From start to finish, 2019 was an absolute deluge of intriguing, entertaining, high-quality games across the whole board. In compiling my top ten for the year, I honestly had to go back and double-check my memory, because I could have sworn that some of this year’s notable releases were released last year. (And in fact, a couple of games on my list this year are several years old.) It was just that packed.
Of course, that also means that there’s a lot of recent games that I haven’t gotten to yet, or games that I started that I just haven’t put the time into to judge.
It’s been busy, in other words. But it’s the sort of busy that’s easy to get behind, because no matter what sort of game you’re a fan of, chances are there’s a game that scratched that itch. Maybe you liked one of these ten games as much as I did!
10. Kingdom Hearts III
Kingdom Hearts III is, in many ways, the game I expected. The result of a development that was stymied and delayed for years by internal issues at Square Enix stemming from the disastrous 1.0 launch of Final Fantasy XIV, the game was tasked with tying up a long-running story arc that had only become bloated with more and more characters, lore, and history as more and more spin-offs, prequels, and interlude chapters were created to keep the series alive in the years since Kingdom Hearts II. As a result, the game has a number of pacing issues, and some of the story payoffs aren’t as impactful as they could have been. There’s even a moment, breathtaking and dramatic as it is, that will mean little to players that haven’t played or have no familiarity the mobile game Union Cross.
And then there’s the Disney factor, without which this series wouldn’t exist. Disney isn’t the same company it was when Kingdom Hearts II released. In recent years, it's ballooned and bloated, acquiring the rights and studios behind Star Wars and Marvel Comics, and even the entire library of 20th Century Fox. What should have been a highlight of Kingdom Hearts III, the world of Arendelle and the cast of Frozen, is perhaps the worst world and worst crossover in the entire history of the series. In addition to being a grossly overlong, awful slog, it made a friend of mine, the friend that introduced me to Kingdom Hearts no less, too motion-sick to finish the game.
...after waiting for it for years, I can safely say that I did enjoy it, even if it did leave me wanting.
There are simply a lot of knocks against it. And yet, Kingdom Hearts III is still loaded with high points. Where Arendelle and Frozen fall flat on their face, the Pixar worlds based on Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story are without question the highlights. And while the race to conclude the long, long story arc that’s defined the series since the beginning stumbles here and there in notable and obvious ways, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have fun. (At least in any part that wasn’t Arendelle.) Kingdom Hearts III could have been a much better game, but after waiting for it for years, I can safely say that I did enjoy it, even if it did leave me wanting.
9. Daemon X Machina
For the first time in a long time, there aren’t any new Musou titles on my list, but Daemon X Machina, a mech combat game of all things, fills that void in an odd way for me. The premise is straight to the point, with an apocalyptic event leaving what’s left of the world in need of skilled mech pilots to jump in their mechs to fight strange, alien enemies, and occasionally other mech pilots.
The storytelling is light, but the mech combat feels smooth and is fun to control, and there are a great variety of missions. One aspect that I’ve really grown to love is the level of customization, not just in the mechs, with their frames, weapon loadouts, and aesthetics, but the player character as well. While the player starts off as a fully human custom avatar, unlocking nodes on the skill tree will literally leave their mark, resulting in new cybernetic limbs and implants that can dramatically change the visual feel of the character you play. It’s a small thing, and in a game where most of the time is spent on the field of battle, flying around in giant robots, it doesn’t even matter that much from a visual perspective, but I appreciate these details.
Also, the home base has an ice cream parlor with the most hilariously jarring, upbeat music in the game, and it makes me scream for ice cream.
Daemon X Machina may not be the most notable release of the year, but it’s one that I’ll be popping in playing every now and then, just to get my mecha-and-ice-cream fix.
8. Tetris 99
In the years since the Battle Royale multiplayer genre exploded on the scene with games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, it’s been easy to make jokes about the whole premise. What else could you drop onto an island, a hundred at a time, and demand they battle to the death? Marvel superheroes? Super Smash Battle Royale? How about everyone’s favorite action game, Tetris? One hundred tetrominoes drop onto an island…
Tetris 99 is amazing, and the entire world is better at it than I am.
Except the madmen at Japanese developer Arika, also known for turning a goofy April Fool’s joke into the legitimate fighting game Fighting EX Layer seemingly for their own amusement, made an actual Tetris Battle Royale in Tetris 99. Tetris has been around for decades, and so has competitive multiplayer Tetris. But Tetris 99 pits literally ninety-nine players against each other in battles of absolute carnage. Tetris masters that quietly honed their skills for all these years in the privacy of their own homes finally have an outlet for their destructive energy like a cloistered Shaolin monk unleashed into a deadly martial arts tournament.
And as the year has gone on, the game has only gotten better and more robust, with new modes, new challenges and bonuses, and even new themes. But one fact remains. Tetris 99 is amazing, and the entire world is better at it than I am.
