For much of the year I thought I might have a hard time building a solid list of 10 games. As it turned out, I could have made a top 20 without much trouble. So it was a good year for games, but maybe there weren’t many 10/10 classics for me.
First up, my Old Game of Year: Yakuza 0
The dichotomy between Yakuza 0′s melodramatic main story and its silly tongue-in-cheek side missions made the game an absolute joy to play. One minute you’re dealing with warring Yakuza factions and torn loyalties, and the next you’re doing minigames like karaoke, bowling, RC car racing, and darts, and then you’re helping a dominatrix find her confidence or helping a human statue sneak away from his post to go take a much-needed shit. All throughout you’re also beating the shit out of legions of street thugs and yakuza dudes using kicks, punches, bats, bicycles, salt shakers, teapots, and whatever else is handy. I fell in love with this game in a way I very much did not expect.
Also good ”old” games: World of Final Fantasy, Ni No Kuni 2, Steamworld Heist, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir
Best Music: Death Stranding
The game’s score is good, but the licensed music was key in some of Death Stranding’s best moments. The above song starts playing during your first journey in the game, and the tone is just spot-on perfect. Death Stranding works for me in a similar way that American Truck Simulator works for me. When you’re barely surviving a long trek, and a peaceful, melancholy song starts playing just as you reach the top of the hill and finally see your destination? Just perfect.
Also excellent music: Sayonara Wild Hearts
Most disappointing: Control
Well, I got fucking Alan Wake’d by Remedy again. Fantastic atmosphere and setting for a game, cocked up by repetitive, boring combat. So much about Control is so very good. I love the mystery of the janitor and the main character, the Twilight Zone/X-Files vibe of the agency and the Oldest House. The game’s architecture is arresting, and the writing is excellent.
But for me it was undone by the combat which quickly became a tedious, thing I had to Get Through to see more of the good stuff, and the more challenging fights became something I just didn’t want to engage with anymore. The checkpoint system and maps weren’t helpful, and I received too many optional side quests that I couldn’t complete because I hadn’t found the necessary traversal power yet. I loved so much about the game, but the moment to moment playing of the game was frequently not fun for me.
Ultimately it felt like a game that did not respect my time. The game desperately needed an Easy setting so I could just blow through the bits that I didn’t like. Like Alan Wake, I expect to be pulled back into it and then bounce off again at least two more times.
And now, the games that were in the running for the top 10 but missed the cut:
You roll dice and spend them to activate equipment, gaining more equipment as you go. It’s a close cousin to deckbuilding games, but a little lighter and more forgiving. Slotting dice into cards feels good though. The variety in characters and cards help give this game good replay value. Give me randomized cards/gear, and characters to unlock in a run-based game and I’m a happy guy.
Yakuza minus Kiryu and Majima, with some investigation minigames thrown in. It’s pretty good! Most of the new detective minigames feel like they get in the way (tailing people is just silly, taking photos doesn’t work great). I never really felt strongly compelled to stick with it though. I miss the charm of Kiryu and the grime of 80′s Kamurocho. It’s an excellent game I might have enjoyed more if I hadn’t played Yakuza first.
Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon: Everybuddy!:
This port of a Nintendo Wii roguelike is one that I missed in its original incarnation. It’s got the “I move - all the enemies move” turn-based gameplay that I love, and classes to unlock. All of this is very much my shit. It’s goofy the way that Final Fantasy games are, and the design feels older than it is (I thought it was a PS2 port before I looked it up). But hey - give me stuff to unlock and the old “I move - you move” gameplay and, again, I’m a happy guy.
Ring Fit Adventure
This game is getting me to exercise just about every day. It’s not a great video game (nor should it try to be) but as a workout tool it’s wonderful for someone like me who has trouble finding the time and motivation to go out of the house and exercise.
Untitled Goose Game
You are a winged angel of chaos in this joyous little game. I found the gameplay itself to be pretty shallow and lacking, but it’s a wonderful sandbox to play in. Tormenting people is great fun, and the way the goose animates is just perfect.
Table of Tales: The Crooked Crown
This was the PSVR game that stood out the most for me this year. It’s a tactical RPG complete with a DM that narrates everything, tiles to move your characters around on, and card-based combat. It’s a charming game and I hope they make more.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
This was my first game in the series, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It’s a charming game, and the variety from floor to floor. I could forgive the wonky control scheme, but I think there’s just a low ceiling on how much a cutesy, family-friendly Nintendo title can resonate with me these days.
