2019 might be the strangest year of my life so far. It felt more like a full decade compressed into 365 days. But there was, as always, video games. So many video games. Many of them were fantastic.
My previous years at Kotaku were defined by a voracious consumption of any and all games, but this year I finally slowed down, or at least a little. I still played a lot of games, but I also played more for fun. Slowing down meant finding the worlds that resonated with me, the challenges that I wanted to pursue. It meant, frankly, treating myself better.
Some folks have said that 2019 was a light year for games. It didn’t have the blockbuster splashes of a God of War or Red Dead Redemption 2. If quality is measured in budgets, crunch and bloat, 2018 certainly wins out. But 2019 was one hell of a year.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is gorgeous. Not just in the vibrant colors and neon glitz; not only for the evocative soundtrack and brilliantly-choreographed gameplay that mixes and matches arcade modes. Sayonara Wild Hearts is gorgeous for the soul that binds it together. It is a story of heartbreak and ultimately growing beyond our pain. It is about fighting demon wolf mechs in the dark forests of our doubt, sword battling masked villains in the voids torn out of hearts. When it seems that the solution is to slay them, the secret is to smooch them. Integrate the pain in a wild explosion of fire and neon and dragons and stars. A million little bee-stings and knife cuts slicing off layers of sorrow until there is nothing but brilliant light. It’s a two hour music video. It’s catharsis you can download to your phone.
A usurper has taken the capital. Vying warlords and would-be emperors solidify their territory and draw battle lines. For a moment, everything is still. Then, battle. Calvary charges, archers lay waste to battalions, generals duel with cities on the line. Total War: Three Kingdoms is such a perfect distillation of both the Three Kingdoms period and the fanciful tales that arose from that reality. While hardcore game modes test veteran players, a more exciting “Romance” mode captures the sweeping grandeur of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This is Total War at its best, each new playthrough bringing a surprising new epic.
It’s easy to think the Judgment is simply a rehash of the formula that’s made Yakuza so enduring. That’s true to an extent. It has the same confidence, the same flashy excess, but underneath those superficial similarities is a game deeply concerned with people. Private detective Takayuki Yagami’s investigations might involve serial killers and evil pharmaceutical companies, but it’s not all conspiracy and murder. Sometimes, it means helping out a marriage or befriending the strange man who owns a local restaurant. Like its sister series, there’s pulpy action, but also a great deal of fondness for the strangers you meet along the way. That’s what makes Toshihiro Nagoshi’s games so appealing: the all-abiding sense that even in the middle of a yakuza war or intense criminal investigation, the most important part of your day might be that chat you have with the guy swinging next to you at the batting cages.
You can go as fast or as slow as you like in A Short Hike, scaling mountain peaks or collecting hidden coins. Of all the games I’ve played this year, A Short Hike is the one that best allows players to luxuriate. Glide on a breeze, fish a little, maybe complete a side-quest if you want. Sure, there’s a mountain to scale and joy in scaling it, but at the end of the day, A Short Hike is what you make of it. It’s cozy, charming, and funny. It’s such a small, wonderful little thing, and I’m very happy it exists.
I can’t think of a character-action series that resonates more with me than Devil May Cry. It’s a blended cocktail of gothic melodrama and head-banging bloodbaths. That can mean two half-demon brothers facing off, eager to end a lifetime of battle. It can mean a dirtbag up-and-comer firing his rocket arm and literallying surfing on it, squishing bug demons into goo. Devil May Cry 5 is a perfect synthesis of grandeur, faux-seriousness, attitude, and irreverent violence. Each of its three characters has unique quirks that turn combat into a complex but surprisingly intuitive dance.
Ultimately, Devil May Cry 5 is a game about expression. What combos can you pull off; what stylish flair can you bring to battle? That extends to the narrative as well: What makes you an authentic person? Are you no better than your inner demon, or is there a more expressive and complete version of you waiting to be born? Devil May Cry 5 is goofy and so deliciously violent, but heartfelt in that strange way that only the most anime-ass nonsense can be.
