I’m gonna save list thoughts for the end: these are my ten games of the year.
10. Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Sneaking into my list, early in the year I had my first encounter with the Strangereal. I still don’t know what to make of the setting, to be frank. I love the concept: a very simple alternate reality where everything is the same except the nations and politics leading up to the current world state. It’s the same planes, the same weapons (except a few lasers here and there), but the context for all of it has changed. In practice, I found Ace Combat 7’s politics a little bit impenetrable. Maybe I need to go back and play the old games.
Really, we’re here to talk about the arcadey (but not THAT arcadey) combat flight simulation. A computer chirping “missile. missile. missile.” in my ear as I punch my afterburner to piece the clouds. Fancy flying to send a pursuer spiraling past me, looking foolish. And hearing that good shout of “Fox 2” as you let loose your own counterattack. –Oh, to be clear, you play a silent protagonist. That was me exclaiming “Fox 2” aloud in the privacy of my own room. Y’all, I joined the Air Force once upon a time. I like fuckin planes.
Also, there’s some great tonal stuff about trying to oppress people whilst giving them power, and how it’s a weak facade. Yeah, no, keep telling yourself you can control these prisoners who you’ve given fighter planes, I’m sure that’ll go GREAT.
9. Blades in the Dark
Early in 2019, The Garnet Wager went on indefinite hiatus. It’s a show that started because a friend kept bugging me to watch the South Korean reality game show The Genius, and I enjoyed the first episode so much I roped Allen into joining me. The format took twists and turns from there, and in our last season where Nick joined us to cover Crime Scene, we began to run out of steam. I still want to go back to the show, but stopping it was the right call. Near the end, though, as we were searching for a way to keep the show fun, I tried an experiment.
I asked Nick and Allen to trust me, that they didn’t know what the episode was going to be but that was okay. They were nothing but gracious, and what unfolded was a very slapdash game of the pen and paper rpg Blades in the Dark where the two of them austensibly investigated a murder. If you haven’t heard the episode, spoilers: making Nick keep a straight face is basically impossible, and quickly they were arguing with prairie cats (like prairie dogs, but different) and summoning the god of Worcestershire sauce. We ended up revisiting the game in our finale, and between the two sessions I had so many laughs and found myself carried away by my friends’ outlandish improvisations. I wish I’d played more tabletop games in 2019: they’re truly something special.
8. Devil May Cry V
It was only with the PS2 that I finally owned my own console. The first game I owned was Kingdom Hearts, and the first game I borrowed was Devil May Cry 1. In a weird way, these two worked in synergy to instill a lifelong passion for action gameplay in me. If you ask me, at its best moments Kingdom Hearts approaches character action gameplay. And when you talk character action, Devil May Cry V has cemented itself in my mind as one of the greats of the genre.
The three character lineup offers three different takes on combat, there are plenty of upgrades and options, the story is a great continuation of what 4 set up. If I have complaints, they’re few: the way Trish and Lady are treated by the game is bullshit, and I’d hoped it would be corrected by making them playable in DLC. I wanted more, and I would have been perfectly happy to pay for it. As is, DMCV is a wonderfully fun game, but its shortcomings are too real to ignore. Still. Second best character action ever. Maybe best? It’s honestly a tossup for me between this and Bayonetta 2.
Remedy is a strange studio. They’re so into weird settings and stories, but as far as genre they stick with fairly standard third person shooter fare. I suppose the idea is to make the gameplay something they don’t have to worry about, so they can focus on other elements? Certainly, that’s what I’d say about Control. I adore the worldbuilding, characters, and (most of the) story from Control. Polaris is a character that has changed how I think about my own body, and made me confront the ways I’m unkind to myself. It is no doubt Remedy’s best game, and the studio has put out some gems, so that’s saying something.
But, ah… playing it is… fine? It’s ok. You shoot things. You use telekinesis. Sometimes when you use said telekinesis the framerate drops to single digits. And the loot system is bad, and the difficulty is all over the place, and the story concludes with some unsatisfying notes. Control is a messy game. It’s still easily one of the ten best games of the year, but its flaws do hold it back.
6. Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
I don’t know anyone who plays FFXIV who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with the game. The story really has its ups and downs, and somehow the combat design has even more of them. When FFXIV is on, it puts every other MMO to shame. Other times, you’re playing healer and trying not to fall asleep. Or playing Main Story Roulette and trying not to fall asleep. Or playing any class below level 50 and trying not to fall asleep.