7. The House in Fata Morgana
The House in Fata Morgana is a visual novel that’s several years old at this point, but I didn’t start playing it until this year. And let me state up front right now that the only thing preventing me from placing it higher on my list is the fact that I haven’t finished it.
...an intense, emotional rollercoaster illustrated with beautiful art and populated with incredibly written, tragically flawed characters.
The House in Fata Morgana is an intense, emotional rollercoaster illustrated with beautiful art and populated with incredibly written, tragically flawed characters. At the beginning of the game, the player awakens in an old mansion, unaware of their own identity, or even if they’re alive or dead.
As they follow a mysterious maid from one room to the next, learning the mansion’s history, pieces start falling into place, and even at the game’s halfway point, where so much has been revealed, there is still so much left unknown. To really speak of the story in any sense of detail beyond this is perhaps spoiling too much, except to say that the game treads into some very dark, morbid themes, and that may be too much for some people.
But The House in Fata Morgana is a ride I wish to see to its end.
6. Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda
The premise of the original Crypt of the Necrodancer, with its mix of roguelike and rhythm gameplay, is a concept that will drive some fans of either one genre or the other up the wall. But the game, while difficult, has a strong following, and it eventually made its way to the Nintendo Switch. Brace Yourself Games then had the idea, “Hey, why not ask Nintendo for permission to make a Legend of Zelda DLC pack for it?”
And Nintendo replied, “Hey, why not make a whole new game instead?”
Thus, Cadence of Hyrule was born! A rare instance of Nintendo letting an independent developer have fun with one of its most storied franchises, the game follows the original Necrodancer protagonist Cadence as she literally falls into Hyrule before turning the stage over to Link and Zelda in an adventure that remarkably mixes both the exploration elements of a traditional Legend of Zelda with the rhythm-based action of Crypt of the Necrodancer. Demonstrating their experience, the team behind Cadence of Hyrule made a game that’s simultaneously less punishing and more accessible than Cadence’s original adventure.
A rare instance of Nintendo letting an independent developer have fun with one of its most storied franchises...
And the music, composed by Danny Baranowsky, is a long list of excellent remixes of Zelda classics and a key element that makes the whole experience work. As long as he’s dropping excellent beats, I’d love to see what crazy world Cadence drops into next.
5. Untitled Goose Game
4. VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
Made by a small independent team in Venezuela, VA-11 Hall-A is a perfectly blended cocktail. A visual novel/cyberpunk bartending simulator, the game follows bartender Jill Stingray on her daily shifts at an unassuming little bar in a futuristic dystopian hellscape of a city. VA-11 Hall-A, the bar in question, is a respite from the outside world, and Jill interacts will an eclectic cast of customers ranging from an overbearing and foul-mouthed newspaper editor, to an enthusiastic gynoid sexworker, to a sleep-deprived 24/7 livestreamer, and beyond.
The fun in the experience is hearing their stories, serving them drinks to help them relax and get their problems off their chests, and then seeing them on their way. And as the story picks up and the narrative focuses more on Jill’s personal life and history, the experience doesn’t lose steam.
VA-11 Hall-A is a perfectly blended cocktail.
The graphics and music perfectly fit the aesthetic and themes the game is going for. The perspective from behind the bar feels comfortable, even when it seems like all hell is breaking lose in the world outside. VA-11 Hall-A is a special place with no shortage of colorful characters, not all of whom we’re really intended or expected to like, but even when the jerks show up, I’m happy to see them.
Originally released in 2016, I didn’t play VA-11 Hall-A until it arrived on the Switch this year, but the platform is a perfect way to experience it. I also had the opportunity to try the demo for the game’s upcoming sequel N1RV Ann-A at PAX West earlier this year, and it appears to be shaping up into something special, as well.
Sega’s Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio concluded the story of Yakuza series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu with Yakuza 6, but Kamurocho never sleeps. While a new installment in the series is due out next year (with some significant core gameplay changes), this year treated us to the spin-off Judgment. Now, instead of playing as a former member of the yakuza, the spotlight is on a private detective, and as such the viewpoint of Kamurocho has changed quite dramatically.
Gone are old familiar old haunts like Serena, and familiar faces like Goro Majima. While the adventure of Takayuki Yagami takes place in the franchise’s most familiar district and features members of the Tojo Clan, the story is completely distinct in character, tone, and feeling from everything that has come before. It’s a murder mystery told with the same narrative style as the more recent Yakuza games, but with a protagonist who’s naturally more outgoing and personable, and by the nature of his profession is in the public eye far more often.
The franchise’s sense of humor is of course back, with plenty of absurd bystanders for Yagami to help, and the minigames this time around include a Kamurocho-based parody of Sega’s House of the Dead. The main story even manages to turn the franchise’s hostess minigame on its head with a level of self-awareness that let’s the player know that, like in real life, it’s not just fun and games.
