Weird year for games. Excellent year for Henry.
After being together for more than eight years, Kyla and I got engaged. I’d been planning it for quite some time – I bought her a dairy-free dessert making class to get her out of the house so I could go ask her parent’s permission, grab the family ring, and hide it at my parent’s before zooming back downtown to pick her up.
It felt very much like a video game checklist.
I waited until our trip to Hawaii to pop the question; pro-tip, your odds of her saying yes appear to increase when you’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Or, that’s a fallacy based on my own experiences. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
I asked her at the bottom of a crater in Volcano National Park. I could barely contain myself on our hike and it didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. I didn’t fool her for a second, went down on both knees instead of one and managed to scrape one knee on the volcanic ash ground (to add to my toe injury while scuba-diving). When she said yes, I couldn’t feel anything below my smile anyway.
We’re planning the wedding for 2021, so you’re stuck hearing about my engagement for at least another year.
Back to video games.
Weird year. It’s the first time in a long time I can remember not wanting to play the majority of the games that were garnering buzz. Despite critical success and great encouragement from all the gaming personalities I follow, I just couldn’t bring myself to try Disco Elysium or The Outer Wilds. They both seem interesting, and experiment with traditional formulas in their own unique way…dunno. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood.
Finances also are now more of a factor, as it turns out a wedding is not a cheap endeavor, nor is condo ownership, so that had some influence on what I played this year – having an Xbox Game Pass for PC (Unlimited) really saved me a few bucks and I’ll greatly be considering it again next year (a MASSIVE thank you to Brian!) However, this also means I was more reluctant to pay full price for other games. A less responsible version of me would’ve bought another 10 games and played everything else that I missed – Astral Chain, Pokemon Sword & Shield, Death Stranding and Borderlands 3 to name a few. The list of shame is not quite as egregious as other years, but I still didn’t get to everything I wanted.
I usually give myself January and some of February before I finalize my top 10, but that’s always dependent on what’s coming out. Next year, 2020, is set to be absolutely bonkers so I need to plan things out accordingly. Kentucky Route Zero finally has it’s 5th chapter releasing January 28th and that’s when I’ll start my 2020 journey…but there’s also nothing until March that I want to play. Do I take another month and try Rage 2, Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech and Luigi’s Mansion 3? It’s not like this is my job where I can play everything of note, but I occasionally lament previous iterations of top 10s and wish I’d been more patient, taken more time, and increase the sample size.
I feel 2019 was the calm before the storm. Next year we have an insane lineup, not to mention new consoles to boot. And a wedding to plan. Let’s go!
10) Katana Zero
If Hotline Miami and Snow Crash had a baby, it would look something like Katana Zero. The presentation is slick; animations are well done, there’s personality in every corner, there’s attitude with every conversation, there’s dread and despair seated next to luxury beyond your wildest expectations. And you’re here to murder.
I haven’t played another game like it. You’re the Dragon, an assassin for hire. Your goal is to zoom through 2-dimensional hotels, apartment buildings and movie studios to seek your target. The drugs you’re taking allow you to slow down time giving you god-like powers of repelling bullets with your samurai sword, rolling through laser grids and slicing gobs of mobsters in twain.
You’re also dead in one hit. And it’s really, really easy to die.
The first few levels were a breeze, but the difficulty ramps up quickly and brute force-ing the levels simply doesn’t work. When I started approaching each area like a puzzle game, instead of an action game, is when the game came alive. Ok, roll through the door taking out one guy, throw the bottle at the other guy, wait for the two others to run up the stairs, THEN slow down time and repel the final bullet. Easy.
There’s barely a penalty for dying (respawning is instantaneous) but you have to clear a room completely before you can move on. Careful analysis is needed and once I got into a hazy zone, or finally figured out how to take out the last target to move on, I felt like I was on drugs myself. It didn’t take long for my adrenaline to pump, become furious and flustered and failed to remind myself that it’s only a game. Besides, you have infinite lives. No reason to quit now.
