2019 was a surprising year in gaming for me. Many were calling it a weak year for big, exciting, GOTY-tier games, yet I found myself awestruck over and over. Some of my early favorites moved way down my top 10 list by the end of the year, supplanted by games I loved even more. The final list contains not only 10 amazing 2019 games, but a few of my favorite games of all time.
In fact, this year was so good that it didn’t feel right to include my most-played game, Destiny 2. While it had a new release with Shadowkeep, Bungie also made some changes that added time pressure to the already time-consuming grind. I love the game, so I don’t want to miss out, but in the process of chasing rewards that go away at the end of a season, I’m getting pretty burned out. Playing less in recent weeks to finish up games like Life is Strange 2 and Void Bastards has been really refreshing.
Playing those games also caused some notable games to fall off of my list. The Surge 2 was a huge improvement on the combat and exploration of the first game, even if the story was incredibly lame. I still think it’s worth your time, and I said as much in my original review.
Then there are games I just didn’t get to: A Short Hike sounded like a big surprise, and I intend to check it out soon. Disco Elysium is the kind of game I really want to be in front of a PS4 or Switch for, personally, so I’m waiting for console ports. And Fire Emblem: Three Houses just seems too daunting right now.
There are other games I spent time with, but they didn’t grab me enough to finish or stick with. I’m still working on Untitled Goose Game. It makes me laugh but I’ve been picking at it for months now and it’s very, very short. Mortal Kombat 11 is probably the best game in the entire series, but beyond the story campaign I didn’t feel compelled to stick with it. And then there’s Apex Legends, a game I played a lot early on, decided, “this was the battle royale game for me,” and then fell off it completely. I still think it’s fantastic, but didn’t play it enough to crack my top 10.
Now that you know what I missed, what missed me, and what I’m giving an honorable mention to, I think it’s finally time for my personal top 10 games of 2019…
10 – Void Bastards
I played Void Bastards in four unblinking, 3-4 hour sessions. Within 15 minutes I was hooked, and every session after that left me bleary-eyed and annoyed that I had to stop for sleep. The game has you exploring a nebula from a board game-esque interface, taking turns that consume fuel and food. When you’re ready to board a ship, Void Bastards transitions to first person, letting you loot, shoot, and explore as long as your oxygen holds out.
These first person sections feel like old-school Doom, with a touch of mechanics that would feel at home in Deus Ex, Dishonored, or Prey. Security cameras, locked crates, and various hazards keep the repetitive ship designs fresh and exciting throughout.
I had the worst case of “one more level” syndrome playing Void Bastards. It didn’t overstay its welcome either, clocking in at 12-15 hours or so, and I was happy to leave it at that. The art style, humor, and smooth gameplay secured this one in my top 10.
9 – Remnant: From the Ashes
Imagine the third-person shooting and co-op from Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space 3, elevated with better gameplay, tons of weapons and abilities, and elements from Dark Souls. Then, imagine that blend is way better than it has any right to be, in a setting that starts generic but blossoms into Quake-inspired hellscapes and unique alien worlds. Then, imagine you get to share it with a couple friends, exploring each of your unique randomly-generated versions of the game world.
Remnant: From the Ashes is a real treat because the core mechanics are surprisingly polished. People deal with the problems of Destiny because “the shooting is so good!” and they lose interest in Anthem and The Division because neither game nails the foundational mechanics. Remnant deserves your attention because for all it gets right, it absolutely nails the feel of the shooting, dodging, reloading, and aiming that you’re doing throughout.
It’s not a flawless game. The randomly generated dungeons don’t add anything that wouldn’t be improved through a smaller set of crafted levels, the final boss is a real dick, and co-op can get weird when players fall out of sync in terms of their character level. That said, just talking about the game again makes me really want to get my group together and jump into it once again.
8 – Death Stranding
Over the course of 80 hours Death Stranding was many things. At the start it was a mysterious and bizarre walking sim with elaborate cutscenes. It captured the dreamlike, otherworldly aesthetic that the trailers promised.
