I’ve put it off long enough. If you are looking for the games that didn’t come out in 2019, that blog is over here! Starting at ten and working our way down:
AI: The Somnium Files
Listen, I’m probably not going to do an anime blog this year. For better or worse, I didn’t watch a ton of Japanese Animation in 2019, and most of what I did watch has already been discussed to death (an overdue rewatch of Evangelion that probably got to me more as an adult that it did as a teenager) memed to death (Hey, it turns out I liked those first two parts of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure exactly as much as I thought I would!) or scattered fragments of this year’s obligatory hot seasonal shows of the season that everyone immediately stopped talking about after the season ended (Based on the… approximately four 2019 anime series I watched, the anime of the year is probably Mob Psycho 100 S2, with Kaguya-sama: Love is War at second. Also the Konosuba movie was a lot of fun.)
However, don’t let this drought make you assume I didn’t deal with some ANIME in 2019. Aside from going down the Higurashi hole, putting Danganronpa on some list, and yelling at random people to play 428 Shibuya Scramble, I even played an anime that came out in 2019. AI: The Somnium Files is a cyber-cop adventure game from Kotaro Uchikoshi, the guy responsible for the Zero Escape series (and also Punch Line, the anime/game where the main character gets super powers if he sees panties and is also a ghost stuck in a time loop. Listen, it’s a lot.) That should give you a pretty good baseline for the kinds of storytelling and characterization Somnium files pulls, but if you’re unfamiliar with his work, it’s a game wherein Kaname Date, a constantly horny cyber cop with his AI anime lady partner who is also his eyeball (Listen, it’s a lot) solves crimes by going into people’s dreams and deriving important clues from their subconsciouses (Listen, it’s a lot.) Uchikoshi’s trademark are clockwork puzzle plots, made of a bunch of moving pieces that all fit together once you have enough of them, and Somnium Files doesn’t deviate from that too hard. There’s a hard, fairly comprehensible line of causality to follow for the various routes, characters will exposit on psuedoscientific concepts that may or may not be integral to the plot, and the entire time you’ll be wondering if a 13-year-old wrote the numerous “lol boob” jokes at every turn.
It’s a formula that works for him, and I think it works for this game as well. Given that the actual “game” parts of Somnium Files mostly solving some basic-ass dream puzzles and clicking on objects in the background, I can’t really talk about what works (and doesn’t work) about the various twists and turns of the story without getting into spoiler territory. If you like interesting, stylishly designed characters delivering witty dialogue, lowbrow dirty jokes, and quite possibly the best/worst puns imaginable with some genuinely fantastic English voice acting, it’s worth a look.
Kingdom Hearts III
Trying to write about Kingdom Hearts is an all-encompassing black hole, whose gravity is inescapable by all but the most dedicated or mad. I tried multiple times to write a blog on the series particular brand of insanity this year, between my playthroughs of Kingdom Hearts II/Birth By Sleep and then my culminating playthrough of Kingdom Hearts III. Here’s the thing: I love Kingdom Hearts’ hypersincerity, I love how profoundly stupid it is, I love its weird, incredibly stilted dialogue, and I still have just enough lingering childhood affinity for Disney that I love the bizarre ways that stuff is portrayed in the context of Tetsuya Nomura’s very audacious, officially sanctioned crossover fan-fic. Writing seriously about Kingdom Hearts is a nightmare tightrope, however, and I couldn’t find a tone somewhere between seriously discussing the nuances and intricacies of “Getting ‘Norted” and just going full goofball “Haha Mickey Mouse and anime boy with zippers talking about the friendship and the darkness how truly silly, is this not quaint, am I not original?”
