2019 was a good year for games.
Lots of interesting new ideas in the space, and some refinements of old ones. Here’s a list of my personal favorite games of this year, in no particular order. Making an ordered list can be fun, but it’s ultimately pretty pointless.
Video games are such a diverse medium at this point that it’s really like comparing apples and oranges. How does Baba Is You stack up against Dragon Quest XI S? They have almost nothing in common, and their aims are so different that it makes no sense to compare them directly.
Baba Is You
There are a lot of indie puzzle games out there. Making a little mind-bending puzzle is something that’s easy to do on a relatively small budget. There are also a lot of games that mimic old pixel art aesthetics of earlier game systems, to greater and lesser success. Making a truly great puzzle game, though, is a true accomplishment. Something that combines a wildly different array of elements in interesting ways, but maintains a simple readability that allows you to return to puzzles after months away and instantly recognize what’s going on.
Baba Is You is a game that accomplishes this and more. It operates on very simple, basic rules, but the way they escalate over time and require you to think outside more and more boxes with every single puzzle is simple astounding. A lot of puzzle games escalate their difficulty so quickly that it’s easy to get discouraged, put off by the impossible tasks you’re being asked to perform. Where Baba shines is that it gives you a perfect runway, teaching you things slowly but surely through a series of challenges.
This is a game where you will instantly go from feeling like the world’s greatest super-genius to a complete and utter fool in a matter of moments, from finishing one stage to starting the next. Over and over again, for dozens and dozens of levels. No game has ever better demonstrated the value of brain rest, stepping away from a problem and letting your subconscious work on it for a while. Every time I came back to a puzzle after a couple hours, I would suddenly see some option I never saw before.
One final note, the graphics are actually a perfect fit for this game. A lot of times, pixel art feels like a gimmick, something to do when you don’t have a good idea, or just mindless nostalgia-baiting. But here, it serves a gameplay purpose, giving you an absolutely clean view of the elements in play at a glance, and also serves as an homage to the simple-yet-challenging puzzle games of those older eras.
And now, for something completely different: An extremely anime-styled souls-like. I remember hearing about this game years and years ago, and thinking that it looked kinda… bad. But, in the meantime they really brought it all together into something fun, if not very innovative.
Code Vein is exactly the sort of thing I look for in a souls-like: it takes the basic formula and adds some new mechanics to it, and has an identity of its own. Instead of a medieval fantasy world, it’s a post-apocalyptic modern city crawling with vampires and zombies. It takes inspiration from stylish, gothic anime of the past couple decades: Code Geass, Blood+, Tokyo Ghoul, etc. The character creator is extremely detailed, but mostly when it comes to clothes and accessories.
The gameplay is… fine. It’s balanced around always having an AI companion, so they can throw bigger groups of enemies at you. It doesn’t require the same sort of intense caution of the Souls series, but that makes it more of a fun, casual experience. At least until you’re fighting a boss, then it suddenly requires you to really be on your game with dodging. If I have one complaint, it’s that the difficulty is incredibly bumpy, some areas are a cake walk and others have you struggling through every encounter.
Oh, also the area aping Anor Londo from Dark Souls. Not because it’s derivative, that’s totally fine, but because it’s a maze where everything looks the same and it’s a real pain to get through. Souls games are at their best when areas have good landmarks and make a kind of logical sense. Earlier in the game you pass through a big parking garage, and it’s perfect, just the sort of thing that translates well to this kind of game. But this cathedral-ish area… it just sucks.
Overally, it’s just a solid souls-like. I enjoyed the crunchy RPG elements, switching classes and balancing your weapons and armor to get good mobility and damage. The ability to just equip cool-looking attack moves as skills you can use, like spells in Souls games, is something I’d really like to see in more games in this sub-genre.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I was kind of skeptical about this game before it came out. Mostly because it was bringing back weapon durability, a mechanic I’ve always hated in these games, but that ended up being a non-issue. Also the school setting made me a bit wary, thinking it was just gonna end up being some Persona-esque thing where you spend tons of time on mundane nonsense while an actual war is going on.
That was all baseless, it turns out. They balance the idea of a military academy with a traditional Fire Emblem structure remarkably well, giving you a lot of freedom around what you want to do when you play the game. You can run around the monastery talking to students, managing your relationships, or you can just do a ton of tactical battles if you want.
The storytelling was remarkably good, though I feel like it was harmed a bit by the weird way it handled multiple routes with different big mysteries. Some routes ended up completely ignoring or just not getting around to some pretty major mysteries. I’m a person who likes long games, but expecting someone to go through all four routes to figure out what’s going on is a bit much.
But more than that, the way it holds back certain reveals hurts the writing in other ways. The actual revelations can’t really have any effect on the characters and their relationships because it all happens at the very end of the game. It keeps the world feeling a bit flat, without any reactions. The mysteries feel extraneous to the plot, in a weird way, when they are so important to certain characters’ identities and the core conflicts that drive the second half of the game.
The gameplay is okay, though a few of the maps are way too big. The portable Fire Emblem games reigned in the map sizes from the old NES and SNES ones, which was a great thing. But now we’re back to moving a whole army one unit at a time for multiple turns just to get to the next group of enemies. The class system was fun to engage with, balancing learning different skills to open up new opportunities, but the gender-limited classes were a real disappointment. Why can’t men ride pegasi? Why can’t women punch good? It’s bizarre, and honestly felt like it had some stuff left over from early drafts, like the pointless dark mage classes.
