The two year-ending culminations of my favorite games I created for 2017 and 2018 are noticeably different, stemming from a desire to experiment with different formats and find one that was most comfortable. As a result, it never truly dawned on me how invested I became in the medium of gaming. 2019 nears its end, meaning another decade of gaming has been documented within the history books.
I intend to celebrate the entire decade with a complete “highlight reel” of favorite games, but it would be a great shame not to acknowledge and cherish the great titles that blessed their way onto consoles throughout the year. And if my sentiment holds any weight, there were quite a few standouts that entered the upper echelon of my personal favorites.
This year’s list will once again introduce a new format: a fusion of the “highlight-reel” from 2017 with the greater depth of 2018’s list. Nine games made it onto the list this year, split into three sections: one for honorable mentions, one for favorites released in past years, and one for the favorites of 2019.
And unlike the past blog posts, I’m ranking the three games from 2019 and crowing a “Game of the Year” 🙂
The Honorable Mentions
AI: The Somnium Files
Directed by the mastermind behind the phenomenal Zero Escape series, Kotaro Uchikoshi clearly wanted to bring the unique storytelling techniques of those games into a new world, one centered around a serial murder investigation where the culprit seemingly leaves his mark by removing one of the victim’s eyeballs.
There’s so much weirdness and paranormality wrapped together in a package that only Uchikoshi could conjure, and his efforts were largely successful. Following the template of a visual novel, you play as Date of the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad (ABIS) by interacting with the environment to uncover clues and develop evidence.
However, AI: The Somnium Files’ distinguishes itself with its other major gameplay segment: the exploration of the somnium. With the use of the Psync Machine, Date must uncover the hidden secrets and clues within the memories of key witnesses in the form of timed puzzle rooms with the help of his AI companion Aiba. The mechanics underlying each room are ambiguous, requiring players to develop a new logic for the puzzles if they hope to progress. These somnium puzzle rooms also represent key story points, in which the story can branch off in new directions. And while there is a phase where one will need time to adjust to the strange nature of the gameplay, it nevertheless pays off by contextualizing new consequences for the narrative based on your actions.
The characters in AI: The Somnium Files are nothing short of eclectic, if not quite odd. Whether it be the popular streamer Iris, the obsessive gamer fanboy Ota, or even the perverse Date himself, it can be easy to write them off as mere caricatures of popular tropes. Even the dialogue will be off-putting, given that it references pop culture extensively and lacks any sense of chill. Yet despite this, exploring the branching paths of the characters uncovers new perspectives that deepen their motivations.
And by the game’s end, you will simultaneously be captivated and amused by the sheer absurdity of the game’s characters. Wrapped within a fun story with significant plot twists and turns, AI: The Somnium Files represents a fresh spin on the visual novel that is worth experiencing.
For a less familiar game to catch your attention, it often needs extensive word-of-mouth from other players and critics, whether it be verbal or written. However, a game with style can accomplish this effortlessly, as can be seen with the initial announcement of Cuphead amidst a large array of independent games.
If I had to nominate a game for nailing its style and direction to perfection, Katana Zero would undoubtedly steal the show. Set within the neo-noir metropolis of New Mecca, it is impossible to ignore the fabulous neon colors and retro graphical flourishes on display, all within the landscape of a 16-bit package. The art direction is stellar across the board, and the locations you visit host memorable landmarks and locales that were a pleasure to traverse.
Traversing cool places isn’t the only thing Katana Zero is great for though. In the shoes of Zero, you will carry out assassination missions under the directive of your psychiatrist who prescribes a drug that will slow Zero’s perception of time and gift him future vision. With armed enemies and technology against him, Zero must utilize these powers to eliminate all enemies in the vicinity without sustaining damage. As a 2D side-scroller, you will be deflecting incoming bullets, phasing past lasers, and dueling superhumans to survive. The action is exhilarating and frantic, prompting quick reflexes and excellent precision, yet the ability to slow down the pace will lend itself a smaller ceiling of error to pull off interesting maneuvers.
Time flies quickly in Katana Zero, and the same can be said for its brief, but seemingly convoluted narrative that promises to be resolved with future downloadable content. Regardless, Katana Zero offers great replayability and unforgettable flair in its design.
Resident Evil 2
To put it bluntly, I hesitated placing Resident Evil 2 on this list, primarily because I remain so far off from completing it. With a mere five hours invested within one of the two campaigns, it remains entirely possible that my thoughts on the game will morph over time, for the better or the worse. Yet I could not compose a list that lacked mention of the thrill and terror that is Resident Evil 2 at its core.
