Trevor Starkey’s Top 20 Games of 2019

As I looked back across the 30 games I played this year (well, 30 games of 2019, I also revisited a handful of non-2019 games like the Borderlands and Bioshock series), I have come to the realization that this just wasn’t a particularly “Trevor” year in games. I had a lot of fun (enough to want to write up little blurbs about 20 of the 30 at least), but when I compare this list to last year’s, I think only the top three would have snuck in to last year’s top ten. Admittedly, I also missed some of the year’s biggest games for a variety of reasons you can read about here, but that just further fuels the thought that 2019 was a bit of a filler year for me. That said, here are twenty I liked (I originally had a top ten but there were enough honorable mentions that I wanted to speak to that I just said “top twenty it is, then”).

20. Super Mario Maker 2

I didn’t play a single user-created level of this game, because those so often turn into the masochistic level designs that I loathe to play. They make for entertaining viewing though because schadenfreude is a hell of a thing. I simply played through all hundred of the Nintendo-created levels in the games story mode and had a wonderfully pleasant time. 

19. Luigi’s Mansion 3

If nothing else, Luigi’s Mansion 3 will go down in history as the first thing every reviewed on That Nerdy Site. It was my first time with a Luigi’s Mansion game and all in all, I had a fun time with the ghostbusting premise. If only the controls didn’t drive me crazy by the end.

18. Kingdom Hearts III

I’ve talked often about my complicated feelings toward Kingdom Hearts. I absolutely adored the first two games in the series as a bonkers mash-up of the Disney characters I grew up with and the Square Enix JRPGs I loved. But then the series went off into so many nonsensical spinoffs that I just gave up and started to resent the series for leaving me behind. So I carried all of that into Kingdom Hearts III with me. And it’s placement here so low on the list is indicative of my feelings toward Square Enix JRPGs and story-telling these days. It was a mostly fine experience for me. I appreciated that I knew enough of the tangential stories and characters to more or less follow what was going on but I mostly felt nothing for myself. Especially in the game’s third act I most often found myself thinking “oh this doesn’t really mean anything to me but I bet Cameron or Christian or Brandon or Alex absolutely loved this moment.”

17. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

I backed this spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on its Kickstarter back in 2015, shortly after I played that PlayStation classic for the first time. In the years since, I had mostly forgotten about it apart from the occasional backer email updating me on delays or design changes. But when it finally arrived this year, I sat down with it and was having a pretty good time. It definitely feels like the game it is trying to be, with all of the good and bad that comes with that. I got really close to beating the game but then my attention was pulled elsewhere (based on the timing, I think it was Super Mario Maker 2’s release, followed by traveling to Austin for RTX) and I just never felt the urge to get back to it. Good enough for what it was though.

16: Untitled Goose Game

I started Untitled Goose Game when it launched but it didn’t really connect so I moved on to something else. I revisited it right at year-end when I was trying to squeeze in as many games as I could for consideration and saw it available on Xbox Game Pass. When I played it again, I went through the whole thing in one sitting and while I certainly enjoyed the game, I will probably always think back on how insanely meme-ified the game became on Twitter and the like (going so far as to getting a sketch with The Muppets at The Game Awards). It just seemed disproportionate for a game where you basically just play as troll..oooooooooh nope. Now I get it.

15. Death Stranding

This was such a complicated game for me. When Logan originally wanted to review it for the site I was relieved, especially as I played through it ahead of him, because it so wildly swung back and forth between me enjoying it and despising it so I was glad, he wanted to give it a score instead. Then life intervened and he just wasn’t going to get through it in a timely fashion so it was going to fall to me. Then while I drug my feet, Cameron took point and I was relieved again. I was the first of us to actually beat the thing so it also meant I was in a prime position to edit his review, the most in-depth edit we’ve had on the site so far. Cameron ultimately enjoyed the game more than I did but this game certainly had its moments. In the middle section of the game, I found this weird sense of fulfillment and peace simply making deliveries and collecting resources to build out the roads for myself and other players. Not only was I helping myself, but the idea that I was helping others paired up in my instance of the world was weirdly very rewarding. But then I’d go back to the story and feel helpless and struggle again. Every time I tried to progress into new areas, that was the sensation and I absolutely hated it. The performances were great even if the story was whatever. This really was a game that just flew all over the place for me so I’m glad Cam ultimately landed on a score for it and spared me the hassle.