Dragon Quest Builders 2
Dragon Quest and Minecraft had a baby. This was my favorite game of the year for turning my brain off and checking things off a list. I’m not sure Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a Great Game, but it’s wonderful gaming comfort food for a Dragon Quest fan.
Void Bastards might be this year’s Dead Cells - a run based game that never quite hooked me, but I’ll keep coming back to it. The developers really did a lot without a lot of variety in the way of art assets. It’s a satisfying, often funny shooter (admittedly not my jam). What a terrific name though.
The Steamworld series is an impressive, weird thing. I’ve never seen a series change genres like this; they started with Steamworld Dig (Metroidvania) then made Heist (a tactical combat game) then another Dig, and finally this year they released Steamworld Quest - a deckbuilding RPG. Customization and unlockables are among my favorite gaming buzzwords, and they’re here in spades.
Sayonara Wild Hearts
More of a visual companion set to a pop album than a conventional game. This is for me what Rez was for a lot of folks. Most stages are autorunners where you’re collecting hearts, dodging obstacles, shooting giant wolves, and fighting lesbians while racing atop motorcycles. It’s a story about love, heartbreak, and finding yourself, told through music and images. Nice to have a game that feels like it was made specifically for marginalized folks.
10. Concrete Genie
Concrete Genie’s best trait is its earnestness - an increasingly rare thing in 2019. It’s about an artistic being pursued by bullies in a run-down town. He finds a magic brush that lets him paint friendly monsters into life and also paint magical landscape scenes onto buildings in an effort to bring life back to the town.
The themes of the game and how they’re handled feel a little after school special to me, but the game has a lot of heart. And the gameplay loop of creating monsters, painting buildings, and unlocking new types of things to paint never got old because it’s so damned beautiful. And you have a lot of room to be creative with how you paint. The game is not challenging, and I think the experience is better for it. There is some light platforming, puzzling, and combat, but none of it ever got frustrating. A wholesome game like this was a very welcome thing this year.
Indivisible is a odd mashup of platformer, RPG, and fighting game that blends those well enough that I can't easily put it into any one box. For me, it’s the closest to a fighting game I’ve played in probably 20 years. It has launchers and finishers and timed blocks. You collect a big old army of people you can swap in and out, the writing is smart. The platforming parts are the weakest part of the game, as some of the jumping challenges can feel uneven, and there’s a lot of “I see what I have to do, now I just need to try over and over until I execute”
The setting (Asian mythology as a backdrop) and combat felt unique enough to keep me going, and the game has a charm and personality. I like how the main character is a well-intended fuck up that has to atone for her mistakes, somewhat reminiscent of Mae from Night in the Woods.
8. Children of Morta
This is an action RPG with character progression where you are playing members of a family. The gameplay is solid, and the game drip feeds story and character interaction between runs. It’s a well-narrated and charming thing. The writing can be funny and often touching. There are story bits like the uncle crafting a pair of daggers for Kevin, who falls in love with them. Mary - his mother - takes them away for being too dangerous, and she doesn’t want her boy putting himself at risk helped me feel invested in the characters and story more than most ARPG’s.
The movement and combat feel snappy, and there are plenty of skills to unlock so you always feel like progress was made even when a run falls short. There are plenty of little secrets and tchotchkes to find in the dungeons, and between runs you can see the family members doing their own thing in the house where they live together. It’s a refreshing take on the action RPG genre.
7. Outer Worlds
I remember when The Outer Worlds was announced at The Game Awards. None of this checks any boxes for me: sci-fi setting, shooting, wacky characters. You can make your character DUMB and get special dialogue choices! Humor in game very rarely works for me, and this sounded like it was going to be that jaded, shitty Rockstar brand of humor. Hard pass from me.
Enter Xbox Game Pass. The Outer
Wilds Worlds started getting positive word of mouth and it was included with Game Pass, so I figured I may as well give it a go. I encountered something I didn’t expect: really terrific writing.
I turned the difficulty down to its lowest settings and mowed through the game, savoring the tongue-in-cheek dialogue in a world where corporations own literally everything. The first character you meet is hiding out in a cave because he’s been wounded. Not too wounded to give you the company’s sales pitch though! It’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice.
