Game of the Year
This is it, the cream of the crop. These are the 10 best games I played in 2019, with a few honorable mentions because there were just so many damn great games that came out last year.
It’s always fun to see how many games end up competing for the number one spot. This year, it was a three horse race, and I could easily make a justification for any of them to land at the top. But in the end, it came down to the one game that created the most complete experience for me. Enjoy!
Cadence of Hyrule
Great music and well-integrated gameplay in a familiar world fall just short of the top 10.
Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe
I’m so glad I was able to get a new Nintendo console so that I could get back to some good ol’ Mario.
The Elder Scrolls: Blades
I played several mobile games in 2019 and this was the best one. *shrug*
10. Metro Exodus
The Metro games have been very up and down for me over the years. I mostly liked 2033 despite its floaty and not super fun shooting mechanics. Last Light had a surprisingly multi-faceted story despite many of the environments and guns feeling a bit “been there done that.”
Metro Exodus offers the largest structural change-up in the series so far, ditching many of the tight corridors for open spaces and freedom of choice. There are still claustrophobic underground sections, but most of the game is spent picking and choosing smaller side activities and areas to engage with (or not). I like the change, but some of the more open areas do tend to feel barren. The exploratory justification around finding more materials and ammo isn’t always necessary, so you’re just kind of doing it to do it.
The story didn’t grab me quite as much as the first game, but I really appreciated the justification to leave the metro and go into the wide world. There are also more characters that are involved in the story throughout, which makes the game feel less isolated. This is a good change from a story perspective, but part of the draw in previous games was feeling truly alone and oftentimes under-armed.
There are still many terrifying monsters that can take you down quickly, however. The non-human enemies remain the most interesting ones to battle, as the human AI can be pretty dim-witted. Sneaking around enemy bases creates a major easy mode.
The gun controls are the best in the series so far, but this isn’t Battlefield or Call of Duty level gunplay we’re talking about here. Overall, Exodus is a smart evolution on what came before it, and I’d be totally down for this series to continue in another few years.
9. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Back in 2017, I listed Yooka-Laylee as one of my most disappointing video game experiences of the year. I wasn’t happy to do that. The game just didn’t live up to my rose-tinted glasses memory of 3D platformers, and the gameplay loop got very old by the time I even made it close to the final level.
The Impossible Lair side steps some of these complaints by changing genres. There’s more of an overworld map that you navigate, with some light combat, platforming, and puzzles to solve. But the majority of your gameplay time is spent in side-scrolling levels that are more akin to Super Mario than to Banjo Kazooie.
The set up of the game provides plenty of freedom to play as much or little as you choose. You’re trying to have a final confrontation with the villainous Capital B, but you need to gather some protective bees to give yourself more health to make it through his titular “impossible lair.” You collect the bees by completing individual levels.
Most of the worlds have alternate modes you need to complete in order to gather the max number of bees, and that’s where a lot of the challenge comes in. Some of the alternate modes might have you doing the level in reverse, or on a time limit, or with minimal health. Some of them definitely up the difficulty compared to the previous game. I appreciate the extra level of engagement and you’re rarely forced to replay levels immediately after finishing them.
But since the gameplay loop has been simplified, there’s more monotony than ever. The game doesn’t necessarily overstay its welcome, but I actually longed for some specific boss battles or mini games. But overall, Impossible Lair does a better job than its predecessor at capturing the old school magic — though admittedly the side scrolling genre never really went away.
8. Ape Out
Did you like Hotline Miami? Do you like a vibrant yet simple visual aesthetic? Do you like jazz percussion? Then Ape Out just might be the insane video game experience for you!
The concept of Ape Out is simple: You’re an ape, and you need to break out. Unfortunately that often means breaking windows and smashing dudes against walls (and other dudes). It’s simple gameplay, but it has an addicting loop as you try to escape each section faster than the time before (or cause fewer unnecessary human deaths).
The music is truly the star here, and without rehashing the Best Music category, I’ve truly never seen music implemented into a game in this way before. It really does feel like you’re creating your own soundtrack as you run around walls, pull doors off hinges, and… make dudes explode into splats of pixelated red.
The visual variety does deserve some credit, too. The game creators get far more mileage from the pixelated colors than I initially expected. There’s a great level where everything is pitch black until a guard shines their flashlight on you, and another that flips the typical color breakdown to opposites.
The game really moves, too. It creates a sense of urgency that had me desperate to get to the exit as fast as possible. And that’s often the best course of action because getting more than 2-3 enemies surrounding you at once can quickly lead to death.
7. Life is Strange 2
There isn’t much to say about Life is Strange 2 that hasn’t already been covered in Best Characters and Best Story. The game doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first one — primarily because there isn’t an interesting gameplay hook like the time rewinding mechanic — but the overall story and main characters do more than enough to keep you invested.
There are far more huge twists and turns this time around, as Sean and Daniel make their way from the Pacific Northwest all the way to the Mexican border. The episodes are smartly paced and each have their own tightly contained story — in some cases, more than one.
There’s a subplot on a hidden weed farm, another dealing with a religious cult, and there’s a great episode that ties into the Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit “demo” that was released for free in advance of Life is Strange 2.
