Well, it would appear the Earth has finished its full rotation of the sun and thus, to celebrate this momentous occasion, society has deemed it the ideal time to elect the best video games that have come out since the last time this thing happened. Joking aside, 2019 was always going to be something of a stepping stone year before the massive quality explosion that 2020 appears to be serving up for us all as the new consoles get rolled in. Nevertheless, despite some naysayers who ought to be behind bars for their wrongthink, this has been a really solid year for games. While we never saw review scores as ridiculously high as the ones for 2018’s God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 or 2017’s Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, we did receive a wide array of extremely good games all throughout the year. I’m happy to report that I played a lot more games this year than I ever have in any other year of my life. I’ve dipped my toes into games I would’ve never tried before and while some of those gambles sadly didn’t pay off, there were plenty of cases where some games I would have never bothered with last year ended up being some of my absolute favourites of the year.
Before we delve into my top ten of 2019, I’d like to take a moment to shout out the games that didn’t quite make the ultimate cut, but I feel still deserve a hearty recommendation. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is one I finished very recently and while it’s clearly unfinished and the gameplay can’t help but feel derivative of other games, it’s still incredible fun and if you’re going to rip something off, it may as well be the exceptional From Software games. That wasn’t the only planet-leaping adventure we had this year. There was also The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s fiercely anti-capitalist tale of dastardly space piracy, managing to be equal parts hilarious and crushingly depressing. We also had the confusingly similar-named Outer Wilds, which brought the feeling of discovery and awe at a fictional universe that I hadn’t experienced since Breath of the Wild. I sadly haven’t had the time to dig deeper into this magnificent game but if it manages to maintain this level of quality it has achieved, it may well be my Game of the Year later down the line. Back on Earth, we had some other games to enjoy. A Plague Tale: Innocence managed to be one of the most visually astonishing games of the year on a middling budget, Untitled Goose Game said trans rights and Codemasters continues to prove their skill at recreating Formula 1 with their latest instalment, F1 2019. We had a couple music-driven games in the forms of Ape Out, which expressed the euphoria of freedom, and Sayonara Wild Hearts, which was a bit too short to make my list but still gave me absolute goosebumps from start to finish with its effortless style and kick-ass pop beats (also, if you ever want to win me over, just play a remix of Clair de lune and I’m fucking sold). I wasn’t sure where to place Blasphemous as far as this theming thing goes but I still want to shout it out for being a very solid 2D action game with an exceptional confidence in its world-building that I really admired. Finally, we have some quality multiplayer games, a genre I’m not typically a fan of but there were some titles that caught my interest. I had a maniacally fun time playing through Heave Ho with my brother, newly free-to-play Destiny 2 proved to be an enjoyable time-waster and Tetris 99 (a.k.a. Tetris: Battle Royale) was my favourite joke idea of the year until it came out and accidentally ended up being really engaging. The last game I want to give a spotlight is Kind Words, since I could never rank it as a traditional video game. It’s a game about sharing advice and, well, kind words with others anonymously. If you’re struggling at the moment and really need to talk to someone about it, I can’t recommend this enough. It’s a game that shows the incredible potential of this medium as a mental health service. It helped me through some tough times last month and I’m sure it will for you too.
Okay, now the honourable mentions are out of the way, let’s begin my ten favourite video games of 2019 (please don’t be mad)!
Considering the boundless potential video games hold for telling any story you like with near limitless possibilities, I’m surprised science fiction isn’t explored as much these days. Of course, we’ve had the big boys like Halo and Borderlands, but those are much closer to the action genre than anything. It would seem the most popular hard sci-fi games are the Mass Effect series, but even then Andromeda showed a very deliberate push towards a more action-oriented focus. However, while the triple AAA industry continues to do the one thing it always does – being profoundly safe and uninteresting – it has been up to the efforts of ambitious independent developers to deliver quality existential experiences in this genre, and No Code, the team behind Observation, certainly did just that. In this game, the player is thrust into the mechanical mind of the on-board AI of a space station, joining the story in the immediate aftermath of a mysterious event that’s separated the crew members. What unfolds is a truly fascinating dive into the incomprehensible depths of consciousness, told with a refreshing confidence. It could have easily leaned on its 2001 and Alien influences, but instead No Code were able to create a truly unique atmosphere unlike anything I’ve played before. I really appreciated how every action requires some kind of input from your controller. Every meaningful interaction with the game is tied to the UI in some way, and this effort to de-gameify the experience means the player is able to properly engage the story without distraction. It can lead to some awkward moments where the characters all freeze in time while they wait for you to find the thing that’ll put out the deadly fire that the game insists is VERY DANGEROUS WE NEED TO SORT IT OUT RIGHT N O W, but once you come to terms with what the game demands of you, these immersion breakers begin to lessen a lot. Overall, if you’re due an existential crisis written with finesse and intelligence, I can’t recommend Observation enough.
