game of the year
Trevor's Top Ten Games of 2019
Trevor | January 3, 2020
2019, a year I fell quite behind in a sea of good releases. Here's my favorites among what I managed to pick up, and a list of what I'm excited to get around to.
(Update 2/22/2020 - Trevor made a major blunder. DOTA: Underlords was originally ranked #6, but it has been brought to our attention it is not officially released. If HADES got excluded for being in early access, so too must DOTA: Underlords. Underlords has been sent to the Honorable Mentions.)
2019 has ended and time marches on. New becomes old, we all age a year, and the universe inches closer to an inevitable heat death. But don't worry! In the midst of all this change, some things are constant.
For example, video games keep coming out.
Here's ten of them.
10. Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a visual splendor. A celebration of style the likes of which has never been seen, full of incredibly inventive gameplay elements built around music, visual trickery, and Queen Latifah. A young girl with a broken heart is chosen as a champion to restore order to another world. What transpires is a magical journey full of swordplay, motorcycles, and tracks that slap. The entire game can easily be experienced in a single day, but chances are high you’ll want to see it all again and again.
At the very least, I’m highly likely to slap a controller into someone’s hand when they visit and say, “you need to see this.”
9. Hypnospace Outlaw
Sometimes a game comes out you could never dream up.
Hypnospace Outlaw takes place in an alternate version of 1999, where rather than rest in blissful slumber at night, we all jack into the Hypnospace and browse the web in a collective unconscious.
Your role in Hypnospace is one of an enforcer, basically a glorified forum moderator. You’ll browse from page to page, hunting down malicious spyware, copyright-infringing content, and abusive posts. All the Hypnospace pages look like Geocities and Angelfire monstrosities, full of glittery text and obnoxious, auto-playing audio files.
Waxing nostalgic for the early days of free web hosting is certainly part of Hypnospace Outlaw’s appeal, but the real draw is the inventive problem-solving. Locating infractions isn’t always as easy as browsing a page. You’ll need to read for clues, locate broken links, type in hidden URLS. If there’s one real world skill you can bring to Hypnospace, it’s your ability to navigate the internet. If accidentally right-clicking the "Inspect" option in a browser doesn’t cause you to panic, this one’s for you.
Hypnospace Outlaw is the kind of game that completely changed my idea of what a game can be.
8. Cadence of Hyrule
Cadence of Hyrule is a love letter of a romp through the history of Zelda. It's brought to us by Brace Yourself Games, and by Nintendo continuing to be more open to licensing their IPs.
Much like Crypt of the Necrodancer, everything in Cadence moves to a beat. As you traverse the overworld map you’ll be free to bounce along at your own pace, but once you encounter enemies it’s time to groove to the music. All your favorite Zelda beats make an appearance! Song of Storms? We go that. Gerudo Valley? It’s here. Hyrule Overworld theme? That, and the Dark World theme. You may not hear all your favorites, but the classics are well represented.
Cadence manages to combine all the best parts of Necrodancer with a traditional Zelda game, and does it all with co-op as an option. Like Necrodancer, your character choice has a significant impact on gameplay. Link, Zelda, and Cadence have their own arsenal of abilities and weaponry to choose from. Thanks to the magic of the Switch, it’s never been easier to shove a joy-con in someone’s hand and make them embark into Hyrule with you.
Beyond that, the rest is what you might expect from a traditional Zelda game. You’ll adventure, collect heart pieces, smack bosses in their weak spot, and eventually square off against Ganon himself.
As we move into 2020, I’m hopeful Nintendo continues to give indie studios license to experiment, and especially to Brace Yourself Games.
7. Devil May Cry 5
“Bang, Bang, Bang! Pull My Devil Trigger.”
When DmC -- my 8th best game of 2013 -- never got a direct sequel, I thought that was it for the Devil May Cry franchise. It had a good run, but Capcom seemed content to put it out to pasture, send Dante to the farm upstate.
