It’s a common belief among many gamers that 2018 was a better year than 2019, but honestly, I don’t buy into it. While there wasn’t one title that was unanimously proclaimed the best game of the year (ala 2018’s God of War), I believe there was a better breadth of quality games in 2019.
Nintendo in particular had a pretty strong year, with a crazy release schedule from April to November, and some huge first-party titles in the mix (hello Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokemon Sword/Shield!).
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to play a bunch of quality games that undoubtedly may have made my list. These include games like Outer Wilds, Knights & Bikes, Cadence of Hyrule, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. Additionally, huge shoutout to Gato Robato, a great little Metroidvania game with a ton of personality, and Automachef, which would have been #11 on this list and deserves major props for its eclectic soundtrack and original puzzle/sim gameplay and premise; if you love simulations and/or games about logistics, give it a go!
That said, here are my top 10 games of 2019.
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
The combat might be a bit repetitive and not as complex as I initially hoped (the original game had more variance with number of moves and specials you could pull off), but I really can’t complain too much after the series’ nearly decade-long absence. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 has style and presentation in spades, and it’s great to see most of Marvel’s big heroes altogether on one screen once again.
There’s just something so cool about watching your entire team take out a mob of villains/ninjas/what-have-you in the middle of places like Shadowland, Xavier’s mansion, and Avengers Tower. Huge props to Team Ninja for making the boss battles unique and interesting as well; this entry may very well be the best in that regard, specifically.
9. Mechstermination Force
This title combines two of my favorite things – Shadow of the Colossus and robots/Kaiju (maybe three things, I guess?). Mechstermination Force takes from the former’s game design and adds to it by putting you in interesting, unique scenarios with each giant robot. Not only do you have to scale and find/destroy each robot mech’s weak points; you also have to adopt to their different fighting stances and forms throughout each level, making for one of the most creative 2D shooters I’ve ever played.
So… I’ve never played any of the Advance Wars games before. And now I can see what I’ve missed out on for so long because Wargroove plays like Advance Wars mixed with Fire Emblem’s more medieval/fantasy-like setting (but more like the former purely in terms of gameplay).
Giving players the option to build and decide what units they want to use while in the midst of a battle really gives you the option to approach most levels a number of different ways, giving the game a much more unique feel than Fire Emblem’s offense-centric approach. The campaign throws a variety of different map scenarios each with their own unique terrain and challenges at you as well, so it never feels like you’re simply replaying the same battle over and over with slightly different units.
7. SteamWorld Quest
(check out GP's full review of the game here)
Image & Form has made two great Metroidvania titles and one brilliant tactics title in the SteamWorld series so far, so it only makes sense that they would continue to break new ground with a new genre – that being an RPG. Or rather: card-based battling RPG.
...has one of the most memorable, compelling battle systems in an RPG this side of Octopath Traveler.
SteamWorld Quest could have been a big miss if Image & Form weren’t careful; thankfully, it has one of the most memorable, compelling battle systems in an RPG this side of Octopath Traveler. Combine that with a great script with both plenty of heart and humor and some great music and visuals, and you’ve got another SteamWorld success.
6. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Despite it being highly anticipated before its release, the first Yooka-Laylee game landed with a bit of a thud. It turns out people weren’t quite as big on 3D collectathons as they initially thought, but Playtonic quickly and correctly shifted course with their next attempt at the series by making the game into a 2D platformer this time around.
...might even rival Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze; high praise indeed.
And wouldn’t you know it – that old Rare magic began to shine through once again. Fortunately, they didn’t completely give up on the 3D platforming aspect either. Instead, they combined it with the overworld map for a truly unique spin on the game while making the levels in 2D. The resulting interaction between the two play types makes for an experience that might even rival Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze; high praise indeed.
5. Kingdom Hearts 3
After so many years of waiting, it’s difficult to believe that Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t 100% the game everyone wanted. Some of this has to do with disappointments on the gameplay side (the Frozen world; nuff said), but a lot of it stems from creator Tetsuya Nomura not paying off certain story arcs and narrative choices that had been previously set up for the finale. Axel/Lea and Kairi get sidelined for most of the game when the ending of DDD had set up that they’d play a more critical role (not to mention missing a huge opportunity to make both or even just Kairi playable at a certain point), and it becomes apparent by the end that Kairi is never truly given any agency in the games and is merely used as a damsel in distress for the sake of the plot.
Never has the battle system been bigger, better, bolder, and even flashier, with some of the best and most vibrant visuals of this generation.
Yet, despite these disappointments, Kingdom Hearts 3 still sticks the landing for the most part. Never has the battle system been bigger, better, bolder, and even flashier, with some of the best and most vibrant visuals of this generation. Most of the Disney worlds chosen make up the best selection of any of the Kingdom Hearts games, and the graphics have finally caught up to Pixar’s and Disney’s advances in animation, replicating a near-identical look to many of their 3D animated movie counterparts.
