2019 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Forget the holidays. It’s Game of the Year season!

In what’s become an annual tradition here, the very last post of my year-in-review is a prestigious list of the best games I played in 2019. These defined the year for me, which truly was an especially important one personally and for the site as I started writing more in the way of official reviews and impressions.

No need for too much of an introduction. These excellent games speak for themselves, so let’s get into the festivities!

Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

#10: Remnant: From the Ashes (Gunfire Games, Perfect World Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Just recently passed one million copies, according to the studio.

Starting my Top 10 is Remnant: From the Ashes, one of the most surprising games of the entire year after seeing it in passing around E3 live-streams. Gunfire Games’ latest project is a blend of over-the-shoulder combat mechanics with Dark Souls-inspired areas and difficult boss fights. The shooting and melee both pack a serious punch, as one’s created character move through environments like forests and deserts that are curated yet also can be “generated” when starting a new game which adds replay potential. What really sets it apart is its enemy design and loot systems, where figuring out patterns is as enjoyable as building a character and finding cool new gear with which to overcome them.

#9: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: As usual, Call of Duty was one of the year’s best-selling premium titles. $600 million in three days. To date has $1 billion in global sell-through, which implies ~ 16.5 million copies.

In terms of annual, triple-A releases, I believe there’s none more consistent than the military action game Call of Duty. And Infinity Ward’s latest, a re-imagining of its 2007 classic Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is the best it’s been this generation. Built on a revamped engine, the result is a gritty campaign as memorable for blockbuster moments as its more claustrophobic, personal missions. The competitive multiplayer is grounded, smooth and addictive. The only thing really holding it back from a higher spot is its middling co-op mode.

#8: Control (Remedy Entertainment, 505 Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Remedy Entertainment CEO Tero Virtala stated the three year development budget was under €30 million ($34 million) and that the title is “in a good position with steady sales.”

When I reviewed Control in August, I explained what’s so glowing about Remedy’s creepy, third-person action-adventure. Its seemingly everyday corporate setting is elevated by gorgeous art and best-in-class sound design that sets the uneasy mood as a backdrop for its weird albeit occasionally nonsensical narrative. Its attention to detail in world-building, which I argue is just as important as the story progression and fluid combat mechanics, sets it apart compared to most games in its genre. Protagonist Jesse Faden’s journey ends up being overshadowed by the broader scope of what’s happening with the enigmatic government agency around her, and discovering that is the game’s true joy. It also contains one of my favorite sequences in a game this generation in its “Ashtray Maze.” You have to play it to understand.

#7: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Respawn Entertainment, Electronic Arts)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: EA was selective in its stats. Fastest digital launch and best PC launch for the series. In the U.S., NPD Group reported it was the 2nd best seller of November and immediately #9 on the 2019 list to date.

This generation finally has a.. hm, stellar Star Wars game! Respawn Entertainment’s first foray into third-person action games is a damn good one as Jedi: Fallen Order captures what being a skilled, Force-wielding Jedi must feel like. Main character Cal Kestis and his ragtag crew move through stunning environments mimicking those from the films, including the iconic Wookie planet Kashyyyk which is stunningly represented by Respawn’s art team. Inconsistent performance is the main reason why it’s not ranked higher, because its engaging story and satisfying combat elements result in the most memorable experience in a Star Wars game since probably the original Battlefront II way back in ’05.

#6: Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital Games, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Not disclosed.

Outer Wilds is the type of game where its best features and phenomenal finale stuck with me long after forgetting how tricky it was to actually play. I described what’s so mesmerizing about Mobius Digital’s space exploration experience when I reviewed it. That sense of wonder when first peering out at an unexplored solar system. Acquiring knowledge on an alien civilization to figure out why everything is stuck in a time loop. And I actually like it more now than before after reflecting on why it’s so special. Each 22-minute interval offers something new: a tidbit of information, an excerpt of text, a curious location. All of these provide a sense of progression via information rather than tangible upgrades like a conventional video game. This makes the player feel as if they are the first and only to figure out its secrets, right up until its exceptional ending.

#5: Resident Evil 2 (Capcom R&D Division 1, Capcom)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Currently over 5 million units shipped, slightly outpacing the original release.

As far as remakes go, Capcom absolutely slayed Resident Evil 2. The same way that dual playable characters Leon and Claire do zombies in this modernized version of the 1998 original. It’s set in an eerily beautiful, updated Raccoon City with an over-the-shoulder perspective, revamped puzzles and refined enemy placements. Resident Evil 2 nails the atmosphere and terror of the original yet feels new enough to be suspenseful and unpredictable. Sound work is especially riveting when popping off shots at zombies or evading the constant threat of main villain Mr. X, as Capcom proves that older games in the franchise are far from dead.

#4: The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment, Take-Two Interactive/Private Division)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. (Nintendo Switch in 2020).

