Game of the Year 2019

2019 has been a bit of an odd year for games. There have been several high-profile releases scattered throughout the year like there always are, but I think that when we look back at gaming in 2019, it will be remembered as the year that set up all the super-hyped releases in 2020.

Despite that – as I mentioned in my favourite old games article – I played more games in 2019 than I ever had in a single year and that is just as true for new releases. While there might not have been much on a massive scale like Cyberpunk or Animal Crossing promises to be next year, there are undoubtedly some all-time favourites for me that came out this year.

Just to clarify, Early Access games will not be included on this list as I don’t think it’s fair to judge an unfinished game, I will instead consider them for “Game of the Year” in whatever year they leave early access. Also, I’d like to make a quick disclaimer that there are some games that I think look brilliant, but never found the time to play. Games like Baba is You and Superliminal are ones that I want to play as soon as possible, so will likely be showing up on my “old games” list at the end of next year.

So join me as I talk about the best of what the world of gaming had to offer in 2019.

SPOILER WARNING

As you probably expected, there will be major spoilers for most, if not all, of the games in this list. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

11 – Cricket 19

Release Date: 8th May
Developer: 
Big Ant Studios
Publisher: 
Big Ant Studios
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows
Metacritic Average: 73%

It’s ok Americans, you’re excused from this one.

So this one’s probably not one anyone expected to make this list (myself included), but I really wanted to feature it on this list because cricket is a sport that has almost never had a competently made game for it. I had a brief discussion about this with my dad (an avid cricket fan) and we came to the conclusion that the best cricket game up until this point was Stick Game’s Stick Cricket which was a free browser & mobile game made over a decade ago.

While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a fan of cricket, there are many sports I can’t stand watching that I enjoy playing virtual versions of, so when I saw that the reviews for this game didn’t call it a total crock of shit I was eager to try it out. The first thing that struck me was the sheer level of detail that went into how you approach every match in the game. If you’re in batting then you have to not only consider the basic stuff like the type of shoot you’ll do and where it’ll go but also the little details like where you’re going to position your feet and how you’re going to step towards the ball and it’s a very similar situation on the bowling side.

This year’s world cup final aside, I’ve never enjoyed watching cricket, I don’t find most sports very entertaining, but cricket especially bores me to tears whenever I try and watch it, so imagine my surprise when I found myself reacting with all the vim and vigour you’d expect from a match-day pub crowd while playing a match in this game. Every ball became a nail-biting affair, whether I was batting or bowling and all of that is thanks to the fact that the detailing has allowed for both a realistic and more exciting adaptation of the national sport of these fair isles.

Unlike many of the previous attempts at cricket games, it’s obvious that Cricket 19 had a lot of love poured into it from people who knew a lot about cricket and while there are rough patches that need to be ironed out, this is the first time that I can say there’s a cricket game out there that does the sport justice.

Now we just need a competently made Rugby game and we’ll be set.

10 – Hot Lava

Release Date: 19th September
Developer: 
Klei Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

Hot Lava is a game that knew exactly what it’s audience wanted from it and leaned into it entirely.

The Floor Is Lava was always the ultimate game to play when you were a kid, it combined the rush of doing something you’re not supposed to with the endless desire to concuss yourself that plagues all children of primary school age, but it had a problem, you were never really allowed to have much fun with it. There was only so much jumping between the sofas you could do before your mum came downstairs with a look of horror as to what you were doing to her lovely living room, and playing it during the 5 second moments when the teachers weren’t looking your way on the playground just wasn’t the same. I always dreamt of being able to play the game across the whole size of the playground, I imagined the amazing courses I could set up for me and my friends before I would inevitably slip on the first jump, gently graze my elbow and cry my way home.

Hot Lava is essentially that fantasy…only without that wimpy prick ruining it for everyone.

