It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s time for everyone to get very excited, and very upset about what other individuals, various gaming publications, and even mainstream outlets decide is their “Game of the Year.” Sure, 2019 was a pretty great year for games, but what if I told you there was a better way? What if… there were games that didn’t come out this year? Hard to believe, I know, but I’ve managed to cobble together a list (in descending order, starting with 10) of such things. Take a look!
Best big dumb AAA Co-Op Game I played with my Brother-in-Law, but I can’t put Gears 2 on this list because I put it on last year’s list: Gears of War 3
I played through every Gears of War game over the course of a year and a half, and it’s a franchise I cannot fault for being anything less than consistent. Consistently great shooting mechanics, consistently dumb, emotionally stunted storytelling, and consistently high production values. Even moreso than Microsoft’s other (flagging) flagship series Halo, Gears is exactly what you’d expect, exactly all the time. Even Judgement, the definition of “unnecessary late-gen filler game”, is actually a lot of fun if you approach it as a series of varied Gears score attack maps made by the Painkiller/Bulletstorm people (that you don’t have to pay money for because Game Pass.) It’s both very easy and very difficult to directly compare them for that reason. Even if I found The Coalition’s direction for Gears 4 almost as underwhelming as 343’s direction for Halo 4, there’s no doubt that it is entirely capable and entirely competent at the incredibly safe (and slightly boring) things it tries to accomplish.
Still, in my shared adventure with my brother-in-law, the one we enjoyed the most was definitely Gears 2. But since we played that last year, the runner-up for these escapades is Gears 3. While Gears 2 has the better, bigger, and dumber set-piece moments, I think Gears 3 is when Epic fully managed to nail the moment-to-moment shooting and encounter design for the franchise. There’s a nice, solid range of weapons (The Retro Lancer is a favorite of mine, both for that great bayonet charge and for how ridiculous its damage output is if you can keep that recoil under control) and the shift to four-player co-op means the encounter areas are wider and allow for more varied approaches. For something more than eight-years-old, it still offers some legitimate best-in-class cover shooting. That might say as much about Gears’ accomplishments as it does about how little the genre has advanced since 2011, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.
Oh, also, I laughed hysterically when Mad World started playing during that scene. You know, the one. That might make me an elitist or a sociopath, but I do think Gears hyper-masculine, excessively dudebro, decidedly video game-y style of storytelling is not something worth lauding or taking especially seriously. It is, however, very entertaining.
Best Week Spent Doing Basically Nothing Else: Stellaris
You know that one game? The one you think “Man, this is great, I’m going to be way into this!” before you never play it again? That was me and Stellaris. I played exactly one game of Stellaris, as a Strongly Authoritarian, Militaristic Empire of Bird People and that was more-or-less how I spent my free time that week over the course of 30 hours. It was a legitimately eye-opening experience, one that made me *get* Paradox’s brand of Grand Strategy in a way several hours spent fumbling around with Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis never quite managed to. It helps that Stellaris is a more traditional Space 4X scaled up instead of a Dynamic Dynastic Medieval Soap Opera Simulator, but it also helps that the game unfolds at a leisurely enough pace that I had time to figure everything out. And once I did, it was… grand? No, but really, the best thing about Stellaris is how it manages that absurd scale, and manages to make that absurd scale meaningful and comprehensible. You can micromanage as much as you want, or let automation handle your less important star systems for you. One of the things I really appreciate about the game was the variety and depth of weird random events I would get, with some events having ramifications throughout my entire game. It’s a nice bit of personality for a game that can sometimes comes off as a little cold or generic, and it made me understand *why* those packs make up a substantial part of the obligatory avalanche of piecemeal Paradox-style DLC.