The announcement of a new Devil May Cry game was surprising on its own, but even more shocking was the reveal the previous reboot would be completely ignored. Take into account all the unfortunate development hiccups like the reveal of Adam Driver as a playable character, the community’s general distaste for the battle song Subhuman, and -- oh right -- the lead singer’s gross manipulation of a seventeen year old, and things were shaping up to turn Devil May Cry 5 into the hottest mess of 2019.
Instead, we got the best Devil May Cry game to date.
Devil May Cry 5 is a celebration of the series higher points, combined with some bold changes to liven things up. Rather than pivot in a new narrative direction like its predecessor, Devil May Cry 5 is finally content to (mostly) work with the existing cast, introducing only two new characters. V, the enigmatic Adam Driver look-alike who enlists the help of Nero and Dante, and Nico, a mechanic with a sick rolling workshop.
The story follows either Nero, V, or Dante as the three work their way up Qliphoth, a demonic tree strangling the planet. In the game’s opening, Dante is left behind after a failed assault on Urizen, the Demon at the top, leaving only V and Nero to clean things up below. This creates a sprawling narrative where Nero, V, and Dante share the focus at any given time, and once the three are together, you’ll be free to choose who to play as.
From a gameplay perspective, the three broody boys who make up the main cast offer vastly different experiences. Nero has a small arsenal, comprised of his sword, gun, and a replaceable arm with multiple functions. Dante, meanwhile, is a veritable walking arsenal, with multiple weapons at his disposal and a hot-swap feature to combo them all together. The newcomer V is the one who really mixes up the usual formula with an army of animal companions, all capable of bombarding an opponent from all sides. As V, you’ll mostly hang in the back and read poetry by William Blake while your assortment of pets does all the work.
Where the Devil May Cry games have always excelled is in post-game completion, and V is no exception. The harder difficulties aren’t just larger health pools to whittle away at, they’re entirely new arrangements of enemies. New tests and challenges await, this time with all the tools you unlocked on your first go at your disposal.
Between the soundtrack, aesthetics, and deadly arsenal, it's safe to say Devil May Cry is back and it’s metal as hell.
Except when it's goofy.
And it can get delightfully goofy.
6. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
If there’s one game on the list I expected to place much higher at the onset, it’s this one right here. The latest Fire Emblem game from Intelligent Systems revisits the “choose your destiny” concept from the previous outing, Fates, but this time makes the wise choice to not make us pay separately for each route.
Enter your three houses. Black Eagles, headed by the headstrong Lady Edelgard, Golden Deer, led by the scheming jokester Claude, and finally Blue Lions, where you’ll make the acquaintance of the steely-eyed Dimitri. Each house has its own cast of colorful characters, who range from neurotic recluses to headstrong, agreeable dimwits.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses puts the class format front and center this time, structuring the game around a daily calendar and curriculum choices. You start every week with a round of training, set up your lesson plan for each student, then pick an activity to do at the end of the week. Maybe your students could use a guest lecture to bump up their skill in a set of weapons. Maybe it’s time for a little fishing break. Or maybe it's time to do nothing at all and take a nap.
Getting to know your students and fellow faculty -- and likewise, how they get to know each other -- is where the true draw of Three Houses lies. Their stories are bittersweet, heartwarming, hilarious, and devastating. Watching their dynamics play off each other like the awkward teenagers they are made up the majority of my enjoyment. There were a handful of times I desperately wanted to get through the week’s activities just to see some duo’s support conversations.
As for the actual gameplay, Fans of the Fire Emblem series will be surprised to learn your choice of weapon matters far less this time around. Gone are the days of the weapon triangle, replaced instead with a focus on skill levels and unlockable techniques.
(If you’ve played any previous Fire Emblem games, I recommend playing on a harder difficulty. In the early sections, I had to employ a little thing called strategy. By the end, I would simply position Byleth and Edelgard at the front of the line and watch my foes perish against them, like waves against a break wall.)
