We did one of those game of the year lists for 2019. We only fell out a dozen times discussing it.
It’s nearly the end of the year. That means terrible jumpers, drinking too much at work functions, and game of the year lists.
We’ve done one, again. And as usual, we’ve done 19 games, purely because it’s 2019. We’re aware that’s going to get really unwieldy by 2077 – the year, not the game – but we’re not really planning and/or expecting to be alive that long. (We’ve also included a bunch of games that didn’t make the list, for various reasons, as honourable mentions. It’s harder to keep it to just 19 than you’d think.)
And as usual, we’ve done the list alphabetically, to avoid any argument over rankings. The fact that Tom’s choice is at the top? Purely a coincidence.
A Short Hike – Tom’s favourite
2019 has been an awful year. It’s been a dreadful few years, in fact. Politics, global warming, and the general miseries of humankind are enough to make you want to crawl into a little nest of blankets and pretend the world doesn’t exist. A Short Hike, the short, quirky adventure game from indie developer Adam Robinson-Yu, has been one of those blankets this year.
As the title suggests, A Short Hike is a short game. And that’s perfect. It’s a three- to four-hour diversion from modern life, both for the game’s protagonist on her adventure, and for the player, using it as classic escapism from the horrors of modern life. If you’re having a bad day – or longer – and you just want to get away from the world, go on A Short Hike. You won’t regret it.
Ape Out is avant-garde. Ape Out is bold. Ape Out is clever. But above all, Ape Out sounds amazing. The whiplash moment hits when you’re told that not a single bit of the game’s musical composition is pre-recorded. None of the trumpets. None of the drums. The individual samples, hundreds of them, are fed into the game’s audio engine. Then, as you play through the game, the score is procedurally built based on what’s happening on the screen. You’re literally building the soundtrack as you go, and it is astonishing.
Or as our review puts it: “Ape Out is a dynamo of a game, simultaneously stylish and meaty, that manages to succeed as both a technical demonstration of procedural generation – particularly that magical audio – and a bloody fun game to boot.”
What makes Control really special – and why it was atop our game of the decade list for 2019 – is that it’s the rare example of the AAA game that is also, frankly, bonkers. Remedy is famed for it, of course, with the hit-and-miss, mixed media experience of Quantum Break its most recent foray, but Control is arguably the studio’s best. (And in a back catalogue that includes Max Payne and Alan Wake, that’s high praise.)
Being weird or wacky on its own isn’t enough, though. Otherwise, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding would clearly have gotten the nod. (See also: Rage 2, Kingdom Hearts III, Shenmue III.) But unlike these other examples, Control manages to excel at both being both a bonkers idea and a brilliant game in the critical, classical sense. That’s a very rare thing indeed, and Remedy should be celebrated and cherished because of it.
Crypt of the Necrodancer: Cadence of Hyrule
It feels like such a long time ago that Cadence of Hyrule released, landing with a bang during E3 2019. While people loved it at the time, it seems to have dropped off the radar for game of the year lists; probably just because it feels so long ago.
What’s really important about Cadence of Hyrule is not the game itself – lovely as it is – but what the game represents. When Nintendo allowed Ubisoft to use its Mario properties for Kingdom Battle, that was a surprise. (And an even bigger surprise, it was an excellent game, in spite of featuring Ubisoft’s insufferable Rabbids.) But for the notoriously protective Nintendo to hand the keys to Hyrule castle over to indie developer Brace Yourself Games? That’s unheard of.
The history of Disco Elysium’s world – built on the rubble of a failed communist revolution that left many, many people dead – can be ignored. Your history – as an amnesiac cop who drank himself into an oblivion so dark and deep he can literally remember nothing – cannot be remembered. But, at times, the truth of the past breaks in and you are confronted with who you really are, what the fictional city of Revachol really is. In these moments, Disco Elysium stops being funny and irreverent and is just unspeakably sad.
It’s a game that asks you to forge a new identity for your character – are you Art Cop? Hobocop? Pinko Cop? Fascist Cop? – but makes his past inescapable. There is an irrepressible melancholy to every moment in this decade-in-the-making world.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Dan’s favourite
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a linear, turn-based game that we, adults, happily played for 70-plus hours. That’s the highest praise we can possibly bestow. In a year that was packed with good-to-great games, Fire Emblem’s combination of tense tactical battles, solid character work and long-haul storytelling managed to keep us invested for more hours than anything else we played this year. If only we had the extra 200 hours necessary to give it the time it deserves.