Much like the first game, this one is slow to start from a character development perspective. It takes a few episodes to really get to know Sean, and Daniel in particular fits the “annoying younger brother” archetype perfectly until things go very, very south in episode four.
The ending has absolutely stuck with me over many months. Whereas the first game’s end choice felt more binary, this one really did feel like a culmination of everything the brothers had been through up to that point. And the resolution balanced the line well between being frustratingly unjust and still offering hope. Dontnod has absolutely taken over Telltale’s mantle of episodic storytelling.
6. Pokemon Sword
Let’s make things very clear: Pokemon Sword and Shield could easily be labeled as disappointing games and I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that. For me, it’s been long enough since I’ve been bought into a Pokemon game that it’s just nice to be back in this universe with new creatures to catch, new gyms to defeat, and new areas to explore.
The improvements here are minimal, and it’s definitely a bummer that you can’t import all of the pokemon from previous games. I get why Nintendo and Game Freak went that route, but it’s still disappointing. The animations also look pretty bare bones and blah blah blah I can nitpick this thing to death.
The Wild Area feels like it’s about 80 percent there, but it’s still cool to turn this game into an actual 3D exploratory space. Could this also be seen as a disappointment, because it proves that an open world Pokemon game is possible? Sure, but at least we’re getting there.
The rest of the areas are pretty inconsistent in terms of their freshness. For every colorful, mushroom-filled forest, there’s another dank cave. The gyms, on the other hand, bring a sense of scale to the battles not felt since the animated series. I really, really don’t like dynamaxing as a concept, but that at least adds to the epicness.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t tried the raids — primarily because I’m not currently paying for Nintendo Switch Online. I think it’s cool how they bring players together in a cooperative way, but again, I don’t like dynamaxing. I just think it’s an unnecessary wrinkle added to the battles to make them feel more complex when type vs type is still the only thing that matters.
The story is… pretty much the same story of every Pokemon game thus far. But there are some fun new characters (except for Hop, who is maybe the most annoying rival ever). Bede is super hateable, Marnie and her Team Yell are a good variation on the Team Rocket archetype, and Sonia makes for a solid exposition deliverer. By and large, the gym leaders are all solid, too.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Video game remakes and remasters have been popular for several years now, and the move to new consoles in a few years will only increase the availability of HD versions of old games. But every once in a while (basically once a year), a remake will come out that goes above and beyond to deliver a visually fresh experience to an old property. Last year it was the Spyro Reignited Trilogy and this year it’s Link’s Awakening.
The original game isn’t among my favorite Zelda experiences, and that’s already coming from someone that thinks the series is generally overrated. But there’s something to this new version that both captures the nostalgia of a simpler time in gaming, while providing enough of a unique aesthetic to make it stand out against the oftentimes trite, overdramatic shooters and open world games we come across nowadays.
The gameplay and controls actually mesh quite well with the Switch controller, whether playing in handheld mode or on the big screen with your joy-cons in grip controller mode (I refuse to play games with a joy-con held separately in each hand because it’s dumb). Movement and combat are easy to get the hang of — which is appreciated with a game like this that can be mindless at times. And the three-quarter perspective means no having to deal with camera movement.
I know the game doesn’t run perfectly, but it’s so damn cute (and easy) that it didn’t really bother me all that much. Link’s Awakening was never one of my favorite Zelda games, but this new version manages to keep the magic of the original while making it more accessible to modern gameplay sensibilities. And did I mention that it’s super cute?
4. Borderlands 3
More like Morederlands 3, am I right? Yes, Borderlands 3 doesn’t switch up the formula from the previous games much and yes, it still has too much cringe-worthy humor. But for this one more time — and with this many years since the previous game — what it delivers is enough to be a fantastic gameplay experience.
The “millions and millions of guns” premise is a little played out at this point, but most of the guns actually feel different this time around. The manufacturers all have something unique to their weaponry, with secondary firing modes, charge up times, elemental capabilities, and more. While I always wanted to switch up my guns for the sake of variety, it does lead to too much time spent in menus.
As stated in Best Setting, the planets have also never been more varied, and each has a plethora of side quests and hidden areas to find. I ended up exploring every nook and cranny of the game’s numerous worlds on my way to beating it, and I’ve even dipped my toes into the DLC just to see what else is there.
I don’t think all the new vault hunters are awesome as characters (and the story relies too heavily on returning favorites as a result), but the new abilities manage to feel fresh. Playing solo, I appreciated FL4K’s sidekick creature as both a damage sponge and something to interact with to not make things feel so lonely.
Borderlands 3 has quality of life improvements aplenty, but it can’t be overstated that this is the last time Gearbox can get away with these minute improvements. The next game needs to take larger strides (or they at least need to wait another six years to release it).
3. Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order
None of my top three games are perfect, but they’re all so closely ranked in my mind that, as a huge Star Wars nerd, it makes putting Jedi Fallen Order at three a bit of a shame. But my top two games are definitely justified as overall better experiences.
Jedi Fallen Order borrows heavily from games of the past, lifting things like respawning enemies and combat from Dark Souls and structural exploration from Metroid. None of these ideas are new, but they’re melded successfully here with that added Star Wars flavor.