Here’s a little secret: I’m a scaredy cat. Horror never fails to heighten my nerves or scare my soul from its body, and the pure tension of anticipation drives me away from that genre of media. Heck, I dropped Fallout 4 after twenty minutes because I couldn’t make it past the cockroaches that roamed the floor without curling up in fear.
Needless to say, Resident Evil 2 probably isn’t for the faint of heart. Yet the glowing praise online prompted me to check out the game at a library. And what do you know: I love what I’ve played of the game thus far! Sure, I’ve shut my eyes while opening doors to unknown areas and whiplashed when a random enemy came walking out of nowhere. I even had a nightmare or two featuring a group of zombies chasing after me without spare ammo to fight back.
But even then, something compelled me to purchase the game for myself. It’s probably a combination of the phenomenal sound design, unsettling atmosphere, and the beautiful rendition present within this remake. Needless to say, I remain amped for the inevitable scares awaiting in the future.
The Past Works
428: Shibuya Scramble
Before someone yells at me for mistaking a syndicated television drama for a video game, I will make an attempt to detail how a live-action visual novel set in the bustling streets of Shibuya rivals some of the greatest video games within its genre.
Originally a Japan-exclusive Wii game released in 2008, 428: Shibuya Scramble received a localization on Playstation 4 and PC just last year. The player will experience the stories of five distinct protagonists embroiled within a mystery that threatens the livelihood of the city’s population. Unbeknownst to the game’s characters, however, their actions impact the storylines of the others, and it is up to the player to make the right decisions for each character in order to progress in the story from one time-block to the next.
It cannot be understated how different each character’s storyline is from their contemporaries. One moment, you’ll be in the heat of the action as a city detective, the next you’ll be a street cleaner protecting a woman from persistent assassins, and afterwards you’ll be dressed up in a mascot costume helping a wacky con man desperate to get rich. As the player jumps between different characters, figuring out the dynamics between the storylines piqued my interest across the entire game, and endeared my attention for days on end. Not to mention, there are dozens of endings to be reached based on the choices made, some providing hints and some ending tragically.
Any game that manages to juggle a great range of story beats, tonal shifts, and logical inconsistencies remain amongst the most impressive accomplishments in the medium, and 428: Shibuya Scramble is another great addition to that list.
The truly exceptional platformers of the medium used to be a dime-a-dozen, and the saturation of 2D platformers over the course of gaming history requires new games to achieve something phenomenal in its narrative or design.
Celeste almost effortlessly fulfills these criteria while intertwining a poignant demonstration of mental health across its brief run. Our protagonist Madeline, compelled to reach the top of Celeste Mountain for reasons that are ambiguous, must struggle against the daunting challenges of the journey, confronting herself and others along the way. While it can be easy to get wrapped up in the challenge the platforming offers across a handful of levels, those smaller moments with Madeline remain the lifeblood of the game, and successfully pave a path for the player to deeply empathize (or sympathize) with Madeline.
As alluded to before, the platforming is no laughing matter, and one can expect to die hundreds of times. In most games with this degree of challenge, it can prove demoralizing to continue trying again and again. However, Celeste uplifts its players through the active encouragement from its narrative and briefness (the game loads up a mere second or two later if you die).
I couldn’t put this game down when I purchased it over the Thanksgiving break, and more challenges await me. Regardless, there is no doubt that I will gladly play through all of the extra content that Celeste offers, if not for the sheer quality on display.
Persona 4 Golden
Words cannot hope to describe the sheer love that I hold for Persona 4 Golden in its entirety. Jumping from its successor Persona 5 to this, I was hesitant that there would be certain downgrades that dampened my enjoyment of the game, including its dungeon structure and lower graphical fidelity. However, I would assert that the outstanding characters and engaging atmosphere trump all preconceptions about the game, propelling it amongst the greatest JRPGs in the entirety of gaming.
In contrast to Persona 5, Persona 4 Golden is more grounded in its execution. Hoping to solve a mysterious string of kidnappings revolving around a strange phenomena of fog, the protagonist and his friends set out to uncover the answer to it all, while confronting their own personal truths along the way. The entire cast is well-rounded and endearing, lending them a sense of likeableness across the board. And despite the underlying circumstances of kidnapping and murder present across the story, there’s a sense of cheerfulness and serenity during combat and school life. Perhaps that’s a result of the bright color palette that shines at each opportune moment, or the upbeat soundtrack highlighted with great bops like “Reach Out to the Truth” or “Aria of the Soul” that never fail to lift the spirits.
