Where 2018 was somewhat disappointing for me in terms of gaming, 2019 delivered the good - often in ways that I didn’t expect.
No matter the month, there was always something new and exciting to talk about and, no matter your genre of choice, something worth taking the time to properly sink your teeth into.
There's been incredible indies like Eliza and Ashen - both of which didn't quite make my list. Capcom went three for three when it came to their biggest franchises. EA made a Star Wars game that I have not yet played but most people seem to agree is quite good!
Even older live-service games continued to stay compelling in 2019 through major content updates. There was a time where it looked like Destiny 2, Apex Legends and even Artifact (!) might have made the cut for my favourite games of the year.
2019 was the first time in a long time that it was a genuine struggle to trim my shortlist down to ten. At one point I seriously considered putting the Switch Lite on this list. Eventually, I got there. Here are my ten favourite games of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Resident Evil 2, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey DLC, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, Artifact, Rage 2, Eliza, Ashen, The Outer Worlds, Underlords, Wargroove, Total War: Three Kingdoms, Devil May Cry V, Apex Legends
10. Return of The Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn was the 2018 gaming gem that slipped through the cracks for me.
Everybody who told me to play this game last year was absolutely on the money. Return of the Obra Dinn is an audaciously-clever follow-up to Papers, Please! and (probably) the most original adventure game I've played in years.
If there’s anything that sticks with me about Obra Dinn, it’s the specific sense of achievement you get as you gradually piece together the identities of those on the titular ghost ship and what happened to them. There’s this delicious point where you run out of obvious clues and are faced with a vague sense of incredulity. Surely, you must have missed something. There's no way the game expects you to solve its biggest mysteries with just these clues, right?
Wrong! One breakthrough leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, there’s a deep, primal satisfaction that comes with filling out the blanks and realising that, actually, you're smart enough to solve this on your own after all.
Speaking of games that explore the idea of intrinsic skill, one of my favourite games of 2019 has been Keyforge.
A new competitive card game from Richard Garfield (MTG, Artifact, Netrunner), Keyforge has a hell of a hook: it breaks a lot of the rules that define what games like this usually look like. There's no resource management. There are no booster packs. You're not trying to destroy your opponent. You're trying to build something.
Each freshly-opened Keyforge pack features a procedurally generated combination of cards that is entirely unique. As opposed to traditional card battlers like Magic or modern digital counterparts like Hearthstone, there's no deck construction to speak of. You can't mix and match cards to build a better deck. You get what you get, and you're stuck with it for better or worse.
There are still good decks and decks in Keyforge but everyone is in the same boat - which evens the playing field in a big way. Most of the time, winning a game of Keyforge is about how quickly you are able to understand what kind of deck you have and how best to wrangle it's myriad imperfections.
My biggest struggle with Keyforge has been finding people to play it with. There's a small local scene in Sydney but it's not huge. If someone could make a sleeker, digital version of this experience akin to something like Hearthstone, I’d be on it in a heartbeat.
All told, I didn’t play nearly as much of it as I wanted to but Keyforge’s unconventional efforts to deconstruct and challenge how you frame and measure the idea of “skill” in the realm of strategic card games made it an easy favourite for me this year.
Yep. I’m still playing Overwatch.
Even if I didn’t get my competitive rank quite as high as I wanted to, Blizzard's team-based shooter is still my go-to multiplayer game. Sure, I’ve flirted with things like Destiny 2 and Apex Legends over the last twelve months but Overwatch continues to be the thing I continue to come back to.
Although the vacuous gulf of time between the introduction of Sigma in July and next February (which is when I expect Blizzard will add another hero to the game based on previous years) is proving rather daunting at present, there’s still plenty to like about where Overwatch is at in 2019.
The introduction of role-lock feels like it has gone a long way towards putting casual and competitive players on the same page and new characters like Sigma and Baptiste have shaken up the meta in meaningful ways.
I’m still playing with friends most nights of the week. I’m still watching and following the Overwatch League. I’m excited to see what Blizzard do with Overwatch 2 and I've even dabbled a bit with playing the new Switch version of the game.
For me, Overwatch remains one of those games that keeps me coming back because it's a place where the numbers go up as I get better rather than the other way around.
7. Sunless Skies
Envisioned as an interstellar follow-up to the eerie horror of Sunless Seas, Sunless Skies sees you traverse the spellbound colonies of a space-faring British empire in a flying train.
The emphasis here is less on the central narrative that provides an excuse for your adventures through the cosmos and more on the joy of going to new places and submerging yourself in the vibe of the world. It’s about the thrill of gradually discovering the secrets, institutions, dynamics and personalities that hold sway in the game’s strange, otherworldly setting.
Regardless, it's exactly this quality that also made Sunless Skies into one of the most difficult games I’ve ever had to review.
Sunless Skies is a game deeply concerned with the tension between the journey and the destination. There’s an incredible atmosphere that comes with every venture out into the black and a dizzying sense of distance between the locales within it. However, there’s also a sense of unadulterated emptiness to the space you’re inhabiting that can make traversing the Reach feel unavoidable boring or dull.
And yet, at times, this feels like a deliberate choice. A calculated gambit that serves to make the setting, characters and story all the more authentic and well-realised. Instant gratification isn’t something that Failbetter are interested in delivering and the fiction they’ve created here is likely better for it.
Sunless Skies is often repetitive and tedious to the point of tedium but the writing was always rewarding enough to make me smile, continue on my way and plot a course for the next adventure.