The story is compelling and the background detail on the environments is stunning, even distracting at times. The synthwave soundtrack is sublime. After reflection, Katana Zero could easily find itself higher on the list if it hadn’t taken me so long to change my approach on the more difficult stages.
9) Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Ever since I heard this little ditty from Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, I’ve been drawn to the series. The soundtracks are nothing short of brilliant – varied, unique, hard hitting, exciting and eminently listenable.
I’ve never played a single Ace Combat game.
I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, so I watched a few previews. It appeared to be an aerial combat game, but with crazy plots, characters and enough melodrama to have its own soap opera.
That’s exactly what Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is.
The story is so poorly presented it’s unbelievable. This is why jumping into a series in the latest entry can be risky (see: Kingdom Hearts 3) – I had no idea what was going on, who was what, which sides were fighting and that INCLUDED mid-level twists where shockingly, one side has betrayed the other. I didn’t even know what SIDE I was on. I shot at my AI teammates constantly. The planes all look the same, and we’re fighting at night, what did you expect?
So, not a smooth flight. The checkpoint system is too punishing – if you have a 20 minute mission and you fail it at minute 19, guess what, you’re back at the beginning again (with a few exceptions). I almost quit playing.
But, the actual flying and fighting is a dream.
There are genuinely stressful, blissful, wonderful, terrifying moments as you dive in between the clouds, dodging a seemingly invincible enemy plane, swerving around rock spires in a lightning storm, trying to take down a floating aircraft carrier and bringing peace to…I have no idea to who (to whom?), but it really justified taking the plunge.
The final level through the space elevator was insane, successfully bringing back the best feelings of Star Fox 64, or Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader. I may not have been the best pilot, but I was good enough and so was Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.
8) Apex Legends
No game jumped around more on my top 10 than Apex Legends. For a while, it was number one. Then it dropped to 10. Then it was off the list completely. It ends up at Number 8, but I’m still not confident where it should be.
It’s certainly the most fun I’ve had playing a Battle Royale shooter. PUBG was my first foray, but it was too janky, unrefined and unforgiving for me to really get into. It doesn’t help that I am awful at online shooters. Always have been. The only reason I jumped into Apex Legends is that my friends were playing. And it was free. And it’s the most rookie-friendly Battle Royale Shooter. And the controls are tight. And the graphics are crisp. And movement is terrific. And the communication system is revolutionary. And it’s extremely satisfying when you finally (FINALLY!) win a match. And the map offers a terrific amount of variety. And nearly every weapon is interesting and fun to use. And matches usually don’t last very long. And there’s many different ways to play and win. And I got to chat with Eric, Jeff, Dobbo, Josh and Jack a lot.
You know, if I’m not confident in its placement, it’s only because it should be higher! …Or lower, since I don’t feel like playing it again. Unless Eric’s online, and they have a new map and new weapons and…DAMNIT.
7) Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
This one needed more time in the oven.
It’s a small miracle that a single player, narrative focused, Metroid-vania-esque Star Wars game was released under EA’s umbrella without their notorious micro transactions or DRM nonsense. With no forced use of a specific engine, Respawn really flexed what they can do. I’m still not convinced they didn’t have any undue influence from their poweful overlord- no matter how many times a company acquires another under the pretense of “not interfering”, it never works like that in the corporate world.
Enough of boring business talk. Many Stars Wars games are awesome. This is one of them.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s the first Star Wars video game I’ve played since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 16 years ago.
16 years! What the hell have I been doing with myself? What self professed geek would avoid nearly two decades of a series they supposedly love so much?
Don’t ask, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast last week, let alone rationalize my gaming decisions. Maybe that’s the primary motivation behind the 500 – cataloging it now before my memory goes.
I wish Debra Wilson had gotten more attention for her performance as Cere. She embodies a thoughtful, desperate, broken character that has a glimmer of hope. Her expressive eyes and superb line delivery kept me hooked the entire time. Easily my favorite character in a game that provided more than a few worthy new ones to the canon of Star Wars.
