Game of the Year 2019

Previous Lists (and ones): 2008 (Braid), 2009 (Dragon Age: Origins), 2010 (Mass Effect 2), 2011 (Skyrim), 2012 (Zero Escape: Virtues Last Reward), 2013 (The Last of Us), 2014 (Dark Souls 2), 2015 (Bloodborne), 2016 (Inside), 2017 (NieR: Automata), 2018 (Yakuza 6: The Song of Life)

It was a wild year personally, in mid-January I was taken into a room at work and told that after nearly 8 years, my services were no longer required. This left me with some time to really reset my batteries and, quite frankly, sit down and play a lot of games…I mean, I finished a lot of old games this year. It also speaks volumes that the top two games on this list were games that I dedicated a lot of time to in my first month of unemployment, no commitments, staying up till 4am like a student with no desire at that point to look for another job. But eventually I had to get off my ass and start working again as my paternal instinct kicked in when I got a dog in June. I got a new job after a 5 month break and life has been pretty good since. There’ll probably be a bit of navel gazing at the top of this list as a result of all this.

But before we get to the list proper:

Still to play: Daemon X Machina, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Disco Elysium

Best Game I played this year, released last year and re-released this year: Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age - I adored this game and it kicked off a bit of an obsession with the Dragon Quest franchise...which we'll get into later. Seriously though, this would be high on my list and I potentially could have justified it, but I didn't play the Switch port.

Best older game I played this year which was then re-released this year: Final Fantasy VIII - I tried to play through this a couple of years ago but stopped for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, I restarted it and once I pushed through the start, really fell for it pretty hard. Seriously, this game gets way to hard a time, I thought it was great.

Best old game I played this year: Final Fantasy VI - Hey, everyone was right. Sure, some of the characters are a bit underdone but the scope of this is just so grand. It’s incredible and I can’t wait to get back to Japan and get some stuff from this game. Oh and that soundtrack made me subscribe to Spotify just so I could listen to it.

Disappointments: Astral Chain and Devil May Cry 5 – Was looking forward to both and both probably disappointed for the same reasons, boring repetitive combat that there was too much of which I just couldn’t get into at all.

Games I may potentially regret not putting on this list but haven’t played enough of:

Judgment – What I played was great but I fell off for two reasons, the first was that Dragon Quest Builders 2 grabbed my attention at the same time and didn’t let go. The other was the fact that I had played through Yakuza 4, 5 and 6 the year before and was a little worn out with the style of game.

AI: The Somnium Files – As it stands, about 14 hours into this, it probably wouldn’t make my list, maybe it’d hit 10 but it isn’t quite grabbing me like the Zero Escape games did. Having said that, the Zero Escape games generally become incredible in the last couple of hours as they reveal themselves. So yeah, I might regret it, but that’s where we are.

The List

10 - The Outer Worlds

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The last time I had a game have such a big fall from grace was Fallout 4, so it might just be this style of game that doesn’t really engage me as much as I’d like. With that being said, I still liked the first planet of this game and didn’t really lose the threads of the story until Monarch which just felt like I was doing a checklist. It kind of got me back towards the end of that planet and I generally enjoyed going to Byzantium. I also liked the companion quests a lot even if this style of game doesn’t really carry the emotional impact of something more cinematic. By the end I just found it to be a little boring, especially since I was just burning through the last area with speech checks which was okay because I didn’t like the combat all that much. At the end of the day though, it makes the list because I still find the sense of exploration and variation of areas so fun and would like to see more of this smaller scale RPG, especially from Obsidian with larger backing.

9 - Death Stranding

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It occurs to me that all a game needs for me is a giant memorable gameplay moment. I’m not talking about an epic cinematic, I’m talking about something I play and accomplish. I didn’t particularly care for a lot of Death Stranding, I found it a bit tedious overall. But man, making that decision to not go back the way I came when I had to get back to Mama from Mountain Knot City and instead pushing through the mountain resulted in such an epic journey that I saw not only what the game was trying to do, but a much better game. It’s what puts it on this list despite thinking this game that was supposed to be this big bizarre story ended up feeling so pedestrian. Still, that one gameplay moment and ones like it was enough to put it above the tedium of The Outer Worlds for me and a bunch of other games that had zero impact on me.

