Many people have lamented on how they feel 2019 was a down year for videogames, repeating the sentiment of 2018. I do feel that the last couple of years have lived in the shadow of 2017 and that may not be fair to the releases that fall in its wake.
Videogames are important to me and always play a crucial part in my life, bridging the gap between my days and also act as reference points to specific moments in my life. I can often recall time based on what videogame had released or I was playing around then and 2019 was no different.
This year was the beginning of my post-graduation purgatory and there were some solid entries that helped to fill the void in my life and everyone knows that’s why we entertain ourselves. Uhm… Here are some of my favorites.
These Games Are Good
Metroidvania games are dime a dozen these days. It seems every month there’s at least one that’s getting some traction and is well received. One that might slip under the radar this year is “Timespinner”, the long awaited Kickstarter game from Lunar Ray Games. Slated to release in 2015, after the scope of the project grew it was delayed multiple times before finally releasing late last year and this year on Nintendo Switch
(which is where I played it).
What sets this apart from other games of its ilk is its JRPG inspired art direction and emphasis on story and character development. The player character, Lunais, is tasked with returning to the past to undo the destruction of her people. She has the ability to skip between timelines as a plot device but in gameplay is able to pause and alter time.
It makes for some interesting platforming, puzzle solving, and a great wrinkle to the game’s combat that is admittedly derivative of “Symphony of the Night”. But the most enjoyable part of the game is the story.
Lunais’s journey turns from one of vengeance to amelioration. She interacts with victims of the past conflict that lead to the events that sent her back there and begins to question whether or not her path is a righteous one.
Its high resolution, pixelated art style bring this world to life and makes trekking through these locales a delight. From pristine lakes to futuristic castles, every inch of “Timespinner” feels worthy of exploring, which is extremely important for this genre. Overall the game is another gem in an ever growing sea of Metroidvania releases.
9. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
With “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice”, From Software distanced themselves a bit from the design ethos of their Soulsborne titles while also retaining a lot of what made those games great. On the surface, you could be forgiven for thinking this is still a Soulsborne title with its life/death cycle, checkpoint system, and difficulty.
Where “Sekiro” distinguishes itself, however, is its more focused encounter design. Where “Dark Souls” gives the player build freedom and allows them to express themselves through a variety of playstyles which the developers have to design the game around, “Sekiro” hones in on a rhythmic game of parrying and striking.
The biggest learning curve for me in this game was throwing away all of what Soulsborne titles taught me. You’ll have to memorize telegraphed attacks, learn when to guard, when to attack, but you almost always have to be aggressive in “Sekiro”, even when you’re on thee defensive.
The ebb and flow of combat is hypnotic, weaving together perfectly timed blocks, dodges, and strikes, managing my stamina perfectly. I often found myself in moments of zen, like when I finally toppled the last boss. Which was herculean test of what the game had taught me up to that point. It was an adrenaline rush to end this titanic foe that had frustrated me for hours.
From Software also never disappoints with their art direction and “Sekiro” is no exception. Gorgeous vistas are around every corner and every section of the game is meticulously detailed.
8. Astral Chain
“Astral Chain” is another PlatinumGames foray into JRPGs. With Takahisa Taura at the helm who previously worked as the lead designer on “Nier: Automata”, the lauded action game developer has crafted a unique dystopian world where the only hope of saving the last human city in the world from other dimensional monstrosities is through capturing them and bending them to the will of the player.
You control one of five Legions which are powerful specimens of that dimensional race. Combat involves controlling not only your own character but synergizing with your AI controlled Legion. You can issue simple commands to the Legion, but overall they act on their own accord.
However, they do react to you the input issued to your character, allowing your opportunities to chain together attacks and the results can create dizzying combos that are extremely well presented. The combat is good and while it isn’t overtly difficult, it has a relative challenge and offers insane combos for those who can master the nuances of the combat system. The narrative of Astral Chain takes a back seat to this emphasis on combat but it also comes with some surprisingly good level design and world building.
