2019 has been a funny old year for games. The run up to Christmas was notably light on mega-AAA releases, aside from regular giants like Call of Duty and FIFA. And we’ve had all sorts of really diverse and weird games in their stead – it’s the classic convulsion of creativity before the launch of a new generation of consoles. Now the console user base is well established, developers can take more risks with games and still find an audience, resulting in one of the most interesting years in gaming I can remember. Here are our highlights, presented in alphabetical order.
Lucius P. Merriweather: By now, developers know the architecture of the current consoles inside and out, meaning they can really push the systems to their limits – and even beyond them, as evidenced by Control’s stuttering frame rate at launch (which has since been fixed). Still, Control is utterly stunning by any measure, and the Brutalist interiors of the Oldest House are phenomenal to behold – to the point where whole articles have been written about this game’s architecture.
But looks aside, Control feels like a culmination of Remedy’s fascinating but flawed games – the folky wyrdness of Alan Wake meets the cinematic presentation of Quantum Break, creating something much greater than the sum of its parts. Add in the fantastically fun psychic powers of protagonist Jesse, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the greatest games of the generation. If there was one game I would pick out as the overall best of 2019, it would undoubtedly be Control.
Lucius P. Merriweather: Apple Arcade seemed to come out of nowhere, yet it has completely revolutionised mobile gaming. Before the subscription service’s launch, I’d binned off mobile games, worn down by constant begging for cash in free-to-play games and relatively high prices for premium ones (I really wish I hadn’t spent money on Kids, for example).
But here comes Apple Arcade, providing 100 or so mostly fantastic games for just £4.99 a month. I’ve gone from hardly playing mobile games to spending hours on titles like Pilgrims, What The Golf?, Mini Motorways and Over The Alps, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s on offer – truly it’s one of the best bargains in gaming right now. Most of all, the fact that microtransactions are completely banished in this realm means that mobile games are simply fun again.
But Grindstone is by far the standout title on the service – this violent puzzle game is wonderfully crafted, with stylised graphics meeting a flexible, fun and deep puzzle system of carving your way through similarly coloured monsters. The plethora of power-ups and game-changing costumes just makes it all the more enticing.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
James Keen Esq.: Yes, one of my games of 2019 is one that first came out in 1993. The recent Switch remake of the best Gameboy game is a bright and breezy blast of nostalgia. Link’s Awakening was always a bit of an oddity in the Zelda cannon. With no Zelda or Ganon, Link is stranded in an unfamiliar land. It’s essentially an extended dream sequence, made all the stranger by the low-key appearances of characters from other Nintendo franchises.
Obviously, the latest incarnation of Link’s Awakening has had quite an overhaul. The new Playmobil-esque art style was apparently a bit of a turn-off for some, but I found it charming. A few quality-of-life changes have been made too, cutting down on some of the inventory management and improving the controls. They’ve even added an optional secret seashell sensor, making unlocking the [redacted] easier.
What’s most remarkable though is how much is unchanged. Having played the original game a few (too many) times, I found myself remembering secrets and solutions to puzzles I last saw well over 20 years ago. The wonderful soundtrack has been redone, but in a way which is very much true to the original. In short, Link’s Awakening is a joyful and well-executed remake of an absolute classic.
Life is Strange 2
James Keen Esq.: I don’t know why I do this to myself. After the repeated emotional gut-punches of Life is Strange and its prequel, Before the Storm, you would’ve thought that I wouldn’t need any more emotional trauma in my life. The reason I dived into the latest title though is that the whole series is bloody brilliant.
Life is Strange 2, as per its predecessor, revolves around a young person coming trying to come to terms with recently discovered paranormal powers. However, aside from the fact that the protagonists live in the northwest USA, it’s a very different kind of tale. The game tells the story of the young Diaz brothers, who are forced to go on a road trip they’d rather not have to make.