Mechanically, it’s a fairly simple game. It’s got all the features you’d expect a parkour game to have, where it really shines is in its level designs. The school setting makes for a great feel for the game as you’re bouncing around all over the place, but each level is finely crafted to make the most of its mechanics at every turn. Even levels that focus in on a specific gimmick are able to keep things varied throughout, slowly turning up the difficulty so the game scales perfectly with the player’s skill level. Then, once you’re done with the official levels, there is an ever-increasing number of community-made maps out there which range from the impressively creative to the frustratingly difficult.

I had so much fun leaping from table to chair in Hot Lava, it was able to properly capture that feeling that you always wanted to get from playing The Floor is Lava as a kid.

9 – Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince

Release Date: 8th October
Developer:
Frozenbyte
Publisher:
Modus Games
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows
Metacritic Average: 81%

As I mentioned when I spoke about my most anticipated games for Q4 2019, I talked a bit how I love the Trine series and while Trine 3 was somewhat disappointing, I was still hopeful for the new entry into the series. So now I’ve played it, I can safely say that the series is still going strong.

Ditching the 3D side of the game was definitely the right way to go, as it just didn’t quite work, especially when the potential for level design in 2D was far from exhausted, as this game proved. The level design here was just as good as it always has been, every level feels like a logical progression of mechanics, following the same design philosophies that the 2D Mario games do, only this game plays around with some more complex mechanics that make each level last for about 30 minutes instead of 5, but all 30 of those minutes are engrossing stuff.

The pacing in each level has been notably improved, the team seem to have really nailed the balance that needs to be struck between puzzle-platforming and combat. The game’s combat system is extremely basic, which is why it’s used so sparingly through the levels, which is the perfect way to break up the flow of gameplay, so the whole thing feels more like an adventure and less of an endless series of puzzle rooms.

Speaking of the puzzles, they were as spot-on as always, the game didn’t go overboard with new mechanics this time which allowed for a big variety of puzzles that combine features I was already familiar with, with the new ones that got introduced in a very well-paced manner, so I never felt overwhelmed. The puzzles themselves were fantastically designed, I would never breeze through a puzzle, but I also wouldn’t be stuck on it for ages, most puzzles are designed in such a way to make you think about the mechanics you’ve been given in an abstract way. All of the elements in play react to each other differently, so after playing around with any given puzzle for a bit, that “eureka” moment will finally strike and you’ll be able to progress.

As always, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Trine understands it’s visual style flawlessly and is able to make just about any environment look absolutely beautiful. Not only do the environments look good, but there’s such a wonderful variety of places that you explore as well, which is a big improvement on the older games of the series, where a lot of the environments could feel a tad samey.

Trine 4 is able to look at its predecessors and remove the flaws while keeping what made it great to begin with, which is such a difficult task, but one that the people behind this game were clearly up to.

8 – Slay The Spire

Release Date: January 23rd
Developer:
MegaCrit
Publisher:
Humble Bundle
Platforms: Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac, Linux
Metacritic Average: 89%

The Roguelike/Roguelite genre is one that I have become truly and thoroughly burnt-out on over the past couple of years. There are so many around the place now that it’s a formula I’m tired of seeing, so it takes something pretty damn special from the genre to make me take notice, enter Slay The Spire.

Slay The Spire looked at the standard Roguelike formula and distilled it down to it’s most basic elements, the rooms you encounter are all very simple, they’re either a fight, a treasure, a quick event, or a shop then it decided that the best course of action would be to slap a deckbuilding, turn-based strategy on the top of it and see what comes out. The result? The most engaging Roguelike game I’ve played in years.

Every battle in Slay the Spire feels tense and to the wire, not because the game is necessarily harsh, but because you’re always reliant on the cards that come your way. It strikes the perfect balance between getting you to think a few steps ahead, while still forcing you to take chances, chances that don’t always pay off. I remember countless times where I’d come up with a plan, but it would rely on drawing the right card at the right time and when it didn’t work it was heartbreaking, but succeeding made me feel like a tactical genius.

The three different decks in the game are also brilliant for allowing you to adjust your play style, without massively overturning the formula of the game. Each character has it’s own unique mechanic that is open to massive amounts of experimentation,  which is something I had great fun with. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t consider myself to be very good at most games, but Slay the Spire had such a smooth learning curve that I felt like I was improving with every single victory.

