So if you haven’t listened yet, last week myself and my partner in crime HarveyZ recorded our Game of the Year podcast where I handed out my Manatees for 2019. In that I outlined my top 5 games of the year and talked a little bit about each. Like last year, I also wanted to put up a companion blog post to add some written words about why I enjoyed each game and also flesh out the games to a full top 10 and a few Honorable Mentions.
Most of these are going to be games I’ve talked about already this year, but a few are games that I always meant to talk about but slipped through the cracks (at least on the writing and podcast side). I hope you enjoy this last blog post of 2019 and I’ll see you in the new year with all sorts of new games, posts, and ideas!
Honorable Mention #1: The Outer Wilds
The Outer Wilds was a game on my radar for a while – early in the year it was a PC/XBox One exclusive, and in October it was finally released on PS4. I waited for a sale (because I had exactly $21 in my PSN wallet and the game was $25) and when it finally went on sale for $20 in December I picked it up. Unfortunately this meant I didn’t get to complete the game but I did get to spent quite a few hours in it.
This game is a captivating experience. I don’t think I’ve had my sense of wonder piqued by a video game in a long time, but The Outer Wilds targets that emotion immediately and never lets up. For the first hour or two I was playing this, I was constantly saying “Fascinating!” out loud to nobody every time I uncovered a new lore bit or started exploring a new planet.
The game is, in my opinion, the result of Myst and Majora’s Mask having a baby. The setup is fairly simple: you’re an explorer from a race of explorers and you’re heading out to pilot your first spaceship. You can go to any planet from the beginning but only after you start to unlock the mysteries of each location do things start making more sense to you. In addition, every 22 minutes the solar system explodes and you wake up and start over again at your first launch. There are puzzles, but not in the sense of The Witness and brain puzzles. It’s more exploring until you put together enough pieces to know what you have to do in different places, which unlock more information for you to proceed and get you one step closer to figuring out why you’re in a time loop.
I estimate I’ve cleared about half the game, but I honestly have no way of knowing except to pick the game up again and continue exploring. And that’s why even though I haven’t finished it, I have to include The Outer Wilds as a fantastic honorable mention that would probably be higher if I’d gotten to it earlier in the year.
Honorable Mention #2: The Outer Worlds
The Outer Worlds was my most anticipated game coming into this year but I could only justify giving it an honorable mention – which says a LOT about my top 10. But it also says something about The Outer Worlds.
I’m not saying this is a bad game – far from it. When I was playing it I had a great time. Parvati is one of the best companion characters Obsidian has ever created and her quest involving sorting out her love life is one of the most endearing stories I’ve ever participated in with a video game.
The problem with The Outer Worlds, though, is I wanted something more out of it. I love Obsidian. I will yell about Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol until I’m blue in the face. I was excited for this game because I was excited for Obsidian to step into the first-person RPG sphere again and bring their special brand of humor to a space setting. And they did that. But they also didn’t evolve from New Vegas.
The Outer Worlds was more of the same and for some reason that wasn’t enough to keep me enticed to finish it. I fell off after other games grabbed my attention and haven’t had the motivation to go back. Yes, I made it 10 hours into the game but it just didn’t have the special sauce to keep me coming back like some other games on this list. So for that it just didn’t quite make the top 10.
Honorable Mention #3: Ori and the Blind Forest
I’m breaking my own rule here to really quickly talk about Ori and the Blind Forest. It originally came out on the XBox One in 2015, but I didn’t play it until this year when the “Definitive Edition” released on the Switch.
It’s a great game. It’s a Metroidvania platformer that looks absolutely gorgeous in motion. And while it plays like a pretty bog-standard platformer for the first third, you unlock an ability towards the end of the first “dungeon” that flips the game on its head and adds a completely new layer of traversal and fun to the game. It’s also at that point that the game completely drops any pretense of taking it easy on you and throws all kinds of challenges at you with absolutely no mercy.
It was great.
There were a few slightly frustrating bits but I couldn’t tell if it was because of the lack of precision from the Switch’s joysticks or actually the fault of the game’s controls. (If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it was the Switch.) Still, it’s a phenomenal game and you’ll be seeing it again on my Top 100 Games of the Decade, but because it’s technically a five-year-old game I’m only going to give it my last Honorable Mention for 2019.
10. Untitled Goose Game
Did any character, nay, any game hold as much internet mind-share as the goose did this year? The Muppet X Goose sketch at The Game Awards was the highlight of the show, the goose keeps appearing in all sorts of fan-art, and even people who weren’t a part of gaming culture were talking about and playing this game because they wanted to be an asshole goose.
