I gotta be honest, overall I found this year a bit disappointing when it came to game releases. Not to say that there weren’t good games, even some interesting ones, but overall it felt a bit lackluster, a bit lifeless. Out of the good stuff, a lot of it felt ONLY good, not exciting or transcendent or ambitious.
Still, good is good, and I won’t say there’s been no creativity this year, only that you have to look quite hard to find it, but more on that in a moment. If there was a recurring theme between this years’ best games, it was leaving the reality we know behind, either through mind-mangling chemicals or big ol’ rocket engines and hyperdrives. And looking at the world right now, it’s not hard to see why that’s so appealing.
- Disco Elysium
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Katana Zero
- Resident Evil 2
- My Friend Pedro
- Tetris 99
- The Outer Worlds
- Untitled Goose Game
- Sunless Skies
- Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
So starting from the bottom up, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is… kind of a mess. It’s glitchy, unbalanced, unfocused and clearly needed a couple more months in development at least to make it truly special.
But the reason we know that it could be special is because every now and then, it suddenly just… works, becoming that Star Wars game you dreamt of as a kid but struggled to articulate without just flailing your arms and making sound effects with your mouth. The weighty crackle and pop of a blaster bolt ricocheting off your lightsaber, the clash of Jedi on the battlefield, the feeling of throwing back a squad of hapless Stormtroopers with the Force – it’s those moments where you see beneath the rough exterior to the diamond beneath.
Staying in the cosmos, Sunless Skies was the only game I ever gave money to on Kickstarter, mainly because I enjoyed Sunless Seas and wanted to see Failbetter Games go even further and elevate the concept. And while I don’t think Skies quite has the atmosphere or narrative spark of its predecessor, it’s a lot more tightly designed in its moment-by-moment mechanics, with a midgame that’s actually worth playing. There’s nothing in it quite as memorable as the Dawn Machine, for example, but it feels less like the gameplay is there on sufferance, instead an intergral part of the experience.
Next up, Untitled Goose Game is a bit overrated, but I can’t say it’s bad, only that it doesn’t quite live up to its own promise and potential. Out of the four main areas, three of them are just variations on the theme of “Garden,” and the whole experience is over in a few hours at most. What, no church to wreak havoc on? No kitchens? No schoolyard, no library, no local theater production?
Still, it’s beautifully animated and orchestrated, and it’s endearing enough to make it worth playing. It’s a game that feels like a Sunday afternoon personified: charming, clever, low on stakes, and never quite as long as you want it to be.
But whereas Goose Game is something strangely new, The Outer Worlds feels like the last chapter of an older era of RPGs, the final successor to the venerable House of Elder Scrolls and Fallout, before the new kids (led by Disco Elysium and Cyberpunk 2077) come in and bundle them off to an old folks’ home. Still, for all its archaic qualities, The Outer Worlds does remind us why we loved those kinds of games, and it’s a fitting farewell to an era that’s probably ready to move on now.
Of course, you could go even more retro than that, and on first hearing about it, Tetris 99 sounded like a joke. It should’ve been a joke, right? What if Tetris was also a battle royale game? Yeah, and what if Pong was rebooted as a survival horror open world game? Don’t talk nonsense, you idiot.
And yet Tetris 99 works, this weird twist on one of the greatest games ever made where you’re constantly evaluating your performance and actions in relation to a hundred other players. Beauty in simplicity. I don’t know what else can be said about it.
Now, picture this scene: I crash through the window feet first, glass raining around me, an uzi clutched in each hand, launched forward by the ramp I just skateboarded off. Several thugs are already turning to aim their weapons at me as I hang in the air, surrounded by a corona of fragmented crystal, but it’s too late for them. I kick the skateboard forward, knocking the nearest goon unconscious as it cracks bloodily against his temple. At the same time, I open fire on two others, twisting in space to avoid their own bullets before finally touching down on the table in the middle of them.
There’s one man still alive, crouched behind a crate for cover at the far end of the room, and I raise my gun, aim at the wood—then upward at the frying pan hanging on a hook just behind him. I pull the trigger, there’s a ping as the bullet ricochets against stainless steel, and something squawks and slumps to the ground just out of sight.