I love this game. I know it’s hard to tell from my writing here. But gosh. It drives me crazy. What an inconsistent game. Still, Shadowbringers is the best expansion they’ve ever done, with a great story, good dungeons, and some satisfying new classes. But then they also screwed up some of the class changes along the way… god, it can never just be good news with this game, I swear!
5. Fire Emblem Three Houses
Fire Emblem was always good, is the thing. By combining that framework with Three Kingdoms structure, it elevates it to even higher heights. Love that combat, love the tactics. Love that for once there was an attempt to treat the antagonists like real characters, even if it still falls a little short. This is the best Fire Emblem has ever been… but not the most replayable. Turns out, of the three houses, only one was actually good.
THAT’S RIGHT I’M ACTUALLY HERE TO STUMP FOR THE BLACK EAGLES. We all know this game is good. What you really need to know is that the Black Eagles are the only sensible choice. The Golden Deer are memelords who have no place on a battlefield. Claude is cool, but as others have put it (Gita Jackson), he has a beef with the president of racism. And I am down with that! That is a good beef to have. But there’s a plot happening and he’s barely involved with it. The Blue Lions? “Angry” is not an ideology. Dimitri doesn’t have any ideas, he just wants to hurt people. But Edelgard? She has ideas and politics. She knows what’s wrong with the world, and wants to make it better.
I will admit, her methods are rough. I can’t approve of everything she does. But she is trying to make the world a better place. Claude would love to do that, but he is prioritizing the wrong problems. And Dimitri doesn’t care about the world, just about satisfying his bloodlust. Edelgard is the right choice. If you want to replay, try the others. Why not. But make the right choice.
And if you pick a house for the second-in-charge, you’re hopeless. This isn’t their story. They’re supporting characters. I also love Dedue, but he doesn’t get that much to do! If Dedue was the leader of the Blue Lions I would be all in! He’s not. Sad but true. Also Golden Deer, if you played any other route you’d understand that there was a whole set of politics and shit y’all didn’t even engage with. I can’t blame you for picking Claude because he’s cute. But ya messed up.
4. Dragon Ball FighterZ
DBFZ wasn’t released in 2019. I also didn’t have my first experience with it in 2019. But to say it isn’t one of my games of the year would be absolute lunacy. This was the year I finally got serious about a fighting game. I practiced, I did a lot of online grinding, I streamed, I even went to my first local tournament (and got DESTROYED, but who’s counting). I also finally made peace with who I am.
For years, I’ve tried to play really complicated characters, I’ve loved the idea of fighters with stance changes and complicated toolkits. But as I tried out various characters, one thing became very clear to me: I like to play stupid. My best characters are (and were) EASILY Broly and Android 16, characters with decent normals, command throws, and most importantly of all, super armor. I don’t want to play someone else’s game. I want them to play MINE. I want them to throw out their usual pokes and power through them with a clothesline. I want them to get so scared of that armor that I land two command throws in a row. I want to go wild.
So despite all my efforts, I ain’t here for your setplay, your elaborate blockstrings, your careful zoning. I want to talk through all your tricks and punch you in your stupid mouth. …Uh, no offense. Thank you so much to Dragon Ball FighterZ for becoming my new favorite fighting game ever, and also showing me my own identity: the dark truth of my fighting style.
God. Who would have guessed that Supergiant would rise to be one of my favorite studios? Bastion was obviously great, and I think Transistor’s story is very touching (even if I didn’t love playing it), but it was mostly just a “sure, I’ll try their games when they come out” studio. Then I gave Pyre a second chance because of Novel Not New and it floored me, then I picked up Hades. Holy shit, y’all. Finally a Supergiant game that gets everything right.
Zagreus is a wonderful character, a snarky awkward jock who’s deeply likeable despite being something of a brat. Usually run-based games suffer in the worldbuilding, but thanks to the writing talents of Supergiant, that weakness is turned into an advantage. All that, and this is the most fun a Supergiant game has ever been to play, and the most I’ve enjoyed a roguelike since my Nuclear Throne addiction. Hades is incredible, and it’s just getting started. It could very easily be on my personal list again next year.
2. Total War: Three Kingdoms
A strategy game making my Game of the Year list is not something I anticipated. And the number two spot! Even as I write this I’m astonished. I’ve tried Total War before- Shogun 2 was the first game I tried back when I briefly had an Alienware laptop (wow, that was a LONG time ago). I played for about 30 minutes before noping out, hard.
