2019 was a weird year for me in terms of games. Instead of taking the shotgun approach and playing a bit of everything that looked even slightly interesting, I dove deep on games I was really enjoying (hence my list being a top 8). This worked for me in a year that I think by no means had a lack of good games, but wasn’t full of releases that really spoke to me. In looking through the year to make note of anything I missed or wanted to catch up on, I found my list is pretty short.
It’s kind of a relief, both in terms of time and finances to be content with not playing absolutely everything. Would I have had a good time playing the Resident Evil 2 remake? Yeah, I probably would have, but also it’s not my favourite genre and watching some streams of it on a second monitor while I played something else also was a pretty enjoyable time. Video games are just a weird medium like that. I’m expecting next year to be a little different, with the new consoles being released and things like the Xbox PC gamepass making it easier than ever to just download and try games on a whim.
Like last year, my list isn’t in any particular order, and I’ve also thrown in games that didn’t necessarily release in 2019 if they had some kind of meaningful update or really impacted my year in games. Let’s get to it!
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
On paper, Sekiro is a game that doesn’t work for me. It was the RPG mechanics that brought me to the Souls games originally, so when I saw how Sekiro largely stripped these aspects out in favour of a limited loadout system with no skill builds, I thought it wouldn’t resonate with me. This was especially a concern because it was something I missed a lot in Bloodborne. Thankfully, all of that went out the window when I broke an enemies guard for the first time and executed them. Sekiro has the most satisfying melee combat system I’ve experienced maybe ever. The way encounters become elaborate dances between you and your opponent, looking for weaknesses to exploit in order to get that satisfying killing blow was easily my most engaging gaming moment of the year. I felt like a gaming god when I went from getting my ass kicked by Genichiro, to being able to put him down in my sleep. The way the game teaches you how to play through these encounters, with most of the early bosses teaching you one particular trick you need to master, then string together to beat the game is design genius. It’s only because they stripped away the potential variables that come with weapon variety that they could make such a tight combat system, and while I certainly don’t want that in everything I play, I think the game is a testament to the idea that less is sometimes more.
FFXIV:Shadowbringers (and all the earlier stuff)
This freakin’ game is one of two that sucked up a lot of my time this year, for better and for worse. I’ve already written an earlier post about my trials and tribulations with FFXIV, trying and failing and trying again to get through the bloat of early content, in order to get to what people promised me was some of the best video game storytelling irrespective of genre. The fact is, they’re right. Shadowbringers is absolutely the greatest story told in video games this year. The problem with an MMO story is I can’t really articulate the exact reason why it’s so good without going through the entire FFXIV plotline right back to A Realm Reborn, and that’s something nobody wants to read. What I can say is that it takes what could be the same melodramatic world ending plotline that so many JRPGs have used before, and tells it from a mature, human perspective. What I was most surprised by was how well the game explores the motives behind every character’s actions and weighs up the pros and cons. Even the group you are part of, The Scions of the Seventh Dawn, who in any other game would be a group of righteous good guys predestined to always make the right choice and save the world, in FFXIV they are constantly second guessing themselves and outside perspectives are always offered that throw shades of grey across all your decisions. The fact that by the end of Shadowbringers I not only understood the motivations of the main antagonist and saw how he came to his conclusions, but I also kinda felt sorry for him. Considering I’m still so hot on the narrative even after the arduous 300 hour journey to get there, should speak volumes as to how good it really is. I didn’t end up sticking with the endgame for too long, not because it’s bad but rather I just needed a breather after the journey to the top. I do know I’ll be back for any major story developments in the future, and I’m excited to do so. Even if you’ve never played an MMO before I’d highly recommend trying it out when they do their quest restructuring later this year, because it’s a serious shame so many people will miss out on this story simply because of time dedicated to see it through.
Totalwar: Warhammer 2
This is the big one right here. My Steam hour count currently reads 702 hours spent on this game, and 99% of that was done this year. I haven’t fallen into a gaming hole as deep as I did with this game since maybe World of Warcraft in 2006. This game just works for me, it’s a great mix of strategic over-world map management with RTS style combat, where you pit massive armies of from the Warhammer world against each other. It’s a great formula that’s never quite hit the heights it was capable of in the past; Totalwar: Warhammer 1 felt like the developers had to make a bunch of compromises in terms of faction mechanics and rosters that didn’t fully satisfy hardcore Warhammer fans nor general stratergy game players. Thankfully a series of great DLC releases this year proved that Creative Assembly have either got their shit together, or finally been given the green light to really let the potential of the series show. Starting with The Prophet and the Warlock in April of 2019, CA set about adding some of the most iconic units and legendary lords to their game and giving them the justice they deserve. With an added emphasis on unique faction mechanics that ensure you have a completely different experience even within the same race, I found myself looking forward to every release and every new lord gave me a reason to jump back into the game. Couple with this some sizable free updates that reworked some of the older factions and even made the turn times a quarter of what they used to be (!!!) it was a solid year for Totalwar: Warhammer 2 and I fully expect some exciting news regarding its follow up in 2020.