The whole “corporations are in charge” bleak humor hits more than it misses, but the real star of the show is your companions. They are generally convincing and feel like real, fleshed out characters and not simple tropes. Each companion character gets their own interesting set of side quests (except for the dumb boring robot companion). My first companion Parvati’s story revolved around mustering the courage to pursue a romantic relationship with a woman. They wrote Parvati as an asexual character, and it felt natural and not forced - not an easy task.
It leans into being a dumb video game in all the right ways and made me care about the characters more than the story. The story’s cynicism wore thin eventually, but the game ended at just about the right time and didn’t overstay its welcome.
6. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Jedi Fallen Order lies at the intersection of 2 things I admire more than enjoy: Star Wars and Souls-likes. It’s also EA doing their best to show that they can release a AAA Star Wars game with no microtransactions after the tire fire that was Star Wars Battlefront II. This game is an excellent make-good for EA, though I’m sure it’s more “We had to do this to restore consumer trust in us” than any real change of heart.
This game, at the time of this writing on a base PS4 anyhow, has some jank. Textures would often pop in after a second or two, I had a Stormtrooper get stuck in place like a statue, and I had a couple of hard crashes. Despite all of that, I kept coming back to the game every night until it was finished. And it impressed me enough to put an EA Star Wars game in my top 10. You win, universe. The combat was a good balance of fun shit like force-pushing dude off a cliff and tense one-on-one battle where parries and dodges are needed to get by.
The game’s story is what kept me wanting to see what was next. It’s a game set in the Star Wars universe with the confidence to resist reminding you of the characters and places you know from the films, and it’s better for it. I found myself invested in the fates of the characters. While the main character is more or less a blank cipher for the player, he’s still a better protagonist than Anakin Skywalker because I didn’t actively dislike him.
5. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
New games succeeding as remakes or homages with goofy videogame-ass videogame stuff was sure a theme this year. Bloodstained is so ridiculous in so many ways. A lady asked me to bring her a specific piece of armor to honor one of the fallen villagers. When I did so, she tearfully thanked me then gave me 3 pizzas as a reward. The paintings on the walls will often come to life and attack you; those paintings are all portraits of people who backed the game on Kickstarter. One of the enemies resembles a giant house cat, another is a giant domestic dog. NPC’s repeat the same dialogue, such as a quest giver named Lindsay who says “Kill those murderers DEAD!” every time you speak to her.
And there is a metric ton of shit to find, collect, and craft. Most of the gear you equip looks goofy as hell. And the more new skills and gear you unlock, the more overpowered and broken you feel. The dialogue is corny as hell and plays things straight, which is the only way a screwball game like this actually works. The combat feels good. Experimenting with the powers and systems is a blast, and uncovering the map and secrets is satisfying.
4. Fire Emblem Three Houses
Despite being extremely my kind of shit on the surface, I’ve never done more than dabble with a Fire Emblem game. When I heard people invoking Persona and Harry Potter. I mean, a strategy RPG with relationship stories set in a school environment checks too many of my boxes to ignore.
What surprised me with the game is how much I came to really know the students in my house.* I felt like I knew Bernadetta, Dorothea, Ferdinand, Edelgard, and all the others. Alternating between exploring the school grounds, choosing lesson plans, having tea with a student, and leading them into battle was a nice way to mix up the experience. Training them in skills based on which character class you wanted to promote them to was a nice touch.
3. Death Stranding
Death Stranding has all of the batshittery it was rumored to have: Norman Reedus hiking around with a baby in a jar, poo grenades, tar squids, and people with names like Die Hardman, Mama, and Fragile. Kojima has about as much subtlety as David Cage with the metaphors and themes of the game. Cell phones latch onto you like handcuffs, and Likes are much sought after to the point where people are addicted to them. The game is all about reuniting America and forging connections. You play as a man named Sam. He’s a porter who works for the Bridges company. His name is Sam Porter Bridges.
Sam is playing a major role in reconnecting the country by hand delivering packages from city to city as well as reconnecting the country up to wifi. Continuing with the games themes, Sam has a touch phobia. It’s a game about isolation and introspection, and about the need for connection with one another. Hideo Kojima makes for damn certain that you know that when you play the game. It’s a little like David Cage, but with less cringe and more weirdness.