To be honest, I’m still not sure I’m playing it right? I tell my cavalry to attack archers, I try to position myself in trees for cover, but on the battlefield I feel a bit lost. I feel like the idea is that you take direct control of your forces to pull off victories that your numbers should say are impossible, but for me, my direct wins are only slightly better or the same as the estimation the game offers me if I hit autobattle. But? I have a lot of fun, so whoooo caaaaaares!
Off the battlefield, the game is even more compelling. This game’s release timed perfectly with the start of Romance of the Two Networks, and our ongoing fascination with the Three Kingdoms. The game does a magnificent job of conveying the personality of that story and characters, and even enhances elements of that story. I’m obsessed with Zhang Liang, the Bandit Queen that Creative Assembly created from scratch to add another dimension to the political landscape.
All the dialogue is great, and carries the spirit of rivalry and treachery of the original text while seeing distinctly modernized. At one point in a battle, a Han officer shouted at my bandit queen “Have you no shame?!” and without missing a beat, Zhang Liang answered “Why? Should I?” Characters berate each other for talking more than fighting, and one of my generals shouted “Is this the God of War? I am NOT IMPRESSED” before executing Guan Yu.
It’s kind of cheating, but the Mandate of Heaven DLC that released this month (aka January 2020) makes a great game even better. This is maybe the only strategy game I’d recommend to anyone regardless of what genre they like. It just rules.
1. (And therefore Game of the Year) Dragon Quest Builders 2
It may not come as a surprise to you that I’m not a Minecraft person. It’s not because I dislike crafting and the like in video games, though: I am just not particularly self-directed? I like having a clear goal. So I am actually quite the Terraria fan, as it gave me things to work towards. For a span, I thought Terraria was a one-off: no other crafting games sparked the same interest in me. Dragon Quest Builders 1 looked good, but negative reviews scared me off. My friend Kat picked up 2 while recovering from surgery, and fell deep into it. On the back of that, I picked it up myself.
This is the best crafting game ever made. It’s not just a great building system, it’s wonderful writing and a compelling story that draws upon the legacy of Dragon Quest. And I didn’t think I knew the legacy of Dragon Quest! I haven’t played those games, and yet! It turns out it’s been so influential in the industry that it’s stealthily built heartstrings into me that Builders 2 can tug on. If it weren’t for Breath of the Wild, I would call this the best game on Switch. It’s honestly that good.
The humor, the charm, the drama. The building. God, the building. A world where the premise is no one else knows how to build- where building things is a superpower. And then over time you grant that superpower to others, so they can build things for you! Hey I’m glad you built your castle in Minecraft, that’s real cool. Oh, this castle? I just DREW A BLUEPRINT and my villagers built it FOR me! And they ENJOYED DOING IT. Because building is fucking fun.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is my game of the year. But what does Game of the Year mean to me? Let me look at a few past winners for my personal lists. Tokyo Jungle. Gunpoint. Majora’s Mask 3D. Oh, uh… (winces) VA-11 Hall-A. Obviously, not all of these picks I stand by to this day. But they are a picture of what spoke to me the most strongly in that moment. And THREE of them I still think are incredible games everyone should play.
God, I hope I don’t have a VA-11 Hall-A moment with this one.
To be honest, I am ashamed of this list. Not of the games on it: these are all great games. I am happy that I played all of these, and I think they’re incredible pieces of work that their creators should be very proud of. But… when I look at this list, it’s eight big budget games, one Big Indie and one tabletop game. Where are the visual novels, the indie platformers, the narrative games that surprise me? To be honest, this list is an indictment. Not of the games, but of me, and how I spent 2019.
I know that there are tons of small games out there that I would have loved that didn’t make my list because I played it safe. I was scared a lot in 2019. For the world, for my health, for my budget. For my time. I wanted safe bets. I don’t think it made me a better critic.
And so, for 2020, I want to play more small games. I want my 2020 GotY list to be full of indie titles that surprised me, not games like Fire Emblem that I knew the moment they were announced I would love. I can’t guarantee that. Maybe I’ll play a ton of indies, and it’ll still be Nintendo games and action stuff that makes my list. But I want to try, in a way I failed to last year. That’s my goal.
Wish me luck.