it and the bespoke UI for every section and function of the ship was so much fun to play through. If you check it out, I super recommend just blasting through it in a single playthrough. It’s short enough that it’s doable and I think seeing that whole thing unfold as an uninterrupted experience really made it that much more special.
The game's been out for a week as of writing this so this might be kinda weird to yak about but honestly I'm having so much with World Flipper that I really wanted to mention it quick. It's a pinball gacha game (yes, actual pinball--not pachinko) from the makers of Granblue Fantasy that, unlike the latter's atrocious browser-based client, is super polished and easy to navigate. You play on really lavish pinball boards made of pixel art, launching your characters at enemies and chaining special attacks together that look super ridiculous and satisfying. It's been so much fun to play and I don't see myself turning on the auto-battle function anytime soon, which is nuts to me considering I've done that within minutes of almost every other mobage I've tried.
It's unfortunately only available in Japan but I'm hoping Cygames chooses to localise it. There's a ton of appeal in it, I think, for non-Japanese players. If you’re itching to give it a shot, though, you can pretty easily get it off the JP Play Store on Android and the JP App Store on iOS!
Cool! Now, the real good stuff:
Last year I wrote a bit about Chunithm and how it felt fresh to play something decidedly un-Konami, and the blessing it was to see someone else dominate the rhythm game space. It continues this year with the release of WACCA and I couldn’t be happier. WACCA is a rhythm game that is played on a massive touch-screen ring surrounding a circular monitor that shoots notes at you in every direction around said ring. Marvelous Entertainment deciding to weaponize the long-standing Maimai joke of “washing machine game” is a total stroke of genius; it’s unbelievably fun to swoosh your arms up and down a big round drum.
It’s released in collaboration with Hardcore TANO*C, an independent hardcore/dance music label in Japan who’s roster of producers have all worked on games like Beatmania, Chunithm, DDR, Sound Voltex, Groove Coaster--the heavy hitters of the rhythm game scene. Their direct input has let them put in a ton of their back catalogue with a ton of new tracks. It's like a total best-of from them and, as a pretty long-standing fan of their label, it made the early weeks a blast to play through.
The lack of meaningful progression has made it so I don't play it as often as other rhythm games, but I still have a ton of fun with it here and there. It's also Stateside, so if you have a local Round 1, check it out because WACCA might be there!
I still kind of can’t believe we got a new Ace Combat game in 2019. Like, a legit old-school-ass Ace Combat. Better yet, I can’t believe that it’s one of the best in the series and had some of my favorite moments in games this year.
The overall story isn’t anything especially groundbreaking for the Strangereal, but 7’s sub-story of being framed and sent to the “expendable” unit of fighters was surprisingly engaging! It has some turns that surprised me, and your commanders genuinely not caring if you live or die made for some combat scenarios that are fucking incredible at times. Of course, the dog was good. And their cutscene melodrama is still operating on a 12/10 scale. I'd be lying if I said any of the writing had like... depth... but the ludicrousness of monarch royalty being stranded amidst the enemy while two continents duke it out over a Space Elevator being guarded by mega-intelligent drone fighter jets--you see? See what I mean! It's NONSENSE but it RULES. It creates an absolutely nonsensical weight to every sortie; you constantly feel like the stakes couldn't be higher.
I also have to mention the soundtrack, composed by long-time series vets, for being beyond stellar. AC has always been a relic of incredible scoring and AC7 is no slouch.
To think that Ace Combat 7 came out a few weeks into January of this year is crazy. The strongest start to 2019's year in games.
Watching RGG Studio grow since the semi-halcyon days of Yakuza 1’s North American PS2 release has been maybe my favorite thing in games, just, ever. There’s no world that is better without their games, from maybe being the only modern brawlers that’re actually fun to play or stories that out-Miike the famed director so much that even his take on the series seems tame in comparison to the later games. Judgment is their first original departure (ish) from the Yakuza series, so I was THRILLED to see what kind of ideas and stories they’ve had but were just unable to tell within the Yakuza framework.
