A list of my favorite games of 2019 - finalized only 5 months into 2020!
A list of my favorite games of 2019 - finalized only 5 months into 2020!
I completely love when a game gets me in the zone by demanding precise reflexes, intense focus, and absolute situational awareness. Sekiro does this to an extent that I’m sure some find exhausting. For me however, it was the right combination to ensnare me, keeping me up past my strict bedtime at a time when I knew my infant daughter would be up multiple times a night. I needed to figure out the parry timing of a tough fight. I needed to find the right combination of tools to get through a challenge without wasting all of my healing. Sekiro created a joyous drive for me to keep pushing, and keep improving. Most importantly, I wasn’t improving by grinding, or any rote repetition - I was only improving when I put my full self into my actions, reactions, and plans. I adore this game for how much it pushes me; how masterfully it flows and weaves to highlight your strengths and victories while it readies the next crack of the whip to demand more. For all of those reasons and more, Sekiro is my favorite game of 2019.
Hades is the first roguelike that I’ve really enjoyed following throughout its development. Despite having launched in 2018 and plans to fully launch in 2020, I played and loved this game so much during 2019 it would be wrong to not include it here. Supergiant has a knack for creating games that are exceptionally well rounded and polished, and Hades is no exception. The combat is fluid and satisfying no matter which weapon you wield, and the different boons you receive from the Greek pantheon make every run feel unique. The characterizations of the gods, heroes, and stories of the larger mythology all feel perfect. Zagreus is a likable angsty teen, rebelling against his dominating and uncaring father - a story that fits the mold of mythological stories so well because it feels human and real, but with everything amped up to 11. I adore this game.
I still don't know how to talk about why Outer Wilds is so special without spoiling anything. Any time I hear the familiar twang of the banjo, or the humming notes of End Times, or even think about the fact that this game exists, it provokes an emotional response. That response, like the game itself, is warm and hopeful, but at the same time sad and dark. Outer Wilds is a work of interactive art like almost nothing I've seen before. If you haven't made the journey, I can't guarantee you'll love it, but it is more than worth a try. Get out there into the loneliness of space in your rickety cabin-like rocketship, and maybe you'll find your own sense of melancholic hopefulness.
The SteamWorld series has surprised me enough times that I am no longer surprised to say how much I enjoyed SteamWorld Quest. The mashup of traditional turn based RPG and deck building is inventive and fun all the way through. I constantly found myself reorganizing the characters in my party and their decks of abilities to match the challenges of a given area, and I really appreciate that Quest is often ready to offer a solid challenge. The five characters you can use are varied and interesting, with a ton of choices about how you build out your overall deck, and really satisfying progression by gaining and upgrading cards. SteamWorld Quest simply continues the SteamWorld tradition of delivering an experience that feels fresh and incredibly well realized, with a great sense of systems design and expert pacing.
APE OUT is gorgeous, vibrant, and violent, with jazz beats that react to how much mayhem you are causing through a gorilla’s attempt to escape some kind of research lab, zoo, or otherwise. If that doesn’t sell you on this one, then I don’t know what will. I really enjoy the claustrophobic overhead view that forces you to make split second decisions the second an enemy is on screen. Do you charge in and slam them into a wall, splattering their gooey innards across the room in a neon fit of rage? Maybe you double back to avoid their shot, only to spring out on just the right beat and catch them on the reload, holding them as a shield against the bullets from their backup. The difference between success and failure is often a few milliseconds of your reaction time, and your overall situational awareness of the area around you.
The journey of teenage Sean and his younger brother Daniel managed to do a few things that made this game stand out to me. First and foremost, it told the story of a young man suddenly thrust into a position of extreme responsibility and the impacts of that on himself, his brother, and everyone they met. Second, it shows both the good and evil sides of modern American society in a compelling way. Some people are willing to help out a stranger, and many are just living their lives, but there are plenty of horrible racists and exploitative ideologies. The narrative tries to show all of these differences and how they interconnect, as well as the systems and societal structures that cause or exacerbate different issues. Life is Strange 2 goes for something different than the first season, and it probably isn’t as successful, but I think it does succeed often enough that it should be commended for really going for it.
If casually exploring a very chill island as a nice bird who can jump and glide sounds appealing in any way, then definitely check this one out. A Short Hike is almost exactly what the title suggests - a short journey through a peaceful campground. It’s soothing and has a very cool 3D pixel art style to it, but what I liked more than anything was just moving through the scenery and occasionally finding a small upgrade that let me move around the world a little easier. Everything about A Short Hike is muted compared to most modern video games, and I think it shines for that reason exactly. This is a game I would legitimately recommend just about anyone should try, because it is short, simple, and feel-good in all the right ways.
I love Star Wars, despite the roller coaster of quality that the series has had over the past decades. Thankfully, Jedi: Fallen Order is an upswing on that ride (and easily my favorite piece of Star Wars media from 2019). The Dark Souls influence works well, the characters and major plot points are interesting, and it manages to give a further glimpse into a relatively unexplored era of the core Star Wars story. Working on the timing of lightsaber combat and the best uses for various force powers kept me going through the whole game, despite occasional frustrations with navigating the game’s sprawling levels. In the end Fallen Order is a very solid action game with a successful narrative in a series I have a lot of fondness for, and while that may or may not be enough for everyone, it certainly was for me.
A Plague Take: Innocence is a harrowing journey through which we see the strength of a young girl, Amicia, and the bond that forms between her and her younger brother Hugo. It is often gruesome, heartfelt, tense and ridiculous - sometimes all in a single scene. Villains are ruthless, cackling psychopaths, and friends are devoted and compassionate, but the lack of gray area keeps the action moving and the stakes high through much of the adventure. I found A Plague Tale to be simple and straightforward, but in a way that was always engaging and satisfying. Also the floor being literally covered in a vibrating mass of wiggling rats never lost its ability to make me uneasy - it’s just plain gross.
If “short and sweet” is your thing, it’s hard to imagine doing much better on either front than Sayonara Wild Hearts. Endearing and heartwarming, Sayonara is an interactive music album that landed multiple big moments for me. The overall package is not about being awe inspiring in scope or direct messaging, but there is an emotional core to the experience that builds and bubbles, rising and falling with the catchy music and visuals that pop as they soar by. I played through the full set of levels twice and found it moving and exciting both times, and could probably do it again without feeling any real diminishment.
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