Whew. Another year gone. 2019 was a weird one. Even though it moved very fast, it still felt like it went on forever. It’s exhausting. At least we had a lot of great games, though, right?
2019 felt like a quieter year on the games front. While it was definitely an excellent year, I feel like I wasn’t seeing as many Big Hits that literally everyone was talking about hitting at almost all times of the year like in the previous two. Which isn’t a bad thing! I’m all for it, honestly. Let the smaller games breathe a little, maybe find a chance to get the attention they deserve. I mention it only because I’ve seen a lot of sentiments about 2019 being a weak year on the whole and I don’t see it. The fact that it doesn’t feel like there’s been a clear consensus regarding Game of the Year this time around is good sign of that, I think. Seems like there’s a bit more spread this time around. Much better than everyone immediately rallying around the same big-budget prestige game. It’s boring when one game gets all the attention.
Anyway. Here’s some of the games that really stuck with me this year:
10. Slay the Spire
I only very recently started playing this, but it’s already begun to consume me. The speed I went from, “oh, this is cool” to “just one more run, just one more run” was alarming. I was initially skeptical of it because of its focus on deck-building (card game style mechanics are extremely hit or miss with me), and also because I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive into another potentially long-term game given all the other stuff I’ve had my plate this year, games and otherwise. But I finally caved and now I’m hooked.
It’s been difficult to write this list in no small part due to how often I’ve found myself loading Slay the Spire up for a quick run only to find a couple hours have suddenly passed. I keep losing hours trying out different characters to unlock more cards for them and try out different decks. I don’t know how long it’ll hold my attention (roguelikes can’t keep me coming back forever), but right now, I’m all in.
Best Moment: Any time I randomly stumble upon a new strong combo of cards.
9. Sayonara Wild Hearts
Oh man, Sayonara Wild Hearts. What a ride. Simogo’s latest is definitely a departure from their previous hits (Year Walk, Device 6), trading the uncanny and mysterious for a joyous, bright and colorful playable pop album about heartbreak and moving forward.
As a music game, it’s A Lot. Sayonara Wild Hearts is, at once, a rhythm game, a shooter, a driving game, a… first-person sort of thing, and plenty more. It defies easy classification by never being any one thing for very long, always doing something new and exciting at every turn. At one moment, you’re speeding through the backstreets and alleys of a city, the next you’re playing a side-scrolling shooter before switching to performing quick-time events as part of a sword fight. It’s constantly switching things up, always surprising you with each new stage. The breakneck pace it moves at is thrilling, but never exhausting. It’s also only an hour long? Which is good — more short games! — but wow they packed a lot in here in such a short runtime.
Best Moment: If I have to choose, it’s a toss up between fighting the giant wolf mech in the woods and the entire dimension shifting sequence. Though really, the whole game could very well be just one giant moment, honestly.
8. Neo Cab
I feel like Neo Cab kinda came and went without much hubbub. Which is a shame, because it deserves a lot more attention.
Neo Cab is one of those games that’s extremely relevant to the times. You play a rideshare driver, one of the few remaining in a world that’s slowly becoming dominated by self-driving vehicles — a future that could very well become reality given the recent push for automated vehicles. Neo Cab, as such, views its world through a very pro-labor lens. Fellow gig-workers commiserate with each other, while other passengers leave you pondering a lot about the future. It’s a game with a lot to say and consider, and one well worth your time.
Best Moment: First time my driver rating went down, forcing me to really consider who I should be picking up instead of just following whoever’s story I wanted to hear more of.
You like puzzle games? Play CROSSNIQ+. It’s fast, it’s stylish as heck (that Y2K aesthetic is slick), and utterly brilliant. CROSSNIQ+ is a puzzle game where you slide tiles around to make crosses as fast as you can before time expires. It’s a bit hard to tell how it works just by looking at screenshots, but you see it in action, it’s absolutely easy to pick up and play in the same way classics like Tetris are. Right from the first round I played, I was hooked. I haven’t messed around with the versus mode yet (haven’t been able to rope anyone into playing with me), but what I’ve seen makes it look very cool. CROSSNIQ+ is something I can easily see myself revisiting regularly for many years to come.
Best Moment: Discovering you can move multiple tiles at once and suddenly opening the game wide open. Also, anything with Vi or Cal. Love those two.
6. Manifold Garden
I can’t recall where I first learned about Manifold Garden. I know it was via some early screenshots way back in 2013 (I think?) back when it was still going by the name “Relativity.” It didn’t look nearly as striking as it does now, but the basic ideas were all there and I was completely smitten by it.
