Naturally, as December rolls around and the year draws to a close, every site that has anything to do with games that exist on the internet is going to start compiling their “Game of the Year” lists, now I’ll be doing that very soon, so don’t you worry, but before I talk about what came out this year, I’d like to talk about some of the stuff that didn’t.
In 2019 I easily played way more games than I ever have in a year before and as such, I spent a lot of time looking back through years gone-by to see what great stuff I’ve missed and, in doing so, have come across some absolutely phenomenal games in the process and that is what this list is all about. While “old” probably isn’t the right word to describe most of these games (but YOU try to come up with a more concise way to say “Games that didn’t release in 2019”) these are the best games from years previous that I got to experience for the first time this year.
It should go without saying, but there will be full spoilers for all of the games I’m going to talk about, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
7 – Dungeon Keeper
Release Date: 16th June 1997
Developer: Bullfrog Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Windows, Mac (and MS-DOS, if you’re that way inclined)
GameRankings Average: 92%
For many years, Dungeon Keeper was a game that I’d heard so many people talk about and seen so much gameplay of that it wasn’t until earlier this year when I realised I’d never actually played it. Thankfully Good Old Games was at hand to fix my problem and I soon picked up the game and promptly finished it in two days.
I’d tried my luck with various management games over the years with the likes of Two Point Hospital and Project Highrise, but none of them ever captured my attention for very long, the only game that had succeeded at doing so before I played this was Prison Architect, but when I finally sat down and played through Dungeon Keeper I saw exactly why this genre was one that people had continued to try and add to over the years.
The pacing in Dungeon Keeper is brilliant, both in terms of the game as a whole and each individual level. While it starts off pretty easy, the best levels are ones where you have just enough time to get yourself set up before an onslaught of enemies come your way and you have to be constantly pushing to make sure you don’t lose your ground. You have to manage your time so effectively in Dungeon Keeper that you essentially become a machine running through a checklist of things you need to do before you get wiped off of the map completely. Through necessity, I became hyper-efficient and that level of constant thought and strategising is where games like this get the most joy out of me.
You take this formula and you throw on Bullfrog’s fantastic humour that they injected into all of their games and it’s a game that allows me to experience the intense focus that I love from real-time strategy games while still bringing in the joy of discovery that something like Two Point Hospital lacked.
6 – Subnautica
Release Date: 23rd January 2018
Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox One, Playstation 4, Windows, Mac
Metacritic Average: 87%
I really wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy Subnautica going into it, I’ve been burnt out on survival-crafting games for quite a while now, but I pressed forward with Subnautica because I thought the underwater gimmick would add something brand new to the genre and it’s safe to say that I was not disappointed.
The world of Subnautica has such a strange atmosphere to it that kept me constantly on edge the whole game and it was that sense of fear of the unknown that made it such a fun experience for me. Every inch of progress felt like it was a real achievement because I had to fight not only the environment but my own psyche to get there, I found myself constantly having to forcibly remove my nerves from the picture and push forwards into the dark because that was the only way to progress.
To add to this effect, the game is constantly throwing new stuff at you to make sure you never get too comfortable in your abilities and equipment. There were several times where I built up the confidence to push the boundaries of how far I thought I could go, only to get severely punished by a creature I’d never seen before who scared the life out of me before literally forcing the life out of me.
Outside of the atmosphere, the game is beautiful to look at. Something about the art style got the balance just right between the cartoonishness and realism to properly capture the beauty of the bottom of the ocean, even when I was looking around with just a flashlight to show me the way I could look around and see columns of different coloured fauna reaching up to the surface to create an awe-inspiring sight.
Subnautica is a game that takes a genre that’s been done to death in the form of survival-crafting and does something genuinely unique with it, not only in its mechanics but in its world-building and general atmosphere, very glad I gave this one a go.