14. Trover Saves the Universe

Meanwhile, in a phenomenally different direction, Trover was just fun, stupid absurdity. Certainly built for, and best experienced in, VR, I appreciated that it also gave a non-VR way to play the game so I didn’t have to pull out the setup. If you like Justin Roiland’s writing and humor from stuff like Rick and Morty and Accounting+, then this will be right up your alley. If you do not, I recommend keeping your distance because this probably won’t change that. It worked for me though and had some great laugh-out-loud moments throughout.

13. Gears 5

Probably the biggest game I squeezed in at year-end, I had a mostly good time with Gears 5. The story and characters were a lot of fun and I enjoyed the game’s couple of open-world areas for side missions (they felt like light versions of the Madagascar or Western Ghats sections of Uncharted 4 or Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, respectively). My biggest gripe with Gears continues to be how heavy and clumsy to control the games feel. It’s just not as fun and nimble as I’d like it to be (even if it does probably accurately portray how bulky those characters and armor would feel). From a narrative perspective, I wasn’t expecting the big “choice” that the game has you make near the end and I’m interested to see where The Coalition takes the narrative in future games, even if I’m less interested in how it will feel to play the next games.

12. Creature in the Well

I first played Creature in the Well at PAX East and really enjoyed how unique the idea of hack-and-slash pinball (or pinbrawler) felt. When the game eventually came out, I engulfed it. I reached bit of wall at some point but then I realized I could power up my character (one of my biggest critiques is that it didn’t really do a good job explaining this) and then I was off to the races. I wound up enjoying it so much that I 100%-ed both on my Switch and on my Xbox as part of Game Pass (which I played while waiting for Gears to download initially). I don’t know if they’ll explore a sequel but the core gameplay hook was fun enough that I would love to see how Flight School could expand on it.

11. Ape Out

PAX East 2019 was the busiest show I ever had (until I topped it at PAX West 2019). Because I wasn’t really worrying about creating content in the form of preview write-ups or blogs/vlogs, I weirdly was able to play more games (probably because I could just play a game, send out a tweet about what I thought, and move on to the next thing). All of that said, PAX East was an incredibly busy show for me, despite suffering a minor social anxiety attack and avoiding the show for almost entire day. But I had Ape Out to help me cope. Playing through the entire game in a single sitting in my Boston hotel room was just what I needed in that moment. The soundtrack is the standout but the gameplay is also a ton of fun. The only thing that keeps the game for cracking the top ten is that there is a sense of randomness to a lot of the level design that winds up making some of the late game just feel unfair. I could go from dying time after time after time to having a virtually flawless run due to this so when I died, it didn’t feel fair, and when I succeeded, it didn’t feel rewarding. Again, great soundtrack though.

10. Katana Zero

Katana Zero, like Untitled Goose Game, was something that I started when it came out but it just didn’t hit for me at the time. So when I was looking for a short title to visit after Gears at year-end, I circled back around to this one and it was the right mindset, right time. Another great soundtrack. The fast-paced action and “combat” plays out more like a puzzle you have to solve since I single-hit will kill you and the optional objectives throughout the various missions end up taking the narrative and dialogue variations in fun and interesting directions.

9. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

I definitely won’t have the time or inclination to dive into all of the characters and grind them all up into the higher levels but the story and mash-up of so many different factions of Marvel makes for an incredibly fun time. Mindlessly hacking and slashing and using power combos on back guys handheld on my Switch made for a great way to wind down so many nights before turning in and getting some sleep and it’ll probably have home on my Switch and nightstand for the foreseeable future.