This game shows that sometimes a simple, fun premise is best. Be a goose. Cause mayhem and check something terrible off your list of terrible things to do. That’s it. You have three buttons that do anything: duck, grab, and honk. It’s fun to just be a natural disaster amidst a small town just trying to live their life goose-free.
Even though it’s short I didn’t get a chance to finish the whole thing. So why did this get in over the Outer Ws – two other games I also didn’t finish? Well, I’ve got one answer for you:
9. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening HD
When I was a kid, every summer my family would go on a road trip vacation. My dad would drive us to all sorts of different places while I entertained myself by either reading or playing on my Game Boy. Link’s Awakening was one of the few games I played over and over again on that green pixel screen to the point that I knew a lot of the absolutely baffling puzzles by heart.
The HD version was a nostalgia-fueled rocket ride back to my past as a little TBoy. The adorable new art style was exactly the right choice for the game. I loved seeing all the characters, monsters, and bosses remade into glorious HD versions.
It’s not a Zelda game for beginners because honestly the game is designed pretty poorly. Some of the puzzle solutions are baffling and I don’t know how I would solve them without already knowing what to do. The seventh dungeon still gives me heart palpitations. But it’s my childhood and I love it and the game was executed perfectly. It was a warm blanket in a year that was kinda hellish. And for that, it’s on the list.
8. Cadence of Hyrule
A second Legend of Zelda game on this list! Wow! This was the year of good Zelda games. Cadence was more of a spinoff, though. It combined the musical, roguelite mechanics of Crypt of the Necrodancer with the Legend of Zelda universe and the results couldn’t have turned out better.
Danny Baranowsky’s songs were wonderful: the Lost Swamp combat mix and the Gohmaracas boss music were two of my favorites. If you’re a fan of the Legend of Zelda’s music and roguelike gameplay, you owe it to yourself to try this game out. It even has a mode where you don’t have to move to the beat to make it easier on you if you don’t have any rhythm. It was another refreshing, light-hearted experience in this year’s games and I had a smile on my face the entire time I played it.
Here’s one more: the Death Mountain combat mix. The soundtrack is SO GOOD y’all. SO GOOD.
7. Days Gone
Days Gone was a peculiar game. I got it during a slow period in the summer, before Fire Emblem came out and I didn’t really have anything else to play. I ended up engaged by the story and characters despite the first ten hours of the game being essentially pointless and bloated.
But what made me really enjoy the game was the fact that my girlfriend actually enjoyed listening to the story as well. In Days Gone, the characters are almost always talking and having conversations. On your way to or back from a mission (or during one, unless Deacon is by himself) there’s characters interacting and dialogue to listen to. There isn’t much slow, sifting through text diaries that haunts a lot of other open world games. It ended up being a game I could play while my girlfriend was with me and she could follow along and sort of get invested in the story.
(She also wanted me to dress up as Deacon for Halloween.)
Days Gone was a game I could have missed entirely if I hadn’t picked it up in a slow period with nothing else on my agenda. I’m glad I did because while zombies aren’t anything new nowadays, it still gave me something to enjoy with somebody I care about.
Like The Outer Wilds, Observation gave me a space game I didn’t know I wanted until I started playing it. While The Outer Wilds is all about exploring the unknown and traveling wherever you want to go, Observation is restrictive, claustrophobic, and mostly linear with very few choices of how to proceed. This is because you play as a space station’s AI and are restricted to moving between cameras and fiddling with different switches and mechanisms to restore power to the lost space station.
A lone crew member survived some sort of accident on the station and rebooted you. You can’t remember what happened, but it’s up to you to help get everything back online and save the human in your care. Along the way you start to puzzle out what happened and unravel mysteries. It’s basically an interactive story, more akin to a point-and-click adventure than anything else.
But the story is gripping and the fact that you are working from the AI’s perspective instead of the typical human one is what really kept me invested in this game. I definitely exclaimed “Oh shit!” a few times in the game, while other times the narrative was kind of predictable. Still this was a memorable, fun ride and one of the more unique games I played this year. It stuck in my brain and was very worthy of a spot in my top 10.