Sales: Nothing specific other than Private Division executives saying on a recent call it is “outperforming expectations handily.”

The other sci-fi game on my list is Obsidian Entertainment’s latest entry in its storied role-playing lineage. Published by Take Two’s Private Division, the first-person game is set in a universe where corporations are in charge. The Outer Worlds boasts an amalgamation of elements such as dialogue options, skill tree upgrades and combat variations that offer multiple ways to play. And not just in the marketing sense, decisions will impact how stories play out. There’s also companion quests a la Mass Effect, offering intimate moments with crew-members. Obsidian’s newest is truly witty and nails its comedic moments, which successfully balances out the darker underpinnings of its universe. Towards its last act, the player learns what’s really going on with its corporate overlords and luckily can amass the power and influence to alter the future of humanity. Depending on their decisions, of course.

#3: Judgment (Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, Sega)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: Held the record for biggest new IP launch in Japan before Death Stranding per Game Data Library. Producer Daisuke Sato noted that its performance is above expectations in the West.

There’s so much to do in Judgment, and I honestly did not expect to love the PlayStation exclusive as much as I did. My review was outright glowing for the Yakuza spin-off from Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku team. It’s so many things, yet feels so cohesive. It’s a story about a disgraced detective named Yagami trying to reclaim his honor amidst a backdrop of the fictional Kamurocho district, which offers an open world playground, plenty of characters to meet and secret quests to uncover.

Its main campaign never suffers the myriad of side stories and mini-games; in fact, it’s actually a gripping tale of relationships between government agencies, law enforcement and street gangs that all operate under the bright lights of a vibrant Japanese city. Combat is near flawless, even if far from the only option. Investigations are intriguing and tailing missions aren’t even that bad. It has serious Sleeping Dogs vibes mixed with Yakuza and crime noirs, though somehow maintains its humor with especially wacky character moments. The only crime of which Judgment is guilty is that it’s not on more platforms for a broader audience to enjoy.

#2: A Plague Tale: Innocence (Asobo Studio, Focus Home Interactive)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

You know it’s a great year when the most memorable of experiences arise from the most unexpected of places. A Plague Tale: Innocence is the definition of such a game, as I described in my favorite review of 2019. Made by French development team Asobo Studio and set in a 14th century version of the country that’s plagued by diseased rats and power-hungry leaders, it’s truly exquisite interactive storytelling. The most emotional time I had with a game all year. It’s a story about a pair of siblings, Amicia and Hugo, confronting loss, fighting challenges, retaining innocence and regaining hopefulness.

It’s more beautiful than it has any right to be based on the studio’s size, and its predominant feature from a tech standpoint is how many plague-ridden rats it can fit on screen. These rodents act as barriers to progressing within each area, along with soldiers from both armies and even the church. As older sister Amicia, the player must solve environmental puzzles and stealth past enemies to avoid detection while keeping track of sickly younger brother Hugo. There’s a crafting system that allows the player to be sneaky or even powerful in late game. Still, the main pull is the narrative. It’s like a medieval novel come to life, one that I can safely recommend to anyone that’s open to trying it. I guarantee its characters and conclusion will leave a lasting impression.

#1: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (FromSoftware, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: 2 million copies shipped within ten days according to Activision, lifetime total stands at 3.8 million according to FromSoftware’s parent company Kadokawa via friend of the site Daniel Ahmad.

FromSoftware is in the upper echelon of Japanese game developers in that when they make a game, the industry pays attention. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the latest from famed director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team, and it’s undoubtedly my favorite game of 2019.

I’m a relative late bloomer when it comes to “Souls-like” games as they are now known, a sub-section of games defined by challenging mechanics, lethal enemies, ominous locales and intricate boss battles. FromSoftware is the preeminent developer in this space ever since creating the Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series, and Bloodborne in 2015 was its first such game that hooked me. I revere that as my favorite PlayStation 4 exclusive. Ever. And I firmly believe Sekiro is just as good.

At its core, Sekiro is third-person action adventure set around 17th century Japan. The player controls Wolf, a one-armed master shinobi, in his effort to rescue his child lord from the same clan of samurai that dismembered him. In typical FromSoftware fashion, it’s so much more than this basic summary. Wolf is the most capable of protagonists in any game within the sub-genre, leveraging stealth tactics and his prosthetic arm for a variety of traversal and combat uses. There’s a “posture” system akin to a stamina bar, where blocking and countering are essential (not to mention feel great!), plus various weapons and skills to customize that provide advantages depending on the situation or enemy type. The heavy axe, firecrackers, an umbrella that blocks certain attacks are all examples of the flexibility the prosthetic arm enables.

