It’s that time of the year again.
2019 saw some major releases come out at the tail end of it that really made this year for the books. There was a resurgence of old-school RPG games and the indie scene is looking better than ever, while we also got to see one of the first genuinely good video game adaptations on the big screen in the form of DETECTIVE PIKACHU. Will wonders ever cease?
At the same time console giants are getting ready to close out this generation with a bang in 2020, as both the PS5 and Xbox Series X are scheduled for release for the holidays of that year.
So, looking into the next year and the beginning of a new gaming decade, here’s what I loved playing this year.
I reviewed DEATH STRANDING earlier this winter here.
This is a messy, ambitious, and definitely not a perfect game. Kojima has put every ounce of himself into this thing, and it’s a hugely personal passion project with all the faults that come with it. That being said, it’s also unlike anything else out there. No other game tries to explore player interaction on this level, and no other game comes even close to achieving the kind of emotional connection strangers can have – even when you never encounter another living soul in the game.
All you have are memories left behind by others, and a genuine melancholy over realizing just how much we need each other in this world.
DEATH STRANDING is currently a PS4 exclusive, with a PC release on the way sometime next year.
CONTROL is an odd duck. I wasn’t as enamored with its plot as others were, nor did the Metroidvania-esque exploration sit right with me until about halfway through the game, but it’s an experience I kept returning back to over and over again. Part David Lynch, a little bit of X-Files, and a whole lot of Remedy’s patented absurdity, CONTROL is the kind of quirky and weird pop-culture reference-a-thon that you’d expect from the studio that created MAX PAYNE and ALAN WAKE.
You play as Jesse Faden, a young woman looking for her brother in the mysterious and ever-changing installation known as the Federal Bureau of Control. Something has gotten loose in the brutalist nightmare of a building, and everyone seems to have been expecting Jesse to arrive and sort out the situation. Who is she really, what happened here, and why is there a Finnish janitor called Ahti who likes to play tango music? Not everything gets a satisfying answer, but that’s become a staple of Remedy writing by now. Everything else is just brilliant, so minor quirks like that don’t matter that much. The characters are all wonderful personalities, and there’s a genuinely compelling lore that is dropped on the player at just the right intervals. Even though the world is a series of hallways with mostly the repetitive environments, the game never feels repetitive itself. Plus it has a Finnish janitor who plays tango music from his little radio, so what’s not to love?
The combat is also the best that Remedy has made to date. Jesse has the power to manipulate objects (think a more powerful version of Magneto), and it never gets old to pick up a massive CRT monitor and hurl it at bad guys like they’re bowling pins. Your other weapon is a pistol that has the ability to change shape and form, allowing for different kinds of approaches from long range sniping to up close shotgun battles. How you play is very much left up to you, apart from a few boss fights that still seem to trip up the level design just as they’ve done with past Remedy games.
While not as captivating as ALAN WAKE or as ambitious as QUANTUM BREAK, CONTROL continues to solidify Remedy as one of the most consistently great developers in the business. They’re a rare studio that never skimps out on either plot or gameplay, always delivering both in spades. As such, CONTROL is another leap forwards, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
CONTROL is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE
This is the game that caused me to rage quit more than any other this year. Not because it’s badly designed, or because it’s unfair to play, but simply because I sucked so hard at it. How hard is it? The game sparked a debate upon release how this genre should come with an easy mode so that others could experience them without having to actually beat their heads against a well on the designed difficulty.
I get the argument; sometimes there just isn’t time to practise parrying for twenty hours just so that you can beat a boss that’s throwing you around like a crash test dummy. But at the same time, SEKIRO isn’t hard, it just demands patience. I found the DARK SOULS/BLOODBORNE games infinitely harder, and haven’t finished a single one of them in years. I still play them often, but there’s just a natural wall that I hit about three quarters of the way through, and have never been able to progress further.
SEKIRO, on the other hand, I completed in a long weekend. Maybe it’s because the faster pace helped my jittery reflexes, or maybe because I was so enamored by the lore and world that From Software had built.