From there, after a cast of characters explain the nature of the world at length, the strangeness becomes normal. You become a glorified delivery man, and the core gameplay comes into focus. For many, many hours, this is the focus of the game. Using a shared network of bridges, climbing ropes, vehicles, roads, ziplines, and more, you and thousands of other players work together to deliver packages over rough terrain, armed terrorists, and deadly-invisible ghosts. You never see the other players, but their names are marked on the tools and messages they leave behind.
This is the “strand game” thing that Kojima bragged about, and it is truly something special, even if he didn’t really invent some new genre. Navigating the world, getting help and helping others, making deliveries over treacherous terrain, it’s all incredibly engaging. It’s remarkable because they managed to make a big budget game that minimizes shooting and combat while putting all the depth into hiking and traveling.
That said, in the final act of Death Stranding, the story and cutscenes take center stage. While some of it is great—particularly everything after “Mario saves the princess” (trying to be vague here)—there’s a lot of masturbatory Kojima dialogue that seems to go in circles, saying nothing. In terms of storytelling, this game is Kojima at his best and absolute worst. In terms of gameplay, Death Stranding is an absolute triumph.
7 – Control
For 95% of Control I never wanted it to end. I wanted to play as Jesse Faden and explore The Oldest House for hours. I wanted to read all the bizarre and hilarious redacted paperwork strewn around the world. I wanted to watch Dr. Darling excitedly explain his latest breakthroughs. I wanted to listen to Trench brood about his role as former director of the FBC. Control’s aesthetic is incredible, and I wanted to drown in all the coffee and cigarette smoke.
It’s a shame that my last moments with the game were such a sour note. Control’s ending fell flat for me. And while it would be okay for the game to leave things open-ended for a steady stream of new story content, the reality is that we won’t see new story for many months.
I was so invested in this world that when it disappointed me even a little, I was able to see the flaws. The combat design? Could be a lot better, especially the bosses. The controls? The aiming never felt quite right. The progression and bounty system? Why was that even in the game? I still love Control, but the story and setting masked its flaws incredibly well.
6 – Resident Evil 2
I am a staunch defender and fan of old school Resident Evil, tank controls and all. I love the limited ammo, the exploration, item management, and puzzle solving. Resident Evil Remake was a masterpiece in my eyes, and Resident Evil 4’s action shift really turned me off. I still enjoyed RE4 and RE5, but I didn’t think I’d ever see a shift back to what I consider the better side of Resident Evil. Fast forward to Resident Evil 7, and now Resident Evil 2, and the times have changed.
Resident Evil is scary again. It’s about exploration, puzzle-solving, and careful ammo conservation. This new version Resident Evil 2 could have been an action-heavy RE4/5-style experience. Instead it extracts the best elements from the entire series to create something truly new. It’s far more than a simple remake, it’s a brand new game.
The best part is how the game splits the difference between the old fans like myself and the newer audience. On normal, the game functions how you expect a modern game to work, with generous checkpoints and enough ammo and healing items to get by. On hard mode though, the game returns to the old ink ribbon save system, bringing back the tension and risk/reward of choosing to save or continue exploring.
Combined with the new surround sound (those Mr. X footsteps!), incredible graphics, and smooth controls, RE2 is Capcom at their best. It’s truly a joy to be a Resident Evil fan again.
5 – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro didn’t blow up the way Dark Souls or Bloodborne did. In fact, a lot of staunch series fans don’t really like it. The reason for that is likely two-fold: the unwavering difficulty and the simplified toolset. Sekiro strips away the huge variety of weaponry from the Souls series. It doesn’t give you many options to level-up beyond the strength of your opponents. It is a game that demands you play on its own terms.
For myself, the result of this shift was an experience like playing Dark Souls for the first time. It was all new and confusing, oppressive and nerve-wracking. Where Dark Souls 2 and 3 let me play with familiar tools, Sekiro felt like learning to walk all over again. What’s more, the sense of mastery was much more potent than in other From Software games.
Sekiro is like a fighting game. The stripped down systems force you to focus on parrying, learn your opponents movesets, and fully internalize the combat. It’s a lot of work, and more than I think a lot of people have the patience for. I don’t blame them either, because there were multi-hour sessions fighting single bosses that made me want to throw in the towel too. Yet the persistence paid off, and the triumph of dominating a previously impossible fight was unmatched. Sekiro might look like another Souls-style game, but it’s in a class of its own.
