This year, more than any others I’ve had in the past, feels difficult to write up. A decent number of positive things happened: I finally found a new job, my girlfriend moved in with me, and I started a couple of exciting podcasts with my friends! All that said, Ultimate Despair Reprise went on an unexpected hiatus (and we’re still trying to get it started again), and when I wasn’t worrying about the state of the world around me, I often found myself sitting around, wondering what I was even doing with myself. And when it came to actually playing games, I found it difficult to stick with anything to completion, bouncing between offerings from Game Pass and Apple Arcade like I was channel-surfing.
Thankfully, there were some games that grabbed me enough to stick with them. The titles listed here gave me a modicum of comfort and distraction within an increasingly chaotic world, and I’m grateful for that. Some of them even helped me grow closer to my friends (even if one game here will leave my best friend scratching ver head)! Without further delay, here is my list:
10. Kingdom Hearts III
Right, I won’t beat around the bush with this one: Kingdom Hearts III is a disappointment. The Square-Enix half of the universe has all but vanished, and the Disney half isn’t up to handling the extra weight on its own. Most of the story revolves around you searching for a power you don’t understand, while you simply observe Disney/Pixar films playing out in the background with minimal participation. But it’s the way Nomura and company casually push the women out of the picture that earns my ire. Without giving too much away, a handful of characters straight-up deserved better than this, and their treatment takes away from what should have been a triumphant finale.
With all that said, why is this game even on here? As flawed as it is, it gave me something I’ve wanted ever since Kingdom Hearts II broke my heart: catharsis. Much of the final act is spent righting the wrongs that occurred over a decade ago, and as they all join together, fighting the people that inflicted so much trauma on them, it’s hard not to feel moved. There are several moments where friends huddle together and cry, and considering what they’ve been through, every one of them feels earned.
From the opening notes of Dearly Beloved to the sandy piers in Destiny Islands, Kingdom Hearts has woven its way into my heart. Even when they flub important parts of this denouement, it still means something to me, though it’d be nice to feel something other than begrudging acceptance about the game itself.
9. Resident Evil 2
There are a few games I haven’t finished that were still significant enough to include here, and Resident Evil 2 happens to be one of them. Though it ditches the fixed camera for a behind-the-back view and regretfully recasts all of the characters, this remake’s updates to Mr. X made him more terrifying than ever before, allowing him to even breach once-safe rooms in his quest to punch your lights out. More importantly, they maintained and refined the police station’s puzzle-box structure, creating an environment that’s equally satisfying and frightening to navigate. It even got Six, of all people, to spend significant time in a horror game! To me, that’s worth celebrating.
8. Devil May Cry V
After letting the series sleep for a while, Capcom decided the time was right to bring back Devil May Cry. The way they’ve combined Ninja Theory’s stylistic contributions with their own, tried-and-true approach to combat is nearly pitch-perfect, and they’ve packed it with plenty of moments that make my jaw drop. Casting Lady and Trish aside is such a missed opportunity, but V is a delightfully geeky mall goth, and the various mechanical fists Nero slots into his arm are a blast to experiment with. All I’m saying is that when Devil May Cry VI comes around, they should let the women have some fun (though Nico seems to be having the time of her life building murderous prosthetics and driving recklessly)!
7. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The original Link’s Awakening was one of the first video games my parents ever bought for me. Playing it when I was around eight years old, I never figured out how to navigate the forest with the talking raccoon near the beginning, but I still found ways to amuse myself by talking to the villagers and stealing from a nearby shop. All these years later, with the help of a recently released Switch remake, I can finally say I’ve finished it.
All told, it’s a pretty fantastic game! There was one dungeon with destructible pillars that made me grind my teeth, but to this day, it holds up well: the unique, quirky dialogue has been mostly preserved in its original form, and there’s a few major quality-of-life updates, like turning your sword and sprint into permanently equipped items. It’s also worth mentioning that they’ve updated the original, 8-bit soundtrack with a full orchestra, and the new arrangements are lovely.
With all that said, it’s likely that the Switch version isn’t the ideal way to play Link’s Awakening. Transitions in and out of buildings that used to be near-instantaneous are now bogged down with 3-7 second loads, and the game tends to get choppy before righting itself moments later. Simply put, it ran smoother on hardware over 20 years old than it does now. Still, Link’s Awakening on Switch is a perfectly fine take on a classic game, and its gorgeous, diorama-esque world was enough to win me over.
One of 2019’s most pleasant surprises, Control proved that after the rocky Quantum Break, Remedy can still work their magic. It’s all there: the excellent third-person shooting, pulpy narrative and tongue-in-cheek FMV are as strong as ever, and wrapping them in a setting as imaginative as The Oldest House plays to the team’s true strengths. Jesse Faden is a delightfully curious, excitable hero, and her silent, pulsating companion left such an impression on Six that I can’t help but love them, too.