So yeah, that one game of Stellaris was awesome until the endgame crisis event happened, and suddenly I was onset by a vicious race of organic eye monsters from beyond the boundaries of the galaxy and my federation partner decided to declare war on one of the game’s ancient empires. Instead of spending another dozen hours clawing my way back to victory after my massive Imperial Bird Fleet was ravaged, I decided to call it there, satisfied with what I had accomplished. And then I never played Stellaris again after that week in May. It’s not that I won’t play Stellaris ever again (especially given how few 4X games have remotely grabbed me over the last few years) but it was also heavy enough that I didn’t feel the motivation to jump right back in and… some other games on this list managed to grab me a little harder. Still, if you’re someone (like me) who likes strategy stuff but has always been daunted by Paradox’s Grand Strategy, Stellaris is a great place to start. Hell, maybe I’ll finally play a full game of Crusader Kings in 2020.
Best Fighting Game I’ll actually try to get okay at: Street Fighter V
This is a bit of a late addition, but it’s been years since I’ve seriously “gotten” into a fighting games. While I will sing the endless praises of Dragon Ball Fighterz, Samurai Shodown V Special, and Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late(st) as my casual goof around games of choice for last year, my self-confidence when it came to playing against complete strangers has basically been shit for years. I’ve had this crawling anxiety that trying to “get good” and go online would mostly involve an endless train of getting my ass kicked by people who were much better than me, especially with a game more niche and selective (and anime) like UNIST. Well, the good news is that Melty Blood Actress Again Current Code is my current best “Casual Goof Around Fighting Game” for 2019. I will still maintain that is the most fun I’ve had just jumping into a fighting game with my handful of fighting game friends and pressing lots and lots and lots of buttons with the cast of my favorite erotic visual novel about moon vampires or some shit. (I don’t actually know anything about Tsukihime other than it’s the thing Type-Moon did before they did Fate/Stay Night)
HOWEVER, the idea of putting my foot in the Melty Blood door by joining some discords, downloading a “community edition” of the game with better netcode, and looking for any nearby hotel bathrooms was perhaps a step too far for my weak scrub sensibilities. So, instead, I decided that $25 Championship Edition upgrade for Street Fighter V was an acceptable alternative. I briefly messed around with Street Fighter V around the time that story mode came out, and found it genuinely underwhelming. Worse, my mains from Street Fighter IV, Bison and Vega (The dictator and the claw man, not the boxer and the dictator) were decidedly *different* characters from their previous incarnations. And so, I basically didn’t think about Street Fighter V for the next 3 years. But now I have, and I have great news: There are people still actively playing Street Fighter online who are worse than me. Oh, also the game has a much larger, more varied roster and bunch more features than it did in 2016, but who really cares about that when I’m fighting against the worst flowchart Ken players like it was 2009 all over again and slowly climbing my way through Bronze (only being halted when I go against people who actually know what they’re doing.) It’s been a nice low-key confidence boost in a year where I’ve felt like shit a lot, and I can’t wait to eventually hit the brick wall where I actually have to improve my matchup knowledge and execution instead of just understanding how to block and punish. That’s fine by me. Capcom is, uh, back?
Most overhyped gameplay “twist” in an otherwise great game: The Messenger
Hey, SPOILERZZZZZ for a game that came out last year, but The Messenger has a mid-game twist where it turns from a Ninja Gaiden-esque 8-bit platformer into a slightly more nonlinear, Metroid-ish (but not really) 16-bit platformer. If, like me, you got incredibly tired of games press, internet people, and the Giant Bomb staff dancing around this mid-game twist, I have good news: It’s not that revelatory. It’s neat for all the music and graphics to shift like that (especially if those things weren’t spoiled in the game’s pre-release marketing) but the bigger shift to a nonlinear format actually makes things worse by disrupting some previously tight pacing.
The good news is that, even with that shift, The Messenger is still a solid-ass platformer that pays homage to NES Ninja Gaiden without ever really feeling like a direct copy. I could’ve done with a little less snark in the writing, especially from that asshole demon who taunts you every time you die, but some of the Shopkeeper’s lines are genuinely amusing.
