Neil’s 2019 Games of the Year

2019 saw a lot of change in my life. Unfortunately, I cannot say much of it has been… pleasant. I had to move back to the USA. I have been unsuccessful in finding new or better work. And let’s not even get started on what my living situation has become due to all of this. Luckily, 2019 had some pretty good games to help me take my mind off things. Here are the best 5 games I played this year.

Runners-Up

Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire IS a top 5 game this year. Every part of the game is wonderfully tuned; the flexibility of the decks you can make even within each character class, the pace of the encounters, and the challenge of the bosses. So why isn’t it up there? Well… I spent most of my time with this game in 2018 during its early access and I just don’t feel right putting it IN my top 5 because of that.

Gato Roboto

Metroid games are all about exploring to find new items and abilities and using those to go explore even more. Gato Roboto manages to hit those beats and nail those feelings despite being a fourth of the commitment those games usually ask. It was surprising, charming, and just an all around wonderful experience.

World of Warcraft: Classic

Ok, yes, World of Warcraft did originally release in 2004, and no this wasn’t some kind of remake. That is a part of why it isn’t on the real list. Back in 2005 I spent way too much time with this janky game. Despite all the rough edges, confusing choices, and much slower pace than I remembered, the game still managed to be surprisingly immersive. While I have moved past this game, again, it was a nice way to escape and pretend it wasn’t 2019 anymore.

 

5 – Apex Legends

When Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds hit the scene in 2017 it took the industry by storm. Now, two years out, we have franchise shooters putting in Battle Royal modes, a bunch of other full releases in that style, and even Tetris 99 putting a very silly spin on it. Apex Legends really managed to stand above the rest with its UI design, great feeling movement, and its unique characters. Adding in the special abilities for the handful of characters, and defaulting the game to a squad based format, means that even if you aren’t the best shooter in the world you can still be a huge benefit to your team. Then you add in the incredible contextual pinging system to point out enemies, items, and more allowing extreme ease of communication with strangers even without voice chat.

The whole package just adds up to being the best Battle Royal experience out there.

4 – Anodyne 2: Return to Dust

Anodyne 2 is such a strange blend of early 3D exploration and 2D puzzle solving. What’s magical about it is how it begins to build the connections between them. Forging connections with each other character by diving into them cleaning away the nano-dust starts to reflect back on how these raelms are connected to. Only to figure out that while the connections are good, maybe the cleaning isn’t. As the game turns into a story of self-discovery and living up to being who you want to be instead of who others intend for you to be, it becomes clear just how earnest the developers at Analgesic are in exploring all these themes.

One section in particular resonated with me so strongly the game had to be on this list. Before I get into it though, here is your big SPOILER WARNING.

In one segment of the game you seem to glitch out while trying to start the connection to go nano-scale. Instead of coming to the 2D plane you end up in an isometric environment. An apartment, with a rather normal looking person as your avatar. In this segment themes of depression, fear of stagnation, and the desire for escapism are all explored in such raw detail… In this segment the game built a connection with me, the player, as if I was one of the characters who needed nano-dusting.

3 – Outer Wilds

A few years back I found myself entranced by The Witness. A small island full of puzzles that slowly but surely teach you a sort of language that the whole world is speaking with. Outer Wilds steps away from the overt puzzles, to instead open up a tiny solar system full of mystery for you to explore. Instead of teaching you the language this world speaks with, it sends you through time-loop after time-loop to discover everything you can about the highly advanced but dead culture of the Nomai. Unfortunately the learning curve for the janky controls and the sheer openness of the solar system does create a slow start. Once you explore a planet or two enough to see the interconnectivity of everything the game starts to shine.

I got over the hump when I realized the information I just discovered on Brittle Hollow could grant me access to new places on Giant’s Deep. I was hooked. Why were the Nomai looking for this Eye of the Universe? How can I find my way onto that station speeding so dangerously close to the sun? How can I traverse this mind-bending space inside of the core of Dark Bramble? Finding answers to these questions, and more, was an extremely satisfying experience.

2 – Teppen

In 2018 Android: Netrunner, a tabletop card game, had a licensing agreement expire causing the end of official support. I love that game, and while I have all the officially released cards, I don’t really have a place or people to play it with anymore. There are lots of other card games out there, but none of them grab me that same way. Teppen doesn’t quite get there either, but there is some DNA in the way deckbuilding function that scratches a few of those itches. Capcom completely blindside me with how much I like this game, particularly considering I am generally not very big on mobile gaming.

One of the biggest draws about Teppen is that it is not a turn based game. This real-time flow brings a fast-paced style of play to the game that I have not experienced in any other card game before. They make some really smart moves with simplicity of card types, only two, letting the deck construction and the timing of piloting that deck be where the complexity and depth shine through. Building a deck is super fun because the game really allows you to lean into the style you want. I’ve loved my time with the controlling style of my Morrigan Temptation deck full of ways to stun the enemy units and chip away at my opponent, or my Chun-li Kikosho deck where my units gain multitudes of defenses to allow them to slowly gain strength and overwhelm my opponent.

In six months they have already introduced two new sets of cards, and I can’t wait to see what they add next.

1 – Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The first time I started banging my head against a FromSoftware game, I thought “maybe this just isn’t for me.” I had gotten through that tutorial zone of Dark Souls with the lesson that I needed to observe and wait for my chances to attack, only to walk into a graveyard full of skeletons that seemed to have more HP and do more damage than the fucking boss I just killed. I’ve come a long way since then. I fell in love with FromSoft’s careful encounter design, the sprawling environments, and even the use of death and punishment to teach. But after three Dark Souls games, I really wanted to see them do something different.

With Sekiro, they finally did. While they did pull forward many of the house design choices that shot them to popularity, this time they made a pure action game. The combat a true masterpiece that, even after 70+ hours of play and going through something like six layers of New Game+, never stopped being engaging in every moment. The big system at the heart of this combat is the posture gauge, which everyone in this world adheres to. When posture is broken the target will be stunned granting the opportunity to perform a deathblow. However, because posture recovers quickly you must be learn to be aggressive, or you will get stuck in long fights that whittle you and your resources down. Sekiro isn’t about waiting to find your windows of attack, but about making them through relentless attacks and quick thinking defense.

This whole system turns every fight into a dance of clashing swords, both parties wrestling back and forth to lead the steps. Time after time I would find a new dance partner who was better than me. I would work and work to learn their steps so I could lead rather than stumbling as I tried to follow. Then, when I would feel like the moves are just too hard for me, I would start the music one more time. Each of my movements would put them in just the right place, every parry they performed would flow right back into my own, and when they were desperate I would step on their blade, completing the dance flawlessly.

All that said, the game does have some issues. The world is full of beautiful vistas looking out across the mountains of Feudal Japan, and it goes into the spirit realm to explore the magical Fountainhead Palace full of fish-like people. Unfortunately the game tends to shy away from the fantastical, while I wish it had embraced more of it. And out of the fourteen bosses in the game, four of them are remixed versions of previous ones. But I never got bored of these fights, I just wanted more.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is now my gold standard action game. I want to dance to the sound of metal striking metal as it rings out over the mountainside again.

Glance, glance, CLANG!