I always seem to struggle with my game of the year selection, but this year seemed especially tough. It’s not that I didn’t play good games. Part of it was because I didn’t have as much time and disposable income during some parts of the year. As I stare at the case for Judgement, it and other games might have been included if I had gotten to them, but that’s life. (Having more games than you can finish is a great problem to have.) Another part of it may be because my tastes are subtly changing, despite being thoroughly stuck in my ways.
For the games that did make my list, there’s not one that isn’t flawed in some way. No game is perfect, but maybe the best games for me, even ones with glaring flaws, are games that I think about after I’ve stopped playing them. They leave an impression. It could be playing the right game at the right time in some cosmically aligned purchase, or it could be a game that’s just weird, which is a quality I’m beginning to appreciate more and more.
Speaking of weird, Spike Chunsoft is probably my favorite studio/publisher right now. They just seem to be nailing these quirky games that aren’t afraid to be different and niche. They also seem to always run well and be mostly bug-free. I like the momentum they have from 2019, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do in 2020.
Here are some of the best games I played all year, although not necessarily a list of the best games of the year. As usual, I’ll cheat and throw out some honorable mentions first, because I can.
If you missed our first Game of the Year piece, check out Justin’s top games of 2019, too.
CALL OF DUTY MODERN WARFARE
I know. I’m surprised too. This is the first COD I’ve purchased at launch in a long time. It’s the first COD I’ve purchased at all for a long time. I’ve played through the story and even had my butt handed to me in multiplayer a bit. It’s the prettiest COD I’ve ever played, and it plays and feels great. The sound design is one of the best this year.
I will say the story didn’t impact me as much as it seemed to have impacted others. I could be a burgeoning psychopath, or it’s just not that big of a deal. The ending is more than a little odd and felt off in places, but it’s COD. I can tell they tried, and although I appreciate the effort, forget the story. Enjoy the explosions and gunfire.
FIRE EMBLEM THREE HOUSES
Strategy RPGs are not normally my favorite thing, but Fire Emblem Awakening was the reason I purchased a 3DS. I jumped back into the franchise with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and it’s so much more than I expected. The game is huge with three different story paths, different students to teach, characters to know, and wonderful music. Combat is satisfying, and it’s a game I really need to get back to enjoying soon.
CONCEPTION PLUS MAIDENS OF THE TWELVE STARS
This dungeon crawler remake has you making babies with women in another world and using those kiddos to fight monsters to save that world. It’s a preposterous story, and that’s great. The game’s mechanics work well together and provide the opportunity for light strategy while clearing all the dungeons. It’s not perfect, but I really enjoyed grinding my way through it.
YU-NO: A GIRL WHO CHANTS LOVE AT THE BOUND OF THIS WORLD
Even after watching half of the anime before I jumped into this one, this game gave me surprises around every corner. The main character is difficult to like in some cases, but not impossible to understand or give some sympathy, especially once you consider his history and history in general. It’s a game that continually builds by pulling back layer after layer, allowing you to see everything from a different angle after you were sure you knew everything.
It’s also a little bit pervy, sure, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there’s a story here that’s really enjoyable. I think Mitsuki’s path is probably the deepest in the game, and maybe I’ll write a standalone piece someday to expand on that and tell you why she was the best romantic and tragic choice as I continue my downward spiral into nerdom or am I elevating my spirit to a place of nerdvana?
Best waifu and some problems aside, it has an ending I could not have predicted and will give you plenty of things to think about.
And now onto the main event:
PATH OF EXILE
Here is another game that surprised me. Path of Exile is a free-to-play game, and I generally don’t like them due to how they are structured. However, I played a lot of it this year. Every three months a new update is released that makes some changes and adds new content, and I jump back into it.
Path of Exile is built primarily on player freedom. It sells aesthetic microtransaction items only, so you can actually play the entire game for free without other players gaining an unfair advantage or paying to win. There is so much content with an actual story and lore in this hack ‘n’ slash looter that I haven’t seen the endgame. I still have fun when I build a new character and go through the new content.
Blizzard wants me to be excited about Diablo 4, but Path of Exile scratches that itch for 2019. It focuses intensely on player choice, and the company is more than just talk when it says how much it loves the fans.
Path of Exile costs nothing and gives me everything. It’s hard to not appreciate that, and there’s always more new stuff is on the horizon.