5. Death Stranding
My review listed all the problems and enjoyment I got out of Death Stranding, and also I talked more about it on the Manatees podcast. So I’ll keep this particular area short and sweet:
I never thought delivering packages during the apocalypse could be fun, but Kojima made it work. The gameplay was riveting enough that I finished the game in 50ish hours, many of which were cut-scenes that were badly written but well acted. Also the graphics are unreal. As a person who was underwhelmed by Metal Gear Solid 4 and 5, Death Stranding was another unique game and a step in a new direction for Kojima. I hope he actually listens to criticisms and fixes things for his next game instead of doubling down on the worst parts. I’m going to be excited about a Death Stranding 2 if it materializes.
4. Slay the Spire
Some games take a while to work into your brain. You play them but don’t register you’ve spent 50 hours with them until you notice the counter has ticked that far up and you realize, huh, I like this game. (See: Death Stranding) Slay the Spire is not one of those games. Instead from moment one I knew this game was going to be a top entry for the year, and if you’d asked me what my favorite game was in the first half of 2019, this game would have taken the #1 spot.
It’s a perfect blend of deckbuilding (which I love, but often have problems with its execution) and roguelike/roguelite (which I also love, but the gameplay loop has to be satisfying for me to keep with it) mechanics. Each of the three characters feels unique and when you get your machine going you feel unstoppable. Until you hit an enemy that makes you pause and think and evaluate your strategy. Last weekend on the plane ride home I did a run with the Silent (rogue archetype) where I was blowing through every enemy with no problem. Then the run nearly came to an end when I fought an enemy I thought I was going to breeze through. Instead I drew one particularly bad hand and ended up hanging on by the skin of my teeth, winning a war of attrition over the next few rounds as I only had 6 health and had to execute every turn perfectly to survive.
Unlike other roguelikes that require quick reflexes and action capabilities (Dead Cells, Enter the Gungeon), Slay the Spire is a roguelike that rewards foresight, thoughtfulness, and planning. Executing the right combo of cards to deal massive damage and finish a fight flawlessly gives me a dopamine rush on a scale hitherto undreamt of.
(Did I seriously just say hitherto undreamt of?)
In all seriousness if you’re a fan of deckbuilding and/or roguelikes, you owe it to yourself to play this game. When it clicks, it clicks. It’s been six months and I’m still not tired of doing runs through the game with each character. And in a year where games went on and off my radar in rapid succession, a game with this kind of staying power is a classic.
In my review of Control I briefly wondered whether I’d remember the Ashtray Maze section of this game fondly but nothing else. I’m happy to report that the longer I mulled over Control, the more I loved it. The creepy, unsettling SCP nature of the lore scattered throughout the game, the fun telekinetic powers, the brutalist design of the Oldest House – I can forgive the gameplay missteps. I want it to win all kinds of awards and recognition. I want a Control 2. This game is amazing, brilliant, and gave me another one-of-a-kind thrill this year.
I’ll stop there and just add two more words:
2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I spent 70+ hours on my first playthrough of this game. When I finished the story of the Blue Lions, I immediately jumped back in with New Game+ and started a Golden Deer playthrough.
I’m now at over 100 hours.
Tactics has never felt so good. Molding students to be the warriors you want them to be has never been so awesome. I loved the monastery just as much as I loved the tactical battles. This is apex Fire Emblem and I hope the next game builds off this base and gives us more of the same. I don’t think I can go back to old-style Fire Emblem after this.
(Dorothea, Hilda, and Petra are the best. Don’t @ me.)
1. Disco Elysium
LOGIC: Okay, listen up. You need to explain thoroughly and thoughtfully how much you loved Disco Elysium. That way everyone will go out, buy, and play this game immediately and you’ll be spreading the good word.
ELECTROCHEMISTRY: FUCKING AWESOOOOOOMMMEEEEEEEEEE GAAAAAAAAME.
VOLITION: Why do I even hang out with you guys?
DRAMA: Oh so you think you’re better than us?
SHIVERS: Listen to the curling carpet beneath your feet. The city whispers. Somewhere close to a crowded suburb in a poorly lit basement, underneath the pale glow of their haunted monitor, somebody else is enjoying the words of Disco Elysium.
INTERFACING: The keyboard clacks underneath your fingers. You are the mechanical maestro. The internet has nothing on you, kid. In a few deft strokes everyone will know how powerful you are, and more important, how damn good this game is.
EMPATHY: Not everybody has your tastes, be ready for people to have a different opinion! It’s ok to listen to their side too!
AUTHORITY: NO! DISCO ELYSIUM IS THE BEST GAME OF 2019 AND YOU MUST SHOVE IT DOWN THEIR THROATS. ASSERT DOMINANCE.
INLAND EMPIRE: I agree. But first, let’s talk about that karaoke machine…
See y’all in 2020!!