The Games That Were: 2019
My favorite games of 2019… ranked!
I kept a running log of all the new 2019 games that I played this year and included all of the ones that I enjoyed on this list. To be clear, these are not all the great games I played this year—just the ones that released in 2019 and that I liked the best. So there are no bad games in this list as far as I’m concerned.
I also decided to use a fun tool to create my list this year: Tiermaker. It seems like it was inspired by fighting game tier lists, but it basically lets you “tier” anything. So instead of a full rank-ordered list, I broke my list into five categories: Best Game, Top 5, Top 10, Top 20, and The Rest.
Without further ado…
Best Game: Death Stranding
I know. I know. Death Stranding is one of those games you basically cannot talk about with adding at least one “but” (and how appropriate considering Kojima’s history with butts in his games). It is an incredibly divisive game. Some people loved it, other people hated it. And after playing through the whole thing, it is absolutely understandable why people would hate it. The gameplay is a combination of elements that a lot of people can’t stand—degrading items, carrying capacity, encumbrance, balancing, weak combat, bad stealth, confusing boss fights. And on top of those issues, it has a classically Kojima story with all that entails: great character moments undermined by ridiculous-to-incomprehensible plot.
So why the hell is it my best game of 2019? Because I loved the way all of those things came together, and because it demonstrated some truly novel gameplay elements that I found outstanding.
There’s no way I thought an actual walking simulator—essentially Mail Order Deliveryguy, the Game—was going to be my jam. But I freaking loved figuring out the best way to transport goods between different, disparate people in the world of Death Stranding. I loved the way it gave you an uphill battle (literally) every time you entered a new part of the map and how it then gave you the toys to streamline that process and optimize deliveries.
Nothing sums up that process and the feeling it inspires quite like the ziplines you gain access to midway through the game. In the beginning, you’re trudging through dangerous territory struggling to keep your balance. But then you start being able to put up ziplines across the territories, literally able to fly these huge loads of packages between destinations like it’s nothing. It’s so fun.
And on top of that, the way it implemented asynchronous multiplayer is fantastic. Games have been trying to implement that kind of thing for a few years now, but the way Death Stranding pulls it off is so elegant and so impressive. It sometimes feels like the game intentionally pulls a charging station or mailbox or zipline someone else built in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time just to give you that feeling that you just got a hand from a complete stranger. It’s such a great feeling. And the game gives you “likes” to dole out to those people, a currency that serves essentially no purpose other than to give another person a thumbs up. Yet people do it! That’s so cool!
That said, the last half of the game is weak boss fights dividing up expansion of the map with the compelling above-mentioned gameplay. Those boss fights are big on spectacle and weak on challenge and fun. But honestly, they’re footnotes to the rest of the game.
The other major element of the game—the story and setting—is similarly divided up between highly compelling characters, environments and lore versus bad plot and straight-up cringe-inducing beats.
I’ve heard some people say they put the game down after early story beats about the BBs (babies immersed in yellow liquid that players carry around to act as glorified scanners) and I honestly can’t blame them. The pacing of the plot is all screwed up—it takes tens of hours of gameplay to get to the part where the callous way they treat the BBs comes into greater focus and, in the end, becomes a major point of criticism about the society and antagonists in the game.
But it does get there (after a huge amount of bad plot exposition). The final chapter of the game is up there with some of the most memorable storytelling in games, and easily the best character performances I’ve seen in games. Not since NieR:Automata have I felt that strongly about the interaction of gameplay and storytelling.
Some people might be surprised that Death Stranding is even on my list, let alone at the top of it, after seeing my article about how it misrepresents asexuality. I do think it screwed up on that very badly, and I think there are bad ideas in the game. But I also do not sense any malice in these misrepresentations and bad ideas. I believe they stem from ignorance, and I only hope that my work and the work of others to address that ignorance in our criticism helps stop it in the future.
I don’t begrudge anyone who couldn’t make it through Death Stranding. I don’t disagree with a lot of the criticisms of it. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted to make ziplines across the map, carry packages across it like they were nothing. I couldn’t stop thinking about BB and Die-Hardman (I KNOW, can you believe that? That last chapter was a very good!).