If it weren’t for the needless perks system, or the way the game’s later missions become a tad too difficult (that last stretch practically made me pull my hair out), this would be much closer to the top. As-is, I’m just happy that Remedy is back in full form, and I can’t wait to play the Alan Wake-themed DLC that’ll drop later in 2020!
5. Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
I admittedly bounced off the first Anodyne after an hour or two: as beloved as it is, the top-down Zelda approach didn’t mix well with its obtuse, puzzle-like progression for me. But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Anodyne 2. As Nano, a humanoid hatched from an egg by two caring mothers, I went out into its retro, polygonal world, and did my best to vacuum the “dust” within others by diving into them. Swapping between 3D, Sega Saturn-like environments and the 2D adventuring from the first game makes for an eclectic experience, and the off-kilter writing enhances every moment.
Keeping things as spoiler-free as possible, the nano dust Nova cleans from others’ lives is a clear-cut, antagonistic force, right up until the point when it isn’t. This is a game about the intricate complexities of our existence, and how categorizing and erasing such complexities can do real harm. It’s a story that mixes humor, terror and tragedy well, and I feel privileged that I got to play such a special game this year. Even with all that said, the segment where you get into professional wrestling shenanigans would be enough to earn a spot on this list.
4. A Short Hike
I would have missed A Short Hike entirely if it weren’t for Patrick Klepek and others praising it enthusiastically partway through December, and I’m thankful that I caught it just in time. You control a young, anthropomorphic bird, spending her time at a park situated on a remote island. The island is far from abandoned: beach-goers, marathon runners and hiking visitors are scattered all over the place, and it’s up to you whether you want to join them as they do their thing. The one concrete goal you’re given at the beginning is reaching the top of the island to make an important phone call, but that can be undertaken whenever you’ve had your fill with everything else.
Making my way through this island was an utter delight. Nearly everyone I met was pleasant to chat with, and even some of the rougher visitors had their soft spots. I loved playing stickball with a makeshift volleyball net and helping a little girl build a seashell necklace, but I also found myself soaring along the various nature trails for fun. Even the call at the end resonated with me, perfectly capturing a specific kind of conversation I experienced in my own life, weeks before I started playing.
You owe it to yourself to check this game out. It’s inexpensive, short, and full of love: frankly, we could all use more games like that in our lives.
In their relatively short lifespan, Supergiant Games have always managed to amaze and surprise me with every adventure they craft. It’s only natural that in 2019, they managed to take roguelikes, a genre that rarely sits well with me, and make one that immediately sunk its teeth into me.
I could talk about the engaging story, the catchy music, or how I’m thirsty for a good chunk of the gods in this game, but I’m most impressed by how it incentivizes trying different weapons. I can’t count the number of times when I grabbed what I assumed was my “worst” weapon to take advantage of the bonus points they were offering, only to climb even further out of Hell than I had before. The weapon mods (or “blessings”) I found in each run lead to entirely different methods of attack: on some runs, I felt like I was playing an entirely different character!
Hades made roguelikes click for me. For once, I feel excitement instead of dread when the game shuffles its deck of abilities/layouts before each run. And with regular updates and tweaks by Supergiant themselves, it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll run out of welcome surprises anytime soon.
Despite an unfortunate last-minute change to the cast, Judgment finally saw its worldwide release in June. I was initially disappointed when the detective work in this murder mystery wasn’t as thorough as I expected, but as-is, it’s still a fantastic open-world adventure through the mean streets of Kamurocho. Even though it takes place in the same city as most Yakuza games, switching from a gangster to a disgraced lawyer/down-on-his-luck private detective is enough of a perspective shift to freshen things up. I could do with less of the combat, but the way it weaves together moments like getting a desk figure for your shut-in friend and fighting an intimidating man with an ever-changing cane is downright remarkable. You owe it to yourself to give it a look, even if you’ve never played a Yakuza game before.
Game of the Year: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I’ve been trying to get into Fire Emblem for the past few years, but it never quite clicked for me. Was it the semi-detached mission structure, spending most of my non-battle time stuck looking at maps and menus? Could I not grasp the basic strategies it expected me to already know? While I don’t know why it didn’t work for me before, 2019’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses roped me in with its compelling “Persona but you’re the teacher” pitch, and before long, I was well and truly hooked.
Even discounting the staggering number of hours I poured into the campaign, I think about Three Houses on an almost daily basis. I first went with the Blue Lions to be different from my friends (a choice they relentlessly ribbed me for), but I grew attached to Felix, Ashe, Dedue and the rest. Though Dimitri is prone to making poor decisions, I was fully committed to my house, and I loved comparing notes with others to see how our campaigns differed. There were certainly some moments that overstayed their welcome, but it was never enough to break its spell over me. And I am looking forward to getting caught up in it all over again when the new story DLC drops.
Well, that’s that for 2019. Six and I have a lot of exciting things planned for 2020, and as ever, we press onward.