It’s not quite the 3D Metroidvania I hoped for – traversal is tough on the giant planets and many secrets aren’t worth the trip, but lightsaber (LIGHTSABER AHHHHH) combat is immensely satisfying and force pushing Stormtroopers off a cliff to their doom triggered a powerful, nostalgic rush of Serotonin every time. I’d LOVE to see a sequel with a few kinks ironed out. Who wouldn’t?
6) Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
I didn’t love Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze as much as everybody else did. I still liked it, mind you – it’s a 2D platformer in one of my favorite series ever, but I felt the controls didn’t quite translate as nicely as they did in the SNES days. The new graphical style left something to be desired. To be sure, the level design was stellar and the music was terrific. Playing co-op with Kyla was a natural fit, but something was missing.
I found it in, of all places, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair.
The original Yooka-Laylee, a throwback to the collect-athons that populated the first few generations of 3D, wasn’t received with open arms. Fans passionately donated to the sum of over 3 million dollars to get the original created, trusting former Rare developers and the brains behind Banjo-Kazooie to provide some old magic. They may not have gotten it right with Yooka-Laylee, but man did they ever nail the landing with the sequel.
The movement feels terrific. The classic jump-out-of-a-roll-in-mid-air is back; it’s back! I miss this in every game I don’t have it. It’s my favorite move, and one that can be only found in video games. It doesn’t make SENSE otherwise, I mean what are you jumping off of? Air?
Irrelevant. I’m jumping in mid-air because of my excellent timing, and the precision controls. There are secrets aplenty, but perhaps the most intriguing difference is how levels are presented. Each stage is a displayed as a book, but through some pretty ingenious “overworld” maneuvering, a book can be frozen, smeared with goo, flipped upside down or covered in water to create a second version of the level you’ve already ran through. This isn’t some cheap aesthetic change – everything is different. New hazards present themselves, the secret items are in different locations, enemies will have new reactions, traversal will change – even the music gets a total make over. It’s an absolutely brilliant mechanic that squeezes out even more creativity from an already creative world of platforms and perils.
There’s a factor that is going to make or break this game for players, and that’s the final level. The titular Impossible Lair comes as advertised. You can tackle it at any time, however each regular stage rewards you with a “bee” warrior that will absorb a hit in the Impossible Lair. For most players, it will be HIGHLY recommended you find nearly all the 48 bees; I’ve never seen such a punishing level in a platformer, not in Celeste (B and C sides excluded), not in Ori and the Blind Forest.
Part of it is the length – it’s a really, really long level with no checkpoints. None. You take 48 hits/falls (or however many hits you’ve given yourself), and you’re back at the beginning. I really had to tap into every trick I’ve learned, all my reflex and patience I’ve learned as a gamer to get through. It “only” took me five tries, but I finally won by the skin of my teeth and I was breathless by the end of it. It’s a maniacal way to put your own spin on a game, I’m not sure how many players will appreciate such a massive difficulty spike…but I made it with a smile on my face. Enough to put it at spot number 6, anyway.
5) The Walking Dead: The Final Season
It was a tough pill to swallow. Telltale, the developer responsible for so many terrific, narrative based adventure games of the past decade, was closing shop halfway through release of The Walking Dead: The Final Season. Not being able to finish Clementine’s story was a punch to the gut, remedied by the rescue of Skybound Games who would oversee completion of the story.
In the end, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact of the first in the series – one of my all time favorite games. It’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice, let alone three or four times and I shouldn’t have had high expectations going in.
Still, I couldn’t help but be enraptured. I *love* these kinds of games. Not every narrative-focused game or walking simulator interests me, but these types sure do. The focus isn’t on action, but dialogue. And when the voice acting is professional, the story beats are thrilling and the characters are adorable, every choice does have an impact, at least to me.
Clementine’s romance with her friend, taking a leadership role in a school, parenting AJ and trying to survive the post zombie apocalypse with her humanity intact was almost as good as I’d hoped. When “Take Us Back” plays again, it’s for a much more pleasant reason.
4) Devil May Cry 5
I’m one of the few (apparently) that adored DmC and didn’t see it as the black sheep of the series. I wasn’t as relieved when Devil May Cry 5 was awesome, I was just happy.
