It’s been a bad year for great games, but a great year for good ones.
I say that not to disparage any particular game, big or small, but rather to help explain why this was the hardest list of games I’ve put together since I started writing for Kotaku three years ago. While a few games on the following list were shoo-ins, many more made it on only after lots of internal deliberation. When the rest of the pack is so strong, and so different, it’s hard to come up with metrics for comparing and contrasting them that make any sense at all. How does one measure a game about shooting muscular bugs against one about rapidly organizing differently-shaped blocks?
Ask me again tomorrow, or in a week, or months into next year, and this list might look different. But while I’m often a victim of indecision and overthinking, I at least take some solace in the fact that I feel very strongly that all the games this list all do different but equally interesting things, and that each is very much worth playing. None of them are one of my favorite games from this past decade, but each is one that will stick with me for years to come.
My favorite role-playing game of the year by far, Anodyne 2 is lovely, haunting, and awash in playful eccentricities. Sean Han Tani and Marina Kittaka’s lo-fi epic is so much more than its graphical veneer of PlayStation 1 nostalgia, although its delicate arrangement and display of messy polygons and muddy backgrounds are worthy treats in and of themselves. Like when I played its predecessor, every moment I spent with Anodyne 2 felt crammed full of surprise, humor, and emotional resonance. If a video game disc ever became sentient, downloaded itself into my brain, and told me its life story through a series of dreams whose logic fell through my fingertips the moment I tried to unravel it, my memory of it might look something like Anodyne 2.
Remedy’s paranormal third-person shooter is a Frankenstein’s monster that succeeds despite its array of shortcomings, which range from crashing frame rates to third-act shootouts that I cursed with every breath I drew until they had anti-climatically resolved themselves. Cobbled together from bits of Metroid, community-created fanfic, and past Remedy shooters, the totality of Control nevertheless surpasses the sum of its parts to deliver a brutalist nightmare where the familiar patterns of shooting, backtracking, and collecting open a trap door into a visually stunning labyrinth of occult bureaucracy, intrigue, and pan-dimensional horrors.
I did not expect to fall for Death Stranding, another incredibly messy game. I’ve always appreciated the Metal Gear games from a distance. Their moments of brilliance were too difficult for me to access in between all of the aggravating stealth and cinematic melodrama. But in Death Stranding each of those things felt judiciously restrained, allowing me full rein to grapple with apprehensions about technology, social dissolution, and planetary extinction over a low-key, trans-Atlantic road trip. No other game in recent memory has infused menu navigation and high-score chasing with as much existential dread and meaning as this big-budget walking simulator, or left me feeling as equally intrigued and chill while managing them.
I didn’t like Disco Elysium at first. Even now I’m not completely sure I enjoyed the time I spent with it. But there wasn’t a second I spent trying to decide how to speak, act, and reflect on its futuristic capitalist hellscape that didn’t leave me deeply affected and 100 percent sure it was one of the most important games I played this year. Disco Elysium feels like a bold step forward not only for the computer role-playing game genre but for the wild, decades-long experiment of seeing just what sort of complex characters, relationships, and emotional attachments can be simulated with the right dialogue tree. Some games use choice as a weapon for the player to express themselves at the cost of the characters and conflicts with which they engage. Disco Elysium uses it to interrogate the very stories we tell ourselves about why we make the decisions we make.
I had a hard time wrapping my brain around River City Ransom the first time I encountered it. Its world was made up of mini-side-scrolling levels that persisted even after I left them, and where different things might happen the next time I returned to them. I could eat food not just to heal but to get stronger, and read not just for clues but to raise my stats. All this on a cartridge that went into the same system I played the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game on.
30 years later, the Persona games have driven this model forward, adding increasing layers of complexity that go further than eight-year-old me would have ever guessed. Friends of Ringo Ishikawa, meanwhile, is a spiritual successor to River City Ransom remarkable for how little it has added, and how rudely it eschews the player’s creation of meaning through number manipulation. “Here is Persona and Stardew Valley by way of Waiting For Godot,” Kotaku’s Tim Rogers said of the game earlier this year. All games succeed or fail in part based on how well they deal with their own limitations. The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa embraces them to tell the story of a person trapped in the violently restricted and cordoned-off world of a beat’em, where simple acts of defiance like lighting and instantly flicking away a cigarette can contain multitudes.
