Now that we’ve made it to 2020, it was interesting to take a look back on my year in gaming in 2019. For me personally it was a mostly quiet year in terms of gaming, with long stretches in between anticipated releases, giving me more time than usual to dive in and tackle older games occupying my “Backlog”. Regardless of that there were many games I put plenty of hours into and enjoyed in 2019. Below is the list of my top 10 games from this last year, with brief bit about why each made my list.
10. Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the 4th and final campaign added in the Shovel Night: Treasure Trove collection, marking the end of development for the original Shovel Knight and making this one of the most packed platformer packages out there. I’m continually amazed how the developers are able to change and innovate on one of my favorite games of 2014, entirely changing levels while still leaving them familiar and recognizable. As with the other campaigns released, not only have the levels been changed, the gameplay has also been revamped and customized to fit the new star of the game King Knight.
His main attack is a shoulder charge forward, when an enemy or wall is charged into he will fly into the air with a twirl, hurting enemies or breaking blocks to reveal new areas or jewels. This shoulder charge/twirl combination sounds basic, but is used in a wide variety of platforming challenges. Having to chain enemy flips and mid-air charges is the true thrilling challenge of this campaign. The story also dives deeper into the character of King Knight, being set before the events of the Shovel Knight campaign King Knight is questing to obtain his castle seen in that game through a new card game sweeping the land. While the gameplay is interesting and the new card game added to the campaign is novel, for me this campaign fails to reach the heights of the original or the highly enjoyable Specter Knight campaign, although I did enjoy my time charging through with King Knight much more than my time throwing potions as Plague Knight.
Afterparty is a neon drenched bar crawl through hell where you only have one goal, beat Satan in the ultimate drinking contest and win your freedom back to the land of the living. Stylistically I feel like this game was made for me and I have been drawn to it since I first laid eyes on it. The setting, humor, storytelling, and voice acting had me hooked early into the adventure, while the unique aspect of trying different demonic cocktails to give you alternate dialog options/ways to tackle situations is enjoyable and encourages both exploration and alternate playthroughs of the game entirely.
As an example, early on in the first bar you encounter your objective is to get past the bouncer to the party upstairs on the second floor. In this scenario you could consume a certain drink to make you more antagonistic and begin a fight with other patrons to cause a disturbance and sneak past. Alternatively, you could have a drink to be more charismatic and join a game of beer pong with some of the local demons to earn their friendship and an invitation upstairs. Ultimately, this is also the biggest failing of Afterparty, as all of these decisions impact the experience you have, but never really impact the larger narrative. The path you took, the demons you befriended, the ones you made enemies were all your choice, but the story will always move you forward towards the same final decision, which funnels into one of three endings for the game, which themselves are not very different from one another.
8. Far Cry New Dawn
I’m a long time fan of the Far Cry series going back to Far Cry 3 and every game onwards. Far Cry New Dawn does an interesting job at modifying the world built for Far Cry 5, I don’t just mean reusing the same map or game assets (although in Far Cry fashion those are present here) but in the continuation of the world after the events of the ending of Far Cry 5 itself. (Spoilers for Far Cry 5) In the ending moments of the canonical ending of the game, the game’s setting Hope County Montana is struck by several nuclear missile strikes (as well as several other American cities not depicted in the game). New Dawn picks up 20 years later with the last characters remaining from Hope County trying to survive in a post apocalyptic wasteland that used to be their home.
The deeper RPG leveling and crafting is an interesting addition and something I’m both anticipating and hoping to see refined better in future main-line entries in the series. The beautiful world design, addition of some crazy abilities, and some fun story moments for fans who enjoyed Far Cry 5 is what this game truly has going for it. Of note though, the Far Cry formula was really starting to wear on me during this entry: I even abandoned the Platinum trophy this time around.
7. Ape Out
This is the first game on my list from one of my favorite publishers out there: Devolver Digital. They’ve been that punk rock teenager at the game publisher table for years now and most of what they release is right up my alley. You’ll usually find a combination of style, great gameplay, and amazing music which is all here in Ape Out. The wonderful gore of bashing and splattering guards around the map as an Ape is bolstered by the amazing dynamic jazz soundtrack which has drum and cymbal crashes thrown in based on the mayhem you cause. One of the main gripes I and many have against the game is the feeling of randomness you get sometimes towards the end of the game when you end up dying over and over until everything suddenly lines up and that one magical run lets you through. Overall this is a very fun game, with one of the best soundtracks this year.