The environments and character models are absolutely stunning, the best I’ve ever seen. It’s getting zany how good games can look now, with a solid framerate to boot and I wasn’t even playing on a PS4 Pro. Maybe I’m just easy to please, but when I can wield two motorcycle chainsaws in combination attacks against foul-mouthed, foul-everything else demons and hellspawn, I’m going to be having a good time.
I never pay attention to the Devil May Cry stories much, but I still love how much brash personality all the protagonists have. Nothing is ever too difficult for them; crash Satan’s party? They’ll do it with a smile on their face, a terrible quip and a crappy mini-van to arrive in.
The addition of the new character V was my favorite part. The morose, Adam Driver looking fella, has the power to control a panther, bird and golem to take out his enemies for him. I reveled in standing back and watching as helpless monsters were rendered to shreds by my angry kitty and zapped to dust by my electricity spewing pal from the skies. Since V has to deal the final blow, I really had to pay close attention during every single fight; not an easy task, since the musical score ranges from loud to louder and there’s chaos on the screen nearly every second. It felt finicky at first, but now I want a whole game with this guy.
Devil May Cry 6?
Henry May Enjoy.
3) Gears 5
Well no shit a Gears game is in my top 10. Every Gears game satisfies my unquenchable thirst to ruin monsters, be ripped and save humanity.
What’s that? I got it free with Xbox Game Pass for PC? Oh, AND Eric wants to play co-operatively?
It’s not even fair to the other games on the list.
Gears 5, the first to dump the “of War” from the title…I have to stop here, I’m sorry. I know I harp on nomenclature in video franchises too much, but here’s another example of how stupid it can be. This is a MID-TRILOGY name change, mind you. We had Gears of War 1/2/3/4, now Gears 5. Not Gears of War 5. Gears 5, which is what everybody calls it anyway, but still. I can only assume the sixth game will be called G6. Did they do it to avoid the acronym battle with God of War?
We had MAJOR technical problems as well. Half the time our game would crash, or we’d load into the wrong game, or one of us would have to leave while the other hosted, update our drivers, pray to the digital gods, and even when it WORKED load times were biblical. It’s a beta program, and it shows.
Once we did get up and running, we had a terrific time. The usual stop and pop was there, with waist high walls everywhere to provide cover, and guns aplenty to blow up the Locust. It didn’t take long for Eric to find his footing (his first Gears game!) and I couldn’t stop him from chainsawing dudes in half because IT’S SO SATISFYING AND DISGUSTING AND WE DID IT ALL THE TIME.
I feel like shouting at the top of my lungs for the rest of this post. Everybody has biceps the size of hot water tanks, and seemingly brush their teeth with creatine. Every headshot results in a splattering of skull goo, with accompanying gross noise. Bosses are the size of buildings. The planet is at risk. You know, every Gears game.
Some interesting touches this time round – we had a robot buddy named Jack who could freeze and stun our enemies. We used this ability CONSTANTLY and even on the normal difficulty, we died often. There are two sections that are “open-world”. Not sure if this was needed, but it left the characters ample time to flesh out the plot and expand their personalities. Nice touch.
The ice boss was merciless. One-hit deaths are awful, particularly when there are two of you and therefore you’re twice as likely to fail the mission when you don’t hop out of the way of this roidy magoo who had no problem ripping us in half.
I was impressed with how they did the story with two players. Normally, a cut-scene occurs and the gameplay freezes while you watch. Control retains when you’re done. There are a few bits like this, but there are also a few bits when Eric’s character would go into a semi-trance, and I wouldn’t see what Eri was seeing. It was really effective – Eric would start walking aimlessly, or stand still and I’d ask him what was going on. My character would shake her and ask her what was wrong. I never saw what Eric saw, so we had to communicate what was going on in Kait’s head. Great stuff.
I’ve gone through so many games with Eric in multiplayer that it was really satisfying to do so co-operatively. We had a hard time figuring out when the last time was we played through a campaign together; I’m really hoping the next one isn’t too far off.
The second I walked into a faceless, gargantuan office building with brutalist architecture and nobody at the front desk, I was hooked. It really does feel like a combination of Remedy Entertainment’s previous franchises, Max Payne(s) and Alan Wake. It works far better than it should.
