Greg Kasavin is a writer and designer at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, and Hades, now available in Early Access. Prior to joining Supergiant, Greg worked at 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and GameSpot. He’s @kasavin on Twitter.
My year was kept plenty busy with the ongoing Early Access development of Hades, the rogue-like dungeon crawler I got started on with my colleagues at Supergiant just weeks after we finished work on Pyre in 2017. We just brought it to Steam recently and have been reeling from the amazing response, so I have some busy days ahead making sure we realize its potential and finish the story strong. On top of that, my kids are now at ages where they straight-up hog the game systems in the household, so it’s harder to find times to play than in the past. Even still, games have always helped keep me going, and I made time for dozens of them I really wanted to play.
Like last year, I want to split this up into a list into games that really caught my eye but that I either barely played or haven’t played at all, and a list of games I played sufficiently to sequence them in good conscience in a Top 10 kind of thing. Now let’s go!!
My Top 10 Games I Didn’t Play [Enough]
Living in my 40s with two kids, a limitless amount of game development work, and in an ever-accelerating timeline means I can’t grind through new releases quite like I did in my GameSpot days. I honest-to-goodness maintain a spreadsheet of all the stuff I really want to play, and following is a list of games from that list that I either didn’t play at all by now, or only played a little. Maybe I’ll have time over the holidays?
This is a December release so I just picked it up and started playing, but am not in deep enough to have it in my real Top 10 below. Still, my first impression is way up there--it’s a beautiful game that balances raw, responsive action with an action RPG flair. I really like the Darksiders universe and vibe, and this one sets up plenty of fun banter between the straight-faced Horseman of the Apocalypse, War, and his fast-and-loose comrade, Strife. Fantastic music and co-op play round out a really promising game I’m excited to keep playing.
Main reason I haven’t played this is my daughter just completely hogged it. From what I’ve seen, watching over her shoulder, this is a fantastic installment in this nostalgia-inducing series, filled with vibrant detail, expressive characters, and tons of new Pokémon to catch and train. New details such as the curry-cooking minigame and the ‘dynamax’ battles against super-huge Pokémon make this look so charming I can hardly stand it.
I think it’s too late for me to really invest in this engrossing massively-multiplayer Final Fantasy, but I was so happy to see a seemingly universally positive response to its latest expansion--especially to the story, which I saw hailed as one of the best Final Fantasy stories in years. Considering some of the classic Final Fantasy stories have had such a big impact on me, I really feel like I’ve been missing out by not having played this (though I’ve dabbled in the base game, at least). I’m also blown away by how this game has been going so strong for so long. I wish I could pause time and catch up to everyone else playing this!
Some folks who worked on the original Fallout, a.k.a. one of my favorite games of all time, got back together to create an all-new sci-fi role-playing game with a bit of a sense of humor?! This is basically the perfect game for me, the one problem being I haven’t played it yet. I’m so happy Obsidian scored a big hit with this, as I’ve long been a fan of that studio, whose creators have worked on any number of RPGs I’ve admired and enjoyed over the years.
Know how my daughter hogged Pokémon? Well, my son hogged Fallen Order, Respawn’s shrewd mix of Star Wars, Uncharted, and Dark Souls. I think Respawn is quite brilliant at this whole game-making thing, and I love that they’re very good at telling stories and not just at creating great-feeling, responsive gameplay. The first couple hours I’ve played of Fallen Order have been excellent, I just need to get back to the rest of it and am excited to do so.
5. Metro Exodus
I was born in Moscow, so it’s all the more reason I feel a connection to this stunningly atmospheric apocalyptic first-person action series set in and around the sprawling Moscow subway network. Developer 4A Games is quietly one of the most talented first-person action developers out there as far as I’m concerned, and the wry, melancholy mood of the Metro series is unique and unparalleled. I have no real excuse for not having played this yet other than that the oppressive feel of it is maybe too much for me lately; but, there’s always just a faint glimmer of hope in these games, and it’s part of what makes the world and setting so compelling. I need to get to this.
Hi! I’m blaming my kids again for my failings. My daughter has never been more excited for a game than she was for Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and proceeded to absolutely devour it--and still loved it by the time she was done. Warmed my heart, really, since I’ve been a fan of this series since it first landed in the U.S. on the Game Boy Advance, and mark it as a major influence on the kinds of stories I aspire to create in the games I work on. But Three Houses was so involved that I just haven’t fully been able to sink my teeth into it just yet, even having played for a number of hours. It’s such a huge game!