These qualities of the game’s design and narrative speak tremendous wonders to the impeccable quality of Persona 4 Golden, even amidst some gripes with the weaker aspects of the game’s combat system, for example. The pure sense of nostalgia I felt mere days after completing the game was overwhelming as well. To play Persona 4 Golden, I was fortunate enough to borrow a PlayStation Vita from a good friend (Thank You!!!), which I returned after completing it. I remain unsure whether I would purchase the console for myself, but this strange compulsion to experience Persona 4 Golden always tempts me. This might sound weird, but I miss these characters. I miss the heart-to-heart conversations amongst the group, convening at Junes Department Store to create a game-plan, or making a rare trip to the beach just to hang out. Whether another game can replicate that feeling again seems far from possible, but it’s why I treasure Persona 4 Golden that much more.
If the opportunity arises to play Persona 4 Golden, do not hesitate to welcome it with open arms.
The Best of the Best
We’ve now arrived at the games I consider the cream of the crop, the games that stuck out as the year’s best. While ranked from third to first, all of these games are at a caliber that rivals my favorite games from past years.
3. Astral Chain
PlatinumGames has established itself as the unrivaled king of action games, establishing a reputable catalog of titles that include Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising. While there was a small period where their major projects deviated away from their bread-and-butter gameplay, these past years have demonstrated the company’s unwavering commitment to creating a premier gaming experience defined by innovative combat and signature quality.
They have also become more synonymous with Nintendo as a publisher, with Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101 releasing as console exclusives for the platform holder. For 2019, PlatinumGames chose to release its first original exclusive for the Nintendo Switch in the form of Astral Chain, to exceedingly breathtaking results.
In 2079, humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction by the Chimeras, a race of supernatural creatures from another dimension, to a neo-metropolis known as the “Ark”. In order to prevent their spread to the island, the city deploys Neuron, a special police force that can wield the power of chimeras while bound by chain, referred to as “Legions”.
What’s unique about the Legions, however, is the ability to control them simultaneously alongside the player. Furthermore, their synergy across battle is the crux of successful combat and opens up a large range of new mechanics. There is truly nothing quite like the combat in Astral Chain, requiring a great sense of coordination and multitasking to defeat hordes of Chimeras, or superbosses that will test the limits of your skill. Controlling the player and Legion together will prove awkward in the early hours, but the game eases you into the game by slowly introducing new mechanics so that one can explore all the interesting nuances to combat.
And everything is set against the gorgeous cyberpunk landscape of the “Ark”, with a futuristic aesthetic that brims with neon lighting on buildings and streets, This even extends to the user interface, which retains a fluidity that never breaks the immersion from the experience, and could be considered one of the best implementations of menus for a Nintendo Switch game.
Putting it all together, PlatinumGames succeeded without a hint of compromise on a console that most would underestimate for its lower graphical and technical performance against modern consoles. Establishing itself amongst the studio’s most distinct and complex works, Astral Chain embodies the zeal and creativity of the upcoming generations of game developers, with the masterclass that veteran game developers have pioneered.
2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Anyone present in online discussions of Fire Emblem will note that Fire Emblem: Awakening instigated a fundamental difference within the community about the qualities that best constitute the series’ core. Despite the reinvigoration of Fire Emblem’s viability with Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates, those games brought up serious questions about the future direction of the franchise. Yet it goes without saying that Fire Emblem has emerged as one of the essential series in Nintendo’s rich catalog of intellectual property.
So, it was a surprise when Fire Emblem: Three Houses seemed to experiment with the underlying formula, electing to undergo significant changes to the game’s structure to accommodate newer players, while infusing other elements that previous players would appreciate. In retrospect, releasing as the series’ first home console game since Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii presented itself as a natural opportunity to take major risks.
What isn’t natural, however, is how exceptionally fun and robust that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is, so much so that I could still invest dozens of hours completing all of the content available.
This is because the game hosts multiple distinct narratives that follow one of the three major houses in the game: the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, and the Golden Deer. Depending on the house you choose, different characters will be available for immediate use in battle, and significantly alter the options at your disposal. The division of the stories remains one of the most genius ideas in the game, allowing you to learn about each of the characters in much greater depth, all hosting unique personalities that lend themselves to great support conversations. I chose Golden Deer on my first playthrough, and it took just a few minutes to fall in love with characters like Claude and Marianne. Even those I initially held animosity for, such as Hilda, grew on me as I dug into support conversations and discussed her appeal with other friends.
In fact, the social element of this game cannot be understated. Fire Emblem: Three Houses features so many choices that one can tailor their experience to fit their own preferences. When training students, you can focus on certain skills to mold them into various battle roles. If there’s a character you like in another house, you can attempt to recruit them.