My first death in Sunless Skies, was equal parts embarrassing and fitting. My crew was desperate, starved and half-mad from the horrors they’d witnessed. We’d just narrowly escaped what we initially thought to be a friendly vessel, until a bouquet of otherworldly tentacles burst from its bow.
6. Sayonara Wildhearts
Sayonara Wildhearts feels like the kind of game I’ve been quietly willing someone to make for the better part of a decade. A fusion of rhythm, racing, and action games, it’s a psychedelic fairytale that tasks you with tracking down the titular Wildhearts and restoring order to the cosmos.
The audio and visual elements here are impeccably stylish and ways you interact with the game manage the deft double act of being both incredibly simple yet deeply satisfying.
At times, Sayonara Wildhearts comes across like an incredible mixtape you’re itching to share with everyone you know. It’s bursting with reinvention, recollection, escalation, evolution and, above all, a distinct sense of style. It’s aesthetically striking, immaculately paced and catchy-as-all-get out.
Months later, I’m still jamming out to the soundtrack for this one.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is a shining example of using a game’s design to say something meaningful while also making it look cool as hell. The game controls simply with the analogue stick and a single button. What makes it stand out is its music, its look, and its mood.
5. Modern Art
Modern Art has fast become one of the favourite board games this year. It’s complex enough to allow for nuanced strategy but not so much as to difficult to introduce friends and family to it.
Each player plays as an art gallery. You take turns to buy and sell art. However, it’s only at the end of each round that scores get awarded and you find out which artists proved popular enough to be worth the investment and which artists weren’t.
Modern Art is a game that’s as fun as it is clever. It doesn’t just interrogate the great delusion of speculative markets, it makes it fun.
As a tragic for games with ambitious that far outstrip their budgets and/or the actual talent involved with making them, Remedy has always been one of my favourite developers.
And yet, Control is unlike any other game Remedy have previously made in that it’s genuinely, unapologetically, good. The writing? Good. The setting? Killer. The combat? Fantastic! The FMV lore-dumps? Maybe some of the weirdest that Remedy have ever done. Please give Matthew Porretta that Game Award. He’s earned it.
Control is excellent in a way that doesn’t come with caveats, nor does it compromise on the bold and beautiful weirdness that the studio has become known for.
Elsinore was one of my biggest surprises this year. Essentially, it’s a Hamlet simulator. You play as Ophelia, the Danish Prince’s love interest, trapped in a Groundhog Day-inspired timeloop that sees you relive the traumatic events of the play over and over.
The trick here is that, each time you play presents you with new opportunities to divert the story in new directions. What happens if Ophelia goes up to Gertude and tells her that Hamlet is planning to murder Claudius? What new decisions are birthed by this chain of suspicion? How does your meddling change the story of Hamlet? Can you avert the natural course of the play and save everyone in Elsinore or are they destined for disaster?
As someone who went through a Shakespeare-phase when I was younger, I was also thrilled by the ways that Golden Glitches expand on and subvert the material here. The developer gender-swap Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they explore gender, sexuality and race in a way that Shakesheaper’s play can only hint at and they bring the world, characters and events of the original play to life in a way that’s genuinely revelatory.
2. Disco Elysium
An adventure game wrapped in the trappings of a CRPG and a pulpy detective fiction, Disco Elysium isn’t quite perfect but it’s so close that I’m willing to give it a pass.
Set in a melancholic dystopia that’s entirely different to our world yet beset by problems that are all too familiar, Disco Elysium doesn’t merely embrace the idea that games are political. It practically gets high off it.
In a time where the biggest publishers and AAA developers in gaming are contorting themselves in rhetorical knots to justify the absurd idea that games don’t or can’t carry any political weight, Disco Elysium says to hell with the trojan horse approach. Instead, the game makes exploring such ideologies it’s central conceit.
What kind of cop do you want to be? A good one? A bad one? A communist one looking to smash the state? A feeble centrist or a thuggist fascist? Disco Elysium digitises parts of the tabletop roleplaying experience often left lost in translation.
On top of this feat, pretty much every other aspect of Disco Elysium hits the mark. The dialogue in the game here is unfairly funny. The skill system is freakishly original. The characters are distinct and consistently authentic. The soundtrack is moody, the sense of mystery is intoxicating and the setting of Revachol itself is almost absurdly-overdeveloped.
Disco Elysium is more than a modern imitation of Planescape: Torment, I’d go so far as to say it surpasses Black Isle’s iconic CRPG in all the ways that matter.
1. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
If From Software don’t return to the world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice through DLC or a sequel, I’ll be a little unsatisfied. Still, it’s hard to complain too much after the developer delivered one of the best action games I’ve ever played.
Though I’ve yet to really spend that much time with the Dark Souls series proper, 2019 was the year I started more confidently dabbling with the series’ many imitators and adherents. And where Ashen made for a fantastic entry-ramp into the genre, Sekiro saw me utterly enthralled.
The rhythmic combat, evocative atmosphere, mythic setting and the addictive hook of taking down bigger and bigger opponents because you got better (rather than because they became worse) proved a compelling cocktail that no other game this year could match.
Just when I think the sense of achievement of defeating one particular boss can’t be beaten, the game would introduce another even-more difficult dance-partner for me to strive against and eventually overcome.
If there’s any common trend to the games I spent the most time with in 2019 it’s that in a time where there are literally an impossible amount of great games that I could sink my time into, I’m increasingly gravitating towards games that offer me the chance to explore my own limits and learn to transcend them. Experiences that provoke me to learn to become a better version of myself.
Of all the games I dabbled with in 2019, none hit those notes quite as well as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice did.