Aside from the name, which is stupid, the Metroidvania genre has a lot of problems. Lack of instruction, signposting, checkpointing, difficulty spikes, generally being a pain; they can be frustrating to veterans, and are often impenetrable for players not familiar with the genre.
With its 1-bit visuals and stripped back style, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Gato Roboto would be a Metroidvania for the purists. And it is one that the purists will enjoy, make no mistake. But Gato Roboto simultaneously fixes almost all of the genre’s most embedded flaws – with a minimap and co-ordinates system, regular and generous checkpointing, and a disembodied voice on the radio to guide you through – to make it a thoroughly modern Metroidvania.
Just look at this flipping adorable animation. And to think, people think retro, 1-bit visuals are “plain” and “boring”.
Change is hard. Personal growth is a challenge. The older and more grizzled we get, the harder it is to change, to grow, to better oneself. And when you (nominally, we’re anthropomorphising a video game series here) are as grizzled as Gears of War, change must be very hard indeed.
But change it has, and Gears 5 feels like those years of hard-fought change coming to fruit. It’s a Gears game with a female lead, and Laura Bailey’s performance is one of the stand-outs of the year. It’s a gears game, but it features open-world segments and character building in addition to gnarled corridors and waist-high cover. It’s a Gears game, but it is desperately sad in amongst the gore and guitars and chainsaw bayonets. It’s a Gears game, but it is an absolute paragon of accessibility. Gears 5 is a thoroughly modern shooter, a revolution for Gears of War, and one of the best third-person shooters we’ve played in ages.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
Nintendo as a publishing force has, again, had a hell of a year. Super Mario Maker 2. Yoshi’s Crafted World. The Link’s Awakening remake. Pokemon Sword and Shield. Ring Fit Adventure. Astral Chain. There are even a few on this list, including Cadence of Hyrule, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Tetris 99. (We won’t talk about the ill-advised forays into mobile gaming, however.)
Luigi’s Mansion 3 has made the trip to the Nintendo Switch best of all, however. Expanding on the scope of the previous games – moving the setting from a haunted house to a hotel with different themed levels on every floor – the game is a brilliant extension of everything we loved about Luigi’s Mansion. And then there’s Gooigi, the gelatinous green doppelganger that allows Luigi to solve puzzles, solo or in co-op, who is the real star of 2019.
While the opening moments may depict a tale that’s ostensibly small in scale, the most impressive part of Outer Wilds is just how wildly inaccurate that first impression turns out to be. Your adventure as a lowly alien finally making its long-awaited transition into the depths of endless space is spellbinding, seeing you drift to breathtaking planets, uncover ancient mysteries, and follow in the footsteps of entire species that lived decades before you.
Yet, for all its epic scale and mind-blowing reveals, Outer Wilds is ultimately a reflective game about the fragility of life, the inevitability of the universe, and the beauty of the journey we weave throughout both. We could go on for days about its sensational approach to environmental storytelling, the intricate attention it pays to realistic physics, or the genius central mechanic that reveals itself an hour into your first playthrough. But in truth, The Outer Wilds is a game best explored blind. Do yourself a favour. Don’t watch any videos; don’t read the reviews. Just get your hands on a copy and experience it for yourself. You won’t regret it.
The Outer Worlds
The Outer Worlds, more than any other game I’ve played, pushed me to appreciate the joys of the blank slate. Until I sat down with Obsidian’s first-person RPG, I had always favoured the Arthur Morgans and Geralts of Rivia; the characters with set-in-stone personalities, that give players a little room to chisel. As a fan of emotionally resonant storytelling, I’ve always preferred games that offered me a full-fledged person to care about, not a voiceless vessel to embody.
But The Outer Worlds motivated me to make a character out of nothing. I plotted out a backstory and personality, and roleplayed this character to reflect a history that only I knew. As I played, The Outer Worlds never got in the way of the story I was telling. Instead, Obsidian provided me with new considerations that enriched the character I was playing.
None of this is new! But The Outer Worlds did it incredibly well, and set my roleplay in a colourful galaxy with stellar art direction and endearing companions. It isn’t the most original RPG, but it pushed me to think deeply about the character I wanted to play. I didn’t just consider whether I was a good or bad person, a paragon or a renegade. I thought about my character as a person with preferences, political opinions and an attitude toward the efficacy of violence. The Outer Worlds invited me to become a co-creator.