Among my failings as a human being is not having kept up with Sega’s Yakuza series. I have no excuse; the only way I can even begin to explain it is that those games are so good, it makes me upset. I wanted to make a yakuza-themed game since I was in college, and yet here’s Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku studio, just knocking it out of the park, stealing my dreams, nay, eating them! Judgment technically is a spin-off of the series but looked absolutely awesome--a hard-boiled crime story set in modern Japan, with new twists on this surprising and memorable series. Why haven’t I played this? Why?!
I am rather terrified of flying in real life, but I really enjoy the video-game version… especially when it’s combined with heartfelt, quasi-science-fiction storytelling, something limited to exactly the Ace Combat series and a very old PC game called Strike Commander. I love how Ace Combat juxtaposes realistic flight combat with outrageous futuristic ideas, and I heard great things about this latest installment. I really wanted to try it, just didn’t get around yet. I still have fond memories of the music and story beats of past installments.
Following in the tradition of “Why haven’t I played this? Why?!” is this brilliant-by-all-accounts remake of Capcom’s classic survival horror game. It’s doubly, even triply embarrassing I’ve yet to try this because A) I love Resident Evil 4 so much, which remains one of the greatest action games I’ve ever played after all these years; and B) I never did play too much of the original Resident Evil 2. I know I’m going to enjoy this, and it’s going to fill in a big gap in my survival-horror knowledge.
Honorable Mention - A Short Hike
Basically the polar opposite of Resident Evil 2, this cute game about making your way through the wilderness looks wonderful, and I’ve heard nothing but good things. I like stressful games, but I also like thoughtful and relaxing games, and this one seemed charming and fascinating. I’m excited to check it out.
All right!! Now for the games I played sufficiently to include on a Top 10 list with a straight face.
My Top 10 Games of 2019
The one constant in my life has been that there are always, always great games available to play, especially if you know where to look. This year, there were so many fantastic games available on so many platforms that I feel bad singling out just these 10. My honest-to-goodness spreadsheet of games I feel like I really enjoyed or have been meaning to play numbers in the 40s for this year, so this is the cream of the crop for me personally.
10. Dota Underlords
Do you know how happy it makes me that Valve is back in the business of making video games? I feel like Valve is kind of like the Batman of game development--they may not want to do the game-development-equivalent of being the ultimate crime fighter, but the world needs them. Dota Underlords started nice and scrappy, much like my perennial favorite, Hearthstone, and brought me dozens of hours of engrossing enjoyment this year. The game is still evolving and going through some big changes, and given the strong start, I’m anxious to see where it goes. I know the whole ‘autobattler’ genre kind of blew up this year, with Teamfight Tactics and other entries, though Dota Underlords is the one that most speaks to me given my affinity for the Dota characters and universe.
9. Outer Wilds
This quirky space exploration game is virtually guaranteed to surprise and delight you if you give it a chance to hit its rhythm. It gives you a ton of credit as a player, inviting you to bumble through an entire miniature solar system at your pace. Once you start getting a feel for what you can and can’t do in a single space voyage, it really clicks, and becomes just an utterly charming and engrossing ride that’s unlike anything else out there.
It helps that this game came completely out of nowhere for me. Here’s this AAA-quality, richly atmospheric game about a young girl trying to save her brother at the time of the Black Plague, all from a studio you’ve likely never heard of--most of their previous titles have been frilly, licensed stuff. I just love it when games come out of the blue like this, and while A Plague Tale’s action-adventure gameplay hits familiar notes, its unique setting and theme makes it distinctly memorable. Plus, any game that heavily invests in technology to create teeming swarms of murderous rats has got to be at least OK, right? If you’re weary of traditional AAA games but like the part where they look and sound great and all that, definitely check this out.
The original Samurai Shodown and its sequel rank among my all-time favorite games, not just because they were impeccably designed as fighting games, but because they were so richly imaginative. Characters such as Haohmaru and Hanzo have stuck with me for decades, so I was more than happy to see them return in solid form in this new reboot. Its deliberate pace is perfect for those of us who grew up with fighting games but no longer have the reflexes of a 16-year-old, and its colorful cast of characters and beautifully illustrated story mode ensured I spent many enjoyable hours reliving the glory days of this series with this one. Plus, it’s being supported with regular patches and DLC characters. Above all, I’m really glad SNK is alive and kicking all these years later.