Slay the Spire is a game that took a genre that I love, combine it with a genre I’m tired of and make something that feels new, exciting and tonnes of fun to play, this is the kind of innovation that I’ve been looking for in the roguelike genre for ages and I desperately hope we see more of it in the years to come.

7 – Katana ZERO

Release Date: April 18th
Developer:
Askiisoft
Publisher:
Devolver Digital
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac
Metacritic Average: 83%

One of my favourite things a game can accomplish is to be one specific thing while disguising itself as something else. To explain what I mean by that, let’s take a look at Katana ZERO.

When you star Katana ZERO, the impression I got from it is that it was going to be a fast-paced hack and slash, where you slice your way through waves of enemies feeling like a katana-wielding action hero and while the second part of that statement is true, Katana ZERO is in fact not a hack and slash, but a very clever and high-octane puzzle game.

The goal of each room is to introduce every enemy in the general vicinity to your Katana, usually by separating them from most of their limbs in the process, but if you go charging madly into every room, you’ll most certainly fail almost instantly. Instead, every room in the game is cleverly designed to be “solvable”, with a distinct order and pattern in which you need to show everyone their own spleen before removing their head in what can only be described as a “flourish” of blood. Every time I entered a room, I would instantly scour the whole place looking for the one weak spot where I could start my slicing rampage, running through a mental checklist every time I failed and restarted a room, which gave incredibly satisfying feeling when my master plan was executed to perfection.

What makes Katana ZERO stands out though, is the fact that it has that element of chaos to it. I could make the most ingenious plans ever, but that doesn’t mean I was good enough to pull them off perfectly all the time and that was where the game was at its most fun; when plans went wrong. Once a plan went wrong, it would be easy to just take the death and try again, but I think doing that takes out a huge element of the sheer joy that this game brings you when you improvise. Admittedly, my improvised plans very rarely bore fruit, but that didn’t stop it being an absolute blast when I missed my second strike, which sent me sailing into a room of armoured guards, causing me to panic, throw a firebomb which killed the armoured guards but alerted everyone within a 5-mile radius to my presence, at which point I went on a killing spree, slicing every neck I could lay my eyes on before finally being gunned down.

In addition to that…well…clusterfuck, the game has simplistic but masterfully styled visuals with great uses of colours and effect to create a depressingly beautiful cyberpunk dystopia, a feeling only helped by the brilliant choices that were made with the music, which helped elevate the already fantastically designed boss-fights to epic clashes and nail-biting encounters.

Katana ZERO is a game that strikes that perfect balance between careful & tactical planning and total chaos that makes for an incredibly focused and fun game, all tied together with a clever story that keeps you interested and invested in the world all the way to the credits.

6 – Unheard

Release Date: 29th March
Developer:
NEXT Studios
Publisher:
NEXT Studios, Bilibili
Platforms: Playstation 4, Windows, Mac
Metacritic Average: 72%

Out of all the games on this list, this is the one that I’d imagine the fewest people have heard of, because this almost passed me by too, so let me explain.

At its most basic level, it’s a mystery-solving game, however, the method by which you solve these mysteries is what makes this an absolutely exceptional game in my view. Instead of searching the scene and interviewing witnesses after the fact, you get to see the 5-15 minutes in which the crime happened, except you don’t get to actually see the details. What you get is a floor-plan view of the building in which the crime took place which you can wander around as you play through the events of the scene and the only tool you have to work out what happened is sound.

You can see the outline of where everyone is at any moment, but you can’t actually see their form, you can only hear their voices. Using this information you must work out who everyone is, and answer specific questions about the crime. I can’t really be more specific without giving away partial solutions to some of the puzzles, but the way in which the game gets you to hear every conversation in a level to slowly fill in all the blanks is so very innovative and clever.