Best multiplayer game I spent time on this year not named “Apex Legends” Dead By Daylight
Dead by Daylight is seemingly the only asymmetrical multiplayer game to have “made” it for the long haul. Having heard nightmare stories of its early, hilariously imbalanced days from my roommate, I’m genuinely floored it managed to last this long in the first place. It’s janky, somewhat unintuitive, and it doesn’t look particularly great, but once I got the hang of it (i.e. watching my roommate play for months until I actually started playing with him) it was a lot of fun. Playing Survivor and Killer are two very different experiences, with very different goals and very different approaches. Survivors, in third person, have to power five generators and escape through one of two exit gates, while the killer (in first person, with an intentionally tight FOV) has to chase them down and sacrifice them on hooks. There’s a lot of fun interplay between perks, add-on items, map layouts, and killer abilities that makes what sounds potentially repetitive a lot more interesting. The Hag might not run as fast as some of the other killers, but she can lay down traps that allow her to teleport when triggered within a certain range. Halloween’s Michael Meyers starts out slow, but silent, but as he continues to stalk the survivors he becomes faster, more dangerous, and more audible. And so on it goes.
Of course, there’s always a downside, and the downside is that I’ve found Dead By Daylight’s player base to be occasionally toxic. Not quite Rainbow Six Siege-level toxic, but the number of ways you can grief someone (and the number of ways to get griefed) are significant, as are the number of ways you can be screwed over by incompetent teammates. The other major thing is how grindy the progression can be. Good luck unlocking any of the unlicensed killers with in-game currency (the licensed ones always cost money, though I’ve had a lot of fun with Freddy Kreuger) and it’s going to take time through matches to get the perks you want. One could argue that’s part of the game, and most perks are plenty viable during regular play, but it annoys me that Dead by Daylight sometimes feels like it has the progression systems of a Free-to-Play game despite not being one.
Best game that aggravated my RSI: DUSK
For a game that caused me a decent amount of actual physical pain, I can’t really say enough nice things about DUSK’s approach to retro-style twitch shooting. It’s a game that understands the appeal of the 90s games it takes influence from without slavishly devoting itself to their faults. It has a fun (if conventional) arsenal of weapons, all of which are useful. The level layouts are not only full of the requisite secrets and branching paths, but are also far more distinct, varied, and creative than you’d expect, and the game’s very polygonal, Quake-like graphics meshes very well with some of the more impressive, ambitious parts of the horror/grindhouse aesthetic. Oh, it’s also fast as shit, there’s a powerup that turns the game into SuperHot, and at no point (as far as I know) have the developers doubled down on profoundly lame, potentially offensive jokes for no good reason. Sounds pretty good to me!
Best Example of a Game that was so good that it got me to play a genre I otherwise have little affinity for (also 2019’s 2018 Game of the Year): Forza Horizon 4
I don’t play many racing games. If it’s not Burnout Paradise or Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, I’m probably only vaguely aware of its existence. Forza Horizon 4 is an exception. I could care less about the extremely dull, slightly-too-friendly British people constantly talking in my ear and calling me Count Driftula, I could care less about the various “Live Game” aspects that exist because it’s a modern AAA video game from a major publisher, and I could care less about the obligatory car porn stuff that exists because Ferraris are cool, I guess. Nah, Forza Horizon 4 is on this list because it nails the basic act of driving a car in a way that is straight up one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had this year. Changing seasons, different race formats, different vehicle classes, and that one weird mission where there’s a Halo Warthog bring some fun variation, but it’s just fun to drive around thanks to a model that splits the difference between a purely simulationist approach and something a little more arcadey.
Danganronpa 2 and Danganronpa V3 are some crazy bullshit that you need to see
When I played the first Danganronpa two years ago, it was a fun but occasionally frustrating anime-ass anime adventure game crossing wires somewhere between Ace Attorney, Persona, and Battle Royale. At its sharpest, it balanced the tension of its killing game/class trial premise with the ridiculousness and absurdity of its characters. At its worst, it had some pretty embarrassing character moments, a cast with likeability issues, and exceptionally unfun mid-trial minigames. If you want to read what I thought about it at the time, the blog is here.