9. A Short Hike
Moving from the foreboding vacuum of infinite space, we plant our feet firmly in the familiar. A Short Hike is one of the most relaxing games I think I’ve ever played. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to climb a mountain. And that’s it. That may seem excessively low-stakes as far as video game objectives go, but this laid-back straightforwardness is what makes A Short Hike so special. You can try and climb the Hawk Peak as fast as possible if you want, but you can also try out the running circuit, make a mint selling fish to the fisherman, become the queen of the climbing club, among many other activities. The game is completely non-judgemental in how you choose to use your time and that is just so refreshing. You can get to know the residents of the island as well and sometimes choose to help them out with their troubles. The character writing here is just fantastic and, despite the animal population, incredibly human. I could point to so many cute little moments I enjoyed in my first playthrough but that would be spoiling some of my favourite dialogue exchanges in any game this year. A Short Hike is short and exceptionally simple, but the content you get in exchange for the very low price is well worth it. I hope you have your heart warmed just like me.
Aaaaaaaand we’re back to good old mind-decimating science fiction. I hadn’t really dug that deep into Remedy’s catalogue prior to Control. In fact, the only game of theirs that I’ve played is Quantum Break and playing that was akin to eating a bread sandwich so needless to say, I wasn’t particularly interested in trying any of their future projects. However, I kept seeing rave reviews being thrown at this game, especially from a number of critics whom I admire, so I naturally became intrigued and, a few months later, I finally picked it up. I should state first that if you’re looking to play Control for a gripping story, you won’t find it. Rather, you play Control to experience a particular feeling. The game rarely gives you an easy answer to your questions, often resorting to collectable reading materials as their method of fleshing out the world. Yes, you read that correctly. This isn’t your mama’s triple AAA action game with their usual audio logs (those are in there but they’re very rare). It’s entirely possible the smaller voice cast was a budgetary constraint but I think it works perfectly for what this game is doing with its world-building. It’s refreshing to play a blockbuster twitch shooter that lets you slow all the way down and spend a huge chunk of your time staring at text on a screen. It sounds boring, perhaps even pace-killing, but the reason it works is, as the player, you want to have even the slightest hint of understanding on what the fuck is even going on. You’ll stumble across dozens of bizarre, sometimes physically impossible, situations and the game does not hold your hand through them. Control isn’t about layered characters navigating a compelling narrative. Its main priority is all to do with making you feel overwhelmed by a completely incomprehensible universe no human is truly capable of fully comprehending. It’s a game that forces you to play by its rules and in an industry entirely governed by the eternally bland ‘pLaY iT yOuR wAy’ mindset, it’s nice to actually feel emotionally challenged by a game of this scale again. Give it a go if that sounds good to you, and even if it doesn’t, try it out for the phenomenally satisfying combat instead.