Manifold Garden sees you exploring a mesmerizing world populated by equally captivating architecture. Every scene is a sight to behold, as structures stretch off endlessly into the distance. It’s a puzzle game by trade, but it’s as much about exploring the space around you and marveling at the beauty of it all. Every new area brought about a new moment of awe as I gazed upon what new sight lie before me. It’s a gorgeous game.
Manifold Garden plays with some ideas Antichamber did — in the sense that rooms connect with one another in strange ways, or how thresholds act as portals to entirely different areas — but where that game was all about spaces via non-Euclidean geometry, making the world itself part of the puzzle, Manifold Garden is more interested in striking architecture and using non-Euclidean tricks to help with that. They don’t often connect to puzzles directly so much as they just make the world that much more striking. And gosh are they striking.
Best Moment: The first time you reach the hub watch it all come together.
5. A Nightmare’s Trip
You ever play a game on a whim and have it turn out to be a surprise favorite? That’s what happened to me with A Nightmare’s Trip from Sky Hour Works. Somehow stumbled across it while browsing Itch and picked it up only to put it off for a while (a bad habit of mine). When I did finally get around to playing, however, I was immediately taken by it. It’s a simple story of a nightmare (like, the dream variety, but given form — though you wouldn’t know it given how precious he is) named Adrian taking a vacation that’s really charming and heartfelt. It’s one of those games that’s just pleasant all around. A nice little surprise.
Best Moment: It’s more of a “most relatable moment” than “best moment,” but the entire sequence of events leading up to and in the airport are a real Big Mood as someone who goes through those sorts of anxieties every time I fly. Actual best moment would probably be toward the end where Adrian meets up with all his new friends and the hi-jinks that ensue.
4. A Short Hike
Speaking of games that are pleasant: A Short Hike is absolutely wonderful. As the title suggests, it’s a game about taking a short hike up a mountain. Every moment is a delight, whether it just walking up the mountain trail, chatting with any of the great and colorful cast of characters you meet, fishing, and so on. It’s a game that relishes the mundane, creating a wonderfully cozy experience.
A lot was going on at the time I played A Short Hike. Life threw a lot at me at the time, between personal stuff, work, and the pre-travel stress of PAX fast approaching. I was a bit overwhelmed and just kinda out of it in general. Ended up loading A Short Hike up on a whim one night and ended up playing in one sitting. It was a nice little break — just the thing I was looking for when I need a good pick-me-up.
Best Moment: Reaching the top of the mountain.
3. Kingdom Hearts 3
I love Kingdom Hearts. It’s absurd and often ridiculous, but god I love it. It’s a series where friendship is literally power (heck yeah), where light and dark are actual forces that govern the universe (and can physically manifest in some cases). It’s corny, sure — but Kingdom Hearts plays it all so earnestly and makes it so emotionally resonant and touching that it’s hard not to get caught up in it go along for the ride.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has been a long time coming, and while it’s far from perfect — the pacing is uneven, only a few of the worlds are truly good — when it delivers, it delivers. Kingdom Hearts is always at its best when it’s going all in on it’s lore and Kingdom Hearts 3 does so spectacularly. The final section of the game is just one massive, concentrated dose of all the best parts of Kingdom Hearts and it’s so, so good. All the plot threads that have been built up over the past several games are tied up, almost all the major characters getting their moments to shine as their arcs begin to wrap up. Again, it’s far from perfect, but given the herculean task of ending this entire arc of the series so far, they did well, all things considered. Very much looking forward to seeing how the coming DLC will undoubtedly complicate things further and maybe (hopefully) provide some insight as to what’s next.
Best Moment: The entire final stretch. So many great moments and payoffs.
2. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro by far had the most memorable moments of any game this year. I vividly remember the early hours of my first playthrough: stumbling through battles trying to get the hang of deflecting attacks instead of just guarding and dodging like in the Souls series and Bloodborne, struggling to learn its rhythm and play how it wanted me to. Not anything new for me since I had the same problem when I started Bloodborne the first time, and then Demon’s Souls before it.
But once it clicks, it clicks.
Every fight is tense. Clashing swords with rank-and-file grunts can be just as thrilling as fighting any boss, the entire deflection system constantly putting you on edge as the thought of a single mistake could spell your doom. (It’s rarely ever that hard, actually, but Sekiro sure makes you feel like it is.) It takes the focus on playing aggressively that Bloodborne introduced and takes it even further by making defense part of your offense, essentially allowing you to never let up. Opponent’s blocking? Keep attacking. They start attacking? Start deflecting. It’s a constant back and forth that’s difficult to adjust to at first (particularly if you’ve already grown accustomed to From’s other games), but once you do it feels incredible. There’s never a dull moment once you get your footing.
