Game of the Year 2019 (As played, not released)

What an odd year. I spent the majority of it waiting for something interesting to come around. There were plenty of experiences that were okay in the first two-thirds of the year, but they were few and far between. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering my list last year was a combination of the best of 2017 (since I got a Switch) and the killer new games of 2018. Regardless, the time was filled with great indies and remasters until things kicked into high gear in the fall (seriously, 7 out of my top ten I purchased in August or later). This relative lack of excitement made it tough to write as much about what I was playing as years past. Mix that with the fact that I’m writing so much for school (at the time of this post only 4 weeks left before I complete my Master’s!), and you have a year that felt below average as it progressed, but will probably be remembered as a solid year overall. It’s certainly the opposite of 2020 where spring is shaping up to be an absolute slug-fest between amazing games (Doom Eternal V. Animal Crossing… FIGHT).

The biggest technological change for me this year was my first VR experience with PSVR. I don’t have the resources to build and maintain a gaming PC so the console experience was the best way to dip my toe in the water. I was a bit skeptical of the technology, but having not experienced Oculus and Vive level kits, the PSVR, blurriness and all, was an absolute wonder. As a first time user of “real” VR, but a cynical one, it’s amazing how quickly it “got” me. I kind of rolled my eyes at the whole “you won’t understand it unless you experience it” thing, but I get it now.

Looking at my list for this year is the first time I’ve noticed the real impact that games as a service have had on my habits. While last year’s list was all open worlds, this year is filled with single-player experiences— many of them set in smaller, focused worlds. It’s also worth noting because I continued to play last year’s games (Hitman 2, AC Odyssey) this year, especially during the early-year drought.

Overall, I think 2019 is a year that will be remembered more fondly than, say, 2014, but certainly not an all time great.

List items

  • Game of the Year - #1

    I take notes on everything I play. For a long time the only thing written beside Fire Emblem was “GOTY.” Even now I’m having a hard time trying to write about a game that dominated my life in the way that Three Houses did. I played 120 and some hours and finished all four routes back to back. I read guides, extra material, laughed at memes, and didn’t stop playing until I’d wrung ever last second of content out of the game. In short, the gameplay is great, and the quality of life touches— like seeing a complete enemy attack range— make the turn-based gameplay feel a step ahead of the curve.

    I realize that not everyone is going to be in for a four-run trip through this game, but I think that the writing and characterization are both enjoyable enough to make any single run worth it. It’s anime as hell, but it works like a charm.

    All of this is coupled with a compelling slice-of-life teaching sim and you’ve got a game that has my name on it. Full disclosure: I’m a professor and I love strategy games, so a game about being a teacher and completing turn-based strategy battles is, unsurprisingly, 1000% my thing. Three Houses actually captures the joy of seeing a student hit a breakthrough point. That moment when you can see a change in their understanding of a subject. You work hard and invest time, manage their motivation, and ultimately see them flourish. It’s superb.

  • Game of the Year - #2

    Sometimes a game immediately grabs you on an emotional level and just keeps pressing the right buttons. Some of this comes down to the fact that it ticks all of the Star Wars boxes (I’m a Star Wars mark so all it takes is a lightsaber hum and a couple of wipe transitions) but I don’t want to discount the actual legwork that Respawn did to develop an interesting setting and cast. It doesn’t hurt that you can make your own lightsaber and customize it— a bit of Star Wars role-play that I’m embarrassed mattered so much to me.

    From the jump the opening sequence sets the right tone and feel. When it’s working properly this game just looks great. It’s a reminder of how great art direction (and the entirety of Star Wars canon) can enhance technical graphical achievement. Traversal feels good and some of the mapped controls offer a level of granularity that shows Respawn knows what I want (especially toggling the saber on and off and on again… over and over and over). I’m not a huge Souls-like fan so I busted the difficulty down and had a grand time just enjoying the power fantasy.

    The controversial collectables didn’t bother me at all, but you should remember that I’m helpless to resist Star Wars junk. One of my pet peeves are games that have more secrets than worthwhile rewards (I really don’t need to find single use items) but knowing that every chest had the potential to be a reward I might want to tinker with was great for me. That said, for someone who isn’t as invested in Star Wars there probably isn’t much interest wrapped up in endlessly tinkering with a cosmetic only lightsaber configuration.

    The story is phenomenal and manages a minor miracle rarely seen in the Star Wars universe: a reasonable scope. That’s not to say everything is fully novel or original, with several scenes like the Order 66 sequence being a bit predictable. Luckily, that dramatic irony really adds to the dread because we’re invested in the lives of the characters. Cal high-fiving a clone trooper on the way to his big test is blatantly manipulative (since we know they’re about to try and gun the kid down) but I was hooked all the way through.