So, what keeps Fire Emblem: Three Houses from climbing higher? Without giving too much away, I found the pacing in the second half to be detrimental, even at odds with the way the narrative stakes start to ramp up. In a similar vein, I also found I’d hit the highest support ranks with most characters I cared about by this point, further diminishing my motivation to continue.
Having now played through a considerable amount of another house, however, I can safely say this was partially influenced by my first choice of route. Listen, I love those whacky kids in Black Eagles, but I'm not sure I recommend them for your first run.
Overall, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the best Fire Emblem game I’ve seen since Awakening, and when you consider our high praise for Awakening, that’s not praise easily given. When it comes to RPG’s on the Switch, it can’t be beat.
5. River City Girls
“What I’m lookin’ for is a special class
Of girl who can kick my ass
Need myself a River City Girl.”
River City Girls is a retro brawler oozing with style and humor.
WayForward’s romp into River City sidelines the usual protagonists to make way for Misako and Kyoko. One day, while chillin’ in detention, Kyoko receives a mysterious video text of their boyfriends being kidnapped. Misako and Kyoko jump into action and proceed to tear the whole town apart in pursuit.
The art direction here is really just on another level. River City has never felt this rich and vibrant. Kyoko and Misako lay the smackdown on every district, rumbling from their school, to the local arcade scene, to a beachfront amusement park. Every background is uniquely crafted, right down to the idle sprites chillin’ in the background. The colors everywhere pop, with a punk aesthetic underscoring everything.
Even the shopkeepers, of which there are many, are all uniquely designed, and convey a clear sense of personality and character despite the fact you’re only going to meet them for thirty seconds.
As you level in River City Girls, you'll unlock new moves to learn from your gym trainers.
Who, by the way, are the Double Dragon brothers.
This crystallization of personality is reflected extraordinarily well in mechanics for the main characters, too. The moves you unlock are a fantastic reflection of their personalities. Misako, the more direct, rough-and-tumble of the two, lets loose with haymakers and power bombs.
Kyoko meanwhile, the more ditzy one, has a bunch of moves that look like she came to have a good time, and everyone else is just getting in the way. She dabs, takes selfies. Generally has a blast with life and kicking ass.
There are even more surprises waiting at the end of River City Girls, surprises which make playing through the whole game again well worth it.
If Beat ‘Em Ups and brawlers are still on your radar, this is one you shouldn’t miss. You just can’t quit the River City Girls.
4. Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
This is the hardest one to write about on the list, because Shadowbringers is a tremendous culmination of everything Final Fantasy XIV has been building since 2014.
I trust you see the problem, then, that in order to elaborate on what makes Shadowbringers so exceptional I would have to bring you up to speed on six year’s worth of storylines. For the sake of all our sanities, we’ll stick to broad strokes.
Shadowbringers brought players to The First, a world bathed in eternal light. From atop his seat in the opulent city of Eulmore, Vauthry commands an army of demons known as Sin Eaters, with each region of the world not lost in The Flood controlled by a Light Warden. The way forward becomes clear -- eliminate the Light Wardens, unseat Vauthry, and reclaim the night.
How’s that for a Final fantasy plot?
What really drove Shadowbringers up the charts is how it finally addressed not only the origins of Final Fantasy XIV’s universe, but the motivations of its enigmatic antagonists, the Ascians. Up until now, they’ve been a mysterious force with ambiguous goals, pulling the strings from the shadows in oversized robes.
This bad boy becomes the face of the Ascians for Shadowbringers, tailing along to act as the peanut gallery during your journey. At first, his role seems to be one of comedic relief, but it cannot be overstated how essential his role in this expansion is. I promise, anyone who finds the time to finish Shadowbringers will remember him.
In addition to an exceptional story, Shadowbringers also made sweeping changes to every class, including crafting and gathering ones. Widespread gameplay changes are always deeply concerning in an MMO -- just look at Star Wars: Galaxies tragic trajectory for a worst case scenario -- but Final Fantasy XIV handled it well. Most cuts were to superfluous abilities, redundant buffs, or unnecessarily lengthy rotations. Almost every class was vastly improved.