There are plenty of sweet, silly, charming indie games this year. At the close of the year Wattam springs to mind, but where Keita Takehashi’s colourful romp suffers a little for its retro control scheme – complete with shoulder button camera rotation – Pikuniku is a modern, accessible platformer. That not just in reference to the way it plays but to the game’s modern sensibilities, a game that feels borne of social media and millennial nihilism, with a wit and charm and humour that sparkles in its tale of the little people fighting against environmental destruction, capitalism, and the evils of working for exposure.
Best of all, though: if you play Pikuniku’s co-op mode and bray the little car’s horn, it plays a familiar tune. We defy anyone to not smile.
Resident Evil 2 Remake
Speaking of the little details, did you see that, in the Resident Evil 2 remake, Claire and Leon hold their flashlight under their chin while they reload their gun
Underrated game animations of 2019: how Leon and Claire cradle their flashlight with their chin while they reload pic.twitter.com/YMWafVnPXq
— Kirk Hamilton (@kirkhamilton) December 18, 2019
That’s not the only thing that’s great about the Resident Evil 2 remake, but it is emblematic of the level of care and detail that Capcom has poured into this remake. It would have been so easy (relatively speaking; we’re not game developers) to produce a shot-for-shot remake of Resi 2 in a modern engine, tank controls and all. But what Capcom produced is a stunning realisation of a game steeped in memories and mythology, combining Resident Evil 7’s engine and stunning visuals with Resi 4’s high octane third-person action.
And if you needed any more evidence that Resident Evil 2 was a success? They’re doing it all again.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – Callum’s favourite
Despite how press surrounding the game tries to present it, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not just Dark Souls with samurai swords. What Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware have created through their newest foray into the crushingly challenging Soulsborne genre is perhaps the most refined, evolved and frequently rewarding example of the formula to date. The combat is electrically paced, brutally frenetic, and manages to superbly balance offence and defence to create a system that keeps you constantly on your toes. Meanwhile, the breath-taking world, boss design and obscure storytelling show FromSoftware’s aptitude for atmosphere and intricate detail.
While it’s clear the game won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, if you enjoy Soulsborne games, this is easily an absolute masterclass on how to do the genre right. From the cinematic prologue to the adrenaline-fuelled final showdown, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is unforgiving, unrelenting and simply unforgettable.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order – Andrew’s favourite
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was buggy as hell at launch, doesn’t quite nail the effortlessly exhilarating combat and movement Respawn has built its first-person games around, and borrows a little too shallowly from a few too many genres
But! Bugs were minor on my PC. The combat, which draws heavy inspiration from Dark Souls, is still a tonne of fun. Deflecting blaster bolts at Storm Troopers feels ridiculously good and the suite of force powers that vanilla Jedi Cal Kestis unlocks lead to some impressively expressive gameplay. And, all the genre-borrowing leads to a game that has all the right mechanics in its repertoire at all the right times.
Fallen Order is a cinematic thrill ride when it needs to be. It’s an exploration-focused Metroidvania when it needs to be. It’s a more-than-competent lightsaber duel simulator when it needs to be. All of that adds up to a game that never lost my interest across its 15-hour campaign. What Respawn has created isn’t the future of gaming, but it is an excellent pastiche of much that’s come before. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is the most entertaining game I played this year and nothing else even comes close.
Just before the new year in 2018, Netflix and Charlie Brooker released Bandersnatch, under the Black Mirror banner. Following on from its aborted efforts with the (now defunct) Telltale, the streaming provider had been keen to get into primetime interactive content. While telly fans remarked at its creativity and went diving for endings and easter eggs, video game adventure fans were a little derisive of its level of interactivity compared to, say, Life is Strange 2 or Man of Medan, or indeed, Telltale’s back catalogue.
Enter Sam Barlow, the master of the FMV game. We won’t go into too much detail, so as not to spoil it, but Telling Lies takes everything Her Story did, then blows it up with increased scope, ambition, and enormous (relatively speaking) production values. Video games are still the rulers of this domain, and Sam Barlow sits atop the biggest throne.