Best Moment: Finally taking down Genichiro after hours of attempts. Alternatively, this.
1. Outer Wilds
As of this writing I have just finished Outer Wilds. I’ve been picking away at it since it launched in June, bit by bit slowly piecing together its mysteries. It’s been constantly on my mind for most of the year, always reminding me to jump back in and finish it before I have to turn this list in. Having finished it now, I think it might actually be one of the best games ever made?
Outer Wilds puts you in control of an astronaut/archaeologist jumping around the solar system investigating a myriad of mysteries related to an ancient race known as the Nomai. The Hearthians (whom you are one of) have been studying what little remains of them for a long time, their space faring adventures largely concerned with trying to learn more about the Nomai in addition to their solar system in general. Many others have launched into space before you, and now it’s your turn to see what’s out there. Only, one small thing: the sun is about to explode.
Every 22 minutes, the sun goes into a supernova, destroying everything in its vicinity. Every time that happens, your sent back in time with all your memories intact. You’re stuck in a time loop — forced to relive the final moments of the solar system again and again with seemingly no way to stop it. Well, might as well make the most of it then, right?
Exploring the solar system of Outer Wilds is a constant joy. Each planet is unique, both in the mysteries they hold and the landscapes themselves. The fragile, ever crumbling Brittle Hollow with its underground cities and gravity-defying walkways suspended over a black hole that lies at its core, always threatening to swallow you if you make one wrong step. The raging storms of Giant’s Deep and its many tornadoes that regularly launch what few pieces of land there are into space. The Hourglass Twins and the way the sand moves between them back and forth, forcing you to time your excursions carefully so as not to be locked out of any particular spot — or become trapped, for that matter.
Every new world is a sight to behold, each providing their own set of challenges. Not the usual puzzle sense, but rather in terms of traversal. Different levels of gravity, particular weather, the ways time comes into play — you’re essentially learning the ecology of each planet in addition to the lay of the land and how best to get around efficiently so you can spend more time chasing down leads.
Every new piece of the mystery is satisfying to uncover, each new step prompting plenty of new questions along with whatever answers you find. Learning about the Quantum Moon and the Eye of the Universe is always fascinating, but even more than that is learning about the characters from the notes left behind. Even though you don’t encounter many actual people in Outer Wilds (outside of your home planet, anyway), it is still filled with character. There’s so much communicated through what little you ultimately find, the lives of all the people you read about filled with all sorts of little fun details, such that you become invested just as invested in them as the bigger picture plot.
But Outer Wilds is about more than just figuring out why you keep reliving the same 22-minute span of time. It’s about more than just figuring out what the ancient race of aliens were up to in this solar system. Outer Wilds, at its core, is about the hopelessness of looking disaster in the eye and wondering, “What can we do?”
Given our own predicament, it’s a question I find myself wondering on occasion. We’ve been told time and again about the threat climate change poses and how limited a timeline we have to do something about it. Obviously there’s plenty we can do, but it all feels so much bigger than us that it’s easy to feel helpless — especially as those in power continue to sit and do little to nothing to combat it. At times, it feels like we’re just waiting for the end to come.
While Outer Wilds isn’t providing an answer or a call to action, it does still feel at least somewhat hopeful in its own way. After all, the sun will keep exploding. Every 22 minute cycle will always end that way, no matter what happens. And you’ll always be right back to where you started — back on your home planet just before launch, ready to head back into the great unknown. What can we do? Heck, I don’t know. But we might as well keep trying and do something, right?
Best Moment: The final scene before it all ends.
Hades — Checking in with Hades over the year, slowly watching it come together, has been a delight. Early Access games always provide that sort of appeal, but I don’t often keep that close a watch on them past my initial look. Hades is one of the few I’ve been regularly checking in with to see what’s new and has yet to disappoint. With it’s final release approaching in 2020, I’m excited to see how the final game shapes up.
Lucah: Born of a Dream — The best game of last year got better with the release of some excellent DLC (and it came out on Switch!). If you haven’t played Lucah yet, play Lucah.
Moment to Midnight — Just play it. It’s free, it’s short, and very good.
Golden Treasure: The Great Green — It’s a choose your own adventure style role-playing game with some great art and an interesting story. Also, you play as a dragon. Always a plus.
Into the Breach — I haven’t put nearly as much time into this as I would like, but Into the Breach is extremely good. Can easily see why so many people were utterly absorbed by it last year. Definitely need to put aside more time to play more.
A Bewitching Revolution — A communist witch rallies workers to rise up and destroy capitalism. Very good.
Can Androids Pray — A conversation between two mech pilots with a ton of style surrounding it. It’s short, it’s cheap, and very gripping. Play it!