Along the way, the older Diaz brother (i.e., you) are forced to make some pretty agonizing choices, without a clear picture of what the consequences would be. In some ways, it’s a rather cheap trick; making players decide on what to do with minimal information, with outcomes almost inevitably being neither entirely good nor bad regardless. However, it’s also true to life. The Diaz boys are just making the best of what they’ve got, the same as everyone else.
Life is Strange 2 is also unafraid to talk about real-world issues. In an era where many publishers seem happy to borrow themes from current affairs and then disavow any political intent, the characters in this game aren’t shy about expressing opinions. Despite the young protagonists and the supernatural overtones, Life is Strange 2 has one of the most mature, realistic narratives of the year.
Monster Hunter World: Iceborne
Lucius P. Merriweather: Technically, Iceborne is an add-on for Monster Hunter World. But really, it’s a stealth sequel.
The sheer amount of stuff that’s been added in the update is phenomenal, like the game-changing clutch claw that lets you grab and mount monsters. And the story, where players are shunted off to the new locale of Hoarfrost in search of an uber-powerful monster, has as much content as the main game. In fact, I’m more than 60 hours in and I’ve yet to finish the Iceborne quest line.
The monsters, both new and old, are phenomenally well designed, too. The fearsome Tigrex makes a welcome return after being absent in vanilla MHW, and the new Namielle elder dragon has become one of my favourites of the series – and those are just two of the many monsters that have been added. In short, Iceborne makes the best ever Monster Hunter game even better.
SteamWorld Quest (review)
Lucius P. Merriweather: I still can’t quite believe how Image & Form is able to turn its hand to varied genres with seeming ease. They’ve already treated us to Metroidvanias (SteamWorld Dig 1 & 2) and turn-based tactics games (SteamWorld Heist), and now they’ve nailed turn-based RPGs.
I had an absolute blast playing through SteamWorld Quest this year: the card-based battling system is exquisitely designed and the characters are wonderfully drawn and written. My only real criticism is that it lacks end-game content once the main quest is over. I’m hoping that we’ll see some extra content released in the near future – basically I just need an excuse to leap back into this beguiling world.
Sunless Skies (review)
Lucius P. Merriweather: I was scandalised to discover that Sunless Skies wasn’t initially listed on the selection list in voting for the reader’s top 50 games of the year on Eurogamer. After I left a puzzled comment on the article, it has now been added – but I think its original omission is indicative of the way this fantastic game has snuck under the radar somewhat. The fact that it was released right at the start of the year probably means it not as near to the front of list-maker’s minds as more recent games, but I’ve also heard reports that the game itself has sold below expectations.
This is a criminal shame. Sunless Skies is one of the most absorbing and wonderfully written games I can remember. Seriously, you could (and someone probably should) collect all the text in this game and release it as a novel. It goes without saying that Sunless Skies would scoop the Most Agreeable prize for best writing in 2019 – if we actually did such a thing. Probably the only game that would come close is Disco Elysium (which none of us has yet got around to playing, hence its lack of inclusion here – 2019 has been BUSY).
There’s also the fact that Failbetter Games has been adding a ridiculous amount of content to Sunless Skies throughout the year, making an already great game even better. If there’s one game I implore you to buy from this list – or at least try – it’s this one.
Untitled Goose Game (review)
Lucius P. Merriweather: OK, Untitled Goose Game is short. I mean, really short – probably a couple of hours all told. But those couple of hours were some of the most enjoyable of 2019.
The naughty goose has become something of a phenomenon, appearing in memes worldwide and even at the odd protest. And with good reason – it’s one of the best game characters I can remember, exuding menace in its very gait and packed with personality despite its limited vocabulary (HONK!).
What I’m trying to say is, Untitled Goose Game is an enormous amount of fun – I actually belly laughed numerous times while playing it. And really, what more could you ask?
So, those are out favourite games from 2019 – and no doubt there are plenty we’ve missed, probably because we didn’t get round to playing them. (So. Many. Games. Send help!)
What are your favourite games of the year? Let us know in the comments!