8. Control

When I first played Control at PAX East, I was baffled. The aimless demo with significant performance issues (including my game crashing before the allotted demo time ended) left me wondering why they would show off the game in that state. Fortunately, the final product left a better taste in my mouth. It still has some significant frame rate and performance issues when fighting a lot of enemies or when there was a lot of destruction and particle effects flying around the screen but the story and design of The Oldest House was great and the combat and traversal was right up my alley. As a fan of what Remedy explored with Quantum Break, I appreciated just how much Control felt like a natural progression for the studio.

7. Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 has a lot of issues. Menus chug and should be way easier to navigate, the maps are obtuse, the humor is often lacking and juvenile, and I lost track of how many times half of my game audio would just cut out until I’d quit and restart. But I also still had a lot of fun. In addition to playing through the game on my own as I have in the previous titles, I actually played through the entire story of this one with Logan. It was a ton of fun and had the added benefit of giving us a lot of time to discuss our ideas for That Nerdy Site in the lead-up to our launch. I dove back into the game for the first round of DLC at year’s end and enjoyed another few hours of the game and will continue to check back in here and there when new content drops.

6. Days Gone

Days Gone and the story around its reception fascinates me. If I had played it when it first came out, I would probably have a lot of the common issues talked about at the time. It’s a long game and the branching storylines don’t really make it easy to pursue a “golden path” if you want to. And even when I jumped into it in December, it still had incredibly frustrating performance issues that led to frame rate crawls as the game went on. But on the other hand, of the games that came out this year, this was probably the most “Trevor” game that came out in 2019 as my tastes in recent years have frequently gravitated around story-driven open world action-adventure titles (God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn, Spider-Man). And since I sat down and played it while struggle with an at-the-time slow job hunt, the length of the game didn’t bother me. I wanted more to do and explore. Additionally, I feel like the games great writing and characters got lost in all of the criticisms of its gameplay loop and length. Sam Witwer’s portrayal of Deacon St. John was great and his relationships with Sara and Boozer felt incredibly genuine and lived in and it made me care for those characters. The villains were also perfectly detestable to the point where when one of them was introduced in the later stages of the game, I immediately thought to myself, “oh it’s definitely going to be satisfying when this guy dies!” and it was. Looking back at it, it looks like I played through the whole game from start to Platinum in only about four days. It felt longer than that, but in a good way because I felt like I was engrossed in that world for that much longer. I even went through after the Platinum hunt and fought through every Horde in the game. I hated stumbling across them in the early game because even when I ran from them, I often found myself getting overwhelmed. But by the time the game gave me the tools to really take them on, each time felt awesome.

5. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

After a series of canceled projects and a Star Wars Battlefront II campaign that was frustratingly lacking in an engaging and complete story, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order might just feel great in comparison. But I think Fallen Order would stand on its own merits even outside that scope. That fact that Star Wars and Respawn got me to enjoy a Soulsborne-like at all is an accomplishment. And they did it by directly addressing so many of the things I don’t like about the genre. First and foremost: a difficulty setting. I played through the whole game on the Jedi Knight/Normal level but I was grateful to know that there was an easier option if I needed to resort to it to progress through the game. Additionally, they did a great job filling the game with Star Wars accoutrements like broken down droids and set dressing. And I will absolutely revisit the game and determine my what Lightsaber components I want before I inevitably head back to Disneyland this year to build my own in order to match it with the game.

4. Concrete Genie

Concrete Genie is a profoundly sweet and beautiful game. In time, I won’t remember the name of the kid, or the bullies you face, or the town you’re trying to save. In fact, they’ve already all escaped my memory. But I will remember the imagery of the game and the way it made me feel. I’ll remember collecting new designs for my Genies and new objects to paint. I’ll remember painting a wall with snowflakes and watching my Genie eat them or giving them an apple to throw and one another. I’ll remember pulling out my PSVR to try the VR mode of the game and being in awe at the ways in which Pixelopus translated some of their 2D designs into a creative sandbox 3D space, like painting stars in the sky. Concrete Genie is an artistically rich game and I enjoyed my time with it.