Having finally gotten around to them now, its sequels solve a lot of my issues… mostly by doubling and tripling down on ALL OF IT. While the first game plays its style of aggressively quirky, aggressively stylish nonsense fairly straight, Danganronpa 2 and V3 play with that premise in a far more experimental way, to their own benefit. Danganronpa 2 has more likeable characters, more embarrassing, dubious “anime fanservice” (Being self-aware about it just means you want to have your cake and eat it too) sharper writing, worse trial minigames, and more genuine batshit insanity. To say how it manages to one-up the original game would be a spoiler, but somehow Danganronpa V3 manages to escalate even beyond that. Its ending might be one of the ballsiest, most divisive things I’ve seen in a video game, and I kind of loved it. It’s messy, maybe a little hypocritical, but it’s, uh definitive in a way few endings are. How much did I love it? Enough to put it at the #3 spot on this list despite not really loving the interactive parts. Play Danganronpa. (Mild spoilers in the video. Skip to 13:00 if the embed doesn't work)
Best Cult Classic Old Game that manages to mostly live up to its absurd hype: System Shock 2
I already wrote a blog about System Shock 2, and all of the praise I can sing about it still stands 7 months after I wrote it. Clunky, awkward shooting and clunky, awkward inventory management aside, it’s genuinely impressive how much of the game feels directly analogous to its modern immersive sim counterparts (most notably, Arkane’s Prey 2017.)
My “Old” Game of the Year: Total War: Warhammer II
After my positive experience with Tales of Symphonia (and my less-than-positive experience with its sequel) last year, I all but predicted that Namco-Bandai’s much beloved series of comfort food RPGs would be my next great franchise hole. That… didn’t end up happening. I now own approximately 8 Tales of Games (Symphonia, Symphonia 2, Vesperia, Graces F, Berseria, Xillia, Xillia 2, and Abyss) and got around halfway through Xillia this year before other things got in the way. While I might eventually pick it back up, it turns out my general level of tolerance for Japanese RPGs still isn’t quite as high as I think it is, and the specifically formulaic nature of Tales makes it harder to play multiple installments in quick succession. (if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I might just try to play Trails in the Sky as my JRPG for next year)
Instead, my new prediction for a potential franchise hole is Creative Assembly’s Total War series. Despite having a bachelor’s degree in History, it took the one with the elves for me to finally pay attention. That’s on me, and I’ve been messing around with Shogun 2 here and there to rectify that. HOWEVER, while I do appreciate some Sengoku period, at no point in Shogun 2 do any of the samurai summon giant pillars of flame, spawn hordes of ratmen out of the ground, or ride giant-ass dinosaurs into battle (on the other hand? Oda Nobunaga) Much like Stellaris and Paradox Grand Strategy, I’ve always assumed that Total War was too much of a galaxy brain franchise for me as someone who’s PC strategy baseline was always Heroes of Might and Magic. Generally, when people who are very into military history start talking about period-accurate tactics being replicable, my eyes start to glaze over a little bit as I quickly look for an exit. The nitty-gritty aspect of warfare has never been my favorite aspect of history, and I’m always slightly afraid the person in question is going to break out the measuring tape and pewter miniatures while yelling about “Napoleonic Musket Formations.”
WELL, 130 hours later the good news is that not only do I sort of understand Total War, with its various “hammer and anvil flanking charges” but also I sort of understand Warhammer Fantasy. The big advantage of setting your Total War game in a fictional setting is that you’re no longer constrained by “reality” and “historical accuracy” when creating your unit rosters. Instead, you’re “constrained” by 40 years worth of tabletop wargaming from the less popular of Games Workshop’s two franchises that were ripped off wholesale by Blizzard. While the game has plenty of content with its base “Heart of the Vortex” campaign, if you bring in the first Total Warhammer and all of its DLC as part of a separate “Mortal Empires” campaign (which combines the maps of both games,) the number of playable, entirely distinct factions in Total Warhammer II (each of which has multiple legendary lords, starting locations, and semi-unique music tracks) is 15. . There are Humans (of the Germanic “Empire” variety and the excessively French, excessively Arthurian “Brettonian” stock) and Orcs and Dwarfs, sure, but there are also Mummies, Vampires, Vampirates, Lizardmen, Ratmen, Beastmen, Northern Chaos Marauders, and no less than three varieties of Elves. That’s not counting subfactions with their own campaign-specific mechanics, all of which are supposedly more reverential of the series’ lore than what Games Workshop has apparently done with Age of Sigmar. It’s a lot. And it’s also kind of amazing that I can have such different experiences with all of them. Even if I wasn’t an idiot and bought all of the DLC (and, to be perfectly clear, I bought *all* the DLC) there’s still dozens of hours of dinosaur wrangling and pike formation-ing on its own.
