Favorites of 2019

Very, very late! I had most of this written out before 2019 ended, but catching up with the rest of my wishlist got ahead of me. Another great year of games, if you ask me. The odd-numbered years are really doing it for me these days.

Honorable Mentions go to:

  • Death Stranding, which I like! I know!
  • Manifold Garden, the Antichamber followup with less of the cool stuff, but less of the bad stuff, too!
  • Ace Combat 7, DMCV, Eliza, and Baba is You, all of which I still need to play.
  • Pathologic 2, which I will gather the courage to finish someday.

List items

  • Outer Wild’s enthusiasm for the unknown is contagious. The game leans heavily on the assumption that you want what it has to offer (more than most games), but it’s easy to see the appeal the moment you take off and feel the solar system around you. Said system is about as volatile and untamed as you’d expect a real one to be, and one of the game’s grand surprises is just how integral danger and death are to the discovery. So, while Outer Wilds is obsessed with reason and knowledge, it admits through the 15 or so hours of play that it’s often perilous and exhausting work to comprehend the wonders of our universe. But, like anybody cursed with existence, you want to know. So you wake back up, and you try it again. And again.

    It’s my 4th year of doing these GOTY things, so it should come as no surprise that I’m completely bought into whatever Outer Wilds is peddling. I do want to stress, however, just how special the game is. Speaking generally, games have to work in so many different disciplines to even be functional, yet Outer Wilds succeeds at each and every layer with ease. The game has the intricacy of a clock’s underbelly, each design ticking hypnotically as one, asking the adjacent system for its help in progressing another second forward. Call me a failure of a writer, but its totality is such a rare quality for a game to have that I honestly don’t know if I’m capable of getting it across. You might just have to play the game to get what I mean.

  • There’s a complicated, disgusting truth that obfuscates the beauty of Devotion: according to Steam, it doesn’t exist anymore. The issues that arose from this game would completely decimate the scope of this blurb, so I encourage you to discover those things on your own. That said, nothing could have stopped me from playing the followup to Detention, even if it meant opening up my torrent tracker of choice.

    Both Detention and Devotion are gracious peeks into a culture and paradigm that most of their audience has no context for. The step into 3D, however, invites an au fait detail through the lens of a P.T.-like. The cutting drama and subjects therein work to completely separate their work from the chaff, and even through the loaded mythos of Taiwanese folklore and socioeconomics, the universal triumphs.

    While the horrors and bleakness work their way through the cracks, you cling onto anything you understand. You cherish the moments of brightness, however fleeting, in a way few horror games allow. Once it leaves, knowing what could have been cuts with a searing clarity. Your player character looks at his hands, and you see what he sees.

  • In an effort to say at least a single unique thing about this tyrannical centerpiece that’s already been op-edified, I ask for one last soapbox about RPGs.

    In my history of playing games, I have never wanted to more dutifully invoke someone that breathed within a game’s system. Whenever I’d gain a skill point in Disco, I’d think on how my recent actions could shape my future. It felt natural to give a point to Empathy if I helped someone, or a point to Visual Calculus anytime I noticed something new with the case. Through these cues, a lucid person soon erupted out of the washed-up cocoon, and lo and behold, I had a character on my hands. A character with a history and future.

    I felt this game through my own sensibilities. The vicious and colorful voice certainly helped, but really, I think the flexibility to not just accept my truths, but reject sophistries with intention made this experience feel so fresh. And, unfortunately for any nay-sayers going forward, I don’t think I’m the only one that noticed something special going on here.

  • I once heard Talking Heads described as “punk in spirit, but not in form.” Today, I’d like to offer a similar stance: Anodyne 2 is Zelda in form, but not in spirit, and then it’s neither. Anodyne 2 wants nothing more than for you to believe it’s just another one of “those” Zelda-like games. It wants you to have something familiar to hold onto while it takes flights of whimsy through poetic landscapes and dizzying proper nouns. But whether it’s a wading pool or a diving board into the deep end, you’ll eventually see through this facade. With the time, Anodyne 2 melts into effervescent, experimental goo.

    Though the game has plenty to say, the showcase was seeing a game’s view bend backwards into the heart of its own origin. Anodyne 2 is a clear child of the PS1/N64 worship that indie games have been teasing for years, but the game’s 2nd half uses tropes and features as a brush in and of itself. You start to peel back the game’s skin before it even gets dressed, and once credits roll, the relationship you have with the world feels as bizarre and intimate as the characters themselves.

    And, hey, if you think any of that sounds weird, then I encourage you to go and find out just how unembellished my take ends up being.