5 – Shadow of the Colossus
Release Date: 18th October 2005
Developer: Team Ico, SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms:Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Playstation 4(Remastered)
Metacritic Average: 91%
I went into Shadow of the Colossus with no small amount of hype behind me. This autumn was the first time I ever owned a Playstation of any iteration, which means there was a big library of exclusives that I’m still slowly working my way through to this day, but the first game I had to try was Shadow of the Colossus. Pretty much every critic/Youtuber/reviewer who’s opinions I value has spent at least some time talking about how brilliant this game is, so I couldn’t wait to try it out for myself.
After finishing it, the best thing I can think of to say about it, it that there is genuinely nothing out there quite like it.
Plenty of games give you the opportunity to fight massive monsters, but they’re always so restrictive in how they let you interact with the things. The fights often limit you to a side-on perspective, or just straight up have the fight be almost entirely scripted, that’s not what Shadow of the Colossus does. Not only does it give you complete freedom to tackle each of the Colossus, but it also forces you into that freedom. The game doesn’t baby you in the slightest, the moment when the foot of the first colossus steps into frame, only for the camera to pan up and show you how massive it is was magical, made even more magical when the cutscene ended and, instead of telling me how to fight it like most other game, just left me to work it out myself.
This means that not only is every fight in the game a massive monster that could squish you as soon as look at you but an intelligently designed puzzle that you have to solve so you can climb up onto the thing’s back/head and stab its glowing bits.
The story is minimal, but that absolutely works for the kind of story it’s trying to tell. The game sets you up with an extremely simple premise, kill the monsters and save the lady; seen it and done it hundreds of times. Then, as the game progresses, you slowly get very subtle hints that maybe what you’re doing isn’t necessarily the right thing. The game makes every battle seem like an epic fight, with the music soaring in triumph every time you make your way onto the Colossus’ back and yet when you finally kill them, the music changes to be very sombre, framing the death as a tragedy that you’ve murdered this wondrous creature. This leads up to the genius gameplay twist in game’s final segment, where you are transformed and forced to play as one of these giant lumbering beasts, you finally see just how difficult it is to move and attack as one of them and it makes you realise just how helpless these creatures you’ve spent several hours murdering really were.
The core gameplay concept for Shadow of the Colossus was one that could’ve easily been repetitive and boring, but a combination of satisfying climbing & combat; clever & varied colossus design; gorgeous looking world design and an unwavering commitment to tone elevates the game to something genuinely special.
4 – Final Fantasy XV
Release Date: 29th November 2016
Developer: Square Enix Business Division 2
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Google Stadia
Metacritic Average: 85%
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first, Final Fantasy XV is the first and to date, only, Final Fantasy game I’ve played. I don’t know and I don’t really care what the hardcore Final Fantasy base thought of this game, because I thought it was a masterpiece.
First of all, it looks beautiful, almost excessively so. It’s par for the course that in this generation of games, AAA games will look graphically impressive, but there’s something extra in the visual style of Final Fantasy XV that absolutely blows me away with how impressive it is. It’s not afraid to abandon the sense of realism to inject an extra dose of colour and styling into the world. The terrain is shaped in a visually pleasing way, the design of the various creatures in the world is amazingly diverse and foreign, while still maintaining a somewhat realistic feel, even the UI is so tightly designed that it’s able to convey all it needs to while still managing to fit with the aesthetic of the world around it.
The game as a whole seems to take a full-scale RPG like Skyrim or Witcher and shrink it down into a smaller, but more refined experience without losing much from the appeal of the formula. It’s a rare case of a game where I wanted to partake in some of the more repetitive side-quests like the hunts because I was fully invested in both the world and the progression of my characters. On top of that, the feel of the combat was top-notch, the various weapons had a very distinct feel to each of them and whether you wanted fast strikes or clubbing blows, you were guaranteed to get an extremely satisfying feel with every strike and every dodge. Then you add your party, which add a whole new layer to things. Not only does having a group of people around you partaking in the fight adds a lot to the feel of each encounter, but the strategic options each of them offer means I found myself constantly trying to think a few moves ahead to who I was going to use and when, as well as adding to this intense feeling of camaraderie between the guys.