6. Devil May Cry 5
Going all the way back to the PS2, I’ve heard nothing but great things about the Devil May Cry series. In anticipation for 5, I went back and finally dove into the last 4 entries in the series on PS4. I can honestly say I was hooked from the intro cutscene of the first Devil May Cry, as it does an amazing job of setting up Dante and this entire world full of demons. Going through the ups and downs of the series and watching these characters meet and grow to like each other over their love of over-the-top demon hunting is so enjoyable and Devil May Cry 5 is what this has all been building to. Featuring some of the slickest combat yet, that classic over-the-top action, and the fantastic demon design the series is known for. While I didn’t have to wait as long as many of the Devil May Cry fans, I can without a doubt say I am now one of you and I am so happy to have this series back in top form. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.
5. Katana Zero
This neon soaked 2D-platformer (also published by Devolver) is truly a highlight in the action platformer genre. It has the unique twist that you are planning out your attack for the designated mission. If you die, everything simply rewinds and starts over to give you another attempt as that plan “Won’t Work” and you will keep trying until you find the successful plan of attack. This game honestly features one of the best soundtracks of the year, I have been listening to it constantly, even while working on this list. It perfectly fits the gory and thrilling gameplay found by hunting enemies level by level, but also having to be careful as you’ll “die” in one hit and your plan will be reset. On top of that, an interesting narrative has me hoping they’ll bring this to PS4 where I can spend even more time with it.
4. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Respawn is an amazing developer and I am so happy to not only have a finished single player focused Star War’s game released, I’m absolutely thrilled to have it be by them. This game nails the feeling of not only being a Jedi, but growing into that role, constantly learning new abilities and ways to combine them in combat scenarios. I feel this is system is so varied that i was learning and getting better throughout the entire game, but I didn’t fully realize how I could use or combine certain powers until the vary late hours of the game, in my endgame clean up for the Platinum trophy. This time was a highlight of the game for me, while somewhat of a grind if you hadn’t been frequently exploring your surroundings for secrets or collectibles, absolutely destroying large groups of enemies who you struggled with earlier never loses its fun.
While I do love BD-1, the overall story is somewhat lackluster here, especially as the ending feels sort of rushed and the conclusion is fairly anti climatic. Additionally the missing feature of fast travel in this game is a complaint of mine, while that may sound miner, I found this a big annoyance more than once, especially when hunting through an entire world for one collectible, to then have to traverse all the way back to the beginning of the world to the ship and fly to my next destination. I get this missing feature does encourage exploration and lends to some realism to this adventure. Ultimately it would have saved me so much time when simply hunting for my last collectibles (like the scan that BD-1 refused to acknowledge until my third trip to that planet/room) and the few times I made a mistake when navigating the map. Only to then spend 10+ mins navigating back to where I was, god help if you if you make another mistake while doing this, this is especially prevalent on planet Zeffo (pictured below). Despite it’s flaws I absolutely recommend this game to the Action Adventure game fans and the Star War’s fans out there.
3. Trials Rising
For me Trials is like that gaming comfort food, I addictively played flash games like this as a kid. As an adult i have been hooked on this beautifully polished series, with its amazingly simple yet precise gameplay, which slowly evolves from the beginner levels you get through with the basic throttle and lean techniques, to the highly difficult hard/extreme courses. These require mastery of so many techniques learned throughout previous courses, while early levels are usually built around a certain mechanic or show piece, these later levels require you to combine abilities you’ve learned, sometimes in almost impossible ways. When you’ve been struggling on a certain course/challenge for a long time and finally nail it its the best feeling, especially in those times others have been around to celebrate.
The biggest flaw in this game has to be the new leveling system implemented. Before progressing forward and unlocking new courses was based on your performance in levels you already have. Giving you more incentive to go back to perfect levels and better your skills. Here in an almost RPG fashion levels are tied to experience, for example having to be level 25 or 50 to enter a certain circuit/tournament. It doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, maybe evening helping players who can’t get past certain courses, but want to continue with the game. At the start, this isn’t that bad as leveling happens decently fast and content is varied so if you get bored or stuck there’s new things to try, but hours and dozens of levels later, this ceases to be the case. The XP you earn from completing new levels doesn’t scale correctly to how much you need to continue leveling, especially in the late game as the XP earned from replaying a level (even with a better medal) is basically nothing. The reason this feels off is because you also earn loot boxes with player/vehicle customizations when leveling, so in a way it’s almost like you’re being held back from earning too many of those in order to possibly encourage you to buy some. But it ultimately slows progression of the game itself or could even halt you entirely. I still had an overall great time as I think most Trials fans will. The core gameplay is still here, but this new system could be troublesome for longtime fans. If it’s going to come back as I think it will, it has to be refined better than this.