The game typically starts you off in each scenario listening to one conversation that will give a rough outline of what’s going on, but naturally, there are other conversations going on all over the scene at the exact same time and each conversation slowly fills in all of the blanks. In every conversation, you listen to you’ll learn something new about the scenario that slowly allows you to draw everything together and hit that euphoria of the “eureka” moment when you nail your target.

The game makes sure to give you just the right amount of information so that everything you need to know is there, but without explicitly giving you all of the solutions. I found myself taking notes on every level, creating a list of suspects and slowly ruling them out as I went along until the true culprit reveals themselves.

The mysteries themselves are very well thought out, for example, you’ll have to locate a stolen painting and work out who stole it, but there are also a number of fakes that other people have stolen, thinking they’re the real deal and it’s your job to use the conversations around the scene to piece together a chronology of who committed the first theft in order to determine who holds the real painting.

At £5 the game is absolutely worth it for the 5 puzzles (plus 1 as free DLC) that total to about 4 hours of game time. This is one of the most enthralling and unique puzzle games I’ve played ever and it perfectly captures the feeling on solving a mystery, so if you’re into that sort of thing, this game is a must-have.

5 – Beat Saber

Release Date: 21st May
Developer:
Jaroslav Beck
Publisher:
Jaroslav Beck
Platforms: Playstation 4, Oculus Quest, HTC Vive
Metacritic Average: 93%

I’ve loved VR for a long time and Beat Saber is probably my favourite VR game I’ve ever played. The concept is so simple as it’s just like any other rhythm game, except you’ve got to move your arms to hit the blocks instead of just pressing buttons in time with some music.

This game as a mastery of its sound design, making sure that every slice of a block has an extremely satisfying sound to it, helping to create this cool factor as you slice left, right and centre, even when you know that to anyone watching outside of the headset, you just look to be flailing around wildly. Even the sounds and music on the menus create an intense sense of atmosphere as you stand in what seems to be the most neon warehouse to ever exist.

A lot of VR games that I enjoy are games that I think would still work fairly well without the VR component. While games like Job Simulator and Budget Cuts would need some tweaking, I don’t think the VR element is specifically what makes them as good as they are. Beat Saber is very much the opposite, I’ve never particularly cared for rhythm games, nor am I all that good at them, but when you take that concept and put it into VR suddenly it becomes one of the most all-out fun experiences I’ve ever had.

I don’t know what part of how my brain works causes this, but I am so much better at Beat Saber than I am any other rhythm game I’ve ever played. I’m miles away from being among the best of course, but I can play on the higher speeds and difficulties and not struggle massively as I play and I think the sense of pure fun the game as injected into it is a big part of that.

On top of all of that, it works as an exercise game, but it doesn’t frame it as one. I’ve never got along with games like Ring Fit Adventure or Wii Fit because they make sure to let you know you’re doing exercise the whole way through, but in Beat Saber you just start flailing your arms and suddenly you’re drenched in sweat and have lost about 20 pounds without even realising it.

Beat Saber is a game that realised the massive potential that an existing genre of games could have in VR and made sure to tailor the experience perfectly so that it couldn’t possibly work without it and that is fundamentally what I believe makes a good VR game.

4 – Descenders

Release Date:  7th May
Developer:
RageSquid
Publisher:
No More Robots
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows, Mac, Linux
Metacritic Average: 78%

I’ve talked about Descenders a couple of times already this year and it’s safe to say that my love for it has not diminished in the slightest.

It was first available on Steam Early Access in February 2018 and I picked it up a couple of months later and since then it’s become my 2nd most played game on Steam at 539 hours, beaten out by only Skyrim and the weird thing is, I’m not even entirely sure why I play it so much. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as an addictive game, but what I think is it’s a very easy game to play.

By “easy to play” I don’t mean the difficulty of the game itself, I mean it’s a game that I’m never “not in the mood” to play. In the way that I play it (very casually), I don’t really have to put much thought into it, so it’s become what I play when I don’t want to play anything. I’m someone who finds it very hard to just sit and watch something for example, so what I will often do is put on something I want to watch on my 2nd screen and then play Descenders, almost in the background, while I watch it.

