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Dec 16 / Great Apes

Games of 2019

In putting together this list I learned that I played 27 games that were released in 2019. Almost all of them were good, too. There were only a couple that I bailed on without putting in a decent amount of time. So it’s easy for me to say that this was a pretty strong year for gaming. The fact that I felt compelled to make a list of my top 15 games, rather than the 10 I normally aim for, helps illustrate how deep the pool of games was this year. That said, I don’t think there were any big stand-out titles this year. In other recent years I’ve had games like Monster Hunter World and Breath of the Wild as my favourite of the year, and there was nothing quite that good this year.

I usually do multi-paragraph write-ups of all the games on my list, but I suspect that no one actually reads those, so I’m going to do briefer write-ups this year. I’d consider the top three games on this list roughly interchangeable, with everything else a step or two back of those games.

15. Fantasy Strike

A competitive fighting game designed by a former Street Fighter designer and tournament fighting game player. The hook for this one is that there are no weird button combos necessary to perform abilities. There’s attack A, B, C (each mapped to one button), Jump, Throw, and Super . . . and that’s it. It has the depth of strategy of other fighting games without the complexity of controls. Also has some very in-depth tutorials that explain not only what each character’s moves are, but the strategy behind the character. Lots of fun, the first fighting game I’ve ever really gotten into.

14. Eastshade

The way I’ve been describing Eastshade is “Skyrim with no combat”. You can see the Skyrim comparisons pretty easily in any of the screenshots; it’s an open-ish world, 1st person game in a very naturalistic environment. But you play as a painter, not a warrior. The primary goal of the game is to complete a set of paintings from specific locations in the world. Figuring out how to access and navigate to these locations makes up the bulk of the game. There are also quite a few side quests introducing you to various characters in the world. My main complaint is that it’s a bit too long and one or two puzzles were impossible for me to solve without having to look up solutions online.

13. Imperator: Rome

The most recent of Paradox’s complex historical strategy games. I liked this one more than the general consensus. It’s a little bit simpler than other Paradox games (although still more complex than the vast majority of strategy games) and has a gentler learning curve, which is probably part of why I liked it more than the usual Paradox crowd. I like Europa Universalis well enough, but I still don’t really understand it. Imperator also appeals to me as someone who finds the era of Roman empire more interesting than medieval Europe.  At any rate, I did eventually lose steam in Imperator for the same reason many people did, which is that it can start to feel a bit thin after while because it feels like there isn’t much to do other than continually expand your borders. But I did have fun with it and I should probably go back now that they’ve released some pretty substantial updates.

12. Heaven’s Vault

A game where you play as an archaeologist trying to uncover what happened to a lost civilization. The gameplay is primarily about exploring a solar system and trying to decipher a lost language. Except in a sense it’s not really about deciphering the language, which I found disappointing. It’s entirely possible (even quite likely) that a player can get through the game while mistranslating many words, and there’s no real requirement to get translations correct except in a small number of restrictive circumstances. I would have liked this more if it had leaned into the language decipherment, which is something I find absolutely fascnating. But I think it also does some very interesting and unusual things, and I liked it more than I didn’t like it.

11. Death Stranding

Death Stranding took me about 35 hours to complete. For 30 hours I really liked it. The final 5 hours were unbearable.

The good: I like the way it really leans into the package delivery conceit, making gameplay that really feels like you’re completing big, difficult treks across difficult landscapes. And I like the asynchronous multiplayer, where infrastructure that one player builds can wind up altering the landscape in the game for other players who are also online.

The bad: The story is gibberish, and I say this as someone who counts all five Metal Gear Solid games as among his favourites of all time. The final few hours contain virtually no gameplay and are primarily a series of agonizingly long expository cut scenes.

10. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

I’ve never been able to get into the Dark Souls games (I don’t find repeatedly dying and losing progress to be a very fun way of spending my time), but Sekiro clicked for me in a way that Dark Souls and Bloodborne didn’t. I only played half-way through the game, but I did have a pretty good time along the way. At a certain point I just felt like I’d had enough and it was time to play something else.