It’s an introspective game full of small moments. Sam curling up under a structure that another player has built, exhausted and cradling his jar baby as a melancholy song plays is the kind of moment that doesn’t play well in a demo or a video, and won’t resonate with everyone. Those of us it does work for, however, are in love with the experience. It takes the hard-to-describe appeal of a game like American Truck Simulator and adds a decidedly human element to it. There is comfort to motion and travel. We like to be rocked, or transported in a vehicle as babies. It’s the simple comfort of motion, and a way to connect to our world. There’s something to that.
I love seeing this level of ambition and weirdness from a major AAA release.
2. Disco Elysium
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
I thought of Dr Gonzo of Hunter S Thompson fame early and often while playing Disco Elysium. It’s an easy connection to make; you wake up face down on the floor of a demolished hotel room. You have a wicked hangover, wearing nothing but your undies. Your necktie whirls around the ceiling, attached to the ceiling fan.
I got sloppily dressed and staggered out my door, where I was confronted by an attractive woman in the hall. Some primal part of my character thinks it’s a good idea to ask her to fuck you; you crudely do so, and it goes the way you might expect. I was fresh off of playing The Outer Worlds, so I was used to any dialogue prompt associated with a skill being automatically a positive thing. As it turns out, your character gets all sorts of a impulses that aren’t always in your best interests. This first interaction put me off a little bit, I don’t want to play a game that’s trying to be cool and edgy. As it turns out, this isn’t really that.
In Disco Elysium, you play as a cop sent to sort out a murder where a body was found hanging in a tree behind this hotel. Seems that, after 3 days, you’ve managed to run up a hotel bill that you can’t pay for, frighten the patrons by threatening to shoot yourself in the head in the hotel before you lose your badge and your gun. Another cop is sent to assist you since you’ve accomplished exactly nil after 3 days. He’s from another precinct and doesn’t know you, so you haven’t burned up all of your goodwill with him yet (unlike everyone else in your life).
At a glance, it’s a Baldur’s Gate-style isometric RPG with a modern setting. In practice, it’s a lot more than that. First off, the game has no combat. Or rather, no conventional combat. Any physical encounters (which were exceedingly rare in my play) are handled through dialogue choices determined by how you’ve built out your skills. And the way the game manifests your skills is smart and feels organic, not forced.
The skills aren’t the usual RPG fare. There are 24 of them, consisting of stuff like Visual Calculus, volition, Pain Threshold, and Shivers. As you might have guessed, 24 skills in a game with no conventional combat means there is a LOT of writing in this game and just as much variance from one play to the other. My detective was a highly emotionally sensitive guy, able to pick up on what folks may be hiding, very in-tune with the cosmos, and deeply introspective (upsettingly so?).
It’s a detective RPG with a healthy dose of political intrigue, class warfare, and nihilism. Disco Elysium feels like an actual adult game, and not in the “look at all this violence and titties” sense. The best comparison I have is Planescape Torment.
1. Resident Evil 2
What a complete game. This was my first Resident Evil game and I am in love with it. The game drops you into a hostile environment that slowly transitions from a horror show with danger around every corner to feeling like a space that was very much mine. Creeping around an unfamiliar environment in the dark with a flashlight and limited ammunition, as it turns out, is fun as hell.
The combat is slow and deliberate in a way that made the action feel satisfying and not cheap; when I did encounter enemies that moved quickly and suddenly, it got my heart rate going. And my arc with Mr X from pure terror to minor annoyance to acceptance as part of this undead infested police station I call home felt pretty special.
He is an indestructible character that follows you endlessly like the Terminator. You’re faster, but he is relentless. Hearing his heavy footsteps somewhere in the vicinity was a nice atmospheric touch. I had a couple of instances where I was running from something, turned a corner and collided with this 8 foot tall beast.
Resident Evil 2 is just the ideal dose of scariness, and gets all the dumb videogame-y parts exactly right. It feels like a Metroidvania, a world filled with locks and keys where the secrets are drip-fed to the player. Creeping through an unfamiliar area with only 2 shotgun shells and 5 pistol rounds left was a deliciously tense experience, one that other games rarely give me.
The game’s second playthrough felt a lot more different from the first than I’d feared. I’ve never really played another Resident Evil game, and I’ve never had any interest in horror games. And now here I am anxiously awaiting next year’s RE3 remake.
*Black Eagles, baby!