The everlasting tale of Ryo Hazuki’s search for revenge has been a part of my life for decades, ever since the Sega Dreamcast burst into my life. Ryo’s lessons have been my lessons: keep friends close, work hard and never assume, know when to act and when to stay still. Ryo often forgets these lessons, stumbling forward on his path and never quite seeing the world for what it is. That Shenmue 3 exists is amazing; that it feels like such a natural extension of the games that came before it is a miracle. Ryo Hazuki marches onward, and I follow in his footsteps, learning more and more from each new chapter of his adventures. I hope that his story can come to a proper conclusion one day, and that Yu Suzuki’s epic can finally teach the rest of its lessons to me. That could be in a few years, or when I’m 60. Whenever it is, if it is, I will be there eagerly awaiting another chance to immerse myself in this story.
It may not have the mystery of Dark Souls or the cosmic anxiety of Bloodborne, but FromSoftware’s latest action romp is razor sharp. It is challenging, and the discussion around the game was largely about difficulties and easy modes. That’s a fair discussion to have, but it buried an essential truth: Sekiro is a brilliant video game. From themes of duty and sacrifice that are woven into every plot beat, to the intense and frankly ingenious combat system where every single slash and parry matters, Sekiro knows exactly what it wants to be. Even a common bandit can offer an epic clash of steel, and the right doorway could lead into the spirit realm. Each piece turns with immaculate precision, and every moment is handcrafted with a confidence that demands your full attention.
Surprise, motherfuckers. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen released on the Nintendo Switch this year, and it was my first time experiencing the game for myself. It is the best open-world RPG that I have ever played. One time, a griffin swooped down from nowhere, picked me up, and sailed into the sky. It then dropped me hundreds of feet to my death. Another time, in order to defeat a vicious chimera, I conjured multiple orbs of magical energy and wreathed my blade in holy light. Then I furiously slashed at the orbs, sending a gatling gun’s worth of miniature magical particles at the creature. Ever encounter, every foray, is full of these micro-moments. To play Dragon’s Dogma is to brace for the fantastic. Not in that “you can climb every mountain” Skyrim bullshit way, but in the “hey, that necromancer is going to conjure a literal dark tornado so maybe climb on his back and slit his throat now” sort of way.
Death Stranding is a game where you can piss on sludge ghosts in order to make them disappear. It is a game where Hollywood directors give you J.F Rey sunglasses and there’s always a can of Monster Energy Drink on your bedside table. It is also a game that fervently insists that life is worth living for the connections we make, that the sum entirety of humanity’s existence might be cosmically small but that still matters less than the souls you mingle with in our brief history. Yes, it’s some anime bullshit. Yes, Kojima still needs to get some of his shit together. But damned if Death Stranding isn’t something special. It feels quintessentially of the moment: a story of the internet, of climate change, of loss and fracturing societies. So many things feel hopeless, but who cares? We have each other, and that could very well be all we need.
It’s hard for me to find the words to discuss Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers. Not because it’s one of the best stories I’ve played through in an RPG. Not because it marks the absolute redemption of a once-troubled game. Those things are true. Shadowbringers is a triumph from start to finish, bringing players into a vibrant new setting and weaving a tale of loss and apocalypse with brilliant mastery. Whether that’s the writing of scenario lead Natsuko Ishikawa creating one of the series’ best villains or the astounding work composer Masayoshi Soken did on the score, it all works. It works so well. It’s beautiful through and through.
What makes Shadowbringers difficult to write about, what makes all of my words here feel insufficient, is the people. This is an online game, populated with other players. From the random teammates you play with in a dungeon to the folks you eventually meet in a park in real life, they brighten every aspect of the game in a way that defies words. I have fallen in love, laughed, plotted, cried with, and grown alongside these people. I am enriched by their friendships, made better for their faith in me. They are my Warriors of Light. Nothing I could ever say can scratch the surface of what that truly means.