7. Resident Evil 2
Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you the same thing: I am a total coward when it comes to horror games. Scary movies, I can manage. Scary books? Don’t make me laugh. I don’t really have this problem with horror in other mediums, but there’s just something about playing spooky games that gets entirely under my skin. I’ve tried to figure out why this is the case for years and I still can’t decipher it, but I feel it’s worth stating because I’m a little biased when I say Resident Evil 2 was a terrifying experience. From top to bottom, this game is packed to the brim with clever expectation subversions which lead to some truly beautiful scares. This just feels like a perfectly constructed haunted house. That isn’t to say the game is restrictive, however. The famous police station where a good chunk of the runtime takes place is designed in such a clever way. Right from the first room, you’re finding locked doors just waiting to become shortcuts later. I got excited to see what was around the corner or just beyond the next door because I knew I’d find some piece of the puzzle that is this building. You’ll find items, not entirely sure how to use them yet, only to track back to a previous area and it quickly all clicks together. You’re always finding things that propel the momentum of the game and just when the act of navigating the station starts to become dull, Mr. X is introduced, an unstoppable brick wall of a man who will stop at nothing to end you. Since much of the game takes place in narrow corridors and it’s virtually impossible to run around the big boy, you’re forced to think about how the building you’ve spent a few hours exploring connects together in order to run circles around him in emergency situations. I can’t express enough just how genius that is. Resident Evil 2 is full of clever design ideas that constantly transform the way you’d normally approach this kind of game; my favourite is how it takes three to four headshots to down a zombie and that many shots rarely kills them, making a typically boring enemy suddenly scary to fight again. Resi 2 is claustrophobic and atmospheric, with just the right amount of corny writing to be thoroughly effective all the way to the end.
6. Metro Exodus
Post-apocalypse stories are nothing new in the world of video games. Let’s be frank: if your game isn’t set in an apocalyptic setting, is it really a game at all? This particularly depressing sub-genre is well worn territory by now so you’d be forgiven for thinking 4A Games’ latest is just another one of those. If you’re one of those people, I understand your trepidation but I have to urge you give Metro Exodus a try. There are very few games with writing as truly authentic as this one. There are many long sequences of the many interesting characters just talking amongst themselves and it is some of the most riveting shit I’ve seen all year. I would be shocked if the actors didn’t improvise these chats because the way each line flows seamlessly into the next is absolutely extraordinary. Of course, that’s not the only positive with Exodus because I really like what they did with the open world aspect of the game. Despite the world being largely dead and abandoned, it ironically feels very alive. Everywhere you go already has an established society with its own set of rules and individuals, and the game makes sure to let you know that you’re just some asshole who rolled up in a train and chucked a spanner in the works. I really like how the morality system works, having the outcome of each area you visit influenced by your in-game actions. This isn’t your usual Telltale-esque one-or-the-other choice; your reputation with the various factions is influenced by the people you choose to kill. It makes you think a little more about who you’re shooting at which is pretty cool in a game genre that’s often so mindless. You’re forced to acknowledge that all the people you kill are struggling to survive, just like you. What I enjoyed about the world of Metro Exodus is how weirdly peaceful it is. When you’re not doing the bang bang stuff, you’re spending long periods of time traversing the different areas in the game and enjoying your surroundings. A notable moment that’s stuck in my mind is the time I wanted to invade a camp to gather supplies, so I sat on a hill and waited for dark to come. Watching the world change as the sun gradually set over the horizon was a really special experience. It allowed me to check my inventory, enjoy the views and think back on the events of the story so far, wondering if I could’ve done more to change things. It’s difficult to explain why that moment worked so well for me, especially since that was a choice I made and not one the game encouraged, but it felt special and I thought I’d share it. Unlike so many other forgettable post-apocalypse games, Exodus felt like a true journey with highs and lows for the characters that I felt I had dictated. It’s worth a go, and I’d recommend enjoying it as a slow burn experience.