The game has hub areas that offer sandbox experiences with plenty of character interaction. Your character can intervene in the live’s of NPCs with tasks that range from catching someone’s lost cat, bringing ice cream to a child who dropped theirs, to saving a family from being sucked into the hostile alternate dimension. The simpler quests add a slice of life quality to the game that made me care more about the world.
“Sagebrush” is an adventure game that sees its protagonist venture to the remnants of a cult compound. There are no enemies, no ooga booga moments. All of the atrocities you slowly unveil have already happened. This is a game about PTSD and having the strength and courage to face your trauma.
The game features a retro 3D art style and has the player going from points of interest, solving puzzles, and piecing together the lead up to and final moments of the cult that occupied the compound.
While not having any threat of death or combat, the game manages to have a disturbing atmosphere that builds up to an crescendo that is genuinely terrifying. It’s short and sweet too as it clocks in around two hours.
6. Resident Evil 2
Capcom sure has been killing it lately, yeah? “Resident Evil 2” is a sensational remake of the classic Playstation 1 game that modernizes the formula but retains what made the original so thrilling.
The hub-like levels are intricately layered and while restricted at first, gradually open up as the player explores and progresses. Zombies are not simply killed and remain constant threats to the exploration as they can come back to life to harass the player and their limited inventory later.
Compounding this is Mr. X, whose integration is used at the most (or least?) opportunistic times to keep the player constantly on edge. Moments of relief are gracious boot soon give way to the dread that washes over as you hear Mr. X’s oppressive footsteps bearing down on you. Fighting him truly isn’t an option and you can only do your best to buy yourself time and slow him down.
The game also doesn’t eschew some of the campier moments that lend much needed and amusing reprieve to the dour atmosphere of the game. Like a hysterical moment where Mr. X blasts through the wall to grab and crush someone who foreshadowed it only seconds before. The change to an over-the-shoulder perspective doesn’t change the game’s near unrelenting terror as the developers have succeeded at making things like Mr. X, resource management, level design, and scripted encounters retain the nature of the original.
This is how you do a remake.
5. Untitled Goose Game
HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK
4. Devil May Cry 5
Another one, Capcom?
The latest entry in the storied franchise that seemed like it took an eternity doesn’t disappoint. Packing what may be the best combat system of any character action game I’ve every experienced, “Devil May Cry 5” had my palms sweaty for dozens of hours and multiple playthroughs.
We’re eased into the game with Nero, who has a unique system involving heavy sword lashes and even heavier revolver bullets but also his Devil Breaker, which are modified prosthetics to his right arm that can see him shooting lightning, whipping chains, or even deploying his arm as a fucking rocket and surfing on it. The game pulls back the layers to his combat system as it progresses but not before introducing you to its other two playable characters.
V, the second character you play as, is weak himself and instead relies on his minions to slaughter foes. He has two that you can control loosely, sort of like Legions in “Astral Chain”, Griffon and Shadow (a demonic raven and panther duo) and Nightmare, a heavy hitting terror that acts as Vs special ability.
But the game really gets going when you gain control of Dante. Playing as Dante and juggling multiple fighting styles and weapons on the fly, changing mid combo, is exhilarating, an absolute thrill. Words don’t do it justice. Just… watch this.
The game isn’t difficult in a traditional sense until you unlock higher difficulties. But the real challenge of “Devil May Cry 5” isn’t in not dying, it’s looking as sexy as possible while murdering the minions of Hell. Stacking up that SSS meter and hearing the pumping thunder of the game’s excellent Metal soundtrack results in a metaphorical IV of glorious dopamine.
3. Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes
The “No More Heroes” franchise has been on hold for almost a decade with the previous entry, “No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle” coming out in Jan. of 2010. The creator of the series, auteur Goichi Suda, or Suda 51 as he is known, stepped back from a director role on that title to pursue other interests such as working with Electronic Arts to create “Shadows of the Damned” in 2011.
His time working with EA would prove to sour his love for game development as they pushed back against his creative urges, not understanding why anyone would want to play the types of games that he creates.