9. Pokemon Sword and Shield

It’s Pokemon. I don’t know what you want me to say. Do you like Pokemon? If so, this is a Pokemon game. If not, this one isn’t going to change your mind.

The best Pokemon game, of course, is Persona 5.

8. Devil May Cry 5

The story is nonsense and the characters are not particularly interesting. But the combat is a ton of fun. Not sure how much more to say about this one. It’s fun to hit demons with swords and motorcycles that turn into swords.

7. Dragon Quest Builders 2

The Dragon Quest Builders games are basically Minecraft as an RPG. I’ve never really been able to get into Minecraft because I find it too free-form and I don’t really know what to do, but by taking the general concept and giving specific quests and building blueprints, I found that DQB2 managed to draw me in to the concept. My only real complaint, which is my complaint for every Dragon Quest game, is that it would have been better if it was half as long. The entire last act of this game could easily be cut out without the game being any worse for it.

6. Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden

I’m pretty into tactics games as a genre, and this is one of the better tactics RPGs I’ve played recently. Like virtually every modern tactics RPG, it looks and controls a lot like XCom, but the details make Mutant Year Zero stand out. In my opinion it’s better than the two recent XCom games for a few reasons. The main one is that it feels considerably less governed by randomness, and the over-reliance on randomness has always been my chief complaint about XCom. It also has a more interesting story. And the gameplay in general relies more on the unique abilities of the characters, which makes sense because unlike XCom, everyone you play as in MYZ is a named character with a specific story, not a randomly generated soldier. I played this on Normal difficulty (as opposed to the default of Hard), which I found made the game more enjoyable.

5. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

I think this game got completely overlooked (it only has about 150 reviews on Steam right now, which is only 10% as many as Eastshade, which is a small non-violent indie game), probably because it’s ostensibly the sequel to a game that wasn’t very well received. However, unlike the 3D Yooka-Laylee game, this one is 2D, and it’s very good. It’s very much in the vein of the classic Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country, and made by some of the same people. It’s a bright, colourful game with creative, precise platforming. In addition to the 2D side-scrolling levels, it also has a semi-3D overworld which is full of branches and hidden items to uncover. I had almost as much fun in the overworld as in the actual levels. Highly recommend picking this one up if you like platformers, especially the classics like Donkey Kong Country or Super Mario World.

4. The Outer Worlds

I’d describe this as “Fallout 4 with better writing”. The gameplay is very similar to Fallout 3 and 4, but the writing is a lot sharper, and the characters are much more memorable. Unlike Fallout, The Outer Worlds takes place in a Firefly-esque sci-fi world, which allows for much more variety in the visuals, as you hop from planet to planet.

This game is definitively not The Outer Wilds, a nearly identically titled game that came out a few months earlier.

3. Total War: Three Kingdoms

I’ve been a fan of the Total War games since the original Rome: Total War, which ate up an excessive number of hours in my college years. This is probably the most fun I’ve had with any of them since then, although I do have to give a shout-out to Shogun 2: Total War and Warhammer: Total War, which are not too far behind.

2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

This is easily the game from 2019 that I’ve put the most hours into, having completed the story once as Edelgard, and then getting about half-way through Dmitri’s version of the game as well. I am, as previously noted, quite into tactics games, and while the tactical combat in this one is fun enough, that’s certainly not the high point of the game. The combat is quite easy and does not require an awful lot of, well, tactics. What really makes this work for me is the way everything comes together. There are a lot of little systems, inside and outside of combat, that are not very complex on their own, but which reinforce and build on each other in very satisfying ways. And, of course, I was hooked by the stories of the characters in my chosen house, which themselves tie into the systems, and make this a pretty compulsive game to play.

1. Kingdom Hearts 3

I tweeted this after beating the final boss of Kingdom Hearts 3:

The story is convoluted nonsense, but the gameplay is really good. Constantly shifting and inventive and overblown and joyful. And unlike most RPGs it’s not needlessly padded and drawn out. I finished in about 30 hours, which is a good length.

Shifting and inventive and overblown and joyful. Yeah, that works for me. There aren’t enough enough inventive and joyful games.

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