The combat is just the right amount of difficult for me, though I personally don’t always find the patience required to be fun. Likewise, while it’s relatively easy and engaging to explore the entire map of each world from a gameplay perspective, the rewards primarily amount to cosmetics, which kills a bit of the impetus for me. I’m also in the minority in not liking the map. I love how detailed it is — and highlighting areas you’ve newly unlocked but haven’t visited yet is a game-changer — but the clarity suffers because of everything going on.
The pacing also suffers at times, letting you mostly choose the order of planets to visit on your own. I found that I ended up getting bored of a planet before it was time to leave, and then having to return to the planet before I actually wanted to.
I was also very disappointed in how the game performed technically. There were multiple occasions where I fell through the world, the game hard crashed once, and the frame rate overall was inconsistent to put it kindly. Thankfully, I never felt like the frame rate hampered my combat experience significantly.
Overall, this is probably the best Star Wars game since at least Knights of the Old Republic II and tells a mature story with complex combat and several interesting worlds to explore. As is the case for most first entries in an eventual series, there’s a clear path to the sequel being even more amazing.
2. The Outer Worlds
The Outer Worlds has the disadvantage of being so similar to Fallout that it can never truly feel fresh. But hey, when the folks that made New Vegas decided to make a game like the game they already made, it was bound to turn out this way. Thankfully, Outer Worlds is still super good.
The game is not particularly difficult, and I wouldn’t say the combat does anything new or special (except the science weapons, which are often crazy and fun). But the guns all feel good to shoot (which is more than can be said for most Fallout games), and the worlds and characters are exploding with personality.
There’s actually more customization in how you can play than I initially expected. I regularly switched up my weapons, teammates, and combat tactics just for the fun of it. The squad member special attacks are fun, but don’t add a ton to the combat experience and can get boring quickly because the animations are all like two seconds too long.
But most of the variation comes in how you choose dialogue options and interact with the play space. Having played a lot of these types of games before and knowing I’d love having more dialogue options, I specced into the personality attributes early. I love how granular things get with how perk points are distributed.
There’s a fair amount of returning to previously explored worlds for new quest steps, but the game is usually pretty smart about letting you handle multiple quests at once and keeping most of the side activities contained to just one world. The squad member quests sometimes have a lot of steps in a lot of places, but they’re all worth seeing through. Parvati’s quest in particular is rather effecting and does a great job at building out her character development.
I found the actual ending events to be a little underwhelming with not enough build up or drama, but I guess the stage is well set for a sequel. Even still, Obsidian could have added an entire other planet’s worth of activities, side quests, enemies, and exploration, and I would have lapped it all up. But I guess having not quite enough content is better than playing a bloated game.
This year takes me back to 2017 when I hemmed and hawed over Horizon Zero Dawn versus Super Mario Odyssey for my Game of the Year. Those titles were so different in so many ways that it was hard to compare. My top three titles this year have more similarities, but they’re all so good that it just makes me sad to have to rank them at all!
Control isn’t a perfect game (which I know sounds dumb because no game is perfect). But it’s worth calling out because the world building in Control almost is perfect. I seriously can’t think of something Remedy could have done to make The Oldest House more interesting, mysterious, or terrifying.
The combat and upgrade options also feel super balanced, but wear out their welcome a bit before the game is over. It’s too easy to fall into only using your preferred guns and abilities, and once those are fully upgraded, you lose a lot of interest in taking on additional combat challenges or exploring other areas to find new upgrades. With the exception of a few late-game fights, the combat is also pretty easy once you get the hang of finding headshots and using the throw ability.
The enemies also vary wildly in how fun they are to fight. There were two particular Hiss types — the flying guys that can dodge your throw ability and the invisible monsters that sneak up on you and do AoE damage — that I groaned whenever I saw in a combat arena. But on the other hand, the boss fights all deliver some variation in strategy, and the “puzzle” solving elements associated with the Objects of Power are super fun to uncover.
The game has a super clean look that pairs well with its clear influence by genre-defining works of fiction like Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone. It’s a small detail, but the font work and the aggressive, screen-dominating text pop-ups whenever you enter a new area are totally awesome. The music is also highly varied and really kicks when you’re in tense combat scenarios. The ashtray maze especially had me hyped beyond belief.
I will say that some of the story elements can come across as overly obtuse, and the climax is definitely an info dump. This is partly due to the nature of the story Remedy is telling — there is weird shit that is happening and some of it is beyond human comprehension. But it’s also a symptom of playing their cards too close to the vest early on. I think there could have been a better breadcrumb trail to the true nature of Polaris, Dylan Faden, and The Hiss.
Still, all the side mysteries there are to uncover more than make up for lackluster ending, and the gameplay loop is just downright fun. And seriously, Control has one of the coolest vibes of any game I’ve ever played.
And there you have it, all of my favorite games (and favorite aspects of my favorite games) from 2019! It’s always tough to play everything, and having a kid makes that more true than ever before. What were your favorite gaming experiences of 2019? Let me know in the comments below, and check out my other game of the year posts!