  • I’m usually hesitant to give unanimous praise to a remake, fearing that the shining qualities left behind in the original are too worthwhile for a “new” version to shift public image. While I would still recommend 1998’s Resident Evil 2 as the height of classic, cheese-filled horror games, 2019’s iteration is a syringe engorged with beautiful anxiety lunged into the neck.

    In Resident Evil 2, your primary opponent isn’t undead. It isn’t a giant gray man, nor a gore-adorned animal. It’s your inability to shoot a pistol in the moment. It’s your regretful window boarding as the adjacent one breaks open. It’s the flow of a game that spends its time curating the best kind of wrench to throw into your plans. This game, more than any other horror game of recent memory, bridges the gap between the tactical worrying of old and the fluid complexity of modern design.

    Preferences have the final say, so I’m hard pressed to dethrone the action opus that is RE4, let alone compare the “glow-up” standards set by REmake. It is something, though - it’s fucking scary.

  • If this decade belonged to any one development team, From Soft certainly earned a shot at the deed. While it’s hard to say that the trip from “niche action RPG” to “full-fledged archetype” was a unilateral triumph, I have gotten something out of every one of their games. What’s Sekiro’s gift, you might ask?

    I’ve only ever had these stories told to me via Youtube videos, and find the methods needed to piece together the strings of lore to be suited for other people. Soulsborne is, for the most part, a textural experience for me. Sekiro leaves that line of thinking on the coat rack. Your character speaks, has relationships, and makes decisions based on his beliefs. The combat is structured entirely around his body and capabilities, and you’re there to work the atrophy out of his muscles. It’s the first game in their lineup that feels like a guided tour, and Japanese-Buddhist folklore was the perfect subject.

    As a fan of these games, it’s easy to feel a bit underwhelmed by Sekiro in comparison to whatever your expectations prepared, but From can rest assured knowing that the break into coherency was ultimately worth it.

  • Action-puzzlers have been fighting extinction for a while, save for the occasional tetromino or pair of Puyo gummies (or both, simultaneously). Some might recall an age, though, where this subgenre prospered, fitted with a bubbly, nu-millennium aesthetic nearly always. This style, with the rounded edges and techno-organic shapes, isn’t my favorite, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t get my glasses tinted.

    Playing to this era, Crossniq+ (Cross-NEEK Plus) is an absolute chameleon. You see the audiovisual treatment this game got and wonder which Sega employee gave Max Krieger a Dreamcast prototype to polish up. As saturated as this aesthetic was in the early aughts, I legitimately felt chills run down my spine when I first heard the glitzy DnB play over FMV machinery, like I had tapped into a porthole the size of a modem jack. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Yoshi’s titular Cookie was a Naomi CPU, then consider Crossniq+ the solution to your problem.

  • As much as I want to champion every short-form experience under the sun for bucking the “forever game” trend that AAA fauns over these days, my hyper-active, compulsive tendencies have prevented me from being able to sit down and deeply enjoy the lot of these in one sitting. 50 hour RPG? Sure. 10 hour FPS? Of course. 1 to 2 hours of emotionally-frying storytelling? That sounds like a lot.

    Luckily for my palate, there’s been a heavy increase in what I’m dubbing “Slice-of-life” games -- simple, short experiences hellbent on mechanizing the arbitrary and silly. Goose-lovers rejoice. For my money, though, A Short Hike is the premier one of these. Delicate, but built around a solid framework. Charm out the wazoo, and not a single drop of cynicism in sight.

    If Breath of the Wild was a life-changing month of exploration and wonder, A Short Hike is the espresso shot that got me through a single day.

  • Ring Fit is the only game on this list that I’ve continued to play well into 2020. Sure, it’s also the only game on this list that invites that sort of playing, but a game about exercising by Nintendo earns the W’s where it can get them.

    Ring Fit is built for longevity and repetition. It is essentially a mobile game with a giant, plastic donut in the box. But where those games milk you dry of your patience, your passion, and even your money, Ring Fit just wants to see the numbers change. Its dim-witted progression and simplistic goal-oriented sessions end up being a strength for a person like me who usually can’t be arsed into exercise, aerobic or otherwise. You see a different number than before, regardless of what it means, and think “wow, that’s progress.” And the best part? In some actual, appreciable, meat-headed way, it is.

  • I have a gripe or two (or three) about this game, but months later, I can take a step back and really admire the successes. One of the most striking visual flairs on the market combines with a nauseatingly melo-camp world to create Remedy’s best game since the first Max Payne. I might not compliment the saturation of combat or the egregiously vestigial loot mechanic anytime soon, but this game’s presentation is so easy to love that... well, it’s here for a reason.