My fellow fanatics, 2019 was a…pretty difficult year for gaming for me. Not a whole lot stood out as truly groundbreaking or emotionally gripping or even as interactively bold as the incredible experiences we got last year. While there was some truly great returns to form by creative voices I always enjoy the work of, 2019 as a whole felt a bit safe and by the numbers.
However, there were a few interesting experiences that really helped me get into the love of gaming. Experiences that stuck in my mind way after the credits rolled Experiences that remembered the strengths and joy of the interactive nature of games and thoroughly rewarded me as I enjoyed them.
Yes, it’s that time of year once again, it is time for my top five games of 2019.
With some highly situational honorable mentions thrown in.
5. Life is Strange 2 by DontNod Entertainment
Technically DontNod’s episodic game debuted its first two episodes near the end of last year, but episodes three, four, and five launched this year, so three-fifths of a game releasing in 2019 makes it fair game.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting the follow-up to Life is Strange to even be on this list. The first was such a messy, scatterbrained, yet strangely engrossing interactive drama about growing up and becoming your own person centered around college girls. Now this follow-up is an admittedly more accessible and conventional boys-on-the-run story starring two brothers.
Yet, here I am at the end of the year fondly remembering the various twists and turns in Daniel and Sean’s journey. The close calls against various wall-supporting racists (yes, the game is not shy about being topical), the endearing cast of characters that help the brothers along the way, the sad and difficult decisions that had to be made knowing it would fundamentally change the very nature and dynamic of the brothers’ relationship. It all helps elevate an experience that otherwise plays out like a melodramatic indie film with its liberal use of licensed alt rock and folk songs into something downright absorbing.
It is also indicative of this year that such a small-scaled experience stuck with me. Sure we had great games that were fun in the moment but the quieter moments of Life is Strange 2 are going to be the ones that last the longest for me. Making modern art in the hippy community of Away, Sean exploring his complex sexuality in the forest with social outcasts, the sad but emotional commiseration with the brothers’ distant mother. All of these moments help elevate this game to being better than the sum of their parts.
4. Control by Remedy Games
The elevator pitch for Control alone had my interest: the creators of Max Payne and Alan Wake do their own creative take on the SCP Foundation. But what I didn’t expect was the best example of a game having fantastic scope despite its actual scale being quite small. Protagonist Jesse Faden enters a seemingly normal looking government building known as The Federal Bureau of Control, looking for answers regarding the disappearance of her brother, but ends up getting embroiled in a battle for the fate of our world against a horrific interdimensional threat known as The Hiss. Yet, the majority of the game takes place in an extremely elaborate office building.
This juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane has always been present in studio lead Sam Lake’s other projects, Alan Wake in particular used live-action videos within the game to give an uneasy sense of the uncanny, which worked really well for a Stephen King/ Twin Peaks pastiche, and that exact same sensibility works once more in Control. As the very nature of the building known as The Oldest House is revealed and the very unsettling adversity of what it holds becomes known, it makes each journey into the department’s various wings a mix of excitement and cautiousness. Plus it has a smattering of kitschy workplace humor like workplace e-mails complaining about spatial shifts removing bathrooms or how time-travel shenanigans will not count towards overtime pay.
Yet, Control also manages to be a fast-paced and rewarding action game as well as a surreal sci-fi thriller. Constantly dripfeeding new weapons and telekinetic superpowers to help you navigate through increasingly chaotic set pieces and enemy encounters. All while maintaining a distinct visual design using brutalist architecture and geographic fractal imagery to make everything have this uncanny atmosphere.
It is a bit weird that an all-powerful force from beyond human comprehension mostly sticks to possessing soldiers with armor and guns for the most part, but with gunfights this satisfying I won’t complain.
3. Devil May Cry 5 by Capcom
As a series, Devil May Cry has never grown out of the 2000s, and for that it has always found a place in my inner twelve-year old’s heart. High octane action, gothic demon monster designs, a soundtrack made entirely of emo rock metal, and a general flippant punk attitude that says, “yeah I know my gun fu makes no sense but I just killed like fifty zombies with it so shut up.”
And after well over a decade of absence, I was worried that Devil May Cry 5 would finally be that installment that just makes its entire identity feel sad and played out. A fossil of gaming’s rebellious teenage days.
Then I played it, reviewed it, and went back to play it again on multiple difficulties like I did on Devil May Cry 3 so long ago, and it is still pure hack-and-slash bliss and I love every single silly element of it. The enemy encounters. The slick stylish combat. The electronic metal soundtrack that’s just on the right side of dopey cheese making the whole production feel like an interactive rock opera. The fact the bad guy’s entire master plan is basically inspired by a William Blake poem. All of it comes together into an experience that actually addresses that hero Dante and his ongoing demon-slaying antics are starting to become old and played out while also giving him one hell of a send-off in a light theme of generational transition.
It’s a game that revels in its own legacy, in fact the closest thing to a criticism I have is that the series has never really evolved past its “Monster Room” level design, but it delivered on some of the most exciting boss battles I’ve had this entire year.
Pull my Devil Trigger indeed.
2. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order by Respawn Entertainment
The last single-player story-driven Star Wars game we got was The Force Unleashed 2 back in 2010. And it was so completely forgettable I actually had to look up when it came out despite renting it, playing it to completion, then writing a review for it back in the heyday. And the utter damage to the brand done by EA in more recent years makes that absence absolutely criminal.