5. Katana Zero
When I decided to pick up Katana Zero, all the information I’d gathered about it came from its reveal during a Nintendo Direct. This meant I was in a unique situation where I had virtually no expectations as to what kind of experience I wanted from this game, which was honestly kinda refreshing. Of course, I expected it to be good, but I couldn’t have been prepared for the emotional rollercoaster I was about to be lead down. Katana Zero presents an utterly compelling fictional universe damaged permanently by the ripple effects of war. The people in this city are poor, drunk and mentally broken, hanging onto the flimsiest belief that they were on the right side of history to acknowledge the depressing state they are in. However, the story still has an incredible sympathy for these people. After all, when everything has gone to shit and there’s nothing in life worth living for anymore, it’s only human to rationalise it in some way. It’s a narrative that delves deep into the impact of war on one’s psyche, expressed beautifully through the main character, Zero. I don’t want to divulge too many details because I really recommend you try it out yourself (it’s cheap and only 4 to 5 hours long so you have no excuse), but bear in mind that it deals with some pretty heavy themes of trauma and drug abuse. It’s not a story I was anticipating, but one I’m glad to have experienced knowing nothing at all. Of course, a good story does not a video game make, but luckily the combat in Katana Zero is stellar too. The one-shot-kill mechanic is one I’ve seen surprisingly little of in games and this game proves its effectiveness. It only takes one bullet or one punch to put Zero down, which gives every encounter a level of tension, even with the most basic of enemies. Oftentimes, your actions have to be pixel perfect which sounds frustrating but the scenarios and loading times are short enough to make sure this never becomes an issue. This all culminates in one truth: managing to blast through a level without getting hit makes you feel like an unstoppable god and I wish more games placed these kinds of restrictions on the player because the payoff of besting seemingly impossible odds is transcendental. Katana Zero absolutely blew me away upon release and its strongest narrative moments remain ingrained in my memory to this very day. It didn’t quite get the recognition I believe it deserved so please give it a try – you will not regret it.
4. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Considering how this list has been almost completely dominated by narrative-centric games, it might come as a surprise to see a Yooka-Laylee game on here. Playtonic’s latest release appears at first to be a fairly straightforward 2D platformer. If that was your assumption, you would be absolutely correct. However, I’d like to make the case for this game. I really like 2D platformers. I adored Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, Rayman Legends and Super Meat Boy was essentially my introduction into the indie game scene. Celeste was my game of the year in 2018 and I’m still making my way through Hollow Knight but loving every second of it. I guess I’m somewhat biased in this field, but in a year full of emotional powerhouses and difficulty-focused experiences, sometimes it’s nice to kick back and enjoy some awful puns and dumb dad humour. This game is bursting with charm and personality. People have criticised the first game’s humour for being a bit too reliant on fourth-wall punchlines, but I honestly found it to be a really quirky atmosphere that I just fell into. The characters are all really cute and funny, and Yooka and Laylee play off each other surprisingly well. In terms of the platforming levels themselves, they are clearly designed by some exceptionally talented people, and I would expect nothing less from former Rareware developers. The levels themselves are creative with subtle but meaningful differences with each new level or remix, and the collectable gold coins provide a little extra challenge for those who are looking for that. The entire core idea of making the final level available from the very beginning is really clever. I still haven’t given it a go yet since I want to give myself the best possible chance by collecting all the extra lives, but I can’t wait to give it my best shot. Oh, the overworld! It’s just wonderful. I had so much fun just wondering around, trying to see how much of the map I could unlock before moving onto the next level. It’s filled with loads of little secrets and it always rewards the player for thinking outside the box. It’s all just so fun and intuitive and I really have loved every second of my time with Impossible Lair and I can’t wait to play some more.
3. Disco Elysium
Look, I know what you want, what we all want. You’re a simple fellow who enjoys simple pleasures, just like me. Let’s just be honest with each other: we all want to live out the fantasy of becoming alcoholic communist superstar who solves crimes and politely informs “race realists” to suck a massive fat one. Oddly specific, right? Well, apparently not because in Disco Elysium you can do all of these things and so much more. It is virtually impossible to get bored playing this game. The writing is biting and powerful, leaving you belly laughing one second and teary-eyed the next. The world of Revachol is endlessly compelling, filled with millions of tiny details that allow you to piece it together slowly but surely. Conversations have a unique authenticity to them, feeling entirely different with every character you talk to. There were times where I thought I had someone in the palm of my hand during an interview, only to realise soon after that I was the one being played the whole time. Moments like that of realistic, human responses to your actions are scattered everywhere in Disco Elysium. This game isn’t afraid to get incredibly weird at times – in fact, the loading screen hints encourage you to ask the strangest questions you can to see what responses you get – and it doesn’t pull its punches when it counts. It’s an intensely (brace yourselves gamers, I’m gonna say the P word) *political* game at its core, interrogating your views and using its setting and characters to make you really think about how you might already view the world. Revachol may be a fictional country, but every aspect of it feels a little too real, and I absolutely love it. If there’s any game I feel the need to recommend to absolutely everyone, it’s Disco Elysium. It’s not just a game that happens to be really good; it also feels incredibly timely and, dare I say, important. We need works of art like this to truly challenge us and push the boundary of the medium. I’m not just saying you should play this game, I’m saying you NEED to.