And what a world it is! SEKIRO takes place in a fictional kingdom during the 16th century Sengoku period, where a lone samurai has been cut down by an overwhelming force of invaders. Miraculously he clings to life, and sets out on a quest to rescue his master from enemy hands. Helping him are a troupe of ragtag explorers, a mysterious woodcarver, and a woman from a faraway land who seems to know more than she’s letting on. SEKIRO lets the player loose into a vast open-ish world filled with secrets, and only rarely guides their hand on where to go and what to do. The plot unfolds rapidly, with new characters introduced at nearly every turn. There are also multiple nameless NPC characters that you can encounter and interact with in the story, each with tiny quests of their own for you to help out with or disregard at your pleasure.
Apart from a lousy final boss battle, SEKIRO is immaculately designed. Each battle feels unique, and there’s a genuine sense of terror going into a new fight not knowing what to expect. Then when you figure out a tactic that works, there’s no greater joy than taking down an enemy that has been beating you over and over again early in the game. The learning curve may be steep, but the view from the top is majestic.
SEKIRO is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
THE OUTER WORLDS
The review of OUTER WORLDS can be found here.
Sometime in the distant future, mankind has colonized a new star system. We did it gang, rest easy, now life can get good. Only happily ever after never came. Instead massive corporations have laid claim to life in the new expanse, and everyone who came with the original settlers, or was born on the frontier, belongs now entirely to one of three major companies. Early on in the game a weakened and beat down soldier ends their life with a pistol shot to the head, only for their automated tracking system to start beeping that they’re being fined for damaging company property. It is bleak, blackest of the black humor, and I loved every second of it.
If you loved FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS or the original FALLOUT games, you’ll be in good hands here. Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the good people behind said FALLOUT games, THE OUTER WORLDS is just as funny, witty, and smart as you’ve come to expect. Answers are never easy, the mission design is intricate, and there’s so much to do and explore that you wasted dozens of hours not even going near the main quest and still feel like you’d gotten your money’s worth.
In fact, the only reason that THE OUTER WORLDS is not number one this year is that a small Estonian studio happened to release their debut game out of nowhere this October.
THE OUTER WORLDS is out now for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. A Nintendo Switch release is scheduled for next year.
GAME OF THE YEAR: DISCO ELYSIUM
DISCO ELYSIUM is nothing short of a masterpiece. Written to perfection, designed without a single fault, and beautifully put together with one of the most unique visual styles out there, it has all the potential to be one of the finest games released this decade.
You play a nameless detective waking up from a drunken stupor in an unknown hotel, in a distant country vaguely resembling Scandinavia sometime during the cold war. You can’t remember who you are, alcohol and drugs saw to that, only that you’ve trashed the hotel room, your face is a mess, and everyone around you is both terrified and deeply embarrassed of you. But there’s a murder to be solved, and by God you are going to solve it. That is if your heart can take it, and you don’t fall off the wagon again. Both of these, and a dozen more choices, are up to you.
DISCO ELYSIUM starts off hysterically funny and transforms during gameplay into a massive, intricately planned discussion on human value, personal growth, loss, memory, corporate ownership, nationalism vs. patriotism, and even faith without ever feeling overwrought. Like a fine novel, it introduces a cavalcade of interesting characters, each with small destinies of their own intersecting with the main narrative, without ever losing sight of the main investigation.
A simple murder mystery soon turns on its head and then back again, leaving me to wonder multiple times out loud how on earth they did that. I was genuinely surprised, exhilarated, and heartbroken multiple times during the story. One small side-mission, easily discarded for easy XP in other games, saw me pause the game numerous times throughout, because I kept second guessing myself regarding the morality of the choices I was making. Because the game is so well designed, there’s no chance for power gaming or trying to “win” anything. There’s no such state even. Whatever happens is a shade of grey, just as in life.
Granted, this is an old school experience, complete with point and click mechanics and an isometric view that will drive off some. But for those who are craving a great role-playing experience that emphasizes the role-playing part, DISCO ELYSIUM is a feast. The dialog system is vast, the skills are utilized in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and even failure leads the story on interesting paths that you want to take just to see what happens next. It’s like playing with a great dungeon master, who knows exactly what the players need from their story.
DISCO ELYSIUM is out now for PC and is coming out on PS4/Xbox One next year.