It’s not all roses, necessarily. The Ritual victory condition for the Vortex campaign basically just requires you to turtle, the AI occasionally comes off as, uh, dumb on both the strategic and tactical levels, some of the factions are way more interesting to play than others, there are random crucial things the interface just doesn’t bother showing you, and siege battles kind of suck.I’m to understand Total War Three Kingdoms fixes some of these issues, and is apparently the best the historical side of things has been in years. I’ll probably check it out, once it goes on deeper discount. However, at no point does Lu Bu have the ability to fly around on a Black Dragon like Malekith, Sorcerer King of the Dark Elves, so… I dunno maaan. Game of the Year. At least, the one that didn’t come out this year.
Special Achievement Awards:
Honorable Mentions: Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep, Tales of Xillia, and Bioshock 2 (but really just Minerva’s Den)
I went down a Kingdom Hearts hole this year, and you’ll probably read more about it in my eventual next blog. What I’ll say in Birth By Sleep’s favor is that it does an interesting job setting up this tragic, doomed prequel that basically explains the entire series. It’s also *almost* a good action RPG. I say *almost* because, unlike Kingdom Hearts 2, it’s painfully clear how much the game was throttled by the technical limitations of the PSP. Environments are segmented and fairly empty, there aren’t many enemies on-screen at any given time
As mentioned prior, the 30 hours of Tales of Xillia I played were pretty good. Well, by that I mean the combat is a lot of fun and I generally like the cast of anime goofballs going on their adventure to save the world. If Xillia’s generic-ass environments and dungeons weren’t the literal worst, I might have more to say about the story’s actual conclusion. Maybe this will be revisited next year.
Minerva’s Den is easily the best DLC of 2010. Sorry Shadow Broker.
“Honorable” Mention: Beyond Two Souls
I wish I had written an entire blog on Beyond this year, but I feel like dumping on Quantic Dream and David Cage has become almost too easy. My entire time with Beyond, I just felt bad for Ellen Page. The game wants to be approximately 15 different movies (none of which is presented with even an ounce of creativity,) and Page is giving all of them better than she deserves (especially given the way her character is tormented and creepily objectified the entire time.) It’s profoundly stupid, tone-deaf, and self-serious, which is also why it manages to be unintentionally hilarious when it’s not accidentally succeeding at being emotionally resonant. It’s not a bad time if you want to play along with someone else.
Visual Novel of the Year: 428 Shibuya Scramble.
With Danganronpa already taking up space on my list, I didn’t quite know where to put 428 Shibuya Scramble, a visual novel that came out more than a decade ago for the Wii (of all systems) but only received an English localization last year. Imagine, if you will, a thrilling “race against the clock” anti-terrorism story in the vein of 24… but more anime, and “choose your own adventure.” One of the characters is a detective on the case. One of them is a freelance reporter trying to save a failing newspaper. One of them is a woman stuck in a cat mascot costume trying to sell a dubious weight-loss supplement. Now imagine, instead of that visual novel being filled with talking heads of cute moe characters, it was screenshots of real actors, acting out the ridiculous nonsense and striking melodrama depicted on screen. I think that, more than anything else, is what sells it to me. It’s very funny and extremely weird, and the various bad endings you can get as you try to juggle five different characters are somehow funnier and weirder. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Even as a fast reader, I’ve found most VNs tend towards being long-winded, which is why the roughly 60 hours I’ve spend with Higurashi When They Cry is not my VN of the year.
But yeah, I didn’t know where to put it on the list, so it’s getting its own special category. I’m always a little reticent to put Visual Novels alongside other games in a ranked list, often because they’re barely interactive and 428 is no exception. Regardless of my hang ups, it’s one of my favorite experiences of the year and you should “play” it.
And that’s going to do it, I think. Look forward to my “actual” Game of the Year listblog sometime around New Years.