    The story also clarified several canon questions that fans have had since the EU realignment. I’m waaaaay into the original Legends canon (look, I was a kid) but I was totally fine with the continuity reset. Part of what makes me okay with it are games like Fallen Order that tread new ground with a mix of Legends and new canon. Also, for everyone who’s on the fence, the entire game is worth playing for the end sequence. It was genuinely the scariest thing I’ve played in years. I also loved the way that Fallen Order takes the Last Jedi view of the old Jedi order. I love Star Wars fiction that posits that maybe the order isn’t worth resurrecting.

    Fallen Order may have some significant compromises, but in my playthrough the stars aligned and none of them affected or mattered to me. Sometimes it works out that way and I’m so glad it did. I enjoyed every second of my time, slides and all, and I’m glad I took the time to get the platinum trophy.

  • Game of the Year - #3

    When I think of Control I think about the way that papers swirl and tiles are ripped from the ground as you dodge around. It looks, feels, and sounds great. Every time you rip up concrete and great through desks you can’t help but smile. Every additional ability only adds to that joy. A great example is levitation, which works better than any game I’ve ever played. Like Jeff said in an episode of the Bombcast, there’s something about the way Jess tries to catch herself and stay stable mid-air that really sells the movement.

    Speaking of Jess, the story and characters stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of this decade. The story and art are amazing as well. Honestly, Control is peerless in that regard. The way that the in-game spaces invoke the exact feelings that the story intends is a testament to cohesive game design. It’s that focus on great spaces that make me wish there was a mode with fewer enemies respawning ad-nausium. The combat is enjoyable (albeit punishingly difficult and frustrating in spots), but the suspense of wandering the Oldest House is almost enough on its own. Fewer, but more specifically placed, enemies might have worked even better for me. That’s a small gripe though.

    There’s so much that I wish I could talk about. The Ashtray Maze sequence is a triumph. Ahti… just… everything about Ahti. The gun breathes. The glow of the explosive charge, the posters that paint a dire picture of the Oldest House as a workplace, or the genuinely great music video. All of them add up to a game that I can’t wait to jump back into for the DLC (and yes, I got that platinum).

    As a quick postscript, I had a hard time choosing between Control and Fallen Order for the number two spot. After writing up both games and going over the notes it comes down to the fact that, although I think Control has atmospherically high highs, Fallen Order just hijacked my emotional attachment to an existing franchise and presented a more even gameplay and story experience. Control is a game I wanted my friends to see, but couldn’t recommend to those who might find the combat frustrating.

  • Game of the Year - #4

    Into the Breach is Profoundly fair. The fact that you never feel caught off-guard by enemy movements leads to my favorite strategy moments of the year. I kicked myself for not noticing movement rather than feeling blindsided. In some ways, it kind of spoils other strategy games of this ilk. As an example, it destroyed my desire to play Tiny Metal, an otherwise competent Advance Wars homage. Ultimately, the game hearkens back to that series while also moving the medium forward.

    There’s a ton of content and replayability which made the value proposition on the Switch (where I played it) well worth your investment.

  • Game of the Year - #5

    Well, this was completely unexpected.

    When I picked up Divinity: Original Sin 2 on sale for the Switch I had had two conflicting experiences with the series. The first was completely bouncing off the PS4 version of D:OS (due to iffy controls and a camera that felt claustrophobically close to the floor) and the second was hearing that D:OS 2 was infinitely better than its precursor. For whatever reason, maybe because of the console I played it on or maybe because it’s just a more refined take on the first game’s systems, D:OS 2 clicked with me.

    I wish more games would integrate story choices into gameplay in the way that D:OS 2 does. Being able to make a story choice through actual action, not just though text choices, is uniquely compelling.

    I love the Dragon Age series, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the story is tied almost exclusively to dialog choices. In D:OS 2 if someone is sick, and I cast heal on them, they’ll comment on it and it might also impact the story.

    The story isn’t an all-time great but it’s competent and elevated by the interactions that can impact it. The characters are of a similar quality but avoid some of the by-the-book fantasy tropes that tend to weigh a story down.

    Ultimately, the selling point for me is the choice to utilize a turn-based battle system. It creates a great experience that borrows some of the flexibility of real time combat and fits it in to a context that, for me, allows for a deeper level of strategy.

  • Game of the Year - #6

    I kind of don’t want to say much about Outer Wilds. I knew very little going in (a rarity for me) and I came away with a fantastic time with one big ol’ warm hug of a game. That’s not to say it doesn’t have any edge at all— the story is surprisingly poignant and there are some moments that are angling for jump scares— but most of Outer Wilds is a meditative study in loneliness and wonder.

    You should go ahead and try it. Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, it’s interesting enough to poke at for a bit and admire the scenery.