I only expected one thing from Death Stranding: that it would be big-budget weird. Think about how rare that is! As games’ budgets go higher and higher, typically they have to play it safer and safer, going for broad appeal. But Death Stranding isn’t concerned with being conventional, and sure enough, it gave me an experience I can’t say is quite like anything else I’ve ever played. As someone who plays a lot of games, I really value that in itself, and really enjoyed taking note of the specific choices that the game made… a game very much about shouldering uncomfortable burdens. Not all of it worked for me, but it’s one of those games I’m really glad exists and that I had a chance to play. I remain squarely in the camp of folks who think Hideo Kojima is a one-of-a-kind creator in this industry, as I think his team’s long track record of unique games speaks for itself. Hey, I still can’t get over how good P.T. was.
This gleefully spectacular hack-and-slash action game looks great, plays smooth, has a fun self-aware tone, and packs plenty of memorable characters. If I was still a little kid, certainly it would have been one of my favorite games ever. As a grown adult, it’s still up there, and I loved switching between its three different protagonist characters and learning their wildly different moves. The difficulty was just breezy enough to where I was able to keep pushing through without ever getting frustrated, and I kept looking forward to the next bit of story between stages. I thought it was very well executed top to bottom and had a great time playing it.
Speaking of games that are well executed top to bottom, the latest from Max Payne developer Remedy packed stunning telekinetic gunplay into an intriguing world and story packed with enough surprises and flourishes that it was a joy to play. I had a great time meeting its slightly odd cast of characters and delving into its little pocket universe. A particularly memorable music-driven set piece late in the game plus some chilling or downright wild story sequences really cemented this one as my favorite of Remedy’s games in a long time, and I’ve admired their work ever since their very first game a couple decades back.
Even more so than A Plague Tale, this one just exploded out of nowhere for me, quickly jumping toward the top of my list of favorite games this year, and threatening the ranks of my all-time favorite RPGs. Though billed as an open-world RPG, Disco Elysium wears that mostly as a disguise, and is really more of a narrative adventure game--one with some of the best, most confident, most assertive writing of any game I’ve played in years. The writing goes for the throat in the first few minutes, and remains dense, challenging, intriguing, and singularly distinctive all the way through. From characters like the foul-mouthed Cuno to vivid locations like the Whirling-in-Rags hostel, Disco Elysium creates a surreal world unlike any other. The developers cite one of my all-time favorite games, Planescape: Torment, as an influence, and I really felt it when I played, in the best possible way.
I played this brilliant rogue-like card game plenty last year, but it exited Early Access only this year, so I need to give it its dues. It has such a smart design, and despite its relatively modest presentation, it even has some great world-building to boot. I loved trying to figure out how to climb higher as each of its playable characters, and how it balanced player skill with a healthy dose of randomness to make each play-through different. That this game was made chiefly by a team of only two also was downright inspiring--these guys updated the game without fail every single week for weeks on end, starting strong from their first day in Early Access and finishing even stronger. As someone now working on an Early Access game of my own, Slay the Spire was not only a pleasure to play over the months, but a nonstop source of inspiration.
I don’t know how I managed to finish this extraordinarily challenging action game from the creators of Dark Souls, but when I did (and I believe this was back in March), I remember I sat back, exhausted, and thought… if any game tops this as my personal Game of the Year this year, I am going to be shocked. Well, sure enough, here we are in December, and Sekiro unquestionably still holds my top spot for the year. It’s no surprise--everything from the mystical-Japanese setting to its poetic atmosphere to its impeccably tuned action that asked so much of me while implicitly believing in me all came together as though the game were custom-crafted especially for me. It might just be my favorite game yet by FromSoftware, though Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and Demon’s Souls all come close. Plus, some of the specific moments in Sekiro--many of them coming from its near-endless litany of intricate, lifelike, impossibly challenging, memorable boss fights--blew me away both in their individual quality and in their sheer number.
But even with all that said, I think what really took the game over the top for me was that it had more of a story than I’m accustomed to from the studio’s modern games. I know some players would like nothing better than to create their own characters and stories--but, I much preferred to play as Wolf, and experience the story of his quest to defend the Divine Heir. I don’t know how FromSoftware does it, but I’m so happy they’re doing what they’re doing; long may they prosper.
Honorable Mention - Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to)
Kind Words is a beautiful little game about connecting with strangers on the Internet, sending them well wishes (if not advice) in response to their anonymous pleas for a shoulder to lean on or someone to talk to. As someone who’s spent so much time online over the years and for whom games and the Internet have sometimes been a coping mechanism, I felt uniquely able to connect with people through this game, in a way I can’t normally do. It was a wistful and wonderful feeling, and a reminder of just how powerful games can be.