This has been a lot of complaining about a game I played for close to a hundred hours. Why is this game even on my list? Because the characters are fucking fantastic, and on a basic level the tactical battles are a lot of fun. It offers a paternalistic form of power fantasy, fostering and guiding your children-warriors and then seeing them destroy your enemies. It is just incredibly satisfying to play. And for all that the mysteries end up a bit frustrating, they are intriguing, and do a good job of motivating you to get through a very lengthy game.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Ah, love a good IGAvania.
This was a year where I really reached for comfort food games a lot, and this is maybe the king of that category. It’s just an old style of game that doesn’t get made anymore, done extremely well by the guy who used to make ’em all the time. Nothing super different or innovative, just the same old thing with a couple new tweaks.
It’s an easy game, but that’s entirely by design. It’s about running around this castle killin’ monsters, collecting new abilities, just exploring and poking around the corners. It’s a game that is, ultimately, designed to be comfortable. And in a time of such strife in the world around us, what could be better?
There’s already been a lot written about this game, tons of praise heaped on its writing and its interesting, hauntological world that is so similar to our own, and yet so different. Frankly, I’m really glad I got turned into this before it even came out, if I heard all that overblown praise I’d never have ended up actually sitting down and playing it.
Here’s what I’ll say: This game is a look at an ugly world, and it gives you a lot to think about, but it actually doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are a ton of extremely funny moments, a lot of straight-up goofy-ass jokes. This is not medicine that you have to suffer through, just take it as it comes and it’s a good time. This is what allows its writing to really land, it’s not lecturing you from on high, it’s engaging on a lower, more personable level.
It’s also not some super serious text that you have to pore over and consider extremely closely at every moment. It’s a game, you can save scum and try to exploit mechanics and look up answers to mysteries. Much like Souls games, people come up with all sorts of weird rules about the “proper” way to play games like this, but in the end your experience is up to you.
One final note: the game does start off with a kind of off-putting ironic tone. Some people try to downplay this, but it’s there. I can only say this: if you give this game a chance, you’ll be rewarded. It is worth getting through a few sarcastic jabs to get to the good stuff later on. It’s not some perfect audio-visual experience that will entrance you from the opening moments to the credits, it’s just a video game.
Dragon Quest XI S
I first played Dragon Quest XI last year on PC, and I enjoyed it a lot! But I didn’t actually finish that version, not really. I put a lot of time into, but ultimately burned out on the grind towards the very end.
The form that games come in is very important to how they are experienced. Dragon Quest games work best as portable games, I truly believe. It also helps that this version on the switch added the ability to speed up regular battles, so you don’t have to sit through some long attack animations over and over. The more important aspect, though, is simply the ability to pick it up and put it down more easily.
Sitting down at my PC, plugging in my controller, and pulling up a game is a subtly labor-intensive thing. It means I’m devoting a lot of attention to a game, and it has to do something to earn that on a moment-to-moment basis. The ability to just push a single button on the switch and get back into means that I’m willing to forgive a lot more down time.
Anyway, the game itself: this is not just a very good Dragon Quest game, it is the ultimate Dragon Quest game. It truly shows the value in iteration over pure innovation, taking all sorts of different mechanics and ideas from past games in the series and bringing them all together in one big package. But it doesn’t feel overstuffed, it’s just doing the same thing these games have always done, just really, really well.
Dragon Quest XI successfully pays tribute to the older games in the series while also telling a new story with entertaining twists and turns, and fun and interesting characters. It’s beautiful, everything runs smoothly, the writing is charming and light. It’s not on the same level as Disco Elysium, but it’s not aiming for that sort of thing. It’s a fairy tale, a fable, a reflection of the world in a different sense.
A lot of game critics missed this game because it’s long. And that is absolutely fair, it’s hard to fit a 100-hour game into a review schedule in this day and age. But it’s an absolute gem, a truly wonderful experience from beginning to end. I’d recommend it to anyone who just wants a game to relax with at the end of the day.
Monolith: Relics of the Past
Like some sort of Christmas miracle, there was an expansion pack released for one of my favorite roguelikes on Christmas day, just last week.
Monolith is the best twin-stick shooter roguelike, I will make no bones about it. Forget your Gungeons and your Bindings of Isaac, this is a classic NES-styled game with an absolutely pitch-perfect aesthetic and sense of humor. It serves both the twin-stick shooting and the roguelike parts of its genre perfectly, giving you a strong basic weapon to rely on, and also a guarantee of something more interesting but random in every run.
Man, there are games that I enjoy more, but I really, truly feel that this is one of the best-crafted games of the past few years. And this expansion only made it better: fixing up the UI and tooltips to make things more clear, rebalancing the weapons so that they are all useful, adding more variety to runs.
I’m not the best at Monolith, it took me quite a while to get a full win, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to play. In my youth, I was really quite good at bullet-hell games, but nowadays those reflexes aren’t there. It’s a game designed for people who can dodge endless bullet curtains, and also, now more than ever, for those who struggle with it.
It’s truly inspiring to see something that takes from the past and the present and fuses it together into something so wonderful. There are other games that really capture the NES aesthetic and sensibility, like Odallus or The Messenger, but this one really gets the spirit of that whole era of games. It is at once light and airy, and also punishingly difficult. It offers tricks and outs, but also remains utterly mysterious and intimidating.
And that’s it. There are more games I enjoyed this year, like the remake of Link’s Awakening, but these are the big ones that stick out in my mind.
There are a lot of big narrative-heavy games I never got around to finishing, or even starting. It just doesn’t really fit with how I play games these days, listening to podcasts and aiming to relax, not engage with something on a deep level.
That’s okay, though. I’ll get around to ’em in the fullness of time.