This brings me to my other favourite thing about this game, which is the constant interactions that Noctis would have with his three “royal guards” (best friends) that come along on this “procession” (road trip) with him. The story as a whole was perfectly fine, there were great moments, there were not so great moments, but the interactions between the four main characters was constantly entertaining and engaging no matter the situation. They weren’t just people who happened to be following me on my journey, they were their own people and my friends who had their own things they wanted to do and the game makes sure to show you that. Ignis never ceases to entertain me with his attitude and him proclaiming he’s come up with a new recipe is music to my ears. Gladiolus will occasionally ask you to get up early and come jogging with him and isn’t afraid to call me out on my bullshit. Then there’s Prompto, who is an absolute angel and seeing all of the photos he takes during your activities at the end of each day was such something that I would genuinely look forward to because it added so much to that sense of friendship.
By the time I was done with Final Fantasy XV, I instantly wanted more, more of the combat, more of the characters, I felt like I’d come on such a journey with everyone that I wanted to keep it going for as long as possible, alongside the extremely fun combat system. I just wish other Final Fantasy games were like this one.
3 – Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Release Date: 26th October 2001
Developer: Capcom Production Studio 4
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance, Windows, iOS, Android
Metacritic Average: 81%
The Ace Attorney series is a series that I’ve wanted to try for years, but never found a good enough excuse to bother with, so for years I never played it. Luckily for me, in January this year, the Ace Attorney Trilogy released on modern consoles & PC so now I didn’t have any excuse NOT to play at and I’m very glad I finally got around to it because this game was fantastic.
The Ace Attorney games are able to hit the mark that almost every other game in the mystery genre fail to, which is that making deductions feels brilliant. In so many games that ask you to “solve a mystery,” it never feels satisfying because if you wander around an area long enough, you’ll stumble across the answer, but Ace Attorney doesn’t do that. This is a game that gives you everything you need to crack the case, the testimonies, the mountain of different pieces of evidence and just tells you to go off and work it out.
The investigation phases are a bit frustrating and essentially boil down to a hidden object game, but the court scenes are where this game absolutely shines. Through a combination of pacing, music and dialogue, the game is able to draw me entirely into a scene and put me in the mindset of Phoenix Wright, I spend ages pouring over every word anyone says trying to pull on the slightest loose thread and rip the case open. I’ve sat at my screen agonising for extended periods of time because I just can’t find the hole in the story.
Then I finally do find it and the game rewards you in the best way. The way the music kicks in as you throw your witness’ statements back in their face proving that they’re lying, kicking off a series of back and forths between you and your opponents. The way in which this game tells its story captures the essence of the most dramatic courtroom dramas, I can feel the momentum pulling back and forth as the case flows to the point where any ground gained feels like a huge victory.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a game that is in perfect control of your emotions at all times, it uses all the tools at its disposal to put you in the exact mindset it wants you to be in, so it can use that to take you on one of the wildest rides out there in gaming.
2 – Celeste
Release Date: 25th January 2018
Developer: Matt Makes Games
Publisher: Matt Makes Games
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux
Metacritic Average: 94%
So I’m slightly cheating with this one because I technically did play the first level of Celeste when it came out last year, but at the time, I didn’t enjoy it and promptly forgot about it for the rest of the year. I would like to officially apologize for doing that because I picked it back up earlier this year and found it to be one of the most fantastic games I’ve ever played.
Celeste is an absolute master of controlling the difficulty. It’s undeniably a hard game and that’s part of what originally put off, but it’s when you push through that difficulty and carry on in spite of everything that the game is throwing at you that you come to see Celeste for what it is: The most perfectly paced game in history.
Every room in Celeste is designed in such a way that you can almost see the extensive amount of play-testing and tweaking that went into every jump. Every challenge feels so carefully crafted to give you the exact right amount of hope and despair as you throw yourself into it over and over again and their own, every single room is a masterclass in level design. However, the true magic of this game comes from when you step back and look at how the game is threaded together as a whole.