  • Game of the Year - #7

    There are some games that feel like PS2 era throwbacks given a new layer of paint and polish. Ace Combat 7 feels like that kind of throwback in all of the best ways. The visceral thrills of the series have been translated to new hardware and a beautiful engine. Some new features are present, including a tech/upgrade tree that offers incentive to keep moving forward and some VR missions that offer the exact amount of content I could handle (without projectile vomiting). It comes together into a great hybrid of the past and present.

    The classic sensibilities translate to the mission design, which is virtually unchanged from previous entries in the series. The missions can be punishing but the way this translates to white-knuckled, seat-of-your-pants gameplay is perfect. Within that challenging framework, even the melodramatic B.S. that comes through the story (yet again set in the Strangereal) is enjoyable.

    To this day when I think about weaving through canyons to avoid enemy missiles and approach a ground target, dropping ordinance, and pulling up at the last second, I get a blip of adrenaline. Ace Combat 7 was the exact shot in the arm I needed in the sluggish early months of this year.

  • Game of the Year - #8

    For every step forward that the Outer Worlds made, it took a step back. It leaves us with a comforting taste of a genre that I really enjoy, even if it did’t ever quite add up to a satisfying meal.

    It looks great, both artistically and graphically, and the character writing (especially the character quests and Parvati’s material) is as good as people described. Those wonderful features are bogged down by a loot and mod system that never quite clicks into place and definitely felt disappointing.

    This cycle happened over and over during my time with the Outer Worlds. I’d find something I absolutely loved about the game and then I’d run into something that brought my experience to a screeching halt. I love the way that Obsidian set up the stats system, and it felt like an interesting twist on the expected progression system and left the late game leveling feeling more exciting than usual, but the game’s story then got less interesting alongside it as the game progressed.

    I came away feeling… satisfied? But it took a while to settle on that feeling. It surprises me because usually games like this inspire replays from me, but I think being able to see the limited scope of the content means that I don’t feel like I can get as lost in it. Skyrim hooked me through dozens of playthroughs because there’s so much content you can forget about some of it. I’ll probably go for a platinum at some point. I don’t regret playing it, but I wish that it had been more than it is.

    For better and worse Outer Worlds felt like a game I’ve played before. It was the right length and definitely enjoyable (it earned its place on my list) but I don’t think it’s the savior who will swoop down and rescue us from Bethesda’s monopoly on the genre. That’s alright though, since I’m more sure than ever that Bethesda— for all of their jank and questionable choices— may be the only ones who make these games work for me.

    Oh, and the music is legitimately great. It’s an underrated soundtrack that’s worth looking up.

  • Game of the Year - #9

    Cadence of Hyrule (I’m not going to write out the full name) proves that Nintendo needs to give more indies the chance to mess around with existing series. Who would have thought that what I wanted was a Crypt of the Necrodancer followup starring Link?

    I was so impressed to find that, despite a change in developer and core gameplay loop, the sense of mystery and wonder I first got as a kid playing A Link to the Past is still present. Part of that is due to the music (which is propulsive and catchy) and the pace (which is brisk). Cadence of Hyrule doesn’t overstay its welcome, but the rogue-lite elements give it a much longer tail.

    At the end of the day it makes me happy. That’s worth something I think. Even though I haven’t played it over and over again, the time I spent with it brought a smile to my face.

  • Game of the Year - #10

    People have talked a big game about Obra Dinn. After it was released on the Switch I was able to actually sit down to experience it for myself over the course of a day or two. The immediate first impression is that it scratches a nostalgic itch that I didn’t realize I had. Seeing the retro graphical treatment gave me flashbacks of playing The Manhole with my dad. After that I was pulled into the intrigue and logic of one of my favorite puzzle games in a long time. That said, even though the game is incredibly clever (and a fantastic pick for the Switch), it wasn’t quite as revelatory as I’d hoped. In the end though I think this is a real credit for Return of the Obra Dinn. I had sky high expectations and still came out of it with positive feelings.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Joseph Albert Morello” Award for Best Styyyyle

    This award goes to the game that knows what it wants to look and sound like and successfully brings the player along for the ride.

    I want to eat, drink, and breathe this style. It helps that the game is fun, simple, and punishing. Ape Out doesn’t last long but it’s a fantastic high while it’s around.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Requisite Picross” Award

    This award goes to whatever Picross game was released by Jupiter this year. Yes, I know. No, I don’t care.

    Look, what do you want me to say about it? Who cares. It’s Picross. It’s great. I love it. Quit looking at me like that.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “I Don’t Wanna Think About It” Award

    This award goes to the game that best served a simple purpose: Helping me check out and relax after a long day.

    If you want my full thoughts on Elite you should check out my write-up for it’s 2017 GOTY win. What makes it worth mentioning this year is the fact I achieved two rites of passage in the world of Commanders: I completed a journey to Colonia (one the most remote human presences in the Milky Way) and returned by way of the galactic core, and I achieved my first and second Elite ranks in exploration and trade. Both of these matter to players because they represent the transition from one of the original in-game goals (make money and build the best possible ship) to the self-guided endgame goals.