It’s a shame that full write-up never materialized, because there’s some shit in Kingdom Hearts III that is worth discussing. It’s weirdly self-aware at times! Haley Joel Osment is a man in his thirties trying to do the same voice he had as a young teenager! You can very explicitly tell which Disney worlds they were given narrative leeway with and which ones they absolutely weren’t (The Frozen world has NOTHING beyond a vague retelling of the movie and a part where Sora, Donald, and Goofy literally just watch a shot-for-shot recreation of the “Let it Go” scene.) At one point it kinda just turns into Assassin’s Creed Black Flag for a few hours! There’s that entire scene where Donald Duck shoots a giant-ass laser at Terra-Xehanort and then DIES, which made me start screaming at my television. It has an almost Metal Gear Solid 4-like obsession with resolving every single asinine minor plot thread set up over the course of 17 years, but unlike MGS 4 it didn’t make me angry. And then it has the gall to try and set up even more things, especially if you feel like extrapolating implications from the hidden ending movie.
It’s a delightfully loopy experience, one I would wholeheartedly recommend if not for the part where I found the actual act of playing the game to be a dull slog. Even on hard, I got my way through 80% of the encounters by mashing X, occasionally pressing triangle to make some ridiculous screen-clearing bullshit (or keyblade form that allowed for ridiculous screen-clearing bullshit) and it just… started to grate. I know they eventually patched in Critical Mode, which people seemed generally positive on, but I shouldn’t have to play on the absolute hardest difficulty just so the mechanics matter. On the other hand? You get to hear Rex from Toy Story, still voiced by Hollywood Actor Wallis Shawn, say the word “Bahamut.” 10/10, Game of the Year except for the games in front of it.
In what might be a shocking turn of events, I didn’t love Disco Elysium as much as some people clearly did. I did, however, like it enough to put it on this list. In a lot of ways, Disco Elysium is a game made for me. It’s heavily inspired by Planescape Torment, but without any of the perfunctory combat encounters. It’s set in a more grounded world than Planescape, with far more worldly philosophical and political points, but it’s still just weird and esoteric enough to feel strange and fantastical. It’s an RPG where you play as a disaster cop trying to solve crime and dealing with the psychotic voices in your head, represented as your various skills, as well as your eternally patient partner Kim Katsuragi. The part where I pretended to be a paranormal investigator so I could dig through the “haunted” remains of ill-advised failed businesses is maybe one of the low-key funniest side quests I’ve seen in an RPG, and it’s a game filled with those sorts of weird vignettes.
Where Disco Elysium fell apart for me mostly has to do with its tone and some of its mechanics. The writing is generally quite good for a game with a lot of writing, even if it’s a little high on itself and sometimes feels like it was written by ironic left-wing twitter. But it bounces between absurdist humor, extremely broad political satire, and genuine melancholy at the drop of a hat, and that didn’t quite work for me. The ending, while metaphorically and philosophically consistent, felt like I glimpsed a little too close behind the curtain and realized how much railroading a lot of the game’s much vaunted reactivity actually surrounded. It also, for better or worse, made me realize why I’ve always been more fond of Baldur’s Gate than Planescape, despite the latter being a significantly better-written, thematically rich, and stylistically unique game. And it’s this: I like combat in RPGs. I like mechanics. I like “numbers ‘n shit.” I’ve always stuck with some lineage of Dungeons and Dragons with my tabletop RPG groups over more rules-lite “collaborative storytelling” rulesets like Fate or Powered by the Apocalypse because I like having a crutch of spontaneous orcs to fall back on when people don’t want to (or aren’t good at) RP. For as much as Disco Elysium is paying homage to the CRPGs of old, in a lot of ways it has more in common with those rulesets, or maybe even a point-and-click adventure game (if that point-and-click adventure game had people from Chapo Trap House in it.) Clearly, it resonated with a lot of people, and enough of it resonated with me that it’s one of my favorite games of the year. But when people say all other RPGs are dead to them, in that very hyperbolic internet way, I just can’t see it. At best, it just made me dislike Outer Worlds more.
