2019 is coming to an end. The leaves have fallen off the trees, rain is slowly but steadily returning in Northern California, and there isn’t a single major game release in sight for weeks. Time to reflect on the year that was in video games.
I’d classify this as something of a transition year. It wasn’t bad. In fact, there were some truly incredible games all things considered. But as the console generation came to an end, you could tell developers are starting to get WEIRD with it, as they save their best stuff for the Playstation 5/Xbox Series X. My top two games of the year went some really experimental places with visual design, and what a video game even is, while a lot of the rest are really the refinement of concepts that we’ve seen in games over the last decade really.
So let’s dive in. Starting from number 10, here’s my top 10 games of 2019, followed by a few follow up acknowledgements, and the certified slappers of the year from each of the games. Let’s dive in.
10. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Kickstarter has seen some real shit from video games over the last few years. Mighty Number 9 landed with a thud (rip my $30), and Unsung Story from the creator of Final Fantasy Tactics has been sitting in limbo for half a decade now. But at least we can say Kickstarter has brought us at least one truly excellent video game: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
When Koji Igarashi, creator of Castlevania, announced he was kickstarting a spiritual successor to Castlevania, I was overjoyed. Konami clearly doesn’t give a shit enough to make new video games, so I welcomed Bloodstained with open arms. By the time it was released, you could see it was the real deal. It plays like butter, it’s got dozens of weapons and abilities to suit every playstyle, and it looks great. It’s the Castlevania game we deserve that Konami will never give us.
9. Devil May Cry V
I was reflecting on this the other day, and it’s been 11 years since Devil May Cry 4 came out. I was getting ready to apply for college. Arby and the Chief was playing on the Machinima Youtube Channel. I was disappointed.
It only took Capcom 11 years and basically an entire reinvention of their brand (thank you Resident Evil VII and Monster Hunter World) to bring out the best in its character action franchise. With three playable characters now, including newcomer V, who is easily one of my favorite things to happen to the franchise, It’s more polished, fluid and brilliantly executed than ever. It doesn’t quite hit the highs of my 2014 Game of the Year Bayonetta 2, but it’s damn good and it’s got a lot more varied gameplay than Bayonetta did. Plus, Devil Trigger is a banger. (See the “Certified Bangers” section at the end of the article!)
8. Cadence of Hyrule
Speaking of certified slappers, Cadence of Hyrule is chock-a-block full of them. One thing to know about my taste in video games: I’m not a particularly big fan of Roguelike games. With a couple of notable exceptions (Dead Cells rules), the idea of having to start over after dying really doesn’t appeal to me. So when I played the original Crypt of the Necrodancer, I fell in love with the gameplay and music. A rhythm RPG? Sign me up! What I didn’t love was the Roguelike nature of the game. It frustrated me to no end.
Enter Cadence of Hyrule, a curious but welcome mashup of Crypt of the Necrodancer and A Link to the Past. Take the best parts of Necrodancer, like the music and quasi-turn-based rhythm gameplay, and smash it into the structure, aesthetic, and music of Link to the Past. The combination is sheer brilliance, with some of the boppinest Zelda remixes this side of Smash Bros. If you consider yourself a fan of either game, you owe it to yourself to play this.
7. Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order
As a huge dweebus of a Star Wars fan (as perilous as that is to be in 2019), it’s hard for me to talk about my favorite parts of Jedi Fallen Order without venturing into spoiler territory. There’s a few key moments late in the game that made me audibly go “oh my god, they’re really going there.” The story is a legitimately interesting and an affecting entry into the Star Wars Canon. I genuinely can’t wait to see where it goes next.
But story aside, our good friends at Respawn completely knocked it out of the park with this one. It plays like Sekiro-lite, honestly, but I don’t see that as a problem. The force powers give the game an angle that’s fun to play with and lets you try new things everywhere you go. I can’t describe the joy I felt stopping a blaster-bolt in midair and force-pulling another stormtrooper into it to his demise. Back in 2008, Star Wars The Force Unleashed tried the same concept, but without the nuance to middling success. This game is the Star Wars game we’ve been waiting a decade for, and it kills it.
6. Pokemon Sword/Shield
Dexit be damned. After an in my opinion disappointing couple of games in Sun and Moon, Pokemon Sword and Shield feels to me like a triumphant return to form for the Pokemon Franchise. Part of that is on the Switch itself, seeing a full on Pokemon game blown up on the TV is incredible, and being able to take that same game on the road and play it at lunch, or with friends at a party is a revelation.
Add to that the novelty of the Wild Area, the removal of annoying random battles, the smart addition of Gigantimaxing, and you’ve got a truly wonderful new addition to Pokemon. It doesn’t hurt that for the first time in a long time, almost all of the new Pokemon added to the game are excellent. (So help me, I will love my Wooloo and my Galarian Rapidash to the end of time. And Mr. Rime is a doofy idiot that I love with all my heart.) Dammit Pokemon, you made me feel feelings again.