That’s not all Descenders is good for, because it hits that sweet spot that PopCap games were always brilliant for, where you can play it casually and do fairly well, but also you can spend time honing your skills and mastering the game in order to pull off some incredible feats of skill that I could never even dream of. The procedurally generated nature of the levels means I’m never just “going through the motions” when I play, I can’t just rely on muscle memory to get me through each level I have to learn to adapt to the terrain that’s currently in front of me so I don’t wrap my body around several trees at several hundred kilometres per hour.

It’s a game that has complete mastery over its movement, the bikes feel light and nippy while manoeuvring it in the air and on the ground feels forceful and satisfying. The way you glide down the hillsides, doing jumps and flips and spins the whole gives this incredible feeling of flow that gives you such a rush as your performance in the environments becomes more fluid and streamlined.

Descenders is a game that came together in a way I honestly never would’ve expected in order to make it a game that I’m going to be playing on-and-off for a very long time.

3 – Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Release Date: 18th June
Developer:
ArtPlay
Publisher:
505 Games
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows
Metacritic Average: 84%

I’d never got around to playing a Castlevania game before, but they always seemed right up my street, so when I heard there was a game coming out made by the original creator of Castlevania in the style of Castlevania (but not officially called Castlevania because Konami doesn’t like using the historic franchises they own) I knew I had to check it out and I was absolutely blown away by what I found.

Bloodstained constantly keeps you on a journey of discovery. The items, enemies and powers it’s possible to acquire/encounter mean you’re always going to be finding something new and the map itself is packed with an almost overwhelming amount of variety. Every area feels extremely different to the ones that surround it and they’re all just the right size so that once you get comfortable in an area, you’re thrown right into a new one.

The combat system is wonderfully designed, it took a little getting used to, but once I got the pacing of when I should be striking and dodging I had so much fun with it. Every room presented a great challenge and I had a lot of fun trying to work out how best to tackle each combination of enemies that got thrown my way. It nails that balance of enemy design, where every enemy is easy on its own, but when a bunch of different ones are thrown together, it creates a great challenge.

That was also a game that reminded me how amazing boss fights can be, because not since NieR Automata have I had so much fun fighting bosses in a game. They follow that ethos that so many, typically old games do in that every boss has clear and recognisable patterns that are easy to dodge/counter and the skill comes from being able to react to them in time in order to deal out the damage. It’s a game that makes sure that every single failure and death I experienced was because I wasn’t skilful enough in order to pull it off, not because I got unlucky.

Bloodstained makes sure that every room and every enemy teaches you something, not necessarily something about the mechanics, but about what is the most optimal way to fight. This sense of pushing forward and constantly getting to experience new stuff is what pushed me towards achieving 100% completion without even realising I was doing it until suddenly I was 95% there and had to get that last little bit.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game that is constantly pushing you deeper into it using its world & enemy design along with its combat system to enthral you in its world and give you the best Metroidvania experience I’ve had in many years.

2 – Pokemon Sword & Shield

Release Date: 15th November
Developer:
Game Freak
Publisher:
Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Metacritic Average: 80%

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time then you were probably expecting to see this on the list somewhere and here you go, number two, it’s becoming a bit of a tradition for Pokemon games actually.

I was very excited for these games more or less all year, I can’t deny that the lack of the national dex was a tad disappointing, but once I had the game in my hands and was playing it, that fact becomes little more than a tiny annoyance that I barely ever thought about.

Firstly, when it comes to the towns and routes in the game, I thought they were absolutely beautiful and captured a lot of different feelings from phases in British culture. There’s Motostoke, the industrial, victorian town; Wyndon the modern-day metropolis that we all know and (kind of) love today and then there were towns like Ballonlea that felt like something out of an old fairy tale. The visuals in this game were bright, colourful and an absolute joy to behold.

As for the Pokemon, while I certainly wouldn’t rank it among the best new roster we’ve received for a generation, It’s most certainly nowhere near the worst. I’ve already talked about the Pokemon I loved the most, but there were a whole host of other new Pokemon added in this game that I really love the look and feel of.