If Final Fantasy XIV can keep up this momentum, it may not be long before only an expansion finally takes the top spot on one of these lists. (addendum -- I gave Heavensward the top spot in 2015, but that award was for all of Final Fantasy XIV as well.)
For now, however, The Warrior-of-Light-turned-Warrior-of-Darkness takes spot four.
The soundtrack to Shadowbringers, by the way, is exceptional and shockingly metal. Here's the boss theme, complete with a glimpse at what a Light Warden looks like:
3. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro absolutely consumed me this year.
It’s no secret we love the Souls games around here -- Dark Souls 2 was our second ever Game of the Year, in fact. I think when Sekiro came out, many had the expectation it would be Samurai Lordran. Had Sekiro been that, I’m sure it would’ve been an enjoyable experience, but I’m relieved we got something more intricate.
In Sekiro you play as Wolf, a servant to Divine Heir Kuro, a young boy who’s family line carries supernatural powers in their blood. In order to save the life of his favorite bodyguard (that’s you), he grants Wolf with immortal life. When Wolf dies, he gets up a few seconds later. In gameplay terms, you’ll begin with one charge of resurrection, which you can use to bounce right back up and catch foes by surprise. If the charge isn’t available, you’ll resurrect at the last shrine you rested at -- and all the enemies in the world will resurrect as well.
When Ashina falls to a coup led by Genichiro Ashina, Wolf is tasked with protecting Kuro while the city falls into war. Meanwhile, Kuro has an aim of his own -- give back his family’s ill-gotten supernatural gains. As is often the case with many From Software games, where the story goes from there can twist and turn based on player choice, even moreso here than than the usual “Soulsborne.”
If you’re surprised at how well I can summarize the plot of this particular From Software game, that’s because this time the plot is much more straightforward. There’s still more details to uncover around the world, but you won’t have to subscribe to a YouTube channel to get a breakdown on item descriptions to understand everything.
As you might expect, Wolf is much more nimble on his feet than the Hunters and Kindled Ones before him. He gallavants across rooftops and grapples off branches with ease. In addition to adding a sense of verticality to the world, it opens a door to evasive maneuvers and a stealthier approach. Before running headlong into a new area, it’s entirely possible to skirt the edges and eliminate stragglers.
The real gameplay change, however, is the posture gauge. Rather than whittle away at a boss’s life bar, battles in Sekiro involve attacking an enemies balance instead. While your strikes will offset their posture somewhat, the real trick is in the parry. By combining both strikes and parries, you can dismantle a foe’s guard in seconds and deliver the final deathblow.
This change fundamentally alters the player’s relationship with a boss in a Souls game. Since posture restores over time, the trick to Sekiro is to put on the pressure and keep it up. Each battle is a hunt for a pattern, to feel out the tick-tack-tack of a foes strikes and parry out the blows. Rather than being able to hang back and take your time like in previous From Software games, battles in Sekiro build and build in tension until either they give, or you do.
2. Resident Evil 2
Capcom has a long history of up-rezzing and re-releasing their classics, so when I first heard about Resident Evil 2’s revival, I assumed it would be getting the same treatment as Resident Evil 1’s. New textures, new surprises, some slight alteration to the legacy control scheme that has plagued the series, but for the most part, the same thing.
Resident Evil 2 is more a rebuild than a remake. It's a completely original game with a similar plot and setting to its predecessor, but unlike it in almost every other way. It’s hard to imagine anyone out there who's found this website doesn’t know the plot of Resident Evil 2, but just in case -- you choose between rookie cop Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield as they survive a wild night in the zombie-filled Raccoon City. What begins as a simple survival horror story turns to one of corporate experimentation and reckless bio-engineering gone wrong, as the two uncover a deeper conspiracy.