5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
This game has A LOT of game in it. Honestly, it’s kind of baffling how much stuff is in this package, with three (technically 4) completely separate storylines where you, a teacher, guide a class of young future leaders of Fodlan. Nintendo went all in on Great British settings this year (see: Pokemon) and it works incredibly well here in Fire Emblem. Also like Pokemon, coming off of a pretty lackluster previous entry, this game knocked it out of the park.
Almost all of the characters are incredibly well fleshed out with their own desires, thoughts and needs, and really don’t come across as “waifus” for your character to woo. And the amount of flexibility in how you can build your party is unprecedented in Fire Emblem History. The elimination of the series’ famous “weapon triangle” should have felt heretical, but in doing so, it created new strategies that feel more customizable to the player than ever before. Add to that the non-combat stuff that it smartly cribbed from the Persona franchise, and it feels like one of (if not THE) absolute strongest entries in the entire series.
4. The Outer Worlds
We saw a lot of studios doing some incredibly bold and weird stuff this year. But there’s something to be said for a studio going back to its core competencies, and just doing something they know they’re good at. That’s why I fell in love with Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. This game is basically what would happen if Obsidian finished Fallout New Vegas, and then came out with another game in the same vein two years later. Some might say it feels dated, but for me it’s exactly the detox from Fallout 76 I needed.
While it’s not long, if you play your cards right and rush into the ending you could probably finish it in a couple hours, it’s incredibly broad. There are character decisions built on decisions built on decisions. In the opening world, I reached an ending to the story arc that Mike (hi Mike) never even got close to getting. It makes smart decisions in combat adding the Flaws system, and Tactical Time Dilation does make a great switch up from VATS in the Fallout Games. Plus, being Obsidian, the writing is spot on, and had several moments that literally made me laugh out loud. It all comes together in the end to make a game that feels like comfort food.
3. Kingdom Hearts 3
Look, guys, I get it. It’s 2019, and it’s fun to dunk on how ridiculous the story of Kingdom Hearts is. Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn’t buck that trend, if anything it leans into it. But damn it, that’s why I love it. A lot of the complaints I see levied at this game come from a place of “oh, it’s nonsense” or “oh, it feels like a PS2 game was brought into 2019” or “man, some of this voice acting is rough.”
But honestly, that’s why I love Kingdom Hearts. The combat is mashy, but it looks glorious and is just a joy to play with. The story is incomprehensible, but it’s fun to piece it all together and ruminate on it with friends. The voice acting can be rough, but the sheer joy of seeing all of my favorite Disney IP in one place is just too delightful to pass up. I mean, there’s a cooking mini game where you work with Remy from Ratatouille. That rules.
Kingdom Hearts will always be one of my favorite franchises, and I’ve played every single mainline game to completion. Seeing the conclusion of Sora’s story was a joy for me, and that alone is worth its place in history as one of my all time favorites.
Plus, it’s just the best Kingdom Hearts game, I’ll fight for that.
There’s a point in Control late in the game where I asked myself, “How did this game get made with a AAA budget in 2019?” Control is unapologetically weird, and the world it’s created is endlessly fascinating, more so than any game I think I’ve played in the last decade. The world building and writing in that game is absolutely phenomenal, and unlike anything else out there in games. And the visual design is so completely out there, but so interesting, because it turns the mundane into something just off enough to make you uncomfortable.
I loved Alan Wake and though Quantum Break was disappointing, so it was great seeing Remedy put out something genuinely great. But the master stroke from the game is writing of its many supplementary pieces in its codex. It leaves a bizarrely wonderful world in front of you, with something that makes you go “huh, that’s odd, I wonder what that’s about” and then gives you the ability to explore and find answers at your own pace. And those answers are consistently worth your time. It’s a masterpiece of world design and atmospheric writing. And one late game section is probably my single favorite moment from a game in 2019. I won’t spoil it but trust me, it’s worth it.
1. Death Stranding
I’ve been thinking about Death Stranding almost constantly since I’ve finished it. A lot of people have asked me if they should play Death Stranding, considering it’s my Game of the Year. And honestly, I can’t answer that for you. On the surface, the game sounds completely incomprehensible. Written out, it’s a game where you play a post-apocalyptic Amazon delivery person, moving packages between settlements and shelters in a land ravaged by rain that accelerates time, and ghosts from a confirmed afterlife that spawn oil wherever they touch. Also the U.S. President has an assistant named Die-Hard man, and two of the main characters are played by directors Guillermo Del Toro and Nicholas Winding-Refn (Please watch Drive. I beg you, please watch Drive.) The primary gameplay involves walking from place to place and keeping packages in good condition. I know how crazy it sounds, and if you told me my game of the year would be that game at the beginning of the year, I would have said you’re insane.