Remnant: From the Ashes
If you needed proof that I will always be a sucker for mechanics over anything else, consider Remnant: From the Ashes. Despite having the single most generic name in all of video games (only lacking the words “Storm” and “Reckoning”) and despite clearly not having a AAA budget, it’s a pretty compelling, unapologetic mish-mash of Souls, a third-person shooter, and a little bit of Diablo and Stargate. It’s not the most polished experience, nor could I tell you a damn thing about the story, but do you know what it does have? The most satisfying take on the basic act of firing a gun this side of Destiny. The “feel” of shooting has always been a nebulous thing to pin down, but I think a lot of it comes down to not only obvious stuff, like audio design, enemy hit reactions, and time-to-kill, but also more subtle stuff like the generosity of the aim assist when you press the left trigger and simple bullshit like “enemy hitboxes.” Remnant nails this aspect, and they nailed it with a fun arsenal of interesting weapons, which keeps it going when the environments get a little repetitive, the constant add spawning during boss fights gets slightly frustrating and rerolling for specific events becomes banal.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall
Did you know a Civilization VI expansion came out this year? I did, because with the release of Gathering Storm I tried to give Civ VI another shot after bouncing off of the vanilla version like two years ago. It didn’t fix any of my problems with the game, which is to say that Civ VI feels less like an improvement over Civ V and more like a series of sidesteps, nor does it really change my core issues with the series in general. Namely, every game of Civ feels like it unfolds in roughly the same way for me, at a very lackadaisical, passive clip unless I’m going for a particularly aggressive early-game warfare strategy (which I’m usually not, because the combat in Civ has never been great.) Basically, with any given game of Civ it feels like I’m more incentivized to wait for things to happen and react, than actually instigate those things. Turtle up, build up that culture or science or religion, and sometimes fight Montezuma, then 20 hours later I’ve either won or lost. Or, more likely, I’ve quit 5 hours into any given game because I’m bored out of my skull.
It’s probably not a coincidence then, that Age of Wonders Planetfall is the first 4X game that really grabbed my attention since, well, Age of Wonders III. It’s probably cheating, since I’ve always thought Age of Wonders operates in a middle ground between a more straightforward fantasy strategy game like Heroes of Might and Magic and the true Civ-likes of the world, but with the shift to sci-fi, Planetfall is at least the most 4Xish the series has ever been. Admittedly, I think the actual city building parts of Planetfall are similarly dull to Civ. I wish there was slightly more differentiation between the factions when it came to how you structured your cities, which is one thing that Civ at least has in its favor. The good news is that the tactical combat is still great, as is the new focus on unit mods, which makes basic units viable the entire game and solves AoW III’s late-game problem of running around with nothing but top-tier units in massive doomstacks. Really, if not for Total Warhammer bludgeoning me over the head with its giant sack of content, Age of Wonders would easily be my strategy game of the year.
What is there to say about Apex that hasn’t already been said before? It’s the first Battle Royale that I feel like I could actually compete at, after PUBG got a little too hardcore and Fortnite continued to not be fun. I had a pretty consistent group of friends to play it with, which absolutely kept me on it longer than I otherwise would’ve, but credit must also be given to the way Respawn has managed to mix things up over the course of the game’s first three seasons. I’m not going to pretend I’m great (Like most competitive games, my abilities range from “oh wow I can’t believe I nailed that headshot” to “oh wow I missed every single shot with this SMG at point-blank range”) and I’m not going to pretend that running for 20 minutes before getting ganked immediately isn’t sometimes frustrating, but it’s the most consistent fun I’ve had with other people this year. Now all we need is Titanfall 3. Make it happen.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro is both simultaneously one of my favorite games of this year, easily, and also quite possibly the first time one of FromSoft’s games has broken me. Even moreso than Bloodborne, which focused down Dark Souls’ wide variety of playstyle options to “Do you want to use the fast or not-as-fast weapon with your agile, aggressive hunter?” Sekiro is a game that wants you to play it on its own terms or get crushed. No summoning, no grinding, just you and some parry and counter mechanics you’re either going to learn or you’re going to have a bad time. There are sub-weapons and various techniques to give you some amount of leeway with that, but unless you go out of your way to cheese for an entire game, you’re eventually going to have to figure out how to read enemy attacks and block at the last second. There’s an appeal to this, and this hyper-focus is probably what allows Sekiro to be as demanding as it is. When a boss’s previously inhospitable attack patterns become legible and everything starts to click, you can steamroll them into the ground. It’s the satisfaction of beating a boss in a souls game distilled into an even more raw form.
