GOTY 2019

Ten games in a rough order of preference as per tradition.

(I swear, these GOTY list descriptions get more terse every year. Look out for GOTY 2020, where it'll just say "Words.")

Some honorable mentions that didn't make the cut:

  • Odysseus Kosmos and His Robot Quest: The quality of this serial adventure game's puzzles fell sharply with its last two episodes, but it looks good and is well-written so I might recommend it if you like slow-moving space dramas and '90s point-and-clicks.
  • Outer Wilds: The PS4 version is presently busted, so as soon as they fix the save corruption bug I'll give it another shot. Really hoped to have solved its mysteries before the GOTY podcasts solved them all for me but... the best laid plans of mice and astronauts, right?
  • PictoQuest: A "picross RPG" that couldn't figure out a compelling way to hybridize the two genres, alas.
  • Pikuniku: Adorable but very simple adventure-platformer game more intended for a younger audience. Eminently likable, even for as rudimentary as it is, and the dialogue's fun too.

List items

  • Though a third-person shooter not unlike most of Remedy's other games, Control's abstruse setting doesn't just ask that you take a passive approach to the storytelling and lore this time - passing a TV in the background, or a file left on a cabinet - but encourages you to absorb as much of it as you can to make as much sense of your surroundings as possible. Remedy has always gone all out in their worldbuilding but this is the first time where going out of the way for incidental reading material feels mandatory in order to understand what the heck is going on, and it's a risk that I believe has paid off for them. The Federal Bureau of Control and its ever-shifting HQ of The Oldest House are entirely alien to its ostensible new commander Jesse Faden and to the player alike, and so there's some justification for devouring every tidbit of data that you find.

    What also doesn't hurt is third-person combat that doesn't so much rely on ducking behind cover than figuring out how to keep yourself alive by constantly moving and putting up psychic defenses, grabbing pieces of furniture and detritus to use as both shields and projectile weapons alike. The one constant is Jesse's singular gun, an "Object of Power" capable of multiple transformations, which is as versatile an arsenal as she'll ever need. Control is the realization of the hybrid multimedia-video game dream that Remedy has been trying to nail for years now, and the first one of theirs that I might call an unconditional success.

    Best Moment: Ashtray Maze, of course.

  • If you know me or my blogging on this site, you know have a predilection for explormers - a certain subgenre of exploration platformer that the internet can't seem to agree on a name for - and Bloodstained looked to be the big prestige blockbuster of the batch released this year. It had Koji Igarashi at the helm, who helped codify this particular genre back in the '90s, and a not-inconsiderable budget due to an absurdly successful Kickstarter. There was the potential for it to go horribly pear-shaped also, with concerns about a Mighty No. 9 style catastrophe, but Ritual of the Night thankfully did not go down like that. Instead, It not only lived up to Igarashi's reputation for solid RPG explormers but also went a little... extra.

    So I'll explain what I mean by that. You remember that classic Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a union leader to ensure Lisa has the orthodontic care she deserves? There was a monstrous computer simulation of what would happen to Lisa's teeth if left untreated where they turned into these massive stalagmites, one of which appeared to pierce her through the brain. That's what I mean when I say Bloodstained goes one extra ridiculous mile than perhaps was warranted, far beyond the limits of rationality, and yet it is all the better because of it. The Igavanias were always rife for balance-shattering combinations of souls (now shards), weapons, techniques, and other character building elements, all the way back with the legendary Alucard Shield and Shield Rod combo in Symphony of the Night. Ritual of the Night goes a hop, skip, and a jump further with boons like turning passive shards into permanent skill shards, a whole cookbook of meals that provide massive permanent stat gains, the ludicruous speed of the Rhava Velar sword or the sheer strength and reach of the Eternal Blue greatsword, or the damage output of shards like the dragon's breath portal or Vinny's beloved chisels. These all require some effort from the player to track down, leading to some farming/grinding that might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I loved seeing the amount of ways I could break the game and am feverishly anticipating the competing speedrun strats that will ensue. We don't really have a GOTY category for "most breakable game," but maybe we should.

    Best Moment: Stomping all the late-game bosses and secret superbosses because I overdid it a little.

  • In a more stacked year I'm not sure Kingdom Hearts III would compete. I certainly enjoyed my time with it though, even if many of the finer plot details eluded me because they pertained to spin-offs and prequels I didn't feel like playing. (By the way? That's a terrible way to tell an overarching story in an RPG series. It'd be like releasing a highly anticipated franchise movie where an integral component of the lore had only been revealed in a limited Fortnite event. Wait, I'm getting a message from my editor and... Oh. Really? Oh.) What the Kingdom Hearts series does right, though, is everything else besides the plot: the music's fantastic with a deep emotional range, the way the universes of Kingdom Hearts and Disney/Pixar interact is always a lot of fun especially if you have the context from watching the movies first, the combat's a little mashy on normal difficulty but slightly higher and it becomes a tense balance of dodge rolls and evasions and picking the best moment to strike, and as a minor animation buff I appreciate the way the game takes into account the visual styles of the movies they draw from to create appropriately distinct looks for each of the game's "worlds". I also thought they greatly improved the Gummi Ship shoot 'em up sequences since the first game, and it's filled with even more side-quests, mini-games, and collectibles to discover.