This game connected with me in a way very few games have over the last decade. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that’s tied its central theme into its core game design the way this game has. The goof has been that Kojima, when asked what Death Stranding was, called it a heretofore unknown genre called a “Strand Game” but…honestly yeah, he kind of did create a new genre of game. There’s nothing else like it out there. The story is one of reconnecting a country that’s fractured, devastated and hopeless. The first 2 chapters are a slog, where the main character wanders the wastes alone delivering packages. You’re left to struggle with difficult landscapes, and frustrating mechanics. It drives the point home, that right now? You’re alone.
But as you hit chapter 3, you start connecting asynchronously with other players. You start building bridges, and generators, and vehicles, and ladders, and ziplines and dozens of other structures that make your life easier. But then other player’s structures appear in your game as well, and you realize that it’s not about being alone. It’s about being a part of a greater whole, making the world a better place not just for yourself, but everyone else too. Suddenly, what was frustrating at the beginning of the game is an opportunity to make someone else’s life easier, or to connect with someone else who helps you when you need it most. And this is without having to actually see a single other player in real time. It’s a magnificent feat. Often times, the story feels like a jumble of made up concepts and names, and yeah it DOES have probably the single worst line of dialogue I’ve ever seen in a game. But by the end it really does come together in a story that’s not just interesting, but genuinely affecting in how it wraps up. It definitely doesn’t hurt that Mads Mikkelsen, who plays “The Combat Veteran,” turns in one of the best performances of his career.
I’ve long since finished this game, but I keep coming back to play it. Even though the story’s complete, there are still packages to deliver, and it’s an almost zen-like experience when you play it, perfect for cooling off after other games, or getting ready to go to bed. Plus, the soundtrack is an oops all bangers collection, from bands like Chvrches, Low Roar, and Bring Me The Horizon.
So to wrap it up, should you play Death Stranding? I hope you will, if you can get through chapter 3, you’ll find one of the most unique experiences ever created in video games, and one that’s worth studying and thinking about for years to come.
Well that wraps up my top 10, but I want to point out a few other games I want to give a nod to this year as well that I couldn’t justify putting in my top 10 for whatever reason.
The “Probably would be in my top 10 if I could finish the damn thing, but I’m a filthy casual” award: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
I played about 5 hours of Sekiro and put it down. I’d like to revisit it one day, but I honestly probably won’t. I have an immense amount of respect for Sekiro. It’s gameplay is razor sharp and frame perfect. It’s clearly crafted to make players better, while teaching them to deal with its immense difficulty. And it’s a world that is built to be completely gorgeous and interesting to play in. And for what it’s worth, it’s my favorite game from FromSoft so far. But man, I just don’t have the patience to get good. It’s a game I can appreciate from afar, but I just can’t personally justify putting in my own personal top 10 list.
The “why did I spend so much time on this god damn terrible game” award: Anthem
I put more than 60 hours into this piece of shit game. I finished the story, and then I liked seeing the numbers keep going up in my stats. It’s a mess, the story is bland, it’s buggy as shit, and they just completely gave up on their postgame roadmap (which is why I kept playing, I kept telling myself that Bioware would make this right. So far, they haven’t). I’m completely depressed about how this game came out. I think the world is conceptually interesting, the combat is good fun, and flying around feels awesome. But the rest of the game is just a complete shitshow, and I hate myself for having played so much of it. Word on the street is Bioware is planning on pulling an “A Realm Reborn” scenario with Anthem. I hope to god it works.
The “I didn’t get around to playing it, but I know I should because it’d probably be in the top 10″ award: Resident Evil 2 Remake
I loved Resident Evil 7, it made it into my top games of 2017. I played the demo of RE2, and I had a blast with it. But for whatever reason, it just fell off my radar, and I never got around to playing it. I’m determined to give it a play before RE3 remake comes out next year, and I’m sure I’ll love it.
- Luigi’s Mansion 3
- Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
- Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth
- Gears 5
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
Certified Slappers of the Year
- Face My Fears (Kingdom Hearts 3)
- Death Stranding (Death Stranding)
- BBs Theme (Death Stranding)
- Devil Trigger (Devil May Cry V)
- Take Control (Control)
- Gym Leader Battle (Pokemon Sword and Shield)
- Black Thunder (Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order)
- Voyage of Promise (Bloodstained)
- Shambalha Area 17 (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
- Like, The Entire Soundtrack of Cadence of Hyrule (Cadence of Hyrule)
What’s Next for 2020?
Honestly, who can say? I’m seriously looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077, ?Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Psychonauts 2. I’m optimistic for Watch Dogs: Legion, Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’m hopeful for Marvel’s The Avengers, Half Life: Alyx, and Skull and Bones. The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima promise to bring more excellence to Sony, along with the PS5. Halo: Infinite is coming to the Xbox Series X. Who even knows what Nintendo has planned aside from Animal Crossing, but maybe Breath of the Wild 2?
Here’s to the 2019 that was, and the 2020 that promises to be.