Top 5: Control, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, Mortal Kombat 11, Judgment, Slay the Spire
In a year full of great games, these were the ones that were my favorites among them. Iceborne and Judgment should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my taste in games.
Monster Hunter World is easily one of my favorite games of all time. I’m up to 400 hours played in it which makes it one of my most played games of all time. Iceborne added so much to an already great game. Not just new monsters, but a new story, new and improved systems around the armor and weapons, and new major gameplay elements like the clutch claw. It’s probably the game I spent the most time with this year, and I loved basically every second of it. I do think the Guiding Lands was a bit… misguided. But frankly, I had so much fun with the game otherwise that I can excuse that at some level.
Judgment is another great entry in the Yakuza series which, as many know, is one of my favorite game series. The story is fantastic and the gameplay is streamlined in smart ways that expand on the streamlining from Yakuza 6. This may be a bit of a turn-off for long-time fans, but considering there are plenty of Yakuza games with more complex systems out there, I find it a welcome change for the time being. In addition, Judgment adds a set of minigames that are legitimately fun and different from those that came in the past (like the drone races and the VR minigames) which I really enjoyed.
Control is a game I’ve only just started. I’m not all the way through it, and I’ve heard the end of it falls off a bit. But honestly, I don’t think that matters because the world-building in Control is so immensely strong and entertaining. Aesthetically, it’s one of the most striking games I’ve seen in a long time. And the acting, characters, and story so far are fantastic. I can’t wait to get more time with Control.
Mortal Kombat 11 is just a super well-assembled fighting game. I suck at it, to be clear. But the characters are so interesting and varied that I didn’t get bored trying out new ones and diving into multiplayer. I also enjoy the towers, generally, and I loved the story and the Krypt was fun to explore and didn’t really bother me, so even the non-competitive parts were good. I wish I had the interest, time, and reflexes to actually become good at MK11, but even without that, the game was great.
Slay the Spire is the game I have played the most after subscribing to Xbox Game Pass for PC, which is kind of silly. But it’s because the game is so ridiculously good. The combination of deck building and roguelike elements is polished so well and every run offers a new chance to try out a build—in that way, it reminds me of Dead Cells, one of my favorite games of last year. I need to play more Slay the Spire.
The rest of the games on my list were all enjoyable. It was legitimately hard to divide them even as much as I did here, and I couldn’t imagine ranking them any more discretely than this. I would recommend any of these games to people. In that sense, it was a very good year for games.
I do want to shout out a couple of specific games from the rest of the list:
Void Bastards feels like a roguelike but actually isn’t one because there’s no starting from scratch—you do progress through the game at a meta level. It has a ton of personality and the exploration is a lot of fun.
Demon’s Tilt surprised me when I purchased it earlier in the year. First it surprised me because it was one of the best virtual pinball games I’ve played. Second it surprised me because it’s just one table, and for a moment I felt ripped off. And then I kept playing. And kept playing. And realized it’s one very deep table with a ton more to it than your average pinball game. I really need to try it in “vertical” mode!
Wattam is definitely another Keita Takahashi game with all that implies. It’s deeply charming. It’s got tons of character. And its gameplay is a lot of fun. I hope it doesn’t get lost in the end-of-year shuffle for people—play Wattam!
Baba Is You is a super smart puzzle game that I’ve only scratched the surface of. It’s one of those games where you end up feeling both incredibly intelligent and deeply stupid after solving its harder puzzles. And I love that feeling.
Finally, Bleak Sword is a surprising little game published by Devolver and available through Apple Arcade that’s basically bite-sized Dark Souls. The aesthetic is incredible and the gameplay is tight as hell. And each stage is short enough that you can bang out one or two here or there without feeling like you can’t put the phone down, which is super important to me when it comes to phone games.
And that’s about it! Thank you for reading. If you liked this, please do check out Plenty of Hominids, my website, for more of my writing.