Also, Sekiro is really hard and I’m not sure if I ever want to play it again in my life. The final boss literally took me somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven hours to defeat, at which point I briefly looked at the optional late-game boss, said “nope” and took the disk out of my Playstation. It was satisfying as hell, but at some point became a miserable enough experience that I’m not sure if I want to relive it again. 10/10 Game of the Year except for the games in front of it.
Devil May Cry 5
It’s sort of impossible to talk about Devil May Cry 5 outside of that context of where the series has been for the last 11 years, so I’m going to pull off that band-aid nice and quick. I don’t hate DmC: Devil May Cry, and on its own terms I think it’s a perfectly solid character action game that made the mistake of actively trying to alienate devoted fans of the series with some of its watered-down gameplay decisions and aggressively dismissive marketing. However I think we’re better off living in a world where Keiji Infaune’s doom-and-gloom proclamations for the Japanese game industry were proven utterly wrong and Ninja Theory’s attempt at an edgy, mid-2010’s franchise reboot fell flat on its face, because DMC 5 is quite honestly the most fun I’ve had with a character action game in at least five years. The environments might be repetitive, the story might be silly and nonsensical (at least it’s self-aware of that fact), but also you can dual-wield rocket launchers and combine them together to shoot a giant-ass death laser. You didn’t have that in the game where you constantly have to be holding a shoulder button to switch weapons to hit color-coded enemies, now did you?
Once again, I can’t pretend to be one of the hyper-competent lunatics who put out the world’s most impressive combo videos and finish the game on all difficulties with all S ranks. However, I’ve certainly pulled off a jump cancel or two in my day and I’ve even gotten alright at style switching mid-combo with Dante. While Nero’s various robot arms can be a lot of fun, and V’s attempt at translating a puppet character into DMC is interesting (even if it feels like you can get SSS ranks by mashing things out) I’ll be clear that it’s still crazy uncle Dante with his multiple styles and giant arsenal of swords and guns who steals the show, and having played the first game last year, it’s genuinely fascinating to see how much his playstyle has both stayed consistent and progressed since 2001. Where does the series go from here? I have no idea, because it really does feel like they’ve pushed that playstyle as far as it can reasonably go for anyone but the most dedicated. All I know now is that we’re probably going to get Dragon’s Dogma 2 at some point, so, uh Capcom is back?
Fire Emblem Three Houses
Fire Emblem Three Houses fixes the most crucial flaw of Fire Emblem Fates in that it isn’t quite possibly one of the worst stories I’ve seen in a story-heavy video game. Listen, I liked Fates alright, especially the Conquest campaign with its wide variety of (perhaps slightly too) uncompromisingly difficult asshole maps, but there’s no doubt it left me rather ambivalent about the series future. It seems like Three Houses got the memo, by cutting down heavily on the pandering waifu shit and taking its characters and world remotely seriously. Solid localization and voice acting helped elevate Shadows of Valentia to something more than a remake of an NES game, and similarly great writing and VO helps elevate Three Houses into a Fire Emblem game that even excites normal people.
Where Three Houses falters for me might actually end up putting me at odds with some of the mainstream praise the game has gotten. The week-to-week scheduling and exploration at Gareg Mach Monastery, while a fun idea for the first half of the game, starts to really wear out its welcome post-timeskip and really starts to wear out its welcome on a second playthrough when you’re spending multiple hours between chapters doing the same handful of repetitive tasks to ensure your already overpowered units are even more optimally overpowered. The game is, quite frankly, very easy even on its “Hard” difficulty. I’ve heard Madness offers a more inviting challenge, one probably more suited to my preferences, but the game didn’t launch with it (also I’d have to finish my current run before getting there). It also, to be blunt, looks like a damn PS2 game sometimes and not in the way that hyperbolic internet people sometimes get about graphics. I played through Might and Magic VII (a game that didn’t look all that good in 1999) this year so I wouldn’t call myself particularly picky about visuals, but I think partnering with Koei-Tecmo and using the Dynasty Warriors engine was a bad call for as “neat” as it can be to zoom down and see all of the individual battalion troops on screen at once.