4 – Sayonara Wild Hearts
As a teenager and young adult I was in love with games-on-rails. Panzer Dragoon, NiGHTS, Rez, Ikaruga…these games were short and simple, but their scripted, curated nature brought them to life in my eyes. When the music, visuals, and gameplay all came together for a pitch-perfect moment I’d always get goosebumps. Nowadays, with open-world exploration dominating games, on-rails experiences are rare.
That’s what makes Sayonara Wild Hearts so special. Not only is it a short, curated, on-rails experience like those aforementioned games, it’s purpose-built for those goosebump moments. The soundtrack is the star here, making for what feels like a playable album. It builds to crescendos as your character races through a colorful world, with gameplay that’s simple enough that you can pick it up as you go. New mechanics are introduced minute-by-minute, discarded just as quickly.
This is a game meant to be replayed again and again. You’ll fumble your way through your first playthrough, and that’s okay. Enjoy the ride. If you love it as much as I did, you’ll be back again anyway.
3 – A Plague Tale: Innocence
A Plague Tale was a shoe-in for my personal GOTY for a very long time. That it’s down to number 3 now says nothing about the quality of this game, and everything about how phenomenal the two games above it are.
In my original review I was stunned by the polish and production value. All this, from a small team? How did they do it? But what’s more impressive are the choices that Asobo Studio made to accomplish it. The quality of A Plague Tale is as much about what they didn’t include. The environments and gameplay mechanics are all perfectly scoped to accomplish the story that they set out to tell.
The story itself is special too, walking a fine line between dark, upsetting moments and bright moments between a surprisingly large cast of protagonists. For a game that looks like a plague-era child escort mission, you’re often among a group of friends. The story moves the cast around to advance the plot as well as the gameplay. The end result is a game that feels like a playable fantasy novel, something you play huddled up on a couch with some hot cocoa.
2 – Life is Strange 2
Halfway through the fourth episode of Life is Strange 2, a glitch caused a walkie-talkie to get stuck in my character’s hand. For a brief sequence, the immersion fell away. I was watching polygonal puppets act out a play. For some people, this entire game might feel like that. For myself, this glitch was an oddity in a game I was otherwise completely lost in.
For the hours I played Life is Strange 2, my real life was the puppet show. The story of Sean and Daniel was where I existed. I suffered, I struggled, I loved and lost. I made new friends and rekindled old relationships. I messed up, but I did my best to protect Daniel. I was confronted with racism and bigotry, generosity, friendship, and family bonds.
This game fucked me up. I yelled at my TV. I cried. I smiled uncontrollably. It’s always a weird thing to say a piece of media changed your life, but a tiny bit of me lives in that world with those characters now. I’ll never forget it.
1 – Outer Wilds
Back in 2016 I awarded The Witness my GOTY, but I don’t think I fully articulated why I connected with that game so much. The blend of puzzle-solving and open exploration on a mysterious, lonely island was like catnip for me. Outer Wilds accomplishes that same sensation, with more organic puzzles and an entire clockwork solar system to explore. And you know what? Space is awesome. And Outer Wilds is the most awe-inspiring space exploration game I’ve ever played.
Each of its worlds offers a unique concept and jaw-dropping discoveries. There are so many “holy shit, wow” moments in Outer Wilds, and all of them are discovered through simply paying attention and engaging with the world. The experience points of Outer Wilds are the bits of knowledge you gain by reading, exploring, and experimenting with the set of tools you’re given at the very beginning of the game. Everything you need to finish the game is available to you from the start, except for the knowledge needed to get there.
And as much as I want to lump this in with The Witness for its clever puzzles and clockwork world, the reality is that Outer Wilds has so much more heart than that. The cast of characters you meet, mostly through notes left behind around the world, are curious adventurers, anxious to learn and full of ambition. Your team of space cadets explore the solar system in ships built from an amalgam of wood, metal, and magic gravity crystals. They all play different instruments, each part of a song you can piece together as you aim your signalscope out to the stars. The game oozes charm.
There are so many beautiful, scary, mind-bending discoveries, and when you finally piece it all together, the path to the ending is pitch perfect. Outer Wilds would have been amazing if it were just about the journey, but it also does one of my favorite things a story can do: nail the ending.