Thursday, January 16, 2020

Year in Review 2019: Games

Now that my decade retrospectives are finished, it's time to look at this last year's media! 2019 marks the start of my new game project: Walthros: Renewal, a full re-imagining of my very first game, originally released in 2002. The full game is planned for a 2022 release on the 20th anniversary of the original, but unlike Kaiju Big Battel: Fighto Fantasy I'm releasing a very early demo to the public in February, covering the first couple hours of the game. I want this new game's development to be very open to the public and I hope that helps build hype for the eventual release!

I didn't have time to check out every game I wanted to play (The Outer Wilds, Shenmue 3, A Plague Tale) but otherwise this was a great year for games! This year I'm not going to write summaries of games or movies that I strongly disliked (there was only one game that qualified this year anyway.) I think these lists are more fun when focused on the positive side of things. Let's look at those instead!

All titles are listed in alphabetical order in each tier category and the system on which I played is listed after the title. 

Top Tier - My favorite games of the year:

Baba is You (Switch) - One of the few full length reviews I wrote in 2019, Baba is You is an excellent, adorable puzzle game that uses language and syntax as the foundation of its world design. This game takes traditional block pushing puzzles and adds a linguistic twist: Players push nouns, conjunctions, and verbs to rewrite the rules of each stage until they can finally reach a Win condition. It feels like you're reprogramming the world, and the satisfaction that comes from turning a seemingly impossible puzzle into something logical is immense. A lot of the game's later puzzles were beyond me, but that's fine; you don't have to solve everything to "complete" the game, and there's also a very generous rewind system so you never have to start a stage over entirely.

Control (PS4) - Jesse Faden sneaks into the Federal Bureau of Control in search of her missing brother; next thing she knows reality has been rewritten and she's the new director of the bureau, with a sort of living gun in her hand and newly awakened telekinetic powers. Players work to shut down incursions from outside of our dimension and pacify haunted/cursed/otherworldly objects (including a rubber duck!) using a mixture of average shooting and very fun psychic abilities. It's a game that thematically could work without combat at all, but the powers you get are so much fun that I've got no problem with its inclusion. The world of Control is fascinating, weird, and funny, as it messes with both the player and Jesse's ideas of reality. It's also a very personal story, as Jesse works to take control of her life and come to terms with traumatic events in her past.

Death Stranding (PS4) - My favorite game of 2019, Hideo Kojima's first title since leaving Konami is an oddball masterpiece. Death Stranding features Kojima's signature blend of serious social commentary (on, among other things, climate change, childbirth, the commodification of human interaction, etc.) with goofy humor (Conan O'Brien appears as a failed comic who gives you an otter-shaped hat and some of the game's tougher missions involve pizza delivery.) There's some Metal Gear style combat and sneaking here, but very little; the main focus is on hiking, delivering packages, and making the world a happier place.

Players take deliveryman Sam Porter Bridges on a cross-country odyssey to reunite a post-apocalyptic America by, basically, rebuilding the internet. The innate kindness of the people he meets along the way pairs perfectly with the game's online mechanics, where players can share resources, construction, and Likes with other players they'll never meet face to face. It's much more hopeful and optimistic than I ever expected from this kind of story, and while the story can get crushingly brutal (especially for new parents), there's always an undercurrent of hope that really makes this game something special.

Resident Evil 2 (PS4) - While Resident Evil 7 took the series in a completely different direction, Capcom's 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2 goes back to the series' roots and refines everything that made the original such a phenomenon back in 1998. Unlike the HD remasters that have became so common in the last decade, Resident Evil 2 is an actual remake, a new take on the original horror masterpiece's story and game play. There's plenty that will be familiar to players who loved the original over 20 years ago, but this is essentially a new, and excellent, game. It's not as radical a reimagining as Shattered Memories, Climax Studios' 2009 remake of Silent Hill, but Resident Evil 2 feels like a blend of the best elements of 90's and modern game design.