3. The Outer Worlds

A few years back, I named Fallout 4 my game of the year. Despite all of its flaws, it was the game I wanted at the time. The Outer Worlds is very much a natural successor to that style and if it had been a larger experience or felt a bit more polished, it might have worked its way higher up on this year’s list. But a lot of those shortcomings are to be expected. Obsidian largely developed the game as an independent studio prior to their Xbox acquisition so their resources meant they had to aim for a smaller experience. The world they have built and characters like Parvati are great and fun and I very much look forward to seeing them expand on that in the future, but I also hope they can address issues with combat. The gunplay in these games feels like too much of an afterthought. In Fallout, it gets masked by VATS but the Tactical Time Dilation in Outer Worlds doesn’t match that effect so but the end of the game, I was often just trying to avoid combat as much as possible because it was dragging down my enjoyment. But perhaps the best compliment I can give it is that when I returned to the game after getting pulled away to Fallen Order and Death Stranding, I planned on just mainlining the rest of the story. But all of the side missions and character quests were engaging enough that I wound up doing pretty much everything I could before finishing the main story anyway.

2. Life is Strange 2

The very last game I snuck into my 2019 playtime managed to shoot damn near the top of the list. I played the first Life is Strange in early 2016 so it missed being considered in my 2015 Game of the Year conversations. But I also played it while more or less being emotionally wrecked from a break-up so the game resonated with me at the time but I think in a very different way from others who had played it. I squeezed in Life is Strange 2 on the last two days of 2019 specifically so I didn’t miss the chance to potentially celebrate Dontnod’s storytelling again. And once again, one of the things that will likely sit with me is completely outside the game itself. It was the last game I played during my brief stint between jobs (since I’m fortunately starting my new one the day this post goes live). But aside from all of that, the story of Sean and Daniel Diaz in Life is Strange 2 is a series of punches to the gut that shine a light on something that I’ve never had to experience first-hand. The racism they encounter throughout their journey was so consistently frustrating. A few days removed, I’m still mad that there are so many characters in that game who don’t suffer any consequences for their needless cruelty. They just show up for a scene, hurt the protagonists with their words or actions, and then leave, safely protected by their white privilege. It’s one thing to be a middle-class white guy who sees clips or talks to POC friends and thinks “god there is a lot of bullshit in the world.” It’s something entirely different to be put in the shoes of a 16-year-old kid facing these harsh cruelties and being given narrative choices on how to react. In the few instances where I might have been able to make a choice to fight back, I never wanted to because I didn’t want to be the monster they saw me as. They didn’t get that victory. But neither did I. And applying my experience playing a video game and feeling that defeated must be nothing compared to the people who just live that life every day.

1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Hard pivot now because as brutal and impactful as Life is Strange 2’s story is, the gameplay is pretty lacking. Fire Emblem on the other hand, managed to mix a wide breadth of story-telling with the series’ well-known and polished strategy gameplay. In fact, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is pretty much solely responsible for delaying the launch of That Nerdy Site. I was working on copying all of my old Trevor Trove articles and posts over into the new website but then Fire Emblem came out and I just stopped cold and did nothing but play that game for a good month or so. After nearly three full playthroughs I was still being surprised by the characters and their relationships with one another and hopelessly addicted to the gameplay. It’s probably my favorite game on the Switch thus far and a solid recommendation from me to anyone who enjoys strategy games.

Thank you for reading my thoughts on my favorite games of 2019. Please consider checking out similar write-ups on my favorite tv and movies of the year if you have not and you can hear my thoughts on all three in this week’s That Nerdy Site Show

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