    The best word to describe the game is "variety": you get that with the worlds and their objectives and level design, but also with the goals you can choose to pursue at that moment. Calls to mind some of the better Level-5 games for the PlayStation 2, where there was always an additional timesink mode or mini-game to distract you from the core progression. It definitely has its problems and that story is not getting any less convoluted as they keep bolting on more gaiden game characters and plot points, but at least it turned out to be something a lapsed fan like myself could still appreciate.

    Best Moment: When Axel finally breaks and starts ranting about how the story makes no sense and he doesn't know who half these characters are, channelling a sizeable portion of the player base.

  • If there's two types of puzzle game I can't stand it's Sokoban and anything involving scripting, and yet despite having both Baba is You won me over anyway with its relative simplicity, squiggly charm, and always surprising nature. That simplicity doesn't extend to the actual difficulty of the puzzles, just to the way each stage has a finite number of moving parts to mitigate the amount of trial and error involved. However, the trick is in figuring out just how many options you actually have to work with. It's from this enigmatic seed that Baba is You eventually blossoms into one of the most unpredictable and delightful puzzle games to come along in a while, because it exemplifies lateral thinking in ways few other games can. After all, if the game sticks you in a box with a few operators and nouns, the first part of the solution is to find yourself thinking outside of it (or bringing your objective into the box with you, or becoming the box itself...).

    Beyond that, I can't really explain with examples why Baba is You bewitched me and many others without in some way spoiling the experience. It's all about the steady erosion of expectations, those first few times you figure out that rules aren't as set in stone as Hammurabi would have you believe, and the many entertaining failures you might chance upon on the road to the correct solution. Accidentally erasing Baba or relinquishing control permanently, followed by an ominous tone suggesting you messed up, is common enough; but accidentally filling the screen with Baba? Or becoming part of the fixtures? Those "Oops I broke it" moments, whether they were intended or not, are where the game shines.

    Best Moment: Figuring out a level's solution immediately. Rare for me, but it happens.

  • I feel like the theme of 2019's list of top games is "defying expectations." At first blush, Horace looks like another 2D platformer with some tricky jumping challenges and a multidirectional gravity switching mechanic that, while uncommon, isn't entirely fresh either. However, Horace has one of the most elaborate, twisty, and emotional stories to come out of any branch of video game fiction in a while, let alone a pixel-based platformer where a robot boy picks up literal trash. There's time skips, emotions, genre-hopping, tragedies, extended parodies and references to both British and American pop culture, a point in the game where it becomes Castlevania for a hot minute, a meta commentary on nostalgia, and it's all contained within the broad framework of a Pinocchio story where an artificial child eventually learns what it means to be a good person and to live well. The platforming itself isn't bad either, though it's certainly not on the easy side.

    What I appreciate most about Horace is that it feels like a labor of love; something that took its two primary developers years of their lives and buckets of their blood and sweat to put together. That it's so ambitious on top of being so personal has endeared it to me more than I expected any game of this type could, and although I suffered the occasional visual glitch and severe framerate issue none of it really dampened my enthusiasm for the game and for where its story cutscenes or gameplay might go next. I don't think I've had a game speak to me so directly than this brutally tough collectathon platformer with a bonkers story and references aimed squarely at an America-obsessed British kid of the late '80s and early '90s. I suspect that Horace is perhaps too obscure and too niche to show up on many GOTY lists this year, but for me it was one of the truly special games of 2019.

    Best Moment: Almost too many to narrow down. Maybe the ending?

  • I've given it some time and what I liked about Indivisible probably overrides what I didn't like. The positives include the incredible artwork and character animations, the platforming and the way acquired abilities naturally expand the repertoire in true explormer fashion, the story took a while to get to where it was going but I liked heroine Ajna's proactive "kick ass and ask questons later" approach, and I think the game was smart to draw from what felt like a dozen different Asian cultures for its aesthetic rather than just one or two. Despite being the linchpin of the gameplay, I didn't take to the combat quite as much. It's obvious in retrospect that the reason the developers sought out Valkyrie Profile - a relatively obscure PlayStation series from tri-Ace - was because the combo-heavy nature of its combat engine was conducive to their background as a fighting game developer, and in that respect it feels like a good match, but the sheer number of playable characters and possible party combinations muddied the waters a little and sidelined many of its more artistically or mechanically intriguing characters due to them arriving long after the player had assembled a four-person party they were comfortable with. I also recall a lot of technical problems, but that might be a trait more common to Kickstarter games; they not only have deadlines to stick to in order to appease all those contributors, which leads to a short and compromised QA cycle, but the unexpectedly higher budget and the concomitant "stretch goal" demands can lead to ambitious over-development that brings with it its own issues.

