It’s that time of year again, readers. The time of year when we don’t actually do “Best of 20xx” lists because we believe they’re incredibly subjective, will disregard things that multiple people haven’t played, and thus are fundamentally a bit silly. In their place, you’ll spot a bunch of our writers doing lists of their own, indicating their personal favorite picks from this year – and possibly a few most anticipated games for next year.
If you’re desperate for some sort of “Best of 2019” list, then every year does see us post up our irreverent Alternative Awards. These generally exist to highlight particular things we liked, disliked, or want to poke at with sticks. Sticks made of words. And if nothing else, they’ll hopefully give you a chuckle.
But! Enough of this preamble rambling. (Prerambling? Prambling? I like prambling.) Here’s a holiday selection box of what I think were some of the best games of 2019, which are probably objectively correct. In no particular order…
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Let’s just get this one out of the way first, shall we? I’m Tim McDonald, and this is a FromSoft Soulsborne game released this year. Of course it’s on my list. It’s a bit different to the rest in that it pretty much enforces a particular playstyle and has a far greater emphasis on stealth, and this is enough to put off a few ardent Soulsborne players. Luckily for me, Sekiro matches my usual playstyle pretty well.
Sekiro is beautiful, stylish, hard, and manages the not-inconsiderable feat of having a puzzle boss that’s actually both good and clever. It’s all about agility, verticality, dodging, and really cool parrying. It also has some of the best duel battles in any Soulsborne title, and a giant ape that flings toxic poo. I couldn’t ask for much more.
About the only thing I wrote about Disco Elysium this year was how it murdered me with a ceiling fan, and that makes me sad because it’s probably one of the best RPGs in a long time. It’s not an RPG in the traditional sense – there’s very little combat, for instance, and even that plays out in dialogue trees – but there’s a huge amount of dialogue, philosophy, and a fascinating world to explore. Really, it’s a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment.
But you’re not some amazing badass hero who’s going to save the world. You’re a drunk, amnesiac, complete mess of a detective who’s one ceiling fan away from a fatal heart attack. You’re going to spend as much time arguing with your own subconscious as you are actually investigating the crime you were called to solve.
More than pretty much anything else on this list, Disco Elysium isn’t for everyone. It is, at times, a truly horrible game. It examines all sorts of politics and uncomfortable realities, albeit usually from an absurdist viewpoint. And while it can be the most fun to embrace the insanity and define yourself as a rock star cop, you may also want to stay the hell away from some of the more extreme decisions and philosophies, even if the game may call you boring for it. Yes, it’s a game and you can let loose, but there are still a few standpoints that may hit a little close to home.
Ultimately, it’s up to you, and whatever decisions you make are buoyed by some fantastic writing. It’ll make you laugh as much as it’ll make you think, or cringe, or deeply regret the action you just took, and that’s a tricky thing to accomplish.
Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
The poor, poor Warrior of Darkness (née Light). So far, pretty much the entire story of Final Fantasy XIV has been his or her journey from a wide-eyed adventurer into a battle-scarred veteran with a thousand-yard stare. Shadowbringers has not done much to help this. It probably hasn’t done much for the mental state of players either, considering the number of people who’ve told me it got them very teary-eyed at multiple points.
Shadowbringers is brilliant. It’s not just one of the best MMO expansions I’ve ever played; it’s arguably one of the best Final Fantasy games in years. It pulls together story threads that began years ago into a tale as triumphant as it is utterly heartbreaking, humanising the game’s long-running antagonists and finally providing some information on – and some closure to – tantalising plot threads that’ve been dangling since A Realm Reborn. It’s also got some of the most horrifying moments of any game this year, and that includes the next entry in this list.
Not that it’s all about the story. The new areas are strikingly beautiful while the new bosses and dungeons are clever and interesting, and the new classes are diverse in their own unique ways. Final Fantasy XIV has always excelled at offering dozens of interesting things to do, and while Shadowbringers doesn’t reinvent the wheel there, it adds plenty more content to keep you occupied – and usually without making you feel like you’re pointlessly grinding away.
Resident Evil 2
I love the Resident Evil series. I love the early games for the campy B-movie horror vibe; the middle games for the cheesy action; and the more recent games for being bloody terrifying and (mostly) losing the camp. Resi 2‘s remake successfully marries the early and late games, recreating Raccoon City in a legitimately spooky way.
Lickers are more dangerous and terrifying than ever before, and Mr. X is an implacable and nightmarish foe. The first time you open a door to find him peering at you from the other side is panic-inducing. I’m not the biggest fan of the adaptive difficulty, but that’s one of the only complaints I can level at Resi 2. It’s tense and panicky, even on a second or third playthrough, and the free DLC missions we got were just icing on the cake.
A few honorable mentions for things that would’ve made this list were it not for the fact that I’m apparently not allowed to pick 19 games.
First, Untitled Goose Game, which would easily be on here if I had another slot or two. I stand by my statement that it’s a bit short and maybe needs a little more to do, but as a ridiculous and hilarious sandbox it couldn’t do much better. And as a fellow agent of chaos, I can’t help but approve of the horrible goose.
Bloostained: Ritual of the Night is another game that very nearly made the cut. The worst thing I can say about it is that it’s effectively a remake of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, right down to some of the puzzles and required items being nigh-identical to those of its spiritual predecessor. Of course, the best thing I can say about it is also that it’s effectively a remake of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which is a bloody brilliant game that never made it to PC.
Finally, I want to give a very quick tip of the hat to both Total War: Three Kingdoms and Control. The latter is possibly the most visually stylish game of the year, and its setting evokes The Secret World‘s dark-secrets-below-the-surface vibe in so many wonderful ways. The former, meanwhile, is one of the rare Total War games I can actually get into. Also, it lets me live out a dream I never knew I had: terrorising the countryside as a bandit queen. Come at me, Yellow Turbans.