2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I’ve been hearing about Fire Emblem from various friends who would not stop singing the series’s praises and, at the time, I shamefully concluded it was just some anime bullshit. However, it was a slow summer, I’d just received my paycheck and, noticing the recent release of Three Houses and its extremely positive critical reception, I decided to pull a classic case of impulse spending and picked it up. I was aware of how long these games tend to be, so I booted the game up anticipating the inevitable bounce-off. However, against all conceivable odds, I not only fell into Three Houses, I dove in willingly. At the very least, I was expecting a game with cute anime characters defeating some vague, unambiguous villain and friendship would eventually save the day or some shit. This game certainly met the cute anime boys and girls quota and it absolutely espouses the tried-and-true, friendship-is-magic angle, but what the story goes on to offer is something both completely surprising and deeply challenging. Friendship is the clear theme of the narrative, but where Three Houses boldly goes with that core idea was far and beyond what I’d thought possible from this dumb anime franchise I was sure my weeaboo friends were a little too enthusiastic about (shoutout to weeb trash @LivingExcuse). The first half of the game is fairly slow and lacks any huge stakes to worry about, which meant I could spend all my time befriending everyone. I took my time with everyone, slowly learning the different systems at play. I figured I could leave the friendship-making to the side for now while I got to grips with everything. Then, the time skip happened. All of a sudden, the entire story transformed. I was forced to strike down some of my former students, some of which I once considered close friends. I’d kill someone, and a person on my side would have a line mourning their loss. It completely tore my heart to pieces, to such an extent that the conclusion of the war plotline left me feeling profoundly empty, more than anything else. My shit truly did hurted in all the right ways. Three Houses is a devastating dive into the emotional impact of war, and it made me realise just how much I value my friends in real life too. Even if you’re not usually a fan of long JRPGs, I can’t recommend this game enough. It’s an experience I’ll cherish forever.
1. SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE
And here we are with my Game of the Year! I had a really tough time deciding which game would claim the top spot because, quite honestly, my top three could be in any order, but Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice *just* clinches it for being easily the most rewarding experience I had with a game in 2019. This game is so fucking good that I accidentally spent 45 minutes on a running machine because I was so preoccupied thinking how just how good it is that I didn’t realise my legs were dying. This game utterly invaded my brain for a straight month. When I wasn’t playing Sekiro, I was going over boss attack patterns in my head, trying to figure out the best times to exploit an opening and unleash a deadly attack. The main gripe I see a lot of people having is that the gameplay is restrictive and they would be right, but doesn’t that just make the game feel like this ultimate challenge? I love it when games have the confidence to force you into abiding by their own rules because the feeling of satisfaction you get from truly mastering the combat in this game specifically is unlike anything I’ve felt before. Defeating Genichiro for the first time and overcoming that lofty hurdle remains one of my favourite gaming moments of all time. I’ve never felt an adrenaline rush quite like that. Once you realise that Sekiro is essentially a rhythm game, it becomes a lot more intuitive, but never becomes more easy. Every enemy encounter, especially boss fights, feels like a puzzle where you have to figure out the exact best way to approach each situation and when it clicks, it’s like you enter a transcendent state where every parry feels like second nature and you sweep the fight in a perfect run. Beating the final boss and realising that I had defeated all that the game had thrown at me, I genuinely shed a tear. I realised in that moment that this is what so many people felt beating Dark Souls, a sense of euphoria and absolute triumph that I never truly understood from that game but, all of a sudden, did now with this one. Sekiro came out during a period of my life where I desperately needed a win, and playing this beautiful experience all the way to the end filled me with a sense of pure pride in my own abilities I may never enjoy again… but I’d like to. Sekiro taught me that, even when things seem hopeless, you’ve just got to keep trying and eventually, against all odds, you will win.
Thank you for reading my list. I love you, and I hope you have a wonderful day ❤