While the story itself was nothing special by Pokemon standards, it was paced quite nicely and I thought the climax was quite a cool sequence, not Ultra Necrozma levels of cool, but cool nonetheless; and I enjoyed my interactions with any character not named Hop or Leon. I also thought the difficulty was rather nicely done, I didn’t exactly struggle at any point, but there were several points in the big battles that I felt were a bit touch-and-go and I was forced to think about what I was doing a bit harder than I usually have to in Pokemon games.

I’m undoubtedly biased towards Pokemon as a franchise, but that doesn’t change the fact that I had loads of fun with this addition to the series. It was a Pokemon game that ticked all the boxes in terms what I need to have fun from a Pokemon game and in terms of visual spectacle, I think it’s the best we’ve seen so far. If the lack of a national dex was the only thing keeping you away then implore you to reconsider because this is still just as brilliant of an experience as Pokemon always has been.

1 – Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: 26th July
Developer:
Intelligent System, Koei Tecmo
Publisher:
Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Metacritic Average: 89%

I’d never played a Fire Emblem game before Three Houses and I didn’t even have any intensions to buy it until I did so on a whim in early September and I am so glad I didn’t miss out on this absolutely joyous gaming experience.

The Turn-Based Strategy combat in this game is extremely refined and taps into that part of my brain that games like XCOM and Civilization created that loves deep strategic thinking in games. The usage of middle-aged weaponry (and magic) gives the battles a very different type of strategy to what I’m used to, I usually tend to play quite defensively in turn-based strategies but the need to get up close and personal with your opponents means you’re not afforded that luxury and it leads to some very tense situations that require a deep level of strategic thought to resolve.

Weaponry and classes each unit has access to gives a nice level of variety too, with each melee weapon allowing for slightly different possibilities in combat, alongside the ranged and magic weapons/abilities meaning each unit has to be treated very differently in battle in order to get the optimum performance out of them.

That’s not what made this game so special to me though. That’s not the reason that, as of the time of writing, I’m currently about to reach the conclusion of my 4th playthrough of this 45-hour game. What makes Fire Emblem: Three Houses such a wonderful game to play are its characters.

You play as a professor at an academy where the various future lords, nobles & knights of the land learn their craft, this naturally means you have students and you get to know these students so incredibly well throughout the course of the game. Every single part of every character is dripping in personality and while it’s true that many of the characters are a bit one-note, when there’s so many of them and they’re all constantly interacting and bouncing off of each other, then you don’t even notice.

Over the course of the game, I grew to understand all of the characters and how they operate in the same way that any teacher does when they have the same class for an extended period of time, you get to see them grow and develop as people and I genuinely care about all of them and their progress. This feeds back into the gameplay and combat because it’s not just faceless armies that you’re sending into danger, it’s your students that you’ve bonded with and have a whole future ahead of them and when one of them dies, that failure – YOUR failure – weighs on you.

The game’s branching narrative is brilliantly set up, forcing you to choose your house less than an hour into the game, with only a base-level understanding of the students you’ll be taking under your wing. It was what pushed me to dive right into my 2nd, 3rd & 4th playthroughs because I had to know what happened to all of these characters that I’ve grown to love.

The feature characters for each line in the narrative are very well-developed as well and there are some genuinely brilliantly written scenes in every path. This was a game that understood that the emotional weight of its story came not from the events happening, but how those events affect the characters. Every scene is written in such a way to draw you into the lives of its characters and that level of investment bleeds over into every other part of the game, whether you’re teaching them on their skills or sending them into battle.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that perfect mix that captures exactly what made me fall in love with Octopath Traveler last year. Its characters are flowing with personality that never fails to make me smile and the gameplay has a deep level of strategy that I just can’t keep away from and it’s absolutely the best gaming experience I’ve had in 2019.

So that’s it! Those were my favourite games in 2019! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this, please, let me know what games you loved this year either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure to join me back here on Saturday, where I’ll be talking about my favourite comedy shows!

7 thoughts on “Game of the Year 2019”

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