Also, the game ties up Xehanort’s story arc with an epic finish in the game’s final 4-5 hours, with one of the most impressive final boss fights in the series to date. I only hope that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before the next game arrives.
4. Shovel Knight: King of Cards
I loved the original Shovel Knight campaign (now known as “Shovel of Hope”) in 2014, and despite giving Plague Knight’s campaign a try, it never quite caught on with me. Because of this, I also skipped Specter Knight’s campaign two years after that. But something about the fourth campaign being centered on King Knight really made me want to give it a try.
...the best Shovel Knight campaign to date.
And I’m glad I did, because you could make a real case for King of Cards being the best Shovel Knight campaign to date. The platforming is top notch, focusing on traversing the terrain with Wario Land-esque shoulder-bashing and a Ducktales-inspired pogo jump to spin off of enemies and objects. But the real star of the game is the brand new card-based minigame, Joustus. It’s smart, addictive, and has enough depth to rival long-established thinking-games like chess. Oh, and the script is hilarious to boot; Yacht Club has never felt more comfortable in their own shoes than they have been when they were writing this game.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The announcement reveal of the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening at the beginning of 2019 was, in a word, surreal. I never ruled out a remake of the game as something that could happen, but no one could have predicted that it would be remade with so much charm and originality.
Yes, I’m someone who thinks the plastic/toy-like look to the visuals makes for an amazing aesthetic. It’s the second-bravest thing Nintendo has done to the Zelda series since they decided on the Ghibli-esque cel-shaded approach to The Wind Waker in 2003. Along with a new arrangement of the classic soundtrack, new life has been given to a classic in what is undoubtedly the definitive version of the game now.
...still holds up and has, in fact, made many aware that it is a better 2D Zelda game than even A Link to the Past.
Link’s Awakening’s gameplay still holds up and has, in fact, made many aware that it is a better 2D Zelda game than even A Link to the Past.
Yes, I did go there.
But seriously, this game is magical. Go play it.
2. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
There are so many ways Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order could have been a disaster. Or merely an extension of the okay-to-decent Star Wars games we’ve been getting for a decade now. But Respawn did it. Holy cow… they did it. They made the first great single-player Star Wars game since… what, The Force Unleashed? Maybe even Knights of the Old Republic 2?
To be fair, Fallen Order could be a much tighter experience. It’s janky, likely due to EA launching the game a good half year before it was ready to come out of the oven. But it’s absolutely playable despite the occasional technical hiccup. And really, how impressive is it that the game came out as good as it did despite launching in less-than-ideal circumstances?
This is a game that undoubtedly feels like you’re watching a Star Wars movie as you play.
In any case, Fallen Order crafts an original tale that ties into the wider Star Wars mythos in a fairly meaningful way. Cal Kestis isn’t initially a great protagonist but the game does a great job making you care about him by gradually diving into his Jedi upbringing in the past. Cinematics are pretty fabulous as well; this is a game that undoubtedly feels like you’re watching a Star Wars movie as you play. Its story would feel right at home alongside other Star Wars side stories such as Solo, Rogue One, and The Mandalorian.
But really, all I want to do is gush about how this game gives us the best lightsaber combat of any Star Wars game to date. Two of the lightsaber fights in the game made me feel like I was in a Star Wars movie; a far cry from the wild, aimless lightsaber swinging experienced in the Jedi Knight games from the early aughts. Fallen Order is the complete package: great storytelling, great gameplay, great world, great atmosphere. Where does Respawn go from here? I hope to know sooner versus later.
1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
You know what’s weird? I wasn’t initially super hyped for Three Houses despite the series being one of my all-time favorites. I didn’t know what to make of the inclusion of an academy, the MC being a professor teaching students, and participating in things like tea time with your students. It all sounded like the furthest thing I wanted from my Fire Emblem experience.
Little did I know that it would be one of the best and most compelling things they ever did to the franchise.
The ability to select what each of your students can learn, right down to stat bonuses, weapon proficiency, and skills is the most control Intelligent Systems has ever given you over your own units. It’s utterly gratifying to see your students progress from inefficient greenhorns to masters of their craft, dominating enemy units in battle.
...one of, if not the deepest Fire Emblem stories to date.
The academy itself lends players a unique opportunity to see the larger plot through the eyes of your students in your coversations with them and also develop relationships with them by doing different activities together, making them come alive as characters.
And even though the plot is a bit thicker and juicier in the first half of the game, it throws enough twists and surprises into the mix to make this one of, if not the deepest Fire Emblem stories to date. There are a lot of fascinating themes and concepts that are tackled as well, both through support conversations and the main plot. I haven’t even mentioned the actual tactical gameplay, which is as sharp as ever and gave me a real run for my money with many battles (I played on Hard).
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is the real deal, and likely the best game in the series. If Intelligent Systems can continue to build on what they created with this game, Fire Emblem’s future is going to be bright indeed.
Edited by Jason Clement