All of these decisions matter when you get on the battlefield, where the tactical masterclass of Fire Emblem‘s turn-based strategy arises. On the harder difficulties with “Classic” mode enabled, it becomes a life-or-death scenario, where inventory management and character placement dictate the fates of each character. Complimented with a powerful soundtrack befitting of royalty, the greatest maps of the game are truly epic.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is truly ambitious, and it is impossible to imagine how such a game could come to fruition without the collaboration between renowned game studios Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo. Maintaining a great balance of tradition and innovation, these studios crafted one of the most special games in the Fire Emblem franchise, one that can be universally loved.
1. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Within a decade, FromSoftware became known for Dark Souls, a historical action-RPG known for its intense difficulty. For the longest time, it has been a source of both praise and criticism, as the games require dedication and patience to see through to the very end. Yet, it generated success that lead to the creation of Bloodborne, and all of these games remain in the discussion for the best games of the decade.
Admittedly, I was turned off from Dark Souls when I gave the first game a shot. It was certainly brutal, but it was the limited movement options and slower, methodical pace that led me to drop the game. My fourteen-year old self did not care much for games that weren’t fast and flashy, so there was nothing the game could do to change that.
Fast-forward to E3 2018, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was revealed to the world. It was a clear departure from Dark Souls and Bloodborne in terms of aesthetic, but it was the greater maneuverability that piqued my attention. Paired with a greater emphasis on stealth and swordplay, I had to give this game a shot. Therefore I bought the game near the end of April, excited to dig deep into its mechanics.
Long story short, the game kicked my ass. I started the game strong, pushing through the early areas in the game with comparatively fewer deaths. Unfortunately, May and June proved to be insanely busy times, and I didn’t pick up the game again until mid-July. Heading to the Hirata Estate, I traversed the roofs of the dampened buildings, taking down enemies one-by-one until I got to Lady Butterfly, where I ultimately failed to defeat her and dropped the game in favor of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
It wasn’t until December 14th that I was compelled to jump back into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I bested Lady Butterfly to great delight, until it dawned upon me that stronger challenges still permeated the game. After reflecting for a couple minutes, I resolved to beat Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, aware that it would push me to my absolute limit.
I do not lie when I recount the countless moments of frustration, doubt, and sorrow that complimented the brutality of one boss fight after another. Genichiro required hours upon hours to get his patterns down, and the Guardian Ape threw me off once too many times. For a two-day period, my entire life was Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, as I was desperate to reach the end of the game and witness the finale. And that finale came in the form of a four-phase boss fight, which nearly drove me to wit’s end from the insane power on display.
But dozens upon dozens of deaths later, I nailed the final deathblow that finished them off, and all semblance of stress was lifted from my shoulders as I let out an emphatic “YES!” in celebration, perhaps twenty of them.
That moment cemented Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice as my personal “Game of the Year” for 2019. The game is severely challenging in many respects, yet it rewards the patience and time I invested with tangible progress and valuable upgrades. Even in the moments where I wanted to give up, the rhythmic, addicting combat system kept me hooked.
I also couldn’t help but develop an attachment to the resolve of Sekiro, the “Lone Wolf”, and become entwined deeply in his persistent endeavor to uphold his loyalty to Kuro. It parallels the struggles of the player, and successfully unites them with Sekiro’s own goals.
Most importantly, however, was the euphoria that came from beating Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice for the first time. Multiple endings exist to complete, but I already hold this unconditional appreciation for the game, almost like the unwavering love a parent has for their child. This game single handedly strapped me on a rollercoaster of emotions, some averse and some tumultuous. Yet against all premonitions, I still love this game, and it was a phenomenal experience to cap off the decade.
With each passing year I write about my favorite games, I find it more and more difficult to compare the years for quality purposes. Pound for pound, I admittedly found 2019 to pale in comparison to 2017 and 2018. Granted, I did not manage to play titles such as Death Stranding, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Control, or the undisputed greatest game of the decade: Untitled Goose Game.
However, these past three years never failed to foster several memorable gaming experiences that I can cherish for years to come, and it serves as a constant reminder that the medium is continuing to evolve in breadth, depth, and appeal. The past decade of gaming will certainly be looked upon fondly, if not for the reasons aforementioned.
Yet looking ahead, 2020 already holds the means of assert itself as one of the greatest years for gaming. Already, I am super excited to play Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Doom Eternal, Persona 5 Royal, and Cyberpunk 2077.
And all of those games come out in the first four months! Not to mention, next-generation consoles will be hitting store shelves in time for the holiday season, bringing a new wave of excitement (or dread for your wallet).
Regardless, I’m going to be there for the great and atrocious. Never can I undermine how much I attribute gaming as a source of personal growth, and I do not anticipate that will change anytime soon.