Don’t let my criticisms fool you though, I’m at least semi-optimistic that Fire Emblem is back on track after years in the wilderness, and I feel like Three Houses serves as a hell of a foundation for whatever Intelligent Systems has going on next (which, let’s be real, is probably a Genealogy of the Holy War remake.) And if not…? Well, Vestaria Saga finally came out on Steam if you want that raw, unfiltered Kaga-Emblem madness. Edelgard did nothing wrong.
Resident Evil 2
I’ve made no secret that I’m a sucker for a good Resident Evil game, and Resident Evil 2 remake is pretty much my ideal Resident Evil game made manifest as if formed wholly from my own dumb imagination. Actually, in some ways RE2 is better than the game I imagined in my head when they first announced they were doing this remake. Resident Evil 7 was a step in the right direction, let down by a weak last third, and Resident Evil 2 feels like the realization of those ideas on a bigger scale. Ammo is limited, even basic-ass zombies are dangerous, and the entire time there’s a sense that something could go very wrong at any given moment. If I was into marketing buzzwords that somehow got turned into genres, I might say it’s a great example of “Survival Horror” done right. You’re not powerless, but you’re never quite powerful enough to brute force everything. While it’s not as interested as messing with expectations as the remake of the first game, it does a great job of directly bringing over a bunch of things from the original Resident Evil 2 (and even some nods to Resident Evil 1.5, like Mr. X wearing a hat) and messing around with them in ways that make sense. The only way it could be any better is if it had tank controls and fixed camera angles. Okay, maybe not.
I have my minor nitpicks, like wishing they recreated the A/B scenario structure of the original instead of mildly remixing things for whoever you play second. I think the sewer section goes on for a little too long and the lab section doesn’t go on long enough, and I wish Claire’s classic outfit was actually accurate. But those are nitpicks, and don’t stop Resident Evil 2 from being my favorite game of this year. It almost feels like cheating to know that a similarly styled remake of Resident Evil 3 is only four months away.
Honorable Mentions: Astral Chain, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Gears 5, Pokemon Sword/Shield, Etrian Odyssey Nexus, Ring Fit Adventure
The fact that there are no less than six honorable mentions for this list should put to rest any complaints of 2019 being a “weak” year.
Astral Chain’s ambitious Cyber Cop who Summons a Stand gameplay is a lot of fun when it all starts flowing together. It’s a pity that it never quite gets there, between some awkward pacing (I *love* spending an hour of each mission doing banal police tasks. Oh wait, I meant “hate”) dubious scoring criteria, and a story that mostly manages to waste its style in the service of being a dumb ripoff of better anime stories. Still, it’s at least the most interesting thing Platinum has done in recent years, especially if you don’t count Nier. Definitely could see a second game being a significant improvement.
I’ve always liked Zelda, but I don’t think the series has ever quite endeared itself to me in the same way some people seem to fawn over it. In that sense, Link’s Awakening is good. It has a very charming aesthetic that I love, but for all my time with it I couldn’t help but feel like I was playing a very pretty Game Boy game that is only slightly younger than I am, but paid $60 for. And maybe for some people, that’s enough. There’s a contained efficiency to Link’s Awakening’s pacing and scale that is admirable put in contrast to Breath of the Wild’s terrifying vastness, and for the most part I think the dungeon design is solid, if not especially daring. But yeah, I haven’t finished it yet, and even if I did, I'm not sure it would’ve made the main list.
Everything I said about Gears in my last blog mostly applies to Gears 5. They might have thrown in some pseudo-open environments, added some color variety, cut down on the dudebroishness, and actually established an identity over Gears 4’s soft reboot blandness, but it’s still a game where you hide behind waist-high cover to engage in best-in-class third-person shooting. Is that enough for a game in 2019? Should the story be more dumb, or less dumb? Why are you asking me these questions? Does it really matter when it only cost me a dollar to play Gears 5 in the first place?