While Judgment’s core gameplay and much of its flow are like the games that preceded it, it manages to carve an identity all its own. I’d love to see a Judgment 2 and the further adventures of Yagami, even as the main series veers into a new era with Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
2. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Full disclosure: I was a backer of Bloodstained on Kickstarter, when the campaign was in full swing and the fever to see a new Castlevania in all but name was at a fever pitch. This was an era when Kickstarted projects from big name producers and developers weren’t uncommon, and the results that came from them were, to be polite and without naming names, mixed. Bloodstained went through its own set of delays, and had its own long list of stretch goals from its Kickstarter that the team led by creator Koji Igarashi felt obliged to meet. Among these goals was a Wii U version.
The Wii U, of course, is a dead console now, and so the team chose to cancel that version and offer a Switch version instead. The Switch version is the version I collected as my backer reward, and the version I played from the moment I received it in the mail. It’s perhaps the most technically flawed version, and the one that the dev team has put by far the most effort into patching since release.
All I wanted was a game like the Castlevania titles that Igarashi spent so many years making, and he delivered.
With all that being said, I love Bloodstained, technical warts and all.
All I wanted was a game like the Castlevania titles that Igarashi spent so many years making, and he delivered. He and his team delivered big time, and they fulfilled basically every desire I had, from its music, to the size and scope of the castle, to the characters and story, even with their close parallels to Symphony of the Night. The technical shortcomings of the Switch version didn’t bother me at all. I love it, I want to play it again, I want to play a sequel.
Though the game that shipped was less than perfect in a technical sense, Bloodstained is an example a Kickstarter project done right. And with how often similar campaigns resulted in little more than “better than nothing,” that’s no small feat.
1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Fire Emblem has had one hell of a turbulent decade. A little less than ten years ago, the second DS entry, New Mystery of the Emblem, wasn’t even localized because its predecessor, Shadow Dragon, tanked in sales. Nintendo had considered mothballing the franchise if the 3DS entry Fire Emblem Awakening didn’t sell at least 250,000 units, and there was a lot of concern from western fans that Awakening wouldn’t even be localized.
But it was.
And then the franchise exploded into a new international level of popularity that it had never seen before, and that neither Nintendo nor Intelligent Systems likely ever saw coming.
Two more 3DS entries followed. Fire Emblem Fates, coming off the heels of Awakening, unfortunately became a lightning rod and whipping post for series fans for a variety of reasons. The story, split into three separate games meant for different audiences, was written and rewritten into a narrative mess, and the game doubled down hard on the relationship aspects that Awakening fans enjoyed, complete with characters meant to appeal to that aspect of the game that some felt went overboard.
Since its release, Fire Emblem communities and threads were mostly a firestorm of hatred for Fates and little else. This attitude persisted even when Fates was followed by a modern remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden a couple of years later.
And of course, there were Tokyo Mirage Sessions, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Fire Emblem Warriors, which led to their own fan dramas. It became a joke that no one hates Fire Emblem more than Fire Emblem fans. It would require a special game to unify all of the squabbling factions.
And when Fire Emblem: Three Houses was first revealed, that Fates angst was back in force. Some fans convinced themselves from the very start that it would become Fates 2, even though nothing hinted that it would be the case. And you know what?
Those fans were dead wrong.
...the game’s cast of characters features some of the deepest, most fully realized protagonists and antagonists that the series has ever seen.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is easily the best Fire Emblem game in many years. It’s also one of the most experimental, with the game’s development team at Koei Tecmo adding a whole new gameplay phase involving exploring a monastery home base, teaching at an academy, getting to know the protagonist Byleth’s students over meals and during tea parties, and in general putting a much stronger emphasis on the social and relationship elements than any prior game before it.
Three Houses is most explicitly like Fates in one way. The game’s campaign branches based on the academy house Byleth chooses to teach. But while the campaigns in Fates were designed such that one was for newcomers, one was for series veterans, and a third met somewhere in between (and all three had to be purchased separately), the branches of Three Houses offer experiences meant for all players, and each offers its own sense of wonder, mystery, triumph, and heartache. The uniqueness of each branch particularly as the game’s calendar shifts, and the stakes rise.
Three Houses isn’t the prettiest game to look at from a technical perspective, but the artistic sense of its world and characters, and the way it makes effective use of its excellent soundtrack, stands clear above other entries in the franchise. And the game’s cast of characters features some of the deepest, most fully realized protagonists and antagonists that the series has ever seen. It lets go of the past in some ways, ignoring many of the oldest Fire Emblem character tropes, but embraces and reflects on others in new and interesting ways. It takes hints and cues from entries like Genealogy of the Holy War, which producers have specifically cited as an inspiration. In some ways, Three Houses feels like it could be a dress rehearsal for a Genealogy remake. But to call it a dress rehearsal of anything is selling the game far, far too short.
Simply put, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favorite game of 2019, and at this point, ranks high as possibly my favorite Fire Emblem game ever.