8 - Shenmue III

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In my intro, I have a section called “Games I may potentially regret not putting on this list but haven’t played enough of.” So, I haven’t finished Shenmue III, in fact, I’ve only finished the first chapter but honestly, I think that’s enough for me to know that it belongs in my top 10. I’ve always been someone who felt making Shenmue III was probably a bad idea but I was still willing to back the kickstarter because, well, I said I would. It’s probably nostalgia, it’s probably related to my decision to replay the first two games while I was unemployed and re-experiencing what it was I loved about these games in the first place but man is this game so fucking earnest and that is super charming and, quite frankly, heart-warming. Even if this game falls apart in chapters 2 and 3, even if the story is never finished, I’m still so glad this exists.

7 - Control

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I’ve been a big Remedy fan since the close following of Alan Wake and was pretty disappointed when that game didn’t get a sequel. Quantum Break was a total bummer with some fun ideas that never really came together. Surprisingly, I wasn’t really that into Control until I started hearing not only positive things, but genuine Game of the Year level praise. It’s not hard to see why, this is a great experience that oozes a style that kept pushing me through. Even as the story got a bit haphazard, I was still completely enthralled in this world and the environment of the Oldest House. My only complaint with this one and probably the reason it isn’t a lot higher on this list is that there were some combat scenarios including the last one and some optional bosses that were, quite frankly, bullshit. Those moments really marred my overall experience with the game dampening the highs.

6 - F1 2019

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My desire to get more Rob Zacny in my ears resulted in my becoming an F1 fan this year, which in turn resulted in me buying this game. That isn’t enough to put it this high on my list though, neither is the driving or the slightly underdone story mode which is fun without being as spectacular as I would hope. No, the reason this game sits at 6 is because of Singapore. Singapore is not the easiest of tracks at the best of times being a street circuit with narrow walls but playing that track through a downpour? That was probably the most intense moment I’ve had in a game this year. Going into that race, I thought I had the game down. Yeah, I put these things on easy, I’m not looking for that much of a challenge, I just kind of like to win. When that rain hit though and visibility became an issue on a track I wasn’t remotely confident on though, my palms started to sweat. The decision to make a second pit stop to go on to different tires while I was fighting of a challenge from two cars felt like a key moment. I did it a lap before they did which meant I had to push. I only just got past them as they were exiting from their stops too. Yeah, I used rewinds on some of my bigger errors, but there is only so much a rewind can fix and it never stopped this from being the most intense game experience I had this year because at no point did I feel like I was safe.

5 - Fire Emblem: Three Houses

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I’ll always associate Fire Emblem Three Houses with losing a tooth. Around midway through the year I started to get a pretty sensitive tooth, without a job though, I really didn’t want to take the risk of going to the dentist. When the pain became too much (coincidentally, my second week of starting a new job) I buckled and made a dental appointment which resulted in my losing the tooth. All through the heavy pain/dentist/no more tooth bit, I was playing this game. So it’s amazing that I enjoyed it as much as I did. There are a couple of levels here, the combat while kind of cool is a little on the easy side, but that’s generally okay with me as I never felt like I was bored with it. Where the game shines though is the relationships that you build through the game. Seeing characters grow and change over time was a lot of fun and even thinking about characters I might like from other houses should I ever go back. I don’t know if I will, I kind of want to but it was such an epic and long experience that the thought of going back to the world for another go seems daunting. Still though, I genuinely loved this game.

4 - Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

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Honestly, I don’t think this game would be as high as it is if I didn’t hate The Rise of Skywalker as much as I did. Seeing ROS was such a weird experience for me, I went in fairly blind and generally enjoyed The Force Awakens despite some misgivings and like The Last Jedi. ROS took me about 5 minutes to not only feel genuine derision for everything it was doing as a film, but weirdly, it also made me realise how much I loved Star Wars by examining everything I felt it was doing wrong. About a week later, I started playing this and that childhood love all came back to me.

When it was announced that Respawn were working on a Star Wars game, I was a little sceptical and kind of annoyed because I didn’t want another shooter. Oh how wrong I was, this solid mix of Souls like combat and Tomb Raider style gameplay in a universe that has given me so much joy was exactly what I wanted at the moment I started playing it. I could complain that the combat just isn’t tight enough or the ambition they had with the story isn’t quite supported by the game they were allowed to make, but that all washes away for me with moments of Star Wars joy that I sure as hell didn’t get at the cinema this year.