Turns out it’s... maybe not all that much? Judgment feels awfully familiar in a way that bummed me out a bit. Hell, some of the newer features, like the Mortal Wounds system, frustrated me to no end. Those gripes, though, are thankfully few in number and didn’t detract from their amazing storytelling. They’ve clearly figured out not just what kind of stories they like to tell, but how. The presentation, especially towards the end, has some flawless cutscene scripting and fight sequences.
It's comforting to see that they figured out a different lens to view the well-aged Kamurocho through. The Yakuza games have, surprisingly, never really tread similar ground in spite of their core premise, yet I started Judgment kinda scared that it'd be... y'know, more of that. In some ways, it extremely is but it's mostly really refreshing. There's a lot more character stuff that's reminiscent of Yakuza's best side-quests. The detective theme lets them put way more of a spotlight on the regular-ass people that make up Kamurocho and they're just so damn good at writing those kinds of goofs.
It'll be really fun to see what they do with Yakuza 7's dramatic shift in gameplay next year. Not that my enthusiasm and trust in that team has ever wavered, but Judgment is one more for the list of knowing exactly what they're doing and me extremely being there for it, day one.
7. Apex Legends
Witnessing two separate battle-royale games--PUBG and Fortnite--blow up basically overnight has been a real strange thing. I was definitely there and, like, aware when COD4 hit and changed multiplayer games forever, but man, the PUBG wave was... weird. Like Fortnite is also a whole other story but PUBG is by far and away the dominant force here in Japan. Kids play it on their phones all the time, and every PC or electronics shop has an esports section that routinely runs local tournaments for it. It’s a force.
But the absurdity levels definitely reached their peak when within the span of maybe two-to-three days, Respawn teased, announced, and released Apex Legends to literal millions of active players. It was like watching the PUBG/Fortnite boom condensed into a 48-hour window. The more I think about it, the more I think it's, like, maybe the craziest launch-related thing I’ve witnessed in the games space. It was the only thing people talked about. It of course cooled down and their absolute ownership of Twitch streams largely vanished, but by god, what a magical week or two that launch period ended up being.
Oh, and, you know, it turned out that their game was also maybe the best One of Those to date. Crazy, right? Who knew that taking the multiplayer formula of the most popular games on the market and making it play like the best first-person shooter of all time could result in the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer FPS in damn-near forever. The fluidity of movement and shooting being tuned to Respawn’s masterful standards made that game powerfully addictive. Every victory felt like the first and they still do, though I definitely don’t put in time like I used to.
I’ll also take the win we all had when, for a few weeks, the world’s most talked about game featured a cast of fantastically diverse characters. Turns out you can just, do that. Like with no strings attached or no bullshit press release about how good an ally you are. Wild.
This feels like such an unfair place to put what is maybe the best expansion to the best MMO on the market right now. I’ll say outright that I’ve not yet finished Shadowbringers and it’ll probably take me a bit to get there with all the other stuff I’ve put in priority, but what I have played so far? *long exhale* Y’all.
Final Fantasy XIV is so fucking good. Shadowbringers feels unshackled in a way that FFXIV totally hasn’t for me... ever, really? The new zones are beautiful, the music varies from triumphant to downright strange (in a good way!), the reworks to all the classes have made my two mains, White Mage and Dragoon, feel like almost entirely new classes, and the story is going for it in a way that feels like they’ve somehow snuck their craziest ideas past all their bosses. The setup for it has been multiple expansions in-the-making now and to see it all come together is genuinely incredible. For all of it to happen within the framework of an MMO, too. I can’t give that team enough credit for pulling off what they do. The commitment required to get there is real rough if you’ve no experience or time spent in FFXIV but the payoff for it, especially as someone who’s stuck around here-and-there since the start of ARR, has been incredibly worth it.