Tetris 99 (Switch) - It's Tetris, but with a 100-player battle royale twist. I haven't had any interest in the current trend of battle royale shooters, but Tetris? That's something I'm into. It's wild that it actually works so well; 100 players compete for first place, dumping garbage on each other strategically as they clear lines. It's such a simple concept but it works incredibly well, and the Nintendo-themed backdrops add some stylish fun. This game is free as part of Nintendo's Switch Online service and is by far the best part of the service. This is the second year a Tetris title ended up in my top five, following 2018's spectacular VR Tetris Effect.

Excellent games worth your time:

Astral Chain (Switch) - PlatinumGames' latest isn't as technical a brawler as Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising or as open an RPG as Nier: Automata, but it's a lot of over-the-top, silly fun. The unique twist here is the player's ability to control both a human and a monster character simultaneously, actively moving both fighters during intense battling. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but once you do it's delightfully chaotic. The characters are thin, but the story (which feels like a parody of Evangelion) gets zany enough to be a lot of fun, and like Bayonetta several of the regular bosses feel like they could be the finale to another game.

Gato Roboto (Switch) - It's a black and white Metroid-type game starring a cat in a robot suit! This is a minimalist game in both design and graphics, and it feels great; it's far smaller than a great many other indie attempts at Metroid and that's why it works so well. The stages are tightly designed and there's no wasted space, no long treks through hallways devoid of purpose. Everything here is so carefully crafted and it's a testament to the strength of good map design. There's no bloat and there's a reasonable number of collectables, making it a great game to replay a few times.

Judgment (PS4) - Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's Yakuza spinoff following the conclusion to Kazuma Kiryu's story in 2018's Yakuza 6: The Song of Life. Featuring an entirely new cast and a new point of view, players take the role of Takayuki Yagami, a lawyer-turned-detective solving crimes, running afoul of the mob, and taking pictures of cats. Yagami's still tough, but not the absolute powerhouse that Kiryu was, making the world's threats feel a lot more credible than usual. Everything good about the Yakuza series is here; hilarious side quests, soap opera mobster antics, and plenty of nice minigames. A couple of new elements are the game's only weakness; there are a lot of subpar missions where you have to follow a suspect unseen and a really sloppy system where local punks gang up on you across town until you defeat their boss.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Switch) - Unlike this year's Resident Evil 2 remake, Nintendo's update to their 1993 classic is purely visual with a couple quality of life improvements. Puzzles, dungeons, and characters are immediately familiar to players who have fond memories of the original, but the updated art style gives them a vibrant new life. I absolutely loved how this game looked, and I'd love to see other old Zelda titles given the same update. There are some weird technical hitches and bits of slowdown that feel like they shouldn't be happening, but otherwise this is a great introduction to a classic for new players and a welcome trip back to Koholint Island for the old.

A Plague Tale: Innocence (PS4) - One of the year's most impressively atmospheric games, A Plague Tale is a Last of Us-inspired stealth/action game set in France at the height of the Black Death. Players guide Amicia and her young brother Hugo through a plague-riddled countryside evading guards and swarms of remarkably grotesque rats. The puzzles and stealth elements are both straightforward but satisfying, and in spite of the grimness of the setting this is actually an optimistic game, with our two sibling leads slowly forming a new family with the other lost children they meet along the way.

Return of the Obra Dinn (Switch) - A two-tone mystery where players explore a derelict ship whose crew vanished years earlier, Return of the Obra Dinn is a remarkable experience. As an investigator with the ability to see flashes of people's moment of death, players must identify each passenger and figure out if they lived or died; if they died, it's up to you to figure out how, and by whose hand. Players are left to piece the story together on their own as the story unfurls in a fragmented, nonlinear manner. It's an astonishing tale of the sea told exceptionally well, and puzzling out the fate of the crew is deeply satisfying.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PS4) - The latest action-adventure game from Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware shares plenty of DNA with the Dark Souls series but is decidedly its own beast. Players grappling-hook around 16th century Japan as an undying warrior with the reflexes of Spider-Man. This title is more character-driven than a Souls game typically is and features a heavier emphasis on platforming and vertical movement, but it's still a game that requires careful steadiness in combat and rewarding exploration, with a world whose story is told through the objects you discover. It's fast and furious and extremely satisfying to parry everything an enemy throws at you, but I wasn't quite as enamored as some; the lack of multiplayer meant that once I was done, I was done. For me, nothing tops assisting players in need against giant Souls bosses.