My Friend Pedro is fun. Go and play it.
Moving on, we’re into the real diamonds of the year now, but I must admit that I have a bit of an inner conflict over the Resident Evil 2 remake, mainly because the original isn’t that good, and now history is going to forget that because something much better has now muscled in alleging to be that same game when they’re really as different as night and day.
But on the other hand, the RE2 remake is still really fun. Yes, the writing is still B-movie garbage, but the environments are hauntingly atmospheric, with shadowed, claustrophobic hallways and every enemy a genuine threat. I actually forgot how unnerving zombies could be when done properly, as you look away for just a moment to fiddle with a door lock, and somehow the shambling corpse crosses thirty feet and is on you in a second, refusing to die even when you fire round after round into its head. And while Mr. X turns out to be more annoying than scary after a while, at first he’s an effectively chilling presence, his footsteps echoing through the halls and squeezing his massive bulk through every doorway.
Onto the third best game of the year, Katana Zero and My Friend Pedro feel like two halves of the same coin, a pair of 2D action platformers based on getting the most epic kills possible, all involving frankly gratuitous amounts of blood and slow-motion. But while My Friend Pedro probably has better combat, Katana Zero has the far superior story, with a time-bending narrative about pain, trauma, chemical addiction and being controlled by powerful forces beyond your comprehension. Consequently your butchery has some real context, and therefore real meaning, something My Friend Pedro never achieved.
As I hand out the silver medal, I realise it’s getting to the point where I have to remind myself not to grade FromSoftware games on their own warped scale. Sekiro is probably one of the least of their properties, without the same polish of Bloodborne or the unique atmosphere and versatility of the first Dark Souls. And yet in a vacuum, it’s still an incredibly solid game. I’ve beaten it twice this year even with all my other commitments, and seeing 15 feet of mangy, platinum-blonde uber-chimp barrelling toward me is still a moment of genuine panic, matched only by the thrill of victory when you finally drag the centipede out of its neck and get your hard-earned kill.
And now we have to crown the champion of 2019, so let’s be clear — Disco Elysium is THAT kind of game, the kind where you find yourself so hooked that you’re grabbing your friends and demanding to know why they haven’t played it yet. Last year it was Obra Dinn, before that it was Hollow Knight, Furi, and Undertale, now it’s Disco Elysium’s turn. There really are no games like it, at least in tone and narrative, and despite being a bit glitchy, it’s something unique in a year where so little seemed to be. It’s an RPG that’s not afraid to be its own thing, set in a world that doesn’t really have any easy comparison. It’s filled with humanity, pathos, and intelligence, depicting a city on the edge of collapse and a main character who fell off that edge before you even took control. Please, don’t let this thing be some critical cult darling that’s forgotten about this time next year, because it really does deserve better.
By the way, just to put my choices into context, I have yet to play some major releases I’m told should be considered as serious contenders, and will now justify why in the most pathetic way possible.
- Link’s Awakening: I want to play it, will get ’round to it. Don’t rush me.
- Pokemon Sword/Shield: See above, especially after seeing Gigantimax Snorlax.
- Death Stranding: Hideo Kojima cannot write a story to save his life and every time I play one of his games — even the well-designed ones, like Metal Gear Solid 5 — it completely infuriates me that nobody seems to really take him to task for it. I do like passive, thoughtful experiences, but I feel Death Stranding would irritate me too much to be either of those things. Maybe if it’s discounted at some point, but until then, I think I’m good. In fact, I KNOW I’m good.
- Control: Well, I do enjoy occasionally reading the SCP wiki, and Alan Wake was… basically OK? Fine, maybe in the January/February period.
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses: Bleagh… Look, turn-based strategy is my jam, yes, but I also have a low tolerance for saccharine anime friendship stuff, embittered cynic that I am. I’m not saying I can’t enjoy a good “let’s all kill God by shouting high school yearbook quotes at each other” finale, only that the story really has to earn it first, and they so rarely do.
- Outer Wilds: This is the one I really want to get to, as everything I hear about it makes me want to play it more. If I haven’t tried it by Easter next year, I’ve probably been hit by a car and killed.
- Shenmue 3: HAHAHAHAHAHA no.