What I have to say about Ongeki will by nature be kind of an extension of what I wrote last year for Chunithm. How I feel about it is heavily informed by, like, my perception of the rhythm game scene as it is now in Japan, and the time I’ve had to actually put into it. I think it's pretty easy to come to Japan, play a game or two of Sound Voltex or Groove Coaster and leave satisfied, looking off to the side where the Ongeki cabinets are and think like “Oh Jesus that looks way too complicated I’m not touching that.” Like, it is! It has eight buttons and a control stick in the middle of them! Two of the buttons are on the walls of the cabinet! You control characters and you earn those characters through gacha and they rank up which lets you clear harder songs with higher scores which gets you morerewardswhichyoucanspendonuncappingyourcharacterssoyoucanplaythelunaticsongsf8f
At this rate I feel pretty confident in saying Ongeki is my favorite rhythm game, like, ever. There’s an embed of gameplay below but here’s the core game: Songs in each set list (organized by categories like Pop + Anime Music, Niconico/Vocaloid, Original, etc.) are guarded by a boss, which has a set Level and affinity--Fire, Water, Leaf. The characters you earn and equip as your party also have affinities and the classic rock-paper-scissors comes into play. Each boss has a fixed amount of health and any damage you deal beyond defeating them is considered Over Damage, which stacks for every +100% damage you hit. The more stacks, the higher your score rating, and the more rewards you get. Those rewards let you level up your characters, buy new ones, or upgrade the ones you already have. The better you get, the higher difficulty you can start playing and once you’re in Master territory the songs (or bosses, rather) start being punishing in a way that necessitates a well-coordinated, high-level party. You have to start uncapping characters and you do that by...
Oh god, I’ve turned into one of them. All the people I see playing Granblue Fantasy and Fate: GO and just go like oof I never want to be that deep down a hole oh no I AM OH GOD
That’s only half of it, though. The other half is just the insanely varied set list and the controls. The buttons+stick are so much fun to play; it feels dramatically different than anything else despite its note chart being the familiar “notes come at you” we’ve seen since OG Beatmania. Only being able to hit a note if your party is “on” the chart lets them add way more unpredictability to songs that’s made repeat play a ton of fun and sightreads the hardest they've been in a really good way. Getting comfortable with the controls and playing it at its highest difficulty feels like total wizardry.
I hate being so gushing about something so few people will really get to experience at its fullest. It’s a Sega game, so you’re not gonna see it in your local US Round 1 any time soon. I can’t recommend it enough if you make a trip to Japan, even if it's at its best for committed players. It kills me the scene that made these games happen in the west is dead, because Ongeki is totally proof to me that rhythm games are in the best place they’ve ever been.
Respawn sure are having a year, aren’t they.
Here’s the type of Star Wars person I am: I’ve not seen the original trilogy, I’ve seen most of Attack of the Clones on TV when it played there once as a kid, I’ve watched the movies that have come out so far in the new trilogy, and Rogue One but not Solo, and beyond that I generally don’t care because I’ve either just gathered things through cultural osmosis or diehard fans have driven me away from it. I enjoy the new trilogy as good movies and that’s about that.
In some ways I feel like Fallen Order is the perfect game for me, focusing on an original story that’s independent from 1-3/4-6’s events. In others, it’s probably the worst game because it’s ostensibly filling a blank between two trilogies I profoundly don’t give a shit about. Double the latter by realising that Star Wars is kind of at its best when there’s no Jedi around. That good vs. bad stuff? S’real dumb. But that universe is incredible and there’s a ton of really, really great stories that can be told in it.
Shows me, I guess, that Respawn went ahead and did that with Jedi in it, even if the “why it’s so good” has shit-all to do with Jedi or the Force or any of that stuff. Instead, the incredible minds behind Titanfall 2 made a game that explores trauma and colonialism with genuine gravity in a series that seems content to always boil down its narratives to blue (good person color) swordman fights red (bad person color) swordman. The chase for the Space McGuffin gave room for characters with honest-to-goodness depth to grow in a way that still has really stuck with me. Like, oh damn. You can actually tell good stories in this universe.