Enter Respawn Entertainment, one of the best studios working in the industry today finally giving us Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. A game that was marketed with some very direct statements. No DLC. No Season Pass. No Loot Boxes. No long-term monetization of any kind. Everything is on disc, and what is on disc is a straightforward Star Wars adventure full of lightsabers, droids, and blasters on alien worlds new and old.
And thank the Force for that. Fallen Order is a great game that combines the measured combat of Dark Souls, the nonlinear sprawling map design of a modern Metroidvania, and all the wall-running and rope-swinging goodness we are all too familiar with in bombastic action games.
The story is a pretty quintessential Star Wars tale. The hero, Cal Kestis, is a Jedi hiding from the Empire some time after the great purge of his Order, but is forced to come out of the shadows after uncovering a series of clues to something that could potentially help revive the Jedi and pose a threat to the Empire. It doesn’t exactly chart new grounds so much as play all the familiar notes.
Overall, the game does have some janky animations and can be a little unpolished from a technical perspective, but after almost an entire decade of nothing Respawn has made a bold statement by making this game and refining it to the level they have. The Force is with this one, and I am all over it like mynocks on power cables.
Mortal Kombat 11
Netherrealm Studios have made a lot of progress with Mortal Kombat recently, and it’s a series I have a lot of fond memories of. I loved the first live-action movie, I dressed up as the characters for Halloween when I was a kid, I even convinced myself that godawful Mortal Kombat Mythologies game was underrated because it had my favorite ice-slinging ninja as the hero.
And Mortal Kombat 11 is a game I am deeply invested in. I bought it twice on my PS4 and my Switch, Season Passes included, and there is nothing but high production and quality for the fundamental gameplay. Seriously, I can’t think of a single outright terrible character on the entire roster.
But sadly the heavily monetized live service bug bit this game hard, and it shows. Lots of boring collectible skins and doodads, a bunch of tacked on RPG elements to make something as simple as doing an arcade ladder tedious and annoying, and of course charging additional money for easy Fatality tokens and premium currency. As a fan I still love Netherrealm Studios’ output, but the way Warner Bros. Interactive as been selling it has made that very hard to maintain.
Super Mario Maker 2
The fact that Nintendo managed to release one of the most robust and accessible level creators available to a mainstream audience on the Wii U was impressive. The fact they then refined it even further and got everything to work again with the sequel on the Switch is even better. And with a brand name in gaming as universally recognized and beloved as Super Mario, there is a lot to love with this game effectively making endless Mario content.
So why isn’t it on the top 5? Three words: Long Term Support. After launch there really hasn’t been much in terms of quality of life improvements or additional features demanded by players. Granted, this was written before the announced major “Master Sword” update, but a more steady dripfeed of content would have kept it in the mind a little better.
Sayonara Wild Hearts
An arty game that mashes together high-score arcade action with the pop vinyl aesthetics of a synth album already made Sayonara Wild Hearts stick out to me. On top of that it basically became the poster child for Apple Arcade, the subscription service that actually dares to curate the deluge of mediocrity that is the App Store.
Sadly, the game only makes it on the honorable mentions due to space limitations. Consider this an unofficial sixth spot.
1. Death Stranding by Kojima Productions
Death Stranding is a maddening game to talk about. It is Hideo Kojima’s first major project after escaping Konami and branching out from the Metal Gear series. It is also the most original and immediately gripping experience released this year: a bleak sci-fi dystopia story about the chaotic overlap between the land of the living and the dead leading to the collapse of society; scattering humanity to small isolated bunkers and brave couriers desperately trying to keep those people connected by delivering goods and comfort. An atmospheric moody story about isolation, coping with loss and death, and the ultimate inherent good of human connection in spite of the darker impulses of the human condition. All grand and ambitious themes to explore.
It is also a gameplay experience that feels antithetical to anything you can conventionally call fun or engaging. A highly polished, feature-rich, absurdly in-depth yet weirdly videogame-y portrayal of hiking and package delivery that has become the most low-key and meditative feedback loop I’ve experienced all year. The simple act of walking and negotiating terrain given the same level of attention and care as any other game would apply to jumping physics or meaty gunplay in an action title.
But that gameplay is supplemented by some of the most wild ups and downs of motion capture performances I’ve ever seen and some truly painful, overwritten dialogue. Stellar performances by Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen juxtaposed by wooden and bland line-readings by stuntcast celebrities. Lea Seydoux trying with all of her might to make several sci-fi concepts and lines ring with poignancy and weight followed by the likeness of Nicholas Winding Refn repeating his single defining character trait ad nauseum.
All of this adds up to Death Stranding being a wildly divisive experience. Yet, in a way I feel like it encapsulates a lot of 2019 as a whole. The level of polish and refinement in the craft of game design and art direction, the mainstream acceptance of big-name actors contributing their talents to such projects to the point of any bias or stigma basically gone, and the freedom and desire to experiment with various gameplay ideas without worrying (too much) about making the budget back. Because as much as I tolerate and even rolled my eyes at parts of this game, I can also say no other game this year made something as straightforward as climbing a snowy mountain feel as momentous as taking down a giant monster or solving an elaborate puzzle. And the fact that it was able to be that in a year full of fantastic but otherwise staid and predictable safe experiences, that should be a ringing sign of endorsement for what Hideo Kojima and his talented studio managed to deliver.
It is for these reasons that I name Death Stranding my number 1 Game of the Year.