What direction Leon and Claire’s respective stories go varies, as does their weaponry. Leon is a walking arsenal of firearms, ranging from magnums to shotguns. Claire, meanwhile, gets the heavy arms. While Leon has to wait for the good stuff, Claire gets to sport an acid and grenade launcher within the first few hours.
Resident Evil 2 managed to strike the perfect balance between action and horror, accessibility, and intricacy. Like the early generation of Resident Evil games, ammo is scarce. There’s a limited quantity of ammo in every run, so every bullet counts. This is a worthwhile backpedal from previous Resident Evil games since 4, where ammo just rains from every dead body. It reintroduces some long lost tension in the series, and forces players into situations where sometimes, running for your life is the better option.
When you throw in the bonus modes available -- 4th Survivor and the endless army of Tofus -- Resident Evil 2 is a complete package of everything that made Resident Evil 2 (1998) great, with all the chaff and redundancy excised right out.
As a sucker for the horror genre, I thought Resident Evil 2 had my #1 spot locked down well into the year.
But there’s another kind of horror I love even more, and only one game managed to capture it.
CONTROL is the complete package. Every aspect, from concept to execution, comes together to make a game that is paradoxically like many other games I’ve played, and nothing like anything I’ve seen at all.
Welcome to the Bureau of Control, a secret government facility set up inside the mysterious Oldest House. Here, the BoC contains and studies objects that defy the natural order, classified as Objects of Power. When Jessie Faden finds her way into the Oldest House, she finds a facility in chaos. An entity known as The Hiss has spread throughout the building wrecking havoc, while countless Objects of Power roam free.
What ensues is a battle against the truly unknown. Sometimes an OoP can be irreverent, perhaps even silly, like a telekinetic floppy disk or a teleporting, indestructible rubber ducky. Other times, it’s a bleeding, screaming refrigerator that has to be watched constantly, lest the person on fridge duty meet an untimely demise. The stories behind these OoP’s is told through a mix of documents detailing proper handling procedures and observations, and video logs where Dr. Starling mugs for the camera.
This non-euclidean type of horror is a type I find personally intoxicating, but its gameplay applications are where it really shines. Because not every object is bound by the rules of our reality, each object's requirements for containment get more and more outlandish. Some can be subdued with your highly malleable service weapon, but others warp the world around you, or just warp you somewhere else.
This is where the technical aspect of CONTROL is endlessly impressive. Multiple times I caught myself saying out loud, “how did they do this?” It often felt like whatever tools were used to make this game don’t exist in our universe, like Remedy opened a slide projector and stole some parallel universe software to sculpt it.
I’m hesitant to speak too much of the actual combat in CONTROL, as to reveal the talents Jessie Faden accumulates is to reveal one of the best parts of the game. Many of the OoP’s Jessie regains control of will grant a facsimile of their power, and what starts feeling like a relatively simple 3rd person action game quickly evolves into something bigger.
Not content to simply layer on creative gameplay elements, CONTROL goes on to lay the groundwork for a bigger story, something encompassing Remedy’s entire library. There are big, big things planned for CONTROL in 2020, but even if those never came to be, CONTROL is already a mastercraft.
So get in The Oldest House. Track those OoPs. And watch out for Hiss.
Ring Fit Adventure
Just when you thought the days of periphery objects were behind us, along comes Ring Fit Adventure. Slot your joy-con into this exercise wheel and get your workout in. It’s a fantastic game worthy of praise and I love what it’s doing, but apparently not enough to yank something off the top ten.
Finally, a Dota game I can sometimes convince other people to play!
Dota Underlords is Valve’s official version of the popular DOTA 2 Autochess mod, making it an official version of a mod to a mod of an official version of a mod.
If anyone makes a popular mod to Dota Underlords, watch for a new Valve game the following year to take us another layer deep here.
Dota Underlords captures the spirit of a Dota teamfight without having to fuss with those other players. Each round, you’re presented with a selection of Dota Heroes to purchase. Purchase three identical ones, and they become a two-star. Three two-stars gets you a maxed rank unit. And, by purchasing heroes of similar types, you can activate bonuses for the whole team to enjoy.