And that stuck with me alongside Fallen Order's really fun combat, super-well designed areas, and terrifically rewarding navigation. I didn’t care that the prize for exploring was always a different poncho color because the journey to get there was always, always fun, with a ton of really great art along the way. Fallen Order got on some real Destiny 2-level “Oh I’m just walking into a concept art painting right now” moments.
But maybe the most striking thing I can say about Fallen Order is that it’s made me care for the post-prequel universe in a way that I kind of want to see the original trilogy now and dude, not even the billions George Lucas or Disney spent could manage that.
I hit the Battle Pass cap...
Maxed out my season pass (mid-raid) in Destiny 2 \o/ pic.twitter.com/nJlZzfE3HJ— Erica (@aurahack) November 20, 2019
Oh, I should elaborate more, huh. Shadowkeep is... real good. Like, REAL good. Like those first couple of weeks? God damn. Eris Morn coming back and getting into the nitty-gritty of what’s been going on on the moon, and it’s those triangle ships from the end of 2? And they’re on the MOON?? And then the Vex just show up outta nowhere and start invading the moon in giant portals that tear the sky open? And the raid?? The genuinely hard-ass Vault of Grass raid that’s a ton of fun?? God. There was just SO much in the first month and a half of that expansion, it was great.
Shadowkeep coincided with the game going free-to-play and maybe hitting its truest stride of “this is a live game,” which I can... totally see and support an argument of “why did it take this long,” especially with a journey riddled with so many highs and painstaking lows. It’s a fair criticism, but being a part of that whole journey is what made Shadowkeep feel like such a marvel to me. After so many attempts at making new modes or loops stick, there was stuff going on constantly, new activities were being added every week, PVP became fun again, secrets were being uncovered and it felt like Bungie had just... really hit its stride. Shadowkeep felt confident.
At least, that was true until the last few weeks of its current season. It’s a bit deflating that they still haven’t found the key to making the end of a season meaningful beyond “well, Iron Banner’s back again”. I also still feel in a space where I’m waiting for the next big story push, because Shadowkeep felt like it inched forward just a touch less far than I wanted it to.
But I’m also not super upset because I think this was the season for me to realise that Destiny 2 is like... a really nice game to lose myself to for a couple of weeks, move on, spend some time on other things, then come back and do it all over again once the new season starts. The hundred-some hours I spent in Shadowkeep were an absolute blast and I’m just so totally thrilled that so long after release, Destiny 2 is still such a vibrant, fun game to play.
2. Outer Wilds
When I was a kid, we'd go to my grandparents' house up in northern Quebec every weekend. We'd drive there Saturday morning and drive back Sunday night, which made for an hour-or-so drive each way. I'd sleep more often than not on the drive back but when I didn't, I'd get to lean my head against the window and look up at the night sky that I never saw living in the city my whole life. That part of the country doesn't light its roads and it barely lights up its highways. It was just... an actual star field that I could get lost in until we hit the city and the light pollution would creep in, slowly taking it away.
I love road trips. I love driving out into the unexplored. Well, you know. Unexplored to me. Google Maps has already uncovered all of that but I want to see it myself. I want to take the long road, the one that winds into weird streets. I want to get lost, I want to take the detour, I want to stop and go to a small gas station and see what people's accents are like in that region. Is it like mine? Do they speak the same language I do? Are they friendly? I want to go explore and I don't even care what the destination is. I just want to enjoy the stretch, the drive, the road, the moments alone in my head and the moments glancing over at the others with me, happy we're all connected in the moment.