I haven’t finished this one, but I’m about 75% through it. Jesse’s had a rough first day at the Federal Bureau of Control, and I would be asking to see a job description if I were her. The reason it’s here is mostly because of design and art other than the actual gameplay, which is just fine. I enjoy the story concept a lot, but I’m not overly enamored with the characters. Most of the time, I want to slap Emily Pope.
The impressive part of Control is its use of light and darkness and the way it looks. When I capture a control point, I love watching the room shift. I love the darkness surrounding a long walk over a bridge between two areas. It’s the environmental design that keeps my eyes glued to the screen. The geometric patterns in some areas are fantastic, and the ashtray maze is a great sequence. It’s nice to hear that Remedy hasn’t lost touch with Poets of the Fall.
A feast for the eyes, it’s those elements that really elevate this experience.
A PLAGUE TALE: INNOCENCE
When kids are brought into the typical game, they are there to be cute or annoying and generally get in the way. I don’t hate kids. I do hate videogame kids. If you are in the same boat, A Plague Tale: Innocence is a game that gets it right and doesn’t portray them as too smart or too strong. It’s refreshing to see such an accurate portrayal of kids. They’re fragile and scared and trying to survive a difficult situation in the time of the Black Death, and the voice actors portray these emotions incredibly well.
The villains in this game are human, but the deadly ocean of rats will give you nightmares. Their beady, red eyes peer out of the darkness with sharp teeth ready to consume you and anyone else who steps out of the light. This supernatural element is always ready to kill the unwary enemy or player and heightens the tension in an already tense stealth game.
This is a game that gets its hooks in you early and doesn’t let go. Despite being very sad in some parts, it’s equally beautiful in other parts, including visually, and the overall experience is very compelling.
PLANESCAPE: TORMENT AND ICEWIND DALE ENHANCED EDITIONS
This game is one of two on the list that makes me nostalgic. It brings two classic CRPGs to consoles, and I think you should give these worlds a try, especially Planescape: Torment. Its whole concept of worlds upon worlds existing and bringing together situations, characters, creatures, and items into a singular plane is electrifying. While more traditional, Icewind Dale is a journey that gives your team of adventurers a world to save, monsters to slay, and treasure to find.
It’s not a pretty game by modern standards, and the controls can be rough. Thank goodness these two games don’t depend on that. The true star of the show is the writing, and that’s as great today as it ever was. The writing has so much depth, and the worlds beg you to explore and experience everything they have to offer with histories for you to learn.
They each have a different type of story to tell, and, despite a few recent games that are trying to revive the genre, you just don’t see these types of experiences very often anymore. They are difficult to create, and I’m glad to have been able to revisit these still relevant relics of another gaming age.
DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2
I didn’t play the original. I haven’t even completed everything in this massive sequel, but this is a great game. It takes ideas from Minecraft and adds structure with missions and a story you can pursue or ignore. It even lets you build in your own area to create the city of your dreams.
Most of the concepts are simple, but the entire game is basically a playground. Some of the time spent in that world is just goofing around with a building concept or exploring. The music is good, the characters have charm, and it’s perfect for when I want some low-stress farming and fun with enemies like a smiling slime. I almost feel bad killing it when it gets too close, but those slugs can suck it.
Its genius is in how it manages to tie everything together while somehow not becoming too overly cumbersome. With this much content, a free area for you to do whatever you want, and the ability to download things from players far more creative than I’ll ever be, you could be playing this one for a long time.
LUIGI’S MANSION 3
This game is brilliant, and it’s been fun for me and the family. Stepping outside Mario’s shadow, Luigi is given the chance to save everyone from a haunted hotel, and there is so much fun in this game. Whether it’s Luigi’s mannerisms and excellent animation, the general design of each floor, or finding a new wacky boss, it’s packed with charm.
It’s also one of the games I’m most surprised to see on the Switch because it looks so good. It feels like everything can be manipulated in some way, and I suck up anything that isn’t nailed down in just about every room. It looks so smooth and colorful while keeping a scary but funny atmosphere.
The controls take some effort, and I could be fighting some broken remotes. I still lost hours trying to find another elevator button and gems. It’s clever, and it wouldn’t work with Mario. It’s something special, and I’m glad Nintendo decided to release a new entry in this franchise.