After that, your team bashes against another until one emerges the victor. The losing player takes damage based on how many units survived. Repeat until only one powerhouse team remains.
Dota Underlords was already a fairly enjoyable experience on launch, but it solidified a spot on this top ten list is in the way its been supported over the year. The team behind Underlords has made a number of smart decisions to keep it from becoming stale and stagnant.
First there’s the prison, where eight-to-twelve heroes will be thrown in jail every twenty-four hours. This forces players to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, and stops any player who's only strategy is assembling some go-to killer lineup in their tracks. Then there’s the inclusion of the titular Underlords, powerful units to build your team composition around, which have seen a series of changes. Previously, you chose your Underlord before a match. In the current state of things, you now make your Underlord choice after the first set of opening rounds, which allows you to choose the one most appropriate for how your current team is shaping up.
There’s also a new Duos mode, tailored for group play. Here, you and a friend can coordinate on team composition, and even send each other units.
Dota Underlords became my go-to “play while doing something else” game during 2019. With how well its been supported thus far, Dota Underlords has already succeeded where Artifact horribly burned.
Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
I can’t stop playing this. Send help.
Star Wars: Fallen Order
As a tremendous fan of the old Jedi Knight series, this is a particularly glaring absence from my personal list. Everything I’ve seen looks right up my alley, but here we are at the end of 2019 and Fallen Order remains unplayed. The Force just wasn’t strong with me.
I wrote extensively about Night School Studios debut game, Oxenfree. Now their second game is out, and uh, well. Here we are. This one is more born from stubborness than anything else, as the game is available everywhere but Steam. And yet, for some reason, that was enough of a barrier of entry for me. Sorry Night School.
Kojima’s untethered Magnum Opus is here and I didn’t play it at all. Oops. What can I say? Wandering across America cradling a jar baby did not appeal to me, but some day I’m sure it will. I’ll be intrigued to see where this one lands on Alan’s list, assuming he finds time to write one this year.
Life is Strange 2
As I write this, I am nearing the end of episode 2. Life is Strange 2 has something incisive and currently relevant to say, but I didn’t manage to see it all before the end of the year. As such, it feels wrong to include it on a Game of the year list.
Just a Drag
Kingdom Hearts 3
If there was ever a game I thought would easily crack the top ten, it’s the return of Sora and friends in a proper chronological sequel. To be fair, Kingdom Hearts 3 would’ve had to be mind-blowingly original to justify a ten year development cycle.
Instead, what we got feels almost ten years old.
I wrote about every stage here, but what I don’t mention in the article is how resentment and disappointment grew after (almost) each and every world. While the game does close on a semi-satisfying wrap-up, the premise returned to the old tried-and-true Kingdom Hearts well far too much for my taste.
If Kingdom Hearts 3 had come out in 2007, It would be a great game.
At least Utada Hikaru got to put out a few slappers to go with it.
Couldn’t Include but Want to Talk About How Awesome They are Anyway
I love everything about Indivisible. The art, the story, the premise. Hell, it’s a turn-based fighting game RPG, the ideal Tilting at Pixels formula. So why didn’t it place?
Well, there’s a roadmap of upcoming content, and it includes a huge swathe of characters. I find myself voluntarily shelving Indivisible until all this promising content is out and I’m free to experiment with every character available.
To be clear, Indivisible is technically complete. One could purchase and beat it right now. But as a linear RPG, I find it unlikely I would return to see everything once the rest of this content is out.
Supergiant’s latest project is easily their best. A Roguelike bursting with action and ideas, and a narrative structure that actually fits the die-and-begin-again format of the genre. There’s no Game Over state here -- Zagureus remembers all his failed attempts to escape, and the bosses you fight remember your previous attempts, too.
Despite how close to complete Hades is, however, it is not technically released. It is now in early access on both Steam and Epic Games, which means Hades will be eligible for placement next year.