Shovel Knight: King of Cards (Switch) - The final update to Yacht Club Games' 2014 retro classic Shovel Knight, King of Cards is the game's third complete expansion pack, a fully-featured new campaign with new stages, a new playable "hero", and even an expansive card game. Staying completely in line with the bratty King Knight's personality, players can openly and often cheat their way to victory in the card game and can cry and whine until things turn in their favor in the platforming parts. Shovel Knight and all of its expansions have been a ton of fun, but I'm excited to finally see Yacht Club move on to something new now that this saga has concluded.

Untitled Goose Game (Switch) - It would have been so easy to just release a goofy sandbox in the style of Goat Simulator and its dozens of knockoffs, but House House's Untitled Goose Game is a genuinely great little environmental puzzle game. As the titular untitled goose, you're given clear objectives to progress the simple, wordless story, and a village full of hapless humans to clown on. It's fun taking the role of the neighborhood nuisance, an obnoxious but ultimately harmless bird the quiet English village has learned to tolerate. It's funny and cute without ever feeling too mean, and we probably all have someone in our lives who reminds us a little too much of this goose.

Games with standout elements:

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (PS4) - When Hideo Kojima left Konami, he made Death Stranding, a game that both plays and reads remarkably different from his iconic Metal Gear series. When Koji Igarashi left, he made Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a game indistinguishable from Igarashi's work on the Castlevania series he had been a part of since the 90's. Bloodstained felt exactly like I expected it to, but since there hadn't been a new Castlevania in this style since 2006's Portrait of Ruin I was fine with that. There's nothing here that's really fresh, but it is so well-designed and refined that it feels like a top tier Castlevania, in spite of some odd glitches and a little too much emphasis on farming for items.

Cadence of Hyrule (Switch) - An indie developer's dream, Ryan Clark asked Nintendo if he could add Zelda characters to the Switch port of his 2015 hit Crypt of the Necrodancer and was soon working on an entirely new, official Zelda spinoff. Crossing the action-rhythm game play of Necrodancer with the audio-visual delightfulness of the Legend of Zelda series, Cadence of Hyrule is fun from start to finish, even if it gets a little too easy too fast. There are roguelike element here, but they're minimal and there's really not much punishment for failure. For some that's a negative; for me it was a positive.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (PS4) - Supermassive Games' Until Dawn is one of the best titles in the interactive movie genre; with Man of Medan, the team returns to what made Until Dawn work but on a smaller scale. This is the first of a planned series known as The Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of unrelated horror stories connected by a Alfred Hitchcock-esque curator who guides you through his library of spookiness and taunts/compliments you as you make your possibly foolish choices. This installment focuses on a group of deep sea divers inadvertently drawn to the ghostly Ourang Medan, a ship lost at sea sometime after World War II and rediscovered in the modern day. It relies a little too heavily on jump scares, but the atmosphere is excellent and it does a great job of convincing me that my reflexes are too dulled to survive a horror movie.

Devil May Cry 5 (PS4) - It's honestly a little hard for me to get back into a Devil May Cry game post-Bayonetta, but DMC5 is among the best in the series. Ignoring Ninja Theory's unfairly maligned 2013 reboot of the series, the latest DMC is a direct follow up to 2008's Devil May Cry 4. It's grungy and goofy in just the ways longtime fans would expect, and features three playable characters, including one who controls shadowy monsters similarly to the dual-character system seen in Astral Chain (which I preferred.) There's a lot to love here for fans of the series' combo-heavy fighting and over-the-top antics.

Life is Strange 2 (PS4) - Moving away from the high school drama of Life is Strange and Before the Storm, LiS2 is a road trip focused on two brothers on the run after their father is shot by the cops. It walks a very fine line between grim and hopeful, carefully pacing out the darkest events with moments of innocence and kindness. Like the original game, Stephen King-ish mental powers play a major role in the story, but this time you're the observer rather than the conduit. The first episode was released in 2018 with the next four coming throughout 2019; I played the first one and then waited for the rest to be finished before playing them all in a row. Each episode takes the Diaz brothers to new settings with new groups of people to meet, so you never get to know the supporting cast quite as well as you do in other Life is Strange titles, but the overall plot is strong and the conclusion (whichever one you get) is excellent.

Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch) - A refinement of Nintendo's 2015 game making software, Mario Maker 2 includes a full-length, excellent campaign mode full of premade levels and a new visual/play style based on Super Mario 3D World. There's even an online mode where you can race other players through randomly selected stages! I had a great time playing the official creations and some player-made ones, but I honestly got my fill of that with the previous version, so my attention didn't last long. I made very few stages of my own this time; whenever I'd try I'd realize I would rather be spending time working on my own game projects.

Pikuniku (Switch) - A puzzle-platformer starring a long-legged blob monster who helps take down capitalism. Pikuniku is fun, colorful, and has some good jokes, but it's a short experience that feels like it's ending right as its puzzles are really starting to get interesting. The framework here is strong and the puzzles are good, I just wanted to see them taken further. Very similar to my feelings on 2018's short-but-sweet Donut County.

Decent games with some issues:

BurgerTime Party (Switch) - A sequel to one of my all-time favorite arcade games, BurgerTime Party adds four-player competitive and cooperative game play and an art style inspired by classic cartoons (or, more likely, by the success of 2017 indie hit Cuphead.) It's easier and faster than the original, but it's a lot of fun with friends; it just doesn't give me a whole lot of reasons to play it over the original game. There's nothing badly done here, but it could have gone a lot further.

Penguin Wars (Switch) - Another remake/sequel to an arcade classic, Penguin Wars is an update to the 1985 game of the same name. The new version features a great disco theme and fun art and adds special moves to bring new life to the classic "animals throw marbles at each other" game design. Where this one stumbles is a bizarre amount of grinding to progress through the campaign mode that feels straight out of a junk free-to-play title and an online multiplayer mode where I was never once able to connect to another player. The core mechanics here are great, but there are some baffling design decisions that hurt it.

Shenmue III (PS4) - Released nearly two decades after the last Shenmue title, #3 ignores the passage of time, both in-game and out; it feels like it was taken directly from the Dreamcast and polished up. As such, it's dated, stilted, but oddly lovable. The rural and urban areas you explore are beautiful and the side content appropriately silly (turtle racing, duck catching, etc.) but the story structure is a mess. Both halves of the game follow the same pattern: Meet a boss character you aren't allowed to defeat (even if you can, the game will show you losing in the following cutscene), find someone willing to teach you Secret Kung Fu, grind for money to buy an item to convince them to teach you, and then learn the winning move. Weirdly, it's almost the exact same move in both halves! The game does little to progress Ryo Hazuki's tale of revenge, but that doesn't bother me; it's very much about the journey here. Instead, I was frustrated by the amount of time I felt was wasted earning money and leveling up stats through exercise. When you're just calmly exploring and don't feel pressure to go out there and spend all your free time getting enough cash to pay the rent, eat, and learn Kung Fu, it's a simple, relaxing time. Maybe that's the point.

Wattam (PS4) - I'd been looking forward to Keita Takahashi's latest game since the release of the odd toy/social experiment Noby Noby Boy in 2009, but Wattam isn't exactly what I'd hoped for. It's a simple puzzle game where players swap around control of dozens of household and natural objects, from toilets to pebbles to the mustached, bomb-wielding Mayor. I love the art style and the music is excellent, but the puzzles get repetitive very quickly and most of the playable characters don't have any kind of unique ability. On top of that the camera controls are messy and the game stutters and freezes a lot, sometimes locking the PS4 entirely. It's nice to goof around in for a while, but too shallow to be as fun as Katamari Damacy and not weird enough to be as surprising as Noby Noby Boy. Somehow, Wattam's narrative is more or less the same plot as Death Stranding, with players reuniting a broken world.

That's it for 2019's games! Early 2020 is going to be heavy on remakes and remasterings for me, with full remakes of Resident Evil 3 and Final Fantasy 7 coming on the heels of the Yakuza Remastered Collection. On top of all these and all the upcoming sequels (I can't wait for Doom Eternal and maybe, just maybe, Bayonetta 3) I'm hoping to be impressed by new titles like Control that came out of nowhere and completely surprised me!

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