Hey! I don’t have much to say. It was an okay year.
• Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4). The already sizable campaign is needlessly lengthened by a brutal checkpoint system, but the combat itself slaps and the VR missions are magnificent.
• Apex Legends (PC). I don’t know if another damn battle royale game is a suitable replacement for Titanfall 3, but this is arguably the best of its kind and it ate a lot of my hours this year.
• Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Switch). I missed the second one, and the leap in quality from the original is astounding. Just wish there was more to do with all of this damn money…
• Resident Evil 2 (PC). I’m only allowing one remake on my top ten list, but let’s not overlook the fact that I played through this, like, seven times.
• Untitled Goose Game (Switch). The memes were good.
My Top Ten
10. Amid Evil (PC) — Preview
The overwhelming success of 2016’s Doom reboot signaled a thirst for the sort of retro-style first-person shooter where there’s no reloading and the main character moves at the approximate speed of a cheetah. While the mainstream scene has yet to catch on, the indie market offers plenty of options, and some of the same collaborators responsible for last year’s joyfully overviolent Dusk delivered again in 2019 with Amid Evil, a medieval (GET IT?) homage to classic magic-themed shooters Heretic and Hexen. Enemy and environmental variety is strong throughout given the range of settings (from gothic to futuristic), and the visuals somehow look old and new at the same time, mixing limited polygon counts and pixelated textures with gorgeous lighting and reflections. (The game is supposedly getting a ray-tracing update soon.) Most importantly, one of the weapons is a staff that flings miniature exploding planets. Play this.
9. Blasphemous (Switch) — Full Review
Although plenty of games have emulated the mechanics of the Souls series – the bonfires, the bloodstains, the stamina meter – it’s a much trickier task is recreating the intrigue, and the slow drip of concrete answers that follows. The Game Kitchen, a developer from Spain, gets off to a good start by pulling imagery from their home country, resulting in a recognizably Western setting that nevertheless doesn’t quite slot to grid and overwhelms you in the misery of Christian self-flagellation and the belief that humanity is inherently unclean. In terms of play, it’s a bit closer to classic Castlevania, with the one-on-one duels making for some of the most memorable combat encounters of the year. The platforming is way too harsh and the developers themselves have acknowledged that they went overboard with the abundance of instant-death spike traps. But then in a game where the major theme is inflicting horrific self-harm, maybe that’s appropriate?
8. Ape Out (Switch) — Full Review
A case of style-over-substance where, damn, this game sure has a lot of style. Although Ape Out does find amusing ways to switch up its combat scenarios – the power outage sequences, in particular, are wonderful – what you see in the first few minutes of the campaign is essentially what you’ll be seeing for the rest of it, playing as a runaway primate who pops his oppressors like water balloons. But it’s the game’s unique audiovisual flair that makes it – the one-point perspective, the bright colors that turn the carnage into something resembling a Jackson Pollock painting, and the simple fact that all of the sound effects are actually percussive instruments, morphing the mayhem into freestyle jazz. It’s possibly the most violent game of the year by simple virtue of what’s happening on screen, but it feels more akin to creating beautiful art. I don’t know if that’s less or more perverse than if the same acts had been depicted realistically, but either way, Ape Out is damn satisfying.
7. Slay the Spire (Switch) — Full Review by Brad Gallaway
A roguelike that fits comfortably next to Darkest Dungeon and Into the Breach among the best that the genre has to offer, though it’s a slightly tougher sell due to the sheer simplicity of its premise. It’s a deck-building game with no real story that consists entirely of turn-based battles arranged on a branching path, and it’ll be quite a few runs until you get a sense of the game’s depth, after you’ve expanded on the number of cards that can be unlocked mid-game. The three characters are wildly different and increasingly complex – the starting knight hits hard and heals frequently, the rogue focuses on stacking poison damage, and the robot summons little drones that unleash passive effects each turn. It deftly passes the “just one more run” test, and while success takes a lot of planning and more than a little luck, landing on a winning strategy has the sort of energizing effect that makes you want to dance around the room and tell everyone who know who’s also playing Slay the Spire how you managed to reach the end.
6. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PC) — Full Review by Darren Forman
We FromSoft fans love to be given new challenges. In Bloodborne, they took away our shields, and now in Sekiro, the only path to victory is countering. What used to be a neat little party trick in Dark Souls to separate the masters from the peasants (and I say this as one of said peasants) is now mandatory. This direction sparked a fierce debate about difficulty settings and accessibility, and I can’t fault anyone for finding Sekiro unbearably frustrating or even literally unplayable. But speaking as one of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s playthings, it hurts so good. The Souls sequels got progressively easier as they offered nothing new to conquer, so it’s a pleasure to be forced to learn something, and that process is the closest I’ll likely come to feeling like I’m punching through the original Dark Souls for the first time again. I didn’t connect with Sekiro‘s lore the way I usually do with these games (likely down to personal preference due to a setting that I feel has been done to death), but goddamn is this some of the tightest, most rewarding combat ever conceived.