Pokemon is Pokemon is Pokemon. For all the controversy over Game Freak’s unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to drag the most conservative RPG franchise this side of Dragon Quest into any sort of modern design sensibility, I still had fun catching dumb/cool looking animals in balls and training them like I did when I played my copy of Red literally 20 years ago. Did I finish the main story? Nope! Did I actually get around to training a competitive team like I threatened to do in Sun and Moon, but then got bored and just imported my (competitive-ish) team from X version? Nope! Do I think that excuses some of the flaws and omissions of this game? Probably not! But yo, I love how much all of the fossil pokemon look like horrific abominations who are also in constant pain.
From a JRPG franchise that is arguably even more conservative than Pokemon comes Etrain Odyssey Nexus, which was definitely going to be #10 at some point before I decided to opt for Somnium Files if only to give that game some recognition. It's probably going to be the last 3DS game I ever buy (at least until I end up importing The Great Ace Attorney, hacking the damn thing wide open, and then installing the fan translation.) As a "Best of" game that includes a bunch of remixed dungeons, classes, and bosses from the series past, it's a decent package, and there are definitely a lot of fun party compositions one could make with the TWENTY avaliable classes at your disposal. That said? While I appreciate its commitment to having a bunch of smaller, 3-5 floor dungeons over one massive 25 floor one, there's no doubting that the heavy recycling feels a little... cheap.
Ring Fit Adventure could honestly be #1 on my list if only because it tricked me into working out on a consistent basis by throwing video game mechanics on top of exercise. But I feel weird ranking it among games that do the complete opposite, so an honorable mention it is. No other game this year has made me hurt all over in such a literal way.
Games from everyone else’s list I guess I need to play now: Control and The Outer Wilds
Well, I bought Control, and I guess Outer Wilds is on Game Pass whenever I get around to subscribing for a dollar again. Yup. Control sure does seem neat, as someone who once spent the better part of an afternoon looking at a bunch of SCP stuff. On the other hand, I’m not sure if The Outer Wilds is “for me” given my aversion to riddle solving in all of its forms and my general suspicion whenever people get very hyperbolic about a neat indie game, but enough praise has been given that I at least feel compelled to give it a look.
Games that might’ve made this list, had I not decided to lock it in when I started writing this blog: Bloodstained Ritual of the Night and Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Hey I started playing both of those games this week and they both seem pretty good!
Most Disappointing Game: The Outer Worlds
Instead of summarizing a thing I wrote last month, why don’t I link to it? You should read it. You know, when you have the time. The Outer Worlds is both profoundly okay and also… just sort of underwhelming.
Best thing in a game that otherwise seems, uh, fine: Code Vein’s Character Creator
From the team responsible for God Eater (a series I’m to understand is basically a less deep, excessively anime take on Monster Hunter) comes Code Vein, a game that seems like a less deep, excessively anime take on Souls. It’s fine. No, really, it’s fine. It’s mashy, airless, and easy where Dark Souls is deliberate, weighty, and difficult, and also there’s approximately 9000% more melodrama, but it seems like there’s some legitimately interesting character building stuff with how you can customize your skill and class loadouts. I think I might actually get around to finishing Code Vein as a sort of diet Souls, something I don’t have to think too hard about after Sekiro almost broke me and Nioh 2 will inevitably do the same.
But that’s not why this game is getting mentioned. No, Code Vein is getting mentioned because it has what is quite frankly the most impressive character creator I’ve seen this side of Black Desert Online. I am not someone who spends much time making a character. At most, I’m going to select a preset, tweak some of the variables and the hair, and call it good. I spent more than an hour making a pretty lady in Code Vein, and I've forcibly shown this character creator to anyone unlucky enough to be friends with me. If you don’t think the number of options it has to make the best pretty anime vampire waifu or husbando aren’t comprehensive, then just take one look at some of the very impressive recreations of various characters people have made. The Hair and Accessory options alone put pretty much any recent video game to shame. Sure, it’s pandering. The “physique” slider for male characters is basically “how broad do you want them shoulders?” but a general “boob, ass, and general thiccness” slider for the females (not to mention the general dearth of pants and/or non-cleavagey outfits for them) But as far as pandering goes, Code Vein deserves credit for not half-assing that pandering. Unless you only want half an ass. Also the game is, I dunno, fine?
And that’s it for me, I think. I hope 2020 treats us all well, but if not there are always video games as a distraction, I guess.