I wasn’t expecting to put Gears 5 on my list when I originally finished it. Every new idea—skill trees, drones fetching you guns, open-world exploration—feels disjointed from the underlying war machine that’s been sputtering along now for over 10 years and half as many sequels. Almost everything in Gears 5 is solid, but few of its moving parts ever quite sing. After days of going back and forth, however, I’ve finally come down on the side of them being enough to push it onto my list. The Boltok pistol has never felt better, and unloading one of its clips into the head of a Berserker bearing down on me is still one of the most thrilling things I did in a game this year. Likewise, Gears 5’s desert wastelands and arctic snowscapes are some of the most beautiful places I spent time exploring. But where it really excels is in a multiplayer package whose horde mode, a high-water mark for cooperative shooting across any other game, is easily the best of any Gears.
Magic: The Gathering has shown up in video game form before, for better and often for worse. Arena is by no means a perfect game. It takes forever to update, has an incredibly sluggish user interface, and my laptop frequently appears ready to burst into flames while running it, something it has not done with other digital card games like Gwent or Hearthstone. But it is still Magic: The Gathering, in all its meticulous, abstruse, and detailed glory. With the exception of not being able to trade cards, it’s identical to its real-world counterpart, with new sets of cards being added to both as Wizards of the Coast creates them. I became a huge fan of Magic despite only having a dozen or so people to play it with, off and on again, throughout my entire life. Arena has taken that experience and magnified it, thanks to the ease of playing with complete strangers online with my favorite decks in virtual matches bereft of all the tedious and messy rule management and bean-counting that grind real-life matches to a halt.
I played more Slay The Spire in 2018 than this year, but 2019 was when the game officially launched on PC and was also dutifully ported to every console, including Switch, where it feels most suited thanks to the portability. All of the ingenious card design and harrowing dungeoneering on display last year remains intact in 2019, but the real testament to Slay The Spire’s monumental and lasting achievement are the flurry of other card-based adventure games rushing to iterate on its formula, like Dicey Dungeons, SteamWorld Quest, and The Legend of Bum-Bo. All great games, but none has so far been able to match the deck-building intricacies and roguelike drama of Slay The Spire.
Tetris 99 is everything I’ve always loved about Tetris but twisted by the zero-sum calculations of a battle royale to add another layer of tension and high-stakes, rapid puzzle-solving. It’s not the best Tetris game I ever played, but it’s definitely the best battle royale.
Total War: Three Kingdoms feels perfectly proportioned in just about every way. Sweeping infantry battles allow for granular strategizing, while duels between generals allow sprawling military campaigns to play out in intimate detail. City building and management feels streamlined while still full of enough choices to make me feel in charge of my empire. Every choice made during a campaign feels like a positive step forward rather than a compromise born of confusion, chaos, or arbitrary gating. Everything in the game is even color-coated to keep someone like me, notoriously bad at keeping everything organized, from wasting a bunch of time trying to read the fine print before directing my armies. Total War: Three Kingdoms is a game I’ve already sunken dozens of hours into, and I know that anytime I boot it up it will instantly threaten to consume my entire night.
Hypno Space Outlaws: Made me want to dive into my computer screen and spend an eternity contemplating how the internet has remapped humanity’s collective consciousness.
Shovel Knight: King of Cards: Brings back the Shovel Knight formula—with a fabulous card game, to boot!—and tops off one of this generation’s crowning indie achievements.
Risk of Rain 2: One of the most economical and well-balanced loot grinds I’ve ever encountered.
The Outer Wilds: I really loved what this game was trying to do, and its conclusion is revelatory, but everything from the frustrating controls to its folksy presentation made every step of the journey feel like a struggle to stay onboard.
Can Androids Pray: Twenty minutes I’ll never forget.
Devotion: I still haven’t pirated this censored gem despite over a hundred days of having it on my to-do list.
Sunless Skies: Probably everything I could want in a game, if I had let it take over my life instead of having a kid.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses: A modern Fire Emblem I was excited to not hate, except I bought Super Mario Maker 2 first and still need to finish making my grand cloud maze.
Pathologic 2: One day I will have the will to return to Pathologic 2 and it will retroactively become my most respected game of 2019.