2. Borderlands 3
Borderlands 3 is the sequel to what is simply one of my favorite games of all time (probably one of the best ever made): Borderlands 2. After having put hundreds of hours into that game with nearly 10 full playthroughs across 5+ different characters on 3 consoles, it’s safe to say this was my most anticipated release this year. The characters and world had me hooked early on, but the addictive gameplay and never-ending hunt for loot kept me coming back again and again. Just as Borderlands 2 did with its predecessor, Borderlands 3 has a lot of great quality of life improvements: mantling, sliding, NPCs that can revive you, and so much more. There’s also innovative new additions to the series like loot instancing, where loot from chests is individually tailored to each co-op player opening the chest.
It’s great to have this fun co-op game back in my life, where now it is even easier to squad up with friends for the entire campaign or drop in and out between different people’s campaigns, helping them through their game and catching up in chat the whole time. I haven’t gotten to spend as much time as I would like with Borderlands 3 yet, but I think it is safe to say I will be spending a ton of time with this game. Especially as I go for that Platinum trophy. It took me until 2019 to finally get the Borderlands 2 Platinum, but I definitely think it will be faster this time around (I hope).
1. Sayonara Wild Hearts
This seems like an odd choice for my Game of the Year, but it was an odd year. When I really think about what impressed me the most or what game really stuck with me, what I couldn’t get out of my head… that was Sayonara Wild Hearts. To start off with, this is usually described as a “Playable Pop Album” which is fairly accurate, but Sayonara Wild Hearts is about so much more than that. From it’s own description, it is a game about “riding motorcycles, skateboarding, dance battling, shooting lasers, wielding swords, and breaking hearts at 200 mph.” All of that and more is set to an outstanding soundtrack full of original music made for the game and a fairly nice story told not by voice acting, but by the soundtrack, levels, and bosses themselves.
This game tells the tale of a young woman struggling with not only heartbreak, but her identity as a whole. One night, while alone in her room, a diamond butterfly appears in her dreams and leads her on an adventure where she finds her other self: the masked biker called The Fool: now on a quest to find the harmony of the universe hidden away in the hearts of the other tarot Little Death, Dancing Devils, Howling Moons, Stereo Lovers and Hermit 64. This sets the course for one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. The visuals are honestly some of my favorite from any game ever. Given the other games I’ve highlighted this is probably understandable, but I really have been thinking about these visuals a ton since playing.
I think one of the more interesting things about this game is the simplistic control scheme. You move left or right to avoid obstacles and collect gems and you have a button designated for certain timed events and jumps. I think this is interesting in the recent conversations about accessibility in games. Sayonara Wild Hearts wants you to experience it and it wants you to see it all the way through. Whether it’s in the simplistic control scheme, which is easy to pick up immediately (but still fun to play for hours), or the fact that it’s also overly fair to its to players. There is no timer counting down. It doesn’t feature sections asking for rapid button taps. There are no lives. Dying only puts you back slightly if not on the same screen usually. I mean this in the best possible way, honestly. While I don’t believe the recent talk of accessibility was what they were going for specifically, I think it’s great they designed the game with the intent that as many people should be able to experience it as possible.
I also like that it isn’t just locked to that. There is a deeper level of challenge here if you’re looking for it. With not only the gold medals on each level, which you can only get by making through the level in one life, while also collecting as many gems as possible to have a high enough combo. There are also Zodiac puzzles, which act as the achievement/trophy list for this game. Some of these do get difficult and anyone still up for more can try to tackle getting gold on one run through the entire game in one life. The final thing to talk about has to be the soundtrack. it is a stand out, honestly my favorite of the year. I have been listening to it all year and have even gotten others hooked on it as well. I’m seriously waiting for the vinyl of this game to be put out. I went on an entire adventure to get the small print they did at PAX West this year and I’m dying for a full version with the whole soundtrack included. I definitely can’t say enough about this game, but the visuals, soundtrack and gameplay are something everyone should experience.