Because of this, I believe it’s the best combat in a FromSoftware game ever and the best action of any game of 2019. The fluidity with which the player can move through areas, sneaking in for a kill or grappling to a perch when enemies swarm, sets it apart from more methodical, grounded systems. When an enemy is vulnerable, Wolf can end its misery with a visceral finishing move. Sure, the game is super difficult. And most people playing it will die more than twice. Yet the feeling of mastering enemy movements, being able to counter them the more you learn, that’s the magic. Few feelings are as good as being able to outmaneuver an enemy you once thought was impossible to beat.

Locations in Sekiro range from somewhat traditional, like the outskirts of a Japanese castle, to the surreal when diving into flashbacks or entering more.. otherworldly realms. The one critique I’ve heard is that enemies are more “pedestrian” than other Souls-likes (i.e. they aren’t all humongous beasts or deformed oddities). I’d say: Keep going. The design is anything but normal the further the player progresses, and there’s plenty of weird to see in the game’s later acts.

I’ll admit, its narrative is much more lucid than other FromSoft entries. Wolf’s motivation is clear: It’s a story of revenge and an attempt at retribution. He wants to track down his lord and eradicate those responsible for his kidnapping. Yet the world-building and lore is what sets it apart from other action-adventures, with mysterious characters residing and random notes with item descriptions strewn about the play space. It’s worthwhile to explore, because not everything is obvious. While I was certainly enraptured by its main narrative, it’s the secrets that I adore. Devouring each morsel I could find to learn about the world and its mysteries.

Then there’s the best part. The boss fights. It’s not risky to say it: This is really my favorite aspect of the genre, and Sekiro’s design team is best in class. Especially because of how it keeps the player off balance. There are now mini-bosses to fight in addition to the more epic battles. Wolf faces against foes of all sizes, from swift fellow shinobi, armored solders, angry beasts, ghostly beings and plenty more. There’s even an encounter that’s more puzzle mechanics than combat, which shows that FromSoftware is evolving to transcend genre conventions.

To illustrate my adoration for Sekiro, I’d like to shout out a particular sequence: The “Guardian Ape.” It starts normal as ever, in a valley where the player faces a massive, aggravated simian. As a colossal beast enemy, it has devastating attacks and even dung flinging abilities. Once its posture is hurt or health is depleted, Wolf uses his sword to decapitate the beast. Victory! Or so the player thinks. While waiting for the usual cues that the boss is gone, the ape resurrects as an immortal being. Holding its severed head in its arms and attacking with a totally different element type, this time more specter than animal. It’s demoralizing, having to fight the same enemy with new tactics especially when one’s health items are now likely depleted.

And this is just one of many times that Sekiro surprised the heck out of me, and most importantly led to the most satisfying of triumphs when I finally master the fight to overcome its most difficult foes. The great part is, there’s always another challenge after that, beckoning me to come forward and test my willpower. Combine this with environments, narrative, world-building, lore, secrets and character encounters, FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is my Game of the Year and I’m jealous of those that still get to play it for the first time.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical)

Ape Out (Gabe Cuzzillo)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: Unknown.

Apex Legends (Respawn Entertainment, Electronic Arts)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Now over 70 million registered players according to EA.

Creature in the Well (Flight School Studio)

Platforms: Xbox One (Xbox Game Pass), Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: Unknown.

Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment/505 Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4. (PC in 2020).

Sales: Top selling new IP launch in Japan this generation according to Game Data Library. 7th best-selling game of its launch month in the U.S. per NPD Group. Unclear on global sales so far.

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep (Bungie)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia.

Sales: 15 million registered players at last count.

Gears 5 (The Coalition, Xbox Game Studios)

Platforms: Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Over 3 million players at launch as shared by Xbox.

Life is Strange 2 (Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC.

Sales: Hard to know just yet, its final episode released in December.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Next Level Games, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: It’s setting launch month records for its franchise domestically, plus doing very well in Japan. We’ll hear formal unit sales during Nintendo’s next quarterly update.

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Massive Entertainment, Ubisoft)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia.

Sales: While Ubisoft said the game hasn’t met expectations, it’s still the 7th best seller of 2019 in the States as reported by NPD Group plus the same rank in terms of global digital revenue for 2019 according to SuperData estimates. We might never know unit sales.

Untitled Goose Game (House House, Panic Inc)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC.

Sales: As of writing, it just surpassed 1 million copies sold.

What a year. It feels like the most competitive of the decade, with so many great games that there couldn’t possibly be a consensus pick for the top spots. It’s also the last year of awards that won’t include the new generation of consoles.

I’m so grateful for all the amazing experiences in gaming during 2019, especially those listed above.

Thanks for reading through my Year-in-Review, remember the round-up post is here to see them all in one place. Here’s to 2020. All the best to you and yours!

Sources: Company media sites, Game Data Library, GamesIndustry.Biz, MeriStation, NPD Group.

-Dom

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