Suda has never had a huge commercial success but has under his belt plenty of cult hits like “Killer 7”, “The Silver Case”, “Michigan: Report From Hell”, and of course “No More Heroes”.
With the original “No More Heroes”, Suda sought to create a game that took the male power fantasy that permeates the medium and flip it on its head with an absurd tale where you play as the intentionally unlikable Travis Touchdown, a rather on the nose parody of American white men.
After a long hiatus as a director or lead developer (his previous game was 2012’s “Lollipop Chainsaw”) he began working on “Travis Strikes Again” which may be his most personal game and is a touching meta-commentary on his journey through game development and how he rekindled his love of the medium.
You take Touchdown through a game console to traverse its various videogames worlds to find out how a game developer lost touch with reality, sequestered herself, and decided to destroy everything that she created. But we see many direct references to Suda’s works such as an entire level of “Shadows of the Damned” that pokes fun at the releases version of the game and has “cut content” meant to represent Suda’s original vision for the title. Clearly that developer and her strife act as a surrogate for Suda.
Gameplay is simple as it’s an isometric action game reminiscent of arcade titles like “Gauntlet”. Each level has its own gimmick such as a “Resident Evil” themed horror world where you navigate around a hub-area, a Tron themed racing level, and a level with 2D platforming.
The gameplay is definitely only there to tie the narrative and commentary together as it isn’t remarkable on its own. In order to unlock the next level, you must engage with the visual novel sections of the game with are themed like 80s PC titles, with green monochrome and all. These help flesh out the backstory of the actual game and display some of Suda’s best writing to date.
“Travis Strikes Again” is a love letter to the medium. A voyage through one man’s experiences working in the industry and the trials and tribulations he suffered in pursuit of creative expression. One that can only work the way it does as a piece of interactive media.
2. Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
I struggled to not put this game as my game of the year. I had to think long and hard for weeks about whether or not this would be the favorite because it is pure and simple the best experience I’ve had with a multiplayer game. Not only that, but the “Shadowbringers” expansion takes everything the MMO had built up to that point, turns it up to 11, and ends with a bang so immense I’m still getting goosebumps thinking about it right now.
Mechanically, the rebooted combat system has trimmed almost all of the fat, resulting in a gameplay experience so smooth that I can’t even imagine how it could be improved. All the classes I played felt the best that they have ever felt. The dungeons were the best they’ve ever been, with some of the most genius gimmicks I’ve seen in multiplayer boss design. The worlds are lush, varied, and truly beautiful sights to behold.
The writing is some of the best the “Final Fantasy” series has ever had. Characters new and old are not immune to death’s cold clutches and villains become endearing and their motivations grounded, believable, and heartbreaking. The scale of it all is monumental. So much so that it is difficult to even put it into words. It’s just something you have to play to understand.
After thousands of hours and one of the most elongated narratives of any one game, the way the writers and creative director Yoshi P have brought it all together is nothing short of remarkable. I vividly remember screaming at the top of my lungs during the final moments of the main narrative, as it hit its absolutely radiant climax just as much as I remember the moments after. Where I was in the post-game, continuing to build my character, min-maxing, and preparing for the next challenge in the difficult end-game raids.
“Shadowbringers” was an event. Sharing in that event as it unfolded around myself and millions of other players is something only a well executed MMO can do. But it’s an event that continues, always evolving. Always adding something new to the mix. I don’t know if “Finfal Fantasy XIV” can get better than this. But I’m excited to see just how far it can go.
1. Death Stranding
“Once, there was an explosion, a bang which gave rise to life as we know it. And then, came the next explosion. An explosion that will be our last”.
Those words from the opening hours of Hideo Kojima’s epic “Death Stranding” sat in the back of my head for the entirety of the near 70 hours I spent with the game. Kojima always has an underlying message with his projects and for some reason, this line, among the dozens of other quotables was the one that stuck with me.