Every single room prepares you with the skills you need for the next, it’ll teach you a technique or idea and you’ll spend multiple attempts getting through it and when you come to the room immediately after, the game asks you to take what you just learned and re-learn it slightly differently to solve a new challenge, which persists chapter to chapter as well, with each chapter giving you a new mechanic to play about with and understand as you go.
The way each level is designed forces you into the mentality of pushing forward in spite of hardship, which is so incredibly clever when you consider the themes and ideas behind the game’s narrative. The way this tale is told of living with and overcoming, anxiety is so beautifully and thoughtfully done, because it’s so low-key and yet feels entirely heartfelt, while addressing a serious mental condition in an insightful way.
When you combine the overarching themes with the incredibly colourful and engrossing visual style and the absolutely mindblowing soundtrack, the game is able to take control of your mental state and align it with exactly how Madaline feels in the story using its level design as the main tool.
Not only is Celeste one of the most mechanically sounds and fun games I’ve ever played, but it goes above and beyond to say something meaningful using those mechanics, something which has stuck with me ever since I finished it.
1 – NieR: Automata
Release Date: 23rd February 2017
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows
Metacritic Average: 90%
I didn’t know what to expect going into NieR: Automata. I played it looking for a fun hack and slash, which I definitely got, but I got a hell of a lot more than that too. Not only would I rank it among my top two favourite games of all time, but I also regard it as the single greatest work of fiction ever written.
That’s a big statement, I know, I played the game back in February and I’ve spent all year thinking about that statement, I’ve rewatched almost all of my favourite shows and movies, replayed some of my favourite games and I compared NieR: Automata to each and every single one of them and I genuinely believe that statement to be true and it’s hard to articulate exactly why.
I think the most basic element of why I love it so much is that nothing had ever stuck with me as long as NieR: Automata has. For a solid week after I reached ending E and saw the credits roll for the final time, I was still thinking about it almost constantly, the game has crafted such an incredible story and raised so many deep philosophical arguments in my mind that I just couldn’t put it away and it’s been like that all year, I keep going back to it, to the questions it asks, to the answers it attempts to give and breaking that down and trying to work out exactly what it says to me specifically.
Outside of those deep thoughts and questions, there is a fantastically paced thriller-action story that kept me enthralled for every single second I played it (and later, read it) every character had weight, purpose and felt real. Every action had a consequence and everything mattered which is just the right word, I’ve played hundreds of games and I love so many of them, but none of them matter to me as much as NieR: Automata does.
I could sit here and talk about how the combat mechanics made it one of the most fun and satisfying hack and slashes I’ve ever played, I could talk about the world was beautifully designed with such a large amount of variety that I wanted to explore every corner, but that’s not what’s really important to me about this game. That’s not why, as I sit here writing this entry, I find myself almost at a loss for words to describe how deeply this game and its story fundamentally affected me.
Over the past few years, the state of the world we live in has genuinely worn me down a lot. I’m not going to sit here and make some grandiose comment about society, but there have been several points during this year in particular where I look at the state of certain elements of our world and just feel this sense of deep despair. Then I look to a story like NieR: Automata, that is set in a world quite literally in ruins and yet, it feels so weirdly hopeful in its tone. It was a game that left me with such a weird cocktail of emotions that I don’t think I’ve ever felt anywhere else, it was so melancholic and downbeat, almost tragic, yet there was an undeniable sense of optimism towards the future.
Those words don’t do that feeling justice, but it’s the best I can do with the words I have.
As a game, it’s damn-near flawless and as a narrative piece of fiction, I genuinely feel that it is the single greatest story ever told and one that I will never be able to forget.
So there you have it! Those are the best games from other years, that I played for the first time in 2019! Let me know what you think of these games or some great games that you found for the first time this year either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure you come back this time next week were I’ll be running down my WWE match of the year!