3 - Dragon Quest Builders 2

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Just after I got my new job, I scanned my pass get me into the bathroom and the beep it made sounded suspiciously like one of the joyful cheers a character makes in this game when you complete a structure. I started to hum the theme of the hub island that had been imprinted in my mind as a result…till I realised there was someone in one of the stalls and I quickly stopped and got out of there as quickly as I could. That joy and cheering that people give you as you build new things is just so infectious and well, it just made me feel good you know? That’s something I realised, Dragon Quest made me feel good.

This was the conclusion I came to standing in the store looking at the case for this game. I was probably three months into my unemployment at this point and honestly, was starting to feel a bit down, I stood there with my girlfriend and, with a very recent memory of adoring Dragon Quest XI in January, said, “I think this game will make me feel good.” Boy did it. I’d never played a farming game before but as I started building my farm in this game (again, helped by the yellow hearts of joy people through my way as I finished things) I just felt so damn good. By the time I finished the main quest, I felt so attached to this world that I was honestly a little upset I had to go and play different games, this was the right game at the right time.

The reason this isn’t higher on my list is only because I wasn’t that big a fan of the more combat focused final island and the next two games are almost flawless but this game holds a very special place in my heart. Hell, this franchise does now thanks to both this and DQXI.

2 - Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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It’s been a week since I worked my last day at a job I had for 8 years, I have no immediate plans and Sekiro has been out for about 2 weeks. I’m at the end of the game, I fear the last boss because I know it has four phases and is known to be insanely hard. The main reason for the fear though is that I genuinely worry I won’t be able to finish this game, a game that despite some of the usual Souls frustrations, has been a game I’d probably rank second only to Dark Souls against From Softwares output in the last few years. It’s about 6PM I decide to give it a go, early fights are successful, I get to the second and occasionally eve the third phases, but around 8PM, my girlfriend reminds me that we need to eat. I put the fight on hold worried that I might lose my touch. About an hour later I’m back at it, I try not to lose my temper, it’s getting late after all, but then I do because I lose something and all of a sudden, the first phase becomes an issue despite my successes with the other phases and I feel like I’m making real progress on the final phase. I’m tired, then I’m over-tired, then suddenly it’s 2am, everything clicks and he goes down.

Rather than looking back on this experience with derision, I look at it fondly, like I genuinely accomplished something. Sure, it’s just a video game, but my mindset at the time was a bit bleak having no future plans. In fact, the only plan I had on that weeknight was to finish Sekiro and I achieved that plan.

Like I said, as a massive fan of the From SoulsBorne games I’m going to straight up say that this is my second favourite after Dark Souls. The combat just feels so damn smooth once you get a handle on it and keys into part of my frustrations with Bloodborne. This is a perfect balance of speed and defence. But what I really come to these games for is the world and this is such a beautifully constructed world with so many great things to uncover for the persistent player. I honestly think it is pretty much flawless, what it isn’t though is one of my favourite games of all time. Dark Souls is…as is the game I’ve put number one on my list.

1 - Outer Wilds

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When you get made redundant from a job, a lot of thoughts go through your head. First is where your next pay cheque will come from when the redundancy money runs out and that makes sense, you go into basic survival mode and part off that basic survival in this world is having money to live. But one of the other things that will inevitably come up is what it all means, when you suddenly have a lot of time on your hands that you didn’t previously have, there is a lot of navel gazing involved…and then a game like Outer Wilds comes along and really hammers some of those questions home.

People who haven’t played this game are probably sick of people who have talking about it. I feel like I was in a bit of a privileged position with this game because I was able to dedicate all the time I had to it and I did just that. Outer Wilds became my job for the week or so I played it, there was literally nothing much else going on for me at the time. It’s why I’m stubborn and bristle a little when people say they don’t like it/get it, it’s because I genuinely can’t for the life of me understand that viewpoint. This just feels like a game I discovered that ultimately combined two genres I grew up loving, Adventure Games and Space Sims.

The last time I had this feeling about a game was Dark Souls, that’s my favourite game of all time, so Outer Wilds now keeps that game company. My only complaint was that I was unable to achieve the perfect ending where, after getting the core, I rushed back to Dark Bramble, crashed into it only had my jetpack, barely got through, made it to the ship with just before running out of air then…fucked up turning on the ship. But hey, that’s life right? Nothing’s perfect, but we go on, we try again. In the early stages of unemployment, contemplating my existence, a game came along not to give me answers, but to simply ask similar questions.

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