Even with getting the gist of what Kojima was saying midway through the game, it wasn’t until the game reached its twilight moments that I fully comprehended its gravity.
“Death Stranding” is a game that has been divisive for many reasons. Some won’t find anything appealing about the “Fed Ex simulator” as it has been mockingly reduced to and some find Kojima’s ego grating. Those are all fair assessments but I think that some people may be missing the point.
With this game, Kojima wanted nothing to be superfluous. In many open-world games, which have littered the release windows of this current generation, all the emphasis is put on the destinations. Rarely is time given to contextualize the existence of the game’s world. This couldn’t be further from the truth for “Death Stranding”.
What happens at Point A and Point B are important, for sure. The people you make deliveries to are grateful for the items you bring them and eventually join the network you’re creating during your trek from East to West coasts of America. But the real meat and potatoes of the game is the experience of what happens during the journey.
Whereas navigating the world in other games is often an afterthought— a way to pace the experience out— it is the game in “Death Stranding”. Some have compared it to Walking Simulators like “Gone Home”. But even in those games, the walking only serves as a vector between items and points of interest.
Everything is methodical. You have to plan ahead and decide which tools are most important to you since they take up weight just like the cargo you will be carrying. You can be thrown off balance by rocks, slopes, or water. You can run out of stamina while trying to balance your load and end up dropping and damaging it. Mercenaries can try and steal it or even kill you. Every moment of this game demands your attention and engagement.
I expected “Death Stranding” to be a statement of games not needing to be fun to be good, like “Spec Ops: The Line”. But that isn’t the case. “Death Stranding” is a blast. All of the meticulous mechanics of the game and the contextualization result in an addicting and rewarding gameplay loop that shaved hours off of my days before I realized it.
Which is where The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, one of my favorite existential thinkers, comes to mind. The central argument of that essay is that in the face of overwhelming adversity in life and the apparent insignificance one person’s existence may have, shouldn’t individuals just kill themselves? Get it over with? If there’s no purpose, if the universe is apathetic to our struggles, then why bother? What’s the point?
Camus compares this futility with that of the Greek tale of Sisyphus, a being who is cursed by the gods to carry a boulder up a hill by day only to have it fall down at night. Then do it again every day for eternity. Given the burden he incessantly he carries on his shoulders and the futility of his actions, one could assume him miserable.
But in rejecting nihilistic thoughts and finding purpose in the actions one can control in their life, defining their own existence, constantly moving forward even when something might seem fruitless, one can imagine Sisyphus happy.
Comparatively, even when Sam feels what he is doing serves no purpose, he carries on. He also does so in the face of nihilistic antagonists such as Higgs, whose motivation is to expedite humanity’s extinction in the face of its inevitable end.
This brings me back to that quote. And near the end of the game I realized this was a commentary on the global climate crisis. That this seemingly inescapable calamity facing our planet means we should probably just not care.
But “Death Stranding” says otherwise. There is purpose in the struggle. Purpose in the moment to moment decisions we take. Purpose in the relationships we build with those around us.
One of the core gameplay mechanics is the asynchronous multiplayer. If I reach an obstacle I can use one of my tools to build a bridge to cross a ravine or drop a rope to descend a cliff. But that will appear in other player’s games to offer them much needed relief if they don’t share the luxury of having the tools to build what they need.
This ties into the games social system of “likes”. Players can smash the like button resulting in positive feedback and doubling the same appreciation that NPCs in the game have for Sam Bridges, the player character and the player by extension.
The performances from Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelson are outstanding. Well acted and voiced, the characters of this game all feel human. Kojima’s camera work rivals that of some film directors and the overall attention to detail is staggering.
The relationship with BB, your infantile companion who can sense the BTs, the game’s main antagonistic force, was genuine and resulted in my caring for BB as I would a real person.
It could take thousands of more words to unpack and detail everything in this game. I guess what I really got from this game is that things might seem bleak, but none of us are in this alone. We have to take things day by day and work together towards making a better tomorrow. Nothing is truly futile. All we have is us.