    The changes made in the game this year have been largely superficial but, ultimately, nothing can stop my enjoyment of this game. That said, I didn’t play as much once the busy season kicked off. Between the influx of other games and the fact that I had basically checked my existing long term objectives (Colonia, center of galaxy, elite rank, and money enough to do kind of whatever), I think it may be a bit before I dip back in. There will be other things that I want to do but I’m waiting to see how the larger updates will bolster those goals. If they don’t do much, who knows! Maybe I’ll head off into the unknown! Really though, if I could get my hands on a capital ship and use it as a base for exploration, that’d be rad.

    Here’s hoping that I have many more years of exploring the galaxy ahead of me.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Ongoing Game of the Year” Award

    This award goes to a previously released game that shows why ongoing games are compelling— and how to do them right.

    The new Hitman platform has catapulted itself into my top five games of all time, so it’s no surprise that I was heavily tied into the year of expansion pass content that just wrapped up. The two primary DLC locations explored different sides of Hitman’s design ethos. The bank is interesting since its size is initially underwhelming. Eventually, that gives way to a definitive sense of place that stands among the series’ best. On the other side of the spectrum is the Resort which is just… wow. It continues the series amazing sound design and the music is reminiscent of the myst series— a move that provides a sense of loneliness and solitude despite the colorful locale. It feels like IoI pulling out the stops for the final location with more interaction and dynamic reaction (like the storm that rolls in as you play).

    Hitman is one of my most played of the year. My only complaint with the expansion content is with how the bonus missions played out. In Hitman 2016, these bonuses transformed the existing levels with things like the Patient Zero campaign or the Icon/Landslide missions in Sapienza. Unfortunately, in Hitman 2, these bonuses are essentially glorified elusive targets, with little substantial change to the levels themselves. There are new or relocated NPC’s, or a change to the time of day, but there aren’t the kinds of fundamental changes that we saw last time around.

    Even with that disappointment, I’ll defend Io Interactive for the choice. With their reshuffling and emancipation from Square Enix, it’s amazing we got anything at all, let alone fully realized expansion content and regular releases.

    I’m excited and looking forward to what Io does next.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “I’m Not Angry, I’m Just Disappointed… Actually, More Like Apathetic” Award

    This award goes to the game that didn’t even have the courtesy to elicit strong feelings about its shortcomings.

    Look, at this point, should I just paste in my Wildlands summary? Breakpoint has many of the same issues and positives. A great core gameplay loop wrapped in groan-worthy story and UI choices. It may be a scarier game because of the lack of squad backup when soloing and the constant drone threat, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the story just kind of… stops? And leaves you wondering what you've actually accomplished.

    I enjoyed my time playing… I think… but it’s just not enough.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Dead Behind the Eyes” award

    This award goes to a game that might have good qualities on paper, but lacks anything resembling a charismatic connection to the player.

    What a bummer! Rage 2 was a ton of fun to play. The powers feel good, it has the best shotgun in ages, mobility is good, and the art is interesting even if world is bland. Literally everything else is completely bland.

    When I finished the game I realized that I have very little memory of what happened and who the characters were. With that comes zero need to go back. Normally this would be the type of thing that I tried to get the platinum trophy in, but I couldn’t muster the interest. It sounds like something to save for a very VERY dry year.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Did the Game Just Gaslight Me?” Award

    This award goes to the game that I thought I liked… maybe? But in retrospect I’m not sure why or whether I ever really cared for it at all.

    Did I like these games? It was admittedly probably a mistake to play Pre-Sequel first (which I hadn’t played before) but MAN it was rough. Everything about it was just aggressively off-putting tonally. Nothing was funny and the gameplay itself was fine, but not as good as I remember.

    So, between Randy Pitchford’s efforts and the fact I had a miserable time with the pre-sequel, I don’t think I’ll be running out to buy Borderlands 3 anytime soon.

  • Special Mention - Winner - The “Johnny Mnemonic Memorial” Award

    This award goes to the game that provided the most transcendent virtual reality experience of the year.

    I got the Move controllers months after getting a PSVR. I didn’t realize what a difference it would make in my entire perspective of the system. Superhot VR was a genuinely transcendent experience — one that wouldn’t have been possible without the physical component of motion controllers. It’s the first game where I tried to rest my hand on an object that didn’t exist outside the headset (I just needed to catch my balance on a console that wasn’t actually there).

    I can’t say enough good about it. I mean, c’mon, tossing a gun to where you will be after the next teleport and then catching it will never get old. Same with grabbing a gun without looking and blasting a dude sight unseen.

    Just go out and play it.