I moved to a country where I barely spoke the language. Every interaction, every problem, every time I step outside, I learn something. I've taught myself, I've taken classes, I have a tutor I see every week. I have a foundation of tiny rules and understandings that let me piece together a language that I didn't speak or understand a year ago. Day by day, bit by bit, I am capable of solving more and more problems. I can understand things more, I can read things more. I can stop having to rely on my translation tools, because I've grown to have enough basics to solve simple problems on my own. I've spent my entire adult life solving a multitude of dumb tiny problems that have become more troublesome than it's worth sometimes, but solving them now feels incredible. It's rewarding. I did it. I spoke and they understood and we solved this. I solved this.
Outer Wilds is a triumph. For all the games about exploration, learning, and understanding, none has given me the sense of wonder and awe that this game did. Every planet was a new adventure, every puzzle to solve I did not to Win, but to learn more about where I was, who was here, and what role I play in everything. Piecing together all it had to teach me, all the "rules" its universe has, all the history it had to tell... it's magical. It's all so intricately and skillfully designed, yet I approached everything organically. Going out and exploring every inch of the stars, diving into the touching or terrifying unknown, and engrossing myself in a universe that is not mine and has so much to teach me and tell me. It's so hard to put into words what Outer Wilds actually pulls off, but it's a genuine achievement.
The story it has to tell isn't a remarkably original one, but the world it exists in is. I cried when it ended, just completely overwhelmed by what I had sat through. It told a beautiful story with an even more beautiful message, and it let me experience it at its fullest because I was not the hero of the story. No one was. It was just a really profound trip.
There's no night sky in Osaka. You have to get really, really far into the country to see stars like I used to. I get to explore the world in a different way now. Outer Wilds is just the first thing that's come in a brutally long time to make me feel like there was no boundary to what I could explore and learn and venture into. Launching into orbit for the first time was just like staring out that car window as a kid--just this endless sea to look at and go "I wonder what's over there." Only this time, I got to really, for real, actually honestly go see.
At some point in our lives, I think we all run into one thing or another that ends up feeling like it was perfectly crafted to be exactly the thing you want. You know, the feeling that just shakes your core and you realise: "Oh damn, I have a new favorite album," or something. You get through it, you take a few steps back to deconstruct it, and just... everything lands. It's at its best when it comes out of nowhere, and Control was exactly that for me.
I'm not really sure I can write anything that couldn't just be simplified to, like, a bullet point list of "I LOVE [FEATURE 1] [FEATURE 2] [ETC]" but that's Control. Everything hit. From the moment you walk in to an empty front desk with a note saying not to bring in any archetypal objects like yellow HB pencils, I was in. Every part of it that I can look back on was tuned to be exactly the thing I wanted it to be. It totally feels like the culmination of Remedy's efforts over the past decade-plus of making games--it's the most Remedy thing they've made in all the best ways.
I'll leverage what I do for a living to at least have one game where I talk about the art, but one of the things that made Control hit such a homerun for me is the art direction. It's damn good. You know exactly what I'm talking about. That stuff. The masterful understanding of brutalism and using it to create a confusing, oppressive world that, at every turn, still screams "boring government building." The distorted smoke shaders on every enemy that douse the world in aberrated, dream-like blood. The masterful use of bright, government-ass, this-is-a-critical-error red that brings compression algorithms to its knees. Every part of its art is in service of the atmosphere, the world they built, and your place in it. But that's art direction, you tell me from behind my armchair. I know. I know! That's what I do, I get it! But it's fucking flawless. They created a throne room out of mailroom pipes. Every sign uses Highway Gothic and the classic green because the building understands highway signs as the typical American directional signage. The attention to detail everywhere is just incredible. Art is the only thing I do right so you'd think it'd happen more often than "pretty much never, only here and there" but I was stopping at every new area just to admire it all.
And that's all just a fraction of why I love Control so much. It's Remedy at their best, and Remedy at their best outclasses anything else I've played this year. I know deep down that years from now we'll all be talking about how critical Outer Wilds was to the future of games, narrative, and non-linear exploration, which it has fully earned, but I'll still be there in my corner thinking about how fucking dope as shit the Ashtray Maze was.