Control, maybe not the best title but an appropriate one, is an outstanding game. It’s got themes present from the X-Files, Lost, Twin Peaks and SCP which means it gives me all the benefits of being creeped out, but didn’t outright terrify me like other horror games. I have a limit, Control finds the sweet spot.
The cutscenes are the star of the show. The alien language, the cryptic voicemails, the disturbing footage, the scientist experiments and the messages from your seemingly dead Director all work in tandem to create a wonderful atmosphere that’s equally thrilling to explore, and dangerous. I also loved how the entire game takes place in one building – it may mean a lack of variety in visuals, but it makes up for it with consistency. I am in the Forgotten House for the entirety of Jesse Faden’s adventure, and you get to know it inside and further inside.
The mundane nature of working in an office is shown off here tremendously. To you, vanishing fridges and levitating objects are the most incredible spectacle. To the workers who have to deal with them, it’s just another 9-5 gig filled with annoyances. You start to adjust to the insanity yourself, until the next surprise pokes its head around the corner.
Traversal, shooting, exploration, backtracking, enemies and powers are all well thought out, and offer a fair level of challenge. The lighting and reflections are supremely impressive, I never got tired of visiting a new boardroom and wondering how the hell anybody, or anything, built this place.
Oh, and more Dr. Darling please. The video diaries with him (not digitized, real life footage) were a treat every time and a trademark of Remedy Entertainment. Special praise should be given to actor Matthew Porretta for bringing this delightful side character to life. No Remedy game would be complete without a hard rock song accompanying the game’s best level; this is a unique, tremendous experience if you’re willing to put up with a few minor annoyances.
1) Fire Emblem: Three Houses
It’s no secret that I love JRPGs, and have been longing for one that reminds me of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber or Suikoden 2. Hard to find these days – it may have been “easier” in the past to provide a cast of dozens, and allow you to build up your army and your base against the back drop of political intrigue, magic and deception in the past – but in today’s landscape that all just sounds very expensive, niche and risky.
Thankfully, Fire Emblem: Three Houses answered the bell and I couldn’t have been happier.
It scratches every itch I have as a gamer – colorful personalities, dwellings that feel like home, a massive supporting cast that you care about, varied combat, a feeling of progression and a story that forces you to keep playing. I loved it.
It’s very anime, and if you’re not into that, I don’t blame you. For every great line read, or poignant scene, there’s an overly melodramatic one that makes you roll your eyes or cringe at the attempted humor. To boot, it takes about 50 hours to beat. I mean, who has the time these days?
But, if you’ve read any of my previous top 10s, you’ll know I’m forgiving when it comes to minor blemishes if a game gets the big things right, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses just does that.
First of all, how impressive is it that you can choose one of three school houses and it affects the story throughout the game? To see every plot beat and ending, you’ll have to play through the game four times. That’s ambitious, even if I never plan to do so. I picked the Golden Deer House and can’t imagine getting as attached to other students as I did to Raphael, Hilda and Lysithea. They were my rag tag bunch of miscreants; we fought and celebrated together many times, and the interludes where they interacted without me started out as cheesy, but quickly grew on me. Seeing Lorenz and Ignatz evolve throughout the years into more mature, if not still goofy, adults made my heart swell.
I couldn’t handle the potential of permanently losing one of my friends – I turned perma-death off and played on normal difficulty. I couldn’t care less if it was easy, I was having fun in the battles, I was having fun running around the school, I was just having fun. Every minute. The soundtrack got me pumped up for the upcoming fracas, recruiting students opened up new tactical possibilities and learning about the students only endeared themselves to me more.
The final act felt a bit rushed, especially compared to the meticulously crafted story up until then. But by the time the credits rolled and I got an update on where my housemates ended up in life, it was utterly satisfying. I’d grown so attached to these characters, both as useful tools in battle and as comrades that I ate and sang and dreamt next to for dozens of hours, that a quiet bookend to their lives was a beautiful relief. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my game of the year.