Tetris 99 was the game nobody knew they wanted. To be honest, it’s the game nobody even thought was possible. In a bizarre mashup of the classic puzzle game and trying to chase the battle royale trend, Nintendo released Tetris 99 exclusively for its Nintendo Switch Online service. It was ostensibly a bit of throwaway fun to sweeten the pot for paying subscribers, in addition to those retro games (and lovely, exclusive controllers).
But do you know what? It’s actually really good. Still weird, though.
Untitled Goose Game
The danger with Untitled Goose Game, as is so often the case with games that have built a cult following around gifs and trailers, was that it was never going to live up to expectations. From a gameplay perspective, it probably didn’t quite live up to the hype. Underneath it all, it’s still a stealth game, and stealth games can still be a bit of a chore.
But where most stealth games need you to kill your way out of trouble when your stealthy plan inevitably goes awry, Untitled Goose Game allows you to grab and flap and HONK! your way to freedom. In spite of its serious political leanings, the goose is just a bundle of joy and mischief, and the combination of bold art style, ingenious sound effects, and procedural music are just delightful.
What the Golf?
Speaking of games that are just joyous, here comes What the Golf? to round out our list of 2019. Made by Triband, the crew behind Keyboard Sports – Saving QWERTY, What the Golf? (their punctuation, not ours) is what happens if you smush a golf game together with one of those “You wouldn’t download a house! You wouldn’t download a car!” anti-piracy adverts from the 90s. What if you golfed a house? What if you golfed a car? What if you golfed a hole in one? A horse? A footballer? The golfer themselves? It’s as stupid as it sounds, but that’s the beauty of What the Golf? (That was a statement, not a question.)
Spare a thought for the creators of What the Golf?, though. As Tim Garbos told us in an interview two years ago: “To us everything now looks like a golf game, so we’re no longer allowed to eat eggs for breakfast. We need help!”
It’s a small price to pay for bringing the world so much enjoyment, Tim. We thank you for your eggy sacrifice.
- After years of waiting, we didn’t think Borderlands 3 wouldn’t make the list, but here we are
- Ditto Kingdom Hearts III, actually
- And Devil May Cry V
- And Metro: Exodus
- And Shakedown: Hawaii
- We’re not remotely surprised that Shenmue III didn’t make the list, but it’s still a very notable release
- Crackdown 3 didn’t turn out great, either
- And Days Gone is just the worst
- Alien: Isolation came out on Nintendo Switch and it is just great, but re-releases don’t get included in the list
- And all the other ports that Feral Interactive did, like GRID
- Return of the Obra Dinn came to consoles, was still amazing
- Meanwhile, Red Dead Redemption 2 came to PC, and looked prettier than ever
- Remember Reach?
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt running on Switch is just magic
- Don’t forget all the Final Fantasy games – yes, including Final Fantasy VIII – that came out on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch this year
- And the Resident Evil games that came to Switch
- Death Stranding isn’t the entirely new genre we were promised, and it suffers from the same story and writing issues as every other Hideo Kojima game; wandering around that wilderness is just lovely, though
- Anthem proved that live service games are still a bit rubbish if they don’t have a killer hook
- Ditto Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
- The Division 2 was better, to be fair
- And Apex Legends is really solid, proving that Respawn is brilliant at most everything (even if it didn’t quite dislodge Fortnite or PUBG from the top of the battle royale tree, despite early buzz)
- Nintendo had a strong year of exclusives with Yoshi’s Crafted World, Super Mario Maker 2, the Link’s Awakening remake, and Pokemon Sword and Shield
- Baba is You? Baba is very clever indeed
- Sunless Skies is another epic festival of wordsmithery from the masters at Failbetter, including the year’s best character, the Inadvisably Big Dog
- Katana Zero, Knights and Bikes, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Obervation, Heaven’s Vault, Wargroove, Neo Cab, Lonely Mountains Downhill, Sea of Solitude, Dicey Dungeons, Boyfriend Dungeon, Satisfactory, Hypnospace Outlaw – there were just too many great indie games to fit into our list this year
- Planet Zoo is typically lovely strategy fare from Frontier Developments
- Kind Words is a beautiful experiment in using video games for positive ends
- And right at the end of the year comes Wattam; it’s sweet and silly, and a lovely thing to finish on
- Oh, and speaking of whimsical games sneaking in at the close of the year, Frog Detective 2!