    What Indivisible represents more than anything else is a community coming together to support a studio looking to spread their wings with an ambitious sophomore project, and in that context it's hard to dislike Indivisible and its enormous beating heart. I can also appreciate any game looking to bring back sadly defunct franchises like Valkyrie Profile and Suikoden (to which the game has multiple references) if only in spirit, and Indivisible certainly has enough going for it that I'd call it a net success overall. Besides, how many games this year had Vinny in them?

    Best Moment: When you fight the main antagonist for the first time midway through the game. That got real.

  • The release date of the last free Shovel Knight campaign became an event for me after the spectacular Specter of Torment, and while King of Cards didn't quite stack up (so to speak) its shortcomings are only really found outside the core progression. As King Knight, the game is split between the traditional 2D platforming of Shovel Knight campaigns past and the new card game Joustus, which is a little bit Final Fantasy 8's Triple Triad and a little bit Jenga in that you're pushing cards to and fro to jostle for valued spots on the board. The platforming half is par excellence, with the developers incorporating Wario's shoulder charge while adding a post-charge spin that has the same utility as Mario's spin jump in Super Mario World: it can defeat enemies, smash blocks, ride across normally fatal hazards, and more. Also, like Super Mario World, with the new world map and its shorter stages there are no shortage of secret exits to find: these can lead to shortcuts (good for speedrunners) or secret areas filled with bonus lucre. The new shorter format for levels in general is a welcome change over the lengthy multiple-checkpoint stages of the previous campaigns.

    When I think back to King of Cards, I'm split between the new and beneficial changes to the core platforming and the sheer antipathy I feel for that darn card game. It ceases to be a barrier to progression after the first "act," though its presence weighs heavily throughout as a source of collectibles (unique character cards and the Heirloom-unlocking "medals") and a means to fight the optional superboss (who is no pushover, and might seem familiar to Kirby fans). Specter of Torment still stands tall as the best of these campaigns, as the rapid mid-air traversal and wall-running of Specter Knight is still the most fun I've had with this series, but King of Cards overall comes in at a close second place despite everything.

    Best Moment: A certain decision made about Joustus during the epilogue.

  • Let's get back to what I was saying earlier about expectations and the dismissal thereof. Electronic Super Joy II doesn't look that much different from the first game, which was released as far back as 2013, and you might be forgiven for assuming it's just more of the same with its lack of promotion and how it was given away for free on Steam's store, with an optional, mid-priced, DLC-festooned "Gold Edition" for those looking to support the developer. I didn't expect going in just how much more ambitious this game would be, invoking yet another word that seems to be showing up in every one of these mini-reviews. When it's not breaking tradition with world-breaking level ideas, it's revelling in its new power-up system that doles out abilities like double-jumps and stomps but only on a per-stage basis. It also contains as excellent a licensed EDM soundtrack as you're likely to find, and its aesthetic is fully tapped into that "visualizer playing on the back wall of the nightclub" vibe with its stark black characters and level geometry juxtaposed on a flashy, neon colored background; it frequently feels like one of those old iPod commercials with the dancing silhouettes.

    I really love this franchise to pieces, despite or maybe even because of its unapologetic plot stupidity (this one's about butts, same as the previous) and horniness (ditto re: the butts, and the trademark checkpoint orgasms) and my distaste for "masocore" platformers in general. It hits the same euphoric platforming vibe that Super Meat Boy did oh so long ago, and that few other masocore platformers release since have managed to replicate, where the music never stops and respawns are all but instantaneous if you wanted to try that tricky jump once or twice or a thousand times more.

    Best Moment: When the level starts twisting around on its Y-axis and the developers' goal of making you feel like you're playing a 2D platformer on bad nightclub bathroom drugs is finally realized. Could somebody fetch Space Whale's keys?

  • There's not a whole lot of substance to the Glass Masquerade games, but what little they have is so exquisitely presented by the moody music and intricate glass mosaics that comprise the game's attractive jigsaw puzzles. The second game felt like a step back, with only one universal framework (a circle, rather than the squares, triangles, and other shapes found in the original) and a thematic focus on fairytales and nightmares over the last game's more diverse around the world tour. It does what it does with the same level of chill panache, but I'm not wholly on board with the limiting new choices they made.

    Best Moment: When you momentarily awake from your jigsaw puzzle fugue and realize you have no idea how long you've been playing.

  • A slight but cute explormer that adheres to a Downwell-style monochrome look (with a few other limited tone palettes) and features some simple puzzles and platforming, and maybe less simple boss fights. Its chief gimmick is one it borrows from Metroid: Zero Mission; the player controls a cat that is able to pilot a mech, and can choose to leave the mech to explore on her own at the risk of being a whole lot weaker. Some situations call for this separation, especially as the cat can only enter small passageways on-paw, which leads to the game's more perilous scenarios. Beyond that, it broadly takes its structure from another Metroid game - Metroid Fusion - by having you activate parts of a space station by moving through thematically-different sections, and there are some cool ideas to be found in the level designs there. It's not a game that does much new or will last long in the memory, but I can't really point to any particular failing. Competently cute. Or cutely competent?

    Best Moment: I liked it when the kitty did an adorable kitty thing.