RESIDENT EVIL 2
Wow! This is the second game on this list that took me back. Capcom’s remake is a fantastic opportunity to revisit a classic with vastly improved visuals. It’s amazing how a few tweaks and a fresh coat of paint brought it back to life just like it was infected with the T-virus. It’s tense, the lickers are still a pain, and the dogs are scary as ever.
Even though I’m not the biggest fan of backtracking in a game, it felt good to walk around the police station, solve the puzzles, and try not to be grabbed when I wasn’t paying enough attention. It’s one of the best games of the year, and I can’t wait to jump into the Resident Evil 3 remake next year.
A.I: THE SOMNIUM FILES
This game is a perfect demonstration of Spike Chunsoft’s creative talent. It’s a murder mystery detective story that sees you enter the dreams of others to solve a crime. It will take you across a city
It really shines in the writing, dialogue, and how the story is put together. The very vibrant selection of characters are excellently voiced, and they handle the delicate balance of delivering comedic timing and not losing the impact of tragic moments so well. Everything feels right. It’s a joy to play, and it has THE BEST ending sequence of any game you’ll play this year.
ZANKI ZERO: THE LAST BEGINNING
This is one I followed since it was announced. I loved the concept of eight people at the end of the world struggling to survive and unravel the mystery of why they were alive, or at least as alive as those clones on a timer could be. The survival mechanics (I killed so many digital goats), using death as a path to make your characters stronger, and the integration of cloning and age with a cast of interesting characters was incredible.
Yeah, it had problems here and there, but I was enthralled for the whole game. The Extend TV segments are funny, and the whole game has a wonderful sense of humor. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, even when half your party has been killed off. It’s also one of the only games I’ve ever played where a higher difficulty had a huge impact on the game world and how I played and increased the amount of fun I had. Those are uncharted waters for an easy mode dude like me.
This is one of the most interesting games I played all year, and it deserves a sequel to answer some questions and further refine its ideas.
CATHERINE: FULL BODY
I’m just coming off the high of finishing this one, but it’s marvellous. I own (and never played) the original on PS3, but this version of the game adds some new content and pushes it to another level. From the very beginning, it’s gorgeous and stylish in every frame starting with the stunning intro sequence. It’s a masterclass in visual interest, and I found myself captivated by every frame.
The other place it shines is the sound which is increasingly important to me. The spectacular music is filled with hooks in jazzy sequences and rock riffs that get stuck in your head. Every aspect of the sound feels incredibly well-designed.
That continues into the voice acting which is some of the best of the year. It’s hard to explain because it’s not immediately obvious. Like everything else in here, it’s not one thing, but a combination of many small touches over the entirety of the game that shows how much polish went into the production.
The story falters toward the end, but the pace, depth, and weight of its narrative is something that most games can’t come close to emulating. It is a mature story that deals with relationships and all the fear, questions, bad advice, drunken decision-making, and regret that goes into some of them.
The other half of the game consists of climbing walls and avoiding falls, traps, and enemies. You will have to create a way to the top by moving blocks to create a path, and the difficulty can ramp up toward the end. If I was capable of deep thoughts, I might view the blocky climbing game as a metaphor for somehow building a path to a solid relationship, reaching a new level in self-improvement, and making a new way where none existed while not self-sabotaging your potential success. Thankfully, I’m about as deep as a puddle, so there’s no need to strain my mind too much and just enjoy the climb while I avoid terrifying monsters that are chasing me.
Some games don’t necessarily need a remake, but Catherine: Full Body proves it’s more than just game about chasing some new T&A and the consequences of those decisions. It’s a beautiful game in multiple ways, and I cannot overuse the word stylish when I try to describe it.
Maybe it’s just the recent playthrough that makes it stick out in my mind, but I have been drifting back to wonder if my Vincent should have done things differently and how that would have changed my ending to one of the other possible endings. As I mentioned, that makes me glad I was able to fit Catherine: Full Body into my schedule before I had to organize this list, and it’s a sure sign that it’s one of the best games I’ve played all year.
Even as I finalize my selections for my games of the year, you could probably shuffle some of them around, and I wouldn’t disagree. This year has been interesting, and next year is promising to be packed with blockbuster games culminating in a massive farewell to the PS4. I’m excited to see where things go in gaming next year from the ending of one generation to the monumental beginning of a new one, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have just as much trouble picking my list next year. Too many good games is another great problem to have.