This game has been swirling around in my head since I played it a few months ago. Equal parts detective story, political commentary and pure nihilism, Disco Elysium is a game that will send you soul searching as you your lead your detective around a world he doesn’t recognise. I was enthralled exploring Revachol, learning about its history and people. It captures this weird tone of melancholy, despair and hope all mixed together to create a vibe I haven’t really experienced in a game before. I wasn’t always having fun when I was playing, but I couldn’t look away. Coupled with this are some amazing skill systems that are great twists on the usual formula. Instead of being static numbers on a character sheet, they’re voices in your head, representing different parts of your broken psyche. During your playthrough they’ll chatter away in the background, helping and hindering in equal measures as you try and navigate your way through different encounters. They become a Greek chorus of sorts, and are as important characters as any you meet exploring the local port district the game takes place in. We’ll be feeling the ripples of this game for years to come, and anyone who’s looking for a different gaming experience from 2019 should check it out.
I haven’t got that much to say about Beat Saber except that it was the only game that got me (and my girlfriend) to take out our PSVR more than once this year. In fact it was almost a daily ritual for a few weeks to play a few songs and work up a sweat. It’s a great game for anyone to pick up and play with simple motion controls, and the best thing is you feel cool when you get into the higher difficulties and start pulling off some crazy moves. I wish the PS4 version had the same custom content the PC version has, but I still had a great time bopping along to the kinda lame EDM soundtrack it comes with. Anyone with a VR set gathering dust who doesn’t mind getting a bit active should take a look at this.
I love Hades. I’m obsessed with this game and it isn’t even officially released yet. Supergiant Games are some of the smartest developers working right now, and I applaud them for not resting on their laurels and always pushing to create unique experiences with every game they make. Their true genius is on show with Hades, because they knew the best way to make this game was with the input of their community. I first played Hades last January when it was released, and I thought it was a cool story based Rogue-Lite that’d be fun to beat once, see the story and move on. After coming back to the game almost a year later and seeing how it’s evolved, I think this will have a dedicated player base for years to come. The game has such an addictive loop; pick one of five distinct weapons and start a run, building a loadout and perk system out of the various boons gifted by the different Greek gods. One run you might rock the sword and a mixture of Zeus’ and Poseidon’s boons, knocking back enemies and zapping them with a flurry of lightning strikes, next run you could be using a literal machine gun and utilising Aphrodite’s and Aries’ blessings to weaken foes before destroying them with a flurry of blades. I’ve put probably 50 hours into the game already and I’m still itching for more. I can’t wait to see how they finish up development in 2020, and I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot about this game when it officially releases.
Let me tell you about the things I don’t like about Control. I think the combat is boring and the psychic powers are uninspired. The mod, currency and bounty systems are a poor attempt at emulating Destiny and don’t make sense in a semi-linear third person shooter. The ending of the game is a complete let down and feels like they forgot to add a final sequence to wrap up the story in a satisfying way. The checkpointing throughout is some of the most frustrating and inconsistent I’ve ever seen, especially from a developer who’s been making this kind of game for a very long time. So, why is this game on the list? Because the world they’ve built is fucking cool. The writers have created a world that’s a love letter to the X-Files and every other paranormal story you can think of. I loved exploring the different departments of the Federal Bureau of Control just soaking in the environmental storytelling that it contains. Even the main story had me pretty invested before the terrible ending. I was enjoying myself delving deeper into Jesse’s past and how it related to events within The Oldest House. Sometimes a game can do one thing so damn well it eclipses the things it does badly, and Control is just that.
Outer Wilds is one of those rare experiences that captures how unique games can be as a medium for storytelling. Ask anyone who’s played this how they unraveled the narrative and you’ll get a different answer, yet they’ll rave about it just the same. It’s kind of astounding how well constructed this game is; just pointing your ship to one of the planets and seeing what you can find is just as viable as following leads in a linear order because everything fits together so nicely. At one point I crashed my ship on the other side of the planet you start on, after stupidly looking at my map before reaching orbit. Instead of it being a wasted run I ended up in some underwater caverns that revealed some important information about a completely different planet I’d been exploring earlier. That’s vital because of the core mechanic of being stuck in a time loop. If the game was frequently frustrating, or you felt like you couldn’t make progress because of this restriction it would completely break it. Thankfully there’s so much going on across the solar system I rarely felt bad about reaching the time limit, starting again and heading off on a new adventure. Outer Wilds’ biggest success is how it marries game and narrative design together perfectly, and I have a feeling we’ll see developers taking cues from it over the next few years.