5. Reventure (Switch) — Full Review
I avoided this for much of the year because I’m a shallow person and screenshots make it look so painfully mundane. It turns out that’s the point, because Reventure is all about turning expectations for a generic action-adventure on their heads. Although not a roguelike, it is run-based, the hook being that it sports a hundred endings, and almost every single one pokes fun at a nonsensical gaming convention that we’ve been trained to take for granted. Reventure is the sort of game that constantly has you asking, “But will this work? Did they think of that?” And the answer is yes, time and time again, a fact afforded by the developers’ smart decision to keep the scope limited, lest their vision exceed their reach. The funniest game of the year, and more challenging than it sounds, albeit not in the way you’d think, since the inventory weight system adds a neat little puzzle bent to navigating the world and getting the right tools to the right places.
4. Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch)
I never played the first Mario Maker, because I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to spend hours putting together my own levels and then share them with the three or four other Wii U owners. Oddly enough, Mario Maker 2, despite being released on a far more popular console, never really became a social fixture like the original did. But, speaking as someone to whom this was all new, I had a blast. Nintendo suckered me in with an actual single-player campaign this time (one that’s not only terrific, but showcases all of the crazy things you can do with the creation engine), but the act of pouring countless hours into levels and then actually getting feedback wasn’t just rewarding – it was new to me. Hell, I even got a couple of my levels played on a stream, and not only did the guy enjoy them, but one of the commenters even complimented me. While there were better games released this year, Mario Maker 2 was perhaps the only one to give me an experience I’d never had before.
3. Pathologic 2 (PC) — Full Review
It’s lovely that my three favorite games this year all do incredibly interesting things with interactive storytelling. Pathologic 2 misses out on a higher ranking by virtue of being a remake (albeit a confusingly titled one), but speaking as someone who’d only dipped his toes in the original, I was steadily gripped by Ice-Pick Lodge’s relentlessly bleak take on the survival genre, set over twelve days in which society slowly collapses following the outbreak of a deadly plague. Pathologic 2 forgoes the sort of polish that would be demanded of higher-profile titles, immersing you not through production values, but rather reliable systems. The effect is a nonstop sensation of impending doom so overwhelming that to simply hit a dead end, a no-win scenario, almost feels like a canonical ending in and of itself. Miserable from start to finish, yet haunting and profound in ways that cheerier games couldn’t be, Pathologic 2 may not sound appealing, but it’s one of the year’s most captivating releases for those brave enough to face it.
2. Death Stranding (PS4) — Full Review
Had any other person’s name been attached to Death Stranding, labeling this the bravest AAA game of the year might have been accurate. Surely the “brave” move for someone with as outsized an ego and as reliable a following as Hideo Kojima would be to acknowledge his flaws and limit his scope. Thank god he didn’t, or we wouldn’t have been blessed with this crazy, overblown experiment in social gaming. Although I can’t go into details about why the traditional story elements worked for me (and I seem to be in the minority there), the more important matter is the way Kojima integrates Death Stranding‘s themes into its play, in which the process of running long, drawn-out deliveries is made easier by structures left by other players. One of the year’s greatest satisfactions was the constant reminder, in the bottom-left corner of the screen, that the paths I’d laid down were used and appreciated by others. These are difficult times, and they’re easier to bear together.
1. Disco Elysium (PC)
This was a difficult call. Death Stranding was the most important game of the year and the biggest conversation-changer, but I didn’t treasure every single moment of it the way I did with Disco Elysium. Two decades ago, Planescape: Torment set a new standard for writing in videogames that has still only been matched by a select few, but it didn’t quite have the courage to focus entirely on that, with cumbersome combat occasionally getting in the way. Although its unofficial follow-up, Torment: Tides of Numenera, wisely made the combat optional, Disco Elysium (which throws a “special thanks” to the legendary Chris Avellone in the credits) removes it altogether, leaving us with an entirely dialogue-driven RPG that recognizes how strong its writing, characterization and world-building are, and doesn’t let anything else stand in the way. Hilarious, poignant, absorbing, and unafraid to preach politics, Disco Elysium has a lot to say, and says it in the best way.
Odds & Ends
Most overrated: Sayonara Wild Hearts
Most underrated: Rage 2
Most overlooked: The Stillness of the Wind
Most visually striking: Control
All-out best-looking game: Death Stranding
Best story: Pathologic 2
Best writing: Disco Elysium
Best character: Kim Kitsuragi (Disco Elysium)
Best performance: Norman Reedus (Death Stranding)
Funniest game: Reventure
Best original soundtrack: Outer Wilds
Best licensed soundtrack: Death Stranding
Biggest surprise: Tetris 99
Biggest disappointment: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Comeback of the year: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Best multiplayer game: Apex Legends
Most enjoyable bad game: Shenmue III
Least enjoyable good game: Outer Wilds
Best free game: Apex Legends
Game that I spent the most time with: Death Stranding (129 hours)
Game that I spent the least time with before dismissing: Dawn of Survivors
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn’t: Devotion
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but still haven’t: John Wick Hex
Best game that I still haven’t finished: Astral Chain
All-out worst game that I played: Where the Bees Make Honey
Best non-2019 game that I first played in 2019: Frostpunk
Best remake/re-release: Resident Evil 2
Most anticipated game this coming year: Half-Life: Alyx
2019 releases that I played: 85
2019 releases that I completed: 55
2019 releases that I’m still working on: 8
2019 releases that I’ve shelved indefinitely: 10
2019 releases that I flat-out gave up on: 12
2019 releases for which I’ve won every trophy/achievement: 4
2019 releases I’ve reviewed for this site: 22